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A Virtual Seminar


Schroedinger's Cat and the Buddhist View of Emptiness

Buddhism and quantum mechanics are two distinct philosophical systems with different goals, techniques, and traditions. Nevertheless, many of their respective metaphors have remarkable parallels and, when meditated upon, can lead to a similar understanding of how reality might be. The discussion was not intended to be a quixotic attempt to unify modern physics and Buddhism, but rather a celebration of each system's ability to orient mind to a more direct experience of reality.

In my talk, I spoke about my experiences using the metaphor of Schroedinger’s cat for contemplative meditation of Buddhist views on emptiness during a recent three-month solitary meditation retreat. Schroedinger's central insight was that all possible states of matter exist simultaneously until the act of observation causes an object to fall into one state or another. While many interpretations of this metaphor consider what happens at the moment of observation or how this insight alters the meaning of the event afterwards, the implications of what is happening – or not happening – before observation struck me as more interesting. Within this space, there is no concept, not even the concept of a lack of concept. As subject and object are not present either, one can entertain the hypothesis that “subject” and “object” may just be part of the many convenient concepts that lack any intrinsic reality of their own. Many Buddhist views on emptiness hold this hypothesis central to understanding both “not-self” or egolessness and the emptiness of all phenomena.

In my own experience of contemplative meditation using the Schroedinger’s cat metaphor, it has become clearer that there is no “me” nor any “world” that exists beyond the level of concept. This experience is not easily explained as concepts do a poor job of explaining the non-conceptual, but is characterized by sensation of boundless space. When mind is no longer limited by ideas of itself or anything else, its vastness can be experienced.

The talk was framed by stressing the importance of meditation in the process of understanding the nature of reality. Since the thinking mind operates within the realm of concepts and concept is, by definition, something other than the real thing, ultimate reality can only be experienced when the thinking mind has come to rest. The moment of insight is an extremely dangerous one because the insight can be mistaken as the fruit of the effort rather than a signpost to guide mind. Meditating with an insight allows this subtle misunderstanding to slowly erode away and true understanding to emerge.

While it was regrettably not mentioned during the talk, I want to mention here that certain inconsistencies in the views of Buddhism and quantum mechanics are most certainly present at many points in which I draw parallels. The point is not that the views are unified or even that Schroedinger meant what I see in his metaphor, but simply that this metaphor may point to a space in which mind may be able to see things a bit closer to the way they really are.

Speaking in the Virtual World was more remarkable to me for its similarities to public speaking than for its differences. I felt appropriately anxious and I sweated as I normally do when addressing an audience, even though I was sitting alone. There was a very clear sensation of being on the spot, and having many people listening closely to my words. In some ways, it was like being on a video conference call. These sentiments parallel my feelings about Virtual Worlds in general, in that I find them surprisingly similar to our “real world.” People want to look good, own property, have nice things, feel important within their community, and we become attached to all of these things in the same ways that we do in “real life.”

Marc Hoffmann

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