My niece Molly decided yesterday that it’d be a grand idea for her and me to take granddad/dad to Oppenheimer at 1:30 in the afternoon. Can’t remember the last time he or indeed I went to a 3-hour matinee. After we had laboriously moved seats a couple of times (don’t ask), and ten minutes in when he’d managed to fix his hearing aid in the dark, all proceeded very well. And he helped himself happily to half our Galaxy Minstrels, disdaining the large tub of popcorn (“noisy!”) and a slushy.
After the movie, once the small elevator arrived at the bottom of the stairs, out hobbled an old man on a stick. Followed by Michael, same. And then, to our (sort of) amusement, a third. We asked them what they had chatted about in that 45 seconds, and the answer was “Sticks”. They didn’t have time to discuss the movie, lol, though I am sure they would have had a lot to say. My dad had recently been re-telling me the story of how, when he was the Resident Clerk in the Foreign Office in October 1962, on one relentless but exhilarating weekend he happened to be the on-duty staff member with the task of relaying non-stop incoming messages to heads of state about the Cuban missile crisis. I can’t tell you the details (or I’d have to kill you); but this generation was no stranger to the Cold War that followed Oppenheimer.
Spoiler alert if you don’t already know the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who played a pivotal role in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II: it doesn’t go all that well for humanity. Well, depending on when and whom you ask. Basically, the movie explores the ethical dilemmas faced by Oppenheimer as well as the catastrophic consequences of his creation. Ongoing, of course. Upon witnessing that first mushroom cloud in Los Alamos, July 1945, he purportedly quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita:
I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
Nothing is just local
The movie got my interest straightaway with Oppenheimer seeing “the dance” of nuclear fission and other quantum imaginations in his mind, things exploding and coming together in an infinite array of creation and destruction, interdependence and non-locality. (One of the most intriguing discoveries of quantum mechanics IMO is non-locality, where particles are entangled across vast distances, instantaneously correlating to each other’s state.) But these meditations were not enough to convince Oppenheimer, evidently, that whatever he created could and would be used against him and everyone he loved, haunting the entire world. Mutually assured self-destruction is not that comforting a guarantee of deterrence/survival given that self-cherishing is by nature self-destructive. There are just a few strong delusions in the minds of a few people between us and that button. As Niels Bohr put it in the movie:
You are the man who gave them the power to destroy themselves.
The false paradigm – that you have to risk destroying the world in order to save it – came from a complete lack of equanimity and understanding that we are all alike and inextricably interconnected, our fates bound together regardless of our politics or where we happen to live on this crowded blue planet. This was efficiently summed up by one of the top government officials:
I took Kyoto off the list. My wife and I honeymooned there.
Where is our common sense?
The detonation of a nuclear bomb is horrifying for the immediate target but also reverberates through the entire world. Controlled by the delusions of grasping at our seeming independence and naked self-interest, which fuel the pursuit of such destructive capabilities, we have beyond stupidly managed to bring our own selves, not some hostile alien invaders, to the verge of extinction. Buddhism explains the fallacies in this thinking, encouraging us to cultivate empathy and understanding based on wisdom instead, providing nonviolent and compassionate solutions to individual and collective issues. Contemplating the interconnectedness of all life shows that we all share responsibility for the welfare of the planet and its inhabitants, and that we need to consider the implications of our actions on a global scale. In a way, is this not just common sense? Is this not something that should be taught in school?! As Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says:
If everyone practiced cherishing others, many of the major problems of the world would be solved in a few years.
Power to the observer
Both Buddhism and quantum physics fundamentally redefine and challenge classic reality or reality as it is normally seen (ie, inherently existent, binary/dualistic, and objective). A movie review I read says:
“The film speaks quite often of one of the principles of quantum physics, which holds that observing quantum phenomena by a detector or an instrument can change the results of this experiment. The editing illustrates it by constantly re-framing our perception of an event to change its meaning.”
Buddha explained how everything depends upon the observer, the mind. Quantum physics also suggests that reality is a complex web of interconnected probabilities rather than fixed certainties; and that subatomic particles depend upon an observer. But there seems to be less talk in quantum physics about what consciousness actually is or what it can do, which is to create reality entirely. Which means that if we want to be permanently happy and free, we have to learn to control our delusions, not the outside world. Hence, all of Buddha’s teachings on how to do this.
We all wish for world peace, but world peace will never be achieved unless we first establish peace within our own minds. ~ Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
Someone wrote this to me today on the off chance I was going to be writing about this movie:
“In one of the scenes, there’s a vajra and bell on a desk. In this scene, soldiers and politicians are discussing the sending of nuclear bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A discussion guided by self-grasping ignorance and a cruel lack of compassion. Having this vajra and bell in the background was a beautiful reminder of what will liberate all beings: bliss and emptiness.”
Which delusion-made destruction do you reckon will finish us off first, the catastrophe of climate change or the horrors of nuclear war? We need to start using our powerful imaginations in the service of creativity, not destruction; and we need to do this now. Hoping for everyone else to change before we do is not a viable strategy.
In Tantra in particular, this is exactly what we learn to do – we harness our Buddha nature to the powerful technology of Highest Yoga Tantra for rapid, arguably instant, results. For more, tune in to the International Kadampa Summer Festival (starting today, I’m on the train!)
There are no inherently existent building blocks of the universe – everything can be mentally divided and subdivided, it seems ad infinitum. But it turns out that when you split the atom physically, it releases a huge amount of power and starts an unquantifiable chain reaction. I was thinking – poetically rather than scientifically – about how meditating on the seed letters in Tantra can also release vast power to destroy ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions and, due to our inescapable interconnection, start a chain reaction of wisdom and compassion that has no end. When we penetrate our central channel with completion stage meditation and manifest the clear light mind of bliss, we can transform our own and others’ experience entirely.
How else are we going to fix this?