Tuesday, June 13, 2006
First Aired: 
Saturday, June 18, 2005

What is it

What is the sound of one hand clapping?  Does Zen Buddhism provide a unique perspective on the world that transcends the wisdom in Western Philosophy?  Is there a special kind of Zen logic?  Or is it just one more religion?  John and Ken welcome Robert Scharf from UC Berkeley.

Listening Notes

Is Zen a philosophy or a religion? What is enlightenment? Ken introduces Robert Sharf, professor at UC Berkeley. Sharf gives a brief history of Buddhism and how Zen relates to other forms of Buddhism. Then, Sharf explains what enlightenment is. John, Ken, and Sharf dig into how Buddhism is different from or similar to various Western philosophical positions. 

Sharf warns against letting your understanding of Zen slip into a self-centered, "new age self-help view". He points out that Zen is historically very different from that. How does meditation provide access to a special kind of knowledge? Sharf says that meditation doesn't bring any special understanding of the world. It has to be done in tandem with analytic reasoning, which is what brings the enlightenment. 

Ken asks if Zen requires practitioners to put up with everything, indifferently, how do they deal with injustice or being attacked? For example, how is a Zen practitioner supposed to react to someone stabbing them? Sharf responds that the Zen community has been divided on this topic for a long time and that they are moving towards proactive involvement. Sharf explains the difference between Zen historically rejecting scripture and modern, Western practitioners rejecting scripture. After responding to several callers, Sharf comments that the notions of bodhisattva and compassion are the source of the philosophical and ethical doctrines of Zen. John plays a Zen chant and then introduces the conundrum.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 03:50): Amy Standen interviews an abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center about what Zen is and means to him.
  • Conundrum (Seek to 47:15): If there were a teleporter that disassembled all the atoms in your body and reassembled them somewhere else, would the reconstructed body be the same as the one that went into the teleporter? What about if the teleporter just built a new body out of the information of which atoms went where? What about if the teleporter just built a new copy without destroying the first?

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Robert Sharf, D.H. Chen Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies, University of California Berkeley


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