Meditations on Uncertainty


Meditations on Uncertainty
            For the past twenty years, I’ve written stories for newspapers. This can be a heady job; you meet famous people, go to interesting places, paint the first brushstrokes of history. Best of all, it’s a continuing education in how we handle moments of uncertainty: What will the governor do now that he’s been caught with his Argentine mistress?[i] Will a burned-out neurosurgeon stick to his predictable career path or risk everything to teach in the African bush?[ii] The rise of the Internet and other external economic and social factors have fueled doubts about the viability of narrative and investigative journalism, but I suspect that demand for well-told stories will survive. We pay attention to stories because uncertainty is with us all the time, says Marshall Ganz, Harvard public policy lecturer.  This presents us with a constant stream of choices. “And because we have so many choices, we are infinitely interested in how others manage these choices,” Ganz says.[iii]
            Yes, uncertainty matters. Across the globe, we spend more than $4 trillion on insurance every year to protect us from external and health-related shocks.[iv] Indeed,  a growing body of evidence shows that weather disruptions, social conflicts and other forms of external uncertainty directly affects poverty rates, health and longevity.[v] On an internal level, myths and religious stories can provide a form of spiritual insurance. “The soul needs stories,” says the poet Clarissa Pinkola Estes in the introduction to Joseph Campbell’s Hero of A Thousand Faces. Stories “… help us sense our highest aspirations, our most uncanny knowings.”[vi] From Biblical literalism to Cartesian proofs, many myths and religious traditions are structured to make an unpredictable world seem a little more settled. Bertrand Russell put it this way: “What men really want is not knowledge but certainty.”
            The Zen tradition takes a different path. It embraces uncertainty, even revels in it. When Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was asked to define Zen, he answered: “Not always so.” How did this dance with uncertainty happen? An examination of Buddhist and Zen tenets, including the historical forces from which those tenets grew, helps explain this evolving relationship and why many people find Zen so resonant today.
Social forces of change
            Consider the legend of the Buddha’s awakening and how it comingles external and internal moments of uncertainty: In the beginning, Siddhartha Gautama lives a life of predictability and comfort until he steps outside the gates of his father’s compound and finally witnesses the effects of age and suffering on the people around him. Shocked by the inevitability of pain and death, he becomes a wandering ascetic and pursues a life of displacement and wont. Under the Bhodi Tree, he struggles with the Satan-like Mara who dispatches his armies and daughters to tempt and unseat him. He withstands these trials and eventually experiences an awakening during which the Four Noble Truths are revealed. The first is that suffering is inevitable and that we all share a bond of duhkha, which Rupert Gethin describes in The Foundations of Buddhism as “… a place of uncertainty in which we can never be sure of what is going to happen next, a place of shifting and unstable conditions whose very nature is such that we can never feel entirely at ease in it.”[vii]
            It’s useful to examine the legend’s historical context. Gethin argues that Buddhism’s roots in India begin with the highly ritualized and hierarchical class system of the Brahmans. He says that Buddhist teachings were in part a response by groups of wandering ascetics to this strict authority. The interplay between these two groups helped produce an alternative world view. The teachings from this world view spread along trade routes in Asia and were pollinated by well-established Confucian and Taoist traditions.[viii] In his book, The Faith to Doubt, Stephen Batchelor argues that Buddhism “found fertile soil” in 2nd and 3rd Century China “because it spoke to the needs of a society in the midst of spiritual crisis.[ix]” The origin of this spiritual crisis was the destruction of the Han dynasty, which fell apart amid the machinations of eunuchs, Taoists and other competing groups. The Han Dynasty was based mainly on Confucian teachings and had been a period of extraordinary economic prosperity, an epoch that saw the creation of the Silk Road, advances in mathematics and countless other technological and artistic triumphs. But the dynasty’s dissolution, Batchelor writes, “exposed the failure of a system of thought and practice that had sustained the Chinese spirit for the previous four hundred years.” [x]Considering this economic and social turmoil, it shouldn’t be surprising that a form of thought that embraces uncertainty would find purchase.
