Some thoughts on zen and modern physics

The point here is obviously not to cover the field but to try to suggest, and not to completely explain, the parallelism between the teaching of the ancient Masters and what appears to be widely agreed by all in quantum physics.


Until the beginning of our century, the scientific approach widespread in the Western World has always been based on the observation of the external phenomena which surround us, followed by an explanatory logical approach under the form of theories or models. Mankind was observing the world like an object of study separated from his own being. The reality of our world was perceived like an entity ruled by eternal laws unknown so far, by laws escaping our knowledge at the moment but whose discovery was considered as unavoidable and depending only on the progresses to get in our future observation means. Many people share anyway this opinion, thinking that any reality can be discovered provided that the telescopes or the microscopes become powerful enough.

This approach has the enormous disadvantage to entertain a separation between mankind itself and the surrounding universe. This is by the way the main cause of the troubles of our world in the domains of ecology and human relationships. This form of knowledge has overruled during the last centuries any other form of knowledge and has moreover totally shaded off in the western civilizations the intuitive and meditative knowledge, more widespread in the Middle Age. By the way, knowledge, science and technology should not be confused. The meditative approach, and in particular the one of the zen, is considered by many people as non scientific. It is an integrated approach, that is to say, at the same time, of the self and of the world to which we belong, immediate, spontaneous and direct. It is anyway easy to understand its basis given the fact that our cells are similar to all cells in the universe; we are of course constituted by the same atoms as everything in our observable universe. In that sense, the observation of the self, of the life which inhabits us, is the observation of one part of the whole thing, leading to the opening of a larger knowledge, spreading to our entire world.

The two approaches can be perceived as orthogonal, separated and impossible to be unified again. However the so-called modern physics has undergone and is still undergoing, first among other sciences, a profound revolution, breaking apart the certitudes that we had on the possibilities of our knowledge, ourselves as subjects and our external world as object of our knowledge. That happened with the arrival of quantum physics, time relativity, new notions of space and dimensions of our universe, in particular. These domains of physics were not expressed precisely of course by the historical zen Masters, but in many regards their profound intuition concerning the virtuality of time, the non separation between ourselves and our universe, is lighten up now in a obvious fashion by the new approaches of physics developed during the few past tens of years.

The content of these few lines is simply to suggest that the two approaches may be non contradictory but on the contrary quite complementary, immediate and integrated knowledge and knowledge based on the external observation and logic. Often anyway, the results of both approaches are very similar and drive us to a unique and global perception of our universe. In that sense bringing them together, still in recognizing their own limits, one due to the verification, the other one due to a fragmentary approach, is in itself interesting, every man having in himself the desire to integrate the scientific and, let us say, the religious worlds.

Quantum physics and intuitive knowledge

The point here is obviously not to cover the field but to try to suggest, and not to completely explain, the parallelism between the teaching of the ancient Masters and what appears to be widely agreed by all in quantum physics. For that it is unavoidable to recall few basic concepts concerning quantum physics. These concepts are not immediately obvious for the ones, who like all of us, live in a macroscopic world.

The macroscopic world which surrounds us is ruled by laws of causes and consequences. In this world, matter is matter and waves, for example light, are waves. For example the waves are the movements of water and water is water, quite simply. In the microscopic world of quantum physics, things are not so clear. The duality to which we are accustomed in our everyday life is broken up. Similarly, we are used to observe interacting systems, where some information is transmitted across systems, for example by light or sound. However quantum physics has demonstrated that the duality between the waves and the particles, let’s say the matter, should be overruled. The observation of some immediate phenomena has also shaken up our certainties.

Let us take a first example. Light does not exist at rest but is the propagation of a wave, of course at the speed of light. It is then not material, it would not be possible to have a table made of light because light does not exist at rest. On the other hand, the electron which is a small particle, in the sense of the current vocabulary, is not a wave. It so happens that light acts at the same time like a wave and like a particle, like a particle of light. The electrons, particles, behave also like waves and not like particles. Then what is reality? Is light a wave or a particle and is electron a particle or a wave? This concept of duality between waves and particles should then be overcome. In common language, another name should be invented, for example “parton”. To talk about matter is certainly understandable in our everyday life, but in the microscopic world matter and energy are a same phenomenon.

