Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Dogen's Genjo Koan (Pt.1)

Dogen's Shobogenzo is a notoriously difficult Zen text. I want to post an interpretation of the Genjo Koan - one of the most frequently quoted texts - here, as a tool for my own understanding, which might hopefully be of use to others too. I have no knowledge of Japanese nor am I a scholar of Dogen. These comments are purely those of an interested amateur and primarily for the purpose of ongoing personal study. Posting a public essay forces me to be more rigorous than I otherwise would and will hopefully put me in good stead for interpreting the rest of the Shobogenzo and Buddhist texts in general. Comments are welcome of course.

I will look at Gudo Nishijima's interpretation based on his own translation Understanding the Shobogenzo and Thomas Cleary's interpretation based on his own translation. I will use the translation by Aitken and Tanahashi.

As far as I understand at this time, it would seem that the key to the Genjo Koan is a Buddhist concept that might be termed 'The Non-duality of Relative and Absolute'. This is concept is the subject of the 'Sandokai' poem quoted in my recent blog. It's also essential to understanding the meaning of the Ox-Herding Pictures and these lines from the Heart Sutra:

Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form. So too are feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness.

Similarly it is the core meaning of Dogen's concept of 'the onenness of practice and attainment' and is the key to understanding a number of otherwise obscure Koans and other teachings. One example is the apparent contradiction between the Buddhist emphasis on compassionate behaviour and of following precepts and the teaching that there is 'no good and evil'. One is the relative, conventional truth and the other is the absolute truth.

The everyday world of multiplicity - of thoughts and objects and persons and morals - is the world of conventional or relative truth. The ultimate truth is that none of these things has an inherent nature or existence - the ultimate truth is 'emptiness' and 'oneness'. Yet, while many who realise emptiness may believe themselves enlightened, this is not regarded as complete enlightenment - they are 'clinging to emptiness'. The reason for this is that by realising 'oneness' or 'nirvana' they depend upon a dualistic distinction between oneness and multiplicity or between nirvana and samsara. The final step is to return to the world of multiplicity and samsara and realise non-duality - including the nonduality of relative and absolute.

No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.


Thomas Cleary's approach to the Genjo Koan is well summed up here:

The very first paragraph contains a complete outline of Zen, in a covert presentation of the so-called "five ranks" (go i) device of the original Chinese Soto Zen school. The scheme of the five ranks-relative within absolute, absolute within relative, coming from within the absolute, arriving in the relative, and simultaneous attainment in both relative and absolute-is not overtly used in Dogen's work, perhaps because of the confusion surrounding it, but its structures are to be found throughout Shobogenzo.

Cleary sees the koan in terms of complex interrelationships between relative and absolute, culminating in a simultaneous non-dual realisation of both relative and absolute.

Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, 'Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.' After I got insight into the truth of Zen through the instructions of a good master, I said, 'Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.' But now, having attained the abode of final rest, (that is, Enlightenment) I say, 'Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.'

Ch'ing yuan Wei-hsin

Nishijima interprets the Shobogenzo in terms his hypothesis of 'Four Views' or 'Three Philosophies and One Reality', in a scheme abbreviated as S.O.A.R - Subjective, Objective, Action, Reality. According to Nishijima, the Subjective view corresponds to the western philosophy of Idealism; the objective view corresponds with Materialism; Action corresponds with existential-type philosophies and Reality is not a philosophy but refers to reality itself.

After studying the Shobogenzo for more than 50 years, my confidence is complete: the aim of Buddhism is to realize reality. Gautama Buddha urged us to find reality by practicing Zazen...Can we, then, have a philosophy of reality, if reality is outside the area which philosophy deals with? Logically we must say the answer is no. Reality and intelligence are completely separate. What kind of system can we construct which will allow us to pursue a description of reality?

It was in just this state that Buddhists developed their unique method of explaining reality. The method is called catvary arya satyani, or the four noble truths, and it explains the relationship between intellectual activities and reality using four viewpoints. The first two viewpoints are the traditional philosophical standpoints, the third is a philosophy of reality and the fourth is experiential reality.

This is the hypothesis that I developed forty years ago from studying the Shobogenzo, and although it did not have the backing even of Buddhist society in Japan I can find no no inadequacies in my idea, no matter how hard I try.

While there is certainly a consensus that Buddhism is about finding reality, this is a statement that needs clarification. There are parallels between Nishijima's interpretation and that of Cleary and other scholars, for example, intellect - the philosophies of Subjectivism and Objectivism might be seen as duality or relative truth, while reality itself and perhaps the method of action that is used to find it might be seen as absolute truth. However, I see no analysis of any simultaneous realisation of these two and there is much in Nishijima's analysis that seems idiosynchratic - his emphasis on intellectual duality as opposed to duality generally and on philosophical Materialism and Idealism.

He openly admits that his hypothesis 'did not have the backing even of Buddhist society in Japan' whereas Cleary, although the scheme he describes 'is not overtly used' in the Shobogenzo is able to cite a precedent for the scheme he claims Dogen is using - 'the so-called "five ranks" (go i) device of the original Chinese Soto Zen school'.

I will follow with detailed interpretations by both Cleary and Nishijima, and finish with my own reading.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Zen weekend

A day and a half is a bit short to call a retreat but it was well worthwhile. Godo Guy Mercier gave an interesting talk about 'Meditation and Everyday Life', then lots of zazen. Fourteen of us slept on the floor of the dojo on Saturday night.

Godo Mercier is a great teacher and a very likeable person - warm, funny and approachable. He gave us some good tips on meditation, emphasising constantly bringing ourselves to observe rather than on stopping thoughts or judging ourselves for daydreaming. He also gave a detailed account of the personal history of an individual human being. I've paraphrased it here:

  1. In the beginning there was emptiness

  2. because of desire there was form - a human child

  3. the child is ultimately empty and is happy as it is

  4. the parents use stimulation to draw the child's attention, to make it need external things

  5. to control its relationship with external reality the child creates a barrier of ego

  6. the ego gets stronger and stronger until as an adult most interactions are just ego interactions

  7. by cultivating emptiness we can weaken ego and our true natures can be expressed
Now, while much of what he had to say - especially the stuff about meditation - made a lot of sense to me, I had to take some of the developmental psychology and metaphysical-sounding stuff with a pinch of agnostic salt.

I had a chance to talk with him face to face afterwards. I asked him what he meant when he said that emptiness was the same as happiness and love. How could this be? Why happiness and not unhappiness...or something else? It seemed to suggest that before I was born I was happy, which is not something I could make sense of. What he said was that this was beyond language and that to understand I should stay with the feeling of happiness I have while practicing zazen. While this might be good pragmatic advice I couldn't help feeling that the answer was a bit of a cop-out intellectually.

Musing on it overnight I spoke to him again to say farewell and suggested that perhaps I was interpreting him as saying that emptiness had the characteristic of happiness, when emptiness could not have characteristics. I suggested that realising emptiness may rather remove all barriers to a natural expression of happiness. He told me I had worked it out on my own, which is good but I shouldn't think too much.

He seems to embody the qualities he talks about. He seems to be compassionate and wise. He has a lot of presence - when speaks to you on a one to one basis he really engages with you, to such an extent that he almost seems to be looking into you. This is just because he is very attentive and aware, very present with what is going on.

Each time I've spoken to him, I've tried to remain 'cool' and to treat him like anyone else, but each time I've failed and have caught myself grinning nervously and nodding like a fool. Hopefully that will wear off.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

One of the things that interested me about Buddhism is that it might give me some insights into such philosophical problems as the 'Hard problem of consciousness', which is also related to the mind-body problem.

The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

David Chalmers

Of course, although Buddhism makes use of philosophical discourse, it is ultimately existential in nature and so we should expect any answers to be existential rather than purely intellectual in nature.

