The Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism
January 10, 2011 10 Comments
I am so interested in not only Physics ,but also Eastern Philosophy,especially so-called Mysticism. The following paragraphs are copied from The Tao of Physics;it explained the current Modern Physics in the view of Eastern Religions;Taoism,Zen Buddhism and India Mysticism. I wanna translate it to Burma Language, but don’t have enough time to do .Hence,Sorry for now on, merely describing one of its chapters for my friends with so keen mindedness in these subjects just like me.
Knowing and Seeing;The Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism
From the unreal lead me to the real!
From darkness lead me to light!
From death lead me to immortality!
Before studying the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism, we have to deal with the question of how we can make any comparison at all between an exact science, expressed in the highly sophisticated language of modern mathematics, and spiritual disciplines which are mainly based on meditation and insist on the fact that their insights cannot be communicated verbally. What we want to compare are the statements made by scientists and Eastern mystics about their knowledge of the world.
To establish the proper framework for this comparison, we must firstly ask ourselves what kind of ‘knowledge’ we are talking about; does the Buddhist monk from Angkor Wat or Kyoto mean the same thing by ‘knowledge’ as the physicist from Oxford or Berkeley? Secondly, what kind of statements are we going to compare? What are we going to select from the experimental data, equations and theories on the one side, and from the religious scriptures, ancient myths, or philosophical treatises on the other?
This chapter is intended to clarify these two points: the nature of the knowledge involved and the language in which this knowledge is expressed. Throughout history, it has been recognized that the human mind is capable of two kinds of knowledge, or two modes of consciousness, which have often been termed the rational and the intuitive, and have traditionally been associated with science and religion, respectively. In the West, the intuitive, religious type of knowledge is often devalued in favour of rational, scientific knowledge, whereas the traditional Eastern attitude is in general just the opposite. The following statements about knowledge by two great minds of the West and the East typify the two positions. Socrates in Greece made the famous statement ‘I know that I know nothing’, and Lao Tzu in China said, ‘Not knowing that one knows is best.’ In the East, the values attributed to the two kinds of knowledge are often already apparent from the names given to them. The Upanishads, for example, speak about a higher and a lower knowledge and associate the lower knowledge with various sciences, the higher with religious awareness. Buddhists talk about ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ knowledge, or about conditional truth’ and ‘transcendental truth’. Chinese philosophy, on the other hand, has always emphasized the complementary nature of the intuitive and the rational and has represented them by the archetypal pair yin and yang which form the basis of Chinese thought.
Accordingly, two complementary philosophical traditions-Taoism and Confucianism-have developed in ancient China to deal with the two kinds of knowledge. Rational knowledge is derived from the experience we have with objects and events in our everyday environment. It belongs to the realm of the intellect whose function it is to discriminate, divide, compare, measure and categorize. In this way, a world of intellectual distinctions is created; of opposites which can only exist in relation to each other, which is why Buddhists call this type of knowledge ‘relative’. Abstraction is a crucial feature of this knowledge, because in order to compare and to classify the immense variety of shapes, structures and phenomena around us we cannot take all their features into account, but have to select a few significant ones. Thus we construct an intellectual map of reality in which things are reduced to their general outlines.
Rational knowledge is thus a system of abstract concepts and symbols, characterized by the linear, sequential structure which is typical of our thinking and speaking. In most languages this linear structure is made explicit by the use of alphabets which serve to communicate experience and thought in long lines of letters. The natural world, on the other hand, is one of infinite The varieties and complexities, a multidimensional world which contains no straight lines or completely regular shapes, where things do not happen in
sequences, but all together; a world where-as modern physics tells us-even empty space is curved. It is clear that our abstract system of conceptual thinking can never describe or understand this reality completely. In thinking about the world we are faced with the same kind of problem as the cartographer who tries to cover the curved face of the Earth with a sequence of plane maps. We can only expect an approximate representation of reality from such a procedure, and all rational knowledge is therefore necessarily limited.
