Monday, May 12, 2014

The Buddha’s Middle Way to Knowledge: Bridging Science & Spirituality

Susmita Barua
All scientific knowledge is provisional. Everything that science “knows,” even the most mundane facts and long-established theories, is subject to reexamination as new information comes in.
Scientific American editorial, December 2002
Much of our contemporary schooling is dominated by the Western materialist scientific worldview. The worldview sets the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual, group, or society. It encompasses the entirety of society’s knowledge and point of view including natural philosophy, Dhamma, ethics, and code of behavior. Worldview develops within the context of language, culture, and commerce. It conditions the general mindset, mental models, perception, and volitional habits of human beings.

It is significant that the ancient path discovered by Buddha that set the Wheel of Dhamma in motion is called the Middle Way. This way of moderation and wisdom is the Noble Eightfold Path: “Avoiding both these extremes [of self-indulgence and self-denial, and everything exists and nothing exists], the Middle Way realized by the Tathagata—producing vision, producing knowledge—leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding.”(1) This blog post advocates the view that the Middle Way can be rediscovered today as a way to knowledge that may bridge the gaps in the worldviews of material science and spiritual science.

There are a few significant points of departure between Buddhist and modern scientific approaches to knowledge. The Sanskrit word veda means knowledge. Vedas (500–1000 BCE) belong to the sacred texts that are said to be revealed to rishis and rishikas (sages) of ancient India. However, the founders of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism denied the authority of Vedas. Buddha in particular spoke against blind faith, dogmatic beliefs, rituals, animal sacrifice to please gods, the belief that spiritual knowledge comes from memorizing sacred texts, or from hereditary privilege held by upper-caste Brahmins in India. Unlike Vedic Brahmanism, the renunciate ascetic tradition of Shramana is a non-Vedic heterodox movement that existed parallel to Vedic Hindu tradition. “Shrama” means labor or making personal effort to perform austerities to attain liberation.

The word science comes from Latin scientia meaning knowledge. Science is a process of gathering knowledge of natural world and human-social behavior using the scientific method of observation, empirical research, hypothesis, repeatable experiments, measurements, and conclusions. Modern notions of science and scientist date back only to the nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the origin of the word scientist to 1834. What we call science today used to be called natural philosophy. It involved study of the physical universe from the very large to very small. Newton penned his famous book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in 1687 and Francis Beacon believed that he had provided a new method for natural philosophy.

Spirituality is an inner path of contemplative practice that allows anyone to discover the nature of mind-reality-self and one’s connection to the living universe, God, or Great Spirit. “Religion” comes from the Latin word religare, which means “to tie, to bind.” Organized religion usually adopts and institutionalizes a worldview and belief system in the authority of an external supernatural God or gods, sacred or revealed scriptures, moral codes, sacred symbols, rituals, liturgy, commentary by scholars and a hierarchy of priests, monks, and clerics. Dhamma, as Buddha taught, is not a religion, but a way of life that is noble and directed to inner peace, happiness, and freedom by ending suffering through right understanding. The teachings of the Middle Way helped the spread of Buddhism around different cultures. These teachings have been a healing force as they reduce conflict of heart and mind through right understanding.

The Noble Eightfold Path that leads to knowledge, vision, and cessation of kamma is a complete path for opening the psycho-spiritual potential for awakening inherent in all human beings. The path must be developed by practitioners of each generation in different times and cultures. A simple way to propagate Dhamma in the modern world would be to translate the Triple Refuge as taking refuge in supreme knowledge (of Buddha), truth (of Dhamma), and wisdom of the noble ones (sangha).

The Buddhist term putthujjana describes an ordinary worldling, monk, or layperson who still possesses all of the ten fetters that bind one to the round of rebirths and who has yet to reach any of the four stages of awakening of an ariya-puggala. Both the Triple Gem and Noble Eightfold Path factors can be deeply realized.The sutta on right view (Sammaditthi Sutta) as expounded by Venerable Sariputta goes to the heart of Buddha’s teachings and can be understood first on a mundane level (lokiya) of intellectual understanding, and secondly on a nonconceptual experiential level. This supramundane level (lokuttara) brings true emancipation from the cycle of repeated suffering.

