Something to believe in?

If I see a book called: “Why the world doesn’t seem to make sense,” I have to buy it.  The title implies that the author thinks the world does make sense. It just doesn’t seem to. Or does it? That looks like a zen paradox and yes, Steve Hagen is a zen master and dharma heir of Katagiri roshi. On page 3 he writes:

“Many people sense that disaster is pending, that quality has left, that life itself is becoming devoid of meaning.”

I smiled about the quality thing. Everyone who has travelled the world with “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” in their backpacks must know what I mean. I’ve kept my yellowed 1981 paperback edition even though I can’t even drive a motorcycle.

By Ian Armstrong (originally posted to Flickr as Russian motor bike) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (]

By Ian Armstrong (originally posted to Flickr as Russian motor bike) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (

Let’s get serious and move on to chapter one, called “belief”. It starts off with a brilliant quote from Shunryu Suzuki:

“I have discovered that it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in nothing.”

sadly, the second bit spoils it for me:

“That is, we have to believe in something which has no form and no color – something which exists before all forms and colors appear.”

I have a Jesuit friend who would happily agree with that and call the something “God”.

Hagen starts off by saying that we do not choose our beliefs. We can change them, but to do that we need awareness, not willpower. He points out that Einstein had trouble believing in an expanding universe, even though his own theory suggested it. He had to mathematically think his way around that problem until his beliefs changed.

Hagen says we must learn to see what is present in our experience rather than rely upon any belief whatsoever. We should be seeing instead of believing. Because our beliefs:

” …do not, and cannot, provide us with the solid ground we desire. Indeed, our beliefs are actually a source of anxiety.”

And because of that anxiety, we like to surround ourselves with people who share our beliefs. And to achieve that comfortable feeling, we try to convert other people. So far, the book makes a lot of sense to me.

In Hagen’s view, the trouble with the way we see things is that we turn them into a concept. So much so, that intelligent people are called intelligent because they are very good at conceptualising. And, consequently, not very good at zen. From this point on I’ve felt a bit disappointed by the book. Because it looks like zen masters firmly believe (if I may use that word) that it would be possible to look at the world without conceptualising. With new eyes, as it were. Like a child.

Wikipedia mentions an awareness without contributions from the conceptualising cortex as something that could happen. It would take place solely in the brain stem. Using only this part of the brain would put us on par with a lamprey eel. A jawless fish, a bit of a scary creature, just about the most primitive one with a backbone. This is it’s mouth:

This type of awareness amounts to having a feeling that you cannot label or describe, because there can only be words when the cortex gets involved. I find it hard to imagine this to be the experience that we are looking for in zen. What would a flower look like if we could only see it this way?

The buddha held up a flower and Mahakasyapa smiled. Fine, but what was going on in Mahakasyapa’s brain?

The trend in cognitive neuroscience seems to be that an ever growing part of our awareness is constructed in the brain. We don’t see with our eyes, we register two different, hazy, upside-down, ever changing images on the retina and our brain fills in the gaps. I think these mechanisms are essential for our survival as humans, even if they rob us of the kind of awareness we share with a lamprey. Or maybe with a pre-verbal child.

By Симилак (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Симилак (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I have been looking for a book on zen, written by somebody who is totally up to speed with the current scientific knowledge about our brains. Maybe that’s just because I’m a conceptualising no-hoper, but I would like to find it. If you ever come across that book, please let me know.

Comments are also very welcome!

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
This entry was posted in atheism, book review, science, zen and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Something to believe in?

  1. duncommutin says:

    Touching on a subject close to my heart here, livelysceptic. The philosophical puzzle of consciousness has long fascinated me – and the distinction between ‘conceptual’ and wordless awareness throws an interesting light on it. For example, consciousness is intimately connected with memory. Why do we have so few, if any, memories of the wordless stage of our existence as infants? Are our memories exclusively ‘conceptual’?

    And a point on the reference to Einstein: as Hagen says, he introduced a cosmological constant to allow for a static universe, before the universe was found to be expanding, and subsequently described this as the ‘biggest blunder of his life’. The irony is that, only in the last few years, it has been found that he was right about the existence of a cosmological constant.

    • Thank you for your comment! I wondered about the same thing: are our memories exclusively conceptual and is that why we have so few memories of very early childhood. In deep meditation, sometimes you do get to feel as if you’re somehow past the conceptual stage. And if I’ve had that kind of experience, I find I cannot talk about it. That might be the same thing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s