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Zen & the West

Crow Screen, Japan, 17th century, Seattle Art Museum [1]

Crow Screen, Japan, 17th century, Seattle Art Museum

3,639 words

Translator anonymous, ed. by Greg Johnson

Zen may be regarded as the last discovery of Western spiritualistic circles in sympathy with Oriental wisdom. Interest in Zen began to arise when in 1927 D. T. Suzuki published his Essays on Zen Buddhism, after a short note which appeared as far back as 1907 in the Journal of the Pali Texts Society and some articles in the Eastern Buddhist from 1921 to 1939. Another work, The Religion of the Samurai by Kwaiten Nukariya, which appeared in 1913, although important, had attracted but little attention. On the other hand, after the Second World War, Suzuki’s essays were reprinted, not only in the original English edition, but also in a French one, which was very soon out of print.

In France even a sort of center for studies and publications inspired by Zen ideas has been created, and its chief exponent is L. Benoit. In his two volumes entitled La doctrine supreme (1952) and in his recently issued work Laissez Prise (1954) he has attempted to illustrate certain Zen conceptions in terms of practical individual psychology, also making good use of his own previous experiences as a psychoanalyst.

Interest in Zen has also extended to Central Europe, to Germany, and to Switzerland through translations of particular works. In this connection we may mention Shuej Onasana’s Zen, der lebendige Buddhismus in Japan (1925), and K. von Dürckheim Montmartin’s Japan und die Kultur der Stille (1950), wherein Zen is considered from the point of view of the influence it has exercised on the general outlook on life in large strata of Japanese civilization. Finally we should mention the intervention of the well-known Swiss psychoanalyst C. G. Jung, who has written one of his inevitable introductions of an allegedly clarifying character to Suzuki’s book, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1948).

It may be important to study the reasons for this interest which Zen is arousing in the West outside the specialized circle of Oriental scholars.

From a more exterior point of view these reasons may be connected with some, so to speak, surrealist and existentialist aspects presented by Zen teaching, especially when they have as their basis the so-called koan and mondo. These are episodes, answers and dialogues concerning the ancient Masters of Zen, abounding in irrational, paradoxical, and sometimes even grotesque elements, submitted to the meditations of disciples as a means for testing their capacity to understand that which surpasses the ordinary categories of logical and discursive thought. In fact, if we stop at the outward character of these peculiar documents of Zen, we are led to think of the style and the intentions of certain para-artistic compositions, which are not only “surrealistic,” but above all “dadaistic,” aiming at something which goes beyond a mere épater le bourgeois by jumbles of words and associations of ideas devoid of all logical basis or in any way intelligible by the canons of common sense.

But this external analogy already indicates the difference, so to speak, regarding the point to be arrived at. We may at once state that the difference consists of the presence of a metaphysical background in one case (in that of Zen), in the utter lack of such a background in the second case, wherein everything is reduced to a disordered urge to evasion, to the will to evoke “the primordial, incoherent, howling, mad, and burning chaos” (according to the expressions of Tristan Tzara, the creator of Dadaism), without any positive element as a counterpart of a problematic action destructive of and disintegrating normal mentality.

Something of the same kind should be said with regard to external affinities of Zen with certain varieties of Western existentialism. It is often claimed by masters of Zen that spiritual enlightenment, satori or sambodhi, intervenes when all the resources of one’s own being are exhausted and one is on the verge of collapse, when, on the intellectual plane, in the fervent efforts of the disciple, these extreme limits of understanding are reached, before which the mind both of the common mortal and of the professional philosopher draws back.

Moreover, proper to Zen is the search for a directly lived and personal experience, with a strong polemical element against traditional ethical forms, against rules, conformist rules, writings, and prescriptions. The Zen ideal of spiritual freedom in certain cases leads even to iconoclasm and lawlessness. “If thou encounterest Buddha or one of the Patriarchs of Zen on thy path, kill him,” says Rinzai, one of the greatest teachers of Zen.

No idol, no image, no outward reference must take us out of ourselves. “Let go your hold” is another word of command, and its meaning is that we should abandon all support, detach ourselves from all ties, a detachment which must be both external and internal. To a disciple who thought that he had given proof of emancipation by burning the books of Confucius, the Master said: “Thou wouldst do better to burn the books which are within thyself.”

