Other Forms of Dialectic

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      Dialectic as a mystical science of interpersonal interchange originated with prehistoric sages such as Hermes. Plato presented the most comprehensive and intelligible explanation and illustration of dialectic in the Western world.

      In this essay we'll explore three embodiments of dialectic from the East: Rumi's practice of sobbet with Shams-e Tabriz, Rumi's poetic guidance into dialectical interchange with our personal experience, and the dialectical method of mondo developed by Zen master Ma-tsu (709-788 CE).

      Both Plato's and Ma-tsu's concept and practice of dialectic were perverted into formalized counterfeits:

  • Plato's dialectic debased into Hegelian and Marxian forgeries

  • Ma-tsu's mondo twisted into stylized koan and mondo rituals

      The distortions of Plato's dialectic and Ma-tsu's mondo have in many instances replaced the original, genuine concepts and practices, and Rumi's sobbet was never rediscovered by conventional Sufi or other orthodox religious orders.

"In sufi circles they say. 'There's prayer, and a step up from that is meditation, and a step up from that is sobbet, or conversation . . .' The Friendship of Rumi and Shams became a continuous conversation, in silence and words, presence talking to absence, existence to non-existence, periphery to center. Rumi's poetry may be heard as eavesdropping on that exchange."
John Moyne and Coleman Barks, Say I am You


Dialectical Interchange Between Rumi and Shams-e Tabriz

      As a young man Rumi was an accomplished scholar and the master of his own school where he taught theology and the Sufi way. His students and disciples, numbering in the thousands, called him Maulana, meaning "Our Master." Rumi studied and taught all about the wine of Sufi mysticism, but he had never tasted it until a wild man came into his life by the name of Shams-e Tabriz, meaning the Glorious Sun of Tabriz.

      The relationship between Rumi and Shams was that of sobbet, the company, speech, and conversation of a spiritual master as experienced by disciples or companions. In esoteric Sufism, such dialectical interchange is believed to be a primary means of transmission of the grace (barakat) of spiritual illumination.

      As the relationship matured between Shams and Rumi, they became inseparable, spending months together beyond accustomed habits, relating together in mystical conversation, sobbet. Rumi's dialectical interchange with Shams came to constitute Rumi's spiritual journey.

      As we've seen in Platonic dialectic, when two or more lives come together in this mystical form of interchange, it allows all participants to reach transcendent insights none could attain alone.

      In the early stages of the relation between Shams and Rumi, Shams one day threw all Rumi's books into a fountain. Rumi understood that he was being challenged to give up his accustomed world of books, stylized aphorisms, scholastic dissertations, and the security of written knowledge. He was being challenged to enter into a new mode of being: dialectical interchange, sobbet. Shams was challenging Rumi to make the ultimate sacrifice and join him in the adventure of dialectical discovery of transcendence.

      We can agree with Coleman Barks that Rumi's poetry is our opportunity to eavesdrop on the sobbet that Rumi had with Shams--and with God. This poem by Rumi provides a glimpse of spiritual interchange.

You said, "Who's at the door?"
I said, "your slave."

You said, "What do you want?"
"To see you and bow."

"How long will you wait?"
"Until you call."

"How long will you cook?"
"Till the resurrection."

We talked through the door. I claimed
A great love and that I had given up
what the world gives to be in that love.

You said, "Such claims require a witness."
I said, "This longing, these tears."

You said, "Discredited witnesses."
I said, "Surely not!"

You said, "Who did you come with?"
    "This majestic imagination you gave me."

"Why did you come?"
"The musk of your wine was in the air."

"What is your intention?"
"Friendship."

"What do you want from me?"
"Grace."

Then you asked, "Where have you been most comfortable?"
"In the palace."

"What did you see there?"
"Amazing things."

"Then why is it so desolate?"
"Because all that can be taken away in a second."

"Who can do that?"
"This clear discernment."

"Where can you live safely then?"
"In surrender."

"What is this giving up?"
"A peace that saves us."

"Is there no threat of disaster?"

"Only what comes in your street, inside your love."

"How do you walk there?"
"In perfection."

Now silence. If I told more of this conversation,
those listening would leave themselves.

There would be no door,
no roof or window either!


"Shem's return to Konya signalled the beginning of a new round of sobhbets . . . Between them they were able to inspire each other to levels of mystical gnosis not previously encountered by Moslems . . . Indeed their achievements have been surpassed by only a few sages in the entire annals of mysticism."

