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Minori Hinds
Zen Anthropology
John Wood

Retraining our Mind's Eye

how (zen) anthropology may help our vision of a better world

We live in an era where the idea of absolute identity—be it race, nationality, gender, etc.—is

being rapidly convoluted by processes of globalization. Particularly in the United States, the dim myth

of a culturally uniform “American” is overwhelmed by the reality of endless combinations of varying

ethnic groups, diverse sexual preferences, and amorphous spiritualities. Given these discombobulating

circumstances, how might we attempt to express the human impulse to find out what is going on—with

ourselves, and humanity at large? One way to organize this messy matter can be found in the serene

logic of zen, and its application within anthropological texts. Lit by zen principles such as mindfulness,

not-self, and interbeing, field work can be seen as the anthropologist's form of meditation, and the

ethnography as a “skillful means” (Hanh 51). From Margaret Mead's seminal Coming of Age in Samoa

to the post-modern work of Smadar Lavie, zen is apparent in the approaches of the ethnographers as

well as the cultures studied. A closer look at the relationships between zen and anthropology provides

some insight into how both stars of thought cast a healthy light on the green apples of our minds.

The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh explains in his book Zen Keys that the “aim of

Zen Buddhism is a clear vision of reality, seeing things as they are” (27). Hanh writes that this insight

is achieved through concentration, and the practice of “mindfulness of our body, feelings, mind, and

the objects of our mind, which are the world” (27). In other words, “seeing into one's nature” is only

attained through “living in the heart of reality, in perfect mindfulness” (34). Hanh clarifies that this

mindfulness must be maintained throughout all activities, “while working in the garden, sweeping...or

washing the dishes” (148). Gary Snyder, the American poet, first sensed that Western culture was “off

the track” and exhibited “self-destructive tendencies” through his studies with anthropology, American

Indian elders, and became simultaneously fascinated by Buddhist literature (94). He also reflects the

idea of mindfulness through daily work in his interview with Peter Barry Chowka, explaining why he

no longer sits ten hours a day: “there's too much other work in the world to be done...our meditation is

primarily going to be our work with our hands" (96). These ideas facilitated my struggle to understand

the anthropologist's role in the work to be done. It is that the conviction of innate difference and

separation is gaining a vicious momentum in our conflict-ridden era. Zen dictates that “Discrimination

between subject and object (a dualistic tendency) is the cause of all error concerning both knowledge

and practice” (Hanh 116). This discrimination has been mechanized by global political and economic

systems to the point where many exist in the mindset that there is an essential difference based on race,

class, nationality, etc. One way to smooth these contrived wrinkles in the blanket of humanity is with

the energetic heat of ethnographic experience.

In The Poetics of Military Occupation, Smadar Lavie's extensive ethnography of the Mzeina,

the author lives amidst the Bedouin people with great social and academic caution in her own search

for insight. This eventually led to her induction as a peripheral member of their group, even as far as

being ritually adopted by one of the families. Though Buddhism's non-intellectual militance and its

belief that “Words are inadequate to express the truth of ultimate reality” (Hanh 41) would seemingly

go against the idea of a written ethnography, it allows itself the conceptual flexibility of “skillful

means,” or “methods created to guide people toward awakening” (51). One of the people she lived

with acknowledged her effort to represent them as they are: “All these people write about us, about

what they think we are, except one—the one that just writes us, exactly as we talk, and laugh, and

gesture [with our hands], just as we are” (37). This is achieved through her distinct interest in

maintaining the “feeling of immediacy, flux, open-endedness, and fragmentariness” of the

“experiential stage” (36) in her text, recalling Hanh's reiteration of the Buddhist belief that “we only

reach reality through direct experience” (42), or the simple truth of things as they are. Lavie works to

capture this reality with “everyday speech [to] suggest what is ineffable, not through abstraction, but

by means of the concrete” (38). This is supported by Hanh's declaration that “There is no

enlightenment outside of daily life” (148). In this rumination on the human tendency to assert identity,

she uncovers the zen truth of no-self:

For the Mzeina, their identity as Bedouin is what is at stake, and it may indeed never have
existed as they yearn for it to be. The Mzeini allegories told by the characters are
saturated with both personal and tribal paradoxes, reflecting and revealing each other. (319)

As Hanh makes clear, the “birth, growth, and decline of things depend upon multiple causes,” and that

the “presence of one thing (dharma) implies the presence of all other things.” (41). In explaining how

“being occupied has become an inner state of mind and soul” (40) for the Mzeina, Lavie points to what

prevails in their expressions of identity is not a distinct self but something more relative and transient.

