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Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Zen of Freedom to Act



Buried deep in the Hagakure is a snatch of commentary which captures, almost perfectly, the essence of the mentality of the whole. It appears in the popular version as a curt, almost redacted looking item, and in the manuscript is buried amongst dozens of similar comments and dialogues. In both cases, it sits with virtually no explanation

The passage runs thusly:
"Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige's wall was this one:  'Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.' Master Ittei commented, 'Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.'"
There is a surprising amount of internet discussion surrounding this little quotation. It appears it's not just scholars who have sensed its fundamental importance. It's indicative of the modern mindset, however, that the most accepted interpretations are based around "matters of great concern" being understood as complex anxieties, and the quotation as a whole being taken as a recommendation to pursue simple answers to problems we tend to overthink. I believe there is a much deeper meaning to both the maxim and the commentary - one which requires some synthesis and contextualisation to grasp, and which goes beyond Tsunemoto's somewhat crude interpretation of the maxim as being in praise of the value of research before action.

It's fair to say that the Zen mind can be seen as profoundly transcendental, in that it is underpinned by a belief in the illusory nature of the tangible universe. Put simply, the world which we perceive is seen as a trick played by the senses on our conscious mind. This isn't, of course, exclusive to eastern philosophies, and is well attested in a great variety of other schools of thought. The great majority of the arguments regarding immanence and transcendence in western philosophy, for example, centre around the question of whether the 'veritas rerum', or the real truth of things, is or is not accessible to our consciousness.

It can therefore be posited that a world seen in this way is one in which that which is most important - the veritas rerum, or that which is 'of great concern' - is not just beyond our understanding, but also our agency. Basically, the core of things and existence is something which we cannot comprehend consciously or consciously affect. This is an uncomfortable doctrine for the western mind, I think, being in direct opposition to the deep roots of enlightenment thinking and Aquinas' old idea that the 'veritas rerum' is not only accessible, but a path to truth through observation.

For a mind geared to the absolute necessity for action, which basically includes anyone who dedicates their time to some type of work or other, this world view is balm to the soul, for what it means is that the ineffable truth of things is not only inaccessible, it's also irrelevant. What a philosophy of this kind provides is the freedom to act. There is no necessity to weigh or predict the effects of our miniscule agency - all that really matters is the application thereof. It is the tiny, insignificant actions of our ant-like lives which are the 'matters of small concern', and yet, despite their ephemeral unimportance, they are still the most significant aspect of our limited selves.

This is best appreciated in conjunction with this idea:
"The way of revenge lies in simply forcing one's way into a place and being cut down ... By considering things like how many men the enemy has, time piles up; in the end you will give up. No matter if the enemy has thousands of men, there is fulfillment in simply standing them off and being determined to cut them all down, starting from one end. You will finish the greater part of it."
How often are we paralysed by the contemplation of things we can't control? Why should I act when my effects will be so tiny? Why should anyone do anything, given the high likelihood of failure and the certainty of pain and death? It's simple - it's because what we do is one of the very, very few things over which we have any control at all. So while it may be a matter of small concern, it should therefore be treated with the utmost seriousness.

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