A Zennish Discussion

The following is a transcription of email correspondence between myself and John Freeman.  I’ve made no changes except to correct typos and misspellings, and in one case, to substitute the noun “crackpot” for the indefinite pronoun “anybody.”  I had intended to end the compilation with a response from John, but he wasn’t having it.  The whole discussion developed from his interest in (and my plans to send to him a copy of) my new book, Practicing Zen without a License.

It was my intention to show a couple of good and concerned minds debating these topics, the sort of debate it’s very hard to find examples of nowadays.  It’s a bit long, but then again you can quit reading when you want to.

 The business about “Mississippi John Freeman” refers to my having used a concept of his in the book, and referring to him by that name when I did so.  I meant it as a compliment, but neglected to ask him beforehand, so am very fortunate that’s how he took my reference.

 I’ve allowed some subject matter irrelevant to the main subject to remain in the letters—primarily discussions of the nature of publishing nowadays, and of the difficulty in staying healthy and happy as one ages.  Although I’ve done so mainly because I didn’t feel adequate to surgically removing said subject matter, perhaps it will convey that the discussion is not occurring in some farfetched abstract realm, but between two people who have very real lives.

 There are some slightly confusing back-and-forths which result from one or the other of us answering a previous email before reading the newest, but I think most readers will be able to follow the thread well enough.

jack,

i am intrigued about this zennist doctrine of which you speak. i’ve

always been a hard core westerner in my psyche, though i’ve achieved some

blending with the oriental through my studies of jung.

i understand completely what you’re trying to tell me about publishing. i

finished my fourth book and began sending it out–eight publishers in

all. most of them tell you up front that they won’t respond unless they

want the book. after not hearing from them for what is nearly a year now,

i can’t seem to get motivated to send it out again. i don’t get the same

excitement out of publisheing i used to, especially in magazines. i

constantly forget when i send stuff out to mags, and when i get an

acceptance, i’m surprised and only vaguely remember sending it.  all of

my creative energy at prresent is directed toward getting this press

going. in fact, i’m losing interest in myself as a poet. my passion is

for changing the direction of poetry rather than making a personal mark

on it.

i don’t mind confrontation, and i’m hoping the press will be plenty

confrontational. the zombis need somebody to slap them around, even if

only verbally.

love, john

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Dear John–

That’s pretty much the same as my experience with publishing.  I’ve been plenty confrontational in the past, as you know.  Now I have been battered and pretty much wrecked (hasten to say I feel happy enough) in that arena, and I simply can’t bring myself to care any more, though I deeply admire the warriors like you.

One of the things that a self-respecting human gets tired of in the publishing competition is continually being expected to kiss the asses of people who are stupider and less talented.  It’s a requirement, it really is, and I quit being able to do it.  If you’re a dumb-ass jerk, you’re a dumb-ass jerk, I don’t care how many awards you’ve been given or what you’re editor of.

If you say so, you get trashed.  So I just quit talking to them completely.

I think the division between “Western” and “Eastern” is another one of those pseudo-divisions.  Insofar as I follow zen, I do so because it makes more plain sense than any other approach.  But I insist on deciding for myself, even in zen.

Oh well, you’ll see.  Should mail the book today.

I’m excited about your publishing house.  It’ll be mighty nice to have a force for honesty and talent at work in the world.  Good for you, warrior.

Love, Jack

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Dear John–

Occurs to me you’re just about the perfect reader for Practicing Zen without a License:  hardheaded, intelligent, skeptical of Authority, possessed of a wicked sense of humor.  You’ll get all the jokes and references, laugh at the buffoonish dimness of those supposed masters, “the editors.”

I think human buffoonery is innate, and therefore can never be eliminated by any theology or metaphysical model, no matter how elegant and accurate.  A fool possessed of a sensible theology is still a fool in my book.  No reason not to prefer one’s theologies sensible, though.

–If you will allow me the laziness of referring to all metaphysical models, even the atheistic ones, as “theologies.”  We don’t have a word for the category they all belong to, and I don’t want to have to keep repeating “metaphysical models, metaphysical models” every time I talk about the matter.

I prefer zen of all the theologies I have encountered because of what I take to be its insistence on observation and deduction rather than mumbo-jumbo (which is not to deny that quite a few intentional and unintentional mumbo-jumbo masters have  jumped on the zenwagon).  In my view also, zen at its best illuminates the limits of reason, the difficulties of fact.

What I intend as the book’s core is what I would describe as the four pillars and the one behavioral (or moral) injunction.  Even one of my favorite sutras, the Diamond Sutra, mentioned several times in the book, seems to me completely deducible from pillars one and two.

The rest is frippery, but I would hope entertaining frippery.

Love, Jack

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jack,

perhaps you could explain zen to me succinctly. i have never been

interested in eastern philosophies because of what may be a misconception

on my part. my take on easternism is that it is a form of abdication of

responsibility for others. the object seems to avoid doing harm so as not

to suffer karmic punishment, or to do good only to gain karmic brownie

points. western philosophy, particularly christianity (the true form, not

the american cultural religion which is so despicable), posits that one

should take an active role in the welfare of others, and from the

motivation of love, not personal gain. i prefer a god who loves rather

than a cosmic bean counter. i am a christian in every way but the

requisite faith itself. i don’t believe in the mythology, much of it

man-made rather than biblical (though i don’t doubt the possibility of

jesus being a supernatural as well as natural being), but i cling to the

ethic.

john

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Dear John–

As you know I was raised Southern Baptist.  I have come to the opinion that no matter what reason teaches, the habits of faith trained in childhood do not alter.  Consequently, I am, like you, Christian in all but name and belief in the obviously trumped-up supernatural crap.

In my view, there is no conflict between Christianity and zen, if both are properly understood.  I’m quite certain there are frauds and bullshitters and people playing the I’m-more-spiritual-than-you-are game in all sorts of Buddhism, including zen.  No big leap to say so, since I concluded something similar about Christianity many years ago.  In my view, this is human nature.

There are a lot–I mean, a LOT–of Baptists and Buddhists who would point out that I am no expert.  Indeed, I say as much in the book with regard to zen.  Supposedly zen enlightenment can be passed down only by hands-on transmission.  I have never received such a transmission, so maybe I have it all wrong.  Please take anything I say with that in mind.  I am talking only about my own flawed human perception of zen.

Basically, to me, zen makes sense, which is why I follow it (according to my lights).  It does not demand that a person accept a whole bunch of counterfactual bullshit.  I would describe the essence, briefly, as being the Four Pillars of zen, what I call its one moral injunction, and the Buddha’s insight regarding the emptiness of being (which, as I say, I think is totally derivable from the Four Pillars).

To digress for a moment and speak of your remarks about avoiding harm to others merely in order to gain spiritual brownie points, and seeking to do good to avoid bad karma:  As I am at pains to say in the book, those two characteristics seem to me the hallmark of Christianity as most people practice it, and not at all of zen.  In other words, the situation is exactly the opposite.

Now I understand that a true Christian, as opposed to the ones I call Christianoids, isn’t after brownie points, and is truly concerned about others, not just trying to get into heaven.  But the same sorts of things may be said about true followers of zen and fake ones.

As I repeatedly say in the book, the vision of karma as being you get handed bad karma if you do bad and good if you do good resembles more nearly the Christian scheme of sin and punishment.  In my view, karma is the inevitable result of existence.  I liken it to turbulence.  If it makes sense to speak of zen apart from the practice of zen (and really, I think it doesn’t), it is humans who assign the “good” and the “bad.”  Karma itself is just a concept that models the behavior of existence.  It’s just a law, like action and reaction in physics.  It is impossible (I also point this out in the book) to identify a set of behaviors that have no “bad” consequences, and impossible to identify a set that has no “good” consequences.  In LLR, Charles Morrison decides not to go to a party that a woman he’s attracted to is having.  He is faithful to Lianne.  But his faithfulness is what makes the other woman so angry that she has Lianne murdered.  So his good behavior, which I whole-heartedly approve of, nevertheless had disastrous consequences.

I’m convinced that’s the way the world works, and that being the case, although I strongly prefer doing the morally right thing when I can, nobody can pride themselves on having only “good” karma.  It isn’t good karma or bad karma that the masters seek to avoid.  It’s karma itself, which can only be avoided by non-existence, being off the wheel of desire.

Oh, this is all so connected.  That’s one of the things I hoped to do in PZ, is show some of the connections between the concepts.  I have considered all the arguments I could find, and I try to do them justice in the book (while staying amusing and worth reading).

Nevertheless.  Okay.  Preface aside, I will jump in.  Zen, Jack’s short take.

The Four Pillars of Zen.  I refer to them as the four axioms, myself, which seems more accurate.  Here they are:  1)  Nothing exists in isolation; everything depends on everything else; 2) Everything changes (NO exceptions); 3) Life is suffering.  4) Things are what they are (and not, for example, what we think they are, or what the winner of the argument says they are).

