Zen Buddhism and General Semantics

Jessica Bridges. et Cetera. Volume 63, Issue 4. October 2006.

“General Semantics can be considered an inter-disciplinary discipline that makes it easier for you to live with yourself ... to live with others ... and for others to live with you.” ~ Steve Stockdale

From just this one statement on the website of the Institute General Semantics, one can see how general semantics and Buddhism seem at least compatible, and that they probably have similar goals. We talked at the beginning of this course on Buddhism about how, even though it is offered by the Religion department, it is as much about philosophy or psychology as religion, and it touches many different areas of thought. Just as Buddhism is an inter-disciplinary subject, so is general semantics. Furthermore, general semantics has the goal of reducing suffering in intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, which is the aim of Buddhism as well. As one delves into the worlds of general semantics and Zen Buddhism, one discovers many similarities between the two, but one also discovers important differences.

To further explain general semantics, the Institute’s homepage says:

General Semantics helps you differentiate, and integrate, what we might think of as four different ‘worlds.’ [One is] the world Out there,’ beyond your skin, that’s always changing, in perpetual process. [This is contrasted with] the world ‘in here,’ inside your skin, your nervous system and senses, through which you (only partially) experience the world Out there.’ [Another is] the world that’s not words, the non-verbal world that you see, hear, taste, smell and touch. [And this is contrasted with] the world of words, your verbal world of names, symbols, labels, opinions, assumptions, categories, values, beliefs, etc. In our world of words, we relate what we think we ‘know’ about the world ‘out there, ‘the world ‘in here ‘ and the world that’s not words.

This description brings to mind phrases like “skin-encapsulated ego” or “inter-being” which we have come to understand as hallmarks of Buddhism. What explains these similarities?

  • If you deliberately practice general semantics, the potential consequences include:

  • More effective, more discriminating communications with others, and with yourself

  • More appropriate and desirable reactions, responses and adjustments to what occurs (or does not occur) in your four ‘worlds’

  • A more tolerant, inquisitive, open-minded, “matter-of-fact” outlook that is less prone to prejudice, stereotyping, and dogmatic generalizations

  • A greater degree of moment-to-moment awareness of your own, and others’, different perspectives. (Stockdale)

To describe general semantics as a “Western form of Buddhism” is a little dramatic and inaccurate, but one can observe considerable overlap between the two. Zen surely promotes “moment-to-moment awareness,” and general semantics may be a useful “raft” for attainment of such a purpose in the West.

J. Samuel Bois asserts that both disciplines “refer to some basic human experience ... [and] the essentials of [each] are universal.” (Bois, p.34) Many people who have some knowledge of both disciplines are motivated to “inquire about the relations between the silent level of Korzybski and the nonmental observation of Zen.” (p.35) Sheldon Klein proposes that “Zen Buddhism contains a system of general semantics ... The concept of levels of abstraction is fundamental to Korzybskian semantics. The primary precept is that ‘the word is not the thing.’“ (Klein, p.88)

Alfred Korzybski developed general semantics in his book, Science and Sanity. “There exists a hierarchy of abstraction levels: an object level abstracted from noumena, the level consisting of the names of objects, the level consisting of statements about objects, the level of statements about statements about objects...” (Klein, p.89) These levels are related to the different “worlds” which general semantics seeks to integrate. When analyses of the abstraction process by a general semanticist and the Bodhidarma in the Lankavatara Sutra are put side by side, there are striking similarities. Korzybski also noted that “One may see something and then say that he saw it, but the description of the seeing process is not the same thing as the actual physical process of perception ... Perception of the object world is something that takes place on a non-verbal level, the ‘Unconscious.’“ (Klein, p.90) Korzybski insisted on the “unspeakable character of what he calls the Objective’ world and on the necessity to come into contact with it on the silent level.” (Bois, p.38) This “objective” world can be seen as what Zen attempts to reach and realize.

