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Wed, Aug. 9th, 2006, 12:57 am
The art of leisure

prentension warning

Over the past few days, I've been spending hours and hours sitting under trees, in coffee shops, and on benches reading D.T. Suzuki's "Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings". I finished it today and enjoyed doing so. But I have a confession to make: This is the second book on the subject I've read (the first being The Way of Zen by Alan Watts), and I still know very little about Zen Buddhism. I don't understand what they mean by "enlightenment" (satori), I don't understand the koans, I don't understand prajna, I don't understand sunyata (emptiness?!) or tahata (viewing things as they are), or how sunyata taken to its logical extreme, is identical with tahata.



As an exercise for the reader, I present the following inpenetrable passage. Please try and make sense of it:

The state of no-mind-ness refers to the time prior to the seperation of mind and world, when there is yet no mind standing against an external world and receiving its impressions through the various sense-channels. Not only a mind, but a world, has not yet come into existence. This we can say is a state of perfect emptiness, but as long as we stay here there is no development, no experience; it is mere doing-nothing, it is death itself, so to speak. But we are not so constituted. There rises a thought in the midst of Emptiness; this is the awakening of Prajna, the seperation of unconsciousness and consciousness, or, logically stated, the rise of the fundamental antithesis. Mushin stands on the unconcious side of the awakened Prajna, while its conscious side unfolds itself into the perceiving subject and the external world.

(no, I'm not providing context: but trust me, it doesn't make things much easier)


Honestly, reading the last chapter I felt like everyone around me (even the obnoxious Westmountian next to me chatting to her husband over a cellphone on what she was going to buy from the bourgeois grocery store for dinner) knew more about the essence of Zen than I did, for all my efforts at understanding these damnable books. Honestly, the biggest obstacle in my way seems to be my overly analytical mode of thinking. I can not just accept: I must understand. But understanding to me means to dissect and tear things apart into logical concepts. What do I do with a mode of thinking which, at its core, is all about avoiding (overcoming) the will to do such things? What status does something like Prajna have here? It has a name: I know that much. So it is not altogether dissimilar to a Western philosphical term like, say, causality. But I am apparently not supposed to treat it like a Western philosophical term. So what should I make of it? What should I do with it?

Books are remarkable things.. but they do have their limitations and are no substitute for experience. What would I have made of my 2nd year textbook on Vector Calculus when I was 14? To bridge that gap, I just solved a great many progressively-more-difficult math problems, and eventually I could do multivariate analysis in multiple dimensions.

But how do I bridge a gap like this one? Die and be reborn in 11th century China? There must be an easier way.

Wed, Aug. 9th, 2006 05:36 pm (UTC)

The great difference between enlightenment in the west and in the east is pretty big. In the west, reductionism rose to power during the Renaissance. Which is something you're very good at. Cutting things up and taking them apart until you see what makes them tick.

But in the east, holism is what ruled for centuries. And that requires holding a big thing with many apparent contradictions in your head and understanding the superposition. It gives fewer quick insights, but when you get one, it's typically pretty big.

What that paragraph is describing is actually a way of reducing the universe, from a holistic view. By naming things. Ironically enough, it sounds almost Aristolean.

Thu, Aug. 10th, 2006 05:36 am (UTC)

The Christian "leap of faith" always struck me as being that kind of holistic insight, but one that I am extremely sceptical about.. and which has steadily been going out of fashion in the last few centuries, as you may have noticed.

And yeah, that passage does sound rather Aristotlean, now that you mention it. Oh, the irony!

Thu, Aug. 10th, 2006 01:56 pm (UTC)

The leap of faith requires you to believe.

Holism is more about seeing complex or emergent behaviour in a big thing. Once you do, you can typically reduce it to the interactions that cause this big thing. But it's almost impossible to see, if you've broken a whole into its components from the start.

That's like trying to understand thermodynamics by looking at just one molecule.

Wed, Aug. 9th, 2006 06:21 pm (UTC)

Oddly enough, this makes me think of my play in some sense. But I'm probably in a mind-set where a lot of things seem to cross paths with the subject matter of my script. I think I get an idea of what it means, but it's terribly hard for me to attempt to express that or articulate it.

