Archive for May 2008
If zazen is when you’re on the cushion, and Zen is when you’re not, then the only substantial difference is whether you’re on the cushion or not. If zazen is what we call it when we’re on the cushion, then it doesn’t matter what we call it when we’re off. The key to zazen is if done with Right Intention, the difference between standing and sitting, i.e. between being on the cushion and not, will become clear and empty. To that end, advocating zazen with Right Intention is at minimum and all it means to spread the Dharma.
The key to zazen is if pursued with Right Intention, the difference between standing/walking and sitting, i.e. between being on the cushion and not, will appear clear and empty. Thus Dogen says in the Genjokoan that when Dharma fills this whole body and mind we realize that something’s missing. Not only does this mean realizing our psycho-physical self is empty, but that emptiness is form, and that when we have psycho-physical form it’s only finite, which means temporal and ontologically determined. To that end, we realize that standing is standing and sitting is sitting all because of this, which we already know is nothing special.
Joshu, a novice monk in a Zen monastery, was feeling hungry for some cake. He went to the abbott to ask for permission. Normally, the abbott wouldn’t allow such indulgence, but instead he said to Joshu that he could, if he followed the abbott’s recipe. Joshu agreed to this term, and went with the abbott to retrieve the recipe.
When the abbott gave Joshu the recipe, he quickly scanned it to get a feel for what kind of cake it would be. It had all the standard ingredients for a white cake of some sort, except one of the ingredients was listed as “cake.” Joshu respectfully pointed out the strange ingredient, and asked how this could be. The abbott cheerfully replied that it must have been a mistake, and crossed it out. “You can make it now,” he said.
Joshu thanked the abbott and proceeded to the kitchen, still confused as to how cake could appear on the recipe. When he went through the recipe, mentally checking off the ingredients as he used them, he finally got to the crossed-out “cake,” and it occurred to him again what the abbott said before he left: you can make it now; cake is possible only without “cake.”
Descartes. Brains-in-a-vat. Skepticism. The problem of other minds. Philosophy 101.
The 15 year-old pragmatist in me was already fed up with these sorts of puzzles– “why do you ask?” I would wonder. I can’t help but notice how bothered some people are by the mere thought that reality as they know it might not really be what they think it is. The thought doesn’t bother me like it does them, and far be it from me to impose myself on anyone, but it’s hard not to have something to say about this stuff when people press you for an opinion. Interestingly enough, the last thing they really want you to do is agree with their suspicions. Hell, no. The only reason anyone asks you such stupid questions is because they want to be told they’re wrong. Why ask questions at all though?
Whoever asks questions with the desire or at least openness to being surprised has a sense of someone/thing else really being there. For someone not expecting someone else to really be there, someone like Lacan’s psychotic, the surprise would be an unbearable explosion of the world, the revealing of a hole in what was thought to be wholly imagined. For such a person, a someone else isn’t even a meaningful possibility; the sheer thought of it ruins everything, and they don’t know why.
This is why skeptical doubt, the kind shamelessly suggested in movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show, is least of all a problem. This doubt is the eternal confirmation and seal we so fervently crave, though we forget it periodically when certainty creeps into our world. Without it, we could not know if we were wrong about anything; to be wrong about that which we are certain is not possible without going through doubt.
In this sense, our openness to Others is constitutive of our openness to the world at all. How do we know if we are open to Others, and therefore the world at all? Specifically to the extent that this always remains in question. To this end, Cartesian skepticism and the “problem” of other-minds are hardly problems at all; our doubt is our openness to Others, who may confirm or deny us.
The most recent post over at I cite about Zizek’s tremendous literary output and whether it is “too much” struck me in a different situation. Reading another of Cary Tenis’ advice columns, this time about a woman who apparently likes to engage in risky sexual behavior without telling her boyfriend, a lot of the responses I read appeal to her risky behavior being a problem and it being an indication that she’s living life to the fullest. In this context, at what point does risk transform from being authentically life-affirming to pathological? Moreover, which direction does the transformation move?
If we follow Descartes, we cannot be certain of things “outside” the mind, which are otherwise “objectively present,” though the subjective content of the mind qua mind is minimally certain. Cogito ergo sum.
How is it that I know I am not psychotic, then, if the only content of my mind to speak of appears to me as objectively present? In other words, where is the minimal distance that separates truth from illusion, real from unreal, inside from outside?
Let’s make it clear by thinking of how people usually talk about The Matrix. They talk about being-in-the-Matrix as being different from being-not-in-the-Matrix, or rather, the kind of being of being-in-the-Matrix is different from the kind of being of being-not-in-the-Matrix. Where/what is the difference, but more difficultly where am I going when I traverse the fantasy of that difference?
UPDATE: Being-not-in-the-Matrix is, as far as I’m concerned, an absurd way to talk. Rather, for the sake of having a coherent sense of the world, we should talk about not-being-in-the-Matrix. There is a structural ambiguity here though: how are we to understand the difference between NOT being-in-the-Matrix and NOT-BEING (that is) in-the-Matrix? Is this difference simply a replay of the one I already considered. If the difference alludes you, think of at least two different ways to understand “he saw her with binoculars.” If that alludes you, you’re on the wrong blog.