Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu & Zen Too
Chen, Ellen M. (1989). The Tao Te Ching A New Translation With Commentary. St. Paul: Paragon House.
Chuang Tzu; Palmer, Martin, trans.; et al. (2006). The Book of Chuang Tzu. London and New York: Penguin Books.
Dogen, Eihei; Tanahashi, Kazuaki, ed.; Aitken, Robert, et. al., trans. (1985). Moon in a Dewdrop Writings Of Zen Master Dogen. New York: North Point Press Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Padmasambhava; Dorje, Gyurme, trans.; Coleman, Graham and Jinpa, Thupten, eds. (2007). The Tibetan Book Of The Dead First Complete Translation The Great Liberation By Hearing In the Intermediate States Introductory Commentary by His Holiness The Dalai Lama. New York: Penguin Books USA.
Shibayama, Zenkei; Kudo, Sumiko, trans. (2000). The Gateless Barrier Zen Comments on the Mumonkan. Boston: Shambhala.
The practice of Tao is mankind’s oldest religious practice, although Taoism is neither religion nor philosophy. The Tao is the Reality which exists before words.
There’s confusion about the meaning of the Tao symbol:
The Black is the Source, which is Non-Being. The White is the Phenomenal Universe, which is Emptiness. The White dot in the Black and the Black dot in the White signify that the Black and the White are not different. All of reality is subsumed in the symbol as the Eternal Wheel.
It was said of the Ancients that they were Complete. We do not know exactly who wrote The Tao Te Ching, but it is probably the work of several hands. It was common in the ancient world to attribute important works to someone of eminence, so we may presume Lao Tzu, the reputed author, was a real person. How much he contributed to the work that bears his name is unknown.
Taosim is certainly older than Buddhism, and the Chinese, being practical, adapted Buddhism to their own mind. In the sayings of the Chinese Zen masters, whether as koan (teaching points) or mondo (more elaborate exchanges), the monk’s anguished questions “What is Buddha?” or “What is Tao?” are the same: “What is Reality? Who am I?” Sometimes the monk is defeated in the koan but emerges victorious in the commentary, so keep an eye on the monk.
Although the mind innately perceives both the Source and the Phenomenal Universe, because the Source is mistaken for ignorance we’re prone to dualistic thinking, abstract concepts, and speculation. We all correctly perceive the Source as Non-Being, but erroneously conclude we are lacking something, when in fact we lack nothing and are in full possession of the Truth. We have an intellect, and intellect demands an object, but Non-Being is not an object and cannot be conceptualized. Thus we posit an artificial, dualistic “self” (or ego) which is purely a creation of the intellect, an invention to fill a void. There is nothing wrong with that per se—we all live our story—but its foundation is misconstrued.
This feeling of lacking something is what sends us all on a perilous metaphysical journey in search of answers. And though our metaphysical problem is intellectual, not existential, even clever Zen students can wear out many sandals before realizing they are pursuing an abstraction. What fascinates me about this universal human condition is that the creation of an artificial, dualistic “self” is actually based upon an accurate, yet misunderstood, perception of ultimate reality which is Non-Being.
Taoism went into decline, becoming a vapid Yin-Yang cult centered around the quest for longevity. The belief that the Tao symbol referred to the potential of complementary or harmonious opposites became widespread: that everything within itself contains the seed of its opposite—kind of cosmic Ping-Pong, the interplay between the Black (male) and White (female) which gives rise to all things. As there are no opposites this is false, but it was more easily grasped than the true meaning of the symbol.
Due to its brevity there have been many translations of The Tao Te Ching, but the translator may be led astray if biased by a theory of its meaning. In writing about Taoism and Zen, one must use words as a reference point rather than a destination, and that requires skill. Ellen M. Chen’s translation of The Tao Te Ching is beautiful in its simplicity and directness, with a commentary that relates the text to other seminal works, including Christian writings.
The Book of Chuang Tzu, a genuine Taoist work dating to the 4th century BC, is interesting because it is so antagonistic to Confucian traditionalists. Evidently Taoists found Confucius too objective. The Book of Chuang Tzu contains this passage:
Toeless said: “Confucius has definitely not become a perfect man yet, has he?”
Lao Tzu said: “‘Why not help him to see that birth and death are one thing, and that right and wrong are one thing, and so free him from the chains and irons?”
From this it is obvious that later Taoist practitioners were utterly confused. To be free from chains and irons is to have no obstruction. To have no obstruction is to be Complete. To be Complete is to recognize the Source and Universe as non-dual.
Some people believe life is a dream. It’s not a dream. Life is an illusion. An illusion that like a dream has no beginning and no end. A dream is an illusion of a dream within an illusion.
What we perceive as reality is actually the reflection of Non-Being, like reflections in a mirror. Those reflections are the Phenomenal Universe, including our body and all that we sense: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and mental phenomena. The reflection is a projection, and the medium is mind. Beyond this there is nothing. This is what the Ancients sought to preserve in the Tao symbol.
