Buddhist perspectives on society and culture


Buddhist perspectives on
society and culture

One Gigantic Sweep: Science in the Survey and Beyond

Posted in: Buddhism, Science

Thus far in this series of articles on A Survey of Buddhism (hereafter, ‘the Survey’) it is from the later sections of Chapter One that I have drawn my themes, and I have left the early sections untouched. It is time I made good this omission. But in accordance with my general approach I will not be dealing with these sections exhaustively. In this article and the one that follows, my starting point will be the distinction Sangharakshita draws between a scientific and a traditional approach to the study of Buddhism. This line of enquiry has proved more than sufficiently rich. For while Sangharakshita’s emphasis in the Survey is largely confined to the limitations of a scientific approach to the study of Buddhism (which I will take up in the next article), the question of his, and Buddhism’s, perspective on science in general naturally suggested itself. In dwelling on the theme a number of things became clearer to me. Firstly, that Sangharakshita’s understanding of the nature of scientific method was in certain respects outdated; secondly, that nonetheless the nature and status of science and its general relation to Buddhism is a fundamental question for modern Buddhists to confront; thirdly, that science should not be equated with the materialist worldview; fourthly that this invites the possibility of an alternative worldview, in which science and spirituality are both included and indeed reconciled; and fifthly, that in spite of a self-confessed lack of interest in the sciences, Sangharakshita has himself led the way in articulating such a worldview. From his early work, including the Survey itself, we can draw some principles which will help us to frame the issues; but I will argue that it was not until later in his career that his distinctive articulation of the Dharma, which was already well developed in the Survey, was expressed in such a way as included and encompassed scientific modes of knowledge.

But to begin, let us return to the beginning of the Survey, where the distinction between a traditional and a scientific approach to Buddhism is first introduced.

The Approach to Buddhism

Significantly, the Survey opens not by introducing any Buddhist doctrine, but by explaining the correct motive with which such doctrine might be most fruitfully examined. Since Buddhism is founded on a transcendental realisation, to have any chance of understanding it we must take seriously its claim to be a communication from a liberated mind, and a path of practice whereby such liberation may be replicated in the mind of the practitioner.

It is here that Sangharakshita distinguishes between such a perspective and that which treats Buddhism as one among innumerable other subjects of an enquiry that is merely intellectual. In so doing he means not to dismiss the scientific method or the value of its application to the study of Buddhism, but merely to confine it to its rightful subordinate place. Since, so he tells us, the scientific method is intellectual in its nature, its application is limited to those aspects of Buddhism that are susceptible of rational treatment. The ‘spiritual essence, the transcendental core’ of Buddhism cannot be thus approached, and what remains when this has been excluded are ‘the various spatial and temporal forms which even a purely transcendental teaching is compelled to assume in order to accommodate itself to the capacities of human beings.’1 Sangharakshita enumerates examples of the legitimate subject of scientific enquiry: The nature of the languages with which the Buddha’s teaching was communicated – their history, development, grammatical structure, literary forms and influence upon other languages; the artistic expressions of the Dharma, at least as regards their outward forms; and the history of the institutions through which the Buddhist tradition has operated. All these it is not merely legitimate to study with the scientific method, but it may be useful to do so, provided we are not thereby led into the error of believing that, in rationally examining the external forms of Buddhism, we are in fact studying the Dharma.

Sangharakshita and Scientific Method

The point is well made, and some of the implications that Sangharakshita identifies will be explained in the following article. But if we are to explore the broader question of the relation of science to Buddhism, it will first be helpful to examine Sangharakshita’s understanding of the nature of scientific method. The relevant passage is as follows:

We do not wish that the scientific study of Buddhism should be abolished, but that it should be relegated to its proper place in the hierarchy of disciplines, where it may continue to perform its useful but distinctly subordinate function.

