Understanding Zen
Benjamin & Amy Radcliff
Charles E. Tuttle Company, Boston, Massachusetts (USA), 1993
174 pages, including index

Although I had never heard of this book before, apparently it is widely viewed as one of the best books in the West to introduce the regular reader to Zen. Its approach appears to be to discuss the topic as one would discuss any other philosophy or school of thought, therefore removing the usual veil of mystery that surrounds Zen in many other books. The end result is, I think, quite good. The authors themselves make it quite clear at the beginning of their work, in the first chapter, titled Approach to Zen:

The Zen establishment makes a great deal of noise about the universality of Zen, but remains notoriously provincial when the dictum is taken seriously. While there is surely some pluralism within that establishment, it is nonetheless a relatively self-contained universe mired in dogma, ritual, and tradition. Unfortunately, such parochialism has made most accounts of Zen virtually incomprehensible to the Western reader. The present study is an attempt to make Zen more accessible by stripping away the layers of orthodoxy that have come to surround it. We will present Zen as a secular doctrine without any necessary relationship to Buddhism or Eastern culture.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 3)

Yet, the authors also acknowledge the difficulties in taking this approach (as well as clearly stating that it is far from being the traditional approach taking to the subject matter):

The nature of the traditional approach to instruction is well illustrated by the following all too typical episode. While giving a talk to a group of psychoanalysts, a Zen Master responded to the question "What is Zen?" by peeling and consuming a banana. An observer, understandably perplexed, asked if the instructor could possibly elaborate. The instructor did so by smashing the banana into the questioner's face. After the audience continued to press for a more intelligible answer, the Master finally replied that "Zen is an elephant copulating with a flea."

There are two possible reactions to this sort of experience. The first is to assume that Zen is so "profound" that this nonsensical answer is actually appropriate. Despite, or, because of, the inanity of the reply, we are led to believe that there is something very "deep" going on. To be sure, we have no clue as to the nature of this profundity, but we are sure that it is there. A second and less charitable conclusion is that the Master is purposely misleading and confusing his audience. The latter would appear more likely.

The general justification for the refusal or inability of establishment Zen to express itself in ways that are easily accessible to the Western reader is that a central aspect of Zen is (as we shall see) the transcendence of all words and concepts. Indeed, the experience that is Zen consists entirely of transcending or "moving beyond" all conventional ideas, concepts, and words. Because Zen is not about words or the concepts they represent, it is inconceivable that you could use these things to explain it. Given that Zen is predicated upon the opposition to all theoretical or abstract notions, it seems ridiculous to attempt to describe it in such terms. In essence, to produce a set of philosophical propositions that are alleged to "explain" Zen is logically inconsistent with the premises of Zen. To engage in this type of philosophical analysis, it is said, is to miss the point entirely.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, pp. 5-6)

Yet, that is precisely what the authors do. As a matter of fact, I'd argue that they do so in a quite successful manner too. How did they manage, though? What is their approach? They explain towards the beginning:

The way out of the dilemma is to realize that we can make provisional statements not about what Zen is, but what Zen is like. We begin by making statements that are strictly wrong, but which are as close as we can come. By tentatively accepting such propositions, we climb a ladder of half truths, but once we reach the top, we can look back and see the various rungs that led us there for what they are. Thus we will engage in making positive statements about Zen, ot because such statements are absolutely true, but because it is useful to do so —because they form a basis of understanding that will ultimately illustrate the greater truth of which they are merely poor reflections. In the process they will expose their own shortcomings as descriptions of Zen. In this way, we might beging by saying "Zen is an experience" but, as we progress up the ladder of understanding, we will come to see how and why Zen is not an experience.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 11)

It is a very Zen-like approach, indeed. Sort of a contradiction in terms. And yet, like I said, it sort of makes sense. The authors do manage to pull out the trick somehow.

Chapter 2, The Caverns of Reason, introduces us to Zen thought on the relevance of human reason:

In the quest for survival, we have learned to think. We have gained greater and greater ability to understand and manipulate the world by fitting its contours to the dictates of abstract reason. While this peculiar ability has proven extraordinarily valuable, it has also introduced certain problems. Though we gain immeasurably from our capacity to reason, we also tend to become unknowingly ensnared within an existential maze of our own devising.

