Right Effort and Conditioning

I was convinced at an early age that I was lazy. I heard it often enough from my mother. And then I heard it from my teachers when I couldn’t be bothered with homework or studying. I bought it. I embraced it.

When my sixth grade teacher told me that despite my over the top standardized test scores he wouldn’t put me in the special program that would allow me to skip eighth grade because I didn’t ever do any work, I had to at least concede that I could see his point. I had long before established my what was then called “underachiever” status.

Cost me a !@#$ing extra year of school, but you know, I had to be me!

But in fact I always did stuff. Even as an underachieving smart-assed kid and teenager. I just did what interested me. While getting mostly B’s and C’s in high school (the only math A I got was in geometry when a substitute teacher challenged me by pointing out geometry was about THINKING! So I actually did the homework and looked forward to the tests!) I took the subway after school to NYU to sit in on a university art history course. I would read Shakespeare and go see Shakespeare in the park in Central Park (it was free!). I haunted the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was learning ancient Egyptian. I painted and drew.

But to this day I tend to be on the look out. Am I slacking? Were they right? If I stop, if I relax my guard, will I revert to that “lazy kid,” like a once productive cultivated field being reclaimed by weeds?

For that matter, would that be all bad?

Do I honestly think it would all come apart? That the Buddhist “right effort” requires some concept of achieving?

Well, Nyogen Roshi quotes Maezumi Roshi as saying the effort of no effort is the hardest effort you will ever make.


I bring all of this up because I was going to write about very positive experiences I have been having peeling back some of the layers of my medical conditioning. How I am, even now, this late in my game, becoming a bit of a better doctor, a little bit better healer, teacher of doctors and mentor. And I give credit to my practice. And to right effort. I will get into that in another post, but for now I want to note that rather than staying positive, the way I framed it in my mind, the way I was going to introduce it here, was that I discovered that I was intellectually lazy.


I mean, REALLY?

Conditioning. It seeps in very deep.

Mental friggin’ fracking.

Psychic pollution.

Nyogen Roshi says Buddhism is one loud cry of affirmation. Perhaps the first affirmation is to stop calling yourself names.

Quantum Peak Again

There is another famous experiment that I would like to talk you through. I will try with lots of schematic drawings. The pay off is that it is another look at how the quantum world is beyond our day-to-day experience and how our basic notions are projections. For now, that is plenty! We can go deeper later.

We are going to look at what happens when a light goes through an interferometer.

Lets look at the basic set up, a “big picture” look.It is all there, but we will have to go over it step by step. First, what is in the diagram?.



There is a light source, here the green lamp in the lower left corner of the diagram.

The yellow arrows indicate the path the light takes.

There are four mirrors, one at each corner, all indicated by diagonal lines.

Two mirrors, one at the upper left corner and the other at the lower right corner, are indicated by a single blue line. They are full-silvered mirrors and they reflect all the light that comes to them.

Two other mirrors, one at the lower left corner and the other at the upper right corner, are half-silvered mirrors. These reflect half of the light that comes to them, and let half of the light through. A very important point is that the half-silvered mirrors have a front and a back. The back, here indicated by a red line, also reflects half the light and lets half the light through, but there is a change in the reflected light when reflected off the back ( red) side of the half-silvered mirror. The “phase” of the light is shifted. We will get back to that in a bit; it makes all the difference.

The black trapezoid objects in the upper right par of the diagram are light detectors. That is, they will register the light that gets to them (and their color will turn from black to yellow here in these diagrams).

This next diagram shows another overview showing what will happen. We send light through the interferometer and only the top light detector registers light. Why is that? What happened to the light going toward the lower right detector?



Lets follow the light,


Here we see the light that came from our lamp at the lower left in our first “big picture” diagram. This light first interacts with the lower left half-silvered mirror. Half of the light is reflected, and because of the mirror’s angle the reflected light is sent up in this diagram. The other half of the light goes straight through along the bottom left to right. This is why there is a half-silvered mirror here at the beginning of our interferometer device, to split the light into two pants, an upper and lower path.



