LESSONS: Lesson 4 – The Causes of Suffering

I am the Dharma

Just as Light & Heat are the Sun

How can it be otherwise? We are inseparable from the Truth and yet we seem to be fumbling around in something unreal and not true. We seem to get caught in our ignorance (stupidity), in scattered distractions and in our self-interest. Each one of these traps keeps us from knowing that we, you and me, are the Dharma – the Truth.

How can it be otherwise? Let’s take a look at each one. 

 

Ignorance, the blindfold over our being. In the Wheel of Birth & Death, the very first link of causation is a blind man heading for a cliff. In this case, we are ignorant children about to get caught in the web of desire. These are clear images of how spiritually threatening ignorance is. As long as we have the pot  of ignorance over our vision we will spin on the Wheel of birth and death – creating all sorts of things that result in the end as death. This spinning is suffering, the first Noble Truth of our situation. The cause is ignorance. But what you ask, are we ignorant of – we are ignorant of knowing the Truth – knowing that we are the Dharma just as light and heat are to the Sun – the Truth.

 

 

 

If this is true, why do we bother with the second Noble Truth which says the cause of suffering is desire? A very good question – we bother with this cause because desire is the demon of distraction. Distraction comes when we desire something, anything at all that is other than what is – what is right in front of us. Desire distracts us and our mind scatters and runs after some thing. It is a trap door in the form of pleasure which we all have in our lives. There are desires that we refuse to renounce and relinquish. When we are unwilling to renounce our trap doors we fall into a scattered mind. Following after desire of things in the apparent world interferes with concentration and meditation.

 

 

 

When we remain ignorant, (stupid) we get distracted, scattered, because we are following our self-interest. Self-interest interferes with unconditional love – because unconditional love is without a self – it is not invested in an outcome – does not pick and choose. But knowing the definition of unconditioned love does not lead to being unconditioned. This love is a realization beyond self-interest and self-evaluation of what one should or should not do. It is a realization, not a brush to polish up an already confused and ignorant ego.

 

In summary.

Just as light and heat are the Sun, I am the Dharma, we are the Dharma. Ignorance, our blindfolded mind prevents us from knowing this to be so. Realizing it. Because our mind is distracted and confused by the desire for the things of the world – things that come and go – things that are full of suffering when we cling to them. And finally, all this desire for the things the self wants blocks us from unconditioned love. Self-interest causes us to pick and choose what we ignorantly pick and choose as the path – what we want and how we want to satisfy our longing with the things of the world. This nonsense takes us round and round the Wheel of birth and death.

 

The medicine for ignorance is knowledge, the medicine for a scattered, confused mind is concentration and meditation, the medicine for self-interest, is renunciation and surrender to what is without attaching to it. This takes guts. the spiritual kind. 

 

I refer those who want to know more, to the excellent essay by our late Ming Zhen Shakya. Here’s her explanation of detachment and attachment.

 

Detachment requires us to get our emotional teeth and claws out of the people and things of the material world and to get their teeth and claws out of us. For so long as we derive our sense of self, our identity, in terms of our relationships to other persons or things, we bind ourselves to the future and to the past. We attach our ego, like an umbilical cord, to whatever is “other”‘ and we reduce ourselves to fetal creatures who are dependent on those “others” for our sustenance. Attachment, therefore, is to possess or be possessed by someone or something outside ourselves. Ming Zhen Shakya

 

Humming Bird
Author: Fashi Lao Yue

If for some reason yon need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

Images by FLY

Quote: Ming Zhen Shakya

The Mandukya Karika

Detachment and McCormack’s “Selling Heaven” by Ming Zhen Shakya

bounty.jpg

Irish poet Brendan McCormack, our brother in the Dharma, has pushed the ego’s “bitter and painful” consciousness-of-self to its time-bound limit. Next step is transcendence, often a bridge too far for Irish poets.

Perhaps because so few can bring themselves to swap sentimental attachment to their well-mapped landscape for the terra incognita of Detachment – or as it is more commonly called, Holy Indifference, or Ego Death, it will be interesting to see how McCormack uses his Zen acquired insights to cross that border.

Detachment first requires Humility. Pride goeth before a fall, we’re reliably told; and indeed, we find the landscape on the earth side of Nirvana littered with those who take pride in their achievements – their vaunted piety and superior knowledge, and the credentials that evidence such excellence. It surprises no one that they can spit out the muck to speak with absolute authority on the subject of Enlightenment.

Those who make it to the frontier survey the smoking ruins of their lives and have the decency to drop to their knees and say, with tears and agony, Mea culpa. It’s not a particularly notable admission. Usually, as their personal histories reveal, they’re the only ones left standing.

At the border, McCormack presents his passport. He doesn’t know whether or not it will be stamped. He knows only that he has at least earned the right to present it. He extends the precious book with Dublin wit as in his The Portrait.

I’d like to paint you.
Go ahead, I said.
Having a woman paint me
Would be a rare treat.

When she was finished
She showed me a painting
Of a dog licking his balls

And he had eyes that
Reminded me of someone.

There are other essentials. Detachment requires us to get our emotional teeth and claws out of the people and things of the material world and to get their teeth and claws out of us. For so long as we derive our sense of self, our identity, in terms of our relationships to other persons or things, we bind ourselves to the future and to the past. We attach our ego, like an umbilical cord, to whatever is “other”‘ and we reduce ourselves to fetal creatures who are dependent on those “others” for our sustenance. Attachment, therefore, is to possess or be possessed by someone or something outside ourselves.

“My” establishes that dependency. We forfeit our right to appreciate anything for what it is, and bestow upon the “other” the right to determine when we shall be happy and when we shall be miserable.

We enjoy baseball. Fine. But when it is “my” team that is playing, we surrender our enjoyment to the prejudices of winner and loser. It isn’t baseball any more. It is self-esteem, self-satisfaction, or else it is the whipping boy upon whom we hurl our anger and contempt.

Attachment says, “My team is better than your team.” This isn’t love of the game. It’s jingoistic nonsense, a vicarious participation. I have given “my” team the power to make me happy when it wins and to make me miserable when it loses. In this way we are bound to hope and reverie, future and past. The second hand sweep of our wristwatch tells us that time is inexorably moving, future-past, future-past. For those who are attached, there is no “now.”

Only when we are not prejudiced, when we have not prefixed a person or a thing with “my”, when we can observe with eyes that are not veiled by ego, can we observe clearly in that state of Holy Indifference. One does not have to be a balletomane to appreciate the beauty of any well executed double play. It is only when we attach ourselves to a specific team that the beauty of, say, a 4 to 3 to 5 play becomes dependent on whether “my” team is on base or whether “my” team is playing defense. And it is the same with everything we believe that we possess. It is always future gain and loss, or past gain and loss; and we oscillate between the poles of future and past until we’re stricken with an existential motion sickness, a “Sickness Unto Death.”

What do we attach to? Some things admit no other description. McCormack uses the word “my” exactly 10 times in his book of poems. Ten times and only once per use: “my mother”; “my father”; “my girls” (daughters); “my brother”; “my mind”‘; “my hand”; “my finger”; “my back yard”; “my window”; and “my pages.” Already we see him removing those tentacles of inane prejudice that suck our souls into monstrous oblivion. We find no “my friends:” or “my country” or “my religion.” Sentiment is leeching out of him. He wants to love for what it is and not for what it does for him.

Of course, Holy Indifference has its own Mount Everest. The moment we luxuriate in the Now we hear Kunti’s voice in the Mahabharata. “When one prefers one’s children to the children of another, war is near.” There is a reason Zen is a cauldron of boiling oil over a roaring fire, and achieving its goal, Detachment, is that reason.

What is true is Real. The Real World is defined as that which is unconditional, universal, immutable, and eternal. Eternal is to be outside of time; and this can occur only in the “ego-absent” immediate moment.

How do we arrest the flow of time and enter the Eternal Moment? What is the Wall that we must surmount? Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? Where is the Light that leads us out of darkness.

McCormack brushes aside facile explanations. Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? Sure, just as we assign directions – heaven is above and hell is below, the ancient mind sees hope in the east and fulfillment in the west. Student at dawn, master at sunset. He came to teach us The Way to surmount the Wall that lies on the other side of sunrise, to awaken us. The answers come from that “spiritual West.” But such explanations do not help us gain the goal.

It cannot be mere coincidence that someone who Quests finds himself in West Berlin during the 1980s. There is East and West and Wall and Ego Death and, though he did not know it when he arrived, there is Light in a museum.

As he first enters the Western sector he encounters the bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Church which has been left as it was in 1943 to be a war memorial. In West Berlin, 1988, The bus takes him to:

The center of the half-bitten city
Where a headless Church
Prayed with its wound open
To the sky and history,
Unlike our own entombed vaults.

He grapples with the enigma of Time. We’ve all been there. The boring dead-end job versus the need to earn a living. Sometimes we find ourselves so desperate to get free of the painful monotony that we become an animal who’s foot is caught in the jaws of a steel trap. Freedom requires us to gnaw off our foot.

McCormack does just this, In Pizza, West Berlin, 1988, he gets yet another dreary assembly line job:

I worked in a pizza factory
Where no Italians could be found.

His challenge? To put olives on the rolling belt of three-at-a-time pizzas.

I went mad for eight hours a day,
Until they moved me…

And like the trapped prey,

…I put my finger into a machine, That slices cheese, and me.”

Time, Light, and the Wall. The Berlin Wall would be demolished in 1989, but in 1988 McCormack is still trapped in samsaric illusion, searching for the Way to spiritual liberation. And then, in an awesome conjunction, he discovers the spiritual fulfillment of West, the Eternal Moment, Ego Death, and a golden Light.

In Rothko, Orange his own ego death merges with the artist’s, imagined then and there. For, as he prowls the exhibitions of an art museum –

“Seeking, – something

After finishing another eight hour shift
In a West Berlin factory
Filling cardboard boxes with
Empty shampoo bottles.

In front of me
The orange space

Squeezing sorrow from me.

In a West Berlin Museum,
Near to the Wall,
Rothko killed himself.
I don’t know if the painting killed him
Or he killed himself
While the painting watched.

I didn’t know.
Outside, the towers watched,
Men in grey watched
1988 became 1989.”

Humming Bird
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

If for some reason yon need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

Orange and Yellow by Mark Rothko
Photo credit: www.radford.edu/rbarris

Lesson 3 – Part B  The Realization of Suffering is the Beginning of Wisdom

LESSONS

Lesson 3 – Part B

The Realization of Suffering is the Beginning of Wisdom

 

            

 

“…you can’t ever use a gift unless there is an atmosphere of confidence.”

                                                                                                                                           Sr. W. Beckett

 

A Teaching of Adharma and Dharma

Two leaders, about to lead legions of men into war, a war where every man will be killed, are visited by a Divine messenger. The messenger goes to the first leader – to see if he can teach this leader the Way. When approached, the first leader tells the Divine messenger, ‘I know what is right from wrong, I don’t need to be taught what is right and wrong. I know what my problem is – I don’t want to do what is right.  I know what I am doing is wrong, but I can’t stop myself. I cannot control myself. I don’t want to.’

