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At the crossroads
Are there any grounds for a dialogue between science and Buddhism? To find out, we must first clarify the pursuits of each, and then explore whether Buddhism (and spirituality in general) can complement science in important ways, particularly concerning ethics, personal transformation, knowledge of ourselves, and genuine spiritual insight. Buddhism has always been interested in questions that are also basic to modern physics. Might science therefore also help Buddhism in its exploration of reality?
MATTHIEU: You've made an impressive journey from Vietnam to your life as an astrophysicist in the United States. What drew you into a life in science?
THUAN: The 1960s were a golden age for astrophysics, with many great discoveries being made, such as the detection of the cosmic background radiation, which is the residual heat from the Big Bang; the discovery of pulsars, which are stars made entirely of neutrons; and the identification of quasars, which are celestial objects in far distant space, near the edge of the universe, that emit an extraordinary amount of energy. When I arrived in the United States, satellite exploration of the solar system had gotten into full swing. I can still remember the wonder of watching the first images of the surface of Mars transmitted by the space probe Mariner on a screen in our classroom. Those pictures of a dry, sterile desert told humanity that there was no intelligent life on Mars.
The canals that nineteenth-century astronomers thought they'd seen turned out to be nothing but optical illusions created by sandstorms. In the midst of such intellectual ferment, I just had to become an astrophysicist. Ever since, I've continued to marvel at the wonders of the universe, observing it through state-of-the-art telescopes, all the while thinking about its nature, origin, evolution, and destiny.
What did you find unfulfilling about your scientific career? Leaving a biology lab in Paris for a Tibetan monastery in Nepal is an unusual move, to say the least.
MATTHIEU: It was a natural progression, a step in an increasingly thrilling exploration of the meaning of life. All I did was leap from one stone to the next, go from one valley into another, into ever more beautiful realms. I followed where my passions led, while trying not to waste a single moment of this priceless human existence. I was lucky enough to live for thirty years alongside some remarkable Buddhist masters. This was a simple, direct experience, but also so profound that I always find it difficult to describe. You can recognize human and spiritual perfection when you see it, but the usual words that come to mind-wisdom, knowledge, goodness, nobility, simplicity, rigor, integrity-just aren't enough.
I think what everyone should be doing, before it's too late, is committing themselves to what they really want to do with their lives. Scientific research was interesting, of course, but I felt as though I was just adding a tiny dot of color to a pointillist canvas without knowing what the final composition would be like. So was it worth giving up all the unique opportunities of a human existence for that? In Buddhism, on the other hand, the point of departure, the goal to be reached, the means to that end, and the obstacles in the way are all perfectly clear. All you have to do is to look into your own mind and see that it is so often dominated by egoism, and that egoism derives from a deep ignorance of the true nature of ourselves and of the world. This state of affairs inevitably makes us and others suffer. Our most urgent task is to put a stop to this. The means to this end is to develop love and compassion, and to eradicate ignorance by following the path of enlightenment. As the days and years go by a tangible change takes place that creates a rare joy, exempt from hope or fear, which has constantly nourished my enthusiasm.
T: So why this conversation with a scientist?
M: One of Buddhist philosophy's main tasks is to study the nature of reality, and science offers many compelling insights into the nature of our world.
T: My work constantly raises questions about reality, matter, time, and space. Whenever I come up against such concepts, I can't help wondering how Buddhism deals with them, and how the scientific view of reality corresponds to the idea of reality in Buddhism. Do these two points of view coincide, are they opposed, or do they simply have nothing in common? I haven't studied Buddhist texts, so I don't have the knowledge necessary to answer such questions.
M: Is there a solid reality behind appearances? What is the origin of the world of phenomena, the world that we see as "real" all around us? What is the relationship between the animate and the inanimate, between the subject and the object? Do time, space, and the laws of nature really exist? Buddhist philosophers have been studying these questions for the last 2,500 years. Buddhist literature abounds with logical treatises, theories of perception, analyses of different levels of the world of phenomena, and psychological treatises exploring aspects of consciousness and the ultimate nature of our minds.
T: Are you saying that Buddhism is a science of the mind? Is it a science in the same sense as a natural science-that is to say, based on observation, with mathematics as its language?
M: The authenticity of a science doesn't necessarily depend on physical measurements and complex equations. A hypothesis can be checked by inner experience in a rigorous way. The Buddhist method begins with analysis and then often uses "thought experiments," which are hypothetical experiments conducted in the mind, but which lead to irrefutable conclusions, even though the experiments cannot be physically carried out. This technique is widely used in science.
T: That's right. Thought experiments are extremely useful in physics in particular. Einstein and other great physicists have used them not only to demonstrate physical principles, but also to point out paradoxes in some physical situations. For example, when studying the nature of time and space, Einstein imagined himself astride a particle of light. When thinking about gravity, he saw himself in an elevator falling through a vacuum.
I understand that the questions explored by modern physics echo the investigations of Buddhism in unexpected ways. But why is Buddhism interested in modern science, and in particular in physics and astrophysics?
