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The marketplace of ideas: a semi-fictional caricature

Why this story?

The following is a story, part fictionalised, part caricatured, part autobiographical, about navigating conflicting beliefs and ideologies. I chose the marketplace as a metaphor; they can be places of much debate, haggling, exploration, sights, sounds and smells. They can be overwhelming, much like the sheer amount of knowledge and exchange in the world that we can access with the boon of books and the internet, and all that is yet to be discovered. This story is something of a sister piece to The Mire of Communication, capturing not so much strategies but the sensation one feels when communicating or encountering deep or controversial topics.

The marketplace, a caricature

Good morning friend! You seem to be a little lost there, moving along with the early risers on their way to market. Oh so you are heading there too? Forgive me, but I can tell by the meandering look of your eyes; you are new to these parts.

The marketplace of ideas can be quite a confronting place if you’re not prepared. Some of us like to think we’re prepared, but it is a rare few whose armour never receives a dent of doubt during the bartering. Don’t worry, I am not a roving hawker dispatched from the centre of commerce to pull in new prey. I am merely here to be your guide, should you wish it.

Thank you for graciously accepting my offer.

A couple of things before we head in: I wouldn’t advise carrying a lot of coins; there are thieves of course, but also some hawkers will barter until the sun falls and rises again, and it helps if you only have so much to give. Just stick close by my side. Let’s walk.

The streets are not heavily populated in this part of town. But the marketplace creeps up on you. Its presence is felt more and more as we pass through on our way to the main square. Hawkers have set up stalls on the way. An enthusiastic baker sells from home on the outskirts of the city centre. The odd person stops to buy a pastry, it’s rather tasty; it can sustain them until they get to the marketplace proper. There are beggars too, with their small white cups proffered, bodies prostrate to the passersby.

Now we’re coming up to Town Hall. The central marketplace is not far from here. This territory has been marked in recent years. The stall here is such a familiar sight they’ve practically purchased the cobblestones. I’d advise you to keep your head down, or up, to the side, anything that will—

“Do you care about the beggars on the street? Do you realise we all come to market with different amounts of money? This class system is faulty, of course, but we need to start somewhere. Start with this delicious pie!”

It’s too late, they’ve thrust their pies in our faces. Not literally, although that has been known to happen. Just walk away…Oh but you want to see what’s in the pie? Fair enough, go ahead.

The pie-seller pulls back for a moment, unused to the inspection. “It only has goods that are grown locally and ethically!”

You nod in approval, you hope that ethically and sustainably sourced products are the way of the future, but your appetite for the moment is lacking.

Come now, let’s head into the centre of the market. A street or two from Town Hall, around a corner and here we are on the main drag. All manner of sounds clamour for supremacy, seeking to conquer any small pocket of silence that bubbles to the surface. The rolling of carts, the offers of hawkers, the protests of buyers, the insistence of merchants, the clatter of goods landing in baskets, birds chirping, dogs baying—I tell you, you’d be hard pressed to find a louder place in all of town.

Better get moving, best not to be steamrolled.

To the left of us is a building with an ornate brick façade that recalls the architecture of the Romans. Out the front is a row of tables covered by awnings. At the front of the stall is a young man in a brown habit, a monk.

He notices your curious gaze and gestures to a series of pamphlets on the bench that separates him from the street. You note among their titles: “Holy marriage”, “Sin and God’s forgiveness.”

“Hello there, I’m Richard, what’s your name?” says the monk.

You introduce yourself.

“Feel free to take any of these, they’re free. It’s really quite noisy here, you can come inside to ask the Brothers any questions.” You miss a word or two, but catch his message and feel reassured by his gentle smile.

You feel a bump at your elbow. A man and a woman of have joined us. You notice gold crucifixes around their necks, but you can’t tell if they’re from the stall or from the street.

“Don’t listen to those leftie pie sellers,” the man says conspiratorially. “They want to destroy the traditional family. They hide behind their social justice, but really they all just want to attack and destroy us.”

“Honey, not all of them—“

“They need to stop all their mixed up relationships. Godless people. It’s the public schools! Spreading agendas left right and centre, full of sin! God won’t forgive them when—"

You notice the monk in brown raise his hand, the pamphlet on forgiveness in his hand, yet his words are drowned out by the crunching and rattling of a large cart that careers down the thoroughfare. You catch a glimpse of the words emblazoned on its side: “Human Rights Now!” Balancing atop are people shouting and waving flags.

We’re all transfixed for a moment but then we must leap out of the way, the wheels catch on a rut, the cart swings close, almost catching our feet. Flags fly overboard and rain down on our heads. You stumble away from the stall and fall to the ground as you attempt to dodge the unfortunate incident. Behind us, shouts and blame assail the cart from the man and the woman, joined by others in the street. The abuse is returned in kind from the cart-dwellers who roll on, wherever they may be going.

No serious injury, this is all par for the course in the marketplace, although admittedly not that common. Do you need any help? Too late, the monk has already rushed over to help you.

Ah but here is another assistant, a woman in a deep blue sari of swirling patterns. You rise with her help, nod to the monk, and turn away from the stall.

Good idea, let’s keep our pamphlet and move away from the scene. The woman takes us across the street and to a stall hiding in the shade of a large building with minarets. She slides behind her tables, gracefully, and offers cups of cool water. We appreciate the generous offer, yet have you forgotten why you’re here? The coins still clink in your pocket.

Almost sensing my thoughts, the woman begins her pitch.

“Here we offer zikr—the dance of the whirling dervishes. There are others who will tell you music is a sin, but do not listen to them! They are not true Muslims. An offering of money or food will suffice and we will repay you with a taste of that ocean of Love to which the Persian poet referred.”

You pause to consider her offer, and can hear the music from beyond, chanting and drumming and singing in a rhythm that vibrates with exaltation and loss of ego.

Thanking her for her offer, the water and help on the street, we take our leave.

We make our way further down the street. People rush about in all directions, anxious to make it on time for their meeting with the fortune teller, or to hear the musings and challenges of the Greek philosopher who resides beneath the stairs, or to see that new Avatar that has sprung up. Did God declare this Avatar? Or did he declare himself? We meander through the crowd.

The people rush about and from the throng emerges a man who falls into step with us. He looks like he once had a beard, but that it has since been transplanted to his sideburns.  

“Friend, it’s odd isn’t it, that all these hawkers seem to be related in some way. Sure enough, they are united in purpose, although their delivery differs—all are here for your money. No no, I’m not just saying it’s all about money, it’s about believers too, and conviction. Yet they are related in another way. Some start out their stalls as part of a larger store, but then they splinter off. They don’t like the sales tactics. They need to refine the product.”

“So if it’s not all about money, then what’s it about?” You ask him.

“Look over there, see those people crouching in the shade of the palm tree, scratching in the dirt, scratching at their arms? How do you think they got to be that way? Drugs. A refined product indeed. And who do you think gave it to them? A drug dealer who knows all too well to never go near the stuff. For the addict it’s about sensation, for the dealer it’s about power. Want to make people act in a certain way and reap the profits? Then provide the correct stimuli. That is all.”

