Skip to content

Mystery

December 29, 2013

So much of religion and philosophy is concerned with mystery. Mysticisms, Christian and Kantian alike, base themselves on the supposition that somewhere beyond our contradictory and paradoxical perception of the world, there is a unifier, even if it is one that is forever inaccessible, in life or death.

Even among those who claim to be postmodern enough to have moved past these kinds of projections which seek to fill in gaps, this phenomenon remains a problem. For them it is still like an itch that cannot be scratched, a recipe with a missing ingredient, a dish that tastes like something is missing. It may be reality, but it is a reality which they judge to be bitter for its lack of – what?

What? What more do we need? If life grows bitter herbs, who are we to not want to eat them? We would be, as Nietzsche might say, renouncers of life, of all that is earthly. And what if we choose to accept this life, what does it mean then?

The end of mystery? Or was mystery the wrong thing to wonder at in the first place? We desire a total, unified, and perhaps this is our problem. The desire, to be sure, is a problem, but go deeper still – to the opposition implied, between complete and incomplete.

The world, life, the earth – it all is, it all does. Where is the space for incompletion? Who does the completing? We say life ought to, but there it is! “We.” A genealogy of incompletion leads only back to our own minds, and likewise a genealogy of completion.

And now we are faced with something altogether stranger, but only strange because it is so new and counter intuitive. Really, there is no mystery. Take the “problem” of consciousness – why do we have it?? How did it come about??? How will we ever explain it?!?!

To start, we could stop asking those questions. How does complexity form? It builds on parts and contingencies, at first small, with few possibilities, minor chemical interactions, basic, “unconscious” decision making. Add more parts and all of a sudden it can do more. Add a lot more parts and then look at what happens – we happen. We fill our own gaps before we even knew it. In fact, before we knew about gaps, it doesn’t seem like there really were any, does it?

Nothing is mysterious. Watch and you’ll see, but really watch, with your own eyes, but without your own mind. Watch with mind – “big mind,” not “little mind,” and mystery will reveal itself as your self. Mystery was invented when it was first posited, and when it is renounced (and it can be at any time, by anyone), there is neither mystery nor explanation.

What is there? Haha! I laugh and smile at that question – and if you laugh at it too, you might find what you were looking for.

Simultaneity

April 28, 2013

I’ve written on here before about simultaneity, but I want to devote a post to explaining it in further detail. As I get ready to start grad school in August, I feel like my ideas are synthesizing in more and more unique ways, and I can’t wait to see how they will blossom and evolve as they encounter the thought and perspective of others when I’m in school again.

The reason I am so interested in simultaneity as a broad or overarching concept in my thinking is that it touches on the most aspects of all my interests, more-so than any other concept I’ve experimented with. What holds my ideas together is that they not only contain within themselves a simultaneity of disparate-seeming parts (non-duality in Zen and Taoism, ethics beyond the morality of “good and evil” in Nietzsche, and many of the simultaneous and intertwined views of nature and culture in contemporary theory and philosophy, which Bruno Latour sums up well in the question, “Is it our fault if the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society?”), but they work together to form a simultaneous, affective impact in my own synthesis.

I’ve already talked too conceptually here though, and to get to the heart of simultaneity’s resonance in myself I also need to talk about simultaneity as a practice and a way of living. The first hints of a conceptual simultaneity came to me through meditation, and any concept I write about is always birthed intuitively, through practice (Nietzsche says in a discarded draft of Ecce Homo, “Finally, I speak only of what I have lived through, not merely of what I have thought through… My ‘theory’ grows from my ‘practice'”). Meditation and mindfulness are a way of opening up your attention to the world in all its beauty and complexity. Although meditation requires concentration, there is no “thing” on which that concentration is centered: one of many paradoxes in Zen, concentration on everything and nothing simultaneously. The object of this concentration shows itself when you reach a certain point (which can never be predicted or conceptualized prior to experience), and that is the movement and life of the world in every moment. Our minds usually focus on something particular; for example, right now I was intensely focused on writing this, when I realized there was a bird singing outside the window that I had been completely unaware of, distracted by my writing. So I took a moment to listen to it, and the more I listened the more sounds came into focus: cars, my sisters, the sound of my own typing, the bird, an airplane, but not, as it is presented here, as a list, but experienced all at the same time, in the same moment, the present.

