Places Science Cannot Reach

mad_scientistThere was an exchange in the comments section here recently that went something like this:

COMMENTER A: And while he (meaning me, Brad) is a pretty strong supporter of science he’s always said that he thought there are places that science can’t reach — that goes as far back as Hardcore Zen (the book).

COMMENTER B: Yeah, this is a big part of what bothers me about the new book, and I do realize that it does go all the way back to Hardcore Zen. It has always bothered me, and I have always thought it a consequence of Brads lack of science knowledge or education.

You can learn a lot of things by staring at a wall, and many very important things, I will give you give you this. But there are many, many things that you can NEVER learn by staring at a wall. These also are Very important things.
So when you plainly state that there are things that science cannot reach…
Really shows a lack of science knowledge, and not that you know something that science doesn’t.

Yet I continue to insist that there are things that science cannot reach.

This conversation has continued in the comments section and taken some different turns. But I think that I ought to try and clarify what I mean since the commenters may not be the only ones for whom what I said was confusing.

I think that my saying that and having said recently that science doesn’t yet have an agreed-upon theory for why the universe exists at all (it started with the Big Bang, but why did the Big Bang happen? Where did the stuff come from?) makes people think that when I say there are things science cannot reach I must be referring to stuff like that. Like I’m one of those guys who says that since science can’t explain absolutely everything then we ought to believe in God. I’m not. I think those people are being stupid.

Some readers seem to assume I mean that science will never explain the existence of the universe. But I think it’s highly probable that there will one day be a scientific explanation for why the physical universe exists that will be backed up by enough observation and evidence that most scientists will agree with it. I imagine that in order for that to happen science may have to change a lot and may have to incorporate aspects of what we now call “mysticism.” But I could be wrong. Maybe there a nice clean nuts and bolts explanation that won’t sound at all mystical.

In any case, that’s not what I’m talking about when I say there are things that science cannot reach. What I mean is that science is, by necessity, limited in the types of things it can inquire into.

For example, what is love?

Science may be able to explain love in terms of heart rate, endorphin levels, galvanic responses, changes in blood pressure, changes in activity in specific regions of the brain, and so forth. But would that tell you what love is?

Science can’t tell us what love is because that’s not what science does. I find some of the recent theories about the activities of oxytocin fascinating. If you’re on a hot date, it can be informative to know that changes in oxytocin levels may be affecting your cognitive processes. But that still doesn’t tell you what love is.

I remember when I first grokked this concept. Someone was challenging Nishijima Roshi when he said something similar about the limitations of science. I can’t remember his complete response but I do remember four words of it and those four words were, “a girl is crying.” I can still hear how he said those words, his accent, his idiosyncratic intonation when speaking English, the image that came to my mind upon hearing those words. It was a big deal to me. Funny, huh?

But I too was one of those people who very strongly objected to the notion of there being any gaps in the world of scientific inquiry. I knew there were things science hadn’t explained yet. But I also believed that given enough time and enough research there was nothing science couldn’t one day explain.

Now I don’t think so.

And if I may be so bold, I would include God among those things that science won’t ever really get.

Again, God as an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing is easy to refute. I don’t posit God as an explanation for the Big Bang or any of that nonsense.

But there’s another way of understand this word “God.” God is like love. It’s something we experience that can’t be explained away. Or even when it can be explained, the explanations really don’t finalize anything for anyone.

Scientific knowledge is objective knowledge. It is the knowledge of things as objects. But God (or whatever you want to call it) can never be an object. Yet God is also not totally subjective either. The separation of subject and object break down at some point and that is the point that I am provisionally calling “God.”

Here is what the same commenter said to me by email:

You mentioned in your comment that you “believe” in science.
Science is not something that you believe in.  It is something that you do.  It is a process.  It is a process that is so basic and fundamental, that we do it all the time.  And I’m not talking about using the technologies that have been developed through science.  I’m talking about the basic scientific process.  No one could live without it.  There is nothing to “believe” in.
If you hold that the process does not work for something.  That would be a position to hold.  But there is nothing about “belief”. 

But I would also suggest that a certain degree of faith or belief is required in science. I’m going to paraphrase Karen Armstrong’s A Case for God here. The words “faith” and “belief” used to indicate something more like trust or commitment. Jesus wasn’t asking anyone to believe that the theories he proposed were true in the way we use the word “believe” these days. He was asking them to trust him and to commit to his teachings.

In the 17th century scientists began using the word “belief” to mean “intellectual ascent to a hypothetical proposition.” For example, if you didn’t actually do the calculations Copernicus did you could say you nonetheless believed them to be correct based on your faith in Copernicus being a competent scientist and in others who may have duplicated his calculations.

I myself believe in general relativity 1) because I trust that Einstein did the math and that others have replicated his equations even though I can’t understand them any more than Richard Dawkins understands the Holy Trinity and 2) because I’m typing this on a computer that works, in part, because Einstein got it right.

But often I don’t have something like #2 above to go on, in which case it’s just faith alone. Because I’m hopeless at math and all I can do is trust people who are better at it. I therefore believe in science in almost the same way as the folks who built the Creation Museum in Kentucky believe in the Bible. I take science as authoritative. I would argue that there is far more hard evidence for my belief in science than their belief in the Bible (see my example above of my computer and add in high rise buildings, automobiles, jet planes, Western medicine and a zillion other pieces of very solid evidence I interact with all the time). But in the end, internally the process is much the same. Someone I trust says something and I take it on faith that it’s true.

I would further add that my belief in zazen is not completely unscientific. For 2500 years or more, thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions) of human beings have done a controlled experiment with their own bodies and minds and have reported very similar results. These results tend to be phrased, much like scientific results, in language that only those who have done the experiment themselves can comprehend. However, many of these experimenters have produced literature aimed at lay people to explain in ordinary language what they experienced. Like scientists, they’ve had to rely on metaphorical descriptions to get their point across. Also, like scientists, they are usually quick to caution us that these metaphors should not be taken literally.

