Monday, September 26, 2016


This talk is difficult to give, and it will probably be even more arduous to listen to because it is about nothing. I hope you will listen, absorb, and not form any judgments or opinions. 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 branded a Nihilist. The sort of people who claimed individuals were Nihilists charged those individuals with having no societal values. Furthermore, they 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.

I don’t know if Nihilists who escaped being roasted were forced to wear a large letter “N,” the way European Jews had to wear the letter “J” in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It wouldn’t surprise me.

To many people outside of Zen, Zen smacks of nihilism. To many people inside Zen, but not entirely “there” yet, Zen may seem nihilistic. It’s true that Zen abounds with “non” phrases such as no-mind, non-action, non-attachment, non-being, non-ego, and so on. These things tend to mess up one’s mind. 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—yes, mess up your mind—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 would not be suckered into that. He did not say “yes,” nor did he say “no.” His answer was “Mu.”

That gave the monk something to consider.

Mu is usually the first koan given a Rinzai novice by a master. Think of it. What is mu? What is nothing?

Working on mu can shatter a person. 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 thought through, analyzed, or reasoned. It must be grasped intuitively.

Believe me, when one grasps mu, the entirety of existence opens like the petals of a flower.

I may be sorry for bringing up mushin, but I will 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 that person is stone-cold cataleptic.

          That is not mushin. Mushin is freedom from unnecessary thinking.

          And here we have another of those wonderfully puzzling 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?

Monday, September 12, 2016



What we Westerners call Zen Buddhism is closely linked to the Ch’an School of China, which derived from Taoism, and the Zen School of Japan, which derived from India and China. What we call Zen Buddhism came about in the sixth century A.D., and its purpose was to simplify the confusion that had sprung up in Indian Buddhism.

            Speaking of confusion, do not try to study Zen chronologically or philosophically. You will only be thoroughly muddled. Just absorb everything you hear or read, neither believing it nor disbelieving it, and eventually everything—as they say in New Zealand—will sort itself out.

            The original teachings of Guatama Buddha, during his time and shortly after, were basic, straightforward, and simple. Unfortunately, those teachings, in a relatively short period after his death, were added to, taken away from, and generally made as complex as were the very Hindu philosophies from which they were derived.

            The Buddhist scholar and teacher Christmas Humphreys wrote, in A Western Approach to Zen: “The early masters of Ch’an sought the same personal direct attainment without scripture, ritual, or formulated thought, and all Zen training is concerned with one thing only, awareness of the Absolute with the heart of man.”

            When I am forced into a corner by someone who wants to know what “faith” or “belief” I subscribe to, I first hesitate to answer, knowing all the explaining that lies ahead. If I go to the heart of the matter and say I am Zen, the inevitable response is, “Oh, you’re a Zen Buddhist.”

            Well, yes and no. But mostly no.

            Most people identify Zen with Buddhism, and most people have at least heard the term “Buddhism,” thinking it to be an Asian heathen religion that is at odds with Christianity.

Nevertheless, I usually nod to being labeled a Zen Buddhist. Agreeing is easier than stating there is a tremendous difference between Zen Buddhism and Zen. To say that opens a figurative Pandora’s box that releases not evil but knowledge that simply cannot be experienced in a casual conversation.

Because Zen is life, it takes a lifetime to comprehend. But try telling that to someone. They will think (1) you are being a mystical wiseguy, or (2) you really don’t know what you are talking about and are blowing smoke, or (3) you are a wild-eyed fanatic.

Paraphrasing Humphreys, Zen is a name for the Absolute—that is, the ultimate basis of all thought and being, something that is independent of and unrelated to anything else. Because Zen is beyond the grasp of the relative mind, it cannot be simply defined or easily explained.

Zen is Zen and must be experienced.

We Westerners are born into a world of relativity. We are trained by life to think in terms of “this or that,” or “this and that.”

My last seven words are an example of the sort of relativity we are stuck with. The first three words—“this or that”—set up opposites, then the last three words—“this and that”—set up dependence. On top of everything, each of the two groups of three words is joined by the word “or,” which sets up another opposite.

Such this-or-that business is what Zen refers to as duality. Zen avoids duality. Zen thinks of opposites and dependence as “not one, not two.”

Unlike the old song, nothing is entirely this or entirely that.

Speaking of this or that, let me throw in a word that probably everyone has heard: Nirvana. Nirvana is not Paradise, nor is it the Promised Land. In Buddhism, Nirvana is the attainment of disinterested wisdom and compassion. In Zen, Nirvana is here and now. Remember the term because it will appear now and again in these talks and in your readings on Zen.