Reality is what we all know about as long as we don’t think. It’s not meant to be thought about but reacted to; as threats, awareness of danger; bred into our bones by countless years of evolution. But now, after those countless years, we have a brain and a different kind of awareness that can wonder about such things. Is such wonder worthless? Who knows. Worthless or not, I’m stuck with it because I enjoy ruminations and trying to understand what we take for granted, finding as I think harder, nothing but mystery. In this post I will begin to talk about “reality” and try to clarify the idea somewhat, bringing in Zen, which may or may not be relevant.
In thinking about “reality” I will take it as a primitive, attempting no definition. One may try to get at reality by considering “fiction”, perhaps a polar opposite. In this consideration one notes that Aristotelean logic doesn’t apply. There is a middle one can’t exclude, because, in this case, the middle is larger and more important than the ends of the spectrum.
One can begin to work into this middle by considering the use of the word “fiction” in Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, where “fiction” is applied to societal conventions and laws. Sapiens is a fascinating book, but Harari’s use of the word “fiction” for “convention” rubbed me the wrong way. Although laws and conventions are, strictly speaking, fictions, they have one property popularly attributed to “reality”. A common saying is: “One doesn’t have to believe in reality. It will up and bite you whether you believe in it or not.” The same applies to laws and convention. If one is about to be executed for “treason”, it doesn’t matter that the law is really a “fiction”, compared perhaps with physical reality. In fact, most “realities” whether physical or societal possess a large social component. This area of social agreement comes up when one judges whether another human is sane or crazy. The sine qua non of insanity is its defiance of reality as it is conceived by we “sane ones.” Unfortunately, it is all too easy to forget that conventions are a product of society and take them as absolutes. Teenagers are notorious for wanting to be “in” with their crowd even when the fashions of the crowd are highly dubious. But many so-called grown-ups are equally taken in by the conventions of society. Most of the time it is easy and harmless to go along with the conventions, but one should always realize that they are, in fact, made up and vary from society to society. Presumably that is what Harari was trying to emphasize.
Then there are questions of the depth of realities. In many cultures there is a claim for “levels of reality” beyond everyday physical realities like streets, tile floors, buildings, weather, and the world around us. Hindu mystics consider the “real” world Maya, an illusion. Modern physics grants the reality of the everyday world, but has found a world of possibly deeper reality behind it. There are atoms, molecules, elementary particles, all governed by the “reality” of quantum mechanics which lies behind what one might be tempted to call the “fiction” of classical mechanics. No physicist “really” considers classical mechanics a fiction, though perhaps many would claim there is a wider and possibly deeper reality behind it. Most physicists would leave such questions to philosophers and would consider serious thought about them, a waste of time. Physics first imagined the reality of molecules in the nineteenth century, explaining concepts and measurements of heat related phenomena. For example, temperature is the mean kinetic energy of molecular motion related to what we measure with a thermometer by Boltzmann’s constant. In the early 20th century there were very reputable scientists skeptical of the existence of atoms and molecules. Most of them were convinced of the atom’s reality by Einstein’s theory of Brownian motion (1905). As the 20th century wore on the entire basis of chemistry was established in great detail by quantum theories of electron states in atoms and molecules. In the twenties and thirties cosmology came into being. Besides explaining the genesis of atomic elements, cosmology, using astronomical observations and theory, finds a universe consisting of 10’s of billions of galaxies, each consisting on average of 10’s of billions of stars, all of which originated in a “big bang” some 13.6 billion years ago. In a later post I’ll consider the current situation physics finds itself in, with dark matter, dark energy, string theory, and ideas of a multi-verse. If one considers these as realities, one should not hold such a belief too firmly. History teaches us that physics is subject to revolutions which alter the very “facts” of physical reality. Besides the lurking revolutions of the future one notes that the “realities” of physics and chemistry lie in their theories which have proved essential for the “reality” of our modern technologies. One might claim however, that these are theories of reality, rather than a more immediate impingement of reality in our lives. I hope to say more about “physical reality” in the next post.
