The Crown of Creation (?)


Here’s my current suggestion for the coolest animal (hint: it is not us, either despite of, or maybe because of, our awesome and dangerous brains and opposable thumbs):


Sounds impressive! Actually, despite sounding like the name of some hard-core conquering emperor, it means ‘slow step’ in Latin.

Less impressively, it is also known as the water bear.

But it is WAY more impressive than any marauding horde.

There’s a great chapter about them in the book “Animal Earth, the amazing diversity of living creatures.” I like this book; while limiting itself to animals (not plants, say, or bacteria, etc.) it has examples of all the major groups, and so despite our brain chauvinism, vertebrates are barely mentioned.

At 0.003 to 0.08 inches you can barely see it without magnification. They live in both marine and fresh water. These can be extreme environments and collections of water as thin as the layer of water on moss or on  “lichen encrusting a headstone.” There’s some likely in your immediate vicinity right now. Some are “herbivorous” eating plants and algal cells, others are predatory on small animals like nematodes (ubiquitous small worms). In marine waters they tend to reproduce sexually. In fresh waters, some are hermaphrodites and others can reproduce by parthenogenesis, meaning mother’s eggs just start doing their thing, no need for sperm. So, for those water bears there is no need for males.

But here’s the coolest part:

They undergo “cryptobiosis,” described as a kind of “death-like suspended animation.” The dehydrate over less than an hour and become what is called a “tun.” They use glycerol and a trehalose, a simple sugar to replace water molecules. The tun can tolerate:

Temperatures approaching absolute zero (much colder, it says, than liquid nitrogen)

Temperatures up to 120 centigrade or 250 degrees Fahrenheit (they can live in hot springs without being in this living dead condition)

“Huge doses of radiation”

A “hard vacuum”

Up to 600 atmospheres of pressure.


So, you think global warming is a threat to life on earth? Think again. Of course rats and roaches wont care either if our coastal cities are under water, our economies dive, millions starve from lack of water from loss of run off from major mountain ranges and destroyed habitats and ecosystems.

We will take down  ourselves, and a large percent of species on earth if we continue living as we have, but many will survive.

Earth has put up with more than we can dish out, and life has survived massive extinctions before (the book “The Sixth Extinction” will teach you about that, as will any good history of life on earth or a trip to a good natural history museum.)

This extinction is unique in that it is the first massive extinction done knowingly, out of pure greed and willful stupidity and self-deception, so some call it the Anthropocene (Latin for people fucked it up. Well, not exactly; it means the people’s period. Power to the people!).

So I worry less about earth or even life on earth than I shake my head at our arrogance and hurt for our kids and grandkids. Species come and go. Biology, evolution, is not romantic or sentimental. Life on earth  has the urge to survive, to grow and develop, to evolve, but it is not unidirectionally goal directed. We are. Let’s not fool ourselves. Our concerns about the environment are basically about us. Earth just finds us wordy apes petty, rude and annoying, not existentially threatening. In a few millions of years even our most toxic remnants will be dissolved, dissipated, and metamorphosed (OK some will take a few tens, or even hundreds, of  millions of years, but earth has deep time).

We’re not water bears; we’re not that cool. We are just an evolutionary experiment—fragile bodies with overblown, overly self-important, big wordy brains. Is there a chance that we will look up from our devices, our efficiencies, our clinging and our lusts, with our attention spans less than goldfishes, to see past our encrusted defense outer and inner mechanisms, be brave, and do the right thing? Judging from the popularity of certain republicans who thrive on greed, ignorance, fear and hate right now, I am not convinced. Judging from the reaction to them of many, to the wisdom of some I know and read and hear about, I am allowing myself some tiny sliver of hope.

Zen impartiality or not, I’d like my grandkids not to live in a seething hell of destroyed civilizations and ecosystems.


Brain Chauvinism: Do Thoughts Exist?

I have been reading “Beyond Words” by Carl Safina, one of many wonderful books out there on animal cognition. I highly recommend it on many levels to anybody and everybody, but it is particularly relevant to Zen practitioners, and I’ll tell you why. It forces the question: what is intelligence, at its most basic level? Is intelligence defined by having a brain or some semblance of free will? It is easy for us to relate to elephants in mourning as a sympathetic show of an emotional intelligence, a clear cognition and awareness, in a very different species, one we have not shared an ancestor with for tens and tens of millions of years, and so has evolved very complex brains quite independently of how our evolutionary path. The same goes for dolphins and wolves. Apes are of course our cousins, so maybe we are less surprised at their brainpower.

