Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It's Not As Sexy As You Think

It seems like the conventional wisdom surrounding Zen Buddhism is that it's a remarkably complicated, confusing, and incomprehensible philosophical system.  I can't really say anything about the history or traditions associated with it, but looking just at the philosophical system it's much more straightforward than I expected.  Here it is: Zen Buddhism is a system of belief that is opposed to any sort of simplification.  It's just holism taken to it's extreme.  According to Zen, any attempt to simplify reality through dualism, or breaking the world into categories, creates a flawed model of the world.  This applies to humans also: even basic logical principles (like non-contradiction) are foolish because our brains are highly dualistic.  In the same way, words are the worst sort of dualism, so Zen seeks to abuse them completely with goofy contradictions and silly questions.

After reading this, somebody might respond in the manner I've come to expect: try to jump up a level and use Zen to criticize my own description of it.  It's impossible to constrain Zen by characterizing it with a simple blog post, right?  Wrong.  Zen is merely a system, which means it cannot be its own meta-system.  As a human, I can always take a step back and reflect on stuff, even Zen Buddhism.  I think people get confused by Zen's admittedly bizarre use of language and mistake it as something deeper than it really is.  For more, read Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter.

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