“Entering Zen is like stepping through Alice’s looking glass. One finds oneself in a topsy-turvy wonderland where everything seems quite mad – charmingly mad, perhaps, but mad all the same. It is a world of bewildering dialogues, obscure conundrums, and abrupt non sequiters, all carried off in the most urbane, cheerful, innocent style imaginable.” (129)
Before leaping into the deep end of this wonderland, it would be useful to know what some basic teachings of Zen are. Salvation is to be found in personal meditation and not in anything or anyone else. Many Zen masters do not allow their students to mention Buddha or nirvana altogether. Definitions and explanations are also forbidden.
The Zen student reaches enlightenment through three steps, the first being zazen. Here, the monk sits for hours in lotus position (legs crossed over each other and hands resting over the knees) and “seeking to waken the Buddha mind” (133).
The next step is koan. These are nonsensical riddles that, through meditation, must be solved. “What was the appearance of your face before you were born?” and “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” (133-134) are two such riddles.
“Our impulse is to dismiss these puzzles as absurd, but the Zen practicioner is not permitted to do this . . . For Zen, if reason is not a ball and chain, anchoring mind to earth, it is at least a ladder too short to reach truth’s full heights. It must, therefore, be surpassed, and it is just this surpassing that koans are designed to assist.” (134)
So Zennists are actually expected to solve their koans by breaking free from logic. This may be seen as a direct insult to Buddha’s use of rationalism and empiricism, but really, when one’s mind is the sole authority for truth, anything can be justifiable.
Finally, the student has sanzen with a master, which lets the student know when he is on the right path in solving his koan.
Such teaching lead to one Zen master, when asked about his religion, to lift up a finger; another only kicked a ball; yet another ‘answered’ by slapping whoever asked him. A certain Zen student, upon first entering the monastery and seeking enlightenment, completely achieved his goal when he was commanded by his master to wash his breakfast bowls.
The way that Zen masters interact with each other, however, is particularly revealing.
“A group of Zen masters, gathered for conversation, have a great time declaring that there is no such things as Buddhism, or Enlightenment, or anything even remotely resembling nirvana. They set traps for one another, trying to trick someone into an assertion that might imply the contrary. Practiced as they are, they always artfully allude traps and pitfalls, whereupon the entire company bursts into glorious, room-shaking laughter.” (129)
The Zen master refuses all rational definition and symbols connected to his belief – he may even harshly scold the student who asks – because he claims that the experience of achieving Zen is indescribable. Their scriptures are essentially filled with statements denying that their religion can be described by “any verbal formula whatsoever” (131). They then command their students to tear the scriptures to bits, for revering such a description is certain to hinder their arrival at it. Finally their own standard of logic is claimed, which is of course perfectly reasonable after having setting up self-judgment as the ultimate authority.
“Zen logic and description make sense only from an experiential perspective radically different from the ordinary . . . Zen masters are determined that their students attain the experience itself, not allow talk to take its place.” (132)
Again, it cannot be argued that Buddha’s original empiricism is diametrically opposed to Zen. When I decide that I can reason properly on my own, and that nothing can be known beyond what I can prove for myself, laws of logic can be nothing more than mere descriptions of how I judge things. In such a mindset, it is impossible to think illogically. I can use my own mind to determine what logic itself ought to be, and, as far able as I can convince myself, pure ridiculousness becomes rational. In an atheistic universe with no god to set the rules, or even an agnostic universe with a god who cannot be relied upon to guide or save his/her people, there is no ultimate standard but my own self, and relativism can be taken to its extreme. Really logical thinking requires a logical source outside of me.
“By forcing reason to wrestle with what from its normal point of view is flat absurdity; by compelling it to conjoin things that are ordinarily incompatible, Zen tries to drive the mind to a state of agitation wherein it hurls itself against its logical cage with the desperation of a cornered rat. By paradox and non sequiter Zen provokes, excites, exasperates, and eventually exhausts the mind until it sees that thinking is never more than thinking about, or feeling more than feeling for. Then, having got the rational mind where it wants it – reduced to an impasse – it counts on a flash of sudden insight to bridge the gap between secondhand and firsthand life . . . Before we dismiss this strange method as completely foreign, it is well to remember that Kierkegaard regarded meditation on the paradox of the Incarnation – the logical absurdity of the Infinite becoming finite, God becoming man – as the most rewarding of all Christian exercises . . . [koan] is set to awaken the mind from its dream of rationality. A higher lucidity is at hand.” (134-135)
First of all, I am not particularly interested in Soren Kierkegaard as a Christian thinker, for as he was a Christian Existentialist he did not exactly stick to Biblical teachings on absolutes and such. But is “God becoming man” really a “logical absurdity”? After all, if I were to paint a scene, I could paint myself inside it. God created a universe filled with human beings; could He really not be able to step inside of it as a man?
