There is a growing movement today toward secular humanism. This is a form of humanism that specifically embraces human reason, ethics and naturalism. It specifically rejects religion and in fact, there is a growing tendency to blame religion for all of the world’s evils. Now, I’m not an apologist for religion – deeply held religious beliefs are certainly responsible for a lot of the violence and suffering in the world today, and also for historic atrocities. And for many years, religion effectively prevented the advancement of science. But Hitler wasn’t driven by religious motives, and neither was apartheid in South Africa. But how do we begin to sort out those who have used religion as a smokescreen to promote their own personal agenda? It’s not often that we get such glaring examples as the rise and fall of the Jim and Tammy Faye empire. People are desperate to believe something, anything about the world in order to escape the existential pain of living. In the film Kumare, Vikram Gandh poses as a guru to conduct a social experiment in order to see how people would go in following the completely fabricated teachings of a self-styles holy man. The results are not only fascinating, but oddly uplifting.

I have begun reading The End of Faith, a book by Sam Harris that was written at the forefront of today’s secular humanist movement. I have not finished it yet, but what I have found so far it that it is broad but not overly deep. It definitely brings many ideas to bear in order to defend the point of view that religion is the root of all evil. He rightly points out that religious fundamentalism presents a terrible and growing threat in the world today. Our technology now allows worldwide communication instantaneously, and it also allow a bomb capable of killing millions to be fit into a suitcase. But there is a fatal flaw in Harris’ argument. Where he errs, in my opinion, is that he discounts moderate, mainstream religion as “religion lite”, responsible for providing legitimacy to the platform used by fundamentalists to carry out their atrocities. He selects phrases from the Koran and from the Old Testament in the Bible to prove that religion incites its followers to violence.  But those who reject that part of religion are in no way responsible for those who embrace it. This argument is equivalent to saying that unless you fully embrace all aspects of Aristotle’s idea, you are simply practicing “science lite”.

As I have said, I’m not an apologist for religion, but I do not agree that there is no possibility for any evolution in religious thinking. You can’t simply ban the use of the word “God” and assume that the idea of God will go away. After all, if a scientist believes that there is an organizing principle at work in the universe, isn’t that principle one possible form of God? If the universe as a complex system has an emergent quality that we cannot see or detect, can’t that quality be defined as God? Perhaps God is dark energy. According to current scientific thinking, dark matter and dark energy comprise 96% of the universe, yet we have no idea what it is. We inhabit a billion billion (etc) billionth of a universe that has been around for more than 13 billion years, and there may be billions more universes like it, yet somehow we have become arrogant enough to believe that everything can be explained by human science and logic. We can’t even figure out how to provide food and clothing to the people we create, or control the animal instinct that causes us create more people than the earth can sustain. But we are going to figure out what happened before the Big Bang? First, of course we have to get religion out of the way, or so the argument goes. Sure, that will fix everything.

Sorry, but it looks to me as if we are simply substituting on type of intolerance for another. It’s not new, of course, only the latest permutation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim the God is dead. It is an arrogance born of scientific materialism, the belief that if we can’t see, measure and dissect it, it does not exist. I’d be the first to admit that it’s absurd to believe that a God who created everything has written a self-contradictory book as his (or her, it its) definitive statement to humanity. But it also seems absurd to assume that by the simple power of our vast and unlimited intellect, we will ever be able to step outside of the tiny reality we live in to know everything there is to know about the vastness of space, the complex interaction of life, or the desperate emptiness we feel that causes us to need a God in the first place. We cannot simply discount those things as not real. All of these things exist at some level.

So what do we know? We know that the things we find to be solid and real are composed of tiny bits of vibrating energy, and these tiny bits are completely interchangeable. We know that the tiniest thing we can currently measure can exist at many places at once, and many of them can occupy the same space at the same time. We know that time moves slower if you are moving faster, and that the reason the apple bonked Sir Isaac Newton on the head is because the earth he was sitting on was warping space-time. Or maybe not. We know that the way we see the world is simply due to the limitation of the recording instruments we call eyes, and that the data they transmit is inverted and preprocessed before we perceive an image. We know that everything we see, touch, smell and experience is simply a limited and preprocessed version of the total reality that surrounds us. We know that we don’t know much, but that our brains are wired to believe that we know how the world works. But in fact, all of these things are only things we think we know, based on our current understanding of how the world works. These are not things we know, but things we believe we know.

