Excitement and Anti-intellectualism in Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen

I cannot imagine a more bracing, dramatic, stern, and triumphant account of Zen practice than Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen. The very atmosphere of Zen is “lit up,” the mood is intense and alive and awesome, the figures very human while being supremely committed. I can see why the book, published in 1963, has had a magnetic effect on the practice and popularity of Zen in the West, and I can feel how it seduces me.

On each page, zazen, sesshin, kensho all seem very exciting and full of energy, and the roshis, even in their ordinariness, are these dramatic figures singularly devoted to helping their pupils “get kensho.” Notwithstanding the cold, the sparse food, the vigorous daily schedules, the powerful monks, the monasteries Kapleau describes just seem to crackle with the utmost height of life. The whole book is saturated, just saturated by the feel of those who have finally, ultimately, truly found and lived what they are looking for. I am astonished and touched by the beauty, the care, and the attention Kapleau put into the design.

I note, however, a particular deficit of spirit, a certain miserly prejudice when it comes to what Zen practitioners call “philosophy” and “speculation.” Over and over again, roshis, Kapleau, and pupils denigrate philosophy as only (they would say) reinforcing dualistic thinking: making distinctions between self and Buddha-nature, creating and applying concepts, asking speculative questions that cannot be answered, generally getting wrapped up in one’s own thinking.

This prejudice against philosophy, marring the book, is too bad first because it mistakes the essence of philosophy as logic-chopping, as the adoption and analysis of concepts; second because it fetishizes the peasant whose mind is without such cogitating and therefore is more primed for sartori (is this not already a political assumption about the peasant and leisurely classes?); and third–and this on a deeper political level–because our minds need to make distinctions and often fine-grained discriminations at that in order for us to deliberate in the hope of acting well in political situations that would otherwise confound us. The charge against Zen is that, under certain political conditions, it could let us lean in the direction of fascism: toward acting spontaneously without the requisite, nuanced political considerations, toward what Hannah Arendt might call “thoughtlessness.”

I do not doubt that more subtle Zen apologists will find room for a reply to my quibble, but that does not change the way that Zen has been received in the West and Kapleau has helped to perpetuate this misconception. Zen’s appeal in the West is owing, in large measure, to the death of God, the focus on practice, the pragmatic tendency in the American mind, the anti-intellectualism, and the enigmatic phrasings–and the bias against good, hard thinking is only exacerbated by the cult of the “spontaneous act.”

In my own letters and thoughts, I confess that I am becoming more acquainted than I had ever been before with the limits of the intellect in general and of my intellectualism in particular. I am humbled by this realization. Still, traditions that make room for faith alongside the limited, legitimate powers of the intellect are those that stand still to receive my allegiance. Lumping the intellect in with the “delusional mind,” as happens in The Three Pillars of Zen, is a dangerous move. Believing that philosophy is opposed to practice is another. Anti-intellectualism is as scary a position to hold on the Right as it is on the Left.

Love of love

What’s love got to do with it?

Yesterday morning, one conversation partner spoke of wanting to “love life without limit.” We spoke about how to draw out the meditative aspects from the ordinary run of life. In the afternoon, Cheyenna Weber, Interim Director at the New Economy Network and Founder of SolidarityNYC, told me that, in her activism, she hopes to “meet oppression with love.” (Years ago, I attended a talk by the political theorist Michael Hardt on “love as a political concept.”) Apparently, love is not just a romantic concept confined to the family; nor merely a theological concept wedding the transcendent component with the immanent; it is also a metaphysical concept as well as a political concept.

The metaphysical: The Presocratic philosopher Empedocles claimed that two forces moved all of nature: love brings things together while strife tears them asunder. The early Hegel writes that “True love, or love proper, exists only between living beings who are alike in power and thus in one another’s eyes living beings from every point of view; in no respect is either dead for the other. This genuine love excludes all oppositions.”

The political: The young are raised well only if they are able to love the political community which has made the flourishing of each and all a pregnant possibility. In this kind of political community, the primary force would not be resistance of some enemy at the gate but the affirmation of one’s fellows and the welcoming of open-armed guests.

What we are noticing in this survey is the reappearance of certain dyads in the context of love: limits/unlimited; oppression/affirmation; strife/life; oppositions/unions. What may be less apparent from the examples I listed is the requirement that one undergo a transformation. There must be an education of the spirit, an itinerary through which one would have to pass, the formative experiences of conflict and severance (the Age of Experience) one would have to have had in order for love to resonate on all levels of one’s existence. The tragic will have to leave some scars and memories before our calm–a love of life as much as a love of love–can redeem us.

Roberto Unger on ‘the future of the left’

A breathtaking interview with Roberto Unger, “The Future of the Left,” The European (October 24, 2011) about the need to think differently. My curating below.

(If you grant Unger’s conclusions, then you’ll have to also grant how truly “paradigm-shifting” his ideas are.)

Rethinking Modern Institutions

“My view is that all the fundamental problems of the European societies, and the world as a whole, require the reinvention of the conventional institutional arrangements for the organization of democracies, market economies, and civil societies.”

Rethinking Leftist Principles

Equality is not the first principle. A good life is! Hence, the question of social justice follows from the more basic question of human flourishing. This thought represents a fundamental reorientation of leftism. Unger states that the true leftist is “[s]omeone who understands that the goal of greater equality is subordinate to the goal of raising the ordinary man and woman up to a greater life.”

Reconceptualizing Labor

We need to make “a fundamental change in the nature of work and production. All the liberal and socialist thinkers of the 19th century understood that wage labor is a compromise, and retains many of the aspects of slavery and serfdom. There are two other forms of labor, self-employment and cooperation, and combined in some way they could help solve the problems of scale and wage labor could become the residual rather than the dominant form of free labor.”

If you really get this point, then you can regard union talk and so on as secondary and take  first principles about the nature of good work as primary.

Revaluing Jeffersonian Small Businesses

“The truth is that there are more petit-bourgeois in the world and certainly in Europe than there are industrial proletarians, and if the criteria is subjective rather than object, that is, the aspiration towards economic independence, it is the majority of the population, and what they fail to do is to meet that aspiration on its own terms and provide it with instruments so that it doesn’t have isolated independent family business as its only form of expression.”

This line of thought is Jeffersonian in spirit. The small business owner exercises virtues of autonomy, industry, frugality, self-control, etc. By virtue of her financial independence, she is able to participate actively in community life and to cooperate with others in the spirit of giving.

Waking Up: Philosophical Thought and Social Change

“The way that politics and culture are organized, you have to wait for a crisis. The crisis is like the meteor visiting the world and suddenly life becomes alert, then it goes away and you go to sleep again.”

Agreed. I argue in parallel fashion about the “life need” of philosophy.