Truth and Zen
T. P. Kasulis
T. P. Kaulis is Chairman and Professor of Philosophy at Northland College, Ashland, Wisconsin
Philosophy East and West 30, no.4 (October, I980). © by The University Press of Hawaii. Alt rights reserved
Truth and Zen Buddhism—it is difficult to imagine a pair of more abstruse, yet fascinating, topics. Rather than discuss either one of the two, I will consider them both simultaneously in hopes that, like some schoolboy magician in a chemistry laboratory, I might mix together two murky, colored concoctions and thereby effect—abracadabra---a transparent, clear solution.
To begin our analysis of truth, we need the same general framework. Aristotle points us in a classical, though still relevant, direction. In an argument for the validity of the principle of the excluded middle, Aristotle makes the well-known definition:
This definition sets down the general principle of correspondence and captures quite well the man-on-the-street view of truth. Aristotle, however, is not the man on the street (he may be peripatetic, but he is hardly pedestrian); if we wish a clearer picture of Aristotle’s view of truth, we must look more closely at what he says in other parts of his writings. In this regard, it is helpful to see how Aristotle defines “false” in the lexiconical section of the Metaphysics (1024b). For Aristotle, there are three kinds of falseness: false as a thing, false as an account, and false as a person. The second of this triad obviously relates directly to the preceding definition, but what of the other two? A thing (pragma) may be false in either of two ways. First, a false thing is a state of affairs that does not always pertain, for example, the commensurability of the diagonal of a square with its sides (which never pertains) and my sitting down (which is not always the case). Aristotle’s point is not very clear here. Perhaps for a state of affairs to be “true” in his proposed sense, it must be true in itself without reference to any particular configuration of reality at a given time. That is, Aristotle may have in mind states of affairs that can be known to be true on a priori grounds. Fortunately, for our purposes, the other sense of the falsehood of things is more important so we will not dwell on this point any further. The second way for a thing to be false is for it to appear to us to be other than what it is really. Thus, Aristotle gives the examples of dreams and sketches, things which actually exist (as dreams and sketches) but which lead us to believe they have an existence of a different sort. Thus, dreams are confused with sense perceptions and our perception of the sketch is confused with a perception of the thing the sketch portrays. The important point here is that the confusion is based in the thing’s appearance, not in our evaluation. Hence, we are here speaking of false things, not false judgments, according to Aristotle.
What of falsehood insofar as it applies to persons? A false person is one who likes to give false accounts for their own sake and who is skilled in convincing others of their truth. Persons, Aristotle comments, are false in one of the ways that things are false, namely, they “produce a false appearance.” In one sense, the truth of persons amounts to truth-telling or honesty, but again we would do well to view this in the larger Aristotelian context. For Aristotle, a person who knows true accounts, but delights in misleading others, is one who corrupts his own character. That is, false persons present not only accounts, but also themselves, falsely. Behind this standpoint is the classical position that what one knows cannot be separated from what one is: to distort willfully the truth of one’s own knowledge is to distort the truth of one’s own personhood.
In short, even though it may be correct that Aristotle is a straightforward correspondence theorist in his formal definition of truth, it is equally clear that Aristotle wants to say more about truth than can be encompassed by that definition. Why? Why is Aristotle not satisfied with just the truth of accounts? Is there some intimate and profound relationship among the three truths? I believe there is. Aristotle is not only interested in the definition of truth, he is also interested in the acquisition of truth. In contemporary philosophy as well, we are familiar with the distinction between theories of the meaning of truth and theories of the means to acquiring truth, so Aristotle’s concerns are not really foreign to us. We should not be too hasty with this comparison, however. In our framework, we may say the question of the meaning of truth is a metaphysical one, but the issue of the means to truth falls in the domain of epistemology. Aristotle differs in that his concern for the acquisition of truth is, at least in part, metaphysical as well as epistemological. That is to say, as a metaphysician, Aristotle feels compelled not only to define truth, but also to explain metaphysically how it is that the acquisition of truth is possible. In this respect, for true accounts to be possible, there must be true things and true persons as well. If things did not generally appear as they are and if persons were not generally honest with themselves and with others, there would be no touchstone for us in making judgments about what is. In other words, a stipulation for the correspondence between what-is-said and what-is is that what-is show itself as what-it-is and that what-is-said be a genuine expression of what-one-experiences. This is the fundamentally metaphysical connection among Aristotle’s three truths.
