The Life of Zen

Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 14)


A look inside Zen monastic life and practice reveals a culture of dialog and subtle humor between master and student.



There are some problems which Western people have in understanding the life of Zen, and I thought that before we go any further I would devote this program to discussing one of the most crucial of these problems. It keeps coming up as people in the West learn about Zen, or in some way come under its influence—whether they be painters, or writers, or just so-called ordinary people. And I think the central problem is the question of whether Zen is a kind of capricious, do-as-you-like spontaneity, or whether it’s a very rigorous discipline. If you read, say, a book like The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, you might get the impression that Zen is simply living the way you feel, following the natural rhythm of your own spontaneous inner life. On the other hand, if you read some of the books by Dr. Suzuki or other authorities on Zen, you would gather quite the contrary: that it’s an extremely rugged and difficult undertaking.


And what the old masters have to say about this is sometimes rather confusing. For example, the old Chinese master Linji has this to say:

In Buddhism there is no place for using effort.

Just be ordinary and nothing special.

Move your bowels, pass water.

When you’re hungry, eat.

When you’re tired, go and lie down.

The ignorant will laugh at me,

But the wise will understand.


And then, another old master, Mazu, says:

In the Way [that is, the Tao] there is nothing to discipline one’s self in.

If there were, the completion of such discipline would be the destruction of the Tao.

On the other hand, if there is no discipline at all, one remains an ignoramus.


So they seem to say: no, it isn’t a discipline—and yet: yes, it is. And therefore, we outsiders, trying to understand what’s going on, remain profoundly puzzled. For, on the one hand, we see the kind of floating life idealized by the old masters: the life of cloud and water. As I told you, a Zen monk is called unsui, which means that he drifts like a cloud and flows like water. But, on the other hand, here they are in their monasteries (or more correctly seminaries), living a very rugged life indeed under the stern supervision of their teacher.


And so, to understand this problem, I want to go back and look at Zen in a social setting so that we can understand what kind of thing it is. And to do that I want to introduce you to some technical ideas which Buddhism has about the basic nature of the universe so that we can understand the function of discipline in relation to these ideas.


Now, there is a special word which designates the fundamental Buddhist idea of the character of the universe in which we live. And this Sanskrit word is the dharmadhātu. The word dharma has many meanings in Sanskrit. Sometimes it’s “doctrine,” sometimes it’s “method,” but here I would say it means something like “function.” And dhātu means “realm” or “world.” So this is the “doctrine of the whole functioning of the universe.” And it gives us a picture of a universe which is completely relativistic. What does that mean? If you stand on the Earth, it seems to you that the moon is moving. If you stand on the moon, it seems that the Earth is moving. And there’s a Zen poem which says,

Empty-handed I go, and yet a spade is in my hand.

I walk on foot, and yet I’m riding the back of an ox.

When I cross the river, the bridge flows and the water is still.


In other words, I don’t know what an empty hand is except in relation to a hand with something in it. I don’t know what it is to walk on foot unless it’s in relation to some other kind of transportation, such as riding. And I don’t notice motion unless it’s a relationship between something that’s still and something that’s moving. And so where you’ve got an idea of the universe in which everything is relative to everything else, you have, as it were, a scheme of interconnections between innumerable points reminiscent of a spider’s web with dew on it, or the image of Indra’s net, which is a tremendous collection of jewels, all linked together in such a way that each jewel contains the reflection of all the other jewels.


And in this sense, then, Buddhist doctrine is saying that our universe is so interconnected in all its parts that one part of it (so-called) can exist only in relation to all the others. All motion, too, is in relation to all other motion, so that it works (as we would say in physical theory) as a field of forces. There is no separate center in which any motion or activity originates. All activity that occurs at any spot, as it were, originates over the whole system.


And this is another meaning of the Taoist idea of wú wéi. You’ll remember this term—, “not;” wéi, “acting” or “striving.” The deeper meaning of this idea is that nothing acts of itself. There is, as it were, no such thing as an agent. For action is the nature of the whole thing. And it, as it were, appears in one place in relation to stillness in another, and so on.


Now, when you have a highly relative system of this nature, if you want to introduce into it some kind of order—as we want to introduce order into society: we can’t base a social order on a completely relative conception of the world. Because in order to have cosmos instead of chaos, you’ve got to have some standards. But since these standards don’t exactly exist in the universe, we invent them. And therefore our social life depends, as it were, on practicing certain deceptions. The Western philosopher Vaihinger invented the term “the philosophy of ‘As if’.” And all social order and communication depends upon certain deceptions being practiced. And I would say these deceptions are as follows.


