Zen and the Art of the Controlled Accident

Most people grow up learning to treat life as a problem, a set of circumstances which must be controlled with an iron will. Some transcend this view, realizing there is no problem and nothing to attain. In that state of mind it becomes possible to act without intention, to have “controlled accidents,” and in so doing one may rejoin society as a whimsical rascal who breaks things to improve them.



This morning I was discussing with you some of the basic ideas and feelings of Chinese philosophy (and in particular Taoism) which underlie the development of Zen Buddhism, and which underlie the whole Chinese attitude to life, to nature, and to art. And I suppose, of all these ideas that are discussed with you in the morning, the most important was the one of the mutual arising of things—that is to say: that you and your world go together in the same way as bees and flowers, but that we are not brought up (in, at any rate, our culture) to feel this. We don’t have a sensation of it. We have instead a sensation of confronting the world of nature as something alien, something outside, into which we come rather than out of which we come. But it’s possible so to change your everyday consciousness that you feel yourself as something that the universe is doing. It’s as if you changed your center of gravity, your center of operations, from that little man inside the head (or the ego) to the whole works doing it.


Now then, what I want to do this afternoon is shift from Taoism later on in time to the introduction of Buddhism into China and the birth of Zen, and to see what Chinese Zen is. We do, though, first have to have a short look at what Buddhism is, as a product of India. It has been well said that Buddhism is Hinduism stripped for export. See, Hinduism is a way of life that goes far, far beyond what we in the West call religion. It involves cookery, everyday family life, house-building—just everything. It’s the whole Hindu way of life. And so you can’t export it, just as you can’t export Shinto from Japan. It belongs to the soil and the culture. But there are essential elements in it that can be transmitted outside the culture of India. And Buddhism is one of the ways of doing just that.


So one might say simply this to try and sum up what Buddhism is about. The word “Buddha” is derived from the root budh in Sanskrit, which means “to be awake.” So the Buddha is the the awakened man, the man who woke up. What does he wake up from? Obviously a dream. And what kind of a dream is this? Well, I would call it a state of hypnosis. And this state of hypnosis—although I’m using hypnosis in a rather archaic sense of the word—is a state of being entranced, spellbound, fascinated. And this is called in Sanskrit avidyā. Vidyā is “knowledge” in Sanskrit, and it is the root from which we get videre in Latin (“to see”), and so “vision” in English. So they’re putting the a in front of it, means “non-”. Avidyā: “not seeing,” “ignorance,” “ignore-ance”—I was discussing that this morning—where you see, but you ignore everything that you’re not looking at.


When you put the beak of a chicken on a white chalk line, and the chicken is fascinated with that and can’t get away from the chalk line, that’s avidyā. So, in the same way, our beaks were put on a chalk line when we were hypnotized into the notion of attending to life by conscious attention alone—by the spotlight to the exclusion of the floodlight. And so we began to imagine that we were separate individuals—what is called in Buddhism satkāyadṛṣṭi: “the view of separateness.”


And a Buddha is one who has overcome that. He has awakened from that illusion, from that state of hypnosis, and he knows that—well, I can’t put what he knows in any positive terms. This is the special thing about Buddhism. Everything in Buddhism sounds negative. Let’s put it this way: let’s suppose you engage yourself in a relationship with the Buddha, or with one—I mean, there are hundreds of Buddhas. The one we call Gautama is just the historical Buddha that everybody knows about. But one Buddha leads to another, because, as a result of his relationships with people, he turns them in the Buddhas, too—awakened people.


Now, you meet one of these people and he’s going to give you a rough time. But one of the Buddhas running around these days is Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti absolutely destroys everybody’s religion. He’ll say: “Why do you believe this? Why are you hanging on to that? Why do you want to insist that this idea is so?” See? And he shows you that all your fixed formulations, all the ideas to which you cling, are spurious. And then you suddenly get into a kind of vertigo, dizziness, that you feel suddenly that you’re no longer standing on the firm ground, but that the universe has suddenly turned into water—or worse, air. Or worse still, empty space. There’s nothing to hold on to.


Now, you see, often, when one discusses religion with people, they say, “Well, I need a religion because I need something to hold on to.” But that’s the way not to use a religion. Because if you use religion as something to hold on to, your religion is an expression of unfaith. Faith is where you let go, not where you hold on. When the cat falls off the tree, the cat relaxes, you see? And so the cat lands with a soft thud and doesn’t get hurt, because the cat has faith. But if the cat in mid-air were suddenly to grab itself with all four feet and tighten up, you see, it’d be hurt. And that’s what people do when they say, “rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself and thee.” They want something to hold on to, see? And that is unfaith.


So the method of Buddhism—it’s called the dharma (doesn’t mean “the law,” it means “the method”)—the method is to knock the stuffing out of you, to take away everything to which you cling, to cleanse you completely of all beliefs, all ideas, all concepts of what life is about, so that you are completely let go. So Buddhism has no doctrines at all that you have to believe in. They don’t care what background you come from—whether you’re a Roman Catholic on one extreme or a logical positivist at the other. Both are clinging to something. You see? And so the method of Buddhism is to knock out the underpinnings and say: well, not only do we not believe in anything, we don’t even believe in not believing in anything. You know, you crawl into a hole and pull the hole in after you. But in this case, you do the exact opposite of that. That’s a defensive move, to crawl into a hole. In this way, you crawl into great space and then pull the space out after you.


And to go through this is pretty, pretty rough. Because you can do it on what seems at first to be a merely intellectual level. So you can engage a group of people in a discussion, and you can start, whenever they propose an idea that is their sort of guiding principle of life, you demolish it, show that it doesn’t hold water. And step by step you unearth by talking with them: what are the fundamental ideas they’re operating on? Everybody is. Everybody is a philosopher. Everybody has metaphysics—although they may not know what it is, ecause they’ve never examined it. But by this method you bring it out and you demolish it. And this, suddenly, what seemed like a very nice intellectual discussion turns into sheer murder. People get really anxious. They develop all the trembles and the symptoms of extreme anxiety. And so they finally say to the guru, the teacher: “Well, heaven’s sakes! What do you believe in?” He says: “I’m not proposing anything. I didn’t set anything up.” “Well, how do you navigate? How do you… how do you exist?”


This is what’s the problem. Because, you see, what we’re moving from—as I suggested a moment ago—we are moving from a state of affairs where we’re accustomed to navigation on land to a state of affairs where we’re in the water. And this is very critical for today, because the impact of modern science on Western culture has been very similar to this. Say, in Christianity, we sing hymns like “How Firm a Foundation,” and “Rock of Ages,” “Ein Feste Burg,” “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” We’ve something to stand on. “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord.” And it’s ugh! This firm thing. Alright, suddenly all that disappears or becomes implausible and we find ourselves swimming or sinking. Now, when you find that you’re living in the midst of a universe of relativity but there’s nothing you can hold on to, you’ve got learn how to swim. And to swim you’ve got to relax and stop grabbing.


So this is what Buddhism does when it says it’s the art of let go, of non-attachment—non-attachment doesn’t mean that you lose your appetite for dinner, it means simply that you stop grabbing. You get rid of stickiness—stickiness in the sense of, for example, when a wheel has an axle that’s too tight and it sticks, you want to loosen it up a bit. You don’t want it too lose; you don’t want it floppy. A lot of people, when they tell them to relax, they become like a limp rag. It’s not relaxing. Relaxing is having still tone. But it’s a certain—it’s a middle way.


