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2019-05-18

From the Minister, Fri May 17

Our theme for May is beauty. We speak of beauty in many ways, primarily in three categories: beautiful people, beauty in nature, and beautiful art. Putting one’s finger on what makes a person, a scene, or an artwork beautiful is not easy. When it comes to art, philosopher Denis Dutton has an evolutionary explanation for attraction to art. The primary mechanism, he says, works through mate selection.

We are attracted to art – that is, find art beautiful – because we recognize that making it is difficult. No one would buy tickets to the ballet or a concert if just about everybody could dance or play music as well as the performers we go to see and hear. The paintings hanging in art museums are the ones that the curators – whose tastes are shaped culture generally – recognize as rare products of talent and refinement. Those paintings are significantly different from what “just anybody” could paint.

It isn't that they are rare because they’re so beautiful. Rather, it's the other way around. We find them beautiful because the skill that could produce them is rare.

Dutton’s argument is that the ability to do something difficult and exceptional is a signal of mate suitability. Art, like the peacock’s tail, is uselessly extravagant – but such extravagance is a sign of good health and nutrition -- of not having to struggle just to survive. Ability to make something particularly well – by any standard recognizable as requiring a learned skill carried to an exceptional level – is an indicator of health, intelligence, fine motor skills, and enough status and wealth to have the leisure to make something “for its own sake,” not directly useful. Thus mate selection rewarded and reinforced human propensity to display artistic skill. And, just as the peacocks with the biggest tails really were, often enough, good mates, so were the humans with the highest level of artistic skills. Thus the genes of both artist and art lover had improved chances of being passed on.

Words attributed to Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) are worth remembering: "All things beautiful are difficult.”

Yours in faith,
Meredith

Practice of the Week: Study Spiritual Texts You can learn a lot by reading. Certain texts are helpful guides for developing spiritual wisdom. Aside from the canonical scriptures of established traditions, there are many works of wisdom and insight. Here is an essentially random sampling of just a few of the sort of books I have in mind, in no particular order. READ MORE

Your Moment of Zen: Rectification Zen emerged when Buddhism from India spread to China and took on influences from Daoism. (There was no formal merger of institutions of Buddhism and Daoism, thus it is said that Buddhism and Daoism "shacked up," and Zen is their illegitimate love child.) Less recognized is the influence of Chinese Confucianism on the emergence of Zen.

"The rectification of names" is a Confucian idea that stresses that a stable social order depends on ensuring that words correspond to reality -- or at least to consensually shared understanding. In the Analects, Confucius writes:
"A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect." (Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4–7, trans James Legge)
Raven here invokes the Confucian idea -- though more for "getting one's own house in order" than for social order.

On the one hand, words are but fingers pointing to the moon. Don't mistake the finger for the moon.

On the other hand, the finger is our "pointer." It matters that we're pointed in the right direction.

Even so, back on the first hand, when it comes to enlightenment, "realization is not like your conception of it; what you think one way or another before realization is not a help for realization" (Dogen).

On the other hand again, Dogen also spoke of the need to arouse the aspiration for enlightenment -- which necessarily involves some conception, howsoever vague, tentative, and inevitably ultimately wrong.

Case
During snacktime one afternoon, Black Bear asked, "How can I realize enlightenment?"
Raven asked, "What do you mean by 'enlightenment'?"
Black Bear said, "You know what I mean."
Raven said, "Fix up your terms and your path is fixed up."
Black Bear asked, "How can I fix up my terms?"
Raven said, "Your own intimate terms."
Verse
Knife scrapes butter over toast
Morning sun slants across the table.
Through the window: spring leaves, a few flowers.
Beside the coffee: a folded paper telling
Today's effects and causes of
Unhappiness, of names sliding apart.

This is a knife.
It, and my hand, spread that butter.
There is the light, the sun.
The leaves are green, flowers yellow, white, purple.
These names are right.
What is there to get wrong?

In a minute I'll unfold the paper,
Let in the day's chapter,
Slanted as the light,
Looking for clues to what is asked of me.
One must be careful
When there is this much to love.
Case by Robert Aitken; introduction and verse by Meredith Garmon
Raven Index   ☙   Zen Practice at CUUC

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