Odyssey, part 7: The Knowledge Road to Nowhere

I grew up impressed with the need to know. And now my spiritual practice is not knowing.

My Unitarian Universalist upbringing pointed me towards the path of philosophy, but the philosophy teacher whose work compelled me might better be described as an anti-philosopher. My spiritual journey as a UU and a Buddhist has both illuminated and cast doubt on the traditional hope for reason and rationality to yield religious truth.

I grew up impressed with the need to know, and equally impressed that many claims of knowledge were false. I was raised by two college teachers: Mom, a professor of chemistry, and Dad, English. As their first-born, I imbibed their core value: know stuff. Dad had a plaque over his desk, quoting Plato:
There is only one good, knowledge; only one evil, ignorance.
I was raised in the South by Yankee parents who became Unitarians about the time I was born. After a few years each in Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama, as my parents climbed the academic ladder, we settled in Carrollton, Georgia, a small town without a Unitarian Universalist congregation. On Sundays we drove an hour to attend the UU Congregation of Atlanta.

In childhood, I had showed symptoms of the philosophy bug. I was one of those kids who, early on, was fascinated with the thought that the color experience I call “red” might be experienced by other people the way I experience blue. I was drawn to the nonsense questions – though I had no grasp on their nonsensicality. At age 6, I had wanted to know, “What’s the opposite of a rubber band?” Would it be its elasticity or its loop shape that would be reversed? The teachers at my Unitarian Universalist Sunday School classes seemed to enjoy my loopy questions – and gave me others to think about.

I was in fourth grade the first time I can remember hearing the word “atheist.” I asked what it meant, and shortly thereafter decided that I was one. My Sunday School teachers were nonreactive when I announced this to them, but my Carrollton classmates were gratifyingly scandalized. Some of them sought to rescue me from certain damnation. Naturally, I became a debater. Then a debate coach.

By my mid-20s, I was a graduate student in communication studies at Baylor University studying for a career as college debate coach. I took a number of classes in "argumentation" where we talked a lot about justificatory devices for beliefs. I’d majored in philosophy as an undergrad, and had the vague sense that some of what my philosophy profs had been carrying on about might be relevant. I had the philosophy bug. So one semester I wandered across the quad to take a course, "Epistemology" (Theory of Knowledge), in Baylor's philosophy department. The last reading assignment in the class consisted of two chapters from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) by Richard Rorty.

Descartes' (1596-1650) concerns with establishing foundations for knowledge had moved epistemology to the center of Western philosophy. Rorty diagnosed the obsession with epistemology as deriving from a conception of knowledge as “mirroring” nature. A true sentence was one that “reflected” or “represented” the way things really are. Against this representationalist conception of knowledge, Rorty drew upon his rather free-wheeling interpretations of certain other philosophers – especially, John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Martin Heidegger – to argue for a revival of pragmatism, the American philosophy developed by Charles Peirce, William James, and Dewey in the 19th and early-20th century. Rorty’s pragmatism said that the point of inquiry is not to picture the way things really are, but to cope with them.

It’s not just that absolute certainty is unobtainable; rather we have no general way to assess even relative certainty – i.e, no way to be “more certain” or “less certain.” (We do have the conventions for calculating probability within particular technical fields -- meteorology, say, or genetics. Those conventions suit the field’s purposes. What we don’t have is a way to know what purpose a human life, either overall or at any particular time, ought – or even probably ought – to have.)

Knowing – and therefore life, as I understood it – isn’t about mirroring or even “approximately” mirroring reality. Rather, it’s about doing.

I was hooked. I read everything by Rorty I could get my hands on. I wrote my thesis at Baylor on "Richard Rorty's Pragmatism: Implications for Argumentation Theory." From there, I took a job as a speech instructor and assistant debate coach for a couple years. Soon, though, I abandoned that career track and enrolled as a PhD student at the University of Virginia, where Rorty was then on the faculty. For four years I took every class he offered, pored over the prepublication typescripts of each new essay as it appeared from the departmental copy machine.