But what about living beings that aren’t mammals, that aren’t even vertebrates? We can easily see the intelligence of an octopus when it solves problems without a vertebrate brain. What about plants? There are a couple of books I have enjoyed on plant intelligence: “What a Plant Knows” by Daniel Chamovitz and “Brilliant Green” by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola. There is clearly a kind of group mind cognition in social insects. Is there bacterial or protist intelligence? Certainly there is a staggeringly complex integration of a range of stimuli and response requiring a balancing act of inputs and outputs even in single celled organisms.

Why should a brain be necessary for awareness? After all, one can argue our bodies and brains are made of cells, and that these cells employ mechanisms that respond to input signals with responses that are not substantially different from the mechanisms used by single cell organisms. All such cellular mechanisms involve energy stimuli resulting in energy responses, as conditioned by biology and interactions with different energy inputs (colloquially called the “past” or “experience” or “the environment”).

Is free will needed for intelligence? It may be that our apparent free will is only a story we tell ourselves about these stimuli and responses as a survival mechanism. Maybe that’s part of why we developed language, to dress up our stories about our cognition, our responses, to better assuage us that we have some privilege, some substance that we don’t really have! It was once suggested to me the only free will we have may be the free will of attention, of, in Buddhist parlance, of waking up.

The view of some scientists is that the complexity of brains allows for ”emergent phenomena” like “true” cognition and awareness. That is certainly the case for awareness and cognition as we experience it with our brains, or insects or elephants and dolphins experience with their very different brains, but maybe that’s only because we are brain chauvinists. I am not convinced it is essential that there be brains involved for cognition, for awareness to occur. Do you have any idea of the complexity of signals, fluctuations of energy in molecules, changes in cell membrane electrical potential, the generation of new molecules and molecular conformations, required to get a paramecium or E. coli to move in response to light or nutrients, or for a plant to turn to the sun or release chemicals that signal danger to other plants? Are these really acting any differently than brains in a fundamental or substantial way? Clearly these behaviors of bacteria and roses are complex emergent phenomena.

Whether you buy the awareness and intelligence of the staph infecting your ingrown toenail, we have another prejudice besides brain chauvinism that is closer to home. It is the belief in the need for words to embody or create our thoughts, that the words in our heads are thoughts. Actually they are just our explanations, our stories about our responses to the energy state we find ourselves in at any given moment. That is why the title of the book “Beyond words” is so apt. Our mammalian cousins, with intelligence so much like our intelligence, do not use words to craft complex thoughts, communications and emotions.

Studies in human cognition show that much of what we interpret as our thoughts occurs well after the thought registers as brain activity. We dress up our brain’s perceptions and our brain’s responses with words, almost as an afterthought, as it were, to explain to ourselves, really to justify to ourselves, what we are doing, and why we are doing it.

Words are a supplement, a special skill we have, but it doesn’t mean that they always serve us well. Look at what we have used this tool for: greed and anger and the resulting hate and violence. Compassion and caring and anger and fear don’t require words. Look at our animal cousins! It may be that our word-filled brains are a failed evolutionary experiment. Perhaps we big-brained wordy mammals, as a corner of the universe unfolding, have unfolded in an evolutionary dead end. The universe is not sentimental. Mind will persist with our without hairless monkeys on the third rock from the sun.

Perhaps awareness is the true nature of being, foundational in a way that brains are not.

Minimally it behooves us as citizens of earth to open our minds to the minds of our living cousins. Perhaps more to the point we should understand the words in our heads are not our thoughts, just the story we tell ourselves about them. We need not attach to them and give them power over us.

I am not even sure that most of what we think of, or maybe any of what we think of, as thoughts has any substance at all. When is a thought a thought? When the MRI or EEG says so, when enough cell membranes depolarize in a specific pattern, before you are conscious of it, or when it becomes words in your head? Why is any of that “thought” other than we defined it that way out of convenience or arrogance? Out of a neurotic need to justify and reassure ourselves to ourselves?

If you are walking and take the next step without instructing yourself to do so with words, is that less of a thought than when you take it with words about that step in your head? What about the next breath you take? You can use words about breathing and you can control the rate and depth of your breathing, but you don’t have to. You will take a next breath either way. Is one breath more a thought than the other just because you clothed it in words and altered it?

Yasutani Roshi says in the book “The Three Pillars of Zen” that it’s all “makyo.” Makyo is a Japanese word used for hallucinations or other manifest delusional processes that are released during intense meditation. They can be frank sensory hallucinations, emotions, or complex delusional worlds we conjure up. They can be positive or negative. Indeed, then, perhaps the whole of samsara, the manifest universe, is makyo as Yasutani suggests. Perhaps all thoughts, all experience, all existence that occurs in the world of the six senses, are makyo as Yasutani Roshi suggests.

