May 2000

Zen Explained

-- Explaining ''Zen'' scientifically through memetics,
from a Western, non-religious, scientific perspective --

Menno Rubingh (c) 2000   --   Last edit : 03/05/00

This text is still in editing phase, and offered here in this ``unfinished'' state to invite comments.


   This text aims to contribute towards a synthesis of Asiatic
   an Western philosophical systems, by explaining Zen from the belief
   system of a Western, non-religious scientist.  It is shown that Zen
   can be regarded as a method of self-improvement of an individual
   which stands completely outside of religious associations.  The
   religious associations which are often connected to Zen are shown
   to arise from purely logical, non-mysterious causes.

Introduction : What is Zen ?

''Zen'' is taken in this paper to denote the basic component of Zen-Buddhism, that is, the basic phenomenon that is left over when we take all religious and mystical frills out of Zen-Buddhism. [King][Suzuki]

Zen can be plausibly said to be more an anti-religion than a religion in the Western sense of the word. Religions, in the normal sense of the word, are belief systems which followers of the religion are expected to adopt without scientifically questioning things. Instead, the followers are expected to accept the elements of the belief system on faith and without proof in the scientific sense. This latter aspect is what makes a belief system into a religion.

Instead of expecting the follower to adopt a set of moral, ethical, social or behavioral rules as religions do, Zen goes the other way: it aims to destroy and take away beliefs in a person instead of adding new beliefs into a person after knocking out possible rival beliefs. A consequence of this is that Zen has no scripture (codified system of beliefs) which believers are expected to take into their brains as their operating system. Zen is the ''nothingness'' that is left when a person eliminates ''religious belief'' altogether.

In Zen, the way that is followed to ''make'' a person into a Zen person is to help him get rid of his religious beliefs. This contrasts to religions, where a person is made into a follower of the religion by brainwashing him into accepting the morals and patterns laid down inside the religion's scripture. (+)

(+)Nevertheless, we will see in section ... that it is possible to connect Zen with any kind of ''religion'', too [Suzuki].

A Zen person, then, is a person who has no religious beliefs. He does use models in order to make sense of the world and in order to enable him to act and live effectively, but he has entirely uncoupled the models he uses from any idea of final truth or of final moral rightness. He uses his models and thinks about the world in a way that is entirely uncoupled from any associations of ''moral rightness''.

This absence of moral connotations with ideas is what characterizes the thinking of a Zen person. He can think about things, and work with ideas and models, without being bogged down by automatic moral associations of these ideas and models.

Like philosophy, Zen is a mental ''trick'' that can only be learned when a person already has absorbed some elements of belief systems and some experience in living and thinking. When growing up, most of us tend to become strongly wedded to the ideas and moral and social precepts we absorb. Indeed, the strength with which people tend to become attached to regarding the basic elements in their belief systems as finally and unquestionally true, is astonishing. Nevertheless, as the new fields of memetics [refs] and belief engineering [refs] point out, all the thoughts and ideas in a person's mind are part of human *culture*. Their are not innate, genetically fixed things which somehow arise from within the mind itself; instead, all those ideas, models, and beliefs they are elements of the human culture which has slowly been invented and evolved over the centuries. Human history, indeed, is the study of how human cultures have grown and evolved and interacted over the centuries.

Despite the fact that all a person's ideas and beliefs are part of *culture*, a person strongly tends to adopt some ideas as his basic ''operating system''. This set of basic ideas is regarded as unquestionably true, and a person can become thoroughly confused and angry when something happens which forces him to question or change these basic beliefs. The basic set of beliefs of a person is that part of his beliefs which he is not easily willing to question.

We humans are animals who are also ''meme machines''. [memetics refs] What sets us humans apart from all other amimals is the fact that we have brains plus a set of peripheral I/O machinery (eyes, ears, mouth, hands) which enables us to exchange data coded as language with others, and to mull over and mutate and combine such language-coded data inside our brains. The ideas, or ''memes'', communicated between humans, called memes can be regarded as living a life of their own. Human brains are the most prominent medium in which memes live. (Other media are books, the internet, and any other artificial medium in which data is stored which can be interacted with by humans.)

Therefore, all ideas, beliefs and models in any person's brain are memes and are part of human culture. There is no inherent God-given truth in any meme in human culture. Even models and ideas which everybody on Earth regards as very much in accordance with the state of the world as can best be measured, still have no direct ''God-given'' link with any ''Truth''. Any Truth which a person associates with a given idea is an artefact of this person himself strongly believing things, instead of being a thing directly connected with the idea itself. The idea itself is only a piece of data, like string of letters and digits in a computer program.

