Monthly Archives: December 2013

WISE UP: The Best of Zen Master Joshu

A monk asked, “What is the Buddha’s true experience of reality?”

Joshu said, “Is there anything else you don’t like?”


A monk asked, “What is an idiot?”

Joshu said, “I’m not as good as you.”

The monk said, “I’m not trying to be anything.”

Joshu said, “Why are you being an idiot?”


Joshu said, “I can make one blade of grass a sixteen foot golden Buddha, and I can make a sixteen foot gold Buddha into one blade of grass.  Buddha is compulsive passions.  Compulsive passions are Buddha.”

A monk asked, “How can compulsive passions be escaped?”

Joshu said, “What’s the use of escaping?”


A monk asked, “What if the three-pronged sword of wisdom has not yet fallen?”

Joshu said, “Densely packed together.”

The monk asked, “What about after it has fallen?”

Joshu said, “Wide open spaces.”


A monk asked, “What is the fact that I accept responsibility for?”

Joshu said, “To the ends of time you’ll never single it out.”


A doctor asked, “Does an accomplished person go to hell or not?”

Joshu said, “I cut in at the head of the line.”

The doctor asked, “You are a great person.  Why do you go to hell?”

Joshu said, “If I had not gone, how could I have met you here?”


A monk asked, “What is the perfect question?”

Joshu said, “Wrong!”


A monk asked, “What are honest words?”

Joshu said, “Your mother is ugly.”


A monk asked, “Two mirrors are facing each other.  Which is the clearest?”

Joshu said, “Your eyelids hang over Mount Sumaru.”


A monk said, “I don’t have a special question.  Please don’t give a special reply.”

Joshu said, “How extraordinary.”


Joshu and an official were walking the the garden and saw a rabbit run away.

The official said, “You are a great person.  Why did the rabbit run away?”

Joshu said, “Because I like to kill.”


A monk asked, “What is the unending depth of the deep?”

Joshu said, “Your questioning me is the unending depth of the deep.”

UNBOXED: Being & Nonbeing

The human mind, which includes all meaning and truth we can make of things, is dominated by opposites.  We think and experience ourselves and our world in terms of being and nonbeing, true and false, good and bad, self and other, hot and cold, and many other pairs of opposites.

As babies, we soon begin to see people and things as stable beings.  This is called object permanence by psychologists, in spite of the fact that no people or things are permanent.  We chew and shake things to test their being, permanence and solidity.  As we begin to crawl and explore, we find that we can move through spaces, but not through things.

For the rest of our lives, as we move about in our world, we automatically judge things as present and spaces as absent.  We polarize and separate being and nonbeing from each other exclusively and uncritically so that we can move quickly and efficiently in our environment.  In the same way, we separate the true from the false and the good from the bad, automatically and uncritically.

However, when we do Philosophy, question our minds, and critically think about our thinking, we find that things are more complex than simple, exclusive opposites.  Just as when we do Physics and Chemistry, we see that no things are absolutely hot or cold and there are many degrees on a continuous spectrum, in Philosophy, we see that things are more complex than simply being or not being, more complicated than categorically true or false.  There are countless shades of grey between black and white, and we can always reinterpret things to gain a greater perspective.

It is useful to judge a table as solid and the space around it as empty if we simply want to walk across a room and avoid bumping into a table, even though no table is simply solid, nor is the space around it simply empty.  If we jump on the table, we can show that it is not absolutely solid, and if we examine the space around the table, we find it is full of air, dust and light.

We do not encounter things that absolutely are or things that absolutely are not.  An absolutely solid substance could never be made into a table, nor could we live in an absolutely empty vacuum, but it is useful to make snap judgements that are absolute and exclusive if we are uncritical and do not wish to change things.  However, if we want to design a stronger table, or reduce the amount of dust in the air, it is useful to make complex judgements that are relative and inclusive, including opposites together as poles of a spectrum, not as separate categories.