This Aristotelian account of the metaphysics of truth will be a useful guide in our discussion of the Ch’an and Zen tradition. Let us begin with the Platform Sütra of the Sixth Patriarch, one of the first major works to be distinctively Ch’an in orientation. Its author, Hui-neng, lived in the seventh and eighth centuries and supposedly founded the eventually dominant Southern school of Ch’an Buddhism. If we take “truth” to correspond roughly to the Chinese character chena, Hui-neng speaks of truth most often in terms of the “truly-so” (chen-ju), the sinification of the Sanskrit term tathatã. In the Platform Sütra this tathatã is understood to be the essence or substance of thought; thoughts are taken to be the functioning of tathatã (ch. 17). In this way, tathatã becomes equivalent to the primal or original nature, that to which one awakens when one sees into one’s own mind (ch. 31). In short, Hui-neng’s language is reminiscent of the basic Fahsiang or Yogãcãra position: there is an original nature (penh-sing) that , when left unpolluted in no-thinking (wu-niene), becomes the functioning truly-so. Thus, it seems that Hui-neng is saying that at the base of the mind, we find the basis of truth. We must be cautious with this interpretation, however. Various Yogãcãra texts, especially the Lañkãvatara Sütra, were very influential in the early development of Ch’an Buddhism and Hui-neng’s choice of words reflects this connection. Therefore, even though Hui-neng may use terminology that correlates, in some ways, with Yogacara’s idealistic view of reality, this may be more a matter of historical accident than deep philosophical commitment.
The question that now arises is whether Hui-neng’s view is in any way similar to any aspect of Aristotle’s threefold view of truth. In certain respects, Hui-neng’s truly-so and Aristotle’s truth of things serve a similar metaphysical function. That is, in both cases, the nature of reality appears as it is. In fact, Hui-neng is more radical in this regard in that Aristotle recognizes the existence of at least some false things, but the Platform Sütra’s truly-so is apparently all-inclusive. Despite this difference, Aristotle and Hui-neng agree on one crucial issue: the major cause of falsehood is our mistaken interpretations of what appears. The world is not fundamentally illusory; it is our own delusions that prevent us from seeing the way things are.
But what of Hui-neng’s idealistic strain? After all, the Platform Sütra implies that we come to know the truth when we see into our own minds. Certainly, this seems to be a direct violation of the Aristotelian notion of correspondence. But does it have to be? Let us consider Thomas’ version of Aristotelian correspondence (Summa Theologica, Part I, Q. 21, Art. 2):
Thomas explicitly states here that the correspondence between the mind and what-is can occur in either of two ways: either the what-is can be the standard to which the mind conforms or vice versa. We will have the opportunity to discuss the second alternative at a later point. For now, let us focus on the first, the one we have been discussing thus far: the mind is the receptor of percepts and adjusts itself to what the senses report. In light of our concern about Hui-neng’s idealism, we should take note of the fact that Thomas sees this correspondence as an internal relationship within consciousness, that is, the correspondence is really between thoughts and sense experiences, not thoughts and things. This leads Thomas to the striking statement: “ruth resides only in the intellect” (S. T. part I, Q. 16, Art. 1). Later (in Art. 3), Thomas quotes Aristotle’s De Anima (431) for support: “The soul is in a way all existing things; for existing things are either sensible or thinkable”. There is a potential equivocation here: when Aristotle and Thomas consider the definition of truth, they speak of the correspondence between mind and things; but when they consider the practical test for truth, the correspondence seems to be between two mental constituents: interpretation and phenomena. Here, though, Aristotle’s three truths resolve the difficulty. Because of the metaphysical stipulation that most things are true, what-is is generally what-appears. Thus, we need worry about the discrepancy between phenomena and things only in those rare cases wherein a false thing appears. Here previous experience and habit play an important role: we learn not to trust dreams and sketches, for example, on face value. In the case of Hui-neng. as we have seen. the theory does not admit the possibility of false things; everything is essentially tathatã. Therefore, in practice, things and phenomena coalesce. In this restricted sense, then, Hui-neng’s theory, as a theory about the acquisition of truth, is not necessarily any more idealistic than Aristotle’s or Thomas’.
