I stumble through and bump my head

For a couple of years now I have been reading various works from Asia and pondering how Eastern thought contributes to our understanding of ourselves and our world.  This includes specific ancient texts, like the Tao te Ching and various sutras, as well as commentaries thereon, and ancient to almost modern poetry.  Lovely stuff!  I have also been going through The Gateless Gate  (an old collection of Buddhist koans—paradoxical statements meant to help one along the way to enlightenment, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping? Or one of my favorites:  What was your primal face before your parents were born?) very slowly and marveling at how Buddhists can confound linear thinking.  While I learn much from all of these texts, I also have had a nagging quibble that seems important but difficult to articulate  . . . .

. . . Until I read a statement of some hybrid beliefs involving Buddhism and Gaian theory and my quibble crystalized into a coherent structure.

More context before my quibble.  I was reading a book not about Eastern thought but one about Gregory Bateson, a very interesting fellow.  He comes from a self-described family of atheists, himself being the fourth generation of skeptics.  In Gregory’s youth they hobnobbed with some of the great thinkers of early 20thcentury England such as the Huxleys and Alfred North Whitehead.  His father was instrumental in spreading the ideas of Gregor Mendel, the monk who worked so assiduously on plant genetics, integrated with Darwinian ideas; indeed he was one of the first to call this study of heredity “genetics” and Gregory was named after the monk.  The father seems to me a prime example of being in the right place at the right time with a mind prepared to grow the opportunity.

Gregory Bateson was a mostly independent scholar who worked across many disciplines.  As a young man he married Margaret Mead and they did research together in the south Pacific islands.  He then had a long and influential career studying cybernetics, psychiatry, semantics and communication theory, as well as anthropology.  I had heard mention of him over the years without remarking upon him very much until recently, and then his ideas seemed quite relevant to mine and important in general, so I read Understanding Gregory Bateson:  Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earthby Noel Charlton (a decent read though Mr. Charlton spends much energy evangelizing for Bateson’s ideas—they are good but this is not how change comes about.  I may get around to a more thorough review of this book later).

Bateson saw all of nature as a series of nested minds, ours being nested on some intermediate level, so that all of our ecology is actually one mind composed of many minds.  He saw that in our separating ourselves from nature, we had lost ‘grace’ and were harming our world and so also ourselves.  The way back to grace is to engage with the sacred or the unitary grandness of life on our planet (oh, I am simplifying here a great deal—read more for yourselves) through aesthetics, the beauty of nature, and human art.  If you follow my blog you can understand why I wanted to know more about his work.

In the penultimate chapter Charlton reviews how other thinkers were influenced by Bateson and how other ideas meshed with his ecological views.  One of these was Gaian theory, of course, and one of these thinkers was a Buddhist-Gaian scholar named Joanna Macy. This seems a natural confluence here, and you know I like confluences.  When I read Charlton’s rendition of Macy’s ideas, I realized what my mind had balked at as I read other ideas from the East.  Specifically I struggled to understand the notion that enlightenment involves experiencing the unity between objective and subjective or the truth that there is no self.  Yes, I do accept that in meditation such boundaries can and do dissolve but once again, anyone who experiences enlightenment is a biological creature and that entails certain corollaries.

So Charlton says this of Macy’s ideas:  “Similarly, in both Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Macy uses this term interchangeably with ‘systems cybernetics’), the self is a process that cannot be abstracted from its context in nature and society.  It is an ‘open system’ and it is impossible to distinguish self from non-self.  Any division is arbitrary; the individual self is a fiction” (p. 189). Oops!  Sure self is a process on many levels but it can and is abstracted from its context; indeed, at a very basic level anything we use words to discuss is already abstracted from the flux and phantasmagoria of experience.  My question is always about the adequacy of the abstraction, i.e., does it capture the primary structure and its history along with its inter-relationships and dependencies with its soma, its ecology and its its ancient past?

The self, like its soma, is not an ‘open system’ and can certainly be distinguished from non-self, just like the soma is understood to be a life form. These are not ‘open systems’ because a soma, a brain and its MEMBRAIN maintain their integrity through control of the membrane functions, passing information in and out, keeping information in and out. The self follows along with this pattern.  Sure the soma is a wonderful composition of different life forms—the biome is a necessary adjunct to its healthy vital operations, and the self is also a complex composition dependent upon social interaction for its derivation.  I maintain that that the basic features are an autobiographical sense of its life and a sense of its agency, but secondary features abound, e.g., roles, selves associated with those roles, an apprehension of conscious subjectivity, etc.  Again, an adequate abstraction must also include what supports these features that operate below the limen of awareness, and also what the self keeps out of its ‘self-definition’.  For example, I am myself a father and husband, which are clearly within my self’s bounds, and I know the alphabet and basic math, but those are not a part of myself. Is this a fiction?  Why yes it is as a construct in the mind, but as Dumbledore told Harry, it is still true.

Somehow my mind likes Eastern philosophies; I find a good deal of truth and wisdom in their approach.  I think Buddhist enlightenment is a worthy goal, of sorts.  As I say in my creed, I follow an ethic of knowledge, and this leads me to explore the mystic boundaries within and beyond myself.  I find there a most agreeable landscape to wander (yes, yes, remember that not all who wander are lost).  But read the third chapter of The Gateless Gateabout Zen Master Gutei who always answered any question about Zen by raising one finger.  When he heard that his young assistant answered a question about his master’s teaching by raising his one finger, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. The boy ran away.  Gutei called him back and raised one finger, and “the boy was suddenly enlightened”.

