Buddhism, Quantum Physics, Science, and the Dalai Lama — Introduction
Anyone who has followed me on Medium for some time will know that I have a longstanding fascination with the supposed relationship between the worldviews of quantum physicists and spiritual traditions. I was excited therefore when I recently became aware of a book by the Dalai Lama on this theme, and science in general. It’s called The Universe in a Single Atom: How Science and Spirituality Can Serve Our World¹.
The first part of the title fascinated me because it reminded me of the well-known lines from William Blake’s poem Auguries of Innocence: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand, and a Heaven in a Wild Flower. Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour”. It also reminded me of this quote from the very spiritually oriented physicist Fred Alan Wolf: “The whole of the universe, all knowledge is contained within each individual and each thing. Every part contains the whole. One electron is all electrons. One particle is all particles. The microcosmos (is the) path of the one electron beyond space-time”².
It seemed therefore that the Dalai Lama is very much in tune with the spirit of both Romanticism and modern physics. It would therefore be interesting to know his thinking on these matters. His epigram for the whole book is taken from an ancient Buddhist scripture The Great Flower Ornament: “In each atom of the realms of the universe, there exist vast oceans of world systems”. We can also say therefore that both Blake and Wolf are very much in tune with ancient Buddhism.
By coincidence, or perhaps synchronicity, as I was planning this series of articles, I came across a review by Jack Preston King of a book by Evan Thompson called Why I Am Not a Buddhist. Jack says that Thompson reveals “that most of what we in the West think of as Buddhism is actually a new and uniquely western phenomenon he labels ‘Buddhist Modernism’. Starting in the 19th Century, and accelerating through the 20th, Americans and Europeans (with help from modern Eastern Buddhist masters like the Dali Lama and D. T. Suzuki) have worked to strip Buddhist religion of its ‘religion’, reducing it to an intellectual ‘mind science’, compatible with and even identical to the findings of neuroscience. New Atheists like Sam Harris extol Buddhism for its rejection of God and faith, while ignoring the reality that Asian Buddhism acknowledges all sorts of deities and spirits, and cannot be practiced without religious faith in the Buddha’s personal enlightenment — a concept with no nonreligious correlate”.
I found this fascinating, as I’ve always had the same reservations about Buddhism, preferring its more comprehensive source, Hinduism. What Thompson describes would seem to be an attempt to remove all quasi-pagan and polytheistic elements from an earlier version of Buddhism. This will have to be taken into consideration when evaluating the Dalai Lama’s contributions to the debate. In a brief series of articles I’ll summarise his book, beginning with a few introductory notes.
In his prologue he says that he was not trained in science, but that over the years he has had many meetings and discussions with scientists. He has therefore thought deeply about science, especially subatomic physics, cosmology, biology, including neuroscience and psychology. These are, of course, the disciplines most relevant to spiritual traditions.
I am very much in favour of attempts to reunify science and religion/ spirituality. In his prologue the Dalai Lama says, however, that this is not his aim, which is rather “an effort to examine two important human disciplines for the purpose of developing a more holistic and integrated way of understanding the world around us”. He sees the two disciplines as “different but complementary investigative approaches with the same greater goal, of seeking the truth”.
In the first chapter he says that his primary concern is the ethical consequences of science. Thus he says: “In Buddhism the highest spiritual ideal is to cultivate compassion for all sentient beings and to work for their welfare to the greatest possible extent”. “The central question… is how we can make the wonderful developments of science into something that offers altruistic and compassionate service for the needs of humanity and the other sentient beings with whom we share this earth”.
As we might expect, he is critical of scientific materialism, which he says is “a common unexamined presupposition”, and a metaphysical position rather than scientific knowledge, with a resulting narrowness of vision and potential for nihilism. From a spiritual point of view “it is difficult to see how questions such as the meaning of life or good and evil can be accommodated within such a world view”. “There is more to human existence and to reality itself than current science can ever give us access to”. Of course, however, “spirituality must be tempered by the insights and discoveries of science”. It’s pleasing to find that in my Medium writings I have echoed the thinking of such a significant figure.
In his second chapter he describes his meetings with distinguished scientists, most notably:
- Carl von Weizsäcker, who was an assistant to Werner Heisenberg, and who gave him “an intensive tutorial on quantum physics and its philosophical implications”
- David Bohm, whom he describes as remarkable, and “who had one of the greatest intellects and most open minds I have ever come across”. As is well known, Bohm had several significant dialogues with Krishnamurti.
I was especially pleased to find Bohm mentioned, since I also find him the most profound and spiritual of the second generation of quantum physicists. (I wrote about him here.)
The Dalai Lama reports that he also had meetings with various spiritual figures, most notably the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who had a deep interest in Buddhism, and who opened his eyes to Christianity. The relationship between Buddhism and Christianity is another topic I hope to explore separately.
In subsequent articles I’ll explore in more detail the Dalai Lama’s thinking on all these issues.
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, and all but the most recent can be found on my website (click here and here).
1. Abacus, 2006
2. Space-Time and Beyond, Bantam, 1983, p44–45