Breaking Down Some Language; Because Mysterious Doesn't Mean Wise

If everything that is discussable can be defined as an instance of a concept, where we define concept as the encapsulation of many complimentary ideas into a consistently recognizable pattern, then the Zen idea of duality becomes definable. I came across this idea while reading Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”. He talks about how the mind and body are both eternal and finite, simultaneously; he describes this phenomenon through a metaphor calling mind and body “two sides of the same coin”.

I find this kind of language both confusing, frustrating, and misleading. I also find it ubiquitous, as this wisdom-in-fallacy has become somewhat of a generic style for presenting philosophical information (especially in the Buddhist writings I’ve read).

  1. I find it confusing, because the metaphor is seemingly contradictory.
  2. I find it frustrating, because, while I agree with the sentiment that meditation trumps reading ten-fold, I still feel like readings can unveil the source of suffering; so to have someone who understands the nature of suffering use language I don’t understand makes me feel like I have an answer stuck on the tip of my tongue.
  3. And I find it potentially misleading, because when an established school of thought – an authority – starts using incomprehensible language, you run the risk of blind acceptance, where students try to force their experience into a definition, rather than formulate an articulation from their honest observation.

That being said, when you do stumble upon an understanding that happens to coincide with an existing concept, that concept then thereafter seem obvious, even if prior inspection had you feeling as I describe above.

Anyway, back to the point: mind & body both end and go on forever. I think the understanding to take away here is that the concepts or abstractions that we refer to as mind and body are the sum of many different things. I mean this literally.

Think about the body: it is the thing that we best relate our physical presence with; it is the thing composed of organs, cells, and atoms; it is the thing, ever changing, moving through time, aging and deforming as it passes the days. 

The same thing applies for the concept of mind: it is the thing composed of a personality; it is the thing that has mood; it is the thing that influences the environment in which it is alive within; it is the thing that is thinking; and it is one of the things that is remembered, regardless of whether it is present or not.

So when we say mind & body both end and don’t end, it’s really a matter of realizing that certain components of each end and don’t end. When we die, the atoms in our body don’t end, but the abstract concept of our physical manifestation is no longer maintainable, by definition. After death, our minds may not do what we traditionally refer to as ‘think’, but the influence we had during our life still lingers. We may not be able to think about a mind that has died the same way as when it was alive, but we still think about it!

I think the take away is that the abstractions we hold, collectively, as humans, are empty. They have no substance, but are merely an interpretation of the raw data we consume through observation. So while the abstraction may die, the reality persists, even if we think of the two as synonymous; however, even though they are different, neither is more or less important than the other. That’s what “two sides of the same coin” means; the raw reality cannot be expressed or experienced without an abstraction through which it can live, and the abstractions are void unless they describe some sort of reality.

Where we get in trouble is when we start describing abstraction in terms of other abstraction. Then you run the risk of becoming too worked up in trying to understand and keep track of all the variables at play in your model. Meditation is a cure for that ailment, because it trains you to let go of those abstractions before you have the chance to build upon them.