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The Om of physics - Dalai Lama

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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 next week by Little, Brown in the UK (£12.99) and Morgan Road Books in the US ($24.95). Copyright 2006 Dalai Lama

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 aversion.

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.


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