Entropy, Ego, What’s the Point?


Rather than launch into a technical description of entropy and the relationship of energy and entropy lets try this first.

More entropy means more disorganization and more ignorance. Low signal to noise. Less information. Like static preventing the faithful transmission of data. Think of loud static on a radio when you are trying to listen to music on your car radio.


If I tell you I mixed up the numbers one through ten and put them in a bag, then I picked out two, say a 3 and a 7, all you know about the next one I will pick is that it is not a 3 or 7. So they are mixed up, disorganized, and we have a bit of ignorance about some aspect of that system. Relatively high entropy. If I throw in some letters or blanks into the bag along with the numbers, i.e. static, you are even less able to predict the next thing to come out of the bag!

Now I tell you I ordered the numbers from ten down to one. There are no blanks or letters. I picked out a ten. Next picked will be… nine! Very good. You had little to no ignorance. But I had to put extra energy into ordering the numbers compared to throwing them in the bag. I had to have some way to assure they stayed in order as well. Low entropy, but it took more energy.

Meditation can be seen as aiming for high energy, low entropy. But I am not sure that’s quite true for zazen. You’d have to ask a Zen teacher. Certainly “mindfulness” is like that.

A circle is low entropy. You know everything about it and it took energy to create it (minimally mental energy, in addition perhaps energy to move the pencil or program and run the computer).

Symmetry is not ignorance. True, by definition symmetry is present when you can’t tell something has changed, like someone else spinning a circle while your eyes are closed, so that seems like ignorance. But to do that experiment, you need to know that the experiment was planned and then do it! That’s a lot of knowing, organization and energy!

Information is low entropy. It takes energy to put 0’s and 1’s in some order and that is one aspect of what information is. Ordered dualism.

Meaning is how we interpret and experience information. It is our perspective on it. It is contingent to the max. It is easily colored by our wishes and desires, by our egos.

I just read that the Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who unified the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces (along with others, of course; anyway major physics achievement) wrote: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

That seems very nihilistic and depressing. Perhaps that’s how he meant it. If so, somehow he had dealt with it because some four decades after writing that he is still writing books!

On the contrary, that seems very Zen to me. And liberating. It relieves us of arbitrary values and goals. The kind the ego sets up to measure ourselves by, so we can achieve them and reassure ourselves. Except when we don’t.

What ultimate, objective, cosmic, universal, non-dualistic “point” could there be? Any point we could articulate would be a human construct, limited and contingent, a dualistic notion of use in only a very small corner of time and space.

Matthieu Ricard writes in his book “Altruism” that the ego is the crystallization of our identity. He writes that we try to protect it. That’s pretty good, but I am not sure that it is quite right. There is no single anatomic brain space that houses the ego. I think the ego is the process by which we protect our identity. The identity is our sense of who we are based on our conditioning (biologic and psychological, contingent on where and when we are). It is how we organize our sense perceptions and react to them. It is our karma, if you will. It is how we try to make the world comprehensible, to find a point. The ego is the process of having and wanting there to be a point. A point is like a location, a beacon, a polar star that the ego can refer to on the horizon to measure itself and its position by so it can better protect us as we cruise through the world of time and space, the world of the six senses.

So as the universe becomes comprehensible, what we comprehend may not be to our ego’s liking. It may not put our bodies (brains included) at the top of the heap. It may remind us that our limited sensory experience is a pretty pale reflection of the vastness of the universe. Of course comprehensible in this context means the forces of nature. The things physics studies. That which can be measured. It does not mean the whole shebang.

To be clear: I am not suggesting a lack of values. I hope you value compassion. I hope you don’t value your suffering and especially not the suffering of others. I am only suggesting not being seduced into thinking that is the “point.”

Or is it? We can chose to embody compassion, we can aspire to the low entropy high energy state. Is that the “point” of our lives, our minds, the dream, the whole show? Some think so. I admit to liking that view. But maybe that’s the point! It is a goal to like, admirable to be sure, but do I like it because it makes me feel better about myself? Is that my ego protecting me?

No “point”? Perhaps that’s kind of like “ordinary mind is the way.” Or the miracle is chopping wood and carrying water. You don’t need a “point” writ large to the universe to eat when hungry, or to be compassionate. That is the functioning of the universe. What needs to be added? What would be the point?



Information Is The Dreams Stuff Is Made Of


Recently Stephen Hawking announced a new theory about what happens to information at the event horizon of a black hole.

Some scientists took him to task. They said in effect: isn’t it a bit of grandstanding to announce such a thing without showing your work?

I like that. Hold authority’s feet to the fire! That is the scientific way!

The question is: why do scientists care?

It turns out to be a question that is basic to the scientific view of how the universe is put together. Leonard Susskind wrote great book about it called “The Black Hole Wars.”

You see, information is conserved.

Like energy over all is conserved, is the same at the beginning of a process as at the end, though not the specific forms of energy (e.g. chemical energy becomes heat).

And most definitely not like entropy. Entropy is not inherently conserved!

Information that is conserved is not exactly the same as “meaning.” It is the possibility of different states. You know, like 0 or 1 in the binary code that the computer uses.

Or the letters of the alphabet. If you see:


in an e mail you think “laugh out loud.” Heck, you can program a robot to recognize it and make “ha, ha, ha” sounds.

Doest the robot know mirth? Joy? What it is to laugh?

Do you?

Is that information?

