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)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Myths

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The Seven Sisters by an Australian Aboriginal artist based on her people’s  mythology

 

Yesterday I visited a friend of 40 years. I hadn’t seen him in years, but my GPS, depending on satellites and the math of relativity theory (that same set of equations that tell us a photon in a vacuum is in a universe of no time or space, well, forgetting about gravitational fields perhaps) got me right to his front door.

My friend, who is my age, has a kind of cancer that should have killed him and indeed was killing him. Chemotherapy failed, although it likely extended his life a bit. That was important because it enabled him to survive to try a new medication, one of the molecules scientists designed to fight cancer through sophisticated cellular targets. So far it is working; his tumors dissolved rapidly and as far as they can tell dramatically.

Science works. It is important not to subscribe to myths that will not allow for that. That is just crazy talk.

So my friend and I were talking about science and spirituality. He is very insightful, but he seemed to be stuck just a tiny bit on whether dark energy or dark matter was what one “sees” with the third eye in meditation.

Well, that’s why in Zen we tend to keep our eyes partly open when we meditate, so we don’t wade in the darkness and try to imbue it was some meaning that isn’t there!

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Certainly to a scientist that third eye and dark energy/matter connection doesn’t sound right. “Dark” in dark matter and energy just means they don’t give off any light to show us what and where this matter and energy is. We don’t have instruments that can measure them directly. So they are dark to our senses. We “see” dark matter and energy by their effects on the cosmos, like the apparent expansion of space and the ways galaxies turn. Specific, measurable effects, that is.

As I wrote before, for example in the recent post about not being seduced by the cool in quantum, using science this way can just add noise and be distracting.

On the other hand, someone recently suggested a book to me “More Than Allegory: On Religious Myth Truth and Belief” by Bernardo Kastrup. I am only about a third into it. I don’t agree with all I have read, but there is some insight there, and it helped me in talking to my friend.

After all, what is a myth but how the intellect deals with ineffable, what is beyond words? Are myths literally true? Of course they are not. But do they express Truth? Many times, yes, myths can reflect our conditioning, desires and delusions and show us an intuitive view of a road out of our grasping, fearful, limited brains. Not all myths do that, perhaps most, simply codify cultural norms or personal biases. The best myths are how we talk about what we can’t talk about. Myths aren’t only what we tell ourselves in the absence of fact, they are a place we go recognizing that language and intellect are limited by the scale they evolved at.

As written in the foundational Song Dynasty Zen poem “The Identity of the Relative and Absolute” in the translation we chant at Hazy Moon Zen Center (I believe by Maezumi Roshi via ZCLA) “reading words you should grasp the great reality.”

When I started writing non-fiction about science and Buddhism I called my work “Chasing Phantoms.” The title was based on the story of Laplace’s last words. Laplace was one of the top, if not the top, mathematician and scientist at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century; the “Enlightenment” in Europe. He was sometimes a theist, sometimes an atheist, always brilliant. On his deathbed somebody said to Laplace, “wow you must feel good about having been such a smart guy, accomplishing so much in math and science.”

Laplace replied, “Well, we do chase phantoms, don’t we.” Then he died.

The word he used for phantoms in French was “chimeras.” Stuff we cobble together. Stories we put together from different things in our experience, things we perceive, to make a new thing, a story. A myth.

So while I started suggested to my friend that he might not want to waste his time meditating by looking for dark energy in his third eye, I backed off a bit. Why not go there? Not a bad myth, though I am leery about mixing myth and specific scientific observations and terminology. Like a mixed metaphor, it doesn’t sound quite right to me. Also as a scientist, the situation is not symmetrical. Maybe I can mix science into myth, but it is not acceptable to mix myth into science, if you want your GPS to work, and if you don’t want to do stupid stuff like deny climate change, over population, pollution, thereby threatening civilization. Be careful you don’t lay your delusional myths born of greed anger and ignorance on science.

