Thursday, 17 August 2017

Just Because You Don't Exist Doesn't Mean You Can't Have Integrity

Last week a reader posted a provocative question under Everything Doesn't Happen For a Reason:

"If one is not seeking to avoid pain [under Zen]," he asked, "should one look both ways before crossing the street?"

I confess to a weakness for this kind of Jesuitical repartee, though Zen teachers are famous for screaming "Katz!" at, slapping, or throwing hot tea on those who attempt it. The impulse is honest; since such queries arise in the discursive mind – whose self-centred, dualistic viewpoint is suited only to housekeeping – indulging them can block insight. Anglophones call the result "can't see the forest for the trees".

However, this case addresses a pitfall common to spiritual pursuits – the tendency to confuse theoretical truth with operational – and I think it's well worth exploring.

First, a point of order: Zen students are not taught not to avoid pain; we're taught to accept pain as inevitable. But notwithstanding Zen monasteries manufacture it on an industrial scale, the Buddha did say that enduring avoidable suffering is worthless to enlightenment practice.

However, the underlying issue here goes much deeper than practice forms; it's nothing less than the nature of existence. And I'm pleased to report that science has finally caught up with Buddhism in one essential detail:

Nothing exists.

The Buddha of course knew nothing about particle physics. He drew his conclusions from simple observation of his surroundings, albeit with delusion-corrected eyes. Now, two and a half millennia later, physicists can explain why stuff appears to exist, while in fact not existing.

Since I'm not one of them, I'll just cleave to their hypothesis here: most, possibly all, of what we consider "matter" is actually a cloud of electrical charges in transitory association. This is basically the same insight the Buddha handed down (though again, he had no notion of electricity), but science has extended it infinitely: molecules are tiny solar systems of atoms, which are tiny solar systems of subatomic particles, which are tiny solar systems of smaller particles, and so on.

To bring this all home, here's a scientific assertion I recently encountered online:

If you removed all of the empty space from every person on earth, the amassed matter of our entire species would amount to the volume of a sugar cube. (And if your discursive mind is well-oiled, it's now asking: "How do you know even that matter exists?" Exactly.)

Right. So that's all spacey n'all, but what does it mean? Well, to perhaps no-one's surprise at this point…

Nothing.

Seriously. OK, so you're a cloud and so is your piano. Go run through it.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

With any good luck, no-one will have tried. Because even though neither you nor your piano exist, there are other rules in play. Such as the one that says your particles can't trespass in the electrical fields of piano particles, even though all the particles are mostly the same, and you and your furniture are mostly empty space anyway.

In other words, just because you don't exist doesn't mean you can't have integrity. (And if I had any business sense I'd be selling t-shirts with that on.)

The koanic literature contains a few parables on the dilemma of simultaneously existing and not existing. My favourite involves a monk who goes out on his begging rounds after learning that nothing he sees is really there. When a rampaging elephant comes stomping down the road (and really, who among us hasn't been there?) the loyal young student, fresh from dokusan, focuses his mind on the elephant's non-existence.

And is immediately trampled. He limps back to his teacher and complains loudly that the teaching is false.

The teacher sighs, and says:
Alright. Here is the whole truth:

Nothing you see is really there.

And when a stampeding elephant is bearing down on you, get out of its way.
The monk confused theoretical truth (everything you see is a squirming splotch of promiscuously recombining particles, so whatever you think is there, isn't there) with operational truth (regardless of how temporary you and the elephant are, it hurts when one steps on you.)

And so, to accept my honoured reader's dharma challenge, I am bold to say:

Yes. One should look both ways before stepping into the street, unless one does not mind being creamed by a briefly-manifesting moving van.

At this point, some will ask: "What good is theoretical truth if it won't save you from being creamed by a slowly-dispersing moving van?"

Now that's a question.


(Photo of Namibian road sign courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer. You gotta respect the nation that posts "Mind the Paradox of Non-Existence" warnings along its highways.)

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