Thursday, September 13, 2012

Modern science and Buddhism

Messages from New Discoveries in Space Physics
Maosen Zhong, B.A., M.B.A, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer
The University of Queensland
St. Lucia, Brisbane, QLD 4067, Australia
The Pure Land Learning College
Toowoomba, QLD 4350, Australia

First version: 24 April, 2003
Presented at the Pure Land Learning College

Revised version: 4 July, 2003
To be presented to the Australian Association for the Study of Religions
(AASR) annual meeting, Griffith University-Nathan Campus, Multi-Faith Center
July 5, 2003

* I am very grateful to Venerable Master Chin Kung, Venerable Wu Shin, Venerable Wu Ling, Venerable Wu Ping, Ms. Julia Lieu, Dr. Mei-Hui Ho, Mr. Gene Lamb, Dr. Yeong-Han Cheong, Ms. Jenny Wong, Ms. Vivian Fung, and Ms. Fei-lun Chen for their helpful comments and suggestions. All errors remain my own. Address correspondence to: Dr. Maosen Zhong, UQ Business School, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Brisbane, QLD 4067, Australia, phone: (+61) 7 3365 6181, e-mail:
Messages from New Discoveries in Space Physics


Traditional Buddhism is not a religion but an education about the truth of life and the universe. Modern science has gradually verified what Buddha Shakyamuni taught in the sutras (i.e., Buddhist texts). We contrast the new physics discoveries about the universe with statements in the sutras. These new scientific discoveries are very similar to what Buddha Shakyamuni taught 3000 years ago. Specifically, we relate three findings in space physics to the Buddha’s teachings: 1) Distance and time are “illusory”; 2) Things can be created from “nothing”; and 3) The origin of the universe. We hope this preliminary study can stimulate our thinking and discussion about the truth of our universe.


Traditional Buddhism is not a religion but an education about the truth of life and the universe. Modern science has gradually verified what Buddha Shakyamuni taught in the sutras (i.e., Buddhist texts). It would be interesting to contrast the new physics discoveries about the universe with the statements in the sutras. In this paper, we summarize some key discoveries about the universe from America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA)1 on-line cosmology literature.

The purpose of this preliminary study is to stimulate our thinking and discussion of the truth about our universe. We believe that each religion has insightful descriptions about the truth of life and the universe. It is important for religious followers to study their own scriptures and understand these truths.

Modern cosmology attempts to describe how the universe started and developed. The subject is built upon quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein’s Theories of Relativity. Most of the discoveries are derived from highly advanced mathematical principles and are quite difficult for a person without sufficient knowledge in physics and mathematics to comprehend. However, we do not intend to focus on the technical details of those mathematical formulas here. What is important are the messages that emerge from this scientific research. We will elaborate on some key discoveries of space physics research, which appear amazingly similar to what Buddha Shakyamuni had taught 3000 years ago.2

1 NASA, founded in 1958, is the world’s leading research agency in aerospace and physics.
2 The time frame of 3000 years is calculated from Chinese records which differs from those of other countries.. Most scholars hold that Buddha Shakyamuni lived about 2500 years ago.

In this paper, we present three key messages derived from modern cosmology and quantum physics, which are essentially the same as some of the Buddha’s profound teachings about the universe. Below we try to use easy-to-understand language to explain the ideas, avoiding complicated mathematical equations, because we expect our audience to be the general public, not physics professionals. These three key messages are:
1) Distance and time are “illusory”;
2) Things can be created from “nothing”;
3) The origin of the universe.
1. Distance and Time are “Illusory”

To prove this concept is not an easy task in physics. Although we do not emphasize the technical aspects of physics in this paper, the proof of this idea has to rely on Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Relativity is an outgrowth of Einstein’s thoughts in the early 1900s about motion and gravity in a non-Newtonian framework. Newton’s physics—especially in the realm of mechanics—works well in the dynamics of three-dimensional space (especially for earth-sized and smaller bodies) and at velocities common to everyday experience.