This leader, let’s call him the Miscreant suffers from wanting whatever he wants. In other terms, he is a man, a human being, living at the instinct, material level of existence. There is little to no restraint.

Then, the Divine messenger goes to the other leader, let’s call this leader the Courageous.  At first, the Courageous says the same thing as the Miscreant. He knows right from wrong, but there is a big difference between the Courageous and the Miscreant. The Miscreant, cries that he can’t help himself – the passions rule and he is unable to stop himself. AND he chooses not to stop them. He wants to continue on as he is. But…the Courageous confesses his situation – ‘this is what I do,’ followed by a question, ‘how can I stop?’  and then a plea. ‘Help me to change.’ Underlying the Courageous choice is humility – that virtue of a warrior horse; the meek, disciplined being who is willing to be trained in order to face the battles of the world.

The Miscreant confesses ‘this is who I am,’ but he identifies with the passions – frozen and stuck in this concocted identify he chooses the world of passions. He hides. Does not want to stop. Does not ask for help. Unable to ask a question or make a plea for help he stays entangled in the temporal things; satisfied in his concocted self.

The Courageous chooses to ask for help from the messenger of God – the Miscreant does not. The Courageous wants to STOP the passions from running the show – he prizes something more than the worldly passions- seeks help.

Most of us face such a spiritual crisis – we hear the Dharma and face a choice between the Divine message or the worldly one. The world is powerful and pulls on the mind all the time, even if we do not know it. Moment by moment we choose between the Divine message and the world. And for many of us, we feel caught up in the flow of not being able to stop ourselves from doing what is wrong. We see the world as all there is – material, concrete and a place to go after the things of the world. But – there are those of us who are more like the Courageous – we see where we are and recognize we are stuck and need assistance. Spiritual help.

The power of choice is given to all of us.  We are making a choice in every moment. We, too, have the power to choose NOT to give way to the passions of the mind and body – pleasure, fame, gain, praise, notoriety and so forth. But we, like the Courageous, need to recognize where we are, confess our resistance and seek help. To ask what must we do? To ask in all sincerity – what must we do?

Imagine confidence (faith) in this truth as a spiritual gift – an atmosphere where we confidently stand upon it as a spiritual principle worth trusting. We choose to stand and remain standing in confidence on the gift that everything is a moment of choice between ignorance and awakening. We practice to meet with gratitude, moment by moment another chance to practice the Divine message. And when we wander off – we make it difficult for ourselves and others, but we can stop, turn around and choose to return to the path.

It requires hearing, listening and knowing the teachings. Once we know the teachings, we are able to choose to renounce self-interest, to choose to let go of the obstacles in the Way and to meet what comes as a gift to do the work of a spiritual adept.

All of us face this challenge – of being taken captive by the passions – from anger and greed, to stinginess and vanity and the many iterations the passions take. Without confidence (faith) we cannot use the gifts of the moment, without confidence and awareness we risk getting entangled in the world.

The Cloud of Unknowing makes it clear and simple. How will you follow the Divine message offered? The answer is choice – choose to get free of the ignorance of the concocted self – and…

 

“Do not get entangled in things that are temporal and created. Let created things be.

Fix your mind and feelings on things above.” (The Divine messenger)

 

How do you do that?

Study the self – the self that is an entangler extraordinaire – the one that wants what it wants when it wants it – the self that is undisciplined, reckless and unable to control the desire of the passions (sense doors). The one that believes that the grass is greener in the temporal world is a troublemaker who pulls us, time and again, into the worldly affairs as the place of salvation, when in reality it may be pleasurable, but it is the way of the Miscreant.

Remember, in order to do the work, we realize suffering as the beginning of wisdom, we pay attention to what comes into our life, meet it with attention and awareness and respond to it with the power of choice. The choice between following the entangler’s message of self-interest (what’s in it for me) and the Divine messenger (don’t get entangled in the temporal things).

Most of us need help to do this – teachings and practice – it’s a choice to seek help – a choice of confidence in the teachings (which are many) a choice to practice with everything that comes into our life as a Divine message. We are given this choice over and over until we take out last breath.

May all beings realize the emptiness of the three wheels, giver, receiver and gift.

Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

Image credits: Fly, 2019

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

 

I Always Want It to Be Different

 

LESSONS

Lesson 3 – PART A. I Always Want It to Be Different

The First Noble Truth

Attachment in the Head by Fly & Ldz

 

A woman aspirant, a wanderer, traveling alone – in foreign territory – needed a place to sleep. A flower shopkeeper took pity on her and invited her in and offered her a small cot in his flower shop for the night. As she settled down for the night, she noticed the air was filled with a magnificent fragrance of all the flowers – but the fragrance soon became disturbing – she could not fall asleep. In her disturbance, she got up and found a barrel of rotting trash outside and dragged it in next to her bed and fell sound asleep. S. Ramakrishna

 

 

Missing the worldly smells of garbage – which is in her mind – she gets up in the middle of a bouquet of flowering fragrance and drags the familiar smells of habit, the way she wanted it, next to her bed and falls asleep attached to the world. She wanted it to be different according to her attachment. An example of limited discrimination.

The rooted attachment in and to the world rule her decision. When she chooses something other than what is, in this case, garbage over flowers, her self-interest outweighs her discriminating mind. She looks to the world for solace – for relief. Specifically, she looks to her habit.

Unlike Basho, a 17th century Japanese haiku master, who was also a wanderer – in foreign territory – needing a place to sleep. He is offered a horse stable for the night. As he settled down to sleep on a pile of hay a horse nearby urinates. Instead of wanting it to be different he writes a haiku.

