Experience

The more experience I get the more I respect experience.

Sometimes it hits me: what was I thinking when I thought I actually knew something?

In fact, when I first came to Hazy Moon, Nyogen Roshi to said to me that what he had to offer was just his over 40 years experience “on the cushion” (i.e. meditating, having a  Zen practice). I understood. That’s why I was there. There are plenty of books on Buddhism. I had read many. Still do. Nyogen does point out reading can be good in Zen practice if you go about it in the right spirit; intellect as servant, not master. He reads. After all, smart and wise people who are dead or you can’t or wont meet or know, share themselves in books.

In Tang China, the monks who went to India to bring back Buddhist texts were heroes (it was and arduous journey. In Chinese folklore Monkey, or Journey to the West, is a fantasy myth about such a trip. Such a monk and the karma form his journey is part of my soon to come out novel, if I feel like self publishing it, “Aidan and The Mummy Girl”). Emperor Wu built a huge pagoda for the translators!

If you watch nature shows, you know about the power of experience for mammals. The knowledge of the elephant family matriarch saving her family in a drought because she’s been there before and knows the signs and what to do, comes to mind. Orca matriarchs teaching hunting. Animals transmitting tool use to the young. Life and death stuff.

Now, some creatures learn on the fly and don’t teach or learn like the octopus. Love them. But then, they live a year or two for the most part…

Of course, experience and experiment have the same roots. The difference is, well, maybe there is little difference if both are approached in the right way. The difference is organization and often math in experiment. In experiments you try to control the set up. Even in thought experiments and observational experiments. Hmm, we often try that in life and practice as well, don’t we?

Good luck with that.

First thing in experience/experiment if it is to be useful, is Maezumi Roshi’s admonition: no self deception.

Very difficult. The more I watch doctors and scientists, the more I practice Zen, the more I get how subtle and deep and layered self deception and delusion are. Turtles all the way down.

Experience in my life experience has recently hit home for me as I think about retirement and what I want to teach the residents learning about ocular inflammatory disease when the rotate in my clinic. It also hit home being on the boards of two non-profit groups, a new experience for me.

In medical school it seemed like if I could just cram enough facts about diseases into my head I’d be a good doctor. I studied hard, top f my class, 99th percentile on medical boards. Not a bad first step, a foundation, but not enough.

As a doctor who is involved with people who have rare diseases, I know the books just aren’t enough. After all, people like me write the books, and we often know less than we want to. Research is hard and expensive and in rare diseases great research is hard to do. Randomizing patients is often not ethical, and there aren’t enough patients/subjects to get a large enough group to see differences, to evaluate any differences, to understand the range of manifestations or to get a statistically reliable result.

We have a saying in medicine: “the disease didn’t read the book!” It may take a course, have manifestations, respond in ways not exactly how it is “supposed” to “by the book.”

Ambiguity is part of a doctor’s practice, and part of a patient’s life. Not always easy. Not cookbook.

The longer I teach medicine, the more I see how just reading the books is not enough. It is necessary, but not sufficient, as we say in medical science.

Experience wont necessarily bring great judgment and success, but it is necessary if not always sufficient, to have someone around who has been there, seen that, has the wherewithal to say something insightful and useful about it.

And that’s one reason the siliconization of medicine will hurt a lot of people. Others include mind numbing algorithms and extra work to make things cosmetically acceptable to the beaurocrats and lawyers and the push to a homogenous, one size fits all, way of being.

Fine, I’m an old guy justifying old people’s existence. You may say I just have a self-aggrandizing agenda.

You know, please don’t put me on an ice flow just yet…!

But the value of experience it isn’t just about medicine, that’s just one of the worlds I inhabit. Nor is it about being old, just being in the fray long enough to know your way around. To know what really is an exception, where the algorithm breaks down.

Every disease’s diagnostic criteria has an escape clause: nothing else found to explain what’s going on. Every treatment is statistically determined in clinical studies, with variables we don’t even know to look for yet.

Less ambiguous but more mysterious to me is the world of the non-profit board. A year ago I joined the board of “Swipe Out Hunger,” a non-profit to help feed hungry college students. Think about it. Someone poor gets into college. It may be a waste of their time, college can be, or the ticket to self-respect, dignity, freedom, a better financial future, but they are hungry and distracted. Not the biggest problem facing society, but a problem that is tractable and real and effects thousands of hard working, smart young people. I got involved because the university, UCLA, where Swipes started, is where I have worked for 19 years. This is one of my communities, a sangha.

On the Swipe board there are amazing people. Look on the Swipes website (swipehunger.org) at their bios. I met them, got the brief rundown, last year, but first read their bios a few weeks ago. I was floored, awed. I understood why at board meetings I have so little to add. These people have walked the walk and know the ins and outs of this do-gooder non-profit world. I don’t. And they aren’t old at all (well, one other guy and me), just they have done this or related things (e.g. consulting) as their life’s work. In fact, Swipe was started several years ago by college kids, including the woman who runs it now (she is no longer in college but still young. Dynamic. Talented. Caring. She needs to run for office one day).

They are smart, talented, and they made the effort, putting in the hours. It isn’t about grey hair and wrinkles and arthritis.

I also recently joined the board at Hazy Moon. What do I know about running a Zen Center? I show up, meditate, vacuum and dust or clean the yard on work days or when I take part in sesshin (or, more often, a part of one, anyway). Some on the board built the place and have been making it happen for decades!

