In the 1970’s I developed my practice with advice from a Soto Zen centre in Northumberland and through various sitting groups. By the mid 1970’s I’d established an informal Zen meeting place in Berkshire and for a while we were joined by an itinerant Soto Zen monk from Japan who was travelling through Europe. When we first met he complimented me on my zazen practice saying it was ‘very strong’ and he asked me who my teacher was. When I replied, “Dogen”, he nearly fell off his meditation cushion. Since then I’ve taught the basics of zazen, written and lectured about Buddhism and the arts, and been a member of other Buddhist groups – most recently a Community of Interbeing group here in Exeter (the Community of Interbeing is an organisation established by the Vietnamese teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh).
My interest in scepticism has developed over many years. As a student I kept coming across sayings by early Greek thinkers that questioned the reliability of our senses and seemed to suggest that there were strong grounds for doubting any aspect of knowledge or what we consider to be true. All knowledge claims can only be provisional in a universe of impermanence and process. Heraclitus – the Riddler (c.535-475BCE) in particular seemed to sow seeds of doubt in his puzzling statements:
All things are one… War is father of all….The way up and down is one and the same…. All things flow…. The cold gets warm, the warm gets cold, the moist gets dry, the dry gets damp… It is the opposite which is good for us…
In the history of European philosophy scepticism is usually associated with the early Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis (c.360-c.275BCE). Pyrrho left no writings so our understanding of his ideas comes mostly from his student Timon of Phlius (c.320-230BCE) and a later Roman writer, Sextus Empiricus – who probably wrote his Outlines of Pyrrhonism in the second or third centuries CE. Pyrrho is reputed to have been a painter before he became a philosopher or investigator. He is also thought to have accompanied Alexander on his expedition to North West India in 326BCE and probably conversed with Indian philosophers and teachers from different traditions – including Brahmins, Buddhists and Jains. There seems to be very persuasive evidence that a cross-fertilisation of ideas and practices was happening at this time and what we know of sceptical thought from this period has affinities with aspects of Indian practical philosophy, and vice versa. It is important to remember that philosophy at this time, in both cultures, was seen as a practical attempt to develop effective ways of living rather than as an abstruse and purely intellectual or academic endeavour.
Later, when I came to read Montaigne (1533-92), the Pragmatists (John Dewey, William James, C.S.Peirce), David Hume (1711-76) and others, I found a recurring thread of positive doubt, a celebration of uncertainty and a tolerance for all viewpoints, that seemed to echo what I was finding out about Daoism and Zen Buddhism, and it appeared to be at odds with the usual idea that what we should seek is certainty, the truth and one coherent solid view of the world. These sceptical ideas of multiple viewpoints, beliefs and ways of picturing the world also seemed closer to what the arts were concerned with – giving voice to many songs – polyphonic polymorphism!!
What little I know about how to deal with life’s ups and downs has been learnt from the practice of mindful meditation and from the countless teachers I have encountered over the years – many of these people wouldn’t have considered themselves as Buddhists or sceptics (or teachers) and would be surprised to know that their example and way of being has influenced others in any way. I am indebted to them all.