My last post was on 8/11/17 shortly before we needed to prepare for a big road trip from Bend, Oregon to the Maritime Provinces of Canada, followed by visits to Sue’s family in Lake George, New York and my daughter’s family in Annapolis, Maryland. Preparations for the trip had to be made early because just before the trip there was the total solar eclipse of 2017 on Monday, the 21st, the shadow passing 25 or so miles north of us. In the days before the eclipse our house filled with family. We had made viewing plans and they worked out well. On Monday before dawn we drove to an open field Northwest of Prineville, saw the sky darken, leaf shadows sharpen, and felt the temperature fall by 12 degrees or so. We then watched as a black shadow fell on Gray’s Butte 10 miles to the West and rushed towards us at 1700 MPH. The last bright spark on the sun’s rim flickered out; and there was the corona and Bailey’s shining diamonds along the rim of the shadowed sun. The entire experience was as stunning as advertised and brought home to us the reality of cosmic events. There really is a moon out there, a sun and an entire cosmos whose very existence is an impenetrable mystery that we can experience during our brief stay in conscious awareness.
After the eclipse we waited a day for the traffic to clear, took my computer to the shop, finding out the mother board was dead, then headed out across the continent after taking Sue’s sister Nancy to the Portland airport. The trip was long and accomplished what travel should. We saw new country and discovered that some Canadians were more concerned with the possible shortcomings of their prime minister than with those of Trump. As a child I’d read about the tides of the Bay of Fundy but had no idea even where it was. Now we saw the 45-foot tide come in (record some 50 odd feet), finally got a good look at a tidal bore and added three provinces to our list. (We’ve traveled in all 50 US states so are now adding Canadian provinces and territories to our travel deeds.) We had been somewhat leisurely going East to the Maritimes. But then, after our family visits, drove across the US in 6 days, seeing some new territory on the way and being moved by a visit to the California Trail Interpretive Center on I80 in Nevada. One reads about the hardships and heartbreaks of the Westward migration and understands intellectually, but seeing the exhibits and dioramas makes for a much deeper emotional understanding. Arriving home on September 30th, we settled in for a week or two before going to the Stanford Alpine Club reunion. Now we’re really back home with a new computer fired up and it’s time to write.
In previous posts I’ve expressed the theme that Western thought would be more satisfying if informed by the spirituality of the East, especially Zen Buddhism. Now I want to turn a somewhat skeptical eye on the foundations of that idea but later move away from the skepticism to try find a clearer and deeper exposition. I begin by considering what seems to be an unbridgeable gap between the Western idea, that in philosophy, science and humanism meaning can only be apprehended in words; and the Eastern idea, in Zen, that the deepest meaning is totally beyond direct expression in language.
Let me first be skeptical about extreme claims for language. I’ve already talked about Plato and Wittgenstein with their thoughts on the limits of what can be said. Some humanists not only ignore possible limits to what language can express, but claim that only with language can there even be thinking. That idea seemed absurd to me the first time I heard it and has so seemed ever since. Perhaps it makes sense if one replaces “thinking” by “intellectualizing”. To me “thinking” is simply conscious mental processing and, at least, for me can occur in an entirely wordless manner. For example, when out hiking one often comes to a stream without a bridge but with rocks that will provide stepping stones if one doesn’t slip and take a fall into the water. When I arrive at such a place, I take in the scene, sketching out possible paths and making a wordless judgement about the slipperiness and stability of the rocks along each possible route. If one path seems feasible and best, I concentrate, get balanced and begin to hop. There has clearly been “thought” here, but none of it has been put into words. Of course, it could have been, and on some occasions, the hiking party might well discuss the matter, analyzing verbally the various possibilities before making a decision about the crossing. Another example, concerns a bear in Yosemite Valley who presumably lacked language, but through experience and awareness learned about canned goods. In one instance, during the night at Camp 4, a less experienced member of our group had left a rucksack full of canned food, out in the open. The next morning, we found the rucksack torn apart and cans scattered about. Some of the cans had been ripped open and the contents eaten. Others were untouched except for a single tooth hole in one end. The bear knew that some cans might have less desirable contents and saved energy by a “puncture and sniff” methodology whose existence to me implied “thought”.
While thought clearly can be nonverbal, it seems to me that Zen seemingly goes further. Let me postulate that for Zen the deepest awareness about life and the emotional reconciliation with our non-existence and loss of awareness in death, is not only wordless, but, unlike the experience of stream crossing, is necessarily completely nonverbal. Further, that attempting to understand this experience through language is not only a distraction, but is counterproductive, a false path, that hinders rather than helps.
