As Space-Time Goes By

There’s this movie where a character named Sam sings a song that become rather well known, but not all of the original lyrics by Hubert Hupfeld found their way on the soundtrack:

Arthur “Dooley” Wilson as Sam in Casablanca

Yet we get a trifle weary
With Mr. Einstein’s theory
So we must get down to earth at times

This is true, but fortunately there are some folks here on earth who have their eyes glued to the stars . . .

Some of them work with The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a joint project of MIT and Caltech, and they have been looking for gravitational waves.

In his Theory of General Relativity, Einstein predicted that violent cosmic events would set off gravitational waves, which are vibrations or ripples in the fabric of space-time.

No one thought it was possible to see these ripples, let alone confirm their reality. But it was announced Thursday that scientists have detected gravitational waves, confirming Einstein’s prediction and also answering the question, how smart was Einstein? Really smart.

According to a paper just published in Physical Review Letters, “On September 14, 2015 at 09:50:45 UTC the two detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory simultaneously observed a transient gravitational-wave signal.”

Evidently, in general relativity, when two black holes “merge”, they produce a Kerr black hole that spins as “quasicircular inspirals” (I think that means to spin inwardly) and these were “predicted uniquely by Einstein’s equations.”

This computer-generated image from Caltech shows the ripples in space-time created by colliding black holes.

The gravitational-wave signal detected by the LIGOs were ripples of a super-massive collision of two black holes from 1.3 billion years ago. It is astounding to think about.

I suppose it’s rather obvious to say that without thought and other sensory qualities, we could not apprehend space. But what we think of as being space is often mistaken, as is the case with the Buddhist concept of sunyata or emptiness. Space is not empty in the literal sense; rather it is completely filled with an intangible, seemingly infinite continuum that we call time. Buddhism teaches that space and time are inseparable, and in this way, they are both empty because neither has its own independent reality.

Space is not nothingness and neither is emptiness. As far as time goes, I’m not sure because in quantum physics time does not exist, so it might be nothing.  Einstein, the Nagarjuna of modern science, destroyed the idea of time as a universal constant.  That’s the ultimate truth.

On the relative truth level, time is the extent along which change progresses and without change then time could not be experienced or observed.

Anyway, we can find significant intersections between Theory of Relativity and the Buddhist concepts of Interdependency (pratitya-samutpada) and emptiness, and if we dig deeper, we can also discover that Einstein’s thinking was similar to the Buddhist philosophy in some other ways:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

– Albert Einstein

Now, according to the song, when two lovers have a merger (technical term: woo)

They still say, “I love you”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by


Reality, a process: Interdependence, Emptiness and Physics

At a teaching I attended in 2002, the Dalai Lama said that the principle of “dependent origination is the foundation for all the diverse concepts in Buddhism.”

bodhi-treeIndeed, it is. In one of the versions of the Buddha’s crucial night of analytical discovery via meditation beneath the Bodhi Tree, it is precisely dependent origination that he realized.  This analysis is a core teaching and the foundation for the philosophy of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school and nearly the entire Mahayana tradition.

In early Buddhism, dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada) was primarily used to explain the law of causation, the chain of cause, effect, and conditioning:

Ignorance > Karma > Consciousness > Name-Form > Senses > Contact > Feeling > Craving > Grasping > Becoming > Old age and death > Rebirth

The fundamental state of being is ignorance, conditioned by the imprints or seeds of past actions, habits and relationships (karma), which gives rise to consciousness, which is joined to name-form (the psycho-physical entity, specifically the embryo in the womb), which activates the six-senses; the senses come into contact with objects of desire and as a result, feeling, craving and grasping arise; these factors cause and condition the becoming of life and all that is becoming (existing) is subject to old age and death, and with the theory of rebirth, everything is set to be repeated in a future life, a continuum of consciousness within an seemingly endless cycle of birth and death.

By the time the Mahayana tradition was established, the focus of the analysis was less on how things come to be and more about how nothing can exist by itself, that everything is interconnected and inter-related. This is one reason why I prefer to describe pratitya-samutpada as interdependence. Dependent origination or dependent arising sounds too much like a form of creationism.

