There is a growing interest in Zen Buddhism which has given rise to much misunderstanding in the West. More Westerners, after reading a few books on the subject, treat it as a pastime or a topic of conversation. Some may be serious enough to study Zen, but reach hasty conclusions from the meager sources available to them in English and other European languages. A few even practice meditation with high hopes of Enlightenment, or at least of having some interesting experiences, after a few hours' work. They are content to dream of "here and now," of the easily reached "Enlightenment" of "I am God and an ass," and the like.

Most Western students have merely reached the stage in which they feel empty of spirit and confused in mind by the endless "jargon" of Zen. This, however, is a normal state for beginners in the East as well. Before these misunderstandings can be cleared up, fresh information is needed, and four vital questions must be raised and answered.

1. Is Zen as completely unintelligible and beyond the reach of human understanding as some recent books make out?

2. What is "Zen Enlightenment"? Is it the "perfect Enlightenment" of orthodox Buddhism? Is it a once-and-for-all experience, or is it many experiences? If the latter, how do these experiences differ from each other in essence, or in depth?

3. How does Zen teaching compare with that of Yogacara and Madhyamika, the two main schools of thought in Mahayana Buddhism?

4. Is there, beneath the surface of the seemingly irrational Zen koans, any system, order, or category which, when understood, will make Zen intelligible?

1. Is Zen Completely Unintelligible?

The fate of Zen as vital knowledge and spiritual truth depends upon how this question is answered, for if— as some authors have repeatedly emphasized—Zen is incomprehensible and irrational, how can any human being understand it? If all conceptual knowledge and intellection have to be abandoned, the enlightened Zen Masters of the past must have been complete fools.

But history shows otherwise. These Masters were wiser than the average, not only in their knowledge of Zen, but also in many other subjects as well. Their brilliant achievements in art, literature, and philosophy were indisputably of the first order, and stand out prominently in all fields of Chinese culture. Then it is possible that the mistake in presenting Zen made by some authors lies in their failure to distinguish between "to understand" and "to realize." To understand a thing does not mean to realize it. To understand Zen through an intellectual approach should not be confused with the direct realization of Zen Truth. Thus what they ought to have said is not that "to understand Zen," but, instead, that "to realize Zen," "one must abandon all he has acquired by way of conceptual knowledge" (in certain stages). To understand the wonderfully cold, sweet, and palatable taste of ice cream is not to have actually experienced that taste. To understand it as cold, sweet, and palatable, but not bitter, hot, or pungent is comparable to understanding Zen as being direct rather than indirect, immediate rather than abstract, and transcendent rather than dualistic.

Any student of Buddhism knows that "to understand" n is very different from "to realize." o The former belongs to the domain of "indirect measurement," p " the latter to that of "direct discernment." q To confuse these two categories is almost comparable to a man's saying to a solemn priest of his church that Jesus Christ is merely "a stick of dry dung!" I am sure this man would be driven out of his church; but, of course, not in the sense of Zen!

Numbers refer to the Notes;
letters refer to the Appendix.

To understand Zen through an intellectual approach is not "reprehensible," but is the only way possible for the beginner, for who can get into Zen without having first some understanding or "conceptual knowledge" about it? There is no exception to this for anyone.

A complete denial of the value of intellection is obviously unsound from the viewpoint of philosophy, religion, and Zen—especially Zen. For if Zen is to be considered, as it indeed is, the essence of Buddhism through which the ultimate Truth is expressed, it must be obstruction-free r and all-inclusive. s This agrees with Hua Yen philosophy which states explicitly that if the ultimate Truth is ubiquitous and all-pervading, it must be all-inclusive and free from all obstructions. Thus even the stick of dry dung is found with the Buddha. The mountain is a mountain and water is water; when hungry I eat, and when sleepy I sleep; the birds sing and the fish swim. What is wrong, then, with intellection and conceptual knowledge? Are they not included in the great Tao? Are they not acts in the marvelous play of Buddhahood? Are not both intuition and intellection equally glorious and indispensable in the great drama of Dharmadhatu (the all-embracing Totality)?