James Cowan, Rumi's Divan of Shems of Tabriz, Selected Odes


      When Shams disappeared, for the second time, Rumi found a remedy for his anguish: poetry that would memorialize his sobbet relationship with Shams--and with God. A new spirit of creativity had entered Rumi's soul and he began to write ghazals, short, rhyming, lyrical poems expressing his deep spiritual and emotional longing to remedy the separation of the reed flute of his heart from his Beloved.

Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.

"Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.

Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.

Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.

At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,

a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden

within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,

spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it's not given us

to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty."

Hear the love fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment

melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn

and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy

and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender

and a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.

A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect

because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed. The sound it makes

is for everyone. Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying

that they do. Stay where you are
inside such a pure, hollow note.

Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,

who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!

No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.

But if someone doesn't want to hear
the song of the reed flute,

it's best to cut conversation
short, say good-bye, and leave.


Rumi's Concept of Dialectic with Life Experience

      In previous essays, we explored the inner dialectical interchange that a person can have with his Higher Self and dialectic as constitutive of our ontological being. Rumi reveals a similar form of dialectical interchange that humans can have with life. Human existence becomes an interchange between our experiences and our responses to these opportunities for transformation. In an interesting way, this dialectical interchange between our lives and ourselves is also an ongoing discourse with God, the source of our experiences. Rumi stressed a remembered intimacy that we continue to have with the Divine, in which friendship with the Ultimate Quintessence evolves into union with the One. Rumi does not extol prayer so much as continuous conversation with the Divine.

Everything you do has a quality
which comes back to you in some way.

Every action takes a form in the invisible world,
which may be different from how you thought
it would appear.

A crime is committed,
and a gallows begins to be built.
One does not look like the other, but they correspond.

Accept the results of what you've done in anger,
or for greed, or to elevate your ego.
Don't blame fate! That dog lies in the kennel
and will not respond to anyone's calling.

Be suspicious of yourself! Inquire about your hidden motives.
It takes courage to repent, and more courage to change.

But realize this: just as dustgrains shine in
the sunlight coming through this window,
so there's a light of reality,
within which ideas, hidden hypocrises,
and the qualities of every action become clear.
All you've done and will do will be seen in the light of that sun.

     Rumi advises us to not only learn from everything that happens in our lives but eagerly welcome these Divine opportunities to transform ourselves.


This being human is a
guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.



Dialectical Interchange in Early Zen Buddhism

      Zen Buddhism was introduced to China by an Indian monk called Bodhidharma probably late in the fifth century CE. As he spread his teaching, Bodhidharma was ultimately recognized as the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China. Zen firmly took root with Ma-tsu (709-788 CE) and Shih-t'ou (700-790 CE). All the followers of Zen in China as well as in Japan at present trace their lineage back to these two masters of the T'ang dynasty (618-907 CE).

      Ma-tsu, known as Patriarch Ma of Kiangsi, was the leading Zen figure in the south during the middle of the eighth century. He was one of the primary influences that led to comprehensive revisions in Southern Zen Buddhism, epitomized in these four tenets:

  • No postulation of any concept in written form

  • Transmission of wisdom outside the scriptures

  • Concentration on the human mind

  • Self-knowledge as the path to enlightenment

      Mat-tsu, like Socrates, was primarily a practitioner, not a scholar. Both concentrated on the activity of dialectical interchange, not theorizing. In both cases, their concept and practice of dialectic was later degraded and defiled until their original methodology is unrecognizable in current distortions.

      Ma-tsu appears to have been a most extraordinary teacher. Whereas most teachers had only one student who continued in the Zen tradition, Ma-tsu was able to assist 139 students to achieve enlightenment.

      It's clear from examining Zen Buddhist records of Ma-tsu's life that he was something of a combination of Socrates and Plato, in that he practiced dialectic as did Socrates, but also provided teaching about enlightenment as Plato did. In line with the ideas of "no postulation of any concept in written form" and "transmission of wisdom outside the scriptures," Ma-tsu primarily engaged in dialectical interchange, called mondo, with students and seekers, not teaching from written records. 1

A seeker asked Ma-tsu: "How does a man discipline himself in the Tao?"

The master replied: "In the Tao there is nothing to discipline oneself in. If there is any discipline in it, the completion of such discipline means the destruction of the Tao. One then will be like the Sravaka. 2   But if there is no discipline whatever in the Tao, one remains an ignoramus."

"By what kind of understanding does a man attain the Tao?"

"The Tao in its nature is from the first perfect and self-sufficient. When a man finds himself unhalting in his management of the affairs of life good or bad, he is known as one who is disciplined in the Tao. To shun evils and to become attached to things good, to meditate on Emptiness and to enter into a state of samadhi--this is doing something. Those who run after outward objects are the farthest away from the Tao."

