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.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, theories of Kant differ from those of Descartes. 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.

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.

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 it self together. There is first the spoken language.

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.

How arbitrary such conventions may be can be seen from the question, “What happens to my fist [noun-object] when I open my hand?”

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.

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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!

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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.

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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 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.’

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.”

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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 very 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 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.

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