A Zen Path

So is Zen real? My recent feeling is to upgrade the answer from “maybe” to “quite possibly”, after 57 years of often lukewarm practice. I feel my life has been enhanced because my practice has deepened it without necessarily getting me anywhere spiritually. It is better NOT to believe in a practice, keeping a strong skepticism about any possible “enlightenment”. This skepticism enhances and concentrates one’s efforts of understanding life and getting clear about things, one aspect of the practice. Commitment consists of never giving up. As it turns out this practice is a specifically Western approach which I think is appropriate to those leading busy lives in the Western part of the world. It is closest to the Soto School of Japanese Zen which is the school of “gradual enlightenment”. The other main Japanese school, the Rinzai School uses Koans and strenuous efforts in an attempt to induce “sudden” enlightenment. Possibly there could be a Western practice based on the Rinzai School. I think it is partly a matter of personality. If one has a type “A” personality, pursuing goals passionately and rigorously, the Rinzai model MIGHT be appropriate. However, the Rinzai approach probably requires giving up all other aspects of one’s life, such as making a living. One probably would need to join a religious community of like-minded people, which is OK if one is inclined that way. The approach I’m advocating here does not require giving up one’s chosen life, will probably enhance it, and quite possibly lead to a deep spiritual understanding.

In what I’ve said above there is (at least) one possible point of confusion: I may have made it sound like the Japanese Soto approach is not very serious. If you’re left with this impression, it can be dispelled by reading Hard Core Zen by Brad Warner, an American, compelled by religious passion, who went to Japan and learned enough Japanese to work in Japanese sci-fi monster movies (which incidentally are great fun). Warner practiced for years under a Soto Zen master eventually becoming sufficiently aware to be certified a master in his own right. His book is absolutely first rate if one is not put off by his irritatingly colloquial English which is probably part of his shtick. So Soto Zen practice is by no means laid back. However, the Western practice I will be explicating in this blog is INDEED laid back and can easily be charged with a lack of seriousness. The only way to dispel this charge is to ask, does it work? The only proof of the pudding is in the eating. I’m talking here about my own practice, stumbled into inadvertently and almost by accident. The only credit I can claim is a stubborn (lazy) refusal to heed all the warnings about why it couldn’t possibly work. Is it working for me? There are slight hints that it might be. I FEEL that it is. In the face of a personality of great diffidence I recently now feel an outrageous certainty about some things and am willing to be dogmatic. Also, I actually feel an obligation that I must share some insights, a feeling in line with the Mahayana Buddhist idea of the Bodhisattva. Since I’m definitely not on the brink of “ultimate Samadhi”, I can only be an apprentice Bodhisattva, pointing out stumbling blocks and insights I’ve encountered in this kind of practice and using this blog as a Zen art in an attempt to improve my writing skills.

A Warning

I am very unhappy about the last post: “A Zen Practice.” I feel that it over-promises and is dishonest. It being in a WordPress blog I could delete it, but I will not do that. Let it be a warning about how easy it is to be deluded when on a spiritual journey. Such a journey is difficult, must be pursued with concentration and with absolute honesty. I am nowhere near where I need to be, to give advice to anyone about their own journey. If you become a reader of this blog, then I need your insights at least as much as you might need mine. Please comment when you think I’ve overdone it or if you have an insight to share.

All this being said I still think that there needs to be a Western path towards a deep understanding. Calling it Zen is probably over-promising. I will certainly continue these posts because I do have some things to say and it has been helpful to me to try write with intensity and honesty. If you become a reader, I hope that you gain some insights and perhaps commit to a lifetime journey of your own.

I’m away on a trip for a couple of weeks so there will probably be an absence of posts for a while and I may be slow in reading your comments.

Meditation or How I learned to Windsurf

There are millions of writings, of one kind or another, about meditation, of one kind or another. So my challenge here is to say something fresh enough that it will encourage those among you who haven’t tried meditation to do so.

The title of this piece is deliberately misleading. If you think I’m going to show how deep meditation put me in a “zone” so that I quickly mastered windsurfing, you are sorely mistaken. I will find an important connection between sail boarding and meditating, but one of a subtler nature.

My first experience with a sail board was on Dorena Lake near Cottage Grove, Oregon, at Baker Bay County Park.  I was able rent a genuine Windsurfer there in spite of never having sailed such before. This was back in the 1980’s when the very idea of sailing on a board was new and the board sailing craze had barely started. Back then people were not as fussy as now about renting such equipment to total novices. I figured that although I had never sailed a board before, I shouldn’t really have much difficulty. I had surfed respectable southshore summer storm surf at Waikiki and had sailed enough in small boats that I felt confident that I could manage a Windsurfer with only minor difficulties. I had only recently read about this brand new way of sailing and was immediately filled with excitement about the simplicity and freedom of roaming on a board, standing and without paddling. True, there was no rudder for steering on a sail board, but I had read about and understood how one steers without a rudder. If one holds the sail so that most of the sail area is in front of the mast as it pivots on the board, the wind will turn the board down wind. Simply move the sail area back, behind the mast to turn into the wind. To keep moving straight ahead find a judicious balance so that there are equal areas before and behind the mast while making minor adjustments to correct one’s course. What could be simpler? Well, the quote falsely attributed to Yogi Berra is extremely pertinent here. “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

Out on the lake it was breezy, but not too breezy. Conditions were perfect for learning to windsurf, but there were far too many things to keep track of at once. The board was tippy, but not as tippy as my surf board was at Waikiki. The Waikiki board was a sizable board referred to as a “tanker” by the local kids and I could actually stand on it when it wasn’t on a wave. One afternoon when the waves were small and barely surfable, I enjoyed standing on it while the trade winds on my back blew me out to sea where I could catch one of the small waves and ride back in. However, on my Waikiki board there was no mast with flapping sail and I only needed to balance without also trying to think about moving a sail in a wind that would gust, ebb and even change direction. On Dorena I tried to sail up wind by moving the sail back, and, sure enough the board would turn into the wind. And keep turning until I was “in irons”, directly into the wind. At which point I would fall into the water, clamber back on the board, stand up, and carefully lift the clumsy sail out of the water by the up-haul. Then as I pulled the sail into position, the wind would do something funny and I would be back in the water again. After two hours and much effort I was about two hundred yards downwind from where I started, gave up, and swam the board with its sail dragging in the water back to where I started.

