Adapted from excerpts from a chapter in The Complete Book of Buddha's Lists -- Explained. David N. Snyder, Ph.D., 2006.
Parallel universes, other dimensions, and the Dhamma
A popular subject physicists have been looking into in recent years includes parallel universes and other dimensions. These parallel universes and dimensions are described as other realms which can include other life forms beyond our universe and other dimensions right here on earth. These ideas are part of superstring theories and M-theory. These theories of modern physics are one-hundred percent compatible with the Dhamma and the 31 planes of existence. The planes of existence include realms that are beyond our imagination in distance and realms that are right here on earth. The other dimensions include what are known as “invisible beings” in the Buddhist cosmology. They are invisible because they are in a different dimension.
Everything, including all of the dimensions are inter-connected. The Buddha said: “As a net is made up of a series of ties, so everything in this world is connected by a series of ties. If anyone thinks that the mesh of a net is an independent, isolated thing, he is mistaken. It is called a net because it is made up of a series of interconnected meshes, and each mesh has its place and responsibility in relation to the other meshes.” (Gach, 2002) In this quote we can see the talk of dimensions and parallel universes with the emphasis on the meshes and its relation to other meshes. The Buddha also made it clear that there is no permanent self-essence in anything in the universe and that nothing is independent. Modern scientists have concurred with these ideas. The language might be a little different, but the concepts and observations are the same.
The zen master, D. T. Suzuki, described emptiness as follows, “By emptiness of self-aspect or self-character, therefore, is meant that each particular object has no permanent and irreducible characteristics to be known as its own.” Modern physicist, David Bohm, repeats almost the same thing in scientific language with, “Quantum theory requires us to give up the idea that the electron, or any other object has, by itself, any intrinsic properties at all.” Einstein discussed space as follows, “According to general relativity, the concept of space detached from any physical content does not exist.” Compare these well learned people above to the words of Buddha, nearly 2,600 years ago: “If there is only empty space, with no suns nor planets in it, then space loses its substantiality.” (McFarlane, 2002)
The Buddha was always referring to the teachings and the doctrines in a very circular fashion. The concepts of re-birth, time itself, and the twelve parts to Dependant Origination are all cyclical. In science and in nature we see how the natural world works on cyclical procedures. The Buddha spoke of “beginningless time” and how there is no beginning. The Buddha said that “there is no first beginning, no first beginning is knowable.” Samyutta Nikaya 15.1-2
“Bhikkhus, this samsara is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. There comes a time, bhikkhus, when the great oceans dry up and evaporates and no longer exists, when the earth burns up and perishes and no longer exists, but still I say, there is no making an end of suffering for those beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.” Samyutta Nikaya 22.99
Numerous books have been written on the relationship and compatibility of the natural sciences to Buddhism. Fritjof Capra has written the classic best seller, The Tao of Physics, in which he specifically writes to the many parallels between the Buddha’s teachings and modern physics, including, the unity of things, beyond opposites, relativity, and the dynamic universe. The Buddha also was talking about the inter-connection between mind and body thousands of years before famous medical doctors wrote best selling books saying the same things (such as Deepak Chopra, M.D. and Jack Weil, M.D.). A common phrase now is that “modern science is catching up with the ancient teachings of Buddhism.”
“The mind and body are dependent on each other the way two sheaves stand up by leaning against each other.” Samyutta Nikaya 2.14
When the Buddha spoke about different periods of history, he referred to the periods in terms of tens of thousands of years and in terms of physical, scientific periods as being millions of years. Later the fields of geology and physical anthropology would confirm these time periods of our cultural and physical history. When other ideas were floating around about the earth being six thousand years old, the Buddha was talking about these periods of time in millions of years and that there are several other planetary systems.
“An aeon is long, bhikkhu, the Blessed One said. It is more than several hundred thousand years. Suppose, bhikkhu, there was a great stone mountain a yojana long, a yojana wide, and a yojana high, without holes or crevices, one solid mass of rock. At the end of every hundred years a man would stroke it once with a piece of Kasian (very soft) cloth. That great stone mountain might by this effort be worn away and eliminated but the aeon would still have not come to an end. So long is an aeon, bhikkhu.” Samyutta Nikaya 15.5
The great translator of the Pali Canon, Dr. bhikkhu Bodhi, has estimated, based on the Buddha’s teachings that an aeon in the Buddhist scriptures is approximately one billion years. The Buddha has described different periods of time based on aeons in the same way scientists describe the natural world in terms of billions of years in the evolution of this planet and solar system.
Science and physics are fully compatible with the principles of Buddhism. Many scientists have generated a strong interest in Buddhism. The subject of a talk when receiving the Nobel prize in physics by Sir C. V. Raman was the life of the Buddha. (Jayasuriya, 1963) Albert Einstein said of Buddhism: “The religion of the future should transcend a personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description . . . If ever there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.” (Einstein, from his writings quoted in Zen Mountain Monastery newsletter, 1989; although, no direct quote has been located to confirm that he ever said this, it may be a paraphrase of other quotes from Einstein that point to no personal god, no self, and his appreciation for Buddhism.)
- The Complete Book of Buddha's Lists -- Explained. David N. Snyder, Ph.D., 2006.
- Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. Toronto: Bantam Books, second ed., 1984.
- Gach. Gary. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism. Indianapolis, Indiana: Alpha Books, 2002.
- Jayasuriya, W. F., M.D. The Psychology and Philosophy of Buddhism. Jalan Berhala, Malaysia: Buddhist Publication Society, 1963.
- McFarlane, Thomas J., Ed. Einstein and Buddha; The Parallel Sayings. Berkeley, California: Seastone, 2002.
- Von Daniken, Erich. In Search of the Gods. New York: Avenel Books, 1989.