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Volume 2, No. 1:

Interview with Stanley Rosen
The Resurrection of Hell

Madonna, Harlot & Modern Woman
Lessons of Kosovo

The Big C
Role of Philosophy in 21C Education
On Holiness and Responsibility
Zen & the Art of Teaching
Language as the Translation of Being
Core Curriculum & Diversity
A Letter from Morocco


Zen And The Art Of Teaching:
The Pursuit of Knowledge and Wisdom

Gary Delaney DeAngelis

With the growing movement in higher education toward interdisciplinary and integrative studies there have emerged some fairly serious and contentious battles regarding epistemological and pedagogical concerns beyond the fallacious issue of disciplinary versus interdisciplinary studies. While some in the Academy continue to contest the legitimacy of interdisciplinary studies, as opposed to intradisciplinary studies, most thoughtful academics, realizing that this is no longer an either/or situation, have begun to turn their attention to the more serious epistemological and pedagogical issues that interdisciplinary and integrative studies have helped bring into focus.

As interdisciplinary and integrative studies have developed over the last fifteen to twenty years, and provided us with new ways of looking at significant issues in all fields, they have also forced us to call into question some of our traditional conceptions regarding the nature and pursuit of knowledge. While, at face value, these epistemological and pedagogical issues may appear a bit abstruse, I would suggest that they are, in fact, both significant and profound, as we seriously consider our roles and responsibilities as teachers, in producing intelligent, humane, insightful, sensitive and caring citizens for this rather troubled planet that we inhabit.

Hoping not to sound like either an alarmist or a doomsayer, I would say, without too much exaggeration, that we are living in a global community, becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent, that is facing both significant and complex issues—touching every area of our lives, from environmental concerns to social relations. Even if we limit our concern to our own society, with our high standard of living, a case could be made for an increasing moral and spiritual crisis which impacts, quite dramatically, the quality of our lives. While our invested assets in the stock market may be soaring and our economy may be booming, our desire for community, deeper meaning and fulfillment in our lives seem ever-elusive as we are plagued by feelings of alienation, isolation and, as Georges Santayana lamented on his deathbed, the increasing trivialization of life. I would argue, along with others, that we are not only facing a moral and spiritual crisis but an intellectual crisis as well. I would also argue that the three are interrelated—agreeing with Confucius, that intellectual disorder leads to moral perversity.

I would like to focus on what I see as an important aspect of the intellectual crisis and, again, make the assertion that this is not an abstract philosophical debate. It is a debate that has serious implications for the acquisition of knowledge and subsequently the capacity of knowledge to allow and inspire us to both live fulfilling lives and deal creatively and seriously with the very real issues plaguing our world. While I realize that the intellectual crisis may be considerably more complex than the scope of this essay will allow, I will attempt to synthesize what I believe to be the basic issues at stake.

What I perceive to be one of the underlying causes of our current dilemma is the paradigm shift, over the past century, in the pursuit of knowledge. We are clearly immersed in an age of scientism fostered by such thinkers as Descartes, Hobbes, Bacon and Newton, among others, with an over-emphasis on the scientific method and rational/analytic thinking. I do fully appreciate the fact that science arose, by necessity, from the intellectual tyranny of the Middle Ages so, I am neither anti-empiricist nor anti-rationalist. However, I fear that in our headlong rush for certainty and intellectual credibility we have, in many fields of inquiry, allowed ourselves to be seduced by the promises of this limited worldview that posits the pursuit of truth in the rational objective investigation of hard facts and objective data, where scientific knowledge is often considered the only acceptable kind of knowledge. That there can be other ways of knowing, e.g. intuitive reasoning or understanding, which are perhaps just as valid and reliable, is generally not recognized.

The notion of objectivity arose from the sciences and their treatment of the natural world, external to the knowing mind: while certainly valuable it is, unfortunately, inadequate for an understanding of some of the deeper and more elusive truths that one may find in Shakespeare, Mozart or even Plato to say nothing of the Bible, Tao Te Ching or Bhagavad Gita. Herein, I believe, lies the heart of the problem—rationalism and objectivism run amok! When Descartes posited the notion cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) he equated one’s identity with the rational mind rather than one’s whole being. This division of mind and body has been felt dramatically throughout our whole culture—regressing into our minds we have forgotten how to "think" with our bodies as well. How to use them as agents of knowing. We have, in a sense, become Sartre’s Self Educated Man, who spends his entire life in a library studying life and comes away knowing all of the facts of life yet knowing nothing about life itself. As Heidegger argued, "truth is a matter of being rather than knowing." This Cartesian dichotomy of mind and matter or ideas and reality has invariably led to a view of the universe as a mechanical system consisting of separate parts and objectively knowable—rather than as a dynamic living organism comprised of mutually sensitive and interrelated parts.