“So it’s about power and control. What are you here to sell then?”

The man goes quiet and strokes his unwieldy sideburns, then he says, “Why, freedom of course.”

You are too smart for that I think. You know that in the marketplace, as in life, everything comes with a price. It may not be monetary, yet we must all make choices and sacrifices. Power certainly has a part to play, we are hierarchical creatures after all, but I think you have heard enough from the side-burns man. You bid him goodbye.

The flock of people has mostly dispersed and we have taken a few turns to a small square at the other end of the market. The coins still clink in your pocket. Will you spend any today after all? Ah but someone has caught your eye. A young lady sits at an easel with artworks spread out before her on the pavement.

As you stand and survey her pictures, exaggerated versions of hawkers and buyers, you see her beginning to sketch. Intrigued, you pretend to continue looking at the pictures, but what do you really want? Time for her to finish her drawing?

She’s quite the accomplished artist; in minutes she is finished! Your gazes meet, she hands you the image.

Oh that does look rather like you! She has exaggerated your nose, it is now longer, as if seeking to take in as many smells as possible. A nose perhaps bordering on the intrusive. Eyes that have narrowed under the creases of squinting. It seems a little, dare I say, rat-like. A hand rests on your head—scratching your hair in indecision, or is it anxiety, or amusement? A great artist leaves some interpretation in the eye of the beholder.

“If you like it, it’s one gold coin,” says the artist. “Or feel free to leave it with the others.”

You deliberate for a moment, miffed and yet pleasantly surprised by her portrayal. You deposit a coin in her hand.

The marketplace is open seven days a week, but I’d think that’s enough for one day, wouldn’t you?

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What the abyss of history teaches us about our development


What are the implications of historical anguish for how we educate and develop as people today?

This is a question I have been contemplating in light of my travels to places of deep historical suffering in Japan, and the conversations I had there with educators and peace workers.

I use the words “educate” and “develop” in a rather broad sense, and I believe they are bound together. The word “educate” derives from the word “educe”, which means to draw out or develop something that is potential. This can take place in a school system, but coming to full maturity is of course an ongoing process that transcends the school boundaries. It involves how we see ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, our relationships with those close to heart and those further away.

Whether it’s in a history class, or in reading or casual conversation, it’s easy to be detached from the episodes of suffering that have marked the intersecting and winding roads of history. Yet who’s to say if you’d even be in that class, or that conversation, had a different road been taken in history? Our actions, and how they help us grow and change, are always one step further on these paths. If we look behind our shoulder, will that help us determine the direction we’re heading in?

We know so little of what came before us. There are the multitudes of thoughts and actions never set to paper, and there are so many records that were destroyed or lost. And yet still we have a sense that history is a labyrinth in which some of us love to lose ourselves.

Then there are others who, faced with a question from the present day, trace its thread a few years back till all of a sudden they find themselves at the brink of the chasm of deep history, that which lies before the memory of everyone you’ve ever known. You innocently wondered how electricity charged your iPhone, then went all the way back to 1831 when Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction despite facing poverty and jealousy. Ok, but can’t we have more widespread wireless charging? Well, Nicola Tesla was onto wireless transfer of energy in 1897. Ok, maybe you can ignore the history for now and tend to something manageable, like Snapchat.

wanderer above the sea of fog
Wanderer above the sea of fog, Caspar David Friedrich

Journeys in Japan

In May and June of this year I visited a number of historical sites in Japan that emblematise not only the extreme suffering humans can visit upon one another, but also the enduring will of the human spirit to prosper from such incomprehensible lows. The greatest goods can sometimes flourish from the toughest trials, as Dante taught us in his journey through Hell to reach the vision of Heaven.  

These sites included the memorials to the atomic bomb victims in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the places where Christians were continually persecuted in Nagasaki prefecture.

Persecution of Christians

Roman Catholics began arriving in Japan in the 1540s with the missionary work of Jesuit Father St Francis Xavier, of Navarre (part of modern day Spain). The missionaries were met with relative success for the first few decades of their residence in Japan.

Yet distrust of colonial European powers, among other factors, eventually led to persecutions and bans on Christianity. In one such instance (1597), 26 Christians were rounded up and crucified outside Nagasaki. The youngest of them was a 12-year-old boy, St Louis Ibaraki, who continued singing toward Heaven even when he had an ear cut off.

The final ban was instituted by the shogun (military dictator) Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1614. The Tokugawa shogunate would rule Japan from 1600 till the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It was under this regime that thousands of Christians were forced to renounce their faith, or face martyrdom.

After this ban, it was assumed that the Christians dwindled away into oblivion. It was not until 1865 that the Hidden Christians were rediscovered. A group of 12-15 Japanese men, women and children of the Urakami district of Nagasaki assembled outside the newly built Oura Church, still with the ban of 1614 in effect. Three women approached the priest there, Fr Petitjean, telling him that “the heart of all those present is the same as yours.”

Oura Cathedral, Nagasaki
Oura Cathedral, Nagasaki

These Christians had persisted despite 250 years of isolation, and yet their suffering was to continue. The instability of the new Meiji government in the 1860s-1870s meant that there was still a distrust of foreign influence, and so the Christians were tortured and exiled to different parts of Japan.

Nagasaki bombing

And finally, on August 9, 1945, the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki only 500m from Urakami Cathedral, leaving only part of the facade intact (feature image depicts the wreckage). The courage, love and dedication of Nagasaki’s citizens shone out during the aftermath of the explosion. Dr Takashi Nagai, a medical doctor nursing an injury from the bomb, found the scorched remains of his newly married wife three days after the explosion, a charred rosary in her hands. For two months after the bombing he devoted himself to rescuing injured people at the hypocentre of the explosion.

burnt rosary beads in Nagasaki
Rosary beads of Midori Nagai, Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

In his speech to a gathering of scholars, scientists and representatives of the United Nations university in Hiroshima (1981), Saint Pope John Paul II reflected on the implications of the nuclear age and the tragedy of war:

The moral and political choice that faces us is that of putting all the resources of mind, science and culture at the service of peace and of the building up of a new society, a society that will succeed in eliminating the causes of fratricidal wars by generously pursuing the total progress of each individual and of all humanity. Of cοurse individuals and societies are always exposed to the passions of greed and hate; but, as far as within us lies, let us try effectively to correct the social situations and structures that cause injustice and conflict. (par.4)

The Pope’s injunction to tackle the root of evil within ourselves and society is a perennial message that continues to renew one’s efforts in the evolution of more harmonious human relationships. His words echo a strength of the Japanese people that I had been observing: the persistence of the Christians in Nagasaki despite torture, and Dr Nagai’s courage despite atomic ruin.

Hiroshima: history and peace education

I had heard in Nagasaki that despite the summer holidays extending into August, students still came in to school on the anniversary of the atomic bomb, to learn about peace and history. When I visited Hiroshima, I aimed to learn more about this relationship between history and education, and so I visited ANT-Hiroshima, an NGO devoted to peace-building, education, inter-cultural communication and memorialising the experience of atomic bomb survivors (hibakusha).

