In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells us to ignore the senses because they will betray us. We are asked instead to look inwards. This is a message that is similar to that of Plato’s (or at least Plato’s in some of his works) where the senses are demoted. The Digha Nikaya is broken up into chapters. The most important of these concern the Buddha’s dismissal of the physical sciences. Admittedly, some of these ‘sciences’ are quite primitive in the India four centuries before the birth of Christ. But are they important nonetheless? Not to the Buddha.
The low arts
He attacks astrologers, quacks, Brahmin priests offering immunity and blessings, calling their practice “the low arts.”
He says: “While some recluses and Brahmins, while living on food provided by the faithful, earn their living by wrong means of livelihood, by low arts, such as these, Gautam the Recluse (himself) holds aloof from such low arts.”
Because astrology, quackery and the like are “trifling matters, the minor details, of mere morality.”
They do not concern the Buddha. He then lists other things in the same vein. First, those who think about the origins of time. Buddha says: “There are recluses and Brahmins, who reconstruct the ultimate beginnings of things, whose speculations are concerned with the ultimate past, and who on eighteen grounds put forward various assertions regarding it.”
Second, those who speculate on the nature of the life and the universe. The Buddha says to his monks: “There are, brothers, some recluses and Brahmans who are Eternalist, and who, on four grounds, proclaim that both the soul and the world are eternal.”
He then speaks with contempt of those who claim to have experienced lakhs of rebirths. He has no patience for the idea of reincarnation and of the transmigration of the soul, something that India passed on to the Greeks through Pythagoras.
Subject to change
Lastly he goes after the logicians who try to separate mind and matter. He says there are those who cling to reason and are given to saying things like: “This which is called eye and ear and nose and tongue and body is a self which is impermanent, unstable, not eternal, subject to change. But this which is called heart, or mind, or consciousness is a self which is permanent, steadfast, eternal, and knows no change, and it will remain for ever and ever.”
The Buddha says that these are things “difficult to realise, hard to understand, tranquillising, sweet, not to be grasped by mere logic, subtle, comprehensible only by the wise.” These things the Tathâgata, having himself realised them and seen them face to face, hath set forth; and it is of them that they, who would rightly praise the Tathâgata in accordance with the truth, should speak.
And what are they? Here is where the problem begins. The speculations that he refers to — is the soul eternal? Is the universe infinite? What is the nature of time? — are important and the foundations of science. Man has wondered about the nature of his existence and what surrounds him. This has helped him progress.
However, the Buddha says that these questions are unimportant and must be ignored. In his words: “Brothers, the Tathagata (Buddha referring to himself in the third person) knows that these speculations thus arrived at, thus insisted on, will have such and such a result, such and such an effect on the future condition of those who trust in them.” But trusting in such speculations is wrong because they are unimportant to the Buddha. He adds:
“All this Tathagata does know, and he knows also other things far beyond and far better than those speculations; and having that knowledge he is not puffed up, and thus untarnished he has, in his own heart, realised the way of escape from them. He has understood, as they really are, the rising up and passing away of sensations, their sweet taste, their danger, how they cannot be relied on; and not yearning for any of those things men are eager for he, the Tathagata, is set free.”
The Buddha was a phenomenal thinker but he may not have been infallible. The Greek philosophers and mystics — Socrates, Plato and Aristotle above all — also carried much wisdom as did the Buddha but they did not denounce science. Indeed, Plato episodically and Aristotle throughout his life, encouraged free thinking, unlike the Buddha and the Gita.
Is this the difference that explains why we are where we are today and why they are where they are? In 2018, it bears thinking about for all of us.