No, the idea that LOL means “laugh out loud” is meaning gleaned from information.It is not inherent in the information. We supply the meaning. Conscious, sentient beings do. If someone finds the letters LOL in a message many years from now, odds are it will not have meaning to them. Maybe not in very many years; I understand LOL is going out of fashion already. But it will have information.

LOL could have been randomly generated (a complex thing to do) or it could have been from a program that says: insert consonant-vowel-consonent.

Take a circle. Little information is needed to generate the circle:

  1. a definition (all points equidistant to one given central point)

2. and the variable (the distance).

The circle is symmetric. If you shut your eyes and I spin the circle around the central point, when you open your eyes the circle looks the same. No change. Symmetry.

But the universe has changed. The energy I used to move my muscles to move, say a cut out circle, thus spinning the circle, or by tapping circle moving instructions on a computer keyboard to spin a computer soft ware generated circle, comes from energy stored in my muscle cells.  The cells take glucose and break it down to CO2 and H2O molecules and use the energy released from the chemical bonds to create high energy bonds in ATP  (adenosine tri-phosphate) molecules, then the muscles use the ATP molecules for energy, breaking the ATP phosphate bonds (creating ADP, adenosine di-phostphate and then passing on the phosphate released from the ATP; don’t worry if this doesn’t mean much to you. The details aren’t critical) and thereby changing the energy state in the ATP/ADP/Actin/Myosin structure and thus changing the molecular structure of actin/myosin in muscle to create movement.

This chemical/mechanical process resulted in more molecules with less energy in their chemical bonds than the original glucose molecule, and released excess energy as heat. Also heat is generated by my fingers moving the circle or pressing the keys (friction and the energy of my fingers interacting with the molecules in the paper as I move the paper circle or computer keys as they crash into each other). The change in the molecules and the cells and the infrared photons (the heat released) pinging around create a less organized, higher entropy situation.

So the circle is unchanged, it is symmetric, it is in the same state after we spun it that it was  before we spun it, but the entropy of the universe has increased. We can re-create the glucose molecules, but it takes CO2, H2O, cellular organization and energy, for example in  the complex biological process of photosynthesis. But there will still be the same or more entropy each time we go about making any change.

So even a symmetric situation in the “real world” is not totally symmetric.  Even if we do the circle spinning as a thought experiment, where you don’t actually move the circle, as you did when reading this pretty much, takes energy! The energy of the chemical reactions and electrons moving about in your brain when you think generates heat and entropy.

Which leads us to thermodynamics and Maxwell’s demon.

But I digress; lets hold on doing more thermodynamics and Maxwell’s demon for this post. I will do more on that later.

For now, let’s get back to the idea that in the world of change and movement, the world of the senses (themselves of course information processors) information is conserved. Not meaning, just information.

Meaning is contingent. It is not conserved. It is relational, and generates entropy or uses energy to decrease entropy. Either way, energy and entropy are involved in meaning, playing off each other, perhaps. Energy is conserved. Information is conserved. Entropy is not. Meaning is not.

I find that very hard to get my head around. Why should that be? For that matter, why should it be that energy and information are conserved?

Perhaps it is because those conserved elements of reality were never created and can’t be destroyed, no beginning no end, so how can they fundamentally change?

Meaning is dualistic. It is not conserved. It is contingent on context.

Perhaps the universe at its core IS information. Some physicists think so. Every aspect of the universe that is, well, an aspect, is an aspect because it could have been otherwise (not necessarily just any old otherwise, perhaps a specific set of otherwise consistent with the laws of string theory, quantum field theory, whatever). Otherwise it isn’t an aspect.

0 and 1. Yin and Yang. Duality. That is what physics studies, after all. That is the core of our experienced universe of the senses.


Remember: information is not meaning, It is not essence, noumena. It is phenomena. It is occurrence.

Information is the dreams stuff is made of.

Meaning is determined by sentience.  Consciousness. Is there silicon sentience? If so, that robot will know mirth. And why not? Why should we be carbon chauvinists? Perhaps the very quantum fields can coalesce in many ways to find mirth.

When communications scientists developed the idea of information, it was to quantify the fidelity of communications. Does a phone message get through ungarbled? Not whether the speaker or her message was coherent. Do the 0’s and 1’s that make up your e mail message stay the same, or are some lost in  the “tubes” of the internet? It doesn’t matter if the email is LOL or a consonent-vowel-consonent randomly generated, whether or not it has linguistic or human intellectual or emotional meaning, if at each slice of time and space there was an either/or, a 1/0, there was information.

I will elaborate later. But I don’t know that I will get past the following no matter how hard I try:

Everything that happens according to scientists does not change the total information in the universe (though you can rob Peter to pay Paul energy/information, more here less there. Shuffle it around. That takes energy if we are talking about information). Information cannot be irretrievably lost.

This relates to symmetry (lack of change in some element of a system even if something somewhere else changes)

This relates to energy.

This relates to thermodynamics: what is likely to happen, and the role of entropy.

There is relationship between entropy and ignorance (another post; this is one of the technical definitions of entropy: how we can know the state of the components of a system) but as implied here, there is a connection between a type of contingent sense of meaning, meaning as we ascribe it to the stuff of daily life, meaning as motivation in our world of the senses, of our karmic experience, that is also part of entropy.

There is an Akashic record. Information in the universe is never totally lost. If you could lose information, modern physics collapses. Ask Dr. Susskind (or read his book!). This akashic record is not about some mystical new age vision of some grey haired old guy writing in a large parchment book with a quill pen somewhere or Santa Clause remembering if you were naughty or nice. In theory you could piece back all of the energy and information transitions and reclaim the original. Sure it may take time and energy without beginning and without end, so our technology may not be up to it.

