Saturday, October 14, 2006

Engaging Zen Skeptically, Part III

I've mostly finished Zen and the Brain at this point. I'm still not convinced of the merits of Zen practice; Dr. Austin's writing makes it seem like a mixed bag at best. I'm in agreement that dampening the ego is beneficial to the individual. Quieting or eliminating its non-productive and reactive components seems like a winner, but the radical ablation of the self that he describes as Zen's central goal is of questionable merit.

I mean, I like being me. It reminds me of a quote I encountered in previous reading on this topic: "I want to taste the honey, not be the honey". The individuals which Dr. Austin describes in the final chapters of the book are, in a certain sense, barely recognizable as people. Consider the monk who displays indifference on being given a child, and further indifference when that child is taken away. This reaction reveals a radical detachment, but its not self-evident that such an approach towards life is desirable.

Even more telling, however, is the story of the samurai-turned-monk whose reaction, upon being spat upon, is to give thanks for no longer feeling the need to react to this incident. Dr. Austin writes that "'wrong' actions won't arise when a brain continues truly to express the self-nature intrinsic to its kensho experience". That may very well be the case; one who does nothing cannot commit an incorrect act. But "right action" implies, at some level, an active "doing" rather than a passive "non-doing".

Accepting things as they are with equanimity isn't right action, its quietism; sometimes action is called for. The appropriate response in the story of the samurai is to admonish the spitter, for to do otherwise reinforces the spitter's perception that such behavior is acceptable. But one can administer the admonishment out of a desired to change society for the better, rather than out of some sense of personal grievance (that would be the Zen way to do it, yes?). The monk is not behaving with compassion towards society. Instead he has taken the easy way out and abdicated responsibility entirely. The behavior of the monk is morally equivalent to someone who permits genocide to happen; the difference is a matter of degree, not kind.

However, this detachment isn't necessarily echoed in other portions of the book. The quotes and anecdotes from the various Zen masters depict engaged individuals. The story of the Abbot and the deer depicts the abbot as living in more than just the now; it also reveals a future orientation. And the principle of Shin seems to indicate that the advanced Zen practitioner is still influenced by emotional considerations.

Really, at this point I'd like to sit down and pick Dr. Austin's brain. He's clearly a smart guy, but there are a lot of contradictory statements throughout the book. I don't think these are "Zen paradoxes" either, but rather just the failure to explain or differentiate concepts sufficiently.

As a side note, I've been chewing over his ideas about the roots of ineffability. I don't think that ineffability results from experiencing something in a different mental state than normal. Words are ultimately arbitrary symbols whose meanings are arrived at by consensus. The ineffability of certain aspects of Zen is a result of the fact that not enough people have experienced them to come to a consensus definition regarding terminology. If the experience of "a crystalline void" was common to large numbers of people we'd have better words to express it.

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