The realm of rational knowledge is, of course, the realm of science which measures and quantifies, classifies and analyses. The limitations of any knowledge obtained by these methods have become increasingly apparent in modern science, and in particular in modern physics which has taught us, in the words of Werner Heisenberg, ‘that every word or concept, clear as it may seem to be, has only a limited range of applicability.” For most of us it is very difficult to be constantly aware of the limitations and of the relativity of conceptual knowledge. Because our representation of reality is so much easier to grasp than reality itself, we tend to confuse the two and to take our concepts and symbols for reality. It is one of the main aims of Eastern mysticism to rid us of this confusion. Zen Buddhists say that a finger is needed to point at the moon, but that we should not trouble ourselves with the finger once the moon is recognized; the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu wrote:
Fishing baskets are employed to catch fish; but when the fish are got, the men forget the baskets; snares are employed to catch hares; but when the hares are got, men forget the snares. Words are employed to convey ideas; but when the ideas are grasped, men forget the words.* In the West, the semanticist Alfred Korzybski made exactly the same point with his powerful slogan, ‘The map is not the territory.’ What the Eastern mystics are concerned with is a direct experience of reality which transcends not only intellectual thinking but also sensory perception. In the words of the Upanishads, What is soundless, touchless, formless, imperishable, Likewise tasteless, constant, odourless, Without beginning, without end, higher than the great, stable- By discerning That, one is liberated from the mouth of death.
Knowledge which comes from such an experience is called ‘absolute knowledge’ by Buddhists because it does not rely on the discriminations, abstractions and classifications of the intellect which, as we have seen, are always relative and approximate. It is, so we are told by Buddhists, the direct experience of undifferentiated, undivided, indeterminate ‘suchness’. Complete apprehension of this suchness is not only the core of Eastern mysticism, but is the central characteristic of all mystical experience. The Eastern mystics repeatedly insist on the fact that the ultimate reality can never be an object of reasoning or of demonstrable knowledge. It can never be adequately described by words, because it lies beyond the realms of the senses and of the intellect from which our words and concepts are derived. The Upanishads say about it:
There the eye goes not, Speech goes not, nor the mind.
We know not, we understand not
How one would teach it.
Lao Tzu, who calls this reality the Tao, states the same fact in the opening line of the Tao Te Ching: ‘The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao.’ The fact-obvious from any reading of the newspapersthat mankind has not become much wiser over the past two thousand years, in spite of a prodigious increase in rational knowledge, is ample evidence of the impossibility of communicating absolute knowledge by words. As Chuang Tzu said, ‘If it could be talked about, everybody would have told their brother.‘ Absolute knowledge is thus an entirely non-intellectual experience of reality, an experience arising in a non-ordinary The state of consciousness which may be called a ‘meditative’ or mystical state. That such a state exists has not only been testified by numerous mystics in the East and West but is also indicated by psychological research. In the words of William James :
Our normal waking consciousess, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.
Although physicists are mainly concerned with rational knowledge and mystics with intuitive knowledge, both types of knowledge occur in both fields. This becomes apparent when we examine how knowledge is obtained and how it is expressed, both in physics and Eastern mysticism. In physics, knowledge is acquired through the process of scientific research which can be seen to proceed in three stages. The first stage consists in gathering experimental evidence about the phenomena to be explained. In the second stage, the experimental facts are correlated with mathematical symbols and a mathematical scheme is worked out which interconnects these symbols in a precise and consistent way.
Such a scheme is usuallv called a mathematical model or, if it is more comprehensive, a theory. This theory is then used to predict the results of further experiments which are undertaken to check all its implications. At this stage, physicists may be satisfied when they have found a mathematical scheme and know how to use it to predict experiments. But eventually, they will want to talk about their results to non-physicists and will therefore have to express them in plain language. This means they will have to formulate a model inordinary language which interprets their mathematical scheme. Even for the physicists themselves, the formulation of such a verbal model, which constitutes the third stage of research, will be a criterion of the understanding they have reached.
In practice, of course, the three stages are not neatly separated and do not always occur in the same order. For example, a physicist may be led to a particular model by some philosophical belief he (or she) holds, which he may continue to believe in, even when contrary experimental evidence arises. He will then-and this happens in fact very often-try to modify his model so that it can account for the new experiments. But if experimental evidence continues to contradict the model he will eventually be forced to drop it. This way of basing all theories firmly on experiment is known as the scientific method and we shall see that it has its counterpart in Eastern philosophy. Greek philosophy, on the other hand, was fundamentally different in that respect. Although Greek philosophers had extremely ingenious ideas about nature which often come very close to modern scientific models, the enormous difference between the two is the empirical attitude of modern science which was by and large foreign to the Creek mind. The Greeks obtained their models deductively from some fundamental axiom or principle and not inductively from what had been observed. On the other hand, of course, the Greek art of deductive reasoning and logic is an essential ingredient in the second stage of scientific research, the formulation of a consistent mathematical model, and thus an essential part of science.