To me these are simply the four plainest and most obvious facts about existence ever stated.  It’s impossible to make a good argument against 1) and 2) I think.  Even though all our science is based on the arbitrary designation of “objective” and “subjective.”  I don’t think there’s any such thing as a part of the universe that is completely separate from all the other parts, so I do not think there is such a thing as true objectivity.  For me, science boils down to the same basic principles I use for everyday life:  I trust statements more if I can find a way to independently verify them, and I trust honest people more than frauds and fakes.  Some people might argue about 3), but it’s true to my experience, and what I have seen of others’ lives.  In my view it doesn’t say that there’s nothing good about life, or that we should not celebrate beauty.  It just says that you’re a damn fool if you expect to live and never have any trouble.  It says that pain and grief and trouble and loss are inevitable.  It says that even when you get what you thought you wanted, it turns out not to make you as happy as you thought it would.  Jesus said, Offenses must needs come, but woe to him by whom they come.  That seems right in line with 3) to me.  You know how terrible it is to realize something you did hurt another person, even if you didn’t mean it to?  That’s the woe.

Some followers of quantum physics might argue against 4), but I accept it.  I also accept the results of quantum mechanics.  In my view, the “uncertainties” and paradoxes of quantum mechanics illustrate, not that nature is fundamentally paradoxical and shaped by perception, but that our systems of measurement can only take us so far, that at the extremes, they begin to break down (in very specific ways).

So, if you take these four statements as being factual, how do you organize your life?  To my mind, and as I say in the book, only a crazy person acts in a way contrary to the way he or she actually thinks the world works.  The hypocrite Christianoid, for example, does not REALLY believe in the messages Jesus gave.  He or she believes that whatever you can get away with is okay, including faking faith.  (He or she might be really stupid instead of really evil, but the result is the same.)

Lay not up for yourself treasures on Earth?  If everything changes, what would be the point?

And so on.  If you accept the four pillars as factual, you behave accordingly.

The main moral injunction:  The purpose of zen is to end the suffering of sentient beings.  I make several observations on this.  First of all, the statement does not define sentience.  That is left to the conscience of the follower, as it should be.  Secondly, the statement does not promise victory.  It does not say that you alone, unaided, will be able to end that suffering.  For that matter, it does not say that all of you together will ever be able to end it.  It just says that’s the purpose.

The emptiness of being:  This is critical.  As I understand it, the point is that there’s no there there.  The standard intellectual model of change, the one that almost everybody defaults to, is that change is the result of alterations to a basic core (a Platonic Ideal)?  The Buddha says it is impossible to find such a core, and therefore the effort is meaningless.

The gulf between this and the Christian conception is staggering.  The Christian conception is that humans have “souls,” inalterable cores that may be either saved or damned, and so we need a Redeemer.  According to the Buddha, this is not a provable proposition.

I find many corollaries.  It’s well known to type-face designers (and Hofstadter writes about the phenomenon in Goedel, Escher, Bach) that there is no basic letter A for example, which can be varied to produce all the forms we recognize as the letter A.  (The same is true of any letter in any alphabet, of course).  Nevertheless, we pretty well know an A when we see it.

When I was an undergrad, I had to take generative, or transformational, grammar.  As it turned out, I loved it, having concluded long ago that the parts-of-speech model I was taught in school was nonsense.  In transformational grammar, as you may know, there are “generative” rules, specific ways in which sentences or syntactical phrases can be transformed into other sentence or phrases.  For example, just to stay with the familiar, “paint” can be a noun, a verb, an adjective:  Hand me the paint, I painted a picture, There’s a paint stain.  In each case, we recognize the syntactical function by its location, not by its dictionary meaning.  In the first case, it is placed where we place the noun phrase object of the verb.  In the second, where we place the verb.  In the third, before the noun, where we place the adjective (usually, with other rules for exceptions).

Here’s the point:  In those undergrad days, the transformational grammar people insisted that all sentences were transformations from a set of “kernel,” or basic sentences, and the scholars argued over how many kernel sentences there were.  Seven was the favorite number back then, and many a Ph. D. could list all seven.

Years later, I saw the light (but not, at the time, the connection to the emptiness of being).  I said to myself, and others, There’s transformations all right.  But there aint no “kernel” sentences.

How many times have you lain awake trying chase down your actual motives in some event, trying to understand what made you tick?  Any success?  Me neither.  I now think that such self-examination is impossible because there IS no kernel self.

Now a lot of people take that to be a woo-woo statement, but I don’t mean it that way.  I do not deny the actuality of self and objects, and this is where I may make a small contribution to the understanding.  I say instead that objects (and selves) are artifacts of perspective, not fundamental reality.  The metaphor I use in the book is the metaphor of waves.  We find it easy to point to a wave coming in and say, look at that wave, and easy to follow where somebody who says that points, and see the wave.  None of that is illusion.  However, the ocean does not maintain an inventory (however infinite) of ideal waves.  The wave IS a thing from our perspective, but there is no “core wave” upon which all waves are modeled.

In the same way, I feel that humans are real and valuable and that kindness is vastly important, but that everything is connected, and our vision of ourselves as separate existences is a matter of perspective.  Not wrong, just limited by perspective.

In this, I think I am pointing out exactly what the author of Ecclesiastes was pointing out.

I suspect that what we take as ourselves is actually a construct, our ego, which is a model of our own psychological workings, and that the ego is a useful and helpful method of managing experience, NOT fundamental reality however.  The point, I often say, is not to get RID of ego, as so many frauds and fake shamans insist, but to manage one’s ego with understanding, realism, courtesy, and effectiveness.  The folly of desire is that we cannot want things for a “self” which does not exist, but only for the appearance of a self, which is ego.

I see all phenomena in the universe as proceeding from form to form, but in a process which does not necessitate a “core.”  All there is is flow.  We cannot isolate a moment of change.  Time is not divisible, and neither I think is true reality.  Our models necessarily institute the divisions.  The models may be more or less accurate, but all must fall short of the whole, necessarily, and I feel this is the main way they do.  We simply cannot account for indivisibility.  We, as mortals, as changing phenomena, must perceive in terms of divisions.  Differential equations is tremendously helpful in modeling laminar flow, but IT IS NOT A FLOW.  It is made of discrete variables subjected to certain treatments.  (And notably, it is useless with turbulence in a flow.)

Okay, this is not exactly brief, but it is concise.

Connected to all this–EVERYTHING in my thinking is connected, and that strikes me as the way thinking ought to be–otherwise it’s a collection of disparate oddities–is an observation I have made recently, that there is no such thing as randomness.

At least that “randomness” is only an assumption, not a provable reality.  The only evidence we have for randomness is unpredictability.  They say that unpredictability on the quantum level is a function of the basic randomness of nature.  I say, how do we know nature is basically random?  They say, it’s unpredictable.  I say, Ah, isn’t that circular reasoning?

So anyway, I’m attaching an essay in which I think on the subject.  The last part, on the shapes in smoke, deals with when I first began to discern the infinitely formal nature of change.  In my view now, there is nothing BUT form–every change is a change from one form to another, no matter how thin the slice of time or how tiny the focus of the microscope–but there is no “core” form.  This conception is very difficult for most people, who find it counter-intuitive, and invariably respond with, But how can there be forms if there is no basic form?  I would say that the principle does not violate reality, for after all reality is only what actually occurs, but violates their model of reality.  For me, it has become a natural way of seeing things.

All of which suits with a basic zen sutra, again talked about in the book, the Diamond Sutra:  Form is emptiness, emptiness form.

Love, Jack

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Dear John–

Occurs to me I could have just said to read the essay “Southern Baptist Zen” from the book.  It’s supposedly by anonymous but as will be obvious to you, It’s basically me talking, the story of my experience of zen and whatever understanding I may have come to. If you prefer a background narrative, it’s written to be entertaining, and better than my letter.

Longer, though.

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Dear John–

One other thing I’d meant to say, and after this shall keep quiet a while.  One of the most common misconceptions (as I see it) about zen is that the “detachment” it recommends is a the same thing as a lack of concern.  Once a dear friend and I were talking about these matters, and he said, Do you think there’s a stance that combines the Western and Eastern outlooks, combines passionate caring with distance from it all?

He was thinking of detachment as removal, which associations may mean the word is not a good choice.  I kept saying, The detachment recommended is for one’s own troubles, and is not be taken as implying you shouldn’t care about others. He didn’t have the least idea what I meant.

Wonderful dear person, I just couldn’t get it across that the two were already one thing.  Detachment does NOT mean abandoning love, as most people think.  In fact it is love purified of the confusions and misleading selfish static and interference of personal desire.  It makes love much more effective, because you can see more clearly.  You know what you’re doing, and why.

One misconception is that out-of-control emotion and love are the same thing, that love comes from the same place as emotion.  It does not.  Detachment is not really a state of mind, but a practice, a habitual approach, something that you can train yourself to.

It’s true that once you train yourself to even the least bit of detachment, your view of other’s troubles is wider, that you can see the connection between them and your own troubles, your own unquiet being.  You can’t go back.  That’s true.  And some people take that as not caring, because to them caring means becoming as upset as they are.

