The Zen Experience

Preface to the Zen Experience

“The sole aim of Zen is to enable one to understand, realize, and perfect his own mind.” —Garma C. C. Chang

A graphic of Lao Tzu, Buddha and Confucius
Lao Tzu, Buddha and Confucius from The Zen Experience by Thomas Hoover is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The truth of Zen has always resided in individual experience rather than in theoretical writings… beginning with the twin roots of Zen in Indian Buddhism and Chinese Taoism.

Lao Tzu, Buddha, Confucius

Some call it “seeing,” some call it “knowing,” and some describe it in religious terms. Whatever the name, it is our reach for a new level of consciousness. Of the many forms this search has taken, perhaps the most intriguing is Zen. Growing out of the wisdom of China, India, and Japan, Zen became a powerful movement to explore the lesser-known reaches of the human mind. Today, Zen has come westward, where we are rediscovering modern significance in its ancient insights. This book is an attempt to encounter Zen in its purest form, by returning to the greatest Zen masters.

Zen teachings often appear deceptively simple. This misconception is compounded by the Zen claim that explanations are meaningless. They are, of course, but merely because genuine Zen insights can arise only from individual experience. And although our experience can be described and even analyzed, it cannot be transmitted or shared. At most, the “teachings” of Zen can only clear the way to our deeper consciousness. The rest is up to us.

Zen is based on the recognition of two incompatible types of thought: rational and intuitive. Rationality employs language, logic, and reason. Its precepts can be taught. Intuitive knowledge, however, is different. It lurks embedded in our consciousness, beyond words. Unlike rational thought, intuition cannot be “taught” or even turned on. In fact, it is impossible to find or manipulate this intuitive consciousness using our rational mind—any more than we can grasp our own hand or see our own eye.

The Zen masters devised ways to reach this repressed area of human consciousness. Some of their techniques — like meditation — were borrowed from Indian Buddhism, and some — like their antirational paradoxes — may have been learned from Chinese Taoists. But other inventions, like their jarring shouts and blows, emerged from their own experience. Throughout it all, however, their words and actions were only a means, never an end.

That end is an intuitive realization of a single great insight — that we and the world around us are one, both part of a larger encompassing absolute. Our rational intellect merely obscures this truth, and consequently we must shut it off, if only for a moment. Rationality constrains our mind; intuition releases it. The irony is that person glimpsing this moment of higher consciousness, this Oneness, encounters the ultimate realization that there is nothing to realize. The world is still there, unchanged. But the difference is that it is now an extension of our consciousness, seen directly and not analytically. And since it is redundant to be attached to something already a part of you, there is a sudden sense of freedom from our agonizing bondage to things.

Along with this also comes release from the constraints of artificial values. Creating systems and categories is not unlike counting the colors of a rainbow — both merely detract from our experience of reality, while at the same time limiting our appreciation of the world’s richness. And to declare something right or wrong is similarly nearsighted. As Alan Watts once observed, “Zen unveils behind the urgent realm of good and evil a vast region of oneself about which there need be no guilt or recrimination, where at last the self is indistinguishable from God.” And, we might add, where God is also one with our consciousness, our self. In Zen all dualities dissolve, absorbed in the larger reality that simply is.

None of these things is taught explicitly in Zen. Instead they are discovered waiting in our consciousness after all else has been swept away. A scornful twelfth-century Chinese scholar sum¬marized the Zen method as follows: “Since the Zen masters never run the risk of explaining anything in plain language, their followers must do their own pondering and puzzling — from which a real threshing-out results.” In these pages we will watch the threshing-out of Zen itself — as its masters unfold a new realm of consciousness, the Zen experience. (17)

Taoism: The Way to Zen

Taoism is the original religion of ancient China. It is founded on the idea that a fundamental principle, the Tao, underlies all nature. Long before the appearance of Zen, Taoists were teaching the superiority of intuitive thought, using an anti-intellectualism that often ridiculed the logic-bound limitations of conventional Chinese life and letters. However, Taoism was always upbeat and positive in its acceptance of reality, a quality that also rubbed off on Zen over the centuries. Furthermore, many Taoist philosophers left writings whose world view seems almost Zen-like. The early Chinese teachers of meditation (called dhyana in Sanskrit and Ch’an in Chinese) absorbed the Taoist tradition of intuitive wisdom, and later Zen masters often used Taoist expressions. It is fitting, therefore, that we briefly meet some of the most famous teachers of Chinese Taoism. (17)

Lao Tzu

One of the most influential figures in ancient Chinese lore is remembered today merely as Lao Tzu (Venerable Master). Taoist legends report he once disputed (and bettered) the scholarly Confucius, but that he finally despaired of the world and rode an oxcart off into the west, pausing at the Han-ku Pass — on the insistence of its keeper — to set down his insights in a five-thousand-character poem. This work, the Tao Te Ching (The Way and the Power), was an eloquent, organized, and lyrical statement of an important point of view in China of the sixth century B.C., an understanding later to become an essential element of Ch’an Buddhism.

