The Man Who Discovered Uncertainty

When German physicist Werner Heisenberg was 26 years old, he discovered uncertainty; or rather, he developed an “uncertainty principle.”  Heisenberg was a German physicist, a pioneer of quantum mechanics and Nobel Prize winner.  He was born on this day in 1901.

I found the best (meaning simplest) explanation of his uncertainty principle at Huffington Post:

uncertainty-formula2The principle, described by physicist Werner Heisenberg nearly a century ago, states that the mere act of measuring the position of a particle, such as an electron, necessarily disturbs its momentum. That means the more precisely you try to measure its location, the less you know about how fast it’s moving, and vice versa.”

For instance, light from a microscope produces energy that is absorbed by the object viewed under the microscope thereby disrupting or changing the object.  Naturally, there is much more to it.  The overall point is that there cannot be exactness; everything is uncertain.

The master physicist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, was uncertain about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.  According to Stephen Hawking, “Einstein was very unhappy about this apparent randomness in nature. His views were summed up in his famous phrase, ‘God does not play dice’.”  Well, that phase is often misconstrued.  Einstein was also uncertain about the existence of God.  Skeptical is a better word.  What Einstein was expressing with the dice comment was his preference for a more ordered universe.

Did Buddha have the same preference?  Many people interpret the concept of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada) as deterministic.  Some of them think that for every effect there is a specific cause.  Actually, causes include a multitude of factors and conditions.  Causes and effects form complex chains, and most of the time it is impossible to trace any effect back to specific causes or conditions.

It’s important to keep in mind that the “Buddha made a distinction between karma and deterministic fate (niyati) . . . and accepted that random events and accidents can happen in life.”*

So what do we do about the chaos we see in the world?  How do we deal with the uncertainty of life?

uncertaintyUncertainty springs from our desire to know what is going to happen to us.  We do not know.  We cannot be certain that we will be safe and free from suffering.  Fear arises.

Both Buddhism and Taoism teach us that there is wisdom in uncertainty or “not-knowing.”  Lao Tzu said, “It is beneficial to know nothing.  Pretending to know is a disease.  Only by becoming sick of disease can we be without sickness.  The sage is sick of sickness, therefore the sage is healthy.”

Living with metastatic cancer, my life is very uncertain.  My oncologist says I’m a miracle.  No, just lucky.  One day that luck will run out.  I don’t know when.  If in nothing else, at least with this one thing I have a calm mind and I do not fear uncertainty, nor do I fear fear.  Now the trick is to apply it to the rest of my life.  It is fairly ridiculous to be calm about death and then lose your cool over some petty matter.

From what is dear, grief is born,
from what is dear, fear is born.
For someone freed from what is dear
there is no grief
–  so why fear?

Dhammapada

Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.

Werner Heisenberg

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* Charles S. Prebish, Damien Keown, Buddhism: The Ebook : an Online Introduction, JBE Online Books, 2010

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“Wings of a Windmill” or It Happened Here

A demagogue becomes president of the United States by exploiting fear politics and promising to return the country to greatness!

No, not the President-elect.  Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who becomes President after running a populist-fueled campaign in It Can’t Happen Here, a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis.  After Windrip, a Democratic Senator from a Western state, takes office he proceeds to take over the government.  He cancels Congress, takes control of the Supreme Court, and purges power from the states, establishing a fascist regime over which he has absolute power.

Lewis’ model for Windrip was Louisiana Senator Huey Long (1893-1935), who had also been Governor of the Pelican State and ruled it like a czar.  But Mussolini and Hitler’s rise to power was what motivated Lewis to write the book.  His wife, Dorothy Thompson, foreign correspondent for the New York Evening Post, interviewed Hitler in 1931 and wrote a book about it, I Saw Hitler.

Evidently, the hero of It Can’t Happen Here is a a small-town newspaper owner named Doremus Jessup, whose opposition to Windrip lands him in a concentration camp.  I say evidently because I have not read the book.

