Pai-chang’s method

In seeking to construct a philosophy of solitude, resources are nearly endless, for solitude is a common thread in much Western thought, and in Eastern traditions solitude is an intrinsic value. Perhaps solitude is more ambiguous in the West because of the dichotomy of egoism and social obligation, of self and other, and ultimate of God versus everything else or “not-God.” This dualism cannot be resolved by Western reason, science, psychology, or social thinking, for the social contract and the political construction of the individual as an inviolate entity automatically removes the possibility of a solitude so profound as to link that which can be called God and not-God.

Nor does the West dare to call “not-God” the same as God in order to relieve the tension of dualism, in order to permit the relaxation of the warfare of good and evil. Dualism seems inevitable and necessary in Western thought.

Western religion, the three dominant scriptural religions, originated in a primitive tribalism and failed to evolve beyond a crude dualism. Even the development of a universalism was not authentic but merely an adaptation of the tribe to the world, a conglomerate rather than a unity, a wider subjugation. Western religion has witnessed many who sought, from different psychological and spiritual angles, to break through the limitations of a mentality still rooted in the tribalism of its origins, but all of them, from gnostics to mystics, cannot succeed working on Western terms alone. Limitations of knowledge, whether of non-western approaches or of a deep understanding of its own psychology, has and always will frustrate such efforts.

Science has not transcended the dualism of Western thought. In obliterating traditions, it has fended off institutional control, liberating its methodology but also its purpose, replacing itself as God and the universe of objects as “not-God,” for it cannot be “not-God” and see itself. How can the eye see itself?

In the East, surely tribalism was the same social origin of peoples as in the West. But time and circumstances allowed the evolution of a more subtle perception of the universe. On the one hand, the primitive stages of animism and pantheism (or “pandivinity,” as one might prefer) gave no preference to absolute depictions of God. Even the Brahma of Hinduism can be traced back to an Aryan introduction. The subsequent evolution of Hinduism properly fixes a dispersion of divinity within a non-dualism that no one can mistake for anthropomorphism in a strict sense. Let the popular manifestations of religion carry on as the poor recompense of a sad world intent on a little conviviality. Poetry and enthusiasm will always attempt humane depictions of divinity. But in ancient India it is the Jainism and Buddhism subsequent to the Vedic era that forced expression to a stricter system of non-dual thinking.

The wisdom of Buddhism is the understanding of the many realms, deities, and forces as manifestations of the greater consciousness that seethes in the current of the planet’s complexity and the universe’s mystery. Western religion, however austere will not go so far as to gainsay its own origins and traditions, to eviscerate its angels and its supreme deity.

But to gather all these forces into fragments of consciousness is not but the beginning for Eastern thought, especially Taoism, esoteric Buddhism, and Zen. Here the premise is no longer the claim that our purpose is to break through the pain and suffering of existence in order to storm heaven or even to studiously define divinity. The premise is early made, and put to rest, so to speak, for the great task. Suffering is built-in, it is consciousness itself, it is every manifestation of consciousness and thought.

So our use of consciousness and thought must be severely measured. Every word can be the destruction of self, every thought can be the annihilation of virtue. Not in the superficial social or political sense of regulating thought and expression. These are noises and temporal forays that need every latitude. Words and thoughts are not the privilege of powerful regulators. There are more urgent issues, though. For the arrest of suffering is not in the relief of suffering as such but in the relief of perception and thought. This relief effort goes on even while, as Pai-chang, the Chinese Chan master, says, we are every moment compelled by the logic of being to behave as bodhisattvas.

The premise from which we may begin is that what we may call “divinity” — if it must be called or identified as something like an object or status — is not subject to reason. Such a statement does not support religion as such. The term only means that which is the counterpart of reality, of mundanity, of what Pai-chang calls the “non-existent.” The context of this notion breaks through the religious debate as much as it breaks through the anti-religious point of view (which is primarily a Western one sharing the confines of Western religion as theism; atheism being “anti-theism” but saying nothing more than theism says).

The excesses of Western thought, including Western religion and philosophizing, is the confident attitude that human reason or reasoning is accurate, true, reliable, insightful, a machine for revealing the secret mechanisms of the universe. And the history of the West, culminating in this mad era of science, technology, and near-annihilation, gives witness to the radical arrogance of the notion that reason is eventually right no matter what is being proposed, even if it is used to defend one view against another view. Everything is partly right, according to Western thought, especially modern expression. Everything is partly right because it exists as cultural tradition or expression, even when the view contradicts its own tradition because it is itself a counterpoint, a necessary opposite that maintains the credence of the other half in clean Hegelian cycles. Thus the good requires the bad, the black requires the white, and God requires the devil — not in the Eastern sense of a continual flow between elements, but as distinct and absolute entities, beings, as necessary applications of universal reason.

