In the course of discovering and analyzing the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist worldview, a westerner will find many ideas and processes that seem alien to the Occidental scientific tradition. This should not be surprising, since these two traditions evolved largely unaware of each other, in different geographic, social, and intellectual environments. Given the fairly short history of Buddhism in the West, and the formidable barriers that face any who try to transcend the cultural packaging of ideas (language being just one of the more obvious), it is little wonder that only relatively recently has there been any effort to compare anything within Buddhism to the physics of the West. When we consider the centuries-old schism in the West between religion and science, it is not hard to understand why so few Western scientists have even looked to see what value there is, if any, in this alien and curiously packaged set of ideas.
With Buddhism pigeonholed into the "religion" slot, for many reasons good and bad, a serious and rigorous analysis of the "physics" paradigm in Buddhist thought has been long in coming. Conversely, only recently have many experts in the disciplines required to understand Madhyamika, the Middle Way, a core element of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist worldview, been exposed to the ideas and physical sciences of the West. This paper thus attempts to make the subjects discussed intelligible to one who may know western physics but little Buddhism, as well as to one who may know Buddhism but little physics.
For the first part of this paper, I set aside the achievements of western science to embark on a description of the fundamentals of the Madhyamika theory of existence. My intent is to shed light on certain aspects of Tibetan methodology while exposing the elementary assertions of their "particle physics". The second part of the paper will try to describe concepts and positions in modern quantum physics, and then relate them to analogous Buddhist concepts detailed in the first part. Finally, we'll take a look at what the confluence of ideas might mean for each tradition, from a historical perspective, with the interpretation of the status of particles providing a focus for the greater questions.
I will not presume to exhaustively delineate the subtle differences between schools of thought in Madhyamika, which is a vast and heavily debated body of literature and oral tradition. Our way will be to access the logic of Madhyamika by means of a side door, the issue of "particles", as referred to by the Madhyamika traditions in pursuit of the correct understanding of the Buddha's statements regarding key concepts such as Emptiness, Dependent Arising and the Two Truths. Arguments over how much (if any) substantiality should be attributed to conventional phenomena can be addressed at the level of the hypothetical "smallest particle". In this context the concept of "selflessness of phenomena" will arise and be addressed, and we'll look into the question of whether truths found at the smallest level may be applied to "composite" phenomena.
After examining Madhyamika and physics on their own, we will describe a continuum between two extremes in western scientific philosophies, those of Realism and Instrumentalism, which parallels classical Buddhist lines of thought and suggests a Middle Way for science, one which avoids the untenable conclusions inherent in abiding in either of the extremes. Curiously, support for this use of Madhyamika tactics comes from western particle physics.
Of all the subjects discussed by Madhyamika philosophers, particle analysis has perhaps the strongest analog in the West. A comparison of concepts and methodology used by modern Tibetan Buddhists and modern quantum physicists can provide a deeper understanding of both disciplines, if one is willing to entertain the notion that the logic and insight of Madhyamika addresses the same world that science describes. Western physicists do not seem to have taken much interest in Madhyamika to date, but Tibetan monasteries in exile have begun to require the monks to study Western physics along with their traditional curriculum.
I have long thought that Western science and Eastern philosophy should join together to create a really complete and full-fledged human being for the modern world. Only in this way will we emerge strengthened from our present condition and become whole. (1)
-His Holiness The Fourteenth Dalai Lama
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End Notes and Works Cited
Copyright © 2005 Dan Haig