An extract of a standardized introduction I use for all my books on zen atTaoist-Books.com
Zen as taught by Bodhidharma and passed on down through China & Japan to our age is similar to Taoism. One could even say that Zen is the philosophy of the Tao and the Tao Te Ching is the worlds oldest zen poem.
The Many Views Of Zen
We have all heard the story of the 5 blind men and the elephant. It goes something like this; When encountering an elephant for the first time one blind man touched his leg and declared that an elephant was like a tree trunk. Another blind man grabbed the elephant's trunk and declared that an elephant was like a snake. The third his tail and thought an elephant was a rope. The fourth his ears and decided he was like a bird and the fifth his belly and decided he was like a cow. Each blind man had a different understanding and perspective of an elephant depending on his perspective.
Since zen is an experience and not a philosophy (though philosophy certainly seems to be a part of it) a person can develop a different understanding of zen based on their experience.
Zen Can’t Be Described Thus, ‘Those who know do not speak’
Many People will recite as if by rote that, “One who knows does not talk. One who talks does not know.” suggesting that a true zen practitioner says nothing.
I would like to point out to those individuals that this quote that they think describes all of zen is chapter number 56 of the 81 chapter Tao Te Ching… so the source document contradicts them on this claim. Also, the rest of the stanza goes something like this:
1. One who knows does not talk. One who talks does not know. Therefore the sage keeps his mouth shut and his sense-gates closed.
In other words, what this ancient zen POEM is describing, what seems to be, a meditation technique and probably is one of the source documents for the “vow of silence” practice that some monks are famous for. A look at the rest of the chapter suggests that the writer is describing a meditation technique based on the idea of ‘words can cloud your experience’ and what a person can gain from this practice and what sort of results one can observe for such a person;
2. "He will blunt his own sharpness, His own tangles adjust; He will dim his own radiance, And be one with his dust." 3. This is called profound identification. 4. Thus he is inaccessible to love and also inaccessible to enmity. He is inaccessible to profit and inaccessible to loss. He is also inaccessible to favor and inaccessible to disgrace. Thus he becomes world-honored.
Yet another translation: He who knows (the Tao) does not (care to) speak (about it); he who is (ever ready to) speak about it does not know it.
Another, more poetic, translation of the same chapter of the poem;
He (who knows it) will keep his mouth shut and close the portals (of his nostrils). He will blunt his sharp points and unravel the complications of things; he will attemper his brightness, and bring himself into agreement with the obscurity (of others). This is called 'the Mysterious Agreement.' (Such an one) cannot be treated familiarly or distantly; he is beyond all consideration of profit or injury; of nobility or meanness:--he is the noblest man under heaven.
Clearly the point of chapter 56 out of 81 of the world’s oldest zen poem isn’t that one can’t speak about zen but more along the lines of, ‘one shouldn’t be talking as much as practicing it’.
The Difference Between Spirituality In The East VS The West
In the east, particularly Ancient China, spirituality is about a mental attitude that is maintained. While in the west, spirituality has this otherworldly tinge around it. A Saint in the west is “Holy”, a “Man/Woman of God”, “Untouchable by the Devil” etc. A Saint in Ancient China of the Taoist or Zen path are often represented by smiling and laughing individuals who are even portrayed being clumsy or drunk. In the west the idea of “holy” separates the individual from ordinary acts and he is often portrayed with a halo around his head with everyone around him in awe or being clumsy or caught up in the world. This idea of holy doesn’t seem to have existed in Ancient China beyond a form of ancestor worship common to ancient tribal peoples, i.e. one respected and revered ones lineage, both personal lineage and cultural lineage. If you compare and contrast these two concept of holiness you realize that one is “holy” while the other is just human.
That is the basic point to be understood here, Taoist “spirituality”, which has been carried on by zen, is distinctly human in every way. While the west reveres its spiritual leaders as holy men or women, in the east they are revered as accomplished human beings who have learned to flow with life. In the west the spiritual people are above the people. In the east the “spiritual” people are more human than anyone else. They lack the basic inhibition trained into people as youths so they live instinctively rather than through a belief system.
I have been putting spiritual in the parenthesis like this “spiritual”, because the differences between east and western conceptions of spirituality is so large that I feel uncomfortable using the same word as it doesn’t convey the meaning of the words in it’s context.
