Buddha’s Material (Atomic) Theory

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‘It is quite evident from the descriptions given of the objects of sense as well as the general theory of matter that original Buddhism upheld the reality of the physical world. What we apprehend through the senses by way of colours or shapes, sounds, smells, and tastes, etc, are all by-products of the four primary material forces, which exist in the objective physical world independently of our perceiving them… 

While conscious mental activity had a physical basis, what we call a person’s mind is also conditioned by the physical environment, according to Buddhist conceptions. The physical objects of the external world among other factors stimulate the senses, generate mental activity, feed the mind and motivate one’s behaviour. The mind continues to be conditioned by these impacts, which form part and parcel of one’s accumulated mental experiences.’  

(The Message of the Buddha: By KN Jayatilleke, George Allen & Unwin, (1975) – Page 75)

The Buddha laid the philosophical foundation for an early atomic theory, as the essence of such a theory is evident in the manner in which he explained material existence. The Buddha categorically stated that the material world (rupa) is NOT a product of the human mind (acetasikam), and exists INDEPENDENT of the thought processes (citta-vippayuttam). However, when in discussion with various monks and disciples, it is evident that the Buddha obviously conceived of an atom, when he stated that the tiniest portion of matter (which cannot be seen with the naked-eye), is in a constant state of flux (echoing the ‘atomic swerve’ theory of Epicurus). From this theoretic basis, the Buddhist intellectuals that followed the Buddha, clarified and further refined his teaching, and  further developed his atomic theory (with Buddhism being only philosophical school in Asia to have conceived of an ‘atomic theory’). In the Commentary of the Vibhanga (an Abhidhamma text compiled by Buddhist monks over the centuries after the Buddha’s passing), an atom is described in Pali as ‘paramanu’, and is said to be so small that it occupies a minute portion of space (akasa-kotthasika). A secondary commentary to the Visuddhimagga (attributed to the 5th century CE Buddhist monk Buddhaghosa), states that an atom cannot be seen with the naked eye – but only perceived (theoretically) within the mind through the use of reason and imagination. The important point to remember is that the Buddha rejects the use of pure reason (i.e. idealism – or ‘takka’), just as he rejects a metaphysical definition of the material universe (whereby all that exists is an inert physical mass). The Buddha states that true knowledge and wisdom are the consequence of the mind (and body) operating together within the material world. Such such interaction generates ‘experience’, which is the basis for all Buddhist understanding. Of course, once experience and understanding is acquired, then theories can be formulated and developed by an extension of reason premised upon first-hand experience of concrete facts. This explains why in the Buddha’s schematic, there is no room for ‘faith’ as practised in the theistic traditions. (What is often mistranslated as ‘faith’ [saddha] within Western texts, should more properly be translated as ‘conviction’ premised upon ‘experience’ and ‘understanding’).

The Buddha’s teaching that matter – although existing – is not permanent in nature, appears to fore-shadow the philosophical implications implicit within quantum mechanics. Although the different Buddhist schools argued over the existence or nature of the atom, the Theravada thinkers conceived of an atom comprised of ‘space’ and ‘sub-particles’ (dravya-paramanu) which is physically complex (rupa-kalapa), whilst its constituent parts exist in a state on constant flux (kalapanga). This would suggest that an atom (and its sub-atomic particles) quite literally ‘flickers’ in and out of existence whilst appearing to occupy a (measurable) position within time and space. Within the realms of modern and cutting-edge Western science, this developed Buddhist position might well be considered as an early attempt at explaining dark matter, dark energy or anti-matter – all of which are considered (along with light energy) as being constituents of an ever fluctuating material universe – albeit rarefied elements of it. The Buddha’s idea of ‘flux’ at the atomic (and sub-atomic level) suggests that atoms (and their constituents) appear to change position (within time and space), whilst also appearing to come in and out of material existence. This ‘going out’ of existence is not suggestive of a non-material reality, but rather of an assumption of a different ‘frequency’ of material existence – one which an average (or ‘deluded’) human mind struggles to comprehend clearly.

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  1. Email: The Buddha’s Knowledge of Atoms (14.9.2017) | The Sangha Kommune.

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