After arriving on the train from my Zen retreat, I made my way over the river, down some wide, pleasant streets, and up the elevator of an innocuous grey building to the office of ANT.

I rang the bell.

Ohayo gozaimusu!

I was greeted by a beaming Tomoko Watanabe, the generous, courageous and gentle lady who founded the organisation in 1989. In less than 3 minutes I’d been introduced to everyone in the office, was seated and provided with books, DVDs and Japanese tea and biscuits.

ANT Hiroshima
With staff at ANT Hiroshima, Tomoko Watanabe on the left

Tomoko-san informed me that, while ANT stands for Asian Network of Trust, she also chose the name because, while she was starting out very small like an ant, she hoped that over the years she could build something larger, with “lasting bonds.”

When the ANT staff took me out for okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), I learnt that peace education is also spread throughout the Japanese curriculum, but that there is a lot of emphasis on Japanese history post-1945. This has made international relations in East Asia particularly thorny, as some argue the education system doesn’t clearly portray Japan’s role in initiating conflict in the Pacific, and all the atrocities that went with it such as the Rape of Nanking and the lethal human experimentation of Unit 731. These are the observations of those who see Hiroshima’s peace advocacy as “playing the victim.”

The staff at ANT acknowledged these concerns as real issues that are likely to persist for the foreseeable future. Yet the sheer scope of the tragedy visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki imbues their work with an international humanitarian vision; such a tragedy should never be repeated, for anywhere or anybody.

The work of ANT is both practical and symbolic, and taught me how storytelling plays a key part in bringing history to life and promoting harmony. They were co-creators of the Green Legacy Hiroshima Initiative, which propagates the seeds of trees that survived the atomic bomb and sends them all around the world as symbols of peace enduring through suffering.

A-bombed tree

One may doubt the efficacy of such symbolic efforts. Yet the practical and the symbolic dance together to yield meaningful action. The practical without vision is likely to falter, a blind charioteer; while the symbol without action lacks substance, it’s all icing and no cake.

In the case of ANT, their actions include recording the experiences of A-bomb survivors, building health care facilities in Pakistan for Afghan refugees, and financial support for schools in Pakistan in the wake of the 2005 earthquake. They also support international efforts for nuclear abolition such as ICAN, which, among other things, charts the decline of nuclear warheads worldwide (there are some caveats and stumbling blocks despite overall decline, such as the modernisation of weapons).

I was surprised at first to think of Hiroshima’s legacy inspiring Japanese aid to Afghanistan, perhaps because I’ve grown up seeing humanitarian efforts through the Western media. Yet that is the power of history and the power of a symbol. It need not inspire action or reflection in a 1:1 correlation, nuclear issues to nuclear issues. Symbols are open to interpretation and creativity, and so ANT devotes itself to ameliorating suffering around the world, be it related to the devices of humanity or natural disasters.

This struck a chord with me, as I have encountered stories of suffering in my own educational experience. I have taught students whose homes, communities and religious sanctuaries were destroyed by ISIS. These young people keep their stories locked inside, attempting to adjust to their new society. They lament that these losses are given minimal treatment in the media, while the Kardashians receive recurring airtime for their successes and failures in Photoshopping body-marks.

There may be something to this imprisonment of our darker stories. Shame perhaps, or anguish at renewing the losses. Yet there is great power in sharing them.

atomic bomb dome Hiroshima
Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima, a symbol of recovery from nuclear war that was almost demolished

Tomoko’s story: "What is death? What is life?"

After visiting Hiroshima Peace Park and Memorial Museum, I sat down for some final biscuits and tea with Tomoko-san. The office was quiet, and in listening to her story I fell into a rare state of deep attention.  

She told me about how her mum was a nurse and survived the atomic bombing. Her mother went on to marry her husband, but was plagued with fear that their child would be born with 6 fingers on each hand, a victim of lingering radiation.

Thankfully, Tomoko was born safely and grew up healthily. Yet for decades her mother never spoke about the attack on their city. It was only when Tomoko had her own children, and they questioned their grandmother, that she broke her silence.

Learning about her family’s brush with death, and the fear they had for her as a child, Tomoko began to question the narrative and meaning of her life.

She asked herself: “How can I live my life? What is death? What is life?”

With an A-bomb survivor in her own family, she realised her life was inseparable from that tragedy, but what, she wondered, was her purpose? She told me that she prayed a lot, to God, or Buddha, or to what exactly she knew not, waving her arm in the air. What emerged from her reflections was the seed of ANT-Hiroshima.

I was struck by her deceptively brief yet penetrating questions about death and life, two small words that are icebergs of unknown depths.

I asked her: “What is life?”

She paused, smiled, and told me that life is one step at a time, not trying to be far ahead in the future and getting lost. It is a narrow, difficult, winding path, and one that, in order to be fruitful, requires guidance, dedication and contemplation.


So, to return to my question: What are the implications of historical anguish for how we educate and develop as people today?

Pope Saint John Paul II, in the address cited above, stressed the importance of “generously pursuing the total progress of each individual and of all humanity.” Education often seeks this goal today, prioritising not only academic excellence but the development of the total or “whole person”—emotional, physical, social, spiritual and so on. In Catholic contexts this stems from the social teaching that humans are made in the image of God, endowed with dignity and called to a rich, wholesome life, not solely the maximisation of technical skills.

This is a noble goal, and a lifelong process. Engaging with suffering nurtures students’ capacities for emotional, psychological and spiritual development.

Pope John Paul II praying at Hiroshima
Saint Pope John Paul II, praying at the cenotaph memorial to atomic bomb victims, courtesy of Vatican News.

It takes a variety of skills and attitudes and beliefs to come to terms with anguish, especially that which is deeply rooted. Purely intellectual understanding of history may not be sufficient to address the pains of the past, as pain requires empathy to be understood. Engaging with pain grows our capacity for empathy and humility, which in turn can help us to delve deeper and relate more authentically.

Understanding the trials of those who have gone before us give us some idea of the extent to which we can be pushed, of the responsibilities we can shoulder in our own lives. Tomoko said that life is a narrow, difficult path. And from the repeated tragedies of Nagasaki we see a macrocosm for the seeming randomness of suffering that can be visited upon even an individual life, like that of the physician Dr Nagai. We are caught up in networks beyond our control, that stretch out in space and deep into the temporal abyss of history.

We need not start an NGO, something rather large and potentially “famous”. We need not even try and right the wrongs of a particular episode of conflict. Like ANT’s creative use of Hiroshima’s legacy of peace, we may see potential to emulate the strength and generosity of those who have gone before us to connect with the people we encounter in our everyday lives. For me, this could be encouraging the stories of students and refugees from the Middle East.

If history is an abyss, then the episodes from the past are all manner of different rocks, lying in the darkness of crevasses and strewn across slopes. We are climbing up the shadowy mountain of time, and with each day that passes another pebble falls from beneath our feet to join the chasm of the past. It is a toil to ascend the mountain; we know not where its peak is. If we shine a light on those innumerable stones below, the quartz, the obsidian, the crystal, the light they reflect may just illumine a part of our path forward.

