Master Minkowski’s Wild Ducks (Zen and the Glass Block Universe)Thursday, 4 May, 2017
Probably because I am thinking about (and trying to finish a book on) precognition and retrocausation and the glass block universe they seem to imply, I keep finding my thoughts returning to a famous Zen koan from 8th-century China. You will have heard it: Master Ma and his student Pai Chang were walking along when they encountered a flock of wild ducks. “What is that?” Ma said. “Wild ducks,” Pai Chang answered. “Where have they gone?” Ma asked? “They’ve flown away,” Pai Chang said … at which point Master Ma grabbed his student’s nose and gave it a painful twist: “When have they ever flown away!”
The considerable evidence of precognition and retrocausation points to the reality of something like the glass block, the already-ness of the future and the persistence of the past.
There are many versions of the story, and many translations of the different versions. R.H. Blyth’s version spells out Ma’s meaning a bit, in case we are confused (which we are): “When did they ever fly away?” Ma says, “They have been here from the beginning!” Blyth’s Games Zen Masters Play (where this appears) probably was a strong influence on J.D. Salinger when he was writing The Catcher in the Rye; Holden Caulfield’s constant obsession with where the ducks at the lake in Central Park go in wintertime is an allusion to this koan. (Indeed, the whole novel is sort of about it, and about the young narrator’s gradual coming to a slightly more Zen-like understanding of questions of life and death, permanence and change.)
This “public case” (the original meaning of koan) has many layers, and it is important not to think that Pai Chang, just because he got his nose twisted, was wrong in saying that the ducks were gone. In their play-by-play commentary on these ancient dharma battles, some writers declare Pai-Chang the victor, not Ma. There’s Zen virtue in telling it just like it is. But the significance of this story that is obviously relevant to my obsession with precognition is this notion of permanence that Master Ma’s words imply: “When did they ever fly away?” is like an assertion of Hermann Minkowski’s argument, based on his student Einstein’s theory of relativity, that things in the past are still here, and that things that haven’t happened yet are here already.
If Pai Chang, with his sore nose, is a bit like Heraclitus, who found that you can’t step in the same river twice, Ma is a bit like his counterpart in these debates, the shaman/mystic Parmenides, and also his later interpreter Zeno, asserting the permanence within apparent impermanence.
I’ve always been a Heraclitus man myself, and a couple years ago on this blog I rebelled against the glass block and the Eternalism it entailed, even going so far as accusing outspoken Eternalist Alan Moore of being a hoarder: Minkowski glass-block-ism, where “every condom, every syringe, every beer can is preserved in Jerusalem’s gutters,” seemed to me like a hoarder’s cosmology. I’ve changed my mind in the intervening time. I think that, like many people when confronting these questions, I allowed my knee-jerk, heavily culture-bound assumption of free will and the open-endedness of things to prevent me from considering the possible reality, realism, and even spiritual satisfactions of Minkowski’s glass block.
The Bird is the Word
Compare “Master Ma’s Wild Ducks” with a painfully beautiful anecdote from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People about the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christiantiy. In the 6th century, the Northumbrian king Edwin was confronted by pressures to renounce his paganism and embrace the new religion; uncertain what was right, he took counsel with his “ealdormen and thegns” (advisors and nobles) on this question, and one of them stated his own opinion using the metaphor of a sparrow:
I’ve always thought about the cold harsh uncertain life of those men in that hall—the same people who sang stories of the monster Grendel lurking in the wild wastes and muscular heroes like Beowulf who could bring temporary peace to their windswept fragile little kingdoms. For Edwin’s counselor (and for centuries of the Venerable Bede’s English readers), Christ was a kind of hero who could save us from the cold uncertainty of what awaited us beyond this mortal life—a solace the poor sparrow could not enjoy.This is how the present life of man on earth, King, appears to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us. You are sitting feasting with your ealdormen and thegns in winter time; the fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of the hall and all inside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging; and a sparrow flies swiftly through the hall. It enters in at one door and quickly flies out through the other. For the few moments it is inside, the storm and wintry tempest cannot touch it, but after the briefest moment of calm, it flits from your sight, out of the wintry storm and into it again. So this life of man appears but for a moment; what follows or indeed what went before, we know not at all. If this new doctrine brings us more certain information, it seems right that we should accept it.
Christ, with His redeeming retrocausal tachyon blood, offered the exact same solution that Master Ma was offering Pai Chang: a way out of time, yet within time.
I also always think about that sparrow, flying in one door of a fire-warmed Anglo-Saxon hall and out the opposite door back into the cold. It is just like the wild ducks in the Chinese story: Not only has it flown away and gone, but it’s also (at the same time) there permanently, indelibly etched in the mind of every reader of Bede’s passage, frozen in mid-hall. Its flickering transit is eternal; it has always been there and always will be there.
