Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dependent Origination And Relativity

Dependent Origination And Relativity


The Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

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Dependent Origination And Relativity


The Buddhist concept of dependent origination is a vision in which sentient beings are fully integrated in the co-arising of all things. The most important effort is to free ourselves from delusions ad attachments and widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the nature. The modern scientists believe that there are a number of philosophical concepts of modern science embedded in Buddhism which needs careful exploration. The time has come to examine the original Buddhist doctrines carefully and sort out the sparkling components of modern science concealed in them. The renowned scientist Albert Einstein also upheld the concepts of Buddhism and expressed his own views in the light of modern science. According to him, “if there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism”.

Key words: Dependent Origination, Impermanence, Relativity, Buddha, Einstein
Dependent Origination And Relativity

Modern physics bears the impact of Albert Einstein more than that of any other physicist. His contributions to atomic physics and study of the photoelectric effect had earned him the Noble Prize. His theory of relativity with its profound modifications of the notions of space, time and gravitation had fundamentally changed and deepened our understanding of the physical and philosophical conception of the universe.1 Apart from his scientific ingenuity, Einstein’s courageous struggle for human rights, social justice and international peace had secured him a unique place in modern history of the world. He had also epitomized his philosophy of religion by stating that “science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind”. According to Einstein, religions are not only compatible with science, but also they are promoted by science. The fundamental tenet of his concept of “cosmic religion” is that science enhances religion. Religion is nurtured by the feeling of wonder and astonishment that accompany the discovery of the laws of nature and awareness of harmony that rules the universe.1,2

In this context, it is important to remember that though Buddhism did not have any rigorous methodology for studying the physical world, but the Buddhist scholars and contemplatives had developed views on matters related to the universe and its contents. This was based on pure logical and rational thinking and no experimental model was applied to prove or disprove any of these observations. These phenomena were discussed in detail in the early Buddhism, the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the Visuddhimagga, the Pali commentaries, Mahāvibhāṣā-śāstra, the Kālacackra Tantra and in the literature on Buddhist epistemology.3,4,5

Buddhist Doctrine of Dependent Origination
The doctrine of dependent origination is the key insight of the entire teachings of the Buddha, which is also equated with the Dhamma. Buddhism had regarded it as, ‘One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination’ (Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p. 284). Dependent origination means that all phenomena arise as the result of conditions and cease when those conditions change. The general theory of dependent origination, taught by the Buddha, is as follows: “When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.” (Connected Discourses, p. 575) So nothing exists as a static, isolated entity.4,5

Everything arises and ceases depending on causes and conditions which themselves arise due to causes and conditions. There is no ultimate ground or primordial cause, but a network of causes and conditions. This discards the view of the presence of a metaphysical selfhood, permanent and fixed entity like “Creator God” or a substance underlying the constant change, which is life. It is the delusion or ignorance of dependent origination which keeps people confused and attach to views and actions which result in suffering. Dependent origination is the true nature of reality regardless of whether there is anyone who realizes it or not. Just as the law of gravity is true irrespective of anyone’s opinions about it and it was present even before it was scientifically proved by Isaac Newton. Similarly, the dependent origination is the way things are and the Buddha had simply realized it and confirmed it to others.4,5,6

Einstein’s Theories on Relativity 2,6,7,8
Historians call the year 1905 as the “annus mirabilis” or “miracle year”, because in that year the renowned scientist Albert Einstein published four remarkable scientific papers addressing fundamental problems about the nature of energy, matter, motion, time and space. He was awarded the noble prize in the year 1921 for his outstanding contributions to the Theoretical Physics and especially for his discovery of the “Law of the Photoelectric Effect”. Some of his theories which could be viewed in the light of Buddhist doctrine of Dependent origination are as follows:
• In June 1905, Einstein proposed his concept of special relativity. Einstein's March paper treated light as particles, but special relativity estimated light as a continuous field of waves. So, Einstein observed light both as wave and particle.

