Over the past 150 years, scientific materialists have proclaimed that the universe and the nature of human existence can be understood solely in terms of configurations of matter-energy and space-time, which operate under the mindless laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, an enthusiastic materialist, declared, “There is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics.” Another Nobel Prize-winning physicist and avowed materialist, Steven Weinberg, concluded, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Within this world view, the human species is understood solely as a product of natural selection and genetic mutation. As the biologist Stephen Jay Gould writes, “Evolution is purposeless, nonprogressive, and materialistic.” And finally, the physicist Stephen Hawking sums up the materialist position, “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.”

And yet, according to modern cosmology, roughly 68 percent of the universe consists of dark energy and 27 percent consists of dark matter, about which scientists know nothing. In fact, everything ever observed with all our scientific instruments—i.e., all known matter and energy—adds up to less than five percent of the universe. But lacking conclusive experimental foundations, materialists assert that only physical phenomena can influence other physical phenomena. This is a metaphysical belief rather than an observation based on evidence. And it is a belief that is challenged by the latest advances in quantum physics.

The very status and knowability of matter and energy have been called into question by some of the same physicists who have so ardently promoted scientific materialism. Richard Feynman acknowledges that the conservation of energy is a mathematical principle, not a description of a concrete mechanism. He adds, “It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is.” And with regard to the fundamental nature of particles of matter and energy, Steven Weinberg declares, “In the physicist’s recipe for the world, the list of ingredients no longer includes particles. Matter thus loses its central role in physics. All that is left are principles of symmetry.”

According to the latest advances in theoretical physics, space-time has fared no better. Theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed recently stated that “many, many separate arguments, all very strong individually, suggest that the very notion of space-time is not a fundamental one. Space-time is doomed.”

Despite these clear failures of the materialist paradigm, when it comes to the science of the mind, materialism has been accepted and adopted without question. This process began with the rise of behaviorism in the early 20th century and has since become entrenched in neuroscience over the past sixty years. Nobel Prize-winning neuropsychiatrist Eric R. Kandel, a seminal figure of the 1960s, defined his field in this way: 

The task of modern neuroscience is as simple as it is formidable. Stripped of detail, its main aim is to provide an intellectually satisfying set of explanations in cellular and molecular terms of normal mentation: of perception, motor coordination, feeling, thought, and memory. In addition, neuroscientists would ultimately also like to account for the disorders of functions produced by neurological and psychiatric disease.

The field of neuroscience did not begin with any ground-breaking discovery pertaining to the mind-body problem, but rather by covering over the mind-body problem with a leap of faith into reductionist explanations. Nevertheless, this belief in a purely physical explanation has been the working hypothesis of neurology, pharmacology, and psychiatry for the past fifty years despite the fact that the physicalist assumptions of most contemporary cognitive scientists are based on antiquated, 19th-century mechanistic physics, which have been widely repudiated by advances in quantum physics over the past 120 years.

There is nothing scientific about scientific materialism any more than there is anything religious about religious dogmatism. The eminent 19th-century biologist Thomas Huxley was outspoken in his disdain for the tendency to pit science and religion against each other as if they were fundamentally antagonistic: 

Of all the miserable superstitions which have ever tended to vex and enslave mankind, this notion of the antagonism of science and religion is the most mischievous. True science and true religion are twin-sisters, and the separation of either from the other is sure to prove the death of both. Science prospers exactly in proportion as it is religious; and religion flourishes in exact proportion to the scientific depth and firmness of its basis.

Of course, dogmatism has plagued each of the religions of the world since their inception, but throughout history, great contemplatives have repeatedly overcome this temptation by open-mindedly focusing on personal inquiry and experience in their quest for truth and liberation. It seems science, too, has its share of loyal adherents and ground-breaking empiricists.

In this light, I now turn to the role of Buddhism in both the history and future of what I call “contemplative research,” the contemplative tradition that I have studied and practiced full-time as a committed Buddhist for the past 49 years.

Gautama Buddha embraced the principles of empiricism and pragmatism in his advice to his followers. In a famous discourse he says, 

Do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher.’ But when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome, wrong, and bad, then give them up… And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them. 