Still, philosophically speaking, Hui-neng’s view of truth is not as sophisticated as that of Aristotle and Thomas. Most importantly, Hui-neng does not develop any explicit idea of the truth of persons. This is an important omission in the following respect: if things are intrinsically true, how is it that delusions arise? Obviously, this must be the result of some deficiency in the person, but the Platform Sütra does not develop this idea in any detail. This is not to say that Hui-neng did not recognize the importance of the person in his training methods; the interpersonal encounter between master and disciple was as much a part of Ch’an or Zen training then as it is now. The point, however, is that the written account in the Platform Sütra is more mechanistic than personalistic. It is understandable that the following famous köan would be attributed to Hui-neng: “Without any consideration of good or evil, right now, what is your original face before your parents were born?” It is consistent with Hui-neng’s position to emphasize such a fundamental, pre-personal, amoral reality which (upon enlightenment) comes to function as the mind of the person. Still, an emphasis on the truth of the person, rather than on the ontology of the truly-so, would seem to be a more useful account for Ch’an practice. Lin-chi apparently agrees.
About one and a half centuries after Hui-neng, Lin-chi founded the southern Ch’an line of transmission named after him. In the Lin-chi Records the treatment of truth is headed in the direction we have already anticipated. Rather than the truly-so, Lin-chi emphasizes the “true person” (chen-jen); rather than Hui-neng’s no-thinking, Lin-chi speaks of “no position” (wu-wei). Putting these together, we find in the third chapter Lin-chi’s famous reference to the “true person of no position.” This term played a central role in Lin-chi’s training techniques, and he often demanded of his disciples that they make manifest this true nature of the personality. In a sense, Lin-chi sees a fundamental connection between Hui-neng’s “original nature” and “original face;” that is, Lin-chi makes it explicit that the truly-so is manifested in the activity of the true person. The truth is based as much in the person as it is in the tathatã. The roots of Lin-chi’s idea may be in chapter 6 of the Chuang-izu: “There must first be a true person before there can be true knowledge.” The “true person” is one of Chuang-tzu’s common designations for the sage who acts spontaneously, responsively, and without contrivance. In this respect, we can understand Hui-neng’s “no-thinking” as a state of responsive awareness in which one is not self-consciously putting one’s experience into static conceptual frameworks. In any case, Lin-chi expressly states that the true person represents the spontaneous functioning at the basis of all human activity (3; ch. 3) and the mode in which intention and act are inseparable (yao-hsing. chihsing; yao-tso-chi-tso’, 11 d, ch. 10).
In short, Lin-chi recognizes that for correspondence to take place, there must be not only the world and the mind, but also the activity of corresponding itself; this activity is the functioning of the true person. “Moreover, make yourself master of your situation; wherever you stand is truth” (13a; ch. 12). What is Lin-chi’s position on idealism? Although he does say that there is no dharma external to the person, he points out (27; ch. 18) that this should not be taken to mean that the dharma is accessible through inactive, introspective contemplation. The dharma is not located in any single place; it is not something toward which one takes a stand. The true person has no status or position; wherever that person stands is truth. I take this to be a response to the idealistic reading of Hui-neng. Lin-chi wants it to be clear that the ideal is not to transcend the external world and withdraw into the mind; rather, the ideal is to find the truly-so, to discover the true person, in one’s spontaneous and responsive activity within the world.
