Thursday, May 17, 2007

Zen , Science, and Religion.

A few thoughts that seemed worth interrupting zazen for:

I finished off the last post of my own blog with this subject - something that's been kicking around in my mind a lot lately:

Where will you be in 100 years from now?
Not so long, but when I died in a few years, everything will become nothing including me, and I will take a rest forever. - G. Nishijima

Basically, it seems that science, and most other purported methods of "truth-seeking" consider there to be one truth. This seems obvious in the case of science because of its strong emphasis on objectivity - on describing the world in a way that works whether people are there to observe it or not. To predict the unobserved one must have a model that works, period.

Religions like Christianity are also based on a "single-truth" idea, in which there is some spiritual / divine world that exists and about which a few people, like the priests, etc. know a great deal. These people then tell the rest of humanity what they should believe about this supernatural world, its beings, and their powers, interests, motivations, etc. or tell them to "just read the holy book."

Zen on the other hand is quite different. It seems to be one of the only major methods of "truth-seeking" that is based on there being as many different truths as there are different perspectives, that is, as there are people. Each person has a unique view of the world. Each of these views is more or less intermixed with other's views and with the empirical world that science emphasizes. Zen insists that the subjective cannot be removed from the objective.

The funny thing is how this plays out... First, I should add, although Zen recognizes multiple "truths" it's main approach is to help its students free themselves from belief - to accept only that which remains when belief is removed, as "true." Zen places a huge emphasis on honesty, lack of pretension, and a focus on the source of all things - not the inexhaustible classifications of categories upon categories that people spend so much time dividing the world into. Most arguments are really about these classifications - is this good or bad? is this a civil war or not? is this a planet or not? etc. all this bickering and of course all the world's racism, sexism, etc is tied to a great degree to different classification systems people use to "see" the world. Some men "see" woman as objects and nothing more - it's a classification problem. Zen trains folks to realize that these classifications and there definitions are not, and can never be, "the truth", - they are at best a weird mixture of subjective and objective.

So Zen is NOT totally relativistic, it places great emphasis on an objective truth, but never goes so far as to say that there is any sense in talking about "the observed" without an observer. There is no sense in talking about what the universe will be like after you die. No scientist can design an experiment to determine what things will be like after they have died. Zen refuses to dismiss the subjective, but instead of ignoring it, as much of science does, it is explicit about the subjective role that is inherent, and unacknowledged, in all of human thought. In this way it reminds me of the Bayesian approach to statistics, which also is explicit about the observer being an integral part of the equation (all Bayesian statistics require the user to input into the equations a "prior" belief of probability for the hypotheses being tested - even if your belief is a total washout, you still must add this "uninformative" prior to the math). I like Bayesian statistics, especially for the phylogenetic work that I do. (Not because of the priors, actually, but because this approach allows a quantification of the uncertainty in the data).

Zen therefore seems to have a wonderful mix of these two seemingly opposed approaches - science and religion. Zen emphasizes minimizing belief & maximizing reality as does science. Zen also emphasizes that because there is just this moment that is real, and because we are here - with our subjective feelings (that science tends to dismiss too easily) this moment is as special as the "divine" of Christianity. So, science says "just material" and dismisses the subjective and the religious spiritual. Christianity (as an example for all religions here) dismisses the material world (and all its bugs and disease and other non-Christian things etc) and emphasizes an imagined spiritual world elsewhere - a "perfect" world that Christians will go to after death. Zen says no to both of these approaches - there is just this world, and actually, there is just this single moment of this world - all the other moments are imagined.

And the very matter/energy that science cares so much about IS the spiritual. No need to imagine a perfect world elsewhere - that's just fantasy - it's right here, now. There isn't anything else.

Zen is an alternative to science which provides little for the subjective, feeling-based human and it is also an alternative to the world's religions which contradict science and emphasize belief in fantasy.

Zen says here and now is all there is ( = science, objectivity) AND it's divine ( = religion, subjectivity).


At May 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

" it's main approach is to help its students free themselves from belief "

Most students of Zen that I have met whether real or virtual seem in fact obsessed with the collection of beliefs rather than the relinquishing of beliefs.

