Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What Is The Stars?

I watched a documentary called “Master of the Universe” the other night on Channel 4. It was the second part of a two-part documentary about the British physicist Stephen Hawking, who's famous for the big bang theory (I missed the first part - think we were watching South Park). It described how he’s trying to work out a theory of everything. It also had bits about some ups and downs in his private life since he wrote “A Brief History of Time”. There were also interviews with other really clever-looking physicist types. The physicists basically reckon the universe started out as some sort of single
superforce. But the superforce was split into the four known natural forces at the time of the big bang: electromagnetic, strong force, weak force and gravity. Those four forces should all be equal for the theory of everything to work, but for some reason gravity is weaker than the other forces. They’re trying to figure out why.

One reason this show interested me is that Buddhism never goes against anything that science can prove. So if science can prove that there are donuts in space, then Buddhism agrees. But Buddhism does say that even though what science has proved is true, science still hasn’t found the truth about lots of things – that there’s plenty of stuff science just hasn’t stumbled on yet.

One of the things they were talking about is “string theory”. It's considered one of the great breakthroughs. Now I honestly haven’t a clue how it’s meant to work, but the part that caught my attention was when they started talking about different dimensions. They figure the universe may consist of 11 different dimensions, but us humans are only familiar with four of them, up-down, left-right, back-forth, and time. One of the physicists said that basically we’re like fish swimming around in a fish tank. We think that what we notice in the fish tank is all there is, but there's probably much more to it than we’ve managed to figure out.

Anyway, one reason the 11 dimensions caught my attention is that I’ve heard my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima talk about an extra dimension sometimes. I don't know if it's connected to what the string theory says, but basically Buddhism says that we’re all connected in some way, but we don’t usually notice. Some physicists may someday come up with ideas like that too, although probably best not to hold your breath.

But the part that interested me most was right at the end when Stephen Hawkins was talking about the big picture who made the universe and all that. I’d always thought that the big bang theory meant that the universe wasn’t here before the big bang. It kind of interested me because Buddhism’s idea is that the universe has always existed – which is a bit of a strange one too. Anyway, it turns out Stephen Hawking thinks the universe always existed too, and that it keeps appearing and disappearing or something like that. I can’t remember what he said exactly, but whatever it was it sounded an awful lot like Buddhism’s idea about the universe.

On the face of it, scientists talking about black holes and parallel universes and things seems completely different to Buddhism. But actually they’re not. Scientists try to explain the universe based on scientific knowledge, while Buddhism tries to explain the universe based on what Buddhists experience in daily life. Buddhist meditation is a big part of that, because it helps you become aware of things you may not notice otherwise. And judging from that documentary on Stephen Hawking, it seemed to me like Buddhism and science aren’t too far away from each other after all.

But Buddhism goes a bit further than science. Buddhism comes out and says the universe is the truth itself. Buddhism says the universe is not just matter, but also has a kind of mystical side to it too. That's something that going to be very hard for science to prove.

When I first heard Gudo Nishijima talk about Buddhism being the "truth", I honestly couldn’t believe him. I didn’t think there was anything we could call the “truth”. Eventually I realized I was wrong. Buddhism does contain the truth. And if you ask Gudo Nishijima he'll tell you that there's only one truth. If you practice zazen for a while you'll start to get glimpses of it. It’s different to anything they teach in science class. But it’s there nonetheless. But don’t just take my word for it.


  1. Hi Peter,

    Alas, as it currently stands, I think the 'truth' which Nishijima Sensei points to and the 'truth' which science expounds are really different things, and it seems many people cannot, and/or will not, reconcile them. Science is largely materialistic and is based in the world of the measurable and quantifiable. Buddhist practice requires us to drop ALL values and thus directly experience a reality beyond measure and any explaining concepts...maybe?

    I see what you mean re. scientific theories and Buddhism. There are some striking similarities. Scientific theories may inform our real understanding and experience of our lives in a way that Zazen can... a little like the study of koans maybe?

    A friend of mine still doesn't fully accept the Theory of Evolution. "But you have to admit" he says "Its a damn good theory"!

    Buddhist truth, I suspect, wouldn't require him to accept the theory.

    Regards to you & yours,


  2. The second view of the four, i.e. looking at things from a material or concrete perspective, contains science. One could say that the second view of Buddhism IS science. Within this view, there can be no contradiction between science and Buddhism. Science is absolute, within its frame of reference, but it has its limits. Buddhist practice is not a view. Real truth is no view. We need four views to explain the truth.

  3. Andrew,

    Yes, I think the "Four Views" is "a damn good theory" as well.




  4. Haven't you noticed that somewhere in the Shobogenzo, Dogen talks about the innumerable expansions and contractions of the Universe?


  5. Michel,

    Thanks. I'll keep an eye out for that part.