Zen Buddhism First Approximation Part One - Fritz the Cat

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Zen Buddhism
First Approximation Part One

Around 540 A.D. a Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma brought his version of Buddhism from India to China, a difficult journey of two years.  He was the 28th Indian Patriarch, and the first Chinese Patriarch.  He felt that Indian Buddhism had become overly intellectualized, and in happy congruence with the Chinese mind, began teaching that the heart of Buddhism did not lie in the rhetorical excesses and mind boggling expanses of space and time emphasized in India, but rather in the experience of Enlightenment which could be attained in an instant of time in this very lifetime by meditating on, that is considering deeply, the very happenings of everyday life.  This Chinese version of Buddhism became known as Ch`an, and when it later moved to Japan, as Zen.

Zen Buddhism was early on characterized by four statements:  "A special transmission outside scripture; No dependence on words and letters; Direct pointing to the soul of man; Seeing into one´s nature and the attainment of Buddhahood."

Zen did not oppose Buddhist scripture, and indeed had a scripture of its own, but Bodhidharma felt that the intellectual sphere of mind had captured Indian Buddhism and was gradually sucking the life out of it by focusing on the sterilities of doctrine rather than the life of nature and the nature of life.  Rather than freeing humanity from Maya, Illusion, Indian Buddhism was actually adding additional layers of Illusion with its learned tomes and nit picking debates.

The word Maya is derived from the Sanskrit root matr- "to measure, build, or lay out a plan", also the root of the Greco-Latin words meter, matrix, matter, and material.  The fundamental process of measurement is division, whether by drawing a line or by measuring a liquid by volume.  The Sanskrit root dva- from which we get the word "divide" is also the root of the Latin "duo" and the English "dual".

Thus the infamously difficult concept of "non-dualistic thinking" is at its base a plea to see the world as a whole, rather than divided into spaces, facts, events, concepts, etc., for nature is a whole, and man as part of nature should participate in that unity.  The division of the world into a knowing subject and a known object, and the body into an immortal soul and a perishable body, or even a mind distinct from the body, is not found in nature, and the Enlightened Zen man does not see the world through these lenses.  The mystical notion of a reality higher than the one we live in is dismissed in Zen thought as dualistic through and through.

The heart of Zen is the Enlightenment achieved by the Buddha.  The Buddha had resolved to sit under the Bodhi tree until he understood the cause of man`s suffering, and after a week he achieved his goal.  The content of his experience, as indeed of every mystical experience throughout history and the various religious cultures, is said to be beyond words, as every experience must be until a sufficient number of people go through the same experience and can agree on definitions and descriptions, a process unattainable by the very nature of Enlightenment.
That is so because words and concepts are a product of the intellect, while Enlightenment is a product of the will.  Perhaps these two faculties of mind, each so poorly understood, can be bridged by the equally obscure faculty of "intuition"?  Zen has been described as "radical intuitionism", but what is intuition?  By definition it is knowledge gained by "looking into", it is acquired by "immediate apprehension", without rationalization or reliance on a chain of reasoning.  Kant held it to be knowledge gained non-empirically, that is without resort to experience, and restricted it to knowledge of space and time.  Medieval scholastics held it to be the means by which angels communicated among themselves and with man.  An aura of spirituality enveloped the notion of intuition in pre-modern times, one illustration being knowledge that came from the Eden´s Tree of Knowledge.    

Modern science (born from alchemy and astrology) considers its theories to be products of intuition, that is, after searching and researching in one´s chosen field for many years the scientist is able to discern patterns in the data he is examining, and at some point he sees that the data he is examining falls into a pattern similar to that of a problem already solved, and intuits that the searched for solution must be in some fashion patterned after the already solved problem.  Does mathematics find itself so useful to science because the former is a huge array of pure pattern for the latter to impose its data on?  It is said that chess Grand Masters can see patterns in their opponent’s moves that can only flow in one direction.

Intuition is said to be "seeing into through contemplation", thus seemingly being but another word for Enlightenment.  Is that other Enlightenment, the European one, joined at the hip with its religious predecessor?  Hume, Locke, Priestly, and other scientists of that era, are cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as being the first to use some senses of the word "intuition", and intuition is often given as the source of their theories.  Recall that Einstein said that imagination, often linked to intuition, was more important than intelligence.

