Finger Choppers

(This entry was posted on the old blog on Saturday, January 30th, 2010 at 8:56 pm)

When I was a teen I read the story where a zen master who put up one finger when asked to describe buddha nature chopped off the finger of a boy who had imitated him. Reading that at the time soured me on Zen.”What pointless cruelty!”, I thought.

I have a different take on the story today. The boy had imitated the form without grasping the essence. The master put an abrupt end to that, compelling the boy to look at the essence.

Of course, imitating the form while failing to grasp the essence goes on today, and a stroll through the Wild West will produce no end of finger choppin’ good examples. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of the finger choppers goes: “There’s nothing for you to strive for. You’re already enlightened. You just need to realize this.”

Some portion of this statement is true,  more or less, when looked at from an enlightened perspective. The catch here is that this is not a piece of advice directed at an enlightened individual: this is a piece of advice generally directed at John and Jane Doe, beginning meditators, or to Mandabuddhi Kadali (known as J. Doe before the name change), spiritual cowboy who has been spinning his/her wheels in the pursuit of the easiest possible way to Truth– or better yet, the furthest possible location from truth– for years.  And, used thusly, it could not be more wrong.

No one has ever become enlightened without plenty of hard core, daily, difficult, sometimes painful, effort, effort not necessarily recognized as “spiritual” at the time, but most certainly recognized as effort. The right advice to John and Jane Doe is not “don’t try so hard, you are already there”,  but “you are embarking on the most difficult task anyone can do. If you are serious about it, it will consume  your life. It may take you to the brink of insanity. It may lead to your death. The only way forward, and the only way out once in, is to fearlessly seek truth with every molecule in your body and with your every breath, ruthlessly dispatching every obstacle in your way. ”

Of course, that is the kind of message spiritual cowboys aren’t interested in hearing (or aren’t interested in understanding when they hear it: finger choppers can be recursive). Cowboys prefer to imagine that everything comes easy to them, now that the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, and all.

Another common finger chopper is physics abuse, most commonly quantum theory abuse. Now, I happen to have actually studied quantum theory, sweaty pencil in hand, slide rule on belt (I’m old) , Ph.D. physicist who helped to develop the theory at the blackboard, and more PDQs swimming around in my head than I ever want to experience again. At no time do I remember my instructor announcing “you see, this means objective reality does not exist”.  Indeed, when I measured, in lab, the speed of an electron to be about five times the speed of light, they didn’t say “wow, what a great subjective reality you have: you can see another plane of existence where one is free of the  conventional limitations of time, energy, and matter”. No, they said “do it over”.

Quantum theory is a rigorous description of objective reality, not a rejection of it.  That physical reality at the particle level doesn’t look much like our macroscopic ordinary daily experience is of little concern, either to modern physicists or to physical reality.  That we can’t precisely measure both a particle’s location and its velocity is not the same statement as “everything is subjective” or “everything is controlled by the mind”.  This isn’t simply my interpretation, equal in value to your interpretation:  the assertion “everything is subjective” looks, mathematically, nothing at all like Heisenberg’s equation.

Again cowboys drag a truth, kicking and screaming, from the comfort of its context, and use their hostage to deliver a ransom note demanding that they be exempted from personal discipline (which is what “everything is subjective” really means).  Where’s a good Zen monk with a sharp knife when you need one?

Of  course quantum abuse is just the latest in a long line of physics abuse. Before quantum abuse, it was relativity (yep, studied that too, and no, everything isn’t relative, butfield equation). Before that there was the magical healing properties of radiation (ooops) and electromagnetism proving all sorts of things it does not (yep, I know Maxwell’s equations, too, and no, none of that stuff is in them either), and before that there was the clockwork perfection of classical mechanics proving the existence of God (ooops again). Physics is a discipline which studies the physical world through the method of science. Physics, like any study of a facet of reality, can be inspiring, and conversely spiritual insights has sometimes helped move physics and mathematics forward. But it is not a vehicle for proving spiritual truths, especially made-up ones about not having to work at anything.

If inspiration from physics is needed, maybe it’s wise to find it in the First Law of Thermodynamics. Because, whether it’s work performed by an isolated system, or spiritual practice, you can’t get something from nothing.

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