Zen Computer FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

Adapted from Chapter 3 of Zen Computer: Mindfulness and the Machine, by Philip Toshio Sudo


What is Zen Computer?

Zen Computer is a way of looking at the computer that applies the ancient principles of zen to the modern science of bits and bytes, a philosophy laid out in a book by dojo founder Philip Toshio Sudo. For a summary of the philosophy, read the introduction here.

What is zen?

No one can say. Furthermore, anyone who proclaims an ability to answer in words is a fool. If someone asks, "What is zen?", the best answer may be a clap of the hands.

Hundreds of books have been written about zen, but none can say what zen is, because zen can only be experienced. To ask, "What is zen?" is akin to asking, "What is music?" or "What is air?" Nothing we say can give us the actual experience of it. And yet the experience is there for everyone. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of obscenity, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." So it is with zen. Zen is like the punchline of a joke that makes you laugh; there's no conscious analysis of what makes it funny, just the spontaneous, natural reaction. The moment you start explaining the punchline to someone, the joke is lost.

The word "zen" is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character ch'an, which itself is adapted from the Sanskrit word dhyana, meaning meditation or absorption. But zen has come to mean much more than meditation.

Zen is an awareness, a sensibility, a way of looking at things, a way of living life. Its way is to float like a ball on the river of life, right now, in this moment, aware of both the cosmic order and the tiniest detail; to coordinate mind, body, and spirit so as to express one's true nature in every action; to do what comes naturally. When the hand goes up automatically to catch a ball that's thrown unexpectedly, the action arises spontaneously, out of one's true nature, in the same way the fruit falls from the tree when it is ripe. This is zen action--catching without thought of "catching," doing without "doing." If it sounds simple, it is. But imagine carrying that naturalness through to every action. If it sounds difficult, it is that, too.

The route to this sort of naturalness lies in cultivating a quality of mindfulness.


What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is simply maintaining a heightened presence of mind. Through sheer force of will, we turn our minds into their own disciplinarians, like the teacher in school yelling, "Pay attention!" Zen masters call it "minding mind." Pay attention to what you're doing right now; to how you're doing it; to the ways of nature and your place within it; to your hearts, your body, your intuition, your very breath. Zen lies in all these things.

Some people may think that mindfulness sounds too self-absorbed. But zen requires a constant balancing act--to look deep inside ourselves while at the same time developing awareness of our environment and all our relations within it. The more mindful we are of what we do, the more mindful we are of each other. In truth, zen demands balancing the paradoxical. Pay attention, zen says, but do not pay attention--that is, force yourself to pay attention to the point where you forget you're forcing yourself and simply start paying attention; only then will you know something about zen. Do without doing; expect the unexpected; pursue a goal without pursuing, with no goal in mind. Logically, these words make no sense. But in zen, truth lies beyond on the grasp of logic, in the realm of intuition. As a playwright once said, "The center of the contradiction--that's where you want to be." Zen lies there, balancing the opposites.


Is zen a religion?

No. But in learning to flow with the natural order of things, students of zen develop a profound sense of spirituality--an intuitive feel for the divine within nature's cycles and rhythms.

Some people mistake the spirituality of zen for religion. But zen worships no deity, follows no sacred text, and shuns dogma of any kind. (I make a distinction here between "pure" zen, which decries attachment to any system of understanding, and Zen Buddhism, which has formalized an approach to zen from a Buddhist context of structure and rules.) Rather than supplant religious convictions, the spirituality one finds in zen can make one's existing faith even stronger. Thus, we hear people describe themselves as Zen Buddhists, Zen Christians, or even Zen Guitarists.

If anything, zen adheres to the Chinese cosmology of yin-yang, symbolized by the interlocking fetal figures of black and white (see illustration).



What is yin-yang?

Yin and yang represent the pairs of opposites, born of the source of all things, that comprise our experience of the cosmos: life and death, day and night, matter and space, male and female, on and on and on. Zen represents the constant balancing of these elements, which are not conflicting but complementary--the two sides of one coin. One does not exist without the other, and within each fetal figure of the circle lies a small circle of the other. That is to say, there are circles within circles within circles, never in a state of perfect balance, but always changing, thus requiring a ongoing process to find the great Middle Way between the two.

Zen Computer proposes that the idea of yin and yang lies even at the heart of computing, in the very nature of digital technology.

What characterizes digital technology is its ability to render, store, and transmit information in a binary system of 0s and 1s. Every keystroke or click of the mouse sends a tiny on/off signal to the computer's transistors, which represent the signal as either a 1 or a 0. Grouped together, these 1s and 0s, called bits, serve as the computer's internal language system.

All languages have their poetry. The poetry of the binary language lies in its inherent yin-yang nature. In fact, the very inventor the binary number system, German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), was inspired by yin-yang philosophy. He credits the classic Chinese text I Ching (The Book of Change) with having a profound impact on his thinking. By the end of his life, Leibniz had come to view 0 and 1 in zen-like terms, as part of the complex interaction of life and consciousness--1 representing God, he believed, and 0 representing the void.

