The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

The impulse to believe the absurd when presented with the unknowable is called religion. Whether this is wise or unwise is the domain of doctrine. Once you understand someone's doctrine, you understand their rationale for believing the absurd. At that point, it may no longer seem absurd. You can get to both sides of this conondrum from here.

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

Postby admin » Tue Aug 27, 2019 4:38 am

The Way of Zen
by Alan Watts
Copyright © 1985 by Mary Jane Watts



Behold the Spirit
Beyond Theology
The Book
Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown
Does It Matter?
In My Own Way
Nature, Man and Woman
Psychotherapy East and West
The Supreme Identity
This Is It

To TIA, MARK, AND RICHARD who will understand it all the better for not being able to read it.


• Preface
• The Pronunciation of Chinese Words
o 1 The Philosophy of the Tao
o 2 The Origins of Buddhism
o 3 Mahayana Buddhism
o 4 The Rise and Development of Zen
o 1 “Empty and Marvelous”
o 2 “Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing”
o 3 Za-zen and the Koan
o 4 Zen in the Arts
• Bibliography
• Chinese Notes


• Bodhidharma. By Hakuin Zenji (1683–1768).
• Two views of the rock and sand garden at Ryoanji, Kyoto.
• Bodhidharma and Hui-k’e. By Sesshu (1420–1506).
• Haboku Landscape. By Sesshu (1420–1506).
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Re: The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

Postby admin » Tue Aug 27, 2019 4:39 am


During the past twenty years there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in Zen Buddhism. Since the Second World War this interest has increased so much that it seems to be becoming a considerable force in the intellectual and artistic world of the West. It is connected, no doubt, with the prevalent enthusiasm for Japanese culture which is one of the constructive results of the late war, but which may amount to no more than a passing fashion. The deeper reason for this interest is that the viewpoint of Zen lies so close to the “growing edge” of Western thought.

The more alarming and destructive aspects of Western civilization should not blind us to the fact that at this very time it is also in one of its most creative periods. Ideas and insights of the greatest fascination are appearing in some of the newer fields of Western science–in psychology and psychotherapy, in logic and the philosophy of science, in semantics and communications theory. Some of these developments might be due to suggestive influences from Asian philosophy, but on the whole I am inclined to feel that there is more of a parallelism than a direct influence. We are, however, becoming aware of the parallelism, and it promises an exchange of views which should be extremely stimulating.

Western thought has changed so rapidly in this century that we are in a state of considerable confusion. Not only are there serious difficulties of communication between the intellectual and the general public, but the course of our thinking and of our very history has seriously undermined the common-sense assumptions which lie at the roots of our social conventions and institutions. Familiar concepts of space, time, and motion, of nature and natural law, of history and social change, and of human personality itself have dissolved, and we find ourselves adrift without landmarks in a universe which more and more resembles the Buddhist principle of the “Great Void.” The various wisdoms of the West, religious, philosophical, and scientific, do not other much guidance to the art philosophical, and scientific, do not other much guidance to the art of living in such a universe, and we find the prospects of making our way in so trackless an ocean of relativity rather frightening. For we are used to absolutes, to firm principles and laws to which we can cling for spiritual and psychological security.

This is why, I think, there is so much interest in a culturally productive way of life which, for some fifteen hundred years, has felt thoroughly at home in “the Void,” and which not only feels no terror for it but rather a positive delight. To use its own words, the situation of Zen has always been–

Above, not a tile to cover the head;
Below, not an inch of ground for the foot.

Such language should not actually be so unfamiliar to us, were we truly prepared to accept the meaning of “the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.”

I am not in favor of “importing” Zen from the Far East, for it has become deeply involved with cultural institutions which are quite foreign to us. But there is no doubt that there are things which we can learn, or unlearn, from it and apply in our own way. It has the special merit of a mode of expressing itself which is as intelligible– or perhaps as baffling–to the intellectual as to the illiterate, offering possibilities of communication which we have not explored. It has a directness, verve, and humor, and a sense of both beauty and nonsense at once exasperating and delightful. But above all it has a way of being able to turn one’s mind inside out, and dissolving what seemed to be the most oppressive human problems into questions like “Why is a mouse when it spins?” At its heart there is a strong but completely unsentimental compassion for human beings suffering and perishing from their very attempts to save themselves.

There are many excellent books about Zen, though some of the best are out of print or otherwise difficult to obtain. But as yet no one–not even Professor Suzuki—has given us a comprehensive account of the subject which includes its historical background and account of the subject which includes its historical background and its relation to Chinese and Indian ways of thought. The three volumes of Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism are an unsystematic collection of scholarly papers on various aspects of the subject, enormously useful for the advanced student but quite baffling to the general reader without an understanding of the general principles. His delightful Introduction to Zen Buddhism is rather narrow and specialized. It omits the essential information about the relation of Zen to Chinese Taoism and Indian Buddhism, and is in some respects rather more mystifying than it need be. His other works are studies of special aspects of Zen, all of which require general background and historical perspective.

R. H. Blyth’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics is one of the best introductions available, but it is published only in Japan and, again, lacks the background information. As a series of rambling and marvelously perceptive observations, it makes no attempt to give an orderly presentation of the subject. My own Spirit of Zen is a popularization of Suzuki’s earlier works, and besides being very unscholarly it is in many respects out of date and misleading, whatever merits it may have in the way of lucidity and simplicity. Christmas Humphreys’ Zen Buddhism, published only in England, is likewise a popularization of Suzuki and, once more, does not really begin to put Zen in its cultural context. It is written in a clear and sprightly fashion, but the author finds identities between Buddhism and Theosophy which I feel to be highly questionable. Other studies of Zen by both Western and Asian authors are of a more specialized character, or are discussions of Zen à propos of something else–psychology, art, or cultural history.

In default, then, of a fundamental, orderly, and comprehensive account of the subject, it is no wonder that Western impressions of Zen are somewhat confused, despite all the enthusiasm and interest which it has aroused. The problem, then, is to write such a book– and this I have tried to do since no one who understands the subject better than I seems willing or able to do so. Ideally, I suppose, such a work should be written by an accomplished and recognized Zen master. But at present no such person has sufficient command of English. Furthermore, when one speaks from within a tradition, and English. Furthermore, when one speaks from within a tradition, and especially from within its institutional hierarchy, there is always apt to be a certain lack of perspective and grasp of the outsider’s viewpoint. Again, one of the biggest obstacles to communication between Japanese Zen masters and Westerners is the absence of clarity as to difference of basic cultural premises. Both sides are so “set in their ways” that they are unaware of the limitations of their means of communication.

Perhaps, then, the most appropriate author of such a work would be a Westerner who had spent some years under a Japanese master, going through the whole course of Zen training. Now from the standpoint of Western “scientific scholarship” this would not do at all, for such a person would have become an “enthusiast” and “partisan” incapable of an objective and disinterested view. But, fortunately or unfortunately, Zen is above all an experience, nonverbal in character, which is simply inaccessible to the purely literary and scholarly approach. To know what Zen is, and especially what it is not, there is no alternative but to practice it, to experiment with it in the concrete so as to discover the meaning which underlies the words. Yet such Westerners as have undergone some of the special type of training followed in Rinzai Zen tend to become “cagey” and uncommunicative on the principle that

Those who know do not speak;
Those who speak do not know.

Although, however, they do not “put up,” they do not completely “shut up.” On the one hand, they would love to share their understanding with others. But on the other hand, they are convinced that words are ultimately futile, and are, furthermore, under an agreement not to discuss certain aspects of their training. They begin, therefore, to take the characteristically Asian attitude of “Come and find out for yourself.” But the scientifically trained Westerner is, not without reason, a cautious and skeptical fellow who likes to know what he is “getting into.” He is acutely conscious of the capacity of the mind for self-deception, for going into places where entrance is impossible without leaving one’s critical where entrance is impossible without leaving one’s critical perspective at the door. Asians tend so much to despise this attitude, and their Western devotees even more so, that they neglect to tell the scientific inquirer many things that are still well within the possibilities of human speech and intellectual understanding. To write about Zen is, therefore, as problematic for the outside, “objective” observer as for the inside, “subjective” disciple. In varying situations I have found myself on both sides of the dilemma. I have associated and studied with the “objective observers” and am convinced that, for all their virtues, they invariably miss the point and eat the menu instead of the dinner. I have also been on the inside of a traditional hierarchy–not Zen–and am equally convinced that from this position one does not know what dinner is being eaten. In such a position one becomes technically “idiotic,” which is to say, out of communication with those who do not belong to the same fold.

It is both dangerous and absurd for our world to be a group of communions mutually excommunicate. This is especially true of the great cultures of the East and the West, where the potentialities of communication are the richest, and the dangers of failure to communicate the worst. As one who has spent somewhat more than twenty years trying to interpret the East to the West, I have become increasingly certain that to interpret such a phenomenon as Zen there is a clear principle to be followed. On the one hand, it is necessary to be sympathetic and to experiment personally with the way of life to the limit of one’s possibilities. On the other hand, one must resist every temptation to “join the organization,” to become involved with its institutional commitments. In this friendly neutral position one is apt to be disowned by both sides. But, at the worst, one’s misrepresentations provoke them to express themselves more clearly. For the relationship between two positions becomes far more clear when there is a third with which to compare them. Thus even if this study of Zen does no more than express a standpoint which is neither Zen nor anything Western, it will at least provide that third point of reference.

However, there can be no doubt that the essential standpoint of Zen refuses to be organized, or to be made the exclusive possession Zen refuses to be organized, or to be made the exclusive possession of any institution. If there is anything in this world which transcends the relativities of cultural conditioning, it is Zen–by whatever name it may be called. This is an excellent reason for Zen’s not being institutionalized, and for the fact that many of its ancient exponents were “universal individualists” who were never members of any Zen organization, and never sought the acknowledgment of any formal authority.

This, then, is my position with respect to Zen–and I feel I should be frank with the reader in a day when there is so much anxiety about people’s credentials or “quantifications.” I cannot represent myself as a Zenist, or even as a Buddhist, for this seems to me to be like trying to wrap up and label the sky. I cannot represent myself as a scientifically objective academician, for–with respect to Zen– this seems to me to be like studying bird–song in a collection of stuffed nightingales. I claim no rights to speak of Zen. I claim only the pleasure of having studied its literature and observed its art forms since I was hardly more than a boy, and of having had the delight of informal association with a number of Japanese and Chinese travelers of the same trackless way.

This book is intended both for the general reader and for the more serious student, and I trust that the former will be tolerant of the use of some technical terminology, a Chinese character appendix, and other critical apparatus most useful for those who wish to explore the subject more deeply. The book is divided into two parts, the first dealing with the background and history of Zen, and the second with its principles and practice. The sources of information are of three types. I have, firstly, used almost all the studies of Zen in European languages. Naturally, I have made considerable use of the works of Professor D. T. Suzuki, but at the same time I have tried not to rely upon them too heavily–not because of any defect in them, but because I think readers are entitled to something more, by way of a fresh viewpoint, than a mere summarization of his views.

Secondly, I have based the essential view of Zen here presented upon a careful study of the more important of its early Chinese records, with special reference to the Hsin-hsin Ming, the T’an records, with special reference to the Hsin-hsin Ming, the T’an Ching or Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, the Lin-chi Lu, and the Kutsun- hsü Yü-lu. My own knowledge of T’ang dynasty Chinese is certainly not enough to deal with some of the finer points of this literature, but sufficient, I think, to get what I wanted, which was a clear view of the essential doctrine. In all this, my efforts have been greatly aided by colleagues and research associates at the American Academy of Asian Studies, and I wish in particular to express my thanks to Professors Sabro Hasegawa and Gi-ming Shien, to Dr. Paul and Dr. George Fung, Dr. Frederick Hong, Mr. Charles Yick, and to Mr. Kazumitsu Kato, priest of the Soto-Zen School.

Thirdly, my information is derived from a large number of personal encounters with teachers and students of Zen, spread over more than twenty years.

In the following pages the translations from the original texts are my own, unless otherwise indicated. For the convenience of those who read Chinese, I have supplied, following the Bibliography, an appendix of the original Chinese forms of the more important quotations and technical terms. I have found these almost essential for the more serious student, for even among the most highly qualified scholars there is still much uncertainty as to the proper translation of T’ang dynasty Zen texts. References to this appendix are by superscribed index letters in alphabetical order.

References to other works are by surname of the author and number, directing the reader to the Bibliography for full details. Scholarly readers will have to excuse me for not using the absurd diacritical marks in romanized Sanskrit words, since these are merely confusing to the general reader and unnecessary to the Sanskritist who will at once call to mind the Devanagiri script. As to the proper names of Zen masters and titles of Zen texts, these are given in the romanized forms of Mandarin or Japanese according to the country of origin, and technical terms are given in Mandarin unless used in the discussion of specifically Japanese Zen. For Mandarin one is almost compelled by general usage to adopt the Wade-Giles romanization, for which I have appended a table of pronunciation following this Preface, since it has so little relation to the actual sounds.

I am most grateful to Mr. R. H. Blyth for his kind permission to quote a number of his translations of haiku poems from his magnificent four-volume anthology, Haiku, published by the Hokuseido Press in Tokyo; to Professor Sabro Hasegawa for his generous help in preparing the jacket and providing illustrations; and to my daughter Joan for the photographs of Ryoanji. In conclusion, I am most happy to express my thanks to the Bollingen Foundation for a three-year fellowship, during which much of the preliminary study was done for the writing of this book.

Mill Valley, California
July 1956
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Re: The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

Postby admin » Tue Aug 27, 2019 4:39 am



Aspirated: Read p’, t’, k’, ch’, and ts’ as in pin, tip, kilt, chin, and bits.
Unaspirated: Read p, t, k, ch, and ts (or tz) as in bin, dip, gilt, gin, and bids.
hs or sh, as in shoe.
j is nearly like an “unrolled” r, so that jen is nearly the English wren.


Usually Italian values,
a as in father
e as in eight
eh as in brother
i as in machine and pin
ih as in shirt
o as in soap
u as in goose
ü as in German über


ai as in light
ao as in loud
ei as in weight
ia as in William
ieh as in Korea
ou as in group
ua as in swan
ueh as in doer
ui as in sway
uo as in whoah!


an and ang as in bun and bung
en and eng as in wooden and among
in and ing as in sin and sing
un and ung with the u as in look.
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Re: The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

Postby admin » Tue Aug 27, 2019 4:44 am



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. As will soon be obvious, a way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.

Historically, Zen may be regarded as the fulfillment of long traditions of Indian and Chinese culture, though it is actually much more Chinese than Indian, and, since the twelfth century, it has rooted itself deeply and most creatively in the culture of Japan. As the fruition of these great cultures, and as a unique and peculiarly instructive example of a way of liberation, Zen is one of the most precious gifts of Asia to the world.

The origins of Zen are as much Taoist as Buddhist, and, because its flavor is so peculiarly Chinese, it may be best to begin by inquiring into its Chinese ancestry–illustrating, at the same time, what is meant by a way of liberation by the example of Taoism.

Much of the difficulty and mystification which Zen presents to the Western student is the result of his unfamiliarity with Chinese ways of thinking–ways which differ startlingly from our own and which are, for that very reason, of special value to us in attaining a critical perspective upon our own ideas. The problem here is not simply one of mastering different ideas, differing from our own as, say, the theories of Kant differ from those of Descartes, or those of Calvinists from those of Catholics. The problem is to appreciate differences in from those of Catholics. The problem is to appreciate differences in the basic premises of thought and in the very methods of thinking, and these are so often overlooked that our interpretations of Chinese philosophy are apt to be a projection of characteristically Western ideas into Chinese terminology. This is the inevitable disadvantage of studying Asian philosophy by the purely literary methods of Western scholarship, for words can be communicative only between those who share similar experiences.

This is not to go so far as to say that so rich and subtle a language as English is simply incapable of expressing Chinese ideas. On the contrary, it can say much more than has been believed possible by some Chinese and Japanese students of Zen and Taoism whose familiarity with English leaves something to be desired. The difficulty is not so much in the language as in the thought-patterns which have hitherto seemed inseparable from the academic and scientific way of approaching a subject. The unsuitability of these patterns for such subjects as Taoism and Zen is largely responsible for the impression that the “Oriental mind” is mysterious, irrational, and inscrutable. Furthermore, it need not be supposed that these matters are so peculiarly Chinese or Japanese that they have no point of contact with anything in our own culture. While it is true that none of the formal divisions of Western science and thought corresponds to a way of liberation, R. H. Blyth’s marvelous study of Zen in English Literature has shown most clearly that the essential insights of Zen are universal.

The reason why Taoism and Zen present, at first sight, such a puzzle to the Western mind is that we have taken a restricted view of human knowledge. For us, almost all knowledge is what a Taoist would call conventional knowledge, because we do not feel that we really know anything unless we can represent it to ourselves in words, or in some other system of conventional signs such as the notations of mathematics or music. Such knowledge is called conventional because it is a matter of social agreement as to the codes of communication. Just as people speaking the same language have tacit agreements as to what words shall stand for what things, so the members of every society and every culture are united by bonds of communication resting upon all kinds of united by bonds of communication resting upon all kinds of agreement as to the classification and valuation of actions and things.

Thus the task of education is to make children fit to live in a society by persuading them to learn and accept its codes–the rules and conventions of communication whereby the society holds itself together. There is first the spoken language. The child is taught to accept “tree” and not “boojum” as the agreed sign for that (pointing to the object). We have no difficulty in understanding that the word “tree” is a matter of convention. What is much less obvious is that convention also governs the delineation of the thing to which the word is assigned. For the child has to be taught not only what words are to stand for what things, but also the way in which his culture has tacitly agreed to divide things from each other, to mark out the boundaries within our daily experience. Thus scientific convention decides whether an eel shall be a fish or a snake, and grammatical convention determines what experiences shall be called objects and what shall be called events or actions. How arbitrary such conventions may be can be seen from the question, “What happens to my fist [noun-object] when I open my hand?” The object miraculously vanishes because an action was disguised by a part of speech usually assigned to a thing! In English the differences between things and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished, but a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs–so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than entities.

Besides language, the child has to accept many other forms of code. For the necessities of living together require agreement as to codes of law and ethics, of etiquette and art, of weights, measures, and numbers, and, above all, of role. We have difficulty in communicating with each other unless we can identify ourselves in terms of roles–father, teacher, worker, artist, “regular guy,” gentleman, sportsman, and so forth. To the extent that we identify ourselves with these stereotypes and the rules of behavior associated with them, we ourselves feel that we are someone because our fellows have less difficulty in accepting us-that is, in because our fellows have less difficulty in accepting us-that is, in identifying us and feeling that we are “under control.” A meeting of two strangers at a party is always somewhat embarrassing when the host has not identified their roles in introducing them, for neither knows what rules of conversation and action should be observed.

Once again, it is easy to see the conventional character of roles. For a man who is a father may also be a doctor and an artist, as well as an employee and a brother. And it is obvious that even the sum total of these role labels will be far from supplying an adequate description of the man himself, even though it may place him in certain general classifications. But the conventions which govern human identity are more subtle and much less obvious than these. We learn, very thoroughly though far less explicitly, to identify ourselves with an equally conventional view of “myself.” For the conventional “self” or “person” is composed mainly of a history consisting of selected memories, and beginning from the moment of parturition. According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real “me” than what I am at this moment. For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible, but what I was is fixed and final. It is the firm basis for predictions of what I will be in the future, and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is!

It is important to recognize that the memories and past events which make up a man’s historical identity are no more than a selection. From the actual infinitude of events and experiences some have been picked out–abstracted–as significant, and this significance has of course been determined by conventional standards. For the very nature of conventional knowledge is that it is a system of abstractions. It consists of signs and symbols in which things and events are reduced to their general outlines, as the Chinese character j e n a stands for “man” by being the utmost simplification and generalization of the human form.

The same is true of words other than ideographs. The English words “man,” “fish,” “star,” “flower,” “run,” “grow,” all denote classes of objects or events which may be recognized as members of classes of objects or events which may be recognized as members of their class by very simple attributes, abstracted from the total complexity of the things themselves.

Abstraction is thus almost a necessity for communication, since it enables us to represent our experiences with simple and rapidly made “grasps” of the mind. When we say that we can think only of one thing at a time, this is like saying that the Pacific Ocean cannot be swallowed at a gulp. It has to be taken in a cup, and downed bit by bit. Abstractions and conventional signs are like the cup; they reduce experience to units simple enough to be comprehended one at a time. In a similar way, curves are measured by reducing them to a sequence of tiny straight lines, or by thinking of them in terms of the squares which they cross when plotted on graph paper. Other examples of the same process are the newspaper

photograph and the transmission of television. In the former, a natural scene is reproduced in terms of light and heavy dots arranged in a screen or gridlike pattern so as to give the general impression of a black-and-white photograph when seen without a magnifying glass. Much as it may look like the original scene, it is only a reconstruction of the scene in terms of dots, somewhat as our conventional words and thoughts are reconstructions of experience in terms of abstract signs. Even more like the thought process, the television camera transmits a natural scene in terms of a linear series of impulses which may be passed along a wire.

Thus communication by conventional signs of this type gives us an abstract, one-at-a-time translation of a universe in which things are happening altogether-at-once–a universe whose concrete reality always escapes perfect description in these abstract terms. The perfect description of a small particle of dust by these means would take everlasting time, since one would have to account for every point in its volume.

The linear, one-at-a-time character of speech and thought is particularly noticeable in all languages using alphabets, representing experience in long strings of letters. It is not easy to say why we must communicate with others (speak) and with ourselves (think) by this one-at-a-time method. Life itself does not proceed in this cumbersome, linear fashion, and our own organisms proceed in this cumbersome, linear fashion, and our own organisms could hardly live for a moment if they had to control themselves by taking thought of every breath, every beat of the heart, and every neural impulse. But if we are to find some explanation for this characteristic of thought, the sense of sight offers a suggestive analogy. For we have two types of vision–central and peripheral, not unlike the spotlight and the floodlight. Central vision is used for accurate work like reading, in which our eyes are focused on one small area after another like spotlights. Peripheral vision is less conscious, less bright than the intense ray of the spotlight. We use it for seeing at night, and for taking “subconscious” notice of objects and movements not in the direct line of central vision. Unlike the spotlight, it can take in very many things at a time.

There is, then, an analogy–and perhaps more than mere analogy– between central vision and conscious, one-at-a-time thinking, and between peripheral vision and the rather mysterious process which enables us to regulate the incredible complexity of our bodies without thinking at all. It should be noted, further, that we call our bodies complex as a result of trying to understand them in terms of linear thought, of words and concepts. But the complexity is not so much in our bodies as in the task of trying to understand them by this means of thinking. It is like trying to make out the features of a large room with no other light than a single bright ray. It is as complicated as trying to drink water with a fork instead of a cup.

In this respect, the Chinese written language has a slight advantage over our own, and is perhaps symptomatic of a different way of thinking. It is still linear, still a series of abstractions taken in one at a time. But its written signs are a little closer to life than spelled words because they are essentially pictures, and, as a Chinese proverb puts it, “One showing is worth a hundred sayings.” Compare, for example, the ease of showing someone how to tie a complex knot with the difficulty of telling him how to do it in words alone.

Now the general tendency of the Western mind is to feel that we do not really understand what we cannot represent, what we cannot communicate, by linear signs–by thinking. We are like the “wallflower” who cannot learn a dance unless someone draws him “wallflower” who cannot learn a dance unless someone draws him a diagram of the steps, who cannot “get it by the feel.” For some reason we do not trust and do not fully use the “peripheral vision” of our minds. We learn music, for example, by restricting the whole range of tone and rhythm to a notation of fixed tonal and rhythmic intervals–a notation which is incapable of representing Oriental music. But the Oriental musician has a rough notation which he uses only as a reminder of a melody. He learns music, not by reading notes, but by listening to the performance of a teacher, getting the “feel” of it, and copying him, and this enables him to acquire rhythmic and tonal sophistications matched only by those Western jazz artists who use the same approach.

We are not suggesting that Westerners simply do not use the “peripheral mind.” Being human, we use it all the time, and every artist, every workman, every athlete calls into play some special development of its powers. But it is not academically and philosophically respectable. We have hardly begun to realize its possibilities, and it seldom, if ever, occurs to us that one of its most important uses is for that “knowledge of reality” which we try to attain by the cumbersome calculations of theology, metaphysics, and logical inference.

When we turn to ancient Chinese society, we find two “philosophical” traditions playing complementary parts– Confucianism and Taoism. Generally speaking, the former concerns itself with the linguistic, ethical, legal, and ritual conventions which provide the society with its system of communication. Confucianism, in other words, preoccupies itself with conventional knowledge, and under its auspices children are brought up so that their originally wayward and whimsical natures are made to fit the Procrustean bed of the social order. The individual defines himself and his place in society in terms of the Confucian formulae.

Taoism, on the other hand, is generally a pursuit of older men, and especially of men who are retiring from active life in the community. Their retirement from society is a kind of outward symbol of an inward liberation from the bounds of conventional patterns of thought and conduct. For Taoism concerns itself with unconventional knowledge, with the understanding of life directly, unconventional knowledge, with the understanding of life directly, instead of in the abstract, linear terms of representational thinking.

Confucianism presides, then, over the socially necessary task of forcing the original spontaneity of life into the rigid rules of convention–a task which involves not only conflict and pain, but also the loss of that peculiar naturalness and un-self-consciousness for which little children are so much loved, and which is sometimes regained by saints and sages. The function of Taoism is to undo the inevitable damage of this discipline, and not only to restore but also to develop the original spontaneity, which is termed tzu-jan b or “self-so-ness.” For the spontaneity of a child is still childish, like everything else about him. His education fosters his rigidity but not his spontaneity. In certain natures, the conflict between social convention and repressed spontaneity is so violent that it manifests itself in crime, insanity, and neurosis, which are the prices we pay for the otherwise undoubted benefits of order.

But Taoism must on no account be understood as a revolution against convention, although it has sometimes been used as a pretext for revolution. Taoism is a way of liberation, which never comes by means of revolution, since it is notorious that most revolutions establish worse tyrannies than they destroy. To be free from convention is not to spurn it but not to be deceived by it. It is to be able to use it as an instrument instead of being used by it.

The West has no recognized institution corresponding to Taoism because our Hebrew-Christian spiritual tradition identifies the Absolute–God–with the moral and logical order of convention. This might almost be called a major cultural catastrophe, because it weights the social order with excessive authority, inviting just those revolutions against religion and tradition which have been so characteristic of Western history. It is one thing to feel oneself in conflict with socially sanctioned conventions, but quite another to feel at odds with the very root and ground of life, with the Absolute itself. The latter feeling nurtures a sense of guilt so preposterous that it must issue either in denying one’s own nature or in rejecting God. Because the first of these alternatives is ultimately impossible– like chewing off one’s own teeth–the second becomes inevitable, where such palliatives as the confessional are no longer effective. As where such palliatives as the confessional are no longer effective. As is the nature of revolutions, the revolution against God gives place to the worse tyranny of the absolutist state–worse because it cannot even forgive, and because it recognizes nothing outside the powers of its jurisdiction. For while the latter was theoretically true of God, his earthly representative the Church was always prepared to admit that though the laws of God were immutable, no one could presume to name the limits of his mercy. When the throne of the Absolute is left vacant, the relative usurps it and commits the real idolatry, the real indignity against God–the absolutizing of a concept, a conventional abstraction. But it is unlikely that the throne would have become vacant if, in a sense, it had not been so already–if the Western tradition had had some way of apprehending the Absolute directly, outside the terms of the conventional order.

Of course the very word “Absolute” suggests to us something abstract and conceptual, such as “Pure Being.” Our very idea of “spirit” as opposed to “matter” seems to have more kinship with the abstract than the concrete. But with Taoism, as with other ways of liberation, the Absolute must never be confused with the abstract. On the other hand, if we say that the Tao,c as the ultimate Reality is called, is the concrete rather than the abstract, this may lead to still other confusions. For we are accustomed to associate the concrete with the material, the physiological, the biological, and the natural, as distinct from the supernatural. But from the Taoist and Buddhist standpoints these are still terms for conventional and abstract spheres of knowledge.

Biology and physiology, for example, are types of knowledge which represent the real world in terms of their own special abstract categories. They measure and classify that world in ways appropriate to the particular uses they want to make of it, somewhat as a surveyor deals with earth in terms of acres, a contractor in truckloads or tons, and a soil analyst in types of chemical structures. To say that the concrete reality of the human organism is physiological is like saying that the earth is so many tons or acres. And to say that this reality is natural is accurate enough if we mean spontaneous (tzu-jan) or natura naturans enough if we mean spontaneous (tzu-jan) or natura naturans (“nature naturing”). But it is quite inaccurate if we mean natura naturata (“nature natured”), that is to say, nature classified, sorted into “natures” as when we ask, “What is the nature of this thing?” It is in this sense of the word that we must think of “scientific naturalism,” a doctrine which has nothing in common with the naturalism of Taoism.

Thus to begin to understand what Taoism is about, we must at least be prepared to admit the possibility of some view of the world other than the conventional, some knowledge other than the contents of our surface consciousness, which can apprehend reality only in the form of one abstraction (or thought, the Chinese nien d) at a time. There is no real difficulty in this, for we will already admit that we “know” how to move our hands, how to make a decision, or how to breathe, even though we can hardly begin to explain how we do it in words. We know how to do it because we just do it! Taoism is an extension of this kind of knowledge, an extension which gives us a very different view of ourselves from that to which we are conventionally accustomed, and a view which liberates the human mind from its constricting identification with the abstract ego.

According to tradition, the originator of Taoism, Lao-tzu, was an older contemporary of Kung Fu-tzu, or Confucius, who died in 479 B.C.1 Lao-tzu is said to have been the author of the Tao Te Ching, a short book of aphorisms, setting forth the principles of the Tao and its power or virtue (T e e). But traditional Chinese philosophy ascribes both Taoism and Confucianism to a still earlier source, to a work which lies at the very foundation of Chinese thought and culture, dating anywhere from 3000 to 1200 B.C. This is the I Ching, or Book of Changes.

The I Ching is ostensibly a book of divination. It consists of oracles based on sixty-four abstract figures, each of which is composed of six lines. The lines are of two kinds—divided (negative) and undivided (positive)— and the six-line figures, or hexagrams, are believed to have been based on the various ways in which a tortoise shell will crack when heated.2 This refers to an ancient method of divination in which the soothsayer bored a hole ancient method of divination in which the soothsayer bored a hole in the back of a tortoise shell, heated it, and then foretold the future from the cracks in the shell so formed, much as palmists use the lines on the hand. Naturally, these cracks were most complicated, and the sixty-four hexagrams are supposed to be a simplified classification of the various patterns of cracks. For many centuries now the tortoise shell has fallen into disuse, and instead the hexagram appropriate to the moment in which a question is asked of the oracle is determined by the random division of a set of fifty yarrow stalks.

But an expert in the I Ching need not necessarily use tortoise shells or yarrow stalks. He can “see” a hexagram in anything–in the chance arrangement of a bowl of flowers, in objects scattered upon a table, in the natural markings on a pebble. A modern psychologist will recognize in this something not unlike a Rorschach test, in which the psychological condition of a patient is diagnosed from the spontaneous images which he “sees” in a complex ink-blot. Could the patient interpret his own projections upon the ink-blot, he would have some useful information about himself for the guidance of his future conduct. In view of this, we cannot dismiss the divinatory art of the I Ching as mere superstition.

Indeed, an exponent of the I Ching might give us quite a tough argument about the relative merits of our ways for making important decisions. We feel that we decide rationally because we base our decisions on collecting relevant data about the matter in hand. We do not depend upon such irrelevant trifles as the chance tossing of a coin, or the patterns of tea leaves or cracks in a shell. Yet he might ask whether we really know what information is relevant, since our plans are constantly upset by utterly unforeseen incidents. He might ask how we know when we have collected enough information upon which to decide. If we were rigorously “scientific” in collecting information for our decisions, it would take us so long to collect the data that the time for action would have passed long before the work had been completed. So how do we know when we have enough? Does the information itself tell us that it is enough? On the contrary, we go through the motions of gathering the necessary information in a rational way, and then, just gathering the necessary information in a rational way, and then, just because of a hunch, or because we are tired of thinking, or because the time has come to decide, we act. He would ask whether this is not depending just as much upon “irrelevant trifles” as if we had been casting the yarrow stalks.

