Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Gravitational waves image rendered by LIGO. Remarkably beautiful and much like a lotus flower.
Meta Buddhist Inquiry has been having an email summit on the discovery of gravitational waves and what that means about the cosmos, space-time, and the Buddhist concept of emptiness. [Note: this email exchange is published with the permission of the contributors.]
Hey [a friend]: I’m sure by now you’ve heard the discovery of gravitational waves at the LIGO observatory. I’d like to know what you think about it. It’s a fabulous discovery that hopefully will steer us toward a more unified theory of the universe.
In terms of Buddhism, I think it’s probably the biggest scientific proof ever that there is no such thing as “emptiness’ in the physical world. Even time-space, the emptiest physical dimensions we know, are not absolutely “empty”. It is, as so many physicists have called it. “the fabric of reality.” It moves, morphs, has sounds, shapes and waves. The Mahayanists will to have to redefine emptiness as at least having the qualities of shape, sound and movement, and change, impermanence.
I was thinking along the very same lines this morning. I’m absolutely thrilled that Einstein was proven right once again. Now *there* was a guy who felt connected to the universe.
Emptiness is a religious concept. It’s like the Christian concepts of heaven and hell and the holy trinity and all that other stuff. I’d much rather have someone like Einstein show me their ideas about real reality, not some trumped up version that makes me feel inadequate because I don’t get it. At least if I dont understand Einstein it’s because I don’t know enough physics and math, not because I’m “confused” or have a “wrong view”.
Yep, emptiness sure is empty…except when it’s not.
[a friend]: reflecting on this some more, it leads me back to Joanna Macy’s conclusion: there’s only one reality, and it’s ALL RELATIVE (in her book Mutual Causality). Einstein’s theory of relativity, that space-time are not fixed absolutes, or an empty void, but relative and ever changing relationships, has now been proven empirically. There is nothing “behind” or at the base of this reality that could be called absolute voidness. It just doesn’t exist. The entire universe, and all that exists, is all relative.
And not only that, it’s all relational. We live in a relational universe in which everything is interdependent and mutually affecting. Thus we live in a universe that is wise and compassionate, that is awareness and connection.
Even if they reduce the definition of ‘emptiness’ as having ‘qualities’, which Ponlop Rinpoche often does, still those qualities are signifiers of a difference, a difference between two or more states, and that, by definition, is not ‘emptiness.’ The Mahayana sutras that speak of emptiness say that emptiness does not even have relationships or characteristics of any kind, so it cannot have “qualities” and still be emptiness in the Mahayana sense. And the space-time characteristics of gravitational waves are not theoretical or conceptual differences; they are physical differences that can be measured.
[a friend]: Right, of course they will argue that ‘emptiness’ is a condition that is beyond space-time, that only a fully enlightened Buddha could experience. Well good luck with that, because it would necessarily be something that 99.999…% of human beings could never experience, even with the most advanced scientific technology or the most sublime meditative states. So then, yes it becomes an article of blind faith, a pure belief. All these people who spend tens of thousands of dollars chasing gurus around the globe are chasing an experience that is simply doesn’t exist in this universe, and therefore it’s impossible to experience. That’s the best definition of ‘emptiness’ I ever heard.