Modern Western empirical science has given us the most impressive intellectual concepts and ideas since the sixteenth century, but it has also created a duality of mind and matter. Our education is failing to address large systemic problems in human society and economy because education is sheltered from the actual experience of dukkha in human social life. Our leaders are missing the heart connection and the heart’s intelligence. If we do not see, recognize, and accept suffering in our own experience, then there is no possibility of psychological movement to recognize the cause of suffering, no prospect for the ending of suffering, and no path. The Middle Way connects the world of spirituality and science by development of the spiritual power of mindful awareness, the first of seven factors of enlightenment.

There are four dimensions to our nature: the body, its feeling sensations (vedana), the mind, and its contents. These provide four avenues for the establishing of awareness taught by Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta. Since all six sense doors are contained in the body, every contact of the outside world is at the body level. The constant awareness through understanding of the impermanence of vedana (feeling) in the body-mind stream is a significant factor of what is known in Pali as sampajanna (clear comprehension). Research by the Institute of HeartMath shows that the human heart emits a powerful electromagnetic field around the body. This field is fifty times more powerful than the brain. The study revealed that communication between heart and brain can be significantly improved with positive emotions of loving-kindness (metta) and appreciation (mudita).(2) Meditation teaches us to stay present and bring awareness to our experiences as they arise, without judgment. Buddhist practices of tonglen and the four immeasurables—loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity—train our heart-mind to remain open and to generate positive emotions for the healing of pain in self and others.

The orientation of the Noble Eightfold Path is Buddha’s system theory and it begins and ends with right view. The order of the steps—what precedes and what follows is important to understand to become accomplished on the path.
Bhikkhus, just as the dawn is the forerunner and first indication of the rising of the sun, so is right view the forerunner and first indication of wholesome states. For one of right view, bhikkhus, right intention springs up. For one of right intention, right speech springs up. For one of right speech, right action springs up. For one of right action, right livelihood springs up. For one of right livelihood, right effort springs up. For one of right effort, right mindfulness springs up. For one of right mindfulness, right concentration springs up. For one of right concentration, right knowledge springs up. For one of right knowledge, right deliverance springs up.(3) 
Bhikkhus, ignorance, avijja is the forerunner of the arising of demeritorious factors; lack of moral shame, ahirika, and lack of moral dread, anottappa, are only its followers. Bhikkhus, one who is ignorant and lacking in wisdom would hold incorrect view. In one who holds unwholesome view there would arise incorrect thinking; one who has unwholesome thinking would utter unwholesome speech; one who would utter incorrect speech would take unwholesome action; one who takes erroneous action would engage in wrong livelihood; one who engages in wrong livelihood would make unskillful effort; one who makes unskillful effort would practice unskillful mindfulness; one who practices unskillful mindfulness would develop unskillful concentration.(4)
There are six unsurpassable qualities of Buddha Dhamma:
svakkhato: personally verified and not speculative
sanditthiko: able to be examined and amenable to scientific scrutiny
akaliko: timeless and immediate in results; not limited by relative time
ehipasiko: inviting one to come and see
opanayiko: leading inwards
paccattaṃ veditabbo vinnuhi: personally realized by the wise and noble disciples.
Mind is said to be coextensive with space and awareness, especially in the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Vedic knowledge and science (Sanskrit vijnana) in ancient India gave a central place to consciousness (Pali vinnana) in understanding the universe, including human beings. According to Abhidharma commentaries and Vissudhimagga, all of the material world is made of tiny units—kalapas, smaller than atoms. These kalapas, like the smallest quantum particles, are in a state of perpetual change and make all things in the universe. In the world of quantum physics, no elementary phenomenon is a phenomenon until it is observed. Cognition takes place in the consciousness of the observer. All phenomena are arising together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. The union of mental phenomena (nama) and physical phenomena (rupa) are conditioned by nonlocal consciousness (of the observer) in the causal chain of dependent co-arising (paticcasamuppada).