Rational knowledge and rational activities certainly constitute the major part of scientific research, but are not all there is to it. The rational part of research would, in fact, be useless if it were not complemented by the intuition that gives scientists new insights and makes them creative. These insights tend to come suddenly and, characteristically, not when sitting at a desk working out the equations, but when relaxing, in the bath, during a walk in the woods, on the beach, etc. During these periods of relaxation after concentrated intellectual activity, the intuitive mind seems to take over and can produce the sudden clarifying insights which give so much joy and delight to scientific research. Intuitive insights, however, are of no use to physics unless they can be formulated in a consistent mathematical framework, supplemented by an interpretation in plain language.Abstraction is a crucial feature of this framework. It consists, as mentioned before, of a system of concepts and symbols which constitute a map of reality. This map represents only some features of reality; we do not know exactly which these are, since we started compiling our map gradually and without The critical analysis in our childhood. The words of our language are thus not clearly defined. They have several meanings, many of which pass only vaguely through our mind and remain largely in our subconscious when we hear a word.
The inaccuracy and ambiguity of our language is essential for poets who work largely with its subconscious layers and associations. Science, on the other hand, aims for clear definitions and unambiguous connections, and therefore it abstracts language further by limiting the meaning of its words and by standardizing its structure, in accordance with the rules of logic. The ultimate abstraction takes place in mathematics where words are replaced by symbols and where the operations of connecting the symbols are rigorously defined. In this way, scientists can condense information into one equation, i.e. into one single line of symbols, for which they would need several pages of ordinary writing. The view that mathematics is nothing but an extremely abstracted and compressed language does not go unchallenged. Many mathematicians, in fact, believe that mathematics is not just a language to describe nature, but is inherent in nature itself. The originator of this belief was Pythagoras who made the famous statement ‘All things are numbers’ and developed a very special kind of mathematical mysticism. Pythagorean philosophy thus introduced logical reasoning into the domain of religion, a development which, according to Bertrand Russell, was decisive for Western religious philosophy:
The combination of mathematics and theology, which began with Pythagoras, characterized religious philosophy in Greece, in the Middle Ages, and in modern times down to Kant . . . In Plato, St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz there is an intimate blending of religion and reasoning, of moral aspiration with logical admiration of what is timeless, which comes from Pythagoras, and distinguishes the intellectualized theology of Europe from the more straightforward mysticism of Asia.’
The ‘more straightforward mysticism of Asia’ would, of course, not adopt the Pythagorean view of mathematics. In the Eastern view, mathematics, with its highly differentiated and well defined structure, must be seen as part of our conceptual map and not as a feature of reality itself. Reality, as experienced by the mystic, is completely indeterminate and undifferentiated. The scientific method of abstraction is very efficient and powerful, but we have to pay a price for it. As we define our system of concepts more precisely, as we streamline it and make the connections more and more rigorous, it becomes increasingly detached from the real world. Using again Korzybski’s analogy of the map and the territory, we could say that ordinary language is a map which, due to its intrinsic inaccuracy, has a certain flexibility so that it can follow the curved shape of the territory to some degree. As we make it more rigorous, this flexibility gradually disappears, and with the language of mathematics we have reached a point where the links with reality are so tenuous that the relation of the symbols to our sensory experience is no longer evident. This is why we have to supplement our mathematical models and theories with verbal interpretations, again using concepts which can be understood intuitively, but which are slightly ambiguous and inaccurate. It is important to realize the difference between the mathematical models and their verbal counterparts. The former are rigorous and consistent as far as their internal structure is concerned, but their symbols are not directly related to our experience. The verbal models, on the other hand, use concepts which can be understood intuitively, but are always inaccurate and ambiguous. They are in this respect not different from philosophical models of reality and thus the two can very well be compared.