So far so good, but then:

Before this can be done it will be necessary for us to remind ourselves of the nature of the scientific method generally. It is intellectual. It believes, or at least its procedure is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption, that the unaided intellect is capable of penetrating to the truth about the subject of its researches.2

Here I must register a respectful protest. Many scientists, at least the more sophisticated among them, would not subscribe to this definition of scientific method without a few qualifications. Since the revolution in physics that took place in the early twentieth century, and especially since the publication of Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, it has been recognized that creative imagination, as well as intellect, is necessary for scientific breakthroughs; and moreover, that scientific theories are not ‘the truth’, but provisional approximations to the truth.3

It seems that later Sangharakshita gained some awareness of these developments. For example, in a seminar given in 1974 he said, ‘There is no scientific discovery that has been made without imagination.’4 Nevertheless, his understanding of scientific method never entirely broke free from certain nineteenth century assumptions. In particular, talk of the ‘unaided intellect’ reflects his view, already outdated by the time he wrote the Survey, that science proceeds according to ‘induction’ – that is, through the accumulation of facts, followed by the formulation of laws that explain them. In one of his earliest published articles he wrote, ‘By collecting numerous individual things, by patiently observing them and subsuming them under small laws, large laws, universal laws, were established, until it must have seemed that the inductive method was the mystic key with which to unlock the secrets of God.’5 Nor can the reference to induction be dismissed as juvenilia: I know from personal communication with him that throughout much of his life he continued to see it as the basis of modern science. Not that we should think too much the worse of him for this. Such philosophy of science as he would have been aware of through being so steeped in the writings of the past would have supported the misconception. From Bacon, through Mill, and into the twentieth century, the efficacy of induction was the standard theoretical assumption. There is no reason to think that Sangharakshita would have followed the subsequent developments in theoretical physics in any depth, especially as he had no scientific training, and his own auto-didacticism, although extensive and profound, was based largely in the humanities. Later in life he freely admitted his limitations in this area, describing his lack of interest in the sciences as ‘my major personal limitation that was not to be followed.’6

Fortunately, it seems that he belatedly came to a more appreciative understanding of science, its wonder and mystery, through the writings of Carlo Rovelli, which he encountered in the last year of his life. In his vignette, ‘Science and Poetry: A Note’, he approvingly quotes a passage from Rovelli’s book Reality Is Not What It Seems, which includes the following:

…great science and great poetry are both visionary, and may even arrive at the same intuitions. Our culture is foolish to keep science and poetry separated: they are two tools to open our eyes to the complexity and beauty of the world.7

Sangharakshita comments:

When he comes to describe Faraday’s discovery of the electromagnetic field he does so with the help of such terms as insight, intuition, inspiration, and imagination, all of which are as applicable to a poem, a painting, a musical composition, as they are to a scientific discovery.

He finishes by leaving a question hanging:

The Buddhist may well wonder whether the insight or intuition of which Rovelli speaks in connection with Faraday’s discovery is the same as the insight developed by the Buddhist in meditation. In other words, is it an insight that liberates from greed, hatred, and delusion? Perhaps time alone will tell, as Buddhists study science and scientists practise meditation.  

Reluctant as I am to pre-empt time itself, however, it would take some substantial evidence to convince me that the insight is the same in both cases, and that liberation from greed, hatred, and delusion can result from the practice of science as conventionally understood. In what follows I will follow Sangharakshita’s general assumption that there are significant differences regarding the nature of the knowledge acquired. Even so, the fact that he thought it worth asking the question shows that he came to realise that the delineation between science and Buddhism is not quite as clear cut as is suggested in the Survey.

The Dogma of Materialism

Important as I believe it is to recognise that Sangharakshita’s view of scientific method has been superseded, this in no way negates his central point. In fact, it reinforces it. What we are dealing with – which, for reasons I have examined, Sangharakshita perhaps does not make sufficiently explicit – is not science or scientific method as such. Rather, it is a view about the universe, a dogma even, according to which scientific method is adequate to deal with all aspects of reality. This is sometimes called scientism. It is a dogma that originated in the nineteenth century and remains influential today, and is underlain by the metaphysical assumption of materialism: the view that only matter is real and that consciousness – along with ethics, aesthetics, spirituality, and anything that is truly of value in human life – is reducible to it.