Not least amongst these beliefs is often 'my' sect is 'best' and that 'other' sects do not have 'the answer'.

There is of course the hoary chestnut of whether or not 'enlightenment' is 'real'. Whichever side your particular group falls on this question will be invariably a matter of belief since answering the question definitively means that belief is no longer required.

Much of Buddhist literature seems to be focussed on adapting a set of beliefs for most people rather than on earnest investigation.

The number of ways in which beliefs can be relinquished is quite short. The number of ways in which investigation can be done is also quite short - and covered by a few texts. The rest is just colourful fluff.

I think that Science has moved away a bit from the concept of absolute discoverable truths. These days it seems to be a much more honest probablistic and tentative approach - even if it is not reported as such.

[of course, some of these statements may in fact be beliefs dressed as facts. Can I be sure? Can you?]

At May 18, 2007, Blogger guyropes said...

I agree with you mikedoe about the seriousness with which many people treat ZEN, or EMPTINESS, or any of those type of terms. Whilst meditation, practise and learning are 'important', a grasp on reality or The Truth shouldn't be your stated 'aim'. You'll end up as obsessed by beliefs and words as you were before - if not, worse. Rather, 'play' and lightness should be your stated 'goal' - and this can only be 'achieved' through a giving up of all beliefs. That all said, there's no goal and nowhere to go. That is my strongly held belief. (I am mostly joking)

At May 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it is worthwhile to draw a clear and precise distinction between facts and beliefs in the context of Buddhism.

In science we define a Fact as something that has been proven to be true by several other people and conversely we define a belief as something which cannot (or has not to date) been proven or disproven.

So, "Aliens Exist" is a belief as is "God does not exist".

I think in Buddhism it would be sensible to take a more restrictive view of a fact to be "Something that I know from my own experience to be true".

[There is an issue that your interprepretation of what you believe you have experienced may be flawed]

With this tighter definition of a fact applied I think you can see that a what of passes for study in Buddhism is nothing more than an accumulation of beliefs.

The distinction is important beause the premise of Buddhism is that everything that is true can be revealed to you by your own investigation and if something cannot be revealed by such an investigation then it is nothing more than a belief.

If you are not certain about the difference between a fact and a belief for many of the things that you think you know then a good clue is going to be in your emotional reaction.

If someone questions a belief that you hold there will be an emotional reation and that might be quite a strong one. The reason for this is that a belief forms part of your identity. Fundamentally it is 'I' who beliefs.

If someone questions something that you know to be true there is unlikely to be such a strong emotional response since you would not feel the same level of need to defend it.

At May 19, 2007, Blogger Justin said...

I agree that there are more beliefs in Buddhism than we sometimes like to admit. Whatever we think about Zen, in a sense, we're always off-track. The key is cultivating a good practice. A few beliefs can help in reducing our attachment to beliefs as a whole, but those beliefs themselves eventually should to be released. All Buddhism including Buddhist beliefs and philosophies are methods for taking us from one perspective on reality to another.

I don't think that the idea of absolute discoverable truths has been a dominant idea in science since the Victorian era.

At May 20, 2007, Blogger Jinzang said...

I don't think that analyzing truth (aka "fact") versus belief is a helpful way to approach Zen or religion generally. In Buddhist philosophy both are called prapancha, proliferating concepts, and viewd as an obstacle to practice. If you knew why Joshu answered mu when asked if a dog had buddha nature WTF good would that do you? Just another fact to be thrown on the huge heap of facts you've accumulated since childhood. Zen is much more cutting than that. It's grabbing by the throat before you even have a chance to speak a word. What then?

At May 20, 2007, Blogger Justin said...


At May 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree with you but this blog exists.

I've mentioned the tentative nature of all these 'facts' that I refer to because they don't fit reality exactly and trying to categorise and differentiate is not helpful.

That however is besides my point.

The point is that it is difficult to relinquish a belief that you are unaware that you hold. Likewise it can be difficult to recognise when you are accumulating beliefs since so many people will hand you beliefs for free which you then acquire and grab on to.

You could burn the books, burn the cushion, destroy this blog and all the truths of Zen would still be self-evident and available for all to find.

"It's grabbing by the throat before you even have a chance to speak a word. What then?"



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