If there is an intuitive element in science, there is also a rational element in Eastern mysticism. The degree to which reason and logic are emphasized, however, varies enormously from one school to the other. The Hindu Vedanta, or the Buddhist Madhyamika, for example, are highly intellectual schools, whereas Taoists have always had a deep mistrust of reason and logic. Zen, which grew out of Buddhism but was strongly influenced by Taoism, prides itself on being ‘without words, without explanations, without instructions, without knowledge’. It concentrates almost entirely on the experience of enlightenment and is only marginally interested in interpreting this experience. A well known Zen phrase says ‘The instant you speak about a thing you miss the mark.’ Although other schools of Eastern mysticism are less extreme, the direct mystical experience is at the core of all of them. Even those mystics who are engaged in the most sophisticated argumentation never see the intellect as their source of knowledge but use it merely to analyse and interpret their personal mystical experience. All knowledge is firmly based on this experience, thus giving the Eastern traditions a strong empirical character that is always emphasized by its proponents.
D. T. Suzuki, for example, writes of Buddhism:
Personal experience is . . . the foundation of Buddhist philosophy. In this sense Buddhism is radical empiricism or experientialism, whatever dialectic later developed to probe the meaning of enlightenmentexperience.
Joseph Needham repeatedly brings the empirical attitude of Taoists into prominence in his work Science and Civilisation in China and finds that this attitude has made Taoism the basis of Chinese science and technology. The early Taoist philosophers, in Needham’s words, ‘withdrew into the wilderness, the forests and mountains, there to meditate upon the Order of Nature, and to observe its innumerable manifestations’. The same spirit is reflected in the Zen verses,
He who would understand the meaning of Buddha-nature Must watch for the season and the causal relations. The firm basis of knowledge on experience in Eastern mysticism suggests a parallel to the firm basis of scientific knowledge on experiment. This parallel is further enforced by the nature of the mystical experience. It is described in the Eastern traditions as a direct insight which lies outside the realm of the intellect and is obtained by watching rather than thinking; by looking inside oneself; by observation.
In Taoism, this notion of observation is embodied in the name for Taoist temples, kuan, which originally meant ‘to look’. Taoists thus regarded their temples as places of observation. In Ch’an Buddhism, the Chinese version of Zen, enlightenment is often referred to as ‘the vision of the Tao’, and seeing is regarded as the basis of knowing in all Buddhist schools. The first item of the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s prescription for self-realization, is right seeing, followed by right knowing.
D. T. Suzuki writes on this point:
The seeing plays the most important role in Buddhist epistemology, for seeing is at the basis of knowing.
Knowing is impossible without seeing; all knowledge has its origin in seeing. Knowing and seeing are thus found generally united in Buddha’s teaching. Buddhist philosophy therefore ultimately points to seeing reality as it is. Seeing is experiencing enlightenment.”
This passage is also reminiscent of the Yaqui mystic Don Juan who says,
‘My predilection is to see . . .because only by seeing can a man of knowledge know.‘
A word of caution should perhaps be added here. The emphasis on seeing in mystical traditions should not be taken too literally, but has to be understood in a metaphorical sense, since the mystical experience of reality is an essentially nonsensory experience. When the Eastern mystics talk about ‘seeing’, they refer to a mode of perception which may include visual perception, but which always and essentially transcends it to become a nonsensory experience of reality. What they do emphasize, however, when they talk about seeing, looking or observing, is the empirical character of their knowledge. This empirical approach of Eastern philosophy is strongly reminiscent of the emphasis on observation in science and thus suggests a framework for our comparison. The experimental stage in scientific research seems to correspond to the direct insight of the Eastern mystic, and the scientific models and theories correspond to the various ways in which this insight is interpreted.
The parallel between scientific experiments and mystical ,experiences may seem surprising in view of the very different nature of these acts of observation. Physicists perform experiments involving an elaborate teamwork and a highly sophisticated technology, whereas mystics obtain their knowledge purely through introspection, without any machinery, in the privacy of meditation. Scientific experiments, furthermore, seem to be repeatable any time and by anybody, whereas mystical experiences seem to be reserved for a few individuals at special occasions. A closer examination shows, however, that the differences between the two kinds of observation lie only in their approach and not in their reliability or complexity.