Of course this simultaneity that can be experienced can never be fully described in philosophy or concepts. For that matter, it can never be fully described in any way at all: it can only be experienced. Yet it still must be communicated, and so I very cautiously have started to put together what this experience means and implies in the concept of simultaneity. I will try to explain view my various interests how this plays out, although be forewarned that at this point I have really already explained all there is to explain about simultaneity. The rest of this post is less so something to be learned from than a validation of a necessary prior experience.

There are many examples in Zen literature of simultaneity. I’ve written here recently about my interest in koans, and I think koans are a good example of simultaneity. The purpose of a koan is to shatter the conceptual, intellectual mind. That is to say, the way of thinking which divides and partitions what is, in the moment, simultaneously occurring. Take, for example, the following koan: “What was the meaning of Bodhidarma coming from the West? An oak tree in the garden.” While the conceptual mind may answer the question with something like, “the meaning of the Bodhidarma coming from the West was to introduce Buddhism to China, and bring about the birth of Ch’an (Zen),” this really doesn’t get to the heart of it. What this koan is suggesting is that there is some deeper element to the movement of the world, some deeper “way” (or Tao) that is simultaneously common to Bodhidarma and the tree, and the koan can be understood only when this deeper way is embodied.

I’m reading an interesting book right now about Ikkyu, called Ikkyu and The Crazy Cloud Anthology, by Sonja Arntzen. Arntzen talks about how Ikkyu uses allusion in his poems as a kind of shorthand, allowing him to express his own meaning through the words in the context of his poem, while simultaneously implying their meaning in the context of a different story or poem. In this way, the same line of a poem can have two different, yet interconnected and simultaneous meanings. In order to explain them, they have to be parsed out, but when you read the poem, it has an impact that affects a mindset of simultaneous experience. If you can read the poem with your “original mind,” you can experience something beyond the words on the page. Arntzen says, “This technique is dynamic; he does not present opposites frozen in juxtaposition; rather, as the reader’s mind flows through the poem, contradictory elements manifest themselves and in turn dissolve into one another. On the surface, the poet says one thing, but a suggested undercurrent, often brought into being by allusion, says the opposite and cancels the surface theme out. It is in this way that the poems offer experiences rather than pronouncements.”

Nietzsche, too, seeks in many ways to affect an experience of simultaneity through is writing (he says in the Nachlass, “a simultaneity-thinking is needed of which we have hardly an inkling”). I’ve commented on here before about how Nietzsche’s ideas are often contradictory or paradoxical, and although this is a source of frustration for many, and has lead many to discount Nietzsche’s philosophy, it is actually central to understanding any of his ideas. One of his most well-known, yet least understood ideas is the “death of God.” On the surface it can appear to be a rallying cry, an imperative: we must kill God, God must die in order for us to be freed from the shackles of religion. And although Nietzsche is saying that to a certain extent, he is also saying the opposite. In one of the most famous passages about the death of God, Nietzsche asks, “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?” The death of God is simultaneously necessary, yet at the same time opens up a void: where there was previously value and security in life, there is now nothing, there is nihilism. Even in the absence of God, we still must find a way to affirm and justify life. Nietzsche was a philosopher of nihilism, but not a nihilist. He only predicted what would happen as a result of the death of God, he himself did not kill Him. Because of this you can’t say that Nietzsche is an atheist, because atheism implies a belief system built around the void left in God’s absence. In a sense, atheism implies a belief in God, only in reverse. It is a duality: belief – non-belief. What Nietzsche wants to do is escape this duality, and find a system of meaning that is simultaneously world-affirming while resisting belief in transcendent meaning.

Although his philosophy is in many ways too conceptual for my tastes, I also see this spirit of simultaneity in Gilles Deleuze. His insistence on understanding the world in terms of complete immanence implies a kind of simultaneity. Although difference is fundamental, that difference does not exist in terms of transcendence. It is simultaneously different, yet the same. Deleuze uses his series of concepts, which shift slightly in meaning from concept to concept yet retain a cohesiveness, to show that the same types of underlying processes move the world.