As the summer wore on I kept trying to sail and gradually learned how. It was a matter of constant thought, however. Haul the sail up out of the water, while leaning against its weight with up-haul in both hands. Swing the mast and hanging sail forward or back to get the board’s length across the wind. Then keeping balance, reach across and grab the boom using the hand on the side of the body towards the bow. (At first this seems somewhat counterintuitive.) Pull the mast and sail towards the front of the board, then grab the boom with the other hand and trim the sail position as the board starts moving. Try not to lose balance. Then shakily enjoy sailing with one’s butt hanging out to windward until a gust makes one let go of the boom or a sudden drop in the wind ends the support of the sail and one falls backwards into the water.

Winter came and went and with the new summer it was time to try windsurfing again. As I went out on the board I was somewhat anxious. Could I remember all the stuff detailed in the last paragraph? I tried to think as I pulled up the sail. Then miracle. My hand reached across grabbing the boom, forward pull, other hand on boom and I sailed away. Over the winter my muscles and nervous system had remembered and my brain didn’t need to think or remember. This experience was startling because so unexpected. Ordinarily when one learns a skill the body learning is gradual and not nearly as intense and concentrated as when learning to windsurf. Nor is there usually a long interruption, so that the body learning is not dramatically noticeable. Nevertheless in learning any skill, bodily learning though it may not be noticeable, is very real and, I think, very important particularly when it comes to meditation.

Meditation with its emphasis on breathing, lungs and brain involves biological systems that have been under evolutionary pressures for some 300 million years or so, give or take a few million. Not surprisingly we are seldom consciously aware of what goes on as we breathe unless something is seriously wrong with us or we’re climbing at high altitude. With meditation, however, we are not only consciously controlling our breathing but simultaneously hoping that the breathing will help us to empty our mind of thought while keeping it clear and aware. Though the complexity of this task seems less than that of windsurfing, when one gives it some thought, one realizes that there is not simply muscle control involved, but also control of one’s consciousness as well. Ordinarily we are thinking about SOMETHING, or we day dream. In any case our minds are full of thought. Outside of meditation the closest one comes to an empty, aware mind is in an athletic situation – waiting for a serve in tennis or volleyball, or for the “hike” in football or a pitch in baseball. When we are not in athletic anticipation, this empty minded state is highly unnatural and only partially under conscious control. Proper breathing helps.

I first became aware of the idea of deliberate controlled breathing when I discovered in a box of abandoned books The Hindu Yoga Science of Breath. This was during the war, probably in 1944 when Kaiahulu, a vacation house for Castle and Cook employees, was released by the military from its use as an R and R facility. What such a book was doing there I could hardly imagine. I was fifteen. In the book I read of various yoga positions and kinds of breathing, of which the “complete breath” seems to have worked best when many years later I tried to meditate. At the time I had to try the various kinds of breathing and some of the yoga positions, including the improbable full lotus position in which one sits cross legged on the ground with one’s ankles atop opposite thighs. Probably this trial occurred a couple of years after I found the book at a time when I had taken up competitive swimming and was “loose as a goose” so to speak. In a couple of days I did it. Then in a few more days it was easy. And then I forgot it.

After reading about Zen I tried to practice meditation. Although sitting in the full lotus position while breathing in a regular in and out is the supposedly the gold standard, I could no longer come even close to the full lotus so sat simply with my legs crossed and breathed the “complete breath”. To do the complete breath one first notes that by lowering one’s diaphragm one can breathe into the bottom part of one’s lungs behind one’s stomach. Then note that by expanding one’s chest one can fill one’s lungs behind one’s chest. With the complete breath one starts by breathing into the lower lungs behind one’s stomach and then into the upper lungs. This is done in one smooth motion until one’s lungs are full. One stops for an instant and then exhales smoothly and regularly until the lungs are empty. One can imagine while inhaling that a mysterious energy fluid, the Hindu’s call prana, is coming in from the lungs, then up into one’s head all the way to its back leaving a delicious feeling in one’s head as one exhales. As a skeptical physicist I actually believe in prana about as much as I believe in phlogiston or the luminiferous ether, substances which turned out to be fictitious. So I don’t think one should believe in prana either, just experience a feeling as if there were such a thing. Although many people claim that breathing through one’s mouth is the correct way while meditating, I think that breathing through the nose is OK if one’s nose is clear. In my experience one is more likely to get the prana effect doing so. While in a skeptical mood, I’ll also claim that the only reason the full lotus is considered the proper position for meditation is because it enables one to have a straight back and fully fill the lungs. If one sits or stands with good posture, “firm like a mountain”, as one authority puts it, that works just fine in my experience. If fact I just sat straight upright in a chair the last time I did meditation over an extended period. I note however, that when my aunt who was interested in Zen went to Japan, she found that no one would compromise in the slightest their insistence on the full lotus position which for her was impossible because of her age and the stiffness of her joints.

