Breaking the mind of logic: Zen vs language

I’m currently working my way through Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, and have just been reading the chapter on Zen, chapter IX (“Mumon and Gödel”). In the preface to the 20th anniversary edition of GEB, Hofstadter expresses some exasperation at the way in which many people have assumed he is an advocate or adherent of Zen Buddhism. As he says at the start of chapter IX, his attitude towards Zen is far more ambivalent than that:

To me, Zen is intellectual quicksand – anarchy, darkness, meaninglessness, chaos. It is tantalizing and infuriating. And yet it is humorous, refreshing, enticing.

In chapter IX, Hofstadter discusses the Zen attitude that “words and truth are incompatible, or at least that no words can capture truth”. This is demonstrated through the Zen use of the kōan: brief, enigmatic parables or fables whose opaque and paradoxical nature is intended to “break the mind of logic”. He cites a number of examples of this, including the following:

Shuzan held out his short staff and said: “If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?”

Hofstadter argues that the purpose of kōans like this is “to combat the use of words”, to leave words “so deeply abused that one’s mind is practically left reeling, if one takes the kōans seriously”. The aim is to transcend dualism, “the conceptual division of the world into categories”. In order to achieve enlightenment by transcending dualism, it is necessary to break the power of words:

The use of words is inherently dualistic, since each word represents, quite obviously, a conceptual category. Therefore, a major part of Zen is the fight against reliance on words.

Hence the enemy of enlightenment is not logic, but “dualistic, verbal thinking”; and indeed perception itself:

As soon as you perceive an object, you draw a line between it and the rest of the world; you divide the world, artificially, into parts, and you thereby miss the Way.

Hence – to return to the kōan quoted above – by calling the short staff a short staff one opposes its reality, because doing so “gives the impression of capturing reality, whereas the surface has not even been scratched by such a statement”. However not to call it a short staff is to ignore a truth – part of the truth – about that short staff.

So we are led to the dilemma as expressed by the 13th century Zen monk, Mumon, in his commentary on the above kōan:

It cannot be expressed with words and it cannot be expressed without words.

In my next post, I’ll look at how Christians can respond to this dilemma. However, in the meantime, I think we need to recognise the force of Zen’s analysis of the limitations of language, even if we decide (as I believe we need to, and can) that its attempted dissolution of language, thought and perception is not the way to deal with it.

Zen’s approach (as described by Hofstadter) is reminiscent of postmodernism’s mistrust of language as a vehicle for truth, and in both cases the critique made of human language – that it divides and limits reality, that it embeds and perpetuates oppressive power-structures, and so on – has a great deal of validity. If we don’t appreciate this, we won’t appreciate the value of any escape-route that is provided from these dilemmas.

This entry was posted in Books, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Breaking the mind of logic: Zen vs language

  1. Phil Walker says:

    Shuzan held out his short staff and said: “If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality.”


    I mean, Huh? The story-teller himself calls it a short staff. It is a staff and it is short. It is a short staff. It is more than that, but not less.

  2. J Random Hermeneut says:

    Pseudo-Dionysian apophatic theology is Zen applied to discourse about God. Just wanted to throw that out there…

  3. Chris E says:

    I tend to slightly disagree, Zen isn’t apophatic for the same reasons, it’s not even necessarily aiming to be apophatic.

    The underlying presupposition is that there is a deep unity to everything, and so therefore attempting to describe involves – in part – a subjectivism, and of course if everything is one then anything that breaks that unity is evil.

  4. John H says:

    I suppose I should add as a disclaimer here that I know next to nothing about Zen. Have no idea whether Hofstadter is a reliable guide on what Zen is or what it says (or doesn’t say). However, what Hofstadter says interested me and sparked off one or two thoughts which I hope to expand on later today.

    Anyone who does know Zen: please bear with me. Though I’d be very happy to be corrected or to have my knowledge of the subject extended.

    Chris: Thanks for your comment. Would be interested in your response once I get round to my next post.

    Incidentally, I get to see the IP address of people who submit comments on this site, so I was amused to see that your comment originated from within the domain of Zen Internet (* If I call that your ISP, do I oppose its reality? And if I do not call it your ISP, do I ignore the fact? 😉

  5. Thomas says:

    As a lover of St Denis, I can’t agree with my good friend J Random. Denys has nothing to do with anything Zen-like.

    Now, if you hear the sound of Dionysius laughing on the wind, can you say you hear the laughter itself, or the wind alone bearing an echo of the laughter…

    Well, anyway…for St Dennis it is plenitude of being, fullness of life, that eludes speech – we are given the gift of words, yet must know always that Reality slips away, not because of a false dichotomy between It and Me, but because that Life in its fullness and erotic overflowing is too much even for the words we’re given to bear. In other words, God is Father Son and Holy Spirit, yes, and he ceases not to be so even as I confess that the words father, son, holy, spirit, do not quite grasp the fullness of that mystery; that they, in fact, strain and eventually fail under the weight of so full a mystery; that God, the font of all goodness and love, cannot be contained even by words like ‘goodness’ and ‘love’. So all speech is shot through with an apophatic, what? – I don’t have the words right now.

    In no way does this imply the need to have done with words, with perception, with embodiment and the subsequent reality of You and Me, God and Us. We don’t dissolve into the Divine Plenitude through the extinction of consciousness. We subsist in Christ through the Spirit, grasped rather than grasping, held rather than holding, knowing that our words are insufficient yet good.

    As for Zen – I don’t think it exists…but then again, that’s thinking…

  6. Phil Walker says:

    Am I going to get through this time? [The Filter is still a little too keen on me, I fear.]

    The story-teller describes the short staff as being a short staff himself, in order to make his point that you ought not to describe it as a short staff. It looks to me like one of those cartoons where a chap is sat on a branch of a tree, busily sawing it off at a point between himself and the trunk.

  7. Rick Ritchie says:

    If you call Hofstadter an advocate of Zen, you oppose his reality. If you do not call Hofstadter an advocate of Zen, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call him?

  8. Chris E says:

    Ellis Potter did a good introduction to Zen Buddhism that’s available from L’Abri, he’s also presented a lecture on various types of spirituality that contains a very brief overview of some of this material:

    Ellis is a former Zen Buddhist monk who came to faith through the Schaffaers.

  9. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Curiouser and curiouser

  10. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Moving beyond personality and language

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