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75 Responses

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  1. Mumon
    Mumon July 23, 2013 at 9:42 am |

    As an applied scientist, …

    There are “places science doesn’t reach” because it’s not in its range of discourse. “What caused the Big Bang?” is largely, if not entirely irrelevant from the standpoint of physics.

    You could learn quantum physics, or get a grasp of the concepts. It isn’t mysticism, it is skill at understanding a body of what we can best call knowledge.

    And Zen is useful, too.

    1. Eleutherios
      Eleutherios July 23, 2013 at 11:02 am |

      How is what caused the big bang any more irrelevant to physicists than what caused amino acids to combine into DNA to biologists ??

    2. Alan Sailer
      Alan Sailer July 23, 2013 at 3:02 pm |


      I don’t strongly disagree with what you are saying but I do believe a fair number of physicists are trying to figure out what caused the Big Bang. It’s way out of my pay grade but some sort of fluctuation in the Higgs Field is part of one of the theories. Lawrence Krauss’s book “A Universe from Nothings” is an examination of current theories of the cause of the universe.

      And apropos of nothing, if someone was to tell me that I could give up either forever not knowing what ice cream tasted like or loosing all my scientific knowledge, I’d pick loosing all my scientific knowledge.

      Science, bless it’s pointy little head, can tell me about fats, sugar, texture, cold, molecular interactions, etc until my brain bleeds.

      But science can never, ever tell me what ice cream tastes like. That’s my bailiwick…

      Likewise Krause and his ilk can explain the origin of the universe to their hearts content, but I’d trade it all for a cool, dark night in my backyard looking at the stars.

      And I’m damn lucky, I don’t have to even choose, because I can have both….


  2. blake
    blake July 23, 2013 at 9:55 am |

    Science is merely a tool for removing human bias out of observations. It works really well but it cannot tell you everything.

    Sitting zazen is merely a tool for removing personal bias out of observations. It works really well but it cannot tell you everything.

  3. mika
    mika July 23, 2013 at 10:19 am |

    I’ve always wondered how much the results people get from practicing zazen are influenced by the teachings they’ve had, since (practically) nobody comes to zazen on their own without having heard anything about it or meditation or buddhism or all that stuff.

    If you could get a bunch of dudes who have never heard about any religion to do zazen for years, would the results be the same what zen buddhists get?

    It’s plausible that the answer is yes, because after all the underlying human brain and psyche are the same. But it’s also possible that our experiences and expectations affect how we experience any new practice we take up, and I think it’s highly likely that if you keep reading and hearing about buddhist teachings and zazen experiences you’ll create sort of a feedback loop that will in the end get you what you’ve been expecting.

    1. TheTempleWithin
      TheTempleWithin July 29, 2013 at 1:49 am |

      Mika, good stuff, but a true understanding of zen is free of such looped feedback. There comes a point in zazen where you pretty much give up everything, expectations, everything, you just don’t give a rat’s ass anymore, enlightenment is the biggest lie and you don’t care anymore. Not one bit…it’s all just a bad joke. And than you get it, or it gets you. Buddha was never a dude that i followed, he’s was only ever someone that i could relate to.
      Given that, it’s hard to say if you put some dude’s in a room who’s never heard of zen before and got them to sit, it’s hard to say if they would have the same effects. Perhaps this is a dumb question, but i often wondered why people in a prison cell have never had similar effects? I mean it’s somewhat reflective of the ultimate boredom of staring at a wall, of coming to terms with this moment that we find ourselves not able to escape. I don’t know.

  4. Eleutherios
    Eleutherios July 23, 2013 at 11:08 am |

    Brad, why do you say god isn’t an object/process that can be analyzed by science? I’m still of the belief that science can eventually explain everything that we humans experience and observe, and I see no logical reason that anything could be outside the reach of science. The neuroscience research into meditation, spirituality and emotion has only supported this idea for me.
    Feelings like love and god are products of and exist in the material world and can therefore be analyzed objectively.
    Am I misunderstanding your position?

  5. Steve
    Steve July 23, 2013 at 12:40 pm |

    To say that the world is resting on the wheel of space or on the wheel of wind is not the truth of the self or the truth of others. Such a statement is based only on a small view. People speak this way because they think that it must be impossible to exist without having a place on which to rest.

    Science seems pretty good at explaining how one particular ape-like thing thinks about what it experiences. The ape thinks it can see because there is light that reflects off the eyeball. But it rarely thinks that light exists because there are eyeballs.

  6. shade
    shade July 23, 2013 at 2:57 pm |

    Am I mistaken or did Brad Warner just call me stupid? (“commenter A” – that’s yours truly). I guess this is one of the problems with trying to conduct a conversation with anonymous strangers on the internets. Well maybe I misunderstand (yet again) but if so – I hate to admit it, but that would make me kind of sad.

    1. mtto
      mtto July 23, 2013 at 4:42 pm |

      I interpreted what Brad wrote as calling stupid those who believe in the “God of the gaps” argument.

  7. Fred
    Fred July 23, 2013 at 4:20 pm |

    Wiki: “According to quantum mechanics, the vacuum state is not truly empty but instead contains fleeting electromagnetic waves and particles that pop into and out of existence”

    Strassler states that virtual particles are really disturbances in a field.

    So can science explain whether a dog has Buddha nature or not.?

  8. Fred
    Fred July 23, 2013 at 4:28 pm |

    Some may think that a Zen Zombie is a virtual entity in the Mu Vacuum, but it’s
    really a disturbance in the Buddha Field.