For Nagarjuna, the architect of Madhyamaka philosophy, interdependence was synonymous with emptiness (sunyata). In one respect, Nagarjuna’s teachings were a response and rejection of earlier Buddhist teachings presented in the Abhidharma (Sanskrit) or Abhidhamma (Pali), texts that contained detailed analyses of dharmas or “things”, which became the theoretical foundation for the Buddhist conception of reality. In the Abhidharma view, individuals are empty of “self”, but dharmas have own-being (svabhava). These dharmas are the building blocks of the universe and while they have only a momentary duration, their nature is fixed and irreducible. This concept projected a reality that was particle-like, similar to the Newton/Cartesian view of reality. In science, quantum physics deconstructed that view. In Buddhism, it was the Prajna-Paramita sutras and the commentaries by Nagarjuna which destroyed the Abhidharma view.

The true nature of reality (paramarthasatya) can be termed as the “emptiness of own-being” (svabhava-sunyata) and “interdependency” (pratitya-samutpada). Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka’s taught that neither an individual nor dharma have an own-being that exists by its own right.

In a recent post, I mentioned the Sanskrit word parikalpita, meaning imaginary or the “imagined.” The Soothill Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms defines it as “Counting everything as real, the way of the unenlightened; The nature of the unenlightened, holding to the tenet that everything is calculable or reliable, i.e. is what it appears to be.” Paraikapita is one of the three natures (tri-svabhava) that imagines a duality between subject and object. This imagined reality is an illusion, a thought construction superimposed on the true reality. Like a veil, it conceals the truth of emptiness/interdependency and all we see in our ordinary experience is an apparent reality, in which things appear to exist by their own right and seem to possess a nature or being that is permanent, independent, unconditioned and designed.

Mu Soeng Sunim in his book Heart Sutra Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality, gives us a glimpse into how emptiness and interdependency compare to modern physics:

Energy, whether of wave of particle, is associated with activity, with dynamic change. Thus the core of the universe – whether we see it as the heart of the atom or our own consciousness – is not static but in a state of constant and dynamic change. This energy – now wave, now particle – infuses each and every form at the cellular level. No form exists without being infused by this universal energy; form and energy interpenetrate each other endlessly in a ever-changing dance of the molecules, creating our universe. This universal energy is itself a process . . .”

In this way, we could also say that reality is a process.

In Madhyamaka philosophy, any duality between subject and object is considered to be imagined (parikalpita again); there is no independently existing ‘experiencer’ apart from the experience, and experience can be also designated as a process. As Sumin notes, in the world of subatomic physics there are no objects, only processes. Atoms consist of particles but these particles are literally empty.

2001a2So, we are aware now that reality is not particle-like but more like the nature of space. The common idea of space is an empty three-dimensional area. But there is no empty space (if by empty space, one means nothingness), space is actually permeated with an impalpable continuum. But the three dimensional aspect we perceive is somewhat of an illusion, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it is not the full reality. Not long ago some researchers, attempting to find a solution to the puzzle of space-time dimensionality, using a supercomputer, found that when the universe was created by the Big Bang, it had 10 dimensions – 9 spatial and 1 temporal – but only 3 of the spatial dimensions expanded. As I understand it, since only 3 dimensions expanded, and ours is an expanding universe, this accounts for the appearance that we live in a 3 dimensional reality. As Shakespeare said, “there are more things in the universe than are dreamt of in your science books.” Or, something like that.

One of the great benefits of Buddhism is that it helps us to see things as they are without having to become physicists, and we are encouraged to consider the possibility of seeing things differently, from various angles. Nothing is fixed, static. Many people tend to equate emptiness with nothingness. A better way to look at it is to think of emptiness as an expanse, particularly an expanse of mind, for one aspect of emptiness is that it means awareness, it is the penetrating insight into the actual nature of reality. Since Buddhism is also concerned with the problem of suffering, it’s helpful to view it as an expanse as well. Lex Hixon, in The Mother of the Buddhas, writes,

The relative truth of existence is that it is an expanse of suffering beings, a condition which is the motivation for the precious Mahayana commitment to universal conscious awakening. This relative truth of suffering must not be swallowed up, even subtly, by the absolute truth that Reality is an inherently selfless expanse, empty space, intrinsically peaceful.”

2001bAwareness is an expanse and like the universe, it should be ever expanding. That is why I don’t accept anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, “supreme perfect enlightenment.” If awareness is not static, then neither is enlightenment; it too is a process.

