Have you heard the one about the London taxi driver who recognised the passenger in the back of the cab as the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell. “So I turned to ‘im,” says the cabbie, “and I say to ‘im, ‘Bert, Bert, what’s it all about then?’ And do you know what? The bugger didn’t know!”
Then there’s the world’s greatest hotelier, Basil Fawlty (I think John Cleese’s TV comedy series Fawlty Towers made its way to the States) who was constantly railing against the slings and arrows of misfortune, shaking a fist at the heavens, and asking: “What’s the point? I mean, what’s the blooming point?”
The question has been asked down the ages, usually more seriously, and it boils down to this: is there a purpose to life?
Philosophers call them naïve realists, although in the time of Kant they were known as dogmatists. They’re the folk who believe in an absolute, objective world. When asked the age-old philosophical question, ‘Would the world be the same if you weren’t in it?’ they answer with an emphatic ‘yes, of course it would be’.
But of course, it wouldn’t be, and couldn’t be. The world is our creation, both metaphorically and physically. In fact, the material world of hard objects is entirely our interpretation or imposition.
As physicists and quantum physicists remind us, the material world of ‘stuff’ is made up of atoms and these in turn are made up of sub-atomic particles. At this level, space and time become, well, interesting.
What have our feelings got to do with what we believe? Short answer: everything. In fact, when you think you’re having a rational debate, you’re probably not engaging with the other person’s brain, but their emotions. And the stronger the beliefs are held, the greater is the underlying emotion.
Our emotions are the residues from any experience we had that may have caused upset, pain or even trauma. More exactly, they are experiences that we only partially understood in the first place because they were witnessed entirely from our own personal viewpoint.
These emotions colour our world, and they form the lens through which we see everything. Anything that reinforces that view is immediately acknowledged; the thousands of things that happen every week that challenge our world view are discarded, or not even seen in the first place.
I upset a Zen monk the other day.
I didn’t mean to, of course. In fact, I used to love the Zen koans – What’s the sound of one hand clapping? What was your face before you were born? Great stuff and a wonderful way to by-pass the conceptual mind. And I used to love the Zen books by the likes of Suzuki, Bodhidharma, Philip Kapleau and Alan Watts.
The koans and the books are the essence of the teaching. Behind that, and something we don’t often see, are the traditions and the rituals. My Zen monk had clearly invested years of practice and dedication to achieve his current status. Perhaps he had a different coloured robe to designate his more lofty position, I don’t know.
And we all like to do that, whatever path we follow, whether it’s religion, academic, some social activity or the work we do. We study, we work hard and we achieve, and that achievement is recognised in the status or position we are then granted. We know where we are and where others are around us, and there’s great comfort and security in that.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has figured out that we can think through a problem one of two ways: fast or slow. Most of us choose the first way. It’s the knee-jerk, immediate thought, often the result of previous experience, and even prejudice, that we employ. Sometimes it’s the right approach, but often it’s not, as his book Thinking, Fast and Slow makes clear.
The same applies to seeing: we can see fast or slow. The other day I looked up from the kitchen table and noticed a dead fly, lying prone on the window frame. Fast-seeing would have been: dead fly, unsightly, dispose of. It’s a superficial response, and it has its place, especially if danger threatens or we have to act quickly.
I caught a Sunday morning television programme this week that walked the ancient, and well-trod, path of Religion vs Science. The religious fraternity said science doesn’t have all the answers while the scientists said belief stood in the way of scientific truths, and wanted us back in the ‘dark ages’.
Nothing was resolved, of course – but it hasn’t in the hundreds of years the debate has raged, so the odds were against a breakthrough last Sunday. And when religion comes up against science, nothing will ever be resolved. They are two belief sets, or dogmas, that will inevitably clash. Religious fundamentalists believe, for instance, that the world began in 4400 BC, while science says that is clearly nonsense.
I’ve been reading a book that, part way through, touches on the most radical and transformative element of Time-Light. The book is Robert M Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, ostensibly the story of a man’s motorcycle ride across America with his son, but actually an exploration of meaning, value and philosophy.
At one point, the narrator says something that almost made me drop the book: “Objects create the subject’s awareness of himself”. Now, that’s pretty close to my idea that, soon after our birth, the sense of an individual ‘I’ emerges from an upsetting experience, and that in turn creates the impression of a world separate from ourselves. As I arise, the world arises also.
Then, a few pages on, the narrator states: “Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place.” Now, it starts to get very interesting, although I say ‘pure experience’ rather than ‘reality’. And I’d substitute the semi-academic term ‘intellectualization’ for ‘you’. Now it reads: “Pure experience is always the moment of vision before you take place (or arise)”.
A friend had some good and bad news for me about the Time-Light book. The good news was that he considered it the most important book he’d read in more than 20 years. The bad news was that he found it a struggle to understand, and apparently he is rated in the top 2 per cent of brainy people.
I don’t think I’m a towering genius or that Time-Light is actually that hard to ‘get’ – I think it’s that the thinking part of the brain is trying to understand the problem when, all along, it is the problem.
For that reason, Time-Light is intellectually difficult – but, when you stop trying, it’s easy!
As I have nothing to say this week, I shall say nothing. Actually, I’m always saying nothing, it’s just that usually it’s well disguised.
But this week, it really is nothing – other than 19 Zen-like koans for your edification, and possibly for your illumination.
As you probably know, the koan is a clever construct to defeat the conceptual mind; mine are nowhere near as clever, but I’ve loaded a tiny “ah-ha” bomb in each one that might detonate on reading. Stand back!
1. Time is an expression of motion. Motion exists because we see only in chunks, or as a procession, and not everything at once. If we could see everything at once, there would be no motion – and no time.
2. If you don’t exist (and you don’t), why are you so selfish?
3. Ninety per cent of our thoughts concern themselves with things that don’t exist.
4. “Our mind is only a collection of reflections or echoes, preserved by memory, of the reality that we have missed.” (Thank you, Wei Wu Wei for saying in 20 words one of the essential messages of Time-Light, although it’s not quite right (!) – memory is not different from the reflections or echoes. That’s what memory is.)
If you regularly read my blogs, you probably have an interest in spirituality and its supposed end-point, enlightenment. But what do you imagine enlightenment to be like: a state of permanent bliss and serenity, perhaps?
I’ve been reading Sankara’s Crest Jewel of Discrimination – one of the cornerstone works of the Hindu faith - and I was reminded of an interesting story about the great sage.As you may know, Sankara is considered the greatest exponent of Advaita, the philosophy that there is only consciousness.
One story has it that he was walking along a road when he was approached by a tramp, who looked grotesque. Sankara recoiled and tried to walk away. “Hey great Sankara,” said the tramp, “is your philosophy just theory? Can’t you see we are one?”