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"The Chessboard: Is It Black or White?" by Alfred Pulyan

The Aberree
Volume 6, Issue 4
July-August 1959

Zen Author Goes Back Ten Years to Answer His Own Article – But
Be Not Confused, Dear Reader, His Critique Is with Tongue in Cheek

Ten years ago, if I had read that article on "The Actual Practice of Awakening (which the editor titled "The Penny that Blots Out the Sun" ~ June, 1950, ABERREE), I would have written as follows:

There is something in "playing God" or asserting familiarity with the supernatural that is irresistibly attractive to many people.

Suppose a group of distinguished "seekers" were seated around a table in the dark holding a spiritualistic seance. Altho their object is truth and each is a person of impeccable integrity still there is, for that very reason, a subtle temptation. "Suppose I did just tilt the table a little?"

Sensation! Whether the culprit ever will confess is doubtful. Here we have a contributor (A.R. Pulyan 1959) asserting that a conscious knowledge of God is possible. At first, the audacity of this takes our breath away, but it has been done before. Words are cheap. I will quote a very wise philosopher on this point, George Santayana:

"When people tell us that they have the key to all reality in their pockets, or in their hearts, that they know who made the world, and why, or know that everything is matter, or that everything is mind – then Spinoza's notion of the absolute infinite, which includes all possibilities, may profitably rise before us. It will counsel us to say to those little gnostics, to those circumnavigators of being: I do not believe you; God is great."

God indeed is not a possible object, even by definition, for our conscious minds. He is far beyond them and we are fortunate if, by revelation or intuition, we catch some faint gleam of Him. What the mystics experience is their own affair and cannot be true for others. Beyond that there is no possible way to the ineffable; here the mind hits a ceiling.

We seek, it is true, but this seeking is our nature, innate in our mental structure and not connected in any way with finding. What could we find? Only theories such as the one we are discussing, fanciful systems, mere words to swell the vast flood already poured out in vain. It is our glory as earth-bound men and women ever to seek, even knowing that we cannot find, and to add, if we can, just one small item or two of positive knowledge to the accumulated mass. I am personally not ashamed to be classed only as a seeker.

Our author talks of a "new" Consciousness. Consciousness is an intangible thing, but those who know assure us that there is a very versatile subconscious, versatile and liable to trick us.

He says without proof that thousands have had the particular experience of which he speaks. Maybe, but that only proves that whatever it is is a possibility for all of us if we are willing to go thru the mind-destroying techniques he advocates. Who will knowingly submit himself or herself to another person's domination for a period of months or years? Especially as there is no guarantee that anything we might experience is not merely another trick that our minds are so well able to play on us, not to mention darker possibilities from a more sinister location.

Very well. There are millions, if you like, in the world who "know." Let them be content with it if it is some consolation. We, on the other hand, will proudly keep aloft the torch of reason, infinite broad-mindedness and receptivity to all ideas, and the stern resolve to stop nowhere – even to start nowhere.

While we live, we will do as well as we can because nobody can do more.

I am willing to believe that all religions started this way. Indeed, it is almost obvious. Such an experience as this, falling suddenly on the mind of an unlettered Galilean, ignorant of our modern knowledge of psychology and psychiatry, would be tremendous and lead him to make wild claims. It was a sad story and had sadder consequences.

I hold no brief for St. Thomas Aquinas, but it would be folly to abandon a lifetime's output of learned and closely-reasoned writing for a misunderstood experience when he was nearing his end. The time devoted by so many students to his great "Summa" is evidence that this is the general view.

Similarly, is our author a better psychologist than the great psychologists, one of whom he mentions disrespectfully, or a better scientist, historian, philosopher? What has he published? A moment's reflection is enough to show how very unlikely it is that truth – the ultimate truth, remember, that all the world is seeking – should turn up so casually in these pages. I like The ABERREE, of course, and admire the courage of the editor in presenting even such off-beat and futile articles as this one.

Where are these awakened people he talks of? In Russia? In the Chinese communes? Then why don't they make themselves heard? Why are they silent here? Are these not desperate times?

As for Zen, who claims that they believe in God, or try to find God? Certainly no Buddhist, and the whole aim of Zen is to realize one's self – not some other Self, even if there is one.

This man is making a mish-mash of all religions, Eastern and Western, to suit his own theory. Fortunately, he will fool nobody but himself.

REBUTTAL: The "domination" he speaks of is less than one's experience of school life or with a psychoanalyst at $1,500 or more per annum, "Till death do us part." It may indeed be only a few months. I would prefer the term "friendship."

As for "speaking out," who would believe us? Is this critique not proof of that? Besides, between a person who believes in God and one who doesn't, there is not much difference. The poet Browning said that one calls the chessboard white, the other black; to know is different.

As for Zen, everybody seems to be an authority, even if they never have had a satori, including the "beat generation" who use it for "kicks."

As for Santayana, what would happen if a man at target practice aimed at the moon because the target was "unworthy of him"? He would no doubt be told to "lower his sights" to something possible.

As for the ceiling to the mind, there was a story by H. G. Wells about a traveler who encountered a blind but advanced race in a deep enclosed valley. This community believed there was a very, very smooth ceiling above them and just out of reach, which it was blasphemous to deny . At first, the traveler thought he could enlighten them in many ways, but it did not turn out that way. Eventually it came to the point where he was forcibly seized and examined by their doctors. Unanimous opinion was that the two abnormal spherical growths on each side of the top of his nose were responsible for his strange actions and his wicked denial of the very, very smooth ceiling. It was decided to remove them. His anguished protests were met by calm but firm reason.

As for the "Galilean," one should reread his words as tho for the first time, forgetting as far as possible the elaborate systems that have been built on them. I quote from the Revised Standard Version:

"The gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few."

"Many prophets and righteous men longed ... to hear what you hear, and did not hear it."

"What is impossible with men is possible with God."

"Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born anew'."

Finally, this whole critique is tongue-in-cheek and disguised propaganda. But then, what would you have me do? Split into two?

IMPATIENT READER: Stop playing games with yourself, you are confusing me. Do you stand by your original article or not? Can man find God closely, actually, and consciously?

I cannot and dare not believe it. It unsettles me. By all you hold sacred and true, in God's name, do you really know? Is it really so?

ALFRED R. PULYAN: It is so. It is no metaphor that we are the temple of the living God, and I wish this practical experience were more widespread.

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