Reality is fluid but to feel secure we are continually creating and modifying structures to hold our position instead of allowing space for change or growth to happen. Structural dysfunction and compounding of dukkha starts with a reductionist dualistic and materialistic view. The Middle Way is not only a way for self-awakening but it can also be applied towards social awakening and transformation of cultures. Buddha envisioned this task of social transformation and enlightened society to take place through his noble disciples in the fourfold sangha (parisa) of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen practitioners. The word sangha has two levels of meaning: on the ideal (ariya) level, it denotes all of the Buddha’s followers, lay or ordained, who have at least attained the level of sotapanna; on the conventional (samvtri) level, it denotes the orders of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (8). The ethical challenge of Buddhism in the West lies in applying dhamma in its complete form to develop meaningful engagement and deep dialogue for addressing global systematic challenges like social and economic injustice, poverty, war, climate change, and dismantle institutionalized forces of greed, aversion, fear, and ignorance with deep insight, compassion, and knowledge. 

There are four conditions for enlightenment: association with wise and noble persons; listening to the Dhamma; wise consideration of Dhamma; and practicing Dhamma.(5) The study and practice of mindful living helps us integrate our mental state with outer physical forms. A Dhamma-based approach to knowledge can give us the deep insight (prajna) that is needed to solve large-scale systemic problems in society, economy, and ecology.(6) Prajna comes from continual inquiry, digging deeper with the second factor of enlightenment: vicaya, or investigation of Dhamma.

American historian Daniel J. Boorstin once said, “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.” If our education is such that knowledge is misaligned from reality with unwholesome worldviews, poor theories, wrong views, and blind leaders, then society begins to destroy its habitat and local economy and finally destroys itself from within. Just like right view, kamma divides into two classes, the wholesome and the unwholesome. Wholesome kamma is generated by actions motivated by detachment, kindness, and understanding; unwholesome kamma is created by actions motivated by greed, hatred, and delusion. Wholesome kamma leads to a good rebirth in happy planes of existence and the result of unwholesome kamma is rebirth in planes of misery. It is by complete understanding of anicca, dukkha, and anatta that one is able to rid oneself of the sankhara accumulated in one’s own kamma or mindstream. The Buddha's advice to monks is that they should maintain the awareness of anicca, dukkha, and anatta in all postures throughout the day.

While science has marginalized the rich domain of human experience, Buddha gave primacy to direct perception and experience above all other sources of knowledge. His most remarkable meditative discovery is satipatthana (vipassana), or development of the four foundation of mindfulness that lead to ultimate knowledge and nirvana. The Noble Eightfold Path can be visualized as the steps of a great pyramid with each step leading upwards to the one-pointed samadhi of stillness. Concentration can produce a laser-like beam to bridge time, space, and knowledge and result in a dropping of the veil of duality to the bliss and freedom of emptiness. The Middle Way is also about synchronizing our mind-body, bridging the gap between the inner and outer reality. Since the reality of war and peace originates in the mind and consciousness, it is there it needs to be addressed through practice, dialogue, mutual communication, and participation in safe practices and learning communities. Any meaningful action or decision-making in Buddha Dhamma, including social action, must be done with wise consideration of worldview, intention, and speech.

