go back to Zen Essays: Philosophical Zen


Is Zen Buddhism a philosophy?
Hakuin's Daruma

Henry Rosemont, Jr.
Philosophy East & West, V. 20 (1970) pp. 63-72
© 1970 by University of Hawaii Press, Hawaii, USA
original source
further readings:Sungtaeik Cho: The Rationalist Tendency in Modern Buddhist Scholarship: A Revaluation; Linda Holt: From India to China: Transformations in Buddhist Philosophy; T. P. Kasulis: The Zen Philsopher: a review article on Dogen scholarship in English

p. 63 Following the lead of Daisetz T. Suzuki, the authors of almost all English-language commentaries on Zen Buddhism are in general agreement that Zen is not a philosophy. The primary purpose of this paper is to show how and why this view is fundamentally mistaken and that the continued espousal of it is counterproductive for furthering an understanding of any facet of Zen, philosophical or otherwise.

However divergent their opinions on what Zen Buddhism is, the major commentators on the subject concur in asserting that it is not a philosophy. For example:

From Alan Watts:

Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western thought. It is not religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or a type of science. [1]
From Robert Linssen:
Buddhism in general and Zen in particular are essentially "non-mental."
Man only attains "correct vision" from the moment when no idea, no "fabrication" of the mind any longer
comes between him and the fact. But were we to take what has just been said as a "philosophical" position, we would be beside the question. [2]
From Carl Jung (speaking for, and in agreement with, Rudolph Otto):
Zen is anything but a philosophy in the Western sense of the word.[3]
And from the most famous of the commentators, D. T. Suzuki:

Strictly speaking, there cannot be a philosophy of suchness, because suchness defies a clear-cut definition as an idea. When it is presented as an idea it is lost; it turns into a shadow, and any philosophy built on it will be a castle in the sand. [4]
Zen is not explainable by mere intellectual analysis. As long as the intellect is concerned with words and ideas, it can never reach Zen. [5]
It goes without saying that Zen is neither psychology nor philosophy. [6]
p. 64 At the most basic level, the term "Zen Buddhism" designates the unique admixture of Taoist and Buddhist beliefs, attitudes, and responses of Zen Buddhists that relates them to their environmental surroundings, and which consequently serves to distinguish Zen Buddhists from their fellow men. In this paper we will be concerned only with the beliefs and attitudes of Zen Buddhists. The activities they engage in — especially meditation — are an integral part of the Zen way of life, and should be studied, and practiced, in their own right. The thrust of the present investigation, however, is to focus attention on the beliefs and attitudes which explain why the Zen Buddhists engage in those activities. To be sure, a few Zen beliefs are to the effect that seeking explanations of any kind is fruitless, hence it might be objected that the present effort and all others similar to it demonstrate a lack of knowledge of Zen. Such objections will be met in the pages to follow; for now it must he pointed out that even if they were not met, such objections should not cause us to lose sight of the fact that all these beliefs are themselves an integral part of the Zen way of life, and therefore cannot be ignored without running the risk of seriously distorting and/or obscuring the subject.

Against this background the assertion that Zen is not a philosophy may be restated as follows: The distinguishing beliefs and attitudes of Zen Buddhists are not philosophical beliefs and attitudes. Rephrased in this way, the Zen commentators may be seen to be claiming that the beliefs and attitudes of Zen Buddhists fall outside the scope of philosophical inquiry, and warning us that it would obscure rather than illumine those beliefs to approach them from a philosophical perspective. Our first task, then, is to examine the considerations which might have led the commentators to make this claim and issue such a warning.

One reason given for asserting that Zen is not a philosophy is that it is a way of liberation or salvation:
[Zen] is an example of what is known in India and China as a "way of liberation," and is similar in this respect to Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga. As will soon be obvious, a way of liberation can have no positive definition. [7]

The role of transcendental [Zen] wisdom consists not in conditioning the human mind but in liberating it. All doctrines using symbols and clichés enslave it... [8]

Admittedly (although a case might be made for it), Western philosophical systems are not usually considered to be liberation — or salvation-oriented. But we may grant this point without being thereby committed to maintaining that Zen is only a way of salvation. It is certainly possible, indeed desirable, to study critically the ways in which other peoples have looked at the world; p. 65 it is not necessary for a person to want to become a Muslim before he can profit from reading the Koran. Nor of course are the principles of Islam exempt from philosophical scrutiny merely because it too offers a way of liberation or salvation. The same point applies with even greater force to the Judaic-Christian religions, which have had such an enormous influence on Western philosophy. In sum, from the mere premise that Zen is a means of liberation or salvation we can derive no conclusions regarding its philosophical attributes, or lack thereof.