In quantum physics, the way we observe a phenomenon defines the state in which it is projected in our macroscopic world. What is then the fundamental reality of things, if our observation itself defines, in the sense of our vocabulary, that we observe it either under the form of matter or the form of a wave, without any material consistence? It is then suggested that the single level of reality to which we are used must be overcome and that a new level of reality must emerge, in which these contradictions can be resolved, integrated, embraced. It is difficult for the mind to grab that, the human mind would like to conclude to the existence of a reality which remains hidden. That is not the case. This hidden real does not exist and the nature of things is embedded in this apparent contradiction, in the case where one limits oneself to a single level of reality. It is however possible to conceive a logic which allows, not to resolve the contradictions, but to accept them. It is another dimension of logic. The same in fact is true in our everyday life where we have to embrace the contradictions to which we are confronted.

In all times, zen Masters have asserted that matter is the phenomena (the wave, the electron) and that phenomena are matter (the electron, the wave). The fundamental nature of everything, matter, phenomena, is the vacuity, named ku. All things, all phenomena, including the phenomena of the mind, are in essence in ku, come from ku and go back to ku. The matter itself is a phenomenon and does not have any intrinsic existence, its essence is ku. Ku, although impossible to translate, suggests in a single word the vacuity, potentially inhabited by energy or matter; this comes to the same thing from the well-known Einstein’s equation E=mc2. Today in physics, people talk about vacuity or field, which is in essence the same thing. In particle physics, the more we are trying to understand the foundations of matter, the more we find the vacuity. The vacuity is inhabited by interactive fields which materialize themselves when traversed by a primary grain, or by a grain of light, or by an energy perturbation. It somehow polarizes itself. A field is the scientific concept of ku, mentioned in buddhism from the oldest times. The concept of particles or waves is replaced by fields. On the same way that ku cannot be observed by itself, fields cannot be observed but they manifest themselves under different ways depending of the method of observation, or depending of the way they are projected in our macroscopic world.

The essence of this new physics was already contained in the intuition of the zen Masters. Today the intuitive and scientific approaches join each other, the immediate one, complete and expressed in terms full of imagery, the other one providing a verification of the first one by observations realized in our real world of everyday. The zen approach is the direct and intuitive approach of ku, the scientific approach, after multiple observations, deductions and contradictions to overcome, has found back this concept by another way.

Inter-dependence: interactions and non-local variables

Let us take a second example. Let us start this time from the zen approach concerning inter-dependence. This inter-dependence is conceived as immediate and global. For example that can be translated in the following sentence: a person who practices zazen modifies the entire universe. Understand this sentence by contemplating an interaction which propagates itself first within our close environment, and then farther and farther is certainly justified. However it contains also a notion of immediate and universal action calling for no interaction propagating itself gradually, like if our whole universe were one, entirely linked and in complete inter-dependence. A priori, that seems to be in contradiction with the fact that in our world no interaction can propagate itself at a faster speed than the speed of light. According to this condition, billions of years would be needed until the influence of a person in zazen propagates itself to the frontiers of our universe. However in the last months, a new phenomenon was fully verified and established in physics, proving that a bound system in its initial conditions stays bound, and that changing one of its elements immediately modify the other ones. No signal would have the time to propagate itself from one part to the other one.

Two particles of light coming from the decay of an atom are emitted. These two particles of light are sent in opposite directions in kilometers of optical fibers. Although separated by kilometers their state stays bound, that is to say that a modification of the state of one of the particles is immediately observable on the other one, without any time for a signal to propagate itself, at the speed of light, from one to the other. The phenomenon is immediate, no spatial separation exists, space is discontinuous. That is a new level of reality. For the moment no mathematical formalism allows to pass from one level of reality to another one. To pass from the laws of the world of quantum physics to the ones of the macroscopic world. This experiment displays what the zen Masters had sensed in talking about inter-dependence among all beings, in the large sense of our universe, immediate inter-dependence, without any spatial separation. There are then in our universe phenomena which staid for a long time unknown from the scientific world, and which come closer of what was expressed from the beginning of buddhism.

