You Can’t Talk About Zen: A Discussion of Zen

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[A post from Jason Durso]

The popular understanding of Zen philosophy is that it is painfully frustrating, contrived and lies outside the realm of rational discourse. Rather than offering some sort of platform for discussion or some set of assertions which can be systematically analyzed and negotiated into a personal system of meaning the proponents of this view will often resort to vague claims such as 'Zen doesn't have a system of beliefs', 'Zen isn't a religion OR a philosophy' or 'You just have to get it to get it.'

The problem with these claims has nothing to do with their validity or truthfulness but rather that they contain little or nothing that can be identified as true or valid within a frame of reference. While there is a sense in which Zen aims to be somewhere beyond language and beyond structures, a historically aware discussion of Zen is essential to an understanding of the philosophy itself.  I aim to provide such a discussion here.

In the early 9th century a monk named Kukai helped to usher into mainstream Buddhism an entirely new way of understanding the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha (another name for Siddhartha). Up until that time Buddhism (including the early forms of Chinese Zen, known as Ch’an) had become increasingly steeped in symbolic representations of Shakyamuni’s teachings and had discarded the actual content of those teachings. In reading through some of Kukai’s early writings one gets the impression that Buddhist temples were full of bored Sunday school classes with students monotonously reciting the Eightfold Path and coloring in pictures of Bodhi trees and lotus flowers.

Kukai wanted to bring value back into the symbols and offered a myopic worldview in which specific objects in a constant state of change were preferred to the unified background. In other words, he wanted Buddhists to understand that symbols can change based upon one’s historical or social perspective while the background “reality” of things remains intact.   “The same water may be seen as emerald by heavenly beings and as burning fire by hungry ghosts.” Names for Kukai are not reality; distinctions are merely the effects of distinguishing them not an essential difference in-of-themselves.

The problem with Kukai’s work was that it simply took the teachings of the Buddha and put them into a new set of symbols which themselves became stale, repetitive, and devoid of content over time. Esoteric Buddhism fell prey to this problem and several sects of Buddhism split off and became steeped in things like alchemy, idol-worship and other forms of fetishizing symbols. Nonetheless it was an important stepping stone from the early Chinese Chán Buddhism (founded circa 6th century) to what would later become the Sōtō school of Zen study which represents an important intellectual shift in Buddhist thought. The principal figure in this shift was a monk named Dōgen, who remains one of the few Buddhist figures to write an extensive philosophical text about Zen Buddhism that attempted to avoid the purely artistic representations of the texts before it. Dōgen’s great work was the Kana Shobogenzo, a several-hundred page compilation of writings and lectures on some of the most difficult to understand aspects of Buddhism.

Dōgen’s project had much in common with Kukai’s, but Dōgen was also very much aware of the problems that arose out of Kukai’s work--namely that he simply replaced one historical understanding of Shakyamuni’s teachings with another. To solve this issue Dōgen attacked not the teachings of Buddhism but rather teaching itself, demonstrating it to be fundamentally opposed to Buddha-nature. As a banal example, the act of teaching no-self paradoxically implies one self (a teacher who knows) in dialogue with another self (a student who desires to know) both of whom are at a distance from the source of knowledge (one “has” it, one “wants” it). Since intellectual understandings of the Buddha’s teachings are always going to be historical symbols at a distance (outside the self), Dōgen argues that the intellectual understanding is doomed from the start. His solution is the Zen method in which one meditates and experiences the world as it is rather than as it is understood.

This is the root of the common misconception of Zen philosophy. Since it is detached from any sort of systemic “teachings” a shallow understanding insists that this means it is unteachable, unspeakable and unknowable. It seems highly unlikely that Dōgen would waste a few dozen years lecturing, writing and teaching his methodology if that were the case so I would rather like to propose a much different understanding. Rather than the un-involved, detached and Utopian conception of Zen perhaps Dōgen is actually teaching the radical philosophy of total historical and social contingency. There is no self, no suchness, nothing to practice without a body that practices, a place of practice, a world that allows for practice and the historical Buddha, now a collection of symbols and only symbols.

Jason Durso


    • Paula Anne says

      Would it be possible to open things out a bit more Jason?. I’m not sure I fully understand what you write.

      When you write ‘historical symbols at a distance’ do you mean in the same sense that the signifier in language is culturally/historically determined in contrast to the signified (things in themselves?)

      In dropping off body/mind Dogen teaches to relinguish our dualistic discriminating thoughts.Is this what you mean by splitting understanding from experience?

      Could you say a bit more about the phrase ‘a purely artistic representation of text’ and also a radical philosophy of ‘total historical and social contingency’.