So I decided, like in medical school, to get a foundation of knowledge. Got a few books. Started reading. The books are fine, but in fact I’d have to also read up on accounting and management, etc., etc. No book looked like it answered even most of  the questions I had. What should we budget for this and that? What is the right managerial mix when hiring? Fortunately the other board members have travelled those roads.

On the plus side of reading, a book is presumably a distillation of the author’s knowledge and, yes, experience. Books are great resources. How else can dozens, hundreds, even thousands or millions of people access what the author knows and thinks?

Reading of course I just one way to access knowledge. There are many great resources. But I just happen to love books. Hard to scan a recorded lecture for what you want. Holding and smelling my computer just isn’t the same as with a book. But some things really do lend themselves to other media.

But then, can we truly transmit experience in a book? Certainly a bit. We can sometimes almost do better in fiction and poetry (hence why I took a stab at fiction with “Aidan and The Dragon Girl,” and have another one I wrote and am finishing up I mentioned earlier, “Aidan and the Mummy girl,” to express my personal experience and journey in a meaningful way, hopefully only moderately didactic). Will an author be honest enough, have the space for enough to give attention to the outliers, to individual circumstances? Can an author know in advance what it is that you as a particular reader needs to know? Will the author have the courage to step outside received wisdom and write what is really on his or her mind?

Sure, I’ve spent a bit of time with the books and will do some more reading when I feel like it.

Or better than rely on books, I decided, I will hang around.

After all, they didn’t invite me on the board because of what I could read up on.

So I will soak up the knowledge and wisdom of my fellow board members.

In the mean time, use my intelligence and wit to try to add a bit here and there to the conversation and decision making.

You know, get some experience.

Learn.

Old school style.

It’s a spiritual practice.

 

All Now, No Now

Is “now” really only an illusion?

Certainly a universal now that you can perceive as a universal now is impossible. As I mentioned in a recent blog, whatever we are responding to as occurring “right now” is a conglomeration of recent energy states that we integrated into a story based on our conditioning (physical, biological, intellectual, psychological). As the Lankavatara sutra says, we project our delusions and illusions and then we take them as out there in reality.

Quantum mechanics demands that there can’t be a zero time, there is Planck time, which is exceedingly short, way shorter than anything anyone can comprehend or any technology can even get hope to get anywhere near. This is in part related to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: if something could be stopped in time and space, a frozen now that we could capture and measure,  we would know both its momentum and position at that time, and that isn’t allowed.

Also, a time called “now” where all things that are simultaneous to one person’s experience are simultaneous in the experience of all observers, regardless of movement and orientation, is an illusion. Relativity theory quantifies that!

A photon travelling at the speed of light is not in time. The photon’s clock slows to infinitely slow (time dilation; or if time were smooth it would, that is, but as in quantum mechanics maybe it just “approaches” infinitely slow…). The photon also gets infinitely thin, flattened out (space contraction; or it would if space were infinitely smooth, so again, it approaches infinitely flat…). That is, until it hits your eye. Then it is a point particle interacting with your photoreceptor after having travelled perhaps millions of years and trillions upon trillions of miles from a distant star, maybe even a distant galaxy far, far away).

So is there no now? Just the illusion?

Or is it ALL now? As Nyogen Roshi said in his talk today, the infinite now, no beginning no end.

 

How long is now?

A building I saw in what was formerly East Berlin a few years back

Now as no time and all time may be much the same, I think. So short it can’t be measured and so vast and universal it can’t be measured. Bigger than big, shorter than short.

 

Related is the identity of relative and absolute, as a poem we chant is called. This is on a tee shirt I got from Nara, a Buddhist Temple in Japan a bit outside Kyoto. It says, in essence, in the many, One, in One the many. They translated it as in a drop of blood the whole universe. I have also heard it as in a drop of water (or in an atom or particle, or string) the whole universe, but that’s not the pattern you see there on the tee shirt. It is in pattern and spirit I think more like the Heart Sutra (we also chant): form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form. Or the identity of the relative  and absolute.

Here and Now? You Think So?

I just finished my Christmas blog and opened up Lawrence Krauss’s book “The Greatest Story Ever Told-So Far.” (Yes, I still like reading these books, seeing what scientists are selling. I enjoy it almost as much as interpreting ancient Egyptian ideas about the cosmos, as I do in my next Aidan Dream Detective novel, “Aidan and The Mummy Girl Save the Universe,” which I am finishing up).

Dr. Krauss is one of the more militant skeptic-atheist-materialists. I find him a bit arrogant, but he seems otherwise a pretty nice guy. He’s certainly very smart. Anyway, I came across this sentence, where I was, on page 56:

“So too, Einstein explicitly argued, for the first time as far as I know in the history of physics , that “here” and “now” are observer dependent concepts and not universal ones.”

Bravo! Of course Buddhists knew that for at least two millennia. Check out the Lankavatara sutra, among others.

Live in the here and now? Sounds good. The future is a guess, the past is irretrievable far as we can tell, and science assures us we are prone to false memories, dressing up our reality to make it more comprehensible, more palatable. We edit everything to fit our concepts of who we are and what is meaningful, even as we go along, and more so as we keep memories alive by telling and terelling ourselves our stories.

And that’s at best.

Or as the great mathematician and scientist, Laplace, the man who told Napoleon Bonaparte that he had no need for the hypothesis of god in his book on cosmology, said two hundred years ago on his deathbed, when someone tried to make him feel good by lauding his great accomplishments:

“Ah, but we do chase phantoms.”

The word translated into English as ‘phantoms’ was chimera in French. Chimera are mythic beasts hobbled together from different animals. We hobble together phantoms and spend our lives chasing them. Good things, bad things.

Here and now is such a chimera.

