Archives for posts with tag: the way of zen

Since “one showing is worth a hundred sayings,” the expression of Zen in the arts gives us one of the most direct ways of understanding it.

The favorite subjects of Zen artists are what we should call natural, concrete and secular things. Furthermore, the arts of Zen are not merely or primarily representational. Even in painting, the work of art is considered not only as representing nature but as being itself a work of nature. For the very technique involves the art of artlessness, or what Sabro Hasegawa has called the “controlled accident,” so that paintings are formed as naturally as the rocks and grasses which they depict.

The point is rather that for Zen there is no duality, no conflict between the natural element of chance and the human element of control. The constructive powers of the human mind are no more artificial than the formative actions of plants or bees, so that from the standpoint of Zen it is no contradiction to say that artistic technique is discipline in spontaneity and spontaneity in discipline.

The art forms of the Western world arise from spiritual and philosophical traditions in which spirit is divided from nature, and comes down from heaven to work upon it as an intelligent energy upon an inert and recalcitrant stuff. Thus Malraux speaks always of the artist “conquering” his medium as our explorers and scientists also speak of conquering mountains or conquering space. To Chinese and Japanese ears these are grotesque expressions. For when you climb it is the mountain as much as your own legs which lifts you upwards, and when you paint it is the brush, ink, and paper which determine the result as much as your own hand.

This is a first principle in the study of Zen and of any Far Eastern art: hurry, and all that it involves, is fatal. For there is no goal to be attained. The moment a goal is conceived it becomes impossible to practice the discipline of the art, to master the very rigor of its technique.

Paradoxical as it may seem, the purposeful life has no content, no point. It hurries on and on, and misses everything. Not hurrying, the purposeless life misses nothing, for it is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to receive the world. Absence of hurry also involves a certain lack of interference with the natural course of events, especially when it is felt that the natural course follows principles which are not foreign to human intelligence. For, as we have seen, the Taoist mentality makes, or forces, nothing but “grows” everything. When human reason is seen to be an expression of the same spontaneous balance of yang and yin as the natural universe, man’s action upon his environment is not felt as a conflict, an action from outside. Thus the difference between forcing and growing cannot be expressed in terms of specific directions as to what should or should not be done, for the difference lies primarily in the quality and feeling of the action.

The difficulty of describing these things for Western ears is that people in a hurry cannot feel.

The brush must draw by itself. This cannot happen if one does not practice constantly. But neither can it happen if one makes an effort. Similarly, in swordsmanship one must not first decide upon a certain thrust and then attempt to make it, since by that time it will be too late. Decision and action must be simultaneous.

A world which increasingly consists of destinations without journeys between them, a world which values only “getting somewhere” as fast as possible, becomes a world without substance. One can get anywhere and everywhere, and yet the more this is possible, the less is anywhere and everywhere worth getting to. For points of arrival are too abstract, too Euclidean to be enjoyed, and it is all very much like eating the precise ends of a banana without getting at hat lies in between. The point, therefore, of these arts is the doing of them rather than the accomplishments. But, more than this, the real joy of them lies in what turns up unintentionally in the course of practice, just as the joy of travel is not nearly so much in getting where one wants to o as in the unsought surprises which occur on the journey.

Planned surprises are as much of a contradiction as intentional satori, and whoever aims at satori is after all like a person who sends himself Christmas presents for fear that others will forget him. One must simply face the fact that Zen is all that side of life which is completely beyond our control, and which will not come to us by any amount of forcing or wangling or cunning–stratagems which produce only fakes of the real thing.

Because Zen does not involve an ultimate dualism between the controller and the controlled, the mind and the body, the spiritual and the material, there is always a certain “physiological” aspect to its techniques. Whether Zen is practiced za-zen or cha-no-yu or kendo, great importance is attached to the way of breathing. Not only is breathing one of the two fundamental rhythms of the body; it is also the process in which control and spontaneity, voluntary and involuntary action, find their most obvious identity. Long before the origins of the Zen School, both Indian yoga and Chinese Taoism practiced “watching the breath,” with a view to letting–not forcing–it to become as slow and silent as possible. Physiologically and psychologically, the relationship between breathing and “insight” is not yet altogether clear. But if we look at man as process rather than entity, rhythm rather than structure, it is obvious that breathing is something which he does–and thus is–constantly. Therefore grasping air with the lungs goes hand-in-hand with grasping at life.

So-called “normal” breathing is fitful and anxious. The air is always being held and not fully released, for the individual seems incapable of “letting” it run its full course through the lungs. He breathes compulsively rather than freely. The technique therefore begins by encouraging a full release of the breath–easing it out as if the body were being emptied of air by a great leaden ball sinking through the chest and abdomen, and settling down into the ground. The returning in-breath is then allowed to follow as a simple reflex action. The air is not actively inhaled; it is just allowed to come–and then, when the lungs are comfortably filled, it is allowed to go out once more, the image of the leaden ball giving it the sense of “falling” out as distinct from being pushed out.

. . . Zen has always called itself the way of instantaneous awakening. It is not just that satori comes quickly and unexpectedly, all of a sudden, for mere speed has nothing to do with it. The reason is that Zen is a liberation from time. For if we open our eyes and see clearly, it becomes obvious that there is no other time than this instant, and that the past and the future are abstractions without any concrete reality.

Until this has become clear, it seems that our life is all past and future, and that the present is nothing more than the infinitesimal hairline which divides them. From this comes the sensation of “having no time,” of a world which hurries by so rapidly that it is gone before we can enjoy it. But through “Awakening to the instant” one sees that this is the reverse of the truth: it is rather the past and future which are the fleeting illusions, and the present which is eternally real. We discover that the linear succession of time is a convention of our single-track verbal thinking, of a consciousness which interprets the world by grasping little pieces of it, calling them things and events. But every such grasp of the mind excludes the rest of the world, so that this type of consciousness can get an approximate vision of the whole only through a series of grasps, one after another.