Fortunately, it is a view that some within the scientific community have started openly to challenge. Rupert Sheldrake, for example, wrote the following in his book The Science Delusion:

The facts of science are real enough; so are the techniques that scientists use, and the technologies based on them. But the belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology.8

And again:

Many scientists are unaware that materialism is an assumption: they simply think of it as science, or the scientific view of reality, or the scientific worldview.9

Bernardo Kastrup makes a similar point:

Childishly emboldened by the technological success achieved by our civilisation, many scientists have begun to believe that the scientific method suffices to provide us with a complete account of the nature of existence – that is, with a complete ontology. In doing so, they have failed to see that they are simply assuming a certain metaphysics – namely, materialism – without giving it due thought.10

Without giving it due thought, indeed! Philosophical materialism is, in truth, so preposterous in its claims that its success cannot be accounted for by the cogency of its arguments, since it has none, and must be traced to certain facts of human psychology, expressing themselves in particular cultural conditions. It is not purely a matter of historical accident that scientific method and the so-called scientific worldview arose in tandem. To quote myself from an earlier article, ‘An ever-increasing mastery of the material world diminishes our interest in what may lie beyond it, and encourages the idea that nothing does.’ A similar point is made by Ian McGilchrist, another prominent opponent of materialism. ‘It’s hardly surprising’, he says, ‘that scientific method for a long time led to a vision of the universe – the Newtonian universe – which reflected the principles of the scientific method.’11 But importantly and fascinatingly, he also claims that such method has increasingly undermined the assumption of a mechanistic, material universe. He points out that none of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century (Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Bohm, etc.) thought in mechanistic or materialist terms, while many of them affirmed the primacy of consciousness. In fact, the materialist paradigm seems largely to have been pushed by biologists rather than physicists (e.g. Richard Dawkins), which results in the irony that those who study life see the universe as dead, whereas those who study matter see it as in some way animated.   

Be that as it may, the separation of scientific method from the so-called scientific worldview is necessary if we are to come to a true understanding of the relationship between Buddhism and science. But the question remains of what the nature of that relationship is.

Eternalism and Nihilism

As is the case with all matters, the truth must steer a middle path between two wrong poles. (Indeed, I shall argue that Sangharakshita has already done so). I explored the Buddhist doctrine of the Middle Path, and the wrong extremes of eternalism and nihilism, in the previous article in this series, and I suggest that the terrain we are here exploring is one of an indefinite number of applications of the same ‘triadic principle’ laid out there.12
I should first insist, however, that there can be no question of a middle path between Buddhism and science, since Buddhism, or, more correctly, the Dharma, is the Middle Path. It is, rather, a middle path regarding the nature of the relationship between the two that needs to be established.

Materialism is a variation of the nihilist pole – or one could even say its theoretical apogee. To be logically consistent, its adherents would have to deny that terms such as beauty, goodness or spirituality have any real meaning. Materialism underlies the assumption, against which Sangharakshita protests so vigorously, that the so-called scientific worldview, or even scientific method itself, is an adequate foundation for approaching Buddhism. The result of such an assumption is a tendency to diminish the mystical, still more the transcendental, dimensions of the Dharma, and thereby to miss the heart of the matter. These days such reductionism is less common in scholarship, or at least is no longer unchallenged in the field. But it is, unfortunately, to be found in certain popular accounts of Buddhism, in which the most profound spiritual realisations are treated as commensurate with the latest findings of neuroscience.13 In an interesting passage from Living Wisely, Sangharakshita points out that ‘To appeal to science on behalf of Buddhism is basically to appeal to authority’, with the assumption that science is the ultimate arbiter of truth. In fact, rather than communicating confidence in the Dharma thereby, one merely reveals one’s lack of it: ‘…any appeal on behalf of a spiritual tradition to scientific or any other authority comes from being unsure of one’s ground, which in turn is likely to come from having little or no spiritual experience of one’s own to fall back on.’14