If to all this we add the fact that the problem of going beyond the conflict between the finite and the infinite—between these two existential elements of individual experience which are co-existing and yet contradictory—is a fundamental theme of Zen, it would seem that these is a clear convergence with motives on which existentialism, starting from Soren Kierkegaard, has conferred importance.

But here we must make the above-mentioned reservation, which now concerns particularly the antecedents: the antecedent of existentialism as “the philosophy of crisis” is Western materialism and nihilism, the inherent crisis of all established values. Zen instead, as a school of Buddhism, always has as its antecedent, as its background and as its solid basis a great spiritual tradition, such as is indeed Buddhism, a form of Buddhism integrated by certain aspects of Taoism.

It is sufficiently well-known that Zen, in its spirit, may be regarded as a return to the Buddhism of the origins. Buddhism was born as a vigorous reaction against the speculations and empty ritualism into which the ancient priestly caste of India had fallen. Buddha made a tabula rasa of all that, raising instead the practical problem of overcoming that which the popular mind presents as “the sorrow of existence,” but which in the inner teaching appears more generally as the state of restlessness, of agitation, of craving and of forgetfulness of common beings. Having followed it himself without the help of others, he showed to those who felt a vocation for it the path of Awakening, of Immortality.

Now, in the subsequent developments of Buddhism the same situation, against which Buddha had reacted, was to arise: Buddhism became a religion with its own dogmas, its own ritual, its own scholasticism, its own minute moral rules. Zen intervened to effect once more a tabula rasa of all that, to raise to the first place that which had constituted the vital nucleus of Buddhism in its original form, viz. the conquest of enlightenment, of inner awakening. This, in fact, is satori.

It is the same nirvana which Mahayana had already liberated from the outer features of a negative and evanescent reality, and had conceived in the positive terms of bodhi, that is to say of enlightenment itself. The Zen doctrine of the satori brings forward the radical discontinuity existing between enlightenment and the whole content of ordinary consciousness, but likewise between the actual experience of satori and all the methods, the techniques, and the forms of discipline which may be brought into operation to propitiate them.

If these are the antecedents of Zen, it is clear that nothing of the kind is present in an Occidental mind. The antecedent of Western existentialism is at the best the Christian religion, which is very different from all that which Buddhism is, because in genuine Buddhism there can be no question of devotional religion in the true sense, and still less of a theistic religion. We have said “in the best of cases,” because in the more extreme forms of Western existentialism all reference to religion is lacking, and, as we have said, its antecedent is rather the purely nihilistic experience—the “European nihilism” of Nietzsche—which, in the West, has been the logical consequence of a civilization exclusively centered in man and devoid of any transcendental reference.

This leads us to consider a further difference which exists beyond all analogies, whereby some Westerners come to take an interest in Zen. Zen takes over from Mahayana the paradoxical equation nirvana = samsara, which is tantamount to the theory of the identity of the immanent and transcendent reality. That which is strictly proper of satori, of enlightenment, is the fact of promoting an experience in which every antithesis is overcome, where the finite is felt in the actual finite—where also antitheses break down, such as those of spirit and body, of “inner” and “outer,” of subject and object, of good and evil, of substance and accident, even of life and death. A higher unity is the keynote of the manner of being and of the form of experience of the one who has secured, as in a lightening flash, as in a sudden ontological alteration of level, satori.

It is unnecessary to point out how seductive these horizons may seem to certain Western minds. No less seductive is the Zen theory, according to which we must follow our own nature alone, that all evil and unhappiness come to man from that which intellect and will build up artificially, neutralizing and inhibiting the original spontaneity of the own being. Suzuki does not realize the misunderstanding which he brings about when, perhaps with a view to making himself better understood by his Western readers, he speaks in this connection of “Life,” and nearly brings Zen into the frame of an irrationalistic philosophy of Life.

Now, as a matter of fact, that which in Zen is “Life” and spontaneity of life is actually synonymous with Tao: something very different from the confused entities of an essentially sub-rational and sub-intellectual order, which stands in the center of the immanent and vitalistic philosophies of the West, which are, at bottom, merely by-products or dissolution products of the speculative tradition of Europe.

And here we should give prominence to a point of special importance: the conquest of satori is preceded by a kind of ordeal by fire (a “baptism by fire” as Suzuki says): we must first be capable of absolute self-sacrifice and self-overcoming, of “vomiting completely our own Ego,” as a teacher of Zen has said; only after this the kingdom of a higher spontaneousness opens up, of a spontaneousness which we might define as transcendental, whereby we should refer essentially to the Taoist notion of “acting without acting” (wei-wu-wei in Chinese, musa in Japanese).

