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Zen Buddhism as Creative Religion
the current impact of Zen on the West it might perhaps be said that never before
have so many evinced such interest in anything so little understood. Certainly,
Zen tantalizes by its very inscrutability. Yet were Zen simply a thing opaque,
how could it have evoked the eulogies of painters, psychiatrists, and
Sheer mystery has not the power permanently to attract, whereas it is just by its creative fusion of mystery and meaning that Zen speaks to the deepest level of man’s being. Zen is neither purposeful nor wanton mystification; it is ultimately unfathomable because it is inexhaustible. Its elusiveness is the elusiveness ingredient in all that is alive, and the uniqueness of Zen is that it goes beyond books and beliefs to life itself.
intent of Zen Buddhism is to bring man into union with life and with himself,
or, in other words, to awaken in him the knowledge of who he really is. The
unawakened man sees himself as in the world, but the world seems to him to be
clearly something other than his own very self. This self he takes to be only a
fragment of an unknown totality, a fragment now threatened, now supported by the
other fragments with which it is in contact. He thus operates on things from a
position which is external to them, and his dealings with life are only
manipulations of its fragments. Because of this separation from life, his
efforts at adjustment are never regulated by any sense of wholeness, and he is
forever colliding with those portions of life which his piecemeal calculations
had not envisaged.
His inner life exactly mirrors the outer fragmentation; his separation from all things is mysteriously matched by an alienation from himself as well. From whatever angle he would approach himself, he is not able to lay hands on his wholeness and to muster all of his being behind any project whatsoever. Whether he endeavors to express himself in word or in deed, he is never, as common parlance puts it, “all there,” and so far as his responses have been endorsed by only a portion of himself, they cannot but fall short of perfect authenticity.
No man can be wholehearted unless he has come into his own wholeness.
the agent is not wholly present in his action, then the action remains an
appearance - an “acting” - rather than a thing completely real.
inner life and his dealings with the world are thus both infected with unreality
in the measure that he is separated from himself and from his world. Both
forms of estrangement, Buddhism has always claimed, are tied to man’s
ignorance of his own true being. It is from this state of alienation from
life and ignorance of self that Zen proposes to rescue him.
unreal life is a life forever unconsummated. The man who stands apart from
things, unable to give himself to them, receives payment in kind; because his
relation to things is an external one, these things, in turn, withhold their
full reality from him. When life is contemplated objectively, nowhere is there
to be found anything that is free of limitations, nothing that fully satisfies
the yearning of the human heart. It is only when man’s experience of life is
integral that it “means everything” to him; only when the subject is not
outside the object, where each lives in the other as well as in itself—only
then is life complete from moment to moment.
one remains imperfectly reconciled to life, somewhat disappointed in one’s
share, and beset by the fear that even this will one day be cut off by death. He
who has not found his own true being may clutch feverishly at fugitive
satisfactions in the endeavor to maximize his allotment. Or he may preach and
practice stoic resignation, or look forward to some sort of posthumous
compensation for the shortcomings of finite existence. In all these cases he is
operating as a stranger in life, and he cannot in perfect sincerity and
wholeheartedness embrace life and say of it, as the Creator Himself is supposed
to have said, that it is exceedingly good. Man’s awareness of himself as
something apart from life is the symptom of his fallen condition, and until he
overcomes it, he must feel himself
a stranger and afraid,
How does man come to be in this state of alienation from self and estrangement from all that is? Why could not the Prodigal Son stay at home and enjoy his father’s bounty? Why had Adam to lose Paradise? Why did infinite Perfection create this world of imperfections? Shall we say that without the Fail there is no Redemption, without the departure there is no joyous homecoming, without the finite infinity is only an abstraction? Zen is not prepared to linger over the questions nor over any of the answers. If pressed for a statement, Zen would only say,
To find one’s way home would be to undo the Fall and to achieve a re-entry into life. The outer world would then no longer be outside ourselves, and nothing would be seen as simply an ob-ject, i.e., as something which we re-ject or dis-own. In the union with life which overcomes man’s alienation, the universe becomes his very own; he lives in it even as it lives in him. Life is no longer a collection of fragments externally and accidentally related, but a living whole in which the parts retain their identity as parts and yet at the same time are fully united with the whole. And the unity of all things is reflected in the wholeness of his inner life. His left hand knoweth what his right hand doeth, and his name is no longer legion. With his energies no more diminished by the warfare of the segments of his own being, man is then, for the first time, able to give life his undivided attention from moment to moment. His actions can then be truly characterized as wholeness responding to wholeness, and his life is then no longer, as heretofore, a matter of fragments pushing or being pushed by other fragments.
an unconditional union with life and with oneself is far beyond anything that
could be called acceptance or reconciliation. To be reconciled to one’s lot,
to accept the universe, to try to make a virtue of necessity—such attitudes
remain on the plane of duality where there is still a separation between the man
and what he adjusts to. Both acceptance and rejection are conditioned by
separation. Neither can be absolutely wholehearted.
is something beyond acceptance and rejection or any kind of affirmation and
denial. What it signifies is love in the absolute sense of the term, and the
miracle of love is just this, that in defiance of the laws of logic, love
transcends individuality even as it cherishes and enhances individuality. Love
overcomes separateness and yet maintains it at the same time. Were the
separateness something final there could be no real contact and no love. Without
the separateness, on the other hand, there would be no poles for the love to
exist between. So that where love exists between A and B. it can be truly said
that although A is A and B is B, still, and at the same time, A is B and B is A.
