Zen Buddhism: Its Extraordinary Insights and Total Failures
Over the past several years I have become very interested in the study of consciousness and awareness. This inevitably led me to study Zen Buddhism, along with several other philosophies of life. The philosophy of Buddhism and the practice of Zen offer precious gems of wisdom that can seemingly be found nowhere else. However, the philosophy has also suffered the same detriments as a religious cult, and it’s not uncommon for the Zen Buddhist to claim “logic no longer applies here,” and then leap over that tallest of buildings to some totally unfounded claim.
I’d like to offer a serious analysis of what I believe it gets right and what it gets wrong. Please understand that Zen Buddhism is an extremely broad study and practice. I want to examine the general conclusions of the philosophy, but it would be absolutely impossible for me to examine each sect of a 3000 year old philosophy. If the reader believes I have made an egregious error, please point it out to me, but please forgive my ignorance.
Meditation: The Personal Laboratory
Zen is the Chinese word for meditation, so when we refer to Zen Buddhism, we refer to the large sect of Buddhist who practice meditation. It is an astounding practice that I’ve come to enjoy, even despite the fact that I could not prevent myself from fidgeting if my entire life depended on it.
The most practical purposes of meditation is the ability to witness the world for what it truly is, and the opportunity to deal with emotions as they arise. It is best described as a personal laboratory, a place to test your own consciousness and awareness. A place where you may learn to decrease the power of negative emotions, or a place where you may test the limits of your brain, or simply a place relax. There are no rules here, only that you should enjoy the challenge. Here’s my favorite guided meditation.
Compatibility with Modern Science
Either by pure coincidence or by serious analysis, Buddhist principles paint a picture of how the universe works at its most fundamental levels. It’s widely acknowledged at this point that the things we call particles behave more like waves than they do particles, and I have a hunch that the word particle will eventually be phased out for some better word that defines the stuff the world is made of. You hear many physicists referring to most particles as wave-particles at this point.
Buddhism often refers to the universe as a flow of energy, and that seem to be the fundamental nature of the world. The world is not made up of little balls of energy like we’ve all been brought up to believe — this was always just an assumption, an idea created by the ancient Romans, who coined the term atom, (although they believed all liquids were made up of little balls and all solids were made up of little cubes).
The world is a flow of energy, and although this does not necessarily mean there is some mysterious ether that permeates the universe, it does suggest that the universe is fundamentally a very wiggly thing.
Through meditative insight, Buddhism has suspected this was the case for thousands of years — that the body is in no way separate from the rest of the universe. If you are to ask yourself, where does the rest of the world stop and you begin, there really is no answer here that is not completely arbitrary.
The Inter-Connectedness of All Things
Try to imagine where the external world ends and the internal world called you, begins. We could start at the skin, but under the microscope, we find a rich layer of bacteria swarms your skin. You wouldn’t identify with these bacteria as you, but they play a very important role in our survival by keeping our immune system functioning well. We could continue further under the microscope to find another layer of dead skin cells, which we also wouldn’t think of as us. And the deeper we go, we find it becomes more and more arbitrary to find the point where we begin and the rest of the world ends.
It may be more precise to think of ourselves as a sort of whirlpool of energy, as Alan Watts best described it. We are a single point in space-time where energy speeds up, gets converted into other forms of energy, (kinetic, chemical, thermal, etc), and then passes through into another form of energy. And so the saying, “we are a part of the universe becoming aware of itself,” begins to make a more sense.
And the deeper you explore this idea, the more you begin to realize just how interrelated everything is — this is where the symbol of the ying-yang originates. The concept of light requires the concept of darkness, and vice versa. The concept of sound requires a human ear, or there is no concept of sound. This is the real answer to the question, “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” All sound requires a human ear, for who else would hear it? The rocks? Without an ear, sound is simply a vibration — a meaningless wiggle.
It was likely Buddhism that influenced Albert Camus into developing his philosophical idea of Absurdism — the tendency of man to search for inherent meaning in a world inherently void of meaning.
