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.