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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

03 FEBRUARY, 2015

Bertrand Russell on Immortality, Why Religion Exists, and What “The Good Life” Really Means


“There are forces making for happiness, and forces making for misery. We do not know which will prevail, but to act wisely we must be aware of both.”

Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) is one of humanity’s most grounding yet elevating thinkers, his writing at once lucid and luminous. There is something almost prophetic in the way he bridges timelessness and timeliness in contemplating ideas urgently relevant to modern life a century earlier — from how boredom makes happiness possible to why science is the key to democracy. But nowhere does his genius shine more brilliantly than in What I Believe (public library).

Published in 1925, the book is a kind of catalog of hopes — a counterpoint to Russell’s Icarus, a catalog of fears released the previous year — exploring our place in the universe and our “possibilities in the way of achieving the good life.”

Russell writes in the preface:

In human affairs, we can see that there are forces making for happiness, and forces making for misery. We do not know which will prevail, but to act wisely we must be aware of both.

One of Russell’s most central points deals with our civilizational allergy to uncertainty, which we try to alleviate in ways that don’t serve the human spirit. Nearly a century before astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s magnificent manifesto for mystery in the age of knowledge — and many decades before “wireless” came to mean what it means today, making the metaphor all the more prescient and apt — Russell writes:

It is difficult to imagine anything less interesting or more different from the passionate delights of incomplete discovery. It is like climbing a high mountain and finding nothing at the top except a restaurant where they sell ginger beer, surrounded by fog but equipped with wireless.

Long before modern neuroscience even existed, let alone knew what it now knows about why we have the thoughts we do — the subject of an excellent recent episode of the NPR’s Invisibilia — Russell points to the physical origins of what we often perceive as metaphysical reality:

What we call our “thoughts” seem to depend upon the organization of tracks in the brain in the same sort of way in which journeys depend upon roads and railways. The energy used in thinking seems to have a chemical origin; for instance, a deficiency of iodine will turn a clever man into an idiot. Mental phenomena seem to be bound up with material structure.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

Nowhere, Russell argues, do our thought-fictions stand in starker contrast with physical reality than in religious mythology — and particularly in our longing for immortality which, despite a universe whose very nature contradicts the possibility, all major religions address with some version of a promise for eternal life. With his characteristic combination of cool lucidity and warm compassion for the human experience, Russell writes:

God and immortality … find no support in science… No doubt people will continue to entertain these beliefs, because they are pleasant, just as it is pleasant to think ourselves virtuous and our enemies wicked. But for my part I cannot see any ground for either.

And yet, noting that the existence or nonexistence of a god cannot be proven for it lies “outside the region of even probable knowledge,” he considers the special case of personal immortality, which “stands on a somewhat different footing” and in which “evidence either way is possible”:

Persons are part of the everyday world with which science is concerned, and the conditions which determine their existence are discoverable. A drop of water is not immortal; it can be resolved into oxygen and hydrogen. If, therefore, a drop of water were to maintain that it had a quality of aqueousness which would survive its dissolution we should be inclined to be skeptical. In like manner we know that the brain is not immortal, and that the organized energy of a living body becomes, as it were, demobilized at death, and therefore not available for collective action. All the evidence goes to show that what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy. Therefore it is rational to suppose that mental life ceases when bodily life ceases. The argument is only one of probability, but it is as strong as those upon which most scientific conclusions are based.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

But evidence, Russell points out, has little bearing on what we actually believe. (In the decades since, pioneering psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated that the confidence we have in our beliefs is no measure of their accuracy.) Noting that we simply desire to believe in immortality, Russell writes:

Believers in immortality will object to physiological arguments [against personal immortality] on the ground that soul and body are totally disparate, and that the soul is something quite other than its empirical manifestations through our bodily organs. I believe this to be a metaphysical superstition. Mind and matter alike are for certain purposes convenient terms, but are not ultimate realities. Electrons and protons, like the soul, are logical fictions; each is really a history, a series of events, not a single persistent entity. In the case of the soul, this is obvious from the facts of growth. Whoever considers conception, gestation, and infancy cannot seriously believe that the soul in any indivisible something, perfect and complete throughout this process. It is evident that it grows like the body, and that it derives both from the spermatozoon and from the ovum, so that it cannot be indivisible.

