Conduct and observance

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Just how smart are we, anyway?

"The obstruction of the path by the mind and its conceptual discrimination is worse than poisonous snakes or fierce tigers."

-Ch'an Master Ta Hui, writing to Lo Meng-Pi (Swampland flowers, translated by J. C. Cleary, Shambala Publications 1977.)

...Or maybe frozen rocks.

Ta Hui goes on in a letter to Hsu Tun-Li that the Dharma is "the imponderable, the incalculable, where there's no way to apply intelligence or cleverness."

Combine this with Dogen's rejection of intellectualism- in his Shobogenzo, he makes the point that Zen practice has nothing to do with being stupid or clever- and we end up in what is for most of us a very unfamiliar place.

After all, we have constructed societies founded upon the premise that being smart is important. In the middle class- or what little is left of it as America's greedy CEO's slowly suck up all the money on the entire planet - our incomes usually depend on being smart.

To be sure, celebrity carves out some space in which to be successful and stupid, but it's not a good kind of space.

Is it now?

...And we could mention politics, but for the sake of what's left of everyone's sanity, let's not go there.

I live in America, where one of the sports among educated, competitive males of middle age is to one-up each other in a constant sparring match to see who's smarter, wittier, cleverer. In circles like this it's all about how swift and sharp your intellect is. This kind of intensely egoistic social exchange is wearying to me, but I participate when necessary. Of late I have tried to find ways to soften it where possible, because as I get older I can just feel myself getting stupider, almost by the minute, and it occurs to me that even though I'm considered to be quite smart, I'm just not going to be able to compete on the terms these other, immensely smarter guys are setting.

Our technology, our media, our institutes of higher learning- all of them worship intellect. Business, commerce, the internet- everything is about information exchange. We're swamped by what Ta Hui calls the conceptual discrimination of the mind; it's all we encounter in the average day.

But he's telling us we've got it wrong. In fact, just about every Zen master says we've got it wrong. And it's not just the Zen tradition: In the cloud of unknowing, the author states "You cannot know God with the mind." In Gurdjieff's work he finally told Ouspensky that some things had to be taken on faith- that is, they could not be grasped intellectually. Ouspensky got disgusted - I could be more polite and say dismayed, but I won't- by what he felt were Gurdjieff's increasingly religious leanings. He left him to pursue his own course- which, incidentally, ended in what was according to some accounts a downward spiral into excessive use of alcohol and depression.

As smart as Ouspensky was, I guess that didn't work out to well, huh?

In the end, the mind leads us in circles. I increasingly find that what is tangible isn't intellectual, doesn't consist of lists of facts and figures. It doesn't consist of creating or analyzing, either; it's not made up of thinking, or "doing," or knowing. Not the intellect's compartmentalized type of knowing, anyway.

It's made up of being and understanding. These stem from a deeper part of the organism than the part that's writing this- or reading it. It's what sinks into the bones.

Recently, for me, that can be briefly summarized in the following:

One green bottle of water,
One golden orchid against a blue-white vase,
Falling snow in the morning darkness,
The sensation of breath in the body,
A single leaf turning in the wind.

Those are the facts I have collected in the past two weeks. They won't do anyone but me much good, but they weigh more than thought, and I can still taste them and the way they went down when I swallowed them.

Tomorrow we'll return to more analysis.

or maybe not.

I have something cool to say about the location we inhabit and just how limited it is, but maybe it's not so important.

See you later

and- Love to you all

Posted by Lee van Laer at 6:42 PM 0 comments    

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