Another more recent approach to simultaneity is Stacy Alaimo’s book Bodily Natures, which brilliantly weaves together poetry, literature, politics and environmental justice issues. By showing that the world and our bodies are fundamentally porous and plural, she shows how an artistic representation of the interplay between the social and natural worlds can be, at the same time, a method of expressing beauty and interconnectedness in poetry, but also a way of exposing the injustices perpetrated by governments and corporations when the natural is ignored at the expense of the economic or political.

This is a kind of random jumble of examples, hopefully one that I will be able to draw together more cohesively in my grad school work. But I hope that this post shows, even in its unevenness, a spirit of simultaneity.

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

March 25, 2013

IMG_1666

Even before I knew anything about Zen, or had started practicing meditation, I had heard this koan. It always confused me – which, of course, is the point! It makes no sense. What is the sound of one hand clapping? My rational mind tried to wrap itself around this question, to find a solution, as if it were a trick question with a trick answer.

I hadn’t thought about it for a long time. In my meditation practice I don’t usually use koans. They had always struck me as something that required a student-master relationship, and since my practice has always been independent and personal, I thought they weren’t for me. If koans are meant to judge the progress of a student, how could I use them? Could I judge my own progress in that way?

But I have lately become more confident in my practice. There is something into which I have settled, and not just I have settled there, but I have discovered that there is already much else that was settled there. So I have started using koans, and I have discovered that they are incredibly helpful in furthering my practice. When I feel like focusing on my breathing isn’t working, I now have another option to turn to.

This newfound confidence in my practice has also lead to a widening of my practice. I feel like it is no longer isolated to when I am engaged in sitting meditation. It is easier for me to conjure up a mindful state at any time. Or rather, it is easier for me to identify with my own inherent mindful state at any time – which is an important distinction. In reality the only thing that can be conjured up is a state of ignorance.

So the other day while I was at work, this koan popped into my head, and without thinking about it, without analyzing it, it opened itself up to me. As I was engaged in working – I’m back at the bookstore parking lot, which is a job that requires little conscious attention, and thus opens up my mind to engage in more productive subjects – this koan opened itself up within me.

How do I explain what it means, and what I realized at that moment? Maybe that question is better left as a question, as question after koan after question, question and answer receding and proceeding infinitely in either direction, a circular cycle, an eternal recurrence.

I can tell you this: the sound of one hand clapping rang through everything from which it issued forth, which was everything: there was no other hand to begin with. What makes cherry blossoms, like the ones above in my parents’ backyard, bloom in spring? One hand clapping. Or as Ikkyu put it:

Look at the cherry blossoms!
Their color and scent fall with them,
Are gone forever,
Yet mindless
The spring comes again.

Wind-blown meditation

February 19, 2013
A wind-blown tree at Ka Le, the southern-most point of the Big Island which is almost constantly subject to high winds.

A wind-blown tree at Ka Le, the southern-most point of the Big Island which is almost constantly subject to high winds.

We have been having very intense winds here the last few days. 20-30 mph, with gusts up to 50 mph. Since we’re in a desert with few trees and little else to get in the way of the wind, it moves undispersed in huge waves across the lava rocks. You can hear it roaring from far away, getting gradually louder and louder, until you can see it start to hit the first few trees, coursing through their branches, until it finally washes over you.

Usually we aren’t aware that air is a material thing, just like any other substance. Hence why we say things like, “it came out of thin air” when we mean something comes from nowhere, out of nothing. But intense wind reminds you that the stuff you are walking through and breathing at all times has physical power.

Wind is also used often in Zen and Taoism for illustrative purposes. Ikkyu’s name literally means “crazy cloud,” which he takes to define him more than any other name could: “Entrust yourself to the windblown clouds, and do not wish to live forever.” Ikkyu constantly privileges images of transiency: dust and wind are two common themes.

