The Theosophical Forum – March 1949

IN SEARCH OF ZEN — Christmas Humphreys

Asked, "What is Zen?", there is only one truthful answer, "That's it!" For Zen is beyond description. It is the life within form and only a form can be described. It refuses to commit itself to any specified pattern of thinking, to conform to the rules of man's imagining, to fill any mold. "It is a world-power, for in so far as men live at all, they live by Zen." (Blyth, Zen in English Literature, p. vii). If this be vague it is not the fault of Zen but the fault of the mind's persistent refusal to focus on truth, preferring the forms of truth. Yet Zen, "though far from indefinite, is by itself indefinable because it is the active principle of life itself" (Ibid., p. 2). Nor is its teaching vague. Coal is black, says Zen. Coal is not black, says Zen. This is clear enough, and both are equally true — or untrue. For Zen slips from the grasp out of either trap, affirmation or denial, both of which limit the boundless, cage the illimitable. Below sense is nonsense, where understanding has not reached the plane of formulated truth. Beyond sense lies non-sense, when the limits of all formulation have been transcended, and only a smile or the lifting of a flower can reveal a shared experience.

Zen is a way of looking at life, a rather unusual way. For it is the direct way, whereby all things are seen just as themselves, and not otherwise, and yet at the same time seen as the interfused aspects of a whole. In Zen all things are ends in themselves, while having no end. To the pure all things are pure; to the Essence of Mind all things just are. And the nearer we are to the Essence of Mind the nearer we are to the things about us which are and yet are not the Essence of Mind. "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow . . ." said Jesus. "Consider the flower in the crannied wall," said Tennyson. Consider anything you please, but just consider it, not as a symbol of eternity, as God in miniature, as a moral lesson or a Great White Hope, but just consider it. "Mysticism uses the object, the finite, as a telescope to look into the infinite. Zen looks at the telescope" (Blyth, p. 216). As the Master Jimyo said, "As soon as one particle of dust is raised, the great earth manifests itself there in its entirety." It is there, all of it, not symbolically, but actually. There is no need to do more than just to consider it, whatever it may be. The flower is enjoyed for what it is, not otherwise, and he who can rightly look at a flower, without a shadow of aught else intervening, is looking at Zen. Thereafter he is in direct communion with all living things, and who shall hate these toes and fingers of his larger self which lie on the mind's periphery? For they are God, if you care to call them so, or Reality, and therefore deserving the gesture which a lover of Zen may pay with the raised hands of respect to a landscape or a noble picture or even to his bowl of tea. Or they are brothers, born of the same father, life, out of the same mother, illusion; or they just are.

For those who prefer the language of modern psychology, he who has achieved this power of direct and therefore illumined vision

is no longer preoccupied with the images of things but merely contains them. The fullness of the world which heretofore pressed upon it [his consciousness], loses none of its richness and beauty, but no longer rules consciousness. The magical claim of things has ceased because the primordial interweaving of consciousness with the world has finally been disentangled. The unconscious is not projected any more, and so the primal participation mystique with things is abolished. Therefore, consciousness is no longer preoccupied with compulsive motives, but becomes vision.
      — Secret of the Golden Flower, Jung, pp. 121-2

Zen is therefore a matter of experience, and if this has been said many times before, there is little else to be said. It has a subject but no object. It is impersonal, undirected, purposeless. There is no reference in the vast literature of recorded satori to union with the Beloved, or of union at all. Zen is a zip-fastener between the opposites. It passes, and they are no more. Yet they are, as none shall deny that once more opens the fastener. Zen is dynamic; it moves and will not wait to be expressed or fastened by the ankle with a phrase. Like Tao,

When one looks at it, one cannot see it;
When one listens to it, one cannot hear it;
But when one uses it, it is inexhaustible.
     — Tao Te Ching, Chap. 35

Still less can it be the subject of chatter, still less possessed. Said a Master to a pupil who talked about Zen, "You have one trivial fault. You have too much Zen." "But is it not natural for a student of Zen to talk about Zen?" asked the puzzled student. "Why do you hate talking about Zen?" intervened a fellow student. "Because it turns my stomach," said the Master. Well?