Further, that some at least of the beliefs of Zen Buddhists are philosophical beliefs is strongly evidenced by other statements of the Zen commentators themselves, such as the following from Suzuki:

... while Nature is the limit of objectivity beyond which our ontology cannot go, the ontological limit is the psychological limit, and vice versa. [9]
It is not the object of Zen to look illogical for its own sake, but to make people know that logical consistency is not final... [10]
Metaphysically stated, we can say that a persistent appeal to the spirit of inquiry is based on a firm faith in the working of Buddha-nature in every individual being. [11]
The epistemology of Zen is, therefore, not to resort to the mediumship of concepts. [12]

Terms like "ontology," "logical consistency," "metaphysically," and "epistemology" are clearly philosophical terms in the quoted passages Suzuki is making assertions about the nature of reality, human nature, and the scope and objects of human knowledge. Nor can these assertions be considered isolated curiosities; on the contrary, the commentaries of Suzuki and many of his colleagues contain a large number of assertions of just this kind. Whether or not these and similar assertions are true is not now relevant; they are all philosophical assertions, and if Suzuki is correct in making them in the name of Zen Buddhism, it follows that Zen Buddhism does contain a large number of philosophical beliefs, and hence is to that extent correctly called a philosophy. Moreover, it is difficult to quarrel with this conclusion, for on other occasions Suzuki reaches it himself:

As the philosophy of Zen is to transcend the dualistic conception of flesh and spirit... [13]
... the discipline of Zen has a great moral value outside its philosophy. [14]
p. 66 The philosophy of Zen avoids the error of one-sidedness involved in realism as well as in idealism. [15]
As we can see here and elsewhere, the uniqueness of Zen philosophy consists in offering... [16]

This conclusion is so obvious that it is hard to believe either (a) that Suzuki and his fellow commentators were able to overlook it or ignore it when asserting that Zen is not a philosophy: or (b) that the commentators were so concerned to emphasize the fact that Zen is also a way of liberation that they were willing to contradict themselves to make the point. Why else, then, might they have considered it important to insist that Zen Buddhism is not a philosophy?

To develop this question further we must turn our attention to the central figures in the rise of Zen Buddhism, the masters. These thoroughgoing individualists seem to leap rather than march through the pages of Chinese and Japanese history, and it has been largely due to their teachings and the personal examples of their lives that Zen has not degenerated into an esoteric, world-negating religious sect. Yet it must be admitted that the literature of Zen contains few, if any, statements from several important masters which can be considered philosophical statements. That is to say, when examining these texts, we find that a number of masters are not quoted as making statements like: "I believe that sense-data are a sign of the existence of physical objects;" or, "The mind is nothing but a bundle of perceptions." Rather, the only record we have of their assertions would, in English, more nearly resemble the following: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" or, "Have a cup of tea;" or "Kwatz!"

Developing this theme, Suzuki, for instance, occasionally argues that the Zen masters had no philosophical beliefs and made no philosophical assumptions, and he tries to establish the point by appealing to a general lack of philosophical proselytization and disputation in the literature. [17] Hence we may have another reason for the commentators going to great lengths to insist that the distinguishing beliefs and attitudes of Zen Buddhists are not philosophical beliefs and attitudes: if the Zen masters had no philosophical beliefs and assumptions, and if their teachings are the central feature of Zen Buddhism, it would follow that Zen Buddhism should not be called a philosophy.

However, from the premise that any number of Zen masters did not or do not actively discuss their philosophical beliefs, it certainly does not follow that they had none. To see how and why this is so, we must consider what it is to hold a philosophical belief and to "have a philosophy."

p. 67 Nearly everyone in the world holds a number of beliefs which, if articulated, would properly be classified as philosophical. Many people believe that they are capable of exercising free choice, that physical objects exist independently of perception, that there is a Creator of the universe, that they have a soul, and so on. Still other people hold the denials of some or all of these beliefs. But people who hold beliefs which are philosophical do not, on that account alone, hold those beliefs philosophically. If a person claims to know that flying saucers exist, for example, and he is asked how he knows this, he might reply that he has seen them. In the face of continued skepticism he might attempt to produce evidence that his experience had not been illusory. But if he is further asked how he knows that trees exist, in all probability he would not know how to answer his interlocutor, and would undoubtedly think that in comparison to skepticism about the existence of trees, his belief in the existence of flying saucers was a paradigm of rationality. From such replies it would be evident that the person believes that visual sense experiences are a source of knowledge; but it is not at all evident that the person realizes the philosophical ramifications of such epistemological claims. If the person does not so realize the extent of his claims, if he has never articulated, questioned, or defended his belief, then he holds his belief "uncritically," "naively," or "unconsciously"; he does not hold his beliefs philosophically.