Perhaps this “akashic record” is the manifest mind of the universe. It doesn’t have to track information back, put it back togeher. Perhaps it is the process, the functioning. It is not dualistic. It isn’t stuck in meaning in things like “LOL.” Maybe that is our dualistic perspective.

The process of oneness, of unfolding, of compassion, that is the flavor I suspect of this akashic record.

It is kind of fundamental and I find it kind of interesting!





As(K) The Wooden Puppet


A couplet from the poem by Yung Chia Hsuan Cheh caught my eye.

The poem is called either “Song of Enlightenment” in the Translation by Sheng Yen in his book “The Poetry of Enlightenment, “or “Song of Realizing the Way” in the translation in “The Roaring Stream, A New Zen Reader.”

The lines are:

Ask the mechanical puppet

When it will obtain Buddhahood through practice

(Sheng Yen)

Put this question to a wooden puppet

Can Buddhahood be gained by seeking it?

(Roaring Stream)


While I tend to prefer the Roaring Stream translation as being more fluid and less technical, in the case of this couplet I like Sheng Yen’s translation more. After all, why ask can Buddhahood be gained by seeking of a wooden puppet, as seems to be the case in the “Roaring Stream” translation? It is a perfectly good question, by why ask it of a puppet? You might ask a Roshi or even a fledgling Zen student, somebody actually doing it, about the point of practice, but why ask a puppet a question about the nature of practice, attainment, enlightenment?

In Yen’s translation we are asking the puppet if IT will obtain Buddhahood. This is presciently modern.

After all, if one takes the vision of the modern absolute materialist (or for that matter ancient as such did exist before the scientific revolution) we are but organic puppets, water and carbon and a bit of other stuff come to life. In fact, that is literally true. After all water is present in pre-solar system gasses in space and microscopic diamonds (a few carbon atoms) may have been the first crystalline substances in the universe.

It is indeed a basic Buddhist view that all composite things are conditional, contingent, without essential inherency. All created things are a dream, like a flash of lightning, a bubble, a cloud, to quote the Diamond Sutra. We take form and substance from the propelled momentum of our karma or cause and effect, from the dharmas or laws of nature, pretty much the same thing. So as far as that goes, materialists and Buddhist are on the same page there. We are conditioned, brain and body, by our past and our makeup (the elements, the skhandas, whatever).

Are you a wooden puppet?

To the degree you are atoms and conditioned brain responses, yes.

Hence asking the wooden puppet about sentience.

Can a wooden puppet practice hard enough to be something it’s not? Can it magically become sentient like Pinocchio? Can you?

Is Mind an emergent phenomenon? Or is it the Nature of nature?

Ask the wooden puppet.



Pyrrho, Buddha, Daosim and Science

30 Kushan Buddha

In his book “Greek Buddha” Christopher I. Beckwith discusses Pyrrho, a philosopher who went along with Alexander the Great on his world tour of conquest in the late fourth century BCE.

It seems Pyrrho went native and studied with Buddhist masters. One story is that he made a lot of money as a court poet and then he was called to task by some wise guy, maybe some Buddhist sage. Was Pyrrho just singing for his dinner or was he for real? Pyrrho took the challenge! He went after ‘for real.’

When I say he studied with Buddhist teachers, I mean he practiced. His life was transformed. When he returned to his home island he lived his life as practice. He was beloved. He lived to keep it simple, keep it real.

We have later records of his teachings. He taught things (pragmata) are:

  1. Adiaphora: ‘without a self-identity.’
  2. Astathmeta: ‘not measurable’ (I would say without beginning or end), unstable (as in unbalanced, unsettling, pulling this way and that, per Beckwith)
  3. Anepikrita: unjudged, unfixed.

Those of us familiar with Buddhist terminology will see there is a connection with dharmas as what we perceive, and pragmata, though the latter may have some other, more ethical or philosophical, connotations. Beckwith compares these three with the very basic Buddhist teachings of the Three Characteristics:

1. Anatman: no (innate) Self (Identity) [Beckwith has as third but it seems more like #1 to me]

2. Dukkha: uneasy, unsatisfactory, unsteady

3. Anitya: impermanence, unfixed.

He suggests that Pyrrho’s terms are in effect a direct translation into Greek of the Buddhist terms.

Beckwith also points out that since Pyrrho was writing and studying and practicing Buddhism around 300 BCE, his form of Buddhism is probably closer to the true teachings of the Buddha than many of the even earliest written Buddhist texts. Of course it’s not like we have the original writings of Pyrrho either, we have later versions and descriptions, and the early Buddhist writings are based on a vibrant and robust oral tradition. But Beckwith does  have a point. Pyrrho’s philosophy is certainly based on very early Buddhist teachings as understood at least by some Buddhists who lived maybe a bit more than a century after the Buddha died. The fact that in what the Sutras call the ‘first sermon’ by the Buddha, as well as in many versions of Buddhism 101, the four “noble” truths (as I have done in earlier blogs) are used to introduce Buddhist thought, does not mean they were necessarily the original core teachings. It may be that is how it was later perceived or that it fit later understandings of the Buddha’s teaching (or agendas of later teachers and practitioners, as Beckwith suggests). Beckwith goes a lot further though, and you can read his book if you care about such things. If you are Buddhist, you may take exception to some of his theories. But to me, that makes it fun!

