Einstein and Buddha: 5 Ideas They Shared
Who said it, Buddha or Albert Einstein?
“The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self…”
Perhaps surprisingly, this spiritual commentary on selflessness comes from Einstein in The World As I See It. But this too is the essence Buddha’s teaching. It makes sense that there’d be common ground between these two giants of human thought. But the extent to which they agree on things — often using very similar language — is astonishing.
This essay came about as I read Einstein’s books while living at a Zen Buddhist monastery. It outlines the shared perspective of these two greats.
Now Einstein was not a Buddhist. But I’d argue that, in a sense, he was a Buddha. He had the same mission as the Buddha and the Buddha the same mission as he: to understand the true nature of the human experience.
Einstein is one of the premier minds representing science, rationality, and intellectual knowing. Buddha has the same status representing religion, spirituality, and intuitive knowing. In considering how their views of reality converge towards the same set of truths, we may find that science and religion are two paths up the same mountain. They are two modes of inquiry into the same fundamental truth of experience. The spirit of science and spirit of religion/spirituality is the same: the search for truth.
In fact, it seems despite the many different traditions, eras, and languages - the wisest of us humans tend to arrive at similar views of reality.
(Note: See Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra for a discussion of the converging views between Eastern mysticism and Western science. See work of Huston Smith who wrote about the converging truths of various religions.)
Despite having observed this pattern of converging truth from science and the many wisdom traditions, the specificity of Buddha and Einstein’s shared ideas is amazing. Despite being over a thousand years apart with completely different genetic, technological, and cultural conditions – their insights are nearly identical.
Here are five shared ideas from Einstein and Buddha…
1. All knowing is incomplete.
Buddha and Einstein observed our knowledge of reality is far more limited and illusory than we think.
We tend to take our experience, conceptions, narratives, and models of reality for reality itself. But this so-called reality isn’t so.
Perception is not reality.
In one of his first teachings, the Buddha spoke of the two truths: absolute and relative. The absolute truth is the vast, undifferentiated suchness of the universe. It is the infinite ocean of reality. The relative truth is the domain of human knowledge and our practical interaction with the absolute. It’s called relative because all this knowledge depends upon relative relationships between things. Ugliness exists because of beauty. Up exists because of down. I say “I” when I’m talking to you and you say “I” when you’re talking to me. But we say “we” when we’re talking to them. That’s all relative truth!
There’s a story in the Yogacara tradition of two monks looking at a flag in the wind. The one monk says “the flag moves”. The other says, “the wind moves.” The master hears them arguing as says “it’s your mind that moves!” Again this means that our perceptions of how things are, are not literally “how things are” but how they appear. The mind constructs reality through conceptual units.
Einstein observed this same predicament. He said that “reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”. He saw that the same limitations of knowledge apply to the realm of science. He said that “as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
This is not to say science or intellectual knowledge is without its merit. But it is meant to point out that even science is a representation of reality – albeit a very coherent one. It is a knowledge structure built and sustained by human minds.
So it’s not that we should shun relative knowledge. It is this relative truth that has brought us our modern medical system and World Wide Web. It informs how we should interact ethically with one another. It’s also not to say this knowledge has no bearing on reality. Rather that is not reality. It’s an approximate representation. It is a map depicting an infinitely more complex territory. The map is not the territory.
Insight into the incompleteness and relativeness of knowing is fundamental part of Einstein and Buddha’s shared view. It is the foundation of wisdom and insight.
2. Understanding how things work is not enough.
Let’s consider scientific knowledge to be understanding how things are. It is, despite the limitations discussed above, our best effort to understand things objectively.
How do the laws of cause and effect operate? How do we build a building that won’t fall down? How do cells work and how can we manipulate them?
This is the sort of more rational, intellectual, scientific mode of inquiry.
And this mode of inquiry is not enough. Both the Buddha and Einstein recognized we need something more.
Again this mode of knowledge is concerned with how things are and how we are. It is meant to be objective. How things ought to be and how we should be are not within the scope of this inquiry. The natural laws of the universe don’t dictate right and wrong or good and evil. That means we need the intuitive, emotional, spiritual, and religious mode of inquiry to round out our understanding.
Einstein pointed out – “as long as we remain in the realm of science proper, we can never meet with a sentence of the type: ‘Thou shalt not lie.’” He also pointed out that given the close association between morality and religion, we have experienced somewhat of a decay in morality as science has eclipsed religion as the source of truth. While of course a champion of scientific thinking, Einstein objected to it being held as the ultimate source of truth. He believed that the deliberate nurturing of the moral sense – a nurturing that comes out of experience, intuition, and spirituality was essential to the wellbeing of all.
The many branching streams of Buddha’s teaching seem to echo this same sentiment. The purely rational – “how do things work” – mode is not enough. Going back to his teaching of the two truths – Buddha began with absolute truth. “What is the nature of reality?”
But he realized that this leaves many of us wondering: “So what? How should I live my life?” So he taught the four noble truths (a summary of why we suffer) and the eight fold path (a summary of how to end suffering). He covers not just how things are - but how we ought to live.
Most all Buddhist traditions emphasize meditative or contemplative practices to experience truth firsthand and using the insights from such experiences to inform ethics and behavior. For instance, we might consider heart practices such as cultivating compassion. Such practices are less concerned with rational thought and more concerned with the wisdom and feelings of the body. This experience of compassion then informs how we see and interact with others.
If we are interested in the wellbeing of ourselves, humanity, and the planet - it is not sufficient to scientifically understand how things work. We must use intuition, contemplative practice, spirituality, and philosophy to understand how things ought to be and how to live. I propose our modern world is evidence of this same point that Einstein and Buddha made: scientific thinking is not enough. Not only do we need the “how it works” from science, but the guidance of right living from spirituality and intuition.
