Zen and Rationality: Just This Is It

by G Gordon Worley III2 min read20th Sep 20205 comments



This is post 4/? about the intersection of my decades of LW-style rationality practice and my several years of Zen practice.

In today's installment, I look at "just this is it" from a rationalist perspective.

When Dongshan, the co-founder of what would become the Soto Zen school within which I practice, was preparing to leave his teacher Yunyan and go out in the world, he asked Yunyan how he might summarize his teaching. Yunyan replied, "just this [is it]". Because the more we say the more we move into the world of words and away from reality as it is on its own prior to conception, this is often shorted in various ways to "just this" or "just is" or "this is" or "it is" or, perhaps best of all short of saying nothing and letting reality stand on its own, "is".

This is arguably the core teaching of Soto Zen and maybe all of Buddhism, to perceive and accept reality just as it is. Yet I see it all over the place in the LessWrong corpus, too. I'll mention a few of these.

Egan's Law posits that "it all adds up to normality". In "A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation", Eliezer phrased a similar sentiment as "since the beginning, not one unusual thing has ever happened". Both point at the way that reality is just as it is, and the only way we can be confused or surprised is because we had an idea about how reality is rather than simply looking and seeing how it is.

I think this is a hard thing to remember, because to the kind of people that are attracted to Less Wrong, better models of reality are very attractive. I know they are to me! Yet it's very easy to go from accepting reality as it is and trying to better predict it to getting lost in the model that does the predicting and confusing it for the real thing. Thus, while at the same time we look for models with better gears that more precisely carve reality at its joints, we also have to remember those boundaries are fuzzy and that all models are ultimately wrong even and especially when they are useful. It's perhaps the great koan of Less Wrong to build better models while simultaneously accepting that all models are somewhere wrong.

To help us deal with this koan, we have a poem to help us. You might think I mean the Litany of Tarski, but you would be wrong, because that poem is about having beliefs correspond to reality, but "just this is it" is all about getting under those beliefs and just seeing what's actually being perceived. For that, we turn to the Litany of Gendlin:

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.

This was said by Eugene Gendlin of Focusing fame, a technique for helping you reconnect to your perceptions just as they are without judgement or modeling. The method is simple, yet its impact can be profound for many to get out of their ideas about how things are and to get back to what evidence they are actually getting about the world. Zen asks us to over and over again come back to this fundamental point that reality is just as we perceive it, not what we believe about it, and that belief is just a useful mechanism for helping us better live our lives, if only we don't get tripped up into mistaking the map for the territory.

Finally, to return to "A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation", it contains one other phrase that neatly captures the spirit of "just this": "joy in the merely real". If we can take joy in what actually is, if that can be enough for us, then all else becomes the playground in which we live our lives.