BUDDHISM AND SCIENCE
PART 1 -- PHYSICAL SCIENCES
Editorial Note: This unpublished article was written by Grandmaster Wong more than 20 years ago in the 1980s (in 2016).
Form is Emptiness
It is indeed a pity that many people, including most Buddhists, are not aware that most of the latest, exciting discoveries in the sciences today are a confirmation of what the Buddha has taught more than 2500 years ago. It is even more amazing to find that the Buddha's teaching is in greater depth and scope than these scientific discoveries.
For example, the famous but little understood quotation of the Heart Sutra, "Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form", represents the latest paradigm of the new physics, which not only has revolutionized the world view of Western societies, but also has provided us with computers, lasers, nuclear power, understanding of the DNA and the science of molecular biology.
Until recently the scientific world view was mechanistic and deterministic. Scientists were so confident of Newton's laws of mechanics, that they claimed they could accurately and objectively predict every event in the universe if only they had the relevant measurements. The universe and man himself were viewed as machines; any subjective experiences, as in religion, were regarded with suspicion if not with disdain.
Later, Dalton and Thompson opened fascinating vistas of the atomic and the electronic worlds to scientists. Then Rutherford demonstrated that more than 99.99% of an atom is "empty space"! Scientists were so sure of themselves, and the public so sure of them, that leaders of many religions felt threatened. But science has never been a threat to Buddhism. Buddhism is probably unique among the world's great religions that scientific discoveries enhance Buddhist beliefs.
In fact, although the details differ, the main aim and approaches of both science and Buddhism are similar. Both address themselves to the question: what is reality? Both disregard dogmas and authority, and accept truth based only on empirical investigation and verification. It is therefore no surprise that their discoveries are similar, albeit those of Buddhism preceded science by many centuries.
About 25 centuries before Dalton and Thompson, the Buddha has taught about anu, paramanu and rupakalapa, which correspond to the Western element, atom and particles. Even the size of the paramanu estimated by the Buddha is similar to that of the atom estimated by scientists today. And long before Einstein's theory of relativity, which eventually led to the replacement of Newtonian physics, the Buddha has taught that rupakalapa is constantly changing into kriya, and vice versa, or in modern scientific terms, matter and energy are constantly inter-changing into each other. Einstein's concepts of space and time are also preceded in Buddhism. For example, a year in the Catumaharajika Heaven, the heavenly realm just above our human realm, is 1800 human years. The Buddhist concept of the ksana represents the shortest time an event occurs in space at the sub-atomic level.
Not only the scientific concepts of atoms and particles find their parallels in the Buddhist concepts of paramanu and rupakalapa, but that science has demonstrated the "stuff" that makes up the world is not hard, solid objects, but virtually "empty space"! The size of the atom, formerly believed to be the basic ingredient of the universe, is too minute for our comprehension, but if we compare it to a football field, then its nucleus is like a grain of sand in the middle, and its electrons like specks of dust at the periphery, with great vastness of "empty space" in between. When people can conceptualize this scientific fact, they suddenly have a better (but still incomplete) understanding of the Buddhist teaching that "form is emptiness".
The Buddhist teaching is even more profound. In physics, "form is emptiness" concerns only matter; but in Buddhism, this doctrine also deals with the other skandhas or aggregates of perception, thought, process and consciousness that make up man and the phenomenal world.
Moreover, Buddhism also explains the reverse, "emptiness is form", whereas physics does not. In fact physicists, now being aware that the so-called external reality is actually a creation of mind, are puzzled why different people experience the same mental creation. In other words, if what we perceive is a creation of our mind, then why do you, I and every other person perceive the same collections of elemental particles as the same phenomena, such as a house or an elephant, and not something else? In Buddhism, this is explained by the doctrine of dependent origination, which describes how transcendental, undifferentiated ultimate reality is transformed in twelve stages into separate and differentiated phenomena.
