Now Again?

Here’s a fun fact:

Closer to an object with mass time moves more slowly compared to further away from the mass. That’s relativity. That’s why things fall (huh?). That is gravity. Which is cause and effect? Gravity slowing time, time slowing being gravity! Scientists also talk about bending space. Time dilates, space contracts. Same issues.

More details later.

But for now, let this sink in. so assuming you are on earth, if you are standing or sitting up, even slouching, your feet are in a different time zone (or if your prefer, space-time zone) from your gut, which is in a different zone from your head. Your chin from your brain.

That time difference, that space difference, that space-time difference, can actually be measured using modern technology.

So, where is now? When is here?

You can’t hold it.

You Are Multitudes Unfolding

When I started writing this Zengut blog I thought I would share more of the “gee whiz” of science. I also thought I would join the ranks of popularizers of math and science and the intersection of science with Zen, spirituality, Mind and meditation. One of the blogs I enjoyed writing the most was my meditation on Circle, Triangle and Square, a Zen painting. It’s really good and deep and if you haven’t read it, check it out, especially the revised version (also on Hazymoon.com). But over the years since I have started writing and have pursued my practice and my life (same thing), I find for the most part I have less and less interest in doing so in a methodical fashion.

There are plenty of sources for science that aren’t geared to scientists: magazines such as Scientific American and Discover, websites such as sciencedaily.com, and I am sure many others.  There are great writers and thinkers who really want to make clear the implications of quantum mechanics for a Mind Only view of how it is (e.g. Lanza and Berman Biocentrism and Beyond Biocentrism) and the philosophical underpinnings of non-duality and  idealism (e.g. Bernardo Kastrup).

Robert Lanza talking at Hazy Moon Zen center; me listening for a change.

I am not a Zen teacher. I share as a student, a practitioner. Certainly there are qualified Zen teachers (e.g. many books of ancient masters, Hazymoon.com has selections of Nyogen Roshi’s dharma talks, Maezen sensei’s books and blogs and websites are also good to check out, and of course other sources of Zen and spiritual teachings by those who are spiritual leaders and teachers).

I have finished my second novel for older kids, and I think it is a more unique contribution, more reflective of my mandala. More on that later ( I will post some chapters soon; maybe even the whole thing if people want. I will also self publish for those like me who like hard copy or who don’t read this blog).

I haven’t pursued the Zengut blog as planned. Well, that’s how it goes. I still see life as the universe unfolding as I wrote in the first blog I posted. Evolution is at its core. Life is change, all is continuous change, a basic tenant of Buddhism and science (there, mission accomplished! Political irony intended). So maybe I will unfold back into so pursuing a theme of science and Zen, or more of the inspiration of math, or whatever. I have continued to write when something catches my attention, whether something I can share of my Zen practice and life (again, same thing) or, like now, in the scientific world.

I do want to share what blew me away this week. It is definitely a “gee whiz” thing. It isn’t any new information. I have seen images of that are a bit like this for 45 years, that is cells interacting with cells, and there have been movies of cells in motion for maybe 10 years, but this image just hit home like a thunderclap. It may not hit you the same way, but give it a try:

Cutting-edge microscope spies on living cells inside the body – Nature

https://www.nature.com › nature › news

You have the same types of cells, and many other similar cells. Watch this and think about how in your bone marrow you give birth thousands and thousands of times a day to these cells, these organisms, that are you yet not you. Independent, with lives you have no idea of and don’t consciously control. Can you watch this and not see sense intention? Intention, you may ask? Absolutely. They have purpose. They are sentinels, guardians, noble and selfless. They do a job, a very complex and important job.  Watch how they seek. How they feel their environment. How they have no sense of you or your world outside of their impulses and needs, their immediate mandalas, their lives unfolding. Given the right environment, they can be removed from the living body that gave rise to them and still be who they are.

Clearly mind.

I am not suggesting conscious thought. Not brain stuff.  These are not beings with concepts as we have, of course. Still, a kind of sentience independent of you and your concepts, your desires, your hopes and fears and intellect. Mind, life, at work and play.

Life in life. You are multitudes.

