Saturday, March 14, 2009

Railroad Zen

Sitting with Hui Tzu under a willow tree in the artificial island of his garden, meditating on the pathways between delusions of waking and dreaming, Chuang Tzu was struck by the realization that they might be engineers driving a train between Rock Island and Blue Island. It was their habit to while away hours in pleasant philosophical discussions, and at this moment they were occupied with the nature of time, trying to understand in particular whether awareness of its passage was an inherent property of consciousness, and whether its apparent directionality was an illusion that could be dispensed with. Their exchanges took the form of thought experiments, as rapidly and briefly stated as they could manage.

“If we could reverse time,” said Hui, “we would experience our memories as premonitions, and vice versa.”

“If time were circular,” Chuang proposed, “memory and premonition would be identical, regardless of its direction.”

“By the way,” Hui said, interrupting the discussion, “how far are we from our destination?”

“Which way are we going?” asked Chuang. There was a pause while Hui considered his answer.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We are free.”

“Yes, my brother,” Chuang agreed cheerfully. “Now, if we could just get off these tracks.…”


Blogger Jeanne said...

I'm glad to see words from you, even if they give me a guilty conscience.

March 14, 2009 at 10:59 PM  
Blogger Zalman Paktorowicz said...

Thanks, Jeanne, but notice I didn't have the confidence, courage, or patience (choose whichever term you like) to test this in the open marketplace. But I have to admit the words form an actual pattern that might be a story.

March 15, 2009 at 6:54 AM  
Anonymous LCN said...

Now, if we could just get off these tracks...
I like it.
There is no freedom, only movement from one 'place' to another and further movement is constrained dependent upon destination/starting place. The ability to move without constraints is freedom.
Unless you're Hegel "in duty the individual finds his liberation...In duty the individual acquires his substantive freedom. In doing my duty I am by myself and free." What a load of bunk!

March 21, 2009 at 10:29 AM  
Blogger Steven Levery said...

LCN, great to hear from you, and with a cogent comment no less. Note that one tentative title I thought of for this was "One Dimension of Freedom".

One question that remains unanswered in my mind is whether it's realistic to think we have any chance of getting off the "tracks" and attaining "higher degrees" of freedom. Put another way, a question to ask about Chuang's final rejoinder is whether he's expressing a cheery hopefulness that the tracks can be escaped, or a cheerful resignation to their potentially inescapable constraints.

March 22, 2009 at 12:12 PM  
Blogger Steven Levery said...

& Did Hegel really say that? What a load of bunk!

March 22, 2009 at 12:13 PM  
Blogger La vita Alessandria said...

As usual, clever, witty, and funny, Steve.
And for the record, I viewed Chuang's last comment as cheerful resignation (the interpretation obviously reflecting more of this reader's state of mind)- so very Zen.

March 23, 2009 at 4:07 AM  
Blogger La vita Alessandria said...

"Will we ever get off the tracks?" Yes. All things change; we just may not like the timing or the process. Eventually, in time, the tracks will wear away; but probably, before then, we'll die. In our world today, in general, we do not like to wait--our fast food mentality: we don't like the timing. Also, we don't like to view death as freedom.
For me, I liked Hegel's comment. Must be the Piscean part of me....ciao, Steve. from rachel

March 23, 2009 at 4:23 AM  
Blogger Steven Levery said...

Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. I might add that although I admire cheerful resignation in the face of limitations, there is another part of me that prefers the attitude adopted at the ending of "Repo Man". There, you might remember, our hero, Otto (played by the redoubtable Emilio Estevez), willingly gives up all earthly obligations (and pleasures!) in order to tool around the universe in a radioactive '64 Chevy Malibu. Ah, the dreams of, if only it could be more than just a movie!

March 25, 2009 at 2:12 AM  

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