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Space Pirates! A History of Buddhist Physics.

By Billy | April 22, 2011

Austria is magical.  (OK, so everything is magic)  Austria!

The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism struck my Buddhist Mind and Reality class quite dumb after elaborating on his proposal that there is no absolute truth, and by stating so, he was not proposing an absolute truth.   This is quite frustrating in a philosophy or religion (both exist in Buddhism, and sometimes they are mutually exclusive) whose founder proposed The Four Truths.

(Sometimes Mahayana is considered the Protestantism of Buddhism, so I guess people on that string of thought should consider Nagarjuna the Martin Luther of Buddhism.  But.  I am not those people.  Those people probably have never heard of Nagarjuna, or read the Mulmadhyamikakarina.  So, since Protestantism grew out of politics and Mahayana grew out of logical necessity, and since I think Protestantism and Catholicism and the whole she-bang, especially during the Reformation, have often completely lost touch with the actual message of Christ, and since I also think that Buddhism’s inherent flexibility allows for a wide array of things to all stay true to the original form, I think it’s unjust to compare Christian history and Buddhist history in such bland and unhelpful ways.   So why did I mention it at all?)

Buddha proposed the Four Truths.  Often the first one is translated using the word “suffering,” but that’s because unatisfactoryness is an ugly word.  The first truth is that sometimes unsatisfactoryness exists.  Nobody’s not experienced the unsatisfactoryness that exists in potential in every moment.

The second Truth explains that experiencing the unsatisfactoryness that doesn’t have to be experienced comes from an attachment to desire.  Often, and I think it’s due to something I think I call ‘Christian Guilt,’ blame is shifted from “attachment to desire,” to “desire.”  Every follower of the Buddha that I’ve ever met has tried to destroy their desires at some time in their journey.  I am sure the Buddha would explain to you that such a thing is unhealthy, unnatural, and unhelpful.  Desire keeps us alive, desire keeps us happy, and desire is the thing that motivates us to become enlightened and to share that enlightenment with the rest of the world.  Desire is wanting an apple and appreciating it when you finally get to eat it.  Attachment to desire to eat an apple is wanting an apple beyond your just deserts — believing you are entitled to an apple or that you need an apple to be happy or complete.  Attachment to desire of an apple leads to not seeing the apple for what it really is.  Really, it’s a bunch of molecules that used to be a tree, that used to be dirt, that used to be cow poop, that used to be grass, that used to be sun.  And as you bite into that conglomoration of goodness, you are participating in the infinite weaving of existence.  You are nothing more than a link on the chain — infinitesimally small in light of how long that apple has been in the mix.  So when you start to believe that apple, or you for that matter, exist as anything else other than a flash of lightning, you are attaching yourself to a desire.  You are pretending that the apple is inherently yours, or that you are inherently deserving of an apple, or some other twisted notion that denies the fact that the apple and you are infinitely vast.  Nonetheless, you may want the apple.  You are made of sunlight and trees and plants you’ve eaten and dinosaur poop that’s been burnt in coal plants and you’ve breathed it in — you are made of the universe, and part of that composition is that you have a brain and a central nervous system and a digestive tract… and when all of that comes together, sometimes you feel hungry.  You’re supposed to feel hungry.  Desire is not bad, it’s the most natural thing.

The third Truth is painfully simple.  If unsatisfactoryness happens because of attachment to desire, unsatisfactoryness ceases when attachment to desire ceases.

The fourth Truth is a recipe for ceasing unsatisfactoryness  and in my opinon, it is the obvious starting point for a Buddhist religion.  The fourth truth says that in order to end unsatisfactoryness, you’ve got to practice: “Right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration.”   I have never been terribly interested in the Eightfold Noble Path, so I don’t know how to expand those points for what they mean.  Right Effort, for example, seems simple enough.  But I’ve read a hundred pages on the Eightfold Noble Path and still don’t feel like I grasp it.  Were I part of a Buddhist Sangha, I might care to study and discuss and preach and be preached to about it.  I’m not so I don’t.