From the perspective of Zen, the human predicament results from the fact that we have done just that. We have become trapped within the walls of reason, wandering through tunnels that lead nowhere but to death. As we shall see, this existential labyrinth is built with bricks of the mind. To free ourselves, we must first understand the nature of the prison. This in turn requires an appraisal of the logic of abstract thinking.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 17)

Notice that, contrary to the usual understanding, it is not so much that Zen opposes (or even despises) rational thought as the fact that it considers it useful for our day to day operations, but insufficient (indeed, even an obstacle) for our liberation.

The problem with abstract thought is well known by now. The whole edifice of Western philosophy is based on the foundations laid out by Plato with his allegory of the cave. According to Plato, what we see (and deal with) in our daily lives is definitely not reality, but a mere shadow, a pale reflection of something far more real and greater, the world of ideas. To him, abstractions are actually more real than the world we experience out there. Furthermore, this approach implies the existence of a dualism or binary opposition that underlies everything:

The simplest conceptual scheme is one that consists of only one (necessarily dualistic) abstraction, say "self" and "not-self." In this scenario, there is only the self and everything else. The external world, the not-self, is an undifferentiated, uniform mass. The utility of this scheme is relatively small, and is quickly replaced with a more elaborate system that begins to draw distinctions between external and internal elements. The not-self is divided into trees, rivers, weather, and so on. Similarly, self becomes divided into, say, mind and body. Next, we might make further refinements, separating trees into "spruce," "sycamore," "elm," and so on, and perhaps mind into "conscious" and "unconscious" or even "id," "ego," and "superego." We also begin to develop higher order abstractions, such as "causality" and "time." As we increase the complexity of our conceptual framework, we gain a greater ability to comprehend, control, and predict our lives. In the greatest sense of the term, "science" means the totality of human efforts to do just that —to understand and manipulate the world. Hence, science is the process of building increasingly better sets of abstractions.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, pp. 19-20)

Again, Zen does not oppose the use of reason. It just tries to let us see that we cannot achieve englightenemtn through it. All these mental constructs are indeed good to navigate the world, but that is not the same as finding liberation. After all, Plato's world of ideas does not truly have an existence of its own beyond our own minds.

These abstractions are created by and exist only in the human mind. By their very nature, abstractions and concepts are of our own devising. We use them as an interface between our selves and the world. They are a form of mental "technology," in that they are not a part of nature but a human creation. Of course, technology —say, the computer being used to write this book— is not waiting to be "discovered": it is manufactured by human beings. Concepts are a special type of technology, though, in that they are imaginary, i.e., we create them, but only mentally rather than physically. To belabor the point, concepts are tools of the human mind that translate sensory data into more usable forms. Data are thus processed, sorted, and reduced to more manageable proportions.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, pp. 20-21)

Or, to put it differently, these concepts are, in the end, just human conventions. They do not have an existence of their own, beyond our own minds. They may be useful. As a matter of fact, those ideas that survived thus far have proven to be quite useful. That is precisely why they survived. They have served us well, one way or another. And yet, we should not fool ourselves into believing that, for that reason, they are somehow "real". As the authors explain:

The above discussion is by no means an indictment of abstract thought. Abstractions fuel the engine of reason. It is no exaggeration to suggest that it is the ability to engage in abstract reasoning that makes us distinctively human. Concepts are necessary for language, literature, agriculture, architecture, science, and technology —for civilization itself. The suggestion is not that there is anything wrong with abstractions, but only that we must not confuse them with reality.

The problem is that we consistently mistake abstractions for things that actualy exist. In erecting an imaginary clockwork, conceptual universe we have unwittingly allowed ourselves to become trapped within it.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 27)

To some extent, all this may remind us of postmodernism, although there is a key distinction: while the postmodernist thinkers appear to love the idea that there is no truth and seem to enjoy a deeply relativistic notion of existence itself, Zen has a different approach. For one, the fact that our own ideas about the reality out there are limited and always imperfect does not entail that there is no reality out there, as the postmodernists often imply (even if only in a playful manner, enjoying as they usually do destroying all solid ideas without putting anything in their place). The Zen tradition, on the other hand, proposes abandoning the dualistic approach and trying to experience reality in a direct manner instead. It does not deny that this is quite difficult, but it never states that it is impossible.

In chapter 3, the authors tell us how it is possible to escape from the paradox of reason described in the previous chapter. They start by using Freud's theory of psychonalasysis, which sees our own self-awareness as the confluence of three distinct forces: the id, the ego, and the super-ego. Yet, one thing should not be confused with the other. In other words, the authors do not argue that Zen can be interpreted as a form of Eastern psychoanalysis or anything of the sort.

