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reviewed by Sandy Dance
I started reading the introduction to this book, and was quickly put off by the authors statement in the introduction that Zen’s ancestral home is ancient Japan. It is well known that Zen’s home is China (not to mention Buddhism in general, whose home is India). From that point on I was looking for other egregious errors from this Zen neophyte who obviously knew nothing about it. But page by page, I was won over. It turned into a really enjoyable read, one that has a lot to offer. The author approaches Zen from a similar angle to my own position, namely a skeptical, science based one, one which at bottom emphasises the fact that the Self (and the self, a distinction made in the book) is an illusion.
The author introduces Zen to a Western audience by using the language of Western (and ancient Greek) philosophy, of how to lead a good life. He calls Zen an ethical theory in the sense of Aristotle. He then points out that Zen says that the Good Life is attained through not trying to attain the Good Life, the opposite of Aristotle. To quote: “Happiness is all about giving up, letting go and abandoning the causes of unhappiness; the idea – and that is all it is – that life is a story with an author, a hero and no ending”. Nice!
This leads him on to the underlying idea of Zen: that the ‘self’ is an illusion - there is no self. He presents scientific backing for this, for example the experiments of Libet, who showed that there is EEG activation some 300 milliseconds before one is ‘consciously’ aware that one has made a decision. This is one of several characteristics commonly ascribed to a ‘self’, or consciousness, that have been called into question recently by, for instance, Dan Dennett in “Consciousness Explained” and Susan Blackmore in “The Meme Machine”. Other questionable characteristics which these authors deal with, apart from consciousness being the decision maker as above, are temporal and spatial continuity, unambiguous temporal sequence, and clear distinction between what is inside vs outside consciousness. There is some confusion here in Zen Explained: the meanings of ‘self’, ‘ego’ and ‘consciousness’ seem to shift around somewhat. In the early part of the book he seems to bundle consciousness, ego and self in together, later on consciousness underpins the world!
The author then goes on to put forward his own theory of how the ‘self’ arose: that thoughts and intentions have ‘checksums’ (similar to unique labels) to verify to the system (the brain) that the thought is valid. Its a sort of ‘blackboard’, to use the computer science metaphor. The brain then confuses the causality of the process, coming to believe that the ‘checksum’ causes the thought, rather than the thought growing out of the brains circuits. Then the habit of ascribing agency to the causes of the events in life results in the invention of the agent ‘I’. This sounds plausible to me. It is similar in some ways to Blackmore saying that the self is a ‘memeplex’, and Douglas Hofstadter calling it a ‘strange loop’ (in his eponymous book).
In his next chapter (5) he tells stories of enlightenment, and draws distinctions between the concept as described in various traditions, ie, satori, kensho, wu, advaita and nirvana. He then explains the derivation of the word ‘zen’. He tries to relate enlightenment to experiences the reader might be familiar with, like ‘flow’, but also points out the huge difference between the two, ie, there is no ego in enlightenment.
In the middle portion of the book, he gives an excellent exposition of the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen, albeit betraying a predilection for the latter, calling Rinzai the way of frustration. He gives an excellent summary of traditional Buddhism, leading from the four noble truths to right livelihood, and one chapter deals with the practicalities of sitting zazen. Chapter 10 traces the history of Bodhidharma, leading on to how Zen is mystical not religious, calling it a “creed” rather than a religion. An interesting distinction.
The best chapter in my opinion is Chapter 11 in which he summarises some of the important concepts in Taoism, relating these to Zen. Actually it is stronger than that, he says that Zen is Taoism. I found this really interesting, especially since one of the attractive things about Zen for me is the experience of oneness with nature; this emphasis on nature in Zen he says is from Taoism.
But then in the following chapter 12 he comes a cropper. Here he relates Zen to quantum mechanics, making the claim that the Copenhagen Interpretation implies that consciousness is necessary for wave functions to collapse, thus effectively making consciousness necessary for the existence of the world. I have a number of problems with this. Firstly, I am not convinced that this is an implication of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (although Roger Penrose would think it was). Secondly, I am of the opinion that the Many Worlds interpretation of QM is more realistic than Copenhagen - the mathematics is more consistent (no messy wave function collapses), see http://www.hedweb.com/manworld.htm. It is also in my opinion entirely consistent with Zen. Thirdly, in earlier chapters, the author appears to say that, along with Self and Ego, consciousness is an illusion, something that Dan Dennett would agree with. But in this chapter he implies that consciousness is at the heart of the world. Sorry, that doesn't sound Zen to me. Lastly, the author glowingly cites the Princeton Global Consciousness Project (http://noosphere.princeton.edu/), which rings alarm bells for me (and for skeptics, see http://skepdic.com/globalconsciousness.html).
This book is a worthy addition to the Zen library, a book with a somewhat unusual take on Zen, namely from a modern, scientifically literate perspective. I do have some quibbles, apart from those mentioned above, there are a large number of typos, at least in the digital copy I read. But overall, an illuminating and interesting read.