Nagarjuna’s Runner

January 30, 2018 § 2 Comments

A while back I read of a physicist who said the fundamental “stuff” of the universe isn’t matter or energy, but information. I had to smile at that remark for to me it showed the physicist’s ignorance of his own philosophy of science that states science can make no claim to the fundamental stuff of the universe. It can only study the way this stuff (in philosophy called the thing-in-itself) acts in relationship to other stuff. That relationship is expressed as information, so in saying that information is the stuff of the universe the physicist was engaging in the logical fallacy known as a circular argument.

Quantum mechanics is more aligned to the philosophy of science. This branch of physics says that it really doesn’t matter what quantum mechanics is about because there is no actual world of electrons, photons, quarks, etc. There is only a description of the world that uses these terms and it works in describing what is observed.

The traditional line of scientific inquiry is to study ‘things’ as if they existed independently of the observer. In most situations this approach works quite well until, that is, you start to study the quantum world of the very small. It is here, where the traditional ideas of causality, time and space breakdown, that the observer or consciousness plays a noticeable role.

It is by way of experimental observation that the quantum world is known. Prior to observation the quantum world exists (for mathematical purposes) only as a probability wave. Once an observation is made this world ‘collapses’ into something that can be described in quantum terms. Much to the discomfort of many scientists, in the world of quantum mechanics observation means conscious observation. This means that consciousness and the quantum world are inseparable.

Rephrasing the above we may say that, in general, science is interested in the relationship of two or more things. Where the quantum world is concerned, science must include the role of consciousness for its study to be inclusive. If we pare this down even further, we may say that science studies the interaction of the thing-in-itself and consciousness.

The important part of this simplification is that the known part is the interaction, not the thing-in-itself or the observer. These two can never be known in their entirety as a quantifiable figure or as an object of thought. The Buddhist expresses this unknowability by saying, “you can’t bite your own teeth and can’t taste your own tongue.” And in the Bible in Exodus 33:20, it is expressed by God telling Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.”

Those of you who have read this far may be thinking that it’s taking me a long time to bring this horse to the water trough. I felt this preamble necessary to clearly explain the Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna’s (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) statement on running and the runner. A statement he used to illustrate that there is no persistent self.

Nagarjuna said, “there is no runner beside the action of running and that outside of running there is no runner.” A scientist might say the same thing if he remembers that his area of study is the interaction of things, and not the thing-in-itself.

It may be easier to see this if we think in quantum terms. We may only say something about a sub-atomic particle when it is observed, otherwise it has no actual form that we may talk about. If we observe it as moving from point a to point b, and then substitute the word moving with running, we may say that the particle is a runner. Once our observation stops, however, both the runner and the running cease to be. The particle goes back to just being a probability, meaning that it did not persist in time.

Just as the scientist would say that there is no such thing as a persistent sub-atomic particle, so the Buddhist says there is no persistent self. Neither, however, are being nihilistic. They are merely saying that we can say nothing about the fundamental stuff of the universe or consciousness. In practice, we can only see their interaction.

Before the horse finishes drinking I’d like to apply this to the Zen practice of shikantaza or ‘just sitting’. Most people don’t know what to make of this practice. Their rational minds tell them that there must be something more to it than just sitting. Yet from the perspective of this post, that’s all it is. It’s just sitting between the unquantifiable object and the unquantifiable subject.

Thinking continues during shikantaza but you don’t try to stop it. Instead, awareness just returns again and again to the present moment and the act of sitting. As the thoughts that temporarily flash through the mind become less of a distraction you’ll discover another layer of thinking. These are the deeper concepts that have been directing your thinking, dictating what you think about yourself and the world. Once again, there is no attempt to change these thoughts. The practice is to ‘just sit’.

During the process of just sitting you’ll notice a more persistent concept called the “I” which takes on the roll of ‘the sitter’. Nagarjuna’s words should guide you here. “There is no runner beside the action of running,” means there is no sitter beside the action of sitting. “And that outside of running there is no runner” means, outside of action there is no self. In other words, the “I” that you think is sitting is just another thought distracting you from the act of ‘just sitting’. And like all other thoughts and concepts it may be dropped.