      And lastly – are you saying the historical Buddha is merely a collection of symbols?

      Sorry for all the questions but I would like to understand what you write in a bit more detail.


      • Profile photo of Jason Durso says

        Questions are welcomed, no need to apologize.

        The idea of historical symbols at a distance is similar to the idea of signifier vs. signified, but it is slightly more specific as to how those symbols are interpreted over long periods of time. As something is analyzed repeatedly, the “mystical” qualities of that something are generally discarded in favor of more concrete analysis, even in the Buddhist schools.

        The division of understanding from experience sometimes involves discarding basic notions of duality, but Dogen’s prescription is something more akin to recognizing that to “understand” something is to divide experience into understandable concepts–that is, there is an experience before there is an understanding. Dogen doesn’t suggest that understanding is itself somehow a problem, but rather that the deeper truths of the Buddha are only present in experience and become fractured in “understanding”.

        The “artistic text” is a text like the Tao te Ching, or any one of the Mahayana sutras, or even koan study. These texts are fun and illuminating, but frequently impossible to discuss philosophically because they were written for a specific time period, in response to specific structures, and so their interpretations are historically constrained to the point of being downright vague nowadays. They are still valuable, but there is very little in the Tao te Ching that explains what Taoism is. For this reason, it becomes imperative to read these texts and try to apply them to our current historical and social settings, and not to see them as some sort of refuge that whisks us away to an earlier, better time. One of the big draws of “Eastern” thought to many people is the utopian escape from the postmodern predicament we find ourselves in today; the Shobogenzo would actually suggest that we dive directly into the problems of our time and use the Buddha’s words as ways of coming into direct contact with our world as it is, including social realities.

        The historical Buddha is indeed merely a collection of symbols. So is any concept that is not directly experienced–in Dogen’s mind, anyway.

  1. Paula Anne says

    Thanks for the clarification.

    I’m wondering if it is necessarily the case that historical symbols from a distance are drained of mystical qualities over time, by being subjected to a more concrete analysis/interpretation? Is it not the case that a process of re-enchantment can also take place? I’m thinking of Ricoeur’s hermeneutics here?

    Your thoughts on the artistic text and the method of interpretation required by our current sensibilities/cultural/ historical location also reminded me of Ricoeur’s philosophy.

    Thanks for an interesting blog.

    • dmf says

      does Ricoeur actually re-enchant things or does he just offer a kind of Kantian defense for those folks who are already enchanted? Have you seen the work of Jane Bennett?

    • Profile photo of Jason Durso says

      I don’t really know anything about Ricoeur, but I will definitely be looking into his work over the next few days.

      As far as re-enchantment goes, my gut tells me that such a task falls to artists (it certainly does in the Zen tradition, at any rate). I would think people like Toni Morrison, David Simon, and their ilk have taken on the role of adding interpretive depth to the hollowed symbols of history.

    • dmf says

      L, “Zen” isn’t any One thing and of course people can share/teach aspects of what they name/know as Zen but some vital aspects of know-how in general are beyond what can be said (or by reading or observing), for example I can only talk you thru so much of how to play piano and a cookbook can only take you so far in terms of making food, some things you will get or not by doing/practicing. So find someone who is teaching what you recognize as Zen practices and give it a try, as the Buddha said there are no upfront guarantees…

    • Profile photo of Jason Durso says

      As DMF said, Zen is a practice. There are several methods to experience Zen practice, and they all are responses to specific historical periods.

      “Suchness”, as it exists in Dogen’s texts, refers frequently to the non-verbal and non-symbolic experiences of our everyday life.

    • Daniel Horne says

      Hi Libby,

      “Suchness” is the most widely adopted translation of the Sanskrit word Tathatā, and/or the Japanese (since we’re talking about Zen) word shinnyo:

      The history and concept of Zen can definitely be taught (in the same way that piano or swimming or karate can be taught). It’s just that — like any art — you can’t really master it without doing the work. It’s more (some might say less) than a theory or body of knowledge to be mastered intellectually.

      That said, here’s one of the better introductions to Zen I have come across:

  2. Paula Anne says

    dmf – thanks for the link – I’m not familiar with the work of Jane Bennett.

    Ricoeur’s philosophy moves beyond Husserl’s notion of meaning as an essence to be intuited, and Kant’s view of meaning as a transcendental condition of possibility to be reflected upon.

    I don’t think Ricoeur’s thought suggests that we are already enchanted – because the work of hermeneutics (interpretation) is seen/experienced as a ‘re-creative labour’ – ie. the work of enlivening text/symbol/discourse by passing from ‘configuration’ to ‘refiguration’. My understanding is that refiguration is to put new life into a text/symbol, etc. I think it’s termed as re-animating tradition.