Having not had the ultimate Zen experience I am in an excellent position to be skeptical about this postulate. This skepticism can operate on several fronts.
First, though I’m unwilling to doubt the authenticity of the ultimate enlightenment for people who have claimed to have had this experience, I can doubt that it will ever happen to me. The fact of the matter is that other people having the experience is irrelevant to my spiritual understanding. Furthermore, if in the future I claim to have finally achieved satori, that should be irrelevant to you who read this blog.
Second, I do think the Soto Zen insight is true and relevant. One can gradually gain deeper understanding of life and the world. One asks, “What is the alternative?” Just give up? Abandon the struggle to understand? Gradualism has its attractions in that there is at least the experience of “being in the zone” not only athletically, but philosophically and artistically. I definitely HAVE experienced being in the zone so know that it can contribute to almost any life activity. It may not be satori, but may well be a way station on the path and, in any case is well worth experiencing.
Third, if the ultimate experience is totally unreachable through language, why write about it at all? There are countless books about Zen. The standard conclusion is that one must join an Ashram of some sort and devote one’s entire life to practices that will possibly bring about enlightenment. From the beginning I have been skeptical about joining a spiritual community. There are too many frauds about and even sincere gurus have no magic touch for bringing about the desired result. As I’ve said earlier in this blog concerning spiritual matters, “The buck stops here” with you and me. Spiritual support can possibly be of help but quite possibly also contribute to self-delusion.
So why do I write this blog? Simply because I have an irresistible urge to try “get things straight”, to understand as much as possible about everything, to share my ideas, and to become a skillful enough writer to be worth reading. Concerning Zen, I feel that there is a paradox involved. Being as skeptical as possible advances Zen. Smash it. Stomp it. Deny it sincerely.
Such a denial of the basic postulate could be considered a Western approach to Zen. A fundamental trait of Western culture is the idea of “speaking out”, of not holding back. Accompanying this is a certain lack of respect for authority. The Eastern tendency, on the other hand, is to remain quiet and humble in the face of what likely cannot be said or understood. Besides a deep respect for authority, there is the idea that being forward is being egotistical by being “showy” to no end but self-aggrandizement. A Western approach to Zen would be a tradition-denying attempt to actually spell out what “cannot be said”, weaving a magic potion in words. A potion that not only makes perfectly clear but also carries to its reader an emotional acceptance of why one should be content and happy in the thought that the uniqueness that each of us possesses vanishes with our death forever into the emptiness of non-being. To attempt this kind of verbal depth and clarity is not only very Western, but paradoxically very Zen. “Let’s not grasp at the idea that nothing can be said.” At root Zen is neither Eastern nor Western. It is about such a complete letting go, that one mustn’t get hung up even on the idea of letting go.
As I continue in a possibly too-outspoken Western manner, consider that in what I’ve said above is an explicit acceptance of the idea that our awareness does indeed vanish with our death. There is no consciousness after death. Perhaps the mind functions briefly after the heart is stilled, but such functioning is brief and comes to an end. In rejecting the idea of “eternal life” I’m applying the spiritual postulate that there be no acceptance of belief simply because it seems comforting. It certainly would be extremely meaningful and exciting to be reconciled with all one’s family and friends who have passed away. Whether one could be happily conscious for an eternity is another question, but still it seems that any awareness might well be better than none. As a friend of my wife said talking about accidents and sickness, painful medical treatment, and long boring recoveries while incapacitated, “Any kind of living you can live with; it’s the dying you can’t stand.” And I think that is the way most of us instinctively feel. Certainly, although there is no certainty about what happens after death, the weight of the evidence, seems to me, to favor oblivion. Whether or not that is the case, if oblivion is what we really fear, that fear is what we need to grapple with spiritually in order to find understanding and peace.
