Westerners, Roadblocks & Zen

Earl R Smith II, PhD


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For Westerners, Zen can be a particularly maddening series of suggestions about how to experience life in a different way. One of the major reasons that this is so is that all Westerners are essentially children of Aristotle. As such, we tend to prioritize rationality over instinct. To be clear, the Ancient Greeks did not do so. They had Dionysius as well as Apollo. They had their own Trinity: Zeus, Hades and Poseidon. But Western culture and spirituality as aggressively pruned the tree. With limited exceptions, Aristotle and the worship of rationality dominates the field.

This tendency towards the assumed primacy of rationality is one of the major sources of distress and dysfunction when Westerners encounter Zen. It seems to me that Alan Watts got it right when he wrote:

Human purposes are pursued within an immense circling universe which does not seem to me to have purpose, in our sense, at all. Nature is much more playful than purposeful, and the probability that it has no special goals for the future need not strike one as a defect. On the contrary, the processes of nature as we see them both in the surrounding world and in the involuntary aspects of our own organisms are much more like art than like business, politics, or religion. They are especially like the arts of music and dancing, which unfolds themselves without aiming at future destinations. No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve in quality as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing it is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget altogether to live them. The musician whose chief concern is to make every performed better than the last May so failed to participate and delight in his own music that he will impress his audience only with the anxious rigor of his technique.

Alan Watts, This Is It: and other essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience

I regularly encounter spiritual seekers who are on a mission to improve their meditation or to attain enlightenment. They’ve got a plan. It is often worked out in excruciating detail. “I will do this and then I will do that and once this and that are done I will achieve…” No matter how many times they read, “The purpose of meditation is meditation and nothing more,” they persist in the rational pursuit of what is fundamentally irrational. They end up like Wallace Steven’s man with a Blue Guitar:

I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can. 

I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man, 

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man. 

If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are, 

Say it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.

Wallace Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar”

The frustrating reality which Westerners encounter is that Zen is not understood but experienced. Many writers have produced numerous tomes trying to get this idea across. You don’t think Zen, you live it. You don’t analyze Zen, you experience it. You don’t encrust Zen with dogma, ritual and definition, you directly participate in his elegant simplicity.

But these attempts tend to fall on deaf ears. Many Westerners still suffer from what I call the ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ syndrome. Insisting that even spirituality is reducible to formulas and definitions, they destroy the wonder and joy of the living experience that is reducible to neither.

In my mentoring work, I regularly introduce very successful people to parts of the human experience that they have ignored. People who have never picked up a book of fiction, because reading it does not advance their career, are introduced to some of the most profound thinkers about the human condition and the experience of being human. One of my favorites for this purpose is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s not just Wilde’s wonderful facility with language but his deep insight into the relationship between a human as a living being and the avatar which is created – as T.S. Eliot put it in The Love of J. Alfred Prufrock – ‘To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’.

The impact of these guided journeys into the unknown is always warmed and lifted me up. It is often as if long-neglected parts of living experience and fundamental needs are rediscovered and reanimated. Like a desert that has lain parent for so long, responds to the thunderstorms by the decking itself in greenery and wild perfusion of flowers.

The way into Zen for Westerners is not through a tendency to privilege rationality. The doorway is the immediate experience of the moment – the pre-rational and pre-linguistic experience of that moment.

If you understand, things are just as they are
if you don’t understand, things are just as they are

If you can explain, you don’t understand!

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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