Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Zen of Liberty

I had it in my mind to create a blog dedicated to two philosophical schools which I am greatly interested in: Libertarianism and Zen Buddhism.  In my mind, the two have a lot in common, though I don't think I've ever seen a resource which draws upon both Zen and Libertarianism.  I hope to show that they rely on much the same principles and that they both seek to explain and to thrive in the natural world as it exists here and now.

And I'll also try to post about other stuff....

For now, back to Libertarianism and Zen:

To start, I'll attempt to define the two philosophies.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that suggests that free men, when left to their own devices, will create the greatest good for society as a whole by simply pursuing their own individual self interest, provided that they do not violate the principle of nonaggression against their fellow man and that they respect the property rights of one another.  Libertarians believe that markets arise spontaneously, where willing participants can go to exchange goods and services in transactions that benefit both buyer and seller.  They also believe that this process is natural and that this very process, in the market of ideas, has given us such fundamental elements of our lives as language itself.

Zen Buddhism is the ancient Chinese and Japanese form of Mahayana Buddhism which came out of Theravada Buddhism, and dates back to the historical Siddhartha Gautama, who was said to have realized Enlightenment and became the historical Buddha.  The philosophy of Buddhism is, to put it simply, that there is suffering in the world and that the suffering is caused by man's own ignorance and his thirst for what he cannot have.  Buddhists believe in the four noble truths; namely that suffering exists (in Sanskrit called Duhkha which may be better defined as pain, frustration, or chronic dis-ease), that there is a cause of this suffering (in Sanskrit called Trishna, which can be defined as thirst or desire), that there is a cure to this suffering (called Enlightenment or Nirvana), and that there is a way to achieving this cure which is the Eightfold Path.  (Paraphrased from Alan Watts 'The World as Emptiness')

The Eightfold Path is a code of conduct comprised of: Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  Adherence to the Eightfold Path will result in creating good Karma for yourself and those around you.  Karma isn't a mystical force which hovers over your head once you do something good or bad.  It is the real cause-and-effect relationship of actions.  If you honk your horn, the car in front of you will notice that the light has turned green and will start driving - this might have been the factor that led to you not having to wait at a railroad crossing for a slow moving freight train and then arrive late to work one too many times-or it might not make a difference.  A life full of hurting others, lying, stealing, and killing may have metaphysical consequences - we can't really know for sure if it does - but we do know that it has very real physical consequences.  Lying to others will add stress to your life, and will likely give you a bad reputation.  Stealing may pay off for a moment, but a thief risks injury and death when he takes something by force, and he also has to live in fear of retribution, and his natural compassion for others will also lead to much stress and anxiety.  Killing others is the same.  It is plain to see that to live a peaceful, honest life will bring more good to an individual than a violent, dishonest one. 

Where the Theravada Buddhists and the Mahayana Buddhists (which includes Zen) part ways is in the view of enlightenment.  For Theravada Buddhists, enlightenment is most likely not going to happen to the average practitioner in this lifetime, but will happen many lifetimes in the future.  The Mahayana Buddhists believe that enlightenment is possible because it is already here- that the greatest obstacle to enlightenment is our own ignorance and our view of ourselves and the world around us as separate entities.  To Mahayana Buddhists, enlightenment is the stripping away of all illusions, and the realization that what is left is your true Self. 

And so Zen (pronounced "Chan" in Chinese) came about, not as a protest to the earlier forms of Buddhism, but rather as a development or a blossoming of the earlier ideas of Theravada Buddhism, to what was thought to be their natural conclusion by others who had also had the realization which Siddhartha Gautama had (much in the way that limited government and a free market can naturally lead one philosophically toward minarchism and anarcho-capitalism).

Zen today is often characterized by the heavy ink paintings and calligraphy you find in Oriental art, as well as simple drawings, tea ceremonies, so-called Zen gardens, and well known koans such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"  All of the Zen arts are derived from an appreciation of what is.  Books like Zen and the Art of Archery show us the relation between thought and action.  Zen is a philosophy of action, of reality, and of the relationship of ourselves with the universe around us.  It comes from the realization that all that exists is wholly outside of our intellectual understanding and exists in an ever-changing, interdependent state of thusness (or Tathata).  The apparent "things" which we label as separate and independent do not in fact have an essence of their own outside of that which we ascribe to them.

