pp. 199-202 in Intractable Neurological Disorders, Human Genome Research and Society. Proceedings of the Third International Bioethics Seminar in Fukui, 19-21 November, 1993.

Editors: Norio Fujiki, M.D. & Darryl R.J. Macer, Ph.D.

Copyright 1994, Eubios Ethics Institute All commercial rights reserved. This publication may be reproduced for limited educational or academic use, however please enquire with Eubios Ethics Institute.

A survey of Thai Buddhist attitudes towards science and genetics

Pinit Ratanakul
Director, Center of Human Resource Development, Mahidol University, THAILAND

1. Introduction

Theravada Buddhism, also known as Hinayana Buddhism, has been considered the core of Thai culture for centuries. Since the establishment of the first Thai Kingdom in the 13th century, this religion, with its emphasis on the spirit of tolerance and the virtues of charity (dhana), morality (sila) and meditation (bhavana), has been moulding Thai society to be tolerant, courteous and ethically conscious.

The questionnaire was distributed to 200 non-science students in three universities in Bangkok metropolitan areas. These students form a part of Thai educated public who are outside scientific profession but have an interest in science and are exposed to scientific ideas through popular books, magazines, newspapers and other medias including television and radio. The main purpose of the survey was to find out their thoughts on the relationship between science and Buddhism to which more than 98% of the Thai population adhere, the degree of their exposure to scientific ideas and their views on recent scientific progress particularly in the field of genetics and its application. It was hoped that by being outsiders the students would be able to look at science and its discoveries objectively and critically. Though the primary concern of the survey was the attitude of these students towards scientific progress their view on the relationship between science and Buddhism was included at the beginning of the questionnaire because of its possible effects on this attitude.

2. Background of the Respondents

Only 160 students or 80% sent their answers back to us. They were either in the second year or the fourth year in their undergraduate studies in social sciences with ages ranging from 19 to 23 years. All of them were knowledgeable Buddhists and believed in the law of karma (cause and effect, or action and reaction) which emphasizes the importance of our deeds and their effects on our present and future lives- we reap what we have already sown.

These students came from middle class Buddhist families in the urban and non-urban areas and none of their parents were engaged in scientific profession- teaching, research and laboratory work. They learnt about science from general science courses in high schools and were further exposed to scientific ideas in popular books (27%), magazines (20%), newspapers (15%), television programs (23%) and other medias (15%). Through these means they heard about scientific discoveries and technologies such as superconductors, silicon chips, genetic engineering, and in- vitro fertilization. But only 30% knew the importance these discoveries and/or technologies had in the areas of communication, agriculture and public health.

3. Discussion

When asked about the conflict between science and religion with regard to the use of reason and proof and the concept of the evolution of life, 60% of the respondents agreed that there was no such conflict. The other 40% agreed only that the scientific idea of the evolution of life was in line with the Buddhist view of life as a self-sustaining process without Creator, but had some reservations on the use of reason and proof. They seemed to believe that in Buddhism, as in other religions, faith was prior to reason. This was due to their misunderstanding of the place of reason in Buddhism which led them to confuse the Buddhist idea of "religious belief" (sadha) with the concept of "faith" in theistic religions. The Buddhist (religious) "belief" is the outcome of the rational process and thus is not mere belief or blind faith that precedes reason. Buddhism agrees with science in the use of reason and experience as necessary methods of enquiry. However, in so far as wisdom or the higher goal of life is concerned, Buddhism wants us to go further from scientific rationality and proofs to develop a higher faculty of knowing which transcends rationality.

The number of those respondents who saw the conflict between science and Buddhism was increased with regard to the concept of disease. 54% believed that the scientific view of disease in terms of physical cause (e.g. bacteria, virus) was not in congruence with the Buddhist teaching of karma, whereas 35% did not know whether such conflict existed. This is understandable because the Buddhist theory of karma itself is very complex and difficult to understand. Buddhism does not oppose to the scientific view of disease but describes karma, the correlated effect of bad deed in the past, as its root-cause. Nor does Buddhism deny the genetic process in human beings, but points out to karma as the underlying cause. This karmic cause is used by Buddhism to the "why" of the genetic process and to explain the difference between people either in intellect or in character.

