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The Nature Of Beings Essay, Research Paper

The Nature of Beings and Their Not Being

The western way of living and more generally, the way westerners think and behave, in the twentieth century appears to have little or no connection to the east and eastern philosophies, but in fact America has been more influenced in these factors by the east than almost any other region. A society s way of life is governed, to an extent, by the current theories and philosophies of that time period, and so to analyze a society s outlook, an analysis of the philosophies of the time is essential. Current philosophy is descendant mainly of pragmatism and existentialism, both of which owe its own past to every other philosophy that has come before it. However, philosophies can be looked at individually within spheres of thought without losing the meaning of any individual philosophy.

Late in the nineteenth century, Charles Peirce wrote How to Make our Ideas Clear, intending it to be a formula for making ordinary thought more scientific. The book was ignored until later in the beginning of the twentieth century, William James interpreted the book s ideas as a philosophy capable of resolving metaphysical and religious dilemmas, and saw it as both a theory of meaning and a theory of truth. The conclusion reached by James was that there can be no difference anywhere that doesn t make a difference elsewhere. To understand what James means with this philosophy, the phrase God exists can be tested for pragmatic meaning. If certain people believed that God existed, they would conceive of the world very differently from those that believed God did not exist. However, there are still others besides these two groups whose conceptions would be identical in practice whether the believed in God or not. For them, the proposition that God exists and God does not exist would mean the same thing. For people who find themselves somewhere between these two extremes, the proposition God exists means On Sunday, I put on nice clothes and go to church. This is because for them, engaging in this activity is the only practical outcome of their belief (and as Peirce said, a belief is just a rule for action). The theory of truth evidenced in this phrase can only be applied to those for whom the distinction between God s existence and non-existence is meaningful. According to James, the empirical evidence is equally indecisive for or against God s existence. About this and similar cases, James said, Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual ground. James went on to say that this would put the people into a state of paranoic fear vis- -vis the rest of their experiences. Therefore, for the group of people, God exists is true, and for the second group, it is false (Palmer 279-281).

The evolution of and the retaliation to pragmatism, existentialism, was primarily founded by Jean-Paul Sartre. Although it is more of a shared attitude than a school of thought, it can nevertheless be roughly defined by saying that existence precedes essence. This is the thesis that there is no human nature that precedes our presence in the world, and all humans individually create humanity at every moment through their free acts. The thought processes involved in existentialism therefore are unique to each person, and not simply a set of rules and beliefs that make up a philosophy, as is the case with most belief systems. Because of this ambiguity, existentialism is harder to pin down than pragmatism, which is precisely what makes it existentialism. In Zen aesthetics there is also a clear parallel to this phenomenology. When, following Kierkegaard, existentialists speak of the need to leap from one state of awareness commitment to another, higher, state they are saying essentially precisely what the Zen masters have always said (Palmer 383-384).

Both of these philosophies, through analytical dissection, can be linked back to the philosophies presented in Zen Buddhism, however opposite the two may seem. Zen is elusive, and difficult to approach for comparison purposes. The best definition is no definition at all, and as D. T. Suzuki says, from afar it looks so approachable, but as soon as you come near it you see it even further away from you than before. A common theme in Zen Buddhism is The way to ascend unto God is to descend into one s self. Kierkegaard, a forerunner of existentialism, presented a similar theory, and though the final end to this descent is different, the means are the same. Both Zen aesthetics and Kierkegaard recognized that this journey is different for every person, thus there can be no path, and consequently no teachers. This can be directly linked to the pragmatic ideals of self-truths, that is, the idea of truths being subjective to the perceiver instead of objective as truths are commonly thought of. This is also seen heavily in existentialism, as is very nearly the very basis of its theories of there being no existence but what we make for ourselves (Suzuki Zen Buddhism 43).

Although the average American does not follow these western philosophies directly, or is even aware of the philosophies existence in most cases, their life is still heavily influenced by these two main theories of existence, and consequently, the ideas of Zen, and their behavior is directly linked to them.

The most obvious influence is in religion. As Zen can be both a way of life and a religion, it can therefore easily influence other religions. The links between Christianity and Buddhism are present throughout the Bible, although not readily presented to the casual reader. The idea of Buddhist faith has three levels, admiration, aspiring, and conviction, and a parallel is seen in the Christianity through first, a practitioners devotion to and admiration for Jesus from reading the Bible, second, the aspiration to attain the full perfection of the divine nature, or union with God, and lastly, with this sense of aspiration, a deep conviction that it is possible to perfect such a state of being (The Dalai Lama).

Religion of individuals is also being influenced by Zen Buddhist beliefs in a time when the Dali Lama is gaining more and more recognition since the award of his 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, becoming a symbol of nonviolence and a meditative philosophy of existence. In an increasingly secular and scientific age, Buddhist beliefs have become the perfect way to satisfy the spiritual hunger of people living now. Even many believers in a Christian religion agree that you can take the good parts of Buddhism and it s beliefs and apply them to their own lives (Veenker).