Around 3000 B.C., give or take a few centuries, mankind unleashed on the world grain cultivation, the plow, the potter`s wheel, the sailboat, the draw loom, copper metallurgy, abstract mathematics, exact astronomical observation, the calendar, and writing, a burst of activity unmatched until a similar period of time, some seven centuries, elapsed between the inventions of the mechanical clock and the atom bomb.

Have we, or have we not, strayed rather far from Zen Buddhism?  Assuredly, but let me ask that question slightly differently:  would the percentage of enlightened men walking the streets of Benares or Lhasa be higher or lower than that of those walking the streets of Palo Alto or Wall Street or the City of London?  In what way is Los Alamos different from the monasteries that started popping up in the heyday of Indian Buddhism?  I detect a pattern here.  

For all the talk of Bodhisatvas forsaking Nirvana until every sentient being is released from the bonds of Maya, early Buddhism was nothing if not elitist.  Their monasteries could have been the model of Stalin`s closed scientific cities, and the Buddha himself traveled with a retinue of his fellow Brahmins, begging from the peasants but keeping to themselves.  As surely as Stalin`s Russia was doomed to decay, Indian Buddhism lapsed into decline when it was administered by the Buddhist epigones determined to fashion Buddhism in their own image, intellectual and elite, and cut off from its true ground of being, enlightenment.

Every revealed religion is seemingly doomed to decay without the constant infusion of life from the ground that gave it life in the first place, thus the love-hate relationship between every revealed religion and its mystical offshoots.  The elite of a religious hierarchy are reluctant to rock such a comfortable boat, but still recognize the inevitable decline of anything static in a changing world.

Returning to the secular enlightenment and the burst of creativity it unleashed, is science a new religion?  Did the Western Enlightenment model itself after the Eastern Enlightenment, as a goddless religion, with man as uncreated and with no immutable essence (a.k.a. soul)?  Is every      –ology a proto religion, and every –ologist a proto priest?  Is Descartes scientific method a recipe for Enlightenment?  Does science, like Zen, seek out the very mystery of being in deep contemplation of the everyday world we live in morning, noon, and night?  What other way could there possibly be?

Obviously there is an abyss between science and Zen, regardless of any similarities they share, the abyss of dualism, of discrimination, measurement, classification, counting, ranking, and dividing.  The very hallmarks of science are anathema to Zen.  Science`s without-this-nothing is Zen`s with-this-nothing.  Did Bodhidharma recognize the extreme danger intuitive knowledge cradled in its bosom, and hope to head it off by insisting that only non-dualistic Enlightenment was possible?

Zen and modern science are similar in the structure of their learning environment:  monks and scientists gather together to discuss relevant issues and encourage each other, with occasional guest speakers by a renowned scientist or Zen Master.  But above all the search for scientific and religious truth is an individual endeavor.  Breaking the secret of the atom or of genetic inheritance may be a group effort, but the intuitive insight that underlay the whole process happened to an individual.  Similarly, the search for the religious truth of Zen is the result of a long chain of seekers, but is composed of insights that happen only in the privacy of the individual mind.

The essence of Buddhism can be summed up in the question "why?" i.e. the Buddha`s original why:  "Why do we suffer?".  Man is a mystery that must be solved if we are to live in harmony with each other and with the earth.  Enlightenment suggests that non-dualistic thinking is the bedrock of liberation.  Don`t measure, don`t divide, don`t calculate, don`t discriminate.  Life and the world are a whole and should be treated as such.  All else is Maya, Illusion.  Why then do we measure (Does he measure up?), divide (Divide and conquer), calculate (How can I make this work out best for me?), and discriminate (us versus them).

A non-dualistic world may sound like a world for dreamers, yet in all the natural world it is only homo sapiens that does not live that way.  To scale the problem down to size somewhat, it may help to remember (realize, intuit) that Zen does not deal with universal truths (it does not even admit the possibility) but with individual truths that arise with enlightenment, the only truth there is.  This truth cannot be committed to paper or even words, but can be transmitted by directly pointing to the soul of man and by living out your dharma, your way of life as illuminated by your personal truth, and thus attaining Buddhahood.  So easy!  So hard!  But not impossible.

Living out your dharma is on some level an exercise in non-relativity:  non-relational, neither affirming nor denying the world around you.  The world is what it is, and trying to change it is like a mosquito biting an iron ox.  The Zen man is concerned with his own dharma, his own way of life, his own truth, his own Tao.  The life that is eccentric or unusual for its own sake partakes of the stink of Zen, as does the pretention of living a life of Zen orthodoxy, for Zen orthodoxy is a contradiction in terms.  

