Category Archives: Subjectivity

The Chair in the Other Room: Description & Prescription, Philosophy & Action


Suppose that I tell you, “There is a chair in the other room.”  Is this a description of what already is, or a prescription for what should be done?

I could be telling you to bring the chair here, or to go sit in the other room, or to bring the chair here and sit in it, or to bring the chair here so I can sit in it, or to bring the chair here and leave it empty for someone important, or clean it in the other room to keep an important person happy.  Depending on our understandings, it could be a simple prescription for any of these things without either of us speaking any other words out loud or silently to ourselves in thought.

However, it doesn’t have to be a prescription for immediate action.  I could simply be describing the other room, though it would be odd for me to do this for no understandable purpose, without intending anything be done in the future.  Wittgenstein said that if someone said, “That is certainly a tree,” we could say to a stranger overhearing this, “This person is not insane, but merely engaged in philosophy!”  If you asked me what there is to do right now, and I tell you there’s a chair in the other room, it would be odd for you to say, “Things do temporarily exist, as the Buddha told us thousands of years ago, but philosophically speaking…”  We don’t talk philosophically to do particular things as we’ve already done them, but to think about all the possible ways we could do or change things before or after we’ve done them, including call particular things trees and chairs for particular purposes in particular situations.

Suppose I open a blog post saying “Suppose that I tell you, ‘There’s a chair in the other room.’”  You would hopefully understand that I’m talking philosophically, abstractly in ways about truth and meaning that do apply to life but not in particular immediate ways, but if I told you this as a complete stranger on the bus you would think I’m a strange narcissistic exhibitionist who is wasting your time and everyone else’s showing off, which you may or may not think at this point in the blog post.  Similarly, if I said “There’s a chair in the other room,” to a complete stranger on the bus, it would not be clear at all what I meant.  It wouldn’t even be clear that it was a trustworthy description but without purpose.

We can describe things without prescribing immediate action, much as I could tell you about the chair and mean we could always sit in it next week, but we don’t describe things without any understandable intentions, saying “That is a chair, that is a chair, and that is a table’ to ourselves or anyone else.  We would if truth were more important than meaning.  Truth is centrally important to everything, but without meaning it isn’t important.  We can prescribe things without describing things much at all, as I do when I simply tell you of the chair’s existence and expect you to act, but we can’t prescribe things without informing others about our situation.  If I inarticulately cry out, this informs you in some way about your circumstances even if I’m not intending to describe anything or prescribe action for you.

We can speak more or less descriptively or prescriptively in the same way that we can speak more or less philosophically, more or less abstractly about what to do over all compared to particular commands intertwined with immediate actions.  Reading philosophy online or sitting in a classroom talking about trees, chairs, buses and strangers, none of which concretely exist but rather are entirely imaginary, is an action, but it isn’t much action which allows for much thinking to go on relatively undisturbed by attention to many of the things that surround us.

Zen Speaks by Tsai Chih Chung

Zen Speaks is a modern collection of Zen stories and koans by the author and artist Tsai Chih Chung that I highly recommend which contains wonderful cartoon renderings of many of the koans and stories we’ve already covered.  I just found out that you can watch the entire work as a cartoon in Cantonese with English subtitles on YouTube.

Two Water Buffalo

Kanzan and Jittoku zen


In the Zen koan collection The Gateless Gate, Zhaozhou found the sages Kanzan and Jittoju while wandering on Mount Tiantai and said, “For a long time I have heard about Kanzan and Jittoju, but having come here I just see two water buffalo.”  The sages put their fingers on their heads like horns.  The master waved his arms at them and said, “Shoo!  Shoo!”  The sages gnashed their teeth and glared at each other, happy to become water buffalos when accused but reluctant to leave when shooed.  When asked about this later, Zhaozhou laughed heartily and said nothing.  When Linji compared Pahua to a donkey Pahua brayed at him, and Linji called a monk who mooed at him, “This beast!”  If you asked these masters an educated, scholarly question you would likely be ridiculed, but if you acted like an untamed animal you just might meet their approval.