Finally, interdependency or pratitya-samutpada – the insubstantiality, the interconnectedness, the expansiveness of reality – is not only the foundation for all the diverse concepts in Buddhism, it is also the ground of the diverse world. Emptiness is the cause of interdependency and emptiness is not only a synonym for interdependence, it is also a synonym for something else:

That which is of the nature of coming and going, arising and perishing, in its saha (mundane) nature is itself Nirvana in its unconditioned (ultimate) nature.”

– Nagarjuna, “Treatise on the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra”


The External World

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says,

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”

Almost all Buddhists have accepted this core idea for 2500 years. The world is a construction of the mind. The words we use to describe the world, the names (nama) and signs (laksana), more thought constructions, are meaningless as they cannot be one with the referent they direct our attention to, and all of it is an illusion, because it’s all empty.

This is the view from the ultimate truth. The conventional truth is, well, conventional. Things exist, they have substance, at least temporarily. The palm tree outside my window was there years before I came along. It was made by a seed, not my mind. I’d like to make trees with my mind. I’d make a lot of money.

The ultimate truth is taught in order to break our attachment to these constructions of thought and to clear away the illusion. Now when we say that everything is an illusion, there is a small caveat involved. It doesn’t mean to suggest that nothing is real. It means that the way our mind normally constructs, or rather perceives, the world is illusory, as it often does not include interconnectedness. We tend to see things as being separate.

Our environment is an excellent example. Until recent times, human beings viewed their environment as something separate from them, in terms of individual parts rather than as a whole. Based on this illusion, we have polluted the earth, not realizing that the pollution of one part of the environment would have an effect on the other parts. Now, forced awake by climate change, we understand that this thing we call the world is a single living organism composed of smaller organisms functioning in a complex interrelationship.

The culture of human thinking has created the illusion of dualism, projecting a world of opposites, separate parts. To think holistically, focusing on the whole and the interdependence of its parts, is called non-dualism, although I think the Sanskrit word advaita, which means “not two” expresses it better. Human beings and their environment are “two but not two” (Jp. esho funi).

When we talk about seeing the external world as it truly is, we mean understanding the relationship between the ultimate and the conventional, recognizing that while there is some degree of separation between our-selves and the world around us, there is no real determinate essence of separateness.

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

As I wrote recently, this is such an important point it bears consistent repeating. Another term we use to describe the interconnectedness of all things is ‘emptiness’ or sunyata, a Sanskrit word, a noun derived from the adjective sunya, meaning ‘empty.’ All things are empty of a independent self or own-being.

For those of us who practice Buddhism, an understanding of emptiness is crucial. Because wisdom, in this case ‘emptiness-knowledge’ (sunyata-jhana), is the root of awakening Buddha-nature, in a sense, we can say that emptiness and Buddha-nature are synonymous.

In his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna put it this way:

All that we see is a creation of the mind [citta]. How is this? It is through one’s thoughts that all things are perceived. Through mind one sees the Buddha and through the mind becomes a Buddha. Buddha is mind itself, and mind itself is our body. Because of ignorance, the mind does not know itself, cannot see itself. Ignorance causes one to seize the fixed nature of the mind. Under this state, the mind one seizes is false. The bodhisattva sees the true aspect of reality, the emptiness, through comprehending the real nature of mind.”

To wipe illusion from our mind, we must open it. Open our minds to the truth of interconnectedness and to the possibility of becoming a Buddha, which is not a fixed state either, but a continual process of re-opening the mind and acquiring wisdom.


Ubuntu: “I am, because of you.”

Over the past week, during all the tributes and discussion of Nelson Mandela’s life, there was a word I kept hearing. Not surprisingly, during his eulogy at Mandela’s Memorial President Obama also mentioned it:

There is a word in South Africa — Ubuntu, a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: His recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us . . . He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.”

Literally, Ubuntu means “human-ness”, the quality of being human, and it also takes on the connotation of “human kindness.” Ubuntu stems from the African phrase “Ubuntu ngumtu ngabanye abantu” or “A person is a person through other people.” A popular rephrasing is “I am, because of you.”

This sounds similar to the phrase associated with the Buddhist concept of pratitya-samutpada, “because this is, that is.” Ubuntu and pratitya-samutpada are similar. Both concepts communicate the idea of interconnectedness.

We are one race, one people, and as John Donne wrote each of us “is a part of the main,” so the hardships and struggles of one individual, or a few, become those of the many, they become our hardships, our struggles. This seems so simple, and obvious, that it is difficult to think of what else needs saying.