General semantics and Zen Buddhism also share the belief “that the world of abstraction is an ‘illusion’; that even the object world of concrete phenomena is an ‘illusion’ of abstraction”; they do not seek to escape this “illusion” but to penetrate it. (Klein, p.92) Everyone has unique perceptions of reality that are conditioned by a number of factors. Western meta-linguist Benjamin Whorf brings to light the interesting role that one’s language plays. Klein describes Whorfs premise that “Different languages may organize reality differently ... Hopi, for example, classifies many English nouns as verbs” and notes that “A major implication of Whorf’s work is that different languages yield different logics.” (Klein, p.93) From The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, we see that in Chinese, as well, “objects are events - our world is a collection of processes rather than entities.” (p.5) So no one’s world of logic can necessarily be indicative of the world of reality. Whorf explains eloquently, “We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it this way--an agreement that holds throughout our speech community, and is codified in the patterns of language.” (Bois, p.37) Realizing we have made this subconscious agreement can free us from the code of language in which we conceptualize and relate with our environment.

“Naturalness” refers to a condition we seek to attain in Zen Buddhism. As opposed to “plants and stones [which] have no problem in being natural... we alone live in two worlds, the world of no-language and the world of language.” (Holmes, p.160) Stewart Holmes calls these worlds “‘Reality-1’ and ‘Reality-2,’ respectively. Reality-1 really exists outside our mind. Reality-2 ‘exists,’ but only as thoughts-feelings, semantic reactions, in our mind.” Our limited senses create our Reality-2 by transforming some stimuli into pictures and symbols that are intended to represent Reality-1, and we thus can mistake Reality-2 for Reality-1. “We should realize that our language consists of symbols (words) standing for other symbols (mental constructs) that in return stand for what’s Out there.’“(Holmes, p. 163)

One way that Zen enables us to break out of the confines of language is through the koan. “The mind hankers to put things into its logical categories, but reality isn’t concerned with these logical categories, these figments of our fertile imaginations ... The Zen student is encouraged to see that the ultimate category, the self, is itself a fiction, as is the self that seeks to control the self.” (Christ, p.352) Henry Christ suggests that “to function, we must create categories, but always with the awareness that these are imaginary, autistic.” This sheds light on the relationship between education and the Zen goal of getting beyond categories: “Most formal education is heavily linguistic ... but the greater education is, in a sense, unlearning the categories when necessary.” (ibid.)

The differences between Eastern and Western cultures explain some of the intellectual differences in these parts of the world. Language has probably played some part in this, as well as all other cultural differences. Bois sees Western culture as an “individual as he grows from childhood to semantic maturity,” going from an uncritical sensing stage, to classifying, relating, postulating, and finally arriving at “the unifying stage of immediate nonverbal cosmic experience.” To the culture as to the individual, “general semantics [is] a discipline of stage 4, formulated laboriously in a logical emergence from stages 2 and 3” while “Zen [is] the art of taking a long jump from stage 1 to stage 5.” To Bois, this constitutes “the radical difference between general semantics and Zen Buddhism.” (p.36) General semantics is “a symptom of the phase of self-correction and development through which our generation is passing.” (Bois, p.34)

From the title of Korzybski’s foundation work, Science and Sanity, and the technical language he used to develop and explain general semantics, one can detect a key difference between general semantics and Zen. As Bois notes above, Zen is an art rooted in Eastern principles, while general semantics is a science which emerges from the Western world of technology. “In one sense, the new Western philosophy was necessitated by the results of modern physics, which demanded a new logic and understanding of language for their comprehension.” (Klein, p.97) “The Korzybskian notions of abstracting, multiordinality, and self-reflexiveness are symptoms of our Western search for order, relations, and structure, and they are at the same time means for us to overcome these symptoms by guided awareness. In Zen, all this is useless labor.” (Bois, p.38)

