I have not posted for some time. I am doing fine in retirement, very active and engaged. I still do my Zen practice. My interests over the last years have shifted in science however. I find myself less interested in much of the material that I wrote about here, though I still will occasionally read this or that. I have been more and more involved with environmental issues and politics regarding to learn and volunteer with the goal to create a more compassionate and sustainable world. The recent supreme court decisions have certainly convinced me I have been going in the right direction to work for this. I will soon be starting a website on environmental and sustainability issues. For now I will keep this website up and announce when the other is open.
Author Archives: zengut
Zen and Science
I have been writing about vision lately. Not surprising since I was an eye doctor. My journey in this writing is similar to my journey as an ophthalmologist, though in life it was not linear, but overlapping worlds. When I went back to do my premed courses in my early 30s I fell in love with science. Then I fell in love with vision and how the eye works, what it takes to restore vision. My interests in scienctific pursuits, particularly immunology, persisted and informed my choice to be an academic ophthalmologist specializing in ocular inflammatory disease. Starting some 10 years ago my much older interest in Zen resurfaced and I pursued, and still maintain, a Zen practice.
In retirement, especially with the forced time on my hands of covid stay at home orders, I have looked into aspects of the biology of vision in nature beyond what I needed as an ophthalmologist to be effective.
In addition, Zen (and other schools of Mahayana Buddhism) is interested in Mind and perception. The Suringama sutra, for example, is a meditation on the nature of perception and Mind. The Lankavatara sutra also is in parts involved in considering how we perceive and project. And in any discussion of cognition and perception, vision rules because in humans, that is our foremost way of, well, seeing the world. Indeed an lot of our brain real estate, some estimate almost a third of the surface of our cortex, is about vision and visual associations.
So that’s what i am writing about.
Also, a friend of mine, Robert Lanza, MD, has just published his third book on Biocentrism, called “The Grand Biocentric Design” that I liked very much and wrote a blurb for that is in the book.
It seems that these all flow together for me.
It shouldn’t be surprising that science would converge with Zen in some ways, at some points
Both are about not being trapped or misled by delusion or self deception or religious dogma or social conditioning or political views or exploitation (ring a contemporary bell vis a vis covid and ciovide denial and exploitation?).
Sure practitioners of both fail and indulge in all the ego driven pursuits and limitations, and I am no exception, but that is the nature of the practitioners and our limits, not science or Zen.
But both Zen and science are about seeing clearly in the moment. No flinching. No obscuration. The word experiment comes from the word experience. Both are about honest, open experience, not wishes and fears.
The “realism,” “materialism,” duality thing, with science is not inherent, it is in my view a denial and limitation due to bias and conditioning, perhaps sometimes being lazy and unimaginative, or not being attentive, but it isn’t the definition or foundation of science.
No self deception is much closer to the core ideal of science, as it is in Zen (it was one of Maezumi roshi’s admonitions). Both teach: Dont be limited by conditioning and authority and how you think it should be.
Rather than say: no subjectivity, no perspective, an impossible ideal for most practitioners of either science or Zen, acknowledge and don’t be trapped by your perspective. You just have to get very subtle in science, like being very quiet in meditation, to find where your measurements lead or for that matter where they break down, and where you framework breaks down.
A clockwork universe, a ghost in the machine, was the first attempt to break free of superstition and religious dogma in the West where modern science developed. It was flawed and colored by the duality of much of Western thought and religion.
That breaking free started in earnest about 120 years ago with the birth of quantum mechanics (and a bit with relativity, and more so when the two wouldn’t always work nicely together in extreme conditions).
And it continues.
As does the struggle against willful ignorance and exploitation and the poisons of greed and hate continues in our world and in ourselves.
The Universe Is Neither Kind nor Unkind; That’s Our Job
Some say the universe is kind and caring.
Really? You want to look around and stand by that?
God loves the the birds in the field until a raptor swoops down and eats it, or another bird kicks its eggs out of the nest; well sure they got to eat too… not kind or unkind, good or bad..
No, it’s not that the manifest universe has the trait of being kind or not kind. Ask a gazelle mother and a lion mother. It wont work out for one of them today.
