Buddha, Einstein and I

Long, long, ago in second century India, the Buddhist master, Nagarjuna, made the most stunning discovery of all. He professed that the true nature of phenomena that make up our experience of the world can neither be proven to exist or not-exist. In short, this world and our experience in it as observers was neither real nor unreal.

It is interesting to note that he only negated the true existence of all phenomena, he did not indulge his disciples by proposing yet another theory of how the world really works. This was not because he had an incapable imagination but simply due to his understanding of our intellectual limitation. According to him the ultimate truth of the world and its workings were simply beyond comprehension.

Years later, a young physicist in Europe proposed the theory of relativity, which is effectually a theory of measurement, proving that time and space can distort, depending on the position of the observer, even when the speed of light remains constant. Therefore, all the science we can know of is limited to our experience of our world, which may not be the science of the universe as it truly exists.

So even in this postulation there is sufficient room for doubt both of how we experience our world and of how the world truly exists independent of our observations. The irony being that the observer is in the way of our understanding the ultimate truth because of his own observations.

The similarities of these two theories proposed hundreds of years apart, one by intuitive deduction and the other by scientific enquiry does not startle me in as much as it strengthens my conviction that most human disciplines lead to the same inconclusive conclusion.

Anyhow! How does this effect my own small world and my own insignificant observations is something that I ask over and over? Knowledge of our perceptive limitation, does not entirely change our instinctual or habitual reactions.

 I don’t wonder if a child that fell off the monkey bar is real or unreal, I rush to aid her. I don’t doubt the time on my watch, I show up on time to all my planned engagements. I don’t question the pain of my twisted ankle, I care for it with medication. Much of our work, our reactions and our interpretations of things around us is based on the experience that we have of it whether it is ultimately real or unreal.

Perhaps someday humans will evolve with greater perceptive powers. Perhaps the metaphorical cave that we are tethered to as Plato suggested will open up and we will no longer have to base our understanding based on the shadows that we see on the cave wall. But until then we all remain vulnerable and we are all bound to the uniqueness of our own projective experiences.

Nagarjuna, was a great proponent of compassion. After exposing that the Buddha’s teachings and the Buddha himself was subject to questionable existence, he dedicated all of his findings to Buddha the ‘Compassionate One’. Speculating about our suffering does not mitigate the pain of its experience, compassion does! Einstein too, I hear was an immensely compassionate human.

What if compassion is the only antidote available to us all? What if the only way out of all our problems is our own softening with kindness to our unique individual experience? For, if human relationships form the crux of human happiness then without forgiveness and compassion there is not one human who can withstand his own perceptive limitation.

---Vandana Nittoor