International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet

by Matthieu Ricard , Trinh Xuan Thuan

Introductory Essay by Makarand Paranjape

This is an extraordinary book in which Ricard, an ordained Buddhish monk, and Thuan, who is Professor of Astronomy at the University of Virginia, conduct extended dialogues. Ricard, who is the co-author of The Monk and the Philosopher, is also the Dalai Lama’s French translator. After completing his Doctoral research in genetics, he decided to pursue Buddhism instead of science. Thuan, born in Vietnam in a Buddhist family, is the author of the popular science book The Secret Melody and the co-author of Chaos and Harmony.

Both of these enormously gifted men are committed to rigorous thinking, on the one hand, and to compassionate living on the other. Their dialogue leads to a wealth of information and insights of use both to lay readers and to specialists. From the birth of the universe to questions of time, to appropriate action in our world, Ricard and Thuan conduct a series of fifteen dialogues, which are edited and presented so as to be both readable and engaging. They bring to the table their own rich understandings of two traditions of seeking the truth, Buddhism and modern science. In addition, they are familiar with the others’ speciality, Ricard with science, Thuan with Buddhism. This makes for a particularly interesting and well-informed exchange.     

The real issue at the heart of the dialogue is what Buddhism and modern science have to offer to one another. Buddhism, essentially, is a path to enlightenment, not a set of dogmas or beliefs. Its purpose is to end suffering through right knowledge. But such knowledge is mostly about states of mind, craving and aversion, and the freedom from both of these which leads to liberation. It is not interested in studying the material world for its own sake. Science, on the other hand, is not concerned primarily with existential questions or with what constitutes right living. Its purpose is to understand and describe phenomenal reality as accurately as possible, which for Buddhism and for many other spiritual traditions, does not constitute the ultimate truth in the first place. 

What the dialogues show is that the two traditions do share a commitment to truth and to logical criteria of verifiability. But other than that, their paths and goals are different. Despite Thuan’s hope of “harmonious complimentarity” [276] at the end of the book, what we actually notice, almost on each page, is substantial difference in both aim and emphasis. Unless key Buddhist notions are expressed in the language of mathematical proof and measurable data, they do not translate into scientific knowledge. Rather, they serve as metaphors for understanding our universe.

One of the conclusions that emerges from the book is that scientists, who are also sentient human beings, need to be more responsible to their fellow inhabitants, rather than believing that their pursuit of objective truth makes them immune to ethical considerations. To that extent, Buddhism or any other comprehensive, ethical system of living, will improve both scientists’ personal lives and affect what they choose to work on. Buddhism, too, will benefit from science in testing some of its hypothesis and conclusions about the phenomenal world. But, other than this, what we see in the book are two streams of ideas, with several points of interface and intersection, rather than one unified current of knowledge.