“If Buddhism hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.” The Great Bamboozle.

“If Buddhism hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.”

I’m paraphrasing Neils Bohr, a Quantum Mechanics expert, who actually said: “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.” My purpose is to demonstrate how Buddhism and Quantum Physics appear to align.

The great Bamboozle

I first noticed what I call the Bamboozle effect when I started seeing “quotes” from scientists that sounded very similar to something the Buddha would say. Why do Buddhism and Quantum Physics “sound bites” often sound alike? They both seem designed to “bamboozle” the mind — and mind is the topic that drives both.

Without “consciousness” — or the observer — there is no matter, says Quantum Physics. How can that be? Buddhism agrees — but teaches us that the “observer” is also at the very core of our suffering. Talk about “bamboozle!”

 

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Nowhere is the persona of “bamboozle” — cheat, confuse or mislead — more evident than in Zen Buddhism, where practices are designed, purposely, to confuse and overload our ego consciousness. This ranges from mindfulness practice — a very Quantum Physics “observer method” if there ever was one — to Koan riddles that literally overload the mind with impossible notions.

Even though we headlined this, “the great Bamboozle,” we don’t mean either Quantum Physics or Buddhism are designed to “mislead us.” Only that they both challenge our understanding of reality as deceiving and flawed. Even Einstein called Quantum Mechanics “spooky.”

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The Dalai Lama at a “Conference on Quantum Physics.”

“The Dalai Lama believes that the connection between quantum physics and spirituality is obvious,” according to Exploring Your Mind, a neuroscience magazine. According to the world-renowned spiritual guide and teacher, all of the atoms in your body include part of the ancient canvas that used to make up the universe. You’re stardust, connected biologically to all living creatures. You’re made of invisible, humming energy connected all at once to everything that exists.” [7] Literally, the doctrine of Emptiness.

Koans and Quantum Mechanics

Talk about the Bamboozle! Buddhist Koans are among the most challenging of practices — right up there with the most “spooky” pronouncements of Quantum Mechanics. Consider these riddle-Koans from Zen practice, and how would you answer them?

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    Bodhidharma, the great chan sage. The school he founded, Chan — which later evolved into Zen — relied extensively on riddle Koans as a teching method.

    Cut a tree five hundred miles away from you. How do you cut it right now?

  • The bridge flows, the water is motionless. Why?
  • Why is it not our tongue that we speak with?
  • A man of great strength will not lift his leg. Why?
  • How do you take hold of a plough with empty hands?
  • Why do great Buddhist teachers always sit on top of a needle?
  • How does a cloud on a mountain cook rice?
  • Why is only one mountain not white in winter? [4]

If you have answers to these, chances are you’re a great master — or a Quantum Physicist.

 

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Mindfulness and time

Einstein told us time is just an illusion. In the book The Secret, the authors say, “What quantum physicists and Einstein tell us is that everything is happening simultaneously.” While this may be too simplified, it aligns quite closely to the ancient Buddhist teachings.

“Very basically, in most schools of Buddhism, it is understood that the way we experience time — as flowing from past to present to future — is an illusion,” writes Barbara O’Brien. [5]

Why is mindfulness such a critical practice in all schools of Buddhism? Consider the sweeping Buddhist philosophy; that time is only the past and future; the present is not “time” it is “life.” Osho wrote, “Time is thought to consist of three tenses: past, present, future—which is wrong. Time consists only of past and future. It is life that consists of the present.” [6]

In Dzogchen teachings, we speak of the four dimensions of time. The first three are past, present and future. However, at the ultimate level of reality, the fourth dimension is — arguably — the “real” one: timeless time. [5]

Soul (and not-soul) and its relationship to time

One reason Buddhist philosophy doesn’t include the concept of soul is “time.” In Buddhist teachings, time is not generally thought of as linear (past to future.) His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very enthusiastic about Quantum Physics and science, recognizing (I believe) how science and Buddhism are complimentary. The Dalai Lama wrote:

“Thirty years ago, I began a series of dialogues focusing on cosmology, neurobiology, physics, including quantum physics, and psychology. These discussions have been largely of mutual benefit. Scientists have learned more about the mind and emotions, while we have gained a subtler explanation of the matter.” [7]

In a famous experiment by Australian scientists, they measured that “future events decide what happens in the past.” [3] While this appears to imply “reverse linear time” it actually reinforces the Buddhist (and Quantum) notion of cyclical time — or more precisely, that “reality is just an abstraction until it is observed.” [3] (Is this a Bamboozle, or what?)

Where Science and Buddhism Meet from Gerald Penilla on Vimeo.