The half of the light that was reflected straight up along the upper path at the first mirror now reaches the upper left full-silvered mirror and all of that light is reflected, now going along the top from left to right.


The half of the light going left to right on the lower path that went through the first half-silvered mirror next reaches the lower right full-silvered mirror and is reflected up along the right side of our interferometer.



The light in the upper path going from left to right reaches the upper right corner half-silvered mirror. This light from the upper path is again split at the half-silvered mirror at the upper right just like the light was at the first half-silvered mirror at the lower left corner of the interferometer. At this last mirror once again half of the upper path light goes through unchanged, and half is reflected up to the top light detector.



Now here is where it gets a bit tricky. The light from the lower path next reaches this last half-silvered mirror in the upper right corner of the interferometer. But this time it interacts with the back of the half-silvered mirror! This light from the lower path is also split at the half-silvered mirror. The half of the lower path light that goes straight through the half-silvered mirror continues up to the upper detector unchanged. That light transmitted from the lower path gets to the upper detector at the same time as the light from the upper path that was reflected up to the detector, so the light reflected from the upper path and the light that goes through from the bottom path combine and the upper detector registers the light.



BUT the light that was reflected off of the BACK of the upper right half-silvered mirror from the lower path is now shifted 180 degrees out of phase by the back of the half silvered mirror! This means the peaks of this light, the “out of phase” light reflected off of the back of the half-silvered mirror, now in red in the diagram (but don’t get confused, that color change is just to make it easy to follow; the light doesn’t change wavelength or color) lines up with the troughs of the light that went through from the upper pathway.


So the two light waves, the wave of light that went through the last mirror from the upper path and the wave of light reflected form the back of the mirror from the lower path  “cancel” each other out. They completely “interfere” with each other (negative interference in the jargon). Hence the name of the device: interferometer!

The peaks, like we have seen in previous posts and in the diagram to the right here, we can think of as +1, the troughs as -1. So you can see how the +1 peak lines up with the -1 trough, and that kind of alignment of the same + with – holds true throughout the whole wave. So the +’s combine exactly with the -‘s and cancel each other out (+1 and -1 =0).


So NO light gets to the lower right detector, which remains black in our diagram.

When only the upper detector detects light, the lower right detector detects nothing, we know that both paths are open and the light went through both the upper and lower path.

Now for a really amazing result: if we send one photon at a time through, once again only the upper detector registers light! The indivisible, basic particle, the photon say (but other particles and even small molecules have been shown to do this), the discrete energy carrier of electromagnetic waves, is in both pathways. But it can’t be, a photon, a particle, is a most basic thing, it is not divisible, of course.Right?

Well, yes, but no. This situation where the photon interferes with itself when both paths are open is called “superposition.” It almost seems as if the photon is “in” the two paths at once in superposition. This is a mathematical idea, of course. Superposition is a word for a phenomenon that can be mathematically described but has no four-dimensional meaning in any sense we can picture or comprehend based on our day-to-day experience and our monkey brain.

The particle is, in effect, going through all possibilities of all of the paths, every one however unlikely (in this “simple” case both paths are equally likely). Though of course that is impossible in ordinary time and space.

Now, if you block a pathway, then both detectors detect light!  If  you send a beam of light through just one path (either upper or lower;in the diagram below it is the upper path) both detectors register light. If you send one photon at a time through only one path of the interferometer then only one of the two detectors will register each photon that goes through, but over many runs with single photons half the time the upper detector will register the photon, half the time the detector on the right will register the photon!


To see what is happening, in this diagram the upper pathway is open, the lower blocked. At the upper right half-silvered mirror half of  the light (or half of the photons over different run when one photon at a time is sent  into the interferometer) goes through the mirror to the detector on the right, half at the light (or half the photons over different runs) is reflected up to the upper detector.