• Later in 1905 came an extension of special relativity in which Einstein proved that energy and matter are linked in the most famous relationship in physics: E=mc2. (The energy content of a body is equal to the mass of the body times the speed of light in vacuum squared). This equation predicted an evolution of energy roughly a million times more efficient than that obtained by ordinary physiochemical means. This led to the theory of the conservation of energy, in the form of the first law of thermodynamics, which stated that the total amount of energy in any isolated system always remains constant. Although it can only be changed from one form to another, this energy cannot be created or destroyed.

• During 1915, Einstein completed the General Theory of Relativity and showed that matter and energy actually mold the shape of space and the flow of time. What we feel as the 'force' of gravity is simply the sensation of following the shortest path we can through curved, four-dimensional space-time. It was a radical vision where space was no longer considered to be the box to enclose the universe. Instead, space and time along with matter and energy are all locked together in the most intimate embrace.

Similarities between the Buddhist Doctrine of Dependent Origination and Views of Einstein
The Buddhist concept of dependent origination is a vision in which sentient beings are not determined by forces beyond their control. They are rather fully integrated in the co-arising of all things. Human beings are able to take responsibilities and create better conditions for themselves and others by becoming aware of the way things arise in mutual dependence.4,5
The most important effort is to free ourselves from delusions ad attachments and widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the nature. The renowned scientist Albert Einstein also upheld these concepts of Buddhism and expressed his own views in the light of modern science.1,2,6,7 Some of the philosophical concepts which are common to both Buddhism and Einstein are discussed here in details.

(1) Einstein’s Views on the Concept of a Creator God
The concept that universe was created by a “Creator God”, had haunted the minds of human beings since many generations. The Buddha had transcended the theory of a “Creator God” with the help of his explanations on the concept of impermanence in his Doctrine of Dependent Origination. Like the Buddha, when we review this concept of a “Creator God” in the light of modern science, some of the obvious questions that arise in our minds are - Who is this creator god, who had created this “Creator God” and how did he come into existence? Albert Einstein had also never accepted the principle of a “Creator God”. He had clearly expressed his views as, “I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts”.3,6,7,8,9,10

(2) The Buddhist Concept of Dynamic Flux
Buddhism considered events as space-time representations of a continuous dynamic flux. Nothing is considered to be static and permanent, but everything is in a state of constant change in our universe of experience. However, there is no single enduring changing entity, but there exist a series of momentary changes. The Buddha was often regarded as “Tathagata” which means “one who comes and goes thus”. The Buddha gave this famous doctrine of momentariness (ksanikavada) in terms of “here and now”.3,4,7 The Quantum field theory also considers physical phenomena as transient manifestations of an underlying fundamental unity. Following this concept of dynamic flux, Einstein had also demonstrated the spontaneous and random movements of atoms, called Brownian motion.1,2,8

(3) Time: A Psychological Concept
Time became important in relation to the thermodynamics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Observing the irreversibility or asymmetry between the past and future, it has been argued that time is uni-directional and is also associated with the experience of “psychological time”. Einstein himself had felt the uni-directionality of time and considered the concept of time to be an illusion. In Einstein’s theory of relativity, time (with space) becomes relative and contingent both on speed and gravity. The faster one travels or the closer one is to an object with a very strong gravitational pull, time elapses more slowly. 2,9,10

Buddhism recognize that time can be experienced as moving faster or slower in certain situations. What others might experience as only an instant, could be experienced by a person meditating as a much longer period of time. From the Buddhist perspective, when one actually analyzes time; it is found to not really exist. Thus, time is a “conventional truth” (paññatti) and a verbal or conceptual designation which is imputed onto experiences of a past, present, and future. It is called “conventional” because it is only established nominally on the basis of words and thoughts. If we actually try to point to an instant of time, the moment that we try to pinpoint has already passed and a future moment has now become the “present.” In this way, we cannot technically speak of any fixed, locatable present as it always vanishes upon close examination. The present only exists in dependence upon the concepts of past and future.3,4,5,9,11 So, we observe that the Buddhist concept of “psychological time” is similar to Einstein’s perception that time is illusory.

