Zen is above all an experience, nonverbal in character, which is simply inaccessible to the purely literary and scholarly approach. To know what Zen is, and especially what it is not, there is no alternative but to practice it, to experiment with it in the concrete so as to discover the meaning which underlies the words.
BACKGROUND AND HISTORY
The Philosophy of the Tao
In English the differences between things and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished, but a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs–so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than entities.
According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real "me" than what I am at this moment. For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible, but what I was is fixed and final. It is the firm basis for predictions of what I will be in the future, and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is!
When we turn to ancient Chinese society, we find two "philosophical" traditions playing complementary parts–Confucianism and Taoism. Generally speaking, the former concerns itself with the linguistic, ethical, legal, and ritual conventions which provide the society with its system of communication. Confucianism, in other words, preoccupies itself with conventional knowledge, and under its auspices children are brought up so that their originally wayward and whimsical natures are made to fit the Procrustean bed of the social order. The individual defines himself and his place in society in terms of the Confucian formulae. Taoism, on the other hand, is generally a pursuit of older men, and especially of men who are retiring from active life in the community. Their retirement from society is a kind of outward symbol of an inward liberation from the bounds of conventional patterns of thought and conduct. For Taoism concerns itself with unconventional knowledge, with the understanding of life directly, instead of in the abstract, linear terms of representational thinking.
But Taoism must on no account be understood as a revolution against convention, although it has sometimes been used as a pretext for revolution. To be free from convention is not to spurn it but not to be deceived by it. It is to be able to use it as an instrument instead of being used by it.
The Tao is accessible only to the mind which can practice the simple and subtle art of wu-wei, which, after the Tao, is the second important principle of Taoism.
Taoism is, then, the original Chinese way of liberation which combined with Indian Mahayana Buddhism to produce Zen. It is a liberation from convention and of the creative power of te. Te (de) is the unthinkable ingenuity and creative power of man's spontaneous and natural functioning–a power which is blocked when one tries to master it in terms of formal methods and techniques.
"The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives, but does not keep." The idea is not to reduce the human mind to a moronic vacuity, but to bring into play its innate and spontaneous intelligence by using it without forcing it.
All in all, it would seem that hsin means the totality of our psychic functioning, and, more specifically, the center of that functioning, which is associated with the central point of the upper body. The Japanese form of the word, kokoro, is used with even more subtleties of meaning, but for the present it is enough to realize that in translating it "mind" (a sufficiently vague word) we do not mean exclusively the intellectual or thinking mind, nor even the surface consciousness. The important point is that, according to both Taoism and Zen, the center of the mind's activity is not in the conscious thinking process, not in the ego.
The Origins of Buddhism
Reasonable, unfanatical, humanistic, Confucianism is one of the most workable patterns of social convention that the world has known. Coupled with the "let well enough alone" attitude of Taoism, it nurtured a mellow and rather easygoing type of mentality which, when it absorbed Buddhism, did much to make it more "practical." That is to say, it made Buddhism a possible way of life for human beings, for people with families, with everyday work to do, and with normal instincts and passions. Reasonable–that is, human–men will always be capable of compromise, but men who have dehumanized themselves by becoming the blind worshipers of an idea or an ideal are fanatics whose devotion to abstractions makes them the enemies of life. Modified by such attitudes, Far Eastern Buddhism is much more palatable and "according to nature" than its Indian and Tibetan counterparts, with ideals of life which seem at times to be superhuman, more suited to angels than to men.
The practical discipline (sadhana) of the way of liberation is a progressive disentanglement of one's Self (atman) from every identification. It is to realize that I am not this body, these sensations, these feelings, these thoughts, this consciousness.
