Science Seen Physicist and Time One author Colin Gillespie helps you understand your world.

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Buddha, Physics and the End of Zen

A history by writer Thomas Hoover tells us that the words and actions of Zen masters through the ages all strive to an end:

That end is an intuitive realization of a single great insight―that we and the world are one. … Our rational intellect merely obscures this truth, and consequently we must shut it off, if only for a moment.

Accordingly, Zen has focused on intuitive insight for more than two thousand years. But recently the Zen  one has surfaced in an unlikely place, the deepest depth of physics.

New science shows the entire universe originating from one tiny indivisible thing. It shows the whole universe emerging as this thing (string theorists call it a 6-D manifold) replicates itself, making quantum particles of space. Each space quantum is linked to every other (their number is finite) so that even now the universe is still one single thing. The whole is not divided into parts and each part is identical with the whole. Zeno, author of the paradox of the One and the Many (and no practitioner of Zen), would be ecstatic.

I speak here not of monistic ideals but of physical reality and of the cutting edge of quantum theory. We are not only of the universe, we are entangled in it. More particularly, we are made of braided twists in the relationships between space quanta. Though these twists and braids are physics at its most serious, the original paper on them by Australian physicist Sundance Bilson-Thompson sounds like something out of Lewis Carroll:

For convenience let us denote a twist through π as a “dum”, and a twist through –π as a “dee” (U and E for short, after Tweedledum and Tweedledee). Generically we refer to such twists by the somewhat whimsical name “tweedles”. We hope to deduce the properties of quarks and leptons and their interactions from the behavior of their constituent tweedles.

What does all this offer Zen? Practitioners seek the direct insight experienced by Gautama Buddha that the observer and observed are one. Now science sets out to give direct proof. In other words, our intellect, once well-informed, no longer ‘merely obscures’ the truth. It paves the way!

This is such a simple path that even I can find it. Is it the end of Zen? (This is two questions.)


Thomas Hoover (1980), The Zen Experience, New York: New American Library, p. 2;

Sundance Bilson-Thompson, “A topological model of composite preons”,

[image credit Dave Coverly]

Other reading

On Zeno and the paradoxes of plurality: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Zeno’s Paradoxes”,


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