Alan Watts offers a very enlightening thought experiment where he imagines you have the opportunity to ask God, “what is the meaning of life?” God would reply that the question doesn’t make sense — for you’re asking “what is the meaning of meaning?” It is human beings that place meaning upon the world; the world has no meaning without the judgmental nature of humans.
Alan Watts continues with the thought experiment: so you ask God, “well then what is the question I’m supposed to ask?” And God would reply, “well it seems you’re in search of a problem?”
I find this very enlightening. Human beings, on some fundamental level, are in constant pursuit of a problem. Despite living in a universe that follows logical rules, a universe that contains no paradoxes, and therefore a place where nothing can be inherently “out of place,” we demand a problem to solve. Throughout our entire life, we will always create problems for ourselves. There will never be any prolonged period of time when we do not have at least one problem in our life. Such is the absurdity of human existence.
Buddhism is often called The MiddleWay. It is the mid-point between doing nothing and trying to do everything. It is nearly impossible to do nothing and it is completely impossible to do everything.
Zen has been described as “when hungry eat, when tired sleep.”
A Zen student, upon hearing this from his master asked, “well isn’t that what everyone does already?” The Zen master said, “No, they don’t. When they’re hungry they don’t just eat, but think of ten-thousand things. When they are tired they don’t just sleep, but dream innumerable dreams.”
Zen mirrors Stoicism in many ways; they both adopt a philosophy of curbing as many human desires as we possibly can. It is unwise to expect anything from a world devoid of any meaning. Things happen regardless of man’s opinion of the thing, and so it is unwise to enslave ourselves to illusions like hope and disappointment.
However, curbing our desires is a desire. This is the nature of man; the mosquito biting the iron bull. It is impossible to eliminate all desire and we shouldn’t burden ourselves with such a futile task. And so describes the fine art of living; the razor’s edge of the middle-way. The fine line between trying too hard and trying too little. That is Zen.
The Oneness of the Universe
I must be very careful here, because this statement may not be completely wrong, but it is far too vague a statement to really mean anything.
Let me be clear, it may be true that everything is made of one thing on some fundamental level. If string-theory is expanded upon, we may eventually come to find that everything is made of some mysterious ether that permeates all things, and that we all exist on the same wavelength of energy. But the fact of the matter is that we have to draw the line somewhere; it is impossible for me to identify with some distant star outside of the observable universe. Although my body is constantly shedding particles and picking up new ones, my body will never have picked up every particle in the universe, or even a single particle of anything more unstable than uranium. The universe is very, very big — far too big for this statement to have any real value to human beings.
This is certainly one of the more dogmatic statements of Buddhism; it is no different than saying, everything that is made of wood is all a tree.
There is value from saying that we are a part of the universe, and that we are a part of the universe becoming aware of itself. But that distinction is very important. Some things in the universe are very different than others; and to argue otherwise is to argue for the abandonment of the word different entirely.
In order to find any gems of truth inside Buddhism, one must sift through a thousand pounds of garbage. I would argue that the vast majority of Buddhist practices is akin to beliefs in magic. Like Karma for example; beliefs of a cosmic force tallying your good actions aside your bad actions, and using the results to determine what your next life will be like.
There is also a ring of con-artistry among Buddhist circles, where masters sucker their followers with confusing and blinding language. This leads students to become dependent on masters to show them the way. As soon as the student thinks he’s found the answer, the master is quick to say that he’s doing it wrong and needs more practice, (under his wing, of course).
I hope the reader has learned something here, and for those interested in Zen Buddhism, I suggest you satisfy that interest. Just be sure to take everything you hear with a large pitcher of salt.
- Out of Your Mind, audio from the Alan Watts archives
- You’re It; On Hiding, Seeking, and Being Found, audio from the Alan Watts archives
- Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
- Waking Up by Sam Harris
- The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday
- Square One by Steve Patterson
- PBS Spacetime Youtube Channel