Just as apparent, but more applicable to every day living is the theory of feng shui, literally wind and water . At its essence, feng shui describes the natural flow of these elements along the path with the least resistance, and is based upon a simple truth: all life is interrelated and dynamically changing (Figure 1). An architectural theory of placement, feng shui is evolved from the eastern idea of tai chi and the ideas of Chinese Ch an such as harmony with one s surroundings, and is becoming more and more prevalent in western society (Bramble).

Movies also show their link to Zen Buddhism, evidenced through films such as Star Wars, in their belief in a life giving force that surrounds us, penetrates us, binds the galaxy together, just as the Dharma is vast and subtle. D. T. Suzuki relates the story of a sword master s state of mind during a duel: I as a swordsman see no opponent confronting me . . . every movement he makes as well as every thought he conceives are felt as if they were all my own and I intuitively know when and how to strike him. (Suzuki Japanese Culture) This is related to Obi-Wan s message to Luke during his training, to let go your conscious self and act on instinct. (Figures 2 and 3, Lucas)

Western music also shows many of the influenced traits of Zen belief systems, such as the practice of Zen Guitar, a method of practicing and releasing the inner song that is in all living things. Zen Guitar teaches the same path as Zen, in that one starts a beginner with a white belt, progresses from white to black by practice, attains a black belt through responsibility towards oneself, progresses again from black belt to white belt through the knowledge of the self, and finally returns to the white belt with the way of the Zen Guitar in their hearts. Many musicians playing styles are one and the same with the styles of Zen Guitar, and many hold the same beliefs as a Zen Guitarist would, such as Jimi Hendrix, Brian Eno, Carlos Santana, Les Paul, and B. B. King (Figure 4, Sudo 23, 34, 79, 83, 143).

Radiohead in its recent musical endeavors approaches more and more a state of Zen enlightenment, shown with the song Paranoid Android, a song about a seemingly simple person living a simple life. Although a simple life, it lacks a certain quality for him, and begins to drive away the calm, serene feelings of his life in order to replace them with a burning hatred for everyone. This is easily led into a state of paranoia that instills feelings of insubstantiality in his life and all he has worked for, and eventually is set off into an explosion of emotion, breaks down, and is suddenly replaced with the calm serene bliss he has been searching for. This represents the man s enlightenment after having fallen away from the world and its impermanence. This bliss does not last however, and suddenly is realized to mean that he is only one step closer to enlightenment. The stress of this and the world is unbearable and the man realizes that he will never be complete and tears out the last bits of hair he has. The man then calmly goes to sleep just to wake up for a new day, repeating the same ordeal. This represents the rebirth of sentient beings in the Buddhist belief system, and also the unconscious realization of the suffering present in all life, with no way to avoid it, a realization that is imperative for enlightenment (Figure 5).

Even exercise techniques show their roots in Zen Buddhism, with the practice of Body Dynamics.

Body Dynamics is similar to, and draws inspiration from Zen Buddhism, in which the practical quest for self-knowledge and development seems, above all other oriental teachings, most acceptable to the American pragmatic temperament.

Although the average American does not practice Body Dynamics, the theories presented within, such as deep breathing and striving for bodily perfection in health, are also presented in many similar activities and even in apparently unrelated activities (Enelow 26-27).

Short fiction of the twentieth century has been influenced heavily by the way of the Zen, seen very prominently in J. D. Salinger s novels and short stories, such as Catcher in the Rye. Salinger s characters act as a kind of teacher, while the reader is the student, a relationship that is integral in Zen Buddhism. When the character is confronted with a moral dilemma, the reader is given the answer to the problem through a koan, thus allowing the reader to reach their next stage of enlightenment. Holden, in the final chapters of Catcher in the Rye, appears to have reached enlightenment and is at peace with the world, and then finishes with a simple that s all I m going to tell you and proceeds to ask the kind of questions which have plagued him throughout the book. Apparently having returned to square one of his existence, he is in fact in tune with the universe and is relating the cycle of the Buddhist lifestyle, to return to the beginnings of our creation and the beginnings of our minds. The story, just like a koan, has the purpose of stimulating our minds into another plane of existence as we are compelled to find the answer with non-logic (Salinger 213-214).

Zen is even present in the scientific world, where one would think it least likely to show up, as related by Robert Pirsig:

If that law of gravity existed, I honestly don t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still common sense to believe that it existed.

This analysis of the words of Newton s law of gravity shows the inherent nature of Zen that is present in all things. The more something appears to lack Zen qualities, the more Zen qualities it actually has, primarily because it is thought to lack them, for it is the nature of not being (Pirsig 30-31).