It was exhilarating and liberating in two ways. First, I was getting progressively clearer on how the quest for certainty was misbegotten. There is no such thing as the sort of knowledge that Plato, through my father’s desk plaque, had been telling me was the only good since before I knew the difference between Plato and Play-Dough. Rorty’s pragmatism absolved me of the burden to seek and acquire such Platonic certainty. Second, not only did I not have to get that kind of knowledge, but if it’s not the sort of thing one can have, then my evangelical grade-school classmates didn’t have it either. Whew! In one swell foop I had marked my independence from both my parents and my peers.

In due course, the degree requirements were met, and I joined the ranks of fresh assistant professors of philosophy. In one of my earliest lay sermons for my local Unitarian Universalist congregation, I addressed the nature of truth:
“We speak of true diamonds, true friends. Someone particularly suited to her field – say, engineering, is said to be a true engineer. We speak of the arrow flying straight and true to its target. If the billiard table cloth is true, then it is flat and level. When I take my bicycle in for a tune up, they “true” the wheels – make them straight. From a philosophical point of view, it’s the truth of sentences that we’re talking about when we talk about truth – not the truth of diamonds, friends, or bicycle wheels. What we’re after when we want truth on some subject is to know which sentences, if presented to us on a true-false test, to mark with a ‘T.’ It’s one thing to commend certain sentences as handy for some purpose or other – to say of those sentences that they are ‘true’ as a mental note to remember them when dealing with their subject matter. It’s quite another thing to insist that certain sentences will always and forever warrant a ‘T.’ This is the ‘truth as death’ conception of truth. It comes from the yearning for sentences that we will never have to revise or modify our understanding. Such a yearning is like a death wish – a wish to be freed from growing and changing. . . . There is no truth ‘out there’ – just waiting, like the elephant encountered by the five blind men – for us to get our hands around more of it. Sentences are human creative products, just as art and music are. We produce beliefs – sentences to which we give our assent – as best we can to meet our purposes, and we will always be re-creating belief and knowledge as our purposes guide our inquiry and what we learn in turn leads us to redefine our purposes. . . . Art does not aim at gradually converging toward the one ultimate eternal beauty. Nor should we see our sentences and beliefs as converging toward one ultimate eternal truth – even an infinitely far-off truth. The search for truth is not aimed at bringing itself to an end. It's not that the target is impossibly far off. It's that there is no overall target – only local and temporary targets.”
I cannot say that, as I composed these words, I imagined Rorty looking over my shoulder, smiling, and nodding. That wasn’t his way. His way had always been, when I brought to him the astonishing (to me) fruits of my intellectual labors, to shrug and say, “sure.”

What I had learned under Rorty – drawing especially on one of his heroes, Ludwig Wittgenstein -- was more anti-philosophy than philosophy. Grand philosophical projects such as those of Plato, Descartes, and Kant were based on a certain sort of nonsense – namely, the sort that results when concepts that make sense in one particular area of human endeavor are extended too far out of their context to make any sense. For instance, we can ask whether a bottle is upside-down or not only if the bottle is within a context that establishes “up” and “down”, and the conventions of the bottle’s use establish which end is its “upside.” To ask whether the entire universe is upside-down is nonsense because there is no larger context that would establish “up” from “down.” The concept “upside-down-ness” makes sense within a context; applied universally, stripped of context, it’s a nonsense concept. It’s not just that we don’t have enough data yet. Nor is it a case of, “We mere mortals will never know, but God knows.” Rather, this is a nonsense question from the beginning. “The big questions” of philosophy tend to be that way.