Of course the real catch about meditation is not matters of position and breathing, but settling one’s mind into a blank, empty, alertness, wide awake, eyes open, no thoughts. As a beginner or even a fairly long time practitioner one finds that the clear mind is quickly invaded by thoughts. The proper reaction to this is not to get upset. Clear one’s mind if possible, and keep on going. In the beginning it helps to count one’s breaths – one, two, three, up to ten. Then start over. One can count breaths in and out, just in, or just out. I can’t see that it much matters though at first the in and out seems to work best. Getting back to the example of my first windsurfing experience, the lesson is not to keep going too long when things aren’t working. Then I kept going for two hours because I was sort of having fun. It is clear that another two hours would have been totally exhausting and worthless. With meditation, ten minutes at first is definitely enough. In fact if time is short, ten minutes is always enough to get the practice that leads in the long run to the automatic muscle, nerve, and mind learning.

For those of us living in modern times, with job, family, and countless activities, there is a real question about finding the time to meditate. My own experience is that I would go for years at a time without practicing meditation and then come back to it for several months. More recently the automatic learning entailed by this on and off practice over the years has kicked in and I’ve been able to settle in pretty well to clearing my mind while simply walking around during odd moments when there are no immediate demands on my attention. This practice brings to mind a Russian Orthodox practice called “the prayer of the heart”. Monks who engaged in this practice would constantly pray all day long as they went about their business at the monastery or their begging in the outside community. I’m not at all recommending anything as draconian as the prayer of the heart. However, simply hearing about this practice suggests that an emphasis of setting aside a time apart from the world of daily life in which one practices meditation is unduly limiting. One does the daily meditation so that the complete breath becomes ingrained. Then when one has a spare moment or if one feels unduly stressed start the breathing and clear the mind. Meditation then is not a thing apart but a continuing practice to be engaged in at any time one finds or needs a moment for relaxation in the middle of life.

A final question: why bother with meditation? What good is it? Is the trouble one goes to worth the result? Those who practice meditation note that it does tend to relieve stress and make one’s life go easier. That is certainly my experience. Besides being a stress reliever, meditation does seem to intensify the experience when one has a realization or a moment of insight. In addition, if one thinks that possibly, there is such a thing as a deep spiritual understanding, meditation is a practice that likely helps bring that understanding about.

Into the Morass, Part I

It’s time to begin talking about language, philosophy and Zen. Hence the morass. This is a huge topic which, if approached straightforwardly, has the promise of being transcendental quicksand. I will try to be clear, a hopeless task. But lack of clarity is only to be expected when journeying into a verbal swamp. The real challenge is to avoid a numbing boredom. So I’ll start with a story.

In an Easterly part of Oregon’s Diamond Peak Wilderness lies Fawn Lake, pretty in the summer, but with a much nicer ambiance in the winter. Naturally Fawn Lake is a popular cross country ski destination. Some time ago I was there with friends resting at the shore of the lake on a pristine winter day. The lake was hard frozen, covered with sparkling white snow while in the background behind the sides and back of the lake, with their dark, partially snow-covered firs and hemlocks, rose snow covered mountains, Redtop and Lakeview. These were not huge, impressive mountains, but just large enough to be an esthetic setting for the lake. As we sat there, we heard voices. A party of five or six young folk was approaching the lake via the main trail which comes to the lake fifty or sixty yards from where we were sitting. This trail for the last hundred yards or so runs straight at the lake, surrounded by trees and brush with no view whatever. Then it descends a final slope to the lake shore. We could hear the voices, but could not make out what they were saying, though there was much merriment and banter. One voice was that of a young woman. With my male imagination I visualized her as attractive, witty, but possibly a little empty headed and definitely absorbed with the social situation. As the party descended to the lake there was silence as they concentrated on the final downhill run. Then the female voice came distinctly, “But it’s beautiful.” As she said “beautiful”, her voice faltered and broke. She was clearly in tears.

I’m interested here in the experience she had just before she spoke those words. And interested also in my reaction at the time. I did not break out into tears, but felt a great joy at realizing that a fellow human being had had a wonderful epiphany, had truly seen the scene, and had been overwhelmed by the experience. Where language comes in is that the actual realization experience of both of us here, in the moment this experience happened, was beyond words. Language, the greatest of all human inventions, can talk about this experience but cannot, in thought, re-create the actuality.

I will give further examples of epiphanies and their relation to language. But first I’ll talk a little about the word “epiphany” itself and the related, “mystic” and “enlightenment”. When I use the word “epiphany” I refer to a basic experience of wordless meaning or understanding. The experience may lead later to an expression in words; for example, “But it’s beautiful.” On the other hand, it may be a silent realization of meaning or understanding. The experience may be of different intensities, weak or overwhelming and may or may not be accompanied by emotion. I use the word in a rather abstract way as implying nothing about the world, there is no connotation about “being on a road to Damascus”. For that I would use the phrase “mystic experience”. For me, and I think also in common usage, “mystic” carries often with its intensity an illogical confirmation of a metaphysical, religious, magical, or supernatural reality. Whenever I use “M” word my meaning will include an exposition of the accompanying myth; however, I will not consider the experience as confirming a belief. (More later on this topic.) The word “enlightenment”, the big Buddhist word, is unfortunate in the sense that it may well be meaningless. It can be considered perhaps as some kind of ultimate epiphany. Following the Soto Zen point of view of “gradual” enlightenment, I’ll stick to “epiphany” and let enlightenment take care of itself.

Now to examples of epiphany. Examples obvious to me are the appreciation of music and fine arts. I enjoy lots of music and this everyday enjoyment, I suppose, may be called epiphany lite. A “real” epiphany for me occurs only occasionally mostly listening to classical music in what I would naturally call a great performance. In fact, often I hear a performance that is note and rhythm perfect, as far as I can tell, but I have no deep response. Is it the fault of the performance or of me? Whatever the case, when an intense epiphany does happen with music it is a case where I doubt anyone would claim that the epiphany is not real because it cannot be put into words. Similarly with the fine arts. In the Prado museum, in Madrid I can look at what is perhaps its most famous painting, Las Meninas, with admiration, but without any emotional spark. However, when I walk into the Museum of Modern Art in New York I’m immediately “blown away” and walk from one painting or sculpture to another in a daze of continuous epiphany. Again the actual experience cannot be called up by words or recollection.