When I use the word “spiritually”, it brings to mind traditional Western religion; in particular Christianity and the belief in God. What are my thoughts on this matter? Here I’ll deal with them briefly. It seems that there may well be the possibility of a deeper consideration in future posts. So… Am I an atheist? Well, no. Do I believe in God? Well, no. Am I an agnostic? Well, no. Surely either one believes in God or is an Atheist. Well, no. The problem as I’ve said before is Aristotelian logic, the curse of Western Philosophy, and, I might add, Western thought in general. When formalized, logic is tremendously useful in mathematics, theoretical physics, generally in science and in many areas of life. When applied elsewhere, its denial of any possibility beyond true and false, black and white, is untrue to reality. In most areas of life there are “shades of grey” which Aristotelian logic simply can’t deal with. In the distinction between atheism and belief, there is, as well, another problem. The entire distinction, seems to me to be stuck in spiritual shallows. Getting lost in controversy about a dichotomy which may well be meaningless instead of attempting to dive more deeply into spiritual awareness seems to me a waste of time and life. Let us consider belief in “God”. When one uses a word to characterize the deepest experience of spirituality, one inevitably comes to think of God as Something, in particular Something apart from the remainder of existence, having all sorts of contradictory properties. He (certainly not “She” or “It”) is all powerful and all controlling, but tolerates “evil” and the “devil” as a necessary part of existence. And I have mentioned only one muddle. The problem lies in Naming an ultimate which is beyond what we can possibly know. In Judaism and the Old Testament of Christianity, there is a tradition of revulsion in making images of gods or of even speaking God’s name except once a year. The sin involved is called idolatry, a belittling of the ultimate mystery, belief in a false image of God. It seems clear to me, however, that simply in treating the ultimate as a concept and calling it God, one is close to committing idolatry. Whether idolatry is the deep sin claimed by the Old Testament is possibly questionable, but one can well imagine that the ancients had a sound and provocative insight. The idolatry of Naming the ultimate is likely the root cause of religious conflict.
One begins with the Name. From the Name comes the tenets. From the tenets Belief. From Belief comes fanaticism and we all know where fanaticism leads. Of course, this sequence is by no means logically necessary and most thoughtful believers realize that “God” is simply a convenient word for what they apprehend in their deepest religious experience. A word that simply spells out an ultimate mystery whose properties are beyond our understanding. For example, the theologian Paul Tillich is very aware of assigning false attributes to the deity and uses the phase “the ground of being” instead of “God”. Nevertheless, there have been many “believers”, past and present, who HAVE followed the sequence from the concept of God to tenets to a tight grip of belief that can only be labeled as fanaticism. Fanaticism demands the death of all apostates and war against other religions or even other branches of one’s own religion. Every thoughtful person should know about the “Thirty Years War, 1618-1648” to say nothing of the horrors occurring in the name of Christianity before that period and understand the potential for fanaticism which lurks in “belief”.
So where does this leave us? It seems to me that modern, mainstream Western thought, especially in the sciences, but also in philosophy and the humanities, in realizing the trap of belief, has accepted the unspoken idea that any spirituality involves false beliefs about the deity and a lack of critical thinking which leads to an acceptance of SUPERSTITIONS from astrology to witchcraft to evolution by intelligent design; leads in fact to a rejection of the fundamental skepticism which drives science and, above all, to a total abandonment of reason. Any acceptance of spirituality threatens a new dark age.
What I’m pointing out in this blog is not only that there is no necessary link between spirituality and mindless superstition, but that the extreme skepticism of the spirituality which I’m advocating is completely in line with that informing science and modern thinking in general. For lack of a better name and to emphasize its doctrine that ungrasping from all belief leads to depths of meaning and understanding, free from all superstition, I have called it Zen. This label emphasizes and pays respect to the long historical development in the East of the realization that belief is unnecessary for spiritual well-being. Unfortunately, Zen carries the connotation of Eastern thought, of the quietism mentioned earlier in this post. A form of what I’ve called Western Zen would comfortably fit with our Western science, philosophy and humanism. Based on “radical ungrasping” it would take up the idea that our spiritual ignorance can drive a quest for spiritual knowledge and answers, growing out of the deep mysteries that have arisen from our secular science and knowledge. Although we have made remarkable progress in science and in other fields in the past several centuries, our remaining ignorance is not only infinite in extent but concerns the questions most significant to our spiritual well-being.
For the deep questions are not going away. What is the meaning of your life or my life? What is the meaning, if any, of our deaths? What is this universe all about anyway? Can one live in a spiritual vacuum? Is one to suppress the urgency of these questions and lose oneself in the anodynes of work, pleasure, sex, sports and consumerism, resisting of course, the threat of addiction to these as well as to less heathy activities such as drinking, drugs and gambling? Or is one to seek answers in the superstitions mentioned above or in shallow forms of Fundamentalism, stilling any doubts by an ever tighter grasping at unreasonable beliefs? It seems to me that Western thought in ignoring its spiritual vacuum is helping to bring about the very evils it fears.
A final word. What I’m proposing falls short in that it lacks specificity. That fact must be accepted in all humility. Nevertheless, I do think that I’ve made a showing that there is a path towards a Western spirituality which does not violate the integrity of our thought and that such a path is would fill an important gap.