From the perspective of Zen (and here we part company with Freud to join that of Sartre), the basis or ground of the mind is deeper —or at least, broader— than the id. The "true" mind is (human) consciousness, that is (human) awareness. It is the ability to perceive and interpret sensory data. One of the things of which it may be aware are various stimuli resulting from the organic nature of the body. We are then aware of the needs of the id as they occur, in the sense that we experience these. Put another way, the basis of the mind is the ability to experience. The id is just another source of experience, so that we experience the id in the same way we experience a toothache or our own thoughts. Ultimately, the mind is nothing more, or less, than this capacity for experience.

It follows, then, that the person who has experiences does not exist. Instead, there are only the experiences as they occur. The miracle of the ego is the mind's realization that it exists from moment to moment, so that it is helpful to consider that fact in the drive to satisfy desire. The ego is thus abstracted from the true self, i.e., from the stream of experiences that constitute the self. In this sense, the ego is the mind's idea of itself.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 43)

In this sense, I would say that Zen has more to do with Husserl's phenomenology than with psychoanalysis. Perhaps the authors were just not so familiar with it, or thought that it was even more complex than psychoanalysis to explain in just a few paragraphs, as they do with Freud's structural model of the psyche.

In any case, when it comes to this particular topic, Zen states that our ego (i.e., our "self") truly does not exist. It is nothing more than our own awareness of all the experiences that are happening to us (notice how the idea is so ingrained that even our language cannot be spoken without using those very same mental constructs that assume the existence of an ego that is clearly separate from the world out there). It all sounds quite strange and nonsensical, but there is more to it than it seems:

Still, the notion that "you" do not exist is understandably difficult to accept. Nothing seems more self-evident and obvious than one's own existence. Descartes's dictum "I think, therefore I am" seems beyond doubt. At a minimum, it certainly seems to be true.

Of course, the fact that something seems incontrovertibly true says nothing about it actual truth value. The world certainly seems to be flat, yet we know it to be spherical. The earth appears to be stationery, yet it is moving through space (relative to the sun) at 90 miles per second, while simultaneously rotating on its axis at 900 miles per hour. The book you are reading, the chair you may be sitting on, and you yourself are all seemingly solid objects; in fact, these things are composed almost entirely of the empty space between molecules, atoms, and sub-atomic particles.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, pp. 45-46)

Indeed. What the authors (and Zen itself) poit out here is that the much revered common sense is often wrong. I know, it's hardly revolutionary. However, we somehow appear to be wired to accept common sense by default. And we may as well do so, if it helps us deal with our everyday lives. However, that is one thing, but thinking that it truly reflects the truth is quite different.

So, what is the way out? How do we manage to gain a direct experience? The key is to let go of the ego itself, and avoid any sort of control and conceptual rationalization. Yes, sure. This is is easier said than done.

The escape from paradox lies in the realization that if you cannot let go of your mind, if you must be in control of it, then you are already acting spontaneously. In other words, if an activity is beyond your conscious control, then you are by definition being spontaneous. If you cannot, by an act of will, decide whether or not to control your mind, then your mind cannot possibly be controlled by you. In considering this process, your ego illustrates its own superfluousness.

The notion of spontaneous control is hardly revolutionary. We recognize a great deal of physiological functions as beyond our conscious control. We do not decide to have our hear beat, to breathe, or to hear sounds. We digest food and convert that food to biochemical energy without deciding to. We perform these and countless other activities automatically, without supervision by the ego.

It also appears that this spontaneity extends to putatively voluntary decisions. Ultimately, you merely make decisions —you don't first decide to decide. As Alan Watts has observed, if this were not the case, there would be an infinite regress of decisions to decide. Given that this does not occur, all decisions somehow just "happen" spontaneously. This is seen most keenly when one has to react without reflection, as in sport or other improvisational activities, like dance or jazz. A dervish, for example, no more decides each movement than a batter decides exactly when and where to swing the bat. Instead, they dance and swing bats. Whether we realize it or not, all activities, from swimming to thinking, happen without the aid of the ego.

