The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao
What a paradox! as Lao Tzu is about to describe the Tao (the way) his first disclaimer is that the Tao can’t be described. Should we cross the gate anyway? what would be the point? All of a sudden the inscription at the gates of Heaven sound a lot like the one at the gates of Hell:
Abandon all hope, who enter here
And in a sense, that is exactly what Lao Tzu is asking from us, to abandon all our hopes along with all our fears, dreams, preconceptions and expectations. All of the mental constructs that create the all-consuming vortex of illusions that hangs like a vail over the eternal Tao. Just like a vaccine that introduces a small pathogen to our system to prevent us from contracting the disease, Lao Tzu’s small sentences prevent us from the negative effects of using language to explain an undifferentiated, indescribable reality.
According to buddhism, language is only useful in describing relative truth (Samvriti), a learned way of perceiving reality that presupposes that things exist objectively. Of course, a closer examination of reality will present us with a continuum of ever-changing phenomena with no intrinsic existence. This lack of independent objective existence is referred to as emptiness (sunyata) and is what constitutes absolute truth (Paramartha).
It is important to understand that even though the buddhist concept of sunyata is not synonymous with the emptiness described by scientists as an absence of matter/energy, physical emptiness is a catalyst of sunyata. In 1910 the British scientist Ernest Rutherford discovered that atoms were not solid particles, as it was believed, and that they were actually almost completely empty. Today we know that the mass of an atom represents only a thousandth of a trillionth of its volume! and that 99.9% of such mass resides in its nucleus, with the rest allocated in the energetic cloud of electrons. If an atom occupied the volume of a football stadium, its “massive” nucleus would be a grain of sand floating at the center of the stadium. This means that all we perceive as solid, ourselves included, is essentially empty. As we move up many magnitudes of scale, we discover that interstellar bodies are also separated by an immense amount of space. Lao Tzu stated that, “although made of clay, it is the empty space that makes a cup useful”. Space allows for movement, movement generates change, and change is the basis of Sunyata. Emptiness represents possibilities and, in a universe that is fundamentally empty, reality is fundamentally limitless. This view of reality has been echoed by the founders of quantum mechanics. According to Werner Heisenberg, “atoms form a world of potentials and possibilities, rather than of things”, and Erwin Schrödinger warns us that “it is better not to view a particle as a permanent entity, but rather as an instantaneous event, even when sometimes these events link together to create the illusion of permanent entities”
If I am the sum of my body and my mind, and today I don’t retain a single atom of my original body or the thoughts of my original mind, why am I still being called Sergio Toporek? The only reason is social consensus. Language is extremely useful to generate and convey a shared experience, but it is also very limited and deceiving as a means to describe ultimate reality. Language describes a world of objects as perceived by our senses, but a close analysis of these objects and their characteristics reveals them as nothing more than a collection of relationships between ephemeral phenomena.
When a ray of sunlight passes through a layer of water precipitation we turn to the sky to experience the wonderful colors. But the rainbow does not exist, except as a collection of relationships between other equally ephemeral phenomena. Besides the light and the rain, a crucial part of the rainbow equation is our ocular-nervous system. A normal human eye features an average of 100 million photoreceptor cells, of which 5 million cone cells are mainly responsible for our color perception. 65% of those cone cells are red-sensitive, 32% are green-sensitive and 3% blue-sensitive. Our perception of color results from the interaction between rod cells, cone cells and the way our brain interprets their input. If we modify or remove some of these factors, as it is the case with different species, the rainbow will look completely different or simply disappear. It is tempting to define phenomena as if they had independent “real” existence, but the rainbow is not something that I observe, instead, my observation is the rainbow. There are no objects, just relationships. If objects had well defined unchanging identities, interaction would be impossible and nothing could ever happen. But reality is not static, and in it, everything is, because everything isn’t. All exists because nothing exists. Granted, some phenomena seems less ephemeral than a subatomic particle or a rainbow, but a dream is no less a dream just because it lasts longer.
Another problem of trying to describe reality based on our sensorial input is that most of reality escapes our senses. For example, what we call “visible light” represents less than 0.01% of the electromagnetic spectrum, but just because we can’t see the other wavelengths of the spectrum it does not mean they do not manifest. After all, some species can see infrared or ultraviolet wavelengths just like we see “visible light”. The same happens with sound, the range of frequencies we can hear is utterly insignificant compared with the full sonic spectrum. Of course, the invisible wavelengths and imperceptible frequencies have been incorporated into very useful new technologies such as medical imaging and telecommunications, thus becoming part of our immediate reality.
It would be a bit arrogant to define reality based on a human consensual perception since, as a species, we have only been in this universe for less than 0.00015% of its existence. Our vast sensorial limitations only account for our particular way of relating to the world of phenomena, but assuming that they are in any way absolute or objective is the basis of delusion. We will never be able to describe an absolute independent reality because we are part of the experiment being observed. We are part of reality and we modify it with our presence. This statement goes beyond the metaphorical and is one of the most surprising findings of quantum mechanics. It is known as the collapse of the wave function and deals with the wave/particle duality of light. Before we measure it, light behaves as a wave that is present everywhere, but as soon as a measurement is performed a particle “materializes” in a single location. The presence of an observing consciousness defines the outcome of the observed phenomena. This means that there is no reality independent from the observer and everything becomes relative.
