Albert Low was a Zen master based in Canada, who I had the honour of corresponding with. His essay reprinted here cuts through so many of the dilemmas we are paralysed by in the modern world.
“So, what is it then?” We were sitting on the top deck of a London double-decker bus peering at a cigarette “Um, a cigarette,” she offered. We had only known each other for a short while, although she was destined to be my wife. At that moment, though, she no doubt wondered what she had got into. That was 1950, well before cigarettes were linked so clearly with cancer and I usually had a cigarette between my fingers. “That’s the name we have given to it,” I said. “Beyond the name, what is it? For example, one could say it is something white. But, science tells us, whiteness is what it is not. Whiteness is the result of light waves that have been reflected by the cigarette. It’s similar with weight and smell. Weight comes from the pull of gravity. The smell comes from molecules that are no longer connected with it in any way.” I repeated, “So what is it in itself?” We both looked somewhat glumly at the cigarette. I had only just encountered the question, which was really the question “What is reality?” and I was fascinated by it. The fascination has persisted throughout my life.
“What is reality?” has not just been an intellectual question for me. Several experiences I have had have shown that what we call reality is provisional, tentative. Probably the first of these occurred when I was about seven or eight years old. I had two precognitive dreams in fairly quick succession. Although many of the questions that life has posed have been put to rest, how one can possibly foretell the future, not in some vague way, but with specific detail, has remained a mystery for me. Given that they were authentic, and I have no doubt in my own mind that they were, then precognitive dreams show that reality must be quite other than we normally believe.
One of the dreams was about a propelling pencil that my grandfather had given me. I lost the pencil. Then I had the dream. In the dream a ginger haired boy passed the pencil through the wire mesh of the fence that surrounded the school that I attended. I recognized the boy in the dream; he lived opposite the school. A few days later the boy with ginger hair who lived opposite the school passed the pencil to me through the wire mesh of the school fence. A writer, J.W.Dunne, an early aeronautical engineer, wrote several books on the subject of precognitive dreams. One was called An Experiment with Time in which he tries to account for them. He had a number of them himself and had collected examples of these dreams from other people. It was after reading that book that I really wondered about them.
Another experience, a pivotal one, has been at the origin of most of what I have thought about during the rest of my life. It occurred in 1957 when I was on a ranch in the northern Transvaal, in South Africa. I had gone there, with Jean and our young daughter, to study for a degree. I was studying with the University of South Africa by a correspondence course. We lived in a partially completed house with a thatched roof, without electricity, phone or cooking facilities, and we had no car. Jean cooked on an open fire in the courtyard surrounding the house. Our nearest neighbor was six miles away and the nearest town 12 miles distant, although there was a Poste Restante about six miles away. Mail for the surrounding area was delivered there, and it was open twice a week for people to collect mail. I went there each time it was open to pick up and drop off assignments and books, doing the 12-mile round trip on foot. The area was a semi desert and only tough grass and stunted trees could grow there. The ranch was located in a hollow surrounded on all sides by low hills, and a strange but peaceful silence pervaded the whole area. It was an ideal place for deep meditation.
I was studying philosophy and psychology as main subjects, and at the time of the experience I was studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Kant too had evidently been fascinated by the question ‘what is reality?’ and he broaches the subject in that book. He says that what we know is the phenomenal world and this is a mixture of mental categories and sense perceptions. The categories act as a kind of mould that determines the shape, so to say, of our experience. But, he says, a noumenal world lies beyond the phenomenal world. The noumenal world moreover cannot be known. It is not simply unknown, but unknowable. The cigarette that I see is a collection of sense perceptions: whiteness, acrid smell, light weight and so on, molded by categories of time, space, causation and unity. But beyond this world that I perceive lies the noumenal world.
What he said resonated with me. The two most common philosophical answers to the question ‘What is it?’ are naive realism and idealism, and I felt that both were unsatisfactory. Naive realism denies any kind of mystery. A cigarette, a naïve realist says, is a cigarette and all questioning of that fact comes from an overwrought mind. Naïve realism is the common sense view of things. If we see a bus coming toward us, we step out of its way as fast as we can. The idealist says that all that we can know of the cigarette is what we know of it. This may seem tautological but it is not really so. For the naive realist the world is there and then I see it. For the idealist the seeing comes first and what I see is contingent. Both of these views are logically irrefutable and mutually exclusive. Now Kant comes along with a third view. His categories acknowledge the part played by the subject, and the sense perceptions acknowledge the part played by the object. But they both ‘come out of’ the noumenal world.
That the noumenal world is neither a sense perception nor a category means that it cannot be known. This created a problem for me that could be roughly stated as, ‘How is it possible to talk about what cannot be known?’ This is not quite the problem and it could also be stated, ‘How is it possible to know what cannot be known,’ or even, ‘How do we know we do not know.’ I am vague about the question because, in a way, it just cannot be formulated. In Zen Buddhism this same question became stylized into ‘What is Buddha?’ or ‘Why did Bodhidharma (the first Zen Patriarch) come to the West?’ The question was formalized in this way because, although very real, it is beyond the reach of the conceptual mind, and comes out of the nature of human existence itself.