The philosopher Plato famously defined knowledge as justified true belief. The problem of defining knowledge is ongoing even with the scientific method of acquiring knowledge. In Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition knowledge comes from a divine source or God. In Indian philosophy highest knowledge is synonymous with the direct experience of enlightenment and ultimate liberation. Early Christian Gnostics regarded gnosis or mystical enlightenment as spiritual knowledge. Sharing of knowledge is considered a great gift in all Dhammic traditions in India. In Dhamma, knowledge is for altruistic happiness of all living beings. In the Kalama Sutta, Buddha gives the ethics for deciding what to believe in one’s search for knowledge.
Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor tradition, nor rumor, nor what is in a scripture, nor surmise, nor axiom, nor specious reasoning, nor bias towards one’s beliefs, nor upon another's seeming ability, nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher.” When you yourselves know: “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise, undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,” enter on and abide in them.(7)
Studies have shown the human brain has an unlimited capacity to learn and remains infinitely plastic and malleable even in adulthood. Modern cognitive science is an interdisciplinary study of human mind, but tends to heavily rely on artificial intelligence. Both Buddha Dhamma and science encourages impartial investigation of nature and they can come together in the spirit of right knowledge and understanding for the benefit of all beings. Buddha’s discovery of the Middle Way to knowledge has the potential to uplift civilization from its current confused and conflicted state by awakening the natural capacities of human heart and human brain within a few, if not one, generation. “Be a light and refuge unto yourselves.” This was the Buddha’s final teaching.

Adapted from a paper presented at the 2012 International Association of Buddhist Universities Conference in Bangkok, Thailand.

1. Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Translation. Dhammachakkapavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion; Samyutta Nikaya 56.11. www.accesstoinsight.org
2. Childre Doc and Martin Howard; The HeartMath Solution: The Institute of HeartMath’s Revolutionary Program for Engaging the Power of the Heart’s Intelligence. Harper Collins, NY: 1999
3. Right View: The Sammaditthi Sutta and its Commentary; translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli; edited and revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi; Anguttara Nikaya 10:121; www.accesstoinsight.org
4. Ibid; Samyutta Nikaya 35:80
5. Samyutta Nikaya, Maha-vagga, Kindred Sayings on Stream-winner, Chapter I, par. 5
6. Barua, Susmita; “A Radically Creative Approach to Mindful System Change”; Jagojjyoti: 2555 Buddha Jayanti Centenary Vol. Bengal Buddhist Association, Calcutta: 2011
7. Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas; Anguttara Nikaya 3.65
8. Robinson et al. Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction. Fifth Edition: Wadsworth/Thomson: Belmont CA: 2005

Susmita Barua

Susmita Barua grew up in Kolkata in a Buddhist family. She came to USA in 1985 as a graduate student. After quitting her job as a long-range urban planning professional in 1993, she devoted herself fully to a life of contemplation, self-directed study, and spiritual practice. Her personal website (in 2001) came out of her inner vision of an enlightened society. She began teaching living mindfully on passion, purpose, joy, and knowledge in her community in 2004. Her aspiration for peace, women's empowerment, and social transformation led her to organize antiwar protests and peace marches, develop online networks for activists, peacemakers, and women (Linkedin Buddhist Women's Network) focusing on healthy alternatives to oppressive systems. She is one of the founding board members of SUSA, the USA branch of Sakyadhita International. To learn about her Dhamma classes, coaching programs, and speaking engagements please contact her via email.

Photo one by vampire-carmen via Compfight CC
Photo two by musicmuse_ca via Compfight CC
Photo three by**sirop via Compfight CC


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. These are my comments pt 1:

    I would certainly agree that the Buddha taught the Middle Way and it is the way out of suffering/dissatisfaction.

    "veda means knowledge" - it's also related to vedana, feeling. I would say it means knowing, rather than knowledge. Knowledge can have a onesided headyness, cerebralness to it. Knowing, for me tends to be more encompassing of lived experience.

    "This way of moderation and wisdom is the Noble Eightfold Path" - I would question this traditional dogma.

    "the Triple Refuge" - "the Triple Gem" These are not the same to me. The Buddha taught to take only one refuge, one's self, or one's action (kamma) and he so very often spoke of the Triple Gem, in the context of developing faith, an inner quality. The Triple Refuge, to me, is a later invention, which is based on these two facts, but combines them in a half truth. I think we must be very careful of half-truths.

