One of the biggest problems with Zen and why it could never serve as a worldwide religion is it leaves undefined the word ‘right,’ meaning correct. The Noble Eightfold Path directs us to employ ‘rightness’ or ‘correctness’ in all the things we do and think on an everyday basis, yet leaves these terms open to interpretation by the individual. It would appear then that the most evil and wrong headed people on the planet could rightfully claim themselves to be Zen Buddhist practitioners like myself. And I would have to concede the argument! Yes it is entirely possible, perhaps even likely that people like Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump are/were Zen practitioners! Zen is after all directed to eliminate suffering not in the world, not in our neighborhood, not in our own home or our relationships with other people, but in our own minds. You would never see Adolf Hitler or Donald Trump evince any outward signs that they are ‘suffering’ due to unmet desires. You would never, not in a million years, see those guys in a psychiatrist’s office trying to figure out why they feel so miserable!
It is plain that Zen is rather ineffectual insofar as the external world is concerned. For the external world, Zen can only act obliquely, through each individual practicing its principles according to some internal ‘compass’ or set of core values which define inside our brains and consciousness absolutely what is right, what is wrong, what is correct, what is incorrect, and by extension, what is good and what is evil.
In our society the sense of these things has always, or until recently anyway, been established and learned through our upbringing as children. In my own case, I learned these core values and principles from my parents, the churches my parents (or at least my mother!) made me attend at Sunday School, my public school and my teachers.
And role models were an important part of that too! For me it was Disney comic books and sports figures. I used to look forward to spending part of my allowance, a dime, to buy the latest Disney comic book and following the adventures of Scrooge McDuck, one of my favorites and who is still my idol today! Many of you might say Uncle Scrooge was not such a great role model for a child. But he taught me about thrift and how to manage money wisely as well as how to enjoy it. And I always looked forward to buying Tops bubble gum, which hopefully had the baseball card of Hank Aaron or Mickey Mantle, two of my favorite baseball idols. Tops bubble gum was undoubtedly the worst bubble gum ever made, so kids like me simply threw it away to get the card inside. For someone like me who had the good fortune to be raised in the way that I was, Zen has the power to not only fix myself, but the outside world too!
But it is easy to argue that today’s world simply does not provide children with the same benefits I enjoyed. Churches and mainstream religions like the ones I grew up with are arguably not as useful and relevant as they once were, at least insofar as providing families raising children with the tools and guidance they need to help their children grow up to become responsible adults. Some of the churches I grew up in are no longer even churches in the true sense. Rather they have become ‘activist’ centers linking Christian teachings with a modern social agenda that is simply foreign to me. And even the churches that have remained true to the values I learned as a child are not as well attended now due to the many distractions and competing demands for people’s time and attention.
And it is easy to argue that today’s public schools and our U.S. public education system in general have changed greatly over time. Public schools seem to have become immersed in politics and social agendas that have caused them to lose sight of the basic mission they had back in the time I grew up, which was simply to teach facts, not opinions about facts, to help children develop and use critical thinking skills in their everyday life, to enable them to become independent thinkers and learners able to read and to educate themselves!
It seems now that politicians have taken over what is left of the U.S. public school system, deciding and dictating what facts should be or not be taught in public schools. And it seems now that even the facts themselves are in dispute! How can this be?? Opinions certainly. But how can facts be in dispute? Yet they are! In the warped and nonsensical world we now live in, driven as it is by social media and its vast hordes of know nothing ‘influencers,’ supposedly intelligent and reasoned people cannot even agree on what is and what is not true!
And role models? Sports, music, movies, government? In many respects these folks are just not there for us anymore! Certainly not for our children! Or not my children anyway!
It would appear that I have, up to this point, gotten myself into this ‘Mad Max,’ ‘Blade Runner’ dystopian world from which there is no apparent escape. Without the churches, without the public schools, without societal role models, without honest and right (i.e., correct) thinking politicians and government officials, how in blazes am I going to be able to successfully raise and acculturate my children? Zen Buddhism is obviously NOT the answer. Without core values and principles it fails. What then IS the answer? OK, Hansen, you have only a couple of paragraphs left to fix the world. Your readers are about to bail, if they haven’t already!