The Buddhist resolution of such problems is less of a process of intellectual progress as a matter of the 'ironing out' and collapsing of the roots of the issue which are ways of thinking about reality which ultimately are deluded.

And perhaps I am being premature or naive but the more I investigate, the more it really does seem that many contemporary problems were solved by Buddhist sages and thinkers in the distant past (although I see some Buddhist sages and thinkers mired in the same sort of thinking or even greater confusion). Given that philosophers in the west rarely learn anything other than the history of western philosophy, and that Buddhism is regarded (and practiced) generally as a religion, it isn't surprising that there isn't much cross-pollenation.

With regards to the above problem, it seems to me that it arises from the assumed reality of objective existence:

1 Ultimately reality is objectively real and independent of our experience of it
2 From experiential evidence I cannot deny my subjective experiences
3 Therefore they must be part of reality
4 If my subjectivity exists then other people's subjectivity probably exists
5 Therefore they must all be part of objective reality
6 So how can a subjective something really exist within (and arise from) an objective reality?

So we end up with a picture of all these creatures walking around an entirely physical universe, but with little subjective bubble-worlds in their heads (or above them or somewhere else or nowhere at all). How do these two worlds interact? If one arises from the other, how? How could subjectivity arise from objectivity ever, even in principle? And if subjectivity is an ineffectual epiphenomenon, why does it make a difference when I stop making an effort?

Rather than try to solve this set of problems with its assumed premises, we can observe reality carefully with as few assumptions as possible. In Zen abstract thought is seen not as truth but as a bodily function, which at best has a practical use. Thoughts exist as representations of reality, but are only ever representations with a greater or lesser usefulness. In fact many of the more bizarre responses from Zen masters to philosophical questions can be seen as expressions of 'unasking' questions which are based on deluded premises, for example 'Mu', 'Katz!', 'the oak tree in the garden' or the act of placing a sandal on the head.

I remember a story that my philosophy tutor told us about G.E.M. Anscombe, the student of the famous linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (who wrote extensively on the limits of language). During a conference of some sort, Anscombe was asked a question (how I wish I knew what that question was!) and she responded by removing her shoe in front of an international audience of philosophers and placed it on her head. Of course, without any grounding in eastern philosophy, most of the spectators (including my tutor) naturally assumed that she was batty. (Although Anscombe must have been elderly at this point, I have no reason to suppose that her mental faculties were failing. She was well-known for her intelligence and debating skills and famously won a debate against C.S. Lewis at Cambridge, forcing him to re-write a chapter of his book.) Anyone familiar with Zen stories will of course recognise this gesture as being identical to that performed by Joshu in response to a question from his master Nansen:

Once the monks of the eastern and western Zen halls were quarrelling about a cat. Nansen held up the cat and said, "You monks! If one of you can say a word [about ultimate truth], I will spare the cat. If you can't say anything, I will put it to the sword." No one could answer, so Nansen finally slew it. In the evening, when Joshu returned, Nansen told him what had happened. Joshu, thereupon, took off his sandals, put them on his head and walked off. Nansen said, "If you had been there, I could have spared the cat."


The response might be seen as indicating that which is beyond language. Interestingly Wittgenstein himself famously declared that all philosophical problems had their roots in our use of language. He later retracted this having apparently found exceptions and tacked those in his Philosophical Investigations, which I really must read sometime.

If we think of our deluded belief-systems as a tree, which needs to be killed, then growing new branches to kill off other branches is no good - it just leads to proliferation of branches. Instead we can grow an axe to chop down the entire tree and then destroy itself - this is the project of Nagarjuna as I understand him. Alternatively we can stop watering the tree - in other words, release the attachments or delusions that feed it.

Many Buddhists (especially the ones I come across online) seem to see Buddhism as being 'against' rationality - often replacing it with some sort of intuitionism. I think this is a misunderstanding. Buddhism isn't against thinking - we need abstract thought in our lives to help achieve practical goals; there are many influential Buddhist philosophers who used rationality as part of their practice (eg. Nagarjuna). The goal is not the cessation of thinking, rather the goal is freedom from attachments to thoughts, feelings, and so on. Thoughts exist and they are sometimes useful, but they are only ever thoughts - and the conceptual reality they tempt us to enter is a virtual reality.

In Buddhism, experiencing reality without inherent dualities and seeing those dualities as inputted is the important thing. But explaining things in such a way that they might shed light on complex rational problems still takes a whole lot of conceptualisation and a whole lot of words. Hopefully I'm up to the task and hopefully I'm not just throwing more wood on the fire.

Coming back to the Hard Problem of Consciousness, what I see is that the premise of the existence of absolute objective reality is unsound. If I pay attention, I can see that I never actually come across this supposed objective reality, only ever the idea of it. Yet I'm not proposing that we replace this with some sort of philosophical Idealism. If I hide an object, forget about it and then come back to it, it's still there. Things I know nothing of still have causal effects in the universe and (in the case of sense perceptions and psychoactive drugs) can influence the nature of mental phenomena in my mind. I can't change reality just by thinking about it.

While there are entities which outside of my awareness, that does not mean that they are independent of me or that I am independent of them. And if there is an independent objective universe, it is independent and thus not part of all this.

Materialism asserts that reality consists entirely of 'non-self' and is entirely independent of me and Idealism asserts that reality consists entirely of 'self' and is partly or fully dependent on me. But by claiming the universality of one domain or the other 'self' or 'non-self' neither damages self/non-self dualism, it just tries to squeeze the border off the map. This is doomed because 'self' and 'non-self' are interdependent concepts. How can a subject exist without an object to perceive? How can objective reality be real with no subject to ever know of or be influenced by its existence? What meaning does non-self have without the existence of a self? How much do we have to distort non-self to include the phenomena we now label as 'self'? And vice-versa.

Both Materialism and Idealism are only partial, distorted truths - attempts to unify reality without dispatching or deconstructing subject-object duality.

So what is the relationship between subject and object? The Buddhist view and a view which can be experienced in meditation, is that the distinction is inputted by thought. All phenomena are interdependent. The 'objective world' is just reality existing from the 'point of view' of another aspect of the same reality - the 'objects' of perception are just causative effects 'acting through' the other causative effects that are my sensory apparatus and my brain in an immense interdependent web without ultimate objects. Causality does not just flow 'upwards' from object to subject, but in every direction without end. My mind is just this moment of reality.

Reality is dependent upon observation. It has no 'Gods eye view' from which it exists. Nothing real is standing outside of reality to see it. It can only be viewed from inside and it only 'exists' in relation to other parts of itself. Even the description of reality as a set of relationships is not something that exists objectively, that image is just an abstraction, it exists always from a point of view - in relation to my reality at the time of writing and to your reality right now. But what is a point of view? A point of view is an abstraction - a model built from interpretation of effects of one part of reality upon another. A point of view of a landscape is just the sum of all the effects of each aspect of that situation upon a smaller part of that situation e.g.. all the light from a landscape as it affects a camera and an eye and a brain/mind.

What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

What does 'something it is like to be in them' mean? The word 'like' in this context is a term of comparison. In what way (if any) is being in a subjective state similar to something? It isn't so much that it is similar to something, but that it is something - it's real. This statement also presupposes the existence of a continuous identity which is 'in' various states. What if (as most current research on consciousness suggests) there is no 'Cartesian Theatre', no container for such states to exist in? nor a homunculus, an inner witness for these states? If only the states themselves and their effects exist then is there any philosophical problem?

All states - even the state of an unwatched beaker of water in an empty building - are part of the causal matrix of reality (see The Butterfly Effect, Chaos Theory). Whether there are faculties to interpret these effects as information or not, no black box exists from which effects cannot spill so effects ripple out across the universe at the speed of light and we are all affected - it is 'like something to be in' every state. A problem arises only if we conceptualise reality in terms of categories which are independent of one another. For it to be 'like something to be in' a state is just to be contiguous with that state, to be affected by that state and (given that there can be no independent objects) ultimately to be that state.