The World is an Illusion
Max Plank startled scientific circles when he announced that energy is emitted not continuously but in chunks which he called quanta, leading to the birth of quantum physics, considered by many scientists as the great scientific achievement of the present twentieth century. De Broglie completed the shock when he proposed that not only are waves particles, but particles are also waves. For example, if an observer sets up his apparatus to measure an electron as wave, that electron will appear as wave; if he sets up his apparatus to measure it as a particle, it will appear as a particle! In other words, whether a sub-atomic event occurs as energy or matter, depends on how the observer observes it.
This concept has been taught in Buddhism more than 25 centuries ago, and the Buddha's teaching is even more profound, as it deals not only with the sub-atomic level, but also with the macro-level, not only with the world of man, but also includes the whole universe. The Buddha has long taught that the human world, as well as heaven and hell, are a creation of mind.
In science, this important concept that explains the dual properties of particles is now known as Neil Bohr's principle of complementarity, which actually supplements Einstein's theory of relativity. Bohr's principle explains the complementarity of the wave-like and particle-like properties of reality, whereas Einstein's theory explains the relativity of time and space, as well as of matter and energy.
In Buddhism, these two concepts of complementarity and relativity are dealt with holistically in greater scope and depth, ranging from the infinitesimal sub-atomic particles to the infinite cosmos. The Buddhist doctrine of pratiya-samutpada explains that at the infinitesimal level dharma (or sub-atomic forces and particles) may occurs as the finest matter or as unbounded energy. At the infinite scale, depending whether a being is enlightened or not, reality may manifest as samsara, i.e. the phenomenal, or as nirvana, i.e. the transcendental.
Another bombshell was dropped into scientific circles by Heisenburg, who proposed the principle of uncertainty, which is closely related to the principle of complementarity, and which postulates that it is intrinsically impossible to be certain of both the momentum and the location of any sub-atomic event. For example, if an observer wishes to be completely certain about the momentum of a sub-atomic particle, then he will know nothing at all about its location, and vice versa.
Generally, what is observed falls within the range of these extremes, i.e. observers, depending on their choice, perceive varying measures of momentum and location of a sub-atomic event. Hence the observer becomes an integral part of his observation. In other words, there is no such thing as objective external reality. Again, this important scientific discovery verifies what has been taught by the Buddha long ago. Moreover, what the Buddha has taught is more profound: in Buddhist teaching, this uncertainty happens not only at the sub-atomic but also at the macro level. Buddhism has always insisted that the external world we perceive is an illusion.
Greater astonishment is yet to come. All these discoveries, the proofs of which are so overwhelming in numerous repeated experiments, that scientists are forced literally against their common sense to accept what common people without such scientific information would regard as absurd or ridiculous. Listen to what some of today's best scientists have to say about reality:
Quantum theory tells us that nothing can be measured or observed without disturbing it, so that the role of the observer is crucial in understanding any physical process. So crucial in fact that some people have been led to believe that it is the observer's mind that is the only reality ‑- that everything else including the whole physical universe is illusion.
-- Alastair Rae.
For what quantum mechanics says is that nothing is real and we cannot say anything about what things are doing when we are not looking at them.
-- John Gribbin.
Even the world we know may not be composed of objects. We may only be sensing mechanisms moving through a vibration dance of frequencies. Pribram suggests that the reason we translate this vibrating dance of frequencies into the solidity and objectivity of the universe as we know it is that our brains operate on the same holographiclike principles as the dance of frequencies and is able to convert them into a picture much the same as a television converts the frequencies it receives into a more coherent image.
-- Michael Talbot.
This is what Buddhism has been teaching, not only at the sub-atomic level, but for the whole cosmos. The Buddha has taught that the separate, differentiated phenomenal world which ordinary people perceive is an illusion. Ultimate reality, experienced by enlightened ones, is uniform and undifferentiated.
