Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds

Gravitational Waves: XPostNon Confronts the ‘Void’


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.

peace out,
~a friend

[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.

This is the end of the “two truths” doctrine. There is only ONE reality and it’s all relative. The “two truths”, which became reified into the two realities, absolute and relative, is going the way of Mt. Meru. It will finally become an historical relic of the way that Buddhists used to think. Those who still teach absolute emptiness, voidness, will eventually become irrelevant to future Buddhists, who will see the last millennia of teaching on emptiness as a mistake, based on a lack of scientific knowledge. Contemporary Tibetans, except for the Dalai Lama perhaps, will resist this change. There’s no way to change their minds about it, because it’s no more than a fixed delusion. They will just have to die out, while they are replaced by a generation of Buddhists who practice interdependence in a relational cosmos.
Teachings on emptiness will have to reframed as emptiness as a relative term, as a comparison between two possible states, “empty” or “full”, in other words, empty of something, as Thich Nhat Hanh also teaches. “Full” in this case is a signifier of something in existence, and thus “empty” is as well. It will become emptiness as notnot this or not that, emptiness as a referent to something else that exists, not as a signifier of an absolute void in its own right without reference to something else. This discovery shows that everything exists in reference to something else; nothing exists without a reference to another point of space-time.
I’m sticking with Theravada, which has it’s own problems, but one problem it doesn’t have is the problem of “two truths” or absolute voidness.
If you don’t mind, I’m going to publish the contents of this email in my blog.
I don’t mind your printing the contents of my email, if you would kindly attribute it to “a friend”.
Also on emptiness, if looked upon as a religious concept, it never has to change.  All reason and sense are removed from the equation because you can call it a mystery that only the enlightened can understand.  And we know where that ends:  nowhere.  No growth, no movement and certainly no relationships.  And therefore no compassion.  An inanimate dud.
~a friend

[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.

Did you notice the photos of the gravitational wave, it looks like a lotus flower? It’s really beautiful.
“Did you notice the photos of the gravitational wave, it looks like a lotus flower? It’s really beautiful.”
I love the way the macro universe imitates the micro, or vice versa. Really enforces a belief that the whole thing is a fractal.
My sense of awe and wonder comes from the fact that the universe itself is all based on probability or more accurately, improbability.
It’s too bad that Buddhism (the kind I’m familiar with) makes humanity the main event, in that the only way to attain enlightenment (the apex of existence?) is to attain a human birth.  It seems like a very limited way of thinking.  For me it smacks too much of the creation myth of Genesis which gives mankind dominion over nature, and also says that nature was indeed created for mankind’s use.   I think this is downright silly, given what we know about cosmology and even evolution.  Humans are not the centre of the universe.
I don’t mind thinking that I’m not part of some great, divine plan.  I’m completely happy to simply be improbable.
a joyous gravitational wave to you,
~a friend

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This entry was posted on 2016/02/13 by and tagged .


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I do Tai Chi with Paul Read, the Teapot Monk, @ 21st Century Tai Chi Academy https://www.21stcenturytaichi.com/academy/89szm

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