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Abbot John
Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(September 1, 2006)

by Abbot John

My wife bakes things occasionally. Perhaps occasionally is not the right word. Its frequency may be more akin to the number of times the United States appears to be at war with somebody. Not as often as we think but still more than we would like. Yes, I know that puts my wife’s baking talent in a questionable light, but she means well, as, I suppose, do we.

Her most recent presentation was a questionable "baked thing". It looked like a frying pan with a leather lid on it. I can't describe it more accurately since I was in that hazy state of consciousness that I slip into when I'm at home, that state of being in the middle of a metamorphic change... neither here nor there.

In reality my wife is much more adept at shopping than baking; but she brings the same stylistic approaches to each and, of course, the same challenge to me. For instance, she presents things that she cooks, whether it’s baked, fried or boiled in the same manner as she presents a new garment or adornment; shifting, spinning and tilting her body to give maximum exposure to it. She'll say, "How do you like it?" And I panic. Am I supposed to admire a new blouse, or skirt, or dress, or hairdo, or lipstick. The list is endless and leaves much room for doubt. Yet, I am a man tempered in the unforgiving furnace of evolution and would not be alive today if I didn’t adapt. I have developed a system. Like a good racetrack tout, I can now boast of having an 85% accuracy rate. So when those, now familiar, poses begin I know it is my cue to say something non-specific like, "It suits you perfectly." I only have to remember to intone the words correctly. If I get sloppy with the intonation bad things will happen.

Yesterday, when she brought forth this round leather topped thing, she called it "a pie." And all I could think about was Carl Sagan. She was smiling, anticipating a paean of phrases that contained such words as "scrumptious" or "Can we have this a la mode?" So I mustered the words, risking it being a kidney pie. I'm that way. Sometimes I get reckless, most times unintentionally but sometimes with dark intent. But, then, with Carl Sagan still on my mind, I added, forgetting the part I usually play in these dramas, "I’ll bet it would take more than 90 cuts to find these atoms." My wife's demeanor altered somewhat.

"What the hell is that suppose to mean", she asked politely but with severely upturned corners on her lips - a sort of death sneer.

The tone of her voice and her expression put my mind in high gear (the fight or flight mechanism) and out of my mouth came the words, "Carl Sagan... Don't you remember, dear, how he talked about pies and atoms?"

My wife looked at me with what I can only say was remorse.

I reassured her that this delicious smelling object reminded me of the pie Carl Sagan used to describe the universe. Knowing that if I could sustain this thought for another five minutes I would be saved from the roiling repercussions in her soul, I thus continued.

"Yeah, honey, I was thinking of old Carl and how he would have loved this pie."

"Yes," she said grimly, "he would have loved it just as you will" With that threat hanging in the air, I proceeded. "This is what Mr. Sagan had to say about baked pie:"

"When we cut this pie in half and then in half again and then in half again…and so on… if our blade is sharp enough and the pie not too crumbly, we will get to that slice that is the size of a single atom, after ninety cuts or so."

"That statement contains a fascinating yet subtle analysis of our intellectual condition circa the beginning of the 21st century. As opposed to the vast majority of humans that have ever lived, most of us alive now do not have any problem believing that the atom is the building block of all matter. Yet it may surprise most of us, at least it did me, to learn that it takes only ninety (90) cuts of something to arrive at that atomic point."

She glared; but I was beginning to interest myself. "Carl continues:"

"When we get to the size of an atom we discover that the atom will be one of ninety-two types that occur in nature depending on the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus, and of course and importantly, the mist cloud that surrounds the nucleus which contains the exact number of electrons as there are protons in the nucleus. We arrange these bits of matter in something we call the Periodic Table. The atom with one proton and electron we call Hydrogen. If it has two we call it Helium and so on until we get to the one with ninety-two and we call that one Uranium. While these particles are what we call matter we can see from the way they are built (think of the mist cloud in which the electrons move) there is far more empty space in them than actual material itself. Therefore we can say that for all practical purposes that this pie, and everything else, is made up primarily of nothing. Even more fascinating," Mr. Sagan adds, "is the fact that all of these potential 92 bits of matter are made in only one place in the universe…inside stars."

"And so, my dear, he reached his conclusion; ‘In order to bake a pie we must first invent the universe.’ "

I was right. After I finished this thought my wife left the room and I was saved but now there’s no one to talk to but you.

Now we’re getting somewhere. I not only completely agree with Mr. Sagan about this priority, I suspect that it also may be the reason my wife’s baked things come out so weird. But, first things first: to bake our pie we must invent the universe. There are a couple of ways we can do such a thing.

When a material, cosmological view of the universe is presented by those with story telling skill and some discipline in astrophysics, the descriptions are truly fascinating. From their viewpoint it would seem that the cosmos operates under basic laws of physics - only some of which we have discovered. These laws are sufficient to allow for the existence of everything we see and are flexible enough to allow for even that which we don’t see. What scientists don't know, they form theories about; and, of course, they can always change the theories when they need to. When venturing into the realm of the very large (astrophysics) or the realm of the very small (the quantum people) things get very strange and the "story" these teachers tell begin to contain hints of mysticism that only adds to the appeal. If one were to tell the tale as allegory or metaphor it would not present a great problem to include in the theme a chapter or two on their Holy Grail, be it called a Unified Field Theory or something else I won’t even attempt to refer to.