Moksha is also understood as liberation from maya–one of the most important words in Indian philosophy, both Hindu and Buddhist. For the manifold world of facts and events is said to be maya, ordinarily understood as an illusion which veils the one underlying reality of Brahman. This gives the impression that moksha is a state of consciousness in which the whole varied world of nature vanishes from sight, merged in a boundless ocean of vaguely luminous space. Such an impression should be dismissed at once, for it implies a duality, an incompatibility, between Brahman and maya which is against the whole principle of Upanishadic philosophy. For Brahman is not One as opposed to Many, not simple as opposed to complex. Brahman is without duality (advaita), which is to say without any opposite since Brahman is not in any class or, for that matter, outside any class. Both Hindus and Buddhists prefer to speak of reality as "nondual" rather than "one," since the concept of one must always be in relation to that of many.
The Hindu-Buddhist insistence on the impermanence of the world is not the pessimistic and nihilistic doctrine which Western critics normally suppose it to be. Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience or emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy.
It is fundamental to every school of Buddhism that there is no ego, no enduring entity which is the constant subject of our changing experiences. For the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch.
Man is involved in karma when he interferes with the world in such a way that he is compelled to go on interfering, when the solution of a problem creates still more problems to be solved, when the control of one thing creates the need to control several others. Karma is thus the fate of everyone who "tries to be God." He lays a trap for the world in which he himself gets caught. Many Buddhists understand the Round of birth-and-death quite literally as a process of reincarnation, wherein the karma which shapes the individual does so again and again in life after life until, through insight and awakening, it is laid to rest. But in Zen, and in other schools of the Mahayana, it is often taken in a more figurative way, as that the process of rebirth is from moment to moment, so that one is being reborn so long as one identifies himself with a continuing ego which reincarnates itself afresh at each moment of time.
To anyone who is highly self-aware, the Buddhism of the Pali Canon leaves many practical problems unanswered. Its psychological insight goes little further than the construction of analytical catalogues of mental functions, and though its precepts are clear it is not always helpful in explaining their practical difficulties. Perhaps it is too sweeping a generalization, but one receives the impression that whereas the Pali Canon would unlock the door to nirvana by sheer effort, the Mahayana would jiggle the key until it turns smoothly. Thus the great concern of the Mahayana is the provision of "skillful means" (upaya) for making nirvana accessible to every type of mentality.
Awakening will not come to pass when one is trying to escape or change the everyday world of form, or to get away from the particular experience in which one finds oneself at this moment. Every such attempt is a manifestation of grasping. The point arrives, then, when it is clearly understood that all one's intentional acts-desires, ideals, stratagems-are in vain. In the whole universe, within and without, there is nothing whereon to lay any hold, and no one to lay any hold on anything. This has been discovered through clear awareness of everything that seemed to offer a solution or to constitute a reliable reality, through the intuitive wisdom called prajna, which sees into the relational character of everything. With the "eye of prajna" the human situation is seen for what it is–a quenching of thirst with salt water, a pursuit of goals which simply require the pursuit of other goals, a clutching of objects which the swift course of time renders as insubstantial as mist. The very one who pursues, who sees and knows and desires, the inner subject, has his existence only in relation to the ephemeral objects of his pursuit. He sees that his grasp upon the world is his strangle-hold about his own neck, the hold which is depriving him of the very life he so longs to attain. And there is no way out, no way of letting go, which he can take by effort, by a decision of the will.… But who is it that wants to get out?
One of the cardinal doctrines of the Mahayana is that all beings are endowed with Buddha nature, and so have the possibility of becoming Buddhas.
The Rise and Development of Zen
Perhaps the special flavor of Zen is best described as a certain directness. In other schools of Buddhism, awakening or bodhi seems remote and almost superhuman, something to be reached only after many lives of patient effort. But in Zen there is always the feeling that awakening is something quite natural, something startlingly obvious, which may occur at any moment. If it involves a difficulty, it is just that it is much too simple. Zen is also direct in its way of teaching, for it points directly and openly to the truth, and does not trifle with symbolism.
The sayings of the early Zen masters, such as Hui-neng, Shen-hui, and Huang-po, are full of these very ideas–that truly to know is not to know, that the awakened mind responds immediately, without calculation, and that there is no incompatibility between Buddhahood and the everyday life of the world.