Leaving the physical world, one asks, “What about myth, an admitted fiction?” If a myth has a deep meaning and lesson for our lives, doesn’t that entail a certain kind of reality of more importance than a trivial sort of physical reality? Consider “myth” vs. “history”. Reality for history depends on “primary sources”, written records. The “written” record might be that of an oral interview when recent history is concerned; but the idea is that there is a concrete record of some kind that relates directly to the happenings that history is reporting. Consider the stories about Pythagoras I wrote about in the last post. These stories were based on “secondary sources”, accounts written hundreds of years after Pythagoras’s death, relying on hearsay or vanished primary sources with no way of telling which was which. They form the basis for the shallow kind of myth that gives “myth” its common pejorative connotation. We dismiss the myths about Pythagoras’s golden thigh, his flying from place to place, where he may appear simultaneously, not simply because these claims conflict with our present scientific world view, but because they have no relevance to facts about Pythagoras which matter to us in considering his contributions to the history of mathematics. The myths about Pythagoras can be considered “trivial” myths which discredit the very idea of myth. But what about deeper myths? Most religions tell stories about their founders and contributors which have a high mythic content. I ask in this context, “Does distinguishing between myth and historical reality in matters of religious history, really matter, or matter at all?” Buddhists are notorious for being unfazed when various historical stories are proven fictional by historians. I would baldly state their attitude as: “The religious importance of the story is what matters; not the factual truth of every so-called fact in the canon.” Getting closer to home, I might ask, “Suppose the facts about Jesus’s physical existence were convincingly proved to be completely fictional. Would it matter to Christianity?” I would guess that it WOULD be devastating to believers, but that, in fact, it SHOULDN’T be. What matters in Christianity is the insight that feelings of love are deeply embedded in the universe and that Jesus, whether a fictional person or not, is responsible for bringing this “fact” to life, to showing that in the deep mystery one might call “God”, there is a forgiveness of the animal brutishness of humans. If through an active nurture of love in ourselves we experience this deep truth and express it in the way we act towards others, we redeem ourselves, and potentially, all of humanity. The stories, “myths” if you will, help us towards this experiential realization, a realization that is utterly unrelated to “belief”, a realization which could be called “Christian Satori”. The uniqueness of Christianity, as far as I can tell, is this emphasis on “love”. Unfortunately, the methodology of Christianity, with its historical emphasis on grasping ever harder at “belief”, is deeply flawed, leading backwards to the brutishness, rather than forward to love. Certain Christian thinkers, Thomas Merton for example, seem to have realized that Zen practice can be helpful in reaching a deeper understanding of their religion. One aspect of a Western Zen would be its applicability to a Western religious practice of a more deeply realized Christianity. Actually, whether or not “love” is embedded in the universe, we, as humans are susceptible to it, and can choose to base our lives on realizing its full depths in our beings.
Getting back to “reality”, I’ll consider possible insights from traditional Eastern Zen. So far in talking about Zen I’ve emphasized the Soto school of Japanese Zen and have tried to show how various Western ideas are susceptible to a deeper understanding by means of what might be called Western Zen. Actually, I claim that the insights of Zen lie below any cultural trappings; and that for a complete understanding, particularly as such might relate to “reality”, one should consider Zen in all its manifestations. The Rinzai Japanese school is the one we typically find written about in the US. It is the school which perhaps (I’m pretty ignorant about such matters) has deeper roots in China where Zen originated and the discipline of concentrating on Koans came into being. An excellent introduction to this school is the book Zen Comments on the Mumonkan, by Zenkei Shibayama, Harper and Row, 1974. The Chinese master Wu-men, 1183-1260, collected together 48 existing Koans and published them in the book, Wu-wen kuan. In Japan Wu-wen is called “Mumon” and his book is called the Mumonkan.
