Saturday, March 18, 2006

Zen and progress

Is Zen against progress? Zen is claimed to be a path of 'action' (often said in reply to criticisms about complacency). However I wonder if a society of dedicated Zen buddhists would ever cure cancer or invent computers or, in general, discover a better way to do X (insert your favorite activity, chore, job, etc)?

I ask this based on a few points I've picked up in various sources. I recall one story about an American who had joined a Japanese monastery. He observed how the monks went about their daily chores and one day realized that they were being inefficient. He went to the head monk and told him that if they changed x, y, and z they'd save at least 3 hours of work a day. The head monk considered this and replied "Then we'd have to sit zazen for 3 extra hours a day. We sit long enough as it is." So the idea was shot down.

When I think about this aspect of zen it speaks to me of the wisdom that there are more important things in life to balance against progress. That zen is not against progress as a rule, but only against the excessive focus on progress that is so persuasive in modern society. This speaks to a greater regard for sustainability. Progress cannot continue forever - the simplest example of this is the exhaustion of natural resources that can happen with unlimited population growth. Many human societies were able to live in the same location for thousands of years without exhausting their resource simply because they, essentially, did not change. Their life spans were not that long becuase their medicines were not that great, they had no ipods, life was hard. There was very little technological progress in these societies (some, like the Oholone natives of California, actually ostracized individuals who proposed changes to their technology). Some might call this stagnation, others call it long-term sustainability.

One of the reasons western society is so fixated on progress is the very anti-zen notion that this moment is not good enough. We must sacrifice this moment for the future. We must spend all our time and effort now to make things better later. A lifetime spent in this fashion is a pretty sad affair, but this fits very well with Christianity and similar religions, which tell their followers, it's OK to suffer now because you'll have eternal bliss in Heavan after you die.

In contrast, a society of Zen buddhists, who think this moment is all there is, would be, I assume, less likely to sacrifice the present for the future than most of modern society. This is why Zen is sometimes criticized as advocating complacency - contentment with the present seems to invariably lead to acceptance of the present (if not 100% acceptance, at least more acceptance than we see in modern culture which proclaims loudly, "This moment is flawed, we must fix X, Y, and Z NOW! Work harder!"

Island life is often called "slower" than modern life, but sometimes criticized as being the result of laziness. The same people who call islanders lazy, of course, love to vacation there because everyone is so much more laid back.

What if everyone was that laid back? What would life be like? I expect there would be less fighting but the reason for less fighting would be the same as the reason for less progress - "things aren't that bad right now - let's just enjoy life and keep things the way they are."

I expect Computer software produced by a zen buddhist company would have fewer bugs but fewer innovations too. No bells and whistles, just perfect code.

So, is advocating a dedication to Zen also advocating the slowing down of progress? I'd say it is.

13 Comments:

At March 18, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

that's really interesting me i've never explictly thought about that before but it definitely rings true.

 
At March 18, 2006, Blogger karen said...

It might depend on what your view of progess is. Automobiles were considered very progressive at one time. Now they are blamed for global warming, which is really setting us back enviornmentally. I don't know that zen is associated with progess or anti-progress. If it is accepting and dealing with life as it is, I still don't think it would be anti-progress because in accepting things as they are and allowing ourselves to settle in with feelings that accompany things as they are, we are somehow transformed. For instance a disease such as cancer is accepted for what it is, studied for how it proliferates and in that acceptance of the disease process we proceed to unlock the mystery of what it's cause may be. This could be called progress, through acceptance. Mind you it is slow progress, but none the less, we learn. So it is with our practice that we sit with our busy minds, accepting them as they are and we are gradually led out of the maze and we progress to perhaps less busy minds, less turmoil about life as it is. While it may appear that we are complacent, perhaps we are just learning to differentiate what matters and what does not.

 
At March 19, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

I don't think that Zen is ultimately for or against anything. Zen is an acceptance of how things are, and 'how things are' includes progressivism and anti-progressivism both socially and technologically.

The monastery story is funny, but we're not living in a monastery and if we make things more efficient it doesn't mean that we have to do too much zazen.

I don't think that there is any evidence that technological progress makes our lives more enjoyable, what it seems to give is competitive advantage, both within and between societies.

 
At March 19, 2006, Blogger cromanyak said...

we see in modern culture which proclaims loudly, "This moment is flawed, we must fix X, Y, and Z NOW! Work harder!"

With Zen it's more like "This moment is all there is, we must fix X, Y, and Z NOW! Work harder!"

 
At March 20, 2006, Blogger Beth C. said...

this is a very interesting coincidence. I was just having a conversation with my mom about this very subject. (she is a very talented religous skeptic and devils advocate) she asked me what would have happened if everyone were Buddhist, would we have have made any progress? What have buddists Invented to further the species? I replied--maybe they invented the most helpful and sensible religion.

 
At March 20, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Cromanyak,
Sounds about right to me.

Beth,
Many Asian countries have been predominantly Buddhist for centuries and have built great civilisations. I would suggest that Buddhism does question however, whether such progress is really dealing with our core issues. We can't compare ourselves with people who lived thousands of years ago, but if the research I have read is accurate, people in 'First World' countries are not happier than those in 'Third World' countries.

 
At March 20, 2006, Blogger aumeye said...

My friend, Graham, has traveled extensively; and one of the things he observed was the joy of the people he met in some of the poorest regions. He told me about a man in tattered clothes, holding a bowl on the side of the road. The first thing Graham noticed about him was his warm and genuine smile. The man was squatting in dirt, in oppressive heat, looking for food. Graham spent hours with this man, talking, and left there knowing many of these people were content with their lives, in a way that he himself had not yet realized. Progress?

