Tuesday, December 23, 2008


In one of our recent meetings we discussed the suggestion that in Japan Buddhism is dying out. We proposed that such a change might be a result of the Western influence on that country.

For the most part, in Japan, people have adapted to Western dress, Western foods, and Western customs. That is, there is a shift away from Asian spiritualism toward Western materialism.

More leisure, more money, more possessions.

Tonight’s talk doesn’t attempt to confirm or deny Chicken Little’s bewailing that the Buddhist sky is falling.

Instead, tonight’s talk discusses some of the ancient yet living principles of Zen culture that do not have parallels in Western civilization. Owing to their differences in mindset, some of these nonintellectual forms are puzzling or mystifying to the rational Western way of thinking.

Maybe it’s Western culture that is ebbing.

The contemporary writer Thomas Hoover suggests that Zen culture brings us in touch with our nonrational side. To this end, the ancient Zen masters worked hard to devise methods to short circuit the mind’s reasoning characteristics in favor of developing instinct and intuition.

Zen master Takuan (who lived in the 1500s) claimed that the inner spirit of an art is understood only when one’s mind is in harmony with the principle of life itself. That is, when one attains that state of mind known as mushin, “no mind.”

This means going beyond misgivings, beyond life and death, beyond good and evil, beyond being and non-being.

To name a few of the vital Zen arts and practices: archery, stone gardens, painting, drama, haiku, the tea ceremony. In Japan such forms may be past their zenith, but they are neither defunct nor obsolete.

One of these methods is the koan. To quote myself from an earlier talk, a koan is a paradox. That is, a statement that is self-contradictory. Koans can’t be grasped by the intellect but must be understood through direct experience. A single koan doesn’t have a single answer; it may have dozens or hundreds of answers, each of which depends on the mentality of a Zen master or that of a Zen novice.

As I’ve said many times before, a koan may have many off-the-wall, misguided responses, but there is no right answer.

A koan is a cultural way of pointing to awakening.

Another classical Zen practice that continues to be applied as a way to understanding one’s self is cha-no-yu, the art of the tea ceremony. Though it is still a custom in Japan, the observance doesn’t seem to have taken hold in the Western world. Perhaps this is because the ceremony is lengthy. It takes time. In the West time is a precious commodity not to be frittered away unless it has a financial return.

D.T. Suzuki said the art of tea is intimately connected with Zen “in the observance of the spirit that runs through the ceremony itself.” The basic values of cha-no-yu are expressed in the words harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility. These values are the way of a true Zen person.

Harmony between persons, between objects, between persons and objects.

Like most Zen practices, Japanese painting, particularly sumi-e—the art of black ink painting—requires something of the viewer. That something is participation.

A sumi painting is incomplete because the artist has omitted something. The artist wants a viewer to take an active part in appreciating and understanding the work. In doing so, the viewer completes the work, and in so doing exercises his or her intuition.

Even today, most of Japanese living is bound together in a similar appreciation of the harmony of things.

This is the basis of Zen.

“Say something about haiku,” I am asked.

Alright, to recast some words of writer R. H. Blyth, haiku is a tradition of looking at things (isn’t Zen?), it’s a way of living (isn’t Zen?).

Does haiku belong to Zen, or does Zen belong to haiku?

Remember the enso—the closed circle. What goes away comes back again. There is no beginning, no ending. In the words of a haiku:

I never questioned

My Master about meaning.

He never answered.

And few more words from R. H. Blyth:

“. . . art and poetry and the drama, learning and religion. . . are far closer to one another in the East than in the West.”

Looking at the history of humankind as a history of the human spirit, we can think of it as either a rise and fall or a fall and rise.

Remember the enso—the closed circle.

What goes away comes back again.

There is no beginning, no ending.

There is no this or that.

To wind this up, is Buddhism, or is Zen, dying? Maybe yes, maybe no. Anything is possible. After all, scientists predict that in a few trillion years our sun will burn itself out.

Well, I’m not going to wait around for either to happen. There are better things to do in the present.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I have been asked how Zen handles absolute evil. That was an excellent question, but at that time I didn’t have a ready answer. Ever since then the issue has been nagging the back of my mind.