Long before the term “reductionism” would come to dismiss material answers to spiritual questions, Russell offers an elegant disclaimer:

This is not materialism: it is merely the recognition that everything interesting is a matter of organization, not of primal substance.

Art by Roz Chast from her illustrated meditation on aging, illness, and death. Click image for more.

Our obsession with immortality, Russell contends, is rooted in our fear of death — a fear that, as Alan Watts has eloquently argued, is rather misplaced if we are to truly accept our participation in the cosmos. Russell writes:

Fear is the basis of religious dogma, as of so much else in human life. Fear of human beings, individually or collectively, dominates much of our social life, but it is fear of nature that gives rise to religion. The antithesis of mind and matter is … more or less illusory; but there is another antithesis which is more important — that, namely, between things that can be affected by our desires and things that cannot be so affected. The line between the two is neither sharp nor immutable — as science advances, more and more things are brought under human control. Nevertheless there remain things definitely on the other side. Among these are all the large facts of our world, the sort of facts that are dealt with by astronomy. It is only facts on or near the surface of the earth that we can, to some extent, mould to suit our desires. And even on the surface of the earth our powers are very limited. Above all, we cannot prevent death, although we can often delay it.

Religion is an attempt to overcome this antithesis. If the world is controlled by God, and God can be moved by prayer, we acquire a share in omnipotence… Belief in God … serves to humanize the world of nature, and to make men feel that physical forces are really their allies. In like manner immortality removes the terror from death. People who believe that when they die they will inherit eternal bliss may be expected to view death without horror, though, fortunately for medical men, this does not invariably happen. It does, however, soothe men’s fears somewhat even when it cannot allay them wholly.

In a sentiment of chilling prescience in the context of recent religiously-motivated atrocities, Russell adds:

Religion, since it has its source in terror, has dignified certain kinds of fear, and made people think them not disgraceful. In this it has done mankind a great disservice: all fear is bad.

Science, Russell suggests, offers the antidote to such terror — even if its findings are at first frightening as they challenge our existing beliefs, the way Galileo did. He captures this necessary discomfort beautifully:

Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.

Art from 'You Are Stardust,' a children's book teaching kids about the universe. Click image for more.

But Russell’s most enduring point has to do with our beliefs about the nature of the universe in relation to us. More than eight decades before legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser’s exquisite proclamation — “If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be.” — Russell writes:

Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naïve humanism; the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy. All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy.

He admonishes against confusing “the philosophy of nature,” in which such neutrality is necessary, with “the philosophy of value,” which beckons us to create meaning by conferring human values upon the world:

Nature is only a part of what we can imagine; everything, real or imagined, can be appraised by us, and there is no outside standard to show that our valuation is wrong. We are ourselves the ultimate and irrefutable arbiters of value, and in the world of value Nature is only a part. Thus in this world we are greater than Nature. In the world of values, Nature in itself is neutral, neither good nor bad, deserving of neither admiration nor censure. It is we who create value and our desires which confer value… It is for us to determine the good life, not for Nature — not even for Nature personified as God.

Russell’s definition of that “good life” remains the simplest and most heartening one I’ve ever encountered:

The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.

Knowledge and love are both indefinitely extensible; therefore, however good a life may be, a better life can be imagined. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.

What I Believe is a remarkably prescient and rewarding read in its entirety — Russell goes on to explore the nature of the good life, what salvation means in a secular sense for the individual and for society, the relationship between science and happiness, and more. Complement it with Russell on human nature, the necessary capacity for “fruitful monotony,” and his ten commandments of teaching and learning, then revisit Alan Lightman on why we long for immortality.

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02 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Island of Knowledge: How to Live with Mystery in a Culture Obsessed with Certainty and Definitive Answers


“We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.”

