Physicists & Priests | the Middle Way

“Buddhism offers a view of the world that is capable of explaining…things in one seamless paradigm, while Western science is fragmented into ever more sub-disciplines that are often at odds with each other.” — Dan Haig,

In his 1978 book The Shorter Science & Civilisation in China , British scientist and sinologist Joseph Needham wrote that Buddhism “maintained that everything was in perpetual change, not the same for one instant, with the result that nothing was permanent, nothing real. Shapes, feelings, aggregates that sum up an individual’s mental and physical existence, were only illusions.”

Because of this “totally negative but very powerful view,” Needham claimed that Buddhism “tragically played a part in strangling the development of Chinese science.”

But this view has receded into the background as contemporary scholars realize that there are, as B. Alan Wallace notes in his 2003 book Buddhism and Science , “two areas in which Buddhist thought may be able to advance scientific understanding: cognitive science and modern physics.”

“Twentieth-century physics — most notably quantum mechanics — has raised profound epistemological and ontological issues that challenge many of the traditional assumptions underlying science as a whole,” Wallace writes. “Some of these topics, such as the relation between subject and object, lend themselves to dialogue with Buddhist philosophy, especially the Madhyamaka view.”

This Madhyamaka Buddhist tradition sees all phenomena as fundamentally empty of any intrinsic essence, acquiring substance through the causes and conditions in which such phenomena arise, thereby proposing a “Middle Way” between eternalism and nihilism. “Madhyamaka” is Sanskirt word for “middle way.” An adherents of this tradition is called a “Madhyamika,” which means “one who holds to the middle.”

“While Western physics describes matter and energy well, it doesn’t really address the fundamental question of ontology, how things exist, nor does it deal with the nature of human perception as a determinant of the way things seem to exist to us,” writes Dan Haig, the founder of, in his paper, “An Analysis of Madhyamika Particle Physics.”

“That the Tibetans have taken to teaching physics in their monasteries in exile is evidence that they see the need for a retooling, or at least a good upgrade, of their traditional system. It is evidence of an open attitude,” writes Haig. “Mainstream Western physics is likely to work long and hard to solve the problems it defines, using its current set of tools, before it resorts to Buddhist theory. But other branches of science and scholarship in the West might more readily find useful applications of Tibetan Buddhist ideas and methods.”

Of the world’s major religions, Buddhism is perhaps the most aligned with the rational scientific method. After all, the Buddha did say, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” One wonders if Pope Benedict XVI would or could ever say anything close to that.

[Last month, “Deep Space” looked into the expanse of the universe beyond the limits of our solar system. Such investigations often end with the types of questions that puzzle not only scientists, but also philosophers and religious and spiritual thinkers. How did we get here? How did it all begin? And what was here before the beginning? For the month of August, the series “Physicists & Priests” considers the complex and often contentious relationship between science and religion.]

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