My acts are irrevocable
Because they have no essence...
Where are the doers of deeds
Absent among their conditions?
Imagine a magician
Who creates a creature
Who creates other creatures.
Acts I perform are creatures
Who create others.


Sandokai: (Harmony of Difference and Sameness)

The mind of the great sage of India
is intimately transmitted from west to east.
While human faculties are sharp or dull,
the Way has no northern or southern ancestors.
The spiritual source shines clear in the light;
the branching streams flow on in the dark.
Grasping at things is surely delusion;
according with sameness is still not enlightenment.
All the objects of the senses interact and yet do not.
Interacting brings involvement.
Otherwise, each keeps its place.
Sights vary in quality and form,
sounds differ as pleasing or harsh.
Refined and common speech come together
in the dark, clear and murky phrases are
distinguished in the light.
The four elements return to their natures
just as a child turns to its mother;
Fire heats, wind moves, water wets, earth is solid.
Eye and sights, ear and sounds, nose and smells, tongue and tastes;
Thus with each and every thing,
depending on these roots, the leaves spread forth.
Trunk and branches share the essence;
revered and common, each has its speech.
In the light there is darkness,
but don't take it as darkness;
In the dark there is light, but don't see it as light.
Light and dark oppose one another
like the front and back foot in walking.
Each of the myriad things has its merit,
expressed according to function and place.
Phenomena exist; box and lid fit;
principle responds; arrow points meet.
Hearing the words, understand the meaning;
don't set up standards of your own.
If you don't understand the Way right before you,
how will you know the path as you walk?
Progress is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.
I respectfully urge you who study the mystery,
do not pass your days and nights in vain.

Shih-t'ou Hsi-ch'ien

photo by Justin

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Contempt for the goal of happiness

Apparently Hugh Laurie, more famous here in the UK for his role as an upper-class twit in Blackadder, has received a Golden Globe in the US for his role in 'House', described as 'perilously close to perfection'. In spite of these successes, Mr Laurie is still not happy and has suffered from clinical depression in the past.

His insecurities stemmed, it would seem, from a mother who continually criticised him, having set goals for him that he could never attain. With typical British understatement, he has described her as "contemptuous of the goal of happiness".


This got me thinking. It seems that contempt for the goal of happiness is quite common, yet I came to the conclusion long ago that it is such emotions that ultimately drive us - not abstract ideas or principles - and that if a person displays contempt for happiness it's just that they have a more convoluted pursuit of happiness than most. What they really have contempt for is other people's ideas of happiness or what they see as lack of ambition. But they are still in pursuit of their own happiness which happens to be deferred until certain goals are achieved.

A great many celebrities and other highly ambitious people suffer from the same sorts of problems as Hugh Laurie. Their ambition is a carrot and a stick which goads them to further achievement in pursuit of fleeting pleasures - happiness which is often based on flattery from the recognition of a fickle public. Some of the happiest people I've met actually have a rather modest life.

The evolution of our genes and our economies and cultures aren't 'interested in' our happiness except in so far as it acts as a carrot on a stick to get us to do other things such as reproducing and doing productive work.

Genuine happiness (as opposed to carrots and sticks) is something we have to sometimes step back from the genetic and economic treadmills to find for ourselves. It wasn't until a few years ago that I really started to take the business of finding out how to be happy seriously. Until then, like most people, I had a sophisticated contempt for it. What mattered was my values, self-expression, intellectual understanding, short term sensory gratification, experience for its own sake, having an interesting life, creativity.

A few years ago I realised that while I wasn't exactly miserable I wasn't really very happy either and took conscious steps to do something about it.

Now, I'm not saying that my life is perfect or even that I'm unusually happy, but I'm significantly happier than I was. It's difficult to know how much is down to having a great relationship with Emily, how much is down to being the father of a great little boy, how much is down to practicing Zen and how much is down to just growing up. But what I do know is that its important to not to choose a partner for egotistical reasons - because it's flattering in some way - do it for love and companionship. Know the difference between infatuation and love and between lust and love.

I also know it's important to appreciate the present and not defer your happiness to some imaginary time in the future. I don't mean that we should live entirely for the present - we can pursue goals for the future while living in the present and enjoying it and realising that if we put all our hopes on what lies over rainbows we'll be running after them forever.

There is nothing wrong with goals - we need to make provision for the future and we can enjoy doing it, but if we make ourselves slaves to goals they will make us unhappy. What goals to set ourselves is a personal and sometimes an ethical decision. But we need to look after ourselves and to do that we need to know what is really in our interests - we need to evaluate which goals are good for us and which ones are just dreams to make us run around on our little wheels all the faster.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Snow in Monument Valley

Speaking to Jules on his blog I was reminded of the time I spent in Arizona and especially a blizzard at Monument Valley, the aftermath of which was incredible to behold. My awe was so great that, leaving my hire car in neutral I got out to take another photo and almost lost it over the edge of a small cliff. Here's a selection of photos:

photos by Justin

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Our first house

Emily and I have bought a house together in Banbury - our first house.

It's a late Victorian townhouse. Big bathroom, big new kitchen. Nice, but needs a few bits of work. We're planning to convert the loft. We didn't want to be tied down to a huge mortgage especially since we're both contracting, so this was a good choice. I want to create a Japanese garden at the back - it will be a good learning experience since I've never done anything like that before.

The exchange date is the 10th of Feb, so we'll be moving over a period of a week or so after that. At the moment we're flogg some of our old tat on eBay. The rest goes to Oxfam.

We pick up so much unnecessary stuff in our lives. Unread books , unwatched videos, unwanted gifts. I think that from now on at Christmas we'll just ask for either A: money, B: a donation to charity or C: hard drink

It cannot be spoken of

I found this on OXEYE's blog. It fits in perfectly with what I've been discussing in my last post.

So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. It is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. It is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched. It is neither perceived nor is it perceptible. It suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. It is not powerless and subject to the disturbances cause by sense perception. It endures no deprivation of light. It passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the sense may be aware. None of all this can either be identified with it nor attributed to it.

Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. it cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.

St. Denys the Areopagite 6th-century Christian monk

photo by Justin

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Face of God (Pt. 2)

I came across this article which ties in nicely with what I said in my earlier post The Face of God with regards to the duality between two views or aspects of the concept of God.

The concept has two aspects (one of which in Christianity has three faces - the Holy trinity). Some theists see God as having one aspect or the other, while most Churches see one as a manifestation of the other. The two aspects of God are:


This is the more familiar concept of a personal God who feels, thinks and acts, who creates, who is jealous, who forgives, who smites enemies and who impregnated a virgin. This is similar to the polytheistic view of a personified deity as a powerful and manifested being which is 'in the world'. In Christianity, God manifests in three ways known together as the Holy Trinity - the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.


This is the mystical view of God as the ineffable, unknowable, deepest source of reality, and which in some interpretations equals the sum total of existence.

As 'The All' God would appear to be indistinguishable from the deepest principles of physics (and/or the source of them if physics is a manifestation of something deeper). Some theists adhere to this view of God alone. Advocates of such a view include the philosopher Spinoza. The Vedantic school of Hindu philosophy sees Brahman in a similar way as the ground of all being.

Interestingly, this concept of - and mystical experiences of - this All or Ultimate seem to be the place where all religions meet. The differences are in the metaphysics produced in the act of interpretation. Even poly-theistic religions tend to have a more abstract 'greater god' of some sort, of which all other gods are manifestations. Non-theistic religions and philosophers have similar ideas, for example, the concept of the Tao and Buddhist concepts like Dharmadhatu. Schopenhauer's concept of the noumenon is also related. The linguistic philosopher Wittgenstein 'talks around' a reality which cannot be spoken of: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence" and went as far as giving a positive endorsement of mysticism "Feeling the world as a limited whole -- it is this that is mystical"

Some scientists such as have similar holistic but non-theistic concepts of the cosmos, which border on or even embrace the mystical.

