The building blocks of the universe according to Buddhism

In the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, Buddha says:

Just as the depth of an ocean cannot be measured by shooting an arrow, if we oceaninvestigate the aggregates with wisdom we cannot find them. ~ New Heart of Wisdom, p. 46

(“Aggregates” means our body and mind.) And indeed, in this last article, we investigated our body to see whether it was within its parts, and we couldn’t find it.

So then maybe we concluded that at least I’ll find its parts if I go looking, and they are something real that I can pin my body upon.

Meditation on the emptiness of our hand

So, let’s go looking for our hand, for starters. Check out your hand. What are you seeing when you look at it? Due to ignorance, we think there is a real hand here. Where is this hand?

We can do the same analysis – if it is real or independent, and nothing to do with my perception, I can find it, and it must be within its parts or separate from its parts. Then we go looking.

point to the hand.jpeg
Point to the hand …

As mentioned here, when we meditate on emptiness we don’t assume from the get go that we are not going to find stuff. Better to think, “I am really going to find this thing. I am so attached to my hand; I want to see if it is really there.”

We need to look within its parts first – is my finger my hand? My palm? We can ask the same for the knuckles, tendons, skin, etc. But none of these is the hand. And when we put them together, we still just have a collection of not-hands.

So maybe the hand exists somewhere else and possesses these parts. In which case we should be able to point to it without pointing to any of its parts. But imagine all your fingers fly off, and the palms dissolves. Where is the hand? It is not there.

We acknowledge the emptiness of the hand before we move on to the next bit …

But maybe the parts of my hand exist?! What about my finger, maybe that exists? But no, the finger too depends upon its parts but is not its parts. Maybe my knuckle?! Or the joint? Or the molecules of my joint?! Or, or, or …

What’s the smallest thing in the universe?!

We can take this search as far as we want, maybe to atoms, or even quarks, or whatever scientists say is the basic building block of the universe these days. But there is no point at which we can terminate this analysis. The arrow will never hit its mark. Even the tiniest particle depends upon its parts.

In Meaningful to Behold, Geshe Kelsang explains this meditation on establishing the non-true existence, or emptiness, of the parts of the bodybuilding blocks, and says:

The individual parts of the joint are merely imputed upon the collection of particles that make it up and so they also have no true existence. The particles in turn are merely imputed upon their directional parts – north, east, south, and west – and are therefore not truly existent. And likewise even the parts of the directions can be further divided. Thus a lack of truly existent parts, empty like space, is revealed. ~ p. 325

Once upon a time people thought visible lumpy things were the building blocks of the universe. Then, with sophisticated equipment, the atom was discovered, and for a while it was thought to be the indivisible bottom line, before it was split to reveal protons, neutrons, and electrons. These subatomic particles too seemed to be the fundamental building blocks of everything, until scientists discovered that they too are made up of quarks.

There will be no end to this process – even the most sophisticated equipment in infinite world systems will never reveal an ultimate constituent of the universe. However small we go, we will never find an indivisible building block because there isn’t one.

There is no such thing as a partless particle. Everything depends upon its parts, and those atomsparts depend upon their parts, and so on, ad infinitum. And if something depends upon parts, it is not independent or inherently existent.

Even the smallest discernible particle will have directional parts, for example, or else it could not sit next to, or “meet”, another particle. As Geshe Kelsang puts it in Meaningful to Behold (where you’ll find this analysis of partless particles in detail):

Simply stated, if two things are partless, how could they ever meet? ~ p 329

There are no building blocks of reality. And even the mind depends upon its parts — for example its thoughts — and cannot be found.

What does all this mean?!


So what are we doing believing that everything is really out there?! Is it any wonder we have problems?

Previous articles on this topic

(1) Body image: a Buddhist perspective

(2) There is nothing out there, out there

(3) Reasoning our way into reality

(4) Meditating on the emptiness of our body

(5) Our bodies barely exist


Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

16 thoughts on “The building blocks of the universe according to Buddhism”

  1. Hello dear Luna,

    first of all thank you for the great articles you write!
    Straight to the point – I am unfortunately not able to agree with the argument that because the parts of an object are not the object itself then their sum cannot be the object itself, or like stated in this article because the fingers, the palm, the wrist are not hands, we cannot expect they together are building a hand.
    This is similarly to expect in math that it is only possible to have d when:
    d + d + d = d
    a + b + c = d is always wrong.

