Letters from a Zen Master

Alfred R. Pulyan

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Alfred Pulyan, Zen Master

Oct 12, 1960

Dear Dick,

"Evasive" would imply that I am avoiding deliberately (since my eyes are supposed to be wide open) a logical or reasonable reply to your questions & remarks. So let me take all your specific questions as a minimum and segregate the topics, thus: --

(1) GOD Why did I choose this particular word?

(You and I know it is semantically precarious & carries a heavy "charge" of meaning, put there by theological know-it-alls.)

(a) Well, first, what is the origin of the word? The Jews used Jahweh (or at least JHVH leaving the vowels to be forgotten as the name was tabu), Jesus used "abba" (Father) in Aramaic. The Jews also used Adonai (Lord), Elohim & other words.

"God" is not cognate with "good" apparently & is some old German or Gothic deity, now obsolete. He may have had a wife & may have required weird rituals. I wish I knew more of his origin!

However some names for the One are very impersonal & ineffable like the Tao (Way), the Brahman, the Dharmakaya, etc. Others are personal like Allah, Jehovah, (Yahveh), God, Krishna, Siva, Brahma (the masculine member of the Brahman trinity -- there is one temple to him, none to the Brahman), Chemosh (the god of the Moabites who amuses me by his name somehow, as also Lord Dunsany, & to whom Solomon made a "high place" outside old Jerusalem, but who was a bloodthirsty old ruffian, worse than Jehovah if possible) & so forth.

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Now the first group we naturally call IT. (including the "Absolute")
The second group we naturally call HE.
(She's are rarer, Isis, Diana, Kali, etc.)


I find in practice that I have a harder time with Buddhists for example because they will only exchange ego's pride for their ineffably ineffable. Since the ineffably ineffable is so remote they too become inaccessible, since ego has pitched his goal deliberately (!) out of reach, inconceivably. HE JUMPS RIGHT OVER THE HORSE. "He" means a Buddhist student e.g. whose "Dharmakaya" is very remotely ineffable (like the word "Absolute").


Conversely the Jews, Christians etc. have an anthropomorphic "God" whatever they say to the contrary. In practice he reflects their anger, frustration, sadism, weariness, & so forth. They JUMP SHORT OF THE HORSE.

We want to jump RIGHT ON THE HORSE of course. Now since the One Self is intimately associated with us, although NOT on a "personality" basis I have less trouble PULLING THE JEWS, CHRISTIANS UP A BIT than PULLING THE BUDDHISTS, TAOISTS, HINDUS, INTELLECTUALS, PHILOSOPHERS, ETC. DOWN A BIT, A BIG BIT!!

It is a practical matter. Ego can take a delight in being very SUBTLE, very OCCULT, very INEFFABLE whereas the primitive religionist can be too childish, affectionate, etc. instead of CHILD-LIKE, SIMPLE, LOVING.


One obstacle is world-weariness, adult cynicism, etc. which blurs the child-self you must recover. If I were a primitive religionist you could reject this (and me) very easily. But I am not!! I am at least your equal, my fine friend ---

As an example there is a bad mistranslation in the New Testament -- it is really STUPID. The result is that a tense interchange between Jesus & Peter is converted into a mere question & answer THREE TIMES repeated POINTLESSLY. It is even repeated in the Revised Standard Version. It is John 21, verses 15-17.


Jesus asks Peter "Do you love me? (ἀγαπάω = agapao) Peter answers "You know I love you" (φιλέω = phileo). arrow pointing to the text Non-emotion (Jesus) versus emotion (Peter).

Again Jesus asks: "Do you love me?" (ἀγαπάω -- with emphasis).

Peter says "You know I love you (φιλέω)

The third time Jesus asks tactfully & sadly: "Do you love me?" (φιλέω)

Peter says, "Lord, you know everything, you know I love (φιλέω) you."

