Emptiness is described as the basis that makes everything possible.
- THE TWELFTH TAI SITUPA RINPOCHE, Awakening the Sleeping Buddha
The sense of openness people experience when they simply rest their minds is known in Buddhist terms as emptiness, which is probably one of the most misunderstood words in Buddhist philosophy. It’s hard enough for Buddhists to understand the term, but Western readers have an even more difficult time, because many of the early translators of Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhist texts interpreted emptiness as “the Void” or nothingness - mistakenly equating emptiness with the idea that nothing at all exists. Nothing could be further from the truth the Buddha sought to describe.
While the Buddha did teach that the nature of the mind - in fact, the nature of all phenomena - is emptiness, he didn’t mean that their nature was truly empty, like a vacuum. He said it was emptiness, which in the Tibetan language is made up of two words: tongpa-nyi. The word tongpa means “empty,” but only in the sense of something beyond our ability to perceive with our senses and our capacity to conceptualize. Maybe a better translation would be “inconceivable” or “unnamable.” The word nyi, meanwhile, doesn’t have any particular meaning in everyday Tibetan conversation. But when added to another word it conveys a sense of “possibility” - a sense that anything can arise, anything can happen. So when Buddhists talk about emptiness, we don’t mean nothingness, but rather an unlimited potential for anything to appear, change, or disappear.
Perhaps we can use an analogy here to what contemporary physicists have learned about the strange and wonderful phenomena they see when they examine the inner workings of an atom. According to the physicists with whom I’ve spoken, the basis from which all sub-atomic phenomena arise is often referred to as the vacuum state, the state of lowest energy in the subatomic universe. In the vacuum state, particles continually appear and disappear. So, although seemingly empty, this state is actually very active, full of the potential to produce anything whatsoever. In this sense, the vacuum shares certain qualities with the “empty quality of the mind.” Just as the vacuum is considered “empty,” yet is the source from which all manner of particles appear, the mind is essentially “empty” in that it defies absolute description. Yet out of this indefinable and incompletely knowable basis, all thoughts, emotions, and sensations perpetually arise.
Because the nature of your mind is emptiness, you possess the capacity to experience a potentially unlimited variety of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Even misunderstandings of emptiness are simply phenomena arising out of emptiness!
A simple example may help you gain some understanding of emptiness on an experiential level.
A few years ago, a student came to me asking for a teaching on emptiness. I gave him the basic explanation and he appeared to be quite happy - thrilled, in fact.
“That’s so cool!” he replied at the end of our conversation.
My own experience had taught me that emptiness isn’t so easy to understand after one lesson, so I instructed him to spend the next several days meditating on what he’d learned.
A few days later the student suddenly arrived outside my room with an expression of terror on his face. Pale, hunched, and shaking, he stepped carefully across the room, like someone testing the ground in front of him for quicksand.
When he finally stopped in front of where I was sitting, he said,
“Rinpoche, you told me to meditate on emptiness. But last night, it occurred to me that if everything is emptiness, then this whole building is emptiness, the floors are emptiness, and the ground underneath is emptiness. If that’s the case, why shouldn’t we all fall through the floor and down through the ground?”
I waited until he finished speaking. Then I asked, “Who would fall?”
He thought about the question for a moment, and then his expression changed completely.
“Oh,” he exclaimed, “I get it! If the building is emptiness and people are emptiness, there’s no one to fall and nothing to fall through.”
He gave a long sigh, his body relaxed, and the color returned to his face. So I asked him again to meditate on emptiness with this new understanding.
Two or three days later he again arrived at my room unexpectedly. Pale and shaking again, he entered the room, and it seemed quite clear he was trying as best he could to hold his breath, terrified of exhaling.