I wandered around in something of a daze locked into this question that could not really be formulated, and so could not be answered, or at least could not be answered conceptually in a clear and distinct fashion. Suddenly everything became clear, in a moment of lightning insight. The nearest that I can come to saying what was revealed is that I am at the center and at the periphery of the world at the same time. How this related to my original puzzlement was not at the time either clear or important. For several months afterwards I lived in a clarity and lack of concern, even though I was stricken by tick bite fever, and was harassed by a number of other difficulties, not the least of which was finding a job. As luck would have it the onset of the illness coincided with our decision to return to Johannesburg. In spite of this attack of tick bite fever, and of the difficulty in finding work that I had after I recovered, my sense of freedom and clarity persisted.
Since that moment of clarity I have been trying to communicate the import of what I saw. I have only very recently, forty-five years later, seen the connection between the way I formulated the insight: ‘me-as-center/me-as-periphery’ and the Kantian account of the noumenon. However what I saw on that ranch revolutionized my whole way of thinking and it eventually drove me to practice Zen.
I will try to elaborate on what I saw that day, but must warn you that the exposition may not be easy to follow. The main difficulty comes from the fact that what I want to talk about lies upstream of consciousness. Indeed I am firmly convinced through my own experience and by the teaching of Buddhism, that what we call ‘I’ and ‘consciousness’ have evolved as buffers, so to speak, against its implications. This means that it is pre-verbal. It is also prior to logic. One of the main outcomes of this experience is that I have had to evolve a new logic to talk about it and its consequences. I call this logic the logic of ambiguity. Another difficulty in talking about this experience is that our civilization has almost lost sight of the importance of the dynamic center. Some writers, such as Rudolph Arnheim, on art, Zuckerkandl on music, Jung on psychology, and above all Mircea Eliade on mythology, have recognized its importance but in a limited way.
Let me start by talking about the dynamic center as indeed ‘conscious’ life begins with it. I put the word ‘conscious’ in parenthesis as I use it provisionally for the moment. I will need to refine my vocabulary as we go on. Each sentient being is a dynamic center, a viewpoint. This means that you, the reader, are a viewpoint. If you were to be on an ocean liner far out to sea, or were in the midst of the prairies, you would understand immediately what I mean by saying also that you are a dynamic center. It would seem as though the whole world were a vast plate and you were at the center of this plate.
A soccer match can illustrate the difference between a dynamic center and a geometric center. The geometric center is marked on the field and is at the center of a central circle, which is equidistant from the two goals. This geometric center is fixed. The dynamic center is the ball. The center of gravity of the game is always in the ball. When the ball goes out of play a certain kind of tension leaves the field, which only returns when the ball is back in play. The dynamic center therefore moves around the field and a field of power surrounds the ball, which diminishes as one moves away from the ball.
When I say that you are at the center of the sphere, however, I am only giving half the story. The other half shows itself most clearly when you are with another person, particularly if you are also looking her or him in the eyes. Now, instead of being simply at the center of the world looking out at it, you are also looked at by another center of the world to which you are peripheral. In other words, you are simultaneously at the center and at the periphery.
Most people, under normal circumstances, find that they get somewhat tense if they look another in the eyes. Good manners dictate that one does not stare at another, but rather that one looks into his or her eyes and then looks away, then back again and so on. Sometimes one is even forbidden to look into the other’s eyes. For example, when I was at boot camp as a sailor in the British navy the petty officer would yell, “Don’t eyeball me sailor!” if one inadvertently looked him in the eye. This is done because the one who looks is in the position of power and the petty officer knew that he alone must have the power. Sometimes a contest will arise between people in which one tries to stare down the other and so determine who is the most powerful. Boxers for example will lock eyes while touching gloves before a fight begins, and the fight may well be determined at that moment. Macho men will often wear sunglasses, even though the sun is absent, because in this way they can look, but not be looked at in the eye. What all this illustrates is that only one dynamic center is possible at a time. If two dynamic centers arise, and one will not yield to the other, then tension and even a fight will follow.
This encounter with another simply illustrates what I mean by me-as-center/me-as-periphery. My tension is not caused by the existence of the other, but is triggered by him. He triggers the tension, which lies dormant within me, a tension that arises because ‘me,’ the viewpoint, is divided in itself: me-as-center/me-as-periphery. This means that the original conflict is not between him and me, but within me, the viewpoint itself. The viewpoint is at the very source of my entry into the world, and so this schism or wound is at the very heart of my being. The viewpoint is the center, but the viewpoint sees itself as the center and in this way it is at the periphery of itself. This is often referred to as awareness of awareness, which, as most people know, is the basis of consciousness. The ancients depicted this as the oroboros, a snake that swallows its own tail. However, the situation is more complicated than this picture will allow as it cannot be determined which is the head and which the tail of the snake.
Is there any evidence to support what I am saying? I think that all kinds of evidence exists. For example, many different organisms– caterpillars, moths, frogs, and insects, fish — have false staring eyes “painted” on their bodies. These false eyes are perceived as threatening by would be predators, and this gives the organism a greater chance of surviving. However the eyes themselves have no power; they are simply patches of color in the shape of an eye. The power is derived from the conflict within the predator. Staring eyes are a cliché in horror movies and are used to evoke terror. The camera will suddenly switch to the staring eyes of a doll or a cat or a blind man. This will cause the audience to experience a thrill of horror, although the ‘eyes’ are no more than shadows thrown onto a screen. Again they just awaken the schism dormant upstream of the conscious mind.