For me, graduate study in philosophy was therapy, curing me of the grip of my philosophical bug. From Wittgenstein, I read that the aim of philosophy is “to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” The image stuck with me: philosophy as buzzing around inside a bottle of questions, trying to answer them, unable to see a way out. Reading Wittgenstein under Rorty, I came to see the “nonsense” in philosophical questions. My twenty-six-year-old self was finally able to say something satisfactory to my six-year-old self: “The concept of ‘opposite’ applies in some contexts, but it is not, dear child, a universal concept. ‘Opposite’ doesn’t apply to rubber bands.” In the unlikely event that my six-year-old self would have appreciated this point, I would have added, “Indeed, there are no universal concepts. Every concept has its work to do, and can do so only within the context of purposes and practices for which it was created.”

The questions that Western philosophers regard as central have gradually shifted through the centuries, but I began to notice that the old questions weren’t ever actually answered. (Or, if they were, then that area of inquiry spun off into an empirical discipline and wasn’t “philosophy” any more.) The history of philosophy, Rorty once noted, isn’t one of answering questions, but of getting over them.

One of the questions I got over, with the help of Wittgenstein-via-Rorty, was that “color conundrum.” Wittgenstein once answered the question, “How do I know it’s red?” by saying, “I know it’s ‘red’ because I speak English.” In other words, “red” is a concept (for to have a concept is to be able to use a word), and all there is to do with a concept is use it in the ways appropriate to the speakers of the language within which the word/concept has its place. There’s the doing – and, beyond that, there’s nothing there. “Red,” ultimately, is...empty.

I came to Buddhism slowly. I read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha in eighth grade and felt its impact like a body blow. With nowhere to go to build on that experience, it gradually faded – yet a seed had been planted. In college, I mused, captivated, over the Dao De Jing (not strictly Buddhism, but an influence on the Zen form). As an assistant professor of philosophy at a small liberal arts school, I was called upon occasionally to teach a “Humanities” course that included surveying the world religions. As I prepared for the Buddhism unit, I found many of the teachings eerily reminiscent of what I’d spent graduate school thinking about.

In one of the sutras, the Buddha is presented with the sort of questions that philosophy and religion typically wrestle: Is the world eternal or not? Finite or infinite? Is the soul the same as the body or different? Does a person exist after death or not? The Buddha replies:
“Suppose a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: ‘I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble or a Brahmin or a merchant or a worker; until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the man who wounded me was tall or short or of middle height; was dark or brown or golden-skinned; lives in such a village or town or city; until I know whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; the bowstring was fiber or reed or sinew or hemp or bark; the shaft was wild or cultivated; with what kind of feathers the shaft was fitted; with what kind of sinew the shaft was bound; whether the arrow was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed or calf-toothed or oleander. All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die.” (Culamalunkya Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 63)
The sutra goes on to say that having any of these views -- that the world is eternal, not eternal, etc., -- precludes the holy life. The Buddha refuses to address any such question because it
“does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.”
How very...pragmatic! Buddha, too, was trying to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle. What took me years more to grasp was that liberation from philosophical questions by way of a philosophical explanation of the nonsensicality of the questions was partial liberation at best.

My call away from teaching philosophy and to Unitarian Universalist ministry came as a double awareness: (1) I can do that (I’m good at public speaking; I’m reasonably smart; I’ve been a UU all my life, and I love our congregations); and (2) I have no idea how to do that (i.e., the other stuff ministers do or are, which I couldn’t then even name, skills eventually described to me as “projecting spiritual presence”). Somehow, dimly, I perceived that the part I was clueless about – so clueless I couldn’t say what it was – was the next step in my journey. It was the lack I needed most to fill.

So when, after one year of seminary training for ministry, the Midwest Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy told me to “get a spiritual practice,” I knew before I’d arrived back home what that practice would be. The idea of meditation seemed like a good one. The time had come, it seemed, actually do it.

I began the way I usually begin new things: I got a book. It told me about mindfulness, finding a posture for stillness, and what to do with my mind while being still. And what to do when my mind wandered off from doing what I had told it to do.