The situation is the same if the upper pathway is blocked. The light reflecting off the back of the upper right half-silvered mirror is indeed phase shifted as before, but there is no other light wave from the upper path going through the half-silvered mirror to “interfere” with the out of phase light (the detector doesn’t care about the phase), so there is no “negative interference,” No two waves to cancel each other out!

So if both detectors light up when a beam of light is sent through, or over many runs with individual photons, you know that only one pathway is open!

This shows that indeed photons can act as discrete particles that can be detected one at a time. As before with the double slit experiment though we have to ask, how do they “know” to go half the time to one or the other mirror if they are separated in space and time?

Here is the kicker. If you don’t block either pathway, but set up some sort of detector that will tell you which path the photon is on, even if you can show it doesn’t mess with the photon in any way you can tell, it is just as if the other pathway is blocked. The superposition disappears! Both detectors will register light (again, when sending only a photon through at a time they won’t both detect the photon at the same time, one or another will do so, but over many runs it will be half and half again!).

Lets stop here. This is one of the big deals in quantum mechanics. Why does “knowing,” that is detecting the photon on one path or another make a difference? What does knowing or detecting mean? And didn’t we already show the photon is in this weird superposition as if it is in both paths at once?

I told you not to get hung up on how you are picturing this. It won’t work.


Special thanks to Prof. Benjamin Schumacher whose Great Courses lectures on quantum mechanics are very good and who presented this version of the interferometer.

Circle Triangle Square



Sengai Gibon (1750-1838) was a Japanese Zen master who was an artist. There are many stories about Sengai. One I particularly like shows his courage and compassion. The Daimyo, the high ranking Samurai who was the local ruler, loved chrysanthemums. The gardener’s dog destroyed some of his prized blooms and so naturally the gardener needed to die. Sengai leveled the rest of the flowers with is trusty scythe, presenting himself to the Daimyo the next day. Sengai asked to be killed for certainly in this area the farmers, who were dying of hunger were ignored by the Daimyo while pretty plants were valued above a human life.

The Daimyo got the message.

One of Sengai’s most famous works is “Circle Triangle Square.”


There are many interpretations of what this painting is about.

The inscription at the left alludes to Sengai’s temple, an ancient temple already at that time about 700 years old. it was the first Zen temple in Japan. So maybe the shapes refer to the temple. Or the pagoda at the temple.

Or maybe the inscription is not about the subject of the painting and it is just in effect his signature. Zen masters in Japan and before that China were often identified with and named after their monasteries or the mountains they lived on.

Or maybe the circle is the cushion (zafu) the meditator sits on, the triangle is the mediator with the top point as the head, the solid base the butt and crossed legs. The triangle and meditator as mountain (the triangle/meditator/mountain idea was suggested in conversations with sensai Maezen at Hazy Moon). The square might be the zabuton, the square pad the zafu sits on.

I would like to interpret it geometrically.

I have no idea how much geometry Sengai knew. Clearly basic geometric shapes interested him enough to paint them.

I already discussed the perfect symmetry of a circle in the post “Circle and Wave.” Recall that a circle is an idea, defined as that object that is equally distant at every point from a central point. This distance is the radius of the circle. So all it takes is a distance to make a circle. The circle has perfect rotational symmetry, without beginning or end. When that symmetry is broken, we saw that we can produce waves, and these waves define particles, the basis of form.


We saw that breaking the symmetry of the ideal circle led to waves, particles and the manifest universe of form and is embodied in the yin yang symbol.

So circles are amazing but where do squares and triangles come in? How do they relate to the unwinding of the perfect circle as a wave.

Lets start with how a square and triangle relate. A square is two triangles.


Next, how do circles and squares relate? There are many ways, but here is one I like: Every circle precisely defines two squares, each of which intersects with the circle at four points. One square is inside, the other outside the circle. In a perfect symmetry, every square likewise defines two circles, each circle intersecting with the square at four points:


Those then define two larger and smaller squares and circles ad infinitum.



