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The Way of Kato
Saturday, 2005 May 21 - 11:09 pm
Having talked at length about what I don't believe, here is the treatise on what I do believe.

I think that philosophy and religion should be required topics of study for high school students. At that age, we're just becoming old enough to form complex opinions about life and the world, and we should have a proper foundation for forming those opinions. I fear that many people just inherit the beliefs of their parents, who themselves were woefully under-informed and under-educated when they settled on their own belief systems.

I was fortunate enough to attend a high school where those subjects were on the curriculum, but I still believe they should have been given greater emphasis. We should have been encouraged to study, in depth, the attractions and flaws of each philosophy and religion. Instead, we only viewed them from a historical perspective. We learned a lot about who and when, but we never really talked much about why.

But still, armed with a little knowledge and a lot of curiosity, I went on a spiritual quest. I wanted to decide, for myself, what to believe about the nature of the Universe. That quest turned out to be a long and meandering one, full of false starts and dead ends. And I don't know if I've reached the end of that quest yet, but I'm going to talk about where I am now. I would like to think that in two thousand years, people throughout the world will embrace this belief system, calling it "Kato-do" (the way of Kato).

Unfortunately, it's probably more likely that Star Wars will be the major world religion by then.


My belief system has four pillars to it: zen, existentialism, relativism, and utilitarianism.


Zen is derived from the Chinese word "chan", meaning "meditation", and a large part of Zen is attaining enlightenment via meditative thought. And while that conjures images of shaven-headed monks sitting in stillness for fifty hours at a time, it's not just that. It's the idea that there is spirituality and enlightenment to be found everywhere, not just in religious texts and teachings, and not just in churches. To find it, we just have to observe and think. The monk Ta-Hui said (way back in the 1100s): "To attain Zen enlightenment, it is not necessary to give up family life, quit your job, become a vegetarian, practice asceticsm and flee to a quiet place, or go into a ghost cave of dead Zen to entertain subjective imaginings."

Some folks associate Zen with koans, or riddles, like "what is the sound of one hand clapping". And thus, some people dismiss Zen as sort of a childish mind game. But the point is not to discover the answer, but to quiet one's mind and think about the riddle, and bit by bit, piece together the nature of the Universe (i.e. attain enlightenment).

What this leads to is the idea of acceptance. Each thing that we see, each thing that happens to us, is just another lesson. We don't have to like it, we don't have to obsess about it, we don't have to ascribe great significance to it. We just have to know what it is. This idea gets me through a lot of crap. It's not that I'm indifferent to things (that would be stoicism), it's more that I accept that things happen as part of a bigger picture, and so it helps me keep things in perspective.

Here's my favorite Zen parable, from Robert Louis Stevenson:
A man met a lad weeping. "What do you weep for?" he asked.
"I am weeping for my sins," said the lad.
"You must have little to do," said the man.
The next day they met again. Once more the lad was weeping.
"Why do you weep now?" asked the man.
"I am weeping because I have nothing to eat," said the lad.
"I thought it would come to that," said the man.

And here's a koan for you, from, of all places, the movie "Raising Arizona":
Officer: "You're not just telling us what we want to hear?"
Hi: "No sir, no way."
Officer: "'Cause, we just want to hear the truth."
Hi: "Well, then I guess I AM telling you what you want to hear."
Officer: "Boy, didn't we just tell you not to do that?"
Hi: "Yes sir."
Officer: "Okay then."


The main principle of existentialism is "existence before essence". It means that there isn't necessarily a reason for the way things are... things just are.

Some people think of this as a very pessimistic viewpoint. But I don't see it that way. I find it to be very liberating. Instead of fretting about the meaning of my life, I just get on and live it. To make a "Sex and the City" analogy: rather than worrying about why God is punishing you, just say this to yourself: "He's just not that into you."

You can be existentialist regardless of whether or not you believe in God... but according to existentialism, if there is a God, he didn't have any reason for Creation, and he didn't make people good or evil. It's up to us to define ourselves, and we do it via our actions. As creatures of free will, it is up to us to correct the ills of society and the world around us. We are the ones who are ultimately responsible.

Some people find existentialism to be at odds with Zen, because they think of Zen as something passive, while they believe existentialism calls for activism. I disagree with this idea; in fact, I find Zen and existentialism to be complementary. Zen teaches me how to learn about the things around me; existentialism tells me that it's important to do something with that knowledge.

Here's an existentialist thought for you, from the late great Douglas Adams:
A puddle wakes up one morning and thinks: "This is a very interesting world I find myself in. It fits me very neatly. In fact it fits me so neatly... I mean really precise isn't it?... It must have been made to have me in it." And the sun rises, and it's continuing to narrate this story about how this hole must have been made to have him in it. And as the sun rises, and gradually the puddle is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking -- and by the time the puddle ceases to exist, it's still thinking -- it's still trapped in this idea that -- that the hole was there for it. And if we think that the world is here for us we will continue to destroy it in the way that we have been destroying it, because we think that we can do no harm.


Relativism is the concept that there is no absolute truth. It is dismissed by critics as the concept that "all ideas are equally valid". Obviously, that would be ridiculous. Actually, the main idea of relativism is that what we hold to be true is colored by our individual perceptions. Our standards of morality, our scientific knowledge, our tastes, and our feelings are all relative to the particular beliefs and preconceived notions that we hold.

For example, in the area of morality, consider the debate about abortion. Is it moral to prevent unborn children from dying, or is it moral to allow a woman to determine her own fate? Depending on your point of view, either could be true, or both, or neither.

And nowadays we're pretty sure we understand a lot about science, but there's still a lot we don't know. Remember, before the days of Copernicus, I'm sure many folks were equally sure that the Earth was the center of the universe. We still judge things by theories. We don't have proof, we just have the evidence of our observations, and those observations themselves are products of our own perceptions. Of course, I don't mean to give any weight to the whole "intelligent design" pseudo-science that some people are preaching, but that does raise a good point: for some people, the idea of Creation is the truth, and they believe it whole-heartedly. And we can argue until we're blue in the face on what is really the truth, but in the end, we'll only have wasted a bunch of time and hot air.

Then, that goes back to existentialism: what matters less is what's actually "true", and what matters more are the actions we take. And that leads me to the final pillar.


The concept of utilitarianism is that the greatest good comes from maximizing happiness for the most people. On the surface, it contradicts relativism by defining "happiness" as a universal concept. I reconcile this by saying that happiness means different things for different people, but we can still equate "happiness" with "good". (Other people avoid the argument by saying the goal relativism is to prevent suffering for the most people. This is called "negative utilitarianism".)

Sometimes utilitarianism is criticized for favoring a socialist system, one that would eliminate individual rights in the name of the "greater good". But I don't believe in that, since I believe that balancing individual rights is an intrinsic part of the greater good. "Maximizing happiness" involves looking at all aspects, including the rights of individuals.

Utilitarianism is part of what leads me away from organized religion, because organized religious systems tend to be very divisive. Either you're "in" or you're "out". I would rather see a system that's truly inclusive, one that allows everyone to share in the reward regardless of their underlying beliefs.


I don't know what to call all these philosophies put together, but in my head, they're all intertwined. We need to observe the world to understand it, we need to realize that our observations are colored by our own perceptions, and we need to act upon the world in a positive way. Ultimately, the world is what we make of it. I believe that my system of moral responsibility and rational thought can stand up to any religious belief system out there. But I won't preach it or evangelize it, because that would be contrary to the belief itself. The only thing I might do is teach it, and let people decide for themselves.

Maybe that's the sum of it all: "Decide For Yourself"...


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Posted by Ken in: commentaryinteresting


Comment #1 from MonoCerdo (Guest)
2005 May 22 - 1:50 am : #
Great. Now you've got me re-reading Phenomenology of Spirit. (I have, however, come to find that graduate school would have been a whole lot more fun if I'd been drunk the whole time. Let's have a shot with Geist and deconstruct some shit!)

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