Because they do not create the fear but only trigger it, the eyes do not necessarily have to be physically present. You can have the feeling that another is watching you even though you cannot see another. You may have this feeling when alone in a strange house at night, a feeling that is often accompanied by frissons of fear. This ‘feeling’ of another being present is a very well known mystical phenomenon and many accounts of it are available. Perhaps one of the most famous is Saul’s encounter with Christ on the way to Damascus. Other accounts are given of people having a near death experience during which they ‘meet’ a being of light, which, depending on their religion they might call Christ, Buddha, Krishna or even God.
Frank Tipler, a physicist, suggests that computers will one day be perceived as being alive. He gives the following criteria by which you will tell if a machine is alive, and in doing so he follows the lead of Alan Turing, one of the early pioneers of the computer. He says, “if you talk to the machine – really talk to it, carry on a conversation with it just as you would with another normal human [sic] being – then the machine is intelligent. If after interacting for years with the machine it acts as if it has a personality, has consciousness, (and a conscience), then it really does.” But of course any young child could have told him that. The young girl nurses her doll, talks to it, feeds it and for her it is alive. One only has to remember the cartoon characters Calvin and Hobbes. But no sane adult will agree with the child. Is the child then mad? No, no more mad than Tipler. In both cases the other that they encounter is not the machine or the doll but the other half of ‘me-as-center/me-as-periphery.’
All of this suggests that the other is not ‘out there,’ but the other half, so to say, of ‘me.’ I am not suggesting for a moment that the other is a product of my imagination or consciousness or anything like that. You and me come into existence at the same time; neither is dependent upon the other, both are equally ‘real,’ but neither is dependent upon being ‘something’ — a body, soul or spirit — to exist. Many people have difficulty with this idea because they are convinced that they are an isolated ‘something’ in a world that is simply a collection of somethings. Many go further to believe that they are simply the body and all that happens — imagination, thought, feeling and so on — are but movements of matter. Others believe that they are a unique, independent soul. If any of these hear that the other is but the other half of the self then they immediately construe it to mean that the other is simply a product of my imagination and that I am condemning everyone to some kind of solipsistic isolation. On the contrary, what I am saying is a refutation of solipsism.
Another objection that may be raised is that looking another in the eyes, or the encounter with the other in a mystical encounter, does not necessarily create tension, but, on the contrary, may generate powerful feelings of love. Everyone knows that looking into the eyes of the one whom one loves arouses the feeling of love. Many love songs tell us about this. Furthermore the mystical presence of the other often brings very powerful feelings of love, feelings that are much more intense than the secular love that we feel for another human being.
This means that the context within which the ‘encounter’ occurs is important. The same situation in two different contexts can provoke two entirely different reactions. But then is it not well known that love can turn easily into hate and hate into love? Not unusually, a mystic, after a period of intense ecstatic communion with the other, falls into deep anguish. The 5th century mystic of Ireland, St Anthony is an example of this.
At the time I had the experience I was not able to make sense of it in the way that I have written above. I knew at the deepest level that what I had seen into was of immense importance but it has only been after years of reflection and an intense meditation practice that it has come to be conceptually meaningful.
The next step in the evolution of my thinking came about seven years later. By this time I was living with my family in Ontario, Canada. We had left South Africa in 1963 because of the political situation. This was the time of the Sharpeville massacre and the treason trials and the trials of Nelson Mandela when he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. In Canada I was working for a Utility company in Southwest Ontario and had the responsibility to set up wage scales for the Company. In order to get ready for the task I read up on the latest literature about the subject and came across the work of Elliot Jacques.
Jacques was originally from Montreal and had graduated from McGill as a MD. He had gone on to Harvard and obtained a doctorate in social science and then went to England to work with the Freudian analyst, Melanie Klein. After the 39-45 war he joined the Tavistock Institute and was part of a team that researched ways to ease the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy. He went to the Glacier Metal Industry and worked with the CEO, Wilfred Brown, who had been first made CEO at the age of` 33. The result of this partnership was quite remarkable. Brown was eventually made a peer of the realm for his contribution to British industry. The work that Jacques and Brown did attracted so much attention that in order to cope with it they set up the Glacier Institute of Management, which eventually became internationally famous.
I discovered that Jacques and Brown were to conduct a seminar at Illinois University and attended the seminar together with my boss and another VP. During the seminar I had what one might call a psychological subterranean explosion. On the surface nothing seemed to have changed, but then I found that I was thinking quite differently about a company, what a company is, as well as about other things that had puzzled me. For the next nine months I struggled to make sense of this. Eventually I sent what I had written to J.G.Bennet and he published a synopsis of it under the title of Systematics of a Business organization, in a journal called Systematics that he published at his Institute at Coombe Springs, England. This was later expanded and became the basis of my book “Zen and Creative Management.”
