Zennish thoughts

Some straight shooting from Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (p. 132):

Zen is not interested in theories about enlightenment, it wants the real thing. So it shouts, and buffets, and reprimands, without ill-will entering in the slightest. All it wants to do is force the student to crash the word-barrier. Minds must be sprung from their verbal bonds into a new mode of apprehending.

And this one from Te Shan, the Zen master notorious for burning all his Zen books following his awakening:

Those who have not attained awakening should penetrate into the meaning of reality, while those who have already attained should practice giving verbal expression to that reality.

Both these thoughts, discovered more or less at random on the Internet, give me pause. Ever since i began delving into Buddhism and Zen some three years ago, my writing life has waned in the face of those “verbal bonds.” I not only saw no way out of the conundrum of words artificially dividing the one world, i lost all interest in pursuing the verbal/written path.

The glaring paradox, of course, is the stacks of books written by Buddhist and Zen adepts — books full of words, natch — setting forth the principles and ideas of this supposedly wordless “mode of apprehending.” What’s a confused mendicant to do, stumbling around unguided in the dark?

The second quote offers up some light. Words, if not the only means for us to get into each others’ heads, are certainly the most common and arguably the most precise — and are therefore tools worthy of consideration, so long as one maintains the distinction between the signposts and the territory.

I still have little serious interest in writing, be it poetry, fiction or non-; it seems a secondary, derivative mode of being, as opposed to the immediacy of sense impressions and just plain living, moment to moment. But a person’s gotta do something with his days, and few of those potential somethings have any enduring import in the real world, and so storytelling is not (quite) out of the running. Yet.

The irony of this wordy post does not escape me.


Hah! The hidden engines of serendipity are firing. Stumbled upon (or was i invisibly guided to?)  this 28-second ejaculation from Terence McKenna:

What he says: Art’s task is to save the soul of mankind, and that anything less is a dithering while Rome burns. Because if the artists, who are self-selected for being able to journey into the other, if the artists cannot find the way then the way cannot be found.

Jelly hell

Not to put a damper on your summer’s day, but i just read the following in the July/August 2008 EcoNews newsletter. It’s a downer, no doubt, but i like Victoria’s Guy Dauncey , who publishes the newsletter, because of his irrepressible optimism. In fact, he’ll be getting a good chunk of my $100 climate change rebate from the BC government.

I highly recommend EcoNews as a monthly read — subscribe using the box on the left of the page. And put pressure on our nice Canadian governments, who are dragging their feet in every way possible even as the citizenry forges ahead with grassroots initiatives.

Something extremely disturbing is happening in the world’s oceans. Thanks to our seemingly endless hunger for seafood, we have killed off 90% of the large predatory fish.

There is a consequence to this, since large predatory fish eat other fish — it’s like removing 90% the police from a community. The result in this case is an explosion of jellyfish, since we have killed 90% the sharks, swordfish, tuna, cod, and leatherback turtles that love to eat them.

Holiday destinations in the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas are being plagued with them, in some places as thick as 100 jellyfish per cubic meter of water.

In the US, they are everywhere from Cape Cod to Hawaii.

In May, a mass of jellyfish forced a Japanese nuclear reactor to close down after they blocked its seawater cooling system.

In Northern Ireland, an invasion of non-native mauve stinger jellyfish in a dense pack 10 miles square by 35 feet deep killed 120,000 salmon in a hatchery overnight.

In Namibia, south-west Africa, once one of the most prolific fishing areas in the world, then plundered by the fishing fleets, the jellyfish have moved in and taken over.

Very few fish eat jellyfish, but jellyfish love to eat young larval fish and eggs, making recovery extremely difficult.

“We’re pushing the oceans back to the dawn of evolution, a half-billion years ago when the oceans were ruled by jellyfish and bacteria,” said Jeremy Jackson, a marine ecologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who has dubbed what’s happening as “the rise of slime”.

In addition to us removing their predators, jellyfish thrive in warmer waters — and US and Australian climate researchers reported in June that the world’s oceans have warmed 50% faster over the last 40 years than previously thought, due to climate change.

The only good news is that in the 4% of the oceans that have remained free of human impact, the sharks and predatory fish still dominate, keeping order in the marine world.

