In Zen, if asked, “What is the Buddha?” one should raise a clenched fist. If asked, “What is the ultimate meaning of the Buddhist Law?” before the words have died away, one should respond, “A single branch of the flowering plum” or “The cypress in the garden.”
It is not a matter of selecting an answer either good or bad. We respect the mind that does not stop.

. . . .

Although there are many ways—the Way of the Gods, the Way of Poetry, the Way of Confucius—they all share the clarity of this one mind.

Takuan Soho, The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman

Once a sword fight has started, the thing is not to let your opponent raise his hands. Once the fight has started, if you get involved in thinking about what to do, you will be cut down by your opponent with the very next sword blow.

Yagyu Munenori, The Book of Family Traditions / The Killing Sword, in The Book of Five Rings (Thomas Cleary Transl.).

(See also improvisational theatre teacher Keith Johnstone’s take on that quote from Munenori, from Impro for Storytellers: “A Japanese swordsman wrote that if you fight someone who has no plan, you’ll be thinking, I’ll do such and such! as your severed head bounces down the temple steps! (Well, he didn’t put it exactly like that.)”)

Sure, you might say, that’s great for you Eastern hippy Zen improv Yoda types. But we ‘merkins deliberate before we act. We get better answers that way.


Have you read Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking? Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis is that insight and intuition are often more accurate than deliberate analysis.

Consider also the Pareto principle: for many effects, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. If you spend five times as long thinking about a problem, you might make only one-fourth more progress.

Finally, computer science catches up with Zen, swordsmanship and improv with new developments in probabilistic computing (Eric Berger, Houston Chronicle (@ChronSciGuy)):

If asked to compute 2+2, a computer must answer 4. But what if computers didn’t always have to answer correctly?

Nearly a decade ago, a Houston computer scientist posed this heretical question. Today, it has led to a movement dubbed “probabilistic computing,” which he believes will revolutionize the future of computing.

On Sunday, Krishna Palem, speaking at a computer science meeting in San
Francisco, announced results of the first real-world test of his
probabilistic computer chip: The chip, which thrives on random errors, ran seven times faster than today’s best technology while using just 1?30th the electricity.”

I love it when things start to come together like that.

0 responses to “Convergence”

  1. There are other examples of this perspective. For example, to paraphrase Mike Tyson ( I think), “everyone has plan until they get punched in the face.” Also, in the NFL, coaches predetermine the plays in their opening drives, but then use the defense’s reactions to their script to call plays the rest of the game.

    While some preparation is critical to success, it is inefficient and dangerous to rigidly plan your moves when you don’t have perfect information or insight into your opponent. IMHO, it comes down to making sure you have the pieces available to play, but not placing them until you know where they should go in that specific encounter.

      • I could be mistaken, and often am, but I don’t think my last sentence was diametrically opposed to your point. The swordsman without a plan for that specific encounter had a sword and had developed the capacity to use it to cut off the opponent’s head. Those fundamentals are the kinds of “pieces” to which I refer. In the “Blink” book, the Greek art experts had an instant reaction to the fake sculpture, but those reactions sprung from minds developed by years of research and study.

        • The “pieces” to which you refer are technique; we need to have (as Nachmanovitch says) technique to burn.

          My quibble was with “not placing them until you know where they should go in that specific encounter.” By the time you know where to strike, you’re dead.

  2. Which is a better guide to trial skills, or legal practice in general:: Zen Buddhism, or Chaos Management?

    One of the few valuable things I took home from law school was when Mike Sharlot said “at the end of the day, it isn’t a matter of whether you fucked the case up or not. Most assuredly, you have fucked the case up. The question is, did you cover your ass? Did you fix the problems before anyone else found them, or had a chance to capitalize on them?”

    My idol, as a lawyer, is Gumby. It’s all about flexibility… When the shit is hitting the fan, can you smile, look nonchalantly about, open your umbrella, and keep it all of of you and your client without anyone ever realizing that it was you who turned the fan on?

    Can you fix the problem, or better yet, make it the other guy’s problem?

    Grace under pressure comes from adaptability. A plan can hamper that, or at least, an inflexible plan. A plan needs a backup plan when things doing go as planned. A backup plan needs a backup plan… etc. I’m not smart enough to have that many plans in my head.

    There is an old Jewish proverb “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” See? I’d planned to work that in there, and I did.

  3. On the idea of mechanical oracles

    The oracle is a thing which looks into the future.
    It is kind of like how the weather service predicts the weather,
    with complex mathmatic models based on precise measurements
    of the natural world with physical tools. It is a science, of sorts.

    The schools? Operations Reserch, Game Theory, Networking, Physics…
    the list is long.

    The Air Force has had a hand in this. They used computers to keep track of inventorys. The one I used was a sperry univac, the same kind Sears used to keep track of thier
    inventorys (or so the story goes).

    They also used Computers like SAGE;

    This was the brown shoe days, those men who served in the army air corp of WW2.
    Here is IBMs version;

    It was thought that computer models of the economy could be made. Some world
    models, such as the club of rome model, predict that industrial civilization was due to
    collapse if something were not done about world population growth. Those who interpeate the output of such oracles find a short term solution in genocide.

    We have to be careful of these electronic thought amplifiers, because they can
    (perhaps, already have) cause men to seek good out of evil.

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