The Blind Man and the Sun

After I prepared today’s post, I realized it is more or less a continuation of the theme of my last post.  I apologize if I am being redundant . . .

Su Shi (1037-1101), aka Su Dongpo was a writer, poet, artist, and calligrapher, of the Song Dynasty.  He often criticized the government in political essays, in particular he wrote against the government monopoly on the salt industry.  For this, he was sent into exile, banished to Huangzhou where he was assigned a modest government post with no pay.

Many of his essays were essentially parables, such as the one below.  “The Blind Man and the Sun”  was used by Albert Einstein to illustrate the average person’s understanding of his theory of relativity.

The blind man had never seen the sun.  He would ask people what the sun was like.  One person told him, “It’s shape is like a copper platter.”  The blind man struck a copper platter and listened to the sound.  Some days afterward, he heard the sound of a bell and he thought it was the sun.  Someone else said, “Sunlight is like a candle.  The blind man felt a candle, and concluded the sun was the same shape as the sun.  Later  he held a flute in his hand and thought it was a sun.

The sun is quite different from a bell or a flute, but the blind man could not tell their difference because he had never seen the sun.  Truth is harder to see than the sun, and when people do not know it they are exactly like the blind man. Even if you do your best to explain by analogies and examples, it is still like the analogy of the copper platter and the candle. From what is said of the copper platter, one imagines a bell, and from what is said about a candle, one imagines something else.  In this way, one gets ever further and further away from the truth.  Those who speak about the Way (Tao) will give it a name according to what they happen to see, or imagine what it is like without seeing it.  These are mistakes in the effort to understand the Way.

The Tao Te Ching begins with these words, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

This applies to not only the Tao but also Buddha-dharma, God, the absolute truth –  because we feel compelled to try and capture with concepts and words things that are ultimately ineffable, we lead ourselves into error.  Concepts, names and so on are mere labels, conventional designations, and they are empty.

Blindness can also be used as a metaphor for the inability to see the truth or things as they truly are.  This kind of blindness is not caused by diseases of the eye.  Often, the primary cause is ignorance.  To be “visually impaired” in this way can also be a choice.  I’m sure most of you remember the line in John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever, “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see . . .”

Sometimes it takes great effort to open our eyes and see.

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Parable of “The Blind Man and the Sun” adapted from the version by Lin Yutang in The Wisdom of China and India, The Modern Library, 1942


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?


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


As Space-Time Goes By

There’s this movie where a character named Sam sings a song that become rather well known, but not all of the original lyrics by Hubert Hupfeld found their way on the soundtrack:

Arthur “Dooley” Wilson as Sam in Casablanca

Yet we get a trifle weary
With Mr. Einstein’s theory
So we must get down to earth at times

This is true, but fortunately there are some folks here on earth who have their eyes glued to the stars . . .

Some of them work with The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a joint project of MIT and Caltech, and they have been looking for gravitational waves.

In his Theory of General Relativity, Einstein predicted that violent cosmic events would set off gravitational waves, which are vibrations or ripples in the fabric of space-time.

No one thought it was possible to see these ripples, let alone confirm their reality. But it was announced Thursday that scientists have detected gravitational waves, confirming Einstein’s prediction and also answering the question, how smart was Einstein? Really smart.

According to a paper just published in Physical Review Letters, “On September 14, 2015 at 09:50:45 UTC the two detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory simultaneously observed a transient gravitational-wave signal.”

Evidently, in general relativity, when two black holes “merge”, they produce a Kerr black hole that spins as “quasicircular inspirals” (I think that means to spin inwardly) and these were “predicted uniquely by Einstein’s equations.”

This computer-generated image from Caltech shows the ripples in space-time created by colliding black holes.

The gravitational-wave signal detected by the LIGOs were ripples of a super-massive collision of two black holes from 1.3 billion years ago. It is astounding to think about.

I suppose it’s rather obvious to say that without thought and other sensory qualities, we could not apprehend space. But what we think of as being space is often mistaken, as is the case with the Buddhist concept of sunyata or emptiness. Space is not empty in the literal sense; rather it is completely filled with an intangible, seemingly infinite continuum that we call time. Buddhism teaches that space and time are inseparable, and in this way, they are both empty because neither has its own independent reality.

Space is not nothingness and neither is emptiness. As far as time goes, I’m not sure because in quantum physics time does not exist, so it might be nothing.  Einstein, the Nagarjuna of modern science, destroyed the idea of time as a universal constant.  That’s the ultimate truth.

On the relative truth level, time is the extent along which change progresses and without change then time could not be experienced or observed.

Anyway, we can find significant intersections between Theory of Relativity and the Buddhist concepts of Interdependency (pratitya-samutpada) and emptiness, and if we dig deeper, we can also discover that Einstein’s thinking was similar to the Buddhist philosophy in some other ways:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

– Albert Einstein

Now, according to the song, when two lovers have a merger (technical term: woo)

They still say, “I love you”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by


Inflation of the Cosmic Kind

Last March, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made a finding that supports Einstein’s last untested prediction about the Theory of General Relativity. According to Einstein, even in the void of space-time, empty of stars and galaxies, ripples known as gravitational waves can move across space in much the same way that ripples spread across the surface of a pond. Until recently, there was only indirect evidence that gravitational waves existed.  In their press release JPL stated that they

[H]ave acquired the first direct evidence that gravitational waves rippled through our infant universe during an explosive period of growth called inflation. This is the strongest confirmation yet of cosmic inflation theories, which say the universe expanded by 100 trillion trillion times, in less than the blink of an eye.

