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RE: The Om of Physics

Jan 19, 2006 02:48 AM
by W.Dallas TenBroeck













The Dalai Lama


[Ed. -- The Dalai Lama is the head of state and spiritual leader of the

Tibetan people. This essay is taken from his new book, THE UNIVERSE IN

A SINGLE ATOM, published by Little, Brown. $ 24.95. Copyright 2006.]



ONE of the most important philosophical insights in Buddhism comes

from what is known as the theory of emptiness. At its heart is the

deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way

we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way

things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate

to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess

self-enclosed, definable, discrete and enduring reality. For instance,

if we examine our own conception of selfh ood, we will find that we

tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being,

which characterises our individuality and identity as a discrete ego,

independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our

existence. The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a

fundamental error but also the basis for attachment, clinging and the

development of our numerous prejudices.


According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective

reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence

is untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental or even

abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent

existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would

imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and

are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing

has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other

phenomena. But we know that there is cause and effect - turn a key in

a starter, spark plugs ignite, the engine turns over and petrol and

oil are burned. In a universe of self-contained, inherently existing

things, these events would never occur.


Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is

incompatible with causation. This is because causation implies

contingency and dependence, while anything that possesses independent

existence would be immutable and self-enclosed. Everything is composed

of dependently related events, of continuously interacting phenomena

with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in constantly

changing dynamic relations. Things and events are "empty" in that they

do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute

"being" that affords independence.


The theory of emptiness was first systematically expounded by the

great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (circa 2nd century AD). Little is

known of his personal life, but he came from southern India and he was

- after Buddha himself - the single most important figure for the

formulation of Buddhism in India. Historians credit him with the

emergence of the Middle Way school of Mahayana Buddhism, which remains

the predominant school among Tibetans to this day.


ONE of the most extraordinary and exciting things about modern physics

is the way the microscopic world of quantum mechanics challenges our

common-sense understanding. The facts that light can be seen as either

a particle or a wave, and that the uncertainty principle tells us we

can never know at the same time what an electron does and where it is,

and the quantum notion of superposition all suggest an entirely

different way of understanding the world from that of classical

physics, in which objects behave in a deterministic and predictable

manner. For instance, in the well-known example of Schrödinger's cat,

in which a cat is placed inside a box containing a radioactive source

that has a 50 per cent chance of releasing a deadly toxin, we are

forced to accept that, until the lid is opened, this cat is both dead

and alive, seemingly defying the law of contradiction.


To a Mahayana Buddhist exposed to Nagarjuna's thought, there is an

unmistakable resonance between the notion of emptiness and the new

physics. If on the quantum level, matter is revealed to be less solid

and definable than it appears, then it seems to me that science is

coming closer to the Buddhist contemplative insights of emptiness and

interdependence. At a conference in New Delhi, I once heard Raja

Ramanan, the physicist known to his colleagues as the Indian Sakharov,

drawing parallels between Nagarjuna's philosophy of emptiness and

quantum mechanics.


After having talked to numerous scientist friends over the years, I

have the conviction that the great discoveries in physics going back

as far as Copernicus give rise to the insight that reality is not as

it appears to us. When one puts the world under a serious lens of

investigation - be it the scientific method and experiment or the

Buddhist logic of emptiness or the contemplative method of meditative

analysis - one finds things are more subtle than, and in some cases

even contradict, the assumptions of our ordinary common-sense view of

the world.


One may ask, apart from misrepresenting reality, what is wrong with

believing in the independent, intrinsic existence of things? For

Nagarjuna, this belief has serious negative consequences. Nagarjuna

argues that it is the belief in intrinsic existence that sustains the

basis for a self-perpetuating dysfunction in our engagement with the

world and with our fellow human beings. By according intrinsic

properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events

with deluded attachment, while towards others, to which we accord

intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded



In other words, Nagarjuna argues that grasping at the independent

existence of things leads to affliction, which in turn gives rise to a

chain of destructive actions, reactions and suffering. In the final

analysis, for Nagarjuna, the theory of emptiness is not a question of

the mere conceptual understanding of reality. It has profound

psychological and ethical implications.


I once asked my physicist friend David Bohm this question: from the

perspective of modern science, apart from the question of

misrepresentation, what is wrong with the belief in the independent

existence of things? His response was telling. He said that if we

examine the various ideologies that tend to divide humanity, such as

racism, extreme nationalism and the Marxist class struggle, one of the

key factors of their origin is the tendency to perceive things as

inherently divided and disconnected. From this misconception springs

the belief that each of these divisions is essentially independent and

self-existent. Bohm's response, grounded in his work in quantum

physics, echoes the ethical concern about harbouring such beliefs that

had worried Nagarjuna, who wrote nearly 2000 years before.


Granted, strictly speaking, science does not deal with questions of

ethics and value judgements, but the fact remains that science, being

a human endeavour, is still connected to the basic question of the

well-being of humanity. So in a sense, there is nothing surprising

about Bohm's response. I wish there were more scientists with his

understanding of the interconnectedness of science, its conceptual

frameworks and humanity.




I found this valuable to consider.



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