By way of counterpart we also have the Zen notion of “acting without merit,” of acting without troubling ourselves about sanctions or rewards or finalities associated with all that is particular. This is the very idea of nishkama-karma, which, as we know, is at the heart of the Bhagavad-gita.

In relation to all this, it should also be borne in mind that the Zen ideal is not actually a withdrawal from the world; the true life according to Zen is, on the contrary, life in the world, and no form of activity is excluded. Zen is known for Halls of Meditation (zendo in Japanese, ch’an t’ang in Chinese), which are a kind of monastic retreat, the rule of which is by no means less strict than that of many contemplative and ascetic Western orders. Only after having acquired the necessary qualifications in a zendo (for which many years may be necessary, nor is it certain that success will always be achieved), the follower of Zen returns to the world, if he so wishes, and lives the life of the world; he lives it now, having at his disposal the new spiritual dimension which he owes to satori.

This makes very clear the difference from that Western cult of instinct and spontaneity, which have their roots below in a substratum which we may well call sub-personal. He who thinks that he can find in Zen the confirmation of a form of ethics which should be tantamount to freedom, but which is instead only intolerance of all inner discipline, of all command emanating from the higher parts of one’s own being, will be greatly deceived. The spontaneous character of Zen, the freedom which can even go “beyond good and evil” presupposes an actual “second birth,” an event of which Western immanent and vitalistic theories have not even a suspicion. Now we greatly fear that this very misunderstanding is one of the principal reasons of the suggestion which Zen can exercise on certain Western minds. In a secondary way another element, likewise a source of misunderstanding, is the polemical attitude which Zen at times takes up with regard to techniques of the Yoga and to the dhyana of the type practiced in certain Buddhist circles.

This would seem to render things even easier: no special discipline would be needed to attain the “Awakening.” We can here recognize a legitimate protest against those false interpretations of Yoga, which present it as a collection of practices and a training which, automatically and without any existential implication, can lead to extraordinary spiritual results; and yet even here we fall into misunderstandings.

The fact is that in the Zen texts data are rarely given about the whole inner work which precedes the intervention of satori and about the possible exceptional predispositions which are conditional to it. The coming of satori is compared to the sudden start of a ringing contrivance; but an enormous concentration of forces, a whole development of spiritual tensions preceded that event, and is a condition for it, even if it does not actually bring it about. Thus things are not made easier, but rather more difficult than they are where precise techniques and disciplines are indicated, instead of trusting to the action of the Masters or to that of accidental circumstances of life which give the final shock whereby the inward eye is opened, which add the last drop whereby the vessel overflows and the “alteration of level” occurs.

We say again that among these imponderables, which make up the antecedents of the Awakening, we must include the element associated with spiritual atmosphere and tradition: they are implications which we do not find in the West, where if satori of the Zen type is not excluded, yet for these reasons it constitutes an even more exceptional, unforeseen, and casual event than is the case in the East. A Zen saying is that “Tao may be transmitted only to him who already has it.” It may be justly compared with the following dictum of the alchemistic Hermetism of the Middle Age: “If you wish to make gold, you must have it.”

Furthermore we should consider relations between Zen and Western psychoanalysis. In this connection we are not referring to Benoit, who has limited himself to making use of certain aspects of the method, while with regard to general bases he has sought to follow the point of view of the teachers of Zen. It is rather the case of Jung who, as we have already said, has written an introduction to one of Suzuki’s books, and also elsewhere—for instance, in his commentary on the Taoist text The Mystery of the Golden Flower, translated by Wilhelm—has attempted to hold up an interpretation of his own.

Jung states that “the analogy of satori with Western experience is confined to those few Christian mystics whose sayings for the sake of paradoxy skirt the border of heterodoxy or have actually overstepped it.” In a general way he considers that in the West, Zen would be understood only with great difficulty. In any case, he says, “the only movement within our culture which partly has and partly should have some understanding of these aspirations, is psychoanalysis,” in the sense of his psychoanalysis, which is based on the theory of the vital Unconscious, of the archetypes and of the so-called “process of individuation” (Individuationsprozess).