Having been raised in an atheist household, I couldn’t understand the spiritual appeal of a sad-eyed man tortured and nailed to a piece of wood. It helped my understanding greatly to eventually read Bede’s account, and much later to realize that Christ, with His redeeming retrocausal tachyon blood, may have been offering the exact same solution and the same hope to those grim Anglo-Saxons that Master Ma was offering Pai Chang: a way out of time, yet within time. Thanks to Bede, and Master Ma, I get it.
Through a Glass Block, Darkly
The Ming Dynasty Zen master Han-Shan recorded a direct enlightenment experience of the glass block. According to Guo-gu Shi:
Han-Shan might want to ask his doctor about the “no signs of flowing.” But in my own humble Zen practice, I too have had these brief altered perceptions that “nothing is really happening” even when things are visibly in flux in front of my eyes. I think there’s real truth to what those guys were experiencing back on their misty Chinese mountainsides (and are still experiencing).Han-shan came across the stories of a Bramacharin who had left home in his youth and returned when he was white-haired. When people saw him, the neighbors asked, “Is that man [whom we know] still living today?” The Bramacharin replied, “I look like that man of the past, but I am not he.” On reading this story “Han-shan suddenly understood that all things do not come and go. When he got up from his seat and walked around, he did not see things in motion. When he opened the window blind, suddenly a wind blew the trees in the yard, and the leaves flew all over the sky. However, he did not see any signs of motion. When he went to urinate, he still did not see signs of flowing. He understood what the text spoke of as, “Streams and rivers run into the ocean and yet there is no flowing.” At this time, Hanshan shattered all doubt and existential concerns about birth and death.
There is real liberation in letting go of the weighty idea that we Westerners always carry around with us, that our actions are open-ended and thus that we bear responsibility for the world.
The biggest surprise of pursuing this whole business of precognition is discovering that it was never really about expanded human potential in the sense of developing some superpower. Experiencing precognition invariably brings you face to face with the limitations of mortal life and the futility to change your fate (or wyrd, as King Edwin would have called it). It has thus, unexpectedly, acted for me as a kind of koan, reinforcing again and again these spiritually surprising experiences of stasis-within-flux.
There is real liberation in letting go of the weighty idea that we Westerners always carry around with us, that our actions are open-ended and thus that we bear responsibility for the world. They aren’t. And we don’t. Again, at least on some deep, hard-to-describe level. Paradoxically, in a Zen way, this realization makes you more free, not less, as well as more responsible for the world around you.
It is an evidence-based Zen realization. The considerable evidence of precognition (and more generally, retrocausation) points to the reality of something like the glass block, the already-ness of the future and the persistence of the past. Whether the block is really sturdy glass or something a bit more viscous, like tree sap, or possesses a variable viscosity, is an open question. For now, we must just say that the mysteries of the glass block passeth understanding and our vision of time really is through a glass, darkly.
No Impossible Futures
To hold firm that it really is a Minkowski universe has implications for parapsychology in addition to spirituality. I think many investigators of precognition who argue that we precognize “possible futures,” on an analogy with the quantum wavefunction, are barking up the wrong tree. If the quantum neuroscience model I’ve been advocating is right, we precognize actual futures, but obliquely, unclearly, and in ways whose non-paradoxical-ness only becomes clear in hindsight.
The brain seems to be a tesseract, a tunnel from birth to death, bringing us oblique information about our already-exising future and dressing up that information in sometimes realistic but often quite oblique or deceptive costumes.
For example, you are never going to have a completely accurate and clear precognitive dream about an outcome you would or could intercede to prevent. It’s not that the causality police will swoop in in their flying saucers to stop you; it’s just that, from a future vantage point farther along your world-line in the block universe, it didn’t happen. No amount of searching in hindsight will find spent causal arrows for an impossible event. Things that couldn’t happen, never did.
According to this view, premonitions of dangers averted don’t necessarily represent those dangers per se, but the troubled thoughts and emotions experienced in their aftermath. For instance, in a case recorded by Louisa Rhine, a woman had a vivid dream in which her baby was crushed to death by a chandelier that had been hanging over the crib. Defying her husband’s urge to just ignore the dream and go back to sleep, she went and got their baby and brought her into their bed to sleep. Two hours later, they heard a crash in the nursery.
It was not that the woman’s premonition accurately showed her an event in a possible future, “a timeline not taken.” Rather, it accurately showed her her own horrified imagining of a terrible possibility, a “what if” (what if she’d ignored her dream); and because of her action, this premonition became part of a “time loop” formation in the glass block universe. Thankfully, because her mental image refluxed in time and caught her awareness two hours earlier, and she acted on it, her baby was with her and not in the nursery when the chandelier crashed onto the crib. But I really doubt there’s an other, parallel universe where the baby was in the crib when it happened.
