Dori: Reason and Rationality in Zen Part 3
Clarity of perception and thought evidently requires that we be generally aware of how our experience is shaped by the insight (clear or confused) provided by the theories that are implicit or explicit in our general ways of thinking. To this end, it is useful to emphasize that experience and knowledge are one process, rather than to think that our knowledge is about some sort of separate experience. We can refer to this one process as experience-knowledge (the hyphen indicating that these are two inseparable aspects of one whole movement).
Physicist David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, (1980, p.6)
From the perspective of Shobogenzo (hence Zen), accurately expressing truth has less to do with seeing the limitations of language and more to do with seeing through false presuppositions about language.
The common view that Zen is antithetical to language is, from Shobogenzo’s perspective, a distorted view based on a false assumption; the dualistic assumption that the reality of verbal expressions (written or spoken) exists independently of the reality the expressions concern. Of the many fallacies about Zen based on dualism, the delusion that the reality of Zen exists independently of the expressions of Zen is the most pernicious. To this distortion we owe the vulgar claims about Zen’s ‘ineffable’ reality, condition, or experience that is transcendent to, thus independent of, normal human capacities for communication. Notice that, since claims asserting that the truth of Zen cannot be communicated through language, are constituted of language, such claims refute their own validity!
In spite of the irrationality of such a view, this distorted notion has plagued Zen throughout the greater course of its history. Fortunately, this false view was widespread in Dogen’s own day; undoubtedly a chief reason for his comprehensive refutation of it in his writings. One of his clearest repudiations of this delusional view appears in the Sansuikyo fascicle of Shobogenzo:
In the nation of Great Sung China today, there is a certain type of unreliable person that has now grown to be quite a crowd. They have gotten to the point where they cannot be bested by the few true people. This bunch says such things as the following:
Just like the comments about Eno’s walking on water or the one about Nansen’s buying a scythe, what is being said is beyond anything that reason can grasp. In other words, any remark that involves the use of intellect is not the Zen talk of an Ancestor of the Buddha, whereas a remark that goes beyond anything that reason can handle is what comprises a ‘remark’ by an Ancestor of the Buddha. As a consequence, we would say that Meditation Master Obaku’s applying a stick to his disciples or Meditation Master Rinzai’s giving forth with a loud yell go far beyond rational understanding and do not involve the use of intellect. We consider this to be what is meant by the great awakening to That which precedes the arising of any discrimination. The reason why the ancient virtuous Masters so often made skillful use of verbal phrases to cut through the spiritual entanglements of their disciples was precisely because these phrases were beyond rational understanding.
Fellows who talk like this have never met a genuine teacher, nor do they have an eye for learning through training. They are foolish puppies who are not even worth discussing. For the past two or three centuries in the land of Sung China, such devilish imps and ‘little shavers’ like the Gang of Six have been many. Alas, the Great Way of the Buddha’s Ancestors has become diseased! This explanation of those people cannot compare even with that of the shravakas who follow the Lesser Course; it is even more confused than that of non-Buddhists. These fellows are not laity nor are they monks; they are not gods or humans. And when it comes to exploring the Buddha’s Way, they are more befuddled than beasts. The stories which the ‘little shavers’ refer to as going beyond anything that reason can grasp only go beyond anything their reason can grasp: it was not that way for any Ancestor of the Buddha. Just because they said that such stories are not subject to rational understanding, you should not fail to learn through your training what the intellectually comprehendible pathways of the Ancestors of the Buddha are. Even if these stories were ultimately beyond rational understanding, the understanding that this bunch has cannot hit the mark. Such people are in great number everywhere in Sung China, as I have personally witnessed. Sad to say, they did not recognize that the phrase ‘the use of intellect’ is itself a use of words, nor realize that a use of words may liberate us from the use of our intellect. When I was in Sung China, even though I laughed at them for their foolish views, they had nothing to say for themselves; they were simply speechless. Their present negation of rational understanding is nothing but an erroneous view. Who taught them this? Even though you may say that they have not had someone to teach them of the true nature of things, nevertheless, the fact remains that, for all intents and purposes, they still end up being offspring of the non-Buddhist notion that things arise spontaneously, independent of any form of causality.
Shobogenzo, Sansuikyo, Hubert Nearman
In his effort to rectify the issue Dogen succeeded in presenting a vision of the nature and dynamics of language unsurpassed by the world’s literary achievements. Indeed, Dogen’s treatment of language not only advanced the accumulated achievements of Buddhist thought in his day, it provided unique insight with great potential for resolving crucial challenges presently confronting the civilized world.
End Part 3