Emptiness and the world of quantum physics

“Form is no other than emptiness,
Emptiness no other than form”

Although I have often struggled with the cryptic meaning of certain parts of the Heart Sutra, I always felt a connection to these lines, which invariably conjure up images of particles, waves, and the convoluted world of quantum physics.  This area of the “new physics” is fascinating because of its far-reaching implications, its potential to transform our perception and understanding of reality, and also its striking parallelism with Buddhist ideas, as well as with some other Eastern traditions that involve meditation.  It is actually very compelling to see how close today’s understanding of the universe comes to those ancient insights, so let’s dig into this further.

On a preliminary level, it is interesting to note that the atoms, which we often believe to be these compact bricks that make up our very solid appearing reality, are actually mostly empty  (actually 99.9% empty) since the nucleus of the atom is 100 000 times smaller than the atom and most of its mass is concentrated in the nucleus (the mass of the electron being negligible). The perception of solidity when we touch something actually comes from the repulsive interaction between the electrons of our skin and those of the object.

Also brought to mind is the particle/wave paradox (form/emptiness) according to which all particles exhibit both wave and particle properties. An electron would for example behave either as a wave or as a particle depending on the situation.  Actually, Bohr and Einstein saw this electron as the transient manifestation or local condensation of an underlying field (“the quantum field”). Basically the field can take the form of particles and according to Einstein “the field is the only reality”.

Another very important and related issue in this area of quantum physics is the idea that what is being observed is not independent of the observer, and as a matter of fact, whether we experience a particle or a wave depends on whether there is an observer. Bohr said “Isolated material particles are abstractions, their properties being definable and observable only through their interaction with other systems” and also that “Inseparable quantum connectedness of the whole universe is the fundamental reality”.  The universe is therefore not anymore seen as a collection of physical objects (form) but as an interwovenness of all its parts that includes the observer (emptiness).

 

This interconnectedness that seems to be such a characteristic of this more fundamental reality appears also in the experimentally verified Bell’s theorem (physicist John Stewart Bell), which postulates that when two independent particles are connected through what is called quantum entanglement, then the properties of these particles (such as spin) are correlated, independent of distance.  They are basically linked by instantaneous, non-local connections (meaning the connection does not occur via a signal), and this even if one particle is on Earth and the other on the other side of the galaxy, of which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”.

It is consequently derived that since all particles are continually interacting, then “the non-local aspects of quantum systems is therefore a general property of nature’ (Davis).  Essentially, the universe is understood to be an unbroken wholeness, fundamentally interconnected and interdependent.

These concepts of quantum wholeness as well as the lines of the sutra also profoundly bring to mind the far-reaching theories of David Bohm (a physicist at Princeton University) for whom there are two orders of reality: “the implicate order” (meaning enfolded and reminiscent of the “emptiness”), which is an even much deeper non-manifest and hidden level of reality, and the “explicate order” (meaning unfolded and reminiscent of  “form”) which corresponds to our own level of existence.  Bohm sees the implicate order as a dynamic phenomenon from which all forms of the material universe flow as a result of countless enfoldings and unfoldings between these two orders. For example, Bohm sees the electron not as a separate particle but as a totality that is enfolded throughout the whole space and of which we see one aspect. The movement of the electron would result then from a continuous series of enfoldments and unfoldments. Also termed the holomovement due to its dynamic quality, it sustains the particles and is the ground to which all these particles return when destroyed (they are enfolded back).  In this theory, there is a constant exchange between these two orders of reality, and systems that are separate in the explicate order are contained within each other in the implicate order. Bohm calls this apparent separateness of the different “things”, “relatively independent sub totalities”: they are part of an undivided whole but still possess unique characteristics. Again, we have emptiness and form and as the Heart Sutra says: “Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form”.

For Buddhists and other eastern traditions, this emptiness (sometimes called the “Void” or the “Tao”) is also that interconnected reality which gives birth to forms, sustains them and reabsorbs them.  These two orders, the world of phenomena and the world of oneness, are deeply related as well: “ Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form”.

Is it really a wonder that by going deep within one’s consciousness or by going deep within the world of matter, one reaches almost the same understanding of the nature of reality?

Maybe not, since again according to Bohm, mind and matter are interdependent and correlated, both being projections of a higher reality (the emptiness), which is neither matter nor consciousness!