(This verse, often quoted in Tibetan Buddhist literature, is cited from the Vimalaprabhā commentary on the Kālacakra, although it appears in the Pāli Canon as well. The Sanskrit occurs as a quotation in Tattvasaṃgraha, ed. D. Shastri (Varanasi: Bauddhabharati, 1968), k. 3587. )

The core of the Buddha’s contemplative discoveries, and of the teachings that arose from them, centers on four themes: (1) experientially identifying the full range of suffering to which humans and other sentient beings are vulnerable; (2) identifying the fundamental, underlying causes of suffering, with an emphasis on the origins of mental distress; (3) realizing the real possibility of freedom from suffering and its causes; and lastly (4) applying oneself to an integrated worldview, to meditative practices, and to a way of life that will lead one to achieve such freedom. These are commonly known as the Four Noble Truths. Suffering and its causes are natural phenomena, not to be attributed to supernatural influences. Freedom from them is achieved not simply with faith, grace, or obedience to divine law, but from knowing reality as it is. So the pursuit of freedom and of truth are inextricably intertwined throughout all Buddhist teachings. One must experientially discover the nature of reality for oneself, and all the Buddha’s teachings should be evaluated critically. As the Buddha emphasized, “Just as the wise accept gold after testing it by heating, cutting, and rubbing, so are my words to be accepted after examining them, but not out of respect for me.” (Kalama Sutta)

In accordance with the Buddha’s spirit of open-minded empiricism and sound reasoning, the Dalai Lama has often commented that if science produced compelling evidence to refute a Buddhist belief, he would reject that belief. On the other hand, he has also stressed that merely failing to confirm certain contemplative discoveries is not grounds for rejecting them. An absence of evidence is not evidence of an absence. It is telling that such open-mindedness and respect are rarely expressed by scientists for the intersubjectively corroborated discoveries made by contemplatives. As the 3rd-century Buddhist contemplative Aryadeva explains, “It is said that one who is unbiased, perceptive, and intent on practice is a suitable disciple of the Buddha’s teachings. The good qualities of the instructor are not otherwise, nor are they different for fellow students.” These very same qualities should be equally essential for anyone wishing to embark on a career in science.

Contemplatives have been undertaking experiential and rational inquiry into the nature, origins, and potentials of the mind for at least two and a half millennia. Inquiry into the nature of consciousness and its role in the natural world is a core theme in all Buddhist theory and practice, and such knowledge is seen as indispensable to the achievement of liberation from suffering. The Buddha’s themes of empiricism and pragmatism are also central to the cultivation of mindfulness. In the Buddhist understanding, mindfulness is clearly oriented toward the development of introspective wisdom, which is in turn driven by an aspiration to identify and alleviate the inner causes of distress and of genuine well-being.

The Sikkim-born Buddhist contemplative Yangthang Rinpoche, one of my own mentors, states succinctly how to begin an open-minded inquiry into the nature of the mind. He is drawing from the Great Perfection school of Tibetan Buddhism. 

By looking inward, you observe your own mind. Do not follow after past thoughts, or anticipate thoughts to come. As for the wild agitation of the thoughts of the present moment, as soon as you direct your mind inwards upon itself, loosely rest right there, without fixing or modifying anything in the slightest.

This is a classic method for calming the mind so that one can penetrate beyond the domain of the human psyche to explore the sphere of reality from which the mind emerges.

The 19th-century Tibetan contemplative Düdjom Lingpa described the common experience of many generations of Buddhist contemplatives who have engaged in such intensive full-time meditative training as follows: “By applying yourself to this practice continuously at all times, both during and between meditation sessions, eventually all coarse and subtle thoughts will be calmed in the empty expanse of the essential nature of your mind.…finally, because the ordinary mind of an ordinary being, as it were, disappears, discursive thoughts go dormant, and roving thoughts vanish into the space of awareness…”

Thus, Düdjom Lingpa goes on to explain how the domain of the mind in which all mental activities are experienced dissolves into a sheer vacuity called the substrate. This field is immaterial, devoid of thought, a space-like vacuity, a blankness in which appearances are suspended. We naturally, but unconsciously, enter this state in deep, dreamless sleep, when fainting, and when dying. With rigorous and intensive contemplative training, however, one can become fully and lucidly aware of this vacuity. In deep and sustained meditation, the mind that experiences this empty space is a sheer luminosity of awareness known as the substrate consciousness, characterized by bliss, luminosity, and non-conceptuality. This primal flow of consciousness has been discovered by contemplatives of other traditions and is labeled in different ways. It is widely recognized among Buddhist contemplatives that this primal flow of consciousness does not emerge from the brain, but rather becomes conditioned (or configured) by the brain and other influences as the human mind develops and is activated.