We should not confuse our imagination, our ability to picture many nonexistent worlds, or our ability to picture the universe from an imagined vantage point outside history, with real perception. It’s all a brain-generated hologram, a creation of Zen’s biggest frenemy, Solaris Mind.
We can imagine “many worlds” all we want—it makes for fun thought experiments—but if I am right, the interpretation of quantum mechanics that leads to the many worlds idea is an effect of denying the future’s influence on the past. Once retrocausation is fully embraced, many worlds may look less appealing or realistic. Black holes might really create new universes; but I suspect our choices from moment to moment, or the seemingly random “choices” of every particle at every instant, do not. (Talk about a hoarder’s cosmology!)
Remembering Past Life
As I’ve argued many times in these posts, the brain seems to be a tesseract, a tunnel from birth to death, bringing us oblique information about our already-existing future and dressing up that information in sometimes realistic but often quite deceptive and obscure costumes. More generally, all living organisms, and systems within living organisms, seem to metabolize time, utilizing quantum biological processes to converge on optimal and efficient courses of action more than chance would predict.
The looping formations of chemistry and cause that are tantamount to life take on increasingly subtle and beautiful forms as you scroll forward through the glass block.
The emergence of complex forms has variously been attributed to some extra feature of matter, such as “morphic fields” or “syntropy.” The latter is probably pretty close to the reality, although it is not a cosmic liking of order per se, so much as a molecular and cellular tendency to organize by post-selecting on efficient outcomes, creating an overall illusion of a kind of cosmic Platonism (seen from our now-bound point of view).
I find the possibilities of Minkowski-ism increasingly inspiring and exciting. The future doesn’t look like the past, for one thing. The looping formations of chemistry and cause that are tantamount to life (and possibly, consciousness) take on increasingly subtle and beautiful forms as you scroll forward through the glass block. This is what the second law of thermodynamics and even the theory of complex systems cannot quite predict or describe.
The fate of the universe does seem to be toward a kind of super-intelligence, perhaps a super organism, that can actually reach back and remember itself and even remember “past life,” its pre-superconscious formations. Intelligent life in our epoch could be an early adumbration of what intelligence will become and the kinds of increasingly fractal causal loops it will manifest.
Thus if there is a higher consciousness, and a collective (un)conscious, it is in the future. What we call our consciousness may be memory of our lives from a distant future viewpoint.* I suppose it is all along what Christians back in the day meant. The afterlife really was something “after” all our lives—a resurrection occurring in the Not Yet, at the end of days.
Postscript: Me Go Zen™ in Your Coke Forever
As I imagine Han-Shan trying to empty his bladder in(to) Minkowski’s glass-block universe “with no signs of flowing,” my inner 2nd-grader can’t not think of a really racist schoolyard rhyme that was “going around” the playground one week at Kendrick Lakes Elementary School, circa 1974. Maybe you know the one. It was somehow the punchline of a really hilarious (to a Watergate-era 2nd-grader in racially homogeneous Lakewood, CO) story that I can no longer recall. But I’ll never forget the rhyme: “Me Chinese man, me play joke, me go pee-pee in your Coke.”
This image provoked, in addition to mirth, no small amount of reflection on human malice, as I tried to wrap my 7-year-old head around the horror of a monstrous Asian urinating in a person’s beverage, and the horror of drinking said beverage. I didn’t have that many friends, so I probably didn’t serve as a vector of this rhyme, merely an appreciative audience. But now I wonder: Was Han-Shan that Chinese Man?
Is Han-Shan still and forever pee-peeing in my Coke? When did he ever stop!
Whether or not he was Han-Shan or somebody else, that Chinese man is real … especially now that he is in your mind. Zen would ask you to take the Chinese man’s pee-Coke as a koan and see where it gets you.
* In one of my early “glass block” moments, in the mortality-dread haze not long after 9/11, I was meditating on the DC Metro on my way to work, on the elevated tracks somewhere between Vienna and West Falls Church, and I suddenly realized that “this” was all being remembered, and thus that death—at least in the near future—was impossible. “I” (or something remembering me) was clearly “still alive” at some future time point from which I was remembering that moment on the train.
I didn’t know how far ahead the memory’s vantage point was—it may have been seconds or minutes or years.** But I have found since then that it makes a nice Zen exercise to repeat “this is a memory” and overlay that perception like a projection onto your experience, and see what happens after a little while.
** Perhaps right now, writing this, was the vantage point from which, on the train 16 years ago, I was still alive. That would make the ‘time to afterlife’ roughly 16 years … if it is a constant, and the afterlife is merely lived memory.
Thanks to Eric at: http://thenightshirt.com