Filed in Science

In the Light of Truth

A physicist sees science as spiritual practice

Adam Frank

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One can argue that science is amoral, that no inherent ethical conclusions can be drawn from scientific findings. There is, however, one precept that all scientists hold sacred: "Tell the truth." There is no greater sin in science than falsifying data or conclusions. Scientists are asked to let the world speak for itself, to observe without bias or preconceived ideas. They are, in the ideal, asked to witness the world without the filter of prior desires or demands. Of course, scientists—and I am one—cannot help but bring to the task their ego-laden selves with all their attendant attachments. But in the space of the investigation itself, to paraphrase Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, there is room to create a larger container, and to gain more freedom as a creative observer.

AS IT DID FOR Siddhartha Gautama, spiritual endeavor often begins when a direct experience of suffering (or rapture) drives a person out of the confines of self. From there a commitment is established to explore for oneself matters of birth and death, the true and the real. Experience is the seed of aspiration, the deeply rooted commitment to know. That aspiration then drives one into the difficult and transformative realm of spiritual pursuit, into the realm of practice.

Science, in its essence, is no different. We begin with experience, experience seeds aspiration, aspiration drives effort, and effort matures into understanding. Go to any graduate department in physics or biology and ask the aspiring students why they are there. You will hear a range of reasons, but without fail you will always find those who speak of a passion to know the world on its own terms. Often these students describe vivid experiences: their first view through a microscope of the vast ecologies contained in a water drop, or the awesome sight of rapid lightning strikes illuminating the face of a mountain. Such experiences fire a sense of the world's great beauty and the students' own heartfelt desire to understand that beauty on a deeper level.

In my years of meeting and training astrophysics students, I have discovered that a profound aspiration—a longing, in fact—to understand the world's own language is often the hallmark of promise. Zen tradition tells many stories of a student sitting in the snow before the gates of the monastery, left to wait as a test of the aspirant's commitment to the dharma. The best students I've seen would gladly take such a seat at the gates of the observatory for a chance to participate in the investigations within.

Of course, such aspiration is only a beginning. It is the depth of one's aspiration that then fuels the student's effort. In scientific and spiritual endeavor alike, that effort must be exhaustive. Training to become a scientist, not unlike the training of a monk, requires a commitment that stretches across decades. The songwriter Leonard Cohen spoke of his years of Zen training and described the practices as "designed to throw over a twenty-one-year-old." The same is true of the first years of graduate training in science. If it can be endured, then the long period of apprenticeship is the time when students learn their most important lesson—to trust their own power of investigation and the fruit it bears.

What makes this training different from, say, getting an M.B.A., is that damnable quality about science that drives so many people crazy. In science there is a right answer. A more accurate description would be that in science there is an answer that conforms to the way the world is constructed. If you are to become a scientist, first you must forge your will into a resolve strong enough to persevere in the long search for those answers. Then, most important, you must develop the discernment to know what the answers look like. No one can do this for you. It most be won on your own.

Past a certain point, there are no answers in the back of the book. In fact, there is no book. Even knowing how to ask the question requires an intuition, a gut feeling that comes from paying close attention to the world as it presents itself. Scientists will talk about "taste" in choosing a problem and knowing how to pursue it. In short, students must learn for themselves when they are on the right path. As the ninth-century Zen master Rinzai taught, "Place no head above your own." The great innovators in science, from Newton to Einstein, were people who steadfastly trusted their own vision of the world's truth.

These qualities of aspiration, effort, and self-reliance have a direct echo in Buddhist training. Together they form the bridge across which we can move from contemplative practice to scientific practice without lapsing into false claims of one domain recovering the other's truth. Ultimately, what brings science and authentic spiritual endeavor into an active parallel is not the nature of the truth each claims to find, but the ethic and practice of inquiry itself.

Science is an outward-directed path and as such cannot open the practitioner in the manner of a contemplative tradition. Still, in its emphasis on truthfulness and letting the world appear on its own terms, it can be a powerful expression of the dharma. Like spiritual practice, the work is hard, requiring long hours of dedicated concentrated effort. Like spiritual practice, the path leads through dry flat plateaus fraught with resistance and boredom. The "reward" for patience and hard work also parallels the promise of spiritual practice -- insight, clarity, and an authentic vision of the world's great and luminous beauty.

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester. He has written for Discover and Astronomy magazines.

Illustration by Timothy Collins © 2007

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