The Theosophical Forum – February 1949

THE NATURE OF ZEN BUDDHISM — Christmas Humphreys

There are men, and plenty of them, who think that when something has been classified in accordance with the prevailing system of filing, they know more about it. But nothing has happened. Such men know nothing more about a flower to which they have in triumph added a Latin name of fourteen syllables; and they are no nearer to the spiritual experience known as Zen by announcing that Zen is this or that. Zen is, and the noises made in its presence affect it no more than a flower is impressed by its labeling.

Yet questions are asked, and some of these are worth answering.

Is Zen Buddhism a religion? It depends, of course, upon what is meant by religion.

It is not a religion in the sense that the term is popularly understood; for Zen has no God to worship, no ceremonial rites to observe, no future abode to which the dead are destined, and, last of all, Zen has no soul whose welfare is to be looked after by somebody else and whose immortality is a matter of intense concern with some people. Zen is free from all these dogmatic and "religious" encumbrances.
      — Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Suzuki, p. 14

If, on the other hand, it is as Professor Whitehead conceives it, the answer is otherwise.

It is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is a remote possibility and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.
      — Quoted in Diagnosis of Man, Walker, p. 100

Much depends on the alleged relationship of the Teacher to the Teaching which is later taught in his name. No Teacher ever founds a religion. He teaches, and men listen to his Teaching. He passes, as all else passes, and about the memory of his Teaching men build up, as a wall about some holy object, a system of thought and doctrine, of ceremonial and worship, which all too soon bears little resemblance to the Teacher's own attempt to promulgate his spiritual experience. In time, indeed, the religion becomes a substitute for the actual experience, and as such becomes evil. As Dr. Jung points out, "Creeds are codified and dogmatized forms of original religious experience," and these are easily used as shields against the terrors of direct experience.

What is usually and generally called "religion" is to such an amazing degree a substitute that I ask myself seriously whether this kind of "religion," which I prefer to call a creed, has not an important function in human society. The substitution has the obvious purpose of replacing immediate experience by a choice of suitable symbols invested in a solidly organized dogma and ritual.
      — Psychology and Religion, pp. 6 and 52

And as the purpose of Zen is "direct seeing into the heart of man," anything which stands between a man and such direct experience is evil, to be thrust aside as a barrier which intervenes between the seeker and his goal.

Yet religion can be used as a raft whereby to cross the raging flood of Samsara, and to reach the farther shore. But he is a fool who carries the raft thereafter, and religion is at the best a means to an end, to be cast aside when its purpose is fulfilled. And without doubt religions may be used to heal: "All religions," says Dr. Jung, "are therapies for the sorrows and disorders of the soul," for when the part is sick it seeks reunion with the whole, and religion, a re-binding, is a means for effecting, by penance and sacrifice and inward prayer, a re-integration of the soul. And in a way it would seem we are all sick men, for only in a state of consciousness beyond the desires of self lies health or wholeness, and until we find that light within we sit in the darkness of the soul's dis-ease.

It seems that man must have a religion, even though it should bear a disguise remote from its normal seeming.

Having lost the old faith, they turn eagerly to new ones, and science, psycho-analysis, spiritualism, social reform and nationalism have all in turn acted as substitutes for religion.
      — Diagnosis of Man, p. 243

Of these the most evil is the State. God, a convenient invention, may at least be a God of love. The State is cold, impersonal, has neither warmth nor love nor mystery: is purely conscious, having no controllable relation with the vast forces of the unconscious mind and being without heart, it rejects the devotee in the moment of his greatest need. Like all things large, it has no meaning, and I for one hate all things large, be it a department store, a limited company or a world society. These lack humanity; they make and are bound by foolish rules; they do not care. But "the race is run by one and one and never by two and two," and only one man, not a crowd or a nation or a committee, finds deliverance. In the end the Truth is beyond all formulation. Is it not written in the Diamond Sutra:

"Subhuti, what do you think? Has the Tathagata attained the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment? Has the Tathagata a teaching to enunciate?" And Subhuti answered, "As I understand the Buddha's meaning there is no formulation of truth called Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment. Moreover, the Tathagata has no formulated teaching to enunciate. Wherefore? Because the Tathagata has said that truth is uncontainable and inexpressible. It either is or it is not. Thus it is that this unformulated Principle is the foundation of the different systems of all the sages."
      — The Jewel of Transcendental Wisdom, p. 32

In brief, although Zen Buddhism is in some sense a religion, Zen itself is the light of all religions; it is not one of them.

