Saturday, August 11, 2012

Over the bridge

Here I am again, not writing a blog post.  To be more specific: 'Empty-handed I go, and behold the spade is in my hands;/ I walk on foot, and yet on the back of an ox I am riding;/ When I pass over the bridge,/ Look, the water isn't flowing - but the bridge sure does'.  I stole that from the fifth-century Zen poet Fudaishi, and it doesn't make much sense.  I stole the poem from D.T. Suzuki's book, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, which I decided to read the week I did a three-day retreat at San Francisco Zen Center. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki is not to be confused with SFZC's revered founder Shunryu Suzuki; though this in fact often happened, and the priest is said to have invariably responded to being confused with the scholar by saying, 'He is the big Suzuki.  I am the little Suzuki'.  Top of my list for things to read that week had been the little Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, but there wasn't a copy of it in the library, so I went with the big Suzuki's introduction instead.  It turned out to be exactly as nonsensical as Fudaishi's poem.

Despite its emphasis on approaching things as if for the first time, I get the feeling that the beginner is not well served by the existing introductory books on Zen.  If you read the reviews of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind on Amazon, you'll see the occasional note of pious praise punctuating a flow of complaints about the book's incomprehensibility.  Introductory books about Buddhism that are clear, succinct, and accessible are not hard to come by at all, from Damien Keown's Very Short Introduction to Rahula's more scholarly classic What the Buddha Taught.  But for some reason the Zen sect has trouble making itself understood.  Insiders say that this is because the tradition contains mysteries that you can only appreciate if you find them out for yourself; cynics on the other hand will insist that the lack of clarity is a feature of a system that aims mainly to erect high fences against outsiders.  But not only is the language designedly obscure in order to keep people out; how well you can master its eccentricities determines an internal hierarchy, topped by teachers who can say whatever comes to mind.

I can't say how true that was of Zen as practiced at various periods in its long history, but American Zen certainly seems reasonably open to newcomers.  On the other hand, it still has problems with internal hierarchy.  But if you want a satisfying brief statement of crazy Zen, look no further than Suzuki's book, which has a chapter in it entitled 'Illogical Zen', and several more whose content would have justified similar titles.  Many of these chapters seem to consist entirely of mad koans whose point always seems to be the same: abandon all theory and grasp the reality right in front of your nose.  You might think telling that to people in plain language might be enough (and would also allow the ideas behind the recommendation to be criticized), but there's always the counter that people need to be surprised, confused, or shocked into dropping their stories and theories and excuses.  At times, there is an attractive rebelliousness about this tendency.  When Joshu was asked, 'Isn't it a praiseworthy thing to pay respect to Buddha?' he replied, 'Yes, but it's better to go without even a praiseworthy thing'.

After a few of these stories, though, one's patience runs thin.  Suzuki retells one in which the philosopher Doko came to a Zen master and asked, 'With what frame of mind should one discipline oneself in the truth?'  The master answered unhelpfully but typically, 'There is no mind to be framed'.  Doko was a reasonable man, so he persisted.  'If there's no mind to be framed, what are all these monks doing here?'  The master was an unreasonable man: 'No monks here'.  The philosopher was exasperated, and asked, 'How can you tell me a lie like that to my face?'  His Zen antagonist wasn't fazed: 'I have no tongue'.  Finally, the philosopher gave up, admitting to the master that he had trouble following his reasoning.  'Neither do I understand myself', said the master, perhaps with a feeling of triumph, but maybe just with the guilty sensation you sometimes get when you know you've been unreasonable to someone who was just looking for some simple answers.

Suzuki himself presents these stories with apparent approval, but by the end of the book he's doing what the master in that last koan refused to do: he's explaining why there are so many Zen monks in the East, and telling you what they're up to.  That's where the radical antinomianism of Zen breaks down, when it's faced with the undeniable fact that Zen is not just the direct seizure of what's there, but a set of practices and institutions that are as strict and concrete - if not more so - than piano-lessons and the swim club.  And it's probably a good thing that the absurdity gets tired and goes to bed at some point, because there's a point  - somewhere in that story I just quoted - at which it starts to make a fool of itself.  I'm no fan of ossified institutionalism, especially in religious traditions that are supposed to be about compassion and humility.  But I'm also no fan of nonsensicality and claims to have gotten beyond rationality once and for all - the perennial excuse for bad philosophy, or just run-of-the-mill sloppy thinking.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not the kind of rationalist who thinks that reason can explain everything and is universally applicable to every situation life throws at us.  I'm also not so ignorant as to believe that humans are entirely rational creatures - our minds are indeed like icebergs, with the rational tip distracting us from darker masses below the surface.  But I also think that there's a difference between admitting that there are certain situations that rational thought doesn't enter into - falling in love, say - and claiming that such situations trump, disqualify, or defeat rationality in all its forms.  Zen koans, just like faith, may bypass rationality or transcend it, but to say that they preclude or discredit it is going too far.  Indeed, to say that is to fall foul of some well-known philosophical traps.  All of these traps are set by irrationalists themselves when they go to the extreme of saying that nothing makes sense.

If nothing makes sense, neither does the proposition, 'Nothing makes sense', in which case nobody has any reason to believe it; indeed, it has no meaning at all.  Socrates skewered Parmenides by wondering whether his claim that all truths are relative was itself relative.  If it was, Socrates had no reason to go along with it; if it wasn't, the claim provided a counter-example to itself.  The logical positivists declared that all meaningful sentences had to be testable or analytic; but since 'All meaningful sentences have to be testable or analytic' turned out to be neither testable or analytic, it couldn't be meaningful.  And if all the thoughts and stories in your head - as Zen seems to suggest - are equally meaningless, then so are thoughts about Zen and the thoughts of Zen.  Of course, that is a conclusion that most Zen masters would willingly accept, but it leaves them in a dangerous place, where anything can be said because everything is equally senseless.

And that seems to bring Zen perilously close to nihilism, an association that Suzuki is eager to fend off. It's true, he says, that Zen declares that everything is empty, but what emerges when that is realized is joy in the present moment.  But isn't joy in the present moment empty too, bringing us back to nihilism?  Zen sets up an emptiness vortex that it's difficult for Buddhism to escape.  Maybe it's just that I'm skeptical that compassion is really what does emerge when people are convinced that anything goes - maybe what more often emerges is the domination of the less by the more bold, of the more by the less scrupulous.  Which is why my confirmation got me thinking about whether I'm really a Zen person rather than an ordinary old Buddhist.  After all, though Theravada belief is radical enough - it denies the existence of stable individual identities, for instance - it is understandable and coherent.  If you get the feeling that the bridge is flowing under you rather the water, maybe it's time to go back to the four noble truths.


  1. Hi again, you've touched on a bit of a soft spot in me with this post.

    Personally, I like to make the distinction between Zen and Zen Buddhism, because I think it is possible to practice Zen without necessarily being a Buddhist. And then, as you say, anything goes.

    And likewise, it is possible to practice Zen and be a Buddhist. The trick to Zen Buddhism, as I see it, is to be able to hold all the incongruities of Buddhism in this present moment and see that they all fundemanetally empty.

    I think the Zen tradition we are now getting in the West has emphasized an understandinging emptiness at the expense of other aspects of Buddhism, particularly the devotional side.

    I find it quite amusing and also arrogant that many Zen practitioners are so dismissive of other Buddhist traditions.

    1. just realised how appalling my spelling has become!

  2. I agree with that, especially the last paragraph. It sometimes seems to me that Zen in America is a way of doing Buddhism without all that pesky ethics stuff. As for spelling, it is etpmy