In other words, the “rigorously scientific” method of predicting the future can be applied only in special cases–where prompt action is not urgent, where the factors involved are largely mechanical, or in circumstances so restricted as to be trivial. By far the greater part of our important decisions depend upon “hunch”– in other words, upon the “peripheral vision” of the mind. Thus the reliability of our decisions rests ultimately upon our ability to “feel” the situation, upon the degree to which this “peripheral vision” has been developed.

Every exponent of the I Ching knows this. He knows that the book itself does not contain an exact science, but rather a useful tool which will work for him if he has a good “intuition,” or if, as he would say, he is “in the Tao.” Thus one does not consult the oracle without proper preparation, without going quietly and meticulously through the prescribed rituals in order to bring the mind into that calm state where the “intuition” is felt to act more effectively. It would seem, then, that if the origins of Taoism are to be found in the I Ching, they are not so much in the text of the book itself as in the way in which it was used and in the assumptions underlying it. For experience in making decisions by intuition might well show that this “peripheral” aspect of the mind works best when we do not try to interfere with it, when we trust it to work by itself–tzu-jan, spontaneously, “self-so.”

Thus the basic principles of Taoism begin to unfold themselves. There is, first of all, the Tao–the indefinable, concrete “process” of the world, the Way of life. The Chinese word means originally a way or road, and sometimes “to speak,” so that the first line of the Tao Te Ching contains a pun on the two meanings:

The Tao which can be spoken is not eternal Tao.3 f

But in trying at least to suggest what he means, Lao-tzu says:

There was something vague before heaven and earth arose. How calm! How void! It stands alone, unchanging; it acts everywhere, untiring. It may be considered the mother of everything under heaven. I do not know its name, but call it by the word Tao. (25)

And again:

The Tao is something blurred and indistinct.
How indistinct! How blurred!
Yet within it are images.
How blurred! How indistinct!
Yet within it are things.
How dim! How confused!
Yet within it is mental power.
Because this power is most true,
Within it there is confidence. (21)

“Mental! power” is ching, g a word which combines the ideas of essential, subtle, psychic or spiritual, and skillful. For the point seems to be that as one’s own head looks like nothing to the eyes yet is the source of intelligence, so the vague, void-seeming, and indefinable Tao is the intelligence which shapes the world with a skill beyond our understanding.

The important difference between the Tao and the usual idea of God is that whereas God produces the world by making (wei h), the Tao produces it by “not-making” (w u - w e i i)–which is approximately what we mean by “growing.” For things made are separate parts put together, like machines, or things fashioned from without inwards, like sculptures. Whereas things grown divide themselves into parts, from within outwards. Because the natural universe works mainly according to the principles of growth, it would seem quite odd to the Chinese mind to ask how it was made. If the universe were made, there would of course be someone who knows how it is made–who could explain how it was put together bit by bit as a technician can explain in one-at-a-time words how to assemble a machine. But a universe which grows utterly excludes assemble a machine. But a universe which grows utterly excludes the possibility of knowing how it grows in the clumsy terms of thought and language, so that no Taoist would dream of asking whether the Tao knows how it produces the universe. For it operates according to spontaneity, not according to plan. Lao-tzu says:

The Tao’s principle is spontaneity. (25) j

But spontaneity is not by any means a blind, disorderly urge, a mere power of caprice. A philosophy restricted to the alternatives of conventional language has no way of conceiving an intelligence which does not work according to plan, according to a (one-at-a-time) order of thought. Yet the concrete evidence of such an intelligence is right to hand in our own thoughtlessly organized bodies.3a For the Tao does not “know” how it produces the universe just as we do not “know” how we construct our brains. In the words of Lao-tzu’s great successor, Chuang-tzu:

Things are produced around us, but no one knows the whence. They issue forth, but no one sees the portal. Men one and all value that part of knowledge which is known. They do not know how to avail themselves of the Unknown in order to reach knowledge. Is not this misguided?4

The conventional relationship of the knower to the known is often that of the controller to the controlled, and thus of lord to servant. Thus whereas God is the master of the universe, since “he knows about it all! He knows! He knows!,” the relationship of the Tao to what it produces is quite otherwise.

The great Tao flows everywhere,
to the left and to the right.
All things depend upon it to exist,
and it does not abandon them.
To its accomplishments it lays no claim.
It loves and nourishes all things,
It loves and nourishes all things,
but does not lord it over them. (34)

In the usual Western conception God is also self-knowing– transparent through and through to his own understanding, the image of what man would like to be: the conscious ruler and controller, the absolute dictator of his own mind and body. But in contrast with this, the Tao is through and through mysterious and dark (hsüan k). As a Zen Buddhist said of it in later times:

There is one thing: above, it supports Heaven; below, it upholds Earth. It is black like lacquer, always actively functioning.5 l

Hsüan is, of course, a metaphorical darkness–not the darkness of night, of black as opposed to white, but the sheer inconceivability which confronts the mind when it tries to remember the time before birth, or to penetrate its own depths.

Western critics often poke fun at such nebulous views of the Absolute, deriding them as “misty and mystical” in contrast with their own robustly definite opinions. But as Lao-tzu said:

When the superior man hears of the Tao,
he does his best to practice it.
When the middling man hears of the Tao,
he sometimes keeps it, and sometimes loses it.
When the inferior man hears of the Tao,
he will laugh aloud at it.
If he did not laugh, it would not be the Tao. (41)

For it is really impossible to appreciate what is meant by the Tao without becoming, in a rather special sense, stupid. So long as the conscious intellect is frantically trying to clutch the world in its net of abstractions, and to insist that life be bound and fitted to its rigid categories, the mood of Taoism will remain incomprehensible; and the intellect will wear itself out. The Tao is accessible only to the mind which can practice the simple and subtle art of wu-wei, which, after the Tao, is the second important principle of Taoism.

We saw that the I Ching had given the Chinese mind some experience in arriving at decisions spontaneously, decisions which are effective to the degree that one knows how to let one’s mind alone, trusting it to work by itself. This is wu-wei, since wu means “not” or “non-” and wei means “action,” “making,” “doing,” “striving,” “straining,” or “busyness.” To return to the illustration of eyesight, the peripheral vision works most effectively–as in the dark–when we see out of the corners of the eyes, and do not look at things directly. Similarly, when we need to see the details of a distant object, such as a clock, the eyes must be relaxed, not staring, not trying to see. So, too, no amount of working with the muscles of the mouth and tongue will enable us to taste our food more acutely. The eyes and the tongue must be trusted to do the work by themselves.

But when we have learned to put excessive reliance upon central vision, upon the sharp spotlight of the eyes and mind, we cannot regain the powers of peripheral vision unless the sharp and staring kind of sight is first relaxed. The mental or psychological equivalent of this is the special kind of stupidity to which Lao-tzu and Chuangtzu so often refer. It is not simply calmness of mind, but “nongraspingness” of mind. In Chuangtzu’s words, “The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives, but does not keep.” One might almost say that it “fuzzes” itself a little to compensate for too harsh a clarity. Thus Lao-tzu says of himself:

Cut out cleverness and there are no anxieties! …
People in general are so happy, as if enjoying a feast,
Or as going up a tower in spring.
I alone am tranquil, and have made no signs,
Like a baby who is yet unable to smile;
Forlorn as if I had no home to go to.
Others all have more than enough,
And I alone seem to be in want.
Possibly mine is the mind of a fool,
Which is so ignorant!
Which is so ignorant!
The vulgar are bright,
And I alone seem to be dull.
The vulgar are discriminative,
And I alone seem to be blunt.
I am negligent as if being obscure;
Drifting, as if being attached to nothing.
The people in general all have something to do,
And I alone seem to be impractical and awkward.
I alone am different from others,
But I value seeking sustenance from the Mother (Tao).

In most Taoist writings there is a slight degree of exaggeration or overstatement of the point which is actually a kind of humor, a self-caricature. Thus Chuang-tzu writes on the same theme:

The man of character (te) lives at home without exercising his mind and performs actions without worry. The notions of right and wrong and the praise and blame of others do not disturb him. When within the four seas all people can enjoy themselves, that is happiness for him.… Sorrowful in countenance, he looks like a baby who has lost his mother; appearing stupid, he goes about like one who has lost his way. He has plenty of money to spend, but does not know where it comes from. He drinks and eats just enough and does not know where the food comes from. (3:13)7

Lao-tzu is still more forceful in his apparent condemnation of conventional cleverness:

Cut out sagacity; discard knowingness,
and the people will benefit an hundredfold.
Cut out “humanity”; discard righteousness,
and the people will regain love of their fellows.
Cut out cleverness; discard the utilitarian,
and there will be no thieves and robbers.…
and there will be no thieves and robbers.…
Become unaffected;8
Cherish sincerity;
Belittle the personal;
Reduce desires. (19)

The idea is not to reduce the human mind to a moronic vacuity, but to bring into play its innate and spontaneous intelligence by using it without forcing it. It is fundamental to both Taoist and Confucian thought that the natural man is to be trusted, and from their standpoint it appears that the Western mistrust of human nature–whether theological or technological–is a kind of schizophrenia. It would be impossible, in their view, to believe oneself innately evil without discrediting the very belief, since all the notions of a perverted mind would be perverted notions. However religiously “emancipated,” the technological mind shows that it has inherited the same division against itself when it tries to subject the whole human order to the control of conscious reason. It forgets that reason cannot be trusted if the brain cannot be trusted, since the power of reason depends upon organs that were grown by “unconscious intelligence.”

The art of letting the mind alone is vividly described by another Taoist writer, Lieh-tzu (c. 398 B.C.), celebrated for his mysterious power of being able to ride upon the wind. This, no doubt, refers to the peculiar sensation of “walking on air” which arises when the mind is first liberated. It is said that when Professor D. T. Suzuki was once asked how it feels to have attained satori,o the Zen experience of “awakening,” he answered, “Just like ordinary everyday experience, except about two inches off the ground!” Thus when asked to explain the art of riding on the wind, Lieh-tzu gave the following account of his training under his master Lao Shang:

After I had served him … for the space of three years, my mind did not venture to reflect on right and wrong, my lips did not venture to speak of profit and loss. Then, for the first time, my master bestowed one glance upon me- and that was all.

At the end of five years a change had taken place; my mind At the end of five years a change had taken place; my mind was reflecting on right and wrong, and my lips were speaking of profit and loss. Then, for the first time, my master relaxed his countenance and smiled.

At the end of seven years, there was another change. I let my mind reflect on what it would, but it no longer occupied itself with right and wrong. I let my lips utter whatsoever they pleased, but they no longer spoke of profit and loss. Then, at last, my master led me in to sit on the mat beside him.

At the end of nine years, my mind gave free rein to its reflections,p my mouth free passage to its speech. Of right and wrong, profit and loss, I had no knowledge, either as touching myself or others.… Internal and external were blended into unity. After that, there was no distinction between eye and ear, ear and nose, nose and mouth: all were the same. My mind was frozen, my body in dissolution, my flesh and bones all melted together. I was wholly unconscious of what my body was resting on, or what was under my feet. I was borne this way and that on the wind, like dry chaff or leaves falling from a tree. In fact, I knew not whether the wind was riding on me or I on the wind.9

The state of consciousness described sounds not unlike being pleasantly drunk -- though without the “morning after” effects of alcohol! Chuang-tzu noticed the similarity, for he wrote:

A drunken man who falls out of a cart, though he may suffer, does not die. His bones are the same as other people’s; but he meets the accident in a different way. His spirit is in a condition of security. He is not conscious of riding in the cart; neither is he conscious of falling out of it. Ideas of life, death, fear, etc., cannot penetrate his breast; and so he does not suffer from contact with objective existences. And if such security is to be got from wine, how much more is it to be got from Spontaneity. (19)10

Since Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu, and Lieh-tzu were all conscious enough to write very intelligible books, it may be assumed that some of this language is, again, exaggerated or metaphorical. Their language is, again, exaggerated or metaphorical. Their “unconsciousness” is not coma, but what the exponents of Zen later signified by wu-hsin,q literally “no-mind,” which is to say un-self-consciousness. It is a state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily, without the sensation of a second mind or ego standing over it with a club. If the ordinary man is one who has to walk by lifting his legs with his hands, the Taoist is one who has learned to let the legs walk by themselves.

Various passages in the Taoist writings suggest that “nomindedness” is employing the whole mind as we use the eyes when we rest them upon various objects but make no special effort to take anything in. According to Chuang-tzu:

The baby looks at things all day without winking; that is because his eyes are not focussed on any particular object. He goes without knowing where he is going, and stops without knowing what he is doing. He merges himself with the surroundings and moves along with it. These are the principles of mental hygiene. (23)11

And again:

If you regulate your body and unify your attention, the harmony of heaven will come upon you. If you integrate your awareness, and unify your thoughts, spirit will make its abode with you. Te (virtue) will clothe you, and the Tao will shelter you. Your eyes will be like those of a new-born calf, which seeks not the wherefore. (22)

Each of the other senses might similarly be used to illustrate the “non-active” functioning of the mind–listening without straining to hear, smelling without strong inhalation, tasting without screwing up the tongue, and touching without pressing the object. Each is a special instance of the mental function which works through all, and which Chinese designates with the peculiar word hsin.r

This term is so important for the understanding of Zen that some attempt must be made to say what Taoism and Chinese thought in attempt must be made to say what Taoism and Chinese thought in general take it to mean.12 We usually translate it as “mind” or “heart,” but neither of these words is satisfactory. The original form of the ideograph8 seems to be a picture of the heart, or perhaps of the lungs or the liver, and when a Chinese speaks of the hsin he will often point to the center of his chest, slightly lower than the heart.

The difficulty with our translations is that “mind” is too intellectual, too cortical, and that “heart” in its current English usage is too emotional–even sentimental. Furthermore, hsin is not always used with quite the same sense. Sometimes it is used for an obstruction to be removed, as in wu-hsin, “no-mind.” But sometimes it is used in a way that is almost synonymous with the Tao. This is especially found in Zen literature, which abounds with such phrases as “original mind” (pen hsin t), “Buddha mind” (fu hsin u), or “faith in mind” (hsin hsin v). This apparent contradiction is resolved in the principle that “the true mind is no mind,” which is to say that the hsin is true, is working properly, when it works as if it were not present. In the same way, the eyes are seeing properly when they do not see themselves, in terms of spots or blotches in the air.

All in all, it would seem that hsin means the totality of our psychic functioning, and, more specifically, the center of that functioning, which is associated with the central point of the upper body. The Japanese form of the word, kokoro, is used with even more subtleties of meaning, but for the present it is enough to realize that in translating it “mind” (a sufficiently vague word) we do not mean exclusively the intellectual or thinking mind, nor even the surface consciousness. The important point is that, according to both Taoism and Zen, the center of the mind’s activity is not in the conscious thinking process, not in the ego.

When a man has learned to let his mind alone so that it functions in the integrated and spontaneous way that is natural to it, he begins to show the special kind of “virtue” or “power” called te. This is not virtue in the current sense of moral rectitude but in the older sense of effectiveness, as when one speaks of the healing virtues of a plant. Te is, furthermore, unaffected or spontaneous virtues of a plant. Te is, furthermore, unaffected or spontaneous virtue which cannot be cultivated or imitated by any deliberate method. Lao-tzu says:

Superior te is not te,
and thus has te.
Inferior te does not let go of te,
and thus is not te.
Superior te is non-active [wu-wei] and aimless.
Inferior te is active and has an aim. (38)

The literal translation has a strength and depth which is lost in such paraphrases as “Superior virtue is not conscious of itself as virtue, and thus really is virtue. Inferior virtue cannot dispense with virtuosity, and thus is not virtue.”

When the Confucians prescribed a virtue which depended upon the artificial observance of rules and precepts, the Taoists pointed out that such virtue was conventional and not genuine. Chuang-tzu made up the following imaginary dialogue between Confucius and Lao-tzu:

“Tell me,” said Lao-tzu, “in what consist charity and duty to one’s neighbour?”

“They consist,” answered Confucius, “in a capacity for rejoicing in all things; in universal love, without the element of self. These are the characteristics of charity and duty to one’s neighbour.”

“What stuff!” cried Lao-tzu. “Does not universal love contradict itself? Is not your elimination of self a positive manifestation of self? Sir, if you would cause the empire not to lose its source of nourishment,–there is the universe, its regularity is unceasing; there are the sun and moon, their brightness is unceasing; there are the stars, their groupings never change; there are the birds and beasts, they flock together without varying; there are trees and shrubs, they grow upwards without exception. Be like these: follow Tao, and you will be perfect. Why then these vain struggles after charity and duty to one’s neighbour, as though beating a drum in search of a fugitive. Alas! Sir, you have brought beating a drum in search of a fugitive. Alas! Sir, you have brought much confusion into the mind of man.” (13)13

The Taoist critique of conventional virtue applied not only in the moral sphere but also in the arts, crafts, and trades. According to Chuang-tzu:

Ch’ui the artisan could draw circles with his hand better than with compasses. His fingers seemed to accommodate themselves so naturally to the thing he was working at, that it was unnecessary to fix his attention. His mental faculties thus remained One (i.e., integrated), and suffered no hindrance. To be unconscious of one’s feet implies that the shoes are easy. To be unconscious of a waist implies that the girdle is easy. The intelligence being unconscious of positive and negative implies that the heart (hsin) is at ease.… And he who, beginning with ease, is never not at ease, is unconscious of the ease of ease. (19)14

Just as the artisan who had mastered te could do without the artificiality of the compass, so the painter, the musician, and the cook would have no need for the conventional classifications of their respective arts. Thus Lao-tzu said:

The five colours will blind a man’s sight.
The five sounds will deaden a mans hearing.
The five tastes will spoil a man’s palate.
Chasing and hunting will drive a man wild.
Things hard to get will do harm to a man’s conduct.
Therefore the sage makes provision for the stomach and not for the eye. (12)15

This must by no means be taken as an ascetic’s hatred of sense experience, for the point is precisely that the eye’s sensitivity to color is impaired by the fixed idea that there are just five true colors. There is an infinite continuity of shading, and breaking it colors. There is an infinite continuity of shading, and breaking it down into divisions with names distracts the attention from its subtlety. This is why “the sage makes provision for the stomach and not for the eye,” which is to say that he judges by the concrete content of the experience, and not by its conformity with purely theoretical standards.

In sum, then, te is the unthinkable ingenuity and creative power of man’s spontaneous and natural functioning–a power which is blocked when one tries to master it in terms of formal methods and techniques. It is like the centipede’s skill in using a hundred legs at once.

The centipede was happy, quite,
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”
This worked his mind to such a pitch,
He lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.

A profound regard for te underlies the entire higher culture of the Far East, so much so that it has been made the basic principle of every kind of art and craft. While it is true that these arts employ what are, to us, highly difficult technical disciplines, it is always recognized that they are instrumental and secondary, and that superior work has the quality of an accident. This is not merely a masterful mimicry of the accidental, an assumed spontaneity in which the careful planning does not show. It lies at a much deeper and more genuine level, for what the culture of Taoism and Zen proposes is that one might become the kind of person who, without intending it, is a source of marvelous accidents.

Taoism is, then, the original Chinese way of liberation which combined with Indian Mahayana Buddhism to produce Zen. It is a liberation from convention and of the creative power of te. Every attempt to describe and formulate it in words and one-at-a-time thought symbols must, of necessity, distort it. The foregoing chapter has perforce made it seem one of the “vitalist” or “naturalistic” philosophical alternatives. For Western philosophers are constantly philosophical alternatives. For Western philosophers are constantly bedeviled by the discovery that they cannot think outside certain well-worn ruts–that, however hard they may try, their “new” philosophies turn out to be restatements of ancient positions, monist or pluralist, realist or nominalist, vitalist or mechanist. This is because these are the only alternatives which the conventions of thought can present, and they cannot discuss anything else without presenting it in their own terms. When we try to represent a third dimension upon a two-dimensional surface, it will of necessity seem to belong more or less to the two alternatives of length and breadth. In the words of Chuang-tzu:

Were language adequate, it would take but a day fully to set forth Tao. Not being adequate, it takes that time to explain material existences. Tao is something beyond material existences. It cannot be conveyed either by words or by silence. (25)16



1 Modern scholarship has questioned both the date and the historicity of Lao-tzu, but it is hard to say whether this is really more than a manifestation of fashion, since there are periodic tendencies to cast doubts on the existence of great sages or to question the hoariness of their antiquity. One recalls similar doubts in connection with Jesus and the Buddha. There are some serious arguments for a later date, but it seems best to keep the traditional date until evidence to the contrary becomes more conclusive. See Fung Yu-lan (1), vol. 1, pp. 170–76.

2 Fung Yu-lan (1), vol. 1, pp. 379–80.

3 Duyvendak (1) suggests that tao did not have the meaning of “to speak” at this date, and so translates the passage, “The Way that may truly be regarded as the Way is other than a permanent way.” It really comes to the same thing, for what Duyvendak means by a “permanent way” is a fixed concept of the Tao–i.e., a definition. Almost every other translator, and most of the Chinese commentators, take the second tao to mean “spoken.”

3a The above was written before I had seen the second volume of Joseph Needham’s masterly Science and Civilization in China, where he discusses the organismic nature of the Chinese, and especially the Taoist, conception of the universe. See especially Section 13f, pp. 279 ff. Needham also draws attention to the essential differences between Hebrew-Christian and Chinese views of natural law, the former deriving from the “word” of a lawgiver, God, and the latter from a relationship of spontaneous processes working in an organismic pattern. See Section 18, f and h, esp. pp. 557–64 and 572–83

4 H. A. Giles (1), p. 345.

5 T’ung-shan Liang-chieh. Dumoulin and Sasaki (1), p. 74.

6 Save for the first line, I have followed Ch’u Ta-kao (1), p. 30.

7 Lin Yutang (1), p. 129.

8 “Unaffected” is an attempt to render su,m a character which refers originally to unbleached silk, or to the unpainted silk background of a picture. “Humanity” refers to the central Confucian principle of jen,n which would ordinarily mean “humanheartedness,” though it is obvious that Lao-tzu refers to its self-conscious and affected form.

9 L. Giles (1), pp. 40–42. From Lieh-tzu, ii.

10 H. A. Giles (1), p. 232.

11 Lin Yutang (1), p. 86.

12 The central Zen principle of “no-mind” or wu-hsin is already found in Chuang-tzu. Cf. Chuang-tzu (22):

Body like dry bone,
Mind like dead ashes;
This is true knowledge,
Not to strive after knowing the whence.
In darkness, in obscurity,
The mindless (wu-hsin) cannot plan;–
What manner of man is that?

H. A. Giles (1), p. 281.

13 H. A. Giles (1), p. 167.

14 H. A. Giles (1), p. 242.

15 Ch’u Ta-kao (1), p. 22.

16 H. A. Giles (1), p. 351.
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Re: The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

Postby admin » Tue Aug 27, 2019 4:48 am


Chinese civilization was at least two thousand years old when it first encountered Buddhism. Thus the new philosophy entered into a solidly established culture in which it could hardly become acceptable without major adaptations to the Chinese mentality, even though there were some resemblances between Taoism and Buddhism so strong that they have aroused speculation as to whether contacts between the two were much earlier than has been supposed. China absorbed Buddhism as it has absorbed so many other external influences–not only philosophies and ideas, but also alien populations and invaders. Undoubtedly this is due in some measure to the extraordinary stability and maturity which the Chinese have derived from Confucianism. Reasonable, unfanatical, humanistic, Confucianism is one of the most workable patterns of social convention that the world has known. Coupled with the “let well enough alone” attitude of Taoism, it nurtured a mellow and rather easygoing type of mentality which, when it absorbed Buddhism, did much to make it more “practical.” That is to say, it made Buddhism a possible way of life for human beings, for people with families, with everyday work to do, and with normal instincts and passions.

It was a basic Confucian principle that “it is man who makes truth great, not truth which makes man great.” For this reason, “humanness” or “human-heartedness” (jen a) was always felt to be superior to “righteousness” (i b), since man himself is greater than any idea which he may invent. There are times when men’s passions are much more trustworthy than their principles. Since opposed principles, or ideologies, are irreconcilable, wars fought over principle will be wars of mutual annihilation. But wars fought over principle will be wars of mutual annihilation. But wars fought for simple greed will be far less destructive, because the aggressor will be careful not to destroy what he is fighting to capture. Reasonable–that is, human–men will always be capable of compromise, but men who have dehumanized themselves by becoming the blind worshipers of an idea or an ideal are fanatics whose devotion to abstractions makes them the enemies of life.

Modified by such attitudes, Far Eastern Buddhism is much more palatable and “according to nature” than its Indian and Tibetan counterparts, with ideals of life which seem at times to be superhuman, more suited to angels than to men. Even so, all forms of Buddhism subscribe to the Middle Way between the extremes of angel (deva) and demon (preta), ascetic and sensualist, and claim that supreme “awakening” or Buddhahood can be attained only from the human state.

There are some serious difficulties in the way of giving an historically accurate account of Indian Buddhism, as of the whole philosophical tradition from which it arose. No student of Asian thought should be unaware of these difficulties, because they make it necessary to take almost every important pronouncement about ancient Indian thought with caution. Thus before attempting to describe Indian Buddhism, some of these difficulties should be mentioned.

The first, and most serious, is the problem of interpreting the Sanskrit and Pali texts in which ancient Indian literature is preserved. This is especially true of Sanskrit, the sacred language of India, and more particularly the form of Sanskrit used in the Vedic period. Both Western and Indian scholars are uncertain as to its exact interpretation, and all modern dictionaries rely heavily on a single source–the lexicon compiled by Böthlingk and Roth in the latter part of the last century, and now admitted to contain a great deal of guesswork. This seriously affects our understanding of the primary sources of Hinduism–the Vedas and Upanishads. The discovery of proper European equivalents for philosophical terms has been hindered by the fact that early lexicographers were all too ready to find correspondences with Western theological terms, since one of the primary objects of their studies was to assist the one of the primary objects of their studies was to assist the missionaries.1

The second is that it is extremely hard to know what was the original form of Buddhism. There are two sets of Buddhist scriptures: the Pali Canon of the Theravada or Southern School of Buddhism, which flourishes in Ceylon, Burma, and Thailand, and the Sanskrit-Tibetan-Chinese Canon of the Mahayana, or Northern School. There is a general consensus of scholars that the Pali Canon is, on the whole, the earlier of the two, and that the principal sutras (as the sacred texts are called) of the Mahayana Canon were all compiled after 100 B.C. However, the literary form of the Pali Canon does not suggest that it represents the actual words of Gautama the Buddha. If the Upanishads are characteristic of the style of discourse of an Indian teacher between 800 and 300 B.C., they bear little resemblance to the tediously repetitious and scholastic style of most Buddhist scriptures. There can be little doubt that the greater part of both Buddhist Canons is the work of the pandits of the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic order, for it shows every sign of being the reverential elaboration of an original doctrine. As with Russian icons, the original painting has been almost lost to sight in the overlay of jewels and gold.

The third is that the Hindu-Buddhist tradition has never had the historical sense of the Hebrew-Christian tradition, so that there are few, if any, marks to indicate the date of a given text. Scriptures were handed down by oral tradition for an indeterminable period of time before being committed to writing, and it is quite possible that historical references could have been changed to suit the times as the oral form was handed down. Furthermore, a Buddhist monk writing in A.D. 200 would have no compunction in attributing his own words to the Buddha if he felt sincerely that they were an expression, not of personal opinion, but of the supra-personal state of awakening to which he had attained. He would attribute the words to the Buddha as speaking in a spiritual rather than material body.

The danger of scholarship is always that, in extreme specialization, it may be unable to see the forest for the trees. But the problem of gaining some idea of the thought of India at the the problem of gaining some idea of the thought of India at the time of the Buddha, six centuries before Christ, is not to be solved by careful piece-work alone–necessary as this may be. There is, however, enough reliable information to suggest the grand and beautifully ordered form of Upanishadic Hinduism if we do not read it with our noses against the page.

Fundamental to the life and thought of India from the very earliest times is the great mythological theme of atma-yajna–the act of “self-sacrifice” whereby God gives birth to the world, and whereby men, following the divine pattern, reintegrate themselves with God. The act by which the world is created is the same act by which it is consummated–the giving up of one’s life–as if the whole process of the universe were the type of game in which it is necessary to pass on the ball as soon as it is received. Thus the basic myth of Hinduism is that the world is God playing hide-and-seek with himself. As Prajapati, Vishnu, or Brahma, the Lord under many names creates the world by an act of self-dismemberment or self-forgetting, whereby the One becomes Many, and the single Actor plays innumerable parts. In the end, he comes again to himself only to begin the play once more–the One dying into the Many, and the Many dying into the One.

A thousand heads hath Purusha, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet.
On every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide.

This Purusha is all that yet hath been and all that is to be;
The lord of immortality that waxes greater still by food.

So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Purusha.
All creatures are one fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.…

When the gods prepared the sacrifice with Purusha as their offering,
Its oil was spring, the holy gift was autumn; summer was the wood.

From that great general sacrifice the dripping fat was gathered up.
He formed the creatures -of the air, and animals both wild and tame.…

When they divided Purusha, how many portions did they make?
What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?

The Brahman (caste) was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya (Kshatriya caste) made.
His thighs became Vaishya, from his feet the Shudra was produced.

The moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the sun had birth;
Indra and Agni from his mouth were born, and Vayu from his breath.

Forth from his navel came mid-air; the sky was fashioned from his head;
Earth from his feet, and from his ear the regions. Thus they formed the worlds.2

The thousand heads, eyes, and feet of the Purusha are the members of men and other beings, for the point is that That which knows in and through every individual is God himself, the atman or Self of the world. Every life is a part or role in which the mind of God is absorbed, somewhat as an actor absorbs himself in being Hamlet and forgets that in real life he is Mr. Smith. By the act of self-abandonment God becomes all beings, yet at the same time does not cease to be God. “All creatures are one fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.” For God is divided in play, in make-believe, but remains undivided in reality. So that when the play comes to an end, the individualized consciousness awakes to find itself divine.

In the beginning this world was Atman (the Self), alone in the form of Purusha. Looking about he saw nothing other than form of Purusha. Looking about he saw nothing other than himself.

He said first, “I am.” Thence came the word “I.” Thus even now, when one is spoken to, he first answers simply, “It is I,” and then tells whatever name he has.3

On all sides That has hands and feet;
On all sides eyes, heads, and faces;
On all sides in the world it hears;
All things it embraces.4

It is important to remember that this picture of the world as the play (lila) of God is mythological in form. If, at this stage, we were to translate it directly into philosophical statement it would be a crude type of pantheism, with which Hindu philosophy is generally and erroneously confused. Thus the idea of each man, each thing, as a part which the Purusha plays in the state of self-forgetting must not be confused with a logical or scientific statement of fact. The form of statement is poetic, not logical. In the words of the Mundaka Upanishad,

Truly this atman (Self)–the poets say–travels on this earth from body to body. (ii. 7)

Hindu philosophy has not made the mistake of imagining that one can make an informative, factual, and positive statement about the ultimate reality. As the same Upanishad says,

Where knowledge is without duality, without action, cause, or effect, unspeakable, incomparable, beyond description, what is that? It is impossible to say! (vi. 7)

Every positive statement about ultimate things must be made in the suggestive form of myth, of poetry. For in this realm the direct and indicative form of speech can say only “Neti, neti” (“No, no”), since what can be described and categorized must always belong to the conventional realm.