  9. Fred
    Fred July 23, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
  10. Brent
    Brent July 23, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    1. Jules
      Jules July 24, 2013 at 8:16 am |

      “Love: an emergent property of the mammalian autonomic nervous system. ~ Dr. Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D”

      That’s what I tell my wife, too: “I am experiencing an emergent property in my mammalian autonomic nervous system.”

      Then she’s all like, “Yes, I am also experiencing an emergent property in my mammalian autonomic nervous system.”

      Then, we shake hands.

  11. shade
    shade July 23, 2013 at 6:47 pm |

    Jumping into the fray again….

    I like the idea of God existing in the space between the objective and the subjective (or is it the convergence between the two??) – especially since these two things are generally regarded as mutually exclusive. But I think it also touches on the problem of proving the existence of God by means of the scientific method. I know I’m asking for it again, but here’s my two cents, for what it’s worth:

    If God exists He exists everywhere. That is, He infuses all things including ourselves (most of all ourselves, I would argue). Trying to prove His existence by recourse to empirical evidence is therefore, absurd. Only that which is external to ourselves can be “tested” in this manner. The mistake most atheists make is in regarding God as an external object; also precisely the reason they fail to detect so much as the footprint of the divine.
    Another way to put it: God abides within each of us eternally. To attempt to subject Him to scientific scrutiny is like trying to locate one’s beating heart on the other side of the room. Or better yet – like trying to observe one’s own death (another random movie recommendation: there are two fascinating films on that very subject, Micheal Powell’s Peeping Tom and Peter Greenway’s A Zed and Two Naughts. Both very arty and disturbing, if you’re into that sort of thing).

    I’m also intrigued by the idea of scientific truths being taken on authority (or “expertise” if you will). Of course everyone does this to some extent, including scientists themselves. It’s pretty much impossible not to. But if we accept the proclamations made by science without testing them for ourselves, without doubt or question – how is science different from any other religious doctrine or authoritarian system?

  12. Fred
    Fred July 24, 2013 at 5:27 am |


    “If you could get a bunch of dudes who have never heard about any religion to do zazen for years, would the results be the same what zen buddhists get?”

    Brad Warner:

    “The reason I cannot fix a date on it is that the incident occurred outside of time. I know that sounds bizarre. But this was something Tim had told me about so-called enlightenment experiences. We usually think that everything happens at a specific point in time. Well, ”¨this didn’t. And maybe nothing really does. But we’ll leave that aside for now.

    Although this happened to me, Brad, in a city called Tokyo on a certain day of the week in a specific year, the incident did not occur on a specific day in a specific location to anyone in particular. It occurred throughout time and everywhere in the universe. It did not happen only to me. It happened just as much to you.

    To even say that it was an “incident” that “happened” does not do it justice. It was not an isolated event. It was and is the true condition of all things all the time. It was as much a living, breathing entity as you or I, maybe more so. It wasn’t merely an incident that happened. It was also a presence that was, is, and always will be there. It underlies everything. It is the very basis of all experience. It was more me than I could ever be. But it was not me at all.”

    When you enter an all pervading ” not me at all ” the known doesn’t shape it.

    The Unselfing doesn’t mirror what the self believed about zen.

  13. zaroff
    zaroff July 24, 2013 at 6:33 am |

    When any human questions the limitations of such an edifice as science, it would seem that the ‘opposed’ or ‘oppressed’ takes a contrary stance to every word issuing from the lips of the commentator. Commonly this occurs with religious stances too, which suggests when a question is posed or aimed at the edifice/structure, damage will be incurred. So perhaps such strong reactions and misreadings of Brad Warner Speak is due to jumping to conclusions as to his ulterior motive or what he mayhave not expressed explicitly or sufficiently enough for the hearer (scientist or religious persons). In short, it appears to me, that zen & it’s ilk is a measuring and experiencing & a sense of being, using the human operator as the measuring device! Perhaps scientists find this fallible and limited creature, human, a poor replacement for highly regarded machinery. However, in the instance of meditative or mysticism, one can only use oneself, at least as the instigator. The limits of science, and it certainly is limited as it cannot replicate the human mind by the second for example, are not cause for concern. Mystical and mysticism have their own limits, science has its own. Brad Warner invariably considers his interest in pursuing an experiment utilising himself, he is free i presume, to have an opinion on the limitation of science which seeks to explain, whereas his efforts seek primarily to explore from the centre of his being. Just a thought.

  14. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 24, 2013 at 8:01 am |

    “Science is merely a tool for removing human bias out of observations. It works really well but it cannot tell you everything.

    Sitting zazen is merely a tool for removing personal bias out of observations. It works really well but it cannot tell you everything.”

    Scientists can get pretty biased behind a theory; witness the current continued prevalence of the view that cholesterol is related to the intake of fat in the diet, and cholesterol should be avoided- therefore eat grains and vegetable oils. Turns out that line of action results in more heart attacks, not less, but our medical scientists promoted it for years on the suggestion of a mere possibility.

    Is sitting zazen a tool for removing personal bias from observations? Just as scientists become biased behind a particular hypothesis and the language that supports it, I think sitters can become biased behind particular modalities of practice, certain notions of the role of practice in society, and certain vocabulary.

    I don’t seem to be able to practice zazen without the element of investigation, and the investigation that is a part of my practice is largely in terms of kinesthesiology, sensory perception, and hypnogogic phenomena. Makes Zen students want to puke.

  15. Fred
    Fred July 24, 2013 at 8:09 am |


    “And the Buddha declared, “Brahman, there is the non-materialism that your various externalist ways are not able to know, because they use the means of external natures, untruths, antithetical conceptions, deceptive reckonings, and attachments. I designate not giving birth to antithetical conceptions and the complete realization that existence and nonexistence are nothing but the manifestations of one’s own mind. By not giving birth to antithetical conceptualizations and not receiving external dusts, the antithetical conceptualizations are forever stopped.”