Now, how do circles and triangles relate and how do they make waves?

We can think of the circle as a clock face. This time we will think of the radius as a minute hand, here pictured as arrows, but this minute hand will go counter-clockwise starting at the 3 o’clock position. We will see how high the tip of the arrow is above or below the horizontal line bisecting the circle at several points.



Next lets put each vertical line along a horizontal line with each clock hour marked, starting at 3 o’clock and going counterclockwise. Even with just a few straight lines we see a wave emerging:


In this figure we placed the vertical lines above and below the horizontal line at their clock positions in the circle as marked on the horizontal line and connected the tips of the arrows with lines and got a rough wave.

If we were to add so many arrows and vertical lines so that the circle is filled with lines and arrows we would get a perfectly smooth wave.

What is this wave?

Each arrow in the circle goes from the center to the circle itself and so all are the same length. Each is a radius of that circle. It also is the hypotenuse (the longest side) of a right triangle.

Here is one triangle isolated to show that they are each indeed a triangle:


This figure Shows one of the triangles defined by the arrow and the line from the tip of the arrow to the horizontal bisecting line.

Now, lets say the arrow/radius/hypotenuse is one unit. It doesn’t matter one unit of what. A unit could be one inch, one mile, one light year, one unit of 6.753 mm, one diameter of an oxygen atom, it doesn’t matter; are all kosher as long as all other measurements that relate to that unit length, say of the other sides of the triangle, are measured in a way that is related to that basic unit (in inches, miles light years, multiples of 6.753 mm, diameters of oxygen atoms).

Remember basic trigonometry: the sine of a right triangle is defined as the length of the side opposite an angle (other than the right angle) over (that is, divided by) the hypotenuse. It is a ratio, no units, they cancel, just a relationship that always holds. Since the arrow/hypotenuse/radius here is 1, we defined it as one unit, the far side across from the angle is the length of that side over one, so that side IS the sine for that triangle. Slide4Here we see a right triangle, the thick line is the side across from the marked angle. The diagonal line is the hypotenuse (the arrow in our circle). The thick line is the side across from the angle. To the right of the triangle we have the thick line divided by the diagonal hypotenuse (which is 1) = the thick line. The length of that line is the sine.

So we collected these sides of the triangles, these sines, which were the length of the tip of the arrow above or below the horizontal bisecting line, and we created a sine wave!

Circle, square.  Every square defines two circles, every circle defines two squares, without beginning or end.  Square triangle. Two triangles make a square. Circle triangle. Every circle is made up of the hypotenuse of triangle after triangles, and these define waves (we just looked at one such wave, the sine wave).

So do you think Sengai had any of this in mind? Did he know trigonometry? Did he intuit that these basic forms could describe all form? These objects that have no physical existence but are abstractions, the product of mind, empty of substance?


“Nevertheless this great ocean is neither a circle nor has directions. The wondrous features of this ocean that remain beyond our vision are inexhaustible…. It is just that as far as my vision reaches for the time being, it appears to be a circle.”



photo courtesy of Susan Levinson

Emptiness for Art Historians

All phenomenon arise because of ever changing causes and conditions.  Phenomenon include what we perceive as things and events. These causes and conditions will change because their energy, their momentum, will dissipate, and because they result in new causes and conditions, in an infinite feedback of changing conditions resulting in changing phenomenon resulting in changing causes and conditions resulting in changing phenomenon…..

No essence, no fixed meaning or substance.

Yet we reify with concepts. We try to freeze and categorize reality. We try to capture it so we can deal with it on our terms. When the convenient tool of language distorts our appreciation of reality it is a (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle) form of delusion.

A painting or a photograph that attempts to render a scene, whether a landscape, still life or portrait is a frozen approximation.

