So I’ve recently discovered that the European Graduate School has a ton of videos of lectures online and I’ve been going on something of a watching spree, particularly of Manuel DeLanda’s lectures. They make his thinking a lot more clear, and he also explains a lot of Deleuzian stuff in a way that just makes it click.
I watched a talk last night by DeLanda called Materialism, Experience and Philosophy. In it he outlines a very radical materialist philosophy that moves beyond what he sees as the exhausted linguistic paradigm of postmodernism. He essentially positions language as a mechanism useful for memory, but not in itself capable of creating the world around us, which is entirely material. One of the better examples he used was Eskimos having forty or however many words for snow. It’s not that the Eskimo sees thirty nine more kinds of snow that we, who have only one word for it do, but that they have a material relationship with snow that requires that they be able to talk more specifically about different kinds of snow: snow that is good for building with, snow that you would sink into if you walked on it, dense snow, etc. You or I would still see all those kinds of snow, but we wouldn’t need specific words for them. Similarly processes that until very recently we were unable to see physically play out because they were either too fast or too slow are now able to be seen in the entirety. Here DeLanda uses the example of watching a bullet hit someone in slow motion, so that what before seemed like an instantaneous event can be seen as something subject to the same processes as anything else, or the blooming of a flower, which can be seen in a matter of minutes thanks to stop motion photography. All of a sudden these “mysterious” processes become very ordinary and material.
This is a very exciting idea and it’s pretty much been occupying my brain non stop since last night. I think it is especially interesting for Zen and Taoism (hereon referred to as “ZT”) because it is capable of ridding them of metaphysics without compromising them. ZT are, at their core, philosophies that go completely beyond language. In the descriptions of this realm beyond language, ZT often end up sounding very metaphysical, like when talking about Buddha-nature, or the dynamic void, or emptiness. These concepts are very ideal, and it’s always been hard for me to accept because I see ZT as being so different from other religions in the sense that they are otherwise not very metaphysical.
But it makes sense that ZT practitioners would have to resort to metaphysical language - they didn’t have stop motion, but they intuited that there was a physical process behind the change and fluidity of the world that is fundamentally no different than change and fluidity that we can see with the naked eye. Of course the sad thing is that now that these metaphysical ideas are so entrenched in ZT practice, I don’t think many people would really be interested in making the comparison. It takes a lot of the mystery out of it, it takes out what makes ZT religious and turns it into a kind of practical science.
DeLanda’s ideas about language also play an important part in shattering the metaphysics of ZT. I’ve always been curious about stories in Zen that describe the moment of enlightenment, which is often triggered by something like a movement or a sound of something in nature. The way these stories are written makes it almost sound like that experience of enlightenment is delivered by an unseen hand, an act of God, an inexplicable experience that couldn’t be foreseen, nor could it have been done purposefully and exactly. But I think what is really going on here is a simultaneous experience and realization of a physical process experienced outside of language, which gives the enlightened person a moment of unmitigated experience of material process with nothing separating that experience from the material processes of the world outside our bodies. This especially makes sense in the cases of people who had long been practitioners of Zen or understood Zen very well intellectually but had given up on becoming enlightened. DeLanda’s materialism takes all the metaphysics out of enlightenment, and also gives us a non-religious account of that experience which validates it for the modern day. In my mind this completely divorces ZT from other religions which rely on a faith that can’t be validated materially - the closest Christianity gets, for example, is the “God of the gaps,” i.e. claiming that chaos theory implies the hand of God at work. But even those ideas are on the edge of modern Christian thought.
This also has implications for how one should practice ZT. The point of communal ZT practice, as is argued by most practitioners, is to be around other people who are working toward the same goal, and to be instructed by someone who is knowledgeable about it so that they can lead you to it. But all of those things only seem to make sense if ZT are given a metaphysical and linguistic meaning - the idea that there is “an enlightenment” that someone has experienced and can guide you too, and that other people can work toward together. But if you do away with language and see enlightenment as the realization of an inescapable and all-encompassing physical process, there is no need for experts or fellow practitioners - if anything, those would hamper your quest because you would be liable to become caught up in other people’s attempts to try to synthesize their ultra-linguistic experiences, and you would lose sight of your own. Now, this isn’t to say that ZT practice should be entirely personal, that would be just as much of an error because it is necessarily something that involves being engaged in the world. But the difference is now that everyone around you is a fellow practitioner, and everyone around you is a teacher - you are always engaged in the practice of ZT, it is simply a matter of realizing that for yourself, because those processes effect all people, and if you simply look at how people behave, how they act, how they are, you will become enlightened. I think this is what is meant when Zen masters say “when you become enlightened, everything/everyone becomes enlightened.” When you yourself are enlightened, you will see that everyone is enlightened and always has been. That saying has never made sense to me until now. Again, I think that shows that there is no need to find a Zen master, because everyone and everything is also a Zen master. The only Zen master you need to find is yourself.
One of the upsides of ZT’s metaphysical language is that it really forces you to engage and practice in order to become enlightened. It might seem easy with these material explanations of ZT to say that you don’t need to practice because you can just explain these things through philosophy. But that would be a mistake, because the you would fall into the trap of language, which is what you have to use to describe material processes. So things like meditation are still key in order to go beyond language. But I think that understanding dynamic material processes gives us a way to modernize ZT, and be able to practice it in a way that is wholly congruent with our situation in history, and I think it’s something that ancient ZT masters would embrace if they were around today.