Thu, Aug. 10th, 2006 08:25 pm (UTC)

I would suggest starting with some "religions of the east" sort of intro book, because you need to understand the Eastern style of philosophy and the history of its genesis. I took a course at UW that was great for this, but the textbook sucked so I don't really want to recommend it. However, I know cpirate has a copy of it if you can't find anything better. Then maybe move on to something about how to apply some Eastern concepts in daily Western life. Then go back to the more deeply spiritual Eastern philosophies. It sounds like you just need more of the background fundamentals.

Sort of related, but not exactly, is a book that I widely recommend for being a sensible way of bringing some Eastern practice into a Western context is Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Sat, Aug. 12th, 2006 06:01 am (UTC)

Yeah, I agree with that. I'd personally like to try out a book or two by S. Radhakrishnan, who translated and edited the version of the Bhagavadgita that I'm reading right now. He studied both Western and Eastern philosophy and generally seems to have been a fairly smart man.

Sat, Aug. 12th, 2006 06:51 am (UTC)

Some of that wouldn't hurt, for sure. I'm actually considering just reading some straightforward history (nevermind philosophy for now), to try and put some of this stuff into an appropriate context.

Sat, Aug. 12th, 2006 05:54 am (UTC)

I don't know too much about Zen Buddhism in particular, but I am acqainted with the basics of Buddhism and some related ideas. I think I get the gist of most of this.

What the author seems to be referring to is the generation of the "ego". Both Eastern philosophy and some Western psychology (such as that influenced by the psychedelic movement but which is present, as far as I understand it, in the works of others including Carl Jung) refer to a sense of self as being the "ego", which is related to but I don't think exactly the same thing as the conscious mind. The ego is created over the first few years of life, and one of its prime functions is to maintain the separation of self and non-self, subject and object, or "mind and world". Some believe that the concept of an ego is largely a social development, that humans at one point had essentially no, or at least a very limited, ego, but I digress.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism posit that the ego is related to if not the cause of suffering, and that we must master the ego to free ourselves from suffering. Suffering itself arises from the separation between self and world, by the complementary feelings of attachment and repulsion that we feel toward the external world as we experience it through the senses. Hence these belief systems place an emphasis on things like meditation, which is supposed to calm the mind to the point that we can become more aware of the interaction between self and world and then start to break our attachments with the world and the cycle of suffering that such attachment leads to. When we fully break our attachment and accept the world without becoming attached to or repulsed by it, we have achieved enlightenment (I can see some Taoism in there as well--interesting). Gautama Buddha achieved this by meditating under a fig tree for a week, during which time he engaged in a sort of mental battle with his ego, which he then vanquished. The ego tends to put up a fight, as it was developed as a sort of defense mechanism, and the ego cannot conceive of a mind that contains no ego (as it is my understanding that you must temporarily banish the ego in order to control it the rest of the time).

Some, like Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, believed that psychedelics such as psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD break down the ego barrier in a more forceful way. It's an easier and more immediate but more dangerous way to experience ego loss.

I feel that I'm only beginning to understand a lot of this myself. If I do decide to study something like philosophy, I hope I can study the ideas of the East. The ideas that Buddhism tackles aren't exactly simple; I wouldn't expect to read one book and have them figured out. Furthermore, your book sounds rather... advanced. But really, I think that at some point one needs to put these ideas into practice to fully comprehend them, as no one will truly understand these things until one has experienced them. Reading about a country is no substitute for the immediate (as in unmediated) experience of being there.

Sat, Aug. 12th, 2006 06:38 am (UTC)

I think you sort of missed the point of my post (except maybe at the very end). Of course I see that Buddhism in general is all about removing one's attachment to the external world (which causes suffering)-- as far as I can tell, Zen Buddhism is no exception in this regard.

I was trying to point out the absurdity of trying to understand Zen Buddhism by reading books and analyzing abstract concepts-- a process which maintains the very attachment it's trying to eliminate.

In short, I think you're probably right that these ideas need to be put into practice to be fully comprehended. That's probably going to be one of my next steps.

Sat, Aug. 12th, 2006 07:22 pm (UTC)

Hmmm sorry if I sounded condescending or anything... in truth I was a little stoned and felt like writing. :)