 

 

 

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?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Circle Triangle Square and Symmetry redux

 

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This is a combination of two earlier posts that seem to have been popular. I combined them and tweaked them a bit and posted it on the Hazy Moon website some months ago. This is a further tweaking, with only some minimal changes. But since those earlier posts still get a fair number of views, I thought I would make this improved version more available.

images

            It is said that “Let no one who is ignorant of geometry enter” was inscribed over the entrance to Plato’s Academy (which lasted for centuries after his death). The Pythagoreans (of Pythagorean theorem fame) made a religion of mathematics; it is rumored that they killed someone who pointed out that the square root of two was what we now call an irrational number (that is, after the decimal point the numbers never end) because the idea didn’t fit in with their model of an ordered, clean, rational mathematical universe!

Now, while the Greeks had some philosophical tendencies that overlapped with Buddhism (the skeptic founder Pyrrho went to India with Alexander the Great and studied Buddhism and the Stoics were into non-dualism and had many teachings and attitudes compatible with Buddhism), that is not why I bring up how far back the Western appreciation of mathematics reaches. I do so because it is so foundational to modern scientific thinking. Scientists consider mathematics the language of science. In fact, there are modern scientific “Platonists” like Hawking, Tegmark, and Penrose, who have written popular books and are top theoreticians in physics, who believe that we don’t need experimental evidence for their claims about reality. Rather, they believe that mathematics IS reality in its purist form! Mathematics is itself scientific evidence.

So where are they coming from and why do I think you might find it interesting if you are a Buddhist with little or no interest in Math or science? Because scientists and mathematicians argue about whether mathematics is something we invented or discovered. Because scientists are blown away by what has been called the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in predicting and describing scientific discoveries. Often the math was developed just for the sake of the intellectual challenge of it with no immediate practical application in mind, but then later turned out to be just the thing to use for modern science. But mostly because I see a lot of interesting overlap between what blew the minds of the Ancients both East and West and modern math and science.

Lets look at a Chinese Chan poem and then a Japanese Zen painting to see what I mean. Don’t worry if you hate math. Math is not about numbers. It is about relationships and ideals. I’ll draw you pictures.

Anything that we can experience as existing in time and space (that is, the realm of the senses) is in the realm of the “relative,” and whatever is true regardless of time and space is in the realm of the “absolute.” There is a tension between the relative, the relational, the contingent, the deep and abiding interconnectedness and interaction of what is in time and space, and the absolute. Zen practitioners know I didn’t come up with this terminology. There is an ancient Chinese Chan poem that we chant in some of our services. In Mandarin it is called Cantongqi, in Japanese Sandokai. The poem was written by Shitou Xiqian (Japanese: Sekito Kisen). Shitou lived in 8th century China. The title of the poem is apparently very difficult to translate: “The Identity of Relative and Absolute” is the version we use at the Hazy Moon Zen Center, and I like the kind of mathematical sound and unapologetic nature of  “identity.”

Books have been written and series of talks given about this poem. This poem, this relationship between the finite and infinite, the relative and absolute, change and the symmetry of changelessness, a unified force and all the various pushes and pulls that we experience in the contingencies of our lives, is one of those places where both science and Zen converge in wonder and profundity. Sages, philosophers and scientists have grappled with this throughout the ages. How do we get something from the ultimate oneness to the many things, how is there the illusion of duality if at the heart of the matter non-duality must be how it is. For certainly even scientists have some idea of non-duality. Think of the quest to unify the forces of nature. How can there be nature and something else?

The identity, or some say the harmony, of the world of the relative and the realm of the absolute is not very amenable to the intellect, to concepts and language, which evolved in the dualistic world of the senses, or even to mathematics, which gets lost in infinities. We can use some ideas from mathematics, at least as metaphors, even if just to get us started. We’ll do this by looking at the universe embodied in the circle, and to do that, lets look at symmetry and the breaking of symmetry.

There are many types of symmetry.  You can see mirror symmetry in the fluke of a whale. The right half of the fluke is the mirror image of the left, and visa versa. That is why the water is so evenly dispersed in the photograph of the fluke. Such symmetry is very functional for the diving whale. An asymmetric fluke would not work as well to stabilize the whale when she dives.

 

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One definition of symmetry is that you have a symmetry when something is done to a system but you can’t detect a change.

 

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If you moved this “wallpaper” over a bit to the right or left by the distance of one of the partly hidden circles, it would still look the same as long as you don’t see a tell tale edge. Pretend the square is a window with a much larger wall with the wall paper pattern on it behind the window. Move the wall, or the window, the distance of one circle to the left or right and your view through this square window is unchanged; you see the same pattern. That is a kind of translational symmetry; you translated its position without a directly detectable change; you might see other changes if you measured them, like the heat in the room from the movement and your muscles burning fuel when you shifted the pattern, or the flow of electrons in the computer if you used one and did this as a “virtual” experiment.