    "The sutta on right view (Sammaditthi Sutta) as expounded by Venerable Sariputta goes to the heart of Buddha’s teachings and can be understood first on a mundane level (lokiya) of intellectual understanding, and secondly on a nonconceptual experiential level. This supramundane level (lokuttara) brings true emancipation from the cycle of repeated suffering." - Here we find the body-mind duality theory. I don't accept this teaching from Sariputta.

    "but it has also created a duality of mind and matter" - found also in later Abhidhamma texts and philosophy and which you then speak of later in your blog: "mental phenomena (nama) and physical phenomena (rupa)", where you explain Abhidhamma theory. We don't need to be told material things are impermanent, I think everyone knows that already. What we have to realise is, feeling, ideas, emotions and consciousness/awareness is conditioned and impermanent.

    "the body, its feeling sensations (vedana), the mind, and its contents" - here also we have mind/body duality. I prefer the translation of citta as thought in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which would seem to actually be the contents of the "mind" whatever that is. Therefore it is more relatable.

    "the four immeasurables—loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity" - I'm glad you talk about them. I see them as wholesome/enlightened emotions, but I don't accept the artificial "development" of them as taught by the commentaries, which is the one mostly taught and practised in Buddhism. I see each one arises dependent on conditions.

    you speak of the Noble Eightfold Path, then quote a text that talks about the Noble TENfold Path! That text shows that the path was supposed to be sequential, step by step. I don't accept the traditional treatment of the Tenfold Path, which bascially dismissed Right Insight and Right Liberation as practices for all of us to develop.

    "Reality is fluid" I would avoid making absolute statements like these, which is a training the Buddha gave us.

    I certainly agree: "Structural dysfunction and compounding of dukkha starts with a reductionist dualistic and materialistic view. The Middle Way is not only a way for self-awakening but it can also be applied towards social awakening and transformation of cultures."

    "the fourfold sangha (parisa) of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen practitioners" - Sangha means community, specifically of Noble Disciples indicating personal development, parisa means company or assembly indicating physical location. They are both very different. The Sangha can be found within the Fourfold Assembly, but the later is not the same as the former.

  2. pt 2:

    later doctrine mixed these two up therefore it gives two "levels of meaning" to Sangha. As I see the early texts, "sangha" means "savaka-sangha" unless it is qualified, as in "Bhikkhu Sangha". Sangha, itself, to me, does not have two levels of meaning. Conventional and ultimiate levels of truth, have, I believe, been developed by later tradtion.

    "dismantle institutionalized forces of greed, aversion, fear, and ignorance" - not only institutionalized forces, but also personal ones.

    "There are four conditions for enlightenment: association with wise and noble persons; listening to the Dhamma; wise consideration of Dhamma; and practicing Dhamma.(5)" - well said, but these are the conditions for establishing Right View, only, which is not yet enlightement.

    "American historian Daniel J. Boorstin once said, “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.”" well said.

    "It is by complete understanding of anicca, dukkha, and anatta that one is able to rid oneself of the sankhara accumulated in one’s own kamma or mindstream." - mindstream is not a teaching found in the early texts and it contradicts the idea the Buddha taught that there are only six types of consciousness and all are dependently arisen based on the sense organs in the body: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, brain.

    "The Noble Eightfold Path can be visualized as the steps of a great pyramid with each step leading upwards to the one-pointed samadhi of stillness." The Eightfold Path seems to be an invetion of Hindu influences. Hindus believe that Samadhi is liberation, thus the Eightfold Path stops at Samadhi. The Buddha taught THREE trainings, ethics, meditation and wisdom. We have to DO something, train in something to develop wisdom. It does not just automatically arise when we have samadhi. If it did the Buddha's former teachers, Udaka Ramaputta and Alara Kalama would have developed wisdom and liberation.

    "“Be a light and refuge unto yourselves.” This was the Buddha’s final teaching." - "All conditioned things are impermanent, strive on with heedfulness" was the Buddha's final teaching.

    You can see my various articles about these topics at:https://mcu.academia.edu/BhikkhuDhammadasa.

    Best wishes