You cant move today for books and self help videos based on the teachings of eastern philosophy. Zen in particular has attracted attention over the years, since 1927 in fact, when Dr. Daisetz Suzuki first published his essays in Zen Buddhism, and he had a very odd fascination with Westerners. To begin with, very many intelligent Western people were becoming (or had already become) dissatisfied with the standard brands of their own religions, and this dissatisfaction had of course begun to take place quite seriously towards the close of the 19th century, and at that time, we began to be exposed to Oriental philosophy or religion, whatever you want to call it, because the great scholars were translating the texts of Buddhism and Hinduism. And already in 1848, the Jesuit had translated the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist texts from China into French, and translations into English then became available.
What happened was rather curious, because we were receiving Oriental tradition on a far higher level of sophistication than we were receiving the Christian or the Jewish traditions. The average person was exposed to an extremely low level of Christianity, and therefore immediately compared this to the highest level of Hinduism and Buddhism, much to the detriment of the former, because you could not go into your parish church, even if you lived in a very good neighbourhood, even in a university neighbourhood and find intellectual Christian teachings for sale on the entrance table. You found simple pamphlets made for simple minds. And so the comparison was overwhelming. It wasn’t really fair for the Christian tradition, but that’s what happened. Then something else happened, which was that in the year 1875, a strange Russian woman by the name of H.P. Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society, whose doctrines and literature were a fantastic mixup of the Western occult tradition, a great deal of Hindu and Buddhist lore, a smattering of Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism, but it all was very romantic, and presuppose that the adepts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and so forth were very high order initiates. The masters. And they had their secret lodges in the vastness of the Himalayas, and even such places as the Andes, and they were rather inaccessible, because they were in possession of the most dangerous secrets of occult power. But they every now and then felt safe to send an emissary out into the world to teach the ancient doctrine of liberation to mankind.
And so the West, through this, got an extremely glamorous impression of what Oriental wisdom might be. They expected Dr Suzuki to be a master in that sense, in that theosophical sense, or if not quite that, then at least in touch with those who were. And the whole idea of the Zen master, the way the whole word ‘master’ got attached to a teacher of Zen carried with it this theosophical flavour, and also a certain flavour which the Theosophical Society picked up from India where the great guru is somebody enormously revered. People would travel for hundreds of miles just to look at him, to have ‘view’ of someone like the Maharshi, or a lady guru, and there’s always the feeling that these people have tremendous powers. And so this is what was expected by many people from Zen masters. But the interesting thing about Zen masters is they’re not like that. They’re very human. I met a Zen Master once. Sat in an internet cafe much like the one i am in now. He was checking his email on a Hotmail ‘account’ and drinking a fruit smoothie through a straw.
So you mustn’t expect the Zen master to be like the Pope. They can come on very dignified when necessary, but there’s always something about them which is fundamentally lacking in seriousness. Even though they may be well-endowed with sincerity. They’re two quite different qualities. They are extraordinarily interesting people, as are their students, in the context of Japanese culture. Japanese culture is terribly uptight, because the Japanese are very emotional people, underneath. Tremendously passionate. But they have to hold that in, because they live in a crowded country, and space is the most valuable thing in Japan, especially living space, because 75% of the territory is uninhabitable. It’s forested mountains, and you can’t grow anything there, you can’t make much of a city. So they’re all crowded into 25% of the country. And so this feeling of being pressed in by other people is handled by and incredible politeness and by orderly behaviour. But this makes the average Japanese man and woman kind of nervous. When a Japanese giggles, it’s a sign not of being amused, but of being embarrassed. And you’ll find all sorts of funny quirks, such as people putting their hands over their mouths when they’re eating, or to conceal a giggle.
And they’re tremendously hung up on social indebtedness, whether it’s a debt to the emperor, or whether it’s a debt to your fathers and mothers, or whether it’s a debt to someone in the family, or whether it’s a debt to friends whom you visited and they entertained you. Well, you always take gifts with you when you go, but then that still embarrasses your friends to whom you take the gifts, because they have to consider the next time they go to visit you, they’ve got to take gifts of the same value. And so on and so forth.
