Einstein and Buddhadasa: The Parallel Doings


Einstein and Buddhadāsa: The Parallel Doings

By Dr. Mongkol Dejnakarintra, Chulalongkorn University (Thailand)

Paper presented at The 8th International Buddhist Research Seminar & The 2nd International Conference on Buddhadāsa Studies on 25 May 2017 at the Buddhadāsa Indapañño Archives, Bangkok, in honour of the 111th Anniversary of Buddhadāsa.

ABSTRACT: The author describes the similarity between Albert Einstein’s work for modern physics and Buddhadāsa Indapañño’s work for modern Thai Buddhism. On the physical side, Einstein’s contribution, particularly through his Theories of Relativity, extends classical physics formulated by Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell to include high-energy physics, in which a microscopic particle may travel at a speed near that of light. His important discovery is the equivalence of mass and energy as indicated by his famous formula: E = mc2. On the spiritual side, Buddhadāsa’s contribution, particularly through his dhamma-language interpretation of the Tipitaka, extends classical Thai Buddhism, which is based on the work of the Ceylonese monk Buddhaghosa around the fifth century of the Christian era, from the morality level to include the spirituality level, with the ultimate spiritual state of nibbāna being a possibility for mankind. His important practical concept is chit wang (voided mind), which can be attained through mindfulness practice.

Keywords: Einstein, Buddhadāsa, Theories of Relativity, dhamma language, mass-energy equivalence, chit wang


In commemorating Ven. Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s 111th birth anniversary, the author is inspired to write this paper after having read the book Einstein and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings (McFarlane 2002), which shows parallel quotes by famous modern physicists, led by Albert Einstein, and famous exponents in Eastern religions, headed by the Buddha. The book claims that scientific observation and spiritual contemplation have produced similar ideas about the nature of the universe and our place in it. Since the author of this paper has a career in electrical engineering and was raised in the Thai culture, on the mundane level he is familiar with classical and modern physics and on the spiritual level he is familiar with classical Thai Buddhism. After having studied Ven. Buddhadāsa’s works, the author finds that he has been an exponent who did so much in extending classical Thai Buddhism to a modern one, just like Albert Einstein, who did so much in modernizing classical physics. So, in this article the author will briefly describe Einstein’s contribution to physics together with Ven. Buddhadāsa’s to Thai Buddhism and discuss their similarity.


In this paper, the author simply defines classical physics as that physics whose branches were established before the twentieth century of the Christian era. This includes, among others, Newtonian mechanics and classical electromagnetism, the latter being described by Maxwell’s equations. On the other hand, modern physics is defined here as that physics whose branches were established in the twentieth century and later. Thus it includes quantum mechanics, which has been worked out by various physicists, and Einstein’s Theories of Relativity.

Newtonian mechanics was developed mainly by the English physicist Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century. This has resulted in Newton’s laws of motion (see, for example, Rosser 1991: 2-3), which are generally taught in high-school physics. These laws are used to describe the behaviors of macroscopic bodies we are familiar with in everyday life, such as motion of a car, flight of an airplane, and orbit of a planet, all moving at speeds very much less than that of light in empty space, which has a symbol c and has been measured at about 300,000 kilometers per second. In the twentieth century, laboratory experiments showed that Newtonian mechanics is inadequate for describing the behavior of microscopic, sub-atomic particles, such as electron and proton, moving at a speed comparable to that of light.

Classical electromagnetism was developed mainly in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For example, in 1784 the French scientist Charles-Augustin Coulomb experimentally discovered the inverse square law of the force between two electric charges; in 1819 the Danish scientist Hans Christian Oersted discovered the magnetic effect of an electric current; in 1821 the French scientist André-Marie Ampère experimented and set up a formula for the force between two current-carrying wires; and in 1831 the English scientist Michael Faraday discovered that a changing magnetic field produced an electromotive force in a nearby circuit. All these experimental results were later on included in the equations set up by the Scottish mathematician James Clerk Maxwell. These so-called Maxwell’s equations are generally taught in a university-level course such as Engineering Electromagnetics for electrical engineering students.

