What is Zen?

Thomas Merton describes in his 1961 book "Mystics and Zen Masters" how the tradition of Zen resonates and overlaps with mystical traditions worldwide. He also examines various Christian monastic traditions in order to show us the similarities and differences in the search for mystical experience across cultures and religions. The following comments, based on quotes from his book, illustrate that he understands the Zen insight as a direct grasp of being in itself, not an intuition of the nature of being. It is not an intellectual act, and also not the result of contemplation or other meditation practices. Merton also sees some parallels between Zen enlightenment and Christian faith, which I will briefly mention.

Two poems

Merton writes: "Zen is not theology, and it makes no claim to deal with theological truth in any form whatever. Nor is it an abstract metaphysic. It is, so to speak, a concrete and lived ontology which explains itself not in theoretical propositions but in acts emerging out of a certain quality of consciousness and of awareness. Only by these acts and by this quality of consciousness can Zen be judged. The paradoxes and seemingly absurd propositions it makes have no point except in relation to an awareness that is unspoken and unspeakable."

He identifies the most critical moment in the history of Chinese Zen in the split between the northern and southern schools (seventh century) and the events that led to the selection of Hui Neng as the sixth patriarch. The expected successor, Shen Hsiu, wrote this poem:

The Mind is like a clear mirror standing,

Take care to wipe it all the time,

Allow no grain of dust to cling to it.

To which Hui Neng replied with these famous verses:

The Bodhi is not like a tree,

The clear mirror is nowhere standing.

Fundamentally not one thing exists:

Where then is a grain of dust to cling?

Hui Neng does not formulate a fundamental principle of nihilism, he formulates a deep human experience. Or, in the words of D.T.Suzuki: “When the Sutras declare all things to be empty, unborn and beyond causation, the declaration is not the result of metaphysical reasoning; it is a most penetrating Buddhist experience.” Therefore, no systematic process or teaching will lead us from the everyday experience of life to the realization of the Zen experience. Here is another Zen story that demonstrates this impossibility:

A Master saw a disciple who was very zealous in meditation. The Master said: “Virtuous one, what is your aim in practicing Zazen (meditation)?” The disciple said: “My aim is to become a Buddha.” Then the Master picked up a tile and began to polish it on a stone in front of the hermitage. The disciple said: “What is the Master doing?” The Master said: “I am polishing this tile to make it a mirror.” The disciple said: “How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?” The Master replied: “How can you make a Buddha by practicing Zazen?”

In Merton's analysis, Hui Neng found a breakthrough into something quite original and new: "He refused to separate meditation as a means (dhyana) from enlightenment as an end (prajna). For him, the two were really inseparable, and the Zen discipline consisted in seeking to realize this wholeness and unity of prajna and dhyana in all one’s acts, however external, however commonplace, however trivial. For Hui Neng, all life was Zen. Zen could not be found merely by turning away from active life to become absorbed in meditation. Zen is the very awareness of the dynamism of life living itself in us—and aware of itself, in us, as being the one life that lives in all."

The difference between Hui Neng and Shen Hsui can also be equated with a difference between the understanding of experience based on ego-consciousness, and experience based on the unconscious (but not in the psychoanalytic sense.) The difference between ego (or self) and the subject, as the root of ego-consciousness, determines the form of experience itself. The purification-approach to Zen, as exemplified in the first poem by Shen Hsui, reflects an attitude that assumes and gives primacy to a central ego-consciousness, an awareness of an empirical self, an “I” which, with all the good intentions in the world, sets out to “achieve liberation” or “enlightenment.” This is the familiar empirical ego which is aware of itself, observes itself, remembers itself, and seeks ways to preserve and perpetuate its self-awareness. This “I” seeks to affirm itself not only in its actions, and its thoughts, but also in contemplation. In stripping off the exterior and sensible trappings of superficial experience, the ego seeks to realize its own spiritual nature more perfectly. This implies a rejection of one’s sensible and active self in order to attain to an inner “silent” self, which is still, however, our “ego.” The empirical and self-conscious self then views its own thought as a kind of object or possession, and in so doing accounts for this thought by situating it in a separate, isolated “part of itself,” a mind, which it compares to a “mirror.” This is also considered a “possession.” I have a mind. Thus the mind is regarded not as something I am, but something I own. It then becomes necessary for me to sit quietly and calmly, recollecting my faculties.

A spiritualized ego

Merton writes: "The empirical self ... resolves to purify the mirror of the mind by removing thoughts from it. When the mirror of the mind is clear of all thought (so it imagines), the ego will be “liberated.” It will affirm itself freely without thoughts. Why does it aim at this bizarre attainment? Because it has read in the sutras that enlightenment is a state of “emptiness,” and “suchness.” It is an awareness of an inner and transcendental mind. Presumably if all thoughts of material and contingent things are kept out of the mirror, then the mirror will be filled with the pure spiritual light of the Buddha mind, which is a kind of emptiness.

