Science and Buddhism

Buddhist monks of Tibet10
I was able to get away with my family last week despite the madness of COVID and Omicron. I tried to stay off my phone other than to take photos of my little granddaughter.

Back home this week, I was cleaning out some files and came across an article I had clipped out of an issue of Wired magazine years ago about a study that showed that some Tibetan Buddhist practices have been “proven valid” now that the world of science finally had some technology that could “test” them. I’m sure Tibetans were thrilled.

In one experiment, subjects were asked to watch a video of two teams passing a ball. One team wore white shirts, the other team wore black, and the subjects were asked simply to focus on how many times players in white shirts passed the ball to each other. The little trick of the experiment was that there was also a man in a gorilla suit who walked on screen, waved at the audience, and walked off again. The subjects didn’t notice him.

I remember seeing a video of this at an education conference in 2000 (see video below). Buddhism was never mentioned. What’s the connection? The point of the experiment was to show that humans see what they are looking for, not what’s there. That is selective attention. It is also a very old Buddhist teaching.

In the article, they talk with some participants at a Science and the Mind conference in Australia where participants explored areas of connected interest between Tibetan Buddhism and modern science.

For example, a scientist using magnetic pulses tried to access the creativity of the non-conscious mind and altered states of consciousness. Tibetan meditation seems to do the same thing.

I love science but this is something scientists have been trying to do for a long time – prove, disprove or replicate ancient practices.

I wrote earlier about a technique for pain control called Thong Len that scientists can’t prove but that they admit seems to work. What science is unable to prove gets little attention.

Drug-based treatments for depression have not developed as far as we might hope and some scientists think Tibetans may provide a path to the solution.

“If you go to Dharamsala (in India, home of the Tibetan government in exile), you go up through the fog in midwinter and you come out in the bright sunshine, it’s like going to heaven. What strikes you immediately is the happy, smiling faces of the Tibetans, who don’t have much, have been terribly deprived, and yet they are happy. Well, why are they happy? “They work at it! They don’t take their Prozac in the left hand and pop the pill. Monks have been studied by Richard Davidson, they are very positive, they’ve got no material possessions, it’s a grind, it’s cold, they don’t have much food. But they are happy. They work at it.”

The Dalai Lama embraces science and has said that Buddhists can abandon scripture that has been reliably disproved by science. The Dalai Lama has even opened a school of science at his monastery in India saying that “…the Buddhist tradition [is] to try to see reality. Science has a different method of investigation. One relies on mathematics; Buddhists work mainly through meditation. So different approaches and different methods, but both science and Buddhism are trying to see reality.”

 

Cat’s Cradle, Ice Nine and Bokononism

cover of book
Cover of the first edition of the novel in 1963

Cat’s Cradle is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut that I read in my high school years (though not as part of the school curriculum!) and I had the opportunity to teach it to high school students.

It is Vonnegut’s fourth novel and was published in 1963. It is a satire of science, technology, religion, and the nuclear arms race, often through the use of black humor. Not surprisingly for a Vonnegut book, it is funny and it is serious.

The narrator of the novel is an author writing a book about the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima entitled The Day the World Ended. He begins the book by stating “Call me Jonah” – alluding to the first line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) and to the Biblical Jonah and the whale. But the writer’s name is actually John. In a way, this narrator and Moby-Dick‘s narrator Ishmael share some traits. They are simultaneously a narrator and a protagonist within their own stories. Though the book is more than 60 years old, no spoilers, but maybe their ultimate fates are also similar.

Researching the book, the narrator travels to Ilium, New York, the hometown of the late Felix Hoenikker. He was a co-creator of the atomic bomb and a Nobel laureate physicist. He becomes involved with the Hoenikker children when he interviews them along with Felix’s coworkers, and acquaintances.

He learns of a substance called ice-nine, created for military use by Hoenikker and now likely shared by his three adult children. Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. It also acts as a seed crystal and upon contact with any liquid water it causes that liquid water to instantly transform into more ice-nine.

Dropping ice-nine into a pond would freeze the pond and any surrounding wet land. If a human was in the pond, the liquid water in them would also instantly change into ice-nine. It would be a more destructive weapon than any nuclear bomb as it would eventually freeze the entire planet and everything living on it.