“Our human definition of ‘everything’ gives us, at best, a tiny penlight to help us with our wanderings,” Benjamen Walker offered in an episode of his excellent Theory of Everything podcast as we shared a conversation about illumination and the art of discovery. Thirty years earlier, Carl Sagan had captured this idea in his masterwork Varieties of Scientific Experience, where he asserted: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.” This must be what Rilke, too, had at heart when he exhorted us to live the questions. And yet if there is one common denominator across the entire history of human culture, it is the insatiable hunger to know the unknowable — that is, to know everything, and to know it with certainty, which is itself the enemy of the human spirit.

The perplexities and paradoxes of that quintessential human longing, and how the progress of modern science has compounded it, is what astrophysicist and philosopher Marcelo Gleiser examines in The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning (public library).

Partway between Hannah Arendt’s timeless manifesto for the unanswerable questions at the heart of meaning and Stuart Firestein’s case for how not-knowing drives science, Gleiser explores our commitment to knowledge and our parallel flirtation with the mystery of the unknown.

Artwork from 'Fail Safe,' Debbie Millman's illustrated-essay-turned-commencement address on courage and the creative life. Click image to read/listen.

What emerges is at once a celebration of human achievement and a gentle reminder that the appropriate reaction to scientific and technological progress is not arrogance over the knowledge conquered, which seems to be our civilizational modus operandi, but humility in the face of what remains to be known and, perhaps above all, what may always remain unknowable.

Gleiser begins by posing the question of whether there are fundamental limits to how much of the universe and our place in it science can explain, with a concrete focus on physical reality. Echoing cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz’s eye-opening exploration of why our minds miss the vast majority of what is going on around us, he writes:

What we see of the world is only a sliver of what’s “out there.” There is much that is invisible to the eye, even when we augment our sensorial perception with telescopes, microscopes, and other tools of exploration. Like our senses, every instrument has a range. Because much of Nature remains hidden from us, our view of the world is based only on the fraction of reality that we can measure and analyze. Science, as our narrative describing what we see and what we conjecture exists in the natural world, is thus necessarily limited, telling only part of the story… We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery… It is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that bridges Philip K. Dick’s formulation of reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” with Richard Feynman’s iconic monologue on knowledge and mystery, Gleiser adds:

The map of what we call reality is an ever-shifting mosaic of ideas.


The incompleteness of knowledge and the limits of our scientific worldview only add to the richness of our search for meaning, as they align science with our human fallibility and aspirations.

Gleiser notes that while modern science has made tremendous strides in illuminating the neuronal infrastructure of the brain, it has in the process reduced the mind to mere chemical operations, not only failing to advance but perhaps even impoverishing our understanding and sense of being. He admonishes against mistaking measurement for meaning:

There is no such thing as an exact measurement. Every measurement must be stated within its precision and quoted together with “error bars” estimating the magnitude of errors. High-precision measurements are simply measurements with small error bars or high confidence levels; there are no perfect, zero-error measurements.


Technology limits how deeply experiments can probe into physical reality. That is to say, machines determine what we can measure and thus what scientists can learn about the Universe and ourselves. Being human inventions, machines depend on our creativity and available resources. When successful, they measure with ever-higher accuracy and on occasion may also reveal the unexpected.


But the essence of empirical science is that Nature always has the last word… It then follows that if we only have limited access to Nature through our tools and, more subtly, through our restricted methods of investigation, our knowledge of the natural world is necessarily limited.

And yet even though much of the world remains invisible to us at any given moment, Gleiser argues that this is what the human imagination thrives on. At the same time, however, the very instruments that we create with this restless imagination begin to shape what is perceivable, and thus what is known, marking “reality” a Rube Goldberg machine of detectable measurements. Gleiser writes:

If large portions of the world remain unseen or inaccessible to us, we must consider the meaning of the word “reality” with great care. We must consider whether there is such a thing as an “ultimate reality” out there — the final substrate of all there is — and, if so, whether we can ever hope to grasp it in its totality.


Our perception of what is real evolves with the instruments we use to probe Nature. Gradually, some of what was unknown becomes known. For this reason, what we call “reality” is always changing… The version of reality we might call “true” at one time will not remain true at another.


