Buddhism, Christianity, and Quantum Physics
Gerald R. Baron has just started a series on spirituality, specifically Buddhism, and its relationship to science and Christianity (biblical theism). This will undoubtedly be a fascinating read as he is widely read, has a good understanding of all the issues, and always makes good points. (My only disagreements with him are on the subject of Christianity.) Here I’ll begin by making some general observations about his first post, before coming to its main theme, emptiness in Buddhism.
He focuses upon Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, and the teachings of the Buddhist Nagarjuna as elucidated by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. He says that many people “eager for a rapprochement between science and spirituality are looking toward Eastern mysticism and Eastern thought”, because “current science seems to reveal that somehow the mystics of both East and West had access to a kind of knowledge about reality that science is only now beginning to unveil”. (I believe that both these statements are true and were the overall theme of a recent series of articles of mine.)
He says that he will focus on Buddhism “while recognizing substantial differences in other Eastern religions and ideas”. It will be interesting to see what these substantial differences are, since I am a believer in what is known as the Perennial Philosophy, the idea that at their core all religions are saying essentially the same thing. I would say that his choice of emptiness as his first theme is expressed in essentially identical terms in Hinduism, Taoism, and for that matter other non-Eastern traditions like Kabbalah and Gnosticism.
He has told me, in other exchanges between us, that he considers Christianity to be more significant than Eastern religions — superior, although he may not have used that precise word. On that theme he says: “I feel sometimes that I am working my way up a stream with the current flowing ever faster against me”, but that “I will push against the tide”. It will be interesting therefore to see how he distinguishes between Eastern traditions and Christianity, and how he finds Christianity ‘superior’.
Turning now to his main theme, Baron says that the Buddhist core doctrine of emptiness is “the idea that most closely connects this Eastern worldview with that of other mystical traditions, including Christian mysticism. It also is the primary connecting point between Buddhism and current quantum physics”.
This doctrine of emptiness is “contrary to our understanding of existence and indeed the entire universe”, and on that point he quotes the Dalai Lama: “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… 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”. Thus he finds that the most current science is consistent with ideas developed within the Buddhist tradition about 1800 years ago.
My observation here is that there is no reason to elevate Buddhism to some special status on this issue, as if it were the only ancient tradition saying this. Buddhism itself is an offspring, a later development of Hinduism, which is where it got this idea of maya from in the first place.
The same idea can also be found in Plato’s allegory of the cave, where the apparently ‘material’ universe is described as merely shadows on a wall, which prisoners chained there mistake for reality. Plato was an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and also studied in Egypt, where it is reported that he was initiated in a ceremony in one of the subterranean halls of the Great Pyramid. We therefore know where he got his ideas from, and can assume that this ‘Buddhist’ idea was also firmly established in Greece and Egypt.
On the same theme is a book by the Vedic scholar Robert E. Cox, Creating the Soul Body: the Sacred Science of Immortality¹. His argument, according to the back cover, is: “Ancient peoples the world over understood that individual consciousness is rooted in a universal field of consciousness and is therefore eternal, surviving the passing of the physical body”. He finds this in Vedic, Egyptian, Hebraic and Pythagorean traditions “in which the practitioner raises consciousness by degrees until it comes to rest in the bosom of the infinite”. Is that the ultimate emptiness to which Buddhism refers?
“He (Cox) also shows that this ancient spiritual science resembles advanced theories of modern science, such as wave and particle theory and the unified field theory, and reveals that modern science is only now awakening to this ancient science of ‘immortality’ ”. This sounds very similar to the way Baron was describing Buddhism above. Cox, however, does not mention Buddhism in the book — the word does not even appear in the Index (although I’m guessing that he would agree that similar ideas can be found in Buddhism). There is therefore no reason to suggest that Buddhism is the only or outstanding example of a tradition expounding such ideas, which can be found in many places in the ancient world.
Baron then asks the question, “if nothing is all there really is, why have a universe in the first place?” Attempting to answer this, he refers to a Buddhist text which explains that this emptiness is far from empty: “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is indeed form. Emptiness is not different from form, form is not different from emptiness. What is form that is emptiness, what is emptiness that is form”. Baron then says: “Rationally, this appears to be saying one is two and two is one, red is black and black is red. But, it also appears to be related to the Platonic idea of forms and the Jungian idea of archetypes”.
Indeed it does. It sounds even closer to this passage from Jung: “Nothingness is the same as fullness. In infinity full is no better than empty. Nothingness is both empty and full… A thing that is infinite and eternal hath no qualities, since it hath all qualities. This nothingness or fullness we name the PLEROMA… In the pleroma there is nothing and everything”. This is the opening of the ‘Gnostic’ text Seven Sermons to the Dead, a text which Jung did not want published during his lifetime, because it contained metaphysical statements outside the spectrum of his official published works.
Jung is sometimes described as a modern-day Gnostic. The aim of ancient Gnosticism was “to apprehend the ultimate reality and the emptiness and far deeper forms that it entails”. That, however, is not a quote from a Gnostic text, rather a quote from Baron’s description of Buddhism. Gnosticism would therefore seem to be closely related to Buddhism. Let’s all remember therefore that Gnosticism was condemned as a heresy by the early Christian Roman Church.
We can find almost identical statements in the Jewish mystical system Kabbalah: “AYIN means No-Thing, AYIN is beyond Existence… AYIN is Absolute Nothing… There is nowhere where AYIN is, for AYIN is not… EN SOF in Hebrew means the Endless. As the One to the Zero of AYIN, EN SOF is the Absolute All to AYIN’s Absolute Nothing. God the Transcendent is AYIN and God the Immanent is EN SOF. Both Nothing and All are the same”².
We find the same idea in Hinduism, where Brahman is the equivalent of AYIN, and Brahma the equivalent of EN SOF, and in Taoism where the ultimate mysterious emptiness, the Tao (Brahman/Ayin), gives rise to the Oneness (Brahma/En Sof) of the Tai Chi Tu, symbolised in the well-known image:
“In terms of Taoist cosmology, the circle represents Tao — the undifferentiated unity out of which all existence arises. The black and white halves within the circle represent Yin-qi and Yang-qi — the primordial feminine and masculine energies whose interplay gives birth to the manifest world: to the Five Elements and Ten-Thousand Things”³.
Can such ideas be found in the Bible? Does biblical theism, and therefore Christianity, have a superior understanding? Given that Baron comes from “the orthodox Christian viewpoint”, I’m sure that he has studied the Bible in much greater depth than I have, but I’m not aware of any obvious passages with such a message. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with, how he finds ‘biblical theism’ superior to these traditions from the Perennial Philosophy.
It will also be interesting to see which version of Christianity Baron will choose to refer to in his comparisons. Is it going to be the Christian mysticism that he refers to in his article? In which case, let us not forget that these mystics were often not very popular with the Church. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake, and Meister Eckhart was tried for heresy. Somewhat more fortunate was Jacob Böhme who, following a scandal caused by some of his writings and complaints by the clergy, was summoned to the Town Council, who merely ordered him to leave town.
In modern times Baron refers to Fritjof Capra’s book Belonging to the Universe, co-authored with the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, the subject of which is science and Christianity. It’s worth remembering that another Benedictine, Matthew Fox, was expelled from the Church by the Vatican for his beliefs.
So I’m wondering which version of Christianity Baron is going to consider comparable to but superior to these Perennial Philosophy traditions, the orthodox version or the heresies of the mystics?
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
- Inner Traditions, 2008
2. Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi: A Kabbalistic Universe, Rider & Company, 1977, p7