    Jason – the above may fall primarily to artists/writers – but not necessarily so.

    Libby – there is the philosophy of Zen – word upon word, book upon book – but essentially Zen is a practice meditation. Dogen wrote his ‘Universal Guide to the Standard Method of Zazen’ in 1227.

    If this method draws you I would recommend finding a teacher in the Soto Zen tradition – which is in the tradition of Dogen.

    There is just so much stuff on the internet connected to Zen that it can become really confusing!

    • Profile photo of Jason Durso says

      While I have a pretty cynical view of a majority of “American” Zen schools, I do think there are some teachers who have really good perspectives on how to apply Zen technique to the modern world. Note that the teachers themselves are more important than the institutions in which they practice. Charlotte Joko Beck’s books are still incredibly insightful (although I would recommend her audio lectures over them), and I think that Gil Fronsdal’s talks are not only good introductions to practice but also very good examples of applying Buddhist scriptures to our own historical position:

      I would actually avoid diving into Soto study, as the school has become increasingly regimented over time (ironically, using Dogen’s text as the basis for their teachings) and are not really suited to our historical moment.

    • dmf says

      yes but does the work of Ricouer work? my sense is that only already believing Christians/religionists can follow him very far into his work and the rest of us stop after his tour thru the masters of suspicion, do you know someone who was taken from non-belief to belief? Is he really much different in this regard from folks like Merold Westphal?

      • Paula Anne says

        dmf I can’t really do justice to Ricoeur’s work in the space of a blog.

        Briefly – to stop short at a hermeneutics of suspician is to fail to follow through the process of exploration that opens onto creativity and affirmation.

        However my own study of Ricoeur has been mainly in the area of literary theory/hermeneutics which I see as applicable to Buddhist texts. Ricoeur did not wish to be seen as a theologian in disguise (of a Christian persuasion) who philosophizes or or a philosopher who makes the religious sphere speak. His work operates at a wider level than this.

        You ask an interesting question concerning being taken from belief to non-belief. I do not think that Ricoeur’s work is intended at all to be a kerygmatic teaching but it is a way in ( a method) of understanding a kerygmatic reading of spiritual texts – which is how I would describe Dogen’s work – as it is can not be reduced to a call to obediance but is also a call to meditation and reflection.

    • Profile photo of Jason Durso says

      My main reasoning is that the American Soto schools were wrapped up in fairly serious scandals during the 1980s, and their reorganization efforts have largely been a matter of trying to establish a stricter code of conduct. The problem is that Soto Zen values individual teachers more so than teachings, and so some of the teachers in positions of power have shown a tendency to abuse that power. This applies not only to the sexual misconduct I mentioned before, but also a tendency to offer very strict interpretations of the Dharma in a top-down fashion that is, in many ways, the feeling of oppression from which I suspect many of us would like to be freed.

      The other American schools, many of which have formed their own identities, turn to discourse as a method of study with the awareness that ancient Japanese texts might not be all too applicable to modern American life. I think that the way in which places like the Insight Meditation Center build communities and have multiple teachers engaging students in different aspects of the Dharma is far more helpful than a dogmatic recitation of the only recently translated Shobogenzo.

      • dmf says

        oh my those are some rather sweeping characterizations there, some of those groups have undergone serious reorganization efforts to be more democratic/safe, no? Must say this is starting to feel like proselytizing more than reporting.

        • Jason Durso says

          They have definitely undergone big changes, but I think the systemic issues still stand. Note that my reply was not an attempt to objectively state which was better, but rather my express opinion on where some of the better practice is being done in the west.

          If doing soto study works for you, then I wouldn’t say you were deluded or some such. I just think that the American soto spinoffs are clinging pretty fervently to a document that has very little relation to 21st century Westerners, while some of the other American zen schools offer a less rigid and more interpretive approach, although it’s possible to find problems with that too.

          Nonetheless, the question was related to practice, and I would certainly argue that there are many better places to go for learning Zen practice than a 13th century Japanese text.

  3. Paula Anne says

    Jason thanks for the links – I understand where you’re coming from.

    I have only been studying/practicing buddhism for 2 years. This doesn’t feel enough time to give an informed view because buddhism per-se is a very wide – and at times confusing – subject.

    I try to read as widely as I can – in order to get a balanced view. I’m not sure the difficulty is in the actual texts – I get a lot from reading Dogen – but maybe a certain manner of delivery in teaching style – which doesn’t always match up to our contemporary notion of discourse.

    I look forward to your next blog.

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