Western dualism means that God equates with the existence and necessity of evil, that consciousness always equates with suffering, that existence itself equates with non-existence, that life equates with death.

The Chan master Pai-chang, like so many sages, wrote nothing but had disciples who remembered and recorded the essence of his sayings in the “Record of Sayings” and the “Extensive Record.” Over and over, Pai-change demolishes the premises of thought and consciousness itself and its tendencies to spin dualisms, beginning at the basic point of witness and object. That may be so, he argues, but that is immediately to separate ourselves and our consciousness from the rest of the universe. Yes, this is inevitable, but is it true? Does it reveal anything new that the universe does not already have? Pai-chang admits that:

In language you must distinguish the esoteric and the exoteric, you must distinguish generalizing and particularizing language, and you must distinguish the language of the complete teaching and the incomplete teaching.

Here, the lesser vehicle is the incomplete teaching and the greater vehicle is the complete teaching, but ultimately Pai-chang will argue that scriptures and teachings, all these utterances, are automatically incomplete, versus the complete teaching, which is unnameable and ineffable — as Lao-tzu would say of the tao. This is not an ineffability that means an abstraction invented for the occasion or a non-verifiable phenomenon. Enter consciousness and perception to see immediately the duality-making propensity of the mind. It does not invent but observes in one sweep. Invention comes later. It is not necessary to deny the dualism between mind and objects. The pompous Zen student who claimed to have reach that transcendent point got a bamboo stickblow on the shoulders from his master, as if to say “Have you transcended even this pain?”

Even while Pai-chang bids us start practicing and to leave off scriptures and discourses, practice is only half-way there. Meditation takes us to a point of feeling good, of self-confidence. This is another necessary virtue, but to stop there, like the foolish student, is precarious. Japanese Zen master Takusui called meditation the sickness of submergence. We see this sickness in the profligate use of Eastern techniques in the Western world. Yoga and meditation become remedies for stress, palliatives that refresh us so that we can charge full throttle again into the rat race. This is the sickness of attachment, though in ignorance we pride ourselves on a work ethic and integrity.

The beginning of detachment is the fruit of meditation, but it is never attained by allegiance to the world and its insistence on service to itself and by extension (it will say) service to others. After we have wrestled with the dilemma of attachment, non-attachment becomes a new obstacle. We cannot apply the same desire and grasping for worldly objects to a new desire and grasping for non-attachment. Non-attachment is what Pai-chang calls the “intermediate good,” the “half-word teaching.” At least you “avoid falling into the way of the two vehicles, and avoid falling into the way of demons.” But its practice is still meditation sickness.

Once you no longer dwell in non-attachment, and do not even make an understanding of not dwelling either, this is the final good, this is the full-word teaching. You avoid falling into the formless realm, avoid falling into meditation sickness, avoid falling into the way of bodhisattvas, and avoid falling into the state of the king of demons.

Thus we have not only the barrier of knowledge — that inheritance of nature, culture, socialization, environment, heredity, and experience that comprises our personality — but also have the barrier of station, which is our present existential situation, no matter what the barrier of knowledge. Conscience is a “wound,” Pai-chang says, and we all share this characteristic of being.

But further, the practice we undertake, such as meditation, presents a third barrier, the barrier of activity. We want to act, to strive, in our new-found realization of a path. Yet while the first two barriers are existential in character — and can theoretically be addressed and mitigated — the last barrier merely shows how weak and vulnerable we are as fickle human beings. We cannot contrive a device for transcendence because we fall back on our finitude.

A deep understanding of self, in practice that goes beyond the mere desire for equanimity — in short, a radical solitude — is inherent in the Eastern traditions and will work, Pai-change insists. Even the doctrinal school will show this, he notes. We don’t need to be scholars to get there; there isn’t enough time. So we have to start now by grasping the essence of the teaching. This is the “highest knowledge,” says Pai-chang.

This is called an enlightened one beyond confinement — no thing can capture or bind such a one. Here is one of the Buddhas succeeding to the Burning Lamp. This is the supreme vehicle, the highest knowledge — this is standing on the way of enlightenment. This person is Buddha, and has the enlightened nature; he is a guide, able to employ the unobstructed wind. This is unimpeded illumination.

Wright’s “Evolution of God”

Author Robert Wright spends 400+ pages of his book The Evolution of God describing the transition from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism in the three Western scriptural religions, the “Abrahamic” religions. Wright only spends the last 50+ pages wrapping up the idea of God today. The evolution of God, says Wright, is essentially the evolution of religion’s perception of God as a projection of its own moral evolution. He sees monotheism as a precursor to universalism and tolerance, necessary elements for a modern globalized world in which more cultures are being thrust into relations with other cultures.

