Is There Any Reason For a Zen Practitioner to Read About Science?

By Ralph Shikan Levinson

When I started Zen practice, I was certain the answer to that question was No. Obviously, one can have a Zen practice and not study science. So why bother?

Don’t get me wrong: I love science, although I fell in love with it relatively late in life. When I was 32, a quarter-century before I started a formal Zen practice at the Hazy Moon, I decided to go to medical school. I was a liberal arts college drop-out-turned physician’s assistant, which meant I had to take the prerequisite “pre-med” undergraduate physics and organic chemistry courses before any M.D. program would consider my application. To my surprise, I took to science easily–it was so reality-based, a sword cutting through the knot of superstition and fuzzy thinking. Reality as you can measure and directly observe it, not how you wanted it to be or how you thought it should be.

The relationships among the Western sciences seemed so elegant to me, the parts fit together so well–you could almost hear and feel the links snapping into place. The experience for me is visceral. And math! Please, don’t get me started! To go from abstractions, idealized geometric shapes, a circle and a triangle, to the mathematics of wave functions, which then turn out to be essential in quantum mechanics? Sheer poetry.

But could science answer the big questions, the questions of life and death, the critical issues of meaning and value? What are the limits of scientific pursuits if you follow the established rules of the game? I asked myself, when I face death, will scientific knowledge make a difference to me? Is there a way to grasp truth directly? That is what I wanted for myself, what drew me to Zen practice. So when I walked through the door at the Hazy Moon, I thought that reading more books on science was not going to be relevant to my experience there.

Life is change. Practice is change.

I’m a “clinician-scientist,” a professor of clinical ophthalmology specializing in inflammatory diseases of the eye, doing research in immunogenetics and recently developed stem cell-derived therapies. In other words, I “do” science. It may seem odd to talk about “doing” science, but that’s the in-group speak that scientists use to describe the nature of their work. The underlying assumption is that Western empirical practice uncovers the fundamental truths of reality—it’s not speculative like philosophy or dependent on unquestioning faith like most forms of religious belief. But in a sense Zen is empirical too. “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self,” Dogen’s famous formulation begins. That was one way I started to see science and my Zen practice converge.

More importantly, about the time I started practicing at the Hazy Moon, Nyogen Roshi became enamored with the book Biocentrism. He admired the authors–Drs. Robert Lanza and Bob Berman, both scientists—for their courage in arguing that consciousness is the ultimate basis of reality and that discoveries at the cutting edges of science were pointing in that direction, even if few scientists were willing to admit it.

I wasn’t thrilled at first. Reading about someone else’s interpretation of science and consciousness was exactly what I was coming to a Zen center NOT to do.

When I was much younger and I was teaching myself to draw and paint I stumbled upon a trick, one I later found was common among artists: look at the work upside down, or look at it in a mirror. By changing your perspective, the trick helps to bypass expectations and conditioning so you see what is there more clearly. In a sense, I began to realize, this is what happens in Biocentrism. The authors’ point isn’t to offer new facts, but to show how looking at accepted scientific knowledge from a different perspective reveals reality in a completely different way.


Dr. Lanza has become a friend and colleague. I sent him parallel statements from Biocentrism and the Lankavatara Sutra. I was reading Red Pine’s new translation of the Lankavatara when I met Dr. Lanza, and there were wonderful sections about perception and reality in that ancient text that closely resembled his arguments in his book. I also suggested he might like the famous 1,300-year-old story about Hui Neng, in which he comes upon two monks watching a flag flap in the wind. One argued that the flag moves, the other that the wind moves. Hui Neng said: Mind moves.

Dr. Lanza told me that he was surprised that the ancient Zen masters had developed this understanding of the nature of consciousness without access to modern science. I found it more surprising that he thought figuring out the relationship between consciousness and reality required modern science at all!

Which led me back to asking whether science helps to bring perspective to Zen practice. Though the 150-year history of efforts to forge a relationship between science and Buddhism has often been marred by the imposition of various agendas, it would be surprising if there weren’t some areas where the insights of science and Buddhism converge. After all, Maezumi Roshi’s first admonition–“do not deceive yourself”–is also a core value of science.

The principles of cause and effect, contingency and interdependence are foundational in both science and Zen. Both Zen and science aim to go beneath and beyond the apparently isolated and separate forms of existence that serve as the points of reference in most of our day-to-day experience. Certainly trust motivated by deep curiosity (I shudder to use the word faith!) is involved in science. Similarly in Zen practice sometimes we must simply trust the teaching process during difficult times.

Consider also the famous ancient Zen statement: The entire universe is found in a single hair, countless worlds in a speck of dust. I am not saying that the ancient Chan masters understood the mathematics of quantum mechanics, the details of particle physics or the implications of cosmic background radiation. But consider the image of Indra’s net, a visual representation of Buddhist cosmology: Each point in an infinite universe is, in turn, the center of an infinite universe that contains all other universes. This is a succinct description of the most basic assumption of modern physics–that what we learn by deconstructing the smallest, most ephemeral aspects of physical reality will be relevant to every aspect of the universe, the whole shebang. How can it be otherwise?


Now I read a lot of science. I get as close to the source material as I can. I think science can inspire us and shake us up and inform our practice, but not in the sense that Zen will prove science or vice versa; each stands or falls on its own merits. Science has constraints—orthodoxies, you might say—that Zen does not, but it also is a powerful tool that allows us to peer into amazing places. Science challenges and defies our view of how things are based on the senses we use to navigate the reality we experience on the scale of our limited bodies and brains. That can entail quite a leap.

Despite my wariness about trying too hard to reconcile science and Zen, when scientists teach us that all stuff (including us) is a condensation of energy fields, described by wave functions and contingent on previous states and indeterminate until measured–that everything is interdependent, entangled, and that seeing an object as permanent and solid is an illusion–is that very different from the Diamond Sutra, which exhorts us not to be trapped by the illusion of finite personhood, a soul? Is that really so far from the ideas of emptiness and dependent origination?

Biology that teaches us that we have no independent existence; that we are made up of and defined by our environment; that you are your mother’s ovum writ large that there is no separation between you and all life that ever has been; that you are an ecosystem, with 10 times more microbes than other kinds of cells in your body. Does that shift your view of yourself a bit? Or perhaps reassure you that the intuitions you gain through practice may not be so far off from what the leading edge of science has to say about reality?

Do you marvel at the basic phenomenon of awareness? How can this be unless it is a quality of the universe, of reality? If you are not separate from the universe–if ultimately there is no duality, as both science and Zen agree–isn’t consciousness a property of the universe? Aren’t you therefore the universe unfolding? If the universe is sentient, whose eyes does it see with? Even though language fails us, and mathematics may not be up to the task of describing ultimate reality, we must still answer fundamental questions of existence, scientist and practitioner alike.

On the other hand, if none of this strikes you as inspiring and maybe even reassuring, then why waste time reading about it? Your practice and the Dharma aren’t dependent on the next announcement from the team at the Large Hadron Collider or the latest great attempt to synthesize ancient and modern thought, quantum mechanics and consciousness. It is said that science is about movement (even the word “mechanics” in quantum mechanics implies movement). While this is an oversimplification of course, maybe there is some truth in it. After all, we know what Zen has to say: Mind moves.



Ralph Shikan Levinson is a Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. With Kelly Doman Stevens, sensei, he is working on a book connecting the scientific search for a “theory of everything”—an attempt to reconcile cosmology and quantum mechanics—with some of the foundational insights of Buddhism and Zen practice.

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