However, many people are reading it right now.  Suddenly there’s been a proliferation of articles on the internet calling it “the novel that predicted the rise of Donald Trump,” and since the election, It Can’t Happen Here “has sold out on some major online book retailers, including Amazon and Books-a-Million.”

Years ago I did try to read Lewis’ earlier novel The Jungle (1906) but as I recall his description of the deplorable working conditions in the meat-packing industry was more than I could stomach.  Readers at the time were shocked, nonetheless the novel became a best seller and its popularity helped President Theodore Roosevelt (who disliked Lewis) push through the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

Sinclair Lewis was a muckraker.  That sounds derogatory but a muckrakers are people who expose misconduct in politics and public life.  So, being a muckraker can be a good thing.  Lewis’ 1922 satire of American culture and society, Babbit, was the work that was largely responsible for Lewis becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature 1930.   Before he died of alcoholism in 1951 at age 65, he authored a a few other once well-known books, including Main Street, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith and Dodsworth.

Well, it did happen here, or maybe we should say it might be happening here.  And not just America.  Fareed Zakaria in an article at Foreign Affairs writes that “Right-wing populist parties, on the other hand, are experiencing a new and striking rise in country after country across Europe.”  This new populism is different from the traditional brand associated with left-wing politics.  The trumpets of nationalism are beginning to blare, too.  I don’t know if it will lead to fascism taking root around the world or no.  I have a feeling, though, that whatever it leads to in America the next four years is not going to be much fun.

I put It Can’t Happen Here on my TBR list.  It’s already pretty long.  And it’s not only the list, there’s the pile . . .

Here is a short passage from the book I found online.  The subject is Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip:

it-cant-happen-hereThe Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”

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The Five Hundred Monkeys

monkeys3bThen there were these five hundred monkeys hanging out in some trees next to a large pool of water.  After night came down, the chief monkey saw the moon reflected in the water below him.  He asked all the others come over to his tree and join hands and tails to form a chain, so that he’d be able to lean out over the pool and grab the moon.  Well, that many monkeys in one tree was just too much and the branches broke and all five hundred of the primates fell into the water and drowned.

The point of the story you can plainly see.  As long as you are blinded by illusion, all that waits for you is suffering.  So don’t go mistaking a reflection for the real moon.

In Genjo-koan (“Realizing the Prime Point’), Dogen wrote, “Awakening is like the moon reflected on water.”

One meaning of this statement is that awakening or Buddhahood is not a destination to be reached in the remote future but a potential already inherent in life.  If we see it as something outside of ourselves, it’s an illusion.

Earlier in the essay Dogen says, “Those who greatly awaken to illusion are Buddhas.  Those greatly deluded amid awakening are sentient beings. Some people continue to awaken beyond awakening.  Some continue amid their illusion deeper into further illusion.”

Another Dogen work, Bussho (“Buddha Nature”), begins with a quote from the Nirvana Sutra: “All sentient beings have buddha nature.”  Some paragraphs later, he takes exception to this statement, asserting that it is incorrect to say that sentient beings “have” or “possess” buddha nature because sentient beings are buddha nature, indeed all reality is buddha nature.

Conventionally speaking, it is not wrong to say that all sentient beings have buddha nature because we can access it.  If we could not access it then we would not have it.  Accessing buddha nature means to develop this potential, nurture it.

Furthermore, we have something, what Buddhism provides, the means to actualize awakening, to make it a common experience, not an extraordinary event.