And this is the sort of loving union with life at which Zen aims, and which it
achieves, and thus Zen may most descriptively be defined as the absolute love of
love casteth out all fear. When life is complete from moment to moment, where is
there room for anxiety concerning the morrow? Anxiety is symptomatic of
separateness from life; it is the fear that one may not attain what one hopes
for or that one may lose what one momentarily clutches. Not that the life of
love is without problems; challenge and response must always remain the warp and
woof of life. It is only that where there is union with life the problems are
real—not ego-projected—and the responses are creative and wholehearted, not
forced or vacillating.
he who lives in union with life must sooner or later die and face death. How
does the man of Zen die? In absolute wholeheartedness. He relates to death as
he relates to life; death is not something that strikes him down from without,
and hence it has no terrors for him. He is one with his dying as he is one with
his living, and in some ineffable way he is beyond birth and death even as he is
born and as he dies. Eternity, for Zen, is not a posthumous state of affairs. To
live in eternity is tap the infinity of the moment.
fallen condition, his ignorance and his finitude, is not just his lack of
information. His ignorance and his alienation, according to Buddhism, do not
stem from a merely intellectual error which would be rectified by presenting him
with a statement of the truth. It is his very being that is in error, indeed,
the truth of the matter is that his being is constituted by the error. To overcome
the error he must overcome himself, and the error will be vanquished only after
a struggle unto death. Every level of love entails a dying and a resurrection,
and the rebirth into the life of absolute love comes after what Zen calls the
Great Death. No one is prepared to take that last step until he has first
exhausted all his other resources, and finally stands emptied of all
contrivances for meeting life. Only then will the need for reality drive him to
the final abandoning of his self. The practice and discipline of Zen is to bring
one to this point.
The Great Death
is also the Great Awakening, and the existential awakening to one’s true
Self is called enlightenment (satori, in Japanese). It is the entry into the
life of non-duality where one is no longer caught by the play of the opposites,
where self is not set over against other, nor are ideals in conflict with
realities. As love has degrees of depth, so does that union with life and with
oneself which is called enlightenment. There is no final enlightenment, as there
is no final perfection of love, for life itself is not final or finished. The
true Zen person does not look upon satori as a momentary experience after
which somehow all of life’s problems will vanish. What vanishes is not
life’s problems, but man’s exteriority vis-à-vis those problems. He now
deals with all problems and with himself from within instead of from
without—that is the great difference.
he is now one with his tasks, they are not to hnn mere obstacles to be
disposed of so that he may begin the business of ‘really living.” His tasks
are his life, and he lives in the Now, not in the abstract future. it is in the
uncreative life that the doer Is separated from what he does, and it is his
divorce from life that makes him look before and after and pine for what is not.
The creative artist does not value the final product above the process which
created it, and the man of Zen makes a creative art of life itself, gives
himself wholeheartedly to all its moments, and perceives no radical difference
between means and ends.
unenlightened person remains unknowing of his own root-age in life, and he thus
confronts life as something quite other than himself. From his position of
externality, he vacillates between two alternative modes of dealing with life,
both uncreative and equally unsatisfying. As an idealist, his intent may be
called sadistic; he would bend life to his will and compel it to take the shape
of his idea for it. As a realist, he masochistically allows life to have its way
with him; he is not prepared to oppose life in the name of any principle.
Likewise, in coping with his own nature, he may try actively to retailor his own
being in accordance with some ideal pattern, or he may be passively driven by
his immediate impulses and passions without any effort to subdue them or even to
channel them. In the one case, his life becomes effortful, tense, and angular;
in the other case, it becomes an unstructured miscellany and threatens to
dissipate into chaos. Neither manner of approach brings him to the condition
of the enlightened man, whose relation to himself and to all life is creative
and graceful. The enlightened man is neither fighting life nor passively
submitting to it. He is one with life, and this being-one-with-life and the
being-one-with-oneself are for Zen the very substance of the religious life.
As unity with life is not a static goal but a dynamic one, enlightenment does not signify the end of Zen practice, but only its real beginning. As enlightenment becomes ever deeper, Zen practice and everyday life become ever less distinguishable, which means that one’s Zen and one’s life are becoming realities, and are ceasing to be formalities alone. Religion can then no longer be thought of as a department within life, nor can Zen appear as a specific technique for achieving a particular goal. Reality, or the life of truth, is not a goal to be reached by a certain process. Unless the process be real, how shall it lead to reality as a goal? The real life, which is the religious life, emerges only where the goal is present in the process and where consummation is achieved at every moment. This is “Zen beyond Zen” about which nothing can any longer be said, for it is nothing special. The life of truth is nothing special and no label can be attached to it. Reality itself is nameless, and where religion and life have become perfectly one there is no longer anything to be called Zen Buddhism. Zen is thus the only religion whose aim is to forget itself.
Buddhism, in the last analysis, is not so much a religion as it is a pointing to
the religious life itself.
It is not concerned to defend a point of view or to propagate a set of beliefs
about the absolute basis of life, but rather to lay hold on that absolute life
itself. Its method is not to supply the mind with formal truths; it seeks only
to help each person arrive at the existential discovery of his own true Self and
thus to have him pass from the inauthentic life of formal posturing to the life
of truth or the creative life. Zen is not an ideology but an ultimate therapy
through which man comes into the possession of what is truly his own and attains
religions, of course, have also proclaimed that the truth would set man free,
but for Zen this saving truth is the truth of one’s own being, and, as such,
it is concrete and personal and can never be enshrined in any formula which
would be available to all and sundry. The truth of one’s being must be
grasped in and through one’s being; it is a living truth and cannot be
known abstractly or contemplated from the outside. No one can perceive it for
another, no one can relate it to another—each must come to it by himself
and through himself. Reality is inimitable, and the truth of one’s own being
cannot be patterned on that of another. Living truth must be forged, it cannot
be followed. The Zen disciple who tries to win approval by quoting the
master’s own words only earns a blow from the master’s staff.
is to say the living truth is not a teaching, and one does not come by the truth
of one’s being simply through adhering to a teaching. Since there was a time
when you were without the teaching, that teaching is something external to
your being. The teaching is only something to which you cling, Zen would point
out, something you try to absorb into yourself. But the very effort to heed
the teaching indicates that it is something alien to your very self. A teaching
is something general and abstract, and that is why Zen possesses no stock of
teachings, no code, no creed. Zen has no truth to impose on the individual, for
any truth of this sort would be an “imposition” and would fall short of
being the kind of living truth which alone can confer reality and set men free.
