Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Superlogical

‘Every treasure there is but waiting your pleasure and utilisation. … Yet really there is nothing gained; what you have gained is no gain, and yet there is something truly gained in this.’ (p47)

I have spoken before of the problem of words; how our language can constrain the ideas we can express, and thus determine the very thoughts we can have. Recently, while reading An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D. T. Suzuki, I was struck by how central this idea is to Zen. Suzuki was a Professor of Buddhist Philosophy from Japan who was writing in the first half of the last century, and was a major figure in bringing to the West what he calls ‘the keynote of Oriental culture’ (p35). The whole aim of Zen seems to be, as Suzuki presents it, to break down conventional logic and everything associated with it, to try to bring one closer to a true, real or raw appreciation of the world and oneself. One of the biggest hindrances to this is a dependence on words and names.

The primary issue Zen has with logic is its inherently dualistic nature. Something cannot be both A and not-A: this is perhaps the most basic foundation from which we understand our world. Zen holds that this is a flawed perspective. Thus we have statements from Zen masters like, ‘Empty-handed I go, and behold the spade is in my hands,’ (p58) which on first perusal seem to be entirely nonsensical. Actually, this holds for the second and third perusals too. Through the use of such statements- or little tales of frustrating nonsense from historical masters, called koans- Zen disciples try to break beyond the strictures of rationality; the remarks are not illogical, but superlogical.

For example, a monk asked his teacher, Joshu, “What is the ultimate principle of Buddhism?”

Joshu replied, “The cypress-tree in the courtyard.” (p106)

Suzuki goes on to say there is no symbolism in this, and if you try to follow any path of rational analysis into the koan, the spirit of Joshu will be laughing at you.

The idea that logic is ‘the bane of humanity’ (p69) is extended to the role of language in forming these logical representations of our world. To put a name on something is to fundamentally call it A. But in Zen, it could also be not-A; or, more precisely, neither. Instead, in the Zen view, an object affirms what it is by its very existence, not through the application of a label or a name to that pure or ‘absolute affirmation’ (p68). Similarly, when Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Zen, was asked who he was, he replied,

“I don’t know.” This was not because he couldn’t explain himself, nor was it because he wanted to avoid any verbal controversy, but just because he did not know who or what he was, save that he was what he was and could not be anything else. (p75)

To say anything about who you are constrains the possibilities of what you could be. Your very being is the purest and clearest representation of what you are, according to Zen, and this holds for any object, animal, person, and so on. ‘Even to say it is something does not hit the mark’ (p75). To say, the spade is not a spade, expresses the true state of reality ‘which refuses to be tied up in names’ (p60) more clearly than the logical application of such a label to that object. Such a contradictory statement is intended to challenge our preconceptions of rational thought and open the mind to the possibility of superlogical experiences.

Superlogical experiences? Does that sound a little like the numinous? Indeed it does; in Zen Buddhism these brief moments of transcendence are called satori. When the mind has satori, suddenly the meaning of a koan becomes clear, hitherto unknown regions of the mind are opened up, and logical dualism is outstripped in a regenerative awakening which allows one to see ‘the actual workings of things’ (p109). They are moments of bliss, they bring unshakeable convictions that there is something beyond the intellect, and once they fade, the familiar, mundane world is viewed in a more positive light. Mind you, the only things transcended are the shackles of logic. In Zen the natural world is the only world, and the process of spiritual enlightenment is an attempt to ‘open one’s eye to the significance of it all’ (p85), to see the beauty of Zen in the material world.

To return to the earlier point, the suggestion that the spiritual or numinous experience is indescribable or beyond the scope of language is not unique to Zen; it is found amongst many mystical traditions across the world. In the religious feeling we find the failure of words, and this failure suggests the fallibility of language more generally. In Zen we have a vehement argument against the dominance of labelling and categorisation, so prevalent in our society, and I feel the point is a valid one. Names are all well and good as long as we do not forget, in our analyses and interpretations of those words, the very existence of the things they are trying to represent.

Said Doko despairingly, “I cannot follow your reasoning.”

“Neither do I understand myself,” concluded the Zen master. (p57)

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