Zen in the Light of Lonergan's Cognitional Theory

One problem with which I have been preoccupied lately is the compatibility between the cognitional theory of Bernard Lonergan and the "intuitive" knowledge attained in Zen, as described by D.T. Suzuki, perhaps the best-known interpreter of Zen in the West.

For a time it seemed to me that there was no conflict between them. Then it definitely seemed to me as though there was, and I was prepared to side more with Suzuki than Lonergan. Now I'm starting to see that the problem is in Suzuki's expression of his understanding of Zen.

So this is what I am going to do today: first, I'm going to offer a somewhat brief explanation of Suzuki's description of the satori experience (sometimes also known as "kensho"), which he describes as "the Alpha and Omega of Zen Buddhism" (84). Then I'm going to explain why that description is inadequate in the light of Lonergan's cognitional theory. Then I'm going to offer what I think is a more adequate description of Zen.

Satori According to Suzuki
By personal experience it is meant to get at the fact at first and not through any intermediary, whatever this may be. Its favourite analogy is: to point at the moon a finger is needed, but woe to those who take the finger for the moon; a basket is welcome to carry our fish home, but when the fish are safely on the table why should we eternally bother ourselves with the basket? Here stands the fact, and let us grasp it with the naked hands lest it should slip away -- this is what Zen proposes to do. As nature abhors a vacuum, Zen abhors anything coming between the fact and
ourselves. (Suzuki, 8-9)
For Suzuki, the experience of satori is characterised, above all, by immediacy. Zen, he says, appeals "directly...to the facts of personal experience and not to book-knowledge" (7). The experience must be "independent of any ideational representation" (13).

Satori, as Suzuki describes it, actually covers a lot of different things. It is at once the "the Zen experience" itself (84), as well as the knowledge one attains by having the experience (103-104).

This might seem plausible enough, but in the light of Lonergan's cognitional theory, it can be shown to be somewhat simplistic.

Satori in the Light of Lonergan's Cognitional Theory

Lonergan noted that the word "experience...commonly is used as a synonym for knowledge," and so someone is described as having "experience" in a particular field, they are understood as possessing some kind of knowledge in that field (116).

Experience by itself, however, does not yield knowledge. To put that another way, knowledge cannot be attained by a pure, unmediated experience -- something I think Suzuki seems to claim. The act of coming to know something is invariably more complicated than this.

Zen may "abhor" anything that comes "between the fact and ourselves," but it cannot eliminate it. What Suzuki calls "the fact" is what Lonergan would call "merely potential" (117). Not until it is understood correctly and affirmed as true does "the fact" become something known by the human subject.

"The fact" is "merely potential" until it is understood. Satori, as Suzuki points out, involves an insight. He is correct in saying that that this insight is not "reached by reasoning," but I think he errs when he says that it "also defies...conceptualization" (103). I think what it "defies" is not "conceptualization" but "adequate conceptualization" -- if what was experienced was not conceptualised, there would be nothing to affirm and therefore no knowledge attained.

Insight always culminates in some kind of concept, a point I made in my last post. Without this concept, the person would retain nothing of any value from the experience. The concept is what remains to be talked about. Zen, as I understand it, seeks not a non-concept, but a concept that draws from the experience alone, without reading into it anything that is not there. This is one thing that often afflicts Christian mysticism -- as Suzuki himself points out (see 106-107).

Zen vs. Christian Mysticism

I think the difference between Zen and (most) Christian mysticism can actually be explained with reference to Lonergan's cognitional theory.

The experience leads to an insight, which leads to a concept. The concept then has be affirmed or denied. I think Christian mystics often affirm, rather uncritically, an understanding of the experience that includes elements that are not present in the experience itself. If Zen teaches us anything, it is to be judicious in our affirmation of whatever it is we understand from the experience.

Suzuki notes the absence in Zen (vis-à-vis Christian mysticism) of references "to such personal and frequently sexual feelings and relationships as are to be gleaned from these terms: flame of love, a wonderful love shed in the heart, embrace, the beloved, bride, bridegroom, spiritual matrimony, Father, God, the Son of God, God's child, etc. We may say that all these terms are interpretations based on a definite system of thought and really have nothing to do with the experience itself" (emphasis added; 106).

This is not the only difference, of course, but I'll discuss this a little more in my next post.

Towards a More Adequate Expression

I don't think it can be asserted that Zen culminates in an immediate experience of reality, whereby intuitive knowledge is attained without conceptualisation. What Zen provides is an approach to understanding the experience.

Suzuki calls Zen "the ultimate fact of all philosophy and religion" (111). He writes,
Zen is not necessarily the fountain of Buddhist thought and life alone; it is very much alive also in Christianity, [Islam], in Taoism, and even in positivistic Confucianism. What makes all these religions and philosophies vital and inspiring, keeping up their usefulness and efficiency, is to the presence in them of what I may designate as the Zen element. (111)
I understand what he means by this, but I think a more adequate (and modest) description is needed. Which will be the subject of my next post.

Works Cited

Lonergan, Bernard. A Third Collection. Frederick E. Crowe, ed. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.

Suzuki, D.T. Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki. William Barrett, ed. 1956. New York: Image Books, 1996.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. You're onto a great critique of Suzuki here.

One suggestion: consider Lonergan's "mediated return to immediacy" (see MT) for a description of mystical experience. And to that, add the various patterns of experience Lonergan enumerates. Not all of them include a concept following upon a direct insight. Many (the aesthetic, artistic, symbolic, mystical) seem to "stick to the image" rather than pivot toward the abstract.

Just food for thought.


10:26 p.m.  

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