Buddha and the Quantum

A Review of Samuel Avery’s Buddha and the Quantum: Hearing the Voice of Every Cell, Sentient Publications.

This morning I have the exceedingly pleasant task of writing a book review. This is something new for me – the good folks at Sentient Publications asked if I was interested to review one of their titles, Buddha and the Quantum, and so here it is.

Buddha and the Quantum presents Samuel Avery’s theories about the intimate connection between the inner world of consciousness as revealed in meditation, and the outer world as described by quantum theory and relativity. Like many spiritual thinkers before him, he sees a deep significance in the notion that consciousness is embedded in the very fact of quantum events.

This approach is one I have a nostalgic fondness for. In the 80s, I read most of the early generation of works exploring similar themes, most famous of which was Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. A whole generation of thinkers, it seemed at the time, was forging a deep-level bridge between philosophies east and west, and between religion and science. Theirs was a hopeful spirit, before the emergence of fundamentalism soured the whole thing. I miss it. And so I’m glad that the task is being taken up again.

Avery has moved on from the frustrating vagueness of Capra’s references to ‘Eastern philosophies’. We’ve learned a lot since then, and have practised a lot, and that practice is the basis of Buddha and the Quantum. In his koan-like, crisp poetical style, Avery embeds articulate descriptions of meditation experience among his explorations of the philosophical implications of modern physics.

Someone who is expecting, based on the title, that this work will be a serious exploration of what the Buddha taught in light of modern physics will be disappointed. That work is yet to be done. Avery doesn’t explain his background in Buddhism, other than that it is in vipassana meditation; his descriptions and terminology are reminiscent of Goenka’s style.

Some of his observations are strikingly insightful: ‘Buddhist meditation begins with breathing. Buddhism begins with morality.’ A simple point, often overlooked. He rightly emphasises that meditation is simply the extension and development of qualities found in ordinary consciousness, and that without a foundation in morality, this can include development of the unwholesome.

When it comes to the specifics of Buddhism, however, there are serious problems. Avery does not try to give an overall explanation of Buddhist meditation, but focuses on two terms that are essential for his approach: kalapas and bhanga. His use of these words, unfortunately, has little to do with their meaning in Buddhism.

He treats kalapas as an irreducible point of experience, a pixel on the photon screen. He says the word means ‘smallest things’, and that modern Buddhists often define them as ‘subatomic particles’. A quick trip to a Pali Dictionary would have shown him that the meaning of kalapa is not ‘smallest things’, but ‘bundle’, as in ‘a bundle of sticks’. It is used in Theravadin Abhidhamma commentaries to refer, not to fundamental units, but to ‘bundles’ of basic properties. Avery says that the kalapas don’t objectively exist; but they do objectively exist in the view of Theravadin orthodoxy. The closest modern equivalent would be, not atoms or sub-atomic particles, but molecules. Unlike molecules, however, kalapas include many qualities that in fact only emerge at a higher level of organisation, such as ‘flavour’ or ‘nutrition’. I believe that some modern schools of Buddhist meditation use the word kalapas in much the same way as Avery, and I presume this is where he picked it up from.

I am much less sure where he gets the term bhanga from. This is an ordinary word meaning ‘dissolution, break-up’. It doesn’t have any particular technical meaning in early Buddhism, but in the Theravadin commentaries it refers to the dissolution of momentary phenomena, especially as experienced in certain stages of vipassana. Avery, on the other hand, describes bhanga as ‘a state of perfect detachment… transcendence of the body, of the objective world, of space, and of self.’ There is a sense of dissolution about it, as he speaks of how the diversity of objects melt into a single thing, as the material world dissolves into quanta. However, the defining aspect of bhanga, if I understand it correctly, is not the dissolution, but entering into an experience of wholeness of perception, hearing the voice of every cell, feeling the body in five dimensions.

So as someone familiar with Buddhism, I found myself in the position of having to consciously edit out the ‘Buddhist’ words he uses, and treat these terms as blank ciphers that I fill in with Avery’s meanings. A useful practice in cognitive flexibility, to be sure, but not a sign of effective use of language.

The ideas he takes as Buddhist are not found at all in early Buddhism. The Buddha never talked in terms of momentariness, pixels of experience and the like. There are many interesting points of connection between early Buddhism and modern science, and these would be a fascinating basis for exploration, but that isn’t what we find here.