Sitting down in front of me, he said,
“Rinpoche, I meditated on emptiness as you instructed, and I understood that just like this building and the ground below are emptiness, I’m also emptiness. But as I kept pursuing this meditation, I kept going deeper and deeper, until I stopped being able to see or feel anything. I’m so afraid that if I’m nothing more than emptiness, I’m just going to die. That’s why I ran to see you this morning. If I’m just emptiness, then I’m basically nothing, and there’s nothing to keep me from just dissolving away into nothingness.”
When I was sure he was finished, I asked, “Who is it that would dissolve?”
I waited a few moments for him to absorb this question, then pressed on.
“You’ve mistaken emptiness for nothingness. Almost everybody makes the same mistake in the beginning, trying to understand emptiness as an idea or a concept. I made the same mistake myself. But there’s really no way to understand emptiness conceptually. You can only really recognize it through direct experience. I’m not asking you to believe me. All I’m saying is that the next few times you sit down to meditate, ask yourself, ‘If the nature of everything is emptiness, who or what can dissolve? Who or what is born and who or what can die?’ Try that, and the answer you get may surprise you.”
After a sigh, he agreed to try again.
Several days later he returned to my room, smiling peacefully as he announced, “I think I’m starting to I understand emptiness.”
I asked him to explain.
“I followed your instructions, and after meditating on the subject for a long time, I realized that emptiness isn’t nothingness, because there must be something before there can be nothing. Emptiness is everything - all possibilities of existence and nonexistence imaginable, occurring simultaneously. So if our true nature is emptiness, then nobody can be said to truly die and no one can be said to be truly born, because the possibility of being in a certain way and not being in a certain way is present within us at every moment.”
“Very good,” I told him. “Now forget everything you just said, because if you try to remember it exactly, you’ll turn everything you learned into a concept, and we’ll have to start all over again.”
TWO REALITIES: ABSOLUTE AND RELATIVE
Ultimate truth cannot be taught without basis on relative truth. . . .
- NAGARUNA, Madhyamakarika, translated by Maria Montenegro
Most of us require time to contemplate and meditate in order to comprehend emptiness. When I teach on this subject, one of the first questions I’m usually asked is
“Well, if the basis of reality is emptiness, where does everything come from?”
It’s a good question, in fact a very profound one. But the relationship between emptiness and experience isn’t so simple - or rather, it’s so simple that it’s easy to miss. It’s actually out of the unlimited potential of emptiness that phenomena - a catch-all term that includes thoughts, emotions, sensations, and even material objects - can appear, move, change, and ultimately vanish.
Instead of going into a discussion of quantum mechanics - the contemporary branch of physics that examines matter on atomic and subatomic levels - which I admit is not my area of expertise, I’ve found that the best way to describe this aspect of emptiness is by going back to the analogy of space as understood in the Buddha’s time - a vast openness that is not a thing in itself, but rather an infinite, uncharacterized background against and through which galaxies, stars, planets, animals, human beings, rivers, trees, and so forth appear and move. In the absence of space, none of these things could appear distinct or individual. There would be no room for them, no background against which they could be seen. Stars and planets can only come into being, move about, and dissolve against the background of space. We ourselves are able to stand, sit, and walk in and out of a room only because of the space that surrounds us. Our own bodies are filled with space: the external openings that allow us to breathe, swallow, speak, and so on, as well as the space within our internal organs, such as the lungs that open and close as we inhale and exhale.
A similar relationship exists between emptiness and phenomena. Without emptiness, nothing could appear; in the absence of phenomena, we wouldn’t be able to experience the background of emptiness out of which everything appears. So, in a sense, you’d have to say that there is a relationship between emptiness and phenomena. But there’s also an important distinction. Emptiness, or infinite possibility, is the absolute nature of reality. Everything that appears out of emptiness - stars, galaxies, people, tables, lamps, clocks, and even our perception of time and space - is a relative expression of infinite possibility, a momentary appearance in the context of infinite time and space.
