Buddhist Meditations
Zen and Some Comments on A Mondo
Harold E. McCarthy
31/10/2011 05:26 (GMT+7)
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D. T. SUZUKI HAS, in his writings, insisted again and again that Zen is not a philosophy and that Zen is not a religion, but that it is essentially different from both philosophy and religion, and yet, relevant to both as a significant alternative. Unless this much is understood one does not even approach Zen on the right foot, let alone in the right direction.

Zen is not, certainly, a system of speculative philosophy. Zen is not concerned with an attempt to formulate, systematically and intellectually, answers to questions concerning the ultimate nature of man, the ultimate nature of the totality of reality in which man is caught up, or the ultimate nature of the good life and the good society for man. Zen gives us no laws, no rules, no principles, no "truths" which could possibly be construed as metaphysical, epistemological, or even moral. Thus it is that Zen cannot properly be spoken of as a form of materialism, idealism, dualism, pantheism, mysticism, or even existentialism. Nor can we say that Zen advocates the elimination of speculative philosophy. Zen is the elimination of metaphysics in the sense that Zen is not metaphysical at all. It does not solve or resolve metaphysical questions. Metaphysical questions do not, for Zen, come up from within the Zen orientation. When metaphysical questions are directed to Zen, Zen smiles broadly and marks them, one and all: Return to Sender. The understanding is that, if one can speak of understanding in this context, they have been sent to the wrong address.

But if Zen is not a system of speculative philosophy, Zen is not a form of critical philosophy either. Zen is not concerned with the intellectual analysis of the meanings of terms and concepts, the rules of logic, or the diverse modes of linguistic functioning. Some who are students of Wittgenstein have been of the opinion that there is Wittgenstein in Zen and Zen in Wittgenstein. Nothing, it seems to me, could be farther from the truth. The writings


of Suzuki and the writings of Wittgenstein cannot be compared. They move in opposite directions, and if they appear to arrive at times at somewhat similar conclusions, the similarity is appearance only. If Wittgenstein cannot be studied as Wittgenstein, let him be studied not as a student of Zen but as a student of Aristotle who, after all, was very much concerned with the rectification of names, the formulation of what it is to be a science, and the setting forth of rules of formal logic, though without the advantage of truth-table analysis.

Just as Zen is not philosophy, speculative or critical, so Zen, as presented by Suzuki, is not religion either. In Zen there are no rites, no rituals, no dogmas, no doctrines, no sacred scriptures, no theologies, and no formulated "truths," noble or ignoble as the case may be. The religionist who claps his two hands together to summon a servant, natural or divine, is answered by the Zen man who holds one hand aloft and calls attention to the impact of its soundlessness. Even this is something one reads about but does not do. Holding one hand aloft is not Zen. There are too many things to do, quietly, with both hands to spend any time at all holding one hand aloft. A Zen man may meditate, just as the emotionally ill man may seek out an analyst, but meditation is not Zen. At best, meditation in Zen is a means to an end, not an end in itself-though even this dichotomous distinction between means and end is, at best, a symptom of our fallenness, our departure from and separation from the on-going immediacy that is Zen.

It may be said, of course, from the outside, peering in, that the goal of Zen is the achievement of satori. Satori may be achieved, we are told, by way of zazen, or seated meditation, though enlightenment is not something that can be guaranteed in advance. Satori may also be achieved quite apart from zazen. If the eye has been opened, it is ridiculous to say that satori has not been achieved because zazen has not been systematically practiced. If the eye has been opened, if suddenly we find ourselves free from names and forms, if -- in response to whatever occasion or stimulus -- our world shines forth in its original face, no longer sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, this is -- if it is -- satori.

Properly speaking, in Zen there are no sacred scriptures nor expository analyses. The basic "literature" of Zen consists, for the most part, of mondos and koans. Mondos and koans are happenings, and there is a difference between a happening and the report of a happening. One may, perhaps, learn from a report just as one may learn from the critical review of a novel; but reading the review of a novel is not undergoing a novel. Reading the reports of mondos and koans may be a way of "studying" Zen, but it is not a way of


undergoing Zen nor of achieving satori. Koans are personal challenges and mondos are personal experiences, each one with a unique form of its own.