Future directions

There are many other things to consider when tackling history, education, or both. In the future, I would like to explore the following:

  1. The importance of education in developing virtue. In the history of philosophy, virtue has been tied up with education and with active excellence. I discovered this when studying Greek philosophy, and in my conversation with philosopher and educator Dr Tadashi Nishihara from the Graduate School of Education, Kyoto University. You may remember him from my article, Wrestling with 3 questions on Zen Buddhism. We also discussed “contemplative pedagogy”, which unites reflection with action, perhaps in a similar vein to what I discussed with Tomoko Watanabe.
  2. The history and philosophy of education more broadly. What’s changed in how we conceive of education? What’s stayed the same and perhaps ought always to stay the same? I’m especially interested in this given that the public education system apparently grew out of the Industrial Revolution, a relatively recent event.
  3. I’ve mentioned in this article how the way we interpret the past can create rich and helpful effects. However, the opposite is also true. People have interpreted the past to justify positions that actually had reprehensible consequences. For example, Hitler’s Third Reich saw itself as the fulfilment of the first two “German” empires: the Carolingian Holy Roman Empire (900-1806) and the German Empire (1871-1918).
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Wild fox, mountain, river: Wrestling with 3 questions on Zen Buddhism

Introduction—a surprise at morning meditation

Time—Approximately 5:45am. Morning meditation.

Location—Meditation hall. Shogan-ji Zen Retreat, Oita Prefecture, Japan.

Incident—Not the sound of one hand clapping, but rather, the sound of a long wooden plank thwacking against a prostrate person’s back and punctuating the otherwise still morning air.

Persons involved—Zen monk Jiho-san, Richard, and myself. Myself being the bystander, not the recipient of the thwacking.

So began day 3 of my 5 day retreat at Shogan-ji. Turns out the thwacking is a procedure requested by disciples of a Zen master (or in this case, retreatants) to discipline the body and remind it to concentrate instead of falling into slumber.

Concentrate on what exactly? What is the object of meditation in Zen? I sought to explore these and other questions with my time at the retreat.

But first, some prep work.

From the entrance of the retreat

Background and purpose of Zen

I have been interested in meditation for around 5 years, and, as may be the case for you, it seems to the lay Westerner that Zen Buddhism is the aloof pinnacle of meditation. It has become a byword for extreme concentration and calmness, but its goals are deeper than that, and yet paradoxically simple.

Zen is a school of Buddhism that was imported to Japan from China in the 12th century. It had originally developed in the 6th century AD as Chan Buddhism, with influences from Taoism.

Zen advocates: See Reality exactly as it is, without any judgment about how it should be. This is rather difficult for the human mind, which is perpetually analysing events, the past, present and future, people’s motivations, judgments, perceptions, and so on.

Zen prioritises direct experience of Reality through meditation and insight, as opposed to empty recitation of sutras (Buddhist scripture purported to be records of oral teaching of the Buddha). Directly apprehending True Reality is satori (enlightenment). Yet satori is no simple matter to realise or to cultivate.

Zen has developed certain techniques and ideas for the attainment of satori. There is zazen, “sitting cross-legged in meditation”, which was “specifically devised in order that the subject might delve ever deeper into its own interior” (Izutsu).

There are also the seemingly nonsensical koans; sayings or stories that appear contradictory but are so designed in order to stump humans’ tendency to rationalise, seek logical conclusions, and categorise reality with language. This tendency is ultimately a hindrance to apprehending the True Reality, which can never be pinned down in concepts and language. One of the most famous examples is the injunction to contemplate “the sound of one hand clapping.”

The following example illustrates how difficult it is for a concept or word to describe reality fully. Think of the word “life.” It resonates with people in different ways, and so is difficult to describe. Some may first think of the biological workings of bodies, or the aquatic origins of life, while still others will think of experiences like breathing the ocean air, welcoming a child into the world, or even a dark struggle to preserve life from depression and destruction.

Things get still more difficult when trying to answer life’s deepest questions, at the frontiers of physics or metaphysics, and Zen does try to confront metaphysics.

My misconceptions and questions:

The deceptive simplicity of Zen, and its seeming promise of great spiritual and psychological insight, led me to have some misconceptions and questions in mind when I went on the retreat. They were:

  1. What do enlightened Masters do after satori? Do they just reside in a wonderland of bliss?
  2. To what extent do enlightened masters or practitioners of Zen “help” other beings?
  3. Is the emphasis on direct experience/insight completely at odds with longer-term cultivation of wisdom, particularly through the use of textual study, reason and logic?


Coming into the retreat, I knew it may be difficult to find answers to these questions. I had heard not to expect high-level philosophical discourse in English, and I knew my very limited command of Japanese would not do the trick. Fortunately I had the help of Richard, who did some translating for me over a cup of tea in the afternoon at the kitchen table. I also tried to appreciate the different parts of Zen temple life in light of what I read about Zen and of my past experience in meditation. Despite all the capital letters on Truth and Reality, I knew that Zen had a deep respect for the humble goings-on of every day life. Reality was not somewhere else, some Divine Plane, it was here right now, in the washing of dishes (rarely with soap, Jiho-san advises), in the collection of water from the spring, and in the unearthing of red onions from the field.

And so, to the responses.

Myself, Jiho-san and one resident kitten before departure on my last day

What do enlightened Masters do after satori?

Those who attain satori do not reside in a wonderland of bliss, detached from worldly concerns and from their fellow human beings. I think this conception has come about around the word enlightenment more generally, be it in a Buddhist context or not. I think first of the story of Eckhart Tolle, the New Age mystic who apprehended Reality by realising that he was not his “ego” when in a bout of extreme depression. He proceeded to spend the next two years wandering cities and sleeping on park benches in near “perpetual Bliss.” Regardless of the truth of what was spiritually or psychologically happening for Eckhart Tolle, we can see his two year stint inevitably came to an end! So what do people do then?

The three-stage process of Enlightenment

The question of what Zen masters do after satori can be refined by looking at the changing states of mind that the Zen practitioner undergoes. Dr Tadashi Nishihara, professor of psychology and Japanese philosophy at Kyoto University, has outlined a three-stage process for this mind-development, drawing on the work of comparative philosopher of religion, Toshihiko Izutsu.

Now, I’m going to stretch your imagination for a moment and illustrate the three stages or states of mind under the guidance of the improbably named Joe, Zen master extraordinaire. The stages are:

  1. Ordinary mind: Your average Joe
  2. No-mind-ness (mushin) 1: Joe sees the light
  3. No-mind-ness (mushin) 2: Joe returns to ordinary life, but as a kind of secret Super Joe.

Stage 1: Ordinary mind; Your average Joe

First, like any of us, Zen practitioners start with an “ordinary” mind. This is the mind that constantly sees objects as distinct entities, different from oneself. The mind goes through life, stored safely in a body and shielded from the rest of the world, observing everything outside in its own category: mountain, river, grocery store, mother, lawn mower.

