17 April, 2008

One Hand Clapping

I'm starting to get a bit slack with my posting, but I'm still trying to keep up the blogging habit.

Time to look back on a couple of the things that I've promised to observe and make comment on.

Religion, Commerce, Human Nature.

I haven't started with the small ones.

Today I'm going to look at one of my favourite aspects of any religion; Zen koans, kabbalistic riddles and those ancient questions that are designed to make people think outside the square.

Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?

If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

It is possible for the creator to create a stone so large that even (s)he cannot move it?

Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?


I came to a great conclusion that covers every single one of these questions, it stretches back to Confucius.

I'll be paraphrasing here, but one of the first things that Confucius stated was that conflict often arises through a lack of clear communication. At the time when he was alive, Confucius inhabited a China that was beset by civil wars and turmoil. He envisioned a world where everyone spoke the same language, and kept to a common set of laws under a unified empire and the "Mandate of Heaven".

The first step toward developing that unified vision of the future was to establish a unified written language. A written language which pretty much remains intact to this day, still used after millennia even though the vocal dialects of China are arguably completely different vocal languages.

A belief in a natural order that should be obeyed is a strong tenet of Taoism as well, so I may be confusing the two ideologies. But given their similarity and the fact that Chinese are often able to view them interchangeably, I hope this error isn't too grave.

Anyway, back to the point.

All of the great questions resolve themselves as soon as they are appropriately defined, and in most cases they are revealed as red herrings once the definitions are put into place.

What is the sound of one hand clapping?
  • What is a clap? The rapid collision of two hands, resulting in a shockwave that resolves into a sound when it hits the eardrum.
  • If you need two hands to clap, is it possible to clap with one hand? No.
The whole question is rendered null and void, and it is the misconception of the terms that make up the question that end up causing the intellectual dilemma.

If a tree falls in the forest an no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
  • What is sound? If it's a shockwave of air that will result in the vibration of eardrums, then yes, this shockwave occurs. If it only counts as sound once it is perceived through the vibration of the ear-drum, then it doesn't cause a sound.
Actually now that I think about this example more carefully, I'm reminded of Shroedinger's cat. So the tree makes a quantum flux of "sound" and" no-sound" until someone is present to collapse the probability wave. So from this interpretation, the answer is both yes and no.

Again though, it all comes down to adequate definitions. I think this is where science and religion should never have parted company.

It is possible for the creator to create a stone so large that even (s)he cannot move it?

This one usually ends up getting fixated on the concept of whether the creator is all-powerful or not. But that's the wrong question. Other definitions throw the question into new perspectives.
  • Is the creator separate from creation?
  • If the creator and the creation are separate, then how does the creator exist outside the creation?
  • If there is something beyond creation then what is it? and what could have created it except for a proto-creator.
This is where the gnostics and a few other heretical groups got hooked up on some concepts that made them a bit unpopular. It seems to be a common theme through many of the cults and pseudo-religions of today as well. It's a cyclical argument that cannot be resolved. So we must work with the concept that creation and creator are one, from it's own thought the creator perceived the universe. Through this cycle of imagination and perception reality was born.

But how about defining this...
  • What is a stone? If the stone is so large that it encompasses all of reality, then all of reality would be stone. It would be impossible for us to know the difference between "stone" and "non-stone" because everything we know would be stone. The question becomes irrelevant, because if everything was stone then there would be nowhere for it to move. It would already be there.
If the reality that was "stone" was moved, then all of reality would move with it and we would see no change because we had also been moved.

Once the elements are correctly described, the question becomes irrelevant.

Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?
  • First consider what you think Buddha nature is.
  • Is it the ability to know wrong from right?
  • Is it the ability to learn from mistakes?
Once you choose your definitions, you know the answer of the question as far as it applies to you.

If someone tells you that your answer is wrong, ask them to explain their definitions to the various parts of the question. It will invariably be the differences in definitions that result in the differences in the answers given.
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