What would Charles Darwin say about Satori?Stephen Farah
This is the problem, as I see it, the Evolutionary Imperative, famously discovered by Darwin, which discovery ranks amongst the greatest ever (!), in the history of science, presents a problem for any form of Utopian Ideology.
I quote Charles Linderman, mob boss, healer and co-founder of the Company, in the Graphic Novel (and now TV series), Heroes, in his conversation with Nathan Petrelli.
“You see, I think there comes a time when a man has to ask himself whether he wants a life of happiness or a life of meaning.”
“I’d like to have both.” (Nathan Petrelli)
“It can’t be done. Two very different paths. I mean, to be truly happy a man must live absolutely in the present, and with no thought of what’s gone before, and no thought of what lies ahead. But a life of meaning, a man is condemned to wallow in the past, and obsess about the future.”
That illustrates quite nicely the existential dilemma, of the human condition; particularly in relation to the present question. It is in considering this that the absurdity of the Utopian Ideal becomes apparent. Let us for a moment consider the admittedly simplistic, but illustrative, concept of Paradise (being the Ultimate Utopian State) as a place where all troubles to come to an end and the subject exists in a state of permanent bliss. One is immediately struck by the inherent paradox of how one could be permanently happy if one, as one knows oneself to be, is present? If you were to find yourself absolutely problem free and in a state of permanent, transcendent bliss, it wouldn’t actually be you, would it?
Being Human means being in a State of Desire
Being human, certainly, and possibly being alive in any form, is accompanied by an incessant restlessness and permanent state of ambition. Happiness is found, most often, in the memories of past events or the anticipation of future deeds, and only, very rarely, in the moment. And even when the elusive moment of complete happiness, complete bliss, is experienced, it is but a fleeting reprieve from the insatiable drive for more which soon returns. This is something which anyone who has finally realized a long sought after goal can attest to.
This is what is so well described by Sartre in his for-itself (self consciousness) striving for complete identification with the in-itself (the thing in itself, experience, moment etc.), but by virtue of what it means to be for-itself this realization is to remain forever in the future or the past and never in the present. This is, according to Sartre, the basis of the Existential Condition, or what has become known as Sartre’s Paradox: ‘A being-for-itself is a being which is what it is not and which is not what it is’.’ This is also the very thing which makes us conscious and from which our freedom is born. It is, according to Sartre, this existential condition which is an inalienable part of what it means to be a human being.
Problem solving, which is triggered by a certain unhappiness, a certain degree of discomfort or dissatisfaction at the status quo, underpins the process of evolution and is responsible for everything we have, everything we are and everything we will become; at least in as much as that (which we have, are and will become) is something of value, something we hold dear and something we aspire to.
Although many would argue that happiness is the ultimate goal of existence, this ‘happiness’ has to be understood symbolically and as such is subject to a degree of interpretation. Most, if not all, would agree that a state of permanent bliss, reached and maintained through the ingestion of a chemical panacea is not worthy of our aspiration. Happiness is better interpreted as a state resulting from the realization of an external (in the psychology of Western man) and desirable set of circumstances. And what constitutes desirable circumstances differs amongst different groups and individuals, dictated by instinctive forces, psychic complexes and cultural ambitions.
The Value of Suffering
Furthermore it is suffering, more than happiness, which binds us to others, which brings families together, binds fractured communities and overcomes differences to connect us to others. It is suffering which ennobles us, within which we find the capacity for love, which is the cornerstone of the most successful religious traditions (is the Crucifixion of Christ not the most enduring and powerful image of Christianity?), which we symbolize in order to reach transcendence, that by which we know ourselves as Human Beings and understand this state as differentiated from a purely animal like, instinctive existence.
It is these circumstances, suffering, in the moment, set against the desire for happiness, in the future, and the capacity for change, for problem solving, which are the drivers and facilitators of the Evolutionary Agenda.
Satori or Self-Realisation
Against this we encounter the concept of Satori in Zen, known by many other names in various schools of metaphysics, East and West. The concept of Self-Realization. This is a concept, an ideal, which is thousands of years old in the Eastern Tradition, considerably older than most Western Religions and about which untold volumes have been written. It is said to be a state which can only be experienced and as such does not fall within the domain of language. A state which can only be spoken of in negative terms, that which it is not, rather than that which it is.