Is Zen Buddhism truly a part of Buddhism? Or is it accidental that this fierce, direct approach to reality flowered from the stem of Buddhism, when it might equally have flowered elsewhere? To the extent that "Buddhism" limits Zen, Zen is not Buddhism, for "anything that has the semblance of an external authority is rejected by Zen." On the other hand, as Dr Suzuki also says, "If Buddhism were to develop in the Far East so as to satisfy the spiritual cravings of its people, it had to grow into Zen," which accords with his constant statement that Zen was the Chinese way of absorbing and applying Buddhism. (Introduction to Zen Buddhism, pp. 21,9)

Professor Coomaraswamy begins by describing Zen Buddhism as the more philosophical and mystical aspect of the Mahayana, and as essentially indifferent to iconolatry and to scriptural authority.

This phase of Mahayana is little determined by special forms, and can scarcely be said to have any other creed than that the kingdom of heaven is in the heart of man. This school of thought most fully represents the Mahayana as a world religion.
      — Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism

This is on account of its amazing flexibility. Being bound to no forms using any or no philosophy and all convenient manner of technique, Zen is the flowering of the mind from the seeds of spiritual experience. It is based upon, draws its life from and actually is the Enlightenment which made Prince Siddhartha, Kumar of the Kshattriyas, the Buddha, the Enlightened One. Zen is therefore the Buddh in Buddhism, and "the definition of Buddhism must be that of the life-force which carries forward a spiritual movement called Buddhism." One may therefore agree with Professor Kaiten Nukariya:

Beyond all doubt Zen belongs to Mahayanism, yet this does not imply that it depends on the scriptural authority of that school, because it does not trouble itself about the Canon, whether it be Hinayana or Mahayana, or whether it was directly spoken by Shakya Muni or written by some later Buddhists.

Or, one might add, written by a small boy on the nursery wall or published in the local railway guide. If it appeals to the intuition it is food for Zen; if not, it has no more value than a speech on politics. Zen Buddhism, in brief, appears in and uses the vehicle built for it called Zen Buddhism; it also appears on the race-course, in the cathedral, and in the w. c.

Within the fold of the Mahayana, Zen Buddhism is often referred to as the Meditation School. It uses meditation and, as already explained, the Zen-Do or Meditation Hall in a Zen monastery is the very heart of the community, but its meditation is far from the meaning of that term in India. There is no deliberate abstraction from the things of sense. Non-attachment, the cure for desire which is the cause of suffering, is an incidental development. Nor does it analyze phenomena, as in the Southern School of Buddhism, with a view to understanding their essential evanescence and "soul-lessness." Rather it seeks to develop the intuition, which cares not for the opposites and is neither attracted nor repelled. It is the Meditation Sect in that it uses profound meditation, with or without the koan exercise, as a means to the awakening of Buddhi, the intuitive faculty which is the light of Enlightenment. But it is by no means the Contemplative Sect which certain armchair scholars seem to believe. No one who has lived in a Zen Monastery would describe the life of the monks as contemplative in the sense applied to certain Christian Orders. "No work, no food," was laid down as the rule for the monks one thousand years ago, and the general impression of the daily round is one of strenuous activity. A koan may as well be solved with a spade in the hand as in locked, ecstatic silence, and the humblest chores are carried out with the same efficiency and good will as the longest session of deep meditation in the Zen-Do.

What, then, is the place of Zen Buddhism in the field of the Mahayana? It is a revolt from the formalism inherent in the Japanese character. Outwardly, there are services for the people, with the officiating priests appearing in the most gorgeous robes. Inwardly there is only the silent striving for direct experience, and every "form," however tenuous, is looked upon as a net to ensnare the awakening consciousness. Like a butterfly it rests on the branch of the tree of Wisdom which men for the moment call Buddhism. If it fluttered away it would still be — what it is.

