Sunday, November 30, 2014

The chair is soft, the air is cold

I read an interesting book last night called Refuting the External World by Goran Backlund. While I don't don't think that its premise is the most helpful--that there is no external reality, only consciousness--I found the book interesting from a Zen perspective.

The fundamental question that Backlund explores is, "Do objects exist when I stop looking at them?" His answer is no, they don't. I won't get into the details of his argument. You can read the book; it's only 43 pages.

What intrigues me is how Zen Buddhism would answer this question. Sure, some snarky Zen master of old would smack you with his staff and say, "Where did that come from, inside or outside?" But I'm thinking of gentler, more constructive responses.

If someone asks, "Does the world exist when I'm not looking?", I'd say:

"I'm talking to you right here, right now. Why worry about the world?"


"Your eyes and hair are brown; your shirt is green."


"Who is the one that sees the world right now?"

The last one is the juiciest and my favorite. Zen does not brook any metaphysical speculation. My keyboard is black with white letters. There is a pain in the front of my head. When I say these things, I am not claiming them as truth statements, for that only invites a debate about reality. I say them as expressions of this moment. Soon they may change, and my headache might (hopefully) disappear; although my keyboard's color will probably last longer. But there's no telling for sure--it's a Chromebook!

Just the wind whipping the curled leaves of the maple tree outside, the clack of this keyboard and the whir of the air purifier downstairs. 

It's not that Backlund is wrong; I'm not interested in creating right and wrong. There are five gears (plus reverse and neutral) in a car's transmission for a reason. Sometimes we need first, other times fifth. When we're backing up, we need reverse.

As a Zen teacher, I find that the easiest, and often best, answer is to focus on what's present now. We don't need to speculate on what isn't there, just look at what is. Zen is highly functional. It avoids statements that interfere with our ability to function.
Chop wood and carry water. Change the oil and bring out the trash. Being able to move freely, like a person of no rank, unencumbered by any fixed point of view; that's not only freedom inside of this world, but from the often painful duality of internal and external, self and other, good and evil.
How does any teaching help you? is the perennial Zen question. Does it free or bind you? Don't get stuck anywhere.

Thank you Mr. Backlund for writing your book; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

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