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A renowned physicist discusses the philosophy of emptiness with the Dalai Lama’s doctor

An expert in quantum gravity and a Hollywood-born family doctor-turned Buddhist monk met recently to discuss whether the writings of a second-century Buddhist thinker could address some of the metaphysical paradoxes of modern physics. In the October 29 event, Carlo Rovelli, the author of the acclaimed Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and Helgoland, spoke for nearly three hours with Barry Kerzin, who balances his monastic vocation with work in academic medicine and as the personal physician to the 14th Dalai Lama. Their discussion centered on Nagarjuna, who lived in India around the second century C.E. and wrote Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, the foundational text of the madhyamaka (middle-way) school of Buddhist philosophy.

What is real? Nagarjuna’s Middle Way” was hosted by the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (QOOI) at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, with funding from the John Templeton Foundation. The discussion was moderated by Marios Christodoulou, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, where Kerzin is also an adjunct professor.


Rovelli told the audience he came to Nagarjuna’s philosophy through his study of quantum theory: “One of the central ideas is that objects do not exist by themselves; they only exist because they interact with something else.” Rovelli said that audiences listening to his talks on quantum theory kept asking if he had read Nagarjuna. Eventually he spent a summer doing so, and came away amazed. “What is useful in Nagarjuna is the idea that it’s better to think of the world not as entities or substance or matter that has its own properties, but only through the interdependence of things,” Rovelli said. This contrasted with the traditional Western scientific approach of isolating objects and phenomena down to their own essential essence. He contrasted this with Nagarjuna’s doctrine of śūnyatā, usually translated ‘emptiness.’ In Nagarjuna’s view, “Everything is empty in the sense of not having an intrinsic reality,” Rovelli says. “This emptiness is the foundation of everything — but that’s a view which is itself empty in a sense. This is suddenly extremely liberating.”

Kerzin affirmed Rovelli’s response to Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness with concepts of existence. “When we talk about existence we talk about our ordinary understanding of what’s real — things are objects, entities that are in relationship,” Kerzin said. But to claim that things lack intrinsic existence — “that’s not so easy to wrap our heads around,” Kerzin said. Intrinsic existence would need to persist even when all kinds of dependence — created by cause-and-effect relationships, or even by types of naming or labeling — were stripped away. “People interpret it as no existence at all and fall into nihilism, thinking that nothing exists — throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”


Kerzin pointed to two examples from modern physics that challenged the idea of a solid external reality. The first is Erwin Schrödinger’s 1935 thought experiment involving a cat in a sealed box with a 50% chance of being poisoned — whose survival is only determined when the box is opened to observe the result. The second is a variation on the classic double-slit experiment, showing the role of detection in whether photons behave as waves or particles. In both cases, “Observer dependence is very important in terms of reality, and very much influences and determines what is real,” Kerzin said.

But what constitutes an observer? “Some interpretations say an observer is an agent who thinks, who can compute the future,” Rovelli said. “I’ve always been unhappy with that. Things happen on the sun when there is nobody who’s an observer of anything. Should the observer be a white western scientist with a PhD? Should we include cats?”

Kerzin agreed, noting that the ways in which a scientific observer is often conceived of as singular. “In western cultures generally it’s the individual. In eastern cultures it’s the group.”


One theme that emerged in the discussion was a shared goal of scientific inquiry and Buddhist practice: correcting misunderstandings about the nature of reality. “Our attachments get us into trouble — our aversions, our selfishness, our greed,” Kerzin said. “All that just falls away when we begin to get rid of this ignorance.”

Rovelli said his engagement with Nagarjuna has not only helped him think more clearly about quantum physics; it has also made him less anxious. “It does change my sense of being in the world, because it changes my understanding of myself,” he said. “It takes away a little bit of the anguish that change and impermanence causes or produces, making me think that there is no permanent me who is threatened by impermanence.”


Still Curious?

Carlo Rovelli’s 2021 book Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution includes a section on Nagarjuna’s philosophy as it relates to quantum physics.

Barry Kerzin offers a Tibetan Buddhist perspective on Nagarjuna in his 2019 book Nagarjuna’s Wisdom: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Middle Way

Watch other webinars from the Quantum Information Structure of Spacetime project.

Explore projects related to quantum theory in our Mathematics and Physical Sciences funding area.