Hindu mythology elaborates the theme of the divine play on a fabulous scale, embracing not only colossal concepts of time and space, but also the widest extremes of pleasure and pain, virtue and depravity. The inmost Self of saint and sage is no less the veiled Godhead than the inmost Self of the debauchee, the coward, the lunatic, and the very demons. The opposites (dvandva) of light and darkness, good and evil, pleasure and pain, are the essential elements of the game, for although the Godhead is identified with Truth (sat), Consciousness (chit), and Bliss (ananda), the dark side of life has its integral part in the game just as every drama must have its villain, to disrupt the status quo, and as the cards must be shuffled, thrown into chaos, in order that there may be a significant development of the play. For Hindu thought there is no Problem of Evil. The conventional, relative world is necessarily a world of opposites. Light is inconceivable apart from darkness; order is meaningless without disorder; and, likewise, up without down, sound without silence, pleasure without pain. In the words of Ananda Coomaraswamy:

For anyone who holds that “God made the world,” the question, Why did He permit the existence in it of any evil, or of that Evil One in whom all evil is personified, is altogether meaningless; one might as well enquire why He did not make a world without dimensions or one without temporal succession.5

According to the myth, the divine play goes on through endless cycles of time, through periods of manifestation and withdrawal of the worlds measured in units of kalpas, the kalpa being a span of 4,320,000,000 years. From the human standpoint such a conception presents a terrifying monotony, since it goes on aimlessly for ever and ever. But from the divine standpoint it has all the fascination of the repetitious games of children, which go on and on because time has been forgotten and has reduced itself to a single wondrous instant.

The foregoing myth is not the expression of a formal philosophy, but of an experience or state of consciousness which is called but of an experience or state of consciousness which is called moksha or “liberation.” On the whole it is safer to say that Indian philosophy is primarily this experience; it is only quite secondarily a system of ideas which attempt to translate the experience into conventional language. At root, then, the philosophy becomes intelligible only by sharing the experience which consists of the same type of nonconventional knowledge found in Taoism. It is also termed atma-jnana (Self-knowledge) or atma-bodha (Self-awakening), since it may be considered as the discovery of who or what I am, when I am no longer identified with any role or conventional definition of the person. Indian philosophy does not describe the content of this discovery except in mythological terms, using the phrase “I am Brahman” (aham brahman) or “That art thou” (tat tvam asi) to suggest that Self-knowledge is a realization of one’s original identity with God.

But this does not imply what “claiming to be God” means in a Hebrew-Christian context, where mythical language is ordinarily confused with factual language so that there is no clear distinction between God as described in the terms of conventional thought and God as he is in reality. A Hindu does not say “I am Brahman” with the implication that he is personally in charge of the whole universe and informed as to every detail of its operation. On the one hand, he is not speaking of identity with God at the level of his superficial personality. On the other, his “God”–Brahman–is not in charge of the universe in a “personal” way; he does not know and act in the manner of a person since he does not know the universe in terms of conventional facts nor act upon it by means of deliberation, effort, and will. It may be of significance that the word “Brahman” is from the root brih-, “to grow,” since his creative activity, like that of the Tao, is with the spontaneity proper to growth as distinct from the deliberation proper to making. Furthermore, though Brahman is said to “know” himself, this knowing is not a matter of information, a knowledge such as one has of objects distinct from a subject. In the words of Shankara,

For He is the Knower, and the Knower can know other things, but cannot make Himself the object of His own knowledge, in the cannot make Himself the object of His own knowledge, in the same way that fire can burn other things, but cannot burn itself.6

To the Western mind the puzzle of Indian philosophy is that it has so much to say about what the moksha experience is not, and little, or nothing, to say about what it is. This is naturally bewildering, for if the experience is really without content, or if it is so lacking in relation to the things which we consider important, how is one to explain the immense esteem which it holds in the Indian scheme of life?

Even at the conventional level it is surely easy to see that knowing what is not so is often quite as important as knowing what is. Even when medicine can suggest no effective remedy for the common cold, there is some advantage in knowing the uselessness of certain popular nostrums. Furthermore, the function of negative knowledge is not unlike the uses of space–the empty page upon which words can be written, the empty jar into which liquid can be poured, the empty window through which light can be admitted, and the empty pipe through which water can flow. Obviously the value of emptiness lies in the movements it permits or in the substance which it mediates and contains. But the emptiness must come first. This is why Indian philosophy concentrates on negation, on liberating the mind from concepts of Truth. It proposes no idea, no description, of what is to fill the mind’s void because the idea would exclude the fact–somewhat as a picture of the sun on the windowpane would shut out the true sun’s light. Whereas the Hebrews would not permit an image of God in wood or stone, the Hindus will not permit an image of thought–unless it be so obviously mythological as not to be mistaken for the reality.

Therefore the practical discipline (sadhana) of the way of liberation is a progressive disentanglement of one’s Self (atman) from every identification. It is to realize that I am not this body, these sensations, these feelings, these thoughts, this consciousness. The basic reality of my life is not any conceivable object. Ultimately it is not even to be identified with any idea, as of God or atman. In the words of the Mandukya Upanishad:

(It is) That which is conscious neither of the subjective nor of the objective, nor of both; which is neither simple consciousness, nor undifferentiated sentience, nor mere darkness. It is unseen, without relations, incomprehensible, uninferable, and indescribable–the essence of Self-consciousness, the ending of maya. (vii)

The atman is to our total consciousness what the head is to the sense of sight–neither light nor darkness, neither full nor empty, only an inconceivable beyond. In the moment when every last identification of the Self with some object or concept has ceased, in the state called nirvikalpa or “without conception,” there flashes forth from its unknown depths the state of consciousness which is called divine, the knowledge of Brahman.

Translated into conventional and—let it be repeated— mythopoetic language, the knowledge of Brahman is represented as the discovery that this world which seemed to be Many is in truth One, that “all is Brahman” and that “all duality is falsely imagined.” Taken as statements of fact, such utterances are logically meaningless and convey no information. Yet they seem to be the best possible expression in words of the experience itself, though it is as if in the moment of saying the “last word” the tongue were paralyzed by its own revelation, and compelled to babble nonsense or be silent.

Moksha is also understood as liberation from maya–one of the most important words in Indian philosophy, both Hindu and Buddhist. For the manifold world of facts and events is said to be maya, ordinarily understood as an illusion which veils the one underlying reality of Brahman. This gives the impression that moksha is a state of consciousness in which the whole varied world of nature vanishes from sight, merged in a boundless ocean of vaguely luminous space. Such an impression should be dismissed at once, for it implies a duality, an incompatibility, between Brahman and maya which is against the whole principle of Upanishadic philosophy. For Brahman is not One as opposed to Many, not simp le as opposed to complex. Brahman is without duality simple as opposed to complex. Brahman is without duality (advaita), which is to say without any opposite since Brahman is not in any class or, for that matter, outside any class.

Now classification is precisely maya. The word is derived from the Sanskrit root matr-, “to measure, form, build, or lay out a plan,” the root from which we obtain such Greco-Latin words as meter, matrix, material, and matter. The fundamental process of measurement is division, whether by drawing a line with the finger, by marking off or by enclosing circles with the span of the hand or dividers, or by sorting grain or liquids into measures (cups). Thus the Sanskrit root dva- from which we get the word “divide” is also the root of the Latin duo (two) and the English “dual.”

To say, then, that the world of facts and events is maya is to say that facts and events are terms of measurement rather than realities of nature. We must, however, expand the concept of measurement to include setting bounds of all kinds, whether by descriptive classification or selective screening. It will thus be easy to see that facts and events are as abstract as lines of latitude or as feet and inches. Consider for a moment that it is impossible to isolate a single fact, all by itself. Facts come in pairs at the very least, for a single body is inconceivable apart from a space in which it hangs. Definition, setting bounds, delineation–these are always acts of division and thus of duality, for as soon as a boundary is defined it has two sides.

This point of view is somewhat startling, and even quite hard to understand, for those long accustomed to think that things, facts, and events are the very building-blocks of the world, the most solid of solid realities. Yet a proper understanding of the maya doctrine is one of the most essential prerequisites for the study of Hinduism and Buddhism, and in trying to grasp its meaning one must try to put aside the various “idealist” philosophies of the West with which it is so often confused–even by modern Indian Vedantists. For the world is not an illusion of the mind in the sense that–to the eyes of the liberated man (jivanmukta)–there is nothing to be seen but a trackless void. He sees the world that we see; but he does not mark it off, measure it, divide it in the same way. He does not look upon it as really or concretely broken down into separate things and it as really or concretely broken down into separate things and events. He sees that the skin may just as well be regarded as what joins us to our environment as what separates us from it. He sees, furthermore, that the skin will be considered as joining only if it has first been considered as separating, or vice versa.

Thus his point of view is not monistic. He does not think that all things are in reality One because, concretely speaking, there never were any “things” to be considered One. To join is as much maya as to separate. For this reason both Hindus and Buddhists prefer to speak of reality as “nondual” rather than “one,” since the concept of one must always be in relation to that of many. The doctrine of maya is therefore a doctrine of relativity. It is saying that things, facts, and events are delineated, not by nature, but by human description, and that the way in which we describe (or divide) them is relative to our varying points of view.

It is easy to see, for example, that an event called the First World War can only rather arbitrarily be said to have begun on August 4, 1914, and to have ended on November 11, 1918. Historians can discover “actual” beginnings of the war long before and “resumptions” of the same strife long after these formal boundaries of the event. For events can divide and merge like blobs of mercury according to the changing fashions of historical description. The boundaries of events are conventional rather than natural, in the sense that a man’s life is said to have begun at the moment of parturition, rather than at conception on the one hand or weaning on the other.

Similarly, it is easy to see the conventional character of things. Ordinarily a human organism is counted as one thing, though from the physiological standpoint it is as many things as it has parts or organs, and from the sociological standpoint it is merely part of a larger thing called a group.

Certainly the world of nature abounds with surfaces and lines, with areas of density and vacuity, which we employ in marking out the boundaries of events and things. But here again, the maya doctrine asserts that these forms (rupa) have no “own-being” or “self-nature” (svabhava): they do not exist in their own right, but only in relation to one another, as a solid cannot be distinguished only in relation to one another, as a solid cannot be distinguished save in relation to a space. In this sense, the solid and the space, the sound and the silence, the existent and the nonexistent, the figure and the ground are inseparable, interdependent, or “mutually arising,” and it is only by maya or conventional division that they may be considered apart from one another.

Indian philosophy also thinks of rupa or form as maya because it is impermanent. Indeed, when Hindu and Buddhist texts speak of the “empty” or “illusory” character of the visible world of nature–as distinct from the conventional world of things–they refer precisely to the impermanence of its forms. Form is flux, and thus maya in the slightly extended sense that it cannot be firmly marked down or grasped. Form is maya when the mind attempts to comprehend and control it in the fixed categories of thought, that is, by means of names (nama) and words. For these are precisely the nouns and verbs by means of which the abstract and conceptual categories of things and events are designated.

To serve their purpose, names and terms must of necessity be fixed and definite like all other units of measurement. But their use is–up to a point–so satisfactory that man is always in danger of confusing his measures with the world so measured, of identifying money with wealth, fixed convention with fluid reality. But to the degree that he identifies himself and his life with these rigid and hollow frames of definition, he condemns himself to the perpetual frustration of one trying to catch water in a sieve. Thus Indian philosophy speaks constantly of the unwisdom of pursuing things, of striving for the permanence of particular entities and events, because it sees in all this nothing more than an infatuation with ghosts, with the abstract measures of the mind (manas).7

Maya is, then, usually equated with nama-rupa or “name-and-form,” with the mind’s attempt to grasp the fluid forms of nature in its mesh of fixed classes. But when it is understood that form is ultimately void-in the special sense of ungraspable and immeasurable-the world of form is immediately seen as Brahman rather than maya. The formal world becomes the real world in the moment when it is no longer clutched, in the moment when its changeful fluidity is no longer resisted. Hence it is the very changeful fluidity is no longer resisted. Hence it is the very transitoriness of the world which is the sign of its divinity, of its actual identity with the indivisible and immeasurable infinity of Brahman.

This is why the Hindu-Buddhist insistence on the impermanence of the world is not the pessimistic and nihilistic doctrine which Western critics normally suppose it to be. Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience or emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy. This is perhaps why, in both East and West, impermanence is so often the theme of the most profound and moving poetry-so much so that the splendor of change shines through even when the poet seems to resent it the most.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Stated thus—as R. H. Blyth observes—it seems not so bad after all.

In sum, then, the maya doctrine points out, firstly, the impossibility of grasping the actual world in the mind’s net of words and concepts, and, secondly, the fluid character of those very forms which thought attempts to define. The world of facts and events is altogether nama, abstract names, and rupa, fluid form. It escapes both the comprehension of the philosopher and the grasp of the pleasure-seeker like water from a clutching fist. There is even something deceptive in the idea of Brahman as the eternal reality underlying the flux, and of the atman as the divine ground of underlying the flux, and of the atman as the divine ground of human consciousness, for in so far as these are concepts they are as incapable of grasping the real as any other.

It is precisely this realization of the total elusiveness of the world which lies at the root of Buddhism. This is the special shift of emphasis which, more than anything else, distinguishes the doctrine of the Buddha from the teaching of the Upanishads, which is the raison d’être for the growth of Buddhism as a distinct movement in Indian life and thought.

For Gautama the “Awakened One” or Buddha (died c. 545 B.C.) lived at a time when the major Upanishads were already in existence, and their philosophy must be seen as the point of departure for his own teaching. It would be a serious mistake, however, to look upon the Buddha as the “founder” or “reformer” of a religion which came into being as some kind of organized revolt against Hinduism. For we are speaking of a time when there was no consciousness of “religions,” when such terms as “Hinduism” or “Brahman-ism” would have meant nothing. There was simply a tradition, embodied in the orally transmitted doctrine! of the Vedas and Upanishads, a tradition that was not specifically “religious” in that it involved a whole way of life and concerned everything from the methods of agriculture to the knowledge of the ultimate reality. The Buddha was acting in full accord with this tradition when he became a rishi or “forest sage,” who had abandoned the life of the householder and divested himself of caste in order to follow a way of liberation. As with every other rishi, the method of his way of liberation had certain characteristic features, and his doctrine contained criticisms of men’s failure to practice the tradition which they professed.

Furthermore, he was being entirely traditional in his abandonment of caste and in accepting a following of casteless and homeless students. For the Indian tradition, even more than the Chinese, specifically encourages the abandonment of the conventional life at a certain age, after the duties of family and citizenship have been fulfilled. Relinquishment of caste is the outward and visible sign of the realization that one’s true state is “unclassified,” that one’s role or person is simply conventional, and “unclassified,” that one’s role or person is simply conventional, and that one’s true nature is “no-thing” and “no-body.”

This realization was the crux of the Buddha’s experience of awakening (bodhi) which dawned upon him one night, as he sat under the celebrated Bo Tree at Gaya, after seven years of meditation in the forests. From the standpoint of Zen, this experience is the essential content of Buddhism, and the verbal doctrine is quite secondary to the wordless transmission of the experience itself from generation to generation. For seven years Gautama had struggled by the traditional means of yoga and tapas, contemplation and ascesis, to penetrate the cause of man’s enslavement to maya, to find release from the vicious circle of clinging-to-life (trishna) which is like trying to make the hand grasp itself. All his efforts had been in vain. The eternal atman, the real Self, was not to be found. However much he concentrated upon his own mind to find its root and ground, he found only his own effort to concentrate. The evening before his awakening he simply “gave up,” relaxed his ascetic diet, and ate some nourishing food.

Thereupon he felt at once that a profound change was coming over him. He sat beneath the tree, vowing never to rise until he had attained the supreme awakening, and-according to a tradition-sat all through the night until the first glimpse of the morning star suddenly provoked a state of perfect clarity and understanding. This was anuttara samyak sambodhi, “unexcelled, complete awakening,” liberation from maya and from the everlasting Round of birth-and-death (samsara), which goes on and on for as long as a man tries in any way whatsoever to grasp at his own life.

Yet the actual content of this experience was never and could never be put into words. For words are the frames of maya, the meshes of its net, and the experience is of the water which slips through. Thus so far as words are concerned the most that may be said of this experience are the words attributed to the Buddha in the Vajracchedika:

Just so, Subhuti, I obtained not the least thing from unexcelled, complete awakening, and for this very reason it is called “unexcelled, complete awakening.” (22)

Thus from the standpoint of Zen the Buddha “never said a word,” despite the volumes of scriptures attributed to him. For his real message remained always unspoken, and was such that, when words attempted to express it, they made it seem as if it were nothing at all. Yet it is the essential tradition of Zen that what cannot be conveyed by speech can nevertheless be passed on by “direct pointing,” by some nonverbal means of communication without which the Buddhist experience could never have been handed down to future generations.

In its own (probably rather late) tradition, Zen maintains that the Buddha transmitted awakening to his chief disciple, Mahakasyapa, by holding up a flower and remaining silent. The Pali Canon, however, relates that immediately after his awakening the Buddha went to the Deer Park at Benares, and set forth his doctrine to those who had formerly been his companions in the ascetic life, expressing it in the form of those Four Noble Truths which provide so convenient a summary of Buddhism.

These Four Truths are patterned on the traditional Vedic form of a physician’s diagnosis and prescription: the identification of the disease, and of its cause, the pronouncement as to whether it may be cured, and the prescription for the remedy.

The First Truth is concerned with the problematic word duhkha, loosely translatable as “suffering,” and which designates the great disease of the world for which the Buddha’s method (dharma) is the cure.

Birth is duhkha, decay is duhkha, sickness is duhkha, death is duhkha, so also are sorrow and grief.… To be bound with things which we dislike, and to be parted from things which we like, these also are duhkha. Not to get what one desires, this also is duhkha. In a word, this body, this fivefold aggregation based on clutching (trishna), this is duhkha.8

This, however, cannot quite be compressed into the sweeping assertion that “life is suffering.” The point is rather that life as we assertion that “life is suffering.” The point is rather that life as we usually live it is suffering-or, more exactly, is bedeviled by the peculiar frustration which comes from attempting the impossible. Perhaps, then, “frustration” is the best equivalent for duhkha, even though the word is the simple antonym of sukha, which means “pleasant” or “sweet.”9

In another formulation of the Buddha’s teaching duhkha is one of the three characteristics of being, or becoming (bhava), whereof the other two are anitya, impermanence, and anatman, absence of any Self. These two terms are of basic importance. The anitya doctrine is, again, not quite the simple assertion that the world is impermanent, but rather that the more one grasps at the world, the more it changes. Reality in itself is neither permanent nor impermanent; it cannot be categorized. But when one tries to hold on to it, change is everywhere apparent, since, like one’s own shadow, the faster one pursues it, the faster it flees.

In the same way, the anatman doctrine is not quite the bald assertion that there is no real Self (atman) at the basis of our consciousness. The point is rather that there is no Self, or basic reality, which may be grasped, either by direct experience or by concepts. Apparently the Buddha felt that the doctrine of the atman in the Upanishads lent itself too easily to a fatal misinterpretation. It became an object of belief, a desideratum, a goal to be reached, something to which the mind could cling as its one final abode of safety in the flux of life. The Buddha’s view was that a Self so grasped was no longer the true Self, but only one more of the innumerable forms of maya. Thus anatman might be expressed in the form, “The true Self is non-Self,” since any attempt to conceive the Self, believe in the Self, or seek for the Self immediately thrusts it away.

The Upanishads distinguish between atman, the true, supraindividual Self, and the jivatman or individual soul, and the Buddha’s anatman doctrine agrees with them in denying the reality of the latter. It is fundamental to every school of Buddhism that there is no ego, no enduring entity which is the constant subject of our changing experiences. For the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch. We can, for example, imagine the path of a bird through the sky as a distinct line which it has taken. But this line is as abstract as a line of latitude. In concrete reality, the bird left no line, and, similarly, the past from which our ego is abstracted has entirely disappeared. Thus any attempt to cling to the ego or to make it an effective source of action is doomed to frustration.

The Second Noble Truth relates to the cause of frustration, which is said to be trishna, clinging or grasping, based on avidya, which is ignorance or unconsciousness. Now avidya is the formal opposite of awakening. It is the state of the mind when hypnotized or spellbound by maya, so that it mistakes the abstract world of things and events for the concrete world of reality. At a still deeper level it is lack of self-knowledge, lack of the realization that all grasping turns out to be the futile effort to grasp oneself, or rather, to make life catch hold of itself. For to one who has self-knowledge, there is no duality between himself and the external world. Avidya is “ignoring” the fact that subject and object are relational, like the two sides of a coin, so that when one pursues, the other retreats. This is why the egocentric attempt to dominate the world, to bring as much of the world as possible under the control of the ego, has only to proceed for a little while before it raises the difficulty of the ego’s controlling itself.

This is really a simple problem of what we now call cybernetics, the science of control. Mechanically and logically it is easy to see that any system approaching perfect self-control is also approaching perfect self-frustration. Such a system is a vicious circle, and has the same logical structure as a statement which states something about itself, as for example, “I am lying,” when it is implied that the statement is itself a lie. The statement circulates fatuously forever, since it is always true to the extent that it is false, and false to the extent that it is true. Expressed more concretely, I cannot throw a ball so long as I am holding on to it–so as to maintain perfect control of its movement.

Thus the desire for perfect control, of the environment and of oneself, is based on a profound mistrust of the controller. Avidya is oneself, is based on a profound mistrust of the controller. Avidya is the failure to see the basic self-contradiction of this position. From it therefore arises a futile grasping or controlling of life which is pure self-frustration, and the pattern of life which follows is the vicious circle which in Hinduism and Buddhism is called samsara, the Round of birth-and-death.10

The active principle of the Round is known as karma or “conditioned action,” action, that is, arising from a motive and seeking a result-the type of action which always requires the necessity for further action. Man is involved in karma when he interferes with the world in such a way that he is compelled to go on interfering, when the solution of a problem creates still more problems to be solved, when the control of one thing creates the need to control several others. Karma is thus the fate of everyone who “tries to be God.” He lays a trap for the world in which he himself gets caught.

Many Buddhists understand the Round of birth-and-death quite literally as a process of reincarnation, wherein the karma which shapes the individual does so again and again in life after life until, through insight and awakening, it is laid to rest. But in Zen, and in other schools of the Mahayana, it is often taken in a more figurative way, as that the process of rebirth is from moment to moment, so that one is being reborn so long as one identifies himself with a continuing ego which reincarnates itself afresh at each moment of time. Thus the validity and interest of the doctrine does not require acceptance of a special theory of survival. Its importance is rather that it exemplifies the whole problem of action in vicious circles and its resolution, and in this respect Buddhist philosophy should have a special interest for students of communication theory, cybernetics, logical philosophy, and similar matters.

The Third Noble Truth is concerned with the ending of self-frustration, of grasping, and of the whole viciously circular pattern of karma which generates the Round. The ending is called nirvana, a word of such dubious etymology that a simple translation is exceedingly difficult. It has been variously connected with Sanskrit roots which would make it mean the blowing out of a flame, or simply blowing out (ex- or de-spiration), or with the cessation of simply blowing out (ex- or de-spiration), or with the cessation of waves, turnings, or circlings (vritti) of the mind.

The two latter interpretations seem, on the whole, to make most sense. If nirvana is “de-spiration” it is the act of one who has seen the futility of trying to hold his breath or life (prana) indefinitely, since to hold the breath is to lose it. Thus nirvana is the equivalent of moksha, release or liberation. Seen from one side, it appears to be despair-the recognition that life utterly defeats our efforts to control it, that all human striving is no more than a vanishing hand clutching at clouds. Seen from the other side, this despair bursts into joy and creative power, on the principle that to lose one’s life is to find it- to find freedom of action unimpeded by self-frustration and the anxiety inherent in trying to save and control the Self.

If nirvana is related to the cessation (nir-) of turnings (vritti), the term is synonymous with the aim of yoga, defined in the Yogasutra as citta vritti nirodha–the cessation of turnings of the mind. These “turnings” are the thoughts whereby the mind endeavors to grasp the world and itself. Yoga is the practice of trying to stop these thoughts by thinking about them, until the utter futility of the process is felt so vividly that it simply drops away, and the mind discovers its natural and unconfused state.

It is obvious, however, that both etymologies give us the same essential meaning. Nirvana is the way of life which ensues when clutching at life has come to an end. In so far as all definition is clutching, nirvana is necessarily indefinable. It is the natural, “unself- grasped” state of the mind; and here, of course, the mind has no specific meaning, for what is not grasped is not known in the conventional sense of knowledge. More popularly and literally understood, nirvana is the disappearance of the being from the Round of incarnations, not into a state of annihilation, but simply into a state escaping definition, and thus immeasurable and infinite.

To attain nirvana is also to attain Buddhahood, awakening. But this is not attainment in any ordinary sense, because no acquisition and no motivation are involved. It is impossible to desire nirvana, or to intend to reach it, for anything desirable or conceivable as an object of action is, by definition, not nirvana. Nirvana can only arise unintentionally, spontaneously, when the impossibility of self-unintentionally, spontaneously, when the impossibility of self-grasping has been thoroughly perceived. A Buddha, therefore, is a man of no rank. He is not above, like an angel; he is not below, like a demon. He does not appear anywhere in the six divisions of the Round, and it would be mistaken to think of him as superior to the angels, for the law of the Round is that what goes up must come down, and vice versa. He has transcended all dualities whatsoever, and thus it would mean nothing to him to think of himself as a superior person or a spiritual success.

The Fourth Noble Truth describes the Eightfold Path of the Buddha’s Dharma, that is, the method or doctrine whereby self-frustration is brought to an end. Each section of the path has a name preceded by the word samyak (Pali, samma), which has the meaning of “perfect” or “complete.” The first two sections have to do with thought; the following four have to do with action; and the final two have to do with contemplation or awareness. We therefore have:

1 Samyag-drishti, or complete view.
2 Samyak-samkalpa, or complete understanding.
3 Samyag-vak, or complete (i.e., truthful) speech.
4 Samyak-karmanta, or complete action.
5 Samyagajiva, or complete vocation.
6 Samyag-vyayama, or complete application.
7 Samyak-smriti, or complete recollectedness.
8 Samyak-samadhi, or complete contemplation.

Without discussing these sections in detail, it may simply be said that the first two are concerned with a proper understanding of the doctrine and of the human situation. In some ways the first section, “complete view,” contains all the others, since the method of Buddhism is above all the practice of clear awareness, of seeing the world yathabhutam–just as it is. Such awareness is a lively attention to one’s direct experience, to the world as immediately sensed, so as not to be misled by names and labels. Samyak-samadhi, the last as not to be misled by names and labels. Samyak-samadhi, the last section of the path, is the perfection of the first, signifying pure experience, pure awareness, wherein there is no longer the dualism of the knower and the known.

The sections dealing with action are often misunderstood because they have a deceptive similarity to a “system of morals.” Buddhism does not share the Western view that there is a moral law, enjoined by God or by nature, which it is man’s duty to obey. The Buddha’s precepts of conduct–abstinence from taking life, taking what is not given, exploitation of the passions, lying, and intoxication–are voluntarily assumed rules of expediency, the intent of which is to remove the hindrances to clarity of awareness. Failure to observe the precepts produces “bad karma,” not because karma is a law or moral retribution, but because all motivated and purposeful actions, whether conventionally good or bad, are karma in so far as they are directed to the grasping of life. Generally speaking, the conventionally “bad” actions are rather more grasping than the “good.” But the higher stages of Buddhist practice are as much concerned with disentanglement from “good karma” as from “bad.” Thus complete action is ultimately free, uncontrived, or spontaneous action, in exactly the same sense as the Taoist wuwei. 11

Smriti, recollectedness, and samadhi, contemplation, constitute the section dealing with the life of meditation, the inner, mental practice of the Buddha’s way. Complete recollectedness is a constant awareness or watching of one’s sensations, feelings, and thoughts–without purpose or comment. It is a total clarity and presence of mind, actively passive, wherein events come and go like reflections in a mirror: nothing is reflected except what is.

In walking, standing, sitting, or lying down he understands that he is so doing, so that, however his body is engaged, he understands it just as it is.… In setting out or returning, in looking before or around, in bending or stretching his arm, … he acts with clear awareness.12

Through such awareness it is seen that the separation of the thinker Through such awareness it is seen that the separation of the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known, the subject from the object, is purely abstract. There is not the mind on the one hand and its experiences on the other: there is just a process of experiencing in which there is nothing to be grasped, as an object, and no one, as a subject, to grasp it. Seen thus, the process of experiencing ceases to clutch at itself. Thought follows thought without interruption, that is, without any need to divide itself from itself, so as to become its own object.

“Where there is an object, there thought arises.” Is then the thought one thing, and the object another? No, what is the object, just that is the thought. If the object were one thing, and the thought another, then there would be a double state of thought. So the object itself is just thought. Can then thought review thought? No, thought cannot review thought. As the blade of a sword cannot cut itself, as a finger-tip cannot touch itself, so a thought cannot see itself.13

This nonduality of the mind, in which it is no longer divided against itself, is samadhi, and because of the disappearance of that fruitless threshing around of the mind to grasp itself, samadhi is a state of profound peace. This is not the stillness of total inactivity, for, once the mind returns to its natural state, samadhi persists at all times, in “walking, standing, sitting, and lying.” But, from the earliest times, Buddhism has especially emphasized the practice of recollectedness and contemplation while sitting. Most images of the Buddha show him in the posture of sitting meditation, in the particular attitude known as padmasana, the posture of the lotus, with the legs crossed and the feet resting, soles upward, upon the thighs.

Sitting meditation is not, as is often supposed, a spiritual “exercise,” a practice followed for some ulterior object. From a Buddhist standpoint, it is simply the proper way to sit, and it seems perfectly natural to remain sitting so long as there is nothing else to be done, and so long as one is not consumed with nervous agitation. To the restless temperament of the West, sitting agitation. To the restless temperament of the West, sitting meditation may seem to be an unpleasant discipline, because we do not seem to be able to sit “just to sit” without qualms of conscience, without feeling that we ought to be doing something more important to justify our existence. To propitiate this restless conscience, sitting meditation must therefore be regarded as an exercise, a discipline with an ulterior motive. Yet at that: very point it ceases to be meditation (dhyana) in the Buddhist sense, for where there is purpose, where there is seeking and grasping for results, there is no dhyana.

This word dhyana (Pali, jhana) is the original Sanskrit form of the Chinese ch’an c and the Japanese zen, and thus its meaning is of central importance for an understanding of Zen Buddhism. “Meditation” in the common sense of “thinking things over” or “musing” is a most misleading translation. But such alternatives as “trance” or “absorption” are even worse, since they suggest states of hypnotic fascination. The best solution seems to be to leave dhyana untranslated and add it to the English language as we have added Nirvana and Tao.14

As used in Buddhism, the term dhyana comprises both recollectedness (smriti) and samadhi, and can best be described as the state of unified or one-pointed awareness. On the one hand, it is one-pointed in the sense of being focused on the present, since to clear awareness there is neither past nor future, but just this one moment (ekaksana) which Western mystics have called the Eternal Now. On the other hand, it is one-pointed in the sense of being a state of consciousness without differentiation of the knower, the knowing, and the known.

A Tathagata (i.e., a Buddha) is a seer of what is to be seen, but he is not mindful (na mannati, or does not conceive) of the seen, the unseen, the seeable, or the seer. So too with the heard, the sensed, and the known: he does not think of them in these categories.15

The difficulty of appreciating what dhyana means is that the structure of our language does not permit us to use a transitive verb structure of our language does not permit us to use a transitive verb without a subject and a predicate. When there is “knowing,” grammatical convention requires that there must be someone who knows and something which is known. We are so accustomed to this convention in speaking and thinking that we fail to recognize that it is simply a convention, and that it does not necessarily correspond to the actual experience of knowing. Thus when we say, “A light flashed,” it is somewhat easier to see through the grammatical convention and to realize that the flashing is the light. But dhyana as the mental state of the liberated or awakened man is naturally free from the confusion of conventional entities with reality. Our intellectual discomfort in trying to conceive knowing without a distinct “someone” who knows and a distinct “something” which is known, is like the discomfort of arriving at a formal dinner in pajamas. The error is conventional, not existential.

Once again, therefore, we see how convention, how the maya of measurement and description, populates the world with those ghosts which we call entities and things. So hypnotic, so persuasive is the power of convention that we begin to feel these ghosts as realities, and make of them our loves, our ideals, our prized possessions. But the anxiety-laden problem of what will happen to me when I die is, after all, like asking what happens to my fist when I open my hand, or where my lap goes when I stand up. Perhaps, then, we are now able to understand the celebrated summary of the Buddha’s doctrine given in the Visuddhimagga:

Suffering alone exists, none who suffer;
The deed there is, but no doer thereof;
Nirvana is, but no one seeking it;
The Path there is, but none who travel it. (16)



1 See Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, p. ix. (Oxford, 1951.)

2 Rigveda x. 90. The translation is from R. T. H. Griffith. Purusha is “the Person,” i.e., the original consciousness behind the world.