I would also argue that the scientific worldview has favored the rational over intuitive insight, and science over religion, and, as a result, created an imbalance in our thoughts and feelings, our values and attitudes and our social and political structures. Even closer to home, this emphasis has led to a fragmentation of our academic disciplines. So, we end up with, as physicist Fritjof Capra suggests, distinctions between pure and applied science, humanities and social sciences and subsequently personal—cultural knowledge as understanding and object—objective knowledge as information. In a relative sense, of course, these distinctions are legitimate: but two interpretations of rationality emerge, two understandings of Man as an intellectual being that are never quite integrated.

What we are slowly coming to realize is that rationalism and empiricism do not pronounce the final and conclusive word. Again, as Capra points out, one of the main lessons that physicists have had to learn in this century has been the fact that all of the concepts and theories that we use to describe nature are limited. Because of the essential limitations of the rational mind we have to accept the fact that, as Werner Heisenberg phrases it, every word or concept, clear as it may seem to be, only has a limited range of applicability. Scientific theories can never provide a complete and definitive description of reality. They will always be approximations of the true nature of things. To put it bluntly, as Capra says, scientists do not deal with truth, they deal with limited and approximate descriptions of reality.

This same awareness exists in the social sciences among the anti-foundationalists, who suggest that the facts of social science are not facts at all but interpretations of interpretations. The anti-foundationalists emphasize insight—a combination of rational knowledge and intuitive wisdom. What is rejected here is what has been referred to as the doctrine of immaculate perception—the belief in a bedrock of indubitable information on which to ground knowledge. This insight, in one sense, is characteristic of the hermeneutical/phenomenological approach to understanding.

In considering such an approach, we must be careful to guard against the tendency to conceive of the interpretative form of understanding as a fundamentally unscientific one. Such a view leads, invariably, to the Cartesian anxiety that, in absence of a certain foundation for knowledge, there is only an absolute relativism in which all assertions are equally valid. In fact, the interpretative position is not necessarily opposed to traditional empiricist research in the human sciences because it recognizes that social scientists can, and sometimes should, quantify. But, it would remind then that whatever their degree of statistical rigor the knowledge that they acquire is built on the sands of interpretation.

In addition to the problem with what objectivism does not see, there is the additional, and equally serious, problem, as elaborated by thinkers like Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, of the illusions that loom up before the objectifying gaze, suggesting that the exultation of the virtues of distance and impartiality—the sine qua non of objective knowledge—often transforms the observed into something more static and abstract than it really is.

Let me be very clear that, while I may be an anti-foundationalist I am not anti-rationalist. My loyalty to rationality is unfailing, but so is my loyalty to wholeness. It is not a matter of rationalism and objectivism as opposed to emotion, imagination or intuition—it is a matter of both becoming detached and opposed to each other. It seems to me that the task of the modern intellect is to recapture that wholeness, including the moral and the sensuous, in the name of a rational truth that sees, with burning clarity, that what passes for rationality and truth, in much of a modern university and its technicalization, is not only a betrayal of the human person in his and her integrity, but a betrayal of truth and of reason. It’s not that the intellect is dehumanizing, but rather that dehumanizing concepts of intellect and truth, currently prevalent in the West, are irrational and untrue. Again, as Heidegger points out: truth, understood ontologically, is essentially involved in our being or truth is (or ought to be) our way of being.

A synthesis is needed to heal this breach and arrive at a truer concept of human rationality. We must not omit either of the ingredients with which a subjective or objective view is concerned but neither must we leave them uncorrelated. The gross inadequacy and distortion of the subjective/objective disjunction, once again, requires a truer rationality.

I would suggest that some insights from several of the Asian traditions, e.g. Taoism, Zen Buddhism and Shinto, may provide us with an avenue towards achieving our goal, both epistemologically and pedagogically. I have chosen these three traditions to look at, briefly, because of their emphasis on the intuitive, emotional and aesthetic as ways of knowing without denying the value of the objective and the rational.

Taoism and Zen are quite similar in many ways and not the least in their emphasis on intuitive knowledge and the direct experience of reality, where the knower, in a sense, becomes the known. In these traditions there is not the denial of objective knowledge but the realization that its scope is quite limited.

Briefly, the aim of Zen is to focus the attention on reality itself instead of our intellectual and emotional reactions to reality. Reality is perceived as that dynamic, ever-growing, indefinable something known as life, which will never stop for a moment for us to conveniently fit it into any rigid conceptualization or theory. In other words—we won’t "figure it out" in a rational/objective sense.