With music and fine arts things are simple. With language things are more complicated. One may get into ideas about the “two cultures”, the humanities and sciences, and things get interesting. (With language we’re getting near the quicksand which I’ll try to avoid.) For my first language example, let me introduce the great 20th century physicist, Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac, often referred to as PAM Dirac. Stories about Dirac abound and I will tell one. If you are a non-mathematical reader, you should know that even people with a great aptitude for math and theoretical physics often find themselves at sea. Such happened to a physicist attending a conference during a lecture by Dirac, who, incidentally was a master of clear exposition when it came to technical matters. In this case the confused physicist at the end of the lecture during the question period, raised his hand, stood up, and said something to the effect of “Professor Dirac, I didn’t quite understand the part of your lecture where you talked about ‘blah, blah and blah.’” He then sat down and awaited an answer. There was a very long silence. Finally the moderator said, “Professor Dirac, aren’t you going to answer the gentleman’s question?” Dirac, always very polite and speaking simply to the point, replied, “That was not a question, but a simple statement of fact.” This story is amusing because it shows a genius blind to the conventions of common language. It hints, however, at Dirac’s gift, an ability to see a deep, meaningful structure in the midst of insanely complicated mathematics. With quantum theory, on the one hand, there is linear algebra with its matrices and vectors having an infinite number of components, and on the other, partial differential equations operating on functions, whose arguments are real, but whose expression contain “imaginary” numbers. These two ways of doing quantum mechanics are called “representations” which express different “points of view”. They resemble one another seemingly about as closely as marmalade resembles taco sauce. Dirac, after switching to math and physics from electrical engineering in the early 1920’s, finally made it to Cambridge University. As a student there in 1925 his adviser passed on to him Heisenberg’s first great quantum mechanics paper. (See Paul Dirac in Wikipedia). This paper expounds the matrix-vector representation. Dirac soon saw how to strip away the complex particulars and go to a deeper, simpler, more abstract level, which allowed transformations among the different points of view. The deeper abstract theory in a way is easier to see and understand than all of the more complicated points of view that lead to it. After encountering it, at some point, I came to see it as profoundly aesthetic, simply as a great work of art. Never mind the mathematics. This was my epiphany.

Let me turn now to poetry and its epiphanies. I start by making a muddy, but useful distinction I came up with around my senior year at Stanford. The distinction is between aspects of language. The syntax of language and the semantics. Structure and meaning. Syntax concerns the rules of grammar how sentences are put together. Semantics concerns the meaning carried by language. This distinction is muddy because it does not really hold up. Consider the last epiphany example, the abstract expression of quantum mechanics. The beauty and hence the meaning (semantics) lies in what could be called pure syntax, the structure. However, much of the power of the epiphany came to me from the partly unconscious realization of the underlying “concrete” (sic) mathematics underlying the theory as well as the idea of moving among different points of view, all equally true: marmalade is no better or worse than taco sauce, each is valid with its own joys.

With poetry we have a similar sort of thing going on. When poetry works well a new kind of syntax merges with the words and meaning emerges. Consider a few of the lines from Wallace Stevens’s masterpiece, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. Incidentally, before he wrote this poem Stevens thought deeply about the idea of a supreme fiction, an idea we will take up when we again consider myth at some point. Start with the end line of the stanzas I consider.

Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation.

A straight prose line that seems to make little sense. However, after reading some of the lines that precede this one, this and the preceding lines become totally mind blasting. The stanzas begin

The poem refreshes life so that we share,
For a moment, the first idea… It satisfies
Belief in an immaculate beginning

And sends us, winged by an unconscious will,
To an immaculate end. …

Stevens goes on… then

We say: at night an Arabian in my room,
With his damned hoobla-hoobla-hoobla-how,
Inscribes a primitive astronomy

Across the unscrawled fores the future casts
And throws his stars around the floor. By day
The wood-dove used to chant his hoobla-hoo

And still the grossest iridescence of ocean
Howls hoo and rises and howls hoo and falls.
Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation.

Just reading and copying these lines the epiphany happens to me. However, we cannot program epiphany. You, dear reader may find these lines are simple nonsense without any relation, strange or otherwise. Although as a practice I favor Soto Zen, Rinzai Zen with its Mondos, has an aim similar to that of modern poetry, the aim of inducing a deep epiphany. Getting back to Dirac, once more, he did consider poetry and with his peculiar mind came up with this quote

“The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible.”

Was Dirac unaware he was writing great poetry? Actually I think not. He simply discounted his “mystic” (sic) insights, wrote them down in mathematics and was unaware that they had anything to do with his genius. Such is the false dichotomy between the humanities and the sciences that our culture preaches. More about that in another post.

I’ll bring this post to an end by noting that epiphanies are where you find them; not only in nature, life, athletics, the arts, science, history, engineering, but everywhere, everywhere. The aim of religious practice is to sensitize oneself to their presence, experiencing them in the proper way, seriously, with total openness conscious of their wordless meaning.

Interlude I

Interlude I

This will be a short post because I do want something to happen on the blog while I work on a more difficult, longer post. Sometimes working on the next post gets interrupted by doings such as skiing around here with the first snow. Then there are difficulties with making the writing clear, then guests, Thanksgiving away and so forth. Since I’m not a professional writer and have no obligation to write, I sometimes simply put pen to paper or pixels to screen as Susan says and save the results for later thought or for the bit bucket.

Let’s start with a comment on my last post “Into the Morass, Part I” about different kinds of epiphanies. This is from a friend, MER, who follows this blog.

