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.