Once I was speaking with my step-father and he told me about how the Buddha attempted to describe the size of an atom by comparing the sizes of things available to the senses, and multiplying that relative smaller size many times. My step-father was convinced that the Buddha knew the size of an atom and had got it in line with scientific knowledge on the subject. Whether or not Buddha got it right in this case I think is beside the point. The point is that the Buddha went no further than this. He described a smallest particle and asserted that it was smallest– atomic. This is not in line with the current scientific attitude. They find a smallest particle and then the race continues to find yet a smaller one.
I believe the Buddha stopped at his smallest particle and looked no further for purely ethical reasons. He was putting a limit over the domain that he would protect with his religion and his dhamma. He didn’t say so, but going further, or smaller, than his smallest particle, as an act of body, speech or mind, puts you outside his protection and his teaching.
Now we turn to the consequences of our splitting the atom– first with mind, then with speech, and finally with body, we put the entire world in danger of going up in flame. In our case, the Buddha’s teaching on heedfulness is in a sense largely unhelpful, because the fear and peril of nuclear war is paralyzing. And yet scientists seem to believe that continuing their inquiry further and further to ever smaller particles would somehow save us, rather than just put us in more danger. I don’t think scientists have anything reasonable on why their pursuits should not just put us in more danger. Danger of poisoning our water, our land, danger of WMD, pandemics. Quantum computers are great, but what about Quantum bombs? News treats scientific “progress” with wonderful possibilities for technologies, but rarely treats the way a new idea can be misused and misinterpreted to serve people who are less well-meaning than the truth-devoted ideal scientist. When will we stop uncritically allowing scientific ideas into our societies?
And the question may be put to the Sangha, whether the threat of nuclear war, which seems rather abstract involving particles I can’t see and causal relations between presidents and cultures of people I am removed from; whether this threat that I may at any time go up in flame or some of my friends may burn, or that my friends might feel the pain of their friends dying in fire, is relevant to the here and now? In other words, is it Dhamma; is it a real threat? Is fear of it justified? It may seem that we should just pay attention to what is before us and pretend that splitting subatomic particles just isn’t, in the present moment, a real problem. If we do that, and end up burning, should we look to our past karma as the cause, and not the strange modern predicament that we hear about on the news? It seems that this is a clear impasse between Buddhism and modern society, and that “what is relevant?” “What is Dhamma?” is actually in question, rather than immanently apparent.
There is no service in denouncing scientists for their actions in creating WMDs, nor is there service in finding fault in Buddhist doctrine in how it helps or hurts us in our current plight.
The serviceable question is what do we do now, that we have irrevocably put ourselves in such a danger that heedfulness, inquiry, and knowledge are no longer unequivocally good.
I believe what we should do is to inquire into where the ethical limits of our knowledge ought to be. Obviously, subatomic particles in isolation, as particles of an atom, should be recognized as an unethical idea. It does not matter if subatomic particles are “true” or “real.” Any lie is “real enough” or has some truth in it, otherwise it would not see the light of day. Realizing that any lie has truth in it is unhelpful, it is a realization that will do more harm than good, even though it is true. In the same sense, a subatomic particle is a terrible lie, or a harmful truth, and, as Buddha must have realized, we must set a boundary against inquiry in this direction. We have enough technology to feed us and care for us. What we need is the sanity to recognize we have enough food (and to start sharing it); to recognize how small is small enough, how much truth us truth enough (and how little truth constitutes a lie), how much heedfulness, inquiry and knowledge is enough, when to speak of truths, and when a truth should remain unspoken, and left outside our motivations for action. After all, using small technical words such as subatomic particle restricts our speech to only a vary small aspect of the world. In other words, it is more unreal than real, less about the world and more about something else.
The wisdom of the Buddha is seen most powerfully in recognizing when he chose to be silent. He was silent on all things except on how to end suffering for oneself. The time to thoughtfully and powerfully set limits on scientists’ ability to invade one’s own thought, speech and acts is overdue. The noises we make should not be an endless refinement of technical language on ever-refined “particles” or “quanta,” but noises that quiet the noise. The sound of the singing bowl is one such noise.
I believe my book is another such noise.