Watch a documentary about gazelles, you want the baby you followed from birth to survive. Now flip the script and watch the mother of a starving lion cub hunt. The lion cub you watched play, whose big cute eyes you looked deeply into, whose proud and strong protective mother you rightfully admired.
That’s how it is.
Buddhism 101, biology 101.
The manifest universe of samsara, of the relative, isnt kind or not kind. It is an evolution of Mind, the One Thought.
In that thought WE are the universe’s way of being kind. We have the potential to be that kind mind of the universe.
And being kind is active. It isnt just you are so special that you feel bad for the poor slobs.
Being is a verb. We make love, we show kindness compassion. All active. We take action.
In our world we may not take direct part in the dance of gazelle and lion, but we are stewards of the environment.
We do take direct part in the suffering of those around us.
Like guan yin, we hear the cries of the world, of those who are suffering.
If you support a culture of greed, and anger you are greed and anger.
If you claim you are spiritual but are too pure to do everything you can to actively support, work for and vote for Democrats at this juncture in history, you are a hypocrite.
I mean it. Look deep inside if you have and wont share. Many of us dont have resources, it is hard now, very rough and scary, I understand that. Sometimes the best way to deal with fear is take positive action. But if you do have resources, however limited, whether time, energy, attention, money, your voice, use them for justice. Your money and your deep samadhi and your voice wont mean shit when the environment is a nightmare landscape, your water is toxic, the air is poison, your economic system crashes, and your democracy and any sense of truth and decency and honor and responsibility is sold out to those that exploit racism and fear to gain power and riches.
We have a chance. Be part of it.
In Zen we say the relative and absolute are an identity. To say the great vision of Oneness means ultimately we are all energy and Mind is 100% true, but it is only half the Truth.
We dont reject the world of the senses, of experience, what is in front of us, we dont pretend we live in a peaceful state of nirvana if we dont, that our suffering and that of others is beneath our high viewpoint of One-ness or some such nonsense.
If as some say it is like a dream, this One Mind and our experience, then it is our dream, and in our dream we have a choice.
Even after satori the Zen masters insisted it leaks away without post satori practice. And that includes compassion and action. Read Hakuin if you are into Zen. He wasnt afraid to talk truth to power, to get involved.
Yes ultimately it is all Mind and yes in the long run all suffering passes. Yes, quantum mechanics is consistent with a vision of Oneness, non-duality, Mind. So: Is that your true constant in the now experience? Really? Well if so, how do you share it? Or is it just emotional and mental masturbation, another delusion?
No, you’re too spiritual for that, aren’t you?
This is a post about a science book titled “Entangled Life”.
We are so entangled that we are all one is manifest very obviously to many who didn’t quite see it before. We all suffer if there is injustice. We all have to make hard choices in a pandemic. We are all involved, if not equally so. If anything, I have to watch being critical of those who seem to be waking up to this because the suffering and need to sacrifice is more in their face now, including some spiritual types and even some spiritual teachers! Injustice and suffering, in the US and around the world, is not new. And for many it is and has been a whole lot worse than most of us face most of the time, even now.
So back to the book, “Entangled Life” by Merlin Sheldrake.
It is fantastic. It is about fungi. We wouldn’t survive now, and for that matter, life on land would never have evolved, without fungi.
While the book only covers some of these examples, as it is about fungi, it is clear that life is full of deep entanglements tht cant be untangled. Coral and algae. Algae or photosynthetic bacteria and fungi (lichens, which are surprisingly common). Fungi and plant roots. Animals and plants their microbiome. Critical parts of your very cells were originally bacteria. Our cells, and so complex multicellular life, couldn’t exist without them, they no longer can be free living outside our cells. Mitochondria in all animal and plant and fungal cells and photosynthetic plastids in plants, for example.
Read the book if you like biology, science, or just want to be inspired by the beauty and ubiquity and amazing being of fungi. It is my one of favorite not professional/technical biology books along with “I contain Multitudes” from a few years ago, also about entangled lives, though there are many other excellent non technical biology about pants (e.g. What a Plant Knows) and animal cognition. I like these two because they remind us of the deep, intimate connections in our lives and bodies with entities most of us rarely think about and both are full of great examples and opened up and filled in my knowledge of the nuts and bolts of nature that weren’t part of my professional expertise as a medical researcher and physician specialist in inflammatory eye disease.
