Buddhist Emptiness for Scientists, Engineers and Mathematicians

11/22/2011 01:18 pm ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012
  • Bhagwan Chowdhry Professor of Finance at UCLA Anderson School & co-founder

I became a Buddhist seven years ago. A Secular Buddhist. I was attracted by the curiosity and openness with which the Dalai Lama was engaged with science. I found it refreshing. In this article in the New York Times, the Dalai Lama insists: "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change."

I attended a class in Buddhist philosophy in 2004 with Robina Courtin at the Tushita Meditation Center in Dharamsala, India -- hometown of the the Dalai Lama. Here, I first encountered the concepts of emptiness and dependent arising that are central to Buddhist philosophy. Robina explained that emptiness, which is derived from the Sanskrit word sunyata where sunya literally means zero or nothing, does not imply Nihilism -- that nothing matters -- but in fact, quite the opposite. Emptiness implies that nothing exists independently, but is dependent on many other causes. I found it difficult to understand these ideas. I even tried to access the writings of Nagarjuna, the renowned Buddhist scholar who first wrote about emptiness in 150-250 CE. I remained confused.

Over the years, three books helped me understand Emptiness better. Mark Epstein's Thoughts Without a Thinker , that was given to me by Swati Desai, a psychotherapist and meditation teacher, provided a first breakthrough in my understanding. Adrienne Howley's short, marvelous and eminently readable The Naked Buddha also provided simple and cogent explanations. But by far, the most complete, lucid and compelling treatment is in Stephen Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.

Looking back, I think the reason these ideas sometimes appear impenetrable, sometimes vacuous, and sometimes contradictory, is because most Buddhist writers use the same words, the same jargon, and the same explanations over and over again. I will attempt to explain these ideas using a different language, a different vocabulary, a different methodology, that should be familiar to those who work with mathematical and statistical models.

Let us start with a simple equation:

W = T plus F


T represents what you Think exists or is the truth,
F represents other Factors that are inevitably present, and
W represents What finally arises.

The Buddhist idea of Dependent Arising simply says that F is unpredictable and has a significant presence -- always. So you can never be sure that what finally will arise will be T -- what you think will happen. T and F always occur together. It may be helpful to think of W, T and F as variables that take on real values and F is a continuous random variable with significant variability.

The probability that W will take on a particular value, say equal to some particular value of T, will be zero -- hence the connotation of being empty. However that does not mean that nothing exists. In fact, many values, perhaps infinitely many values, of W are possible. It is precisely because many values are possible, the chances that a particular value will be realized are close to zero.

Furthermore, there is no reason to conclude that everything is completely unpredictable. It is true that because F is random or unpredictable, we cannot say for sure what W we will observe any time in the future, but depending on the extent of the volatility of F, we are likely to be off in our prediction by a certain amount. The volatility of F is not zero but also not infinite. I recently attended a weekend retreat with Martine and Stephen Batchelor at InsightLA run by Trudy Goodman where Martine emphasized this important point. The main content of the WTF model is that we grossly underestimate the volatility of F -- it is much higher than what we think it is.

The WTF model also helps us understand the concept of No-self in Buddhism. The Hindu Vedantic scholars in Indian Philosophy assert that there is a Soul, an Atman which is part of the Transcendental Soul, the Brahman. In the WTF model, this amounts to asserting that there is a true T that can be attained by clearing out the Maya or the confusion -- that is we can drive F to zero. Budhhists argue that F is always there so no fixed W exists (No-self) but in fact many Ws arise because T and F are always together. In fact, it is precisely our strong belief in a particular T, our attachment, that leads to dissatisfaction or unnecessary suffering. Once we cease our belief in a particular T, we open ourselves to the multitude of possibilities of W. Stephen Batchelor writes (on page 34):

The problem lies in the instinctive human conviction that one is a permanent, partless, and autonomous self, essentially disconnected from and unaffected by flux and contingency. This conviction may provide a sense of security and permanence in an insecure and impermanent world, but the price one pays is that of alienation, disenchantment, and boredom. One feels cut off from the life around oneself, adrift in a self-referring world of one's own imagining. ... however, the point is not to dwell on the absence or emptiness of such a disconnected ego, but to encounter the phenomenal world in all its vitality and immediacy once such a conception of self begins to fade.

Quoting Dharmakirti, a seventh century Indian Buddhist scholar, Batchelor writes:

the changing, functional, causal, and conditioned world, present to ordinary sensory and mental experience, is what is ultimately real. ... Thus a seed, a jug, wind in the trees, a desire, a thought, the pain in one's knees, another person: these are what are real.