Is Zen but a form of pantheism? Yes and no. If pantheism means, as my dictionary suggests, that the whole universe is God, or that every part of the universe is a manifestation of God, then Zen is not pantheism, for Zen would deny the validity of the partial conception of God. The Zen view, borrowed from Buddhist philosophy, is that behind or beyond the manifest is the absolute Void or Emptiness wherein no "thing" essentially exists. Yet there is no duality in the faintest conceivable form. The Void is a Plenum-Void; Samsara, the Wheel of Becoming, is Nirvana. There is no need for the interposition of an outside Reality called God. Human is divine. If there is a God, we are so much part of it and it of us that there is no difference. Why, then, make use of this man-made symbol in the sky? John Donne was near to the Buddhist conception, holding that "God is an angel in an angel, and a stone in a stone and a straw in a straw." For, as Dr. Suzuki points out,

In Zen each individual is an absolute entity, and as such he is related to all the other individuals, and this nexus of infinite interrelationships is made possible in the realm of Emptiness because they all find their being here even as they are, that is, as individual realities.
      — Zen Buddhism and its Influence on Japanese Culture, p. 220

This and no less is the tremendous theme of the Buddhist philosophy as developed particularly in the Kegon School. As he most reasonably adds to the above passage, "This may be difficult to grasp for those who are not trained in the Buddhist way of thinking." It is, however, essential to appreciate that the only philosophy of practical use in Zen is that which is based on the intuition. The intellect cannot grasp that the Many is the One without ceasing to be individual things; that the One can be Many and still be One. This is Jiji-Muge, the complete interfusion of opposites and, as such, a stage yet higher than the Brahman's "Thou art THAT," for even in THAT, says the Buddhist, thou art not a whit less thou!

Is Zen atheistic? Yes, if "God" is different from any other form of life which moves to its own enlightenment. "Buddhism is what the world is when you look straight at it," as somebody has said. Why, then, do so through the eyes of an intermediary?

It would, however, be more accurate to say, as Rene Guenon says, that

Buddhism is no more atheistic than it is theistic or pantheistic; all that need be said is that it does not place itself at the point of view where these various terms have any meaning.
      — Quoted in Walker's Diagnosis of Man, p. 184

We cannot know God intellectually; when we have learnt to know him, or the Reality of which he is the anthropomorphic dummy, intuitively, we have passed beyond the need of the conception of God. Even reasonably, the God of the Christians is an absurdity in terms of Zen. If he is good then he must be evil; if he is only good he is opposed to evil; in which case there are two things in the Universe, evil and God. If, on the other hand, God is a term for the absolute ultimate All, why chatter about it? "The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao," and in the same way,

Every statement about the transcendental ought to be avoided because it is invariably a laughable presumption on the part of the human mind, unconscious of its limitations.
      — Jung, Secret of the Golden Flower, p. 135

This is one of the many reasons why Zen hates and strives to avoid abstractions. When a question is put as to the meaning of such terms as Buddha-hood or Reality, the Zen Master invariably turns them down, making the questioner realize that they have no direct hold on life. As an example, the Master Ganto (829-887 a.d.) was asked, "What is the original, eternal reason?" "Moving," said the original Master. "What about it when moving?", asked the questioner. "It is no more the, eternal reason," replied Ganto, who for once "explained" his reply. "When you assert, you are still in the world of the senses; when you do not assert, you sink into the ocean of birth and death." In Zen, affirmation and denial are equal and opposite, and ultimately both are a waste of time. It is, therefore, wise to wipe out the folly of the pursuit of God, and lo! when the pursuit is finally abandoned he will be found waiting in the lounge.

Is Zen, then, a form of mysticism? Have it as you will, for it depends on what is meant by the much-abused and quite exhausted word. There are many forms of mysticism, which Evelyn Underhill defines as the art of union with Reality. Zen would suggest it were better to have tea, being grossly irreverent in the face of vague abstractions. Yet mysticism is a convenient term for the factor which alone gives life and warmth to all religion, and the lack of which makes mere intellectual reasoning such a cold, unprofitable ploy. It is this vision, this self-communion with the vast unconsciousness which lies about the circle of our conscious life which lifts mere verse into the realm of poetry, fires the imagination, the creative power of the mind, and makes of beauty in all its forms a nobler pursuit than the love of sensuous enjoyment. But it must not be controlled; it must never be fastened or confined. It is "the bloom on the hills at the close of day, the light on the hills at dawn," and if it be fastened to the mind's conception of some extra-cosmic God, though it may produce great poetry, with the love of the Beloved as a golden refrain, yet it cannot lead to the heart's enlightenment. For still the Lover and the Beloved are two, not one, and even in union there is still not an end. For if all things are reduced to the One, to what is the One reduced? Such mysticism may lift the eyes a long way up the hill, but the will o" the wisp of Zen still moves ahead, and its laughter is heard still further up the mountain side.


Early Buddhism stressed the necessity of individual effort. "Irrigators guide the water; fletchers straighten arrows, carpenters bend wood; wise men shape themselves." Thus the Dhammapada. Again, "Though a man should conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, he who conquers himself is the greatest warrior." And again, "By oneself evil is done; by oneself one suffers. By oneself evil is left undone; by oneself one is purified. Purity and impurity are personal concerns. No one can purify another." It is therefore strange that into such a noble and dynamic faith, with its clear command to control and purify the lower man until the last stain of personal desire and its consequent suffering is purged away, there should have crept, as late as the 13th century a.d., its very antithesis, the doctrine that effort, however splendid, will never of itself avail, and that faith must supply the deficiency. And the faith was not in the Buddha within, as a guide and teacher, but in Amida, the personified Principle of Buddha-hood who dwells in a conventional heaven. Only by Tariki, this "other Power," could man be saved; and after a while the middle way of Jodo Buddhism, with a balance of Jiriki, "self-power," and Tariki, was replaced by the extreme of Shin Buddhism, wherein all morality and the mind's development was declared to be of no importance so long as faith in Amida was held in the mind and repeated constantly. Thereafter Amida's vow, to save mankind, was sufficient means to Enlightenment, and all who believed would find themselves in the Pure Land of his All-Compassionate Mind. The basic doctrine of early Buddhism, whereby a man is the product of his thoughts and acts, and the sole creator of his destiny — no God nor all the powers of Heaven having the power to stand between — all this was ended. He who believed would be saved.

If it be argued that faith and love are stronger than the law of Karma, of action-reaction, then it is no law. I prefer the Christian doctrine, "Love is the fulfilling of the law," and regard it as the finer Buddhism. If it be said, and so it was said to me in Japan, that the original doctrine is too hard for the many, then let the many tread, as in other Buddhist countries, so far as they can up the hillside until they are ready for the noble truths of Buddhism. It seems to me wrong to describe this attitude as Buddhism. Of course, there is more to the Buddha's Teaching than this law of moral philosophy, of Karma and rebirth, but the element of love, of a wide compassion for all living things, is no monopoly of the Mahayana, and it is a power that comes, as all comes in the end, from within. "Seek in the impersonal for the Eternal Man, and having sought him out look inward — thou art Buddha."(1) True, this spiritual factor, which of course is Zen, may seem to come from without, and so produce an inner experience, or seem to come from within, in which case it will manifest without. But I cannot accept as Buddhism a School which denies the importance of self-development, nor, I gather, can Dr. Suzuki. "The absolute "other power" doctrine is not psychologically valid, nor metaphysically tenable." To the extent, therefore, that Zen Buddhism is on one side or other of this Japanese fence, it is undoubterly Jiriki, moving by "self-power" to its own and the world's Enlightenment. There is a well known story in Zen which may be summarized here. A monk named Dogen, who sought enlightenment, was sent on a very long errand which he thought would interfere with his studies. Sogen, a fellow monk, took pity on him and agreed to accompany him. One evening, when Dogen implored his friend to help him solve the mystery of life, Sogen told him there were five things which he could not do for his friend — to eat and drink for him, to respond to the calls of nature for him, and to carry the "corpse" of his body along the way. Dogen saw the point in a flash, and attained satori. But presumably the truth is some way above and beyond this pair of opposites. Dr. Suzuki himself has written of the inner truth of Tariki Buddhism, and is in fact a Professor of the Otani College of the principal Shin Temple in Kyoto. And it was the Prince Abbot of the twin monastery of the Nishi Hongwanji in Kyoto who presided, as I have related elsewhere, at the Conference at which I debated this point with his pundits. In the end he announced, "Mr. Humphreys is right; Tariki and Jiriki alike are means." And that, as I said in my book, (2)"ended the discussion."

