Trinh Xuan Thuan: “Void is not nothingness. »

- through Henry Oudin

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From the invention of zero, coming from the Orient, to the recent discovery of the potential fruitfulness of the void – which brings us closer to the great oriental intuitions –, passing through the question of the origin of the world and of consciousness, the famous astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan guides us in our questions, with an impressive teaching talent, at the same time scientist, philosopher and spiritual researcher.

What is the vacuum for an astrophysicist of the beginning of the XNUMXst century?

We believe that the universe started with the explosion of an infinitely small, hot and dense state, the famous big bang. But we think today that in fact, everything started from a void. A void different from the one we are used to, which is a space devoid of any activity. Besides, even Buddhism says that emptiness is not completely empty – to think otherwise would be nihilism. In fact, there is never a complete vacuum. In science, it is certain. This is true of the "intergalactic void", where there is always a bit of matter. “Dark energy” is a huge unknown mass, representing 73% of the mass of the universe; added to the "dark matter", also mysterious, it makes 96%... which is still very embarrassing for current physics! We don't know exactly what 96% of the universe is made of!

So you mean that for astrophysicists, absolute nothingness does not exist?

No. And it's the same thing in religious traditions. I especially know Buddhism, for which the void is full of potential too. Emptiness is not nothingness.

The "supreme emptiness" of the Buddhists has long frightened Westerners.

Yes, because they confused it with nihilism. In the XNUMXth century, it was written in the West that Buddhism was the “cult of nothingness”. However, Buddhism does not say that the world does not exist. He says the world exists, but it is interdependent, so it always depends on something else. When Buddhism says that the world is empty, it means that the emptiness is the intrinsic substance. The world cannot exist by itself. But there is no creator god either. A creation ex nihilo cannot exist. Everything always depends on something else.

The question of origin is therefore indefinitely pushed elsewhere, in an endless spiral!

This is why I say that the cosmological model most compatible with Buddhism is that of the eternal cyclic universe, with an infinity of big bangs and big crunches.

But if we enter the spiritual realm, isn't emptiness what we seek through meditation? Awakening without any object.

That's true, but having never reached full emptiness that way, I can't really tell you about it. Rather ask this question to the Dalai Lama or Matthieu Ricard (laugh).

Isn't supreme emptiness the place of all possibilities?

If, for me, the Buddhist void, that's it. I imagine that the meditator, coming out of the void, finds himself somehow renewed, capable of new creations, ready for action. I don't think an enlightened Buddhist just meditates and withdraws from the world, which again would be a nihilistic attitude. Rather, he will seek action in the world – the Dalai Lama constantly acts to try to defend the Tibetan people from the Chinese invader. Matthieu Ricard, whom I know quite well, builds orphanages, schools, etc. But I admit that this is a point that we have never seriously approached. In our discussions, I never asked Matthieu: “What does the void bring you deeply in meditation? »

If we consider what the "Strong Anthropic Principle" says, of which you are a champion, one would be tempted to conclude that the vacuum in question was intelligent, since it had somehow foreseen us from the start!

Oh, I don't know if I can go that far. Attribute consciousness to particles, I do not see what would allow it. This remains one of the great mysteries and I would even say, for me, the greatest mystery… Even though Matthieu Ricard told me that, according to Buddhism, there would be “ streams of consciousness independent of matter and present from the big bang.

“In the XNUMXth century, it was written in the West that Buddhism was the “cult of nothingness”. However, Buddhism does not say that the world does not exist. He says the world exists, but it is interdependent, so it always depends on something else. »

There is a great debate, especially among neurobiologists, to know which, matter or consciousness, precedes the other. Many reductionist scientists think that the second is only an emanation of the first. But the debate remains completely open. Personally, I bet that consciousness is distinct from matter and that everything we experience, love, feelings, inspiration and creativity, is not reducible to currents of electrons or movements. of molecules. But to go from there to affirming that the particles have a consciousness…

What do these “streams of consciousness” look like?

We talked about it quite a bit with Matthieu Ricard when writing Infinity in the palm of your hand (1). As Buddhists assume that humans are continually reborn, these flows pass from one material medium to another, but can also do without. I have nothing to say on that. I'm just betting that the love and feelings we experience are independent of matter. But science has nothing to say about it. And even if neuro-cognitivists now manage to describe very precisely the activity of the brain when we think, act, feel, this proves nothing other than the existence of an interface between matter and consciousness, which is a truism. That said, I am not a neurophysiologist and I respectfully await discoveries that would prove me wrong.

Conversely, do you believe that matter is only an emanation of consciousness? Doesn't Buddhism say that the world is only a relative truth?

Personally, I believe that matter and consciousness coexist. These are two states of real. Consciousness uses material supports to manifest itself. But all this is pure speculation, don't tell me that I present this as scientific data!

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Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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