The doctrine of instantaneous awakening: If nirvana is not to be found by grasping, there can be no question of approaching it by stages, by the slow process of the accumulation of knowledge. It must be realized in a single flash of insight, which is tun wu, or, in Japanese, satori, the familiar Zen term for sudden awakening. To be awakened at all is to be awakened completely, for, having no parts or divisions, the Buddha nature is not realized bit by bit.
Hui-neng's position was that a man with an empty consciousness was no better than "a block of wood or a lump of stone." He insisted that the whole idea of purifying the mind was irrelevant and confusing, because "our own nature is fundamentally clear and pure." In other words, there is no analogy between consciousness or mind and a mirror that can be wiped. The true mind is "no-mind" (wu-hsin), which is to say that it is not to be regarded as an object of thought or action, as if it were a thing to be grasped and controlled. The attempt to work on one's own mind is a vicious circle. To try to purify it is to be contaminated with purity. Obviously this is the Taoist philosophy of naturalness, according to which a person is not genuinely free, detached, or pure when his state is the result of an artificial discipline. He is just imitating purity, just "faking" clear awareness. Hence the unpleasant self-righteousness of those who are deliberately and methodically religious. Hui-neng's teaching is that instead of trying to purify or empty the mind, one must simply let go of the mind–because the mind is nothing to be grasped. Letting go of the mind is also equivalent to letting go of the series of thoughts and impressions (nien) which come and go "in" the mind, neither repressing them, holding them, nor interfering with them.
We are at a loss for parallels from other cultures for comparison, and the Western student can best catch its flavor through observing the works of art which it was subsequently to inspire. The best image might be a garden consisting of no more than an expanse of raked sand, as a ground for several unhewn rocks overgrown with lichens and moss, such as one may see today in the Zen temples of Kyoto. The media are the simplest imaginable; the effect is as if man had hardly touched it, as if it had been transported unchanged from the seashore; but in practice only the most sensitive and experienced artist can achieve it. This sounds, of course, as though "Zen flavor" were a studied and affected primitivism. Sometimes it is. But the genuine Zen flavor is when a man is almost miraculously natural without intending to be so. His Zen life is not to make himself but to grow that way.
The "Zen type" is an extremely fine type–as types go–self-reliant, humorous, clean and orderly to a fault, energetic though unhurried, and "hard as nails" without lack of keen aesthetic sensibility. The general impression of these men is that they have the same sort of balance as the Daruma doll: they are not rigid, but no one can knock them down.
Both Rinzai and Soto Zen as we find them in Japanese monasteries today put enormous emphasis on za-zen or sitting meditation, a practice which they follow for many hours of the day–attaching great importance to the correctness of posture and the way of breathing which it involves. To practice Zen is, to all intents and purposes, to practice za-zen, to which the Rinzai School adds sanzen, the periodic visits to the master (roshi) for presenting one's view of the koan. Even in Japanese Zen one occasionally encounters a Zen practice which lays no special emphasis upon za-zen, but rather stresses the use of one's ordinary work as the means of meditation. This was certainly true of Bankei, and this principle underlies the common use of such arts as "tea ceremony," flute playing, brush drawing, archery, fencing, and ju-jutsu as ways of practicing Zen. Perhaps, then, the exaggeration of za-zen in later times is part and parcel of the conversion of the Zen monastery into a boys' training school.
PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICE
Empty and Marvelous
The point is not to make an effort to silence the feelings and cultivate bland indifference. It is to see through the universal illusion that what is pleasant or good may be wrested from what is painful or evil.
To the dualistic mode of thought it will therefore seem that the standpoint of Zen is that of fatalism as opposed to free choice. But the viewpoint is not fatalistic. It is not simply submission to the inevitability of sweating when it is hot, shivering when it is cold, eating when hungry, and sleeping when tired. Submission to fate implies someone who submits, someone who is the helpless puppet of circumstances, and for Zen there is no such person. The duality of subject and object, of the knower and the known, is seen to be just as relative, as mutual, as inseparable as every other. We do not sweat because it is hot; the sweating is the heat.