We obviously have to go back much further in time and history to start re-building what is needed to raise a child. Where did all the stuff come from that raised me? Where did my core values come from? I assert that these came from the principles of Western civilization as generally elucidated by Aristotle and others of his time. Aristotle founded the principle of ethics in his great work Nicomachean Ethics. It outlines the science of the good for human life, which is the goal or end at which all our actions should aim. Deeply implicit in Aristotle’s descriptions are the notions of ethical behavior and character, referring to individual qualities and what should be expected from the individual. Aristotle’s work was written in 350 BCE and so preceded Christianity and the Bible by several hundred years.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle clearly sets out what is good character and what is not, what is ethical behavior and what is not. The reason we still know about Aristotle is because his ideas were so powerful that they have naturally percolated through the birth of Christianity, Islam, European civilization and countless empires come and gone since then. Aristotle described the need to provide some sort of stable, fair minded system of rules by which human beings could act out their lives, make business deals, barter and exchange property, provide their labor and obtain food and material necessary for life in some kind of orchestrated manner, a system of values and rules that everyone finds to be good and beneficial for themselves and everybody else, universally. Absent these rules, trust becomes impossible. Trust is the expectation that another person is going to act in a certain correct way in the future, provided that we do likewise. If I am dishonest, I have no right or reason to expect the counterparty to be any less so. It’s like a game of Monopoly. The game is fun and enjoyable for everyone as long as everyone in the game follows the rules of play agreed upon in advance and does so in a consistent manner. Otherwise the game becomes simply chaotic and unstable.
And this game analogy helps explain what is actually going on in our U.S. society right now. The whole system seems to have become unglued. Divisiveness and anger are everywhere now. Trust has evaporated, in our government, in our institutions, in our schools, in our churches. The situation has become so bad that many people feel our very democracy is now threatened. It seems lately that large masses of people have taken on a fundamentally different interpretation about what the basic rules of human society are and should be.
I would argue strongly that what has actually broken down in our country is ethical behavior and character, especially among our leaders in government. More importantly, the expectation of ethical behavior and character have likewise broken down, and that to me is a dangerous situation in need of urgent correction.
Now that you’ve read my article, your homework assignment is to read Nichomachean Ethics by Aristotle. When I was an independent study teacher I knew there was no way my students had the time or the patience to read 1000+ page literary works like Crime and Punishment. Even Spark Notes was too much for many of them, so I often resorted to the ‘Book a Minute’ web site which essentially digested these works down to only about one page. To my surprise the Book a Minute web site is still up there. Unfortunately it does not contain the Greek classics. The closest thing I could find for this article is The Simpsons and Philosophy, The D’oh! Of Homer. Using popular cartoon characters from The Simpsons, the authors juxtapose and reconcile these characters’ various behaviors with the guiding principles provided by philosophers such as Aristotle, Neitzshe, Kant, and others. The book is a hoot which I highly recommend.
2 thoughts on “The Problem with Zen”
Interesting and thought provoking article, Steve!
I’ve often thought about how it’s who we are and what we bring that then colors any interpretation of religion, philosophy, who our heroes become. And who we are so comes from our childhood experiences of what the world is like, what is safe, what is likely to happen to us, what we deserve, what we have to do to survive. And the”village” that it takes to raise a child has changed, to say the least. The neighborhood has become world wide. Feedback is not face to face and heart to heart. Leadership is seen as amassing followers and influencing. Values and traits such as kindness are classified as “soft”, less than. Right is determined by loudness. Divisiveness is encouraged. Self exploration is not. Darkness within us is not explored and named, and so the darkness seeps outside and colors everything. Internal suffering is not mined for its riches and depth. So suffering seeps out and permeates the world. Not acknowledging the darkness within causes it to be projected outside and onto the “other”. Books are influenced by the culture of their time and environment and interpreted by very human beings, each with our own private lenses and distortions. Heroes are created to satisfy the hunger for answers and direction, and sometimes with devastating results. Lilliputian wars abound.
People grasp for answers in desperation. Flashy leaders who doublespeak draw them in. And misinterpretation is rampant. Even Buddhism can be used as an escape rather than an exploration and acceptance.
Really interesting article, Steve! Clearly got me thinking this morning!
(My favorite hero, by the way, is still Mr. Rogers. )
OMG! Thank you Jo! Your words are precious! I’m basically just a simple engineer coming across and living through a train wreck which our U.S. society and certainly our U.S political system seems to have become lately. Being an engineer my mindset is always focused on underlying truth, finding causations for why things are the way they are. Only then can the design be improved so that the same disaster can be avoided in the future. So that is what led me all the way back to Aristotle. We as a country must select leaders who are ethical, who are trustworthy and who have character. Its that simple!