Indeed, one of the attractions of many recreational activities is that they allow no role for the ego. To one degree or another, people play music, dance, or engage in sport for the sake of losing the self —for escaping, however, temporarily, from self-awareness. A good dancer is not aware of the self in the act of dance, nor is a good pitcher thinking about the self when hurling a baseball. Concentration is focused on an activity, on the experience itself, rather than on the person performing the activity and having the experience. This is the same function that chanting is meant to serve in many Eastern spiritual disciplines: the activity precipitates a state of consciousness in which individuals quite literally lose themselves.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, pp. 48-49)

In other words, perhaps satori is nothing more than the well known idea of "being in the zone" or "going with the flow". This other approach certainly makes it way easier to understand from a Western perspective.

Chapter 4 turns to the meaning of existence, and starts with a brief discussion on the role of science:

Science is the process by which human beings attempt to understand reality. Science is thus a method for developing knowledge that people find useful in interacting with and controlling their environments. Put another way, science is the development of ideas about reality. In this sense, we are all scientists, in that we are continuously creating and testing propositions about the world and ourselves.

The basic building blocks of science are conceptual frameworks —cognitive maps— by which we organize experience. Because the totality of experience is clearly too complex to be understood directly, we "morselize" it into more easily processed pieces. By definition, to conceptualize is to do exactly that: to divide experience into small, abstract bits that are differentiated from other such bits. As the set of our conceptions becomes more complex, we subject all experience to this process, so that sensory data become interpreted entirely in these terms. When data are encountered that do not fit neatly into existing conceptual schemes, we create new ones to accommodate them. By this process, the world is divided into discrete processes and objects related by the principles of reason.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 59)

Notice the relation between this approach of the authors and the concept of a paradigm shift, introduced by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It all revolves around the concept of theories:

Because theories are only models, they cannot be judged as right or wrong. As models, they lack essential features of reality, and so in no way can be deemed true or false. Instead, we say theories are more or less useful, in the sense that they are better or worse in resembling experience or predicting the future. Thus one model of the Bastille is better than another because it more closely resembles the actual structure, not because one is right and the other wrong. Similarly, before Copernicus, it was thought that planets had circular orbits and that the solar system was geocentric. This theory was abloe to predict the orbits of the planets with great accuracy, but suffered from certain problems. Among these was retrograde motion, or the apparent tendency of planets to sometimes move backwards along their orbital paths. The Copernican system, positing elliptical orbits and the sun as the center of the solar system, supplanted this geocentric theory because it provided better predictions, e.g., by accounting for (and predicting) retrograde motion. From the perspective of scientific inquiry, the fact that Copernicus postulated a heliocentric solar system is largely irrelevant. The critical point is that such an assumption leads to better predictions —that is, it appears to better fit the available data.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, pp. 62-63)

Now, a bit against the authors' argument, I'd say that a theory (or a "model") that manages to better resemble our experience and/or predict the future is indeed closer to the truth, even though we must still admit that we have not found the Truth. The distinction may sound irrelevant, but I do think it is quite important, especially in view of all the ideas that were later spread by the postmodern philosophies. I don't see how we can refuse to admit that we, mere human beings, are unable to grasp the Truth (as a matter of fact, it is very likely that we will never be able to do so, in spite of all our efforts). However, that is not to say that we cannot get closer to it. Or, to put it a different way, that is not to say that "anything goes", or that all views are equally valid. In other words, the fact that we can only understand reality using limited mental constructs does not imply that every such mental construct is equal to any other. Far from it, some of them allow us to predict the future, which means that they better resemble the reality out there, which means that they are "more true", so to speak. The distinction may be subtle but of vital importance, I think, in order to avoid going down the slippery slope of worthless rhetoric.

But where does all of this leave us when it comes to the meaning of the human existence itself?

Life cannot be understood, and thus assigned a meaning, because life is not an abstraction. The process of searching for it is thus much akin to the notion of trying to be rational in the context of the prisoner's dilemma, wherein one is trapped in the contradiction of trying to be rational by being irrational. If I am rational, then I must consciously be irrational, but in being irrational, I am in fact being rational, and so on, endlessly. In precisely the same way, tje endeavor to understand life, to find its meaning and purpose, is an endless cycle of inaction where the mind desperately tries to clutch at both itself and experience, like a sound trying to hear itself.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 71)

It may sound harsh, but perhaps human existence simply has no meaning at all. Perhaps the desperate search for meaning is nothing more than a big (and ultimately useless) ego trip of sorts. Yet, there is no reason to sink in despair. Life is just that, life. It does not need "meaning" in order to be fulfilling. As a matter of fact, it does not even need to be fulfilling. It just is. Meaning is something that our own minds come up with. It's a mental construct. Nothing else.