There are two kinds of love, ἀγαπάω [agapao] which is the Love I call "God" & φιλέω, [phileo] a personal & mechanical love which can turn to hate even. When I said "friendship" to you I meant "ἀγαπάω" which is outgoing, eternal (& since it is "God" himself, or itself, in us it is truly "eternal.") Happy are the people who know this rare and wonderful thing below personality level! It can exist between two people of the same sex -- David & Jonathan or between a man & woman. In the latter case it overrides "sex," "sex" is its conscious servant & supremely natural. Then the man & woman are equals & their association ("married" in the customary sense or not) is a "sacrament" in some old & genuine usage of this term. The woman is not merely a convenient receptacle for a sex organ and intercourse does not lead to satiety. Alas, this is rare indeed. It can be a young man or woman's ideal, but they usually settle for less.

Here then is the "love" of two child-selves (wise as serpents and innocent as babes) and it truly reflects the Source of the Universe for which I used so obsolete & curious a word ("God").

The English "Revised Version" of 1884 notes in margin "Peter twice uses a different Greek word than Jesus." (Not much help to a casual reader!)

Maurice Nicholl in "The New Man" (Vincent Stuart, 1955) deals with it in detail.

The "Twentieth Century New Testament" (1900) catches it & uses "love" as said by Jesus, and "I am your friend" as said by Peter (but that is incorrect as "friend" is merely the wrong use of that word we all make). The "New Testament in Basic English" (1941) also catches it & uses "love" in Jesus' first two questions and "you are dear to me" as Peter's replies.

Since very likely you do not know this "heightened awareness" (ἀγαπάω) but only the emotion (φιλέω) you have NO REFERENT to "God." You must naturally discard all semantic overtones.

This love (agape) "loves" the personality for what it is, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, as a mother loves an erring son.

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(1) GOD (cont.)

(b) "What do you want to define as friendship?" It is the state previously illustrated in detail. It is the "transmission" of Zen. It is when each is "open" with the other. It is an approach of the One Self in each. It is a way to realization. It demands a certain discrimination & a certain culture. A trigger-happy "hood," a sadist, a chawbacon, a "fishwife," an autocratic boss, a proud intellectual, the Pope, --- all these can easily have a "mystic experience" or "cosmic consciousness" (even though they might call it "only subjective"), but not so easily the "awakening" experience which Jesus said is denied to them and reserved for simple people.

(c) "What difference does it make whether we come to know God or not?"
Nothing & everything. This is a paradox to make the angels weep!! Since you are "God" & nothing else it is God realizing himself in this time-space episode. Thus if you do wish to know God then it can be an urgent desire (beauty, music, Nature, love are fingers, pointing the way). In that case "you do" & we should continue. If you do not wish to awake then clearly that too is an alternative situation and we should not continue .

There is no OUGHT, SHOULD, MUST --- there is no REASON, PREFERENCE etc. I do not dangle carrots before the donkey's nose (you) although I could. The Old Testament says "I put before you Life & Death." "Nature" is indifferent. Refusal to know God (as opposed to ignorance that it can be done) can lead to a quicker "end," & then you can nourish the trees & flowers & eventually recombine somehow. As Shakespeare says "mighty Caesar dead & turned to clay, may stop a hole to keep the winds away."

Why is this? Because "refusal" is an ego phenomenon. About 90% of you is autonomous (fortunately) & the blood circulation, digestion, involuntary muscles, glandular secretions, body repairs, cell growth & division, etc. etc. go on even in sleep regardless of "Richard" (great & mighty one -- perhaps). The other 10% is "your" apparent decision. Thus your stomach may be saying "please, please, no more sugar, or fat foods, or carbohydrates," or whatever is wrong at the moment, but your hand may shove more & more of it in your mouth! One is involuntary, one is "voluntary" (in a sense). Further, ego "channels" your modes of action & response, leading to tensions & local lack of circulation. These can be deadly & one day the thing (your body) "gives" at the weakest spot. Then there is a "disease" or something and it has a NAME. It may be "cured" but the underlying condition remains. Doctors do NOT have the weeks, months & years of time required to "work" your body to get rid of the predisposing condition. This is not occult or in question. They have been in preparation for a long, long time. The same applies to the mind. It is a delicate instrument & statistics show that one in three are either treated for a mental trouble by a psychotherapist of some sort or are put in an institution. In a less degree there are doubts, conflicts, frustrations & so forth. A man who has "enlightened self-interest" would be a great big fool not to consider such a situation.

