Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — Zen, Mahdism, and the importance of details ]

If you hear the phrase, “Details, details” from time to time, you may have noticed it is often accompanied by a sigh.


I’m never quite clear on which came first, the saying “God is in the details” or the saying “the Devil is in the details” — but whichever it is, the details are where you’ll find it.

I ran across Philip Kapleau Roshi’s comment on koans (above) in his classic book, The Three Pillars of Zen, the other morning, and it sent me from Zen by rapid mental transit to Mahdism – one of the other termini in my mental system — and to the quote fro m Tim Furnish, one of many to the same effect, which I’ve juxtaposed to it.

If you still think Ahmadinejad (Shiite), and only Ahmadinejad, in terms of Mahdism, then you’ve missed the general point that Furnish is rightly making — and the specific point that Al-Qaeda (Sunni), and not only Al-Qaeda but many Sunnis are also liable to hold strong Mahdist expectations — Abu Musab al-Suri among them.

Because the Whichever-it-is is in the details, the details are the nuances and — when we make decisions without knowing the details, we’re liable to sail right into our blind-spots.


Now if you go to a zen master for instruction, you may or may not bee taught shikantaza (“just sitting”) or given a koan (“meditation paradox”) — both descriptions are simplistic; Kapleau Roshi’s book will take you deeper — but one way or another you’ll soon find out, and hopefully you and the master in question can figure things out.

If, on the other hand, you don’t know that Mahdism may be a Sunni as well as a Shiite phenomenon, watch out!

Amplified Mahdist expectation transforms the mental “set” of a jihadist from someone “fighting the good fight” in a generalized way into someone who believes the fight they are fighting is the Culminating War of Good against Evil.

Which, as Furnish’s article’s title, What’s Worse than Violent Jihadists? suggests, is a whole lot more intense.


I argued for taking “wide-angle view” at the end of my recent post, Sensitive dependence on initial conditions — here. I’m at the other end of a mental zoom, arguing for precise and nuanced focus on distinctions.

As with Hayakawa‘s Ladder of Abstraction, it pays to be able to work both ends of the spectrum — from the detailed specifics of “my cow Bessie” abstract statistical generalities of “livestock in Colorado” — and beyond.

Ladders will feature one of these days in a “form is insight” post of their own — Hayakawa’s Ladder, and William Blake‘s, and Herman Kahn‘s.


Details have their own details, and details are essentially differences — so there’s a lot of zooming in and out to do before you gain clarity. In Gregory Bateson‘s terms, you want to be clear on the differences that make a difference.