Bob Schwartz

Tag: Ben Zoma

The binary and the infinite: What we learn from computers, the I Ching, the Bible and breathing.

We live today and have long lived in what seems to us, at first glance, a binary world. So it seems.

At their most basic, computers are binary machines. Countless combinations of yes/no, on/off decision circuits, adding up, as speed and the number of decisions increase exponentially, to processes that mimic (or exceed) human thought.

The I Ching begins its panoramic presentation of world with a simple binary calculation: either a solid yang line or a broken yin line, combined into eight trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams, from which the entire nature of life and time is profiled, if not actually predicted.

Traditions, such as Taoism, Zen and others, suggest non-duality. That reality exists between those choices we are so attached to. That it is not either/or, not neither/nor. Computers agree. Reduced to each of the billions of digital decisions, binary means nothing. The I Ching reduced to a single line means little. The meanings, all of them, are in the matrix of combinations.

The Bible agrees. It would seem, in its rules and lists, to promote binary behavior. The Ten Commandments are a prime example. But at the literal first moment, if we immerse ourselves in the question of what is between existence and non-existence at creation (contemplation that according to one legendary interpretation drove the Talmudist Ben Zoma crazy), the answer may be everything. The Book of Ecclesiastes, famous for saying that all is ephemeral vapor and listing the binary poles (a time to laugh, a time to weep…), is telling us we live now and ever in the changes in between. Not unlike the I Ching.

Physics has also given up on the binary. Simplistic analysis has given way to acknowledgement that as much as we would like to hold on to a concept of this or that, now or then, the physical world at a foundational level exists in simultaneous multiple states.

Not everything about our organic human lives is binary, but plenty of it is. Ten has its place (fingers, toes), but a distinct second place to two. Two arms and hands, legs and feet, eyes, ears, lungs.

Lungs bring us to breathing, the penultimate binary. Inhale, exhale. There is nothing in between. The failure of that binary leads to the ultimate: life, death. Some do posit an alternative to that binary, a third option. But if we just stick to life/death, what do we learn about either one from this discussion of binary?

Things as they are are not exactly binary, except we make them so. This doesn’t mean that one can think away breathing or death. No inhale/exhale, no life happens. But the values in between—the digital fabric, the I Ching, the space between existence and non-existence, the time between laughing and weeping, the quantum states—are where it is at.

Ben Zoma Inside Out

The person in the hut lives here calmly,
not stuck to inside, outside, or in-between.
Song of the Grass Hut

Gone
Gone Beyond
Gone Completely Beyond
Heart Sutra

Ben Zoma Inside Out

Ben Zoma in the grass hut
Waters above
Waters below.
What does Rabbi Joshua know?
Sekito knows
Ben Zoma is outside
Inside and in-between.
Gone completely beyond.

Note: Creating, whatever your material, can be like the proverbial dog with a bone. There is sometimes spontaneity, done and gone, and then there is the idea that won’t go away. In that case, the idea is actually the dog and you are the bone. A previous version of this poem can be found here. Who knows what the next version, if any, will look like? Not me.

Ben Zoma Still Outside

waters-above

Ben Zoma Still Outside

Lost and found
Between the waters of creation
Ben Zoma
Is outside
Is still outside

And God said, “Let there be a space within the water, and let it separate between water and water.” And God made the space, and it separated between the water that was under the space and the water that was above the space. And it was so. (Gen 1:6-7)

Ben Zoma sat at the Temple Mount, lost in thought. His rebbe Yehoshua ben Chananya came by, but Ben Zoma did not notice or rise in respect. R. Yehoshua roused him from his reverie and asked what he was doing. Gazing at the space between the upper and lower waters, he replied. R.  Yehoshua explained to his disciples:

Ben Zoma is still outside.