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Ways of Knowing

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Would My Zen Master Fail Me For Writing This Article?

Patrick Cox tells us why Zen has to use words to get beyond words.

In Zen Buddhism, one often finds ‘explanation’ spoken about in a negative manner. But in writing on Zen, one necessarily explains; explaining something is often the only purpose of an article or book. Can Zen and explanation be reconciled?

What about concepts? Concepts (ideas) are the atoms of explanation: they are what make up explanation. Zen is not fond of concepts, and instructs students of Zen to avoid them. “This mind is no mind of conceptual thought” says The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, translated by John Blofeld, p.33. The mind one is supposed to achieve in Zen is not a mind of conceptualization: “[T]he concepts we have of things do not reflect and cannot convey reality” as Thich Nhat Hanh says in Zen Keys, p.41. This is why concepts are very frequently spoken of in a negative manner in Zen. Yet when one attempts to convey to others what Zen is, one must use concepts to explain it.

I’ll begin by discussing passages on explanation from books on Zen, and then discuss the nature of Zen. To determine the role of and view of explanatory concepts in Zen, I focus on its method, its purpose, and the nature of a koan. To provide an example of explaining Zen that hopefully resonates well with the reader, I also explain a fundamental goal in Zen, achieving mindfulness. Finally, I come to a conclusion regarding the question expressed in the title. Overall, I focus on the nature of purpose and method in Zen Buddhism, and their interplay. These two things play a crucial role in determining my answer.

Expressing the Inexpressible

“Those who speak of [Reality] do not attempt to explain It.” Huang-Po says in The Zen Teaching of Huang Po p.31. How can a Zen book, which spends chapter after chapter explaining Zen, place explanation in such a low position? “The essence of Zen is awakening. This is why one does not talk about Zen, one experiences it” (Zen Keys, p.49). Yet to say “This is why” as Hanh does repeatedly in Zen Keys, is obviously to explain something.

So explanation plays an important role in Zen, but so does the lack thereof. Zen directs students to break free from a false understanding of concepts as reality. Zen masters use confusing and seemingly illogical koans [surprise sayings or questions] to shock their students to the point that they grasp reality and stop clinging to false concepts. But while masters intentionally avoid explicitly advocating concepts and explanation, one does not require exposure to ancient wisdom to predict that explanation and concepts are used by Zen masters in teaching Zen.

A story equally lucidly shows the method of not explaining in Zen. Someone seeking understanding of Zen goes back and forth between a senior monk and the head monk, asking about the essence of Zen. Instead of an explanation, he gets beaten for asking the questions. He finally shows his understanding by saying, “After all, there is not much in Huang Po’s Buddhism.”

Wing-Tsit Chan considers this anti-explanatory point to be “one of the five most important in Zen” (A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p.449). Yet even the fact that this story appears in a work that attempts to teach Zen, shows that explanation has some place in Zen. If Zen masters use explanation, but do not explicitly afford it a lofty role in teaching, then what is its role in Zen? The methods used in and the purposes identified in Zen, and the overall nature of Zen books, hold the answer.

So let us now take a closer look at Zen’s purpose and methods. The purpose of Zen is to become fully aware at every moment. One is supposed to become mindful of things in the world or the situation one is in at each instant: to become fully aware of the tea that one is drinking, for example. “In short, the whole philosophy of the various methods is to broaden a person’s vision, sharpen his imaginations, and sensitize his mind so that he can see and grasp truth instantly any time and anywhere.” (A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p.429). In other words, the goal of Zen is maximum awareness of reality, unmediated by false concepts. (Although Zen resists the tendency to define ‘reality’, let me provide a definition of what I understand to constitute reality for Zen, acknowledging my inability to do full justice to the reality Zen mind can make known, and which experience verifies. Reality is everything that can be perceived by the senses and conceived by the intellect. Zen considers the non-Zen mind to view reality through concepts and sensory data, which results in a failure to fully understand it. Zen does not regard this common partial understanding of reality as completely wrong; rather, our normal conceptions are regrettably far from the perfect understanding of reality that Zen mind tries to help us achieve.)

For Zen, mindfulness refers to awareness of all that crosses the path of one’s faculties of sensation, and of all that pertains to oneself as a moral being – a being who must make decisions regarding actions in the world. As the mind is a sense organ in Buddhism, the former includes various concepts like drinking, cup, and tea as well as the sensory data that derives from the experience of drinking a cup of tea. Zen mind grasps all such sense contents perfectly and without effort – without thinking through any of it, so to speak. Yet far from viewing all knowledge as equal, it seems that in Zen mind the assessment of one’s acquired knowledge is of primary necessity. However, true Zen mind transcends even the attempt to prioritize ideas in terms of importance, as Zen mind is the perfect awareness of reality and does not rely on the division of reality through concepts.

Conceiving No Concepts

In Zen, concepts are used to explain why concepts should be avoided: indeed, Zen books spend pages explaining why concepts are to be avoided. In Zen Keys, the example of the experience of drinking tea is contrasted to one’s description of drinking tea. One uses concepts to describe the situation, but the concepts are not the reality. Thich Nhat Hanh explains that one can drink tea in ‘mindfulness’; but when one tries later to describe the experience, one must conceptualize to distinguish this experience from others. So what is one lacking when one conceptualizes? One lacks awareness of reality.

