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The Non-Logical Character of Zen
Hakuin's Daruma

Hajime Nakamura,
Journal of Chinese Philosophy V. 12 (1985) pp. 105-115
©1985 by Dialogue Publishing Company.
original source: http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-JOCP/jc26600.htm

[p 105] I.    Zen Dialogues
Zen took the exactly opposite standpoint against formal logic of Buddhist logicians. In Rinzai practice of Zen, meditation on paradoxes (koan) is used to awaken intuitive insight into what transcends logical distinctions. In daily conversation among Japanese, "Zen dialogue (mondo)" is often an equivalent of 'what is not understandable' or 'what is illogical.' Details will be discussed in the following.

    In opposition to other Buddhist disciplines, the Zen meditating disciplines appeared as a special formality whose objective was non-logical and paradoxical expression. In Zen the meditating discipline occupies a unique position. In fact, it is Zen's remarkable contribution that it has approached religion by means of a special method by which one is enlightened and which represents truth. The high priests of the Zen sects tested all possible means and methods. Such methods were inherited traditionally as meditating disciplines such as those using a stick, a cry (katsu), or a fist, have been used to test or encourage disciples.

    In the Rinzai sect, for example, the practitioners had to concentrate their mental efforts on paradoxical and illogical subjects called koan. Originally, koan [1] meant a kind of official document or record issued by the government, and as a term it was subsequently introduced into the Zen sects, adopted by them and began to signify the problems about which a novice thought and wanted to solve. Koan is based originally on mondo (lit. 'questions and answers'), catechism, and considerable parts of the classical Zen texts consist of mondo, which in fact have developed into short dialogues between master and disciple. This method of discourse is quite unique to Zen. Through it, something true or real is revealed extemporaneously and directly. It is not a method of indiscriminate argument. [p.106]

    These mondo may seem puzzling at the first glance, but in fact there is nothing obscure or hidden about them. The truth which Zen dialogues (mondo) indicate is, however, of radical simplicity and self-evidence. To illustrate :

A monk asked Master Tung-shan, "How do we escape the heat when summer comes and the cold when winter is here?
"The master said, "Why don't you go to the place where there is no summer, no winter?"
The monk asked, 'Where is such a place?"
The master replied, "When the cold season comes, one is thoroughly chilled; when the hot summer is here, one swelters."

The yearning for paradise is crushed, and you will find the yearned-for paradise down here in this world. In this manner Tao-shan preached the truth paradoxically: he said something unexpected which was contrary to common sense.

    There are some koans which logically do not make any sense. They cannot be explained in terms of common logic, i.e. the answers have no relation to the questions.

Once a monk asked Tung-shan, "What is the Buddha?"
Tung-shan replied, "Three pounds of flax." [2]

This questioner would have probably presupposed that Buddha was a man of virtue around whose head there was a halo. But the Master by his answer dismissed his questioner's premises. Ratiocination by human intellect is shunned. Ordinary conceptualization is smashed. Probably the ineffability of the real essence of the Buddha is implied.

    Zen, in fact, dismisses with harshness a general idea or concept which is held in one's mind. Its technique seems to be shock therapy. Its basic doctrines do not assume formal logic in their expression, thus paradoxical expression is used. Zen dialogues are indeed paradoxical. For example:

The Zen master Chao-chu was asked, "What is the Tao?"
He replied, "Everyday life is the Tao."
"'How," pursued the p.107 enquirer, "does one get into harmony with it?"
"If you try to get into harmony with it, you will get away from it."

    Here the paradoxical character of human existence is implicitly expressed. If you try to sleep, you cannot sleep. If you do not try to sleep, you can sleep comfortably. Just like that!