It is not how the world is really experienced. Continue reading

Emptiness and Form


In my post “Circle and Wave” I suggested an intimate relationship between the absolute symmetry of the circle and the broken symmetry of waves mathematically derived from circles, and a similarly intimate relationship between waves and particles. In my post defining energy I discussed how energy is not a substance, but rather energy is as elusive and hard to grasp as it is essential to the world of things that go bump, the world of experience. In my last post on sensation and perception I suggested however awesome the world of experience is dualistic and maybe we need to go deeper and review the Buddhist experience described as emptiness (well, what Zen masters assure us is experience, I make no personal claims; I am wading here into waters that are very deep, well over my Zen pay grade and all of my heads, Zen or otherwise).

Lets do it anyway. It’s fun stuff. Continue reading

Energy, Sensation, Perception


Sensation and perception are how we seem to experience the world. Practitioners of Buddhism and science have given a lot of attention to how we do that and what it means.

From the scientific viewpoint, sensation occurs when a specialized organ interacts with the form of energy it evolved to interact with. These specialized organs are the sensory receptors in the eye, ear, nose, skin, or tongue, for example, though animals have a large array of receptors, like infrared receptors in pit vipers or sonar in bats.

And in an inspired insight I particularly admire, in Buddhism the brain is also a sense organ, one that “perceives” both sensory inputs from other sense organs but also you might consider thoughts a sensory input. Continue reading

Love and Marriage







Biologic imperatives

Expectations, voiced or not

Innocence lost, innocence gained

How close is too close, how much is too much?

Not understanding, understanding

Different worlds, same world

Why do I want to be angry?

Glorious and amazing

Wishful thinking






Guan Yin (Kannon in Japanese) , Bodhisattva of compassion, in female form. The male form was originally named Avolikiteshvara. She is the “hearer;” she hears the cries of all suffering, and will go down to the pits of hell gladly when she is called.

After 41 years of marriage to a woman I love, that’s about the only way I can understand it or express it, with poetry. And I rarely write poetry.

I doubt this is gender specific or sexual orientation specific from what I can see. And there are many relationships that are long-term and loving that I imagine do not encompass many of these things. This is simply what spilled out of me about my 44 years of a committed relationship with a woman I love as best as I know how.

I’ll come up with other poems about other relationships.

The real point is that I suspect there is something very deep and profound that these impressions of my life in love and in marriage circle around, that even the most solid day-to-day love can only approach or maybe only dimly reflect as long as egos and agendas are involved:

A love beyond conditioning and expectations.

Abiding compassion.

I think that is the flavor of Xin, the heart of Mind, the taste of existence.

And it doesn’t get old.

For Father’s Day: Is that so?


I was writing a story riffing on a tale about the great Japanese Zen reformer and artist of the 18th century, Hakuin.

It seems a young unmarried women had a baby and wouldn’t give up the name the father. Finally she said it was the monk Hakuin. The parents were incensed, not only because he was a monk who was just starting out renovating a small, run-down old temple, but also because they had been supporting him in his endeavors.

They brought him the baby and said, here, it’s yours.

“Is that so?” He responded, and he took care of the baby.

A year later the young woman confessed that Hakuin wasn’t the father, so her parents went back to Hakuin, tails between their legs, and let him know the baby wasn’t his.

Giving the baby back he responded:

“Is that so?” Continue reading

Behind the Curtain; A First Peek into Quantum Weirdness




Quantum mechanics grabs the attention of so many people for some good reasons.

Quantum mechanics deals in the atomic and subatomic realms. In the reductive scientific program it is about as small and basic as you can go based on actual experiments.

The results of these studies have led to highly reproducible observations and measurements.

These findings have led to technologic breakthroughs.

 And because quantum mechanics is counterintuitive, bizarre and no matter how hard you try to picture it, model it in your head, think it through, intellectualize, fit in into your daily four-dimensional experience of reality, you will fail, like thousand upon thousands of great minds have failed for a hundred years.

Let me start with an example. I will give others in future posts. Continue reading