Shikantaza is the actualization of your true nature realized as the action of sitting with body and mind fallen away. Here, body and mind are defined as the concepts assigned to the fundamental stuff of the universe (the body) and to consciousness (the mind). When they fall away you realize Emptiness and that its true manifestation is action or Life. To repeat Nagarjuna, “there is only the act of running.”

 

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You can see right through to the bottom.

January 9, 2018 § Leave a comment

Most believe that the senses do a fairly good job of presenting us with what is actually ‘out there’ in the real world. But the brain doesn’t just reproduce what the senses give it. It reworks it into a conceptual experience.

Back in the 19th and early part of the 20th Centuries, astronomers identified faint objects in the night sky that they called “nebulae” because of their fuzzy appearance. During those times the idea of a galaxy, and that our sun was part of one, wasn’t part of the astronomer’s conceptual framework. It was only in the 1920’s that their existence was established by better telescopes and the nebulae determined to be galaxies.

In the 1950’s astronomers identified numerous objects whose spectrums were found to be markedly red-shifted, indicating the objects were flying away from us at speeds up to 40% or more of that of light. A debate began among astronomers. Were these quasi-stellar objects red-shifted by deep gravitational wells? Did some form of antimatter or a white hole end of a wormhole cause it? The answer came in the 1970’s after more data was collected and conceptual models were sufficiently developed. These quasars, as they were called, were extremely distant galaxies whose red-shift was caused by space itself expanding over great distances.

In the above two instances we find the science of the day unable to explain phenomena that is later determined to be a specific thing or class of things. It is tempting to believe that these ‘things’ were always there as they are known today, and that astronomers just needed better instruments to see them. But to identify them there also had to be a refinement of concepts and, in some cases, the development of new concepts that built upon the accepted conceptual framework of the time. All of which implies that if we used different concepts then our experience would also be different.

Today astronomers have a new mystery called dark matter to fit into their conceptual framework. A few have proposed that the solution is to rework the present framework, i.e., rewrite the general laws of relativity, so that dark matter can be discounted. Most reject this approach out of a belief that dark matter does exist, even though they have never directly observed it. Another thing science cannot yet ‘see’ is dark energy; a hypothetical energy of an unknown type that astronomers believe is responsible for the observed acceleration of the universe. How we come to experience dark matter and dark energy will eventually depend on the concepts science develops to know them.

In his book, “You Have To Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight,” Dainin Katagiri writes, “Like physics and biology, Buddhism is an attempt to study things as they are. But in Buddhism, particularly in Zen, what we study is something more than what appears as objects to our minds.”

“More than what appears as objects to our minds” is the object as it is before given conceptual form. It is, in effect, formlessness. Or, if you prefer, it is a sea of constantly changing energy existing in n-dimensional space, where n is an unknown quantity.

Zazen, states Katagiri, is the way to study this formless sea of energy. It is the way to know things “before we conceptualize about them” and “before we fall into thought.” Where the scientist finds a fuzzy object or a quasi-stellar object, he studies it in order to develop more and better concepts. But in zazen we just stay in that first moment of discovery without looking for any idea beyond it. By just being here, we learn to see the interconnectedness of everything. We see the Whole.

There are many advantages to conceptual thinking. From it come the many scientific advances that make our lives easier. But concepts also leave us feeling separate and alone in a world of solid parts that seem to work against each other and us. If, however, we were to practice staying in the first moment, i.e., the present moment, we would learn to see right through to the bottom of our concepts to know Reality as it really is in its numberless dimensions.

The Chinese poet Han-shan wrote,

The clear water sparkles like crystal,

You can see through it easily, right to the bottom.

My mind is free from every thought,

Nothing in the myriad realms can move it.

Since it cannot be wantonly roused,

Forever and forever it will stay unchanged.

When you have learned to know in this way

You will know there is no inside or out!

From Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the Tang Poet Han-shan

Where Am I?

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