Socrates and Zen

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Socrates and Zen
The differences between Eastern and Western philosophies are very pronounced. Western mentality is generally based upon a rational, ordered system of categories that encourage the continual search for truth and knowledge through science or religion. Conversely, Eastern mentality maintains that life is a journey towards self-discovery of oneself and the unexplainable universe. However the drastic divide between Eastern and Western thoughts may not have always been so dramatic. Despite the many differences between contemporary Western and Eastern philosophy, there is a major resemblance between the beliefs and methods of Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, and the Eastern philosophy of Zen Buddhism.

In Plato's Republic, Socrates explained that the world is divided into the visible and intelligible world. The visible world includes everything that we understand through our senses and the intelligible world can be attained through our innate knowledge of the Forms. Socrates explained that the Forms are unchanging and absolute entities, which are the only objects of true knowledge. The perfect and natural image of the Forms is what causes one's perception of objects in the visible world. In other worlds, an orange in the visual world is merely a reflection of the perfect Forms of Orangeness, Roundness, and Juiciness. Above all, the Form of Good is the Form that creates all other Forms and is the source of genuine knowledge and truth. Although Socrates could not explicitly describe the Form of Good, he believed the Form of Good is the highest degree of cognitive understanding and the ultimate object in our search for knowledge.

Zen Buddhism is a practice originally observed in China and can be considered a philosophy, religion, or simply a way of life. Zen aims at achieving a particular state of mind called enlightenment. Enlightenment entails the removal of oneself from all worldly distinctions. Once enlightenment is achieved, one can experience the true meaning of existence and "oneness" with the universe. The separation of oneself from material barriers allows one to experience reality and knowledge in each and every moment. Li, or absolute truth, can be achieved during an illuminative trance of enlightenment. Li can be understood when one affirms that there are no opposites or material distinctions. However according to Zen Buddhism, Li can not form logic conclusions or be demonstrable. It cannot be adequately described with words, since it lies beyond our senses and our intellect, from which our terms and words stem.

Socrates and Zen both convey similar epistemic views. Both philosophies strive to find ultimate truth and knowledge through the attainment of either the Form of Good or Li through enlightenment. Socratic and Zen philosophies also correlate with rationalism, the belief that all pure knowledge comes from the mind rather than through the senses. Socrates believed that the Forms are knowledge that everyone experiences before birth, and is later recognizable with careful introspection beyond the ordinary, visual world. Similarly, Zen maintains that Li can be reached by anyone who is able to remove themselves from distinctions and experience life in the present moment. Therefore, both Socratic philosophy and Zen maintain that achieving true knowledge and understanding of reality is obtainable for anyone who is able to transcend the material and subjective realm.

Although Socrates theory of the Forms and Zen enlightenment appear to have similar epistemic values, many would argue that they are fundamentally different. Many could argue that Zen beliefs and Socrates have opposing intentions for attaining knowledge. In Zen, the purpose of gaining enlightenment is solely for a personal benefit. Enlightenment is an indescribable and personal experience of existence and truth that may only result in a personal change of attitude and way of life. Enlightenment...
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