One day, when Joe is hiking in the mountains, he slips at a river crossing and most of his gear is soaked through. He curses the river; it is just another object, in this case, merely a hindrance to his enjoyment of nature.  

Stage 2: No-mind-ness (mushin) 1; Joe has seen the light

Through a sudden realisation (perhaps born of meditation using zazen or koan study) Joe realises the true nature of things; that he, the subject, and the river, the object, are not fundamentally distinct. There is now an awareness that all forms are impermanent, composed of endless causes and effects, even if rivers and mountains endure for much longer than a human life. They are all constantly in flux, being created, maintained, destroyed and reborn in new forms.

For example, the river is composed of many droplets, and water vapour in the air that has condensed in mountains and gone on join it as tributary. It flows in crevices hollowed by melting glaciers and turned in different paths by landslides, which were precipitated by quivers in the earth’s tectonic plates. Who can say where and when it begins or will end?

Similarly, Joe is not conscious of where he begins or ends, which causes and which effects are foremost in determining who he is. He may have been born to a loving family, with an average metabolism and an affinity for peanut butter, but these are all mixed together, and the idea of the rational, always-in-control-ego is cancelled out.

All this doesn’t matter though, for, while the causes are endless and seemingly different between he and the river, both Joe and River are unified by not having one place or concept to point to that is definitely their own. Their fundamental quality is instability, and interdependence. It is meaningless at this point to affirm “Joe” or “river”, but to simply be conscious in a rejoicing of interdependence. Joe slips and falls in the river, and smiles, almost feeling that he is instead the river who is causing the effect of “soaked gear.”

This stage is called “no-mind-ness” because we can no longer point to Joe’s isolated, independent mind. It is not, however, a passive forgetfulness. There is still something Conscious and almost Divine at this no-boundary stage.  

In the words of Nishihara:

“From the ontological viewpoint, if there is anything here at the no-boundary-state, it must be the undivided Something. Izutsu explained that it is the absolutely undivided awareness of Something eternally illuminating itself as the whole universe. In such a state did the Zen master declare that a mountain is not a mountain.”

The Something, then, is perhaps the totality of causes and effects, Reality, in perpetual illumination or manifestation.

Shogan-ji, from the garden

Stage 3: No-mind-ness (mushin) 2; Joe returns to ordinary life, but as a kind of secret Super Joe

Yet the lofty experience of stage 2 is not the end goal of the Zen practitioner. Instead, Zen seeks “to attain the state of ‘No-mind-ness’ in ordinary, daily consciousness” (Nishihara). The ordinary life is not to be scorned, but to be honoured as an eternal gateway to the infinite ways of experiencing Reality. It is seen by a new angle:

“Izutsu has explained this final stage as ‘bifocal eyes’ (ein Doppelfokus-Auge). He said the Zen master who has once experienced ‘Nothing-ness’ (Non-articulation/stage 2) can never forget the absolute phase.”

So, average Joe has now become Bifocal Joe. If he had only stopped at stage 2, locked in wonder at his soaked gear, the river would have eroded him and washed him out to sea, which wouldn’t  have been good for anyone. Except perhaps the hungry fish who would have welcomed the sudden feast.

Instead, with “bifocal eyes”, Joe can recognise distinct forms so as to navigate them, but also delight at their hidden, more fundamental nature. In either case, Joe is still subject to cause and effect. The enlightenment of stage 2 doesn’t stop water from its eroding and flowing powers. Similarly, Joe goes on in life, making decisions and taking actions that ripple out their incalculable effects.

One of my favourite koans, The “Wild fox” koan, brings home this point about the necessity of cause and effect, and embracing the return to ordinary life. I have cited the first half here:

Every time Baizhang, Zen Master Dahui, gave a dharma talk, a certain old man would come to listen. He usually left after the talk, but one day he remained. Baizhang asked, "Who is there?"
The man said, "I am not actually a human being. I lived and taught on this mountain at the time of Kashyapa Buddha. One day a student asked me, 'Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?' I said to him, 'No, such a person doesn't.' Because I said this I was reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. Reverend master, please say a turning word for me and free me from this wild fox body." Then he asked Baizhang, "Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?"
Baizhang said, "Don't ignore cause and effect."
Immediately the man had great realization. Bowing, he said, "I am now liberated from the body of a wild fox. I will stay in the mountain behind the monastery.

Side note: Forget for the moment that the old man first appears as an old man (not as a wild fox, as he claims he is). Perhaps he has flitted into his old form for a moment, to listen to his once-fellow humans discussing dharma?

This koan, as well as Nishihara and Izutsu’s analyses, emphasises a teaching that has its roots in the 12th century: that understanding true Reality is sudden, but that one must “ripen the insight” to truly become a Buddha (enlightened one).

Stage 3 is the “acme of Enlightenment” because, I would say, it embraces Reality even more fully than stage 2. Stage 2 can be pursued as an end itself, the ethereal goal of romantic New Age soul-seekers. But it is a denial of reality to think you can escape your own mind and body.

To what extent do enlightened Zen masters “help” other beings?

A key part of the post-satori experience is to help others achieve enlightenment. This would be impossible for any hypothetical students of Joe if he had simply been washed away into oblivion. Helping others achieve enlightenment is a key element in the broader Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, of which Zen is a part. However, there are some differences in interpretation as to how this occurs.

Some believe that those who postpone enlightenment reside in an intermediate plane between our world and nirvana, which is not a place, but rather a state of tranquillity and freedom from the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (samsara). Here they act as bodhisattvas, almost like deities it seems. Still others stress that enlightened beings choose to re-enter the cycle of rebirth in order to help others. Finally, there are those who simply focus on this world, helping others in their everyday lives through teaching and studying. I am most interested in this last suggestion, as the rest can be impossible to flesh out with philosophy and language, sometimes in a frustrating way.

Yet does one need to attain enlightenment in order to be such an aid to “un-enlightened” beings? By attain enlightenment, I mean have the full experience of Reality, and progress to the level of a Zen Master. I had originally thought the answer was “yes”, however, I learned more when I asked Jiho-san if he was a Zen Master.

“No, no!” he informed me, reclining in his kitchen chair and gesturing with his empty cup of tea.

He proceeded to tell me, with the help of Richard as translator, that he had studied with some harsh Masters all around Japan, but had never become a master himself. Surely, I wondered, he had had glimpses of satori in all this time, and now he was fulfilling a purpose in helping others to see things a little more clearly.

I wondered, what is the difference between Jiho-san and the Masters, if all humans must return to cultivation of wisdom after such an experience? They are not freed, as the Wild Fox koan tells us, from cause and effect. Perhaps the satori of a practitioner such as Jiho-san is just not of the same strength or depth as that of the masters. In any case, the intention is the same, assist in the quest for truth and to alleviate suffering. This, I can attest, Jiho-san does with kindness, laughter, book recommendations, and some interesting health advice (avoid breakfast; and if you keep chickens, never fear, they will do their best to find their shellfish).