As Hanh might say, the “doctrine of not-self aims at bringing to light the interbeing nature of things”

(41). She also finds this to be true within herself:

Searching for my identity, as the Bedouin do, I find that it is not at all an essence, but
entirely conjunctural, arising out of the circumstances of my being born into a certain family
in Israel, and my choice of profession. (307)

Lavie embodies how ethnography can facilitate awakening to the prevailing truth of interbeing.

Bronislaw Malinowski is another anthropologist who stresses the importance of “actual

experiences” (3) in his ethnographic approach. In Argonauts of the Western Pacific, he notes the

ethnographer's sources are “no doubt easily accessible,” but “not embodied in fixed, material

documents, but in the behaviour and in the memory of living men.” Like many others who wish to

reference the richness of the experiential realm, Malinowski resorts to its description as “supremely

elusive and complex.” This speaks to his recognition that truths can only be felt through the dense yet

immaterial fabric that weaves direct experience, and seems to parallel the zen conviction that everyone

has the potential and responsibility of concentrating on the accessible yet elusive truths of one's own

mind. He highlights the value of daily activity which is unfeasible to transcribe:

[T]here is a series of phenomena of great importance which cannot possibly be recorded by

questioning or computing documents, but have to be observed in their full actuality. Let us call
them the imponderabilia of actual life...and of typical behaviour.” (18-20)

Like Lavie and Hanh, Malinowski calls attention to the substantial role of the field worker's mindset

than ends up in the text, as well as the truth inherent in the activities alone:

[T]here is no doubt that the personal equation of the observer comes in here more prominently
than in the collection of crystalised, ethnographic data. But here also the main endeavour must
be to let facts speak for themselves.” (20)

Touching on mindfulness, he warns that readers should be skeptical of “the writer's personal

acquaintance with the facts which he describes” (3), aware of the “enormous” gap between the

observer's experiences “in the kaleidoscope of tribal life” and the “presentation of the results” (4). This

is harmonious with the zen idea that the experience is different from the words used to describe them;

the true nature of sipping tea can not be tamed by language, and can only be experienced (Hanh 44). In

Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, the protagonist reaches a similar conclusion that there is no possible way

to transmit the intangible insight realized only through individual experience: “Wisdom is not

communicable...Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified

by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it” (Hesse 142). Similarly,

Malinowski writes of how he “acquired 'the feeling' for native good and bad manners,” which is a

precursor to successful field work (8). He also dispels the endeavor to “prove certain hypotheses,” and

that “changing [one's] views constantly and casting them off ungrudgingly under the pressure of

evidence” (9) is a necessary component of the ethnographic process. This resonates with Hanh's

explanation of not-self or impermanence, that “Everything is in a state of perpetual change” (39), and

the zen truism that “The object of the seeing is found in the seeing itself” (129).

Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek also illustrates the unity sensed by direct, daily

experiences, as well as the zen idea of emptiness:

[T]here is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway
transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference
between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to
shot...without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment's light prints on my own silver
gut. When I see this way I am above all an unscrupulous observer. (30-1)

This passage mirrors the zen notion of the unity in “seeing,” where “the subject and object of the

seeing exist at the same time in the sensation” (129). The truth of the inseparability of the subject and

the object of experience, also termed nonduality, is echoed by Keith Basso in his exploration of the

sense of dwelling: “Animated by the thoughts and feelings of persons who attend to them, places

express only what their animators enable them to say” (108). This is why emptiness is so key: on the

one hand, we must be mindful and aware of the ways in which our positionality colors the way we

perceive people outside of our culture. Lavie alludes to this mindfulness of our “political

embeddedness” and the admission that “the discourse of social science itself is part of corporate

academic culture” (35). Simultaneously, this can not preclude our best efforts to be present to whatever

comes along, as well as working these experiences out through text. As Basso observes, it is “better to

write of things one believes one knows something about than to anguish in high despair over the

manifold difficulties of knowing things at all” (111). Dōgen Zenji, the Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher

once wrote:

Though there are many features in the dusty see and understand only what your eye
of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that
although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite
in variety; whole worlds are there. (71)

Like the natural landscapes that surround us, people may appear to have different forms but are

composed of similar elements. The nature of the myriad things assures us the possibilities are infinite.

Margaret Mead, in her first book Coming of Age in Samoa, details her observations of

adolescence in the “primitive” culture of Samoa in her longing to understand whether the “disturbances

which vex our adolescents [is] due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilisation” (10).