M: Of course, modern science isn't Buddhism's main preoccupation. But there is interest in the findings of science because Buddhism has long been asking similar questions. Can separate, indivisible particles be the "building blocks" of the world? Do they really exist, or are they just concepts that help us understand reality? Are the laws of physics immutable, and do they have an intrinsic existence, like Platonic ideals? While not exaggerating superficial similarities, a study of both the differences and points of agreement between science and Buddhism may help us to deepen our understanding of the world.
Buddhist research is, above all, based on insights perceived through direct life experience, and is not bound by rigid dogma. It is ready to accept any vision of reality that is perceived as authentic. One of its main goals is precisely to bridge the gap between the way things really are and the way they seem to be. The Buddha often put his disciples on their guard against the dangers of blind faith. He said, "Investigate the validity of my teachings as you would examine the purity of gold, rubbing it against a stone, hammering it, melting it. Do not accept my words simply out of respect for me. Accept them when you see that they are true."
But the simple accumulation of knowledge is not enough. My teacher Khyentse Rinpoche said, "If you amass intellectual learning just so that you will be influential and famous, your state of mind is no different from that of a beggar sponging off the rich. Such knowledge will bring no advantage either to yourself or to others. As the proverb goes: 'Much knowledge, much pride.' How can you be of help to others unless you subjugate the negative tendencies that are anchored in your very being? To think that you can is just a joke-like a penniless beggar inviting the whole village to a feast."1 There are many signs of success in the contemplative life. But the most important is that after a few months or years, your egoism has lessened and your altruism has increased. If attachments, hatred, pride, and jealousy still remain as strong as before, then you have wasted your time, gone down a blind alley and fooled other people. In contrast, knowledge of natural science allows us to influence the world, either constructively or negatively, while having relatively little effect on ourselves. It is obvious that since scientific knowledge has no connection with goodness or altruism, it cannot create moral values. So we need a contemplative science, in which the mind itself investigates the mind, in order to dispel the fundamental delusions that generate so much suffering for ourselves and others.
T: My understanding is that the Buddha's teaching was essentially practical. He said that our main objective in life should be to improve ourselves rather than worrying about the origin of the universe or the nature of matter.
M: When someone asked the Buddha about the origin of the universe, then kept on asking him questions that had nothing to do with spiritual progress, he remained silent. Buddhism is essentially a path toward enlightenment. It establishes a natural ranking between different forms of knowledge, particularly between those that help in this objective and those that are of little use, no matter how interesting they may be.
T: What does Buddhism mean by "enlightenment"?
M: A state of supreme knowledge, combined with infinite compassion. Knowledge, in this case, does not mean merely the accumulation of data or a description of the world of phenomena down to the finest details. Enlightenment is an understanding of both the relative mode of existence (the way in which things appear to us) and the ultimate mode of existence (the true nature of these same appearances). This includes our own minds as well as the external world. Such knowledge is the basic antidote to ignorance.
But by ignorance we do not mean a simple lack of information. Rather we mean a false vision of reality that makes us think that things we see around us are permanent and solid, or that our egos are real. This leads us to mistake fleeting pleasures or the alleviation of pain for lasting happiness. Such ignorance also makes us build our happiness on others' misery. We are drawn to what satisfies our ego, and are repulsed by what might harm it. Thus, little by little, we create ever greater mental confusion until we behave in a totally egocentric manner. Ignorance perpetuates itself, and our inner peace is destroyed. Buddhism's form of knowledge is the final antidote to suffering. In this sense, I must admit that knowing the brightness of stars or the distance between them may have a certain utility, but it cannot teach us how to become better people.
T: That's exactly why I've thought that Buddhism ignores knowledge that doesn't directly influence our spiritual and moral evolution and our daily behavior. How can knowing about the origin of the universe and its destiny or the nature of time and space help us reach Nirvana?
M: Another man asked the Buddha some questions about cosmology. In reply, he picked up a handful of leaves and asked, "Are there more leaves in my hands, or in the forest?" "There are more in the forest, of course," replied the man. The Buddha went on, "Well, the leaves in my hand represent the knowledge that leads to the end of suffering." In this way the Buddha showed that certain questions are superfluous. The world has limitless fields of study, as numerous as the leaves of the forest. But if what we want more than anything else is enlightenment, then it is better to concentrate entirely on that aim and gather together only the knowledge that is directly relevant to our quest.
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. He also emphasized the difference between how we perceive phenomena and their true nature, as well as the evil effects of such confusion. Mistaking a rope for a snake in a dimly lighted forest causes ungrounded fear. But as soon as light is cast on the rope and its true nature is revealed, then fear fades away. Buddhist investigations show that the individual ego and the external phenomena of our world are not separated. The distinction between "self" and "others" is purely illusory. Buddhism calls the true state of reality "emptiness,"2 or the absence of intrinsic existence. One of our greatest errors is to believe in a solid reality to what we perceive. This idea of a solid reality has dominated Western philosophical, religious, and scientific thought for over two thousand years.
From the Hardcover edition.