and American Philosophy
By Van Meter Ames
Philosophy East and
V. 5 (January, 1956)
Copyright 1956 by
University of Hawaii Press
American interest in Zen Buddhism is growing. This response to an
Oriental outlook must answer to a need. Some people seem to feel that
here is the whole answer to what ails the West. There is no hiding the
fact that Western civilization, and the United States in particular,
confronts not only problems which its science can cope with but also
troubles for which more than science is required. There is "more" in the
traditional religion and philosophy of the West, but this heritage must
be reinterpreted to be adequate now. Wisdom cannot be simply hoarded
and inherited. It must ever be sought afresh, with new impetus. Today
wise men of the East are stimulating the Western mind, apparently by
infusing it with something foreign, but perhaps more by awakening it to
resources of its own.
The unwary, the unwilling to think for themselves, may embrace an
Eastern teaching as if nothing like it could be had at home, as if the
West had gone astray for two thousand years, and should declare itself
culturally bankrupt. But, swallowed whole, an exotic view is hard to
digest. If it is to be assimilated it must be domesticated and tried
out, to see what can be worked into the familiar fare, even as the
Chinese arrived at Ch'an or Zen in the first place, by making their own
use of Indian Buddhism. Since people must rely upon their understanding
they will inevitably translate what is alien into their idiom, or employ
outlandish expressions merely as emphatic equivalents for things that
could have been said in household words. When, after all, what is
offered from afar adds something the American had not been able to say
or even to think, then he should welcome it and value it for its actual
So he should see, as clearly as possible, what Zen has in
comparison with American thought. Zen would not be the first import into
the American thought stream; and it may be that, more than almost any
other influence, Zen has affinity with the most American thinkers.
I. DOWN-TO-EARTH BUT UP-AND-DOING
What John Dewey said of
Emerson would apply to Zen: "His ideas are not fixed upon any Reality
that is beyond or behind or in any way apart, and hence they do not have
to be bent. They are versions of the Here and the Now, and flow freely.
The reputed transcendental worth of an overweening Beyond and Away,
Emerson, jealous for spiritual democracy, finds to be the possession of
the unquestionable present." Dewey linked Emerson and William James
as "the prophetic forerunners," saying of James: "I love, indeed, to
think that there is something profoundly American in his union of
philosophy with life." Dewey himself felt that the pursuit of ideals
must begin with what is essentially Zen's appreciation of the happy
aspects which actual experience happens to have. But, to See that these
aspects are meager, precarious, or not sufficiently available to many
people, meant to him that more should be done, that the old chores
honored by Zen, even most new jobs, are not enough.
They are too hard, too slow, too enslaving, in view of what could
be accomplished with the power of the sign process in science now.
Emerson was stirred by the possibilities in this direction even in his
day. He saw the climb from worm to man before Darwin showed it to the
world, and would have been delighted with James's realization that
intelligence is biological as Dewey was to be. Dewey began to move when
he left Hegel for James, in seeing that intelligence basically is the
way animals use energy and patience, alertness, caution, quickness to
catch their prey and avoid being caught. Intelligence, then, is not just
another part or capacity of the organism, but is its vital functioning
as a whole. It follows that the criterion of mentality is the choice of
means in the struggle for ends. When ends can be entertained and conduct
governed by them, as well as by previous conditioning, there is not
simply the clash of animals or armies in the night of necessity. There
is the dawning of a new day when activity is not merely the result of
the past but can also be guided by anticipation of the future. Thus
freedom is introduced and increased, which brings impatience with old
ways of doing, even though the goal is only to secure and extend the
timeless joy of life cherished by Zen.
The best is given to begin with, in the riches of what James
calls "pure experience." Strenuous as he and Dewey are, they join Zen in
appreciation of this fact. To get back to the joy of the present
moment, and enable more people to enjoy it, is their motivation. No more
than Zen do they draw
1. John Dewey, Characters and Events (New York: Henry Holt & Co.,
1929), Vol. I, p. 275.
2. Ibid., p. 117.
line between doing and enjoying. The moment need not be otiose to be
precious. This is no less true of Zen than of American thought. Means
and ends flow together for both. But the American thinkers are for
renewing the means, to enhance their continuity with ends. Zen stresses
the value of doing what has always been done and still needs doing.
Without in the least denying this value, the men of the West would add
that of doing better. Yet, it is still true for them that nothing is
better than for men to do the best they can, and make the most of what
they have, in the moment as it passes.
