Read more from the Being Truly Human December 2018 Newsletter
By Ron Martin
Zen is unique and so is impossible to classify; it is neither a religion in a conventional sense, since it has no personal God, or form of worship, nor does it have a philosophy, since it eschews all verbal definitions. If it can be said to have an aim at all it is of a direct pointing to experience, leading to an acceptance of all that Is. Its very nature makes it a difficult subject to write about, or describe, so a book can do no more than be like a signpost, showing us the way to where we want to go, but leaving the description of our destination to our experience of it when we get there. How do we know if we have arrived? It is, simply, that we no longer have any need for signposts — we know.
Historically it is linked to Buddhism and is said to have been initiated by Bodhidharma, who came to China from India in A.D. 520, but since he is a semi-legendary figure the foundation of Ch’an, or Zen Buddhism, as it now is, has been credited to Hui Neng (638–713) the Sixth Patriarch. However, it is the application of Zen to our everyday lives that is the purpose of this book, though its link with the wider picture of Buddhism becomes more apparent the deeper we go into the subject and this is dealt with in greater detail in later chapters, but some prior knowledge of the basic doctrines of Buddhism would be an advantage.
The difficulty Westerners have in studying Zen arises because it has no equivalent structure in any philosophical or religious tradition in the West, so it requires a really fundamental shift in perception to get to grips with it. Simply in order to get started it is necessary to clear one’s mind of all preconceptions and be open to unfamiliar ideas. An open mind is not only a pre-condition of successful Zen meditation but one has to tackle an even bigger problem, that of dealing with the string of thoughts that persist in swamping the mind during all the time we are awake. Suggestions are made later as to how this can be managed; suffice it to say, now, that it is the quality of one’s meditative experience that counts, not the amount of time devoted to meditation.
When Zen spread to Japan from China it received further developments, which were possibly more important than what had occurred earlier; certainly we owe a great deal to modern interpretations by scholars such as Dr. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki and Professor Alan W. Watts, whose book, The Way of Zen, ranks among the best on the subject.
At the time when Zen flourished in the Far East there were numerous monasteries, some of them dominated by Zen Masters of such stature that their works are still highly regarded. Mention has been made of Hui Neng but we also have works by Huang Po and Hui Hai, as well as those of lesser known Masters. Today we have no such figures to guide us and so we depend very much on self-development. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the final stages of Enlightenment (Satori) have always been a very personal journey; the Masters could take their pupils so far but the final step was entirely up to the individual pupil. If this book succeeds in taking its readers up to the point where they can carry on alone it will have achieved its aim.
Language, in order to make possible the attempt to communicate experience, must isolate one object from another and give each one a name; so that when we say we see a tree we do not mean that we see a table, or a combination of a tree and a table. As command of language develops these sub-divisions increase and become more precise, as words are added to our vocabulary until we have, stored in our memories, thousands of words that are available for assembly into sentences when we want to communicate with another person. For language to fulfil this function efficiently it is obvious that those doing the communicating must agree on the exact meaning of every word used. If one says ‘tree’ and the other thinks he is referring to an object having a flat top, supported on four legs, then there is no communication between them. This is an exaggerated example yet most philosophical arguments have their origins in misconceptions of a similar kind.
Another aspect of communication to consider is that all experiences must be real — it is only our description of them that can be false. If you have a pain, not only is that pain very real to you, but its precise nature is known without the slightest margin of error. It is only when you come to describing it, say to your doctor, that the problem arises. Moreover, since he cannot feel the pain himself he has no way of relating your description to an objective truth. Even if he took an X-ray, and it revealed a bone fracture, this would tell him nothing about the pain — he would have to presume that you felt pain, because most people do under such circumstances. But this is not absolute knowledge, it is subjective knowledge, and even your complaint of feeling pain does not confirm that it exists, since you could be lying. If this seems preposterous think of an Indian fakir on his bed of nails, or an African fire-walker. If they said that they had not the slightest sensation of pain would you know whether they were telling the truth, or not? It is because our subjective knowledge does not tally with our objective knowledge in such cases that we find them so mystifying.
A similar situation can arise in a different form. Suppose someone tells you that he has seen a ghost (but has not made up the story to frighten or impress you) then he has had a real experience, the precise nature of which is known to him. But what does he mean by the word ‘ghost’? If pressed he might explain that a ghost is the spirit of one who is dead but has come back from another world for a particular reason. But this does not describe the experience, it is a verbal description of what he thinks a ghost is. The term ‘ghost’, like the term ‘God’, is meaningless as a description of an experience and relies on a complex series of preconceived ideas to have any meaning at all. An atheist, or a scientific humanist, could have precisely the same experiences as one who believes there is a God; the differences between them are due to the diversity of interpretations given to those experiences or, in the case of an agnostic, to a refusal to commit himself to any interpretation.