If there is any here and now it is Planck time and space, trillions of trillionths of a second or a millimeter. So  so fast a time and so tiny a distance that they are truly inconceivable, nothing our technology can even hope to come in the ballpark of approaching to measure, let alone our senses or our monkey minds. We can write these numbers down mathematically and drool slack jawed in amazement at how clever we are to have come up with such a brazen idea that might even be true, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you can grasp such a space and time.

Even on a mundane level, when you experience a sensory change, a difference in your universe of sight and sound (and smell, taste, touch, phenomena, including mental phenomena, as the sutras say), it is the past. It has been modified. It went from here to there, from an object to your sense organ then to your brain then other parts of your brain where you interpret the changes and tell yourself a story about them.

I used to think a lot about this in surgery, certain one of my more “here and now” experiences. Things move so fast in cataract microsurgery you cant be here and now in a literal way. By time the image of something zigging rather than zagging reaches your brain then you react to it, you’d be too late! You have to be prepared for zig and zag.

By time you react to it, it is gone.

Gone, gone beyond, way beyond.

Gate gate paragate, parasamgate, as the heart sutra says.

So, living in the here and now? Sure. What else do you have? But then, do you even have that? And if not, what do you have?

Merry Christmas from a Non-Materialist Atheist (really, no irony intended! )

 

Being into Zen doesn’t mean I couldn’t be a materialist in the metaphysical sense. Zen does suggest being a materialist in the sense of being greedy and wanting things, with the hope that having stuff (including just the right ideas and rituals) will assuage anxieties and delusions and make up for ignorance and fear, is a bad idea, though with enough rationalization anybody can be a materialist, even a Zen practitioner. It is modern science that makes it difficult to be a metaphysical materialist. After all, what is “material”? What is matter? What makes things “thingy”? All that seems solid dissolves into a state of energy differences that follow rules and constraints (quantum mechanics and relativity, for example). Material, matter, exists only as those energy states are put together into being “something” by our senses and colored our hopes and fears, our conditioning and our scale of biological existence, themselves just energy states determined by energy states:

turtles all the way down.

Peel the onion until there is nothing.

In this cartoon each circle defines a square, which defines a circle. It is an iteration much like how magnetic fields change, defining a changing electric field, creating a propagating magnetic field, etc. This is electromagnetism, the first unified theory, developed in the mid-19th century by Maxwell based on work by an autodidact, Faraday. But where does that first circle come from?

 

Science confirms that these energy states are not the same as the stories our senses project to create our world. Sure, those senses evolved in the context of the rules of energy transformations, and so must relate to them in some way. In Zen there is the foundational poem called (in the translation I know) “The Identity of the Relative and Absolute “(the Sandokai). Zen accepts the challenge.

 

 

Science has a hard time with this. How does my life, my mind, relate to phenomena like quantum entanglement and quantum fields? Very indirectly, it seems, and only with big leaps of faith going from one level of scientific inquiry to another.

 

We may be energy fields, but we are also information, information of a certain contingent form, congealed on one level as DNA, as other levels as chemical  metabolism, interacting, communicating cells and organs and bodies, honed by energy states (our environment), in an iterative way similar to the circle and squares.

 

Scientists tells us science won’t be able to answer some basic questions in our lifetimes, and other questions not likely ever, (is the universe infinite or only 90 billion light years across? Is there one universe or “multiverses”? What is time? Can we verify strings or supersymmetric particles or quantum loop gravity experimentally?), but scientists do tell us that the universe is not what our limited senses describe.

 

 

That is fine with me, because while I can appreciate great beauty and love I have so often in my life, my senses also reveal a pretty dim picture of lies, delusion, death and suffering a lot of the time, not a world where some omniscient creator god just adores its creation…

Cue in Buddhism.

 

One guy came up to Buddha and said I will follow you if you’ll answer my big questions, like is the universe eternal?

Buddha told him he was wasting his time. It’s like being shot by a poison arrow and asking what wood the shaft of the arrow is made of, and similar irrelevant questions, rather than taking out the arrow. In some places Buddha said he came to end suffering. Others he said hey, your heads on fire, man, stop asking dumb questions.

So peel back the stories, and, as the Tang dynasty Zen master Huang Po suggested, watch out for concepts you project on to your life. What are you left with?

 

 

Now, since this is Christmas and I am not going to leave it there. I am not going to allow the arrogance of some scientists and professional atheists make it difficult to hear and appreciate the marvelous absurdity of manifest reality at its deepest scientific description. On the other hand, I am not going to be the atheist who just dishes on a dualistic creator god outside his creation of adoring puppets, that so loves the sparrow in the field, you know, the sparrow that is going to be eaten by the hawk leaving its chicks squawking in desperation, if they are lucky attracting a predator (the same hawk?) to end their misery quickly, rather than dying slowly by dehydration and starvation, without a clue as to what happened.

I am going to get into the Christmas spirit instead! Yay!

My Christmas present is sharing that my favorite book right now is “Barking to the Choir” by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who walks the walk Jesus had in mind.

Father Boyle is the founder of Homeboys industries, a job program for ex-gangbangers, but so much more.

“Barking to the Choir” is a spiritual tome abput the here and now reality of suffering and redemption. As an aside, it is respectful of Buddhism, but more to the point it is real, it is spiritual in the deepest sense, in a way I can respect and admire, and brought me to tears several times. The book is challenging in its radial compassion, vision of no separation, and belief in redemption. I am glad that this priest found in his religion something of value. And there are others, intelligent, thinking, caring people I know who have found deep meaning in religion as well. But I equally love that the values in this book do not need religion to inform them. Atheists I know (and I include myself in the technical sense of not believing in a dualistic creator god with separate mind and intention from its creation) share the core values that Father Boyle expresses in his life and work as a vision of natural ethics, an expression of who we are at our best, not as a command from on high.