II. THE UNQUESTIONABLE PRESENT
Though man thrives on
striving, Dewey thinks of all his effort as taking off from and taken up
into appreciation of the present. When we are happy we are housed in
the here and now. We leave it only to restore it or to enrich it with
more variety, also with more reassuring continuity. Dewey likes
Emerson's saying: "If man is sick, is unable, is mean-spirited and
odious, it is because there is so much of his nature which is unlawfully
withholden from him." Dewey agrees that what is most needful is "the
possession of the unquestionable Present." When it can be had in joy and
peace, it not only passes man's understanding but takes the place of
the high-flown ideas of the transcendentalists, and "removes him from
their remoteness." Then man can enjoy the moment no end. To live in
the moment is to have sheer immediacy, without beginning or stopping,
without thought of yesterday or tomorrow except as belonging to the
But Dewey was like a bodhisattva, a saint of Mahayana Buddhism,
who would not enter nirvaa.na if he had to forget the need of other
people to be helped toward it. So was James, in saying the millennium
would not come as long as a single cockroach suffered an unrequited
love. Yet, James and Dewey had the Zen secret that it is possible to be
like a turtle on a log even on the go, as everyone can learn to relax on
a train or plane, in a pause of business, or in the law's delays. The
Zen men knew that the sure way of getting to the mountains was to have
them in mind. If the Zen experience could be had while hewing wood or
drawing water, so might it be had while doing whatever needed to be
done. This is the gist of Dewey's aesthetics: that the enjoyment of art
need not be apart from the usual interests and activities of life.
His practical attitude is paralleled by the Buddhist suutra of
the Ga.n.davyuuha. Suzuki explains it as belonging to the Mahaayaana
3. Ibid., p. 75.
Buddhism which "lacks vitality and democratic usefulness when it is
kept from coming in contact with the concrete affairs of life." When
Buddhism was brought to earth it was possible to enjoy the contrast
between grand terminology and a plain meaning. Thus: "Samantabhadra's
arms raised to save sentient beings become our own, which are now
engaged in passing the salt to a friend at the table, and Maitreya's
opening the Vairochana Tower for Sudhana is our ushering in a caller
into the parlor for a friendly chat . . . we see both the Bodhisattvas
and the Buddhas shining in the sweat of their foreheads, in the tears
shed for the mother who lost a child, in the fury of passions burning
against injustice in its multifarious forms -- in short, in their
never-ending fight against all that goes under the name of evil."
Here, in the East, is James's fight for ends and Dewey's devotion
to good causes, for their human value. In the Ga.n.davyuuha Suzuki sees
the transition from Buddhism as a "mysticism which keeps its votaries
on the giddy height of unapproachable abstractions making them refuse to
descend among earthly entanglements" to a kind of Buddhism which "now
overlaps this earthly world." Now: "all the Bodhisattvas, including the
Buddhas -- are ourselves, and their doings are our doings." Suzuki
uses this suutra to bring out that Zen carries the same transition
further and more deliberately. Then, to ask, "Who is Buddha?" is really
to ask, "Who are you?" The name "Buddha" is used "to help" us appreciate
what it is to be human. "The constant advice given by the Zen master to
his monks is not to cling to the letter." Suzuki sums it up: "We can
say that the Chinese practical genius has brought the Buddha down again
on earth so that he can work among us with his back bare and his
forehead streaked with sweat and covered with mud. Compared with the
exalted figure at Jetavana surrounded and adored by the Bodhisattvas
from the ten quarters of the world, what a caricature this old
donkey-leading woman-Buddha of Shou-shan, or that robust sinewy
bare-footed runner of Chih-men! But in this we see the spirit of the
Ga.n.davyuuha perfectly acclimatized in the Far Eastern soil."
Suzuki is not willing to accept Hu Shih's interpretation of Zen
as "the revolt of Chinese psychology against abstruse Buddhist
metaphysics." For Suzuki, Zen "is not a revolt but a deep appreciation"
of Buddhism, expressed "in the Chinese way." Whether we side with
Suzuki or with Hu, the American question is where their controversy
leaves James and Dewey in comparison with Santayana. He might seem
closer to Zen in cherishing im-
4. D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, Third Series (London: Rider
and Co., 1953), p. 78.