All the respondents agreed that genetic diseases were caused by karmic force i.e. bad past deeds, but differed in their attitude towards testing and therapy. While 60% believed that though it was theoretically impossible to treat these diseases in practice these genetic diseases should be regarded as curable as long as there is life, because the karmic force which caused them depended for their manifestation on present psycho-physical conditions (20.4%) and the operation of this force was a mystery (40%) - no one knows when the force will exhaust itself, 40% considered such testing and therapy useless because ultimately it could not interfere with the working of karma. Though the respondents in the first group had no objection to genetic testing and somatic cell therapy, they would oppose to germline cell therapy to change human nature. They would consider such intervention to change personality characteristics prior to birth as interfering with the working of karma and as a trespass on self-identity, human autonomy to choose one's own destiny, human responsibility for one's own actions (karma).

The negative feeling of the respondents in the second group reflects the general attitude of Thai Buddhists who, strongly believe in karma, accept the shortcomings as a part of human existence in the endless life cycle of birth and death (samsara). In their thought all human life is important and even the damaged life has sanctity and integrity as normal life. Handicapped fellow-men and women need sympathy and practical care from all of us though they are inflicted with incurable diseases and suffering from the consequence of their own misdeeds in their previous lives. To make mistakes is one of the frailties of human nature. The Buddhist way of dealing with these diseases is to make merits of various types e.g. offering foods to monks, observing the basic five precepts (i.e. refraining from killing, theft, illicit sexual relationship, lying and intoxicant), learning about the Buddhist truths of existence (i.e. impermanence, unsubstantiality and suffering), and practicing meditation. All these activities are believed to have a calming effect on those inflicted with genetic diseases and consequently rid them of anxiety, for they realize that these diseases are the result of their own misdeeds in the past and that by the performance of good and meritorious deeds they can convert a bad destiny into a good destiny. This Buddhist belief is one of the important factors contributing to the lack of interest in genetic counseling and therapy among Thai general public.

Apart from this religious factor it is the lack of knowledge about the advancement of genetic research and its benefit in relieving suffering of those inflicted with genetic diseases that makes these Buddhists adopt such a negative attitude. None of them is aware of possible effective treatments for some of genetically determined conditions such as phenylketonuria and galactosemia, enzyme defects in infants as well as palliative treatments for some of genetic diseases. Besides they do not see the benefit we can get from prenatal diagnosis and genetic counseling which give us all useful information that will enable us to cope with pregnancy that is at risk and later with handicapped babies.

This negative attitude, however, does not mean that the Thai public has a similar attitude towards science. As seen in the survey, all the respondents realized the importance of science, which is always associated with technology, and acknowledged its contributions to Thai society e.g. making life more comfortable (70.4%), raising the quality of life in rural areas (28.6%) where 80% of the Thai population is. Together with this awareness they wanted the government to support scientific researches as a means to make Thai scientists competent in their fields for this would enable them to make greater contributions to the nation. However, 60% of them did not want these scientists to compete with their colleagues in other countries, but to steer their activities to the solutions of national problems concerning agriculture (30%) including flood prevention and water shortage, environmental degradation (20.1%) and public health (24.5%). The expected role of scientists in Thailand is therefore does not give absolute freedom to scientists. Rather the public expect them to be more concerned with national problems and to use their expertises to solve these problems for the benefit of Thai people, and not to do research primarily to advance scientific knowledge for the sake of the larger humanity. Agriculture is given priority to other areas because Thailand is still an agricultural country and its economy depends largely on its agricultural products. Drought and occasional floods have damaging effects on the economy. The students wanted the scientists to create new variations of rice and other crops that do not need much water and are resistant to diseases. In the field of public health since the introduction of modern medicine into the country in the 19th century there has been a dichotomy between modern medicine and traditional medicine the students wanted the scientists to make the latter more effective through testing and research. They also wanted them to tackle the environmental problem which is primarily caused by the uncritical use of modern technology. Since this environmental deterioration is both technological and value-laden problem the respondents wanted the scientists to direct their researches to solve the technological aspect of the problem e.g. by introducing new technology with minimal environmental impact (20%).