As long as technology advances — and there is no reason to suppose that it will ever stop advancing for as long as we are around — we cannot foresee an end to this quest. The ultimate truth is elusive, a phantom.

Artwork by Marian Bantjes from 'Beyond Pretty Pictures.' Click image for more.

To illustrate this notion, Gleiser constructs the metaphor after which his book is titled — he paints knowledge as an island surrounded by the vast ocean of the unknown; as we learn more, the island expands into the ocean, its coastline marking the ever-shifting boundary between the known and the unknown. Paraphrasing the Socratic paradox, Gleiser writes:

Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination — whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyway — but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.

Echoing Ray Bradbury’s poetic conviction that it’s part of human nature “to start with romance and build to a reality,” Gleiser adds:

This realization should open doors, not close them, since it makes the search for knowledge an open-ended pursuit, an endless romance with the unknown.

Gleiser admonishes against the limiting notion that we only have two options — staunch scientism, with its blind faith in science’s ability to permanently solve the mysteries of the unknown, and religious obscurantism, with its superstitious avoidance of inconvenient facts. Instead, he offers a third approach “based on how an understanding of the way we probe reality can be a source of endless inspiration without the need for setting final goals or promises of eternal truths.” In an assertion that invokes Sagan’s famous case for the vital balance between skepticism and openness, Gleiser writes:

This unsettled existence is the very blood of science. Science needs to fail to move forward. Theories need to break down; their limits need to be exposed. As tools probe deeper into Nature, they expose the cracks of old theories and allow new ones to emerge. However, we should not be fooled into believing that this process has an end.

I recently tussled with another facet of this issue — the umwelt of the unanswerable — in contemplating the future of machines that think for John Brockman’s annual Edge question. But what makes Gleiser’s point particularly gladdening is the underlying implication that despite its pursuit of answers, science thrives on uncertainty and thus necessitates an element of unflinching faith — faith in the process of the pursuit rather than the outcome, but faith nonetheless. And while the difference between science and religion might be, as Krista Tippett elegantly offered, in the questions they ask rather than the answers they offer, Gleiser suggests that both the fault line and the common ground between the two is a matter of how each relates to mystery:

Can we make sense of the world without belief? This is a central question behind the science and faith dichotomy… Religious myths attempt to explain the unknown with the unknowable while science attempts to explain the unknown with the knowable.


Both the scientist and the faithful believe in unexplained causation, that is, in things happening for unknown reasons, even if the nature of the cause is completely different for each. In the sciences, this belief is most obvious when there is an attempt to extrapolate a theory or model beyond its tested limits, as in “gravity works the same way across the entire Universe,” or “the theory of evolution by natural selection applies to all forms of life, including extraterrestrial ones.” These extrapolations are crucial to advance knowledge into unexplored territory. The scientist feels justified in doing so, given the accumulated power of her theories to explain so much of the world. We can even say, with slight impropriety, that her faith is empirically validated.

A 1617 depiction of the notion of non-space, long before the concept of vacuum existed, found in Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

Citing Newton and Einstein as prime examples of scientists who used wholly intuitive faith to advance their empirical and theoretical breakthroughs — one by extrapolating from his gravitational findings to assert that the universe is infinite and the other by inventing the notion of a “universal constant” to discuss the finitude of space — Gleiser adds:

To go beyond the known, both Newton and Einstein had to take intellectual risks, making assumptions based on intuition and personal prejudice. That they did so, knowing that their speculative theories were necessarily faulty and limited, illustrates the power of belief in the creative process of two of the greatest scientists of all time. To a greater or lesser extent, every person engaged in the advancement of knowledge does the same.

The Island of Knowledge is an illuminating read in its totality — Gleiser goes on to explore how conceptual leaps and bounds have shaped our search for meaning, what quantum mechanics reveal about the nature of physical reality, and how the evolution of machines and mathematics might affect our ideas about the limits of knowledge.