3 Happiness is the point of life.
It’s amazing to me that when faced with the ultimate existential question of, basically, what is all this about? What are we doing here? What’s the point?
Buddha and Einstein had the same answer.
I summarize it: the fundamental nature of life is to reduce suffering and maximize satisfaction. Everything is a means to an end - happiness is that end.
Einstein opens his passage on science and religion with the following…
“Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of felt needs and the assuagement of pain… Feeling and desire are the motive forces behind all human endeavor and human creation…”
While it is impossible to quote the Buddha verbatim, this same insight is at the core of his teachings. The Dalai Lama says…
“Every sentient being has the right to survive and, for survival, this means having a desire for happiness or comfort: that’s why sentient beings strive to survive. Therefore, our survival is based on hope – hope for something good: happiness. Because of that, I always conclude that the purpose of life is happiness.”
More generally, in Buddhism we learn that all beings seek to avoid pain, fear, and suffering and seek to attain pleasure, comfort, and peace. This is as true for a rat and a house plant as it is a human. Of course these organisms don’t conceptualize and think about them in the same way. But a plant turns towards the sun to satisfy its need for energy and a rat runs away from a snake to avoid pain.
So what’s the point, what is all this about? The universal aim of life is to decrease suffering and increase happiness. Einstein and Buddha present humanity with the same mission: Einstein writes…
“All men should let their conduct be guided by the same principles; and those principles should be such, that by following them there should accrue to all as great a measure of possible of security and satisfaction, and as small a measure as possible of suffering.”
4. Everything is interdependent; everything is one.
In the Ubuntu tradition, they say “I exist because you are”.
Modern physics paints a picture of the universe as one interdependent mesh: everything exists only in relationship to everything else.
In both a literal, cosmic sense and in more practical, social sense the nature of being is interdependence.
Modern Buddhist leader, Thich Nhat Hanh beautifully conveys this teaching of the Buddha in his many talks on “interbeing”. He explains that many years ago he was searching for an English word to describe our deep interconnection with everything else…
“I liked the word ‘togetherness,’ but I finally came up with the word ‘interbeing.’ The verb ‘to be’ can be misleading, because we cannot be by ourselves, alone. ‘To be’ is always to ‘inter-be.’ If we combine the prefix ‘inter’ with the verb ‘to be,’ we have a new verb, ‘inter-be.’ To inter-be and the action of interbeing reflects reality more accurately. We inter-are with one another and with all life.”
Biologists such as Lewis Thomas point out that our bodies are occupied by millions of other tiny organisms. Without them we could not eat, move, or breathe. In fact, there are more nonhuman than human cells in our bodies! The planet itself is one giant, living, breathing organism linked together by levels of systems nesting within systems. (Note: See Gaia Theory to learn about this.)
It’s possible to see this in our daily life. When we see a child we see their mother and father. As I write this essay I type on a computer that has arrived here through an infinitely complex causal network. Someone had to found Lenovo many years ago and then create a massive company. And then this computer was assembled by many workers in a factory. And someone drove it to the store. Then the store shipped it to me, someone had to pick it up and deliver it… I could go on like this. We haven’t even considered the life journey that has led me to living at the monastery typing these words! Suffice to say the causes and conditions that lead to me typing these words are infinite.
As Carl Sagan said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
The Buddha saw that the nature of reality and our existence depend upon inter-causality, interdependence, interbeing, whatever word we want to use. Einstein saw the same truth. Again he spoke of this in the realms of human affairs and ultimate reality.
He wrote that the religious feeling of the scientist “takes the form of the rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.” He embraced a view of the universe as one cosmic whole. Going on, “from the point of view of daily life… we exist for our fellow men – in the first place are those on whose smiles and welfare all our happiness depends, and next for all those unknown to us personally with whose destinies we are bound up by the ties of sympathy.”
We are not separate.
We are not separate from our fellow humans. We are not separate from our fellow universe. As Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi said…
“Wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars you see. You are one with everything. That is more true than I can say, and more true than you can hear.”
5. The way to live is to be free of self.
The quote I shared at the start of this essay sums up the final shared truth of Einstein and Buddha…
“The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in in which he has attained liberation from the self.”
(And remember that’s Einstein there – not Buddha!)
These two men posit that the pursuit of happiness is the dropping of self-centeredness. Liberation from self is the way to live. Einstein says this is the value of a human being. The Buddha says that this is the cessation of suffering.
Most all wisdom traditions, religions, and lines of philosophy – when taken to their end – all converge at this truth. We are an expression of something universal. There is no me, only we.
Einstein went on to say that the spiritual person…
“Feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole.”
Listen to Einstein the mystic. He goes on to state that he reminds himself hundreds of times every day that his inner and outer life depend on the labors of others and that he must give back the same measure that he has received.
Buddha offered a similar prescription - to take on the suffering of others eases our own suffering. It brings peace – by stopping our clinging and anxiety. It allows us to love – by feeling connected to others. It brings happiness: when we’re a part of everything we have a sense of unity, purpose, love, and peace.
This is the old adage that a sorrow shared is halved and joy shared is double. It naturally follows from the previous insights about interdependence and the goal of all life. Happiness lies in self-liberation. It still surprises me that Einstein and Buddha used such similar language for this teaching – there must be some truth to it…
I was truly astonished by the shared vision of these two wise men. But it’s more than just a neat commonality or interesting historical quirk. There is something fundamental being shared here. These are two fingers pointing at the moon.
Nothing exists in isolation. We are connected to everything, and most importantly, to each other. We are characters in a shared story. All beings seeking for happiness and the end of suffering. We must go beyond just rational, scientific knowing - to embrace the spiritual and contemplative modes of insight.
And in doing so we may go beyond the self — to freedom.
Your happiness nerd,
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