I’m not competent to analyse Avery’s treatment of science with the same precision. His descriptions of quantum theory and relativity as such seem fine to me; better than fine, they seem highly articulate and insightful, the fruits of long years of reflection.

However, like virtually all spiritual books on quantum physics, he ignores the fact that the interpretation of quantum physics on which he relies – the Copenhagen Interpretation – is contested, and more to the point, is not regarded by its developers as having the significance that Avery ascribes to it. Avery says that the scientists don’t understand the implications of their theories; and he may be right. Still, it’s important to acknowledge the uncertainties and not convey the impression that what you are saying is ‘quantum theory’ in any straightforward sense.

It seems to me that Avery’s theories – which I will come to in a moment – would have been better served by having the confidence to present them as is, as his theories, and then exploratory journeys could have been sent to the lands of quantum theory and Buddhism. By titling the book as he did, and by structuring it as a meeting ground between two disparate worlds, he opens himself up to criticisms that obscure the more important theses of his work.

Which are as follows. When you experience a subtle point of experience, this is the voice of a cell, specifically the leaping of electrons across synapses. This is a quantum event. By sitting, open-eyed, in ‘quantum meditation’, you can learn to directly experience the field of consciousness. That field is not happening in space, it is space, as it is defined by the speed of light. Space is the distance between photons, and photons are visual consciousness.

Avery says that aim of his meditation is not, as in traditional Buddhist meditation, to escape from the world, but to experience and understand it. Fair enough, he’s clear about what he’s doing. His work constantly presents startling and mind-bending assertions, and asks that you take them on board and actually experience what he’s talking about. It’s a big ask, and it works: I found myself paying attention in meditation in ways that I hadn’t before, noticing in new ways. Reading his work, I found myself oscillating between outrage at the more implausible leaps of logic (‘Cells aren’t quanta! They’re way too big!’) and feeling that somehow my mind was being almost, but not quite, turned inside out.

The organic treatment of relativity was the highlight of the book, and I found much less to complain about there as compared to the quantum stuff. I’m reluctant to describe it in detail, partly because I’m not sure that I understand it well enough, and partly because I’m afraid that a summary will be reductive and misleading. Avery’s style is intrinsic to his meaning; I could get around this by giving some quotes, but outside of their context, they are likely to appear simply incomprehensible.

He invokes the familiar strangenesses of relativity – the changes in mass, time, and length approaching light-speed, the unity of space-time, and so on – and relates them to the experience of consciousness. He takes visual consciousness as the foundation of all consciousness, which is interesting as sight is indeed the basic metaphor of consciousness in the Suttas. But for Avery this is not merely because eyesight happens to be an important sense organ for humans; it is because of the unique properties of photons.

At this point I felt it was rather a shame that Avery didn’t discuss early Buddhist meditation, with its emphasis on the perception of light as a basis for unifying consciousness. The experiences he describes, while serving as useful groundings for his theories, remain within the circumscribed realm of modern vipassana practice. How, I wonder, would he describe the experience of consciousness becoming a sheer mass of light, as in deep samadhi?

If you’re after a book on Buddhism, this is not for you. If you’re after a book on quantum theory, this is not for you. But if you want to explore the ways that the ideas underlying modern science can be applied to bend and twist the mind into new shapes, Buddha and the Quantum offers a challenging set of models and analogies. I really hope that there is a fundamental connection between Buddhism and science, and I hope that a work like this can help bring out this connection a little more. However, until both the science and the Buddhism become a lot more rigorous, such connections remain no more than intriguing possibilities.

The True Wonder of the Mind

I’m struck, more and more, at how strange everything is. We see: and have no idea what seeing really is. We try to ‘explain’ it; eyes, light, nerves, brain, perception, memory, consciousness – and trail off in a sequence of ever more poorly defined and subjective terms. In the end, what have we ‘explained’? Nothing, I am beginning to suspect. And in the end, we still see just the same.

Volition. I want to move my arm and it moves. But what is it, really? When mindfulness gets sharp, you can catch the moment of volition: the shcklmgh of the mind (sorry, I don’t have a better word for it) that just precedes movement. You catch it, and it hovers for a moment, a volition exposed naked in space, almost unbearable, wanting to fulfil the nature of its being, before reluctantly slinking back into its ljbhewerg (sorry again, please suggest a better word if you have one). We think it’s gone. But even with sharp mindfulness you might not notice it; it still lurks, hopeful, and when attention falters it darts out and does the movement, gleeful as a kid with his hand in the lolly jar.