While the purpose of both disciplines is to get beyond the “illusion” of our mental constructs, “the function of Zen ... is to abandon the ‘illusion,’ while that of the Western [general semantics] is to manipulate it.” (Klein, p.97) Bois disagrees with a Zen master who says ‘“Can thought review thought? ... As the blade of a sword cannot cut itself, as a finger-tip cannot touch itself, so a thought cannot see itself.’“ (Bois, p.38) Bois contends that, in the use of this analogy for the complex phenomenon of the mind, “you must be careful not to ascribe to the phenomenon the limits of the analog you chose.” This brings to mind the many questions brought up in our Buddhism class, particularly asking why a religion that values escape from word-based experience has so many texts and uses such confusing terms to describe the process of enlightenment. Maybe in having so many texts, all points of view can balance each other out and point toward the true spirit of enlightenment. Bois’ solution to the paradox of the sword-mind analogy is to eliminate the limits of language. “If sword is to mind as sword is to sword-p/ws, then the plus may well comprise that capacity for self-reflexiveness that the sword alone does not possess.” I believe Zen has room within itself for multiordinality of the self. General semantics describes how Self-1, Self-2, etc, are all different, and this allows for self-reflexiveness. This looks to me like the idea Zen refers to as “no-self which points toward the spontaneity of the moment. If at every moment we are constantly changing, we can look back at who we were a moment ago and glean wisdom from the experience of that moment and who we were. The difference between Zen and general semantics is that in Western philosophy, a science is made out of “mind rethinking itself,” whereas Zen usually seeks to artfully reach beyond those scientific steps toward self-realization. (Bois, p.39)

This becomes evident when Westerners try to comprehend such ideas as the Zennist’Void.’

There are many who interpret it literally and try to realize ‘emptiness of mind’ by means of intense concentration. Such vacuity is absolutely negative and does not contain any possibilities of revelation ... The nature of things, for us aristotelians, is still more or less consciously the classical ‘prime matter’ and the ‘form’ that makes each thing what it is ... In the East, the world within which man lives and moves and has his being is apparently perceived as a great indeterminate aesthetic continuum of space ... (Bois, pp.44-45)

To “get Zen, Westerners must awaken to the idea that Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form. According to Western logic, ‘the beauty of empty space’ is ... a non-sense expression.” (Bois, p.45) Bois further notes that:

... non-aristotelian logic [of the East is] more inclusive than the aristotelian logic that gives the shape to the ‘thought-world’ in which we live, move, and have our being ... The West ... cannot see, cannot understand, cannot enter in the structures of the East, because it cannot pierce the walls of its own culture ... General semantics is an attempt to ‘pierce the walls of our own culture.’ (Bois, pp.45-46)

General semantics originates and exists in an aristotelian world, and yet has vision for a non-aristotelian world in the future which may resemble or drastically contrast with the East’s Zen.

When considering the question of whether Zen or general semantics is the best course of direction for the West, I believe both can be useful for our society and that they can complement each other. Bois comments, “We know that the skill of philosophizing may take the place of the art of living. But we claim that the skill is not diametrically opposed to the art. We see them supporting each other, making possible a type of first-order experience that the exclusively naturalistic approach does not seem to duplicate ... Nature is not a symbol-less void into which we must merge to enjoy internal peace.” (Bois, p.39) General semantics can act as “cultural preparation” for reaching “the level of what Zen calls ‘the method of no method,’“ but practice of general semantics on its own can help individuals more directly experience reality right now. “Carl Rogers ... describes what he calls his ‘rigorous objectivity’ as a scientist and his ‘almost mystical subjectivity’ as a therapist. He reports an ‘increasing discomfort’ at the distance between these two selves. He solves his problem by integrating science and experience. Science is not an impersonal something, but simply a person living subjectively another phase of himself.” (Bois, p.42) This provides an excellent example of how individuals can take steps toward awakening to the self/no-self. By integrating all parts of one’s life, one can realize each moment’s equality and penetrate the concept of self.

I agree with Bois when he says, “I am not ready to say yes” to Zen as a “better alternative” for the West than general semantics, (p.43) A solution “has to fit with the living complex of traditions, mores, and institutions ... The common people of cultures outside the Indo-European linguistic group [are not] locked as we are within the symmetrical patterns of aristotelian logic.” (p.44) The emergence of Zen in the West I believe has had to accommodate the effects of Western culture, and I think general semantics can aid in bridging the current state of Western culture and the practice of Zen Buddhism. Bois proposes that “a conscientious study of Zen belongs to [the] program [of the general semantics] of liberation.” (p.46) In any case, Zen and general semantics each offer promise to the other for their success in the West, and “our steady awareness of how we make meanings will color all our interactions with life. We will be better prepared to flow with what is happening, to act creatively.” (Holmes, p. 164)