July 31, 2000

This issue of Phlit was delayed, partly because I was traveling in England. Sorry. After I got home from my travels, I said to myself every day, “today I’m going to sit down and write something.” But every day, the sun set, the moon rose, and my paper was still blank. At any rate, here’s the July issue of Phlit.

1. Aphorisms

We read in the news that another top Microsoft executive has left. He explained his departure by saying that he had some good offers from startup companies, his market value was high right now. He has been with Microsoft since 1988, doubtless he’s a multi-millionaire, but he still wants to make more money, and no one bats an eye, no one finds that at all surprising. I wish that someday we’d read, “So-and-so has resigned from Microsoft. He explained his departure by saying that he had enough money, and he thought it was silly to continue spending most of his time making money. He said that he realized making money is just a game, a game that people play to pass the time, and to make themselves feel productive.” When are we going to read that?

The spiritual bankruptcy of our society is evident from two phenomena: the popularity of gambling (lotteries, casinos, etc.) and the popularity of amusement parks. The gambling craze seems to grow ever stronger, with state governments sponsoring lotteries and encouraging people to buy lottery tickets, and with casinos sprouting up everywhere. Amusement parks compete to see who can build the most thrilling roller coaster. Someone said to me the other day, “I waited in line for three hours, and the ride only lasted two minutes, but it was wonderful, a great ride.”

Zen is a religion without superstition. It has

  1. no holy men
  2. no holy places
  3. no holy books
  4. no heaven and hell
  5. no commandments or laws
  6. no rites or ceremonies
  7. no miracles
  8. no prophecies (that is, no predictions of the coming of the holy man)
Compared to Zen, the three monotheistic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — are all encrusted with superstition.

My wife is in China with our 2-year-old daughter. She writes me as follows: “we went to a shopping mall, where they have an indoor playground. She was extremely happy to play there, and she really behaved like an American girl, openly displaying her excitement, which the other Chinese children didn’t. Everybody noticed the difference, and was paying attention to her.” How to account for such a dramatic behavior difference at such a young age?

While reading Harding’s biography of Thoreau, I’m struck by how easily writers contact each other: Whitman contacts Emerson, Emerson contacts Carlyle, etc. Today things are very different, today it’s difficult for an aspiring writer to contact an established writer, today established writers build walls around themselves (Solzhenitsyn, Salinger) or hide from the world like an outlaw (Pynchon), today established writers complain that they’re besieged by hordes of aspiring writers. Today the literary world suffers from overpopulation, and from the bright light of the mass media, which makes fame burdensome.

It’s great to be a team player — if the team is on track. But if the team is off track, if the team is “up to no good,” then it isn’t a virtue to be a team player, it’s a vice. Of all the vices to which mortal flesh is liable, surely this is the most common vice: to be a team player when you shouldn’t be, to “go with the flow” when you should stand alone.

There are, I’ve decided, two sorts of people in the world, individuals and institutionals. An individual is a person who has a mind of his own and a conscience of his own. An institutional is a person who is at home in an institution, who knows how to play the game, who knows what direction the tide is flowing in, whose mind and conscience are not his own, but belong to the world around him.

If you’ll permit an American to comment on matters British, I’d like to talk briefly about the death of Princess Diana — more specifically, about the aftermath of Diana’s death. At Diana’s funeral, Tony Blair quoted several Bible passages, each of which mentioned love. Was Blair referring to Diana’s love for mankind, or to his own love for Diana, or to Diana’s love for her boyfriend? Or was he simply trying to find quotations on love from an old and respected source? Blair’s keen political antennae told him that love is politically correct in the highest degree, and that when you give a speech, the more you talk about love, the more politically correct the speech is. Diana’s brother had a different reaction to her death, not because he loved Diana less, but because he said what his heart dictated, not what his political antennae dictated. Diana’s brother said that the journalists who profited from Diana’s celebrity had blood on their hands. Journalists didn’t like this message, so they attacked the messenger; in the U.S., NBC News carried a story attacking Diana’s brother. He deserved it, for he had broken the laws of political correctness, the laws that Tony Blair had so scrupulously observed.1

2. Who Am I?

Our discussion group — which meets monthly at a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island — has begun reading Alan Watts’ The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. It’s about that little word ‘I’, and it tries to answer the question, “Who Am I?” I once regarded such matters as arcane, dry and irrelevant, but Zen has taught me to see their practical side, to see how they affect our living and our dying.