In this there is a misunderstanding even greater than those which we have previously pointed out. To realize this, it is enough to say that according to Jung, the true and positive meaning, not only of religions but also of mysticism and of the initiatory doctrines, would be that of curing the soul, rent and tortured by complexes; in other words, it would be to transform a neuropathic and abnormal man into a normal man. In the above-quoted comment he states outright that should symbols and myths, such as the Taoist ones, have a metaphysical significance, and not merely a psychological one, they would be absolutely incomprehensible to him.

Now what we find in every spiritual and traditional doctrine is something very different. The sound and normal man is here not the point of arrival, but the point of departure, and means are provided whereby he who wishes, if he has the true vocation, may attempt the adventure of effectively overcoming the human condition: or from a sound man is made a sick one, sick of the sickness of the infinite.

Leaving this aside, Jung seriously believes that the anti-intellectual polemic which is proper to Zen has something to do with the one in which psychoanalysis indulges in the name of Life and of the Unconscious, and that inner unification and spontaneity produced by satori are those secured by the conscious Ego, when, obeying the psychotherapeutic ethics of psychoanalysis, it relinquishes its claim to intellectual superiority and comes to an agreement with the ancestral and even biological Unconscious.

All this is nonsense, if only for the mere fact that the Unconscious, conceived as an entity of its own, is unknown to Zen, and that the ideal of Zen is not to integrate oneself into this superstitiously hypostasized Unconscious of psychoanalysis, but to destroy it by bringing light into the underground zone of one’s own being by means of Enlightenment and Awakening. And again it is not here a question of “psychological” depths, but of metaphysical and ontological depths, wherein, as we have seen, Jung has openly admitted himself incompetent.

The balance-sheet of our criticism thus seems to be somewhat negative, if Zen is to be considered in its absolute aspect as a doctrine of initiates, like that secret knowledge which, according to tradition, has been transmitted, outside of all written works, by Buddha to his disciple Mahakacsyapa. But we should further consider Zen according to that which may be derived from it in the terms of a vision of life in general and of a particular type of behavior.

Here we must take into account what various authors have brought to light concerning the part which Zen has played above all in Japanese life. Here we also find some doctrines of a general bearing, such as that of an inner calm and of a special meditation, of a brief immobility of the body, and various others which, it appears, are not followed in Japan only by men having an exceptional vocation, but are very widespread everywhere.

Somebody has called Zen the religion of the Samurai, that is to say, of the Japanese warrior nobility. In this connection Zen tends to bring about an inner stability, enabling us to act with detachment; in certain circumstances there emerges from it a capacity for self-sacrifice and for heroism which has nothing romantic in it, but is a natural possibility in a being who “has let go his grasp,” who has loosened the tie of the Ego. In a general way, the comparison of the hinge of a door which stays firm even when the door is banged, has been happily used in respect of this condition of inner steadfastness.

In a more general way two other aspects of Zen may be presented. One is the symbolization of even ordinary forms of activity. As a particular instance, it has been said that Zen-do, or the way of Zen, is identical with Ken-do, or the way of the sword. This means that with an exercise, such as that of the sword, a symbolic significance may be associated, capable of making man fore-sense the truth of Zen.

To quote another example, the relation existing between the Masters of Zen and the “Masters of the tea” has been pointed out; even in a circumstance so commonplace for a Westerner as that of serving and taking tea, the significance of a perfect rite may be concealed.

This brings us to the second aspect of life according to Zen, an aspect which might be summed up in the maxim of Lao-tzu: “To be a whole within the fragment.” It is the manner of being wholly oneself in that which one does and in conferring on what one does, whatever it may be, a character of perfection, of completeness. In these circumstances, in every act the whole may be contained, and in every act there may be satori.

All these are undoubtedly elements of a superior style of life, elements of a “culture” in the higher sense, of which even the Westerner may appreciate the value, especially in their sharp contrast with all that which in the Western world is agitation, haste, exteriority, disorderly action and productiveness, without any deep roots. Perhaps it is above all in this connection that the interest of a Westerner for Zen may be devoid of misunderstandings.

But apart from the intellectual interest, the measure in which we may also pass to a formative and living action depends on that in which those elements of style may have an autonomy, that is to say may be detached from a background which, as we have seen, is profoundly different in the East and in the West.

East and West, vol. 6, no. 2 (July 1955): 115–19.