Feb 19, 2024

Introduction To Zen: 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 the elephant was like a snake. The third was his tail, and he 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 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 knowing “the truth of existence” or having any sort 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 of 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 were 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.

The nearest thing in our culture to Buddhism, although it isn’t exactly the same, is probably psychotherapy. And the reason is that what constitutes the essence of Buddhism is not beliefs, not ideas, not even practices, but a way of experiencing” 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.

It's meant to be a path to mental freedom.

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 went on from there, piling one assumption upon the other. Clearly, Descartes hadn’t heard of meditation in his time.

Millions of people have learned how to stop their endless mind chatter and silence the mind since Descartes's time. Add the science of meditation to the facts available to us, and Descartes's 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 get you to that experience, it is still the same thing. In fact, Zen 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. 

The Difference Between Spirituality In The East VS The West

In the East, particularly in 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 is often represented by smiling and laughing individuals who are even portrayed as 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 this 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 inhibitions 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 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 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.

Another translator (Legge) puts it as:
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.

Yet 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’.

“Zen Is So Mysterious”

Other people will say that zen is so mysterious that you have to talk in it in the negative, i.e. describe what it’s not like rather than what it is like because there are no words to describe the experience. The problem of just talking in the negative is that you are still using words, and words convey a conception, so you are providing a person with mental impressions. You have just chosen to accept these descriptions as the right way to give a person mental impressions about Zen.

You can talk about zen by describing it just like you can describe the taste of strawberries by saying sweet and tangy. You still can’t convey the accurate experience of eating a strawberry but you can provide mental impressions (words/ descriptions) that indicate the right direction to look in, like a finger pointing towards the moon. 

Words lack the ability to convey the experience of eating and tasting a strawberry. In the same way, you can never understand Zen by words alone because it must be experienced.

“Were language adequate, it would take but a day to fully set forth the Tao [The Path Of Zen]. Not being adequate, it takes time to explain material existences. Tao is something beyond material existences. It cannot be conveyed either by words or by silence” Chang Tzu

The Concept Of The Self (Or Lack Of It) In Zen

In ancient India a concept developed called Maya which means illusion, i.e. since the world is considered to be impermanent (constantly changing) and you can interpret the world in any way with your mind, it is considered to be an illusion. 

For example a tree can be seen just as a separate plant or as something that connects with the earth and sky and the animals around it; (i.e. a tree can be seen as an object OR as a pattern of the environment which will disappear when the pattern changes such as a change in the weather patterns which can change patterns of growth from green regions to desert and back again as it does in changing ice ages).

Thus a common though ancient perspective on attachment was formed that if you hold onto your psychological and mental foundations, your images to reality, you are holding onto something that will dissolve away… eventually. So you are holding on to something which is inherently unstable, whether it be life that comes and goes with birth and death or the features of the landscape around you. 

Even mountains grow or shift and/or erode over time, though generally too slowly to notice unless man changes his nature, by, say, cutting all the trees, then a safe mountain can become a mudslide hazard and fall apart, etc.

This understanding of the fluidity of life and living life not as a Utopia but as an ever-changing pattern, is at the root of the ancient psychological position of learning to be ‘detached’ from the world (the practice of non-attachment).

Siddhartha (AKA The Buddha) essentially agreed with this philosophical position of ancient Indian philosophy but took it one step further by saying that not only is the world an illusion but so is the self (the part of us that we refer to when we say “I”). 

To put it in other words, you are not the person you were a year ago and you can probably see the ways in which you have changed or grown in the last year or 10 years or 30 years. You probably see the world differently than you did a year ago or 10 years ago or 30 years ago. Since you see the world differently you have a different image of yourself as well concerning the world. You, at the very least, DEFINE (see) yourself differently than you did a year or 5 or 10 or 20 or 30 years ago.

What you are capable of, what you are, what you like most… all of these definitions tend to change for every person given enough time or given changes in life circumstances.

The ancient philosophers noticed that as soon as you ‘imagined’ an event happening to you or your role in any situation, you first have to PLACE yourself IN it;

i.e., you have to imagine your role or character, and then you decide what to do or how to feel. Now, this tends to happen very fast for most events as your story and behavior have already been established over time. 

In other words, every time you imagine yourself or a situation that you are in, you are, in a sense, recreating yourself (which is what a Zen practitioner means when they say “death & rebirth”).

In the Scientific American MIND magazine, an interview with neuroscientist Eric Kandel also proves the same concept of Siddhartha, which is now a fundamental part of Mahayana Buddhism or simply ‘Zen Buddhism’.

