On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

July 13, 2021

What is Zen?

D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966)

Zen is discipline in enlightenment. Enlightenment means emancipation. And emancipation is no less than freedom.

We talk very much these days about all kinds of freedom, political, economic, and otherwise, but these freedoms are not at all real.  As long as they are on the plane of relativity, the freedoms or liberties we glibly talk about are far from being such.

When one realizes this, in whatever situation you find yourself, you are always free in your inner life, for that pursues its own line of action. Zen is the religion of jiyu, “self-reliance,” and jizai “self-being.”

Enlightenment occupies the central point of teaching in all schools of Buddhism, Hinayana and Mahayana, “self-power” and “other-power,” the Holy Path and the Pure Land, because Buddha’s teachings all start from his enlightenment experience, about 2,500 years ago in the northern part of India.

Every Buddhist is, therefore, expected to receive enlightenment either in this world or in one of his future lives. Without enlightenment, either already realized or to be realized somehow and sometime and somewhere, there will be no Buddhism. Zen is no exception. In fact, it is Zen that makes the most of enlightenment, or satori.

To realize satori, Zen opens for us two ways in general: verbal and actional. First, Zen verbalism is quite characteristic of Zen, though it is so completely differentiated from the philosophy of linguistics or dialectics that it may not be correct to apply the term “verbalism” to Zen at all.

But, as we all know, we human beings cannot live without language, for we are so made that we can sustain our existence only in group life. Love is the essence of humanity, love needs something to bestow itself upon; human beings must live together in order to lead a life of mutual love. Love to be articulate requires a means of communication, which is language.

Inasmuch as Zen is one of the most significant human experiences, one must resort to language to express it to others as well as to oneself. But Zen verbalism has its own features, which violate all the rules of the science of linguistics. In Zen, experience and expression are one. Zen verbalism expresses the most concrete experience.

To give examples: A Zen master produces a staff before his congregation and declares: “You do not call it a staff. What would you call it?” Someone comes out of the audience, takes the master’s staff away from him, breaks it in two, and throws it down. All this is the outcome of the master’s illogical announcement.

Another master, holding up his staff, says, “If you have one, I give you mine; if you have none, I will take it away from you.” There is no rationalism in this.

Still another master once gave this sermon: “When you know what this staff is, you know all, you have finished the study of Zen.” Without further remark he left the hall.

This is what I call Zen verbalism. The philosophy of Zen comes out of it. The philosophy, however, is not concerned to elucidate all these verbal “riddles” but to reach the mind itself, which, as it were, exudes or secretes them as naturally, as inevitably, as the clouds rise from the mountain peaks.

What concerns us here is not the substance thus exuded or secreted, that is, words or language, but a “something” hovering around there, though we cannot exactly locate it and say, “Here!” To call it the mind is far from the fact of experience; it is an unnamable “X.” It is no abstraction; it is concrete enough, and direct, as the eye sees that the sun is, but it is not to be subsumed in the categories of linguistics. As soon as we try to do this, it disappears. The Buddhists, therefore, call it the “unattainable,” the “ungraspable.”

It is for this reason that a staff is a staff and at the same time not a staff, or that a staff is a staff just because it is not a staff. The word is not to be detached from the thing or the fact or the experience.

The Zen masters have the saying, “Examine the living words and not the dead ones.” The dead ones are those that no longer pass directly and concretely and intimately on to the experience. They are conceptualized; they are cut off from the living roots.

They have ceased, then, to stir up my being from within, from itself. They are no more what the masters would call “the one word” which when understood leads immediately to the understanding of hundreds of thousands of other words or statements given by the Zen masters. Zen verbalism deals with these “living words.”

The second disciplinary approach to the experience of enlightenment is actional. In a sense, verbalism is also actional as long as it is concrete and personal. But in the actional what we call “the body,” according to our sense testimony, is involved.

A direct action in Zen has another meaning. There is a deeper purpose which consists in awakening in the disciple’s mind a certain consciousness that is attuned to the pulsation of Reality. The following story is in a somewhat different vein; it simply illustrates how important it is to grasp a trick by going through a practical situation oneself without any outside aid. It exemplifies….Zen’s spirit of “self-reliance.”

This is in perfect accord with the teaching of the Buddha and other masters: “Do not rely on others, nor on the reading of the sutras and sastras. Be your own lamp.”

Goso Hoyen (Wu-tsa Fa-yen, d. 1104), tells us the following to illustrate the Zen spirit that goes beyond intellect, logic, and verbalism:

“If people ask me what Zen is like, I will say that it is like learning the art of burglary. The son of a burglar saw his father growing older and thought, ‘If he is unable to carry on his profession, who will be the breadwinner of the family, except myself? I must learn the trade.’ He intimated the idea to his father, who approved of it.

“One night the father took the son to a big house, broke through the fence, entered the house, and, opening one of the large chests, told the son to go in and pick out the clothing. As soon as the son got into it, the father dropped the lid and securely applied the lock.

“The father now came out to the courtyard and loudly knocked at the door, waking up the whole family; then he quietly slipped away by the hole in the fence. The residents got excited and lit candles, but they found that the burglar had already gone.

“The son, who had remained all the time securely confined in the chest, thought of his cruel father. He was greatly mortified, then a fine idea flashed upon him. He made a noise like the gnawing of a rat. The family told the maid to take a candle and examine the chest.

“When the lid was unlocked, out came the prisoner, who blew out the candle, pushed away the maid, and fled. The people ran after him. Noticing a well by the road, he picked up a large stone and threw it into the water. The pursuers all gathered around the well trying to find the burglar drowning himself in the dark hole.

“In the meantime he went safely back to his father’s house. He blamed his father deeply for his narrow escape. Said the father, ‘Be not offended, my son. Just tell me how you got out of it.’ When the son told him all about his adventures, the father remarked, ‘There you are, you have learned the art.’”

The idea of the story is to demonstrate the futility of verbal instruction and conceptual presentation as far as the experience of enlightenment is concerned. Satori must be the outgrowth of one’s inner life and not a verbal implantation brought from the outside.

 Excerpted from Zen and Japanese Culture – D. T. Suzuki 1959

What Zen is can prove difficult to explain to someone becoming interested in Zen. Using words to describe something that is truly beyond words seems to add to the confusion, and the tendency to conceptualize takes over the discussion.

However, the poetry of Zen seems to come close to evoking that depth of experience beyond words where the mind simply stops and one is plunged into the present moment free of filters.

While the story used by Fa-yen seems out of place in the world of Zen, it quite accurately exhibits the real life of actions and consequences that we all have known but wouldn’t think of as an example of learning Zen through action.

The teaching of Zen through training in the martial arts or the sword seems a more fitting example of diving into the present moment of action, where truly everything is on the line.

D. T. Suzuki has been noted for bringing Zen to the West, and while he was a scholar, he also studied with Zen master Kosen and meditated at Engakugi Temple, so he truly had a foot in both worlds.

“When one realizes this, in whatever situation you find yourself, you are always free in your inner life, for that pursues its own line of action. Zen is the religion of jiyu, “self-reliance,” and jizai “self-being.”

May we all have continual awakenings!

With Enthusiasm,

Elana, Scribe for Dailly Zen

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