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Reverse Engineering Buddhism

How much of the philosophical system of Buddhism can we reconstruct independently of Buddhist sources?


Reverse engineering is the process of discovering the principles of a system through analysis of its structure, function and operation. It often involves taking it apart and analyzing its workings in detail to try to make a system that does the same thing without copying anything from the original.



In the Kalama Sutra, Buddha sets out the criteria that we should apply to any religious doctrine:

Since all valid items of knowledge are based on observation and/or reason, we should examine

(1) Whether the doctrine can be tested against experience? Does the description of the world on which the religion is founded agree with empirical observation?   Similarly, do the practices (eg meditation techniques)  produce reproducible effects in the practitioners?

(2) Is the philosophy rational?  Or does it contain logical contradictions, or require you to believe six impossible things before breakfast?

Since one cannot obtain an 'ought' from an 'is', the ethical dimension of any philosophy must be additional to these rational/empirical aspects.  This requires a third criterion:

(3)  What happens when you judge the tree by its fruits?  Are they beneficial or harmful to sentient beings?



So from what the Buddha said, taking points (1) and (2), it should be possible to 'reverse engineer' at least some parts of the Buddhist belief system by the sole  application of reason and empiricism (experiment/experience) which are accessible to everyone, without the need for 'special revelation'.

So that's the challenge.  Given our modern understanding of physics, psychology, biology and information science, how much of the Dharma can we derive and reconstruct as a system without resorting to faith or authority - to quote Buddha   "even because I myself have said it"? 



But why do it?  What's the purpose of attempting to derive a skeletal framework of  Buddhism from reason and observation alone, when the Buddha has already produced a complete working system which has been tried and tested for 2500 years?

The main reason is to demonstrate to a skeptical post-Abrahamic public that not all religions are based in obscurantism and irrationalism, or require unquestioning belief in the ramblings, ravings and rantings of some schizophrenic nomad who wandered off into the desert, got sun-stroke and started hearing voices.

It should also show, that in contrast to the increasingly hostile polarisation between science and the Abrahamic religions, there is an increasing convergence between Buddhism and science. Both systems are empirical. They rely on repeatable, verifiable experiences rather than instructions revealed once and for all from some otherwise inaccessible source.

Most of us will at some time or other have taken Bodhisattava vows and we need to remember that millions of people are suffering from the deluded view that life has a purely physical basis with no spiritual dimension.

This bleak, deluded view of Materialism is not only a cause of spiritual depression of those who (often reluctantly ) believe in it, but it also generates fear, aggression and denial in those who oppose it but don’t know how to argue against it.   This denial and aggression against Materialism manifests as anti-science, bigotry, Creationism, Biblical literalism and is quite possibly a contributory factor to Jihadism.


The first objective could be to demonstrate the rational basis of The Four Seals of Dharma, which are the foundation of all schools of Buddhism. 

The Four Seals are an especially significant object for reverse engineering the dharma, for as As Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche said  "Anyone who accepts these four seals, even independently of Buddha’s teachings, even never having heard the name Shakyamuni Buddha, can be considered to be on the same path as he."

The Four Seals are

(1)  Impermanence - all functioning phenomena are impermanent.

(2)  All phenomena are unfindable upon analysis, ie they lack inherent existence.

(3)  Materialistic existence is ultimately unsatisfactory. 

(4)  The true nature of mind is clarity and peace, beyond the material world of attachment, aversion and ignorance.


Aspects to be considered could be








Fides et Ratio - Faith and Reason

What's the place of Faith vis-a-vis Reason in Buddhism?  If we have found that the Buddha has shown us things that we didn't previously know,  which we have subsequently proved to be true, then how much should we trust him when he tells us things which are way beyond our experience? 


The Four Seals of Dharma