  16. mjkawa
    mjkawa July 24, 2013 at 9:58 am |

    Hey Brad, thanks for including my ideas in your writing.
    And nice Heinlein drop:)
    Very subtle.

    But I think that there are still some very basic misconceptions, or maybe misuse of terms concerning science.

    “But in the end, internally the process is much the same. Someone I trust says something and I take it on faith that it’s true.”

    Of course no one person can do the calculations for every concept, or do the experiments, that back up all of the theories. But the point is, that the evidence its there for all too see. And for all to critique, and for all to improve.
    You cant learn EVERY thing that humans have understood through science, But you certainly can learn ANY thing. Because the methodologies, and techniques, maths, and data are there for all too see.
    So on any topic for which I dont have the time or capability to do the research myself, I dont TRUST the people that do. I trust the system that all scientist work within. (and of course individual scientists all have biases, and blindspots, thats why we use the system)

    Shade said ” how is science different from any other religious doctrine or authoritarian system? ”

    Above is precisely how science is different. Religious doctrine, or authoritarian systems dont have the evidence in the open for all to discuss, and improve. Just word from above, that must be obeyed.

    Science is a process that is absolutely antithetical to Religious doctrine, and authoritarian systems!

    ANYONE who has the evidence can overturn ANY concept.

    Also, I was curious, when you talk about zen, and particularly zazen, you often talk about how so many ideas, and feelings, and memories and other such things rise up while you are sitting, and that after a while they will also fall away.
    And that you will begin to see that so many of these mental constructs, that we think are so important will fall away. You will begin to understand that that is just what they are, mental constructs. And that they will fall away.
    God is obviously a mental construct. Why not just let it fall away??

  17. magic
    magic July 24, 2013 at 12:51 pm |

    “The great masters tell us that the most important question in the world is: “Who am I?” Or rather: “What is ‘I’? What is this thing I call “I”? What is this thing I call self? You mean you understood everything else in the world and you didn’t understand this? You mean you understood astronomy and black holes and quasars and you picked up computer science, and you don’t know who you are? My, you are still asleep. You are a sleeping scientist. You mean you understood what Jesus Christ is and you don’t know who you are?

    How do you know that you have understood Jesus Christ? Who is the person doing the understanding? Find that out first. That’s the foundation of everything, isn’t it? …

    But what I’d like to stress right now is self-observation. You are listening to me, but are you picking up any other sounds besides the sound of my voice as you listen to me? Are you aware of your reactions as you listen to me? If you aren’t, you’re going to be brainwashed. Or else you are going to be influenced by forces within you of which you have no awareness at all. And even if you’re aware of how you react to me, are you simultaneously aware of where your reaction is coming from? Maybe you are not listening to me at all; maybe your daddy is listening to me. Do you think that’s possible? Of course it is.

    Again and again in my therapy groups I come across people who aren’t there at all. Their daddy is there, their mommy is there, but they’re not there. They never were there. “I live now, not I, but my daddy lives in me.” Well, that’s absolutely, literally true. I could take you apart piece by piece and ask, “Now, this sentence, does it come from Daddy, Mommy, Grandma, Grandpa, whom?”

    Who’s living in you? It’s pretty horrifying when you come to know that. You think you are free, but there probably isn’t a gesture, a thought, an emotion, an attitude, a belief in you that isn’t coming from someone else. Isn’t that horrible? And you don’t know it. Talk about a mechanical life that was stamped into you. You feel pretty strongly about certain things, and you think it is you who are feeling strongly about them, but are you really? It’s going to take a lot of awareness for you to understand that perhaps this thing you call “I” is simply a conglomeration of your past experiences, of your conditioning and programming.”

    Anthony De Mello

  18. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 24, 2013 at 2:12 pm |

    “ANYONE who has the evidence can overturn ANY concept.”

    As it turns out, it’s really difficult sometimes to get scientists to see the evidence, and what it means.

    There’s a great underground of medical evidence out there that the AMA doesn’t care to pursue. For example, there has never been a national test of the health benefits of the hormone progesterone, not the progestins made by the drug companies that are a molecule or two different from what’s in the human body, but the one that is identical to the one in the human body and can’t be patented. Dr. John Lee spent his retirement years until his death educating women about the benefits of “natural” progesterone, which is synthesized but molecularly identical to the human hormone; he was speaking to groups of women because the doctors didn’t want to hear about it, and at the time he started the doctors were all prescribing estrogen and hormone replacement therapy. That turned out to cause a lot of cancer, and probably contributed to some heart deaths, but even though Dr. Lee had the science from the library for progesterone the definition of malpractice is that you are not doing what the rest of the medical community is doing. Has nothing to do with science.

    I think there’s a close parallel with religious institutions and doctrinal teachings.

    1. Alan Sailer
      Alan Sailer July 24, 2013 at 7:50 pm |


      Once again I have no major issues with your post but some of the statements brought up a few questions.

      If no national tests were made on progesterone, then where does the claim of causing a lot of cancer and some heart deaths come from?

      And what is “science from the library” mean? My understanding is that science usually involves experiments, not looking up data in a library.

      I’d also have to disagree with that definition of malpractice. It seems a little cynical.

      Malpractice could be a mistaken majority imposing it’s consensus on a maverick doctor, but much more often it means an incompetent doctor doing something wrong.

      Finally I agree that medical science can be guilty of following trends without asking for evidence. And further, that the scientific evidence can be profit driven rather than truth driven.

      This subject is interesting to me because I kind of have a foot in both camps, the scientific weirdo and the zen wacko camp.

      My flags go up when either side seems to make unwarranted claims.