Einstein’s relativity framework, however, is completely different. Instead of the Absolute view of fundamental parameters such as space and time envisioned in Newtonian physics, space, time, energy, and mass can all vary in their perceived nature in a Relative sense. This theory completely altered the direction of modern physics and provided a solid theoretical founding for cosmic research. Einstein is therefore regarded as the “Father of Modern Science.”
Both the history of Einstein’s discoveries and an excellent portrayal of how they affect cosmology are given in Amir Acezel’s book God’s Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe, published by Dell Publishing in 1999. Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1922 and was later selected by Time Magazine as the “Man of the 20th Century.” A splendid biography of him: Einstein: The Life and Times by Ronald W. Clark, published by Avon Books in 1971, describes Einstein’s contribution as a scientist and humanitarian.

There are two stages of Relativity theories: Special Relativity (SR) and General Relativity (GR). Special Relativity is applicable to objects that are traveling at uniform velocities. General Relativity is concerned with the effects of accelerating velocities. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity (SR) was first published in Annalen de Physik in the summer of 1905. In the same issue of that Journal, he also had significant papers on Brownian motion and on the photoelectric effect, for which he later (in 1922) was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics.

Einstein, among other researchers, realized that physical properties should theoretically change greatly when their measurements are under conditions where the observer is traveling at high speeds relative to that of light. A simple relationship between the length and speed of an object can be described in the following equation:


where Lv is the object’s length when it is moving, L0 is the object’s length when it is standing still, v is the speed of the moving object, and c is the speed of light (approximately 300,000 kilometers per second). Figure 1 below shows the inverse relationship between an object’s length and its speed according to the equation (1). As an object moves increasingly faster (relative to the observer), its length becomes progressively smaller.
Figure 1. The relationship between an object’s length and speed
Equation (1) tells us that objects that are moving very fast (at significant fractions of light speed) would appear to “shrink” in length. If an object is moving at the speed of light, then the ratio v2/c2 =1, and we will observe that the object has no length or size.3 In other words, lengths (or sizes) will vanish at the speed of light. For instance, under certain conditions, you will not see any distance between a nearby object (say, the Queensland Performing Art Center in Brisbane, Australia) and a distant object (say, the White House in Washington, DC in the U.S.).4 Or put it differently, under some conditions, you may be able to appear on Earth and on Mars at the same time5 as the distance between Earth and Mars can vanish. Dr. Sten Odenwald, NASA’s space scientist, concludes that objects can be in many places at the same time.6 Therefore, distance is not real!

3 It is a belief in physics that nothing with mass can actually move at the speed of light as its mass would become infinite. Only massless particles like light itself can move at the speed of light
4 In physics, this would only be true to an observer traveling at the speed of light relative to the Earth.
5 Relative theory tells us that time, just as distance explained above, is relative. There is no absolute time or space. These vary depending on one’s point of reference.
6 Source:

This concept is consistent with Buddha Shakyamuni’s teaching in the Infinite Life Sutra7: “The Buddha does come but without coming from anywhere. He leaves but without going anywhere. He was neither born nor will he pass away.” (無量壽經: 彼佛如來,來無所來,去無所去,無生無滅).8 Another similar statement can be found in the Practices and Vows of Bodhisattva Universal Worthy of the Flower Adornment Sutra: “In each of the innumerable Buddhas’ lands, I manifested transformation bodies as numerous as the number of fine dusts in incalculable numbers of Buddha-lands.” (華嚴經普賢行願品:我以普賢行願力故,一一佛所,皆現不可說不可說佛剎極微塵數身。) Bodhisattva Universal Worthy has the ability to appear in infinite number of worlds at the same time. This ability can now be understood by modern physics.

