What is the Zen Master Talking About?
Stewart W. Holmes
ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 50 Issue 2 Summer.1993 pp.157-164
© by ETC: A Review of General Semantics
I intend in the following to make sense of Zen non-sense. Fundamental Zen terms like "naturalness" and "emptiness" and "nothingness" are used in disregard of the COIK principle: Clear Only If Known. For example, Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen master, said, "It is absolutely necessary for everyone to believe in nothing." (Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice. New York and Tokyo: John Weatherhill, Inc., 1983. Page 117) What did he have in mind when he used the word "nothing"? He also said, "Originally we have Buddha nature." (P. 99) Again, what was he thinking of by saying that we all are born having Buddha nature? How would readers growing up in Western culture translate into terms familiar to them what this Zen-trained Japanese person meant? Which senses or what observations can be used to imagine something like nothing or to imagine the nature of Buddha nature? I shall also speculate as to the relationship between "nothingness," "emptiness" and "naturalness" and "zazen," or "sitting quiet."
Here are some more statements from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind that will provide opportunities for translation. "The understanding passed down from Buddha to our time is that when you start zazen, there is enlightenment even without any preparation. Whether you practice zazen or not, you have Buddha nature." (P. 99) " . . . without any idea of attainment, you are always Buddha. This is the true practice of zazen. Then you may understand the true meaning of Buddha's first statement, 'See Buddha nature in various beings, and in every one of us.'" (P. 132)
First, let us look up the derivation of "Buddha" given in Webster's New International Dictionary. The word is from the Sanskrit buddha, "awakened, enlightened," from bodhati, "he awakes, is awake, observes, understands."
Now let us examine the Buddhist belief that when Gautama experienced enlightenment, he became buddha, enlightened. While he was meditating under the Bo tree, he awoke with a particular understanding. After that he was called "Buddha," the Enlightened One. His enlightenment apparently included his understanding that he and everyone else is always by nature enlightened, is always buddha. He said, "Buddha nature is in various beings, and in every one of us."
Twenty-five hundred years ago Gautama used the word "buddha" to describe his awakening to a particular understanding. Those who translated his teachings into English used the word "enlightenment" to describe this awakening to his new understanding. The editors of Webster's Third use "enlightenment" to describe the Buddha's experience. I wonder what goes on in the minds of people who read this entry and who encounter the word "enlightenment" in books about Buddhism.
The COIK principle warns us against believing we know what the Buddha and his followers have meant by this word.
Readers of computer manuals and of instructions for putting kits together have suffered from the technical writers' disregard of this principle. The ancient Hindu parable of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant warns us not to assume too quickly that we know what a user of such a word as "enlightenment" may have meant by it — especially if our eyes have not been opened by having had a presumably similar experience.
What kind of "lighting" occurs in this enlightenment? To answer this question, let us examine the notion that each of us is a Buddha, that each of us has Buddha nature from the beginning to the end of our life. In other words, what is it that each of us has that the Zen masters call "Buddha nature"?
What is it that is observably, tangibly, part of us from birth till death? Our DNA, of course. Our DNA contains our genome, all our genes. Our genes direct the creation of our body and influence the kind of interactions we have with our environment. From the one-celled little creature to the multitudinously-celled adult, the DNA remains constant (unless operated on by a surgeon's recombinant gene procedures).
This process of development appears to be true for all living beings. The germinating daisy seed produces daisies of the same variety. The polar bear's fertilized egg produces a polar bear. The daisy "knows" what nutrients and the amount of sunshine and water it needs to reach maturity and produce the next generation of daisies. The polar bear "knows" what foods to eat and how to produce and bring up the next generation of polar bears. Different species of plants thrive best in certain environments -- and only in those. Different species of animals thrive best in certain environments. Each species instinctively knows best how to do its own thing.
As an animal, the human being is from the one-celled beginning equipped for survival. He/She bears the unwritten manual in his or her DNA. Is this in observable terms a statement of what the Buddhist means when he says, "You are always Buddha"? The Buddhist's statement differs from the scientist's in that we can see and touch a cell's DNA. We can observe the idiosyncratic development of an individual to maturity. Can anyone see and touch Buddha nature? The DNA and the cells can be sensed — seen and touched. The hypostatization, Buddha nature, cannot be sensed with any of our sense organs. Thus we may say that the scientist's statement makes sense; the Zen master's must be called "non-sense."