The complexity of our brains, the words that appear in our heads, is just a set of chemical reactions, of the energy fluctuations that form the substance of our perceived reality, the universe, even of awareness itself. But awareness doesn’t need our “big boy words.” We are brain and thought addicts. That is not only true for intellectuals and nerds. What we define as a thought is the brain chauvinistic tip of the iceberg of a vast web of energy transformations. Do we really need to privilege thoughts over awareness, or is that the essence of delusion? do we need to believe our stories about our thoughts?

What do you think?

As I was Saying

Right after I posted my last:

Colorado Springs.

Mass murder.

Are we rounding up pro-lifers?

Decrying Christian and Orthodox Jewish Sharia law?

Seems only white people get to kill masses of people. After all. white folk got this country by genocide.

Addendum next day: Now I have had a day to think of this post, and I’ll let it stand even though I was indulging in some anger when I wrote it.

To make it clear:

I don’t want ANYBODY rounded up because of the actions of a few in their racial/ethnic/national/religious/political/philosophical/other general characteristic because of the actions of others in their racial/ethnic/national/religious/political/philosophical/other general characteristic.

Or even suspected, surveilled or reviled, let alone persecuted, just on those characteristics alone.

I do stand behind my assessment that many people’s (over) reaction has been xenophobic, racist fear and delusion, the right wing and media exploits it and we risk indulging it it we are not vigilant, and that the consequences of fear and loathing are real and horrific..

Lets encourage our leaders to do the hard work: get the bad guys! Don’t indulge and exploit fear that makes the terrorism a winning option for nefarious purposes.




The Only Thing We Have To Fear; Happy Thanksgiving

I haven’t written on this website for a while for several reasons. Mostly I have been writing a fantasy novel for 8-11 year olds (or thereabouts) where themes that I have discussed in this blog are the subtext, but without any Buddhist, Zen or really scientific jargon. That’s the point of fiction; you explore new things in a way that is free and open, using intuition and imagination.

Also, I went to do research and visit friends and family in Paris.

Then a month later of course the horror of ISIL in Paris happened.

That was sad and disgusting and tragic, but what really got to me was the irrational reaction of so many people here in the USA (and somewhat elsewhere, of course): paranoia, xenophobia, racism, perverted values, willingness to destroy innocent lives; the wholesale and obvious caving in to the whims of evil deeds perpetrated by a handful of people.

I don’t usually discuss current events in this blog. The ethical dimensions of “no separation,” the teachings of Buddhism about compassion that I have discussed, say it all. Don’t get sucked in by greed and anger and you will probably get it right most of the time.

Fear is greed. Now, I am not talking about the rapid heart beat and even the involuntary jumping and screaming that might occur if you are surprised watching a suspenseful film, when an earthquake happens, or if you are indeed attacked by nefarious forces including bad guys (or a leopard). These reactions are pretty hard wired; yes, it may be that with deep enough enlightenment you can transcend these reactions, but they do serve an evolutionary purpose (that leopard).

And I am not talking about even more prolonged, perfectly legitimate reactions and concerns that can degrade into fear. You are concerned if someone dear to you is sick. It needn’t be that you are afraid for that person, you just would like them not to suffer. You miss a close friend when she dies. It needn’t become fear of death. You would rather be careful than deal with the pain of third degree burns. You aren’t afraid, it’s just that third degree burns really, really, really suck. You do not want the consequences that may occur if your drink and drive. You’d rather not die just yet, so when you are sick you dive in and you take medicine or undergo surgery or stop smoking or change your diet if it will help.

These are not really fears or actions based on fear; they are what a responsible, smart and wise person does.

Being spiritual shouldn’t mean you are dumb or uncaring. Going all Zen and avoiding “picking and choosing,” as the ancient Chan masters implored, means you don’t get attached to your view points, your desires and conditioning, it doesn’t mean you don’t jump in to save a drowning child. Just the opposite; maybe you’d rather not get wet. Maybe you are afraid to get involved, that you will fail. You do it anyway.

Maybe you are afraid. Tough. Do the right thing. That is not picking or choosing.

So, getting back to the terrorists.

If you feel one iota of fear because of the Paris attacks, you are deluded, selfish and you are a terrorist. Unless maybe if you were there and have PTSD. Yep, you are a terrorist in the same sense that you may be a Buddhist. It is your Way, what you believe in, the way of terrorizing and being terrorized. These go hand in had. Nobody terrorized, no terrorists. They lose steam quickly. Why blow yourself up if nobody goes ooh and aah?