No truth that is imposed on an individual from without can be perfectly real for
him, nor can such a truth ever evoke the unqualified endorsement of his entire
being. The effort to conform to the specifications of a truth supposed to
emanate from on high will never attain the proportions of a perfectly sincere
response. The inevitable outcome of the futile effort to force oneself into the
acceptance of what is not truly one’s own is that sense of sin so conspicuous
in the devotees of a supernatural deity.
the living truth is not to be transmitted as a formal teaching, how, then, does
one apprehend it? Not by any act of intellectual understanding, nor by any act
of feeling, nor by the exercise of any faculty whatsoever. Man will never come
to his wholeness through any partial response, and no fragment of man’s being,
neither his head nor his heart, can be the instrument of his salvation. Zen is
not anti-intellectual any more than it is anti-emotional. It is in the strictest
sense non-partisan, for it will not take sides with any of the parts of man’s
being, but is concerned only to arrive at his wholeness. Zen opposes the
intellect and the feelings alike not as expressions of man’s wholeness, but
only as would-be usurpers of that wholeness.
for the intellect, the farthest it can go is to understand why the reality of
Zen is beyond its reach. In relation to the living truth of his own being,
man’s problem is not how to understand it, how to fix it as an intellectual
possession, but rather how to be one with it, how to live out of it.
intellect is by its nature “grasping,” but it is only abstractions and not
concrete realities that fall within its “grasp.”
intellect understands when it has succeeded in fitting the unknown into a
framework of familiar ideas. But every ideological framework is a limited
structure, and therefore everything
understandable is of limited content and potentiality.
intellect contacts not reality in its concreteness, but always only an
abstracted portion of it. Intellection yields no more than a point of view, but
never the living wholeness itself which is inexhaustibly fertile and allows for
an infinity of possible points of view. In the deepest sense, therefore, “Know
thyself’ cannot mean “Understand thyself’ (this is the limitation of
psychoanalysis and of every merely psychological approach to the self).
“Understand thyself” could mean only “Grasp one or several of the
infinitely many aspects of thyself.”
wish to understand is the wish to possess, but nothing that is living admits of
being possessed. Possession is a relation to an abstraction; you
cannot approach anything living with the idea of possessing its living quality.
If you try to make its living concreteness your own by an act of possession,
you will merely kill It. Living things become ours not by being grasped, but by
being loved. It is in the union of the spirit that living things become ours
even as they remain themselves.
must be given the freedom to grow. So a living truth can never be fixated in a
formula, in a creed, in a catechism. It is not an objective phenomenon that can
be preserved in a treasure chest and passed onto one’s heirs. When it is
locked up in a strongbox, it quickly dies, and what remains is only the stench
are, of course, embalming techniques that will keep the corpse from utter decay
for an indefinite period, but embalming has not the power to revivify. This is
the recurring tragedy in the history of religions. Again and again the living
word is born into the world. Again and again it is treated as an objective
commodity that can be grasped and enshrined forever in the form of a ritual, a
creed, or an organization.
living truth soon loses its life when it is thus confined, that is, the forms
capture only an abstracted portion of the living whole, but the living essence
of things eludes every form or formulation. Zen alone, among the world’s
religions, makes no claim to the possession of the truth, for only Zen has
clearly realized that living truth cannot be possessed. Any religion that
believes it “has” the truth must be dealing only in abstract or formal
The intellect can yield an understanding of life, indeed, many possible understandings of life, but it cannot bring man into union with life and with himself. For intellect, by its very nature, separates the subject from the object, the knower from what he knows. What the intellect grasps it objectifes; its relation to things is always “standoffish.” This is true even when man tries to understand himself intellectually—he must stand outside himself to look at himself. He who looks and that at which he looks are never the same, and thus the effort to understand oneself in this way means that one has merely perpetuated the inner division in one’s being and that one is no closer to overcoming one’s alienation from oneself. (That is why no one can ever achieve wholeness with himself through psychoanalysis alone or through any merely psychological technique.
psychological approach deals only with the self as objectified. and not with
man’s integral being in which there is no split between the self that knows
and the self that is known as an object.) It is not by understanding ourselves
that we unite with ourselves, Zen would say, but only plunging into ourselves.
This demands a movement that is the exact opposite of what is required by an act
For Zen, life itself is not something to be contemplated and understood objectively. To understand is to stand aside. The objective stance is motivated by the desire to dominate and to reduce to manageable proportions the object of knowledge. Understanding, unlike love, is a one-way relationship, an act of conquest in which I maintain my own being intact and remain the captain of all I survey. One gains the whole world by thus objectifying it, but one loses the soul of things, and what profit is there in it?
