Not to worry—this is not going to be another screed on the politics du jour. But the title, while meant to get your attention, is ironically appropriate to Zen in particular, and to Buddhism in general. For what we challenge in Zen is not only the putative facts being bandied about by politicians—and even the scientific community, as well as the conventional wisdom of the society at large—but the very meaning of factual reality itself. In other words, all “facts” are alternative; this is the nature of duality.
≥÷œ™™™™321 One of our cats just keyed that in for me… a little-known feline factoid.
Our recent guest speaker, Ben Connelly, in reviewing his latest book, Inside Vasubandu’s Yogacara, touched on some of these ideas. We highly recommend it, and may feature it in an upcoming CloudDharma Tuesday evening Skype conference. My comments herein are mine alone, based not on Ben’s excellent exegesis, but more generally on other publications, particularly The Scripture of the Sutra of Underlying Meaning and The Summary of the Supreme Vehicle, from the BDK translation project, also highly recommended reading.
The branch of Buddhist teachings known as Abhidharmaare considered by some to be the “highest teachings,” those that were shared with Buddha’s disciples, rather than the public. They are also regarded as setting out the schema or structure of the Mahayana teachings, and to comprise the content of Buddhist psychology, philosophy or phenomenology. As such, they are not as accessible to conventional understanding as, say, the parables and Precepts, tenets that speak to daily life issues.
One of the basic principles underlying this teaching has to do with the nature of language, and its effect upon our grasp of reality. The Sanskrit term namarupa, which means roughly “name and form,” points to the connection between the language that we learn as children, and the labels that we apply to our surrounding world, as we perceive it. This is why so many of the teachings in Soto liturgy, for example Hsinhsinming from the Ch’an literature, emphasize the inadequacy of language repeatedly:
Words! The Way is beyond language, for in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.
One clarifying exercise is to recognize that our native language is itself essentially arbitrary, clearly a matter of coincidence of birth; and to remember that, to one who was raised with a different tongue, none of our English labels would make sense. Those who are bi- or multi-lingual probably grasp this insight on an intuitive level. That we associate our reality with the concepts named by our native tongue is immediately challenged by understanding that they have entirely different labels in any other language. One such term is “dharma.”
The Sanskrit word dharma has a cluster of connotations, meaning something like “teaching, truth, law, being,” et cetera. It also indicates a take on reality, suggesting that all things occupy a “dharma-location,” or a specific place in spacetime, one that no other being or “thing” enjoys. It also implies that there are real and existent dharmas, as well as real and nonexistent dharmas, as illustrated by Sokei-an, a Rinzai priest who came early to America, and founded the Buddhist Society in America in the 1930s. He pointed out that when a chicken, a dog and a person see a red fire hydrant, only the person sees the red. Where is the red? The fire hydrant is a real and existent dharma; the “red” is a real, but non-existent, dharma. We know what we mean by the color red, but it cannot be “found” in any tangible sense. It exists somewhere between the fire hydrant’s paint and the consciousness of the person. It cannot be found in a specific location. Gold appears yellow because its molecular structure absorbs light from the blue end of the spectrum. All such concepts may be regarded as real, but non-existent.
To complete the logical proposition, which traditionally consists of four parts, one would have to propose that there can also be unreal and existent dharmas, as well as unreal and non-existent things. The former, I suggest, would include certain mathematical formulae as well as theories derived from scientific investigation, such as Einstein’s relativity, expressed in the famous formula E=mc2. It, the relationship, is unreal in that it cannot be “found” in our existence; but the first test of the atomic bomb demonstrated its reality with a bang. The latter, neither real nor existent, may be taken to comprise all sheer imagination: flights of fantasy, stories, dreams and other conjures and magic tricks, which can neither be found in reality, nor demonstrated to exist in some other realm.
It should be remembered, in this context, that during the period the Abhidharma teachings were developed, the state of science did not include the sophisticated instrumentation that we now employ. All such teachings were based upon direct human perception and proto-scientific observation, including the recognition of our perception itself as unreliable; and relying upon the proponents’ powers of analysis, logic and reasoning—deductive, inductive and otherwise. And further, most crucially to Zen, assigning a central role to meditation as the method for penetrating the veil of perception. That so many of the conclusions arrived at are so close to modern understanding constitutes a remarkable testament to the efficacy of Zen’s objectless meditation (J. zazen).
In our assessment of reality in terms of modern physics, we understand that all instances of matter represent a condition of energy—namely “impounded,” as Buckminster Fuller defined it—in thrall to other clusters of energy, whether as electrons circling nuclei; or of mass, as in planets circling the sun. Thus the Ten Thousand Things of the universe would include infinitely more phenomena, in the realm of energy in its radiant, rather than impounded, form. Not to mention “dark” matter and energy, said to comprise the vast majority of the universe, the visible being a very small percentage. These would be dharma fields, causes and conditions, real dharmas, but that do not manifest as objective things.
Returning to the concept of a tangible or provable “fact,” the term derives from the Latin factum, which is a form of facere, which means “do,” which I meant to take action, or to make something. So in trying to establish something as a fact, we are attempting to make it real, and undeniable. However, so-called facts, or their fundamental reality, can be denied—based on the principle of impermanence, for example. That is, even the fire hydrant above is a temporary manifestation of current causes and conditions, one that will change over time, and eventually disappear, to all intents and purposes. The material, molecular, atomic and sub-atomic structure will disintegrate with time under outside forces, the elements scattered to the wind. Of course, according to the law of conservation of energy in modern physics, nothing can actually be added or subtracted from a finite universe. Similarly, according to a line in the Heart Sutra, reality neither increases nor decreases, as a result of our insight.