The solution is for at least 1/3rd of the world’s oceans to be declared global marine protected areas, with no fishing of any kind allowed. We know from experience in New Zealand and elsewhere that this allows the fish to recover — but time is running out, and global leadership is painfully slow.


Saturday night, i watched the gravid moon rising behind the main stage of the ottawa folk festival, with colin linden doing a solo blues set and then sarah harmer and her band taking us to midnight.

Then it was a wildish 40-minute bike ride in the dark along the ottawa river, back to friends Mark & Jimena’s place (he’s an ex-Ukeeite). What a night!

Ottawa’s great fun. I spent hours today walking around and visiting the fabulous Museum of Civilization — fascinating stuff, including a section on West Coast Indian life that made me nostalgic.

I’m off to Montreal tomorrow, to visit my sister. I was going to stay an extra day here in Ottawa, i like the town so much, but the hostel is full tomorrow night. This is a full-on youth hostel (though they’ve all dropped the adjectinve now), with accents from around the world, and i’m the oldest one here by a factor of probably two. It has an interesting French flavour, in that the dorms are co-ed; my third-floor room has 8 bunk beds (16 people in all), split about half and half. I appreciate it; i suspect the girls don’t.

I’ll post some Ottawa pics from my sister’s computer.

Last half of August — tourist season’s almost over, folks. The heady days of September are nigh.

At the NAG

I am, for a moment, reeling, seated here in the main entrance of the NAG – the National Art Gallery. The sheer scale of the thing, the architectural panache, is impressive; but the tip-of-the-pyramid thought that boggles me revolves around the manifold foundation the building rests on. Not literally the concrete and stone, i mean, but the will and intent that went into the making of such a place. It’s a physical incarnation of the very thought, ART IS IMPORTANT — and by extension, of course, that a hundred corollary intangibles are also important, and you can see the evidence right here around you.

For this little boy from Ucluelet, it’s unthinkable. Back home there’s one and only one rationale for putting up a building of any stature greater than the single-family dwelling: it must be a factory of some sort, intended to extract revenue stream from a stream of fish or trees or, more recently, tourists. To build something, anything, in homage to or acknowledgment of human spirit or creativity or even as lowly a lofty principle as amusement … unthinkable! It’s not within the realm of small-town imagining, after you’ve spent a few years in the small town.

Which draws me, sitting here in this cathedral to visual art, into the funky musing that i have let all this go by, untapped, unknown. A whole world i should have waded into, but didn’t, because certain early doors weren’t open for me and, later, it just wasn’t there before me where i could see it as a possibility. So i spent my energies on other things, and now i feeling more than a twinge of regret.

Lights at the ends of tunnels, didn’t you once say, Jay-Lo? And their absence. Now i can’t help but think that my deliberate refusal to plan for the future in any coherent way has now left me stranded — that even a little foresight could have had me involved in something complex and glorious, rather than drifting in a bit of a homeless funk as i am. All that art in this big stone house built specifically for its display was made by people just like me, except they made an early decision that i did not.


AFTER SEEING THE 1930s EXHIBIT — I spent three hours in that special exhibit, rapt the whole time. Wow, what a dark decade, with its widespread recession, its rise of European fascism, its underpinning of World War II. No smiling faces on those 200-plus canvases, and none in the gallery either.

I kept wondering what those artists had been thinking, looking forward from those times, vis a vis us knowing with hindsight what the 1930s were ushering in: war, mass industrialization, the rape of the earth and the creeping subjugation of all living things upon it.

Afterward i went into Sketches cafeteria and ate beans on rice out on the patio and felt i was dead in heaven. It was a crystal day, the impeccable lawn rolled down to the Ottawa River, and the gothic Parliament Buildings rose like a castle across the water. (Pics when i get a chance.) Life was very, very good.

Time crunch

So i’ve been reading all this spiritual stuff about living in the present, and how “now” is the only time we ever have, and it began to sink in that science is inextricably based on the concept of linear time, starting at t=0 and progressing forward, through the instantaneous slice of the present moment, and ever onward,perhaps infinitely, in its monotonic, plodding, uniform rate.

In contrast, the one incontrovertible aspect of human experience is that, whenever you pause to check, it’s always NOW — a kind of temporal illustration of that old spatial saw, Wherever you go, there you are.

