The nature of reality

Hmmm. Reality. Interesting concept, but do we have a clue as to what it really is?

Well, actually, no. All we have is this consensus. We all agree that things are pretty much as they seem. But, it could be, as George Musser says, that

The universe we see playing out in space may be just the surface level, where we float like little boats while leviathans stir in the deep. [from: Musser, George. Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time–and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything (p. 182). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.]

Mosser says that many of the leading researchers and theorists in physics and the related fields of quantum mechanics and such question the very ground of assumptions that science has made for the past several centuries. “Localism” or the idea that things have a position in space – pretty basic assumption, right? — is no longer held to be a valid scientific idea.

Which is confirmed by recent, high-level experiments reported in this Atlantic article, and is increasingly becoming the consensus opinion of scientists in the field. Borrowing a very telling metaphor from physicist and philosopher Jenann Ismael, Musser says:

Today we know that the universe has more to it than things situated within space. Nonlocal phenomena leap out of space; they have no place in its confines. They hint at a level of reality deeper than space, where the concept of distance ceases to apply, where things that appear to lie far apart are actually nearby or perhaps are the same thing manifested in more than one place, like multiple images of a single shard of kaleidoscopic glass. When we think in terms of such a level, the connections between subatomic particles across a lab bench, between the inside and the outside of a black hole, and between opposite sides of the universe don’t seem so spooky anymore.

Ismael says that like a kaleidoscope, where a single bead of glass is “redundantly represented” in different parts of the view screen of the device, what we are learning about the nature of reality means

…seeing space as we know it— everyday space in which we view measurement events located at different parts of space— as an emergent structure. Maybe when we’re looking at two parts, we’re seeing the same event. We’re interacting with the same bit of reality from different parts of space.

In other words, space – in fact, the so-called “space-time continuum” – doesn’t really ‘exist’ in the way we usually think of that term. We are seeing effects from some deeper level of whose nature we have no notion. Physicists are just beginning to suggest various ways of thinking about this, ideas for ideas, that may eventually lead to an understanding of at least a theory of what it actually is, even though it’s very unlikely we’ll ever have evidence or experience of that actuality itself. An emergent structure. A reality that is emerging from some other, unknown, level. Spacetime is an experience that we have, but that manifestation is coming from some other more basic reality.

Bogles the mind really. But that’s because we’re trying to think of these things in terms of space, in terms of locality, in terms of our experience. Because that’s the only way our mind works. So scientists engaging this question are looking for a completely new way of conceiving of reality. Pretty challenging.

As Musser says, “This thinking completely inverts physics. Nonlocality is no longer the mystery; it’s the way things really are, and locality becomes the puzzle. When we can no longer take space for granted, we have to explain what it is and how it arises, either on its own or in union with time.”

These building blocks of spacetime would have neither size nor location, much as a molecule of water is not “wet”. Only the combination of the molecules produces the phenomena we know as water, with all it’s attendant properties. Or like building a model of the Eiffle Tower with popsicle sticks.

In this approach, space is thought of as a notion that explains, or organizes in a convenient way, what we experience. That we might eventually develop a theory that explains that notion in a more causal, existential way is pretty exciting to me.

I intend to try to keep up with the progress in this area, and try to understand it. Which is what leads me to blog about it, creating a new category here, “Quantum Reality” to help me follow and develop my own understanding. Hope some of you find that interesting and will join me in this fascinating quest.

 

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That wrecking ball…

“And wouldn’t time seem so kindly,
if every bright-eyed girl could be
more like you, and
shelter me
from that
wreckin’ ball… that wreckin’ ball.”

–Andrew Marlin (Mandolin Orange)

Ah yes, we look for shelter in every corner, every thought as we feel the onrushing of impermanence, shunyata filling every experience. Such a human thing.

But though it seems helpful, shelter in the long run is itself part of the damage we do to ourselves, part of the grasping for the pleasant rather than the difficult, part of what Stephen Batchelor calls “the default habit of seeing the world as being hostile, desirable or boring.”

