Zen: The Radical Way

Few people, and that includes some people practicing Zen, realize just how radical Zen Buddhism is. All the ways that I have discussed so far lead ‘somewhere,’ or ‘to something’: to love, to samadhi, to the light, but to where does Zen lead? Some people would say that it leads to satori, or awakening. But to awaken is to see that there is no awakening—-that means no somewhere, no something.

Not only does Zen have no goal, no ‘somewhere,’ ultimately it has no practice. Zen Master Pai Chang declared, “On Pai Chang mountain there are three secrets: drink tea, take care and rest.” Zen master Rinzai tells us, “Followers of the way, right now the resolute person knows full well that from the beginning there is nothing that needs to be done. Only because your faith is insufficient do you ceaselessly chase about; having thrown away your head, you go on looking for it unable to stop yourself.” The word ‘shikantaza,’ the highest Zen ‘practice,’ means just sitting, or, to put this another way, it means going beyond all practice.

As for a teaching, Zen Master Hyakujo declared, after calling his students a lot of mash-eaters—because they had spent the summer going around looking for a teaching on Zen—”Don’t you know that throughout the whole of China there are no teachers of Zen?”

Many people in Zen ignore all this, believing that Zen masters are being deliberately obscure and confusing, and that they do not really mean what they say. People practice Zen for many years, attending retreats and working daily at the practice of Zen. To say that Zen has neither a goal, practice nor a teaching, they feel, seems to be playing with words. Unable to reconcile themselves with the radical nature of Zen, they transform it into a mere ‘meditation’ practice.

Jung famously felt that Zen was far too confusing for the West, “Could any of us boast,” he asks1, “that he believes in the possibility of a boundlessly paradoxical transformation experience, to the extent, moreover, of sacrificing many years of his life to the wearisome pursuit of such a goal? And finally, who would dare to take upon himself the authority for such an unorthodox transformation experience—except a man who was little to be trusted, one who, maybe for pathological reasons, has too much to say for himself.”

In his Foreword to D.T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism, from which the above quotation was taken, he said, “Satori designates a special kind and way of enlightenment, which is practically impossible for the European to appreciate.” [1] Troubled by the obscurity of Zen he cites, as an example, Zen master Gensha enquiring of the monk, who had asked him for the entrance to Zen, “Do you hear the murmur of the brook?” “Yes,” said the monk. “That is the entrance,” continued the master.[2] To someone who knows, this makes perfect sense. But, Jung opined, “It is better not to allow oneself to become deeply imbued at the outset with the exotic obscurity of the Zen anecdote.” [3] “The Zen koans,” he says, “not only border on the grotesque, but are right there in the middle of it, and sound like crashing nonsense.” [4] All of this does not deter him from explaining both satori and koans. His explanation does not concern us here, but it is worth mentioning that he affirmed, “The only movement inside our civilization which has, or should have, some understanding of the [strivings for satori] is psychotherapy.” [5] He says, “For these and many reasons a direct transplantation of Zen to our Western condition is neither commendable nor even possible.” [6]

Even so Pai Chang is serious when he says, “drink tea, take care and rest,” and so is Rinzai when he says that from the beginning there is nothing that needs to be done. At the very beginning of introductory workshops that I give at the Montreal Zen Center, I tell the participants that it could be said that we practice Zen in order to discover why we practice Zen. I really should go on to say, and the reason is to finally realize that we need not practice at all. But, to realize this, to realize that, as another Zen master said, whatever we do is of no value, takes years of very hard and devoted labor.

Zen is a form of Buddhism. Two basic teachings of Buddhism are anicca, and anatman. Anicca, in Theravada Buddhism, means impermanence, that all existence is impermanent: everything is constantly coming into existence and passing away, nothing endures. However, for Zen Buddhism, impermanence too is empty. In Zen master Hui Neng’s words, “From the beginning not a thing is.” For things to be impermanent they must first be. Most of us can understand the idea that things are impermanent, even though we may not be able to accept it; that not a thing is, is beyond the understanding and so we prefer to ignore it or rationalize it in some way.

Anatman means ‘no self.’ Again, according to the teaching of the Theravada, the self has no existence because it is made up of five groups or aggregates (skandhas,) which can be analyzed and shown to be responsible for the illusion of a self. For Zen, these aggregates too are illusory, and as such they are ’empty.’ To be empty is to lack any independent existence.