“I have been thinking a lot about what you wrote, mainly, ”epiphany”. I’ve been trying to figure out, have I ever had an epiphany? I wasn’t sure if I had….but then when you wrote about music, I remembered. I had gone to a John Hyatt concert in Rutland, Vt. And he had two guitarists, a base, and a drummer with him. One of the guitarists, he did a solo. It was so good, it was if the music you could see floating out from his guitar and into the air. I was stunned. Never before had I actually seen the music.

Then thinking of art, I went to the Boston Museum of Art to see the exhibit of Monet. It was the first time for me to go to an actual museum of art and I was in my early 40’s. There I stood, looking at the different paintings of Haystacks. It took my breath away. Same haystacks, but different time of day, different season, every one, everything different. So much color, so much paint, layer upon layer, turning each into works of pure enjoyment.

Poetry…..Bill writes poetry….and his words are written down on anything he can find to write on. Cardboard to yellow legal pad. I guess I have an epiphany when I read his poems too. They express so much of his soul, again, his heartfelt words take my breath away and i am in awe. Those so far as I can think through, are my epiphanies.

I am so grateful that, little by little, I can have these experiences. I don’t look for them, I have no bucket lists, (don’t care to think of lists to do before I die) I live for the moment and when something wonderful happens….an epiphany! Awesome!!!”

In talking about epiphanies there are many directions one may go. I’m struck by MER’s comment that she wasn’t sure that she’d ever had an epiphany until she began to think about it. Then she realized that indeed she had had that kind of experience which is not simply enjoyment, but a feeling about being “more alive” and that life has meaning. Although one can’t program epiphanies, just becoming aware that one has had them and can have more of them in the future is, I think, the beginning of a light-hearted but serious religious practice. One looks for joy and meaning and finds oneself becoming aware of the depths of existence and the sacredness of everything, particularly one’s fellow beings. And one becomes grateful.

This feeling of gratitude is a key point. I remember a trip to the mountains, which at one point ended up with two of us climbing up Middle Sister from a camp at Upper Chambers Lake lying to the south of the peak. It was a day of blowing clouds with glimpses of sky and on the summit one could see down through deep rifts in the clouds to depths below and across to South Sister. This was some time ago before the summit register on top of Middle Sister was removed. I started idly reading through some of the entries, many of which were simply on scraps of paper loose in the aluminum register. Then I came across one that affected me deeply. It was written by a women who had climbed Middle Sister for the first time and expressed how grateful she was to have been given the experience of being on the summit. I immediately felt the same way; that I had been given an incredible gift, the kind of gift that makes life deeply meaningful. This time it was MY eyes that filled with tears.

On the way down the two of us glissaded using our ice axes. I worked my way more and more to the east where the slope steepened towards 45 degrees (which seems when looking down almost vertical). I was in some kind of easy relaxed zone. The glissade was a joy, but I warned my less experienced comrade to stay on the less steep ridge which was safer for him.  Being in the “zone” is another kind of epiphany which I will go into later, but for now I want to consider how epiphany or, indeed, “mystical experience” relates to philosophy and language.

Ah, philosophy! The morass deepens and I’m floundering. But I will thrash around and hope to extricate myself and hope to have more to say besides incomprehensible garbage.

The Morass, part II

Ah, the morass: philosophy! First a not so quick but dirty definition of what I consider it to be. Philosophy is a practice of using rationality, logic and intuition in an attempt to understand what life and the world is all about. In trying to achieve this understanding as in any creative endeavor, intuition is vital. I think that intuition is undervalued and too narrowly understood by many. In an earlier post I’ve talked about the semantic aspect of language as meaning and understanding; and in my opinion intuition is involved whenever one has an “aha” meaning experience. Even in something as seemingly abstract as grasping a logical argument or in dealing with a mathematical expression intuition is what gives one understanding. Intuition intensified is one kind of epiphany, somewhat different than the examples mentioned above, but closely related.

Philosophy attempts to find answers to the mysteries of existence and the basis of knowledge, answers that are rational and logical, but also emotionally satisfying. The epiphanies involved in philosophy concern ideas which are stated in words and therefore by my definition are mystical. The problem with philosophy is that it operates on a deep level where, unlike science, there is no way of testing and repudiating one’s understanding or the understanding of the great philosophers of earlier times. In my opinion this is why philosophy fails to progress in the way science does. Philosophy does seem to enrich itself over time, but the deepest questions in philosophy are perennial and always controversial.  A particular example is the question of whether philosophy itself will ever be capable of gaining absolute profound answers to the deepest questions it asks or if the restrictions on philosophical methodology will forever condemn its answers to be relative and controversial. My own opinion is that the latter idea is the case, but that nonetheless philosophy is a valuable and worthwhile discipline. Of course this opinion is itself relative and no doubt controversial. It seems to me, however, that the quest of philosophy is a worthwhile journey whose destination will never be reached, but whose pursuit can be helpful in reaching that profound WORDLESS, satisfying emotional understanding that could be called Western Zen.

Now, a statement about philosophy having been given, it is time for commentary of various kinds. This commentary may extend to several posts. To begin I’ll talk about my background in philosophy and mention several books which are interesting, fairly easy reads, which give a deeper understanding of what I will be talking about, and which have been helpful to me in clarifying my thoughts.

At Stanford University as an undergraduate, after casting around, I ended up by the end of my sophomore year as a math major (1949). I was already more interested in physics than in math, but realized that I needed to approach physics from the theoretical side and studying the formulas and phenomena of physics without a mathematical background would never do for me. Math for me is much easier than physics and since I was academically bone lazy as an undergraduate, math looked as if it would require less work on my part. Math also was very interesting in its own right and I wanted to go much more deeply into the subject than would happen to me as a physics major.