7 In full title, The Buddha’s Teaching On The Sutra of Awakening To The Equanimity Pure Adornment of The Immeasurable Lifespan of the Great Vehicle (佛說大乘無量壽莊嚴清淨平等覺經).
8 The English quotes from Buddhist sutras in this presentation may need to be further polished. The Chinese original versions of the quotes are also presented for readers’ reference.

Regarding time, the theory of Relativity also provides an intriguing viewpoint. A cornerstone premise in Einstein’s physics is the constancy of the speed of light. That is, light travels at precisely 299,792 km/sec (or approximately 300,000 km/sec) and this is the highest speed an object can attain. Nothing (with mass) can accelerate beyond the speed of light.9
Let us first consider a simple example in our daily life. Suppose we are walking in a fast-moving train. While we might feel that we are walking slowly, an observer outside of the train would see that we were passing by very rapidly This is because our relative speed is very low with respect to the train but is very high with respect to the external observer.

9 The reason for this is that the object’s mass increases as the speed increases and would become infinite at the speed of light which is clearly an impossibility. It is hypothesized that particles called tachyons, go faster than the speed of light; but they, theoretically, do not accelerate beyond the speed of light but always move at a speed beyond that of light. They cannot decelerate to the speed of light for the same reasons.

Now suppose we occupy a spacecraft moving at extreme speeds (approaching the speed of light) away from Earth. From the spacecraft, we use a special clock device to send forth a light signal every second to an observer on Earth. In the spacecraft passengers’ eyes, the relative motion of ourselves within the spacecraft is that of standing still with respect to the spacecraft, but moving quite fast (close to the speed of light) with respect to external observers. For the rapidly moving spacecraft passengers, the clock on board seems to move normally (without any change in the length of time of a second). The external observers receive the light signal from the clock on the fast-moving spacecraft at a much longer time interval (interval between seconds increases). That is, for external observers on Earth, the clock on the spacecraft appears to tell time more slowly so that time “stretches out.”

In effect, for anyone moving at high relative speeds, time stretches out (called “time dilation”). There is no “absolute” time. Thus, time is just an “illusion.” Theoretically, you may be able to stretch time from very short intervals to extremely long intervals without making any change to yourselves and your objects. In fact, we believe that the Buddha has attained this ability. In the Infinite Life Sutra, it is said: “The Buddha possesses unfathomable wisdom. He has no obstacles. In one single instant, he can dwell in innumerable billions of kalpas (i.e., long eons), but his body and sense organs do not increase or decrease (i.e., do not age). Why is it? Because the Buddha’s concentration and wisdom are boundless and free of obstructions.” (佛說大乘無量壽莊嚴清淨平等覺經第三品:如來正覺,其智難量,能於念頃,住無量億劫, 身及諸根,無有增減,所以者何?如來定慧,究暢無極,於一切法而得最勝自在故。) Hence, when we attain the ultimate bliss of Buddhahood, this fantastic ability comes naturally from within us.

Another excellent example of the time dilation effect is best illustrated by Einstein’s “Twin Paradox.” If the above-mentioned spacecraft were to return Earth after 20 years (according to the Earth calendar) of high-speed travel, the passengers on board will prove to have aged less than 20 years of Earth’s time. Suppose two twin brothers born on the same day separate in the following manner. The ground twin remains on Earth while the space twin takes a journey such as described above. The ground twin now becomes 20 years older. The space twin, upon return, appears to have aged about 3 years because time has shortened from 20 years to 3 years for the space twin and his bodily functions in aging have proceeded more slowly relative to those on Earth. To himself and any other passengers on the spacecraft, he has aged in the normal manner—although he felt that he was traveling for only three years.