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe , a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.


When Hawking occasionally talks in terms of God it seems to be more in terms of a hypothetical omnipotent creator being.

And in their quests for a single unifying theory - and as a result of their research - scientists aknowledge the 'oneness' of phenomena, although this is a unity which is generally believed to be physical from top to bottom since, although science does not depend on it, there is to a large extent an unchallenged acceptance of the metaphysical philosophy of Physicalism (also misleadingly referred to as Materialism). Also this unity is to be understood primarily conceptually and mathematically rather than realised existentially.

The view of God as a symbol for the ineffable unutterable deepest reality or source of reality is easier to defend philosophically because such an 'entity' is being described largely in negative terms - it is that which cannot be spoken and about which therefore no claims can be made. Interestingly such a view of God (as the linked article above indicates) is that of a being which cannot truly be said to exist, since the transcendent cannot belong to the set of things that exist.

Some Jewish, Christian and Muslim Medieval philosophers, including Moses Maimonides and Pseudo-Dionysius, as well as many sages of other religions, developed what is termed as Apophatic Theology or the Via Negativa, the idea that one cannot posit attributes to God and can only be discussed by what God is not. For example, we cannot say that God "exists" in the usual sense of the term, because that term is human defined and Gods qualities such as existance may not be accurately characterized by it. What we can safely say is that God is not nonexistent. Likewise God's "wisdom" is of a fundamentally different kind from limited human perception. So we cannot use the word "wise" to describe God, because this implies he is wise in the way we usually describe humans being wise. However we can safely say that God is not ignorant. We should not say that God is One, because we may not truly understand his nature, but we can state that there is no multiplicity in God's being.


Compare these statements with the negative philosophy of Buddhist philosophers such as Nagarjuna.

Neither from itself nor from another, Nor from both, Nor without a cause, Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.


In the Midhyamakakirikis, Nagarjuna attacks this attempt to absolutize Buddhist praxis by utilizing a system of logic that offers negative responses to four possible alternatives. Called the catuskoti, it is often depicted in the following form:

1. It is not the case that x is Ø.
2. It is not the case that x is not-Ø.
3. It is not the case that x is both Ø and not-Ø.
4. It is not the case that x is neither Ø nor not-Ø.

Nagarjuna uses this fourfold logic against a whole series of arguments ranging from causality, the self, the aggregates, production, destruction, permanence, impermanence, space, time, motion, and so forth. Against a particular view of causation, for example, Nagarjuna applies the catuskoti and concludes that dharmas (x) are not produced (Ø), not non-produced, not both, and not neither. Or, against a particular view of motion, he applies the dialectic and concludes that motion (x) is not moving (Ø), not non-moving, not both, and not neither.


"Nagarjuna (c.150-250 CE) ... realized at a profound level the difficulties of carrying out Buddhist discourse in the medium of language, and the degree of attachment that could occur with even such subtle concepts as shunyata. Therefore he endeavored to prevent people from falling into the error of attaching to Emptiness as a "something" or as "non-existence."

He made his project an exercise in consciousness that sought to free people from being limited in thought by the linguistic options of "this or that" and "existence or non-existence." He did this by taking Buddhist philosophical terms and putting them into his formula of "neither x nor not-x." According to this formula, existence is "neither empty nor not empty," "neither samsara nor nirvana." Nagarjuna's teachings are not something new ontologically speaking, but were developments toward a more advanced logical form that can be seen in his Madhyamaka-karikas.


In these texts, he strove to stop the reification of the concept of emptiness by: (1) stressing the non-difference between emptiness and dependent origination; (2) by emphasizing the understanding of emptiness as a mental attitude which pays attention to the non-attachment to concepts and theories. That is, emptiness should not be made into a theory to be clung to (as are other philosophical and religious doctrines). According to Nagarjuna, he who does so is like "a customer to whom a merchant has said that he has nothing to sell and the customer now asks to buy this 'nothing' and carry it home."For Nagarjuna, emptiness should not be interpreted ontologically, but rather in the way of the parable of the raft: The Buddhist teaching (especially shunyata), is like the raft one constructs for the crossing of a river. Once the river is crossed, the purpose of the raft has been served. It may now be discarded.

The same is true of emptiness: it should not be held on to; one who does hold on to it will have trouble functioning in life. In this sense, emptiness could also be compared to a laxative: once the obstruction has passed, there is no need to continue taking it. Nagarjuna wrote extensively, and his teachings resulted in the formation of an Indian school called Madhyamika or the "Middle Way School."


Having their ineffable and speaking it

When debating with theists I tend to find that they oscillate between these two positions. God is treated as an existent thing in many ways - as an existent person - a moral agent with human-like attributes who performs acts and who has feelings and thoughts. This is the entity that proclaims the moral absolutes which theists use as justification not only for changing their own behaviour but at times for oppressing others and for acts of violence, in other words this is the 'fully knowable' God that enters the political arena.

When challenged about apparent contradictions in the supposed attributes of God or conflicts between those attributes and His behaviour theists often retreat their God into a 'cloud of unknowing' a place of free-form mysticism where paradox is not only permissable but a defining, positive sign of God's transcendent divinity.

Is this so different from the non-rationality of Buddhism, for example, the paradoxes of Nagarjuna or of Zen koans? I hear you ask.

Buddhism (correctly understood) does not claim to be or have an absolute truth, it can only ever be a finger that points at reality, which is ineffable. Buddhism is a provisional 'skillful means' and thus its attempts to influence the political, scientific or intellectual spheres are likely to be less absolutist and more tolerant. A Japanese Buddhist cleric historically explained the virtual absence of conflict between Zen and other sects as being due to it having no doctrine at all.

Many theists on the other hand want to have their cake and eat it. They want a God who is mysterious, transcendent, unknowable and unspeakable, yet will provide absolute support for their moral and metaphysical pronouncements. How do they get away with it? In Christianity, God is traditionally described in terms of the Trinity - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are manifestations of God, which is nevertheless described as a unity and as 'infinitely simple'. This infinitely simple and unchanging being is supposed to be the active, willful source of all the complexity there is. It seems to me that only through a mixture of blind faith and a sort of mystical agnosticism that such a contradictory nature seems to be acceptable. These are the sorts of statements that I've heard from theists on this matter:
'God is unknowable and anything is possible with God.'
'I see and how can you know that?'
'It is possible to have partial knowlege of God'
'If you don't know what you don't know then how can you know what you know?'
'I just know.'

It is in this way that Christians emerge from their own 'cloud of unknowing' to make oh-so-confident proclamations about the nature of God and His will - to declare what is right and wrong, what is true and every so often to smite their own enemies or justify such actions.

Personally I don't have knowledge or experience of anthropomorphic or any other sort of deities and I tend to think that the ineffable is better handled by the likes of Wittgenstein "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence" and by concepts of the Tao and Buddhist concepts of Dharmadhatu and Sunyata, since the 'emptiness', relativity and provisional nature of these concepts is pre-built, well-defined and well-accepted. It's interesting to note also that neither of these indicators of the ultimate is, correctly understood, transcendent since they refer to reality itself.

In my view God is the Tao, misunderstood and as we know

The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao;
the name that can be named is not the eternal name.

My acts are irrevocable

My acts are irrevocable
Because they have no essence...
Where are the doers of deeds
Absent among their conditions?
Imagine a magician
Who creates a creature
Who creates other creatures.
Acts I perform are creatures
Who create others.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Donalji said:

I wondered, as an 'armchair philosopher' what you thought about the emerging philosophy of 'transhumanism'.

I don't have any special knowledge of the subject but it would be rude not to at least have a go. Let's start with a definition:

Transhumanism (sometimes abbreviated >H or H+) is an intellectual and cultural movement, or an emergent philosophy, analyzing and supporting morphological freedom and the use of new sciences and technologies to overcome human limitations and improve the human condition.