Thus we may say of a person that some of his beliefs are philosophical without being committed to the assertion that he holds those beliefs philosophically. In the case of the flying saucer enthusiast, it would be highly misleading to say that he was an empiricist, even though the belief that sense experience is a source of knowledge is a cardinal tenet of empiricism. To say that a person is an empiricist implies that he could muster at least a minimal defense to meet the challenges of a skeptic or an idealist: that he would not be completely befuddled by being asked to justify his claim to know that trees existed. If the person could not pass these or similar tests, if he were in all respects a plain man, we would not say of him that he held a number of philosophical beliefs; rather we would say that several of his beliefs were philosophical, but that he holds those beliefs uncritically, naively, or unconsciously.

Returning now to the Zen masters, there is a sense in which it can be argued that some of them seem to resemble plain men more than philosophers. One master, for example, when asked by a monk what enlightenment was, told the monk to leave and not to scatter the dirt around; [18] which is, to say the least, an unphilosophical reply. Another master described himself by saying:

Drinking tea, eating rice,
I pass the time as it comes; p. 68
Looking down at the stream, looking up at the mountains,
How serene and relaxed I feel indeed! [19]

Suzuki says in one place that "Zen reveals itself in the most uninteresting and uneventful life of the plain man of the street,"[20] and in another place that the Zen masters discussed "such subjects as appealed to the plain man."[21]

It is clear, however, that the Zen masters are not plain men, they were and are rather extraordinary individuals, the records of their occasional mundane actions and statements notwithstanding. It is equally clear that they all held important beliefs which are philosophical, even though some masters advocated those beliefs more straightforwardly than others. Moreover, that some Zen masters chose not to engage in philosophical discourse should not obscure for us the fact that many of them did; the sermons of Hui-neng, for example, are a veritable mother lode of philosophical statements, as are the writings of such men as Huang Po and Dōgen, to name only three. [22]

It is correct to say, then, that all of the masters held important beliefs which are philosophical, and that most of them held those beliefs philosophically, as the literature amply attests. The point must be emphasized, for a number of those beliefs revolve around the functions and limits of language; hence the task of ascertaining, by means of language, exactly what those beliefs are — making them explicit without undue distortion or confusion — is difficult enough as it is for the student of Zen Buddhism, without the added burden of having to argue that the masters held any such beliefs.

If the foregoing considerations are correct, we must conclude that the descriptions of the everyday verbal and other behavior of some masters recorded in Zen literature provide no more justification for the assertion that Zen is not a philosophy than does the fact that Zen is also a way of liberation or salvation. There is, however, one additional reason which might be cited as justification for the assertion, and it is perhaps the most significant reason of all, for it involves the purported content of one of the beliefs of Zen Buddhism.

It is not difficult to see why so many Zen commentators have asserted that Zen is not a philosophy, for the assertion proceeds naturally from what those commentators claim to be one of the most fundamental beliefs of Zen Buddhism, here succinctly stated by Suzuki: "If we really want to get to the bottom of life, we must abandon our cherished syllogisms, we must acquire a new way of observation whereby we can escape the tyranny of logic and the one-sidedness of our everyday phraseology."[23]

The merits of this belief, and whether it is accurately made in the name of Zen, are not under consideration here. The point now is that the tools of the philosopher are primarily logic and language; therefore, on this view, not only is philosophy not conducive to liberation, it is a downright hindrance to it. That is to say, one of the beliefs which the commentators claim to be stating as basic to Zen Buddhism is that philosophical methods and beliefs are more harmful than beneficial to mankind, that they are roadblocks on the path to liberation. [24]

Now it is clear that anyone holding such a belief himself, in the name of Zen Buddhism, would be at pains to insist that Zen was not a philosophy, that the distinguishing beliefs and attitudes of Zen Buddhists should not be considered philosophical. But can we agree with him?

