Science as Koan
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When I first began to meditate, I considered the Buddhist approach to things to be completely separate from the scientific. But over time, that changed. At the beginning of my practice, I associated spirituality with transcendence. Eventually, though, I realized that meditation was about being right up against things, in an intimate way. This was a surprise; suddenly, both my scientific work and my Zen practice were aiming at the same sort of inquiry. That realization has propelled a lot of the stem cell research I’ve done in the last few years. When I ask, What is this body? What is its function? What are its limits? I am asking the same questions in my scientific work that I am in my sitting practice.
I do research about what makes up and defines a cell. Sometimes, when I walk to the zendo for the morning sit, it occurs to me that I am all these cells I’ve been studying. And what are they? If you push the limits of what’s being seen in stem cell biology these days, you’ll discover that the techniques we’ve used have conditioned our conceptions of the body as one made up of cells.
But there are other models. In previous centuries, there was a lively debate: Is the body made up of an ultimately indivisible set of particles? When people first peered into microscopes, what they could see were cell membranes and cell walls, which seemed to settle the argument: “Ah, it’s not endlessly divisible: there are four walls, a ceiling, floor, and no furniture.” And then, twenty years later, they discovered the furniture – the nuclei, the mitochondria, and so on. If technology had allowed them to see the nuclei first, they would have said, “Oh, we seem to have this fluid, with these little balls hanging in it.” Later, when they discovered cell membranes, they would have said, “Oh, they’re a semipermeable partitioning of the fluid space.” The dominant model for the body would be a fluid, a synticium, rather than a cell. It all depends on whether the cell membrane or the nucleus is your point of view. But what if they genome is your point of view? You get a very different way of looking at the body. And it turns out that there are still other models. Some experiments look at calcium waves through the liver, and you can describe what’s happening independently of cell structure: you could say that the liver is a fluid through which calcium waves travel on a periodic rhythmic basis. There are many areas of investigation turning out to show that the body can be considered a fluid. Does this mean the body isn’t cells? It depends on what your perspective is. From a Buddhist perspective, I’m very comfortable saying, “Oh, Turn it this way, it will be like this; turn it that way, it will be like something else.” My practice has freed me from having to say, “I’ve been trained to look at it this way, therefore that’s the way it is.” If you understand that at particular moments, a particular view is useful – good; and when it’s not, there’s another view that may be useful. View, then, becomes skillful means. You can hold the questions, not be rigid in your view; it’s the koan practice.
If both Buddhist and scientific practices are aimed at uncovering some more fundamental understanding or direct experience of the universe, then which is the more efficient way to do that? Sitting on my cushion, or going to work in the morning and dealing with the politics of getting a paper published? Increasingly, I am feeling that maybe the cushion is a swifter approach. But I have too much fun in the lab to entirely give it up yet.
Science as Koan was originally published at http://www.neiltheise.com/Science.php