Zen has no form, and therefore it has no religion or philosophy of its own. It flowers on a hundred stems, and may use any man-made system to climb to its own integrity. Yet whatever it uses is a substitute for Zen, a mere finger pointing to the moon. No thing, no compound of matter or thought or feeling, must be thought to be the moon when it is but the finger. Or is it the moon?

Zen is a state of consciousness beyond the opposites. It is also the way to such a condition. It has no form and destroys the forms which are made for it. "Coal is black" may be true. So, says Zen, is the opposite, that coal is not black. Both statements limit the truth by an intellectual equation between two things of relative existence. Do we know the coal any more by sticking upon it the label "black'?

Yet the mind is partial to clothing for truth, being prudish-minded about her essential nakedness. Even Bodhidharma is said to have laid down the four fundamental principles already set out. Let us consider them.


Is Zen, then, esoteric? Some say yes, that in fact it never had an exoteric form. The Robe was handed down from Patriarch to Patriarch, and for a long time nothing of this "transmission" was written down. In the Samyutta Nijaya of the Pali Canon is the famous story of the simsapa leaves. Taking up a handful of leaves, the Buddha asked his disciples, "What think ye, Brethren, which are the more, these leaves that I hold in my hand or those in the grove above?" The inevitable answer being given, he made his point. "Just so, those things that I know but have not revealed are greater by far than those that I have revealed. . . . And why have I not revealed them? . . . Because they do not conduce to profit, are not concerned with the holy life." To those who have need of words to communicate experience, there is a limit to what may be taught with profit. Yet those who have opened the "third eye" of the intuition may speak with the Master on his own exalted plane.

A Confucian came to a Master to be initiated into Zen. The Master quoted Confucius, "Do you think I am holding something back from you? Indeed, I have held nothing back!" The Confucian was about to answer, when the Master thundered, "No!" The enquirer was troubled in his mind, but later, when walking in the mountains with the Master, they passed the wild laurel in bloom, and the air was redolent. "Do you smell it?" asked the Master. "There," he said, when the Confucian agreed, "I have kept back nothing from you!"

There is, therefore, a transmission outside the Scriptures, yet these Scriptures form a remarkable body of literature. All alike must be read with the intuition.

They are direct expressions of spiritual experience, they contain intuitions gained by digging down deeply into the abyss of the Unconscious, and they make no pretension of presenting them through the mediumship of the intellect.
      — Essays in Zen Buddhism, Suzuki, III, p. 7

None is canonical in the sense that it is authoritative, for Buddhism knows no authority. The most used Scriptures are the Lankavatara Sutra, bequeathed to the fold of Zen by Bodhidharma; the Diamond Sutra, the hearing of which converted the 6th Patriarch, Hui-neng; the Sutra of Hui-neng (Wei-lang) himself, and perhaps the Huang-Po Doctrine of Universal Mind. All these are available in English. Portions of the Avatamsaka Sutra, described by Dr. Suzuki as the consummation of Buddhist thought and Buddhist experience, appear in Mrs. Suzuki's Mahayana Buddhism. In Zen monasteries in Japan the Prajnaparamita-hridaya Sutra (the Shing-yo), being short, is recited on all occasions, and the Kwannon Sutra, the Japanese name for the Samantamukha-parivarta, appears very frequently. But all these are, as Kaiten Nukariya calls them, "religious currency representing spiritual wealth." They are substitutes, at the best, for actual experience. Indeed, the scorn of the Zen practitioner for the printed word has at times been carried too far. Even the ability to read and write has been frowned upon, and the utmost ignorance of normal affairs been praised as a virtue. This is the folly of extremes, like the burning of books. Though the finger points to the moon and is not the moon, it is foolish to cut off the finger until the way to the moon is clear. Even if "the Universe is the Scripture of Zen," as Mr. Nukariya insists, there are volumes in which its learning is made more immediately available. Yet "the man who talks much of the Teaching but does not practise it, is like a cowman counting another's cattle; he is no disciple of the Blessed One" (Dhammapada, v. 19); or, in the later words of Hui-neng,

Whether Sutra-reciting will enlighten you or not depends on yourself. He who recites the Sutra with the tongue and puts its teaching into actual practice with the mind "turns round" the Sutra. He who recites it without putting it into practice is "turned round" by the Sutra.
      — Sutra of Wei Lang, pp. 70-1


This seems but an extension of the first, almost the antiphonal principle of the Psalms. Yet it rubs the lesson in. Words are but marks on paper or noises in the air. At the best they are symbols for the truth, substitutes, and poor ones, for another's experience.

"Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know," says the Tao Te Ching, yet words are needed to transcend words, and intellection is needed to rise above the intellect, except that this rising must not be made in a dualistic or "escapist" sense, for no such escape is here possible.
      — The Essence of Buddhism, Suzuki, p. 26

Words are the pins on which the butterflies of life are stuck to a board. They may look pretty, but their raison d'etre has gone. Words exist for their meaning, of which they are but the shadow, and if they enshrine some part of the meaning, they probably obscure still more. Hence the Zen search for other and better ways to convey experience. These methods, a shout, a blow, a joke, a paradox or gesture, silence itself, are more direct as a medium, and

this medium functions "directly" and "at once" as if it were the experience itself — as when deep calls to deep. This direct functioning is compared to one brightly burnished mirror reflecting another which stands facing the first with nothing in between.
      — Philosophy, East and West, Suzuki, p. 113

Some "devices" are frowned upon in Zen. Images have their value as a focus point for concentration and for the paying of respect to the memory of the Teacher whose Enlightenment is Zen. But not otherwise.

When the Master Tanka was bitterly cold he took a wooden image from the shrine of the temple where he was staying and put it in the fire. The keeper of the shrine was not unnaturally horrified. But Tanka was poking about in the ashes with his stick. "What are you looking for?" asked the keeper. "The holy sariras," said the Master, referring to the relics said to be found in the ashes of a saint. "But there aren't any in a wooden Buddha," said the keeper. "Then give me the other two images," said Tanka.

Zen is indeed iconoclastic. "Do not linger where the Buddha is, and where he is not, pass on." When Jo-shu found a monk in the temple worshiping the image of the Buddha he struck him with his staff. "Is there not anything good in the worship of the Buddha?" asked the monk. "Nothing is better than anything good," was the famous reply.


Zen points, and is what is pointed at. This "soul" or hsin, the Chinese word which covers inmost heart or mind, is the Tao of the Taoist; to the Buddhist, the Buddha within. All that points to it points truly, and according to Zen all things are fingers pointing to the same experience. The way is clear enough; it is a process of dropping the veils which we hold in front of us, all of them, not a carefully selected few. "Straightforwardness is the holy place, the Pure Land," said Hui-neng, quoting the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. And between the two ends of straightforwardness nothing at all must intervene. Speaking of the folly of definition, a monk asked a Master, "Am I right when I have no idea?" Jyoshu, the Master, answered, "Throw away that idea of yours." "What can I throw away?" asked the monk. "You are free, of course, to carry about that useless idea of no idea." The monk, it is said, was enlightened. Then why, if this be true, do we need a library of books wherewith to find ourselves? For fifteen hundred years Zen Masters have "pointed" without them, and as Dr. Suzuki asks, "when a syllable or a wink is enough, why spend one's life in writing huge books, or building a grandiose cathedral?" — The Eastern Buddhist, Vol. VI, p. 121 (All right — I know, but this is my way of learning Zen.)


