Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

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If A Tree Falls ...

Cowboy Cottage, East Napa, California, USA

July 23, 2020



"If a tree falls in the forest, and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?". ... Bishop George Berkeley (1685 - 1753)

This essay, If A Tree Falls ..., is the seventeenth in an open group on Zen: in that order.

It was written at the same time as The Sound Of One Hand Clapping.

I am indebted to John Taylor who inspired this conversation.




Ficus Religiosa, known throughout history as The
Bodhi Tree, under which Lord Siddhārtha Gautama
Shakyamuni of India aka the Buddha attained
enlightenment some twenty five hundred years ago.
The Bodhi Tree
It's often been noted how futile it is to hunt butterflies: once you've captured them, they've lost the very quality they had which made you want to own them in the first place: their freedom. So it is with explaining (or attempting to explain) or answering Zen riddles, koans, or simple Zen provocations: by explaining / answering them, we take them out of the realm of pure possibility, and drop them unceremoniously into the realm of rationality and reason, a realm in which Zen doesn't do well. There, they lose that special quality which made them attractive in the first place.

An example of such a Zen riddle, koan, or simple provocation, is Bishop Berkeley's famous (or infamous, depending on how you regard it) Zen conundrum "If a tree falls in the forest, and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?". We're drawn by such questions to come up with "the answer" - in this case the answer to "... does it make a sound?", specifically, a "yes / no" answer. I would argue that a yes / no answer or even a rational explanation of either the "yes" or the "no" of such a yes / no answer, totally misses the great opportunities Bishop Berkeley is provoking - indeed, kills them. Catching yourself being drawn to a yes / no answer, is the first opportunity. Sitting with the question, and allowing many  possible answers to come up, and not getting stuck with just one, is a second opportunity. And deploying "If a tree falls ..." as a leverage for contemplation, which may even bring forth the context of who you really are (and who you aren't) (this being the exquisite beauty of Zen) is a third opportunity.

With all that in mind, let's look at that tree falling in that forest when there's no one there to hear it fall. The trick is this: stay with the riddle, and not with the sound the tree makes (or doesn't make) when it falls!  If the tree makes a sound, and there's no one there to hear it, then it makes a sound in the context of who you are. If it doesn't  make a sound, and there's no one there to hear it, then it doesn't make a sound in the context of who you are. If it makes a sound, and there's someone there to hear it, then it makes a sound in the context of who you are. If it doesn't make a sound, and there's someone there to hear it, then it doesn't make a sound in the context of who you are. Look: whichever answer you settle for, is arbitrary  and may even be distracting: Zen's value is realized when it gives who you really are.

If you get all that, and you don't get stuck in trying to figure out  the koan, then Zen's exquisite beauty may be revealed. Just stop going for the right  answer. And look: why stop at only one  paltry answer? Go for lots and lots and lots  answers. Get out of your mind. Get out of your intellect. Just look from your experience.

The pull with Zen provocations (which include Bishop Berkeley's "If a tree falls ...") is to explain them, to answer them, indeed to come up with the right answer(s). If you keep on doing that, point after point after point after counterpoint, they go on forever, the argument / debate will never end, and you'll remain trapped, un-free.

But if you take them on just for the Zen of it, you may discover context without any answer or explanation, you may experience an unmistakable moment of Zen satori. "OK" you say, "when will I discover context, Laurence?". You'll discover it when you stop trying to figure out the koan and / or trying to answer it or understand it. Then you may notice who you are is the space, the context in which the entire koan (just as it is, as a koan - unanswered, un-figured-out) spins, gyrates, turns.

I've got nothing else to say about this, nothing more to add.



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