And yet, because there are those who do not recognize our common bonds, who thrive on fragmentation, and because we ourselves can get caught up in our selves and disremember, there is a constant need to keep up a constant reminder.

Now here is something very interesting that I did not know, and perhaps you didn’t either: David Kaczynski, brother of Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber” is Buddhist. As a matter of fact, he is Executive director of the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Buddhist Monastery in Woodstock, New York. From 2001 until his recent retirement, he was also executive director of New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

In an interview earlier this year, Kaczynski talked about the emotions he felt as he suspected his older brother might be a serial bomber, and said,

There is a Buddhist belief that everything is interconnected. The only way to negotiate this situation was to understand that no life is more valuable than another . . . Buddhism is really about human beings finding common ground at the core of their humanity. It’s going to take a deeper approach to solve our most human problems . . .”

So, as David Kaczynski, Nelson Mandela, and so many others, remind us, interconnectedness or Ubuntu is not merely a concept, a philosophy, it is a solution, like Gandhi’s satyagraha (“soul-truth”) and ahimsa (non-violence). It is a Way, a path, a practice.

Since the 1980s Ubuntu has evolved into Ubuntuism, but it is really based on ages-long African practices, and an key element of Ubuntu practice is reconciliation, which needs to be exercised globally, and is something each of us can integrate into our daily lives.

I think there are very few individuals in history who have stepped upon the world stage and shown us the real power of Ubuntu and reconciliation than the man called Madiba:

A traveller through our country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but Ubuntu has various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve?”

– Nelson Mandela




One of my last posts of 2012, featured a poem by Diane de Prima which included these lines:

the cold light
revealed the “mindborn” worlds, as simply that,
I watched them propagated, flowing out,
or, more simply, one mirror reflecting another.

000a1bI’m not sure what di Prima intended to convey with the image of “one mirror reflecting another,” but the first thing I thought of was Indra’s Net  –  an enormous net in which a brilliant jewel is embedded in each knot that reflects the image of all the other jewels in the net – a metaphor for the interconnectedness of all things that pre-dates Buddhism

Shortly after that post, I read a post on another blog that referenced an essay by a well-known Buddhist teacher, Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Entitled “The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism,” the essay begins with this:

Many Westerners, when new to Buddhism, are struck by the uncanny familiarity of what seem to be its central concepts: interconnectedness, wholeness, ego-transcendence. But what they may not realize is that the concepts sound familiar because they are familiar. To a large extent, they come not from the Buddha’s teachings but from the Dharma gate of Western psychology, through which the Buddha’s words have been filtered. They draw less from the root sources of the Dharma than from their own hidden roots in Western culture: the thought of the German Romantics.”

I don’t know where people get ideas like this. Let’s take a look at interconnectedness to just how rooted in Western culture it is really is:

Interconnectedness refers to pratitya-samutpada, known variously as dependent origination, dependent arising, dependent co-production, dependent co-arising, interdependency, and so on. The early Buddhist texts provide several different descriptions of what the Buddha awakened to that legendary night beneath the Bodhi Tree when he became “The Awakened One.” One version says that it was the Four Noble Truths. Another version, though, presents the Buddha awakening to the truth of pratitya-samutpada, or more specifically, the Twelve Nidanas (Links) of Causes and Conditions.

In Majjhima-nikaya I, the Buddha is recorded as saying, “Whoever sees pratitya-samutpada sees the dhamma and whoever sees the dhamma sees pratitya-samutpada.” Pratitya-samutpada as interconnectedness has its real roots in the formula of “because this is, that is” found in a number of passages from the early suttas such as Majjhima Nikaya iii. 63; Samyutta Nikaya v. 387.

And as I noted above we have the metaphor of Indra’s Net, mentioned in the Avatamsaka or “Flower Garland Sutra.” The Hua-yan (Flower Garland) School in China took the Avatamsaka Sutra as its primary text, and for this school Indra’s Net represented the “the entire cosmos as a single nexus of conditions in which everything simultaneously depends on, and is depended on by, everything else.”*

The interrelating reflection of the various aspects mutually revealing each other, producing multiplication and remultiplication ad infinitum, pertains to the gate of the net of Indra. If all the aspects are together revealed at once without impeding each other, this pertains to the mutual containment.”