It is what Mephistopheles offered Faust, what Satan constantly dangles before the eyes of all men: power at the expense of reality. To be related to the world objectively is to be related to it abstractly, and one’s life is then increasingly pervaded by unreality.
not this the ultimate reason for the vacuous quality characterizing so much of
modern life? Technological society is the product of a purely abstract relation
to life. Its triumphs” are the work of Intellect bent on conquest, and it is
no wonder that the products of technology are in the end so deeply unsatisfying.
becomes real not as an exclusively intellectual product, but when it is created
by wholeness responding to wholeness. The integral union with life cannot result
from the fragmented, exteriorized, and abstract effort to dominate life either
by physical or intellectual conquest. Reality is encountered not in the act of
understanding but only in the act of giving oneself, that is of dying to
one’s position of exteriority to life. He who seeks to save his life of
exteriority shall lose it and fall into unreality.
far as Zen is none other than the life of truth itself, one cannot really be
informed about Zen, one can only be transformed by Zen. He who seeks to be
informed about Zen still thinks of Zen as an objective content which can be
grasped from the outside. He who understands Zen no longer has Zen itself, but
only some formula or formulation. Every such formula will enable him to answer
certain questions about Zen, as a menu answers certain questions about the
forthcoming dinner. But sooner or later there will come questions that are not
answerable on the basis of the formula. Sooner or later whoever tries to live on
the basis of his “understanding” of Zen or on the basis of any
“understanding” of life will find himself colliding with reality. Reality
is not a formula, and one must turn from the menu to the turkey if one would
know its taste.
Westerners are long habituated to regarding the various religions abstractly in
the fashion of a voter contemplating competing party platforms: the platforms
are there in advance of the voter’s decision. Each party is defined by the
stand it professes to take in relation to certain principles and to concrete
issues, and the voter has only to decide which party shall get his vote.
Similarly, the religions of the world are commonly thought of as so many
competing platforms of doctrines and precepts. The religious seeker has only to
weigh their respective claims to truth and to affiliate himself with whichever
one he concludes “has the truth.” But Zen is not one of several possible
truths which the mind may contemplate.
If one were to ask a Zen master whether Zen is true, the reply might come in the form of a question put to the questioner: Are you true? The reality of Zen and one’s own reality cannot be separated. In the area of abstract or formal or objective truths, the being of the knower does not affect the truth of what is known.
where living truth is concerned, the relation of the knower to the truth is not
an external one: the relation of the individual to the truth is itself part of
the truth. The wish to know the truth without oneself entering into the truth is
a wish that cannot be satisfied as far as the truth of Zen is concerned. Hence
one cannot stand outside the living truth and inspect it. Absolute reality will
not sit for its photograph.
truth of Zen is nothing one can cling to or believe in. It is not possible to be
for a living truth; one can only be in it. Partisanship is of
the mind, which is always outside whatever it may be for or against. Where a
religion stands for certain truths, it ipso facto stands outside them and it is
defining itself in relation to abstractions. Zen would say that so long as
you know what you stand for, you don’t really stand for it, it is not yet
truly yours, which means that your stance is to some degree a posturing. When
you have really grasped the point there is no point to grasp. Absolute knowledge
has nothing to know. Absolute faith has no object. A religion that calls for
faith in something definite is not in touch with the Living God.
A truth that is definite is a truth that can be defined. Such a truth has a finis. But life itself being forever a matter of unfinished business, the truth that lives must be a truth that is unbounded, without a finis, in-finite rather than de-finite.
is not a doctrine, nor a set of ideas nor a position. It is not subsumable under
any sort of “ism.” It cannot be classified as either theism, atheism, or
agnosticism. It is affiliated with no particular school of philosophy; it is no
closer to idealism than to materialism. It has no view about the nature of
reality; it formulates no system of ethics, propounds no political ideology.
living substance of Zen is not any kind of canned goods attractively arrayed
in a shop window in order to tempt the purchaser.
it may put forth is not intended as a presentation of the objective content of
Zen, and it is ultimately wrong to appeal to the words of any Zen master or any
Zen text to corroborate one’s understanding of Zen.
will be found not in the words themselves, but only in penetrating to the
living source from which come these words and from which an infinity of other
wordings could come. Otherwise, one has again only the outer form and not the
inner reality itself. Zen, in short, is wholly of the spirit, and it does not
admit of an objective transmission. It can be appropriated only creatively, and
we shall have understood the Zen master’s words only when we have entered into
them in the way in which Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” have
“understood” the theme which he took from Diabelli.
relation to life is the opposite of the abstract and external relation, for
creativity is present only when the grasper and the grasped are one, when the
creator has entered into his creation, where he has been molded even as he
molds. It is the uncreative transaction which is merely manipulative and
technical and where the being of the manipulator remains outside the process
and unaffected by it. To say that Zen admits only of a creative appropriation is
to say that it becomes available to us only as we give ourselves to it. There
is no window shopping possible in the realm of the spirit, and we cannot first
look at Zen to see whether we should like buy it. The substance of Zen does
not exist apart from the creative act which appropriates it.
Zen is thus the only religion that demands creativity
rather than conformity from its adherents, and which uncompromisingly rejects
anything which they have begged or borrowed from a source other than themselves.
can only be formal posturing;
it can never be wholehearted assent. Zen urges man on to find what is truly his,
for in that alone does he possess something which neither principalities nor
powers nor Buddha nor God can remove from him. In his true Self alone does man
attain an absolute grounding in life, and standing there he may embrace all
life without fear.
The experience of most persons with religion could
hardly have occasioned the suspicion that religion and creative living have anything
whatsoever in common. Religion has most often served as a paradigm of the
uncreative life, for in the overwhelming majority of its manifestations it has
not encouraged individuality, freedom, and self-expression, but rather the
opposites of these, namely, submission to authority, conformity to a law or a
creed, the denying of self. The major religions of mankind, as they are
understood and practiced, could hardly be described as calls to creativity.
