Like every long lived scientific and religious tradition, the history of Zen includes numerous examples of persecution and hostility wreaked upon its visionaries by the orthodox authorities that we have identified as “devotees of the conventional perspectives of science and religion.” Also in common with other scientific and religious tradition, many of the Zen visionaries escaped suppression during their lifetimes only to be subjugated by the devotees of orthodoxy in death – most commonly by means of that well guarded trump-card of institutions everywhere – interpretation.
When expressions of truth fail to pitch us out of our familiar surroundings, fail to engender wonder or dread, awe or rapture we can be sure our conditioning has been effectively implemented. The kind of conditioning that serves to veil truth, rather than reveal it is designed by cunning rather than intelligence, its aim is exploitation rather than cultivation. The methodology of such conditioning, which Blake calls “Priestcraft,” is deception, and it agents are the servants of fear and greed called the devotees of orthodoxy. Despite its comprehensive reach and effectiveness, the primary means of this Priestcraft is simple; reduce expressions of truth – the images and figures of myth and metaphor – to mere signs, indicators, historical facts, and literal definitions. If the alchemists of the “opiates of the masses” have revealed any truth, it is that concocting “interpretations” that classify, categorize, codify, or otherwise reduce expressions of truth to systematic generalizations is extremely effective for redirecting human awareness from the reality (i.e. dharmas) plainly before them to conceptual notions in support of orthodox authority. This method so effectively embalms dead forms that encouraging dissection, amputation, eradication, and detachment (of or from the self) has become a distant second as a method used by devotees of orthodoxy.
When the moon in a Buddhist scripture is defined as a symbol for enlightenment, the image of a Zen koan explained as an allusion to emptiness, or the sayings of a Zen masters described as expedient devices, expressions of truth become dispossessed of authenticity, thus of liberating potential. Such definitions and explanations subjugate the exceptional and visionary to the mediocrity of orthodox standards by reducing the paradoxical, multifaceted figures of myth and metaphor to stereotypes and generalizations that conform to established principles and codes of institutional convention. Thus, species of pseudo-Zen long ago established by sectarian and institutional authoritarians, under the pretence of “interpretation,” continue to be widely perpetuated. This method of mummification has been so successful that even the iconoclasm of Zen has been effectively reduced to a convention of the dullest and most witless kind – manifest as an infantile exaltation of vulgarity, crudity, and anti-intellectualism.
In contradistinction to its sophomoric imitations, authentic Zen iconoclasm is a subtly refined rhetorical art, proficiency in which requires years of diligent cultivation. Even with sustained cultivation adept performance may not be realized, though cultivation is still necessary for increasing an accurate appreciation of Zen iconoclasm, as well as the significance of Zen rhetoric generally. For Zen iconoclasm is not so much the result of methodological development as it the result of mythological (metaphorical) insight. Its insight into the metaphorical nature of the self provided Zen with a clear understanding of the vastness of our inherent creative potential, the capacity to actualize reality (i.e. dharmas) through (by means of) the six modes of human experience (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and thinking). While it is this capacity that facilitates all human experience, it can only be activated deliberately (consciously) by those awake to true nature, that is, through practice-enlightenment. While all eyes (ears, noses, etc.) participate in the actualization of the forms they see (hear, smell, etc.) it is only the Dharma-eye (Dharma-ear, Dharma-nose, etc.) that can actively (consciously) influence this process of actualization. And, as previously discussed, this “active influence” is exerted through the mythopoeic capacity of human beings, the capacity to transmit wisdom from mind to mind (Buddhas alone together with Buddhas) through the figures of myth and metaphor (self-expressions of Buddha-nature).
Clearly seeing the true metaphorical nature of the self (nondual with the world, self/world, thus all dharmas) clearly reveals the true dangers of ontologically reifying the self through conceptualization or literalism. Here then we would point out that Zen iconoclasm is not confined to those instances wherein it appears in eccentric, shocking, deviant, and sacrilegious words and deeds; rather, Zen iconoclasm permeates the whole corpus of Zen literature. For, in light of its vision of the self as root metaphor, the injurious potential of substantiating the self through dualistic literalism could “literally” not be overstated. For what this light reveals is that reality itself is iconoclastic by nature. Thus, the dark humor, subversive tone, shocking images, and similarly unorthodox aspects of Zen expression are not only the deliberate application of deeply cultivated skillful means; they are inherent characteristics of expressions of truth (self-expressions).
Our statement that “this light reveals that reality itself is iconoclastic by nature” will be clearer when we later explore the significance of existence-time (uji); here, then, a brief explanation on how the light of true nature demonstrates the inherent iconoclasm of reality will have to suffice. If all dharmas are self-expressions, each dharma is a unique instance of existence-time, therefore each dharma is by nature iconoclastic. The very actualization of a dharma is a shattering, a casting-off of every possible preconception; in its “becoming,” a dharma advances the whole of existence-time. In Dogen’s terms, the actualization of a dharma is the “total exertion of a single thing.” As seen in light of existence-time, each dharma actualizes a unique, once-in-an-existence-time dharma-position, a particular location-moment manifestation (in and as experience here and now). The becoming of each dharma is a manifestation of what was (previously) not-manifest, thus its manifestation is not simply iconoclastic in itself (in that it destroys any and all preconceived images, containers, forms of itself) it is the iconoclastic “kalpa-ending conflagration” (i.e. the Buddhist version of the apocalypse). In short, each and every particular thing, being, and event actualizes an apocalypse/revelation of the universe, utterly destroying the old world (which, in lacking that dharma, was a totally different world), and giving life to a completely new world (the first world ever to contain that dharma).