Tuesday, March 22, 2011

everything at once

Science has never been my strong suit. In fact, if someone commented that I "sucked" at science, I wouldn't put up much resistance. Nevertheless, there is sometimes a delight in finding something that piques my interest and yet I have no goddamned clue as to what it might mean.

From a journalistic point of view, I suppose I could criticize a BBC article I read this morning about "quantum computing." I read the article twice in order to gain some perspective. It didn't work and as a former news writer, my rule of thumb is that if someone with average intelligence can't get a handle on the topic, then the writer himself is under-informed and thus ill-equipped. People who really know their shit can always make the connection between lofty lingo and concepts and those like me who haven't got a clue. It's the mediocrities who insist on specialized language that sounds smart and, they imagine, makes them look informed.

But just because I didn't understand the article very well didn't mean I wasn't tantalized. The line that tickled my fancy was this:

Rather than the ones and zeroes of digital computing, quantum computers deal in what are known as superpositions - states of matter that can be thought of as both one and zero at once.

 "Both at once" -- science creeping up on reality, bit by bit ... the simultaneity that offends the intellectual mind and yet whispers in the world around us. "Paradox!" the intellectual mind whines and writhes. "Read 'em and weep!" life responds with a smile.

Not on my best day could I explain it all. But I could suggest that others open their eyes and pay attention...just see if what is tentatively called "simultaneity" makes any down-to-earth sense. True or untrue? -- everything at once.


  1. "It's the mediocrities who insist on specialized language that sounds smart and, they imagine, makes them look informed."

    Lately I cringe at Zen talks that point out the meaning of this or that Chinese concept, or what so-and-so master once said. That's merely the communication of facts. Give me experience or - better yet - an honest "I don't know".

    By the way, the late David Foster Wallace was a master at using technical jargon to point out its own emptiness. I highly recommend him. (I know, I know, you haven't picked up a book since 1978...)


  2. Chris -- Did you ever see a (US) football team in a locker room prior to a game? There is a kind of ritualized cacophony in which each encourages the next. Fight, fight, fight! Win, win, win! Do your best and I will do mine! It's a kind of group statement of intention before the action. Inspiration in action.

    In some of his letters, Ta Hui used to describe his teaching of others and he would sometimes add ruefully, "...and I didn't spare the mouth work." Up to a point, mouth work is important. It is demanded by those who want to participate. How is someone at war supposed to hope or actualize peace when the war is still raging?

    But I hear you on the cringing stuff. Soen Roshi was once said to have been walking down Fifth Avenue in New York with a young man who was chattering along about Zen. Soen listened for a while and then had had enough: He pushed the young man into the gutter.

    After a while, mouth work defeats the purposes for which mouth work was employed.

    The best I can think of is this: If you don't want to be drowned in the smell of shit, stay away from the sewage treatment plant. And if, by chance, there is simply no escape from cringe-inducing situations, try whistling the Marseillaise in your mind. It's a jaunty tune. :)

  3. Great story about Soen. My paradox is that, though I can remember how truly helpful the "mouth work" was for me, I still can't bring myself to be similarly inspiring to newcomers.

    About the Marseillaise, this weekend I am attending (my last?) Zen retreat and literally bringing along earplugs to discreetly insert during teisho. Once you're used to blissfully not understanding a word of the Japanese, you can't go back :)

  4. Chris -- The problem is not so much being inspiring to others as it is imagining you could/can somehow be inspiring. Maybe that's the hard part -- recognizing that people inspire themselves and as a result all you have to do is be as honest and straight-forward as you can. Sure, the kind of applause you once offered would be nice if it were laid at your feet, but the agreement of others never proves very reliable.

    As to the earplugs, I hear you, so to speak. My version of that is that when chanting the Heart Sutra, it simply doesn't touch me as much when it is in English... a kind of throw-back Catholic who hates anything but the Latin Mass. Still, earplugs seems a bit much. Whatever ... enjoy yourself.

    Why is/might it be "my last" retreat?

  5. Hi Adam,

    At the risk of boring your readers, this might be my last retreat precisely because I'm actually dreading sitting through another handful of well-reasoned, academically sound, perfectly inspiring, right-button-pushing teishos. Not to mention the mandatory interviews. Just let me sit in peace and I'll be happy. But all the rest is just superfluous. I admit that, as I write this, I can hear myself five years ago except with the word "teisho" replaced by "long hours of sitting", but it doesn't matter. I know where I am right now.

    Did you ever get the chance to hear one of Kyudo's teishos in English? Fabulous. He would go on and on for hours about cockroaches and washing his undershirts - complete nonsense - but he put the fire under your butt just by the sheer immovability of his character. No need for earplugs - he was on a complete other level.

    About "being inspiring" by the way, I understand what you mean that's part of my paradox. I'm too aware of how I might come across to people, and how easily "talking the Zen talk" can get you put on a pedestal. I can't do that to myself. But I'm thinking perhaps one day I won't worry about that stuff too much either.

    Got to get back to work now!

  6. Chris -- Sadly, I never did hear one of Kyudo's teisho, but I know what you mean about keeping the fire under your butt. We just chatted across the kitchen table, a pack of cigarettes idly waiting to be used and a small pot of tea ... and mouth work.

    I don't know how you feel, but my feeling is that when some new-ish discovery comes along (can't stand teisho, can't inspire others, scared of the pedestal), it asserts itself as a kind of muscular counterweight to times gone by. It's surprising or insistent or somehow dictatorial. But over time, the surprise wears off, the 'contrast' becomes less etched and it just becomes one possibility. You acknowledge it, sniff it, investigate it ... and forget about it. Whether you're on a pedestal or in the toilet, well, what now? It's like getting spaghetti sauce off the white shirt you were stupid enough to wear to a spaghetti dinner ... scrub, scrub, scrub ...give it a chance and things have a way of coming clean. No rush, but I think Suzuki Roshi hit one nail when he said of Zen practice, "It's important, but it's not that important." Or, as Kyudo told me, "Take care of your family."

    As a PS to one of the above notes ... I once heard that some Zen teacher pushed Christmas Humphreys down a small flight of stairs (a la Soen's pushing the kid into the gutter). I always liked to think that it was Soen who did Humphreys as well, but the whole story may be a whole-cloth concoction of my inventive and stumbling mind.

  7. Ahh... NOW I understand why Eido tried to throw George Zournas down the stairs in '84 - more masterful teaching! :)

  8. I never heard that, but if true, I suspect it was an act of knock-off Zen ... copycats are a dime a dozen.

  9. I was being sarcastic, but here's the story: http://www.shimanoarchive.com/PDFs/19830413_Zournas_Aitken.pdf