  19. mjkawa
    mjkawa July 24, 2013 at 2:24 pm |

    Mark Foote

    Of course it is difficult. Humans and societies, and cultures are very complex.

    Isnt this and example of economic, and political problems that interfere with the real science?
    Not an issue with science itself.
    There will always be these kind of entanglements with the pursuit of knowledge.
    It just shows that we need to continually strive to be better scientists.

  20. Brent
    Brent July 24, 2013 at 6:45 pm |

    lol, jules rules : )

  21. BruceLee
    BruceLee July 25, 2013 at 2:32 am |

    I read all this as a very convoluted way of saying
    “god is a way to explain that which I don’t understand”.
    Which is fair. But weak. And obvious.
    And, worst of all, has a tendency to take the sense of exploration and wonder out of things. An aspect to the scientific approach is the never-ending urge to try and understand.
    Which is how we will grow as a species.
    And eventually wipe ourselves from the planet.

    1. mjkawa
      mjkawa July 25, 2013 at 9:19 pm |

      Bruce, Well said!

  22. Mumbles
    Mumbles July 25, 2013 at 4:47 am |

    “…When he saw him in the street, he seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and began to run off, but Gutei called out to him. When the boy turned to look, Gutei raised his finger into the air. At that moment the boy became enlightened.”

    What’s a finger compared to all your cash? I’d say he got off pretty easy. Gutei must not have heard that one about “No, that’s not it.”

    When you peel away the onion you expect to find nothing, but that’s not true, you still have fingers.

  23. shade
    shade July 25, 2013 at 7:41 am |

    mjkawa said:

    “Above is precisely how science is different. Religious doctrine, or authoritarian systems dont have the evidence in the open for all to discuss, and improve. Just word from above, that must be obeyed.

    Science is a process that is absolutely antithetical to Religious doctrine, and authoritarian systems!

    ANYONE who has the evidence can overturn ANY concept.”

    So basically what you’re saying is that science is not mixed up in the occult the way religion invariably is? And by occult I simply mean “hidden knowledge” – not neccesarily anything supernatural.

    This, to my mind, is a basically 18th century view of science and not a bad one at that – in fact, a very noble one. Certainly this is the way that science should ideally work, slashing through collective superstition and the suppression of information – or dissemination of false information – for the purposes of social control. From what I understand this is what the intellectual types of the enlightenment were aiming at.

    The problem is that this isn’t how the progress of science has actually tricked out in the following centuries. In our day and age I would argue that science is very much wrapped up in the occult. What I mean is, a great deal of scientific discoveries and technological advances are deliberately cached, sometimes for egoistical reasons (intellectual property rights and all that), but more often for economic reasons. I.e. greed. How many infants and children have been denied access to life saving medical treatment because some company held a patent on that treatment and refused to sell it at a cost which everyone could afford? Likewise, how many companies have obfuscated information that their products had harmful repercussions – and often times using scientific studies and rhetoric to this very end (albeit in a very twisted and manipulative manner)? Medicine, motor vehicles, industrial pollution, ect., ect. – and don’t even get me started on the fucking psychiatric industry.

    Now I realize all scientists or even the companies who employ scientists work this way. Jonas Salk is a obvious example to the contrary. But it happens often enough to put some cracks in the notion that science is a panacea to the social and psychological ills caused by religious trickery. Some would argue that if we take pride and greed out of the picture everything about the material universe could be known, and not just to an educated elite, but to everyone. That may well be, but my question is why we seem no closer to that goal than we were three thousand years ago? Why is it that scientists, who are supposed to be so clear-headed, still manage to get wrapped up in the same sort of ugliness as the superstitious? Certainly scientists have been successfully courted by tyrannical political regimes, including the Nazis and the Stalinists. And certainly there’s enough squabbling and bad blood within the scientific community itself, from what I’ve read anyway (though, to be fair, scientists don’t tend to literally bludgeon one another as often as Catholics and Protestants or Sunnis and Shiites).

    Sometimes I wonder if assumption that scientists are more clear-headed – less subject to delusion than those who are not so scientifically-minded – might be part of the problem. A person who thinks they are immune to delusion is perhaps less likely to recognize their own delusions as such. If we don’t see the weeds in our garden – or worse, mistake them for flowers – we’re not too likely to attempt to root them out.
    ps. apologies for another comment way longer than I intended.

    1. mjkawa
      mjkawa July 25, 2013 at 9:36 pm |

      Shade, gotta separate the scientists from the science.

      Science is the process. Of course it is practiced by humans who have always had their greed, ego, deceitfulness, as well as passion, good will, and everything else that is human. And always will.

      The process is there, just needs to be practiced well. Not just by the individual. By the team, group, company, legislature, government, society.
      I really dont know what other process there is.

      1. shade
        shade July 26, 2013 at 3:11 pm |

        Can science exist apart from scientists? Actually that sort of sounds like a koan. If the entire human race suddenly vanished off the face of the earth would science not vanish with it? You sort of make science sound like some sort of eternal force that predates and supersedes its human practitioners. Which perhaps it is… but at the same time seems a little peculiar, like science is some sort of invisible, intangible entity that was just waiting around billions of years for the advent of a species through which it could manifest itself in the material universe – a worthy representative, as it were. Which makes science come off a little like certain notions of the almighty.
        Okay, I believe we’re at an impasse and maybe I just don’t know jack about science or scientists. Anyway, I never got further than high school biology. But I still think these are pertinent questions – if also rather queer and migraine-inducing.

  24. Mumbles
    Mumbles July 25, 2013 at 8:39 am |

    The terms enlightenment or buddha or awakened imply tremendous sharpness and precision along with a sense of spaciousness. We can experience this; it is not a myth. We experience a glimpse of it. The point is to start from the glimpse and gradually, as you become more familiar with that glimpse and the possibilities of reigniting it, it happens naturally. A flash occurs, maybe a fraction of a second. These flashes happen constantly, all the time. Faith is realizing that there is some open space and sharpness in your everyday life.
    -Chogyam Trungpa

  25. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 25, 2013 at 9:41 am |

    Trungpa, right on.