I’d like to take this moment to point out another, extremely important, distinction between absolute and relative reality. According to Buddhist understanding and also, apparently, to some modern Western schools of scientific thought, only something that doesn’t change, that can’t be affected by time and circumstance, or broken down into smaller, connected parts, can be said to be absolutely real. Using this definition as a basis, I was taught that emptiness - the immeasurable, indefinable potential that is the background of all phenomena, uncreated and unaffected by changes in causes or conditions - is absolute reality. And since natural mind is emptiness, completely open and unlimited by any sort of nameable or definable characteristics, nothing anyone thinks or says about phenomena and nothing I think or say about phenomena can truly be said to define its true nature.
In other words, absolute reality cannot be expressed in words, images, or even symbolism of mathematical formulas. I’ve heard that a number of religions also understand that the nature of the absolute cannot be expressed in these ways, and refuse to describe the absolute in names or images. On this point, at least, Buddhism agrees: The absolute can only be comprehended through experience.
At the same time, it would be absurd to deny that we live in a world where things appear, change, and disappear in space and time. People come and go; tables break and chip; someone drinks a glass of water, and the water is gone. In Buddhist terms, this level of endlessly changing experience is known as relative reality - relative, that is, compared with the unchanging and indefinable condition of absolute reality.
So while it would be foolish to pretend that we don’t experience things like tables, water, thoughts, and planets, at the same time we can’t say that any of these things inherently exists in a complete, self-sufficient, independent way. By definition, anything that inherently exists must be permanent and unchanging. It can’t be broken down into smaller parts or affected by shifts in causes and conditions.
That’s a nice, intellectual description of the relationship between absolute and relative reality. But it doesn’t really provide the intuitive or, as we would say today, gut-level understanding needed to really grasp that relationship. When pressed by his students to explain the relationship between absolute and relative reality, the Buddha often resorted to the example of dreams, pointing out that our experiences in waking life are similar to the experiences we have in dreams. The dream examples he used naturally involved things that were relevant to the students of his day: cows, grain, thatched roofs, and mud walls.
I’m not sure those examples would have the same impact on people living in the twenty-first century. So, when I teach, I tend to use examples relevant to the people I’m talking to. For example, suppose you’re the type of person who really loves cars. You’d probably feel thrilled to dream that someone has given you a brand-new car without your having to spend a penny to get it. The “dream you” would be happy to receive the “dream car,” happy to drive it, and happy to show it off to everyone that you know.
But suppose in the dream you’re driving along when suddenly another car smashes into you. The front of your car is completely ruined and you’ve broken one of your legs. In the dream, your mood would probably shift immediately from happiness to despair. Your car’s been ruined, you don’t have any “dream insurance,” and your broken leg is causing tremendous pain. You might even begin to cry in the dream, and when you wake up your pillow might be wet with tears.
Now I’m going to ask a question, but not a difficult one. Is the car in the dream real or not?
The answer, of course, is that it is not. No engineers designed the car, and no factory built it. It isn’t made of the various parts that constitute an actual car, or of the molecules and atoms that make up each of the different parts of a car. Yet, while dreaming, you experience the car as something quite real. In fact, you relate to everything in your dreams as real, and you respond to your experiences with very real thoughts and emotions. But, no matter how real your dream experiences may seem, they can’t be said to exist inherently, can they? When you wake up, the dream ceases and everything you perceived in the dream dissolves into emptiness: the infinite possibility for anything to occur.
The Buddha taught that, in the same way, every form of experience is an appearance arising from the infinite possibility of emptiness. As stated in the Heart Sutra, one of the most famous of the Buddha’s teachings:
Form is emptiness.
Emptiness is form.
Emptiness is nothing other than form.
Form is nothing other than emptiness.
In modern terms, you might say: A dream car is a not-inherently-real car. A not-inherently-real car is a dream car. A dream car is nothing other than a not-inherently-real car. A not-inherently-real car is nothing other than a dream car.
