Thursday, 14 November 2013

Zen and the Art of Western Rationality

Zen seems to have, as central to its dogma, a mystery tradition. ie it makes all its teachings appear incredibly mysterious in what appears to be an effort to make it seem harder to attain - and thus weed out those not willing to work for the enlightenment it proffers.

at least this is how it seems to western thinking. I've known a number of people who have fallen into what I believe is the trap of thinking that zen actually *is* a mysterious hidden secret that can only be approached in a non-rational way...

The reality is that zen is a very good way of switching off that part of the mind that gets in the way of thinking about the things that zen teaches... however, its not the only way.

As they say in zen - zen is not the way, but it approaches the way.

ie it's a good way of starting out, but it won't get you all the way there.

and (unlike the smugness of certain woo-woo types would lead you to believe) it's not the *only* way of reaching The Way.

It's my contention that it is just as possible to work your way there, starting with traditional western rationality/philosophy.

Here's an example pulled from zen:

A teacher once said "this is my short staff. If I call it a short staff, I deny its reality, but if I do not call it a short staff, I deny its fact, so what do I call it?"

It sounds incredibly mysterious. It's a mind-puzzle that you must work out for yourself - and if you are starting from scratch, it may take years of meditation to get to an answer... or you may grasp it in a second.

This is why it seems mysterious, like a great hidden secret that must be very valuable and thus you can feel all smug about knowing...

However, this koan contains some truths which are quite easily expressed in Western rationality also, and I believe it's more valuable to share those truths than to remain "terribly mysterious".

This koan, to me, expresses the map vs territory problem.

The map is not the territory, and yet it is the territory - just not *all* of the territory. The territory is represented by the map, but it is not defined by the map. Change the map (say, pencil in a new road) and the territory will not change (the new road does not spontaneously appear). Change the territory, and the map must be changed to match or lose it's connection with the territory.

Yet the map (if properly drawn) is the territory also - that road connects to this one in just such a way. If you follow the pattern of roads on the map, you will arrive at the destination that the map says you will.

The territory contains those facts that are within the map, but it *is not* the map itself. The map contains facts which are defined in the territory. You can recognise the territory by looking at the map - but the territory is so much more. It contains trees and roof-tiles and many other things that are not in the map.

The map is not the territory, and the territory is not the map

If I look at a map of england and say that this is england I will deny the reality of england. But if I look at the map and say that it is not england, then I deny the fact that the map is of england.

The map is the territory and is not the territory

but using the map you can approach the territory, but it is not the territory.

It does and does not have "england-nature"...

To get back to the koan... the object that the teacher is holding out is a short staff - that is the fact. If he said "this is not a short staff" then he would be denying the fact of it actually being a good example of a short staff.

However - if he broke it in half (so that it was no longer a short staff), it wouldn't be like there was no longer any short staves in the world. Thus you cannot say that is is "the" short staff. Other short staves are not defined by the properties of the object in the teacher's hand.

The name "short staff" is just a reference to it... but not a definitive one. It is not the same short staff as, say another one lying on the floor over there. If I can point to each and say "this is a short staff" then you are not naming a thing, only categorising it.

Therefore if you name it "short staff" you deny the reality of it being something *more* than a short staff.

The phrase "short staff" is the map that lets us recognise "things that have the short-staff property"... but it is not the short staff itself.

Now - perhaps you got something different from the short-staff koan. If so, instead of being "all zen and mysterious" about it, I implore you to figure out what it is you've learned... and share it with the rest of us.

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