Two Water Buffalo

Kanzan jittoku screen japan

This gong-an is very simple and short, but like the rest it contains meanings that sprout up when you look them over carefully and consider that for thousands of years these particular cases were preserved as teaching devices.  We typically pick humans over water buffalos, so calling two sages water buffalos is insulting, even if it is innocent and playful, like the sages response to effortlessly take up the role of water buffalo, a muddy and supposedly dimwitted beast.  If we are all somewhat water buffalo, why not embrace it?  It is very easy to miss that after Zhaozhou shoos them, they refuse, which is moving from obeying Zhaozhou to disobeying Zhaozhou.  However, once this thought occurs, it then opens up to the next thought that a disobedient water buffalo is a ‘good’ water buffalo in that it is more true to life, so when Kanzan and Jittoju disobey, are they obeying Zhaozhou or not?  Zhaozhou simply laughs.  Is it more obedient to the universe to be a crazy beast or a polite and proper person?

broken vase

It is quite human to be inhumane.  Is a broken, unusable vase still a vase?  If not, why call it such?  How can our minds share these negative forms, what Hegel could call determinate negation, so easily and fluidly?  Consider this mere image, two blind men on a log bridge, by the Rinzai Zen master Hakuin:

Hakuin two blind men crossing log bridge

zen teachings of hakuin

Now consider this cover art here, with only the first blind man .  You would think of the second only if you were familiar with the first image, which anyone familiar with the image would know, just as effortlessly.  However, in looking into these things, and looking specifically for an image that has the end of the log hanging in space as it is on this cover, it turns out that the image on this cover is actually one of three blind men crossing a bridge, a cropped portion of a completely different painting by Hakuin of the same theme, blind men crossing a log bridge.  Here is the third image below:

blind men crossing a log bridge hakuin

Hakuin might ask us:  What does the blindness of these men look like?  Perhaps it looks like the slippery feeling of being blindfolded on a wet, algae-covered log suspended over a rushing stream that cannot be seen, either by us or by these blind images.


Zen Cake

zen garden birthday cakeIn Zen Buddhism, the 77th case of the Blue Cliff Record is cake.  A monk asked Yunmen, “What is talk that goes beyond buddhas and patriarchs?”  Yunmen said, “Cake.”  He makes us think of cake, imagining it’s sweetness, texture and satisfaction, a strange ghost that can be raised with a single word, somewhat like the ghosts of ancestors.  The thought of a cake is both a cake and not a cake, much as a rock is sometimes a rock and sometimes the thought of a rock, and thus not a rock.  Whether or not this has anything to do with the buddhas and patriarchs, it certainly has to do with cake.


One Didn’t Get Wet

rain bridge japanese printA Zen master posed his monks with a problem: “Two monks went walking in the rain.  One didn’t get wet.  Why?”  The monks suggested that one had an umbrella, that the rain was scattered in places, that one walked under the cover of awnings, but the master said that the students were too focused on the words.  When the monks finally gave up, the master told them that both got wet.  “Two monks went walking in the rain.  One didn’t get wet.  Two got wet.”

The joke works just as well in ancient Chinese as it does in modern English because language has grey areas and ambiguities.  When the master said, “One didn’t get wet”, he could mean that it is the case that one didn’t get wet, such that one remained dry, or he could mean that it isn’t the case that one got wet, rather two got wet.  All of the solutions proposed by the monks assumed that one didn’t get wet, the first case, making them blind to the second.  It isn’t that the first case is the literal meaning of the words and the second metaphorical or derivative, but rather that we do not expect to hear about one monk and not the other if both got wet or both stayed dry.  The joke would also work if the master said both stayed dry, as one didn’t get wet, and the other didn’t get wet either.

Onami & The Great Wave

Wavy no relation to Gravy

The wrestler Onami (Great Wave in Japanese) was unbeatable in practice matches, throwing all of his teachers, but easily defeated in tournaments.  He sought the help of a Zen master who lived in a temple in the mountains who told him to imagine he was a tidal wave sweeping away everything in his path.  Onami meditated that night in the temple, and slowly he felt the roll of his breathing turn into waves.  First they swept away the flowers in the offering vase in front of the Buddha statue, then they rose higher and swept away the vase, then swelled into a flood that swept the Buddha and bodhisattvas out of the temple.  After that night, Onami was invincible.  When we feel fear and anxiety interacting with others, it is useful to imagine that we and they are all the fluid, rolling motions of the larger situation that surrounds us, fearing neither they nor the situation as something external to ourselves.

Huineng & Bruce Lee Point to the Moon

Monkey reflection moon paintingThe nun and Chan master Wujin asked Huineng to explain passages of the Nirvana Sutra that she still couldn’t understand after long years of study.  Huineng asked Wujin to read the passages to him, as he never learned to read.  Wujin asked him how he understands the sutra without reading it, and Huineng famously replied that we can use a finger to point to the moon in the sky but don’t need a finger to see it.  Bruce Lee uses this to teach his student in the beginning of Enter the Dragon, telling his student to feel, not think, as if he focuses on the finger he will miss the moon and all its glory.  For Huineng, the sutra points to the experience, and for Lee the thought points to the action.  In both cases, experience in action is the point, not pointing to them.