Anybody who wants to repeat an experiment in modern subatomic physics has to undergo many years of training. Only then will he or she be able to ask nature a specific question through the experiment and to understand the answer. Similarly, a deep mystical experience requires, generally, many years of training under an experienced master and, as in the scientific training, the dedicated time does not alone guarantee success. If the student is successful, however, he or she will be able to ‘repeat the experiment’. The repeatability of the experience is, in fact, essential to every mystical training and is the very aim of the mystics’ spiritual instruction.
A mystical experience, therefore, is not any more unique than a modern experiment in physics. On the other hand, it is not less sophisticated either, although its sophistication is of a very different kind. The complexity and efficiency of the physicist’s technical apparatus is matched, if not surpassed, by that of the mystic’s consciousness-both physical and spiritual-in deep meditation. The scientists and the mystics, then, have developed highly sophisticated methods of observing nature which are inaccessible to the layperson. A page from a journal of modern experimental physics will be as mysterious to the uninitiated as a Tibetan mandala. Both are records of enquiries into the nature of the universe. Although deep mystical experiences do not, in general, occur without long preparation, direct intuitive insights are experienced by all of us in our everyday lives. We are all familiar with the situation where we have forgotten the name of a person or place, or some other word, and cannot produce it in spite of the utmost concentration. We have it ‘on the tip of our tongue’ but it just will not come out, until we give up and shift our attention to-something else when suddenly, in a flash, we remember the forgotten name. No thinking is involved in this process. It is a sudden, immediate insight. This example of suddenly remembering something is particularly relevant to Buddhism which holds that our original nature is that of the enlightened Buddha and that we have just forgotten it. Students of Zen Buddhism are asked to discover their ‘original face’ and the sudden ‘remembering’ of this face is their enlightenment. Another well known example of spontaneous intuitive insights are jokes. In the split second where you understand a joke you experience a moment of ‘enlightenment’. It is well known that this moment must come spontaneously, that it cannot be achieved by ‘explaining’ the joke, i.e. by intellectual analysis. Only with a sudden intuitive insight into the nature of the joke do we experience the liberating laughter the joke is meant to produce. The similarity between a spiritual insight and the understanding of a joke must be well known to enlightened men and women, since they almost invariably show a great sense of humour. Zen, especially, is full of funny stories and anecdotes, and in the Tao Te Ching we read, ‘If it were not laughed at, it would not be sufficient to be Tao.‘In our everyday life, direct intuitive insights into the nature of things are normally limited to extremely brief moments. Not so in Eastern mysticism where they are extended to long periods and, ultimately, become a constant awareness. The preparation of the mind for this awareness-for the immediate, nonconceptual awareness of reality-is the main purpose of all schools of Eastern mysticism, and of many aspects of the Eastern way of life. During the long cultural history of India, China and Japan, an enormous variety of techniques, rituals and art forms have been developed to achieve this purpose, all of which may be called meditation in the widest sense of the word.
The basic aim of these techniques seems to be to silence the thinking mind and to shift the awareness from the rational to the intuitive mode of consciousness. In many forms of meditation, this silencing of the rational mind is achieved by concentrating one’s attention on a single item, like one’s breathing, the sound of a mantra, or the visual image of a mandala. Other schools focus the attention on body movements which have to be performed spontaneously without the interference of any thought. This is the way of the Hindu Yoga and of the Taoist Tai Chi Ch’uan. The rhythmical movements of these schools can lead to the same feeling of peace and serenity which is characteristic of the more static forms of meditation; a feeling which, incidentally, may be evoked also by some sports. In my experience, for example, skiing has been a highly rewarding form of meditation. Eastern art forms, too, are forms of meditation. They are not so much means for expressing the artist’s ideas as ways of self-realization through the development of the intuitive mode of consciousness. Indian music is not learned by reading notes, but by listening to the play of the teacher and thus developing a feeling for the music, just as the Tai Chi movements are not learned by verbal instructions but by doing them over and over again in unison with the teacher. Japanese tea ceremonies are full of slow, ritualistic movements. Chinese calligraphy requires the uninhibited, spontaneous movement of the hand.
All these skills are used in the East to develop the meditative mode of consciousness. For most people, and especially for intellectuals, this mode of consciousness is a completely new experience. Scientists are familiar with direct intuitive insights from their research, because every new discovery originates in such a sudden non-verbal flash. But these are extremely short moments which arise when the mind is filled with information, with concepts and thought patterns. In meditation, on the other hand, the mind is emptied of all thoughts and concepts and thus prepared to function for long periods through its intuitive mode. Lao Tzu speaks about this contrast between research and meditation when he says:
He who pursues learning will increase every day;
He who pursues Tao will decrease every day.
