Feynman Asks a Question–Story

Zen and Science (2)

It is easy to presume that reality is the way that we say it is. After all, it is what we appear to know. A different response can interrupt our routine thoughts and begin to change the perspective.

Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. He was well known as a great scientist, original thinker, and author of both scientific and popular books. This story is taken from his book What Do You Care What Other People Think.

As a young boy, Feynman was playing with his wagon. The wagon had a ball in in it which was free to roll. He observed that when he pulled the wagon, the ball rolled to the back. However, when he stopped the wagon suddenly, the ball rolled to the front.

He asked his father: “Why is that?”

His father’s response: That, nobody knows. . . . But the general principle is that something that is moving tends to stay in motion and that things that are standing tend to stay still. . . .”

Buddhist Comment

Bodhidharma was a fifth century Buddhist monk credited with bringing Zen from India to China. His surviving writings are few, but to the point:

“If speech isn’t tied to appearances, it’s free. … Language is essentially free.”
“Freeing oneself from words is liberation.”


Nobody knows for sure, but this is what we say. . . .

It is easy to forget the first phrase and believe firmly in the content of what we say. The content of our speech allows us to function in our world, but how can there be certainty that we know with the surety of our manner.

Where is the certainty! “Nobody knows for sure” serves as a reminder that absolute meaning attached to the words can limit understanding. The possibilities are reduced. The experience may be larger than the words can express. But the content of the words give the appearance and comfort of standing on firm ground. How firm is that ground? How is it tested?

It is the attachment to the speech and content that restricts the freedom and potential. If speech is not tied to appearance, the spirit can flow.

Why is that?
There are no limits to the response: “Nobody knows for sure.”
What is our reply to ourselves, to our children?

Related articles: Moon Illusion,

Natural History, Natural Mind


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