In his recent book After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Batchelor translates tanha, understood in the Dharma as the cause of suffering and usually rendered as ‘craving’ or ‘desire’, as reactivity. Letting go of reactivity – or creating the conditions under which release may happen, which is really all we can do – comes from understanding, he says.

To release oneself from the hold of this behavior [reactivity] requires coming to a mature comprehension of one’s mortality, of how each fragile moment rests on the pumping of a muscle and the drawing of a breath. [p. 78]

Though I’ve only read a bit of this book, which my teacher introduced at a recent retreat, I’m finding it full of profound new insights and very helpful as I continue my lifetime effort to understand the Dharma and live my life in an authentic, integrated way.

Hsin Hsin Ming

Long ago, early in my practice, I came across the line “Search not for the truth, only cease to cherish opinions.” It has always held much meaning for me, though I never really knew where it came from. This past weekend, my dharma mentor, Therese, sent me this old Chan poem:

Hsin Hsin Ming, or Trust in Mind

(attributed to the Third Chán Patriarch, Jianzhi Sengcan 鑑智僧璨, from the sixth century, but scholars think the poem may be from several centuries later in the Tang)

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent
Everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
And heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth,
Then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
Is the disease of the mind.

When the deep meaning of things is not understood,
The mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
The Way is perfect like vast space where nothing is lacking
And nothing is in excess.

Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject
That we do not see the true nature of things.
Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
Nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
Be serene in the oneness of things and such erroneous views
Will disappear by themselves.
When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity,
Your very effort fills you with activity.
As long as you remain in one extreme or the other,
You will never know Oneness.
Those who do not live in the single Way
Fail in both activity and passivity, assertion and denial.
To deny the reality of things is to miss their reality;
To assert the emptiness of things is to miss their reality.
The more you talk and think about it,
The further astray you wander from the truth.
Stop talking and thinking,
And there is nothing you will not be able to know.
To return to the root is to find the meaning,
But to pursue appearances is to miss the source.
At the moment of inner enlightenment,
There is a going beyond appearance and emptiness.
The changes that appear to occur in the empty world
We call real only because of our ignorance.
Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.
Do not remain in the dualistic state; avoid such pursuits carefully. If there is even a trace of this and that, of right and wrong,
The Mind-essence will be lost in confusion.
Although all dualities come from the One,
Do not be attached even to this One.

When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way,
Nothing in the world can offend,
And when a thing can no longer offend,
It ceases to exist in the old way.

When no discriminating thought arises the old mind ceases to exist. When thought objects vanish, the thinking subject vanishes,
As when the mind vanishes, objects vanish.
Things are objects because of the subject (mind);
The mind (subject) is such because of things (objects).
Understand the relativity of these two and the basic reality:
The unity of emptiness.
In this Emptiness the two are indistinguishable,
And each contains in itself the whole world.
If you do not discriminate between coarse and fine,
You will not be tempted to prejudice and opinion.
To live in the Great Way is neither easy nor difficult,
But those with limited views are fearful and irresolute:
The faster they hurry, the slower they go,
And clinging cannot be limited;
And even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray. Just let things be in their own way,
And there will be neither coming nor going.
Obey the nature of things (your own nature),
And you will walk freely and undisturbed.
When thought is in bondage the truth is hidden,
For everything is murky and unclear, and the burdensome
Practice of judging brings annoyance and weariness.
What benefit can be derived from distinctions and separations?
If you wish to move in the One Way do not dislike
Even the world of senses and ideas.
Indeed, to accept them fully is identical with true Enlightenment. The wise person strives to no goals
But the foolish person fetters himself.

This is one Dharma, not many;
Distinctions arise from the clinging needs of the ignorant.
To seek Mind with the (discriminating) mind
is the greatest of all mistakes.
Rest and unrest derive from illusion;
With enlightenment there is no liking or disliking.
All dualities come from ignorant inference;
They are like dreams of flowers in the air: foolish to try to grasp them. Gain and loss, right and wrong:
Such thoughts must finally be abolished at once.
If the eye never sleeps, all dreams will naturally cease.
If the mind makes no discriminations,
The ten thousand things are as they are, of single essence.

