September 10, 2018 § Leave a comment
The other day I turned my attention to a question about the nature of the physical reality that first came to my attention while reading Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s book, “Pathways Through To Space.” “Habitually,” he wrote, “we regard the material filling of sensation as being substantial.” In other words, we believe that the world is made up of solid things that exist whether we’re here to see them or not. But is that so?
Quantum theory tells us that it is not so. More than that, experiments done on the subatomic level demonstrate that observation is a key component in giving form to the world. These tests are repeatable, and they show that matter isn’t there before it is observed. Although the majority of physicists ignore the deeper implications of this fact, in my mind this stands out: Consciousness precedes matter, and not the other way around, as I was taught in school.
Merrell-Wolff went on to say that just before his enlightenment he realized that the world isn’t substantial but composed of relative vacuums or emptiness. The vacuums, he said, are created by a negation of Substance that is none other than Consciousness. (Note that he was not saying Substance is conscious but that it is Consciousness.)
To bring some personal clarity to this topic I had, in the past, compared physical objects to eddies swirling in a stream. Eddies seem to be real but in actuality they are a relative absence or vacuum of the surrounding water in which they appear. As an analogy, this seemed to express Merrell-Wolff’s thought quite well, and it gave more meaning to the Buddhist statement that ‘form is emptiness.’
The other side of the Buddhist phrase is that ‘emptiness is form.’ That seemed a bit harder to grasp because in spite of my analogy, I still saw water as form. But that day I recalled a photo of a boat appearing to float in mid-air, due to the water in which it sat being absolutely still and clear. That image took the idea out of my head that water is always a visible thing.
I imagined how it would be if a whirlpool suddenly appeared in crystal clear water. Wouldn’t it seem that it was a real thing spinning in empty space when, in fact, what appeared as emptiness was actually the real substance?
Thinking of this it occurred to me that perhaps ‘emptiness’ in the phrase, “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” had two different meanings. In the former part of the phrase emptiness referred to the relative vacuums that appear in Consciousness (the whirlpool in clear water). In the second, it referred to the real Substance that only appears as emptiness because of its absolute clarity. As form arose in this emptiness, emptiness is form.
My analogy made what quantum theory said about the physical world more sensible. Prior to any observation there is only clear, formless substance. Things form when observations negate part of that substance, but prior to those observations they don’t exist. If I try to argue that they do exist but as formless things then I’m speaking gibberish because, by definition, a thing must have form.
My analogy also made it clear why I couldn’t experience my own true nature. Experience is awareness of form and form comes about by partially negating Consciousness, (i.e., my true nature). This means that while it is possible to experience modifications of Consciousness, it is not possible to experience unmodified, Clear Consciousness.
Even as I saw this I was acutely aware of just how actively my mind was looking and probing for a higher consciousness experience. I put forward a heavy effort to drop this search by constantly reminding myself that my true nature couldn’t be found in my experience. The result was a baffled awareness of emptiness that I, as the ego, knew I could never comprehend.
Much later, in Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s book, “Transformations in Consciousness,” I found this quote: “If I habitually center myself in the body, then I am there in an exceedingly narrow kind of bondage… However, I break this bondage every time I think myself away from body, as to some other base of reference.”
This quote seemed particularly apt for that night, after my day’s effort, I woke from a dream in which a chickadee came to rest part way through my bedroom window. Then, the next morning as I sat in my chair, I felt a momentary withdrawal into what I can only say was the clear, formless ‘water’ of my analogy.
Regarding this I found this from Franklin Merrell-Wolff, “…the consciousness related to the I is not a consciousness of the I. It is immediate ’knowledge through acquaintance” in the most rigorous sense. One might even speak of it as a sinking into the I (italics mine).”
It now seems that though my analogy does not contain the whole truth of the matter, it does serve a useful purpose when used to ‘think myself away from’ my habitual identifications. This is not mere wishful thinking or some fanciful imagining, but a sincere effort to change the base of reference away from the mass of swirling eddies in consciousness, to Consciousness, Itself. It is through such acquaintance that I come to know Myself.
