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Quantum Buddhism: Dancing in Emptiness
Reality Revealed at the Interface of Quantum Physics and Buddhist Philosophy
2. Interconnected Lightness of Being
In a recent work offering simplified explanations of cutting edge theories of physics about the ultimate nature of the universe the popular mass consumption science writer Marcus Chown claims that the everyday phenomenon of partial reflection by glass, the fact that in many situations a glass window will produce a faint reflection of someone looking through it, tells us:
â€¦something profound and shocking about fundamental reality. It is telling you that the Universe, at its deepest level, is founded on randomness and unpredictability, the capricious role of a dice â€“ that, ultimately, things happen for no reason at allWe shall see in this chapter that this claim is false; in fact the phenomenon of the â€˜face in the windowâ€™ tells a very different story. This chapter investigates the phenomenon of entanglement and the implications of the patterns of behaviour which exist at the quantum level. Along the way it provides a detailed yet non-mathematical explanation of the nature and functioning of the quantum wave function.
The conclusion of the analysis indicates the remarkable interconnection between the Buddhist Avatamsaka Sutra:
There is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out indefinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel at the netâ€™s every node, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is infinite. and Marcus Chown's observation that:
Everything in the Universe is in some weird sense linked, since all particles â€“ those out of which you are made and those which constitute the most distant galaxy â€“ were once together in the same state in the Big Bang. The â€˜spookyâ€™ connectedness of particles, in violation of the cosmic speed limit, was cited by Einstein as a reason why quantum theory had to be wrong. Unfortunately for Einstein, careful experiments carried out in laboratories since the early 1980s have confirmed that particles can indeed communicate with each other instantaneously.
Exactly like photons orchestrating the dance of the phenomenon of partial reflection!
3. Why the Quantum?
John Wheeler, one of the great physicists of the twentieth century, indicated that the solution to the question ‘why the quantum?’ might contain the solution to the question of existence itself:
…eventually we will have an answer to the question ‘How come the quantum?’ And to the companion question, ‘How come existence?’
According to Wheeler, then, the answer to the question concerning the quantum nature of reality might contain the answer to the question which the philosopher Heidegger considered to be the most important question for philosophy; ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ The confrontation between the everyday world and the quantum world leads us to the very limits of what we can know about reality. And according to Wheeler the solution to the question regarding why the world has a quantum basis will provide an insight into the nature of existence itself. This is, indeed, an extraordinary possibility which should be sought at all cost.
This chapter investigates the inplications of the double slit experiment for our understanding of the nature of the realationship of 'matter' and 'consciousness'. The ultimate nature of reality can only be of the nature of consciousness. But more precisely the ultimate nature is indicated by the Buddhist concept of Emptiness:
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which accounts for the fact that quantum entities can ‘hover’ between existence and nonexistence, is certainly, but counter-intuitively, the aspect of quantum functioning which allows the phenomena of the universe to function coherently. And, as we have seen, the Buddhist concept of Emptiness, which describes the ultimate metaphysical nature at the heart of the process of reality, maps precisely onto the ontological structure of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It seems, then, that we can answer Wheeler’s question ‘Why the Quantum?’ with Nagarjuna’s answer:
For those for whom emptiness is possible,
4. What's the Matter with Matter?
not exist; or, to be more precise,
quantum physics has clearly shown that the concept of
‘matter’ as understood
within pre-quantum physics or ‘classical’ physics, the
physics from Renee Descartes’
time (17th century) down to the early twentieth century,
exist. At the turn of the twentieth century the comfortable world of
physics began to look less solid than had previously been thought and
subsequently the classical notion of ‘matter’ can no longer
connected with any existent entity within the universe.
In this chapter we review the development the discoveries which showed that Cartesian solid extended matter, conceived of as being independent of consciousness, does not exist.
