Buddhism, Quantum Physics, Science, and the Dalai Lama — Part 2

This follows on from the introduction to this brief series in which I’m examining the thinking of the Dalai Lama on the topics mentioned in the title, as outlined in his book The Universe in a Single Atom: How Science and Spirituality Can Serve Our World¹. His third chapter is entitled ‘Emptiness, Relativity and Quantum Physics’. I’ll summarise and comment on what I perceive to be the most interesting sections.

What I found most surprising comes towards the end of it. I’ve always thought that Buddhism is a strongly idealist tradition, believing that mind/ consciousness is primary, and that the material universe is illusory, maya. The Dalai Lama confirms that there is such a tradition, “the so-called Mind-only school, who reject any degree of objective reality in the external world. They perceive the external material world to be, in the final analysis, an extension of the observing mind”. (This sounds similar to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics.)

Apparently, however, there have also been Buddhist realists “who believe that the material world is composed of indivisible particles which have an objective reality independent of the mind”, a point of view which seems closer to that of classical physics. So, even within Buddhism, there have been arguments similar to those that are carried on in modern times between classical physicists and spiritual traditions.

The core of this chapter is his discussion of the theory of emptiness, which he believes is “one of the most important philosophical insights in Buddhism”. He says that “we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterizes our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our existence”. He thinks that this is “a fundamental error”, saying that “everything is composed of dependently related events, of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in constantly changing dynamic relations”. This teaching is “grounded in the interpretation of scriptures which are attributed to the historical Buddha”, but was first systematically expounded by Nagarjuna in the second century. According to him Nagarjuna was “after the Buddha himself, the single most important figure for the formulation of Buddhism in India”.

Here the Dalai Lama is touching on the most significant difference between Buddhism and other spiritual traditions. Christianity believes the soul to be this essential core to our being, and Buddhism’s source Hinduism has the related concept of atman. It is therefore at least debatable whether this is really the fundamental error that he claims, Nagarjuna’s version of Buddhism merely offering an alternative understanding. It is also worth asking whether such a distinction really makes any significant difference to our lives down here on planet Earth.

Everything that exists emerges from the ultimate reality of an undifferentiated oneness², so in that sense there is no essential core to our being. Interestingly, however, in the debate between the Buddhist idealists and realists, the Dalai Lama points out that there is also an intermediate third perspective, that of the Prasangika school, which is “held in the highest esteem by the Tibetan tradition. In this view, although the reality of the external world is not denied, it is understood to be relative”.

If the reality of the external world can be understood to be relative, not absolute, why can we not say the same of the soul or atman? It has apparent independent existence, but is ultimately merely an aspect of the great oneness. It may be in some sense a temporary core to our being, but also ultimately illusory. The Dalai Lama seems to make that point himself when he says that there is a realm “where we can expect the laws of cause and effect, and the laws of logic… to operate without violation. This world of empirical experience… is real in that we experience it”. “However, from the perspective of the ultimate truth, things and events do not possess discrete, independent entities”. I therefore do not understand why he is so insistent that the belief in an essential core to our being is a fundamental error. Is it really that big a deal, if both these statements are true?

It’s interesting that the Dalai Lama focuses on Nagarjuna, since the physicist Carlo Rovelli, in his book Helgoland, also singles him out as a reason to see parallels between quantum physics and Buddhism. Rovelli, however, seeks to distance quantum physics from any spiritual thinking; his interpretation is about as close to materialism as it is possible to be while supposedly remaining quantum (as I have argued in this article).

I was also reminded of the comment I mentioned in the introduction “that most of what we in the West think of as Buddhism is actually a new and uniquely western phenomenon… Starting in the 19th Century, and accelerating through the 20th, Americans and Europeans (with help from modern Eastern Buddhist masters like the Dalai 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”³.

Why the Dalai Lama would want to do this is an interesting question, presumably to make Buddhism more appealing and acceptable in the modern climate of adoration of so-called ‘science’. By describing the belief in an essential core to our being as a fundamental error, he is undoubtedly aligning himself with the beliefs of various modern neuroscientists, who can find nothing in the brain to suggest its existence. If Nagarjuna appeals to both Rovelli and the Dalai Lama, it is therefore possible, even likely, that he belongs to this ‘non-religious’ strand of Buddhism. He would therefore be merely one strand of Buddhist thinking, not an ultimate authority.

The ethical implications of Nagarjuna’s position are nevertheless important. Having said that “to a Mahayana Buddhist exposed to Nagarjuna’s thought, there is an unmistakable resonance between the notion of emptiness and the new physics”, the Dalai Lama then asks the interesting question, “apart from misrepresenting reality, what is wrong with believing in the independent, intrinsic existence of things?” He offers two answers, firstly that of Nagarjuna: “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”. David Bohm’s point of view says the same thing in starker language: “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 and disconnected. From this misconception springs the belief that each of these divisions is essentially independent and self-existent”.

They are both saying that the failure to appreciate that all humans and everything that exists are interconnected, and are therefore all part of one ongoing process, is the primary source of the world’s problems. I hope we can wholeheartedly agree that, if we want to heal the planet, such a perspective is essential. The insight that everything is interconnected and expressions of an ultimate oneness is not exclusive to Buddhism, however, and can be found in various spiritual traditions.

The Dalai Lama pixabay janeb13 / 453 images

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. The opening of the core Taoist text the Tao Te Ching calls this the Tao and the “ten thousand things”, the mystery and the manifestations. “These two spring from the same source but differ in name”.

3. from a review by Jack Preston King of a book by Evan Thompson called Why I Am Not a Buddhist.



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