I practice detachment (though I will not claim possession of it, since I think of it as a way of behaving no matter how powerful the emotions, not as a thing that may be owned).  I may not be terribly far along in my practice, but I can tell you with certainty it does not mean abandoning love.

But hell, that’s true of algebra.  Once you learn it, you can’t NOT know it.

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jack,

thanks for your very cogent description of the principles of zen. my starting point is always that any epistemological (including scientific) or metaphysical proposition, or its obverse, is an assumption. for instance, to state that god exists is to make an assumption, and to state that god does not exist is also to make an assumption. for this reason, i have to view the four pillars, the moral injunction, and the concept of “emptiness” as assumptions. now, just because something is an assumption does not mean that it is not true (or does not approach truth). and certainly some assumptions are more reasonable than others, though i believe that intuition is a more accurate, or encompassing, means of apprehending reality than logical reasoning (another of my assumptions).

i seem to operate from a different set of assumptions than you. much of my thinking has been shaped by carl jung and edgar cayce. of the four pillars, i find the most kinship with the first and fourth and the least with the third. i believe that life contains, but cannot be said to be, suffering. life is full of polar experiences and even paradoxes. i’m sure that a great many people would agree that life is suffering. but for me, and for many other i know personally, life is a wonderful, beautiful gift and adventure, in spite of whatever suffering is involved. i would have to say that i view life as being far more positive than negative, and given the choice i’d gladly do it again. therefore, i have no incentive to try to escape from existence. i believe (again an assumption) that most people who would agree that life is suffering are depressive personalities with brain chemical imbalances that have not been corrected. this seems to be pandemic among artistic populations. don’t misunderstand me, i realize that tortured political prisoners, people with crippling deformities, etc., can justifiably consider their earthly existence to be hell, but these are a very small minority. and who knows how past karma might be affecting their current problems?

i also have problems with the “emptiness of being”. my bedrock assumption is that there is purpose and meaning, but that these things are accessible only by getting past the needs and ruses of the ego to the real self. i have no idea whether this “self” is an actual entity or only a potentiality. i think that this is analogous with what jesus meant by being reborn. unlike the oriental mindset, i believe in a god who is the “fullness of being”, and that this is the goal to which we should aspire here on earth. equating “fullness of being” with “fullness of consciousness,” jung postulated that our purpose here was to become as consciously aware as possible, and cayce postulated that, through successive lifetimes, we accrue understanding that we bring with us to each new avatar. just how literally i take cayce i’m not sure, because it seems to me that i have been through several separate lifetimes in my 68 years alone.

i hope i haven’t been too argumentative, because it was generous of you to take the time to share your precepts with me. and who knows, you may be closer to the truth than i. i might even be full of baloney. or we both may be right in different ways; jung posits that psychic reality is paradoxical by nature.

love, john

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Dear John–

Of course the four pillars are assumptions.  I meant “axioms” only in the mathematical sense–in mathematics, an axiom is an assumption that comprises one of the bases of a branch of math.  The axiom is not questioned within that branch, because if you question the assumption, you have changed the branch.  But it is entirely possible to assert that the assumption is not so, that there are other possible assumptions.  The most familiar example is Euclid’s axiom that parallel lines never meet.  Intuitively true of experience, so scientists thought space was Euclidean, but when observations of high-velocity systems and very massive systems showed a different sort of description was needed to map the convolutions of spacetime, they came up with non-Euclidean space by means of abandoning that assumption.

Assumptions may be more or less justifiable according to the evidence, but it’s always wise to remember that they are assumptions, not absolutes.

Anyone may question my assumptions.  Obviously.  Zen is not a “belief system” for me, in the sense of blind adherence, but conclusions I have come to after long observation and concentrated thought and whole-hearted living.  The conclusions are worthless if I do not practice them repeatedly, so as to install them in my habits.  Otherwise, I revert to preconceptions.

One cannot control fear by thinking about it, for example.  One can, however, by dint of steady practice, learn to physically control fear and make it go away.  In that regard, zen is, for me, a discipline, a practice, a way to train myself to see things more clearly and act so as to get more out of life.  Again, not a “belief system” or religious conviction of any sort.

I persist in the practice, as I persist in yoga, because it works.  I get observable results.  I know when I am understanding yoga wrong, because then it doesn’t work.

My conclusions may be wrong–they are certainly at least incomplete, since reality is infinite–but as I say in the book, why would I act against my own best judgment?

You asked for a summary of zen according to my lights.  I was only telling you what I think and why I think it.  I am in the habit of phrasing my observations as cogently as possible (why not?), but you should not mistake their force for proselytizing.  I grew up, as you did, in the country of proselytizing, and abhor it.  Proselytizing is the Ponzi scheme of faith.

Most people take pillar number 3) as a declaration that life is terrible and not worth living, as you seem to have taken it.  I was at pains to say that that is NOT how I take it.  I take it as the simple observation that suffering is inevitable, that no life is without suffering.  It does not say that life is only suffering, or that we should not celebrate and make joyful noises.   It simply observes that suffering occurs only to the living, that suffering is inseparable from living, and that it works best to behave with that in mind.

I do not think that acknowledging the facts is the same thing as hopelessness, or that we can ensure a joyous life by insisting that life is joyous.  Of course it CAN be joyous, and often has been for me.  However I attach more credit to my good fortune than to my right-thinking ways.

You  assert that proposition 3) is entirely the result of “depressive” thinking–I find that assertion to be unproved, unprovable, and as the statement of something that “everybody” knows, unconvincing (not to mention annoying).  Yes, I have fought depression.  Yes, many artists have.  Not all artists have or do, not by a long shot.

I suspect the meme of the depressed artist owes more to the industrial revolution, which marginalized artists, as to any innate characteristic of art itself.  Have often said that art is healing, which is why it appeals to depressives and neurotics.  They are drawn to it because it helps.  Most people arrange the cause-and-effect in the other direction, though, as you seem to.

Art cannot, except in rare cases, cure depression.  But it sure as hell can help.  This is why art is used as a beneficial activity for the emotionally disturbed.  But though art is good therapy, it is a great deal MORE than therapy, and I think it’s a mistake to identify the source of art as the depression.  Persisted in, that position becomes cynical, a reason to distrust art and artists.

And even if that thesis were true and provable, you conflate artists and zen masters.  Very few zen students and masters have been artists.  There is not an identity between the classes.  So to keep your thesis, you must maintain that all the originators of zen were also depressive.  This is at least impossible to demonstrate.  Further, if you spent much time around zen masters, I think you would find that they are in general far more cheerful and sunny in outlook than most people, and far more upbeat than such a thesis could explain.

Images of the Buddha always show him smiling, you know.

Further, I know of no zen masters who were even good poets, let alone great ones.  I’ve read a lot of zen, and while I find a good deal of it useful and perceptive, the writers are seldom skilled.

You state that “intuition” is a “more accurate” and “comprehensive” source of truth than reason.  The “gut” knows best?  You and I grew up in a place where “intuition” told people blacks were inferior.   Millions of people operate from the “gut” with little or no use of reason whatsoever.  The worst are full of a frightening intensity, and the worst typically insist that their “gut” knows better than centuries of careful science.  For me to accept your notion of intuition, you must define it so that obviously dishonest and stupid people cannot claim it.  Even if you do so, I don’t see where that would mean it must either exclude reason or be opposed to it.

I am just as dubious as anyone of the blind way most so-called “scientists” pursue science, which is hardly distinguishable from priests practicing an esoteric and exclusive mythology rendered in incomprehensible jargon.  As John Ciardi writes, “Ten thousand doctors of the possible could reason half the universe out of being.”  But I find treating intuition and reason as mutually exclusive to be the perpetuation of a misconception.

You are welcome to oppose the two, but I do not.  I have tried to make it as clear as I can that I do not oppose imagination to analysis, metaphor to fact, or reason to intuition.  I suggest instead, over and over and over, that the two faculties work in concert.  As I see it, to strengthen reason correctly is not to abandon intuition.  Intuition may be trained–must be, to be worth a hoot–and a powerful ability to reason sharpens intuition.  It does not replace it.  For what it’s worth, recent cognitive studies demonstrate that rather than being opposed to thinking, emotion is an essential element of it, that the two do not exist separately.

Intuition and emotion are not the same thing, of course, but most people treat them as if they were.

I am both a passionate poet and an accomplished mathematician.

Similarly, you assert that the concept of the emptiness of being means that life has no meaning or value.   I DO NOT FEEL THAT WAY.  I have said so as clearly as I know how.  I said flat-out that detachment does NOT mean abandonment of love, concern, and joy, or that our lives were not real and valuable.  Otherwise, the sages would not speak of the bliss of enlightenment.

If I saw the zen the way you describe it, I would avoid it too.  It would be a grim business indeed, and one would have to be an idiot to pursue it.  One of the central questions of my book is Where is zen without the laughter?

A basic sutra, one familiar to most people, is If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.  I think this is a big joke intended to shock people out of mindless reverence and mindless preconceptions.  The point is that nobody is the authority to follow, not even the Buddha.