The first deception is that there are things. That is to say, that these vortices or nexuses in the total pattern of the universe are real and separate from each other, and can be treated as such. In other words, to describe, to talk about the world, we have to break it down into various different units. Just in the same way, to go to eat a chicken, you have to chop it up in sections. And it’s easier to eat that way. But the cut up fryer doesn’t come out of the egg. It isn’t found in nature, nor do you find eggs where there are no chickens, nor do you find chickens where there is no environment suitable for them, and so on. So the pretense that things are separable from each other is necessary in order to think and talk about them.


The next thing we have to pretend is that there are agents. That, in other words, the human individual is a separate thing, originating action and responsible for it. But in this conception of the completely relative universe, action does not originate at any particular spot. It’s a property of the whole field, as it were, focusing action at these spots. But for purposes of social intercourse we have to pretend that we are individual agents from whom action comes.


And this pretense is enhanced by the third thing, the rewards and punishments. Now, this is terribly important. The reward for regarding one’s self as a responsible agent and acting accordingly is a promise of something good coming in the future—whether it be in this life or whether it be in some other life—so that we are constantly attracted and kept at this game (based on these three deceptions) by living for a good thing coming in the future. And this, as it were, conceals from us what our own proverb tells us in saying “tomorrow never comes.” We are only really ever alive now, and we get distracted from living fully now by having our eye on the future.


Now, of course, there is a reasonable advantage in planning for the future. But a person who is, as it were, hypnotized by the future and unable to be awake now—well, he has no use in planning for the future, because when his plans develop, he won’t really be able to enjoy them.


Punishments are not only the punishments that parents and teachers meet out to recalcitrant children, but we begin to get the feeling that, for example, things like disease or accidents are punishments, and that death, too, is a punishment. And as if that weren’t sufficient, societies have always invented a complicated system of postmortem retribution—various heavens and hells, whether they’re permanent or impermanent—in which the rewards and punishments are further extended.


Now, this system of deceptions—we could say creative deceptions; I don’t want the word “deception” to have a bad flavor—is inculcated into us in childhood in every culture in the world, and it leaves a permanent mark on us. The mark being that we come to believe that these three things are real. Having accomplished the job of creating a social discipline and of getting human beings to step the right paces—to dance, as it were, to the tune played by the piper—having done that, they are burned into us. And so we come to feel that we really are separate things, that we are agents and sources of action, that we are actually responsible for what we do, that there is that ego-thing inside us, which is the initiator, the doer, the will behind all action.


And so we also come to believe in these various rewards and punishments—whether it be the Christian system of heaven and hell, or whether it be the Hindu-Buddhist system of transmigration or reincarnation, living life after life after life, inheriting in each following life the karma (or destiny) which we prepared for ourselves in the preceding one. And this is very convenient, because then there is no (as it were) way of escaping the police. There are celestial police as well as terrestrial police, and by this we are kept in order.


But, you see, this stratagem of these social deceptions is really like a raft that we use to cross a river. When we have (in young people) inculcated the order to go on, being taken in by these deceptions is like picking up the raft when you’ve crossed to the opposite bank and carrying it with you, and it becomes a burden. And so, what Zen is, basically, is a way of freeing human beings from those deceptions, returning them to the vision of the world in its complete relativity.


Now, the training which one goes through with a Zen teacher, shall we say, lifts these deceptions off one’s mind. Now, you might say: “I can understand intellectually. I can understand the idea that I only seem to be an agent, a source of action, and that things only seem to be separate from each other, but are actually interconnected. But does this make me feel any different inside?” And you might say, “Well, no, I don’t think it really does. To understand it fully I would like to change the way I feel.”


But here comes the crucial point in the understanding of Zen. On the one hand, if you set out to change the way you feel, that might be called a discipline. On the other hand, if you decide simply to accept the way you feel and not try to change your inner feelings at all, that might be called letting things alone. But here’s the point: if you have understood clearly that you (as a separate will or a separate ego) are a fiction, then on the one hand you can’t change it, and on the other hand you can’t do nothing about it. Because there is no agent, no separate doer—either to do something about it, or to do nothing about it. And so this situation seems, as it were, paralyzing. If you can’t do, and if you can’t don’t, what’s going to happen? But the point of this is that that paralysis is a realization of the unreality of the individual agent.


So what happens? From this point one ceases to take one’s self seriously. Now, of course, there is always a danger in not taking the thing seriously, which society says we should take seriously. There is the case of, you know, the raw youth, the sort of juvenile delinquent type, who’s in revolt against society and would use the experiences and ideas of Buddhism to justify that revolution. And that is why the practice in Asia is to reveal this point of view only to those who are socially mature. And so the discipline of the Zen school is a safeguard for the dangerous understanding (or the dangerous insight) which is there, being hatched.