5. Ibid., p. 83.
6. Ibid., pp. 78, 83.
7. Ibid., pp. 99, 100.
8. Ibid., pp. 102.
9. Ibid., p. 74.
10. See Hu Shih, "Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism in China: Its History and
Method," Philosophy East and West, III, No. 1 (April, 1953), 3-24; and
D. T. Suzuki "Zen: A Reply to Hu Shih," ibid., 25-46.
mediate experience in the familiar pattern, without interest in
reform. But the striving, fighting philosophy of James and Dewey is more
in the spirit of Zen's rejection of quietism than is Santayana's
unperspiring detachment from mud and struggle, his mocking of the
runner's heat. He is, however, more like Zen in keeping a semblance of
the supernatural to express the poetry of existence, using an
otherworldly vocabulary to do justice to this world. James and Dewey
also recognize that mortal man needs to build himself up; but they see
him doing it through co-operation with other men, and with the rest of
the setting. If James wavered about leaving out the supernatural or
cleaving to it, he was most consistent in saying: "... though one part
of our experience may lean upon another part to make it what it is ...
experience as a whole is self-containing and leans on nothing."
Dewey would say the same.
III. BLENDING ZEN WITH SCIENCE
Like the Zen Buddhists of
China and Japan and the Greeks of Pericles, James and Dewey believe that
life can be full and good in its own human terms. They depart from the
wisdom of Zen, the Greeks, and Santayana in seeing that men can do more
than make the best of life as it has been in the past. Dewey, even more
than James, relies with Peirce upon the growing momentum and sweep of
the sign process, especially in science, to carry on a continual
reconstruction of the present, the past, and the outlook for the future.
But, instead of leaving Zen behind, this may give Zen, too, a new
As Zen remade Buddhism, and Dewey turned Hegelian idealism into
social idealism, so a blend of Dewey and Zen is possible. Zen would need
to add the realization that intelligence can remake the world. Zen was
on the way, but only halfway, to this insight in declaring the
bodhisattvas and buddhas, in their vast fantastic setting, to be
"ourselves, and their doings our doings." If Zen is reducing
Buddhism to the human level, it is also raising that level, and laughing
that language cannot be too fancy to fit what is plain. The more
far-fetched, the more humorous it is to say that the buddhas and
bodhisattvas are we, the more seriously it can be said. If that was too
much to say before anyone knew the half of it, Zen was right that
silence was best.
Dewey, knowing as much as he knew after learning from James and
11. William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (New York: Longmans,
Green and Co., 1947), p. 193.
12. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, Third Series, p. 83.
Peirce, still was nearly silent about the Zen aspect of his own
thought (at least before writing Art As Experience), apparently taking
it for granted as too obvious to insist upon. So he was accused of being
too practical and prosaic, keeping to problems of a limited sort. But
no Zen man would see any limitation in his concentration upon the "pure
experience" of William James to make more of it for more people.
What else was celebrated by Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman? Or. by
Santayana? What is the use of saying or doing anything except for the
sake of having life and having it more abundantly, which Jesus said he
came for? To him this was worth suffering and dying for. But, if we are
for life, and all is for life, it will still be asked what life is for.
The ancients of the Far East knew, and Americans from Emerson to Dewey
knew, that life is its own end and answer.
When this truth is put plainly it seems too plain. To appreciate
it men need to seek it in the far past or on the far side of the world.
The longest way round is the shortest way home when Westerners fetch
from the Far East what is in their own Bible. The far-fetched truth is
that the high is here, the eternal is now, the hard is easy, the yoke is
light. St. Augustine said, "Have charity and do as thou wilt." A Zen
master said: "No bondage from the very first, and what is the use of
asking emancipation? Act as you will, go on as you feel -- without
second thought. This is the incomparable way."
But, if the way is easy, it is not easy to find, or men would not
have had to develop religion and philosophy, with all their discipline
and meditation: Buddhism to Zen, Christianity to Hegel, Hegel to Dewey
(by way of James); beyond life and down to earth; from East to West,
from the West to the past, back to the lasting present; from simple to
sublime to ridiculous, to laughter. If the East has stressed
contemplation and has been lacking in action, the West, with its
organized activity, has been wanting in meditation. Yet, there have been
contemplatives here, doers there, and whole men in East and West.
