Review of Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics

Review of Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics

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Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics by Vic Mansfield

Vic Mansfield, Tibetan Buddhism & Modern Physics. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008, Pp xii + 180.

Interest in dialogue between Buddhism and science has grown in recent years, not least due to the influence that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has exerted on the intellectual scene in the West. Being the spiritual leader of more than four million Tibetans and a well known spiritual figure worldwide, the Dalai Lama has aroused strong interest in Buddhism in the West as well as in how Western science and Buddhism might be compared. Beginning in the late 1980s, and still today, the Dalai Lama has been participating in a series of conferences with leading Western scientists called Mind & Life, in which questions of interest to both Buddhism and science, such as the structure of the cosmos, matter, mind and consciousness, are explored through focused discussions.

It is thus not surprising that there recently have appeared a number of books bringing Buddhist teaching and contemporary science together for continued discourse. Apart from works by the Dalai Lama himself (such as The Universe in a Single Atom [Broadway, 2006]), there are a number of noteworthy titles including, Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground [Columbia, 2003], edited by Alan Wallace and The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama [Oxford, 2004], edited by Arthur Zajonc. In March 2008, the Templeton Foundation Press released a work that promises to become another standard in the field. Sadly, the author, Vic Mansfield, formerly Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Colgate University, did not live to see the sustained success of his work as he lost his long battle with lymphoma this past summer at the age of 67.

With Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics: Toward a Union of Love and Knowledge, Mansfield set out to provide an overview of how Buddhism and contemporary physics can engage in further conversation and collaboration, while revealing areas of concordance as well as difference between the two. The book is the result of several years’ work in the area, and a crystallization of many research articles, books and conference presentations that Mansfield produced over the past two decades or so. It is also based on Mansfield’s personal acquaintance with His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as a number of high ranking monks in the Tibetan tradition. (His Holiness also wrote the foreword to the book.) These experiences and relationships, coupled with his training as a physicist and his extensive experience teaching physics to undergraduates, result in a readable book from which lay people (in either physics or Buddhism) will learn a great deal. Thus the book serves as a very good introduction to the field as a whole.

There are many areas ripe for dialogue between Buddhism and science, and Mansfield focuses on how a specific school of Buddhism, the Madhyamika or the Middle Way school, contains a number of teachings that surprisingly predate many of the current findings in quantum physics. However, Mansfield does not aim to show how the Buddhist teaching is justified through its correspondence with contemporary physics. Rather, his effort is to point to the similarities that exist between the two, and it is to Mansfield’s credit that he illuminates areas where there is striking divergence. According to Mansfield, clearly pointing out the differences in viewpoints between the two dialogue partners in an amicable fashion is a sign of true friendship and indicates areas for further work and conversation. Thus Mansfield does not provide an ‘apology’ for Buddhism by saying that its teachings perfectly align with modern physics. The field of physics is always changing, and therefore physics is not adequate to the task of ‘proving’ the lasting truths of Buddhist teaching.

Perhaps the strongest area of confluence between Buddhism and science lies in methodology. Both Buddhism and science agree that experience is the sole arbiter of knowledge claims. Any claim to know reality fully has to be judged by whether it can be corroborated through empirical means. For science this means that theory needs to be able to be falsified through experience, and for Buddhism the value of the teaching depends on whether a practitioner can see the result for him or herself through following the instructions given by the Buddha. There is a well known saying in Buddhism that one always has to test the truth of the teaching just as a goldsmith tests whether a piece of shining yellow metal is gold or not. The Buddhist teaching is something which every practitioner must see and experience firsthand.

However, methodology is simultaneously an area where science and Buddhism diverge. It is well known that science has to reduce first-person, subjective experiences to something which can be objectively measured. This is because science is predicated upon publicly verifiable data; that is, experimental results must be demonstrable to everyone who possesses normal working senses. Buddhism, however, relies heavily on subjective, personal experiences, and the idea is that such experiences will be available to those who fully understand the teachings and put them into practice. This reliance on subjective experience creates the problem of how then can Buddhism be verified. For Buddhism, the answer might be the one given by the Zen master who insists that the taste of food has to be experienced by oneself, and that it is not possible to taste the food in another’s place.

There are seven chapters in Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics, and Chapters One through Three deal with basic issues in both Buddhism and physics. In these chapters, the important doctrine of Emptiness is covered, as well as basic tenets of quantum physics. Mansfield, being a good teacher, has created a book that can indeed function well as an introductory text in both areas. The doctrine of Emptiness receives a large share of attention in the book, and this is not surprising, as it is the central philosophy of Buddhism. This is a difficult doctrine to grasp, but in nuce, what it attempts to convey is that things as we normally understand them to be are thus and so only as the result of our conceptual imputation on them. Considered on their own, without any of our intervention as perceiver or conceptualizer, these things are ‘empty’ of their own nature. On this point, Mansfield convincingly demonstrates an important area of convergence between Buddhism and modern physics. According to quantum physics, the behavior of light depends crucially on how we go about measuring its qualities. If we design an experiment to test the behavior of light as a particle, then it’s not possible within that framework to test its other behavior, that of being a wave.  The reverse is the case if we design the experiment the other way. Simply put, whether light is found to be particle or wave depends on how we measure it, in other words on how we perceive it. In the typical Buddhist parlance this would mean that light does not have an inherent characteristic of its own. This exemplifies the central tenet of the Emptiness doctrine.

Nonetheless, Buddhism conceives of Emptiness not primarily as a way to understand external reality, but as a means toward letting go of one’s craving and attachment to the external things, which the teaching maintains is a cause of suffering and one’s own wandering in samsara, or the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Understanding reality as it actually is is a necessary step toward attaining liberation from that cycle. Buddhism does not present an account of reality just for the sake of it. Here is another area where Buddhism and modern science might deviate from one another.

