Wednesday, 30 November 2016


67. The claim that one is engaged in a philosophical inquiry into the Zen koan considered both as a meditational device and a concise statement of the philosophy of Zen Buddhism can expect to be met with raised eyebrows. A Zen master might laugh and say that such a project is calculated to defeat one of the principal purposes of koan study, namely, the elimination of discursive thinking. A philosopher might question the wisdom of spending time and energy on nonsensical puzzles evidently designed to frustrate, rather than awaken thought. Given Zen Buddhism's reputation for being anti-philosophical such reactions ought not surprise us. For Zen's aversion to philosophy would seem to be especially exemplified in its use of meditation themes couched in the enigmatic words of the koan. This apparently meaningless language is supposed to help the practitioner to 'cut off the mind road', that is, to eliminate all logical thinking. It would seem then that Zen aims to achieve a mental condition that is characterised by the absence of thought. Philosophy, however, is restless in its devotion to thought, a thought that is logical, discursive, conceptual. The Zen Buddhist project to eliminate thought and the philosophic quest to awaken it would seem to be diametrically opposed. And yet since the arrival of Zen in the West it has aroused the interest of a number of philosophers. Comparative studies have been undertaken in which parallels have been drawn between Heidegger and Dogen, Wittgenstein and Nishida, Postmodernism and Zen. It has been even argued that behind the anti-intellectual stance of Zen 'there is a clearly delineated philosophy' (Toshihiko Izutsu, Towards a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism, p. 151) and that 'each koan can be regarded as an epitome of Zen philosophy' (ibid., p.168). The interest shown by some Western philosophers in Zen and the claims made by Izutsu about its underlying philosophy can serve as both starting point and stimulus to an inquiry into the Zen koan as a philosophical practice. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2016


66. There is a widely held view that Zen is not philosophy. Such a view fails to recognise that Zen can, and indeed should, embrace philosophy. In his exposition of the teaching of Zen Master Dogen Kigen the scholar Hee-Jim Kim has this to say: 'The philosophic enterprise is as much the practice of the bodhisattva way as is zazen'. He then adds, 'this view implies that metaphysical theory itself is a koan realized in life' (Dogen Kigen: Mystical Realist, 1987, p.97).

Sunday, 27 November 2016


65. The philosophy that is exercised in koan Zen does not emerge from reasoning. Nor does it 'go on' by reasoning. Koan Zen is a 'doing', indeed, a 'just doing'. This doing of Zen engages the practitioner in specific practices, practices such as zazen, kinhin, dokusan, and samu. In zazen, or sitting meditation, the body/heart-mind is stilled and silenced, so that the True Self is recognised and manifested in the overcoming of dualism. In kinhin, or walking meditation, this stillness and silence is realised in the freedom of mindful movement. In dokusan, or the encounter with the master, the freedom of the True Self is assessed and tested (and perhaps confirmed) by one who is intimate with this freedom. In samu the True Self is actualised in selfless service of the sangha, the community of Zen practitioners.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016


64. What is your aim in Zen? To liberate the goose from the jar in which it was raised.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016


63. Many who are new to Zen, and some who are not so new, ask how often they should meditate and for how long. Underlying such questions is a query about effort. How much effort must a practitioner be prepared to expend on Zen to gain its promised benefits? Quite a lot, if Master Mumon Ekai, the 13th century Chinese master, is to be believed. Master Mumon urges the Zen novice to arouse his or her entire body so as to employ every ounce of energy on this work. His advice is in keeping with the traditional slogan that has it that progress in Zen requires great faith, great doubt, and great determination. Clearly the practice of Zen has been traditionally seen as a demanding discipline. Yet when the 9th century master Joshu was a young monk he was warned that if he tried to seek after the Way he would be separated from it. Here it would seem that trying, putting in effort, would be counter-productive. So what should be done: practise hard or simply relax and take things easy? A contemporary master, who is clearly of the view that trying is necessary, has suggested that if a practitioner's effort is not supported by the universe as a whole then he or she could not make any real effort at all. On this view, what's at stake is not so much the amount of effort required but rather that the effort be real. Real effort in Zen is an intelligent discipline that works within the unity of the seeker and the sought. That is, one's effort is the work not of the isolated and limited self alone but rather of the Self that is operative at once in the practitioner and the practitioner's world. It is to the 'effort' of the True Self that the practitioner must surrender. In this way the practitioner is supported by 'the ten thousand things', that is, by the universe as a whole. It is a case of the Self that seeks and finds and knows and loves the Self. The Zen practitioner needs to surrender the empirical self to the workings of the True Self.