If one thinks of religion as an attempt to conquer
the hazards of finitude by cleaving to a truth or a reality beyond oneself, then
the intent of Zen as a religion must remain unfathomable. One
cannot be a Zen Buddhist in the way in which one may be a Christian or a Moslem. For there is no formal content which Zen holds up as embodying the
ultimate truth about life and to which it asks the disciple to conform. Zen
seeks reality, and reality is gained not in con-form-ity--which can only yield a
correct form - but in creativity which goes beyond form-ality to reality.
has only one thing to say finally, and that is “To thine own self be true;
thou canst not then be false to any man.” Or “Be true to any man, thou canst
not then be false to thine own self.” Or “Be true to anything, thou canst
not then be false to anything else.” In short, “Be true,” that is, “Be
the living truth itself.” “Be real, be reality itself.” Or in the shortest
possible terms, Zen would only say, “Be”
All of the procedures of Zen have the aim not of
aligning man with a truth which transcends him but in awakening him to the
living truth which is the Kingdom of Heaven within him.
life of authenticity, the life of integrity, the life of holiness or wholeness,
the life of truth, the life of reality, the creative life, the life of
freedom—all these are for Zen equivalent expressions designating the same sort
of life, which is, namely, the life emanating from and endorsed by the totality
of one’s being which is not separate from the totality of what is. This, for
Zen, is the essentially religious life, and its alternative is the partial life,
the fragmented life, the life of posturing and insincerity, the life that stands
aside and will not unite with things, the life that is uncreative and therefore
un-holy because it is un-whole-some.
Where Zen takes on the lineaments of a formal
religion, it is yet to be differentiated from other formal religions in this,
that it gives no sacramental significance to its pedagogical forms. Instead, it
constantly urges the disciple to penetrate its forms and to encounter the
living reality. It exhorts him to discover who he really is and so attain to the
fullest and freest expression of himself. Its goal is not the
subordination of individuality in a common pattern of formal belief.
Other religions may proclaim the priesthood of all believers, but Zen goes
infinitely further in requiring of each that he discover his own Buddhahood,
that is, absolute reality. Other faiths may confirm their devotees; Zen alone
wishes to graduate them. In the end, it is the only religion that has heeded
Jehovah’s injunction to Pharaoh to “Let my people go,” and it has dared to
remind Jehovah Himself that He must not claim exemption from His own injunction.
one may deem to be the historical relations between Zen and that noble Indian
who is the reputed founder of Buddhism, it must be apparent that Zen cannot
contemplate creating followers of the Buddha.
follower is by definition an imitator, an epigone, a conformist, in short, an
uncreative spirit who is trying to hitch a ride on the vehicle of another. For
the Zen Buddhist, the religious life can never be simply an imitation of the
Truth of being is inimitable. Whoever would copy its
external forms, forgetting the individuality in which it is invariably rooted,
finds himself forcing life to fit an abstraction. The Zen Buddhist is a
follower of the Buddha only in the respect that, like the Buddha, he is following
no one, but only searching with might and main for the truth of his being. The
Buddha was a religious pioneer, not a Buddhist, and so must all be pioneers who
wish to live in the truth. Borrowed plumage, Zen says, does not grow. If we
would soar, we shall have to sprout wings from our own living substance.
But if Zen is opposed to mere conformity, it is
equally hostile to mere nonconformity. The life of truth is to be gained neither
through conformity nor through nonconformity. Both alike imply a divorce between
man and that which he conforms to or rebels against. Reality is attained in
creativity, which is as removed from nonconformity as it is from conformity
since it emerges out of the union of man and his object. When this is
understood, it is evident how far they are from grasping the intent of Zen who
see it as a call to anti-nomianism, or who imagine that the state of enlightenment
is manifested only in those who are as different from the ordinary as possible.
freedom is no closer to impulsive spontaneity than it is to stale conformity.
assertion of the ego is as unreal as its denial.
Zen is beyond all these dualisms, and nowhere does it
recommend the expression of self in complete indifference to the needs of
The truth that Zen seeks is not one thing as opposed
to another, for such a truth could never restore man to wholeness. Zen does not
take sides, for it does not want anything that is merely a side of life or of
the living truth.
Zen seems to assert or deny it is doing so merely provisionally or
pedagogically. If it finds you attached to A, Zen will assert not-A, not because
it wishes to uphold the exclusive truth of not-A, but only to break your
attachment to A. If you go on to cling to not-A, you completely miss the
point, and you will find that Zen is now once again asserting A.
if Zen appears to oppose conformity in religion and in life, it is not for the
sake of asserting that there is a greater truth in being a nonconformist. To be,
to be the living truth is not to have one’s reality defined by something
external. The conformist defines himself in relation to what he is for, the
nonconformist in relation to what he is against; both are but appendages to the
abstractions which they are for or against. Moreover, the conformist is aware of
his conformity against the background of actual or possible nonconformity; the
nonconformist is aware of himself as against the background of possible or
actual conformity. So each defines himself in relation to his opposite, and
thus each needs the other, if only as a possibility, in order to grasp himself.
But this means that each is alienated from his true Self.
position is matched by an opposition, for positions are only sides, and wherever
there is a side, there is an opposite side. Zen is not a position, nor is it a
mere defiance of all positions. This is the meaning of the advice that Zen gives
that we are not to remain where there is a Buddha and we are to depart from
the place where there is no Buddha.
Where there is a Buddha, living truth has jelled into
Where there is no Buddha you have sheer iconoclasm and nothing positive. Zen is
beyond affirmation and denial. It is beyond the wisdom of security and the wisdom
of insecurity. Creativity cannot be locked up in a formula, neither is it
synonymous with sheer impulsiveness.
Life calls for form, discipline, meaning, structure,
universality, but where these are overdone ossification sets in and death
finally ensues. Life needs naturalness, freedom, individuality, but where these
are absolutized, and there is nothing to balance these purely centrifugal
tendencies, the energies of life quickly dissipate.