You see, that’s the problem with religion, or secular humanism, or scientific materialism, or any other form of knowing. It is all simply a belief. We don’t know anything about ultimate reality. We don’t know anything about meaning or purpose or what we are “supposed” do be doing with this gift we call consciousness. All we know is that any time we decide that we know something so completely that everyone who agrees with us is wrong, that we have divided our world once again. We have tried to fit all that there is into a tiny little space that makes us comfortable. No, religion, or science, or any other form of inquiry is not the problem. The problem is, and always has been, that over and over again we succumb to the belief that if we find a world view that work for us, it must work for everyone else or it’s wrong. But the only thing I believe I know for sure it that no one knows for sure.



When we say something is empty, what does it mean? I suppose you could argue that it all depends on the context. Saying that you are holding an empty glass certainly means something different than saying that your words are empty. Yet there are common elements in these two phrases. In both cases, they suggest there is a lack of substance involved, whether it is a lack of some physical substance in the glass or lack of substantial meaning in the words you have uttered. Definitions of empty include the words “containing nothing”, or “vacant”. But if something does not contain something, does that mean it contains nothing? This may seem like a silly question, but it’s worth taking a minute to examine it. Is nothing actually the same as not something? If I say the first cup contains peanuts and the second glass doesn’t, does that also imply that the second glass contains nothing? Of course not. It could contain filberts or walnuts or toothpaste of any other thing that is not peanuts. Or it could simply contain air, which also is not nothing.

Ok, so let’s now suck all of the air out of the second glass. Assuming it doesn’t implode from the air pressure around it, does it now contain nothing or does it contain a vacuum? Scientists will tell us that even if there is a perfect vacuum in the glass, it still contains dark matter. Dark matter has mass, so it is something rather than nothing. Although we can see or measure it, if it didn’t exist, neither would we, so even if we extract everything that we can see, touch, smell, or measure, there is still something in the glass. In the physical case, “nothing” is simply a concept – there is no such thing. The concept of nothing is empty of physical reality.

Looking at the second case, what does it mean that words are empty? Definitions include indicating that the words are insincere or trivial, or that they have no effect. But you could turn this question in on itself and ask whether it is possible to have words that are not empty in and of themselves. How do we judge the sincerity of words? A long-term friend may tell you that he loves you, and you may consider that sincere, but it is meant is a different way than if your spouse tells you the same thing. And what if you hear the same words from an acquaintance, or a complete stranger? Are we really judging the sincerity of the words themselves, or the person who delivers them? What if your good friend tells you he loves you, but says it in a sarcastic tone of voice after you have done something he considers to be stupid? This may seem like a semantic argument, but the point is that the words themselves are always empty. “I love you” can mean virtually anything, depending on the context and the delivery. The words themselves are empty of meaning, except the meaning we assign to them. Yet, the words are not nothing. They are words, sometimes strung into phrases or sentences, but all they are is words.

Yet words seem to convey meaning of some kind, don’t they? After all, language was developed in its various forms in order to communicate, to convey meaning between people. Language is not limited to people, of course. A lot of creatures have developed verbal communication methods that could be considered language, but that discussion leads us afield. What I am really trying to covey in this discussion is the difference between the terms “empty” and “nothing”.

How would you describe feeling as if your life is empty? Would you describe it as feeling nothing? When someone tell you they feel empty, do you assume they don’t feel anything at all? Or do you assume they feel lost and alone? The feeling of your life being empty has been described as the worst feeling possible. We will do anything to try to avoid that feeling. Religions are built on our need to avoid feeling empty, and all of our entertainments and diversions are used to stave off that feeling of emptiness.

So when we talk about emptiness, people have a hard time listening. It’s like talking about death, even though everyone, in the recesses of their being, understands that death is coming.  Is death nothing? Once again, religion rushed in to fill that void. So do ghosts and spirits, supernatural beings and reincarnation. We are fascinated with vampires and zombies because, as horrible as that existence may appear to be, it is still existence, immortality. We will carry on, if not as a member of the angelic host, then in the fiery pits of hell, or just by hanging around in the house where we died. We might experience the mindless emptiness of being a zombie, but at least we don’t evaporate into nothingness.

We need to create meaning whether it exists or not. We want to believe there is something more to know, that existence cannot possibly be empty of meaning because that feels too much like it leaves nothing to exist for. But let’s examine that. If existence is empty, in fact if everything is empty, what does that mean?

