“Like a baby who is yet unable to smile,” said the ancient Chinese sage Lao-tsu of himself. “Forlorn... ignorant... drifting... alone....” The book he wrote, the Tao Te Ching, circa the sixth century B.C., is Zen’s remotest ancestor. His self-description is not self-denigrating but self-idealizing, or self-realizing, or perhaps — and perhaps it comes to the same thing — self-annihilating.

Self? What self? There is no self. What is it, then, that is “ignorant” and “drifting,” “forlorn” and “alone”? “No-mind.” What is “no-mind”? “In Buddhist phraseology,” explains Zen priest D.T. Suzuki in “Zen and Japanese Culture” (1959), “it means going beyond the dualism of all forms of life and death, good and evil, being and non-being.” Is that clear? He clarifies: “Mushin (no-mind) is the mind negating itself, letting go itself from itself, a solidly frozen mind allowing itself to relax into a state of perfect unguardedness.” Does that help? He elaborates: “To reach the bedrock of one’s being means to have one’s Unconscious entirely cleansed of egoism. ... The ‘Cosmic Unconscious’ must be made to reveal itself unreservedly. This is why Zen so emphasizes the significance of ‘no-mind’ and ‘no-thought,’ where we find infinite treasures well preserved.”

Zen, in all its vast incomprehensibility, pervades Japanese culture. Lao-tsu has Japanese heirs well into the 20th century — in dwindling numbers to be sure; modern treasure tends to be sought elsewhere. Babies “yet unable to smile” get short shrift.