This nature is hsin, the personal veil which hides from us the Essence of Mind. It is everywhere and everything, and when anything is suddenly seen for what it is, then hsin is seen, and Zen. Pointing to a stone in front of his temple, To-shi said, "All the Buddhas of the past, the present and the future are living therein." But this would not have stopped him using the stone as a hammer to crack nuts. When Tennyson plucked the flower from the crannied wall and held it in his hand he realized, "But if I could understand what you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is." But as R. H. Blyth (p. 68) points out, a Zen master might take the flower and crush it and ask, "Now do you know what God and man is?" For the crushing of the flower is like the burning of the text book; it destroys the last veil, in this case of sentiment, which hid from the poet the essence of the flower. Things, in brief, are not symbols, but things, and the whole of Samsara, the manifested Universe, is only the Essence of Mind in reverse. See it "right," and it is One, though none the less a rose, or a committee meeting, or a pint of beer. Such is the nature of things, and

This Nature is the Mind, and the Mind is the Buddha, and the Buddha is
the Way, and the Way is Zen. To see directly into one's original Nature,
this is Zen.
      — Essays in Zen Buddhism, I, p. 220

What are the symptoms of awakening Zen? They are many, and may be better considered in the chapter relating to Satori. Yet here are three.

There is, first, an increasing serenity, however disturbed at times by the usual gusts of emotion or doubt. There is a sense of certainty, not boastful or aggressive in manifestation, but peaceful, as of a ship which, storm-tossed in a sea still visible, now lies safe-harbored while the storm howls overhead. There is a withdrawal of interest from the manifold means of escape from Reality in which we pass our lives, an increasing intensity of purpose and awareness which yet has lost to a large extent the quality of tension. There is a sense of airiness, of the lightness which comes of dropping the burden of self and its desires, of the health and vigor of youth on the uplands of new thought in the dawn-light of the world. There is a sense of returning, a feeling of having recovered the natural simplicity of life which springs from the rediscovery of our Essence of Mind. There is even a sense of inconsequence, from understanding of the relative unimportance of habitual affairs. Yet at the same time there is a growing awareness of the significance of things and events, impersonal now, but immediate. The humblest act is a sacrament, the humblest thing, mind-made though it is, is now of absolute value. There is, in brief, an increasing sense of balance, a refusal to rest the mind in any of the pairs of opposites, a refusal, indeed, to let the mind rest anywhere at all.

This firm refusal comes from a new-born sense of flow. Asked, "What is Zen?" a Master replied, "Walk on!" For life is like a river, filling each form and bursting its limitations as it moves unceasing on. It is therefore useless to sit down in achievement, or in any concept, even "Zen." Hsin, (in Japanese, shin) becomes mu-shin, "no mind," for who shall confine the sunset or the morning wind in a labeled box of thought, however splendid its construction and design? Speaking of Hui-neng, Dr. Suzuki writes,

The Mind or Self-Nature was to be apprehended in the midst of its working or functioning. The object of dhyana (Zen) was thus not to stop the working of Self-Nature but to make us plunge right into its stream and seize it in the very act. His intuitionalism was dynamic. . . . [For] the truth of Zen is the truth of life, and life means to live, to move, to act, not merely to reflect. Is it not the most natural thing for Zen, therefore, that its development should be towards acting or rather living its truth instead of demonstrating or illustrating its truth in words, that is to say, with ideas? In the actual living of life there is no logic, for life is superior to logic . . . Zen is to be explained, if explained it should be, rather dynamically than statically. When I raise the hand thus, there is Zen. But when I assert that I have raised the hand, Zen is no more there.
      — Essays in Zen Buddhism, Suzuki, 207, 283-4

"Be prepared," say the Boy Scouts, echoing Hamlet's

If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come
It will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come:
The readiness is all.

Hence the value of what Geraldine Coster calls "sitting loose to life," a fluid adaptability to unyielding circumstance, attached to nothing, experiencing all.

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the Joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity's sunrise.
      — William Blake

Security, to many the principal purpose of life, is seen to be as undesirable as it is impossible of attainment. Emily Dickinson is right.

In insecurity to lie
Is Joy's insuring quality.

In brief, without thought of security or achievement, or any purpose, much less an ultimate goal, "Walk on!"

A third of the many symptoms of awakening Zen, and the last to be mentioned here, is a sense of "rightness." "All that happens happens right," said the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. "I know that the enterprise is worthy. I know that things work well. I have heard no bad news — " thus Thoreau, and they are brave and splendid words. From the first experience of Zen is born a willingness to let things happen, a diminishing desire to control the Universe, even though the purpose be to "rebuild it, nearer to the heart's desire." Action becomes increasingly "right action," done without haste or delay, without thought of self, without thought of merit or reward.

