Buddhist Meditations
Zen: A Reply to Van Meter Ames
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Zen: A Reply to Van Meter Ames
By D. T. Suzuki
Philosophy East & West
V. 5 (January 1956)
pp. 349-352
Copyright 1956 by University of Hawaii Press

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p.349

    WHAT MAKES IT most difficult for a Western thinker to write on Zen is that he tries to understand it from the linguistic, logical, or philosophical point of view. This is inevitable. One cannot transcend his cultural heritage as soon as something new comes to his head.

    To understand Zen one must abandon all he has acquired by way of conceptual knowledge and stand before it stripped of every bit of the intellection he has patiently accumulated around him. When, for instance, Dewey talks of "the here and the now," as quoted by Dr. Ames, they both neglect to face the problem personally and sec what it experientially tells them. As I see it, they keep "the here and the now" away from their lives and look at it from a conceptual distance. They somehow seem to be afraid of jumping right to the point where space and time have not yet differentiated themselves.

    Those who have habitually been taught and disciplined to keep "the here and the now" at a distance will naturally be timid about touching the object. Zen proposes, on the contrary, to grasp it with one's own naked hands, with no gloves on. This is the most realistic way of understanding what "the here and the now" is. This is, in fact, the only way to know what it is, for it is in this way that one knows what one is talking about. As long as one shies away from touching it, all that can be done is talk about it. This is the reason philosophical discussion makes one feel as if one is scratching an itch through the shoe, as the Chinese saying has it.

    The Zen master does not tolerate this roundabout way of handling reality. Hence his swinging of the stick. The stick, however, is not meant to give one a shock. It is meant to make one feel it as something most intimate, most concrete, and most personal. Touch is the most primary sensation. Hearing comes next, while seeing is the farthest away from actuality itself. Intellection is seeing and not touching.

    The stick came to be utilized sometimes for a pedagogical purpose, but its primary use was direct and instinctual, as it were. No idea of instrumentality was there in its first application. A monk may ask, "What is

 

 

p.350

my self?" and the master's stick is immediately on him. Could anything be more direct and personal? If the monk had been wrestling at all with the problem of self, the blow would have at once awakened him to the solution.

    Suiryo asked Baso (d. 788), "What is Bodhidharma's idea of coming to this country from the West [that is, India]?" The question is the same as asking, "What is the ultimate teaching of Buddhism?" or, "What is the self?"

    Instead of giving any verbal answer which might be expected of a philosopher or of any ordinary professor of logic or dialectic, Baso gave his questioner a kick on the chest which made the monk fall to the ground. When he arose, however, he gave a hearty laugh, exclaiming, "How wonderful! How strange! Infinities of mysteries hidden in hundreds of thousands of samaadhis are revealed at the tip of one hair which I now perceive down to their very depths." He then bowed to the master and departed. Later he said to his Brotherhood, "Ever since the kick given by my master, I cannot help going on laughing."

    If Baso had given Suiryo a lengthy talk on the truth of Buddhism, as a college professor might have done, I wonder if Suiryo could have recovered  from a kick with such a magnificent expression.

    "The here and the now" of Baso's kick allowed Suiryo no time for a  conceptual interpretation. James, Dewey, Peirce, Ames, and many other philosophers, big or small, could never have experienced the truth of Zen dangling from the tip of their pen, inasmuch as their profession does not go any further or deeper or more existentialistic than it actually does.

    This, however, we must remember, does not mean that Zen looks upon a philosophical interpretation of its experience as something below its dignity. Zen welcomes logic or philosophy or linguistics. Zen is their good friend, always ready to make their acquaintance. What Zen refuses is to have such professional studies as the object of its training. Zen cannot make an alliance with those who may think that Zen is exhausted by intellectualization.

    "Pure experience" is all right as far as it goes, but Zen asks us to experience it by ourselves. Zen is not a concept, and, therefore, it has no ambition to become the object of philosophical study and stop there. Zen wishes the philosopher to go back to his inner self (I am afraid I am philosophizing - the self which makes him philosophize. That is to say, the philosopher is to return to himself even before he was a philosopher and face his "here  and now" as if he were still a resident like his ancestor Adam in the garden of Eden who saw God daily in his workshop as creator.

 

 

p.351

    Mathematically or metaphysically speaking, we can say that "the here and the now" in the Garden of Eden is zero (0) and that this zero equals infinity, thus: 0 = infinity, and infinity = 0. This is where Zen starts. Zen is not theologically minded; therefore it omits mentioning God. Zen is not mythologically inclined; therefore it disregards all the stories familiar to Western people. If one wishes to understand how concretely pure Zen experience is, let him turn himself into a zero and see what it is. Whatever philosophy he desires to build, let him do so upon his "pure experience" instead of mere conceptualization. The zero is not an empty concept, nor is it a mere word; it is a storehouse of infinite possibilities, and it never stays quiescent with all its treasures.

    Logicians and linguists frequently take up enigmatic or contradictory statements of the Zen masters from their specialized point of view to try to explain them away. This, of course, is quite a natural thing for them to do. While Zen has nothing much to say against their professionalism, it has to remark this: If they think they have exhausted Zen by thus analyzing the so-called Zen paradox, such as "handle a spade while empty-handed," or "riding a water buffalo while walking on foot," they are utterly mistaken for they fail altogether to enter into the spirit of Zen, which is not in letters but in the experience itself. The experience is ante-scientific, ante-rationalistic. It precedes logically, though not chronologically, all forms of speculation which issue out of it, and not conversely. This is the most important point, which we ought never to forget when dealing with Zen.

    When Zen expresses itself in one form or another, linguistically or otherwise, it falls into the hands of the scientist and philosopher. Zen is to be taken hold of even prior to its thus going out of itself. The expressions, paradoxical or otherwise, are always to be interpreted by referring to the primary experience itself and never by merely tracing out their linguistic or dialectical relations. However fine this kind of analysis may be, it is sure to miss the most essential point so long as it goes on independently of the original experience which has given birth to those verbal expressions. This is what makes the study of Zen almost an impossible task for the philosopher or linguist. The more the latter strives to get at the meaning of a Zen expression, the deeper he gets into entanglement, and he finds himself more and more involved in his own schematization.

    Again to speak mathematically, "the here and the now" is zero, and zero is Zen. But, as long as the zero remains a zero, we may say that Zen is not yet there in its fullness. The zero is to move on to 1 (one), 1 to 2, 2 to 3, and so on, making up an infinite series of natural numbers. Zen is then for the first time seized upon in its full power, for Zen is this process itself,

 

 

p.352

incessantly and eternally moving on and on. When the process is cut into pieces such as 1,2,3 . . . n, it forms a finite series which is called time or space or both, but this seriality is not to be identified with Zen. Zen indeed reveals itself not only in the zero as it remains in itself but in each number as it unfolds itself out of the zero and further also in the process of unfoldment. Zen itself knows no discontinuity, no seriality, for this is the work of intellection. Even intellection, however, can be identified with Zen in so far as it is the process of intellectual unfoldment. In fact, Zen is encountered everywhere if we keep our praj~naa-eye fully open.

    There are some more points I would like to discuss in connection with Dr. Ames's suggestive paper on Zen. For instance, I would like to have written on Zen morality, if there is such a thing. I would have liked also   to add a word about the Zen concept of purposelessness. But if one understands that Zen is something prior to science, philosophy, and all other intellectual disciplines, and, further, that every form of intellection starts from this primary Zen experience, we can, I hope, finally understand what Zen is and also the meaning of the master's stick and his "nonsensical" ejaculations. For all this let me wait for another occasion.

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