Zen Is a Homo Sapien Conceit

Andrei Marks · November 7, 2010

I think that I’ve squarely rejected Zen. Or at least, I’m definitely leaning in that direction.

What I mean is that I reject the promise and the premise of Zen: that it enables one to become fully immersed in the reality of the present, free from any distorting perceptions or  attachments. I have no doubt that the years upon years of zazen and other related practices have a tangible, positive effect on people’s lives. What I doubt is that those things lead to any greater participation in a reality free of human misconceptions.

Put another way, Zen practice is sometimes described as a stripping away: a stripping away of your desires, a stripping away of your ego, a stripping away of the limitations imposed on our being by the default human brain. But while this might be an accurate description of what the process feels like (that through the practice you achieve a truer perception of reality), I don’t think that is necessarily what’s happening.

The alternative hypothesis, and this certainly isn’t an original creation of mine, is that through the practice of zazen you are simply building up an alternative perception of the world. You  may be stripping away mental habits or prior neurological settings, but ultimately the Zen experience is anchored in the limitations and capabilities of the several pounds of meat found inside our skulls. Of course, that hypothesis requires strong empirical evidence, but there is already evidence showing the very empirically measurable effects of Zen practice. And I suppose that the seeds of my own concern were planted as I learned more about exactly how much of the Zen experience (the increased attention, the physical sensation of kensho, the ability to dissolve the myriad stressors of life) had neurological and biochemical foundations. In other words, the Zen experience is intimately tied to being human, and intimately tied to the organization and functioning of our brain.

The implication that unsettled me was the notion that, given the dependence of Zen on our neurological constitution, it may be the case that there are people, who because of their own  unique brain structure or biochemistry, are shut off from full participation in the Zen pursuit. And beyond that, if there are alternative methods of arranging  organic or inorganic matter to create sentience, the minds created or discovered may also be incapable in participating in the Zen endeavor.

Zen is a homo sapien conceit. And for “normal” homo sapiens at that.

Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. It simply means that, where I used to regard Zen as both a means and an end in itself, I now find that it’s simply another mode of perception, rather than a more truthful perception of universe in which we dwell. It’s not something I could devote my life to for its own sake, as I once thought I could. And I am most critical of anyone who offers explanations of Zen solely in the language of its own internal rules and logic, when scientific observation is slowly revealing how the process actually works in practice.

You know, this is all a digression from what I really wanted to talk about.

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