There are at least as many frauds and empty-heads who declare themselves to be followers of zen as there are frauds and empty-heads who declare themselves to be Christian or Muslim or whatever.  I have no more use for them than I have for televangelists.  I trust them to convey an accurate sense of zen no more than I trust televangelists on Christianity.

Unfortunately, they are where most people get their impressions of zen.  I’m sure my irritation at that impression resembles the irritation of a true Christian with a Christianoid.

But zen, for me, is simply the attempt to be as accurate as possible.  Either the propositions are accurate or they are not.  If they are, why not follow them?  I think they are.  If anyone does not, and chooses not to follow them for any reason, I have no business being irritated (though humanly, of course, I often am).  The pillars are not less or more true for being agreed with or disagreed with.

The only force any idea or principle has with me is its concurrence with observation and its success in explaining disparate phenomena.  I cannot be persuaded of any idea on the say-so of any human.  The idea has to stand on its own merits.  The IDEA must persuade me.

Make your own way.  This is the essence for me.  Do your best to make sense of it all, and in the meantime treat people with courtesy, kindness, and respect (which does not mean ignoring the facts or abject and craven “going-along-to-get-along”).

As it happens, I do not credit reincarnation (or “transmigration of souls”) for the simple reason that I don’t think there are souls.  As Ben Kimpel once said, “As I understand reincarnation, I come back as a groundhog.  My question is what comes back as a groundhog?”

Ecclesiastes again.  Such a beautiful book.  So much celebration and joy, such a glorious vision of life and existence.  And there is no life after death in it.

I do think racial memory is possible, though far from an established fact, and so do not discount all Jungian supposition.  Definitely things recur, and perhaps at least fragmentary memory of other lives is one of the things that recurs.  It isn’t necessary to suppose reincarnation to think so.

Edgar Cayce?  Well, I’ve read him, and found his writing evocative but.  He seems to have been a good and loving and honorable man, grappling with genuine if inexpressible vision and prophecy, but he is not exactly anyone I think of as a go-to guy on the nature of existence.

Since I make as much fun of the supposed “authorities” on zen of the 25th century as of any other authorities, perhaps you will still enjoy the book.

In my essay on randomness, I have discovered an error.  The process by which I construct an irrational number that I say irrefutably has non-random percentages of digits does not work the way I claim.  There’s another method to create such numbers, so the basic argument remains unchanged.  But I have to rework that passage.

Love, Jack

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jack,

i was afraid i’d manage to make myself misunderstood, and if i did the fault is entirely mine and not yours. let me explain something about my thought processes. i do my best job of clarifying and refining my thinking when i write a response to some statement a person has told or written to me. this is a trait that annoys a good many people, and justifiably so, but i was (and am) writing more to myself than to you. i’ll try to clear up some of the areas where i did a poor job of articulation.

to begin with, i never felt proselytized by you in the least. you were doing exactly what i asked you to do, which was present your ideas about zen to me. i don’t seem to be able to not respond to an idea that is presented to me, but i almost never feel defensive about it, which is what i do feel when people do try to proselytize me. i’m simply trying to take someone else’s ideas and make sense to myself out of them.

i have run into a logical dilemma with pillar 3. syntactically, i was taught that one may substitute the = sign for the linking verb “to be”. thus, syntactically, the statement reads: life=suffering. if this is true, if life’s chief characteristic is suffering, then it makes sense to want to escape the “wheel of being”. but i don’t accept the premise as true. on the other hand, if it simply means that every life must do some suffering, then where is the incentive to get off the wheel if one finds life primarily enjoyable in spite of suffering? do you see where this is failing to make sense to me?

most seriously depressed people i’ve known well–in fact nearly all of them–have thought that life was primarily suffering and have wanted to “not be”. the ones who have become undepressed, usually through medication, have altered their outlook enough to think they were crazy to have wanted to cease to exist. the only other people i’ve known who have wanted to “not be” have been those in great physical pain or those too old to function. i did not intend to imply that there is a cause and effect relationship between art and depression, nor that depressive people become artists, but among the artists i’ve known there seems to be a higher percentage of depressives than among any other grouping of people i’ve known. but i have known a considerable number of depressives who are not artists, and i’ve known some artists who are not depressives. still, i would be willing to bet that depressives are far more likely than non-depressives to accept the axiom life = suffering. and this may account in some way for the stereotype of the “suffering artist.” i may be more sensitive than i should be to this issue because i find myself surrounded by depressed people whom i love.

there was no way you could have known this without my telling you, but by “intuition” i was referring not to its popular meaning but to the specific jungian term for one of the four psychic faculties. i’m not certain what relationship “gut level feeling” has with intuition in this sense, but i suspect not much. to jung, intuition was the ability to suddenly perceive a complex answer or pattern by a process that bypasses the steps of analytical reasoning. often it functions by analogy or the ability to suddenly perceive a relationship. intuition is what made archimedes shout “eureka” and gave us the benzene ring. i suspect that nearly every important discovery or invention has been born of intuition rather than logic. of course i consider logical reasoning a useful tool, but i’m careful with its limits. to begin with, it must start with some form of proposition, and its accuracy depends on the truthfulness of the proposition. and along the way, one false step in reasoning sinks the whole process. i’m also convinced, ala jung, that reality is paradoxical in nature, and thus cannot be adequately apprehended by logic, which treats paradox either as nonsense or as an impossibility. on every test i’ve taken that measures the faculty, i score extremely high on intuition, and i usually arrive at conclusions through intuition and then apply reason after the fact to bring them into better focus. it’s like suddenly i see the answer, then reason tells me why it was the answer.

the “emptiness of being” is a particular problem for me because i do believe in a soul and in life after death. what little empirical evidence we have suggests, at least to me, that this is so, and so far no one has ever been able to give me a reason to believe otherwise. i’ve heard scientists try to rationalize near-death experiences away, but they don’t convince me as much as the people who have experienced them.

i hope that you will not take anything i’ve said as an “attack” on your ideas. as i’ve said, i could be completely wrong about all of this. like you, i’m groping around in the dark of this mystery for some light, and maybe i’m just imagining whatever light i see.

love, john

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jack,

a couple of other areas where i wanted to clean up my messy attempt at

articulation. intuition was not what told me that blacks were inferior

and subhuman back in the 50’s. it was false teaching that made me believe

that. in fact, my intuition told me otherwise. but, unfortunately, i

didn’t listen to my intuition until years later. sure, i was emotionally

committed to the idea of white racial superiority, but something kept

nagging at me in my mind telling me this wasn’t so. that was my

intuition. “gut level sensation” can be a dangerous guiding

principle–witness the presidency of w. bush, whose response to any issue

was his gut, which led him into error after error.

i have great, great respect for ben kimpel, one of the wisest men [I] ever

knew and studied under. but his statement is quite shallow unless he is

referring strictly to the hindu concept of reincarnation. this is about

as far as possible from cayce’s concepts. cayce believed that each

incarnation taught us indispensable lessons that we carried to future

incarnations until we reach a level of spiritual evolution that would

enable us to leave the earthly plane of existence forever. i neither

believe nor disbelieve in cayce’s ideas on the subject, though i accept

reincarnation as a possibility, maybe even a probability. but i’m

certainly not married to the idea. jung himself was vehemently opposed to

the idea.

jack, i am struggling to make sense of things, particularly my own

existence. my philosophy, if it can be called that, has evolved and

changed over the years. i never approach any set of ideas lightly or

dismissively, because i’m always trying to learn, and i’m willing to

alter my idea set as i have done many times in the past. and i never

belittle anyone else’s ideas unless i think they are dangerous or

destructive. but these ideas have to make sense to me if i am going to

apply them. i can accept pillars 1 and 4 without any qualms. i hedge a

bit on pillar 2 because i don’t know whether there are planes of reality

where change does not occur. but certainly on the phenomenological and

sub-atomic planes the axiom seems to be true. and if the astral and

mental planes exist, it would certainly apply there.

it is pillar 3 that keeps tripping me up. i’m making what i consider an

honest effort to grasp the concept, but it is too slippery for me. the

axiom “life is joy” would be closer to truth for me than “life is

suffering”. and if this is so, i can’t comprehend the importance of the

suffering axiom, why it should be so central to zen thinking.

i am almost always happy when a person finds a system that works for him

or her. my system certainly works well for me. i am convinced that almost

any system can have excellent results if it is not destructive to self

and/or others. i believe it is the faith in the system that has the

power. those without workable systems seems to me to be the most

miserable people. therefore, i rejoice that you have found and can apply

your system. i mean that sincerely and with love and respect for you.

love, john

-0-

Dear John–

Thanks for your note.  May I combine all our exchanges into a single discussion and put the discussion on my blog?  I will not make any changes, and will give you the last word.  I just think such discussions need to be more widely aired.

I also understand the way that vigorous debate sharpens one’s thinking; this is the main reason I enjoy it; have often referred to such debate as a sport, by which I mean something that gets my blood pumping and my mind working, a refreshing and valuable activity.

