Re: The Universe in a Single Atom

Much has been made of the Dalai Lama’s stance that if science can disprove any tenets of Buddhism, then they would accept it, since Buddhism is an experiential and experimental religion. The Universe in a Single Atom, by the Dalai Lama, accepts modern physics and cosmology, hopes the combination of monks and scientists will expand our understanding of consciousness, but in the end insists on the reality of reincarnation and karma. While this book doesn’t always explain itself, if you’re looking for ideas, it should spark a few.

In the opening chapters, modern physics are discussed in a superficial manner that seems more interested in great scientists as people than in explaining their work. It’s also not clear how the occasional overlaps with ancient Buddhist ideas about the universe add to the discussion, though they are good examples of thought experiments. It’s more interesting on the personal level, especially the passages about the Dalai Lama’s youth and how he discovered and tinkered with the toys of his predecessor, from a watch to a movie projector to a car.

The next chapters, describing various Buddhist philosophies and world models, comprise a gold mine of ideas for a fantasist to steal from. There’s a flat earth model. There’s an atomic system. There’s an elemental system that adds to earth, air, fire, and water a fifth element of space to hold the others. All fascinating stuff, but he assumes a familiarity with the Buddhist classics few laymen would have. As for the relationship between science and God, that falls into the list of fruitless questions the Buddha would not answer.

In the third quarter of the book, he discusses the research into consciousness he’s been sponsering. Can you imagine having to persuade a monk to meditate on loving-kindness inside an MRI machine? He’s most successful in this field, but other books describe what’s been revealed in more depth.

Finally, he discusses the moral choices science presents us with. Again, there’s lots of good story ideas for the science fiction writer lurking in there.

The one failure of logic that bothers me is the understandable reluctance of the Dalai Lama to let go of the idea of reincarnation and karma. He doesn’t give much justification for either. I wish I knew exactly what argument he’s assuming the reader knows. In fact, the one thing this book really needs is a bibliography so you can pursue the questions it raises.

Next week: The View from the Center of the Universe