08 February 2009

What to do When the Methodology Isn't Quite Working? Have a Zen Conversation

I'm taking the "philosophy" part of "Doctor of Philosophy" sort of seriously as I continue my thesis work. As regular readers will know, I'm working way down at the philosophy-theory layers, more than the theory-practice, or praxis layers. Through the tremendous and fortunate inspiration of Pam, I discovered the philosophy of Nishida Kitaro, and the concept of basho - that metaphysical place from which relationship emerges. From basho comes the ba-forms of the valence relationships that comprise a major component of the centrepiece of my thesis.

I have also decided to use fictional narrative conversations between a Zen master named Nishida and I to capture the aspects of my process for the thesis. These will be interstitial chapters, if you will, that are sprinkled among the more rigorously academic thesis chapters. The chapter in which I describe basho and Nishida's work will be one such chapter; "The Problem of Knowledge" and musings that I captured in my post asking for the word to replace that special [something] that tacitly connects people will be another. Last week, I was contemplating a problem with a limitation I am finding in my use of Grounded Theory methodology. The answer was a conversation with Nishida about mountains:
“Why do you climb the mountain?” he asks.

“Because it’s there?” I reply.

“No so good a joke, but an acceptable answer for some. But why do you climb the mountain?” he insists.

I ponder that simple question. Why do I climb the mountain? We sit in silence, meeting one another in basho, he more confident than I that the key to insight is on that metaphorical mountain. Of course!

“Because…” I begin, “because the key to insight resides with the mountain.” I am careful to be as non-specific as befits a student of his particular brand of philosophy. I continue: “There are insights to be found at the base of the mountain and among the surrounding foothills. There are insights scattered along the way that leads from the well-explored flatlands to the slope that I intend to scale. There are insights at the summit, perhaps the best view of the overall insights to be seen.”

“And?” He waits, with that slight smile crossing his face indicating that I am indeed on the right path. The right path!

“And there are insights that can be discovered on the mountain path, on the journey up the mountain itself.”

He frowns. “What of the journey downward? Are there no insights on that path? Is it the same path up as it is down, even if there seems to be but one path?”

Now it’s my turn to frown. Just as you can never step twice into the same river, it’s not the same path up as it is down. I missed that one, and it is so obvious – in retrospect. “No, sensei. The path downward is a different path than the one leading upward. Each direction provides its own insight.”

“If your intent is to explore the paths, then you are right. The direction matters. If, however, your intention is to explore the mountain, why are you distracting yourself with the path?”

Busted! Never, ever try to outsmart your sensei.

“Why do you climb the mountain?” he asks again, very calmly, very patiently. He waits. Again, the smile.

“I climb the mountain to discover the insights that reside with the mountain.”

“Then why do you insist on climbing it? If you find yourself at the summit, you can discover what you seek by descending. If you find yourself in the meadow, your quest for discovery will lead you to ascend. When you are on the mountain path itself, you must travel by both ascending and descending to complete your journey. Only when you can reconcile the various directions and the unique insights they reveal will you uncover the knowledge you seek.”

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