This discussion of the activity of the true person returns us to a fore-mentioned, but as yet unanalyzed, point in Thomas’ view of truth. We noted above that Thomas discussed two ways in which the correspondence between mind and things can occur: either the mind can conform to things or things can conform to the mind. It is this latter possibility that concerns us now. Thomas’ example of the artwork is a fruitful one. Here we have the case that the mind becomes the rule for the form of the thing and, if the artwork fulfills the intent of the mind, we can say there is a correspondence between the intellect and what-is. Hence, Thomas maintains that it is appropriate to speak of truth in artistic creativity. (Incidentally, this medieval view of truth in art has had its impact even on contemporary theories of aesthetics; see, for example, Albert Hofstadter’s discussion of the “truth of things” in his Truth and Art.) The question that now faces us is this: Lin-chi has maintained that the truth of things can be manifested in the activity of the true person, but would he also say that the truth of things can be created by some activity of the true person? No, to make truth even partially dependent for its existence on the person would be to deny that all things in themselves are tathatã. Here we have an important divergence between the Ch’an Buddhists and part of the Western tradition. We will return to this point later.
A second point of divergence is that Aristotle and Thomas hold that the truth of persons is of concern to ethics as well as to metaphysics and epistemology. That is, truth insofar as it applies to persons is a virtue. In the Nicomachean Ethics (1 127a), for example, Aristotle says that truth is the mean between boastfulness and false modesty. Thomas adds to the list of vices opposing truth two more: lying and dissimulation or hypocrisy (S. T. Part II—II, Q. 110—113). The Ch’an tradition does not discuss truth as a virtue. There are various reasons for this: Ch’an Buddhism wanted to distinguish itself from the Confucianist emphasis on virtues and the Hinayãnist orientation toward the precepts, for example. The true person for Lin-chi (and for Chuang-tzu, in fact) acts naturally and is not consciously trying to live up to some ideal. Hence, explicit reference to ethics is avoided. In fairness, however, it should be noted that there is some common ground beneath the divergence just noted. One could easily argue that for the classical philosopher, to display virtue (virtus) is really just actualizing one’s inherent potential to be a man (vir). Taking this tack, it is much more difficult to distinguish sharply the Zen project of manifesting one’s original face (Buddha-nature, true personhood) from this classical sense of virtue. Thus, the distinction between the two traditions may not be as hard and fast as the prima facie evidence would indicate.
The discussion of truth as virtue does raise another important point, however. In Aristotle and Thomas, truth-telling is primarily posed in terms of presenting oneself to others. That is, the true person (one possessing the virtue, truth) does not mislead others. In Lin-chi, however, the emphasis is on self-awareness, that is, one who is a true person does not lie to oneself. Of course, these two orientations are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, they are ultimately interdependent. Nevertheless, the difference in emphasis is striking. As we shall see, the Ch’an and Zen emphasis approaches more the existentialist sense of authenticity than truth-telling in the ordinary sense.
For a more holistic account of the Zen position, we will turn now to the writings of Dōgen, a thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master. Dōgen is probably the most systematic and philosophically inclined of all Zen or Ch’an writers. Thus, although he does not explicitly say much about “truth,” he does address himself to many of the same issues that have concerned us here. Even though Dōgen is traditionally associated with the Sôtô rather than the Rinzai (Lin-chi) branch of Zen, Dōgen did not so identify himself. For the purposes of this article, he can be seen as a legitimate heir of Hui-neng and Lin-chi, at least regarding their view of truth.
Even though Dōgen makes scattered references to tathatã, he has his own term for the truth of things, namely, genjököan, “‘things’ being present as they are.” Hence, like most of his Ch’an predecessors, Dōgen, in effect, denies that there is illusion; there are only the delusions we inflict on ourselves. From this standpoint, even a dream as dream is tathatã; if someone should take it to be other than it is (as sense experience, for example), the interpretation, not the thing, is the locus of falsehood. Thus, if we analyze Dōgen’s view of interpretation, we will reach the heart of his view on truth and falsehood.