So this is entirely what Buddhism is about. It’s about learning—for example, if I may put it in a vivid way—when you were born you were kicked off a precipice, and there’s nothing that can stop you falling. And although there are a lot of rocks falling with you (with trees growing on them and all sorts of things like that), you can cling to one of those rocks if you like as it goes down with you for safety, but it’s not safe. Nothing is safe. Everything is falling apart. Everything is in a state of change and there’s no way of stopping it. And when you are really resigned to that, and when you really accept that, then there’s nothing left to be afraid of. And when there’s nothing left to be afraid of, and you’ve given everything up, and you know that even—you know, a lot of people in religion cling to suffering, because they know they are right as long as they hurt. “Oh, I bless the good Lord for my boils, for my mental and bodily pains. For without them my faith all congeals, and I’m doomed to hell’s ne’er-ending flames.” You know? A lot of people who know that they are right so long as they suffer. But that’s an illusion, too. Even suffering offers no security. Even suicide offers no security in Buddhism, you see? There is no security at all. You simply have to face this fact that everything is in flux, and go. Go, go, go with it.


And so the question then is, simply: how to convince people of this? If anybody wants to be convinced. You know, it’s not the sort of thing you shove down people’s throats. You don’t convert them to this. Because if they don’t want to be converted they won’t let go. So Buddhism therefore involves a very special relationship between the questioner and the person to whom the question is addressed: the pupil and the teacher.


And now, then, Buddhism came to China as early as 60 AD, but didn’t at that time make a very great impression. It was not until about the year 400 that a very great Sanskrit scholar by the name of Kumārajīva came and started teaching Chinese scholars Sanskrit. And they worked with him to translate Sanskrit into Chinese. And they translated the Buddhist scriptures—they didn’t, of course, do them all at that time, because the Buddhist scriptures occupy about as much space as the Encyclopædia Brittanica; in fact a little more. The Indians are great talkers. Well, anyway, they found that when they translate this into Chinese, they had to find equivalent Chinese words for the Sanskrit ideas, and they found these from the Taoist philosophy that I discussed this morning. Well, slowly, then, Indian attitudes began to be modified by Chinese attitudes, because the Chinese read into these translations Taoist meanings. So things got a little altered.


Now here came the alteration that is crucial. First of all, in Indian Buddhism there’s very little humor. But Chinese life is full of humor. The greatest philosopher of China, Zhuang Zhou, you know, is the only philosopher who is—I think in the whole world—who is profoundly humorous. There’s a book in the modern library published by Random House called The Wisdom of Lao Tzu, and this is translated by Lin Yutang, and he includes along with the translation of Lao Tzu huge sections of Zhuang Zhou. And this is absolutely fascinating because of the humor of it. Indian Buddhism had very little humor—some, yes, but very little.


Next, it was all tied up with celibacy, which to the Chinese was absolutely incomprehensible. Because Chinese civilization is rigged around the family to a far greater extent than ours is—which is saying something. And they just couldn’t see any point or any wisdom in celibacy. When Buddhism came to China it still retained a certain element of celibacy, but for different reasons than Hindu. The Chinese way of celibacy is not that sex is naughty, but it’s terribly convenient not to have a wife. In other words: the ideal of the uninvolved life has a certain appeal. But they could never, never get through into their heads the notion that sexual desire was bad—which has always played a fairly strong role in Hindu thinking. Not in the same way as it has in the West. The Hindus don’t have a guilt take on it, but they think that it dissipates your spiritual energy energies. And, you see, in yoga they envisage the idea that, at the base of the spine, there is what is called the kuṇḍalinī, the serpent power, or the force of psychic energy. And so long as it remains at the base of the spine, this force is dissipated in sexuality. Now, yoga is to suck this thing up the spine and get it into the head. And so then you withdraw from the manifestation of this energy, or the dissipation of it in sexuality, and it’s put on a higher level. Only, which end is up? You can do it the other way, too: they have what’s called the right hand way of doing it and the left hand where doing it. I’m not going to go into that now.


But the Chinese didn’t see it that way. They couldn’t see that it was a dissipation of energy. So what they wanted to aim at was a way of living Buddhism and being awake, but at the same time remaining active in the ordinary life of the world. It’s what’s called in their phraseology “being king on the outside and the sage on the inside.” Managing practical affairs completely involved in whatever life is, but at the same time inwardly living on top of a mountain. Being cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown. So Chinese Zen is the preeminent expression of this because it is the mixture of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Taoism, plus a certain Confucian practicality.


Zen developed out of the work of Kumārajīva—came into China, as I said, 400 or a little before. He had two disciples who began to work on Buddhism from a Taoist point of view, and they were actually the originators of Zen. Then, apparently, about shortly before 500 (as the dates now check out) another Indian came to China, whose name was Bodhidharma. And Bodhidharma was the person who touched off Zen as a specific movement. Bodhidharma had a pupil by the name of EkaHuìkě in Chinese. Eka is the Japanese pronunciation, like Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese chán.


And the story is that, when Eka came to Bodhidharma, Bodhidharma refused to accept him as a student. All Zen masters do this. They reject you. And this stimulates you, you see, to come back stronger—I mean, if you’re going to learn at all. And Eka came back stronger and stronger and stronger, and Bodhidharma resisted him stronger and stronger. And finally he cut off his left arm and presented it to Bodhidharma and said, “Look: here’s my left arm, given to you as a token that nothing in the world matters to me except to find out what you’re all about.” “Alright,” he said, “what you want to know?” Eka said, “I have no peace of mind. Please pacify my mind.” In Chinese mind is this word, pronounced xin. And xin is here. Xin as the heart-mind; it’s the psychic center. And so Bodhidharma said, “Bring out your xin here before me and I will pacify it.” Eka said, “When I look for it I can’t find it.” Bodhidharma said, “Then it’s pacified.” And Eka immediately understood what all the thing was about. That’s the experience called satori in Japanese, wu in Chinese Mandarin, and then the Cantonese dialect ng. It’s just what we call in our modern psychological jargon the a-ha phenomenon. The a-ha phenomenon: a-ha, now I see!


Well now, what was all this? This Zen—which in Chinese is this character: 禅—is a translation of the Sanskrit word dhyāna, and so this is being pronounced chán in Chinese, and zen in Japanese. It’s unfortunately untranslatable in English. It designates a certain state of consciousness that is sometimes called “meditation,” but that won’t do at all. Contemplation isn’t really the point. The Chinese have a different word for contemplation, and sometimes one-pointedness of mind. I would prefer to translate this word with the notion of “total presence of mind.” When we say a person is crazy, we often say they’re not all there. Now go to the opposite of that and visualize a person who is completely there, or who is completely here: a person who lives totally and absolutely now. That doesn’t mean he’s incapable of thinking about the past or the future, because thoughts about the past and about the future are included in the present. You have them now. But imagine a kind of person who is not distracted. Who, when he talks to you, he really gives you his whole being. Who doesn’t, as it were, look over your shoulder and wander off to something else. Somebody who—first of all, he’s completely here, and he’s so much here that you can’t faze him.


Now, this idea of phasing is crucial in Zen. You see, I referred a moment ago to attachment: that Buddhism is living free from attachments. And I have made the point that this is not abandoning a sense of a good appetite for dinner, but it’s stopping sticking. In psychological jargon: you don’t block. A “mind of no hesitation,” it’s sometimes called. In Chinese the phrase mo chih chu is used: of going straight ahead. So, supposing somebody walks up to you on the street and says, “Are you saved?” Now, most of us who are intelligent people feel embarrassed by such a question. You know? What’s this wretched Salvation Army person or Jehova’s Witness doing asking me whether I’m saved or not? And we’re all a little bit, you know—what do you do with a nut like that?