So actually, what Zen is in Japan is a release from Japanese culture. It is getting rid of the hang-ups, but doing it in such a way as not to embarrass the rest of society. So the Zen monks come on as if they’re pretty stiff; when they walk out in the street, they almost look like soldiers. When they walk, they stride, they don’t shuffle, like other Japanese do. They don’t giggle, ever. They have no need to. Because the process of their discipline has liberated them from the social conventions. Only they are very tactful and don’t rush around like a bunch of hippies or something and say ‘Look, we’re liberated!’ They pretend they’re the very pillars of society.
So they follow a tradition which is very ancient, which is that in every society, there is an inner group who doesn’t believe in the fairy stories they’ve been told. He sees through. To whom everything becomes completely transparent. You see what games people are playing. And you don’t despise them for that. You see, they’re involved in that because of their whole conditioning. But you see through all those games. The game (the me game) that everybody is playing is of course the survival game. And we think we’ve got our minds rigged about this in such a way that we live in constant dread of sickness or of death or of loss of property or status. Well, so what? Supposing you do. Everybody’s going to die someday. It’s a little harder to take when you’re 20 than when you’re 50, but if you are entirely hung up on the idea that YOU are this particular expression of the universe and that only, you haven’t been properly educated. If you were awake, you would understand that you were the whole universe, pretending, projecting itself at a point called here and now, in the form of the human organism. And you would understand that very clearly, not just as an idea, but as an actual vivid sensation, just the same way you know you’re sitting in this room. And so the object of Zen, as of other ‘ways of liberation’… Taoism, Hinduism, you’ll find it even in Christianity in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Islam… The object of these ways of liberation is to bring you to a vivid, perfectly clear, even sensuous realisation of your true identity as a temporary coming on and going off, coming on and going off, or vibration as waves, of what there is, and always is, of the famous E which equals MC squared. And you are that. You will be that, and always will be that… accept that… This whatever it is… doesn’t operate in time. Time is a more or less a human illusion. If i may be so bold as to use my ‘me’ saturated blog to categorise my experiences in a hierarchal form… One of my greatest personal realisations it that there never was anything but now and never will be anything but now, and now is eternity. I hope I never lose sight of the meaning of that like I just did when I hoped for something in a future that doesn’t exist. That is Zen.
Zen is a little bit unlike the rest of Hinduism and Buddhism in that it’s summed up in these four principles: It’s a special transmission of the Buddhist enlightenment outside the scriptures. It does not depend on words or letters. It points directly to your own mind-heart and attains therefore Buddha-hood directly. Buddha-hood means the state of being awakened to the real nature of things. But you see, what IS the real nature of things? It obviously cannot be described. Just as if I were to ask what is the true position of the stars in the big dipper. Well, it depends from where you’re looking. From one point in space, they would be completely different in position from another. So there is no true position of those stars. So in the same way, you cannot therefore describe their true position or their true nature. And yet on the other hand, when you look at them, and really don’t try to figure it out, you see them as they are, and they are as they are from every point of view, wherever you look at them.
So there is no way of describing or putting you finger on what the Buddhists call reality or in Sanskrit, tathata, which means ‘suchness’ or ‘thatness,’ or sunyata, which means ‘voidness,’ in the sense that all conceptions of the world when absolute are void. It doesn’t mean that the world is, in our Western sense, nothing. It means that it’s no thing. And a thing is a unit of thought. A’ think’. So reality isn’t a ‘think’. We cannot say what it is, but we can experience it. And that is of course the project of Zen.
Now, it does it by direct pointing. And this is what excited people about Dr Suzuki’s work when he first let people know about Zen in the Western world. It seemed to consist of an enormous assemblage of weird anecdotes. That these people instead of explaining had kind of a joke system, or kind of a riddle system. the basic secret of the Buddha system is simply this, and it’s explained by a great Chinese Zen master, whose name was Hui-neng, who died in the year 713 AD. And he explained it in his sutra. He said, “If anybody asks you about secular matters, answer them in terms of metaphysical matters. But if they ask you about things physical, answer them in terms of things worldly.” So if you ask a Zen master what is the fundamental teaching of the Buddha, he answers immediately, “Have you had breakfast?” “Yes.” “If so, go and wash your bowl.” Or such a thing as “Since I came to you master, you have never given me any instruction.” “How can you say that I’ve never given you any instruction? When you brought me tea, didn’t I drink it? When you brought me rice, didn’t I eat it? When you greeted me, didn’t I return the salutation? How can you say that I haven’t instructed you?” And the student said, “Master, I don’t understand.” And he said, “If you want to understand, see into it directly, but when you begin to think about it, it is altogether missed.”
