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Gospel Birds

I love gospel music. I love the literature, the art, and the architecture of Christendom. Yet I would not lock myself in a church, reading but one book, staring at but a few images, while listening alone to gospel music, however tempting that may be. I love bird songs and sunshine too much to spend my Sundays inside.

e.e. cummings wrote that little birds are the secrets of living, and that whatever they sing is better than to know. Yet it is hard not to know; it is hard to quiet the mind enough to really hear what the birds are singing.

Churches are too stuffy and self-righteous, clanging the pots and pans of their opinions, even to hear the music. And secularists are too fed up with theological debauchery to even come near to a church, where some cool birds might roost and sing.

Me, on my clearer days, when my mind is calm, and my heart full of spirit, I like to come near to a church, but to come no nearer than to stand on the lawn, free from the congregation. There, standing outside, I can on a sunday hear the songs, and know that, no matter how wrong the theology, the sound is right.

There, on the lawn, I can hear the music, smell the fresh cut grass, feel the warm moisture evaporate and permeate the air, almost as it would itself suspend the music. And when the song ends, I can, without disturbing a soul, walk nearer to the lawn’s edge, nearer to the forest, and listen to the ancient bird songs, and wonder when dinosaurs began to sing.

Whitman’s Mystical Moist Night and Jill Bolte Taylor’s “Stroke of Insight”

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

–Walt Whitman

A certain kind of thinker reads this poem, and grows angry. I’ve heard people protest that Whitman is anti-intellectual; that Whitman has no business, as a poet, to come waltzing into the lecture-room and tell scientists how the world is — both reactions smack of both insecurity and irony.

Whitman is in no sense anti-intellectual. The man loves words, language, and the contest of ideas. Nor does Whitman devalue science, as some scientifically-minded intellectuals are wont to say. Rather, Whitman’s romantic rebellion against scientism amounts to an opening of the mind, to a recognition that, though science has brought us unimaginably far, we ought not sacrifice our imagination for petrified sentences.

In the lecture-room, closed off from the open night sky, some men fancy that they have captured, or are well on their way to capturing, the right set of sentences to represent reality. They fancy that our language is sufficient to capture reality. Especially, they fancy that so-called scientific sentences are the best for capturing the universe, and cramming it into a lecture-room.

But this is all to make the universe small, stale and stiff. Romantics would have us love the lecture-room, but to love more the door; and did a lecturer lock that door, romantics would have us revolt, and bust the door down. The universe cannot fit into a classroom; tomorrow cannot fit into yesterday’s ideas. There remains ever the silent unknown, which would dazzle us.

When I teach this poem, and especially when I teach this poem to science students, I love to use a particular scientist’s experience and analysis to lend support to Whitman’s poem. But before I get to her, let me draw your attention to the structure of the poem.

The poem is contains eight lines, the first four of which begin with the word when. This poetic device—repeating several lines with a single word or phrase—is called anaphora. Significantly, the word when connotes time. In the lecture-room, all who are present belong to a time. This poem was written in 1900, just before the revolutions of physics and astronomy which were to come. The people in this lecture-room are learning nothing timeless and eternal, but are learning the charts and diagrams which belong to a historically conditioned paradigm. Yet they persist in the illusion that they have it.

Whitman knew better. Not only did these scientists not have it in any ultimate sense, but simply in a historical and contingent sense, they did not have a privileged monopoly on all we could call knowledge. Having knowledge of how to write poetry well, for example, can have just as profound an effect on the human condition as the knowledge of how to write mathematical proofs. Whitman’s poetry in particular has done much to help America imagine what social equality looks like. And Whitman knew that yesterday’s poems would not suffice for the new America we are still busy imagining.

In poetry, and no less in the sciences, we must leave the door on the classroom unlocked, so that we may walk outside, so that we may walk out of our historically conditioned and contingent knowledge, to look up at romantically timeless stars, and imagine, in silence, what might be.

The first eight lines of this poem connote the historical conditions of the lecture-room, which is a product of civilization. Notice also the building, and expanding tension of the lines. The first is short, and each of the next three is longer than the one before it. This expanding quality brings the poem to nearly burst out of itself at its climactic moment, almost as the poet would break out of his historical condition, and into a timeless realm. It is as if he breaks out of his paradigm. Yet here, there is nothing to say.