Bennett was quite a remarkable man. He spoke many languages. He was a philosopher and a mathematician. He was also a student of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff. The Institute at Coombe Springs was originally dedicated to teaching Gurdjieff’s methods and thoughts, but Bennett extended the scope of the Institute later in his life. I had first encountered Gurdjieff’s work in 1949 when I read In Search Of the Miraculous written by P.D.Ouspensky. The work of these three men has influenced me very profoundly. The part that is particularly germane to what I am saying now is Gurdjieff’s teaching of the ‘cosmos’ and eneagram, and Bennett’s adaptation of this in Systematics, which he wrote about extensively in vol. 3 of his work that he called The Dramatic Universe.
Another writer whose work I have admired was Arthur Koestler. I had read his book The Act of Creation not long before going to Illinois. At Jacques’ seminar, Koestler’s definition of the act of creation, Jacques definition of work, Bennett’s Systematics and my own insight that we are the center and periphery simultaneously suddenly coalesced in my mind, although, as I have said, it took awhile before the result of this coalescence could be articulated.
I cannot give a full account of all that this implied. The books that I have written since, with the exception of An Invitation to practice Zen, are dedicated to clarifying the implications of this. What came to me was not simply a new view on the organization of a company but an insight into the nature and process of life itself. I saw particularly that creativity was basic to life, but it has taken years for me to grasp what this means.
The bare bones of what was revealed are the following. Jacques defined work as the exercise of discretion within limits in order to produce a result. Koestler said that creativity arises when a single situation or idea is perceived in ‘two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference. I saw that Jacques’ definition of work falls within Koestler’s definition of creativity. Jacques said that the most basic limits are cost and quality. Thus on the one hand quality must be the highest possible, but the costs must be kept as low as possible. The two limits are incompatible. But Jacques’ definition of work also transformed my understanding of creativity, because it shows that creativity always occurs within limits; it is not simply an arbitrary happening.
At a deeper level still we can see, using the same insight, that our life itself is an on going creative process. The two most basic incompatible frames of reference of Koestler’s definition of creativity are me-as-center/me-as-periphery. These are also the limits within which subsequent creativity will occur. Because each of us is an individual, that which cannot be divided, each of us is a single force that arises in these two incompatible frames of reference. No entity is involved. The individual, me, is a viewpoint, something that is happening, not something that ‘is.’ Individuality is also not ‘something,’ and later I came to see that individuality comes out of a basic ‘dynamic unity.’ This means that each of us is creativity, a symphony that is unfolding, a creation in process. If we prefer to use Jacques’ definition of work, then we are work in process; the limits are the same incompatible frames of reference, me-as-center/me-as-periphery. But what is the product or result that is being created or produced by this work?
Let me put what I have said in a slightly different way. As an individual I am single; as a viewpoint I am divided against myself. I am one yet two. The Sufis call this the unoambus. All our joys and agonies arise from this impossibility for the following reason. I pointed out that when two men look each other in the eye a contest is likely to break out about who is the dynamic center, who has the position of power. If they are equally matched and if neither can give way to the other, then the contest is likely to escalate into a fight. The fight could be a fight to mutual destruction. In the divided viewpoint two equally matched centers arise, neither of which can give way to the other because both are ‘me.’ Me, the center, is the same me that is periphery. But, in that they are both me, which me is the center and which periphery? This is as though you were the actor on the stage and a member of the audience at the same time. The upshot is that me is in contest with me for dominance. This leads to a vicious circle and the various emotions arise out of this vicious circle.
We are all aware of what this means. We become anxious. We then get anxious about being anxious. This builds up until we begin to panic because we are so anxious and then we panic because we are panicking. Or we are angry. We get angry about being angry. This builds up until we are in a rage about being angry and then in a rage about being in a rage. The same cycle can be found to exist for depression and for joy. The emotion comes from me separating myself from myself. We have the expression “I was beside myself with anger, or anxiety or fear” and so on.
An opposite cycle builds up with love. In love we yield the center to the other, while the other yields the center to me. This encourages me to yield further, encouraging the other to yield further and so the love increases in intensity. Whereas the first cycle leads to the feeling of me being swallowed by me, in love the feeling is of me becoming one with me. Mystical states, the feeling of a beloved being present and of a loving light, or a being of light as it is also called, being present can be understood in this way.
A moment ago I said that we are work in process and then I asked what is the product or result created or produced by this work? Just after the Jacques seminar I saw that a product is an idea in a form with a demand. This perception itself was a creative leap.
At that time management by objectives was the managerial mantra, and it seemed to me that this was very much management by pie in the sky. If work really was the exercise of discretion within limits to produce a result, the result is a product. This meant that each role in the company was there to produce a specific product or number of products that would be in demand by other parts of the company and eventually by the company product. This also meant that the way roles interacted within a company could be clearly defined according to the product of a role and its relation to that part of the company that needed the product. This offered a new way of looking at a company, which among other things would supercede the old staff-line way of seeing a company.
But it also offered an answer to the question, “What is being created by the work in process that I call my life?”
Before I explain what I mean by this let me repeat, creativity arises when a single idea brings about a resolution of the tension inherent in two incompatible frames of reference. The resolution takes the form of a new unity. Perhaps the best illustration of the tension being resolved in a creative act is given in humor, because we are all familiar with the explosion of laughter that often accompanies a joke. The following joke gives an example of what I mean:
Two hunters were out hunting and one of them suddenly collapsed. The other, fearing his friend had died, took out his cellphone and, in a panic, called 911. The operator, wanting to get some control over the situation said, “Look, please calm down. Just make sure that your friend is indeed dead.” There was silence on the line for a few minutes. The operator heard a shot and then the caller said, “Right, what’s next?”
