Inflation of the Cosmic Kind

Last March, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made a finding that supports Einstein’s last untested prediction about the Theory of General Relativity. According to Einstein, even in the void of space-time, empty of stars and galaxies, ripples known as gravitational waves can move across space in much the same way that ripples spread across the surface of a pond. Until recently, there was only indirect evidence that gravitational waves existed.  In their press release JPL stated that they

[H]ave acquired the first direct evidence that gravitational waves rippled through our infant universe during an explosive period of growth called inflation. This is the strongest confirmation yet of cosmic inflation theories, which say the universe expanded by 100 trillion trillion times, in less than the blink of an eye.

The findings were made with the help of NASA-developed detector technology on the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation.”

The Dark Sector Lab at the South Pole that houses the BICEP2 telescope that measured the polarization of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. (Harvard)
The Dark Sector Lab at the South Pole that houses the BICEP2 telescope, which measured the polarization of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. (Harvard)

This supports the Inflationary Universe theory, hypothesized in the 1980s by Alan Gult, who held that the initial expansion of the universe was caused by a repulsive form of gravity. “Cosmic inflation” suggests that after The Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light (at .0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds, to be precise).

It’s a pretty big deal. According to Time, it means that gravity should no longer be seen as a force, “but rather as the warping of ‘spacetime,’ an amalgam of those two formerly independent concepts,” This aspect of Einstein’s theory “also predicted that violent events should trigger gravitational waves, which would set spacetime rippling, like a vat of cosmic jello.”

Actually, Einstein was skeptical of the idea of a Big Bang. He favored the concept of a static universe as opposed to an expanding one. But when American astronomer Edwin Hubble showed how galaxies recede from the Milky Way, and that distant galaxies recede faster than those nearby, Einstein changed his mind.

Now, I don’t think it’s necessary for modern science and Buddhism to agree, or that science should prove Buddhism, but intersections between the two are always interesting. Here, we have a case where Buddhism and science both agree in some respects and disagree in others.

In The Big Bang theory, the entirety of space was contained in a single point of space and this was the beginning of the universe. Buddhism, however, says that there is no beginning (and therefore definitely no creation) because causes have no beginning.

The first line of Chapter One in Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way reads, “Nothing exists that has arisen from itself, from another, from both, or from a non-cause.”

This does not negate the idea of a Big Bang, only qualifies it somewhat. The Big Bang could not have caused itself, nor could some being have caused it, or is it possible that a Big Bang was a combination of the two – there had to have been some prior cause, and as I understand it, this means The Big Bang must have been an effect. Still, Buddhism discusses the beginning of things in terms of consciousness, which is the real “creator” of all things, and consciousness has no beginning. So, in pondering all this, we should keep in mind the distinction between the ultimate and relative truth.

The other key notion in the Big Bang theory is that of an expanding universe. Here dharma and science seem to agree. In his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, the Dalai Lama stated

So through this analysis of the causal origin of mental phenomena, then the question arises if there is a beginning point of whether the chain of causation goes on infinitely. If we were to choose the first option, which is to say that there must be a beginning at some point, then this immediately throws up conceptual problems about the status of the first cause – whether that first cause comes into being relatively or if it comes into being through self-causation. So, it throws up all sorts of conceptual problems.

The Buddhist option is to choose the second option of accepting the infinity of the causation. Although one could, in a conventional sense, accept or talk about origin or a beginning point of some particular object, like the objects of everyday life, but in a deeper sense, consciousness or mental phenomena are beginningless in terms of their continuum. And since this is the case, according to Buddhism, the continuum of the individual or person can said to be beginningless, because being or person is designated upon the continuum of consciousness or designated upon the phenomena that makes that person a knower or experiencer or agent. Since the basis, which is the continuum of consciousness is beginningless, therefore the continuum of the individual being is also said to be beginningless. However, when we conceptualize it in individual situations, we can say that, in a conventional sense, there is a beginning and there is an end.

Obviously, there are differences between individual beings and universes, but I think the infinity of the continuum would be the same.  And again, from the Buddhist perspective, there must have been something prior, a previous cause existing before all of space was condensed into a single point that apparently exploded into our ever-expanding universe.

Likewise, there were prior points posted on this blog before I posted the single point that began this post, and therefor, today’s offering reflects the infinity of the continuum and therefore cannot be contained in a single end point . . .


Against the Stream, in a Leaky Raft

“My dharma is against the stream.”

– A real Buddha quote (I think)

I’m not a regular reader of the National Catholic Review, but I happened to notice they recently reviewed The Scientific Buddha by Daniel S. Lopez, Jr. The book has been out for almost a year now, so I don’t know why NCR is just now getting around to it, except that Buddhism is probably not a high priority for them, and then the title of the review is “Are Buddhism and science incompatible?” which is currently a hot topic.

