A Letter to Fellow Scientists

Tenzin Pasang. November 09, 2018 07:29 AM. 2091

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Buddhist scholars in dialogue with the scientists on the topic of Quantum Effects in Dharamsala on November 1, 2018. Photo credit: dalailama.com


Dear All,


As a member of Tibetan Scientific Society, I had the great privilege to attend the dialogue between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a group of scientists on the topic of “Quantum Effects” at Dharamshala from 1-3 November, 2018. As a working scientist, I recognized the importance of this meeting that explored the points of convergence between Quantum Physics and Buddhist Philosophy. I will share, through this letter, my experience as an 'objective' observer. 


There were about eight eminent scientists participating in the dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. One of those scientists was Prof. Yuan T. Lee, the winner of 1986 Nobel prize in Chemistry. Like in other Science and Buddhism meetings, the scientists were extremely attentive to what His Holiness had to say. I could clearly see that they were scientists in the true sense of the word with objective minds and were quick to seek clarification if the discussion was based only on faith.   


To start off, His Holiness outlined the two basic goals of the meeting, namely: 


1. To pursue scientific research that brings into focus the internal workings of the human mind rather than focusing solely on the external material phenomena.


2.  To highlight the importance of compassion by scientific means and introduce secular practices to nourish this compassion in school curriculum.


Then there was series of presentations from the quantum physicists. They spoke about the uncertainties involved in the simultaneous determination of both position and momentum of a particle (Heisenberg uncertainty principle). They also discussed the experiment that demonstrated the dual nature of the electron (Young double slit experiment), and of course, quantum physicists’ favorite tale about the Schrodinger's cat.


The meeting turned quite interesting when His Holiness compared those scientific phenomena with the learnings from Buddhist Science and Philosophy, the body of knowledge generated by numerous ancient Indian Buddhist masters at the famous Nalanda University, and preserved by the Tibetan Buddhists. In commenting on one of the Physicist’s explanation on the difficulty in pinning down a “single fundamental indivisible particle”, His Holiness pointed out that, based on the interdependent nature of reality which is a concept deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy, one may not be able to find such an indivisible particle apart from the aggregates. I was able to recognize the importance of this logic but the greater implication of such a philosophical viewpoint came much later in the discussion.    


Then the scientists discussed on the importance of detectors in studying the nature of particles. They said that when they look at the subatomic particle using a detector, the natural state of the particle gets altered due to the energy imparted on the particle by the detector. It's like spotting a cat in the darkness using a flash light. Until you turn on and point the flash light on the cat, you know nothing about the cat; but when you do so, you will only know the cat's response to the light. His Holiness related this phenomenon to the Buddhist concept of “Perception and Reality”. According to this concept, there is always a gap between perception and reality; effort is required to narrow down this gap in order to know the reality. As I learned later, there are different schools of thought within Buddhism that differ in their take on the concept of perception and reality.  


We also had open discussions between the scientists and the participating monastic science scholars in the afternoons. In one of these sessions, when a scientist mentioned about ‘Absolute Zero Kelvin’ temperature, a monastic science scholar questioned him as to whether such a temperature could be attained in practice. The questioner’s logic came from the concept of ‘Impermanence’ found in Buddhist philosophy which says that every object is at a constant state of change or movement. Since movement of the particles gives rise to change in temperature, he argued, such an absolute zero state may not be practically possible. There were many such interesting questions from the monastic science scholars. It was clear that their line of reasoning comes from their years of learning and experience in Buddhist Philosophy. 


An interesting question that came up was from a scientist who asked the monastic scholars about the benefits of studying quantum physics. The answer came spontaneously. One of the monks said that the concept of momentary changes taking place even at the sub-atomic level complements their notion of the impermanent nature of reality, which helps to decrease their grasping on things and events. According to Buddhist Philosophy, accepting something as ‘permanent or unchanging’ is the root cause of grasping which gives rise to negative emotions such as attachment.


You could tell that there exists a complementary relationship between Quantum Physics and Buddhist Philosophy in terms of their approach and their implications. However, I also learned how they differ in their motivations. The physicists are exploring the quantum phenomena merely out of curiosity whereas the Buddhist philosophers are embracing the concept of impermanence and interdependent nature of reality to counteract negative emotions. Since both of them come to the same logical conclusion, His Holiness said that the quantum physicists, by referring to the article written by a Chinese quantum physicist, also experience less negative emotions such as anger and attachment.


On the final day, His Holiness made a closing remark that helped broaden my initial purpose of attending this meeting as a scientist. He said that scientists should show to the world the benefits of compassion in human society by way of scientific corroboration. The findings from scientific research should form the basis of curriculums on secular ethics in schools without any recourse to religion. By teaching such subjects right from the elementary school, our world will definitely see a generation of warm-hearted people and a society filled with happiness.


When the three-day dialogue between His Holiness, the scientists and the monastic scholars concluded, I found my intellectual horizon greatly expanded.


As a scientist, we study physical world and apply the knowledge thus gained, to improve the material condition. It is time we start to focus more on studying the non-physical phenomena of the human mind and use the learnings for the benefit of human society.


With warm regards,

Kalsang Tharpa, PhD 




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