Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Tony Deyal | Zen and the art of string-pulling

Published:Saturday | January 21, 2017 | 1:00 AM

'Zen' means 'meditative state' and is the name given to a school of Buddhism which suggests that the soul grows through actively engaging with life as it is. One of the tools for achieving insight through meditation is a paradox called a 'Koan'. One example is: "Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise." Another version is: A Zen master once said to me, "Do the opposite of whatever I tell you." So I didn't.

A different way of looking at and trying to understand Zen comes from Dr Neel Burton (Psychology Today, March 2013): A Zen student goes to a temple and asks how long it will take him to gain enlightenment if he joins the temple. "Ten years," says the Zen master. "Well, how about if I really work and double my effort?" the student asked. The Master replied, "Twenty years." Buddha had commanded that Zen practitioners sever ties with their family so this makes a kind of sense, "A Zen student asked his master, 'Is it OK to use email?' 'Yes,' replied the master, 'But no attachments.'"

My introduction to Zen came through a landmark book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Enquiry into Values, by Robert Pirsig. The book was rejected by 121 publishers before it was published in 1974 by William Morrow & Company. It sold more than five million copies worldwide.

Pirsig's book about values led me to quantum mechanics (aka quantum theory or quantum physics), "the branch of physics dealing with the behaviour of matter and light on the atomic and subatomic scale." According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, "it attempts to describe and account for the properties of molecules and atoms and their constituents - electrons, protons, neutrons, and other more esoteric particles such as quarks and gluons. These properties include the interactions of the particles with one another and with electromagnetic radiation (e.g., light, X-rays, and gamma rays)."

There are two lessons from this field that are also relevant to Zen. You cannot measure something without disturbing it. A scientist named Schrodinger, one of the founders of quantum theory, proposed an experiment based on a cat that has to be presumed both dead and alive until it is observed. And if you are trying to measure position and momentum at the same time, the more precisely you measure one, the less precisely the other is known. This is known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and led to the joke, "Why was Heisenberg such a bad lover?" Because when he had the time, he didn't have the energy, and when he found the position, he lacked the momentum.




These days, the quantum field has become even more complicated. Chaos theory, which is about systems whose behaviour is extremely sensitive to slight changes in conditions, has entered the quantum universe and is complicating it, while string theory, which replaces the 'point-like' particles with strings, is changing it.

Chaos theory postulates that the beating of a butterfly's wings somewhere over New Zealand can affect the weather in the Caribbean to even cause a hurricane. Chaos experts say that it may take a very long time, but the connection is real. If the butterfly flaps its wings at just the right point in space or time, the hurricane will happen. Strings and super strings threaten to replace red tape in wrapping up the universe and everything in it.

Is there a quantum of solace in this mad, mysterious cosmos with black holes and many strings attached? I was looking at a recent headline in a Trinidad newspaper that said the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU), which represents the workers in the oil industry (where truck drivers earn more than US$3,000 a month), was meeting with the management of the Petroleum Company of Trinidad and Tobago (Petrotrin), which lost $2.5 billion in the last two financial years, to discuss "productivity".

The OWTU is the organisation that threatened and was about to shut down the company if its workers did not receive a 15 per cent wage increase at a time when the country is in recession and oil prices have fallen drastically. The strike did not happen because the company agreed to pay an extra $80 million a year to the workers.




The settlement had the blessings of the prime minister, Dr Keith Rowley, who in March 2015, as leader of the Opposition, said about then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, "She could jump high, she could jump low, she could drink this, she could drink that, she could bark at meh dog, I go ignore she cat."

One problem was his pronunciation of the word 'cat' as 'kyat' - a vulgarism for the female sexual organ. The other problem is that he never used similar language to defy or even ignore the OWTU and its leader but instead meekly surrendered.

It is then all my Zen and quantum mechanics were put to good use. Instead of productivity for which there is no evidence, the two sides might as well discuss quantum mechanics, especially string theory (what string you need to pull to get a job or contract in the entire country, not just in Petrotrin), and chaos theory, which the union and its leaders have mastered by threats of strike and

other actions, and Petrotrin with its managerial incompetence.

After a week of more uncertainty than Heisenberg, wondering whether there will be a gas shortage and for how long, the only question is whose cat, or 'kyat', is both dead and alive - Rowley's, Kamla's or Schrodinger's?

- Tony Deyal was last seen providing some Zen advice to political leaders. "It may be that your sole purpose in life is to serve as a warning to others.