To understand the mystery of the One-essence
Is to be released from all entanglements.
When all things are seen equally the timeless Self-essence is reached. No comparisons or analogies are possible in this
Causeless, relationless state.
Consider movement stationary and the stationary in motion,
Both movement and rest disappear.
When such dualities cease to exist Oneness itself cannot exist.
To this ultimate finality no law or description applies.
For the unified mind in accord with the Way
All self-centered straining ceases.
Doubts and irresolutions vanish and life in true faith is possible.
With a single stroke we are freed from bondage;
Nothing clings to us and we hold to nothing.
All is empty, clear, self-illuminating,
With no exertion of the mind’s power.
Here thought, feeling, knowledge, and imagination are of no value.
In this world of suchness there is neither self nor other-than-self.
To come directly into harmony with this reality,
Just simply say when doubt arises, “Not two.”
In this “not two” nothing is separate, nothing excluded.
No matter when or where, enlightenment means entering this truth. And this truth is beyond extension or diminution in time or space;
In it a single thought is ten thousand years.
Emptiness here, emptiness there,
But the infinite universe stands always before your eyes.
Infinitely large and infinitely small; no difference,
For definitions have vanished and no boundaries are seen.
So too with Being and non-Being.
Don’t waste time in doubts and arguments
that have nothing to do with this.
One thing, all things: move among and intermingle, without distinction. To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about non-perfection. To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
Because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.
Words! The Way is beyond language,
For in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.

 

Branching out…

I am actively stepping out into a quest for a personally real path. My vague, desultory wandering for the past year (or two) is taking me nowhere.

These are some thoughts I just picked up that I want to build this post around, but I’m putting it out there in raw form so that I don’t vacillate or shrink from the challenge. I will edit this, well, fill in the gaps outlining what all this means and what I’m thinking, and then repost it with a better title.

My lojong/tonglen practice, weak as it has been, has been leading me in a tantric direction, essentially since I realized a year or so ago that a path based on renunciation does not and will not work for me.

These quotes and links are from my recent explorations into Vajrayana:

Chapman: “The Tantric attitude systematically reverses the attitude of mainstream Buddhism. If you are a non-Tantric Buddhist, and if the Tantric attitude seems attractive or obvious, you might want to wonder why you are practicing a religion based on its opposite.”

Sky Serpent:
“You can do magical practices without assuming anything about them. You can just do the practice, and see what happens. If you do those practices with naive expectations, like “I’m going to shoot fireballs out of my eyes”, you are most likely to get disappointed and not to pay attention to actual results. If you are too skeptical, you do not really go for it, and as such you do not do the actual practice. Ambiguity and playful attitude is the best position.”

Peter Snowdon:

“My hypothesis is, that ordinary people have always had such an ambivalent attitude towards the concrete power of healers, magicians, and other shamanic types, and that this is the natural and right attitude to have towards them. If you come from a materialist-scientific culture, then you are likely to fall into two, symmetrical two traps: total denial of these powers, on the grounds that they are incompatible with (i.e. challenge) your scientific world view, and supposing that people who make use of the services of such healers/magicians must believe in them in some straightforward, literal way, the way that you might believe in the force of gravity, and therefore need to be rescued from ignorance and illusion. Often, when we ascribe superstition to others, I think we are just back-projecting onto them our own superstitious confidence in science, and ignoring the complexity of thought that is natural to people who don’t read books or spend half their lives lost in ‘thought’, but who do have to deal daily with very real situations and who therefore assess methods and techniques not on the basis of their authority or theory, but by their results.”

Chapman: “For me, the heart of the Tantric path is not magical methods or esoteric concepts. It is an attitude; a stance; a way of being. It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality.
…Any activity—mopping the floor, designing a web page—can be Tantric practice, if you approach it with whole-hearted, spacious passion. This open-endedness makes possible the constant creative innovation that marks much of Tantra’s history.”
Tantra: (from Arobuddhism.org)
“Tantric Buddhism employs the urgent energies of agony and ecstasy, lust and hatred, paranoia and greed to transform our confusion into enlightenment.