Apart from Einstein’s Theories of Relativity, modern physics includes quantum mechanics, which was started by the German physicist Max Planck, who discovered ‘quantum of action’ in 1900. Many more physicists have contributed to this field, notably Niels Bohr (Danish), Louis de Broglie (French), Paul Dirac (English), Enrico Fermi (Italian), Richard Feynman (American), Werner Heisenberg (German), Wolfgang Pauli (Austrian), and Erwin Schroedinger (Austrian). (See, for example, Baggott 2011.)

Table 1 compares some characteristics of classical physics with those of modern physics.

Table 1. Comparison Between Classical Physics and Modern Physics

Classical Physics

Modern Physics

Based on old concepts, e.g., Newton’s Laws of Motion and Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory

Based on new concepts, e.g., Relativity  Theories by Einstein and quantum theory by other physicists

Concerning everyday phenomena, easy to understand, fit for teaching fundamental physics to students and the general public

Concerning mostly supramundane phenomena, hard to understand, but capable of explaining phenomena in physics in a wider scope

Uses mathematics not higher than calculus

Uses mathematics higher than calculus

Applicable in a limited range, e.g., in classical mechanics, celestial gravity field, electro-magnetic field

Applicable in a wider range, including photo-electric effect, nuclear physics, etc.

Speed of the moving body is much lower than that of light.

Speed of the moving body can be close to that of light.

Size of the body concerned is much larger than that of an atom or a molecule, i.e., on the macroscopic scale.

Size of the body concerned is smaller than that of an atom or a molecule, i.e., on the microscopic scale.

Time and space are independent.

Time and space are interrelated.

Mass can be converted to energy via a chemical reaction, e.g., combustion, but cannot be completely destroyed.

Mass can be completely destroyed via a nuclear reaction, yielding a great amount of energy in accord with Einstein’s formula: E = mc2.

Unifies electric field, magnetic field, and light under the same concept: electromagnetic field.

Unifies various fields from a much wider scope, including gravity and nuclear force fields.


In the next section, the author will focus specifically on Einstein’s works for modern physics.


Einstein was born in Germany in 1879. He completed his graduate study in physics at Zurich Polytechnic in Switzerland, and graduated from this institute in 1900. While working in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, Switzerland, Einstein (1905) published his famous paper on the Theory of Special Relativity in the German scientific journal Annalen der Physik. In this paper, Einstein formulated mathematical relations between the space-time coordinates of a moving system and those of a stationary observer, taking the speed c of light as an absolute constant (see, for example, Elliott 1966), and obtained the so-called ‘contraction factor,’ which is expressed as δ = [1 – (ν/c)2]1/2 where ν is the speed of the moving system relative to the stationary observer and c is the speed of light. This leads to unusual phenomena (Rosser 1991: 20-21; Ney 1962): (1) the length of an object in the moving system is seen by the stationary observer as longitudinally shortened (‘length contraction’) by the factor δ, whereas the time duration of an event in the moving system is seen as lengthened (‘time dilation’) by δ-1, compared with the length and time duration, respectively measured when the system is at rest; (2) from the standpoint of a stationary observer, the mass of a moving body is seen to increase by the factor δ-1 and no material entity can travel faster than light; (3) all mass has inherent energy in accord with the formula E = mc2, which is the celebrated Einstein’s formula.

Moreover, Einstein’s results show that (i) when a body is travelling at a speed comparable to that of light, Newtonian mechanics is completely inadequate or, in other words, it is a special case of the relativistic mechanics applicable when the speed of the moving body is much less than that of light (Rosser 1991: 20-21); (ii) with constancy of electric charge at all speed, all the laws of electromagnetism, which are included in the Maxwell’s equations, can be derived from a single experimental postulate based on Coulomb’s law for electrostatic force (Elliott 1966).

Between 1907 and 1915 Einstein developed his Theory of General Relativity, which shows that the observed gravitational attraction between masses results from the warping of space and time by those masses. This has become an essential tool in modern astrophysics, leading to understanding of black holes (regions of space where gravitational attraction is so strong that not even light can escape). He also estimated the amount of deflection of light by massive bodies. This was later confirmed by a solar eclipse observation (Dyson et al. 1920).