There is a great section in Beckwith’s book on the names Lao Tzu and Gautama being the same. That intrigues me. Clearly Zen/Chan is Daoism (or Taoism; pick your spelling!) meets Indian Buddhism. Not the later Daoism of gods and demons and alchemy and immortals, but the early Daoism of Chuang-Tzu and Lao-Tzu (author of the Dao De Ching). Sometimes I think Chan/Zen is as much a form of a Chuang-Tzu’s Daoism than it is a form of Indian Buddhism! Of course Chan and Zen tradition don’t quite see it that way. And the Chinese Chan masters certainly relished texts from India and the Buddhist kingdoms of the Silk Road like the Lankavatara and Diamond Sutras (they are really great stuff, read them if you haven’t and if you have any interest in Buddhism at all. Red Pine has done great translations).

Interestingly, Chuang-Tzu may have lived about the same time as Pyrrho. Of course they wouldn’t have met. Lao-Tzu lived earlier, it seems more about the time of Gautama Buddha (though dates are controversial for both)! One story in Daoist lore is that near the end of his life Lao-Tzu was said to have left China to travel west. Is Lao-Tzu and Gautama the same name as Beckwith suggests using a linguistic analysis?What does that imply? Very odd for someone who is Chinese to purposely go off to die far away in foreign lands. Very intriguing. Again, read Beckwith if you are interested in the argument.

Anyway, back to the core teachings, however they fit into the historical scheme of things. These core teachings are very scientific. Not only because they can be inductively arrived at by observation and confirmed by experience (the original meaning of the term “experiment”; same root word and that was on purpose), but in their essence.




Regarding impermanence certainly no composite “thing” lasts forever.

Modern physics does not have a permanency of things as an essential, verifiable teaching. Not particles, not universes. Quite the opposite. There are neither fixed particles (atoms and subatomic particles are basically forms of energy) or a fixed time and space. I am not only talking about relativity theory, which does imply that time and space are not separate, fixed entities, but more basically. Much has been written and discussed on the physics and metaphysics (that is the interpretation of physics, not the study of ghosts and goblins) about time and space. We do not know the extent of time and space, or even if these things are really distinct entities, if the in fact exist other than as illusions of mind. Robert Lanza talks about this in his book Biocentrism, as do others, and I understand Dr. Lanza is writing another book about time, space and the ‘illusion of death.’



Regarding the lack of innate existence we have seen particles themselves are just perturbations of energy, of the ‘quantum field.’ Modern biology and the earth sciences teaches us that evolution is contingent on the environment just as the earth and its atmosphere has been shaped by life. It is the environment that determines “fitness.” Most of the minerals on earth were made possible by the oxygen released by photosynthesis and exist nowhere else in the solar system. Neither the earth or the life on it, no individual, species, or life itself for that matter is fixed and innate, a fixed separate definable entity.

And while science is about measurement, we don’t know the extent of what can be measured. Is there an eternal set of multiverses and dimensions? Were there “big bangs going back and forward forever? Again, if time and space are illusions, what could a beginning and end possibly mean?


As for “unstable,” that is why there is anything at all from a scientific and mathematical point of view. I’ve written before about breaking symmetry. An ideal circle encompasses all and everything perhaps, it is certainly infinitely symmetrical by definition, but to have change there can’t be perfect symmetry. I have quoted the quantum field theory text that says that we are perturbations in a field. This is related to impermanency of ‘created things’ (is the field permanent? Is it a “created thing’?) as well. If the field were stable, there would be no things, no dharmas, no pragmata. For anything to change, to come into existence and then as it must eventually not exist, if there is to be what we experience that gives rise to the thought and perception of time and space, the system by definition must be unstable. It can’t be a system with an innate unchanging stability, a concrete thingy-ness.

There is change, evolution. There is the evolution of universes, particles, atoms, minerals, solar systems, planets, sentient beings.

As for Dukkha, unease (including but not limited to ‘suffering’ as in old translations into English), that does seem to be the nature of what happens if you yearn for the safety and reassurance of permanence, which is an illusion at best.

So science is quite compatable with anatman, dukkha and anitya.

I enjoy being challenged in my view of history by Beckwith. I enjoy seeing in the practice, writings and teachings of a poet philosopher who travelled with Alexander, a bit of confirmation that these core Buddhist/proto-scientific views were very ancient and proximate and core to the ancient teachings that underpin my practice.

Not that it really matters, I guess. Reality is reality, my practice is my practice, science is science, we live and die, however you conceive of it or dress it up or whoever may have glimpsed it before. Just kind of cool.



Ethics 101 and Louis CK



 Bowl by Rengetsu, a Japanese Buddhist Nun who lived in the late 18th and the 19th century. She was a poet, artist and as a youth learned ninja martial arts.


I am reading a great book called “Altruism” by the Tibetan Buddhist Monk, a former scientist, Matthieu Ricard. I highly recommend it. It is 700 hundred pages not counting notes (it is well referenced). I’m about a third through it, but I have already learned a lot.

There is a vast literature on the biology of ethics and morality in humans and other animals going back to Darwin.


There is a vast literature on the philosophical, psychological, political, professional, religious and social aspects of ethics and morality as well. Ricard covers a lot of that ground, but even at 700 pages by necessity he just skims some topics.

But we don’t need all of that to function (thank goodness).

Today I ran into a great summary of how to be, really all you need to know about morality and ethics, in Judd Apatow’s book “Sick in the Head.” In the book he interviews the comedian Louis C.K., who relates how on his show Louis once told his TV kid:

“don’t look into your neighbor’s bowl unless it is to check if they have enough.”