The reviewer, Paul Knitter, the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, writes,

Who is this scientific Buddha who, in Lopez’s view, is threatening, “bleaching,” “domesticating” the message of the original Buddha? It’s the Buddha “discovered” by critical, Enlightenment Europeans who thought they found a religion without God, based only on experience and reason. Nowadays, it’s the Buddha who is presented as not only compatible with, but a harbinger of, the discoveries of quantum physics and even biological evolution. Most recently, it’s the Buddha whose teachings on the benefits of meditation are being confirmed by neurological research and by movements such as “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” Lopez will have none of this . . .

Now, I like Lopez. His The Heart Sutra Explained contributed greatly to my understanding of that text. But I wonder why he is spending his time on this rather fruitless debate, which is not really about Buddhism vs. science, but religion vs. secularism.

First, the Enlightenment Europeans did find a religion without God, at least without a concept of God, as we in the West understand it. I’m not too sure they thought Buddhism was based only on experience and reason, after all, they were not blind to the mythological and supernatural elements woven into the dharma. Nor am I convinced they wanted a completely secular spiritual philosophy, because many of them, just like many Western Buddhists today, were reluctant to let go of their belief in some sort of all-powerful super-enlightened being controlling the universe.

I think it’s great that scientific research is confirming the benefits of meditation, but on the other hand, I don’t think too many people become Buddhists so that they can prove it is compatible with quantum physics. No, I think the debate is really about whether or not Buddhism is a religion.

My feeling is that Buddhism is more than a mere religion. It was many years ago and I don’t remember who said it, but someone in a documentary (about Jack Kerouac, perhaps) gave about the best description of Buddhism I’ve heard yet. It went something like this, “Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy, a discipline, a yoga, a way of life – it embraces all these things and then goes beyond them.”

Buddhism is a path, a Way. It’s not easily defined, and I think it is unique.

There are folks who will argue that if you say Buddhism is not a religion, it’s akin to asserting some sort of Buddhist exceptionalism. That seems rather silly to me. Just because you say that something is unique or different doesn’t mean you are claiming it is superior. Thank goodness all religions are not the same. That would be boring.

Most of the religion vs. secularism debate centers around the two concepts of karma and rebirth. I’d be the first to say that they do require a leap of faith, and are both unprovable. However, I don’t think its necessary to throw them out. If you cannot understand these concepts literally, it’s possible to understand them differently, as Jung did, as archetypes, or as metaphors.

I’m in favor of minimizing the religious aspects, and the mythological elements, but I am less interested in secularism than I am in non-sectarianism. And that’s what bothers me about the Secular Buddhist movement. It’s essentially just creating another sect of Buddhism, and don’t we have enough already? We should spend more time building bridges instead of creating more dividing lines.

I’ve always liked the idea of “home-grown” Buddhism, the cultivation of neighborhood sanghas, small groups practicing together in their communities made up of Buddhists from different stripes, crossing over the sectarian divide to practice with one another where they live. I think this would go a long way toward dispelling ignorance about different forms of Buddhism and their histories, and would bring people together.

People often ask which sect or school of Buddhism I belong to, and I have different answers depending on my mood at the time. Sometimes I say, “All of them.” At other times, I will say, “None,” which is the more accurate response.

I have been interested in Buddhism since I was a teenager, but didn’t begin to seriously practice until thirty years ago. Since then, I have practiced with different groups, studied with various teachers, taken refuge in a number of traditions, received empowerments and precepts in several, have been ordained as a Buddhist minister by two organizations, and yet, for some years now, I have been on my own, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. Hmm, that sounds familiar . . .

I don’t believe that you have to belong to a particular tradition or group in order to be a Buddhist. At the same time, I think that it’s a good idea to find ways to practice with others since it is very difficult to maintain a daily practice all on your own. I used to think that I was an anomaly. However, I think these days there are quite a few, who like myself, are unaffiliated and yet consider themselves Buddhist.

Now, of course, another reason why I am unaffiliated with any Buddhist sect or organization is because I also follow the teachings of Marx, and as the great guru Groucho once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”



Harry Potter is evil and other news

A few news things from the Web that caught my eye over the long weekend:

The Evil Harry PotterThe Vatican has decided to host a series of debates in Paris between atheists and agnostics and top Catholic theologians. But they are only prepared to host nonbelievers who are of the “noble atheism or agnosticism” stripe. Whatever that is. Folks like Piergiorgio Odifreddi, Michel Onfray, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens will not be invited. I find the slighting of Richard Dawkins curious. You would think that the Pope and Dawkins would have some common ground since they both hate Harry Potter (he’s evil, you know and will corrupt children). Read about the upcoming dialogue here.

Oxford University Press has just brought out a new book, Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard Ecklund, a professor at Rice University. Some say there is tension between science and religion, Ecklund investigates this in her study of what scientists really think and believe about religion and how it plays out in their work and personal life. Read the review in the Washington Post.

Elsewhere in the Washington Post: What happens when the Dalai Lama dies?

Jack Kornfield, American Buddhist pioneer, is profiled in the LA Times.

1000 Buddhas in Montana.

The Dalai Lama goes bar hopping in the NY Times.

And, you can Google a Goo Goo Guru here.