Classical Thai Buddhism is simply defined here as the old version of Theravada Buddhism in the Thai culture since the Thai first accepted it about seven or eight centuries ago, whereas modern Thai Buddhism is what has resulted from Ven. Buddhadāsa’s reinterpretation of the Tipitaka (Pali Canon) since the setting up of his forest monastery Suan Mokkhabalārāma in 1932.

The classical Thai Buddhism can be dated back to earlier than 700 years ago. According to a record of the Thai history, King Ramkhamhaeng the Great of the Sukhothai Period graciously invited a learned Theravada monk from Nakhon Sithammarat in the south to disseminate Buddhism in the capital Sukhothai. As indicated by Jackson (2003: 17-32), by that time Theravada Buddhism was already eighteen hundred years old; the scriptures had been determined and recorded, first in Ceylon; commentaries had been written and patterns of religious practice and organization had long been systematized. This means that the works of the eminent Ceylonese monk Buddhaghosa, such as the Visuddhimagga, in the fifth century of the Christian era were also accepted into the Thai Buddhism. Since the Sukhothai Period, Thai Buddhists have at most just maintained and faithfully preserved the ready-made, turnkey system of Theravada teaching and practice. On the popular level, the Buddhist doctrines in Thailand have been, and still are, mixed with and influenced by many other factors such as animistic and Brahmanical beliefs and, especially in the twentieth century, materialism and consumerism. This has resulted in corruption of the Buddha’s teaching by world-involved laypeople who are unable to grasp the subtleties of transcendent doctrine (Jackson 2003: 47) and in degeneration of the monks’ behaviors. Moreover, modernization of the Thai society has caused a growing questioning among many educated urban Thais about the relevance of Buddhism to the new Thai society (Jackson 2003: 57).

The advent of modern Thai Buddhism in 1932 is a result from Buddhadāsa’s attempt to purify Thai Buddhism by returning to the original teachings and instructions of the Buddha (Jackson 2003: 56). By that time, he was a monk for six years and felt disappointed by behaviors of many other monks, especially those in Bangkok, who were out of line with contemporary society and were heavily criticized by laypeople. His achievement in his work will be described in more detail in the next section.

Table 2 compares some characteristics of classical Thai Buddhism with those of modern Thai Buddhism.

Table 2. Comparison Between Classical Thai Buddhism and Modern Thai Buddhism

Classical Thai Buddhism

Modern Thai Buddhism

Based on old interpretation in the Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa

Based on new interpretation using dhamma language by Ven. Buddhadāsa Indapañño

Mostly concerning everyday physical phenomena, easy to understand, fit for teaching fundamental morality to the public

Mostly concerning psychological and spiritual phenomena, hard to understand, but fit for high-level spiritual practitioners

Focuses on lokiya (mundane, worldly) Dhamma, e.g., dāna (giving), sīla (precepts), bhāvanā (mental development)

Focuses on lokuttara (supra-mundane) Dhamma, e.g., anattatā (non-self), suññatā (voidness of self or chit wang)

Applicable only on a mundane level to those who do not want Nibbāna (deliverance)

Applicable on both the mundane and supra-mundane levels, especially to those who want Nibbāna here and now

The associated phenomenon has a long time scale, e.g., many lifetimes.

The associated phenomenon can have very a short time scale, e.g., time for a blink of the eyes.

Focuses on practice by an individual

Practicable on both individual and public levels

Miracles and super-natural phenomena are supposed possible.

Free from miracles and super-natural phenomena, conforming to scientific reasoning

Interprets the Tipitaka (Buddhist Canon) concretely, using everyday language. For example, birth is formation of physical body,  heaven and hell are places people go to after death.

Interprets the Tipitaka abstractly, using Dhamma language. For example, birth is formation of the self (ego), heaven and hell are psychological states people can experience here and now.

Important issues are, for example, kamma (action), rebirth, present life, next life.

Important issues are, for example, non-self and Nibbāna here and now.

Separates lokiya Dhamma from lokuttara Dhamma, condemns laymen to a life of dukkha (suffering), allowing only monks as candidates for Nibbāna.

