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