You could only be attacking me if I were defending something, but I have nothing to defend.  As I say, these are my conclusions, and I set forth, as you do for your conclusions, the reasons I have come to them.  They are not immutable.  I act in accordance with my conclusions, as well as I am able.  Doesn’t make sense not to.  But once again, I am quite clear that my conclusions are neither more nor less true because another person agrees or does not agree.

In the case of intelligent and thoughtful people, people I trust, I do take their conclusions into account, but retain, as any sensible person must, my own independence of thought.

Do not see where our notions of intuition differ much, according to your definition.  I think of intuition, once more, not as a separate activity from reason.  It is undeniable that such intuition often brings flashes of insight not available to ordinary reasoning from evidence.  I feel, however, that such flashes of insight occur most commonly to people who have put in a lot of time and energy trying to make sense of the evidence, trying to reason.  Kekule’s famous dream of the benzine ring did not occur to some nitwit who thought chemistry was bollocks, but to a man who spent all his waking hours trying to solve the problem.  I feel that such intuition is often the larger mind or being solving something that the small portion of our “conscious” minds that we mistake for ourselves is not capable of getting to.  Such intuition is not given, ex nihil, to fools and the willfully ignorant.

I agree whole-heartedly that existence involves paradox, and have often said that whenever we encounter what we think of as paradox in nature, we are touching on mystery.  I do rather feel that “paradox” is what happens when our minds encounter truths that are single and whole but are too large for us to comprehend.  For example:  On our scale, individuality and pan-consciousness are considered mutually exclusive.  Perhaps, for the holy, they are not.  For us that would be paradox.  But not for the holy.

Can’t prove this notion, of course.  Just what I think.

I use the phrase “the holy” often, to avoid misleading discussions of the existence or non-existence of god or gods, while acknowledging my deep if unprovable sense that life has about it something extra, something beyond what we can follow, something vital and sacred.

With regard to depression:  You are fortunate to have avoided it, and I certainly do not feel it should be indulged.  It’s in fact dangerous to indulge it.  In my opinion, though you have made it clear why you feel the way you do, you have failed to address the sympathetic fallacy.  You have explained why you associate depression with 3), but what you were saying is that 3) was created by depressives, and I rather doubt that is so.

I will point out that for most humans throughout most of the existence of the species, not merely for depressed people, life has been primarily suffering.  And most of that suffering has been physical–disease, disaster, torture, malnutrition, and on and on.  It is our good fortune that some of us have been spared the worst of it, and it is indeed difficult to respect depressed people who insinuate that their emotional suffering is the equal of all that physical suffering.  I suspect that when 3) was first enunciated, it seemed patent and obvious, and that it meant physical suffering primarily.  Nearly every theology ever created has seized on the prevalence of suffering to argue that there is something fundamentally wrong with the “souls” of people, and we are to blame for our own suffering.  That’s the notion of original sin, and it is also the origin of the caste system.  I suspect that 3) is more about empathy and is more nearly a corrective to those outrageous lies than a statement designed to excuse depressives.

If your life enables you to live without 3), more power to you.  Most of the people in the world do not have that option, in my opinion.  Mere thinking does not remove suffering.  Which of you by taking thought can alter his stature a single iota?

Contrary to your opinion, I feel that there is zero hard evidence of the existence of a “soul.”  Yes, many people have described “near-death” experiences.  None, however, have described AFTER-death experiences.  It is still that country from whose bourne no traveler returns.  There may be souls.  I may be wrong.  But I see no convincing independent evidence.  The testimony of sincere people is worth something.  However, we have similar testimony from many people I do not respect and would not trust for a second, so I find the whole discussion uninformative.

I agree, and say many times, even within PZ, that reason has its limits.  However, as I also say, it is nearly the only check on intuition of any sort.  It is reason that we use to decide how far to trust our intuitions.  Without reason, without skepticism about even our own convictions, how may we distinguish the probable accuracy of the ideas we meet?

I think, for example, that scientology and mormonism are both theologically ridiculous, their original theologies absurd, not surprising since they were  constructed by con men.  I do not grant them equal status with such ideas as the theory of relativity.

But now you have the book, which does a better job than I did of setting forth my thinking.  You will note that fools are allowed to utter truth, and wise people to utter foolishness.

When it comes down to it, I think anybody who pretends they have to wait on a perfect theology or system before they can decide how to treat others is either stupid or a fraud.  I know many people who make what I consider thoroughly moral decisions, and behave with great integrity, who have no theology or system at all.  In PZ, I have Won Shu, whom otherwise I portray as somewhat pompous, though undoubtedly wise at times, observe that all humans have agreed for a long time on what is best about human nature.  It seems to me if we would quit quibbling over systems and what we argue as essential philosophical dilemmas, and work to further and encourage what we all agree is best in human behavior, most of our moral problems would disappear.

If you treat people with respect, kindness, and courtesy–and you do–I really do not care very much whether we agree on the existence of souls, for example.  I don’t think it matters much, especially since it seems unlikely any of us have got the “final” answers.

Okay, I see I have another message from you.

Love, Jack

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Dear John–

Had meant to ask you about your take on 4) because you had not commented on it.  We concur on the fact that what most people mean by intuition, i. e. “gut feelings,” is stupid and dangerous, and not real intuition at all.

As far as your hesitation about 2), I would say, yeah, it is theoretically possible that there is a level of existence in which change does not exist (I sometimes think how horrible it would be to be immortal, to have to live forever with every mistake you made, or pretend, since you’re immortal, that you had not made a mistake, thereafter for eternity becoming more and more of a fraud).  However, the whole point of zen is how to live this life, and while I may imagine such realms, I see no actual observable phenomenon in this life that does not change.

Hey, if you see no point in 3), you see no point.  I won’t argue.  The best that can be hoped for is that good people struggle honestly with these issues.

How would you behave if you accepted 1), 2), and 4) but not 3)?

I don’t see where Cayce’s version of reincarnation differs appreciably from the Hindu version–and there is a huge difference between zen and Hindu precepts of course.  (I’ve considered the Hindu version, and rejected it.  In my opinion, zen refutes it.  In particular, as I have said, the notion of the emptiness of being is a direct consequence of 1) and 2).  It’s possible to argue that souls exist on the same level as changelessness, but in both cases, you are supposing the existence of a phenomenon in order to argue for a concept which requires the phenomenon, and that seems to me to be circular thinking).

According to Cayce and the Hindus, we live through sequences of lives until we finally understand enough to leave this realm of existence.  Karma from past lives stays with you.  I do not agree with everything that Ben thought–he was for the war in Viet Nam at first, did you know that?–but cannot find any of his thinking shallow.  His question might be humorous, but is penetrating.  It demands credible answer, not dismissal.  His question is mine.  What is the core reality that gets reincarnated?  Identify it.  How exactly do you fit the “soul” of a human into a groundhog?  Or, in your version, does reincarnation occur strictly human to human?  What are the animals in that case, scenery?

What about intelligent aliens in another system?  Maybe you don’t think there are such beings, but if there are, can you be reincarnated as one of them, or one of them as you?  If not, who’s doing the bookkeeping to make sure only humans get reincarnated as humans and Zloogs from Doobinoxia get reincarnated only as Zloogs from Doobinoxia?

All the evidence for reincarnation, as nearly as I can see, is based on anecdote.  Maybe there’s something to it, but if so, I would sure like to see some independent evidence.

To me the doctrine of souls has value only as it encourages us to more generous behavior with each other.  Since such behavior is innate (as are far worse behaviors), and does not depend on the doctrine of souls, I fail to see any utility in the doctrine.

I once wrote a blog post about the emptiness of being, at great pains (as usual) to explain how the idea differs from the usual default assumption about core identities.  One of my examples was Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.  Where does its core exist? I said.  The mind of the composer?  But he’s dead.  In the score?  But different orchestras come up with radically different performances from the same score.  In the mind of the listener? (You can pick that apart as readily as I.)

All this is like what Jim Whitehead used to refer to–you may remember–as the “ontological situs” of a poem.  (One of my great pleasures in life is remembering him thundering out that phrase.)

Note that I do not argue against the fact of the symphony, or its beauty.  My point is not that it does not exist or that it is not magnificent.  My point is that when we maintain there is an absolute ideal existence at its core, we immediately descend into either confusion, circular argument, or infinite regression, all of which are warning signals about inaccurate models.

One woman wrote to reassure me:  Of course the 41st symphony has an ideal and absolute existence, she said.  It’s written down eternally in the book of God.

I was amused, baffled, and touched.  She was eagerly and compassionately trying to soothe what she saw as the agonies of my confusion, and I appreciated her intentions, though I felt no such agony or confusion.  I was baffled that she could not see that her response was to assert precisely that which I questioned.  She had not followed a word of my reasoning.  She simply knew.

Like I say, I was amused by the irony.  I’ll take your disagreement any day over that sort of utterly unthinking reaction.

And like I say, these are very high-level philosophical and metaphysical questions, and are not essential to kindness and goodness.