Happily, science is beginning to realize this great cosmic truth. What Karl Pribram, a leading neurophysiologist of the world today, is saying about the reality of consciousness, David Bohm is saying about the reality of sub-atomic particles, i.e. ultimately reality is holographic.
David Bohm, considered by some as the greatest living scientist today, refers to that level of reality in which particles or events appear to be separate, i.e. the level of reality we exist in, as the explicate order; and he refers to that substratum of reality in which all separateness disappears, where all entities become a continuous wholeness, as the implicate order.
In terms of the implicate order one may say that everything is enfolded into everything. This contrasts with the explicate order now dominant in physics in which things are unfolded in the sense that each thing lies only in its own particular region of space (and time) and outside the regions belonging to other things.
Countless Worlds and Countless Galaxies
The profundity and modernity of Buddhism in the scale of the infinite cosmos is equally amazing. At a time when most people thought there were only one world, one heaven and one hell, and centuries before Copernicus discovered that the earth was not the centre of the universe, the Buddha has taught that there are countless worlds in countless galaxies.
Buddhist sutras record that countless worlds make up a small-world-system, countless small-world-systems make up a middle-world-system, countless middle-world-systems make up a big-world-systems, and there are countless big-world-systems. It is even more profound than the modern astronomical parallel that countless stars make up a galaxy, countless galaxies make up a universe, and there are countless universes, because by the term "world" the Buddha means "time-space", and even on our earth itself there are many "worlds" in the many different realms of existence operating at different time dimensions.
Historians and archaeologists believe that civilization is only a few thousand years old, and that man has existed for only about a million years. It is indeed astonishing that they as well as mediocre scientists are so egocentric and geocentric to insist that ours is the only civilization not only in this unimaginably puny part of the universe, but also in this inconceivably brief period of time the universe is known to exist.
If we proportionately reduce the scale of the time man is known by science to exist on our earth, it is like telling a 100-year old man that for 99 years he was a savage, running about almost naked and using stone weapons to chase wild animals, and only in his last 100th year he is civilized. In this one civilized year, for 350 days man was, according to the attitude of some mediocre scientists, superstitious or unscientific, as he only knows science for less than 15 days.
The situation is even more striking if we compare the age of science upon which a mediocre scientist uses to judge the universe, to the age of the earth. If we reduce the age of the earth, which scientists have estimated to be 4 billion years, to 100 years, then proportionately science as the mediocre scientist knows it, has existed for less than 0.0000007 seconds. Thus, while no one ever suggests that science is not useful, it is equally unwise to insist that only science can provide the final say on truth or reality.
How wise, then, is it to depend our knowledge of truth or reality on only one person, even though he is an enlightened one, as it may appear to be the case of the Buddha's teaching? First of all, the Buddha has frequently reminded us not to accept his teaching on faith alone, nor on his authority, but we should evaluate his teaching to the best of our understanding and experience.
Secondly, it must be remembered that the Buddha is not just the person of Siddharta Guatama Sakyamuni. Sakyamuni represents the physical manifestation of the Buddha, who has appeared hundreds of time on earth even in civilizations before our present one, and also in other parts of the universe. The Eternal Buddha in his "reward bodies" also appears in other realms of existence, often known by different names, such as Amitabha Buddha, Bhaisajyaguru Buddha, Padmapani Buddha and Kasyapa Buddha. The Buddha in his Spiritual Body is the Supreme Reality, infinite in time and space. The Buddha's teaching therefore represents the teaching of eternity and infinity. Hence, it is no surprise that the findings of modern science coincide with the Buddha's teaching.
The Buddha has taught that humans and other sentient beings have existed on our earth and in countless stars and planets since eternity, and have attained very high levels of civilization. The Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha, for example, is situated millions of worlds away in another galaxy, and has existed since ten aeons ago, i.e. since our world was born then destroyed, and born again for nine times. The Buddha has also taught that our Saha world in this aeon has existed for 12.8 billion years; astro-scientists, after numerous previous mistakes, have estimated that our solar system is between 10 and 20 billion years.