In referring to enlightenment, it is significant that Dōgen generally prefers to use the term “authentication” (shö) rather than “realization” (satori). While the word “realization” often has the connotation of being a single incidence of recognition, the term “authentication” may convey the nuance of a continual verification of the genuineness of one’s interpretation. Dōgen does not reject the importance of sudden insight (he himself had such a peak experience while in China), but it is the process of continual authentication that best characterizes the unique character of enlightenment. But how does the enlightened person test his or her interpretation? Like Thomas, Dōgen would maintain that there is no extraexperiential touchstone, no thing-in-itself that can serve as the standard for evaluation. As Thomas says, “truth resides only in the intellect,” that is, consciousness must reflect on itself (either intuitively or conceptually) so as to maintain the correspondence between its interpretative structures and its sense experiences. Dōgen’s major work, The Treasury of the Correct Dharma-eye (Shobögenzö’), is filled with exhortatives that urge his disciples to examine their own experiences and to authenticate their understanding of what is. Still, Dōgen differs from Thomas in maintaining that a special mode of reflexive consciousness is needed for this authenticating process. In his fascicle, “A Talk about Undertaking the Way” (Bendöwatm), Dōgen writes (p. 729):
What does Dōgen mean by this jjuyü sammai? “Sammai” is the Japanese equivalent to the Sanskrit “samãdhi,” a high-level meditative state. “Jijuyü” is a difficult term to translate; basically it is the sense of spiritual well-being derived from Zen practice and utilized in one’s personal affairs. Hence, it is a saintly serenity and joy that one brings to one’s daily life. To understand the relevance of this to authentication, we must be clear about Dōgen’s view of Zen practice, especially “zazen”, “seated meditation.”
In two fascicles, “The Principles of Zazen” (Zazengi) and “Admonitions about Zazen” (Zazenshinr), Dōgen utilizes a distinction among three terms:
There are two ways in which the self-reflexive test of corresponding within consciousness can take place. For our example, we can refer to Dōgen’s discussion of the interpretation of time in his fascicle “Being-time” (Uji). First, an interpretation may be evaluated reflectively. This is, in effect, a test for consistency in the concepts that constitute one’s interpretation of time. Dōgen considers the characterization of time as “flying away” (p. 191). In such a case, Dōgen urges us to “investigate” (kaie suru or gaku suru) the matter. If time flies away, Dōgen points out, then there is a separation between oneself and time, between things and time. That is, time itself is being considered a temporal thing. Since this is nonsensical, the interpretation cannot be definitive. Here we have the authenticating response (without-thinking) assuming the form of thinking. The self-reflexive evaluation may also be non-reflective and non-conceptual, however. Thus, Dōgen refers to the fact that people often interpret temporal experiences as something they have, rather than as what people are. To someone who has the wrong interpretation here, Dōgen merely calls on him or her to “Look! Look!” (p. 191). It is significant, by the way, that Lin-chi uses the same exhortation in urging his disciples to see the true person within themselves. Here, I argue, the without- thinking authentication takes the form of not-thinking, that is, the test takes the form of a pre-reflective, non-conceptual “just looking.”
From our account of the Ch’an and Zen tradition, we can see the rationale behind this twofold process of authentication. Since things are present to us as they really are, falsehood resides in our interpretive processes. Dōgen is correct in seeing two ways in which these may lead us astray. First, we may develop inconsistent interpretations which obviously cannot describe reality without equivocation and ambiguity. Second, we may lose contact with what we directly experience; that is, we may develop a nest of interconnected concepts that are consistent among themselves, but simply do not correspond to things (or, what is the same in the Zen view, to things as directly experienced). The dual testing process, therefore, attacks falsehood from both sides.
