5 Incredible Passages From An Astrophysicist And Buddhist On The Similarities Of Science And Spirituality

“While cosmologists look at outer space with massive instruments and difficult calculations using mathematics, Buddhists look at inner space with mindfulness and concentration.

Both paths lead to insights about fundamental questions about why and how we got here, what we are doing here, what are our connections and interactions with the universe, and what is our destiny.

Cosmologists study life on earth from an objective point of view and examine its causes. Buddhists study life on earth with regard to understanding its challenges and how to resolve them.”


In May 2011, cosmologist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson sat down for an interview with Dr. Jerome Freedman on the similarities between astrophysics and Buddhism. The full transcription can be found here.

One of the principal teachings of the Buddha is on dependent origination. Co-dependent origination describes the chain of causation in the cycle of rebirth. In physics, this corresponds roughly to the principle of cause and effect. However, this can be misleading because we normally think of these as being two separate events, with cause always preceding effect. Also, we think that one cause leads to one effect. Co-dependent origination implies that cause and effect arise together – they co-arise together and everything is a result of multiple causes and conditions. When the causes and conditions are suitable, the sun rises, the corn grows, and the rain falls. Just think about how many causes and conditions had to be in place for life to flourish on planet Earth. Consider, for example, our life on Earth. We know that we have the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. Unless we have an organic garden in our backyard, we have to purchase groceries from our neighborhood store. We take it for granted that food will be there, and we rarely think about the gratitude we owe the farmer, the trucker, the store owner, the stock person, the cashier, the car manufacturer — the list goes on. Similar arguments can be offered for clothing and shelter. When we look deeply into co-dependent arising, we notice two things. First, we notice is that all things interdepend on each other.


Interbeing is a word coined by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to express the interdependent nature of all existence. “This is like this because that is like that!” This is an easy way of explaining Interbeing. Suppose you are reading a printed copy of this book instead of an electronic copy. Can you see the sunshine in the paper? Can you see the cloud in the paper? Without rain, the forest could not exist. What about the tree that the paper came from? How about the logger who helped bring the wood to the paper mill? Can you see the operator of the paper mill and the truck that transported the paper to the stationary store where the paper was purchased? How about the printer who made the words visible on the page? So you see, the paper has to inter-be with all these causes and conditions and many more. The paper doesn’t have an independent existence! The paper is made up only of non-paper elements. Emptiness and Non-self Since the paper cannot exist alone, we say it is empty of a separate existence. Nothing can exist by itself. Not you. Not me. Not the cypress tree in the courtyard. Nothing. If we look deeply into our true nature, we will recognize that we, too, cannot exist by ourselves alone. We inter-are with the non-us elements and this makes it possible for us to exist. We are empty of a separate existence, just like the paper. We have no separate self. With this insight comes the insight of Interbeing. Then you come to know that your happiness and suffering depend on the happiness and suffering of others. If you help other people suffer less, you will suffer less.


Humans are not the worst force ever to be set loose onto the ecology of the earth. That took place two and a half billion years ago when the cyanobacteria of the oceans slowly but systematically and irreversibly over time, converted to carbon dioxide atmosphere to an oxygen atmosphere. And all the surface creatures that die in the presence of oxygen died. And entire new waves of life arose. Thriving in the oxygen atmosphere and all the anaerobic creatures – they either died or they went subsurface. And so if you ever go to a beach and you dig through the sand, below a certain distance the sand changes color almost abruptly. That’s a place where no oxygen reaches it and the color comes about from the microbes that thrive anaerobically.

The same is true at some parts of the bottom of the ocean. If there is no oxygen circulation and no oceanic currents, the water is then purple. There is some other ecosystem that is not oxygen generated. And so those bacteria completely transform the world. And far more than we ever can or will.

And so I’m saying, so humans are uniquely guilty for wanting to change their environment to suit their needs. Of course, beavers do that as well. We somehow say it’s all okay for them but not okay for us. I tend to look a little more holistically at things that any animal is no longer alter its environment to serve its own needs. They all do it. What does an ant do? I want to dig in the earth and pull grains out and create them into a warren of chambers and underneath the soil for their own purposes.

So a lion’s den does then doesn’t cooperate with other lion’s den. So in other words, I’m more absolving, is that the right word? I’m more forgiving of human behavior than many other people are, when I compare it to the behavior of other creatures that in their own attempt to live do whatever they do and whatever they can to, with the environment to each other in order to survive.


I’m not going to judge whether our definition of consciousness which of course is still generating huge literature on people trying to figure it out. Which is the evidence is that we have no clue what it is. And usually when something remains that intractable, it tells you that it doesn’t really exist as we have been attempting to define it at all. And maybe it’s simply the wrong question it’s like asking what flavor of cheese is the moon made out of. And the moon is not made out of cheese at all. But you invest in energy trying to decided what kind of cheese they want . If we are trying to find consciousness and often it’s done in ways that are tries to distinguish us from other animals. It may be at the end of the day there’s no such thing as what we call consciousness. It’s something else. And we haven’t been asking the right questions. It’s like I remain open to that fact given that was a retractable question of consciousness has been. But anyone who’s owned a pet knows they’re completely conscious of what’s going on and they don’t like try to trick you. And cats and dogs and horses and those domestic animals where we give them some kind of freedom, only cows, I don’t know if cows are kind of connive behind your back. So I can probably pose an argument to say that this cyanobacteria were not conscious. It requires a map of neurons to lead to complex thoughts such as what we have in our brain. Of course we don’t have the largest brain. By far not the largest brain. And it’s not even the largest brain relative to our body weight. That was put forth early on, yet another attempt to distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom. And then we found that there are, I’m sorry we do have the heaviest brain relative to the body weight but if you made a line, if that was your measure of things, and you put all animals on the scale, then the some goldfish are higher on that scale than dogs are.

There is some stuff that you would not want to be true if this in fact were some deep other understanding of intellect and consciousness. So probably it wasn’t conscious. It’s just its waste product. That’s all it is. It’s waste products killed off all anaerobic life forms.


I look at the universe as a whole. Hard not to as an astrophysicist… For me that shared genetic, that shared atomic, that shared molecular heritage allows me to feel a part of the universe in a way that might not have otherwise empowered me to do so, short of reading someone’s philosophies that are not based on the empirical discovery. And I intend to be more empirically driven in how I think about the physical world. We provide anchors to support ideas and arguments that don’t otherwise exist. And anchors that can transform a metaphysical conversation to a physical one. And then the actionable statements. So that’s how I come at it. But if you want everything to decay, you got the proton. Once sextillion time the age of the current universe, the current theories say that it will decay and then you’ve got everything. Chock it up as Buddhistic if you like! Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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