Sunday, January 11, 2009

Pirsig: The Buddha within Analytic Thought

An interesting note to make; I was looking for a quote for another post when my eyes trolled across this in ZMM (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance):

“But about the Buddha that exists within analytic thought, and gives that analytic thought its direction, virtually nothing has been said, and there are historic reasons for this.”

Given Pirsig’s supposed experience with Buddhism I’m not sure how he can actually make this comment…

Up until the time of about the 6th century, the mirror idea of the mind prevailed in Chinese Buddhism; the basic idea of Zen meditation was to essentially wipe the dust from the mirror such that the Buddha and one’s self nature could be seen clearly. Zen at this time would spilt between two schools of thought; one school, that of Shen-hsiu’s which taught dust-wiping, and the other Hui.neg’s who taught that the Buddha exists in everything. If from the mind the world arises, why not let the latter rise as it pleases.
Hui-neng states:

There is no Bodhi-tree,
Nor stand of mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?

If this isn’t a rejection of the mirror of nature, I don’t know what is (I should note here that the mirror analogy is not one borrowed from Rorty in this instance, but strait from Buddhism at the time of the 6th century and prior). Again, the dominate idea prevailing in Buddhism up until the time of Hui-neng was that the Buddha-nature which is contained within all things is completely pure and undefiled in it’s self being. The idea of Zen meditation then, was to bring out the self-nature and restore it to it’s original purity. This sort of meditation, however, or better put this sort of conception often lead to the thinking that, by meditating as such one can clear the mirror of consciousness and thereby see the underlying form of his self-nature. Hui-neng’s protest was strongly against this view as he believed it had a suicidal effect on life – let the world arise as it arises. It is completely against the idea of Zen to have such a conception that one is restoring purity, that one is seeing past appearance to reveal the true reality of oneself.
Hui-neng proclaimed, “From the first not a thing is.” And this would stand as a cap stone to his Zen teaching and is meant to do away with the idea of attaining, or seeing purity, an underlying form.

Hui-neng rather, focuses on the world, of seeing and being. There is the seeing as one conceives objects as separate from himself, as recognizing two separate entities; and there is the seeing into the ultimate nature of things. The sort of seeing that can be aligned with “ultimate nature” is the sort which does away with notions of separate entities (subject object views), and rather insists that one see the seer and the object together, as becoming indentified with each other.

When one takes Hui-neng’s statement “From the first not a thing is” in substitution of previous Zen thinking as with the statement, “The self-nature of the Mind is pure and undefiled”, it's meant that all notions of the appearance/reality distinction disappear and one has nowhere to stand. It is this experience that is central to Zen Buddhism, the whole notion of seeing, yet having nothing to stand upon; under one’s feet is not the notion that something underlying is being represented, or that the Buddha is being revealed, the Buddha exists in everything.

So then, if we knife through Pirsig’s statement above and consider what Hui-neng is saying, I believe he would rightly agree that analytic thought, as a tool and manner of seeing and being in the world, vary much contains the Buddha. To say that analytic thought is not part of a Buddhist conception is (from the Buddhist perspective) simply to say that such conceptualizing, in terms of specificities, is not a necessity. When one blurs distinctions about purity and underlying form and focuses upon seeing and being within the world yet having nothing to stand upon, there’s no reason to develop philosophies around certain sorts of discourses, whether rhetoric, dialectic, analytic, so on, as this conception arises prior to the analytic. To put it another way, once one does away with appearence/reality distictions, one can let the discourse fall where it may, again, there's no reason to conceptualize about it. Pirsig seems to zero in on this point not due to the absence of a discussion considering a certain sort of discourse in Buddhism, but to reconcile his own specific thought process with one he seems to lean towards.