My first koan, which emerged as a genuine happening, was given to me by Suzuki himself at the time of the 1949 East-West Philosophers' Conference. I was, at that time, young and fresh and full of spit and empirical tough-mindedness. Devoted to logic and philosophy of science, I was -- or so I thought -- carrying out in my way the program outlined by A. J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic. Before meeting Suzuki I had never heard of Zen, and what Suzuki had to say during the meetings of the Conference seemed to make no sense to me at all. I decided at first that he must be some kind of odd and offbeat mystic concerned with uttering the unutterable. Later, in contrast to what I was learning about Advaita, it seemed to me that Zen was not mysticism at all but, really, an odd form of pragmatic naturalism that could be improved, or possibly brought up to date, by removing its chosen air of paradox and deliberate mystification. Becoming more and more perplexed and disturbed toward the end of the Conference, I came, as it were, to the end of my rope. Leaning across the conference table in the direction of Suzuki, I asked what I took to be a real payoff of a question. "Sir," I said, "answer me just one question and I shall be content. Is the empirical world real for Zen?" Suzuki, it seemed to me, replied without a moment's hesitation : "The empirical world is real just as it is." I felt that I had struck home. This was no mystic but a tough-minded empiricist. I was elated. My elation, however, lasted hardly more than a few seconds. The arrow that had pierced my skin possessed a barb. For suddenly I was face to face with the question: If the empirical world is real just as it is, how is it when it is just as it is? Philosophers and scientists, East and West, had attempted to describe the empirical world just as it is -- the outcome was disagreement, conflict, and the canceling out of mutually incompatible descriptions. I turned the coin over. There it was, the empirical world, just as it is, beyond all manner of speech; and there, so clear in the morning light, were the traps, the nets, that encircled it on every side, designed to catch what mainly crept away.

I had never done zazen. I had never practiced the art of archery. I had, however, surfed. I was once asked by an outsider what I thought about when riding in on the shoulder of a wave. My answer was immediate and direct: "I think about nothing at all. If I were to think I could not keep my balance." No two boards are the same, no two waves are the same, no two winds are the same, no two days are the same. Surfing is not a knowing but a doing. And when one surfs, the empirical world is real just as it is. Only afterwards, over one's shoulder, does not reflect. Although not a saint, it would appear that, face to face with Suzuki, I had kept an appointment.  


The mondos are many, and many of the classical mondos are familiar. But mondos, when they happen, are happenings; and there is all the difference in the world between a living mondo in which one is caught up and a dead mondo which lends itself only to dissection after the fact. During the 1959 East-West Philosopher's Conference, Suzuki was present again, older, to be sure, but with a vigor that defied his years. Some time during the second week or so of this Conference I learned from Van Meter Ames that Suzuki had arranged, outside the framework of the Conference proper, a number of Zen discussion meetings. Suzuki, Professor Ames indicated, would like me to be present. "Thank you," I replied; and I did not go. My presence may, in some manner, have been missed. The following week, possibly as an envoy from Suzuki, Kenneth Inada (a former student of mine, and at that time an advanced student at the University of Tokyo) informed me that there was to be another Zen discussion meeting and that Suzuki would like me to come. "Thank you," I replied; and once more I did not go. The third week Suzuki himself arrived on the scene and informed me that there was to be a Zen discussion meeting to which I was invited. I bowed and smiled. Suzuki bowed and smiled. Then we both laughed. Suzuki went his way and I went mine. I had been invited not once but three times. It was in the end as if the master and I understood on a level beyond analysis and discussion. I had been given my koan. Ten years later I had now lived through my mondo. If not satori, I had achieved, or so it seems to me, a measure of insight.

