The Heart Sutra, Quantum Physics and Ecology
Bill Hirsch (Xiaobaiyun)
White Cloud Buddhist Society

Are there, in the ancient Heart Sutra as well as in the modern theories of quantum physics, important implications for an understanding of ecology?

Let's first look at the Heart Sutra, specifically its most famous statement:

"Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form"

This simple, yet seemingly contradictory assertion, as we'll see, presages the findings of quantum physics by over two thousand years.  So it behooves us to start by trying to make sense out of this potentially baffling phrase.

Probably the easiest way is to start with a form, something common that we're all familiar with.  How about a large, wood dining room table, so common in American homes.  Virtually any urban dweller from any part of earth will recognize it immediately as a table.

But now let's place it out in the middle of a South American jungle, in a clearing covered by thick vines and creepers, surrounded by lush foliage.  A member of an Amazonian tribe softly steps out of the bush into the clearing -- and sees the object. But what is it?  A shelter? A giant raised bed?  A monument left by some even more ancient race of people .... or a sign from the gods?

Instantly this form, which our experiences and cultural training make it impossible to think of as anything other than a dining room table, is shown to be actually TOTALLY EMPTY OF A FIXED AND INTRINSIC NATURE. In other words, this form is actually emptiness.

OK, so form may be emptiness, but how can emptiness be form?  The answer is really quite simple: because of its ability to become anything.  Taking again the example of the dining room table, let's think about it.  The table is wood. It comes from a tree.   So, it could have remained a tree; the wood could have been pulped to become paper; the wood could have been used to build a house; or the wood could have been burned to produce heat and energy. By the same token, the soil, water and sunlight that made the tree could have combined in other ways to create different life forms.  The possibilities are infinite.   So, we are really talking about emptiness and its ability to become any form.

Now, where did this emptiness, which has the mysterious ability to take on any form, come from?  Science tells us that we all, earth, rock, tree, even humans, are made from the same cosmic stuff, the basic building block of the atom, a bit of vibrating energy that physicists refer to as strings, known to the Chinese as qi (Japanese ki.). [Note 1] The frequency at which this energy vibrates determines what form it will become: rock, water, wood or human flesh.  All beings share and exchange this material.  Our bodies are constantly exchanging with the environment around them.  With each breath we take in atoms from all that surrounds us.  In fact, according to astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan, each of us is presently carrying around about a billion atoms that once belonged to the tree under which the Buddha was enlightened.[Note 2]

Quoting again from Trinh Xuan Thuan, "Made of stardust, we share the same cosmic history as the lions on the savannas and the lavenders in the fields. We are all connected through time and space, and thus interdependent." [Note 3]

Quantum physics discoveries in particular have revolutionized our concept of the universe and our place in it.  We and our world interact with each other in ways never before imagined by science.  The act of observing a phenomenon is found to change its nature and outcome (the Buddha: "With our minds we make our world").  Actions in one part of the universe affect objects in another -- with no physical connection between them.  The list goes on and on, even dealing with the possibility of infinite parallel universes (Buddha realms?), with a version of all of us living in each.   Indra's net, with its myriad of jewels each reflecting all of the other jewels, is an image often invoked by the new physicists.

Physicist David Bohm wrote, "One is led to a new notion of unbroken wholeness which denies the classical idea of analyzability of the world into separately and independently existing parts. . . . We have reversed the usual classical notion that the independent 'elementary parts' of the world are the fundamental reality, and that the various systems are merely particular contingent forms and arrangements of these parts. Rather, we say that inseparable quantum interconnectedness of the whole universe is the fundamental reality, and that relatively independently behaving parts are merely particular and contingent forms within this whole." [Note 4]

Although many quantum physicists have remarked on the relationship of religion, physics and environment, Fritjof Capra perhaps expressed it best:  "At this deep level, ecology merges with spirituality because the experience of being connected with all of nature, of belonging to the universe, is the very essence of spirituality." [Note 5]

And at the Bottom of it All is……………….
“The electron-scanning microscope, with the ability to magnify several thousand times, takes us down into a realm that has the look of the sea about it…….

In the kingdom of corpuscles, there is transfiguration and there is samsara, the endless round of birth and death. Every passing second, some 2 1/2 million red cells are born, every second, the same number die. The typical cell lives about 110 days, then becomes tired and decrepit.

As the magnification increases, the flesh begins to dissolve. Muscle fiber takes on a crystalline aspect. We can see that it is made of long spiral molecules in orderly array. And all of these molecules are swaying like wheat in the wind, connected with each other and held in place by invisible waves that pulse many trillions of times a second.

And what are the molecules made of? As we move closer, we can see atoms, the tiny shadowy balls dancing around their fixed locations in the molecules, sometimes changing position with their partners in perfect rhythms. And now we focus on one of the atoms: its interior is lightly veiled by a cloud of electrons. We come closer, increasing the magnification. The shell dissolves and we look on the inside to find… nothing.

Somewhere within that emptiness we know is a nucleus. We scan the space, and there it is: a tiny dot. At last, we have discovered something hard and solid, a reference point. But no! – as we move closer to the nucleus it, too, begins to dissolve. It too is nothing more than an oscillating field, waves of rhythm. Inside the nucleus are other organized fields: protons, neutrons, even smaller particles. Each of these, upon our approach, also dissolve into pure rhythm.

Of what is the world made? It is made of emptiness and rhythm. At the ultimate heart of the body, of the world, of the universe, there is no substance. There is only the dance.”

(Adapted from George Leonard, "The Silent Pulse," quoted in Mu Soeng Sunim, The Heart Sutra, Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality.)


1. See Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, an Overview of the New Physics (New York, William Morrow & Co., 1979).  For a fairly straightforward explanation of string theory, see the web site:

2. Matthieu Ricard & Trinh Xuan Thuan, trans. Ian Monk, The Quantum and the Lotus (New York, Crown Publishers, 2001) p.73

3. The Quantum and the Lotus, supra., p.280

4. D. Bohm & B. Hiley, "On the Intuitive Understanding of Nonlocality as Implied by Quantum Theory," Foundations of Physics, vol. 5 (1975), p. 96.

5. Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, Fourth Edition (Boston, Shambhala Publications, 2000) p.7