Another limitation of language is due to the fact that an object cannot be known to exist apart from an experience of it. A person who is colour-blind from birth cannot know that the colour red exists, and language is quite unable to convey the experience of redness to him, so language is limited to the range of common experiences. And even when a common experience exists errors in communication can occur due to words being only a representation of an experience and not the experience itself — just as a photograph is a representation of a scene, not the actual scene. We may believe that the camera cannot lie and in a sense this is true, yet photographs often give a false impression of a scene as, for example, when a photograph taken with a wide-angle lens gives the impression that a room is more spacious than is actually the case.
Traditional Western philosophy is well acquainted with the defects of language as a means of communication but, due to its preoccupation with concepts, there is one aspect of language which escaped its attention altogether. This is the way language contributes to the falsification of the experience itself. On the face of it this appears to be a contradiction of the statement that all experiences must be real. How can an experience become unreal when we use language to describe it? We need to examine, in detail, the nature of an experience.
If you are alone in the garden, looking at the lawn, you are experiencing the sight of green grass. Since you are alone the question of communicating this experience does not arise; nor do you have to use language to tell yourself that you are seeing green grass. But, is it green? The grass is receiving light from the sun and this is composed of a wide range of electro-magnetic waves. Chlorophyll in the grass absorbs all of these except a certain band of waves, which are reflected to your eyes. The retinas in your eyes convert these into minute electrical signals, which pass along nerve fibres to the brain; you then experience the sight of green grass. But the colour is not in the grass, it is in your mind! Grass merely has the capacity to absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others — it is not intrinsically green.
If you were colour-blind you would still see the grass, but it would not be green, and yet the experience would be just as real to you as if you had full colour vision. How is it, then, that we take it for granted that the greenness is in the grass or, to put it more broadly, that grass possesses all its qualities of colour, shape and texture?
But surely, you might say, the grass must be physically present? This requires a more methodical examination. Grass is made up of complex molecules and every molecule comprises a particular arrangement of atoms to give it its characteristic properties. Each atom has a nucleus and surrounding rings of electrons, similar to the planets round the Sun. The nucleus of an atom comprises a number of constituent parts, not all of which are fully understood, but none of these parts of the nucleus, nor the electrons revolving around it have independent physical properties. On their own they are merely charges; the electron being a negative charge and the nucleus a positive charge. Only when these opposing charges are in balance is the atom stable; when the atom is not in balance it is said to be an ion, with an overall positive or negative charge depending on whether it has a deficiency or surplus of electrons. The point that needs to be stressed is that none of these charges has any physical existence. Even the position of an electron at any given moment, unlike the Earth round the Sun, does not exist — physicists have termed it ‘a wave of probability’. Without the benefit of modern scientific knowledge the Yogacara (Mind Only) School of Buddhism developed a philosophy to the effect that, just as without consciousness colour does not exist, so without consciousness there is no material existence either. The most we can say is that the potential for existence is there. This is where meditation comes into the equation, because it is during meditation that we get to the One without distinction, revealing the source of all that Is.
In later chapters this aspect of existence is dealt with more fully.
What has been described, as far as words can be used to describe it, is the Void of Buddhism; it neither exists, nor does it not exist; it is the condition from which “we serenely observe the mysterious beginning of the Universe” (Tao Te Ching). However, this non-physical nature does not exclude the apparent greenness of grass, or its physical properties, because “These two are the same in source and become different when manifested”. (Again quoting from the Tao Te Ching).
Why, then, do we take it for granted that the grass is intrinsically green and has physical presence independent of any mental construction? It is because we have become conditioned by language into believing that there is a subject and an object — that there is a ‘self’ that has an experience and an object that is experienced. In this case, that ‘I’ (the subject) sees green grass (the object). This duality is the ‘original sin’ that separates us from ‘God’ (or from Nirvana in Buddhism).
The French philosopher Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”, thereby stating the belief that the existence of thoughts (experiences) proved the existence of a thinker (experiencer). But we do not experience the experiencer, only experiences, and since we cannot know of the existence of anything that has never been experienced, the subject ‘I’ is a construction forced on us by the conventions of language. So the statement, “I think, therefore I am”, is not proof of anything, but is simply a statement that there are thoughts. The difficulty we have in grasping this, even though the example of green grass may look convincing, is because language cannot escape from the bounds of subject and object — and almost every sentence used here is confirmation of this. We simply cannot avoid using words like ‘you’, ‘me’, ‘it’, ‘yours’, ‘mine’, and ‘its’ if we are to communicate with words. There is, perhaps, one small chink in the armour of language, enabling us to see through its duality — when we say, “It is raining”, what is It that rains? Do we not mean that there is rain? When we say, “I think”, could we not also mean simply that there are thoughts? This is not to deny the existence of the ego, which comes into being after birth, but the ego dies when the body dies. It is, therefore, a temporary phenomenon, brought about by the ‘original sin’ mentioned earlier. The idea that something that had no previous existence comes into being and then goes on forever is neither logical nor does it accord with the Buddhist doctrine of Anatta, that there is no immortal yet personal soul. (Anatta is one of the Three Signs of Conditional Existence).
Continued in part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8 and part 9
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