Cats-cradle.svg
“Cradle”, the opening position of Cat’s cradle

The novel’s title comes from a story that Hoenniker’s younger son, a dwarf named Newt, tells the narrator. When asked what Felix was doing when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, Newt says that he was just idly playing the string game “cat’s cradle.” Cat’s cradle is played by two or more people playing cooperatively.  John notes that there is no cat and there is no cradle.

The novel takes the threat of nuclear destruction during the Cold War as one of its main themes. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of mutual assured destruction in 1962 and was certainly part of Vonnegut’s motivation. In the move, possessing some Ice Nine becomes it own arms race and a person or small country can have great power by having it.

I taught Vonnegut’s novel along with another nuclear satire, The Mouse That Roared, which was a 1955 satire about an imaginary country in Europe called the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. Grand Fenwick is known for its wine, but a California winery creates a cheap version of it. Economically threatened, Grand Fenwick decides to declare war on the United States. Obviously, if they attack the U.S. with their tiny and ill-equipped (with bows and arrows) army they will be quickly defeated. They invade New York City.

It seems like a stupid plan but what they expect is that after being quickly defeated they can rebuild their economy since the United States always pumps millions or billions of dollars into its vanquished enemies. Think of what the U.S. did for Germany through the Marshall Plan at the end of World War II.

Through a series of accidents and coincidences during the invasion of New York City, the Grand Fenwick army comes into possession of a “quantum bomb” being developed in a secret lab there. The Q-Bomb is a prototype doomsday device created by Dr. Kokintz, a rather absent-minded professor. This bomb has a theoretical explosive potential greater than all the nuclear weapons of the United States and the Soviet Union combined. Though no one knows if it would actually work because, obviously, it can’t be tested. Having the bomb makes Grand Fenwick a major world power overnight.

The book is funny and was made into a comedy film starring Peter Sellers in multiple roles. But the novel is also a commentary on the politics of the time, the nuclear arms race, and the politics of the United States.

Nuclear war doesn’t get the attention today that it had in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s not that the world powers have disarmed or that there is no threat, but somehow it has moved back in world issues.

Kurt
Vonnegut in 1972

Another big theme in the novel is Vonnegut’s take on religion. He describes a religion secretly practiced by the people of the island nation of San Lorenzo. There are many San Lorenzo places in the world – none of them is Vonnegut’s fictional Caribbean island nation. Officially, San Lorenzo is a Christian nation but it also has its own native religion, Bokononism.

Bokonism is based on enjoying life through believing “foma” which are harmless lies, and by taking encouragement where you can. Bokononism was founded by Boyd Johnson (whose name is pronounced “Bokonon” in San Lorenzan dialect). The religion is outlawed. Bokonon himself conceived this outlawing because he knew that forbidding the religion would only make it spread quicker.

Bokononism secretly is the dominant religion of nearly everyone on the island, including the leaders who outlawed it. Many of its sacred texts, collectively called The Books of Bokonon, are written in the form of calypso songs. Bokononist rituals are often absurd. Their supreme religious act is for two worshippers to rub the bare soles of their feet together. This merging of soles (souls) is meant to inspire spiritual connection.

Here are some Bokononist terms:

karass – A group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident.

duprass – a karass of only two people, who almost always die within a week of each other. A common example is a loving couple who work together for a great purpose.

granfalloon – a false karass, such as a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. An example given is is “Hoosiers” – people from Indiana, who have no true spiritual destiny in common and share little more than a name. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. If you want to know about a granfalloon, just look inside a balloon, sings the Bokonists.

I like their term sinookas which are the intertwining “tendrils” of peoples’ lives. I believe in that part of their religion.

Maybe you know the string game. Maybe you’ve heard the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle” (in which I see no connection with the novel). The book has more directly influenced others in many creative works. I wrote elsewhere about a band called Ice Nine Kills.

But the allusion to Vonnegut’s Ice Nine that I discovered that was most interesting – and most frightening – is “Ice IX.”

Ice IX is an actual form of solid water that has been created.  I learned that there is also ice II, ice III, and all the way to ice XVIII. The “ordinary” water you freeze for drinks is known as ice Ih. All the forms of water have been created in the laboratory at different temperatures and pressures. And you thought you learned in school that water could be a liquid, solid, or gas and that was all of it.

I hope none of them work like Vonnegut’s imagined weapon and no one ever develops his Ice Nine.