One of the problems challenging Westerners in understanding Taoist and Zen texts are contradictory statements. The great Japanese Zen master Dogen wrote: “You should not remain bewildered when you hear the words, ‘Mountains flow’; but together with buddha ancestors you should study these words. When you take one view you see mountains flowing, and when you take another view, mountains are not flowing. One time mountains are flowing, another time they are not flowing.”
I would tell Dogen: If one lives without self-consciousness, there is neither “Flowing” nor “Not Flowing.” Before it is called a mountain it is a mountain; we call it a mountain to remember it.
Zen is very easy to understand and very difficult to understand. An abstraction is a frozen “thing,” a concept or definition. We constantly revise concepts and definitions of things, and think that brings us closer to reality when we have actually erected a more sophisticated barrier.
When we take a point of view, when we reference ourselves, there is “Flowing.” That is the Relative. When we take no point of view, there is “Not Flowing.” That is the Absolute. But in Zen, we’re not concerned about “Flowing” or “Not Flowing.” We can experience either without entrapping ourselves. Then “Flowing” is “Not Flowing,” “Not Flowing” is “Flowing.” To deal with “Flowing” and “Not Flowing” is to be the Master of Words. To be confused about which is right and which is wrong is to be Bound by Words. People read Dogen and do not understand that his Way is strewn with words. For Dogen, these words are the expression of his Life, but for others they may be a trap.
All things change as they flow. The changes can be dramatic or nearly imperceptible. A “thing” cannot flow—it’s artificial. Life isn’t a “thing,” it’s a dynamic. In order for a “thing” to flow, it must become something other than itself, in which case the “thing” that it was is meaningless, because it was never really that “thing.” I know this sounds nonsensical, but it’s the truth. We can feel ourselves flow, and as we flow, so does all of existence. Synchronicity. For us to perceive anything it must flow with us. If it didn’t, we could not perceive it. Therefore, ourselves and what we perceive are not a duality.
So for anything to flow, it must be Nothing. I call that Non-Being: it’s never really anything and cannot be said to exist in the conventional sense. The Universe is not something created, it’s the ceaseless activity of Non-Being.
But even after being told that abstraction by its very nature isn’t reality, we keep trying to understand reality in abstract terms. The only obstacle to the Direct Recognition of Reality is our addiction to abstraction. Zen isn’t something you figure out, it’s your Life. More words don’t make more understanding. Philosophically minded people might find this explanation useful.
If you can grasp the principle of one second following another, you can walk from one end of the Universe to the other in a single step.
This column discusses my experience with Zen. TV and Madison Avenue to the contrary, not everyone loves Zen. Ultra-conservative Christian groups consider Zen Buddhism to be a cult. Zen Buddhism is not a cult. It traces its history to the Indian Buddhist Patriarch Bodhidharma, who appeared in China about 1500 years ago. Over the course of its 2500 year history, Buddhism has experienced sporadic repression, most recently in Tibet and Vietnam. There are also those who condemn Zen as Nihilism or Infantile Narcissism, but the ills which so often plague mankind seem rather the province of Objectivism.
The confluence of Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese Taoism marks the development of the spiritual practice known as Zen Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism were not in themselves deficient, but the resulting practice became very popular due to its immediacy, directness, and ability to incorporate cultural metaphors.
Although it’s difficult to get a precise figure of the number of Buddhists in the United States, in 2012 the newspaper U-T San Diego estimated 1.2 million. Of these, Pure Land, Tibetan, and traditional Theravadan Buddhists certainly outnumber Zen Buddhists, whose numbers are below 100,000, and perhaps closer to 50,000. It’s estimated 40% of the nation’s Buddhists live in Southern California.
In this piece I used the term “Non-Being” for Ultimate Reality rather than Bankei’s “Unborn,” DT Suzuki’s “Unconscious,” or Suzuki-Roshi’s “Big Being.” “Unborn” and “Unconscious” are both words that in the West have other definitions, which can be confusing. “Big-Being,” and terms like it such as “True-Self,” “Big-Self,” “Mind” (with a capitol “M”) etc. also have problems. Those terms are not intended to encourage conceptualization, but they do. If there is a “Being,” then the intellect wants to know what “That” is. The Western consciousness is absorbed in ontology, and words, being abstraction, can only convey the spirit of Zen. “Non-Being” utterly wipes out any conceptualization while preserving the central mystery which is dynamic. To put it into Zen terms, since there is not even a hair’s separation of one thing from another, “Non-Being” is a good phrase for one pole of reality. Of course, “Non-Being” and the “Phenomenal Universe” are not really a duality.
If you want to study Zen, I recommend studying under a teacher from an authorized lineage so you know who are their spiritual ancestors. A Zen teacher must have the experience to size up a student and assign an appropriate practice. If a student experiences “enlightenment,” “awakening,” “kensho,” or “satori,” that doesn’t mean the student can instruct others or has the temperament to instruct others. An individual’s practice isn’t a straight line and they need a teacher who understands how to deal with that. Avoid charlatans—there are always those who prey on the naive and bewildered for their own material gain.
Revised Apr. 9, 2016