Category Archives: essay

The Zen Paradox

(a short essay)

Eastern philosophies have always concerned themselves with paradox. From Buddhism, to Zen, to Taoism, to Hinduism, the perception of paradox lies outside of mere observation and encompasses almost a loose dogma in which paradox becomes a sort of “WWJD” for life’s dilemmas. Ethical questions are answered with contradictions, and absurdity becomes the basis for understanding reason. A question might be answered with a paradox or enigma to get the asker to un-think the initial question; a casual undoing of thought. One of the most well-known examples of this was when a monk asked Dongshan Shouchu – an ancient Chinese Zen teacher – what the Buddha was. Dongshan replied, “This flax weighs three pounds.” However, with the emphasis of paradox and contradiction in Eastern philosophy, these philosophies have become the embodiment of paradox themselves. Here is why:

Although several differences exist between these Eastern schools of philosophical thought, there is an underlying cement that binds them all together. This is the notion of “oneness.” Nearly every Eastern philosophy pushes this idea that individuality and separateness are illusions; that the universe – a word derived from the Old Latin “unus,” meaning ‘one’ – is a singular organism. As Alan Watts put it, “For ‘you’ is the universe looking at itself from billions of points of view, points that come and go so that the vision is forever new.” Or Aleister Crowley, “The universe is the Practical Joke of the General at the expense of the Particular.”

Many Eastern philosophies pave a spiritual path to enlightenment. This is especially true in the case of Zen Buddhism. If one fully realizes the teachings of the creed, he or she can become “enlightened.” Enlightenment is to be one of the highest attainments of life’s journey. This sets up a very obvious dichotomy between the enlightened and the unenlightened.

Now here is the paradox: Why concern yourself with the individual enlightenment of people if you believe the universe and everything in it to be one? If everything in existence is the embodiment of one breath, one process that works as a whole and doesn’t contain individual pieces, doesn’t the preoccupation with getting the illusionary pieces of this whole realize their innate reality sound ridiculous? If everything is one, then getting people to realize this becomes arbitrary, because that would be to define people as individual, the very concept you attempt to dispel. Thus, all philosophies that teach the “oneness” of the universe contradict themselves by supposing that there are individuals that need to be taught.

Disclaimer: I do not intend to claim that Eastern philosophies are ‘wrong’ in their beliefs. As an old Taoist poet once said, “the conflict between right and wrong is the sickness of the mind.”

Technology in the Aid of Revolution

Technologies, such as paper, eyeglasses, mechanical clocks, roadways, or any other extension of the human spirit, have forever changed the operational facilities of life. They have influenced the level of productivity that a society can achieve by creating extensions of our individually limited capacities. For example, eyeglasses enabled the workers of medieval times to extend their careers by several years, giving workers clarity of sight even in old age. Eyeglasses have also lead to the development of precision tools by focusing the eyes on mechanical detail.  Similarly, the Gutenberg press, and other printing innovations, have allowed for mass publication of news and ideas, while also raising the level of collective literacy.

Of course, with every new stride in technological development, there comes with it a certain level of consequence.  Certain technologies have both benefited human society as well as thrown in obstacles, limiting the scope of potential efficiency.  They have propelled our minds into a wealth of information, and they have sedated our minds with visions on the screen.  A long list of automated, prerecorded options on a company’s voicemail might save time and money for the company, but it also severely limits the level of communication and customer satisfaction.  One could even argue that the mechanical clock, although allowing us to organize our day, has lead to procrastination; since it is much easier to put something off till the last minute when one knows when the last minute is.

The question of whether or not technology as a whole has helped or hurt our human species could be equally supported on both sides.  Sometimes there is no concise answer to such inquiries.  What can be agreed upon is that technologies have influenced immense change and have completely revolutionized how we live as human animals.

David Landes says in his essay The Invention of Invention that, “Government rests on paper.”  Although it might be more accurate to say that government rests on language, – Hammurabi’s ancient Babylonian code of laws were printed on clay tablets – Landes does present an interesting point: without the proper means of organizing a standardized language of rules and regulations, it is very doubtful that a government could exert control over a large nation.

By mass producing printed law and constitutional rights, governments can distribute the same standardized information to a large populace and expect a consensus of understanding.  In this sense, the printed word has contributed to the rise of most governments’ ability to establish control.  One only need to look to the German propaganda of the 30s and 40s to realize the large influence the printed page has on our perceptions and actions, and the propensity toward indoctrination that these manufactured perceptions have.

When it comes to the printed word, on paper that is, ideas are easy to regulate.  Governments can easily burn and wipe clean the journals and papers of Wilhelm Reich, or they can distribute Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book to every citizen and enforce a mandatory reading.

On the other hand, digital print and media operate quite differently.  It opens publication to every individual, it’s hard to stop, and it has the ability to spread like wildfire.

The birth of new digital technologies, such as the internet and smart-phones, are inciting fear within the leaders of more authoritarian governments.  The regimes of China and Egypt are two contemporary examples of governments who have attempted to restrict citizens’ access to community-run websites and social networking.  They are terrified of the internet’s ability to share information and organize opposition.  What’s scarier for the rulers of oppressive nations than a populace that can organize and freely publish dissent?  The recent explosion of Wiki-Leaks is another great example of the impact that internet technology has on government; even in our own country.  The tides are turning, and governments no longer hold the restraints on media that they once had.

We are already seeing drastic changes in collective consciousness and public awareness due to technological developments that have raised the bar on global communication.  With ubiquitous and instantaneous spreading of information, cultural barriers are diminishing and new ideas are being pushed to the foreground of public discussion – such as the T.E.D. conferences which are now posted online. It is also worth mentioning that during the peak of Cairo’s revolution, anyone with internet access was able to go on and watch the rallies and protests that Cairo citizens were publishing from their smart-phones.

The famous chant “The whole world is watching” is brought under a different light and holds new meaning than it did for the antiwar protesters of Chicago in 1968.  The whole world really is watching, and it’s becoming more and more difficult for oppressive regimes to hide their citizens under their frayed cloak of ignorance.  Governments might rest on paper, but they’re reformed through binary.