Category Archives: Religion & Philosophy

Despair and the Road to the Bamboo Gate

Sogi-and-Ikkyu

Master Ikkyū sits by the well plinking at his lute. Sōgi waits patiently for a tune to emerge but none does. Finally he clears his throat.

“Yes, Sōgi?”

“Good morning, Master. I have a request.”

The Master continues at the lute, to no end Sōgi can discern. “Go on.”

Sōgi sits on the packed earth before Ikkyū.

“They say you are the wisest here.”

“They?”

Sōgi gestures vaguely toward the shrine.

“Ah. They are generous. Anyway?”

“Yes. It is said your wisdom arises from the path you walked before arriving at the Bamboo Gate.”

Ikkyū sighs and sets his lute in its case, then returns his attention to Sōgi. “You want to hear the sordid tale of my failed life, do you?”

“I’m sorry if I gave offense, Master. No one has suggested it was sordid.”

Ikkyū arches an eyebrow. He rises and draws a cup of water from the bucket by the well. He takes a sip, replaces the cup, and returns to his seat.

“The road to self-immolation is slick with the paving stones of secrecy. What would you hear?”

Sōgi furrows his brow. “They say you were worldly, with credentials and status. But you fell. Were you undone by desire, Master?”

Ikkyū chuckles with, to Sōgi’s ear, an echo of irony. Hmmm. Irony is the yang of Enlightenment? Ooh, that’s good, he thinks, making a mental note to write it down before he forgets it.

“In a way,” begins Ikkyū. “As a young man I pursued a career in the markets, a career for which I was unsuited.”

“Did you lack sufficient training, Master?” asks Sōgi?

“I had training. I was unsuited to…” He pauses for a moment. “I was unsuited to the world. I enjoyed the comforts and entertainments money afforded, but I detested the pursuit of wealth. I was clever enough but success required more effort than I was able to invest.”

“They say you had a wife,” says Sōgi.

“Three, actually.”

“Oh.”

“All of them hated me. One chased me around our home with a knife one night.”

“Mmmm.” The younger monk nods. “When seeking a life partner you chose poorly.”

“That’s one theory,” says the Master. “There are others.”

“Like what?”

“It has been suggested that I chose well, but in the end I was…vexatious.”

Sōgi bites his lower lip in an attempt to stifle a laugh.

The Master watches silently. “You have some blood trickling down your chin, Sōgi.”

“Ummm.” [sngrk] “I’m startled by the idea of you as ‘vexatious.’ Just the other night at vespers we were all saying no, of all the Masters here, you were easily the least vexa-”

“If you’ll compose yourself I’ll continue.”

Sōgi wills his laughter into submission. He wipes the tears from his cheek. “I apologize, Master. You were saying?”

I lost three wives. I lost my job. I fell into grave debt. I developed a strange affliction of the nerves the doctors could not heal. I drank. My life was a failure by all the standards of society. It felt as though there were a rulebook for success and everyone had a copy save me. My struggle for self-awareness, which is rare among humans, was hindered by self-pity, which comes naturally to all.”

Ikkyū scribbles in the dirt between them. “I despaired.”

kanji-life-death

“Your story is a sad one, Master.”

Ikkyū shrugs. “I found the road to the Bamboo Gate.”

_____

The next day Sōgi again finds Ikkyū at the well tormenting his lute.

He bows. “Greetings, Master.”

“Greetings, Sōgi. Is your lip healing?”

Sōgi laughs. “Yes, Master. It’s much better now.”

Ikkyū plinks.

“Master Ikkyū, I have been meditating on our conversation yesterday.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Hm. Didn’t see that coming. But good. What have your meditations revealed?”

Sōgi sits. “You explained how you, as Master Steve might put it, hit rock bottom.”

“Master Steve’s tongue is like the nightingale in Spring.”

“Yes. So, your marriages failed, you had no money, you were sick.”

Ikkyū interrupts. “I didn’t have ‘no money.’ I had a mountain of debt. ‘No money’ would have been a welcome improvement in my fortunes.”

“I see. So, when you attained this state, what did you do?”

The Master studies the dirt between them. “I took account of my ‘assets and liabilities.’ I read books by wealthy people. I finally realized I was – let me employ another Master Steve-ism – a ‘hot mess.’ There was literally no road back. I would never be able to repay the debt. As my knife-wielding ex-wife explained, I was aging and thrice-broke – body, soul, and wallet. In her view, I was not a ‘catch.’

“I was at an end. I had failed utterly. And accepting this…” Ikkyū leans back and looks beyond the sky. “If there is no hope of victory, there is no obligation to strive. I was free.”

The silence sits uneasily between them. Sōgi gets up and fetches a cup of water from the well. He sits back and clears his throat.

“It is as I suspected,” begins Sōgi.

Ikkyū cocks his head. “How so?”

“The Buddha teaches that desire is the root of suffering, yes?”

“Well, that’s the 50-characters-or-less version, but sure, let’s go with it.”