During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s I attended an annual conference of what was then called the Society for Religion in Higher Education. Barbara, my wife at the time, as a former Fulbright scholar, was an automatic member of this Society. As her husband I could also attend the conference. The meetings of the Society were always very interesting with deeply insightful discussions going on, day and night. These discussions never much concerned belief in anything, but concentrated on questions of meaning and values. In fact, the name of the Society was later changed to the Society for Values in Higher Education. During one of the last meetings I attended, possibly in 1972, there was much discussion about a new Zen book that Kenneth Morgan, a member of the Society was instrumental in bringing into being. Professor Morgan had arranged for the Japanese Master Zenkei Shibayama to give Zen presentations of the Mumonkan at Colgate University. The entire Mumonkan had been translated into English by Sumiko Kudo, a long-time acolyte at Master Shibayama’s monastery and was soon to be published. Having committed to understanding Zen, I was very interested in all of this and looked forward to seeing the book. After moving to Oregon in 1974 I kept my eyes open for it and immediately bought it when it first appeared at the University of Oregon bookstore. Later, I developed a daily routine of doing some Yoga after breakfast and then reading one of the Koans.
The insights that the Koans are to help one realize are totally beyond language. The Koans may be considered to be a kind of verbal Jiujitsu, which when followed rationally will throw one momentarily out of language thinking into an intuitive realization of some sort. I had encountered various Koans before working through the Mumonkan and had found little insight, but, as a student of physics and mathematics, thought of them as fascinating problems to be enjoyed and solved. I realized that in working on a difficult problem in math or physics, the crucial break-through often comes via intuition. One has a sudden insight, and even before trying to apply it to the problem, one realizes that one has found a solution. In a technical area one’s insight can be attached to mathematical or scientific language and the solution is a concrete expression which solves a concrete problem. I realized that with Zen, one might have a similar kind of intuitive insight even if it could not be expressed in ordinary language, but, perhaps, could be stated as an answering Koan to the one posed. Another metaphor besides the Jiujitsu one, is the focusing of an optical instrument, such as a microscope, telescope or binoculars. Especially when trying to focus a microscope one can be too enthusiastic in turning the focusing wheel and turn right past the focus, seeing that for an instant one had it, but that it was now gone. With a microscope one can recover the focus. With a Zen Koan the momentary insight is usually lost and efforts at recovery hopeless.
A somewhat better example of this focusing metaphor occurred when I was a professor at Auburn University. One quarter I taught a lab for an undergraduate course in electricity and magnetism. This was slightly intimidating as I was a theoretical physicist with little background in dealing with experimental apparatus. One afternoon the experiment consisted of working with an ac (alternating current) bridge similar to a Wheatstone bridge for direct current, but with a complication arising from the ac. Electrical bridges were developed in the nineteenth century to measure certain electrical quantities which are these days more easily measured by other means. Nowadays the bridges mainly have pedagogical value. With a Wheatstone bridge one achieves a balance in the bridge by adjusting a variable resistor until the current across the bridge, measured by a delicate ammeter, vanishes. One can then deduce the value of an unknown resistor in the circuit. With ac there is not only resistance but also a quantity called reactance, which arises because a magnetic coil or capacitor will pass an ac current. To adjust an ac bridge, one twiddles not only a variable resistance but a variable magnetic coil (inductor) which changes the reactance. In the lab there were about 5 or 6 bridges to be set up, each tended by a pair of students. The students put their bridges together with no difficulties; but then, after about 10 minutes, it became clear that none of the student teams had been able to balance their bridge. The idea was to adjust one of the two adjustable pieces until there was a dip in the current through the ammeter. Then adjust the other until the dip increased, continuing in this back and forth manner until the current vanished or became very small. It turned out that no matter what the students did, the current though the ammeter never dipped at all. Of course, the students turned to their instructor for help in solving their problem