“Plato regarded philosophy as the greatest good ever imparted by Divinity to man. In the twentieth century, however, it has become a ponderous and complicated structure of arbitrary and irreconcilable notions — yet each substantiated by almost incontestable logic.”
—Manly Hall, Secret Teachings of All Ages
“There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.”
—Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings
Studying Zen while being fed a curriculum of post-structuralist, post-Marxist, post-Freudian and/or deconstructionist philosophy was all I needed to say, “No thanks, guys.” I wasn’t a hard philosophy major, and it’s taken up until fairly recently since I graduated to return to the honest study of philosophy that I haphazardly began in high school. As in most things, study is best done by yourself. Worse yet than studying alone is studying among people who claim to be studying but aren’t. You don’t need a teacher to transmit philosophy to you in the way Zen monks believe you need a teacher to transmit proper meditative practice to you. All you have to do is put the time into carefully reading texts.
Language, used properly and responsibly, has the power to compel. Its value lies in its ability to provoke action and attention. I’m currently working my way through Nietzsche’s powerful catalog. He reminds us of the sheer potential language has to conjure us out of our mental slumber. Relaying back to the quote I used to begin this article, Nietzsche seemed to be cool with the conceptual framework of Plato, from what I understand, but he detested the trend in philosophy started by Plato’s teacher, Socrates. It’s the same trend that, at a certain point, led to the abstruseness and unnecessary clouding of meaning that one finds in most philosophy today.
Let me then put forth a Zen Nietzschean perspective towards philosophy. Nietzsche was not a fan of Buddhism; what was available for Germans in the way of Buddhist literature in the 19th century was limited and painted a narrow picture of Buddhism, like late Christianity, as a religion of weakness and disarmament. With Zen we see a unique historical trend towards lucidity, discipline, honor, and loyalty. Nietzsche would approve of this general strength of concept. Zen didn’t lend itself to unnecessary battle, but also didn’t hold within itself the fragility that could lead to its own downfall, as Nietzsche saw firsthand with the fall of European Christendom’s legitimacy. For that reason, I believe Zen has stuck around as a tangential replacement. It has subsided in Japan but simultaneously found a new value in the West, where certain Eastern philosophical ideas have begun to appeal to readers as Western philosophical ideals have weakened and abstracted themselves into oblivion. Those who approach philosophy today as a guide to living are, understandably, disappointed, and so they look elsewhere— to spirituality and self-help.
The Zen practiced by samurai was a path toward self-knowledge. In the same way that Plato saw philosophy as a method of bringing to the surface the knowledge which we had “forgotten”, Zen teaches us to look within for our inborn wisdom. In this respect, Zen is more in line with true premodern Western philosophy and spirituality than the current modern iteration of negation, questioning, deconstruction and progression. We don’t find the truth through obfuscation of language, but instead simply through meditation and reflection. We don’t apply that truth through the further complication of theories but instead through day-to-day actions.
This is the purpose of philosophy— not to break down philosophy itself, a really foolish pursuit. That’s like saying that the purpose of science is to break down science. How are you going to cure cancer if you’re trying to deconstruct the identity politics of science? It’s asinine. We’ve come to think of philosophy as the thing that does this, when for a very long time its purpose was precisely the opposite: retrieving gifts from the void. If we do as Nietzsche says and acknowledge that there are no absolute truths, only perspectives, shouldn’t we choose the perspective that enables the fullest experience of life, with all its quirks and sufferings? I think so. And I think meditation practice is integral to this.