Zen and Ambiguity

Earl R. Smith II. PhD

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It’s a kind of clash of cultures; particularly amongst the educated in the West. The echoes of Descartes, Kant, Newton, the Socratics and generations of fellow travelers have embedded the idea that rationality is a salvation of the human race. When Westerners first encounter Zen thinking, the impact is often severe vertigo. Unlike Western philosophy, which shuns ambiguity, Zen and indeed the entire massive stream of Eastern thinking embraces it ardently.

Repeatedly, I encounter a similar reaction during the early months of some of my Zen mentoring work. It’s roughly the equivalent of, “What the hell does that mean?” Effectively it’s a request to nail down meaning, define definitively and drive ambiguity away. The search for meaning, including the meaning of life, is narrowed to a demand for rational explanation.

But Zen is completely uninterested in such a request. Ambiguity is not only an unavoidable part of the experience of being human: it is an essential part.

Some decades back, a way of thinking emerged – principally in the Southwest, high desert of the United States – which was distinctly non-Western. It built on the work of people like Lotfi Zadeh. At first, they focused on something called “fuzzy logic”. There was massive opposition, particularly from the University engineering schools. The whole idea that A was A and Not Not A was so central to the dominant thinking that the proposition that A might be more or less A and a little bit B and more than a little bit C was completely unacceptable.

And then, in a nunnery in New Mexico, an organization called the Santa Fe Institute was born. Fuzzy Logic evolved into Complexity Theory and Chaos Theory. Ambiguity was readmitted into the cutting edge of Western thinking. The output of the Institute, and the similar organizations that have emerged, as had massive impact on the nature of Western society. But my focus here is the enabling impact that it can have when Westerners begin to struggle with Eastern thought and the ambiguity which it brings.

I will say here what I tell those that I work with as they struggle with the idea of ambiguity. “Get thee to a nunnery!” That recommendation has proven helpful to many. A basic understanding of complexity theory and fuzzy logic is often the kind of lubrication that eases the understanding of an idea which seem so radical to those who have grown up in the Western tradition.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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