Hazy Moon Zen Center


Los Angeles

Mind Breathes Fire

by Ralph Shikan Levinson

(This article is adapted from a blog entry from Shikan’s website, ZenGut)

Nyogen Roshi sent me a New York Times article that he thought I would like: “A Black Hole Mystery Wrapped in a Firewall Paradox.” Leonard Susskind, a theoretical physicist and educator whose work I enjoy, had offered comments on the article. There were also references to the iconic physicist and intellectual provocateur Stephen Hawking, and in particular to a years-long debate between Hawking and Susskind on the nature of black holes.

(The dispute—or at least the first iteration of it—was finally settled in Leonard Susskind’s favor.)

The subject of the New York Times article was recent theoretical refinements that were prompting scientists to revisit the black hole debate and to question the determination that Susskind had prevailed. One thing I took away from the article was an appreciation for Susskind’s willingness to question his previous understanding of physics in light of the new ideas about black holes that were outlined in the Times. Like Hawking’s original acquiescence in the black hole debate, Susskind’s openness to critique showed that these two towering figures in theoretical physics were practicing something that is shared by science and Zen—a touchstone that has come down to me as Maezumi Roshi’s admonition: No self-deception!

It may not be obvious why black holes are worthy of this kind of attention. The theoretical physics of black holes is at the cutting edge of the scientific understanding of the basic processes of the universe. Black holes are one area where our two foundational but seemingly irreconcilable models of the universe meet: relativity theory (and gravity) and quantum mechanics.

Any grand unified theory (GUT) in physics will have to resolve the tension between this pair of pillars that supports all of modern science and technology. The issues raised by this tension relate to the nature of information, entropy and the basis of the world that we perceive and measure. So developments that challenge the prevailing paradigms about black holes that these brilliant scientists have debated and labored over for decades is not trivial.

After reading the article I opened my copy of The Black Hole War, Susskind’s book about his debate with Hawking and its implications. I hadn’t remembered what was written on the otherwise blank page opposite the copyright, and when I read it, I just had to stop share it with you:

“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?

–Stephen Hawking”

How we answer this question is where I suspect these eminent scientists and I have differing views. It’s at the core of any GUT.

Almost 1,400 years ago in China there was an illiterate young man of great insight who came to be known as Hui Neng. He was so respected by subsequent Ch’an (Chinese Zen) students that the record of his talks was called a sutra, a term otherwise reserved for the words of the Buddha.

There is a story that when Hui Neng was ready to start teaching he showed up at a monastery, where he came upon some monks engaged in a debate.

A pendent was flapping in the breeze. One monk said that wind moves, another that the flag moves, a third countered that both move.

Hui Neng set them straight: Mind moves.

Dr. Hawking, you might say that Xin, heart/mind, breathes the fire that makes a universe.


Dragons from Kyoto Zen Temples photographs by Susan Levinson