On the other hand, the extreme of eternalism finds theoretical expression in theology. The more naive or fundamentalist believers of theistic dogma tend to dismiss the findings of science, and even regard the scientific endeavour as a sinful challenge to divine authority. A less malign tendency is to treat the realms of religion and science as fundamentally disparate and irreconcilable universes of discourse. This is largely what has happened to religion in the West since the Enlightenment, and is, in fact, doomed to happen to any theistic religion in the face of science. As the floods and rainbows that were formerly explicable only according to the whims of a higher power have come within the reach of scientific enquiry, the explanatory role of God has been pushed to the highest level of abstraction, from which position scientific methods alone are powerless to dislodge it. Whether lightning is immediately caused by God or by charged particles in the atmosphere can be fairly decisively settled in favour of the latter. But why there is something rather than nothing, and whether God is the best explanation of what exists, is a question that lies permanently and by its nature in the realm of philosophy rather than science. The same is also true the other way. One’s belief or otherwise in God sheds no light on the methods required for science. While one would hope that anyone with the intelligence to do science well is unlikely to fall prey to theology in its cruder form, even at a more sophisticated level the two disciplines share no principles in common. There can therefore be no traffic between them, and no mutual illumination is to be found in their comparison.

However, leaving aside the theistic assumptions, there are some Buddhists who would treat science in a similar manner. Perhaps this has some justification. After all, the Buddha gained Enlightenment in a pre-scientific age. As Sangharakshita wrote in Living Wisely,

…it is hard for us to imagine how limited was the range of information available to the Buddha. We do not, therefore, have to subscribe to what the Buddha may have thought about [the physical sciences] in order to gain insight into the nature of reality.

Once again, we are confronted with two fundamentally different kinds of knowledge, and the question of the relationship between the two. Emphasizing the absolute distinctness of transcendental insight from any knowledge pertaining to the mundane has the merit of safeguarding the supremacy of the Dharma as regards matters of the greatest importance. However, it could then seem that the Buddha’s Enlightenment was something completely isolated from the natural phenomena which are the subject of scientific enquiry, and that nothing he said had any bearing on them.

The Nature of Buddhist Philosophy

To understand why this won’t do, we need to touch on the nature and purpose of philosophy in Buddhism. For the practising Buddhist, Buddhism doesn’t need to be a philosophy at all, in the sense of giving a systematic conceptual account of reality. Rather, it offers is a set of doctrines which, contemplated in the right way and in the right spirit, lead to an insight into the way things really are. From this point of view, abstract questions such as the nature of the relationship between Buddhism and science are irrelevant. However, Buddhist philosophy did develop. In the Survey, Sangharakshita gives us a hint as to why:

The quite extensive doctrinal developments which occurred not only in India but also in Japan, and to some extent in China too, took place partly by way of an attempt to push to their ultimate logical conclusion the teachings attributed to the Buddha, many of which were suggestive rather than exhaustive in nature, partly because of the need for building up for the Doctrine a systematic rational basis from which the tenets of Buddhism could be defended and the theories of non-Buddhist schools attacked.15

In Who is the Buddha?, a much later work, he talks in more psychological terms:

A few may be happy to get on with their meditation and not worry about philosophy, but most people require some answers. They really want to know, and it is only within the framework of this sort of knowledge that they can practise at all. They need to have some general philosophical framework, however rudimentary or sketchy, within which to follow the path.16

Further light can be found in Sangharakshita’s seminal early essay, ‘Philosophy and Religion in Original and Developed Buddhism’. I have covered this in detail in a prior article,17 but briefly, it deals with the relationship of Buddhism considered as a religion (that is, a soteriology, with claims of what the highest good is and how to achieve it) and considered as a philosophy (that is, a set of truth-claims regarding the nature of existence). But of interest to us here is that, in introducing these key distinctions, Sangharakshita also references science as a third field of knowledge. The essay begins:

The chief distinction between philosophy and all other branches of knowledge is generally considered to be twofold, namely, a difference of method and a difference of scope. The method of philosophy is said to be different from the methods of the various sciences inasmuch as it begins its investigations without assumptions or preconceptions of any kind. The sciences, on the contrary, all assume the truth of the law of causation. In addition to this, each science makes certain assumptions within its own special field of inquiry. Classical physics, for instance, assumes the existence of matter. Biology the existence of life, and geometry the existence of space. But they do not consider what matter, life, and space in themselves really are, or why they should exist at all.18 To consider that is the business of philosophy which, it is claimed, makes no assumptions whatsoever.19

He goes on to say, however, that since philosophy is founded on the assumption that knowledge is possible, it cannot be a freedom from assumptions of any kind that distinguishes the discipline. (‘Philosophy cannot avoid the assumption of the possibility of knowledge, since even the initial act of philosophizing presupposes it’). It must, rather, be a matter of scope.