But in Zen this is a perfect moment to respond, see, to the most embarrassing question—are you saved? But Zen comes back in a very funny way. In Zen, one doesn’t give philosophical answers to a question like that, you give practical answers: “I had a boiled egg this morning.” Because whenever you are asked about matters sacred, theoretical, and philosophical, you answer in terms of things earthy and practical. But then, on the other hand, when you’re asked about things earthy and practical, you answer in terms of things religious and philosophical. “Is dinner ready?” You know? “Who’s asking this question? Who are you?”


So this is, then, the flavor of Zen is—you know, Bodhidharma is supposed to have meditated so long with his legs fell off. And he’s usually drawn this way—something like this, anyway. It looks like a shmoo. But in Japan you buy these toys that are Darumas, and they are so weighted in here that you can never knock them over. You can bat it on the floor, bat it this way, bat it that way, but it always comes up again. And so the poem says, “Seven times down, eight times up. Such is life.” So this is the principle of not being fazed, not being attached. So to play the game “you can’t faze me.”


And this is very important in the art of lifemanship: fundamental gamesmanship. Because, you see, when the Zen monks moved into Kyoto, they took over the best part of town. Simply fantastic how this happened. The beautiful hills that I was talking about this morning were occupied by the brigands who later became the Japanese nobility; the great daimyōs. These were the toughest characters. And the Zen monks played a game of them, which was that, you know: “You possess all these lands and you’re powerful and so on, but so what? It’s all falling apart. Then what will you do?” Well, they said, “That’s too bad. We don’t know.” And the Zen monks said, “You know, you haven’t got the hang of the thing, you see?” So they found that they couldn’t terrify Zen monks. That they played all sorts of tricks, but the Zen monks were better masters at it.


See, supposing you say to somebody, “Look, I’m not afraid of you. You can do anything like. You can kill me, or anything at all.” Well, if I go and kill the fellow who says this, I’ll never find out whether he was afraid or not. So they out-fazed these people and said, “We have a secret, you see, that you don’t have. And we’ll teach your servitors to be great warriors. Because they’ll learn the secret too, and they won’t be afraid of anything.” And this is what they did. And so the daimyōs, the noblemen, built great monasteries for these Zen masters and monks on their best land. The finest artists of Japan made gold leaf screens for almost every room in the place. And although nobody owns anything individually, the community owns it collectively with the protection of the daimyōs, and they had a tremendous scene going.


Now, to us that sounds extremely weird, even immoral—you don’t expect religious people to do things like that. You know? I know you don’t—if the religious people are self-righteous and have no humor. But these people didn’t go around pretending that they were specially good. They didn’t dupe themselves. They were people who understood what human nature is—that in every one of us there is an element of irreducible rascality. In Jewish theology this is called the yetzer hara. The element of irreducible rascality, which was created by God because God has one, too. And that’s why, when you are really affectionate with somebody else; when, for example, men—I don’t know what women do in their private lives between each other—but men, as we all know, say to someone they’re very fond of, “Why, you old bastard!” You know? Just like that, you know? There’s a certain way of saying to a person—there’s a certain glint of recognition. And so there’s a Zen poem which says: “When two Zen masters meet each other on the road they need no introduction. When a thief meets a thief, they recognize each other instantly.”


And this goes back, you see, again into the heart of Chinese philosophy: that human nature is considered to be basically good. And even the rascally elements of it are good. They’re the sort of salt in the human stew. There has to be this little thing, the human passions, and that the natural contentiousness and greed (or whatever that we have) is an essential element in our makeup, and that when people lose sight of that they go mad. Nothing, for example, is more dangerous than a saint. You’ve got to say: an unconscious saint who thinks that he is right, and who endeavors to live an absolutely pure life and to eliminate all selfish thoughts. Somebody who undertakes that task is going to be a menace to all around, because he loses his humor, he loses his real humility—which is knowing that, after all, since we are humans, we have certain needs. We need to eat, we need sex, we need this, that, and the other. And this sort of has a quality of humor to it.


And so this is why, in Zen art, the sages are always drawn to look a little bit like bums. You know that Bùdài—or Hotei, as he’s called—what’s called the laughing Buddha, the fat Buddha, with an immense belly, and carrying around an enormous bag of rubbish into which he indiscriminately puts anything he finds around and then gives it away to children. This is the sort of type which the Chinese call the old rogue. And the old rogue, as a type of this poet, sage, monk, and scholar, you see, is greatly admired. He is the nonviolent brigand, the rolling stone, the free man—or in our words, the joker. The joker, you see, is the card that can play any role in the pack.


So then, Zen developed in China after Bodhidharma’s time and came to a sort of a golden age in the Tang and Song dynasties. The Golden Age of Zen lies between 713 AD and approximately 1100–1200. That’s the great creative period in which all the marvelous masters emerged and during which Zen exercised a profound influence on the development of Chinese poetry, and painting, calligraphy, and scholarship. Then, between 1100 and 1200, it shifted to Japan and underwent a new development, rather different in quality and in tone. And after it had done that, for some curious reason (which is a very complicated historical question), it slowly faded away in China. So that, as we find it today, it is principally a Japanese phenomenon, and it is slowly fading in Japan and slowly growing in the West. It’s a very funny thing.


Now then, let me indicate what Zen training—what its method is, how does it work. I said before: what is involved is a dialogue, an interchange, between two people. One who has defined himself as a student, and has therefore defined the other as the teacher. There is no teacher until a student arrives, no problem until a question is raised. So students create teachers. It’s very funny. We have a saying: anybody who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined. You can interpret that as: you’re an idiot to go to a psychiatrist, because they’re a bunch of charlatans. But the subtler meaning of it is: yes, if you define yourself as being in need of help psychiatrically, you need a psychiatrist. They say exactly the same thing in Zen. If you ask a question, you get thirty blows with a stick. If you don’t ask a question, you get thirty blows with a stick. Because you’ve simply put yourself in status pupilari: you’ve defined yourself as having a problem. Now, nobody really has a problem, but the māyā (the game of life) is to pretend that you do.


Going back to fundamental Hinduism, the godhead (or the Self) pretends it’s all of us, and so gets lost, and so as a ball and dreams all this goings-on. So when you’re on your way out from the dream, it suddenly occurs to you that you have a problem. Life is suffering. Now, you would like to get out of this. So one such student went to a Zen master and he said, “We have to dress and eat every day. And how do we get out of all that?” In other words, you might ask the question in this way: we have to work; get up Monday morning, go to the office, do all this routine, sell something, and so on—how do we get out of the rat race? So we have to dress and eat every day, and how do we get rid of all that? And the master said, “We dress, we eat.” The student said, “I don’t understand.” He replied, “If you don’t understand, put on your clothes and eat your food.” This is the kind of dialogue so characteristic of Zen.