The kitchen table: the site of tea in the morning, main meals, reading and discussion

Is the emphasis on direct insight completely at odds with longer-term cultivation of wisdom, particularly through the use of textual study, reason and logic?

I think the tripartite development of the Zen mind has already given a decent response to this question. We inevitably return to ordinary life, and it is now our role to deepen that insight and share it with others. Textual study does have a place here. Ancient Zen masters have advised that reflection on collections of koans and Buddhist scripture is necessary to deepen insight. I imagine this is fruitful also for helping others to see more clearly, as the broader and deeper one’s knowledge of koan study, the more one will be able to prompt, challenge and direct a disciple or early practitioner of Zen with the right koan.

Yet Zen does bear a disdain for rational thinking at its core. This goes back to the very origins of the tradition. As described by Izutsu:

Zen arose in China as a vigorous reaction against the multitudinous systems of Mahayana philosophy that had developed in India and China, in which Buddhist thinkers indulged themselves in extremely complicated, and often hair-splitting, abstract arguments. Regarding these arguments simply as nothing but futile entanglements of discursive intellect, Zen started by shattering the grandiose systems of philosophical thinking and trying to bring Buddhism back to its simplest and most original form, that is to say, to what in the view of Zen was the fundamental personal experience of the historical Buddha himself. (Toward a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism, p.148.)

This disdain is borne out in the instructions of Zen teachers ever since to “remove all thinking, ideas, concepts” from the mind of the student. Yet it should be noted the conceptual understanding of the world is most detested during meditation, when one should turn all one’s powers of concentration towards stage 2 of Izutsu/Nishihara’s development of the mind. It seems textual study may take place more in stage 3, when the master knows its rightful place, and can use its lessons to push the still early-stage practitioners.

Takeaways and questions

The retreat was a nourishing experience. While I was not the recipient of any thwacking, I did still develop more self-discipline, among other things:

  • I have a more nuanced view of enlightenment in the Zen tradition. I’ve learned that things are not as black and white and high-pressure as I’d assumed. For example, there was my assumption that one broke through to enlightenment and then never interacted with human beings or the day-to-day world again. This always seemed very anti-human or even anti-life to me!
  • I developed my powers of concentration during morning and night meditation, and in the hours of cooking and wandering and reading in between. This helped me to see myself a little more clearly, to become even more fine-tuned to the desire to organise, or be content, or discover; all of which may have their place but in the proper time and measure.

As always, I still have some questions and directions I would like to explore further.

  • I would go on to have a discussion with Dr Tadashi Nishihara about Zen, the link between contemplation and virtuous action, educating and improving oneself and others, and the bizarre sense of being drawn to certain books and philosophies.
  • I am still yet to see much engagement between, on the one hand, Zen or Taoist views on forms, cause and effect, and on the other, philosophical and scientific evidence for creation and the nature of space time (cosmological argument, argument from contingency). I understand that reasoning and language can have limitations, but I think Zen sometimes does not give them the time of day. After all, one could also suggest that the “pure” individual experience of reality is conditioned by biology and psychology, and so how can we know that it is more Real than ordinary consciousness? This has been partly addressed by Sam Harris and Robert Wright.

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The Mire of Communication: 5 Strategies for Fruitful Dialog

Sometimes we unwittingly stumble into a rambling conversation that touches on all sorts of sensitive topics we didn’t think would see the light of day when our alarm went off that morning. Politics and religion are often the prime suspects—given that they are also the subjects of that contestable dictum: “never talk about politics and religion.”

Our interlocutor could be our new work colleague, the forthright student in class, a passionate acquaintance at a party, or the Proverbial Political Uncle.

The latter was recently my interlocutor in one of these conversations. I’d left the book I was reading, Guns, Germs and Steel, on the coffee table. It piqued my uncle’s interest and the following ensued:

  1. I told him it was about geography and human history.
  2. He asked me why I was interested in it.
  3. I said something about human life’s trajectory on earth being really interesting.
  4. He told me that human life would endure on the earth and regaled me with a trove of information about a physicist who testified in Congress that climate change wasn’t real. I didn't seriously believe everything the IPCC said about climate change did I? Was climate change even real? You couldn’t trust the IPCC because they were biased and had vested interests, and climate change was all a political issue, divorced from science.
  5. I attempted to suggest that one person testifying in Congress, who is not a climate scientist, might not carry the debate very far.
  6. We went around in circles.

I may have caricatured my uncle, but for the record, we discussed much of value; he opened my eyes to some legitimate concerns and did listen to some of my points.

These kinds of conversations happen all the time, with varying levels of attention and quality dialog. Once they start, all sorts of emotions come wriggling to the surface of our conscious minds. We oscillate between feeling ignorant, or righteously certain, or threatened on behalf of those whom we love and who may share our beliefs.

I find such encounters uncomfortable sometimes, but necessary. If not for the supposed virtuous conquest of your interlocutor (let’s face it, this never really happens), then at least for learning a thing or two about your own values and beliefs. They are part of the mire that is human communication and growth. And when we’re stuck in a mire, we need some kind of rope to pull us onto an island, where we can begin to process what we’ve learnt, and continue journeying for a time.

This post in a nutshell

In this post I present 5 key learnings from my own conversations, with friends or foes, contentious or otherwise. These are not unfailing strategies, but they can certainly help advance the cause of mutual understanding. They have been of particular importance for me recently, as I reflect on my education practice, and my reading of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Haidt’s book was published in 2012, and if anything it speaks even more now to the divisions we see in public discourse about moral, political and religious themes.

5 Strategies for Fruitful Dialog

1. Empathy and sensitivity

Too often we may think we know exactly where someone else is coming from. They hold the set of beliefs X, which leads to Y and Z. We know this because we watched that one TV show, or saw that one tweet, and now we can dismiss them. And it’s understandable. Our minds evolved to categorise people, that way we could understand which groups were safe for us to interact with, and which weren’t. We became increasingly good at rationalising our instinctive responses to threats (or opponents) for our in-group members. As Jonathan Haidt notes:

“The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.”

It isn’t necessarily bad to categorise and have instinctive reactions—the important thing is to acknowledge the instinct, incorporate it in our reasoning, but not to let it be the only factor in shaping our perception.

To get better at this, we can practice empathy. We can ask for a story that sheds light on a person’s belief or value. We can ask:

  1. Has it always been this way for you?
  2. Is there a defining moment that helped shape your understanding of this issue?
  3. How do you feel when…?

Furthermore, sometimes people plain don’t want to share if they’re not comfortable—and fair enough! Silence gives others and yourself the permission to keep some things private. After all, you can’t dredge up a whole suite of reasons and experiences in any one conversation, and nor should you. Silence is when we detect some air in the cloying mire of heated debate.  

2. Basic facts and defining terms

Just as stories can help to clear a path for more fruitful discussion, so can defining terms and understanding the basic facts about your own beliefs or the topic at hand. This can help to reduce talking past each other. It might go without saying, but it happens surprisingly often if the topics under discussion are particularly deep or fuzzy. Just try defining God.  