To take this a step further, theoretically, the space traveler sees his return as a step into the future (from 3 years old to 20 years old). On the other hand, if time can be shortened to a negative value, the traveler can somehow move backward in time from “now” to the past.10

10 This would be possible if he could accelerate beyond the speed of light which modern physics has yet to prove.

Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are able to actually enter either the infinite past or the infinite future in a single moment. As Bodhisattva Universal Worthy says in the Flower Adornment Sutra: “I can clearly behold the state of the future and combine all coming kalpas (i.e., long eons) into one instantaneous thought. I can also penetrate all the eras of the past, present, and future in an instant.” (華嚴經普賢行願品:我能深入於未來,盡一切劫為一念,三世所有一切劫,為一念際我皆入。)

To further illustrate this point, we want to cite an example from Buddhist literature, which is analogous to the example of Einstein’s “Twin Brother Paradox” that we just discussed. There were three brothers who practiced hard in order to be reborn into heaven and follow Bodhisattva Maitreya’s teachings there. The three promised each other that whoever went to heaven first would come back to tell the other two what was happening in heaven.

One brother went to heaven first but never returned. Then a few years later, the second brother went to heaven and returned three years later to see the third brother who was still on Earth. The third brother asked, “What took you so long?” The second brother protested, “I have been in heaven for only a moment. As soon as I paid my respect to Bodhisattva Maitreya, I returned to see you. But when I came back, three years had passed on Earth!” “What about our other brother who never returned?” The second brother answered, “He was seduced by many beautiful girls in heaven and forgot about seeing Bodhisattva Maitreya.” Upon hearing this, the third brother felt that it was too risky to attain enlightenment in heaven. He decided to be reborn in the Western Pure Land and follow the teachings of Buddha Amitabha. From this example, we see that there is a time difference between Earth and “heaven” perhaps due to different relative speeds. Here, heaven can be regarded as place of different space-time dimensions.

In summary, space and time are varying and illusionary phenomena. Under some conditions, space and time can be changed completely. Indeed, the recent discovery of Black Holes demonstrates this concept. According to NASA space scientists, space and time can reverse themselves in a Black Hole. This means that space becomes time-like and time becomes space-like. What we call time does change to something with the mathematical properties we have normally associated with space, and vice versa.
2. Things can be created from nothing

Talking about this concept, let us first quote NASA astronomer Dr. Odenwald, “Nature has over the years presented us with many physical situations where our intuition about how things ‘ought’ to behave has been shown to be absolutely false: people age differently if they are moving; space can dilate; matter can be created out of pure energy; matter can be created spontaneously out of the vacuum…”

In this section, we present the idea that things can be created from nothing. Without spending too much time in explaining the mathematical formulas, we can cite Einstein’s conclusion of the Principle of Equivalence of mass and energy. That is, under certain conditions, energy can “condense” to mass and, conversely, mass is convertible to energy.
The famous conversion formula is

E = mc2 (2)

where c is the speed of light, E is energy, and m is mass. The energy is equal to mass times c2.

From this equation, one can deduce that as an object moves faster up to speeds approaching that of light, its energy will begin to increase notably. In principle then, the maximum energy a given amount of mass can release is determined by c2. This mass-energy equivalence forms the basis of recovering huge amounts of energy by “tapping” into the nuclei of atoms; the energy released from the explosion of an atomic bomb is derived from this theoretical relationship.

On the other hand, matter (mass) can be created if enough energy is applied to some volume of space. This can be seen by simply rearranging the formula:

m = E/c2 (3)

The above formula suggests that under certain conditions, we can convert energy into matter in empty space. This means that one can literally make up something out of “air.”11 In fact, in a micro world, we see things are created from nothing all the time. This reminds us of what is said in the Infinite Life Sutra: All the things that are needed by them (people in the Pure Land) will be in abundance. All the adorned things, such as the palaces, the beautifully decorated clothing, the fragrant flowers, the banners and umbrellas will come forth just as one wishes for or needs. If a man wishes to eat, the seven precious bowls and containers, which contain hundreds of different food and drinks of different tastes, will naturally appear in front of him and be filled to the brim… When eating is finished, the food, drinks, and containers will disappear and appear again in time for lunch.” (無量壽經第十九品:受用種種,一切豐足。宮殿、服飾、香花、幡蓋,莊嚴之具,隨意所須,悉皆如念。若欲食時,七寶砵器,自然在前,百味飲食,自然盈滿。 事已化去,時至復現。)

11 My use of 'air' here is not the best English expression since air is already something. Maybe I should say 'out of thin air' implying from nothing.