What is the connection between volition and action? The concept is clear enough: a volition precedes (certain) physical actions. (Let’s not get lost in unconscious, automatic, or other even more mysterious processes here…) We will, then we do. But what is the link, really? Look, in experience, there’s nothing there. You can’t see any cause.

‘Cause’ is perhaps the most mysterious thing of all. It seems to be forever hidden, always one step away. We operate, I tend to think, on a hidden assumption of little billiard balls hitting each other. That’s what cause is: one thing ‘hits’ another, and then it ‘causes’ the other thing to change in some way. Of course, this is errant nonsense, even for billiard balls. Zoom in to a close enough resolution, and billiard balls become not solid entities (as imagined in reassuring textbook drawings) but buzzing clouds of semi-organized energies. Like this. So what is actually ‘hitting’ what? Nothing, actually. And if the interactions of mere crude matter are so arcane, so inaccessible, then what of mind, so subtle and elusive?

Perhaps, after all, truth is merely pragmatic. Scientific truth falls apart if you chase it down far enough. At school we learnt Newton’s so-called ‘laws’ – which are routinely broken at both the very small and very large scales. Did you ever stop to think about what these things really mean? What is ‘force’? What is ‘mass’? Even worse are notions like ‘velocity’, which depends on ‘time’ – one of the most indefinable concepts imaginable. Yet we think that somehow these laws ‘explain’ something. What they do, undeniably, is enable us to manipulate things. They give us power, they are pragmatic. But they are more in the nature of accurate rules of thumb than immutable laws inscribed in the universe.

What are we actually seeing when we meditate? Most obviously, the objects of the six senses. We know enough to distinguish, at least in theory, between the bare sense object (e.g. ‘light’) and the conceptual interpretation of what is seen (‘rooster’). So, what is it, then, light? We can answer from the inside, ‘Light is what we see’ (which is tautological), or from the outside, ‘Light is electromagnetic radiation in a range from about 380 or 400 nanometres to about 760 or 780 nm’. Reassuring, with that comforting, lulling precision of science – except when we note that the unit of measurement (the meter) is defined in terms of wavelengths of light, so that’s tautological again. Not to mention the somewhat embarrassing problem that physics doesn’t really know what electromagnetic radiation is, and despite generations of the best minds on the planet devoting their lives to it, they haven’t worked out how it is related to the other supposed ‘fundamental’ forces.

We circle through the incredible journey of discovery that has been humanity’s voyage, and in the end, light is, well, ‘this’. And that, pretty much, is the best we can do without committing to some kind of conceptual loop, some widening gire.

The more I dig down into experience, the less I find. The less I expect to find. And the odder I find any notion that there, at the bottom of it all, is some form of ‘ultimate’ reality; whether that is the ultimate particles that some in physics are still searching for, or the ultimate realities of the Abhidhamma commentaries, which some Buddhists believe they have found many centuries ago. The ‘ultimate realities’ of Buddhist theory are no more solid than those of physics. We know that things like, say ‘taste’ or ‘life’ or ‘faith’ or ‘greed’ are complex and many-faceted, but the (late) abhidhamma theorists treated tham as the ultimate entities of existence. We know that when we do reductionist analysis we find that things on a much smaller level are very different than on higher levels. The parts of a TV are not small TVs. So why should the parts of any of the things we experience be simply smaller occasions of the same experience? I remain mystified as to why so many people find this a vaguely plausible notion.

Reality is not like that. It’s not so readily managed into simple categories. We need to confront it, be with the sheer enormous weirdness of things. Every sense object, sense base, sense consciousness, is just plain weird. Perhaps that should be the fifth mark of conditioned things: impermanence, suffering, not-self, emptiness, and weirdness. (A concept not without its precedents…) And the weirder things get, the more they make sense.

Y’know, in a weird kinda way.

A Swift Pair of Messengers (2)

I’ve finally got around to putting up A Swift Pair of Messengers in various formats, especially as a print=on-demand book from Lulu.com. I promised these many months ago, optimistically saying they’d be ready in ‘a few days’! The hardcover from Lulu is really excellent, I’m very impressed with their quality.

Actually, I’ve been preparing all my old books, and one new one, for publication through Lulu.com. I’m awaiting the next round of proof copies from Lulu and hopefully will get these available in… well, perhaps best not to mention a time frame.