The key word is ‘independent.’ The word ‘exist’ is made up of two words, ex and sistere: ex means ‘outside,’ as in ‘exit;’ sistere means ‘to stand.’ To exist is to stand outside or separate from, being known. For example, most believe that the room still exists after they have left it. However, according to Zen, ‘to be’ is dependent upon being known. ‘To be’ and ‘to be known’ are inseparable. We cannot ask what does a room look like when it is not being looked at!

As we have seen, the ‘mind’ has three levels. At the lowest level is the discriminating mind, the mind of so-called reason. I have called it the ‘spotlight mind.’ This mind, since the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, has been exalted, and is now considered to be the only mind. It is the mind of the mechanistic/materialistic outlook that is dominant in our society.

The next, and higher mind is the ‘lantern mind.’ It is sometimes called the Self or soul, and is the mind of ambiguity. This mind has been relegated to the ‘unconscious’ although it is the mind of the poet and musician, of the mystic and seer. It is the creative source, as opposed to the spotlight mind, which is the mind of logic and analysis. We are fast losing contact with the lantern mind, a trend that is accelerating owing to the widespread uses of mechanical substitutes for thinking, such as the computer, ipad and iphone.

The highest ‘mind’ is the realm of unity/knowing/being. I have put the word ‘mind’ in inverted commas because this is not really a mind, as we generally use the word. To use a Zen expression… it is ‘no-mind.’ In saying this, we see how perilous using words can be. This peril is a basic concern of Zen masters and, in their attempts to avoid the dangers that words create, they seem to be both anti-intellectual and unreasonable.

Words are not labels that are fixed on things that already exist. The focusing, spotlight mind, isolates units of existence and a word fixes that unit as a thing. A koan in the Mumonkan is concerned with this ‘fixing’ function of words. Zen master Issan was the head cook of Hyakujo’s monastery. Hyakujo needed to choose an abbot for a new monastery. He told the Head Monk and the rest of his disciples to show their Zen realization The ablest one would be sent to found the monastery. Hyakujo placed a pitcher on the floor and asked, “Don’t say this is a pitcher. What is it?” The Head Monk said, “It cannot be called a wooden sandal.” Hyakujo then asked Issan. Issan walked up kicked over the pitcher and left. Hyakujo said, “The Head Monk has been defeated by Issan.” So Issan was ordered to start the monastery.

On the subject of words and their meaning, the Lankavatara sutra says, “Words are subject to birth and death, meaning is not; words are dependent upon letters, meanings are not.” [7] It goes on to say, “You should energetically discipline yourself to get at the meaning itself. The meaning alone is with itself and leads to Nirvana. Words are bound up with discrimination and lead to rebirth. Meaning is attained from much learning, and this much learning means to be conversant with meanings and not with words. (My italics A.L.) To be conversant with meaning means to ascertain the view which is not at all associated with any philosophical school and which will keep not only yourself but others as well from falling into false views. Let seekers for meaning reverently approach those who are much learned in it, but those who are attached to words as being in accord with meaning, they are to be left to themselves and to be shunned by truth seekers.” [8]

We cannot find meaning by using spotlight mind, the mind that separates and divides experience into units (or ones.) Meaning arises out of the relation of a part to the whole, and it is with the lantern mind that we appreciate wholes. One result of our being estranged from lantern mind, is that many people feel that their lives are meaningless.

It is worth mentioning in passing that our lives, even so, do not have meaning. Meaning is not an attribute that is added to life. Life is intrinsically meaningful, and the more we are in touch with the deeper aspects of the mind, and so therefore the more integrated and coherent our life, the more meaningful, or ‘happy’ it is.

Possibly one of the more confusing aspects of Zen, not only to the outsider but even to those engaged in Zen, is the koan. “You know the sound of two hands clapping, what is the sound of one hand clapping?” This koan is so well known that it is now part of our culture. So is the koan that Gregory Bateson made popular in his writings on schizophrenia, which was Koan number 43 of the Mumonkan, ‘Shuzan’s staff:’ The koan reads, “Shuzan Osho held up a staff in front of his disciples and said, ‘You monks! If you call this a staff, you hide reality; if you say it is not a staff, you deny the fact. Tell me monks, what will you call it?’ Bateson used it as an illustration of the double bind.

