Friday, June 15, 2012

Eating the Menu

A friend said to me the other day how they had heard the expression (from their Buddhist teacher) "... the map is not the territory, the menu is the not the meal, the money is not the wealth."

Hearing this mix of multiple wisdoms I wondered about the source of the quote. On looking, I was pleased to see the beloved Alan Watts there in the midst of the contemporary recapturings of this saying. The quote that comes closest is where Watts says:

"Intellectualisation creates a gap or lack of rapport between you and your life. You think about things so much that you get into the state where you are eating the menu instead of the dinner, where you value money more than wealth, and are generally confusing the map with the territory." (Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks) (p.115) 

Alan Watts, with great respect, quotes his own source for this quote, when describing how the wisdom of sages is not in their teachings, as otherwise anybody may become enlightened by simply a reading of their text. He says in The Spirit of Zen (1958):

As it is, one may study these books for a lifetime without being any the wiser, for to seek Enlightenment in words and ideas (to borrow a phrase from Dr Trigant Burrow) is like expecting "the sight of a menu-card to reach and satisfy the inner processes of a hungry man." Nothing, however, is easier than to confuse the wisdom of a sage with his doctrine, ..." (p. 15)  

Dr Trigant Burrow (1875-1950), was a psychoanalyst, one of the founders of group therapy and the author of The Neurosis of Man (1949). The quote actually comes from his preface to William Galt's discourse on Phyloanalysis (1933). He describes how the 'outer symptomatology' is of no avail in reaching the 'physiological process resident within the organism of man' (p. 8-9). This search of the hungry person for a satisfying meal was a theme that recurred for Watts in his own exposition of Zen and spiritual wisdom. The conversation has turned away from the dinner, to our hunger and dissatisfaction. Ken Wilber, points this out with an evaluative eye, noting how the newer paradigms learn and recite the recipes, but forgot to perform the injunctions, to actually go and cook; to taste the results.

In drawing from this premise, in The Way of Zen (1957) Alan Watts compares the path of the menu, being the academic study of Zen, and the way of the diner, being the closed cloisters of practice without reflection or engagement, and finds both lacking. Perhaps, even in Zen, there is a middle-way. Yet the problem is not with balance, between sitting in contemplation and receiving direct instruction in the art of seeking. Each is needed, for conjunction, in great benefit. The problem really, it seems, is in the mistake of the attempt to escape from the dining table (or Zazen mat) into the abstraction of distraction.

From Does it Matter?: Essays on Man's Relation to Materiality (1971) Watts gets to the heart of things and talks about the problem of 'abstraction'. This is the human capacity for doing something quite remarkable (and doing that same thing remarkably badly). The human mind has the ability to move beyond the form to the essence of the thing, to be able to consider its symbolic reference, without losing the object of experience. We also have the distinct ability to miss the essence and take a shadow of the quality, making instead an abstract representation as its faint reflection mistaken as reality. To use Watts words: "'But you can always have too much of a good thing. You can easily confuse the measurement with what you are measuring."

To illustrate this, Watts draws a parallel between wealth and money. In wealth we have great riches, in money we have only the promise of what it can obtain. The menu contains anticipation and the dinner requires digestion. In a way, we actually prefer the description to the experience. As he describes: "The customer wants anticipation; he has no capacity for fulfilment." (p. 34). When offered the wealth of the lived embodied experience, or the money of prospective unquantified happiness, the choice it seems leads us to want what is always just beyond our grasp.

In the Tao of Philosophy (1995), Watts explains:

"... the abstract system takes over from the physical, organic situation. As a result, we have run into a cultural situation where we have confused the symbol with the physical reality, the money with the wealth, the menu with the dinner, and as a result we are starving from eating menus." 

Which brings us to the essence of the dinner (and to truly fine dining).  Alan Watts explains that the aim in early Zen practice (or any contemplative practice really) is to move from a discussion of the experience to the direct experience, to become 'part of the landscape, and to get into relationship with what is, distinct from ideas about what is'. In the intimacy of the experience of 'suchness', of 'isness', of 'Buddha-nature',  of 'Christ-consciousness', of 'Nature~mystic' or 'time-transcendent', we then might find that ...

... the quality of mind, the idea of an idea, the consciousness of consciousness,

is as 'real as rocks' ~ and has in its symbolism, an intimacy that is without distance,

... in the abstraction of its ever-just-there-now enduring essence.

1 comment:

  1. Yep. And there is a whole generation of youngsters raised on menus rather than meals..^^..aching to be em-bodied again. Something worth working towards..