The voice of physicist Stephen Hawking was broadcast into space (toward the black hole 1A0620-00) after his memorial service on June 15, last year. I have no idea what utterances of his were selected, but for a science geek like me it surely could not have been more exciting than something he said nearly forty years ago. In 1980, Stephen Hawking received what is probably the most distinguished recognition a physicist can receive, short of a Nobel Prize. He was elevated to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University. Hawking’s predecessors included Newton and Dirac. On the occasion of his inauguration he gave a speech on the state of physics in which he wondered aloud whether the end was in sight for its theoretical branch.
Mindful that such predictions had been made before, he concluded nevertheless that the answer might well be yes. By the end of the century it was conceivable, he declared, that physicists would have at hand the ultimate theory of nature, one that described all the forces and particles and explained, with no fudging around, why the universe was the way it was.
Well it’s now 2019, Hawking has passed on, and we haven’t had our answer. For a time physicists had high hopes for String Theory (and Superstring Theory, M-theory, and so on). Because it had made so few specific predictions, String Theory was hard to disprove. Hyped initially as “a theory of everything,” it has fallen short, failing to provide a key to all physics in our universe.
The latest effort in this line is the search for physics’ most elusive particle, the Higgs Boson, whose existence would explain all others and how they fit together into the jigsaw of the universe. The physicist Leon M. Lederman ironically called the Higgs Boson the “God particle.” On July 4, 2012, two experimental teams at the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator at CERN, near Geneva, announced the discovery of a trace of the Higgs, or “of a previously unknown boson whose behavior so far has been ‘consistent with a Higgs Boson.’” Champagne corks popped, but sometime after the celebrations we were told that it would take a lot more work and analysis before CERN scientists had the cold numbers to say this was definitely the particle predicted in 1964 by Peter Higgs, who thought it to be “the arbiter of mass and cosmic diversity.”
In fact, rather than getting closer to a unified understanding of the universe, we seem to be moving further away from the “ultimate theory of nature” Stephen Hawking had so confidently foretold. To make matters worse, earlier, in 1998, two teams of astronomers had discovered that the expansion of the universe (after the initial big bang) was not slowing down with time and gravity, as all cosmologists had confidently believed; it was actually accelerating. Physicists speculated that the acceleration was caused by something they named Dark Energy, which was said to make up 69 percent of the universe. Another theoretical “something” called Dark Matter takes up the remaining 27 percent, leaving only 4 percent for everything else: the solar system, stars, galaxies, black holes, cosmic dust, everything—everything ever observed, even by the Hubble telescope in its most far-reaching deep-field configuration.
Neil De Grasse Tyson, astrophysicist and popular “science communicator,” tells us in one of his lectures not to be impressed by terms like Dark Matter and Dark Energy. “This sounds like we know something. We don’t. I could call it Fred and Wilma. Okay. It doesn’t matter. We are dumb stupid about what these two things are. We are 96 percent stupid about what we know about the universe.”
In this 96 percent gap in cosmological knowledge, might I put forward a Buddhist theory of everything? If you find this brazen, consider the precedents: All the major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam) are, in a fundamental sense, “theories of everything,” whether one subscribes to those religious beliefs or not. Most religions not only tell you how the universe came about (creation) but also who made it (God), why everything happens the way it does (God’s will), and of course, how it’s all going to end (the Apocalypse).
But since Buddhism denies the existence of a creator God, can it, strictly speaking, have a theory of everything? Buddha did reject speculations about the nature of the universe and the afterlife and urged his followers to focus instead on seeking enlightenment. He also made it clear that his teachings were not meant to be a complete revelation of all that is. In one story, the Buddha takes a handful of falling autumn leaves and tells his disciple Ananda, “I have given you a handful of truths, but besides these are many thousands of other truths, more than can be numbered.”
Of course, “the handful” was all you needed to become free of suffering, but there were occasions when the Buddha found it necessary to give more information about things he thought were otherwise not vital to the attainment of enlightenment. One example can be found in the Agganna Sutta, where we hear of two brahmins who joined the sangha but were insulted and maligned by their own caste members. The Buddha responded by explaining the origin of humankind, including social orders such as the castes. In fact, the Buddha went even further and described how the whole universe was destroyed and then re-evolved into its present form over a period of countless millions of years. Clearly, his teachings covered more than meditation and ethics.
So what is the particular theory of everything that I think the Buddha might have expounded? A leading English Buddhist scholar (and former fellow resident of Kalimpong, India) Sangharakshita wrote in his book Who Is The Buddha, “According to Buddhism, the nature of existence consists in change or ‘becoming’. . .and the specific manner of that change was expressed by the Buddha in a formula or law known in Sanskrit as pratityya-samutpada and translated as ‘conditioned co-production’ or ‘dependent origination’. This formula or law goes as follows: ‘This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises. . .from the ceasing of this, that ceases’. So if existence is change, change is conditionality. Existence is seen as an infinitely complex and shifting pattern of physical and mental phenomena, all coming into being in dependence on certain conditions and disappearing when those conditions disappear.”
In philosophical terms, at least, it is the spontaneous realization of this truth of “universal conditionality” that constitutes the essence of the Buddha’s enlightenment. “Hence we describe it as the fundamental principle of Buddhism.” Sangharakshita goes on to claim that pratitya-samutpada is not traditionally invoked as a cosmological principle, but there is no reason that it should not be.
