The tension between Zen and Socrates

I am becoming more aware each day of the tension between the Socratic way of life and Zen practice. For Socrates, there is in the beginning the logos, or speech saying what is the case. For Zen, there is silence before the existence of the spoken word. The tension can be plainly stated: is knowledge primordially discursive or non-discursive? I do not know.

In the ‘Translator’s Preface’ to Attaining the Way: A Guide to the Practice of Chan Buddhism, Jimmy Yu writes,

In actual practice one does not engage in thinking or reflecting on any of these labels or ideas. In practice a gong’an [koan in Japanese] is not some interesting story to be figured out through reasoning but is internalized as a fundamental and existential dilemma. Likewise, a hua-tou [literally: ‘before the spoken word’] is used as a “critical phrase” to generate an intense questioning of who we are before the onset of words and language, and of the meaning of ultimate truth. (x)

The Great Doubt in Zen, so far as I understand it, is meant to penetrate the entirety of one’s being, to break down the ego, to explode it. Reasoning and reflecting upon a koan not only will not do but actually are non-starters. The ‘fundamental question’ devastates, breaks through, tears apart, carrying ‘one’ to silence, to the inmost stillness of reality. Awakening or realization is the silence. Speech is untruth.

Contrariwise, the Socrates of the early Socratic dialogues always begins with a much different starting point from that of Zen. An answerer whom he will investigate must be said to be in possession of that about which he is to about to and able to speak. If he is in possession of knowledge of piety, virtue, friendship, wisdom, or courage is, then he must be able to say it. Knowledge, of the kind Socrates seeks, is not inarticulate or tacit; it is sayable; it must be stated.

That knowledge is discursible is at least Socrates’s operating assumption. The reply could be that Socrates is showing, even though this is not what he necessarily intends to show, that no one yet has been able to say what piety is. Perhaps, this line of thought would run, we are warranted in concluding that knowledge is ultimately unsayable. Might this be what Socrates is after?

The inference (or conjecture) does not follow. What does follow is indeed that no one yet has been able to say what wisdom is. The motivation for continuing the Socratic pursuit of wisdom, day in and day out, is the promise that wisdom is of the kind that it can be grasped conceptually (and embodied fully in virtuous living).

The tension is not cleared up between Socrates and Zen simply by claiming that one form of knowledge is non-discursive and another discursive. That would work for other philosophies that can accommodate, by rank-ordering, different kinds of knowledge. But the ontologies in this case seem to differ at their core: reality ‘speaks’ or is ‘inclined’ to speak in Socrates whereas reality is silent and responsive in Zen. Let us let the tension quiver in the air for now.

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