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  • The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama
  • Paul O. Ingram
The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama. By Arthur Zajonic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 245 pp.

Over the years there have occurred several "Life and Mind Conferences" that seek to explore the intersection between the natural sciences and Buddhism, particularly, but not limited to, Tibetan Buddhist tradition. As far as I know, this series of conferences represents the most systematic effort to dialogically engage Buddhist thought and practice with the natural sciences to date. The New Physics and Cosmology is one of a number of published Buddhist-science dialogues to emerge from the Life and Mind Conferences. Its focus is contemporary quantum physics and scientific cosmology in conversation with Buddhist cosmology and is based on a conference held in Dharmasala 27–31 October 1997.

Along with the Dalai Lama, the major participants in this dialogue were David Ritz Finkelstein, who teaches physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and edits the International Journal of Theoretical Physics; George Greenstein, Sidney Dillon Professor of Astronomy at Amherst College; Peter Hut, professor of physics and interdisciplinary studies at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University; Thupten Jinpa, who has served as the Dalai Lama's principal English translator since 1985; B. Allan Wallace, who trained for many years in Buddhist monasteries in India and Switzerland and is one of the Buddhist pioneers of the Buddhist-science dialogue; Tu Wei-Ming, who directs the Harvard-Yenching Institute and is professor of Chinese History and Philosophy at Harvard; Arthur Zajonc, professor of physics at Amherst College, whose research focuses on the experimental foundations of quantum physics and the relation between science and the humanities; and Anton Zeilinger, director of the Institute for Experimental Physics in Austria and professor of physics at the University of Innsbruck from 1990 to 1999.

One of the remarkable features in these dialogues is that in spite of the Dalai [End Page 180] Lama's rather limited knowledge of contemporary quantum physics and cosmology, his questions to the participating scientists go very quickly to the philosophical and religious issues and challenges all religious worldviews must take seriously to remain relevant in the twenty-first century. His explanations of Tibetan Buddhist cosmology and doctrine, especially the epistemology Nagarjuna and the doctrine of sunyata or "Emptiness" as possible correlations with what the natural sciences are revealing about nature, are among the clearest Buddhist discussions in this regard I have read. One might also say that the scientists were very adept in the art of upaya in the manner in which they related their knowledge of very abstract and theoretical scientific issues to the levels of experience of their nonscientific dialogue partners. In particular, the experimental foundations of quantum physics and relativity theory were presented very thoroughly, in ways nonscientist participants could comprehend.

Finally, these dialogues are not merely a series of lengthy conversations about supposed parallels between contemporary science and Buddhist teaching and practice. There is no claim that "Buddhism" is a "scientific" religious tradition, as often assumed by writers, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, who have a tendency to read Western Enlightenment assumptions into Buddhist history. Instead, these conversations are motivated by the search for an alternative epistemological foundation for developing physical theories that could also be relevant to social, philosophical, and religious issues that the natural sciences as such are unable to address. For example, B. Alan Wallace assumes what Ian Barbour describes as an "independence model" in his understanding of the relation between science and Buddhism. Thus for Wallace and the other Buddhist participants, the natural sciences give us objective knowledge about physical processes but do not give us knowledge of an objective world. He then concludes that the function of scientific theories is to make natural events intelligible for the purpose of developing technologies that improve the quality of life. But science has very little, if anything, to say about "absolute truth," which he as a Buddhist names "Emptiness."

Clearly, Wallace's interpretation of the natural sciences is based on his appropriation of the "two truth" epistemology that originated with the second century Indian Buddhist logician Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna also...


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