A few clarifications are needed. First of all, we are not always aware of our interpretations; in fact, they need not even be verbalized to play a constitutive role in our actions, feelings, and lines of thinking. Expressing this phenomenologically, any positing attitude of an act of consciousness involves interpretation. How then are we to become aware of such tacit orientations? “Jijuyü sammai itself is the touchstone,” that is, in the meditative state of zazen one is in direct contact with things as they are. Therefore, any implicit assumption that is not a direct reflection of this immediate experience will become manifest through Zen practice. This does not mean that every such interpretation is false; rather, they merely require further authentication. Consider, for example, a stick’s appearing bent when it is half-submerged in water. The Zen stipulation is that the raw appearance is itself truly-so; the bent stick’s appearance is not itself false. Yet, insofar as we do not expect the stick to be bent when we take it out of the water, there must be a tacit assumption here that requires authentication. In this case, the authentication process takes the form of thinking, not just looking. We might, for instance, recall previous experiences wherein being straight in the air is succeeded by being bent in the water and vice versa. Therefore, by induction one expects the same situation to prevail here. In other words, in this example thinking relates the present, direct experience to previous direct experiences such that we see the consistency in the interpretation. It is significant that (unlike most of the Western tradition) the Zen view does not require a scientific explanation of why straight things appear bent when partially submerged, of what causes the “same” really straight stick to appear bent. In the Zen framework, interpretation must meet the requirements of accurate description not adequate explanation. In this case, the interpretation accurately describes what is now directly experienced in light of what will be directly experienced (using what has been directly experienced as the basis for the expectation). Thus, even though the interpretation is not a simple reflection of the present experience, it is still a reflection of a set of direct experiences. Hence, the interpretation is authenticated.
A further clarification concerns the term “correspondence.” As noted earlier, for their definition of the meaning of truth, Aristotle and Thomas speak of the correspondence between mind and things, but for the test of truth, the correspondence takes place within the intellect (which is capable of both discursive and intuitive insights, incidentally). Since the Zen tradition rejects the notion of false things, the distinction between the two correspondences tends to collapse. In this sense, the Zen view is that correspondence takes place between experiential components. Accordingly, when there is correspondence, there is a unified consciousness without dualism. When interpretations are authenticated, there is no gap between the understanding and the experience. In Zen terminology, one knows directly just as one knows that the water is cold when one drinks it. This lack of opposition, this oneness of mind, is the basis of the jijuyü in jijuyü sammai.
A third clarification concerns the interrelationships among thinking, not- thinking, and without-thinking. We might, for example, ask the following question: how do we know when we should authenticate through thinking and when we should do so through not-thinking? It is important to bear in mind that this question again overlooks the centrality of zazen (or jijuyü sammai): we do not decide; without-thinking spontaneously takes on the form of the appropriate response. As Dōgen puts it, the jijuyü sammai itself is the touchstone. In other words, to authenticate one need only be authentic to oneself and to be authentic to oneself, one lets oneself show itself without thinking about it. But how does one authenticate whether one is being authentic? In the beginning, at least, one cannot do this for oneself. A Zen master is necessary for guidance. Through the encounter with the master, any traces of inauthenticity are made manifest to the disciple until the disciple learns the serenity of jijuyü sammai. From that point onward, the presence of the serenity is itself the authentication of the authenticity. In this respect, zazen is the alpha and omega of Zen practice. This leads Dōgen to advocate shikantaza, the performance of zazen alone.