Yet I relish myth and I love science. Many of the sutras contain myths, stories that are not necessarily literally true but aren’t merely or solely allegories. The Avatamsaka sutra (and others, but I happen to be looking at that one) is full of elaborate images. There is’t a literal Mount Sumeru on earth.  I love referring to Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, and stories of her going down to hell hearing the cries of the suffering. I dig the story of Buddha putting up with his murderous cousin and trying to stop a war and failing. I act as if true, though I understand they are not “verified” by archaeology or written contemporaneous sources. They aren’t academic history or scientific experiments or even mathematical models. As Nyogen Roshi says, they are about you. Like myths.

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Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? I think so, but then again, really, who cares? Whatever myth you believe about who wrote the plays isn’t critical to me. If some new facts come to life, I’ll change the myth in my head. Until then Shakespeare is a myth that works for me. It doesn’t for others. Above all, the play’s the thing… (paraphrasing Shakespeare), and all these are just such as dreams are made of (oops did it again).

At its furthest reaches science is myth. That is, we take observations and cobble together a story that supplies a deeper understanding beyond the limits of data retrieval. That is just what myth does.

While I do not always realize I am myth making in my head, being a scientist and all, I very consciously wrote a myth when I wrote my novel for kids with the express purpose of creating chimeras full of heart and meaning (“Aidan and the Dragon Girl Save the World”). The novel I chose to write isn’t a work of science fiction (the obvious choice one might think given my background in medicine and science), it is a fantasy, a dream; it is a myth. And like myth, the story works best, as does all fiction, if you take it as true when you are reading it.

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Hakuin Zenji understood the value of myth

The tetralemma, basic to Buddhist logic says of such Truths, the chimeras, all belief systems the human mind cobbles together, including dogmatic Buddhism, not true, not not true, not both true and not true, not neither true nor not true.

That is Myth.

Now, in Zen, in the original, earliest Chan writings that we have, we are to cease notions. I get that. We are easily misled, easily seduced by stories and usually they are there to serve our egos. Dualistic distractions. So fine, maybe I am a bit off base here. On the other hand, as Nyogen says, much of practice consists of gimmicks designed  to shake up our parochial views, our day-to-day delusions, to push us beyond our conditioning. Maybe used right myth is upaya, skillful teaching. A piece of the raft we cling to to get to the other shore, in Buddhist jargon.

So if my friend likes shutting his eyes and picturing dark matter in the depth and silence of his third eye, maybe it’s not so bad. I mean, it could be worse, he could have decided string theory is the multidimensional Buddha.

 

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I Just Self-Published a Novel for Young Readers

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I just self-published “Aidan and the Dragon Girl Save the World,” an adventure-fantasy-mystery story for young readers.

“Aidan and the Dragon Girl Save the World” contains real history and culture, introducing readers to Emperor Wu (China’s only woman emperor), the Teacher Wise-and-Able (Chan/Zen master Hui Neng), the Old Sage and the butterfly dream (Chuang Tzu or Zhuang Zhou, the ancient Daoist), Chinese dragons (powerful shape-shifting water spirits, not fire-breathing reptiles), and other stories, characters and critters from history and legend.

I wanted to write a story for kids that would have positive values without being heavy-handed.  “Aidan and the Dragon Girl Save the World” is about being centered, brave and compassionate, even when it’s tough and things get really weird. Like in life! I do allow my love of Zen, science, history and the environment to peek through, just a bit, but if I have succeeded, young (and older) readers won’t notice that I stuck all that stuff in there, they’ll just have fun reading the book!

You can try it out. I have posted almost a quarter of the book on my author’s website ralphlevinson.com, as well as on booklocker.com/books/8819.html.

“Aidan and the Dragon Girl Save the World” is available as an eBook for $2.99 from booklocker.com, and also for Kindle at Amazon.com, and NOOK at Barnesandnoble.com. It is also available as a print on demand softcover book for $14.95 from Booklocker.com or from Barnes and Noble for those who, like me, love to hold a real book in their hands, or to give as a gift.

Link for Booklocker:

booklocker.com/books/8819.html

 

Link for Amazon Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Aidan-Dragon-Girl-Save-World-ebook/dp/B01M2X5XVY/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital text&ie=UTF8&qid=1476567264&sr=1-1&keywords=aidan+dragon

Link for Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/aidan-and-the-dragon-girl-save-the-world-ralph-levinson/1124797691?ean=9781634916332 – productInfoTabs.

 
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KoKo an integral part of the story! And a great dog.