In the course of things as a math major I ended up taking the elementary symbolic logic course in the philosophy department along with philosophy majors and a few other math people. While many of the philosophy majors found the course challenging, for me it was the only easy A I ever got at the university and was a sheer, fun delight. Later I took an advanced logic course and then, becoming curious about philosophy took a regular philosophy course. I do not remember what the particular philosophical subjects were in the course, though it was probably heavy on epistemology and the professor was likely a disciple of Wittgenstein, not necessarily a disciple of his actual teachings, but of his teaching methodology. This methodology consists of actually doing philosophy in the class rather than talking about it and explaining. Those of us who were interested and serious about the course sat in the front row of the class, listened closely and tried to take notes because the professor talked quietly and lowered his voice when stating something important (a behavior similar to that of my favorite physics professor, John Plaskett, later at the University of Virginia). I did well in the course, but now at this distance of time remember nothing of the course’s contents. I did realize, however, that I was really more interested in philosophy that any in other subject, but doubted my ability to actually understand this muddy approach to knowledge. I also realized that a change to philosophy would require a total commitment that I was unwilling to make. Much better for me to stick to math where I had some ability and could get by without too much dedication. Some twelve years later as I received my Ph.D. in physics I similarly resisted a total commitment to physics via a post doc partly because I was more interested in philosophy of science, but felt that I needed to actually practice a science before trying to philosophize about it. Also, I was interested in learning about other areas such as history, literature, psychology, and later economics. I felt that I wanted to understand everything and that a commitment to physics would preclude such.

As a senior at Stanford I took a course in philosophy of science taught by Professor Patrick Suppes (See Wikipedia), who was recommended by fellow students. The course was excellent and clear, and awakened in me an interest in philosophy of science. It also taught me in retrospect that I could have seriously mistaken convictions. In the course Suppes strongly repudiated the concept of “vitalism” in biology: the idea that there is some special attribute of “being alive”, apart from physics and chemistry, needed in order to understand life at a fundamental level. In my ignorance of the research going on at the time in molecular biology (this was before the explication of DNA) I thought vitalism completely reasonable. Conceivably, the final word on vitalism isn’t in, but it is clear that this idea is totally unnecessary for research in the fundamentals of biology and that I had been suckered in by a plausible but mistaken philosophical idea.

After another year at Stanford getting an MS in math I ended up in Pasadena, California working for the Naval Ordinance Test Station, Pasadena Annex. As I joined NOTS in December, 1952, I was subject to the draft, no longer having an exemption as a college student. I had actually been eligible since September, but the draft board in Honolulu was slow to wake up and I didn’t get my notice to report for duty until December. NOTS appealed this notice to the 6th army draft board in Los Angeles and I was granted a reclassification to 3C, an exempt status, for 6 months because of the importance of my job for “national security”. Six months later the local board reclassified me 1A and again the appeal board changed this to 3C. It was clear that this reclassification process was going to continue indefinitely or at least until I was 35 years old, at which age one was no longer subject to the draft. (I turned 24 at about this time.) Although neither the job at NOTS nor life in the LA area was all that unpleasant, I developed the strong feeling that I didn’t want to be stuck in either the job or the area so when the next 1A reclassification occurred, I declined to have any more draft appeals. In July, 1954, I entered the army as a private and reported to Fort Ord, California near Monterey for basic training.

After basic I ended up at Fort Huachuca, Arizona near the Mexican border assigned to a Company as SPP (Scientific and Professional Personnel) whose mission was to apply “modern” (vacuum tube) electronics to Battlefield Surveillance. I will likely later go into more detail about my experiences at Fort Huachuca. For the moment what is of interest was that at the post library I stumbled upon a book about philosophy of science that I found extremely interesting. This book was The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper who I had never heard of at the time. Before talking about this book, the seemingly simple “fact” that I read this book in the post library at Fort Huachuca at this time brings up a curious situation, in that the book, written in German in 1934, was not published in English until 1959 and I seemed to have read it in 1955 or 1956. Since I am a hard-core scientific realist, I’m not interested in any “mystic” explanations of this curious fact. Popper himself did the translation of the book during the 1950’s and it is possible that an early preprint made its way to the post library. Another, equally unlikely possibility, is that I read the book later and developed a false memory. My memory that I read it is fairly clear including an image of the place in the library stacks where I stumbled across the book. I didn’t check out the book so read it by going to that place in the shelves from time to time, pulling it out to read. Unfortunately, my mental image does not include the book itself so I have no memory of whether or not it was a solid hard cover edition. Whatever the case it doesn’t really matter when I actually read the book. It was certainly some time fairly early on in my life. What does matter is the “aha” impression it made on me.

An old philosophical problem is how we really confirm a scientific theory. Way back when, David Hume pointed out that logical necessity is ABSENT from our belief that a repeatable, familiar happening will continue to occur. The rising of the sun is the classic example. Actually, in my opinion, a pretty reasonable (as opposed to logical) case can be made in the case of the sun. With the confirmation of a scientific theory a logical case definitely cannot be made and, in fact, it matters. For example, classical Newtonian mechanics was accepted as true, perhaps even in an almost absolute sense, for hundreds of years (1659 – 1905) only to be shown as basically incorrect, only applicable in a limited domain. Hundreds if not thousands or an infinite number of confirmations of the theory were not enough to establish it beyond all doubt. What Popper pointed out was that endless confirmations could not establish a theory, but that a single solid experiment could refute it. I saw instantly that Popper was using a simple logical fact, well known to me from the logic course at Stanford. If A implies B, it isn’t true that B necessarily implies A. The classic example, hemmed in by suitable constraints is, if “it’s raining” then “the pavement is wet.” (I’ve put the simple statements A and B in quotes). Going backwards, “the pavement is wet” therefore “it’s raining” doesn’t work. The lawn sprinklers are wetting the pavement on a clear day. However the syllogism DOES work backward if we use the negation of the statements: not B implies not A, or if “the pavement is dry” then “it is not raining”. Popper elevated this simple logic into an entire book which turned out to be tremendously influential, leading to the idea that scientific theories had to be, in principle, refutable by experiment. The buzz word for Popper is “refutation” instead of confirmation

