It’s a Zen thing

Imagine for a minute what it would be like if your university prof, sports coach, or Sunday school teacher taught like a Zen master. From The World’s Religions (1991), by Huston Smith (emphasis mine):

…it has its own texts… but one glance at these distinctive texts will reveal how unlike other scriptures they are. Almost entirely they are given to pressing home the fact that Zen cannot be equated with any verbal formula whatsoever. Account after account will depict disciples interrogating their masters about Zen, only to received a roared “Ho!” for answer. For the master sees that through such questions, seekers are trying to fill the lack in their lives with words and concepts instead of realizations. Indeed, students will be lucky if they get off with verbal rebuffs. Often a rain of blows will be the retort as the master, utterly uninterested in his disciples’ physical comfort, resorts to the most forceful way he can think of to pry the questioner out of his mental rut… Zen masters may order their disciples to rip their scriptures to shreds and avoid words like Buddha or nirvana as if they were smut. They intend no disrespect. What they are doing is straining by every means they can think of to blast their novices out of solutions that are only verbal… Zen is not interested in theories about enlightenment; it wants the real thing. So it shouts, and buffets, and reprimands… [to] force the student to crash the word-barrier. Minds must be sprung from their verbal bonds into a new mode of apprehending.

Zen masters are determined that their students attain the experience itself, not allow talk to take its place (131-132).

I wonder how often our profs wished they could just haul off and smack us on the head with a meter stick. Probably best not to ask.

But regarding the bolded parts… I think all us grad students ought to be banished to monasteries to meditate on those bolded parts before we’re allowed to open our mouths (or blogs), but I’m in a good mood and this is supposed to be a happy place. :D As a wiser man than me pointed out, I don’t want to end up like those two old guys on the Muppets. Still, I think there’s a point or three to be made here.

10 thoughts on “It’s a Zen thing”

  1. What difference is there between words that internally actuate realization, and words vocalized? Does the master have experiences that are internally realized with self-dialog, or is the ideal to experience and realize without self-awareness? Maybe these are the wrong questions to ask.

  2. I think, and I’m not the right guy to ask, that the actual experience of a flash of non-verbal intuition, rather than internal self-dialogue, is what actuates realization/enlightenment. It’s not a matter of spoken conversation vs. internal dialogue; the internal verbal dialogue has to be transcended as well. They want their students to transcend language. Language, though necessary in some instances, is ultimately a hindrance to their quest. I think. I’m no Zen master!

  3. My wife often refers to me as a Zen master, so I feel as though I must contribute. (it is actually due to my lack of emotional expression)

    How do you think this relates to the difference in a religion that holds religious texts to be central (Christianity, Islam) and one that is much higher in the mystical experience realm?

  4. I can only say what our books say, but Smith actually addresses your question. First, Zen is not entirely without ‘sacred texts’; in fact, their texts are recited morning and evening in the monasteries. But the emphasis, at least in the ideal, is not on the texts. Theoretically, Zen has been passed down through the ages through the nonverbal transmission of realization/enlightenment from master to disciple (as per the story below). Smith, who explicitly paints the most positive picture possible of each religion, says that this is the ideal, though, not necessarily what has happened in every instance.

    There’s a central story in which Buddha gave a sermon to his disciples by holding a flower in front of them, saying nothing. One student, Mahakashyapa, ‘got it’ and smiled. Then Buddha said, “I have the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, and the Subtle Dharma Gate, independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine. This I have entrusted to Mahakashyapa.”

    So there you go.

  5. in some ways it seems so much harder to “get”…

    but then again, maybe not. maybe there are just a lot of “us” who think we “got it”.

    i mean, talk is cheap. i think its the walk that matters most. there seems to be some overlap between zen and native american religions.

    whatever the case, i think we have some things to learn from them.


  6. Hey Miller!

    I agree about having things to learn from them, and most people for that matter. Though at least from our limited readings, for Zen masters I think the “walk” is more like the “sit.” And if you ever really do get “it,” you can’t describe “it” because “it” is necessarily entirely beyond words. And so we’re back to silently holding flowers and waiting for someone to smile.

    That sounds a little more negative than I mean it, especially since I really know next to nothing about Zen. Mostly it’s just that I’m up late for the umpteenth night in a row trying to dig myself out of the overdue assignment hole that the last few weeks threw us into. But I will slay this paper tonight! Or at least before work at 8:30am! :D

  7. Houston, remember that both Christianity and Islam have a rich mystical tradition. While I can’t write on the latter, take a gander at the great mystical writers like St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avilla.

    And, while it’s important to Christianity, written text isn’t central. The Word became flesh, not another word.

  8. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh on the flower story:
    “When someone brings you a flower and you are thinking, you miss the flower…I guess that all students of Zen know this story. And still many people are trying to find out what is behind that kind of story for the subject of meditation. When I read it I saw it like this; when someone shows you a flower he wants you to see the flower. And if you keep thinking about the meaning of something you miss the flower…To me the art of mindful living helps you to be in touch with life, helps you to be in touch with the flower, in order for you to enjoy the presence of the flower…helps you to be in touch with your non-tooth-ache, because they are the elements of joy and the elements of happiness…”

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