For example, take a chair (you're probably using one right now).  Let's say it is a wooden chair.  For us, a chair has a shape and a form, and exists separately from things such as tables and trees.  But this felt essence of "chairness" which we perceive is nowhere to be found.  Instead we have a creation, made by someone somewhere in the world, which we know as a chair.  It has legs, it has a place to sit, therefore its a chair (and even Zen Buddhists agree that it is a chair, for practical purposes).  But what if we take away the seat?  Is it still a chair then?  If we take away two legs?  What if its a tiny chair, like for a Barbie doll - does it lose its "chairness" at that point, or is it just a model of a chair, containing "model-of-chairness"?  What if you sit on a table?  Does that make a table a chair?  Well, for all intents and purposes, yes - if you sit on a table, that table has become a chair.  But the table has not changed, what's changed is in our minds (in my mind it became a chair, anyway).  What can we really say about a chair?  Let's say the chair is made from wood - that we know for sure - the chair is a collection of wood which has been cut and sanded and screwed together to make a chair.  But where does the wood come from?  Let's say the wood is oak that it was grown somewhere in Maine and cut down to make a chair.  Okay, but what is wood?  Wood is the material that makes up a tree.  Trees are big plants that can be used to make chairs.  The oak tree grows out of an acorn (which grows out of the tree).  The seed uses water, air, soil and sunlight to sprout up towards the sky and to become a tree.  But trees cannot exist on their own.  They require the existence of water and air, of soil, of insects and birds, in a lot of cases they even require chair makers for their existence.  In this way, all things are interdependent on all other things in the universe, and nothing stays the same for long.  Just as the chair is, so our very identities have this elusive quality.  However, no matter how it exists in our minds, the chair (or whatever you want to call it) is there, underneath you now.   It is just the psychological view of a fragmented and isolated world of separate things that Zen attempts to refute.

It is the goal of Zen Buddhism to understand the true nature of one's self, and in doing so of the universe itself.

At last, I've come to the crux of my argument, that Libertarianism and Zen have a lot in common.

In his famous article I, Pencil, economist Leonard E. Read makes the statement that no one on Earth knows how to make a pencil.  It may sound absurd at first, but upon further scrutiny this is in fact the case.  This is because in order to make a pencil from scratch, you need to cut wood (from scratch), and in order to cut wood, you need to build a saw, in order to build that machinery you will need to mine iron and to produce steel, then the graphite will need to be mined from another place far away, and the rubber eraser will need to be made using another method entirely.  If someone were to go about doing this themselves, it would likely cost billions of dollars, and take years to finally complete.  This is not how pencils come to exist.  They come about as the cooperation of millions of individuals, all working to promote their self interest; all collaborating voluntarily, not coerced, and all making deals with one another individually which each one of them agrees was beneficial from his or her own perspective.  And, somehow or other, we today are able to buy a park of pencils for a few dollars and think nothing of it.  (See Milton Friedman's great explanation of the pencil here.)  And a pencil is probably one of the simplest tools in existence today.  The people who create that pencil, for the most part, have no idea who the other is.  They come from different walks of life, different social and economic classes, practice different religions, and speak different languages- and yet, pencils are made at an affordable price to every one of us.  According to Read, the people in this process are guided by an "invisible hand" in manufacturing this pencil.  It is not in spite of the self-interest of those involved, but rather a necessary product of that self-interest, with the entrepreneurial encouragement of bright capitalists,  that our society exists and that we are able to improve the quality of life on earth.

Zen teaches that the world we live in is perfect and complete, and that we are an inseparable part of the world and the universe.  It is our misconceptions and ignorance that seem to muddy up the whole thing.  Libertarianism teaches us that society is best run by individuals who are free to make their own decisions, bound by the simple law of nonaggression.  Again, the discord comes when we try to step in to try to fix what may not be broken.