Sōgi draws a deep breath and looks Ikkyū in the eye. “I believe the Buddha was wrong.”

Sōgi waits while the Master composes himself.

“Very well. How is the Buddha wrong, young Sōgi?”

“Desire is certainly an impediment to Zen. But your light flickered on and you set out for the Bamboo Gate when you abandoned hope. It is attachment to hope that is the root of suffering, Master Ikkyū.

“Despair is the cradle of Enlightenment.”

Having endured enough youthful insight for one afternoon, Ikkyū sends Sōgi to the gardener to seek wisdom in the art of pulling weeds.

That night he dreams of the Buddha and Nietzsche seated beneath a cherry tree….

_____

Kanji symbols: Life, crossroads, death

Quantum Enlightenment and the Watched Pot

Sogi-vs-IkkyuSōgi bows before Ikkyū.

“Master Dōken rebuked me this morning,” he says.

“What did you do this time?” replies Ikkyū.

“Nothing. I merely asked why the bird sings in its gilded cage.”

Ikkyū sighs. “What was the Master doing?”

Sōgi reflects for a moment. “At the time he seemed rather agitated at a pot of water.”

“What did he say to you?”

“He cursed the stove. Then he cursed my gilded bird. I explained that the cage was gilded, not the bird, but that upset him further. Then he asked did I not know a watched pot never boils?

“Master Ikkyū, I am unfamiliar with this wisdom. What is its meaning?”

Ikkyū laughs. “Young Sōgi, that is not wisdom. It is mere frustration with the perceived perversity of the material universe.”

“But … Master Dōken is the embodiment of enlightenment.”

“Master Dōken isn’t enlightened until after he’s had his coffee. Before then he’s just a grumpy old man.”

_____

Later, Sōgi again approaches Ikkyū. “Master, I have been thinking on your lesson this morning.”

“It wasn’t a lesson. I just explained why Master Dōken was upset.”

“Indeed. So, the other day Master Haisen was reflecting on the quantum nature of enlightenment.”

“Here we go…” Ikkyū mutters under his breath.

“He holds that all we perceive is merely the expression of one potentiality. There are infinite possibilities, he says. Infinite universes. ‘Infinity awaits our notice,’ he says. Nothing becomes real until it is observed.”

“Yes,” says Ikkyū. “That sounds like something Master Haisen would say. In this continuum, anyway. Who knows what he might say if a raindrop fell on the fly instead of the honeybee.”

“I believe his insight must mean Master Dōken is wrong,” says Sōgi.

“Wrong? How so?”

“If Master Haisen is correct, it means a pot never boils until it is watched.”

Ikkyū and Sōgi discuss creativity and the infinite: a koan

“Output is finite,” says Sōgi. “Input is eternal.”

Sogi-vs-Ikkyu

Sōgi sits at a small table. Before him are several papers covered in numbers, formulas, scraps of text, and … well, doodles.

“What’s all this?” asks Ikkyū.

“A meditation on creativity and the infinite,” Sōgi replied.

Ikkyū spends a moment looking over the materials before his young friend. “You’ll pardon me for saying so, I hope, but this doesn’t look very meditative.”

“I’m trying to make it meditative.”

“Ah, I see,” says Ikkyū. “What is it?”

“I’ve been thinking about my photography processing. As you know, when I take a shot I dump it into Lightroom. There I do some basic initial adjustments and then I output it to Photoshop. Photoshop has many resident processing functions, and I also have a few plug-in packages, each with many functions. And each option has many more settings. The Detail Extractor filter in the Nik Suite has five sliders, with each ranging from 1-100%. And Nik alone has dozens of filters like this.”

Ikkyū reflects for a few seconds. “When I was young we had pencils and watercolors.”

“Yes,” replies Sōgi. “You’ve mentioned that. Anyway, I came to wonder – when you consider all these different programs and filters, how many individual possibilities are there for any particular picture?”

Ikkyū’s brow wrinkles. He tilts his head up, as though calculating. “Carry the one…” he mumbles….

Sōgi continues. “For all practical purposes the number is infinite, I thought.”

“Did you visit the Master of Numbers?” asks Ikkyū.

“I did. I thought his abacus would catch fire.”

“What did he conclude?”

“The path to wisdom is a winding one.”

The Numbers Master said “The path to wisdom is a winding one”?

“Oh, no. Sorry,” says Sōgi. “That’s what I’m saying after watching his deliberation on the question. At first he said, “Photoshop is effectively infinite because you can keep adding layers and each layer adds modifiers. I suspect there must be some absolute limit to the number of layers addable, but I expect it is quite large. Not 8 bits but 16 or 32 bits.

“Wait, back up. The Numbers Master said effectively infinite?”

“At first,” says Sōgi. “But then he set at the abacus again. It was the sound a squadron of woodpeckers makes when laying siege to a tin shed.”

“When I was young,” says Ikkyū, “we didn’t have abacuses…”

“I know, I know. You pawed the ground like trained horses. Anyway, he clicked away for a few minutes. Then his fingers fell silent.