For a more serious engagement by Peterson with this dilemma on Australia's Q and A, see this video.

Defining topics may lead to a rabbit hole, as certain ideas have other ideas as their foundations, and so on. Ultimately, I try to practice humility and transparency about when my understanding of a given topic becomes hazy.

Defining terms can take place independently, or during an encounter along the lines of the following:

  1. Asking your interlocutor: So what do you mean by x?
  2. Or try summarising and parroting what your understanding of x is, inviting your interlocutor to contribute and/or correct your interpretation.

3. Recognising reactions

Understanding our reactions is an important step in productive dialog. Have you ever felt your mind begin to race when you’re in a difficult conversation and you wonder: do they really think this?; If only I could just make this point; What do they really know about my beliefs? It’s not a nice thing to recognise, but it does happen occasionally, in varying degrees of self-righteousness.

Jonathan Haidt refers to this instinctive, judgment producing part of our psyche as our “elephant”, of which the “rider” is conscious reasoning. “The rider” sometimes has little control over the elephant, but attempts as best they can to guide the creature. This can be most effective if one reassures oneself that certain conversations or topics are not threats to our survival. After all, the elephant makes such rapid judgments because of its evolutionary history, a history that required accurate assessments of environments, as well as the reliability of co-operative partners, to ensure a reasonable chance of survival.

Another approach that can be helpful is emotional agility, the concept pioneered by Harvard psychologist, researcher and author, Susan David. This is the ability to acknowledge and describe our emotions, instead of dismissing them. Strong emotions then become a important source of “data” that inform us about our core values, and about how we react in certain situations. When we have more clarity about such matters, we are more effectively able to “unhook” from unhelpful emotional patterns. This concept has resonance for me with Buddhist mindfulness practice.

Indeed, recognising the reactions within ourselves may help us understand others’ emotions and experiences.

4. Finding common ground

This is not simply “agreeing to disagree” from the outset, although sometimes we do end up there. Finding common ground can help to foster mutual respect, and help to reduce the likelihood of entering new conversations that rehash much of the previous discussion.

That being said, if you never got anywhere on the specific points, but instead opted for agreement on more general principles, you might wonder “what hope is there for the next conversation if we just rehash the same arguments?”

This is a fair point. Yet you may inch closer to a mutual understanding if you have more mutual esteem or accord, which previous conversations will have established. This will help to abate the intuitive judgments we make rapidly in social situations, particularly with regard to moral issues, as noted by Haidt. Instead of the brain instantly tagging an idea as ‘bad’ and therefore avoidable, our instinctive responses will be a little less rapid, and more open to rational persuasion.

Writer and philosopher James Fodor has applied a physics metaphor to wrestle with this difficulty in finding common ground. He acknowledges that we gravitate to common grounds, but that it often takes something significant to shake us out of our states of equilibrium on certain topics and traverse divisions.

5. Arguing against your interlocutor's clearest argument

Inter-belief educator Tal Meretz advocates the use of steel-manning, which is the opposite of straw-manning. While straw-manning is to mischaracterise another person’s position so as to easily defeat it (the straw man), steel-manning is to express an opponent’s position clearly, more clearly perhaps than they themselves express it.

This approach requires genuine humility and charity. One doesn’t seek to understand opposing views solely to bolster one’s own egotism, but rather to arrive closer to the truth (be this through the veritable defence of your original positions, an adoption of opposing views, or an integration and more fine-tuned representation).

The philosopher Daniel Dennett present four rules for critical commentary that build on these principles. His rules synthesise the previous work of social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapaport. They are:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

This strategy is something like an extension of the first two strategies. It involves empathising with another’s point of view, but builds on the basic facts and positions to explore the internal logic of another’s argument.

A concluding reflection

We all have different priorities. Some of us may welcome going deep down the rabbit hole of a conversation that necessitates these strategies, while others may not.  

I’ll leave you with a final step in my conversation with the Proverbial Political Uncle.  Remember how I said I left that conversation with something of value? For one, he advised a form of the fifth strategy presented here, telling me: “Understanding the other person’s position as well as you can and arguing with that, that’s the way to go.” But more than that, my uncle’s passion acknowledged me as a worthy interlocutor; he never condescended towards me. I was grateful to give him a chance to air his concerns on something important.

What experiences or strategies have you found to particularly resonate with you?

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Fruit Salad: Catholicism and Taoism on Being and God

When I was travelling in England, I attended a Buddhist-inspired retreat for a week at the Sharpham Retreat centre in Dartmoor. A re-fitted barn from the 1960s was our home for the week. It was perched halfway up a hill on acres of farmland overlooking the River Dart which runs south toward the Atlantic.

The centre was a quiet, welcoming place. In the kitchen there was a corkboard that had post-it notes from Rumi, that great Sufi poet whom few would associate with the Islam as brought to you by the iOS News app. Not that we had access to the news; it was advised that we leave technology aside for the week. I had no qualms about that; I was glad for the time to disconnect both geographically and technologically from my life in Melbourne. It had been a roller coaster of a year up till that point with the end of my undergraduate studies and a death in the family.

It was at the retreat that I began seriously reflecting on the Western philosophy of my own heritage, and its interaction with the Eastern belief systems of Buddhism and Taoism. In this article I’ll address the foundational concepts of Being and God in Catholicism and Taoism. This is no small feat, but I aim here to present the beginning of a dialog.

East and West, Apples and Oranges

We were visited at the retreat by practitioners and teachers of Buddhism from various schools and sub-traditions. I recall a specific session with a teacher whose name I can’t remember, but we will call her Ellis. She told us a story of a Catholic priest, who was also a great scholar of Buddhism. I would later learn that his name was Étienne Lamotte.

She spoke of how Lamotte was the pre-eminent scholar of Buddhism in the West during his lifetime. He was equally dedicated to two religious traditions: to Catholicism by vocation, and to Buddhism by academic profession. He stressed the understanding of concepts within each tradition, and he avoided the syncretistic tendencies of inter-religious dialogue that characterised his time. That is to say, he shied away from combining different religions or schools of thought into one system, as each tradition had a different historical, geographical and social basis.

etienne lamotte
Étienne Lamotte

Ellis opined that, given his deep knowledge of two traditions, it is conceivable that had Lamotte been born in a majority Buddhist country like Thailand, he would have instead been a scholar of Catholicism and a practitioner of Buddhism.

I was immediately curious, perhaps sceptical, about this statement. It seemed to imply that our beliefs about fundamental reality can be reduced to accidents of geography. Certainly, traditions arise in different places and times, but that does not mean there couldn’t be a common truth, perhaps aligning itself with one tradition, or parts of one, or to something else entirely.

After the session, I asked Ellis how one person so steeped in two traditions would conceive of God.

She told me that they have “different bases” and that “we all have our language and ways of framing things. Certain concepts are not equivalent. It’s like apples and oranges.”