The mystery of the creative act—which is the
religious act—is that it does not slight either of life’s opposing
requirements. In creativity both form and matter, discipline and freedom,
abstract universality and concrete particularity, meaning and embodiment are
perfectly fused—or, Zen would say, in a state of non-separation to begin with.
A want of creativity is manifested either by the formal elements suppressing the
matter and the individuality, or by a chaotic bursting through of all forms in
The first peril attends all those who would
absolutize the virtues of classicism, the second, those who worship at the altar
of romanticism. Zen avoids both equally and urges us on to the creative center
from which both are falsely abstracted.
is neither classicist nor romanticist, and the creative life, whether in the
arts or elsewhere, is neither a stale adherence to fixed patterns nor the
apotheosis of individuality in defiance of all constraining forms. The
freedom which is defined only in relation to myself will be as unreal as the
suppression of myself in the name of something beyond myself. To conform to
a form and to oppose a form are equally easy ways of evading life’s call to
creativity, and, therefore, ultimately equally unsatisfying. Zen—which is the
art of living creatively—calls for a transcendance of the dichotomy between
self and not-self and thus of conformity and noncomformity. This dualism
exists so long as man is alienated from life and from himself; it disappears
when he enters into union with life and finds his Self.
The creative relation to the Buddha is neither a
following nor a disobedience of the Buddha but a union with the spirit or the
reality of the Buddha Nature. It is only in this way that one can avoid the twin
evils of suppressing and of expressing individuality. It is only in this way
that one comes to a basis on which one can be true to oneself and yet not be
false to any man. This absolute basis is the true Self, and unless we possess it
we had better not try to be true to ourselves.
To be true to the momentary, relativistically conditioned,
whimsical self is not Zen, for it is to separate from life, which is a movement
opposite to what Zen requires. He who thinks that Zen is an invitation to
anarchy is only trapped by another form—he is making a form of formlessness.
To blind oneself to the long-range and common needs of man is to forget that
my Self is not only my self but also my other, and it is to the Self that Zen
bids us to be true.
this, we shall then know how to deal with the query: Does Zen have any moral
principles? One may as well ask: Does Shakespeare have any literary principles?
Does Bach have any musical principles? The answer is No—if the questions imply
that one can produce real music, real literature, or real goodness by merely
patterning one’s production on any definable set of antecedent principles.
The answer is Yes —if the questions imply that real music, real literature, or
real goodness can be engendlered by sheer impulsiveness.
reality is not less but more than anything that can be specified by principle,
and Zen, therefore, comes not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. Except the
righteousness of the Zen seeker exceed that of the followers of principles and
the breakers of principles, he can in no wise enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The
Kingdom of Heaven is for creative spirits alone. Real goodness is creative
goodness as real music is creative music.
Zen, since the living truth is never to be found at either pole of any duality,
there must be not one, but two equal and opposite ways of being immoral—that
is untrue to life. One way is to try to subsume the infinite content of life
under principles; the other way is to do whatever you will whenever you will it.
If the latter sin against life is the one committed by the followers of Satan,
then is not the former the one to which the followers of the Heavenly Father are
prone? There is only one way to be moral and that is to have transcended the
dualism of rules and no rules and to do the right thing at the tight time in the
right way, and this calls for an act of creation in the living context. It is
neither something that can be antecedently specified nor is it something to be
extemporized out of sheer spontaneity.
morality, that is Zen, is beyond rules and no rules, and one comes to it only
when one finally gives up trying to cope with life from the outside. The
enlightened man who has entered into union with life resolves the dualism of
conformity vs. antinomianism, and only he can say with Confucius: “I can do
whatever my heart desires without contravening principles.”
Life itsellf becomes an art only when we unite with
it, as all creativity emerges from the union of the artist and his task. So long
as man remains on the outside and attempts to grasp the truth with his mind, he
can only endlessly proliferate theories and points of view which will never
contain the living truth which he needs to become whole.
truth that sets man free is not a “position,” for all positions are finally
“poses” which can never muster the endorsement of mans entire ‘being and
which always remain external to the reality which they would grasp. Zen points to man being Itself which is
beyond every this or that, and it is just this no-thing in every man
that makes him feel insincere when he pretends that he is wholly identifiable
as this or that.
The man who remains on the outside of life, content
to inspect it as a spectator, arrives at truths which are only speculative and
not living, and they will always be opposed by other points of view. If he
desires to get beyond points of view to the concrete reality of life itself, he
will have to relinquish his post as spectator and enter into union with life.
This is what Zen bids him to do.
For Reality is chaste and will not bare herself to
strangers; she will give herself only to him who is united with her in holy
matrimony. This is mysticism, to be sure; it is the wish of the mystic to
overcome his exteriority to life and to join in the life of things. Mysticism
is the art of living in union with life, and the living truth must be mystical
truth. Satan is the mystical marriage with life.
the Zen seeker after spiritual freedom is not on the lookout for a true
position, Zen is not a point of view, and the living truth cannot be located in
any position. Only the dead are fixed in position, and to take a position is
to surrender the privileges and perils of the living for the secure fixity of
seeks simply the creative union with life, and in relation to this goal, every
dogma, every creedal formulation, every ideology, every philosophical system
represent a kind of heresy. For heresy is literally the choosing of a position,
the taking of a side, i.e., the wish to reduce a living wholeness to one of its
formulatable aspects. A life based on a point of view is a life immobilized
around a partiality and thus bound to collide with other lives circumscribed by
different partialities. The mark of every heresy is that it is opposed by other
heresies, and this means that no heresy, that is no position as such, can be
absolute. That alone is absolute which is confirmed in everything and by
everything and which encounters no opposition anywhere, and this living truth is
no point of view, but rather that from which all points of view are derivative
and whose place they would unsurp.