First of all, emptiness in the sense that Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna talked about it in the first century C.E., is really not well describable in language. Why is that? Because our language is built on subject/object duality and if everything is empty of essence, then there is no such thing as a subject or an object, perceiver or percived. Things simply are as they are. So the subject/object structure of language simply does not allow language to express the true nature of emptiness. This leads to apparent contradictions and paradox, but these apparent problems are simply a problem of language, not concept.

So, what Nagarjuna says is that emptiness means that things do not contain an essence. For instance, if I call something a table, I am simply forming a concept around something that I perceive, and the only thing that is a table is that concept. The thing that I perceive and that I call a table cannot be a table, because if there was an essence of table, it would not have to be labeled. And the concept, the label itself is empty, because my concept of table is not fixed. If I see something else, say a flat rock, that is used as a table, I have just modified my concept of what a table is. Also, if a table is used to sit on, has it now become a chair? Neither the thing I call a table, or my concept of what a table is, has any unchanging essence. So both the thing itself and my concept of the thing are empty. This principle applies to everything, from items to equations to concepts, to space, time, and everything there is. Everything, says Nagarjuna, is empty, including the words we use to explain emptiness. But still, all of these things are not nothing. They are something, but this something is not essential, it is empty. And as I might have said before, empty is not nothing.



Art can have a universal quality to it that transcends language and culture. We react to art through an intuitive process, following the old saying, “I don’t know art, but I know what I like.” I would submit that we do know art, all of us. What we like about art is what moves us, what we connect with, which is the same thing that makes life mysterious and worth living. Not all art works for everyone, but at the same time there is always a market for art. We don’t know how to value it even though we find it of value. Art works at an intuitive level that we cannot define or categorize, bypassing our rational mind and working directly on our senses. At the same time, artists are said to be creative but we cannot define what we mean by creativity. Definitions generally center around such adjectives as “novel”, “original” and “unique”, but they also include the words “worthwhile” and “useful”. But we can’t define most of those words, either. A story that uses standard formulas for structure and plotting can be original if the words used to flesh it out challenge the reader in some way. If you retell the story of the three bears from the point of view of the bears, it can result in a wholly different perspective even though the story has been told and retold for ages. There is ongoing dispute about whether resampling of music creates a whole new work of art or is simply petty theft. In literature, the use of specific words is considered plagiarism but the use and embellishment of well-established ideas can be considered brilliant and groundbreaking.

And who decides whether a piece of art is worthwhile or useful? Does art have to have some use other than art itself to be useful? Can a chair or a table be a work of art? If so, what defines one as art and the next as simply a piece of furniture? Why does a Van Gogh sell for millions while an equally masterful painting by a contemporary artist languishes unsold at a fraction of that price? Do you have to die to be able to sell your paintings for a price you can live on? Book collectors sell original editions for small fortunes, but you can read the exact same words for a few bucks. What is it that makes some art more valuable, more “artsy”, than other art? What is it that makes art, art?

Is the universal quality that we see in certain works of art related to the universal quality that we respond to in religion or philosophy? Is there a universal quality of spirit that we sense, and that draws us into a painting or a symphony? If you stare in contemplation at a mountain or a flower, or take a quiet walk in the woods, you may achieve a sense of peace or energy that seems to flow into you from your surroundings. This quality or energy could be called spirit. Do artists somehow tap into the same quality when they create a successful piece of art?

You don’t have to be a mystic to sense that there is more to this existence than “stuff”. Contemplatives, scientists, philosophers and clerics alike speak of consciousness and its relationship to the phenomena we see and experience. Some go as far as claiming that consciousness itself, rather than being a quality separate from the physical world, actually causes the physical world. How are consciousness and spirit related? At some level, are they the same thing? When someone achieves a glimpse of enlightenment, are they experiencing something similar to the “aha” experience that happens with a creative act? After all, the creative act can be thought of simply as seeing the same thing in a new and different way, making a new connection between seemingly unrelated things. Is enlightenment simply the ultimate act of creation? Conversely, is artistic creation an unselfish act, an act in which the self gets out of the way and some sort of universal energy flows through the artist in the same way that a medium channels the energy of some long dead being? Does creativity come through us rather than from us? Certainly, many artists will describe just such an experience. Writers will often talk about characters taking over the story, going in directions that the author never intended. Does that direction come from somewhere deep in the subconscious of the author or from somewhere else entirely?