Before I reveal who I am and who you are, permit me to go back to the late 1600s, and the English philosopher John Locke. Locke said that objects have primary qualities, such as substance and extension, and secondary qualities, such as color and taste. According to Locke, secondary qualities are subjective; they depend on you and I the perceivers, and don’t exist in the object itself. Primary qualities, on the other hand, actually exist.

To illustrate Locke’s theory, let’s look at a rose. You and I see it as red. A bee, which sees a different spectrum of light than you and I, may see it as yellow. A person with common sense says, “don’t talk to me, I know what I see, and that rose is red.” A bee with common sense says, “don’t talk to me, I know what I see, and that rose is yellow.” What is the color of the rose apart from any perceiver? (Perhaps this reminds you of the old philosophical puzzle, “if a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one around to hear, does it make a sound?”) As Kant would say, what is the color of the “thing-in-itself”? According to Kant, we cannot know the thing-in-itself, we cannot know what color the rose really is, we cannot know if the falling tree makes a sound, we can only know how things appear to us, we can only know the “phenomenal world” (to use Kant’s phrase). Locke’s position is similar, though his terminology is different; according to Locke, color is one of those secondary qualities that don’t actually exist.

Berkeley went further than Locke, arguing that not only secondary qualities, but also primary qualities were dependent on the perceiver, and didn’t actually exist; Berkeley questioned whether things like extension and solidity actually exist. Certain Greek philosophers, like Democritus, had said that what really exists is atoms; Democritus said that an atom is a very small, uncuttable thing. Today, we no longer regard the atom as solid and uncuttable. Is there, then, nothing solid in this miserable world, nothing that we can lean against without worrying that it will collapse?

Berkeley believed in mind; he didn’t question the reality of the perceiving mind. Hume, going further than Berkeley, argued that mind is no more solid and substantial than physical objects. In Hume’s view, the mind, the ego, the ‘I’, is only a series of perceptions or thoughts. Who, then, am I, and who are you?

Alan Watts argues that we aren’t separate beings, we aren’t isolated egos cut off from the external world by our skin, we’re part of the whole, part of all that is. Internal and external are one, I and The World are one. Nothing is separate, everything is a part of the whole. Watts doesn’t pretend to be expounding an original theory, but rather an ancient theory that developed in India.

Stop reading and look out of the window. You see a tree and you think, “that’s a separate thing, I don’t care what anybody says.” Now reflect: the tree grows leaves. Are the leaves part of the tree, or separate from the tree? Part of the tree, no doubt. But if the leaves die and fall to the ground, they appear to be separate from the tree. When they disintegrate, however, and provide nourishment to that same tree, they appear to be part of it, not separate from it. Like leaves, seeds may be seen as part of the tree, or separate from it. If a seed grows into another tree, should we call it “separate”? Isn’t the second tree of the same substance as the first? “Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.” And if the tree draws its life from sunlight, water and air, can we call it a separate thing? Is it not part of the sunlight, the water, the air? Is it not just another form of sunlight, another form of water and air? Could it be that everything is a form of everything else, everything is One?

Now stop reading and look at that tree again. Is it really a separate thing? And if it’s not, then you and I aren’t either, for the same reasons that the tree isn’t. Aren’t you and I forms of sunlight, water and air, forms of everything else? And if we have a child, is he not separate and yet the same, external yet internal? If an apple is in our ice box, it appears separate, but if it’s in our stomach, then what? If it becomes part of our brain, then what?

The boundaries that demarcate things are not as clear as common sense supposes. The boundaries that demarcate things gradually vanish when we look at them closely. We begin to see the world as one world, one process, one stream of change. We begin to see ourselves differently, and we begin to define that little word ‘I’ differently.

© L. James Hammond 2004
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1. “Love! Has any word been so abused and debased? It is used as a veil to cover weakness. When the path is narrow, steep and slippery, it can be cut short — by love. When a man walks on the broad road of sin, there is still hope — in love. When he sees his goal but will not fight towards it, he can conquer — through love.” (Ibsen, Brand, Act III) back