    Alan, thanks for asking. What I said about malpractice was what Dr. Lee said at one of his lectures: he said other physicians listened to what he had to say about natural progesterone, but didn’t recommend it to their patients because what everyone was doing at the time was prescribing estrogen, and the definition of medical malpractice is not doing what the majority of other physicians are doing. I’m assuming he was referring to the definition under the law, how it’s applied in court, and that he knew what he was talking about.

    He did, however, say that these same physicians would call him up privately and mention that their sister or mother had been diagnosed with pre-cancerous conditions of the uterus and ask for the details of using a progesterone cream (available over the counter at your local health food store- no known negative side-effects in the eighty years since the details of the large-scale synthesis were first worked out by Percy Levon Julian back in the ’30’s). Very often, the reason that pre-cancerous condition existed, according to Dr. Lee and I believe now also supported as common knowledge by the medical community, is the prescription of estrogen. Dr. Lee pointed out that the hormone that goes away at menopause is progesterone, not estrogen, a fact in confirmed in the library after listening to a lecture by a micro-biologist in Oregon.

    Dr. Michael Shames, also a Marin County practitioner, pointed out in his book on thyroid hormone treatment that many of his patients did very well with the supplement even though they were only border-line low thyroid; many improvements in their general health, a finding echoed by Dr. Lee and by the Dr. on the East coast who was prescribing physiologic doses of hydro-cortisone (that’s the steroid that the human body produces, and physiologic here means in doses similar to what the human body produces). Dr. Shames was part of a study of a chemical release from a refinery in Richmond, California, and his team discovered that people’s minor symptoms disappeared in weeks or months, but even a year later people’s immune systems were in high-gear. He surmised that the physiologic doses of hormone were somehow offsetting heightened immune system activity in his patients.

    Dr. Lee had many examples of patients who had pre-cancerous conditions of the breast or ovaries who, once they stopped using estrogen and started using a progesterone cream, reversed the conditions and returned to normal health. He said the chemical message of estrogen to cells is multiply, whereas the chemical message of progesterone is mature. He looked at the data and concluded that pesticides and other chemicals with xeno-estrogenic compounds in our environment can damage the development of the reproductive organs at about 3 weeks in the womb, and that the damage shows up as early-onset menopause or low testosterone after about thirty-five years.

    So we’re all damaged, mostly, and our immune systems are working harder than they should in a natural world. Anything new there?- not much!

    1. Alan Sailer
      Alan Sailer July 25, 2013 at 12:26 pm |


      Thanks for the reply.

      I obviously can’t say if Dr. Lee has a valid viewpoint since I haven’t studied what he has to say. However he is not doing science when he is both the source of the idea and the anecdotal evidence that he is using to back it up.

      Which is not to say that he is wrong. He obviously doesn’t have the financial backing to run controlled clinical trials.

      It’s an old problem; how to separate the passionate, committed maverick who is right from the passionate, committed maverick who is a nutcase.

      Sometimes time is the only way to tell.


  26. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 25, 2013 at 9:57 am |

    Meanwhile- back at the God ranch-

    ‘”In all present activities, as long as the twin currents of ‘profane’ and ‘holy’ do not arise and vanish, this then is mystic consciousness that is not in the realm of being or nonbeing yet is fully perceptive and aware. It is just that it has no emotional consciousness or binding attachments. That is why the sixth founder of Zen said that the senses discerning objects is not consciousness.”

    This is how the national teacher spoke about the teaching of the inanimate. That is, he said that as long as profanity and holiness do not appear and disappear in the midst of activities, this is mystic consciousness that is not in the province of either existence or nonexistence, yet is fully aware. People usually think that ‘inanimate’ means things like walls, pebbles, lamps, and pillars. This is not what the teacher is saying. He means there is a mystic consciousness in which the views of ordinariness and holiness are not divided, emotional attachments to illusion and enlightenment are not produced– it is not conceivable by emotional assessments and discrimination, it is not the movements of birth and death, coming and going. This mystic consciousness is fully perceptive and aware, but it is not sentimental or cognitive clinging.

    Therefore Dongshan said that one must understand this way in order to merge with being as is. If you know that wherever you are you go on alone, you will never be apart from being as is. That is why an ancient said, “There is no knowledge outside of suchness that is proved by suchness, no suchness outside of knowledge that is cultivated by knowlege.”‘ (Denkoroku, #39).

    Mystic consciousness === God?

    “If you know that wherever you are you go on alone, you will never be apart from being as is.” Hmmm, wherever you are? Where is that, and what has that to do with the action of going on alone (as in action without context, I would guess)?

    Ok, have no coughing or sighing in the mind, mind like a wall (or pillar or lamp or pebbles?) is best”- Bodhidharma

  27. Fred
    Fred July 25, 2013 at 12:38 pm |

    “If you know that wherever you are you go on alone, you will never be apart from being as is.” Hmmm, wherever you are? Where is that, and what has that to do with the action of going on alone (as in action without context, I would guess)?”

    “To even say that it was an “incident” that “happened” does not do it justice. It was not an isolated event. It was and is the true condition of all things all the time. It was as much a living, breathing entity as you or I, maybe more so. It wasn’t merely an incident that happened. It was also a presence that was, is, and always will be there. It underlies everything. It is the very basis of all experience. It was more me than I could ever be. But it was not me at all.

