[A post from Jason Durso]
The popular understanding of Zen philosophy is that it is painfully frustrating, contrived and lies outside the realm of rational discourse. Rather than offering some sort of platform for discussion or some set of assertions which can be systematically analyzed and negotiated into a personal system of meaning the proponents of this view will often resort to vague claims such as 'Zen doesn't have a system of beliefs', 'Zen isn't a religion OR a philosophy' or 'You just have to get it to get it.'
The problem with these claims has nothing to do with their validity or truthfulness but rather that they contain little or nothing that can be identified as true or valid within a frame of reference. While there is a sense in which Zen aims to be somewhere beyond language and beyond structures, a historically aware discussion of Zen is essential to an understanding of the philosophy itself. I aim to provide such a discussion here.
In the early 9th century a monk named Kukai helped to usher into mainstream Buddhism an entirely new way of understanding the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha (another name for Siddhartha). Up until that time Buddhism (including the early forms of Chinese Zen, known as Ch’an) had become increasingly steeped in symbolic representations of Shakyamuni’s teachings and had discarded the actual content of those teachings. In reading through some of Kukai’s early writings one gets the impression that Buddhist temples were full of bored Sunday school classes with students monotonously reciting the Eightfold Path and coloring in pictures of Bodhi trees and lotus flowers.
Kukai wanted to bring value back into the symbols and offered a myopic worldview in which specific objects in a constant state of change were preferred to the unified background. In other words, he wanted Buddhists to understand that symbols can change based upon one’s historical or social perspective while the background “reality” of things remains intact. “The same water may be seen as emerald by heavenly beings and as burning fire by hungry ghosts.” Names for Kukai are not reality; distinctions are merely the effects of distinguishing them not an essential difference in-of-themselves.
The problem with Kukai’s work was that it simply took the teachings of the Buddha and put them into a new set of symbols which themselves became stale, repetitive, and devoid of content over time. Esoteric Buddhism fell prey to this problem and several sects of Buddhism split off and became steeped in things like alchemy, idol-worship and other forms of fetishizing symbols. Nonetheless it was an important stepping stone from the early Chinese Chán Buddhism (founded circa 6th century) to what would later become the Sōtō school of Zen study which represents an important intellectual shift in Buddhist thought. The principal figure in this shift was a monk named Dōgen, who remains one of the few Buddhist figures to write an extensive philosophical text about Zen Buddhism that attempted to avoid the purely artistic representations of the texts before it. Dōgen’s great work was the Kana Shobogenzo, a several-hundred page compilation of writings and lectures on some of the most difficult to understand aspects of Buddhism.
Dōgen’s project had much in common with Kukai’s, but Dōgen was also very much aware of the problems that arose out of Kukai’s work--namely that he simply replaced one historical understanding of Shakyamuni’s teachings with another. To solve this issue Dōgen attacked not the teachings of Buddhism but rather teaching itself, demonstrating it to be fundamentally opposed to Buddha-nature. As a banal example, the act of teaching no-self paradoxically implies one self (a teacher who knows) in dialogue with another self (a student who desires to know) both of whom are at a distance from the source of knowledge (one “has” it, one “wants” it). Since intellectual understandings of the Buddha’s teachings are always going to be historical symbols at a distance (outside the self), Dōgen argues that the intellectual understanding is doomed from the start. His solution is the Zen method in which one meditates and experiences the world as it is rather than as it is understood.
This is the root of the common misconception of Zen philosophy. Since it is detached from any sort of systemic “teachings” a shallow understanding insists that this means it is unteachable, unspeakable and unknowable. It seems highly unlikely that Dōgen would waste a few dozen years lecturing, writing and teaching his methodology if that were the case so I would rather like to propose a much different understanding. Rather than the un-involved, detached and Utopian conception of Zen perhaps Dōgen is actually teaching the radical philosophy of total historical and social contingency. There is no self, no suchness, nothing to practice without a body that practices, a place of practice, a world that allows for practice and the historical Buddha, now a collection of symbols and only symbols.