All of which is to say that Satori is difficult concept to do any justice to in a few short sentences without resorting to the infamously cryptic phrasing, within which, Zen Masters are so fond of couching their talk on the subject matter. However possibly, without trying to confront it directly and unlock its treasures, we can say a few words about what our understanding is of the State of Mind achieved by the Adept or Jnani (a knower of the truth).
Of the Knower of the Truth it can be said: he has neither fears, hopes nor aspirations, much like the epitaph, carved on his gravestone, of the famous son of Greece, Nikos Kazantzakis
Den elpizo tipota. Den fovumai tipota. Eimai eleftheros.’ (I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.)
The Jnani has broken the bond of identification with the Ego and knows himself as he truly is, or at least this is what is communicated, by the admittedly deficient means of language. (How can words be used to describe a state that has transcended the Logos?)
Still, with the above qualification in place, I would venture that one is tempted, to interpret the state of Satori, of Self-Realization; in much the same way as Mr. Linderman does in the unenviable choice he offers Nathan Petrelli; that Satori is akin to living perfectly in the moment, free of the bonds of past or future. And I further venture that such an interpretation, whilst limited, is not without merit in understanding this irrational, experiential concept.
The Myth of Sisyphus
So the question then is how to reconcile, or at least understand, this paradox? Is Satori to be simply dismissed as a myth, a naivet’? Does it fall foul of logical deduction in much the same way as The Utopian Ideal?
One possible answer, also from the French Existential School, is the Myth of Sisyphus, and its interpretation by Albert Camus. Sisyphus is condemned by the gods, to a task which can never be completed, in the myth he is called on to roll a boulder up a hill, only to see it fall back down once he reaches the summit and is then obliged to restart endlessly. Now Camus tells us that we should not pity Sisyphus but imagine him happy. Camus reasoning is that although we are born into a senseless universe, where both meaning and happiness are elusive, we should not bemoan our fate but rather rebel against it. As he imagines Sisyphus does, by, creating meaning out of the meaningless.
Camus foreswore hope; and, in this, in his philosophy of Absurdity (the absurdity of existence and man’s fate) shares a certain existential orientation with Zen philosophy. Both seek to remove the incumbent from the prison of dualism. It is dualism which traps the subject which prevents him from Self-Realization from seeing reality beyond the proverbial ‘Veil of Illusion’. Yet by definition evolutionary theory is dualistic, in the metaphysical, not Cartesian, sense. Evolution is the ambition of the species towards a higher, more evolved, future state; it is a state of hope, hope for a new and better future measured against the current state of man’s existence, which by definition is perceived as less than perfect.
This kind of hope is analogous to Western Religion. In Western Religion a future state is posited, a Union with God, which the devout must strive for if he wishes to fulfill his optimum destiny. In the Theory of Natural Selection, posited by Darwin, a species strives for a more evolved, future, state as the optimum realization of its potential. So although Darwin had understandable reservations in the publication of his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, as being heretical, the process of natural selection is, at least in the opinion of the author, reconcilable with Western Eschatological Prophecy.
Top Down or Bottom Up?
Darwin, whilst studying theology, was initially influenced by William Paley, and his book Natural Theology. Paley argued for Teleology, nature is an intelligent design and intelligent design leads to the logical conclusion, in Paley’s opinion, that there must be a supremely intelligent designer behind creation. This is a well known view shared by many theologians and philosophers from the time of Plato. The Roman Historian Cicero in de Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) states: “The divine power is to be found in a principle of reason that pervades the whole of nature”. Although, as we know, Darwin later moved away from the Intelligent Design concept, to a belief in random mutation and natural selection.
Today we have two distinct camps, of evolutionary theory, the Intelligent Design camp, championed of behalf of Western Theology, by Pope John Paul II and those who support Natural Selection to whom we will assign Richard Dawkins as spokesman. Dawkins, in his book, The Blind Watchmaker, makes the argument for a bottom up approach. Each organism selectively mutating, in response to environmental feedback, creating, over time, through Darwin’s Natural Selection, increasingly complex systems.