Human experience is determined as much by the nature of the mind and the structure of its senses as by the external objects whose presence the mind reveals. Men feel themselves to be victims or puppets of their experience because they separate "themselves" from their minds, thinking that the nature of the mind-body is something involuntarily thrust upon "them." They think that they did not ask to be born, did not ask to be "given" a sensitive organism to be frustrated by alternating pleasure and pain. But Zen asks us to find out "who" it is that "has" this mind, and "who" it was that did not ask to be born before father and mother conceived us. Thence it appears that the entire sense of subjective isolation, of being the one who was "given" a mind and to whom experience happens, is an illusion of bad semantics–the hypnotic suggestion of repeated wrong thinking. For there is no "myself" apart from the mind-body which gives structure to my experience. It is likewise ridiculous to talk of this mind-body as something which was passively and involuntarily "given" a certain structure. It is that structure, and before the structure arose there was no mind-body. With its characteristic emphasis on the concrete, Zen points out that our precious "self" is just an idea, useful and legitimate enough if seen for what it is, but disastrous if identified with our real nature.
The sense of subjective isolation is also based on a failure to see the relativity of voluntary and involuntary events. This relativity is easily felt by watching one's breath, for by a slight change of viewpoint it is as easy to feel that "I breathe" as that "It breathes me." We feel that our actions are voluntary when they follow a decision, and involuntary when they happen without decision. But if decision itself were voluntary, every decision would have to be preceded by a decision to decide–an infinite regression which fortunately does not occur. Oddly enough, if we had to decide to decide, we would not be free to decide. We are free to decide because decision "happens." We just decide without having the faintest understanding of how we do it. In fact, it is neither voluntary nor involuntary. To "get the feel" of this relativity is to find another extraordinary transformation of our experience as a whole, which may be described in either of two ways. I feel that I am deciding everything that happens, or, I feel that everything, including my decisions, is just happening spontaneously. For a decision–the freest of my actions-just happens like hiccups inside me or like a bird singing outside me.
Buddhism has frequently compared the course of time to the apparent motion of a wave, wherein the actual water only moves up and down, creating the illusion of a "piece" of water moving over the surface. It is a similar illusion that there is a constant "self" moving through successive experiences, constituting a link between them in such a way that the youth becomes the man who becomes the graybeard who becomes the corpse. The measuring of worth and success in terms of time, and the insistent demand for assurances of a promising future, make it impossible to live freely both in the present and in the "promising" future when it arrives. For there is never anything but the present, and if one cannot live there, one cannot live anywhere.
The life of Zen begins, therefore, in a disillusion with the pursuit of goals which do not really exist–the good without the bad, the gratification of a self which is no more than an idea, and the morrow which never comes. For all these things are a deception of symbols pretending to be realities, and to seek after them is like walking straight into a wall upon which some painter has, by the convention of perspective, suggested an open passage. In short, Zen begins at the point where there is nothing further to seek, nothing to be gained. Zen is most emphatically not to be regarded as a system of self-improvement, or a way of becoming a Buddha. In the words of Lin-chi, "If a man seeks the Buddha, that man loses the Buddha." For all ideas of self-improvement and of becoming or getting something in the future relate solely to our abstract image of ourselves. To follow them is to give ever more reality to that image. On the other hand, our true, nonconceptual self is already the Buddha, and needs no improvement.
The difficulty of Zen is, of course, to shift one's attention from the abstract to the concrete, from the symbolic self to one's true nature. So long as we merely talk about it, so long as we turn over ideas in our minds about "symbol" and "reality," or keep repeating, "I am not my idea of myself," this is still mere abstractíon. Zen created the method (upaya) of "direct pointing" in order to escape from this vicious circle, in order to thrust the real immediately to our notice. When reading a difficult book it is of no help to think, "I should concentrate," for one thinks about concentration instead of what the book has to say. Likewise, in studying or practicing Zen it is of no help to think about Zen. To remain caught up in ideas and words about Zen is, as the old masters say, to "stink of Zen." For this reason the masters talk about Zen as little as possible, and throw its concrete reality straight at us. "Direct pointing" entirely fails in its intention if it requires or stimulates any conceptual comment.