In the East, the idea of relativity was consciously embraced by buddhist thinkers thousands of years ago. Through the use of contemplative sciences, ancient sages like Buddha and Nagarjuna reached the conclusion that space, time and all of objective reality were mere illusions created by our differentiating mind. These revelations were strongly rejected in the West, but through the years, western scientists are slowly reaching the same conclusions.
For centuries the West championed the Aristotelian Geocentric Model with its immutable Earth, but in 1543 Copernicus challenged this idea by stating that the Earth actually revolved around the Sun. 70 years later, Galileo’s observations would prove not only that the earth was not motionless, but that “movement is as nothing”. With this statement, Galileo declard that absolute movement does not exist and that all uniform motion is relative. Basically, something moves only in relationship to something else. As I sit in my chair to write this article the Earth is moving at 30 km/sec around the Sun, and the Solar System is traveling at 200 km/sec around the Milky Way, but regardless of such cosmic activity and thanks to the phenomenon of inertia, my mobile frame of reference is only relative to my direct surroundings.
As scientists explored motion, our understanding of the Universe grew. In 1687 Newton published his laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation, thus formulating the principles of classical mechanics. For the next three centuries the Universe was perceived as the relationship between masses and forces over time. As masses and forces varied, time remained an absolute. That was until 1905, when an unknown patent office clerk published his Special Theory of Relativity. By 1916, when the now famous Albert Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity, the scientific community had reluctantly come to terms with two very counterintuitive ideas: that mass and energy are equivalent and that time is relative to the observer. Today it has been demonstrated experimentally that the flow of time is affected by acceleration and gravity. As strange as it may sound, the flow of time would basically stop for someone traveling at a very high speed towards a large event horizon.
So in space, motion and time are relative. But what about space itself? is space “real” and absolute? The principle of locality states that an object is influenced directly only by its immediate surroundings. In other words, physical processes occurring at one place should have no immediate effect on the elements of reality at another location. The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics created a theoretical frame where particles could react to each other instantaneously, regardless of how far in space they were. This scenario contradicted the principles of local realism and, in Einstein’s view, this was confirmation that the Copenhagem Interpretation was faulty and incomplete. In 1935 Einstein and his colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen set out to prove their case against non-local behavior by postulating what became known as the EPR paradox. Einstein concluded that reality had no place for this “spooky action at a distance”. But in 1982 the Universe was confirmed as a very spooky place; French physicist Alain Aspect carried out a series of experiments in which two photons reacted to each other instantaneously even as they were separated in space. In 1998 an even more accurate experiment was carried out by Nicolas Gisin with identical results. These experiments shattered all illusions of locality in a Universe where, suddenly, “here” and “there” became meaningless concepts. Since all the particles of the Universe where entangled at the moment of the Big Bang, every single particle in the Universe would be connected non-locally to all of the others. The new holistic view of the Universe started to look a lot like what the Mahayana school of Buddhism described in the 3rd century as Indra’s Web. Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web covered with dew drops. Every dew drop exists in its place, but it also contains the reflection of all the surrounding dew drops, including the reflection of its own reflection. As the mirroring continues, the whole of reality is multiplied infinitely on each dew drop. In this scenario, if one of the dew drops is removed, the characteristics of all of the remaining dew drops will be immediately affected. This is a phenomenon that buddhists call co-emergence ( pratītyasamutpāda) and physicists call Nonseparability.
Nonseparability combined with a deep disagreement with Hawking’s Black Hole Information Paradox led physicists to the Holographic Principle. First Proposed in 1993 by the Dutch physicist and Nobel laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft, the idea has since been gaining ground. The American physicist Leonard Susskind gave it a precise string-theory interpretation and in 1997 the Argentinean physicist Juan Maldacena from Prinston’s Institute for Advance Study confirmed it even further. In 2008 Craig Hogan, Director of the Center for Particle Astrophysics at Fermilab announced that the GEO600 gravity wave detector may have stumbled upon Holographic Noise. If confirmed, this discovery would represent the most important breakthrough in physics since quantum mechanics and its implications would be fascinating. Without getting too technical, the bizarre conclusion behind this theory is that we are all part of a gigantic cosmic hologram. In other words, the three-dimensional world of experience – galaxies, stars, planets, oceans, buildings and people – is only a hologram produced by the information coded on the two-dimensional surface at the edges of the universe. This would render all of space, time and objective reality a mere illusion.
As amazing as these conclusions may seem, it is even more amazing that a few contemplative sages had reached similar ones thousands of years ago without access to telescopes, microscopes or particle accelerators. But it would be a mistake to assume that, just because the conclusions reached by scientists and contemplatives sound similar, the purpose of their investigation is the same. When Buddha realized the oneness of the universe, his goal was to escape the suffering-inducing delusion of a discriminating ego. The realization that all sentient beings are part of an undifferentiated whole, became the spark that ignited the immense and healing power of compassion. When scientists discovered the immense power that the atomic nucleus could spark, a frantic race to weaponize it began. The winners of that race included physicist Robert Oppenheimer, and Nobel laureates Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein; the losers — besides the hundreds of thousands of non-human sentient beings — included some 200,000 Japanese civilians, most of them women and children.
Of course science can be, and is, applied to many noble purposes, but the fact remains that morals are not an intrinsic part of the scientific method. Also, science is not interested in that which can’t be proven and quantified. But since we are very unlikely to ever be able to quantify consciousness or find the subatomic particles responsible for love, kindness and compassion, maybe we should just make sure that the inscription at the gates of every particle accelerator reads:
Beware who enter here, the reality that can be measured and categorized is not the ultimate reality.