Call it spirit or consciousness or creativity, or even God within us, perhaps we tap into some universal energy to a greater or lesser extent in everything we do. Perhaps this energy is the very thing that gives us existence, and the degree to which we are able to tap into it dictates the quality of our existence. Whatever it is that allows us to exist as we are today, we know that the particular form of existence that we currently enjoy is fleeting. The animate body we inhabit will soon become inanimate. The physical sensations that we experience will no longer be felt. As to whether the spiritual knowledge, the energy and art and mystery we sense today will remain after the physical body has turned to compost – well, I’ll have to get back to you on that. Or not.



If you have ever been in an earthquake, you know how disorienting it can be. The instinctual reaction when everything around you is moving is to grab onto anything that seems solid and stable. But in an earthquake, nothing is stable. You become very focused, aware of everything around you. Time becomes dilated. A few seconds can seem like minutes.

Psychologists tell us that there are four phases of psychological adjustment after disasters such as an earthquake, although these phases are not distinct and isolated from each other. There is the hero phase when people just jump in and help, the optimistic phase when they expect immediate outside help, a phase of disillusionment when they realize the long term effects of the disaster, and then the reconciliation phase when people become reconciled to their new normal. Some people adjust rapidly to the new normal, but others experience anger, depression and despair. They may feel hopeless at the loss of the life they knew. Each person reacts in their own way. It’s actually a grieving process.

This can happen when the foundations of our belief system change as well, and once again, everyone reacts differently. Some people are so terrified of change, of things moving around underneath them, that they cling to beliefs or ideas as if they are real and solid. They may continue to cling to these beliefs or ideas, even if maintaining them requires that they have to abandon logic or the evidence of their own eyes. The classic example is some people’s insistence that the Bible is literally true, sometimes to the extent that they believe the earth is only 7,000 years old. The less radical form of this need is the attempt to prove scientifically that God actively controls the process of species development. The problem, in my opinion, is not the belief in such control; the problem is the insistence that this belief can be proven scientifically.

Another form of clinging to comfortable belief in the face of changing evidence to the contrary is denying that climate change is happening despite overwhelming evidence across the globe. This kind of denial has nothing to do with the actual evidence and everything to do with the desire that we can continue down the same path without any consequences. You may debate what is causing this change and what should or shouldn’t be done about it, but the fact is, the climate is changing.

Resistance to changing ideas is not solely the province of religious fundamentalists or politicians. We are all susceptible to the fear of change. When a long-standing theory is disputed, many scientists can be resistant, and even openly hostile, to a new direction. This may be understandable when you consider that most scientists spend their entire career verifying and adding detail to the existing scientific paradigm. Thomas Kuhn described this in great detail in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When a scientist has dedicated his or her entire life to an idea, when the foundations of that idea are shaken, his or her entire life’s work may be threatened. Albert Einstein is a classic example. He proudly put his common sense on hold to develop his theory of relativity, which shook the established beliefs of his scientific colleagues. But when a second revolution came during his lifetime, he could not break out of his belief in a clockwork universe to accept the findings of quantum physics. Even this man whom many consider to be the most brilliant scientific mind of modern times, and who changed the scientific community forever, could not accept a change that is now part of established science. He clung to the theory and belief that he found to be real and solid in order to avoid the psychic earthquake of uncertainty.

This can happen when we look internally as well. Perhaps you lose someone close to you who always provided solid support, which now is gone. Perhaps you react to a crisis, performing an action that you never would have believed yourself capable of performing. Perhaps you witness an event that causes you to question a long-held belief. Your first reaction is to rationalize it. “I only did that because of the extreme circumstances. I would never have done that in my real life.” While it may very well be true that you will never do it again, we tend to go beyond this by rejecting that the action we performed is not part of us. It was done by “someone else” that emerged but will never be seen again. This is the whole idea of temporary insanity- the idea that some little alien creature can spring from your breast, perform some horrific action, and then run away as if it never really had anything to do with you. If you cling to this idea with enough fervor, you may even come to believe it.

The fact is, that little alien creature is of our own making, and it hasn’t run away. Even if it never emerges again, it did once and it is therefore recorded somewhere in our being. We are a product of all of the causes and conditions that brought us to the point where we are today. We can often make choices about where we are going to go from here, but we cannot change our past. We can only change our relationship to the past. Denying it is one option, but that denial, paradoxically, is simply an attempt to grab onto something solid. That something is a belief in our self as an unchanging, moral person who would never do that terrible thing. We therefore split out that part of our self and deny it exists. This is the technique we instinctively use to avoid the psychic earthquake that results from shaking the foundation of self.