 

Quantum Eraser test

The most famous “time” experiment in Quantum Physics was the “Quantum Eraser” test, a modified “double-slit experiment.” This gets to the heart of quantum uncertainty, which is defined as “laws that govern subatomic affairs, of a particle like an electron to exist in a murky state of possibility — to be anywhere, everywhere or nowhere at all — until clicked into substantiality by a laboratory detector or an eyeball.” [2]

Stated more simply, “reality doesn’t exist unless we are looking at it,” according to physicist Andrew Truscott. [3] Also, more specifically, “scientists have proven that, what is happening to a particle now, isn’t governed by what has happened to it in the past, but by what state it is in the future.” [3]

 

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The concept of clinging, suffering and karma are bound up in the cycle of rebirth in Buddhism. The cockeral represents greed, and he “bites” the snake, which represents hatred, who bites the tail of the pig, symbolizing ignorance or delusion. These are the Three Poisons in Buddhism that keep us trapped in the Samsaric cycle.

 

Everything in cycles, including rebirth — and time?

Although the concept of Karma implies cause-effect, and therefore a linear relationship, this itself is cyclical. In Buddhism, a central concept is cycles and wheels: the Wheel of Samsara — which illustrates the cycle of rebirth and cause-effect (which, however, has no linear beginning and end, only a “circle”) — and the Wheel of Dharma (the teachings represented in a wheel.) Wheels and cycles are common in the teachings. The concept of “eternal damnation in hell” is alien to Buddhism, simply because as a cycle, the consciousness seed that suffers will be reborn. Cause and effect itself are cyclical in this way. The only way to break out of Samsara is to “break” the cycle by realizing the illusory nature of the ego. [Again, overly simplified for this discussion.]

Soul implies personality, person, ego, memories — all of it bundled up and shoved into a new body. Rebirth is a continuity concept. Think of it as energy or mind-continuity, or continuum of subtle consciousness continuing (it never stopped, it didn’t die and get reincarnated, it just continued experiencing Samsara from a different life perspective.) (That’s a very layman, non-teacher description, sorry. Please refer to sutra and teachers.)

Also, the continuity is not necessarily linear — as in linear time — which is mostly illusory. Buddha taught — and modern-day science confirms, that time is not as linear as we think it is. It is only linear “because” we believe it is.

 

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Rebirth is a central concept in Buddhism.

 

Soul implies permanence — Buddhist believe in impermanence.

Basically, the entire practice of Buddhism — the very core of the teaching of the Buddha — is the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which teach methods to escape Samsara — the endless cycle of suffering. Endless cycle, whether you take it as meaning one lifetime of suffering, or multiple, has the same connotation. Buddhism is not generally rigid. You’ll find atheist Buddhists — who practice the methods and obviously have a view to “this” lifetime. You’ll find faithful Buddhists who strongly believe in multiple rebirths.

Either way, EGO is the enemy. It is said ego is what creates attachment. Ego craves enjoyments. Ego fears negative experiences. Ego is afraid. Ego is proud. The methods of Buddhism tend to be about understanding that Ego is NOT the true nature of our being and mind.

Why is there no soul in Buddhism?

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The famous Sand Mandala of Hayagriva, which is a practice in generosity — and impermanance. After meticulous care in constructing the design, the blessed sand is swept into the river, to flow downstream and benefit all beings — and to reinforce that nothing is permanant.

This is, perhaps, the most frequent question we receive at Buddha Weekly. Many people struggle with “soul” in Buddhism. We speak of Buddha Nature (in Mahayana) and in terms of mind-consciousness — but soul is a four-letter-word. (Literally.) Buddha Nature, in many ways, is a more inspiring concept than “soul” in any case, since it brings with it the promise of a “release from suffering” and also a luminous Oneness with all other beings. Soul implies ego, clinging, me-me-me, I will survive forever, I-I-I… Buddha Nature suggests Wonderous Wholeness, blissful wisdom, and all-encompassing compassion. A soul can be corrupt, while Buddha Nature is incorruptible. Today, it might be more useful to describe Buddha Nature as “consciousness.” In Quantum Science, “consciousness” is a central concept. According to some theories, matter relies on consciousness — not the other way around. [More on that later.]

Why is soul a no-starter in Buddhism? There are four key reasons:

  1. Impermanence: a key teaching of Buddha is impermanence: nothing is permanent. The soul is supposed to be permanent.
  2. Emptiness, ONE-ness, or “As it Is-ness”: A deep topic, but overall, the concept that when you strip away the ego — which is the cause of our suffering — we are, in fact, part of ALL — One-ness. (Really, that way to simplistic — I’m just hitting the concept, lightly.) If you have no ego, where is soul?
  3. Anatta or Anatman: the Buddhist doctrine of non-self (versus Soul, which is very self-centred). Anatta does not mean you do not exist — only that your ego is artificial, manifested through clinging and attachments, and other factors. (It’s a deep topic, I’m being simplistic here to avoid distraction.)
  4. Buddha Nature: in Mahayana, Buddha taught that all beings have Buddha Nature, a luminous concept, but not the Soul. A Buddha is free of ego, therefore free of soul and suffering.

How are soul and Buddha Nature similar?

They’re not very similar, but they are used interchangeably. At inter-faith meetings, you’ll often hear the Buddhist teacher simply say “soul” for simplicity or expediency. It’s easier just to say “soul” than to try to launch into a full explanation of Buddha Nature or mind-consciousness. This is also why Buddhist teachers will often not correct people when they say “reincarnation” (which implies a soul) versus “rebirth” (which does not.)

 

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Visualizing the self as the deity is a Vajrayana practice that helps us understand the illusory nature of relative phenomenon. It also helps us understand that we all have Buddha Nature.

 

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A growing group of scientists in consciousness studies theorize the mind as an energy-like field surrounding and separate from the body.

They do, at first blush, appear similar:

  • Soul and Buddha Nature are both “natural” and “luminous.”
  • Both Soul and Buddha Nature (or mindstream) are the essence of what reincarnates (in the case of soul) or is “reborn” (in the case of Buddha Nature.)

You can argue that both Soul and Buddha Nature rely on “consciousness”— in which case, the question then becomes, can consciousness exist in the absence of ego? In Quantuum Science, generally “consciousness” is central. The Nobel Prize-Winning Physicist Max Planck described consciousness this way:

“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulating consciousness.” [1]

 

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Buddha Nature is often described as the sun behind the clouds. The sun is always there, even if you can’t see it. But when the visual obstruction disappears, the sun shines.

 

How are soul and Buddha Nature different?

In almost every other way, soul and Buddha Nature differ.

  • Soul is permanent and can suffer for all eternity; Buddha Nature, like all things, is impermanent.
  • Soul is all about ego, it almost defines the concept; Buddha Nature is always with us, but we only realize it when we recognize ego is an illusion.
  • Soul was created by God; Buddha Nature is natural, a result of Dependent Arising (or, rather, the recognition all phenomenon are dependent on each other).
  • Soul can be rewarded or punished (better incarnations or worse, heavens and hells); Buddha Nature never suffers, as it is free of clinging and attachment.

 

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In other words, the two ways that both Buddha Nature and soul are actually similar is in the concept of being both “natural” and “luminous.” Where they absolutely differ is on the concept of ego and self; soul implies permanent attachment to a “self” which, at its core, is the opposite of the Buddhist ideal of Emptiness.

Also, in most traditions, the happiness of the soul relies on the blessings of God. In Buddhism, you could say it is completely self-help — only you can develop your Buddha Nature.

Buddhism uses the language of REBIRTH rather than REINCARNATION.

Reincarnation implies soul incarnating in a new body. This really isn’t a Buddhist belief. We believe we are reborn, our Buddha Nature, our subtle mindstream — or the subtle consciousness — but not necessarily our personality (which typically is shaped by the incarnation into which your are born), and definitely NOT an eternal soul. It is the antithesis of Buddhism to cling to EGO and Soul is ultimately an ego-centric concept. It also implies permanence, while Buddhism teaches impermanence is the true nature of reality:

“In Buddhism, we don’t have a soul, we don’t have a concept of soul.” said Venerable Zasep Rinpoche “To me, soul sounds like some sort of permanent thing, within us. Nothing is permanent. Instead of soul, we have consciousness, mind stream, and Buddha Nature.”

 

Everything in cycles, including rebirth — and time?

Although the concept of Karma implies cause-effect, and therefore a linear relationship, this itself is cyclical. In Buddhism, a central concept is cycles and wheels: the Wheel of Samsara — which illustrates the cycle of rebirth and cause-effect (which, however, has no linear beginning and end, only a “circle”) — and the Wheel of Dharma (the teachings represented in a wheel.) Wheels and cycles are universal in the teachings. The concept of “eternal damnation in hell” is alien to Buddhism, simply because as a cycle, the consciousness seed that suffers will be reborn. Cause and effect itself are cyclical in this way. The only way to break out of Samsara is to “break” the cycle by realizing the illusory nature of the ego. [Again, overly simplified for this discussion.]

Soul implies personality, person, ego, memories — all of it bundled up and shoved into a new body. Rebirth is a continuity concept. Think of it as energy or mind-continuity, or continuum of subtle consciousness continuing (it never stopped, it didn’t die and get reincarnated, it just continued experiencing Samsara from a different life perspective — but attached to a brand-new ego.) (That’s a very layman, non-teacher description, sorry. Please refer to sutra and teachers.)

Also, the continuity is not necessarily linear — as in linear time — which is mostly illusory. Buddha taught — and modern-day science confirms, that time is not as linear as we think it is. It is only linear “because” we believe it is.

 

NOTES

[1] “Quantum Experiment Shows How Time Doesn’t Exist As We Think it Does”

[2] New York Times

[3] “Scientists show future events decide what happens in the past

[4] “Ancient Zen Koans from China”

[5] “About Time from a Buddhist Perspective”

[6] Osho Zen Tarot book, by Osho.

[7] “The Dalai Lama on Quantum Physics and Spirituality”

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Lee Kane

Author | Buddha Weekly

Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.

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