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Objectivism and Zen
by Paul Hibbert

Until several months ago when I read the speech, 'John Galt Recants', by David Stewart I thought I was the only person on the planet who believed that Objectivism and Zen weren't mutually exclusionary. Ayn Rand roasts Zen mercilessly as in 'The Romantic Manifesto': "I suggest you take note of the following fact: by rejecting reason and surrendering to the unhampered sway of their unleashed emotions (and whims), the apostles of irrationality, the existentialists, the Zen Buddhists, the non-objective artists have not achieved a free, joyous, triumphant life, but a sense of doom, nausea and screaming, cosmic terror".

Let me describe my own, personal interpretation of the essence of Zen, as briefly as possible. This is not sanctioned by any authority on the subject and I am certainly a novice, but I don't think it would be disputed. Zen is the practice of introspectively and uncompromisingly searching for your true nature by eradicating all conditioning and preconceptions to allow you to see [subjective] reality in its essence. Intensive meditation, either concentrating on one's awareness of the moment, or solving koans can lead to satori. Satori is the awakening of the truth lying beyond dualism and discrimination that brings about a fundamental transformation of the personality and a wholly fresh vision of the world. When this state has been experienced one understands the concepts of "Emptiness", or "Nothingness" and this leads to great joy that the barriers to understanding have been breached. Koans are riddles that are designed to throw logical thought into total confusion, such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" or, "Show me your face before your father was born". These are directed to the right hemisphere of the brain where there is no possibility of solving them with logic or reason. Zen has no concept of a supernatural being. Buddha is revered as a teacher, but not worshiped. There is no afterlife -- when you are dead, you are dead. Zen has been exploited by Samurai to become fearless warriors but that practice is repugnant to the spirit of Zen, which is dedicated to non-coercion. Zen has been used very successfully in the martial arts as a tool of self-defense to gain concentration and composure in the face of danger. Zen archery is a well known -- "become one with the arrow". Zen is sometimes called "the direct pointing to reality".

Conventional Objectivists will strenuously object to this as being mysticism (or whatever) that destroys men's mind and incapacitates them for rational thought in the phenomenal world. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the objective world and subjective world are independent, but complementary.

'John Galt Recants' was published in the early eighties and seems to have all but disappeared from any Objectivist discussions. I am disappointed that in the following excerpts from his speech, Stewart uses the word "consciousness" where he clearly, in my mind, intends to convey "awareness". Awareness in the sense of Zen implies the acknowledgement of the moment, the "Now" -- the blood pulsing in one's arteries, one's breathing, the ache in one's knees, the smells and sounds.

Let me quote some relevant passages from Stewart's speech:

Eastern philosophy, particularly Zen, has understood only consciousness--with predictable results. Objectivism has understood only rationality--with predictable results. Other philosophies have understood little of either--with tragically predictable results. Zen, which is a-rational, together with Objectivism, which is un-conscious, makes a good philosophical beginning. Neither philosophy has chosen to see the other side of the coin, the integrated wholeness which is man.

(Man) cannot reason and be conscious at the same time.

Man, if not the only one, is one of the few species of animal who possesses the faculty of reason, and for that and only that reason, he must unfocus it in order to be conscious; he must become a-rational to the extent that he chooses to direct his awareness. Non-reasoning animals are incapable of "tuning out" their awareness. It is only a reasoning animal that can reject, sabotage and betray his consciousness, because it is only a reasoning animal that faces the alternative of reason vs. awareness.

Because man has the choice of focusing or not focusing his reason, he has the choice of focusing or not focusing his awareness. To focus one is to unfocus the other. Rational focus leads to mental power; conscious focus leads to physical power. Rational focus leads to logical consequences; conscious focus leads to physiological consequences. Rational focus leads to a feeling of particularized efficacy; conscious focus leads to a feeling of metaphysical efficacy.

To be fully conscious, to be fully aware, to "accept" reality, is to do nothing, to place no thought between one's self and existence. Objective reality means undistorted by perception; objective knowledge means undistorted by interpretation.

What Stewart did not observe is that man is endowed with two brains; the left one dedicated to verbal, linear, logical, analytical, deductive thought; the right one to emotions, intuition, visualization, inductive thought and artistic creativity. When functioning normally the two halves are coordinated but at any particular time one side predominates. My contention is that our dealings with politics, the economy and all those things associated with government and society outside of our personal relationships be relegated to our left brains and those dealings with our friends, relatives, family and so on be processed by our right brains. In my opinion this compartmentalization should be as rigorous as the separation of church and state; state being concerned with politics, the economy, etc. and church representing the emotional, intuitive aspects of one's life.

It follows that I regard the prevalent Objectivist criticism of non-objective art as balderdash. When I walk into an art gallery and glance at a room full of paintings I know at an instant whether a particular work is meaningful to me or not. An attractive work may be objective or non-objective but there is no process of analysis or evaluation. If the work exalts me or if it gives me some understanding of someone else's pain then in either case I have been enriched. These are purely right brain reactions.

When viewed from this perspective Zen has no contradiction with Objectivism because each resides in its own realm. There have been studies performed on long-time Zen practitioners that verify that they perceive each of a number of repetitive stimuli as new whereas non-practitioners become inured to them. Repetitive clicking sounds for a Zen practitioner continue stimulating their brains the same way but non-practitioners automatically learn to ignore them or to diminish their effect. Objectivists also try to eradicate psychological conditioning and perceive reality but they use the techniques of logic and analysis. Both approaches are valid but they must be constrained to their respective realms. Contrary to traditional Objectivist thought, there is a subjective reality. When the universe blinks out at the instant of death there is no Objective reality because there are no objects. The subjective reality is of "nothingness", not even consciousness. That the universe may continue perking away for everyone else is meaningless to the subject whose consciousness has terminated. Rand has virtually nothing to say about death except that she is an atheist, but this surely should be one of the deepest concerns of philosophy.

In the past I have struggled trying to understand why I had the views I had without a basic insight. The key was expressed succinctly by David Stewart in his statement, "Man cannot reason and be conscious [be fully aware] at the same time". This pulled everything together for me. I have been unable to find any trace of David Stewart and don't even know if he is alive. The views that I have expressed fit my personality and psychology like a glove and I am now very comfortable with them.

In my view, the "Big Mistake" is that of conventional Objectivists and others trying to apply logic and reason to those spheres of the human brain where logic and reason aren't capable of being processed, and equally, of artists, actors, performers, religious leaders proselytizing about secular issues which, for the most part, they have little or no personal capability for logic and reason. Whatever a religious person considers as a moral duty should be expressed as an individual action rather than attempting to impose that duty on the population as a whole by political means. That is crossing the line of compartmentalization and leads to coercion.

David Stewart's views don't cause me to devalue my admiration for Ayn Rand one whit any more than Einstein's discoveries don't detract from Newton's prestige. It's just that I think she painted with too broad a brush and David Stewart refined her philosophy so that man can become a more integrated being.

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