At least six different English commentaries on the famous collection of koans of Zen master Mumon, the Mumonkan, are now available. Four of these commentaries, including my own, are by Westerners. But for all that, to most people, koans remain something of a mystery. Koans are generally looked upon as quaint, outrageous sometimes, but of marginal interest. They are often seen as another example of the fact that West is west and East is east, and, though we may meet, we cannot embrace.

Philip Kapleau, a Western Zen teacher and editor of the Three Pillars of Zen, said, “The aim of every koan is to liberate the mind from the snare of language, ‘which fits over experience like a straitjacket.'”[9] On another occasion he said, “Koans are so phrased that they deliberately throw sand into our eyes to force us to open our Mind’s eye and see the world and everything in it without distortion.“”[10] Later he said, “The complete solution of a koan involves the movement of the mind from a state of Ignorance (delusion) to the vibrant inner awareness of living Truth. This implies the emergence into the field of consciousness of the immaculate Bodhi-mind, which is the reverse of the mind of delusion.” [11] He also likened koans to hurdles that we have to leap on the way to satori. Yasutani on occasions said that they are like the colored leaves one gives to children to distract them and lure them along. Robert Aitken, another Western teacher, said that koans are “the clearest possible expression of perennial facts which students grasp with focused meditation and guidance. “[12] Maezumi said that a koan is “quite literally a touchstone of reality.”[13] He also said that the koan “records an instance in which a key issue of practice and realization is presented and examined by experience rather than by discursive or linear logic.”[14] For J.C. Cleary[15] they are “complex semantic devices, designed to interact with our ordinary minds in various ways, leading to the discovery and recovery of our Buddha-nature.” Yoel Hoffman,[16] going to the Chinese masters for his inspiration, said that they are designed to break down ordinary rationality. A.V. Grimstone,[17] in his introduction to Sekida’s Two Zen Classics, gives a longer and a more generally understood answer to what is a koan. He says, “A koan is a problem or subject for study, often, at first sight, of a totally intractable, insoluble kind, to which the student has to find an answer…. The answer which is accepted by the student’s teacher may be as seemingly irrational as the koan itself.”

Several constants emerge from these definitions, despite the contradictions: koans are a challenge, if not an affront, to our normal logic and reason; they are training exercises of some kind; and they contain information of some kind about a realized or awakened state. I feel that these definitions do not quite touch the essence of a koan as they do not go far enough. They seem to be saying something of the same order as: Shakespeare’s tragedies are about people in difficult situations.

What then is a koan? Why do people spend years working on a single one?

A basic koan is, “What am I?” In the original version the question is asked, “What is my face before my parents were born?” The question could be, “What do I mean when I use the word I?” A master said, “If you get the meaning you can throw away the word.” As the sutra quoted above says, “You should energetically discipline yourself to get at the meaning itself.” Most people, when they work on this koan, struggle to find the ‘correct’ answer; rarely do they ask themselves, “What is the meaning of the word “I?” To look for an answer to the koan and to seek the meaning of ‘I’ are vastly different.

As I have said, “Words bring things into existence.” I use the word ‘things’ in the same way as Buddhists use the word ‘forms.’ ‘I’ is a word that brings the sense of self into existence. To see what this means, it is a good idea to spend a day, or even half a day, not using the words “I,” “me,” or “one.”

The word “I” is a comparative late-comer to the field of awareness and for many years human beings lived without the “I.” This was the time that the American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, called the ‘bicameral era’ when, according to an article in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicameralism_(psychology) “the cognitive functions were divided between one part of the brain which appears to be “speaking”, and a second part which listens and obeys—a bicameral mind. During that time people did not make decisions but received instructions from the Gods.

My guess is that the spotlight mind was separated from the lantern mind in some way. Jaynes however concluded that the cause of the bicameral mind was that the connection between the left and right side of the brain had not at that time been fully formed. His explanation comes from the modern myth that the brain initiates activity. Pop psychology makes much of the different functions of the left and right side of the brain.

To say that the brain initiates action is something like saying that a violin plays Beethoven’s violin concerto. Without a violin, the concerto cannot be played. Moreover the violin must be in good condition and well tuned. Moreover, the violinist must know how to play a violin. But none of this can lead to the conclusion that the violin plays the concerto.