In the first place, even if it is accurate to say that one of the basic beliefs of Zen Buddhism is that philosophical methods and beliefs are not conducive to liberation, we are not entitled to infer on that account alone that all of the other beliefs which comprise Zen are non-philosophical; such a conclusion simply does not follow. More importantly, the belief expressed by Suzuki is itself a philosophical belief. Technically it is a metaphilosophical belief, and it might be characterized more specifically as an anti-philosophical belief. But on the one hand, being a metaphilosophical belief obviously entails being a philosophical belief; and on the other hand, being an antiphilosophical belief does not entail being a nonphilosophical belief, for the two latter terms are logically independent, and they are not synonymous.

It is doubtful, however, that a Zen commentator who was himself a Zen Buddhist or a strong advocate of their beliefs would be influenced by these arguments. For if he also holds the antiphilosophical belief that philosophical methods and beliefs are more harmful than beneficial to mankind, he must continue to insist that the distinguishing beliefs and attitudes of Zen Buddhists are not philosophical; if he does not, he will be driven to the equally uncomfortable alternatives of admitting either that some of the beliefs he advocates are in some way or another harmful to mankind or that some other of his basic beliefs are self-referentially inconsistent.

Thus we have the basic reason for the commentators' insistence that Zen p. 70 is not a philosophy, for it is in this way that they attempt to exempt their own assertions from examination on the basis of the beliefs they advocate in the name of Zen Buddhism. But all such attempts are doomed to failure, as will be seen below. For now it will suffice to note that a belief does not cease being philosophical because someone says it should. In whatever manner we choose to demarcate the class of nonphilosophical beliefs, the belief that philosophy is detrimental to liberation will not — along with many other Zen beliefs — be included therein.

Moreover, it is also important to note that subscription to this antiphilosophical belief does not even warrant asserting that Zen is not a philosophy as a means of issuing a warning. If a Zen commentator feels it imperative to warn his readers that an overly analytic approach to Zen might obscure some or many facets of the subject more than it illuminates them, he can accomplish his task in just so many words; he should not in any event resort to making statements which misdescribe the nature of the very topic he is attempting to explicate.

On the basis of these arguments it must be concluded that Zen is correctly called a philosophy, and that on this issue the commentators are mistaken. We can admit all of the following: (a) the activities of Zen Buddhists are an integral part of the subject; (b) Zen is also a way of liberation; (c) not all Zen masters openly advocated their beliefs; (d) some beliefs of Zen Buddhism are not philosophical beliefs; (e) some other Zen beliefs should be called antiphilosophical. All of this can be admitted without in any way obviating the basic point that Zen Buddhism contains a great many significant philosophical beliefs which are crucial for understanding the subject. Hence to that extent it is important, as well as accurate, to state that Zen Buddhism is a philosophy.

Before concluding, however, it is necessary to show that if the philosophical nature of many Zen beliefs is clearly seen, the student of Zen Buddhism will not only be better prepared for the Zen texts themselves, but for the writings of the commentators as well, for by their insistence that Zen is not a philosophy the commentators can easily obscure the philosophical nature of their own work. To see how this is done, let us return to our earlier example of the flying saucer observer.

Suppose that after the plain man has gone off to tell others of his UFO sightings a skeptic were to say to us: "How mistaken he was! Not only couldn't he be certain that flying saucers existed, he couldn't even be certain that trees existed, for the word 'certainty', if it has any application at all, applies only to the knowledge of mathematics and logic." We might choose to argue with the skeptic; we might, for instance, say that the plain man was entirely justified in making his knowledge claim (about trees, at any rate), p. 71 and that the skeptic was misusing the word "certainty." By so arguing we would be committed to the belief that sense experiences are a source of knowledge, which is the same belief held uncritically or unconsciously by the plain man. But it is clear that we would be holding the belief philosophically, and the statements we made in defense of it would all be philosophical statements. It would be a sheer mistake to believe that just because the plain man made no philosophical statements about his beliefs, the statements we made about his beliefs were not philosophical statements either. It might be correct to say that our plain man had no philosophy, but it would not be correct to say that we had no philosophy. By articulating and defending the beliefs held uncritically by the plain man we offer prima facie evidence that we hold those beliefs philosophically, and hence all of our statements about those beliefs are philosophical statements. Gathering those statements together in book form, we could appropriately entitle the work "The Philosophy of the Plain Man."