Suggests that lokiya Dhamma be coupled with lokuttara Dhamma. Laymen need not suffer all the time but may use dukkha as a tool to get paññā (wisdom) and mitigate the suffering. And if they practice rightly, they can reach a momentary Nibbāna without having to get ordained as monks.

Laymen may be able to destroy selfishness on the morality level, rendering limited service to the public.

Practitioners may be able to annihilate the self on the spirituality level, rendering greater service to the public.

Cannot cooperate with other faiths because of difference in viewpoints

Can cooperate with other faiths when each of them interprets the teachings in their religious texts by using dhamma language



Ven. Buddhadāsa, whose original layman name was Ngueam Phanit, was born on May 27, 1906, at Tambon Phumriang, Amphoe Chaiya, Suratthani Province, Southern Thailand. In 1914 he began his primary education at a local school and in 1917 went on to his secondary education at another school in Chaiya. He completed the grade of Matthayom III but had to leave school to run the family business at Phumriang when his father died in 1922. In accord with Thai custom, he was ordained in 1926 at a monastery in Phumriang, with the intention of leaving monkhood shortly thereafter. However, he was satisfied with the monastic practice and remained a monk for the rest of his life.

In 1928 Buddhadāsa went to Bangkok to continue his studies but then returned to Chaiya after only two months because he was disappointed with the clerical education there and laxities in the monastic practice among his fellow monks. Later on, with his family’s encouragement, he once again went to study in Bangkok in 1930. This time he decided to do a significant part of the work by himself and did well in Pali language examinations that year, receiving the Parian Sam Prayok (Third Level Pali) Diploma. He also studied science, photography, and radio, as well as the traditional lectures on the exegesis of the Tipitaka (Jackson 2003: 11).  During this second time in Bangkok, his ideas about Buddhism and the direction of his life crystallized.

Intending to follow the actual path of the Buddha, Buddhadāsa returned to Phumriang in April, 1932, and set up the Suan Mokkhaphalaram monastery (or Suan Mokkh, for short) there on May 12 that same year. For the following two years he lived alone at Suan Mokkh, studying the Buddha’s words in the Tipitaka. This has resulted in his written books such as Story of the Buddha in His Own Words, Treasure from the Buddha’s Own Words, and Noble Truths from the Buddha’s Own Words, which were later published by the Dhammadāna Foundation, his supporting establishment run by his younger brother Dhammadāsa. Later on other monks and novices joined him there. In 1943, because of limited space at the original site in Phumriang, Suan Mokkh was moved to the present location, Wat Than Nam Lai, about seven kilometers southwest of Chaiya.

Buddhadāsa’s works for modern Thai Buddhism are summarized by Jackson (2003: 3) into two major aspects: (1) his theory of everyday language-dhamma language for scriptural interpretation and (2) his proposed practice of chit wang (voided mind) to attain nibbāna (deliverance, salvation). He defined everyday language (phasa khon) as the worldly language, i.e., one used by people who do not know dhamma, and defined dhamma language (phasa tham) as the one used by people who have gained a deep insight into dhamma or the truth (Buddhadāsa 1974: 1). For the same word or term in the scripture, the former focuses on its literal, conventional, or mundane meaning, whereas the latter focuses on its connotative, symbolic, or spiritual meaning. Example of words with two different meanings in accord with the two languages are given by Buddhadāsa (1971: 56-86) in Table 3.

Table 3  Example of Words with Two Different Interpretations


Everyday Language Meaning

Dhamma Language Meaning


Prince Siddhattha Gautama of ancient India after having reached enlightenment

Dhamma (according to the Buddha’s saying, “Whoever sees Tathāgata [Buddha], sees Dhamma.”)