The koan that Bateson popularized gives us a clue to the real nature of koans. Bateson used the koan as an example of the double bind: you are damned if you do and damned if you do not. We have seen that the substance of the lantern mind is the ambiguity, me-as center/me-as-periphery. It is the ambiguity that pervades life, and is the source of our suffering, our frustrations, but also the source of our lives and of creativity. A dilemma is an ambiguity that we have to resolve. It is because we are constantly faced with dilemmas that life is often so difficult and exhausting. A koan pushes us into the dilemma of life and forces us to resolve it.

On the face of it Zen master Shuzan gives his students an impossible dilemma. As long as we approach the koan and the many mondos (Zen questions and answers) with the spotlight mind, the mind that deals with the logic of ‘yes or no.’ ‘is or is not,’ we cannot find a resolution. It is only by escaping from the tyranny of the spotlight mind that we can begin to work with koans. One of the big complaints that people make in dokusan is that they are stuck. They are stuck because they are caught in the jaws of the dilemma, and the spotlight mind is incapable of working with ambiguity.

We have said that the lantern mind is the creative mind. The word ‘creativity’ has been given many meanings and interpretations. However, the one that has great appeal for me is Arthur Koestler’s ” a creative situation occurs with a single idea in two incompatible frames of reference.” Generalized, we could say that creativity is the result of unity within ambiguity. The koan thus calls for a creative response, a response from lantern mind. The basic koan is the koan of life. And all koans tap into the koan of life. Not only this… ultimately the koan is resolved by dynamic unity.

End Notes:

1 Jung, C.G. (1958) Psychology and Religion, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London,) p. 539.

2 Ibid., p.539.

3 ibid., p.540.

4 ibid., p.541.

5 Ibid., p.553.

6 Ibid., p. 554.

7.ibid p167

8.ibid p169

9 Kapleau 1966 64

10 ibid 64

11 ibid 65

12 Aitkin 1991 xiii

13 Yamada, 1979 vii

14 ibid vii

15 Cleary 1992 15

16 Hoffman 1975.22

17 Sekida 1977 14

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3 Responses to Zen: The Radical Way

  1. Helmut Mohelsky says:

    How do you go from ‘here’ to ‘here’ ? Love, samadhi and awakening are often mentioned as milestones of the way, a way that leads us back to where we started. But if we manipulate our practice into a “meditation”practice we have missed the boat, as Mr. Low indicates. Instead we have to allow ourselves to be transformed by it. I often ask myself what can be done to facilitate this process of transformation. How do people keep their hearts and minds open, or what do people actually do on a daily basis that helps deepen their practice beyond meditation ?

  2. Monique Dumont says:

    The substance of the lantern mind is the ambiguity, me-as center/me-as-periphery, and that is what we try to escape from. Blaise Pascal wrote that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Why? Because then he feels his nothingness, his insufficiency, his weakness, etc… The irony is that most of us begin to sit quietly in a room alone, that is we start “meditation”, in the hope of avoiding precisely what presents itself when one “sits quietly in a room alone”. Hence we don’t want to let go our grip on the instruction manual and so, we practice a technique of meditation, that is something akin to relaxation, something to make us feel good. I remember once Mr. Low said that ambiguity was like the flaming sword of the Genesis, the sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. One cannot place oneself in front of the flaming sword and tries to force one’s way through it (with the spotlight mind) and still less to stop it. One has to be it. Perhaps another word would be to embrace it? Or better, to suffer it. And that is where “nothing needs to be done” really makes sense for me. We make a lot of efforts to escape from. But to be, do we need to make efforts?

  3. Marcel DesRosiers says:

    To sit quietly alone in a room may sometime appears the most unsecure activity one has to go through, precisely because he is isolated, prisoner of himself, desperately trying to find the way out, or the way in. At each single moment and location of our daily life we sit ‘’alone in the room of our being’’, alone, even with or without others sitting or standing around. ‘’Live meditation’’ happens consciously or unconsciously in these others moments, the effort needed ‘’to be’’ stands in an attitude ‘’d’abandon à ce qui est, tel quel’’, it requires vigilance, need doors opened to forgive offenses and allow the flow of compassion and love. It needs one to be constantly awared-as/awared-to, also to gently put the ‘I’ of ‘Who-am-I’ at his right place.

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