Monday, May 24, 2010

Zen Master as Practical Metaphysician

     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.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. When I reread my comment, it seemed a bit harsh to me - which wasn't my intent. I just wanted to point out a view that philosophers might express on the main post.

    It may not be accurate, but I believe philosophers would say that you have switched to an internal-system definition of metaphysics. This creates an internal logic that leads to a truth only in the internal system. This negates the possibility of "proof" to any other system because they have their own internal logic.

    So while I agree that Zen/Chan are practical approaches in Buddhism, I don't see how the Zen master and method becomes the missing tool of metaphysics. Because Zen is experiential, it looks like it uses the same arguement that other systems use - you must have the experience to arrive at the truth. For me, at least, it seems the only truth is the one I experience and the only metaphysics I encounter is the internal, personal one.

    It's just my bias, of course, but I see the Buddha recognizing that 2,500 years ago. The philosophy doesn't lead to the wholesome and the end of suffering. His practical teachings do, and it is the practical nature of the teachings that is beneficial.

  3. First, I never suggested that Zen without the teachings of Buddha would end any suffering at all. Buddhism, and the teachings of the Buddha combined with Zen are a case were the sum of the parts is greater than either taken individually. That is in fact another matter entirely. For me Buddhism and Zen combined make up far more than a mere philosophical enquiry.
    However as far as Philosophical enquiry goes I believe your answer express’s the same bias that has acted as a wall to understanding the nature of Metaphysics throughout western civilization. At some point scholars made an axiom that in order for a proof to be valid it must be broken down into symbols and recorded in a media, stone, papyrus, paper or now into digital format. That for a proof to be valid or for a thing in “fact” to be true, it must be subject to repeated abstraction, recordation and analysis. This abstraction being and recordation being I assume your “external system”.
    The essence of this view point is that nothing reported as experienced truth can be considered as true no matter how many people have the same experience. By this standard, cold and hot, sweet and sour were not provable and true until abstractions were developed to describe them and tools were invented to measure them. So all those folks shivering in the ice age and puckering eating lemons were just having a internal, unprovable experience.
    My point is that anyone not just a select few can experience what Henri Bergson describes, more or less by the same mechanism he describes by practicing Zen. They can then and have reported their findings to that external system. These experiences have been as Bergson says subject to “boundless enumeration when analyzed”. This is not an exclusion of anyone but those who don’t want to take the trouble to do the experiment. But these observations are rejected because the so called scholars would rather build telescopes and atom smashers than sit down and meditate.
    To narrow the experiences of Zen to religion and excluded metaphysics would I believe be to ignore Immanuel Kant and his “Critique of Pure Reason” as well as most of the works of Nagarjuna, not to mention Mr. Bergson.
    After all if side show new age gurus and self serving pop physiologist can teach meditation and mindfulness, why not a philosopher.

    But I can live with people not accepting my theorys.. so no sweat..

  4. I'm glad it's a no-sweat deal because my theories are also subject to acceptance or not by any and all who read them. I only offer what I think would be a critique that would come out of western philosophy.

    Your pont is well taken (and Bergson's) on the mass of shared experience. The problem I've always had with that criteria, though, is that the mass has at times been Catholic, Moslem, Communist, Fundamentalist, Pro-life or Pro-choice, Axis or Allies, etc. And they all define truth in a different way. I never found an 'ism that formed the mass. I never found a system that could prove itself to be true, either. If one could, all the rest would collapse and we would be a one system world. I haven't seen a rush to any one system yet.

    But these are just my opinions and they are like noses - everyone has one :)

  5. Well if you take all the humans in the world interested in Metaphysical truth Steve, you would find you were a few short for a good sized touch football game anyway.