by Frank Pauc
“Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward to what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal.”
Jacob Bronowski, from his book, The Ascent of Man
I am actually planning to write about Zen, but I think that the preceding quote from Jacob Bronowski is appropriate, even though he was talking about science, the great passion of his life. Bronowski was a mathematician, and a modern Renaissance man. He loved ideas, but he hated dogma. He particularly loved the pursuit of knowledge.
If I look from Bronowski’s perspective, I can see similarities between science and Zen. There aren’t many similarities because Zen isn’t similar to anything, really. However, they share a few points in common. Both Zen and science are about questions. In both practices, there is a desire to find answers, but the focus is on the questions. During meditation, some people silently ask themselves, “What am I?”, and then respond, “Don’t know.” Scientists ask themselves questions, and if they are honest, they usually shrug their shoulders and say, “Don’t know”. Even if a scientist finds an answer, that answer is simply a door to more questions. Likewise, if a Zen student catches a glimpse of reality, it is only a small step toward a deeper understanding.
A Zen practitioner may have a rare moment of illumination, where his or her view of the world shifts radically. Scientists can have that too. Scientists cling to ideas and opinions just like everyone else. Then somebody comes along and rocks their world. Copernicus tells people that the sun is the center of the solar system, and the effect is the same as when a Zen master screams “Katz!” Einstein explains that all things are relative, and there is a massive paradigm shift. Quantum physics comes along and suddenly light is both a particle and a wave (sometimes, maybe). A scientist with integrity has to be able to let go of ideas, just like a Zen practitioner must. Both types of people have to experience “don’t know”.
Bronowski notes that science is personal. So is Zen. A scientist has to “feel forward” in the unknown. So does a Zen practitioner. This pursuit of knowledge cannot be done vicariously. Each person has to do it on their own. This type of journey can be risky and requires a certain amount of courage. A person who thinks, talks, and acts differently from others is quite often vulnerable. A Zen practitioner and a scientist both are like trapeze artists who perform without a safety net. The safety net is made up of the things we think we know.
Not many people are scientists. Not many people practice Zen. Most people prefer the safety net. They want the security, real or otherwise, of absolutes. They don’t want that tension, that uneasiness that accompanies us when we stand “on the edge of error.” To be honest, I don’t want that either. But I can’t control my curiosity. As someone pointed out, I am a “seeker”. I keep asking.
Most of Bronowski’s family died in the Holocaust. Once again, he spoke about science:
“It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And this was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”
I think I will stick with “don’t know.”