Love, Jack

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jack,

i’ll try to address some of the issues and questions you raise later,

but, sure, it’s fine by me for you to use this material in any way you

wish. in fact, and i probably should have asked your permission

beforehand, but i’m sharing it with several people with whom i’ve had a

continuous forum going for quite some time, larry included. it never

occurred to me that you might mind, so i apologize if it causes any

problems for you.

love, john

-0-

jack,

how would i behave if i accepted 1, 2, and 4, but not 3? since i do accept 1,2, and 4, i would behave exactly as i do now. there is nothing in them that contradicts my beliefs, at least for me, since i do not see how 1 and 2 necessarily lead to the nonexistence of souls. it may be there, but i don’t see it.

there were fundamental differences between cayce’s version and the hindu version of reincarnation. in fact, cayce’s “voices”, spirits or whatever else they might have been, were frequently asked such questions as ben’s. they would laugh uproarously, finding it hilarious that anyone would believe a human soul could come back as a groundhog. in the hindu version, reincarnation is sort of a treadmill that moves backwards as well as forwards. but in cayce’s version, the movement is never backwards. a person might fail to learn his assigned task and have to repeat it in the next lifetime, but would never enter a less spiritually developed vessel. less mentally developed, yes, but not less spiritually developed. it would be impossible for a human being to become a groundhog, but it might be possible for a groundhog to become human, though unlikely. if a groundhog progressed, which it should, it would eventually come back as a dog, cat, horse, etc., something closer to humans so that it could observe them, before eventually becoming human. but such progress is inevitable, whereas in the hindu version it is not. also, in the hindu version karma determines what one’s next avatar will be. if one were a saint, he may come back as brahman, but if he were a stinker, he would come back as a groundhog or worse. but in cayce’s version, it is the life lesson that needs to be learned (love, faith, patience, humor, etc.), and not karma, that determines the next avatar. karma is transmitted with the reincarnation, determining such things as how much suffering (or pleasure) the life would go through. to my knowledge, cayce’s voices never addressed the issue of extraterrestrial life forms, but others who have written on the subject have postulated that such life forms are interchangeable with humans when it comes to reincarnation, that we have been alien beings in past lives. i neither accept nor reject this idea.

if there’s one thing i’m certain about regarding cayce it is that he was not a con man or fraud. he would enter a trance and voices would speak through him, none of which he remembered upon awakening. in fact, at first, he was thoroughly disturbed by some of the pronouncements because they violated his fundamental christianity. he suffered considerabe guilt over this until he finally adjusted his own thinking to fit the messages. at any rate, it is public record that he healed thousands of people while in trance. a semi-literate photographer, he would locate and give precise medical names to conditions he knew nothing about in his waking state. the fact that he never charged anyone one penny for this, and that the energy required drained him and eventually caused his early death, convinces me that he was utterly sincere.

what you say about intuition and reason in your previous email makes considerable sense to me. i think it’s true that my flashes of intuition have come most often when i’ve puzzled over something for a period of time. but eventually reason becomes a repetitive rut, and an insurmountable impediment to finding solutions. it’s when i give up trying to solve something myself that the answer comes. this is also true in the matter of revising poems. i’ve found that my reason can tell me exactly what the problems are, but only my intuition can eventually solve them.

actually, i have suffered severe depression in the past, so i know what depression is. but i have taken whatever steps are necessary to alleviate it. now it comes in the form of testosterone. if ever there were a wonder drug for old men, it’s testosterone.  i get so many benefits from it for a co-pay cost of around $1.50 every two weeks. it is a supreme mood elevator, better than any anti-depressant i’ve ever tried and without the side effects. i am diabetic, and it helps control blood sugar levels by sensitizing my muscle tissue to my own insulin. it is better than aspirin for the inflammatory conditions in my spine and joints. along with creatine, it allows me to gain muscle mass when i work out in the gym, rather than losing it as old men usually do. it helps my chronic fatigue syndrome because it creates atp, giving me energy. i could probably think of a few more, but you get the picture. i also exercise vigorously, not only in the gym, but also by walking at a fast clip. the key is that i’ve done something about it. perhaps the most debilitating aspect of depression is that it becomes a vicious spiral downward. it drains its victim of the will to fight it. therefore, so many people continue to live with a condition they could do something about. i am patient with them, because i know how difficult it is to take the first steps in combatting depression. but they naturally have a more dour outlook on the quality of life than i do.

i think that “near-death experience” is merely a term, and perhaps an unfortunate one. in at least some of the cases, i would call them “after-death experiences”, where people have actually died and, after some time, returned. there is perhaps a limit to the viability of the body after any longer time.

p.s.–i think i see now why you say that pillars 1&2 preclude the existence of souls. but if souls are real, shouldn’t they be subject to change like everything else? in fact, if cayce’s version of reincarnation is correct, the very purpose of reincarnation is for the soul to undergo change(s), to be a changed, more spiritually developed, entity upon leaving the body at death than when it entered that body at birth. if this is so, i don’t see any way that these pillars preclude the existence of souls. if something is real, is its reality undermined by the fact that it changes? one of the fascinating things our minds can do is to create a “mental” level of permanence for what is impermanent. the mississippi river is in a constant state of flux. never the same water, never the same exact currents, etc. but is there any sane person who couldn’t identify what he or she sees as the mississippi river? is what they see not real? well, yes and no, another of reality’s paradoxes.

actually, though, i am greatly oversimplifying cayce. his “voices” used the biblical tripartite division into body, soul, and spirit. it is not the soul, but the immortal spirit, that transmigrates. the soul is the “personality” of an avatar. it lives on for a time after death, ensheathing the spirit, who is learning lessons on a higher plane. but when the spirit enters a new body, the old soul dies. the spirit carries the memory of that and every previous soul it has used into each new avatar. this has a curious resonance with what i’ve read of castaneda, who speaks of his death after death. and maybe it is analogous to the “second death” found twice in revelation. but all this is too mind-boggling for me, so i use soul and spirit interchangeably.

i’m about 80 pages into the book, and enjoying it as i do everything of yours i’ve read. i’m getting to know the individual characters little by little, and i’m tickled about mississippi john freeman. i may adopt that sobriquet for party use.

love, john

p.s.s.-another problem i have with pillar 3 is that it seems to indicate

that suffering is necessarily bad. i have learned the most important

moral lessons of my life by suffering the often extremely painful

consequences of making bad moral choices.  i.e., adultery can lead to

divorce and all its complications of heartbreak for two people,

disruption of childrens’ lives, etc.  in addition, doing good things has

often been at the cost of considerable suffering, particularly physical

exhaustion and pain, mental exhaustion, loss of valuable time and money,

etc. but if i can do good by suffering, i’ll gladly suffer.

-0-

Dear John–

Certainly you’re free to show anything I write to anybody you want to.  After I send it to you, it’s yours.  I actually assume pretty much the same is true for you, but have decided to be almost too careful about such matters, since a few people have fussed at me in the past.

Two notes before I respond, briefly I hope, to your last:  1) I know you know this, but I did not say Cayce was a con man.  In fact, I believe I referred to him as a good and decent man.  2) I take “Ockham’s Razor” as a very good rule of thumb, not as a law of nature.  This is important, because I’ve often seen it described as a law.  In my view, it isn’t.  It isn’t always right.  Just that if you follow it, your odds of being right improve significantly.  The Razor is often summarized thusly:  Given two theories, the simpler one is more likely to be true.  I have also seen it summarized as “Do not multiply entities.”  I connect the two summaries by considering the “entities” to be hypotheticals.  In other words, if you have to come up with extra concepts to “explain” one theory, it is less likely to be accurate.

Actually, four notes.  3)  As I’ve said, our discussion is pretty high-level, and I don’t see where it’s necessary to come to total agreement on such matters in order to live a good and decent life.  Most morality is pretty damned obvious, and I distrust people who pretend that they cannot decide how to treat others until all the metaphysical questions are settled.  They never will be.

And 4):  I accept what you say about the difference between Cayce’s notions of reincarnation and the Hindu system.  You know more about him than I do.

All that said:  Never denied Cayce was a healer.  Nobody has come up with a good explanation for healing abilities, yet there are a number of cases in which it seems pretty clear someone has been gifted with an unusual ability to heal others.

However, the fact that somebody can heal doesn’t mean they’re an authority on the nature of existence.  I’ve known some fundamentalists who could heal, but I reject their creed.  I have severe spinal stenosis and arthritis, and if I ever have surgery, I will not choose an incompetent who agrees with me politically over a brilliant surgeon whose views are more conservative.  The ability to influence health positively does not, to my mind, imply metaphysical accuracy.

So to me, Cayce’s fairly-well-documented healings do not imply the accuracy of his system.  They do show that his heart is in the right place, which is more important, I think.