  28. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 25, 2013 at 2:37 pm |

    regarding Brad’s statement quoted by Fred above, sure puts me in mind of the God Helmet:

    Alan, you can read the science, Dr. Lee goes through the important points in his book “What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause”. He went to Harvard on a scholarship, and to me he sounds like he has a great grasp of chemistry and biology, subjects I never did well in.

    But yes, you are right; without the authority of the institution, who can tell the difference between the quack and the doctor? And most folks trust their doctor and the authority invested in him or her by the fact that he or she got the paperwork and hasn’t been sued for malpractice.

    Same with Zen teachers.

    The stuff about mystic consciousness, my take is that this is Taoism mixed into Buddhism. I’m not saying that there isn’t a continuity of consciousness connected with the relaxed movement of breath, and I have written about why the man says it begins here and acts alone; I’m only saying that when we get into the assumption of a continuity in consciousness rather than rejecting the continuity of consciousness (as Gautama did) we lose the ability to describe relationships without contradicting ourselves or giving rise to paradoxes.

    Thing is, a focus on the mind without the movement of breath is deceptive. That is why I was so delighted to find the one from India in China saying “have no sighing or coughing in the mind; a mind like a wall is best.” That is why I believe Robert Monroe when he said his fail-safe way to return to the body was to feel his own breathing. Everybody seems to want to be able to leave the body behind, why is that; like Jesus said:

    “If the flesh has come into existence because of the spirit, it is a marvel; but if the spirit (has come into existence) because of (the body) it is a marvel of marvels. But I marvel at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty.” (Gospel of Thomas 29)

  29. Fred
    Fred July 25, 2013 at 3:18 pm |


    What I quoted from Brad doesn’t have the word God in it. It is the description of

    “wherever you are you go on alone, you will never be apart from being as is”

    What is realized is ” not me at all ” and goes on alone but is never apart from
    the suchness of ” being as is “.

  30. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 25, 2013 at 6:42 pm |

    Fred, when I posted the God Helmet link, I was thinking about this:

    “It wasn’t merely an incident that happened. It was also a presence that was, is, and always will be there. ”

    Ok, so rereading this, Brad probably wasn’t referring to the feeling of an actual presence.

    “Bodhidharma asked, ‘Where are we going?’ Huike said, ‘Please go right ahead– that’s it.’ Bodhidharma said, ‘If you go right ahead, you cannot move a step.'” Denkoroku #30

    Going on alone, without going right ahead, then.

  31. Muddy Elephant
    Muddy Elephant July 25, 2013 at 11:00 pm |

    Brad I thought you might be interested in a book called “A General Theory of Love”. If there is to be a science of emotions and/or love this book makes some very big strides in that direction.

  32. apotropaix
    apotropaix July 26, 2013 at 9:11 am |

    Well, after that delightful story about children getting their fingers cut off, I’ll jump right in with a comment to risk my own lovely fingers.
    Ah what the heck, I hear Brad’s giving lessons on one-fingered bass playing.

    Isn’t Zazen an expression purely of religious faith?
    (Yes, I said it and I am one of the biggest atheists I know).
    One can scientifically investigate Zazen and that’s great and beautiful…
    …but aren’t Science & Zazen completely distinct?
    If one sits Zazen because scientific investigations induce us to believe it will have a positive aspect on our lives, that seems a bit goal-ish and irrelevant (sorry to sound so pretentious, just to be succinct).
    Humans cannot intellectually comprehend/explain Nature’s “goal”.
    I sit Zazen because….well…um…I sit Zazen?
    (OK of course I myself sit down on the Zafu to escape my neurosis and other illusory goals…zendos are a great place to pick up chicks, kidding!..but I’m sure that’s an obstacle to actually sitting Zazen).
    Nature awards me the capability/right to do things without a particular goal because our goals are simply fabricated lies (harsh! Personally, I have several important goals which I am irrevocably attached to). Doing things without a goal is not wasting time…it’s our true nature. Does an electron have a goal?
    One can analyze God until the cows come home, it has little relation to the act itself (trying to understand it just makes it harder to “harmonize”).

    I offer up a virtual finger for my sin of talking about something of which I have absolutely no clue.

  33. Fred
    Fred July 26, 2013 at 10:59 am |

    ” Does an electron have a goal ”

  34. Wedged
    Wedged July 26, 2013 at 12:10 pm |

    K, weird. After reading this post I clicked a random link off MSNBC and when the page loaded the article was titled “Science is powerful, but it cannot explain everything”.

    Queue Twilight Zone theme song

  35. Cidercat
    Cidercat July 26, 2013 at 4:05 pm |

    Sitting is science. Mysticism is the direct opposite of private subjective experience.

  36. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 26, 2013 at 4:13 pm |

    “a state in which it fails to make sense, where is the basketball…”
    Waves of possibilities when we’re not looking, a particle when we are. Thanks, Fred!

  37. Mumbles
    Mumbles July 26, 2013 at 4:28 pm |

    Science rules! Just back from same day sinus surgery, stoned for sure, but breathing again through my nose after years and years (this severely f-d up my practice awhile back) maybe I’ll turn a new leaf, be less grouchy. Mystic god-filled love to all you crazy diamonds! It lives!! It lives!!

    1. Harlan
      Harlan July 27, 2013 at 9:24 pm |

      turning leaves is where it’s at mumbles.. Glad your breathing better.

      1. Mumbles
        Mumbles July 28, 2013 at 5:52 am |

        Many thanks, Harlan, doing quite well, thanks…that was a cool set by David and G.E., and reminds me of the phone intake I had to do b4 going in to the hospital: the young woman asked quite a lot of personal questions, which I delighted in giving straight answers to, for ex. “have you had any dental work, any missing teeth?….do you drink? etc… At the end, I said “well, you must get quite a mental image of the people you speak w/”…”Yes I do” she replied. “You must think I’m a toothless whisky drinking hillbilly!” sez I, (and of course, that’s pretty close LOL.) & as the song said…”ain’t much to country living!”