The various sciences are so obviously restricted to their respective fields of investigation that it is unnecessary to give examples in order to prove it. Religion restricts itself to the attainment of the highest good and considers other things only insofar as they help or hinder this supreme desideratum. But philosophy, on the contrary, is essentially synoptic, and endeavours to comprehend the whole of existence at a single glance, thereby justifying Plato’s famous definition of the philosopher as ‘the spectator of all time and all existence’. Philosophy does not, however, simply view things as a mere aggregate of heterogeneous elements; but, just as the scientist and spiritualist do within their narrower spheres, it endeavours to trace the unity of law working in the midst of the diversity of events, and since its sphere is universal the law or laws which it seeks to trace are universal too.20

In the essay, it is the ‘narrower sphere’ of the spiritualist that Sangharakshita attempts to comprehend through the synoptic glance of philosophy. He does so by arguing that nirvana, the goal of Buddhism considered as a religion, is comprehended by pratītya-samutpāda, the central principle of Buddhism considered as a philosophy. It is so comprehended by virtue of a progressive trend in reality, whereby nirvana is attained as the culmination of an ascending and augmentative series of positive conditions.

But in addition, it is implied by the passages above that the narrower sphere of the scientist also needs to be accounted for. The material realm of scientific fact must sit comfortably alongside – or rather, at the feet of – the supra-material realm of spiritual value. This is, indeed, more important in the modern age than ever before. As has been emphasised by the likes of Dewey, while philosophy attempts to deal with universal truth, it also arises out of particular cultural circumstances. Philosophy must deal with what Popper calls the ‘problem situation’ of the time. And perhaps the defining feature of the modern age is the presence, predominance and success of scientific modes of knowledge. Therefore any ‘ultimate logical conclusions’ that the Buddha’s teaching may be pushed to, or ‘systematic rational basis’ that can be established for the defence of the tenets of Buddhism, which do not successfully address the question of the status of scientific knowledge, are unlikely to be taken seriously by thinking people, nor do they deserve to be.21

In sum, for the individual Buddhist intent on liberation, philosophical questions such as the relationship of the Dharma to science are of secondary importance. However, in order to present the Buddhist vision in the most persuasive light, some philosophy is needed. For this to be adequate to the modern age it must address the nature and scope of scientific method. Whereas scientific knowledge is always restricted to its particular specialism, philosophy must be unlimited in its scope. Buddhist philosophy must therefore be able to show the different spheres of human knowledge and experience represented by science and religion as comprehended by a single unified vision of existence.

The Middle Path

We can now state a definition of the middle path regarding the nature of the relationship between Buddhism and science. It is that science is subordinate to the Dharma, not merely in the sense of being less important, but also insofar as the partial, specialized knowledge obtained by science may be seen as so many applications of the same universal principles identified by the Buddha, and are thus contained within a larger vision of existence. In this way, science is allowed to retain its true character, but without overstepping its limits; and (unlike believers in God) Buddhists can assert the supremacy of the Dharma without fear of challenge from a kind of knowledge that is alien to its central doctrines.

I will now argue that Sangharakshita himself practised such a middle path. However, for this we must look beyond his early work, including the Survey, and towards teachings he developed much later. It is, in fact, an area in which we see significant development. But before looking at how his later teaching exemplified the middle path regarding the relationship between Buddhism and science, let us look at how this was prefigured in the Survey. I can see three main areas.


Firstly, he provides us with some principles for framing the issue. He says, for example,

the scientific study of Buddhism within the limits necessarily imposed upon it by the nature of the scientific method itself need not be considered irreconcilable with the traditional approach to the Dharma….All that we insist is that the two methods can be used together only when the scientific study of Buddhism is recognized as possessing a merely subordinate and instrumental value and is not permitted to transgress its own clearly defined limits.22

It is not too great an extrapolation from the scientific study of Buddhism being kept within its clearly defined limits in relation to a traditional approach, to scientific knowledge in general being contained within a larger vision of existence that includes a path to spiritual liberation.