Secondly–and this is where I appeal to Ockham–in order to explain Cayce’s system as you perceive it, you appeal to the tri-partite division the “Bible” (seriously doubt that all of the Bible makes such a neat partitioning of phenomena) makes between body, soul, and spirit.  For one thing, the sages, both earlier Vedic sages and later zen ones, often use “mind” to mean what we would mean by “spirit.”  But more to the point, this division is itself asserted, an assumption, not demonstrable.  I do not see where anyone has successfully shown that being falls into these three neat categories, though many people, including Vedic sages, have asserted various essential elements to being.  In other words, nobody has ever shown that we can, in any factually meaningful way, separate the three, and I for one would be very surprised if it worked that way.  If the Cayce vision of the soul depends on such distinctions, it seems to me to be a case of a supposition appealing to earlier suppositions, and therefore not altogether trustworthy.

However, don’t see where a belief in reincarnation in that way hampers treating others decently, and it may supply a much-needed optimism, so why not.

I myself have supposed a way in which reincarnation might be possible which is highly similar, considering the “personality,” which most people take to be identical with the “soul,” as no more than a manifestation of the being, like the body.  I do see this as a possibility, however, not as something that can take the full weight of belief.

In fact, as you may be able to tell from reading the book, I’ve considered a lot of possibilities not unlike the ones you describe.  In fact, as you could easily tell from my other writings on science and math, which however I will not subject you to here, I have been at a great deal of pains to make it clear that, at least in my opinion, science and reason have definite limits, which the self-assured and un-self-doubting ignore.  In particular, such things as the description of the Big Bang and the certainty about the “existence” of the Higgs boson strike me as excellent examples of the pigheaded assertion of certainties in areas in which we as yet have no certainties.  I suspect, perhaps incorrectly, that when you prefer intuition to science, it is these boneheads you are thinking of.   Goedel used mathematics to show that mathematics cannot possibly describe all of truth, and mathematicians generally ignore his results, which pisses me off.

I also distinguish carefully between reason and logic, which most thinkers do not.  In my view, reason USES logic and evidence to come at more probable ideas, but is not identical to them.  Logic, in my view, is simply a corrective to human thought.  It is not successful as a way to describe the universe.  It is a way to identify patterns of thinking that CANNOT be correct, ever.  It does not guarantee correct thinking, it just eliminates common sources of error in human thought.

I see reason, as I’ve said, as a check on intuition.  Simply do not see how, absent skepticism and an insistence on the demonstrable, we can choose between our intuitions.  Mine, at least, frequently ride off in all directions at once.  A basic tenet for me is that strength of belief does not equate to verity of assertion.  This in no way is intended to denigrate the value of intuition, or to claim that reason alone is all we need.

The method of science recommended by Ockham’s Razor is quite simple:  Make as few assumptions as possible.  It is not that physics proves there is no god, as idiots like Dawkins claim.  It is that god is not a NECESSARY hypothesis, and therefore is not assumed.  The whole thing depends on honesty, which brings it into unprovability, but not unrecognizability.

Indeed, I would be very surprised if any of our ideas about how things work are remotely correct.  Perhaps there is transmigration of souls.  I don’t know for sure.  My point is that just as physicists insisted there must be an “ultimate” unit of existence, but have forever been unable to find one, have kept dividing the formerly-supposed-indivisible, a very similar set of assumptions has been at work regarding the “ultimate” or core existence of the soul (or whatever term you wish to use).  Now a new astronomical study shows that if existence is “grainy,” i. e. composed of irreducibly minute units, as quantum physicists have been insisting for decades, the “graininess” is at least ten trillion times smaller than they have been saying.  You understand, this is not [a crackpot] saying all astronomy is bunk.  This is astrophysicists checking the assertions of other astrophysicists.

I see a very similar process at work in our notions of soul.  At what point does one say that all the conceptual refinements are unrequired, the multiplication of entities, and try thinking without them?

It’s possible that in some sense “being” is always there, is immortal, and if anyone wants to call that “soul,” okay by me (not that my approval is required).  Certainly when the sages urge us to watch our emotions, they imply that when we lose the sense of the actuality of our own existence, there is still somebody there, watching.  Not sure how to distinguish that being from god, and in fact the sages usually do not.   I have felt that sense often enough, in meditation or yoga.  As I have often said, I am not me.  I am the thing that thinks it is me.

Basically, I think we quibble about concepts and terminology, as if our concepts and terminologies somehow had binding power on the way things are.  I don’t think they do.

In any case, glad you’re enjoying the book.  Probably by now you can tell that the opinions of the various characters are never exactly my opinions.  That for me is essential to fiction.

The testosterone sounds good.  I took some for a while in Santa Fe, but was much younger and did not notice a particular benefit.  How did you go about getting some?  I would assume a blood test to establish a deficiency is required.  I’m 67, but have the muscle tone and aerobic condition of a fit thirty-year-old.  I swim over five miles a week, often two miles at a time, and not all that slowly, either, and practice yoga for an average of eight or more hours a week, so am keeping the muscle mass and therefore internally-created testosterone high by will power.  Testosterone cannot repair the stenosis or remove the pain, but perhaps it could help my energy levels.

I will point out that according to your own testimony it is the testosterone and not Cayce or his system that is responsible for your freedom from depression.  Which is fine.  I’ve noticed that before my pain pills kick in, I am much more depressed than after.  Which causes me to ask what I am, if a mere capsule can make such a difference.  Clearly the much-vaunted will has little to do with such matters, and, it seems to me, such facts argue that human outlook is much more mutable than can be explained by any of the usual systems.

I see I have a new message from you.

Love, Jack

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Dear John–

This is another problem with your interpretation of 3).  Not mine.  I never acceded to the notion that “is” in grammar is the same as the “equals” sign in math.  That’s your precondition, not mine.  I consider “is” to be much larger in scope.  One advantage I find in 3) is precisely what you seem to be asserting, that suffering can lead to insight and improvement.

Further:  I cannot, by any means of taking thought or action, escape pain.  It is a part of living.  I find it comforting to think that life means suffering will occur, and that my pain is a normal part of living, which it seems to me most people deny, attempting to blame the sufferer.  That’s the great wisdom of 3) for me.  Removes the onus from the sufferer, the implication that if you would only think about things the right way, you wouldn’t hurt.  It helps weed out grandiose and unrealistic expectations.

As we have discussed, it does not, for me, imply the absence of joy or learning or celebration.

I do not see how denying 3) would help me with my pain.  In fact, in my opinion, denying 3) leaves one in an inflexible position.  You got nowhere to go from there.  If life isn’t suffering, but you suffer, there’s a confusion.  I say that life is suffering, although not unremitting suffering in my case and in many others.

You’ve said that you have been depressed and you have suffered.  This is entirely in accord with my understanding of 3), so you are not arguing with how I see things, but over who has the “right” definition of “is.”

Am I interpreting 3) as I see it?  Yes.  Just as I do with the New Testament, and any other words of wisdom from our ancestors.  Are you not?

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jack,

more later on other topics, but i wanted to address the issue of testosterone. i forgot when i was extolling its virtues that i am also taking adderall, a mix of amphetamine and noramphetamine, for chronic fatigue syndrome. but, yes, it is to the tri-partite combination of adderall, testosterone, and vigorous exercise that i attribute both my physical and psychological relative good health. i’m a fan of “positive thinking”, but i think it has some rather strict limits. i don’t believe any belief system can cure depression, though it can give sporadic episodes of relief.

when i was in a pentacostal church, i was bombarded with pronouncements that we are healed–all we have to do is believe it. this crock of shit caused so many people to experience excruciating guilt, even an assurance of damnation for lacking faith. and one girl who was blind as a bat went around attesting to her healing while bumping into furniture and people, sometimes falling down in the process while shouting, “halleluia, i’m healed. thank you jesus!”. i adamantly refuse to blame a person for physical illnesses or conditions caused by faulty genetics, germs, etc., though certainly a person is to blame if he or she drag races up the wrong side of the road (as i did when i was young), runs head-on into another car, and suffers a paralyzing injury. depression is almost always a brain chemical imbalance which is not the fault of the victim. however, since in most cases it can be cured, or at least alleviated, the failure to take the necessary steps gets into a grey area for me where responsibility is concerned. just as diabetes ironically creates a craving for more and more sugar, thus exacerbating the disease, so depression destroys the will to fight it. thus i’m careful about blaming a person for not taking corrective steps–it’s just an inevitable outcome of the condition that he won’t want to, which is not his fault. by the way, i take issue with cayce’s “voices” on this issue, since they do assign personal responsibility to all illnesses and debilitating conditions.

back to testosterone. if you took the oral medication, no wonder it didn’t help. almost any doctor will tell you that taking testosterone orally is a worthless waste of time and money. the best method is the patch, but it’s quite expensive. my medicare co-pay is $30 per month, and when i hit the donut hole in coverage, it leaps to around $800 per month. obviously i can’t afford that. so i take the injection. every two weeks my wife, who works for a doctor, brings home the 1.5cc shot, which i self-administer into the thickest part of the quadriceps. the larger the muscle, the longer it will keep the solution, which leeches into the capillaries,  intact. it takes about 3 days for it to reach peak levels, which it maintains for another 10 days. thus there is a brief period of around four days when my levels drop, and i can really tell the difference. but when it kicks in a peak level, i feel a sudden jolt of energy and mood upswing. as i said, the co-pay for each shot is $1.50. what a medical bargain!

if your stenosis is caused by disc degeneration rather than being a congenital deformity of structure, testosterone theoretically should help, since it is a powerful steroid (but a natural one, unlike anabolic types). ditto with your arthritis, unless it is the rheumatoid variety.

for extra energy, you might also try creatine, a naturally occcuring hormone of protein synthesis that, like testosterone, diminishes with age. creatine is indispensable for me for muscle recovery after working out, because i push myself with quite heavy weights. if you are interested, i can give you the contact information for nutrition express, where i get my creatine. it’s important to get the right kind. i also take branch-chain amino acids and whey protein after working out, but the jury is still out for me on their benefits. i have no doubts about creatine, though.

love, john

-0-

Dear John–

Thanks for the info.  My stenosis is congenital, not the result of a bulging disc, although I do have a relatively minor bulging disc in another part of my spine.