The Dali Lama, who Father Doyle has met and quotes in his book (among other Buddhists), said that we need more compassionate people, not more Buddhists. I agree. I don’t care if anybody goes to a Zen center or not. Father Boyle also is not trying to convert people to his religion. He does want to share his vision, and I love that vision; it is deep and sincere.

Father Gregory’s religion isn’t exactly Zen, but in buddhism all teachings are a raft to be let go of when true understanding is experienced. And Father Boyle offers one magnificent raft for so many.

So, as I sit here on call on Christmas (I volunteer to let the goyim have their day with their families; I have for a quarter of a century) I am not looking to science for ultimate truth or religion for redemption. I do not appreciate my arrogant co-scientists who belittle those who find their materialistic metaphysics and philosophic stances (some deny they indulge in metaphysics and philosophy, itself a metaphysical, philosophical stance) to be limited and caustic, unable to answer deep questions, any more than I appreciate my spiritual brethren who use their religion to shore up their delusions and create more distance and suffering.

Too bad about all the haters.

 

 

I appreciate both science and Zen for the depth of seeing and peace, however shallow and tentative, however diminished by my own limitations, that they have brought me. My dreams come true!

And to the extent that science and religion brings their practitioners, and those they reach out to, into a state of wonder and inspires them to compassion and to make the world a better place, I am thrilled.

There is, after all, Father Boyle, walking the walk. And dedicated scientists and physicians and atheists and agnostics and artists and religious people and others I know trying to heal the world and make us all a bit smarter as well.

Mazel tov. A mitzvah.

Have a merry Christmas and happy whatever.

And don’t forget to keep dancing.

 

 

A Graphic Book Conversation About Physics

If you are interested in taking a peek into what a theoretical physicist who seems to be more interested in being honest than making a splash (or name for himself as an arrogant hard core crusader) would like you to know about his views on fundamental physics and metaphysics try “The Dialogues; Conversations about the Nature of the Universe” by Clifford V. Johnson. He’s at USC  but I forgive him (UCLA joke). I use the word metaphysics in the sense of the interpretation of physics, not spiritualism or the like. It is a graphic book (novel? Kind of? In his preface Clifford seems fine with comic or any terminology). The art is good, some panels even more than needed (a lot of work went into this!), but the reason I am highlighting the book isn’t the graphic art, as much as I appreciate it. I enjoyed the frank, honest talk about the limits and joys of science, particularly math and physics.

It is hard to convey that feeling. I’m not a physicist, but I “do” medical science research, and I know the feeling of discovery and wonder. I have tried to give a taste of that in some of my earlier blogs. I may have been partially successful; my “circle triangle square” blog gets the most hits of any I have written. I spiffed it up and re-posted last year ago or so but I think it is still the original that gets looked at. The hits sometimes come in bursts so I wonder if someone uses it for a class or discussion group. You’ll have to judge for yourself whether Clifford does it for you, but I think he makes a good effort. I recognized much of what I love about basic science and math in his graphic book.

Consider spending a couple of hours with this book. That’s all it takes to read it. You’ll learn some physics and how at least one theoretical physicist thinks about what he does as a theoretical physicist.

Spoiler alert: regarding physics: it ain’t over, and for that matter the fat lady may never sing. Physics is a process with no definitive end in sight. Theories of everything are a dicey proposition and at best may be untestable conceptual frameworks with a series of equations empirically describing what we can measure regarding energy flows. It’s a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box (a metaphor he uses) and all the pieces may not be able to be grasped or measured by our finite brains and resources.

We knew that, didn’t we? Still, if you like the scientific conversation, read Clifford’s book.

If, on the other hand, you want to know more about science and implications of consciousness on the nature of reality, stick with the books on Biocentrism by Lanza and Berman for a more quantum based approach or Bernardo Kastrup’s works for a more philosophical approach. I haven’t run into anything new on that front. I suspect that’s not a coincidence. Those authors do a great job, physics is physics some new interesting stuff but so what, and Zen is Zen.

And samsara is samsara. Arrrrrgh. Keep the faith, don’t let them get you down as they hurt and destroy to feed their beast, their greed and anger and ignorance. Do whatever you can to do good and to stay strong.

My love and hopes for a better world to all.

 

Why I Have Been Posting Less Recently

I have been writing less on this blog of late for several reasons.

I am finishing up a second novel about Aidan Alvarado, dream detective. It’s an adventure about life death and redemption, compassion and courage, for 9-12 year olds (of all ages! This age range is just because that’s what they want even when you self publish. What is the target audience? People love classifications. I agree guidance is helpful in some ways; it sometimes saves time. I actually think of it as just fiction; however, fiction that is appropriate for kids if they want to read it.).

It is time and energy consuming to pay attention and try to understand how to make a difference given the destructive horror show that is occurring in our government. And no, contrary to what I seem to hear from some Buddhists, you don’t need Buddhist insights to grasp this. I am not too enamored with socially engaged religious activities, though of course they could have a place. Mostly it seems to me to be more like advertising and self-aggrandizement. I agree with the Dalai Lama: we need more compassionate people, not more Buddhists (or Jews, or Christians, or Moslems, or Hindus or whatever). You want to do something with your sangha, church, synagogue, mosque, etc., fine, but don’t crow about it or stamp your beliefs on it, like that makes it special. I know fine people who are atheists, materialists, agnostics, deists, theists, religious, spiritual but non-religious etc. who care and band together to help or get involved with organizations and give to those who can make a difference without branding the help they are giving, or for that matter, themselves.