That Dialogue on Opposing World Systems

Galileo, Copernicus
Galileo and Copernicus    (Gilgub/Flickr)

The title “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” certainly sounds like a heavy topic. It was heavy in 1632 when Galileo published it. The two systems were the Ptolemaic and the Copernican theories of cosmology. It is less controversial and easier to understand today.

Ptolemy, following the tradition of Aristotle, believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, and everything — Sun, Moon, planets, and stars — revolved around it.

Copernicus, on the other hand, posited that the Sun is the center of the universe, and though we seem to be standing still, we are in fact hurtling through space as we circle the star.

I used to have a quotation in my middle school classroom for my students that said “You are not the center of the universe” – Copernicus. Nicholas didn’t say exactly that quote, and he wasn’t specifically referencing my young teen students, but it was a good point-of-departure quote for discussion.

Galileo had spoken with Pope Urban VIII earlier and discussed his tide theory as proof that the Earth moved through space – not that the Sun was the center of the universe. The Pope granted him permission to write “Dialogue on the Tides” but that the Copernican theory should be treated as hypothetical in the book. Wisely, Galileo wrote the book as a series of discussions between two philosophers. One believed in Copernicus, one believed in Ptolemy, and a neutral but well-educated layman served as a moderator. That got it past the Catholic censors.

But Galileo was Copernican all the way and the popular book did not please Pope Urban VIII who had Galileo tried by the Inquisition. They ruled that he was “vehemently suspect of heresy” and too close to endorsing Copernican theory and the book was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.

Galileo was ordered to recant and recite weekly psalms of penitence. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, and none of his later books were permitted to be published in his lifetime.

The Dialogue on Opposing World Systems remained on the Index of Forbidden Books until 1835. Change is slow in religion – but not in science.

Further Reading

The Essential Galileo

Being a Pilgrim

pilgrim on road
Image by Jose Antonio Alba

For most of my youth, if I heard the word “pilgrim” I thought of those English settlers we studied in school who came on the Mayflower and established the Plymouth Colony and had the first Thanksgiving. But a pilgrim had long before that been a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons.

Coming from the Latin peregrinus, it meant a traveler (one who has come from afar) who is on a journey to a holy place. The person wasn’t necessarily holy. The place was holy. Traditionally, this was a physical journey (often on foot) to some place of special significance to the person or a particular religious belief system.

In the spiritual literature of Christianity, the concept of pilgrim and pilgrimage became broader and sometimes figurative. It could refer to the experience of life in the world. It sometimes meant a period of exile or isolation. It could even be an inner journey from non-belief to beatitude.

Many religions still espouse pilgrimage as a spiritual activity. Hajj, the great Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia), is an obligatory duty at least once for every Muslim who is able to make the journey.

As in the Middle Ages, modern Christian pilgrims might go to Rome, where according to the New Testament the church was established by St. Peter, or sites in the Holy Land connected with the life of Christ (such as Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the Sea of Galilee).

Places associated with saints, visions, and miracles, such as Lourdes, Santiago of Compostela, Canterbury, and Fatima, also get pilgrims.

I haven’t been on any pilgrimages associated with any religions. When I was in Kentucky I did go to the Trappist monastery where Thomas Merton lived. His book, The Seven Storey Mountain, had meant a lot to me when I was in college. Nothing was open to the public that day – which I suppose is a kind of message from the universe. (I also love that their website is monks.org). But it was Merton and not the place or their beliefs that made me want to go there.

In the summer between high school and college, I took a road trip north in search of something and one of my stops was that Plymouth of the Pilgrims.

Pre-pandemic we went on what my wife called the “dead writers road trip” as we made our way to visit friends in Maine. We went to Walden Pond and visited places where Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott, Hawthorne, and Herman Melville had lived. As with Merton, it was the people that drew me to those places, but I did feel something in being in the place. I can’t really describe what I felt looking at Melville’s desk and his window view of hills like a whale and Emerson’s bookcase and the Alcott girls’ writing and pictures on their bedroom walls or in walking into the “House of the Seven Gables.” Did I feel connected to those people, to the past, or to their writing and the images contained therein?

I studied for a time as a Zen monastery but the place did not feel “holy.” A pilgrimage in the Buddhist world might be to the historical Buddha’s birthplace and childhood home (Lumbini and Kapilavastu in Nepal), place of enlightenment (Bodh Gaya in northern India), and the place of his death in Kushinagar, India.

