Quantum Physics And Buddhism – Carlo Rovelli Encounters Nāgārjuna

Carlo Rovelli is a renowned Italian theoretical physicist and writer who has made important contributions to the physics of space and time. He is currently a Distinguished Visiting Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute, and a core member of Canada’s Rotman Institute of Philosophy of Western University, working mainly in the field of quantum gravity. His short book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (2014), has been translated into 41 languages and has sold over one million copies worldwide.

In his 2021 book, Helgoland – The Strange and Beautiful Story of Quantum Physics, Rovelli describes a surprising epiphany in his efforts to understand the mysteries of quantum physics:

‘In my own attempts to make sense of quanta for myself, I have wandered among the texts of philosophers in search of a conceptual basis for understanding the strange picture of the world provided by this incredible theory. In doing so, I have found many fine suggestions and acute criticisms, but nothing wholly convincing.

‘Until one day I came across a work that left me amazed.’ (Rovelli, Penguin, e-book version, 2021, p.72)

Remarkably, the book in question is a key 3rd century text of Buddhist metaphysics, The Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way, by the enlightened mystic Nāgārjuna. Rovelli writes:

‘The central thesis of Nāgārjuna’s book is simply that there is nothing that exists in itself, independently from something else. The resonance with quantum physics is immediate. Obviously, Nāgārjuna knew nothing, and could not have imagined anything, about quanta – that is not the point. The point is that philosophers offer original ways of rethinking the world…’. (p.73)

Rovelli is wrong to describe Nāgārjuna as a ‘philosopher’; he was a mystic. Philosophers seek solutions through thought; mystics seek solutions by transcending thought. If Nāgārjuna was engaged in ‘rethinking the world’, it was in the cause of a truth that can be experienced only when thinking is paused. Rovelli writes:

‘The illusoriness of the world, its samsara, is a general theme of Buddhism; to recognise this is to reach nirvana, liberation and beatitude.’

Here Rovelli is placing the cart before the horse: ‘liberation and beatitude’ are not reached by recognising ‘the illusoriness of the world’; rather, the illusoriness of the way we see the world is recognised as the endpoint of a process of liberation and beatitude.

This process is meditation. The fact that Rovelli does not mention the words ‘meditation’, ‘meditator’, or ‘meditate’ in his book, indicates he is currently limited to an intellectual understanding of nirvana and of the path (which is no-path) by which it is attained. In Buddhism, the ‘wisdom’ aspect of ‘the path’ – intellectually exploring the illusoriness of phenomena – is supported by the ‘method’ aspect of meditation. Together, these are the two ‘wings’ on which the bird of enlightenment takes flight.

In fact, the Buddha did not say the world is an ‘illusion’; he said that the world does not exist in the way it appears to exist to us; that our deep-seated belief that the world is made up of independently existing objects is an illusion. There are many Zen and other stories in which masters tweak students’ noses, or hit them over the head, asking: ‘Is that an illusion?’

Rovelli does a good job of explaining how apparently concrete objects vanish on close inspection. We naturally imagine that a chair, for example, exists as a single object, a unit. In fact, what we call ‘a chair’ is made up of a seat, legs, a back rest and so on. None of the legs is ‘a chair’; nor is the seat; nor is the back rest. None of the parts that make up a chair is ‘the chair’. It turns out that the unitary chair, which seemed so solid, is a mere label applied to a set of parts.

But to say the chair is made of parts is also misleading, because it suggests that the parts, at least, are solid, unitary objects. Alas, the parts also disappear on close inspection. Thus, the seat might be made up of a wooden frame with a cushion in the middle – neither of these are ‘a seat’. And, of course, all such objects are made of atoms. An ‘atom’ is also a collection: of neutrons, protons, electrons and sub-atomic particles. None of these is ‘an atom’. An ‘atom’ is also a mere label applied to a collection. Everywhere we reach out for solid ‘things’ that disappear into thin air that is also just a label.

Why should any of this concern me as an obviously solid, unitary self? If someone shouts abuse at me – it’s happened once or twice on twitter.com – I feel as if I’ve been impacted by an insulting barb. Apparently a solid entity, ‘me’, has been hit. Otherwise, why would I feel pain?  

But when I search for a dart board-like entity that has been struck, I find that none of my body parts, none of my thoughts and none of my emotions are a unitary self called ‘me’. This presumed unit is also a mere label. But how can an insulting barb wound a label, a mere idea? Shouldn’t it pass right through? The answer is that it hurts because we believe deeply in a solid self that doesn’t actually exist. We are therefore co-authors of the insult, the pain.