Louis C.K. says he tells his real life kids that “the reason we cut sandwiches in half is so your can offer somebody a piece of your sandwich. You don’t need the whole sandwich. Everybody in your line of sight, your offer it to them and if nobody wants it, then hey, you get a whole sandwich..”

Regarding the political and social aspects of ethics and morality, I’m not a liberal. There is much I do not see exactly the same way as many self-described liberals. But I often find myself on the liberal side of things because being liberal is most often about being fair. And kind.

I can even be kind of conservative about some things, though I am certainly not a political or religious conservative, because that viewpoint seems to me, at least in practice if not political philosophy, most often about greed, fear, and control and quite egotistically delusional. Conservatives generally seem to have an anal view of fair, a selfish view, and kindness seems an afterthought at best.

The conservative religious agenda is also often colored by some form of belief in the End Times, and justifies hate and greed by a appealing to a Father Deity who wants you to exploit non-believers and apostates and the earth with the same hard assed agenda he (or sometimes they) seems to have. What bitter irony.

Some Native Americans taught that we should act in accord with what will create lasting benefit for seven generations. Now that’s ethics.

So look into your neighbor’s bowl. If they have more, don’t get jealous, and don’t harass them either. As I have recently written, comparisons are poison. That’s not why you are looking.

If they have less, well, you’ll know what to do. Maybe it will be nothing, just allow them their dignity. But if you can do something, anything, however indirect, however little, then go ahead do it.

Get quiet and be kind. That sums it up.

And forgive yourself when you blow it. That will make it easier to really forgive others when they do.


 Love the earth and its magnificent living presence. Photo courtesy of Susan Levinson.








It’s your party, cry if you want to


Pain for me right this moment is my acute attack of arthritis.

I can’t sleep. I have a swollen red throbbing joint. Picture stubbing your toe hard every two seconds.

There are worse pains. I have had worse pains. Like when my gut perforated some years back.

And I have had suffering. This is pain, not suffering. There’s a big difference.

I suspect a billion or two billon people right now are in worse physical pain than I am. They are in pain from hunger, thirst, all manners of trauma and injury, illness, medical procedures, exposure, or for that matter, childbirth. Hundreds of people are probably in worse pain within a few of miles from where I am sitting writing at 2:30 AM my time.

Pain, not suffering. Billions and billions are suffering. Many more are suffering than are in physical pain. They are afraid. They are lost. They have experienced some deep loss. They are overwhelmed. They are threatened.

I think suffering for me would be seeing my son or daughter or one of my grandsons in this kind of pain. I am a doctor. Parents come in with their kids who have inflammatory eye disease and almost always they are suffering more than their kids. Even if the kids are going blind, it is the parents who seem to suffer more.

Helpless, worried, not my baby. Very hard.

And yet Buddhism talks about an end to suffering. I don’t think that means not caring or not feeling. I think it means not getting overwhelmed by all of the pain and suffering. Your own, your kids’, your lovers’ your friends’, the world’s.

Unless they were conditioned to need that form of attention, your kids (and lovers, friends and yes, even the world) don’t want you to suffer because of their pain. Unless they are very deluded or very damaged (and some are, of course) or very neglected they will soon figure out that your suffering doesn’t help them very much. It probably gets in the way.

What I see in the kids (or spouses, or lovers, or friends or parents) who are sick is they want their parents (or.. fill in the blank) to be cool, calm and collected. Sure there are cultural differences. In some cultures you need to be loud and demonstrative, but that’s just style.

Whether it’s your kids or the rest of the world, they want your attention. They may need help to navigate whatever they are going through. Maybe they are scared. Perhaps they don’t want you TOO cool, at least not all the time; a bit of coddling can go a long way. Sometimes crying helps. Because, well, it hurts and they want to know you know that. They want to know that you care and will do something to help if you can.

And you will help if you can, wont you? Even strangers? And even not pleasant strangers,real people, not just imaginary needy “deserving” people somewhere out there? Sometimes? Just keep your cool and do what you can when you can? Even if it is just to let them know you are there?

Sometimes you can’t make it all better. You try. You chant, you give, you try, you do something. But samsara, the way of the world, is that shit happens. As a parent, lover, doctor, citizen of the world, I know. That’s harsh. Sometimes you have to let go. “One person, one karma,” as we used to say on the commune. That sucks. You know it does. But there it is. That’s why those of us who do a practice, do it as best we can. Because sometimes it just sucks.

The crazy and greedy few aided by our lethargy and willful ignorance will continue to foster injustice, may destroy human life on earth and create a mass extinction event, but we’ll try anyway, right? At least a little, despite our despair and weakness? Because maybe, just maybe, just in case, we aren’t as useless as we think we are?


There are stories in Zen about some Zen master crying over a death of someone in their life. Or it could just as easily be crying over a wayward child, lost to drugs or craziness. Or a parent or spouse with Alzheimer’s. Or victims of disasters, natural or man made. Or you name it.

For example, there is a story about a former student of the 18th century Japanese Zen master Hakuin who as a girl breezed through her Zen studies, a real prodigy. When she was older some neighbor took her to task when she cried and mourned her grandchild’s death.


But you were the prized pupil of the great Hakuin, how can you still know suffering? How can you indulge yourself with such crying and wailing and all that? They asked. And that’s how these stories go. Oh you are so enlightened, why are you crying? Why are you so attached? Isn’t it all a dream, a projection, aren’t you beyond life and death? Haven’t you reached an end to suffering?