Here is how Eric Kandel defines the memory you have of your “self”: 

Scientific American Mind magazine in an interview with the Nobel laureate Neuroscientist Eric Kandel;

Mind: We tend to think of memory as a kind of library that holds a record of events and facts that can be retrieved as needed. Is this an accurate metaphor? 

Kandel: No, memory is not like that at all. Human memory reinvents itself all the time. Every time you remember something, you modify it a little bit, in part dependent on the context in which you recall it. That is because the brain’s storage is not as exact as written text. It is always a mixture of many facades of the past event: images, pictures, feelings, words, facts and fiction—a “re-collection” in the true sense.

Modern neuro-science agrees with the Zen Buddhist idea of an impermanent self. As Eric Kandel points out that, “Every time you remember something, you modify it a little bit, in part dependent on the context in which you recall it.” In other words you recreate your image of yourself to fit the new situation. If the self was something permanent and real, then your image of yourself would always remain the same. The fact that you can consciously or unconsciously change your image of yourself and react to situations in a new way - or just create a new you - proves that the self is something you make up as part of living in society.

What does this mean? This means that you are not limited to being any particular ’self’ or person. If you feel like you have low self-esteem, you can change that self. If you feel like you are not comfortable in social situations, you can change that image too. Any limiting image you have of yourself can be changed as you create your 'self' or how you want to be.

This is how Alan Watts described the illusory self from a zen perspective which was illuminating for me and may it be for you too;

“The ability of a pattern to contain elements that represent its former states is what we call memory. In engineering language we would call it feedback, because feedback is the system whereby any system of energy is enabled to record the results of its own action so that based upon that record it can adapt, and as it were, make plans for the future. It can in other words, correct its action. So because human beings have memory, the capacity of the pattern of the nervous system to record its former states, the human being can make predictions about the future and in general control its activity. 

But from this extraordinary marvelous ability there arises a confusing by-product. And that is this feeling that here is a constant entity, like the screen of a television. In other words, because a certain element of permanence runs through these changing patterns, this permanent behavior of the pattern, or permanently repeating behavior of the pattern, gives the impression of some substantial mind stuff or mind entity underlying the pattern and upon which the pattern is recorded. It’s the same sort of illusion that arises when, for example, I take a flashlight and rotate it in the dark, and you see a continuous circle of light. It appears that the light leaves a track behind it because the moving light leaves a memory upon the retina of the eye, and that is what gives us the illusion of seeing a constant circle of light. 

And so a similar illusion arises from the repetitive pattern of the nervous system, and gives us the impression that there is this constant thing, the experiencer, who lasts, and endures like a substance from the past, through the present, and into the future.” Alan Watts – Lecture on Mahayana Buddhism

Zen Is Iconoclastic

Iconoclastic means a person who likes to break idols. A zenist likes to break mental idols. 

Since everything has it's being in a mental conception (a belief or a label to categorize experience as what gives an object its meaning), there is nothing Zen can’t go beyond. Nothing in the material world is meant to last, and ideas are from the material world, so they aren't meant to last as well.

In Religion of the Samurai, Kaiten Nukariya writes;

The Scripture is no more nor less than the finger pointing to the moon of Buddhahood. When we recognize the moon and enjoy its benign beauty, the finger is of no use. As the finger has no brightness whatever, so the Scripture has no holiness whatever. The Scripture is religious currency representing spiritual wealth. It does not matter whether money be gold, or sea-shells, or cows. It is a mere substitute. 


Zen is completely free from the fetters of old dogmas, dead creeds, and conventions of stereotyped past, that check the development of a religious faith and prevent the discovery of a new truth. Zen needs no Inquisition. It never compelled nor will compel the compromise of a Galileo or a Descartes. No excommunication of a Spinoza or the burning of a Bruno is possible for Zen.

On a certain occasion Yoh Shan (Yaku-san) did not preach the doctrine for a long while, and was requested to give a sermon by his assistant teacher, saying: "Would your reverence preach the Dharma to your pupils, who long thirst after your merciful instruction?" "Then ring the bell," replied Yoh Shan. The bell rang, and all the monks assembled in the Hall eager to bear the sermon. Yoh Shan went up to the pulpit and descended immediately without saying a word. "You, reverend sir," asked the assistant, "promised to deliver a sermon a little while ago. Why do you not preach?" "Sutras are taught by the Sutra teachers," said the master; "Çastras are taught by the Çastra teachers. No wonder that I say nothing." This little episode will show you that Zen is no fixed doctrine embodied in a Sutra or a Çastra, but a conviction or realization within us. To quote another example, an officer offered to Tüng Shan (To-zan) plenty of alms, and requested him to recite the sacred Canon. Tüng Shan, rising from his chair, made a bow respectfully to the officer, who did the same to the teacher. Then Tüng Shan went round the chair, taking the officer with him, and making a bow again to the officer, asked: "Do you see what I mean?" "No, sir," replied the other. "I have been reciting the sacred Canon, why do you not see?" Thus Zen does not regard Scriptures in black and white as its Canon, for it takes to-days and tomorrows of this actual life as its inspired pages.