    I don’t really get this as an argument that proves that the object is not a compilation of its parts. Yes, it is clear that the object is not within its parts, but why not a compilation of its parts? Exactly this compilation creates the the thought “body” and not the thought “car”.
    If we see the body’s parts separate or like cut – a few arms here, some legs there, we are not thinking “body”, if we do not see any of these parts , we are not thinking “body”, we think “body” when we see them together as a whole…
    I am not getting the concept as well with the statement that the body posses its parts.
    For me it does not logically follows as well that when the parts are building the object then the object posses them.
    The possessor of the parts of a car is the owner of the car and not the car itself – for example.
    Do you maybe can formulate it another way around.
    I think this is the hardest to understand about emptiness… at least for me

    Cordially , Victoria

  2. It’s said that Siddhartha was a keen observer of how things worked in nature. He had a gift for the ‘natural sciences’. The word we use for that today originated in a different part of the world from him but at a similar time: physics.

    According to this system of thought, the smallest thing in the physical universe is the Planck Length, which is based on a fundamental unit in physics: the Planck Constant. It isn’t even a thing. It’s the relationship between the energy and frequency of a photon. It’s the smallest unit there is, the smallest unit there can be for there to be, well, anything. It defines what a particle is, which isn’t even a discrete object, but a fuzzy cloud of ‘maybe’. At that scale, to talk about physical parts loses meaning.
    We’re talking
    0.00000000000000000000000000000000016 metres.
    How small is that? Atoms are small, right? But if you were to count the number of Planck Lengths in the diameter of an atom, counting one every second, it would take 10,000x the age of this universe to count them all. It’s small!

    So there is a smallest fundamental thing. It’s not a limitation of our instrument. It’s in the physics. It’s written into the fabric of our observable universe, like the ratio pi.

    However, it still does not exist in and of itself. You can’t really talk about physical parts at that scale, but it does have mental parts: it can be broken down maybe not in size but in its energy, frequency, momentum, direction etc.

    Buddha was an amazing physicist!

  3. In one of his teachings Geshe -la once quoted Shantideva, who asking a number of questions repeatedly gave the answer :- ‘nothing’. This answer ‘nothing’ to all of the questions really bugged me for a good while. However i have recently come to see this word as both positing and negating the observed object. For example if I point to a tree I could equally say ‘there is the tree’ (mere appearence) or there is nothing (‘no’ negates the inherently existent tree and ‘thing’ posits the mere appearence of tree) It seems as if this word is unifying appearence and emptiness. Am I heading in the right direction or have I losing the plot.

    1. I think “no thing” implies no inherently existent thing while allowing for mere appearance, although it is important not to fall into the reification of mere appearance, think somehow THAT exists in reality 🙂

  4. Very helpful, Luna. I love the diagram of the hand. There is no way to point to something that is a hand! Crazy! Thank you. I’m enjoying the articles on emptiness.

  5. I know you addressed this in other comments, but there IS suffering, there is not, neither, not both either. Not trying to be cheeky here, but nagarjuna and several others over the last 2.5Kyears have struggled to put this into words.

    1. I don’t think Nagarjuna struggled to put it into words 🙂 We may just struggle to understand it, work in progress. There is suffering, for sure, but the way to get rid of it is to realize that it comes from wrong conceptions, or delusions, all based on an ignorance believing there to be an inherently existent (“real”) world, one that is independent of our minds.

      1. yes, the struggling is on our part for sure 🙂 . I believe the conceptions/delusions emanate from one’s karma, they are not just simple misconception/delusion emanating from thoughts/mind alone. In other words, mind is also an emanating phenomenon.

        1. 😁☀ Yes, karma refers to mental action or intention, which leaves the potentials (neither form nor mind but so-called “non-associated compounded phenomena) that give rise to experiences. And mind is also empty of inherent existence — the mind and all its appearances arise from the emptiness of the mind!

  6. Great article and well written .<3 One small point though.


    This seems a bit simplistic although technically true dependent on your perspective: Things appearing to a self-grasping mind are indeed non-existents and correctly stated as "not out there" or anywhere… however:

    1) Our own personal world may exist entirely inside of our mind, but the objects that we are cognizing do not necessarily. Things "out there" and "in here" actually do exist in one way and that is as mere name. (See the profundity of the nominal distinction of the Two Truths of the aggregate of form) Yes, conventional truths are falsehoods, but if we ignore them entirely we go down the path of one extreme view. It doesn't make sense because we can't function like this.

    2) In emptiness there is no Inside nor Outside. Nothing is "out there" that is separate from our mind because our mind and all phenomena are of the same nature or of one taste: emptiness. Only within the context of realizing that things and our mind are non-dual and we actually begin to remove the obstructions such as self-grasping ignorance and false conceptions from our mind can we truly say that nothing is "out there" and be correct. Any thoughts on this?

    1. Yes, my bad, there is a danger of it being misconstrued, things can be imputedly out there — so I think it is clearer to add a “really”. I have gone ahead and done that. Thank you for your feedback 🙂

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