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. 

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