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A meeting of two great minds

Looking for a reading challenge and something with a little depth to it? If so, then I’ve got the book for you. I’ve always had a curious nature and have a “want to know” mind and have an interest in physics, metaphysics and religious thought. And what we have in The Quantum and the Lotus is a meeting of the minds discussing  those three schools of thought. Matthieu Ricard was a molecular biologist in France who became a Buddhist monk now living in Kathmandu, Nepal. Trinh Xuan Thuan was born into a Buddhist family in Vietnam and is now an acclaimed astrophysicist teaching at the University of Virginia here in the U.S. Interesting, the reversing of roles early on. 

Since then, both have written many books and become leaders in their respective fields. The Quantum and the Lotus is an inquisitive but comprehensible conversation between these two remarkable men searching through questions such as: did the universe have a beginning; is there a divine Creator; what are the similarities and the differences between Buddhist and scientific thought where reality is concerned? 

In a book that highlights how our spirits and knowledge of the world are mutally enlightening and empowering, none other than His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said of this book: “This remarkable book will contribute greatly to a better understanding of the true nature of our world and the way we live our lives.” So, buckle up and come with me for a few minutes and we’ll take a short ride through this stimulating and mind-expanding journey of inquisition and discovery.

In some ways, The Quantum and the Lotus reads like a textbook related to the two main subjects of this conversation. We go deep into the world and language of quantum physics as well as into the thinking and language of ancient Buddhist philosophy (which also includes texts and contemplation of modern science and micro and macro biology and physics). In an early discussion between Ricard and Thuan the subject of interdependence is bantered about at length and a quote from Einstein is offered up as a starter, which states, “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” To Einstein’s statement, Thuan, the physicist says, “Interdependence must be the fundamental Law and science can’t describe it yet.” Ricard, the Buddhist, responds, “All sentient beings with whom we are all related through interdependence, wish to be happy and to escape suffering.”  

The next topic Ricard and Thuan tackle is the question of Reality itself and  whether what we perceive is indeed stationary solid matter (particles) or some kind of illusion or dream (waves). Through scientific terminology and Buddhist theological jargon we get statements like this from Ricard: “Only the relationships between objects exist, and not the objects themselves — objects are relationships.” And then a statement like this from Thuan: “As the Buddhist texts say, ‘Because of a lack of critical inquiry, we eagerly accept that things are as they seem. But, if the seed of something is unreal, how can the sprout be real.” As you can see, there are more questions here than answers. But the parlez and parlance between these two highly intelligent men takes the reader into a higher state of consciousness and inquiry. 

Then we get to the question of Creation and of a Godhead. The debate of “chance” versus a “plan.” Here we see some difference of opinion. Ricard says, “Buddhism does not believe that anything can be the cause of itself. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is due to the poverty of our imagination.” To which Thuan responds, “I  believe that the ‘principle of organization’ (i.e. a Creator) wanted to create a conscious, intelligent observer. I believe this is why our universe was set up to evolve in the manner it has.” And the conversation as to an existence of a seminal singular Big Bang or a creator God goes on for many pages, back and forth, between the scientist and the Buddhist. 

Finally we come back down to earth and the discussion centers around the idea of beauty and the Earth itself and its preservation, to which Thuan says, “Another factor that sets me against the ‘chance hypothesis’ is that I can’t imagine that the world’s profound beauty and harmony could have been produced at random. Our universe is beautiful. The universe is harmonious because the laws that govern it don’t vary either in time or in space.” And Ricard punctuates Thuan’s statement with his own words and sentiments by saying, “We are all responsible for  our Earth and must save it from the ecological disaster that we’re inflicting on it. William Blake expressed the global nature of the cosmos beautifully in the following lines: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour.” Ricard and Thuan discuss many other topics of expansive, yet interesting, depth in this book. But none may, for us humans at this moment, be any more important than the one just cited.  

Thomas Crowe is a regular contributor to The Smoky Mountain News. He is the author of In Their Own Words: A Living Legacy (Interviews With American Poets) . He lives in the Tuckasegee community of Jackson County and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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