From Particle to Participation to Particularity

As threats to our planet and to the life it sustains are intensifying, and toxicity and violence are spreading like wildfires (and with wildfires), I've been wondering why it's so difficult for us to realize that our wellbeing and freedom co-arise with the wellbeing and freedom of other people, the earth, and its creatures. Why is individual flourishing so disconnected from collective flourishing? Climate degradation and the ravages of the COVID-19 epidemic scream 'we are in this together'— what's good for me fundamentally is good for you, our species, and the planet.


The interpenetration of these two elements, "the all in the one and the one in the all,' has been examined for millennia in various traditions. In Zen, the verses known as the Five Ranks present a nuanced view of how the universal and the particular dimensions interact. Huayan Buddhism offers us the vivid metaphor of the Jeweled Net of Indra[1], and Thich Nhat Hanh used the felicitous word interbeing, to convey the way we literally compose and make each other possible. A piece of paper, he says, cannot be paper without the tree, sun, rain, and earth.

Recently I've been asking socially-engaged Buddhist teachers about this on my podcast, The Lotus in the Fire.[2] I got the impression that some assumed I knew the answer and wondered why I asked. But I didn't know. And we didn't reach any answers. My friend the philosopher, writer, and Zen teacher David Loy expresses a similar perplexity, though from a different angle, when he asks: "Why is more always better when it can never be enough?"

In Zen practice, when we forget the self and unite with the matter at hand, we awake to the vivid intersection of the particular and the universal. Our particular being is actually collective interbeing, and simultaneously the collective cannot function without particular beings. "All beings by nature are Buddha, as ice by nature is water. Apart from water there is no ice, apart from beings no Buddha.[3]" But realizing this directly doesn't guarantee we will continue to embody it, and if we don't realize and live it, our species and countless others will go down the tubes. We're already on our way there. Can we turn things around?

Recently I watched a film about the life and work of physicist David Bohm and was struck by a number of things. Bohm's innovations in physics, through which he sought an underlying, interwoven dimension to seemingly random and disconnected things, unfolded from his experiences growing up: a domineering and rejecting father and a mother with mental health problems that required periodic hospitalization. Bohm hoped that science would help people, and was particularly interested in ending poverty, but he came to believe that science alone could not do this. Like many of his colleagues he was interested in the 'Russian Experiment,' that is, Marxist theory taking shape in the USSR, and its potential to improve human welfare:  From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

In particular, Bohm wanted to determine whether or not the collective imperiled individual freedom, as many in the West feared. His work would show, using experimental physics, that it did not; participation in the collective in fact enhanced individual freedom.

Quantum theory analyzes the world of fundamental particles at the micro level. Relativity theory addresses the macro level, the space-time continuum of everyday life. Bohm felt there was an underlying dimension in which macro and micro each found their place in an undivided wholeness. So did Einstein. In the classic double slit experiment, scientists shot electrons through two slits, expecting that they would travel straight through as individual particles. They didn't. Once through the slits, the electrons dispersed into a wave-like interference pattern. This was inexplicable: A particle was a discrete entity and didn't express itself as a wave.

When experimenters attempted to confirm this puzzling occurrence, the electrons returned to behaving as isolated entities rather than waves. Is it a particle or a wave, the individual or the collective? It became clear that the lens through which one observes phenomena changes what one sees. Quantum physicist Niels Bohr said this paradox had no explanation and should simply be left to stand. Bohm and Einstein, however, thought there must be an undiscovered force or activity that could account for the seeming discrepancy. One that would embrace particle and wave in an inclusive register bigger than either.

In his Hidden Variables paper, Bohm hypothesized that electron movement was not random but rather was acted upon by waves that organized or piloted their movement. When his colleagues finally read this paper they found it mathematically flawless, yet decided to ignore it. Years later, a team used computers to perform a simulation of Bohm's theory. Bohm was heartened when he saw waves on the screen organizing the electrons' movement. What he called an "undivided wholeness" accounts for both particularity and oneness, which he named the implicate and explicate orders, not unlike the particular and the universal, the phenomenal world and essential nature in Zen.

In the Theory of Plasma Waves in Metals, Bohm explored a new branch of science, plasma physics, and the behavior of elections in plasma gases. Plasma is sometimes referred to as the fourth state of matter, distinct from solid, liquid, and gaseous states. This experiment produced results that piqued my interest and revealed parallels between the movement of electrons, individual human transformation, and the role of the collective.  Bohm found that if you run plasma gas through the molecular lattice work of metals, individual electrons that participated became free: "To the extent to which an electron participated in the plasma gas, it became relatively free (from the fields of other particles)."[4]


What struck me about how plasma behaves was this possibility: To the extent that an individual entity participates in the activity of the whole,[5] to that extent it realizes itself, becomes in Zen parlance, "a true person of no rank," particular and distinctive, where all are 'free to be you and me.'[6] There are echoes here of the psychoanalytic work of Winnicott, Bollas and others, and connections to our Coming Home Project research with survivors of war trauma and the healing activity of the beloved community.