While most astro-scientists today believe that the universe started with a big bang, the Buddha has taught that the universe has no beginning or ending, although our present universe, like other universes and all other phenomena great and small, undergoes the processes of birth, growth, decay and death. This concept is now being seriously investigated by many eminent astro-scientists., as in such theories like the steady-state universe and the pulsating universe.
Like what most of today's scientists believe as the pre-biotic soup, the Buddha also has taught that our world was at first inorganic, covered by water and bombarded by flashes of energy for millions of years. But unlike most scientists who believe that life evolved from inorganic matter, the Buddha says that the first life forms on earth were transported here from other parts of the universe. Great scientists like Sir Fred Hoyle (world famous for his knowledge on elements in stars) and Francis Crick (co-discover of DNA) suggest a similar concept. Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe postulate that life was not only sent here from intelligent civilizations elsewhere, but new genes of life continue to arrive from outer space in the form of naked nucleic acids or carried within bacteria, viruses and even insects. Crick suggests that life on earth was infected on purpose by some advanced alien technological societies.
Cosmology of the Saha World
Let us have a brief look at what the Buddha has taught regarding the cosmology of our Saha world. According to Buddhist teaching, the Saha world is supported successively by "the wheel of void", "the wheel of wind", "the wheel of water", "the wheel of metal" and "the wheel of earth". On top of the wheel of earth is the world's great ocean. In the middle is Mount Sumeru, rising 84,000 yojanas into the sky, which works out to be about 135,000 times higher than Mount Everest.
Surrounding Mount Sumeru at progressively increasing distance, are seven concentric layers each of alternate "golden mountain ranges" and "fragrant seas". Beyond the outermost circle of the 7th golden mountain range, across the world's great ocean are the four great continents, one of which is Jambudvipa, the southern continent, where we live.
It is obvious to many people that this cosmology of the Saha world does not fit the information gathered from modern geography and astronomy. I was thinking of this problem when suddenly the picture of our earth in the form of a globe flashes across my mind, and immediately it struck me as how familiar this Buddhist description is. The Buddha describes the Saha world not from the ground, but seen from space. The golden mountain ranges and fragrant seas are not mountain ranges and seas on our earth (they are not found in Jambudvipa), but refer figuratively to heavenly bodies and space.
It is also significant that while many ancient cosmologies taught that our world was supported by mystical creatures like cosmic elephants and turtles, the Buddha's teaching indicates that heavenly bodies are suspended in space, as suggested by the wheel of void. We are not sure what the other wheels are in terms of modern astronomy. The wheel of wind may refer to the atmosphere, the wheel of water to the hydrosphere, the wheel of metal to the core, and the wheel of earth to the mantle of the various heavenly bodies. Or these wheels may refer to something else which science has yet to discover. Let us not forget that many of the most significant scientific discoveries in history have been taught in Buddhism since long ago.
One should also note that what scientists perceive on other planets may not be the same as the perception and experience of their inhabitants because other beings have different kinds of sense perception and consciousness. For example, what appear to our earthly scientists as sulphuric acid on the surface of Venus, and barren craters on the surface of Mercury, may be some forms of Eden to Venusians and Mercurians, just as even on our earth what is hard rock to humans may be prisons to hell inhabitants, and what is thin air may be where heavenly beings build their magnificent palaces. Andrew Jackson Davis, the founder of modern spiritualism in the West, who correctly described the planet Neptune before it was discovered by astronomers, said that the inhabitants of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn could communicate with spirits.
Hence, the discoveries of the physical sciences confirm the Buddha's teaching. The revelation of the mysteries of atoms and sub-atomic particles, the relativity of time and space, energy and matter, the principles of complementarity and uncertainty, the illusion of the external world, and the existence of myriad worlds and galaxies, parallel the profound teaching of the Buddha. Astonishing Buddhist wisdom is found not only in physics and astronomy, but also in the life sciences, which will be described in the next Part.