So, is everything really just a collection of mental labels? Is nothing real? Consider dreams: on one level, they are clearly illusions. But they are real as illusions. To be more precise, the awareness that perceives an illusion or dream is real – awareness is required for the dream to be experienced.

Indeed, even if the whole world is a dream, the awareness that perceives the dream is real. And, as discussed, nirvana is not reached merely by intellectually recognising ‘the illusoriness of the world’; it is discovered when the true nature of this awareness, of being, is experienced. But how might that happen?

Nothingness’ Is Not Empty

Just as physical objects – chairs, planets, stars – appear in external space, sense perceptions, thoughts and emotions appear in the internal space of awareness. The thoughts, ideas and memories that make up our idea of ‘me’ are all ‘objects’ in this inner space. We think we’re ‘the voice in our head’, but we’re actually the ‘space’, the witness of ‘the voice’.

What is the fundamental nature of this awareness? We know from experience that when angry thoughts and emotions appear in awareness, we suffer. Likewise, when fearful, anxious and jealous thoughts appear. Many of us imagine that awareness without any thoughts, like external space, would be a blank, empty nothingness.

According to the Upanishads, the ancient scriptures of Hinduism dating back to 800 years BC, this is not the case at all. The Upanishads argue that both the internal space of awareness and external space are manifestations of Brahman, the formless, changeless source of all material forms:

‘We should consider that in the inner world Brahman is consciousness; and we should consider that in the outer world Brahman is space.’ (Juan Mascaró trans., The Upanishads, Penguin, 1965, p.115)

This is significant and, in fact, testable, because Brahman is said to be in the nature of awareness and bliss. In other words, consciousness – even the consciousness waiting at a rainy bus stop on a chilly winter’s morning – is in the nature of bliss. But if that’s true, why are we conscious beings so miserable at the bus stop and in so many other situations? The answer is that man and woman were born free but are everywhere in chains of thought.

What we in the West mis-label ‘meditation’ (which actually suggests its exact opposite, thinking) is the art of uncovering the fundamental nature of awareness by reducing and eventually dropping the thought by which it is obscured.

Anyone can relax in a comfortable chair for an hour paying attention to whatever feelings are present in the heart area and lower belly. Naturally, thoughts will blaze away. This is exactly as it should be and is not in any way wrong. Instead of following these chains of thought as usual: ‘He was so patronising… and she didn’t defend me at all… What I should have said is…’ Instead of riding this train of thought, we try to notice the thoughts and return to feeling.

This goes on and on: we’re managing to focus attention on feeling, we suddenly start riding thought, suddenly realise what we’re doing and return to feeling. If we do this consistently, on a daily basis, one day, after about 40-45 minutes, the mind grows weary of generating thoughts that aren’t being properly appreciated and starts to lose momentum.

Less thoughts are now appearing, and we may have a subtle sense that we are sailing in calmer waters. Following this, actual gaps can start to appear in the thought stream allowing us to focus with clarity on feelings in the heart and lower belly. These gaps – moments of awareness unclouded by thought – are experienced as tiny, golden sparks of love, bliss and peace. This is a revolutionary moment – it is quite astonishing that, having been half-asleep and chaotically distracted, we are suddenly happier sitting doing nothing than we have been in years and decades.

The arising of these sparks is often heralded by unusually generous thoughts; we suddenly have an impulse to be kind to someone in some way, even to an enemy. This is a sure sign that something odd is happening. These sparks then deepen and intensify and may endure for hours or days. Initially, though, they are vulnerable to intense mental activity – a post-meditation Twitterspat will rapidly extinguish them. Enlightened mystics, by contrast, live in a state of permanent ecstasy and love. Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, said:

‘The Tao [love and bliss] doesn’t come and go.

It is always present everywhere,

just like the sky.

If your mind is clouded,

you won’t see it,

but that doesn’t mean

it isn’t there.

All misery is created

by the activity of the mind.

Can you let go of words and ideas,

attitudes, and expectations?

If so, then the Tao will loom into view.

Can you be still and look inside?

If so, then you will see that the truth

is always available, always responsive.’ (Lao Tzu, Brian Browne Walker trans., Hua Hu Ching – The Unknown Teachings of Lao Tzu, e-book, St Martin’s Press, 2012, p.39)

Be still and look inside – it is as simple as that. But it is advice that has been ignored by most people for millennia.