Yet the superficiality of this consciousness is seen in the fact that it cannot and does not regulate even the human organism. For if it had to control the heartbeat, the breath, the operation of the nerves, glands, muscles, and sense organs, it would be rushing wildly around the body taking care of one thing after another, with no time to do anything else. Happily, it is not in charge, and the organism is regulated by the timeless “original mind,” which deals with life in its totality and so can do ever so many “things” at once.

However, it is not as if the superficial consciousness were one thing, and the “original mind” another, for the former is a specialized activity of the latter. Thus the superficial consciousness can awaken to the eternal present if it stops grasping. But this does not come to pass by trying to concentrate on the present–an effort which succeeds only in making the moment seem ever more elusive and fleeting, ever more impossible to bring into focus. Awareness of the “eternal now” comes about by the same principle as the clarity of hearing and seeing and the proper freedom of the breath. Clear sight has nothing to do with trying to see; it is just the realization that the eyes will take in every detail all by themselves, for so long as they are open one can hardly prevent the light from reaching them. In the same way, there is no difficulty in being fully aware of the eternal present as soon as it is seen that one cannot possibly be aware of anything else–that in concrete fact there is no past or future. Making an effort to concentrate on the instantaneous moment implies at once that there are other moments. But they are nowhere to be found, and in truth one rests as easily in the eternal present as the eyes and ears respond to light and sound.

As Nan-ch’uan said, to try to accord with it is to deviate from it, though in fact no one cannot deviate and there is no one to deviate. So, too, one cannot get away from the eternal present by trying to attend to it, and this very fact shows that, apart from this present, there is no distinct self that watches and knows it–which is why Hui-k’o could not find his mind when Bodhidharma asked him to produce it.

However puzzling this may be, and however many philosophical problems it may raise, one clear look is enough to show its unavoidable truth. There is only this now. It does not come from anywhere; it is not going anywhere. It is not permanent, but it is not impermanent. Though moving, it is always still. When we try to catch it, it seems to run away, and yet it is always here and there is no escape from it. And when we turn round to find the self which knows this moment, we find that it has vanished like the past.

Yet, when it comes to this, this moment can be called “present” only in relation to past and future, or to someone to whom it is present. But when there is neither past nor future, and no one to whom this moment is present, what is it? When Fa-ch’ang was dying, a squirrel screeched on the roof. “It’s just this,” he said, “and nothing else.”


Whereas it might be supposed that the practice of Zen is a means to the end of awakening, this is not so. For the practice of Zen is not the true practice so long as it has an end in view, and when it has no end in view it is awakening–the aimless, self-sufficient life of the “eternal now.” To practice with an end in view is to have one eye on the practice and the other on the end, which is lack of concentration, lack of sincerity.

Za-zen is not sitting with a blank mind which excludes all the impressions of the inner and outer senses. It is not “concentration” in the usual sense of restricting the attention to a single sense object, such as a point of light or the tip of one’s nose. It is simply a quiet awareness, without comment, or whatever happens to be here and now. This awareness is attended by the most vivid sensation of “nondifference” between oneself and the external world, between the mind and its contents. Naturally, this sensation does not arise by trying to acquire it; it just comes by itself when one is sitting and watching without any purpose in mind–even the purpose of getting rid of purpose.

Much importance is attached to the physical posture of za-zen. The monks sit on firmly padded cushions with legs crossed and feet soles-upwards upon the thighs. The hands rest upon the lap, the left over the right, with palms upward and thumbs touching one another. The body is held erect, though not stiffly, and the eyes are left open so that their gaze falls upon the floor a few feet ahead. The breathing is regulated so as to be slow without strain, with the stress upon the out-breath, and its impulse from the belly rather than the chest. This has the effect of shifting the body’s center of gravity to the abdomen so that the whole posture has a sense of firmness, of being part of the ground upon which one is sitting. The slow, easy breathing from the belly works upon the consciousness like bellows, and gives it a still, bright clarity. The beginner is advised to accustom himself to the stillness by doing nothing more than counting his breaths from one to ten, over and over again, until the sensation of sitting without comment becomes effortless and natural.

Without looking forward to tomorrow every moment, you must think only of this day and this hour. Because tomorrow is difficult and unfixed and difficult to know, you must think of following the Buddhist way while you live today. . . . You must concentrate on Zen practice without wasting time, thinking that there is only this day and this hour. After that it becomes truly easy. You must forget about the good and bad of your nature, the strength or weakness of your power.

To the normal Asian concept of the master-pupil relationship, Zen adds something of its own in the sense that it leaves the formation of the relationship entirely to the initiative of the pupil. The basic position of Zen is that it has nothing to say, nothing to teach. The truth of Buddhism is so self-evident, so obvious that it is, if anything, concealed by explaining it. Therefore the master does not “help” the student in any way, since helping would actually be hindering. On the contrary, he goes out of his way to put obstacles and barriers in the student’s path.

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-intellectual 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 myself 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. Not content with feeling happy, I want to feel myself feeling happy–so as to be sure not to miss anything.

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

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!”

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.

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.

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 dalistic 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.

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

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 opening to the truth, and does not trifle with symbolism.

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

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

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.

From one point of view, the same relativity exists between nirvana and samsara, bodhi (awakening) and klesa (defilemenet). 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.

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

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 graspin 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.

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.

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.

[ . . .]

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!

[ . . .]

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.

[ . . .]

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.”

[ . . .]

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.