The evolution in the scriptural religions Wright identifies as enabling such an international and intercultural perspective. He does not mean conversion but a process that began in those scriptures, was picked up by philosophy and science (as well as by theology) in later centuries, and desperately needs to find the vitalizing factors that will transform modern societies. No other force, he argues, seems to be capable of evolving and applying a moral criteria to world affairs.

Wright calls himself a materialist and says that the word “god” has two senses, the literal historical one (“These gods exist in people’s heads and, presumably, nowhere else”) and in the subtler sense of historical and moral order. In pursuing this latter sense, he addresses science, atheism, and human nature. If science can posit things that ought to exist as an explanation for observed phenomena but cannot confirm such things, is it a matter of time in terms of sophisticating scientific knowledge or techniques before such things are seen and explained as natural? Wright argues that the same is the case for “god,” a thing posited, unverifiable, but pliable enough in human conception to be either a myth or a “ground of being.” Historical religion has been identified as unsophisticated myth, but recent thought has pushed it beyond its mythic structures to an identification of being and “suchness.”

Functioning as the public face of science, atheism still rests on an anthropomorphic view of “god” when vying in the marketplace of popular culture. Its chief argument is that evolution has no design, and no designer need be posited. Wright responds to this argument that the process that inevitably streamlines and forms, functions as a creative force. Granted that natural selection is not the designer. Many products of evolution are not as efficient as could have been if a conscious designer had guided the process. But this is the old preoccupation with design and anthropomorphism. And the old argument about the existence of God in the presence of suffering begs the same question. The concept of “god” is not eliminated by dismissing straw figures.

Wright argues that moral progress is a higher process than evolution or natural selection — “higher” in the sense of the potential for a conscious and deliberate progress. God remains, as Wright puts it, “somewhere between illusion and imperfect conception.” Not unlike posited scientific concepts which eventually break through the conceptions to reveal more factual content on the other side of doubt, with newer conceptions in which to house the new facts. The process, Wright would say, is parallel to most human activity, to cultural progress, and to the unfolding moral order that may or may not be distinct from human beings, even genetic.

Ultimately, religion is based on self-interest. The cynical view will see a formula for power and exploitation, which is largely the history of Western religion as institution and authority. But an alternative view of self-interest exists, as in William James. In his The Varieties of Religious Experience James wrote that religion “consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”

James considers religion irrefutably as one of many expressions of mind, culture and spirit. The cynical view sees religion as the desire to change the behavior of supernatural beings. That remains the chief straw figure of modern atheism. William James’ view does not exclude this obvious historical reality on the part of world religions, but emphasizes the psychological character of the religious mind-set, and understands that the burden is on the seeker and not on something external. To “harmoniously adjust” to the existing order is essentially a moral process. Whether this order is good or not is irrelevant. The harmonious adjustment is part of the process of moral reflection and discovery, but it cannot be denied.

Perhaps the weakness of Wright’s frame of thought is his conclusion that while religion needs to mature in order not only to survive but to positively influence the moral atmosphere of the present, globalization will provide an opportune backdrop for this process. His fiath in progress and reasonableness is an idealism, respectable but still seeing transformation as a social rather than individual process.

Encounters of cultures have often been creative throughout history, but a cursory survey of history shows a succession of war, exploitation, and suffering. Nor has the grand encounter been societal as much as the work of individuals. Not “great men” as meant by Carlyle’s theory but great sages. Even the Abrahamic religions have often been the work of individual sages — or been depicted as such because of the identification with great individuals. But modern globalization, as the continuation of centuries-long Western quests for power, abetted now by technology, has itself provoked the fundamentalisms that Wright objects to, and to which the New Atheists cling to as religions’ only form of expression. Globalization is but the latest expression of power. What can be expected?

Religion in James’ sense is all that can be called “true” religion. Without this component, all the trappings of theology, scriptures, edifices, and institutions, fall flat. They are left to the polemics of the new fundamentalists. We enter the pursuit of the “unseen order” and the solitude of self.

New Atheism

New Atheism is a popular topic of late. Propelled by celebrity authors, documentaries, websites, bestsellers, and social networks, the new atheism (versus the old) is decked out in the trappings of the Information Age, with marketing campaigns geared to hip youth, and coffee klatches for the oldsters. New Atheism has dusted off a page from religious evangelism.

For religion it is — every bit as dogmatic and fundamentalist as its purported targets. Atheism’s arguments are otherwise familiar, and many of its points valid as philosophy and cultural critique. But what makes New Atheism different is its probable popularity boost from the September 11, 2001 backlash to other fundamentalisms, namely Muslim and Christian.