February 15, 2018 § 2 Comments
In his essay, “The Tenzo Kyokun and Shikantaza,” Zen Master Kosho Uchiyama wrote, “…the world I experience is one I alone can experience, and not anyone else can experience it along with me. To express this as precisely as possible, as I am born, I simultaneously give birth to the world I experience; I live out my life along with that world, and at my death the world I experience also dies.”
Kosho Uchiyama’s words may be considered in relation to quantum mechanics. It says subatomic particles exist in an infinite number of states until they are observed, upon which they collapse into one state. For example, light (i.e., photons) coming from distant suns exist everywhere in the universe as probability waves until it is observed, at which time it becomes localized and become known as stars.
Before Kosho Uchiyama was born, what was to become his experience existed in this infinite number, or formless, states. His birth simultaneously gave birth to the world he experienced and when he died that world also died. Everyone’s experience is like this, coming about as a result of an interaction of the observer and the formless universe of infinite states. This is not merely a psychological experience but an actual giving of form to a universe that would otherwise remain merely as a probability.
It is important to understand that the observer being referred to is not the ego. It is the “I” as the simple bare point of awareness around which the ego is constructed. Where this “I” is before birth and where it goes at death is not the subject of this post. And in a way that is not a real question anyways. What matters most is that the “I” in each of us only collapses particular parts of the infinite number of states the universe can take. Even when standing side-by-side looking at stars, each of us collapses different photons coming from those stars. Only you can know the parts you collapse, just as only I can know the parts I collapse. This means that each of us is experiencing a different or alternate version of the same reality or universe.
The role of the observer, as this is called, is a touchy subject in quantum mechanics. Many do not like to admit that the observer plays any role in the formation of the universe. To get around this, they proposed that it only appears that a collapse into one state has occurred as a result of an observation. In this view every state collapses but does so in alternate universes where we cannot see it. In other words, creation does not simply consist of one universe but a multiple number of universes or multiverse.
Technically the existence of multiple universes is a hypothetical outcome of the theoretical model that arises out of quantum mechanics. As far as hypothetical outcomes of theoretical models go, this one is pretty dicey because there is no way to prove it. But it occurs to me that we do not need to negate the role of consciousness to have multiple universes. We already know that each of us is experiencing an alternate version of reality. Each version fits the description of an alternate universe in that each is a different collapse of the infinite number of probable collapses. So may we not say that each of us are living in our own parallel, yet alternate, universes created by the interaction of bare points of awareness with probability waves?
Each of us lives in an alternate universe or version of reality that comes into existence as we are born and ends as we die. Master Hung-chih (1091–1157) expressed this as,
There is neither mind nor world to rely on
Yet do the two interact, mutually.
Kosho Uchiyama expressed it by saying, “the world forms the contents of my self.” He went on to say, “When we do zazen, we personally experience this clearly; we become nothing other than ourselves.” Zen Master Dogen expressed it as the self being ‘verified by all things’. And when he said, “All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.”
We see in these statements that zazen is an awakening to the reality of dependent origination, the Buddhist principle that states all dharmas (i.e., objects, including the self) arise in interdependence with all other dharmas. In zazen we experience this as body and mind dropping away, leaving the bare point of awareness and the world indistinguishable. Awakening to this reality, to the inseparable nature of the other and I, is Realization.
Attending to the present moment
The universe unfolds naturally.
Breathing in and out
Buddha nature is actualized.
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.”
December 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
The previous post touched upon our human experience as a conceptual experience. This means that the brain doesn’t just replay what the senses record, it takes that raw material and processes it into familiar, steady concepts. No matter what form a hat takes, for example, it is always a hat. Yet if we were to put sandals on our head, so efficient is the system of conceptualizing that we would not be confused. Sandals are sandals. Hats are hats.
Concepts work so well in making sense of the world that we end up believing that they are the world. But a concept is just an idea, it is not reality. Take, for instance, the concept of time.
A common view of time is that it is like a river with now, or the present moment, being a one-dimensional line that crosses from bank to bank, dividing the past from the future as it moves down the river. Einstein, in his Theory of Special Relativity, challenged that idea. He said that you are at the mid-point of this line and that the further the line extends from you, the wider it becomes. As it widens it begins to include the past and the future in what he called the extended present.
