Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Universe in a Single Atom by Bstan-dzin-rgya-mtsho, Dalai Lama XIV




(Mildly Recommended)




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During a time when the conflicts between religion and science seem to be growing, it’s refreshing to read a sane voice calling for increased collaboration between science and religion. The Dalai Lama’s new book, The Universe in a Single Atom, explores the similarities between science and religion, and proposes ways in which each can benefit the other. Here’s an excerpt, from Chapter 3, “Emptiness, Relativity, and Quantum Physics,” pp. 46-53:



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 selfhood, we will find that we tend to believe iii the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterizes our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical arid 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 arid 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 gasoline and oil are burned. In a universe of self-contained, inherently existing things, these events would never oc­cur. I would not be able to write on paper, arid you would not be able to read the words on this page. So since we interact and change each other, we must assume that we are riot independent— although we may feel or intuit that we are.

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. This fundamental truth of “the way things really are” is de­scribed in the Buddhist writings as “emptiness,” or sliunyata in Sanskrit.

In our naïve or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess an enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another. We believe that intrinsically real seeds produce intrinsically real crops at an intrinsically real time in an intrinsically real place. Each member in this causal nexus—the seed, time, place, amid effect---- we take to have solid ontological sta­tus. This view of the world as made of solid objects and inherent properties is reinforced further by our language of subjects and predicates, which is structured with substantive nouns and adjec­tives on the one hand and active verbs on the other. But everything is constituted by parts —a person is body and mind both. Further­more, the very identity of things is contingent upon many factors, such as the names we give them, their functions, and the concepts we have about them.

Although grounded in the interpretation of ancient scriptures which are attributed to the historical Buddha, this theory of emp­tiness was first systematically expounded by the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (c. second century C.E.). Little is known of his personal life, but he came from Southern India and he was— after the 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. His most influential work in philosophy is Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way; which continues to be memorized, studied, and de­bated in the Tibetan monastic universities.

I spent much time in detailed study of the issues raised in this text, debating it with my teachers and colleagues. In the 1960s, dur­ing the first decade of my life as an exile in India, I was able to delve deeply and very personally into the philosophy of emptiness. Unlike today, my life then was reasonably relaxed, with relatively few formal engagements. I had not yet begun traveling the world, a process that now takes up a substantial part of my time. During this precious decade I had the fortune to spend many hours with my tutors, both of whom were experts in the philosophy and med­itative practices of emptiness.

I also had teachings from a humble but gifted Tibetan scholar by the name of Nyima Gyaltseni. Affectionately known as Gen Ny­ima, he was one of those rare individuals with a gift for articulating profound philosophical insights in terms that are most accessible. He was slightly bald and wore large, round, tinted spectacles. He had an involuntary twitch in his right eye, which led to frequent blinking. But his powers of concentration, especially when follow­ing a complex train of thought and delving ever deeper into a point, were astounding— indeed, legendary. He could become to­tally oblivious to what was happening around him when lie was in one of these states. The fact that the philosophy of emptiness was a particular specialty of Gen Nyima made my hours of exchange with him all the more rewarding.



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 earn 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 percent 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 amid 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 com­monsense 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 sentient beings. By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while toward 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 bias 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 amid disconnected. Frotn this miscon­ception springs the belief that each of these divisions is essentially independent amid self-existent. Bohm’s response, grounded in his work in quantum physics, echoes the ethical concern about har­boring such beliefs that had worried Nagarjuna, who wrote nearly two thousand years before. Granted, strictly speaking, science does not deal with questions of ethics and value judgments, but the fact remains that science, being a human endeavor, 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, amid humanity.

As I understand it, modern science faced a crisis in the begin­ning of the twentieth century. The great edifice of classical physics developed by Isaac Newton, James Maxwell, arid so many others, which provided such seemingly effective explanations for the per­ceived realities of the world and fitted so well with common sense, was undermined by the discovery of relativity and the strange behavior of matter at the subatomic level, which is explored in quan­tum mechanics. As Carl von Weizsäcker once explained it to me, classical physics accepted a mechanistic worldview in which cer­tain universal physical laws, including gravity amid tine laws of mechanics, effectively determined the pattern of natural actions. In this model, there were four objective realities bodies, forces, space, and time and there was always a clear differentiation be­tween the object as known and the subject who knows. But relativ­ity and quantum mechanics, as von Weizsäcker put it, suggest that we must abolish as a matter of principle the separability of subject and object, and with this all our certainties about thus objectifi­ability of our empirical data. Yet—amid this is something von Weizsäcker insisted upon—the only terms we have for describing quantum mechanics amid the experiments which verify its new pic­ture of reality are those of classical physics, which quantum theory has disproved. Despite these problems, von Weizsäcker argued that we constantly need to search for the coherence in nature and for an understanding of reality, science, and the place of humanity that is more correct according to the latest scientific knowledge.

In the light of such scientific discoveries, I feel that Buddhism too must be willing to adapt the rudimentary physics of’ its early atomic theories, despite their long-established authority within the tradition. For example, the early Buddhist theory of atoms, which has not undergone any major revision, proposes that matter is con­stituted by a collection of eight so-called atomic substances: earth, water, fire, amid air, which are the four elements, and form, smell, taste, and tactility, which are the four so-called derivative sub­stances. The earth element sustains, water coheres, fire enhances, and air enables movement. An “atom” is seen as a composite of these eight substances, and on the basis of the aggregation of such composite “atoms,” the existence of the objects in the macroscopic world is explained. According to one of the earliest Buddhist schools, Vaibhashika, these individual atomic substances are the smallest constituents of matter, indivisible and therefore without parts. When such “atoms” aggregate to form objects, Vaibhashika theorists assert that the individual atoms do not touch each other. Support from the air element amid other forces in nature help the constitutive elements cohere into a system rather than collapsing inward or expanding indefinitely.

Needless to say, such theories must have developed through critical engagement with other Indian philosophical schools, espe­cially the logical systems of Nyaya and Vaisheshika. If one examines Indian philosophical writings from antiquity, one senses a highly stimulating culture of debate, dialogue, amid conversation between the adherents of different schools and systems. These classical In­dian schools such as Buddhism, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, Samkhya, and Aidvaidavedamuta share basic interests and meth­ods of analysis. This kind of intense debate between schools of thought has been a primary factor in the development of knowl­edge and the refinement of philosophical ideas, from the earliest period of Indian Buddhism to medieval and modern Tibet.


The Dalai Lama’s interest in science has been lifelong, and The Universe in a Single Atom reflects his personal assimilation of Buddhist and scientific thinking and practice. Readers frustrated by divisive rhetoric about science and religion will find relief here.


Steve Hopkins, December 22, 2005



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