Though mondos are happenings, meaningful when one is really caught up in them, not analyzed but lived through, the reports of mondos are not altogether beyond analysis, explication, elucidation so long as one remembers that the analysis of a mondo is not a mondo any more than the analysis of a poem is itself a poem. Poems, if they are to be analyzed at all, must be grasped from within in the dimension of sense, feeling, emotion, and imagination; and mondos, if they are to be explicated at all, seem to presuppose a unique kind of Einfuehlung. The student of Zen may have a favorite mondo; but one thing is certain -- if the student has one favorite mondo, he has many favorite mondos, and the explication of one mondo, however partial and personal, will lead him to the explication of another and another. There is really no termination. Suzuki, it seems to me, is wise. He provides us with mondos but resists, on the whole, complicated explication. I am certainly not as wise as Suzuki. I have a favorite mondo, presented by Suzuki without comment. Where he maintains a noble silence, I play the game of explication 


Let me conclude this chapter with the following quotation from one of the earliest Zen writings. Doko (Tao-kwang), a Buddhist philosopher and a student of the Vijnaptimatra (absolute idealism), came to a Zen master and asked:

"With what frame of mind should one discipline oneself in the truth?"
Said the Zen master, "There is no mind to be framed, nor is there any truth in which to be disciplined."
"If there is no mind to be framed and no truth in which to be disciplined, why do you have a daily gathering of monks who are studying Zen and disciplining themselves in the truth?"
The master replied: "I have not an inch of space to spare, and where could I have a gathering of monks? I have no tongue, and how would it be possible for me to advise others to come to me?"
The philosopher then exclaimed, "How can you tell a lie like that to my face."
"When I have no tongue to advise others, is it possible for me to tell a lie?"
Said Doko despairingly, "I cannot follow your reasoning."
"Neither do I understand myself," concluded the Zen master.[1]

Although Suzuki warns us that in Zen "Questions and Answers" there "are no quibblings, no playing at words, no sophistry,"[2] this little dialogue sparkles with the most serious wit, irony, and directness. Involved is the immediate confrontation of a Buddhist philosopher and a Zen master. The philosopher, being a philosopher, assumes -- on the basis of his own ignorance, which he undoubtedly regards as wisdom -- that Zen is, indeed, a philosophy, concerned with disclosing a truth to be grasped by the mind or intellect. The reply on the part of the master is completely to the point. The philosopher has come to the wrong place. Zen is not a philosophy; there is no "truth" to be grasped by the "mind," and one who supposes that there is such a truth has already come in the wrong frame of mind (or the wrong frame of something), exhibiting his ignorance by speaking about a "frame of mind" in the first place.

The master's reply may be surprising, but Doko is not set back on his heels. Like a chess player determined to win and sure of his rules and his skills, he tries again, pointing out what he takes to be evidence incompatible with the master's statement: the obvious presence of monks who are, equally obviously, studying Zen and disciplining themselves in the truth. The master's reply is without hesitation as he sticks to his guns. Men there are, but there are no monks; indeed, in a zendo there is no more room for monks of the traditional variety than there is for deaf men at a musical concert -- occupying seats, they would deny room to others and yet would hear not a sound. More-

1. D. T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1949), p. 57.

2. Ibid., pp. 56-57.


over, the men who have come have come of their own accord. The master, so to speak, is not a recruiter. He has no cross to carry and has no slogan of the form: "Take up my cross and follow me." Thus the master's reply is simple and open and is most certainly not intended to be paradoxical.

But the philosopher, forgetting his manners, forgetting that he himself is, at best, an uninvited guest and, not realizing that he is a bull in a china shop, now accuses the master, to whom his initial approach was that of a humble seeker, of being a liar. The master, undisturbed by such rudeness, replies with the utmost simplicity, suggesting in his way that it was Doko who formulated the questions in the first place. If he is not satisfied with the replies, they have been given in good faith, not on the basis that stupid questions deserve equally stupid replies, but perhaps with the suggestion that questions themselves are not without presuppositions (which may be quite erroneous), such that those who ask illegitimate questions may not be satisfied at all with the answers they receive. If Doko had been enlightened enough to ask the right questions, he would not have asked any questions at all.

At this point Doko is in despair. He does not understand. The Zen master is sympathetic and human. He does not understand either. Left hanging in the air, unformulated but clearly involved, is the question: "Who started this discussion in the first place?"

Insofar as this question applies to me, it is easy to answer. I initiated the discussion in this paper. At this point I now terminate it, with salutations and -- if need be -- apologies to Suzuki, the master, and Charles A. Moore, the Conference Director, without whom this paper would never have been written.

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