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Ming Zhen Shakya

Heisenberg, Zen, and the Images of Death

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

Back in the dark ages of my life I studied physics, that most illuminating of subjects. I didn't learn much or, I should say, I didn't learn what I was supposed to learn. I was dazzled by physics, of course. Who wouldn't be dazzled by the prospects of delta x, delta rho and whatever it was their product had to do with "h"? Of greater significance as far as I was concerned was what Heisenberg, who thought up that revolutionary formula (and won the Nobel Prize for it) had to say about what it meant. It meant that, to use his own words, "Since the measuring device has been constructed by the observer... we have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.

So, the process of observation can let the observer unwittingly interfere in the act he is observing. Heisenberg had formulated an interaction between the observer and the observed. He had identified the inevitable distortion of separation. This was meaningful for Zen in its purest form insists upon the unifying connection of "seer" and "seen." No, weíre not talking about the gravitational attraction between the mass of the observer and the mass of the observed; and weíre not talking about the effect of the light with which the viewer views the object upon that objectís course. What physics dubs the Uncertainty Principle is, in Zen terms, a much surer bet, a much graver and reliable truth. In Zen, a Master of Archery knows to a certainty that the archer, the bow, the arrow, and the target are a unity and that the moment he tries to split the field and remove one element for isolated observation, his aim will falter. The Nirvanic unity, that necessary Oneness, will be lost. Heíll be back in the hit and miss error of Samsaric egoism. The eye cannot see itself, and whatever it looks upon, it affects and is, in turn, affected.

Particularly since the advent of film, the images we have seen of animals have altered our perception of them. Before film, we could slaughter buffalo for fun and passenger pigeons for fashion without a momentís thought. We shrugged off the casualty figures and admired the millinery.

At first, the film industry reflected our indifference and exploited our curiosity. "Bring ĎEm Back Alive" docudramas and the Tarzan and safari-adventure flicks proliferated. Animal pelts were the chevrons of the rich and courageous and even a fireplace needed the aegis of a polar bear rug.

Rin-Tin-Tin, Trigger, Lassie and Flipper eroded our indifference. We began to appreciate animals for their rare human qualities which, regardless of the fictional presentation, we had already discovered when, to borrow some of Shakespeareís eloquence, we found ourselves "in disgrace with fortune and menís eyes" and didnít have to beweep our outcaste state so wretchedly alone because our dog or our cat would come to us to demonstrate absolute fidelity - Nirvanaís vaunted unconditional love. Rex or Wally or Buttons would not condemn us no matter what we did.

And the more we were exposed to images of heroic animals, the more our national psyche began to change, to rise towards the interests of animals in general. Maybe it was just a matter of economics - having the money and the leisure time to enjoy movies and television and maybe it was also the shift of population from rural to urban. Perhaps we saw things differently because we got to know animals as pets... not just work or herd animals - those anonymous cattle, draught horses, guard-dogs or mouser cats... but creatures with whom we could psychologically interact, with whom we could empathize.

And then indifference turned to consternation as film showed us the realities of the luxury-fur industry, of precisely how those animals died just so some vain, preposterous woman could wear fox or lynx to a temperate climateís soiree; of speciesí dwindling numbers being further reduced just to harvest a few body parts mistakenly believed to be aphrodisiacs; of dolphins - intelligent mammals - being slaughtered because they got in the way of a tuna fish casserole. Film helped us to reexamine death: which deaths were necessary or sacred, which experiments medically valid. Television images exponentially increased that rising curve of environmental consciousness. We wanted to know more about our world and responding to that demand for information came nature programs by the drove.

Film periscoped us up into the heights of sympathy and even empathy; but what the film makers didnít seem to realize was that that same affluence that enabled us to see their programs had also provided us with a more sophisticated awareness of the process of image production. Video cameras were ubiquitous and everyman hip to the ways of creating filmed reality. And then there was Heisenberg making us think about that strange interaction which transcended Samsaric notions of being unobserved observers. We didnít need an electron microscope. All that was necessary was a camcorder to demonstrate how deeply the seer was involved in the process of viewing.

And this is why I feel so bad when I see, as I recently did, a couple of nature films, one about beavers who starve to death on some North American pond and another about meercats (ferret type animals) suffering through a drought in Africa. Relentlessly the camera tracked the plight of these creatures. We literally got to watch the beavers starve, day after wretched day, week after wretched week until the announcer intoned, in the saddest, most unctuous voice that he could ooze, that "alas" in accordance with natureís harsh design, the animals had starved to death. In the case of the meercats, one was injured while escaping from a predator and didnít have the strength to keep up with the others as they continued their long trek for food and water. The camera patiently watched as the helpless creature succumbed to pain, fear, abandonment, and death. "Alas" the narrator sighed, "this is natureís way, natureís own harsh design." The hell it is.

Are we to believe that the observers didnít influence the event they were observing, that that camera crew didnít urinate, defecate, smoke their cigarettes, cook and eat their grub, and act in all ways human in the immediate vicinity of that beaver pond or that parched velt. Are we to believe that their sounds and smells - their very presence in those places - didnít interfere with "natureís own design." Had they not been there, Karma insists that another outcome quite easily could have ensued. Are we supposed to believe that these human beings could not throw some of the garbage they undoubtedly buried or burned to those starving animals without "interfering with natureís own designs"? Nature, Dharma, intended that human beings help those needy creatures. Surely one of those scientists present during the first of the days it took the little meercat to die could have appraised the situation, estimated the outcome inevitable without human intervention and said, "OK, this cat is history. Letís call him dead, but give him some water and food and maybe suture that gash in his leg." No, this was a "snuff" film. We needed to watch the dramatic impact of hopelessness and agony. This is the kind of science Dr. Mengele would have appreciated.

Worse, we cannot discount the possibility that far from letting nature take its tragic course, filmmakers occasionally help it along. We know all about pet-food industry advertisers who routinely starve an animal for several days so that, when released, it will run to their touted brand of cat or dog food, spraying saliva in well-documented drops. Those dog and cat "gourmets" would have wolfed down cardboard if somebody had sprinkled a few drops of chicken blood on it.

Again, this isnít about one animal killing and eating another because that is the way it survives. This is about human beings entering the wild animalsí environment and, while pretending that they arenít there at all, watching and filming their subjectsí preventable travail and death.

I donít have an awful lot of time for animal rightsí fanatics... especially the anti-vivisectionists. I wouldnít want my child to take a medicine that hadnít been tested on animals or to submit to a surgeonís knife if that surgeon hadnít practiced his technique on a legitimately obtained lab animal. But medical science is far removed from these posturing nature films. They arenít science. Theyíre entertainment.

Science is Heisenberg saying, "We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning." And we are part of nature too. As we are observing, so might we be being observed. Heisenberg would also have wanted us to remember that itís the Principle of Uncertainty that obliges us to act on the side of the angels.  


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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