What Is Nirvana?

Nirvana is a very revealing word. It simply means to extinguish or to blow out. In other words, it’s to let go of yourself and experience the world directly without ego or any story to explain the world whatsoever, thus having ‘blown out” the structure that was holding your worldview together, setting you free of ignorant beliefs. 

Put another way, Nirvana is to live without an ego or even a personality as it has extinguished. You live directly from the mind. You live “at cause” with the world, you being the one being “caused” to do things, as described in the yoga sutras, “for those beings who are merged in unitive consciousness, the world is the cause”. How can it be any other way? When your personality and attachment to desires and results is gone you can’t help but pick up stuff from the outside to fill the void. You live like the description in the Tao Te Ching managing your affairs without doing anything, as you have no desire for or against managing your affairs.

What is “Enlightenment”?

Enlightenment has been described as a mental trick that takes you from being a frustrated member of the rat race to just a person living life. Bodhidharma simply defines enlightenment as ‘awareness, supreme awareness’. 

Other’s will describe it as ‘being aware of and living from your Original Mind’, for example zen scholar D.T. Suzuki uses the word “Reason” as the proper translation for the ‘tao’ in his translation of the Tao Te Ching indicating he thinks Tao refers to the zen state. Suzuki also described enlightenment as ‘‘the same as ordinary every living except you are two inches off the ground’. He’s referring to the mental weight of one’s worries or beliefs being released. It’s like discovering you were walking around in lead shoes and you feel lighter after taking off the lead shoes and walking around. 

In zen, enlightenment can come to anyone at any time. As one writer explains it’s about attaining enlightenment or awareness of the Original mind or “mushin”:

In the attainment of this state of mind (mushin), some are quicker than others. There are some who attain to a state of mushin all at once by just listening to a discourse on the Dharma, while there are others who attain to it only after going through all the grades of Bodhisattvaship such as the ten stages of faith, the ten stages of abiding, the ten stages of discipline, and the ten stages of turning-over. More or less time may be required in the attainment of mushin, but once attained it puts an end to all discipline, to all realization and yet there is really nothing attained. It is truth and not falsehood. Whether this mushin is attained in one thought or attained after going through the ten stages its practical working is the same and there is no question of the one being deeper or shallower than the other. Only the one has passed through long ages of hard discipline.

Basically it says that no matter how much you meditate or don’t meditate, ‘when you get it, then you get it’. Since zen is a state of mind which is natural, it simply has to be understood to be practiced and thus the smart ones will get enlightened fast and the slow witted will get it slowly or never. But once zen is attained, it is the same for everyone in it’s basic understanding and experience. 

One ancient master describes the enlightened philosopher in this manner:

Knowest thou that leisurely philosopher who has gone beyond learning and is not exerting himself in anything?

He neither endeavours to avoid idle thoughts nor seeks after the Truth;

[For he knows that] ignorance in reality is the Buddha-nature,

[And that] this empty visionary body is no less than the Dharma-body.

What is reincarnation?

In zen, death & rebirth (reincarnation) is seen as a psychological phenomenon following from the illusion of the self.

An ancient Zen Scholar, Hui-Neng’s Tan Ching, Writes;

What is Paramita? This is a Sanskrit term of the Western country. In Yang it means "the other shore reached". When the meaning (artha in Sanskrit) is understood, one is detached from birth and death. When the objective world (visaya) is clung to, there is the rise of birth and death; it is like the waves rising from the water; this is called "this shore". When you are detached from the objective world, there is no birth and death for you; it is like the water constantly running its course: this is "reaching the other shore". Hence Paramita.

The idea being expressed here: When you cling to the world you have to create to create a self to deal with each new situation, thus you experience ‘death and rebirth’ (of the ego). When you let go and dwell in the zen state your consciousness stays steady and thus you don’t experience birth and death (of the ego).

For example: When you try and do good deeds you are trying to create a new self. By working on being better and better, you are destroying an old way of being (the old ‘self’) and you are creating a new one. Your ‘self’, i.e. how you define or imagine yourself to be, is going through death and rebirth.

No comments:

Post a Comment