Life is Analog, not Digital


We have a strong tendency to try to eliminate nuance. Things are one way or they are the other. There is no in between. This is a real problem right now in Western society, particularly in the United States.

I’ve been reading Stephen Batchelor’s excellent new book After Buddhism and I came across this quotation from the Buddha. The Buddha said to a guy named Kaccana, “By and large Kaccana, this world relies on the duality of ‘it is’ and ‘it is not.’ But one who sees the arising of the world as it happens with complete understanding has no sense of ‘it is not’ about the world and one who sees the ceasing of the world as it happens with complete understanding has no sense of ‘it is’ about the world.”

Batchelor comments on this by saying, “For Gotama, people in the world rely on the dualistic formulae of ‘it is’ and ‘it is not’ in order to make sense of their inner and outer worlds. They believe that things either exist or do not exist. Yet when one pays close attention to such phenomena as a thought, the in-breath, pain in one’s knee, or the cypress tree in the courtyard, none of these things can be reductively determined as either being or not being. For they come and go. They slip and slide. They blur into each other. It is impossible to draw a neat line that marks where and when the in-breath, for example, began or stopped. Such distinctions are useful conventions but quite incapable of showing how nature actually works.”

In other words, the world is analog, not digital.

In digital systems everything is either one way or the other. Either it’s “on” or it’s “off.” There is no in-between. This works great for making TVs with sharper pictures, but it’s not so good when it comes to the rest of life.

In fact, it’s awful for lots of things. For example, they’ve finally started making decent CDs. Now that so few people are buying them the new CDs are actually pretty good. But when they first came out the inadequacies of digitizing music were clearly apparent. All the nuance was gone. Musical sounds are never merely “on” or “off.” The in-between colors are just as important.

I’m not going to argue that the digital age has caused us to start thinking of things as only “on” or “off.” It’s apparent that we already thought this way thousands of years ago.

Our thinking itself may be like the digital way of encoding information. We need to divide our experience up into “on” and “off” chunks the brain can work with. One of the ways we do this is by saying things exist or do not exist, or we say some things are good and other things are bad. That way we can concentrate on things that exist rather than those that don’t, and work to eliminate bad and promote good.

That’s useful. The problem is when we get stuck on our definitions of things. This is what Buddhists sometimes call “attachment.” Attachment, in Buddhist terms, is when we become fixed in our views and unable to see past them or to change them when they ought to be changed.

Batchelor says, “As habitual users of language, we assume words to be accurate representations of reality. Complete understanding, however, no longer succumbs to the convenience of oppositional thought, but is open to the immediacy and potential of what is happening from moment to moment,”

A little further down the page Batchelor says, “To sustain such a complete view is a challenging task. It would require a great deal of discipline and effort to come to see the world and oneself in this way, which runs counter to the we are conditioned to think and speak. ‘By and large,’ continues Gotama in his reply to Kaccana, ‘this world is bound to its prejudices and habits.’ But, he says, someone who has achieved this view ‘does not get caught up in the habits, fixations, prejudices or biases of the mind. He is not fixated on my self. He does not doubt that when something is occurring, it is occurring, and when it has come to an end, it has come to an end. His knowledge is independent of others. In these respects, his view is complete.’”

The Buddhist way, then, is to balance our “common sense” approach to the world — in which some things exist and some don’t, and some things are good and some aren’t — with the understanding that these categorizations are inherently unreal. They are impermanent and always incomplete. Still, we gotta deal with stuff so we make use of what we got — a brain that insists on dividing things up in this fundamentally flawed way.

Maybe that’s the analog aspect of our brains. It may divide things in to “on” and “off” categories like a digital device, but if it is trained to do so, our brain also can see shades of nuance like an analog device. It can comprehend the fact that there are some things it can’t comprehend.

Yet, as Batchelor points out, learning to see things this way takes effort and discipline. You can’t just hear about it once and get it. It doesn’t work that way. Habits of thought run very deep and are extremely difficult to change. Why else would I spend so much time staring at blank walls when there are thousands of funny cat videos I haven’t seen yet?

When Dogen returned from China, people asked him what he brought. They expected him to be carrying classical texts or ancient artifacts. Instead, he said he had brought back nothing but a flexible mind.

That was much more valuable than any object he could have taken back home from his journey.

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Speaking of staring at walls, the last day to get the early registration discount to DSLA Spring Retreat (April 21-23, 2017 at Mt Baldy Zen Center) is March 20th!  After the 20th, the price will increase to the regular registration fee. 

Led by Brad Warner, this three-day intensive retreat will focus primarily on the practice of zazen. Morning chanting services, work periods, and yoga (led by Nina Snow) will round out the daily activities. The program will also feature lectures by Brad, as well as the opportunity for dokusan (personal meetings).  Participants will be able to take advantage of this beautiful location for hiking during free periods.

Click for the registration form, practice schedules and more!

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is now available as an audiobook from as are Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up and There is No God and He is Always With You!

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