Rovelli concludes:

‘But Nāgārjuna’s emptiness also nourishes an ethical stance that clears the sky of the endless disquietude: to understand that we do not exist as autonomous entities helps us free ourselves from attachments and suffering. Precisely because of its impermanence, because of the absence of any absolute, the now has meaning and is precious.’

Yes, intellectually reflecting on our lack of solidity and impermanence can help dissolve the perceived importance of our attachments. But what reduces our attachments and self-importance to nothing, if only temporarily at first, is the dazzling love and bliss that arise in meditation. The ‘now’ isn’t just precious because it is impermanent; it is precious because the experience of the ‘now’ unobscured by thought is overflowing with ecstasy and love that make all worldly attachments seem trivial. The Indian mystic Osho said:

‘When ego [thought] is not, love comes as a perfume – as a flowering of your heart… With this attitude, when the mind is completely unmoving, something of the divine will lure you; you will have glimpses.

‘Once you know the bliss of such glimpses, you will know the nonsense, the absurdity, and the absolutely unnecessary misery of ambition. Then the mind stops by itself. It becomes completely still, silent, nonachieving.’

The American mystic Robert Adams said:

‘I felt a love, a compassion, a humility, all at the same time. That was truly indescribable. It wasn’t a love that you’re aware of. Think of something that you really love, or someone that you really love with all your heart. Multiply this by a jillion million trillion, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.’ (Adams, Silence of the Heart – Dialogues With Robert Adams, Acropolis Books, 1999, pp.9-10)

Rovelli continues:

‘For me as a human being, Nāgārjuna teaches the serenity, the lightness and the shining beauty of the world: we are nothing but images of reality. Reality, including ourselves, is nothing but a thin and fragile veil, beyond which… there is nothing.’ (p.75)

One can sense the anxiety in these words. Rovelli perceives ‘the shining beauty of the world’, but it is a cold, austere beauty because it appears to him to be a ‘thin and fragile veil’, beyond which lies ‘nothing’. But we have already agreed that ‘there is nothing that exists in itself, independently from something else everything is interdependent’. Indeed so, we are there as the witness of ‘nothing’. (p.73). Osho explained:

‘In English there is no word to translate the Buddhist word shunyata. In that “nothingness” … it is not empty, it is full of your witness, full of your witnessing, full of the light of your witness.’

We are not brains in jars or ivory towers. This paradoxically full ‘nothing’ is not a mere concept for Rovelli to ponder intellectually; it is an existential challenge for him to face and feel. Jiddu Krishnamurti put it well:

‘We have all had the experience of tremendous loneliness, where books, religion, everything is gone and we are tremendously, inwardly, lonely, empty. Most of us can’t face that emptiness, that loneliness, and we run away from it. Dependence is one of the things we run to, depend on, because we can’t stand being alone with ourselves. We must have the radio or books or talking, incessant chatter about this and that, about art and culture. So we come to that point when we know there is this extraordinary sense of self-isolation.

‘We may have a very good job, work furiously, write books, but inwardly there is this tremendous vacuum. We want to fill that and dependence is one of the ways. We use dependence, amusement, church work, religions, drink, women [or men], a dozen things to fill it up, cover it up. If we see that it is absolutely futile to try to cover it up, completely futile, not verbally, not with conviction and therefore agreement and determination, but if we see the total absurdity of it, then we are faced with a fact…. Why don’t I face the fact and see what happens?

‘The problem now arises of the observer and the observed. The observer says, “I am empty; I don’t like it” and runs away from it. The observer says, “I am different from the emptiness.” But the observer is the emptiness; it is not emptiness seen by an observer. The observer is the observed. There is a tremendous revolution in thinking, in feeling, when that takes place.’ (Krishnamurti, The Book of Life, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, p.84)

The crucial point about this ‘nothingness’, then, is that we are standing here as witnesses; it is a witnessed nothing. The witness is not a thing – it is no-thing – but it is existent, real. And it is anything but ‘thin and fragile’. It turns out that the observer is the observed: it is the fundamental nature of the universe and it is in the nature of consciousness, love and bliss.

How remarkable: the next step for quantum physics, for Rovelli himself, is to recognise the ‘nothingness’ within; to see how we stuff it with knowledge; and to experiment in dropping that knowledge, in dropping all thought, in the cause of facing that abyss.

Such a confrontation could herald a revolution in human consciousness: a union of physics and mysticism, of science and love.

David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org