    A rather systematized saying runs as follows:

Like unto space it knows no boundaries;
Yet it is right here with us, ever retaining its serenity and fullness;
It is only when you seek it that you lose it.
You cannot take hold of it, nor can you get rid of it:
While you can do neither, it goes on its own way;
You remain silent and it speaks; you speak and it is silent;
The great gate of compassion is wide open with no obstructions
whatever before it. [3]

    For Zen masters, the best way to express our deepest experiences is by the use of paradoxes which transcend the opposites. For example, these are typical paradoxes to be used for meditation: "Where there is nothing, there is all." "To die the great death is to gain the great life." "Drop into a deep chasm and live again after your death." "We have been separated for a long time and have never been apart. We meet each other throughout the day, and do not meet a moment." "If you abandon superior training, you find original Enlightenment in your hand; if you leave original Enlightenment, superior training fills your body." Paradoxes like these bring objective logic to a deadlock and from there it is possible to uncover the vital way of turning around.

    Sometimes the koans seem to contradict each other. When asked, What is Buddha? " Ba-so answered, "This mind is Buddha," but on another occasion he said, "This mind is not Buddha." Both these assertions are obviously inconsistent, but both assertions are no less than ferry-boats which lead us to the enlightenment. They prove that formal logical contradiction is not contradiction in fact.

    Some koans can be translated into logical expressions. [5] A famous koan is this: "Before father and mother were born, what was your true [p.108] nature? " It can be worded: "Beyond time and space, what is Reality?

    It is a well-known fact that the same actions or expressions are sometimes approved and admired by the same priest and sometimes denied or ignored. I present the koan "Gutei's thumb" as an example.

    The Master Gutei always showed his thumb when he was asked what the Way was. When a novice from the same temple as Gutei was once asked later, "What was his moralizing discourse like?," he also showed his thumb in imitation of his master. When Gutei heard of the novice's action he cut off the novice's thumb with a sharp sword. The novice ran away weeping with pain. Gutei called him back and when the novice turned his head towards him, Gutei showed his erected thumb to him. The novice suddenly discovered Gutei's philosophy.

    Gutei said to all at the moment of his death, "My beloved spiritual teacher Tenryuu has taught me much by showing his thumb during Zen disciplines; I have not known how to use so many teachings during my life." Mumon states that Gutei and the novice were spiritually awakened not by showing the thumb. "If you realize this point, you will see that Tenryuu and Gutei, the young novice and I exist on the same straight line towards enlightenment." [6]

Outwardly, the same action or expression is sometimes denied and sometimes confirmed. This is obviously contradictory. But in our daily lives, the same actions can have different implications according to circumstances. For instance, it is correct to laugh at a merry gathering but it is indiscreet to laugh at a funeral. Therefore, concerning an action or an expression, the preceptors of Zen decided that the most fitting judgement should be given according to the occasion and the place. It is only that their "occasions" cannot be easily understood by us today.

    Koan have been collected and various anthologies have been compiled. For example, Mumonkan, which is one of them, is a well-known Zen scripture in Japan since olden times. It was compiled by Mumon Ekai (1183-1260), the Zen priest in the Southern Sung period who collected only forty eight koan that had been handed down from the Southern Sung period. There [p.109] are forty eight discourses of questions together with his comments and verses. Throughout these expressions the non-logical character of Zen Buddhism is noteworthy.

    One way of thinking which was traditional among Indian Buddhists was "to be logical" in expressing philosophical ideas. Buddhist teachings were always set forth in terms of general propositions full of abstract ideas. The Chinese, on the other hand, have traditionally preferred concrete and figurative expressions.

    The non-logical character of Chinese thought is particularly conspicuous in Zen Buddhism, which is the most sinicized of Chinese Buddhist sects. Early Zen was not non-logical. The early system of explanation known as "the two enlightenments and four practices" [7] was quite logical and even later the dialogue of Hui-hai is characterized by logical consistency. [8] However, a non-logical tendency soon manifested itself and eventually prevailed. The monk Huang-po said, [9] "... they say that the true universal body of the Buddha is like the sky....but they do not understand that the universal body is sky, and sky is the universal body. The two are not different." Now the Buddha nature or the originally pure mind were often compared to the sky in India. But the Indians regarded the sky as an element or principle in the natural world, and distinguished it from the Buddha nature, whereas the Chinese lost sight of this distinction. When there is a tendency to lose sight of the function and significance of a simile, theoretical philosophy is unlikely to develop. Moreover, theoretical assertions were neither widely understood nor was their meaning developed. For example, Lin-chi's (? -867 A.D.) four alternatives are philosophically important and allow many different explanations. These four are as follows:

