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Zen and Science – What’s Real Magic?


Physicist and physics professor Chris Gaffney gave a talk in Santa Rosa on a Monday evening in July 2013, and this is what he said about it:


“What is real magic?”

I have noticed a strong attraction in myself and others toward incidences of ‘magic’ – whatever that phrase brings to mind for you. It is also true that science, and those who practice it (such as myself), have long been considered the squashers of magical notions. This question of magic may be a nice gate in.

Speaking of gate, here’s the koan:

Long, long ago the abbot of a Zen monastery was asked this question by a monk. Here is what happened – this version of the koan being provided by Roshi John Tarrant:

Whenever Baizhang gave a talk, an old man was there listening. When the people left he left too. One day he stayed behind.

“Who are you?” asked the teacher.

The old man said, “It’s true, I’m not a human being. In a previous universe, in the time of a different Buddha, I was the abbot on this mountain. A student asked, ‘Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘someone like that doesn’t fall under the law of cause and effect.’ Because of this, I’ve been reborn 500 times as a fox. Please will you say a turning word for me?”

Baizhang said, “You don’t cut the chains of cause and effect.”

At these words, the old man had a great awakening.

Here is a poem on this koan by Wumen:

Not falling, not evading—
Two faces of the same die.
Not evading, not falling—
A thousand mistakes, ten thousand mistakes.

Wumen also described the old man’s 500 lives as a fox as 500 lives of grace.

Some things you might consider:

– Obviously after the first few hundred lives the former Zen (Master!) knew he had given the wrong answer. Apparently the standard escape route of ‘understanding the problem’ is not available: he’s already 500 lives in.

– We’re all 500 lives in: absolute minimum, and I’m talking about just today.

– Cause and effect is for many the essence of not-magic. If it’s all cause and effect, the phrase ‘karma’ comes to mind, then no leap of freedom, no spontaneity, nothing not predictable.

– Awakening comes with hearing the turning words: ‘you don’t cut the chains of cause and effect’. Strange: down in the bone shop, the warming planet among us billions, the apparent ‘chains’ of our lives, the old man becomes free with the simplest of noticings.

– What foxy chains do you see standing ‘in the way’ – the original meaning of ‘Satan’ – of your practice? What if these were not the chains that they appear to be? Can you have chains of grace?

It seems, to me, that there is a kind of magic in this story that is real. That’s probably because I feel like it is my story in some very interesting way.

Chris Gaffney

July 2013, Monday evening talk at Santa Rosa Zen Center.

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