Both approaches are complementary in the sense that intuition is certainly correct but can profit from the scientific observation to be verified and be projected as a real phenomenon in our visible world. One could compare this process to the projection of the world of Buddha, source of integrated intuition, in our everyday world, the world of the observation of the physical phenomena. Knowing that, the scientific approach, to the extent that it stays modest, can help the human being to understand the profound nature of things. Like Buddha was saying: if I tell you that I have a diamond in my closed fist, you would have to believe me. If I open my hand, you can see it. In that sense the scientific approach towards the understanding of our universe helps to open the hand, so everybody can see the diamond.

Another dimension in reality

Along Planck’s discovery, which is the basis of quantum physics, the energy has a discrete structure, discontinuous. Its building block is the quantum. That corresponds to a real revolution. We are used to a continuous world, made of relationship of causes to effects, of interactions from one place to another and of a linear time. How then can we understand a world made of discontinuous entities, the quanta. How can we understand the real discontinuity, that is to say how can we imagine that in between two points there is nothing, no objects, no atoms, no particles, just nothing? How, although physics has not really approached this subject and that time is still considered as a continuous variable, how can we understand the relationship between the time which flows away and the instant? How much time is there in between two instants? Is time a succession of instants? How to embrace at the same time the time which flows and the discontinuity of the instants? In physics a bizarre situation is established, the space-time of classical physics and the laws of quantum physics have been kept separately. This is really a bizarre situation which brings many problems in the understanding of our world.

We have seen that the classical concepts of material particles and waves are not quantum entities, very different from the objects of classical physics. One is lead to conclude that they are at the same time waves and particles, or are neither waves nor particles. We have to abandon the dogma of a single level of reality. The quantum objects are controlled by the laws of quantum physics, in rupture with the laws of the macroscopic world. There are two levels of reality. The simple logic where something and its contrary exist only separately should be overcome. For example if one stays in the single level of reality of the macroscopic world, the world of duality, waves and particles appear to be divided, it is a contradiction. The introduction of a new level of reality allows to overcome this contradiction. For example, in that reality waves and particles are in fact unified and called “partons”.

The appearance of a level of reality where contradictions are overcome, are naturally embraced, is essential. From all times this level of reality pertains to the essence of knowledge in buddhism. During zazen, the apparent duality between body and mind is overcome by an integrated consciousness of the body-mind. This intuitive and integrated approach becomes an essential component of our way to look at things in our everyday life. We live, and consequently we can say that our time is flowing, but also we live only at each instant. If we remain in a single level of reality, we cannot bring the two together. During zazen, this contradiction disappears, the consciousness of time and instant are unified. It is an integrated approach, at the same time of the self and of the world to which we belong, immediate, spontaneous and direct. An approach in which the self and the world which surrounds us are reunified. That represents anyway the only way, the only hope for humankind, the essence of ecology, the respect and the compassion for all the beings.

Time in physics and instant

It is enough to ask sincerely this question to realize that time is a concept which lives with us. Time has no being and is then not measurable by itself. It is perceived in function of things, in function of the human beings for example. In physics, time has been cleared of everything which makes its importance for us, its concept has been completely simplified, formalized, “mathematized”. For example, in physics, time is without direction, past and future do not exist. The equations of general relativity are by the way symmetrical with respect to the time variable. This time is a time extremely simplified compared with the one we are living in and science had to develop huge efforts from the end of the 19th century to reestablish its reversibility.

We have kept in our minds this concept of linear time which flows away. It is real, that is enough just to observe the flow of our own life. But our consciousness of a time flowing in a regular and universal manner has profoundly changed in modern time.

In a chapter of the Shobogenzo, Uji, Master Dogen talks about the being-time. Countless documents have talked about time, also in physics about the arrow of time – the direction of time -, why it so happens that in our world time goes only in one direction. Until these last decades, time was considered in the western societies like an absolute entity. Time or moreover its measurement is extremely well defined. However in one hand, in the 13th century Master Dogen talked about the being-time, that is to say expressing the fact that outside of beings, outside of ourselves in particular, or more generally outside of any presence of matter, time does not exist in an absolute manner. Time is completely linked to beings. On the other hand within our century, Einstein has demonstrated that time is a relative concept, depending on the referential from which we observe it and which depends also on the masses in presence. Time has fallen from its pedestal of absolute variable.