We now come to the second part of our inquiry, the Zen master's description of the practice of zazen. Shunryu Suzuki strives in many pages to tell his "students" what he means by "zazen." He writes (pp. 108-109), "For a plant or stone to be natural is no problem. But for us there is some problem, indeed a big problem. When what you do just comes out from nothingness, you have quite a new feeling. For instance, when you are hungry, to take some food is naturalness. You feel natural. But when you are expecting too much, to have some food is not natural. . . . The true practice of zazen is to sit as if drinking water when you are thirsty. There you have naturalness. . . . This naturalness is very difficult to explain. If it comes out of nothingness, whatever you do is natural, and that is true activity. You have the true joy of practice, the true joy of life. . . . From true emptiness the wondrous being appears. . . . True being comes out of nothingness, moment after moment. Nothingness is always there, and from it everything appears. But usually, forgetting all about nothingness, you behave as if you have something. What you do is based on some possessive idea or some concrete idea, and that is not natural."
Can you think of any observable operations you can perform to describe "naturalness," "nothingness," "emptiness"? What can you do to become natural, to realize nothing, to be empty?
Suzuki has given us a clue. He tells us that plants and stones have no problem in being natural, but that for us there is indeed a big problem. What makes us so different — and unlucky — is that we have language. We alone live in two worlds, the world of no-language and the world of language. I shall call these worlds "Reality-1" and "Reality-2," respectively. Reality-1 really exists outside our mind. Reality-2 "exists," but only as thoughts-feelings, semantic reactions, in our mind.
Recall that the author(s) of Genesis described the harmonious life enjoyed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Life at that time existed as Reality-1; no Reality-2. Then one day they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Let us suppose that fruit symbolizes language. After that they lived in two worlds; they perceived Reality-1 through the filter of Reality-2. They transformed the seeing of each other's naked body into an act of sin. Their feeling of shame made them hide from God. With language, they could now conceive ideas and judgments, and feel emotions like shame. They could say, "We're bad; we've sinned; God will punish us for disobeying Him. Let's cover our genitals with fig leaves and let's hide from our angry, father." The result of gaining language was getting kicked out of the Garden. Gone was the wordless harmony of living like animals with the other animals. Ahead lay the miseries of living belanguaged.
The possession of language has enabled us to create for ourselves more wonders than any other animal has done. It has also enabled us to damage ourselves and our environment as no other plant or animal has ever done. Like fire, language is a good servant but a bad master. The Buddha came to this realization and devoted the rest of his life to helping us master our language — and thereby our language-created Reality-2. He told us to become natural, to realize nothingness, to open ourselves to emptiness. His followers who accepted his teaching and developed his practice have been helping people to adjust their R-2 so that it does not distort their view of R-1 in a life-degrading way. This process usually takes many years, for we have been conditioned ever since birth to believe that R-2 is identical with R-1.
Is there a way to describe in observable terms the Buddha's way of speaking about this human condition? I believe that describing the actual processes involved in our seeing and talking about the world will make more sense to our Western minds. The key word in that statement is "sense." How do we use our senses to create our Reality-2, our pictures of Reality-1?
Here is my attempt to capsulize the very complex series of processes involved in our seeing Reality-1 through the filter of our Reality-2. Our limited senses register some, but only some, of the stimuli that impinge on them. Our brain responds to this input by transforming it into "pictures." These pictures constitute symbols that stand for but are not the same as what is "out there." Put simply, R-2 is not R-1 and is certainly not identical with R-1.
In the transformation process, our language plays a decisive role. For example, the word "dog" can mean dangerous creature to Person-1 and lovable friend to Person-2. A dog runs toward P-1, who becomes terrified. The same dog runs toward P-2, who is delighted. P-1's meaning of "dog" is the result of a language-distorted picture — as is P-2's quite different meaning. The language usage involved enables us - and typically determines us — to generalize from one experience to all. Person-1 thinks of all dogs as bad because early on she was once attacked by a dog. Person-2 expects all dogs to behave pleasantly like a dog she has previously experienced.