The Zen man leads a natural life, he works when there is work to be done, eats when he is hungry, and sleeps when he is tired.  It is the life of a religious seeker, on one hand foot lose and fancy free, on the other fiercely dedicated to the task at hand, with a constant return to contemplate the question "why?".  Zen history is replete with records of Zen Masters living a lonely life on a mountainside, neither a hermit nor not a hermit; of Zen Masters living in great cities as common laborers; of long hard journeys to study under renowned Masters; and of course of Zen Monasteries.  Zen is primarily a way of liberation for those who have mastered the discipline of social convention, of the conditioning of the individual by the group.  Zen is medicine for the ills of this conditioning, for the paralysis and anxiety that comes from an excess of self-consciousness.

Enlightenment can be many things, but one insight that is characteristic is that of the "emptiness" of all things, their uncreated nature, and their complete lack of any immutably individualistic character.  Without this insight no detachment or liberation is possible, and intuitive knowledge is interfered with through the illusion of a fixed reality.  Realize that man, just like everything else, just happened, and due to self-consciousness he creates and mis-creates a world of illusion to give himself a comfortable place to be, that he gives a personal meaning to things that have meaning only in and for themselves, that joy and sorrow, gain and loss, are meaningless labels placed on meaningless occurrences.

One of the rules of electoral politics is "define yourself before someone else does it for you".  That we were defined before we were born is a key enlightenment, and to "find your original face before you were born" is a key to enlightenment.  "Homo sapiens" (man the knower) and "homo faber" (man the maker) are the definitions that the European (dualistic) Enlightenment placed on all its captives (captives in William Blake`s "mind forged manacles") before they were born.  Born to know and born to make, thrown into a world not of our making to know and to make, a comfortable captivity, perhaps, at least for those near the top of the pyramid created by all this knowing and making, but captivity and illusion nonetheless.

Before the dualistic enlightenment we were captives of the Christian myth of "ens creatum", created creatures, destined from before our birth to worship our "Creator", as instructed by "His" lieutenants here on earth.  In contrast our "Buddha Nature", our "original face before we were born" is, according to Zen, the task of each and every one of us to find for ourselves and impose on ourselves only.  We are individuals, there is no "one size fits all".

For my personal "original face" I have chosen "man the story teller", which seemed to grow out of my intuition, long held but more or less on the "back burner", that cultures were the result or product of the stories we told each other, with Western Civilization growing out of the Old/New Testaments, Greek rationality, and Roman jurisprudence and bureaucratic administration, which themselves grew out of Homer, Gilgamesh, and the Greek/Roman mythologies.  One day while reading some secondary material on Aristotle it dawned on me that Aristotle`s logic, and hence a big chunk of Western rationality, rested on Aristotle`s first principal, the Unmoved Mover, pretty much bringing down, in my mind at least, every law written since then.  Unmoved Mover indeed!  O.K. for the B.C. days maybe, but what is the unmoved mover of the internet?

An even more important moment in my movement towards Zen happened earlier, though I didn´t realize it at the time.  In brief, I became puzzled (why?) by Detroit`s continued production of gas guzzling behemoths long after economy cars became popular.  It was, perhaps, a Western secular koan.  Then one day I read that the U.S. petroleum industry was by far the largest payer of taxes in the U.S.  Like a revelation from above the Detroit koan was resolved beyond doubt in every detail.  With confidence and certainty I began to spread my new theory (as told in the Dark Side One, at www.fritzthecat.net).

It was only later (6 months?) that it slowly dawned on me that I had pretty much made up the whole solution to the Detroit koan out of whole cloth.  (Made up, perhaps, as one makes up a bed: squaring the covers, smoothing the wrinkles, airing and washing).  It was plausible, I`m sure I could have found supporting evidence if I dug deep enough.  Yet the conviction carried by this revelation was, at the time, beyond doubt.  The shallowness behind my Enlightenment, far from throwing doubt on my enlightenment, supported and even constituted it.  For my Enlightenment was not about the nature of Detroit and Washington D.C., which was secondary, it was about the nature of truth: it is not the basis of a theory but a prop for a theory, that it is contingent, and that it is personal.  All roads lead to the truth, but since everyone travels a different road, every truth is different.       

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