Mind Breathes Fire


Nyogen Roshi sent me an article from the New York Times he thought I would like: “A Black Hole Mystery Wrapped in a Firewall Paradox” (Dennis Overbye, 8/12/13). There were comments in the article by a theoretical physicist and educator whose work I enjoy, Leonard Susskind. There were also references to the nearly iconic physicist and intellectual provocateur Stephen Hawking, and in particular to a debate on the nature of black holes these two contemporary towering figures of physics had that lasted years and was finally settled in Leonard Susskind’s favor.

The subject of the New York Times article was recent theoretical approaches that resulted in scientists questioning the outcome of that debate after all. One thing to get out of the article though is what I take to be Susskind’s honest approach to questioning his previous understanding of physics based on the new ideas about black holes presented in the article. Like Hawking’s original acquiescence in the black hole debate, they were practicing something that is shared by science and Zen, what has come down to me as Maezumi Roshi’s admonition: No self-deception!

It may not be obvious why black holes are worthy of this kind of attention. The theoretical physics of black holes is at the cutting edge of the scientific understanding of the basic processes of the universe. Black holes are one area where those two foundational but seemingly irreconcilable models of the universe meet, relativity theory (and gravity) and quantum mechanics. Any grand unified theory (GUT) in physics will have to resolve the tension between these pillars that support all of science and technology. The issues raised go to the nature of information, entropy, the basis of the world we perceive and measure. So a view that challenges the prevailing paradigms about black holes that these brilliant scientists have debated and labored over for decades is not trivial.

After reading the article I opened my copy of the Susskind’s book about his debate with Hawking and its implications, “The Black Hole War.” I hadn’t remembered what was written on the otherwise blank page opposite the copyright, and when I read it, I just had to stop share it with you:

“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?

-Stephen Hawking”

How we answer this question is where I suspect these eminent scientists and I have differing views. It’s at the core of any GUT.

Almost 1400 years ago there was an illiterate young man of great insight in China who came to be named Hui Neng. He was so respected in subsequent generations in China that the record of his talks was called a sutra, a term otherwise reserved for the words of the Buddha.

There is a story that when Hui Neng was ready to start teaching he showed up at a Chan (Zen) monastery and he came upon some monks engaged in a debate.

A pendent was flapping in the breeze. One monk said that wind moves, another that the flag moves, a third countered that both move.

Hui Neng set them straight.

Mind moves.

Dr. Hawking, you might say that Xin, heart/mind, breathes the fire that makes a universe.


Dragons from Kyoto Zen Temples photographs by Susan Levinson

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