Monthly Archives: November 2014

Alligator Intellect

Sengai - Nan-ch'uan Threatening to Chop the Kitten in Two

Nan-ch’uan Threatening to Chop the Kitten in Two, by Sengai

[The ink painting above, by Sengai, pictures a scene from the famous Zen koan in which the Zen teacher, Nan-ch’uan, tells his students that he will chop the kitten in half if none of them can say immediately whether reality is (a) objective or (b)subjective.  This picture and the one at the end of this post are from Zen Painting by Yasuichi Awakawa (Kodansha, 1970)]

The intellect is a tool with limited value, and without values.  It’s a garden spade — it’s not soil, or water, or seed, or sunlight.  As Zen Buddhists and others have tried to make us see, if you trust in the intellect, if you give it primacy, you’re simply inviting another emotional, spiritual desire, invisible to you, to control what you do to yourself and to others.  You cut yourself off from feelings, sensations, and intuitions that might grow and feed life.  To blindly trust in the intellect, to give it pride of place, turns you into someone like Lucky in Waiting for Godot, spouting nonsense that sounds impressive, but that isn’t connected to essential or fruitful reality.  We see this in most academic and specialized writing on art, that drains and dries up the juice in its subject.

To give dominance to the intellect is like buying an alligator and giving it the run of your house, not understanding that the alligator’s actions will be driven by insatiable, individual appetite.  That alligator will eat every other living thing and half of the dead things in your house, and, finally, you.

The earmarks of intellect when it isn’t the servant of more important things are arrogance,  emptiness, and self-deception.  We see it all the time.  The categories used by the intellect – animals, Caucasians, neo-expressionism, modernism, enemy —  are nothing more than provisional fictions, practical ways to get others to look in the direction of something that we want them to see, like pointing to a pastry in the cabinet when we don’t speak the cashier’s language.  (Or, for that matter, as I am using “intellect” in this post!)  To the extent that people take such terms for adequate descriptions of living reality, they usually do so for self-serving reasons, with sad consequences.

What’s important is the substance of the person wielding the garden spade, because the spade can be used to plant food or flowers, or it can be used to dig up and destroy what you plant, and what others plant as well.  If you want to see how sterile and puerile the intellect can be when it rules, just consider most largely-conceptual art, in which the horse’s ass so often comes before the cart.

Sengai - Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma, by Sengai