the Buddha’s teachings, palm leaves or books that record the Buddha’s teachings

(1) nature; (2) laws of nature; (3) duty for human to perform in accordance with nature; (4) results from such duty


society of Buddhist monks with shaven heads and saffron robes

Buddhist saints comprising the sotāpanna, sakadāgāmī, anāgāmī, and arahant


space and every thing on the Earth

condition of the mind that is still concerned with worldly matters, dukkha (suffering)


a member of the naked ape family

virtue of a highly spiritual person, the five precepts


being born from a mother’s womb

arising of the ego, self, or the “I-Mine” (tua ku-khong ku) concept


the male parent of a child

avijjā, ignorance of the truth, that leads to arising of the “I-Mine” concept


the female parent of a child

tanhā, desire or craving that leads to arising of the “I-Mine” concept


the creator of the world and every thing in it

nature, laws of nature, Dhamma


condition that a spatial location contains nothing, a vacuum

condition that a spatial location contains  many things, but the mind does not grasp at or cling to them


With the dhamma language as a tool for interpretation of the Buddha’s words, Buddhadāsa has revealed the hidden truth of the Buddha’s teachings and at the same time demonstrated the contemporary relevance of those teaching to the educated Thais with a modernist and progressive outlook (Jackson 2003: 74). In essence, he has added a spiritual, supramundane perspective to the conventionally mundane one in the classical Thai Buddhism. With this new perspective, a person can easily perceive that, when he is enjoying something, especially through one of his five sense-organs, he is experiencing heaven. Similarly, if he is suffering a severe pain or discomfort and his mind is being distressed, he is experiencing hell. These experiences can be perceived here and now in this life, without waiting for the next life.

As for nibbāna, Buddhadāsa explained that it is not a crystal city of wealth and happiness accessible only by accumulating enough merits through many lifetimes as formerly believed by some people in the classical Thai Buddhism, and not a transcendent condition attainable only after years or lifetimes spent purging the mind of impurities as believed by some other people, but it is a peaceful state of the mind that is voided of or freed from defilements. According to the Buddhist scripture, there are three levels of nibbāna, namely, momentary nibbāna (tadaṅga-nibbāna), temporary nibbāna (vikkhambhananibbāna), and permanent nibbāna (samuccheda-nibbāna). They respectively denote mental calm because of a peaceful environment, that because of mental control during highly intense meditation, and that because of the actual, complete ending of mind-disturbing defilements. Whereas the traditionalists in the classical Thai Buddhism regard that only the third level is true nibbāna and is attainable by the arahants (supreme Buddhist saints) only, Buddhadāsa considers all of them as having the same essential quality, the difference being that the two lower ones are impermanent and less profound than the third but are attainable by laypersons and monks alike (Jackson 2003: 138). With this broader interpretation of nibbāna, Buddhadāsa introduces the practical concept of chit wang as a simplified shortcut to nibbāna.

The Thai term chit wang, which was coined by Buddhadāsa, literally means ‘voided mind’ or ‘freed mind.’ The Pali term that Buddhadāsa derived it from is suññatā, which literally means voidness or emptiness, but he interpreted it in his dhamma-language sense to mean being voided of or freed from the possessive and deluded “I-Mine” concept. In other words, Buddhadāsa defined chit wang as the state of mind in which all objects are present as usual but the mind neither grasps at nor clings to them with the idea of “I” or “Mine.” With the practice of chit wang, the practitioner will be able to mitigate his or her self-centeredness or selfishness along the way to a level of nibbāna.

Traditionally in the classical Thai Buddhism, nibbāna can only be attained through an elaborate and difficult meditative system requiring a life devoted solely to meditative practice, and this seemingly monopolizes the attainment of nibbāna to monks only. On the other hand, Buddhadāsa proposes the practice of chit wang as a more simplified alternative that anyone can do conveniently with mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasati), in which sufficient concentration (samādhi) is developed to permit liberative insight into reality. He also points out that, once chit wang and the attitude of non-self-centeredness is developed, the rest of Buddhism’s spiritual practices are developed automatically. Moreover, chit wang can be practiced while the practitioner is doing a worldly, everyday activity such as acting, speaking, walking, and eating (Jackson 2003: 161-162). With chit wang, all human activities, including mundane material work, can be suffering-free. The work will be successful, and working will be pleasurable rather than just a neutral or boring experience. For Buddhadāsa, working along with chit wang is the same as practicing dhamma on the way to nibbāna (Jackson 2003: 172-173). In this sense, he seems to abolish the monk-lay distinction in regard to ultimate spiritual attainment.