and I was on the spot. The experience the students had is quite similar to dealing with a Koan. No matter what one does, how much one concentrates, or how long one works at it, the Koan never comes clear. With the ac bridge the students could actually have balanced it by a systematic process, but this would have taken a while. I should have suggested this, but didn’t think of it. Instead I had a pretty good idea of some of the quantities involved in the circuit, whipped out my slide rule (no calculators in those days), and suggested a setting for the inductor. This setting was close enough that there was a current dip when the resistor was adjusted and all was well. The reason that balancing an ac bridge is so difficult is that the two quantities concerned, the resistance R and the reactance X, are in a sense, at right angles to each other, even though they are both quantities measured by an electrical resistance unit, ohms, which is not spatial at all. Nevertheless, even though non-spatial, they satisfy a Pythagorean kind of equation
R² + X² = Z²
where Z is called the Impedance in an ac circuit. The quantities R and X can be plotted at right angles to each other and a triangle made with Z as the hypotenuse. If one adjusts either R or X separately, one is reducing the contribution towards the impedance of one leg of the triangle which does not greatly affect the impedance, at least not enough to noticeably change the current through the ammeter of an ac bridge. Incidentally, what I’ve just explained is a trivial example of a tremendously important idea in theoretical physics and mathematics called isomorphism, in which quantities in wildly different contexts share the same mathematical structure.
I hope that the analogies of verbal Jiujitsu and getting things into focus make somewhat clearer the problem of dealing with Koans. One might well ask if such dealing is worth the trouble and, on a personal note, what kind of luck I’ve had with them, especially as they might throw some light on the nature of “reality”. First, I must say that I have found that engaging the Koans of the Mumonkan is very worthwhile even though most of them remain completely mysterious to me. Moreover, even though I have had epiphanies when reading some of the Koans or the comments about them, there is no way for me to tell whether or not I have really understood what, if anything, they are driving at. Nevertheless, after spending some years with them, off and on, in a very desultory, undisciplined manner, I feel that they have helped indirectly to make my thinking clearer. My approach when I first spent a year going through Zen Comments was to do a few minutes of Yoga exercises, with Yoga breathing and meditation, attempting to clear my mind. Then I would carefully read the Koan and the comments, not trying to understand at all, while continuing meditation. Typically, at that point, I would have a peaceful feeling from the meditation but no epiphany or understanding. I would then put the book aside and go about the business of the day until I repeated this exercise with the next Koan the next day. Sometimes I would skip a day and sometimes I would go back and look at an earlier Koan. This reading was very pleasant as an exercise. I tried to develop the attitude of indifference towards whether I understood anything or not and avoided getting wrought up in trying to break through. My feeling about this kind of exercise is that it does lead to some kind of spiritual growth whether or not the Koans make any sense. As for “enlightenment”, I think it is a loaded word and best ignored. A Western substitute might be “clarity of thought”. Whether or not meditation, studying Koans or just thinking has anything to do with it, I have, on occasion, been unexpectedly thrown into a state of unusual clarity, in which puzzles which once seemed baffling seemed to come clear. As for the Zen Comments I might make a few suggestions especially as they relate to “reality”. Consider, for example, Koan 19, “Ordinary Mind is Tao”, towards which the metaphor above, of finding a focus, might be relevant. If you haven’t heard about the concept of Tao, pick up and read the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu’s fundamental Chinese classic. Tao may be loosely translated as “Deep Truth Path”. Koan 19, as translated by Ms. Kudo reads as follows:
“Joshu once asked Nansen, ‘What is Tao?’ Nansen answered, ‘Ordinary mind is Tao.’ ‘Then should we direct ourselves towards it or not?’ asked Joshu. ‘If you try to direct yourself toward it, you go away from it,’ answered Nansen. Joshu continued, ‘If we do not try, how can we know that it is Tao?’ Nansen replied, ‘Tao does not belong to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is illusion; not knowing is blankness. If you really attain to Tao of no-doubt, it is like the great void, so vast and boundless. How then can there be right or wrong in the Tao?’ At these words Joshu was suddenly enlightened.”
Mumon Commented. This comment is very relevant.
“Questioned by Joshu, Nansen immediately shows that the tile is disintegrating, the ice is dissolving, and no communication whatsoever is possible. Even though Joshu may be enlightened, he can truly get it only after studying for thirty more years.”
I picked this particular Koan because it is one of the few that I feel I actually understand (although I may need another thirty years to really get it). Of course, I can in no way prove this. You must NOT be naïve and think that I understand anything. Furthermore, there is no real explanation of the Koan I can give. I can make a few remarks which should be considered as random twiddles of dials that may chance to zero the impedance in your mind.
First, the whole thing is a logical mess. On the one hand there is nothing special or esoteric about “deep truth path”. It is just the ordinary world (reality) that we sense. On the other hand, when we get “it”, the ordinary world dissolves and we feel an overwhelming sense of the infinite ignorance and non-being which surrounds the small island of knowledge we have attained in our human history so far. In fact, both the ordinary and the transcendent are simultaneously present to our awareness and one cannot be considered more significant than the other.
Note that this Koan is superstition free. There are no claims of esoteric knowledge. There are no contradictions of any scientific or historical claims to knowledge. There are no contradictions of anything we might consider superstitions. There is no contradiction of the doctrines of any religion. One might say that the Koan is empty of content. Of verbal content that is.
There is an implicit criticism of Aristotelean logic with its excluded middle. As I’ve already pointed out more than once in this blog, logic has a limited applicability. Part of the “game” of science is to accept only statements to which logic DOES apply. I may later go into stories from the history of physics of the difficulties of playing this exciting game of science, keeping logic intact, when experimental evidence seems to deny it. However, the “game” of physics or any other science is not all of life; and, in fact, Aristotelian logic has been, as I’ve called it in earlier blogs, “the curse of Western Philosophy” and an impediment to a deeper understanding of realities outside of science.
There is more to say about the Mumonkan, but I will leave such to a later blog post. As to differences between Soto and Rinzai Zen I wonder how serious these really are. Koan 19 seems to embody the Rinzai idea of instantaneous enlightenment until one sees Mumon’s comment about another 30 years being required for Joshu to really get it. The Soto doctrine is of gradual enlightenment and a questioning of the very “reality” of the enlightenment concept. A metaphor for either view is the experience of trying to get above a foggy day in a place like Eugene, Oregon, where, when the winter rain finally stops, the clear weather is obscured by a pea-soup fog. One climbs to a height such as Mt. Pisgah or Spencer’s Butte and often finds that though the fog is thinner with hints of blue sky, it is still present. But then there is perhaps a partial break and one sees through a deep hole towards a clear area beyond the fog. This vision may be likened to an epiphany or even to the “Satori” of Rinzai Zen. If we imagine we could wait on our summit for years until, after many breaks, the fog completely clears away, that would be full enlightenment.
Leaving any further consideration of Koan 19, I will end this post on a personal note. If indeed I’ve had a deep enough epiphany to consider it as Satori, this breakthrough has helped reveal that I have a healthy ego, lots of “ego strength”, a concept that Dr. Carr, head of the physics department at Auburn came up with. Experimental physicists, such as Dr. Carr, like to measure things. “Having a lot of ego strength” was his amusing term for people who are overly wrapped up in themselves. My possible Zen insights have not diminished my ego at all. Rather, they have helped to reveal it. I’ve learned not to be too exuberant about insights which as a saying goes, “leave one feeling just as before about the ordinary world except for being two inches off the ground.” If I get too exuberant, I wake up the next day, feeling “worthless”, in the grip of depression. This is a reaction to an unconscious childhood ego build-up in the face of very poor self-esteem. Part of spiritual growth is perhaps not losing one’s ego, but lessening the grip it has on one. I hope that further practice helps me in this regard. Perhaps, some psychological considerations can be the subject of a later post. I will now, however, work on the foundations for such a post by attempting to clarify the “reality” status of scientific theories.