Review of Pilgrimages to Emptiness. Rethinking Reality through Quantum Physics”, by Shantena Augusto Sabbadini

The title hooked me in immediately. As a Zen student it reminded me of the Heart Sutra, a Buddhist chant, that contains the lines,” form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form, that which is form is emptiness, that which emptiness form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness… and so on.” For me the chant evokes a deep truth about everyday reality that is not accessible by the rational mind and that I would be hard put to explain. The same is true of meditation (or psychotherapy for that matter), as without sustained practice no amount of reading about it gets near to what it feels like. The idea of quantum physics as part of a more mystical approach to reality therefore sounded most intriguing.

The author’s background does indeed span the divide between science and Eastern philosophy. As a theoretical physicist at the universities of Milan and California, he researched the foundations of quantum physics, and also contributed to the first identification of a black hole. Later, in the 1990s Sabbadini worked at the Eranos Foundation, an East-West research centre founded under the auspices of C.G. Jung.   He has translated various ancient Daoist texts (presumably from ancient Chinese) and is currently Director of the Pari Centre, a non-profit educational centre located in the medieval village of Pari in Tuscany.  The centre runs interdisciplinary courses and conferences with a focus on ecological considerations within the context of our current consumerist society. Sabbadini also lectures at Schumacher College, Devon (UK)on the philosophical implications of quantum physics. 

Sabbadini aims to re-awaken in the reader a sense of the amazing mystery of life and all existence.  He first provides an overview of the main developments since our hunter-gathering days, ranging from the development of farming to the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the 17th century to the present day.  At one time, he says, we felt part of an alive, sentient and ensouled world, often referred to as a “participation mystique.”  However, each new development took us further away from our natural environment so that now we regard ourselves as separate from a soulless world that is governed by mechanical laws.

I was particular interested in the author’s discussion of thermodynamics, a nineteenth century development that came out of the technology of the steam engine. According to the second law of thermodynamics, in any system there will be increasing entropy (breakdown) over time. This is indeed what appears to have happened to many cultures throughout history, and is evidently happening today.  Examples include Margaret Thatcher’s notion of there being no such thing as society, to ex-president Trump’s undoing much of Obama’s work, the increasing economic imbalance within societies and the continuous, ever accelerating, breakdown in the earth’s climate system.

I was equally interested in chaos theory, a discipline that was developed relatively recently, as it is dependent on computers being powerful enough to simulate the consequences of physical models of reality.  Simulations showed that, depending on the nature of the system, very small changes in starting conditions can have a very large effect on future behaviour, making it unpredictable.  Weather is an example: as it is impossible to know the current situation in complete precision, small errors can cause wildly different predictions.  It seems obvious that as the earth as a whole is a system, it tries to maintain itself in a stable state overall. However, it remains only stable over a certain range of variation, which has now been exceeded, hence all the unpredictable weather events that have been occurring in recent years.

Interestingly, the boundary between order and chaos is more permeable than we used to think, as it is possible for order to arise out of chaos, with “the most interesting things happening just on the edge between order and chaos.”  “Important things happening on the edge” is something many therapists may be familiar with.  Many of us may have experienced clients mentioning something really important outside the boundaries of the actual session, typically just as they are walking out of the door!

It was surprising to read that quantum theory is already a century old as it is probably the most fundamental discovery regarding the nature of physical reality. Here the reader is introduced to some very strange phenomena, such as the movement of particles depending on whether or not there is an observer. From a quantum perspective, our assumption of an objective world independent of whether or not anyone is looking at it is unwarranted!

In the last two chapters, Sabbadini draws links between Eastern philosophies such as Daoism, Hinduism and Zen Buddhism, and the current scientific understanding of the nature of everything. In the Epilogue, Sabbadini refers to the Mahayana Buddhist notion of Indra’s net, according to which all of existence is a “kind of cosmic spiderweb in each knot of which sits a shining jewel (and) each one of these jewels reflects all the other ones in a recursive play that generates the universe” (p257).

Overall, I enjoyed the book, it is clearly written, although containing various typos. It is reminiscent of “The Tao of Physics”, by Fritjof Capra (1975), but doesn’t reference it, which is surprising as Capra’s work was such a bestseller at the time. My old copy had disappeared, so I was delighted to be able to get the updated 35th anniversary edition, published in 2010.  I find it a bit more accessible as it offers a more coherent integration of modern science and ancient mysticism.   Unfortunately, neither author engages particularly with climate change or climate psychology, although towards the end of his book Capra mentions “a new form of ecologically oriented politics, known as Green politics” (pp341).

Regarding climate psychology it is problematic that, as Sabbadini says, the general public has not yet caught up with the scientific developments of the last century and a half. Many people still appear to assume that we live in a clockwork universe where everything is predictable.  Although the author does not say so, this also partly explains why, despite so much evidence, the world as a whole is not taking in the seriousness of the current climate emergency.


Capra, F. (1975/2010) 35th Ed.  The Tao of Physics. An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism.  Boulder: Shambhala. 

Sabbadini, S.A. (2017) Pilgrimages to Emptiness. Rethinking Reality through Quantum Physics. Pari Publishing, Pari (GR), Italy, ISBN 978-88-956o4-32-9

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