Zen As A Philosophy Of The Mind
Sometimes I choose to describe Zen as a philosophy
I call zen “a philosophy” in the original sense of the word as ‘the love of wisdom’ and a philosopher being ‘a lover of wisdom’. True Wisdom, of course, is indefinable or as Socrates put it, "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing“. By these definitions Zen certainly does seem to qualify as a philosophy.
Wisdom in zen is learning to live in a way that is most conducive to a peaceful state of mind that is accepting of all the good and bad that happens in life which you can rarely do anything about. Zen is not about knowledge or know “the truth of existence” or having any sorts of answers to these sorts of questions.
Alan Watts writes in the first paragraph of his book “The Way of Zen”:
“Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western thought. It is not religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or a type of science. It is an example of what is known in India and China as a ‘way of liberation’, and is similar in this respect to Taoism, Vedanta, and Yoga. “
Siddhartha (AKA The Buddha) taught a ‘path of liberation’ in other words, if you follow these certain principles you will achieve this goal i.e. “enlightenment” or “nirvana”. It’s like saying if you hold a baseball bat in a certain way then you will achieve a certain distance for that ball providing you hit the ball thrown at you in a certain way. A slow moving strike of the bat gets you a ball that moves away from you (in the direction of your hit) at a low velocity while hitting the ball harder will get you a higher velocity hit, maybe even a home run if struck just right. The point is that you know that certain actions, when done precisely, will achieve certain specific goals.
In the same way, what Siddhartha was simply teaching (which later came to be called “Buddhism”) was just a set or rules that included moral and ethical principles with philosophical insights to help a ‘seeker after truth’ to focus their minds and find the peace of mind that they were seeking. The ethical and moral rules were for mental balance and not meant to be followed like they were commandments from any God. It was simply advice from a teacher to his students.
Zen isn’t a religion
Buddhism has neither creed, code, nor cult. There is nothing that is binding upon the Buddhist, nothing they are supposed to believe in. There is no authoritative code, and there is no positive doctrines that the believer has to ascend to, It’s true that Buddhists do observe certain precepts of moral and ethical behavior, however they don’t regard the observation of them as following a divine will. It’s simply a pledge you take to yourself. And, furthermore, Buddhism has no particular cult. That is to say, there are no specific sacraments or forms or worship that are binding upon all Buddhists. You might then say that Buddhism is a form of philosophy, but again this would not be quite correct because what we understand by philosophy in the west is the elaboration of certain ideas, certain theories about the nature of the universe, the nature of man of or the nature of knowledge. And Buddhism is not particularly concerned with elaborating ideas. ” Allan Watts – Buddha and Buddhism
How Zen Differs From Traditional Views Of Philosophy
Since this is a path of mental liberation it is meant to be experienced and only talked about enough so that it CAN be experienced.
A philosophy, while originally meaning the love of wisdom (which is an infinite search for knowledge, i.e. with no end in sight if Socrates wisdom is anything to judge by), it is now about beliefs that are wrapped around something the “philosopher” has taken to be an inarguable fact (to students of philosophy who generally exist as a tiny minority in college populations).
Descartes, for example, began his philosophy with the assumption that “I think therefore I am” and goes on from there piling one assumption upon the other. Clearly Descartes hadn’t heard of meditation in his time. Millions of people have learnt how to stop their endless mind chatter and silence the mind since Descartes time. Add the science of meditation to the facts available to us and Descartes philosophy falls apart like a game of Jenga where the foundation stick, holding everything together has been pulled out thus making the entire structure fall.
Philosophy rests on assumptions and is often subject to such problems. To begin with Descartes stops thinking when asleep and consequently ceases to exist every night. So his philosophy had many holes in it but for people of his time, all high on coffee and conversation as their main past times, this must have been acceptable. Zen also rests on assumptions but the end point isn’t a theory of the universe or of existence but one of experience.
Since the experience of Zen is the same, even if a different set of assumptions are used to gets you to that experience, it can be said to have a fluid philosophy in that how it is taught differs greatly from teacher to teacher and time to time.
Zen is about letting go of thoughts and often includes meditation practice of no-mind and no-thoughts. Descartes wouldn’t exist in Zen, or at least his philosophy wouldn’t or couldn’t exist. Yet I can put zen practice into words and thus have formed my own philosophy of how to explain zen (or ‘dhayana” in meditation, i.e. it’s originally a meditation technique extended to all aspects of life). In other words, just because Zen doesn’t fit the format of philosophy doesn’t mean it can’t be talked about and explained in a philosophical manner that gets the meaning across.