In his traditional religions, Western man has
endeavored to achieve absolute anchorage in life through believing a certain set
of ideas about himself, about his universe, and about that which is supposed to
be the source of both. Since every set of ideas is limited and also fixed,
sooner or later it proves to be incommensurate with the infinite content of
As the discrepancy between idea and actual experience
begins to become manifest, two alternatives are open to the would-be believer:
he may persist in clinging to the idea with unreasoning fanaticism, or he may
begin to modify the idea. In the former event, he must deny life and experience
in order to affirm the absolute truth of his idea; in the latter case, he is
faithful to life and experience, but at the cost of surrendering his previous
claim to an absolutely true idea, and then the religion which is based on this
idea becomes ever less capable of providing the believer with strength and
In the warfare of science and
religion, fundamentalist orthodoxy has chosen the first of these alternatives;
the various forms of liberal theology have taken the second. Neither is able to
meet the spiritual needs of modern man with integrity, for each possesses
something that the other lacks. Only that religion can integrally satisfy the
needs of modem man which gives to life an absolute underpinning, on the one
hand, but which allows for the endless change, which is also of the essence of
life, on the other hand. No religion committed to an idea, no religion
comprising a definable teaching, no religion dedicated to a formulatable creed
or code is in a position to do this.
No formulation can be absolutely universal, for all formulations are
conditioned by various relativities, and all formulations must periodically
submit to revision in the light of man’s growing experience. Life
is forever a matter of unfinished business,
and the living truth will not be covered by any formula. Zen claims absolute
catholicity just because it is not entangled with concepts or formulae of any
sort. Zen makes no historical claims nor is it rooted to any spot on the
earth’s surface. Its meaning is not confined to any particular set of
categories or restricted by any limited perspectives. It may thus justifiably
claim to be absolutely universal and to speak to all men everywhere who are
concerned with achieving an ultimate grounding in life.
a thousand years the West tried to center every department of life around the
idea of God and to regulate every activity of life by principles derived from
theology. But with the Renaissance came the revolt—in the name of
individuality and self-expression - against the religious totalitarianism which
would harness all of a life to a single idea. In ethics as in art, in education
and in economics, in politics, in law, in literature and in music and
philosophy, modern life is the rebellion of individuality against imposed form.
And yet no one can claim that modern man is
altogether happy In his freedom and individuality, for these have been acquired
by the negation of form and meaning, and thus it is no wonder that the feeling
of life’s meaninglessness is such a widespread symptom of our times. The
freedom that modern man has achieved by his rebellion is not real or spiritual
freedom; it is ultimately unsatisfying because it excludes its opposite, which
means that it is only a half-truth or half-reality.
Modern life is therefore as deficient as medieval
life. In the Middle Ages, freedom and individuality were subordinated to
ultimate meaning; in modern times, man possesses freedom, but life has lost its
ultimate meaning. Each epoch has endeavored unsuccessfully to absolutize what is
only half of man’s total need. Human life requires both absolute freedom and
absolute meaning in order to be fully real, and as long as man’s integral
need is denied, he will continue to vacillate from one pole to the other,
absolutizing each half-truth in alternation.
No supernaturalistic religion can fulfill man’s
integral need, for every such religion is partisan and therefore partial by
It does not accord metaphysical parity to the opposite poles of human
life, but ever seeks reality and truth in the subordination of one pole to the
other. Wherever God is thought of as confronting man, man’s freedom is limited
by God’s will and law. Theistic religion pretends that life’s need for
absolute freedom can be denied, and that a life of truth can be achieved through
conformity to the transcendent will of God.
But, in fact, when man tries to subordinate himself to God, he always
finds there is a Devil in his own breast who urges him to deny God and express
himself. The Devil is God’s polar counterpart and the champion of life’s
urge to freedom. The Devil is a half-reality, as God is, and each must be given
Where Thy will is other than my will, I shall never be able wholeheartedly
to say “Thy will be done.” It is not in His will that we shall find our
peace, but only in that which is neither His nor ours but which simply is.
Neither the City of God nor the City of Satan is the
true homeland of the human spirit, seeing that man can never sojourn for very
long in either domain without feeling the call to visit the other. Neither in
nature nor in supernature, neither in the finite nor in the infinite, neither in
time nor in eternity, neither in the material nor in the ideal does life find
its absolute grounding. The living truth will not be domiciled at one pole alone
of any of these pairs of opposites. When Creator is set over against creature,
when Heaven is elevated over earth, the ultimate meaning of life above its
immediate content, then life becomes chained to an abstraction.
Zen, holiness is synonymous with wholeness, and therefore Zen would negate
neither life’s need for absolute meaning (God) nor life’s equally valid need
for absolute freedom (Satan).
Nor in the case of any
of the pairs of opposites
between which human life fluctuates would Zen wish to attach itself with one
side more than with the other. The intellect will never find any way of bridging
these dualisms; to logic, A and not-A remain irreconcilably opposed. Hence the
intellect can never solve man’s ultimate existential problem—which is how to
become real—that is, whole. So Zen directs man beyond the intellect to the
living truth of his own Self in which these opposites have never been separated
Thus the existential resolution of the dualism of
freedom and form is concretely exemplified in the lives of those who have
achieved a deep enlightenment. It is the conspicuous absence of any kind of
one-sidedness which gives to the Zen personality its elemental reality and which
makes it at once attractive and unique.
In the main, Western man has been alternately drawn toward two opposite
ideals of life—the one, characterized by Rabelaisian gusto and vitality and
freedom from all inhibitions, lives by the motto “Do what you will”; the
other, the life of the “saint,” is characterized by inner strength and a
yoking of all natural energies to the transcendent will of God.