The differences now are not so much between one side of the globe
and the other as between having and not having science, especially
between having and not having the benefit or science, the good of it
more than the evil, the promise more than the threat. The world is split
by the half use of science. To live with it, to build, produce, travel,
and make war with it, yet try to believe without it, is to be fatally
We might get our thoughts and ourselves together if we could
blend science with Zen. Being pre-scientific, pre-industrial, Zen
assumes the rural
13. Ibid., pp. 43-44.
simplicities. Being out of date seems to make it timeless, makes it
attractive in contrast to the fever of modernity. Can we keep complexity
and overcome distraction? Zen puts that question to us. But we cannot
seriously consider Zen except in connection with what Dewey represents: a
chance to have the Zen attitude along with scientific thought and
The Psychology of James enabled Dewey to get rid of dualism,
which Zen had done long before. When that is thoroughly done, a whole
and happy life is on the way. Then it should not be necessary to take to
the woods or a monastery to have sanity. With science, society may
become man's natural habitat, as Aristotle thought it was. If it ever
was, it cannot again be without an unprecedented development and use of
intelligence. Darwin empowered James and Dewey to realize how human
abilities evolve. What some men long had thought, without enough
evidence, could at last be established: that mind goes with an animal
body, not as the shadow or ghost of it but as the way it goes, when it
hits difficulties and hunts for the means of getting through or around.
Peirce showed how the means are found and refined in the sign process.
Dewey said: "The only excuse for reciting such commonplaces is that
traditional theories have separated life from nature, mind from organic
life, and thereby created mysteries."
To separate things from nature fakes them and scales them down to
make-believe. Dewey stands by James in seeing what it is hard for many
people to see in our medieval-modern world: that we are not split and
spliced, as if mind were severed from body and glued back, to make a man
of shape and shadow. We do not ask how walking can belong to a body
which would be immobile if it did not move. With James and Peirce, Dewey
saw that thinking is just as natural a process as walking, and as much
part of being a man. If a man had to have a ghost to make him go, he
might need a soul to think for him. But if a ghost made him go, the
ghost would need another ghost to make it go, and so on. Going would
become such a ghostly business there would not be a ghost of a chance to
get going. Man must pick up his bed and leave the weakness of the
infinite regress to take any steps.
For Dewey, as for James and Peirce, thinking is seeing
connections in the environment, and guessing what can be done with them,
then going to work to test the guessing, as every man in a garage or
studio picks up what he needs for what he wants and gets busy. He does
not think inside himself any more than he walks inside himself, even if
he works at a desk. if he gets anywhere. Intelligent functioning can be
separated from interaction with
14. John Dewey, Experience and Nature (Chicago: Open Court Publishing
Co., 1925), p. 278.
environment as little as any functioning of an organism can. To be,
to breathe, to think, takes place, takes give-and-take with many things
-- a world. A man cannot take a step without stepping out. A sage said
that for one who wears sandals all the world is paved with leather. For
one who carries the organs and marks of man, the world is father and
mother, wife, brother, child. Having a born body, man is made to mate,
to be intimate with others, not to be alone for long.
The human body is as biological as anything alive, and as much
bound to other lives. But man is less fixed by his original body and
group. Because better able to communicate than non-human forms, he can
plan on a grand scale. He not only can have more complex habits but can
also develop the habit of changing habits. This opens unlimited
possibilities, but it has taken man a long time to realize it. Knowing
himself less than the world around him, he has had a profound sense of
dependence and insufficiency. While language has been adding cubits to
his stature he has been using his growth to exaggerate his inadequacy.
He has been afraid that the scientific development of signs, in
lengthening his leverage, was somehow weakening his hold on his
situation, while it was freeing him to control it. He has resented being
weaned from the familiar.
Zen can help here, surprisingly. Although pre-scientific, it
anticipates this problem, for Zen teaches how to debunk without
debasing. It shows how to keep mystery and wonder without dualism. When
life on the level of everyday doings can be appreciated anew, then it
does not lessen zest to be more naturalistic. To lighten the load, speed
the work, increase leisure, need not be demoralizing as long as there
is more than enough to do; to think when not doing; and to contemplate
when not thinking. Zen seems needed to teach people to get through a
shorter working week and day, with the fact in plainer view that they
are only human, and buddhas only men.