They have also in Zen monasteries a funny thing. It’s a chin rest. If you spend a long time meditating, it’s sometimes convenient to have something to rest your chin on, and it’s called a Zen- bon. And so once a student asked the teacher, “Why did Bodidharma (who is supposed to have brought Zen from India to China ) come to China?” And the master said “Give me that Zen-bon.” And the student passed it to him and the master hit him with it.
A contrary kind of story. The master and one of his students were working, pruning trees. And suddenly the student said to the master, “Will you let me have the knife?” And he handed it to him blade-first. He said “Please let me have the other end.” And the master said “What would you do with the other end?”
There was a group walking through the forest, and suddenly the master picked up a branch and handed it to one of his disciples and said “Tell me, what is it?” The master was still holding it. He said “Tell me, what is it?” The disciple hesitated, and the master hit him with it. He passed it to another disciple. “What is it?” The disciple said “Let me have it so I can tell you.” So the master threw the branch at this other disciple, and he caught it and hit the master.
Now all these Zen jokes are much simpler in their meaning than you would ever imagine. They are so devastatingly simple that you don’t see them. Everybody looks for something complicated. When Alan Watts was visited by a Chinese Zen man, He had his little daughter with him, and the master said to her, “You know, once upon a time, there was a man who kept a very small goose in a bottle. A gosling. And it began to grow larger and larger until he couldn’t get it out of the bottle. Now, he didn’t want to break the bottle, and he didn’t want to hurt the goose, so what should he do?” And she said immediately, “Just break the bottle.” He turned to Alan and said “You see, they always get it when they’re under seven.”
So there’s that side of Zen, and that side of Zen we would call, essentially, in technical language, sanzen. That means, really, to study Zen in the form of an interchange with the teacher. The other side of Zen is za-zen, or the practice of meditation. You can actually practice za-zen in four ways, corresponding to what the Buddhists call the four dignitaries of man: walking, standing, sitting, and lying. Only sitting is the one most used. But you should not imagine that Zen mediation requires absolutely that it be done sitting.
Za-zen is very fundamental to Zen, in one form or another. And it is the art of letting your mind become still. That doesn’t mean that it becomes blank. That doesn’t mean that you have no, what we would call sensory input. It mean simply that you learn how to breath properly. That’s very important. And that you stop talking to yourself. The chatter inside your skull comes to rest. So what happens in some schools is this:
You have some difficulty in being accepted by a teacher, because Buddhism is not on a missionary basis. They don’t send out ads and invitations saying ‘Come to our fantastic church,’ you know. They wouldn’t dream of doing that. Because it’s up to you to seek it out. They’re never going to shove it down your throat. So it is difficult to get into a Zen school. It isn’t really a monastery as the west has monasteries, where the monks take life vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It’s more like a theological seminary, and the monk, or seminarist, as he might more accurately be called, stays there for a number of years, until he feels he’s got the thing that he went for. The teacher, the master, is usually unmarried, but that doesn’t prevent him from having girlfriends. They are not uptight about sex in Zen, as they are in other forms of Buddhism. Everybody is sort of alive. They don’t dither around. They’re all working. But they’re very open. In some kinds of Buddhism, they have issues if you try to photograph something. “This is too sacred to be photographed,” sort of thing. In Zen, they say “Help yourself! Photograph! Anything! Go on, take picture!” No problems.
So then, they have these sesshins. You must distinguish between ‘session,’ English, and ‘sesshin,’ Japanese. ‘Sesshin’ means a long, long period of meditation practice, over say, a whole week. But especially early in the morning, and at certain times of day, they all meet and they sit cross-legged on their mats in meditation. In one set, they meditate on what is called a koan, and that means a ‘case,’ in the sense of a case in law establishing a precedent. And it’s one of these stories. When the great master Joshu, who lived in the Tung dynasty, was asked, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” he replied “mu,” which means no. Everybody knows that dogs have Buddha nature. So why did the great master say “mu”? That’s a koan. Or Hakuin invented a koan as a proverb in Chinese: One hand cannot make a clap. So the koan is “What is the sound of one hand?” Of course, it’s differently said in Japanese than it is in English. But, you see, it sounds like a very, very complicated problem, and so these students take this problem back for meditation. The average person would start trying to arrive at an intellectual answer. And if he takes that back to the teacher, the teacher simply rejects it out of hand, time after time after time.
