‘The way of Zen’ – Preface, Background and History

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The way of Zen – Preface

Zen is above all an experience. To know what it is, and what it is not, there is no alternative but to practice it.

Those who know do not speak;

Those who speak do not know.

There can be no doubt that the essential standpoint of Zen refuses to be organized, or to be made the exclusive possession of any institution. If there is anything that transcends the relativities of cultural conditioning it is Zen.

The book is based upon a study of the early Chinese records.

The way of Zen – Background and History

1. The Philosophy of the Tao

Historically, Zen must be regarded as the fulfillment of long traditions of Indian and Chinese culture, though it is much more Chinese than Indian, and since the twelfth century it has rooted itself deeply in the culture of Japan.

The origins of Zen are as much Taoist as Buddhist.

Conventional knowledge: western, linear, one-at-a-time, conscious, central vision

Unconventional knowledge: peripheral vision, peripheral mind

In ancient Chinese society there are two traditions playing complementary parts: Confucianism and Taoism.

Confucianism preoccupies itself with conventional knowledge; Taoism preoccupies itself with unconventional knowledge, with the understanding of life directly, instead of the abstract, linear terms of representational thinking.

Taoism is a way of liberation. Tao, the ultimate Reality, the indefinable, concrete process of the world, the Way of life.

According to tradition, the originator of Taoism is Lao-tzu (500 B.C.), said to have been the author of the Tao Te Ching, a short book of aphorisms. But Chinese tradition ascribes both Taoism and Confucianism to a earlier source, dating from 3000 to 1200 B.C., the I Ching, or Book of Changes.

The Tao’s principle is spontaneity. [Tao Te Ching]

The Tao doesn’t know haw it produces the universe just as we don’t know how we construct our brains.

Lao-tzu said:

When the superior man hears of the Tao,

he does his best to practice it.

When the middling man hears of the Tao,

he sometimes keeps it, and sometimes loses it.

When the inferior man hears of the Tao,

he will laugh aloud at it.

If he did not laugh, it would not be the Tao.

It’s fundamental both Taoist and Confucian thought that the natural man is to be trusted.

The unconsciousness, the no-mind, is a state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily. If the ordinary man is one who has to walk by lifting his legs with his hands, the Taoist is one who has learned to let his legs walk by themselves.

Hsin: the mental function which works through all. It would seem that Hsin means the totality of our psychic functioning, the center of that functioning. According to both Taoism and Zen the center of the mind’s activity is not in the conscious thinking process, not in the ego.

When a man has learned to let his mind alone he begins to show the power (or virtue) of Te. Not a virtue in the conventional moral sense, but in the sense of effectiveness (as the healing virtue of a plant). It’s the unthinkable ingenuity of and creative power of man’s spontaneous and natural functioning. It’s like the centipede ability to use a hundred legs at once.

Taoism is the original Chinese way of liberation which combined with Indian Mahayana Buddhism to produce Zen.

2. The origins of Buddhism

Chinese civilization was at least two thousand years old when it first encountered Buddhism. China absorbed Buddhism.

All forms of Buddhism subscribe to the Middle Way between angel and demon and claim that the supreme awakening of Buddhahood can be attained only by the human state.

–> Indian Buddhism, it is difficult to study because:

– of the difficult interpretations of the Sanskrit and and Pali texts in which ancient Indian literature is preserved;

– it is extremely difficult to know which was the original form of Buddhism;

– the Hindu-Buddhist tradition has few marks to indicate the date of a text.

Fundamental to the life and thought of India is the great mythological theme of self-sacrifice which which God gives birth to the world, and this act is the same by which the world is consummated.

Every life is a part in which God is absorbed.

In the beginning the world was Atman (the Self).

In the Upanishads, every positive statement about ultimate reality is made in the form of myth of poetry.

The foregoing myth is not expression of a formal philosophy, but of an experience called ‘liberation’.

Self-knowledge or Self-awakening is when one discovers who he is, when he’s no longer identified with any role or conventional definition of the person.

‘I am Brahman’ is a realization of identity with God.

The practical discipline of the way of liberation is a progressive disentanglement of one’s Self (Atman) from every identification. Ultimately, it is not even to be identified with any idea, as God or Atman.

Maya: the manifold world of facts and events, an illusion that veils the the one underlying reality of Brahman. It’s classification while Brahman has no duality, it has any opposite.

Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience of emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy.

It is the realization of the total elusiveness of the world which lies at the root of Buddhism. This is the special shift of emphasis which distinguishes the doctrine of Buddha from the teaching of theUpanishads.

For seven years Gautama (Buddha) has struggled by the traditional means of yoga, contemplation and ascesis, to penetrate the cause of man’s enslavement to maya, to fin release from the vicious circle of clinging-to-life which is like trying to make the hand grasp itself. All his efforts had been in vain. The eternal atman, the real Self, was not to be found. The evening before his awakening he just ‘gave up’, relaxed his ascetic diet and ate some nourishing food. Yet the actual content of this experience was never and could never be put into words. For words are the frames of maya, the meshes of its net.