As much as I love science, I am reading less of it except for some of the fun stuff, mostly nature and biology (also there are great nature shows), or for what I do at work. I do appreciate the fact that physics can and should slap you upside the head saying no matter how you see the world, this cosmos, with your senses, the deeper you look the less “understandable” and solid it is. You can describe quantum physics and conceive some picture of what is going on, but it won’t be quite right. Can’t be. Words and concepts don’t cut it, even if they can approach it. You can come up with some idea of what might be going on: it is all energy fields (at best), ever changing with no inherently clear beginning or end, as it may be multi dimensional with multi universes. Entanglement suggests time and space is an illusion, or at least the way we experience space-time clearly is (as does relativity in a less fundamental way). The world of phenomena seems smooth and continuous and yet what seem like individual particles are described by waves, but come in discreet quanta. See my previous blogs on quantum mechanics (and now there are loads of good YouTube videos; I just watched a couple on 3Blue1Brown I liked about math and science, for example). I love that math designed and conceived abstractly as an intellectual endeavor sometimes comes to be the best way to describe the most subtle natural phenomena (like quantum mechanics).

I believe science, where it runs into the utter overwhelming fact of existence, the mind-boggling manifestations of life, of the universe itself, the nature of observation in quantum mechanics, the deep mystery of consciousness (mystery, that is, from an intellectual perspective), implies Mind is primary, is not a random epiphenomenon (though consciousness in terms of specific evolved brain functions may be so considered from a certain limited perspective. I do believe in evolution). There are great books by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman (Biocentrism and Beyond biocentrism) that explore that (see Honmei’s review of the latter book on the HazyMoon.com website) and there are several by Bernardo Kastrup. Bernardo has been writing a lot of academic articles; if you want academic arguments for what in Buddhism is called Mind Only, what he calls idealism, look him up.

So I don’t feel like writing about science and spirituality as much anymore. Others are doing just fine.

In my original post on this blog I wrote what I had heard from others that I considered the best description of what is true and that is what I still see:

 

You are the universe unfolding

No separation

No beginning no end.

 

I might add:

Mind is primary

The natural working of mind is compassion when not reacting from ignorance (ignorance: the sense of separation, thinking that ego and the words that pop into our head, our brain as it has evolved for us apes to survive, is mind, that our stories are real rather than short hand for what can’t be said)

Greed and anger are manifestations of our ignorance and cause pain, both for others and ourselves.

 

The best advice I have run into:

Don’t wish for a better past (or present or future, for that matter; it doesn’t help and is guaranteed to make you crazy; this is an abbreviation of Lily Tomlin’s statement that forgiveness is not wishing for a better past)

No self-deception

Pay attention

Don’t put a head on your head

 

I do my Zen practice. I try to act in the world with responsibility and whatever compassion as I can muster. I am lucky to have some great karma, though I see pain all around me, sometimes very close, sometimes big, sometimes small. I write fiction for adults that can be read by kids that I hope will provide a fun way to pass the time while being insightful and helpful. Writing fiction is a way to tell truths that non-fiction and didactic approaches can’t. It is an expression of my Zen practice.

I may write more about math and science and spirituality in the future. I’ll let you know more about my new fiction soon. So far this is the summary I am working on for the back of the book; it’s still rough (I have information about the first book on ralphlevinson.com and will put more about this one there and maybe here in a few weeks or so):

Eleven-year-old Aidan Alvarado had enough of saving the world; all he wanted to do was play soccer. That wasn’t going to happen! Aidan embarks on his second case as a dream detective when Emperor Wu (China’s only woman emperor who lived 1300 years ago) needs his help again. There is a war going on in the realm of the water spirit dragons and the balance of the universe is upset, threatening disaster for Wu’s empire and even the universe itself. The key is a golden feather. To solve the mystery Aidan has to travel in his dreams to ancient China, India, and Egypt. Along the way Aidan meets a few monsters and ancient deities, a boy who can morph into a cobra, a girl who talks to elephants, a poet philosopher who accompanied Alexander the Great, a beekeeper in Ancient Egypt and a mummy girl’s spirit.

 

Maat with her feather. She embodies Truth, the Way, the Balance of the Cosmos, the Dharma. You heart (like in China, in Ancient Egypt heart and mind are the same) is measured against her feather in what we know as the Egyptian book of the Dead (really the Book of Coming Forth by Day)

Acorns

A Zen teacher pointed out that you don’t know what makes the acorn become an oak tree. Of course, I thought when I first heard him say that, you could describe the mechanisms, that is, the DNA/genetic programs that sequentially activate to crate a tree form an acorn. That’s developmental biology, and understanding that has lead to important insights that have fueled the attempts at using stem cells for medical purposes.

But is that what the Zen teacher meant? I can describe muscle fiber and energy interactions when a limb moves, but that doesn’t tell me in and of itself if the movement generated is that of a predator after a meal or prey trying not to be dinner, whether a slap or a caress.

And where does that all come from, that predator and prey, that caress or slap?

Going a bit deeper into that acorn, it clearly is a representation of the incredible diversity and activity of life. Where did that set of programs come from? How did it evolve? Is it really different from all else in the universe, that which we consider living and that which we don’t?

Which brings us to carbon.