3 Brihadaranyaka Upanishad i. 4. 5.

4 Bhagavad-Gita xiii. 13.

5 Coomaraswamy (1), p. 77.

6 Bashya on Kena Upanishad, 9–11. “Cannot” may give the wrong implication since the word is ordinarily privative. The point is that, as light has no need to shine upon itself since it is luminous already, so there is no advantage to be gained and, indeed, no meaning in the notion of Brahman’s being the object of his own knowledge.

7 From the same root as maya, and from which also come our words “mensuration” (Lat., mensura), “mental” (Lat., mens), “dimension,” and “man” himself, “the measure of all things.” Cf. also the Latin mensis (month).

8 Samyutta Nikaya, 421.

9 Or, if we were to translate duhkha as “sour,” we might say that the Buddha’s doctrine is that life is soured by man’s grasping attitude towards it–as milk turns sour when kept too long.

10 The dynamic structure of the Round is called pratitya-samutpada, the twelvefold chain of “dependent origination,” in which the twelve causal links give rise to one another mutually, constituting a closed circle without beginning or end. Thus ignorance (avidya) gives rise to motivation (samskara), and this in series to consciousness (vijnana), name-and-form (namarupa), the six senses (shadayatana), sense stimulation (sparsa), sense experience (vedana), grasping (trishna), possessiveness (upadana), coming-to-be (bhava), birth (jati), and old-age-and-death (jaramarana), which again gives rise to avidya. The Buddha explained that avidya was put first on the list, not because it was the temporal beginning of the series, but for simple convenience of exposition. The whole series arises together, and its terms exist only in relation to one another.

11 Technically such action would be called akarma, unconditioned action, or asamskrita, uncontrived action.

12 Majjhima Nikaya, I. 56.

13 Sikshasamuccaya, 234. In Conze (2), p. 163.

14 The Pali Canon (Vinaya Titaka, III. 3–6, and Majjhima Nikaya, I. 349–52) lists eight types of jhana–the four rupa-jhana and the four arupa-jhana–the states of jhana with form and without form. The first four involve the progressive settling of conception (vitakka) and discursive thought (vicara) into a state of equanimity (upekkha) through the practice of samadhi. In other words, as the mind returns to its natural state of integrity and non-duality, it ceases to clutch at experience with the symbols of discursive thought, It simply perceives without words or concepts. Beyond this lie the four arupa-jhana, described as the spheres of Boundless Space, Boundless Consciousness, Nothingness, and Neither-Perception-nor-Nonperception, which are stages of the mind’s realization of its own nature. At the time of his death, the Buddha is said to have entered into parinirvana (i.e., final nirvana) from the fourth rupa-jhana.

15 Anguttara Nikaya, II. 25.
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Re: The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

Postby admin » Tue Aug 27, 2019 4:51 am


Because the teaching of the Buddha was a way of liberation, it had no other object than the experience of nirvana. The Buddha did not attempt to set forth a consistent philosophical system, trying to satisfy that intellectual curiosity about ultimate things which expects answers in words. When pressed for such answers, when questioned about the nature of nirvana, the origin of the world, and the reality of the Self, the Buddha maintained a “noble silence,” and went on to say that such questions were irrelevant and did not lead to the actual experience of liberation.

It has often been said that the later development of Buddhism was due to the inability of the Indian mind to rest content with that silence, so that at last it had to indulge its overwhelming urge for “abstract metaphysical speculations” about the nature of reality. Such a view of the genesis of Mahayana Buddhism is, however, rather misleading. The vast body of Mahayana doctrine arose not so much to satisfy intellectual curiosity as to deal with the practical psychological problems encountered in following the Buddha’s way. Certainly the treatment of these problems is highly scholastic, and the intellectual level of the Mahayana texts is very lofty. But the consistent aim is to bring about the experience of liberation, not to construct a philosophical system. In the words of Sir Arthur Berriedale Keith:

The metaphysics of the Mahayana in the incoherence of its systems shows clearly enough the secondary interest attaching to it in the eyes of the monks, whose main interest was concentrated on the attainment of release; the Mahayana no less than the Hinayana is concerned vitally with this practical end, and its Hinayana is concerned vitally with this practical end, and its philosophy is of value merely in so far as it helps men to attain their aim.1

There are, no doubt, respects in which Mahayana Buddhism is a concession both to intellectual curiosity and to a popular desire for short cuts to the goal. But at root it is the work of highly sensitive and perceptive minds studying their own inner workings. To anyone who is highly self-aware, the Buddhism of the Pali Canon leaves many practical problems unanswered. Its psychological insight goes little further than the construction of analytical catalogues of mental functions, and though its precepts are clear it is not always helpful in explaining their practical difficulties. Perhaps it is too sweeping a generalization, but one receives the impression that whereas the Pali Canon would unlock the door to nirvana by sheer effort, the Mahayana would jiggle the key until it turns smoothly. Thus the great concern of the Mahayana is the provision of “skillful means” (upaya) for making nirvana accessible to every type of mentality.

How and when the Mahayana doctrines arose is a matter of historical guesswork. The great Mahayana sutras are ostensibly the teachings of the Buddha and his immediate disciples, but their style is so different and their doctrine so much more subtle than that of the Pali Canon that scholars almost unanimously assign them to later dates. There is no evidence of their existence in the time of the great Buddhist emperor Asoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, who was converted to Buddhism in 262 B.C. Asoka’s rock inscriptions reflect no more than the social teachings of the Pali Canon, its insistence on ahimsa or nonviolence to both men and animals and its general precepts for the life of the laity. The principal Mahayana texts were being translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva shortly after A.D. 400, but our knowledge of Indian history during the intervening six hundred years from Asoka’s death is so fragmentary, and the internal evidences of the sutras themselves so vague, that we can do little more than assign them to the four hundred years between 100 B.C. and A.D. 300. Even specific individuals associated with their development–Asvaghosha, specific individuals associated with their development–Asvaghosha, Nagarjuna, Asanga, and Vasubandbu–can be dated only very approximately.

The traditional Mahayanist account of its own origin is that its teachings were delivered by the Buddha to his intimate disciples but their public revelation withheld until the world was ready for them. The principle of “delayed revelation” is a well-known expedient for permitting the growth of a tradition, for exploring the implications contained in the original seed. Apparent contradictions between earlier and later doctrines are explained by assigning them to different levels of truth, ranging from the most relative to the absolute, and of which the (probably quite late) Avatamsaka School distinguishes no less than five. However, the problem of the historical origins of the Mahayana is of no very direct importance for an understanding of Zen, which, as a Chinese rather than Indian form of Buddhism, came into being when Indian Mahayana was fully grown. We can pass on, therefore, to the central Mahayana doctrines from which Zen arose.

The Mahayana distinguishes itself from the Buddhism of the Pali Canon by terming the latter the Little (hina) Vehicle (yana) of liberation and itself the Great (maha) Vehicle-great because it comprises such a wealth of upaya, or methods for the realization of nirvana. These methods range from the sophisticated dialectic of Nagarjuna, whose object is to free the mind of all fixed conceptions, to the Sukhavati or Pure Land doctrine of liberation through faith in the power of Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light, who is said to have attained his awakening many aeons before the time of Gautama. They include even the Tantric Buddhism of medieval India, wherein liberation may be realized through the repetition of sacred words and formulae called dharani, and through special types of yoga involving sexual intercourse with a shakti or “spiritual wife.”2

A preliminary study of the Pali Canon will certainly give the impression that nirvana is to be realized only through rigorous effort and self-control, and that the aspirant should lay aside all other concerns for the pursuit of this ideal. Mahayanists may be perfectly correct in assuming that the Buddha intended this perfectly correct in assuming that the Buddha intended this emphasis as an upaya, a skillful means of enabling one to realize, concretely and vividly, the absurd vicious circle of desiring not to desire, or of trying to get rid of selfishness by oneself. For this is certainly the conclusion to which the practice of the Buddha’s doctrine led. It may be attributed to laziness and loss of nerve, but it seems more plausible to suggest that those who remained in the path of self-deliverance were merely unconscious of the paradox involved. For wherever the Mahayana continues to teach the way of liberation by one’s own effort, it does so as an expedient for bringing the individual to a vivid awareness of his own futility.

Various indications suggest that one of the earliest notions of the Mahayana was the conception of the Bodhisattva, not simply as a potential Buddha, but as one who by renouncing nirvana was at a higher spiritual level than one who attained it and so withdrew from the world of birth-and-death. In the Pali Canon the disciples of the Buddha who attain nirvana are termed Arhans or “worthy ones,” but in the Mahayana texts the ideal of the Arhan is accounted almost selfish. It is fit only for the sravaka, the “hearer” of the doctrine who has progressed only so far as to get a theoretical understanding. The Bodhisattva, however, is one who realizes that there is a profound contradiction in a nirvana attained by himself and for himself. From the popular standpoint, the Bodhisattva became a focus of devotion (bhakti), a savior of the world who had vowed not to enter the final nirvana until all other sentient beings had likewise attained it. For their sakes he consented to be born again and again into the Round of samsara, until, in the course of innumerable ages, even the grass and the dust had attained Buddhahood.

But from a deeper standpoint it became obvious that the idea of the Bodhisattva is implicit in the logic of Buddhism, that it flows naturally from the principle of not-grasping and from the doctrine of the unreality of the ego. For if nirvana is the state in which the attempt to grasp reality has wholly ceased, through the realization of its impossibility, it will obviously be absurd to think of nirvana itself as something to be grasped or attained. If, furthermore, the ego is merely a convention, it is nonsense to think of nirvana as a ego is merely a convention, it is nonsense to think of nirvana as a state to be attained by some being. As is said in the Vajracchedika:

All Bodhisattva-heroes should cultivate their minds to think: all sentient beings of whatever class … are caused by me to attain the boundless liberation of nirvana. Yet when vast, innumerable, and immeasurable numbers of beings have thus been liberated, in truth no being has been liberated! Why is this, Subhuti? It is because no Bodhisattva who is truly a Bodhisattva holds to the idea of an ego, a personality, a being, or a separate individual. (3)

The corollary of this position is that if there is no nirvana which can be attained, and if, in reality, there are no individual entities, it will follow that our bondage in the Round is merely apparent, and that in fact we are already in nirvana–so that to seek nirvana is the folly of looking for what one has never lost. Naturally, then, the Bodhisattva makes no motion to depart from the Round of samsara, as if nirvana were somewhere else, for to do so would imply that nirvana is something that needs to be attained and that samsara is an actual reality. In the words of the Lankavatara Sutra:

Those who, afraid of the sufferings arising from the discrimination of birth-and-death (samsara), seek for Nirvana, do not know that birth-and-death and Nirvana are not to be separated from one another; and, seeing that all things subject to discrimination have no reality, (they) imagine that Nirvana consists in the future annihilation of the senses and their fields. (II. 18)3

To strive, then, to blot out the conventional world of things and events is to admit that it exists in reality. Hence the Mahayanist principle that “what has never arisen does not have to be annihilated.” a

These are not the idle speculations and sophistries of a system of subjective idealism or nihilism. They are answers to a practical problem which may be expressed thus: “If my grasping of life problem which may be expressed thus: “If my grasping of life involves me in a vicious circle, how am I to learn not to grasp? How can I try to let go when trying is precisely not letting go?” Stated in another way, to try not to grasp is the same thing as to grasp, since its motivation is the same–my urgent desire to save myself from a difficulty. I cannot get rid of this desire, since it is one and the same desire as the desire to get rid of it! This is the familiar, everyday problem of the psychological “double-bind,” of creating the problem by trying to solve it, of worrying because one worries, and of being afraid of fear.

Mahayana philosophy proposes a drastic but effective answer which is the theme of a class of literature called Prajna–paramita, or “wisdom for crossing to the other shore,” a literature closely associated with the work of Nagarjuna (c. A.D. 200), who ranks with Shankara as one of the greatest minds of India. Stated baldly, the answer is that all grasping, even for nirvana, is futile–for there is nothing to be grasped. This is Nagarjuna’s celebrated Sunyavada, his “Doctrine of the Void,” otherwise known as the Madhyamika, the “middle way,” because it refutes all metaphysical propositions by demonstrating their relativity. From the standpoint of academic philosophy, the Prajna-paramita and the doctrine of Nagarjuna are no doubt some form of nihilism or “absolute relativism.” But this is not Nagarjuna’s standpoint. The dialectic with which he demolishes every conception of reality is merely a device for breaking the vicious circle of grasping, and the terminus of his philosophy is not the abject despair of nihilism but the natural and uncontrived bliss (ananda) of liberation.

The Sunyavada takes its name from the term sunya, void, or sunyata, voidness, with which Nagarjuna described the nature of reality, or rather, of the conceptions of reality which the human mind can form. Conceptions here include not only metaphysical views but also ideals, religious beliefs, ultimate hopes and ambitions of every kind–everything which the mind of man seeks and grasps for his physical or spiritual security. Not only does the Sunyavada demolish the beliefs which one consciously adopts; it also seeks out the hidden and unconscious premises of thought and action, and submits them to the same treatment until the very action, and submits them to the same treatment until the very depths of the mind are reduced to a total silence. Even the idea of sunya is itself to be voided.

It cannot be called void or not void,
Or both or neither;
But in order to point it out,
It is called “the Void.”4

Stcherbatsky (1) is certainly right in thinking that the Sunyavada is best called a doctrine of relativity. For Nagarjuna’s method is simply to show that all things are without “self-nature” (svabhava) or independent reality since they exist only in relation to other things. Nothing in the universe can stand by itself-no thing, no fact, no being, no event–and for this reason it is absurd to single anything out as the ideal to be grasped. For what is singled out exists only in relation to its own opposite, since what is is defined by what is not, pleasure is defined by pain, life is defined by death, and motion is defined by stillness. Obviously, the mind can form no idea of what “to be” means without the contrast of “not to be,” since the ideas of being and non-being are abstractions from such simple experiences as that there is a penny in the right hand and no penny in the left.

From one point of view, the same relativity exists between nirvana and samsara, bodhi (awakening) and klesa (defilement). That is to say, the search for nirvana implies the existence and the problem of samsara, and the quest for awakening implies that one is in the state of defilement with delusion. To put it in another way: as soon as nirvana is made an object of desire, it becomes an element of samsara. The real nirvana cannot be desired because it cannot be conceived. Thus the Lankavatara Sutra says:

Again, Mahamati, what is meant by non-duality? It means that light and shade, long and short, black and white, are relative terms, Mahamati, and not independent of each other; as Nirvana and Samsara are, all things are not-two. There is no Nirvana and Samsara are, all things are not-two. There is no Nirvana except where is Samsara; there is no Samsara except where is Nirvana; for the condition of existence is not of a mutually exclusive character. Therefore it is said that all things are nondual as are Nirvana and Samsara. (II. 28)5

But the equation “Nirvana is samsara” is true in another sense as well–namely, that what appears to us to be samsara is really nirvana, and that what appears to be the world of form (rupa) is really the void (sunya). Hence the famous saying:

Form is not different from emptiness; emptiness is not different from form. Form is precisely emptiness; emptiness is precisely form.6

Once again, this is not to say that awakening will cause the world of form to vanish without trace, for nirvana is not to be sought as “the future annihilation of the senses and their fields.” The sutra is saying that form is void just as it is, in all its prickly uniqueness.

The point of this equation is not to assert a metaphysical proposition but to assist the process of awakening. For awakening will not come to pass when one is trying to escape or change the everyday world of form, or to get away from the particular experience in which one finds oneself at this moment. Every such attempt is a manifestation of grasping. Even the grasping itself is not to be changed by force, for

bodhi [awakening] is the five offenses, and the five offenses are bodhi.… If anyone regards bodhi as something to be attained, to be cultivated by discipline, he is guilty of the pride of self.7

Some of these passages may suggest that the Bodhisattva may just as well be an easygoing, worldly fellow, who-because samsara is nirvana anyhow-can go on living just as he pleases. He may be thoroughly deluded, but since even delusion is bodhi there would be no point in trying to change it. There is often a deceptive resemblance between opposite extremes. Lunatics frequently resemblance between opposite extremes. Lunatics frequently resemble saints, and the unaffected modesty of the sage often lets him seem to be a very ordinary person. Yet there is no easy way of pointing out the difference, of saying what it is that the ordinary, worldly fellow does or does not do which makes him different from a Bodhisattva, or vice versa. The entire mystery of Zen lies in this problem, and we shall return to it at the proper time. It is enough to say here that the so-called “ordinary person” is only apparently natural, or perhaps that his real naturalness feels unnatural to him. In practice it is simply impossible to decide, intentionally, to stop seeking for nirvana and to lead an ordinary life, for as soon as one’s “ordinary” life is intentional it is not natural.

It is for this reason that the insistence of the Mahayana texts on the unattainability of nirvana and bodhi is not something to be accepted theoretically, as a mere philosophical opinion. One has to know “in one’s bones” that there is nothing to be grasped.

Thereupon the thought came to some of the Gods in that assembly: What the fairies talk and murmur, that we understand though mumbled. What Subhuti has just told us, that we do not understand!

Subhuti read their thoughts and said: There is nothing to understand, there is nothing to understand. For nothing in particular has been indicated, nothing in particular has been explained.… No one will grasp this perfection of wisdom as here explained. For no Dharma (doctrine) at all has been indicated, lit up, or communicated. So there will be no one who can grasp it.8

The point arrives, then, when it is clearly understood that all one’s intentional acts-desires, ideals, stratagems-are in vain. In the whole universe, within and without, there is nothing whereon to lay any hold, and no one to lay any hold on anything. This has been discovered through clear awareness of everything that seemed to offer a solution or to constitute a reliable reality, through the intuitive wisdom called prajna, which sees into the relational character of everything. With the “eye of prajna” the human situation is seen for what it is–a quenching of thirst with salt water, situation is seen for what it is–a quenching of thirst with salt water, a pursuit of goals which simply require the pursuit of other goals, a clutching of objects which the swift course of time renders as insubstantial as mist. The very one who pursues, who sees and knows and desires, the inner subject, has his existence only in relation to the ephemeral objects of his pursuit. He sees that his grasp upon the world is his strangle-hold about his own neck, the hold which is depriving him of the very life he so longs to attain. And there is no way out, no way of letting go, which he can take by effort, by a decision of the will.… But who is it that wants to get out?

There comes a moment when this consciousness of the inescapable trap in which we are at once the trapper and the trapped reaches a breaking point. One might almost say that it “matures” or “ripens,” and suddenly there is what the Lankavatara Sutra calls a “turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness.” In this moment all sense of constraint drops away, and the cocoon which the silkworm spun around himself opens to let him go forth winged as a moth. The peculiar anxiety which Kierkegaard has rightly seen to lie at the very roots of the ordinary man’s soul is no longer there. Contrivances, ideals, ambitions, and self-propitiations are no longer necessary, since it is now possible to live spontaneously without trying to be spontaneous. Indeed, there is no alternative, since it is now seen that there never was any self to bring the self under its control.

Reduced to the bare essentials, such is the inner process which the Sunyavada is trying to set in motion with its philosophy of total negation. Thus the greater part of Nagarjuna’s work was a carefully logical and systematic refutation of every philosophical position to be found in the India of his time.9 Granting that its object is an inner experience, Western students have always had difficulty in understanding how such a purely negative point of view could have any creative consequences. It must therefore be repeated that the negations apply, not to reality itself, but to our ideas of reality. The positive and creative content of the Sunyavada is not in the philosophy itself, but in the new vision of reality which is revealed when its work is done, and Nagarjuna does not spoil this vision by when its work is done, and Nagarjuna does not spoil this vision by trying to describe it.

The Mahayana does, however, have another term for reality which is perhaps rather more indicative than sunya, the void. This is the word tathata, which we may translate as “suchness,” “thusness,” or “thatness.” Similarly, the Buddhas are called Tathagatas -- they who go, or come, “thus.” The Sanskrit word tat (our “that”) is probably based on a child’s first efforts at speech, when it points at something and says, “Ta” or “Da.” Fathers flatter themselves by imagining that the child is calling them by name–“Dada” or “Daddy.” But perhaps the child is just expressing its recognition of the world, and saying “That!” When we say just “That” or “Thus,” we are pointing to the realm of nonverbal experience, to reality as we perceive it directly, for we are trying to indicate what we see or feel rather than what we think or say. Tathata therefore indicates the world just as it is, unscreened and undivided by the symbols and definitions of thought. It points to the concrete and actual as distinct from the abstract and conceptual. A Buddha is a Tathagata, a “thus-goer,” because he is awakened to this primary, nonconceptual world which no words can convey, and does not confuse it with such ideas as being or non-being, good or bad, past or future, here or there, moving or still, permanent or impermanent. As the Bodhisattva Manjusri speaks of the Tathagata in the Saptasatika:

Suchness (tathata) neither becomes nor ceases to become; thus do I see the Tathagata. Suchness does not stand at any point or place; thus do I see the Tathagata. Suchness is neither past, future, nor present; thus do I see the Tathagata. Suchness does not arise from the dual or the non-dual; thus do I see the Tathagata. Suchness is neither impure nor pure; thus do I see the Tathagata. Suchness neither arises nor comes to an end; thus do I see the Tathagata. (195)10

Because tathata is the true state of a Buddha and of all beings whatsoever, it is also referred to as our true or original nature, and thus our “Buddha nature.” One of the cardinal doctrines of the thus our “Buddha nature.” One of the cardinal doctrines of the Mahayana is that all beings are endowed with Buddha nature, and so have the possibility of becoming Buddhas. Because of the identity of Buddha nature and tathata, the term “Buddha” is frequently used of reality itself and not just of the awakened man. It so comes about that in the Mahayana a Buddha is often seen as a personification of reality, forming the basis of those popular cults in which the Buddhas seem to be worshiped as gods. I say “seem to be” because even Mahayana Buddhism has no real equivalent of Judaeo-Christian theism, with its strict identification of God with the moral principle. Furthermore, the various Buddhas who are so venerated -- Amitabha, Vairocana, Amitayus, Ratnasambhava, etc. -- are always personifications of one’s own true nature.

Here, too, lies the basis of the Buddhism of faith, of the Sukhavati or Pure Land school, in which it is held that all efforts to become a Buddha are merely the false pride of the ego. All that is necessary is to repeat the formula namo-amitabhaya (literally, “the Name of Amitabha” or “Hail, Amitabha”) in the faith that this alone is sufficient to bring about one’s rebirth in the Pure Land over which Amitabha presides. In this Pure Land all the obstacles which stand in the way of becoming a Buddha in this world are removed, so that rebirth in the Pure Land is virtually equivalent to becoming a Buddha. The repetition of the Name is held to be effective because, in ages past, Amitabha vowed that he would not enter into supreme Buddhahood unless rebirth in the Pure Land were assured for all beings who invoked his name. Because he subsequently entered the state of Buddhahood, the vow is effectively fulfilled.

Even Nagarjuna was in sympathy with this doctrine, for it is obviously a popular and more graphic way of saying that since one’s own true nature is already the Buddha nature, one does not have to do anything to make it so. On the contrary, to seek to become Buddha is to deny that one is already Buddha–and this is the sole basis upon which Buddhahood can be realized! In short, to become a Buddha it is only necessary to have the faith that one is a Buddha already. Shinran, the great Japanese exponent of the Pure Land, went even so far as to say that it was only necessary to repeat the Name, for he saw that the attempt to make an act of faith was the Name, for he saw that the attempt to make an act of faith was too artificial, and led one to doubt one’s own faith.

Pure Land Buddhism is clearly an outgrowth of the Bodhisattva doctrine that the proper work of the liberated man is the liberation of all other beings by upaya or “skillful means.” By prajna or intuitive wisdom he sees into the nature of reality, and this in turn awakens karuna or compassion for all who are still in the bonds of ignorance. At its deepest level karuna means something rather more than compassion for the ignorance of others. For we saw that the Bodhisattva’s return into the world of samsara was based on the principle that samsara is in fact nirvana, and that “the void is precisely form.” If prajna is to see that “form is void,” karuna is to see that “the void is form.” It is therefore an “affirmation” of the everyday world in its natural “suchness,” and this is one of the features of the Mahayana most strongly emphasized in Zen. Indeed, it makes nonsense of the idea that Buddhism is always a philosophy of world-denial, in which the uniqueness of forms has no importance. It was because of karuna that Mahayana Buddhism became the principal inspiration of Chinese art in the Sung and Yüan dynasties, an art which stressed natural forms rather than religious symbols. For by karuna it is seen that the dissolution of forms into the void is in no way different from the particular characteristics of the forms themselves. The life of things is only conventionally separable from their death; in reality the dying is the living.

The perception that each single form, just as it is, is the void and that, further, the uniqueness of each form arises from the fact that it exists in relation to every other form is the basis of the Dharmadhatu (“Dharma realm”) doctrine of the enormous Avatamsaka Sutra. This voluminous work is probably the final culmination of Indian Mahayana, and one of its central images is a vast network of gems or crystals, like a spider’s web at dawn, in which each gem reflects all the others. This net of gems is the Dharmadhatu, the universe, the realm of innumerable dharmas or “thing-events.”

Chinese commentators worked out a fourfold classification of the Dharmadhatu which became of considerable importance for Zen Dharmadhatu which became of considerable importance for Zen late in the T’ang dynasty. Their classification of the “Four Dharma Realms” b was as follows:

1. Shih,c the unique, individual “thing-events” of which the universe is composed.

2. Li,d the “principle” or ultimate reality underlying the multiplicity of things.

3. Li shih wu ai,e “between principle and thing no obstruction,” which is to say that there is no incompatibility between nirvana and samsara, void and form. The attainment of the one does not involve the annihilation of the other.

4. Shih shih wu ai,f “between thing and thing no obstruction,” which is to say that each “thing-event” involves every other, and that the highest insight is simply the perception of them in their natural “suchness.” At this level every “thing-event” is seen to be self-determinative, self-generating, or spontaneous, for to be quite naturally what it is, to be tatha–just “thus”–is to be free and without obstruction.

The doctrine of the Dharmadhatu is, approximately, that the proper harmony of the universe is realized when each “thing-event” is allowed to be freely and spontaneously itself, without interference. Stated more subjectively, it is saying, “Let everything be free to be just as it is. Do not separate yourself from the world and try to order it around.” There is a subtle distinction between this and mere laissez faire, which may be suggested by the way in which we move our various limbs. Each one moves by itself, from within. To walk, we do not pick up our feet with our hands. The individual body is therefore a system of shih shih wu ai, and a Buddha realizes that the whole universe is his body, a marvelously interrelated harmony organized from within itself rather than by interference from outside.

Mahayana philosophy thinks of the Buddha’s body as threefold, as the Trikaya or “Triple Body.” His body, considered either as the multitude of “thing-events” or as his particular human forms, is termed the Nirmanakaya, or “Body of Transformation.” The particular human forms are such historic and prehistoric Buddhas as Gautama, Kasyapa, or Kanakamuni, and since these appear “in the Gautama, Kasyapa, or Kanakamuni, and since these appear “in the flesh” the Nirmanakaya includes, in principle, the entire universe of form. There is next the Sambhogakaya, or “Body of Enjoyment.” This is the sphere of prajna, wisdom, and karuna, compassion, the latter looking down to the world of form, and the former looking up to the realm of the void. Sambhogakaya might also be called the “Body of Realization” since it is in this “body” that a Buddha realizes that he is a Buddha. Finally there is the Dharmakaya, the “Dharma Body,” which is the void, the sunya itself.

Nagarjuna did not discuss the way in which the void appears as form, the Dharmakaya as the Nirmanakaya, feeling, perhaps, that this would be completely unintelligible to those who had not actually realized awakening. For the Buddha himself had compared such inquiries to the foolishness of a man shot with an arrow, who would not permit it to be taken out of his flesh until he had been told all the details of his assailant’s appearance, family, and motivations. Nevertheless, Nagarjuna’s successors, the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu (c. 280–360), who worked out the type of Mahayana philosophy generally known as Yogacara, made some attempt to discuss this particular problem.

According to the Yogacara the world of form is cittamatra–“mind only” -- or vijnaptimatra -- “representation only.” This view seems to have a very close resemblance to Western philosophies of subjective idealism, in which the external and material world is regarded as a projection of the mind. However, there seem to be some differences between the two points of view. Here, as always, the Mahayana is not so much a theoretical and speculative construction as an account of an inner experience, and a means of awakening the experience in others. Furthermore, the word citta is not precisely equivalent to our “mind.” Western thought tends to define mind by opposition to matter, and to consider matter not so much as “measure” as the solid stuff which is measured. Measure itself, abstraction, is for the West more of the nature of mind, since we tend to think of mind and spirit as more abstract than concrete.

But in Buddhist philosophy citta does not stand over against a conception of solid stuff. The world has never been considered in terms of a primary substance shaped into various forms by the terms of a primary substance shaped into various forms by the action of mind or spirit. Such an image is not in the history of Buddhist thought, and thus the problem of how impalpable mind can influence solid matter has never arisen. Wherever we should speak of the material or physical or substantial world, Buddhism employs the term rupa, which is not so much our “matter” as “form.” There is no “material substance” underlying rupa unless it be citta itself!

The difficulty of making equations and comparisons between Eastern and Western ideas is that the two worlds do not start with the same assumptions and premises. They do not have the same basic categorizations of experience. When, therefore, the world has never been divided into mind and matter, but rather into mind and form, the word “mind” cannot mean quite the same thing in both instances. The word “man,” for example, does not have quite the same meaning when contrasted with “woman” as when contrasted with “animal.”

A simplified, and somewhat rough, way of stating the difference is that Western idealists have begun to philosophize from a world consisting of mind (or spirit), form, and matter, whereas the Buddhists have begun to philosophize from a world of mind and form.

The Yogacara does not, therefore, discuss the relation of forms of matter to mind; it discusses the relation of forms to mind, and concludes that they are forms of mind. As a result, the term “mind” (citta) becomes logically meaningless. But because the main concern of Buddhism is with a realm of experience which is nonlogical and meaningless, in the sense that it does not symbolize or signify anything other than itself, there is no objection to “meaningless” terms.

From the logical standpoint the proposition “Everything is mind” says no more than that everything is everything. For if there is nothing which is not mind, the word belongs to no class, and has no limits, no definition. One might as well use “blah”–which is almost exactly what Buddhism does with the nonsense word tathata. For the function of these nonsense terms is to draw our attention to the fact that logic and meaning, with its inherent duality, is a property fact that logic and meaning, with its inherent duality, is a property of thought and language but not of the actual world. The nonverbal, concrete world contains no classes and no symbols which signify or mean anything other than themselves. Consequently it contains no duality. For duality arises only when we classify, when we sort our experiences into mental boxes, since a box is no box without an inside and an outside.

Mental boxes are probably formed in our minds long before formal thought and language supply labels to identify them. We have begun to classify as soon as we notice differences, regularities and irregularities, as soon as we make associations of any kind. But–if the word “mental” means anything at all–this act of classification is certainly mental, for to notice differences and to associate them with one another is something more than simply to respond to sense contacts. Yet if classes are a product of the mind, of noticing, association, thought, and language, the world considered simply as all classes of objects is a product of the mind.

This is, I think, what the Yogacara means by the assertion that the world is mind-only (cittamatram lokam). It means that external and internal, before and after, heavy and light, pleasant and painful, moving and still are all ideas, or mental classifications. Their relation to the concrete world is the same as that of words. Thus the world that we know, when understood as the world as classified, is a product of the mind, and as the sound “water” is not actually water, the classified world is not the real world.

