Saturday, June 02, 2007


Is Zen a religion, a faith, a creed? No, three times.

Is Zen a philosophy, a system of thought? No, and no again.

Is Zen Buddhism? Just plain no.

So what is Zen?

Zen is Zen. Nothing more, nothing less.

All this is implicitly understood in most of Asia, whose ways of thought are poles apart from those in the western world. Westerners are confused by the relation between religion and philosophy, and between Zen and Buddhism, neither of which is a religion or a philosophy, or a faith.

Most Westerners think of Zen as being Buddhist, which it is and it isn’t. Such contradictions are difficult for the Western mind raised on reason, on logic, and on the belief in the power of something other than one’s own being.

Westerners want to know if Zen makes one a better person. The answer is, not necessarily.

The same goes for Buddhism.

Some Zen masters, and many Zen monks—not to mention plenty of casual practitioners—are selfish, or venal, or bigoted. I personally know one Buddhist master who is bigheaded and arrogant.

In this talk—and in any other talk—I’m not out to emphasize the contrasts between Zen and Buddhism, or to say one is better than the other. I’m merely presenting some background that may help you understand what Zen is and what Buddhism is, and a few of the links that may or may not sometimes join them.

There is an implied contradiction in the term “Zen Buddhism” in that Buddhism hints at morality, and Zen goes way beyond morality. To use a fashionable word, Zen transcends morals, ethics, and integrity.

Zen becomes moral by becoming—another fashionable Zen


The Buddha himself hinted that right thinking, that is, self realization, was the way to enlightenment.

R.H. Blyth suggests (Zen and Zen Classics, Volume One) that this sort of interpretation can be chicken-and-egg thinking.

Question: Which came first? A chicken, or an egg? Can there be a chicken without an egg, or an egg without a chicken?

Zen’s would answer “yes,” “either,” “neither,” or “both.”

Buddhism says that suffering is the lot of all humanity. Christianity says that sin is the lot of humanity because sin is a subjective concept. Westerners can identify with sin because in this part of the world the ministers and priests, who are supposedly beyond sin, claim to know what sin is and can tell us all about it.

Buddhism asserts that life is suffering, and the misery is caused by desires and our wants. We want more money, or a better situation in life, or romance, and because we may not receive these wants when we crave them we become frustrated. We suffer.

Question: But what about the desire to help others, the desire for love, as opposed to romance, the desire to know ourselves?

Question: Does the desire to change the world include the desire to change oneself? If so, is that a self-seeking desire? And if that’s so, is it a bad desire?

Yes, or no?

Neither Buddhism nor Zen speaks of “good” or “bad,” so there is no yes or no answer to that question.

Most so-called religions preach renunciation. Rejection of one sort of mischief or another. In living a full life of self-knowledge, just what are we supposed to reject? If we are looking at springtime’s green leaf buds, are we to reject them? When the frog jumps into the pond, are we to reject the “plop”?

Is total rejection of the world an answer to escaping suffering? Is annihilation an answer?

Blyth suggests asceticism is found in every so-called religion, and is common in individuals who are bare and empty to start with.

“The desire to be nothing is particularly common among those who are already practically nothing.”

This has nothing to do with the Zen way of giving value to every second of our lives and every thing in it. A wildlower, the sound of a bell, the taste of pure water.

Zen is Zen. Buddhism is Buddhism, and one big difference is that Buddhism is an “ism,” which is defined as a doctrine, a system of morality.

According to one legend, Zen had its start in India when Guatama Siddhartha—now known as the Buddha, or “The awakened one”—was speaking to a gathering of people. At one point he paused and held up a single flower. No one understood except one of his followers—Mahakasyapa—who smiled, supposedly in comprehension. This silent teaching is claimed to be the first transmission of Zen from one person to another.

It’s a nice story, isn’t it? However, there’s no historical record of the event, so the tale shouldn’t be swallowed in one gulp.

D.T. Suzuki mentions that back in those days there was a reason for the invention of such a legend. Then, as now, there were many schools of Buddhism. How ever Zen started, as it grew and attracted more followers, other schools became resentful and criticized it as having no authorized records of any sort of direct transfer.

No paperwork.

But Mahakasyapa became known as the second patriarch of Zen, and the transmission continued for many years, down through a lineage of further patriarchs to the 28th, who we know as Bodhidharma.

That name itself is somewhat suspect because it’s so perfect as to be a cliché. Bodhi is the name of the tree Guatama Siddhartha was sitting under when he was enlightened, and Dharma is the entire teaching of the Buddha. Put the two words together and you have the idealistic handle, “Bodhidharma.”

Anyway, Bodhidharma supposedly left India to bring Buddhist teachings to China.

To wind this up, Zen had, and has, nothing in the way of doctrine. It isn’t a philosophy, or a collection of beliefs, or a bunch of convictions.

Zen is simply a direct expression of one’s inner life.

And one’s inner life is something each person has to find out for him or her self.

If all of this double-talk leaves you with more questions than answers, that is good.


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