Tuesday, July 27, 2010


A few weeks back I gave a talk that was based on a paper presented by D.T. Suzuki in 1957. I contrasted Eastern ways of thinking with Western ways of thinking.

I’d like to continue on that theme of East and West, which really has to do with objectivity and subjectivity. In other words, observation that is based on impartial observation in contrast to that which is based on individual experience.

The Western method is to view something, say a flower or an earthworm, from the objective point of view—surveying its size, its color, its weight, its chemical analysis, and so on, comparing it with some chosen standard—and then pigeonholing that thing.

That is, shoehorning it into a pattern or a mold.

Traditionally, categorizing has been the Western approach to reality. This is bigger than that. That is more colorful than this. It’s a placing next to another to establish differences.

To paraphrase Suzuki: The Zen approach is to enter into the object—a flower—and see it from the inside.

To know a flower.

To know a flower is to be the flower.

When you learn to know a flower, a tree, a pebble, you come to know yourself.

You don’t need to exploit differences.

There is a shortcut here, but I’m not going to point to it. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself.

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with a short story by Carson McCullers titled “A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud.” In the story, a man declares that love should not begin with another human being, but with a tree, a rock, a cloud.

I say, awakening may begin with a flower.

To experience a flower, or a tree, or a rock, is to experience one’s self. Science attempts to find reality in analyzing and objectifying. Zen experiences reality in joining with an object by perceiving what an object truly is.

Never mind if it’s bigger, or brighter than something else.

In doing that, a Zen person realizes what he or she truly is.

Long ago a Zen abbot commissioned a painter to decorate the ceiling of his monastery with the image of a dragon. The artist said he would give it a try, even though he had never seen a dragon. Furthermore, he doubted that dragons really existed.

“Never mind that you’ve never seen a dragon,” the abbot said. “Don’t accept what anyone tells you about dragons, or what they look like, or what size they are. Meditate. Clear your mind. Sooner or later you’ll feel you must paint a dragon.”

After several months of meditation, the artist took his brushes and set to work painting a dragon.

A nice little story, yes?

Today that dragon can be seen on the ceiling of the Dharma hall at Myoshinji, Kyoto.

Here’s another legend.

A young Zen novice went to his master and said, “I have been with you for several years, but you have not given me any instructions. Why is that?”

The master smiled and said, “I have instructed you from day one.”

The student looked puzzled.

“When you see me in the morning, you greet me, and I greet you. What else is there?”

The student thought the reply was some sort of koan and tried to analyze it.

The master said, “If you start thinking about it, it is gone, and you’ll never get it. You have to see it instantly, with no reasoning or revaluing.”

That applies to a flower, and to one’s own self.

It’s the truth of Zen.

Again, to paraphrase Suzuki: The truth of Zen is what turns one’s everyday life into one of art and inner creativity.


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