However it is a good time now for you to make up your mind. I am doing some of the work of a psychotherapist and then going far beyond him. However we are alike in that I & he have to change you -- not present ideas to you. He gets $25 or $30 an hour or 40 minutes & since he doesn't want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs he goes suavely & slowly, three years, five years, ---

Of course you may have an anxiety complex & it is either your psychoanalyst or the river. Then you are hooked. Otherwise he doesn't want to lose you, unless you are a really messy piece of goods. My case is different. It takes me a lot of time and trouble to write to you (& this letter is in great detail so as not to seem unnecessarily "evasive"), and naturally you are no different than anyone else. Nor can I work with too many people at this rate obviously. So if you are merely going along for the ride, having intellectual exercise & all that I would appreciate your saying that your interest is slight -- and thanks & good-bye. That would avoid a hundred more letters each taking several hours (if that many were necessary, it might be far less & often has been).

Since I wish to "work" faster than the psychotherapist I have of necessity to be "rougher" in handling your precious ego, just as concentrated soup is saltier & over-flavored until diluted.

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(1) GOD (cont.)

(d) "How do you know that which you experienced was God?"

Here is the joke of the year & you will I hope see the fantastic nature of the question if I ask you to define "God" first! (And I have every right to do so, since you are asking me.) I do know that what I experienced was NOT anything I or you has ever seen defined as God or heard so defined. It was entirely new & entirely different. So why do I call it God? For this reason. It appears from the accounts and attempted descriptions of men in all ages & all countries, Gautama, Jesus, Eckhart, Heraclitus, Plato, Plotinus, & innumerable other sources (I have a shelf full for example) that they & I did have an experience which is like a fully conscious version of the "mystical experience" (which millions have a taste of!). Thus it cannot be called "unconscious"!! Further my teacher had the same & the Zen & Taoist masters passed it on to their students too down the ages.

This experience led to the great religions (except Islam & Christianity which are later derivatives of Judaism) -- which began about BC 850 - 550 superseding the animism & crude fertility rites, often with human or animal sacrifice (Judaism never got out of it -- at least not until much later). It was NOT AN EVOLUTION! There was a world-wide upsurge of these "awakened" men. It was a "discontinuous" phenomenon & not explicable by the methods of the anthropologist.

Each of these men spoke of One Source & their knowledge of how it expresses itself through us both as human organisms &, curiously enough, simultaneously as our apparently "outside" perceptions, in other words -- the Universe.

Many words which I have already quoted (Tao, The Brahman, etc.) were used to describe this. One is "God."

I WILL STRESS that the followers of these men made an unholy mess of what these remarkable men said (the Buddha even said they would!) & this mess you call "religion." I have tried to AVOID starting a new one, but in lectures in Taiwan for example I hear my poor efforts spoken of as "something new in Asia." Heaven help us! Another one? Subuh in Java was "awakened" in 1933 & here again "Subud" may develop into one of these movements alas.

The fact is people love MARVELS & MAGIC which they SUBSTITUTE FOR THE TRANSCENDENTAL. (I shall show YOU do! too.)

Thus "God" is the name for my experience, NOT my experience was "OF GOD." First Richard must know what the experience is, then that it is (and was) world-wide to a few, & finally he can call it anything he pleases.

This answers (partly) your question "What do you mean by 'awakening'?" The answer is that, like Buddha, I cannot tell you now but I can tell when you or others have it, because then it is entirely possible to explain it to one who also knows it. The Zen Master can tell by the mere look on the student's face. I have had many curious expressions from students when they "awoke" & very obvious ones to me. Further, with all due deference to your sensibilities they were much better human beings than you are now. I asked for you photograph not to stimulate friendship(!!) but to know a little more about you. If you came to see me you might know a little more about me, but don't do that at the present stage.