Nevertheless, people tend to adopt some of those ideas/beliefs so deeply that they follow these beliefs entirely automatically. To a convinced Muslim who has grown up inside an Islamic country, the basic moral values of Islam are not things he questions; instead, it's precisely the other way around : he uses these basic beliefs as the basis for his reasoning, i.e., as his axioms. Similarly, a Western person, even if not brought up inside any religion, has absorbed the Western ''belief system'' so deeply that he unquestioningly uses the basic elements of the classical Greek-Roman / Christian belief system as axioms in his thinking. For example, he thinks in terms of ''good'' and ''bad'', in terms of ''justice'', is preoccupied by trying to discern what is ''just'' in the actions and behaviours of the people around him (and himself), generally has a hedonistic outlook on life which makes him try to attain a greater happiness and beauty, and automatically presupposes that all other people think in these same concepts, that it is ''right'' for a person to think in these concepts, and finds it strongly distasteful when a person does not strive for the things he regards as ''beatiful'', ''good'' and ''just''.

It is a shock to most Westerners to come into contact with Chinese or Japanese culture, in which the fundamental belief system of the people is thoroughly different. So different, in fact, that most Westerners tend to shut off mentally when coming into contact with Asiatic culture. The axioms of ''good/bad'', justice, and reaching forward towards greater beauty are not part of the basic belief system in Asiatic culture. Instead, Asiatic culture in Western eyes is thoroughly a-moral (disconnected from any consideration about ''good/bad'' or ''justice''. Some examples of this: [asia-refs][Suzuki]

I give these examples only to show the depth to which belief systems in people brought up in different cultures can indeed be fundamentally different. People from different cultures tend to ''think'' fundamentally differently in the sense that they relate everything they see and do to different models, and in the sense also that they use different axioms as the basis for their reasoning.

When growing up inside a culture, every human tends to adopt the basic belief system of his culture. Very many humans are all the time mulling over thoughts inside their brains with every action they take, or might take, or have taken. These thoughts are concerned with how these actions fit into the basic belief system. For example, people think about alternatives to actions which are slightly more ''just'', they mull over things they have done in the past which haunt them because they have acted ''unjustly'', they feel self-pity because of thinking they are being treated ''unjustly'' by others who ''should know better'', they are reviewing a lot the actions of other people they interact with on their ''goodness'' and ''justness'' and are thinking about how these others should have acted instead in a ''better'' way, they review loads of designs and plans for how the behaviours of other people ''should'' be changed in order to become more ''just'', and so on. Always, the thoughts are concerned with rationalizations forming a connection between on the one hand their basic belief system and on the other hand themselves. This is how the set of memes forming a person's basic belief system controls the actions of a person. This is precisely analogous to a set of computer programs controlling the behaviour of a computer. A person's basic belief system is the ''operating system'' of that person.

Very often, however, the operating system which a person uses does not feel comfortable to that person, and even makes him do things which are against the survival of his body (e.g. religious self-mutilation, working hugely overtime, patriotic self-sacrifice of a soldier in a national army, and so on). Very many people, on some level deep down, have a sense of being dragged on through life by some hard-to-define forces on which they have no control. These people often are not unwealthy, have good jobs, and have no apparent difficulties following a life-style according to what their culture sees as ''the proper thing to do''. The hard-to-pinpoint ''force'' dragging them on is, of course, their own beliefs.

Also, our own belief systems tend to cost us a lot of energy and fustration spent in all the time thinking and weighing of alternative actions, and tend to make us into people who are spending more time and energy in thinking and rationalizing about what is the ''right'' thing to do than that we actually harness directly to actions. In very many people, their own belief system plus their own mulling over of thoughts in the framework of this belief system, seems more to hamper them than to be of use to them.

For example, thoughts and rationalizations of how to behave in confrontation with other people who are perceived as being one's superiors or as being in a situation in which they in some way can hurt or control you, tend to take up almost all of the energy in a person forced into a confrontation (direct physical conflict situation) with such a ''superior''. What happens here is that one is using energies on constantly mulling over, revising, and re-thinking these thoughts without much action resulting from it, instead of succeeding in harnessing one's rational brain activity directly to one's actions in the conflict situation. This means that in such situations, one's belief system seems to be more to be hampering you than to be of use to you.

It is the aim of Zen to allow a person to ''punch trough'' the belief system which he has unquestioningly adopted, and to cut through the automatism in which we tend to lock ourselves into doing ever more rationaling and useless mulling over of thoughts in situations in which we feel it would have been better for us if we were capable of precisely knowing what to and to directly harness this knowledge to direct execution of an action.