The Book of Chuang Tzu also talks about this kind of wild, wind-blown approach to life in the following passage:

“Hung Mung said, ‘Wandering everywhere, without a clue why. Wildly impulsive, without a clue where. I wander around in this odd fashion, I see that nothing comes without reason. What can I know? “

Rather than trying to find a clear, linear direction in life, or to plan out a future for ourselves, we would do much better to abandon ourselves to the whims of the wind, and let life carry us on on its own. As I’ve said before about detachment, this doesn’t simply mean abandoning yourself to the mechanics of the world, which would lead to destruction. It means letting your actions and reactions come as freely and spontaneously as a gust of wind.

I find this is very useful for focusing when I meditate. Usually I will just follow my breath and concentrate on inhaling and exhaling, but sometimes I get too focused on it, and I lose sight of what I’m doing. I get too into the rhythm of “in-out,” and I forget to let my mind be free. When this happens I usually just look out the window at a branch or leaf, and focus on the way it moves in the wind. Even when it seems like there is almost no wind you can still find movement: the air is still there, moving, even if almost imperceptibly.

By doing this, I free my mind, I allow it to unfocus. My thoughts are blown around in the wind, and I don’t worry about what comes in to my mind and what goes. I simply watch it as it moves. Because just like the wind and the air, your mind is something. It never becomes totally blank, or empty, it is always moving. The point of meditation is to allow yourself to be carried along comfortably by the winds of your mind instead of feeling like you are being tossed around and out of control.

Nietzsche’s contradictions

February 17, 2013

I love Nietzsche, in case you hadn’t noticed. One of the things I love most about him is the way he structures his arguments. Unlike most philosophers, Nietzsche’s arguments never develop in a linear fashion. Instead, they develop by a kind of process of accumulation, so that each part of the argument might not make sense on its own, or might even seem to contradict itself, but after a while it all starts to come together through context and contrast. In the introduction to Genealogy of morals, he says: “An aphorism, properly stamped and molded, has not been ‘deciphered’ when it has simply been read; rather, one has then to begin its exegesis, for which is required an art of exegesis… One thing is necessary above all if one is to practice reading as an art in this way… something for which one has almost to be a cow and in any case not a ‘modern man’: rumination.” I usually end up rereading important passages four or five times, not because I don’t understand their content, but because such continuous reevaluations of their meaning are necessary in order to let the ideas therein blossom.

This is a problem for a lot of people, because most people aren’t used to reading philosophy this way. Nietzsche is often accused of being self-contradictory, of having incoherent arguments. I’ve seen so many people dismiss Nietzsche for this supposed “fault.” But what they don’t understand is that he is actually doing this in order to show the paradoxical nature of things, the underlying paradox behind any assertion. There is no resolution to be found. Often philosophy attempts to contrive a resolution or meaning where there isn’t one, and it results in a semi-functional solution, but one which will inevitably encounter problems with itself that it can’t account for. What Nietzsche is doing is simply saying, “let’s just be honest here: this doesn’t make sense, so it’s counterproductive to try to make sense of it.” Amor fati: the love of fate, even if fate is paradoxical.

Nietzsche starts out Genealogy of Morals with an analysis of one such half-baked attempt to “make sense” or morality. He says, “‘Originally’ – so they decree – ‘one approved of unegoistic actions and called them good from the point of view of those to whom they were done, that is to say, those to whom they were useful; later one forgot how this approval originated, and simply because unegoistic actions were always habitually praised as good, one also felt them to be good – as if they were something good in themselves.” This English praise of utility and a lowest-common-denominator morality presents a view that is un-Nietzschean twofold: it posits that one type of behavior is moral – unegoistic actions for the greater good – and it also relies on an assumption the basis of which is not brought into question – what makes unegoistic actions inherently good in all situations? For this utility-morality argument to be valid, there would have to be some kind of essential truth to its conditions: there is something innate in human nature that makes this true. But as Nietzsche goes on to show, the standards of life and the contexts in which those standards have come to be are unstable and constantly changing.

Nietzsche chooses a particularly thorny issue to illustrate his moral perspectivism: pain and punishment. He starts out his argument with what appears to be both a justification for and an argument against pain: “‘If something is to stay in the memory it must be burned in: only that which never ceases to hurt stays in the memory’ – this is a main clause of the oldest (unhappily also the most enduring) psychology on earth… all this has its origin in the instinct that realized that pain is the most powerful aid to mnemonics.” On the one hand, clearly Nietzsche doesn’t approve of this (“unhappily also the most enduring”), yet at the same time, he does not judge those who have allowed this to endure, and in fact points out that it is a highly effective method.

