My Periodic Wakey Wakey
On a recent morning walk, deep in thought, after taking a left turn I faced the morning sun peeking out over a thunder cloud. Silvery and bold like I imagine the “light” that people with near-death experiences describe. The sight snapped me out of the dream I was in.
You know the dream. The one where my thoughts and ideas are toy realities constrained by the limited world of “universal” Turing machines we know as computers. And even more constrained by the well-defined capabilities of Python and Azure. And even further constrained by the “clear” and present tactical interests of my customers.
My walks are mostly just a conference with myself when I’ve reached some sort of impasse and need to think through the next few steps with just my brain. Work and just daily living is a relentless series of puzzles – problems to be solved within a governing body of rules and objectives.
Those puzzles are my natural koans, foundations of my Zen practice. Through my Zen practice of software development, I thoroughly explore the almost incalculable number of phenomena comprised of unique combinations of different business paradigms, different software development frameworks, and personalities.
But in such immersion into our daily lives and Zen practice, we can forget that our normal awareness is a very small subset of the unimaginable vastness of Reality. The sight of that morning sun peaking through the clouds astonished me beyond the realm of my daily life. It awoke me to remember that although my body and brain lives in the realm of Life on Earth, it’s just a place where my consciousness can explore the countless web of sub worlds created through Life’s complexity.
The photo above is a picture of a sunflower with a rubber duck and blue rubber porpoise whimsically posed on it. Worse, it’s not even the actual physical objects. It’s just a representation of those ordinary items – encoded as a bunch of bytes and requiring specific software and hardware to fashion it into a format that my eyes can pass through to my brain. Is that all it is?
Well, from another “point of view”, the rubber duck and blue porpoise are indeed their Holinesses, the Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet and the Eternal Fishnu, respectively. In them is encapsulated all of time and all other dimensions – not just the slivers we experience in our normally sequential thread of consciousness.
The sunflower. It self-assembled beginning with a few molecules. Every atom of the sunflower is laid out in orderly patterns. It holds a few hundred seeds that will perform that miracle again. That’s a much more compelling story. But still, is that all there is?
“The heavens tell of the glory of God. The skies display His marvelous craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make Him known. They speak without a sound or a word; their voice is slient in the skies; yet their message has gone out to all the Earth, and their words to all the world.” – Psalms 19:1-4 NLT
How Would We Possibly Have Known That?
As we go about our daily life, we are generally cognizant of things we know we don’t know. Figuring out what we know we don’t know is just a matter of some R&D – Google it, ask someone, try it yourself.
A step up is the awareness that there are many things we don’t know we don’t know. For example, we didn’t know to look out for mold that could be made into antibiotics. Solving for the things we know we don’t know leads to incremental changes, whereas catching the things we didn’t know we didn’t know can be life changing, awakening.
We software developers are generally keenly aware of things we don’t know we don’t know. We’re always coming up with compelling, lofty, perhaps crazy ideas. But although we intellectually know the crazy ideas can’t be deemed successful until it has been in production for a few years, we still operate as though “… if it works in unit test, it’ll work in production”. Even if we roll out to production successfully (well, after a few dozen bug fixes), bugs will pop up years later. Think of Y2K.
Here’s a little programmer’s version of a Halloween story (it is Halloween as I write this) about something hundreds of people over a decade timeframe didn’t see coming.
A couple of years ago (2018) I worked a short gig at a modestly large e-commerce company that had been around since the dot-com days, so nearly twenty years. With all the backup systems, army of developers and admins, and Jira tickets, the entire system crashed on a Sunday when I was the on-call engineer. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the reason was that the count of users in the users database table surpassed 2,147,483,647. That is the maximum positive value of a 32-bit integer. It was a bug no one ever thought of – a bug that was nearly 20 years in the making.
