Dalai Lama on Theory of Emptiness

Taken from Dalai Lama's book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality.

One of the most important philosophical insights in Buddhism comes from what is known as the theory of emptiness. At its heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self- enclosed, definable, discrete, and enduring reality. For instance, if we examine our own conception of selfhood we will find that we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being which characterizes our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our existence. The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of numerous prejudices.

Effectively, the notion of intrinsic independent existence is incompatible with causation. This is because causation implies contingency and dependence, while anything that possesses independent existence would be immutable and self-enclosed. Everything is composed of dependently related events, of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed immutable essence, which are themselves in constantly changing dynamic relations. Things and events are “empty” in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute “being” that affords independence. This fundamental truth of “the way things really are” is described in the Buddhist writings as “emptiness,” or shunyata in Sanskrit.

If on the quantum level, matter is revealed to be less solid and definable than it appears, then it seems to me that science is coming closer to the Buddhist contemplative insights of emptiness and interdependence.

One may ask, Apart from misrepresenting reality, what is wrong with believing in the independent, intrinsic existence of things? For Nagarjuna, this belief has serious negative consequences. Nagarjuna argues that it is the belief in intrinsic existence that sustains the basis for a self-perpetuating dysfunction in our engagement with the world and with our fellow sentient beings. By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while toward others, to which we accord intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded aversion. In other words, Nagarjuna argues that grasping at the independent existence of things leads to affliction, which in turn gives rise to a chain of destructive actions, reactions, and suffering. In the final analysis, for Nagarjuna, the theory of emptiness is not a question of the mere conceptual understanding of reality. It has profound psychological and ethical implications.

Taken from a Amazon customer review of the book:

The Dalai Lama's interest in science began when he was a small boy, shut away with elderly tutors in the gigantic Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. He tells the story of spending hours and hours tinkering with the mechanical objects left there by his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama. Some readers will be surprised to see that his fascination with mechanics, science and technology was established then and has long flourished despite his having had no formal education in the sciences.

About a decade after his exile in 1959 he began traveling extensively, and ever since he's enjoyed long friendships with many scientists, including the late renowned philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper, physicist Carl von Weizsäcker and the late quantum physicist David Bohm. This knowledge is the basis for the book and HH convenes neuroscientists and Buddhist scholars to define the next steps in the study of the mind and brain. These have typically been intimate meetings at his residence in Dharamsala, India. The descriptions are heavy and deep. The main thrust of the book is how science and Buddhism share a common objective: to serve humanity and create a better understanding of the world. Science offers powerful tools for understanding the interconnectedness of all life, he says. Indeed!

See also Scans of Monks' Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning, an example of a collaboration between Dalai Lama and neuroscientists.


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