“Just make sure that your friend is indeed dead” can be understood in two entirely different and incompatible ways. As each way has equal call on us we are faced with two incompatible frames of reference in which we have to find a single understanding. In a joke the tension is released in laughter. Many doctors recognize the curative power of laughter because the release may not simply be the release of the tension induced by the two incompatible statements, but the release could be of tension induced at a much deeper level, the level of me-as-center/me-as-periphery. This tension in the extreme can be felt as terror, horror, uncontrollable rage and so on. Most frequently however the tension is controlled and we feel it as a grumbling sense of dissatisfaction, remote emotional pain, a feeling that something valuable escapes us.
The control that I speak of is maintained by the ‘product’ that arises from the creative tension generated by the basic wound. We call the product that is created the ‘self,’ ‘personality,’ ‘experience,’ ‘I’ and so on. Furthermore, with the aid of language, consciousness evolves, and the threat from the basic schism is controlled even more. This is why I said earlier that ‘I’ and ‘consciousness’ are buffers protecting us from anguish. But they are also creations.
Nevertheless the threat, although under control, remains. Periodically the stability of the ego is shaken and anxiety, anger, depression or fear asserts itself again. Buddha said that life is suffering and the word he used for suffering was duhkha, dualism, twoness.
Me-as center /me-as-periphery can therefore be understood not only as the cause of suffering but also as the basis for the creativity of life. One can see how far life is from being a mechanical process, and how far organisms, including human beings, are from being simply machines. One can see that life is essentially an ongoing creative process and organisms themselves are essentially creativity.
One aspect of the product ‘I’, or what is known pejoratively as ‘ego,’ must be mentioned because it plays such a dominant role in our lives. Each viewpoint sees itself as unique, special, apart and superior. The famous saying that comes from Yorkshire, England, sums it up well. “All the world’s a bit queer except thee and me. But sometimes I’m not too sure about thee.” Evidence for saying that each viewpoint sees itself as unique abounds. Nationalism, competition in industry, in sports, in fashions, in academia, as well as the need to be the first or the only one are examples of what I mean. The Guinness book of records tells of the extent to which we will go to be the first in something, unique in some way. That periodically we come to the brink of destroying the world shows how important it is for each of us to feel that he or she is unique, the only one. The reason for this is obvious. We are individual, One. We suffer because we are divided against ourselves. We seek to overcome the suffering by discovering a new unity, uniqueness.
That I am unique is not enough. I must be known to be unique by others. In other words the product must have a demand, it must be linked into a wider context, which in a company is called a market. We look for praise, acknowledgment, and recognition. We seek after certificates, honors, degrees, medals, and rank. We also invest this uniqueness in a flag, a country, another person, an ideology, or what have you, and then claim that country, flag, ideology and even ‘the Fuhrer’ to be ‘mine.’
I met Jacques and Brown at Illinois in the spring of 1965 and for the following year I was struggling with what I had seen into. It was during this year that I wrote The Systematics of a Business Organization and that I started talking to the management of the company about these ideas and trying to find some way to use them in practice. I received great encouragement from the president of the company to whom I had given an outpouring of thoughts and ideas that lasted over an hour. I don’t think he understood much of what I was talking about, but he obviously was infected by my enthusiasm and encouraged me to talk to the rest of management. I was to do this for the next six years on and off with varying degrees of success.
In the autumn of 1966 Jean and I met the Japanese Zen master, Yasutani roshi and we began formal Zen training. I had been sitting in meditation regularly since the spring of 1964 and even before that had sat in a desultory fashion since 1961. The encounter with Yasutani had a dramatic effect on my health and on me. My blood pressure shot up and I was to suffer long periods of insomnia and my life became a constant struggle with anxiety. I had no doubt that in Yasutani and in the practice of Zen I had found what I had sought for years so ardently. I remember the sheer elation that I felt after attending a weekend workshop with Yasutani at a holiday resort that was rented north of Toronto. We followed this with a four-day retreat near Rochester, New York. We then became members of the Rochester Zen Center where we practiced for the next twenty years, and for three of these we were residents at the Center. Yet with my meeting with Yasutani it was as though a dam had burst and I had difficulty keeping everything in balance. Fortunately I had an understanding wife, three bright children and a challenging job, all of which anchored me solidly to the ground. I continued working on the ideas of organization and Jean and I did three hours of meditation a day: two in the morning and one in the evening.
Unfortunately, for him but also for me in a far less terrible way, the president of the company where I was working contracted Parkinson’s disease and was forced to retire. His replacement was a much younger man who was full of ideas on how to modernize the company. He did not agree with what I was doing and felt that it was more suited to a university and stopped all of the work I had undertaken. This was in 1972. I then decided that I would have to leave the business world and do something to promote Zen.
I started to write a book, although I did not feel that I had really resolved the practical issues of the theory. I had seen that the principal products that most people made within a company, certainly those at the supervisory and foreman levels and above, are decisions, and the company therefore is a network of decisions. I tried to come up with decision tables to show how this network was linked. This was a very crude idea but the new president did not give me the time to refine it into something more worthwhile. Had personal computers been as available as they are today, I think I could even so have made something worthwhile of the theory. We were working with IBM 360’s and it took two to three days to get documents processed, documents that these days would be processed in two to three seconds.