Of course, it may be argued that the things you experience in waking life and the events you experience in a dream can’t logically be compared. After all, when you wake from a dream, you don’t really have a broken leg or a wrecked car in the driveway. If you got into an accident in waking life, though, you might find yourself in the hospital and facing thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to your car.
Nevertheless, the basis of your experience is the same in dreams and in waking life: thoughts, feelings, and sensations that vary according to changing conditions. If you bear this comparison in mind, whatever you experience in waking life begins to lose its power to affect you. Thoughts are just thoughts. Feelings are just feelings. Sensations are just sensations. They come and go in waking life as quickly and easily as they do in dreams.
Everything you experience is subject to change according to changing conditions. If even a single condition is changed, the form of your experience will change. Without a dreamer, there would be no dream. Without the mind of the dreamer, there would be no dream. If the dreamer were not sleeping, there would be no dream. All these circumstances have to come together in order for a dream to occur.
AN EXERCISE IN EMPTINESS
The mind is empty in essence.
Although empty everything constantly arises in it.
- THE THIRD GYALWANG KARMAPA,
Song of Karmapa: The Aspiration of the Mahamudra of True Meaning, translated by Erik Pema Kunsang
Intellectual understanding of emptiness is one thing; direct experience is another. So let’s try another exercise, a little different from the ones described in previous chapters. This time you’ll look at your thoughts, emotions, and sensations very closely, as they arise out of emptiness, momentarily appear as emptiness, and dissolve back into emptiness. If no thoughts, feelings, or sensations come up for you, just make them up, as many as you can, very quickly, one after another. The main point of the exercise is to observe as many forms of experience as you can. If you don’t observe them, they’ll just slip away unnoticed. Don’t lose any of the thoughts, feelings, or sensations without having observed them.
Begin by sitting up straight, in a relaxed position, and breathing normally. Once you’re settled, start to observe your thoughts, emotions, and sensations very clearly. Remember, if nothing comes up for you, just start gibbering away in your mind. Whatever you perceive - pain, pressure, sounds, and so on - observe it very clearly. Even ideas like “This is a good thought,” “This is a bad thought,” “I like this exercise,” or “I hate this exercise” are thoughts you can observe. You can even observe something as simple as an itch. To get the full effect, you’ll want to continue this process for at least a minute.
Are you ready? Okay, then, go!
Watch the movements of your mind. . . .
Watch the movements of your mind. . . .
Watch the movements of your mind. . . .
The point of the exercise is simply to watch everything that passes through your awareness as it arises out of emptiness, momentarily appears, and dissolves back into emptiness again - a movement like the rising and falling of a wave in a giant ocean. You don’t want to block your thoughts, emotions, and so on; nor do you want to chase after them. If you chase after them, if you let them lead you, they begin to define you, and you lose your ability to respond openly and spontaneously in the present moment. On the other hand, if you attempt to block your thoughts, your mind can become quite tight and small.
This is an important point because many people mistakenly believe meditation involves deliberately stopping the natural movement of thoughts and emotions. It’s possible to block this movement for a little while and even achieve a fleeting sense of peace - but it’s the peace of a zombie. A completely thoughtless, emotionless state is a state devoid of discernment or clarity.
If you practice allowing your mind just to be as it is, however, your mind will eventually settle down on its own. You’ll develop a sense of spaciousness, while your ability to experience things clearly, without bias, will gradually increase. Once you begin to watch these thoughts, emotions, and so on come and go with awareness, you’ll start to recognize that they are all relative phenomena. They can only be defined by their relation to other experiences. A happy thought is distinguished by its difference from an unhappy thought, just as a tall person may be distinguished as “tall” only in relation to someone who is shorter. By himself, that person is neither tall nor short. Similarly, a thought or a feeling can’t, in itself, be described as positive or negative except through comparison with other thoughts. Without this kind of comparison, a thought, a feeling, or a perception is just what it is. It has no inherent qualities or characteristics, and can’t be defined in itself except through comparison.