The problem of “what” the mind is can now be seen to be the same as the problem of “what” the real world is. It cannot be answered, for every “what” is a class, and we cannot classify the classifier. Is it not, then, merely absurd to speak of the mind, the citta, at all if there is no way of saying what it is? On the contrary, the mathematician Kurt Gödel has given us a rigorous proof of the fact that every logical system must contain a premise which it cannot define without contradicting itself.11 The Yogacara takes citta as its premise and does not define it, since citta is here the equivalent of sunya and tathata. For the mind

is beyond all philosophical views, is apart from discrimination, it is beyond all philosophical views, is apart from discrimination, it is not attainable, nor is it ever born: I say there is nothing but Mind. It is not an existence, nor is it a non-existence; it is indeed beyond both existence and non-existence.… Out of Mind spring in-numerable things, conditioned by discrimination (i.e., classification) and habit-energy; these things people accept as an external world.… What appears to be external does not exist in reality; it is indeed Mind that is seen as multiplicity; the body, property, and abode–all these, I say, are nothing but Mind.12

Within this undefined continuum of citta the Yogacara describes eight kinds of vijnana, or “discriminating consciousness.” There is a consciousness appropriate to each of the five senses; there is the sixth sense-consciousness (mano-vijnana), unifying the other five so that what is touched or heard may be related to what is seen; there is manas, center of the mind’s discriminative and classifying activity; and finally there is the “store-consciousness” (alaya-vijnana), the supra-individual mind which contains the seeds of all possible forms.

The “store-consciousness” is almost equivalent to the citta itself, and is supra-individual because it stands prior to every differentiation. It is not to be conceived as a sort of ghostly gas permeating all beings, since space and extension are likewise here only in potentiality. In other words, the “store-consciousness” is that from which the formal world arises spontaneously or playfully (vikridita). For the Mahayana does not make the mistake of trying to account for the production of the world from the mind by a series of necessary causes. Whatever is linked by causal necessity is of the world of maya, not beyond it. Speaking somewhat poetically, the world illusion comes out of the Great Void for no reason, purposelessly, and just because there is no necessity for it to do so. For the “activity” of the Void is playful or vikridita because it is not motivated action (karma).

Thus, as the Yogacara describes it, the production of the formal world arises spontaneously from the “store-consciousness,” flows up into the manas, where the primordial differentiations are made, passes thence into the six sense-consciousnesses, which in turn passes thence into the six sense-consciousnesses, which in turn produce the sense organs or “gates” (ayatana) through which it finally projects the classified external world.

The Buddhist yoga therefore consists in reversing the process, in stilling the discriminative activity of the mind, and letting the categories of maya fall back into potentiality so that the world may be seen in its unclassified “suchness.” Here karuna awakens, and the Bodhisattva lets the projection arise again, having become consciously identified with the playful and purposeless character of the Void.



1 Keith (1), p. 273.

2 The alleged “obscenity” of maithuna, as this practice is called, is entirely in the minds of Christian missionaries. In fact, the relationship with the shakti was anything but promiscuous, and involved the mature and all-too-infrequent notion of a man and a woman undertaking their spiritual development in common. This included a sanctification of the sexual relationship which should logically have been part of the Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament. For a full treatment see S. B. Dasgupta, An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism (Calcutta, 1952), and Sir John Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta (Madras and London, 1929).

3 In Suzuki (3), p. 55. The “fields” of the senses are the areas or aspects of the external world to which the particular sense organs are related.

4 Madhyamika Shastra, XV. 3.

5 In Suzuki (3), p. 67.

6 Prajna-paramita-hridaya Sutra (Chinese version).

7 Saptasatika-prajna-paramita Sutra, 232, 234.

8 Ashtasahasrika, II. 38, 40. In Conze (2), pp. 177–78.

9 The reader who is interested in exploring Nagarjuna’s philosophy more deeply should refer to the magnificent work of Professor T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. (See Bibliography.) Unhappily, there are now available only fragmentary translations of Nagarjuna’s writings in English, unless he was indeed the author of the Prajna-paramita literature, for which see Conze (2, 3).

10 “Suchness is neither past, future, nor present,” for when it is seen that there is neither past nor future there is no more a present, since the idea of the present has meaning only in relation to past and future.

11 For a general account see E. Nagel and J. R. Newman, “Gödel’s Proof,” Scientific American, CXCVI. 6 (June, 1956), pp. 71–86.

12 Lankavatara Sutra, 154, 29–30, 32–33. In Suzuki (2), p. 242. I have cited the Lankavatara for both Madhyamika and Yogacara viewpoints, since either both schools have used the sutra or else it is a work of the latter incorporating views of the former. Since historical order is here a matter of conjecture, I have simply chosen sources which seem to express the ideas in question most effectively.
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Re: The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

Postby admin » Tue Aug 27, 2019 4:55 am

Part 1 of 2


The qualities which distinguish Zen or Ch’an from other types of Buddhism are rather elusive when it comes to putting them in words, yet Zen has a definite and unmistakable “flavor.” Although the name Zen is dhyana, or meditation, other schools of Buddhism emphasize meditation as much as, if not more than, Zen–and at times it seems as if the practice of formal meditation were not necessary to Zen at all. Nor is Zen peculiar in “having nothing to say,” in insisting that the truth cannot be put into words, for this is already the Madhyamika as well as the teaching of Lao-tzu.

Those who know do not speak;
Those who speak do not know. (56)

Perhaps the special flavor of Zen is best described as a certain directness. In other schools of Buddhism, awakening or bodhi seems remote and almost superhuman, something to be reached only after many lives of patient effort. But in Zen there is always the feeling that awakening is something quite natural, something startlingly obvious, which may occur at any moment. If it involves a difficulty, it is just that it is much too simple. Zen is also direct in its way of teaching, for it points directly and openly to the truth, and does not trifle with symbolism.

Direct pointing (chih-chih a) is the open demonstration of Zen by nonsymbolic actions or words, which usually appear to the uninitiated as having to do with the most ordinary secular affairs, or to be completely crazy. In answer to a question about Buddhism, the master makes a casual remark about the weather, or performs some simple action which seems to have nothing to do with some simple action which seems to have nothing to do with philosophical or spiritual matters. However, it is difficult to find many instances of this method before the middle of the T’ang dynasty, by which time Zen was already well established. But it is certainly consistent with the emphasis of the earlier masters on immediate awakening in the midst of everyday affairs.

No one has been able to find any trace of a specific Dhyana School in Indian Buddhism, though because of our lack of historical materials this is no evidence that it did not exist. If the characteristic note of Zen is immediate or instantaneous awakening (tun wu b) without passing through preparatory stages, there are certainly evidences of this principle in India. The Lankavatara Sutra states that there are both gradual and sudden (yugapat) ways of awakening, the former by purification of the tainted outflows or projections (ashrava) of the mind, and the latter by paravritti–an instantaneous “turning about” within the depths of consciousness whereby dualistic views are cast off. It is likened to a mirror immediately reflecting whatever forms and images appear before it.1 There is, too, a clear connection between the idea of immediate awakening and the teaching of the Vajracchedika, or “Diamond Cutter Sutra,” on the fact that to attain awakening is not to attain anything. In other words, if nirvana is actually here and now so that to seek it is to lose it, a realization through progressive stages is hardly appropriate. One would have to see into it in the present moment, directly.

Although its origins are probably later than those of Zen in China, there is also a tradition of this kind in Tantric Buddhism, and there is nothing to indicate that there was a reverse influence from Chinese Zen. Parallels to Zen sayings may be seen in a tenth-century Tantric work by Saraha:

If it [the Truth] is already manifest, what’s the use of meditation?
And if it is hidden, one is just measuring darkness. (20)
Mantras and tantras, meditation and concentration,
They are all a cause of self-deception.
Do not defile in contemplation thought that is pure in its own
Do not defile in contemplation thought that is pure in its own nature,
But abide in the bliss of yourself and cease those torments. (23)
Whatever you see, that is it,
In front, behind, in all the ten directions.
Even today let your master make an end of delusion! (28)
The nature of the sky is originally clear,
But by gazing and gazing the sight becomes obscured. (34)2

Tibetan Buddhism likewise comprises a tradition of the Short Path, considered as a swift and steep ascent to nirvana for those who have the necessary courage, though a doctrine more suggestive of the Zen emphasis on immediacy and naturalness is found in the “Six Precepts” of Tilopa:

No thought, no reflection, no analysis,
No cultivation, no intention;
Let it settle itself.3

Immediate release without any special contrivance or intention is also implied in the Tantric idea of sahaja, the “easy” or “natural” state of the liberated sage.

This is not the place to discuss the real meaning of immediate awakening and naturalness, but these instances are cited to show that the tradition of a direct path existed outside China, suggesting some original source in Indian Buddhism. An obvious reason for the lack of materials would be that a principle of this kind, so easily open to misinterpretation, might have been kept as a “secret doctrine,” discussed openly only in later times. Zen tradition does indeed maintain that immediate awakening is not communicated by the sutras, but has been passed down directly from master to pupil. This does not necessarily imply anything so “esoteric” as an experience conveyed by telepathy, but something much less sensational. Thus when Hindu pandits insist that wisdom is not to be gained from the scriptures but only from a teacher or guru, it means that the actual texts–such as the Yoga-sutras–contain only the means that the actual texts–such as the Yoga-sutras–contain only the headings of the doctrine, and that its full explanation requires someone who has learned the oral tradition. To this it should hardly be necessary to add that since the tradition is primarily an experience, words can communicate it no more and no less than any other experience.

However, it is not really necessary to suppose that there was ever a specific Dhyana School in India. The creation of Zen would seem to be sufficiently explained by the exposure of Taoists and Confucians to the main principles of Mahayana Buddhism. Therefore the appearance of trends very close to Zen can be seen almost as soon as the great Mahayana sutras became available in China–that is to say, with the work of the great Indian scholar-monk Kumarajiva. Kumarajiva was translating the sutras in Ku-tsang and Ch’ang-an between 384 and 413, at which time one of his outstanding students was the young monk Seng-chao (384–414), who had started out in life as a copyist of the Confucian and Taoist texts.

Seng-chao had been converted to Buddhism as a result of reading the Vimalakirti Sutra–a text which has exercised considerable influence upon Zen. Although Seng-chao became a monk, this sutra is the story of a layman, Vimalakirti, who excelled all the Buddha’s disciples in the depth of his understanding. He had surpassed all the other disciples and Bodhisattvas by answering a question as to the nature of the nondual reality with a “thunderous silence”–an example frequently followed by Zen masters. Vimalakirti “thunderingly silent” is, too, a favorite theme of Zen artists. But the main importance of this sutra for China and for Zen was the point that perfect awakening was consistent with the affairs of everyday life, and that, indeed, the highest attainment was to “enter into awakening without exterminating the defilements [klesa].”

There was an appeal here to both the Confucian and the Taoist mentality. The Confucian stress on the importance of family life would not easily sympathize with a rigorously monastic type of Buddhism. Though the Chinese Buddhist masters were normally monks, they had large numbers of advanced lay students, and Zen, in particular, has always attached great importance to the in particular, has always attached great importance to the expression of Buddhism in formally secular terms–in arts of every type, in manual labor, and in appreciation of the natural universe. Confucian and Taoist alike would be especially agreeable to the idea of an awakening which did not involve the extermination of human passions, as klesa may also be translated. We have already noted the peculiar trust in human nature which both these philosophies professed. However, not exterminating the passions does not mean letting them flourish untamed. It means letting go of them rather than fighting them, neither repressing passion nor indulging it. For the Taoist is never violent, since he achieves his ends by noninterference (wu-wei), which is a kind of psychological judo.

Seng-chao’s writings, as well as his commentary on the Vimalakirti Sutra, are full of Taoist quotations and phrases, for he seemed to be following the example of less important, though earlier, monks such as Hui-yüan (334–416) and Tao-an (312–385) in using “extension of the idea” (ko-i c) for explaining Buddhism through Taoist parallels. So much did this suggest an equivalence between the two traditions that by the end of the fifth century Liu Ch’iu could say:

From the K’un-lun mountains eastward the (Taoist) term “Great Oneness” is used. From Kashmir westward the (Buddhist) term sambodhi is used. Whether one looks longingly toward “nonbeing” (wu) or cultivates “emptiness” (sunyata), the principle involved is the same.4

Two of Seng-chao’s doctrines would seem to have had some importance for the later development of Zen–his view of time and change, and his idea that “prajna is not knowledge.” The chapter on “The Immutability of Things” in his Book of Chao is so original and so startlingly similar to the section on time in the first volume of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, that the celebrated Japanese Zen philosopher can hardly have been unfamiliar with it.

Past things are in the past and do not go there from the present, Past things are in the past and do not go there from the present, and present things are in the present, and do not go there from the past.… Rivers which compete with one another to inundate the land do not flow. The “wandering air” that blows about is not moving. The sun and moon, revolving in their orbits, do not turn around.5

In the same way Dogen pointed out that firewood does not become ashes and life does not become death, just as the winter does not become the spring. Every moment of time is “self-contained and quiescent.”6

Seng-chao also discussed the seeming paradox that prajna is a kind of ignorance. Because the ultimate reality has no qualities and is not a thing, it cannot become an object of knowledge. Therefore prajna, direct insight, knows the truth by not knowing.

Wisdom knows not, yet it illumines the deepest profundity. Spirit calculates not, yet it responds to the necessities of the given moment. Because it calculates not, spirit shines in lonely glory in what is beyond the world. Because it knows not, Wisdom illumines the Mystery (hsüan) beyond mundane affairs. Yet though Wisdom lies outside affairs, it never lacks them. Though Spirit lies beyond the world, it stays ever within it.7

Here is one of the main links between Taoism and Zen, for the style and terminology of the Book of Chao is Taoist throughout though the subject matter is Buddhist. The sayings of the early Zen masters, such as Hui-neng, Shen-hui, and Huang-po, are full of these very ideas–that truly to know is not to know, that the awakened mind responds immediately, without calculation, and that there is no incompatibility between Buddhahood and the everyday life of the world.

Even closer to the standpoint of Zen was Seng-chao’s fellow student Tao-sheng (360–434), the first clear and unequivocal exponent of the doctrine of instantaneous awakening. If nirvana is not to be found by grasping, there can be no question of approaching it by stages, by the slow process of the accumulation of approaching it by stages, by the slow process of the accumulation of knowledge. It must be realized in a single flash of insight, which is tun wu, or, in Japanese, satori, the familiar Zen term for sudden awakening. Hsieh Ling-yün8 in his discussion of Tao-sheng’s doctrine even suggests that instantaneous awakening is more appropriate to the Chinese mentality than to the Indian, and lends weight to Suzuki’s description of Zen as the Chinese “revolution” against Indian Buddhism. Tao-sheng’s doctrine, however unusual and startling, must have found considerable acceptance. It is mentioned again, more than a century later, in a work by Hui-yüan (523–592), who also associates it with the master Hui-tan who lived until about 627.

The importance of these early precursors of Zen is that they provide a clue to the historical beginnings of the movement if we cannot accept the traditional story that it arrived in China in 520, with the Indian monk Bodhidharma. Modern scholars such as Fung Yu-lan and Pelliot have cast serious doubts upon the truth of this tradition. They suggest that the Bodhidharma story was a pious invention of later times, when the Zen School needed historical authority for its claim to be a direct transmission of experience from the Buddha himself, outside the sutras. For Bodhidharma is represented as the twenty-eighth of a somewhat fanciful list of Indian Patriarchs, standing in a direct line of “apostolic succession” from Gautama.9

At this stage of the inquiry it is hard to say whether the views of these scholars are to be taken seriously, or whether they are but another instance of an academic fashion for casting doubt upon the historicity of religious founders. The traditional story which the Zen School gives of its own origin is that Bodhidharma arrived in Canton from India around the year 520, and proceeded to the court of the Emperor Wu of Liang, an enthusiastic patron of Buddhism. However, Bodhidharma’s doctrine and his abrupt attitude did not appeal to the Emperor, so that he withdrew for some years to a monastery in the state of Wei, and spent his time “gazing at the wall” until at last he found a suitable disciple in Hui-k’o, who subsequently became the Second Patriarch of Zen in China.10

There is, of course, nothing improbable in the arrival of a great There is, of course, nothing improbable in the arrival of a great Buddhist master from India at this period. Kumarajiva had arrived shortly before 400, Bodhiruci just after 500, and Paramartha was at the court of Liang about the same time as Bodhidharma. Is it really surprising that there should be no surviving record of his existence until little more than a hundred years after his time? These were not the days of newspapers and “Who’s Whos,” and even in our own excessively documented times people with important contributions to our knowledge and culture can remain unrecognized and unrecorded until years after their death. Here again, it seems that we may as well accept the story of Bodhidharma until there is some really overwhelming evidence against it, recognizing that the ideas of Seng-chao, Tao-sheng, and others could also have been tributaries to the stream of Zen.

One of the reasons for suspecting the Bodhidharma story is that Zen is so Chinese in style that an Indian origin seems improbable. Yet the very Taoistic Seng-chao was a pupil of Kumarajiva, as was Tao-sheng, and the writings attributed to Bodhidharma and his successors until Hui-neng (638–713) show the clear transition from an Indian to a Chinese view of dhyana.11

The absence of any record of a Dhyana School in Indian Buddhist literature, or of Bodhidharma in connection with it, is perhaps due to the fact that there was never any Dhyana or Zen School even in China until some two hundred years after Bodhidharma’s time. On the other hand, there would have been an almost universal practice o f dhyana–that is, or ts’o-ch’an d (Japanese, za-zen) or sitting meditation–among Buddhist monks, and the special instructors who supervised this practice were called dhyana masters, no matter what their school or sect. There were likewise vinaya masters, or instructors in monastic discipline, and dharma masters, or instructors in doctrine. Zen became a distinct school only as it promulgated a view of dhyana which differed sharply from the generally accepted practice.12

Zen tradition represents Bodhidharma as a fierce-looking fellow with a bushy beard and wide-open, penetrating eyes–in which, however, there is just the hint of a twinkle. A legend says that he once fell asleep in meditation and was so furious that he cut off his once fell asleep in meditation and was so furious that he cut off his eyelids, and falling to the ground they arose as the first tea plant. Tea has thereafter supplied Zen monks with a protection against sleep, and so clarifies and invigorates the mind that it has been said, “The taste of Zen [ch’an] and the taste of tea [ch’a] are the same.” Another legend holds that Bodhidharma sat so long in meditation that his legs fell off. Hence the delightful symbolism of those Japanese Daruma dolls which represent Bodhidharma as a legless roly-poly so weighted inside that he always stands up again when pushed over. A popular Japanese poem says of the Daruma doll: Jinsei nana korobi

Ya oki.
Such is life–
Seven times down,
Eight times up!

Bodhidharma’s alleged interview with the Emperor Wu of Liang is typical of his abrupt and direct manner. For the Emperor described all that he had done to promote the practice of Buddhism, and asked what merit he had gained thereby–taking the popular view that Buddhism is a gradual accumulation of merit through good deeds, leading to better and better circumstances in future lives, and finally to nirvana. But Bodhidharma replied, “No merit whatever!” This so undermined the Emperor’s idea of Buddhism that he asked, “What, then, is the sacred doctrine’s first principle?” Bodhidharma replied, “It’s just empty; there’s nothing sacred.” “Who, then, are you,” said the Emperor, “to stand before us?” “I don’t know.”13 e

After this interview, so unsatisfactory from the Emperor’s point of view, Bodhidharma retired to a monastery in Wei, where he is said to have spent nine years in a cave, “gazing at the wall” (pi-kuan f). Suzuki holds that this is not to be taken literally, and that the expression refers to Bodhidharma’s inner state, his exclusion of all grasping thoughts from his mind.14 Thus Bodhidharma remained, until he was approached by the monk Shenkuang, afterwards Huik’o (486–593, maybe!), who was to become Bodhidharma’s k’o (486–593, maybe!), who was to become Bodhidharma’s successor as the Second Patriarch.

Hui-k’o again and again asked Bodhidharma for instruction, but was always refused. Yet he continued to sit in meditation outside the cave, waiting patiently in the snow in the hope that Bodhidharma would at last relent. In desperation he finally cut off his left arm and presented it to Bodhidharma as a token of his agonized sincerity. At this Bodhidharma at last asked Hui-k’o what he wanted.

“I have no peace of mind [hsin],” said Hui-k’o. “Please pacify my mind.”

“Bring out your mind here before me,” replied Bodhidharma, “and I will pacify it!”

“But when I seek my own mind,” said Hui-k’o, “I cannot find it.”

“There!” snapped Bodhidharma, “I have pacified your mind!”15 g

At this moment Hui-k’o had his awakening, his tun-wu or satori, so that this interchange purports to be the first instance of what became the characteristic Zen method of instruction–the wen-ta h (Japanese, mondo) or “question-and-answer,” sometimes loosely called the “Zen story.” The greater part of Zen literature consists of these anecdotes, many of them much more puzzling than this, and their aim is always to precipitate some type of sudden realization in the questioner’s mind, or to test the depth of his insight. For this reason, such anecdotes cannot be “explained” without spoiling their effect. In some respects they are like jokes which do not produce their intended effect of laughter when the “punch line” requires further explanation. One must see the point immediately, or not at all.

It should, furthermore, be understood that the main character of these anecdotes is only rarely symbolic, and then, usually, in a rather secondary way, as when the dialogue contains allusions which are obvious to both parties. But such commentators as Gernet (3) are, I feel, mistaken in supposing that the main point is the communication of some Buddhist principle by means of a symbol. The satori which so frequently follows these interchanges is by no means a mere comprehension of the answer to a riddle. For whatever the Zen master says or does is a direct and spontaneous whatever the Zen master says or does is a direct and spontaneous utterance of “suchness,” of his Buddha nature, and what he gives is no symbol but the very thing. Zen communication is always “direct pointing,” in line with the traditional four-phrase summary of Zen:

Outside teaching; apart from tradition.
Not founded on words and letters.
Pointing directly to the human mind.
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.16i

The successor to Hui-k’o is said to have been Seng-ts’an (d. 606), and the story of their initial interview is of the same form as between Hui-k’o and Bodhidharma, except that where Hui-k’o asked for “peace of mind,” Seng-ts’an asked to be “cleansed of faults.” To him there is attributed a celebrated poem called the Hsin-hsin Ming, the “Treatise on Faith in the Mind.”17 If Seng-ts’an was indeed its author, this poem is the first clear and comprehensive statement of Zen. Its Taoist flavor is apparent in the opening lines,

The perfect Tao is without difficulty,
Save that it avoids picking and choosing.

And again,

Follow your nature and accord with the Tao;
Saunter along and stop worrying.
If your thoughts are tied you spoil what is genuine.…
Don’t be antagonistic to the world of the senses,
For when you are not antagonistic to it,
It turns out to be the same as complete Awakening.
The wise person does not strive (wu-wei);
The ignorant man ties himself up.…
If you work on your mind with your mind,
How can you avoid an immense confusion?18 j

Not only is the poem full of such Taoist terms as wu-wei and tzujan (spontaneity), but its whole attitude is that of letting one’s mind alone and trusting it to follow its own nature–in contrast to the more typically Indian attitude of bringing it under rigid control and shutting out the experience of the senses.

The Fourth Patriarch, following Seng-ts’an, is believed to have been Tao-hsin (579–651). When he came to Seng-ts’an he asked, “What is the method of liberation?”

“Who binds you?” replied Seng-ts’an.

“No one binds me.”

“Why then,” asked Seng-ts’an, “should you seek liberation?”19 k And this was Tao-hsin’s satori. The Ch’uan Teng Lu records a fascinating encounter between Tao-hsin and the sage Fa-yung, who lived in a lonely temple on Mount Niu-t’ou, and was so holy that the birds used to bring him offerings of flowers. As the two men were talking, a wild animal roared close by, and Tao-hsin jumped. Fa-yung commented, “I see it is still with you!”–referring, of course, to the instinctive “passion” (klesa) of fright. Shortly afterwards, while he was for a moment unobserved, Tao-hsin wrote the Chinese character for “Buddha” on the rock where Fa-yung was accustomed to sit. When Fa-yung returned to sit down again, he saw the sacred Name and hesitated to sit. “I see,” said Tao-hsin, “it is still with you!” At this remark Fa-yung was fully awakened … and the birds never brought any more flowers.

The Fifth Patriarch–and here we begin to enter a more reliable chapter of history-was Hung–jan (601–675). At his first meeting with Hung-jan the Patriarch asked:

“What is your name [hsing]?”

“I have a nature [hsing],” replied Hung-jan punning, “but it’s no usual nature.”

“What is this name?” inquired the Patriarch, missing the pun.

“It’s Buddha nature.”

“You have no name, then?”

“That’s because it’s an empty nature.”20

Hung-jan was apparently the first of the Patriarchs to have any large following, for it is said that he presided over a group of some five hundred monks in a monastery on the Yellow Plum Mountain five hundred monks in a monastery on the Yellow Plum Mountain (Wang-mei Shan) at the eastern end of modern Hupeh. He is, however, much overshadowed by his immediate successor, Huineng (637–713), whose life and teaching mark the definitive beginning of a truly Chinese Zen–of Zen as it flourished during what was later called “the epoch of Zen activity,” the latter two hundred years of the T’ang dynasty, from about 700 to 906.

One must not overlook Hui-neng’s contemporaries, for he lived at a time which was most creative for Chinese Buddhism as a whole. The great translator and traveler Hsüan-tsang had returned from India in 645, and was expounding the vijnaptimatra (“representation-only”) doctrines of the Yogacara in Ch’ang-an. His former student Fa-tsang (643–712) was developing the important school of the Hua-yen (Japanese, Kegon) based on the Avatamsaka Sutra, and which later provided Zen with a formal philosophy. Nor must we forget that not so long before these two men, Chih-k’ai (538–597) had written his remarkable treatise on the Mahayana Method of Cessation and Contemplation,21 containing the fundamental teaching of the T’ien-t’ai School, which is in many ways close to Zen. Much of Chih-k’ai’s treatise foreshadows in both content and terminology the doctrines of Hui-neng and some of his immediate successors.

Hui-neng is said to have had his first awakening when, almost as a boy, he happened to overhear someone reading the Vajracchedika. He set out almost at once for Hung-jan’s monastery at Wang-mei to have his understanding confirmed and to receive further instruction. We should note (for future reference) that his original satori occurred spontaneously, without the benefit of a master, and that his biography represents him as an illiterate peasant from the neighborhood of Canton. Apparently Hung-jan immediately recognized the depth of his insight, but fearing that his humble origins might make him unacceptable in a community of scholarly monks, the Patriarch put him to work in the kitchen compound.

Some time later, the Patriarch announced that he was looking for a successor to whom he might transmit his office, together with the robe and begging bowl (said to have been handed down from the robe and begging bowl (said to have been handed down from the Buddha) which were its insignia. This honor was to be conferred upon the person who submitted the best poem, expressing his understanding of Buddhism. The chief monk of the community was then a certain Shen-hsiu, and all the others naturally assumed that the office would go to him and so made no attempt to compete.

Shen-hsiu, however, was in doubt as to his own understanding, and decided to submit his poem anonymously, claiming authorship only if the Patriarch approved of it. During the night, then, he posted the following lines in the corridor near the Patriarch’s quarters:

The body is the Bodhi Tree;
The mind like a bright mirror standing.
Take care to wipe it all the time,
And allow no dust to cling.1

The following morning, the Patriarch read the poem and ordered incense to be burned before it, saying that all who put it into practice would be enabled to realize their true nature. But when Shen-hsiu came to him in private and claimed authorship, the Patriarch declared that his understanding was still far from perfect.

On the following day, another poem appeared beside the first:

There never was a Bodhi Tree,
Nor bright mirror standing.
Fundamentally, not one thing exists,
So where is the dust to cling? m

The Patriarch knew that only Hui-neng could have written this, but to avoid jealousy he rubbed out the poem with his shoe, and summoned Hui-neng to his room secretly, by night. Here he conferred the Patriarchate, the robe, and the bowl upon him, and told him to flee into the mountains until the hurt feelings of the other monks had subsided and the time was ripe for him to begin his public teaching.22

A comparison of the two poems shows at once the distinctive A comparison of the two poems shows at once the distinctive flavor of Hui-neng’s Zen. Shen-hsiu’s poem reflects what was apparently the general and popular view of dhyana practice in Chinese Buddhism. It was obviously understood as the discipline of sitting meditation (ts’o-ch’an), in which the mind was “purified” by an intense concentration which would cause all thoughts and attachments to cease. Taken rather literally, many Buddhist and Taoist texts would substantiate this view–that the highest state of consciousness is a consciousness empty of all contents, all ideas, feelings, and even sensations. Today in India this is a very prevalent notion of samadhi. But our own experience with Christianity should make this type of literalism, even in high circles, rather familiar.

Hui-neng’s position was that a man with an empty consciousness was no better than “a block of wood or a lump of stone.” He insisted that the whole idea of purifying the mind was irrelevant and confusing, because “our own nature is fundamentally clear and pure.” In other words, there is no analogy between consciousness or mind and a mirror that can be wiped. The true mind is “no-mind” (wu-hsin), which is to say that it is not to be regarded as an object of thought or action, as if it were a thing to be grasped and controlled. The attempt to work on one’s own mind is a vicious circle. To try to purify it is to be contaminated with purity. Obviously this is the Taoist philosophy of naturalness, according to which a person is not genuinely free, detached, or pure when his state is the result of an artificial discipline. He is just imitating purity, just “faking” clear awareness. Hence the unpleasant self-righteousness of those who are deliberately and methodically religious.

Hui-neng’s teaching is that instead of trying to purify or empty the mind, one must simply let go of the mind–because the mind is nothing to be grasped. Letting go of the mind is also equivalent to letting go of the series of thoughts and impressions (nien) which come and go “in” the mind, neither repressing them, holding them, nor interfering with them.

Thoughts come and go of themselves, for through the use of wisdom there is no blockage. This is the samadhi of prajna, and wisdom there is no blockage. This is the samadhi of prajna, and natural liberation. Such is the practice of “no-thought” [wu-nien]. But if you do not think of anything at all, and immediately command thoughts to cease, this is to be tied in a knot by a method, and is called an obtuse view. (2) n

Of the usual view of meditation practice he said:

To concentrate on the mind and to contemplate it until it is still is a disease and not dhyana. To restrain the body by sitting up for a long time–of what benefit is this towards the Dharma? (8) 0

And again:

If you start concentrating the mind on stillness, you will merely produce an unreal stillness.… What does the word “meditation” [ts’o-ch’an] mean? In this school it means no barriers, no obstacles; it is beyond all objective situations whether good or bad. The word “sitting” [ts’o] means not to stir up thoughts in the mind. (5) p

In counteracting the false dhyana of mere empty-mindedness, Hui-neng compares the Great Void to space, and calls it great, not just because it is empty, but because it contains the sun, moon, and stars. True dhyana is to realize that one’s own nature is like space, and that thoughts and sensations come and go in this “original mind” like birds through the sky, leaving no trace. Awakening, in his school, is “sudden” because it is for quickwitted rather than slow-witted people. The latter must of necessity understand gradually, or more exactly, after a long time, since the Sixth Patriarch’s doctrine does not admit of stages or growth. To be awakened at all is to be awakened completely, for, having no parts or divisions, the Buddha nature is not realized bit by bit.

