Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 26 December 2008

Zen; an interpretation

I recently bought a copy of Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Douglas R.Hofstadter. In fact, I bought the 20th anniversary edition, which includes an overview that effectively explains in synopsis each chapter of the book. The author did this, apparently, because he felt that so many people misinterpreted his intentions. The book is not about Zen at all, as he states himself, yet it’s his simplistic and dismissive representation of Zen that has prompted me to write this post (not quite true - see below).

Naturally, I had heard of the book and its companion, I am a Strange Loop, which I understand expands on some aspects of this one. I have acquired a copy of that as well, though I’m yet to read it. I think I’ve come across this book at just the right time for me. If I had read it 20 years ago (actually, originally published 30 years ago), I would have struggled with it. But, as it is, I think I’m reading it at just the right time of my philosophical development, especially in regard to mathematical philosophy. The book, which is quite lengthy and comprehensive, explores the very areas of philosophy that I’m interested in.

But whilst everything he says about logic is both enlightening and refreshing, as well as scholarly, I disagree with his interpretation of Zen, which he seems to portray as the antithesis of logic. It’s like he uses Zen as a reference for a perspective of non-logic, so his interpretation is that Zen is a 'non-state' (he elaborates on this later in the book). But I don't think Zen is about logic at all - in fact, it's a state of mind. My own interpretation is that Zen represents a particular state of mind when one is intensely involved in some activity. Now the activity could be physical, like tennis or playing cricket, or driving a car; or it could be mental like writing a story or painting a portrait, or playing a musical instrument.

What they all have in common is that it is a mental state where one feels removed, like one is totally involved yet one is ‘not there’, as virtuoso violinist and amateur surfer, Richard Tognetti, once said (no, he's not a Zen Buddhist to my knowledge). So it is a contradictory sense, or, at the very least, paradoxical. My own take on this is that one’s ego is not involved yet one feels totally engaged. It requires one to be completely in the moment, and what I’ve found in this situation is that time disappears. Sportsmen call it being ‘in the zone’ and it’s something that most of us have experienced at some time or another.

So I can understand why Hofstadter may interpret Zen as the representation of ‘contradiction’; even though it implies he’s never experienced a Zen state, or, if he has, he calls it something else. It is contradictory in explanation but not in experience. (To be fair, as I got further into the book, Hofstadter reveals that he knows a lot more about Zen than I first thought.)

Godel, Escher, Bach is an extraordinary and brilliant book, and I don’t wish to take anything away from Hofstadter’s achievement. He’s in another league to me altogether (after all, he has a PhD in solid state physics). For a start, he gives the best exposition of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem I've read, using a number of metaphors and allegorical dialogues, including one with Zen koans.

On the subject of Zen, I’m not a good practitioner, but I don’t try to be. From what I’ve read on Zen, it ideally requires ‘unattachment’, which also includes unattachment to goals and dreams. But without goals and dreams, what do people live for? So it seems contradictory to life, if one takes it literally. But, as a state of mind for when one is involved in an intense, challenging yet rewarding activity, it makes perfect sense. By the way, one only experiences a reward in this sense, when one is challenged. That’s why the most frustrating things in life are also the most rewarding. When one realises that, then one can achieve a sense of perspective as well as purpose. (I make a similar point in one of my earliest posts, The Meaning of Life, Aug.07.)

P.S. For all you pedants, 'unattachment' is not a 'proper' word (should be detachment) but in this context, detachment gives the wrong connotation. Unattachment means exactly that.

Addendum: I would challenge anyone to read Hofstadter's book without being forced to view things differently that they previously took for granted. I'm currently about one third through the book, and I am sure I will write another post on it when I'm finished.

Footnote: Daisetz Suzuki is the best writer on Zen I've read (in English). In particular, Zen and Japanese Culture (originally published 1959; my copy, 1973).

Addendum 2: I know, I keep adding to this when I should write another post, but my blog is not so much a journal as a collection of essays. On page 387 (Penguin 20th Anniversary Edition) Hofstadter quotes Escher: "While drawing I sometimes feel as if I were a spiritualist medium, controlled by the creatures I am conjuring up." I suspect many artists have felt this way, including myself when writing, and this is what I mean when I say the ego is not engaged. In fact, I have used this exact same description of my own writing on occasion. Australian actress, Kerry Armstrong, once made the point that acting doesn't involve the ego at all, quite the contrary, and I would make the same point about creating characters in fiction. So Hofstadter has described what I consider to be a Zen state of mind, by quoting Escher, but without realising it apparently.

For a more edifying discussion of Hofstadter's book, see the next post: Artificial Intelligence & Consciousness.

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