Zen Language, Thinking, and Reason
Contrary to certain popular anti-intellectual notions espoused by some within the contemporary Zen community, language, thinking, and reason – being dharmas as they are – are as essential to practice-enlightenment as every other actual element of Zen, including the practice of meditation (however that may be defined). Thinking people that have dismissed Zen because of popularized images of Zen's irrationality and antithetical attitude toward conceptual and intellectual endeavors are encouraged to reconsider Zen teachings - as expressed in its classic literature, rather than as “interpreted” by contemporary representatives. For genuine Zen masters are no different than the sages of any tradition sincerely interested in truth; thus, the classic records of Zen insist that authentic wisdom is only discovered (or evoked) by those with the true aspiration (bodhicitta) necessary for the sustained, wholehearted – and whole-minded – effort to grasp “the whole universe” (a dharma) as “a concept” (a dharma) once, twice, and a “third and fourth time” causing it to open here and now.
When, at this very moment, we glimpse the whole universe in ten directions, the situation is one that we have never experienced before: by grasping the whole universe in ten directions once and twice as a concept and a third and fourth time as a concrete thing, we cause it to open the gate of expedient methods.~Shobogenzo, Shoho Jisso, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
In this sense, the classic Zen masters are in full agreement with Blake:
Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
And being restrain'd it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.~William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Only a sincere desire to settle one’s own doubts, a genuine aspiration for personal certainty can furnish us with the energy and skill to “investigate it three times over” – and once this is truly actualized, there is no doubt that cannot be resolved.
Now, without directing a question to anyone else, imagine your own doubt to be a statement. Treat it as the assertion of another person and investigate it three times over, and you may find that you are rid of it already. The aforementioned thought is not an evil thought; it is just a thought at a time before clarification. And at the time of clarification, there is no effort to get rid of this thought. Opening flowers and falling leaves are naturally opening flowers and falling leaves. Thinking in which it is thought that in the Dharma-nature there can be no “opening flowers and falling leaves, is the Dharma-nature itself.~Shobogenzo, Hossho, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
Obviously, one cannot find something that one does not look for, and it is equally obvious that one cannot look for something one does not know exists. Attempting to apply Zen methods without understanding the reason (dori) one is doing so (not as infrequent as one might imagine) is not likely to result in anything more injurious than a strained knee. However, as the history of Zen in the “West” demonstrates, the outcome of attempting to apply Zen methods with deluded, simplistic, or distorted understandings of the reason for doing so (as is often encouraged by pseudo-Zen teachers) is not always so benign. While the mental, psychological, and financial torments suffered at the hands of exploitive teachers and sectarian cults have been extensively publicized and remarked upon to be familiar to even the casual reader, a number of subtler occurrences even more destructive and pernicious has gone largely unchallenged.
The “subtler occurrences” I speak of are the promotion of doctrines and methods that foster views and practices that lead to antinomian behavior at one extreme and quietist escapism at the other. As the very nature of these destructive elements make them insensitive to language, thinking, and reason, they are inherently resistant to detection and, more significantly, extremely unresponsive to curative treatment.
The nearly universal ignorance of the nature of mythical language inherent to the common world view in combination with the prevalence of nominalism is particularly revealing in this case. A number of metaphorical (mythical) Zen expressions have proven to be extremely effective “sound-bites” when ripped out of their living, mythological context, melted down, and cast into golden calves.
For example, consider the Buddhist teaching of “practical wisdom.” The Buddhist notion of practical wisdom involves the cultivation of “responsibility” (the ability to respond) wherein practitioners develop and refine the knowledge and skill to respond appropriately and naturally (rather than according to fixed codes or formulas) in the ceaseless unfolding of reality here and now. Some (metaphorical) Zen expressions designating practical wisdom (or aspects of it) are, “as it is” and “just this” (seeing things as they are, rather than assigning them to a category), “not knowing” and “don’t know” (avoiding the preconceptions and prejudices of fixed codes, dogmas, narrow-views, and biases). Stripped of their mythical significance such expressions (or variations of them) have become literal platitudes mouthed by whole communities of “Zennists.”
Other examples include “nothing special” and “everyday mind” (metaphors indicative of the sacred or divine nature of even the most prosaic dharmas), “just sitting” (a mythic image depicting the self non-dually seated in/as the world; self/world), “no goal” and “letting be” (metaphors presenting the entangling potential of preconceived notions and unmerited expectations). We stated that the combination of factors involved in these destructive elements were “particularly revealing” because the actual result achieved by those practitioners that literalize these mythic expressions is literally “as it is” (i.e. literal) – thus, “not knowing” is literally not knowing (sheer ignorance), “just sitting” is literally just sitting (a mere physical posture), and “nothing special” is literally nothing special (average, typical, mundane, and mediocre).