A Big KA-BOOM! and a Buddhist Riddle

spacex-rocket-blast-759Yesterday Elon Musk’s rocket blew up and Musk lost nearly $780 million dollars.

The rocket was apparently carrying a satellite owned by Facebook. To me it is astonishing that Facebook had a satellite. Or that anyone has $780 million dollars. I really can’t make much sense out of either of those pieces of information.

But when I read the news I thought I remembered the name Elon Musk from somewhere. I looked him up and remembered where I’d heard of him.

He was the guy who said we’re all living in a computer simulation in the year 10,000 AD. Well, OK, I’m paraphrasing. But here is a quote from Musk that made the rounds of the Interwebs about two months ago:

If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then (computer) games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale.

So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.

You can find the article in which that quote appears right here. To me, this is what happens when someone takes smart so far that they come around full circle and end up at stupid.

But the recent rocketship explosion combined with Musk’s ideas about how we’re living in a computer simulation is sort of a modern day version of an old Zen story.

The story can is in Shobogenzo in a chapter called One Bright Pearl. You can find the translation by my teacher Gudo Nishijima and his student Chodo Mike Cross here. I also wrote about it in my books Sit Down and Shut Up and Don’t Be a Jerk. Here’s how I messed up the story in my paraphrase in the book Don’t Be a Jerk:

Before he was a Zen Master, Gensa Shibi climbed up Mt. Seppo and became a disciple of Master Seppo Gisan (Xuefeng Yicun 822-907 CE). There, Gensa became known for his hard practice and almost stubborn dedication.

But after a while studying with Seppo, Gensa figured it was time to go meet some other teachers so that he could get a more well-rounded education. He packed his bags and started walking toward the temple gate.

Just then he stubbed his toe on a big rock. There was blood all over the place and it hurt like nobody’s business. Gensa thought, “Some say the physical body doesn’t exist, where then is this pain coming from?” He returned to the temple.

Seppo, his teacher, saw him and asked, “What’s up, Mr. Hard Practice?”

Gensa said, “My trouble is I can’t be fooled.”

Seppo said, “Who doesn’t know this deep down? But who else besides you can say it out loud?”

Maybe we could rewrite this story with Elon Musk as Gensa. After his rocket explodes Musk could say, “I thought the whole universe was just a computer simulation in the year 10,000 AD. Where did my $780 million dollars go?”

I’m not sure if Musk would understand things the way Gensa does. But who knows?

I’m not saying this to make fun of Mr. Musk or make him feel even worse than he already does. It wouldn’t matter if I did. He is not a reader of this blog and even if someone forwards a link to it to him, he’s not going to read it. Besides which, maybe if he did see it he’d be like Gensa and have a great awakening! Ha!

Scientifically the computer simulation argument is a dead end because it’s what they call un-falsifiable. There’s no way you could prove it wrong.

It’s just a high-tech version of Gensa’s idea that everything is all in the mind. Instead of “mind” Musk has substituted “computer.” What Gensa discovered when he stubbed his toe on that rock is that arguments like that don’t really matter very much. Even if the physical body is an illusion, it still hurts like hell when you stub your toe. Even if we are living in a computer simulation made by some teenage boy living on Ganymede a thousand years from now, it still sucks when your rocket explodes and Mark Zukerberg disses you on Facebook.

Gensa’s trouble, though, is that he realizes he can’t be fooled, which is usually translated as, “I can’t be deceived.” Here’s what I wrote about that in Sit Down and Shut Up:

When people say stuff like “I can’t be deceived” the emphasis is usually on “I.” Maybe all those other people out there can be deceived but nobody can make a fool out of me! But that’s not what Gensa means here. “I” here is absolutely universal. It refers just as much to you and me as it does to Gensa. He’s not bragging. He might even be a little bit sad when he says, “I can’t be deceived.”

You’re probably thinking; why would he be sad about that? I mean, enlightenment is supposed to be the happiest thing that can ever happen to a person, right? Otherwise why strive for it? But think about it. Imagine a situation where you suddenly realize with absolute certainty that you can never blame anyone else for anything that happens to you. You can’t even blame your circumstances since you know those too are of your own making. You can no longer tell yourself that if only this or that happened then you’d find perfect happiness. Your future has entirely vanished along with your past. It can be a little sad. But it’s sad in a different way than any sadness you ever experienced before. It’s a sadness that knows what sadness really is. It knows that there is no merit in taking hold of sadness, so it lets the sadness drift by. Still, it’s not as if sadness isn’t part of the equation.

The idea that we can ever be deceived is an illusion. When Gensa stubbed his toe on that rock — in other words, when he suddenly came face to face with the undeniable fact that he was living in this world and nowhere else — he understood that he could not be deceived.

This was not some unique, miraculous event, something that could only happen to an advanced student like Gensa either. As his teacher says, “Is there anyone who does not have these words?” Is there anyone, anywhere in the world, throughout all of time who does not come face to face with the real facts of the real world every single moment of every single day? But, says Gensa’s teacher, who else can speak them? In other words, why, oh why, do we keep on insisting that we live in some other reality far removed from the one we encounter all the time?

We all like to pretend we can be deceived. I am certainly no exception. I can understand why so many people, even really smart people, run off and join cults. They want so desperately to be deceived that they’re willing to put up with philosophies that make no sense at all, just so they can have the experience of being deceived. But people who pretend to be deceived by this kind of thing are just fooling themselves. Anyone who falls for any dogma or religion is just trying hard to make people believe they’ve been deceived. Because if other people believe it, maybe they can too. There’s a very good, very practical reason for this. See, when you’ve been deceived nothing you do is really your fault. You can be just like the Nazis. “I was just following orders,” you can plead. “I was deceived!” It’s a way of deferring all responsibility. You might even get away with it because this whole world is run by dumb-asses who also want to be able to use that excuse if it ever comes down to it.

But it’s a lame excuse. No decent Zen teacher would ever accept it. I used to come to my teachers with variations of that one all the time. “I was deceived! Please help me. Please tell me what’s really true!”

“Nobody’s tricked you, you moron,” they’d say. “You know what the truth is. Stop being such a bonehead and take a look at it.”

Putting away the idea that you can be deceived is hard work. You want to believe that the Answer to Everything is in the possession of someone other than yourself. That you’ll have to look all over the world to find it. That you need to read lots and lots of books, visit lots and lots of teachers, think hard, study hard, then maybe one day you’ll find it. All you’re doing, though, is denying the fact that the answer is staring you right in the face and has been ever since you were born. It won’t go away. It can’t go away.

If you can understand that you can’t be deceived, you can understand pretty much any of these old Zen stories. Which leads nicely to the final story I want to look at here. It’s all about giving up the idea that you can ever be deceived and discovering the truth for yourself.

When your $780 million dollar rocket blows up, maybe then you might notice that you can never be deceived.

Or not…

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