So these two camps could be said to differentiate on a top-down (Theologians) contrasted to a bottom-up (Naturalists) approach. There is a comparison to these two approaches in the design of Artificial Intelligence, with both having pros and cons. However in the pursuit of the AI Holy Grail, machine consciousness which would pass the Turing Test, currently the bottom-up (known as Neural Networking) approach is favored. Although, it should be said, that the principal reason for this is that the top-down approach, which was the favored system in classical AI has not achieved what was hoped, so AI theorists have been obliged to adopt a different approach.
The bottom up approach, amplified, offers evolution an infinite continuum of increasing sophistication, whereas top down places a ceiling based on the sophistication of the Designer. In the bottom up scenario creation has the potential to exceed the Creator. All of this though may well be purely our phenomenological perspective. The Space-Time Continuum may well not be fundamental to Mind-Independent-Reality, but rather the representation of d’Espagnat’s Veiled Reality in human consciousness. Both Relativity and Quantum Theory suggest that time can flow backwards as well as forwards; meaning that backwards causation is a very real possibility.
So following this it seems possible to reconcile the Theological (top-down) vs. the Natural (bottom-up) opposition. If we pose the Grand Designer as existing at some future date rather than at a historical date, then we can see the process of Natural Selection as not being random, but belonging to, or being guided under the auspices of, a Grand Designer who is the culmination of Natural Selection and then draws the past towards the future by virtue of backwards causation! This possibility, of backwards causation, is well supported by the most successful physical scientific theory to date, Quantum Theory.
An Analogy from the Matrix
Let us take an analogy from modern culture, Zizek style. Of the movie, The Matrix, we can say the following without contradicting the known laws of quantum mechanics: The reality of the physical universe, beyond the Matrix, only became real for Neo once he took the Red Pill, prior to that it existed in a state of quantum superposition. That is to say, prior to this event horizon, reality, at least for Neo, was such that many variable futures existed (Copenhagen Parallel Universe Theory) and the Wave Function only collapsed into a definite concrete event once Neo took the Red Pill.
If we accept the above to be true, and current scientific thinking backed by a century of empirical evidence suggests we should, then I think it reasonable to infer the following. A force, lets for the sake of consistency, within our storyboard, refer to this force as Morpheus, acting outside of Neo’s timeline in the Matrix, acts to bring about the event in Neo’s future (the consumption of the Red Pill) which dictates the course of his life up to that point. Everything Neo experienced throughout his virtual existence was influenced by the critical event which lay in his future.
I say this based on the following reasoning, from Morpheus’ perspective the wave function would not have collapsed as it did, the concretization of Neo taking the Red Pill, unless Neo’s life up to that point had been as it is. And prior to Morpheus acting on Neo at the event horizon, Neo’s virtual reality was in a state of superposition, at least from Morpheus perspective, (leaving aside any possible quantum entanglement which may have taken place, prior to the event horizon, by Morpheus peeking at Neo in the Matrix). So we can conclude that the event in Neo’s future, the encounter with Morpheus, dictated (or influenced) his personal evolutionary history up to that point.
What would Dr. Suzuki Say?
The Zen Adept, I imagine, would simply smile at the above attempt to identify the Prime Mover in evolutionary theory and then, the further audacity, of seeking to locate Him. Time, God, Man and Evolution, from a Zen perspective, are all aspects of the dualistic-veil-of-illusion which the unenlightened man has assumed to be fundamentally real. All part of Wittgenstein’s Word Game. Reality (whatever that word points towards which in the Zen mind is not truly expressible in language) is something which exists outside of the Word Game; and about which nothing much can be said.
Two stories illustrate this difficulty and the reality (enlightenment) beyond the Veil:
The frustrated Neophyte after many years of apparently fruitless toil in search of Satori (which by definition can never be found as it was never lost) calls his master to task for not showing him the Way. The Master takes his student to a field of Poppies in full bloom and there asks him, ‘Do you smell the scent of the Poppies?’ Where upon the Neophyte answers in the affirmative. ‘How then can you say I have not shown you the Way,’ the Master asks?