Your questions have been answered, so about the rest of your letter:


I was very clear about this & my comment that people rarely (except in India!) look around to see where a "loved one" has "reincarnated" meant (as it would to any half-perceptive person) that people do NOT believe in it, obviously. Common-sense would tell you that. Their actions prove it. Besides your body gets scattered & certainly doesn't "reincarnate" so what does? Body & mind are not separable. They go & you know it. However I do not dogmatize on "life after death" since you must first find out for yourself by "awakening" WHAT OUR POSITION IS & then, armed with this information, you may consider life after death for yourself. First understand "life."


"A person who 'knows God directly' should know whether he has had past lives or future ones."

Such questions as to what I SHOULD know are best answered by considering the experience of the race of human-beings since they were reasonably conscious, & it could be five or ten thousand years. In this time the race found that the sun rises every morning, that we cannot levitate, that we cannot see at a big distance usually and AT WILL, although curious cases do occur, that we cannot yet change chalk into cheese except via a cow or complicated chemical work since we need Nitrogen & Hydrogen for example for cheese & they are not in the chalk, that we cannot usually and AT WILL foretell the future, although curious cases do occur, & so on.

Future experience may add to our knowledge, but, as of now, human beings, you & I, have the above limitations. It is not my object to assist you to these powers, which I do not have myself (note all the qualifying words), since I am a humble, limited human-being like everybody I meet. Certainly I would like you to be more of a human-being but even this is hard to explain to you now.

Consider an underprivileged child from a poor neighborhood being suddenly -- by adoption for example -- transported to a wealthy and cultured milieu. It would perhaps be necessary to tell him not to "pick his nose & eat it" or not to spit on the carpet and a few other trifles he might overlook.

One could tell that kid that he would be one day a distinguished & cultured man, mixing in all societies, but it would be hard to explain the difference there would be in him (as he now is).

When I work with students they are cynical, suspicious, unkind, mean-minded (e.g. they could say "you are taking all this trouble just because you like teaching & showing off; well, I will make it hard for you!"), low-motived, not too perceptive, not too intelligent, not too friendly (every now & then I have to dodge a metaphorical knife in my back -- & Jesus was tortured to death in an atrocious way while Peter and company considered the matter with gaping mouths & expectation of flocks of angels & big celestial boom-booms -- no feeling for their "friend") & so forth.

It is an "occupational hazard." The psychotherapist has the same hazard (e.g. suicidal & homicidal cases), but even he cannot take his patients further than he has gone (except by accident & I have known such) & so HE HIMSELF has a point at which he would revert to a louse!

I ought to know! I was a student once myself. I am not much better now -- but I am a trifle kinder & a trifle more perceptive maybe!

If I were in the pulpit of a big cathedral or in the Zendo of a (& as a) Zen Master nobody would think I had thrown a plate at my wife that morning or done a few other disgusting things in private.

Thus as Shakespeare says "the world is oft deceived by ornament" -- the PROFESSION, POSITION gives ELEVATION and the "sheep" probe no deeper. But perhaps you and I can indulge in the business of the truth about ourselves and humanity.

However it is also the truth that if this thing we are doing is false then there is absolutely no other hope for you, me, or humanity, unless Spiritualism or E.S.P. meets your deeper needs.

We are not animals, we are human beings with some consciousness, & that is a deep mystery.

We are perhaps puppets. We are perhaps even "nothing." But we are "nothings" that can be "something."

So make up your mind. If I ask for a photograph send it. It is the least you can do. And further I do not know of any way you can escape from your frustrating ego-domination except by voluntarily giving powers to some other person -- me or another if you can find him or her -- which will involve your obedience. I had to do it, I know no other way.




In this world you do not get something for nothing, there is always a price-tag. And in this case it is "sacrifice." I must say the price is very reasonable considering the merchandise. Yet people would rather die than know the truth. That means that ego is so obstinate that he would rather be extinguished than step down! There are 3,000,000,000 like that.


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