Let’s see if an answer has popped up.

As a start, let’s agree on defining evil as something that causes harm, something that is immoral and cruel.

So, how does Zen handle absolute evil?

Even now, I’m not sure there is a clear-cut response.

In Zen nothing is absolute. Absolute implies unconditional, unqualified, limited.

But no sooner is a limit established than it will be extended. A new limit will be imposed, only to be replaced by something more.

Running a four-minute mile was once thought impossible. The self-appointed authorities claimed no human could ever do that. Then in 1954 a British medical student, Roger Bannister, ran a mile in 3 minutes, 59 seconds. Two months later, an Australian, John Landy, ran a mile in one second less.

A few years ago it was believed that the top operating speed of home computers was in the megabyte range. Today home computers run in the gigabyte range, and that envelope is being ever pushed outward.

Nothing lasts forever. Our only limits are those we set for ourselves.

Zen says there is no final point. There is no beginning. There is no ending.

So, what is the worst conceivable evil? Is it genocide? Is it human cannibalism? Is it torture?

Is there a limit to depravity? Did Heinrich Himmler reach it during the World War II holocaust? Did Pol Pot reach it in being responsible for some three-million deaths in Cambodia?

When or where does man’s inhumanity to man end?

Or does it ever end?

I still don’t have a black-or-white answer to the question of how Zen manages absolute evil. As I said before, I don’t think there is a definite answer.

However, if we think in Western terms of evil—that is, immorality, depravity, and wrong—as being the opposite of good—that is, moral, decent, and right—we may find some clues.

Humans delight in dividing things into pairs. For some reason we seem unable to accept that things simply are. We have to label everything and then weigh the labels against each other. We evaluate good against bad, big against small, happy against sad.

Zen has roots in Taoism, and Taoism says that things contain, rather than exclude, some part of their opposites. This concept is embodied in the familiar yin-yang symbol, a circle that encloses intermingled and equal parts of black and white.

Yin-yang signifies a balance of opposites.

No thing, or idea, or action is exclusive. Everything is relative and complementary. Existence is neither all white nor all black. Existence is a combination of all things.

In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Taoism the authors say that names for things “… not only train us in making distinctions, but shape and govern our desires and actions.”

In other words, words are necessary for human communication, but we should beware of taking words at their face value.

The Tao Te Ching says:

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

“The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

. . .

“Having and not-having arise together.

“Difficult and easy complement each other.

. . .

“Therefore the sage goes about . . . teaching no-talking.”

In 1974 Masao Abe, Professor of Nara University, lectured at a seminar on Zen for Christian missionaries. In his talk Abe said that enlightenment is not something good in the relative sense, as distinguished from evil. Enlightenment is the realization of one’s being before one is trained to the duality of good and evil.

Abe cautions against taking a dualistic view of good and evil. Observing the priority of good over evil may be ethically prudent, but it isn’t necessarily an actual human situation. Dumb animals may not distinguish good from evil, but good and evil are equal in humans.

Abe said something remarkable, “It is not that I have a dilemma between good and evil, but that I am that dilemma.”

In other words, we humans aren’t simply good or simply bad. We are neither good nor bad.

We are nothing.

“In the full realization of Nothingness,” Abe said, “we are liberated from the dichotomy of good and evil.”

It is then that we awaken to our true nature, which is that point before we’ve learned to distinguish between good and evil.

That point is seeing one’s original face.

It is awakening.

* * * * *

To change the subject of good and evil, but to stay with Abe for little longer, he brought up the subject of whether Zen is a form of Buddhism or not. In Zen fashion his response was yes and no.

Zen is a form of Buddhism that was established in China. That form of Buddhism is commonly called Zen Buddhism, and it has its rituals and scriptures. But, Abe says, Zen is beyond Buddhism in that it isn’t based on any so-called sacred writings or established routines. Instead Zen . . . returns to the root and source of all forms of Buddhism.

And that origin is awakening.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


“In the silence by the empty window

“I sit in formal meditation wearing my monk’s robe.

“Navel and nose in alignment,

Ears parallel with the shoulders.