The fascination exerted by the enlightened Zen personality is just that
it encompasses both these divergent modes of life. The true man, according to
Zen, has both zestful freedom and inner substance, both strength and discipline
on the one hand, and naturalness and spontaneity on the other hand. Such
integrity can never result from forcing myself to do the will of God, nor can it
come from merely following my own whims. It comes only when I am living out of
my true Self, which is beyond all such dualisms. Then alone shall I know the
service that is perfect freedom, and experience a life that is unconditionally
meaningful and yet free of all constraint.
The life of the unenlightened can never be
wholehearted, for it is perpetually fissured, or, as the Buddhist would say,
based on the discrimination of opposites. Always he faces a choice of this or
that, unable to have both and yet bound to learn sooner or later that each is
incomplete without the other. His reason opposes his passions; his “higher”
nature is at war with his “lower” nature; the “law in the members”
conflicts with the “law of the mind.” He would live for himself and also for
others, yet he can find no way to do both. His desires conflict with his duties;
wishing to serve God he is perennially tempted by the Devil. He would live for
an ideal and yet he succumbs to the material. He pledges allegiance to Heaven,
but cannot withstand the lure of earth and its pleasures. Whether be tries to be
reflective or spontaneous, his actions are equally removed from authenticity.
His life is a perpetual vacillation between opposite poles, and his very voice
lacks the ring of reality, for it is prompted by no more than a part of himself
at any time, and never has the backing of his entire being.
ultimate peace can come to one who is thus fissured.
is but another name for the integrity of being which enables man to respond to
life without inner conflict.
mind which is in pieces cannot be a mind at peace. Every dualistic recipe for
achieving the peace that passeth understanding is predestined to failure, for it
entails the futile attempt of one side of man to coerce the opposite side Into a
renunciation of its own needs. Man’s real Self Zen would say, is not to be
sought in any dimension of himself, but only in that from which every
dimension—whether “higher” or “lower”— is an abstraction. Man’s
real Self can only be his whole Self, and that
must not be identified with any of the warring factions which he contains. Until
he finds that living center of unity which is his integral being, he will know
neither peace nor sincerity.
religions of the West are all dualistic, which means that they accept these
oppositions as ultimate and always seek for truth in one direction as contrasted
with its opposite. So
Western religion elevates reason over
the passions, super-nature over nature, the ideal over the material. It has made
heaven more real than earth, and has put God over all His creatures. But life
itself will not for very long submit to such Procrustean treatment, and the devaluated
fragments periodically reassert themselves. So Western religion has never been
free of the struggle with materialism, secularism, individualism, and the
loyalty of the Western devotee has always been divided.
is wholeness, not halfness. Holiness is holistic living, not self-conquest.
Spiritual freedom is unopposed response, not self-control or self-restraint.
Wholeheartedness can never eventuate from the resolution to slight what is
metaphysically half of reality. A mature religion must concede that both the
“higher” and the “lower,” both the transcendent and the immediate, are
equally real, or rather equally unreal and abstract. A mature religion will
courageously confront the profound mystery embodied in the split itself
characteristic of human life, and will not seek salvation through any of the
fragments resulting from the split. For Zen Buddhism, the split is the
consequence of standing apart from life and inspecting it objectively. The split
is healed only through the re-entry into life which contacts life’s wholeness.
who are content with mere “points of view,” may label themselves as
idealists or as materialists, as supernaturalists or as naturalists. Zen seeks
for an absolute which is a living whole embracing all the pairs of opposites. So
Zen sees the religious life not as an opting for transcendent meaning in
contrast to immediate delights, but rather as the utterly concrete life which is
not entangled in this insoluble dualism. “Deny thyself’ must not mean
merely “Deny thy lower self,” but also “Deny thy higher self’; not
merely “Deny thy impulsive or passionate sell,” but also “Deny thy
controlling will or rational sell.” In short, Zen would advise us to deny all
those fragments of Self which, whether they be called “higher” or
“lower,” are only usurpers pretending to a throne which is not theirs.
Rather than becoming a party to the strife of
systems, religion’s true role is to heal the schism in man’s soul by guiding
him to that union with life which is beyond the dualities. The
ultimate wisdom of Asia, brought to a focus in Zen Buddhism, is the perception
that truth and reality must never be sought on the plane of opposition.
What is absolute will not be found in one limited perspective as against
another. Where there is opposition there is of necessity reciprocal limitation,
and it is futile to seek Divinity in that which is no more real than its
opposite. The apotheosis of transcendence, which has been the path mistakenly
chosen by most of man’s religions, is, in point of fact, an idolatrous
substitute for authentic religion. For is it not the essence of idolatry to
accord to what is less than the whole that devotion which is only to be rendered
to the whole?
As the ultimate psychotherapy, Zen steers man away
from the idolatry inherent in every form of partisanship and directs his
course to the living truth which is truly all in all and not just an aspect of
life erroneously absolutized. The center of the circle is the focus of unity for
all the radii; stand at the center and you comprehend all the radii together;
move ever so slightly off center, and at once you must choose whether to stand
on this radius or on that one. It is just man’s off -centeredness which is his
ultimate problem, and this is the problem which Zen takes up and solves.
Only he who lives from his whole Self can be called truly religious, and what characterizes the life of the enlightened soul is just that it has achieved creative wholeness. Such a life is graced with absolute freedom, for its movements are authored and authorized by the whole being and are in the deepest sense unopposed. Such a one will be conspicuously distinguishable from the individual whose religion is still enmeshed in duality and whose life is consequently marked by tenseness and incessant struggle as he strives in vain to subdue one half of himself to the other half. The Zen life is the life of wholeness responding to wholeness, or in other words, the life of absolute love, of unconditional union with all that is. To many Westerners it seems irresistibly real for this reason.