It is true that, when pressed, every attempt to catch hold of our world leaves us empty-handed. Furthermore, when we try to be sure at least of ourselves, the knowing, catching subjects, we disappear. We cannot find any self apart from the mind, and we cannot find any mind apart from those very experiences which the mind–now vanished–was trying to grasp. In R. H. Blyth's arresting metaphor, when we were just about to swat the fly, the fly flew up and sat on the swatter. In terms of immediate perception, when we look for things there is nothing but mind, and when we look for mind there is nothing but things. For a moment we are paralyzed, because it seems that we have no basis for action, no ground under foot from which to take a jump. But this is the way it always was, and in the next moment we find ourselves as free to act, speak, and think as ever, yet in a strange and miraculous new world from which "self" and "other," "mind" and "things" have vanished. The marvel can only be described as the peculiar sensation of freedom in action which arises when the world is no longer felt to be some sort of obstacle standing over against one. This is not freedom in the crude sense of "kicking over the traces" and behaving in wild caprice. It is the discovery of freedom in the most ordinary tasks, for when the sense of subjective isolation vanishes, the world is no longer felt as an intractable object. In the context of Christianity this might be interpreted as feeling that one has become omnipotent, that one is God, directing everything that happens. However, it must be remembered that in Taoist and Buddhist thought there is no conception of a God who deliberately and consciously governs the universe.
Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing
In both life and art the cultures of the Far East appreciate nothing more highly than spontaneity or naturalness (tzu-jan). This is the unmistakable tone of sincerity marking the action which is not studied and contrived. For a man rings like a cracked bell when he thinks and acts with a split mind-one part standing aside to interfere with the other, to control, to condemn, or to admire. But the mind, or the true nature, of man cannot actually be split.
In its stress upon naturalness, Zen is obviously the inheritor of Taoism, and its view of spontaneous action as "marvelous activity" (miao-yung d) is precisely what the Taoists meant by the word te–"virtue" with an overtone of magical power. But neither in Taoism nor in Zen does it have anything to do with magic in the merely sensational sense of performing superhuman "miracles." The "magical" or "marvelous" quality of spontaneous action is, on the contrary, that it is perfectly human, and yet shows no sign of being contrived.
The identification of the mind with its own image is, therefore, paralyzing because the image is fixed–it is past and finished. But it is a fixed image of oneself in motion! To cling to it is thus to be in constant contradiction and conflict. Hence Yün-men's saying, "In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don't wobble." In other words, the mind cannot act without giving up the impossible attempt to control itself beyond a certain point. It must let go of itself both in the sense of trusting its own memory and reflection, and in the sense of acting spontaneously, on its own into the unknown. This is why Zen often seems to take the side of action as against reflection, and why it describes itself as "no-mind" (wu-hsin) or "no-thought" (wu-nien), and why the masters demonstrate Zen by giving instantaneous and unpremeditated answers to questions.
The attitude of wu-hsin is by no means an anti-intellectualist exclusion of thinking. Wu-hsin is action on any level whatsoever, physical or psychic, without trying at the same moment to observe and check the action from outside. This attempt to act and think about the action simultaneously is precisely the identification of the mind with its idea of itself. It involves the same contradiction as the statement which states something about itself–"This statement is false." In the end, the only alternative to a shuddering paralysis is to leap into action regardless of the consequences. Action in this spirit may be right or wrong with respect to conventional standards. But our decisions upon the conventional level must be supported by the conviction that whatever we do, and whatever "happens" to us, is ultimately "right." In other words, we must enter into it without "second thought," without the arrière-pensée of regret, hesitancy, doubt, or self-recrimination.
