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Monday, February 11, 2008

Zero to Zen Master: Zen as Mind Poison

So I'm trying to take zen seriously. I really am. But I feel like I'm in charge of testing whether or not some food has poison in it and I'm told, "just taste it!". Umm, sorry, no.

Here's the problem. I have my own ideas what enlightenment is or should be like. If I knew what it was exactly, presumably I'd already be there. But at the very least it seems fair that if someone points in the direction of enlightenment I should at least have some sanity check as to whether it's a reasonable direction. If you haven't noticed there are a lot of people claiming to point to enlightenment and they are pointing in a lot of incompatible directions.

My two main problems with studying zen then are: (1) do I have *any* indications that the zen people (and specifically which ones) are pointing in a valid (or at least interesting) direction? and (2) how do I jive this with what I think enlightenment is or should be?

On the first point, are there any examples of zen awesomeness? Presumably you can use zen to be calm, learn to go with the flow, etc. But seriously, who cares? If you are completely at sea and zen helps you find some inner calm, go for it. But how much calm do you need? And more importantly what is the value of a unit of calm worth compared to mastery of some skill or other life experiences? Don't get me wrong, I'm the first guy to sign up for alone time. But if I need to decide whether to use the time to get a little more "centered" or for instance learn another programming language. I get more joy from learning than pursuing calm. And if I could trade calm units I already have for instant mastery of another skill I'd probably be willing to do so. And probably even willing to go into debt.

I know zen is supposedly not about achieving some end, but really that's a BS answer. No one does something for no reason at all. Even if the reason is to satisfy your curiosity or some other unconscious inkling, you are not acting without some purpose. People do zen because they want something.

There is the idea that zen people are more in touch with their spontaneous side (really this is a Taoism thing, but we'll let the zen people have it for now). And of course doing zen will make you a master archer. Unfortunately there is no compelling reason to suppose that "zen" was the secret sauce, when we can just as easily rely on the simple maxim that mastery takes time. If you find some archer who practices archery everyday AND practices zen everyday why should you think zen helped him get to mastery? For all you know it slowed him down because he spent less time doing archery.

Secondly, it seems like enlightenment has to have something to do with true, deep understanding. In the case of zen the self or at least your awareness is your subject. Great. But do zen people have any great insights here? People studying cognitive science have learned a lot about the mind. It's not very clear to me that zen masters have really learned anything worth sharing on the topic. And it seems pretty likely that they have *lots* of metaphysical baggage from taking things like the existence of the soul, or atman or reincarnation seriously. And to make things worse, since they typically hide behind a wall of abstruse metaphors and nonsensical anecdotes, it's really hard to know.

They really could know something amazing about the self and awareness or other things I don't have an inkling of. But how would I now? If you don't have enlightenment already then sort of by definition you are going to have trouble identifying enlightenment in others. And honestly I think if people had true enlightenment they'd be able to share it more explicitly.

I can understand quantum mechanics (at least well enough). Is there any chance that the zen "truths" are more complicated, less expressible in words? Color me skeptical.

And yet...

And yet I plan to continue with my admittedly too brief meditation practice. And reading some zen books and thinking about the ideas.... I can't shake the feeling that there *is* something to meditation and the zen people seem to have spent the most time thinking about this area. But it's not really clear that the zen outer coating around the practice of mindfulness is anything but kruft.

And there is always a better way to test for poison than just eating whatever you are fed.

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