To the question whether in their estimation Thai scientists have met their expectation 65% of the respondents did not know about the major achievements of these scientists. This is due to the lack of communication between scientists and lay people which makes scientific researches seen as "scientific secrets". Only 20% believed that the scientists were doing basic researches for their teaching at colleges and universities. This communication gap between scientists and lay people is an important issue in present day Thailand. People do not know what the scientists are doing in their research-laboratories. Similarly scientists do not know the people's attitude toward their work. There is an urgent need then for scientists to communicate the result of their work to the people outside scientific profession and to conduct research on the social acceptance of their work.

For the students such means of bridging the above communication gap was still not enough. They wanted the scientists to tell the public about their researches that would effect public welfare. This demand was made because 12% were aware of possible unethical researches in the life sciences and wanted the government to regulate scientific researches particularly those involving the human subjects. This small percent of the respondents who saw the need of such government control is very important because it represents the growing concern of the Thai educated public over the increase of human experimentation in Thailand. An increased number of Western scientists who have been restricted in the kind of human experimentation they may do in their countries are turning to Thailand and other developing countries to conduct their researches particularly drug testing and genetic experiments because of the lack of public awareness and less governmental regulations. The students wanted the government to enact stringy laws to control these experiments to prevent the exploitation of the poor by researchers. This concern is justifiable because in Thailand and many Southeast Asian countries abuse of poor patients and the violation of their human rights are common phenomenon.

Another related issue is the problem of animal experimentation which many scientists in medical profession have been increasingly involved with. Though only 11% of the respondents showed their concern for this problem many Buddhists in the country are not happy with it. For in Buddhist perspective many of our diseases are self-producing ailments caused by our own unhealthy living, thinking and doing, and , though animal experimentation contributes to our understanding and treatment of disease, animal experimentation is morally unjustifiable and is not the right way of dealing with disease. Many of our diseases would vanish if we led healthier and simpler lives. In Buddhist thought man will never succeed in conquering disease by torturing animals. The bad karma that is generated by this method of investigating and treating disease is itself one of the causes of man's increasing proneness to disease, and so a vicious circle is set up.

4. Conclusion

The respondents represent the educated Thai Buddhists who are outside scientific profession and thus are able to look at science objectively and critically. Living in a developing nation with so many problems these respondents wanted Thai scientists to use their expertises to solve problems found in various areas such as agriculture, communication, environment and public health. They realized the value and importance of scientific researches but were also concerned with the abuse of these researches or experiments particularly those involving human subjects such as human germline research and drug testing and wanted these researches to be regulated to prevent the violation of human rights and their harmful effects on the public welfare. They also wanted scientists to communicate their work to the public and believed that the public had the right to know about researches that were relevant to their welfare and about what the scientists were doing in their laboratories. Adhering to the teachings of Buddhism some of the respondents, though recognizing its contributions to the advancement of science, did not favour animal experimentation. Nor did they agree that genetic testing and therapy is the right way of dealing with incurable (or karmic caused) diseases. They wanted the government to spend much more resources to accommodate the handicapped in Thai society rather than on genetic research.

Their suggestion of the need to regulate scientific research is worthy of serious consideration. In our times in vitro fertilization, genetic engineering, cloning, the intervention of new life forms all are present realities or projected technologies. If we are able to tamper biologically with the very character of human life and processes, then it would appear that a guideline is needed to help us in knowing how and what we may continue to tamper with. What are the boundaries of intervention? Is intervening to change personality characteristics, even prior to birth modifying emotional, psychological capabilities, acceptable to us? Is there a limit of our rational control over the natural genetic lottery? Without regulations guiding these genetic researches we may go beyond our boundaries and cause damage to ourselves and the larger humanity to which we belong.


1. Genetics Research Group of the Hastings Center (T.M. Powledge & J. Fletcher), Recommendations concernant les problemes moraus, sociaus et juridiques relatifs au diagnostic prenatal, in Le diagnostic prenatal coll. Cahiers de Bioethique, Vol. 2, (Quebec 1980).
2. Walters, L. (1986) The ethics of human gene therapy. Nature 320: 225.
3. Anderson, W.F. & Fletcher, J.C. (1980) Gene Therapy in Human Beings: When is it ethical to begin?. The New England Journal of Medicine 303: 1293-1296.

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