In ancient India, Greece and China, philosophers argued that seeing being and nonbeing as opposite ends of one and the same thing is wise and useful.  In ancient India, Buddha argued that all things are temporary, both being and not-being together as becoming, constantly changing while enduring.  In ancient Greece, Heraclitus argued the same, saying that we can never step in the same river twice, and that we both are and are not.  In ancient China, Laozi, the founder of Daoism, argued that just like a pot, or a wheel, or a room, all things are composed of being and nonbeing, and they would be useless if they were not both.

Our world is both closed and fixed, but also open and changing.  Sometimes our judgements are right, and sometimes our judgements are wrong.  Sometimes we judge that things are how they appear, and sometimes we judge that things are not how they appear.  We judge that our judgements are right and wrong, continuously thinking and rethinking.  We experience all of this before we learn to speak and use language.

We learn about what is and is not before we can say what is true and what is false.  Across human cultures, we understand true and false in terms of being and nonbeing.  Thinking deeply and critically about being and nonbeing, as well as the true and the false, exercises the mind and strengthens our thinking, which we use in every situation we question and change.

UNBOXED: Existentialism, Postcolonialism & the Other

Others and otherness is a major theme of Existentialism and Postcolonialism, two popular philosophical movements in modern thought.

Sartre, who borrowed the term ‘existential’ from Heidegger, coined the term ‘Existentialism’ as the name for his own skeptical and individual-centered school of thought, including Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger as forerunners.  Sartre, like these others before him, argued that we must have the courage to question what we believe and recreate our beliefs for ourselves, giving our own meaning to our lives rather than letting it be supplied by others.  While it is easy to accept the authority of politics, religion and science without question, we are each responsible for our beliefs and doubts, and we can choose to be revolutionary individuals and inspire others.

Fanon, friend of Sartre and fellow Existentialist, was born on the Caribbean island and French colony of Martinique, and he became a central inspiration of Postcolonialism, the study of the aftereffects of European domination and colonization of the world.  Fanon experienced racism in Martinique, France, and North Africa, and as a psychiatrist he argued that racism has a destructive impact on the mental and physical health of the oppressed.  Modern studies have shown that it has a similar impact on the oppressor as well.

The gaze of the other is important in the thinking of both Sartre and Fanon.  In Sartre’s play No Exit, the frustrated main character famously declares, “Hell is other people!”.  We find the gaze of others frightening, because we are afraid of the impact they can have on our own opinion of ourselves.  Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, said that it is strange that everyone loves themselves more than anyone else, but values the opinions of others about themselves more than they value their own.  Because we are insecure, we are terrorized by the other and the impact that their judgements can have on the meaning of our lives.  If we face the other with good faith in the possibility of positive change, interaction with others can be powerfully transformative, but we are afraid that it could take all meaning away and leave us with nothing.

For both Sartre and Fanon, racism is a primary example of the frightening but potentially liberating gaze of the other.  Sartre wrote about Antisemitism in the years following the Nazi occupation of Paris and racism against Jews in both France and Germany.  Fanon wrote about racism against Africans in European colonies such as the Americas, and both wrote about racism against Africans and Arabs in North Africa.  Africans, Arabs and others are devalued to affirm the glory and achievements of Europeans, including colonial and financial control of the globe.  When we categorize ourselves and others as superior or inferior, we are avoiding the difficult but fruitful task of individual critical thinking.

It is easy to treat others as categories rather than as individuals, but if we treat others as genuine human individuals it allows us to change who we are as individuals, if we embrace the opportunity.  We each change throughout our lives, as we are changed by others, whether we embrace this or not.  If we accept ourselves and the impact that others can and will have on us, we have more choice in what we want our lives to mean.  If we accept that we are insecure and do not have total control, we can open up to ourselves and others, embracing change and interaction with others not as a threat, but as an adventure.

UNBOXED: Things Can Always Be Variously Interpreted

“Things can always be variously interpreted” is one of the major ideas of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, and it is central to relativism, skepticism, perspectivism, Existentialism, and Postmodernism.  Some say that this opens the gates to all interpretations, such that we can never argue that anything is true or tell anyone they are wrong, but this interpretation of relativism is quite wrong.  Just because there is more than one interpretation and perspective does not mean that all interpretations and perspectives are equally right or valuable, nor does it mean that we can’t argue that our own interpretation is better than others.  Saying that things are not black and white does not make them the same shade of grey, and having an open mind does not require a closed mouth.