How is that relevant to what I started this post with?
It reminds us we are not the crown of creation, it gives us perspective to appreciate that life is one on any and every level you can think of.
These books say don’t just see your own suffering, or for that matter, your own glory.
Don’t think your limited viewpoint is worth all that much.
Look deeper and wider.
Lily Tomlin Revisited
Personally, for many reasons, I am time and again blown away by the Lily Tomlin quote “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.”
So simple, brilliant and true. Not just about forgiveness, but sanity, dharma, spirituality.
But then, as relevant as that was to some low personal places I was visiting very recently, we are all also confronted with the not so unreasonable and more tractable wishes for a better present and future, and an honest appraisal of our shared past.
That serves a purpose, to guide our actions, to craft our responses. To be more compassionate and to act with wisdom and justice.
There was a lot of compassion shown this week, a lot of standing up to insanity and malfeasance. To injustice and fear and hate.
Large peaceful crowds come to mind.
Polls that show large public support for change do as well.
Cops and mayors and governors taking a knee comes to mind. The leaders standing up to the reactionaries. To Trump and his sycophants and base.
Totalitarianism. It can happen here. I grew up being told that after World War ll. It is so clear now that even Pat “gays cause hurricanes” Robertson told Trump to back off! I have NEVER agreed with him before. I was stunned. That’s how bad this administration is. We can all supply many other examples.
Justice is supposed to be what civilization is about. What America is about. Superman says so!
This vision of justice, of the time is now, wont be sustained unless we sustain it. It will fade into memory and be dwarfed by daily concerns., big and small.
Or we will be destroyed by the powers that will cause a backlash if we are not vigilant.
Or by misjudgments and mistakes by well meaning people.
We need to be change, to support change. We need to vote. Get others to vote. Don’t be too purist. this is not the time for that indulgence. Get the evil ones out. Then we can re-group and debate the fine points.
Be generous. Give to those trying to help. To campaigns, to rights groups, to groups that make things better and help people.
Reject hate and fear.
Hold those who are egregious in their words and actions responsible.
It’s the compassionate thing, the right thing.
It is dharma.
It is simply being a good citizen.
You may have limited reach, but no one has no reach.
So yes, we don’t wish for a better past, that is fruitless. Lily is right. We work for a better world.
I know I am preaching to the choir, that’s part of why I haven’t been posting.
But still, I would like to add my voice to this large chorus of friends around the world.
addendum: I will let this stand, but please dont confuse my trying to see the positive side of what is going on mask that I do believe the hard work is yet to come. There are entrenched interests that will fight meaningful change tooth and nail. My congresswoman Karen Bass is on it, but are many other democrats beyond the symbolic?
This is deep and abiding and we’ve been here many times before with great ideas and little to no action. Watch John Oliver on HBO if you can from yesterday, 6/7/20. This isnt just a few “bad apples.” It is systemic and the bad apples are protected by other bad or not so bad or even ok apples.
The police violence against protestors and even “liberal” mayors like de Blasio of NY seem oblivious to the extent of police violence. Tonight there were scenes of the police showing support for police officers that were obviously guilty of frank unprovoked assaults. Excessive force against peaceful protests against excessive force is way beyond irony to cynicism and evil.
Still, there are some aspects of this that do seem different. The nature and size of the peaceful protests, the willingness of some police and officials to at least appear open to change, and Trump showing his true colors and being called on it from not just the usual quarters.
We need to rebuild. Police must be held responsible as pilots, doctors, bus drivers and others are. I never saw a clear act of malpractice applauded by other doctors, but I have seen brutal cops today applauded by other cops.
This is about racism. This is about our horrible abdication of responsibility.
This is personal for me; my grandson is mixed race and drives around with his black father. But having said that, kind of so what? It was important to me before my grandson was born, and it should be personal and important and critical for every person with even a touch of heart, or conscience, or even selfish concern for the future of all of us. No justice, no peace isn’t a threat, it’s a fact.
