Ramblings II

In the last post I inadvertently used the epithet “IT” for the name of an imagined new slant on a Zen grounded in Western Culture; or, perhaps not just Western Culture but the complex enriched, modern World Culture which has itself grown out of Western Culture. This new embodiment needs a name. “IT” won’t do, as it just doesn’t have the proper ring, cachet or heft of existing names, Dhyana, Ch’an, Zen. Dhyana, beginning as simply a name for meditation can now be taken as the name of the “almost Zen” of Mahayana Buddhism as it grew under the tutelage of Nagarjuna and his kin. Ch’an is the Chinese name while Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of Ch’an which became the label for the Japanese embodiment. Finding a good label is tough; and I don’t feel that I have the talent for it. Consider the physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who did have that talent. Gell-Mann came up with the name quark as a label for simple particles within the various nucleons, mesons, and resonances of the strong interaction. Independently of Gell-Mann the physicist George Zweig had had the same daring idea, that there were actual “real material” particles belonging to the fundamental triplet representation of the SU3 group. Zweig named his particles “aces”, while Gell-Mann preferred “kworks”. Fooling around in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Gell-Mann found the phrase “three quarks for Muster Mark” on page 383. Thinking that one of Joyce’s meanings might be a bar order, “three quarts for Mister Mork” Gell-Mann proposed “quark” pronounced “kwork” as a tortured rendition of “quart”. The page 383 is significant since the next higher representation of SU3 has 8 members which are even more “real” than the quarks because they can exist on the “outside” as hadrons and make tracks in a bubble chamber. The “eight-fold way” has been taken over from Buddhism for the SU3 interpretation in which there are 8 particles which can be “seen”. An older, discarded 3-fold Sakata model used the hadrons proton, neutron and Lambda as a fundamental triplet.

Although the likelihood that I have Gell-Mann’s talent for labelling is vanishingly small, I really must give it a try; so, I will propose the Hawaiian pidgin Da Kine. This expression works rather well because it is a corruption of the English “the kind”, but in Pidgin the meaning has changed in that da kine’s reference is deliberately vague or ambiguous. Often the phrase is used when one does not feel like being specific. When I now use “da kine”, maybe it refers to this new kind of Western religiosity, or maybe it’s merely a meaningless redundancy. It could refer to anything. An example of the flavor I’m talking about occurs in William Finnegan’s wonderful, Pulitzer-prize winning memoir, Barbarian Days. The author and his buddy, Bryan, in a vain attempt to keep secret their discovery of a world class surfing spot, Tavarua, in Fiji, never say its name, but refer to it as “da kine”. A problem with da kine is, of course, that is a very common expression in Hawaii and, in fact, there is a company with the name Da Kine. One faces a possible copyright infringement complaint; however, if “Wind Surfer” and “Kleenex” couldn’t defend their copyrights, I doubt that “Da Kine” can either. In any case one might well end up with an even better name than Da Kine.

It is pretty clear to me that we do need a new name. Consider the existing names Dhyana, Ch’an, and Zen. Dhyana has a lofty, abstract, almost philosophical connotation of the jewel in the lotus, while in Chinese culture there is the wonderful idea of taking serious things lightly and light things seriously. This particular sensibility, it seems to me, is missing in Japanese culture; not that there isn’t a wonderful sense of humor in certain Japanese productions. I remember in the late fall of 1974 when my first marriage had dissolved, I was quite distraught, and visited my parents in Honolulu. They lived on Kulamanu Place right around the corner from where William Finnegan lived on his first Hawaiian visit, not that that has any relevance. What does have relevance is that Hawaiian television in those days featured Japanese science fiction cartoons. These were deliberately and deliciously corny, with a wonderful sense of humor. I still remember one in which the villain was named “Blue Electric Eel”. He could take on a human form and when he was in a crowd about to perpetrate some villainy, the scene would move down and show his blue suede shoes, just before all hell broke loose with, if I remember, many sparks and short circuits. With world western culture there are so many strands that I won’t pick out any particular one. The whole culture is da kine. What is clear that this new world culture needs a new word for its penumbra and its specifics, and I’m proposing da kine.

Another, more concrete theme of da kine sensibility is that it originated as an outgrowth of traditional Buddhism. I wonder what sort of novel insight Buddhist thought could confer on Western history, culture, philosophy and religion, to say nothing about contemporary affairs. Going beyond any historical distinctions in Buddhism such as its split into Theravada and Mahayana forms, I think that the idea of “attachment” and a goal of its relaxation or lessening, is curiously underemphasized in our culture. I remember an incident that occurred some years ago when for a time I attended a “Bohm dialogue” group, dedicated to the idea of a selfless descent into creating and following interesting threads of conversion without an agenda, pretty much identical to an eighteenth-century French salon, but perhaps with a higher expectation of generating deep new insights. During a discussion of a topic, now forgotten, one person brought up the idea of “gnosis” which he considered to be knowledge and understanding of a religious doctrine, in a manner so absolute as to be impervious to refutation. What struck me at the time was that this constituted a grasping, so rock solid and with such a diamond hardness that it might well be called adamantine. What struck me even more was that this person implied that he admired this gnosis and that its “knowledge” should be taken seriously , in part, simply because it was held with such mystic conviction. At the time I was quite shocked because I had been immersed in Buddhist thought for some twenty to thirty years and didn’t realize that “grasping” could be taken in a way other than “undesirable”.

A day or so ago to learn more I looked up in Wikipedia the word “gnosis” and read about its considerable history, beginning in ancient Greece as simply a word translated as “knowledge”. Then in later Hellenistic times there were sects which were called gnostic, and in still later times it led in various modern European languages to words for two kinds of knowledge. It would seem that gnosis is a mystic kind of insight into belief, but in no part of this article was there a hint of the idea of “grasping”, a concept seemingly foreign in Western thought if applied to doctrines or ideas.

Of course, the modern scientific revolution, starting somewhere around the early seventeenth century, did implicitly bring in the idea of letting go or “ungrasping”. Scientists are supposed to have convictions, but be willing to change them when evidence rules against them. However, anyone who is at all knowledgeable about scientific history knows that this ideal is far from being followed by scientists in practice. The physicist Planck, who elucidated the first quantum mechanical phenomenon I’ve discussed in earlier posts, was not at all happy with what he discovered and only slowly accepted the idea that he had truly found something revolutionary and new. However, Planck, I think it was, reflecting on the continued opposition of older scientists to his and later discoveries said something to the effect that no amount of experimental evidence would ever cause these physicists to change their opposition; but fortunately, they would eventually die off, leaving the new, field of quantum theory, to be developed by scientists who would pay attention to the experiments which definitively demonstrated the reality of quantum phenomena.

The point is that science does have a way of eventually dealing with adamantine grasping, whether through grudging acceptance or the dying off of stubborn opposing scientists. In recent times, as I’ve discussed before, Karl Popper’s idea of “refutation” has been enormously clarifying for the philosophy of science. “Refutation” directly implies the necessity for ungrasping as a theory is disproved. Popper’s idea has furthermore diffused into areas outside of science as a touchstone of rational thought. However, the idea of refutation becomes muddy as one moves away from science into areas where refutation becomes more and more difficult or impossible. One then needs to grapple with the whole idea of “grasping” especially with what I’ve called adamantine grasping or the grasping implied by “gnosis”, impervious to any change of mind regardless of evidence or argument. For it seems clear that a tendency to grasp beliefs is ingrained in we humans, and likely has some positive survival value in many situations. However, increasingly there does seem to be a need to cope with its negative consequences; a need underappreciated in Western thought.

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