Time is also considered an imputed entity in a yet more scholastic and technical context. This is because it is identified on the basis of something that is other than itself. We cannot point at the “time” in reality, but rather perceived it through designations on things that are not time, like the clock which is a substantial entity. Therefore, time fits in a third class of phenomenon technically referred to as “non-associated composite phenomena.” Here, the term “non-associated” means that it is neither physical nor mental and “composite” means that time is dependent on other factors and is impermanent. 3,6,7

Apart from these concepts of time, the Buddhist schools had also identified the shortest possible divisions of time that is required to perform an act and the shortest division of time in general. An example of the shortest possible divisions of time is the time it takes to blink our eye, which is called a moment. The shortest division of time is considered to be 1/60th (or even 1/365th, depending on the source) the duration of a finger snap, a number which one Buddhist scholar has calculated roughly as one millisecond.3,7

(4) Space: The Concept of “Sunyata” or “Emptiness”
Another major area of discussion for Buddhists, physicists, and cosmologists is the nature of empty space and cosmogony. The concept of Time and Space in relation to Buddhism are the two varieties of paññatti. They are two conceptual constructs without any corresponding objective reality. In Milindapañha, the only two things which are considered to be independent of kamma or of causes or of season are namely Nibbāna and space. But it carefully avoids the use of the term “unconditioned” (asańkhata) and relates space as neither conditioned nor unconditioned. The Theravādins include the space element concept in the objective field of mental objects (dhammāyatana) which means that it is not visible but can be cognized only as an object of mind-consciousness.7,11,12

In the Sarvāstivāda Abhidhamma, the counterpart of space element is referred to as ākāśa-dhātu. The space element is either light (āloka) or darkness (tamas) and therefore it is included in the objective sense-field of the visible (rupāyatana). Besides this, the Sarvāstivādins recognize another kind of space which is called ākāśa and not ākāśa dhātu. It is defined not as space bound by matter, but as that which provides room for the movement of matter (yatra rūpasya gati). It does not obstruct matter, which freely exists therein. It is also not obstructed by matter, for it cannot be dislodged by matter. Thus, what the Sarvāstivādins call unconditioned space is the space considered absolutely real and as serving as a receptacle for the existence and movement of material phenomena.7,11,12,13

In the Madhyamaka system Nagarjuna had explained the Buddhist Doctrine of Dependent Origination in the light of “Sunyata” which means “void or emptiness”. The space in universe is also intimately connected to this Buddhist concept of śūnyatā or emptiness. Just as nothing can exist without space, so too can nothing exist without emptiness. Because all phenomena are empty of a static, independent and permanent existence, they can come into existence, change their forms and pass on. We should realize the “absolute truth” behind the concept of “emptiness” as absence of self-entity and attachment and accept the fact that interdependence is the nature of reality.4,5,6,7

In physics, there are highly developed mathematical theories which suggest the empty space of a vacuum actually contains an infinite amount of energy. It is speculated that this energy has a role in the evolution in the universe. While this is still an area of controversy and mystery within theoretical physics, it makes for a rough parallel to the Buddhist concept of empty-particles and the universe arising out of space. However, the whole process of cosmo-genesis according to Buddhism is catalyzed by the actions of living beings or Kamma.3,7,12

(5) Concept of Co-existence of Multiple Solar Systems
In Buddhist literature, the cosmos are explained to be oscillating or continuously forming, enduring for a time, and then undergoing a final period of destruction. In the metaphysical realm; Buddhism strongly maintains an emphasis on reasoning based on the principles of impermanence and causality. Though the perception of co-existence of multiple solar systems was present during early Buddhism, but it became more popular with the development of the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism. In Mahayana tradition, it is believed that there are hundred thousand galaxies in the entire universe and each galaxy is holding at least one Buddha at a given point of time. If we separate out the deification part of the Buddha concept here, we can find that there was a notion of multiple galaxies in ancient India and the possible reason of their creation was well-explained by the Buddhist Doctrine of Dependent Origination.3,4,13