A lot of suffering
A lot of selfishness, ignorance, incompetence, and fear
But also courage, love, caring, compassion, sense of community, selflessness, intelligence and wisdom
I am proud of my mayor (Garcetti) and governor (Newsom) for California being early to act compared to the rest of the country.
Trump and those like him, from certain governors on down, from pastors who keep their churches open and Fox news and similar media voices who have done great harm, to hoarders and cheaters and indulgent self centered fools, have some very, very heavy karma, and anybody who has two synapses in their brain that work and that aren’t distorted by greed and insane ideologies knows it and wont be gaslighted out of knowing exactly how badly those leaders failed us and continue to fail us time and again.
We’re All Sangha
So now that I fell in love with my new life as a volunteer docent (in training), and just took the 4 hour course to volunteer at the butterfly pavilion at the natural history museum, finding joy in sharing nature and science and the environment and life with all kinds of people, the museums closed.
Ahhh, a lesson in non attachment.
Now my most important contribution to the world at large (well, besides signing up for a texting bank for Dems) is to do my best, true due diligence, to try to stay out of the ICU!
Stay healthy, keep the faith, and keep in touch with friends and family.
We’re all Sangha. Always have been, but pretty clearly so now, like it or not.
Ralph Shikan Levinson
What Blows Your Mind?
I went to my orientation last week to learn to be a volunteer at the natural history museum in Los Angeles. This was the view from the building looking south; these banners are their current marketing campaign:
What blows your mind?
That’s why I was there!
As a kid above all it was the dinosaurs at the natural history museum in New York City that blew my mind. Dinosaurs still do! Even still living dinosaurs (birds).
Since I was a kid there have been so, so many things that have blown my mind, Zen, science and medicine, my family, the opportunities I have had, success, failure, pain and love, art… oh just so many things!
I retired 7 months ago. Another blown mind thing.
My identity as a physician fell away like a snake shedding its skin. Well, maybe even easier than that. Note that I am not talking about how I feel about my patients (or ex patients) and colleagues, just my role, my identity, as doctor.
There are others who can now enter that space for my patients, for the world. Making room for them to do so, and making room for new experiences for me. Awesome, win-win.
It was a bit stickier about my identity as an “expert.” I really knew a lot about my specialty of inflammation in the eye. Yes I read a lot, did research, went to meetings, but I also had over 25 years experience, immersion, getting to know the nuances. Now, again, other people will take on that mantle, and anyway I wasn’t the only such expert.
It wasn’t tough walking away from being an expert in this rare corner of the medical world, as much as not being a world class expert at all at anything of substance that I found was a bit stubborn for me. For several months I still had fantasies that I will gain that level of world class expertise again in something else somehow.
Eh, maybe, but probably not.
While I hope to get some expertise in whatever I chose to do, say being a docent at a museum, it certainly isn’t going to be full time immersion for 25 years!
Not interested. Not a fantasy worth pursuing. Let the young and hungry go after that. My ego doesn’t need that carrot on a stick to keep me going.
That too is falling away…
I want what blows my mind.
Mind blowing to me means the spontaneous, unaffected, expansion of how your mind sees the world, a new perspective, associated with joy and wonder.
I love to share mind blown with others.
What I am doing is volunteering at the California Science Center (which is free to all!) and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles (many school groups, including inner city). Great excuse to read about non-medical biology, but that’s secondary. What it is about is sharing being mind blown with kids, teenagers, and adults. As they say, kids of all ages.
Maybe some will become interested in science and nature in a deep and abiding way. Maybe one will cure a disease, find a new, cheaper way to store carbon or create energy without pollution. Solve plastic. Or just find a potential career or lifelong hobby.
On the other hand, none of that may happen with anybody I interact with.
Just being mind blown, well that’s enough. That’s what it is about.
It is a form of deep compassion, “feeling with.” Being on the same wavelength of awesomeness.
So how wonderful to be greeted with those banners at the natural history museum as I was pursuing this. a bit of unexpected clarity!
