The Ferocity of Zen Buddhism!

‘When you are in an impasse, there is an opening.’ This saying of Chinese origin (according to D.T. Suzuki in Zen Koan as a Means of Attaining Enlightenment) points to the structure of Zen Buddhism, a form of Mahayana (meaning ‘Great Path’) Buddhism that emerged from the teachings of monk Bodhidharma in the 5th or 6th century.

Zen, as I understand it, is a system for producing a psychological impasse: the student wishes to be enlightened, and abandons his normal life in dedication to studying under a Zen master (or ‘roshi’). Despite the master’s seeming disinterest, the student puts everything on the line, and works earnestly to reach his goal. Monastic life was not easy, as indicated in this excerpt from Suzuki’s essay The Meditation Hall: ‘The monks have not enough clothes to put on, not enough food to indulge in, not enough time to sleep, and, to cap these, they have plenty of work to do, menial as well as spiritual.’

Suddenly, the master demands something of his student that makes no sense at all. The student is not dissuaded. He must contemplate a riddle posed by the master, and present an answer to show his understanding. This riddle is called a ‘koan,’ which means a ‘public document setting up a standard of judgment,’ or ‘official business.’ The student is not engaged in armchair philosophizing, but in discovering something truthful. Suzuki’s provides a mysterious hint of the koan’s purpose (from Zen Koan as a Means of Attaining Enlightenment): ‘The idea is to unfold the Zen psychology in the mind of the uninitiated, and to reproduce the state of consciousness, of which these statements are the expression.’

Here is an example of a Zen koan:

‘What are your original features which you have even prior to your birth?’

How do you answer this outrageous question? What could the solution possibly be? It is inconceivable. And yet, due to your spiritual ambitions, you cannot simply abandon your quest. You must answer. But your master rejects every self-conscious guess. Though it appears you have no choice but to admit failure, in truth you cannot even do that. There is no forward, no back, and the walls of your psychological prison close in as you burn through options and patience. Thus, you reach a fever pitch of internal conflict — an impasse.

Perhaps it is impossible to reach psychological release (known as ‘satori’ in Japanese) without undergoing immense pressure from earnestly attempting to solve a paradox. Well known Zen koans are centuries old, but there are modern examples, like this wild, wonderful enigma posed by scientist Erwin Schrodinger at the end of What Is Life? (1944):

Let us see whether we cannot draw the correct, non-contradictory conclusion from the following two premises:
(i) My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature.
(ii) Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I foresee the effects, that may be fateful and all-important, in which case I feel and take responsibility for them.

How are these two premises to be reconciled? I will not give you Schrodinger’s answer, illuminating as it is, for it surely meant most to him, the mind which devised the solution.

For me, a question that rose again and again, to the point of obsession, was, ‘why do I pay attention to what I pay attention to?’ The question remained impenetrable until a hidden assumption was revealed, and I could rephrase it as: ‘if I control my thoughts, as I’m sure I do, then why can’t I sustain this control indefinitely?’ I maintained an idea about myself, while simultaneously struggling with evidence to the contrary.

Zen Buddhism is about the process of endlessly questioning, seeking an answer, until, with none forthcoming, we turn to the question itself. What have we erroneously assumed? Only after going through the fire do we wonder about our direction.

The artwork above is The Nine Dragons scroll by Chen Rong (1244).

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