Interdependence in Buddhism
order to understand Buddhist cosmology, we have to comprehend one of the key concepts
of Buddhism, that of "interdependence". One of the aspects of that interdependence
is the relationship between humanity's consciousness and the reality we perceive
around us. According to Buddhism, all the proprieties that we attribute to the
phenomenal world are not necessarily intrinsic to the object itself, but are conceived
by our mind and filtered through our perceptions. Thus the same reality may appear
differently to different intelligences. Objects are thus devoid of intrinsic and
autonomous properties and do not possess solidity and permanence. That is the
profound meaning of "vacuity." It must be emphasized that vacuity in
Buddhism is not nothingness as the word has sometimes been misunderstood - Buddhism
has at times been accused totally wrongly of nihilism. Vacuity is the absence
of independence and autonomy of things. Because of interdependence, there is the
potential and capacity for phenomenon to vary in an infinite number of ways, to
develop in infinite directions. The only real nature of phenomena is thus their
"interdependence". Vacuity is the ultimate nature of things because
phenomena are devoid of an existence that is permanent and independent of the
In Buddhism, there are thus 2 distinct levels of reality, that of
conventional reality, which we are all familiar with in our daily lives, and that
of ultimate reality, which has the quality of vacuity. Conventional reality concerns
the transformation and change of things in the phenomenal world. These changes
are governed by causal laws that are similar to the physical laws discovered by
science in Nature. In that sense, the Buddhist view of conventional reality is
very much like that of a scientist, with the difference being that, in addition
to the physical laws, Buddhism introduces the laws of karma that say that the
consequences of our acts, be they positive or negative, will lead unavoidably
to our future happiness or suffering. But conventional reality is mere appearance.
On a deeper level, phenomena do not have an objective existence. Using poetic
language, Buddha often compared reality to mirages, magic illusions or dreams.
This interdependence between the nature of reality and the mind of observer
is not totally foreign to the scientist himself although we usually think of science
as being totally "objective". The information that nature sends us is
inevitably altered by the instruments used for observation and analysis, be it
a telescope, a bubble chamber or a computer, and by the brains of the observers
who interpret it. Reality is filtered through a nightmarish web of electronic
circuits; it is manipulated, digitized, and reconstituted by powerful computers
and complex mathematical treatments.
In 1609, when Galileo first pointed a
telescope toward the sky, he had, at the beginning, a very hard time convincing
his colleagues that the wonders visible through his telescope were not optical
illusions. The problem of the veracity of images is a thousand times worse in
modern astronomy. There have been so many steps between the raw signals and the
final image that it is quite legitimate to wonder what "objective truth"
remains in the image. Fortunately, there is a way to weed out erroneous observations
in science. A result or observation is not accepted until it has been verified
independently by other workers, using other techniques or other measuring instruments.
It is highly unlikely that the same error would be repeated each time, or that
the instruments or machines should fool us on every occasion.
Thus, in principle,
technical difficulties are surmountable. If we could rely upon machines alone,
reality could, in theory, be rendered as objective as possible. But what cannot
be avoided is the human brain. Human beings cannot observe nature in an objective
manner. There is a constant interaction between our inner world and the outer
world. The inner world of the scientist is full of concepts, models and theories
acquired during his professional training. This inner world, when projected onto
the outer world, prevents the scientist from seeing the "bare" objective
facts, free from any interpretation. We only see what we want to see. On that
subject, Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution, told a charming
story: He spent a whole day on a river bank and saw nothing but stones and water.
Eleven years later, he returned to the same spot, searching for traces of earlier
glaciation. This time, the evidence stuck out like a sore thumb. Not even an extinct
volcano could have left more visible traces of its past activity than this old
glacier. Darwin discovered what he was looking for as soon as he knew how to see.
Science goes even further: the very act of observing can modify reality. The
science of quantum mechanics, which describes the behavior of subatomic particles,
says so. The properties of a particle are unavoidably disturbed when it is observed
because one has to shine light on it. Light and particles going through two holes
behave like waves when the observer does not attempt to find out which hole the
light or particles have gone through. But behave like particles as soon as one
attempts to find out their precise path by placing detectors after the holes.
This interdependence between observer and reality has been emphasized many times
by the founders of the science of quantum mechanics.
Let's listen for example
to Heisenberg who remarks: "What we observe is not nature in itself but nature
exposed to our method of questioning." or to Bohr who says: "As our
knowledge becomes wider, we must always be prepared, therefore, to expect alterations
in the points of view best suited for the ordering of our experience. In this
connection, we must remember, above all, that, as a matter of course, all new
experience makes its appearance within the frame of our customary points of view
and forms of perception."
Not only is there interdependence between the
observer and the observed, but there is also interdependence between particles
in the subatomic world. This is shown by a famous thought experiment proposed
in 1930 by Albert Einstein and his colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen
(known as the EPR experiment). Imagine, they said, that a particle disintegrates
spontaneously into two photons A and B. Nothing allows us to say a priori in which
directions these two photons will propagate. There is one certainty however: because
of symmetry, they will leave in opposite directions. If A goes toward the west,
B will go toward the east. Let us set up our instruments and check. Yes, A goes
west and B goes east. It is as expected.
But this does not take into account
the indeterminacy of the subatomic world. Quantum mechanics tells us that A has
no precise direction before it is captured by the measuring instrument. It was
wearing its guise as a wave and could take any direction. It is only after it
has interacted with the detector that A turns into a particle and "learns"
that it is going west. If A did not "know" what direction to take before
being captured by the measuring instrument, how could B "guess" in advance
the direction of A, and arrange its trajectory so that it would be captured at
the same time in the opposite direction? This does not make sense. Einstein and
his colleagues concluded that quantum mechanics had therefore gone wrong. But
this not the case. Laboratory experiments have always confirmed quantum mechanics,
and the theory does truly account for the behavior of atoms. How then are we to
resolve the EPR paradox?
The paradox exists only because we assume that reality
is "localized" on each of the two particles. The paradox is no more
if we accept the idea that the two photons, even if they are separated by billions
of light-years, are part of a single reality before they are recorded by the measuring
instruments, and that they are in permanent contact with each other by some sort
of mysterious interaction. Everything is interdependent. Reality is no longer
local, but global.