THE PHYSICS OF EXPERIENCE
Physical objects do not exist in space, but are spatially extended. In this way the concept of “empty space” loses its meaning.
- ALBERT EINSTEIN, Relativity, 15th edition
In my conversations with modern scientists, I’ve been struck by a number of similarities between the principles of quantum mechanics and the Buddhist understanding of the relationship between emptiness and appearance. Because the words we used were different, it took me quite a while to recognize that we were talking about the same thing - phenomena unfolding moment by moment, caused and conditioned by an almost infinite number and variety of events.
In order to appreciate these similarities, I found it important to understand something about the principles of classical physics, the foundation on which quantum mechanics is built. “Classical physics” is a general term that describes a set of theories about the workings of the natural world based on the insights of the seventeenth-century genius Sir Isaac Newton and the scientists who contributed to his understanding and followed in his footsteps. In terms of classical physics, the universe was understood as a giant, orderly machine. According to this “machine model,” if one knew the location and velocity - that is, the speed and direction of its movement - of every particle in the universe and the forces between them at a particular instant of time, then it would be possible to predict the position and velocity of every particle in the universe at any future time. Similarly, one could figure out the complete past history of the universe from a complete description of its present state. The history of the universe could be understood as a giant web of histories of individual particles, connected by absolute, knowable laws of cause and effect.
The laws and theories of classical physics, however, were based in large part on observations of large-scale phenomena, such as the movements of stars and planets and interactions among material objects on earth. But technological advances in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries enabled scientists to study the behavior of phenomena on smaller and smaller scales, and their experiments - which formed the basis of quantum mechanics (the fundamental framework of modern physics) - began to show that at extremely small scales, material phenomena didn’t behave in the nice, orderly, predictable fashion described by classical physics.
One of the most perplexing aspects of these experiments involved the revelation that what we ordinarily consider “matter” may not be as solid and definable as once was believed. When observed on a subatomic level, “matter” behaves rather strangely, sometimes exhibiting properties commonly associated with material particles and sometimes appearing as nonmaterial “waves” of energy. As I understand it, these particlewaves can’t be defined simultaneously in terms of location and velocity. So the classical notion of describing the state of the universe in terms of the locations and velocities of particles falls apart.
Just as quantum mechanics developed over time from the laws of classical physics, in a similar sort of way the Buddha’s description of the nature of experience evolved gradually, with each insight building upon the previous one according to the level of understanding of those who heard them. These teachings are historically divided into three sets, referred to as the “Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma.” The Sanskrit word dharma in this sense means “the truth,” or more simply, “the way things are.”
The Buddha gave his first set of teachings in an open space known as the Deer Park near Varanasi, a district in India now known as Benares. This first set of teachings described the relative nature of reality based on observable physical experience. The teachings of the first turning are often summed up in a series of statements commonly known as “The Four Noble Truths,” but which may be more accurately described as “Four Pure Insights into the Way Things Are.” These four insights may be summarized as follows:
1. Ordinary life is conditioned by suffering.
2. Suffering results from causes.
3. The causes of suffering can be extinguished.
4. There is a simple path through which the causes of suffering can be extinguished.
In the second and third turnings, the Buddha began to describe the characteristics of absolute reality. The second turning - which was given on Vulture’s Peak, a mountain located in the northeastern Indian state of Bihar - focused on the nature of emptiness, loving-kindness, compassion, and bodhicitta. (Bodhicitta is a Sanskrit word that is often translated as the “mind” or “heart” of awakening.) The third turning of the wheel, in which the Buddha described the fundamental characteristics of Buddha nature, was given in various places around India.
On their own, the three turnings of the wheel are fascinating in terms of what they tell us about the nature of the mind, the universe, and the ways in which the mind perceives experience. But they also serve to clarify ideas that arose among the Buddha’s earliest followers.