A physical justification of this behavior in the Pure Land is that people there possess highly advanced scientific power so that they can create things out of energy when they need them, and convert them back to energy after use.

3. The Origin of the Universe

In the quantum world, we see things “appearing” out of nothing. Here, a quantum is the smallest possible unit of energy. The universe may have done the same thing—appeared out of “nothing.” Dr. Odenwald said that when physicists say “nothing,” they are being playful with the English language, because we often think of a vacuum as being “empty” or “nothing.” In fact, physicists know full well that the vacuum is far from nothing. Before the formation of the universe, there was no time or space, not even vacuum. The primordial state of the pre-universe period was far from being the kind of “nothingness” we might have in mind.

As Dr. Odenwald acknowledges, “We don’t have a full mathematical theory for describing this state yet, but it was probably ‘multi-dimensional’…Nothingness [that gives rise to the present universe] was not nothing, but it was not anything like the kinds of ‘something’ we know about today. We have no words to describe it and the ones we find in the Oxford English Dictionary are based on the wrong physical insight.”

Buddha Shakyamuni taught that the original state of the universe, referred to as the “true self nature,” neither comes from somewhere nor goes anywhere, is neither continuous nor separate, is neither dirty nor clean, neither increases nor decreases. (不來不去,不常不斷,不垢不淨,不增不減。

This pre-universe state (or so called “nothingness”) seems obscure and incomprehensible to most of us. Let us put it aside for now and look at what happened at the moment of the formation of the universe. The widely accepted theory in physics about the formation of the universe is the so-called “Big Bang” theory. However, the theory is still being questioned both in its detail and its essential correctness. We can obtain some insights from this theory without necessarily accepting this theory in its entirety.

According to the Big Bang theory, our universe was created somewhere between 10-15 billion years ago from a cosmic explosion that threw matter in all directions. Before the explosion, there was no “space” or “time.” Such a state is far removed from anything we know. Even the laws that govern the universe become totally obscure to scientists.

The Buddha used the terms “unthinkable” and “inexpressible” to describe this state. In fact, this state is beyond our comprehension. Dr. Odenwald admits “What this means to us may never be fully understood.” But the Buddha did not imply that we should not attempt to “understand” or “observe” this state. The method we should use is “not to think,” that is, meditation or deep concentration without any wandering thought. In deep concentration, there are no obstacles. At this moment, the true nature of ourselves and the universe come forth. This level is called “the pure state of enlightenment.”

So how big was our universe when it was born? According to scientists’ calculation, the size of the universe at that moment was equal to 10-33 centimeters. That is, 0.000…0001 (33 zeros) centimeters! Such a number is so small that it is merely a mathematical concept and can never be grasped by our common thought.

Consider this analogy. Suppose the thinnest body hair has a diameter of 0.01 millimeters. If this pre-universe particle can somehow be stored in a thin hair, how many particles can you store across the hair’s diameter? You can store one million trillion trillions of particles across the diameter of your single hair! It is amazing that our infinite universe once contained the same information as that tiny particle did. This information includes everything in the universe in the past, present, and future, including you and me! It is more amazing that a hair can potentially accommodate that many universes! No wonder Buddha Shakyamuni told us: “There is no difference between the infinite and the infinitesimal. Incalculable number of universes can emerge from a single pore!”