Psychology and neurobiology confirm that there is no constant, unchanging self. Our brains are a bundle of synapses that change and realign constantly. Our brain can continue to rewire itself throughout our lives, building new connections and eliminating old ones.  Our ideas, thoughts and reactions are merely a dynamic process that is never the same from moment to moment. Each of us is like an earthquake, in constant motion, never quite still, and never the same from one moment to the next. We try to cling to something solid we call the self, the soul, or the ego. But there is nothing to grab onto.

But don’t take my word for it. Experience your own earthquake.



In his book, The Universe in a Single Atom, the Dalai Lama has said that Buddhism is a subjective study, while science seeks to be objective. This is also the position I took in my book, Buddha Science. But my thoughts are beginning to evolve on this based on some new reading.

First of all, what do we mean by “objective” and “subjective”? Generally, the term “objective” it taken to mean that  the study is being done by an outside observer, someone who is outside of the thing being studied and whose actions do not affect what is being studied. “Subjective” generally means that the subject is studying itself, so it either cannot fully understand what it is studying or it cannot study without somehow affecting the outcome. Science has come to regard subjectivity in a negative light, basically equating subjectivity with bias. In other words, the position of science is that to be valid, any observation must be made with complete objectivity. You must step outside of the system you are observing. You must also use passive measurements to ensure that any observations you make do not affect the system that you are studying. So scientists carve out little, isolatable parts of the world to study and then piece them together to try and understand the bigger picture.

This creates a dilemma for the social sciences, specifically psychology and psychiatry. If the object of study is yourself, how can you be objective? And if you can’t be objective, how can psychology actually be science? In order to address this dilemma, social scientists use a number of techniques. They bring subjects in with certain instructions, without telling them the actual reason for the study. They study large groups of subjects and use statistics to tease out trends. And in the client/therapist situation, the therapist attempts to maintain an objective aloofness so he/she does not lose their objectivity, while at the same time trying to help the patient deal with their highly subjective angst.

As I suggested above, Buddhism studies the human condition from a highly subjective viewpoint. The dilemma that the Buddha struggled with 2600 years ago is that it seems impossible to break out of the subjective angst of being human. We have to study the system that is our consciousness from the inside. And although we can study little bits and pieces of it from this subjective perspective, the Buddha found that you can also see the whole enchilada unfold in front of you. By some quirk of human consciousness, you can not only be inside of consciousness, but outside of it was well. You can be both subject and object at the same time. And if that’s the case, then subject and object actually don’t exists as separate, independent entities, do they?

Back to science, there have been many books written about the quantum world, and a few of these blog posts have discussed it as well. The basic piece to bring in here is that quantum systems cannot be studied without affecting the outcome that you are trying to measure. In other words, it is impossible to be completely outside the system you are studying, and therefore you cannot be completely objective. You are part of the subject/object system when you are studying quantum phenomena.

In his fascinating book That is That: Essays About True Nature, Nirmala says that reality outside of mind and beliefs is pure, empty, limitless potential, and that this is an objective state. This would suggest that if you reach a state of perfect, non-conceptual awareness, i.e., nirvana, you are now observing yourself objectively. But wait a minute! Didn’t I just say that Buddhism is subjective? Well, yes, it starts out that way in its approach. But ultimately, it becomes both objective and subjective through the understanding that we exists in a dualistic, relativistic and subjective paradigm but that we can also experience the ultimate reality, which is non-dual, absolute, and objective.

Science has discovered exactly the same thing from the other direction. At some point, by studying very tiny particles, science has discovered that the assumption of pure objectivity breaks down and we discover a level of reality in which subject and object cannot be distinguished. So the objective view of science reveals an underlying subjectivity in the reality that we are studying. Science cannot fully explain this subjective reality. It is possible that the assumption of pure objectivity need to be reconsidered?

So the answer from both science and Buddhism seems to be that, at least from the perspective of the human animal, reality has two related aspects – a subjective reality of relativity and quantum uncertainty, and an objective reality. Paradoxically, science shows us that the objective reality cannot currently be defined or understood through an objective, intellectual approach. The further paradox is that according to Buddhism this larger, objective reality can be experienced directly, but only through the subjective approach of discarding mind and beliefs.



