When Buddhist Monks Meet Quantum Physicists

Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists gathered in Gangtok, India earlier this month for an unlikely meeting of the minds.

Monks working on a project with Science for Monks
Monks working on a project with Science for Monks
Vasudevan Mukunth

GANGTOK — Geshe Thabke is a Buddhist monk at the Sera Jay monastery near Mysore, Karnataka. On the sidelines of a conference called "Science for Monks," I sat down with him for a chat, during the course of which he mentioned a curious thing. When most people think about the meditative element of the practice of Buddhism, he said, they think only about single-point meditation, which is when a practitioner closes their eyes and focuses their mind's eye, so to speak, on a single object.

But there is also a less well known, second kind of meditation: It's an analytical exercise by which two monks engage in debate and question each other about their ideas. Each challenges the other's beliefs by pointing to impossibilities and contradictions. For obvious reasons, this is also a louder form of meditation. Thabke said that sometimes, people walk into his monastery expecting it to be a quiet environment and are surprised when they chance upon an argument. Analytical meditation is considered to be a form of evidence-sharpening and a part of proof-building.

It was on the back of this aspect of Buddhism, at least Tibetan Buddhism, that the "Science for Monks' workshops and conferences were organized, according to Bryce Johnson, the director of a California-based foundation of the same name and point-person for these events. They have been funded by the John Templeton and Sager Family Foundations, and organized together with the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA).

"The Dalai Lama thinks monks should learn science so they can be good servants of society."

This year's edition was organized in Gangtok, Sikkim, and concluded on Oct. 6.* The theme was "Observation and Reality," and attendees included five scientists from three countries and about 30 monks from 16 monasteries in India. The scientists were mostly, in their words, "quantum information" people, and their research focused on how quantum mechanics treated information, knowledge and reality. The monks and the scientists gave talks and participated in panel discussions on these topics over multiple sessions over a period of three days.

"Bringing science to monks, broadly, was something that was encouraged by the Dalai Lama," Johnson said. "The Dalai Lama thinks monks should learn science so they can be good servants of society." Indeed, one of the monks said he wants to be a "21st century monk."

"There's also an idea in Buddhism that you have to maintain an openness to all kinds of knowledge," Johnson added. "Many monks are curious about the world about them, they want to learn more about nature and science has insights into nature and fills in gaps where Buddhist explanations are not very detailed. They find that the best way to preserve what they find valuable in Buddhism is by forming connections with modern thought and modern science."

Open to interpretation

But for these benign intentions, the success of such endeavors is always going to be limited. Going beyond the matter of the conceptual differences between science and religion, the theme of this year's conference — centered on quantum mechanics — gives rise to problems of its own. Quantum mechanics is dogged by issues that remain unresolved. For example, Ian Durham, a physicist at Anselm University in Boston, presented a talk that discussed six different interpretations of the theory of quantum mechanics, each with its pros and cons.

Additionally, in the past, philosophers and physicists alike have posited numerous theses on the alleged connections between Buddhism and other eastern philosophical traditions like Hinduism and Taoism in an effort to make sense of what quantum mechanics tells us about the nature of reality. Many of these ideas have been debunked or dismissed entirely on grounds that their underlying science is dated, wrong or misinterpreted.

As a result, the conference could have been fertile ground for misinterpretation from both sides — on the part of scientists as to what Tibetan Buddhism says about reality, and on the part of the monks as to what science already knows or doesn't know. And this was partly the case, although not entirely.

" is hard to find "scientists who are good communicators," particularly in physics."

Johnson said he believes this problem was mostly mitigated by the fact that the scientists often helped each other articulate their ideas better. The same went for the monks.

Scientists from India, who were listed among the participants in previous editions of the conference, were conspicuous by their absence from this year's edition. Johnson said this wasn't intentional. "I invited a few Indian scientists. One said he could go but then he had to back out," he said. "Others just couldn't come. And then other, Western scientists wanted to come."

He also said that it is hard to find "scientists who are good communicators," particularly in physics. "If you go to YouTube and look for well-known Indian professors, you're like, "Umm, I'm not sure that's going to work out too good."" Ultimately, he said his "number-one priority" was "to create a great learning experience for the monks and nuns that are involved in our program, and not something that looks a certain way."

Anyway, in an environment of such dialogue and debate, the general hope was that the sharing of new ideas would inspire the participants to ask new questions, even if it didn't spur any longer term collaborations.