There was some terrific discussion on this after my last post, and if anyone has more comments or questions, that can be continued here. I notice that I didn’t answer everyone’s questions, so I’ll try to get on to that. If I don’t answer your question, please post it again, sometimes I miss things!

An Even Swifter Pair

Dear and beloved bloggists,

There’s been some discussion here on samatha/vipassana, sparked in part by my post on A Swift Pair of Messengers a few days ago. This is, of course, one of the old Theravadin family arguments. I’d like to congratulate the posters so far on their civil and engaging responses.

The spark behind writing SPM was simply this: that I had grown bored and frustrated with partial and inadequate ways of approaching this problem, which really is central to how we practice the Dhamma. Everything I had read, every conversation i had been involved in, had relied on one or two isolated passages, or on the discredited commentarial system of interpretation.

In writing SPM I thought that there was a better way. No, we cannot hope to solve every problem; but we can at least improve the quality of dialogue.

Since that time, every criticism of my findings that I have seen has been based on two things.

1. Completely ignore every argument and piece of evidence that I have so painstakingly assembled.
2. Invoke some obscure, irrelevant, or dubious passage from the suttas, a half-remembered quote, or an opinion from some teacher or other.

As we can all see from the response on this blog, this is still exactly what is happening.

This is not good enough. It is simply not adequate to lay out the spiritual path for Nibbana on such half-baked premises. This stuff matters, folks. Get real.

So, in the interests of getting realer, let me suggest some guidelines for debate.

1. Read A Swift Pair of Messengers.
2. Engage with and debate the contents and arguments that I have put forth there.

Disagree by all means. But do your homework – I did. When I say something like, ‘There is no path of dry insight in the suttas’, this is not because I am relying on some vague memory of something i might have heard sometime. It’s because, ten years ago, when I was researching this book, i systematically searched through every page of the Pali canon for passages dealing with samatha and vipassana. I believe I have identified every significant passage. Of course, I may well have missed something, and may well have misinterpreted some things. Fine, if that is so, point it out. But don’t just ignore the work that has been done.

Let’s have a debate – an informed, reasonable debate. Perhaps, then, we might get somewhere, rather than just rehashing the same old same old.

A Swift Pair of Messengers

I’ve just finished revising and publishing my first book, A Swift Pair of Messengers. You can find it online here. At the moment it’s just in html format; in the next few days I’ll be supplying print-on-demand, pdf, and scribd versions.

I originally wrote this while staying at Sukhavana in Ipoh, Malaysia. At that time, there was a lot of questioning going on in the community about these issues, since the Mahasi school had been the predominant force in early Malaysian meditation centers. In the early 90′s, only Ven Dhammavuddho had stood up for a more sutta-based samatha practice. Later, Ajahn Brahm, and then Pa Auk Sayadaw appeared on the scene, so there is more balance these days.

I myself started meditation in Mahasi-style school, at Wat Ram Poeng in Chieng Mai. I had an amazing, transformative experience there, and just wanted to continue with the practice.

I remember when I finished my first retreat, I asked what books I should read – up until that time I had only read one Dhamma book, Buddhadasa’s Handbook for Mankind. They suggested a few books – What the Buddha Taught, Seeing the Way, some books on Mahasi technique – but I was not really satisfied, so I asked what were these ‘suttas’ that I had heard about. I noticed a little reluctance, but anyway they showed me the majjhima Nikaya, and i was hooked.

I remember my confusion, as in the Majjhima Nikaya I could find no mention of the noting technique, the vipassana ñāṇas, and all the other aspects of the technique I had been taught. Instead, there was constant talk of these things called ‘jhanas’. When I asked about them, i was told that this was how the Buddha had practiced, but not what he recommended for followers. I was a bit skeptical of this, but didn’t know enough to say anything.

Later on, when I went to Wat Nanachat, I kept on doing the Mahasi technique. I took a serious interest in the approach, and read all i could from Mahasi, U Pandita, Nyanaponika, U Silananda, and other exponents of that approach. On my first monastic retreat, as an anagaraka with the monks in the jungles of Dao Dum, I memorized the Mahasatipatthana Sutta in English, taking as my study guide U Silananda’s commentary. In fact, it was in this reading that I really learned about Mahasi technique, as at Wat Ram Poeng they didn’t really teach very much about the meditation, just gave instructions on how to meditate.