Tariki and Jiriki, then, are both means to an end, another of the opposites which only exist as such on the plane of discrimination. But as Zen is itself above such a plane it must exist in both "means" equally, though its principal vehicle, Zen Buddhism, is unquestionably of the Jiriki School. It is in the degradation of a spiritual truth that evil lies, in teaching the people that morality and character-building are of no importance. A balance must be obtained, and in practice I found that it was so in all but the lowest rank of the Pure Land followers. Thus

Self-hood is revealed in otherness and otherness in self-hood, which means a complete interpenetration of subject and object, Amida and his devotees. And we can see that Buddhism is after all one, and remains so in spite of apparent diversity.
      — The Eastern Buddhist, Vol. IV, Part 2, p. 32 (of reprint)


The ideal of the Thera Vada was and is the Arhat, he who by his own efforts attains Enlightenment. But as the Mahayana developed, this limited ideal was held to be insufficient.

His object of spiritual discipline does not extend beyond his own interest, however exalted it may be in itself, — the object being the attainment of Arhatship, a solitary saintly life. This is all well as far as it goes, but as we are all living within a most complicately organized communal body, not excepting even a Buddha or a Bodhisattva, we have to think of this side of life. The conception of a Bodhisattva was thus inevitable.
      — Suzuki, Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra, p. 124

But is it all as simple as all that? "The sages of old got Tao for themselves, then gave it to others," said the Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu. Or, in the words of the Dhammapada, "Let a wise man first go the right way himself, then teach others." After all, there is precisely one mind which he can purify, his own; one character to be ennobled, one vision to be widened, his own. How shall he save another from the burning house of desire, that has not saved himself? The change, it would seem, is from depth to width, from the profound study of the few, reaching the whole way to the goal, to a more superficial improvement of the many. As such it may have been an "inevitable conception," but I cannot lightly accept that the Arhat is the less noble ideal. It is, therefore, to be noted that elsewhere Dr. Suzuki modifies his view.

The Arhat and the Bodhisattva are essentially the same. But the Mahayanists, perceiving a deeper sense in Enlightenment as the most important constituent element in the attainment of the final goal of Buddhism, which is spiritual freedom, . . . did not wish to have it operated in themselves only, but wanted to see it realized in every being, sentient and non sentient.
      — Essays in Zen Buddhism, I, p. 52

Thus was born the Bodhisattva doctrine which, running as a golden thread through the whole Mahayana, affects Zen Buddhism. The single aim of the Hinayanist became dual. Mahayana stood thereafter on two legs, Maha-Prajna, supreme wisdom, and Maha-Karuna, supreme compassion for all living things. Of these Dr. Suzuki says, in a most illuminating phrase, that "the former sees into the unity of things, and the latter appreciates their diversity." (Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra, p. 229)

He expands this in The Essence of Buddhism, when talking of Jiji-muge.

It is by the Great Compassionate Heart that the Kegon world of Jiji muge moves. If it were just to reflect one individual Ji after another in the mirror of Ri, the world would cease to be a living one, becoming simply an object of contemplation for the hermit or Arhat. It is the Heart indeed that tells us that our own self is a self only to the extent that it disappears into all other selves, non-sentient as well as sentient. . . .
      — The Essence of Buddhism, p. 55

This mystical sense of union is, of course, found alike in eastern and western philosophy. Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Diary, "Enter into every man's Inner Self, and let every man enter into thine." And John Donne's famous observation is in the same vein. "Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee."

The Bodhisattva, therefore, at first a name reserved for the few who had neared Nirvana, but later applied to all who vowed to live for the benefit of mankind, was raised as a nobler ideal than that of the Arhat, and the latter was covertly regarded as a selfish aim. Yet

in finding fault with the Hinayanist ideal, the Mahayanist failed to realize that a selfish being could not become an arahant, which consisted in a spiritual exaltation which transcended the limitations of temporal individuality. In what intelligible sense can a system which aims at the elimination of the phenomenal ego be described as egoistic? . . . The arahant could not have reached full spiritual development if he had failed to act in accordance with the principle that each man forms a part of a spiritual whole of which all of his fellow men are also parts, and that to serve them is to enrich, while to neglect them is to impoverish, his own higher self.
      — Buddhist China, R. F. Johnston, p. 73

But whether or not the Arhat is selfish, and whether or not in his narrower objective he avoids the pitfalls of the rival doctrine, including those of over-officiously minding other people's business, the Bodhisattva ideal does liberate the force of compassion. Every monk in a Mahayana monastery recites at intervals the "Four great Vows."