So people get desperate about these things, and they go to all sorts of lengths to try and answer them, because they don’t realise how simple the answer is. That’s what’s always overlooked. If you were to answer that koan in English, it gives it to you as it’s stated. It says “WHAT is the sound of one hand?” . It’s very difficult for people to become that simple. And you can become that simple only through meditation where you stop all the words and you see all the things perfectly directly. And so accomplished Zen people are very, very direct. Their life is completely simplified, because they know perfectly well that there is only this present moment. No past. No future.
So what’s your problem? You know, you could ask this of anyone. Well, you could say “I’ve got all sorts of problems and responsibilities” and so on. All right. Don’t other people have some share in this? You see, we are always being spiritually conceited in thinking we have to take care of everybody else, and that can sometimes do people a peculiar disservice, because they get into the idea that everybody should take care of them. And so we go around making all sorts of promises about which we feel enthusiastic at the time, but the enthusiasm wears off and then we don’t keep them and then people get annoyed. And we go about telling people how much we like them when we don’t. And all sorts of things of that kind by not being direct, you see. This is the whole idea of Zen, is directness. By not being direct, we create a great deal of trouble. However, the primary concern of Zen is not so much with interpersonal relations, as it is with man’s relation with nature. In view of life and death, where are you? They have an inscription that hangs up in Zen monasteries, which says ‘Birth and death is a serious event. Time waits for no one.’ Which is sort of equivalent to the Christian ‘Work out your salvation with diligence.’ Or with fear and trembling.
So it begins in a clarification of our relationship with existence. With being. And therefore it lies in a more, I would say, primary or nursery level than an encounter group, which is concerned with personal relationships. But I don’t think you can set up harmonious personal relationships until you are happy with yourself. Until you’ve got with the sky, the trees, and the rocks, and the water, and the fire. Then you’re fundamental. You’re really alive. From that position, you can relate much better to other people, because you don’t come on as a kind of ‘poor little me, who’s in this universe wearing ‘L’ plates and doesn’t really belong’ attitude. And most of us do that, terribly apologetic for our existence. Just because we’re apologetic, some people are insufferably proud, because they feel they have to compensate for this inferior status in the universe by overdoing it with bigheadedness and with aggression towards others. But if you know that… Well, when Dogen came back from China (he lived around 1200 AD, and studied Zen there and founded a great monastery) they asked him “What did you learn in China?” He said, “I learned that the eyes are horizontal, and the nose is perpendicular.”
Now in all these things, don’t search for a deep symbolism. They’re NOT symbolic; they’re absolutely direct. So when somebody says, you see, that the fundamental principle of Buddhism is a cypress tree in the garden, you are not to understand this this is some holy doctrine in which the cypress tree is a manifestation of the godhead. Let me illustrate the point further. It can’t be illustrated intellectually so here is another story from Watts.
“There is a sect of Buddhism in Japan called Jodo-shinshu .Sukhavati?.. which means the true teaching about the pure land. And they have a method of meditation in which they call upon the name of a transcendental Buddha called Amida. So they say this formula, ‘Namu Amida Butsu.’ Namu means like ‘hail,’ only it means, in other cultures and other languages than ours, instead of saying ‘hail,’ they say ‘name,’ ‘nama.’ So ‘Namu Amida Bustu’ means ‘Hail Amitabha buddha,’ or ‘Amida’ is the Japanese. That formula is called ‘Nambutsu,’ or ‘Having the buddha in mind.’
There was a priest of this sect that went to study with a Zen master, and had made good progress, and the master told him to write a poem expressing his understanding. So he wrote the following poem:
When nambutsu is said, There is neither oneself nor Buddha; Na-mu- a-mi-da-bu-tsu– Only the sound is heard.
And the Zen master scratched his head awhile, because he wasn’t quite satisfied with it, so the student submitted another poem which did satisfy the master, and it went like this:
When the nambutsu is said, There is neither oneself nor Buddha; Na-ma-a-mi-da-bu-tsu, Na-ma-a-mi-da-bu-tsu.
