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
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
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
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
(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
which sees our own self-awareness as the confluence of three distinct forces:
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
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.
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
. 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
(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 59)
Notice the relation between this approach of the authors and the concept of a
introduced by Thomas
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
(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?
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
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)
. 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
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
(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
(Benjamin & Amy Radcliff: Understanding Zen, p. 85)
Notice the similarity between this and the practice of meditation
. According to the authors, the Chinese
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
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
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
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
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
(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
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
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
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
(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.