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07 December, 2006

A Big Hand For Mysticism

What’s the sound of one hand clapping?

“Ap, ap, ap”? (Well, ask a silly question…)

The real answer is, of course, that one hand can’t clap – by definition – so the question makes no sense. Yet this is the kind of stuff that passes for ‘deep and meaningful’ in the minds of people who like mysticism. Famously such koans are studied by Zen Buddhists and used to help them achieve a state of ‘awakening’ or insight into the nature of things.

As a psychological trick to force people into using ways other than reason to understand the world, I can see how such nonsensical stuff could be very useful. If the story or statements in a koan are not accessible to reason, yet your guru is saying ‘explain this or get lost’, you will come up with some kind of response – probably something equally nonsensical (and equally deep-sounding). People being what they are (highly suggestible confabulators) I have no doubt that such ‘training’ leads people truly to believe that they are having mind-expanding insights.

But, even if the trick works, what is the point? Does it help the world in any way whatsoever that people believe the answer to the question ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?’ is ‘No’ – or ‘Yes’ even? Heavens above, human beings are irrational enough already without finding ways to trick the mind into ‘intuitive’ (as opposed to rational) insights. The problem is that ‘Buddha nature’, like all these other bizarre constructs, isn’t a real thing and our beliefs about it make no difference to the Universe at all. All that we get for taking such notions seriously, is a change in our own thinking; specifically, a move away from reality and towards fantasy and abstraction.

And that is why mysticism is so harmful; because people can convince themselves that nothing we do here matters, that things of ‘the flesh’ are corrupting or irrelevant, that abstract ideas matter more than avoiding suffering, that there are rewards waiting for believers in fantasy realms, or farther around the wheel of life, if they perform superstitious rituals, or that life is just a test of some sort, not the real thing at all.

What’s the sound of one hand clapping?

It is the cries of millions dying in poverty and ignorance.

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