The master was satisfied, but in my opinion it had one line too many.”
So you see that the Zen practice involves using words to get beyond words, where we might use words simply for their sound. Let’s suppose you say the word ‘yes.’ Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. You come to think after a while ‘Isn’t that a funny kind of noise to make?’ Everybody has done it. We are delivered from the hypnotic effect of words by this particular use of words. We learn they’re only words after all, but we hypnotise people by using words. And children, for instance, have no antibodies against words, so they get quite upset, you know. “Daniel called me an idiot!” So what? But children get absolutely desperate about it because we put this power of words upon them, these incantations. These are spells, you see. All magicians empower people in spells and incantations, because they use words to beguile. And so then, we are from infancy told who we are, what is our identity, what our expectations should be, what we ought to get out of life, what class we belong to. And we believe the whole thing. And having believed it, we come to sense it, as we sense the hard wood of the corner of the table, and we think it’s real, and it’s a bunch of rubbish. It’s an amusing game, if you know that that’s all it is, and can be played with eloquence. But the more you know it’s ONLY an illusion, the better you can play it.
In Chinese, their word for nature is ‘tzu-jan,’ in Japanese, ‘shi-jen,’ at that means, ‘what is so of itself. We would say ‘spontaneity.’ A tree has no intention to grow. Water has no intention to flow. The clouds have no intention to blow. And as the poem says,
‘When the wild geese fly over the lake, The water does not intend to reflect them, And the geese have no mind to cast their image.’
Now, that worries us. First of all, we think that spontaneity is merely sudden action. There’s nothing very sudden about the way a tree grows. It’s a highly intelligent design. So is the bird. So are you. But a lot of people who don’t quite understand Zen think that spontaneity is just doing anything, and the more it looks like anything, the more spontaneous it is. In other words, they have a preconception of spontaneity, that a person behaving spontaneously. Or would probably be vulgar, impolite, rude. It doesn’t follow; that’s merely a preconception of the nature of spontaneity. Spontaneity is the way i grow my beard or you grow your hair, it’s not the way you think you ought to grow your hair. It’s the way it happens. So that’s a really high order of intelligence.
What is happening, then, in the discipline of Zen is that we are trying to move into the place where we use that intelligence in everyday life, it’s just that you can’t get it on purpose. The purpose, the motivation always spoils it. So you would ask then, ‘How do I get rid of purpose?’ On purpose? That you ask that question simply shows how tied up you are in the thinking process. You cannot force that process to stop. You have to see it as nonsense. Babble. Continuous babble in your head. So we learns to listen to our thoughts and let the mind think anything it wants to think, but don’t take it seriously. And the idea of you doing this is also a babble in the head. And eventually, but without bothering about any eventually, because in this state, there is no future; you’re not concerned about the future. Purpose is always concerned with the future. Easier said than done and not at all to be done conciously.
Now what bugs Western people about this is they would say ‘Are you trying to tell us that life has no meaning, no purpose?’ Yes. What’s so bad about that? What sort of meaning would you like it to have? Give me a meaning for life. Anything you want. Well, when people try to think of what the meaning of life is, they either say “42!” nervously repeating the joke from ‘Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy’ or.. ‘Well, I think that we’re all part of a plan, and that working as if we were characters in a novel or a play, and we are all working towards a great fulfilment. One day, perhaps after we’re dead, perhaps in the future life, there’ll be a great amazing thing. There’ll be a the most amazing incredible realisation at the end of it all, see? And that’s what we are living for, see? And it will all be very, very important, because it won’t be something trivial. It will be something extremely holy.’ Well you must ask the question, ‘What’s your idea of something very holy?’ Nobody really knows. You know, they think about church, and medieval artists who used to represent heaven in the form of everybody sitting on clouds. And I must say hell looked much more fun. It was a kind of sadomasochistic orgy. But heaven looked insufferably dull. And when those little children sang hymns about those eternal Sabbaths, it sounded like a very, depressing future.
But you see, when you follow through these ideas, what do you want? What is the goal? What is progress all about? You realise that you just don’t know. So the question is immediately posed for the meditator, but aren’t you there already? I mean, isn’t THIS what it’s about?