Meditating On Quantum Physics

"How do things appear to exist to us?" Thubten Chodron asks her audience while holding up a cracker. "Here is a cracker," she goes on, "It appears to us to be a real cracker. Anyone who walks in this room should be able to identify this as a cracker because there is some "cracker-ness" to it. There is something about it that makes it a cracker and not anything else. It is one thing. This cracker exists "out there", independent of our mind. It was there,a cracker in its own right, and we just happened to come along and see it."
"This is how the cracker appears to us: it is out there, independent from parts, independent from our mind and any conceptualization and labeling that we may have about it. If the cracker really existed in this way, then when we analyzed and searched for just what the cracker is, we should definitely be able to find it. Let's try." She breaks the cracker in half and holds up one piece. "Is this a cracker?" The audience echoes, "Yes." She holds up the other piece. "Is this a cracker?" Again, another resounding yes from the audience.
"Then there are two crackers where before there was one! That's the easiest way I've ever seen to make crackers!" She holds up an unbroken cracker, then continues, "Then you would pay twice as much for these two crackers than you would for this one? That's being a pretty dumb consumer!" She smiles. "If those are two crackers, then how many crackers do you have now?" She crumbles up both pieces. "What is this now?" "Crumbs. A mess," replies the audience.
Her eyes widens, "There is no cracker here now? What happened to the real cracker that we saw before? If it had some "cracker-ness" quality to it, something in it that was really a cracker, where is that now? We have the same atoms and molecules as before but now you call it crumbs and not a cracker." Silence.
"If there were some inherent cracker there, we should have been able to find it either amongst its parts or separate from its parts. But it isn't in its parts and isn't anywhere else either. That means there was no inherent cracker to start with." Someone from the audience says, "The cracker is the collection of atoms and molecules. It is all the parts together." Chodron persists, "But a collection is just a group of parts. If none of the parts by themselves are a cracker, then how can many parts together be an independent cracker with some cracker-ness quality? If you put many non-butterflies together, for example if you put many grasshopers together, does that make a butterfly? How can a group of non-crackers, that is a group of crumbs, make a real cracker?
"Then there is no cracker at all? What am I eating?" someone begs an explanation to this obvious confusion. "A cracker!," she is back to square one. "What we are searching for is something that is a cracker from its own side, independent of its parts, independent of our mind with its concept and labels. That independent, real cracker can't be found because it doesn't exist. But a dependently-existent cracker is there. That's what you're eating." The looks in the audience tell that it's beginning to make some sense, thank God.
"How does a cracker exist? A group of atoms and molecules are put together in a certain pattern. Our mind looks at that, conceives it to be one thing, and gives it the name "cracker." It becomes a cracker because all of us together have conceived of it in a similar way and have agreed, by the force of social convention, to give it a name "cracker." That cracker exists dependently: it depends on its causes and conditions - the flour and water, the baker and so on. It depends on its parts: the four sides, etc. It depends on our minds conceiving it to be a thing and giving it the label "cracker." Apart from this dependently-existent cracker, there is no other cracker. It is empty of being a cracker inherently, independently, with some cracker-ness nature to it. The cracker exists, but it doesn't exist in the same way that it appears to us to exist. It appears to be independent, when in fact it isn't."

One may think that the above exchanges are between a physicist and her students/audience discussing a topic on particle physics. The reality is Thubten Chodron is an American born Tibetan Buddhist monk who is trying to give some sense of the most profound tenet of Buddhism: emptiness.

The world of quantum mechanics has attested that the language of eastern mystics and western physicists are becoming very similar. 'Emptiness' is Buddhism's most esoteric metaphysical concept and it can be likened to the subatomic level of quantum physics. Quantum Mechanics provides us a key to understand particles, atoms and molecules. It posits that on the subatomic level there is no distinction between wave and particle, as found by Louis de Broglie early this century. The wave-particle duality shattered the then widely held "common sense" that waves can't be particles and vice versa. Buddhist metaphysics posits that in the enlightened state "this" and "that" no longer are separate entities. "Empty" and "full" are "false distinctions" that we have created, like the distinction between "something" and "nothing". They are abstractions from experience which we have mistaken for experience. Perhaps we have lived so long in our abstractions that instead of realizing that they are drawn from the real world we believe that they are the real world.
The Heart Sutra, which is among the most central of the Buddhist core teachings, contains one of the most important ideas of Mahayana Buddhism (the school of Buddhism practiced in Tibet, China, and Japan): ……form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
The old physics, Newtonian physics, assumes that there is an external world which exists apart from us. It further assumes that we can observe, measure and speculate about the external world without changing it. However, on the microscopic level, Newtonian physics, as meritorious as it is, proves to be an inadequate tool to predict future events. The new physics, quantum mechanics, tells us that it is not possible to observe reality without changing it. There is a strong correlation between the observed and the observer. A phenomenon exists only because there is an observer. It is the observer's choice which determines the electron's response, i.e. a particle-like or wave-like pattern. Thus, the classical view of an objective system as it is and independent of the choice of how it is observed, is practically rendered no longer valid.
The observed phenomenon and the observer together constitute the complete system. In principle, there is no such thing as objectivity. Not only do we influence our reality, but, in some degree, we actually create it. Reality is what we choose to make it. This subjectivity fundamentally challenges our cherished beliefs in cause and effect. According to Niels Bohr, there does not exist any reality or any laws of nature independent of the observer. The observer cannot be isolated in any sense from what he is observing. He is part of the phenomenon. In a definite sense he creates it. This is precisely what Thubten Chodron means with her cracker analogy. A Chinese proverb says, "Life is a search for truth: there is no truth."
As much as Buddhist philosophy appear ivory tower-like to many, quantum mechanics is deemed so bizarre - more bizarre than science fiction - by physicists themselves that Niels Bohr desperately asserted, "Anyone who is not shocked by the Quantum Theory has not understood it!". It is so shocking that it was unacceptable even to Einstein and Schrödinger. Einstein rejected it with the famous saying "God does not play dice!".

Suffice to say that physics turns out to be a branch of psychology, or perhaps the other way around. Furthermore it can be seen as the study of consciousness. Gary Zukav, best selling author of Oprah's favorite "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" - a book on physics in the supposedly layman words - has no hesitation in suggesting that since the dance of East and West now blend in exquisite harmony, physics curricula of the twenty-first century could include classes in meditation.