Related: Is Buddhism Scientific or Religious?
To explain dependent arising (Tib., rten-ching bdrel bar hbyung wa), the chain of 12 positive nidanas (causes or motivations) was formulated early in the development of Buddhism. Tibetans know it from the 12-sectioned outer rim of the wheel of life painting on the walls of entryways to temples and monasteries. But for our present purpose the details of this need not concern us. Let us stick to the basic formulation—“This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises. . .”
I take the point that for some people such a formula (“this being, that becomes”) is not only dry and uninspiring but also perhaps obvious and simple—even simplistic. But other similarly simple formulas have been thrown up in science. Newton himself described his “three laws of motion” as “three simple laws.” In particular, his third law of motion (“To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”) not only is remarkably simple but also echoes, in a way, the profound elemental simplicity of dependent origination.
Newtonian physics depicted the physical matter of the universe as operating according to a set of fixed, knowable laws. This deterministic view (often compared to the movement of billiard balls) dominated Western scientific thinking for a considerable time until quantum physics came along. We were now told that Newton’s laws of motion were not applicable at atomic and sub-atomic scales, and also that they fail at velocities comparable to the speed of light, where we have to use relativistic mechanics.
A dramatic demonstration of the limitations of deterministic prediction for Newtonian physics was presented in 1972 by the American mathematician and a pioneer of “chaos theory,” Edward Lorenz. In his paper “Deterministic Nonperiod Flow,” Lorenz asked, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” He argued that a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. It is therefore impossible to produce a fully deterministic model of the universe using Newton’s laws, since we would have to know the starting conditions with absolute precision, which would not be possible.
Interestingly enough, the Buddhist scholar Rupert Gethin in his Foundations of Buddhism takes issue with Newtonian determinism and the billiard ball analogy of causality. “Buddhist thought does not understand causality in terms of Newtonian mechanics, where ‘billiard balls rebound off each other in an entirely predictable manner once the relevant information is gathered,’” he writes. Instead, Gethin and some other Buddhist scholars have argued that dependent origination asserts an indirect conditioned causality and a plural causality. And that the concept of causality in Buddhism is referring to conditions created by a plurality of causes that necessarily co-originate phenomena within and across lifetimes, such as karma in one life creating conditions that lead to rebirth in one of many realms of existence for another lifetime.
But can we incorporate dependent origination into a Buddhist universal theory that encompasses not just fundamental Buddhist concepts as karma, samsara, and nirvana but also cosmology and evolutionary science? In Buddhist commentary (from the 5th to 13th centuries CE) we find the fivefold niyama (or natural laws) introduced into commentarial discussions to illustrate among other things the universal scope of dependent origination and provide a kind of structure that makes it easier to comprehend it as a universal theory.
- Utu niyama. The natural law of non-living matter. The inorganic order of existence. (Might we include cosmology and the origins of the universe in this mix?)
- Bija-niyama. The natural law of living matter or the physical organic order. (Any place for evolutionary science here?)
- Chitta niyama: The natural law of mental activities.
- Kamma-niyama. The natural law of deliberately willed action or ethical responsibility (or karma).
- Dhamma niyama: the natural law of the spiritual and transcendental order of existence.
Now this is all well and good as an intellectual exercise, but the bottom line is whether dependent origination could ever be established as a scientific theory of everything—in a hard and fast materialist sense—through a mathematical formula or a scientific experiment?
Bluntly speaking, I don’t think it could be done. On the other hand, I also don’t think that modern science will ever come up with a provable theory of everything. It is a search for a chimera. Perhaps that is why science appears to be moving ever backward on this matter.
Far from offering any proof of dependent origination, Sangharakshita tells us “the Buddha himself doubted at first the possibility of communicating this alchemical insight.” For the Buddha the realization of pratityya-samutpada was a profound and personal experience that he underwent on the night of his enlightenment. The Buddha did, in due course, work out his experience, this universal mystery, and develop it into “a vast and rich corpus of teachings” starting with the four noble truths.
Having the dependent origination principle communicated to us as an intellectual lesson, a teaching, is a very different thing than actually experiencing it as the Buddha himself did, and I suppose nowhere as satisfying or liberating. Yet, there is an anecdote in the Mahavagga, which seems to tell us that the experiential realization of dependent origination might not be an altogether exclusive event, and how on one occasion it was communicated—and with dramatic success, to someone who was least expecting it.
“A young brahmin from Bihar called Shariputra had gone forth from home and in the course of his travel happened to meet one of the Buddha’s first five disciples called Ashvajit, who had by then become enlightened himself,” writes Sangharakshita. “Impressed by his appearance Shariputra greeted him and enquired about his teacher and what he taught. What Ashvajit then said has become famous throughout the Buddhist world in the form of a short Pali verse of just two lines. He said, ‘Of all those things that proceed from a cause the Tathagata [Buddha] had explained the cause, and also its cessation. This is the teaching of the great shramana [ascetic].’
“It seems that this stanza made a shattering, and at the same time liberating, impression on the mind of Shariputra. He had an instantaneous glimpse of the truth which it embodied.”
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.