After the Buddha passed away, his followers didn’t always agree on the exact interpretation of what he’d said; some of them may not have heard all three turnings of the wheel. The disagreements between them were only natural, since, as the Buddha repeatedly stressed, the essence of what he taught couldn’t be grasped by intellectual understanding alone, but could only be realized through direct experience.
Those who had learned only the teachings of the first turning of the wheel developed two schools of thought, the Vaibhasika and the Sautantrika views, according to which infinitesimally small particles - known in Tibetan as dul-tren or dul-tren-cha-may, which may be roughly translated, respectively, as “smallest particles” and “indivisible particles” - were understood to be absolutely “real,” in the sense that they were complete in themselves, unable to be broken down into smaller parts. These fundamental particles were considered the essential building blocks of all phenomena. They could never be dissolved or lost, only converted to different forms. For example, the dul-tren-cha-may of wood wasn’t lost when a log was set on fire, but was merely converted into smoke or flame - a point of view not unlike the law of “conservation of energy,” a basic principle of physics that holds that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but only converted into other forms. For example, the chemical energy in gasoline can be converted into the mechanical energy that moves a car.
At this point you may be wondering what the development of modern physics has to do with attaining personal happiness. But if you’ll bear with me for a while, the relationship will become clear.
The Buddha’s later teachings demonstrated that the simple fact that infinitesimally small particles could be converted - as Albert Einstein would prove centuries later through his famous equation E = mc2, which in very basic terms describes particles as little packets of energy - indicated that a dul-tren or dul-tren-cha-may was, in fact, a transitory phenomenon and consequently could not be considered fundamentally, or absolutely, “real”.
To use an everyday example, think of water. Under very cold conditions, water turns to ice. At room temperature, water is liquid. When heated, it becomes steam. In laboratory experiments, the molecules of water can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen atoms, and when these atoms are examined more closely, they consist of smaller and smaller subatomic particles.
There is an interesting parallel between the Vaibhasika and the Sautantrika views and the classical school of physics. According to classical physics - and I’m probably oversimplifying the case in order to make the ideas easier to grasp - the basic elements of matter, as well as large entities like stars, planets, and human bodies, can be described in terms of precisely measurable properties such as location and velocity, and move in nicely predictable ways through space and time in perfect coordination with certain forces such as gravity and electricity. The classical interpretation still works very well in terms of predicting the behavior of large-scale phenomena, like the movements of planets.
As explained to me, however, advances in technology in the nineteenth century began to provide physicists with the means to observe material phenomena in microscopic detail. In the early twentieth century the British physicist J. J. Thomson pursued a set of experiments that led him to discover that the atom was not a solid entity, but was instead composed of smaller particles - most notably electronically charged particles called electrons. Building on Thomson’s experiments, the physicist Edward Rutherford devised a model of the atom - familiar to most Westerners who have taken a high school chemistry or physics class - as a kind of miniature solar system composed of electrons that revolved around a central core of the atom called the nucleus.
The problem with Rutherford’s “solar system” model of the atom was that it didn’t account for the observed fact that atoms always radiate light of certain characteristic energies when heated up. The set of energy levels, which is different for each type of atom, is commonly referred to as the atom’s spectrum. In 1914, Niels Bohr realized that if the electrons inside an atom were treated as waves, the atom’s energy spectrum could be precisely explained. This was one of the great early successes of quantum mechanics, and forced the scientific world to begin taking this strange new theory seriously.
At about the same time, however, Albert Einstein demonstrated that it was possible to describe light not as waves, but as particles, which he called -photons. When photons were directed at a metal plate, they accelerated the activity of electrons, producing electricity. Following up on Einstein’s discovery, a number of physicists began experiments that showed that all forms of energy might conceivably be described in terms of particles - a perspective very similar to the Vaibhasika point of view.