I started with fifteen minutes a day, and after a couple months was up to 30 minutes each morning of sitting meditation. I started going to weekly meditation group meetings and insight meditation classes. I spent one year with a Vipassana (Insight) meditation teacher, and then began checking out Zen teachers. I started sitting every day.

In 2002, LoraKim and I moved to El Paso, and I started exploring Zen. I had heard that there was a UU minister named James Ford who was also a Zen master. I wrote to Rev. Ford and asked his advice. He wrote back and said:
“There are two times to visit many masters: at the beginning of your training, and at the end.”
He listed some I could visit, and his strongest recommendation was for Ruben Habito, a Filipino former Jesuit priest teaching comparative religion at Perkins Theological School in Dallas. I visited with, and meditated with, and chanted with, and absorbed the dharma talks of Zen teachers in Las Cruces, and Tucson, and Albuquerque, and Austin, before finally going to see Ruben in Dallas. Ruben has been my Zen teacher ever since. I go out to Dallas for week-long Zen retreats when I get the chance, and in between retreats, we’re in touch occasionally by phone or email.

Since 2001, I’ve been sitting daily, going to retreats 2-5 times a years ever since. The Rorty-dharma in many ways prepared me well for the Buddhadharma. In Zen and Buddhism books and in the dharma-talks (teisho) of Zen teachers, I hear recurrent echoes of the themes of my graduate school experience. Attachment to your picture of reality doesn’t help. Upaya (skillful means) does. Concepts are empty, yet useful within a context of a particular purpose. All things are impermanent, including the list of sentences that humans, at any given time, commend as ‘true.’ Things do not have essences or permanent, distinct identities, but are a continually shifting networks of relationships – and this includes the self. Rorty taught “radical contingency;” which I discovered the Buddha also taught, calling it “interdependent co-origination.”

Buddhist practice has, however, brought me to a place that my academic studies led me away from. I completed graduate school with the understanding that everything was linguistic and purposive. “True friends” or “true diamonds” were just figures of speech – the only sort of truth worth talking about was truth as an attribute of certain sentences (the true ones). The only “knowing” worthy of concern was knowing how to make and recognize true sentences. This was the orientation that made me a philosopher. Moreover, the only way to assess knowledge and truth was within the context set by some particular purpose. This was the orientation that made me a pragmatist. So when I first heard my Buddhist teachers talking about “seeing things exactly as they are in themselves,” with my own attachments and purposes “dropped away,” I had no idea how to charitably interpret such talk. Had not Wittgenstein established that “all seeing is seeing as”? There is no Kantian thing-in-itself – nor even a “red” apart from the practices and purposes of calling things red.

I don’t know how to resolve this issue except in practice (“pragmatically”). My inner Zen teacher says to me, “Never mind if ‘everything is purposive,’ or not. There’s a poisoned arrow that’s killing you, Meredith, so let’s set that question aside. Never mind about everything and bring mindfulness to just what is before you right now. Do you notice the presence of purpose within you? Fine. Just notice it. If, in the glare of your attention, that purposive category of perception begins to loosen its grip, does another one pop up in its stead? Fine. Just notice that one, too. Does some word or phrase arise to attach itself to your perception? OK. Notice that, too.”

The path to nonlinguistic, nonpurposive presence is one step at a time. Notice and see through the linguistic description and the purpose it serves. Then the next one, then the next, then the next. Just keep at it. This is the path.

I grew up impressed with the need to know. And now my spiritual practice is not knowing: opening myself to let each thing present itself afresh without burying it under the load of all the concepts I worked so long to acquire.

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Next: "Odyssey, part 8: Walls and Fridges"
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"Odyssey, part 5: The Commune Attraction"
"Odyssey, part 4: Paragon of Loquacious Discourse"
"Odyssey, part 3: Mr. Bear's Lover of Leaving"
"Odyssey, part 2: Falling Apples"
"Odyssey, part 1: 1959"