Zen and Rationality: Skillful Means

This is post 5/​? about the in­ter­sec­tion of my decades of LW-style ra­tio­nal­ity prac­tice and my sev­eral years of Zen prac­tice.

In to­day’s in­stal­l­ment, I look at skil­lful means from a ra­tio­nal­ist per­spec­tive.

As part of Zen prac­tice, a teacher may use or en­courage the use of many skil­lful means. Some­times called ex­pe­di­ent means or up­aya, these may in­clude things like en­courag­ing a stu­dent to take up a par­tic­u­lar med­i­ta­tion prac­tice like breath count­ing or la­bel­ing, as­sign­ing a koan, or giv­ing the stu­dent a job within the Zen cen­ter, like al­ter care or bell ring­ing. Th­ese are meant to aid the stu­dent in their prac­tice of the way.

Im­por­tantly, the idea be­hind these means be­ing “skil­lful” or “ex­pe­di­ent” is that they are not nec­es­sar­ily prac­tices a stu­dent will con­tinue with for­ever, but rather things the stu­dent should do now that will help them. What may be use­ful for one stu­dent to do may not be use­ful for an­other, and what was once a use­ful prac­tice for a stu­dent may later be­come a hin­drance.

A good ex­am­ple is struc­tured med­i­ta­tion prac­tices, like breath count­ing. When a stu­dent be­gins med­i­tat­ing, they might find it very difficult to stay seated for 30 min­utes, even dur­ing timed med­i­ta­tion pe­ri­ods sit­ting with other peo­ple in a zendo. Giv­ing them some­thing to do, like count­ing their breath, gives them some­thing to fo­cus on and dis­tract the part of their mind that wants to get up and do any­thing else. Over hun­dreds of hours, they’ll re­train them­selves to be able to stay seated even when dis­tracted by gath­er­ing ev­i­dence that they can do it, and slowly the breath count­ing will stop be­ing a skil­lful means to help them prac­tice and will in­stead be­come a hin­drance and a dis­trac­tion from just sit­ting, at which point they might move to­wards a differ­ent, less struc­tured med­i­ta­tion prac­tice or spend less of the time in med­i­ta­tion count­ing breaths. If they kept count­ing their breath for years even af­ter it was no longer nec­es­sary to get them through a sit­ting pe­riod, it would no longer be a skil­lful use of the means, but as long as the al­ter­na­tive would be failing to keep sit­ting so they have the chance to de­velop skills that will let them med­i­tate more full heart­edly, it re­mains skil­lful.

Ra­tion­al­ity has its own ver­sion of skil­lful means via the prac­tice of in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity, or sys­tem­at­i­cally achiev­ing one’s ends. It’s the art of find­ing ways to help one be­come stronger. It rec­og­nizes that you can’t go straight to the ideal and con­vert one­self into a perfect Bayesian rea­soner with in­finite mem­ory and think­ing ca­pac­ity, but in­stead must work with your fal­lible, hu­man self to find tools and tech­niques that help you where you are now to get you in­cre­men­tally closer to where you want to be.

It also rec­og­nizes that some­times the skil­lful next step ac­tu­ally makes you tem­porar­ily worse off as you climb down the hill of a lo­cal max­ima to move to a differ­ent, higher lo­cal max­ima.

If you want to prac­tice these skil­lful means, the CFAR hand­book is a de­cent start­ing point for learn­ing some of them, and a CFAR work­shop is maybe an even bet­ter op­tion. Fur­ther, many of the posts tagged Prac­ti­cal con­tain use­ful tech­niques to aid you in achiev­ing your goals, as do posts tagged Ra­tion­al­ity un­der the “Ap­plied Topics” and “Tech­niques” groups of tags.

There’s even some im­pres­sive over­lap be­tween ra­tio­nal­ist and Zen skil­lful means. For ex­am­ple, there’s the gen­eral act of notic­ing, be it notic­ing con­fu­sion or any­thing else, that’s es­sen­tial for study­ing the self in enough de­tail to work with it (and in Zen, to even­tu­ally for­get it). There’s try­ing things (fa­mously Zen teach­ers may tell their stu­dent not to bother un­der­stand­ing some­thing, but just to do it and see what hap­pens). And fo­cus­ing is, from a Zen per­spec­tive, one more use­ful means to rein­te­grat­ing the heart-mind-body.

Im­por­tantly, both ra­tio­nal­ity and Zen ac­knowl­edge some ver­sion of the typ­i­cal mind fal­lacy, car­ry­ing the re­al­iza­tion that what’s best for one per­son now is not nec­es­sar­ily what’s best for them later, and that what works for one per­son may not work for an­other. Lucky for us we have so many skil­lful means to choose from on our jour­neys!