For a fine complement, see Hannah Arendt on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning and astrophysicist Janna Levin on whether the universe is infinite or finite, then treat yourself to Gleiser’s magnificent conversation with novelist Marilynne Robinson — herself a thinker of perceptive and nuanced insight on mystery — on the existentially indispensable On Being:

GLEISER: To think of science as separate from spirituality to me is a big mistake… There is nothing that says that science should be dispassionate about the spirit or the life of the spirit. And to me it’s quite the opposite. It’s exactly because I feel very spiritually connected with nature that I am a scientist. And to write equations on a blackboard and to come up with models about how nature works is, in a sense, a form of worship of that spirituality.


ROBINSON: One of the things that is fascinating is that we don’t know who we are. Human beings in acting out history describe themselves and every new epic is a new description of what human beings are. Every life is a new description of what human beings are. Every work of science, every object of art is new information. And it is inconceivable at this point that we could say anything final about what the human mind is, because it is demonstrating … in beautiful ways and terrifying ways, that it will surprise us over and over and over again.

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30 JANUARY, 2015

D.T. Suzuki on What Freedom Really Means and How Zen Can Help Us Cultivate Our Character


“The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow.”

Alan Watts may be credited with popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, but he owes the entire trajectory of his life and legacy to a single encounter with the Zen Buddhist sage D.T. Suzuki (October 18, 1870–July 12, 1966) — one of humanity’s greatest and most influential stewards of Zen philosophy. At the age of twenty-one, Watts attended a lecture by Suzuki in London, which so enthralled the young man that he spent the remainder of his life studying, propagating, and building upon Suzuki’s teachings. Legendary composer John Cage had a similar encounter with Suzuki, which profoundly shaped his life and music.

In the early 1920s, spurred by the concern that Zen masters are “unable to present their understanding in the light of modern thought,” Suzuki undertook “a tentative experiment to present Zen from our common-sense point of view” — a rather humble formulation of what he actually accomplished, which was nothing less than giving ancient Eastern philosophy a second life in the West and planting the seed for a new culture of secularized spirituality.

But by 1940, all of his books had gone out of print in war-torn England, and all remaining copies in Japan were destroyed in the great fire of 1945, which consumed three quarters of Tokyo. In 1946, Christmas Humphreys, president of London’s Buddhist Society, set out to undo the damage and traveled to Tokyo, where he began working with Suzuki on translating his new manuscripts and reprinting what remained of the old. The result was the timeless classic Essays in Zen Buddhism (public library), originally published in 1927 — a collection of Suzuki’s foundational texts introducing the principles of Zen into secular life as a discipline concerned first and foremost with what he called “the reconstruction of character.” As Suzuki observed, “Our ordinary life only touches the fringe of personality, it does not cause a commotion in the deepest parts of the soul.” His essays became, and remain, a moral toolkit for modern living, delivered through a grounding yet elevating perspective on secular spirituality.

Suzuki begins at the beginning, laying out the promise of Zen in our everyday lives:

Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom. By making us drink right from the fountain of life, it liberates us from all the yokes under which we finite beings are usually suffering in this world.


This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows mouldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally. It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled. This is what I mean by freedom, giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts. Generally, we are blind to this fact, that we are in possession of all the necessary faculties that will make us happy and loving towards one another. All the struggles that we see around us come from this ignorance… When the cloud of ignorance disappears… we see for the first time into the nature of our own being.

One of Suzuki’s most overlooked yet essential points — and one particularly prescient in the context of what modern developmental psychology has found in the decades since — has to do with the crucial role of adolescence as a pivotal point in moral development. The teenage years, he argues, are when we begin “deeply delving into the mysteries of life” and when we are “asked to choose between the ‘Everlasting No’ and the ‘Everlasting Yea’” — a notion young Nietzsche intuited half a century earlier when he resolved, “I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yea-sayer!” At this fork in the road of existence, Suzuki insists, mastering the principles of Zen can make the critical difference in leading us toward a meaningful and fulfilling life. He writes:

Life is after all a form of affirmation… However insistently the blind may deny the existence of the sun, they cannot annihilate it.

