Friday, March 19, 2010

Zen Doctrine and Methodology - Progression not Completion

Zen Doctrine and Methodology - Progression not Completion
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The main objective of the criticism inherent to Shobogenzo (as with many literary works) is not concerned with revealing the relative merits of preceding works, teachings, or teachers; it is to establish and clarify its own presuppositions in regard to the nature and characteristics of the actual universe (i.e. the real world).
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Dogen, being a master of language, was well aware of the fact that all propositions are made in reference to or about a universe which presupposes specific characteristics particular to it. In the absence of such presuppositions, the various actual dharmas (things, beings, events) which inform propositions, as well as the assertions themselves, will lack the definitive characteristics necessary for meaningful communication.
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One Zen master was asked by a monk pointing at a lamp, “What is that?” The master retorted, “If three of us say it is a tortoise, it is a tortoise.” Every proposition, if it asserts anything meaningful, must take account of, and harmonize with the actual nature and dynamics of the universe in which it is applied. It is through the mutual awareness and agreement of the speaker (or writer) and the hearer (or reader) on the presuppositions involved that distinguish meaningful assertions from a mere series of sounds (or string of words). A monk that was aware of certain presuppositions could accurately respond to a master’s assertion that, “The tortoise is nearly out of fuel” by refilling the lamp with oil.
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In sum, an assertion can only be regarded as “true” in the specific conditions of its usage, including the background of its presupposed universe.
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Now, contemporary notions of Zen as being, in one way or another, “beyond words,” are not completely unwarranted. The teachings of Zen themselves are permeated with exhortations to be diligent about recognizing the inescapable limitations of expression as well as the dangers of unwise or careless use of language. However, as is evident in the fact that the literature of Zen is by far the most voluminous of any of the Mahayana schools of Buddhism, the classic masters of Zen were fully aware that language was the only vehicle with which Zen could be communicated.
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The fact that the ‘experience itself’ of Zen is ‘beyond words’ is true, but so is the ‘experience itself’ of a sunset, or the scent of freshly mown grass. “Experience itself,” of any kind, is confined to the realm of experience which cannot be ‘captured’ and held onto, much less passed on like a treasured heirloom.
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Thus, the Zen masters, in efforts to undermine deluded notions that equated the “knowledge” of Buddhism with Buddhist “enlightenment,” stressed the incommunicability of experience. Ironically, the very teachings emphasizing the requirement to avoid idolizing knowledge came to be concretized into idols themselves.
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The efforts of formulation and articulation carried out by the Zen masters are characterized by both authority and humility. The clear tone of authority that rings out from the records of Zen has its source in direct personal experience, rather than abstract speculation. That is to say, the speakers/writers of the Zen records, in their refusal to assert anything that they have not personally verified, demonstrate the singular trait essential to authority; authenticity. The sincere humility singing harmoniously with this authority springs from the clear perception of the true nature of the self and the world. Clearly perceiving the infinite, ineffable, limitless potential of the ever advancing universe inspires profound gratitude and even more profound humility.
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Awakened to the infinite potential of the universe, the Zen master seeks to deepen and refine, to expand and clarify—never to finalize or conclude. Their efforts to formulate and articulate seek progression, not completion.
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Peace,
Ted

2 comments:

Mike Hinsley said...

Hi Ted,

language is useful but not essential. Sometimes it just gets in the way.

Today I've been to visit several people for a 'checkup' and I think the most that has been spoken is 'Hello' and that was more than was needed.

Ted Biringer said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for stopping by!

...and for the words on words.

I agree, language is not essential for somethings, and is essential for others. Also, sometimes it does get in the way, sometimes it helps us find the way.

Thanks again. It is always good to hear from you.

Three Full Bows.

Peace,
Ted