His final instructions to his disciples contain an interesting clue to the later development of the mondo or “question-answer” method of teaching:

If, in questioning you, someone asks about being, answer with non-being. If he asks about non-being, answer with being. If he asks about the ordinary man, answer in terms of the sage. If he asks about the sage, answer in terms of the ordinary man. By this method of opposites mutually related there arises an understanding of the Middle Way. For every question that you are asked, respond in terms of its opposite. (10) q

Hui-neng died in 713, and with his death the institution of the Patriarchate ceased, for the genealogical tree of Zen put forth branches. Hui-neng’s tradition passed to five disciples: Huai-jang (d. 775), Ch’ing-yüan (d. 740), Shen-hui (668–770), Hsüan-chüeh (665– 713), and Hui-chung (677–744).23 The spiritual descendants of Huai-jang and Hsing-ssu live on today as the two principal schools of Zen in Japan, the Rinzai and the Soto. In the two centuries following the death of Hui-neng the proliferation of lines of descent and schools of Zen is quite complex, and we need do no more than consider some of the more influential individuals.24

The writings and records of Hui-neng’s successors continue to be concerned with naturalness. On the principle that “the true mind is no-mind,” and that “our true nature is no (special) nature,” it is likewise stressed that the true practice of Zen is no practice, that is, the seeming paradox of being a Buddha without intending to be a Buddha. According to Shen-hui:

If one has this knowledge, it is contemplation [samadhi] without contemplating, wisdom [prajna] without wisdom, practice without practicing. (4. 193)

All cultivation of concentration is wrong-minded from the start. For how, by cultivating concentration, could one obtain concentration? (1. 117)

If we speak of working with the mind, does this working consist in activity or inactivity of the mind? If it is inactivity, we should be no different from vulgar fools. But if you say that it is activity, it is then in the realm of grasping, and we are bound up activity, it is then in the realm of grasping, and we are bound up by the passions [klesa]. What way, then, should we have of gaining deliverance? The sravakas cultivate emptiness, dwell in emptiness, and are bound by it. They cultivate concentration, dwell in concentration, and are bound by it. They cultivate tranquillity, dwell in tranquillity, and are bound by it.… If working with the mind is to discipline one’s mind, how could this be called deliverance? (1. 118)25

In the same vein Hsüan-chüeh begins his celebrated poem, the Song of Realizing the Tao (Cheng-tao Ke):

See you not that easygoing Man of Tao, who has abandoned learning and does not strive [wu-wei]?
He neither avoids false thoughts nor seeks the true,
For ignorance is in reality the Buddha nature,
And this illusory, changeful, empty body is the Dharma body.26

The following story is told of Huai-jang, initiating into Zen his great successor Ma-tsu (d. 788), who was at the time practicing sitting meditation at the monastery of Ch’uan-fa.

“Your reverence,” asked Huai-jang, “what is the objective of sitting in meditation?”

“The objective,” answered Ma-tsu, “is to become a Buddha.”

Thereupon Huai-jang picked up a floor-tile and began to polish it on a rock.

“What are you doing, master?” asked Ma-tsu.

“I am polishing it for a mirror,” said Huai-jang.

“How could polishing a tile make a mirror?”

“How could sitting in meditation make a Buddha?”27 s

Ma-tsu was the first Zen master celebrated for “strange words and extraordinary behavior,” and is described as one who walked like a bull and glared like a tiger. When a monk asked him, “How do you get into harmony with the Tao?” Ma-tsu replied, “I am already out of harmony with the Tao!” He was the first to answer questions about Buddhism by hitting the questioner, or by giving a loud about Buddhism by hitting the questioner, or by giving a loud shout–“Ho!”28 t Sometimes, however, he was more discursive, and one of his lectures takes up the problem of discipline thus:

The Tao has nothing to do with discipline. If you say that it is attained by discipline, when the discipline is perfected it can again be lost (or, finishing the discipline turns out to be losing the Tao).… If you say that there is no discipline, this is to be the same as ordinary people.29 u
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Re: The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

Postby admin » Tue Aug 27, 2019 4:55 am

Part 2 of 2

Hsing-ssu’s disciple Shih-t’ou (700–790), in the line of Soto Zen, was even more forthright:

My teaching which has come down from the ancient Buddhas is not dependent on meditation (dhyana) or on diligent application of any kind. When you attain the insight as attained by the Buddha, you realize that mind is Buddha and Buddha is mind, that mind, Buddha, sentient beings, bodhi and klesa are of one and the same substance while they vary in names.30

His interesting name “Stone-head” is attributed to the fact that he lived on top of a large rock near the monastery of Heng-chou.

With Ma-tsu’s disciple Nan-ch’üan (748–834) and his successor Chao-chou (778–897), the teaching of Zen became peculiarly lively and disturbing. The Wu-men kuan (14) tells how Nan-ch’üan interrupted a dispute among his monks as to the ownership of a cat by threatening to cleave the animal with his spade if none of the monks could say a “good word”–that is, give an immediate expression of his Zen. There was dead silence, so the master cut the cat in two. Later in the day Nan-ch’üan recounted the incident to Chao-chou, who at once put his shoes on his head and left the room. “If you had been here,” said Nan-ch’üan, “the cat would have been saved!”

Chao-chou is said to have had his awakening after the following incident with Nan-ch’üan:

Chao-chou asked, “What is the Tao?”

The master replied, “Your ordinary [i.e., natural] mind is the The master replied, “Your ordinary [i.e., natural] mind is the Tao.”

“How can one return into accord with it?”

“By intending to accord you immediately deviate.” v

“But without intention, how can one know the Tao?”

“The Tao,” said the master, “belongs neither to knowing nor not knowing. Knowing is false understanding; not knowing is blind ignorance. If you really understand the Tao beyond doubt, it’s like the empty sky. Why drag in right and wrong?”31

When Chao-chou was asked whether a dog has Buddha nature– which is certainly the usual Mahayana doctrine–he gave the one word “No!” (Wu,w Japanese, Mu).32 When a monk asked him for instruction he merely inquired whether he had eaten his gruel, and then added, “Go wash your bowl!”33 When asked about the spirit which remains when the body has decomposed, he remarked, “This morning it’s windy again.”34

Ma-tsu had another notable disciple in Po-chang (720–814), who is said to have organized the first purely Zen community of monks and to have laid down its regulations on the principle that “a day of no working is a day of no eating.” Since his time a strong emphasis on manual work and some degree of self-support has been characteristic of Zen communities. It might be remarked here that these are not exactly monasteries in the Western sense. They are rather training schools, from which one is free to depart at any time without censure. Some members remain monks for their whole lives; others become secular priests in charge of small temples; still others may return into lay life.35 To Po-chang is attributed the famous definition of Zen, “When hungry, eat; when tired, sleep.” He is said to have had his satori when Ma-tsu shouted at him and left him deaf for three days, and to have been in the habit of pointing out the Zen life to his disciples with the saying, “Don’t cling; don’t seek.” For when asked about seeking for the Buddha nature he answered, “It’s much like riding an ox in search of the ox.”

Po-chang’s student Huang-po (d. 850) is also of considerable importance in this period. Not only was he the teacher of the great Lin-chi, but he was also the author of the Ch’uan Hsin Fa Yao, or “Treatise on the Essentials of the Doctrine of Mind.” The content of “Treatise on the Essentials of the Doctrine of Mind.” The content of this work is essentially the same body of doctrine as is found in Hui-neng, Shen-hui, and Ma-tsu, but it contains some passages of remarkable clarity as well as some frank and careful answers to questions at the end.

By their very seeking for it [the Buddha nature] they produce the contrary effect of losing it, for that is using the Buddha to seek for the Buddha, and using mind to grasp mind. Even though they do their utmost for a full kalpa, they will not be able to attain to it. (1)

If those who study the Tao do not awake to this mind substance, they will create a mind over and above mind, seek the Buddha outside themselves and remain attached to forms, practices and performances–all of which is harmful and not the way to supreme knowledge. (3)36

Much of it is devoted to a clarification of what is meant by the Void, and by the terms “no-mind” (wu-hsin) and “no-thought” (wunien), all of which are carefully distinguished from literal blankness or nothingness. The use of Taoist language and ideas is found throughout the text:

Fearing that none of you would understand, they [the Buddhas] gave it the name Tao, but you must not base any concept upon that name. So it is said that “when the fish is caught the trap is forgotten.” (From Chuang-tzu.) When body and mind achieve spontaneity, the Tao is reached and universal mind can be understood. (29) … In former times, men’s minds were sharp. Upon hearing a single sentence, they abandoned study and so came to be called “the sages who, abandoning learning, rest in spontaneity.” In these days, people only seek to stuff themselves with knowledge and deductions, placing great reliance on written explanations and calling all this the practice. (30)37

It appears, however, that Huang-po’s personal instruction of his disciples was not always so explanatory. Lin-chi (Japanese, Rinzai, d. 867) could never get a word out of him. Every time he Rinzai, d. 867) could never get a word out of him. Every time he attempted to ask a question Huang-po struck him, until in desperation he left the monastery and sought the advice of another master, Ta-yü, who scolded him for being so ungrateful for Huang-po’s “grandmotherly kindness.” This awakened Lin-chi, who again presented himself before Huang-po. This time, however, it was Lin-chi who did the striking, saying, “There is not much in Huang-po’s Buddhism after all!”38

The record of Lin-chi’s teaching, the Lin-chi Lu (Japanese, Rinzai Roku), shows a character of immense vitality and originality, lecturing his students in informal and often somewhat “racy” language. It is as if Lin-chi were using the whole strength of his personality to force the student into immediate awakening. Again and again he berates them for not having enough faith in themselves, for letting their minds “gallop around” in search of something which they have never lost, and which is “right before you at this very moment.” Awakening for Lin-chi seems primarily a matter of “nerve”–the courage to “let go” without further delay in the unwavering faith that one’s natural, spontaneous functioning is the Buddha mind. His approach to conceptual Buddhism, to the students’ obsession with stages to be reached and goals to be attained, is ruthlessly iconoclastic.

Why do I talk here? Only because you followers of the Tao go galloping around in search of the mind, and are unable to stop it. On the other hand, the ancients acted in a leisurely way, appropriate to circumstances (as they arose). O you followers of the Tao–when you get my point of view you will sit in judgment on top of the … Buddhas’ heads. Those who have completed the ten stages will seem like underlings, and those who have arrived at Supreme Awakening will seem as if they had cangues around their necks. The Arhans and Pratyeka-buddhas are like a dirty privy. Bodhi and nirvana are like hitching-posts for a donkey.39

On the importance of the “natural” or “unaffected” (wu-shih z) life he is especially emphatic:

There is no place in Buddhism for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Relieve your bowels, pass water, put on your clothes, and eat your food. When you’re tired, go and lie down. Ignorant people may laugh at me, but the wise will understand. … As you go from place to place, if you regard each one as your own home, they will all be genuine, for when circumstances come you must not try to change them. Thus your usual habits of feeling, which make karma for the Five Hells, will of themselves become the Great Ocean of Liberation.40

And on creating karma through seeking liberation–

Outside the mind there is no Dharma, and inside also there is nothing to be grasped. What is it that you seek? You say on all sides that the Tao is to be practiced and put to the proof. Don’t be mistaken! If there is anyone who can practice it, this is entirely karma making for birth-and-death. You talk about being perfectly disciplined in your six senses and in the ten thousand ways of conduct, but as I see it all this is creating karma. To seek the Buddha and to seek the Dharma is precisely making karma for the hells.41 aa

In Ma-tsu, Nan-ch’üan, Chao-chou, Huang-po, and Lin-chi we can see the “flavor” of Zen at its best. Taoist and Buddhist as it is in its original inspiration, it is also something more. It is so earthy, so matter-of-fact, and so direct. The difficulty of translating the records of these masters is that their style of Chinese is neither classical nor modern, but rather the colloquial speech of the T’ang dynasty. Its “naturalness” is less refined, less obviously beautiful than that of the Taoist sages and poets; it is almost rough and common. I say “almost” because the expression is not really correct. We are at a loss for parallels from other cultures for comparison, and the Western student can best catch its flavor through observing the works of art which it was subsequently to inspire. The best image might be a garden consisting of no more than an expanse of raked sand, as a ground for several unhewn rocks overgrown with lichens sand, as a ground for several unhewn rocks overgrown with lichens and moss, such as one may see today in the Zen temples of Kyoto. The media are the simplest imaginable; the effect is as if man had hardly touched it, as if it had been transported unchanged from the seashore; but in practice only the most sensitive and experienced artist can achieve it. This sounds, of course, as though “Zen flavor” were a studied and affected primitivism. Sometimes it is. But the genuine Zen flavor is when a man is almost miraculously natural without intending to be so. His Zen life is not to make himself but to grow that way.

Thus it should be obvious that the “naturalness” of these T’ang masters is not to be taken just literally, as if Zen were merely to glory in being a completely ordinary, vulgar fellow who scatters ideals to the wind and behaves as he pleases–for this would in itself be an affectation. The “naturalness” of Zen flourishes only when one has lost affectedness and self-consciousness of every description. But a spirit of this kind comes and goes like the wind, and is the most impossible thing to institutionalize and preserve.

Yet in the late T’ang dynasty the genius and vitality of Zen was such that it was coming to be the dominant form of Buddhism in China, though its relation to other schools was often very close. Tsung-mi (779–841) was simultaneously a Zen master and the Fifth Patriarch of the Hua-yen School, representing the philosophy of the Avatamsaka Sutra. This extremely subtle and mature form of Mahayana philosophy was employed by Tungshan (807–869) in developing the doctrine of the Five Ranks (wu-wei bb), concerning the fivefold relationship of the absolute (cheng cc) and the relative (p’ien dd), and was related by his student Ts’ao-shan (840–901) to the philosophy of the I Ching, the Book of Changes. Fa-yen (885– 958) and Fen-yang (947–1024) were also influential masters who made a deep study of the Hua-yen, and to this day it constitutes as it were the intellectual aspect of Zen. On the other hand, such masters as Te-chao (891–972) and Yen-shou (904–975) maintained close relations with the T’ien-t’ai and Pure Land Schools.

In 845 there was a brief but vigorous persecution of Buddhism by the Taoist Emperor Wu-tsung. Temples and monasteries were destroyed, their lands confiscated, and the monks compelled to destroyed, their lands confiscated, and the monks compelled to return to lay life. Fortunately, his enthusiasm for Taoist alchemy soon involved him in experiments with the “Elixir of Immortality,” and from partaking of this concoction he shortly died. Zen had survived the persecution better than any other school, and now entered into a long era of imperial and popular favor. Hundreds of monks thronged its wealthy monastic institutions, and the fortunes of the school so prospered and its numbers so increased that the preservation of its spirit became a very serious problem.

Popularity almost invariably leads to a deterioration of quality, and as Zen became less of an informal spiritual movement and more of a settled institution, it underwent a curious change of character. It became necessary to “standardize” its methods and to find means for the masters to handle students in large numbers. There were also the special problems which arise for monastic communities when their membership increases, their traditions harden, and their novices tend more and more to be mere boys without natural vocation, sent for training by their pious families. The effect of this last factor upon the development of institutional Zen can hardly be underestimated. For the Zen community became less an association of mature men with spiritual interests, and more of an ecclesiastical boarding school for adolescent boys.

Under such circumstances the problem of discipline became paramount. The Zen masters were forced to concern themselves not only with the way of liberation from convention, but also with the instilling of convention, of ordinary manners and morals, in raw youths. The mature Western student who discovers an interest in Zen as a philosophy or as a way of liberation must be careful to keep this in mind, for otherwise he may be unpleasantly startled by monastic Zen as it exists today in Japan. He will find that Zen is a discipline enforced with the big stick. He will find that, although it is still an effective way of liberation at its “upper end,” its main preoccupation is with a disciplinary regimen which “trains character” in the same way as the old-fashioned British public school or the Jesuit novitiate. But it does the job remarkably well. The “Zen type” is an extremely fine type–as types go–self-reliant, humorous, clean and orderly to a fault, energetic though unhurried, humorous, clean and orderly to a fault, energetic though unhurried, and “hard as nails” without lack of keen aesthetic sensibility. The general impression of these men is that they have the same sort of balance as the Daruma doll: they are not rigid, but no one can knock them down.

Still another crucial problem arises when a spiritual institution comes into prosperity and power–the very human problem of competition for office and of who has the right to be a master. Concern for this problem is reflected in the writing of the Ch’uan Teng Lu, or “Record of the Transmission of the Lamp,” by Tao-yüan in about 1004. For one of the main objects of this work was to establish a proper “apostolic succession” for the Zen tradition, so that no one could claim authority unless his satori had been approved by someone who had been approved … right back to the time of the Buddha himself.

Nothing, however, is more difficult than establishing proper qualifications in the imponderable realm of spiritual insight. Where the candidates are few the problem is not so grave, but where one master is responsible for some hundreds of students the process of teaching and testing requires standardization. Zen solved this problem with remarkable ingenuity, employing a means which not only provided a test of competence but–what was much more–a means of transmitting the Zen experience itself with a minimum of falsification.

This extraordinary invention was the system of the kung-an ee (Japanese, koan) or “Zen problem.” Literally, this term means a “public document” or “case” in the sense of a decision creating a legal precedent. Thus the koan system involves “passing” a series of tests based on the mondo or anecdotes of the old masters. One of the beginning koans is Chao-chou’s answer “Wu” or “No” to the question as to whether a dog has Buddha nature. The student is expected to show that he has experienced the meaning of the koan by a specific and usually nonverbal demonstration which he has to discover intuitively.42

The period of prosperity which came with the tenth and eleventh centuries was attended by a sense of “loss of spirit,” which in turn gave rise to much study of the great T’ang masters. Their anecdotes gave rise to much study of the great T’ang masters. Their anecdotes were subsequently collected in such anthologies as the Pi-yen Lu (1125) and the Wu-men kuan (1229). The use of these anecdotes for the koan method was originated by Yüan-wu (1063–1135) and his disciple Ta-hui (1089–1163), in the tenth or eleventh generation of descent from Lin-chi. However, something which already began to resemble it was employed by Huang-lung (1002–1069) in order to cope with his particularly large following. He devised three test-questions known as “Huang-lung’s Three Barriers”–

Question: Everybody has a place of birth. Where is your place of birth?

Answer: Early this morning I ate white rice gruel. Now I’m hungry again.

Question: How is my hand like the Buddha’s hand?

Answer: Playing the lute under the moon.

Question: How is my foot like a donkey’s foot?

Answer: When the white heron stands in the snow it has a different color.43

No doubt the answers given were the original replies to the questions, but later the problem becomes both the question and its answer, for the student is expected to see into the relationship between the two, which, to say the least, is none too obvious. For the moment, it is enough to say that every koan has a “point” which is some aspect of Zen experience, that its point is often concealed by being made very much more apparent than one would expect, and that koans are concerned not only with the primary awakening to the Void but also with its subsequent expression in life and thought.

The koan system was developed in the Lin-chi (Rinzai) School of Zen, but not without opposition. The Soto School felt that it was much too artificial. Whereas the koan advocates used this technique as a means for encouraging that overwhelming “feeling of doubt” (i ching ff) which they felt to be essential as a prerequisite for satori, the Soto School argued that it lent itself too easily to that very the Soto School argued that it lent itself too easily to that very seeking for satori which thrusts it away, or–what is worse–induces an artificial satori. Adherents of the Rinzai School sometimes say that the intensity of the satori is proportionate to the intensity of the feeling of doubt, of blind seeking, which precedes it, but for Soto this suggests that such a satori has a dualistic character, and is thus no more than an artificial emotional reaction. Thus the Soto view was that proper dhyana lay in motiveless action (wu-wei), in “sitting just to sit,” or “walking just to walk.” The two schools therefore came to be known respectively as k’an-hua Zen (observing the anecdote Zen) and mo-chao Zen (silently illumined Zen).

The Rinzai School of Zen was introduced into Japan in 1191 by the Japanese T’ien-t’ai monk Eisai (1141–1215), who established monasteries at Kyoto and Kamakura under imperial patronage. The Soto School was introduced in 1227 by the extraordinary genius Dogen (1200–1253), who established the great monastery of Eiheiji, refusing, however, to accept imperial favors. It should be noted that Zen arrived in Japan shortly after the beginning of the Kamakura Era, when the military dictator Yoritomo and his samurai followers had seized power from the hands of the then somewhat decadent nobility. This historical coincidence provided the military class, the samurai, with a type of Buddhism which appealed to them strongly because of its practical and earthy qualities and because of the directness and simplicity of its approach. Thus there arose that peculiar way of life called bushido, the Tao of the warrior, which is essentially the application of Zen to the arts of war. The association of the peace-loving doctrine of the Buddha with the military arts has always been a puzzle to Buddhists of other schools. It seems to involve the complete divorce of awakening from morality. But one must face the fact that, in its essence, the Buddhist experience is a liberation from conventions of every kind, including the moral conventions. On the other hand, Buddhism is not a revolt against convention, and in societies where the military caste is an integral part of the conventional structure and the warrior’s role an accepted necessity Buddhism will make it possible for him to fulfill that role as a Buddhist. The medieval cult of chivalry should be no less of a puzzle to the peace-loving Christian.

The contribution of Zen to Japanese culture has by no means been confined to bushido. It has entered into almost every aspect of the people’s life–their architecture, poetry, painting, gardening, their athletics, crafts, and trades; it has penetrated the everyday language and thought of the most ordinary folk. For by the genius of such Zen monks as Dogen, Hakuin, and Bankei, by such poets as Ryokan and Basho, and by such a painter as Sesshu, Zen has been made extraordinarily accessible to the common mind.

Dogen, in particular, made an incalculable contribution to his native land. His immense work, the Shobogenzo (“Treasury of the Eye of the True Doctrine”), was written in the vernacular and covered every aspect of Buddhism from its formal discipline to its profoundest insights. His doctrine of time, change, and relativity is explained with the aid of the most provoking poetic images, and it is only regrettable that no one has yet had the time and talent to translate this work into English. Hakuin (1685–1768) reconstituted the koan system, and is said to have trained no less than eighty successors in Zen. Bankei (1622–1693) found a way of presenting Zen with such ease and simplicity that it seemed almost too good to be true. He spoke to large audiences of farmers and country folk, but no one “important” seems to have dared to follow him.44

Meanwhile, Zen continued to prosper in China until well into the Ming dynasty (1368–1643), when the divisions between the various schools of Buddhism began to fade, and the popularity of the Pure Land School with its “easy way” of invoking the Name of Amitabha began to be fused with koan practice and at last to absorb it. A few Zen communities seem to have survived to the present day, but, so far as I have been able to study them, their emphasis inclines either to Soto or to the more “occultist” preoccupations of Tibetan Buddhism. In either case, their view of Zen seems to be involved with a somewhat complex and questionable doctrine of man’s psychic anatomy, which would appear to derive from Taoist alchemical ideas.45

The history of Chinese Zen raises one problem of great fascination. Both Rinzai and Soto Zen as we find them in Japanese monasteries today put enormous emphasis on za-zen or sitting monasteries today put enormous emphasis on za-zen or sitting meditation, a practice which they follow for many hours of the day–attaching great importance to the correctness of posture and the way of breathing which it involves. To practice Zen is, to all intents and purposes, to practice za-zen, to which the Rinzai School adds sanzen, the periodic visits to the master (roshi) for presenting one’s view of the koan. However, the Shen-hui Ho-chang I-chi records the following conversation between Shen-hui and a certain Ch’eng:

The Master asked Dhyana Master Ch’eng: “What method must be practiced to see into one’s own nature?”

“It is first of all necessary to apply oneself to the practice of sitting cross-legged in samadhi. Once samadhi is obtained, one must, by means of samadhi, awaken prajna in oneself. By prajna one is able to see into one’s own nature.”

(Shen-hui:) “When one practices samadhi, isn’t this a deliberate activity of the mind?”

(Ch’eng:) “Yes.”

(Shen-hui:) “Then this deliberate activity of the mind is an activity of restricted consciousness, and how can it bring seeing into one’s own nature?”

(Ch’eng:) “To see into one’s own nature, it is necessary to practice samadhi. How could one see it otherwise?”

(Shen-hui:) “All practice of samadhi is fundamentally a wrong view. How, by practicing samadhi, could one attain samadhi?” (1.111)

We have already mentioned the incident between Ma-tsu and Huai-jang, in which the latter compared sitting in meditation to polishing a tile for a mirror. On another occasion Huai-jang said:

To train yourself in sitting meditation [za-zen] is to train yourself to be a sitting Buddha. If you train yourself in za-zen, (you should know that) Zen is neither sitting nor lying. If you train yourself to be a sitting Buddha, (you should know that) the Buddha is not a be a sitting Buddha, (you should know that) the Buddha is not a fixed form. Since the Dharma has no (fixed) abode, it is not a matter of making choices. If you (make yourself) a sitting Buddha this is precisely killing the Buddha. If you adhere to the sitting position, you will not attain the principle (of Zen).46 gg

This seems to be the consistent doctrine of all the T’ang masters from Hui-neng to Lin-chi. Nowhere in their teachings have I been able to find any instruction in or recommendation of the type of zazen which is today the principal occupation of Zen monks.47 On the contrary, the practice is discussed time after time in the apparently negative fashion of the two quotations just cited.

It could be assumed that za-zen was so much the normal rule of the Zen monk’s life that our sources do not bother to discuss it, and that their teachings are designed solely for advanced students who have so mastered za-zen that the time has come to go beyond it. This, however, does not agree too well with the references to the enormous clerical and lay audiences attending some of the discourses, since it would be somewhat fantastic to suppose that China was swarming with accomplished yogis. The discourses frequently begin by saying, in a rather brief and offhand fashion, that these teachings are for those who are well trained in the Buddhist virtues. But this could mean no more than that they are for mature people who have mastered the ordinary social and moral conventions, and are therefore not in danger of using Buddhism as a pretext for rebellion against the common decencies.

Alternatively, it could be assumed that the type of za-zen under criticism is za-zen practiced for a purpose, to “get” Buddhahood, instead of “sitting just to sit.” This would concur with the Soto objection to the Rinzai School with its method of cultivating the state of “great doubt” by means of the koan. While the Soto is not quite fair to the Rinzai in this respect, this would certainly be a plausible interpretation of the early masters’ doctrine. However, there are several references to the idea that prolonged sitting is not much better than being dead. There is, of course, a proper place for sitting–along with standing, walking, and lying–but to imagine that sitting contains some special virtue is “attachment to form.” Thus in sitting contains some special virtue is “attachment to form.” Thus in the T’an-ching Hui-neng says:

A living man who sits and does not lie down;
A dead man who lies down and does not sit!
After all these are just dirty skeletons. (8) hh

Even in Japanese Zen one occasionally encounters a Zen practice which lays no special emphasis upon za-zen, but rather stresses the use of one’s ordinary work as the means of meditation. This was certainly true of Bankei,48 and this principle underlies the common use of such arts as “tea ceremony,” flute playing, brush drawing, archery, fencing, and ju-jutsu as ways of practicing Zen. Perhaps, then, the exaggeration of za-zen in later times is part and parcel of the conversion of the Zen monastery into a boys’ training school. To have them sit still for hours on end under the watchful eyes of monitors with sticks is certainly a sure method of keeping them out of mischief.

Yet however much za-zen may have been exaggerated in the Far East, a certain amount of “sitting just to sit” might well be the best thing in the world for the jittery minds and agitated bodies of Europeans and Americans–provided they do not use it as a method for turning themselves into Buddhas.



1 Lankavatara Sutra, II. 14, in Suzuki (3), pp. 49–51. According to tradition this was the favorite sutra of Bodhidharma, the semi-legendary founder of Zen in China. Its connection with Zen is fully discussed in Suzuki (2), pp. 44–63.

2 Saraha’s Treasury of Songs, translated by David Snellgrove in Conze (2), pp. 224–39.

3 The original is:

Mi-mno, mi-bsam, mi-dpyad-ching,
Mi-bsgom, mi-sems, rang-babs-bzhag.

The translation is based upon an elucidation of the passage given me by Mr. Alex Wayman of the University of California. Mi-mno is approximately equivalent to the Zen terms wu-hsin or wu-nien, “no-mind” or “no-thought.” Bsam is the equivalent of the Sanskrit cintana, i.e., discursive thinking about what has been heard, and dpyad of mimamsa, or “philosophical analysis.” Bsgom is probably bhavana or the Chinese hsiu, “to cultivate,” “to practice,” or “intense concentration.” Sems is cetana or szu, with the sense of intention or volition. Rang-babs-bzhag is literally “self-settle-establish,” and “self-settle” would seem to be an almost exact equivalent of the Taoist tzu-jan, “self-so,” “spontaneous,” or “natural.”

4 Quoted by Fung Yu-lan (1), vol. 2, p. 240, from Seng-yu, Ch’u San-tsang Chi-chi, 9.

5 Liebenthal (1), p. 49.

6 The same idea was used even before Dogen by the Zen master Ma-tsu (d. 788): “So with former thoughts, later thoughts, and thoughts in between: the thoughts follow one another without being linked together. Each one is absolutely tranquil.” Ku-tsun-hsü Yü-lu, 1. 4.

7 Liebenthal (1), pp. 71–72.

8 385–433. His Discussion of Essentials (Pien Tsung Lun) is our principal source of information about Tao-sheng’s ideas. See Fung Yu-lan (1), vol. 2, pp. 274–84.

9 Hu Shih (1) and T’ang Yung-t’ing have suggested that Bodhidharma was in China at the earlier date of 420 to 479. See also Fung Yu-lan (1), vol. 2, pp. 386–90, Pelliot (1), and Dumoulin (2).

10 The traditional sources are Tao-hsüan’s Sung-kao Seng-chuan (Taisho 2061), composed between 645 and 667, and Tao-yüan’s Ching Te Ch’uan Teng Lu (Taisho 2076), written about 1004.

11 Works attributed to Bodhidharma will be found in Suzuki (1), vol. 1, pp. 165–70, and Senzaki and McCandless (1), pp. 73–84. The style is always Indian and lacks Taoist “flavor.”

12 Hui-neng’s Tan Ching, for example, records several instances of the Sixth Patriarch’s interviews with dhyana masters who obviously did not belong to his own “sudden school” of dhyana. Furthermore, it was not until the time of Po-chang (720–814), or even later, that the Zen School had monasteries of its own. See Dumoulin and Sasaki (1), p. 13.

13 Ch’uan Teng Lu, 3.

14 Suzuki (1), vol. 1, pp. 170–71.

15 Wu-men kuan, 41.

16 In modern Chinese the first two characters mean something like “worldly” or “outside the fold.” In the present context they are usually taken to mean that the truth of Zen cannot be expressed in any form of doctrine, or that a teacher can do no more than show how to get it for oneself. However, the marvelous ambiguity of Chinese might intentionally allow both meanings. Consider the predominantly “secular” form of Zen expression, and such sayings as “Wash out your mouth every time you say, ‘Buddha!’ ”

17 Translations will be found in Suzuki (1), vol. 1, p. 182, and a revision in Suzuki (6), p. 91. Another by Arthur Waley is in Conze (2) p. 295.

18 The last two lines carry the same point as Hui-k’o’s interview with Bodhidharma.

19 Ch’uan Teng Lu, 3.

20 Ch’uam Teng Lu, 3.

21 Ta-ch’eng Chih-kuan Fa-men, Taisho 1924.

22 T’an-ching, 1. The full title of the work which records the life and teaching of Huineng is the Platform-Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, or Liu-tsu T’an-ching, Taisho 2008. For translations, see Bibliography under Wong Mou-lam and Rousselle.

23 A state of total confusion prevails among writers on Zen as to the naming of the great T’ang masters. For example, Shen-hui’s full name is Ho-tse Shen-hui, of which the Japanese pronunciation is Kataku Jinne. Shen-hui is his monastic name, and Ho-tse designates his locality. Japanese writers usually refer to him as Jinne, using the personal monastic name. On the other hand, Hsüan-chüeh is Yung-chia Hsüan-chüeh, in Japanese Yoka Genkaku. But the Japanese writers usually employ his locality name, Yoka! On the whole, Suzuki uses locality names and Fung Yu-lan monastic names. Suzuki sometimes gives the Japanese form, and sometimes the Chinese, but uses a somewhat different way of romanizing the Chinese than Fung (or rather Bodde, the translator). Lin-chi I-hsüan (Rinzai Gigen) appears in Suzuki mostly as Rinzai and sometimes as Lin-chi, but in Fung he is Yi-hsüan! Dumoulin and Sasaki make some attempt at consistency by using only the Japanese forms, but then it is impossible at first sight to distinguish Chinese from Japanese individuals. Thus anyone who studies Zen from other than the original sources is confronted with a situation which makes historical clarity extremely difficult. Suzuki has been so widely read that most Western students of Zen are familiar with his usage, however inconsistent, and I do not want to confuse them further by such an attempt at consistency as calling Hui-neng by his locality name, Ta-chien. All I can offer is an index giving all the names. To make matters worse, there is also much confusion with respect to dates. For Shen-hui, Fung gives 686–760, Gernet 668–760, and Dumoulin and Sasaki 668–770.

24 This period is treated in detail in Dumoulin and Sasaki (1). Demiéville (2) has translated a Tun-huang ms. (Pelliot 4646) concerning a debate held at Lhasa c. 792– 794 between a master of the Sudden Ch’an School and a group of Indian Buddhist scholars. The Ch’an master is identified only by the name “Mahayana” and there is apparently nothing to link him with the tradition descending from Hui-neng. His doctrine seems to be somewhat more quietistic than that of the Sixth Patriarch. The fact that the Indian scholars were astonished and repelled by his teaching suggests its purely Chinese origin.