      We can see from this example that Ma-tsu taught about enlightenment and the Tao, but it appears that his primary method was dialectical interchange with a seeker or student, as in this exchange.
When Ta-chu ("Great Pearl") Hui-hai first came to look for the Dharma, Ma-tsu scolded him, saying: "You do not tend to the treasure you already have. You wander about looking---what for? I have nothing here to offer---why come?"

Ta-chu paid homage and asked, "But what is this jewel I am supposed to have?"

Ma-tsu answered, "That which is doing the asking itself."

      Concentration on dialectical interchange appears to have been one of the primary tenets of Ma-tsu's teacher Nan-yueh, as we see in this interchange.

     Nan-yueh asked Ma-tsu, Oh, great one what are you aiming at by sitting there in meditation like that?  What do you want?

     Ma-tsu said:  I want to become a buddha.

     The teacher then picked up a ceramic tile and began to rub it on a rock very vigorously in the dojo, right there.  This got the student's attention and Ma-tsu asked him:

     What are you doing?

     He said:  I'm polishing it to make it into a mirror.   [Old Chinese mirrors were metal, usually very highly polished bronze.  It would be impossible to polish a tile into a mirror.]

     Ma-tsu said:  How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?

     The teacher said:  Granted, rubbing a tile will not make a mirror.  How can a sitting meditation make a buddha?

     Ma-tsu said:  Then what would be right?

     The teacher said:  It's like the case of an ox pulling a cart.  If the cart does not go, should you hit the cart or should you hit the ox?

     Ma-tsu couldn't say anything.

     The teacher went on to say:  Do you think you are practicing sitting meditation or do you think you are practicing sitting buddhahood?  If you are practicing sitting meditation, meditation is not sitting or lying.  If you are practicing buddhahood, buddha is not a fixed form.  In the midst of everything that is changing you should neither hold on nor push away.  If you keep the buddha seated, this is murdering the buddha.  If you cling to the form of sitting, this is not attaining its inner principle.

     Ma-tsu heard this teaching as if he were drinking ambrosia.

     He bowed and asked:  How should I concentrate so as to merge with formless absorption so as to become utterly one with my meditation?

     The teacher said:  Your study of the mind essence is like planting seeds.  My expounding of the essence of reality is like the moisture in the sky.  Circumstances are good for you, so you will see the way. 

     If the way is not color or form, how can I see it?

     The reality eye of the mind essence can see the way. Formless absorption is also like this.

     Ma-tsu kept asking.  Is there becoming and decay, or not? 

     One sees the way as becoming and decaying, compounding and scattering.  That is not really seeing the way.  Listen to my verse.

          Mind essence contains various seeds.
          When there is moisture, all of them sprout.
          The flower absorption has no form.
          What decays and what becomes?


     When Ma-tsu heard this his understanding opened.  His heart and mind were clear.  He served his teacher for ten years, day by day going deeper into transcendent wisdom.


"According to currently accepted views of Ch'an history, the successful assault of Ch'an on Buddhist scholasticism coincided with a period of vibrant dynamism, during which the activities of a core group of Ch'an masters, Ma-tsu Tao-i, Pai-chang Huai-hai, Huang-po Hsi-yun, Lin-chi I-hsüan, and Hui-neng, et al, formed the basic components of Ch'an identity. Following this so-called 'golden age,' Ch'an dynamism was reduced to static formalism, and fell into a state of decline. According to this view, Sung Buddhism represents the 'sunset period,' the twilight glow of a once strong, vital tradition, reduced to a shadow of its former glory. From this perspective, the golden age of Buddhism in China, including Ch'an, was unequivocally the T'ang dynasty (618-907). The Sung represents the beginning of a period of unremitting decline."

Albert Welter, "Ch'an Slogans and the Creation of Ch'an Ideology"


The Corruption of Ma-tsu's Dialectic Into Koan Scholasticism

      Ma-tsu's conception of hsing (nature) was that it lies in function: hsing tsai tso-yung (essence is activity). Mind exists in the everydayness of its action: Chi-hsin chi-fo (the Mind is Buddha). Ma-tsu taught that the path to enlightenment is human mind: P'ing-cheng hsin shih tao (the everyday mind is the Way). Within a short time, Ma-tsu's active, timeless method of dialectical interchange--mondo--was formalized into routinized rituals of question and answer and the attempt to figure out the "true answer" to prescribed puzzles called koans.

      Many contemporary Zen scholars see this formalization as merely a natural--and acceptable--process of change.