Carbon is the backbone, foundational, element of what we know of as life, and once you know about carbon, it seems obvious that it should be in our particular cosmos with the laws of physics and chemistry as we experience them. Carbon atoms can bond symmetrically with four other atoms and itself making complex molecules and long chains. Carbon is the right size to combine to make pockets for other atoms we use in living processes, being the smallest of any atom that can form four bonds. Carbon can also make double and triple bonds that increase the flexibility of the atom and it’s chains in form and function. Carbon also doesn’t tend to lose electrons or gain them and so tends toward an electrochemical neutrality that can be altered when it links up with other atoms that aren’t so mellow, another way it makes for a good backbone for complex molecules with important flexibility of electrochemical energy states.

Carbon is so simple and elegant that it is likely that the first “solid” substance in our universe were microscopic diamonds, the regular crystalline form of carbon. And we too are in some ways crystalline forms of carbon (crystals being regularly repeated patterns of atoms), and certainly we can make crystalline forms of many of our essential molecules like proteins and DNA.

The first diamonds would have been small, just a few atoms

Easy to appreciate the beautiful symmetry of this diamond crystal

 

Fun fact: diamonds are super hard, but another crystalline structure of carbon, graphite, is super soft. All on how the layers link up or not.

How carbon crystals are in the world is how the carbons combine in 3 dimensions. Graphite layers slide on each other, or have cleavage areas and so aren’t as hard as diamonds where the links are in 3 dimensions

So our physical manifestation started as diamonds and we are dependent on crystalline structures of the simplest atom that can make 4 symmetric bonds as well as double bonds.

DNA is not a completely regular crystal (aperiodic). It is this lack of absolute symmetry that makes it a carrier of information. Compare to the diamond structure above. It is in the glass bubble like structures in this highly stylized image of DNA that change, asymmetry, information,occurs. Well and in the cell the associated meta structure and the added chemical groups and associated proteins…

This artistic image of DNA stresses the regularity, symmetry and elegance of the molecule.

 

How did all of that happen?

It goes back to quantum mechanics and the fundamental laws of physics. Energy transformations. That’s how all atomic and subatomic reactions are best described.

As Stephen Hawking asked (I paraphrase): what fire, what energy, do the equations (whether quantum mechanics, relativity, string theory) describe? What brings this fire, what breathes life into the equations?

Some say a god or gods. That seems to fit their experience and work for them.

The Zen answer is easy by rote: Mind.

This is similar to Lanza’s and Berman’s Biocentrism, or Kastrup’s idealism.

Not so easy to experience directly, to the core.

Some say there is no answer, it just is, and in a certain sense I agree. After all, any “answer,” in our usual sense of the word “answer”, depends on concepts in our monkey mind, derived from our monkey senses, relating to our parochial realm of limited 4-d experience, explanation and intellectual understanding. We seek answers that can be digested when there is nothing to chew on. Take a bite, it disappears, dissolves like a mouthful of cotton candy, into a haze of quantum probability of different energy levels at best.

That acorn sure does go deep. It cuts like a diamond.

 

Creativity

Watching a fantastic nature show on PBS about the Pacific Ocean I was reminded how creative life is. Now, I know to some that sounds like I am slipping into intelligent design. Think what you will, but how can you look at the awesome variety of life and not be just overwhelmed? Why, though, use the word creative? Especially since it sounds like intelligent design, that dastardly back door creationists and other religious zealots use to seek religion into schools? Fair question.

Because for me, the word ‘creative’ fits as well for the canvas of life and being, as it does for a painting or a poem.

Creativity could be defined just as some human activity, or a brain activity at most (extending the attribute to a few other animals); fine, I wont argue. I’m just not so taken with the primacy of brain activity.

I like a bigger definition of creativity because it works for me, it captures something relevant, I think. Expanding the word creativity beyond clever brain burps that re-arrange the deck chairs of our perceptions captures the amazing, unrelenting tendency of the universe to come up with an expanding array of form and function.

There is a continuity of life, a center that is manifest in our genes, and in our bodies, but there has been a tinkering on tinkering still seen clearly in our genome and in the fossils, in the earth itself, that records how we changed, then changed the environment, then we changed again; a dance of four billion or so years.

            Creative because life is always something old that becomes something new. It reaches into and changes around every possible nook and cranny. It never stops, it isn’t reaching a goal, it is always creating new forms most wondrous.

            So still, is that really creative, just because there are never seen before variations? Don’t we have a special clever input into our creativity?

Yes and no.

Yes, regarding a special attribute that is creativity, that is our conceit. We make art. We have creative impulses. We project that out. We want meaning in our creativity, meaning that gives us meaning.

Again, fair enough f you define it that way.

But maybe the answer is no, there’s more.

Where do our creative impulses come from that act on the materials, the media, we fashion in our creativity? Are they really that different from the spark of a virtual particle arising at the vast, if not infinite, unperceivable (except indirectly) quantum foam, or the quantum fields of energy that can not be measured directly, but only as they change and morph, become manifest to us as particles? How creative is it to go from a unified source of all energy, a single force, an infinitely small whatever, a singularity in the jargon, to a universe, as science teaches us happened?

Or is it an infinite universe where all things that can happen will? That may be the most creative of all, the essential creativity of being!

I this creativity really different using, being, the simple substrate of a few types of atoms arranged in patterns that will encode information and interact and produce such a pageant of pulsating, squirming, burrowing, swimming, soaring complexity of life as we see around us, as we are in it and it in us?