The chapter concludes:
All of the quantum phenomena that we have explored in this overview display a behavioural profile which is completely at odds with any kind of notion that anybody ever had concerning independently existing, objective matter. However, we have seen occasions when the employment of the term ‘matter’ actually undermines the insights of quantum theory by introducing an inappropriate ‘classical’ flavour into the fluid, evanescent appearance of quantum reality. We have also seen that seminal experiments clearly indicate that quantum elements have modes of interacting and modes of being which are completely at variance with classical matter. The question remains – Why do physicists still refer to ‘matter’ as if it were valid to conceive of matter as having classical attributes clearly negated by the discovery of the nature of quantum reality? For, as the early Buddhist contemplative-ilosophers clearly knew, such an aspect of reality is an illusion, as the following assertion by the eleventh century Kadampa Buddhist adept Dromtonpa indicates: Now I shall cast to the winds concepts of solid objects with mass.
5. Quantum Emptiness
This chapter takes as its starting point the following two quotes, the first from contemporary quantum physicist the second from an important first century Buddhist philosopher:
Electrons passing through this apparatus, in so far as we are able to
fathom the matter, do not take route h and do not take route s and do
not take both of these routes and do not take neither of these routes;
and the trouble is that those four possibilities are simply all of the
It’s character is neither existent, nor non-existent,
This chapter logically and precisely shows that the description of the existence of the electron and the characterization of reality by Bhavaviveka are identical. Pursuing this line of enquiry with philosophical rigor it is possible to show that the central Buddhist Madhyamika concept of ‘emptiness’ is precisely descriptive of the nature of the wavefunction, this nature can be characterised as ‘neither existent, nor non-existent, nor both existent and non-existent, nor neither’ which is a Madhyamika formulation for emptiness.
Madhyamika reasonings revealing the empty nature of phenomena are presented. The Madhyamika chariot deconstruction which demonstrates the method of showing the lack of inherent existence of phenomena is presented followed by the ‘neither one nor many’ demonstration of the illusory nature of phenomena. These are supported by the Madhyamika analysis of the possibility of the existence of ‘partless particles’. All this leads to the Madhyamaka ‘quantum’ conclusion that all phenomena lack inherent existence. These are contrasted with similar views of quantum physicists such a Lee Smolin who suggests quantum physics shows that there are no ‘things’ but only ‘processes; in view of this the Madhyamika ‘diamond slivers’ reasoning is presented in order to demonstrate the impossibility of inherently real cause and effect processes.
A detailed and precise description of the vital role that the quantum delocation property of electrons, the ability to be in several places at the same time as maintaining an essential identity of ‘entity’, plays in the functioning of reality is outlined. This shows that the ‘empty’ nature of reality, demonstrated by Madhyamika logic, and discovered in quantum experiments, is essential for the universe to function; thus showing the precision of the Madhyamika assertion that ‘it is not despite emptiness that the universe functions, it is because of emptiness that it is able to function.’
The realm of emptiness as described by Buddhist philosophy is the realm of the wavefunction and it becomes clear that the sub-atomic realm can only function to produce reality because it hovers between existence and non-existence, which is the hallmark of emptiness. In other words it is only because ‘reality’ is an illusion that it can appear to function as an experienced reality.
6. Illusion or Reality?
In his book Quantum Physics–Illusion or Reality physicist Alastair Rae observes that the facts of quantum physics have led some people:
To believe that it is the actual human observer’s mind that is the only reality – everything else, including the whole physical universe is an illusion.
The general attitude adopted by the great many physicists working today is that of a retreat into the use of the mathematical procedures of quantum physics whilst ignoring the deep philosophical problem of what actually exists at the quantum level. Such an attitude, however, indicates a deep discomfort with some of the inescapable conclusions which cannot be avoid-ed with integrity. As the contemporary Buddhist philosopher Karl Brunnhoelzl points out:
…according to quantum physics there are no such things as matter, roads, cars, or bodies, so who or what is driving home after an exciting day at the quantum lab.
Such questions, however, are sidestepped by the majority of physicists who tend to simply rely on the mathematical notion of the wavefunction to do their calculations but do not bother about metaphysical implications.
In this chapter we 'thoroughly establish' the Buddhist Mind-Only conclusion that 'the whole physical universe is an illusion.'