We do not have isolated individual perspectives that are entirely our own.  We share perspectives and interpretations the same way that we share physical perspectives when we are close to each other and face the same direction.  We can share perspectives and interpretations with others in the same place and time, or share them with others over thousands of years and with the entire earth between us.

If I tell you, “There is peanut butter on the table”, you would likely think that there is a jar of peanut butter sitting on top of the table.  If I tell you, “There is peanut butter on the cat”, you might think that a child smeared peanut butter on the sides of the cat.  We often use ON to mean both touching and above, but we also use it to mean touching and stuck to, which could be on top but also on any side of a thing.  You likely have clothes on you, unless you are watching this naked, but you likely do not have them in a folded stack on top of your head.

Because we are typically in the reach of earth’s gravity, and most things are not sticky, we often include ABOVE in our understanding of ON automatically, which is why we understand “There is peanut butter on the table” as a jar on top of the table.  If a child had smeared peanut butter on the side of the table, we would likely misunderstand, misinterpreting the statement.  Because we do not balance jars of peanut butter on cats often, as it is cruel and unusual, we understand “peanut butter on the cat” as peanut butter stuck to the cat, and we would be wrong if it was balanced in a jar on top of the cat.  ON can be variously used, and so it can be variously interpreted, correctly and incorrectly, and we can share these interpretations.

IS can also be variously interpreted. We use IS in two ways, exclusively and inclusively.  When we use IS exclusively, we are saying that two things are one and the same thing, identical to each other and different from everything else, the way that each individual thing is exclusively itself and has its own exclusive identity.   However, if we only used IS this way, then if we say Batman is blue, and my car is blue, then my car would be Batman, as well as the color blue itself.  If we say Batman is blue, this is different than saying Batman is Bruce Wayne.  When we say that Batman is blue, we understand that Batman is one of many blue things, included in a group, not identical to the color, because we are not in the habit of claiming that people and colors are identical.

This is why Gongsun Long, a philosopher and logician in ancient China, famously argued that a white horse is not a horse, an argument that works just as well in ancient Chinese as it does in modern English.  While a white horse is one member of the group of all horses, “a white horse” is not the same exact thing as “a horse”, as “a horse” can be many different colors, unlike a white horse.  In one way, a white horse is a horse, inclusively, and in another a white horse is not a horse, exclusively.  In the same two ways, I am my finger, as it is a part of me, but I am also not only my finger, as I am much more than a finger, so I am and am not my finger.  Understanding this, Gongsun Long choses to use IS counterintuitively, in the way we typically do not when talking about white horses and the group of all horses, purposefully leading us to misunderstand and misinterpret him when he says a white horse is not a horse.

Even when IS is used inclusively, to include a thing in a group, it can be understood absolutely or relatively, as universal or general.  If I say you are a good person, it could mean that you are absolutely perfect, or it could mean that you are generally good overall, but have some flaws and have made some mistakes.  If I say that tigers are dangerous, this could mean that there are no safe tigers, or it could mean that tame tigers exist but they are rare and even the safest should still be watched closely.  Wittgenstein said that in arguments, both sides tend to interpret the other side as making universal claims, and then give counterexamples, but interpret their own claims as general, which allows for counterexamples.

OR is also used exclusively and inclusively.  If we are at a car dealership, and I tell you that I will buy you a truck or a convertible or a van, and you pick out both a truck and a van, I would say, you can have one OR the other, but not both.  I am using OR exclusively, so you can’t have more than one, exclusive choice.  If we are at a buffet, and I tell you that you can have eggs, or salad, or steak, or sausage, and you choose eggs and sausage, you would not expect me to say, “Hey, I said you could have eggs OR sausage, not both!”.  At a buffet we expect that you can have more than one choice, and that I use OR inclusively.

In all of these examples, it is the context that frames the situation, determining how we automatically understand things unless the frame changes or we consciously choose to interpret them differently.  The only way we can consciously choose is if we see that the things we interpret can be interpreted differently.