In Zen, the issue, or problem definition, is not whether or not things exist, but rather how they exist: i.e. by virtue of emptiness. The fact that anything recognizable is constantly changing, though the rate of change may not be perceivable, means that the fact of its existence is an ephemeral thing, i.e., empty of self-existence. Again, things appearing in perception are conventionally real, only if they perform the function designated to them. A lifelike statue of a human being, for example, looks like one, but cannot perform the functions of a human being. This does not mean that if one kicks the fire hydrant, one will not stub one’s toe, however. It is concretely existent in its present configuration.
These various models for analyzing and describing reality usually represent a form of the four logical propositions: that something is; or is not; both is and is not; neither is nor is not. We do not want to fool ourselves into thinking, or believing, that what exists does not; that what does not exist does; nor that what exists does so absolutely and for all time; or that things exist only relatively, and are therefore inconsequential. In the latter case, we would deny karmic causality, which is a no-no in Zen.
Zen thinking does not represent an attempt to describe objective reality, one which obtains and pertains outside of the kin of the observer. On the other hand, Zen does not deny the existence of phenomena that are not accessible to observation. Buddhism has always included the observer in assessing the most important aspects of knowing. What it is that we can know for sure; and cannot know; and what we most need to know; are central to Zen’s worldview. If Buddha’s insight were merely into the nature of existence, and did not include his (read: our) place in it, it would lose its most central meaning and significance. “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form” is not merely an impersonal description of physical reality; it includes us: “Feeling, thought, impulse and consciousness are also like this.” Dogen reinforces this directly:
All this however will not appear within perception because it is unconstructedness in stillness, it is immediate realization…in stillness mind and object merge in realization and go beyond enlightenment.
No intellectual realization, that is, without the complete assimilation of the observer into the observed. No impersonal insight into the nature of things that does not include, most centrally, the person.
The Abhidharma examines this interface—of our consciousness with the outer and inner world—and presents a few modes of knowing, or “patterns” of awareness, for our consideration. One of the patterns is defined as other-dependent: that is, any “thing,” or object, is dependent upon other causes and conditions, residing at the nexus of their influence. A tree, for example, depends upon sunlight, water, earth, and a lack of forest fires, lumberjacks, and other destructive forces, for its existence.
A second pattern is called the imaginary, and would consist of those things that we can imagine but do not actually find in our existence, as objects of our perception. Dreams, et cetera, would obviously characterize this pattern; but on closer examination, our conventional take on reality also proves to be mostly imaginary, even conditioned by our physical surroundings.
The third is called the reality pattern and is dependent upon insight, primarily from meditation, to penetrate through or beyond the deception of the senses, including discriminating mind as the sixth sense. Language and conventional conceptualization are embedded in citta, the thinking mind, bringing us full circle. The reality pattern, then, would involve the simultaneous perception of things as they are, along with the mystery of the “things as it is” of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, as recounted in Crooked Cucumber. In other words, a kind of deep cognitive dissonance on the most personal level. Welcome to Wonderland.
Again, I would modestly suggest that if there are three patterns, there must be a fourth, in order to be logically consistent, or at least to satisfy my aesthetic need for symmetry. It is probably subsumed under the reality pattern as all-encompassing, and again may represent a higher correlation with reality in the light of new information now available to us. This would get back to the “thought experiments” of Dr. Einstein, in which the imaginary illuminates the real and existent, even though they are forces not accessible to direct perception. A line from the Ch’an poem points at this:
To move in the One Way do not dislike even the world of senses and ideas
Indeed to accept them fully is identical with true Enlightenment
Most facts that we accept as such are matters of agreement, usually on the social or communal level, and based on “common sense,” which underscores their sensory derivation. What we are witnessing now in the public arena amounts to an ornery bifurcation—stemming from a politically correct meme that all are entitled to their opinion, and free speech dictates that they are allowed to speak out about it—into arbitrary or alternative facts. The old dictum that you are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts, has been overturned by the bubble society, in which the deluge of sources of information has overcome the necessity for the information to be factual, rather than fake. Another meme is that if no one agrees with you, you are by definition insane, at least on the social level. When one can always find someone else who agrees with their position, however superficial, outrageous, and pulled out of thin air, no individual may be judged insane, opening the door to social insanity writ large. But Zen questions this very notion of sanity, whether on the individual or social level.
In Zen, we examine reality, just the facts, ma’am, on the cushion. We are willing to go out of our mind to do so. We become aware of the dance of sameness and difference, the absolute and the relative, and land in the middle, where one of Matsuoka Roshi’s frequent, catchall expressions becomes germane: “Depends upon…” As Master Dogen reminds, we are finally left with ambiguity.
We face up to our own inconvenient truths, that we don’t know what we most urgently need to know, and that we will not find the answer in the domain of public discourse. We engage in direct apprehension of noumena and phenomena, whether Kantian or not, and proceed along the lines of skeptical knowing and naïve not-knowing. Placing our trust in Mind rather than thinking mind, we exert ourselves (Dogen) “in the way that points directly to” our “original nature.” This is the Zen way.