Recall that Bohm and colleagues, many of whom were working on the Manhattan Project, were keenly following what was called "The Russian Experiment" and to what extent, if I'm a member of the collective, I can exercise individual freedom. There is much left to be fleshed out here: What kind of collective are we talking about? A state? A social system? An institution? How is the collective structured, what is its purpose? Is it a set of relationships, a family, an intentional community? We must also inquire about the particle and the kind of participation. In Zen, we participate as we forget the self in the act of uniting with the activity at hand. We are part of a practicing sangha, we don't remain on the fringes, isolated—we engage fully. As we participate intimately in the vast web of interbeing and may realize we've been "members" of this collective from the beginning. As citizens we participate actively in the struggles for and of our democracy, such as it is, and in the cultural commons. In psychoanalysis, we participate in the unconscious, the depths within ourselves and the shifting relational field we create with our patients.


It struck me that Bohm and me, each of us in his own way, had the same question.

It's counterintuitive: it would seem conventionally true that, if I'm a member of a collective, I don't have freedom (a critique of applied Marxism and of communist countries). But Bohm discovered that, in the quantum world to the extent an electron participated in the plasma “collective,” it became free [from the electromagnetic fields of other particles].


This affirmed my experience in Zen practice setting and in interdisciplinary retreats aiming to transform trauma. Over the course of eight years, we at Coming Home Project worked as a closely-knit team with 3,000 veterans, family members, and caregivers. When we examine the nature of the particular collective, we find an interactional element: What are the collective conditions that facilitate this whole- hearted, thorough going investment?

We learned that in a community characterized by belonging, safety, trust, inclusion, and unconditional compassion, individual retreat participants were able, despite their terrors, to engage fully in the community, and in so doing to co-create an environment that benefited everyone. Not only did they find one another in external connections but, by participating fully, they healed the internal wounds of war, and found and expressed their own distinctive voices.


The poet Wallace Stevens expresses what Bohm learned by pushing physics beyond its limits,


... Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.[7]


Part 2



What are the implications of the scientific discovery that the lens through which we observe changes what we actually see? In Zen and Psychotherapy: Partners in Liberation, I explore the impact of our perception itself.

"Prior to responding, our very act of apprehension—how we construe a certain situation by connecting the dots of sensory and affective data—may determine how and what we experience. We know that the brain is actively constructing models of reality moment to moment and readjusting these models based on new data. It is not that we “choose” or “dial up” whatever reality we want, carte blanche. Rather, our assimilated, internalized, and personalized insights develop through ongoing attentional “practice,” a kind of dhyana. They shape our very perceptions, and influence what realities, psychical and material, emerge for us, and not only how we respond to them.

We see this in terms of expectations: Students who are expected (and perceived) to be capable of success are more likely to succeed. Experiencing a drug addict sprawled out on the street as a Buddha, a human being with dignity, rather than a bum will not only affect our response to that person but also affect and create that person. We could say that as we connect the dots of our sensory, visual, and other experience, and bring forth a person (or other being) with dignity, we help liberate that “other” from “other” status so he, she, or it can realize and share intrinsic awakening or liberation.

Many in Buddhism and psychotherapy focus on seeing things as they “really are.” But perhaps our perceptions, on the one hand, and “what is,” on the other, co-arise: We awaken to what is as we perceive and create it. Our perceptions are infused and informed by a guiding myth, a dream, a philosophy of living. What are the understandings, motives, psychic fuels, energies, spiritual qualities, that inform how we connect the dots? How we make links, derive meanings, act on these meanings, and perceive? Aitken Roshi would say that we live Buddha’s dream. I say we live it out and create it moment to moment. It is the same with the psychotherapeutic dream of fully welcoming our disparate and disowned parts and experiences, as we widen the space of the heart. Bob Dylan (1962) writes: “You can be in my dream if I can be in yours.” We are by nature in one another’s dream; we are moment to moment dreaming one another. It behooves us to cultivate a mutually beneficial dream.

Nanao Sasaki has a poem: “I sit down quietly in lotus position,/Meditating, meditating for nothing /Suddenly a voice comes to me:/“To stay young/To save the world/Break the mirror.”

We break the self-absorbed mirror and painful storyline we construct and sustain by participating in the vast and limitless belonging of our true nature. Currently many say, “It’s just your story, let it go.” But it is our story, our dream. It’s what drives us, what we live and stand by, what actually gets communicated in our moment-to-moment interactions, no matter what our conscious intention. How we connect the dots—that makes all the difference in the world. This story is not ego aggrandizement; it is what we live by, how we live, and what we leave in our wake."


And our planet? Since we are not fundamentally external observers but active participants in the web of interbeing, our conduct is the web itself, repairing, reweaving, revitalizing. Forty-five years ago a Xeroxed pamphlet circulated in zen groups. The Vietnamese monk who wrote it began with a story about a couple who told him that caring for a new baby made it harder to find time to sit and practice. He asked them, “What if you, your practice, and caring for your new baby co-arose? What if caring for your baby was your practice?” I especially liked that the baby's name was Joey, what I was called as a child. Our earth and all its beings are this baby, under our care. As active participants, co-arising, we protect, repair, and revitalize it. As separable isolates—each man for himself, dog eat dog, grab it while you can—we destroy it.

[1] In the realm of the god Indra is a vast net that stretches infinitely in all directions. In each "eye" of the net is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever affects one jewel affects them all. At the same time, each individual jewel [or being] is not hindered by or confused with all the other individual beings.



[3] Hakuin Zenji, Song of Zazen.

[4] "Infinite Potential: The Life and Ideas of David Bohm."

[5] The community, the collective, a set of mutually influencing relationships or the vast web of interbeing itself.

[6] The Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda film for children.

[7] Tea at the Palaz of Hoon

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