The last four lines, paradoxically, describe this silent, timeless moment. He enters into a place of solitude, out of the inter-subjective objectivity of his time. Here, there is nothing said, nothing yet to say, and nothing here can be contained in the classroom. No matter how large we make the classroom—even in our post-modern world with high speed internet access in the classroom—, we cannot fit the stars therein; nor can we fit what scientific paradigm we might dream up tomorrow in yesterdays ideas; for it will always be the case that what fits in a textbook is at once conservative and yesterday’s ideas. The dreamers must step out of the classroom in order to step beyond it.

But let’s now return to the particular scientist I wrote of above. I like to suggest to students that this poem is structured like our brain. This poem, like our brain, can be divided neatly into two parts.

The left hemisphere can be thought of as a serial processor, or as organizing our experience into linear structures and categories. The first four lines, with their whens, and with the charts and diagrams, adding and dividing: these are analogous to the left hemisphere. Further, the left hemisphere is the primary center for language. It is this language which makes up the intersubjective objectivity which makes the lecture-room possible.

In contrast, the right hemisphere can be thought of as a parallel processor, or as organizing our experience as objects or images in space. The last four lines are composed without implying any goals, and are filled with words of silence and peace. These lines are analogous to the right hemisphere. The language of these four lines transcend the intersubjective objectivity of the lecture room. Here, the language is not dry and abstract; but here, the night is living, and mystically moist.

The scientist I would like to present to you is a brain scientist. In the middle of her career, she had a stroke. The stroke was in the left hemisphere, and took her ability to use language away from her. What she discovered in this process was this silent, mystical moist night to which Whitman points us.

Again, I will emphasize that neither Whitman nor I imply that science is not one of the supreme achievements of humanity. Rather, we both hold that we must leave the lecture-room door open, and imagine that tomorrow will somehow be greater than yesterday’s ideas.

I hope you enjoy this video of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s “Stroke of Insight.” The link is below.

Hesse’s Siddartha: Realizing The Eternal Change

Siddartha has three distinct phases, which move on in a kind of metamorphosis. The first stage is the mind, the second is the body, and the third is integration. In the first stage, Siddartha seeks understanding by denying the body, and trying to master the mind. His counterpart is Govinda, who is male. The name Govinda is linked with Krishna, and literally means “cow god.” You can also understand the name to mean “cow herd,” or shepherd. The name is connected with the godhead, which is unchanging. He is the keeper.

To understand the significance more deeply, you can think of a distinction between appearance and reality. The appearance of things flows like a river, and is never twice the same. Reality is always the same. In Western Philosophy, which shares historical and linguistic roots with Hindu Philosophy, this is a central distinction. In the west, the eternal and unchanging is associated with Reason or Mind, which are both associated with masculinity. Reason, like the proposition that 2+2=4, is always the same.

In Greek philosophy, you can see the quest for the eternal expressed in Plato’s doctrine of the Forms. Further, you can look at his Allegory of The Cave. The world of illusion and change are the shadows at the back of the cave. The true world is represented out of the cave in the symbol of the Sun, which stands for masculine Reason. The Cave itself represents a kind of womb. The seeker is born, as it were, into the light of Reason. Mythologically, this is the quest for Father. As with the myth of Christ, one must be “born again.”

Remembering that there are important differences between eastern and western enlightenment, let’s look again at Siddartha’s companion. Govinda and Siddartha practice denying the body as ascetic monks, in order to know the mind, in order to know the eternal and unchanging self. They become monks. But this direction of self-denial does not work for Siddartha. He is still incomplete. So he parts with his friend, Govinda.

At this stage of the novel, he encounters a female, named Kamala, whose name is connected to Lakshmi or Durga. Laksmi is the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and Durga is the mother goddess. Kamala is the female aspect of the Self. She represents the opposite of what Govinda represents, which is the masculine aspect of the self. Both Kamala and Govinda represent aspects of Siddartha.

Kamala is at once the lover and the mother. As her name relates to Lakshmi, she represents worldly desire. Through her, Siddartha indulges into desire, instead of denying it, as he did with Govinda. You perhaps have already realized that her name Kamala is related to the name we know well in the west, Kama Sutra, which is the ancient Indian practice of enlightenment through sensuous pleasure. It is this sensuous pleasure that leads naturally to the other aspect of her name, Durga. The lover becomes the Mother.

Let’s take at some linguistic artifacts in order to drive the point home. In English, which is deeply related to the Hindu language Sanskrit, we can see the etymology which connects the word “mother” with the body. In order to get the connection, we need to look at another indo-european language, Greek. The Greek goddess Demeter is the earth goddess. We can see in her name the English word “meter,’ which is a unit for measuring physical “matter,” the earth body. “Meter” and “matter” are both words are connected to the English word “mother.” Meter, matter, mother. Mater, material, maternity, etc. In fact, in all of the Indo-European languages, we can find the old association between “matter” and “mother.” In Russian, mother is ‘mat;’ in Hindi, ‘maataa;’ in German “mutter.” In our old mythologies, Earth is Mother, and Heaven is Father. The earth is matter, and heaven is mind.