Zen Computer sees the poetic interplay between 0 and 1, for these numbers carry symbolic importance in zen as well.


What do 0 and 1 represent in zen?

In zen, 0 is like the ocean and 1 is like a wave. A wave is of the ocean, but distinct from it, too. Each wave swells up out of the water and moves forward through space and time. The ocean, constant, manifests and powers the wave.

As human beings, we experience this ocean, this 0, like surfers--catching the wave, or 1, as it rises, and riding it until it dies out or we crash. Each wave, then, is like a lifetime; one ride over, we return to catch another. Throughout, we're always wet and in the water.

In zen calligraphy, brush masters use 0, or the circle, to represent a multitude of truths: the inexpressible level of understanding that lies beyond conceptualization; the principle of eternity, with no beginning and no ending; all the various cycles of life, from birth to death to the rhythm of the clock and the seasons; the fundamental power of circular and spherical energy in the physical world, with all things in constant circular motion.

Look at your computer. Is it moving? And your desk? Does it, too, move? On the largest level, the answer is always yes. Everything on this earth is always moving in a circle as the world turns on its axis and orbits the sun at 60,000 miles an hour. These circles within circles energize our physical existence. In the very center lies the still point of the moving world, as at the eye of the tornado. The still point at the center is where Zen Computer leads.

Where do we find this still point of everything that moves? In our mind, body, and spirit. A zen lesson designed to illustrate this point tells of two monks arguing at the flagpole. One says, "The wind is moving." The other counters, "The flag is moving."

The master Bodhidharma, upon hearing the exchange, corrects them both. "Not the wind, not the flag," he says. "Mind is moving."

If mind is moving, Bodhidharma says, we are not calm and at the center.

Once we align ourselves through zen and stand at the center of the circle, we become like the surfer on the wave. Then the still point at the center moves as we move--moving according to movement, staying ever balanced, always finding equilibrium. As the masters say, the way is known through balancing, not balance.

All these ideas zen masters express through 0.

Out of the void of 0, the masters say, is born 1, the real world of matter, space, and time. This 1 represents the union of all things, as well as the linear nature of time. Everything in 1--the grass, the sea, you, me, the computer--is a manifestation of 0. In other words, 1 is not separate from 0, but rather the veil of 0, like the display monitor that masks the internal workings of the computer. Leibniz put it thusly: "The soul is the mirror of an indestructible universe."

Even the Japanese and Chinese handwriting styles reflect the zen philosophy inherent in these numbers. In Western cultures, for example, the number 0 is generally handwritten starting at the 12 o'clock position and proceeding counterclockwise back to the 12 o'clock position. In the handwriting of Japan and China, however, 0 is drawn starting at the 6 o'clock position and moving clockwise back to the 6 o'clock position. This action emphasizes the feeling of arising out of nothing, moving through time, and returning to origin.

Westerners also write the number 1 differently, as a vertical line. One might see it depicting an individual standing. Handwriting styles in Japan and China, however, denote 1 horizontally rather than vertically, emphasizing the idea of movement through time, of a path beginning and ending.

The aim of Zen Computer will be to find the intuitive balance between 0 and 1--not the halfway point at 0.5, but that transcendent place where 0=1.


How can 0=1?

Logically, of course, this makes no sense. It is a mathematical truth that zero cannot equal one.

In zen thinking, though, "nothing" is still "something." Sitting in meditation means doing nothing and something at the same time. Similar examples abound in everyday life. In politics, nonparticipation in the system still makes a political statement. In television, "Seinfeld" can famously proclaim itself to be about nothing, yet still find material for laughs.

Yes, zero does not equal one, but with the right perspective, zero does equal one. The aim of zen is to realize both truths simultaneously, in the same way we understand the truth in the saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

I am not talking here about the kind of illogic portrayed in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four--a totalitarian world in which the state dictated "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," and 2+2=5. True zen manifests compassion, not oppression. Zen accepts the truth of 2+2=4, while at the same time recognizing those instances where 2+2=5--i.e., where the whole of something exceeds the sum of its parts. Add two musical notes to another two and you get four musical notes. But add the right pairs together with the proper sense of space and time and suddenly you get a "fifth" element--a beautiful melody with a power far beyond the individual character of each note. Therein lies zen.


After reading this FAQ sheet, you may find yourself more puzzled than when you began. Do not expect to know, "What is zen?" without time and practice. If you're confused, it only means your mind is trying to comprehend something. Relax and let your mind do its work.

As you proceed, you'll find plenty of moments when zen doesn't make sense--and yet rings true. Whatever means we use to approach it, that unnameable thing we call zen always has been and always will be; it simply is, whatever name we give it. Clap your hands, laugh at a joke. Zen is to be found in every action and every thing--including the computer. The truth of zen is already known to you. All you need do is realize it.

The Zen Computer Dojo is here to help.

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