Einstein's general relativity theory predicts that strong gravitational fields will bend the path of nearby light rays. A very large mass like that of an entire galaxy with an enormous gravitational field can bend light rays from Quasars which are the most distant illuminated objects in the universe. Thus, it can act as a gravitational lens. Other scientists had also confirmed this “Beaming Effect” of “Gravitational Lens” by observing the increase in red-shift in visual spectrum of light in the presence of a number of galaxies directly hit by a distant beam from Quasars. However, the presence of more than one solar system in the universe is now confirmed by mapping the orbital path of the planet Pluto, the last planet in our solar system. It is found that this planet revolves around the sun of some other unknown solar system.2,9,10

Einstein’s Comments on Buddhism
Albert Einstein was very much influenced by the Buddhist doctrines related to the concepts of absence of any Creator God, absence of any soul or self (anatta), Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppada), impermanence (anicca) and the emphasis on practicing compassion with moral-driven, volitional activities (kamma). He had also mentioned that he never believed in the existence of a personal God. If something is in him that could be regarded as “religious”, was the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as science could reveal it.1,2,12

According to his opinion, the religion of the future will be a “cosmic religion”. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and spiritual; and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity. So, “if there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism”.1,2,10
We have taken an overview of a fraction on what Buddhists and scientists had discussed about the contents and processes of the physical world. We had not included, in our discussion, the Indian and Buddhist science of astronomy, which was an area where the ancient Indians had a high degree of expertise.13 We should keep in mind that modern science did not emerge all of a sudden from nowhere. The process of evolution of modern science was slow and the basic elementary philosophical and logical concepts were already present in our religious practices. The modern scientists believe that there are a number of philosophical concepts of modern science embedded in Buddhism which needs careful exploration.6,7,12

Now, in an era of revolutionary scientific progress, the time has come for us to keep aside the entire glorification and deification part of Buddhism and examine the original doctrines carefully to sort out the sparkling components of modern science hidden in them. If we achieve this successfully, we could relate the Buddha as “social scientist”, who had worked for the benefit of mankind. This effort would also induce fresh impetus to our innovative way of understanding the conventional ideas and transform our religious concepts into a more dynamic and realistic structure in order to make them more acceptable to the new generation.


1. Dukas, H., Hoffman B., ed., 1954. Albert Einstein: The Human Side. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
2. Jammer, Max. 1999. Einstein and religion: physics and theology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
3. Wallace,B.A., ed., 2003. Buddhism & science: breaking new ground. New York: Columbia University Press.
4. Lopez, Donald S. 2005. Critical terms for the study of Buddhism. Buddhism and modernity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
5. Bodhi, B., ed. 1993. A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma (the annotated translation of Abhidhammatthasangaha of Acariya Anuruddha). Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.
6. Bharucha, Filita P. 1992. Buddhist theory of causation and Einstein's theory of relativity. Delhi, India: Sri Satguru Publications.
7. Lopez, D.S. 2008. Buddhism & science: A guide for the perplexed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
8. Richard M., Thuan,T.X. 2001. The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet. New York: Crown Publishers: 127-39.
9. Einstein, A., 1931. The world as I see it. Forum and Century: Living Philosophies 84: 193-4.
10. Einstein, A., Seelig, C., ed., 1954. Ideas and Opinions, based on Mein Weltbild. New York: Bonzana Books: 8-11.
11. Karunadasa, Y. 2009. Time and Space. Hong Kong: The Centre of Buddhist Studies. The University of Hong Kong.
12. Wallace, B.A.1996. Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications: 18-27.
13. Kloetzli, W.R. 1983. Buddhist Cosmology: From Single World System to Pure Land: Science and Theology in the Images of Motion and Light. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

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