He goes even further with his apparent advocation of pain, saying, “On the contrary, let me declare expressly that in the days when mankind was not yet ashamed of its cruelty, life on earth was more cheerful than it is now that pessimists exist.” Does this mean that a return to cruelty would bring about happiness in modern man? Only if you do not understand this argument contextually.

Let me give a real world example to illustrate this, one that Nietzsche might appreciate. Right now it is Lent, which I know because I’ve seen a lot of facebook statuses about what people are giving up for Lent. All of these are things that people enjoy, things that give joy and happiness. The point of their Lenten foregoing is to strengthen themselves spiritually. If you believe in God this makes sense: there is a reward for denying something to oneself in God’s approval. Christian morality approves of one who does not do certain things. Think of the ten commandments: “Thou shalt not.” But, if you take God out of the picture, and the value of one’s actions are not judged transcendentally, then Lent is cruel. It is purposely denying yourself something with no reward.

Now, I know you Christians may counter this argument with something like, “even if you don’t believe in God, you can still accept that overindulgence is unhealthy, and a good life requires some set limits.” That much is true. But the difference is that in Christianity those limits are a moral imperative, whereas for the rest of us they are a guideline with no inherent value. After the death of God, it is this lack of value in moral judgements that must be reckoned with. In the same section, Nietzsche goes on to say that “What really arouses indignation against suffering is not suffering as such but the senselessness of suffering: but neither for the Christian, who has interpreted a whole mysterious machinery of salvation into suffering, nor for the naive man of more ancient times, who understood all suffering in relation to the spectator of it or the causer of it, was there any such thing as senseless suffering.”

So if pain, on the one hand, is the most effective moral mnemonic device, and on the other hand is one of the biggest moral illusions, then what are we to make of all this? Is pain good or bad, desirable or undesirable? The only way to make sense of this impasse is, again, contextually: “Thus one also imagined that punishment was devised for punishing. But purposes and utilities are only signs that a will to power has become master of something less powerful and imposed upon it a character of function; and the entire history of a ‘thing,’ an organ, a custom can in this way be a continuous sign-chain of ever new interpretations and adaptations whose causes do not even have to be related to one another, but, on the contrary, in some cases succeed and alternate with one another in a purely chance fashion.”

Pain is simply a paradox. In some cases it can be good, in others bad. At some times it has been more effective, at other times less, but we can never resolve the moral utility of pain. Nietzsche makes this even more explicit when he says, “‘Just’ and ‘unjust’ exist, accordingly, only after the institution of the law (and not, as Duhring would have it, after the perpetration of the injury). To speak of just or unjust in itself is quite senseless; in itself, of course, no injury, assault, exploitation, destruction can be ‘unjust,’ since life operates essentially, that is in its basic functions, through injury, assault, exploitation, destruction and simply cannot be thought of at all without this character.” Hence the quote in my previous post about Ikkyu and Nietzsche, where death is seen not as an undesirable and painful phenomenon, but as a paradoxical and necessary phenomenon. Death-in-itself is somehow not death, but one part of a larger whole.

To further contextualize this argument with my previous arguments about Nietzsche, ultimately what is causing this confusion about the moral value of pain, cruelty and punishment is language. As can be seen in the quote above, “just” and “unjust” are just linguistic constructions which serve to contain moral concepts. But when you take away language, and look at the world in its becoming, each phenomena, each action contains within it elements of both, and must contain within it elements of both. So ultimately Nietzsche is not advocating any moral prescription, he is simply try to expose the baselessness of the base of morality, the baselessness of everything.

This doesn’t mean that we must simply accept pain, that there is no way to deal with it at all. There may be no a priori base for morality, but we can still judge and evaluate for ourselves how and to what degree we are affected by pain. Hence the Buddhist saying, “pain is inevitable, suffering is not.” Pain is ultimately what you make of it, but if you attribute suffering to an outside cause or source, you will forever be stuck in a cycle of delusion.