For Zen tradition Buddha didn’t transmit his awakening in words, but for the Pali canon he expressed it in FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS.

The First Truth is concerned with the problematic word duhkha, loosely translatable as “suffering” (or frustration) and which designates the great disease of the world for which the Buddha’s method (dharma) is the cure.

Birth is duhkha, decay is duhkha, sickness isduhkha, death is duhkha, so also are sorrow and grief.… To be bound with things which we dislike, and to be parted from things which we like, these also are duhkha. Not to get what one desires, this also is duhkha. In a word, this body, this fivefold aggregation based on clutching (trishna), this is duhkha.

The Second Noble Truth relates with the cause of frustration (which is trishna, grasping), based on ignorance or unconsciousness, avidya, the opposite of Awakening. Avidya is ignoring that that subject and object are relational, like the two sides of a coin.

The desire of perfect control, of the environment and of oneself, is based on a profound mistrust of the controller, avidya is the failure to see the basic self-contradiction of this position. Trying to grasp or control life is self-frustration that lead to the samsara (the Round of birth and death).

The active principle of the round is known as Karma, or conditioned action, action arising from an motive and seeking a result, it always requires the necessity for further action.

In Zen the Round of birth and death is taken in a metaphorical way, the rebirth is moment by moment.

The Third Noble Truth is concerned with the end of self-frustration, called nirvana.  To attain nirvana is also to attain Buddhahood, Awakening. But is impossible to desire nirvana, or to intend to reach it, because everything desirable is by definition not nirvana.

Nirvana can only arise unintentionally, spontaneously, when the impossibility of self-grasping has been thoroughly perceived.

The Fourth Noble Truth describes the Eightfold Path of the Buddha’s Dharma:

1 Samyag-drishti, or complete view.

2 Samyak-samkalpa, or complete understanding.

3 Samyag-vak, or complete (i.e., truthful) speech.

4 Samyak-karmanta, or complete action.

5 Samyagajiva, or complete vocation.

6 Samyag-vyayama, or complete application.

7 Samyak-smriti, or complete recollectedness.

8 Samyak-samadhi, or complete contemplation.

The separation of the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known, the subject from the object, is purely abstract. There is just a process of experiencing in which there is nothing to be grasped, as an object, and no one, as a subject, to grasp it.

Can then thought review thought? No, thought cannot review thought. As the blade cannot cut itself, as a finger-tip cannot touch itself, so a thought cannot see itself.

The nonduality of the mind, in which it is no longer divided against itself, is samhadi.

Sitting meditation is not a spiritual exercise followed for some ulterior object, just the proper way to sit. Where there is purpose there is no dhyana, which is the original Sanskrit word for ZEN. Meditation isn’t a good translation of dhyana. Maybe it shouldn’t be translated, as for Nirvana and Tao.

The summary of the Buddha’s doctrine given in the Visuddhimagga

Suffering alone exists, none who suffer;
The deed there is, but no doer thereof;
Nirvana is, but no one seeking it;
The Path there is, but none who travel it.


3 thoughts on “‘The way of Zen’ – Preface, Background and History

  1. Purtroppo quando si fa riferimento allo Zen o Tao, il concetto che passa si distanzia dal vero significato profondo che anche tu citi [seppure lo riporti in modo molto scientifico e non accessibile a tutti]. Le “mode” vanno e vengono ed ogni volta che leggo o ascolto qc. che dice: -woww è proprio Zen… sorrido.
    Decidere di seguire il Sentiero non è tanto una “descrizione” a parole quanto un susseguirsi di “fatti”… ogni secondo la nostra mente (razionale e irrazionale) ci è imprevedibilmente nemica. Ogni pensiero può tradire il nostro impegno viscerale… dacché il karma è la somma di ogni azione (mentale e fisica). Ma non ho studiato filosofia o teologia, sono ignorante e consapevole di esserlo, quindi preferisco tradurre il tutto con un semplice aforisma: “come semini raccogli” che in verità è la legge stessa della Causa-Effetto. Anche nella dottrina (religione) cristiana vi sono innumerevoli collegamenti (non mi viene una definizione migliore), che mostrano come vi sia una sorta di “similitudine” nei concetti originali delle antiche filosofie… quindi [blasfemia] non è forse davvero possibile che Gesù abbia avuto un Maestro orientale durante quegli anni-ombra che non figurano sui testi sacri pubblici? Senza dimenticare che molto ci è stato occultato, si parla dei manoscriti del Mar Nero (vangeli apocrifi) giunti a noi integri e non manipolati/censulrati… e forse Gesù era davvero un Esseno?
    Sereno fine settimana :-)c

    Liked by 1 persona


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