What do pilgrims hope to find or experience in these places? Does being in a holy place make you feel holy yourself? There is no reason why it should make you feel holier than before you arrived. I have seen the maxim that “life is a journey, not a destination” attributed to several people, generally Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it seems mostly true. The journey is surely where change occurs, but for pilgrims reaching the destination is an essential goal.

For much of my life, being out in Nature has felt like a sacred place. “In Wildness is the preservation of the world,” said Henry David Thoreau. I’ve seen that misquoted as “In wilderness” which seems like almost the same thing, but it’s not.

I don’t need a huge wilderness to feel that sacredness. That is something that immediately appealed to me about Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when it came out in 1974. Her nonfiction narrative was based on her journal writing about the little part of the natural world near her home in Roanoke, Virginia. The book won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Dillard was 29 years old. It is still one of my favorite books.

I wrote another essay here about the word “anchorite” and the ideas expressed in the opening of that book. “I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”

Annie Dillard wrote about what she saw in her walks she saw. Obviously, that included animals, birds, and plants, but her observations also led to reflections on theology and literature. Eventually, she had twenty volumes of journals.

My own little plot of land is 157 acres between two suburban communities and its edge is a twenty-minute walk from my house. It’s no virgin woods. Parts of it were once occupied and there are always walkers, runners, and cyclists somewhere on a trail. But I know the hidden, tangled places where people don’t seem to go. I know the several unnamed creeks that flow through it and eventually enter a manmade reservoir nearby. I have planted young trees in some places where others have fallen and have watched them over four decades grow. There are some large glacial erratic boulders that I like to sit on and have a drink or snack.

The place feels old. Ancient. I have no holy or religious associations with these woods, but I feel more connected to the universe here. The word “spiritual” seems too weak but I don’t know the word that defines it.

In Dillard’s small book, Holy the Firm, she writes about two years spent on an island in Puget Sound. Like a monk in her cell, she had a solitary window. Her company was a cat and a spider. The book is only 66 pages long but took her 14 months to write. It’s spare, which is fitting for a pilgrim who is asking herself big questions about memory, time, sacrifice, reality, death, and God.

One piece of writing advice she has given:
“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

I don’t want to open my safe and find ashes.

Those Pilgrims we studied in school had leaders from religious congregations of Brownists (Separatist Puritans) who had fled religious persecution in England for the tolerance of 17th-century Holland. They weren’t that different from Puritan Calvinists, but they believed their congregations should separate from the English state church.

I have felt like a pilgrim for many years. My friend, Scott, says we are both seekers. I suppose I am also a separatist, though I’m not in any literal exile. I feel quite exiled from any organized religion. This past pandemic year I feel exiled from people and most of the world. My pilgrimages have been nearby and internal. I’m reaching for connection with what I call the universe. I’m no Dillard, so I can’t really describe it. Maybe that indescribability is what is most appealing.

Good Friday

rose window
The Rose Window at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, NJ cathedralbasilica.org by greeneydmantis, on Flickr

As a young Catholic boy, I didn’t understand the “Good” in “Good Friday.” It’s a religious holiday observed primarily by Christians commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his death at Calvary. How is that good?

The usage of  “good” is from the now obsolete sense of it meaning pious or holy. (Interestingly, the Old English version of good is gōd.) Today is also known as Holy Friday or Great Friday and is observed during Holy Week as part of the Paschal Triduum on the Friday preceding Easter Sunday, and may coincide (as it does this year) with the Jewish observance of Passover.

The Good Friday I remember most vividly was when I was ten years old. I had to go to a service on that day after school. It was a cold, rainy day. I was bored with the service (in that time, much of it was in Latin) but at about midway through the service thunder and lighting started outside. The lightning lit up the deep colors of the large stained glass window behind the altar.  Jesus on the cross lit up. The heavens boomed. It was dramatic, like a movie. It seemed like more than a coincidence to me. I paid attention.

The Catholic Church – and my mom – treated Good Friday as a fast day. Maybe my blood sugar was low. There is no celebration of Mass between the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening and the Easter Vigil and no celebration of the Eucharist. During this period crosses, candlesticks, and altar cloths are removed from the altar which remains completely bare. They emptied the holy water fonts in preparation for the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil. Traditionally, no bells are rung on Good Friday or Holy Saturday until the Easter Vigil.
The vestments used on Good Friday were black back then.