7. Quantum Karma
According to quantum physicist Erich Joos the following three issues are the outstanding quantum conundrums of deep significance :
1. The meaning of the wavefunction
These three issues, together with the associated foundational question of the origin of the probabilities within the wavefunction, are answered in this, and following, chapters (the answer to the third has actually been partially covered in previous chapters).
Full and precise answers can be derived by melding together, in a completely natural manner the quantum insights of David Bohm, John Wheeler and Henry Stapp with the extraordinary account of the functioning of reality presented by the Buddhist Chittamatra-Yogacara (Mind-Only) metaphysical-ontological analysis of the functioning of reality. The potentialities within wavefunctions which have the greater probabilities are precisely those which have been reinforced more often by perceptual movements within individual consciousnesses, which have then left a reinforcing trace in a fundamental ‘implicate’ ground consciousness, which is the quantum realm of the wavefunction.
This Buddhist Yogacara perspective on the functioning of reality actually prefigures the insights of quantum physicist Henry Stapp and others. It indicates how karma operates within the wave function through perception and action; a view that dovetails precisely with ideas of John Wheeler, Henry Stapp and David Bohm etc. Later Buddhist texts precisely indicate that this karmic functioning through repeated intention, perception and action is the fundamental driving force behind the manifestation of the manifold realms of experience. A case for the actual process underlying the operation of karma at the quantum level is found within the work of Bohm, Wheeler, Stapp and others but is explicitly indicated by the Yogacara, Chittamatra and Jonang Buddhist metaphysical perspectives – contaminated acts of perception produce future experience. The final phase of this chapter is the indication of how karmic potentials are activated at future points through a resonance mechanism operating at the quantum level. A dramatic feature of this chapter is the explanation of how the process of quantum karmic resonance gives rise to the collective illusion of an independent material world.
8. Many Worlds of Illusion
Starting from a rigorous analysis of the Everett’s many-worlds theory of the wave function this chapter shows that a correct understanding of the many-worlds perspective emerges from viewing it from a Buddhist Mind-Only analysis. Everett considers that the generation of the many illusions of reality results from the movement of a subjective aspect of the universal wave function, the Mind-Only metaphysical analysis suggests that the illusions of reality derive from the production of a mistaken subjectivity within a universal karmic field of potentiality. The mapping between the two, when thoroughly grasped is dramatic. With this interpretation in place the many-worlds theory leads towards deep insights touched upon by Alan Wallace in his recent work ‘Hidden Dimensions’:
One commonly used Tibetan word for ‘world’ (srid pa)) has the connotation of ‘possibility’ and ‘the process of becoming’’ another closely related word (snang srid) refers to ‘all phenomena that can possibly appear’. … the act of meditation, or measurement, divides up the seamless fabric of reality, giving form to manifold worlds of illusory, dreamlike appearances.
The Mind-Only interpretation of Everett also acts as a stepping stone to the dramatic revelation of the cyclic process of reality which is contained within the Jonang ‘Mountain Doctrine’ which is the central focus of a later chapter.
An important aspect of the Mind-Only Many-Worlds viewpoint is the refutation of the commonly accepted, but easily refuted, notion, proposed by Everett enthusiast Bryce DeWitt, that Everett interpretation requires that every sentient being at every moment is ‘splitting’ into uncountable copies of themselves. The version of the quantum interpretation is shown by Madhyamaka based techniques of analysis to be incoherent. It is subsequently demonstrated that the correct understanding corresponds to the quantum-karmic-Mind-Only perspective developed in previous chapters.
The cycle of perceptual reinforcement within consciousness, automatically carried out by sentient beings trapped within the universal functioning of the wavefunction, determines the form of the repeated embodiment within the cycle of existence. This process takes places upon many levels, species, ethic group, and individual tendencies for instance. The correct analysis of the Everett concept, then, leads to a deep appreciation of the Buddhist concept of cyclic existence and embodiment determined by previous actions.
9. Choosing Reality
In this chapter we look at the quantum evidence for the conclusion that:
Thoughts and decisions, manifested within their internal feeling tones, are collapsed wavefunctions, the quality of having a thought, or making a decision, is the experience of a collapsing wavefunction inside an individuated consciousness, this is the inner experience of ‘meaning’. These choices on the part of individuated consciousnesses can be very significant beyond the immediacy of the act itself because not only do they determine an individual thought or action, they also act upon, and leave a trace upon the universe. As Professor Stapp says:
…each choice is intrinsically meaningful: each quantum choice injects meaning, in the form of enduring structure, into the physical universe.