However innumerable sentient beings are
     I vow to save them;
However inexhaustible the passions are
     I vow to extinguish them;
However immeasurable the Dharmas are
     I vow to study them;
However incomparable the Buddha-truth is
     I vow to attain it.

Thus China and Japan make echo to that noblest of all works of Northern Buddhism, The Voice of the Silence. For depth of spiritual feeling and purity of thought it is in a class of its own. Even the Metta Sutta of the Thera Vada is but the song of human love as against the "pure serene" of this ancient Tibetan fragment.

Let thy Soul lend its ear to every cry of pain like as the lotus bares its heart to drink the morning sun.

Let not the fierce sun dry one tear of pain before thyself hast wiped it from the sufferer's eye.

But let each burning human tear drop on thy heart and there remain; nor ever brush it off until the pain that caused it is removed.

"To live to benefit mankind," is the first step on the Path, not the last, in this philosophy, and it is dynamic.

Point out the "Way" — however dimly, and lost among the host — as does the evening star to those who tread their path in darkness. . . . Give light and comfort to the toiling pilgrim, and seek out him who knows still less than thou . . . let him hear the Law.

Love is a noble theme, and love itself may be, as Aldous Huxley says, a mode of knowledge,\

and when the love is sufficiently disinterested and sufficiently intense, the knowledge becomes unitive knowledge and so takes on the quality of infallibility.
      — The Perennial Philosophy, p. 81

There is, indeed, as W. J. Gabb points out, "a kindness of the heart and a kindness of the head. Kindness of the heart prompts us to shake up the pillows of a bed-ridden sufferer, but Jesus told such an one to take up his bed and walk." (From the MS. of a lecture). Love, to be wise, must be lit with Prajna, Wisdom; and Wisdom cannot be complete that is devoid of Love. Thus once more the pair are a pair of opposites and Zen, that seeks not wisdom nor love, being both on the plane of the opposites, drives straight for the state of consciousness which lies beyond all opposites, where Wisdom and Love, Arhat and Bodhisattva, are one — and at the same time what they severally are.


Where is Zen in relation to morality? This is a vague term, having at least two meanings. It may refer to our relations with our fellow men and other forms of life. As such it equates with ethics, and would scarcely obtain if one were alone on a desert island. It may also refer to the inner life of the mind, and equate with character building, the elimination of low desires and qualities, and their replacement with nobler qualities. What does Zen have to say about either? Does it take the view of Shin Buddhism at its most extreme, that morality is of no importance so long as the mind be concentrated on the light within? Or does it regard the moral cleansing of the mind as an essential preliminary to further growth? Or does it consider that when the kingdom of Heaven is attained, all else shall be added unto you — that right morality is the result rather than the cause of satori, enlightenment?

It seems that Zen adheres to the doctrine of causation as governing the world of duality in which we live. "As ye sow, so shall ye also reap," is the doctrine known in the East as Karma, action-reaction. Zen, therefore, denies the convenient doctrine of sin-transference, whereby the great ones of the earth apply to those less fortunate, i.e. more lazy, the surplus of their own tremendous merit, acquired from innumerable good deeds. But the law of causation is tempered with compassion, for the love of the loving minds of the earth will affect the incidence of woe, and make the suffering to be borne as the result of folly easier to bear. Moreover, Zen, being of the essence of freedom, resents all rules which hamper and confine the mind. According to Dr. Suzuki, this is one of the reasons for the Japanese preference for art over morality. "Morality is regulative, but art creative. The one is an imposition from without, but the other is an irrepressible expression from within." (Zen Buddhism and its Influence on Japanese Culture, p. 21) Zen, he concludes, therefore, finds its inevitable association with art, but not with morality. For rigid form is a symptom of departing life.

When the great Tao is lost, spring forth benevolence and righteousness. When Wisdom and sagacity arise, there are great hypocrites. Where Tao is, equilibrium is. When Tao is lost, out come all the differences of things.

This spiritual principle applies specially to the artificial distinctions of "good" and "bad," and Taoism is at least consistent in its philosophy in that it has no moral code.

