Thursday, 21 January 2016


25. Meditating on koans is one of the major disciplines used in Zen. Mumon Ekai, a master active in 13th century China, spoke of using koans as brickbats to batter the gate that seems to bar entry to the way of Zen. This gate might be thought of as an impulse to say the unsayable, to speak what cannot, must not, be spoken. Mumon would liken the surrender to this impulse to 'striking at the moon with a stick', or 'scratching a shoe, whereas it is the foot that itches'. That is to say, in Zen there is a clear recognition of the incommensurability between the metaphysical impulse and what it seeks to express in the form of the propositions of philosophy or, as Mumon would put it, 'other people's words'. And so Mumon warns his disciples not to confuse their 'own treasures' - their own realisation of the metaphysical - with the 'things coming in through the gate', namely, the speculations of others. That is, he attempted, with the help of the cases of the ancient masters, that is, with koans, to awaken his monks to the fact that nothing, nothing at all, stood in the way of their full possession of the present moment of their daily lives. This nothing-gate-barrier was no more than a picture, a figment of the imagination, a product of conventional habits of thought. He might have pointed out to them that they were held captive by nothing but a picture. As Wittgenstein would say: 'A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably'.
     So might it not be the case that those who have difficulty in seeing that the practice of Zen is a philosophical practice are likewise held captive by a picture? And is this not a somewhat narrow and misleading picture of the nature and practice of philosophy, especially when viewed against the background of the whole history of Western philosophy? Here it would be well to recall the koan that asks: 'Why is it that a man of great strength cannot lift his legs?'

Wednesday, 20 January 2016


24. The philosophical practice of Zen is about waking up to the way things are. As such, it is not concerned with teaching anything new. Rather, it is about showing what is already visible, hearing what is already audible, touching what is already tangible, tasting what is already tasty, and smelling what is already there to be smelt. Zen is about shaking the practitioner out of his or her slumber, whether that slumber be dogmatic, conceptual, linguistic or customary, so that things can be encountered just as they present themselves. If this sounds like a version of phenomenology, then perhaps it is, if phenomenology's primary concern is with what is immediately given in experience. Here, too, Wittgenstein comes to mind, given that throughout his philosophical career his attention was directed to his immediate experience. As he himself remarked, 'We want to understand something that is already in plain view'.
     Practices that are designed to awaken rather than to 'teach', are not about providing information or imparting doctrines. The Zen master puts the emphasis on training the disciple in a practical skill that is to be applied in everyday living, and not on the acquisition of a body of theoretical knowledge. In mastering the practical skills of Zen, the disciple awakens to the knowledge and understanding that underpin and accompany the practice of those skills.

Monday, 18 January 2016


23. The practice of Zen as a philosophical practice is the exercise of a practical philosophy in the everyday life of the practitioner. This view of Zen as a practical philosophy should not be confused with other views of Zen philosophy that see it as the spelling out of a metaphysics that is said to be implicit in Zen practices and discourse, still less with the view that sees it as a body of Buddhist philosophical doctrines. For Zen, as understood here, represents a deliberate and rigorous turning away from the metaphysical speculations of the Mahayana. Attempts to explicate and articulate what is thought to be Zen's hidden philosophical potential only serve to betray Zen by returning it to metaphysics. Zen, if looked at through the lens of Wittgenstein's philosophy, does not have to deck itself out in the disputed doctrines of metaphysics in order to prove its philosophical credentials. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Zen is anti-metaphysical. Rather it is a case of refusing to engage in metaphysical speculations or to argue the merits of a metaphysical position. Instead, the Zen master lets the metaphysical manifest itself in whatever concrete individual act or thing is to hand. Careful attention to the koan and how it works will show that this is so. 'A monk asked Ummon, "What is Buddha?" Ummon replied, "A dried shit-stick!"'

Sunday, 17 January 2016


22. Wittgenstein once suggested the possibility of writing 'a serious philosophical work consisting solely of jokes'. If this was a serious suggestion then why not one consisting solely of koans? Might not such koan collections as the Mumonkan and the Hekiganroku be approached as serious philosophical works? An immediate objection would be that books of koans seldom, if ever, go in for argument or explanation. But neither would a philosophical book that consisted solely of jokes. Yet the appropriate response to both joke and koan serves as a demonstration of insight. The spontaneity of the appropriate response (laughter) to a joke is sufficient evidence that the required insight has occurred. A demand for explanation or argument demonstrates the opposite. In the language-game of the koan, as in the language-game of the joke, any demand for either explanation or argument shows not only that the point has been missed but that the rules of the game have not been learnt. Wittgenstein's suggestion that a serious philosophical work might consist solely of jokes indicates a view of philosophy that would admit the demonstration of insight by means other than argument or explanation. Might koan Zen be such a philosophy?

Friday, 15 January 2016


21. As Wittgenstein's philosopher is to assemble reminders for a particular purpose, so must the Zen master. The reminders do not function in terms of a fully articulated theoretical system. Rather, they come into play in response to particular needs and particular problems in particular situations - such as 'whenever someone ... wanted to say something metaphysical'.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016


20, In reminding the disciple 'to say nothing except what can be said', the Zen master must be able to demonstrate to any disciple 'who wanted to say something metaphysical', following Wittgenstein here, 'that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions'. In Zen such a demonstration might simply take the form of a curt dismissal - 'If you mention Buddha Nature here I will throw you out!' But still the master will demand that the disciple 'say something'. However, the 'saying' that is required is not an ordinary saying but a 'showing'.
      Someone might object here that it is difficult to accept that there is an analogy between Wittgenstein's method and that of the Zen master. For whereas Wittgenstein is at pains to avoid saying what cannot be said - or to point out the nonsensicality of all attempts to say the unsayable - Zen, with its nonsensical koans, insists on saying what cannot be said - that is, insists on speaking nonsense - in order to effect a switch in the disciple to a rejection of what cannot be said. In response, it needs to be stressed that Zen does not reject what cannot be said. What Zen rejects is each and every attempt to say what cannot be said. Moreover, the nonsensical character of koan language is only apparent. Once the grammar of this language-game has been mastered, the nonsensical appearance of its language is seen through.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016


19. Perhaps it could be said that the work of the Zen master, like that of Wittgenstein's philosopher, 'consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose'. Just as Wittgenstein does not wish 'to spare other people the trouble of thinking', so the Zen master has no intention of sparing the disciple the trouble of personal inquiry. Yet Zen inquiry is pursued, not through thinking, but through a carefully practised discipline of non-thinking. But is 'thinking' all of a kind? Are there not different types of thinking? Might the 'non-thinking' of Zen be but a different kind of thinking? According to Descartes, for example, 'all the operations of will, intellect, imagination, and of the senses are thoughts'. Leaving aside for the moment the question of the relation between thinking and non-thinking and focusing on the claim that the Zen master's work could be represented as 'assembling reminders for a particular purpose', it is important to say that the Zen master's reminders would not be of doctrine but of a strategic practice. This is the practice that corresponds with Wittgenstein's 'correct method in philosophy', namely, 'to say nothing except what can be said'.

Sunday, 3 January 2016


18. sitting still in zazen
      I move
      not outward and about
      but down
      not slowly sinking
      but suddenly leaping
      into the darkness
      enlightening my day


17. Proverbial wisdom would seem to involve us in a series of contradictions. One proverb advises us to look before we leap while another warns that he who hesitates is lost. Similarly with Zen: on the one hand we are admonished to hold firm, on the other to let go. Zennies seem to delight in holding firm while letting go, taking care while leaping into the dark.