Secondly, the Survey contains a complete articulation and defence of the doctrinal principles with which any account of science must be reconciled. We may divide this into two stages, the first establishing common ground with the entire Buddhist tradition, the second representing a distinctive emphasis of Sangharakshita.

1) Pratītya-samutpāda as the root doctrine.

The doctrinal centrality of pratītya-samutpāda is, in one way or another, common to the whole Buddhist tradition. The point to emphasize here is that the assumption of observable conditioned regularities is also common both to the practice of Buddhism and of science.

2) The progressive trend within pratītya-samutpāda.

Sangharakshita follows Dr Beni Barua in arguing that implicit in the Buddha’s teaching is a progressive trend within pratītya-samutpāda. As set out in the essay quoted above, this resolves the philosophical problem of the relationship between Buddhism considered as a philosophy and as a religion. The question of Buddhism and science, however, though raised implicitly in the essay, was not at that time addressed.


Thirdly, the Survey contains a significant number of references to science, not merely as a way of safeguarding traditional assumptions about the Dharma, but as a pedagogic tool. For example,

…the Dharma states with a precision and clarity which in Christian lands are considered the prerogatives of science rather than of religion, those universal laws in accordance with which the attainment of Enlightenment by a human being takes place, and, therefore, the conditions upon which it depends and the means by which it must be achieved.23


…in the higher stages of insight ‘fact’ is as indistinguishable from ‘event’ as in advanced physics ‘particle’ is indistinguishable from ‘wave’.24

Other examples could be given, but I hope my point is made. Awareness of science, both as a threat to the Dharma if understood as the only source of truth, and as possessing possibilities for communicating the Dharma in a modern context, is evident in Sangharakshita’s writing from a young age. But it was not until later – when he returned to the West – that this came to full fruition in his teaching.

I see two prominent examples: the ‘five niyamas’, and the ‘Higher Evolution’. Before dealing with them individually it is worth observing a distinction between them. The five niyamas is a formulation drawn from the Buddhist commentarial tradition, which Sangharakshita explicitly connects with science. The Higher Evolution employs a term drawn from science but extends its meaning to express principles of the Dharma. This distinction reflects the fact that, in translating a supra-conceptual truth into conceptual terms, one must either refresh traditional terms, or inject non-traditional terms with new meanings.

The Five Niyamas

Drawn from the commentarial tradition, the formula of the five niyamas appears briefly in Sangharakshita’s writings for the first time in The Three Jewels, ten years or so after the publication of the Survey. Later it became a central plank of his presentation of the Dharma, and he developed his own distinctive interpretation of it, in which a connection with modern science is explicitly evoked. The following is from Who is the Buddha?:

The word niyama is a term common to Pāli and Sanskrit meaning a natural law, a cosmic order. According to this teaching there are five of them, showing the law of cause and effect at work on five different levels. The first three are straightforward enough, as they can be related to Western sciences.25

The first, utu-niyama, is ‘the law of cause and effect as operative on the level of inorganic matter. It very roughly embraces the laws of physics and chemistry and associated disciplines’; the second, bīja-niyama, ‘deals with the world of living matter, the physical organic order whose laws constitute the science of biology’; while the third, citta-niyama ‘is conditionality as operative in the world of mind’, and ‘corresponds to the modern science of psychology.’26

As for the other two, they are kamma-niyama and dhamma-niyama. The first he defines as ‘the principle of conditionality operative on the moral plane’. The second is dealt with relatively briefly, especially relative to the profundity of the idea.27 But what Sangharakshita says here captures the essence of it, and makes clear the continuity with his early work:

The obvious key, it seems to me, is in the distinction between the two types or modes of conditionality. The first four niyamas, including kamma-niyama, are all types of conditionality in the cyclical sense, in the sense of action and reaction between pairs of opposites. But dhamma-niyama corresponds to the spiral type of conditionality. As such it constitutes the sum total of the spiritual laws which govern progress through the stages of the Buddhist path.28

A full account of the many merits of the teaching of the five niyamas is beyond the scope of this article, but it does seem that, among other considerations, Sangharakshita was quite consciously trying to present spiritual development and scientific knowledge in one all-encompassing framework.

