Friday, 4 May 2012

What Is and What Is Not

Zen is seeing what is. It has been argued that we see not things as they are in themselves but only how they appear to us. I reply that to observe that an object appears to be a particular size, shape, colour etc when seen by us is not to deny but to affirm that we see it. If our sensory apparatus were different, then we would see objects differently but would still see them. A galaxy appearing either as a single point of light when seen across millions of light years or as millions of discrete stars when seen from within remains a seen galaxy.

Do we perceive reality or only appearances? I argue that the appearance of reality to us is our perception of reality. “We perceive it” and “It appears to us” are interchangeable. We do not perceive appearances and infer reality but perceive reality. Of course, if our perceptual apparatus differed, then appearances would differ but they would still be reality appearing, not appearances appearing. We perceive not the total reality but those aspects that are perceptible by us. For example, we see not submicroscopic particles but our macroscopic environment, not the whole electromagnetic spectrum but enough for survival purposes.

Mystics disagree about whether ultimate reality is personal but theists do agree that it transcends concepts so we potentially agree that it is variously conceived because it is inconceivable. I argue elsewhere against pre-existent consciousness. Can contradictory propositions, affirming and denying personality, apply to an infinite reality? I suggest that they remain incompatible.

Zen is seeing mental states and interactions. Although we directly know our immediate thoughts and emotions, reflection uncovers deeper dispositions and reveals that conditioning and indoctrination make us see what is not. A badly treated child sees all adults as threats even when they are indifferent or benevolent. Some adults are conscious only of how they appear to others, not of how anyone is. Some see only what they want, or have been indoctrinated, to see. Some cannot see that they are ever at fault or see others only as means, not as ends. Some see only that the world is not as they want but not what to do about it. For example, we can change how we perceive the past but not the past.

Many people do not understand that world views differ, therefore that what seems obvious to them is not obvious to others. Introduced to a Polish man as a “Communist”, not, more accurately, as an unorthodox Trotskyist, I was subjected to a denunciation of the then Polish regime based entirely on the assumption that I supported it. Dialogue was impossible especially with limited time. When I had to leave because of a prior appointment, my accuser apologized on the mistaken assumption that I was leaving because I was offended! 

In a similar conversation with a Polish couple, I was asked whether I had read a particular book by Solzenitsin. I began to reply, “No, but I have read Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed and Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia.” However, I was interrupted after “No…” and addressed as if I had not heard of Stalinist oppression. On reflection, I should have replied, “Yes”, because that was the only point at issue. The couple would later have claimed that they had met a Communist who had not read Solzenitsin, meaning by this that I supported the Soviet Union and knew nothing bad about it. They conversed not with me but with their preconception.

When I did manage to summarize an analysis of Stalinist Russia as state capitalist, not socialist, the friend who had mischievously introduced me as a Communist commented that I sounded as if I was merely reciting a rehearsed response. I sounded like this because I was being put on the spot and had to speak quickly before the next interruption. A proper debate with time for each side to state its case and with attention given to what was in fact being said might have advanced our understanding. What I did learn was that there are people with whom dialogue is impossible. Of the couple, the man “knew” as a fact, not an opinion, that black people were inferior. His certainty on this was frightening.

It makes sense to ask an alleged Communist what he understands by “Communism” and why he supports it. Instead, a vicar in a televised debate with a Communist Party member set out to define both sides of the argument. He stated what he believed, then what (he thought) she believed. Meanwhile, Communist Party politics had changed from revolutionary to reformist. Of course, a complete change of policies should be reflected by a name change. That did occur later while a “New Communist Party” preserved the Stalinist tradition and rival organizations applied different interpretations of the original revolutionary socialist tradition. 

I have been told that by a workers’ democracy with full employment I meant a bureaucratic dictatorship with unemployment, not that the former inevitably degenerates into the latter, as is argued ad nauseam by supporters of political though not economic democracy, but that the latter was what I meant. No. Conversation floundered with no agreed terminology or terms of reference. 

Attention to what is includes attention to what others say and to why they say it, not just to preconceptions based on labels like “Communist” or “Christian”. Assuming that every Anglican is an Evangelical, that every Catholic is a Latin ritualist, that every Muslim is a Jihadist, that every Jew is a Zionist, that every Hindu is an idolater, that every Conservative is Thatcherite or that every American is imperialist would be similar errors.

Introducing myself as a Religious Education Teacher, I was subjected to ridicule of Christian belief in the Resurrection although Religious Studies covers all traditions and can include skepticism about supernaturalist claims. Evangelicals capable only of assuming the truth of their belief cannot present reasons for it, so that again dialogue is impossible, whereas instructors in Zen meditation advise trainees to test Buddhist teaching in their experience. Teachings that do not facilitate perception of what is can be “put on the back burner” unless and until they become applicable: the opposite of a creedal approach.

After twenty three years of practicing zazen, I have started to glimpse the limits of my perception. I had always believed that ultimate philosophical and spiritual questions mattered whereas lesser issues like how to relate to other people socially did not. Thus, I missed the point of familiar teachings: the transcendent is immanent; the beyond is in the midst; the Kingdom is within; Samsara is Nirvana; Bodhisattvas return; eternity is now; all is one; “thou art That”; strangers are gods or angels in disguise, like superheroes with secret identities; mythically, God was incarnate in Vrindavan and Jerusalem – as Arjuna saw his friend’s cosmic form, so Peter, James and John saw their friend transfigured; God manifest, according to a polemic for a more world-affirming Hinduism, is higher than God unmanifest; theses and antitheses are synthesized; abstractions are concretized; dualities are unified; concepts are instantiated; theories are practiced; plans are implemented, at least by us if not also by the gods.

Creativity involves understanding what is by imagining what is not. Insanity involves misunderstanding what is by confusing it with what is not. Thus, a fictitious character meeting a ghost, considering suicide, visiting a graveyard, contemplating a skull, avenging a murder and dying young addresses mortality but anyone claiming to be Hamlet is mad. Some imaginative writers have seen their characters but only momentarily.

Marxists analyze how society is. Capital economically coerces formally free workers to produce more than the value of their labour power and competitively accumulates surplus value but periodically stops production whenever competition reduces the rate of accumulation. Banks do not produce wealth but gamble that others will. Governments manage but do not end capitalism. Workers usually accept but periodically challenge capitalism. Received ideas are questioned when they contradict experience. Living labour, organized by capital to increase capital, can instead organize itself to meet needs.

Buddhist psychological analysis addresses experience. By practicing awareness, we realize our unawareness. Marxist economic analysis addresses alienation. By resisting exploitation, workers realize their power. 

The quantitative difference between society and individuality explains the qualitative difference between unavoidably controversial revolution and universally accessible meditation.


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