Well meaning individuals may feel that the world suffers from "social injustice", and they consider this to be something that can be fixed by the State.  So they vote to pass laws which tax the wealthy and subsidize the poor.  Or they vote to raise the minimum wage, in an attempt to raise the income of those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.  Instead, they hurt the poor much more than if they had done nothing, because a higher minimum wage just means that business owners can no longer afford to hire unskilled employees.  They create a system where you can't break into the workforce because the business would have to operate at a loss just to get you to the point where you become an asset to the company.  So rather than fixing the problem of economic equality, they make it worse - for rich and poor alike.

In the same way, practitioners of Zen may seek to alleviate suffering by attempting to rid themselves of desire.  The problem is that their very attempt to get away from desire is an act of desire itself.  So, they try to fix one problem by accidentally creating another problem, or even the same problem which they want to fix.  Or, in meditation, the Zen practitioner may attempt to stop their incessant pattern of thoughts, but instead return to the thought of "non-thought", and they are constantly playing a back and forth game of thinking about not thinking, and thinking about thinking about not thinking, etc.  This is a tricky situation, but it illustrates how people's misconception of the world and of themselves drive them to do things which seem to be the answer but may be the very cause of the problem.  (The answer is, in case you were wondering, not to try to not think, but simply to put your awareness into the action itself - in breathing, in posture, in movement, in action.  The Libertarian answer is almost the same - just let people live as they see fit.  What matters most is how well you can live your life.  If the rights of the individual are the foundation of society than everyone will have the best chance to live the life they want to live.)

Both Libertarianism and Zen have at their core a respect for the way things are in nature.  Individuals act according to their own self-interest, but not at the expense of others.  People who break this principle are considered by most to be in the wrong.  We are compassionate beings, across all cultures,we know that doing good for others will bring good to ourselves.  We are very clever and collectively have an unimaginably vast pool of knowledge, but no matter how much we think we know, we can never know it all.  The great revelation of Libertarianism is that doing good for ourselves necessarily brings good for others.

It is the great mistake of our age to believe that a voting majority should have the right to use force to take what is the lawful property of one person and give it to another person.  It is a mistake because the redistribution is being done with the use of force.  If force were not involved, and the same transaction were being done voluntarily, the effects would be far less devastating, and on the contrary would do plenty of good.  What today amounts to theft and government dependance, both on the part of the millionaire farmer getting subsidized to grow corn and the poor single mother in the inner city getting food stamps and public housing, would instead be a natural market allocation of funds to the most productive areas of society, and charity to those who really are in need (and not just those who are in need of a kick in the pants).  Where there is a demand, there will be a supply, and where people compete to meet that demand, goods and services get cheaper and more innovative. 

The great developments of human history, from language, to electricity, to the internet, the automobile, the airplane, and God knows what else, came as a result of resourceful and clever individuals taking what came before them, innovating and combining it with other innovations, to create something altogether novel - and all with their own self interest in mind.  This is the way humans are, naturally.  Attempts to punish those who are more successful and to prop up those who aren't able to succeed are unrealistic and do more harm than good.  Of course, nature is a relentlessly clever opponent, and any attempt to try to steer it against its own current will blow up in your face.

Zen and Libertarianism are both about the individual, and the individual's relationship with the world around him.  The Self, your body, your mind, and your spirit is the one bit of property you can never be without, and yet it cannot exist apart from the universe itself.  In both Zen and Liberty comes freedom and responsibility.  To force others to do the right thing will never work, for virtuous action can only be made by people allowed to act on their own free will.


  1. Hi Ted, do you mind if I translate this in Italian?

  2. Hi Andrea, I would be honored if you would translate it into Italian!

    1. Thanks Ted, I lost your reply (better, Google did not forward it to me), sorry. When finished I will contact you.

    2. Here it goes. It took some time because I wanted to check with the Abbot of a Soto Zen temple here in Italy. He confirmed that the there are analogies (when he was young he loved judo, zen, jazz and anarchy). Furthermore, I later found out that Laozi (Tao Te Ching) is recognized as one of the founders of libertarianism.

      The page is also in Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Il-dito-nellocchio-Associazione-culturale-586297688127000/?ref=bookmarks


    3. Tao te Ching was a Taoist. His philosophies were later adopted by libertarians, a word not used until the 1780s.