These stories always end with the Zen master, or the grandmother former Zen prodigy saying, in effect:

“Fuck you.”

Gotta love authenticity.


Sometimes the right authentic response to someone who is judging others for suffering and wont try to help and doesn’t care and wont even try to be cool and be kind does seem to be “fuck you.”


I have had it said to me in that context a few times, though not always in just so many words, and I deserved it. Can be a strong and compassionate teaching.

There is an ancient Chan Buddhist text called “The Ceasing of Notions.” It is some of the oldest Buddhist writings we have the original copies of (early Tang). Among the oldest attested Buddhist teachings, way before this text, going back to Greek reports of early Buddhism when the Greek poet and philosopher (and later Buddhist convert!) Pyrrho was with Alexander the Great cruising India 300 BCE, is basically the ceasing of notions (see Beckwith’s recent book “Greek Buddha” if you are interested; I’ll try to write more about that another time).

To cease notions means don’t limit the universe by your conditioned responses, your concepts of how it is. It means be open and aware.

It can lead to compassion.


To cease notions also means having no fixed, concrete and conceptual notions about what it is to cease notions. It certainly does not mean creating new notions about notions, like that you should not know a rock from a potato because that would be just a notion to recognize you eat one not the other. Or that  you should not care about the suffering of others because suffering is a notion and we are all one, no separation, no duality, so it doesn’t matter anyway. Or because it is all just your life. Or you do not cry when it is crying time. Or you do cry when it is time to keep it together, because of some notion about crying or not crying.

Those are some stupid notions. There’s no end to stupid notions, even about no notions!

Be cool. Be kind. There’s a lot of suffering going around. Try, because what else can you do?


Hmm, just for a while there, there was no joint, no throbbing, no pain, just writing; it’s funny how that works.




Dear Marc Maron and others: Don’t Judge or indulge suffering


Michelangelo could render suffering


And he could mope about it. He felt VERY deeply. He was very repressed I think.  Talented guy though.

In his TV show Marc Maron recently asked the question: what is the relationship between creativity need suffering? He asks it honestly and movingly. I find him honest, funny and intelligent, but sometimes kind of hard to take.

In a sense all activity, all thoughts and motivations, all movement through the world of the senses, derives from suffering, or at least from delusion, from our deep and abiding dream, from our perceptions and projections, our stories about the world and efforts to deal with our confusion, disappointment and ultimately our death. From our karma, our intentions, from our uses of our body, mouth and thought, as the chant goes. From or projections, our concepts, our beliefs. That’s samsara in the Buddhist tradition.

The ten thousand things, the ‘dharmas.’


Activity that takes a novel approach is deemed creative.

So yes, no drama, well, then no drama.

Marc suggests the “creative person,”  someone who does something self-consciously, and perhaps even professionally, recognized in our culture as an artistic endeavor, is somehow able to profit more from his or her suffering, whereas an accountant (his example) has no outlet other than maybe suicide.

Umm, poets, writers, painters, musicians and comics, the list of suicide, self-destructive behaviors and creating much pain for self and others, really, come on Marc, how long is that list? You know better!

The creative outlet does little or nothing. It might even make things worse by indulging delusion and garnering attention, a form of positive feedback for using talent to create, or at least justify, more pain.

Being talented, smart, cleaver, to be able to craft ideas, words or sounds or objects, in ways that amuse and hold the attention of others, is hardly in and of itself a ticket to decreasing suffering and creating a better world for anybody.

It may be seductive, even special, a potentially useful power, but that doesn’t make it inherently valuable.

As for that accountant, maybe she will use her suffering to learn and grow rather than indulge it and exploit it, justifying the pain she causes herself and others as part of her “process” or her “art”! Maybe she will not just say it feeds her creativity and wallow in it.

By the way, accountants can be quite creative. Ask any rich person or corporation who relies on their accountants’ creative abilities to enrich themselves further.

I hear this all the time, how someone’s problems are more “real” their suffering is deeper or less deep,  more intense or less intense, more useful or less important, more or less of their own making, more justified or just indulgent (“middle class suffering”) than the suffering of others.

It is the judging I am referring to; there is clearly truth in that relative view of suffering, of course. Nyogen recently told the story about the Zen master who at a wedding when asked for a blessing said “grandfather dies, son dies, grandson dies.” The guests thought well, that’s bit morbid for a wedding, eh? But no, there is less suffering if they die in that order! Some pains are certainly more painful. If you can take horrible pain and make it less horrible, that is compassion, that is a good thing. When that is the point, when that is what is in front of you, then it is true. But lets not get distracted by that, it is too obvious and not quite the point here.

Indulgences are indulgences, authenticity is authenticity.

If you embrace suffering for any “good” reasons, including ideas, philosophies, art or love, deserved or not deserved, some pre-fabricated inflexible idea of truth, justice and injustice, you are either trying to justify the pain you caused, wallowing or worse, or you are simply unaware that you are the problem.

In fact, this brings up the whole judging and comparing thing.

What do you know about that accountant? How deep is your perception, how sensitive to other people are you (not just how sensitive to and deeply do you feel your own concerns, that doesn’t make you sensitive, it makes you self centered)?

How easy it is to come to conclusions based on our prejudices, fears and desires.

Do you need others to fail, or simply be diminished in some way, to feel good about yourself? Does thinking an accountant has less resources and less creativity, rather than being less needy and yes, perhaps less funny and skilled with words (but so what?) make you feel more in tune with your Universe?