It is these choices that collapse the wavefunction of reality in certain directions and thereby leave traces, or reinforce paths of possible experience, within both the subjective wavefunction of the consciousness of the individual and the objective wavefunction which contains the possibilities for future experiences. This means that every perception and every choice we make determines, to a vanishingly small degree, the future possibilities encoded into the universal wavefunction. So, as Professor Henry Stapp points out:
Causally efficacious mind is a prerequisite of ethical theory, and quantum theory allows it to be supplied by science…
10. Self-Perceiving Universe
This chapter explores the idea that the entrapment of sentient beings within the material world is due to an impersonal process which derives from the inner function of the universe of self-perception. It is this fundamental process that has been discovered by quantum theory. So, remarkably, quantum physics does play the role, as quantum physicist Victor Mansfield suggests, of an experimental metaphysics, it has discovered the fundamental metaphysical driving force of the process of reality. This metaphysical process of self-creation through self-perception was famously suggested by John Wheeler in his self-perceiving universe graphic image.
Because the nature of consciousness is fundamentally an inner, and ‘natural’, process of perception a field of countless perceiving ‘I’s must come into being; but they are trapped within the universal need for self perception, thus naturally giving rise to the experience which Buddhist philosophy calls ‘self-grasping’. The proliferation of the countless ‘I’s of embodiment are the result of the universe’s need to perceive itself. This maps directly onto, and completes, recent work by Paul Davies, Michael Heller and others, extending observations by Wheeler, which indicates that the universe is a self-creating process.
The Madhyamika concept of emptiness provides an answer to the hallowed question of ‘why there is something rather than nothing?’ and Wheeler’s question ‘why the quantum?’ These questions are answered by a complete understanding of emptiness and the nature of consciousness. This chapter intimates complete answer to the time hallowed question How come existence?
Emptiness can be considered to be the ground state of potentiality which ‘hovers’ between existence and non-existence. This empty state of the ground of reality is indicated by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle which clearly requires the ‘virtual’ particles of the quantum ground must flicker in and out of potential manifestation, hovering on the edge of existence. This state of the quantum ground is precisely echoed in the Buddhist notion of ‘empty particles’ which form the ground for the creation of manifestation for the universal process of reality.
11. Bursting the Bubble of the Universe
The Buddhist analyses of the nature of reality, upon which the teachings concerning the methods of transformation of psychophysical embodiment towards the attainment of enlightenment are based, are presented in three main phases; or three turnings of the wheel of dharma a term which indicates the truth of the Buddhist teaching. The three phases are: the fundamental vehicle (Hinayana), the Mind-Only presentation (Yogachara-Chittamatra) and the Middle Way presentation (Madhyamaka). The place in the sequence of the latter two is a matter of debate. Furthermore, the Madhyamaka itself has a twofold division into Svatantrika, the Autonomy School which employs arguments involving the provisional attribution of substantiality, and the Prasangika, which is the Consequence School employing reductio-ad-absurdum arguments, thus avoiding any attribution of substantiality. On the basis of these there are further refinements which are formed by melding together perspectives from different points of view. An example of this is provided by the important 8 th century contemplative-scholar Shantarakshita, one of the early Buddhist teachers in Tibet, who integrated the Yogachara and Madhyamaka and taught the system of the Yogachara-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka, which is the primary perspective of this book. This system, as well as the others mentioned above, are described in this chapter.
12. Empty Metaphors of Emptiness
The notion of svabhava, ‘inherent existence’, occupies a crucial place in the philosophical analysis of the Madhyamaka, even though it actually denotes something that is completely nonexistent! It is the theoretical entity that all phenomena are ‘empty’ of. Emptiness, or sunyata, is the central Madhyamaka concept which indicates the fact that all phenomena lack svabhava. There is no phenomenon that has its own inner core of independent, self-enclosed own-nature which marks it off and separates it absolutely from all other phenomena. But, as has been indicated previously, it is vital that ‘emptiness’ is not thought to be synonymous with ‘nothingness’, this would be seriously misleading. ‘Nothingness’ is the assertion of total non-existence, without a trace of appearance or experience, and this is definitely not the meaning of the ‘emptiness’ which is indicated by the Madhyamaka:
What has the character of appearance
Is definitely not negated.