Tantra is radically positive insanity. Tantra is the hot blood of kindness. Tantra conjures with the electricity of being: the shimmering voltage that crackles ecstatically between emptiness and form. Tantra is the alchemy of transformation by which we re-create ourselves limitlessly according to the kaleidoscopic pattern of moments that comprises our experience.”

Lojong #14 – Seeing confusion…

Lojong #14

Seeing confusion as the four kayas

Is unsurpassable shunyata protection.

This is among the Lojong slogans that I love most. It carries deep and profound meaning and can be a powerful key to awakening, but it is also one of the most obscure of the slogans.

The clarifying insight – the message – of this Lojong is at the heart of why we are practicing. Its essential teaching is that observing the process of the mind in response to life’s challenges is one of the best ways to experience the liberating insight into the wisdom that everything is empty of separate, abiding existence.

To explain how that comes out of these few words requires some translation and background.

The four kayas are the four ‘bodies of emptiness’: dharmakaya, sambogakaya, nirmankaya, and svabhavikakaya. Without going into the theory of these too much, suffice it to say that they describe four states of mind that one goes through in the process of perception. They are simply translated as confusion, clarity, relating the two, and seeing the whole.

Careful observation of the mental processes reveals this process. When one is confronted with something new, confusion and bewilderment reign. After some experience, clarity about what is being perceived begins to dawn. Then one relates the new understanding to the original confusion, and finally one’s comprehension begins to see the totality of the whole, ‘total panoramic experience’, as Chogyam Trungpa says.

Watching this happen often enough finally leads to the perfect understanding that whatever happens, this is the process. We are not stuck at any stage, not stuck with our thoughts, not stuck with our selves. Trungpa explains that in svabhavikakaya, one has transcended the notions of the birth, subsiding and dwelling of thoughts. The idea of protection is that this understanding can free one from clinging to the self and its thoughts; indeed, when one realizes the truth of no self, it becomes clear that there’s nothing to protect!

We all are suspended in shunyata, suspended in the emptiness of the phenomenal play. When the deep implications of this are internalized, it is very freeing.

Trungpa says that this liberation comes from

understanding your mind by studying and watching yourself and by practicing shamatha and vipashyana. By practicing those disciplines, you being to realize that the essence of your mind is empty… That realization can only come about when you are sitting on the cushion. Only on the cushion can you see that your mind has no origin.

(Shamatha is basic mindfulness/concentration meditation, the first stage in the meditation process. Vipashyana (or vipassana in Pali) is meditation aimed at insight into the true nature of reality. By ‘on the cushion’ he means during meditation practice.)

Mind and thoughts and all of the phenomena we experience have no origin; they are unborn, as we saw in Lojong #3. This means we can be free of much of the worry and stress and driven behavior that plague our lives. It can all be seen in a very playful, relaxed way because we understand that we are always engaged in continual awakening.

 

 

A spiritual connection

In his new book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, Charles Eisenstein makes a wonderful case for what the Engaged Buddhists have been saying for a while – activism that doesn’t begin at a spiritual level has little chance of real, long term success.

This passage lays it out pretty clearly:

Let us ask, “What kind of human being is politically passive, votes from fear and hate, pursues endless material acquisition, and is afraid to contemplate change?” We have all those behaviors written into our dominant worldview and, therefore, into the institutions arising from it. Cut off from nature, cut off from community, financially insecure, alienated from our own bodies, immersed in scarcity, trapped in a tiny, separate self that hungers constantly for its lost beingness, we can do no other than to perpetuate the behavior and systems that cause climate change. Our response to the problem must touch on this fundamental level that we might call spirituality.

It is here where the root of our collective illness lies, of which global warming is but a symptomatic fever. Let us be wary of measures that address only the most proximate cause of that symptom and leave the deeper causes untouched….