Contrary to the materialistic belief that memories are “encoded in the brain,” Buddhist and other contemplatives have discovered that they are in fact stored in this primal continuum of consciousness. From this core domain of consciousness, the human mind emerges and the patterns in which it comes to function are indeed conditioned by the developing organ of the brain. But it is the primal consciousness that continues after death, when the brain-conditioned human mind has dissolved. Thus, rather than the brain being the “hard-drive” to the “software” of the mind, according to Buddhist understanding, the brain would be more analogous to a keyboard, and the metaphorical hard-drive would instead be the substrate consciousness.

The discovery of the conservation of consciousness from lifetime to lifetime has been affirmed by Western philosophers dating back to Pythagoras (who claimed to know of past lives from his own experience), on through Socrates, Plato, and Plotinus. It has been advocated by contemplatives from the major world religions—Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In his Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays, published in 1894, Thomas Huxley wrote this about the theory of reincarnation: 

In the doctrine of transmigration, whatever its origin, Brahmanical and Buddhist speculation found, ready to hand, the means of constructing a plausible vindication of the ways of the Cosmos to man…. Yet this plea of justification is not less plausible than others; and none but very hasty thinkers will reject it on the ground of inherent absurdity. Like the doctrine of evolution itself, that of transmigration has its roots in the world of reality.

 A century later, the astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in his book The Demon-Haunted World that serious scientific attention should be given to the claims of young children who report the details of a previous life. He advocated serious studies to check on the veracity of their reports. This is precisely the kind of research that has been done for more than forty years in the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. This research has resulted in a growing body of evidence in support of the theory of reincarnation. But materialist dogma seems to have led the scientific community to dismiss such studies.

While the materialist assumption that the mind and consciousness are generated solely by the brain is hardly ever questioned by cognitive scientists, it has never been empirically tested or confirmed. The contemplative hypothesis regarding the conservation of consciousness, in contrast, has been tested repeatedly over thousands of years. 

The procedure for putting it to the test of experience is straightforward: After settling the mind in its natural state, through rigorous, sustained training, the contemplative comes to rest, clearly and discerningly aware, in the substrate consciousness. The contemplative researcher then directs his or her attention to a specific time in the past. As if retrieving data from one’s hard-drive, one then observes the memory that comes to mind, with its related imagery, emotions, and other associated mental events. One first trains in retrieving memories from earlier in this life, those which are normally beyond the reach of one’s normal, waking consciousness. These can be confirmed or repudiated by objective and reliable sources. Once it is determined that even very early memories can be accurately retrieved, one then targets specific times prior to this life. One then observes what emerges from one’s substrate consciousness. If clear and distinct memories do emerge that appear to stem from a past life, then they are to be subjected to critical assessment to determine their accuracy. Could they have been acquired from sources other than one’s own substrate consciousness? In this way, the veracity of previous life memories can indeed be tested.

For many centuries, Buddhist contemplatives have penetrated even beyond this primal flow of individual consciousness to a non-local, atemporal dimension of awareness that is beyond all conceptual categories, including self or other, subject or object. The methods designed to break through to this ultimate ground-state of consciousness proceed first by experientially determining whether one’s own, individuated flow of consciousness actually exists in and of itself, by its own inherent nature. The conclusion drawn by many generations of Buddhist contemplatives is that it is empty of any such autonomous existence. 