Zen is a way of keeping the sky high without leaving the ground,
finding exalted language called for, yet less eloquent than silence. The
secret is in seeing that man can use his need to reach all that he
needs. The seeing comes in a flash, as in seeing a joke. Though it is
the joy of salvation, it is funny -- unsuspected -- that the eternal is
now, the universal here, the supernatural actual. What could be more
comforting, or amusing? It clears the air with a thunderous guffaw. Then
nothing is lacking. There is nothing to fear. There is nothing to do
but what there is to do, be quiet, be glad that life is its own answer.
This is what Dewey sees and says, though he mostly takes it for
granted and goes on from there. Zen itself finds silence most
appropriate to the basic insight, though finding endless things to say
about it. But when the
sign process gets under way it moves on to more and more that depends
upon the use of words and other signs, in working out hypotheses and
testing them, with consequences beyond the ken of Zen. The process
appeals to the future in controlling the effort of the present. Here is
the difference between Zen and Dewey. It is not just a difference of
centuries, or between East and West, but between wisdom and science.
If Zen could do better without science than men are likely to do
without Zen, no matter how much science they have, the fact is that
Dewey is not without Zen. Americans have something like Zen in their
heritage, which we need to appreciate before proceeding with science.
But science moves them on, whether they are ready or not. If they are to
recover their balance under its impetus, they need to steady themselves
with words they have heard, from Emerson to Dewey and Santayana. To
recognize these words for what they are, it helps to see that they
strike into the same vein as the wisdom of China and Japan.
As science rests upon experience, good use of science begins with
knowing the importance of the only reality men have: that of the
passing moment -- not belittling it because it is theirs, or because men
are only themselves. The Zen sages say that all men are buddhas. Then
the Western land of America is the Pure Land, as much as any in the East
or farther West. Here men can pass the tea. It may be whiskey instead,
but it might as well be tea.
Perhaps men need a time in a monastery before becoming
householders, drivers, buyers and sellers: to learn to sit, to be clean
of dust and clutter. It would do something for anyone to dust each leaf
in a garden. To rake grains of sand, making them gleam in rows by a
temple, would teach the value of doing nothing but what most needs to be
done. If men could be more silent, they might delight more in speaking
when spoken to. Then nearly everything in life might symbolize all there
is. Serving tea does it very neatly. So can doing the dishes.
The monastery day is a ceremonial version of what goes on in
every household -- set apart in more silence, more order, more color.
There is more meditation, but it concentrates the reflection which takes
place everywhere about man's fate. The attempt to reach emptiness, to
smooth out mind to no-mind, and talk to muteness, is to work through the
superfluous to what is left. Strange questions and answers are pondered
to stalk the mystery of life, which may be seized in a single word, as
in repeating one of the names of the Buddha until it makes no sense, to
get rid of conventional meaning and face the reality beneath. But it is
warned that resorting to monastic devices may be self-defeating if
allowed to become mechanical. The danger of the monastery is that its
members may cease to be men in being monks.
Suzuki says, "... the object of Zen is to understand what life
means." Then its spirit is that of inquiry, and that is the spirit
of Dewey. But he relies on science, which Zen originally and
characteristically knows nothing of, or makes little of. And he seeks to
be logical instead of flouting logic. He does not stick to traditional
logic, which to him is good only for ordering what is already known. He
works out a "logic of inquiry," in line with the pioneering of Peirce.
The purpose, however, is to free and enrich immediate experience, which
has no purpose but its own being.
Dewey puts the abstract approach of the logical with the close
touch of the aesthetic. While the actual can be enhanced by way of the
abstruse, the first-hand fact comes first and last for him, as for Zen.
In both, there is a fruitful tension between experience and
interpretation, between figuring things out and feeling what they come
to. The logical and the aesthetic come together in the daily round of
human life, as vij~naana (conceptual thought) and praj~naa
(supra-rational insight) do. Zen keeps Buddhist terms and turns of
thought while smiling at them; Dewey makes light of formal learning,
while using it. In both, any attempt to rise above nature is for a
better look at what is there. In both, intense enjoyment of the
immediate is the aim, with realization that it often has to be worked
for and waited for, especially if it is to be made widely available and
renewable. Zen is generally democratic in this fundamental way, as Dewey
is. Both hold that men are significantly equal, and should be freed
from whatever keeps any of them from the pursuit or happiness. If this
goal is always a dynamic one, it is more so for Dewey, with the drive of
science behind him and the factory at hand, instead of the monastery.