Zen responses to external forces
            Later periods of social upheaval helped shape the direction of Ch’an (Zen), while Ch’an provided answers for people living in flux. The Platform Sutra, for instance, is a remarkable description of a religious tradition experiencing a moment of transition. Compiled after the year 700, it describes the struggles and triumphs of Hui-neng.  On a soteriological level, the sutra sets up a grand spiritual debate over attachment when Hui-neng’s rival writes a stanza describing the mind as “a clear mirror … without dust.” Hui-neng responds with his own stanza: There is no mirror, so “where could there be any dust?” This debate unwinds during a period of turmoil in the school; in fact, the setting is so spring-loaded with tension that Hui-neng flees for his life. The Platform Sutra is filled with stories of how Hui-neng faces privation, murder attempts and other challenges ­– and how he ultimately wins the day.
    Zen Buddhism scholar and translator Philip B. Yampolsky said The Platform Sutra was produced amid “the story of the struggle of various Ch’an factions to establish themselves in the eighth century…”[xi] It also marks a major evolutionary move in the Ch’an tradition toward the more egalitarian approach of sudden enlightenment. The story of Hui-neng’s triumphs during a tumultuous time would be an appealing narrative for people struggling with their own day-to-day material and interior challenges. The historian Hu Shui takes this further, arguing that dissident monk and “political genius” Shen-hui used Hui-neng’s ideas to attract followers and funding. Hu Shui points out that the ruling elites of the T’ang Dynasty needed money to pay for putting down rebellions, and that Shen-hui was a popular and effective fundraiser during this period.[xii] Hu Shih suggests that Shen-hui’s populist approach to Ch’an ­– how sudden enlightenment had nothing to do with class status – helped facilitate the spread of Ch’an beliefs among the poor. “So the great stampede went on,” he wrote. “In the course of a hundred years, practically all Ch’an schools came to be spiritually and genealogically descendent from, or related to, Hui-neng.”[xiii]
             After this transition, Ch’an experienced an even greater period of uncertainty during what Hu Shui described as “a catastrophic external revolution.” In 845, Chinese Emperor Wuzong began appropriating wealth accumulated by Ch’an monasteries to pay for a war. [xiv]The emperor’s followers destroyed 4,600 temples, confiscated millions of acres of land, and forced hundreds of thousands of monks to return to secular life. The soteriological response to this persecution and displacement was an extreme form of Ch’an that takes non-attachment to the cliff. The teacher Husan-chien, for instance, advised followers to “put on your clothes, eat your food, and move your bowels. That’s all. No life-and-death (cycle) to fear. No transmigration to dread. No nirvana to achieve, and no bodhi to acquire. Just try to be an ordinary human being, having nothing to do.”[xv]
Experiences in stories and their effects
            Uncertainty is the key that unlocks any good story. “For there to be a story, something unforeseen must happen,” Jerome Bruner, a psychologist, writes in his book, Making Stories. “Story is enormously sensitive to whatever challenges our conception of the canonical. It is an instrument not so much for solving problems but for finding them.”[xvi] Bruner wasn’t speaking directly about Zen koans, but koans are a powerful example of how experiences described in stories can be used to create internal tension and, according to Zen tradition, a path toward awakening.
When it comes to koans, Zen master Hakuin is the dominant historical figure. Hakuin revived the Rinzai school in the mid-1700s. “Rinai Zen in Japan is essentially Hakuin Zen,” Conrad Hyers writes.[xvii] Hakuin believed that people experience spiritual turmoil that Hyers compares to William James’ idea of “soul-sickness,” an inner conflict between the desire to find spiritual fulfillment and experiences of suffering and doubt.[xviii] Hakuin thought people could resolve these conflicts through intensive study of certain seemingly enigmatic texts, or koans. As a student struggles with these texts, inner tension builds and leads to an awakening. Or as Hakuin put it: "At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully.”
This interior struggle mirrors what all good stories do. “Through narrative, we construct, reconstruct, in some ways reinvent yesterday and tomorrow,” Bruner writes.[xix] A story allows us experience tastes, smells and sights of another human being as he or she faces something unforeseen, and then compare these experiences to what we’ve stored in our minds. “Imagination and memory fuse in the process,” Bruner says. In this manner, something more profound than mere information can be passed from one person to another.
Embracing uncertainty
Seeking uncertainty seems counter-intuitive during an era of unprecedented scientific precision and high insurance bills. Yet, we do it all the time. Uncertainty is an important political tool that’s sometimes used to maintain a sense of security. Corporate and political groups are using notions of uncertainty in the global warming debate to protect the economic status quo of coal and oil interests.[xx] Donald Trump and other birthers tried to inject doubts about Obama’s birth certificate for political ends. (In seeking this certainty, they demonstrated the power of uncertainty to trump reality.) The rise of the Tea Party seems in part a response to vague fears of American moral and political decline.