“fleas and lice / now a horse pisses / by my pillow.” Basho

A third example. Many years ago, I was on retreat in a large, 18th century building. The building, although renovated, was not the usual comforts of home. As night came and I settled down to sleep the radiator in the room began to clang and hiss followed by an intermittent rattle. My first response was to get up and go over and lay down on the floor next to the radiator. I stayed there practicing being with the suffering for hours. Awake. Exhausted. Much like the radiator intermittently rattled by the disturbance. The next morning, I asked for a different room.

A final example. A Buddhist monk was brought to the US. He spoke no English but had a translator with him. He was the main teacher of the retreat. His particular lineage required that he not ask for anything – that he would accept whatever was offered. On the first night of the retreat he was given a room. The staff, however, failed to give him blankets and left the window open. During the night the temperature dropped and snow blew into the room through the open window. In the morning, the staff felt terrible. Ajahn Happy, however, laughed and laughed – he slept like a log.

 

The first Noble Truth is – there is suffering.

In the first example, the woman saw the world as the place to go to end her suffering. She does not yet know that what shows up in life is the manifestation of the mysterious truth of the Tathagata – it, like all things, comes to awaken. Her actions suggest she thinks peace and liberation rest in the things of the world; specifically, she wants it her way and drags garbage to her bedside. Most of us are like this woman – our first reaction is to seek help from the world of temporal things.

Basho, the great haiku master, is coming from a very different place. He, too, wandered. But he knows something the woman wanderer does not know. His response is not a reaction to the horse pissing near his head – it is an opportunity to meet what shows up as the mystery that it is. Being aware, he doesn’t try to get what he wants; he meets the myriad things of the world without wishing for something different. Able to write a haiku.

My experience shows a student effort. I laid by the radiator and off and on was frustrated and sometimes accepting. I was not awake. It was practice.

The last example, shows a disciplined monk – disciplined to the marrow. He remained obedient to his vows – he did not request another room – he did not get up and shut the window – he accepted what showed up in his life as the Way. His discipline, in part, awakened him to meet what comes in his life with equanimity. The environment did not taint his True Self which he intimately identified as his true identity.

Too difficult, we say? Are we able to face the death of attachments moment by moment that show up in our life?  If we look carefully at the examples, we are able to see attachment. Not holding an attachment is central to how we respond to our life.

We, however, get entangled in the stuff of the world, the stuff that is time-limited and unreliable. Most of us are the woman wanderer – we place our faith, our confidence on the familiar things of the world which includes others and the myriad things all around us. Time and time again we go to an unreliable source for succor. Instead of the student, Basho and Ajahn Happy respond and meet what shows up.

We, in our ignorance somehow believe that the Truth is outside of us when the Truth is actually on our doorstep. Our confusion leads us to go at the temporal things – to arrange them according to our likes and dislikes. We want things to be different than they are. It is so pervasive that we have difficulty even imagining there is another way – another direction.

The best starting point is to practice the Four Noble Truths. Do you know them? If you don’t know them by heart, please keep reading.

  1. There is suffering
  2. There is a cause of suffering
  3. There is an end to suffering
  4. There is a way to practice towards an end to suffering

Understanding suffering is a big deal. If one doesn’t understand this deeply, we risk false moves over and over again. Let’s look closer at the first Noble Truth.

  1. There is suffering.

Most of us know on some level this truth because each one of us, has one time or another experienced suffering. It can vary in degree – from frustration in a long line at a grocery store to a sudden diagnosis of cancer. Most of us, however, do not consider the frustration in a grocery store to be suffering but if we just react to it, we miss an opportunity to see the suffering in it and follow with practice. We are encouraged to look at what arises and shows up moment to moment not from our wanting it our way perspective, but as steps on the Path. Steps, that if examined, illustrate suffering in all things. When we see experience in terms of suffering, we make a turn to see the roots of it. It is easier to practice with a scratch than it is when we have been gouged in the chest.

We must see the experience in terms of suffering and not in terms of wanting to get rid of it – or fix it – or repair it – or complain about it. After all, the Buddha was asking us to awaken to where we are – and we are in a body-mind complex that suffers. If we are not awake, we suffer every day from scratches and bruises of all sorts. Unfortunately, we practice reacting to the scratches rather than going deeper with them. We also fail to see that, in fact, everything around us suffers.

 

 

All is the never-failing manifestation of the mysterious truth of the Tathagata. Bodhisattva Vow

 

To repeat this mantra, we begin to drink in and soak in the first Noble Truth. What was once something that puts our nose out of joint becomes an opportunity to turn in search for the roots. The worldly mind divides the world into good for me, bad for me and all the machinations that come with this dividing. The discriminating mind of an aspirant learns to trust – to have confidence in the first Noble Truth of suffering. In other words, everything worldly carries suffering to your door – to everyone’s door – to the great earth itself.

We, as spiritual aspirants either go after something in the world of our attachments to relieve our situation or we respond to what comes as the mysterious truth of the Tathagata – which leads to liberation. We may turn to repair or fix or change or tidy up – but we do it without seeking a reward for ourselves (for our ego). Our aim is liberation.

Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact editor at : yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

Lesson 2. Aim – Boots and Feet

Lessons

Lesson 2. Aim – Boots and Feet

Boots and Feet by FLY 2019

 

It was a hard day – like most. The ground felt as though it was on an uphill incline no matter where he placed his old toes. The leather boots helped steady his frail legs and arthritic bones. Convinced he’d fall on his back without them, he kept the pair close by his bed for his night time trail walk to the cramped but utilitarian bathroom only a few feet away.  E.M. Cairn

 

We are responsible for the direction we take – even though we may not get there. Our destination, it seems, is done in small steps towards some aim. The old man getting out of bed reminds me of the Zen Master who gathers a crowd around as he is about to display his archery skills. Dressed in his regalia he prepares himself. Marks off the distance and sets a large target at one end of the field. He selects an arrow and checks the wind direction. Right before he releases the arrow there is a silence of expectation – with drawn bow he steadies his gaze, looks upward and lets the arrow fly into the sky. The crowd dumbfounded. He never intended to hit the target down field – his intention was higher. The arrow shot into the sky is to remind us the target of Zen is every-where, all around us – the Master showed us that nothing is to be left out of our aim.

“When we leave nothing out, we insure success at hitting the mark.”

 

There is an old memory I have of a New Testament passage about being faithful in little things. I looked it up.

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much…Luke 16:10

The same message in different words.

 

Every little thing is the target of our practice, of our aim. Every little thing needs to be included in our intention and attention. But it takes a fair amount of practice to draw back our aim and let the arrow fly upward into everywhere – it is not a capricious exhibition. Years of practicing with a clear intention is required – otherwise we risk injury and failure.

The high aim of the Dharma is right in front of our left eye – a pinpointed direction. Right there. Everywhere. But we often miss it, because we often think it is somewhere else. We have forgotten that …all ingredients are the same….and then our attitude is blown about by the eight worldly winds of selfish interest (pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, and fame and disrepute) and NOT the wind of refined practice (grace).

When the winds blow us around, we act wild and think crazy thoughts that we have found the Truth. If we are lucky, we get hold of our senses and see firsthand we are confused, yet again, by the self-centered winds.  The result being – we overshoot the target or come up short. Our intention did not hold and we squandered our attention. At this point we need to STOP. Examine our intention. Otherwise we remain blind to the path and miss meeting the Buddha on the Road. And meeting God? Let me quote from The Cloud of Unknowing –

How will you get to God? Do not get entangled in things that are temporary and created.

 

It’s a paradox. But the old man shows us how to look after the visible things of the world.

…the old man beginning his hard day – considered early his situation and took care of what he needed to make the climb – in his case, he kept his boots by his bed.

 

Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact editor at : yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

 

SHOOTING YOURSELF IN THE FOOT: SAGAN, ASIMOV, AND MICHIO KAKU by Ming Zhen Shakya

There is a Zen story that needs telling here:

A Zen master had become famous for the special tea he brewed, and another master, having heard about this wonderful tea, sauntered into his room one day carrying a cup of his own tea. “I’ve heard people rave about how delicious your tea is,” he announced. “I’d like to try it for myself.”

“Very well,” said the Zen master, “You are welcome to it. But first you must empty your cup of tea before I can fill it with mine.”

There are a few men of science, it seems, who don’t get the point of the story. They stand in the doorway of religion, their cups sloshing over with whatever it is they’re drinking, and then presume to judge the beverage that’s being brewed deep inside the room.

It isn’t as if they come prepared to render a disinterested opinion. No, they reached their conclusions long before they approached the door. They examined the dregs they found in the Zen Master’s garbage and, regarding themselves qualified to apply inductive methods, they determined that their reconstituted beverage was by nature distasteful. Of course, what was good about it was coursing through the veins of the Zen Master. But when you’ve already decided that what is garbage always was, there is no need to investigate further.

So they stand in the doorway and gag a bit. No duchess ever looked at bugs, to quote Tarkington, the way that Sagan, Asimov or, unfortunately, Kaku looks at the life of the Spirit.

Years ago I watched a TV interview in which a young and vigorous Carl Sagan who, with titanic, Epimethean gaze, stared back through two and a half millennia into the pious eyes of old Pythagoras and chastised him for having squandered his scientific abilities on mystical superstitions. Pythagoras, (yes, that Pythagoras) you see, was fascinated by the number “3”… he was all atingle with triangles and Trinities.. This made him look very foolish to Carl Sagan. Fermat and Fibonacci had meaningful obsessions. But 3? Pythagoras had imbued the number with a kind of divinity – a magical quality of the same ilk one might expect from a gambler’s Lucky 7. Religion had stultified the old man’s insights. Think of where he might have gone had not his path been so skewed by mystical tangents.

Never mind that that old man had imbued “3” with a glory that dazzled his eyes in right-angled Trinitarian insight, enabling him to see what no man had seen before – that the square of the hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares of the sides. Never mind that Carl Sagan had never once set his well-shod foot inside a building that did not owe its structural integrity to the principle put forth by that old man’s sandaled genius.

Sagan could not resist mocking him. He mentioned a few of the old man’s ludicrous superstitions. What a waste, he lamented.

One would think that Isaac Newton could escape Carl Sagan’s snide comments. One would be wrong. In his book, Intelligent Life In The Universe, speaking of historical perspectives on extraterrestrial life, Sagan says, “Even Isaac Newton thought the sun was inhabited.” Really. All that time that Newton messed around with prisms and lenses and light and never once – no not even when he was strolling across the Quad on a July afternoon – noticed the sun was hot… very hot.. maybe even fire-ball hot. Or perhaps Newton was speaking religiously of “that other Sun” (to quote Rumi) the one that alchemists know. It was a point Sagan was not prepared to yield. If you can sneer down Pythagoras, why not Newton?