But Dewey's motivation is not more social, except in his knowing more
about the social makeup of the self. Going to a monastery has assumed
that men cannot go far alone, that it helps them to grow to reside there
a while, working with brothers at one or another common task, sharing
their separation in silence, having the same master to ask what they all
Both Dewey and Zen have the bodhisattva ideal of helping others
instead of seeking enlightenment only for oneself. Both are suspicious
of specialization, erudition, any endeavor which seems to disdain the
main stream of life. For both, the good which does not need to be
justified is the ordinary good of living. But they recognize that it
needs to be made more sharable, as well as more private, and that this
leaves plenty of room for improvement, as much as if the end of life
were beyond life.
Santayana has said that man has a prejudice against himself, a
15. D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, Second Series (Boston: The
Beacon Press, 1952), p. 135
to discount what he is and what he can do, either by himself or with
the help of his fellows. Man has looked beyond experience, with its
source and setting in the natural world, in search of something more.
Even James felt impelled to look beyond. But he worked his way, in the
direction Dewey Took more consistently, toward what is virtually the old
Chinese Way or Tao. It is the road of holding that man is basically
good, in a universe good for a good life, if man will take the trouble
to understand himself and his situation. The difference for Dewey is
that he is farther along on the same road, where it is paved with
progress, where travel has the advantages of science but also the
problems and fears it brings. With more knowledge, power, and freedom,
it is more necessary to have wisdom.
What was wise once is not enough. The meditation hall of a Zen
monastery would not give adequate education now. Yet, its final lesson
is more valuable than ever: that study and meditation are a waste of
time, cultivation of simplicity and restraint not much better, unless
the "secret virtue" is reached. The secret is: "Life itself must be
grasped in the midst of its flow." This is the reliance on
experience which came to James, when he saw that what any part of it
leans on is the rest.
The Zen insight was spread by painting and other forms of art.
Though each man would have to find Zen for himself, the expression of it
was best left to art. No philosophical statement can come as close;
science falls short. Science hypothesizes, describes, calculates,
generalizes. Yet, all this can be taken up into vivid living and
coalesce with art. For Dewey, art is the fusion of life and learning,
doing and undergoing. Art expresses what life is, and makes more of it,
bringing life to a pitch and focus that clarify and complete it.
The key to Dewey's wisdom, as to that of Zen, is that the high
things are here, though to hold them takes practice. Dewey said: "... we
should regard practice as the only means (other than accident) by which
whatever is judged honorable, admirable, approvable can be kept in
concrete existence." This is the gist of both Dewey and Zen,
different as they are. Practice, for Dewey, is vastly extended by
science and complicated by the problems of democracy in a technological
age. Zen is a way of facing life in the agricultural past of China and
Japan. Both bring the ideal down, not to demean it but to keep it and
live with it. Both feel that this makes more of it than to leave it in
Zen rejects the image of an "exalted figure ... surrounded and
16. D. T. Suzuki, Introduction to Zen Buddhism (New York: The
Philosophical Library, 1949),
17. John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (New York: Minion Balch &
Co., 1929), p. 32.
by the Bodhisattvas from the ten quarters of the world" and prefers
to think of the Buddha as an old donkey-woman. This anticipates
Dewey's saying that philosophy has no authority except in resting on the
goods diffused in human experience, and appraising them. Dualism is
repudiated by Dewey and Zen. Both refuse to split experience into here
and higher, into here and hereafter. Dewey weighs value in the scales of
conditions and consequences. He would have men undertake ever more
ambitious projects, guided by the cost and outcome of what they do. Zen
is more quiet and collected, but condemns quietism. The monk must be up
and doing most of the time. But historically he has been occupied with
such chores as sweeping the floor, tilling the ground, gathering fuel,
or trudging to a village with a begging bowl. What he had to do was done
by hand or foot, when he was not puzzling over an old book, getting
ready to ask a master about it, or just eating when hungry, sleeping
Both Zen and Dewey are naturalistic, finding within experience
all they could want. The obvious difference is that experience has been
traditional and essentially unchanging for Zen. There are still the same
things to be done, in the same way, as formerly. There are the same
problems to be pondered. There is the same insight to arrive at, with
the same surprise, though the ways of expressing it are endless. For
Dewey, the development of the sign process in modern science has
intervened. He sees man doing and thinking, not only the same old
things, but also things that were never dreamed of. He has not only the
Zen wisdom of appreciating what men are given, in the world and in the
heritage they carry with them, but also the un-Zen sense of evolution
and of man's getting increasing control of it. He has the idea of
progress: that humanity can reconstruct the world and itself.