Another big obstacle to a decent theory of management and organization is that a company is not simply a decision making structure, which would be dependent upon a structure of perceived authority. It is also a power structure. Authority is exercised within limits and is a property of the role, whereas power has uncertain limits and is a property of the person exercising it. Whereas the decision structure is ultimately centered upon the company product, the power structure is centered on particular individuals and the relation that these have with other centers of power in the company. I could see that a whole new kind of research would have to be conducted to determine whether ways could be found to identify the power structure, and then perhaps to limit its deleterious effects on the decision structure.
On a retreat at Rochester in December of 1974 I came to awakening. This eliminated in one stroke the anxiety and oppression with which my life had been encumbered for so long. I had a freedom of spirit that could have hardly been imagined possible just days before the awakening. My understanding of course also underwent a further development.
One of the first things that became evident was that things are ‘empty.’ One metaphor that is used in Zen to explain what this means is the metaphor of the mirror. We see reflections in the mirror; we do not usually see the mirror. Analogously the world is the reflections; the mirror is the ‘knowing.’ We usually say, “The sun is shining” or “the house is over there,” or “the flowers are blooming.” In other words we make statements about the world and imply by those statements that the world is separate from us, ‘over there’ so to say. Science is based on this belief in the independence of the world. This is the objectivity of science as well as the objectivity of naïve realism.
However the statement ‘the sun is shining’ is a shorthand statement, and is really incomplete because we ignore the ‘mirror.’ The full statement should be ‘I know the sun is shining.’ ‘I know the flowers are blooming.’ And so on. The ‘I know’ is usually dropped because it is taken for granted, and it is taken for granted because the ‘I know’ is always the same, always constant. Earlier, when speaking of the naïve realist and the idealist, I said that as a naive realist I would believe that the world is there and then I see it. As an idealist I would believe that the seeing comes first and what I see is contingent. Both of these views are logically irrefutable and mutually exclusive. Using the language that I have now introduced I could say that for the naïve realist ‘[I know] the sun is shining’ would be ‘I know [the sun is shining]’ for the idealist. Each would claim that what is in the brackets is dependent upon what is not. In truth each part, the knowing and what is known, is equally important; neither is more dependent than the other. This means that contrary to scientific objectivity, knowing is as important as what is known. Knowing is not, in other words, derived from matter however complex the matter might be, because matter is what is known. Quantum mechanics acknowledges the equal importance of the observer and the observed, although a number of scientists object to this and feel that to admit that they have equal status indicates a shortcoming in the theory and not a fact that must be taken into account.
One could refer to a realm of being. This is the realm where everything is. Rocks, trees, fields, mountains, houses, roads, cars, all ‘are.’ However the realm of being is not the only realm. Another, equally important, realm is the realm of knowing. If the realm of being is the objective realm, the realm of knowing is the subjective realm. Science looks askance at subjectivity. Part of the reason for this dislike is that the word ‘subjective’ is ambiguous, as is the word ‘objective’. Subjectivity can mean colored by my desires, hopes, fears, prejudices and so on. But it can also mean belonging to the realm of knowing. Objectivity likewise can mean not colored by my hopes, fears, etc, or belonging to the realm of being.
Yet even so, to get some scientists to accept that the subjective and the objective have equal validity is very difficult. As I said, many physicists object to the notion that in quantum mechanics an observer is as essential as what is observed, and they still make great efforts to eliminate the need for the observer in the equation. In the field of evolution also the lengths that biologists go to to exclude knowing from the study is extraordinary. Neurologists who study the brain and mental processes perform the same mental gyrations. Many scientists now take it for granted that knowing, or what is more generally called the ‘mind,’ is the result of the complexity of matter. Researchers in the study of artificial intelligence also take for granted that once computers are sufficiently complex, ‘consciousness’ will emerge.
Not only do knowing and being have equal status, but also one cannot have the one without the other. Although one does not have to know something to be, or be something to know, nevertheless knowing and being are inseparable as knowing/being. In Zen this is summed up in a famous statement: “form is only emptiness /emptiness only form.” At the level of experience this means that the world and I are one. Zen master Bassui put it this way, “The universe and you are of the same root, you and every single thing are a unity. The gurgle of the stream and the sigh of the wind are the voices of the master. The green of pine, the white of snow, these are the colors of the master, the very one who lifts the hands, moves the legs, sees, hears. The One who grasps this directly without recourse to reason or intellection can be said to have some degree of inner realization.”
One wonders why scientists fight so hard and deny knowing, or subjectivity, at all costs. One only has to read the absurd excesses of so called evolutionary psychology to realize how this denial is pushing us away from scientific integrity into the realm of ideology.
The reason for all this, apart from the confusion about the word subjective, is that the realm of knowing and the realm of being are two incompatible realms. This means that according to the principle of the excluded middle of classical logic either knowing is dependent on being or being is dependent upon knowing; hence the two schools of philosophy, — idealism and realism.
At the time of awakening I had no inclination to subject emptiness and its implications to any kind of analysis. I was more aware of the freedom and openness that accompanied it. But later I wondered about emptiness and how it could be understood in Western terms.
