College Of Arts And Sciences | Zen - Problem of Irrationality
E103 | 0081 | McRae


Zen Buddhism is often described as a kind of religious experience that
cannot be understood by the ordinary rational mind.  Intentionally
illogical sayings such as "the sound of one hand clapping" are used in
order to force the religious practitioner to dispense with rational
analysis in favor of some type of profoundly intuitive and
non-discriminating understanding.

This is a public university, however, where we work to explore
difficult issues by reading, research, discussion, and writing, and
just because Zenheads say what they're doing is beyond rational
analysis doesn't mean we shouldn't go ahead and try to understand what
they're up to after our own fashion.  In fact, the academic study of
Zen presents us with some very interesting problems.  First,
obviously, how do we go about studying the irrational using the
rational mind?  Looked at in this way, the study of Zen has a lot in
common with the study of other forms of religious mysticism  although
we'll have to decide, of course, how useful it is to think of Zen as
mysticism.  Second, are there any strategic benefits that lead the
proponents of Zen to declare it irrational, beyond culture and
history?  That is, what do such claims do for the people who make
them, and do they mask rational patterns they might prefer to have
hidden?  Third, how do claims for the irrationality of Zen relate to
assertions that bind the religion to Chinese or Japanese (or Korean)
culture, i.e., that Zen represents the very heart of Asian culture (or
one of the East Asian cultures), or that Zen cannot really be
understood unless you're Chinese, or Japanese, or Korean?

Over the course of the semester we'll move through a series of
questions designed to explore the problems described just above.  Each
week lectures and readings will introduce a basic problem in the
understanding of Zen by rational, academic means, presented in an
order based on logical and methodological concerns rather than
historical sequence.  Assignments will be designed to maximize mutual
assistance and collaboration, and they will include exercises intended
to achieve mastery of basic skills of library and archival research,
expository writing and editing.