Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that investigates principles of reality transcending those of any particular science. It would be fair to say that it is enquiry of a non-empirical character into the nature of existence. This has lead to three views of it in the west. David Hume a pure empiricist would say “Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Sir Alfred Jules Ayer in "Language, Truth and Logic" using the verifiability theory of meaning concluded that metaphysical propositions were neither true nor false but strictly meaningless, as were religious views. Immanuel Kant was a little more kind to metaphysics. While admitting that rational analysis had its limits. He argued against knowledge progressing beyond the world of our representations, except to knowledge that the noumena existed.
The third and probably the least accepted view is that of French philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson held that anything can be known in one of two ways, either absolutely and relatively. The method of inquiry for knowing something relatively was the empirical method. He stated that empirical analysis is always an analysis ad infinitum and can never reach the absolute. It consists in dividing the object based on the chosen viewpoint and translating the divided fragments into symbols, wherein a specter of the original can be reconstructed. These symbols always distort the part of the object they represent, as they’re generalized to include it and every other part they represent. Thus they ignore the object’s uniqueness. *
*(See: Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, pages 165 to 168.)
The method for understanding and enquiry into the absolute was what he called intuition. He defined intuition “as a simple, indivisible experience of sympathy through which one is moved into the inner being of an object to grasp what is unique and ineffable within it. The absolute that is grasped is always perfect in the sense that it is perfectly what it is, and infinite in the sense that it can be grasped as a whole through a simple, indivisible act of intuition, yet lends itself to boundless enumeration when analyzed”*
*(See: Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, pages 159 to 162.)
The problem then that the west has always had with both metaphysics and religion is that neither is subject to empirical analysis and therefore are beyond empirical proofs.
Lets talk Zen:
D.T. Suzuki was perhaps the person most responsible for bringing the idea of Zen, and its nature, to the west. Suzuki and his disciples constantly stressed the idea that Zen is illogical, irrational, and beyond our intellectual understanding. This of course places it squarely in the class and set of metaphysics and religion, as rejected by western thought.
In western philosophy and in Buddhism and Zen we seem to universally encounter a problem in almost every debate I think is best summerized as follows:
“That is, those who have described the core of religion as the ineffable experience of the numinous, or of the sacred, or of Satori, implicitly draw a self-serving line between, on the one hand, those people who have had religious experience (like themselves, practitioners of a religion) and are therefore empowered to be judges of truth and falsehood in matters of religion, and, on the other hand, those people who have not (like the secular and scientific critics of religion) and are therefore incapable of distinguishing truth from falsehood in matters of religion. I do not mean to deny that the notion of “religious experience” has been used in the ideological way described here, to anoint certain persons with the authority to speak on religious matters and disenfranchise others. But “religious experience” is not the only fabled beast lurking in the ideological woods. “Empirical scientific analysis,” also known as “Academic objectivity,” is another such epistemological concept. Proponents not only claim it exists but also use it to draw a self-serving line between those who have it (like themselves, academic scholars) and who are therefore empowered to be the judge of true and false, and those who do not have it (like practitioners of religion)and are therefore incapable of distinguishing the true and the false. In this conflict over who has authority to speak on matter religious, both sides posit epistemological Entities, “religious experience” and “scientific objectivity,” and both sides claim possession of it to grant themselves authority and to disenfranchise the other. In this conflict, it sounds like two hands clapping, but underneath it is really only one.”
(See: “Victor Sogen Hori- "Zen Sand: The Book of Capping Phrases for Koan Practice”)
If we examine the public dispute between Hu Shih and D. T. Suzuki we see a perfect example of what I am talking about. “In the April 1953 edition of Philosophy East and West, Hu Shih and D. T. Suzuki published their debate on the history and method of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. Suzuki’s final refuge was that Hu Shin, was not enlightened and therefore had no right to debate him. It is sad when looked at closely, for as James D. Sellmann, pointed out in his review of the debate; neither man was even using the same definition for the word “Chan” or “Zen”.
But I am going to suggest that there is a resolution to this age old dilemma between the Empiricist and the Metaphysicians. I am taking the position here that the Zen master is a practical metaphysician. Further, that the practice of Zen meditation is a method of proof of the nature of the absolute. That Zen is neither rational nor irrational and that as Mr. Sellman states:
“It seems to me that describing Zen as illogical or irrational is a misunderstanding not of Zen, but of the nature of the illogical and the irrational. “ (See: James D. Sellmann, Philosophy East and West Vol. 45, no. 1 January 1995 p. 97-104, © University of Hawaii Press )
Zen is by its nature “a-logical” That is to say that it is beyond or outside the bounds of logic, or to those things to which logic can apply. But that Zen is a practice that can be learned by anyone and therefore the truth of which is verifiable by anyone. It is a means by which as Henri Bergson espoused, that by intuition, anyone can come to grips with and know the absolute.
We will always need aids to help us negotiate the relationship between insight and language. We will need teachers and koans and experiences of both a mundane and spiritual nature. And I am sure we will always have a tendency to be in love with our own beliefs and practices.
But it is a fact that Zen is the tool that western philosophy denied could exist. It is the practical method of proving metaphysics. Buddha’s first rule was always forget the philosophy, forget the debate. You should accept nothing just because I said it. Try it out and see if it works, see if it is true. That is the nature of Zen.