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.
The 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.
The Tang dynasty Zen master Mazu (709 – 788), famed for shouting, striking his students and giving them strange, uncommon answers to questions, one said:
When you make a fist with your hand,
your fist is nothing but the hand.
On Friday with the Asian Philosophy class, I was discussing apocalyptic Buddhists, such as the followers of Shoko Asahara who attacked Japanese subway passengers with poison gas in an attempt to bring about the apocalypse. I have a friend who repeatedly mentions that some individuals in Israel have been trying to breed an all red calf for just the same reason in accord with the Book of Revelation. It later dawned on me that, whether or not we believe in religious prophecy or the apocalypse, that the dream in the Book of Revelation may simply be revealing a possibility, and not a certainty. It could be argued that the dream is a warning of what may happen, but need not, if we clean up our act. Perhaps those who wish to bring about the apocalypse and those who think it is an inevitability should be presented with this possibility.
I recently posted a review of Dreyfus and Taylor’s new book Retrieving Realism (2015) in which I am critical of their treatment of Rorty and pragmatism. In his piece Charles Taylor on Truth (1998), Rorty challenged Taylor to explain or abandon the distinction between “in itself” and “for us”, arguing that we do not need to appeal to an independent, objective reality separate from the forms of life we live. Against Rorty, Dreyfus and Taylor argue that we know our reality through our practices, but also that there may be a single coherent structure of reality independent of our practices. I myself am a proponent of pragmatism, and I agree with Rorty that we do not need truth or meaning in itself beyond what they are for us, nor do we learn about reality as it is independent of our interaction with it through our interactions with it.
From a pragmatic perspective, and in accord with the later work of Wittgenstein, it is nonsensical to speak of reality independent of ourselves or of facts that we have yet to experience. It makes perfect sense to speak of matters deep in space that we have yet to encounter, but it makes no sense to speak of facts deep in space that we have yet to establish. Facts are fashioned in language and judgement through our interactions. Thus, facts do not exist in locations we have yet to encounter and encode, even as we imagine all sorts of things to be there. To say that there are facts we have yet to encounter is to say that there are accurate judgements and descriptions we share that we have yet to discover.
Let us say that there is a green chair we leave in a room out of sight. It makes sense for us to agree with each other, after consultation, that the green chair is in the room and that this is a fact even when we do not see the chair, but only because we have seen the chair, last saw it in the room and have no reason to think it has been moved. The reason that the positivist, as opposed to the pragmatist, wants to say that there are facts independent of our experience is that we are always in the uncomfortable position that what seems like a fact for you and I may, in any instance, turn out to be false. It may be that someone has moved the chair or painted it blue, in which case our “fact” turns out to be false.
We would like our facts to be infallible, but if we cannot speak with complete certainty about the location of a single chair, it is difficult to secure anything we consider true as completely immutable and indisputable. Consider that, if I ask you if the chair is green, you could say that it looked green when you last saw it. However, it would be strange for you to say that the chair looks green right now when we are unaware that anyone is currently looking at it. Just as the Zen Buddhist muses that the tree which falls in the forest does not make a sound if there is no listener to receive it as “a sound”, delimited and individuated, it does not make sense to say that a green chair looks green at this very moment when neither you nor I are looking at it. Rather, the chair has looked green regularly to us when we have looked at it, and this is the evidence available. The question is how we establish and share truth in our interactions with others and things, not how we establish that it is completely independent of us.
Wittgenstein would argue that there are circumstances in which we would be presented with evidence that calls the chair’s location or color into question, and that in the absence of this evidence we would find it nonsensical to question our shared understanding as fact. However, this does not mean that our fact is itself absolutely certain or guaranteed to be true. Rather, there is little need to establish certainty in most circumstances when there are no problems or changes. Thus, it makes sense for us to believe in the fact that the chair is green, but it makes no sense to insist that this fact is absolutely certain beyond disbelief, nor to insist that it is a fact that the chair looks green when we do not know of anyone currently looking at it.
The positivist says that this would make our facts sadly uncertain, and the pragmatist agrees. The positivist says that some things are indisputable, and the pragmatist agrees, as we are not in this moment disputing all things, but we could, if we choose, dispute any particular thing if and when we want to. In philosophy, of course, we upset all kinds of people by disputing endlessly about what the true and the good are, which is useful for developing critical and creative minds.
It is here that we come to our most confusing conclusion: Facts are not simply true, nor are they simply to be believed. Sometimes, our facts turn out to be false and should not be believed. This sounds odd because we use the word in two overlapping ways, both as a positivist who affirms the idea of an independent objective reality and as a pragmatist who rejects it. This is why putting “fact” in scare quotes feels fitting, as in one way a “fact” is a fact, but in another way it is not. A “fact” that turns out to be not true is an agreeable belief fashioned in judgement and language, but it is not in that we cease to agree with it when we find it is false. If something was a true fact but is now false, we could say that it is a fact that is false, or we could say that it is not a fact, as it is false.
The opening lines of the Dhammapada, the collected sayings of the Buddha, read:
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart… Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.
Speaking and acting are the two ways one uses one’s mind to draw trouble or happiness from the world. This fits with Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, who said that when we speak, our words are our thoughts, with no separation between speaking and thinking. The same applies to acts. Perhaps all thinking is rooted in speaking and acting. Perhaps picturing something in the head is rooted in the experience of looking, moving one’s eyes, head, neck and body such that a thing comes into view.
For Buddha, the thinking is the coming into existence of the thinker, such that there is no thinker without thought making it so. The thinking causes the thinker to be a particular thing.
For Descartes, the thinking is evidence of the thinker, leading to the conclusion that there exists a thinker prior to and independent of the thinking.