From this perspective, the apprehension of the real can, ultimately, only happen through direct engagement. Ideas, yes! They can inspire and guide us, but it has to be an active engaged search with every aspect of our being and it has to be self-discovery: philosophical activity, as opposed to philosophy. It is one thing to remember another to know—there is no substitute for one’s own active searching. I would further suggest that there is an on-going interactive quality to true knowledge, or as one artist friend put it, art is a truth that happens. Zen, once again, points out that second hand wisdom is valuable as a guide or signpost pointing the way but as one Zen proverb states, if we want to see the Moon we must look at the direction in which the Buddha’s finger is pointing and not mistake the finger for the Moon. In the end we must experience it for ourselves, otherwise it is not really it. Or, as another Zen proverb puts it, he who cannot see the truth himself, no Buddha can reveal it.

It is often assumed that within ideas we are able to capture or enshrine ultimate truth and that to lose those ideas would be to lose the truth. However, because truth is alive it will not be bound by anything that shows no signs of life, e.g. a conception, whose validity is held partly on the fact that it is unchangeable. Unfortunately, once we imagine that we have grasped the truth of life we find that the truth has vanished. So, if life can never be stopped and grasped for analysis how can it ever be understood? How can truth ever be known if we can never define it. Zen would say, by not trying to grasp, analyze or define it. This is the fundamental Buddhist ideal of non-attachment. It is an intuited immediate awareness rather than a mediated, inferential or intellectual process. A notion captured quite poignantly in this 4th Century poem by the Chinese poet T’ao Chien:

I gather chrysanthemums at the eastern hedgerow

And silently gaze at the southern mountains

The mountain air is beautiful in the sunset

And the birds flocking together return home

Among all these things is a real meaning

Yet when I try to express it, I become lost in no-words.

I recently heard an interview with Daniel Barenboim (conductor of the Chicago Symphony) where he was asked about the recent death of his lifelong partner and wife and how he had handled it. While affected quite deeply by the experience, he related that his music had actually prepared him quite well for death. Music gives you the feeling, no, the knowledge that nothing lasts. The note comes, it is heard and then it is gone and that exact same note will never be repeated. A classic Buddhist concept—the transitory nature of life. For Barenboim, a profound truth is apprehended not at the intellectual level but through his feelings and senses.

Our problem, of course, is our emotional and intellectual pull toward abstract ideas like truth and God and our belief that if we think hard enough we will be able to logically figure things out. According to Alan Watts, the loss of faith to think ourselves out of this morass is the beginning of our liberation according to Zen. Zen uses a number of techniques to overcome this self-imposed intellectual limitation created by the rational mind and one of these is the koan. The koan is a psychological–philosophical puzzle where a seemingly nonsensical question is asked and the student is required to make sense of it. The Zen master knows that the student will ultimately be baffled and will be forced to go beyond intellect to insight. The koan provokes a mental crisis where the logical mind is pushed to the limits of its domain and ultimately gives up and lets go. At this point the intuitive open mind takes over. One comes to the realization that there is a certain truth about life that cannot be apprehended through our rational thought processes.

This is what the Taoists refer to, paradoxically, as the knowledge which is not knowledge and the knowledge that can be acquired by not thinking. In a sense, we have to learn how to stop thinking so much, in a rational sense, as suggested, quite humorously, by a professor of English, Lydia Davis, in her short story "The Professor" which appeared in Harper’s Magazine a number of years ago:

A few years ago I used to tell myself I wanted to marry a cowboy. Why shouldn’t an English professor say this to herself—living alone, fascinated by a brown landscape, spotting a cowboy in a pickup truck sometimes in her rearview mirror as she drives on the broad highways of the West Coast? In fact, I realize that I would still like to marry a cowboy, though by now I’m living in the East and married to someone who is not a cowboy…

More important than the clothes a cowboy wore, and the way he wore them, was the fact that a cowboy probably wouldn’t know much more than he had to. He would think about his family, if he had one, and about having a good time, and not much else. I was tired of so much thinking, which was what I did most in those days. I did other things but I went on thinking while I did them. I might feel something but I would think about what I was feeling at the same time. I even had to think about what I was thinking and wonder why I was thinking it. When I had the idea of marrying a cowboy I imagined maybe a cowboy would help me stop thinking so much.

I’m not arguing that Zen is right and Western empiricism is wrong. Once again, I am advocating wholeness and integration in pursuit of knowledge and what Zen can contribute to that pursuit.

In addition to intuitive insight we might also consider feelings and emotions as ‘ways’ of knowledge and for this we can turn to Shinto aesthetics. Shinto, as a religion or a philosophy, is very difficult to define or describe because, while it may be pervasive in Japan, for the most part it is largely unarticulated or, as the Japanese put it, it is everywhere expressed but nowhere defined. As an unarticulated system it is a fundamental cultural assumption, excused from dialogue, i.e., there is no need to define or discuss it. Consensus regarding Shinto seems to be silent. This is very characteristically Japanese.

