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 Essay by
Francis Farrell.
Website by
David Gauntlett.

Some thoughts on Foucault and Zen

Francis Farrell

Elsewhere in this website -- in "The brief and oversimplified intro to Foucault" -- the following points are made about Foucault and identity:

We often talk about people as if they have particular attributes as 'things' inside themselves -- they have an identity, for example, and we believe that at the heart of a person there is a fixed and true identity or character (even if we're not sure that we know quite what that is, for a particular person). We assume that people have an inner essence -- qualities beneath the surface which determine who that person really 'is'.

When I read this I was struck by the similarity to some of the ideas in Zen Buddhism.

Zen is the form of Buddhism that developed as the result of Chinese and Japanese influences as it spread from India. Although often classified as a religion, it is probably more accurate to view it as a way of looking at the world. So, for example, Buddhists are not bound to follow a set of sacred commandments under pain of punishment. Buddha did not claim to be God or to speak for God. In fact, he had nothing to say on the matter of divinity. Despite the popular view that Buddhism is concerned with entering Nirvana, it is actually concerned with how we live our lives now.

What Buddhists believe is that to be alive is to suffer.This does not just mean suffering from the pain of illness, disease, famine etc. It encompasses mental and emotional suffering, too. We may suffer, for example, when a colleague is more successful than we are. Or when our loved one doesn't live up to our expectations. Buddha explained that there was a cause of that suffering and it lay in attachment. The suffering could be ended and there was a means to end it: the Middle Way.

Zen Buddhists are concerned with direct knowledge of the self. Through meditation (Soto Zen) or the study of koans, such as the famous 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?' (Rinzai Zen) students come to an awareness of the true nature of the self.

Now, Western thought rests on duality. First there is me and then there is the world around me. Zen does not deny that objects exist, but does suggest an alternative interpretation of the relationship between self and the world. In Zen thought the self continually manifests itself in its interactions with the external world. Each separate interaction is a manifestation of our individual nature. Because we have memory we connect these interactions into a series, like a line, thus creating the illusion that there is a single self. In actual fact, in Zen, there is just a series of individual events. In coming to understand this, and this means not just an intellectual acceptance but something far more profound, then the relationship with he world is changed. One no longer sees one's self as separate with good and bad things happening to one. Instead whatever happens is accepted as it is as the present manifestation of one's life.

For the Zen Buddhist, then, I am not a noun but a verb. It is not so much that I am Francis Farrell but I am Francis Farrelling.

Let's look at what some Zen teachers have said, they are far more eloquent than I am.

Taisen Deshimaru was a Japanese Zen monk who brought Zen to Europe. He died in 1982. The following quotes are all from The Ring of the Way (Rider 1982):

Everything exists by virtue of interdependence and has no permanence, no lasting substance.
All the phenomena of the cosmos, all the existences of the cosmos, make up the temporary potential that exists or is manifest, actualized, in the instant. Each existence depends upon the law of interdependence, and the multiplicity of phenomena depends upon the multiplicity of relationships underlying them. So although these temporary phenomena take form when they are born, are transformed while they live, and then vanish, their substance has been neither produced nor destroyed, has increased no more than it has diminished.
In any event, all existences are...without substance. Everything exists without existing, everything exists only in change and through change, and what subtends change is potential. We must understand that..change is eternity.

And Taisen Deshimaru in Questions to a Zen Master (Arkana 1985) writes:

I have explained that we have no noumenon, no permanent substance. The ego changes every second that goes by; yesterday's ego, today's ego... they're not the same... Our life is connected to the cosmic power and stands in a relation of interdependence with all other existences...

Dennis Genpo Merzel (American Zen teacher) in The Eye Never Sleeps (Shambhala 1991) writes:

When we look in to our own minds and observe it (sic), we begin to see that everything is impermanent, rising and falling, coming and going,. Nothing is really static.

Our dualistic mind causes this fragmentation, the inability to see the Way perfect as it is in its natural state. Dualistic consciousness is created by the thinking mind. A random thought that rises like a bubble to the surface of the water is no problem. Even random thought after thought after random thought is no problem...By themselves, they are not the problem, but when we put these thoughts together, combining them into a continuous flow, we create the illusion that there is a self, a me. Out of this comes the concept that I exist as a separate entity apart form the whole: there is a me in the world looking out at the world.

Branching out from Foucault, there are further similarities between Zen and postmodern thought. Postmodernism is sometimes criticised for being enigmatic, contradictory and irrational. For the postmodernist this may be accounted for on the grounds that there is not a single orignator of postmodernism, no Marx or Gospel. Consequently, it is decentralised with the resulting variety of interpretation. In fact, it welcomes this variety of interpretation as a resistance to a static and all encompassing 'grand narrative'. Furthermore, it challenges the very logic and rationality which modernist critics use in their armoury to attack it. They don't play by the same rules. So with Zen. It often talks in terms of contradiction. Just as postmodernists are reluctant to define the term, because to offer a definition is to undermine the postmodernist's position, so with Zen there is the danger of trying to define enlightenment. It can never give an adequate explanation because to do so would be to define and to define is to limit. But the thrust of enlightenment is to go beyond limitations.The Zen master does not want to give the impression that this is something that can be apprehended by the intellect alone. He wishes to go beyond dualistic thought and normal rationality. Consequently he will often reply to questions such as 'What is Enlightenment?' By giving a shout, or even a blow. Or, if asked what is to be gained by the study of Zen, the likely reply is, 'Nothing.'

Which reminds me of Baudrillard who, I believe, said that the best the postmodernist can do is to remain silent.


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