Perhaps the most interesting and challenging chapter in Mansfield’s tome is Chapter Four, where he discusses the ‘physics of peace.’ Here Mansfield establishes the principle of nonlocality. Basically, nonlocality states that things depend on one another in an essential way. According to Mansfield: ” We can no longer consider objects as independently existing entities, localized in well-defined regions of space-time. Nonlocality teaches us that the properties at one location instantaneously depend upon properties found at arbitrarily large distances” (88). The actual detail and argument behind this conclusion is very complex and difficult, though Mansfield did an admirable job of making the whole thing look rather simple. Nonetheless, the picture that seems to emerge is that of physical reality being of the “same taste,” as Buddhists are wont to maintain. Everything everywhere is, so to speak, one and the same; all the parts within everything are interconnected with and depend for their very being on one another. Here is another area where Buddhism and quantum mechanics seem to strongly concur.

However, on nonlocality there may be room for dispute and further divergence. Mansfield points out in the next chapter that quantum mechanics denies that causality actually exists. Since causality seemingly lies at the heart of Buddhism, might difference between Buddhism and physics on this point be inevitable? According to Mansfield, the conception of causality found in Middle Way Buddhism is similar to the traditional Newtonian model that posits some independently existing causes and conditions that give rise to phenomena. However, these causes and conditions are lacking in quantum mechanics. Again, the issue quickly becomes imperceptively complex, but the main point is that the standard conception of causality found in Buddhism does not seem to be compatible with quantum mechanics.

Mansfield seems to believe that the concept of causality is central to Buddhism, but in fact this is not necessarily the case. In the first chapter of his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Oxford, 1995, translated by Jay Garfield), Nagarjuna points out that both causes and conditions are empty. That is, they are mere concepts that we apply to reality in order to make sense of it. As such, it is not necessary to posit causes and conditions, or the whole conceptual apparatus of causality, onto nature. Nagarjuna’s argument is also quite difficult, but perhaps we can briefly say that a cause is empty because it is a relation between things, and since things are by nature empty (that is, they lack inherent characteristic of their own), the cause is empty too. So in a way, causes and conditions only exist as we conceive of them. It is true that the concept of causality is relied upon in Buddhism to explain the law of karma, but Nagarjuna distinguishes between the level of ultimate truth, where one speaks directly of Emptiness, and the level of conventional truth, which is the level we language users are already familiar with. With this distinction in mind, one can understand the efficacy of causality while recognizing that it is ultimately empty. So it may not be necessary for Buddhism and quantum mechanics to part ways on the issue of causality after all.

Allow me to elaborate on this point in greater detail. Causality in Buddhism consists of two distinct concepts, whose Sanskrit terms are hetu and pratyaya. These two concepts are of central importance in Buddhism. Usually hetu is translated as ‘cause’ and pratyaya as ‘condition.’ These are technical terms. Let us look at an example of a mango seed turning into a mango tree. Here the hetu, or cause of the transformation, is the seed itself, which is transformed into a mango tree. However, there are a number of corroborating conditions, such as moisture, warmth, sunshine, nutrients in the soil, and so forth, which all together make it possible for the seed to sprout. Now in the very first verse of the first chapter of the Fundametal Wisdom, Nagarjuna states that nothing whatsoever arises from itself, nor from other, nor from the two combined, nor from a cause (Fundamental Wisdom I: 1). The idea here is that, on the surface, no transformation is possible because the list Nagarjuna gives here is meant to be exhaustive. However, this flies in the face of common sense, and thus a way to interpret this important verse is that since things do not have inherent existence on their own, so their arisings and their relations with other things are devoid of inherent existence also. This shows that the concept of causality is itself empty. One cannot find causality inherently existing in objective reality. And this should be favorably comparable to the findings of quantum mechanics that Mansfield mentions in the book. The upshot, then, is that there isn’t necessarily a fundamental difference here.

In Chapter Six, Mansfield deals with relativity and the arrow of time. I would add here that this is perhaps the best exposition of Einstein’s theory of special relativity that I have found anywhere. Mansfield also touches upon the idea that time is irreversible, which is explained by recourse to the nature of the universe only a few seconds after the Big Bang. Since the universe expands too rapidly for gravitational force to work, it is possible for the level of entropy to increase, which means that things can decompose, heat can be dissipated, and so on. Since the increase of entropy is irreversible, time then is irreversible, and Mansfield beautifully ties this up with the very event right after the Big Bang. The fact that my life is irreversible and will go only in one direction is intimately connected with the very nature of the universe as it is currently unfolding.

Mansfield concludes the book with a moving chapter on “Toward the Union of Love and Knowledge,” where he discusses the practical side of science and Buddhism, both of which can lead to the reduction of suffering in the world. This is related to the Buddhist teaching that emptiness has always to be accompanied by compassion. Emptiness and compassion are but the two wings that together enable a bird to fly. In the same vein, there should be compassion in science. As science sees that all things are interdependent and that nothing exists inherently without relying on other things, Mansfield contends that science itself should be compassionate in that it must not lose sight of its being contextually bound and dependent on everything around it.

Among the number of books on Buddhism and science, Mansfield’s Tibetan Buddhism & Modern Physics stands out for its lucid exposition of complex subjects and the author’s sincerity in admitting areas of congruence as well as those that require further collaborative efforts. It would be very interesting to find a comparable book on another important area of the Buddhism and science dialogue, namely Buddhism and neuroscience.