Fastforward a few centuries and we’re now saying that Buddhism doesn’t have any Truths.  There is no truth, and that’s it.  As my friend Liz puts it, time doesn’t exist, there is only the eternal Now.  Quantum physics agrees with what Buddhists have been saying for centuries (millenia…?) and Shrodingers Cat both agrees and disagrees, but Buddhists don’t mind.

The tricky part is objective reality.  We love to pretend that we exist in it, but we don’t.  We exist in a reality (namely a collective, or consentual reality) that exists like this.  If you are standing on the side of the road and a car drives past you at 10 mph, the car has passed you at 10 mph faster than you.  Now if you start to move 1 mph with the direction of traffic and another car passes you moving 10 mph, that car has passed you moving 9 mph faster than you.  If you and your friend are having a race on the sidewalk, you’re moving 1 mph, he’s moving 2 mph, and a third car passes at 10 mph, that car is moving 9 mph faster than you and 8 mph faster than your friend.

Now.  All this is taking place at night.  So the cars have their headlights on.  When the light comes out of the car’s lamps, it is moving at the speed of light, go figure.  That’s about 670 million mph.  I rounded, but photons don’t.  A photon travels through a certain medium at exactly the speed of light.  Always.  Light will always pass you at the speed of light.  So as you run next to the car, the light from the car’s headlamp comes out at the speed of light, but since you’re moving at 1 mph, you’d think it would pass you at the speed of light minus 1 mph.  But no.  It will pass you at exactly the speed of light faster than you, regardless of how fast you’re moving.  That’s true for your friend, too.  The light will pass your friend not at ‘speed of light minus 2 mph,’ but at exactly the speed of light.  The very same photon will pass you and your friend at exactly the same time at two different speeds.  Actually, it is going at more than two speeds simultaneously, because the driver is going at 10 mph, so the light is going ‘the speed of light’ faster than he is, too.  Anyone watching out the window, or existing on the other side of the planet, will have a different ‘speed of light’ relative to them and their perception of those photons.

Please start working your argument about why you still think we live in a single, unitary, solid, objective reality.

Let’s pretend this race happened in outer space and you were moving not at 1 or 2 mph, but at 500 million mph.  More than half the speed of light.  You’re moving half the speed of light, your friend is moving more than half the speed of light.  And now space pirates want to jack your sweet space ships, so they shoot photon cannons at you.  Luckily, every time they shoot, they miss.  But!  Those photons whiz past your ship at the speed of light.  The speed of light faster than you.  Even when you’re moving at half the speed of light, the speed of light is 670,000,000 mph faster than you.  But for a bystander who’s not moving at the speed of light, neither one of you is travelling faster than the speed of light.  It’s not like the speed of light went from 670 million mph to 500 million + 670 million just for you.  The top speed of light is the limit of speed that we can concieve of.  You can’t make light go faster than the speed of light for a given medium.

So now you have a solid, realistic example, of why we more probably exist in our own reality than in some reality that would exist without us.  Think for a second about what the speed of light is if those photon cannons shot at empty space and nobody was there to percieve it.  If light moves faster or slower relative to how fast the observer is, how fast does it move relative to nothing.  Hm.  The most common argument for objective, solid, reality-independent-of-us/the-perciever, reality is this:  if I didn’t exist, this apple would still be here.  I don’t need to see the apple in my hand for it to be real.

Nagarjuna would argue that it’s not the same apple as the one in your hand if you’re not there to hold it, Shrodingers Cat would be disinterested and overinterested (both in typical cat fashion) at the same time, and I would just take the apple from you and bite it and ask you to tell me when the apple is “gone.”

I was going to write a lot about why I belive Austria is magical, but instead I wrote nothing about Austria.  Hm.  I watched the 5th Element in German last night, which is where my space pirates scenario came from.  Tune in next time for application of this philosophy and how it relates to Magical Austria.


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