There is one corollary to Dōgen’s position that deserves our attention here, namely, the notion that truth (in its acquisition) is context-dependent. Thus, in his fascicle “Things’ Being Present as They Are” (Genjôköan, p. 9), Dōgen follows the Yogacara view that the fish is correct in his belief that the ocean is an emerald-like palace and the deva in heaven is correct in his belief that the ocean is a glittering string of lights, and the person far out at sea is correct in his belief that the ocean is a great circle. The fish, the person, and the deva are each authenticating what is actually experienced, given their respective contexts. This, of course, violates the spirit of the views of both Aristotle and Thomas. To see the implications of the difference, let us refer back to Thomas’ discussion of truth in art. Thomas maintained that artworks are true insofar as they adequately take on the form of the artists’ intentions. From Dōgen’s standpoint, we can develop a different theory of truth in art. That is, Dōgen would presumably say that the situation (the presence of tathatã) takes form through the artist. Consider, for example, the creation of Michelangelo’s “David.” According to historical accounts, Michelangelo claimed that he had “seen” the image of David in the slab of marble discarded by another artist. That is, the marble presented itself to Michelangelo as “David” and Michelangelo became the vehicle for the thing’s self-expression. In the Ch’an and Zen terminology we have developed, the image of David in the marble was a true thing and Michelangelo, acting as a true person, let the thing show itself through him. This is why, as we have already seen in the earlier quotation, Dogen associates jijuyü sammai with wu-wei. The artist, the Zen master, the Taoist sage are agents only insofar as they are responsive to situations in which things present themselves as they are; there is no selfconscious, calculative “doing.” In fact, Dōgen considers language in its most profound usage, what Dōgen calls “expression” (dōtoku), to be a creative activity like the one just described. That is, language does not here refer to a preexistent reality, but rather, things express themselves through the transparent medium of without- thinking. In this way, the entire world of phenomena—including the mountains, rivers and rocks—express reality. Dōgen, therefore, says that such things are themselves sütras (see, for example, Dōgen’s fascicle, “The Mountain and Water Sütra,” (Sansuikyō).
This concludes our discussion of truth and Zen Buddhism. Our major conclusions are the following. First of all, although the correspondence theory may give an adequate definition of truth, it needs to be supplemented if we want to know how it is possible for such a truth to be acquired in practice. We have investigated here the threefold metaphysical account of truth first stated by Aristotle and developed by Thomas, but also paralleled in the Ch’an and Zen traditions. In general, we have found the threefold distinction to be illuminating of the metaphysical assumptions behind correspondence as a practical theory. Second, despite many startling similarities, we must conclude that the Western view and the Zen view of truth are fundamentally different, especially with respect to what the theory of truth should try to accomplish. Ultimately, Aristotle and Thomas desire a theory of truth that will be the cornerstone for explanatory interpretation. Thomas adds to this the application of the theory to events wherein things conform to mind, that is, to events wherein man is in creative transformation of his world. Both explanation and the governance of the natural world, we may note, are constitutive of an idea of science. Beyond these goals, Thomas (and, to a lesser extent, Aristotle) is also interested in establishing truth as a moral ideal of interpersonal relations, a virtue toward which we should strive if we are to achieve our basic humanity. The Zen view of truth, on the other hand, has a distinctively different orientation. Rather than explanatory interpretation, Zen is interested in descriptive interpretation. Rather than governing the transformation of nature, the Zen Buddhist tries to be the agent of nature. Rather than setting a moral standard to live up to, the Zen Buddhist achieves his humanity by letting go of external standards of value and by becoming more spontaneous. In the final analysis, therefore, the Western philosophers stipulate a tension between man and world: as Thomas put it, the mind must conform to things and things to the mind. Harmony is achieved through mutual adaptation. Zen philosophy, on the other hand, stipulates an essential unity: the tension between man and world is the result of egocentric delusion. If we destroy that delusion, man’s activity—his thinking and his doing— becomes just an expression of nature itself.
A final lesson of our comparison is this: the Zen Buddhists do not think differently than the Western philosophers. When it comes to defining truth and articulating the metaphysical assumptions behind the practical application of this theory, the difference between the traditions is slight. The Zen and Aristotelian/Thomistic traditions diverge only when they consider what the purpose of thinking is and what the basic relationship between man and world is. Aristotle/Thomas and Hui-neng/Lin-chi/ Dōgen are not sets of writers who think differently; they are groups of philosophers who disagree about what we should think about.
Quotations from Aristotle are taken from Richard McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1969).