  1. Very interesting.

    In pedantic defense of Pirsig, I'm not sure Pirsig would disagree with anything you said. I think what he meant in the snip you took is that Western thought has neglected the Buddha within. The broad story Pirsig uses to describe the arc of philosophy is that Western philosophy out of Plato has been the exclusionary honing of analytic thought, analysis, which eventually dumps out into the methods of the natural sciences as they arose in Europe. Eastern thought, on this story, has been focused on something else.

    Pirsig might be saying that Eastern thought shows a deficit in regard to the Buddha within analytic thought, but only with two qualifiers 1) they haven't because Eastern traditions of philosophy have not refined the idea of "analytic thought" to the extent that the West has, so what they have said hasn't been able to cut to the heart of this thing called "analytic thought," but 2) Eastern traditions, on the other hand, have talked about it more than the West, because the refinement of this thing called "analytic thought" has been exclusionary and rejected advancement in the other direction so that it may pursue whole-heartedly the analytic direction (a "the vices of its virtues" kind of thing).

    I might add that "Buddha," on the loose, symbolic interpretation I just gave, needs to be interpreted as a symbol itself for discussion of, let's say, the "limits of reason"--of course you wouldn't find discussion of the Buddha in the West, it's an Eastern religious icon. It would be as narrow-minded as when the West kept bumping into new people and discovered how primitive and degenerate they were because they found very little discussion of Christ. So, in this case, the reason Pirsig is technically wrong here is because there has been a subterranean discussion of the Buddha/limits-of-reason that has gone against the grain of the Platonic picture since the very beginning--that's what the Sophists are.

    And on the other hand, why should we really limit "analytic thought" to the West, right? Well, I think Pirsig, given the story he's telling, the way he's telling it, and the ecumenical approach to East and West he's taking, is making a conceit: his story is a dialectical journey to be passed through, and once done, your new perspective will allow you to judge the means that got you there, the ladder you just climbed, as a little wrong. But this, I should argue, is part of his plan, a rhetorical strategy on his part, and realizing that, you allow him his conceits on behalf of the larger goal. (I should point out that Plato's Phaedrus is notably built this way, too.)

    (I should also mention, in a perhaps overly persnickety and scholastic manner, that if you really want to argue the interpretation of a passage, you should let your readers know where it is so they can follow along, too, just in case they want to challenge you ;-)

    However, all that being said, what you took the occasion of this passage to say is an occasion well taken, and very enlightening for my deaf-and-dumb-to-the-East ears.

    I wonder if you might in the future write something about the concept of maya. One of the troubles I've always had with those who speak with an Eastern-philosophical accent is that they seem to rely on a rhetoric that leans too heavily on the idea of maya, which seems to me wildly misleading for those who also want to say in the next breath that the appearance/reality distinction is bunk. These same people also like the idea of using direct/indirect, immediate/mediate distinctions in discussing experience and the enlightened position we should be in after reading Pirsig--which I think is just as wildly misleading.

    I typically get, "You just don't understand Eastern philosophy," which I concede, but it still doesn't clear up why we should continue on with that kind of rhetoric, when speaking philosophically at least. To my mind, what I rebel against in those formulations is exactly what Pirsig rebelled against in his famous scene with the Benares Professor--"Were the nukes and all the people that died at Hiroshima just illusions?" "Yes." "Okay, fuck this, I'm outa' here."

    What it sounds like to me, in your depiction of the history of Zen, is that there are two traditions--one that relies on maya-like metaphors and one that doesn't. The former is more like Platonism and enjoys appearance/reality rhetoric. The latter is more like negative theology and the Pyrrhonian skeptical tradition and enjoys making fun of people who enjoy appearance/reality rhetoric.

    I would be very interested in stuff about maya in the Eastern traditions.

  2. Well,
    Let me put this in perspective: I was looking for a particular quote for something else I was doing this morning and came across that from Pirsig, which for some reason exited some things I had in mind about Buddhism and non-realism.