Imagine that you are looking at the Andromeda galaxy through a powerful telescope. Textbooks say that Andromeda is 2.54 million light-years away. So you would be forgiven for thinking that you are looking at the galaxy, as it was that long ago. In fact, because Andromeda is 220,000 light years in diameter, you are seeing light that left the far edge of the galaxy thousands of years before the light left the middle, which, in turn, left before the light left from the front. You are seeing the galaxy’s past and future in a now that extends back 2.54 million years. This zone in which things are neither past nor future is the expanded present.
Let’s take a more down to earth example. Imagine you are sitting in meditation. Before you are a single candle flame lighting a blank wall. Individual photons are racing away from the candle at the speed of light but even at that speed it still takes time to reach your eyes. Photons coming directly from the candle’s flame arrive at your eyes a fraction of a nanosecond before those that bounce off the wall. The result is that what you see at any given moment is a collection of light from different periods of time.
The same is true for all experience. The further across space you look, the further back in time you’re seeing. Even if that time is only measured in nanoseconds you never see the world as it is in some present moment that’s ‘out there’. That is just a concept you created. The reality is that the only place the present moment exists is inside of you. Yet because even that statement implies separation it, too, isn’t accurate. In fact, you and the present moment are identical, for if there were any separation your experience would always lay outside of you where you could never know it!
It may be said that the present moment has an absolute and a relative sense. In the absolute sense the present moment has no duration and so it is a temporal void. Yet when we take the content of any given moment into consideration, we find that it is a collection of inter-related things that happen over time relative to each other. This relative relationship is what gives the present moment a sense of duration or extension. It is in this extended now that all experience unfolds; yet it unfolds in emptiness.
November 1, 2013 § 4 Comments
As I sit by the fire Dogen’s words flicker to light my thoughts, “We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has it’s own before and after (while) ash stays in the position of ash, with it’s own before and after.”
With this Dogen invites us to the here and now where, “Past and future are cut off.”
Philosophers, scientists and science fiction writers have produced volumes on the subject of time. H. G. Wells took the 19th Century reader into the far future in his work, “The Time Machine”. Einstein taught us time flows at different rates in different parts of the universe. Quantum physics tells us some particle reactions may flow backward in time. While the cosmologist tells us that there is no particular reason the future should not flow into the past, instead of the way it does now, past into future.
But what is the past? What is the future?
Recently, I came across the work of German mathematician Hermann Minkowski. In 1907 he took the idea of three-dimensional space and added to it a fourth. Three of the dimensions were assigned real number coordinates (think “x”, “y” and “z” for length, width and height). The fourth, however, he treated as an imaginary number that “rotates” between the other three real dimensions. Perhaps because this rotation could be either clockwise or counterclockwise, he realized this imaginary space could be reinterpreted as time.
It is important to note that treating one of a four-dimensional space as imaginary actually explains all of Einstein’s special relativity and all of quantum physics. So treating time as an imaginary space does have meaning in mathematics and physics.
Pondering this, it occurred to me that if the rotation of an imaginary dimension around a three-dimensional space is the past and future, then the three-dimensional space is, itself, the present moment. The world around you, in other words, is a spatial extension of that part of time we call “now”.
This is consistent with Einstein’s theory of relativity that no barrier between time and space exists. Space can be described as time. Time can be described as space. Looked at this way, there is no here and now, the here is the now.
We cannot describe “now” as containing a little bit of the past or a smidgen of the future. It is, as Dogen wrote, cut off from the past and future.
In our awareness of the immediate moment we are also cut off from the past and the future except, that is, through the memories and hopes for the future that arises in our imagination.
We cannot separate the awareness from the immediate moment that, in turn, is inseparable from the space about us. So it follows that space does not stand alone, isolated from awareness. As such, consciousness and space are not divisible! Such a conclusion is, as I understand it, an expression of the Buddha Way.
In the Buddha Way, even when we don’t realize it, awareness, objects, action, and space are working together as one reality. Subject, object and activity all arise together. The runner, to use Nagarjuna’s example, is inseparable from the running. The sitter, as Dogen says, and the sitting are one.