It seemed to me that Popper was really on to something. Later after my Ph.D. while teaching physics at Auburn University around 1966, I stumbled onto Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962. At that time I was delving into the history of quantum mechanics so although I found the book fascinating, I thought Kuhn was belaboring the obvious. Nevertheless, it became clear to me at that time that the history of physics showed that any current theory in physics was subject to destruction on the basis of one solid unexpected experimental finding. Kuhn had fleshed out Popper’s idea by defining “normal science” as proceeding with theoretical and experimental advances from within a “paradigm”, a generally accepted view of what the science’s “reality” was, the open questions within the science and acceptable ways of proceeding experimentally. Historically, a normal science in practice, would stop working as progress didn’t go as it should or as new seemingly unacceptable ideas reared their ugly heads. Something was radically wrong. Then a new paradigm would come into being usually, if not invariably, through the efforts of younger scientists. The science would then live in a “different world” in Kuhn’s words, within a new reality which was incommensurable with the old. Kuhn’s book gave many examples from scientific history to establish his views. The book became a craze not simply among thoughtful scientists and philosophers, but among thinkers in many fields commonly regarded as being outside of science. One could say, in fact, that Kuhn’s view established a new, revolutionary paradigm in the history and philosophy of science.

A few years after reading Kuhn, at a meeting of the Society for Religion in Higher Education in which Barbara was a member, I met Professor John Meagher of the University of Toronto who gave a paper entitled “Towards a Moral Theory of Idioms” which I found tremendously exciting. Meagher applied ideas to language similar to those of Kuhn’s concerning science, about how extended idioms in language form systems which lead to different kinds of reality. Both Kuhn’s and Meagher’s ideas grew out of the later philosophy of Wittgenstein who I had barely heard of at the time. Meagher kindly sent me a preprint of his article which I plan to talk about later.

In 1974 my life at Auburn went to pieces. I had not been successful at physics, partly because I did not publish the one important idea I had had and my marriage to Barbara fell apart. I left Auburn, driving across the country in a Volkswagen beetle to Cottage Grove, Oregon, site of the Cerro Gordo project, dedicated to founding a new kind of village which was to integrate many of the countercultural ideas of the time. During the attempt to get the new village underway, I lived in a community shared house in Cottage Grove. One of my friends at the “Washington Street house” was Fred Ure who had come to Cerro Gordo from the Los Angeles area. Fred had brought his extensive collection of books which became the Cerro Gordo library. Sometime during the next few years while browsing in the library I stumbled across a book, Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy by Justus Hartnack, translated by Maurice Cranston from the original Danish. The book explicated Wittgenstein’s philosophy in some detail and I was fascinated. Clearly, Wittgenstein’s ideas lay behind those of both Kuhn and Meagher.

At this point I want to think some more before talking about Wittgenstein. Was he the greatest philosopher that ever lived or a total fraud? Or somewhere in between? So it’s time to post this. (to be continued)



The Morass, Part III

So now it’s time to start dealing with Wittgenstein. Anything I say here will be controversial so I might as well say what I really think as clearly as possible without hedging. Some of that will possibly be extremely controversial. I’ll try to delineate clearly between relatively factual matters and my own opinions. With this post I will make an exception to my standard practice and try to be somewhat scholarly, first noting books and links which can form a mini-bibliography and then referring to these right in the text rather that doing footnotes.

Here’s a brief bibliography:

Hartnack, Justus, Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy, translated by Maurice Cranston, Doubleday Anchor 1965. This is still obtainable on Amazon at a reasonable price. However, although pretty clearly written as philosophy goes, it is helpful to be in the “zone” while reading it. (See quote below from an Amazon review.)

Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Penguin, 1990. The definitive biography so far. Read if you are getting serious and have the time. Monk tries to close the gap between Wittgenstein’s image as a celebrity and his philosophy.

Edmonds, David and Eidinow, John, Wittgenstein’s Poker, Harper Collings, 2001. If you read only one book, I recommend this. It is well written, fascinating and very informative about history and character. It recounts the only meeting between Wittgenstein and Popper, a ten minute argument during which Wittgenstein either threatened or didn’t threaten Popper with a fireplace poker, but did walk out of the meeting in a towering rage or maybe only bored with the proceedings.

Magee, Bryan, Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey through Western Philosophy, Random House, 1997. Magee taught philosophy at Oxford and elsewhere. He was an MP and prominent TV broadcaster. Magee disagrees with modern philosophy’s emphasis on language, (I disagree with him on this). I do agree with what Magee has to say about Wittgenstein’s Tractatus though maybe things aren’t quite as clear-cut as he contends.

I happen to own these four books.

Wikipedia, Wittgenstein. Highly recommended.

Was W right? http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/was-wittgenstein-right/ . A philosophy professor contends that Wittgenstein has made traditional philosophy a pointless pursuit in this day and age. This is from the NY Times commentary section about philosophy called “the Stone.”

meadowreader. A review of Hartnack in Amazon.

“I read the first edition of the book (Anchor paperback, 1965), and I concur with the other reviewer that it is a first-rate brief introduction to Wittgenstein’s work.

“The short biographical introduction has a big problem, however. About LW’s service in WWI, Hartnack writes, ‘At the outbreak of the first World War he enlisted in the Austrian army, was trained to be an officer, but was taken prisoner by the Italians at the time of the Austrian debacle.’ That makes it sound like LW took the officer route, was quickly captured, then sat out the war. Well, as they say, that could hardly be further from the truth.