In my naiveté, at the time I couldn’t understand how anyone would actually practice samatha – didn’t they know that it was unnecessary and dangerous because you could get attached to the bliss? There is, of course, a wonderful conceit that comes from practicing the ‘One Way’…

Nevertheless, I gradually started experimenting with various samatha practices. This was under the influence of both the Suttas and also the meditation as taught in the forest tradition. of course, the forest tradition is very non-dogmatic about meditation, and will encourage any technique. But Ajahn Pasanno, who was my teacher at the time, while rejecting the samatha/vipassana divide, in fact mainly taught anapanasati. Then i discovered the metta practice of Ajahn Mahachatchai, which became my main practice from then until today.

After doing samatha, studying the suttas, and being exposed to a variety of views, my own idea were evolving. I now accepted that samatha was a good and useful practice. I was still not convinced of one of the basic problems, though: was jhana actually necessary for stream entry?

Then I went to stay with Ajahn Brahm for three years. Obviously there was a strong samatha emphasis, and my own practice progressed well there. There was discussion in the community about these points, and there was no agreement about this basic problem. i was still unsure, especially since when I arrived at Bodhinyana i had a strong attachment to the traditional Theravadin commentarial viewpoint. Only after it became obvious that in important areas the commentaries had clearly got it wrong did I let go of this attachment.

The critical question was the description of the path, whether that could be considered as a ‘mind moment’ as claimed in the commentaries. The sutta passages that contradict this are simply too numerous and too explicit to be discounted. If the commentaries could get something so important so badly wrong, what else was at stake?

Then I left Bodhinyana and ended up at Ipoh, still undecided as to whether jhanas were really necessary. The question came up, and I did more research, especially studying in detail the classic Satipatthana Vipassana Meditation: Criticisms and Replies. Around that time, there were articles published by contemporary Malaysian monks, such as this one by Visuddhacara, arguing that there was a near-consensus that jhanas were not necessary.

I considered all these things very carefully: I really wanted to know. For me the issue was not about getting embroiled in a controversy, but because these different teachers, all of who i respected, were saying quite different things. I wanted to really understand the issues so that i could be clear in my own practice, and also give accurate advice to others.

I went through the arguments against samatha practice one by one, taking what was said by the vipassana masters and comparing it closely with the suttas. Time after time, I saw that what they were saying was not supported by the sutta passages they were quoting; and that the further i went into the suttas, the more essential samatha seemed to become.

The essential insight that decided the issue for me was a simple one: when I was reading the passages quoted by the Mahasi school in support of their ‘dry-insight’ approach, I found myself trying to interpret all these obscure, one-off little passages here and there in the suttas, while the central passages on practice always seemed to be ignored. I reflected on a piece of advice that wa given by Ven Nyanaponika to Ajahn Brahm: that central teachings should never be explained away by minor and secondary passages, especially ones of doubtful interpretation. It became more and more clear to me that in order tio sustain their argument, the vipassana school had to systematically explain away all the major teachings on practice, using the complicated Abhidhamma framework, which I had earlier come to realize was not at all in accord with the Suttas.

This is, of course, not obvious on the surface, as when the vipassana technique is taught the underlying theory is usually left aside. But it becomes very apparenet when you get down to the nitty-gritty, as in Satipatthana Vipassana Meditation: Criticisms and Replies.

Eventually, I decided to note down a few of these observations in the essay that was to become A Swift Pair. The book was written by hand, and typed up by some supporters in Ipoh.

The original draft had a chapter where I went through the claims by the Mahasi writers and refuted them point by point by comparison with the Suttas. I later took that chapter out, as i felt it was too confrontational. Much of the material found its way elsewhere in the book. I regret that, as it would make it clearer to know exactly what someone is arguing against. But I’ve lost the references now.

The final book, after much polishing, was published by Inward Path in Penang. 2000 books were printed; and it has been available on the web also.

I wanted to revise the book, mainly for stylistic reasons: the original was far too formal and uptight. I was so immersed in the world of the suttas that I had kinda forgotten that for most of the people who might be interested to read it this would be their first excursion in the suttas. In revising it, i have tried to make it a little more accessible. Much more could be done, but this is all I can manage at the moment. Due to my pressure for time, I decided when beginning my revision that I would not update the research, only the prose. So the new edition contains essentially the same content as the first edition, leaving out a few complications, and adding some more explanations.

In the time since the original publication, samatha has enjoyed somewhat of a comeback, and is apparently quite trendy now. This brings a new generation of problems, of course, which lie beyond the scope of this book.