Transhumanism doesn't seem to be fundamentally new in that it is an offshoot of the tendency to view technological progress as the key to a 'better' society. This prevalent view was particularly widespread in Europe, the USSR and Europe from WWII through to the 60's, but the disillusionment with the utopian promises has been implicated in the rise of such diverse cultural phenomena as the hippy movement, New Age spirituality and the Cyberpunk fiction genre.

What is new is the actual and predicted development of cybernetic technologies and the rapid progress of biological sciences particularly genetic engineering. These developments raise a host of possibilities and challenging philosphical questions with regards to the application of technological progress to humanity itself. Transhumanism is a response to as well as part of the one of the driving forces behind these trends.

Without going into technical matters which I have limited understanding of, the two main areas of development are cybernetic - non-organic modification of biology such as computer modules which plug into the brain - and bio-engineering such as genetic engineering. Nanotechnology probably also has a bearing on this. The overall trend is that the line between biology and technology, human and machine, animate and inanimate, self and other appears to becoming fainter. Of course this raises a number of social and philosophical issues.

What is life?

Most contemporary thinkers and scientists would accept abiogenesis and that the distinctions between life and non-life are organisational and conventional.

What is it to be human?

There are many who object to such research on the basis that it threatens the integrity and dignity of humankind. If the sense of value and meaning comes from a belief that the condition of humanity is special and sacred then such developments can only be a threat. In reality however, humanity already is undergoing (or *is*) a process of evolutionary change.

Should we play God?

This theological question obviously depends on which interpretation we have of God (if any) and it is closely related to the following.

What is nature?

Traditionally the world has been neatly divided into natural and artificial, as if the actions of humans were somehow outside of nature. Transhumanism blurs that conventional boundary until it begins to disappear. The human genome has been influenced by the human mind and culture for millions of years, but direct interference could be seen as an exponential acceleration of evolution - evolution which transcends the biological medium. As such, transhumanism - along with technological progress generally - could be seen as the next phase of the evolutionary unfolding of the universe. Indeed one commentator (source?) has suggested that such developments are the only way that humanity could hope to avoid being out-moded by purely artificial intelligence within a few centuries.

Personal Identity

The sorts of questions that transhumanism raises such as - how much of my brain can be replaced by computers before it stops being 'me'; if I uploaded my brain to a computer would it 'still be me' are answered well by Derek Parfit in his chapter Personal Identity in Reasons and Persons. I think it's telling that Parfit's philosophy does give real (if counter-intuitive) answers to these sorts of problems unlike those who base issues of personal identity solely on 'how we think' presently and conventionally who as far as I can see have no basis for responding. Dualists meanwhile just have problems.

Technological Utopianism

Transhumanism seems to be based on the premise that technological progress is an intrisic good.

I would question to what extent technology makes our lives 'better'. Recent research on happiness that I read about suggests that material wealth and the technological advantages that affords are, in themselves not a key to happiness. The wealthiest nations were outranked by many countries in the third world.

'In a 1985 survey, respondents from the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans and the Maasai of East Africa were almost equally satisfied and ranked relatively high in well-being. The Maasai are a traditional herding people who have no electricity or running water and live in huts made of dung.'

(Incidentally such things as good relationships, family, personal fulfillment etc. all have significant influence on happiness too.)

Even within a single society there seems little increase in happiness on the basis of material wealth. On the other hand, there are more substantial increases in happiness associated with status. This suggests to me that in terms of what makes people happy is relative or competitive advantage. People are happy if they perceive that they are more valued or have some other advantage over their peers.

This being so, transhuman 'improvements' to humanity - even if successful - seem unlikely to make our societies better and associated problems (social and existential) may make them worse. On the other hand there may be advantages to those who can afford such engineering and the temptation to pursue this may ultimately impossible to resist. Technology has a certain evolutionary life of its own - it may be impossible to control these developments just as it is impossible to uninvent nuclear weapons.


A real danger which suggests itself is that because transhuman modification is dependent on technological resources and we live in unequal and largely capitalist societies there would be an unequal distribution of such advantages, which with the potential advantages they seem to offer would seem likely to increase the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged. If these changes are genetic, they are likely to be inheritable, thus accelerating this gap even further perhaps leading to the unsavoury situation where 'natural' humans are a sort of inferior sub-species to the transhumans. Aldous Huxley exlored this theme in 'Brave New World'.

My Prediction

It seems natural to assume a deterministic view that what reason tells us are advantages will dominate through evolutionary forces. However, sometimes we are surprised. Communism, might be described as the largest social engineering project in history, a project based soundly on rational principles. But, by and large, Communism failed - the (apparent) best collective good is not necessarily in the best collective good. Fascist utopian projects also failed, perhaps due to their excessive aggressiveness.

I suspect that part of the reason that social engineering projects fail is that the engineers are trying to engineer agents which may be as intelligent as they are or more so and who may be in competition with them.

The closest thing we have to a transhuman project historically outside of a totalitarian regime is probably Eugenics, but this too was abandoned on the political grounds that it was inherently racist and elitist.

Perhaps through evolutionary forces it is inevitable that there will be movement in the direction of transhumanism. As mankind becomes more technologically powerful it may be increasingly difficult temptation to resist. It may also be the only means by which humanity can escape from the finite resources of a single planet and a single star.

However, evolutionary forces do not necessarily operate in the best interests of the organisms that they operate on. I expect that humanity will (for good reasons) throw up many legal barriers in its path for the sake of social stability, so 'progress' will be slow.

Atomic dream

I had a dream last night I really wish I'd made a point of recalling, for now I only have fragments and images. A TV appearance of a person with a second, incompletely developed head behind the first one; an escape journey from an atomic explosion with my son across a very long bridge in the countryside; a real meeting with someone with a second head growing behind the first - it's big blue eyes darting around like a frightened animal.

Memoirs of a Barista

We went to see 'Memoirs of a Geisha' last night. Great movie. One of the actresses (Youki Kudoh) seemed very familiar.

I lived in Hong Kong for a few months after I graduated and my first job was with Pacific Coffee (a sort of far eastern clone of Starbucks). Now of course Youki Kudoh is Japanese not Chinese, and all through the film I was convinced she was this girl Youki who I worked with. I've not found any direct evidence to show that she was in Hong Kong at that time, but every actor does waiting jobs at some point in their life and the Hong Kong movie industry has been big for decades, and she's about the right age, so it seemed perfectly plausible that she was there. As a barista at the coffee shop she had a reputation for bossing people around without doing any actual work herself - typical thespian.

It was only this morning that I remembered that the girl I had worked with was called 'Sooki' and not 'Youki' at all.

Monday, January 16, 2006

A mouse is scratching loudly

As we sit zazen,
A mouse is scratching loudly;
A winter morning

Friday, January 13, 2006

The dragon piercing the water

If you understand that zazen is the great gate of the law, you will be like the dragon piercing the water or the tiger re-entering the deep forest.
Master Dogen XIIIth century

Some 'Zen-speak' is still a mystery to me - descriptions of satori experiences in terms of 'mountains walking' for example. But this excerpt does resonate with me.

What Dogen means is that Zazen practice is the way to achieve the awakening of the Buddha. The images of a dragon piercing the water and a tiger entering a forest are beautiful poetic metaphors to evoke, for me, the sense of 'organic' emersion of the state of samadhi (objectless absorption) of zazen. But this is not a new place. Zazen is not adding something new - it is stripping away the conventional illusions of discreet and dualistic existences to reveal bare reality - a reality which ultimately can't be prised apart into distinct parts or discreet essences and which is inseparable from ourselves. We are returning to our natural home. This is what is referred to as the 'original mind'. Hence, the tiger is 're-entering' the forest and the dragon is returning to the water (the natural home of dragons in oriental mythology).

Is Buddhism a Religion?

Unsurprisingly perhaps, my answer to this question is both 'no' and 'yes'.

From the Compact Oxford English Dictionary:

religion • noun 1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. 2 a particular system of faith and worship. 3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.

The enlightenment of Gautama Buddha was not a religious revelation. The order of monks that he established was not established to worship gods or even to achieve mystical union with them. The teachings of course included references to accepted religious and philosophical ideas - gods, rebirth and karma. But Buddha encouraged self-reliance over worship of the gods; he argued that all beings were subject to causal laws; he insisted that his path was for those who had such beliefs and for those who didn't. Buddhism is not a belief in a supernatural power. Buddhism is not about having beliefs - rather it is supposed to be a freedom from all views and a middle path between extreme views. The core of Buddhism is an acceptance of the Four Noble Truths, rather than any particular view on the afterlife or existence of divine beings.

However, Buddhism is of course classified as one of the major world religions and witnessing a Buddhist ceremony you would be likely to find many parallels and similarities with Christianity or Judaism. Millions of Buddhists around the world leave offerings for gods and spirits and dead saints. They have a belief in an afterlife which is supported by ancient dogma and many Buddhists, including Western converts argue for a need for faith and conformity to the Buddha Dharma. So, to some it might seem difficult to argue that Buddhism is not a religion like all the others.

It seems that the tendency to form religious belief systems is inherent in human nature. And to a fair extent this is what seems to have happened to Buddhism. Beliefs in spirits, gods,karma and rebirth/reincarnation were the cultural context that Buddhism arose in, and belief in these often constitutes what passes for Buddhism. Buddhism originated in a culture in which reincarnation, karma and the existence of gods were the standard explanations of the world we see. Even though Buddha often spoke in terms of such metaphysical explanations, Buddha's core insights (Dependent Origination, Anatta, Four Noble Truths) were not dependent on them.

Faith is important in Buddhism, but only in the sense that it is necessary to have confidence in the teachings, confidence built on personal experience and insight, like a climber's faith in his ropes and in the force of gravity. It's not the same as the blind faith in supernatural forces that characterises much Abrahamic religion and which they turn into a virtue. There are faith-based disciples and truth-based disciples of the Buddha and there are teachings appropriate for 'Eternalists' (those who believe in an eternal self) and for 'Annihilationists' (those who believe that the self is annihilated at death).

The reverence of Boddhisatvas seems to be a characteristic of Mahayana Buddhism which was not in the original Theravada practice.

What we know mainly by the name of 'Zen' in the West was far more minimalistic than previous forms of Buddhism, being much more focussed on the practice of meditation. Perhaps its development was a response to a Buddhism which consisted largely of giving offerings and prayers to gods and Boddhisatvas for good karma, chanting, memorisation of sutras.

There is a famous story of when Bodhidharma arrived in China after having sat in meditation in a cave for nine years.

Upon arrival in China, the Emperor Wu Di, a devout Buddhist himself, requested an audience with Bodhidharma (in 520 A.D.). During their initial meeting, Wu Di asked Bodhidharma what merit he had achieved for all of his good deeds for building numerous temples and endowing monasteries throughout his empowered territory. Bodhidharma replied, "None at all." Perplexed, the Emperor then asked, "Well, what is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism?" "Vast emptiness," was the bewildering reply. "Listen," said the Emperor, now losing all patience, "just who do you think you are?" "I have no idea," Bodhidharma replied. With this, Bodhidharma was banished from the Court.

An idea that Richard Dawkins proposes in his books is that of memes as a basis for cultural evolution in analogy with genes and this idea is further developed by thinkers such as Susan Blackmore and others. I think its a compelling argument, but exactly what the physical basis is of a meme is, is more ambiguous than the parallel case of genetic evolution. Dawkins proposes that many cultural entities can be seen as widespread simply because they are 'memeplexes'/meme-complexes, which are good at reproducing. He describes religions in this way, describing them as a 'virus of the mind'. They are not necessarily 'true' and not necessarily serving the best interests of the 'host', just prevalent because they are good at spreading. I recommend reading Dawkins' books to fully understand the argument, but this article is a good introduction.

I find this argument an interesting way to explain some of the features of religion eg. the raising of blind faith over evidence to a virtue, but needless to say I can only see it as part of the truth.

These arguments are further developed by Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine. Interestingly Blackmore is a long-time practitioner of Zen. And she presents Zen with its detachment from belief and thought, its iconoclasm and 'kill the Buddha!' proclamations is really a memetic 'antiseptic' rather than a meme. I was persuaded that this was not just a matter of personal bias on her part although I'd suggest (and did by email) that Zen could be seen as an antidote to memes which is itself wrapped in a memeplex of its own. The 'raft' of the dharma is the memeplex, but Buddhism (correctly understood) aknowledges the provisional nature of this cultural vehical.

As you can see I tend to regard the religious aspects of contemporary Buddhism as rather dogmatic and unhealthy. While declining slightly in many parts of Asia, Buddhism is on the rise in the West - in some regions eg. Australia, Scotland and South-West England census data suggests that it is the fastest growing religion ('Jedi' doesn't count as an officially recognised religion, sorry :)). The two most popular sects are Tibetan and Zen. I'd suggest that many people drawn to Buddhism are are attracted by its anti-dogmatic traits compared with Christianity which has been on a slow decline in these areas for many years. Buddhism is in a process of adaptation for the west and I'd suggest that this is a good opportunity to cast off some of the dogmatic and religious baggage it has aquired on its travels.

I'm not the first westerner to suggest this of course - here are some links to individuals who are cutting away the cultural trappings in one way or another to reach through to the essenceless essence of Buddhism:

Brad Warner
Stephen Batchelor
Christopher Calder

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Root of All Evil?

Last night on Channel 4, was the first part of The Root of All Evil? presented by Richard Dawkins who boldly hypothesises that religion is a sort of cultural virus with which one generation deliberately infects the next generation and that this 'virus' or 'memeplex' is the cause of a great deal of the conflict in the world today. He argues that it had been thought (by western intellectuals) that religious belief was on the retreat, by that religioun was making a resurgence with avengeance. His visit to the tense and factionalised 'Holy City' of Jerusalem with cut-scenes of 9/11 and the bombing of the London Underground put this into perspective.

A Muslim in Jerusalem tells him that the West is depraved and corrupt for allowing women the freedom to dress provacatively and that we should prepare for the Islamic world empire. A Protestant pastor in Colorado has the charm of the boy next door, until Dawkins asks him about biology. He chases Dawkins out of his church, screaming that he has called his children 'animals'.

Great viewing!

I do agree that religion and blind faith can be dangerous and that seing them as a sort of self-reproducing cultural virus can be helpful. And the apparently benign faith of the masses cannot be seen as faultless in reinforcing the beliefs of the extremists. I don't believe that religion is 'the root of all evil' - rather it is adherence to ideology and dogmatism, which is the source of the problem. Religion can have plenty of that, but so does communism and patriotism.

Something that Dawkins hasn't mentioned so far is that there may be evolutionary and genetic factors to religion - we may be genetically predisposed towards religiosity. And, hence there must be genetic advantages to religiosity (at least historically) - for the reproducibility of the genes not necessarily for us as individual beings. How many major world civilisations have arisen without a unifying religion?

And powerful as it, science isn't able to answer all questions - there are existential and subjective aspects to life which science is unable to address - aspects which some people choose to express through religion. Is it possible to explore these aspects of our nature without buying into the dangers of religious dogma with blind faith?

This all links back to what I was discussing about Buddhism and dogma of course and I'll be talking about this in my next post.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Buddha Dogma

Do not believe in anything (simply) because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumoured by many.
Do not believe in anything (simply) because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conductive to the good and benefit of one and all then accept it and live up to it.
Gautama Buddha, Kalama Sutta

This was never intended to be a 'Zen blog', but that's the way it seems to be going at the moment so I'll just go with it. I don't claim to be an expert on Zen or Buddhism - these are just my personal views, which might change in the future and which you're free to ignore. I'm not even formally ordained.

My aim is always to practice zen with my eyes and mind open as it were, since there seems to be a human tendency towards religiosity, ideology and dogma - a tendency to become partial and to develop rigid ideas, to conform and engage in 'group-think'. Why shouldn't that apply to Zen? The last thing I want to do is become another religious nut. Sometimes I think I see Zen practitioners seemingly getting very attached to the trappings of Zen and I wonder if that's helpful. I try to just be my ordinary self and to assume as little as possible about Zen. I don't assume that Soto Zen is always the best way. For example, sitting in the lotus position works well for me, although I do get 'pins and needles' in one foot after a while and if I'm sitting for a long time I get tense, painful shoulders. Perhaps I'm doing it wrong. Perhaps there are better ways of doing zazen. There's no reason to imagine that there's anything magical about the posture - anything that allows us to remain motionless, alert and quiet for a long time without too much tension or pain fits the bill. For all I know Mike Cross and Pierre Turlur might be right - maybe the Alexander Technique is better. I don't know, I've never tried it.

One criticism that gets levelled at Zen quite a bit is that it does not emphasise direct cultivation of compassion. The justification I've heard for this is that trying to act compassionate or cultivate compassion when it isn't sincere is artificial and hence a distortion of our true selves. We cannot force ourselves to act and feel compassionate. I think there is some truth in this. I have met Buddhists that have the same sort of forced over-sincerity and over-niceness that many Christians seem to have. To try to do this seems to be a recipe for repression and self-deception and that can't be healthy. This is borne out by my own earliest experiences with Buddhism.

I originally came across Mahayana Buddhism some years ago as an undergraduate. I was very intrigued by the philosophy and seemed to get some benefit from meditation practice, but I had reservations about it: I found nothing to make me accept the notion that we will be reborn when we die, it all seemed like wishful thinking and not very well thought out and I wasn't keen on all that devotion to Boddhisatvas and so on. I'm a healthily sceptical and logical person, and I'd spent far too long debating with Christian apologists to accept such ideas on faith.

Some of the practice seemed insincere - I felt I was trying to make myself be nice and compassionate and serene, when in fact deep down I usually felt quite different. Was it because I was a beginner? Was I being badly taught? Or was it inherent in the teaching? It was as if I was meant to sprinkle sugar on top of all the 'negative' but real feelings I had and as such seemed to be encouraging me to regard my true feelings as unacceptable and thus repress them and replace them with something more 'wholesome' but less sincere.

The Zen approach is careful self-observation through the practice of Zazen so that the attachments of the 'personal self' are eroded away leaving a nature which is selfless and naturally compassionate.

It's an interesting theory, and it certainly seems likely to avoid artifice, but I don't know to what extent it would cultivate compassion. Without a personal self is our nature really more compassionate? There are enough stories of abuse by American 'Zen Masters', support for Japanese pre-war imperialism by Japanese roshi and use of Zen by samurai as a tool of violence to give me some doubts about that. It's for this reason that I supplement my Zazen with Metta Bhavana meditation. In the context of self-awareness and an attitude of acceptance I really think it is possible to cultivate compassion without the problems I described above.

The reason that I practice Soto Zen is mainly because it is light on metaphysical, philosophical and supernatural speculation. There are no Boddhisatvas to pray to or magical sutras to chant for good karma. For obvious reasons you do need to have confidence in the practice, but that's about it. The practice is very down-to-earth, 'stripped down' and simple. Its not about believing or disbelieving, it's about paying attention to the actuual reality of here and now. Being a natural sceptic, that suits me fine. Of course, to practice Soto Zen formally you have to do it in a certain way. You have to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and try your best to live according to the Buddhist precepts. Practice involves certain rituals, if you are ordained you should wear a rakusu, a kesa etc when you're at the zendo. Beyond that it doesn't really matter what you think (if anything) about the afterlife or karma etc.

Another thing I try to remain agnostic about is the nature of Enlightenment. I think its important not to idealise it or pin hopes on it. To me, 'Enlightenment' is just being fully present with perhaps a gradual loss of illusions over time.

Now, these provisional personal views are all part of a process of personal investigation, not dissimilar to scientific investigation, although exploring subjective areas which are difficult for science to access. Nevertheless, there are a number of scientific studies which provide compelling evidence for many claims made about Buddhist practice.

This empirical approach is also encouraged in the Kalama Sutta (quoted above), not that I needed Buddha to give me permission not to take him as an absolute authority, but it's just as well that this sutta exists since the tendency to religiosity an to represent Buddha as an omniscient god-like figure is strong in Buddhism. Those words at least give independent-mindedness a fighting chance.

Some Buddhists use the Right View/Right Understanding principle of the Eightfold Path as a club to hit free-thinkers over the head with. I don't have beliefs in rebirth after death or karma (as traditionally described) and am accused sometimes of not being a 'real Buddhist'. Apart from the fact that I don't care whether these people consider me a real Buddhist or not (in a sense its a relief if they don't) as far as I'm concerned rebirth and karma are merely the philosophical backdrop against which Buddha had his realisations. He did not originate these concepts - they were standard Vedic beliefs, which most people in India at that time accepted without much questioning. All Buddha did was modify the concept of reincarnation to rebirth to attempt accomodate his principle of anatta - the absence of inherent self. He also did not refute the existence of gods, although he described them as limited beings, subject to birth and death like everyone else and discouraged reliance upon them.

To suppose that Buddha was omniscient is an extraordinary claim for which there is no evidence. It's not even something that he claimed about himself. How could he possibly have known what happens before and after people die. Modern, well-educated, rational people who are scientifically literate may realise that visions or apparent memories about such matters do not constitute good evidence any more than they provide good evidence of Satanic child abuse or the existence of spirits or elves or extraterrestrials. Buddha did not have the benefits of a 21st century education. And for me at least, the notion of rebirth after death is rendered redundant by moment-to-moment rebirth ie. a realisation of no inherent self.

As far as I'm concerned, Buddha's key and original insights were interdependence/emptiness and causes of suffering and the method of liberation from it. It is an understanding of these principles which constitutes Right Understanding.

And what, monks, is right understanding? Knowledge with regard to sadness, knowledge with regard to the origination of sadness, knowledge with regard to the stopping of sadness, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the stopping of sadness: This, monks, is called right understanding.
Magga-vibhanga Sutta, An Analysis of the Path

An author I can really recommend on the topic of agnostic Buddhism is Stephen Batchelor especially his book Buddhism Without Beliefs.

Now, before anyone misunderstands me, I'm not suggesting that Buddhism is whatever you want it to be. It has a good breadth of interpretation, from the most rational and science-friendly to the most religious. There are sects which insist on belief in karma and rebirth and sects for which such metaphysical speculation is redundant. But there comes a point where it will stop being Buddhism and start being something else.

You can read more about the Kalama Sutra here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalama_Sutra

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Face of God

Personally, I've never had a belief in God, and tended to believe that the Abrahamic (why do people say 'Judeo-Christian' and exclude Islam?) concept of God and 'His' supposed purposes were incoherent. That doesn't mean that I didn't have a strong sense of 'spirituality', it just means that I didn't attach it to a concept of an anthropomorphic creator being. It was nature/existence itself that awed me.

Some Zen teachers occasionally talk in terms of 'God' - even the iconoclastic Brad Warner sometimes does. The word is being used as a way of expressing a Buddhist idea in 'Western' terms. However, the concept used here is far from the Abrahamic concept of a separate, self-existent, supernatural and (always to at least some extent) anthropomorphic creator used by most theists. Personally I tend to think that it should be avoided to avoid confusion.