Some say there are things that cannot be variously interpreted, that only have one exclusive, objective and absolutely correct interpretation, excluding all others.  Descartes argued that 2 + 3  = 5 can be doubted, could be an illusion, but there seems nothing more certain as an example of absolute truth.  We are taught to substitute the symbols 2, plus, and 3 for 5, and to understand abstract numbers linearly, as if we are lining up objects in a row to count them.  What if we reinterpret this not as a line of objects, but as sides of a square that resets after each set of four?  If so, we can choose to understand 2 plus 3 as equal to one, not five.  We can share and understand this alternative interpretation.

While we don’t have a particular use for this kind of math, we could come up with one.  Leibniz invented the binary system still used by computers today, which uses only two numerical values, half of our square math, which uses four.  Leibniz, who was in touch with Christian missionaries in China, was inspired by the Chinese abacus and Yi Jing divination system, which attempted to symbolize all of the natural world with solid and broken lines.  Leibniz was one of the inventors of the mechanical calculator, the ancestor of the modern computer.  If a system of math that has only two numbers seems useless, we are making good use of it right now.

Looking at the various ways we share and oppose perspectives and interpretations shows us how we frame situations and allows us to critically think about how we see things and how we could see things differently.  While we don’t need to reinterpret everything, reinterpretation is good for growth and change.  Relativism, skepticism and perspectivism do not prevent us from saying something.  Rather, they allow us to say much more, relatively speaking.

UNBOXED: Avicenna’s Floating Man & Descartes’ Deceiving Demon

While many Intro Philosophy classes cover Descartes’ Deceiving Demon thought experiment, few cover Avicenna’s Floating Man thought experiment, which is remarkably similar 600 years earlier.

Avicenna was one of the greatest and most famous philosophers and doctors of his day.  His name, Ibn Sina in Arabic, was Latinized as his works were read by many in Europe before and during the Renaissance and European Enlightenment.  His Canon of Medicine was used as a textbook in Europe until the 1700s, based on experimentation and clinical trials, fusing Persian, Greek, Indian and other traditions of medicine together.  He was also a pioneer of equations and propositional algebra, which would be developed later by Descartes into his Cartesian coordinates and by Newton and Leibniz into Calculus.

In his floating man thought experiment, Avicenna, who worked with anesthetics like opium in public hospitals, asks us to imagine that we are slowly unable to feel our feet, then body, then sight and sensation, then memory and imagination.  What is the last thing left that is ourselves?  Avicenna argues that consciousness, our awareness, is the last thing and the most essential part of ourselves.  If we are conscious, we can be said to exist, even if we forget who we are or cannot distinguish ourselves from anything else.

In his Discourse on Method, Descartes lays out his remarkably similar Deceiving Demon thought experiment.  Descartes says that it seems certain that he is sitting by the fire writing, but he can doubt this and believe that he is simply dreaming.  This is similar to Zhuangzi, the ancient Chinese Daoist, who after dreaming he was a butterfly supposed that he might now be a butterfly dreaming that he is a man named Zhuangzi.

Descartes says that he can imagine a deceiving demon is creating a false world, like a dream, such that Descartes is not actually Descartes or sitting by a fire.  However, there is one thing that the demon cannot be deceiving Descartes about, if that is his real name, and that is his consciousness.  Thus, Descartes famously concludes, “I think therefore I am”.

Where does the deceiving demon of Descartes come from?  The Cathars, Gnostic Manichaean Christians persecuted in France in the 1400s, believed that this world is a lie ruled by Satan, much like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave.  The Catholic Church denounced this as heresy, arguing that God ruled the world and spoke through the Church.  Descartes, the first modern European philosopher, argues that we can trust the dogmas of the Church and the discoveries of science, as our world is not simply a lie as Gnostics claim.  He argues this based on the same conclusion that Avicenna reached, though Avicenna uses anesthetics rather than a demon.  There is a good possibility that Descartes was influenced by Avicenna, though few consider the incredible impact of the Islamic golden age on the European Enlightenment.