"When the Buddha-Mind doctrine was still new and the form of Zen dialogue not yet routinized, students could raise such direct questions. Such requests for clarification were less kindly entertained once the basic dicta of Zen became standardized and the rules of the game set." 3

      As Platonic dialectic was deformed into meaningless, scholastic nonsense, so Ma-tsu's method of dialectical interchange has been twisted into a senseless concoction so that the word "mondo" is now misdefined as:
  • Questions: "In Zen, a question to a student for which an immediate answer is demanded, the spontaneity of which is often illuminating." (Wikipedia)

  • Question-and-answer routine: "Some scholars in the field are of the opinion that the question-and-answer routine goes back to the Buddhist mondo dialogues between a teacher and his disciples and made famous in the dialogues between Yotsugi and Shigeki."
    Elena M. Diakonova, "The Movement of History
    in Medieval Japanese Historical Tales"

      Like Socrates and Plato, Mat-tsu's mysticism was that of human activity. His dialectical interchange with seekers was both a means to induce enlightenment in them and also a demonstration of Ma-tsu's enlightened self in action.

When Fa-chang (752-839 CE) of Mt. Ta-mei ("Great Plum") first visited the master, he inquired about the meaning of the word "Buddha."

"The Mind is Buddha," said Ma-tsu. Upon that Fa-chang was enlightened. Later Fa-chang retired once more to Ta-mei and taught others there. When the master heard of this, he dispatched a monk to inquire what it was that Fa-chang had so learned that allowed him to presume to head a mountain lineage. Fa-chang told the monk that it was the dictum, "The Mind is Buddha." The monk noted, "Recently the master sings a different tune. Now it is 'Neither Mind nor Buddha'\' ( fei-hsin fei-fo)."

Fa-chang reacted, "That rascal deludes people to no end! Let him teach you how there is neither mind nor Buddha. For my part, I will stick to 'The Mind is Buddha.'"

When the monk reported this to the master, Ma-tsu remarked, "Indeed, the plum is ripe."

      Ma-tsu was aware that there is an essence to Truth, Dharma, that can be expressed in many different ways, meaning that there is no possibility of dogma or dicta. The sole criterion of any expression of Dharma is that it has the power to act as the inducing occasion (chi) 4 for enlightenment in the seeker.

      As with the followers of Jesus, so with Ma-tsu, his immediate successors began compiling a record of his sayings directly after Ma-tsu's death.

      All genuine practitioners of the mystical science of dialectical interchange understand that it is constituted by interconnecting discourse and activity leading to a higher state of consciousness. Unenlightened followers of illumined masters corrupt the tradition into nothing more than dogmas and written records which become sacerdotal strictures and "holy scriptures." Thus we see the perversion of all spiritual teachings into orthodox deformities.

      We can sympathize with unenlightened successors of mystical savants; they know there is something magical and miraculous in how their master lived and taught. Yet they themselves did not achieve enlightened awareness of the essence of this marvel. Presuming, incorrectly, that they've been given the task by the Divine to transmit the tradition, they ask themselves how they're to do this. And the best they can come up with is to put the master's oral and written teachings into a fixed form for future study, along with trying to impress as many people as possible into what has now become merely a belief system.

"In the next few generations, Ma-tsu's highly personalized style of teaching unleashed that rare flowering of Zen personalities who mark the golden age of Zen. Nothing like it existed before or since. But that very magic of mind-mind encounter also created a problem for the future transmission of Zen. If Zen has no fixed formulas, what are lesser masters to do, who do not have Ma-tsu's skill at triggering off the chi of enlightenment in students, when they teach, particularly in the case of a large number of disciples? What could be salvaged from the memory of a golden past to aid the more mundane present?

"That question did not need generations to manifest itself. It rose immediately after the death of Ma-tsu. Some of his students began compiling a record of his sayings in memoriam, and the first text of the Yu-lu genre was created then and there.

"Having been taught to do without scriptures, these students made these teachings of their master a tool for their learning. Two lectures form the core of his teaching, but the record of those rare snippets of Zen encounters are more important in terms of the development of Zen literature, for it is from these that the koan (kung-an) system emerged . . .

"Therefore, when, to the despair of those purists who scoffed at the attempt to 'save dead words,' the first Ma-tsu YÜ-lu was compiled, what we see is a bold attempt to remake chi into fa [written record], that is, to transform records of subjective encounters (including some failures as well) into an objective lesson for all times. The question here is not whether one can rekindle the living experience of the ineffable behind the dead words of a literary record. Mystics are seldom silent, and well-tooled words are seldom dead. The real question in Zen is whether it is possible to find the universal truth behind the higher personal chi records of another person living in another time." 5

      The modern tradition of dialectical interchange began with Socrates, who chose not to record any of his ideas in written form. Few spiritual teachers have been as fortunate in their immediate followers as Socrates. Plato not only avoided making a written "system" based on Socrates' dialectical interchanges, he provided dramatic illustrations of these exchanges through which serious students are able to penetrate to the essence of the mystical science of dialectic itself.