He cautions against making any one cause the primary, all-important cause, because it leads to the very control-based thinking – the same ‘war mindset’ – that is part of all our society’s problems. He says that such thinking

…subordinates all the small, local things we need to do to create a more beautiful world to a single cause for which all else must be sacrificed. This is the mentality of war, in which an all-important end trumps any compunctions about the means and justifies any sacrifice. We as a society are addicted to this mindset; thus the War on Terror replaced the Cold War, and if climate change loses popularity as a casus belli, we will surely find something else to replace it— …

[Eisenstein, Charles (2013-11-05). The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible (Sacred Activism) (p. 47). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.]

He describes this dominant worldview as the Story of Separation, the idea that the universe is comprised of a multitude of separate, independently existing entities – that we as humans are separate from each other, separate from all other phenomena, and that we can effect change in any given realm without affecting anything else. As long as we are working within this mindset, within this narrative, everything we do just continues to support things as they are and really will never bring about significant change.

Drawing primarily on the wisdom of ancient cultures allied with the work of modern science – quantum mechanics specifically – Eisenstein comes to the same conclusions as we Buddhists – that we are all and everything intimately and inextricably connected. That nothing we do on any level is without consequence on every level.

On the positive side, this means that everything we are doing to help bring about understanding of the truth of our interconnectedness with all that exists is helping to deal with even the most daunting and dangerous problems in our world. Bringing up our children to understand – truly and deeply understand – that we are all one is helping to end war, poverty and environmental destruction.

Demonstrating that truth in our everyday lives, by being a good neighbor, a kind person, a responsible parent, a fearless defender of truth is true spirituality and our true calling, our true activism.

Aha! No black holes! ???

Here’s an interesting ‘graph from an even more interesting article:

Black holes are frustrating, though, because their extreme gravity exposes the major inadequacy in our current scientific understanding of the universe – we don’t know how to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. With general relativity, we can make accurate predictions about objects with certainty, but on the tiny scale of quantum mechanics it’s only possible to talk about the behaviour of objects in terms of probability. When we do the maths on what happens to things that fall into black holes, using relativity gives results that break quantum mechanics; the same goes vice versa.

–From: New Statesman, Stephen Hawking now thinks...

Another astounding note: “The choice for physicists, once again, was to: a) accept the firewall, and throw out general relativity, or b) accept that information dies in black holes, and quantum mechanics is wrong.”

Perhaps a better explanation of it, tho longer, is found here: Nature – Steven Hawking: there are no black holes…

The interesting thing about all this to me is that it shows just how confused science is about what’s actually going on in the universe. Despite the fact that our old science and a little general relativity work pretty well on the practical scale so that rockets shot at the moon actually get there and such, it’s much less satisfying on the philosophical level. It doesn’t work at all when it comes to answering really fundamental questions like ‘what is the source of gravity?’ or ‘what is the nature of light?’ or ‘how do we know that what we know is accurate?’.

From another source, an even better formulation of the problem:

As I have mentioned in previous articles, physics is fractured. It has produced two theories that are shining beacons of modern science: quantum mechanics and general relativity. Both are accurate to the limits of our ability to measure them, and both have predicted results that were years ahead of their time and later experimentally verified. However, the similarities end there. At the heart of quantum mechanics is a mathematical framework of linear equations that describes the very small bits of the universe as probabilistic. General relativity is described by an elegant set of highly nonlinear equations that detail the very big in a completely deterministic manner: polar opposites that stand in stark contrast with one another. This discrepancy has reared its ugly head every now and again, but one place it is clearly demonstrated is the “information loss paradox.”

— From Matt Ford in ArsTechnica A potential solution…

Though this paradox seems to have been resolved here: Astrophysics — it’s still a basic contradiction between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and leaves many questions unanswered. And raises as many new ones as it answers, at least for me:

… presenting physicists with a stark choice: either accept that firewalls exist and that general relativity breaks down, or accept that information is lost in black holes and quantum mechanics is wrong1. “For us, firewalls seem like the least crazy option, given that choice,” says Marolf.

The failings of science are even more pronounced when we get into questions about why and how all this is even here in the first place. Personally, I’ve always preferred the ancient formula — “What happens at the end of a kalpa? The Iron Tree blooms in the Void.”