The word “Tao” means many, many things — including the elan vital or life force of the universe, the harmonious structuring of human affairs, and — perhaps most important — a reality transcend¬ing words. Taoists declared there is a knowledge not accessible by language. As the Tao Te Ching announces in its opening line, “The Tao that can be put into words is not the real Tao.”

Also fundamental to the Tao is the unity of mind and matter, of the one who knows and the thing known. The understanding of a truth and the truth itself cannot be separated. The Tao includes and unifies these into a larger “reality” encompassing both. The notion that our knowledge is distinguishable from that known is an illusion.

Another teaching of the Tao Te Ching is that intuitive insight surpasses rational analysis. When we act on our spontaneous judgment, we are almost always better off. Chapter 19 declares, “Let the people be free from discernment and relinquish intellection… Hold to one’s original nature… Eliminate artificial learning and one will be free from anxieties.” The wise defer to a realm of insight floating in our mind beyond its conscious state.

Taoists also questioned the value of social organization, holding that the best government is the one governing least and that “the wise deal with things through non-interference and teach through no-words. Taoists typically refused to draw value judgments on others’ behavior. Lao Tzu asks, “What is the difference between good and bad?” and concludes, “Goodness often turns out to be evil.” There is complete acceptance of what is, with no desire to make things “better.” Lao Tzu believed “good” and “bad” were both part of Tao and therefore, “Even if a man is unworthy, Tao will never exclude him.” If all things are one, there can be no critical differentiation of any part. This concentration on inner perception, to the exclusion of practical concerns, evoked a criticism from the third-century-B.C. Confucian philosopher Hsun Tzu that has a curiously modern ring of social consciousness. “Lao Tzu under¬stood looking inward, but knew nothing of looking outward…. If there is merely inward-looking and never outward-looking, there can be no distinction between what value has and what has not, between what is precious and what is vile, between what is noble and what is vulgar.” But the refusal of Lao Tzu to intellectualize what is natural or to sit in judgment over the world was the perfect Chinese precedent for Ch’an. (17)

Chuang Tzu

The second important figure in Taoism is the almost equally legendary teacher remembered as Chuang Tzu, who is usually placed in the fourth century B.C., some two centuries after Lao Tzu. An early historian tells that once Chuang Tzu was invited to the court to serve as a minister, an invitation he declined with a typical story: An ox is selected for a festival and fattened up for several years, living the life of wealth and indulgence — until the day he is led away for sacrifice. At that reckoning what would he give to return to the simple life, where there was poverty but also freedom?

In Chuang Tzu’s own book of wisdom, he also derided the faith in rationality common to Chinese scholars. To emphasize his point, he devised a vehicle for assaulting the apparatus of logic — that being a “nonsense” story whose point could only be understood intui¬tively. There has yet to be found a more deadly weapon against pompous intellectualizing, as the Ch’an Buddhists later proved with the koan . Chuang Tzu also knew how quickly comedy could deflate, and he used it with consummate skill, again paving the way for the absurdist Zen masters. In fact, his dialogues often anticipate the Zen mondo , the exchanges between master and pupil that have comic/straight-man overtones.

In this regard, Chuang Tzu also sometimes anticipates twentieth-century writers for the Theater of the Absurd, such as Beckett or Ionesco. Significantly, the Columbia scholar Burton Watson suggests that the most fruitful path to Chuang Tzu “is not to attempt to subject his thoughts to rational and systematic analysis, but to read and reread his words until one has ceased to think of what he is saying and instead has developed an intuitive sense of the mind moving beyond the words, and of the world in which it moves.” This is undoubtedly true. The effect of comic parody on logic is so telling that the only way to really understand the message is to stop trying to “understand” it.

Concerning the limitations of verbal transmission, Chuang Tzu tells a story of a wheelmaker who once advised his duke that the book of ancient thought the man was reading was “nothing but the lees and scum of bygone men.” The duke angrily demanded an explanation — and received a classic defense of the superiority of intuitive understanding over language and logic.

I look at the matter in this way; when I am making a wheel, if my stroke is too slow, then it bites deep but is not steady; if my stroke is too fast, then it is steady, but does not go deep. The right pace, neither slow nor fast, cannot get into the hand unless it comes from the heart. It is a thing that cannot be put into words; there is an art in it that I cannot explain to my son. That is why it is impossible for me to let him take over my work, and here I am at the age of seventy, still making wheels. In my opinion, it must have been the same with the men of old. All that was worth handing on died with them; the rest, they put into their books.

Chuang Tzu’s parable that perhaps best illustrates the Taoist ideal concerns a cook who had discovered one lives best by following nature’s rhythms. The cook explained that his natural¬ness was easy after he learned to let intuition guide his actions. This approach he called practicing the Tao, but it is in fact the objective of Zen practice as well.

Prince Wen Hui remarked, “How wonderfully you have mastered your art.” The cook laid down his knife and said, “What your servant really cares for is Tao, which goes beyond mere art. When I first began to cut up oxen, I saw nothing but oxen. After three years of practicing, I no longer saw the ox as a whole. I now work with my spirit, not with my eyes. My senses stop functioning and my spirit takes over.”