So the position is this. The master—on being approached by a student about the problem of life—says: “I have nothing to teach you. I’m a Zen master. I have nothing to say. Zen is not words. And furthermore, everything is perfectly clear.” There was a Confucian scholar who went to a Zen master and said, “What is your secret teaching?” And he replied, “There is a saying in your own teacher Confucius, which explains it all. Don’t you remember when Confucius said to his disciples, ‘Do you suppose that I’m concealing something from you? I’ve held nothing back.’” And the scholar didn’t get this. So a few days later they were walking together in the mountains, and they passed the wild laurel bush. And the Zen master said to the Confucian scholar, “Do you smell it?” He said, “Yes.” He said, “You see, I’m holding nothing back.” So the position of the Zen master is: there is nothing to tell you. We’re not offering you any panacea, any solution, any doctrine, any big, big goodie to the problem of life. Because the problem is an illusion.


Well then, the student under these circumstances thinks, “Well, this is some sort of a come-on. He’s testing my sincerity. And of course the nothing which he has to teach is the mystery of the great void.” See? He doesn’t take it as meaning just plain old ordinary nothing, but the great void. And so he persists. And the teacher makes him persist until he gets way out on a limb. He has to persist so much that he practically dedicates his life—saying, just as the way Huike symbolically cut off his arm, the student is put in the position of dedicating his life to solving this thing and getting what that teacher has. And of course there wasn’t anything all along. But he’s been put in that position.


So then, once he’s in status pupilari, once he becomes a student, he’s put through all kinds of hoops. They make him learn to meditate, to sit cross-legged, practice zazen. And then they also add to the trouble by asking impossible questions which are called kōan. And these questions are palpably absurd. What they’re saying, essentially—at least the elementary kōans are all concerned with this—are requests for behavior on the part of the student that will be perfectly genuine. In other words: show me who you are. Now wait a minute, I don’t want to see any social definition of you. I don’t want to know your name, your address, who your parents were. I want to see the absolutely authentic you. It’s like, existentialists talk about “authentic being.” Or it might be in the same way a father confessor in a Christian sense would say, “Now give me a really good confession. What is the bad, bad thing you’ve really done?” And you confess to him adulteries and murders and thefts and sacrilege and blasphemies and cussing and so on, and he says, “Oh, now, now, now, now. Come off it. Those are only trivial sins. Come on now, what is the really awful thing you’ve done?” “I don’t know. What, me?” This is the backwards way of doing exactly the same thing a Zen master is doing.


See, who are you really? Are you anybody? Is anybody home? Have you got anything? And they do things like making you shout. See, this word is a very important word in Zen: “nothing.” Mu. Oh, I had it on the other side of the board. It’s represented by the empty circle. The word mu in Japanese. So they say, “Now say it! Say mu.” MU! You know? With all your guts going into it. They say, “No, no, no. You don’t know how to say that. Come on! That’s feeble. That’s nothing. Let’s really say it!” They have every kind of trick like that to show you that the more you make an effort to be genuine, the more of a fool you become. And they tie you up in knots until you’re desperate.


There was an American Zen student who was on a fulbright, and they gave him a year to study Zen. And he started to panic, because he’d only a month ago and he hadn’t realized it. He knew he had to. And he went to the Zen master and he said, “Damnit!” He said, “Look, I’ve only ot a month left!” The master said, “Alright. We’ll have what we call osesshin.” You know? Osesshin is an intense meditation practice, where you only sleep three hours a night sort of thing, and you meditate all the rest of the time. “Let’s go! Let’s really do it! Do it! Do it!” And every day, three times, you come to me and present the answer to your Zen problem; your kōan. And it got worse, and it got worse, and it got worse, and he got more and more desperate—that here was this fulbright going to end, and he wouldn’t know what Zen was all about. Well, practically on the last day he suddenly saw there was nothing to see. You know? It’s alright the way it is. And this tremendous illumination, this load off his head, was of course what the master was trying to make him do.


Now, in the ordinary way, if you’re not on a fulbright and you can stay around further, the master will then play a trick on you. And he’ll say, “Well now, that’s wonderful. You’ve got your foot in at the gate. You saw! You realized there’s nothing to realize. You realized the void. There’s nothing to cling to, you see? No barriers, no blocks in any direction. It’s all transparent. But that is just the beginning! It’s all a necessity now for you to discipline yourself much harder, to make great efforts, really to get through.” So what are you going to do about that? The student may say, “Well, I don’t know. I’ve had enough. I think I realize what it’s all about.” And he goes away.


Some time later, he begins to worry. Because, you see, the great emotional relief of this insight begins the wear off and life begins to look ordinary again. And he’ll think that, “Maybe I did miss something. That was a very good master I went to, and I’d better go back.” So back he goes. And the teacher comes on very, very tough and says, “You’re no good. You didn’t stick with it. Why should I take you back? “Oh master, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize I was young and inexperienced. And now I’ve come to my senses.” So the teacher finally says, “Alright, alright, alright! You’re on probation.” Again, he starts another kōan, and this one comes in from a completely different point of view. And he’s got others that come from this way, and from this way, and from this way, and from this way. And the point is always: so long as I can beguile you (as teacher) into thinking there’s something you can get, you need to study with me. When I can no longer fool you into thinking that there’s something to get out of life, you will know that you’re life. You don’t get something out of it, you’re it! But so long as you can be fazed and you could be taken in by the teacher, you need a teacher. So, in the end, when the student no longer needs a teacher and he sees that this old boy is fooled him the whole way through, he says at the same time, “Profound respect! And you wonderful rascal!”


There’s a very strange thing in the—I’ve poked around a good deal lately in Japan among American Zen students to find out what’s going on. And they tell me that the initial come-on of a Zen master is very tough and very authoritarian and paternalistic. But as you move in, he turns into your older brother and is a person you feel going right along with you beside you, helping you in this thing, full of friendship and compassion and everything. But occasionally he will suddenly turn and bring on the authoritarian stuff. But they do in a very strange way. There was a Zen master who, on a Saturday morning, when he should have been woken up at eight o’clock, was woken up at seven—or whatever the time was. No, he should’ve been woken up at eight on Saturdays and seven on weekdays. So this was a Saturday, and his attendant monk came and woke him up at eight. He immediately looked at the clock and absolutely furious that he’d been woken up an hour late, because he didn’t know it was Saturday. So he’s struck out at this monk in rage, and the monk said, “Master but it Saturday!” He said “Oh.” Whzzt! Anger disappeared. Absolutely serene. No apologies.


So, you see, the nature of this game—it is the Zen game—and I seem to have given away the show to you, and told you all the inside mechanics of it. But you would discover that, if you tangle with a Zen master, and you think you know (from what I had told you) what are the mechanics of it, and you stuck your neck out to put yourself in the position of being an inquirer, everything I had told you would be useless. He would outwit you completely. That’s what consists in being a master. He’s not doing it because he wants to be superior and to put down other human beings. He’s doing it out of great compassion, because he feels he knows something which, if you could find out, you would just be so happy and would want to give it to everybody else. But you can’t give it away, because everybody’s got it. What you’ve got to make them do is to see that they have it, and that you don’t give it to them. And that’s the most difficult task.