There are similarities in the lives and works of the physicist Einstein and the Buddhist monk Buddhadāsa. These are itemized as follows:

a) Both lived in the twentieth century of the Christian era and reached their respective highest point in their professions at the prime age of twenty-six (Einstein in 1905, when he published his Theory of Special Relativity; Buddhadāsa in 1932, when he set up Suan Mokkh and began following the Buddha’s path).

b) Einstein extended classical physics with his contribution to modern physics, revealing the unified nature of classical mechanics, classical electromagnetics, and high-energy physics. Buddhadāsa extended and modernized classical Thai Buddhism with his dhamma-language interpretation. He indicated that, from the dhamma-language viewpoint, ultimately all religions have the same essence, similar to the fact that all kinds of water – rain water, canal water, sea water, wastewater, etc. – condense into pure water (Buddhadāsa 1971: 88-89), thus implicating their unified nature.

c) Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity simplifies the calculation of electric and magnetic fields of a charge moving at a constant speed by obtaining both fields simultaneously from Coulomb’s law and relativity transformation of the coordinate system containing the moving charge, whereas in classical electromagnetics the electric and magnetic fields are obtained separately by using two different formulas (e.g., Rosser 1991: 197-204). Buddhadāsa’s concept of chit wang simplifies dhamma practice by allowing the lay practitioner to incorporate spiritual training with his or her everyday worldly work, whereas in classical Thai Buddhism spiritual training requires the practitioner to leave the work site and go to a monastery or a meditation center.

d) Einstein’s formula shows that, if mass is completely destroyed, e.g. in a nuclear reaction, then a great amount of physical energy will be generated which can either benefit or harm mankind. Buddhadāsa’s concept of chit wang indicates that, if one’s self-centeredness or selfishness is destroyed, as in the cases of the Buddha and all the Buddhist saints, then a great amount of spiritual energy will be generated which will only benefit mankind.

Both Einstein and Buddhadāsa received world acclaim. The physicist was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1922, and the Thai Buddhist monk was inducted into the UNESCO’s list of great international personalities in 2006. Since the physics circle has named Einstein the Physicist of the Twentieth Century, so considering the parallel doings of him and Buddhadāsa, the author of this paper would suggest that the Theravada Buddhist circle similarly name Buddhadāsa the Theravada Buddhist Monk of the Twentieth Century.


This paper presents parallel doings of the physicist Albert Einstein and the Theravada Buddhist monk Buddhadāsa. Einstein’s Theories of Relativity have extended classical physics to a modern one; Buddhadāsa’s dhamma-language theory and proposed spiritual practice have modernized classical Thai Buddhism. The physicist is identified with his mass-energy equivalence formula E = mc2; the Thai Buddhist monk is identified with his proposed practice of chit wang.


Baggott, J. (2011). The Quantum Story. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Buddhadāsa (1971). Toward the Truth. Edit. D. K. Swearer. Philadelphia, USA: Westminster Press.

Buddhadāsa (1974). Two Kinds of Language. Trans. Ariyananda Bhikkhu. Bangkok, Thailand: n.p.

Dyson, F. W.; Eddington, A. S.; Davidson, C. R. (1920). "A Determination of the Deflection of Light by the Sun's Gravitational Field, from Observations Made at the Solar Eclipse of May 29, 1919". Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. A. 220 (571-581): 291–333.

Einstein, A. (1905). Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper (On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies). Annalen der Physik, vol. 17, pp. 891-921.

Elliott, R. S. (March 1966). Relativity and Electricity. IEEE Spectrum. pp. 141-142, 147-152.

Jackson, P. A. (2003). Buddhadāsa: Theravāda Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books.

McFarlane, T. J., ed., (2002). Einstein and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings. Berkeley, California, USA: Ulysses Press.

Ney, E. P. (1962). Electromagnetism and Relativity. New York, USA: Harper & Row.

Rosser, W. G. V. (1991). Introductory Special Relativity. London, England: Taylor & Francis.

Aj mongkol