Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Dalai Lama's "The Universe in a Single Atom": Book Review

With my interest in what happened before the Big Bang, Buddhism, and ethics, I figured this short book might prove a welcome counterpart to my current listening to the enormous audiobook of Brian Greene's examination of the laws of the universe, "The Fabric of the Cosmos." The Dalai Lama manages, through I assume the diligent help of his translators and editors, to convey succinctly his lifelong interest in science and space, and this reads smoothly. As with many of his musings rendered into English, this feels more like a transcript than a text, and it has an oral quality of thoughtful conversation with an attentive listener.

My favorite sections were on the beginningless universe of Buddhism and how the concept of tiny "space particles" might align with the quantum vacuum idea of astrophysics now proposed: the universe never came out of nothing, but was a residue from what astronomers (if not the DL) call the Big Splat, and so the universe came out of the collapse of a preceding universe before whatever preceded the Big Bang.

His reminder how Buddhism favors first experiential empirical testing of a concept, then reason, and only third scriptural testimony meshes nicely with his emphasis about the scientific worldview's compatibility, or dominance, over what even dharma may claim if the teachings do not hold up under modern evaluation. This sensible approach provides a welcome alternative to the difficulties that literal or fundamental interpretations of religious traditions, or political or ideological ones for that matter, may represent for many apologists. His openness to the wonders and revelations of the natural world, seen and unseen, enliven his recollections.

I also liked his recollections of conversations with such as David Bohm, about the danger of seeing as racists, Marxists, and extreme nationalists do nature and the world as "inherently divided and disconnected," and how the DL relates this to Nagarjuna's warning about believing in the "independent, intrinsic nature of things" (51) as leading us into attachment, karmic entanglements, and afflictions of suffering. Still, as with much here, the insights may rapidly fade as the author moves on to another, loosely related topic within each chapter. For instance, a few pages on (63), he goes into the Prasangika Tibetan school of neither idealism nor materialism, but instead "relative" reality of the external world, but then this is left behind quickly. A suggested list of where to find more about many subjects raised in this short book would have enriched its utility.

However, many chapters seem erratically organized, as if His Holiness is talking to you about one topic before veering off on a tangent or suddenly switching to another sub-topic. Therefore, the nature of this collection of chapters appears more as if talks transcribed than their actual written form, and the looser nature of this volume may have its own advantages or drawbacks for an audience curious about "the convergence of science and spirituality." I wanted more about where to read more--say, about David Bohm's ideas--for while an index is provided, no reading list or annotated bibliography was appended.

A lot of ideas in this book gain some elucidation, even if many remain as mysterious to Buddhists as they do to today's physicists. The DL asserts logically that a primary cause shaping the universe must be outside the laws of causality, but I wondered naively why the First Mover if such could not simply (if so omnipotent) will causation into existence with creation; but, perhaps this betrays too traditional a theistic or scientific stimulus? All the same, in this book, the nature of much of the cosmological content must remain ultimately speculative.

Similarly, the Darwinian aspects are hit and miss; I was never quite sure why Buddhism does not analyze the imprint of sentience into matter, rather than follow the progression from inanimate matter to animate organisms. Maybe due to tradition, the DL glosses over this shift, likely as Buddhism did not divide as Western science has the division between human and animate beings, but between instead animate and inanimate material as itself existing in a world not so much evolved over time as already existing and shifting between karma-driven states of existence for sentient beings? This aspect is developed in this discussion, and it does move the reader to consider how Eastern models stress compassion and altruism over competition and aggression as the Western expectations for why evolution favors certain mutations over others.

In turn, this prepares for an elegant chapter on ethics and genetics. After a long discussion of consciousness and karma, parts of which eluded me, the thoughts the Dalai Lama shares about moral considerations about genetic breakthroughs and applications reminded me of how his insights remain valuable for all of us. He closes with a reflection upon how valid non-scientific models of understanding remain within a world set on a materialistic, reductive explanation for the facts and mysteries around us can be. The spiritual side reminds us of the Buddhist goals of wisdom and compassion when so much of science leaves us forgetful of the need for the ultimate aim of progress that betters humanity. (Posted to Amazon US 9-22-11)

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