Another point of Zen is its different idea of enlightenment. Buddhism seeks nirvana; Zen Buddhism seeks satori. This is an exhilarating experience of sole reality. One Zen master described his satori as such:
“I was never created; I was the cosmos. No individual existed.” (As quoted by Smith from the ‘Zen Notes’)
"I was the cosmos." To actually be one with the universe and to have every sensation and thought come into notice, the Buddhist is striving towards omniscience. Their autonomy very literally leads to a self-deifying worldview.
Satori must be achieved again and again until it can be found not only in meditation, but in everyday activities. “Zen’s object is to infuse the temporal with the eternal” (136). They seek not religious euphoria, but “a condition in which life seems distinctly good” (137). In this way Zen is quite secular.
“It is true that Zen values unity, but it is a unity that is simultaneously empty (because it erases lines that divide) and full (because it replaces those lines with ones that connect). Stated in the form of a Zen algorithm, ‘All is one, one is none, none is all.’ Zen wears the air of divine ordinariness: ‘Have you eaten? Then wash your bowls.’ If you cannot find the meaning of life in an act as simple as doing the dishes, you will not find it anywhere.” (137-138)
Finally, the Zennist who has accomplished all this is not concerned with truth.
“'Do not seek after truth. Merely cease to hold opinions’ . . . as the dichotomies between self and other, finite and infinite, acceptance and rejection are transcended, even the dichotomy between life and death disappears.” (139)
Satori, then, makes a soul one with the universe (even though whether or not a soul exists is a meaningless metaphysical question) and “absence of passion” leads to one not caring one way or another about anything. Is this moral? Good and evil, joy and suffering – are not these dichotomies? In Zen, or really any religion in which autonomy is valued over the authority of the Bible, moral foundations become houses built on the sand.
Let us return to viewing Buddhism as a whole. The major divisions of Buddhism – Mahayana, Hinayana and (to a lesser extent) Vajrayana – are all ‘rafts.’ To the Buddhists, the path to enlightenment – nirvana or satori or otherwise – is really a wide river which requires the use of one of these rafts to cross.
“This is the moment for Buddhism’s Three Vows: I take refuge in the Buddha, the fact that there was an explorer who made this trip and proved to us that is can succeed. I take refuge in the dharma, the vehicle of transport, this boat to which we have committed our lives in the conviction that it is seaworthy. I take refuge in the sangha, the order, the crew that is navigating this ship, in whom we have confidence. The shoreline of the world has been left behind. Until we set foot on the further bank, these are the only things in which we can trust.” (144)
Once that shore is reached, however, the raft is discarded. How you reach enlightenment matters naught. Basic Buddhist principles – the Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, dare I say even the Noble Virtues? – have all lost their importance. For “all these are vitally important to the individual in the act of making the crossing. They lose their relevance for those who have arrived” (146).
At this new shore, there is no longer separation between the world before enlightenment and the world after. The river disappears, and the world of everyday activity becomes divine. “In such a vision, the categories of good and evil disappear” (147).
The world, then, is holy, and has no good or evil; there is no difference between holy and worldly, good or bad. In such a world, however, it is impossible to say whether the enlightened one can find it actually rational to be good.
“This new-found shore throws light on the bodhisattva’s vow not to enter nirvana ‘until the grass itself be enlightened.’ As grass keeps coming, does this mean that the bodhisattva are never to be enlightened? Not exactly. It means, rather, that he (or she) has risen to the point where the distinction between time and eternity has lost its force. That distinction, drawn by a rational mind, is dissolved in the lightning-and-thunder insight that annihilates opposites. Time and eternity are now two aspects of the same experiential whole, two sides of the same coin.” (147)
It is interesting that Smith describes this method as “drawn by a rational mind”. Is not the dichotomy between rational and irrational to be erased? Just as the autonomous, naturalistic scientist of the Western world has no foundations for logic, so is the autonomous, spiritualistic Buddhist devoid of them. And in destroying logical foundations, questions of morality are without divisions between what is good and what is evil.