Zen Self Inquiry

Anti Intellectualism vs. Right Thought/Right Understanding

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For centuries Zen has been known for its swinging cats, pointing monks and obtuse answers.  It is my understanding that when Zenkei Nishida founded the Kyoto School of Zen in 1913 he wanted to establish a platform from which Zen could be expressed in a rational manner that would stand the test of time.  From him to Keiji Nishitani  to Masao Abe they wanted to express Zen as something real and philosophically defensible as well as being an existential reality.  The historical Buddha himself established the Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path as intelligible articulations of his teachings.  Neither of these are anti intellect or anti rational.  However, today in Zen when you try to explain the cause of suffering, the path and the cure, it is disregarded as ‘too intellectual, too thought based’ and many other specious categorizations.  I think the greatest piece written on the dilemma of the human consciousness  is Zen and the Human Situation by Dr DeMartino.  I fully admit it is a difficult read and personally disdained it for many years but then I grew to understand it.  It is not unlike disdaining the difficulty of strenuous exercise to get strong but eventually developing a strong body and new perspective. Being strong physically is very liberating in its own way and there are no shortcuts. It is not easy but the results are worth it though the path is difficult.  Dr DeMartino used to often say, “Read something three times before you actually start to read it”.  I probably read his dissertation 6 times over the years before it took root. Many I have sent his article to have severely criticized its intellectual approach to Zen and Buddhism in general.  It was first contained in the book “Zen and Psychoanalysis” Fromm, Suzuki and DeMartino.  Often I’ve been in discussions with folks who’ve rejected the book yet when I’ve brought up salient points from it they’ve been quite impressed by them and ask where I learned that.  Where?  From the book you rejected!


Where else in human life do we disdain the doctor, pilot or technician who knows too much about their expertise?  I’ve often been told it’s more about ‘feel’ and ‘heart’ and not the intellectual understanding of  it.  Well, Muhammad Atta had a lot of heart and feel when he flew into the World Trade Center so I don’t think that is a good barometer.  If your doctor/surgeon cannot explain exactly what it is he does and has nebulous answers do you want your life in his hands?  If your car is not running right do you want a mechanic that has a ‘feel’ about it or one who has the proper procedure and tools?  How about your pilot, the one who is first in his class or last?  But somehow a Zen teacher does not have to understand the nature of the problem of human consciousness or a logical approach to its resolution.  Somehow articulation of the philosophy has become unimportant.  If you have come to Zen to resolve a problem and to stop your personal suffering do you want nebulous guidance?  Mian XianJie wrote almost a thousand years ago:

“The reason this path has not been flourishing in recent years

is nothing else but the fact that those who are acting as

teachers of others do not have their eyes and brains straight and true.

They have no perception of their own, but just keep fame

and fortune and gain and loss in their hearts. Deeply afraid

that others will say they have no stories, they mistakenly

memorize stories from old books, letting them ferment in

the back of their minds so they won’t lack for something

to say if seekers ask them questions.

They are like goats crapping: the minute their tails go up,

innumerable dung balls plop to the ground! Since students

do not have clear perception, how are they supposed to dis­tinguish

clearly? Students believe deeply, with all their hearts;

so unseeing individuals lead unseeing crowds into a pit of fire.”


Many years ago Dr. Abe visited several Zen centers and asked the monks, ” Why do you meditate”?  He told me none of them could give him a substantial answer.  It was basically the ritual they were taught. I have asked, “Why is meditation necessary for awakening”? and the answer is always based on the traditions of Buddhism.  As I’ve stated before Bodhidharma did not tell Hui ke to meditate when he approached him about his suffering.  He did not give him instruction in zazen or sanzen or mindfulness.  He told him to hand him that which is suffering.  Face the problem here and now. This is probably the most seminal story in the history of Zen but somehow that escapes people.  What they latch onto is that Bodhi was the ‘wall gazing Brahman’.

Right Thought/ Right Understanding

I attended a lecture by a leading Zen monk in an American monastery.  The topic was the interpenetration of things.  The monk explained this as “like the coffee cup your drinking from, suppose the guy who made this in China had a fight with his wife or was angry with his boss, his energy is passed into this cup and now you receive it.  This is how things are connected, how we are all connected, so you need to think about these things in your life, this is the interpenetration of things in Zen”.   This is a poorly developed and superficial understanding at best on the topic but this was taught by a leading monk.  If you want to think about the interpenetration of thinks I would suggest you start with Lao tze and the line “Heaven, earth and I arise simultaneously” or  “when this arises, that arises’.  This isn’t about anthropomorphic human connections it’s about the expression of all things simultaneously.  Without other there can be no self, the self does not exist independently from the rest of the universe, it is an expression of the universe.  To reduce this idea to the connection among humans and their moods is simply missing the point entirely.  If you understand the problem of human consciousness you can attempt to fix it.  If you do this by trying to understand the relationship between yourself and your coffee cup you are looking at a pebble and missing the universe.  How do you come into being?  From what/when/where do you arise?  When did you first arise?  These questions demand profound answers.

If your car is making noise and you quiet it, it does not solve the problem.  A mind that thinks not thinking is the solution is still locked in a dualistic silence.  The mind that realizes that thinking and not thinking both come from a problematic dualism between self and other begins to grasp the problem of itself in relationship to the universe.  What separates you from the universe? Even more fundamentally , how can you be separate from the universe?  Quieting the mind and making absurd statements does not dynamically pit the mind against its own dilemma.  Like the doctor who understands the fundamental illness of the body you can methodically approach an answer.  It well may be that meditation is part of the methodology but it is a highly more profound practice of zazen than what is commonly practiced.

When right thought and right understanding are developed the intellect will logically exhaust itself.  We will realize all the mechanizations that we as egos go through.  We will not find refuge in concepts and philosophies but will be forced to face that knowledge that our own existence is the problem.  That which is trying to solve the problem is the problem.  Foyan says it eloquently with these words,


“In my school, there are only two kinds of sickness. One is to

go looking for a donkey riding on the donkey. The other is to

be unwilling to dismount once having mounted the donkey.

You say it is certainly a tremendous sickness to mount a don­

key and then go looking for the donkey. I tell you that one need

not find a spiritually sharp person to recognize this right away

and get rid of the sickness of seeking, so the mad mind stops.

Once you have recognized the donkey, to mount it and be

unwilling to dismount is the sickness that is most difficult to

treat. I tell you that you need not mount the donkey; you

are the donkey! The whole world is the donkey; how can you mount

it? If you mount it, you can be sure the sickness will not leave!

If you don’t mount it, the whole universe is wide open!

When the two sicknesses are gone, and there is nothing on

your mind, then you are called a wayfarer. What else is there?

This is why when Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, “What is the path?”

Nanquan replied, “The normal mind is the path.”

 So by searching for the solution we sustain the problem.  How do you face yourself in the present?  In the true present there can be no self reflection because that is a function of separating to know, it is the creation of time and self.



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