Schrodinger’s Dharma – A Cat Reveals Buddha-nature

by Wayne Ren-Cheng
The Buddhist concept that “form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form” found most famously in the Heart Sutra can be difficult to wrap the mind around. Emptiness is well . . . empty, and form has substance so how each can be both requires a thought experiment followed by a realization of experience. Today scientific research is proving aspects of Buddhism, in particular the changes that occur as a result of meditative practice to have beneficial effects on the bodymind. To better understand the conundrum of emptiness and form there is a scientific thought experiment that is useful.

In Buddhist philosophy everything, all dharma is causally conditioned. It becomes what it is in a particular moment as a result of the causal process of the Universe, of its interaction with other phenomena. This would not possible if all dharma had inherent and permanent form. It has neither aspect and until it is acted upon physically and/or mentally it has only potential (emptiness) to take on form. Causal conditioning, the who, what, when, where, why and how of the causal process enacts the transformation from emptiness to form. Very philosophical concept but it can be experienced if one is mindful. Still, for Westerners caught up in concrete definitions and concrete descriptions it isn’t an easy concept. Let’s look to a contemporary science model for help.


In 1935 Erwin Schrodinger was looking for a way to show the limits of quantum mechanics, how particles like atoms can be in two or more different quantum states simultaneously. He imagined putting a cat in a box that had no openings. Inside the box is placed a radioactive atom connected to a vial of deadly poison. Once the box is closed there is no way to know if the atom decays allowing the vial to shatter and the poison to be released and the cat killed. He postulated that because the atom, the cat and the vial could not be seen then the atom was in both a decayed and non-decayed state at the same time. The cat, because it couldn’t be seen would be both dead and alive at the same time. Without observation these physical objects would be in two diametrically opposed conditions in the same moment. Without experience the thought “dead or alive” was empty of meaning. Emptiness and form are diametrically opposed conditions yet Buddhist philosophy says they too are the same.

To apply Schrodinger’s thought experiment to the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness and form first requires the understanding that observation is a experiential act and the emptiness/form concept can be experientially verified. In Schrodinger’s experiment there is a cat in a box with a vial of poison. There is a trigger, the atom that has the potential to release the poison killing the cat. The atom, the poison and the cat are thought to be in two simultaneous states of existence because we can’t see them. It all comes down to one can’t ascertain the reality without the experience. There is both emptiness and form.
There is no way for human beings to know the future. Yeah, some people say they can but it is all speculation whether scientific or the metaphysical methods are engaged. So, each moment can be viewed as in a box until it is entered in to. There is a tendency for people to believe they know what is in the box before it is opened. I call that fondling the future.

Wade has been called into a meeting with his boss and a representative of human resources. He can’t think of anything he’d done wrong but that doesn’t ease his anxiety. Wade is certain he knows what will happen. Other employees have had the same situation and came out of the office, cleaned out their desks, and left the building. At 2pm he enters the office (the box). Sitting at the conference table is his boss (the atom), the human resources person (the poison), and Wade (the cat) takes a seat. Wade has prepared himself for the worse. An hour later he comes out of the meeting with a promotion and a raise. While Wade imagined what was going to happen in that office it was in reality empty of form until he experienced it. He could equally have imagined getting a promotion and raise.
The dharma is the realities of life, what is.

We don’t know what “is” until we experience the emptiness of any situation, thus experiencing the form it takes. Buddhist practice further teaches us that once form is experienced it will not take that same exact form again. It will be empty again. Even as we experienced the form of any dharma there is another person who is experiencing the emptiness of that very same dharma.


4 thoughts on “Schrodinger’s Dharma – A Cat Reveals Buddha-nature

  1. If we use Schrodinger’s cat in the application of dharma, could we not do the same for reincarnation and rebirth? Many Buddhist argue that the Buddha taught rebirth, some believe he truly taught reincarnation. No one ever sees a middle ground. But the Buddha didn’t have the words in his language to convey what we think he was trying to say, and we may never know. So why can it not be both? I could be completely wrong….or correct…..or both.

    • Ethan, there are so many lessons that your question points to, it is hard to know where to begin. The space here is limited, so my explanation will be brief. I know you are new to engaging Buddhist thought and practice, and asking questions is the only way one begins to learn some of the more difficult principles contained in what the Buddha taught. I say questions are important because just taking what someone else says for “truth” is one of the big mistakes a student makes in the beginning of their training. You have done much reading and this is a good thing. Doing the Buddhist math (putting 2 and 2 together) is the challenge.

      There is no one Buddhism. There are several schools and traditions each with their own interpretations of what Siddhartha Gautama taught from an awakened bodymind. Yes, some of these traditions have incorporated the notion of rebirth and/or reincarnation into there worldview. Some, perhaps most especially from Zen traditions, have taken a different view based on contemporary scholarship, cultural influences, awakened mental processes, as well as considering what science can teach us about how the Universe is. Remember too, that some of these ancient traditions have incorporated pre-Buddhist beliefs or Hindu practices into their understanding of what Buddhism means to them. What is also important to know, is that both the early scriptures as well as legacy teachings from the masters have been translated over and over again as Buddhism moved from East to West, so much of what is used as text has lost much of its original meaning. But have no doubt, the Buddha was very educated both in Hindu thought and practices, as well as being a great public speaker. His reluctance to speak about his enlightenment was due to the very conceptual nature of his experience that would be difficult for anyone to explain in simple language. But he did speak, and for that we are all grateful. When you say that the Buddha did not have the words in his language to express the exact meaning of Dharma, it is not because his language was lacking, but no language is expressive enough to do so, especially English.

      The Buddha was very specific in teaching the weakness in the argument taken by some that rebirth is a Universal reality. His counter argument was based on the core principle of Dependent Origination know as mutual causality. Everything is subject to change, nothing stays the same for long, thus there is no permanence to any Universal form even this notion of a separate self. Yes, you can find some sutras that subscribe to rebirth, and many others that speak persuasively against. Which one do you choose to believe? You see, the key word here is “choose.” Much study must be done BEFORE you adopt an idea as reality. This is critical to your training. Wayne Shi in this teaching makes several points that you need to contemplate on in order to move forward in your understanding of the information you are acquiring. Information first, understanding next, validating this understanding by personal experience will bring wisdom. This process will bring you to readiness.

      This article brings out some of the core principles of Buddhist thought and philosophy. It is up to all of us to find the lessons.

      1. One can’t ascertain the reality of something without first experiencing it.

      2. Buddhist thought indicates that once a universal form is taken and experienced, it will not be repeated.

      3. The Dharma (bid D no small d) is causal conditioned. Dharma is Change itself.

      4. Concrete definition and concrete descriptions are never easy to understand. Why?

      Don’t let your focus on rebirth and reincarnation cloud your recognition of Buddhist practices and philosophy for promoting human flourishing that was the major emphasis of what the Buddha taught. Else your practice will wind up in the weeds.

      /\ David Xi-Ken Sensei

      • Thank you, Sensei. You’ve taught me so much in such a short amount of time. I will continue to study with the knowledge you have given me.

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