Higher Evolution

Sangharakshita’s thinking on the ‘Higher Evolution of Man’ began much earlier in his life and teaching career. In fact, it first appeared in a lecture given in his twenties, years before beginning work on the Survey. Commenting on the lecture, he said,

So far as I know, this was the first time I had spoken of Buddhism as the path of the Higher Evolution and the first time I had distinguished this from the path of the lower evolution. From what obscure corner of my reading I produced these terms, or indeed whether I coined them – or thought I coined them – myself for the occasion, I no longer recollect. In any case, it was not until a quarter of a century later that I took them up again and attempted to give a more detailed and systematic interpretation of Buddhism along ‘evolutionary’ lines.29

This he did this in a series of lectures on the subject, and in various other places. Here, he describes what motivated his development of this idea, and offers a short summary:

So far my realization that Buddhism was the path of the higher evolution had remained within a strictly traditional framework. In 1964, however, having spent twenty years in the East, I returned to England, and soon felt the need, purely as a ‘skilful means’ (upāya-kauśalya), of a principle sufficiently familiar to the modern mind not to require much explanation and capable, at the same time, of being generalized in such a way as to provide a medium for the exposition of Buddhism. One day, while preparing a lecture, it flashed on me that the concept of evolution was such a principle. At once everything fell into place. Science revealed how far man had come. This was the lower evolution. Buddhism, as the Path, showed how far he still had to go. This was the higher evolution. Though not strictly continuous the two phases between them constituted the two halves of a single process. Science and religion, the lower and the higher evolution, were comprehended in one gigantic sweep.30

Further illuminating passages can be found in Who is the Buddha?. Indeed, they can be seen as the fulfilment of my entire line of argument, including an implicit reference to the Middle Path. After introducing the principle of evolution Sangharakshita says,

The fact that the Christian faith in particular has become reconciled to this principle only with the greatest difficulty makes it also a useful tool in highlighting some of the more distinctive features of the Buddhist vision. Nothing like the kind of tour de force we meet with in the works of the Catholic thinker Teilhard de Chardin is required to bring Buddhism and modern evolutionary ideas together.31

This reinforces the earlier point that theistic assumptions create an unbridgeable gulf between the spiritual realm and the realm of nature – including of science. That no such gulf exists in the case of Buddhism is a sign of its veracity. In this connection, in his account of the lecture (to which I have already referred) wherein he first spoke of the ‘Higher Evolution’, Sangharakshita justifies his description of Buddhism as a ‘natural religion’ in the following terms:

By this I did not mean to reduce it from a spiritual to a mundane activity, or to deny the existence of the transcendental element in religion (religion itself being, indeed, nothing but the science and the art of the Transcendental), but only to draw attention to man’s inherent affinity with that element, which was in truth not something imposed upon him from without (as in Christian supernaturalism) but rather something developed from within.32

Incidentally, his approval of a pagan attitude to nature as a precondition for the adoption of Buddhism could be seen in similar terms – indeed, as a precise parallel from a different realm of human experience.

Returning to Who is the Buddha?, Sangharakshita turns next towards the reductionist pole:

In taking up an idea that is generally understood in scientific or at least academic applications and applying it in a spiritual context, we have, of course, to draw some precise boundaries. Scientific knowledge depends on the evidence of the senses – but, just because Buddhism has never tried to resist the evidence of the senses, that does not make it a ‘scientific religion’. It is certainly true that Buddhism’s appeal in the West owes much to the spirit of empirical, open-minded inquiry which the Buddha laid down as axiomatic to the spiritual quest – and this lack of dogmatism does align Buddhism in some important respects with the Greek scientific spirit rather than with the dominant religious traditions in the modern West. Equally axiomatic to the Buddhist notion of the spiritual quest, however, is the recognition of a transcendental Reality – which is not, of course, a provable scientific hypothesis.33

Having warded off the two wrong extremes, Sangharakshita makes a clearer statement of the Middle Path as regards Buddhism and science:

Buddhism therefore looks at the rational knowledge derived from the senses in the light of a knowledge that is derived not from the senses and reason alone, but from a fusion of reason with emotion in a higher faculty of archetypal knowledge which we may call ‘vision’, ‘insight’, or ‘imagination’. It is not a question of justifying Buddhism in scientific terms, but rather of understanding sense-derived knowledge by means of knowledge that is not sense-based. In other words, the knowledge that is derived from the senses fits into a much larger pattern of knowledge that is not derived from the senses.