 The conservation laws of physics are also defined by symmetry. When we say the total energy of a system is constant, that is, that energy is “conserved,” we are saying the total energy is the same before and after you do something to the system (an experiment, say).

Look at the energy of the system before the experiment, and then close your eyes while somebody else does the experiment. When you look at the total energy of the system (including any added or subtracted, say by heating or cooling during the experiment) when you open your eyes after the experiment is done, you can’t tell there was any change in the total energy (even if the form of energy has changed, say form electrical energy to heat or the potential energy of the position of some object relative to another); it passes the “can’t tell” test that defines symmetry.

Actually we can’t measure total energy directly (the slippery nature of energy is another discussion, but even defining, let alone measuring, the total energy is clearly beyond our grasp). We can measure changes in energy. And that will be zero. If you added energy here, some was lost somewhere there. If not, you have some explaining to do. From a scientific viewpoint that can be where the real action is! A discrepancy in energy accounting could be evidence of a new particle that carried away some of the energy you couldn’t account for (this has happened), or even a new law of physics, although it is more likely you just missed something or didn’t take accurate measurements. So you try again, and if the difference remains, and it isn’t carelessness or the lack of sufficiently sensitive instruments, then you really may be on to something new! Why is energy conserved? That’s a bit far afield from this discussion, but I think it has to do with being beginningless, bottomless, endless, and uncreated.

The point is, energy is conserved and any discrepancies need to be addressed. The conservation of energy is a form of symmetry, and it is very useful.

Let’s look more closely at just what symmetry is by looking at rotational symmetry as an example. If you close your eyes and I rotate an unmarked circle, when you open your eyes and look at the circle you can’t tell that I did anything; you still see a circle, just like before. Nothing about the circle looks different. This “can’t tell” test is a hallmark of symmetry.

The entity we call a circle is an idea. It is empty of “thingness.” A circle is defined as that object that is equally distant at every point from a central point. This distance is the radius of the circle (think about it; it works!). So all it takes is a distance from a point to define a circle. We call that distance the radius. Yet in fact, no ideal circle actually exists. Even the most close to perfect circle you can create in the world of the relative is marred minimally by quantum fluctuations even of you were to design a circle to the precision of the atomic or subatomic scale.

In Japanese Zen calligraphy there are circles called enso. Of course enso are not perfect circles. They are the product of a brain, a hand, paper, ink and a brush. They are in time and space. This is the identity of relative and absolute at play, the absolutely ideal circle without beginning or end and the relative circle existing in time and space.

A perfect circle doesn’t lend itself to creating the universe of the senses, the realm of the relative. The symmetry is too good. But inherent in that circle is everything that ever was and ever could be. We just need to break the symmetry. When the rotational symmetry is broken, we can produce waves, and these waves define particles, the basis of form.

Open up a circle and you break that rotational symmetry and get a different symmetry that is limited as to rotation, but can be repeated as infinite cycles in all directions in space and time. You get the wave. We can derive that mathematically, but let me just show you a picture:

           Circle and Wave

We take a perfect circle and divide it in half. Now there is direction, duality, up and down. Now move the left tip of that lower half meets the right tip of the upper half of the circle and  we get a wave!

            You can repeat that wave (essentially rotating the circle or in this example by adding other circles in a line) without ever needing to stop (mathematically). The circle and the wave both have no beginning and no end.

The wave does have symmetry. You can flip it around the point where the two halves of the circle touch and you get the same wave (passes the can’t tell test). But it isn’t the rotational symmetry of the circle it was derived from, the unbroken circle. We broke the never ending, “absolute” rotational symmetry and found a new, more limited symmetry, the wave, which now brings us to the “relative.”

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           Mathematically we can sculpt waves. Just like additive sculpting (say in clay) or subtractive sculpting  (say in marble), we add and subtract waves to get new waves, even crafting a sharp localized spike. That spike is the particle. The really, really relative, the really, really NOT symmetric!

And hidden in a spike, that particle, there can be countless waves adding and subtracting, creating the spike mathematically.

This is Fourier mathematics, looking at the different waves that make up a given wave, and it is the basis of quantum field theory.