I pick at random (really, one does not wish to research sarcastic saganisms) as Sagan struts his invective, which he clearly thinks is extremely witty stuff. In the same book he recounts the expert testimony he gave for the prosecution at the trial of a Nebraskan whom he calls “Helmut Winckler”, a fellow of German ancestry who sold agricultural implements. Winckler one day encountered a flying saucer that had just landed a party of Saturnians. Eventually, the Saturnians would disclose the location of a quartz mine the contents of which would cure cancer and the shares of stock in which would bring Winckler to the bar of justice. Sagan’s testimony was needed to refute Winckler’s claims to other adventures with the Saturnians. They took him to oceanic Russian missile bases and other Arctic sites, and then, reports Sagan at his most obtuse and insensitive best, — I reprint it here exactly as he states it:

“On another expedition, the Saturnians took Winckler to that Mecca of the occult, the Great Pyramid of Gizeh in Egypt. They mingled with a group of tourists being guided through the interior of the pyramid. (I have a vivid mental image of this procession: Egyptian guide, two middle-aged ladies from Dubuque, some assorted French and German tourists, six Saturnians in flowing robes, and, bringing up the rear, Helmut Winckler in levis.) At a certain intersection of pathways, the tourists went in one direction, and Winckler and the Saturnians in the other. They were confronted with a blank wall. Appropriate pressures were applied to appropriate bricks, and the wall slid open, revealing a chamber within. The party entered, and the stone door slid silently shut behind them. In the room were (1) a small, one-man flying saucer, quite dusty with age; (2) a large and equally ancient wooden cross perhaps ten feet high; and (3) a toroid of thorns about eight inches in diameter. The saturnians offhandedly explained that one of their number had attempted a mission to Earth some two thousand years ago. He had met with somewhat qualified success.”

I don’t happen to be either a Muslim or a Christian; but if I were either I think I’d explain to at least the ghost of Carl Sagan that Mecca is a holy place to which Muslims make pilgrimages. People of all religions get a little uncomfortable hearing that Sunset Boulevard is a Mecca for whores; for all of us know that, despite Bethlehem’s number of pilgrims, we should not like to hear Sunset Boulevard described as a Bethlehem for whores. This flippant appropriation of the name of an Islamic holy place to serve the purpose of rhetoric or some feeble attempt at humor is, and should be, offensive to Muslims. The Pyramid at Gizeh is many things to Islamic Egyptians who are justifiably proud of it; but referring to it as a “Mecca” attractant for weirdoes is doubly churlish. The ladies from Dubuque would have no difficulty, I’m sure, in decking Carl Sagan should they have cared to show what they thought of his big-city hubris; but Christians might be appalled and saddened, I think, to hear Sagan’s smart-assed reference to Christ’s crucifixion crown as a eight-inch diameter toroid of thorns.

What Sagan had to say – and the way that he said it – mattered. Sagan, a media darling, became the unofficial spokesman for scientists, the missing link between the elite corps of Nobel laureates and what he seemed to regard as the Neanderthal public. But his disdain for religion tinged everything he said. He could not conceal it. And, ultimately, despite the window to science that he opened in everyone’s living room, a chill wind would blow through it. That bitter taste of tea-dregs.

Which brings us to Isaac Asimov, an admittedly classier guy than Sagan. Asimov had the greatest respect for Newton, yet he couldn’t account for Newton’s spiritual bent. What anomaly was this? Surely it was the senility of a “tottered” mind, for in his Chronology Asimov states, “Newton spent much time, particularly later in life, in a vain chase for recipes for the manufacture of gold. He was an ardent believer in transmutation and wrote half a million worthless words on chemistry. He also speculated endlessly on theological matters and produced a million and a half useless words on the more mystical passages of the Bible.” Well! That ought to get him chiseled out of Westminster Abbey!

Asimov consigns two million of the great man’s written words to the trash bin of mystical alchemy and Christian scripture. Never mind the Principia, Opticks, and the Calculus or a commanding knowledge of metallurgy that enabled him to regulate British coinage when, in the last years of his long life, he agreed to be Warden of the Mint. Asimov decreed that when Newton wrote about spiritual matters what he had to say was either “worthless” or “useless.”

But Alchemy is a spiritual regimen despite its being encoded in terminology that is bizarre to us. And if Newton was obsessed with it, so what? How can we ignore our own obsessions, be they science-fiction or football, and both denigrate and challenge Newton’s right to occupy himself with whatever fascinated him? But Spiritual Alchemy offers considerably more than sport or hobby. Those arcane yantras, mantras, and chemical changes are still fascinating and as such continue to be used to induce altered states of consciousness. (Fascination leads into concentration which leads into transcendent meditation, and this state leads directly to samadhi’s orgasmic ecstasy. Beyond this, it hardly needs a raison d’être.)

Mystical Alchemy is deliberately cryptic because the incredibly erotic nature of it necessitates secrecy. “Our Gold is not the common Gold” was the motto to which all spiritual alchemists agreed. But no uninitiated outsider ever believed them. Why is this now so difficult to understand? If those Saturnians had come down to earth and looked at a play book for an encounter between Bears and Lions and saw those x’s and o’s and curved lines and arrows, what would they think? And if they saw a video of 70,000 screaming fans, faces painted, wearing peculiar colors and carrying pennants and other regalia, chanting in unison because someone threw an inflated pigskin… what sense would they make of the amount of time, money and emotion expended on such an event?

We cannot examine the box scores of a game with which we are entirely unfamiliar and recreate in our minds the excitation of the participants or spectators. But we ought to yield some recognition to that human obsession that drives participants to physical injury or financial ruin or to acts of heroism regardless of the goal. Does Spiritual Alchemy seem like a terrible waste of a brilliant mind’s time? Well, Sir Edmund Hillary is no dunce… but what did he do for the world when he scaled Everest? Precisely nothing. Why did he even want to climb the mountain? “Because it is there.” And that is a good enough answer. He didn’t need to justify his quest any more than Newton needed to justify his. Elway, Namath, Ali, Jordan and Pele never tried to discover the cure for cancer; and while they may at least have entertained millions, what are we to say about chess players? They don’t even do that and yet they “waste” hours or years of their lives pushing little wooden carvings around a chequered board. But we understand these obsessive avocations. Newton’s eludes us.