When the rational mind is silenced, the intuitive mode produces an extraordinary awareness; the environment is experienced in a direct way without the filter of conceptual thinking. In the words of Chuang Tzu, ‘The still mind of the sage is a mirror of heaven and earth-the glass of all things.‘ The experience of oneness with the surrounding environment is the main characteristic of this meditative state. It is a state of consciousness where every form of fragmentation has ceased, fading away into undifferentiated unity.
In deep meditation, the mind is completely alert. In addition of to the nonsensory apprehension of reality it also takes in all the sounds, sights, and other impressions of the surrounding environment, but it does not hold the sensory images to be analysed or interpreted. They are not allowed to distract the attention. Such a state of awareness is not unlike the state of mind of a warrior who expects an attack in extreme alertness, registering everything that goes on around him without being distracted by it for an instant. The Zen master Yasutani Roshi uses this image in his description of shikantaza, the practice of Zen meditation :
Shikan-taza is a heightened state of concentrated awareness wherein one is neither tense nor hurried, and certainly never slack. It is the mind of somebody facing death. Let us imagine that you are engaged in a duel of swordsmanship of the kind that used to take piace in ancient Japan. As you face your opponent you are unceasingly watchful, set, ready. Were you to relax your vigilance even momentarily, you would be cut down instantly. A crowd gathers to see the fight. Since you are not blind you see them from the corner of your eye, and since you are not deaf you hear them. But not for an instant is your mind captured by these sense impressions.
Because of the similarity between the meditative state and the frame of mind of a warrior, the image of the warrior plays an important role in the spiritual and cultural life of the East. The stage for India’s favourite religious text, the Bhagavad Cita, is a battlefield and martial arts constitute an important part in the traditional cultures of China and Japan. In Japan, the strong influence of Zen on the tradition of the samurai gave rise to what is known as bushido, ‘the way of the warrior’, an art of swordsmanship where the spiritual insight of the swordsman reaches its highest perfection. The Taoist Tai Chi Ch’uan, which was considered to be the supreme martial art in China, combines slow and rhythmical ‘yogic’ movements with the total alertness of the warrior’s mind in a unique way.
Eastern mysticism is based on direct insights into the nature of reality, and physics is based on the observation of natural phenomena in scientific experiments. In both fields, the observations are then interpreted and the interpretation is very often communicated by words. Since words are always an abstract, approximate map of reality, the verbal interpretations of a scientific experiment or of a mystical insight are necessarily inaccurate and incomplete. Modern physicists and Eastern mystics alike are well aware of this fact.
In physics, the interpretations of experiments are called models or theories and the realization that all models and theories are approximate is basic to modern scientific research. Thus the aphorism of Einstein, ‘As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.’ Physicists know that their methods of analysis and logical reasoning can never explain the whole realm of natural phenomena at once and so they single out a certain group of phenomena and try to build a model to describe this group. In doing so, they neglect other phenomena and the model will therefore not give a complete description of the real situation. The phenomena which are not taken into account may either have such a small effect that their inclusion would not alter the theory significantly, or they may be left out simply because they are not known at the time when the theory is built. To illustrate these points, let us look at one of the best known models in physics, Newton’s ‘classical’ mechanics. The effects of air resistance or friction, for example, are generally not taken into account in this model, because they are usually very small. But apart from such omissions, Newtonian mechanics was for a long time considered to be the final theory for the description of all natural phenomena, until electric and magnetic phenomena, which had no place in Newton’s theory, were discovered. The discovery of these phenomena showed that the model was incomplete, that it could be applied only to a limited group of phenomena, essentially the motion of solid bodies.