      In this way, Plato avoided creating a philosophical superstructure, complete with dogmas and rituals, as was the case with other spiritual teachers. He also provided dramatic representations of dialectical procedures which allow us to develop skill in transcendental philosophical interchange ourselves.

      The difficulty with unenlightened successors of spiritual teachers is that they not only do not know what the essence of the tradition is--having never achieved enlightenment themselves--but they substitute the real mystery for counterfeit elements that turn the heritage into its opposite. This was clearly the case with Jesus' teachings when the early pretenders rejoiced at Constantine making orthodox Christianity into the state religion of the Roman Empire--resulting in the perversions of Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy.

      The same kind of ignorance of the essence and embracing of the counterfeit occurred within Zen Buddhism. A contemporary Zen scholar is unable to discern that Ma-tsu's exchanges were not concocted riddles to be "solved," but living interchanges between an illumined master and an aspiring seeker.

"Ma-tsu's own exchanges are relatively simple, and most of them can be solved by assuming the tacit dicta of Hung-chou Zen, 'Your Mind is Buddha . . .'

"Any observant literary analyst will appreciate the care and artistry involved in hiding the answer to the question in the structure of the narrative. If one assumes knowledge of the tacit dictum of "Your Mind is Buddha" that is the mark of Hung-chou Zen, one might solve the puzzle with little ado.

"The koan is indeed one of the most ingenious pedagogical creations in the history of religions.

"As the culmination of centuries of wisdom, the koan is also, objectively speaking, the last innovation of Zen." 6

      This Zen scholar, however, appears to have some sense that genuine mondo cannot be formalized because it is a living interchange.

"There is no fixed answer, especially not secondhand ones. The chi of the situation changes every time. Every reported solution creates a new problem, a challenge that must be met anew.

"This perfection of the form of exchange based entirely on the situation at hand and free from any binding, universal content was probably the new Zen answer to the dilemma left by Ma-tsu: How do you transmit a formless Dharma with no objectifiable substance?

"Finally, in part as a justifiable corrective to the koan scholasticism current in certain Sung circles, there is an intentional fragmentation of the old exchanges in an attempt, it seems, to free the mind from all degrees of reasoning." 7


The Continuing Tradition of Dialectical Interchange


      The Eastern forms of dialectical interchange we've explored give evidence that this mystical science was at one time practiced in a variety of settings.

      Contemporary Perennialist groups utilize the dynamic of Platonic Dialectic in working toward specific outcomes: transformation, enlightenment, and understanding of important issues, concepts, and procedures. With the introduction of the Internet, the nature of written expression of ideas has undergone a revolutionary transformation. The Perennialist Teacher and the seeker can interact in a real-time environment, exchanging ideas and investigating issues in synchronous or asynchronous mode. This new procedure is termed the New Dialectic and is now being used in a study program within the Perennial Tradition.


"And so with dialectic; when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of Reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the intellectual world, as in the case of sight at the end of the visible."

Plato, The Commonwealth






1 "In this mode of relationship the master functions as a midwife of truth in the socratic sense, and often this midwifery is of a comic sort. The master does not and cannot teach the truth in the sense of indoctrination, for the truth to be realized -- an intuitive, nondiscursive truth -- cannot be dispensed in this way. It cannot, in fact, be dispensed in any way. In Kierkegaardian terms, the master is not a teacher of truths but an occasion for the truth to manifest itself within the inner being of the disciple. The midwife, as it were, does not pass the baby from the stork to the mother, but assists the mother in delivering the baby. This presupposes, of course, that the truth is present already, though in an obscured form, requiring only an occasion for its realization. The type of occasion afforded by the Zen master, however, is frequently identified by the peculiarity of being a comic occasion." M. Conrad Hyers, "The Ancient Zen Master as Clown-Figure and Comic Midwife"

2 Sravaka (Sanskrit) or Savaka (Pali) means "a hearer" or, more generally, a "disciple" under the discipline of a master.

3 Whalen Lai, "Ma-Tsu Tao-I And The Unfolding Of Southern Zen," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

4 Etymologically, chi was the trigger in an ancient Chinese cross-bow. Chi is the situational incident--expressing the sense of temporality and the sense of physical or psychic motion or momentum released by an element acting as a catalyst.

5 Whalen Lai, op. cit.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.



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