And this is true even when you are elevating the other. Comparisons are poison. They may spur you on, but only in the worse way. Acting out of jealousy, with unrealistic expectations is a recipe for disaster. It is pure delusion. There will ALWAYS be somebody with… more. Or less. Whatever is that you THINK you want or need. Does that person’s life seem so charmed when seen from afar, is their romantic partner so much better looking than yours, do they get more and better sex, is their salary and house bigger than yours? Are their successes more successful than yours, their failures less dismal and better justified? Will you get trapped feeling bad about it, about yourself, and end up chasing what others have?

You too subtle for that? Not a “materialist”? OK, is their creativity more creative, their genius more genius, their skills more skillful, their tastes more refined and elegant, their ability to meditate more profound, their spirituality more spiritual? Is their joy more joyful, their sadness more elegant and moving? They more of a Bodhisattva than you? More of a Buddha?

Will you get trapped chasing that, some ideal in your head you will never attain because you made it up?

Does it really mask the pain, to compare, to judge, even for a second?

Or does it become an itch you scratch till it hurts and bleeds?

We’re all dancing, hair just right, make up on, colorful kimonos flying.


Belief traps: comparisons, stories, phantoms and chimeras.


Authenticity: simple, not easy.


Not knowing is most intimate: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Grace Slick and Nagarjuna

I recently watched the awesome Neil deGrasse Tyson’s show “Star Talk” where he interviewed Richard Dawkins and had a Jesuit priest on to discuss religion and science. Despite being an atheist and agreeing with much of what Dawkins has to say I found myself rooting for the Jesuit. Dawkins was so arrogant and sure he had the real story, despite some murmurings to indicate humility in the face of our awe inspiring ignorance about the universe (I assure you that while it is amazing how much we do know, or perhaps one could say, despite that we know anything about the universe at all, we know much less than some seem to think we do), his lack of compassion and insight was astounding. Sure I am an atheist and can’t get behind Catholic dogma, so finding myself trying hard to agree with a Jesuit was a strange intellectual sensation!

At one point Neil spoke about a kind of spiritual experience he had in nature. He just objected to dogma. Well, Nyogen is often paraphrasing the great Chan master Huang Po: we have no dogma in Chan/Zen (only realization and practice).

Dawkin’s smugness reminded me of Hawking’s pronouncement that philosophy is dead because science has supplanted it. Was he being purposely ironic in making a philosophical metaphysical comment about the death of metaphysics? You know, like saying “this sentence is a lie”? Perhaps.

Granted some metaphysical speculations have been laid to rest by modern science, but even within the realm of science others have arisen. At what point is math science? How do you define science, is it still falsifiability or reproducibility (if so there goes Hawking’s M theory)?  Certainly Hawking must get that such a statement is a metaphysical stance, hard to justify in terms of these basic questions about the definition and scope of science, that a statement on the limits (absolute  or otherwise) of metaphysics and philosophy is an evaluation and judgment about the nature of reality that is not established deductively but inductively. It is a speculation about philosophy, an opinion; it can’t be measured or proven. It can be disproven (as per the previous discussion, a less than formal proof admittedly but really..!). Whatever it is, it isn’t science.

But closer to home than M theory, we will never be able to step out of consciousness to prove the nature of consciousness. We do find neurologic correlates of states of consciousness, but it is not clear that is the same as grasping the experience or understanding the nature of consciousness.

The nature of consciousness is awareness, and awareness is a subjective experience. We may, and I suspect will, prove the physical correlates of thought. Will that be enough to comprehend the nature of mind, of consciousness?

Is it science? Is consciousness even at its most basic a scientific question? It is the one thing that is at the end of the day the quintessence of subjective experience. It is subjective experience.

Well, think about what we do know. E=MC^2

Energy is mass. What IS energy? We only know what it does, how we experience changes in energy. What could it mean to really know what it is? Certainly scientifically it is sufficient to know what energy, or consciousness, does but we experience what consciousness IS, by definition, because consciousness is exactly what we DO experience, at some level.

Same with mass. We define it by what it does. We understand it confers inertia, that the Higgs field plays a role. What is a field? IT is something that is measurable at all points. What is this something? That thing which, when disturbed, gives us a Higgs boson and confers mass. This is wonderfully sophisticated and true. This is a vision of reality that should take you out of your day-to-day limited experience and open up the universe; yet kind of circular.

For that matter define a flavor without simply comparing it to other flavors. You can get to the chemistry, see how it lights up a functional MRI, but what about that first lick of your favorite ice cream on a hot day? Can math and an MRI capture that? Except perhaps for some specific biomedical research, do we need it to?

We can only kind of say what awareness, consciousness, experience at its most basic, is, what it isn’t, what it may be and not be, what it seems to neither be nor not be, but not quite. Can’t pin it down intellectually. We can come close, we can dance around it, use mathematical metaphors and measure certain aspects of certain behaviors, certain relationships in the world of the senses, but we are limited intellectually by our evolution, our inability to “get our heads around it” as the saying goes. How do you get your head around your head? Like the old Zen saying: adding an extra head to your head?

So yes Neil, savor experience, don’t worry about dogma.

And how about this: Neil deGrasse Tyson at the end of that show said he could even give up cause and effect, that is has worked well so far, but maybe, just maybe….

Certainly in the world of this and that, the senses cause and effect is the best rule of thumb…..