“According to Martin Gilbert’s, ‘The First World War,” LW won the Silver Medal for Valour Second Class as a lance corporal, ‘a rare honor for someone of such a low rank.’ This was in June of 1916, on the Eastern Front. In July 1917, he won the Silver Medal for Valour as an artillery observer, directing the guns under ‘heavy fire,’ again against the Russians. In June 1918 he was recommended for Austria’s highest award, the Gold Medal for Valour, for ‘exceptionally courageous behavior,’ this time in a fierce artillery and machinegun duel with the British, in which his ‘heroism won the total admiration of the troops.’ Wittgenstein was not captured until November of 1918, at the virtual end of the war.

“And, incredibly, it was during these years of combat that he wrote the ‘Tractatus,’ delivering the manuscript to [Bertrand] Russell at the end of the war.”  End meadowreader.

End bibliography

Since biographical facts are readily available, in my treatment here I will quickly sketch in what seems important and then mostly give quotations and my own opinions.

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born in 1889, the ninth child of Karl and Leopoldine (“Poldi”) Wittgenstein. His family was the second richest in Austria-Hungary and enormously cultured. In the times around Ludwig’s birth, Johannes Brahms would play recitals on one of the seven grand pianos in their mansion. Ludwig’s mother played piano at a professional concert level and two brothers were concert pianists. One committed suicide while the other lost his right arm in the war. Maurice Ravel wrote Concerto for the left hand for him. Wittgenstein himself had perfect pitch and was intensely musical, but his deeper interests lay elsewhere. He studied Engineering, then mathematics before turning to philosophy. Before WWI he had traveled to England to meet Bertrand Russell and others at Cambridge. It seems that Wittgenstein was obsessed by philosophy, tormented by philosophical questions and spent endless hours thinking about them. Bertrand Russell said of him “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” (Wikipedia and many other sources) He was an extremely moral person, but difficult, unrelenting and tiring to be around.

Wittgenstein’s studies at Cambridge were cut short by World War I. One point to add to meadowreader’s quote above is that Wittgenstein may have enlisted as a “lance corporal”, but was later elevated to officer rank.

Wittgenstein did write his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus during the First World War. It was first published in German under a different title, then translated into English mainly by Wittgenstein himself, but only published because of an Introduction by Russell. (Wittgenstein flew into one of his rages upon reading the Introduction, considering that Russell had totally misunderstood the book). In the 1920’s after the Tractatus was published, Wittgenstein retired from philosophy, convinced that there was nothing more to be said philosophically. In the late 1920’s, however, he changed his mind, repudiated the first part of the Tractatus, and set out on a totally different course, teaching at Cambridge during the 1930’s. These teachings were published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations. “…Wittgenstein occupies a singular place in the history of philosophy, having first at an early age written a work which exercised a decisive influence on the philosophical thought of his time, and then, in his mature years, rejecting his early theory and producing a second theory which for sheer originality, stature and influence, is even more important than the first.” (Hartnack, p8) During WW II Wittgenstein, while keeping his position at Cambridge University, worked as an orderly in a hospital more or less anonymously. In 1949 he resigned his Cambridge professorship and led a peripatetic life until being diagnosed with metastasized prostate cancer. He died in 1951 with his last words to his caregiver: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

End brief biography.

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This work is in two parts based on a distinction Wittgenstein made at the time between that which can be said and that which can only be shown. By “said” and “shown” Wittgenstein meant something quite different from the common usage of these words. Using logic and his intuitive insight Wittgenstein was intent on defining the logical properties of a language which would have a one-to-one correspondence with the structure of “reality” as defined by common experience and by science. In my opinion Wittgenstein at the time he wrote the Tractatus, was ignorant of Einstein’s papers on special relativity (1905), general relativity (1916) and of experiments in atomic physics during the 19 ‘teens’ which seemingly demonstrated logical contradictions at the heart of physics. So at the same time a revolution in physics was showing relativity in space and time and weirdness in atomic experiments, Wittgenstein was specifying the properties of an ABSOLUTE language dealing with an ABSOLUTE reality. Whether or not my supposition here is correct, when Wittgenstein uses the word “says” he means statements in his hypothetical language. Moreover, to him only such statements could be meaningful. Words used outside the language were talking about things that could only be “shown”. When I read about the first terribly abstruse part of the Tractatus as explicated by Hartnack, I tried to understand it, but knew intuitively that it was nonsense. There could be no such language. The second part of the Tractatus talks about “the mystic” which can only be “shown”, AND Wittgenstein gives examples, most of which are quoted in Hartnack. (One time in the Stanford University bookstore I found a copy of the Tractatus, opened it to the second part and, sure enough, there was what Hartnack had quoted.) Here are a few to give the flavor of what can’t be “said”.

“Propositions can express nothing which is higher.”

“It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words.”

“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.”

“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is not this the reason that those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)”

(Hartnack, p 41-42)

Even in the first part of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein, talking about his propositions writes “…anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) (Tractatus 6.54) Quoted in Hartnack, p28, footnote 33.

At this point let me use “said” in a conventional sense to give a definition of a Zen Koan or Mondo as words which hint at what cannot be said. If this definition is correct, Wittgenstein is speaking in Mondos not only in the Tractatus, but in all of the cryptic quotes he made throughout his life.

In my opinion Wittgenstein in his life has recapitulated the long Eastern journey from the Buddha through Nagarjuna through Bodhidharma through Hui Neng and beyond. Because 20th century thought was already on this path, Wittgenstein’s accomplishment though incredible was not impossible.

This must now be posted.

In later posts I’ll talk about Wittgenstein’s later work, my own ideas about language, myth and reality, Mondos and Koans, the question: What is physics and how does it relate to “reality?”, and talk a little about my quote:

“Aristotelian logic: The curse of Western Philosophy.”