In a famous thought experiment, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger imagined a hypothetical cat unobserved in a black box. The cat is alive and dead at once—perhaps neither, both, or something else altogether. Its poisoning (or not) hangs upon a tiny trigger, its fate determined by an unobserved atom whose quantum state—as decayed or undecayed, neither, both, or something else altogether—is itself indeterminate until observed. Because the atom’s state is indeterminate, so is the life (or not) of the cat.

As a corollary to this conundrum, another physicist, Hugh Everett, offered a scenario (the “many-worlds interpretation”) in which every possibility at every crossroad of events actually exists in countless alternative worlds—in some of which the cat is dead, in some of which the cat is not, in some of which there was never a cat at all, in some of which there is something else altogether. Some further physicists posit that all these realms might exist in parallel in a great “multiverse,” within which we get to witness only one outcome . . . although, I suppose, other “us’s” might be witnessing other outcomes elsewhere (or some other witnesses are doing so, or nobody is, or something else altogether).

What is the connection of these great quantum questions to Zen?

Beats me! I really have no idea.

I have no idea because I am not a physicist, only a Zen teacher. I am not one of those modern pseudoscientific Prajna pundits who too easily drop the word “quantum” into their spiritual talks, declaring that modern theoretical physics prove many of the claims of ancient Buddhist mystics. Even the physicists themselves cannot fully agree with one another about what their theories mean, and about all their inherent ramifications, so how could some New Age Sage have the inside dope without a PhD from MIT? 

Yes, there are some interesting parallels to ”parallel universes” in several cherished Mahayana scriptures that describe worlds-upon-worlds, in numbers far beyond all the sands of the Ganges, infinite ages, a timelessness, Master Dogen’s fluid vision of relative Being-Time, which seems to resonate with what Einstein had to say centuries later. It is cool that science seems to confirm (or, at least, not contradict) some of what old-time Buddhists had to say about space and time, although it is true too that modern science also frequently flat out contradicts some traditional claims of Buddhism (such as that the Earth is flat, as many of our dharma ancestors once believed).

No problem for us Zen fellows, especially, who assert that Zen is content with “what is” whatever “what is” is. If the Earth is flat, if the Earth is round or square, if time is finite or infinite, if there are many universes or only this one, if the world is just matter and energy or not . . . then no matter, we’re cool with it and will just keep sitting our zazen in the here and now. We keep sitting our zazen here and now, whether or not there is sitting happening in all those alternate “here’s and now’s” too.

If Hamlet had been a Zen Buddhist, he might have entertained other options beyond merely “To be, or not to be.”

This came to my mind while talking with a dear Zen friend who is very sick these days, his life hanging in the balance. He said that he sometimes feels like Schrödinger’s cat, on the razor’s edge of life and death. Because my friend is an old zendo “cat” often found curled upon his zafu, he describes experiences of being a separate “self” worried some days about his own survival, yet also (as Buddhism teaches) “empty” of separate self-existence, thus not just this little life and “self.” Both those parallel facts are true at once, for my friend was once born yet (so say we Zen folks) was also never truly “born” at all . . . something like a wave that came to rise from the sea, but because the wave remains and has always been undulating in the sea all along, so is he a wave that never truly “came” from somewhere else. He has always been just the sea, waving. Equally, should the wave crash upon the shore, the wave vanishes yet vanishes nowhere, for the wave has always been the sea’s swirling, the water’s waving waters, the tides twirling, the ocean flowing on and on. One need not return to what was never left. I sometimes like to tell folks that, if Hamlet had been a Zen Buddhist, he might have entertained other options beyond merely “To be, or not to be.”

Is this comparable to the particle that, emerging mysteriously from some voidless void, is constant energetic motion, thus there yet not, a diffuse field fluctuating that is really neither “field” nor “particle,” while, somehow, giving form and life to this world? I don’t know. Perhaps, yes, if not to the scientist, then at least to the poet in my heart. There is no solid “sea,” no distant and severable source nor outside border, no fixed and frozen solid to nail down and trap. There is only this flowing, and we are somehow such.