I was using testosterone cream, not taking it orally.  Don’t know how well that method works.  I had insurance then.  I don’t remember any big bursts of well-being, but I was younger, and might not have needed it.

Have tried creatine–I follow all that stuff–but couldn’t tell any results.

Pretty much feel the same way as you do about depression.  Don’t blame the victims, but I myself feel obliged to do everything I can to minimize it and allow my mind clear thinking.  I know some depressed people are just too depressed to do even that, and I try not to judge, but having spent so much effort myself, it’s hard not to be a little critical, fairly or unfairly.

I’m thinking I’ll let your response be the end of the discussion for these purposes.  We’re both intelligent people of good will, and could go on a long time.  But I want to whip the thing into shape–which is really just collecting it all and putting it up on the blog, as I said, no editorial changes other than correction of spelling in my stuff and the like.  Main reason I want to do it is I feel there’s very few examples of that sort of discourse around for younger thinkers to read nowadays, and that more people might respond well to being able to read two strong minds going at it.

Not so much the “winner” as the debate itself seems to me a good model for how to do these things, how to do critical thinking and be vigorous in explanation and strong-willed and sharp in one’s reasoning, but courteous at all times.

Love, Jack

-0-

jack,

there are a couple of loose ends i’d like to tie up.  by the way, since it’s your blog, it would make more sense for you to have the last word, sort of a summation i would suppose.

what i belabored about cayce not being a con man was for the others in the forum who might not be as familiar with him as you and i. i am not as wedded to cayce as to jung. again, what i said about his healing gift was to establish his sincerity, not to promote his philosophy. in fact, there are demonstrable errors in some of his prophecies; for instance, he predicted that atlantis would rise from the ocean and be rediscovered archaeologically in the 1990’s. unless the government is keeping this secret for some nefarious reason, it just didn’t happen. by the way, i’m careful about ascribing any of these ideas to cayce himself, who seemed to be unaware of what the voices were saying until the transcripts were read to him.

what you say about the difference between reason and logic is instructive to me. labels are very useful tools, but have a tendency over time to calcify. it then becomes easy to view the labels, and not what they represent, as the realities. thanks for reminding me of that.

love, john

-0-

Dear John–

Concur completely with what you say about not mistaking our concepts for reality (though naturally have learned to be suspicious of that word so casually tossed around, “reality”).  That’s really what I would say about my thinking.  It seems to me that in all areas of human endeavor, what seems apparent from far enough away becomes paradoxical and confusing and impossible to distinguish when we consider it closely enough, from quantum mechanics to impressionist paintings to the existence of a soul.  Actually, it isn’t so much that I insist the soul does not exist, as that I fail to see what clarity or insight the hypothesis delivers, since the object of the definition can never be examined in close and final detail, can only be supposed.

I do not believe we can define our way to the truth.  Every rigorous definition, according to the principle I state above, must fall apart eventually, faced with phenomena it cannot explain.

And as far as not taking the last word–well, it’s precisely because it is my blog that I would rather not.  Only way I can be assured that I have not been trapped and blinded by my own arguments.  I think it’s the process of debate that’s valuable, and the best I can do is provide a model of my thinking and step back, leaving it to readers to gather what they need or wish.  Have often felt irritated at those supposed debaters who give themselves “the last word,” and do not wish to join their company.

Love, Jack

-0-

Dear John–

You planning to respond to the last bit of the discussion?  If not, maybe I will just invent your response and post it anyway.  Of course, if I do that, I’ll probably have you concede all my points and give up.

Love, Jack

PS Thanks for the info on the new formal poetry market.

-0-

jack,

i sort of thought you’d already capped the discussion off. the only thing to respond to in your last email is your statement about the utility of belief in the soul. i think our incompatible positions reveal a major difference between our psyches. i find zen too reductionist for me, and for years i’ve revolted against the prevailing tyranny of empiricism. i never consider the utility of belief. that would be counterproductive to my psyche. i have too much fun living in a world haunted by intuited (or even imagined) possibilities. so much fun, in fact, that i’d never want to get off the wheel of life. my psyche thrives on what might be out there beyond the range of my senses but which cannot, as yet, be proven (though it may be someday with the right instruments). if i adopted zen, and i’m speaking for my psyche and not yours, i’d probably become so bored with life that i would want to get off the wheel.

however you want to end the blog is ok with me. you may have me concede if you’ll refer to me as mississippi john freeman. sounds like a fair exchange to me.

i am thoroughly enjoying the book. i find it quite amusing that even the so-called masters continue to exhibit a stubbornness of ego that they have not mastered. this admixture of wisdom and foolishness is the hallmark of the intelligent human creature. foolishness alone seems to define most of the unintelligent ones.

love, john

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Dear John–

Well, good.  You picked up, as I thought you would, on the still-incompletely-mastered egotism of the “masters”  in PZ.  My view of human nature.  Your statement to the effect that the best among us combine wisdom and foolishness and the worst contain only foolishness might well be a maxim.  Precise, accurate, and enjoyably witty.

I prefer fun to debate, too, except in those cases where they are, for the time being, the same thing.  Too bad those grim old reductionists insist on the tyranny of empiricism.

Love, Jack

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3 thoughts on “A Zennish Discussion

  1. As I read the discourse between the Buzzard and Mississippi John I was ready to respond about every sentence but I can’t remember what is was that I thought was so important at that time now that I’ve finished the reading. Here goes a few blurbs that come to mind now that I’m done. How, and if, they fit in to your conversation will not(unfortunately for you) be considered.
    When I was a kid of about 4 or 5 I found myself very interested in observing a sow at my Grandfather’s farm. She had recently farrowed and had a teeming pile of piglets that I was certain deserved closer scrutiny. Not knowing that she was a cranky and violently possessive new mother I lifted the latch to enter the pen she shared with her babies. Thankfully, my Grandfather saw me and yelled, “No!” I waited until I thought he was not looking and tried again. “No,” was repeated much louder and followed by “Don’t you know what no means?”. “No,” I replied. To my surprise he laughed and shared the story at supper with the rest of the family. I was mystified by the humor. Later, on the way home, it hit me on some level. Sorry to reduce your conversations to that story but that memory blurted forth during the reading. It seems somewhat zennish in retrospect.
    I think that gut feelings are to be honored when the homework has been done. Kekule is a great example but another one involves a great friend, now deceased, named Art Bass. When Art sold Midway Airlines he took all of the proceeds and stuck it in a fledgling enterprise now known as Federal Express. Busines writers, associates and some friends ridiculed him when he said he was playing a hunch. What they did not realize was the hunch was based on years of experience in the management of aviation endeavors which some would say sort of disqualifies it as a hunch. Intuition, gut feelings and hunches, in my experience, personal and observed, most commonly result in success when the plowing has already been done.
    The dragon of depression. Gonna need a little more than St. George to whoop this ‘un.
    Medication initially, activity on behalf of others as well as myself and enough AA to keep the gin from fueling the dragon have helped me. I have to brag on the medication some although I felt like taking it was an admission of defeat at the time. That is what makes this dragon devious. What will work sometimes to rescue me from the early stage now that I can see it coming is either of 2 quotes that I use almost as mantras. One is from Neil Young–“In the field of opportunity it’s plowin’ time again,” and the other is from James Goldman–“If you’re broken it’s because you’re brittle.” That type of thing doesn’t work unless the groundwork precedes the ride, however. Seems the dragon feeds some off that guilt that comes from pain we’ve inflicted upon ourselves and, especially, others.
    The soul deal is difficult because it means something a little different to each of us, I think.
    I do remember reading Unamuno back in the mead hall and I believe he refers to continued “growth” of the soul. I like that idea but I just don’t know ..
    By the way, the aforementioned Art Bass saw no contradiction in concurrent adherence to Episcopalianism and Zen. He and another friend, George Klee, have both stated that Jesus was Zen to the core. Again, I like that idea but I just don’t know…

  2. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have
    truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing
    to your rss feed and I hope you write again soon!

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