            I was talking about my fiction writing with someone a couple of days ago. I do work with a general outline, but what is most fun for me, whether good or bad form the literary viewpoint is irrelevant, is when the story, the characters just come out. They surprise me. They come from a quiet place. It isn’t a question of uniqueness (Buddhism 101: all things, all composite entities,express karma uniquely as the result of contingencies upon contingencies, no beginning, no end) or talent (the skill of achieving the result you are after and the aesthetics of pleasing others. That is not the essence of creativity, though it may be a factor in whether you spend time or money on a work of art as a consumer).

 

The quiet place is the source.

A straight line is an infinite set of waves that can form incredible patterns, but as long as they cancel out over all, if the same amount of up equals the same amount down at the point of the line, there is no array of of the vast potential of intricate patterns, only the line. Of course the line itself, made up of points that are mere constructs, and for that matter the point on the line we are looking at, doesn’t exist. It’s the nothing left over that the waves would have been above or below if they weren’t perfectly balanced, perfectly symmetrical, above and below (or in 3 dimensions, they also balance front and back, and in four, five dimensions…).

Just perhaps, it is all creativity all the time, this vast arising and falling in the quiet place, the dream we tell stories our about.

Does it mean an outside creator intelligently designing?

No, I reject that dualistic notion.

Some call it Mind, or consciousness, or Buddha.

            Mind dancing.

 You don’t have to give it a name or conceptualize it. That’s the point of the  tetralemma in buddhist logic; whatever you can say, you’ll be wrong. After all it’s not: true, false, both or neither.

      It’s Zazen, the quiet place.

 

 

 

 

 

We Cant Wish Ourselves Out of Any of This (wish we could!)

Hakuin Zenji the great 18th century Japanese master, pipe dreams himself as an old woman former prostitute poet.

 

It is incumbent on us not to be married to the stories we tell ourselves.

That is not an excuse to think that nothing you think matters.

Of course, “matters” is relative and subjective, a product of mind.

But then, so is existence.

I have of late been concerned, as I bet you have, about the state of our nation and world. It is awesome in the sense of being overwhelming. Stunning in the sense of of being hit in the gut and having your breath knocked out.

What level of greed and delusion is our species capable of?

Look around.

A wall in Berlin

 

I was speaking to a friend of mine who is a professor of history. We don’t only learn from history in the sense of studying events that have occurred long enough ago to somehow be at a sufficient distance that they are described in summary form in textbooks and can be “processed,” that is, to have developed a coherent story about the events that relates to our world view (the big stories we tell ourselves). Events aren’t made into history after some respectable time has elapsed. Everything you experience is history. The “now” is too fleeting to grasp. Science teaches us that energy must reach us, cause changes in energy states in our sense organs, change the membrane states in the nerves that feed our brain, then our brains must sort the data about these energy transformations and decide how it relates to your stories and experience; all in time and space.

So, your “now” is a result of transformations that happened in the past.

It’s all history.

In my personal life I have sought liberation by pursuing my practice. More and more I appreciate the wisdom of Lily Tomlin’s statement that forgiveness is not wishing for a better past. That is true when seeking to forgive others and to forgive your self. That is especially true when you consider that to the extent you perceive, think, feel, and conclude anything about anything, you are experiencing the past.

I admit it. I find that I often wish for a better past. A past where delusion, ideology, racism and greed didn’t run our country and many other countries around the world. Personally, there are times I wish I zigged instead of zagged in my life. There are times I wish those near and dear to me zigged when I hoped they would, when it would have fit my image of the way things should be, when my ego would have been more supported, but they found zagging to be what they needed to do.

But wishing is delusion, it ends up causing more pain and suffering. It is an attempt to reify our stories, what we think we need instead of want, our conditioning, our egos.

We get disappointed when reality doesn’t fit our model of it, our stories, our wishes for a better past. As Stephen Gaskin said over 45 years ago, you have to appoint to be disappointed.

Of course, this can devolve into just more concepts, an excuse to give up, to not care. In Zen we say don’t pick or choose. Well, be careful about how you parse words and concepts. Compassion is at the base of Buddhism, of any religion or philosophy or world-view that isn’t just a way to rationalize greed and delusion. We may not want to be slave to our egotistical, conditioned picking and choosing, but we discriminate a rock from a potato, a kitten from a cobra, compassion from greed.

Hakuin Zenji not deceiving himself and occupying the ground he sits on

In Zen we say start where you are. Occupy the ground you stand on. Maezumi Roshi stressed no self-deception. Easy to agree with; what else would make any sense? Actually doing it, I find, is not so easy. How often do we like where we find ourselves? It isn’t always pretty, is it? But what else is there? Where else can you start, and what other strategy but no self-deception would possibly matter (see above)?

In the past few months I haven’t been too interested in math and science, other than as a professional medical scientist. Seemed a distraction. I have enjoyed taking a bit of a philosophical/metaphysical turn (in the sense of philosophizing about the implications of science) reading, for example, Bernardo Kastrup. Then last week I was talking about the coolness of quantum mechanics talking to a friend at the Zen center who has a strong math background, and I found myself fired up, going back to review some math and science and loving it; so pure, so elegant, so inherently not greedy, insane and devious.

Dogen said to study Buddhism is to forget the self. At least when delving into how an abstract logical construct like linear algebra ends up being a way to describe quantum phenomenon, I can, for a bit, forget myself. OK, that’s not totally true, and it certainly isn’t what Dogen was really saying. He said body and mind fall away, and mine hasn’t, not even when absorbed in new material. But still, it seems to at least give me a little break from all of the noise.

I like that you can’t cheat it without, well, cheating, and what’s the point of that? And it can get deeper as you return to it. You might have a certain understanding of a mathematical operation, but seeing how it works in another context, say linear algebra in quantum mechanics, brings you deeper; very cool.

