Sunday, 30 December 2018

The Mirror and The Seashore

Thoughts. Mind. Thinking. No-thoughts. No-mind. No-thinking. 

Within Zen Buddhist and Taoist thought worlds there are two metaphors: these are those of the mirror and the seashore. They serve similar purposes: to promote ideas of non-attachment to thoughts and the refusal to be bound by any thoughts, ideas or narratives at all. This is not a vision of the mind which is about the attainment or collection of things and so the agglomeration of something denominated ‘knowledge’. Indeed, it is one which privileges the refusal to hold anything at all within something we might call our mind. The mirror, for example, is a reflecting surface. It does not hold what it captures. It simply reflects it back. In a similar way, the seashore is caressed by the sea which may, from time to time, deposit items upon it. But the seashore, in this case, is indifferent and unconcerned about this and is happy to let that which is left upon it stay indefinitely or be just as easily swept away again. The metaphors of mirror and seashore encourage non-attachment, being dispassionate and acting without action.

In his book Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, towards the end, Friedrich Nietzsche has the following aphorism:

“Life as the yield of life. - No matter how far a man may extend himself with
his knowledge, no matter how objectively he may come to view himself,
in the end it can yield to him nothing but his own biography.”

I see in this thought a mentality compatible with that of the Zen Buddhists and Taoists above. For what is it to imagine that a path of life yields nothing but the tracings of where it has been, a biography? Is it not to look disapprovingly on the notion that one may have collected up things egotistically regarded as ‘knowledge’ or ‘truths’ and to count them all as vanity? In this aphorism Nietzsche is agreeing with the past, present and future versions of himself that human beings are prey to many powerful illusions and that they should regard them all as exactly that and treat them accordingly. Here it is noteworthy that Nietzsche, in general, did not so much think of thoughts in terms of true or false but in terms of therapeutic valuations: he wanted to know if such things promoted health or disease in the human being and in human culture generally. Already when Nietzsche had written this aphorism in the late 1870s he had written of the human being as that creature which is a matter of will and desire where, for such a being, it doesn’t matter much what illusion they become attached to so long as it gives them a feeling of power and of control.

Yet it is just such power and control that, it seems to me, the Zen Buddhists and the Taoists are looking to give up. They think these things to be some of the “illusions that we have forgotten are illusions” which is what Nietzsche calls those things we denominate truth in an essay he wrote earlier in the 1870s. Taoists, for example, speak of and value the idea of ‘wu wei’ a great deal. ‘Wu wei’ is best translated into English as ‘actionless action’ rather than the often common ‘non-action’ since, so I am led to understand, it is not a concept which means doing nothing. Instead, the Taoist practitioner is imagined as an active participant in the things of life - yet not as someone with micromanaged intentions. This is seen as a matter of genuineness or authenticity in a conception of the whole that is the existence of all things in which ‘emptiness’ is seen as the source of all possibility. From such a point of view desires, will, intentions, attachments, are all barriers to possibility and enemies of becoming because they impose upon people mental structures which limit their abilities to see, to imagine, to participate and to dream. In effect, the Taoist asks why we should put up mental walls or restrict ourselves by means of entirely thought-based schemes when nothing about our universe of experience itself imposes such things or presents them as inherent to life itself. The situation, whatever the situation is, is not limited to the things we immediately, or even reflectively, think about it. There is no equation of thought and reality. This is, in turn, to concede, as the theologian and philosopher Jack Caputo does, that there is nothing we think that is not an interpretation.

But if there is nothing we think that is not an interpretation then this surely also means that there is nothing that we think that is not partial - in at least two senses. First, an interpretation is our’s, and not someone else’s, and, second, because of the first reason it is also much, much less than the whole, the whole which would be all the possible interpretations. Realising this, we now see, once again, how becoming attached to things or desiring things is actually a restriction of possibility. In fact, it is the imposition of a fiction simply because we become attached to it, either because we want to be through desire or will or because we are not sufficiently detached from it to see it as simply an interpretation. It would be like trying to become like a mirror that wants to possess the image it reflects or like a seashore which wants to retain the items the sea spits out onto it. Yet such a seashore, if it did this in reality, would soon become cluttered. Over time, it would cease to be the empty expanse next to the sea upon which things might occasionally be washed and would, instead, become a dumping ground, a tip, a public dustbin. The seashore as mind would actually impair its own ability to be that which it is. In Nietzsche’s terms, we would then be able to diagnose the habits of attachment, will, intention and desire as unhealthy and disease-inducing habits. So, actually, refusing to hold onto things, taking a detached attitude to the action of the sea of life as it sweeps across our minds, turns out to be good for the seashore, the seashore that is mind. The thoughts may come and the thoughts may go, the actions of a mind that is thinking, but we do not need to accept them or be under their tyranny. We are not forced to hold onto them them or take them seriously anymore.