25 Shen-hui Ho-chang I-chi. The Chinese text has been edited by Hu Shih, Shanghai, 1930.

26 I.e., the Dharmakaya, for which see above, p. 71. Full translations of the Cheng-tao Ke (Japanese, Shodoka) will be found in Suzuki (6) and Senzaki and McCandless (1).

27 Ch’uan Teng Lu, 5.

28 Ku-tsun-hsü Yü-lu, 1. 6.

29 Ibid., 1. 4.

30 In Suzuki (6), p. 123.

31 Wu-men kuan, 19.

32 Ibid., 1.

33 Ibid., 7.

34 Chao-chou Yü-lu, in Ku-tsun-hsü Yü-lu, 3. 13.

35 The somewhat misleading word “monk” seems to be the inevitable translation of seng,x though yun shui,v “cloud and water,” is a common and revealingly picturesque term for the Zen student, who “drifts like a cloud and flows like water.” But I am at a loss to find a concise English expression for this term.

36 In Chu Ch’an (1), pp. 16 and 18. Another partial translation appears in Suzuki (6), pp. 132–40.

37 In Chu Ch’an (1), pp. 42–43.

38 Ch’uan Teng Lu, 12.

39 Lin-chi Lu in Ku-tsun-hsü Yü-lu, 1. 4, pp. 5–6.

40 Ibid., p. 7.

41 Ibid., p. 11.

42 For a fuller description see below, p. 159. In its Japanese form Koan, the syllables are pronounced separately-Ko-an.

43 Jen-t’ien Yen-mu, 2.

44 Because my purpose is only to give enough of the history of Zen to serve as a background for its doctrine and practice, I am not entering into any full discussion of its history in Japan. The work of Dogen, Hakuin, Bankei, and others will be discussed in another context.

45 An example of this fusion may be seen in the T’ai I Chin Hua Tsung Chih, a treatise of the Ming or perhaps Ch’ing dynasty, for which see Wilhelm (1).

46 Ku-tsun-hsü Yü-lu, 1. 1, p. 2.

47 It is true that a text known as the T’so-chan I, or “Directions for Za-zen,” is incorporated in the Po-chang Ching-kuei–the regulations for the Zen community attributed to Po-chang (720–814)–and that the regulations themselves prescribe times for meditation. However, we can find no edition of this work prior to 1265 (Suzuki), and it may even be as late as 1338 (Dumoulin). The existing version shows the influence of the Shingon sect, which is akin to Tibetan Lamaism and came to China during the eighth century.

48 See Suzuki (10), pp. 176–80.
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Re: The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

Postby admin » Tue Aug 27, 2019 4:57 am



The opening words of the oldest Zen poem say that

The perfect Way [Tao] is without difficulty,
Save that it avoids picking and choosing.
Only when you stop liking and disliking
Will all be clearly understood.
A split hair’s difference,
And heaven and earth are set apart!
If you want to get the plain truth,
Be not concerned with right and wrong.
The conflict between right and wrong
Is the sickness of the mind.1 a

The point is not to make an effort to silence the feelings and cultivate bland indifference. It is to see through the universal illusion that what is pleasant or good may be wrested from what is painful or evil. It was a first principle in Taoism that

When everyone recognizes beauty as beautiful, there is already ugliness;
When everyone recognizes goodness as good, there is already evil.
“To be” and “not to be” arise mutually;
Difficult and easy are mutually realized;
Long and short are mutually contrasted;
High and low are mutually posited; …
Before and after are in mutual sequence.2

To see this is to see that good without evil is like up without down, and that to make an ideal of pursuing the good is like trying to get rid of the left by turning constantly to the right. One is therefore compelled to go round in circles.3

The logic of this is so simple that one is tempted to think it oversimple. The temptation is all the stronger because it upsets the fondest illusion of the human mind, which is that in the course of time everything may be made better and better. For it is the general opinion that were this not possible the life of man would lack all meaning and incentive. The only alternative to a life of constant progress is felt to be a mere existence, static and dead, so joyless and inane that one might as well commit suicide. The very notion of this “only alternative” shows how firmly the mind is bound in a dualistic pattern, how hard it is to think in any other terms than good or bad, or a muddy mixture of the two.

Yet Zen is a liberation from this pattern, and its apparently dismal starting point is to understand the absurdity of choosing, of the whole feeling that life may be significantly improved by a constant selection of the “good.” One must start by “getting the feel” of relativity, and by knowing that life is not a situation from which there is anything to be grasped or gained–as if it were something which one approaches from outside, like a pie or a barrel of beer. To succeed is always to fail–in the sense that the more one succeeds in anything, the greater is the need to go on succeeding. To eat is to survive to be hungry.

The illusion of significant improvement arises in moments of contrast, as when one turns from the left to the right on a hard bed. The position is “better” so long as the contrast remains, but before long the second position begins to feel like the first. So one acquires a more comfortable bed and, for a while, sleeps in peace. But the solution of the problem leaves a strange vacuum in one’s consciousness, a vacuum soon filled by the sensation of another intolerable contrast, hitherto unnoticed, and just as urgent, just as frustrating as the problem of the hard bed. The vacuum arises because the sensation of comfort can be maintained only in relation to the sensation of discomfort, just as an image is visible to the eye to the sensation of discomfort, just as an image is visible to the eye only by reason of a contrasting background. The good and the evil, the pleasant and the painful are so inseparable, so identical in their difference-like the two sides of a coin-that

Fair is foul, and foul is fair,

or, in the words of a poem in the Zenrin Kushu:4

To receive trouble is to receive good fortune;
To receive agreement is to receive opposition.b

Another puts it more vividly:

At dusk the cock announces dawn;
At midnight, the bright sun.c

Zen does not, for this reason, take the attitude that it is so futile to eat when hungry that one may as well starve, nor is it so inhuman as to say that when we itch we should not scratch. Disillusionment with the pursuit of the good does not involve the evil of stagnation as its necessary alternative, for the human situation is like that of “fleas on a hot griddle.” None of the alternatives offer a solution, for the flea who falls must jump, and the flea who jumps must fall. Choosing is absurd because there is no choice.

To the dualistic mode of thought it will therefore seem that the standpoint of Zen is that of fatalism as opposed to free choice. When Mu-chou was asked, “We dress and eat every day, and how do we escape from having to put on clothes and eat food?” he answered, “We dress; we eat.” “I don’t understand,” said the monk. “If you don’t understand, put on your clothes and eat your food.” 5 d On being asked how to escape from the “heat,” another master directed the questioner to the place where it is neither hot nor cold. When asked to explain himself he replied, “In summer we sweat; in winter we shiver.” Or, as a poem puts it:

When cold, we gather round the hearth before the blazing fire;
When hot, we sit on the bank of the mountain stream in the bamboo grove.6 e

And from this point of view one can

See the sun in the midst of the rain;
Scoop clear water from the heart of the fire.f

But the viewpoint is not fatalistic. It is not simply submission to the inevitability of sweating when it is hot, shivering when it is cold, eating when hungry, and sleeping when tired. Submission to fate implies someone who submits, someone who is the helpless puppet of circumstances, and for Zen there is no such person. The duality of subject and object, of the knower and the known, is seen to be just as relative, as mutual, as inseparable as every other. We do not sweat because it is hot; the sweating is the heat. It is just as true to say that the sun is light because of the eyes as to say that the eyes see light because of the sun. The viewpoint is unfamiliar because it is our settled convention to think that heat comes first and then, by causality, the body sweats. To put it the other way round is startling, like saying “cheese and bread” instead of “bread and cheese.” Thus the Zenrin Kushu says:

Fire does not wait for the sun to be hot
Nor the wind for the moon, to be cool.

This shocking and seemingly illogical reversal of common sense may perhaps be clarified by the favorite Zen image of “the moon in the water.” The phenomenon moon-in-the-water is likened to human experience. The water is the subject, and the moon the object. When there is no water, there is no moon-in-the-water, and likewise when there is no moon. But when the moon rises the water does not wait to receive its image, and when even the tiniest drop of water is poured out the moon does not wait to cast its reflection. For the moon does not intend to cast its reflection, and reflection. For the moon does not intend to cast its reflection, and the water does not receive its image on purpose. The event is caused as much by the water as by the moon, and as the water manifests the brightness of the moon, the moon manifests the clarity of the water. Another poem in the Zenrin Kushu says:

Trees show the bodily form of the wind;
Waves give vital energy to the moon.g

To put it less poetically–human experience is determined as much by the nature of the mind and the structure of its senses as by the external objects whose presence the mind reveals. Men feel themselves to be victims or puppets of their experience because they separate “themselves” from their minds, thinking that the nature of the mind-body is something involuntarily thrust upon “them.” They think that they did not ask to be born, did not ask to be “given” a sensitive organism to be frustrated by alternating pleasure and pain. But Zen asks us to find out “who” it is that “has” this mind, and “who” it was that did not ask to be born before father and mother conceived us. Thence it appears that the entire sense of subjective isolation, of being the one who was “given” a mind and to whom experience happens, is an illusion of bad semantics–the hypnotic suggestion of repeated wrong thinking. For there is no “myself” apart from the mind-body which gives structure to my experience. It is likewise ridiculous to talk of this mind-body as something which was passively and involuntarily “given” a certain structure. It is that structure, and before the structure arose there was no mind-body.

Our problem is that the power of thought enables us to construct symbols of things apart from the things themselves. This includes the ability to make a symbol, an idea of ourselves apart from ourselves. Because the idea is so much more comprehensible than the reality, the symbol so much more stable than the fact, we learn to identify ourselves with our idea of ourselves. Hence the subjective feeling of a “self” which “has” a mind, of an inwardly isolated subject to whom experiences involuntarily happen. With its characteristic emphasis on the concrete, Zen points out that our characteristic emphasis on the concrete, Zen points out that our precious “self” is just an idea, useful and legitimate enough if seen for what it is, but disastrous if identified with our real nature. The unnatural awkwardness of a certain type of self-consciousness comes into being when we are aware of conflict or contrast between the idea of ourselves, on the one hand, and the immediate, concrete feeling of ourselves, on the other.

When we are no longer identified with the idea of ourselves, the entire relationship between subject and object, knower and known, undergoes a sudden and revolutionary change. It becomes a real relationship, a mutuality in which the subject creates the object just as much as the object creates the subject. The knower no longer feels himself to be independent of the known; the experiencer no longer feels himself to stand apart from the experience. Consequently the whole notion of getting something “out” of life, of seeking something “from” experience, becomes absurd. To put it in another way, it becomes vividly clear that in concrete fact I have no other self than the totality of things of which I am aware. This is the Hua-yen (Kegon) doctrine of the net of jewels, of shih shih wu ai (Japanese, ji ji mu ge), in which every jewel contains the reflection of all the others.

The sense of subjective isolation is also based on a failure to see the relativity of voluntary and involuntary events. This relativity is easily felt by watching one’s breath, for by a slight change of viewpoint it is as easy to feel that “I breathe” as that “It breathes me.” We feel that our actions are voluntary when they follow a decision, and involuntary when they happen without decision. But if decision itself were voluntary, every decision would have to be preceded by a decision to decide–an infinite regression which fortunately does not occur. Oddly enough, if we had to decide to decide, we would not be free to decide. We are free to decide because decision “happens.” We just decide without having the faintest understanding of how we do it. In fact, it is neither voluntary nor involuntary. To “get the feel” of this relativity is to find another extraordinary transformation of our experience as a whole, which may be described in either of two ways. I feel that I am deciding everything that happens, or, I feel that everything, am deciding everything that happens, or, I feel that everything, including my decisions, is just happening spontaneously. For a decision–the freest of my actions-just happens like hiccups inside me or like a bird singing outside me.

Such a way of seeing things is vividly described by a modern Zen master, the late Sokei-an Sasaki:

One day I wiped out all the notions from my mind. I gave up all desire. I discarded all the words with which I thought and stayed in quietude. I felt a little queer–as if I were being carried into something, or as if I were touching some power unknown to me … and Ztt! I entered. I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos. I spoke, but my words had lost their meaning. I saw people coming towards me, but all were the same man. All were myself! I had never known this world. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos; no individual Mr. Sasaki existed.7

It would seem, then, that to get rid of the subjective distinction between “me” and “my experience”–through seeing that my idea of myself is not myself–is to discover the actual relationship between myself and the “outside” world. The individual, on the one hand, and the world, on the other, are simply the abstract limits or terms of a concrete reality which is “between” them, as the concrete coin is “between” the abstract, Euclidean surfaces of its two sides. Similarly, the reality of all “inseparable opposites”–life and death, good and evil, pleasure and pain, gain and loss–is that “between” for which we have no words.

Man’s identification with his idea of himself gives him a specious and precarious sense of permanence. For this idea is relatively fixed, being based upon carefully selected memories of his past, memories which have a preserved and fixed character. Social convention encourages the fixity of the idea because the very usefulness of symbols depends upon their stability. Convention therefore encourages him to associate his idea of himself with equally abstract and symbolic roles and stereotypes, since these will equally abstract and symbolic roles and stereotypes, since these will help him to form an idea of himself which will be definite and intelligible. But to the degree that he identifies himself with the fixed idea, he becomes aware of “life” as something which flows past him–faster and faster as he grows older, as his idea becomes more rigid, more bolstered with memories. The more he attempts to clutch the world, the more he feels it as a process in motion.

On one occasion Ma-tsu and Po-chang were out for a walk, when they saw some wild geese flying past.

“What are they?” asked Ma-tsu.

“They’re wild geese,” said Po-chang.

“Where are they going?” demanded Ma-tsu.

Po-chang replied, “They’ve already flown away.”

Suddenly Ma-tsu grabbed Po-chang by the nose and twisted it so that he cried out in pain.

“How,” shouted Ma-tsu, “could they ever have flown away?”

This was the moment of Po-chang’s awakening.8

The relativity of time and motion is one of the principal themes of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, where he writes:

If we watch the shore while we are sailing in a boat, we feel that the shore is moving. But if we look nearer to the boat itself, we know then that it is the boat which moves. When we regard the universe in confusion of body and mind, we often get the mistaken belief that our mind is constant. But if we actually practice (Zen) and come back to ourselves, we see that this was wrong.

When firewood becomes ashes, it never returns to being firewood. But we should not take the view that what is latterly ashes was formerly firewood. What we should understand is that, according to the doctrine of Buddhism, firewood stays at the position of firewood.… There are former and later stages, but these stages are clearly cut.

It is the same with life and death. Thus we say in Buddhism that the Un-born is also the Un-dying. Life is a position of time. Death is a position of time. They are like winter and spring, and Death is a position of time. They are like winter and spring, and in Buddhism we do not consider that winter becomes spring, or that spring becomes summer.9

Dogen is here trying to express the strange sense of timeless moments which arises when one is no longer trying to resist the flow of events, the peculiar stillness and self-sufficiency of the succeeding instants when the mind is, as it were, going along with them and not trying to arrest them. A similar view is expressed thus by Ma-tsu:

A sutra says, “It is only a group of elements which come together to make this body.” When it arises, only these elements arise. When it ceases, only these elements cease. But when these elements arise, do not say, “I am arising,” and when they cease, do not say, “I am ceasing.” So, too, with our former thoughts, later thoughts, and intervening thoughts (or, experiences): the thoughts follow one another without being linked together. Each one is absolutely tranquil.10 h

Buddhism has frequently compared the course of time to the apparent motion of a wave, wherein the actual water only moves up and down, creating the illusion of a “piece” of water moving over the surface. It is a similar illusion that there is a constant “self” moving through successive experiences, constituting a link between them in such a way that the youth becomes the man who becomes the graybeard who becomes the corpse.

Connected, then, with the pursuit of the good is the pursuit of the future, the illusion whereby we are unable to be happy without a “promising future” for the symbolic self. Progress towards the good is therefore measured in terms of the prolongation of human life, forgetting that nothing is more relative than our sense of the length of time. A Zen poem says:

The morning glory which blooms for an hour
Differs not at heart from the giant pine,
Which lives for a thousand years.

Subjectively, a gnat doubtless feels that its span of a few days is a reasonably long lifetime. A tortoise, with its span of several hundred years, would feel subjectively the same as the gnat. Not so long ago the life expectancy of the average man was about forty- five years. Today it is from sixty-five to seventy years, but subjectively the years are faster, and death, when it comes, is always all too soon. As Dogen said:

The flowers depart when we hate to lose them;
The weeds arrive while we hate to watch them grow.

This is perfectly natural, perfectly human, and no pulling and stretching of time will make it otherwise.

On the contrary, the measuring of worth and success in terms of time, and the insistent demand for assurances of a promising future, make it impossible to live freely both in the present and in the “promising” future when it arrives. For there is never anything but the present, and if one cannot live there, one cannot live anywhere. The Shobogenzo says:

When a fish swims, he swims on and on, and there is no end to the water. When a bird flies, he flies on and on, and there is no end to the sky. From the most ancient times there was never a fish who swam out of the water, nor a bird who flew out of the sky. Yet when the fish needs just a little water, he uses just a little; and when he needs lots, he uses lots. Thus the tips of their heads are always at the outer edge (of their space). If ever a bird flies beyond that edge, he dies, and so also with the fish. From the water the fish makes his life, and from the sky, the bird. But this life is made by the bird and the fish. At the same time, the bird and the fish are made by life. Thus there are the fish, the water, and life, and all three create each other.

Yet if there were a bird who first wanted to examine the size of the sky, or a fish who first wanted to examine the extent of the water–and then try to fly or to swim, they will never find their own ways in the sky or water.11

This is not a philosophy of not looking where one is going; it is a philosophy of not making where one is going so much more important than where one is that there will be no point in going.

The life of Zen begins, therefore, in a disillusion with the pursuit of goals which do not really exist–the good without the bad, the gratification of a self which is no more than an idea, and the morrow which never comes. For all these things are a deception of symbols pretending to be realities, and to seek after them is like walking straight into a wall upon which some painter has, by the convention of perspective, suggested an open passage. In short, Zen begins at the point where there is nothing further to seek, nothing to be gained. Zen is most emphatically not to be regarded as a system of self-improvement, or a way of becoming a Buddha. In the words of Lin-chi, “If a man seeks the Buddha, that man loses the Buddha.”

For all ideas of self-improvement and of becoming or getting something in the future relate solely to our abstract image of ourselves. To follow them is to give ever more reality to that image. On the other hand, our true, nonconceptual self is already the Buddha, and needs no improvement. In the course of time it may grow, but one does not blame an egg for not being a chicken; still less does one criticize a pig for having a shorter neck than a giraffe. A Zenrin poem says:

In the landscape of spring there is neither high nor low;
The flowering branches grow naturally, some long, some short.i

When Ts’ui-wei was asked about the meaning of Buddhism, he answered: “Wait until there is no one around, and I will tell you.” Some time later the monk approached him again, saying: “There is nobody here now. Please answer me.” Ts’ui-wei led him out into the garden and went over to the bamboo grove, saying nothing. Still the monk did not understand, so at last Ts’ui-wei said: “Here is a tall bamboo; there is a short one!”12 Or, as another Zenrin verse tall bamboo; there is a short one!” Or, as another Zenrin verse puts it:

A long thing is the long Body of Buddha;
A short thing is the short Body of Buddha.j

What is therefore to be gained from Zen is called wu-shih (Japanese, buji) or “nothing special,” for as the Buddha says in the Vajracchedika:

I obtained not the least thing from unexcelled, complete awakening, and for this very reason it is called “unexcelled, complete awakening.” (22)

The expression wu-shih also has the sense of the perfectly natural and unaffected, in which there is no “fuss” or “business.” The attainment of satori is often suggested by the old Chinese poem:

Mount Lu in misty rain; the River Che at high tide.
When I had not been there, no rest from the pain of longing!
I went there and returned.… It was nothing special:
Mount Lu in misty rain; the River Che at high tide.

According to the famous saying of Ch’ing-yüan:

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.13 k

The difficulty of Zen is, of course, to shift one’s attention from the abstract to the concrete, from the symbolic self to one’s true nature. So long as we merely talk about it, so long as we turn over ideas in our minds about “symbol” and “reality,” or keep repeating, “I am our minds about “symbol” and “reality,” or keep repeating, “I am not my idea of myself,” this is still mere abstractíon. Zen created the method (upaya) of “direct pointing” in order to escape from this vicious circle, in order to thrust the real immediately to our notice. When reading a difficult book it is of no help to think, “I should concentrate,” for one thinks about concentration instead of what the book has to say. Likewise, in studying or practicing Zen it is of no help to think about Zen. To remain caught up in ideas and words about Zen is, as the old masters say, to “stink of Zen.”  

For this reason the masters talk about Zen as little as possible, and throw its concrete reality straight at us. This reality is the “suchness” (tathata) of our natural, nonverbal world. If we see this just as it is, there is nothing good, nothing bad, nothing inherently long or short, nothing subjective and nothing objective. There is no symbolic self to be forgotten, and no need for any idea of a concrete reality to be remembered.

A monk asked Chao-chou, “For what reason did the First Patriarch come from the West?” (This is a formal question, asking for the central point of Bodhidharma’s teaching, i.e., of Zen itself.)

Chao-chou answered: “The cypress tree in the yard.”

“Aren’t you trying,” said the monk, “to demonstrate it by means of an objective reality?”

“I am not!” retorted the master.

“For what reason, then, did the First Patriarch come from the West?”

“The cypress tree in the yard!”14

Notice how Chao-chou whips the monk out of his conceptualization about the answer. When T’ung-shan was asked, “What is the Buddha?” he answered, “Three pounds of flax!” Upon this Yüan-wu comments:

Various answers have been given by different masters to the question, “What is the Buddha?” … None, however, can excel T’ung-shan’s “three pounds (chin) of flax” as regards its irrationality which cuts off all passage of speculation. Some comment that T’ung-shan was weighing flax at the moment, hence the answer.… Still others think that as the questioner was hence the answer.… Still others think that as the questioner was not conscious of the fact that he himself was the Buddha, T’ungshan answered him in this indirect way. Such are all like corpses, for they are utterly unable to comprehend the living truth. There are still others who take the “three pounds of flax” as the Buddha. What wild and fantastic remarks they make!15

The masters are resolute in cutting short all theorizing and speculation about these answers. “Direct pointing” entirely fails in its intention if it requires or stimulates any conceptual comment.

Fa-yen asked the monk Hsüan-tzu why he had never asked him any questions about Zen. The monk explained that he had already attained his understanding from another master. Pressed by Fa-yen for an explanation, the monk said that when he had asked his teacher, “What is the Buddha?” he had received the answer, “Pingting T’ung-tzu comes for fire!”

“A good answer!” said Fa-yen. “But I’m sure you don’t understand it.”

“Ping-ting,” explained the monk, “is the god of fire. For him to be seeking for fire is like myself, seeking the Buddha. I’m the Buddha already, and no asking is needed.”

“Just as I thought!” laughed Fa-yen. “You didn’t get it.”

The monk was so offended that he left the monastery, but later repented of himself and returned, humbly requesting instruction.

“You ask me,” said Fa-yen.

“What is the Buddha?” inquired the monk.

“Ping-ting T’ung-tzu comes for fire!”16

The point of this mondo is perhaps best indicated by two poems submitted by the Pure Land Buddhist Ippen Shonin to the Zen master Hoto, translated by Suzuki from the Sayings of Ippen. Ippen was one of those who studied Zen to find a rapprochement between Zen and the Pure Land School, with its practice of repeating the Name of Amitabha. In Japanese, the formula is “Namu Amida Butsu!” Ippen first presented this verse:

When the Name is uttered,
Neither the Buddha nor the self
Neither the Buddha nor the self
There is:
The voice alone is heard.

Hoto, however, felt that this did not quite express the point, but gave his approval when Ippen submitted a second verse:

When the Name is uttered,
Neither the Buddha nor the self
There is:

Po-chang had so many students that he had to open a second monastery. To find a suitable person as its master, he called his monks together and set a pitcher before them, saying:

“Without calling it a pitcher, tell me what it is.”

The head monk said, “You couldn’t call it a piece of wood.”

At this the monastery cook kicked the pitcher over and walked away. The cook was put in charge of the new monastery.18 One of Nan-ch’üan’s lectures is worth quoting here:

During the period (kalpa) before the world was manifested there were no names. The moment the Buddha arrives in the world there are names, and so we clutch hold of forms. In the great Tao there is absolutely nothing secular or sacred. If there are names, everything is classified in limits and bounds. Therefore the old man West of the River (i.e., Ma-tsu) said: “It is not mind; it is not Buddha; it is not a thing.”19 l

This, of course, reflects the doctrine of the Tao Te Ching that

The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth;
Naming is the mother of the ten thousand things (1).

But Lao-tzu’s “nameless” and Nan-ch’üan’s “kalpa of the void” before the manifestation of the world are not prior to the before the manifestation of the world are not prior to the conventional world of things in time. They are the “suchness” of the world just as it is now, and to which the Zen masters are directly pointing. Po-chang’s cook was living wide awake in that world, and answered the master’s problem in its concrete and nameless terms.

A monk asked Ts’ui-wei, “For what reason did the First Patriarch come from the West?”

Ts’ui-wei answered, “Pass me that chin-rest.”

As soon as the monk passed it, Ts’ui-wei hit him with it.20

Another master was having tea with two of his students when he suddenly tossed his fan to one of them, saying, “What’s this?” The student opened it and fanned himself. “Not bad,” was his comment. “Now you,” he went on, passing it to the other student, who at once closed the fan and scratched his neck with it. This done, he opened it again, placed a piece of cake on it, and offered it to the master. This was considered even better, for when there are no names the world is no longer “classified in limits and bounds.”

There is, no doubt, some parallel between these demonstrations and the viewpoint of Korzybskian semantics. There is the same stress on the importance of avoiding confusion between words and signs, on the one hand, and the infinitely variable “unspeakable” world, on the other. Class demonstrations of semantic principles often resemble types of mondo. Professor Irving Lee, of Northwestern University, used to hold up a matchbox before his class, asking “What’s this?” The students would usually drop squarely into the trap and say, “A matchbox!” At this Professor Lee would say, “No, no! It’s this–” throwing the matchbox at the class, and adding, “Matchbox is a noise. Is this a noise?”

However, it would seem that Korzybski still thought of the “unspeakable” world as a multiplicity of infinitely differentiated events. For Zen, the world of “suchness” is neither one nor many, neither uniform nor differentiated. A Zen master might hold up his hand–to someone insisting that there are real differences in the world–and say, “Without saying a word, point to the difference between my fingers.” At once it is clear that “sameness” and “difference” are abstractions. The same would have to be said of all categorizations of the concrete world–even “concrete” itself–for such categorizations of the concrete world–even “concrete” itself–for such terms as “physical,” “material,” “objective,” “real,” and “existential” are extremely abstract symbols. Indeed, the more one tries to define them, the more meaningless they turn out to be.

The world of “suchness” is void and empty because it teases the mind out of thought, dumbfounding the chatter of definition so that there is nothing left to be said. Yet it is obvious that we are not confronted with literal nothingness. It is true that, when pressed, every attempt to catch hold of our world leaves us empty-handed. Furthermore, when we try to be sure at least of ourselves, the knowing, catching subjects, we disappear. We cannot find any self apart from the mind, and we cannot find any mind apart from those very experiences which the mind–now vanished–was trying to grasp. In R. H. Blyth’s arresting metaphor, when we were just about to swat the fly, the fly flew up and sat on the swatter. In terms of immediate perception, when we look for things there is nothing but mind, and when we look for mind there is nothing but things. For a moment we are paralyzed, because it seems that we have no basis for action, no ground under foot from which to take a jump. But this is the way it always was, and in the next moment we find ourselves as free to act, speak, and think as ever, yet in a strange and miraculous new world from which “self” and “other,” “mind” and “things” have vanished. In the words of Te-shan:

Only when you have no thing in your mind and no mind in things are you vacant and spiritual, empty and marvelous.21 m

The marvel can only be described as the peculiar sensation of freedom in action which arises when the world is no longer felt to be some sort of obstacle standing over against one. This is not freedom in the crude sense of “kicking over the traces” and behaving in wild caprice. It is the discovery of freedom in the most ordinary tasks, for when the sense of subjective isolation vanishes, the world is no longer felt as an intractable object.

Yün-men once said, “Our school lets you go any way you like. It kills and it brings to life–either way.”

A monk then asked, “How does it kill?”

A monk then asked, “How does it kill?”

The master replied, “Winter goes and spring comes.”

“How,” asked the monk, “is it when winter goes and spring comes?”

The master said, “Shouldering a staff you wander this way and that, East or West, South or North, knocking at the wild stumps as you please.”22 n

The passing of the seasons is not passively suffered, but “happens” as freely as one wanders in the fields, knocking at old stumps with a stick. In the context of Christianity this might be interpreted as feeling that one has become omnipotent, that one is God, directing everything that happens. However, it must be remembered that in Taoist and Buddhist thought there is no conception of a God who deliberately and consciously governs the universe. Lao-tzu said of the Tao:

To its accomplishments it lays no claim.
It loves and nourishes all things,
but does not lord it over them. (34)
The Tao, without doing anything (wu-wei),
leaves nothing undone. (37)

To use the imagery of a Tibetan poem, every action, every event comes of itself from the Void “as from the surface of a clear lake there leaps suddenly a fish.” When this is seen to be as true of the deliberate and the routine as of the surprising and the unforeseen, one can agree with the Zen poet P’ang-yun:

Miraculous power and marvelous activity–
Drawing water and hewing wood!23 o



1 Seng-ts’an, Hsin-hsin Ming.

2 Tao Te Ching, 2.

3 Believe it or not, there is actually a politician in San Francisco who so detests the political Left Wing that he will not make a left turn with his car.

4 The Zenrin Kushu is an anthology of some five thousand two-line poems, compiled by Toyo Eicho (1429–1504). Its purpose was to provide Zen students with a source-book of verses from which to select couplets expressing the theme of a newly solved koan. Many masters require such a verse as soon as the proper answer to the koan has been given. The couplets have been drawn from a vast variety of Chinese sources-Buddhist, Taoist, classical literature, popular songs, etc.

5 Mu-chou Lu, in Ku-tsun-hsü Yü-lu, 2. 6.

6 Zenrin Ruishu, 2.

7 “The Transcendental World,” Zen Notes, vol. 1, no. 5. First Zen Institute of America. New York, 1954.

8 Pi-yen Chi.

9 Shobogenzo, fasc. 1. For this translation I am indebted to my colleague Professor Sabro Hasegawa.

10 Ku-tsun-hsü Yü-lu, 1. 2. 4.

11 Shobogenzo, fasc. 1. Read to the author by Sabro Hasegawa.

12 Ch’uan Teng Lu, 15.

13 Ch’uan Teng Lu, 22.

14 Chao-chou Lu in Ku-tsun-hsü Yü-lu, 3. 13.

15 Pi-yen Chi, 12, in Suzuki (1), vol. 2, pp. 71–72.

16 Ch’uan Teng Lu, 25.

17 Suzuki (1), vol. 2, p. 263.

18 Wu-men kuan, 40. However, as Wu-men comments, he fell right into Po-chang’s trap, because he exchanged an easy job for a difficult one!

19 Nan-ch’üan Yü-lu in Ku-tsun-hsü Yü-lu, 3. 12.

20 Pi-yen Lu, 20. The chin-rest is the ch’an-pan, a board for supporting the chin during long meditation.

21 Lien-teng Hui-yao, 22. This is Ruth Sasaki’s elegant translation in Dumoulin and Sasaki (1), p. 48, where she points out that in this context “spiritual” connotes a state beyond expression in words.