In 1976 I finally left the company and, our three children having left home by then, Jean and I went to Rochester to live at the Zen Center. We stayed there for three years and lived a semi monastic life. However each person had a job to do and for most of the time I acted as editor to the Rochester journal, while Jean was in charge of the sewing room, making cushions and robes.
During my stay at Rochester I had another breakthrough. It occurred half way through a seven-day retreat. I saw all is One. I know how corny that sounds. All is One is a New Age mantra. It was also a mantra of the German Idealists and has a long history of effete philosophy. But for me it was not a philosophy. I looked at everything in wonder. Everything was it; everything was the one. I remembered reading Plotinus saying, “It is by the One that all beings are beings. (If) not a one, a thing is not. No army, no choir, no flock exists except that it be one. No house, even, or ship exists except as the one.” I knew that he and I were saying the same thing. But how to convey what I had seen?
It so happened that I was invited to give a talk at an art school in New York shortly after this breakthrough. At the time it was so obvious to me that I felt all that I had to do was say to people, “Everything is the One; all is one and One is all!” and they would immediately understand. I know that that may well sound naïve, but what I had to say was, and still is, so obvious, but so very important, that I tried to say it in various ways to a group of about fifty young and eager people. I could see that after a very short while I was losing them. They became restless; they started to look at one another. Those at the back started to creep away, and within an hour I had lost at least half my audience and thoroughly confused the other half. What I wanted to say is too obvious, too simple. Gradually I have come to realize that this is true of all that is worthwhile saying and I have grown to have great respect and admiration for the old Zen Masters with their mondos [dialogues] and koans. These are ingenious methods by which one is able to speak about the unspeakable, think about the unthinkable.
Once one sees that everything is the One, not in an abstract theoretical way but concretely and immediately, it becomes obvious that oneness is not simply what is left after all the other qualities have been drained away, it is not an empty concept but a dynamic power, or, rather, the dynamic power.
About 1980 I first began to feel that we had to find a way out of the limitations imposed by classical logic. I had read Korzybski’s book Science and Sanity a long time ago and had been aware of his objections to classical logic. He saw quite clearly that the map was not the territory, that the word is not the thing. He saw too what Bergson had seen: that things do not change; things are change. The principle of identity, A =A obscures this truth. It gives the appearance of there being static things – things that change into other things, and other things that cause the change
Classical logic refuses to recognize ambiguity, declaring it to be a failure of thought. Classical logic, dependent as it is upon clear and distinct ideas, demands that one datum has one concept: X is either A or not-A. However our thinking is plagued by dichotomies brought about by this either/or kind of thinking. ‘Knowing or being’ is the most basic of these dichotomies, with its better-known variant of ‘mind or body’. But some of the others that haunt our thinking are ‘nature or nurture,’ ‘structure or function,’ ‘reductionism or holism,’ ‘mechanism or vitalism,’
Before going on, let me be clear about what I mean by ‘ambiguity.’ I do not mean vague. Ambiguous is often used to mean unclear, vague, and not immediately obvious. For example, one is walking in a wood at night and ambiguous shapes and shadows surround one. I do not mean this kind of ambiguity. The word ambiguous is derived from the word ambi that means two: ambidextrous, ambivalent are two other uses of ambi.
Being and knowing are ambiguous. One could define knowing as that which is not being, and being as that which is not knowing. But if you do not have being you cannot have knowing; if you do not have knowing you cannot have being. The unity from which they are derived is the unknowable dynamic unity that I referred to above. Likewise me-as-center/me-as-periphery are ambiguous. The unity from which they are derived is the viewpoint ‘me’ and the viewpoint is dynamic unity in action.
The logic of ambiguity is the logic of creativity. Because classical logic cannot take account of creativity, it will necessarily follow that those for whom classical logic is the only possible logic will favor mechanism over vitalism. This tendency will be enhanced by another tendency that also follows from classical logic, and that is the tendency towards reductionism. Reductionism is a necessary consequence of the need for clear and distinct ideas, that is, one concept for one datum. If life is essentially creative, then as long as we only have classical logic we can never have an adequate scientific theory of living organisms and their evolution.
I am not rejecting classical logic, just saying it should not be regarded as the only possible logic. On the one hand modern technology, including the amazing advances that have been made recently in computer science and artificial intelligence, and, on the other, the long history of use of classical logic in philosophy, theology and science in general, give proof of its extraordinary heuristic value.
Science has many references to Unity or Oneness as a cohering principle. When Einstein said that God does not play dice, he was not, I believe referring to the God of the Catholic Church but to this principle of unity that pervades everything. The very word ‘universe’, whose etymology means ‘turning to the One’ is itself evidence of how deep this intuition of an all embracing unity is. The world’s religions and philosophies too abound with references to the One.
In addition to this ‘inclusive unity,’ is the exclusive unity of the law of identity. If the ultimate of the all-embracing unity is the Universe, then the ultimate of the exclusive unity is the dimensionless point or singularity. Both the inclusive and exclusive unity are the one. So which is the one? Again we encounter ambiguity.