As modern physicists continue to study the world of subatomic phenomena, they’re still confronted by the problem that subatomic phenomena - what we might call the building blocks of “reality” or “experience” - sometimes behave like particles and sometimes like waves. Thus, they can only determine the probability that a subatomic entity will exhibit certain properties or behave in a certain way. While there appears to be no doubt that quantum theory is accurate in terms of practical application - as demonstrated in the development of lasers, transistors, supermarket scanners, and computer chips - the quantum explanation of the universe remains a rather abstract mathematical description of phenomena. But it’s important to remember that mathematics is a symbolic language - a type of poetry that uses numbers and symbols instead of words to convey a sense of reality underlying our conventional experience.
THE FREEDOM OF PROBABILITY
Fresh awareness of
whatever arises . . . is sufficient.
- THE NINTH GYALWANG KARMAPA,
Mahamudra: The Ocean of Definitive Meaning, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
In his early teachings, the Buddha addressed the problem of suffering in terms of fixation on an inherently existing or absolutely “real” level of experience (including a belief in an inherently real self and the inherently real existence of material phenomena). Later, as his audience became more sophisticated, he began to address emptiness and Buddha nature more directly. Similarly, the ideas of classical physicists regarding the nature and behavior of material objects were gradually redefined and updated by the efforts of scientists of the late nineteenth century.
As mentioned earlier, modern scientists’ observations of matter on the subatomic level led them to recognize that elements of the subatomic world sometimes behaved very nicely as “thinglike” particles when observed under certain experimental conditions, but when observed under other conditions they behaved more like waves. These observations of “wave-particle duality” marked, in many ways, the birth of the “new” physics of quantum mechanics.
I imagine that this peculiar behavior was probably not altogether comfortable to the scientists who first observed it. To use a somewhat simple analogy, imagine someone you thought you knew very well treated you like a best friend one moment, and half an hour later looked at you as though he or she had never seen you before. You might call this kind of behavior “two-faced.”
On the other hand, it must have been very exciting, since direct observation of the behavior of matter opened up a whole new world of investigation - quite similar to the world that opens up to us when we begin to actively engage in observing the activity of our own minds. There’s so much to see, and so much to learn!
With their customary diligence, physicists of the early twentieth century went “back to the drawing board” in order to explain the behavior of the wavelike nature of particles. Building on Niels Bohr’s picture of the wavelike nature of electrons inside atoms, they eventually arrived at a new description of the subatomic world, which, in very detailed, mathematical terms, describes how every particle in the known universe can be understood as a wave, and every wave as a particle. In other words, the particles that make up the larger material universe can be seen from one perspective as “things” and from another as occurrences extending through time and space.
So what does physics have to do with being happy? We like to think of ourselves as solid, distinct individuals with well-defined goals and personalities. But if we look honestly at the discoveries of modern science, we have to admit that this view of ourselves is at best incomplete.
The teachings of the Buddha are often grouped into two categories: the teachings on wisdom, or theory, and the teachings on method, or practice. The Buddha himself often compared these categories to the wings of a bird. In order to fly, a bird needs two wings. The “wing” of wisdom is necessary because without at least some idea of what you’re aiming for, the “wing” of practice flaps pretty much uselessly. People who go to the gym, for example, have at least a rough idea of what they want to gain by sweating on the treadmill or lifting weights. The same principle applies to the effort to directly recognize our inborn capacity for happiness. We need to know where we’re going in order to get there.
Modern science - specifically quantum physics and neuroscience - offers an approach to wisdom in terms that are at once more acceptable and more specifically demonstrable to people living in the twenty-first century than are the Buddhist insights into the nature of reality gained through subjective analysis. It not only helps to explain why the Buddhist practices work in terms of hard, scientific analysis, but also provides fascinating insights into the Buddhist understanding of dul-tren-cha-may, the momentary phenomena that appear and disappear in an instant according to changes in causes and conditions. But we have to look deeper into the realm of science to discover some of these parallels.