A Zenful Approach to Judgment

Zen is a process whereby we step out of ourselves, of those beliefs that direct so much of the way in which we perceive the world.

I say step out of ourselves just as I say step out of those beliefs, because there is little difference, in practice, between how we define who we are, and those beliefs we adopt in ourselves.

Who we are is a belief

Of course, there are basic and factual elements to our definitions as human individuals: biological criteria such as gender, ethnicity, physical attributes and abilities such as strength and intelligence.

These, however, form only a very small and superficial aspect of how we define ourselves in human society. How we see ourselves and each other relates a lot more to interpretation and judgment, supported by the basic elements mentioned above.

We judge ourselves and each other. We are beautiful or ugly. We are lazy or hard-working. We are friendly or hostile. Who you are, in my eyes, stems a lot more from those judgments than it does from objective facts. I use these judgments in determining the kind of relationship I wish to have with you: shall we be friends or enemies, lovers or acquaintances, masters or subordinates?

Judgments are important.

They are not the boogeyman, they are not evil in themselves but a fundamental and necessary part of life.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with judgment. They are useful and necessary. It’s important we use them in assessing danger from safety, healthy from unhealthy, and in choosing those people we let into our lives.

The problem lies in that much of the judgments we harbour are not borne of a free and conscious mind. They result of a limited perspective on reality, profoundly directed and influenced by the judgments our forebearers have passed down onto us.

If I may be so bold, what I am saying is that how we judge each other as well as our environment has a lot more to do with how we are told to judge, than with how we consciously and independently choose to judge.

Standards of beauty are defined by society.

The latest trends on television, in popular culture — all defined by the few daring individuals who come into the spotlight. The rest of us simply follows, such that my standards of beauty are not really mine but those that have been given to me.

I therefore judge others based on the judgments imparted on me — being attracted to the bodies I see in magazines and on instagram — because it might be a little weird if I were attracted to something different, wouldn’t it? We call those fetishes — those attractions to things that aren’t exactly mainstream or widely accepted, as if to purvey a semblance of perversion in disagreeing with the global voice.

Much much much more importantly, however — I judge myself based on those same standards. I force myself to pursue the standards of beauty and success clearly defined by the arching social glow, inwardly judging myself in those places where achievement fails. And of course, achievement fails — such is the reality of pursuing that which is not me — something that is not even truly them, nor anyone, but is more akin to that — an idea constructed out nothing, based in anything except reality. Pure imagination. Pure nonsense.

A fundamental percept of Zen philosophy

is that all judgments are entirely relative. They are relative to the point, in time and space, from which they are observed.

One person’s ugly is another one’s beautiful. Beauty standards vary greatly across cultures, epochs, and personal tastes.

One person’s lazy is another’s successful: you may know the story of the fisherman who’s resting next to his boat in the hot afternoon sun. A rich entrepreneur comes by and says: hey, why are you just resting next to your boat while you could be working and making more money? The fisherman then asks: why would I do that, I’m enjoy resting here? The businessman responds: with all the time you have, you could fish more and earn more money and buy more boats and build a fleet! The fisherman: and why would I do that? The businessman: so you can have a whole lot of people working for you and eventually retire and be able to enjoy life. The fisherman finally responds: but that’s exactly what I’m doing now.

This is perspective, or the lack thereof.

In Zen, the goal is to gain a higher perspective.

The goal of Zen is not to eliminate judgment, nor is it of  judging the judgments as something undesirable. It’s rather to elevate ourselves to a higher vantage point, from which we may exercise more complete and more informed judgment.

Judgment is important. It forms the basis of individuality. How I judge determines the choices I make in life, and therefore leads to who I make myself to be.

If the judgments we harbour are those we borrow from society, then we simply surrender our individuality to the uniformity of social prescription.

If the judgments we exercise are those of a limited perspective, such as those of the businessman, then we merely condemn ourselves to a life of limits, focused in fallacious and mindless pursuits.

How we judge is a direct indicator for how conscious we are.

The more we grow in consciousness,

the more we free ourselves from the prescriptions of social or cultural conditioning — the more enlightened our judgments become. This means we become better at choosing a path in life that suits our aspirations. 

We come to see the difference between those judgments that are pointlessly destructive and those that are helpful and constructive.

Hating someone — this could be myself or another — for something which they are, which they cannot change, has no point but that of creating suffering. We do this every day: in judging ourselves for not being good enough at a thing we don’t really need to be good at. In judging others for not responding the projections we cast onto them.

Judgments that involve ideals of perfection — that assume there is such a thing as an absolute in this universe — are the most destructive of all.

In all matters judgment,

it is crucially important to realize the relativity of judgments. That is: that all judgments are relative to this perspective, and this perspective only. I may like someone or something, I may dislike someone or something — but that doesn’t make that someone or something universally likeable or dislikable.

My ability to judge and to segregate those things I want in my life, from those I don’t want, is the foundation of my own personal freedom.

My allowance of other people’s judgments, in their right for choosing of themselves those things they want or do not want, forms the basis of social freedom.

The way of Zen

in transcending judgment, is therefore not one of eliminating judgment. It is rather one of elevating perspective.

With every gain in perspective, more awareness is gained into the ultimate nature of judgments as being completely relative and arbitrary. From that vantage point, judgments can be observed and witnessed — they’re not serious anymore.

I can play with them. I can dance with them. I can use them to attract beauty into my life.

I am, however, careful not to respond so unwisely to those negative of them. Should I push anything away, reject a part of my life or of the world or other individuals based on negative judgment, then I am merely pushing these things away and out of my consciousness.

This is the fallacy of negative judgment: responding to them often leads to a reduction in consciousness. Selectively cutting unlikable parts of experience leads to a narrowing in the spectra of life. That is why negative judgments are, for the most part, better left witnessed rather than heeded.

Be wary, however, of negatively judging the negative judgments — for that leads exactly where it starts. Simply stand by and witness where the judgments would like to prevail.

Witness your judgments, and then choose to engage the ones you wish to engage — consciously.