The Sage has no self (to call his own). He makes the self of the people his self. To the good I act with goodness; to the bad I also act with goodness.
     — Tao Te Ching, chs. 18, 49

Why formulate rules unless the original sense of "right" has been somehow paralyzed?

Zen admits that outward conduct should conform with the laws of the state and the customs of the time, but the inner life should be above all rules imposed from without.

Definition is always limitation — the "fixed" and "changeless" are but terms expressive of a stoppage of growth. . . . People are not taught to be really virtuous, but to behave properly.
      — The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzo, p. 53

Yet some degree of discipline is needed, and it is useful so long as it comes from within. It is desire which has to be corrected, not action, for we behave according as we will, and it is an old truth that behind will stands desire. And desire will be purified as the higher, intuitive range of mind increasingly gains control. There is danger in the denial of both good and evil as having real validity, for gross immorality can appear thereby. Zen monasteries are therefore run to a discipline, but it is a control shared willingly, as distinct from a set of rules which most, when occasion offers, will be swift to disobey.

In Zen there is one enemy in the path of final enlightenment, and this is self, the self which stands between a man and the sun while he bitterly complains that it is dark. For self is a knot in the flow of life, an obstruction in the flow of becoming. Life walks on and we strive to prevent it. Yet how bitter our complaint when we are hurt thereby!

A Master was asked, "What is the Way?" "What a fine mountain this is," he said, referring to the mountain where he had his retreat. "I am not asking you about the mountain, but about the Way." "As long as you cannot go beyond the mountain you cannot reach the Way," replied the Master.

The same Master was asked the same question by another monk. "It lies right before your eyes," said the Master.

Why do I not see it for myself?     

You do not, because of your egoistic notion.     

If I do not because of my egoistic notion, do you?     

So long as you have dualistic views, saying "I don't" and "You do" and
     so on, your eyes are bedimmed by this relativity view.     

When there is neither "I" nor "You," can one see it?     

When there is neither "I" nor "You," who is it that wants to see?
      — Essays in Zen Buddhism, III, pp. 298-9

The "self may acquire merit unceasingly by virtuous thoughts and actions, but, as Bodhidharma explained to the Chinese Emperor, such merit, though it will by the law of cause-effect improve the character, will have no bearing on the fact of enlightenment. Zen begins where morality leaves off, and its subsequent progress is on a plane where the opposites, like "good" and "bad," have lost their meaning. As Kaiten Nukariya pithily puts it, "Man is not Good-natured or Bad-natured, but Buddha-natured" (Religion of the Samurai, page 105).

It is not right conduct, therefore, which matters, but right thinking, thought which springs from the Essence of Mind. Right conduct may be performed in obedience to a moral code, and have no relation to the mind. Right thinking, however, liberated from the illusion of the opposites, will automatically produce "right action," the third step on the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. "Form and virtue and charity, and duty to one's neighbour, these are accidents of the spiritual," said the Taoist, Chuang Tzu, having in mind, no doubt, the dull Confucian of his day whose life was bound by rigid obedience to an endless code of equally rigid rules.

Zen ethic, therefore, springs from a sense of the unimportance of self, and is fed by the understanding of this fact which flows from the increasing light of enlightenment. Hence the willingness to help all living things to the same liberation of mind. As the Lama said in Talbot Mundy's immortal Om,

My son, there is no such thing as sacrifice, except in the imagination. There is opportunity to serve, and he who overlooks it robs himself. Would you call the sun's light sacrifice?

As a Zen Abbot said to me in Kyoto, "Get Enlightenment; the rest follows," yet, as Alan Watts points out,

While morality should not be confused with religion, it does take one a certain distance towards the goal; it cannot go the whole way because morality is essentially rigid and limiting, and Zen begins where morality leaves off.
      — The Spirit of Zen, p. 63

Like the intellect, it must be used and then transcended. Meanwhile, perhaps Aldous Huxley should have the last word of all these quotations.

The relationship between moral action and spiritual knowledge is circular, as it were, and reciprocal. Selfless behaviour makes possible an accession of knowledge, and the accession of knowledge makes possible the performance of further and more genuinely selfless actions, which in their turn enhance the agent's capacity for knowing.
      — The Perennial Philosophy, p. 129

And so on, until this pair of opposites is merged in Zen.

(To be continued)


1. The Voice of the Silence, p. 35 (return to text)

2. Via Tokyo, p. 74. (return to text)

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