Because it is engaged in Anglo-American culture (it doesn’t thrive elsewhere), New Atheism mimics and mocks the concerns of that irony of modernity: the most powerful nations in science and technology are the most predominantly religious in the Western biblical sense. No wonder 9/11 makes New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens despise Islam — and its religious counterparts, fundamentalist Christians. Without these soft targets, however, there is only the discontent and thoughtless masses slogging away at narrow lives of consumption and spectacle, presumably good subjects for missionary work.

New Atheism is another panacea for human discontent — get rid of this or that or the other thing and the world will be perfect, neither modern nor post-modern.

Biologist Richard Dawkins, the chief patron of New Atheism, states in his The Blind Watchmaker:

Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

This is not a new claim. Thomas Henry Huxley stated the same thing a few years after Darwin’s 1859 publication of The Origins of Species: “Teleology, as commonly understood,” he wrote, “received its deathblow at Mr. Darwin’s hand.”

Perhaps the “commonly understood” part referred to Christians in general, but few theologians or scientists since then have accepted the notion of a deathblow. Instead, most have seen Darwin’s work as a prompt to deeper and more universal thinking, accepting the mechanics of scientific explanation as dutifully explicated knowledge about nature. Whether out of humility or personality, Darwin himself never made such a claim, either.

Dawkins has written that he converted from his childhood religion to atheism by reading Darwin. But whatever Dawkins means by an “intellectually fulfilled atheist” cannot mean Darwin except in his personal life. The statement assumes that atheism could exist philosophically before Darwin, but not be provable before “science” — that it could not exist intellectually without Darwin, without “science.” By analogy, proofs of the existence of God could exist with Anselm or Aquinas or Paley, but they lacked being “intellectually fulfilled” because they lacked the element of absolute proof that science supposedly carries. Thus science is seen as a necessity to truth, indeed as truth itself. With Darwin, science becomes a new dogma akin not to philosophy or natural philosophy or even theology but to the authority of revelation — a new fundamentalism.

Philosophy has always claimed logic and reason to make its arguments palatable. Scriptural religion, in contrast, has relied on “revelation.” Acceptance of a creed becomes a cultural phenomenon, a social and cultural process. Dawkins himself, back in the 1970’s, wanted to call this process a “meme” but he ignored sociological processes that have already described this phenomenon without reverting to what sounds like a virus or cancer. But New Atheism is not immune to memes, or, rather, wants to infect or inoculate (depending on your point of view) others with a new one. As the ancient Roman naturalist Lucretius knew long ago: “No fact is so obvious that it does not at first produce wonder, nor so wonderful that it does not eventually yield to belief.”

Belief, as in religion. In that basket, we can place New Atheism.

One of the major shortcomings of Dawkins is that he does not place any currents of thought into a context, as if religion, science, atheism, etc., all spring full grown from some vacuum. But everything has a cultural and social context, even an anthropological and psychological one, let alone an intellectual history. For example, in his popular The God Delusion, Dawkins does not mention Nietzsche at all. One would think that the prophetic voice announcing the death of God would catch the author’s attention as a further supporter of atheism to accompany the claim that Darwin was.

But perhaps Dawkins would not want to do this after all. Yes, Nietzsche employs all the polemic style of atheism. But Nietzsche, and not Dawkins, extends the logic of Darwin to its implications for society and power, implications which are inimical to humanity. Following Nietzsche, the individual must not merely understand the genealogy of power but strive toward a holistic transcendence, a philosophical disengagement, in order to achieve self-fulfillment. Granted that Nietzsche entangled will to power with eogism, materialism, and atheism. But he is the first to extend the logic of contemporary science and atheism to its inevitable conclusion, namely that the theory of progress latent in science and evolution theory continue and strengthen an ideology of cultural suppression.

New Atheism wants science to reign as independent, free, and transcendent dogma. But science is, especially now, the handmaiden of the State, of the powerful. Whatever science produces today will be technologized and used against humanity. This is the ominous lesson Nietzsche tried tortuously (and not entirely successfully) to approximate in his late writings. The theory of progress celebrated by the ruling classes of 19th century state and society (and throughout history, for that matter) was self-congratulatory egoism. Progress, technology, and conquest would henceforth be the new weapons of societal control, not conventional religion, which no longer held the modern mind and heart. The ideology of science which informs and energizes the powerful was now to be the death of God. Old atheism was a protest against whoever happened to be in power, though too weak save to change the personnel, not the paradigm.

The new priests are today the captains of industry and finance, the war leaders and their enormous armies and weapons. For to get to this point in history, the capacities of science, technology, and the disciplines that abet them have had to reach a fruition one may call “modernity.” New Atheism differs from the old one in deliberately turning a blind eye to the separation of these interwoven sectors of cultures and societies. Worse, New Atheism deflects attention from the true sources of evils in the world, which New Atheism not only glosses over but strengthens.