Based on a talk given by Ajahn Brahmavamso to lay people at the Dhammaloka Buddhist Centre, Nollamara, Western Australia, on 19th of October 2001
Sometime ago, I was invited to the West Perth Observatory as part of the Centenary Federation celebrations in Western Australia. The youth groups of W.A. organised all the events. One of the events they presented was entitled ‘Our Place in Space’. The idea was to try and find out whether the future would be one which followed science or one which would follow religion. They wanted to see how those two, so called contradictory approaches to life, would pan out into the future. So they invited representatives from a couple of religions. I represented the Buddhists, and a teacher from a prestigious Christian school represented the Christians. The State Astronomer and a young person from the University of WA, who was about to get a PhD in physics, were also on the panel, representing Astronomy and Physics. What they didn’t know was that before I was a monk I was a theoretical physicist. So, I knew what Buddhists know and I also knew what they know. It was a bit unfair, but really good fun. It was good fun talking to the audience about Buddhism, religion and science, and how they come together. There are dangers in religion and science, but they can be used to help people to find a way through their lives in wise, compassionate and effective ways.
This method that we take as science in the universities, in the labs, and in the hospitals often suffers from the same disease as religion dogmatism. You know what religious dogmatism is like. We have a belief and whether it fits with experience or not, whether it’s useful or not, whether it’s conducive to people’s happiness, harmony, and peace in the world or not, we follow it just because that’s our belief. But following beliefs blindly, dogmatically, is just a recipe for violence and suffering.
One of the beautiful things about Buddhism that encouraged me to become a Buddhist when I was young, and which keeps me as a Buddhist now, is that questioning is always encouraged. You do not need to believe. In one of the tales from the ancient texts the Buddha gave a teaching to his chief monk, Venerable Sariputta. After giving the teaching, the Buddha asked his chief monk, “Sariputta, do you believe what I just taught?” Sariputta, without any hesitation, said “No I don’t believe it, because I haven’t experienced it yet”. The Buddha said, “Well done! Well done! Well done!” That is the attitude to encourage in all disciples, either of religion or science. Not to believe, but to keep an open mind until they’ve had the true experience. This attitude goes against dogmatism, it runs counter to fundamentalism, which one doesn’t only see in religion, but which one also sees in science.
‘The eminence of a great scientist’, the old saying goes, ‘is measured by the length of time they obstruct progress in their field’.
The more famous the scientist, the more prominent they are, the more their views are taken to be gospel truth. Their fame stops other people challenging them; it delays the arrival of a better ‘truth’. In Buddhism when you find a better truth, use it at once.