Here in the West, we hear and see many claims of liberation. Some tell us that we can have anything we want by just wanting it badly enough. Others say that if you just meditate in a particular way or follow their particular prescription for practice, all of your cares will drop away and life will be wonderful beyond your wildest dreams. Some go so far as to say that if you achieve their brand of secret knowledge, you will meet that beautiful woman (or man) you’ve always wanted to meet, you will have that million-dollar mansion and somehow wealth and power will float down to you magically from the void.

We all want to have the good stuff without the bad, and there are plenty of people out there who will sell us ways to have that, for a price. There are even those who seem to think that if we look hard enough, we can find ways to keep our bodies or minds alive, forever. I’m not sure why anyone would want to keep my particular mental formations alive that long, but I’m not all that worried that they’ll be successful, anyway. It seems to me that there are a number of issues that are caused by this idea of fixing reality to make it what you want it to be.

The first is our ideas about psychological disorders. We have come to define normal mental functioning by a set of definitions. We, as a society, have decided what reality is and what our mental relationship to it should be. In fact, we have allowed that set of definitions to be determined be a small number of very powerful people. A single text, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, constrains our relationship to reality by defining want is considered to be mental illness. This manual is applied around the world as the standard for defining mental illness, deciding who gets treated and who pays for treatment. Not only does this limit individual treatments, but it is also harmful to finding new solutions because it constrains the type of research that may be conducted. This could be considered a case of the scientific establishment setting up structures that will maintain the status quo, and thereby limiting research that might challenge that status quo.  I’m not suggesting that is the intention, but it may be the effect.

The second is cultural divisiveness. If we become convinced that we can eliminate all darkness from our lives, and others tell us we can, if becomes a driving force. We know that what drives us internally also causes us to react to the world in the same way. In other words, we judge others by what we don’t like about ourselves. So we decide that if we only want affirmation, we should surround ourselves by people who support and compliment us. Anyone who challenges our ideas becomes the “other”, and we push them away. Slowly and incrementally, we begin to isolate ourselves from those who disagree with us, who do not share our particular view of reality, or even those who do not go out of their way to comfort and compliment us. We build walls to let only the right kind of person into our lives. We create lists designed to isolate certain people so we keep them from our home, our children, and our religious institutions. But the problem is, we all have the capability for light and darkness, so we also isolate innocents who may be caught in our net of isolation. Some may even go one to become what we are trying to eliminate because of the isolation we have imposed upon them. We create the illusion that if someone is on the other side of the fence, they are evil and if they are on our side they are good. This is why terror cells can arise in middle class neighborhoods, and why the neighbor next door can keep women captive for years without anyone suspecting a thing.

A third issue is simply that believing we can make darkness disappear is that this distracts us from discovering our true nature. Life does not exist without death; light does not exist without darkness. If we convince ourselves that we can ban darkness from our lives, we are simply denying reality. Our bodies are going to die. Each and every one of them. There may be something everlasting about each of us – be it soul or Consciousness, or simply the physical atoms that make up our bodies, but if we imagine we will somehow continue to be the same person we are today, we might be forgetting that little thing about body and brain. We know for sure that these aren’t going to continue to house us. The Dalia Lama may be able to characterize bodily death as a “change of clothes”, but no one really knows. Even if you can claim to remember countless previous deaths, you still don’t know what the next one will bring. But even if we are not a product of past lives, we know that we are the product of our birth and upbringing. We were born with the capacity to become anything – the victim, the perpetrator, the healer or the illness – and that capacity will always exist within each of us.

Though there are many other issues, the final one I mention here is simply where we are focusing. If we focus on the external, we are missing the point. Liberation is not achieved by finding the perfect person, having a more expensive house, or making the next million dollars. It is achieved by understanding the nature of reality and fully accepting that reality. It is achieved by understanding and accepting the darkness within us as well as the light.

So do we just give up and be as bad as we want to be? Of course not. We need to recognize the capacity within ourselves and nurture those things that will move us toward the light. We can’t do it by eliminating the darkness, but finding a new relationship to it. Thich Nhat Hahn talks about nurturing the positive seeds within us. While the negative seeds remain in the soil, the positive seeds grow and flourish. I would add that psychic weed killer is a blunt instrument. If we try to completely kill all of the weeds, the whole garden will die.


