Where Buddhism and science converge - plus a few Mindful Safari pics
Good reads: Einstein and Buddha, The Parallel Sayings
The Dalai Lama's Cat & Other Intrigues by David Michie is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
“Every man’s world picture is and always remains a construct of his mind and cannot be proved to have any other existence.”
“The objective world rises from the mind itself.”
Of all the Buddha’s teachings, his explanation of shunyata, or the way that things exist, is arguably what most sets him apart from other great spiritual teachers.
According to Buddha, everything that exists depends on parts, causes and mind’s participation. Everything – and everyone - therefore depends on factors other than itself to exist. It can be called a “dependent arising”, and as such, has no inherent existence.
If you have been attending Dharma classes for a while, you will be nodding along to this. If not, you may be thinking ‘huh?’ In fact, even if you have been attending Dharma classes for a while you may still be thinking ‘huh?!’
Shunyata is a nuanced subject with the most profound implications for how we relate to ourselves and the world around us. It is sometimes described as a slippery fish, because we may feel that we have grasped it – at last! – only to find, a short while later, that it has slipped from our clutches. While a conceptual understanding of it, alone, is a game-changer, as practitioners we are aiming to experience shunyata non-conceptually, or directly, in a state of deep meditation.
Many of my stories have shunyata woven through them, and I have also made a short video to explain it as succinctly as possible, which you can find here.
Today I’d like to share one of my favourite books on the subject hoping that wherever you are on your own Dharma journey you may find it helpful and stimulating.
The Dharma and quantum science
“It is a primitive form of thought that things either exist or do not exist.”
Sir Arthur Eddington
“To say ‘it is’ is to grasp for permanence. To say ‘it is not’ is to adopt the view of nihilism. Therefore a wise person does not say ‘exists’ or ‘does not exist.’”
Although Einstein and Buddha: The parallel sayings doesn’t set itself up as a book on shunyata, to me what makes it so special is the way it shows how Buddhist teachings on this subject have come to be scientifically validated. It is reassuring to know that some of the greatest minds in the West have come to the same conclusions about the nature of reality as Buddha and subsequent teachers have done. From extremely different starting points, science and the Dharma converge.
As practitioners, Buddha’s special genius was that he not only described the most subtle truths of reality as a coherent and accessible theory, but he went on to explain how, by embodying this theory, we can see through conventional reality and bring an end to our own suffering.
“Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.”
“All such notions as causation, succession, atoms, primary elements … are figments of the imagination and manifestations of the mind.”
Accessible and easy to read
The book is mostly comprised of two quotes per page. One quote from a well-known physicist, including Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer, David Bohm and others. The other is by a well-known ‘mystic’ – mostly Buddhist, from the Buddha himself to Nagarjuna, D.T. Suzuki, Ashvaghosha, Longchenpa and more.
We are taken through a variety of subjects, illustrating how science and the Dharma explain the same subject in different words. These subjects include: The Human Experience; Subject and Object; Name and Form; Particles and Matter, Waves Fields and Energy, Time and Space, Physics and Mysticism.
East and West, right and left brain
In an introduction, author and radio commentator Wes Nisker writes:
Generally speaking, from an overview of world culture it might seem as through the Earth was divided according to two hemispheres of the brain. Asia was assigned the right hemisphere, and its great sages turned their attention inward, seeking truth through intuition and receptive quietude. In Europe and the Mediterranean – the left hemisphere – the search for truth turned outward, and became a process of deconstructing and analyzing the world, relying on the more aggressive powers of reason. The Asian wisdom traditions tended to see more holistically, while the West was more interested in making distinctions. In our time, modern communications and travel have served as a corpus collosum, connecting the two hemispheres and revealing an astonishing agreement about the laws of nature and the structure of deep reality. Taken together, we now have what might be called “the full-brain approach.”
As the editor, Thomas J. McFarlane says at the start of the book:
“These mystics and physicists are the main thinkers from two areas that have always seemed worlds apart … but in the following parallel sayings we will see just how close together they really were. Dealing with questions of time and space, cause and effect, paradox and contradiction … they used different words to say exactly the same thing.”
I often marvel at the fact that if you covered the names of the contributors with your fingers and thumbs, it would sometimes be hard to tell whether it was a Buddhist person being quoted or a quantum physicist.
Another thing I enjoy about this book is that it’s one that you can dip into, whether for one minute or ten, any time you like, and come away with a nudge of stimulation.
Some personal favourites
Here are a few of my favourite parallel sayings:
“The concept of substance has disappeared from fundamental physics.”
Sir Arthur Eddington
“I have seen nothing in the world that is ultimately real.”
“The atoms or the elementary particles … form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”
“In Buddhist Emptiness there is no time, no space, no becoming, no-thing-ness; it is what makes all things possible; it is a zero full of infinite possibilities, it is a void of inexhaustible contents.”
“There is no essential distinction between mass and energy. Energy has mass and mass represents energy. Instead of two conservation laws we have only one, that of mass-energy.”
“Only an arbitrary distinction of thought divides form of substance from form of energy.”
“People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn, persistent illusion.”
“The past, the future … are nothing but names, forms of thought, words of common usage, merely superficial realities.”
“Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.”
“Is it not shocking to know that … all the heavens including all the luminaries whose lights are measured to reach this earth after millions of years are said to be mere bubbles in the ocean of eternal Emptiness?”
From the product description on Amazon:
(Sorry - the white cover is perfectly camoflaged against this screen! But after all the quotes above, I am sure you will be comfortable with this ambiguity between cover and background!)
Discover the similarities and striking beauty in the writings and sayings from science and the teachings of Buddhism.
Provocative, stimulating, and insightful, Einstein and Buddha points to the far-reaching and profound parallels between Western scientific thought and Eastern religion. These remarkably similar disciplines touch on the essential nature of energy and matter, the relationship between subject and object, and the limits of language in understanding and describing reality. The shared understandings communicate a deep common ground on both the nature of the universe and our place in it.
My wife, Koala, and I are now in Harare, after our second Mindful Safari for 2023. What a wonderful experience it was, with another beautiful group of people from around the world!
As mentioned before, I will do a proper post on our safaris when I’ve had time to draw breath. I have already shared a few animal pics, so here are just a few, non-animal photos from our time together.
There is nothing quite like enjoying a cup of coffee while watching sunrise over the Zambezi River. At this time of the year, the colours of the sky are beyond words.
Okay - not quite noon. Like the animals, we rest in the middle of the day. But morning and afternoon I lead guided meditations in nature, like this one under a magnificent winterthorn tree on the banks of the Zambezi River.
A hearty brunch outside is another favourite. We spend almost all our time outside which, in itself, is very healing.
Lamp-lit dinners enjoying the company of like-minded people after another day in the bush and meditating in nature. As HHC would say, what’s not to like?!
About half the money you help me raise through your subscription goes to the following four charities. Feel free to click on the underlined links to read more about them:
Wild is Life - home to endangered wildlife and the Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery; Twala Trust Animal Sanctuary - supporting indigenous animals as well as pets in extremely disadvantaged communities; Dongyu Gyatsal Ling Nunnery - supporting Buddhist nuns from the Himalaya regions; Gaden Relief - supporting Buddhist communities in Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal and India.
If you’re fairly new to my Substack page and would like to explore further, you can read my previous posts under the Archive button here.