Re: virus: Lakoff lecture: Q & A period

Lee Daniel Crocker (
Thu, 13 Mar 1997 12:51:22 -0800 (PST)

I have resisted becoming involved in the Zen discussions here, because
I don't have time to counter the most egregeous misunderstandings, and
little evidence that those proffering them are really interested. I'll
take this opportunity now, though, because you seem to be halfway there
and open to the idea, but still carry some misconceptions.

I have followed Zen practice formally (in the Soto school) and
personally (I sit Zazen every morning) and popularly (various books).
I also study and admire Rand, though my own epistemology is closer
to Popper and the pan-critical rationalists than to hers (though they
generally reach the same conclusions). I therefore feel qualified to
give my own impressions.

1. Zen is not Buddhism.

Buddhism was the popular culture in which Zen arose, in the same
sense that Christianity is the American popular culture. But it
would be mistaken to call someone a Christian just because he closes
his store on Sunday and celebrates Christmas. If Zen had arisen in
America instead of the orient, I'm sure it would have adopted more
Judeo-Christian traditions instead of Hindu-Buddhist ones. The
fact that most Zen students are Buddhists is not essential to it.

Zen is much more related to early Taoism, though modern Taoism has
degenerated into a panoply of gods and dogmas that would make it
unrecognizable to Lao-Tsu or his followers. Zen practice, though
usually undertaken in Buddhist surroundings, is really all about
the practice itself, not about the trappings. Will you hear sutras
and learn the noble truths in a Zendo? Sure. But such teaching is
simply a convenient method for achieving Zen experience, and not a
fundamental part of the practice and experience itself. I could
start a Zendo that used the Bible instead, or Feynmann Lectures on
Physics, or any other "teaching" that exercised the mind to prepare
it for Zen practice.

To attack Zen on the basis of Buddhist dogma would be, in Rand's
terms, the fallacy of definition by non-essentials. Of course most
followers of Zen may in fact "believe" the Buddhist dogma as well.
But not the enlightened ones. There are many stories of Zen master
being deliberately un-Buddhist, such as the one who through a wooden
statue of Buddha on the fire because he was out of firewood.

2. Zen is not philosophy or epistemology in the modern sense

Students of Zen must have their own personal epistemologies of
course, but then so must everyone. Buddhist dogma has served that
role for many, but objectivism would be every bit as compatible. In
fact, many perceptions of Buddhism can be viewed through objectivist
glasses as not very different (though Buddhists then postulate
different conclusions). For example, I interpret "suffering is
caused by desire" to mean desire for things to be other than they
are; i.e., suffering is caused by evasion of reality. When a roshi
tells you to quell your desires, he does not mean to become a poor
ascetic (although some have), but rather, to focus on the experience
and activity of your mind and body in the moment. Some masters did
preach asceticism, and this is compatible with Buddhist doctrine in
which monks may not work or hold riches. But Zen master Dogen, for
example, refused to eat when his students hid his tools from him,
chastizing them for desiring that he should live without working.

The philosophy or epistemology that a student brings to Zen practice
need never change, and Zen itself is compatible with any of them. It
is not a specialized application of the mind, but rather a way to
experience those applications and processes from the outside; a way to
learn to perceive directly, and to experience one's own cognition.
What one then does with those faculties later is philosophy.

3. Zen has no purpose

Zen was used to train ascetic monks, and to train Samurai. It is
quite adaptable to both, or to any other way of life. Zen-trained
fighters can be more effective than philospohically-trained ones,
because even if philosophy was used to determine the movements, using
such processes in battle slows the mind; far better to study the
moves in a book so that you can repeat them, then experience them
directly in your muscles, and experience the opponent's moves and
your responses directly, and train yourself to produce the proper
reactions without conscious thought. Saves precious seconds. It may
not be as directly useful in such professions as, say, Objectivist
philosopher, but it is certainly not incompatible with them.

4. The Satori experience is very real

The physical experience that various Zen schools call Satori, or
sudden enlightment, or pre-conceptual experience, is a very real and
very powerful phenomenon. It is hard to describe, and harder still
to teach others how to get there; that Zen teachers ever accomplish
this is amazing. In fact they don't really teach it so much as
create an environment for the student in which he is more likely to
discover it for himself. That's why personal, question/answer forms
are ideal--the teacher can see exactly where the student is, and
manipulate the environment to his needs. What "use" there is to
this experience is a matter of philosophy.

My own first Satori came on a beach in Fiji, in the evening, when I
happened to look up at the stars. A moment later, I began concept-
forming; I remembered I was in the southern hemisphere for the first
time, and that the stars weren't organized the way I was used to
seeing them, and so I began to organize them. But for those first
few millisenconds, I just /saw/ the stars, and nothing else. I've
been able to recreate that experience since with some difficulty,
but I have no doubt this is what Zen masters call Satori. It would
be interesting to have a portable PET scanner on the brain of a Zen
student all day for years, so that we might record what that looks
like, but for now, you'll have to take my word for it that it is as
real as rocks and trees.

In short, the practice of Zen, i.e., sitting Zazen and studying
under those who have experience of it, can be a valuable tool to
understanding the nature of mind and body, and is not incompatible
with any particular use of them. One can be a Zen Buddhist, or a
Zen Christian, or a Zen Objectivist, or a Zen Extropian (I'm
personally somewhere in between those last two).

> Zen Buddhism is set up to create nurturers, empathetic people, our
> of people raised in a Strict Father tradition (Japan). It has to
> _use_ the Strict Father tradition to achieve it, but with koans which
> deconstruct the whole system at the same time. Zen teaches empathy: beign
> the rock or the tree. The system doesn't work so well in the US--need a
> more nurturant approach. Which drives Japanese viewers of American Zen
> practice nuts.
> Tibetan Buddhism is very different: you learn trust by giving in
> to hierarchy. Very different from Zen.
> Zen claims you can get beyond your own conceptual system and
> perceive directly. This is empirically false--you can't perceive without
> a conceptual system. But you _can_ NOTICE your own conceptual system, and
> change it.

Lee Daniel Crocker <>