Chapter 5 of the book is a point of departure. It turns to the origins of Zen:

The most immediate progenitor of Zen is a set of principles known as Taoism. According to tradition, the founder of this movement is Lao-tzu. While the details of his life (and even the veracity of his existence) are subject to scholarly debate, it is generally agreed that he was a historical figure who lived in China in the sixth century B.C. It is sometimes argued that his proper name was Li Erh, with Lao-tzu being a title of courtesy literally meaning "old (lao) philosopher or sage (tzu)." In any case, the advent of Taoism as a more or less unified body of thought dates to his volume Tao-te Ching (The Way and Its Power), though precursors to the ideas expressed in this book enjoyed currency in China long before this synthesis and systematization.

Taoism is a system of liberation from the suffering and confusion inherent in ordinary consciousness. The limiting factor in such consciousness —the prison that one seeks to be liberated from— is social convention. As the word suggests, conventions are collective agreements about how to behave, think, and function. Convention defines language, customs, and the interpretation of experience. We agree among ourselves to divide a tree from the ground in which it stands, and to call the resulting objects "tree" and "ground." In the same way, we define these entities as distinct objects, as opposed to, say, a continuous process of "treeing." While we can recognize some elements of convention, such as the word "tree," others, such as the idea of trees, become so ingrained in our thinking that it becomes difficult to keep in mind that they are only agreements rather than necessary elements of the cosmos. In other words, we confuse the socially defined universe with the actual universe, so that the social order is equated with the natural order.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 82)

The connection with our previous discussions on concepts, mental frameworks, reality, and the direct experience of reality should be obvious by now.

Taoism maintains that the way out of social convention is a direct experience of Tao. The word literally means "paht" or "way", but it would help if we understand it more as "unity" or "totality" (i.e., the totality of existence). In that sense, it may resemble a form of pantheism.

But how do we connect with that Tao? How do we experience it?

By releasing the mind to act on its own, we free ourselves from the confining webs of convention. In so doing, we open ourselves to the flow of the Tao, substituting what might be called intuition for the machinations of conscious thought. This reliance upon intuition suggests an absence of self-consciousness in which the mind acts (or thinks or perceives) without reliance upon, or reference to, conventional notions of the self.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 85)

Notice the similarity between this and the practice of meditation. According to the authors, the Chinese Taoist Chuang-tzu referred to this practice by the name of "fasting with the mind", since the objective was to refuse to "feed" the mind. A pretty graphical image, indeed.

Needless to say, a second influence on Zen was that of Buddhism, deeply rooted in the Hindu tradition. Once again, we have a similar approach here:

Maya is immersion in dualism, so that moksha is liberation from dualism. Such liberation means an escape from identification with the ego and all other necessarily false notions of the self. When released from such conceptual errors, the mind becomes capable of understanding its true nature as atman. Of course, the idea of atman is itself a kind of conceptual abstraction, so that it cannot be taken as a goal to be pursued or as a "true" self to be discovered beneath the layers of convention. To put faith in such a self is further entanglement in maya.

To exaggerate somewhat, it is the realization that the atman cannot successfully be sought after that forms the basis for the Buddha's teaching.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, pp. 90-91)

The basis of Buddha's teaching is, of course, quite well known:

The basis of his teaching is contained in what have become known as the Four Noble Truths. As is traditionally understood, Siddhartha's purpose in leading a life of contemplation was to expose the cause of human suffering and, having done so, to specify a remedy. The Four Noble Truths are thus expressed in the manner of a doctor treating a patient, in that they specify the nature of the problem and make suggestions for a cure.

The First of the Truths is the observation that dukkha is pervasive in life. As we have seen, dukkha is suffering or unhappiness of any kind, but particularly that which comes from our discontent with life. The desire for wealth or respect is dukkha. The distaste for bad weather or warm beer is dukkha. The fear of death and the passage of time is dukkha. In sum, the life of ordinary consciousness is dukkha.

The cause of dukkha, the Second Truth asserts, is craving or clutching at life (tanha). Our unhappiness results from our desiring to make life fit our preconceptions of what it should be or what we would like it to be. The discontent that is dukkha is a product of our cravings in the expansive sense of all efforts of the mind to mold experience. Dukkha arises when we attempt to fit the world into the dualistic patterns of a conceptual order, i.e., when we are trapped in maya.