Another story concerns a Zen monk who was visited by the Abbott as he lay on his deathbed. When the Abbott entered the monk’s room the monk, annoyed, asked him, ‘Why do you come to see me? As I came into his world alone so I shall leave.’ To this, the Abbott asked, ‘Why so much coming and going?’ On hearing this, the monk, in the moment before his death, was Self-Realized.
To be Self-Realized is to exist free of the need to live; in as much as living means living within the framework of the Word Game and having the quality of one’s life determined by the concepts of the Word Game. A state where nothing and everything are balanced in the mind of the Adept, neither to be loathed nor deified.
Is there a way out of the Paradox?
If we understand evolution as being an infinite continuum which does not ever deliver the evolved into the Promised Land but is rather akin to the endless struggle of Camu’s Sisyphus without promise of reward, then I think we can see the attitude of the Self-Realized man as appropriate. Hope loses its power to enslave the soul of the man after Satori. However this does not prevent the Enlightened from walking the evolutionary path, because as a natural being the Adept does as nature dictates, he simply does not subscribe to the conceptual matrixes in which natural action is symbolized in language.
There is an important distinction to be made here, in understanding Satori; the attitude of the Self-Enlightened Man is not one of passivity given to fatalism. After Siddhartha achieved Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and became Buddha he rose (after seven days contemplation) and commenced his ministry. And in many other examples from religious tradition the enlightened man always takes action. So from this I think it is reasonable to infer that the state of Satori, whilst it may confer a state of inner peace (for want of a better description) does not imply the realization of a kind of Heaven on Earth Utopian Ideal, where there is no longer anything left to be done.
What is interesting to note here is that in both views, Theological and Natural, successes is not guaranteed; biblically those that fail the test are condemned to Hell and the evolutionary failures are condemned to Extinction. So the scenario as it appears to the Natural Man ( in the sense that this term describes in Zen one who remains trapped in the dualistic world view, rather than the way we use Natural to describe the Secular perspective, although it is equally applicable) is that there is something left to be done. The represented, phenomenal world view we hold is of a journey through space and time.
Are we actually Evolving?
We stand now at a point in history, upon the shoulders of our ancestors, and there is an impression of progress. Progress, in sympathy with our dualistic perspective, is imperfect, but who would honestly argue that no progress has been made. We can infer from this that a potential future awaits us which is exceedingly brilliant, an incandescent materialization of what currently is but the stuff of imagination. As we today live in a world previously only dreamt of. Very few today, I think, would care to return to an earlier time given the opportunity; I would wager that even fewer still would choose to return to today’s world a millennium from now.
Although the objection to this optimism about the future, if that is what it is, immediately jumps out at us. Who is to say that a better future, if any future at all given the apocalyptic prophecies of both the secular and theological camps, awaits us? Might the future not be a whole lot worse than the present? Well yes quite possibly it may. So all we can say with some confidence then is potentially a brilliant future awaits, to be realized by us or our offspring; and to this we add the qualification that quite possibly we may fail in our endeavors to realise this evolved future, rather entropy may prevail and that which we have achieved may well be undone.
So I ask again how do I as the hypothetical, Self-Realized, Jnani reconcile myself to this existential conundrum? To spell it out, how is it that I can be in a state of perfect, non attached equanimity, assigning no value judgments to my life, and simultaneously believe that that Heaven or Hell lie in my future, and the future of my race and, that my actions now will determine or influence which destination is achieved?
To this, I imagine the Jnani would smile knowingly and ask, knowing as we do the illusory nature of the Utopian Concept, how fundamentally that future state would differ from our current existence? As today we have, what the Natural Man would describe as, problems and as we had them in the past so too will we have them in the future. Although that future state may be more evolved it will not be better, or worse, and that to wish it to be is a vain aspiration. It is in Zen terms to attempt an absolute victory of the Self over the Not Self.
The question is this, is such victory, the unequivocal, unqualified triumph of man’s will a vain aspiration? Are we destined to forever share Sisyphus’ fate?