Poetry itself is the very life breath of Zen, as it s form and non-form are the heart of Zen, the ability to live freely without rules or constraints, and yet still stay within the confines of a language to express the feelings of the author. Truong Dinh s poetry is most apparent in it s Zen nature with haikus such as

come is to be gone

be gone is to become new

new is to be old (Figure 6)

This shows the cyclic nature of our existence in Zen beliefs, and consequently shows the influence of Zen on our lives, with just three simple lines (Dinh).

Thus, in our lives and in our thoughts, Zen is present everywhere. To attempt to deny its presence is simply to reinforce it even more, and to attempt to seek it only serves to make it more elusive. Only when one is in harmony with the universe, having attained enlightenment, and realizes they interconnectedness of all living things and the universe can one cease to be and begin to truly be.


Figure 1

In a home like this one, where

air flows in the front door and

straight out the back, create a

buffer such as a wall screen or

an arrangement of plants or

trees to balance the air


Feng shui


Figure 2

YODA: And well you should not. For my ally in the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we…(Yoda pinches Luke’s shoulder)…not this crude matter. (a sweeping gesture) You must feel the Force around you. (gesturing) Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere! Yes, even between this land and that ship!


Figure 3

BEN: I suggest you try it again, Luke.

Ben places a large helmet on Luke’s head which covers his eyes.

BEN: This time, let go your conscious self and act on instinct.

LUKE: (laughing) With the blast shield down, I can’t even see. How am

I supposed to fight?

BEN: Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.


Figure 4

My own thing is in my head. I hear sounds and if I don t get them together nobody else will. Jimi Hendrix

A nonmusician is thrilled to be doing music and is quite happy to sit there and plunk one note all day. And is very alert to the effect of that. Nonmusicians really listen sometimes, because that s the only thing available to them. Brian Eno

If [you re] going to sweep the floor, sweep it better than anybody in town. And if you re going to play the guitar, really, really, really get in it, and don t be jivin . Carlos Santana

My chops were not as fast . . . [but] I just leaned more on what was in my mind than what was in my chops. I learned a long time ago that one note can go a long way if it s the right one, and it will probably whip the guy with twenty notes. Les Paul

Playing the guitar is like telling the truth you never have to worry about repeating the same [lie] if you told the truth. You don t have is pretend, or cover up. If someone asks you again, you don t have to think about it or worry about it . . . because there it is. It s you B. B. King


Figure 5

Please could you stop the noise, I’m trying to get some rest

From all the unborn chicken voices in my head

What’s that…? (I may be paranoid, but not an android)

What’s that…? (I may be paranoid, but not an android)

When I am king, you will be first against the wall

With your opinion which is of no consequence at all

What’s that…? (I may be paranoid, but no android)

What’s that…? (I may be paranoid, but no android)

Ambition makes you look pretty ugly

Kicking and squealing gucci little piggy

You don’t remember

You don’t remember

Why don’t you remember my name?

Off with his head, man

Off with his head, man

Why don’t you remember my name?

I guess he does….

Rain down, rain down

Come on rain down on me

From a great height

From a great height… height…

Rain down, rain down

Come on rain down on me

From a great height

From a great height… height…

Rain down, rain down

Come on rain down on me

That’s it, sir

You’re leaving

The crackle of pigskin

The dust and the screaming

The yuppies networking

The panic, the vomit

The panic, the vomit

God loves his children, God loves his children, yeah!


Figure 6

Haiku of the soul


come is to be gone

be gone is to become new

new is to be old


morning blooming up

birds leaving nest – preying on

sunrise smiling out


Works Cited

Bramble, Cate. Online Posting. 1 Feb. 2001

Dinh, Truong. Online Posting. 1 Dec. 2000

Enelow, Gertrude. Body Dynamics. New York: Information Incorporated, 1960.

Palmer, Donald. Looking at Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made

Lighter. California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1994.

Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.

New York: Bantam Books, 1974.

Salinger, J. D. Catcher in the Rye. Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company, 1945.

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. Dir. Irvin Kershner, With Mark Hamill,

Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, and Anthony Daniels.

Lucasfilms Ltd., 1980.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Dir. George Lucas, With Mark Hamill, Harrison

Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, and Anthony Daniels.

Lucasfilms Ltd., 1977.

Sudo, Philip Toshio. Zen Guitar. New York: Fireside, 1997.

Suzuki, D. T. An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. New York: Grove Press, 1964.

- – -. Zen and Japanese Culture. New Jersey: Princeton University Pr, 1970.

The Dalai Lama. The Karma of the Gospel. Newsweek 27 Mar. 2000: 56.

Veenker, Jody. Spirituality Without Religion. Christianity Today 6 Dec. 1999: 34-35.

Yorke, Thom. Paranoid Android. Capitol Records, Inc., 413006, 1997.


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