Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Zen and the art of astrophysics

There are two schools of Zen Buddhism, one which focuses for the most part on meditation and the other – in which meditation also plays a major role – in which a teacher will try to shock a pupil into enlightenment with ‘koans’ (riddles) and occasionally even a smack to the head.
Possibly the most famous ‘koan’ is: ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping’. Its purpose is to yank the student out of rational thinking and to question the version of reality that we perceive all around us.
Like other schools of Buddhism, Zen teaches that reality is an illusion, that everything is transient, from our thoughts through to the very universe in which we live. That the person we believe ourselves to be will no longer exist in another second because our minds will have moved on. All is constantly changing and so when you pursue that concept to its logical conclusion the version of reality that we believe ourselves to be living in is false because once you identify it, it will have moved on and no longer exists.
‘Emptiness’ is a word that often crops up in Buddhist literature and it teaches that this is the true state of being – non-self. Meditation is a means of training the mind not to think, to stop the process of being self-aware and end the illusion that the reality we perceive really exists.
“Zen functions in non-duality. The process of thought, of reasoning, takes place in the field of duality. It follows that no thinking will achieve Zen.” (P97) writes Christmas Humphries in Zen – A Way of Life.
Even the fact that he has written a book about Zen seems to be a contradiction in terms of the subject he is writing about:
“… nothing matters save experience. Buddhism is only a collection of thought and doctrine about the Buddha’s enlightenment. But the words about it matter not; no scripture will take the mind one foot of the Way. Zen is not a system of philosophy, nor of psychology, nor of meditation, and when it tries to explain itself in these terms it ceases to be Zen.” P140
And a page later: “In Zen there is no authority for any man save their own experience…” P141.
Yet Humphries warns that there are dangers for those who try to peer too deeply into their inner selves without the guidance of a teacher.
Zen teaches that we can all achieve enlightenment, that the potential exists right now if we can manage to see beyond ‘duality’, although for most people it will take many reincarnations before this can be achieved.
By chance while reading Zen – A Way of Life by Christmas Humphries I was also reading Endless Universe – Beyond The Big Bang by Paul J Steinhardt and Neil Turok. The two books would seem to contradict one another in the sense that one is based on cutting-edge astrophysics while the other is based on a 2,500 year old spiritual tradition that began in India and mutated as it passed down over numerous generations as it journeyed through Japan and India, yet for me they complimented one another.
Steinhardt and Turok propose that our universe is one of an endless sequence that will eventually come to an end and be reincarnated as an entirely new universe, that the one we are living in at present is the direct result of previous universes that have come to an end.
They are not new-age speculators but respected cosmologists at Princeton and Cambridge and their arguments are based on the most up-to-date theories about quantum physics, the Big Bang, dark energy and dark matter and string theory, but written for the layman.
It concurs with mainstream physicists who believe that the universe in which we live had its origins 14 billion years ago in a ‘singularity’ in which all the potential mass and energy that became the universe existed. This singularity was concentrated in a space whose diameter took up a millionth of a centimetre and expanded across several thousand light years within a second of the Big Bang taking place.
Like a Zen koan the concepts outlined in Endless Universe challenge our concepts of reality as they morph from millionths of a centimetre and millionths of a second to millions of light years and billions of years. Our sun is just one of a hundred million in the Milky Way and the Milky Way is just one of a hundred million galaxies within the observable universe and beyond that their could be a hundred million more.
Our universe is expanding and conventional theory predicts that it will expand at such a rate that the atoms which make up us and the world around us will eventually drift so far apart from one another as to be negligible in the vastness of the universe, that matter will no longer exist and that the universe will become a dark void.
However, Steinhardt and Turok’s theory says the opposite will happen and that at some point the universe will begin to contract and that all matter and energy will be drawn back together to a singularity that will reach an optimum density in a minuscule space that will eventually explode again in a new Big Bang that will create a new universe. They argue that this has happened before and will happen again and again.
They argue that the known physical laws which scientists use to back their Big Bang and inflationary model are flawed and contrived, but that their ‘cyclical’ theory stands full scrutiny and does not have to be adapted to fit in with ongoing discoveries.
The cyclical theory claims to have resolved the question of how something apparently came out of nothing and how a universe suddenly came into existance, but it still has a huge gaping hole. Our universe may be the reincarnation of a previous one that expanded and collapse and a billion others stretching over incomprehensible stretches of time, but it still does not resolve the issue of how something came from nothing.
Meditate on that.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

Great combination of these two challenging topics! I noticed when scanning the Buddhist section of the public library yesterday how thin the Zen volumes (with the exception of one by D.T. Suzuki) tend to be; I assume for astrophysics the opposite tendency predominates.

I came across (unattributed) a recent claim that there was time detected before the Big Bang; I also have heard that there's radioactive traces of some kind of tiny particles before that event. What I want to know is if with such as the new Hubble we can photograph 14 billion years ago. The novel by Harry Mulisch, "The Discovery of Heaven," has a chapter in which this is attempted!