Moonlight floods the room;

The rain stops but the eaves drip and drip.

Perfect this moment—

In the vast emptiness, my understanding deepens.


Until the 1800s Japan had sealed itself off to the Western world. Though Japan exchanged goods and ideas with China and Korea, it maintained its own religion, its own social structure, and its own language.

Then, in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Japan’s Edo Bay with a squadron of four American warships, their guns pointed shoreward.

Perry offered the Emperor two options: That of opening the island country to trade with the West or that of being blown out of the water. Neither choice was appealing, but under pressure of the black ships the Japanese government knuckled under.

At that moment Japan was bullied into the modern world, and its seclusion came to an abrupt end.

In short order, Western society—including the arts, ways of thinking, and most of all (or worst of all), religion—trampled the country’s rich native heritage.

With the country now fair game for exploitation, missionaries poured in, eager to convert the so-called heathens to their way of thinking. In their zeal the “true believers” actually destroyed many temples and shrines.

One missionary, the Jesuit, Cosme de Torres, was known for his prowess at intellectual debates, and he attempted to establish an open dialogue with the Japanese Buddhists.

Torres spoke movingly about the existence of God, while the Zen masters and monks spoke about emptiness.

Once when I was visiting a Buddhist site in Thailand, I noticed a saffron-clad monk sitting across a courtyard. I smiled and waved to him, and he beckoned me closer. He spoke excellent English, and we fell into a livery conversation about Buddhism.

“Okay,” I said, at one point. “In simple terms, how do you define Buddhism?”

His answer was simple.

“Buddhism is emptiness,” the monk said,

The friendly monk experienced Buddhism as the nothing beyond being, as the fullness of nothing.

I’ll say again, Buddhism is emptiness, the nothing beyond being. It’s the fullness of nothing.

Some schools of Buddhism—Tibetan, for example—say that things have no reality of their own. Stars, trees, humans are like reflections in a mirror. The ultimate nature of reality, of things as they really are, is emptiness.

Incidentally, the concept of Buddhist emptiness is known by the Sanskrit term, Sunyata, which is also translated as nothingness. The concept is not a negative one, but a positive rendering of existence and the relationship of all things.

Here is a koan:

When you drink an entire glass of water, is the glass then empty, or is there nothing in it?

Are emptiness and nothingness the same thing? The dictionary lists the two as synonyms for each other. It says emptiness is a void; nothingness is nonexistence. Is there a difference?

Is this a Hayakawan exercise in semiotics?

Or is it another koan?

Long ago, when I took first-year physics, we trusting students were told that the celestial expanse was a void, a total vacuum, a space empty of matter. I had a hard time getting my mind around that.

Now we know different. Outer space is crammed with stars, and planets, and moons, and meteors, and asteroids, and interplanetary dust, as well as lots of human litter.

We naive students were also told that cold was the absence of heat, and dark was the absence of light.

What a way to describe something, by using its opposite. I’m sure science has advanced beyond such barren statements.

Perhaps that’s one reason why I never sparkled as an engineer, but instead became a writer.

If a writer isn’t satisfied with reality as explained to him, he can create his own.

* * * * *

Are there any questions or comments?

The usual silence is deafening, so I’ll provide you with a question.

What’s the difference between Sunyata and Nirvana?

Here is one answer that probably won’t satisfy you.

Sunyata refers to the transience, the impermanence, of things in existence. Cities, cars, trees, human beings. Here today, gone tomorrow. Nothing lasts forever. Things in the phenomenal world appear to be real outside, but they are empty within.

Nirvana is a human state that is free from suffering. It can also be thought of as one’s innermost nature, or Buddhahood. In some Western minds, nirvana is comparable to the Christian heaven, but that’s a misunderstanding.

As Maseo Abe wrote, the book Zen and Comparative Studies, “. . . the goal of Zen is not Eternal life as the Supreme Good, but that which is neither life nor death, neither good nor evil, namely Emptiness or sunyata.”

Zen is neither life nor death, neither good nor evil.

Zen is emptiness.

* * * * *

To sum this up in a tanka:

All the aches and pains

Of the body and the mind

Don’t last forever.

In Zen, this is emptiness.