My ill friend’s situation is not dissimilar. His wave is not looking so good right now, and its appearance is even a bit broken. Life is quite stormy, and the ocean, very turbulent for him these days. Even so, the waters of the sea never suffer, they just change and flow, conforming to circumstances and whatever comes, to all that is encountered. Is that the same as the photons in those “double-slit” experiments that conform to waves or particles in response to their circumstances? Again, I have no idea. But I do know that the water . . . whether smooth or stormy, as mist or glacier, cloud or rain . . . does not seem to resist the transitions, does not suffer, and simply moves with the cycles of change. Waves have risen, waves have fallen, ice spreads and recedes, storms come and go, clouds condense and evaporate, hydrogen and oxygen bond and break bonds . . . yet not a single drop of water is lost. The sea remains the sea, just this on and on flowing.

I told my friend too that, while I cannot attest to the “many-worlds” hypothesis of Dr. Everett, and though I am without grasp of the accompanying math, I know for a fact that my friend is to be found in many places, countless places, in most of which he is not sick in the least. Oh, I do not mean that there are necessarily parallel universes containing parallel versions of “my friend,” in some of which he is sick and some not. Maybe, perhaps there are . . . or not . . . or both. . . I don’t know. Nor am I saying that there are twins and doppelgängers of “my friend” scattered about this one universe: in a universe seemingly as vast as the one we inhabit, filled with galaxies exceeding in count the sands of the Ganges, emerged from the Big Bang or many Big Bangs, spreading far beyond the visible event horizon, there might be endless identical copies, or near copies, or kinda-roughly-like copies of my friend scattered here and there, some with his same smile and postal address, some almost the same or more or less or just a bit . . . some sick but some not. It could be, it seems logical.

But, frankly, I do not know them . . . even if, I suppose, some other “me” somewhere might. I wish them well, but I, right here, worry only about my friend, this one on this planet.

If there is one universe, if there are countless universes, both as one grain or countless grains of sand, we are the one, we are the countless, for we are what is.

So when I say that I know, for a fact, that my friend is found in countless places, all places, I mean that, in zazen, as the separate “self’s” hard borders soften—sometimes fully dropping away—we are each revealed as each other, shown as all things, beings and moments that are each and every thing, being and moment, as if each other in another guise. Not only my friend, but all of us. The star in the heavens is my friend shining, and my friend is the star walking with two legs on earth, or lying in bed. The bird is the fish flying in the sky, and the fish is the bird swimming in the ocean. You are the mountain reading these words with your eyes, and the mountain is you rising thousands of feet high. If there is one universe, if there are countless universes, both as one grain or countless grains of sand, we are the one, we are the countless, for we are what is. We flow in and out of each other, and as each other, although our various eyes each somehow see things from different angles. My eyes look into your eyes, and your eyes look into mine, while other things we see have no eyes, it seems. Nevertheless, we are each but gazing in a mirror, are each mirrors gazing at mirrors within a vast mirror. The star is the sea, and my friend is the sea, and because you and I are the sea, as is the fish, the bird, the mountain, each blade of grass, and every other thing, being, and moment, all the sea. We are all just the water of these waters, flowing on and on.

Thus, so long as the bird flies on, the fish swims strongly, and the mountain rises tall—as long as they are not sick—thus he, my friend (as them), is not sick as well. That is a fact, even as my friend lies coughing in bed.

I do not know if a physicist can ever quantify that in a lab, but it is true.

In a famous Zen story, set more than 1,000 years before Schrödinger, Master Nansen faced some monks arguing over ownership of another poor feline. To silence them, Nansen held a knife to the kitty and declared, “If any of you monks can say one word of truth, I will spare the cat. If not, I will kill it. So, speak!” Alas, when none could respond, Nansen cut the cat in two (although, truth be told, I think it’s just a story. Given the vows of a monk not to kill and the karma involved, no real puss was put to death. No animal was actually harmed in the making of this koan). Even so, it might be said that the fighting monks were the ones who had already divided the cat by their dispute, by their ideas of “my” and “mine,” “me versus you versus cat” long before Nansen ever raised his knife. Nansen, by silencing the monks and stilling their selfish clutching and divided thinking, wielded the Bodhisattva Wisdom Sword of Manjushri, which “uncut” the cat and all separate things, beings, and times into wholeness . . . free of all frictions, divided fractions, fractures, and fighting factions.

Instantly, Nansen and all cats everywhere, the birds, the mountains, you, me, Everett, Schrödinger . . . my friend too . . . are life and death, neither and both and something else entirely—all the sands of the Ganges, the waves, the particles, here, there, each, all, everywhere, not a drop missing.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .