On Footnotes

Every now and then in Zensylvania, we tend to get a bit meta and referential about things. You’ll notice that many of the essays and inquiries are titled as “Footnotes to”….something. Footnotes to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Footnotes to Niksen. Footnotes to Being Water. Etcetera. While all of this footnoting may seem a bit overdone and repetitive, it isn’t without long consideration and, I hope, good reason.

In philosophical, religious and broader academic studies, it is fairly common for works to be titled or subtitled as “inquiries”, “studies” or “meditations”. While these are all valuable terms within their academic traditions, in Zensylvania, we have some reluctance to imply that our non-expert and generalist musings are a part of any kind of expert studies. Neither are essays in Zensylvania necessarily intended to be criticisms, reviews or polemics. If you’re looking for expert opinions, they aren’t to be found here. What you’ll find here are footnotes.

So, what exactly is a “footnote” and why are there footnotes (dare I stay, footprints?) all over Zensylvania?

Merriam-Webster defines a footnote as… “a note of reference, explanation, or comment…usually placed below the text on a printed page“. A secondary definition says that a footnote is something “that is a relatively subordinate or minor part of an event, work, or field of interest.

In Zensylvania, inquiries and contemplations about living a life are not considered to be the life itself. Whether we’re exploring zen, tai chi, motorcycle, literature or any other matter of life, these musings are really only footnotes and minor parts of the real thing. Life is the real thing.

Designating the collection of observations, musings and insights as footnotes was inspired by two disparate and, at least for me, inextricably linked areas of investigation. More particularly, I am citing specific comments by two very different thinkers from the early twentieth century. Alfred North Whitehead and (Homeless) Kodo Sawaki.

Alfred North Whitehead was an English mathematician and philosopher who co-authored Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell. While Whitehead’s name may not be overly familiar today, in 1929 Whitehead published one of the twentieth century’s most startling, sophisticated and complex works of original philosophy…Process and Reality.

In Process and Reality, Whitehead wrote that…”The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

Wow! What a line. For a philosopher, that was a collection of sharp words indeed. And, it was not Whitehead’s only insightful comment in the book.

The second inspiration for placing so much emphasis on footnoting comes from Japanese thinker, Kodo Sawaki.

(Homeless) Kodo Sawaki Roshi was one of Zen Buddhism’s most highly regarded contemporary(ish) teachers. Sawaki has been widely attributed with the comment that…”All of Buddhism is a footnote to zazen.” Like Whitehead…that wasn’t Sawaki’s only profoundly insightful comment.

I have no information about whether Whitehead and Sawaki were aware of each other’s work or perspectives. What strikes me is….the similarity between the two comments. It can’t be ignored.

Separated as they were by only 20-years in age, the two thinkers appear to me as if they were contemporaries. This perception is probably almost wholly incorrect. Whitehead worked as a philosopher and mathematician in England and Sawaki was a Zen Buddhist priest in Japan. But they both used that metaphor of a footnote to convey something about their work.

Their comments were directed to utterly different genres of thought and philosophical traditions. Still, it is entertaining to think that Sawaki and Whitehead might have appreciated each other’s outlook – if only they’d been aware of each other’s work. Indeed, based upon the modest exposure I’ve had to their respective writings, I expect they would have found agreement on several other matters as well.

The sameness of their comments is an elegant and profound underscoring of the similarities and differences between the Buddhist…and perhaps more broadly, Eastern…. philosophy and the European…and again, perhaps more broadly, Western… philosophy. The emphasis on action and practice in the east. The emphasis on theory and words in the west.

“Footnotes” seems to be the most apt explanation of what Zensylvania articles are all about. They are explanations and explorations. They are references. They are comments. They are subordinate parts to the subjects that they cover. They are documentary footprints to living a life.

For all of that, I hope that they are have some interest and value for visitors to Zensylvania.