 
At March 20, 2006, Blogger earDRUM said...

Interesting question.

I agree with the comments above. The Zen approach is neither “for” or “against” progress.

I think that the idea of the “noble savage” is a myth. I recently saw a show about the dawn of human civilization in the famous Fertile Crescent area of Africa. Humans did settle down and develop agriculture there (after eons of living nomadic lives). And settling down there allowed them to develop what we now know as “civilization”. This looks like signs of “progress”. But there was a price to pay. It turns out that they only stayed in the Fertile Crescent until they completely depleted the land’s resources. They left a barren wasteland there, and then ventured out to all corners of the globe… to do the same thing elsewhere. And we are still at it. We continue to spoil our nest.
So really, the nomadic life has continued onward. The stops at each spot have just became longer.

Progress? “Progress” is a myth, as someone once said.

Our capitalistic, corporatist society is driven by short-term profit… not by progress.
Is the quality of life better now than it was in past centuries? For the privileged few, possibly… but only on the surface. We in the west are very lucky. We have the comforts of medicine, plenty of food and comfortable shelter. But we have these things at the expense of our 3rd world neighbours… and at the expense of the many species of sentient creatures. Our food comes from animals (even fellow mammals) that are living tortured lives in concentration camps. So much for compassion.
Progress? Hmmm…

As others have pointed out above, all of our comforts (medicine, food, shelter) do not improve our lives in meaningful ways. As Aumeye pointed out, we are surprised when we hear that people living in squalid conditions are still able to find joy. I think this is something that we need to examine.

But as far as zen goes, I don’t think it is an issue.

 
At March 20, 2006, Blogger me said...

karen - yes, how one defines progress is critical. In my post I was defining in an economic sense, as a CEO of a corporation or an economics analyst, or even a historian/anthrolopogist comparing cultures and their 'greatest' advacements might define it. I agree with you and others in that I don't think Zen is necessarily for or against progress in any formal way. I like what you said:

While it may appear that we are complacent, perhaps we are just learning to differentiate what matters and what does not.

Justin - accepting things as they are is a pretty vague statement. Say a Zen buddhist is in a town that is torn between pro-loggers and conservationists. One side advocating economic collapse of the town to save the forests and the other saying 'screw the forests we need to feed our families'. What would 'accepting things as they are' mean in that circumstance? Which side, if any, do you accept. A lot of zen is fairly paradoxical and I'm sure some zennies might retreat from the issue in a cloud of koan like statements (hell, I'd be tempted to do that!)

cromanyak: With Zen it's more like "This moment is all there is, we must fix X, Y, and Z NOW! Work harder!" Really? I know that zen can lead us to extreme care of the moment and if the moment is screwed up (like your computer isn't working properly) you can focus with great clarity on the problem and fix it. But my point wasn't about keeping things working, it was about taking what is working OK already, claiming it's not good enough, and using that perspective to drive people to innovate, to invent ipods because CD players were too bulky, to invent gastric by-pass surgery because letting people eat themselves to death should be stopped with modern technology rather than, say having them eat a proper diet.

To reiterate - progress is about making the current state of affairs different with the rational that it's not good enough now and it could be better.


aumeye and eardrum: I agree - most of what passes for progress and the success of modern civilization is pretty hollow. I think we're losing a lot more than we're gaining.

and Beth - to follow up on that last point. If I were asked by someone 'what would a culture of buddhist do for civilization?' I would argue it's not so much what they would do - it's what they wouldn't do (mass extinctions & ecological devastation, global warming, ozone holes, desensitized youth, overpopulation, shallow low-quality culture, etc.) that would be so great.

But then they might be totally happy living with nothing more than a bowl and a robe. The economy would grind to a halt. Thanks everyone.

 
At March 20, 2006, Blogger cromanyak said...

It seems me the solution to the problems we're facing today can only be solved on a individual level. Those of us with a motivation to "know ourselves" need to be specific about what we're doing. I think just sitting there staring at a wall is too hit and miss. The quality of attention needed to be impartial isn't easy to cultivate. The best way I can describe it is that it's like a camcorder recording the body(as a whole) "as if" from the outside. Another way to put it would be to try and see yourself the way a stranger would see you.

 
At March 21, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Me(/You),

accepting things as they are is a pretty vague statement. Say a Zen buddhist is in a town that is torn between pro-loggers and conservationists. One side advocating economic collapse of the town to save the forests and the other saying 'screw the forests we need to feed our families'. What would 'accepting things as they are' mean in that circumstance? Which side, if any, do you accept. A lot of zen is fairly paradoxical and I'm sure some zennies might retreat from the issue in a cloud of koan like statements (hell, I'd be tempted to do that!)

Accepting things as they are just means being aware in an unattached way, free from delusions. Zen is not an extensive set of rules for how to behave in each and every situation. Buddhism teaches us to follow the precepts and to act with compassion, so how a practitioner would behave comes down to individual judgement. So you could have Buddhists on either side of many issues. According to Zen teachings an advanced practitioner would act spontaneously with compassion but without attachment to the concept of right and wrong.

 
At March 21, 2006, Blogger earDRUM said...

Well put, Justin.
I think this is an important point... and one that is easily misconstrued.
To be unattached does not mean to be disconnected from one's surroundings. Quite the opposite, I think.
Morality is relative, and dependent on conditions in the moment. A clear, ungrasping mind allows us to see more of reality... and ultimately make better judgements... and also, to change our minds when it seems appropriate.

 
At March 22, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Buddhism isn't an ideology.

 

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