Without being ''trapped'' in some sort of circumstance in which a person is forced to question his basic beliefs, most people are not aware that they do have such a basic belief system which they use unquestioningly. The more a person is unaware of this, the more painful and long-winded the process of ''punching though'' this belief system often is. People who are the most emphatic and violent in protesting that they do not have unexamined, automatic beliefs, are often the strongest and least-questioning and most automatic believers themselves.

Reaching the Zen state of mind is called by Buddism to reach ''enlightenment'' or (in Japanese) ''satori''. This is the state of mind where a person has stopped his automatic reaction of generating thoughts-upon-thoughts, has become aware that ALL his ideas, models and beliefs are just ''memes'' and have no inherent truth in them, and has gained some degree of training and comfortableness with operating in this state of mind. This state of mind once attained is truly liberating. It entirely takes away the feeling of being dragged on against one's own control by external unexplained forces. Instead, the Zen-enlightened person has truly a feeling of being master of himself.

This phenomenon of a person feeling enlightened and freed after eliminating his religious beliefs, I will call the ''Zen phenomenon''. It is remarkable in the ''Zen phenomenon'' that the gain of becoming a significantly more effective person is gained not through adding on things, but instead though taking away, though elimination. Zen is elimination of the self-limiting and self-obstructing effects of having thoughts and models and having a belief system at all.

It is obviously inevitable in every person to use thoughts, ideas, and models; indeed, all of human culture and achievement consists most basically of ideas and thoughts. Human culture is unthinkable without ideas. Zen is emphatically not a plea to do away with thoughts, ideas, philosophy, or science, nor does Zen aim to do away with ''belief systems'' in general. Indeed, every Zen person very well recognizes that belief systems and philosophy can be and is very useful.

What Zen does aim to achieve, is to take away the UNWANTED side-effects of belief systems. The Zen person knows how to use a (his) belief system to his advantage, and he knows how to stop being carried away by his own belief system into actions or expenditure of energy when he feels that this is not in his own benefit.

Also a remarkable effect in the ''Zen phenomenon'' is that becoming ''Zen-aware'' does not produce any feeling or experience of ''loss'' in a person. The elimination of the automatisms instead produces a sense of having gained something very valuable, and adds on to every aspect of the ideas, thoughts, models and belief systems one had before becoming Zen-aware.

(Start of brainsorned outline for the missing continued part of this essay)

Master of himself he REMAINS whatever the difficult external situation. --> makes ''super-being'' of person. Not longer automaticallt dragged on by memes. Not longer ''memoid'' [Lynch], knows to detect thought contagions. This is called in Zen : ''acting from the belly (hara)'' -- which is only a figure-of-speech to denote bringing one's ideas/thoughts in accordance with the survival & well-being of one's body. ''Tune'' one's ideas / belief system to maximalize the ''hara'' well-being.

Some stuff about the ''quietness''. And about ''seeing the basic conflicts (''forces'') of life in everything''. One looks upon everything through/via this ''black hole'' of ''nothingness''. All one's reactions to things can then come from across this bkack hole. This ensures that one's reaction to everything is always the best one for one's ''hara'' given the possibilities enabled to a person by his knowledge and training. ''Mirror'' tactic -- let other's forces run themselves dead. [Refer to King on samurai stuff]. This is how a Zen person deals effortlessly with ''conflict situations''.

Zen person has disconnected his own ''presence'' from his surrounings. His is the utimate sang-froid.

Also: from-external-p-of-view seeming ''moral'' behaviour of Zen person: discipline, disinterestedness, perfection in everything, always quiet & balanced behaviour, always listening, always open, not-present and no ego. --> Mistaken as ''holy'' by non-Zen-people. Remarkable that taking away all belief in morals has this effect of producing behaviour that is automatically ''moral'' viewed from almost any major current religion.

==> from all that : Explain religious connotations with it.




[memetics -- Dawkins]

[memetics -- Blackmore]

[memetics -- Dennett]

[Lynch] Aaron Lynch, _Thought Contagion_

[asia-refs] ( Books on Japan from Op.Bibl DH ) ( ''China'' book Op.Bibl. Delft )

Acknowledgments :

Transhumanist, Tlon, Transcedo, and Extropians mailing lists, discussions with Christophe Delriviere, Dalibor den Otter, George Overmeire, and the other people on the mentioned mailing lists, have been helpful and stimulating to me in researching, studying and writing this.