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Women Don’t Shoot

Friday night I watched “Michael Moore in Trumpland.”  The title is a bit deceptive.  It has very little to do with Trump, and a lot to do with feminism.  It’s funny, educational, moving, and it is a spirited discussion of the struggles of Hillary Clinton, through which, it touches upon the struggle of all women and extols their power.

trumplandMichael Moore’s film is a record of a one-man show he performed in October at the Murphy Theatre in Wilmington, Ohio.  Over the course of sixty minutes, Moore spends a considerable amount of time going over the attacks, the abuse Hillary Clinton has endured over the years, most all of it, of course, coming from men.  I remember how she was humiliated for heading the Task Force on National Health Care Reform in the 1990s.  But I had forgotten how nasty it was, and perhaps dulled to how nasty it has been ever since.

In 1994, at a rally in support of the health care campaign, as the First Lady spoke, protestors held up signs that read “Heil Hillary” and nearly booed her down.  For the first time, the Secret Service was successful in persuading Hillary Clinton to wear a bulletproof vest.

It is obvious that Michael Moore likes Hillary, he admires her because she has character, that is, good character, one thing many voters doubted.  She took all the abuse heaped on her, never complained (at least not in pubic) and kept moving forward.

About halfway through the performance, Moore looks into the camera and says,

hillary-clinton-019bMy hope, my optimism for this . . .  Hillary, if you’re watching this right now (I have a feeling that someone is going to slip you a tape of this), I just want to tell you something, I know you’ve been waiting . . . but you’re not alone, a whole  bunch of the rest of us have been waiting for that one glorious moment when the other gender, the majority gender, has a chance to run this world, have some real power and kick some righteous ass.”

We men have been in charge far too long, and as a result, our world is out of balance.  We need to adjust the axis in favor of gender equality.

Now, it’s amazing how certain things fall in place . . . Just Friday morning I was reading these words by Barbara E. Reed: “The Tao Te Ching uses feminine imagery and traditional views of female roles to counter destructive male behavior.” *

Tao is a complex principle.  Tao means “road or “path”.  Philosophically, it is the “Way”, and for now, let us just say that it is about the way of living.  The classic Chinese text, Tao Te Ching, can be translated as “The Way and its Virtue.”

According to one scholar, the origins of the Tao Te Ching were “ideas from anonymous people (not intellectuals) of the 6th – 4th centuries BCE, probably including local elders (“lao-tsu”), possibly including women . . .” He mentions also that the early layers of the teachings emphasized “natural simplicity, harmony, ‘feminine’ behaviors”.  **

I am intrigued by the notion that women may have influenced the formation of these teachings.  The doctrine of Taoism has always showed a preference for feminine “behaviors”, and at times, it seems the Tao Te Ching is saying that the feminine is the purest form of life.

In ancient China, women were largely illiterate and subjugated.  Yet, there were periods in China’s history when Buddhist and Taoists movements welcomed women as both practitioners and leaders, and there were teachings (“Inner Alchemy”) specifically for women.

One modern woman, Ursula K. Le Guin, an American author known for her works in the genres of fantasy and science fiction, published a translation of the Tao Te Ching in 1998.  In an interview some years later, she said,

Lao Tzu feminized mysteries in a different way from anybody else.  These are not “feminine mysteries,” but he makes mystery itself a woman.  This is profound, this goes deep.  And the most mystical passages in the book are the most feminine.  This is something women need, I think, and long for, often without knowing it.  That’s undoubtedly one reason why all my life I’ve found the Tao de Ching so refreshing and empowering.”

This is something that everyone needs, and that everyone has.  Feminine energy (yin) is not separate from masculine energy (yang).  The feminine and the masculine give rise to each other; they are interdependent and universal.  Water and the earth symbolize feminine energy.  The feminine is soft, yielding, receptive, fluid, creative, intuitive, transformative, and nurturing.

The masculine is associated with activity, creativity, hardness, logic, and control.

tai-ji-symbol3As we seen in the tai ji symbol, yin and yang are enfolded within one another.  Every person has yin and yang energies.  For instance, I’d say Hillary Clinton has some significant yang energy, while her former opponent has too much.