Yesterday I was giving you a general outline of the foundations of the Zen feeling for naturalness in art and life by describing the fundamental principles of the Taoist philosophy, and then of the Zen discipline itself. And we saw that the roots of the idea of spontaneous living make this conception—or rather, it isn’t so much a conception as a doing—something much more subtle than might ordinarily be imagined. A lot of people think that the spontaneous or completely natural life as it’s understood by these Far Eastern philosophers is to act according to whim. There was, for example, a great Zen monk who lived shortly after 1000 AD who had a very peculiar way of painting. He had long hair, and he’d get very drunk on rice wine, then he’d soak his hair in ink and slosh it all over the paper. Then he would do a Rorschach test on it and decide what kind of a landscape it actually was, and then put in the finishing touches. And suddenly, out of this apparent mess, a great landscape would be evoked. But the whole art of the thing lay in putting in the finishing touches. And also, it is a very curious thing: if a person who is untrained in painting makes a mess with the brush, it’s liable to be just a mess. Whereas if a person who has the feeling of painting in them for a long time, and they make a mess with the brush or just do anything, it looks interesting. And that’s why, if you try to copy the best people in modern abstract, nonobjective painting, you find it’s a very difficult thing to do. Because there is more to spontaneity than caprice and disorder. And I want to try and explain what that is.


I mean, wouldn’t it be great if we could live absolutely on the spur of the moment? Not make any particular plans, not feel that—well, you might make plans, because you can make plans spontaneously—but not to worry about whether you had made the right decision, whether you’re being good or bad, selfish or unselfish, and not to hesitate in anything, you see? One of the great applications of Zen, as I pointed out, was to the art of fencing. And when you learn fencing, you see, you have to learn to be spontaneous, because here of all places it is true that he who hesitates is lost. If you are engaged in combat, you see, and you stop to think what sort of a defense or attack you ought to make, the enemy’s got you. So the way they teach people spontaneity in fencing is very interesting.


When you start in to fencing school, you of course live with the teacher. He has a kind of ashram. But you’re given a janitorial job. You clean up, you wash dishes, you put bedding away, and things like that. But while you’re going about your daily business, the master surprises you with a practice sword which is made of four strips of bamboo, rather loosely tied together. And he hits you with this, surprisingly and suddenly, from nowhere. And you are expected to defend yourself with anything available—with the bedding, with the broom, with the pots and pans. Just anything—defend. But the poor student never knows when the attack is coming or what direction it’s coming from, and he begins to get tense, and he begins to go around everywhere on sort of alert, you see, watching, watching, which direction it’s coming from. And as he goes down a certain passage feeling that the master’s probably lurking around that corner, and he’s all set to go for him, and he gets that practice sword, he suddenly gets hit from behind. So eventually he gives up. There is absolutely no way of preparing for the attack. And so he just wanders around feeling: well, if it hits, it’s going to hit! So? And then he is ready to begin fencing.


Because if you prepare for an attack from a specific direction and it comes from some other direction, you have to withdraw from the direction in which you had expect it and send your energy in another direction, and that takes time. So what you do is: you go around with a mind of no expectation. That is called mushin, or monen. This is a very important Zen expression. Mushin. It almost means an “empty mind.” And this mu, “no”—I didn’t rub the ink long enough this morning—“no xīn.” You could also call it “no heart,” because the character xīn [心] means both “heart” and “mind,” but it isn’t quite the same as our word “heartless” as we use it, and it isn’t the same as the word “mindless” as we use it, meaning stupid. To be in a state of mushin is to have a mind like a mirror. And of this the Taoist sage Zhuang Zhou said:

The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror.

It grasps nothing, it refuses nothing.

It receives but does not keep.


And when anything comes in front of a mirror, it reflects it instantly. The mirror doesn’t wait to reflect it. They also say: “When the moon rises, all bodies of water instantly reflect the moon.” I mean, they don’t bother with physics about the speed of light or anything like that. That’s irrelevant. Or they say: when you clap your hands, the sound issues immediately. It doesn’t stop to consider whether it will issue. And so, sparks from the flint, when it’s struck, they issue instantly.


But to do this you can’t try to be quick. See, if a Zen master corners you with a funny situation, and he puts you in a quandary expecting spontaneous action from you, don’t try to hurry. I’ve watched Suzuki wait a whole minute before answering. But he doesn’t hesitate. He’s not at all embarrassed by this wait. And he can answer with silence just as well as with a formal response. The point is: do something.


When two young Americans wanted to study Zen, they were taken by a Japanese monk to interview the master and act as interpreter. And one of them had had some practice, you know? He knew a bit about it. And so after they had had tea together and just discussed formalities, the master said in a very easy way, “Well, what do you gentlemen know about Zen?” And one of these students threw his fan—which he hadn’t unfolded; the fan was still folded up—he threw it straight at the master’s face. The master slightly moved to one side, and the fan, going, went whzzt, and went right through the paper wall. And the master laughed like a child, you know? That’s the sort of game they get in.


Once, a master was going around through the forest with a group of students, and he picked up a tree branch—you know, just as one might pick up a tree branch—and suddenly he turned to one of his students and said, “What is it?” And he hesitated. So he hit him with the branch. And so, another student was there, and he turned to him quickly; he said, “What is it?” He said, “Give it to me, I want to see it. I’ll tell you.” So the master tossed the branch to him, and he took it and hit the master.


Now, you may think all this is kind of a rough stuff. But let me give you another story, which is on a rather different level. A certain Zen priest was having dinner at a big party, and the party was being served by a geisha girl who was so elegant and so skillful in serving that he suspected she might have had some Zen training. And so he decided to try her out. And he nodded to her, and she immediately came to his place and sat down in front of his little low table. See, everybody would be seated, probably, in front of low tables all around a room, and the geisha servants and people move up and down in the middle. And so she came down and sat down in front of him and bowed, and he said, “I would like to give you a present.” And she said, “I would be most honored.” Now, on the table there are hibachi, which are little braziers with hot charcoal in them, and you move the charcoal around with iron chopsticks. He took a piece of charcoal out on iron chopsticks an offered it to her. She had long, long sleeves on her kimono, and what she did was this: she wound them all round our hands and took the charcoal, immediately got up and went to the kitchen, disposed of the charcoal, changed her robe—which had holes burned almost all the way through the sleeves—and came back. And she sat down in front of the master and bowed, and he said to him, “I would like to give you a present.” He said, “I would be most honored.” And so she picked up the iron chopsticks and handed him the charcoal. And he pulled out a cigarette and said, “That’s just what I wanted!” and lit the cigarette.


Now, here’s the lesson. The master’s spontaneity and being ready for that situation was the kind of quick thinking that a good comedian has, who in a completely unprepared way can make all sorts of jokes and turn any situation into a jest of some kind. There are of all sorts of people who do that. People who are experts and kind of like Dorothy Parker; in that sort of repartee. But here it’s been developed in a very fundamental way and to a very high degree.


Now, the way in which it’s developed, you see, requires a protected situation. Because if we all started to act on the spur of the moment without the slightest consideration or deliberation—No. No, no. C’mon kitty, shoo. Okay, you come with me now. And—oh, alright. If we all started to act on pure whim, everybody would think we were crazy. And people would avoid us and call the police and things like that. But what they do is this: they start you doing this in the context of a disciplined situation where there are very rigid rules for most of the time, but there are certain instances at which all those rules go hang. And you’re in a community which understands the game. Because the point is this: when you start acting spontaneously, you’re not used to doing it, and therefore your responses are unintelligent and inappropriate. But when you become used to doing this, and when it becomes second nature to you to act in the state of mushin—“no mind” or “no deliberation”—then your behavior has matured, and you find that you’re accustomed to respond quite appropriately as the Zen master did in lighting his cigarette from the charcoal.