“In the develop module,” he said, “excluding Lens Corrections, Transform, Effects, and Calibration, there are 51 sliders. Most of them have a range of -100 to 100, but there are exceptions. There is also the Tone Curve, which has 1000 possible points on the horizontal axis, each of which can have 1000 possible values on the vertical axis (for a total of … 1 MILLION possibilities). Multiplying all the possible ranges together, Excel comes up with 3.34×10^120 possibilities. That excludes the Black & White options, which would be quite a bit smaller, as it would exclude 24 HSL sliders and the Vibrance and Saturation sliders in favor of 8 Black & White Mix sliders. It also excludes any use of crop tools, heal or redeye tools, gradient tools, or brushing in effects over a localized portion of the image.

“There are only 10^82 atoms in the universe.”

“Really?” says Ikkyū. “Glad to have that cleared up.”

“Oh, no. He was just getting started. I’m noodling with an idea for how to deal with Photoshop,” he said. “I have a possible answer, but it is dependent upon your resolution.

“Fundamentally, Photoshop allows you to individually set the color value of each pixel in your image, so for an image of dimensions H x W pixels of D color depth, there are (H x W) pixels each of which has 2^D possible values, meaning that Photoshop has HW2^D possible outcomes. For a 32 bpc RGB image in Photoshop (taken with a Nikon D850) that means (8256 * 5504) * 2^96 or 3.6 * 10^36 possibilities. In CMYK there would be more possibilities, like 1.55 * 10^46, because there are four inks instead of three phosphors.”

“Wait,” says Ikkyū. “Are you saying that after all the speculation and math it boils down to how many pixels there are?”

I’m not saying that,” says Sōgi. “The Master of Numbers did. To me it seems counterintuitive. But he explained resolution and pixels per inch don’t matter. The image has exactly the same pixels at 100ppi as 300ppi. The physical dimensions change, the pixels don’t.”

Ikkyū throws back his head and laughs so hard he nearly wets himself. When he’s again able to speak, he says, “So after all is said and done, the grandeur of your processing workflow amounts not only to a finite number, but a comparatively small one?” His laughter resumes and he falls over sideways onto the dirt floor.

As Sōgi watches Ikkyū display of irreverence, a small smile grows on his face. “You mock me, Master. Why?”

“The arrogance of code presumes upon the humility of a photon.”

“Ah,” says Sōgi. “But this is the beginning of the wisdom, not the end. You assume I walk a straight path through the workflow and do not return to a river already crossed. But what if, after I desaturate the golds in the cottonwood, I then return to Nik and add a subtle Bleach Bypass to the water? I can theoretically wander back and forth between modules until the end of days without ever pressing Save.”

Ikkyū fears he has wandered into a trap.

“Output is finite,” says Sōgi. “Input is eternal.”

“The headwaters and the sea are infinite,” says Ikkyū. “In the middle, the river is a mile wide.”

___

Many thanks to Masters Robinson, Magalee and Pecaut, whose wisdom informed this meditation.

There is no future: the ironic peace of learned hopelessness (#zenofdoc)

We must be prepared to laugh with the universe at the banality of our own immolation.

Full moon. Snowfield, vast
beneath the mountain:

	to understand the 
truth of people, study
their contradictions.

This morning I posted this little koan (minus graphic) to Facebook:

It’s easier to live in the now once you accept there is no future.

I’m hardly the first to trot out a “there is no future” Zen meme. My grasp of Zen philosophy is minimal, at best, but it seems conceptions of the future are perhaps related to the ever-corrosive want, which is an impediment to the ability to live in the now – and the now is all that truly exists.

My friends took the observation in different ways, with roughly an equal distribution of Likes, HaHas and Sads. One friend clearly identified with the trap of indulging in helplessness while others I think invested wholly in a subtle gallows humor that these days accompanies more and more of everything I say.

Was I attempting profundity? Was I being ironic and hopefully funny? A bit of both, honestly.

Many of us are dealing with DTSD. Some cope with anger and resistance. Others are overwhelmed. And there are those for whom that gallows humor thing seems useful for safeguarding sanity.

In my case, the last few years of my life have seen things go every which way except the way I wanted, and I can’t really see an end to it. It’s tempting to give up. The worse things go the more energy is required to maintain hope.

But an odd thing has happened. If you have spent massive energy in keeping goal X alive, and if you have lived with massive stress over the possibility of failing at X, as it becomes clearer over time that X is less and less likely to happen … the stress relents.

The stress has resulted from obsession with the future and with want. If I accept there’s no future, I am liberated from want and stress.

It doesn’t mean the consequences of failing at goals go away, but perhaps letting all that pressure go affords me more emotional and spiritual energy to deal with the evolving now and to invest in the things that bring joy to the now.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I won’t assert that my intelligence is especially first-rate, but I am at ease when my mind is filled with contradiction and ambivalence.

My koan was intended as dark humor, but it also springs from a place of self-searching and a belief that the truth can be conflicted and brutally ironic. We must be prepared to laugh with the universe at the banality of our own immolation.

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