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BOOK REVIEW: When quantum physics meets Buddhism

October 13, 2009

A comprehensive discussion between
scientist-turned-monk Matthieu Ricard and Vietnamese scientist Trinh Xuan Thuan
The Bangkok Post
October 12, 2009

The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the
Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet is a
colourful exploration of existing knowledge on
the mind and the universe that seeks to stretch
its boundary by another notch. Here, French
scientist-turned-monk Matthieu Ricard engages in
an in-depth conversation with Vietnamese
scientist Trinh Xuan Thuan on a wide range of
crucial scientific issues, from the origin of the
universe, the particles phenomena, the matter of
time and the chaos theory to the emergence idea,
artificial intelligence and even the paradigms of
how to realise beauty and truth.

In one respect, the book is a product of its
time. Recent years have witnessed a proliferation
of works on the themes of "science and religion"
or "science and spirituality" in both European
and North American markets. Of note is a
well-known series under the Mind and Life
Institute, which, since 1987, has released
several cross-cultural dialogues between His
Holiness the Dalai Lama and a handful of leading Western scientists.

The translation of this book into Thai is one of
the first steps to enable Thai readers to
experience the beautiful dialogue between science
and spirituality. Praises should go in part to
the two translators - Kulsiri Charoensupakul, a
professional translator, and Buncha
Thanaboonsombat, a well-known scientist - for
having rendered a highly complex subject into
mostly clear and readable Thai prose. Their
impressive translation of William Blake's famous
poem To See a World in the Grain of Sand, printed
on the back cover, is likely to become a classic in its own right.

A former molecular biologist, Matthieu Ricard
worked at a prominent research institute in
collaboration with top scientists in Paris before
taking up Tibetan Buddhism and becoming a
personal translator for His Holiness the Dalai
Lama. Thais have already been familiar with him
from two outstanding books: The Monk and the
Philosopher (Orchid, 1999) and Happiness: A Guide
to Developing Life's Most Important Skill (Suan Ngern Mee Ma, 2008).

Trinh Xuan Thuan was born in a Buddhist
Vietnamese family, and spent his formative years
in Europe and in the US. An active astrophysicist
at the California Institute of Technology, his
research interests are galactic astronomy and
galaxy formation. A few of Thuan's scientific
books catered for people with non-scientific
background have become best-sellers and have been
translated into over 20 languages.

Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet
(Quantum kab Dok Bua) Matthieu Ricard and Trinh
Xuan Thuan. Translated by Kulsiri Charoensupakul
and Buncha Thanaboonsombat Suan Ngern Mee Ma, 512
pp, 420 baht ISBN 978-6119005464

The first chapter tackles head-on the differences
between science and religion, albeit their
ultimate goal of seeking the truth. Both Ricard
and Thuan concur that the limitation of science
is in its narrow focus, on knowledge, and not
enough on the human quality such as happiness,
ethics, and so on. Nonetheless, science is not
evil by itself (can one say that the evil is
rather latent in human nature?). Religion, on the
other hand, is concerned about the practice of
compassion and spiritual development.
Complementary study of science and religion could
thus pave the way toward greater realisation of truth.

Quantum and Lotus does raise hard questions - and
lots of them. Did the universe have a beginning
or is it merely a part of an infinite wheel with
neither beginning nor end? How did quantum
physics change our world view and the way of our
life? What is the concept of truth and time? Is
the perception of time only an illusion? What are
the differences between worldly and ultimate
realities? How did life and consciousness emerge
from the complexity of vastly unknown
relationships following the rule of
interconnectedness? Is the consciousness study
that reduces everything to brain basically
unsound? If you are interested in such kinds of
metaphysical questions, then this book is for you.

Through their energetic dialogue, the two writers
give us an overview of knowledge map of both
Buddhism and modern science before bringing us
deep down to the new ocean of understanding where
two streams of thought are intertwined. The
enthusiastic Thuan sheds light on the modern
scientific questions with adventurous examples
drawn from lab experiments, whereas the calm and
steady Ricard exchanges his ideas based on strong
Buddhist practices and principles - the rule of
interconnectedness and the logic chain of
cause-effect. Their debate style is more constructive than competitive.

In the last chapter, Ricard argues how meditation
goes beyond preoccupation with inner change, but
also involves self-sacrifice for other beings.
Meditation, says the monk, is more than leading a
solitary existence in the midst of nature like
birds or wild animals. Practitioners can help
nobody if they do not understand the mechanisms
of their own happiness and suffering. Last but
not least, he affirms that being a good human is
more important than being a devout follower.
Spiritual development that emphasises ethics is
thus of utmost importance and should not be restricted only to meditators.

The Thai version of this book is quite dense at
times. Some chapters are admittedly difficult,
especially for those without a scientific
background. Of interest is the disagreement
between the two authors about the beginning of
the universe, which provides a good example of
the differences in the two strands of thoughts.
While the Western scientific mind is a result of
Western philosophy based on the linear idea of
the divine Creator, the Buddhist concept is built
on the Eastern philosophy of the non-linear,
cyclical Wheel of Birth and Death, which has neither a beginning nor an end.

Another intriguing investigation concerns the
consciousness study. What is consciousness? How
does consciousness evolve? Is consciousness a
separate part of the brain? It seems that Thuan
the scientist has few explanations to this
question compared to the Buddhist monk Ricard.
However, scientific researches cannot provide
sufficient grounds to prove and/or support the
consciousness theory from the Buddhist viewpoint,
either. Perhaps, the non-conformity of this issue
is the distinction of the methodologies -
objectivity among the scientific community and
subjectivity for those pursuing the meditation path.

Reading this dialogue-style book, one should be
aware that the religious perspectives here are
the viewpoints of Madhyamaka Tibetan Buddhism,
and not Buddhism in its entirety. The scientific
world views presented here are also a standpoint
of an astrophysicist, and not the whole corpus of
scientific knowledge. In the Western context,
this book might be sceptically perceived as
another Buddhist propaganda. Still, each topic of
in-depth discussions could be verified
rationally. The humility of both writers provides
a cordial atmosphere for readers from either
scientific or Buddhism fields to peruse at their own discretion.

One clear conclusion that emerges from reading
this book is how to accept the "differences" and
try to seek clarification as best as one can.
Then one will be able to avoid the pitfalls of
uncompromisable chasm or overt reconciliation of
the basic principles that results in an impractical theory of everything.
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