Chih-yen (600-668 CE), Second Hua-yen Patriarch**

At approximately the same time, the Hua-yen school were developing their doctrine, Chih-i of the T’ien-t’ai school was working out similar concepts. “Mutual containment” is essentially the same as Chih-i’s notion of the “mutual possession” or mutual penetration of all dharmas (things). Chih-i divided reality into ten dharma-realms or worlds that reflect different conditions of the mind during any given moment:

Now, one mind comprises ten dharma-realms, but each dharma realm also comprises ten dharma-realms, giving a hundred dharma-realms. One realm comprises thirty kinds of worlds, hence a hundred dharma-realms comprises three thousand kinds of worlds. These three thousand are contained in a fleeting moment of thought.”

Mo-ho Chih-kuan***

The mathematics of this is unimportant. There could be ten thousand dharma-realms or three million kinds of worlds – it doesn’t matter. What is important is the idea of mutuality, of a fundamental linkage between all things. That all things are contained within a single moment of thought is a way of stating the oneness of life and the ultimate non-dual nature of reality.

Since the Hua-yen and T’ien-t’ai schools advanced these doctrines over 1500 years ago, they can hardly be called modern. There was no Western psychology influence. German Romantics had no hand in the development of the metaphor of Indra’s Net, and certainly not with the concept of pratitya-samutpada ascribed to the historical Buddha.

In our modern age, interconnectedness is no longer just an ancient metaphor or a theory, it is a scientific fact. Understanding interconnectedness is crucial for the future. On November 12, 2012, UNESCO held its annual World Science Day. The website for this event says,

This year’s theme, ‘Science for global sustainability: interconnectedness, collaboration, transformation’ shines a light on our increasingly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, cultural and political systems, both in terms of the pressure these place on the Earth system and of the potential for solutions that they provide.

Scientific evidence shows that humanity has put the functioning of the Earth system at risk. Current development paradigms and economic patterns are responsible for many of the interlinked and growing social, environmental and economic crises facing the planet. The defining challenge of our age is to safeguard Earth’s natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health.

These are interconnected, just as the planet’s systems are interconnected . . .”

And just as electrons, cells, and individual human beings are interconnected, linked together in a intricate net of relationships, causes and conditions.

It seems to me that the fact Buddhism was way ahead of the game on this is something to be acknowledged, if not celebrated. There is nothing wrong with criticism, and no doubt Western psychology and German Romantics have had some influence on modern dharma, but not to the extent that Thanissaro Bhikkhu claims, and to put forth such a case as he and some others do, I feel is misleading.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes that interconnectedness  “helps close the gate to areas of the Dharma that would challenge people in their hope for an ultimate happiness based on interconnectedness. Traditional Dharma calls for renunciation and sacrifice, on the grounds that all interconnectedness is essentially unstable, and any happiness based on this instability is an invitation to suffering.”

That point of view might make sense to an author writing from the rather limited Theradvadin point of view. However, in the time-honored Mahayana tradition, interconnectedness is the foundation for freedom from suffering. Insight into the interconnectedness of all beings is the key that unlocks the door to the prison cell of self-cherishing, it leads directly into the practice of compassion, the path of the Bodhisattva.

I can’t help but feel that those who deny this doctrine of interconnectedness also deny the truth of one of the Buddha’s first teachings, that all beings are interconnected through suffering.

According to [the concept of Ten del, or dependent origination articulated by the Madhyamika school of Buddhist philosophy] we can understand how things and events come to be in three different ways.  At the first level, the principle of cause and effect, whereby all things and events arise in dependence on a complex web of interrelated causes and conditions, is invoked.  This suggests that no thing or event can be construed as capable of coming into, or remaining in, existence by itself . . .

On the second level, [dependent origination] can be understood in terms of the mutual dependence which exists between parts and whole.  Without parts, there can be no whole; without a whole, the concept of parts makes no sense.  The idea of ‘whole’ is predicated on parts, but these parts themselves must be considered to be wholes comprised of their own parts.

On the third level, all phenomena can be understood to be dependently originated because, when we analyze them, we find that, ultimately, they lack independent identity.

Dalai Lama, The Nature of Reality


* Entry Into Inconceivable, Thomas F. Cleary University of Hawaii Press, 1994, 2 (Introduction).

** Ibid, 138.

*** Wm. Theodore de bary, editor, The Buddhist Tradition in India, China, and Japan, Vintage Books, 1969, 165