(1)    To take away man (or subject) and not to take away objects.
(2)    To take away objects and not to take away man (or subject).
(3)    To take away both men and objects (subjects and objects).
(4)    Not to take away either men (subjects) or objects.

This four-alternative scheme may be interpreted by way of dialectic, and may end up with the affirmation or admittance of this worldly life as it is which consists in subject-object relationships. But Master Lin-chi, their author, did not discuss them in an abstract speculative way. He [p.110] explained them in figurative language:

(1) To take away man and not to take away objects — warm days appear and brocade is laid out on the earth; baby's hairs falling are like threads.
(2) To take away objects and not to take away man — the king's orders are promulgated and circulate over the empire; generals take their ease outside the stronghold.
(3) To take away both men and objects — to live in a retreat cut off from all communication.
(4) Not to take away either men or objects — a king ascends to a jeweled palace and old peasants sing gaily. [10]

The point in this quotation is that figurative explanations alone are given. Poetical and emotional phrases take the place of logical exposition.

    It is important to emphasize that the so-called dialogues of Zen were utterly different from Greek dialogues. When Chao-chou (c. 850 A.D.) was asked "Does the Buddha nature exist in a dog? " he answered in the affirmative on one occasion and in the negative on another. Mo-tzu said on one occasion "Mind is the Buddha" and on another occasion "Neither mind nor Buddha". [11] The reasons for these contradictory answers are to be found in the concrete situations which elicited them. We may compare this to the different advice given by doctors to patients of different physical types. There is an obvious contradiction in the theoretical sense but no contradiction in the practical sense. To one person the Zen master gives the answer A, but to another person of different mental disposition he gives the answer non-A. This act might be compared to the act of a doctor who allocates different medicines to patients of different diseases. This is an example of the aspect of expediency in Buddhist thought, and in this respect we can say Zen has inherited the traditional attitude of Buddhism, although the Zen way of approach is fairly different than the Indian one.

    In the type of thought which is called expedient, there is a definite connection between the end desired and the means employed. Later Zen Buddhism gradually lost sight of that connection. For example, there is a frequently repeated question in Zen Buddhism: "For what purpose did Bodhidharma come to China? " (Bodhidharma is the monk who introduced Zen into China.) This question really means something like 'What is the [p.111] essence of Zen Buddhism? " To this question Zen masters gave a variety of answers. [12]

"I am tired, having been sitting for a long time."
"Today and tomorrow."
"A piece of tile and a bit of stone."
"The wind blows and the sun heats."
"Frost comes upon clouds."
"An oak tree in the garden."
"In the daytime I see a mountain."
"White clouds embrace rocky stones."
"Ch'ang-an (a large city) is in the East, Lo-yang (another large city) is in the West."
"With a fan of blue silk, I feel cool enough in the wind."
"A thousand sticks of bamboo outside the gate and a piece of incense before the image of Buddha."
"There being no water during a long drought, rice plants withered in the fields."

    There are said to be more than a hundred answers to this question. Since no semantic connection between the questions and the answers was required, the answers can be of infinite variety. The question and the answer are given in a moment. There is no sustained development such as characterizes Greek dialogues. The answers seem strange indeed, but it is said that many of those who have heard the answers attained enlightenment. Zen masters never answered questions in the form of propositions. They believed the philosophical problems could best be solved by evoking intuition. They gave answers in a figurative and intuitive way. This form of question and answer was more prevalent in later Zen Buddhism from the Sung period (960-1279) on.

    In this connection the strange way of question and answer is still alive among Japanese politicians and topmost businessmen in a strange way. Political leaders of the opposition make inquiries very seriously and rigidly. Then the answers by cabinet ministers happen to be very elusive. They say something else. Then we call them "Zen dialogues".

[p.112]    A certain political leader of Japan was on campaign for his protege who stood as a candidate. While he was away his house was burnt. People expressed sympathy to him. He cited just one phrase: "Originally there was nothing!"'

    A certain politician was arrested due to embezzlement. When he was asked by press people what he felt, he cited just one Zen phrase: "Clouds are in the sky; water is in the jar."

    The way of practice in which koans are used is that of the Rinzai sect. Another branch of Zen, the Soto sect which belongs to Mokusho Zen, does not make use of koan. Mokusho Zen is a method of zazen, a state of thinking nothing, in which the novices sit cross-legged and meditate towards the absolute altruism of being spiritually enlightened.

    On the other hand, the Rinzai sect which belongs to kanna-zen practices asceticism and conforms to the koan. Kanna-zen is one of the meditating disciplines that conform to the koan in forms that have been thought out, studied and sought for. The koan, the catechism, of which 1700 questions and answers have been preserved, is said to have existed from time immemorial. When one takes part in a meditating discipline the master usually catechises him by using the first koan of Mumonkan. This is the discourse between the priest Joshu and a dog. [13] Its subject concerns mu (nothing, nil, naught, voidness or zero). Then the disciple trains himself in zazen by concentrating in it and presents to the preceptor what he realizes or whatever comes to his senses. Sometimes he is accepted and the master states: "That is correct", and sometimes he is rejected and told: "No, not yet." Once he is rejected, he has to grapple with koan that concern nothingness (mu) for several years more. When he is accepted, he grapples with another koan. The so-called Sokei sect of Korea insists that one should grapple with the mu.

    Since koan transcend formal logic in some respects, the answers cannot be measured by formal logic. In Japan, collections of 'solutions' for the various koan were compiled in later years and the novices learned them by heart. However, when such learning is detected, the students are rejected. After all, each novice's understanding depends upon its recognition by his master and the master has no definite standards that conform with formal [p.113] logic.

    Such being the case, how can such an illogical method make sense in the present day? That is, if a master has no standards that conform to formal logic, his recognition would result in random improvisations.

    One feature of Zen Buddhism is the penchant for the concrete expression of concepts. This penchant or tendency has been conspicuous among the Chinese, and Zen Buddhism has inherited it. The universe or cosmos is expressed as shan, ho, ta-ti, "mountains, rivers, and the great earth." The basic ego of a human being is expressed as ts'ao-yuan i-ti-shui, "a drop of water in the source"; [14] one's true nature as pen-lai mien-mu, "original face and eye" or as pen-ti feng-kuang, "the wind and light of one's native place." Thus for the human body the Zen term is ch'ou-p'i-tai, "stinking bag of skin." The Zen term for essence is yen-mu, "eye" or yen-ching, "the pupil of the eye." For a monastic community the Indian word is sa^ngha or ga.na which means "group, congregation." Zen, on the other hand, uses the word ts'ung-lin, "woods" [15] , by which it means to suggest that the harmonious life of a monastic community is analogous to a thicket where trees and grasses grow together. The Zen term for an itinerant monk is yun-shui, "clouds and water" which, of course, graphically symbolizes the monks' lack of a fixed abode. This is in striking contrast to the less pictorial Indian term for mendicant: parivraajaka, "traveler."

II.    Meditation in Which We Are Free from All Thought

Zen ascetic practices in general developed in a different way from the above-mentioned formalities. Their ultimate object is being free from all thought; that is, they maintain that a novice should think, imagine and keep nothing in his mind. This was a characteristic particular to the discipline of the Soto, an important Zen sect.

    In the early stages of the Zen disciplines, the meditating method came largely under the influence of the Tendai sect. In such meditations novices thought of "something" in the course of the discipline. However, as the Tendai sect remained aloof from important Zen sects, its influence was not very great, and meditation during which the novices think of nothing in the [p.114] course of the discipline became a Zen characteristic. The novice thinks of nothing, even about "thinking of nothing", during Zen ascetic practices.

