Thoughts on Zen and Intellect

In middle-class dominated thinking in the first-world nations, ‘Liberation’ is meant to mean an escape from things, people, situations.  It is a ‘transcendence’ state-of-mind-or-place.’  It is a worldview where there are the ugly world and situation, and the place beyond.  If we think about how the US worldviews are formed, and what has gone into it to form ‘freedom,’ then we must take this definition of ‘liberation’ into account.  It is, from the start, a world of two things, divided in half. One is the ugly real, the other is the ‘free-from….” state-of-mind or place or situation.  What does that liberated space look like? Sound like? Taste like?

Above :  Calligraphy character ‘Nyo’  meaning ‘suchness, likeness, things as they are.’

So escapism is thought to be ‘bad’ and ‘unrealistic.’  Yet most Americans from the United States, chase happiness and joy and fun and success.  Perhaps without even knowing what these things mean and what they do to us and each other, we continue to do them.  Maybe it’s more like mimicking, pretending, following what everyone else is doing.  So we can become a famous basketball star, or a movie star, or make oodles of cash as a lawyer or a computer software engineer.  Or perhaps we invent something.  Mimicking and going along is easier than, perhaps, thinking and reflecting on what has happened and how we have gotten to where we are.  Mimicking is also easier when there is exclusion and marginalization that goes on being that way and is supported by the way policies, laws, and money flows in support of those ideas while being different may create a loss of being supported by them.  Non-thinking, then, becomes a survival tool in a country such as the United States.  Escapism becomes easier and perhaps necessary when all the pain of covering our enlightened selves up with cultural assumptions and legacies, buries us.  Does partying, addictions, drugs, alcohol, depression, physical illness, mental illness, begin out of thin air?  Are individuals solely responsible for being this or that?  What of history?  And if we question liberation, and what this means, in this contexts of the other questions, what does liberation mean?  Are there other definitions? practices? and cultural norms related to liberation?  For instance, liberation is not a goal, but a way of life.  Am I constantly escaping?  No.  Because my thoughts of liberation are based on history, justice, and other ideals that do not match the predominant notion of liberation.  Liberation is an act that requires GOING INTO, not escaping, in my worldview.  This is decidedly Zen.  With Zen teachers, often when we have some sort of pain in mind or body that comes up, we were admonished to go there into the pain and become it.   We had to trust the Buddha’s enlightened view on the world – that is was ‘impermanent.’

Zen practice revolves around disciplined actions designed to realize the multiple ways in which we keep ourselves from understanding our enlightened state.  This ‘enlightenment’ that Zen speaks of, is often equated with ‘heaven’ in the predominantly Anglo and white-dominated countries.  There has been no deconstruction of their own histories in relation to worldview and politics, history and the creation of self.  As I have mentioned earlier, mindfulness practice needs to include historical and political study within a focus on power relations and how ideas and dominant societies have been formed.  Without this, the interior practice alone may make an interesting anomaly in identity and self, but render it ineffective for social change.  And is social change something that Zennists and Buddhists want or understand? Presently, I think Buddhism and Zen in general, suffers from the individualisms within the contexts of dominant first-world nations that make up the majority of practitioners in the Western nations.  It refuses, still, to look at its history which is largely unfathomable.   I remember Masao Abe, a pre-eminent philosopher which expounds on Zen and Western philosophy, asked his audience in a talk  some time ago, which went something like this:  “Imagine an eyeball that still works, floating in space by itself.  It sees everything.  It travels, it can see all angles unhindered by anything.  What is the one thing it cannot see?”

Seeing, really seeing, takes understanding in time, of time.  Time and space, being related, then can see different positions, actions, effects, causes and configurations, that make up any moment of the present.  This, I feel, has been in the Buddhist scriptures as an aspect of enlightenment.  But enlightenment, under the system of progress and evolution, has become a goal to reach.  In that life of reaching goals, we quickly use that as a point of domination against those that ‘haven’t gotten it yet.’  What signs do we have to tell ourselves we are closer to enlightenement?   Usually they are materialistic, or based on a metaphysical feeling, or sets of assumptions.  This too, I’m afraid, is not enlightenment at all.

But we must trust in our judgements too.  Pure spaces do not exist.  The Buddha, like other leaders, died of poisoning, according to the Buddhist records.  He did not escape being accidentally poisoned.  He lived with suffering as well.  At this juncture,  then, the intellectual aspect of our ‘knowing’ must be questioned.  Some stupid people have labelled Zen as ‘anti-intellectual.’  Nothing could be further from any truth than that.  However, since the United States is primarily an anti-intellectual country, where movie stars are asked for their opinions on world issues in favor of, or perhaps equal to a university professor who may have spent their whole lives on that subject, Zen seems to act as a further intensity towards feeding anti-intellectual energy and furthers acts of refusing to face history.  ‘History and my life must mean something else.  It can’t mean the suffering I have seen and felt so far. I need to get there without thinking about it.  I need heaven.’

Post-structural and post-colonial thought, brings complexity and ethics to the question of being in our own prisons that were made in the past.  Our assumptions of history, the human being, emotions, the body, etc. are divisions and categories that may limit creativity and keep the imagination in prisons.  New ideas are not necessarily creative.  They can be new forms of the old things.  How, then, must we read, interpret, think, feel, create?  I say, first we must grapple with that which is unknown, unfathomable, and not reach-able by the known ways.  This is what the old Zen masters meant when they retorted:  If you want to catch the Tiger’s cub, you must enter the Tiger’s cave.

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