‘S true — you never, ever seem too wake up yesterday, or snap out of a daydream and find it’s tomorrow. Every conscious moment happens at, and only at, t=NOW.

Another obvious disconnect between science and common experience is that “uniform rate” thing. Useful as it has proven for practical purposes like the building of bridges and cell phones and the prediction of lunar eclipses, any 10-year-old can tell you that, experientially, time shoots past quickly when you’re scared or concentrating or having fun, and drags interminably when you, for example, are 10 hours into a 13-hour bus ride from Sault Ste. Marie to Ottawa.

In fact, whatever engrossing psychological state you’re in, while you’re deeply into it time seems to be out of the picture entirely. Only once you lapse back into “ordinary” reality does time seem to have passed quickly or slowly.

After the May meditation retreat in Merritt, i began to idly wonder whether the 2,500-year-old Buddhist assertion that time is an illusion might be an objective, scientific-type fact. I began to wonder what a science based on no-time-but-now could possibly look like.

It would have to be change-based, of course — change is another universal constant noted by those ancient Buddhist scientists. So it would have to include a … trajectory or rate-of-change variable for every single thing embedded in the one-and-only NOW. That seems doable. Where i hit a roadblock is this projection-into-the-future thing, for i realized that science, while it purports to be about knowledge for knowledge’s sake, is really about prophecy: it’s acid test is “experimental verification,” i.e. predicting the future (at least in the limited sense of how matter will behave in controlled experiments). Future prediction is the bread and butter of science, but i see no way to slip or cram it into a futureless NOW. (As i wrote that sentence, though, i got a faint glimmer of how it might conceivably be done.)

In Nelson, a few days after the retreat, it was the work of but half an hour on the library Internet to surprise myself with the discovery that there’s a minor revolution brewing in the fringe corridors of physics, on just this subject. I found at least half a dozen books on the nature of time and the problems this puzzle is creating for physics

Wasn’t till Winnipeg that i got my hands on one of those books: The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics, by Julian Barbour. He’s an independent physicist – as he puts it, not tenured by a big university or tethered by a big corporation, and thus able to pursue whatever line of inquiry he pleases, even one challenging as basic and fundamental a common-sense subject as time.

I didn’t finish the book before it had to be returned to the library (alas, time), but got enough of an overview to be intrigued. Physics, according to Barbour, is at an impasse; the macro world of special relativity and the micro world of quantum mechanics both work admirably well at predicting experimental results in their realms, but thus far will not reconcile with each other in any much-sought-after “grand unified theory” — a fatal snag at the heart of which, Barbour and others say, may lie the concept of time.

His proposition is outrageous to contemplate: There is no time, nor is there motion, despite all appearances to the contrary. What there is is an endless series of self-contained NOWs — “time capsules,” he calls them — that each incorporate the characteristics — the mimicry — of time having passed. Our consciousness makes the leap that time has passed, in the same way our eyes and brain construct the illusion of motion from 24 still frames per second at the movies.

Now i’m already beyond my depth, but Barbour invokes another ancient Zen chestnut about the misconceptions we hold about supposedly fixed matter. (The molecules that make up “your” hand are 99% empty space. “Your” blood cells are dying and replacing themselves at a rate of 400 million million a second. Given this emptiness and endless flux of your component matter, how fixed and enduring can “you” really be?)

What’s most interesting is how the mystery of consciousness creeps in here, somehow possibly mediating in what we conceitedly think of as the “objective reality” of things (just like mystics have been incomprehensibly claiming for ages). New-age types will have heard this idea before, but those assertions seem to be on the level of games. Who really operates day-to-day on this level of impermanence?

The end of time, one of our most basic preconceptions about the world, would probably change everything — physics, science, and most significantly the zeitgeist, in unfathomable ways, the way relativity has slowly soaked into the collective unconscious.

I’ve blathered long enough. The field, at any rate, is rich for further, mind-bending reading. Last week i serendipitously discovered that CBC’s Ideas series did a show on this topic, including an interview with Barbour and other speculators. (Click to listen.)

And now we’ve entered the outskirts of Ottawa at last, and i’m looking forward to some urban excitement. Timewise, though, my job — my function on earth, the only thing that seems to hold any enduring interest for me — is to settle firmly into t=NOW.