One must not forget the social context of Zen. It is primarily a way of liberation for those who have mastered the disciplines of social convention, of the conditioning of the individual by the group. Zen is a medicine for the ill effects of this conditioning, for the mental paralysis and anxiety which come from excessive self-consciousness. It must be seen against the background of societies regulated by the principles of Confucianism, with their heavy stress on propriety and punctilious ritual.
To the Western reader it may seem that all this is a kind of pantheism, an attempt to wipe out conflicts by asserting that "everything is God." But from the standpoint of Zen this is a long way short of true naturalness since it involves the use of the artificial concept–"everything is God" or "everything is the Tao." Zen annihilates this concept by showing that it is as unnecessary as every other. One does not realize the spontaneous life by depending on the repetition of thoughts or affirmations. One realizes it by seeing that no such devices are necessary. Zen describes all means and methods for realizing the Tao as "legs on a snake"–utterly irrelevant attachments. Furthermore, the Zen experience is more of a conclusion than a premise. It is never to be used as the first step in a line of ethical or metaphysical reasoning, since conclusions draw to it rather than from it.
Although profoundly "inconsequential," the Zen experience has consequences in the sense that it may be applied in any direction, to any conceivable human activity, and that wherever it is so applied it lends an unmistakable quality to the work. The characteristic notes of the spontaneous life are mo chih ch'u m or "going ahead without hesitation," wu-wei, which may here be understood as purposelessness, and wu-shih, lack of affectation or simplicity. While the Zen experience does not imply any specific course of action, since it has no purpose, no motivation, it turns unhesitatingly to anything that presents itself to be done. Mo chih ch'u is the mind functioning without blocks, without "wobbling" between alternatives, and much of Zen training consists in confronting the student with dilemmas which he is expected to handle without stopping to deliberate and "choose." The response to the situation must follow with the immediacy of sound issuing from the hands when they are clapped, or sparks from a flint when struck. The student unaccustomed to this type of response will at first be confused, but as he gains faith in his "original" or spontaneous mind he will not only respond with ease, but the responses themselves will acquire a startling appropriateness. This is something like the professional comedian's gift of unprepared wit which is equal to any situation.
Za-zen and the Koan
No distinction is to be made between the realization of awakening (satori) and the cultivation of Zen in meditation and action. Whereas it might be supposed that the practice of Zen is a means to the end of awakening, this is not so. For the practice of Zen is not the true practice so long as it has an end in view, and when it has no end in view it is awakening–the aimless, self-sufficient life of the "eternal now." To practice with an end in view is to have one eye on the practice and the other on the end, which is lack of concentration, lack of sincerity. To put it in another way: one does not practice Zen to become a Buddha; one practices it because one is a Buddha from the beginning–and this "original realization" is the starting point of the Zen life.
The relevance of za-zen to Zen is obvious when it is remembered that Zen is seeing reality directly, in its "suchness." To see the world as it is concretely, undivided by categories and abstractions, one must certainly look at it with a mind which is not thinking–which is to say, forming symbols–about it. Za-zen is not, therefore, sitting with a blank mind which excludes all the impressions of the inner and outer senses. It is not "concentration" in the usual sense of restricting the attention to a single sense object, such as a point of light or the tip of one's nose. It is simply a quiet awareness, without comment, of whatever happens to be here and now. This awareness is attended by the most vivid sensation of "nondifference" between oneself and the external world, between the mind and its contents–the various sounds, sights, and other impressions of the surrounding environment. Naturally, this sensation does not arise by trying to acquire it; it just comes by itself when one is sitting and watching without any purpose in mind–even the purpose of getting rid of purpose.
Much importance is attached to the physical posture of za-zen. The monks sit on firmly padded cushions with legs crossed and feet soles-upward upon the thighs. The hands rest upon the lap, the left over the right, with palms upward and thumbs touching one another. The body is held erect, though not stiffly, and the eyes are left open so that their gaze falls upon the floor a few feet ahead. The breathing is regulated so as to be slow without strain, with the stress upon the out-breath, and its impulse from the belly rather than the chest. This has the effect of shifting the body's center of gravity to the abdomen so that the whole posture has a sense of firmness, of being part of the ground upon which one is sitting. The slow, easy breathing from the belly works upon the consciousness like bellows, and gives it a still, bright clarity. The beginner is advised to accustom himself to the stillness by doing nothing more than counting his breaths from one to ten, over and over again, until the sensation of sitting without comment becomes effortless and natural.
