Transition to Spiritual Quest, 1958-1959

I’m back home in Oregon again after almost 2 months on the road. My wife, Susan, and I drove our small (16 foot) camper van to Bellingham, Washington, took the ferry to Haines, Alaska, drove many of the roads in Alaska, to the coast, to Anchorage, to Denali, to Fairbanks, then drove the Alaska highway down through the Yukon, British Columbia, the Rockies, Montana and back to Oregon. It was my first time in Alaska which became state # 50. Now back home it is time to write and post a blog entry.

Let me continue by talking about spiritual quest, next stage, 1958-1959. This is going to involve talking about Zen Buddhism so let me say a few words on that subject.

First I should address my concern that to many the word Zen rightly conjures up some kind of new-age, hippy, Eastern garbage. Indeed, often when one runs into people who talk or write about Zen one hears what I would characterize as “pop Zen”, supposedly stunningly wise statements that if understood will turn ones life into enlightened bliss. Such pop Zen seems “self-indulgent [and] egoistic” to quote Owen Flanagan, professor at Duke University, talking about “New Age style religions” in general. See http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/2016/06/30/philosophers-and-their-religious-practices-part-22-comparative-philosophy-the-unforced-moral-consensus-and-the-charms-of-expressive-theism/. (Link valid as of 8/1/16.) I hope here to strenuously avoid pop Zen.

Another concern is that Zen arose out of Buddhism, an Asian religion, and seems irredeemably associated with Eastern cultures, especially Japanese culture. It is clear to me that Zen, if indeed there is such a thing, is independent of culture. So, although I grew up in Hawaii and am by no means hostile to Chinese or Japanese culture, I will try to emphasize Western ideas in this blog, at least at first. It seems to me that Western analytic philosophy of the 20th century associated with the analysis of language is relevant, as well as 20th and 21st century physics and cosmology; and that the kind of spiritual quest I want to talk about is completely rational.

Still another concern is that nothing can actually be said directly about Zen and that in fact, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as Zen. This fact smacks of deliberate obfuscation so anyone who is going to say anything about the subject has a lot of explaining on their hands and will necessarily be, in an ultimate sense, talking nonsense. The hope is that the nonsense will be interesting or even a fun kind of nonsense so that it will be enjoyable reading and may perhaps lead to some kind of worthwhile understanding.

Note to self: Avoid “strict speaking”, lighten up, avoid the word “Zen” as much as possible.

So, though the “Z” word will, I hope, appear infrequently, if at all, when I talk about various subjects, it will lurk like some kind of insubstantial ghost in the background.

All of this being said, let me now go back in history to 1958, skipping lightly for the moment, over the years 1954-1957 when I was in the army and then in Innsbruck, Austria, for a year on the GI bill, where I met and married my first wife, Barbara.

Spiritual Quest, 1953-1954

What compels one to sail on a spiritual journey? Fundamentally there is no real answer. It is a mystery similar to that arising when considering the question of why some people climb mountains. If someone who has no interest in mountains asks why I climb, I’m really at a loss to explain. It is obvious to me that often I feel more alive and full of joy on a mountain, seem to feel a sacredness in great mountains, seem to “see” further, and feel a sense of spiritual well-being and insight, indefinable in concrete terms. If a person is immune to such feelings, there is really nothing to be said that would give her or him a real, personal understanding of why one would feel compelled to climb a mountain.

As a child I was fortunate in having parents who were not conventionally religious. Neither ever went to church. There was no attempted brain washing. I was curious about religion and on one or two occasions actually went to Sunday school at Central Union Church in Honolulu. Sunday school there was obviously simply a place to harbor children while their parents were in church. Theology was conspicuously absent. No help there. Later, in high school, we had a Christian non-denominational chapel which I found exquisitely boring. I was already an unthinking atheist. So, later in life, when I felt the need for an understanding that was deeper than that provided by a scientific and humanistic education, I could approach the search, more or less unbiased by childhood experiences. I was open to any spirituality based on beliefs that seemed reasonable to a person who had unconsciously committed to a scientific world view.

In an earlier post I’ve already set out one criterion for my journey: it must be superstition-free and beliefs should not be based on their comfort level. Now, in the years after college as I worked as a mathematician in Pasadena for a branch of the Naval Ordinance Test Station, climbed and skied in the Sierra, and met the friend working on his Ph.D. in physics at Cal Tech, I gradually formed another criterion: Any spiritual outlook should be totally comfortable and compatible with a scientific world view. This is not to say that I thought a scientific world view the be all and end all of knowledge and life. I had heard about logical positivism in college and had taken it to claim (probably mistakenly) that the world of experience outside of science lacked meaning or validity. I felt that this view was ridiculous though I didn’t know enough about positivism to argue against it. I knew that I loved poetry, good poetry and kitchy bad poetry, was carried away by classical music, and felt impelled to try understand all of life, scientific and otherwise. Somewhere along the line I had run into the world of myth in Joseph Campbell’s books and found exciting his ideas about how myth gives meaning to life.

See http://www.amazon.com/Thousand-Faces-Collected-Joseph-Campbell/dp/1577315936/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1462321437&sr=1-1&keywords=joseph+campbell

Although I was captivated by the “worlds” outside of science, I decided that any religious claims that attempted to contradict the stories of the scientific world were unworthy of consideration as serious truth, spiritual or otherwise. At the time this left a big question in my mind. Was there already existing somewhere in all of mainstream world religion or in any existing sect, a spiritual path that satisfied the criteria I had developed?