IV. WITHOUT PURPOSE ON PURPOSE
Planning ahead, which
increases with science, apparently abandons the purposelessness of Zen.
There is no doubt about a departure here from what Zen has meant. The
question is whether the serenity of Zen can be recovered in a world on
the move, where Zen is needed more than ever. The answer may be found in
the fact that Dewey, no less than Zen, denies any purpose beyond that
of being absorbed in the business of living. Does Zen in its most
extreme expressions give up purpose in that sense? Zen does seem to say
that purpose in any sense must be dropped. But is not the
18. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, Third Series, p. 102.
reason for saying it that losing the urgency of purpose is
instrumental to the cairn attitude which makes life worth while? Zen is
not above the wisdom of serpents, as it is above the gentleness of
doves. For all its forthrightness, Zen can be devious and disingenuous,
in word play as in sword play. The feint of withdrawing purpose enables
Zen to thrust it in.
Why have Zen if there is no point to it, no use in it? And why
should Zen develop its discipline, techniques, and monastic system? It
would all be meaningless if it had no direction or intention. If the
idea is to get rid of purpose, that is still a purpose.
The fact is that purposiveness and purposelessness are not
incompatible in the perfection of experience which Dewey calls
aesthetic, as Kant knew when he spoke of it as Zweckmassigkeit ohne
Zweck. The more one studies The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind, in which
Suzuki expounds the doctrine of no-purpose, the more one is aware of an
end in view, and of a search for the means to reach it. The end is the
good life, as free-flowing activity -- free of inhibition, worry,
tension. Aristotle, to the same end, urged the formation of good habits
-- so did James -- in order that energy might be directed more or less
unconsciously, so that, for the most part, a man would do the right
thing without thinking. If this is what Zen means by living without
thought or purpose, it is also what Dewey means.
But Dewey explains what Zen tacitly admits: that it takes some
thought to get back (or ahead) to living without thinking. He realizes
that, though there is no goal but the going, the going can be improved.
He has no purpose beyond that. If this is called being without purpose,
it does not preclude but requires purposes in the plural. As Zen
established monasteries, using manuals and manual duties to induce, if
not to teach, wisdom, so Dewey was concerned with education. Both Zen
and he believed in learning by doing, believed that to live is to learn
and that to learn is to live better. Zen served a rather stationary
culture. Dewey tried to help a dynamic civilization arrive at a sense of
rightness and wholeness. His was the harder task, which cannot be
finished, since every advance of science and technology, while making
life easier in some respect, makes it harder to recover the joy of
living without hurry or distraction. And there is the dread of losing
control of fast-moving, wreck-avoiding if not disastrous, events.
The Zen ideal seemed so simple, even in its homelands, that it
could be asked how the Zen life differed "from a life of instincts or a
series of impulses." The warning was necessary that Zen might
degenerate into passivity if not for the constant reminder that it
called for action. And moral
19. D. T. Suzuki, The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind (London: Rider and Co.,
20. Ibid., p. 111.
anarchism had to be warned against as a possible consequence of
transcending intellectualism. If men "should make their minds like a
piece of lock be darkly ignorant," anything might happen, and
certainly would, in Dewey's age of power and wrangling nations.
Dewey can also be considered anti-intellectual, in his
subordination of reasoning and problem-solving to the wholeness of
immediate experience. But he sees that the joy of the immediate must be
guarded by the far-flung sign process; also that much thought can be
taken up into the enjoyment of the present, as in appreciation of art.
No sharp demarcation is possible between reflective and non-reflective
experience. Peirce took down the fence between inference and intuition.
Suzuki himself is obliged, if not glad, to admit that mind and no-mind
are continuous. Thus he grants that intuition and abstract reasoning
coalesce, saying "praj~naa is vij~naana and vij~naana is praj~naa."
If Suzuki nevertheless prefers praj~naa, Dewey prefers aesthetic
experience. As he must buttress the aesthetic with moral effort and
intellectual considerations, so must Suzuki. Both are purposive and
teleological in wanting to get on (or back) to doing what is felt to be
worth while in itself, as much as that is possible. The problem is to
instate the joy and peace of Zen in the West, and to reinstate it in the
East, without being irresponsible. What price responsibility, if no
Zen? To have Zen now, or even Santayana, we must have Dewey, too. But
Dewey fails if he cannot justify Santayana's saying: "the happy filling
of a single hour is so much gained for the universe at large, and to
find joy and sufficiency in the flying moment is perhaps the only means
open to us for increasing the glory of eternity."