He who pursues learning will increase every day.
He who pursues Tao will decrease every day.
He will decrease and continue to decrease
Till he comes to non-action;
By non-action everything can be done.
      — Tao Te Ching, Chap. 48

Yet herein lies the paradox of personality. As self dies out, the true self grows. Of the Tao or Zen it is later said,

When merits are accomplished it does not lay claim to them.
Because it does not lay claim to them, therefore it does not lose them.
      — Ibid, Chap. 51

The secret lies in action in inaction, or inaction in action, as explained at length in the Bhagavad-Gita. Deeds are done because it is "right" to do them, regardless of consequence, and merit; the results of right action which accrue to the doer as long as there is a "doer" to receive them, are a by-product which comes, like happiness, unsought.

Yet the habit of right action is itself presumably the result of previous lives of merit-producing action, by which the mind, increasingly lightened of the weight of personal desire, is slowly enlarged by the deliberate expansion, in range and depth, of its activity. I found in The Westminster Problems Book (1908), a delightful quatrain by Philip Castle which puts this admirably.

     Good Taste

Merit acquired in incarnations past,
And now by the unconscious self held fast;
So the hand strikes the right chord, in the dark,
And, codeless, runs the right flag to the mast.

For the law of Karma, action-reaction, operates unceasingly as long as a self exists to receive the consequences, "good" or "bad" of action. Hence the advice in The Voice of the Silence:

Follow the wheel of life; follow the wheel of duty to race and kin, to friend and foe, and close thy mind to pleasures as to pain. Exhaust the law of karmic retribution. . . .

And the law can only be exhausted, as already set out, by exhausting the selfish desires which keep alive the separate, personal self.

Buddhism in the East is known as the Buddha-Dharma (Pali: Dhamma). The word Dharma has a vast variety of meaning, one of which is "duty." But duty in English has the unpleasant connotation of compulsion. It is something which ought to be done but which generally speaking, we do not wish to do. Yet in the Buddhist sense it is that which is the next thing to be done, and the emotional labels of dislike or like are not applied. One just does it. In a memorable passage Chuang Tzu says,

To act by means of inaction is Tao. To speak by means of inaction is exemplification of Tao. . . . To follow Tao is to be prepared. [Cf. "The readiness is all."] And not to run counter to the natural bias of things is perfect. — p. 137

This "natural bias of things" is the rhythm of nature, the rhythm of the Universe.

It connotes acting in harmony with the swing of the Universe — whether spiritually, intellectually or in the least movement of the body — from the physical movements of the dance of happy youth to the dance of the planets about the sun and the systems about the infinite.
      — The Story of Oriental Philosophy, Adams Beck, p. 413

Alan Watts has much to say of this in The Meaning of Happiness. Talking of the Taoist conception of the significance of the moment, he says that this implies that all things happening now have a definite relation to one another just because they have occurred together in time, if for no other reason.

This is another way of saying that there is a harmony called Tao which blends all events in each moment of the Universe into a perfect chord. The whole situation in and around you at this instant is a harmony with which you have to find your own union if you are to be in accord with Tao.

The right life, therefore, is the natural life, and he who has found and lives in Zen lives naturally. To what extent his new found harmony affects his outward life, to bring his outward mode of living into accord with his inner awareness is a matter of time and the individual, but just as the direct drive of an engine is sweet and without discordant tension, so the right use of action, direct action, is sweet and frictionless. Only self, the desire of self for self intervenes and pulls the machine out of alignment. Alignment becomes the operative word. From the "power-house of the Universe" as Trine calls it, to the individual self the power is direct, and the right means used in the right way at the right time and place make up increasingly the perfect act.

A sense of serenity, a sense of flow, and a sense of rightness in all action, these are three of the symptoms of awakening Zen, and the number of men in whom such a state of awareness flowered in China and Japan between the 6th and 19th centuries produced in their outward influence what may be fairly called the visible fruits of Zen, as manifest in Zen Buddhism.

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