Friday, December 27, 2013

Know More Words

Pico Iyer:

Buddhism is often called a “science of the mind” because, if it’s true to its eponymous first practitioner, it is less a religion than a training in taking the objective measure of reality. When the Fourteenth Dalai Lama describes it, he always stresses that, as a “non-theistic” tradition, its ideas about God and the hereafter are much less important than its commitment to an empirical, scientific investigation of the way things are; the title of his last major work in English was Beyond Religion. The Buddha, as I understand it, ultimately devoted himself to the simple exercise of sitting still and resolving not to get up until he had looked beyond his many delusions and projections to the truth of what he was (or wasn’t) and how to make his peace with that.

Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds very much like someone in a cork-lined room, almost alone for years on end and turning a fierce and uncompromising light on all his experiences and memories so as to see how much of them might be wishful thinking, and what they owe to illusion and the falsifications of the mind? Marcel Proust never formally meditated, so far as I know, and he never officially quit his gilded palace to wander around the world, practicing extremes of austerity and cross-questioning wise men. But if I want to understand the tricks the mind plays upon itself—the ways we substitute our notions of reality for the way things are and need to dismantle the suffering false thoughts can create—I can’t think of a better guide and friend than the author of À la recherche.

Long ago, in my callow youth, I briefly entertained the notion of writing a book to elucidate the similarities between Nietzsche's philosophy and Zen, as I understood each of them. I dunno, I guess I thought this was something missing from the popular philosophy literature. Thankfully, that notion withered on the vine. At best, it might have made a good blog post, though this was conceived in the days before blogs. Anyway, point is, these kinds of thought experiments and comparisons are interesting as far as they go, but words do mean things, and you have to take care not to do Procrustean violence to very different concepts in pursuit of an illusory sameness, lest you become the sort of too-stupid-to-even-feel-embarrassment dilettante who claims in all seriousness that good scientists are already postmodernists whether they know it or not.