Buddha, Einstein, The Dog & The Alien - It's All Relative

As a student gets farther into Buddhism, the lessons transition from the simple and near-universally appreciated practice of meditation to the more daring and indeed, frightful teaching known as “emptiness.”

It is frightful for those raised in the Abrahamic religions which teach One God — a Creator; a soul; and eternal life after death. Even without further examination, the word “emptiness” seems to suggest a morbid nihilism which appears to throw the whole concept of goodness & love into question.

As an admirer of Buddhism and one who derives great comfort from it’s teachings, I cannot — will not accept nihilism or an abandonment of goodness & love.

How could I?

Buddhism teaches compassion. The Dalai Lama, whom many repeatedly look to for inspiration, has often answered the question “what religion are you?” by saying “my religion is compassion.”

Despite this, the Dalai Lama has written extensively that nothing inherently exists. Even the soul, our concept of “I,” does not exist independently. It only exists by means of other factors. He goes on to say that nihilism is wrong —  even though “nothing exists in the way that we think it does.” He says compassion must be the way.

It’s of utmost importance to always relieve the suffering of people, animals and plants, wherever possible. So teach Buddha (the Enlightened One) and the Dalai Lama.

But if nothing exists, if emptiness is the way — how can anything fundamentally matter?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama goes on to say, with humility, that he does not yet fully understand emptiness, even though he knows it to be true. He is still learning.

Reading about emptiness upsets many people. Further, like an M.C. Escher drawing, the teachings suggest our “upset” doesn’t really exist either.

Disproving “emptiness” is difficult. Utilizing thought experiments which the Dalai Lama himself suggests, we are often unable to prove or disprove it.

No one can know the unknowable.

The mystery of the universe cannot be understood by us in this lifetime — perhaps until we stop trying to understand it.

The religious texts going back millennia may — or may not provide guide posts. Any and all religious teachings on the origins of the universe; what happens when we die; the mysteries of the soul — can in a single instant of divine visitation, which does indeed happen to humans from time to time (have you ever had a psychic experience?) be invalidated. Sometimes religious teachings can appear to come between us — and our selves.

There can be no “truth,” unless a human and an animal can both experience it.

This is due to the infinite unknowability of things. We may think our unique position among the animal kingdom makes absolute truth our birthright, but it doesn’t.

Let me explain.

Presume the existence of life elsewhere in the universe — something no one can discount.

Now, imagine Albert Einstein. Beside him is a beautiful and intelligent dog. Her name is Bessie.

Einstein and Bessie are both capable of logic.

We cannot say that Bessie has no logic. Merely, we can say that she is capable of applying less of it than Einstein. Nevertheless, she has logic.

Imagine Einstein playing ball with Bessie. Einstein, through a sleight-of-hand trick, swiftly discards the ball, appearing to make it “disappear.”

From Bessie’s perspective, the ball has vanished. There is no trace of it. No scent of it remaining.

The ball has just gone.

Now, Einstein knows the ball is in his pocket. It hasn’t disappeared.

To Einstein, the ball was placed out of sight but in his pocket.

To Bessie, the ball has evaporated.

Whose truth is greater?

From our perspective, Einstein’s truth is greater than Bessie’s.

We cannot say that Bessie’s truth is invalidated because from her perspective she is absolutely correct. The ball has disappeared. To both human and canine, it’s no longer visible.

Bessie’s truth is perhaps incomplete, but valid.

Next, imagine an alien with far greater faculties of logic than either Bessie or Einstein. This alien is aware of Einstein’s theory of E=mc2, and knows it to be either false or incomplete. Though the alien concedes, from Einstein’s perspective, E appears to equal mc2

The alien, with superior logic to Einstein, knows more about the nature of the universe than him. The alien knows that E does not equal mc2, but rather only seems to.

Whose truth is greater?

The alien’s.

Is Einstein’s truth invalidated by the alien’s greater truth?


Einstein’s truth is not invalidated. Here on Earth, according to humans, E appears to equal mc2. Einstein’s truth is only a lesser truth. To us, it is still a truth. In a vacuum, absent the alien’s more proficient logic, it is an absolute truth. Just as in a vacuum, absent Einstein’s faculties of logic, Bessie is correct. The ball has indeed vanished.

We can continue spiraling the thought experiment upward or downward. Upward to higher beings unknown to us, downward to the amoeba and the atom.

There’s no universal truth. There’s no absolute truth. There is only our truth. In the same way our truth is valid in the absence of a greater logic — or a lesser one, someone else’s truth is valid in the absence of a greater logic — or a lesser one. Of which there is one always. A greater or lesser logic.

Does emptiness exist?

The answer is — it’s okay either way.