For example, Durham spoke at length about how classical physics allowed scientists for a long time to distinguish between what knowledge and reality were, as distinct entities in the study of the natural world. However, the dawn of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century no longer afforded this luxury. Knowledge and reality became intertwined, as delineated by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and, more famously, the Schrödinger's cat thought-experiment.

Anyway, in an environment of such dialogue and debate, the general hope was that the sharing of new ideas would inspire the participants to ask new questions, even if it didn't spur any longer term collaborations.

Durham added that, in this context, Western philosophy proved to be of not much use to physicists because it enforced a distinction between knowledge and reality. On the other hand, many Eastern philosophical traditions don't make this distinction and, according to Durham, might provide physicists with the inspiration they're looking for.

"They find that the best way to preserve what they find valuable in Buddhism is by forming connections with modern thought and modern science."

Irreconcilable differences?

Thabke, who admitted to being more comfortable with philosophy than spirituality, said that the conference presented an opportunity for him to understand how scientists thought about the objects of their study and their approach to the construction and boundaries of knowledge. He remarked that he uses that as a basis to interrogate his own approach to epistemology.

"I'm a scientist but I've also grown up as a Buddhist," said Areeya Chantasri, a physicist from Thailand who presented at the conference. "So I have experience thinking about those kinds of spiritual questions." She added, "Now that I have a PhD in physics I undertake research in physics, and this is a good time to learn more about what I'm thinking and maybe try to explain what I think as a physicist and a Buddhist." She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Quantum Dynamics, Griffith University, Brisbane.

During the conference, Karma Thupten received praise from scientists and monks alike for his translations of scientific and philosophical statements and questions from English to Tibetan and vice-versa. He attributed his fluency to the fact that he had been attending these conferences for some time.

"Now that I have a PhD in physics I undertake research in physics, and this is a good time to learn more about what I'm thinking and maybe try to explain what I think as a physicist and a Buddhist."

Translators have a unique place in this science/Buddhism ecosystem, one pillar of which is the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI) between Emory University, Atlanta, and the LTWA. Apart from helping publish bilingual (English/Tibetan) dictionaries of scientific terms, translators like Thupten also work with translators at Emory to coin new Tibetan words to encapsulate specific scientific concepts. These words are then submitted to the education department of the Central Tibetan Administration for approval. Once approved, they enter regular parlance.

Geshe Lhakdor, a more senior monk in the monasterial hierarchy and director of the LTWA, kicked the conference off with a keynote that sought to establish a similarly strong purpose for the conference. He said that should scientists discover something that pointedly refuted a fact the Buddhists believed to be true, then the Buddhists must accept that discovery and reflexively modify their beliefs.

While such opportunities might have been more abundant with classical physics, the speculation-ridden realm of quantum mechanics made for a more negotiated — and, for that reason, more interesting — experience. The talks focused on cause-effect relationships, causality and locality, famous quantum physics experiments that illustrated the subject's kookiness, consciousness, epistemology, and states of knowledge and reality. The scientists and the monks engaged mostly on the latter's turf, the monks asking and presenting parallel ideas in Buddhism and the scientists further clarifying what they had said such that nuances didn't get lost in the context.

In a conversation, Lhakdor also wished that scientists would be more empathetic in and through their work, and always keep the needs of the common human in mind.

Scientific and religious traditions are ultimately irreconcilable for the way they seek out and establish truths. In fact, it would be fair to say that these traditions, as such, are so far down their respective paths that even speaking meaningfully to each other is going to be impossible, particularly in the present format of having multiple talks and panels over just three days.

Science and religion are not independent of the people who practice it.

From next year, according to Johnson, the congress will assume a more dialogue-oriented format that enhances the scope for deeper dialogues that could lead to longer term collaborations. This is similar to the dialogues hosted by the Mind & Life Institute.

But to take a leaf out of Lhakdor's book, the "Science for Monks' conference provided a glimpse of the similarities, dissimilarities and contradictions between what he called "the two truths." Granted, Tibetan Buddhism — with its culture of debate and introspection — might be less dogmatic than its peers but it is dogmatic nonetheless. It also served to illustrate how science and religion are not independent of the people who practice it, and that they need not compete for their places in the human mind.

*Disclosure: The author attended the conference at the invitation of the Science for Monks Foundation, with expenses borne by the foundation.

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Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.

Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."


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