Studying a limited group of phenomena can also mean studying their physical properties only over a limited range, which may be another reason for the theory to be approximate. This aspect of the approximation is quite subtle because we never know beforehand where the limitations of a theory lie. The Only experience can tell. Thus the image of classical mechanics was further eroded when twentieth-century physics showed its essential limitations. Today we know that the Newtonian model is valid only for objects consisting of large numbers of atoms, and only for velocities which are small compared to the speed of light. When the first condition is not given, classical mechanics has to be replaced by quantum theory; when the second condition is not satisfied, relativity theory has to be applied. This does not mean that Newton’s model is ‘wrong’, or that quantum theory and relativity theory are ‘right’. All these models are approximations which are valid for a certain range of phenomena. Beyond this range, they no longer give a satisfactory description of nature and new models have to be found to replace the old ones-or, better, to extend them by improving the approximation.
To specify the limitations of a given model is often one of the most difficult, and yet one of the most important tasks in its construction. According to Geoffrey Chew, whose ‘bootstrap models’ will be discussed at great length later on, it is essential that one should always ask, as soon as a certain model or theory is found to work: why does it work? what are the model’s limits? in what way, exactly, is it an approximation? These questions are seen by Chew as the first step towards further progress.
The Eastern mystics, too, are well aware of the fact that all verbal descriptions of reality are inaccurate and incomplete. The direct experience of reality transcends the realm of thought and language, and, since all mysticism is based on such a direct experience, everything that is said about it can only be partly true. In physics, the approximate nature of all statements is quantified and progress is made by improving the approximations in many successive steps. How, then, do the Eastern traditions deal with the problem of verbal communication? First of all, mystics are mainly interested in the experience of reality and not in the description of this experience.
They are therefore generally not interested in the analysis of such a description, and the concept of a well-defined approximation has thus never arisen in Eastern thought. If, on the other hand, Eastern mystics want to communicate their experience, they are confronted with the limitations of language. Several different ways have been developed in the East to deal with this problem. Indian mysticism, and Hinduism in particular, clothes its statements in the form of myths, using metaphors and symbols, poetic images, similes and allegories. Mythical language is much less restricted by logic and common sense. It is full of magic and of paradoxical situations, rich in suggestive images and never precise, and can thus convey the way in which mystics experience reality much better than factual language. According to Ananda Coomaraswamy, ‘myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words.“’
The rich Indian imagination has created a vast number of gods and goddesses whose incarnations and exploits are the subjects of fantastic tales, collected in epics of huge dimensions. The Hindu with deep insight knows that all these gods are creations of the mind, mythical images representing the many faces of reality. On the other hand, he also knows that they were not merely created to make the stories more attractive, but are essential vehicles to convey the doctrines of a philosophy rooted in mystical experience. Chinese and Japanese mystics have found a different way of dealing with the language problem. Instead of making the paradoxical nature of reality palatable through the symbols and images of myth, they prefer very often to accentuate it by using factual language. Thus Taoists made frequent use of paradoxes in order to expose the inconsistencies arising from verbal communication and to show its limits. They have passed this technique on to Chinese and Japanese Buddhists who have developed it further. It has reached its extreme in Zen Buddhism with the so-called koans, those nonsensical riddles which are used by many Zen masters to transmit the teachings. These koans establish an important parallel to modern physics which will be taken up in the next chapter. In Japan, there exists yet another mode of expressing philosophical views which should be mentioned. It is a special form of extremely concise poetry which is often used by Zen masters to point directly at the ‘suchness’ of reality. When a monk asked Fuketsu Ensho, When speech and silence are both inadmissible, how can one pass without error? the master replied :
always remember Kiangsu in March-
The cry of the partridge, The mass of fragrant flowers.
This form of spiritual poetry has reached its perfection in the haiku, a classical Japanese verse of just seventeen syllables, which was deeply influenced by Zen. The insight into the very nature of Life reached by these haiku poets comes across even in the English translation:
Lie on one another;
The rain beats the rain.
Whenever the Eastern mystics express their knowledge in words-be it with the help of myths, symbols, poetic images or paradoxical statements-they are well aware of the limitations imposed by language and ‘linear’ thinking. Modern physics has come to take exactly the same attitude with regard to its verbal models and theories. They, too, are only approximate and necessarily inaccurate. They are the counterparts of the Eastern myths, symbols and poetic images, and it is at this level that I shall draw the parallels. The same idea about matter is conveyed, for example, to the Hindu by the cosmic dance of the god Shiva as to the physicist by certain aspects of quantum field theory. Both the dancing god and the physical theory are creations of the mind: models to describe their authors’ intuition of reality.
From Tao Of Physics.