Thursday, August 28, 2008


Just a note that there will not be
any postings here for the entire
month of September.
But don't go away. I will be
back in October.
-- Kan-za

Thursday, August 14, 2008


A while back I gave a wordy talk on nothing. That is, nothing in the Zen sense. Now I’d like to say some more about nothing and something about form.

Dictionaries hedge on the word “form.” They say form is:

1. The shape and structure of an object,

2. The body or outward appearance of a person or animal,

3. The essence of something,

4. The mode in which a thing exists.

Talking about form isn’t too difficult. Form is usually associated with something that’s real or concrete, such as a thumb, or a chair, or a mountain. We can also think of form as something that isn’t quite solid but still has shape, even though that shape may be a changing one. Say, a puff of smoke or a cloud in the sky.

Generally we think of form in a physical sense as a figure that takes up space. Form often refers to something whose shape might be spherical (a marble), or cubical (a box), or irregular and fluid (an ocean wave).

Emptiness isn’t so easy to nail down in words because we tend to think of emptiness as an absence. As a nothing. When there is no shape, no form, no anything, that might be emptiness.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

Let’s consider form and emptiness, and see where we go, if anywhere.

At first it might seem that form and emptiness aren’t worth mentioning in the same breath because they are so different from one another. It’s a little like talking about oranges and cucumbers together. Sure, oranges and cucumbers are organic, and they are foods, but they don’t have much else in common.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

In Zen terms, form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. Each has meaning in its own right, and each is meaningful to the other.

Consider a three-dimensional piece of sculpture, or a two-dimensional painting, especially a painting done in traditional sumi-e, or Japanese Zen, style. Space that isn’t occupied by solid material or by brush strokes is as significant to the whole work as space that is filled with solid material or a brush stroke. Here, something and nothing are equally important because each helps to define the other, physically, visually, and—in the observer—emotionally.

Consider your thumb. Like everything else it’s composed of what science calls molecules, atoms, various subatomic particles, and lots of empty space—the space between all that other stuff.

However, what science calls electrons, and protons, and such are thought to be not physical entities but quantities of electromagnetic radiation. Science doesn’t call these quantities “things” but quanta.

So, your thumb isn’t a solid, after all.

The science of matter and motion, which most of us were subjected to in high school, is called classical physics. It’s based on the conclusions of Isaac Newton (late 1600s), who considered existence to be a three-dimensional space that is always at rest and unchangeable. Newton declared that space, in its own nature, without regard to anything external, remains always similar and immovable.

What is referred to as modern or “new” physics got its start shortly after the turn of the last century. It’s based on the theories of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who decided that viewing the functioning of existence from the rigid viewpoint of Newtonian mechanics was not limiting but dead wrong. Bohr, and other intellectuals of his time, such as Einstein, Schrödinger, Dirac, and Pauli, decided quantum mechanics made much more sense of a senseless universe.

I could babble on at great length about particle physics, because it’s a fascinating topic. But I won’t. I will say that many of the discoveries in quantum mechanics are explainable to a select few intellects only through advanced mathematics.

On the other hand, these notions have been grasped intuitively by Taoists, Hindus, and Buddhists since before the sixth century BC. They didn’t need mathematics.

An aside.

Somewhere I read that President Harry Truman once said he wished he had a one-armed statistician in his Cabinet because the fellow wouldn’t be able to say, “On the other hand….”

I read somewhere else—and I can’t remember where—that an atom the size of the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica (which is three stories high) would have a nucleus the relative size of a speck of dust. In other words, atoms are not what we think of as solid matter but are mostly empty space.

So, again look at that thing we call a thumb. Your thumb may seem solid, dense enough to poke in your eye, but on a subatomic level, your thumb is mostly empty space.

Your thumb is largely emptiness.

Now step back mentally and consider this. Emptiness itself occupies space, and it helps to determine the boundaries of space. Remember the painting and the sculpture.

So if emptiness is circumscribed, it must have form.