According to the tradition of his day, Newton wrote much in Latin; but he also wrote in English and when we read, in his own hand, such expressions as “Spiritual Semen” we ought to suspect that he’s got more than beakers in mind, or when he says “the Menstrual blood of a sordid whore” we really ought not suppose that he’s referring to one of Mendeleev’s Periods.

Here is a sample of what Asimov finds “worthless” (Mercurius is the androgyne or “hermaphroditic” divine child, called in Zen and Daoism the “Blue Pearl” or Immortal Foetus or, in other religions, the Philosophical Son or Lapis.) Writes Newton, “Our Mercury, by reason of the sulphur which by our art it is impregnated, is an Hermaphrodite, including in it both an active and passive principle distinguishable by the same degree of digestion for alone by a circumambient heat it coagulates itself after the manner of cream of milk, there being, as it were, a subtile earth swimming upon the waters, and in this coagulation gives either silver or (by further decoction) gold according to the pleasure of the operator; but being joyned with sol in the same degree of heat it softens melts and dissolves it… The Magi contemperated the malignity of the air by Diana’s Doves and thereby mixed life with life, moistened the dry by the moist, vivified the dead by the living, actuated the passive by the active, and so the heavens became clouded over for a time, and after large showers became clear again. Thus came out an hermaphroditical mercury.” This may be worthless chatter to a scientist, but not, I assure you, to a person engaged in the Microcosmic Orbit’s or in Kundalini Yoga’s discipline.

Talk about Shikantaza or Bodhidharma’s wall gazing! I read somewhere that Newton’s secretary said at the end of the day he could often leave the old man sitting “concentrating” in his lab, staring straight in front of him at a test tube’s contents; and when the secretary returned to work the next morning he could swear the old man had not moved so much as an eyelid. Would anyone be surprised to learn that Newton possessed such prodigious meditation powers?

I leave his million and a half “worthless” words on the Bible to those who are more qualified to interpret them.

Michio Kaku, in one of the mystical life’s ironies, (he looks just like the Future Buddha Maitreya/Miroku, i.e., the mercurial child) nevertheless lets a few inanities dribble down his adorable chin. In Hyperspace, after expansively cooing about ten dimensions which, he generously allows, mystics somewhere along the line might have entered, he suddenly contracts and burps, “Higher-dimensional space became the last refuge for mystics, cranks, and charlatans.” Now, this isn’t quite the same as grouping, say, “Physics teachers, child molesters, and pension fund embezzlers” but it does manage to consign spiritual persons to the garbage heap of the disreputable.

In his concluding chapter, in the section called Science and Religion, he demonstrates his inability to comprehend even the most basic facts of spiritual life. He is totally unable to distinguish between the mystical experience, which by definition is limited to an individual’s private, interior existence, and the social-political aspects of religion’s public, communal activities.

“Because the hyperspace theory has opened up new, profound links between physics and abstract mathematics,” he muses, “some people have accused scientists of creating a new theology based on mathematics; that is, we have rejected the mythology of religion, only to embrace an even stranger religion based on curved space-time, particle symmetries, and cosmic expansions. While priests may chant incantations in Latin that hardly anyone understands, physicists chant arcane superstring equations that even fewer understand. The ‘faith’ in an all-powerful God is now replaced by ‘faith’ in quantum theory and general relativity. When scientists protest that our mathematical incantations can be checked in the laboratory, the response is that Creation cannot be measured in the laboratory, and hence these abstract theories like the superstring can never be tested.”

(Weaseling in that little possessive “our” at the end I suppose is his equivalent of an ordination certificate.)

This man eats too much Pablum for breakfast.

Kaku has given the God problem a good deal of thought and has decided that God comes only two ways: He is either a God of Miracles or a God of Order, the latter being the one Einstein referred to when he spoke of “The Old Man, the subtle but never malicious God” who maintained Cosmic law, whereas, says Kaku (after no doubt having been stung by the same comedic scorpion that got Carl Sagan) “the God of Miracles intervenes in our affairs, performs miracles, destroys wicked cities, smites enemy armies, drowns the Pharaoh’s troops, and avenges the pure and noble.” Kaku, having exhausted his repertoire of definitions of the divine, throws his weight behind the God of Law and Order.

Buddhists may insist that the Buddha to whom we externally bow is the Buddha within us, and Christ may have said that the Kingdom of God is within, but Kaku’s knowledge of religion does not encompass anything “inside” anybody. Perhaps he supposes that when we take refuge in the Buddha we run to a temple crying “Sanctuary!”

Curiously, Kaku enthusiastically invokes the theories of Biologist Edward Wilson who has actually wondered whether there is any scientific reason why humans cling so fiercely to their religion. Says Kaku, referring to Wilson’s works, “Even trained scientists, he found, who are usually perfectly rational about their scientific specialization, lapse into irrational arguments to defend their religion. Furthermore, he observes, religion has been used historically as a cover to wage hideous wars and perform unspeakable atrocities against infidels and heathens. The sheer ferocity of religious or holy wars, in fact, rivals the worst crime that any human has ever committed against any other.”

Well, let’s see… he says that religion was merely the “cover” for atrocities… are we blaming the “cover”, i.e., the pretext or convenient excuse? If so why is he mentioning religion at all while ignoring the relevant “hidden” reason?

But he is not indicting any other cause but religion. And in this century, one cannot speak of religious wars without indicating the pogroms directed against the Jews and those other genocidal acts and atrocities of World War II..