This is not without Western precedence (the philosopher Hume). Not getting caught up in inductive reasoning. Or Sekito Kisen “cause and effect must return to the great reality.”

And while in Buddhism the twelve links of existence are cause and effect, the great exposition of this by Nagarjuna in the Madhyamaka text “the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” beings with:

Neither from itself nor from another.

Nor from both,

Nor without a cause,

Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.

So cause and effect and yet not form itself or anything else, so implying not caused, no beginning no end, no arising. Nagarjuna says logic comes to the tetralemma: is, isn’t, is and isn’t neither is or isn’t, that is the point where logic and proportion fall sloppy dead (Grace Slick, White rabbit, Jefferson Airplane 1967).

Sounds like bare awareness, emptiness, to me. Wow Neil! And he’s an astrophysicist!

Not knowing is most intimate!


Overlapping Science and Buddhism with Cameo by William Shakespeare


Science and Buddhism at their best address reality without dogma and so they do overlap; summing it up (and throwing in W.S. for fun):

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form
The Heart Sutra

The subjective and objective spheres are related
And at the same time independent
Related yet working differently.

Cause and effect must return to the great reality

Each thing has its own intrinsic value and is
Related to everything else in function and position
Ordinary life fits the absolute as a box and its lid
Identity of Relative and Absolute

Every particle and every wave in the Universe is simply an excitation of a quantum field that is defined over all space and time
Quantum Field Theory for the Gifted Amateur. Lancaster and Blundell

Quantum field theory arouse out of our need to describe the ephemeral nature of life.
Quantum field Theory in a Nutshell. Zee

What is it that breathes fire into the equations and make a universe for them to describe?
Stephen Hawking

We are such stuff as dreams are made on
The Tempest William Shakespeare




Consciousness Primary


Does it matter if I consider consciousness primary if everything else looks the same whether I do or I don’t?

After all, it does seem like it is all just energy and patterns of energy, and whether Mind is primary or an epiphenomenon vis-a-vis these patterns, I still have my life to deal with. I still have my momentum, my conditions and my conditioning. I still have the perspectives and limitations I inherit from culture and biology. In the jargon, my karma.

Buddha has been quoted as saying that he had come to teach the way to end suffering.

He taught how grasping at our mercurial existence, trying to reify our experience, to make our lives bite size and manageable, we privilege our desires, hopes and fears, leading to suffering.

Practices like meditation and the precepts are to walk us out of our conditioning, our delusional state of mind and our habit of grasping at whatever we think will calm our fears and justify our anger, desires that leads to more suffering.


Samadhi is the state of mind of someone not distracted by grasping and delusion.

Compassion is the state of one not in the throes of delusion.

Don’t get lost in ideas and philosophizing, in esoterica and fun facts, the Buddha counseled in some early texts. Don’t listen to authority just for authority’s sake, find out for yourself what you need to do to end your suffering.

And then he gave the tools one needs to do this, and that is the Buddhist practice (meditation etc).

Fine. That does about sum it up.

So then, what’s all this about Mind in Buddhism, in Zen in particular? Why does this seem to overlap with the writings of card-carrying scientists like Thomas Campbell and Robert Lanza who are part of such a “Mind Only” perspective (in Buddhism the Yogacara school or in teachings found in such texts as the Lankavatara sutra), even if they don’t label themselves that way?

Why grant a quality to Energy, to what underlies quantum fields, the scientific foundation, the scientific essence? Why think that quality, its nature, may be consciousness?

Because it seems to be true. It just seems to be that the quality, the state, of being is in some way a state of Mind.

And if true, then it is the opposite of delusion and ignorance, so it just might be something to consider!

In Chinese Chan (Zen) there is the statement that “Buddha is Mind.” (or Mind is Buddha). One ancient Chinese Zen teacher said he stopped saying Mind is Buddha. I get the impression he thought it was unnecessary, redundant, it was something extra to even go that far. Why add the concept of “Mind” to Being? His student, already a Zen teacher in his own right, when told of his teacher’s change of heart (in Chinese Xin=mind=heart), said, meh, ok for him, but I still like Mind is Buddha!

Energy is being. Being is energy. Mind is the closest mirror we have to hold that up to, the part of our being that resonates with the quality of Being.

Yes, I suspect you can do great science, discover subtle truths about nature, lead yourself to deep and profound places, love your family and pets and neighbors, and live an ethical, good and kind life, all without considering Mind as primary.

Maybe it won’t make any difference for you. Maybe if you get too hung up on Mind it becomes just another concept to confuse you and help you to ignore the things you need to do. Another distraction, another way to justify selfishness, greed, lust, anger and all matters of mischief and mayhem.

Or not.

Maybe it does make a difference in some subtle way. If 3 pounds of carbon and water and a bit of other stuff in your skull is primary there may always be that limit, the one that keeps it all so small, so concrete, that such a vision leads to.

That’s fine if that is indeed how it is. So be it, then, suck it up and deal with it!

But maybe that isn’t how it is. Maybe that is an artificial limit. Maybe Mind IS how it IS, maybe Mind is the quality of Being, of Energy.

And that just might make a difference when you get to the hard parts. When you already are pretty responsible, pretty smart and aware, pretty nice and trying so hard, and yet there is still suffering, maybe, just perhaps, a profound appreciation and awareness of the primary nature of Mind can be liberating. Because just maybe it’s true!

Try it on for size. Breathe into the pit of your gut, get very quiet, be with it for a while. See how it fits.

After all, you can always change your mind!

Darwin worm stone