Zen Road
Zen Road
  • english
  • deutsch
  • français

Zen, Science and Objective


The mistake of separating subject from object, the futility of looking for a pure intellectual understanding of the world, is always at the centre of Buddhist teachings. Today, modern science links up with Buddha’s intuitions in a surprising and spectacular way. 

“ Descartes separated the body and the mind, he wasn’t able to grasp the subjective ego and the objective ego. He regarded the creation of nature like a machine…[…]

The relationship between matter and mind has become dualist. The natural law, creation, everything has become mechanical. The existence of the human being is considered from an automated viewpoint. He has simply forgotten that the human being has a life. Everything has become mathematical, mechanical.

Descartes refuted confusion, the intermingling of things, interdependence.”

Master Deshimaru, commentary on the Hokyo Zanmai.


Separate two entities. Call one “mind” and the other “body”. Separating and then giving something a name in the hope of further grasping, materialising it, is the intellectual process par excellence in all fields of knowledge: astronomy as well as astrology, medicine, physics, psychology…


In science, this endeavour is organised and collectively supported with scrupulous and efficient care. Each scientific enquiry is subjected to the criticism of others through a certain number of known procedures (demonstration, experiment, ability to be reproduced, etc.) The scientific work is therefore, above all, a conscious and endless debate with oneself and others with the aim of defining a strict and precise image of the object under examination. This endeavour to objectify is conceived as a huge collective work, which will ultimately free man from the inherent sufferings of his condition.


However, the more science advances in its understanding, the more the boundaries of, on the one hand, the object under study, and, on the other hand, the object and its observer, seem problematic.


Materialism in question


bullesTake, for example elementary particles, the simplest constituents of matter. Instantly one thinks of atoms like extremely small solid particles. They can interact with each other, which means that, put together, they behave a bit like a huge pile of animated marbles, linking up and sticking to each other more or less as they follow the physical conditions of the environment.


But it’s not like that at all! By studying particles more closely, physicists have found that the image of solid atoms is a long way from the truth. Atoms do not really have “body”, “solidity” or “existence”. When they move around they don’t follow a clearly defined path. If you would like a mental image you should think of vague organisations of energy which can appear and disappear within an extremely short space of time, which gather randomly in one place or another, which permanently interpenetrate and which, whenever they are in the presence of each other, create organisations which are difficult to comprehend, that is, if you still want to imagine them as solid and independent.


For example, let us consider two of these elementary particles. One of them is one of the electrons which we use daily to transmit electric current. The other one is a positron, a particle which has the same characteristics as the electron, except that its charge is the exact opposite.


By making two atoms go into collision at high speed one can simultaneously create an electron and a positron. Having done that, one can send them off in two opposing directions. When they are sufficiently far away from each other, one makes a small modification to one of them by, for example, subjecting it to a magnetic field. And so one observes instantly that the other particle becomes subjected to the same modification! If these two particles were two radically separated entities the modification would not be able to be instantaneous, since there is no physical process which can be realised faster than the speed of light. So how can we understand this instantaneousness?


In reality, the modification is not propagated so simply! In spite of a distance of several hundred metres the two particles cannot be seen as two entities! They only form a single one, and the modification is really applied to one unique entity which is electron-positron. We speak of a state of intricacy: that which is believed to be separate is, in fact, only one single thing…


Irresistibly, that essential teaching of Buddha is brought to mind: “Nothing exists of itself, autonomous and independent.” Or perhaps this is just an image? Since, after all, scientific theories are only types of metaphors for reality. Sophisticated ones, it’s true.


No separation…even in Science!


Another experiment leads to a neater conclusion. Now imagine that you are studying the trajectory of a particle. You set it off and film it. From there you observe a trajectory which you could subsequently try to put into an equation and compare with a theory.

So you set off your electron, you film it and you watch it…no matter what it does! Already, an electron is not so easy to see. But anyway, you manage to focus in on an image, and you notice that from one experiment to another it is never in the same place at the same time. At one time it seems to be going upwards, another time towards the right. Never the same twice.


zenandscience-electronsThe explanation is thus: when you filmed the electron, you had to light it up. The light that you have used is itself composed of particles (photons) which integrated with the electron and “pushed” it in a random and unpredictable direction. As a result, from one time to another the interaction is never the same and the electron is never “pushed” in the same direction.


In the hope of lessening the risk in this experiment, you could think about using less lighting in the experiment to reduce the photon-electron interaction…but then you wouldn’t see the electron any more!


In other words, you, the observer, the scientific intention, you influence your electron, your object. And what are you observing? An electron, a unique and separate object, or an-electron-influenced-by-yourself? Unless the separation between you and the electron is illusory. In which case, you have just observed yourself…


The mind claims to detach itself from the objects it is studying. Nevertheless, while doing nothing but observing them, it still influences them. And that is only about inanimate objects, not human beings!


One of the most essential teachings of Buddhism is that this separation between subject and object is a gross mistake, an illusion, a vision of the mind which maintains and even creates suffering and dissatisfaction in every moment. In the practice of meditation not a single idea, thought or theory can be maintained or deepened. Considering a thought, or even trying hard not to think tempts us to give strength to something which has no existence of its own.



An intellectual research condemned to failure.


But even if you accept that a theory can be pushed to its limit, we come up against a radical impasse. In mathematics for example, the science of numbers and geometric figures, the mathematical edifice is based upon certain fundamental intuitions, truths which are obvious to the rational mind. Then you have the rules of construction and calculation which serve as the mathematical vocabulary and grammar. And…that’s all! That’s all and although one might manage to find a few snippets of reality, that simply reveals the unreasonable efficacy in formalising or “capturing” that which is real.


zenandscience-godel-smallIn 1931 Kurt Gödel demonstrated that this edifice must, of necessity, reach an impasse. He studied theories formed on the model of mathematics: using in part some recognised truths, and in part a coherent language. He discovered that in all theories, certain propositions exist, correctly formed, about which one can demonstrate neither their veracity nor their falsehood. Even if one adds, for example, new rules or new axioms, there would still be indeterminate propositions.


This conclusion has been recently brought to light even more disturbingly. In 1994 Christian Calude established that the determinate propositions constitute the exception among all possible propositions. In terms of probability, if a machine creates a proposition by chance, the probability that it will be indeterminate is met in practice 100%!


And so in mathematics, as in all theories, the truth is nothing but an accidental property, extremely rare. In all the organised domains of knowledge, understood within the philosophic body of Buddhism, the essential things can only escape reasoning. If an idea tempts your intellect, you can drop it straight away: first of all, no-one would ever know if it were true or false.


And the Masters have never stopped repeating all that! Our practice is always outside of discursive thought, beyond intellectual speculation. Of course intelligence and knowledge are not useless, but the ancient masters, many of whom have been misled at the beginning of their practice, have thereafter always considered these things with extreme suspicion.

The scientific mind is arriving progressively at this conclusion. As for us, don’t forget that to understand this conclusion intellectually is not the true flavour of zen either.

By Paul Pichaureau

↑ Top