In chapter 42, the Tao Te Ching says, “All things carry yin and embrace yang. They achieve harmony by balancing these energies.”  The best way of living is living in harmony with nature and each other, and the more we can harmonize the feminine and masculine within ourselves, the more effectively we can check compulsive and extreme behavior, the more we can counteract negative forces within the mind and even the body.

Gentleness is another quality of feminine energy, and in the film, Michael Moore points out that women are mostly non-violent.

“Women generally don’t shoot you,” he says.  “Unless you deserve it.”

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* Barbara E. Reed, “Taoism”, Women in World Religions, Ed. Arvind Sharma,  SUNY Press, 1987 162

** Russell Kirkland, Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, Psychology Press, 2004

Hillary Clinton photo: Wellesley College Archives

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The Wisdom of Anger

A wise person does not neglect the way of propriety.  Democracy means freedom and equality, and mutual respect.  Authoritarians and demagogues use people as a tool.  The American way was always supposed to be about appreciating people as an end in themselves . . .

Trying to gather my thoughts about this election has been difficult.  I was so angry.  I still am.  Problem is, Buddhists are not supposed to get angry.  We have this notion that we always have to avoid any display of emotion, that there is never justification for anger, and our words must always be kind and healing.

I don’t believe that every moment has to be a kumbaya moment.  Now and again, there is justification for anger and rather than be afraid of the anger, or be ashamed for feeling anger, we can use it.

If you are a Mahayanist, then you realize that Buddha taught a certain use for the energy of anger . . . the bodhisattva, like the peacock who can use poison to be beautiful, can use the heat, the fire of anger . . .”

So says Robert Thurman in a video “The Wisdom of Anger” (see below).  Japanese Buddhists have a term for what he is talking about:  hendoku iyaku – change poison into medicine.

The purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is to transform negative aspects of the mind.  I suspect that many Buddhists practice suppression rather than transformation.  There are situations when negativity has to come out in order to be an object for transformation.  Furthermore, we should keep in mind that there are two truths and they are not separate, except when they are.  Conventionally speaking then, anger directed toward injustice or the infliction of harm can be positive.

T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i was one of the first Buddhist teachers to explain how good and evil are non-dual.  Ng Yu Kwan* tells us that Chih-i taught “good and evil do not make terms with each other, but are constantly in a struggle.  Good must overturn evil in order to prevail, and good can prevail only by the overturning of evil.  It follows that overturning evil is a necessary and sufficient condition for the prevalence of good.  But the overturning of evil does not imply extirpation of evil.”

Why not?  Because ultimately, good and evil are non-dual.  They are “different states of the same thing under different conditions.”  The keyword here is ultimately.  This is the view from ultimate truth and it is important for us to remember that even though the ultimate and conventional are mutually inclusive, there are times in the conventional world when it is necessary to use conventional means.

The fact is that in the Mahayana Buddhist way of expressing non-duality, things are dual sometimes.  There are situations when it truly is a matter of good vs. evil, us vs. them.

This post-election period is one of those times.  It is not wrong to identify the President-elect with evil, for what he represents – hate, misogyny, racism – are identified as evil states of mind.  We do not have to support the President-elect or unite behind him.  To do so would be like saying hate speech is acceptable, that using hate speech to win an election is something we can tolerate.  It’s isn’t.  Not in the America I was taught to believe in.  Freedom of speech and accountability for your words are not mutually exclusive.

Understanding inter-dependency (dependent origination) means taking responsibility for being infinitely connected to each other, so we want to avoid creating animosity with people whose views are different from ours and do out best to follow the ways of propriety and mutual respect.  Yet, we should not become enablers of their delusions, sold to them by demagogues and hate-mongers.

If we’re angry, we need not be ashamed of it or feel that it must be suppressed.  We can take the anger, temper it with wisdom, and then speak out, raise an objection.  Our country is in a fog.  Our protests can be the sunlight that burns off the fog.

 

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* NG Yu Kwan, T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and Early Madhyamika, University of Hawaii Press, 1993, 171

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