There is another saying that comes from these Eastern philosophies and it is the following: “the no-mind thinks no-thoughts about no-things”. It seems, to me at least, to be a riddle and yet I imagine that in this brief essay I might have had some thoughts which illuminate its meaning. Zen Buddhists and Taoists know well that we have minds and we think thoughts. The Buddha himself, in fact, is said to have said that “we are what we think”. (He also said ‘there is nothing to stick to’ which is relevant but a whole other story!) This, indeed, is why I imagine such philosophies are so concerned with thinking in the first place. But, that being the case, it suggests that mental hygiene and psychological health are of primary importance for these most therapeutic of spiritualities in which peace and enlightenment are the highest personal goods and the most valuable possessions. This saying, I think, encapsulates the lack of attachment and refusal of imposed narratives that I have already spoken about. It encourages actionless action and loss of intention and a ‘letting things be’ that is hard for people used to ‘gaining knowledge’ or ‘understanding things’ to accept. They only ever do these things to use them in accordance with their own intentions and desires and attachments in the pursuance of some imagined necessity they call “making sense”. Rarely, however, do they question the narrative, and the values, which have motivated them to imagine that this was the purpose of thinking or the mind in the first place. We have here, then, a completely different way to see the world. But you should not then think that this Eastern way is ‘the right way’ where the other, more Western, one was not. 

For then you will only have fallen into the same trap all over again.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

On Reconciling Bible Texts

In the New Testament the death of Judas Iscariot, the supposed betrayer of Jesus, is recorded more than once in differing books. The accounts differ in a way that is hard to reconcile. But should we be trying to reconcile them in the first place? And what can we say about this man and his death in terms of history anyway? Finding this discussed in an online blog, and reading the numerous comments below which fixated on the matter of reconciling biblical texts, I replied with my own answer which is reproduced below:

Having read the blog and the comments I see lots of chat about "reconciling accounts" - all as if Christian texts existed inside some historical bubble - but very, very little about two, to my mind, very much more important subjects. The first of these is that history is public and open not private and closed and the second is that accounts of the kind we find in the Gospels and Acts are, right down to the very soles of their boots, matters of interpretation.

Now what should we take these points to mean? Well, firstly, on the history point, we should stop reading the Bible as if it acted as vouching for itself. This is cheating and giving it a pass you wouldn't give any other book you thought contained historical recitation. Its special pleading. History is public and open. If something happens its not only Christians who might see it or hear about it. Yet the fact of the matter is that whole swathes of the New Testament's reportage are only recorded in the New Testament. In other words, it lacks third party verification or even simple public verification. Did Jesus do A,B or C? Did he appear to 500 people at once, some of whom are still alive? Well, on the latter point, Paul might say so but no one else in the entirety of recorded public history does! This, I suggest, is a problem that needs to be taken seriously unless you want to be prey to the accusation of simply believing things because they got written in a book. In which case why not believe Heracles killed a Hydra or Odysseus tricked and blinded Polyphemus? History has exactly zero to do with what adjectival accolades you may want to accord the text of your special book and everything to do with public verification.

Second, interpretation goes all the way down, as Jack Caputo demonstrated most saliently in a book he published this year called "Hermeneutics" (which I heartily recommend). This might be as simple as thinking of yourself watching some public event and then being asked for your report of what happened. Ask nine other people and I think no one would be surprised to find that no two reports were the same. But, going deeper than that, ask those same ten people for the motivations of the people they observed and what they thought of the people they observed and, I imagine, no one would be too surprised if different opinions, perhaps even convictions, emerged again. These observers are interpreting events. Indeed, their ability to interpret is what is facilitating their ability to answer the questions they are being asked and to form opinions.

We see that in the Gospels too. Jesus asks the disciples in Mark who people think he is. They don't all give the same answer. Frankly, it would have been very suspect if they had because I doubt any of us reading this would find it realistic to think that absolutely everybody who ever encountered Jesus or who heard a story about him came to the same conclusions about him, took the same stance towards him or accorded him the same motives for what he was doing. People are interpreters. They cannot avoid being interpreters. Interpretation enables our ability to have opinions and express beliefs. And, what's more, none of us start off as blank slates for we all stand in traditions which inform our views. But now is not the time or place to get deeper into that. I recommend you check out Caputo's book though for more.

Where does this leave us? I'm not sure. But I think that if it leaves us relying on dogmas of Bible truth, or, worse, its inerrancy and infallibility, things which, all by themselves, absolutely and utterly mandate that we treat it like some sort of puzzle where we have to make all the pieces fit, then we are in a very bad place indeed. Its time to grow up from such ways of reading and be more adult about it. We have to be able to take on the chin ideas such as that a lot of the New Testament is straightforwardly, and for all time, historically unverifiable. We have to accept that some people see things this way and others see it another. Even within the covers of the same book. Better an attainable honesty than a duplicitous dogma.