Instead of fireworks, confetti, whistles blowing up, and a major award for that 2,147,483,648th gleeful customer, I had to cajole my teammates to come in that Sunday to figure out how to change a 32-bit int into a 64-bit bigint on 20 terabytes of data within the timeframe of a few hours. Not to mention modifying tons of code bearing the scars of twenty years of service.
Experienced IT folks would know we didn’t come up with a way to solve it within hours. But we did resolve it within a few days.
In hindsight it may seem like the dozens of people who worked on the system made a stupid oversight. But no. No one could imagine there would be more than 100 million users back in 2000. The software was written long ago before 64-bit servers were common and two billion was still a really big number.
What happened is someone a few months before the crash decided to redefine “user”. That definition of “user” went from just registered users and customers to all visitors from all machine ids, not just email addresses. And that included the spammers, the hackers, bots, web scrapers …
Did we learn a big lesson that day? Watch the maximum value of every counter? I don’t think that’s good enough of a lesson. How many thing can we watch? How many rules can we enforce? Consider instead how many ways can historically innocuous combinations of things trigger a crisis at some random time in the future?
For me, I was heartened to see that my teammates and I could keep a cool head, look at the problem in its entirety, devise a solution, and execute the application of the solution fairly flawlessly. When the shit seriously hit the fan, we stoically dealt with it. And no one put us in front of a firing squad.
As the Halloween story above shows, the things we don’t know we don’t know is still within the ballpark of our normal lives. It may have been a highly technical, jargon-filled story. But it’s still comprehendible by our brains. At least in hindsight, and that’s the key leading to “Is this all there is?”
So beyond what “we don’t know we don’t know” is the unknowable – at least unknowable to our brains that for the most part experience life only within a big Terrarium. The unknowable is beyond the computational power of our brains. Our brains will never know what it’s like to be a 10-dimensional being like the Eternal Fishnu. But being unknowable doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Our brains of 80 billion neurons and at least 100 trillion synapses is a marvel. But even the collective knowledge of those throughout history and shared by all who are alive today hasn’t experienced what will come in a decade or two, a century or so. Not to mention our questionable ability to genuinely comprehend the immense scale of the interactions of billions of galaxies or the interaction of countless sub-atomic particles.
We may not ever truly comprehend the unknowable, but we can at least know there is an unknowable. After all, we are 100% immersed and permeated in it. The sunrise of my recent morning walk for some reason reminded me of this very real thing called the unknowable.
We’re good at deluding ourselves into thinking we thoroughly comprehend something, only to find out twenty or thirty years later our comprehension was embarrassingly shallow at best, maybe even downright wrong. That’s because our brains are problem-solving machines. We’re agitated until the problem is “solved”, or more commonly, simply moved out of sight. So we readily believe whatever will remove the problem.
However, realize that the unknowable is inaccessible only to our brains’ thoughts. Through meditation, no thoughts, we have no metaphorical shell between us and the unknowable. When we cease to cling to all thoughts and things, we find our awareness is One with the unknowable.
This blog is for those readers who searched for key words, “bohdi day” (I misspelled it on purpose … hahaha), in an attempt to understand if what we deal with in our daily lives is all there is. Know that our human brains literally have no idea about what reality is. There is a reality beyond what our brains can imagine but at the same time we are an inseparable part of it.
And don’t try to describe reality if you happen to find it in meditation. Whatever description you put on it is just an unsatisfactory compromise of your brain.
“From the time the world was created, people have seen the Earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see His invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God. – Romans 1:20 (NLT)
A Month Until Bodhi Day
It’s a bit over a month until the “secular” Bodhi Day, December 8, 2021. However, Mrs. Hanamoku and I begin our observation seven days earlier on December 1, the Bodhi Season. The home page explains more about Bodhi Day, and offers links to series of blogs from past Bodhi Days.
Lastly, to all of our many Indian friends, we wish you all a wonderful Diwali this coming week (Nov 4, 2021)!!
Faith and Patience to you,
Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku