The Zen Paradox


When I set up the precursor to this blog a few months ago, it was about Zen, but all I could write was either paradoxical or the rational observation that Zen is paradoxical.

I gradually meandered towards Zen in my ‘spiritual search’. Zen was where I stopped, or rather, where I set off in a very different direction, as though I had come to the end of the spiritual alphabet and fallen off. It’s hard to say whether I have dropped Zen: I still hold some of its major tenets as likely truths, if one can actually say it has any. In a sense, that is the strength and the weakness of Zen: the truth is unspeakable; hence there is nothing else to agree or disagree with (though one can, of course, agree or disagree that truth is unspeakable).

Here immediately the paradox is evident: did I mean ‘unthinkable’? Did I formulate that central proposition in the right words? Of course, if you understand what it means, there is no way to answer that: all dualities fall away or are abandoned, along with all categories. Zen is unspeakable and unthinkable because it is – fundamentally – silent.

All of Buddhism, and Zen in particular, points towards wordless being, transcending the categories that words and perhaps even perceptions put on experience. Zen is the observation that as soon as we think about life we lose the understanding of life. We naturally seek understanding by thinking, which involves analysing, classifying, reasoning about things, but Zen says this takes us further away from our goal.

Now, in a sense, I still hold to this, but in another sense I don’t. I have, it is true, not found any way of describing the world that grasps Reality in a full and fundamental sense (but then, nor do I have a Nobel Prize for Physics); furthermore, I have ‘understood’, at least to some extent, the idea of reality being beyond human ideas and find it persuasive; finally, I have had experiences which I felt were not unlike those that Buddhism and other mystical systems describe.

Against this, however, a weight of doubt has amassed, which I will try to summarise as simply as I can. First, in order to make sense of it, I will have to make an important distinction, which I alluded to briefly already, between the central proposition that reality is beyond conceptual formalisation, which I will call Z, and a collection of other propositions and assertions found in Zen, other forms of Buddhism and related philosophies, from the ancient Forest Doctrine of Yoga to New Age religions. The point is, you can’t really say “Nothing can be said”, and assert a whole bunch of other stuff as well.

The typical ‘spiritual teacher’ from such a discipline may well express those inexpressible ‘pointers’ to Enlightenment of the Z-kind. He (he’s usually male) will say such things as “The Way cannot be formulated in a sentence”. ‘Way’ is another device to relativise ‘Truth’, evoking journeys rather than destinations (although Enlightenment, Nirvana, is also meant to be a final destination). He might say that the destination is the journey, or that once the disciple has forgotten the destination, he will reach it, or that the disciple must strive with all his might to reach it, or he might ask whether the disciple has considered whether the Way might be seeking him, only he never stays still long enough to be found…or a million and one things…which is my point.

Once the paradox of inexpressible truth has been granted a central place in the philosophy, there is no end to its weirdness and self-contradiction. In its aim of breaking through habitual thinking processes, it is admirable; it is enticing, amusing, shocking; but it leaves a nothingness that is awkward, to say the least, and which, given half a chance, the cognitive mind will fill up with any amount of ‘profound’ utterances or idle chatter.

When our typical guru had practised meditation for a decade or so, while still a disciple under his guru, and had teased his problematic reasoning powers with insoluble riddles to the point of Absolute Boggling, there came a time when he conquered his chattering mind. He could, at first only briefly, then more and more, sit or walk or engage in any activity without leaving the peace of samadhi, the silence of Absolute Being…or so he described the experience to his master.

That is all fine. Clean and simple. We must accept, perhaps, that the knowledge so gained is not accessible to us in words. He can’t tell us what he’s found, but now he invites interested students to take their place at his feet and begin their own journey towards Enlightenment. That’s fine too…except…that that is not all he teaches, being a typical guru. He also relates how he is now Liberated from the wheel of birth and death, beyond suffering, no longer to be reincarnated; he says, when pressed to it, that like the Buddha he can remember all his past lives; he says that he not only sees intellectually that all is One, but has merged with All, and is therefore intimate with all the venerated Patriarchs and Saints. (He doesn’t usually talk about being intimate with the murderers and rapists or the slime at the bottom of puddles, but we must suppose he is.)

He may not make exactly these particular claims, but he will make ontological and cosmological statements (statements about how the world is comprised and organised) which, we should note very clearly at this point, are contradictory to the Z principle (nothing can be said about Reality). If he is rather atypical and avoids all such pronouncements, then at least he will teach a whole array of rules, little everyday truths, that rice bowls should be cleaned immediately after the disciple finishes eating, for instance, or that he as head of the order must have the soft, golden cushion and someone else should do the cooking (as he once did for his master), that discipline leads the restless mind to peace, or that this is the Great Tradition, the way it has Always Been.

The general point is that however persuasive or true Z is, it seems to be in the nature of humanity that we fill in the emptiness with a host of statements about reality regardless, and age, experience and authority are no cure for this. The venerated teachers of Eastern mystical systems almost ubiquitously remind us that Truth cannot be approached through thinking, that words must be abandoned in order to reach the goal (-that-is-not-a-goal), and simultaneously give lectures, hold conferences and write books. There is a political analogue of Z, which says that there is nothing to be done, there is no use in striving – striving is the source of strife – yet the orders raise money, buy land, build monasteries and, nowadays, pump their particular version of wordy emptiness onto the Internet.

There is a staggering heterogeneity of philosophies that go by the name of Buddhism, all of which seem to pay lip service to the inexpressible nature of reality, though some do not take it as seriously as Zen Buddhism does. Regrettably, in my experience, they seem to share an intense desire to argue bitterly amongst themselves (or with anyone else) about all the non-paradoxical assertions, ignoring Z entirely.