Thich Nhat Hahn, The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching, (New York: Broadway Books, 1998)



It is said that when the Buddha emerged, fully enlightened, from under the Bodhi tree some 2600 years ago, he was reluctant to teach because he was not sure people would understand what he had discovered. We know that the Two Realms are found at the very heart of his teachings. The first of these realms is the conditioned – the realm of duality where there is birth and death, light and dark, moving and standing still. The second is the unconditioned – the ultimate realm of non-duality where all is one, nothing exists independently, and yet there is unlimited potential for anything to exist. In recent years, many words have been written around the observation that the Buddha’s realization accurately describes the findings of quantum physics. There is the apparent world where particles and waves exist, where things cannot be in two places at one and events go on independent of the consciousness that observes those events. In the quantum world, however, nothing has independent existence. Particle and waves merge to become something that can exist in many places at once, and many things can exist in the same space. Conventional time does not seem to exist in this world, and consciousness cannot be separated from the quantum world. To the Buddha’s colleagues, it was clear from his demeanor that he had gained some incredible knowledge and peace of mind, so they convinced him to share his discovery. Imagine what it was like, 2600 years ago when no one knew what an atom was, when it was thought that the earth was the center of the universe and there was no distinction between religion and science. And now the Buddha has been asked, in essence, to explain the principles of quantum physics. How would you go about that? How in the world could you explain that in a way that people would understand? Let’s put ourselves in his mind. You know that everything that once seemed to be true about the world around you is only due to a limited perspective. Once you get outside of that perspective, you can see that this view is incredibly constraining, and is, in fact, the main cause of suffering in the world. But in order to get outside of that perspective you must let go of everything you believe about the world and abandon yourself to a realm where there is no black and white or life and death, and in fact you yourself do not exist as an independent being. If you walk in and say that to your colleagues, you’d end up in the 500 BCE equivalent of the loony bin. Yet you also know that if they can accept and truly understand this point of view, it will free them from the suffering caused by clinging to their limited point of view. So you decide to start from a place that they can hear and accept. You “invert” your teaching, starting from the bottom up, rather than the top down approach of laying out a broad new discovery that no one would understand and then describing the practical implications of that discovery. You start by saying, “We all find life to be unsatisfactory. We suffer because of that.” OK, everybody is still with you. After all, this sense that life is unsatisfactory is the whole reason you and your colleague became monks in the first place. Then you say, “The reason life is unsatisfactory is because we cling to things as if they are permanent, when they are, in fact, transitory.” OK, everyone has mourned the loss of a colleague, family member, or beloved pet even though they have always known that everything dies eventually. Then you say, “But we can escape from this misery.” Now you have their attention. They are ready to listen to anything you have to say. You outline an eightfold path, leading them slowly in the direction of discovery. Some understand quickly and others struggle with this teaching. So you find another way to describe the same things. You find that your colleagues have become your followers, so you organize the teachings into lists to help them remember. Twelve links of interdependent co-arising, five aggregate, seven factors of awakening, and so forth. You tell stories and parables to illustrate the principles. Different people respond to different way of teaching and different ways of saying the same things. So everything you teach, every parable and every list, is a way to bring someone another step closer to the big discovery, the moment that the light goes on and the involuntary “ah-ha!” escapes from their lips. That leap into the quantum world of understanding is the purpose of each and every list and practice. That leap is what will minimize suffering in the world. Today, though, we know about quantum physics. We have studied it and heard about it, so we can re-invert the teaching. We can turn it back right-side up by teaching the basic principles first and then describing the practical implications of those principles. From the broad reality of our non-dual quantum world, we can see that this means there are no independent beings, that the world we see is an illusion, that everything we do and say causes ripple effects throughout the universe today, and a cascade of effects into the infinite future. We can say that our ideas of fixed space and time are incorrect. We can point out that if we try to to cling to anything, it will cause us to suffer because nothing we can see or touch is permanent and unchanging. We can say that matter and energy are merely different aspects of the same thing. We can say that reality is so complex that we cannot predict the specific effect that any particular action may have on our collective future, and that we had better tread lightly because of that very lack of understanding. We can point out that science confirms we are not a bunch of independent beings, but merely patterns in a complex and interconnected web of energy, that we are all in this together. We can point out that when I hurt you I am hurting myself because there is no division between you and me, or between me and the environment. Each of us is everything we all are. Only by understanding all of this can we ever hope to fulfill the promise, and the potential, of the quantum.