I assume nobody reading this made the connection to the Syrian refugees that some of our politicians and it seems many of our countrymen did in the USA; that’s too over the top racist and incoherent for anybody sophisticated enough to find this website. I would think. I would hope.

I mean, the irony of during the season of Thanksgiving Americans getting self righteous about terrorists and genocide is a bit much. We built this country on murder, slavery and deceit! That is not a political statement or opinion, it is historical fact, whatever the Texas school board says.

Anyway, I had reasonable people, citizens of liberal West LA, tell me they were afraid to travel. That terrorism will get us. That Sharia law is coming to a town near you.

In 2013 about 10,000 Americans were killed by drunk drivers in motor vehicle accidents. That is almost three 9/11’s and about 80 Paris attacks. That happens here EACH YEAR. How do we know that is avoidable other than the fact that no one HAS to drive drunk? Because it used to be 25,000 killed by drunk drivers before tougher laws were instituted.

How do we know the reactions we have seen in the USA are racist? We didn’t suddenly round up white guys in pick-ups, even just right wing separatists with pick ups and fertilizer, after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma, killing some ten times more people than in Paris.

How do we know it is irrational? How many mass shootings in the USA have there been and we wont regulate guns? We hold that constitutionally  sacred, but we pervert the the first amendment to allow for unrestrained money in politics as free speech, and we allow lawless search and seizure because we are afraid of dying by terrorists of a certain kind.

My grandsons are more likely to be killed in school or by gangbangers, white guy mass murderers or homegrown white separatist terrorists, than Islamic terrorists.

Yet we go about our lives.

So if in your head, in your heart, even if you know better than to say it out loud because you are politically, socially and spiritually correct, you are afraid because of the Paris tragedy, don’t rationalize it. Face your delusion. You need to get centered. That fear is greed. It is poison and you make it happen.

(not you, or me, dear reader, we know better; I mean those other guys)

Fear causes pain and suffering for yourself and others.

It will kill and maim.

The terrorists are called that because it is obviously what they are after. Baiting us, edging us on. Making us terrorized. Afraid.

Don’t let terrorism win.

Don’t let your friends, neighbors, people talking at the supermarket or the gym let terrorism win. Stand against terrorism. Stand against irrational fear and loathing.

Be smart. Be strong. I am not a pacifist. Some people may need to be ushered into their next incarnation in a way that makes it that they don’t take a lot of people with them, causing undo pain and stirring up deep and abiding trouble. After all, if we don’t stop them when we can without selling out our values, we are in some way complicit.  The warrior spirit is to protect those who need protecting. Out of compassion, not fear or anger. I thought it appropriate when the Paris cops kicked down the right doors and I am only sorry the police dog was killed. OK, maybe they were a little afraid or angry. I won’t judge. I’m just saying don’t think it HAS to be out of fear and anger and selfishness.

Just like when you don’t drink and drive, you do that to take care of business. To protect yourself and others. You don’t have to think in terms of courage or cowardice.

The decision not to drink and drive does not require fear. Fear is extra.

Fear always is. Sure, in the moment of crisis there will be adrenaline flowing and resulting strong reactions. Shitting yourself, rapid heart beat, breathing shallow and fast, getting blood to the muscles, IQ dropping 20 points, are genetically encoded survival mechanisms that are reasonable and necessary. The reaction feels and looks a bit like fear, so you might be convinced you are afraid, but that is an illusion, a concept, a conceit, something extra. A phantom, a chimera. Such a reaction needn’t be fear and loathing. It is how we living organisms are built. We avoid noxious stimuli. Even single cell organisms do. And they don’t call it fear. They do what needs to be done. We needn’t mentally process that reaction and transform it into ongoing fear. We needn’t give it that name, (name the color, blind the eye) confer on it an intellectual gravitas, reify it, grant it the form and function of fear, then make subsequent decisions based on our manufactured fear, often creating self-fulfilling prophecies and a downward spiral.

We don’t let greed turn caution into a fetish. Fear and loathing is, as they say in Zen, ‘a head on a head.’ It is not needed and it always leads to more harm.

There was that story I told where they gave a hard time to Pyrrho, who taught a kind of early Buddhism in Greece that included non-attachment, when he was chased up a tree by wild dogs. They were wrong. He wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t “attached.” He had no silly notion that the teaching of non-attachment meant that dogs get to say when you had to be dog food. He just didn’t think becoming dog food was best use of his body at that time.

You know, like FDR said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” As a kid I thought that was dumb. Of course we had to fear monsters and bad guys and lightning, right?


So let this be a teachable moment. For ourselves our kids, our friends, the world. We wont succumb to fear. We know better. Deep in our guts, we really do.



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.