It’s probably not a fair criticism, but going to church as a kid was never well staged for me. I liked the ritual but I wanted better lighting and better speakers and speeches. That aspect actually became less and less and mass seemed to me to be like going to a meeting. I’m surprised that PowerPoint didn’t become part of it.

I occupied myself by reading the book of Gospels during mass and trying to find poetry in the hymnal.

Eventually, I started bringing novels to church. I have a strong memory of reading The Grapes of Wrath in church and it seemed so much more relevant than what was going on around me. That novel has a number of Bible references and the main metaphor, the “grapes of wrath,” is a reference to Revelations and not a real upbeat message. “The cup of iniquity is full, the grapes of wrath are ripe, and now God crushes them in awesome judgment. Those who have rejected His grace feel the terror of His wrath.”

Historians who look at the details of the Canonical gospels say the Crucifixion of Jesus was most probably on a Friday (John 19:42). They estimate the year of Good Friday as AD 33. It is AD 34 according to Isaac Newton who used the differences between the Biblical and Julian calendars and the crescent of the moon to make a calculation. Another astronomical approach is based on a lunar Crucifixion darkness and eclipse model (see the Apostle Peter’s reference to a “moon of blood” in Acts 2:20) points to Friday, 3 April AD 33.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

Archangel Gabriel
Statue of Archangel Gabriel (15th century), on a pillar of the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.

Yesterday, I wrote about meeting the Devil at the crossroads, so I thought I should counter that today with something about a tutelary. That’s a word that may not be familiar. It means a deity or spirit who is a guardian, patron, or protector of a particular place, person, nation, culture, or occupation.

In late Greek and Roman religion, there is a tutelary deity called the genius who functions as the personal deity or daimon of an individual from birth to death. More familiar is a personal tutelary spirit from European folklore – an angel.

Many people associate angels with religion but the word “angel” comes from the Greek angelos, which means “messenger.”

In Christianity, it is said that “angel” refers to their mission, not to their nature. They are personal, immortal, non-corporeal spirits with intelligence and will and entirely other.

As a child, I thought that when you died you could become an angel. A priest told me that was not possible but in heaven, I would be equal to the angels. I was also told that I had my own Guardian Angel.

A guardian angel is assigned to protect and guide a particular person, though it could also be assigned to a group or even a nation. For example, Portugal has a Guardian Angel.

Tutelary beings run all through antiquity and angels played a major role in Ancient Judaism, but in Christianity, a hierarchy of angels was developed in the fifth century.

An angel of high rank is an archangel from the Greek roots meaning “chief angel.”

The Archangel Raphael protects healers and helps with the healing of bodies, hearts, and minds.

The Archangel Michael is the leader of all angels and his main purpose is to rid the earth and its people of all toxins associated with fear. He actually is supposed to work with humans, called lightworkers, who can also perform healing. Michael carries a dazzling sword and in modern times has somehow also become associated with fixing electronic devices.

My mother really liked Archangel Gabriel. Maybe it was because Gabriel is often portrayed as feminine and she brought Jesus to Mary and now Gabriel guides parents from conception onward.

There are some angelic inconsistencies. They are typically depicted as masculine but in Christianity, they are supposed to be without gender, and in the Quran, God rejects feminine depictions of angels. It also didn’t seem right when I was told that a non-Christian can’t have a guardian angel.

Abrahamic religions often depict angels as intermediaries between God or Heaven and humanity. I was comforted as a child by the thought of something powerful protecting me. My mother put a guardian angel statue over my bed. It looked like most angels in artwork that look like quite attractive humans and have wings, halos, and are bathed in a divine light. (My little statue glowed in the dark!)

Yesterday I referenced the Devil and many Christians believe the Devil was once a beautiful angel named Lucifer who defied God and fell from grace. Some biblical scholars say that Lucifer isn’t a proper name but a descriptive phrase meaning “morning star” the Devil is often referred to as Lucifer.

I was confused when I met up with Clarence Odbody, the guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life who earned his wings when he helped George realize that life was worth living. He didn’t fit any of the descriptions I had encountered, though he was bumblingly likable.

Are people still interested in angels? A search on Amazon for the word turns up 80,000 items.  A Google search shows 2,030,000,000 results. That’s 2+ billion.  (though some of those angels play baseball). So, the answer is Yes.

“If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.”  ― Tennessee Williams

“Every angel is terrifying.”  ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies