Direct experience as the pathway to knowledge and enlightenment

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Is Buddhism a science? Although it is conventionally classified as a religion, Buddhism is a science in the sense that knowing about the truth of the world around us is a primary motivation of its practitioners. However, Buddhism diverges from science in at least two respects: the method of inquiry and the use of knowledge acquired. In science, observation, logical reasoning, and experiment are regarded as among the essential components of its method of inquiry, as Richard Feynman (1918-1988), an American physicist known for his work on quantum electrodynamics, puts it succinctly: “Observation, reason, and experiment make up what we call the scientific method.”1 In Buddhism, direct experience is regarded as the most essential, if not the only, component of its method of inquiry for its practitioners in getting access to and confirming the truth of the world around us. As for the use of knowledge acquired, scientific knowledge, while unveiling the mysteries of the world around us, often ends up changing that world, when knowledge is translated into technologies or social policies. Knowledge acquired by Buddhist practitioners, on the other hand, is employed to liberate them from the reality of the world.

Maintaining objectivity is the value most highly regarded by the community of scientists in their endeavors. This is the reason why experiment must be replicable by other researchers before the scientific community accepts the validity of a theory about how a specific phenomenon comes about. While experiment can be replicated when other researchers create the same controlled environment, direct experience is almost always subjective, even when a group of individuals shares an experience in the same environment. If direct experience is indeed subjective and difficult to replicate, it is unlikely that the scientific community will accept it as a valid method of acquiring knowledge of the world around us. Does this mean that there is no place for direct experience in the scientific search for the truth of the world around us? What if insight obtained by direct experience suggests a theory about the world that can potentially be tested by the scientific method? Is this not indeed the case, for example, with the Buddha’s idea of paticca-samuppada, or “dependent origination”, which apparently contains valid insight into the reality of the world around us? If so, what does the Buddha mean when he talks about direct experience? What exactly does direct experience entail as the method of acquiring knowledge of the world around us?

The fact that his teachings are mostly about achieving personal liberation and enlightenment explains, to some extent, why the Buddha favors direct experience above all other possible methods of knowledge acquisition. In fact, the Buddha is so adamant about the value of direct experience that he appears to reject all other possible methods, as we see in his discourse known as the Kalama Sutta: “Come, Kalamas. Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘The ascetic is our teacher.’”2 Why does the Buddha reject all these methods, including logic and inferential reasoning, which are accepted as valid methods and, therefore, employed by scientists? The reason seems to be that any one of these methods may turn out in “two different ways”, as the Buddha explains in the Canki Sutta: “There are five things, Bharadvaja, that may turn out in two different ways here and now. What five? Faith, approval, oral tradition, reasoned cognition, and acceptance of a view as a result of pondering it.”3 What the Buddha means by “two different ways” is that any one of these five methods can lead to a conclusion that is “factual, true, and unmistaken”, but it can also lead to a conclusion that is “empty, hollow, and false”. Having rejected all these other methods of inquiry, it is natural that the Buddha finally comes down to direct experience as the only reliable guide to knowledge acquisition: “when you know for yourselves” is the way the Buddha puts it, whatever may be the object of inquiry and understanding.

What must direct experience entail if it is to lead to objective knowledge of the world around us? For the Buddha, it is the method of deep meditation that directly leads to knowledge as he explains in the Mahasaccaka Sutta: “When my mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the destruction of the taints. I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is suffering. This is the origin of suffering. This is the cessation of suffering. This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’”4 These words show that it is indeed the Buddha’s direct experience that was behind his discovery of the Four Noble Truths (Cattari Ariyasaccani).

If replication is a test of objectivity, it is necessary for knowledge obtained through such deep meditation to be obtainable by others employing the same method of deep meditation. How is that really possible? How can we verify that knowledge obtained by one practitioner is the same as that obtained by another practitioner?

As long as direct experience remains personal and subjective, the question of verifiability presents an intellectual dilemma. Even materialists, who claim that the mind does not exist as a separate entity from the brain, would find it difficult to ascertain which specific configuration of neurons in the brain is involved in a specific type of mental activity that leads to knowledge of a specific aspect of reality. Functionalists appear to have a better shot at resolving this dilemma in the sense that the mind, to them, is the software as opposed to the hardware, which is the brain. What is important, in their view, is the program that specifies the way the hardware functions. Different computers will yield the same outcome—the same solution to a given set of equations, for example—to the extent that the same program is employed. Does this mean that a specific sequence of guidelines suggested for meditation is like a specific computer program that can be followed by different practitioners to get to the same knowledge of the world around us and, eventually, to the Dhamma, the “ultimate truth”, which the Buddha characterizes in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta as “profound, hard to see and hard to understand”5?

At least two insights from modern science lead us to believe that the mind is potentially capable of arriving at the Dhamma. One insight comes from evolutionary theory, which suggests that the mind, like all the other things in the universe, is a product of evolution. As such, we expect the mind, as a composite entity, to not only embody but also reflect all the conditions and factors that have gone into generating it. The other insight comes from quantum mechanics, which points to an intimate connection that exists between the world around us and the mind of the observer who studies the physical processes in that world, as implied by the “uncertainty principle” formulated by Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976). These insights combined point to the idea that the evolution of the universe, or cosmic evolution, is not just a physical process but a mental process as well, in which all entities, factors, and things in the universe, including ourselves, are intimately interconnected and interdependent. This is nothing but the Buddha’s idea of paticca-samuppada, which is usually translated as “dependent origination” in English.

As we are intimately interconnected and interdependent with all entities, factors, and things in the universe, we can never be detached and neutral observers of events and phenomena in the context of cosmic evolution. We can consciously participate in that evolution, and that is where direct experience comes in. In fact, engaging in meditation is one form of conscious participation in cosmic evolution, though physically our body is at rest. The Noble Eightfold Path (Ariya Atthangika Magga), as a composite of both mental and physical activities, suggests yet another form of conscious participation. Indeed, as recorded in the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha recounts his experience before reaching enlightenment as follows: “I followed that path (the Noble Eightfold Path) and by doing so I have directly known aging-and-death, its origin, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation. I have directly known birth … existence … clinging … craving … feeling … contact … the six sense bases … name-and-form … consciousness … volitional formations, their origin, their cessation, and the way leading to their cessation.”6 The Buddha asks us to question even his authority, telling us that “an inquirer, not knowing another’s mind, should make an investigation of the Tathagata in order to find out whether or not he is perfectly enlightened.”7 However, we, as practitioners, need to be supported by a faith that one day, we will be able to duplicate his direct experience of enlightenment ourselves, and that by consciously participating in the cosmic process unfolding around us, that big “Aha!” moment called “awakening” will also come to us.

  1. Feynman, Richard P., Six Easy Pieces, Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1995, p. 24.
  2. Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005, p. 89.
  3. Ibid., p. 98.
  4. Ibid., p. 66
  5. Ibid., p. 69.
  6. Ibid., p. 69.
  7. Ibid., p. 94.

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