From the ultimate viewpoint of Zen, what excuse can we have, then, to favor one and detest the other?

What Zen objects to is not intellection or conceptual knowledge as such, but clinging to intellection, or to conceptualization within the clinging pattern.

Now let us see how Zen deals with human clinging.

Hsiang Yen (9th century) once posed this problem to his disciples: "A man climbs a tree and is hanging from a branch by his teeth, his limbs suspended in the air without any support, when someone asks him: 'What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?' If the man does not answer, he falls short of replying; but if he does, he will fall from the tree and lose his life. At this moment what should he do?"


This interesting koan can be interpreted in two ways. First, it is typical of the technique often used by the Zen Masters to compel the disciple to retreat to the dead end of the tracks which his habitual thinking and associations have always followed, thus setting up a condition in which he has no way of allowing his thoughts to function. Then, by pushing the disciple one step beoynd to the unknown, the Master may open his wisdom eye. Second, if we look upon this koan metaphorically, it reminds us of the ever grasping or clinging nature of the human mind. It is indeed true that we as humans must have something to hold or to cling to all the time. It seems unthinkable to us that the mind can function without having an object to think about. Never for a single moment can we do without an object to make mental or physical activity possible.

Furthermore, on most occasions we must have more than one object to grasp or cling to. If we lose one we can always resort to another: a blind man always falls back on his senses of hearing and touch; a frustrated lover resorts to drink or religion or something of the sort. But Zen Masters always drive us to the absolute dead-end state, where we have nothing to grasp, cling to, or escape from. It is right here, at this point of desperation, that we must give up our habitual clinging for the Absolute Great Release, and it is right here that we must withdraw from the last ditch of our thought-tracks and surrender, with both hands empty, with nothing for them to hold onto, before we can jump into the unknown abyss of Buddhahood.

To confirm the statement that intellection itself is not to be condemned, but that it is, rather, the clinging that is objected to by Buddhist sages, I now quote the famous saying of Tilopa, the Indian Guru who indirectly founded the bkah-rgyud-pa (Kagyutpa) school in Tibet, when he preached for his disciple Naropa beside the river Ganges on the teaching of Mahamudra:


It is not the manifestations that have bound you in Sangsara,
It is the clinging that has tied you down.
Oh, it is the clinging that made you—Naropa! 1

It is true that Zen emphasizes direct experience and denounces mere intellection, which is essentially abstract and indirect. Zen Masters were unwilling to encourage speculation on Zen if they could help it. They disliked speaking too plainly about what they understood, for if they did so people would simply form another notion about Zen which would lead back into the old vicious circle of intellection and philosophy. Thus to use any method or trick which would bring the disciple directly to the point and never to speak too plainly 2 about Zen became the unique "tradition of Zen" cherished with pride by all its followers. This does not mean that Zen Masters were always obscure in their remarks. Contrary to present belief in the West, they spoke very plainly and sincerely on most occasions. Even the heroes of the extremists like Ma Tsu and Lin Chi were plain and understandable on many occasions. Their instructions remind one of some good-hearted minister preaching in simple words with great sincerity. This is because Zen is most practical. It cares only to bring the individual directly to Enlightenment. However, since individuals vary greatly in their capacities and aptitudes, Zen Masters must use different methods and teachings for different individuals in different circumstances. And so Zen styles and expressions vary greatly, from the most enigmatic and irrational koans to the plainest and most understandable instructions. The ironic fact is that, though Zen claims to be a "special transmission outside the scriptures with no dependence upon words and letters," Zen monks wrote many more books than those of any other Buddhist sect in China.

Concluding the discussion of the first question, my answer is this:

1. Zen is not altogether beyond the reach of human understanding.

2. The "realization of Zen" comes through "understanding Zen."

3. Ultimately, it is utterly wrong to exclude or degrade any Dharma. This, of course, includes intellection and conceptual knowledge, for they are embraced by and are identical with the supreme Buddhahood.3

4. The abandonment of conceptual knowledge is only temporary, being a practical means, not a strived-for aim.

5. Intellection is rejected by Zen Masters only for certain types of individuals at certain stages.

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