The main problem with westernized Buddhism and Zen

I was wondering a few years ago why westernized Buddhism and especially Zen did not comport well with the words of the Buddha and the Zen masters.  And then I came across Iain McGilchrist’s works which explore the asymmetry of the left and right hemisphere of the brain.  His exploration also opens up a can of worms when the left hemisphere tries to undermine rather than cooperate and harmonize with the right hemisphere.

When our thinking is dominated by the left hemisphere of the brain it is like we’re trying to understand Buddhism and Zen through certain pre-positioned algorithms.  Or simply fixed biases such as political correctness.  This of course shuts the door on an open mind which one needs to access the right hemisphere.

Accessing the right hemisphere of the brain is really about having access to direct intuition which is probably the best translation of what Buddhism and Zen mean, as regards “dhyāna.”  This is evinced clearly in Soothill and Hodous’ Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms.  Buddhism and Zen are intuitional systems.

Understandably, intuition is not mediated by reasoning or the sensory organs.  Yet, it doesn’t reject them.  They are useful, but intuition goes much further.  It transcends them.  The real danger that Buddhism and Zen face is when there is mistrust in the intuitional, and this is what is happening both in Buddhism and Zen.

It is as if our culture is teaching people the truth is always propositional and found explicit somewhere within the pages of human literature.  In other words, there is a proposition that we can test out to see if it accords with the left hemisphere.  We might agree with it and we might not.

For Buddhism, the right hemisphere has to first intuit the whole, that is, nirvana before any proposition can come out of it like, for example, nirvana is the end of all suffering.  The Buddha it could be said teaches from his awakening, not from human values or various cultural values.  Mankind’s ultimate goal then is to awaken to the true nature of the universe upon which all things depend.

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The Zennist

Author of The Zennist blog since 2007.

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