Atom Smasher — A Buddhist Response

By now everybody is talking about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that CERN is putting up and has already turned on. As is now widely known, the purpose of this super supercollider is to smash protons to bits to learn what is inside of them. It is believed that this could shed light into the early components of the universe a few billionths of a second right after the Big Bang. This could be a milestone in history of science and in our understanding of our universe.

So it is an appropriate moment to draft up a Buddhist response, or my response to the whole thing anyway. In Buddhism there is a theory of the composition of matter, which can be found in the Abhidharma. It is said that that matter is composed of some very tiny particles and it is the arrangement of these particles that lead to the formation of the ordinary objects that we know, such as tables, chairs, stars and so on.

It is said in the Pali Abhidhammattha-Sanghaha, or the Manual of Abhidhamma, one of the key texts in Theravada Buddhism, that ordinary material objects are composed of very tiny paramanu. The text describes this as follows:

It should be noted that the atomic theory prevailed in India in the time of the Buddha. Paramanu was the ancient term for the modern atom. According to the ancient belief one ratharenu consists of 16 tajjaris, one tajjari, 16 anus; one anu, 16 paramanus. The minute particles of dust seen dancing in the sunbeam are called ratharenus. One paramanu is, therefore, 4096th part of a ratharenu. This paramanu was considered indivisible (A Manual of Abhidhamma or Abhidhammatha-Sanghaha, p. 318).

I did not have time to look up how big or small a ratharenu is, but the idea should be clear. Things are ultimately composed of paramanu, and I have heard some scholars say that one paramanu is about one nanometer wide (This is only an approximation). And according to the Abhidhamma the paramanu is considered indivisible. So the picture is a basic one of tiny particles making up the material world.

However, the Abhidhamma (or ‘Abhidharma’ in Sanskrit) is only a school of thought within Buddhism. This fact is much obscured in Thai Buddhism because of the veneration that the Abhidhamma canon has received being one of the three ‘baskets’ of the Buddhism scripture. Very few in Thailand have a chance to study the other schools of thought in the other traditions, so they come to take the Abhidhamma itself as the final word of the Buddha, where in fact in the Suttas the Buddha scarcely mentions topics such as basic composition of matter, if at all.

So the point is that there are other traditions of Buddhism which do not subscribe to the atomic theory of the Abhidhamma. This is well known in Tibetan Buddhism, which has received all the earlier and later developments of Buddhism from India. Other schools, most notably the Madhyamaka, say that, ultimately speaking, even the paramanus do not exist from their own side. That is, on the objective side of the matter, there can be no such thing as the paramanu, and since there is no paramanu, all material things are but illusions created by the mind when it fabricates reality through concepts and language. At one level there is Emptiness, but at another level there are all the things that we know and are familiar with. However, these two levels do not mean that one is shallow and the other is deep. On the contrary the two ‘levels’ are more or less the same, so to speak. This is because Emptiness itself is empty, there being no ‘thing’ such that it could be regarded as the ‘Emptiness’. ‘Emptiness’ is just a term to signify things in the world, only emphasizing their interdependence and lack of inherent characteristics. So on a “deeper” level behind the ordinary things there might be Emptiness, but then at the deeper level than Emptiness itself are these ordinary things like tables and chairs.

So how is this related to the atom smasher? One thing it might do is that it might provide either a support or a counterexample to the Abhidhammic theory. Smashing protons together might yield some further, hitherto unknown, particle that might well correspond to the paramanu. Or it might not, because coming from the ancient tradition the paramanu could then be further interpreted in either way.

But my real point is not with the Abhidhamma. The point is that anything that happens as a result of the smashing will not only answer some old questions, but will open up a whole host of new questions to keep physicists busy for a foreseeable period. Suppose the smashing yield some smaller particles that we have not known before, then there will be further questions as to whether these smaller particles themselves are basic and indestructible, or whether they can be smashed further. Or could it be that after the smashing nothing is revealed of the proton except for something that could not be classified as matter at all? In any case the colliding and smashing will always yield more questions, perhaps more than answers.

Will in the end the experiment provide an evidence to the Madhayamaka’s idea that all material objects are at the ultimate level ’empty.’ This could be so, and let us see what happens as a result of this smashing.

I end with a YouTube video very clearly describing the whole process:


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