One of the big Einstein’s discovery has been to establish in the theory of the general relativity that time is not absolute but that its observation is modified by the presence of masses in our universe. In the absolute nothingness (called kakunen musho in the zen documents), time does not exist, first thing. To this regard, to talk about the beginning of our universe is to refer only to the inexact concept of an absolute time and not of a relative time, because the distribution of masses inside our universe is constantly changing. In that sense one could say that our universe has materialized suddenly from the infinity of time, that our universe and its own time are born at the same time, as one says currently. In buddhism, the concept of time separating the birth of a universe from its extinction is very vague and corresponds to the idea of kalpa. A kalpa is by the way also the time of a blink of an eye of Buddha, expressing this way that it does not have any real content or cannot be measured in an absolute way. That does not by the way prevent us to talk about any elapsed time, measured for example by the displacement of a clock hand.

The concept of time disappears on the cosmological level because no external referential to our visible universe exists to measure it. It is a concept which is internal to our own universe. The concept of a time measured between the appearance and the possible extinction of our universe does not have any signification in itself, one could talk about billions of years or fractions of seconds. On the other hand, inside our own universe, the measure of time is not absolute.

Dogen was not expressing something else, in other words. Our observation of time depends of where we are, depends and is linked to our being. Dogen first has realized that time was not an absolute concept; that has been observed and demonstrated by physics later on. But also, the knowledge of the relativity of time by physical observations allows the human being to become aware of the relativity and the impermanence of everything, the world is not perceived anymore like a fixed entity external to ourselves. Denying the impermanence of all things is certainly a source of suffering for the human being. On the other hand, the fundamental concepts in quantum physics lead us to see everything as constantly changing, in mutual interaction, linking anything to anything, like any human being to the other and to the world in which he lives.

The universe

Ancient buddhism talks about a multitude of universes appearing and disappearing during countless kalpas. Like if each of these universes was similar to a bubble which grows, explodes, disappears, followed by other bubbles. Ourselves, we can only know our own bubble, which does not excludes that there could be other bubbles which will remain unknown to us, other universes for ever separated by the frontier of nothingness.

Ancient buddhism always talked about a multitude of countless universes, whereas the western science talked only about our own universe. How can we understand that? Although it is our everyday perception, we are not living in a universe made of straight lines. Einstein has demonstrated in the theory of general relativity that the geometry of our universe is curved by the action of the masses in presence, matter. We are then living inside a curved universe. The concepts of space and matter are linked together, space does not exist or does not have any signification without the presence of matter. Nothingness is then a concept which we cannot conceive because it has no time and no space. Our universe, although it appears to us naively infinite, finds its natural frontier at the blurred point where the influence of the masses which form it finishes. In that sense, it can be perceived as finite or infinite, because this frontier is blurred. Anyway our universe, taken in its totality, could be considered like an enormous black hole.

Nothing opposes the presence of multiple and countless universes, each of them being a complete stranger for the other, having no spatial nor time connection with any other. Universes are separated by nothingness, although in fact the concept of separation does not have any sense at all, because it cannot be measured by anything. The universes are disjoint. To talk about distance in between these universes does not mean anything, because there is no common geometry. The human being can only know or apprehend the universe in which he lives, the one which generated his own atoms and his own cells, like the ones of his brain for example. That does not prevent him to be able to suspect that his universe is not unique, even so if for himself his universe is in fact unique. The other universes remain for ever unknown to him, in that sense his own universe is unique.

When one talks about universe, it is important to understand if one talks about our own universe or about the collection of all disconnected universes. Looking at these remarks, it is probable that the human being starts to perceive an infinity much more immense than the one he considered so far. The universe of zen is infinite, people say. This infinity was sensed from the most ancient times. In our century this perception can be backed up by the scientific logic. This perception is born first from the generalized intuition of the world of Buddha.

The third millenium and in particular the 21st century will see more and more the unification of science and, lets say, of the religious world, of the integrated understanding of our universe, both marching hand to hand. That was the prediction of Master Deshimaru.

Dr. Vincent Vuillemin, zen monk, project leader at CERN in an experiment designed for the new accelerator of particles.

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