Making a fruit salad

The challenge presented in this conversation had a particular resonance for me at the time. I had arrived at the retreat after a spontaneous three-hour conversation about God, the Trinity, history and science with a theologian on a thoroughly delayed train. At the time I was also reading the Tao Te Ching, the central text of Taoism. Taoism is the classical Chinese belief system which, among other things, focusses on nature, harmony and balance. I had been exploring centuries-old ideas about life and creation through the Western and the Eastern minds, or through, as it were, “apples and oranges.”

The phrase “apples and oranges” is used quite a lot, as if two ideas are completely different, but really, can’t apples and oranges go well together sometimes? Imagine making a smoothie, or sitting down to a nice fruit salad in the summer. And don’t they actually share some common characteristics? They’re both fruits. They both have seeds. They both grow on trees. In fact, one species of fruit may even be grafted onto another tree.  

I’d like now to run with that metaphor, and attempt to make something of a “fruit salad” using the Catholic and Taoist understandings about God and Being.

Each tradition interprets these ideas differently, although there are some similarities. What options do we have when reading about and discussing a clash of metaphysical claims? Either one or none of them is true, or they both hint at something true but do not embody it completely, but they can’t both be true. I was afraid that the invocation of apples and oranges would stray into this last option.  

The Catholic Position

While I grew up Catholic, one of the experiences that recently re-engaged my interest in the faith was reading an apologetic book called Answering Atheism by Trent Horn. Horn presents classical arguments for God’s existence and its implications for human life. An argument that is particularly popular, in large part due to the work of philosopher and evangelist William Lane Craig, is the cosmological argument.

The cosmological argument can be formulated as follows:
Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist must have a cause for its existence.
Premise 2: The universe began to exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

Many objections and clarifications are often raised in response to this argument. Some say that the universe could cause itself, or that the universe doesn’t prove that God is the First Cause, or that a supernatural First Cause is personal, or good. I cannot address those concerns in the space of this article.

However, I do want to emphasise that the Catholic interpretation of these arguments is that the First Cause, being responsible for and beyond the restrictions of space-time, must then be immaterial and eternal. These are two properties often associated with God.

Horn goes on to suggest, like Saint Thomas Aquinas and others in the tradition, that God as First Cause can be likened to the “ground of being” or “perfect, limitless being.” God is the one who creates and sustains the universe. Furthermore, if the universe began to exist, it cannot arise simply out of another force. It must be an act of creativity, and of will, and therefore the act of an Intelligence, or a person. The buck stops with Him, he is the Absolute.

The Taoist Position

Taoist cosmology posits that the Tao is the source of creation. Often translated as “Way” or “Path”, the Tao is not an intelligent Person that directs and sustains the universe, as in Catholicism. It is rather an eternal state of potentiality in which all beings in the Universe find their root, and to which all beings return.

This is because ultimately, all beings are impermanent; they’re just passing through, changing into other beings, carried along by the vital energy of the Tao. I find Hamlet’s graveyard reflection on the fate of Alexander the Great to be an apt and haunting illustration of this viewpoint:

“Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?” (Act 5, Scene 1, 177-179)

Yet the Taoists would likely advise Hamlet to loosen up. By understanding that one’s Being ultimately arose from and participates in the vital flow of the Tao, in the balance between life and death, being and nonbeing, one reaches a state of supreme acceptance and tranquillity. But why does the Tao even exist at all? Why does it have to be this way?

Lao-tzŭ, the much-disputed author of the Tao Te Ching, wonders this very thing:

Tao functions through its nothingness. And can not be conceived of as full of things. Profound indeed, it is the model of all things. Dulling its sharpness, Releasing its entanglements, Tempering its light, and Unifying with the earth, Clearly, indeed, it remains. I do not know who created it, But it is likely that it existed prior to God. (Chapter 4)

This passage seems to suggest that the Tao is the natural order or model of Being, the Absolute about which it may not make sense to ask: “who created it?” If it is beyond Being, then it may be beyond space and time, or be eternal. This is why it is often conceived of as Non-being. Perhaps it is akin to the state of the world “before” the creation by God.

And God is still present here in the Taoist cosmology, although the Tao seems more fundamental. What then, or who, is God? Toshihiko Izutsu, scholar of comparative philosophy of religion, reflects on this as follows:

In the world view of Chuang-Tzŭ [another Taoist sage], the Absolute or the Way has two different aspects, cosmic and personal. In its cosmic aspect the Absolute is Nature, a vital energy of Being which pervades all and makes them exist, grow, decay, and ultimately brings them back to the original source, while in its personal aspect it is God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Lord of all things and events.”

Perhaps the personal aspect of the Absolute is a manifestation of the way we, as human persons, understand it. We see the personal because we are persons. This may fit with Lao-tzŭ’s musing that the Tao existed prior to God, that is, it is more fundamental, more real.

The yin-yang, symbol of Taoism

A Comparative Reflection

Ok, it’s time to attempt the beginning of a fruit salad. I don’t think it’ll be a particularly juicy one. I’ve undoubtedly left lots of pith on the oranges, and some skin and apple seeds that will produce a tang of confusion.

Both Catholicism and Taoism posit that the world arose from a state much unlike what we currently experience. The world is also maintained in both worldviews by a supernatural force, the inexhaustible, Absolute Reality. The following table presents some similarities and differences.

Back to the Barn: What did I take away

Upon reflecting now, I hedge that the main difference between Catholicism and Taoism lies in how they conceive of the intelligibility and Personhood of the Creator. Flowing from this may be another difference, that in Catholicism we have personal, intelligent, immortal souls, while in Taoism we are immortal only insofar as we arise from and are subsumed in the Tao, which is immortal. These are topics for another day.

I hadn’t unpacked all of this when I was on the retreat. I wasn’t ensconced in my room, writing by warm lamplight into the night.

But I will leave you now with an image of my time there. On a day of silence, I went for a long walk among the meadows of the Dart Valley. Contrary to what I had expected of England, the weather for the week of the retreat was sublime.

I remember one particular meadow that was wide and steep; all I could see was the golden grass swaying intermittently above and beside me, while below was a forest and beyond that, the river. Within that forest badgers were at play, and a rickety cabin was strung up in a tree for watching them. A sheep meandered far in the field behind me. These were the only signs of life in the empty fields and the silent woods.

I felt in that moment that my life was fragile, constantly being “sustained”, and I was grateful. I was a pinprick of life too in that quiet landscape, a little being pondering the vastness and the nothingness in existence.

View of the River Dart from above the retreat centre, courtesy of Sharpham Retreat

Further Questions

Below are some questions I have also pondered and which I hope to address in the future. I welcome comments with suggestions, clarifications, queries or stories!

  1. I’d like to do some further research into Étienne Lamotte. Did he ever have spiritual or intellectual conflicts through the interaction of his vocation and profession?
  2. Is God ultimately personal?
  3. Why does a person need to create the world, or why would a non-personal force create the world? In short, why is there something rather than nothing. Just an age-old question, no dramas.
  4. Does the understanding of God as a person speak to some deceptive, evolutionary adaptation in the way that humans understand the world, that they detect agency where there is none?

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