So, also, in learning the art of swordsmanship: when he has given up defending himself, and—okay, kitty—when he’s given up defending himself and preparing his mind for attack, then he’s got a mirror mind. And this is also likened to a vessel of water, like a wooden barrel: when you make a hole in the barrel, the water instantly flows out of the hole. Because the water is always available to come out. It doesn’t have to choose. And so you could also say that mushin is what Krishnamurti calls choicelessness. Because, you see, choice in this sense is not quite the same thing as decision. Choice means dithering. You know, there are some people who, before they start to write something down, they wiggle their pens a little. The pen dithers over the paper, and then they start to write. And so, in the same way, a lot of people, constantly in the life situation, they dither. Because that dithering is anxiety. To be or not to be, that is the question. Well, there is no question about to be or not to be. See? Because to be and not to be go together, as we saw. They arise mutually.


And so—kitty, I don’t think you’re feeling very comfortable! Would you like to sit here? Take care of it. I don’t want her to get mixed up in the tape recorder.


So then, in the situation of the Zen community, safeguards are set up within which you can learn how to act without deliberation—which is, you see, in a sense, going back to the state of innocence. Now, it doesn’t mean that you give up thinking. It doesn’t mean that you become an anti-intellectual. You can also learn—and this is part of the later phases of Zen training—how to think spontaneously, how to deliberate spontaneously. The saying is, you see: “Stand or walk as you will. But whatever you do, don’t wobble.” So this is our difficulty. Because the human mind is a feedback system. Feedback has a peculiar susceptibility to nervousness.

There was a young man who said, “Though

It seems that I know that I know,

What I would like to see

Is the I that knows me

When I know that I know that I know.”


You see? Now, in this way we think about thinking, we worry about worrying, and then, when that really gets bad, you worry because you worry about worrying. Now that is it analogous exactly to the kinds of vibration that are set up in certain mechanical systems. For example, if you—I did this trick on television once. I had the camera man turn the camera on the monitor. The monitor is the television set in the studio where you see what you are doing. And so, on this show I said, “Now I’m going to show you a picture of anxiety. Don’t worry about your sets. There’s not going to be anything wrong with your set. So don’t turn it off.” Now I said, “Mr. camera man, will you please turn the camera on the monitor?” He does that, and what does he do? He’s taking a picture of taking a picture, all in the same system. And as you do that, the system starts going yooing, yooing, yooing-yooing-yooing-yooing-yooing yoeeyoeeyoeeyoeeyoeeyoeeyoee, like that, you see? It then sets up a kind of oscillation. And you see on the screen all these jagged lines dancing across. Now that’s what’s meant, you see, by hesitation, attachment, blocking—all that kind of thing which the Zen discipline is designed to overcome.


And because the human being is such a peculiarly beautifully organized nervous system, and has this tremendously subtle cortex which is capable of all kinds of thinking about thinking—you can turn yourself on in the most extraordinary ways by, for example, getting earphones which repeat what you say just a fraction of a second after you say it back to you; they delay it. And you can get an oscilloscope tied up with your own heartbeats, and get feedback through in this way, so that you suddenly begin to see yourself behaving, and it completely balls you up. Because you wait for yourself to go on. But then you realize it’s you doing it. But you can’t wait on your heartbeat. You can’t wait on what you say. And you get this sensation of going faster and faster and faster and faster until you just have to close the whole thing off or you’d go crazy.


So that’s what we’re doing. And our civilization and our social institutions reflect this in hundreds of ways. And this would be true of any civilization, because all civilization is based on the development of consciousness and feedback—that is to say, the property of self-control, of being self-conscious, looking at what you have done—and then being able to criticize it and correct it. But who criticizes? Is the critic reliable? When you criticize yourself, who will criticize the critic? You see? Or to put it in the other way: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? “Who will guard the guards themselves?” Who will take care of the policemen? Who will govern the president? And that is the big problem. And when we get tied up in that problem—the Chinese got tied up in it because they were simply a very high order of civilization; so did the Japanese—there has to be a break. Somebody has to start throwing things, otherwise everybody will go insane. So Zen functions in that culture as a way of liberation from the tangle of being too civilized.


Now, you see, in Japanese culture people are tremendously concerned with propriety, with good manners, and with keeping up with the Joneses. One of the funniest things in the world is to watch Japanese people having a bowing contest. It’s a very frequent thing when friends meet or take leave. They go, “Ah, so, so, so.” And they bow, and they bow, and it goes back and forth, and see who gets the last one in, because I’m more polite than you! And the worries about when somebody comes—you know, you visit a family, you always bring a gift. And they start worrying: is this gift suitable? Is it anything as good as the gift they last gave us? And is it right for the occasion? Have we thought about it enough? Is there some symbolism in this gift that connects with this person’s name or their birthday, or something like that? And they think about the things interminably. And thus they cultivate—the ordinary culture has a great deal of social nervousness in it. People giggle. You often see girls who giggle and cover their mouths, to say: I’m not really giggling. All sorts of funny things happen because of this immense social awareness and nervousness.


Now, Zen breaks that up. Only, it does it in a way that has high artistry to it. So, you see, in—let’s just take the aesthetic domain for the moment. And you remember I was discussing yesterday one tea bowl. And you remember, too, that in the whole history of ceramics, the Chinese developed some of the most elegant work imaginable. You are probably aware—I don’t see a specimen of the great work of the Song and Korean potters, very often done in a jade-like green; the most gorgeous texture. It looked practically as if it was carved out of jade. Well, that led on, you see, to the high techniques of the Ming dynasty with translucent porcelain, white clay, the most subtle designs of all. And that style went also to Japan. And the very, very rich people you read about in, say, books like the Tale of Genji, and you see in a film—you must see it; Chūshingura, this story of the 47 Ronin—the lovely things they had around their houses were unbelievable. The lacquer, the boxes in pure gold, and—oh, you know, it was delicious stuff! But then it was just like having too much éclairs and ice cream and filet mignon and cooked à la Carême—you know, that French cook who made everything look like an Oriental palace?


Now, what happened? The people who practice Zen suddenly got an eye for the beauty of the ordinary. There were two reasons for this. One was that they became fascinated with what happened spontaneously: what pattern a brush would make when handled roughly and the hairlines were shown. They also, because they’d practiced zazen (which is sitting quietly, not thinking of anything special, but having a completely open mind), that puts you into a state where you get much better eyes and ears than you ordinarily have, and you start really seeing things. So, you know that famous haiku poem?

The old pond.

A frog jumps in.



In Japanese that “plop” is mizu no oto: “sound of the water.” And there’s another poem just like it:

In the dark forest

A berry drops.

The sound of the water.


Somebody suddenly realized, you see: just the sound of the water is marvelous! That’s all. Or they found that they kept getting in very, very cheap Korean rice bowls; the poorest, cheapest kind for peasants to eat out of. And suddenly it struck one of these Zen masters that that was an incomparably beautiful object. Nobody had seen this before. They also had the simplest wooden ladles—bamboo, and then a stick in it—for use in the kitchen, and one day somebody noticed that this ordinary everyday kitchen utensil was just lovely. And so, in the same way, they found that it was quite as satisfactory to listen to the kettle boiling as to listen to an elaborate concert.


So what did they do? They started, through particularly a man called Sen no Rikyū to give parties for a very few guests in shacks, little huts in the garden made of very primitive materials such as a mud walls, and where they would go and sit, and out of the simplest utensils—carefully chosen by a superb artist—they would simply sit and enjoy the uncomplicated life. And so was born the tea ceremony.