At intervals, the sitting posture is interrupted, and the monks fall into ranks for a swift march around the floor between the platforms to keep themselves from sluggishness. The periods of za-zen are also interrupted for work in the monastery grounds, cleaning the premises, services in the main shrine or "Buddha hall," and other duties–as well as for meals and short hours of sleep. At certain times of year za-zen is kept up almost continuously from 3:30 a.m. until 10 p.m., and these long periods are called sesshin, or "collecting the mind." Every aspect of the monks' lives is conducted according to a precise, though not ostentatious, ritual which gives the atmosphere of the sodo a slightly military air. The rituals are signaled and accompanied by about a dozen different kinds of bells, clappers, and wooden gongs, struck in various rhythms to announce the times for za-zen, meals, services, lectures, or sanzen interviews with the master.
Awakening is to know what reality is not. It is to cease identifying oneself with any object of knowledge whatsoever. Just as every assertion about the basic substance or energy of reality must be meaningless, any assertion as to what "I am" at the very roots of my being must also be the height of folly. Delusion is the false metaphysical premise at the root of common sense; it is the average man's unconscious ontology and epistemology, his tacit assumption that he is a "something." The assumption that "I am nothing" would, of course, be equally wrong since something and nothing, being and non-being, are related concepts, and belong equally to the "known."
Zen in the Arts
Since "one showing is worth a hundred sayings," the expression of Zen in the arts gives us one of the most direct ways of understanding it. This is the more so because the art forms which Zen has created are not symbolic in the same way as other types of Buddhist art, or as is "religious" art as a whole. The favorite subjects of Zen artists, whether painters or poets, are what we should call natural, concrete, and secular things. Even when they turn to the Buddha, or to the Patriarchs and masters of Zen, they depict them in a peculiarly down-to-earth and human way. Furthermore, the arts of Zen are not merely or primarily representational. Even in painting, the work of art is considered not only as representing nature but as being itself a work of nature. For the very technique involves the art of artlessness, or what Sabro Hasegawa has called the "controlled accident," so that paintings are formed as naturally as the rocks and grasses which they depict.
This is a first principle in the study of Zen and of any Far Eastern art: hurry, and all that it involves, is fatal. For there is no goal to be attained. The moment a goal is conceived it becomes impossible to practice the discipline of the art, to master the very rigor of its technique.
Zen has no goal; it is a traveling without point, with nowhere to go. To travel is to be alive, but to get somewhere is to be dead, for as our own proverb says, "To travel well is better than to arrive."
Because Zen does not involve an ultimate dualism between the controller and the controlled, the mind and the body, the spiritual and the material, there is always a certain "physiological" aspect to its techniques. Whether Zen is practiced through za-zen or cha-no-yu or kendo, great importance is attached to the way of breathing. Not only is breathing one of the two fundamental rhythms of the body; it is also the process in which control and spontaneity, voluntary and involuntary action, find their most obvious identity. So-called "normal" breathing is fitful and anxious. The air is always being held and not fully released, for the individual seems incapable of "letting" it run its full course through the lungs. He breathes compulsively rather than freely. The technique therefore begins by encouraging a full release of the breath–easing it out as if the body were being emptied of air by a great leaden ball sinking through the chest and abdomen, and settling down into the ground. The returning in-breath is then allowed to follow as a simple reflex action. The air is not actively inhaled; it is just allowed to come–and then, when the lungs are comfortably filled, it is allowed to go out once more, the image of the leaden ball giving it the sense of "falling" out as distinct from being pushed out. This is not a breathing "exercise" so much as a "watching and letting" of the breath, and it is always a serious mistake to undertake it in the spirit of a compulsive discipline to be "practiced" with a goal in mind.