01 August 2007


Thanks to Vernon Lynn Stephens for posting the first comment to appear on this blog, and thus proving my expectation wrong—philosophers live for just those moments! (I'm a bit slow responding due to some social distractions over the past few days.)

Thanks also, Vernon, for pointing out the importance of pointers. Some folks use a ‘blogroll’ to furnish pointers to visitors; i use instead an annotated page on my home site, which i call
I've been keeping this updated for over 5 years now, in the hope that it might lead others to some sources that i've found fruitful in various ways. It's mostly print sources but increasingly i'm adding web links to it as well. Anyone who finds these little bloggish meditations of some use will probably find some pointers there.

As for phenomenology, i'm not widely read in that neighborhood, except for Merleau-Ponty—and Eugene Gendlin, who doesn't self-label as a phenomenologist, but he seems connected to that category. Follow this link to SourceNet for more about his work. Most of my acquaintance with Husserl is second-hand (through the Evan Thompson book that i reviewed, for instance), since i've decided i don't have time to immerse myself in his work as i do in Gendlin and Peirce. I do have a hunch that Peirce and Husserl were thinking along parallel but separate tracks in some ways, though neither paid much attention to the other. (Maybe each was put off by the other's idiom, which would be quite understandable in both cases!) My hunch is spelled out a bit more in the ‘Peirce on Phenomenology’ page on my website.

Today i'd like to point in a slightly different direction, toward
The Wholehearted Way, which is a translation of Eihei Dogen's ‘Bendowa’ (one of his earliest works) along with a commentary by Kosho Ushiyama Roshi. I don't know of a better introduction to the practice of Zen Buddhism (though i do list some others on SourceNet). Near the end of the book comes a remark by Dogen (italicized below), followed by Uchiyama Roshi's comment:

If the genuine buddha-dharma permeates the country, because of the ceaseless protection of buddhas and heavenly beings, the emperor's reign will be peaceful.

I agree, and yet if we try to spread buddha-dharma in order to pacify the world, the order will be turned upside down. That is what the so-called new religions do in order to collect people. When zazen practice permeates the world, meaningless conflicts may disappear. Consequently, peace may pervade the world. It may be possible, but such an effect is nothing other than a by-product of zazen. We should not put the cart before the horse.

These days, some companies force employees to practice zazen at Zen temples for the sake of making them obedient, so that they work more efficiently without going on strike. Such zazen has nothing to do with buddha-dharma. Zazen should be strictly good for nothing. It is vital to just practice this good-for-nothing practice.

— (Okumura and Leighton 1997, 198-9)

The point here is that authentic practice is always ‘autotelic’, as the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi puts it: free of ulterior motive. It is not a means to some end external to itself, whether personal or social. It's not a solution for the world's problems: rather it puts all those problems into a bigger context, as a dewdrop does the moon. This principle is confirmed in countless scriptures, all the way from the Tao te Ching and the Bhagavad-Gita to Carlos Castaneda's ‘controlled folly.’ And according to Peirce (especially in his Cambridge Lectures of 1898), the practice of the pure scientist is likewise ‘good for nothing’. A science which serves corporate purposes, or addresses ‘vitally important’ social issues, is ‘upside down’, to use Uchiyama Roshi's term.

In these days of gathering environmental crisis, people are naturally looking for ways to deal with it. Maybe the best way is to just sit still and hope that such a model of minimal entropy production is contagious. That's seems reasonable, given that most of the problems are symptomatic of our chronic human busyness. But that shouldn't be our reason for sitting still; and the same goes for any essential practice. It has to be its own reason, lest it lose the very purity which makes it essential, along with any ‘practical’ efficacy it may happen to have.

So what about the practice of whole-body reading? In this practice the scripture or text points directly to deepest experience. Ideally your reading is one-pointed, though you reflect later on that this particular text is only one of many pointers, each in its own idiom, to the one deep truth. Later, you might bear witness to that experience by giving someone else a pointer to that same text, or to others which have worked as turning words for you, in one way or another. This is important in these days of information inundation, when a reader or seeker has so many texts to choose from. In a sense we are busy weaving a world-wide web of these pointers and links. But that's only a by-product of our bearing witness to the practice of deep reading, just as The Wholehearted Way is a byproduct of Zen practice, even as it's also an invitation.

When our mind faculty and other sense faculties have been transformed and purified as a result of the merit we have received from hearing, understanding, and practicing this wonderful Dharma, then we need hear only one gatha or one line of the sutra to understand all sutras and teachings. We do not need to study the entire Tripitaka [Buddhist canon] in order to understand the Buddhadharma. One gatha [verse] contains all other gathas, one teaching reveals the deep meaning of all other teachings, just as the truth of impermanence contains the truth of no-self and the truth of interbeing. This is the meaning of the Avatamsaka Sutra: the one contains the all.
— Thich Nhat Hanh (2003, 87)

So you don't even have to read the Avatamsaka Sutra to get this point, yet that could be a turning word for you too, because it may express the point in some way you would never have thought of otherwise, and thus reveal the ‘emptiness’ of all expression. So there's another pointer that you don't have to follow.

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