Myths and stories can do that too, and I do like creative writing and have been doing some of that as well. I read somewhere you might as well do art; worse that can happen is it sucks, then you toss it. I like that. Nice if it doesn’t suck though, but hey, gotta start somewhere.

 

Of course, the ultimate art, the great performance piece, is our lives and our deaths.

Keep on dancing!

 

 

Straw Men and Gaps

In my last post about evolution I may have not been quite on target on a couple of things.

First, I don’t want to set up natural selection as a straw man. If you look at a modern textbook on evolution you will find many much more subtle mechanisms for evolution in which natural selection may play a small or even no role at all (genetic drift, for example). Selection is still generally thought to be a final arbiter in most scenarios, but that is a given. If some change, no matter the mechanism, doesn’t allow for successful multigenerational reproduction at higher rate than what is already in play, of course it won’t result in change, and change, movement, transmuting energy into new form and function, is what evolution, is what life in the realm of the six senses, is all about. It’s such a given, so inherent in its formulation, that I referred to it as a tautology, out of respect, not as a criticism.

Second, I may have opened up a sense of awe and wonder of the “Gaps.” Like a God of the gaps, it is weak to the point of meaninglessness. Wonder and awe, deep inspiration, spiritual insight, samadhi, are not made more or less authentic and part of your life by gaps in some other view or metaphysical stance, including current scientific data or dogma. It is not a matter of using the gaps in science to create openings for anything else or to justify your practice or beliefs. Of course you can fit whatever fantasy or delusion you care for in those gaps, and fundamentalists do, but hopefully your world view is more coherent and doesn’t rely on gaps.

Science will never have no gaps. A gap is important in directing where scientists need to look to learn more. However, our approach to measuring the universe through extensions of our six senses is finite, internal to what we are measuring, and so has limits.  The limits of science will likely include our finite monkey brain with a certain number of synapses that evolved to survive in a given time and space or our technology which doesn’t have the oomph to explore the realms we dream up with our math and the implications of current scientific understanding of basic, fundamental physics. Many gaps, of course, will be filled IF our species survives and thrives. Science has a really good track record of surprising gap filling!

I watched a wonderful lecture series on particle physics from the Great Courses called “The Theory of Everything” given by Don Lincoln. If you want to know what is current thinking in physics, including where the gaps are, this is the series for you. But that isn’t its real strength. If you want to see how a working experimental physicist approaches the matter of matter and energy, this is the best out there. Now, it doesn’t go as much as you might like into the gee whiz stuff of quantum (a bit of course; has to!) and makes no real effort at “deeper meaning,” but that’s what I loved about it. Just what scientists think they know and what they think they don’t know about particles and forces.

One thing he points out: we can already describe the transformations of energy in all the realm of the six senses by a series of equations that would fit on a tee shirt. Problem is they are disconnected and don’t fit well together and require constants, numbers empirically derived, that we have no theoretical basis for. Lanza and Berman also discuss this in “Biocentrism”. A real gap in physics that these are experimentally derived, often approximated, and not derived from some single number and first principles. A very recent book that goes into that in detail about this is Lewis and Barnes “A Fortunate Universe Life in a Finely Tuned universe.” While I liked their detailed exposition of the situation, I wasn’t as enthralled by the philosophical discussion at the end; too dualistic.

There are gaps that I think will remain in science. One is any ultimate “explanation,” mostly because explanation past a mechanistic story or mathematical description will always be an attempt to take observations and fit them into a more sophisticated story that works on our human scale and perspective. Why should that work? We are primates! Why should the Universe, Truth, be primate friendly, understandable and graspable in its entirety by primate intellectual constructions?

Buddha famously warned against speculative metaphysics. He seems to have said something like: yeah I know a bunch of stuff, and so can you, but don’t get distracted. Take care of your world on fire. There will be understanding, but don’t get greedy, first things first.

Another gap I believe will be a scientific theory of consciousness. Lets say scientists can show exactly the neurologic correlates of consciousness to an exquisite and intellectually satisfying level of detail, way beyond what is known now. That will happen to one degree or another and is happening now in neuroscience. I am not as enthralled with neuroscience as an adjunct to my practice as some seem to be in the Buddhist community. I am currently enjoying “Behave” by a primatologist Robert Sapolsky. But, while I’m not through yet, this is not a metaphysical book, it explores how we function as human primates, as the subtitle says “the biology of humans at our best and worst.” Interesting stuff, so far a great read, but not about consciousness per se, but about our contingent biologic programming. Anyway, even if our scientific understanding of consciousness goes deep, deep, deep into quantum effects on the mind and in neurology  and  complex brain level activity, and grasps the role in our consciousness of inputs from the endocrine system, the immune system and the gut etc., and shows how it all fits together, will that be any different from describing the science of light (energy, electromagnetic waves, photons and quantum field theory) and perception (eyes, optic nerve, brain pathways) to a blind person and expect them to experience the color yellow? Heck, we sighted people with the usual kinds of photoreceptors (i.e. not color blind) don’t have yellow receptors in our eyes, yet we see yellow, as a story, a projection.

The universe is energy transformations. That changes in, and perhaps defines, our experience of time and space. That is what evolution is and it is of the nature of movement. The question is: what is the basis of these transformations, and whether consciousness, Mind, is fundamental, foundational? The most given of givens. The irreducible.

So, let there be no straw men or spirituality, awe or consciousness of the gaps. We don’t need no stinkin’ gaps or straw men to bolster our practice, to be compassionate, for samadhi, to be.