Of course, that’s not all that I do. I also spend a bit more time at the Zen Center. I volunteer for democrats (will be canvassing with Grassroots Democrats HQ in a couple of days), I am still on the board of Swipe Out Hunger, which helps feed food insecure college students (many of whom now come from poverty, are first generation, are single parents, older, looking for a second chance), and I have done a bit of volunteering with Homeboy Industries, a job and life skills program for ex gang members.
Feeding people, taking care of the environment, doing your job, being kind, helping others, voting out republicans, donating to worthy causes, helping the sick and dying, yes, being useful, that’s all compassionate too. Please do all of those things that you can. We need all hands on deck.
But so often those activities become props for our egos, to assuage our guilt, to deal with our fears, to help us feel special.
Do it anyway, if it is good for others, but watch yourself. At least that’s been my experience. Compassion is what you do, who you are, when selfishness and fear and neediness, and anger and neuroses and conditioning don’t confuse you, don’t bog you down. It isn’t how you justify your existence, real compassion isn’t another ego boost (though I’d rather one “acts as if” and does something helpful for others, than do nothing because their motive wasn’t “pure” enough and they get an ego boost! Do good and observe: if your ego is there, it is a learning opportunity!
In my case volunteering at the museums, whatever that leads to in the long run, however long it lasts, is it own reward. No goals to meet. No accomplishments to attain. Of course society is better if people appreciate nature. If people know joy, are well educated, we are all better off. But even that, however benign, however useful, still tastes a little of “doing”, that is, the ego wanting to excel, to have a job, to justify itself. This “doing,” this “accomplishing,” this ego, can be very subtle! Well, that’s what practice is about.
What blows your mind?
For me sharing my most authentic, spontaneous wonder, mind blown, is love, is compassion. That is my practice. That is my best life right now.
An Update On Free Will and Mind
I have recently been in a couple of situations where free will (or lack thereof) has come up.
I know some people seem to be helped, more able to forgive and be compassionate, to release praise and blame, by embracing the view that conditioning and contingency determines all we do in life. A radical view of no free will at all, it is a story we tell ourselves, nothing more. Of course, they have to say that supposition is their conditioning and biologic predisposition (a biologic conditioning tempered by the environmental effects on biologic development), but that’s not a problem, just how it is.
Some others say:
What about responsibility? Well then, the counter is: conditioned, or just a social fiction.
What about compassion? The counter is: a biologic imperative perhaps (there is altruism in nature) or a delusion, more social conditioning.
I find it interesting that in reading Buddhist texts, at least in translation, I do not run into a specific use of that term, free will, though it is implied in that there is liberation, enlightenment, practice…
And we should ask: free of what? Free to choose without constraints? Sounds like an ego wanting to play God. Obviously, most of our existence does not embody a local/personal free will. Our activities are clearly often determined by our biologic propensities, including brain development, our social and psychological conditioning, and our environmental and social constraints (our opportunities and external limits).
But is that it? Buddhism, and for that matter many spiritual or religious teachings, have an agency implied, or why bother having teachings and practice? Why have terms like enlightenment or liberation?
In Buddhism there is karma, and even the Buddha had karma. Restraints and constraints, a life and a death in samsara. Granted there are Mahayana teachings that say the Buddha’s life and death, final illness and ageing, was just a game Buddha played, in essence, that we all play as we are part and parcel with Buddha Mind. Perhaps a similar teaching is found in other spiritual paths. I recall Yogananda saying something like God is having fun playing hide and seek (I paraphrase, and seem to remember it was couched in a female principle. The Mother was playing hide and seek. Someone can correct me)
It is Mind that has free will, liberation, and sets the constraints, not our limited perspective and ego. Or is that too dualistic? Where is the dividing line?
We certainly seem to have agency, will. We can change our body with exercise, break habits with effort, even change our brains with our brains, say in meditation, as is well demonstrated.
Who is it that makes these choices?
Are they real choices, or just a combination of genetic predisposition and conditioning, with the environment favoring one road over another road.
After all, Buddhism does teach that all composite things, all dharmas, all events and manifestations (which are ultimately events) are contingent. Dependent origination, cause and effect, cycles and karma.
Yet we still talk of enlightenment and practice and liberation, delusion and the idea that we can create new karma.
