Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Dogen and Gurdjieff, on form

Dogen's "Gabyo" (in his Shobogenzo) is understood to be a chapter on the question of the place of theory in Buddhism.

The chapter refers to the story of a picture of rice cakes. In Buddhism, a picture of a rice cake traditionally represents something theoretical, that is, an idea rather than practice, and it is oft asserted that a picture of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger.

This is roughly the equivalent of asserting that all "real" spiritual work is experiential, and that learning, understanding, and theory are all more or less worthless. It's a common misconception, and especially current among people who are lazy about the use of the mind, or have a weakness there which they don't want to confront.

Let's examine the question from Gurdjieff's perspective. Once again, we'll refer to the passages about the society of Akhldanns found in "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson."

Belcultassi, the founder of this society of wise men, practiced self observation to great effect. Beelzebub reports his ultimate discovery as follows:

"...conscious observations and impartial verifications at last convinced Belcultassi that in his common presence something was proceeding not as it should proceed according to sane being-logic." (p. 271, new edition)

From this passage, we understand that there is something called "sane" being logic, that is, a law-conformable being-logic that makes a normal kind of sense.

In addition, it conforms to logic, that is, one premise of that form of mentation follows from another in an organized and predictable fashion- a system of reasoning.

This means that Gurdjieff thought there was an intelligent, logical, understandable form within which consciousness ought to reside. He never advocated the abandonment of a system of reason, but rather, the implementation of a sane one.

Attempts to interpret the experience of life strictly through experience, abandoning intelligence and form, are attempting the impossible, because there is always a system of reasoning, a form, of some kind within the experience. To divorce any experience from all systems of reasoning is absurd.

Case in point. I went through an experience this summer watching and listening to an individual who aggressively--even rudely--insisted that only their experience counted. That was what it was all about, experience alone.

The person in question, after asserting this, proceeded to justify the position by engaging in an extensive line of reasoning as to just why this was so. They went on at great length, until both feet were firmly inserted in their mouth--although they oddly didn't seem to notice this. In other words, they presented a theory explaining why theory wasn't meaningful in relationship to practice.

We should all be careful of how we think and what we say, lest we find ourselves falling into the same embarrassing contradictions, and unconsciously eating the same rank leather. Theory is necessary. With a possible allowance for outright nihilisim-- and even that is theoretical--, it is inescapable.

And in fact, lo and behold, this is exactly what Dogen argues in Gabyo. Without a form- without a construct- without a cosmology and without words and intelligence, one ends up with precisely nothing, and nothing is not the aim.

Dogen's comment on the rice cake parable? Among others:

"In general, those who understand that an expression like this exists to assert that abstract teaching is utterly useless, are making a great mistake. They have not received the authentic transmission of the ancestral founder's virtuous conduct, and they are blind to the Buddhist patriarch's words." (Nishijima and Cross translation, Book 2, p. 236)

Hence his shobogenzo, a thousand pages or so of "abstract theory" that rivals Beelzebub's tales in its complexity, and in its effort to establish an intellectual foundation from which a real understanding can grow.

And what, in the end, is a theory? According to the American Heritage College Dictionary, it's

"a system of assumptions, principles, and rules of procedures used to analyze, predict, or otherwise explain the nature or behavior of specific phenomena."

So. If something is "theoretical," so what? Is that somehow bad? And if so, my dear friends, why?

The supreme irony is perhaps this: if one uses the word "theoretical" as an epithet to dismiss another person's idea, approach, or practice, one is de facto engaging in the use of theory, since one is engaging in an interpretive act based on a system of assumptions and principles.

Perhaps we begin to see here that nothing is what it appears to be if we really begin to think about it actively. Collectively, we humans sling words around like cudgels without considering their meaning or implications.

It takes a bit more consideration than that if we really want to begin to make any sense. As Socrates (and Gurdjieff, and Dogen) pointed out many times, the minute we begin to carefully examine what we say and how we say it, we find out that a great many things that sound very important indeed are in fact absolute twaddle.

There's nothing wrong with using the intellectual mind in one's efforts. Never forget it!

May your trees bear fruit, your wells yield water, and your thoughts be whole.

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