The Quantum and the Lotus

My next talk will be at Thammasat University this Saturday. It is on the new translation of the book The Quantum and the Lotus, which has just been completed by Suan Ngern Mee Ma Press. The book is an extended conversation between Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan. The former is a former molecular biologist who turned to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and the latter was born in a Buddhist culture and became a well known astrophysicist working in the US.

So we have a symmetrical contrast — a French scientist who became a monk and a Vietnamese who became a scientist. The symmetry would have been more perfect if Thuan had been a monk first and then disrobed. But that is not too necessary. The idea of the book is a dialog on various topics between Buddhism, represented by Ricard, and science, represented in Thuan. This in itself is a welcoming reversal to the perhaps stereotypical perception that science belongs to the West and Buddhism to the East.

The book started with a background of both Ricard and Thuan — how both became what they are right now, and it gave an account of the two’s long conversation together when they met in a conference, an event which led to the present book. The chapters deal with topics which are of interest to both Buddhists and the scientists, such as, the structure of matter, the beginning and the end of the universe, mind, consciousness, mathematics, whether real knowledge and truth can be obtained through either Buddhism or science, and so on.

The first chapter opened with a general account of the orientation of both Buddhism and science. What are the purposes or the objectives of both enterprises? Science, of course, aims at finding truth about the natural phenomena, theories that would explain how the phenomena came about and how they are to be understood. Buddhism, according to Ricard, aims at the same goal. Buddhism has an interest in knowing what the truth is like, because then the practitioner would gain an insight which will lead him or her to attain the Final Goal, that of liberation from all sufferings.

And here is the main difference between science and Buddhism lies. Science appears to want to know how things are just for the sake of it, or at least that is the version usually put to us by scientists, who claim that the purpose of basic, in contrast to applied, science, is just to know the truth without using the acquired knowledge for some other purposes. This account of the distinction between basic and applied science is very much contested, because even the so-called basic science is fraught with interests which are immediate and social, but that would take us further from the present point of this essay, so more on this later. The point here is that the version of the real distinction between basic and applied science here appears to contrast with Buddhism. For Buddhism it is not enough just to learn how things are just for the sake of it. Buddhists would say that that is an example of lobha, or desire, in this case desire for more and more knowledge. If this is so, then the desire for more knowledge would lead us further away from the Final Goal. So if science is viewed in this way, then the objectives of both seem to lead each in opposite directions.

The Thai version
The Thai version

That does not seem to be what Ricard has in mind in his dialog with his physicist counterpart. According to Ricard, Buddhism has an interest in finding truth about the natural phenomena, and he apparently believes that only through getting at this truth is the Goal possible. However, if such is really the case, then it becomes difficult to understand how the Goal has actually been achieved by countless practitioners of Buddhism throughout the ages. This is because even now such truth about the natural phenomena has not been fully achieved. Scientists are still debating among themselves and are frankly acknowledging that there is a lot that we do not yet know about our natural world. What, for example, is Dark Matter or Dark Energy? Right now there is no satisfactory account. Are there really parallel universes or ‘multiverses’ where our own is just one among countlessly many?

According to Ricard, one would have to learn about how things really are before one has a chance to gain Realization. After quoting the Buddha in one of the sutras when he told his students that his teachings were only a handful when compared to the whole of knowable things, which were as many as all the leaves in the forest, Ricard says:

But experience shows that it is necessary to understand correctly the nature of the exterior world and of the ego, or what we term ‘reality,’ if we want to eliminate ignorance. That is why the Buddha made this the central theme of his teaching. (The Quantum and the Lotus, Random House 2001, pp. 12-13.)

The problem here is how much of this ‘correct understanding’ would suffice. The Buddha’s parable of the leaves in his hand and the leaves in the forest shows that we can make do with the small amount we have and achieve the Goal. This would be all we need if what we really want is to achieve the Goal and nothing else. Science, on the other hand, seems to want more and more. You can’t stop at the level where you smash atoms to bits; you have to smash the bits further and get even smaller bits. You can’t stop at seeing this far out in space; you have see even further and further. But do the ever smaller bits belong to the leaves in the Buddha’s hands or out there in the forest?

It is true in a way that Buddhism has an interest in knowing the reality. Ricard’s examples of knowing the real nature of the ego and the “empty” characteristic of everything are good ones. But in Buddhism it does ultimately speaking not matter whether what you get is the real truth any way, so long as you sincerely believe it is. This is very difficult for non-Buddhists and especially scientists to understand, because they typically would think that our own thinking or conception of things is one thing, and what is out there objectively is another. But that is not the case in Buddhism. You will achieve Liberation if you sincerely believe that the ego is just a mental or conceptual construction and that reality is empty of inherent characteristics. What things really are outside of our conception or perception is not so important. They can be anything they like. They don’t matter at all.

One of the main practices in Tantric Buddhism is to visualize that the place that we are in right now is the Buddha’s realm full of jewels and the like. Every sound that we hear is mantra; every sight that of an enlightened being; the air we breathe is the air of Enlightenment, and so on. Here what scientists or empiricists usually take to be the “truth” has no place. In full visualization, in the eyes of an enlightened one, a “truth” is just that, a bubble in the water.

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