It is not appropriate to negate
That which is experienced.
The fact that there is an interdependent web of experience which appears within the mental continuums of sentient beings is not by any means denied by the Madhyamaka analysis. What is refuted, or negated, is the notion, a notion that is deeply buried within the psyches of all sentient beings, that the experiential web of appearance has any ultimate inner stable independent nature anywhere within it. This is the ultimate nature of reality: emptiness; a nature which, paradoxically, indicates the ultimate lack of independent nature of all phenomena.
There are various way of presenting the concept of emptiness; two of the most fundamental from the perspective of the Madhyamaka are, firstly, the lack of ‘inherent existence’, which is sometimes also referred to as ‘true existence’, ‘own nature’ and other synonyms, and, secondly, dependent origination, which highlights the fact that there is nothing which does not depend upon something else for its apparent existence. The Chittamatra Mind-Only school presents emptiness from the viewpoint of the three natures: the imputational nature, the other-powered nature and the thoroughly established nature. Within this analysis, emptiness is the thoroughly established nature, which is defined as the absence of the imputational nature within the other-powered nature. These three presentations: the lack of inherent existence, dependent origination and the thoroughly established nature, are quite clearly all variations on a theme, and understanding the way in which they connect and relate to each other deepens our understanding of the idea of emptiness.
13. Luminous Quantum Heart of the Empty Wave of Reality
The Tibetan fourteenth century monumental work on other-emptiness, Mountain Doctrine, Ocean of Definitive Meaning: Final Unique Quintessential Instructions by Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, who proposed the controversial view of ultimate other-emptiness, known as the Jonang doctrine after the monastery that Dolpopa became head of, is replete with descriptions of ultimate reality which resonate with the theoretical entity that modern physics calls the wavefunction. Some of the synonyms which are indicative of an appreciation of the fact that the underlying reality of the process of reality is a field, or matrix, to use Planck’s terminology, of potentiality are:
The characterizations ‘body of attributes’, ‘element of attributes’, ‘source of attributes’, ‘matrix of phenomena’, ‘noumenon of phenomenon’ and ‘source of all phenomena’ and so on clearly adumbrate what we would consider today to be a wavefunction. The epithet ‘containing all worlds’ clearly indicates the close connection with the quantum many-worlds hypothesis, which we have explored in detail in Many Worlds of Illusion. We might also note that the nature of this fundamental element, or matrix, of reality is described as ‘a nature of dreams,’ a designation which resonates with Zurek’s description of the quantum epiontic ‘dream stuff’ of reality.
Dolpopa certainly seems to radically disagree with Tsongkhapa’s view that reality is ‘not truly existent ultimately’:
I say that the buddha-nature has six qualities-permanence, reality, truth, purity, and perception.
A similar positive view of the ultimate nature of the process of reality is shared by the profound teachings of the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, concerning the ‘luminous mind’ of the buddha-nature which is the ‘stainless Heart of the victors.’ The following is from Nagarjuna’s In Praise of Dharmadhatu (Dharmadhatustava) :
…mind that is so luminous
Is soiled by stains of craving and so forth.
The afflictions burn in wisdom's fire,
But its luminosity does not.
14. Anthropic Self-Transcending Universe
Quantum physics has provided a new opportunity for revisiting the problem of the existence of ‘God’ in a remarkable new setting. Although the existence of an independent creator God which is required by mainstream, non-mystical Christianity certainly cannot be rescued by a quantum expedition, the philosophical dimension of quantum theory has a radically revelatory impact for our understanding of the authentic nature of spirituality; a fresh approach which finds a significant and powerful context within what might be described as a Quantum Mind-Only Anthropic ‘mystical’ metaphysics of the process of reality.