22 Yün-men Kuang-lu, in Ku-tsun-hsü Yü-lu, 4. 16.

23 Ch’uan Teng Lu, 8.
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Re: The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

Postby admin » Tue Aug 27, 2019 4:59 am


In both life and art the cultures of the Far East appreciate nothing more highly than spontaneity or naturalness (tzu-jan). This is the unmistakable tone of sincerity marking the action which is not studied and contrived. For a man rings like a cracked bell when he thinks and acts with a split mind-one part standing aside to interfere with the other, to control, to condemn, or to admire. But the mind, or the true nature, of man cannot actually be split. According to a Zenrin poem, it is

Like a sword that cuts, but cannot cut itself;
Like an eye that sees, but cannot see itself.a

The illusion of the split comes from the mind’s attempt to be both itself and its idea of itself, from a fatal confusion of fact with symbol. To make an end of the illusion, the mind must stop trying to act upon itself, upon its stream of experiences, from the standpoint of the idea of itself which we call the ego. This is expressed in another Zenrin poem as

Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.b

This “by itself” is the mind’s and the world’s natural way of action, as when the eyes see by themselves, and the ears hear by themselves, and the mouth opens by itself without having to be forced apart by the fingers. As the Zenrin says again:

The blue mountains are of themselves blue mountains;
The white clouds are of themselves white clouds. 0

In its stress upon naturalness, Zen is obviously the inheritor of Taoism, and its view of spontaneous action as “marvelous activity” (miao-yung d) is precisely what the Taoists meant by the word te–“virtue” with an overtone of magical power. But neither in Taoism nor in Zen does it have anything to do with magic in the merely sensational sense of performing superhuman “miracles.” The “magical” or “marvelous” quality of spontaneous action is, on the contrary, that it is perfectly human, and yet shows no sign of being contrived.

Such a quality is peculiarly subtle (another meaning of miao), and extremely hard to put into words. The story is told of a Zen monk who wept upon hearing of the death of a close relative. When one of his fellow students objected that it was most unseemly for a monk to show such personal attachment he replied, “Don’t be stupid! I’m weeping because I want to weep.” The great Hakuin was deeply disturbed in his early study of Zen when he came across the story of the master Yen-t’ou, who was said to have screamed at the top of his voice when murdered by a robber.1 Yet this doubt was dissolved at the moment of his satori, and in Zen circles his own death is felt to have been especially admirable for its display of human emotion. On the other hand, the abbot Kwaisen and his monks allowed themselves to be burned alive by the soldiers of Oda Nobunaga, sitting calmly in the posture of meditation. Such contradictory “naturalness” seems most mysterious, but perhaps the clue lies in the saying of Yün-men: “In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.” For the essential quality of naturalness is the sincerity of the undivided mind which does not dither between alternatives. So when Yen-t’ou screamed, it was such a scream that it was heard for miles around.

But it would be quite wrong to suppose that this natural sincerity comes about by observing such a platitude as “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.” When Yen-t’ou screamed, he was not screaming in order to be natural, nor did he first make up his mind to scream and then implement the decision with the full energy of his will. There is a total contradiction in planned energy of his will. There is a total contradiction in planned naturalness and intentional sincerity. This is to overlay, not to discover, the “original mind.” Thus to try to be natural is an affectation. To try not to try to be natural is also an affectation. As a Zenrin poem says:

You cannot get it by taking thought;
You cannot seek it by not taking thought.e

But this absurdly complex and frustrating predicament arises from a simple and elementary mistake in the use of the mind. When this is understood, there is no paradox and no difficulty. Obviously, the mistake arises in the attempt to split the mind against itself, but to understand this clearly we have to enter more deeply into the “cybernetics” of the mind, the basic pattern of its self-correcting action.

It is, of course, part of the very genius of the human mind that it can, as it were, stand aside from life and reflect upon it, that it can be aware of its own existence, and that it can criticize its own processes. For the mind has something resembling a “feed-back” system. This is a term used in communications engineering for one of the basic principles of “automation,” of enabling machines to control themselves. Feed-back enables a machine to be informed of the effects of its own action in such a way as to be able to correct its action. Perhaps the most familiar example is the electrical thermostat which regulates the heating of a house. By setting an upper and a lower limit of desired temperature, a thermometer is so connected that it will switch the furnace on when the lower limit is reached, and off when the upper limit is reached. The temperature of the house is thus kept within the desired limits. The thermostat provides the furnace with a kind of sensitive organ–an extremely rudimentary analogy of human self-consciousness.2

The proper adjustment of a feed-back system is always a complex mechanical problem. For the original machine, say, the furnace, is adjusted by the feed-back system, but this system in turn needs adjustment. Therefore to make a mechanical system more and more automatic will require the use of a series of feed-back systems–a automatic will require the use of a series of feed-back systems–a second to correct the first, a third to correct the second, and so on. But there are obvious limits to such a series, for beyond a certain point the mechanism will be “frustrated” by its own complexity. For example, it might take so long for the information to pass through the series of control systems that it would arrive at the original machine too late to be useful. Similarly, when human beings think too carefully and minutely about an action to be taken, they cannot make up their minds in time to act. In other words, one cannot correct one’s means of self-correction indefinitely. There must soon be a source of information at the end of the line which is the final authority. Failure to trust its authority will make it impossible to act, and the system will be paralyzed.

The system can be paralyzed in yet another way. Every feedback system needs a margin of “lag” or error. If we try to make a thermostat absolutely accurate–that is, if we bring the upper and lower limits of temperature very close together in an attempt to hold the temperature at a constant 70 degrees–the whole system will break down. For to the extent that the upper and lower limits coincide, the signals for switching off and switching on will coincide! If 70 degrees is both the lower and upper limit the “go” sign will also be the “stop” sign; “yes” will imply “no” and “no” will imply “yes.” Whereupon the mechanism will start “trembling,” going on and off, on and off, until it shakes itself to pieces. The system is too sensitive and shows symptoms which are startlingly like human anxiety. For when a human being is so self-conscious, so self-controlled that he cannot let go of himself, he dithers or wobbles between opposites. This is precisely what is meant in Zen by going round and round on “the wheel of birth-and-death,” for the Buddhist samsara is the prototype of all vicious circles.3

Now human life consists primarily and originally in action–in living in the concrete world of “suchness.” But we have the power to control action by reflection, that is, by thinking, by comparing the actual world with memories or “reflections.” Memories are organized in terms of more or less abstract images–words, signs, simplified shapes, and other symbols which can be reviewed very rapidly one after another. From such memories, reflections, and rapidly one after another. From such memories, reflections, and symbols the mind constructs its idea of itself. This corresponds to the thermostat–the source of information about its own past action by which the system corrects itself. The mind-body must, of course, trust that information in order to act, for paralysis will soon result from trying to remember whether we have remembered everything accurately.

But to keep up the supply of information in the memory, the mind-body must continue to act “on its own.” It must not cling too closely to its own record. There must be a “lag” or distance between the source of information and the source of action. This does not mean that the source of action must hesitate before it accepts the information. It means that it must not identify itself with the source of information. We saw that when the furnace responds too closely to the thermostat, it cannot go ahead without also trying to stop, or stop without also trying to go ahead. This is just what happens to the human being, to the mind, when the desire for certainty and security prompts identification between the mind and its own image of itself. It cannot let go of itself. It feels that it should not do what it is doing, and that it should do what it is not doing. It feels that it should not be what it is, and be what it isn’t. Furthermore, the effort to remain always “good” or “happy” is like trying to hold the thermostat to a constant 70 degrees by making the lower limit the same as the upper.

The identification of the mind with its own image is, therefore, paralyzing because the image is fixed–it is past and finished. But it is a fixed image of oneself in motion! To cling to it is thus to be in constant contradiction and conflict. Hence Yün-men’s saying, “In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.” In other words, the mind cannot act without giving up the impossible attempt to control itself beyond a certain point. It must let go of itself both in the sense of trusting its own memory and reflection, and in the sense of acting spontaneously, on its own into the unknown.

This is why Zen often seems to take the side of action as against reflection, and why it describes itself as “no-mind” (wu-hsin) or “no-thought” (wu-nien), and why the masters demonstrate Zen by “no-thought” (wu-nien), and why the masters demonstrate Zen by giving instantaneous and unpremeditated answers to questions. When Yün-men was asked for the ultimate secret of Buddhism, he replied, “Dumpling!” In the words of the Japanese master Takuan:

When a monk asks, “What is the Buddha?” the master may raise his fist; when he is asked, “What is the ultimate idea of Buddhism?” he may exclaim even before the questioner finishes his sentence, “A blossoming branch of the plum,” or “The cypress-tree in the court-yard.” The point is that the answering mind does not “stop” anywhere, but responds straightway without giving any thought to the felicity of an answer.4

This is allowing the mind to act on its own.

But reflection is also action, and Yün-men might also have said, “In acting, just act. In thinking, just think. Above all, don’t wobble.” In other words, if one is going to reflect, just reflect–but do not reflect about reflecting. Yet Zen would agree that reflection about reflection is also action–provided that in doing it we do just that, and do not tend to drift off into the infinite regression of trying always to stand above or outside the level upon which we are acting. Thus Zen is also a liberation from the dualism of thought and action, for it thinks as it acts–with the same quality of abandon, commitment, or faith. The attitude of wu-hsin is by no means an anti-intellectualist exclusion of thinking. Wu-hsin is action on any level whatsoever, physical or psychic, without trying at the same moment to observe and check the action from outside. This attempt to act and think about the action simultaneously is precisely the identification of the mind with its idea of itself. It involves the same contradiction as the statement which states something about itself–“This statement is false.”

The same is true of the relationship between feeling and action. For feeling blocks action, and blocks itself as a form of action, when it gets caught in this same tendency to observe or feel itself indefinitely–as when, in the midst of enjoying myself, I examine myself to see if I am getting the utmost out of the occasion. Not content with tasting the food, I am also trying to taste my tongue. content with tasting the food, I am also trying to taste my tongue. Not content with feeling happy, I want to feel myself feeling happy–so as to be sure not to miss anything.

Whether trusting our memories or trusting the mind to act on its own, it comes to the same thing: ultimately we must act and think, live and die, from a source beyond all “our” knowledge and control. But this source is ourselves, and when we see that, it no longer stands over against us as a threatening object. No amount of care and hesitancy, no amount of introspection and searching of our motives, can make any ultimate difference to the fact that the mind is

Like an eye that sees, but cannot see itself.

In the end, the only alternative to a shuddering paralysis is to leap into action regardless of the consequences. Action in this spirit may be right or wrong with respect to conventional standards. But our decisions upon the conventional level must be supported by the conviction that whatever we do, and whatever “happens” to us, is ultimately “right.” In other words, we must enter into it without “second thought,” without the arrière-pensée of regret, hesitancy, doubt, or self-recrimination. Thus when Yün-men was asked, “What is the Tao?” he answered simply, “Walk on! (ch’ü f).”

But to act “without second thought,” without double-mindedness, is by no means a mere precept for our imitation. For we cannot realize this kind of action until it is clear beyond any shadow of doubt that it is actually impossible to do anything else. In the words of Huang-po:

Men are afraid to forget their own minds, fearing to fall through the void with nothing on to which they can cling. They do not know that the void is not really the void but the real realm of the Dharma.… It cannot be looked for or sought, comprehended by wisdom or knowledge, explained in words, contacted materially (i.e., objectively) or reached by meritorious achievement. (14)5

Now this impossibility of “grasping the mind with the mind” is, Now this impossibility of “grasping the mind with the mind” is, when realized, the non-action (wu-wei), the “sitting quietly, doing nothing” whereby “spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.” There is no necessity for the mind to try to let go of itself, or to try not to try. This introduces further artificialities. Yet, as a matter of psychological strategy, there is no need for trying to avoid artificialities. In the doctrine of the Japanese master Bankei (1622– 1693) the mind which cannot grasp itself is called the “Unborn” (fusho g), the mind which does not arise or appear in the realm of symbolic knowledge.

A layman asked, “I appreciate very much your instruction about the Unborn, but by force of habit second thoughts [nien] keep tending to arise, and being confused by them it is difficult to be in perfect accord with the Unborn. How am I to trust in it entirely?”

Bankei said, “If you make an attempt to stop the second thoughts which arise, then the mind which does the stopping and the mind which is stopped become divided, and there is no occasion for peace of mind. So it is best for you simply to believe that originally there is no (possibility of control by) second thoughts. Yet because of karmic affinity, through what you see and what you hear these thoughts arise and vanish temporarily, but are without substance.” (2)

“Brushing off thoughts which arise is just like washing off blood with blood. We remain impure because of being washed with blood, even when the blood that was first there has gone– and if we continue in this way the impurity never departs. This is from ignorance of the mind’s unborn, unvanishing, and unconfused nature. If we take second thought for an effective reality, we keep going on and on around the wheel of birth-and-death. You should realize that such thought is just a temporary mental construction, and not try to hold or to reject it. Let it alone just as it occurs and just as it ceases. It is like an image reflected in a mirror. The mirror is clear and reflects anything which comes before it, and yet no image sticks in the mirror. The which comes before it, and yet no image sticks in the mirror. The Buddha mind (i.e., the real, unborn mind) is ten thousand times more clear than a mirror, and more inexpressibly marvelous. In its light all such thoughts vanish without trace. If you put your faith in this way of understanding, however strongly such thoughts may arise, they do no harm.” (4)6

This is also the doctrine of Huang-po, who says again:

If it is held that there is something to be realized or attained apart from mind, and, thereupon, mind is used to seek it, (that implies) failure to understand that mind and the object of its search are one. Mind cannot be used to seek something from mind for, even after the passage of millions of kalpas, the day of success would never come. (10)7

One must not forget the social context of Zen. It is primarily a way of liberation for those who have mastered the disciplines of social convention, of the conditioning of the individual by the group. Zen is a medicine for the ill effects of this conditioning, for the mental paralysis and anxiety which come from excessive self-consciousness. It must be seen against the background of societies regulated by the principles of Confucianism, with their heavy stress on propriety and punctilious ritual. In Japan, too, it must be seen in relation to the rigid schooling required in the training of the samurai caste, and the emotional strain to which the samurai were exposed in times of constant warfare. As a medicine for these conditions, it does not seek to overthrow the conventions themselves, but, on the contrary, takes them for granted–as is easily seen in such manifestations of Zen as the cha-no-yu or “tea ceremony” of Japan. Therefore Zen might be a very dangerous medicine in a social context where convention is weak, or, at the other extreme, where there is a spirit of open revolt against convention ready to exploit Zen for destructive purposes.

With this in mind, we can observe the freedom and naturalness of Zen without loss of perspective. Social conditioning fosters the identification of the mind with a fixed idea of itself as the means of identification of the mind with a fixed idea of itself as the means of self-control, and as a result man thinks of himself as “I”–the ego. Thereupon the mental center of gravity shifts from the spontaneous or original mind to the ego image. Once this has happened, the very center of our psychic life is identified with the self-controlling mechanism. It then becomes almost impossible to see how “I” can let go of “myself,” for I am precisely my habitual effort to hold on to myself. I find myself totally incapable of any mental action which is not intentional, affected, and insincere. Therefore anything I do to give myself up, to let go, will be a disguised form of the habitual effort to hold on. I cannot be intentionally unintentional or purposely spontaneous. As soon as it becomes important for me to be spontaneous, the intention to be so is strengthened; I cannot get rid of it, and yet it is the one thing that stands in the way of its own fulfillment. It is as if someone had given me some medicine with the warning that it will not work if I think of a monkey while taking it.

While I am remembering to forget the monkey, I am in a “double-bind” situation where “to do” is “not to do,” and vice versa. “Yes” implies “no,” and “go” implies “stop.” At this point Zen comes to me and asks, “If you cannot help remembering the monkey, are you doing it on purpose?” In other words, do I have an intention for being intentional, a purpose for being purposive? Suddenly I realize that my very intending is spontaneous, or that my controlling self–the ego–arises from my uncontrolled or natural self. At this moment all the machinations of the ego come to nought; it is annihilated in its own trap. I see that it is actually impossible not to be spontaneous. For what I cannot help doing I am doing spontaneously, but if I am at the same time trying to control it, I interpret it as a compulsion. As a Zen master said, “Nothing is left to you at this moment but to have a good laugh.”

In this moment the whole quality of consciousness is changed, and I feel myself in a new world in which, however, it is obvious that I have always been living. As soon as I recognize that my voluntary and purposeful action happens spontaneously “by itself,” just like breathing, hearing, and feeling, I am no longer caught in the contradiction of trying to be spontaneous. There is no real the contradiction of trying to be spontaneous. There is no real contradiction, since “trying” is “spontaneity.” Seeing this, the compulsive, blocked, and “tied-up” feeling vanishes. It is just as if I had been absorbed in a tug-of-war between my two hands, and had forgotten that both were mine. No block to spontaneity remains when the trying is seen to be needless. As we saw, the discovery that both the voluntary and involuntary aspects of the mind are alike spontaneous makes an immediate end of the fixed dualism between the mind and the world, the knower and the known. The new world in which I find myself has an extraordinary transparency or freedom from barriers, making it seem that I have somehow become the empty space in which everything is happening.

Here, then, is the point of the oft-repeated assertion that “all beings are in nirvana from the very beginning,” that “all dualism is falsely imagined,” that “the ordinary mind is the Tao” and that there is therefore no meaning in trying to get into accord with it. In the words of the Cheng-tao Ke:

Like the empty sky it has no boundaries,
Yet it is right in this place, ever profound and clear.
When you seek to know it, you cannot see it.
You cannot take hold of it,
But you cannot lose it.
In not being able to get it, you get it.
When you are silent, it speaks;
When you speak, it is silent.
The great gate is wide open to bestow alms,
And no crowd is blocking the way. (34) h

It was through seeing this that, in the moment of his satori, Hakuin cried out, “How wondrous! How wondrous! There is no birth-and-death from which one has to escape, nor is there any supreme knowledge after which one has to strive!”8 Or in the words of Hsiang-yen:

At one stroke I forgot all my knowledge!
There’s no use for artificial discipline,
For, move as I will, I manifest the ancient Way.9 i

Paradoxically, nothing is more artificial than the notion of artificiality. Try as one may, it is as impossible to go against the spontaneous Tao as to live in some other time than now, or some other place than here. When a monk asked Bankei what he thought of disciplining oneself to attain satori, the master said, “Satori stands in contrast to confusion. Since each person is the substance of Buddha, (in reality) there is not one point of confusion. What, then, is one going to achieve by satori?”10

Seeing, then, that there is no possibility of departing from the Tao, one is like Hsüan-chüeh’s “easygoing” man who

Neither avoids false thoughts nor seeks the true,
For ignorance is in reality the Buddha nature,
And this illusory, changeful, empty body is the Dharmakaya.11

One stops trying to be spontaneous by seeing that it is unnecessary to try, and then and there it can happen. The Zen masters often bring out this state by the device of evading a question and then, as the questioner turns to go, calling him suddenly by name. As he naturally replies, “Yes?” the master exclaims, “There it is!”

To the Western reader it may seem that all this is a kind of pantheism, an attempt to wipe out conflicts by asserting that “everything is God.” But from the standpoint of Zen this is a long way short of true naturalness since it involves the use of the artificial concept–“everything is God” or “everything is the Tao.” Zen annihilates this concept by showing that it is as unnecessary as every other. One does not realize the spontaneous life by depending on the repetition of thoughts or affirmations. One realizes it by seeing that no such devices are necessary. Zen describes all means and methods for realizing the Tao as “legs on a snake”–utterly irrelevant attachments.

To the logician it will of course seem that the point at which we have arrived is pure nonsense–as, in a way, it is. From the Buddhist point of view, reality itself has no meaning since it is not a sign, point of view, reality itself has no meaning since it is not a sign, pointing to something beyond itself. To arrive at reality–at “suchness”–is to go beyond karma, beyond consequential action, and to enter a life which is completely aimless. Yet to Zen and Taoism alike this is the very life of the universe, which is complete at every moment and does not need to justify itself by aiming at something beyond. In the words of a Zenrin poem:

If you don’t believe, just look at September, look at October!
The yellow leaves falling, falling, to fill both mountain and river.j

To see this is to be like the two friends of whom another Zenrin poem says:

Meeting, they laugh and laugh–
The forest grove, the many fallen leaves! k

To the Taoist mentality, the aimless, empty life does not suggest anything depressing. On the contrary, it suggests the freedom of clouds and mountain streams, wandering nowhere, of flowers in impenetrable canyons, beautiful for no one to see, and of the ocean surf forever washing the sand, to no end.

Furthermore, the Zen experience is more of a conclusion than a premise. It is never to be used as the first step in a line of ethical or metaphysical reasoning, since conclusions draw to it rather than from it. Like the Beatific Vision of Christianity, it is a “which than which there is no whicher” -- the true end of man -- not a thing to be used for some other end. Philosophers do not easily recognize that there is a point where thinking-like boiling an egg-must come to a stop. To try to formulate the Zen experience as a proposition -- “everything is the Tao” -- and then to analyze it and draw conclusions from it is to miss it completely. Like the Crucifixion, it is “to the Jews [the moralists] a stumbling-block and to the Greeks [the logicians] foolishness.” To say that “everything is the Tao” almost gets the point, but just at the moment of getting it, the words crumble into nonsense. For we are here at a limit at the words crumble into nonsense. For we are here at a limit at which words break down because they always imply a meaning beyond themselves–and here there is no meaning beyond.

Zen does not make the mistake of using the experience “all things are of one Suchness” as the premise for an ethic of universal brotherhood. On the contrary, Yüan-wu says:

If you are a real man, you may by all means drive off with the farmer’s ox, or grab the food from a starving man.12 l

This is only to say that Zen lies beyond the ethical standpoint, whose sanctions must be found, not in reality itself, but in the mutual agreement of human beings. When we attempt to universalize or absolutize it, the ethical standpoint makes it impossible to exist, for we cannot live for a day without destroying the life of some other creature.

If Zen is regarded as having the same function as a religion in the West, we shall naturally want to find some logical connection between its central experience and the improvement of human relations. But this is actually putting the cart before the horse. The point is rather that some such experience or way of life as this is the object of improved human relations. In the culture of the Far East the problems of human relations are the sphere of Confucianism rather than Zen, but since the Sung dynasty (959– 1278) Zen has consistently fostered Confucianism and was the main source of the introduction of its principles into Japan. It saw their importance for creating the type of cultural matrix in which Zen could flourish without coming into conflict with social order, because the Confucian ethic is admittedly human and relative, not divine and absolute.

Although profoundly “inconsequential,” the Zen experience has consequences in the sense that it may be applied in any direction, to any conceivable human activity, and that wherever it is so applied it lends an unmistakable quality to the work. The characteristic notes of the spontaneous life are mo chih ch’u m or “going ahead without hesitation,” wu-wei, which may here be understood as purposelessness, and wu-shih, lack of affectation or understood as purposelessness, and wu-shih, lack of affectation or simplicity.

While the Zen experience does not imply any specific course of action, since it has no purpose, no motivation, it turns unhesitatingly to anything that presents itself to be done. Mo chih ch’u is the mind functioning without blocks, without “wobbling” between alternatives, and much of Zen training consists in confronting the student with dilemmas which he is expected to handle without stopping to deliberate and “choose.” The response to the situation must follow with the immediacy of sound issuing from the hands when they are clapped, or sparks from a flint when struck. The student unaccustomed to this type of response will at first be confused, but as he gains faith in his “original” or spontaneous mind he will not only respond with ease, but the responses themselves will acquire a startling appropriateness. This is something like the professional comedian’s gift of unprepared wit which is equal to any situation.

The master may begin a conversation with the student by asking a series of very ordinary questions about trivial matters, to which the student responds with perfect spontaneity. But suddenly he will say, “When the bath-water flows down the drain, does it turn clockwise or counter-clockwise?” As the student stops at the unexpectedness of the question, and perhaps tries to remember which way it goes, the master shouts, “Don’t think! Act! This way–” and whirls his hand in the air. Or, perhaps less helpfully, he may say, “So far you’ve answered my questions quite naturally and easily, but where’s your difficulty now?”

The student, likewise, is free to challenge the master, and one can imagine that in the days when Zen training was less formal the members of Zen communities must have had enormous fun laying traps for each other. To some extent this type of relationship still exists, despite the great solemnity of the sanzen interview in which the koan is given and answered. The late Kozuki Roshi was entertaining two American monks at tea when he casually asked, “And what do you gentlemen know about Zen?” One of the monks flung his closed fan straight at the master’s face. All in the same instant the master inclined his head slightly to one side, the fan shot instant the master inclined his head slightly to one side, the fan shot straight through the paper shoji behind him, and he burst into a ripple of laughter.

Suzuki has translated a long letter from the Zen master Takuan on the relationship of Zen to the art of fencing, and this is certainly the best literary source of what Zen means by mo chih ch’u, by “going straight ahead without stopping.”13 Both Takuan and Bankei stressed the fact that the “original” or “unborn” mind is constantly working miracles even in the most ordinary person. Even though a tree has innumerable leaves, the mind takes them in all at once without being “stopped” by any one of them. Explaining this to a visiting monk, Bankei said, “To prove that your mind is the Buddha mind, notice how all that I say here goes into you without missing a single thing, even though I don’t try to push it into you.”14 When heckled by an aggressive Nichiren monk who kept insisting that he couldn’t understand a word, Bankei asked him to come closer. The monk stepped forward, “Closer still,” said Bankei. The monk came forward again. “How well,” said Bankei, “you understand me!”15 In other words, our natural organism performs the most marvelously complex activities without the least hesitation or deliberation. Conscious thought is itself founded upon its whole system of spontaneous functioning, for which reason there is really no alternative to trusting oneself completely to its working. Oneself is its working.

Zen is not merely a cult of impulsive action. The point of mo chih ch’u is not to eliminate reflective thought but to eliminate “blocking” in both action and thought, so that the response of the mind is always like a ball in a mountain stream-“one thought after another without hesitation.” There is something similar to this in the psychoanalytic practice of free association, employed as a technique to get rid of obstacles to the free flow of thought from the “unconscious.” For there is a tendency to confuse “blocking”–a purely obstructive mechanism–with thinking out an answer, but the difference between the two is easily noticed in such a purely “thinking out” process as adding a column of figures. Many people find that at certain combinations of numbers, such as 8 and 5 or 7 and 6, a feeling of resistance comes up which halts the process. and 6, a feeling of resistance comes up which halts the process. Because it is always annoying and disconcerting, one tends also to block at blocking, so that the state turns into the kind of wobbling dither characteristic of the snarled feed-back system. The simplest cure is to feel free to block, so that one does not block at blocking. When one feels free to block, the blocking automatically eliminates itself. It is like riding a bicycle. When one starts falling to the left, one does not resist the fall (i.e., the block) by turning to the right. One turns the wheel to the left–and the balance is restored. The principle here is, of course, the same as getting out of the contradiction of “trying to be spontaneous” through accepting the “trying” as “spontaneous,” through not resisting the block.

“Blocking” is perhaps the best translation of the Zen term nien n as it occurs in the phrase wu-nien, “no-thought” or, better, “no second thought.” Takuan points out that this is the real meaning of “attachment” in Buddhism, as when it is said that a Buddha is free from worldly attachments. It does not mean that he is a “stone Buddha” with no feelings, no emotions, and no sensations of hunger or pain. It means that he does not block at anything. Thus it is typical of Zen that its style of action has the strongest feeling of commitment, of “follow-through.” It enters into everything wholeheartedly and freely without having to keep an eye on itself. It does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes. In the words of Lin-chi:

When it’s time to get dressed, put on your clothes. When you must walk, then walk. When you must sit, then sit. Don’t have a single thought in your mind about seeking for Buddhahood.… You talk about being perfectly disciplined in your six senses and in all your actions, but in my view all this is making karma. To seek the Buddha (nature) and to seek the Dharma is at once to make karma which leads to the hells. To seek (to be) Bodhisattvas is also making karma, and likewise studying the sutras and commentaries. Buddhas and Patriarchs are people without such artificialities.… It is said everywhere that there is a Tao which must be cultivated and a Dharma which must be Tao which must be cultivated and a Dharma which must be realized. What Dharma do you say must be realized, and what Tao cultivated? What do you lack in the way you are functioning right now? What will you add to where you are?16 o

As another Zenrin poem says:

There’s nothing equal to wearing clothes and eating food.
Outside this there are neither Buddhas nor Patríarchs.p

This is the quality of wu-shih, of naturalness without any contrivances or means for being natural, such as thoughts of Zen, of the Tao, or of the Buddha. One does not exclude such thoughts; they simply fall away when seen to be unnecessary. “He does not linger where the Buddha is, and where there is no Buddha he passes right on.”17 For as the Zenrin says again:

To be conscious of the original mind, the original nature–
Just this is the great disease of Zen! q

As “the fish swims in the water but is unmindful of the water, the bird flies in the wind but knows not of the wind,” so the true life of Zen has no need to “raise waves when no wind is blowing,” to drag in religion or spirituality as something over and above life itself. This is why the sage Fa-yung received no more offerings of flowers from the birds after he had had his interview with the Fourth Patriarch, for his holiness no longer “stood out like a sore thumb.” Of such a man the Zenrin says:

Entering the forest he moves not the grass;
Entering the water he makes not a ripple.r

No one notices him because he does not notice himself.

It is often said that to be clinging to oneself is like having a thorn in the skin, and that Buddhism is a second thorn to extract the first. When it is out, both thorns are thrown away. But in the moment when Buddhism, when philosophy or religion, becomes another when Buddhism, when philosophy or religion, becomes another way of clinging to oneself through seeking a spiritual security, the two thorns become one–and how is it to be taken out? This, as Bankei said, is “wiping off blood with blood.” Therefore in Zen there is neither self nor Buddha to which one can cling, no good to gain and no evil to be avoided, no thoughts to be eradicated and no mind to be purified, no body to perish and no soul to be saved. At one blow this entire framework of abstractions is shattered to fragments. As the Zenrin says:

To save life it must be destroyed.
When utterly destroyed, one dwells for the first time in peace.8
One word settles heaven and earth;
One sword levels the whole world.t

Of this “one sword” Lin-chi said:

If a man cultivates the Tao, the Tao will not work–on all sides evil conditions will head up competitively. But when the sword of wisdom [prajna] comes out there’s not one thing left.18 u

The “sword of prajna” which cuts away abstraction is that “direct pointing” whereby Zen avoids the entanglements of religiosity and goes straight to the heart. Thus when the Governor of Lang asked Yao-shan, “What is the Tao?” the master pointed upwards to the sky and downwards to a water jug beside him. Asked for an explanation, he replied: “A cloud in the sky and water in the jug.”



1 Ch’uan Teng Lu, 26.

2 I do not wish to press the analogy between the human mind and servo-mechanisms to the point of saying that the mind-body is “nothing but” an extremely complicated mechanical automaton. I only want to go so far as to show that feed-back involves some problems which are similar to the problems of self-consciousness and self-control in man. Otherwise, mechanism and organism seem to me to be different in principle–that is, in their actual functioning–since the one is made and the other grown. The fact that one can translate some organic processes into mechanical terms no more implies that organism is mechanism than the translation of commerce into arithmetical terms implies that commerce is arithmetic.

3 See the fascinating discussion of analogies between mechanical and logical contradictions and the psychoneuroses by Gregory Bateson in Reusch and Bateson, Communication: the Social Matrix of Psychiatry, esp. Chap. 8. (Norton; New York, 1950.)

4 In Suzuki (7), p. 80.

5 In Chu Ch’an (l), p. 29.

6 Bankei’s Daiho Shogen Kokushi Hogo. Japanese text edited by Furata and Suzuki. (Tokyo, 1943.) Translation read to the author by Professor Hasegawa.

7 In Chu Ch’an (1), p. 24.

8 Orategama, in Suzuki (1), vol. 1, p. 239.

9 Wu-teng Hui-yüan, 9.

10 Bankei Kokushi Seppo. Read to the author by Professor Hasegawa.

11 Cheng-tao Ke, 1.

12 Comment on Pi-yen Lu, 3.

13 Suzuki (7), pp. 73–87. Excerpts from this letter also appear in Suzuki (1), vol. 3, pp. 318–19.

14 Bankei Kokushi Seppo. Read to the author by Professor Hasegawa.

15 In Suzuki (10), p. 123.

16 Lin-chi Lu in Ku-tsun-hsü Yü-lu, 1. 4. 6, 11–12, 12.

17 Shih Niu T’u, 8.

18 In Ku-tsun-hsü Yü-lu, 1. 4. 13.
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