Another amazing phenomenon relates to the speed of the expansion from this tiny particle to a huge universe. Space scientists told us that the particle expanded at an increditably high speed: 1059 times bigger in every second. That means, within less than one thousandth of a second, the particle had grown to a size bigger than our present solar system! The formation of our universe takes only an instant! This scientific finding verifies what the Buddha had stated in the sutra: the formation and extinction of universes takes only an instant (一彈指60剎那,一剎那900生滅。)

In short, according to modern cosmology, the genesis of our entire universe is as follows. In the beginning there was “nothing.”12 All of a sudden, a tiny particle appeared. This tiny particle took an unimaginably short instant to form our entire universe. Currently, scientists do not have a meaningful explanation of this tiny particle and only have a subtle mathematical description. Buddha Shakyamuni told us that this tiny particle is actually one’s smallest wandering thought rising from the pure mind. In an instant, this wandering thought forms the entire universe. (無明不覺生三細,境界為緣長六粗)

12 Here “nothing” differs from its ordinary meaning, since “nothing” still implies an absence of something (No Thing). But in fact, there was neither something nor nothing (incomprehensible).

Finally, when asked about other universes, Dr. Odenwald answered that according to General Relativity, our universe represents everything, including all space, time, and galaxies. Other universes are of totally different space and time completely outside our own. Those universes do not now, or ever will in the future, have any “physical” contact with our universe. From our perspective, these other universes are literally on the other side of eternity and infinity from our perspective. Buddha Shakyamuni also said that incalculable universes exist in numerous different dimensions but we human beings are unable to see them because our wandering thoughts, differentiation, and attachments block our vision. When we let go of our wandering thoughts, differentiation, and attachments, we will be able to clearly observe all the universes.


Let us summarize the points we have discussed here.
First, distance and time are illusions of human beings. Under some conditions, space and time can vanish. You can appear in many places at the same time and you can observe the past, present, and future at the same instant.

Second, things can be created from nothing. Objects can appear from vacuum. Pure energy can be converted to mass and vice versa.

Third, the origin of the universe is an extremely tiny particle. It takes an extremely short instant for this tiny particle to expand into the huge universe.

Despite the significant progress in modern cosmology research, the universe still remains extremely profound to human beings. The more phenomena that scientists discover the more they realize how little they know about the universe. Three thousand years ago, Buddha Shakyamuni not only explained the true phenomenon of this entire universe but also showed us ways to attain the ultimate wisdom that will enable us to see it all very clearly. It is unfortunate that our scientists have not studied Buddhism. Otherwise, modern science would have even more advanced achievements. We strongly believe that as science advances, more facts taught by Buddha Shakyamuni will be proven.

We conclude our paper with a quote made by Albert Einstein, the “Father of Modern Science.”
“The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal god and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.”
Albert Einstein
Acezel, Amir, 1999, God’s Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe, Dell Publishing.
Buddha Shakyamuni, The Buddha’s Teaching On The Sutra of Awakening To The Equanimity Pure Adornment of The Immeasurable Lifespan of the Great Vehicle (佛說大乘無量壽莊嚴清淨平等覺經).
Buddha Shakyamuni, Flower Adornment Sutra (大方廣佛華嚴經).
Clark, Ronald W., 1971, Einstein: The Life and Times by, published, Avon Books.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration on-line literature:
Biography of the Author
Dr. Maosen Zhong is currently a Senior Lecturer in Finance at The University of Queensland Business School. Dr. Zhong obtained his bachelor’s degree in economics from Zhongshan University in 1995, China and Master of Business Administration and Doctoral degrees in Finance from Louisiana Tech University (U.S.A.) in 1999. Prior to joining UQ, he was the Assistant Professor of Finance at Kansas State University and The University of Texas-Brownsville in the United States. He teaches both graduate and undergraduate finance courses. He has published 12 articles in international academic journals and made 20 presentations at academic conferences world wide. Two of his papers were awarded “Best Paper” by professional associations in the U.S.A. He has studied Buddhism for many years under Venerable Master Chin Kung, President of the Pure Land Learning College and Honorary Professor of the University of Queensland.

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