The findings were made with the help of NASA-developed detector technology on the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation.”

The Dark Sector Lab at the South Pole that houses the BICEP2 telescope that measured the polarization of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. (Harvard)
The Dark Sector Lab at the South Pole that houses the BICEP2 telescope, which measured the polarization of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. (Harvard)

This supports the Inflationary Universe theory, hypothesized in the 1980s by Alan Gult, who held that the initial expansion of the universe was caused by a repulsive form of gravity. “Cosmic inflation” suggests that after The Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light (at .0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds, to be precise).

It’s a pretty big deal. According to Time, it means that gravity should no longer be seen as a force, “but rather as the warping of ‘spacetime,’ an amalgam of those two formerly independent concepts,” This aspect of Einstein’s theory “also predicted that violent events should trigger gravitational waves, which would set spacetime rippling, like a vat of cosmic jello.”

Actually, Einstein was skeptical of the idea of a Big Bang. He favored the concept of a static universe as opposed to an expanding one. But when American astronomer Edwin Hubble showed how galaxies recede from the Milky Way, and that distant galaxies recede faster than those nearby, Einstein changed his mind.

Now, I don’t think it’s necessary for modern science and Buddhism to agree, or that science should prove Buddhism, but intersections between the two are always interesting. Here, we have a case where Buddhism and science both agree in some respects and disagree in others.

In The Big Bang theory, the entirety of space was contained in a single point of space and this was the beginning of the universe. Buddhism, however, says that there is no beginning (and therefore definitely no creation) because causes have no beginning.

The first line of Chapter One in Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way reads, “Nothing exists that has arisen from itself, from another, from both, or from a non-cause.”

This does not negate the idea of a Big Bang, only qualifies it somewhat. The Big Bang could not have caused itself, nor could some being have caused it, or is it possible that a Big Bang was a combination of the two – there had to have been some prior cause, and as I understand it, this means The Big Bang must have been an effect. Still, Buddhism discusses the beginning of things in terms of consciousness, which is the real “creator” of all things, and consciousness has no beginning. So, in pondering all this, we should keep in mind the distinction between the ultimate and relative truth.

The other key notion in the Big Bang theory is that of an expanding universe. Here dharma and science seem to agree. In his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, the Dalai Lama stated

So through this analysis of the causal origin of mental phenomena, then the question arises if there is a beginning point of whether the chain of causation goes on infinitely. If we were to choose the first option, which is to say that there must be a beginning at some point, then this immediately throws up conceptual problems about the status of the first cause – whether that first cause comes into being relatively or if it comes into being through self-causation. So, it throws up all sorts of conceptual problems.

The Buddhist option is to choose the second option of accepting the infinity of the causation. Although one could, in a conventional sense, accept or talk about origin or a beginning point of some particular object, like the objects of everyday life, but in a deeper sense, consciousness or mental phenomena are beginningless in terms of their continuum. And since this is the case, according to Buddhism, the continuum of the individual or person can said to be beginningless, because being or person is designated upon the continuum of consciousness or designated upon the phenomena that makes that person a knower or experiencer or agent. Since the basis, which is the continuum of consciousness is beginningless, therefore the continuum of the individual being is also said to be beginningless. However, when we conceptualize it in individual situations, we can say that, in a conventional sense, there is a beginning and there is an end.

Obviously, there are differences between individual beings and universes, but I think the infinity of the continuum would be the same.  And again, from the Buddhist perspective, there must have been something prior, a previous cause existing before all of space was condensed into a single point that apparently exploded into our ever-expanding universe.

Likewise, there were prior points posted on this blog before I posted the single point that began this post, and therefor, today’s offering reflects the infinity of the continuum and therefore cannot be contained in a single end point . . .


Einstein and the Mysterians

Today is the 135th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birth. He is, as they like to say in show business, a man who needs no introduction. It’s thought that Einstein was generally sympathetic to Buddhism, and you may be familiar with this popular quote attributed to him:

Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.  If there is any religion that could respond to the needs of modern science, it would be Buddhism.”

However, as far as I know, these words cannot be traced to a legitimate source, suggesting that it is probably not a genuine Einstein quote.

There are conflicting views about Einstein’s position on religion and spirituality. For instance, another quote attributed to him, “God does not play dice with the universe,” is used to bolster the notion that Einstein believed in a personal God, or at the very least a creator god. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Atheists like to claim him as one of them, but he quite often described himself as agnostic. On one occasion, he said he was a believer in “Spinoza’s God.” Spinoza maintained that God is the only substance of the universe: God is the universe, is nature, is everything.  But I feel Einstein thought of God as a metaphor, and perhaps Spinoza did as well, I am not an expert in his philosophy.

In a speech he gave in Berlin during the 1920’s, Einstein said,

The most beautiful and deepest that man can experience is the feeling of the mysterious. It is the foundation of religion as well as of all deeper striving of art and science.

Who never experienced that seems to me if not a dead person but then a blind person.

To feel that behind the experience of things there is something hidden and unreachable for our spirit, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirect and as a weak reflection, that is religiousness.

In this sense, I am religious. It is sufficient for me to have a presentiment in amazement of these mysteries, and to try with humility to comprehend intellectually a weak reflection of this sublime structure of being.”

It does seem that late in life, according to a recently discovered 1954 letter, Einstein had concluded that God was an expression of human weakness and that religion was childish.

Now, when I think of Albert Einstein these subjects do not usually come to mind, but rather his theory of relativity (e=mc2), and of course, Bob Dylan’s take on the great physicist in “Desolation Row”:

Einstein on Desolation RowEinstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row