The Third Truth suggests that dukkha can be ended by ending the craving, which can in turn be achieved, per the Fourth Truth, by following the Noble Eightfold Path. The first two steps upon this path relate to the mind: (1) right views, and (2) right understanding. They concern the proper understanding of the Buddha's doctrine or method, and in that sense, render the remainder redundant. They imply that the acolyte appreciate the nature of dukkha and the manner in which it arises from tanha.

The next three steps refer to action or etchis: (3) right speech, (4) right conduct, and (5) right vocation. Although these bear some resemblance to ethical or moral rules, it is misleading to think of them in such terms. Rather than being strict rules deduced from some transcendent power (such as God) or normative premise (such as Kant's categorical imperative), these are simply suggestions of prudence. They are to be followed not because one has an obligation to observe them, but because doing so is likely to facilitate spiritual achievement. The suggestion is not that there is anything inherently sinful in, say, promiscuity or drunkenness, but only that obsession with such worldly pleasures may stand in the way of enlightenment. In this way, the Buddha's strictures are quite similar in substance to Aristotle's aphorism "all things in moderation."

The three final stages concern meditation: (6) right effort, (7) right awareness (smriti), and (8) right contemplation (samadhi). While not strictly equivalent, the latter terms do not lend themselves to an easy analytical distinction. Smriti implies complete and unlimited awareness, in the sense of perceiving and experiencing all that enters awareness without distorting it. Tanha ceases, so that the mind stops its perpetual attempts to clutch at experience. To use the Taoist metaphor, smriti is using the mind like a mirror. It is in effect wu-wei, the condition in which the mind is passive but clear. It is a state in which dualism is transcended and the ego abandoned.

Samadhi is the resulting frame of mind in which the individual is capable of experiencing reality. It is characterized by peace, meaning the absence of dukkha, in that the mind is no longer divided against itself in the form of experience and ego. In the same way, the world is no longer divided into self and environment, thoughts and thinker, black and white. Samadhi is a state of contemplation in which time does not exist, the world is not divided into categories, and the mind is at rest. To again invoke an Aristotelian concept, the human telos is obtained in samadhi.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, pp. 91-93)

Although plenty of people still consider Buddhism a religion (perhaps because it espouses a clear set of moral precepts, and to some people there cannot be any morals without a religious belief?), as we can see from the above description, it is closer to a philosophy than to a religion, I'd say. Of course, as it spreads throughout Asia, it took on multiple forms, including many that were based on superstitions and traditional beliefs. That other expression of Buddhism can fairly be labeled, I think, as a religion. However, it seems clear to me that Buddhism can be understood (and, most importantly, lived) both as a religion and as a simple set of precepts and ideas that is perfectly compatible with agnosticism and even atheism.

In the centuries after Gautama Buddha, it split into two major schools: Mahayana and Theravada. Ultimately, Zen developed as a variation or spinoff of the former. One of its central concepts is that of Sunyata, often translated as "emptyness":

To reiterate, the dualistic map we superimpose over matter and experience is an empty phantasm that is inherently and inescapably unreal. All our words and concepts, including those of our own desires and thoughts, are delusions. Accordingly, there is nothing to grasp or pursue. Thus, to return to the problem at hand, you cannot seek nirvana, in that there is no nirvana to seek. When this fact is realized, it becomes painfully apparent that in struggling with the self to become a buddha, the aspirant has been wrestling with a ghost. There is no self to be rid of, no buddha to be found. All your efforts are in vain, in that ultimately you cannot find anything, in that nothing exists.

Tough it plainly implies that there are no truths or things of value, Sunyata is not a form of nihilism. The purpose of negation is not an end in itself, but only a means to the realization that reality lies beyond dualistic descriptions. To see reality directly, to experience without the convolutions of abstractions, it is necessary to eliminate abstractions. It is not that nothing remains after negation, in that negation exposes reality. To borrow an example from Suzuki, the proper answer to the question of what remains of life when everything is denied is a slap in the face. The experience of being slapped is real enough —it remains. What is denied is the idea of being slapped, the labelling of the experience, the attempt to reduce the experience into an icy, lifeless abstraction. The negation of dualism, then, is really an affirmation of experience.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 99)