There are some people - mainly Christian-Buddhist hybrids (not sure how that works) and Christians looking for common ground who try very hard to show that Buddhism and Christianity are essentially saying the same thing. I think that ultimately there may be an element of truth in this, but I think that a great deal of damage is done to a concept such as Sunyata (emptiness) by trying to squeeze it into a God-shaped hole. I tend to think that the concept of God is, in part, derived from experiences of 'no-self' and 'oneness', interpreted as a cosmic event - a union between a discreet self (individual soul) and a discreet Absolute (Godhead). This is naive and simplistic compared with the subtlety and sophistication of Nagarjuna's concept of Sunyata and Dogen's (and others') descriptions of the relationship between relative and absolute. In Buddhism, the denial of a separate self (anatman) and a separate absolute (nirvana) are key concepts. The rest as far as I can tell is a naive search for explanations which will fit into our common-sense conceptual structure on the basis of faulty logic and blind faith.

Even putting aside all the issues of evidence and the validity of 'personal revelation', and all the problems of Biblical literalism, I find the concept incoherent. Here is a small selection of the questions I think the idea of God begs:

Why would an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being use methods of improving his creations, which required great suffering, (existence, freewill, evil, evolution) with no sign of resulting improvement?

Why would a perfect being need to create humanity let alone need its love?

Events/changes require time to occur in, so how could the creation of space-time occur before there was any time for it occur?

The usual answer to these sorts of questions is some variant of 'God works in mysterious ways', but this comes back to How do you know He works in mysterious ways?, How do you know the Bible is infallibly true?, How do you know that God exists?, How do you know (enough to make claims about it) what God is like?. Blind faith - a personal feeling of conviction isn't valid, as demonstrated by the number of people who have absolute faith in their beliefs and yet who contradict each other or who are demonstrably false and/or insane. Faith in Buddhist practice, as I understand it, is of a more ordinary sort - like the faith of a climber in his ropes. The 'intuitive knowing' described about 'enlightened masters' is something else - 'knowing' is not quite the right word and it is not knowledge of anything supernatural or metaphysical - rather, it is just being fully attentive to reality, absent of certain illusions we have about it.

I find it interesting that the less literal the interpretation of Biblical and traditional explanations of God are - the more 'ineffable' they are, the less problematic they become, because such claims are less concrete. Instead of the jealous tribal god Yahweh who lives on Mount Sinai and smites the enemies of Israel, God becomes a cosmic source or principle beyond space and time, almost equivalent to the deepest laws of physics. A consequence of this is that the more anthropomorphic supposed 'purposes' of this entity start to become absurd. 'God is the unknowable source, the will of nature, the very ground of all being...and He hates gays.'

If God is a synonym for the deepest principles of physics, what word is left for a hypothetical being who answers prayers, intervenes to save cancer patients or helps evolution over difficult jumps, forgives sins or dies for them?
Richard Dawkins

I came across this excerpt and really enjoyed it. I know that 'Zen talk' can seem pretty bizzare so I've added my interpretations of what Seung Sahn said.

After one of the Dharma Teachers was finished with his introductory remarks, he asked those congregated to direct their questions to Zen Master Seung Sahn, Soen Sa Nim. One of the visitors asked if there was a God.

Soen Sa answered "If you think God, you have God, if you do not think God, you do not have God."
[God and the absence of God are mental constructs]

"I think that there is no God. Why do I have God if I think God?"

"Do you understand God?"

"No, I don't know."

"Do you understand yourself?"

"I don't know."

"You do not understand God. You do not understand yourself. How would you even know if there was a God or not?"

"Then, is there a God?"

"God is not God, no God is God."
[Apart from our mental contruction there is inherently no God or absence of God. Alternatively - the Ultimate (God) and nothingness/absence of inherent nature/interdependence are the same. ]

"Why is God not God?"

Holding up the Zen stick, Soen Sa said "This is a stick, but it is not a stick. Originally, there is no stick. It is the same with God for originally there is no God. God is only name. The same is true of all things in the universe."
[Conventionally sticks exist, but ultimately they do not, for their nature is dependent. The same is true for God.]

"Then is there no God?"

"The philosopher Descartes said, 'I think therefore I am.' If you do not think, you are not, and so the universe and you are one. This is your substance, the universe's substance, and God's substance. It has no name and no form. You are God, God is you. This is the 'big I,' this is the path, this is the truth. Do you now understand God?"
[All things (including 'God' and 'no God') are ultimately of one substance. Is this God? It cannot be named.]

"Yes, I think that there is no God, and I have no God."

"If you say that you have no God, I will hit you thirty times. If you say that you do, I will still hit you thirty times."
[By saying there is or there is not a God, the visitor is trapped by thought and language and unable to apprehend reality as it is before conceptual thought distorts it. Reality is not found at either of these extremes but in a non-conceptual 'Middle Road' between them. The threat of violence is just gentle encouragement.]

"Why will you hit me? I don't understand. Please explain."

"I do not give acupuncture to a dead cow. Today is Tuesday." replied Soen Sa.
[This is a waste of time. Forget all that abstract stuff - this is reality].

I just found this short little piece, which I also like:

Zen Master (to student): Do you know God?
Student: I don't know
ZM, Do you know Buddha?
Stu, I don't know
ZM, Do you hear the waterfall?
Stu, Yes
ZM, Just That.
[Forget your ideas about God or Buddha - the sound of the waterfall is the real 'God'/'Buddha' ie. ultimate reality, not some idea about something transcendent but reality itself]

Monday, January 02, 2006

Nagarjuna's "Mulamadhyamakakarika"

I salute him, the fully-enlightened, the best of speakers,
who preached the non-ceasing and the non-arising,
the non- annihilation and the non-permanence,
the non-identity and the non- difference,
the non-appearance and the non-disappearance,
the dependent arising,
the appeasement of obsessions and the auspicious

I've been reading Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way) as 'holiday reading'. It's a very important Buddhist text and unusually dry and logically rigorous for such texts. The central concept of the text is Sunyata, usually translated as 'emptiness', which is a very frequently misunderstood concept. It does not mean 'nothingness' nor does it refer to some empty space somewhere, nor is it a claim that reality does not exist in any way at all.

Because of these misunderstandings, the concept is sometimes translated more positively as 'openness' or (by Thich Nhat Hanh) as 'Interbeing'. I think these alternatives are probably helpful. One of the reasons that I'm reading the book is that I'm hoping to come to a better understanding of Nagarjuna's description of 'emptiness' itself being 'empty' ie. lacking inherent characteristics - emptiness is not an inherenent characteristic, it is an absence of them.

Emptiness is an absence of an inherent nature - an independent self if you like. Nature is not just interconnected, but interdependent. The nature of every entity is dependent on conditions, on parts, on causes, on context and on conceptualisation to apparently possess the nature we see it as having. According to Nagarjuna things exist and have a nature from a conventional/relative view, but ultimately do not exist from an absolute viewpoint since they don't have an inherent nature. I'm gradually getting my head around this but I'm not quite there yet.

I'll probably report back on this later - when (and indeed if) I finish it.
After a suitable break I'll probably try to tackle the Shobogenzo.

Happy New Year!

I spent Christmas this year with Emily's family in Essex (for the first time) and New Year with my son and my family in Scotland. I had a great time with everyone.

The day before Hogmanay (New Year's Eve to non-Scots) there was a fall of about three inches of snow. My sister and I built a snowman which evolved into a rather fetching snow statue of a plump lady, a neolithic fertility goddess perhaps.

It's also rather reminiscent of the statue of the disabled artist Alison Lapper in Trafalgar Square.

Some local boys came and asked us if we were artists and my sister told them that someone from the local paper was coming up to take a picture. Unfortunately, when we went out to vist our eldest sister, the snow goddess got smashed to pieces by snowballs. Everything is impermanent...