Yangthang Rinpoche clarifies this point, “As soon as you rest in your natural state, thoughts spontaneously cease and depart. In the natural lucidity where thoughts disappear is the empty, transparent, essential nature of the mind.” This experience is like space, devoid of any object and transcending all conceptual categories, even those of existence and non-existence. He continues, “Right there in that emptiness is the clear and lucid manifest nature of the mind. Devoid of any expressible, substantial characteristics, its own spacious and unimpeded luminosity is naturally clear.” 

While the substrate consciousness and the substrate it experiences are conditioned by prior causes and conditions and do change from moment to moment, this deepest dimension of awareness, called primordial consciousness, is unconditioned. So is the all-encompassing emptiness it realizes, which is known as the absolute space of phenomena. These two, nominally regarded as subject and object, are in fact timelessly undifferentiated, for there is no duality between the perceived and the perceiver. 

All streams of individual consciousness—of humans and of all other sentient beings throughout the universe—are said to stem from such primordial consciousness, and all configurations of space-time and mass-energy are crystalized formations of the absolute space of phenomena. In other language, this is the ultimate, divine ground of being, which transcends the conceptual constructs of both monistic materialism and mind-body dualism. Yangthang Rinpoche concludes, “In the mindstream of one who realizes this Great Perfection, impartial compassion and impartial pure vision emerge effortlessly and naturally.” Comparable reports of an ultimately liberating contemplative realization are found in each of the great contemplative traditions of the world, as presented by Aldous Huxley in his classic work The Perennial Philosophy.

According to the Buddha, the highest dimension of genuine well-being, which never diminishes, stems from knowing the ultimate nature of reality. Such wisdom can be gained only by cultivating superbly discerning capacities of the mind. This includes rigorous training in mindfulness and introspection. A high degree of mental balance and stability is needed to sustain the kind of insight that can radically transform one’s entire being. Moreover, any such mental training must be rooted in the purest levels of ethical discipline that come to permeate every aspect of one’s life. Buddhist ethics essentially boils down to the twin pillars of non-violence and benevolence. These are the indispensable foundations of all Buddhist practice. The Buddha summarized his teachings as a whole like this: “Do not engage in evil behavior of any kind. Devote yourself to a bounty of virtue. Completely subdue your own mind. This is the teaching of the Buddha.”

Buddhist practice is designed not only to root out the inner causes of unhappiness, but also to cultivate genuinely sustainable well-being. This state of eudaimonia emerges from within, without being contingent on outer, pleasant circumstances. The Buddha described three kinds of genuine well-being arising from the contemplative life: the well-being of contentment and the clear conscience of leading an ethical way of life; well-being gained through the cultivation of mental balance, including the development of mindfulness and introspection; and finally, the supreme well-being of the complete freedom that is acquired through insight into the actual nature of the mind and the role of consciousness in the natural world. In short, he encouraged his followers to find out what really constitutes genuine well-being and, based on this understanding, to cultivate it. This message seems vitally important to all people throughout the course of human civilization, but it is uniquely pertinent to our present-day times.

Rampant materialism (scientific, spiritual, and social), has been obstructing the evolution of open-minded science and religion for more than a century. And yet, the more the physical and mind sciences have progressed, the more they themselves have revealed the fallacies of the materialist paradigm. Still, due to the ideological and methodological constraints of this de-humanizing worldview, the nature, origins, and potentials of consciousness, the mind-body problem, and the actual sources of mental illness and of genuine well-being remain largely unknown to science. 

These limitations of materialistic science correspond exactly to the strengths of the great contemplative traditions of the world. The current pandemic is a clarion call for each of us to withdraw temporarily from the rush to consume and instead to explore new kinds of simplicity and solitude. This is an opportunity to re-evaluate our fundamental way of viewing reality, our priorities, and our way of life. It is high time to break free from what is binding us as a species—namely, materialism, hedonism, and consumerism. It is no exaggeration to say that these human failings are destroying the ecosphere and undermining human civilization. By embracing a new open-mindedness, we may begin to explore the potentials of consciousness, and investigate the powerful role of mind in the natural world. For the first time in human history, we could draw on and integrate both the deepest insights from modern science and the great contemplative traditions of the world, potentially leading us to a new era of human flourishing.

For more, see B. Alan Wallace’s Dharma Talk Series, “A New Paradigm for Science and Religion.”