All and nothing


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

— The Buddha.

The first thing to appreciate about Zen is that it’s easy. The second thing to appreciate is that it’s incomprehensible. A contradiction? Only if you insist on trying to understand. To be enlightened is to resign yourself to — no, to delight in — incomprehension.

A story: Seeing some monks under his tutelage fighting over a cat, the Chinese Zen Master Nansen (748-834) snatched the cat and said, “Say something or I’ll cut it in two!” The monks gaped speechless. Nansen cut the cat. Later, he told his disciple Joshu what had happened. Joshu immediately took off his sandals, put them on his head and walked out. “If you had been there,” said Nansen, “you would have saved the cat.”

Japanese Zen is Chinese Taoism blended with Indian mysticism, steeped in Confucian and samurai discipline, then spiced with a faint but unmistakable hint of madness. Its heart is vagrant, its mind vacant, its belly hungry.

The prototypical Zen-man is Lao-tsu, who in the sixth century B.C., a millennium before Zen was ever heard of, wrote with pride in the “Tao Te Ching” of his foolishness, forlornness, impracticality and disinclination to attach himself to anything. His redeeming virtue is his willingness to “seek sustenance from the Mother” — the Tao, the Way. Here Zen acolytes too have sought sustenance, since the semi-legendary Indian patriarch Bodhidharma introduced meditation to Chinese seekers in the sixth century A.D.

Bodhidharma’s famous Japanese incarnation is the roly-poly legless Daruma doll — legless because the master, so it is said, sat so long in meditation that his legs withered. A Chinese acolyte, desperate to distract him long enough to receive his advice, cut off his own arm as a token of his sincerity. “Very well,” sighed Bodhidharma at last. “What can I do for you?”

“I have no peace of mind,” said the acolyte. “Please pacify my mind.”

“Give me your mind,” replied Bodhidharma, “and I will pacify it.”

“But when I seek my mind,” said the acolyte, “I cannot find it.”

“Well, there you are!” said Bodhidharma, “I have pacified your mind!”

It’s a characteristic Zen story — razor-sharp, funny, at once perfectly lucid and totally bewildering. It’s typical in another way, too: It induced in the acolyte the mysterious instant awakening, or satori, which is Zen’s most distinctive feature.

Three core principles comprise Zen. The first, held in common with other forms of Buddhism, is non-existence. The second is the utter uselessness — worse, the utter destructiveness — of trying to comprehend Reality intellectually. The third is the capacity of intuition to effortlessly succeed where intellect fails. The catch is that intuition cannot be communicated. Thus the famous Zen proverb, “Those who know don’t speak” — and vice versa.

Incommunicable wisdom is a tricky foundation for a philosophy. Language is indispensable to us. It makes us human. We are gregarious beings. Grunts and cries may suffice for the lower animals, but not for us. Still — words are not reality; they only represent it. They are treacherous in their tendency to make us forget that simple fact. And the most treacherous word of all is “I.”

“Social conditioning fosters the identification of the mind with a fixed idea of itself as the means of self-control, and as a result,” writes Alan Watts in “The Way of Zen,” “man thinks of himself as ‘I’ — the ego.”

But “It is fundamental to every school of Buddhism,” he adds, “that there is no ego, no enduring entity which is the constant subject of our changing experiences.” Am I who I was as an infant? The identity is not obvious. Am I who I was yesterday? I’m no longer sure. “The ego,” says Watts, “exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch.”

If “I” is an abstraction, why do we so keenly feel our “I-ness?” Rene Descartes, the 17th-century thinker and mathematician generally regarded as the father of modern science, found he could doubt everything except his own existence. Zen not only doubts our existence, it categorically denies it. In “The Essence of Zen,” Hosshinji Temple Abbott Sekkei Harada writes: “All things are transient. All things are without self. All things are in the peace and tranquillity of Nirvana.”

If only we knew it! Deluded by the illusion of selfhood, of individual separation from the True Self that is the cosmos, we miss what would otherwise be perfectly plain. Nirvana is here, now. We are undone by our tendency to seek it far away and in the future. The consequences are devastating. “To think there is a self when in fact there isn’t,” writes Harada, “is ignorance. To perceive the self, then, is evil. It is a complete hindrance to the practice of the Way.”

Western civilization since Descartes has been based on the ego-self, the rigid separation of “I” from “not-I” — and, increasingly, the relentless gratification of the former at the expense, if necessary, of the latter. Brought up as egos, we are inclined to regard egotism as natural, and egolessness as just another mystic Oriental notion that makes no sense. That it makes no sense is true. Where Zen and more formal systems of thought part company is in Zen’s acceptance — its joyous acceptance — of senselessness.