What he described is the elimination of the rational mind, which he refers to as the senses, and the reliance upon the intuitive part of his mind, here called the spirit. He explained how this intuitive approach allowed him to work naturally.

A good cook changes his knife once a year because he cuts, while a mediocre cook has to change his every month because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and have cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the edge is as if it were fresh from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints. The blade of the knife has no thickness. That which has no thickness has plenty of room to pass through these spaces. Therefore, after nineteen years, my blade is as sharp as ever.

Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu did not see themselves as founders of any formal religion. They merely described the obvious, encouraging others to be a part of nature and not its antagonist. Their movement, now called Philosophical Taoism, was eclipsed during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) in official circles by various other systems of thought, most particularly Confucianism (which stressed obedience to authority — both that of elders and of superiors — and reverence for formalized learning, not to mention the acceptance of a structured hierarchy as part of one’s larger social responsibility). However, toward the end of the Han era, there arose two new types of Taoism: an Esoteric Taoism that used physical disciplines to manipulate consciousness, and a Popular Taoism that came close to being a religion in the traditional mold. The first was mystical Esoteric Taoism, which pursued the prolonging of life and vigor, but this gave way during later times to Popular Taoism, a metaphysical alternative to the comfortless, arid Confucianism of the scholarly establishment.

The post-Han era saw the Philosophical Taoism of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu emerge anew among Chinese intellectuals, actually coming to vie with Confucianism. This whole era witnessed a turning away from the accepted values of society, as the well-organized government of the Han era dissolved into political and intellectual confusion. Government was unstable and corrupt, and the Confucianism which had been its philosophical under¬pinning was stilted and unsatisfying. Whenever a society breaks down, the belief system supporting it naturally comes under question. This happened in China in the third and fourth centuries of the Christian era, and from it emerged a natural opposition to Confucianism. One form of this opposition was the imported religion of Buddhism, which provided a spiritual solace missing in the teachings of Confucius, while the other was a revival among intellectuals of Philosophical Taoism. (17)

Kuo Hsiang: A Neo-Taoist

In this disruptive environment, certain intellectuals returned again to the insights of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, creating a movement today known as Neo-Taoism. One of the thinkers who tried to reinterpret original Taoist ideas for the new times was Kuo Hsiang (d. ca. 312), who co-authored a major document of Neo-Taoism titled “Commentary on the Chuang Tzu.” It focused on the important Taoist idea of wu-wei , once explained as follows: “…to them the key concept of Taoism, wu (literally, nonexistence), is not nothingness, but pure being, which transcends forms and names, and precisely because it is absolute and complete, can accomplish everything. The sage is not one who withdraws into the life of a hermit, but a man of social and political achievements, although these achievements must be brought about through wu-wei, ‘nonaction’ or ‘taking no [unnatural] action.”

This concept of wu-wei has also been described as abstaining from activity contrary to nature and acting in a spontaneous rather than calculated fashion. In Kuo Hsiang’s words:

Being natural means to exist spontaneously without having to take any action…. By taking no action is not meant folding one’s arms and closing one’s mouth. If we simply let everything act by itself, it will be contented with its nature and destiny.

Kuo Hsiang’s commentary expanded on almost all the major ideas of Chuang Tzu, drawing out with logic what originally had been set in absurdism. Criticizing this, a later Ch’an monk observed, “People say Kuo Hsiang wrote a commentary on Chuang Tzu. I would say it was Chuang Tzu who wrote a commentary on Kuo Hsiang.” Nonethe¬less, the idea of wu-wei , processed through Buddhism, emerged in different guise in later Ch’an, influencing the concept of “no-mind. (17)

The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove

Other Chinese were content merely to live the ideas of Neo-Taoism. Among these were the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove — men part of a larger movement known as the School of Pure Conversation . Their favorite pastime was to gather north of Loyang on the estate of one of their members, where they engaged in refined conversation, wrote poetry and music, and (not incidentally) drank wine. To some extent they reflected the recluse ideal of old, except that they found the satisfaction of the senses no impediment to introspec¬tion. What they did forswear, however, was the world of getting and spending. Although men of distinction, they rejected fame, ambition, and worldly station.

There is a story that one of the Seven Sages, a man named Liu Ling (ca. 221–330), habitually received guests while completely naked. His response to adverse comments was to declare, “I take the whole universe as my house and my own room as my clothing. Why, then, do you enter here into my trousers?”

It is also told that two of the sages (Juan Chi, 210–63, and his nephew Juan Hsien) often sat drinking with their family in such conviviality that they skipped the nuisance of cups and just drank directly from a wine bowl on the ground. When pigs wandered by, these too were invited to sip from the same chalice. If one exempts all nature — including pigs — from distinction, discrimination, and duality, why exclude them as drinking companions?

But perhaps the most significant insight of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove was their recognition of the limited uses of language. We are told, “They engaged in conversation ’til, as they put it, they reached the Unnameable, and ‘stopped talking and silently understood each other with a smile.” (17)