Unity is unity, how can it possibly be ambiguous? This objection comes from those who believe that everything can in principle be explained and understood. Logically, and that of course means according to classical logic, Oneness cannot be two. But logic aside, existentially one cannot possibly be two. Although impossible, yet it is so. The creativity of unity explodes out of that very impossibility. Exclusive and inclusive unity are mutually exclusive and incompatible. The unity of which I speak is dynamic, vibrant and creative. Yet we are talking about unity and we see in this the original application of Koestler’s definition of creativity. One is the single idea, the exclusive one and the inclusive one are the two incompatible frames of reference. This seems like a variation of the old physics conundrum of what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object.
Inclusive Unity is he Unity of religion and mysticism; exclusive unity it the unity of classical logic, the exclusive unity of either/or, of this is this (A=A). The full rendition of the logic of ambiguity would be: there is an ambiguity, one face of which says there is no ambiguity; the other face says there is an ambiguity. The face of no ambiguity is not itself unambiguous. Put more succinctly: the logic of ambiguity has one face that is ambiguous in principle but unambiguous in expression; it has another face that is unambiguous in principle but ambiguous in expression. However, as a whole, the logic is one ambiguity in principle but two in expression.
I have traveled a long way since asking the question about the cigarette, through fifty years of doubt and sorrow, discovery and joy. Where have I arrived? We could change the wording of one of the koans and say, “If you call it a cigarette I will give you thirty blows of my stick; if you say that it is not a cigarette I will give you thirty blows of my stick. So what is it?” To say it is a cigarette is to take the realist stance; to say it is not a cigarette is to adopt the idealist stance.
But why the koan? Why do those who practice Zen work long years on koans? I worked for eight years before penetrating the first koan and another 12 years working on subsequent koans. By work I mean several hours a day in formal meditation and retreats each month of three, four and seven days. Even now, as a teacher, I still work on these koans, either with individuals in private audience, or in talks that I give on retreats that we have at Montreal.
Perhaps some clue is given by a commentary that a Zen master, Mumon, made on one particular koan. He said, “In order to practice Zen you must pass the barriers set up by the patriarchs.” The barriers of the patriarchs are the koans. He goes on, “ To reach subtle awakening you must cut off ordinary ways of thought.” The ordinary ways of thought are thinking logically in a linear way, and using reason and cause and effect. Another teacher said that one must think the unthinkable. When asked how one could do this, he said, “Without thinking.” That is without the use of concepts, ideas, memories, even without intuition. These ways are adequate when we can address a closed system, when we can define our terms, have clear and distinct ideas.
But what is this thinking without thought? This is the question to which all the koans, and Mumon in his commentary are calling us. To answer this question we must, as Mumon says, “Arouse our entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and its eighty four thousand pores; summon up a great mass of doubt and pour it into the koan day and night without ceasing. Question it day and night.” The thought without thought then becomes a question without form. By arousing ourselves in this way the whole body and mind become the question. With this we go beyond the conflicts of inside and out, yes and no, this and that and become simply the full and complete manifestation of dynamic unity.
One might think it overkill to ask the question, “What is a cigarette?” with that degree of intensity. However a Zen Master said that if you see through a speck of dust you see through the whole universe. The cigarette or the hand or stick or whatever are just the focus of the questioning. They are not what is important but the questioning itself. Mumon goes on to insist, “All the delusive and useless knowledge that you have collected up to the present — throw it away. After a period of time, this striving will come to fruition naturally, spontaneously giving way to a condition of internal and external unity.”
Let us remember that to say, “That is a cigarette,” is only half the truth. The full truth is “I know that this is a cigarette.” We also know that knowing and being are mutually exclusive. We normally overcome this problem by saying that knowing is ‘internal,’ the cigarette ‘external’ and everyone knows that these are mutually exclusive. Everyone ‘knows’ that we have a private life, and that the cigarette exists in the outer world. The scientist in the search for unity then says, ”Oh, so you think you have a mind and it is inside. I cannot find it when I look for it in your brain!” But of course the brain is what he knows. He cannot know the knowing in this way. The only way he can know the knowing is by deep meditation.
Mumon says that if you really apply yourself you can go beyond this dichotomy of inside and out. He says, “After a period of time, this striving will come to fruition naturally, spontaneously giving way to a condition of internal and external unity.” I have emphasized this last phrase because it is a key phrase. As I said just now, what we thought was an outside world and an inside world turns out to be one world, an inconceivable and indescribable world. He says, “You will know this, [one world] but for yourself only, like a dumb person who has had a dream.”
He then goes on to say, “Then suddenly it will all give way in an explosion and you will astonish the heavens and shake the earth. It will be as if you have seized the great sword of Kan-u. If you meet the Buddha you kill the Buddha; when you meet the patriarchs and masters you will kill the patriarchs and masters. On the brink of life and death you have the Great Freedom.” The freedom is the freedom from the dichotomies, from ‘it is’ and ‘it is not.’ If you held out a cigarette in front of me and asked “What is it?” I would take it in my hand and crush it into a thousand pieces, or even, if I still smoked, light it up and smoke it.
But as Mumon says, one must earn the right to do this. He says, “Every ounce of energy you have must be expended on [the question.] But if you do not give up on the way another Lamp of the Law will be lit.”
A monk on coming to awakening said,
The moon’s the same old moon,
The flowers are not different,
Yet now I see
I am the thingness of things