By Jessica Kirby
(photo credit of Buddha statue: Lena Voth @ www.rootandblossom.com)
Scientific inquiry and spiritual tradition are often approached as opposing or repelling forces—ideas, concepts, and explanations in conflict with one another and divisive in nature. However, if we look to mystic and many Eastern traditions, Buddhist and scientific concepts regarding the nature of reality seem to align. These concepts have been alive in Eastern thought and theory for thousands of years, but Buddhism seems to capture them most completely, while quantum physics has confirmed their truth in more recent times.
There is a commonly held belief that science and the spiritual exist on separate, unrelated planes, and operate in a constant state of disharmony or conflict.
Contemporary science, specifically, physics and quantum theory, have proven in thousands of experiments that the spiritual and the scientific, the non-material and the material, are two ways of seeing the same thing, specifically, that there is a huge discrepancy between how we perceive reality and how it actually exists.
There are three main tenets of Buddhism: emptiness, interconnectivity, and the nature of reality.
When we look at emptiness, it is the thing from which all arises and to which all returns—that is, we are not, we exist, we cease to exist, and then we are gone into emptiness again. Reality arises from emptiness and emptiness is an infinite source of reality. It is much like a dream state: if you dream about yourself and a tiger in the jungle, by appearance those things appear to be separate. But upon deeper reflection it becomes obvious that you, the tiger, and the jungle were manifestations of dreaming consciousness and really the same thing, unable to exist without one another.
Another way to look at it is to think of the pages in a book: a page without words can be understood as emptiness, with infinite potential for the words and messages that can be placed there. Emptiness is, then, the field of potential from which every possibility arises. This redefinition of the nature of material reality is the premise of many Eastern religions and is the Dao in Daoism, the Brahman in Hinduism, the Emptiness Principle in Buddhism—it also reflects or parallels the Quantum Field.
In science, there is a duality when examining material reality. Our reality exhibits indications that matter exists in both wave and particle form, or in non-material and material form. The wave form has no definite location in time and is everywhere at once, while particles exist in a specific place and time. Although it seems impossible to imagine that objects, things we see and use, baseballs and blueberries and bicycles, exist in anything but a solid form, science has confirmed this duality many, many times. The well-known and accepted fact is this: a particle’s quality is not predetermined but defined by the mind perceiving it.
Just think about that for a minute.
Atoms are 99.999999999999 per cent empty space, forcing us to redefine how we see ourselves and reality: if everything around us, including our own bodies, is mostly empty space, how can these things have the appearance of being solid objects?
According to the theory, the feeling of reality is actually a repulsion or push of various sets of atoms repelling against one another. Think of magnets, with opposite sides placed together. Our hands, feet, and bodies never really touch anything but experience the repulsive force that gives the illusion of solidity. For instance, if you are reading this sitting in a chair, you are actually hovering above the chair, rather than sitting directly on it, and everything is being held together by a sea of fluctuating energy rather than something physical.
The Quantum Field is an electromagnetic filed from which all matter rises. Particles in the field are not separate, but are different forms of the same system, meaning the field and matter that arises from the field are the same thing. If you imagine the field as a turbulent ocean, waves fluctuate continuously and the tips of the waves are what matter and reality arise from. The rest of the sea is out of range of perception and exists only as potential for matter—all matter arises from and returns to the field, which is a continuous medium spread out over all space and time and seemingly parallels the idea of emptiness.
Oneness, or the idea of interconnectedness follows naturally. According to most Eastern traditions, all things are intimately connected and the idea that things are separate is considered an illusion. The true nature of ourselves and of reality is of complete unification or oneness—a principle supported by current and long-standing research in physics.
The relationship between Buddhist spirituality and science stems from a concept called quantum entanglement—the notion that when two parts interact and become entangled, they develop a special connected relationship that is ever-lasting and exists in all time and space. This means when one of the entangled parts is affected by observation, measurement, or any other effect, the other part will exhibit the same principle or reaction, even if the two objects are across the room, the country, or the universe from each other.
Entangled particles behave as though one, and not as several, explaining the behaviour at a distance, which Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” They remain forever connected, no matter place in space and time, and when we go back to singularity before the Big Bang at which point the universe condensed into a single point smaller than an atom, we realize all matter and energy we experience has and always will be entangled or interconnected. With that in mind, quantum entanglement points to interconnectedness; we are all one, experiencing true oneness within the universe.
If we exist in the Quantum Field, we exist in a sea of energy that connects all atoms spread through all time and space in an interconnected web, to which all energy, life, and matter belong.
The final and most interesting point is the connection between the mind and reality and the notion that all that we are and that ever has been is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything.
In Buddhism and other mystic traditions, the mind is the centre of reality. It is not part of reality, but the thing that creates it the way the mind creates a dream. The idea that reality exists outside of the mind is considered incorrect. And today, nearly 2,500 years after the Buddha, quantum physics has reached the same conclusion.
The famous physicist Werner Heisenberg said by observing the atomic world we are affecting it. According to his Uncertainty Principle, it is impossible to know an electron’s location and speed at the same time and so as soon as an electron’s speed is measured it no longer occupies a well-defined location and space and vice versa. This happens, not because of limits to our perception or measuring devices, but because of the mirage-like quality of electrons. The conscious observer is connected to the observed thing, confirming that reality is defined by the mind observing it. Theorists are so convinced with the crucial role the observer plays in this principle, some believe the term should be changed from “observer” to “participator.”
Over several years, this principle has been scientifically proven with a double slit experiment, originally conducted to test the nature of light. The results, repeated thousands of times, revolutionized the field of physics and the way people understand the nature of reality.
The experiment involves a device used to propel particles through slits and record where they land on other side of the barrier. Physicists found particles once thought to be solid were behaving like waves and how they behaved depended on whether they were being observed.
When not observed, the particles took on a state of superposition or infinite potential, while when observed the particles took on a well-defined location within finite possibility.
This experiment, done a thousand times, has been done with particles as large as carbon 80. This confirms from a scientific perspective, that the nature of reality really does depend on the mind perceiving it, and without observation it exists only as unlimited potential.
The implications of this link between science and spirituality are a blurring of the lines between each field, and the idea that concepts held in each are interchangeable. The inquiry into science as an attempt to veer away from the spiritual has left us as a crucial point in time that is calling for a paradigm shift into a new, self-realized reality where the interconnectedness of all things is recognized and embraced.
Jessica Kirby, Senior Editor of All One Era magazine.
Written with notes from Gerald Penilla’s “Where Science and Buddhism Meet” video series; Matthieu Ricard’s The Quantum and the Lotus, and Gregg Braden’s website, Bridging Science, Spirituality and the Real World.