In just the same way, even if it were true to say of the Zen masters (which it is not) that they do not hold philosophical beliefs or do not hold them philosophically, or even if it were true to say of Zen Buddhism in general (which again, it is not) that it is not a philosophy, it still would not be proper for the Zen commentators to emphasize this issue to the point of seriously misleading their readers. In their attempts to articulate the beliefs of the masters, to assert that those beliefs are true, and to defend them, the Zen commentators offer prima facie evidence that they themselves, at least, are holding those beliefs philosophically. And because the philosophical statements they make on the basis of those beliefs form the bulk of their writings, readers should be told at the outset that what they will be reading in those commentaries will be, in an important sense, the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. [25] The commentators' statements expressing, elaborating, and defending those beliefs are one and all philosophical statements, hence they are engaged in philosophical enterprises, their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding; and such works thus form a proper subject for philosophical examination and evaluation. To whatever degree the commentators are accurate repre- p. 72 sentatives of Zen Buddhism, to just that degree will anyone reading their writings be engaged in the study of those distinguishing beliefs and attitudes of Zen Buddhists which constitute the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Hopefully such studies will serve to discourage continued tolerance for the perpetuation of those mistakes which only perform a disservice for anyone with an impartial — yet nonetheless serious — interest in the subject.    

1 . Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Mentor Books, 1960), p. 17.
2 . Robert Linssen, Living Zen (New York: Grove Press, 1960), p. 46. (Italics in the original.)
3 . C. G. Jung, Foreword to Introduction to Zen Buddhism, by D. T. Suzuki (New York: Grove Press, 1964). p. 11. (Italics in the original.)
4 . D. T. Suzuki, Studies in Zen (London: Rider & Co., 1955), p. 141.
5 . Ibid., p. 136.
6 . D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, 2d ser. (Boston; Beacon Press, 1952), p. 101. Strangely enough, Suzuki considers this statement a "philosophical explanation."
7 . Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 17.
8 . Linssen, Living Zen, p. 27.
9 . B. Phillips, ed., Essentials of Zen Buddhism (London: Rider & Co., 1963). p. 24.
10 . Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p. 67.
11 . Essays in Zen Buddhism, 2d ser., p. 127.
12 . D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (New York: Pantheon Books, Inc., 1960). p. 360.
13 . D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, 1st ser. (London: Rider & Co, 1958), p. 317.
14 . Ibid., p. 339.
15 . Ibid., p. 362.
16 . Essentials of Zen Buddhism, p. 240.
17 . Introduction to Zen Buddhism, pp. 77 ff.; or Essays in Zen Buddhism, 2d ser., pp. 86-89.
18 . Essays in Zen Buddhism, 2d ser., p. 47.
19 . Essays in Zen Buddhism, 1st ser. p. 264.
20 . Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p. 45.
21 . Essays in Zen Buddhism, 1st ser., p. 356. Note that Suzuki says that the masters were using "ordinary language."
22 . Hui-Neng's Fa-pao-t'an-ching has been translated by Wong Mou-lam under the title The Sutra of Wei Lang (London: Luzac & Co., 1944), and by Wing-tsit Chan as The Platform Scripture (New York: St. John's University Press, 1963). Huang Po's Ch'uan-hsin-fa-yao has been translated by Chu Ch'an (John Blofeld) under the title The Huang Po Doctrine of Universal Mind (London; Rider & Co., 1947), and a partial translation is in Suzuki's Manual of Zen Buddhism (London: Rider & Co., 1950) pp. 112-119. For Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō, see The Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), especially pp. 295-299.
23 . Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p. 61.
24 . Whatever the case might be for Zen, this belief should not be considered indicative of Buddhist beliefs in general. Indeed, Maadhyamika Buddhism, for example, has as a cardinal doctrine the necessity of using dialectic to destroy erroneous views and to establish correct ones.
25 . The opinion that the assertions of the Zen commentators are philosophical statements should not be interpreted as also being arguments in favor of the view that philosophy is a doctrine rather than an activity. It is clear, however, that Suzuki, at least, sees philosophy as a doctrine, and in dealing with the writings of Suzuki and the other commentators the statements of the present writer, as well as those of the commentators, become philosophical in virtue of being asserted in the course of philosophical activity. In a not altogether dissimilar context this point is ably argued by John Myhill in "On the Ontological Significance of the Lowenheim-Skolem Theorem." in Contemporary Readings in Logical Theory, ed. I. Copi and J. Gould (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967), pp. 40-51.