Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Zen Buddhism and Objectivism

Am I serious? Yes, I am. Zen Buddhism and Objectivism are totally compatible. This, despite the only quote I know of where Rand (dismissively) references Zen Buddhism. As you can tell, it was one of her entertaining, thorny moments:
"I suggest that you take note of the following fact: by rejecting reason and surrendering to the unhampered sway of their unleashed emotions (and whims), the apostles of irrationality, the existentialists, the Zen Bhuddists, the non-objective artists, have not achieved a free, joyous triumphant sense of life, but a sense of doom, nausea, and screaming cosmic terror."
Oh Aynnie, you cheeky imp! Of course, maybe she sensed the connection between Existentialism and Zen Buddhism that I also picked up (see Zen Buddhism and Existentialism), but otherwise I have no idea how she found apropos to toss Zen Buddhism into this mini-rant of hers. "Rejecting reason"? "Surrendering to the unhampered sway..."? Rand clearly had no idea what Zen Buddhism is about. Nor does she know how to spell it if you check the quote. Ah well, maybe that's the fault of a bad webmaster. 

So why do I think the two schools of thought are compatible? Here's what the Ayn Rand Institute website has posted from Rand as a quick and dirty summary of Objectivism:
"My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that: 
1. Reality exists as an objective absolute - facts are facts, independent of man's feelings, wishes, hopes, or fears. 
2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses) is man's only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his guide to action, and his basic means of survival. 
3. Man - every man - is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, nether sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life. 
4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man's rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church."
Zen Buddhism is absolutely in agreement with points 1 and 2. The Zen practice of zazen is used to discipline the mind (I suppose you could say to free reason) for the purpose of being more 'in the moment' and to avoid deluded thinking. This keeps one anchored in reality - not as we perceive it, which can be distorted by whimsical perceptions and emotions - but as it really is. So, in a way, Zen Buddhists recognize that reason can be clouded, but we have a way to filter this out (which Objectivism does not provide). However, from a metaphysical and epistemological standpoint, Zen Buddhism and Objectivism are largely in sync.

As for points 3 and 4, I'm not sure Zen Buddhism really deals with these explicitly. However, I wonder if it's correct to say that we take her point 2 much more literally then she does herself. Understanding reality is our source of knowledge and guide to action. When one is truly in touch with reality, therefore, we are likely to behave in the way that best accords with it. So if her points 3 and 4 are, in fact, correct then an enlightened person would probably act in that way. However, they would do so by default based on having disciplined their mind or reached enlightenment, not because they read that it was right in a book on philosophy, ethics, economics, or politics.

Maybe, just maybe, Zen Buddhists out-Objectivize the Objectivists?

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