They will quote scripture attributed to Siddharta Gautama (the alleged historical Buddha) to assert answers to any philosophical point: indeed, some seem to have elevated the scripture well above any essential principle, as we see so often in other religions, so that the teachings no longer serve as guidance for personal development, but represent the Absolute Truth to be learned by rote. The words are no longer delicate gossamer threads indicating the way the wind blows to those who seek freedom (if they ever were such), but the battlements of literalists.

The above will probably indicate the first of my doubts about Zen: while Z may possibly be true, it seems now of very little use. While I still consider it vitally important philosophically, and I will say more about its importance later, it no longer has that promise of ‘Enlightenment’ about it. Rather than a special, secret door to Reality, my current view of Z is as a disappointing fact of life. The difference is that I add to the fundamental inexpressibility of reality my own fundamental inability as a human being to ‘merge’ with reality in any sense that bestows true understanding.

It is as though the mystics came to the end of a dark passage, found a golden door, opened it, and now shout back about how profound it is there, beyond the Gate: that utter Blackness and Silence is the Centre, Divine, True. I guess people like me shrug and ask what can be known of Utterly Silent Blackness and, rather than squat to Revere it Endlessly, make our way back towards the imperfect light of rational thought, words and symbols. I think the mystics do too, a lot of them; they don’t actually shut up, but spend the rest of their lives chanting Gate, Gate, Paragate… or somesuch. They have something to teach us, for sure, but we should ignore the arbitrary proclamations of the talkative (since they are incompatible with Z) and be very cautious too about the invitation from the quieter ones to just sit and stop thinking indefinitely.

If that void behind the door is disappointing, the good news is that various things can be said about aspects of reality. I came to blog today very aware of my embarrassment. I woke up recently from my dream of finding the Great Big Truth through the Magic Door, and remembered that thousands of scientists had been mapping the world’s contours, however imperfectly, all the while.

A great problem for mystical systems based on Nothingness is the particularity of worldly observations. If there were just the great Void, why would Las Vegas arise, or chocolate chips, or rain? The Zen master cannot say anything about reality … without contradicting himself: “There is nothing except the Indivisible Absolute, no where, no when, and it is raining today here in the desert”. If all this is Maya (illusion), it’s an amazingly persistent and coherent illusion.

The wisdom I believe we can draw from Zen is important, but should be rendered more like “the map is not the territory” (concepts are not what they represent). It is a truth that more people need to awaken to. However, where the various doctrines and I part company is in that I have little reason to believe that we can grasp the territory directly through changing our mental state (though, as a sceptic, I admit that I do not know). It is much more likely that we can change our mental state to believe that we have grasped reality.

You can argue that if I try I might find out that I can grasp reality silently, merge with it, or whatever words don’t quite apply, but a very significant source of my doubt relates to this point. As a former psychotherapist I have known for a long time how easily people can come to believe things that would appear to be demonstrably false, but even I failed to grasp the scale of the problem until recently. The Emptiness of mysticism is always transmitted within social and philosophical systems. The Boggling and Beholding of Z is transmitted along with a traditional dogma, which may be untrue (and most of it almost certainly is). How difficult it must be to follow a teaching method, living in a community of monks, and not interpret your Nothingness the way everyone else does, the way you’re expected to! I consider it very likely that this explains why Buddha included reincarnation in his philosophy, not because he actually witnessed his past lives, but because the whole culture in which he lived took reincarnation for granted. Indeed, much of Buddhism was in place long before Buddha, and what is usually thought of as a major religious development was – in the larger scheme of human culture – not much more than a change of emphasis. The Buddha, like most people, imagined a lot, and ‘found’ a lot of things he expected to find.

This was the problem that confronted me when I set out to meditate diligently under a guru, even in my own home and guided by email conversations. How do we know that an experience is ‘intuition’, the revelation of Truth, rather than our imagination? How would I, setting out with the hope of finding ‘Enlightenment’, avoid interpreting a particular experience in meditation, incorrectly, as ‘Enlightenment’? That would be what I wanted to find; it would end the work. How can we stop ourselves from making stuff up?

Of course, it is just possible that that is what all the practice is for, to find that level of truthfulness to know Truth, but there is another possibility. It could be a gradual self-hypnosis, not a passage out of illusion, but into it, where Emptiness takes a capital and stimulates the feeling of arriving somewhere very special, being someone very special. Perhaps the ego, that pesky, self-deluding thing that we are supposed to transcend through meditation, is in fact incapable of being transcended: perhaps it is all that we are. Maybe it is pesky and self-deluding enough to use meditation for its own aggrandisement, emerging from discipleship with the ultimate pronouncement regarding its identity: Enlightened Being.

Do you know any Enlightened Beings? I asked the person who was offering to teach me Vipassana meditation if she was Enlightened, or if her guru was, or if she knew anyone who was. I didn’t get a straight answer. That was the problem for me in a nutshell: mystical insight shouldn’t turn us into idiots. It shouldn’t stop us from giving clear answers about things or explaining even the most tricky paradoxes as clearly as possible. It shouldn’t make us angry if anyone questions what the Buddha might have said. And these were where it seemed to have led a lot of Buddhists I found out there.

If, behind all the Kosmos (order) in the Cosmos (Universe), there is a great Void, well, that’s expressible enough…and anyway, so what? Surely it’s the Kosmos that we live in and are made of and have to contend with.

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