Zen and Rationality: Map and Territory

This is post 3/​? 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 form and emptiness from a rationalist perspective.

Rationalists have a few key ideas or memes (in the memetic sense), and one of them is “the map is not the territory”. Lots has been written about this idea on LessWrong, but it’s an idea with a history that stretches back for thousands of years, so it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s also one of the ideas at the core of Zen.

But in Zen we don’t use the words “map” and “territory”, instead preferring numerous other metaphors to point at this distinction. Let’s explore a few of them, because each elucidates a different aspect of the truth pointed at by these duals.

Before Zen was Zen, Nagarjuna formalized this idea that there’s a duality between map and territory in the two truths doctrine. He called these two pairs form and emptiness, pointing at the way our minds put our experiences together into forms or objects that are fixed, at least in our minds, yet ultimately reality is empty of these forms or any other kind of inherent distinctions, essences, or ultimate and timeless truths. Everything we know is provisional, taking a skeptical epistemic stance similar to Pyrrhonism.

Form and emptiness have their place in Zen, but more common is to make a distinction between the relative and the absolute. The relative is that which changes, which exists in our minds, which comes and goes. The absolute is that which exists prior to our perception of it; it’s the space in which the relative arises. But Zen doesn’t stop there. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form, as the Heart Sutra says, and the relative and the absolute can be thought of as dancing reality into existence, simultaneously unified and separate. Dongshan (Japanese: Tozan) explored this in his poem on the Five Ranks, a subtle teaching that can take some effort to penetrate but is worth the effort.

Talking about relative and absolute can get a bit abstract, as can talking about form and emptiness, so there’s another pair that’s been used extensively in Zen teaching that, alas, holds little currency for us Westerners: guest and host, or alternatively vassal and lord. I don’t have much to say on these because they mostly make sense in the context of the pre-colonial Sinosphere, but I mention them in case the metaphor resonates with you.

For Westerners, I think our philosophical traditions offer some alternatives. Kant offers us phenomena and noumena, which sadly misses the mark a bit as often understood by assigning essential form to the territory/​emptiness/​absolute by suggesting there are things-in-themself than nonetheless have thingness. Better are Heidegger’s ontological and ontic, which are just fancy Greek words for something like “words or ideas about what is” and “that which is”, respectively. Although even “that which is” is a bit too much to describe the ontic; better to say the ontic is the “is” or “being” or “to be”. Put another way, ontology is like the nouns, and the ontic is like the verbs just on their own, without even a distinction between one verb and another.

An analogy I like that I borrow from topology is to liken the map/​form/​ontology to closed sets and the territory/​emptiness/​ontic to open sets. This is by no means perfect and if you think about it too hard it falls apart, but using my intuitions about closed and open sets helped me make better sense of the two truths, so I share it with you in that spirit.

And at that I’ll end this post. I’ve not said much about the actual relationship between the two truths of map and territory or how their dependence on one another creates reality as we experience it. I’ll tantalizingly hint that ideas about embedded agency go a long way towards exploring how the two truths play together, but exploration of that I’ll save for another time.