Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

[pc monk] Teacups and cherries

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

This is one version of an oft-repeated teaching story about Zen. I have to admit, I think it is pretty accurate when it comes to describing my "barriers" - they are all within me.

Some of what is in my cup is my resistance to anything that smacks of the supernatural, however metaphorical or mythpoeic it is intended. The Six Realms, full of devas and titans and hungry ghosts, may only be allegorical (although I guess the Dalai Llama only rejected them as actual locations in 1993), but that part of me that rejected the Roman Catholic mysteries as silly superstitions still wants to reject these as well.

Some of what is in my cup is my resistance to anything concerning a reality beyond that which we encounter and can perceive. I have grounded myself in the "what is, is" positioning and I find it hard to accept or enter belief structures that include an unseen, unfelt, or otherwise unavailable "true reality." The mechanistic model of Epicurus is strong in me.

Some of what is in my cup is my resistance to any system with something ineffable at its core. I do rhetoric all the livelong day; there is a great part of me invested in the power of words, and that something so important and so central to the living of life could escape that power is hard to swallow.

And yet.

As I was pondering this on a walk to the lake today, the thought came to me that the touchstones of the positivist approach - empiricism, observation, reason itself - are all man-made constructs, with no "true reality" greater than anything else. When you come right down to it, although cause-and-effect (for example) is a pretty useful and reliable concept, it's just a human-made description of the universe as it presents itself. There's no way of really knowing whether it's right or not (vide Hume) and it certainly doesn't have an existence of its own. I think I am beginning to understand what a colleague of mine, a PhD in physics, means when she says she isn't sure whether she believes in the scientific method.

I can understand this intellectually; I feel so strongly about it that it is one of the layers of meaning to my tattoo. Why does it still impede me on some other level (emotional? energetic?) when I try to consider alternate ways of understanding? This will take some thinking about - or perhaps not-thinking about.

A note about cherry-picking:

Let's say a person is looking for direction and a belief structure, and is drawn to Roman Catholicism because there is some resonance there - the rituals, the professed charity, and the imagery all have some sort of appeal, without any foreknowledge. The person reads about RC, talks to some Catholics, and so on, and after a bit says "Well, I like the turning the other cheek bit, that sounds good, and the rich man not getting into heaven bit (although I am going to see that as a metaphor instead of a reality), but I can't get into transubstantiation - that wine doesn't turn into blood! - and I'm not at all sure this Jesus fellow was god, either. But a lot of it looks good to me; I'll try it."

This person may have found some solace and some guidance, but it seems to me that what they have not done is begin to practice Roman Catholicism. If the intent was immersion in a system to try it out and assess it, that hasn't happened.

This is what I referred to as cherry-picking, and this is what concerns me about it: that the temptation would be great to pick those elements of a new system that reinforced already-held notions and to leave behind the more challenging ideas that might actually lead to real change in our thought. It can be comforting to find "new" things that merely reinforce what we already think, leaving us in our comfort zone with only an illusion of growth. But really striking out to new territory to gain a different perspective is difficult - and can be scary, too.

This is what I meant by "integrity" in my last post - nothing about honesty, but rather a sense of the structural soundness of a system being an integral part of experiencing and assessing it.

Of course, when it comes to RC, the system is pretty well laid out for us to examine, try on, and accept or reject. With Zen Buddhism, and its kill-the-Buddha, make-your-own-way approach, it seems to be a little muddier, almost as if cherry-picking from what has come before is what we're supposed to do.

Well, maybe we'll try that.

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