Explaining Physics to Zen Buddhists

In meditation group the other day, the leader did a brief reading from a book that included an aside about how the philosophy could be exemplified by particle physics. He chose to omit that aside from his reading but later passed the book around so we could take a look. Of course, someone eventually remembered that I am a physicist, so that’s how I ended up, in half-lotus on a zafu, explaining pions to a group of Zen Buddhists.

As a physicist and a meditator and yogini, I’ve encountered my fair share of non-scientists who like to try to use physics, particularly quantum and particle physics, to advance their spiritual worldview. In yoga, any time I mentioned quantum physics, I was told to see the film What the Bleep Do We Know?, which was generally described as life-changing among my yoga friends and utterly ludicrous among my physics friends. The idea is that the principles of quantum mechanics prove that we are all interconnected and our intentions send energy out into the universe and affect things. It’s very woo.

So I was nervous, sitting here in front of a group of people with cushions and incense and talking about interactions among sub-atomic particles. But Zen seems a little more grounded in their understanding of physics. They were very smug about the discovery of sub-atomic particles because their cosmology states that the world can be divided into ever-smeller pieces. And that’s not untrue. It’s also true that, at the sub-atomic level, our bodies have little difference from any other matter in the world. And when we die, we just go back to that bank of raw material that the universe uses to build things. Except we don’t even have to die, really. No matter what state we are in, we are just particles.

But where the pions come in are when you talk about observation and interactions. The idea in the Zen reading was that we don’t ever observe a thing; we observe how it interacts with the world. Personally, I like to think of color, which isn’t an inherent property as much as a way of seeing the light an object doesn’t absorb. When you put green cellophane over a plant, it dies because the green light is the light it reflects, not the light it absorbs for photosynthesis. But the reading talked about the interactions between the constituent particles of protons, how they gain mass from these interactions. And it’s true. If you take two free up quarks and a free down quark, their masses don’t add up to the mass of a proton. However, quarks can interact and form two-quark mediating particles, and these could give the proton its mass. This is a rough explanation because I’m not a particle physicist, but I was glad that I happened to remember this from a college class I took.

When it comes down to it, I sit with a very educated, science-minded, intelligent group of people. I don’t know if the Zen conversations seem more grounded because there are a lot of scientists, or if Zen attracts scientists because it seems to have a more grounded cosmology. But talking about physics to the “layperson” is not always about classroom demonstrations and family gatherings.