Much of that blindness, he admonishes, comes from our attachment to the ego. Paradoxical as it may sound to any parent or teacher of a teenager, Suzuki suggests that adolescence is the time most fruitful for the dissolution of the ego:

We are too ego-centered. The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow… We are, however, given many chances to break through this shell, and the first and greatest of them is when we reach adolescence.

Illustration by Andrea Dezsö for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

And yet the “loss of the mental equilibrium” produced by the polar pull of “Everlasting No” and “Everlasting Yea,” which causes “so many cases of nervous prostration reported during adolescence,” can also derail and anguish us at any point in life. In a sentiment that once again calls to mind Nietzsche and his beliefs about the constructive role of suffering, Suzuki writes:

The more you suffer the deeper grows your character, and with the deepening of your character you read the more penetratingly into the secrets of life. All great artists, all great religious leaders, and all great social reformers have come out of the intensest struggles which they fought bravely, quite frequently in tears and with bleeding hearts.

Those ego-stripping struggles, Suzuki points out, can be of the intimate, most nonmaterial kind — the kind Rilke had articulated so beautifully two decades earlier in his letter on the burdens and blessings of love. Suzuki writes:

Love makes the ego lose itself in the object it loves, and yet at the same time it wants to have the object as its own… The greatest bulk of literature ever produced in this world is but the harping on the same string of love, and we never seem to grow weary of it. But… through the awakening of love we get a glimpse into the infinity of things… When the ego-shell is broken and the ‘other’ is taken into its own body, we can say that the ego has denied itself or that the ego has taken its first steps towards the infinite.

Although he takes care to note the invaluable role of the intellect in day-to-day life, Suzuki argues that the intellect is what keeps us from the infinite:

Zen proposes its solution by directly appealing to facts of personal experience and not to book-knowledge. The nature of one’s own being where apparently rages the struggle between the finite and the infinite is to be grasped by a higher faculty than the intellect… For the intellect has a peculiarly disquieting quality in it. Though it raises questions enough to disturb the serenity of the mind, it is too frequently unable to give satisfactory answers to them. It upsets the blissful peace of ignorance and yet it does not restore the former state of things by offering something else. Because it points out ignorance, it is often considered illuminating, whereas the fact is that it disturbs, not necessarily always bringing light on its path.

Illustration by Lizi Boyd from 'Flashlight.' Click image for more.

How poignant the latter remark is in the context of contemporary intellectual life. So much of our higher education is premised on the spirit of tearing things down rather than building things up — on how intelligently a student can criticize and counter an argument — which has, unsurprisingly, permeated the fabric of public discourse at large. We have a culture of criticism in which critics, professional and self-appointed, measure their merit by how intelligently they can eviscerate an idea, a work of art, or, increasingly and alarmingly, a person. We seem to have forgotten how to acquire what Bertrand Russell called, just a year before Suzuki’s essays were published, “a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy” in his magnificent meditation on why construction is more difficult yet more rewarding than destruction.

Similarly, Suzuki’s point is that the intellect is best at pointing out what doesn’t work, and as such can be a force of destruction, but when it comes to what does work, to the art of moral construction, we must rely on a wholly different faculty of the human spirit. He points to the lineage of philosophy — a discipline that continues to rely heavily on Descartes’s ultimate slogan for the intellect, cogito ergo sum — as evidence of the intellect’s insufficient powers in illuminating the path:

The history of thought proves that each new structure raised by a man of extraordinary intellect is sure to be pulled down by the succeeding ones. This constant pulling down and building up is all right as far as philosophy itself is concerned; for the inherent nature of the intellect, as I take it, demands it and we cannot put a stop to the progress of philosophical inquiries any more than to our breathing. But when it comes to the question of life itself we cannot wait for the ultimate solution to be offered by the intellect, even if it could do so. We cannot suspend even for a moment our life-activity for philosophy to unravel its mysteries. Let the mysteries remain as they are, but live we must… Zen therefore does not rely on the intellect for the solution of its deepest problems.