Hanh also speaks of prejudicial concepts, or prejudices, as an inhibitor to understanding reality. Yet this is to affirm only that Zen is markedly anti-dogmatic, because any proponent of reason understands that prejudice prevents one from seeing reality. In addition, Hanh distinguishes between things themselves and the concepts we have of them. Whereas things are dynamic, concepts are static (Zen Keys, p.40). So to mentally grasp the reality of things we would have to be more fluid and less static in our approach to concepts. Furthermore, Hanh states that ‘wood’ and ‘old’, for example, are more than our concepts of them. This suggests that concepts can be inhibiting; but not necessarily that they are not useful in the path to enlightenment. Moreover, not every Zen master would speak explicitly about concepts as static or as prejudices to explain their inhibiting power. And whether or not every Zen master would agree with such terminology is an open question.

What, then, is the practical method for achieving awareness? More immediately important than questions about the outside world, people must rid themselves of their subjective approach to the world. Thus, even concepts and explanation are not being criticized by Zen on a purely philosophical or truth-seeking level. Zen is concerned with the method we must employ to attain mindfulness. Zen’s concerns are of the most practical nature: students are to seek practical enlightenment. They are not to be interested in speculative philosophical questions, for example. It understands the necessity for people to work on making themselves more aware of the world before they can change anything in the world for the better. Thus Zen identifies the need for people to control themselves before they can reach truth and deep awareness: “[I]t is impossible to organize things if you yourself are not in order,” Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p.231. One must control the self before attempting to use one’s mind to understand matters outside of the self. In contrast, a quotation from Hanh gets at the method by saying that we do not achieve mindfulness because of ourselves, our desires, or intentions: “To intend to realize the Way is opposed to the Way” (Zen Keys, p.50). Here again, Zen is concerned with specifically human inhibitions to awareness – that is, with the problem of human subjectivity.

Explaining No Explanations

Let’s further explore the nature of the methods used to teach Zen. “The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous” (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p.235). This quote exemplifies Zen’s oppositional nature as it seeks to free us from the persuasive force of concepts. “Our body and mind are both two and one… [O]ur life is not only plural, but also singular” (p.229). This quote shows us that Zen employs the method of telling its students things that the students will find paradoxical, unexpected, and perhaps contradictory.

The original meaning of the word ‘koan’ is ‘decree’, suggesting “the final determination of truth and falsehood.” (A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p.429). Chan further states that the koan is perhaps the “most misunderstood technique” in Zen: “Zen Masters made use of any story, problem, or situation, the more shocking the better.” (ibid). Chan states that the answers to koans are often interpreted to mean that the truth is mysterious and irrational, but “Nothing is farther from the truth.” Koans are tailored to the individual. Usually, they consist of a question and an answer, and, as Chan stated, they are meant to shock the student. Would such paradoxical sayings be used for people who would thus be quickly turned off? No, for Zen would not allow such an impractical approach to teaching. This opens up room for an explanation of explanation in Zen.

The method of Zen is certainly not intended to make people feel emotionally insecure and become confused to the point of despair due to a lack of belief in themselves or in their capacity to understand Zen. That would mean they never achieve mindfulness. When Zen speaks of not concerning oneself with reason, conceptualization, or explanation, it is not referring to the definition of reason as the mental capacity to know and to understand things; nor to the meaning of explanation as that process which is fundamental to learning. Practically any book written on Zen by a Zen master clearly manifests this latter use of explanation, showing, without explicitly admitting, that explanation is at least fundamental to dialogue. Zen does not find it useful to clarify this, because its method is precisely to provide the student of Zen with statements that shock us beyond explanations. Moreover, Zen will likely never say explicitly that explanation is fundamental to learning precisely because we are so accustomed to thinking that explanation is fundamental to learning: rather, Zen frequently reminds us that explanation has been unsuccessful at producing in us Zen understanding. Thus, the means by which Zen thinks we will achieve mindfulness are markedly different from the means by which this article, as an abstract explanation of distinctions, reconciliations, and methods, hopes to help us achieve enlightenment. However, the goal of Zen and the goal of the explanatory approach in this article is the same.

Whereas Zen intends for us to keep striving for awareness while avoiding explicitly telling us to think of awareness as the most important idea in life, an explanatory approach does allow for the cultivation of this idea of awareness. The explanatory approach allows the concept of awareness to be placed above more inhibiting concepts, and subsequently, to be the guiding force in our everyday life. If awareness is precisely what Zen always aims at, then there is no danger, at least for many practitioners, if the idea of awareness takes precedence over all other concepts. I must stress that I am not stating dogmatically that Zen is about the prioritization of ideas; but the practicality of Zen leads to me think that it should not be excluded as a possibility. While complete awareness of reality might be difficult to achieve, that does not discredit the idea that one should always strive for it in the ways that one can as a finite being. However, I also recognize that most ardent students of Zen will instead achieve mindfulness from their masters’ koans.

Zen masters themselves often use explanation and concepts, so an explanation of Zen could certainly be written with mindfulness. My Zen master, therefore, would not necessarily fail me for writing this, as I might well have written it with Zen mind – although he could very well disagree with my explanatory approach to teaching Zen.

© Patrick Cox 2009

Patrick Cox received his B.A. in philosophy & religion, psychology, and political science from Boston University and is currently finishing an M.A. in political philosophy at the University of Dallas.


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