Cao Xingcheng Shares Insight on Buddhism and Science

In our previous interview with prominent collector Cao Xingcheng, the master of Le Cong Tang, he unveiled his collection of buddhist arts and talked about the “Five Poisons” in Buddhism. This time, he tells us where do the “Five Poisons” come from. He studied science but he believes in Buddhism. Does he find the two contradictory to each other?

Q: Where does “ignorance” come from?

C: “Ignorance” comes from our DNA and culture. Humans are “machines” created by DNA and our main purpose is to stay alive. There are over 100 trillion cells in the human body and each cell contains chromosomes and DNA. For human reproduction, we are born with the desire for food and sex. There is an old saying that “the desire for food and sex is part of the human nature.”

Q: What’s the relation between culture and ignorance?

C: Do you remember the first word that we learnt at school? I, You, He/She. Such clear distinction instills the concept of binary opposition to us. Gain vs loss, good vs bad and right vs wrong are examples of binary opposition. Our education defines success and failure in way that if you get full marks in examinations, you are a winner; if you fail, you are a loser. Binary opposition has then become an entrenched concept to us and we all start to aim only for the best. Everybody wants to get full marks because you will be penalized if you fail.

Q: What about “greed, hated, pride and doubt’?

C: The desire for the best is “greed”. The hatred and angry for bad things. That’s “hatred”. When our “greed” is fully satisfied, we get “pride”. We get “doubt” or uncertainty when we are in the middle of getting our greed satisfied.

Q: How does Buddhism help us stay away from these 'Five Poisons'?

C: The first thing that requires in Buddhism is a fully dedicated “Buddhist heart” and to put aside concepts like success and failure, right and wrong, gain and loss. Buddhism brings back our human’s original enlightenment, which goes beyond the concept of binary opposition. It does not surrender to powerful people or despise those powerless. Human’s original enlightenment crosses barriers of binary opposition and sets you free. It brings peace, comfort and compassion. It shows you the beauty of the world.

Affliction comes from the “Five Poisons”.  We have all experienced “ignorance, greed, hated, pride and doubt” in our lives. However, it is hard to understand the connection between Buddhism and science. Mr.Cao studied science, which emphasizes rationality and objectivity. On the other hand, he loves art, which emphasizes feelings, aesthetic values and subjectivity. Does he find them contradictory to each other?

Q: How is religion related to science and art?

C: The existence of humans or the whole society is to search for lives that distinguish us from wild animals. There are certain things that humans are looking for. We look for the truth. That’s why we need science. Science seeks the truth. To set us apart from animals, we have aesthetics. Art seeks aesthetics. We also have benevolence. Religion seeks benevolence. Human civilisation is built in a structure like this: Science seeks the truth; Religion seeks benevolence; Art seeks aesthetics.

Q: Do science and religion stand in binary opposition?

C: Of course, science and religion are different. Afterall, religion is fundamentally a philosophy containing theories and ways for practice. By following the practice, it leads you to peace and joy. Science shows us the “true nature of reality” of the universe. As science makes more discoveries, we notice some mistakes in religions. The Bible used to describe the earth as the centre of the universe and the universe rotates around the earth. But scientists said, “Sorry, it’s not like that.” That’s awkward.

Q: Do we see such contradiction in Buddhism as well?

C: Not in Buddhism. Buddhism allows revisions by its successors. It is not as strict as Quran and the Bible that stress "those words by God''. While in Buddhism, “You can’t take my words as doctrine,” Gautama Buddha said. “The Dharma is fundamentally the Dharma as non-Dharma.” If you take the Dharma as doctrine, then it is not the Dharma.

Q: Then what’s the relation between Buddhism and science?

C: Buddhism emphasizes “listening, thinking and practice”. After listening to Dharma, you need to think. Then you practice it if you find the Dharma makes sense to you. If you find it doesn’t make any sense, you can make revisions. That’s revisionism. Science is also revisionism. Science allows rooms for refutations and encourages you to challenge it.

Meditation camp in Dharma Drum Mountain

C (continue): That’s a point that Buddhism and science both share in common. We seek the truth and accept the better version. So Buddhism keeps evolving and improving, unlike other religions that are limited to their existing doctrine.

It has never occurred to us that Buddhism can be scientific as we have always put it in a binary opposition against science. Mr. Cao also mentioned “the true nature of reality”. Does art also have “the true nature of reality”?

Q: What do you mean by “the true nature of reality”?

C: “The true nature of reality” is about two things, energy and order. Everything that we see, including the camera in front of me, books or skin, they are all molecules and atoms under a microscope. We can also find nucleons, protons, neutrons, leptons, fermions and bosons. They are all forms of “energy”.

Q: How is it related to art?

C: Artists are actually like scientists, always searching for the energy that influences us, though we can’t see it. It is the same for religion. In Buddhism, we believe “what goes around comes around”. Karma is also a form of “energy”, something that we believe without seeing it. In science, scientists say humans need air for survival, though we can’t see it.

C (continue): Art is looking for an order like this. The reason why an artwork resonates with us is that it’s full of energy that moves us.

Don’t miss out the last part of our interview with Mr. Cao and he is going to share his thought on aesthetics and how he struggles between his passion and reason when it comes to collecting.