 

Nietzsche and Ikkyu on death

February 17, 2013

Hundreds of years and miles apart, they still come to the same conclusion:

 

you poor sad thing thinking death is real

all by itself

(Ikkyu)

 

It is not too much to say that even a partial diminution of utility, an atrophying and degeneration, a loss of meaning and purposiveness – in short, death – is among the conditions of an actual progressus, which always appears in the shape of a will and way to greater power and is always carried through at the expense of numerous smaller powers.

(Nietzsche)

Zen and Nietszche’s “grammatical fictions”

February 14, 2013

I’m reading Genealogy of Morals right now, and at the end of the first essay, Nietzsche proposes a challenge to future philosophers which I would like to take a stab at. He asks the question, “What light does linguistics, and especially the study of etymology, throw on the history of the evolution of moral concepts?”

I’ll base my argument on the following passage,  which struck me with its great affinity with Zen thought:

“For just as the popular mind separates the lightning from its flash and takes the latter for an action, for the operation of a subject called lightning, so popular morality also separates strength from expressions of strength, as if there were a neutral substratum behind the strong man, which was free to express strength or not to do so. But there is no such substratum; there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming: ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything.”

In the context of the Genealogy of Morals, this is meant to show how a separation between one’s sense of identity and one’s actions or the actions that affect one can breed resentment. However, the implications of this passage go far beyond that. It immediately reminded me of this passage from Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“If you think, ‘I breathe,’ the ‘I’ is extra. There is no you to say ‘I.’ What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves, that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no ‘I,’ no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.”

This isn’t to say that the mind, body or world literally “disappear” when your mind reaches this state. What it means is that the linguistic constructions that are “mind,” “world,” and “body” disappear. You became engaged in pure movement, the “doing, effecting, becoming” of which Nietzsche speaks.

I’ll take this a little further with two more observations.

This has profound implications for understanding the relationship between nature and culture, humans and the environment. Take the example of the expansion of suburbs and human communities into areas that were previously considered “wilderness.” This is very true for the suburbs on the east side of Lake Washington near Seattle, which have been steadily expanding back toward the Cascade mountain foothills, into previously “wild” areas. This causes all sorts of perceived conflicts between the people who live there and their environment: there is environmental degradation caused by development, and then there are also problems like coyotes or other potentially dangerous wild animals encroaching on human communities. On either side of the equation, it amounts to a conflict which must be resolved for one side or the other: the wilderness is preserved, free of humans, or the coyotes are captured or killed in a sanitizing safety measure.

But if we take away the linguistic constructions of “man vs. nature,” what is actually exposed is an act of self-destruction, free of competing “sides.” There is no inherent difference in value between man and nature, and when we look beyond the spoken or written conflict, we see something very different. This isn’t a solution, keep in mind, but a starting point from which we can reevaluate the nature of these types of problems which plague modern man. Gaston Bachelard, in his wonderful little book The Psychoanalysis of Fire, identifies this problem well: “Man is perhaps the first natural object in which nature has tried to contradict itself. It is for this reason, moreover, that human activity is in the process of changing the face of the planet.” What is at the core here is not a struggle or competition, but a self-contradiction that can only be understood completely outside of language.

This idea that language itself is the block that stops us from seeing the becoming of the world is latent in Nietzsche’s question. Because moral concepts are themselves inherently linguistic. Moral concepts can’t be understood at all outside of their etymological genealogy, because you can’t create a concept without language. When the language falls away, you only have action.

Zen has been accused of being amoral or unethical because it doesn’t take a stance on moral or ethical issues. But it is a huge mistake to think that Zen doesn’t offer ethical direction simply because it doesn’t offer ethical concepts. There is a deeper understanding of reality and the world that one attains through meditation and self-identification with the “natural” world that has nothing to do with language or concepts, yet nevertheless can act as an ethical guide.

The more you allow your mind to simply experience the connections and relationships that sustain our selves and the world, the more you will see how the world functions successfully, whether or not we are included in it. In this way you can act without thinking, which is the goal of Zen meditation, but you are still not acting mindlessly. You are simply acting spontaneously in a way that is natural, in a way that you come to know you were supposed to act before you even were, before you even knew what it meant to act or think.