Hui-neng, Zen Buddhism’s sixth patriarch, said, “From the first, not a thing is.” That statement could be meditated on for a long, long time. Remember, Hui-neng wasn’t speaking of time in a chronological sense.

Let’s contemplate that for a moment.

From the first, not a thing is.

Now let’s contemplate these wonderfully paradoxical words from the Diamond Sutra: “There are no things or people, yet there are.”

To wind this up, if your thumb is mostly empty space, is its shadow defined by its darkness, or by the light around it?

Nothing is this or that. Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.

Friday, August 08, 2008


Lately this Zen blog site has received some excellent comments. Several of them question the mention that Zen tends to avoid logical thinking. One query asks: “How can Zen can apply reason, yet jettison logic at the same time?”

Zen does not condemn logic. It cautions against depending on logic, or on rationalization, to try to clarify various aspects of Zen.

Take, for example the koan that asks, “What is the sound of one hand?” A logical answer might be, “It depends on what the hand is doing.”

Giving such a response to a Zen master would result in immediate dismissal. Perhaps also a clout on the head.

If you are puzzled by a koan, don’t try to figure it out and come up with a clever response. You either fathom it or you don’t. Logic will only get in your way.

I once knew a fellow who wrote How-to books that dealt with plumbing, electricity, and carpentry. His motto was, “When you have a guy up a ladder installing a fixture, you don’t want to mess with his head.”

Zen does not mess with your head.

Zen is not intellectual.

Zen is intuitive.

This does not mean the essentials of Zen must be accepted on blind faith. Not at all. Zen has no rules, no doctrine. Admittedly, Zen—like life itself—is loaded with inconsistencies and contradictions. To grasp Zen, you have to look beyond the discrepancies. Zen has to be not just explored or analyzed. Zen has to be lived.

Thanks to those of you who comment on or question these lectures. Your observations help keep the talks—and the blog—alive.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008


What do I mean by unnecessary thinking? Currently we are in the midst of a normal summer heat wave. Being social animals we might comment on the heat to one another. But to think to yourself, “Wow! It’s really hot,” is unnecessary thinking. Certainly the days and the nights are hot. The heat is here and you are here. Still, there’s no need or benefit to remind yourself about it.

Mushin—freedom from unnecessary thinking—applies to everyday life. It means action without analysis. If you sneeze, you don’t think, “I’m sneezing.” You sneeze. You perceive that you sneeze, but you don’t labor the perception by thinking about it.

To return to that earlier paradox, in one respect mushin is like enlightenment. To strive for mushin is a contradiction because to strive for something is to think about gaining it.

I have a good friend who has a speech impediment. She needs to occasionally inhale. Ethel—which isn’t her real name—babbles constantly about anything and everything. She chatters whether or not anyone is listening or whether or not she has anything real to say.

Apparently Ethel is able to speak without thinking, but I don’t think she experiences mushin.

To return to nihilism, which is the denial of all existence, recall the verse composed by Hui-neng, Sixth Patriarch of Zen in China:

“The Bodhi (that is, true wisdom) is not like the tree,

“There is no bright mirror.

“There is nothing from the first,

“So where can the dust collect?”

This was in response to a verse that read:

“This body is the Bodhi tree,

“The spirit is like a bright mirror;

“Be sure to keep it clean,

“And do not let dust collect on it.”

Hui-neng’s response is a classic verse in Zen, and people who do not understand Zen point it out as a prime example of Zen’s belief in nothingness. But Hui-neng wasn’t illustrating the denial of all existence. He was attempting to portray the delusion of attachment.

“The Bodhi (that is, true wisdom) is not like the tree,

“There is no bright mirror.

“There is nothing from the first,

“So where can the dust collect?”

The delusion of attachment.

D.T. Suzuki mentions a monk who asked a master to show him the truth of Buddhism.

The master answered, “There is nothing, absolutely nothing.”

To the same question another master might say, “Don’t expect to get something out of nothing.”

Another master might answer, “There is nothing to explain in words.”