Now, look at that, you see, in the historical context. That’s terribly important. It was they going back to the primitive after people were sick of too much civilization. And yet, it was going on to the primitive rather than back. Because the people who selected all those things, they knew the whole tradition of their civilization and their culture. They weren’t barbarians.


Once upon a time—then, you see, when this became the rage, Rikyū became attached to the court. The shogun had tea with Rikyū, and everybody started digging tea ceremony. And, in due course, the whole thing became awful. Because what’s happened today is this: tea ceremony is essentially something to enjoy. And there are a few men left who know how to serve tea ceremony. And it’s an extremely congenial, quiet get together with easy conversation, simple and unostentatious manners, and really lovely things to look at.


I was present at a tea ceremony celebrated by a Zen monk who happens to be an American. And he is a man who has done a lot of mountaineering, and he has therefore with him at all times the sort of equipment that you take on camping in the mountains. Because he does a lot of climbing in Japan. And I said to him, “This afternoon it’d be very nice to have a tea ceremony. And you did it once before here, and it was so pleasant. Would do serve it again?” He said, “Yes, by all means.” Before, he had served tea ceremony in the style that Zen monks do it, which is rather simple and direct and much more comfortable than all these well-educated ladies who’re on tittering about, you know, and on tiptoe, and nervous, and hoping they won’t make a mistake, and all that kind of thing. It’s just dreadful! So he suddenly came in with a small Primus stove. He set that down. Then he had an old paint pot, which had inside it an aluminum mug, and he set that down. He then proceeded to take the aluminum mug out, pour water into the paint pot, and set that on the Primus stove. But he ritually pumped up the Primus stove. He did everything in the style of tea ceremony, but this was a dirty old Primus stove! And suddenly the thing began to flame like the god Fudō. And he mixed the tea in the traditional way with the whisk. Had all the perfect and lovely manners, handing us the aluminum cup. And we got into a long—it’s a custom after the tea ceremony, after you’ve drunk, to pass all the utensils around for inspection. And this is exactly what happened. And we found that the aluminum cup had year 1945 stamped on it for some reason. And we got into a discussion about styles of aluminum cups made in 1945. And it was the funniest thing! But it was a complete makeover of the tea ceremony into the modern idiom.


Of course, the tea drunk in tea ceremony is that powdered green tea, which you don’t steep like you make ordinary tea. You whisk it, mixed with a small amount of hot water, into a froth. And it’s called liquid jade. And it’s a bit of an acquired taste for most Westerners. It tastes a little bit like a mixture of maté tea and Guinness. But when you get to know it, it’s very invigorating and very awakening. And if you make up a strong mixture of it, it’s a good thing to use if you want to stay awake all night and do work. And so, you see, the legend was that Zen monks started this interest in tea because they needed it to stay awake during their practice of meditation. And it’s said that Bodhidharma, whom I drew for you yesterday—and he’s always drawn with eyes that are wide open. Why? Because he hasn’t got any eyelids. Once, when he was meditating, he fell asleep, and he was furious and cut his eyelids off. And as they dropped on the ground, whzzt, up came the first tea plants. That’s why they have leaves shaped like eyelids, and are to be drunk ever thereafter for staying awake. So the plant of Buddhism—tea is the Buddhist drink, just like wine is the Christian drink, coffee is the Islamic drink, and milk the Hindu drink. Every religion has its drink.


So then, around this kind of appreciation born of stillness, and the delight in seeing how nature takes its course, came the entire cult of Zen art with its special kind of primitivity, its special ceramics, its special calligraphic styles, and its special gardens—which are the controlled accident. Now, you see, as I showed you yesterday on that other tea bowl, this is a water jar. And they like to leave the bottom unglazed. You can really see that it’s clay that way. But look, you see, how the glaze has been allowed to run. This is what we would call not neat at all. I mean, you watch somebody make one of these, and I have watched a man just pick up the plate, and as he applies the design of the glaze, he just goes whoosh with a brush and lets it drop on, and it’s done. There’s another man who glazes by wood smoke, and in his kiln he may put about 1,100 pieces. And he wraps them in straw. And wherever the straw touches, it leaves a splash of orange color against the purple background. Now, you see, the straw arranges itself according to the nature of straw. It doesn’t follow strict human direction. And the fascination is: when they open up that kiln and bring the things out, they look eagerly to see—what has the straw done?


So this principle of letting glaze run to see what will happen is wú wéi. This is non-interference. This is mushin also: “no purpose.” Or it can also be translated “no specific intent.” And now of course, you see, sometimes this doesn’t work. And the master picks it up and says, “That’s not very interesting,” and rejects it. What are the canons of taste which decide whether he will accept one of these accidents or reject it? Because here, an additional principle of control enters. See, say, in the practice of calligraphy: a man may sit down with a huge pile of paper in front of him and do piece after piece after piece, and if it isn’t just right, he throws it away. So he eventually makes a selection that comes out. There’s a famous story of a Zen master who was doing calligraphy, and he had a very smart monk standing beside him who was his assistant, and the monk said Nu-uh, to each one as he did it. “You can do better than that.” “Oh, no, no. Come, now. You know much better than that.” This master got more and more furious. But the monk had to go out to the benjo, to the toilet. And he thought, “Quick, while he’s away!” Brrrr, he did it. And the monk came back and looked, and he said, “A masterpiece!” So there’s this element of selection, you see? Now, what determines this? How do you know?


Or another example of this. There was a porcelain tea caddy—not porcelain, but clay—and when Sen no Rikyū was having tea ceremony, he saw this tea caddy and made no comment on it. And the owner was so disappointed that he smashed it. But one of his friends picked the broken pieces out of the trash can and took them to a mender, and he said, “Look. Mend this with gold.” And he put therefore gold cement, and put this caddy back together, and so it had all over its surface spidery lines of gold. And when Rikyū saw that, he was just enchanted! And it became one of the most valuable tea caddies in the Japanese collections. Spidery lines of gold following just the apparently chance marks of a smash.


There was a competition at the Art Institute in the University of Chicago in which there was a sculpture class. And the competition was that each student was given a cubic foot of plaster of Paris, and they said: now do something with it. Well, the prize was won by a woman who looked at this cube and said, “It has no character. It doesn’t want to be anything.” So she flung it on the floor and smashed it all up. I mean, she made dents in it and banged off the corners and put cracks in it and things. And then she looked at again. She said, “Ah! Now I know what it wants to be.” And so she followed the grain in it—as it were, made by all these cracks—and produced this marvelous piece of sculpture.


You have in this area a very ingenious sculptor by the name of Donal Hord, who is a master at following the grain in wood, and actually making the grain—the grain seems to suggest to him the muscles and the flow of the kind of body that he’s making. Well, that’s the thing. So when a master decides whether the accident came off, what he wants is this: he wants the thing to be the perfect harmony of Man and nature, of order and randomness.


Now this is a curious thing in the human mind. When we play games, we get most fascination out of those games which satisfactorily combine skill and chance. Games like bridge, poker, have a sort of admirable combination of these two elements. And we can go on playing those games again and again and again, because you don’t feel completely at the mercy of chance—as you do with dice, unless you cheat—and you don’t feel completely at the mercy of skill, as you do with chess, or especially with a game like three-dimensional chess. So there’s a sort of optimum middle where order and randomness go together. Well, that’s what this man is looking for. He’s looking for the optimal combination, you see? Things that are artwork like Persian miniatures or the jewelry of Cellini and Chinese porcelain is too much skill. Too much order. It’s like those houses you go into where you daren’t put an ash in the tray, because everything is so clean and everything is so tidy you don’t touch it. One prefers a house, you see, that looks a little lived in, that is more genial, more comfortable, somehow invites you to sit down and even put your feet on the table. Whereas, on the other extreme, some kind of pad where everything is covered in dirt and filthy clothes are thrown in the corner and, you know, people are all paint all over them, and so on—that’s the other extreme. We don’t want that. But that’s that curious thing in the middle.


