zen philosophy

There exists a great interest in the West about Zen, particularly since World War II. Yet there seems to be a general haziness about the origin of Zen, what it believes, and the disciplines of Zen. The fault is not entirely with the interested-but-uninitiated. The fault lies also with Zen as a deliberately inscrutable teaching, made even more enigmatic by its interpreters, who spend many years writing innumerable books to explain what they insist is utterly inexplicable. Their explanations are frequently interrupted to warn the reader that, in the words of Lao Tzu, “they who tell do not know; they who know do not tell.”

Many people think of Zen as a Japanese development, manifest in their Noh plays, in their flower arrangements, in their dances, in their tea ceremonies, in their art, in their archery. And if they think so, they are within the area of the truth. Some think of Zen as a Chinese interpretation of the Buddhist concept of the state of enlightenment, or of being “awakened,” transported and adjusted to Japanese culture. That, too, is within the area of truth. And then there are some who think that Zen Buddhism goes back to the days of the Buddha in India, when he began to expound Zen, wordlessly.

According to legend, when Buddha was growing old he convened his disciples for an important discourse. And when they gathered and sat down silently, reverently waiting to hear their aging Master speak, the Buddha arose, came forward on the flower-decked platform, looked over his audience of disciples and monks, then bent down and picked up a flower which he raised to the level of his eyes. Then, without uttering a word, he returned to his seat. His followers looked at each other in bewilderment, not understanding the meaning of his silence. Only the venerable Mahakasyapa serenely smiled at the Master. And the Master smiled back at him and wordlessly bequeathed to him the spiritual meaning of his wordless sermon.  And that, according to legend, was the moment Zen was born.

Nearly a thousand years passed from the legendary encounter of the Buddha and the venerable Mahakasyapa until Zen, transmitted from generation to generation, reached Bodhi-Dharma, who introduced it to China. And still another century passed before a Chinese philosopher and theologian, Hui-neng, who died in 713 A.D., established Zen as a sect of Buddhism.

In China, the mystic experience of the Buddha’s enlightenment was influenced by the teachings of Lao Tzu. While the seed of Zen came from India, it grew in China and was transformed by Taoism. But it did not reach full flowering until it came, with Chinese Buddhism, to Japan. In Japan, Zen was crystallized into a system, although its adherents insisted that it could not be taught, and argued that there could be no dependence on explanations, on sermonizing, or on any formal creed or ritual.

Since Zen was adopted and adapted in Japan, it has gone through a number of transformations. For historical reasons, and because of its presumable nihilistic implications, Zen became popular with the intellectual classes in Japan, and its following increased to nearly five million toward the end of the Second World War.

The name “Zen” is Japanese. It derives from the Chinese Chan’an-na, which is a corruption from the Buddhist Dhyana, meaning Meditation.

Zen means waking up to the present moment. That is, perceiving this moment exactly as it is, rather than through the filter of our ideas, opinions, etc.  One way to practice this is to ask yourself a Big Question, such as “What am I?” If you ask such a question strongly and sincerely, what appears is “Don’t Know.” This don’t-know is before thinking. If you keep it moment to moment, then everything is clear. Then, each moment, whatever you’re doing, just do it. When you’re sitting, just sit; when you’re eating, just eat; and so on. According to Zen, existence is found in the silence of the mind (no-mind), beyond the chatter of our internal dialog. Existence, from the Zen perspective is something that is only happening spontaneously, and it is not just our thoughts. All of life that we perceive is constantly in a state of change. Every atom in the universe is somewhere different every millionth of a second.

What then is existence? Zen says that it is instantaneous. Since the earth is constantly moving, and our thoughts and our bodies are constantly in a process of fluctuation, then what we really are, can only be experienced in each moment.

Think of a view. Is it what it was a second ago, or what it is now? In fact the moment we say the word “view”,  the view has already changed into something new.

In fact, anything that we can explain, according to this viewpoint, must be past-tense. Even if it’s about our most immediate feelings and thoughts, it is not the same experience the second after it passes through our minds. Researchers estimate that our minds perceive 12,000 separate impressions every second. This is in terms of everything that we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel.

So, what is our reality really? Isn’t it always a very limited view of what we are even actually experiencing around us? And that which we are aware of, is only our own minute impression of the world itself. Are any of our views then actually true in the absolute sense of the word, or are they all just our subjective impressions, based on an individual experience of what we are perceiving?

For example, a person may think that the Sun moves through their sky, and that the earth is stationary. Is this actually true? It may seem true for a person at the moment they make the observation, but how true is it from an absolute perspective of the universe? Can we even know what is the absolute perspective? In this example, from another perspective the earth appears to travel around the Sun.

Obviously, with this in mind, there are an infinite number of viewpoints possible at each moment, from an infinite number of perspectives; therefore there are an infinite number of existences, and in any absolute sense, existence itself is inexpressible. Can we actually experience existence then? Perhaps from the Zen perspective the question is, “Why do we not experience it?”

Zen says that if we entertain no personal version of what we think existence is, in other words, if we hold no subjective interpretation of what existence is, at the moment we are free of any notion at all, we will experience existence instantaneously, spontaneously.

Do you see this point? Zen says that we don’t really experience existence, because we are too busy experiencing our own subjective, version of existence.

How then can we experience existence itself? If we don’t create existence, then existence simply IS. The problem is, that we are usually trying to create our own model of the world. Whatever existence we create, it will be an extremely limited view, and that isn’t existence itself.

In Zen a less subjective awareness is cultivated through silent meditation, and contemplating on certain sentences, known as Koans. A koan is defined in “The Three Pillars Of Zen” as, “Formulation, in baffling language, pointing to ultimate Truth. Koans cannot be solved by recourse to a logical reasoning, but only awakening a deeper level of the mind beyond the discursive intellect.”

An example of a Koan would be, “The sound of one hand clapping”, or perhaps you remember this one from grade school, “Does a tree that falls in the forest make a sound if there isn’t anyone there to hear it?,” and so on.

Through these more abstract thoughts, the Zen student may find that they gradually suspend with their reasoning altogether (this is called no-mind), and this clears the way for an actual experience of existence itself.

Unanticipated, spontaneously, without warning, the student may suddenly experience that ‘Peace’ beyond thought, words, or description. All that anyone can really say who has experienced this is, “All is one, and one is all”. This is what Zen calls the experience of Nirvana, or Enlightenment.