Let’s make one more quick digression before continuing on, for there is an old historical relationship between Hesse’s Germany, and Siddartha’s India. You see, the Aryans, who migrated north to England, Germany, and Russia, also migrated to India, and with them they brought their language, which evolved into the various forms of of language in the into-european language family tree. The Aryans started out in an area which approximates modern day Iran (Iran = Aryan.) And it is this history which Hitler exploited when he called the Aryan race the master race. He took from this tradition the infamous swastika, and reversed it. You can find the swastika in both Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which have aryan roots. The language, mythology, and philosophy of all the into-european languages share in the same migratory roots.

But back to Kamala. Kamala represents the ever-changing body; Govinda represents the unchanging mind. Siddartha could not find completeness as a monk with Govinda. He needed to understand his body. So he leaves Govinda and meets Kamala. Having mastered his mind, he is ready to know the body. And when he knows both mind and body, these two opposites can integrate into a whole. Siddartha can integrate male and female, the two poles of the Self. And it is thus that Siddartha conceives a child, and becomes a father. This represents a new birth of the self. But he is not finished. His realization is not complete.

And so we enter into the third and final stage of the book. Having integrated male and female, the eternal and the temporal, the mind and the body, he gets his son. He was once a son; and now he, like his father before him, has become a father. Through all the change, something has remained the same. Yet he hasn’t realized this yet. In this third stage, he must realize and apprehend this whole, and so we meet the ferryman, Vasudeva.

Vasudeva is Krishna’s father, and his name means “the one who is the form of knowledge.” Vasudeva lives by the river, which appears always to change; and through meditation on the river, at the side of Vasudeva, Siddartha comes to realize the eternal Form. Like the river, life eternally changes. Though everything has changed, nothing has changed. Ever-changing appearance is eternal reality.

In this last stage, Siddartha again meets his brother, Govinda. Govinda has not changed; yet Govinda does not recognize Siddartha, for Siddartha has changed so much.

Zen And The Art of Mind Maintenance

“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”  ~Henry David Thoreau

Reading “Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” recently, and for the second time, I was impressed by Pirsig’s observation that, when we seek to repair a motorcycle, the goal is not so much to have a well maintained motorcycle as it is to gain peace of mind. Working on the motorcycle is working on the mind.

But what is a motorcycle but an idea? And what is an idea but a solution to a problem?

A motorcycle is an existential object. It expresses an inward condition in outward form. It is an embodiment of the human mind. It represents a man’s desire to be free, to move, to roam.

Yet when a man thinks it sufficient to purchase another man’s idea, without taking time to learn that idea to gain his own freedom, he becomes dependent upon that other man. He, in a sense, surrenders his freedom to another. He becomes dependent on another for the maintenance of his motorcycle. In turn, he becomes dependent on another for the maintenance of his own mind.

I do not mean here that it is categorically wrong to turn your motorcycle maintenance over to another person. That is clearly absurd. In our world, we simply haven’t the time to do this in every case. But insofar as we can simplify our dependencies upon the minds of others–which are so often poorly maintained–, so our minds become accordingly more peaceful.

Rather than turning over the many problems over to others, we do better to reduce the number of problems in the first place. This comes first by recognizing that the many problems are really outward expressions of an inward problem: a restless mind.

In order to participate in modern life, certain complex objects are required to maintain certain relationships. Many of these will need to be maintained, to some extent, by others. In order to better maintain the peace and tranquility of our own mind, when we must select another to repair an object or solve a problem for us, we do well to examine the quality of the work which that person does; for his or her quality of mind will be consequently embodied in the object. That in turn affects our own minds.

But when we can, we ought to maintain the object ourselves. Studying the problem, we can better see our own mind reflected or embodied in the object itself. Taking care of that object, we can then learn to see beneath the surface of our existence, and to solve existential problems practically.

All a person needs to do, according to this view, is to take a look around at the problems he or she encounters regularly, and then select one or two of them to begin with. Then all that is to be done is to learn and to solve that problem mindfully and with quality. It could be any kind of problem, from cooking and cleaning to farming or fishing. 

One needs to look no further than to his or her activities to discover the deeper layers of self.