While the intellect may portend to fight illusion, Suzuki argues, it often does the opposite, creating different illusions that take us further from the truth of life rather than closer to it. He writes:

As nature abhors a vacuum, Zen abhors anything coming between the fact and ourselves. According to Zen there is no struggle in the fact itself such as between the finite and the infinite, between the flesh and the spirit. These are idle distinctions fictitiously designed by the intellect for its own interest. Those who take them too seriously or those who try to read them into the very fact of life are those who take the finger for the moon.

John Cage visits ninety-two-year-old Suzuki in 1962, from 'Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists.' Click image for more.

For anyone who has ever experienced the soul-squeezing sense of not-enoughness — and in a consumerist culture, most of us have, for the task of consumerism is to rob us of our sense of having enough and sell it back to us at the price of the product, over and over — Suzuki’s words resonate with particular poignancy:

Life as it is lived suffices. It is only when the disquieting intellect steps in and tries to murder it that we stop to live and imagine ourselves to be short of or in something. Let the intellect alone, it has its usefulness in its proper sphere, but let it not interfere with the flowing of the life-stream. If you are at all tempted to look into it, do so while letting it flow. The fact of flowing must under no circumstances be arrested or meddled with…


The great fact of life itself … flows altogether outside of these vain exercises of the intellect or of the imagination.


No amount of wordy explanations will ever lead us into the nature of our own selves. The more you explain, the further it runs away from you. It is like trying to get hold of your own shadow.

What Zen offers, Suzuki suggests, is a gateway into precisely that elusive nature of the self:

Zen … must be directly and personally experienced by each of us in his inner spirit. Just as two stainless mirrors reflect each other, the fact and our own spirits must stand facing each other with no intervening agents. When this is done we are able to seize upon the living, pulsating fact itself. Freedom is an empty word until then.

In a sentiment that the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer would come to echo decades later in his courageous call for “inner wholeness,” Suzuki adds:

The ultimate standpoint of Zen, therefore, is that we have been led astray through ignorance to find a split in our own being, that there was from the very beginning no need for a struggle between the finite and the infinite, that the peace we are seeking so eagerly after has been there all the time.

Illustration by Taro Yashima from 'Umbrella.' Click image for more.

More than a century before Alan Lightman so elegantly assuaged our yearning for permanence in a universe of constant change, Suzuki writes:

We are all finite, we cannot live out of time and space; inasmuch as we are earth-created, there is no way to grasp the infinite, how can we deliver ourselves from the limitations of existence? … Salvation must be sought in the finite itself, there is nothing infinite apart from finite things; if you seek something transcendental, that will cut you off from this world of relativity, which is the same thing as the annihilation of yourself. You do not want salvation at the cost of your own existence… Whether you understand or not, just the same go on living in the finite, with the finite; for you die if you stop eating and keeping yourself warm on account of your aspiration for the infinite… Therefore the finite is the infinite, and vice versa. These are not two separate things, though we are compelled to conceive them so, intellectually.

Suzuki argues that the ultimate essence of Zen lies in its promise, both practical and profound, to “deliver us from the oppression and tyranny of these intellectual accumulations” and to offer, instead, a foundation of character at once solid and transcendent:

Zen may be considered a discipline aiming at the reconstruction of character. Our ordinary life only touches the fringe of personality, it does not cause a commotion in the deepest parts of the soul… We are … made to live on the superficiality of things. We may be clever, bright, and all that, but what we produce lacks depth, sincerity, and does not appeal to the inmost feelings… A deep spiritual experience is bound to effect a change in the moral structure of one’s personality.

And yet this “reconstruction of character”” is no cosmetic tweak:

Being so long accustomed to the oppression [of the intellect], the mental inertia becomes hard to remove. In fact it has gone down deep into the roots of our own being, and the whole structure of personality is to be overturned. The process of reconstruction is stained with tears and blood… It is no pastime but the most serious task in life; no idlers will ever dare attempt it.


Zen goes straight down to the foundations of personality.

In the remainder of Essays in Zen Buddhism, Suzuki goes on to equip us with the necessary tools of character and spirit for undertaking this task of a lifetime. Complement it with Alan Watts on life, reality, and becoming who you really are and the story of what John Cage’s journey into Buddhism reveals about the inner life of artists.

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