Now, the most difficult thing is to hold to the middle. It’s like walking a tightrope. And that’s why the path of Buddhism is called the razor’s edge. Because, you see, what happens when all this kind of work in the course of history became fashionable, people began to affect these styles. For example, when Sesshū (the great master ink painter) worked, he would sometimes take a handful of straw, and paint with that instead of a brush in order to get the sort of rough effect that he wanted. But later on, there came people who could take an ordinary paintbrush and so exactly ink that brush that it would give precisely the messy effect that they had in mind. They would also be able to ink a brush in such a way—and this is terribly decadent—they could dab grapes on a vine, and have dark ink where the shadow was supposed to be, and no ink at all where the highlight was supposed to be. That’s when they started getting mixed up with Western ideas about shadows and perspective. They didn’t have that earlier. But they were so skilled in the handling of the ink that they would do this sort of thing, and they would imitate, you see, all the so-called rough natural effects of the great Zen artists.


And so, today in Japan, a younger generation of artists has decided it’s time to break all that up. If you imagine, for example, haiku parties; the writing of haiku poetry. Bashō, who is the great seventeenth-century master of haiku, said: get a three-foot child to write haiku. Because they’re the sort of direct guileless things that children would say. But now there are magazines devoted to haiku poetry wherein every issue there will be ten thousand haikus written by people all over the country, and they get so stilted and so affected that one wished one had never heard of haiku! The same thing is starting over here. And you should see the entries we get in these haiku competitions that Japan Airlines and other people sponsor! But it all, after a while, becomes dated, stilted. And so somewhere, again, the new thing has to break out—which is always coming up. But there’s no formula, you see, for fixing it so that you can do it again and again and again. Because the moment you start doing it again and again and again, it isn’t it anymore. The real thing has escaped. You remember, some time ago, there was a fashion for having wrought iron fish—just the outline of a fish? Some artist originally, you know, put this fish together and it looked great. But then you suddenly found them in every gift shop and dime store, and they looked perfectly terrible.


So this is the mysterious thing where, not only in the arts, but in lifestyles, in everything—when you start saying: what is the technique for getting this thing? And people say: well, this is it. It’s gone. Same in education. Same in music. The moment you start teaching something, what question you are asking? How could we—is there some method whereby, in our schools, we could produce from the music department, every graduation ceremony, three musicians of the stature of Bach or Mozart? Now, if we knew how to do that, that knowledge would prevent us from being surprised by the work of these people—because we would know how it’s done! And when you know how something is done, it doesn’t surprise you. That’s why there’s a Zen poem that says:

If you ask where the flowers come from,

Even the god of spring doesn’t now.


Certainly, the god of spring would be supposed to know where the flowers come from. But the truth of the matter is: he doesn’t. And so, in the same way, if you ask the Lord God: “How do you create the universe?” He said, “I have no special method.” And this is known in Zen as a very difficult—this is the most difficult virtue to attain. So many of these things begin with mu. Buji: it means “nothing special.” It means “no business.” “No artificiality.” In American current: “real cool.” So buji is where something doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb. But it is absolutely different from being modest. A buji person may be immodest in the sense that, if he knows he can do something well, he just says he can. He doesn’t go into all sorts of blushing violet techniques.


Buji, you see, is this mysterious quality of no special method. Because if there is—let me repeat: if we do know the method, and we know it infallibly, it ceases to be interesting. There are no surprises left. And the moment the element of surprise is gone, the zest of life has gone. That, you see, is why it’s very difficult to teach Zen to yourself, because you can’t easily surprise yourself. The essence, you see, of this kind of spontaneity is response to a surprise. So the master—you don’t know what he’s going to do. And he surprises you. It’s like trying to cure hiccups: very difficult to cure yourself, because when you pat yourself on the back you know when you’re going to do it. So you’re all ready for it. But somebody else comes up and slams you on the back, and that’s a surprise. And what you needed was a surprise.


Or it’s like jokes. What makes you laugh about a joke is the element of surprise in it. That’s why jokes aren’t funny after they’ve been explained. So, in the same way, all these Zen stories, if explained, have no effect. They’re intended to produce what I would call metaphysical laughter. But this has to be a surprise. And so, as to be surprised—well, there’s no way of premeditating it. So, you see, if you read—for example, there’s a book out here called Zen, by Eugen Herrigel, who studied archery. Many of you have probably read this book. He had to learn to pull the bowstring in the manner of the Japanese archer and let it go, but not on purpose. He had to let it go without thinking first, “I’ll let it go,” and then let go. He had to let it go not on purpose. Now, that really bugged Herrigel. How do you do something not on purpose—especially if you’re aiming at a target?


Well, the whole point is: if you think before you shoot, it’s too late. The target’s moved. That’s why we have a thing like beginner’s luck. You see, if you simply point at something like that, if your finger was a gun, I would probably have hit the light switch. And so you get a person who is naïve about a gun, who will pick a gun up, and bang, and the thing will be will drop did. I’ll never forget the first time I ever used a slingshot. This friend of mine was with me and he was aiming away and not missing, and I just picked it up and ping, and it hit. But I couldn’t do it again. You get a certain naturalness there.


So there was a master by the name of Ikkyū who was a great leg-puller, and he had in front of his house a very gnarled pine tree—one of those things that’s contorted. And they love this kind of thing. And he put a notice up by it that said: “I, Ikkyū, will pay one hundred yen”—which was a fair amount of money in those days—“to anyone who can see this tree straight.” Well, soon there was a whole crowd of people around that tree, lying on the ground and twisting their necks and looking at it from all sorts of angles, and there’s absolutely no way of seeing the tree with a straight trunk. But Ikkyū had a friend who was a priest of another sect. And a smart boy went over to see this friend and said, “What about this Mr. Ikkyū’s tree?” “Oh,” he said, “It is perfectly simple.” He said, “You go and tell him the answer to seeing the tree straight is to look straight at it.” So this man went over to Ikkyū and said, “I claim the reward.” He said, “You look straight at it.” And Ikkyū looked at him in a funny way and said—he forked out the hundred yen and gave it to him, and said, “I think you’ve been talking to Rozan down the street!”


Now, in that way, you see, just look straight at it! In other words, here’s the bowstring: let go of it! Don’t do all this thimble-thambling, mimble-mambling, jumble-humble about the right technique of letting go of it. Let go of it, damnit! But that’s very difficult. It’s as if I were to say to you: now, everybody, let’s be un-self-conscious. And so finally, in desperation, you at last learn to let go of the thing—which was what you were supposed to do all the time. And then one is again as a child. This is original innocence.


So this is the meaning of the person who was asked, “What do you do here in the Zen institution?” He said, “We eat when hungry and we sleep when tired.” Well, he said, “That’s being just like everybody else. They all do that.” He said, “They do not. When they eat, they don’t eat, but they think of all sorts of extraneous matters. When they tire, they don’t sleep, they dream all kinds of dreams.”

So let’s have an intermission, and then we can have discussion.

Alan Watts


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