Another unfortunate language usage involves believing as true — that is, as existing in Reality-1 — what another person says is true — a statement existing in Reality-2. A contemporary example may be found in the abortion controversy. Someone says that the fertilized egg in a woman's body is a human being. This classification exists only in Reality-2, in the classifier's mind. In Reality-1 the egg consists of a complex, changing material process. The word "human" exists as a category or definition. The egg itself exists "out there," in Reality-1. The category, the thought labeled "human," exists only in human minds, in Reality-2. The actual egg is living according to its dynamic DNA-determined destiny. The word "egg" describes a static picture, an unchanging thing, a discrete meaning, or symbol, stored away somewhere in a memory bit of neuronal association in our brain. Two people who will agree on the existence of the egg will differ violently on what to do about it because their meanings of the word differ. Their different actions will be based on their different meanings of the word. One person's "blob of protoplasm" is another person's "human being."
We don't know everything about the egg — nor about any other process in the world, for our senses and nervous system (and such extensions of them as microscopes and telescopes) have limitations. Our language, which filters and distorts while we use it to describe, has its limitations, also. When we use language in a life-degrading way, hurting ourselves and our environments, we should examine our way of using language in perceiving the world. We should realize that our language consists of symbols (words) standing for other symbols (mental constructs) that in turn stand for what's "out there." What's out there can never be known as it exists in its entirety.
Now let us match this description with Suzuki's description of Zen practice. "Naturalness" would refer to the body's cell activities as directed by our DNA. Many of our activities, like eating and drinking unhealthy foods, are directed by what our culture tells us to do. Our DNA directives exist in Reality-1. Our culture's largely symbolic directives exist in Reality-2. Suzuki, I believe, classifies the Reality-1 operations as "natural," differentiating them from life-degrading culture-influenced Reality-2 operations.
"Emptiness" would refer to the fact that we don't know exactly what is going on in the Reality-1 world. All we know is what we know. What we know consists of what we have experienced directly through our limited senses and what people have told us, that is, somewhat language-distorted reports. What we know is in the Reality-2 realm. What actually exists "out there" is in the Reality-1 realm. The Reality-1 world is not the same as the Reality-2 world. Filtered by hundreds of different languages and an indefinitely greater number of meanings in people's heads, human pictures can never be identical with Reality-1. Being other than our mental pictures, Reality-1 must be empty of human meanings. In that sense, "emptiness" most truly describes its existence, its actuality.
How about "nothingness"? If we cannot know precisely what is out there, our descriptions and evaluations and judgments exist in our heads, in Reality-2, not in Reality-1. The things that we see through our sensory and language filters are not in Reality-1. Thus Reality-1 is the world of no things. Suzuki said, "It is necessary to believe in nothingness." Let's put a hyphen between "no" and "thingness," and then say "It is necessary to believe in fluid no-thingness rather than in static thingness. As Heraclitus said 2500 years ago, "Panta rhei," "Everything flows" — in Reality-1. The world of static things exists as a product of our neurosensory symbolic transformations of Reality-1. Reality-1 exists — energy, forming and unforming and reforming, moment by moment.
Once we accept these meanings of "Buddha nature," "naturalness," "emptiness," and "no-thingness," the light goes on. We are enlightened as to the way we see and talk about as our DNA set us up originally to do. Our steady awareness of how we make meanings will color all our interactions with life. We will be better prepared to flow with what is happening, to act creatively, and to hope that some life-enhancing force in Reality-1 may be acting creatively in our behalf. Za-zen, sitting quietly, wordlessly, serves to make habitual this awareness that our words are not the same as what's out there. This frequently reinforced understanding will cast light on all our interactions with life. All our interactions will then constitute zazen, that is to say, enlightenment.
Do you now, Western reader, find less puzzling what Suzuki meant when he said (p.115), "Just to see; and to be ready to see things with our whole mind, is zazen practice. . . . This is called mindfulness. . . . The point is to be ready for observing things, and to be ready for thinking. This is called emptiness of your mind. Emptiness is nothing but the practice of zazen."