Deconstructing Self in Zen

Context: reflections on Self and Zen/Ch’an in art and literature

When the narrative, the meaning, the semantic architecture of the text or the image is fundamentally ambiguous – the semantic locus or source of meaning becomes the interpreter; the meaning-maker themselves become the focus and in this dissolves that perspective and projected reality through which their own existence, consciouness, intelligence and subjectivity is reflexively defined.


We are defined to ourselves and to each other through that external and shared all-too-human narrative and logic that we have projected upon (and mistaken for) the world and through internalising this, have mistaken for a pre-existing Reality or Order/Logic. We internalise the projected structure and logical matrix of the world, of our understanding and when that narrative is no longer anchored in any concrete sense in the world, in perception or belief, we are ourselves cast adrift. Dissolving the logic and machinery of the Self, we return to an uncomplicated condition of acting, moving, being; without the endless layers of doubt or hesitation instilled by our rationalising, discerning intellect. This is particularly well portrayed in Takuan Soho’s letters to the sword masters recorded in “The Unfettered Mind“.  This is also the essential beauty and power of traditional painting in the Zen and Ch’an traditions


The mirror of the Void reflects nothing in particular.

“Truth” or Reality ?

This is a discussion of psychological, subjective beliefs and ideological assertions.  The realm of scientific and objectively falsifiable theories and physical “laws” is a different domain of discussion altogether.  Scientific theories and their multiplicity of interpretations and applications are as liable to subjective and emotional errors and projections as much as any other discourse in the public domain.

There are different interpretations, different little-“t” truths. It is when people mistake their little-“t”, subjective and contingent truth for big-“T”, objective and necessary Truth that the trouble really starts. Big-“T” Truths (and particularly in the generally amorphous cacophony of shared or consensus reality) are really only just opinions or interpretations writ large.  By virtue of the insecurities and uncertainties of those who hold them, these opinions and interpretations of reality become (somewhat defensively) enshrined in Grand Opinions and Systems of Belief.

Bruce Lee is interesting because, among other things, he saw the ways people bury the creative essence of a good idea in repetition and blind formality. In the end it is not even about martial arts – it is about human psychology and our inability to let go of things, our constant emotional and intellectual investment in transient ideas and things. To see things as they really are we perhaps need to see ourselves first, even if that means unravelling the tangles and knots which have accumulated and been sedimented over time and through which we have attributed a tangible and objective external reality to what are really just our inner beliefs and opinions.


Bruce Lee: keeping it real.