Putting together Buddhism and the life of a bacterium as is done in the title of this article may indeed sound somewhat far-fetched. It becomes less so, if one considers that there is a common denominator, as both respond to the question “what is life?” - a link which explores in the body of this article.

Buddhism began to expand in the West over a hundred years ago, with a big second wave in California in the late fifties of the last century. Since then, a large number of Buddhist centres of different orientations have spread over the USA, Europe, as well as Australia and Oceania. It is the fastest growing religion in all these countries.

As to why it is spreading, one explanation is that our western civilization, so immersed in consumerism and greed for money, ultimately needs spirituality as a form of compensation - and this goes hand in hand with a diffuse sense of dissatisfaction with the Christian religion, (centred on the figure of a creator God and several compulsory additional and an unappealing take-it-or-leave-it dogma). Buddhism does not have the notion of a creator God and it is taken by most as a form of philosophy.

This is not correct, Buddhism is a religion: Gautama Buddha spent his lifetime teaching a pathway to liberation. But it is liberation from suffering, suffering being due to a false view of reality, defined as ignorance. Thus, Buddhism is a pathway for liberating ourselves from ignorance, a pathway based on rational thinking. And this is one of the main reasons for the “success” of Buddhism among us: its teaching is matter of practical reason, and, as we will argue later on, corresponds to a kind of spirituality without invoking a creator God, in a pathway that can be undertaken using our practical reason and subjective introspection.

This brings us to an important point: Buddhist principles are not something deriving from a more or less exotic external medium: instead, they are a discovery from within, the discovery of archetypical ideas and concepts which have always been inside us, even if forgotten or buried under a thick veil of traditions and prejudices. Likewise, when Japanese or Chinese musicians “discover” Bach, they are not engaging in something foreign and unknown, but they are finding their own hidden or forgotten harmonies.

Awareness of the general principles of Buddhist thinking have recently become more evident in (country or region name) part of the world thanks to the complexity theory (von Bartalaffy, 1997) and the systems view of life. The systemic view is exemplified in the recent book written by Capra and myself (2014). In this essay, I give an example of the convergence between the systems view and some of main the Buddhist principles. For a general comparison between modern science (physics, in particular) and oriental thinking, Fritjof Capra’s classic, The Tao of Physics (1977).

The life of a bacterium

This examination starts with a look at the metabolic pathway of a cell. We have several billions of cells in our bodies and inside each of them, thousands of chemical transformations are take place every moment. Food and nutrients are continuously processed, sugars are being oxidized, proteins are cut down (hydrolized) and vitamins and lipids are being synthesized... This is metabolism, the cell metabolism.

To continue the previous discussion, take, for example, a unicellular microorganism, the famous Escherichia Coli, which is present in large quantities in our digestive tracts. Fig.2 gives a representation of part of this “metabolic map”. In this figure, each dot represents a chemical compound and each line represents a chemical reaction which transforms that compound into another one. Each reaction is made possible (catalysed) by a specific protein (a specialized enzyme) – and then it becomes evident that the life of a simple bacterium, the simplest form of life in our planet, is a very complex three-dimensional maize of interactions rapidly changing with time. Next, let’s analyze the simple bacterium’s complexity in biochemistry terms and observe how Buddhist principles arise almost without our explanation - …from life.

Causality, co-dependent arising, and the notion of emptiness (anatta).

The first general observation from fig.2 is that each compound is conditioned by the previous one and conditions the next one. We are looking at a web of mutual interactions in which each element depends in a causality manner from another one.

The notion by which each element is conditioned and caused by another one is the core of Buddhism. Buddha said to his monks: “Since there is this, there is that. When this appears, that appears. When this disappears, the other disappears.I If there is not this, there is not that”.

Consider also, in reference to the metabolism of fig.2, that the arising of a certain compound is the result of many preceding causes. In fact, it can be said that everything arises because of the concomitant action of many different factors (“con-causes”). This is a general observation, and expanding this concept to say, a tree--a tree is caused by a seed, but also by the rain, by the sun, by the farmer, by the chemicals in the ground--there are generally many different causes that make something originate and this corresponds to the Buddhist notion of co-dependent arising.

Causality is certainly a central pillar of philosophical Buddhism, and in our metabolic map we can see both the linear and the multidimensional aspects of it. But we can see something else, which brings forth another fundamental concept in Buddhism: and this is the observation that none of these elements stand alone by themselves, that none possess an intrinsic reality, because no element is present without being conditioned by another one.

And this brings in the notion of emptiness (anatta), which is so central in Buddhist teaching. Buddha told his monks that if you look at the things around you, and search for something which has an intrinsic existence or is not conditioned by something else - you do not find it. You only find things which are void of intrinsic existence. You find emptiness. This is sometimes called the Void (sunyata) (not to be confused with nothingness). In fact, the world of emptiness is also the world of all the apparent reality of life - the form of the “thousand things”. As the Buddhist scripts emphasize, emptiness is also form, form is emptiness. All forms are empty, empty of intrinsic existence.

Consider now the metaphoric aspects of fig.2. The dots may also represent the many interacting parts of our human life; but also the constituents of a social system, (a political party, a church, a hospital); or can represent the various constituents of the life of an entire city; they can represent the various nations of the common market. In all cases, there is a mutual interaction, a mutual causality, and no single element can stand alone by itself. So, the life of a bacterium is the representation of life in general, so many dots interacting with each other to give the totality to the system. If you single out one element out of the web, this single element does not give you any measure or quality of the whole: a single dot of fig.2 does not give you the life of a bacterium; a single European nation does not give you the notion of the common market. In fact, referring again to fig.2 , the question arises: where is the life of the bacterium localized? In which point? In which reaction? In which metabolic cycle?

The answer is clear: life is not localizable, there is no such a single point where we can pinpoint “life”, there is no prima causa. Life is the whole network of reactions of fig.2. The same can be said for an elephant, for any living organism. It can be said for each of us: life of a human person is not localized in any single point of the body or the brain.

In Buddhism, the lack of a prima causa has also greater implications. It tells us why Buddhism does not consider the idea of a creator God as prima causa of everything. The world is what it is (suchness), with everything connected to everything. To the question, “there is a God behind all this?”, the Buddha answered with his famous “noble silence”.


Capra, F., The Tao of Physics, Flamingo (Harper Collins publishers), 1976-1991
Capra. F., and Luisi, P.L., The systems view of Life, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014 and the Italian translation: Vita e natura, Aboca 2014
Maturana, H., and Varela, F., The tree of knowledge, Shambala, 1998 (revised edition)
Pasqualotto, G., Illuminismo e illuminazione, Donzelli Editore, 1999
Von Bertalanffy, L., Teoria generale dei sistemi, Mondadori, 1971