Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912) received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said. ‘You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?
—101 Zen Stories, compiled by Paul Repps
Recently I was accused of being anti-Science [sic] and “an illiterate, medieval moron.” I took note of the capitalization because it indicated that science, in the accuser’s mind, is a kind of monolithic institution in which one is either a believer or an unbeliever. My question to him had triggered a reaction of such disproportionate force that I had been summarily anathematized.
The accusation surprised me, because I have always thought of science as being free of dogma and instead focused on an earnest and unrelenting study of evidence and facts to get to the truth. I love science for this sensibility, though I also see that not all the manifestations of the work of what is called science, nor the people calling themselves scientists, embody it.
I see science as a mode of inquiry and a set of principles for study and discovery. I love the Socratic method, which uses dialectical inquiry to delve ever-deeper into the nature of the world and reality. The classifications of taxonomic ranks show beautifully how everything living fits into the whole of life, like a Russian matryoshka doll. I love how the word science comes from the Latin scientia, meaning knowledge.
Mostly, I love the motto attributed to the earliest scientists: Summa Scientia Nihil Scire, Latin, meaning “the height of knowledge is to know nothing.” The aphorism suggests that to be a scientist is to be empty of opinions and at the same time actively studying and testing new research into the nature of things. It is to be humble in the face of the unknown.
We are living through a time of intense polarities. As in the case of my question making me “anti-science,” all the hues of nuance and shades of meaning get sucked into the corners. Issues are black and white, yes or no, for or against. The framing of everything as sets of contrived extremes becomes so bizarre that even the possibility of humor, let alone real knowledge, is lost.
We are caught between the Scylla of belief and the Charybdis of disbelief. To inhabit this space of not-knowing is uncomfortable. Particularly in these uncertain and charged times when we crave some reliable worldview, to neither believe nor disbelieve is an excruciating state.
It is in times like these that the scientific method can be so helpful. A key aspect is a capacity for impartiality, which is to say steadfast observation without expectation of results. When I am pulled this way and that by attractions and aversions, opinions and preferences, agreement and disagreement, it is as though I am lost at sea. How can I inhabit a space in myself that is able to observe and be impartial not only to the chaos around me but also to the chaos within me?
I think a beginning point is to have the humility of a scientist who realizes their helplessness in the face of the unknown. Out of humility comes the vapor of a wish to understand, to really know what is true. Out of this wish, I can begin to formulate an aim, and an aim impelled by wish can have the force and guidance to hit the target.
Impartiality is not disinterest, dissociation, or withdrawal. Impartiality has within it an intense commitment to stay engaged, to stay in relationship with others and with myself. At the same time, it has a quality of holding and an acceptance of whatever arises. In this way it means, as in the formulation attributed to Jesus, to be in the world, but not of the world. This applies as much to the contents of the inner life as the outer, including everything one thinks, does, suffers, and even says.
The Sufis give us the image of the reed flute. We are invited to be the flute, tuned and empty, ready to be filled with the breath of an intelligence both within and beyond oneself. With this emptiness, we can be scientists of the visible and invisible; we can strive to understand the points of view of others, and through understanding others, we can first of all accept and finally love one another.