Traditionally, the "first patriarch of Zen" is understood to be Bodhidharma, who supposedly arrived in China sometime aaround 450 A.D. As it tends to happen with many of these figures, though, it is far from clear whether he truly existed as such. In any case, it is also widely accepted that the last major stepping stone towards the birth of Zen as a separate school of Buddhism was established by Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch. Then, in modern times, Japanese Zen divided into two different sects: Rinzai and Soto. They obviously have their differences, but in the end both promote reaching enlightenment via a very similar practice:

For both Rinzai and Soto the core of the method is sitting meditation (zazen)(...). For the moment, it is enough to note that zazen is simply sitting, eyes open and fixed on a spot on a wall in front of you. Individuals so engaged are doing nothing more than observing the universe, including their own thoughts, without comment. While it may seem rather unnatural to sit in a single spot for hours on end, this practice is perfectly consistent with Zen "theory" when it is observed that Zen suggests experiencing reality directly. The state of consciousness associated with Zen is thus one in which dualistic distinctions are dropped, so that the mind ceases its clutching at experience. Clearly, this is best accomplished by quietude —by simply being aware of whatever is happening. To use a cliche, zazen is the attempt to "live in the now" while simultaneously eliminating the person who is doig this living.

Accordingly, one sits solely for the sake of doing so; sitting has no other purpose. To do zazen with some goal in mind, to do it for some particular reason, such as becoming a buddha, is to miss the point entirely. When not trying to fit the world into our conceptual order, when not trying to experience experience, when not consumed with the illusion of the ego, there is simply nothing else to be done. In other words, monks sit because, having seen to other responsibilities, there is no reason to do anything else. This is the essence of wu-wei.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, pp. 108-109)

A second method also used in Zen is that of the koan, which is used by both main schools too, although the Rinzai school puts more stress on it. Although it literally means "public document", it is often translated as "problem", and it boils down to a story or anecdote, often in the forme of a dialogue between master and student, which seems to defy any form of logic. As the authors explain:

The koan exists to hammer upon the walls of logic and convention until they collapse. The basic premise is to confront the student with a story or question which is utterly incomprehensible. Viewed from the perspective of ordinary consciousness fixed upon dualistic thinking, the koan is nothing more than mindless gibberish. It is this very absurdity that opens the mind, that slowly evokes the possibility of doubting the world of dualism. In other words, the koan is like an attorney cross-examining a witness. By constant questioning, even badgering, the questiner begins to expose the basic contradictions of the witness' position. Finally, the level of doubt about this position reaches a critical level and the entire edifice collapses. By employment of the koan, the roshi leads the student to a similar collapse of faith. (...)

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 110)

Thus, the end result of the koan is to pull down the dualistic perspectives that we have in our minds and, instead, help us see the emptyness that surrounds us through a sudden realization or satori.

The last chapter of the book, chapter six, is dedicated to meditation and the practice of Zen, and it starts by explaining that "Zen is conventionally thought of as the dhyana or meditation school of Buddhism, yet meditation is central to virtually all Buddhist sects" (p. 119). But how do we understand this process of meditation? The authos explain:

One cannot work on the mind with the mind, in the sense that one cannot consciously desire to cease conscious desire. The true mind is "no-mind," uncontrolled and controlled, unchanneled and channeled, completely aware of the now, not of itself. Put differently, the mind like the self, is a conceptual abstraction, so that any attempt to focus concentration in an effort to be rid of the mind is to continue to be trapped within an illusion. Rather than exerting effort, we follow wu-wei so as to experience whatever it is we are experiencing without reliance on abstractions. (...)

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 120)

This is precisely what allows us to reach a state of natural openness to reality as it is, also called samadhi:

In samadhi, one is completely involved or absorbed with life rather than ideas about life. One is thus not concentrating on meditating or holding off thoughts. One is not thinking about experiencing the now or about contemplation. All forms of self-consciousness dissipate, leaving only what is real. In this way, samadhi is the logical extension of satori, in that the former is the continuing experience of the truth made evident by the latter.

(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, pp. 121-122)

The authors then go on to discuss the Zen form of meditation (or zazen) into more detail: the posture, the sesshins, the counting of breaths, chants, walking meditation, etc. Finally, the book closes with two appendices, one dedicated to a description of the monastic sesshin, and the other to some personal observations on the meditative practice with some personal advice.

In conclusion, Understanding Zen provides an excellent introduction to the topic for any Western reader. By staying away from the mystical approach so frequently taken by other authors, Benjamin and Amy Radcliff manage, I think, to put together a relatively clear picture of Zen with far many more bright than dark spots.

Entertaiment: 6/10
Content: 7/10