  38. zaroff
    zaroff July 27, 2013 at 10:34 am |

    Throw a scientist into a shark filled ocean, suddenly, god is a shark.

  39. toothless_tiger
    toothless_tiger July 27, 2013 at 10:56 am |

    This is quite the comment thread. I had to chime in, as a former scientist and a meditator.

    As to places science cannot reach: this was very clearly layed out in the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. All we can do is model the measurements we make. If our model is good, then we accurately predict our measurements. If not, we need to change our model. Our model, however, should never be confused with reality.

    Scientists are just as susceptible to confirmation bias as everyone else. As the saying goes, most scientific discoveries are heralded not by “Eureka!” but instead by something like “that’s weird, is there something wrong with the instruments?”

    People who are in careers made possible by science, and who depend on scientific results to practice their professions, are not necessarily scientists themselves. See the aforementioned cholesterol freak-out, which is one of the direct causes of the obesity epidemic.

    A scientist who is honest with themselves will freely acknowledge there are places science can’t go. Whether it can go there in the future, we can’t know. Maybe, maybe not.

    Also, science is not the same as technology. Science is a method of inquiry. Science can as well be applied to Zen as to anything else. “I have a hypothesis that if I hold my mind on x subject, it will have y effect”, and you do the experiment, and see if your model is valid.

    One definition of insanity is if you keep doing the same thing but keep expecting a different result. By this definition, science is very sane, and I think Zen is as well.

  40. Fred
    Fred July 28, 2013 at 6:02 am |

    “I have a hypothesis ” = double illusion

    “that if I hold my mind” = double illusion

    on x subject, it will have y effect
    , and you do the experiment,

    “and see if your model is valid” = 3 illusions

  41. Fred
    Fred July 28, 2013 at 6:18 am |

    “To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.

    Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings. Further, there are those who continue realizing beyond realization, who are in delusion throughout delusion.

    When buddhas are truly buddhas they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized buddhas, who go on actualizing buddhas”

  42. shade
    shade July 28, 2013 at 7:50 am |

    “One definition of insanity is if you keep doing the same thing but keep expecting a different result. By this definition, science is very sane, and I think Zen is as well.”

    I’ve been known to quote this statement myself, but at the same time, I’ve often questioned it’s veracity. Say I make myself a pot of coffee at 8 am every morning, using the same coffee pot, the same brand of coffee grounds, the same measure of grounds, the same amount of water. I’m gonna get the same cup of coffee every time, right?

    But what if, unbeknownst to me, one morning my coffee maker blows a fuse? Or a dead insect falls into my grounds (yes, that actually happened to me once. And yet I live to tell the tale)

    Our behavior may be repetitious to the point of ritualism, but the universe in which we live is not. Nothing exists in a vacuum, neither science nor religion nor the quotidian affairs of daily life. And as far as scientific methodology goes – is it possible to foresee and control all the extraneous variables that might skew the data of any given experiment? Some like to think so, but I’m skeptical. At times it makes me wonder if the pursuit of absolute knowledge isn’t a fool’s errand altogether.

  43. Mumbles
    Mumbles July 28, 2013 at 8:08 am |

    R.I.P. The late, great J.J. Cale.

  44. zaroff
    zaroff July 28, 2013 at 8:28 am |

    Causeffect… just interpenetrated a scientist as they were measuring the radiation of a meditating man, who stood up & sneezed on the lens.

  45. Mumbles
    Mumbles July 28, 2013 at 9:01 am |

    I think Brad way back somewhere here related the story of how as a novice monk he would bring his new realizations/questions to Nishijima to basically have them dismissed, and said this is the role of the teacher, to wear down the student until he has nothing more to say.

    It strikes me that this blog ideally causes a similar effect on the commentators, where Brad makes a statement, and the comments generally are reactions of various kinds, the majority on topic, most often to show Brad how realized the commenter thinks he is, or how the commentator’s own thoughts line up with Brad’s, or not.

    Then there are people like myself whose comments are typically only thrown in to entertain, hopefully, or to criticize Brad for not being the teacher I think he tries to portray himself as being (whatever the projection may be that I am responding to).

    So, ultimately, I think as a teacher, Brad is being very successful in patiently being everything to everybody as the opportunity arises, and also think this blog is a very good tool for finally wearing all of us down as to our lingering preconceptions of whatever it is we think “Zen” may be, etc.

    Thanks to you, Brad. I mean it, man.

    “Eat and drink moderately. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a buddha. Zazen has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down.”

    – Zen Master Dogen, “The Principles of Zazen”

  46. Fred
    Fred July 28, 2013 at 9:18 am |

    John, I do not care what Brad thinks of this state of realization or lack thereof.

    Nor do I care what any ” Zen ” master thinks, although I am interested in his
    or her unknowing and how it blends with the everyday self in the everyday

    “Zazen has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down” Hahaha

  47. Fred
    Fred July 28, 2013 at 9:24 am |

    At first I did not understand what Brad was saying about being an entertainer,
    until I read about the people coming to his talks were just there to be
    entertained by his words and had no intention of facing a wall.

  48. Mumbles
    Mumbles July 28, 2013 at 12:16 pm |

    I think what Brad is expressing as an “entertainer” has more to do with “calling off the search,” while making it as fun as possible, why not? Where does one start? Is it not by being romantic about the whole spiritual thing, whatever it may be for you, investigating it, questioning it, being entertained by it, until you get tired of it and the “you/ego” that started this thing as something to be “realized” is suddenly not important anymore, nor is anything particularly important or more so than anything else?

    Nityananda said that all is lila, the play of consciousness; Nisargaddata said it simply “all is entertainment.”

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