Creeping into any of these stories there is always an underlying criticism of another version of the great universal tale. That one, at its foundation, inserts a creator, a God. To the Materialists this is always a false insertion that they see as merely a logical regression. In other words there is no logical reason to bring God into the equation any more than any other unqualified variable.

The opposing lines of science and religion have existed from those ancient times when first we gathered together and told stories about various things, particularly about that elusive "First Cause." The Materialists' have since poured many resources into the brew. They use machines that crunch numbers so rapidly that the language of mathematics has become the grammar of their verse. It has given them an immense vocabulary that both facilitates and explains things unimaginable just a decade ago.

When String Theorists or astrophysicists talk they lose me faster than some self-proclaimed mystic with his hand out. Yet, I sit and listen because their compelling logic is presented with such wonderful graphics and mysterious formulae that it’s hard not to be impressed. I'm not placing all scientists under the umbrella of "materialists." A great number of them speak in almost mystical terms about what they've discovered; and some still do insert that Unconditional Being if only obliquely. But, as in the case of Mr. Sagan, I suspect they all expect to find a few simple numbers as the deepest reality in the measurable plane of existence. Maybe that is all that is there. Maybe, in their dazzling presentations, they are serving us a well-deserved piece of humble Pi, or Tau, or, this being a Zen essay, of Mu.

Most of us, except those still clinging to a withered limb on the tree of creationism, have long accepted the fact that the earth is not the center of the universe. It would be nice if someone were to tell us what has replaced our centricity. But no, they merely nod and tell us that unlike the pie on the table in front of me, there is no center and no edge. A universe they call finite but unbounded. And to really throw our brains into a loop we discover that from every particular point in the universe the universe is receding. So now we’re back at the center but so is everything else.

On the other end of this balance beam of human storytellers are those people, the eschatologists, the specialists in Judgment Day endings, the ones who forsake the "now" for the "to come." They command us to recognize the devil in our midst and remove him, and quickly, too. They know how things began and they are certain about how things will end. They, of course, will be in the gallery watching the denouement. The Buddha heard their stories and sighed. He never cared to get involved in such pointless conjecture.

There is, as the Buddha stated, a Middle Way, a way between the poles of irrational fear and rational vacuity. As so many have pointed out, the cosmology of the Hindus expressed in the Rig Veda contains an entirely different view of the physical world than the one we're used to. Their ancient ideas of space and time are amazingly modern. They were completely confident in thinking of universes alongside universes - like those slices of string theory bread. They saw universes within atoms, infinity moving in both directions from the very big to the very small. They talked of fundamental vibrations of the universe in ways that resonate with those vibrating strings. Their ideas concerning time were expressed in great gulps, "kalpas" of time, and they saw the universe expand and contract as the breath of Paramashiva, the inspiration that contracted it and the expiration that expanded it. Maybe there are no divine breaths or clumps of time; but nobody discounts the possibility that the universe may fall in upon itself, being sucked into the chest of its darkness. So despite the theology, today’s modern thought is not so far removed from the cosmology of a few ancient religions. The idea that cosmological thought was primitive in the time of the Buddha is a misconception. The poles of the two extremes were as well developed in his time as in ours.

But still, competing with this expansion and contraction and infinity of time, comes the Biblical theory that the earth and all creation is less than ten thousand years old, or as Sam Harris once wrote: "There are still among us certain Fundamentalists that date the formation of the earth approximately 1000 years after the Sumerians invented beer." Fossils be damned, there are still many of those today who insist on using Biblical calculations to arrive at earth's birthday.

In our long journey out of the primordial soup, onto the land, up the trees and then down again to the land, it is clear that along the way we have developed consciousness. It is not as clear, however, of what we have become conscious. While sitting around our campfires and computers it can be quite entertaining to speculate on just what that what is; but the Buddha suggests that for the real matters at hand we put those thoughts aside and pursue a different course; A Middle Way.

This Middle Way is not a speculative cosmology and neither is it a construct that somehow organizes our behavior around some Greek theme of moderation. It was brought into light and taught, not as an alternative to either of those most popular methods of inventing the universe but with a less grandiose idea in mind. It purports to be nothing more than a method of holding our egos culpable for the bitterness and pain we bring "to the table" of existence; and then, after recognizing this truth, of clearing it from the table, and sitting down instead to humble fare.

The question then becomes, do we see our pie as being made of stardust, or, as my wife assured me, of boysenberries that a neighbor gave us.

Mr. Sagan considered himself an atheist. He had no faith in the divine. As I sat down to confront the now defined boysenberry pie, I felt sorry for him. My wife had pressed a butcher knife's point into the pie's center and was laying her upper body's weight upon the blade to make it reach the bottom crust. Mr. Sagan had no one to whisper in his ear the way the Buddha suddenly whispered in mine, "This might be a very good time to open that Chateau Margaux you've been saving for a rainy day."

Even though it was a clear and sunny day, with the simple aid of a corkscrew it was possible to turn a gastronomic disaster into a miraculous delight.

This is the beauty of multidimensional living.

Humming Bird

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