Understanding Zen

Written on April 24, 2009. Written by .

Zen is a system of beliefs and practices deriving from Buddhism. It has two primary purposes. From Buddhism it inherits the goal of ending mental suffering through the refinement of thought patterns. In addition to this, Zen incorporates the goal of counteracting “oversocialization” with its own set of techniques. Oversocialization is a term borrowed from the Unabomber manifesto, in which it is described as follows:

“Some people are so highly socialized that the attempt to think, feel and act morally imposes a severe burden on them. In order to avoid feelings of guilt, they continually have to deceive themselves about their own motives and find moral explanations for feelings and actions that in reality have a non-moral origin.”

In addition to moral concerns, there are many purely social concerns that cause similarly deblitating effects, such as constantly worrying about embarassing yourself or offending someone. After incorporating such factors into the definition of oversocialization, the notion behind the article on Fear and Maturity is obtained. In the following, the methods of Zen are discussed in terms of their role in supporting the goals described above.

Goal: End mental suffering. Buddhism utilizes several approaches to end mental suffering. One approach is to live in the present. The justification for this approach is found in the following quote (author unknown): “When I am anxious it is because I am living in the future. When I am depressed it is because I am living in the past.” Fundamentally, the reason it is so important to live in the present is because everything else is primarily about self-control, criticizing past actions and planning for future actions, and as Alan Watts says “any system approaching perfect self-control is also approaching perfect self-frustration”, just as a thermostat whose heaters and coolers are set to the same temperature will fluctuate erratically.

To live in the present, one must learn to stop mental chatter about the past and future. For this Buddhism prescribes meditation, which is a practice based on the explicit goal of quieting mental chatter. Another method for living in the present is the adoption of the belief that the present is all there really is, whereas the past and future are mental abstractions. This idea is sometimes conveyed through the wave analogy – time is like a wave because the water in a wave is just moving up and down, but this creates the illusion of a quantity of water travelling.

Another approach to end mental suffering is to reduce desires and expectations. This is justified by the observation that the less you desire and expect, the less you will have to worry about or be disappointed by. In Buddhism, the reduction of desires and expectations is facilitated by the development of egolessness. Egolessness, in turn, is supported by the belief of non-dualism, which is the view that the separation of yourself from the world is an illusion. This illusion is known as subjective isolation and is thought to be responsible for the fact that people are more concerned about themselves than other things. The concept of non-dualism emerges from the vagueness in the division between volition and involuntary action. The best example is sexual desire. Is it your consciousness that has the desire or is it your body that is convincing your mind to think you have that desire? Perhaps the most reasonable answer is “both”. This suggests that our awareness is not just connected to the physical world through sensory data streams, but is actually an intergrated part of the physical world. This leads to the belief that our consciousnesses do not belong just to our bodies, but to all of the universe because physical reality is just a huge network of interactions without definite boundaries. The perception of a sight is the interaction of a scene with the eye-brain system. There is no convincing reason to draw a line to remove the scene from the picture (pun-intended).

Goal: Counteract oversocialization. The Zen approach to counteracting oversocialization focuses on the prevention of “blocking thoughts”, which are self-doubting or self-inhibiting thoughts about thoughts. For example, you first have the thought that you would like to make a joke, but then you have the blocking thought that perhaps it would be inappropriate. It can get even worse if you have another level of blocking where you question whether you should even be worrying so much about being inappropriate. These blocking thoughts are the symptoms of the memetic virus of oversocialization. It is natural that Zen would be a derivative of Buddhism because the fight against oversocialization is really just a special case of the Buddhist fight against the non-present mind.

Zen encourages the supression of blocking thoughts through the cultivation of unselfconscious spontaneity. Of course, this raises the question of whether this is even a safe idea. What is to stop one’s rude or violent impulses if not these blocking thoughts? The answer is that Zen is intended for audiences who have already internalized socially acceptable behavior. The ideal is to be able to function properly without conscious oversight in social contexts, daily work, and in any other practices.

Zen uses the Koan to teach students in spontaneity. Koans are riddles that have no real answer and usually don’t make any sense to begin with. Any intelligently analyzed responses will be dismissed because the master wants to be shown the answer. The point is to get the student to answer in a spontaneous and natural way, oftentimes without the use of words.

Another way that Zen helps suppress blocking thoughts is by teaching students to overcome intimidation. The practice of sanzen assists in this purpose. It is essentially a formal interview between master and student where the student presents their answers to Koans. The student will often feel embarassed at not knowing the answer and intimidated by the seriousness of the master. One of the underlaying objectives is for the student to be able to act as naturally in these circumstances as any other, which demonstrates the resilience of his mental frame.

So why does Zen have to be so mysterious, why can’t they just explain this up front? I think there are two reasons. One is that people wouldn’t be as interested. People generally need to be strung along to remain interested in something, just dumping the truth on them doesn’t work. In fact, when the truth comes too easily people will often not even bother to comprehend all the truth that is there. Plus, stringing people along allows the masters to get away with not doing any work because the student have to do it all. The other main reason is that the moment of awakening is spoiled if you can see it coming all along. It is just like how jokes are only funny if the punch line comes quickly – if you have to explain it, nobody is going to laugh. Therefore, Zen schools use roundabout means to push you toward awakening without telling you what to look for.

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