In the circle there is the wave, in the wave the particle, in the particle the wave, in the wave the circle.

We have the identity of the relative and absolute, asymmetry and symmetry, and the particle and wave.

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[The Tingari by Nanuma Napangardi, of Kintore, language Pintubi.]

 

The ancients knew about symmetry and symmetry breaking, circle and waves, the identity relative and absolute. Just look at the Yin Yang symbol! You see circle, and broken circle, wave and particle.

 

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 They experienced it in their beings, in their lives. That is what it is really all about.

Now lets expand our look at circles and waves by looking at a Japanese Zen painting.

 

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             Sengai Gibon (1750-1838) was a Japanese Zen master who was an artist. There are many stories about Sengai. One I particularly like shows his courage and compassion. The Daimyo, the high-ranking Samurai who was the local ruler, loved chrysanthemums. The gardener’s dog destroyed some of his prized blooms and so naturally the gardener needed to die. Sengai leveled the rest of the flowers with is trusty scythe, presenting himself to the Daimyo the next day. Sengai asked to be killed. After all, farmers, who were dying of hunger, were ignored by the Daimyo while pretty plants were valued above a human life.

           The Daimyo got the message.

One of Sengai’s most famous works is “Circle Triangle Square.”

 

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There are many interpretations of what this painting is about.

The inscription at the left of the painting alludes to Sengai’s temple, an ancient temple already at that time about 700 years old. It was the first Zen temple in Japan. So maybe the shapes refer to the temple and the pagoda at the temple and some nearby mountain.

Or maybe the inscription is not about the subject of the painting and it is just in effect his signature. Zen masters in Japan and before that China were often identified with and named after their monasteries or the mountains they lived on.

Or maybe the circle is the cushion (zafu) the meditator sits on, the triangle is the mediator with the top point as the head, the solid base of the triangle being the butt and crossed legs. The triangle could be meditator as mountain. The square might be the zabuton, the square pad the zafu sits on (the triangle/meditator/mountain idea was suggested in conversations with sensei Maezen at Hazy Moon).

Lets get Platonic. I would like to interpret the painting geometrically. I have no idea how much geometry Sengai knew. Clearly basic geometric shapes interested him enough to paint them.

So circles are amazing but where do squares and triangles come in? Lets start with how a square and triangle relate. A square is two triangles.

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            Next, how do circles and squares relate? Well, they could be symmetric as to area. That is, they can both have the same area despite having different shapes. That is a very useful equivalence in math and physics. Using the tools of integral calculus, which helps us deal with the areas of complex shapes, we can find “hidden” symmetries and so hidden relationships. Here is another way squares and circles can relate to each other that I like: every circle precisely defines two squares, each of which intersects with the circle at four points. One square is inside, the other outside the circle. Every square likewise defines exactly two circles, each circle intersecting with the square at four points:

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 Those then define two larger and smaller squares and circles ad infinitum.

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          Now, how do circles and triangles relate and how do they make waves?

We can think of the circle as a clock face. This time we will think of the radius that defined the circle (that distance that all points were from the center point) as a minute hand, here pictured as arrows. For this illustration the minute hand will go counter-clockwise, starting at the 3 o’clock position (hey, why not?). As we rotate this minute hand radius counterclockwise we will note how high the tip of the arrow is above or below the horizontal line bisecting the circle.

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 Next lets put each vertical line (the distance of the radius above or below the horizontal bisecting line) along a new horizontal line, with each clock hour marked, starting at 3 o’clock and going counterclockwise (3 o’clock, 2 o’clock, etc.) around the circle/clock. Even with just a few straight lines we see a wave emerging if we connect the tips of the arrows:

 

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            In this figure we placed the vertical lines derived from the tip of the radius above and below the horizontal line at their clock positions in the circle, as marked on the horizontal line, and connected the tips of the arrows with lines and got a rough wave. More lines would get a smoother curve, a smoother wave.

 If we were to add so many arrows (each a radius of the clock/circle, that is, the distance from the center point that defined the circle) and the resulting vertical lines from the tip of the arrow to the horizontal bisecting line so that the circle is filled with lines and arrows we would get a perfectly smooth wave. In the ideal, mathematically pure case, a perfect wave, unlike the complicated messy waves of contingency we see at the beach.

What is this wave?