    As we have already mentioned, in later years the Soto sect aimed at the mental state of being free from all thought without thinking. The practical method of the Soto sect is considerably different from Zen in the Rinzai sect (Rinzai-zen). Zen in the Soto sect went a step further than the other Zen sects: it renounced even the koan. Its form of Zen is called Mokusho-zen ("silent, illuminating meditation"). According to its teaching the novice should not make efforts to concentrate his mental powers on anything. If a novice struggles by force to be free from all thought, he faces the danger of being absorbed in this negative action.

    Master Dogen also made meditation the essential practice of Buddhism. "Why do you encourage others to practice meditation" The answer: "This is the right gate to the teaching of Buddha." [16] "Meditation is the gate to Comfort and Happiness." [17] However, the Soto Zen went still farther than the Rinzai Zen. Its practitioners were not to endeavor to concentrate on anything. Dogen preached that if wild fancies come upon a novice in the course of zazen, he should not control them, but should let them be. He said, "In meditation, if mind is distracted, do not try to suppress it. Let it be as it is!" [18] "You should not try to become a Buddha." [19] He disliked the term "Zen sect." [20] He claimed to convey the right path of the Buddhist religion. If one limits the Way with the word "Zen sect", one loses the way. Soto Zen emphasizes silent sitting, keeping their mouths closed, and meditating on the illumination or insight received while waiting in silence.

    Concerning the object of contemplation we can conclude that in Buddhist meditation the ways of contemplating the object by practitioners are more or less similar, whereas the Zen way of approach has been diametrically opposed to them, although there are several branches in Zen Buddhism itself. [p.115]


1 .    Kung-an in Chinese.

2 .     Hekiganroku 12 Mumonkan 18 (Taisho Tripitaka, Vol. 48) p. 295 ff.

3 .     Hsuan-chiao, Cheng-Tao Ke 34. In Suzuki, Manual of Zen, p. 115.

4.    Reiho Masunaga in The Path of the Buddha, ed. by K. Morgan, pp. 341--342.

5 .    Charles Morris, "Comments On Mysticism and its Language," A Review of General Semantics, Autumn 1951, Vol. IX, No. 1.

6 .    Mumonkan 3.

7 .    Hakuju Ui, Zenshuu-shi Kenkyuu (A Study on the History of Zen Sects), pp. 3ff.

8 .     Tun-wu-yao-men (Essentials of Sudden Enlightenment), ed. by Hakuju Ui, (Iwanami Bunko edition), pp. 44--47.

9 .     Ch'uan-hsin-fa-yao` (Essence of the Transmission of the Dharma), ed. by Hakuju Ui (Iwanami Bunko edition), p. 20.

10 .     Sayings of the Zen Master Lin-chi (Rinzai) (Taisho Tripitaka, XLVII), p. 497a; Giving Men and Gods the Eyes for Seeing the Truth (Ibid., XLVIT), pp. 300 ff.

11 .     Records of the Transmission of the Lamp of Enlightenment, VI(Taisho Tripitaka, LI), p. 246a.

12 .     Hakugen Ichikawa, Zen no Kihonteki Seikaka (The Fundamental Character of Zen), pp. 99 ff.

13.    Mumonkan, I.

14 .    E.g. Jen-t'ien-yen-mu (Giving Men and Gods the Eyes for Seeing the Truth), IV. (Taisho Tripitaka, XLVIII), p. 323c.

15 .    A passage in the Ta-chih-tu-lun (Mahaapraj~naapaaramita`saastra),Vol.III is often mentioned as the sources. But such an expression was not usual in India.

16 .     Shobogenzo, Bendowa.

17 .    Ibid., loc. cit.

18 .    Ibid. loc. cit.

19 .    Cf. Keizan, Zazen Yojin-ki.

20 .     Shobogenzo Bendowa.