Zen and Rationality: Trust in Mind

by G Gordon Worley III3 min read11th Aug 20203 comments

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BuddhismEpistemologyRationality
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This is post 2/? 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 "trust in mind" from a rationalist perspective.

I really like Trust in Mind, a Zen teaching poem attributed to the Third Patriarch, because it offers a vivid description of Zen practice that I've kept coming back to for new guidance and insight. Today I only want to talk about its origin and its title, because to delve in much more would be to write a book on Zen.

Purportedly it was written in response to the rising popularity of Pure Land Buddhism in an attempt to encourage the people to practice the "true" Buddha way, and revolves around the idea of putting trust in mind rather than trust, as in the case of Pure Land Buddhism, in a deified Buddha that will lead people to the Pure Land if you chant his name. This seems a deeply humanist message, and from a certain perspective this is fair: Zen contains a strong humanist aspect in that it's all about doing the practice here and now, and who else is there to do the practice but you, a human? But this is where the cracks in the humanist interpretation start to show, because Zen will immediately turn around and ask "oh, so where's this 'you' that's doing the practice?" and "does a dog have Buddha-nature?". Zen's tricky like that, offering you something with one hand while pulling the rug out from under you with the other, repeatedly trying to get you to look up and see what you've been leaving out.

Turning to the title, the "mind" here is again the heart-mind or heart-body-mind. This is an idea that comes up a lot in Zen, so it's worth saying a bit about it. Partly it reflects the traditional idea that a person's emotions or soul reside in their heart rather than their head, and the use of shin/心 to mean heart and mind is common in classical Chinese writing, not just in Zen/Ch'an texts. But if we're charitable and ask why would someone without the benefit of modern medicine think an import part of themselves resided in the heart, I reckon it's deeply related to the way we talk about feeling our emotions. That is, most people report experiencing emotions and sometimes general thought somatically, i.e. in the body. Sometimes this ability to literally feel emotions is impaired, and even when it's not we can get better at it through focusing on the mind-body-"heart" connection, and Zen sees this as vital to its project because it's a key part of studying the self to forget the self.

The other key word in the title that I've rendered here as "trust" can also be and frequently is translated as "faith". Now, I've buried that down here in the middle of the post for a couple reasons. One, rationalists and secular folks in general, including my past self, are often allergic to the word "faith" because of the way it's used by Christians, especially evangelical Christians, and I didn't want to put people off before they had a chance to read any of this. Two, I think the "trust" translation is more likely to resonate with rationalists; that was certainly the case for me. In fact, use of the word "faith" in spiritual jargon only started to really mean something to me after I came to develop some trust in mind! But just what is this trust-faith?

A good way start to see trust-faith is to look on the "small" end where reductionism bottoms out into epistemic circularity and makes us choose between consistency and completeness. Much to my surprise, while writing this I learned even Eliezer acknowledges the need for faith of this type, though as of the time of writing that linked article he seems to have still held out positivist hopes. Regardless, it's the kind of trust you put in the axioms of a system; the unconditional acceptance you must grant to the smallest atoms of your ontology to which you can reduce all else but are themselves irreducible; the monumental importance you place on selecting the base types out of which you build your models. It's the leap across the epistemological chasm to the side of pragmatism and winning instead of infinite skepticism and solipsism.

Once on that other side, you can explore the "big" end of trust-faith. This is the kind of trust in knowing that you know nothing, in dealing with unknown unknowns, in being okay with the truth, and the kind of faith required to leave space for the "don't know" that I talked about last time. It's "knowing" the nameless virtue with your bones, and the utter acceptance of the Litany of Tarski and the Litany of Gendlin. For me, Alan Watts put it best when he wrote:

Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.

When I first heard that quote, it reframed "faith" for me in a way I could feel comfortable using it. I think of it as similar to the reframing Bayesianism gave me on "belief", a word I had previously avoided using at all cost because of the way Christians around me growing up used it to mean blind acceptance of specific facts because their religion told them to. So just as we need not abandon "belief" because some people with anti-rational epistemics use it as a stopping word, we need not abandon "faith" either, even if "trust" is perhaps a more serviceable synonym.

And at that I'll leave off, although we're not actually done with unpacking "trust in mind" because we've only looked at a sliver of what "mind" really means in Zen, but we had to get through trust-faith today, and I think it's a lot on its own. I'm sure, though, I'll find my way to saying more about it if I keep this series up.

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3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:17 AM
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I enjoyed your post.

I am relatively new to less wrong, but also have been influenced by Buddhism, and am glad to see it come up here.

The confusion you point at between faith and belief is appreciated and was an important distinction I did not make for roughly the first 20 years or so of my life. The foundational axiom I use so as to not fall into the infinite skepticism you mention is the idea that it’s okay to try and build, help, learn, and contribute even if you don't understand things completely. I also hold out hope for the universe and life to ultimately make sense, and I try to understand it, but I suspect it will all amount to an absurd Sisyphean act.

What is referred to as faith or trust in the post I refer to as open mindedness. I think it maps without issue to the same concept you are referring to, but I am open to distinctions being drawn.

The other thing I wanted to mention, if anyone found the distinction between belief and faith especially interesting, and would be interested to understand how even within religious communities belief can be detrimental, I recommend the book The Religious Case Against Belief by James P. Carse. It explores this subject in depth and is quite enjoyable.

I think "open mindedness" is a decent way to talk about what I'm calling trust or faith here, although I think there's a bit of difference simply because of different things people mean by open mindedness, trust, and faith. For example, all these words sometimes point to a kind of anti-rational stance, other times they are used to give up on doing epistemological work, and then there's the way we're using them here. This is unfortunately one of the things that makes it so hard to talk about trust-faith: the concept is adjacent to others and can easily be misunderstood when "flattened" down to fit within a person's existing understanding of the world, and that's where the trouble begins.

The subject is extinguished with the object.
The object sinks away with the subject.
Object is object because of the subject;
Subject is subject because of the object.
Know that the two
Are originally one emptiness.
In one emptiness the two are the same,
Containing all phenomena.
Not seeing fine or coarse,
How can there be any bias?