Finally, he describes how evolution is a way of describing that larger pattern of knowledge:

From a Buddhist point of view, there is a hierarchy of levels of being and consciousness, a hierarchy of degrees of spiritual attainment, which seems to be reflected in, or as it were anticipated by, the whole process of biological evolution. It seems to make sense, therefore, to regard both biological evolution and the hierarchies of spiritual development as being – from the Buddhist point of view – in their separate spheres, exemplifications of a single law or principle.34

A single law or principle – this being none other than pratītya-samutpāda, which operates in a cyclical and spiral mode, the latter being also described in terms of a dhamma-niyama. We can thus see the harmony that exists between Sangharakshita’s earlier and later thought, as well as his willingness to develop his ideas to address the culture and language of the times he lived in.

A central feature of that culture and language is science. The meeting of Buddhism and science is not new, but with a simplicity born of genius, Sangharakshita has gone beyond the identification of interesting points of comparison or contrast. Treading a middle path between reductionism on the one hand and a protectiveness of religious authority on the other, he has, especially through the Five Niyamas and the Higher Evolution, presented the Dharma as an all-comprehending perspective on existence, in which the natural and the transcendent are shown in their correct relationship. While his is by no means the last word on the matter, and others more scientifically literate may build on his example – perhaps applying the same approach to more specialized fields – nonetheless, his achievement in this regard may be seen as another of the many ways in which he has given a lead to the rest of the Buddhist world.


  1. Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism
  2. Ibid
  3. https://apramada.org/articles/karl-popper-a-buddhist-response
  4. Sangharakshita in seminar on Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki
  5. Sangharakshita, ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’, Crossing the Stream: India Writings
  6. Sangharakshita, ‘What is the Western Buddhist Order?’
  7. Carlo Rovelli, Reality Is Not What It Seems, Penguin, p88
  8. Sheldrake, The Science Delusion, p7
  9. Ibid, p8
  10. Bernardo Kastrup, Why Materialism is Baloney, iff Books, p13
  11. Ian McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, p136. He regards the ascendency of this view as an unfortunate result of an imbalance towards the left hemisphere of the brain, which deals with the world through abstraction, delineation, and utility.
  12. https://apramada.org/articles/the-middle-path-and-its-three-modalities
  13. For example, Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright
  14. Sangharakshita, Living Wisely
  15. Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism, Windhorse Publications, Complete Works Vol. 1, p208
  16. Sangharakshita, Who is the Buddha?
  17. https://apramada.org/articles/a-binocular-vision-of-reality
  18. Sangharakshita, Who is the Buddha?
  19. Sangharakshita, ‘Philosophy and Religion in Original and Developed Buddhism’, Complete Works Vol 7
  20. Ibid
  21. Dr Ambedkar went so far as to stipulate compatibility with science as one of the conditions a religion must fulfil, stating that otherwise ‘[it] is bound to lose its respect and therefore become the subject of ridicule and thereby not merely lose its force as a governing principle of [social] life but might in course of time disintegrate and lapse.’ (‘The Buddha and the Future of His Religion’)
  22. Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism
  23. Ibid
  24. Ibid
  25. Sangharakshita, Who Is the Buddha?
  26. Ibid
  27. See ‘Revering and Relying Upon the Dhamma’ by Dharmachari Subhuti for a more adequate treatment
  28. Sangharakshita, Who Is the Buddha?
  29. Sangharakshita, Facing Mount Kanchenjunga
  30. Sangharakshita, ‘A Letter to Dr Zaehner’, Complete Works Vol 13
  31. Sangharakshita, Who is the Buddha?
  32. Sangharakshita, Facing Mount Kanchenjunga
  33. Sangharakshita, Who is the Buddha?
  34. Ibid

Vidyaruchi has been a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order since 2009, from which time until 2013 he was personal assistant to its founder, Urgyen Sangharakshita. Since then he has been a freelance Buddhist. When not engaged in teaching or travelling he mainly lives in a shed in his parents' garden.

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