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7 Responses to Emptiness and the world of quantum physics

  1. James Jakudo Shammas says:

    I love your delving into this with such intellectual vigor. As a physician and perpetual student of everything I can relate to your wanting to understand anf experience these seemingly paradoxical realities. However, I can only admonish myself to give all of this up and simply practice as emphasized by Dogen. However I try to “get this” in any intellectual way–as alluring as this may be–will only lead me to dead ends, not to mention my realizing that my own “desire” and motivation for practice emanated from my own truly felt suffering rather than some metaphysical or philosophical question. Yes, Form is emptiness, but then the Heart Sutra says that “so in emptiness there is no form,” and sometimes this is translated as “emptiness is not form,” which means that the concept of Emptiness is also dualistic, as are all the classically idealized Buddhist tenants. This is the deep koan for me: I cannot, in any way, figure anything out, intellectualize my way out of a crisis, be it intellectual, personal or emotional; I must simply sit, and not cling to anything–and that hurts. The main thing I always ask myself is, How am I doing today? Did I trreat my colleagues well? Am I freer and happier? Everytime I was caught by my teacher trying to convey some “opening” experience or other, the minute I opened mymouth with any sense of self-aggrandizement, he would simply ask, How are things with your wife today!” Ypu bastard,” I thought! Yes, I will go back and sit!

    • nicole says:

      Yes, I am aware that it is a Zen teaching to not get caught by the intellect, and so in that sense I am not following a pure zen path.
      I guess it is the scientist in me that feels the need to to connect with something more tangible such as scientific research and see how different teachings/understandings come together. I believe however that if I would give up that quest, I would also remove curiosity and the sense of wonder that goes with it. I am not ready for that…
      I also feel that if the intellect is connected with the heart, it can create a type of consciousness shift, such as the paradigm shifts that can occur in society as a whole when the nature of reality is suddenly perceived in a different way (e.g. when the Earth was found to revolve around the Sun and not the other way around). However, it is certainly of a different nature than “enlightment” which seems to necessitate the cutting through of all concepts and the slaying of the analytical mind.
      I guess being “zenish” fits more with my temperament at the moment than a full zen path!

      • James Jakudo Shammas says:

        Yes, Zen is often credited as the practice that is supposed to go beyond “words and letters,” but I think that this admonition is really about skillful means rather than an absolute statement about how to function with compassion in the world. I believe Zen encompasses everything; nothing is left out, including the analytical mind (and the delusional mind!). Functioning in the realm of “no thought” mean functioning freely and fully with whatever thought is arising, in my view. I think this is what Dogen would say. How do you help the poor old priest off his cushion without using your hands? You use your hands!–fully, freely, and completely, with your whole body and mind!

        • Nicole says:

          Thanks for your comments, it helps me to think about it in a different light. I guess the analytical mind is not a stumbling block if one does not get attached to what comes up.

  2. James Jakudo Shammas says:

    I love your delving into this with such intellectual vigor. As a physician and perpetual student of everything I can relate to your wanting to understand anf experience these seemingly paradoxical realities. However, I can only admonish myself to give all of this up and simply practice as emphasized by Dogen. However I try to “get this” in any intellectual way–as alluring as this may be–will only lead me to dead ends, not to mention my realizing that my own “desire” and motivation for practice emanated from my own truly felt suffering rather than some metaphysical or philosophical question. Yes, Form is emptiness, but then the Heart Sutra says that “so in emptiness there is no form,” and sometimes this is translated as “emptiness is not form,” which means that the concept of Emptiness is also dualistic, as are all the classically idealized Buddhist tenants. This is the deep koan for me: I cannot, in any way, figure anything out, intellectualize my way out of a crisis, be it intellectual, personal or emotional; I must simply sit, and not cling to anything–and that hurts. The main thing I always ask myself is, How am I doing today? Did I trreat my colleagues well? Am I freer and happier? Everytime I was caught by my teacher trying to convey some “opening” experience or other, the minute I opened mymouth with any sense of self-aggrandizement, he would simply ask, How are things with your wife today!” Ypu bastard,” I thought! Yes, I will go back and sit!

    Jakudo/Jim

  3. Paul Bouchard says:

    Interesting read, for me it is greed that keeps getting in the way — subtle attachment and desire to most everything —

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