There are passages in Dewey and Zen which are antithetical if
taken literally, as there are many which offer mutual support across the
gulf between past and present. But how literally should the extreme
statements of Zen be taken? About their enigmatic meaning Zen scholars
themselves differ. We should not forget that the humor of Zen may fool
us. Some people find Dewey hard to read. But he is plan as a post,
compared to Zen. In Zen a post may be a baffling thing.
Suzuki seems to ignore this when he says: "To imagine that Zen is
mysterious is the first grave mistake which many make about it."
But in the same book he says: "Chinese expressions, especially those
21. Ibid., p. 113.
22. D. T. Suzuki, in Charles A. Moore, Essays in East-West
Philosophy: An Attempt at World Philosophy Synthesis (Honolulu:
University of Hawaii Press, 1951), p. 25.
23. George Santayana, The life of Reason (New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1933), Vol. III, Reason in Religion, p. 270.
24. Suzuki, The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind, p. 138.
connection with Zen thought, are full of significance which, when
translated into such languages as English, loses altogether its original
suggestiveness. The very vagueness so characteristic of the Chinese
style of writing is in fact its strength: mere points of reference are
given, and as to how to connect them, to yield a meaning, the knowledge
and feeling of the reader are the real determinant." The remark
about translation seems gratuitous, unless to say that Zen is plainer in
English than in the original, and that to make it plain is to betray
Perhaps Dewey is too literal for Zen, too anxious to spell things
out, though not always without humor. The men of Zen are more Socratic
in leading on the interlocutor, teasing him instead of telling him.
Their technique of question and answer (the mondo) may seem intended to
trip the seeker, to teach him that there is no end to his quest. But the
mondo has been an effective eye-opener. The aim is to awaken
realization that experience is its own end and explanation, because
there is nothing else, and that the attempt to set up something else
will only falsify what there is. An absurd answer is a way of showing
that a question makes no sense until the asker comes to his senses. Then
as good a reply as any may be a blow with a stick. Silence may suffice
except chat, having learned to speak and think, men have to work through
speech and thought to get back to silence.
The mondo dialogue, besides being used to suggest that experience
fulfills itself, may be used as a koan, an exercise to test whether a
person has arrived at Zen-insight or satori, which is to have the sense
of reaching the utmost "Beyond" in "coming home." What it comes to
is release from anxiety, from being too concerned or calculating,
realizing, instead, that the best spiritual cultivation is "not to
practice any cultivation" but "to do one's tasks without deliberate
effort or purposeful mind."
For an American this brings back the question of the assumption,
which must have been easier to make in a simpler society, that it is
advisable and possible to live without "deliberate effort or purposeful
mind." If the real point is to avoid being over-anxious, that is
understandable and laudable. But any society, and especially a
democratic one, depends upon a considerable amount of responsible effort
and reflective intention. Not only must able leaders be informed and
critical, with some idea of what they are working toward and why, but so
must the people themselves, or risk being deprived of conditions which
would justify the joyous relaxa-
25. Ibid. pp. 129-130.
26. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, Second Series, p. 31.
27. Fung Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (New York: The
Macmillan Co., 1948), p. 259.
tion of Zen. The time has passed, if there ever was such a time for
more than a few, when to have the Zen joy it was enough to shun society
like the early Taoists. In the atom age men cannot take to the woods
with any more peace of mind than they can stay with neighbors. It is too
late for Zen if men cannot be happy at home.
To try now to "be darkly ignorant," with a mind "like a piece of
rock," might seem as far from wisdom as folly could get. Yet, men seem
to be ignorant of any Absolute Purpose Beyond; they are in the dark
about anything so pretentious as teleology. But men can know enough to
do what needs doing, while relying on life to see them through.
Jefferson and Emerson knew this, Thoreau, and many an American down to
Dewey. But what they said can be better appreciated when it is seen how
much they were giving the wisdom of the East in their own. If what is
required of men takes more than Zen, it also calls for more Zen: so that
the purposeful can flow into the purposeless, the moral into the
aesthetic, knowing into doing, and doing into doing nothing but making
the most of the moment, as in having a cup of tea