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

And More


Sandals On My Head

Bridges Auditorium, Claremont, California, USA

February 14, 2009



This essay, Sandals On My Head, is the companion piece to Wall Socket.

It is also the second in an open group on Zen:


From The Gateless Gate: A Collection Of Zen Koans By Ekai, Called MUMON
Chapter 14: Nansen Cuts The Cat In Two



Nansen Oshu saw the monks of the eastern and western halls quarreling over a cat. He held up the cat and said "If you can give an answer, you will save the cat. If not, I will kill it.". No one could answer, and Nansen cut the cat in two.

That evening Joshû returned, and Nansen told him of the incident. Joshû took off his sandals, placed them on his head, and walked out.

"If you had been there, you would have saved the cat" Nansen remarked.


MUMON's Comment:
Tell me: what did Joshû mean when he put his sandals on his head?
If you can give a turning word on this, you will see that Nansen's decree was carried out with good reason.
If not, "Danger!"

MUMON's Verse:
Had Joshû been there,
He would have done the opposite.
When the sword is snatched away,
Even Nansen begs for his life.


I can't explain Zen.

Wait! I didn't say I don't know how  to explain it.

I can  explain it ... but I ought not to. Furthermore, if you know Zen and you knew I was about to "explain" it, I hope you'd stop me. So when I say I can't  explain Zen, I'm implying if I'm to serve you, I shouldn't.

What if I were to introduce electricity to you? Which approach would be more effective? If I summarized all the original writings of the discoverer of electricity, Thales of Miletus, Greece from 600 BC and explained them to you? Or if I took you by the hand and stuck your finger directly into an electrical wall socket ie into a power outlet?

If I summarized all the original writings of Thales of Miletus and explained them to you, you might understand  electricity. But if I took you by the hand and stuck your finger directly into an electrical wall socket ie into a power outlet, you'd experience  it. In other words, rather than having mere understanding  of electricity, you'd have natural knowing  of it.

The experience of electricity and the experience of Zen are worlds apart. Yet given a choice, I think it's pertinent, just as it is with electricity, to experience Zen rather than to understand it. That's why I say even though I can explain it, I ought not to. I'd rather you experience it. I'd rather you know Zen naturally.

It's safe to assert when you speak about any subject, there's explaining it, and then there's communicating the experience  of it. It's easier to explain something even if it's complex and difficult to understand, than it is to communicate the experience of it. For starters, not all subjects have any component experience to communicate - mathematics, for example. Mathematics can be explained and understood. But mathematics has no communicatable experience  outside of its conceptual framework of rules, axioms, and structures.

Zen originated from the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama of India in 500 BC. It is practiced wholly within the domain of what's so. It traffics in the experience of things exactly the way they are and exactly the way they aren't. The spotlight of Zen is on the true nature  of things. And if indeed it could be said Zen has any component experience at all, then it would be the experience of naked presence, of raw being, with nothing added and with nothing taken away.

A mathematician may not have a component experience of mathematics to communicate. But a mathematician who practices Zen could communicate the experience of naked presence by being that way  while explaining the conceptual framework of rules, axioms, and structures of mathematics. Such a mathematician could be deemed to be a "Zen mathematician", in much the same way as a Buddhist who practices Zen could communicate the experience of naked presence by being that way  while acting appropriately consistent with the eightfold path  of Buddhism. Such a Buddhist could be deemed to be a Zen Buddhist, Similarly there are certainly Zen Christians just as there are certainly Zen Jews and Zen Muslims. Zen isn't a religion. Rather, it provides a context  for all life's activities including but not limited to religious practices.

To suppose a Zen master has a difficult job is being unclear on the concept. That said, the hardest part of a Zen master's job is to speak or write (or even paint)  Zen in a way which directly communicates true nature, naked presence, short circuiting  ie bypassing entirely our natural habit of filtering everything new through a terministic screen* of what we already know. The job of a Zen master is to act in a way that literally defies explanation  if necessary, violating the craving for explanation, cutting instead directly to the heart of experience, to the true nature of what's so.

Listen! I didn't say a Zen master can't  be explained. I said a Zen master speaks, writes, and paints in a way that defies  explanation. A Zen master violates the craving for explanation while at the same time, through this violating, imparting a direct, personal, finger in the wall socket  experience of what's so, of true nature, of naked presence for his students to own, recreate and master, unsuppressed and spontaneous, for themselves.

That's the service a Zen master provides: breaking students of their natural habit to filter anything and everything  through a terministic screen which ensures nothing is ever heard clearly, which ensures nothing is ever listened completely, which ensures nothing is ever experienced fully, which totally kills off the possibility of ever living spontaneously with beginner's mind. Paradoxically when a Zen master provides this service, his methods may not be perceived as being clear nor complete nor full nor spontaneous. At least, not at first. Yet it's his very discontiguous, unpredictable, out of the blue  seemingly random slaps on the head (so to speak) which sets up the mind mired  student of Zen for breakthroughs in awareness of Self in the world.

Of all the disciplines Werner engaged with before creating his magnum opus of transformation, it could be said Zen was the  essential one. It's entirely appropriate for people who are interested in Werner's work to be interested in Zen.


*   Werner distinguishes a terministic screen  (not a de-terministic screen - it sounds like that but it isn't the same) as a filter comprising the terms, words, phrases, and sentences which keep people in  a conversation or out  of it.


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