    Here is the entire quote from Pirsig within the context it was written:

    There is a perennial classical question that asks which part of the motorcycle, which grain of sand in which pile, is the Buddha. Obviously to ask that question is to look in the wrong direction, for the Buddha is everywhere. But just as obviously to ask that question is to look in the right direction, for the Buddha is everywhere. About the Buddha that exists independently of any analytic thought much has been said...some would say too much, and would question any attempt to add to it. But about the Buddha that exists within analytic thought, and gives that analytic thought its direction, virtually nothing has been said, and there are historic reasons for this. But history keeps happening, and it seems no harm and maybe some positive good to add to our historical heritage with some talk in this area of discourse.

    What I mentioned in the end of my post was crucial to the thought I had about the quote, and that is, Pirsig is merely here trying to reconcile the analytic. My point is really to say that there isn’t any reason to talk about analytic thought, just let it be. In this sense I’m sort of robbing from what Pirsig is attempting to do in his book and I’m fully well aware of that; furthermore I’d tend to agree with your comments on the matter. My defense would be that I was writing from an eastern perspective, in which case my comments would make sense, from the other side of the fence one could say I was missing the point. NOTE: My writing style often takes on the form of me writing to myself, and/or, as if I’m talking to myself.

    On maya:
    I had typed out quite a long response to this, but then thought maybe I’d save it for a post. Here’s the problem, first off maya is a Hindu concept, has handfuls of different uses and conceptions, and unless one identifies himself with a particular school of Hindu thought what that person says is a mystery. I’m inferring from your Pirsig quote that you’re merely talking about reality as an illusion, which is about as loose a conception of maya I can think of, but is probably how most of us white breads who know anything about it would use it. And therein lays the problem with people who throw Buddhism around. I use the analogy of a westerner thinking Buddhism is Buddhism as compared to an easterner thinking western philosophy is western philosophy. It doesn’t make any sense to say that words are tools yet also representations (necessarily), but if philosophy is philosophy, one may be inclined to suggest this.

    What I’m saying is, people like to throw around Buddhism without understanding that there are as many schools of though in it as there are in philosophy. There are realists and non-realists in Buddhism just as there are in philosophy, so on and so on. You say: “it still doesn't clear up why we should continue on with that kind of rhetoric, when speaking philosophically at least.” And I respond, exactly – if one cannot bridge the gap between his notions of Buddhism and his philosophical concepts, then I submit he doesn’t know shit about Buddhism. To put it another way, if one cannot take a given theory and put it in plain English such that a group of college freshmen can understand it, chances are you don’t understand it yourself. So to pull this “You just don’t understand card”, is merely to say to oneself, “I really don’t know enough about this to explain it”, which means you should just admit to that, or shut your yapper.

    I’ll have to come back to this – I have a few more things I’d like to comment on but this started to get long and the wife wants me off.

  3. From this Eastern perspective, you say, "there isn’t any reason to talk about analytic thought," but I think you'll have to admit that seems false on its face. Talking about the way we think, analyze, whatever, is how we hone them--it's where logic and science come from, thinking about the way we think.

    The problem is a kind of equivocation in terms that Pirsig is often guilty of. A particular discourse is a particular conceptualization. What dropping the appearance/reality distinction means is that there is a particular discourse/conceptualization that we can do without, Platonism (or the above case, Shen-hsiuism).

    Pirsig's problem, as with many (Derrida, for instance), is that he tends to conflate "Platonism" with "thinking." I think we should avoid that. We shouldn't say "analytic thought is not part of a Buddhist conception" because the then oxymoron "Buddhist conception" gives the game away--you can't have a conception without analytic thought. Therefore the Buddhists do have analytic thoughts, they've just been doing something different than in the West all these years.

  4. Let me put that another way, there is no reason to say that analytic thought contains or does not contain the Buddha. From that respect, there is no reason to talk about it. When I say conceptualize, I’m talking about with respect to the Buddha/enlightenment.

    I’ll see if I can expand on the tomorrow…