Each arrow is a radius of that circle. It also is the hypotenuse (the longest side) of a right triangle (and why not? Any line can be turned into a hypotenuse by adding two other lines!).

Here is one radius arrow and the horizontal line isolated (with a line connecting the tip of the arrow to the horizontal) to show that each arrow indeed defines a specific right triangle:

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This figure shows one of the triangles defined by the arrow (radius) and the line from the tip of the arrow to the horizontal bisecting line and the segment of the horizontal line that goes form the center of the circle to the line dropped form the tip of the arrow, making a unique right triangle. The circle can have as many of these triangles as you wish as the radius, the arrow, now the hypotenuse of a triangle, points to different parts of the circle.

            Now, lets say the arrow/radius/hypotenuse is one unit long. It doesn’t matter one unit of what. A unit could be one inch, one mile, one light year, one unit of 6.753 millimeters or 5.071 kilometers, or even one diameter of an oxygen molecule (although that may be subject to quantum fluctuations). It doesn’t matter a single unit of what; are all kosher as long as all other measurements that relate to that unit length, say of the other sides of the triangle, are measured in a way that is related to that basic unit (in multiples of inches, of miles, of light years, of 6.753 mm, 5.071kilometers, of diameters of oxygen molecules, etc.).

Then we can define a specific relationship between the lines of the triangle and give it a name: the sine of a right triangle is defined as the length of the side opposite an angle (other than the right angle) over (that is, divided by) the hypotenuse. It is a ratio, so there no need to worry about units of measurement as any units are on the top and bottom of the ratio, so they just cancel. This ratio is just a relationship that always holds because we defined it that way. Since the arrow/hypotenuse/radius here is 1, the denominator of the ratio of the ”line across from the angle”/”arrow” relationship (the sine), so the line across from the angle IS the sine for that triangle. After all anything divided by 1 is just that thing.

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Here we see a right triangle. The thick line is the side across from the angle indicated by the curved line at the lower left. The diagonal line is the hypotenuse (the arrow, or radius, in our circle), the longest line in our triangle. To the right of the triangle we have the thick line divided by the diagonal hypotenuse (which we defined as being 1 unit long). So in this ratio, this division, the thick line divided by 1 = the thick line. The length of that thick line then is the sine of that angle (defined as the side opposite of an angle over the hypotenuse which is 1 unit)

 

We collected these sides of the triangles, which were the length of the tip of the arrow above or below the horizontal bisecting line, and we created a sine wave! So the triangle sine and the sine wave of the circle are one thing.

Circle, square.  Every square defines two circles; every circle defines two squares, without beginning or end.

Square triangle. Two triangles make a square.

Circle triangle. Every circle is made up of the hypotenuse of triangle after triangle, and these have relationships that define waves (we just looked at one such wave, the sine wave).

Waves have no beginning or end. We arbitrarily started and stopped at 3 o’clock on the circle. We could have kept going around and around the circle without end, and we could have started anywhere on the circle. We can go around fast, so we would have a high frequency and that would require more energy per time period. We can go around slow and that would take less energy per time period. Of course fast and slow are relative here unless you define a standard i.e. fast or slow relative to the speed of a massless particle in a vacuum, which would be the speed of light.

We could have gone in the opposite direction as well. These changes would have defined waves, just not sine waves (it would be cosine waves which are since waves out of phase, that is, shifted).

And waves, as we have seen, can add and subtract to form localized concentrations, that is, particles. Particles in this formulation are localized concentrations of the quantum field, which is the collection, or set, of potential waves based on the energy and state of a system. Wave and particle, the quantum conundrum, is then found in Sengai’s art, in the yin yang symbol.

So do you think Sengai had any of this in mind? Did he know trigonometry? Did he intuit that these basic forms could describe all form, even potential form that hasn’t formed? That these objects that have no physical existence but are abstractions, the product of mind, empty of substance, are the basis of all we consider substance in our quotidian lives embedded in the senses, the basis of all math and science, all time and space, the absolute inherent in the relative, the relative emerging from the absolute? Emerging in Mind?

Is this the dreams stuff is made of? Are these the parameters of the phantoms we chase?

Dogen:

“Nevertheless this great ocean is neither a circle nor has directions. The wondrous features of this ocean that remain beyond our vision are inexhaustible…. It is just that as far as my vision reaches for the time being, it appears to be a circle.”

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Photos courtesy of Susan Levinson

 

 

 

 

 

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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