Maybe it just isn’t important how we frame it. Maybe this is too conceptual, getting trapped in words.
I’m with the Dalai Lama. Forget isms. Learn to give a shit. Can we do that?
While it is a common observation that people don’t often change in substantial, profound, foundational ways, some do.
My favorite example is not some Zen Master or the Dalai Lama or Yogananda. It is nitty gritty, street and here and now. It is Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles (look them up and get Father Gregory Boyle’s books; he walks the walk. Compassion at work. for decades. Donate. Please). Former gang bangers, some even murderers, baking bread with former mortal enemies. Raising families in a way they never experienced. Many fail. Some seem to thrive. Sure, maybe it is just another conditioning, but it sure doesn’t look like it or feel like it. But it is a demonstration of change despite the odds, despite the clear restraints. People don’t end up in gangs coming from mildly dysfunctional homes. These ae people who have been in hells most of us can’t imagine. And in Homeboy they find “radical kinship”, and some truly seem to thrive.
There are students who were brought up poor or even homeless, people trying to change their lives, who are now in college and professional schools. Organizations like Swipe Out Hunger founded by a former UCLA student, Rachel Sumekh, who needs to run for office (full disclosure I am on the board) help them eat. There are groups like Los Angeles Room and Board founded by a dynamic young man, Sam Prater. Or Students 4 Students, run by an engineer, Louis Tse who lived in his car while in grad school so he could start something to help homeless students. This are just a couple I know personally. These are people acting out of compassion, acting as if it mattered, that people have choice, can change, and aren’t totally constrained by how their lives have been and how their lives look. Introducing you to these three is arbitrary, just people I have some contact with. Of course. You likely have many examples. I just felt like showing them some love. My choice. My mandala. Of course there’s Doctors Without Borders, people who dedicate their lives to saving the world politically or with social or. environmental activism. Or who do their jobs helping people. Teachers like my daughter. Doctors like my former colleagues (I have retired). People who act as if.
Or just you and me, in this moment or that, when we make some effort, however small. When we chose to care about someone else, even a bit. Whether expected of us or not. But we do it.
OK maybe more delusion, more conditioning, but why put that set on limits on the universe? Is that just another story too?
So, I chose (!) to act as if. As if I have agency. As if compassion and responsibility and the precepts can make a difference in my life and the lives of those around me. As if there is delusion and clarity. As if when I fall, I can choose to pick myself up.
Maybe that’s just my conditioning, and certainly to a large degree it is. At least it is in part a function of the opportunities I have been afforded.
This is not to deny that free will, to the degree it might exist, is limited in our finite lives. For all of us. And that view can allow us to be more compassionate, as we are all in the same boat.
But the danger is that it becomes, as I have recently seen, an excuse for bad behavior, for poor effort. For not taking responsibility. For self-deception. For lethargy, inertia, not making the effort to make the world a kinder, safer, more livable place.
There is a rationale to that choice (!) of acting as if we have some modicum of agency, of choice, of what some call free will, besides a calculus of empirical usefulness. The way I see things, a core Zen teaching is that Mind is Buddha. Even philosophically, intellectually, non-dualistic idealism has an appeal to me (read Bernardo Kastrup). Mind is foundational, ultimately duality is an illusion if not delusion. Mind is making choices, the me/we are Mind doing that.
Is that not just a belief, another concept?
I suppose so. Let’s call it a working hypothesis.
But one I think, after all these years of exploring it, of whatever wee itsy bit of change, peace and insight this path has afforded me, still worth exploring.
That is, if you choose to!
Change is life, and change is death.
No change is nihilism. No change is no information, no movement.
0’s and 1’s
000000 the nihilism early Buddhists (well, and later ones of course) argued against. Dismal.
111111 stagnation. Just as dismal.
But together, combining, we get information, creativity, Mind at play.
To dance is to move and change. Constantly falling, with grace and awareness, maintaining the center we change costumes and dance some more.
Cosmic dance, body dance.
Me, you, black holes and quasars.
Same thought, same Mind.
Never ending, never beginning; those are just conceits born from our distorted view of our lives.