So we wonder, does Michio Kaku labor under the delusion that the men who went down on the Arizona or who were marched to their deaths in Bataan were killed by the Japanese in the cause of furthering Shintoism or Buddhism? Perhaps he thinks Nazi death camps should be renamed “Our Lady of Auschwitz” or “The First Christian Church of Dachau”? But wait… millions died under the atheistic government of the Soviet Union. What was the Gulag? A chain of mandatory Koranic study centers?

And if it isn’t too indelicate to ask, didn’t science serve the interests of those who carried out WWII and every other religious war we can mention? As I recall, German and Japanese military leaders faced war-crimes trials, while Werner Von Braun moved his V-2 rocket R & D project and personnel to sunny Florida and the Japanese scientists who conducted those horrible medical experiments on prisoners of war and Chinese civilians were given immunity from prosecution in exchange for handing over all their valuable scientific data. Did not many of the men who provided the theory and engineering of nuclear weapons stand tall (and rightly so) in Stockholm to receive Nobel prizes?

Kaku had to excavate “radio debates” in his discussion of scientifically avant garde 10-dimensioned hyperspace to charge the Church with wondering whether Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle would “negate free will, a question that may determine whether our souls will enter heaven or hell.” Too bad Marconi followed Galileo or we might have been treated to those debates.

We all know how thoroughly power can corrupt and that power in the hands of religious fanatics doesn’t function any differently from power in political or scientific hands. But to suggest that religion is ever the enemy of man and that science is always man’s friend is just plain dumb.

Scientists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg betrayed their country in order to provide military benefits to an atheistic enemy nation but we never hear their names being mentioned when these arbiters of religious tea sit down to discuss the subject… unless of course, they wish to insinuate further Christian crimes by implying that the Rosenbergs were convicted more because they were Jews than that they were traitors.

Again, I quote Kaku quoting Wilson: “Religion, Wilson theorizes, is so prevalent because it provided a definite evolutionary advantage for those early humans who adopted it. Wilson notes that animals that hunt in packs obey the leader because a pecking order based on strength and dominance has been established. But roughly 1 million years ago, when our apelike ancestors gradually became more intelligent, individuals could rationally begin to question the power of their leader. Intelligence, by its very nature, questions authority by reason, and hence could be a dangerous, dissipative force on the tribe. Unless there was a force to counteract this spreading chaos, intelligent individuals would leave the tribe, the tribe would fall apart, and all individuals would eventually die. Thus, according to Wilson, a selection pressure was placed on intelligent apes to suspend reason and blindly obey the leader and his myths, since to do otherwise would challenge the tribe’s cohesion. Survival favored the intelligent ape who could reason rationally about tools and food gathering, but also favored the one who could suspend that reason when it threatened the tribe’s integrity. A mythology was needed to define and preserve the tribe.”

Somebody ought to chisel this paragraph in stone and put it over the entrance to the old Reichstag, or on Pol Pot’s tombstone, or, for the kicks it would give, near Yale’s Divinity School.

Kaku archly concludes, “If correct, this theory would explain why so many religions rely on “faith” over common sense, and why the flock is asked to suspend reason. It would also help to explain the inhuman ferocity of religious wars, and why the God of Miracles always seems to favor the victor in a bloody war. The God of Miracles has one powerful advantage over the God of Order. The God of Miracles explains the mythology of our purpose in the universe; on this question, the God of Order is silent.”

And finally, we have the Very Reverend Michio Kaku leading us in a lamentation about the abandonment of the Superconducting Supercollider project near Dallas. He stamps his foot. It could have given us a Higgs particle which would have explained Creation to us.

Michio. Michio. Michio. Millions of citizen taxpayers fervently believed that the Bible had already done that to their satisfaction.

Maybe Christian taxpayers who, like the rest of us ape-like creatures, give their sons and their incomes for the defense of God and Country, do not like to have their Savior or their Bible or their clergy mocked.

Who could blame a Christian if, after reading some of Sagan’s, Asimov’s, or Kaku’s derisive remarks on the subject of his faith, he picked up a phone and called his congressman and said, “That 50-mile wide “toroid” they’re building near Dallas… that toroid with all the rebar sticking out of the unfinished concrete like so many thorns… well …I don’t want you to spend another nickel of my tax money on that project.”

Perhaps if a scientist wants to get that Supercollider project back on track or get any other massive science project funded, he ought to show a little more respect to the people he expects to pay for it. (You’ve been praying to the wrong God, Michio. You definitely need a Miracle.)

Sagan and Asimov have gone, unfortunately without benefit of introduction, to meet their respective makers. But Michio Kaku is still with us; and his mind is truly wonderful and his ability to influence the course of science is surely great.

He simply does not seem to realize how very much the public allows expertise in one field, which ennobles a man and gives him such heroic charisma, to metastasize into all other areas into which he directs his presence. We see this happen all the time. Excel at basketball and become an authority on hotdogs. Pitch a no hitter and know quality underwear. Throw a goodly number of touchdowns and become a financial advisor. Advertisers understand the phenomenon. It is called celebrity endorsement. It’ll sell toxic waste if packaged properly.

And, Doctor Kaku, the same influence accrues to a man of science when he derogates religion. So don’t do it. If you don’t understand the life of the Spirit (and trust me, you don’t) indulge your scientific curiosity and find out what it’s all about. Empty your cup. Cross the threshold. Ask what it is that the Zen Master has which has been so deliciously steeped in the Spirit.

Just don’t stand there and shoot yourself in the foot. You know what to do.

Have gun. Will travel. Wire Paladin.

Humming Bird
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

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