Framed from the zen perspective, she sought to better understand the principle of no-self, that

“Nothing in itself contains an absolute identity” (Hanh 39). In the nine months she lived in the Samoan

community, she spoke their language, ate their food, and “did [her] best to minimise the differences

between [them]” (9). What she found was the perception of sex as a “natural, pleasurable thing” (139).

She also discovered that “Romantic love as it occurs in our civilisation, inextricably bound up with

ideas of monogamy, exclusiveness, jealousy and undeviating fidelity does not occur in Samoa” (73).

The people of Samoa, quite unencumbered by the neuroses of western conceptions and regularly

enjoying their sexualities, was living proof that sex itself was not inherently a cause for anxiety. With

tales such as the casual, fleeting homosexual encounters amongst youth, she showed the existence of

other realities that were not dictated by societal conceptions of what was natural or ethical. Seen from a

zen light, her acknowledgment of the non-essential nature of sex made evident the truth of the non-

definitive nature of phenomena. Her book poignantly culminates in a reasonable appeal that remains


[W]e live in a period of transition. We have many standards but we still believe that only one
standard can be the right is unthinkable that a final recognition of the great number of
ways in which man, during the course of history and at the present time, is solving the problems

of life, should not bring with it in turn the downfall of our belief in a single standard. And when
no one group claims ethical sanction for its customs, and each group welcomes to its midst only
those who are temperamentally fitted for membership, then we shall have realised the high
point of individual choice and universal toleration which a heterogeneous culture and a
heterogeneous culture alone can attain. (170)

Mead's admittance that regardless of whether or not we uphold a rigid standard that alternative realities

are emerging confirms what Dōgen already realized centuries ago: “To carry yourself forward and

experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is

awakening” (69). By freeing herself from her attachments to certain cultural standards, she was able to

better see the reality that sex, like other things, is dynamic and alive, while the concepts of them are

static (Hanh 40).

The chasm between direct experience and its abstraction is analogous to that between the

individual and “one's own nature” (Hanh 33). Many of us are too preoccupied with “contributing to the

maintenance and consolidation of the machinery of production and consumption” (Hanh 155) and lack

the quality of self-sufficiency (Snyder 103) to consider examining inner truths. Our daily experiences

have become removed further into abstraction, dominated by concept-ridden institutions. What do we

make of this growing disparity between the rich diversity of individual experiences that comprise the

reality of our times and the stale, untenable mythologies of absolute identity that linger? The answers

seem evident within the narrative of an ethnographer. By virtue of its inherently liminal positionality,

"the life of the threshold can lead to both permeability and knowledge, offering, in Dōgen's phrase, a

way to study the self, forget the self, and awaken into the ten thousand things” (Hirshfield 208). Lavie

reaped this benefit of liminality in the form of her “ambiguous gender classification,” which gave her

“transgender mobility” (16), where both men and women taught her otherwise gender-specific tasks

such as fishing and weaving. Lavie's liminality, without “conceptual discrimination” (Hanh 95), frees

her to a world of male-ness she would never have seen in her own culture. In exemplifying the

constructed nature of gender, her experiences evoke the truth of nonduality and interbeing.

As Mead alluded to in her conclusion, and as Hanh cites as a characteristically Western

attachment to “criteria and values of their own civilization” (159), we must work to destroy our

insistence on a “single standard.” The extreme fanaticism and violence of the West can be attributed to

its desperate commitment to preserving the concept of their identity, or as Hanh puts it, “They are

afraid of losing their identity and this is the principal cause of their difficulties” (159). To be devoted to

the task of not being “colonized by material goods or to contribute to the system of producing and

consuming” (157) also translates into our relationship with our identity. We can no longer afford to let

our daily and global lives be dominated by the forced separation of peoples into arbitrary

classifications because we must unite in the struggle against “material and political interests” that are

the source of “worldly conflicts” (161). There is the connection made by anthropologists between

liminality and paradox, that “the surfacing of existential paradox brings about a transformation from

the linear mundane flow” (Lavie 323-4). The field worker accomplishes this by using their “entire

being as an instrument of realization” (28) and immersing themselves in liminal territories. Their

subsequent ethnographic text can perhaps be appreciated as a dialectic attempt “at producing a

transforming crisis” (Hanh 124). Roy Wagner reminds us that we are all responsible for “the invention

of culture, understanding if not collapsing the differences between reality and its representation.”

Presently, we face the problem of this accountability and awakening, “mindfulness of what we are, of

what our situation really is” (155). Our mind's eye, its iris lazy from lifetimes of spiritual television,

can barely see the finger pointing to the moon. Now is the time. Let there be sight.