In contrast, our Western perspective, based for the most part on Hellenic, Judeo-Christian and Islamic ideas and cultural assumptions, emphasizes articulation, communication and knowledge in an empirical sense. Knowledge, once again, in the West, generally serves as a process of differentiation, i.e., decisions based on rational consideration of objective data and discursive reasoning, etc.—an evaluation of choices in a procedural and conscious way. Our vocabulary of apprehension, i.e., how we perceive things (secular or religious), is a world apart from the Japanese whose approach is open, dynamic, imaginative and intuitive. So, the Japanese tend to emphasize appreciation rather than analysis.

Even in the early myths it seems that the Japanese appreciated things in terms of either their facilitation or inhibition of human life. So, ‘aliveness’ seems to be the criterion of value and in this scheme all created things share a common nature, traditionally defined in emotional terms. What follows from this perspective is that understanding then exists as emotional rapport. This is quite extraordinary. Emotional rapport with other humans yields the world of values and emotional rapport with nature yields the world of aesthetics. It is this world of aesthetics which, those in the Arts know well, can provide us with another interesting and profound way of knowing.

Shinto aesthetics can be looked at under four basic headings: suggestion, irregularity, simplicity and perishability. In the interest of time let me focus on the last, perishability, where one finds an obvious appreciation and reverence for life. In this aspect of Japanese aesthetics beauty is tied into mortality and a deep awareness of the frailty of life, beauty and love. This awareness leads to a heightened sensitivity to and appreciation of the immediacy of things or the nowness of life. This is most clearly manifested in the Japanese concepts of mono-no aware and yugen.

Aware, according to Tsunoda, De Bary and Keene, is sometimes translated as the sadness of things—a sort of gentle sorrow—manifesting, as they put it, in the sensitive poet’s awareness of a sight or sound, of its beauty and its perishability. From the 12th Century text Tale of the Heike:

In the sound of the bell of the Gion Temple echoes the impermanence of all things. The palke hue of the flowers of the teak tree show the truth that they who prosper must fall. The proud ones do not last long but vanish like a spring night’s dream. And the mighty ones too will perish in the end, like dust before the wind.

I think that aware could also be translated as a sensitivity to things, an incredible and profound sensitivity to life in its very ‘beingness’ or ‘isness’—a sensitivity to the wonder, beauty and pathos of things because of the transitory nature of life. Once again, thinking back on Barenboim’s reflections of the death of his wife.

If we add to this the notion of naka ima, with its emphasis on living in the purity of the present moment, we perhaps come closest to the uniqueness of the Japanese religious worldview. It is here that we see a vision of life not based on rational abstractions and artificial social conventions but in emotional and aesthetic sensitivity to the beauty and pathos of life.

This understanding is quite elusive at the rational level—so, how does one acquire this? Where does one look? This leads us to the notion of yugen. Yugen is a symbolic word used to describe the mysterious, the profound, the remote—things not easily grasped nor expressed in words—a region lying well beyond form. As one Japanese writer put it: the poet may feel aware when seeing wrinkles in his face in the mirror and realize that his time was passing by and the years of his youth had vanished, but this realization was in a sense the end of the emotion—it did not extend to the dark and mysterious regions of yugen. Where and what is that region of silence where ideas and feelings and insights come from? The yugen is this elusive place, this silence which lies beyond our rational grasp. It may be impossible to explain the yugen but we can intuitively sense it.

The key, according to Robert Ellwood, to understanding Shinto’s relation to this poetic reality or aesthetic reality lies in understanding the importance it gives to purity, aesthetic sensitivity and emotional sensitivity realized through the integration of mind and heart. A pure heart and deep sincerity characterize what Shinto refers to as truth. This truth is not some right or wrong view about the nature of things but is an awareness of the true nature of things perceived by the mind–heart. It is truth as a lived experience in purity and emotional sensitivity. What needs to be emphasized here is the centrality of pure feeling, experience and sensitivity of the quality of the lived moment. For the Japanese the realization of truth at this level is what makes life extraordinary.

In conclusion, let me reassert that I am neither anti-empiricist nor anti-rationalist. What I am advocating, once again, is the unity and complementary nature of the rational and intuitive modes of consciousness. In this wonderful and exciting pursuit of knowledge, meaning and truth that we are engaged in, this pilgrimage if you will, it is essential that we bring to this quest not only great desire but the totality of our being. It must be undertaken with our entire mind and body and soul. This inspiration and guidance is what we can offer our students. If we think that we can give them truth or wisdom or knowledge we are living in a fools’ paradise. We can, as Martha Nussbaum suggests, engage their hearts and their minds, by inviting them to share in this odyssey that we are each on and perhaps, if we are fortunate, even light the way.


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Diotima Department of Philosophy, Holy Cross