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.



Not knowing is most intimate: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Grace Slick and Nagarjuna

I recently watched the awesome Neil deGrasse Tyson’s show “Star Talk” where he interviewed Richard Dawkins and had a Jesuit priest on to discuss religion and science. Despite being an atheist and agreeing with much of what Dawkins has to say I found myself rooting for the Jesuit. Dawkins was so arrogant and sure he had the real story, despite some murmurings to indicate humility in the face of our awe inspiring ignorance about the universe (I assure you that while it is amazing how much we do know, or perhaps one could say, despite that we know anything about the universe at all, we know much less than some seem to think we do), his lack of compassion and insight was astounding. Sure I am an atheist and can’t get behind Catholic dogma, so finding myself trying hard to agree with a Jesuit was a strange intellectual sensation!

At one point Neil spoke about a kind of spiritual experience he had in nature. He just objected to dogma. Well, Nyogen is often paraphrasing the great Chan master Huang Po: we have no dogma in Chan/Zen (only realization and practice).

Dawkin’s smugness reminded me of Hawking’s pronouncement that philosophy is dead because science has supplanted it. Was he being purposely ironic in making a philosophical metaphysical comment about the death of metaphysics? You know, like saying “this sentence is a lie”? Perhaps.

Granted some metaphysical speculations have been laid to rest by modern science, but even within the realm of science others have arisen. At what point is math science? How do you define science, is it still falsifiability or reproducibility (if so there goes Hawking’s M theory)?  Certainly Hawking must get that such a statement is a metaphysical stance, hard to justify in terms of these basic questions about the definition and scope of science, that a statement on the limits (absolute  or otherwise) of metaphysics and philosophy is an evaluation and judgment about the nature of reality that is not established deductively but inductively. It is a speculation about philosophy, an opinion; it can’t be measured or proven. It can be disproven (as per the previous discussion, a less than formal proof admittedly but really..!). Whatever it is, it isn’t science.

But closer to home than M theory, we will never be able to step out of consciousness to prove the nature of consciousness. We do find neurologic correlates of states of consciousness, but it is not clear that is the same as grasping the experience or understanding the nature of consciousness.

The nature of consciousness is awareness, and awareness is a subjective experience. We may, and I suspect will, prove the physical correlates of thought. Will that be enough to comprehend the nature of mind, of consciousness?

Is it science? Is consciousness even at its most basic a scientific question? It is the one thing that is at the end of the day the quintessence of subjective experience. It is subjective experience.

Well, think about what we do know. E=MC^2

Energy is mass. What IS energy? We only know what it does, how we experience changes in energy. What could it mean to really know what it is? Certainly scientifically it is sufficient to know what energy, or consciousness, does but we experience what consciousness IS, by definition, because consciousness is exactly what we DO experience, at some level.

Same with mass. We define it by what it does. We understand it confers inertia, that the Higgs field plays a role. What is a field? IT is something that is measurable at all points. What is this something? That thing which, when disturbed, gives us a Higgs boson and confers mass. This is wonderfully sophisticated and true. This is a vision of reality that should take you out of your day-to-day limited experience and open up the universe; yet kind of circular.

For that matter define a flavor without simply comparing it to other flavors. You can get to the chemistry, see how it lights up a functional MRI, but what about that first lick of your favorite ice cream on a hot day? Can math and an MRI capture that? Except perhaps for some specific biomedical research, do we need it to?

We can only kind of say what awareness, consciousness, experience at its most basic, is, what it isn’t, what it may be and not be, what it seems to neither be nor not be, but not quite. Can’t pin it down intellectually. We can come close, we can dance around it, use mathematical metaphors and measure certain aspects of certain behaviors, certain relationships in the world of the senses, but we are limited intellectually by our evolution, our inability to “get our heads around it” as the saying goes. How do you get your head around your head? Like the old Zen saying: adding an extra head to your head?

So yes Neil, savor experience, don’t worry about dogma.

And how about this: Neil deGrasse Tyson at the end of that show said he could even give up cause and effect, that is has worked well so far, but maybe, just maybe….

Certainly in the world of this and that, the senses cause and effect is the best rule of thumb…..

This is not without Western precedence (the philosopher Hume). Not getting caught up in inductive reasoning. Or Sekito Kisen “cause and effect must return to the great reality.”

And while in Buddhism the twelve links of existence are cause and effect, the great exposition of this by Nagarjuna in the Madhyamaka text “the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” beings with:

Neither from itself nor from another.

Nor from both,

Nor without a cause,

Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.

So cause and effect and yet not form itself or anything else, so implying not caused, no beginning no end, no arising. Nagarjuna says logic comes to the tetralemma: is, isn’t, is and isn’t neither is or isn’t, that is the point where logic and proportion fall sloppy dead (Grace Slick, White rabbit, Jefferson Airplane 1967).

Sounds like bare awareness, emptiness, to me. Wow Neil! And he’s an astrophysicist!

Not knowing is most intimate!