Somehow this enlightenment came with the experience that the self is a fiction, that his finger was part of what separated him from this realization, and that he understood that his self was a fiction and experienced reality as unitary and without conceptual distinctions—finger or no finger is a distraction.  Oops and ouch!  I have reached a mystical boundary and bumped my head in finding it.

With any religious school of thought and discipline my skepticism finds antiquated constructs, and there one is.  My ethic of knowledge keeps me grounded in my biological roots.  So enlightenment is a biological notion (maybe a rock or tree is enlightened but they, not some human being, would have to communicate that to me and I do listen out as I wander the farm.)  The self is an outgrowth or feature of life; it bears many relations to all that surrounds it now, past, and future, but a life has an onset and termination.  Some spiritual and religious traditions maintain the self is independent of those events, and I myself wonder about that, i.e., about how it could be true in my cosmology which is devoid of the supernatural. (Remember my motto: “If it is, it’s natural.  If it isn’t natural, it isn’t, except as an imaginative dream).  But the self and its soma is not an open system nor a closed system but a gated system operating to sustain the negentropic balance of energies working at the heart of life’s vitality.

How we understand life and cherish Gaia and structure our participation in this transcendent reality is important.  Bateson and many others know that we as a species are not doing a good job of this. How do we find and follow a better path? I do not know, but I think, like Bateson, that engaging with natural beauty and the vital experience artists render for us is very important.  I also think following an ethic of knowledge and seking a knowledge of ethics is important, e.g., appreciate our science and our human relationships with each other and Gaia.  As the previous post put it, “sometimes human beings are stupid”.  And sometimes we are smart.  I wonder about the cultural rhythms of wisdom and ignorance and travel on seeking a better wave.  But I cannot hold up one finger to indicate the one true way or condone mutilation in the interest of religious purity or spiritual realization.

Monod on spirit, Oyama on ontogeny, and a zen koan

If you have followed my blog for any of the last five years you will recognize my reference to Monod on spirit.  Jacques Monod in his 1969 book, Chance and Necessity, presented an account of biological processes that he (and I agree wholeheartedly) believes yields a more realistic sense of what spirit is.  Following a suggestion by Chris Hitchens, I characterize this sort of spiritual view as natural noumenal, i.e., a reality that is not phenomenal but noumenal, not supernatural but natural.  Monod refers to the wondrous world of Gaia with its incredible heritage of biological processes proceeding through billions of years of random events that formed the shape of genetic flows into the gene pools of today.  Here is his account:  “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.”  As I wrote in my 3/25/17 post, “To appreciate the soul, then, travel back upriver to the springs of our genetic watersheds.”  And one more reference to render in another way the musical organicity of our spirit, to borrow a phrase from James Joyce’sFinnegan’s Wake, “accidental music providentially arranged” by unknown happenstance beginning long, long ago.

In her book, The Ontogeny of Information, Susan Oyama took issue with Monod’s gene-centric view (and Richard Dawkins’ as well) by pointing out that genes are only one component in a balanced system of biological controls and that what actually proceeds down through the ages are developmental systems composed of the organism, its genes and its ecological niche. Put in my terms used here, ontogeny is but one phase of spiritual happenings as Gaia continuously transforms. So today our rocky, watery planet (research indicates that even more water exists below the surface that we find on it in our rivers, lakes, and oceans—who knew?) teems with life forms in every imaginable niche, from deep in the crust to the skies above and from jungle to polar ice and down to sulfurous deep sea vents.  And even more remarkable and fortunate for those like us who live during this time, humans have figured this out.  As I have wondered about in the past at some point on this blog, the chemical processes comprising living organisms on our planet constantly spark with energy release in ways we may not be able to see but can still appreciate, all of them in almost infinite numbers over billions of years.  Spirit as natural noumena.

Zen koans are short questions or puzzles that can stimulate our meditations towards enlightenment.  Probably the most famous is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”,  and many more have been created by the sages over the past several centuries.  I read a rather curious one recently in a book, The Gateless Gate:  The Classic Book of Zen Koansby Koun Yamada and Ruben L. F. Habito.  The pithy version of it is:  What was your primal face before your parents were born?  I want to consider this koan from the perspective of my spiritual understanding, remembering that rational deliberations are, when all is said and done, irrelevant.

‘Primal’ per Webster means primeval, essential and fundamental.  I think (and admittedly I am not a real student of Zen) that primal face in the context of this koan refers to the enduring spirit of each of us that links our individual existence to the infinite universe.  But translating, or better, transmuting to natural noumena, I find myself wondering about the depth and particularity of the myriad estuarine events that led to the appearance of my 8 great grandparents, 4 grandparents, and then my parents births in 1919 and 1922.  I use estuary to signify the messy, muddy complexity of fecund life in which we are all born and that comprises not just the genetic flow per Monod and its ontogenetic ecological niche per Oyama but also the cultural compost of natural noumena left by the social and cultural milieu of piedmont Virginia back in the day.  Who was I during all of this?  What was my primal face as circumstances of persons, comings and goings, family alliances, developing affections, sexual couplings and daily happenings advanced without direction towards my birth?  Is this my own personal koan?

Better travel on to my happy meditation place.