As a philosophical teaching, Zen portraits itself as devoid of content, reflecting the primordial Buddhist void. In this sense it is pretty much alike Daoism, which talks about the true Dao being the one you cannot really talk about. Then Zen paradoxically portraits itself as both a spiritual discipline, a philosophical standpoint and a philosophy of life, which is quite confusing, because a proper Zen master will clarify that, by foundational axiom, no actual beliefs are needed for Zen to hold, and that Zen has very little pragmatic consequences.
To adopt the Zen philosophy of life yourself is fantastically simple: no change whatsoever is needed, only the subtlest mental inclination. It also turns out that that mental inclination itself is almost devoid of content, almost entirely fetishistic in nature.
And so a very important question arises: if Zen is such an empty wrapper, what is the need for it at all? If you are almost automatically Zen, isn’t Zen just like the mental virus, the infamous Game that you play by just knowing that it exists (and you just lost, by the way)?
Well, there is actually a very good reason for Zen to exist: it’s function as a fetish itself. Zen is an empty envelope that takes the place of oppressive spiritual dogma (in the West, traditional Christianity and Judaism) and allows you to be spiritual while retaining your freedom. Freedom comes with the anxiety of choice: the perception that now that the shrine is empty, that you killed the gods, something has to take that place and it’s your duty to find out what. Zen satisfies that anxiety by providing an answer that (in a true koan fashion) is not an answer at all but still functions as one.
The architecture of this liberation is beautiful, and reminds me of one of Žižek’s crucial argumentations. He points out that a thing (which is just a thought) is composed by three parts: first, what the thing itself is; second, what the thing is not; third, and very importantly, by the difference between the what the thing is “alone”, without background, and what the thing becomes once you take into consideration it’s “negative image”, what the thing is not. It is very confusing without an example, so I’ll shamelessly paste here a joke that Žižek uses to explain this in a friendly manner:
A man walks into a bar and orders coffee without milk. The waiter, appalled, tells the man:
“I’m very sorry, but we don’t have any milk left, so we cannot offer you coffee without milk. On the other hand, we do have cream, is it OK for you if I bring you coffee without cream?”
As you can see, the “plain coffee” is an idea that needs to be reinforced by stating precisely what it doesn’t have. From an strictly logical standpoint, coffee without milk and coffee without cream are exactly the same thing, so you would assume that the result is the same. Interestingly enough, this is not the case from the psychological standpoint.
Zen is a fetishistic excess
Zen is the dogma that is removed to liberate spirituality. In proper Zen terms, Zen is what “un-asks the question” about what the spiritual truth is.
This is a solution to the deadlock of the agnostic: when you remove the idols to free yourself, you are left with the paradox of a void that asks to be filled (if God doesn’t exist, what does?). As a freethinker you, have your suspicions of this begging to be filled; you know that once you have actually put something in the shrine, your freedom is gone again, one idol having replaced the other. The solution is to cheat: adopt an spirituality that declares itself to be empty, and even if you know that this is cheating (that you provided no real answer, that the void cannot become a deity of any kind) it remains effective: you are unburdened from the duty of choice, while still completely empowered to go whatever path suits you best. Zen takes the place of the cornerstone so that the proverbial phallus doesn’t claim it. It is not a philosophy: it’s a prestige. It is a humorous response to the tragic story of the search for meaning, and all the more interesting because of it.
If you think this was confusing, try The Gateless Gate.