And so all those rigorous tests which I explained—the rigorous regimen of life—these, as it were, do not directly produce the understanding, but they are, as it were, the guarded stockade around it. For Zen, you see, is fundamentally an insight. The recognition, in other words, of the deception, the as-if-ness of these fundamental assumptions about the world which are necessary to social life. But then, when you don’t take them seriously anymore—when you don’t take your own separate existence seriously anymore—then you have, as it were, been inwardly relieved of the burden of this feeling of responsibility which society inculcates.


And so you might say that the object of Zen is not to obliterate the order of society or to get rid of its conventions, but to take them lightly; to treat the conventional unconventionally. And this is reflected in the art of Zen, as where you see this Zen monk (the Chinese Hánshān) treated like a kind of clown. Or again, in such a painting as this, which shows the great master Hakuin, a Japanese master of the seventeenth century. This was painted by one of his students. And Hakuin himself wrote a poem above it. And here is the man, you see, who doesn’t take himself seriously. It says:

In the assembly of one thousand Buddhas

The one disliked by one thousand Buddhas.

In the company of a multitude of demonic spirits

The one hated by all the demonic spirits.


Such an ugly, shabby, dim-sighted, bald-headed one that he is, as he is portrayed here, his ugliness is all the more aggravated indeed. Or again: art treated artlessly, in this vase of flowers by the modern Chinese painter [???]. A great master of the craft of painting—but here painting almost as naïvely as a child. For this is artless art. Or again, the sacred treated in a secular way, as in this painting by Sengai, another seventeenth-century Japanese master, of the three sages—Buddha in the center, Lao Tzu to the left, and Confucius to the right. You see, they’re treated in this slightly humorous vain that doesn’t take them quite seriously.


Now, in order to understand the real element of discipline in Buddhism, Western students often get fazed or muddled by a kind of (what I would call) mysterious East department: a projection of too much excellence on something foreign that is not familiar to us. And this occurs particularly among people who think of Buddhist practices as producing all kinds of fantastically miraculous and psychic powers, and who think that if they go to Japan to study Zen, they’re going to come back converted from human beings into supermen. Of course, in popular superstition in Asia itself Buddhism is sometimes regarded in this way. But really, it’s a very natural thing and we shouldn’t be taken in by that. And when we see works of art such as this, we sometimes have difficulty in judging what kind of excellence is in them; what difference there is between formal art on the one hand, and Zen art on the other, because we are so [???] with these productions, we belong to a foreign culture.


Now, let’s take an example of a certain piece of calligraphy. I’m showing you now an informal piece of Zen calligraphy by a very great Chinese master. We, of course, can’t read it. It doesn’t mean anything to us. And therefore it seems to be nothing more than just lines on paper, rather interestingly and dynamically drawn. But now this might be compared with another piece of calligraphy, which I’m showing you here. This, like the one done by the Chinese master, is also written by someone to whom the written forms have been familiar all his life. He’s practiced them again and again and again, and he’s written them in the same kind of cursive, running, informal style. But, you see, here it is. “The moon in the water,” written in English with the brush, with the same amount of fundamental practice involved, informing the letters that anybody goes through in China or Japan to learn to write, but the style is the same informality showing the dynamics of the brush.


So, you see, a great part of the discipline of Zen is simply the discipline of Far Eastern culture—whether it be the way of life such as the moral and ritual principles of Confucianism, whether it be the art of painting or of writing or of gardening, or whatever it may be. Zen is something that exists in relation to and is manifested through the ordinary cultural disciplines of the Far East. But in itself, what Zen is is something quite different from these disciplines.


You see, every discipline that we undergo envisages success in achieving certain skills. And success is something that we must always think about in relation to the individual considered as a separate agent or will. Do I succeed or do I not succeed? Zen, however, you see, is the essential insight that this individual will is a fiction. It isn’t a question of fatalism either, because fatalism is the idea that the individual will is the puppet of circumstances. The insight of Zen is that there is no individual will. And therefore Zen is fundamentally not a matter of success. It’s outside the range of, say, failure and success, and therefore outside the range of discipline or no discipline.


You know, one of the best books about Zen that’s been written is called Zen in the Art of Archery, by a German professor. And it describes there a man who is so proficient in archery through the study of Zen that he could hit the bullseye in the dark. But a friend of mine, the composer John Cage, was recently traveling in Japan, and a Japanese said to him, “You know, something needs to be added to that book. We have a very, very highly regarded Zen archery master in Japan today, and he can’t even hit the bullseye in broad daylight!”

The Life of Zen

Alan Watts

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