“It is a great mistake,” argues Daisetsu T. Suzuki in “Zen and Japanese Culture,” “to adjust everything to the Procrustean bed of logic, and a greater mistake to make logic the supreme test in the evaluation of human behavior.” Let logic, he says, adapt itself to life, freeing life from the distorting obligation to adapt to logic. Only then can we be what the ancient Chinese master Te-shan would have us be: “Vacant and spiritual, empty and marvelous.”

“East is East and West is West,” said Kipling — untruly, as we now know, having over the past half-century watched the twain meet and merge. But he, rooted in another time, had observed real differences. Broadly speaking, the classical East saw the universe as a chaos that grew, while the West saw it as an order that was created; the East approached the world as children at a playground, the West as workers at a factory; the East emphasized poetry, the West science.

Zen has been called “the very heart of Asian spirituality,” inaccessible to the Western mind because logic-bound Western thinkers, not satisfied with “the world in its such-ness,” uncomfortable with “the total elusiveness of the world,” insist on taking intellectual hold of reality and forcing it into a mold called “sense.”

Depending on whether you view humanity’s present condition with optimism or pessimism, you would say that the Western view has been borne out or shown up. But the “East-ness” of Zen is exaggerated. Zen is not automatically congenial to every Eastern mind, being in its origin a spirited revolt against encrusted Eastern rectitude; nor is it necessarily inimical to Western thought, which has its own tradition of revolt. If you look for it, you can find plenty of Zen in the West, though of course it is not called that.

The 18th-century Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau comes to mind. He is in a sense the West’s Lao-tsu, opposing his idleness to his contemporaries’ busy-ness, his feelings to their reason. If logic was right, he said, then life was clearly wrong; in which case he, too, would be wrong — illogical but triumphantly alive.

His ideal was man “as nature formed him” — simple, free, uncorrupted by civilized artifice. The scientist’s “vain curiosity” repelled him; the knowledge it generated obscured the truer knowledge “engraved in all hearts.” To learn what is necessary, “is it not enough to withdraw into ourselves and listen to the voice of our conscience while our passions are silent? That is true philosophy.”

Or true meditation, a Zen-man might say.

The 19th-century Russian novelist Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoevski, heir to Rousseau’s romanticism, made it his mission to defend “living life” against abstract theorizing. His sublime human being is an “idiot”; the acutest reasoner among his heroes is a murderer. “Living life,” closed to the theorists, is accessible only to the mad — to those who, in Zen terms, have cast off the illusory “ego-self.” His frequently occurring symbol of “living life” is the sticky green leaves of spring. It seems a small leap from them to the frog and ancient pond of the 17th-century Zen poet Matsuo Basho’s famous haiku.

“Wonderful, the mood of this moment — distant, vast, known to me only!”

Thus the poet Ryokan (1758-1831) summed up the fruits of the Zen life. Hermit, monk, beggar, eccentric, he is one of a long line of unfettered personalities who make us wish we could all be Zen-men. Old age tormented him with its ills but never eroded the child in him.

“Children! Shall we be going now to the hill of Iyahiko to see how the violets are blooming?”

Even lice he loved.

“Fleas, lice any autumn bug that wants to sing — the breast of my robe is Musashino moor!”

Suzuki tells of him unwittingly setting fire to his hut while trying to burn a hole in his roof for a bamboo shoot to grow through. Idiot, fool, lunatic! But you can’t read his poetry without suspecting he knew something about life that more worldly people miss.

Living without self, exclusively in the moment, has its moral hazards. Think of Nansen and the cat — does anyone pause to pity the cat? Apparently not.

Think also of Zen’s militarist tradition. The sword wielded by a Zen-trained swordsman, we are told, is not the sword that kills but the sword that gives life. It requires a peculiarly unskeptical cast of mind to take that on faith. “Those who cling to life die, those who defy death live,” said the 16th-century warrior Uesugi Kenshin. Daiun Sogaku Harada was a 20th-century Zen master, Sekkei Harada’s predecessor as abbot of Hosshinji, and no warrior. Yet in 1939, with Japanese militarism at its height, he wrote, “[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp; or to shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of Enlightenment.]”

It may be so, in which case either “tramp, tramp; bang, bang” represents humanity at its best, or else Zen enlightenment is a most uncertain path to a better world. After all, wordless, illogical wisdom will naturally shape itself to the character of the person claiming it. In the hands of a Harada, it’s “tramp, tramp; bang, bang.” In the hands of a Ryokan?

“Taking my time, I go begging for food — how wide, how boundless this Dharma world!”