Just as the evolution of Ch’an was affected by periods of intense ferment in China, the rise of interest in Zen teachings in the West has come during periods of unprecedented economic and social transition. It’s no surprise that Zen’s roots in the West grew stronger during the social tumult of the 1960s and 1970s. Likewise, Zen’s commercial image of simplicity (as exemplified in so many furniture stores) shouldn’t be surprising in a world increasingly characterized by technological opportunities for distraction. In his book, What Really Matters, Arthur Kleinman, a Harvard anthropology professor, said many people feel a “profound sense of inadequacy and existential fear bred by the limits of our control.” Kleinman said we manage these fears through denial (“Let’s forget about life for a while”), consumerism, humor and fatalism (“When your number is up, it’s up.”)[xxi] Indeed, in The Faith to Doubt, Stephen Batchelor argues that beliefs in traditional religions have been undermined in recent decades, leading to a global spiritual crisis.[xxii]
Batchelor’s answer, of course, is to use doubt as a vehicle for “freedom and illumination,” that doubt doesn’t equal indecision. Rather, he cites the Zen tradition of requiring “great faith, great doubt and great courage” to “keep alive the perplexity at the heart of our life, to acknowledge that fundamentally we do not know what is going on, to question whatever arises within us.”[xxiii] In a similar vein, psychiatrist Mark Epstein talks about “going into the doubt rather than away from it” to relieve insecurities about the self.[xxiv]
Ultimately, this path toward embracing uncertainty raises the question about the existence of a knowable self. The stories around us change every second. One minute, Donald Trump is making headlines, the next day Bin Laden is killed in a compound in Pakistan. Sometimes your plane arrives on time; other days the oxygen masks fall down and your confidence in air travel falls along with it.[xxv] These external forces are like the colored bits in a kaleidoscope; they affect how we view things, and therefore how we view ourselves. When the kaleidoscope inevitably turns, the picture changes. A person’s internal story of self is thus a moving target, which can make it difficult to truly know, except perhaps in a brief and impermanent flash.

[i] “I’ve been unfaithful,” Tony Bartelme and Yvonne Wenger, The Post and Courier, June, 25, 2009.
[ii] “One Brain at a Time,” Tony Bartelme, The Post and Courier, July 25, 2009.
[iii] Author’s notes of Marshall Ganz lecture for his Harvard Kennedy School class, Public Narrative, fall 2010. Ganz defines leadership as: “Enabling others to achieve purpose under periods of uncertainty.”
[iv] Swiss Re Insurance Premium Report, July 2, 2009.
[v] Armando Barrientos, “Does Vulnerability Create Poverty Traps?” Brooks World Poverty Institute, May 1, 2007.
[vi] Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Introduction to Joseph Campbell’s, Hero of a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 2004 Edition, p 15.
[vii]  Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 61.
[viii] Ibid, p.13.
[ix] Stephen Batchelor, The Faith to Doubt, Parallax Press, Berkeley, Calif., 1990, p. 10.
[x] Ibid, p. 111.
[xi] Phillip Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Columbia University Press, 1967.
[xii] Hu, Shui, Philosophy East and West, Volume III, Number 1, April 1953, p. 8
[xiii] Ibid, p. 12
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Ibid, p. 18.
[xvi] Jerome Bruner, Making Stories, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 15.
[xvii] Conrad Hyers, Once-Born, Twice-Born Zen, Longwood Academic, Wolfeboro, NH, p. 21.
[xviii] Ibid, p. 23
[xix] Bruner, p. 93.
[xx] Jeffrey Sachs, April, 6, 2010 “Future of Energy” lecture series at Harvard University, author’s notes. Sachs argues that global warming is an example of how market forces don’t always work, and that those who have unshakable faith in market forces had to invent a way around this. Their answer was to deny the existence of global warming.
[xxi] Arthur Kleinman, What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger, Oxford University Press, p. 6.
[xxii] Batchelor, p 16.
[xxiii] Ibid, p. 17.
[xxiv] Mark Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective, Basic Books, 1995, p. 53.
[xxv] “Delta flight from Charleston loses cabin pressure,” The Post and Courier, April, 19, 2011, and personal observations by the author .


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