The point of Zen is to seize the center of life, which can’t be done through reasoning. Therefore, Zen presents one negation after another, a succession that is intended to strip away our normal way of thinking and force us to be instinctive.

This isn’t a cop-out on the part of Zen. It is the basis of being.

Zen Master Nansen was asked by a monk if there was anything he could not talk about.

“Yes,” said the master. It is neither mind, nor matter, not Buddha.”

The monk said, “You have already talked about it.”

Nansen answered, “I have already said too much.” And he walked away.

When a monk asked a master about the frame of mind a person should discipline himself in the truth, the reply was, “There is no mind to frame. There is no truth in which to be disciplined.”

The monk said, “Well, then why do we monks gather to study Zen and discipline ourselves?”

Nansen answered, “This monastery does not have a bit of space, so where could there be a gathering of monks?”

The monk shook his head in despair. “I don’t understand you.”

Nansen said, “I don’t understand myself.”

And I don’t know if I’ve given you something, or nothing.


This talk is difficult to give, and it will probably be even harder to listen to, because it’s long-winded and it’s about nothing.

The concept of nothing is very important in Zen.

When I was in high school I had an English teacher who referred to any word over two syllables long as a fifty-cent word.

Nihilism is a fifty-cent word. It first came into use during the Middle Ages when it was used to describe Christian heretics. Back then if you held opinions that differed from accepted dogma, it followed that you believed in nothing, and you were called a Nihilist.

The sort of people who labeled other individuals as Nihilists accused those individuals as having no values. Furthermore, the labelers punished nihilists for believing nothing could be known or communicated.

Think of that. Not believing in the god of the times made one a prime candidate for burning at the stake.

Since then, things have improved. Or, at least, changed.

Today many people outside of Zen believe Zen smacks of nihilism. Even to many people inside Zen, Zen may seem nihilistic because it swarms with “non” phrases such as no-mind, non-action, non-attachment, non-being, non-ego, and so on.

But these concepts are not negative notions.

I said not negative.

Remember high school math, where you were taught two negatives make a positive? By my saying these “non” concepts are not negative I don’t mean they are positive. In Zen thinking they are neither positive nor negative.

Nor are they nihilistic.

Their aim—as well as the aim of all Zen masters and teachers—is to rattle your mental cage—to get you to grasp intuitively instead of depending on rationalization.

Any student of Zen is aware of the word mu. Mu means nothing.

Let me say that differently. Mu does not mean nothing. Mu means nothing. Do you understand the distinction?

According to legend, Zen master Joshu was asked by a monk if a dog has Buddha nature. Because everything has Buddha nature, the monk probably wanted to engage in a philosophical debate. Joshu wouldn’t be suckered into that. He didn’t say “yes,” he didn’t say “no.”

He said, “Mu.”


That gave the monk something to think about.

Mu is usually the first koan given a Rinzai novice by a master.

What is mu?

What is nothing?

Working on mu can shatter a novice. When he or she is certain what mu is, the master will challenge the person to describe the color of mu, or the taste of mu, or the smell of mu. As a koan, mu is not intended to be analyzed or reasoned. It has to be grasped intuitively.

I may regret bringing up mushin, but I’ll mention it because it relates to mu and to nothing.

The Japanese word mushin translates literally as "without mind." In Zen, mushin refers to the complete cutting off of thought. To Western eyes absence of thought can be threatening because that is synonymous with unconsciousness. Picture it. The only time a person doesn’t think is when they are down for the count.

But that’s isn’t mushin.

Mushin is freedom from unnecessary thinking.

And here we have another of those wonderful Zen paradoxes. If mushin, without mind, is a beneficial feature of Zen, who or what is it that is enlightened?

That is, if there is nothing, what is there to realize true self?

Stay with me.

Mushin refers to the spirit that’s empty of frivolous notions. It doesn’t mean without spirit altogether. When a person is empty of judgments and of distinctions of good or bad, that person is a person of mushin.