Saturday, December 11, 2004

Zen and postmodernism: Suzuki's wisdom

I've never been a big fan of postmodernist thinking. My contention, coming at this from a more or less Zen angle, has been that Pomo-- especially as exemplified in the thought of Jacques Derrida-- is content to play in the realm of dualism. While Derrida's deconstruction shares certain thematic traits with Buddhism, such as the idea that there's no "transcendental signified," i.e., no ultimate ground of meaning, Buddhism is saying something more, namely, that there is a settled suchness to reality.

Shunryu Suzuki's classic Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind has been on my bookshelf for ages, but tonight I decided to take it along to dinner with me (Outback Steakhouse pig-out evening: All Hail the Alice Springs Chicken). As I often do with unfamiliar books that purport to be compendiums or reference texts, I flipped to a random page and started reading. It didn't take long to strike gold. In the following passage, Suzuki clearly delineates the crucial difference between the Zen perspective and the postmodernist one. He says:

When we say something, our subjective intention is always involved. So there is no perfect word; some distortion is always present in a statement. But nevertheless, through our master's statement we have to understand objective fact itself-- the ultimate fact. By ultimate fact we do not mean something eternal or something constant, we mean things as they are in each moment. You may call it "being" or "reality."*

The first two sentences of the above paragraph are, whether Suzuki intends this or not, a concise summation of the postmodernist position. The rest of the paragraph, however, shows where Zen goes and postmodernism doesn't.

Pomo thinking is largely satisfied with the idea that reality is a construction. Depending on the Pomo thinker, this can be taken to mean that reality is a web of power dynamics, or layer upon layer of simulacra without any bottom, or the eternal play of (human-generated) malleable signifiers. "Who am I?" isn't a question the Pomo thinker can take seriously, because his first urge will probably be to deconstruct the question.

In a sense, this is what Buddhist practice does, too. The "I" is deconstructed and shown to be empty. Emptiness itself (if we follow Nagarjuna) is shown to be empty. Ultimately we end up right back where we started, here in the just-this of this moment, scratching our asses, toggling the page up/page down keys on our keyboard, sipping a drink, or blogging about our enormous dogs.

But if the Korean monks I spoke with at Haein-sa are correct, then "Naega-nugu-nya?" ("Who am I?") is a question of utmost importance. Suzuki is saying there is something more than the flimsy, doily-like, de/constructed "reality" of the Pomo point of view. What that reality is, we can't say directly, just as you can't talk about the Tao. It's also wrong to say we can "know" that reality, because this is still dualistic talk: the subject-verb-object metaphysics of "knower, knowing, thing known." But never doubt there is a reality, resplendent in its trivial suchness.

So what's the answer to the reality kong-an?

As Korean Zen master Seung Sahn says, if you want to "attain watermelon," you have to cut a piece and eat it. "BOOM! Your experience!" Seung Sahn cackles. You and the watermelon are not-two, of course. In a deep sense, you don't really "attain" watermelon any more than you "know the taste of" watermelon. Nothing to attain; nothing to taste; no you. Think of the watermelon as your dharma talk, a sermon about the nature of all things, pointing directly and unerringly to what is, to right now, to this moment.

*Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. New York: Weatherhill, 1997 (37th printing). The quoted text is from the section titled "Communication," on p. 87.

NB: For a charitable explanation of postmodernism, visit my buddy Dr. Steve's online explanation here. The folksy tone of his explanation is designed to cater to an American undergrad's often-minuscule attention span.

NB2: This post is being cross-posted on Andi's blog, Ditch the Raft. Andi is on retreat, and I promised to contribute a few posts to her blog during her absence.


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