At best, this contemplation is an ascent from the external and empirical consciousness to a higher and more general consciousness of one’s spiritual nature. The lower self is then dissolved in the consciousness of a universal ideal nature which transcends the external concrete self. What has happened is that this clinging and possessive ego-consciousness, seeking to affirm itself in “liberation,” craftily tries to outwit reality by rejecting the thoughts it “possesses” and emptying the mirror of the mind, which it also “possesses.” Thus, “the mind” will be in “emptiness” and “poverty.” But in reality, “emptiness” itself is regarded as a possession , and an “attainment.” So the ego-consciousness is able, it believes, to eat its cake and have it. It renounces its empirical autonomy in order to sink into its spiritual, pre-biological nature. But since this nature is regarded as one’s possession, the “spiritualized” ego thus is able to affirm itself all the more perfectly, and to enjoy its own narcissism under the guise of “emptiness” and “contemplation.”

So too, the Zen masters realized that to speak of the mind as a mirror which is “owned” by the ego and which must be kept pure by the exclusion of all thoughts was, from the point of view of Zen understanding, sheer nonsense. Such language does not come anywhere near giving a proper notion of what true insight is. Hui Neng therefore described it in other terms, in which, of course, he had been anticipated by many centuries in the Mahayana sutras, particularly the Diamond Sutra."

Zen and the unconscious

Merton clearly distinguishes between the unconscious of Hui Neng and the unconscious as it is conceived by modern psychoanalysis. To confuse these two ideas would be a fatal error. In the quote above, He rejects the notion that the empirical self could "possess" prajna- wisdom, or owns “an unconscious” as one might have a cellar in one’s house. Our notions of the mind's topology are still derived from a Cartesian self-awareness, which assumed that the empirical ego is the starting point of an infallible intellectual progress that leads to truth and forms a spirit that is abstract, immaterial, and increasingly refined through self-reflection. In Merton's view of the Zen psychology, the relation between consciousness and the unconscious is reversed: the conscious belongs to a transcendental unconscious, is possessed by it, and carries out its work. Merton writes:

"This then is what Hui Neng means when he says “mirror wiping” is useless. There is no mirror to be wiped. What we call “our” mind is only a flickering and transient manifestation of prajna—the formless and limitless light. We cannot be enlightened by cutting the manifestation off from the original light and giving it an autonomous existence which it cannot possibly have. Another Zen master said, characteristically, that there is no enlightenment to be attained and no subject to attain it....Zen is not “attained” by mirror-wiping meditation, but by self-forgetfulness in the existential present of life here and now. As Hui Neng saw, it really makes no difference whatever if external objects are present in the “mirror” of consciousness. There is no need to exclude or suppress them.

This state of “enlightenment” then has nothing to do with the exclusion of external or material reality, and when it denies the “existence” of the empirical self and of external objects, this denial is not the denial of their reality (which is neither affirmed nor denied) but of their relevance insofar as they are isolated in their own forms. They have become irrelevant because the subject-object relationship that existed when the empirical self regarded them and cherished its thoughts about them has now been abolished in the “void.” But this void is by no means a mere negation.

The void (or the Unconscious) may be said to have two aspects. First, it simply is what it is. Second, it is realized, it is aware of itself, and to speak improperly, this awareness (prajna) is “in us,” or, better, we are “in it.” Here of course the mirror of “mind” is not our mind but the void itself, the Unconscious as manifest and conscious in us. Hui Neng describes it in the following terms: When the light of Prajna penetrates the ground nature of consciousness ... it illuminates inside and outside; everything grows transparent and one recognizes one’s inmost mind. To recognize the inmost mind is emancipation … this means the realization of the Unconscious (wu nien). What is the Unconscious? It is to see things as they are and not to become attached to anything … . To be unconscious means to be innocent of the working of a relative (empirical) mind … . When there is no abiding of thought anywhere on anything—this is being unbound. This not abiding anywhere is the root of our life." (Emphasis added by me.)

Beyond subject and object

Prajna (Zen enlightenment) is not self-realization, but realization pure and simple, beyond subject and object. In such realization, emptiness” is no longer opposed to “fullness,” the mind is neither full nor empty, nor is it distinguished from the object. In this moment, mind and reality, emptiness and fullness, are one. Zero equals infinity.

A Zen Master was asked how enlightenment could be attained. He answered: “Only by seeing into nothingness.”

Disciple: “Nothingness: but is this not something to see?” (I.e., does it not become an object—the empty mirror, unstained by “thought”?)

Master: “Though there is the act of seeing, the object is not to be designated as something.”

Disciple: “If this is not to be designated as ‘something’ [object], what is the seeing?”

Master: “To see where there is no something [object], this is true seeing, this is eternal seeing.”

In Merton's words: "There are some people with the confused notion that the greatest achievement is to sit quietly with an emptied mind, where not a thought is allowed to be conceived … When you cherish the notion of purity and cling to it, you turn purity into falsehood…Purity has neither form nor shape, and when you claim an achievement by establishing a form to be known as purity, you obstruct your own self nature and are purity bound....

In a word, to view the secret inner purity of the mirror light as a separate entity which can be objectively “sought” and “attained” by meditation is to imagine something that is not there. “From the first, not a thing is.” There is “nothing there” and this “nothing” that is there is “sunyata, emptiness, no-mind, the non-objective presence of no-seeing,” and it seems much more like the todo y nada of St. John of the Cross than the illuminated inner self of the Neo-Platonists.

This I think is the chief originality of Southern Chinese Zen, and it must be clearly brought out to distinguish it from the other forms of contemplation, both Asian and Western. The great merit of Hui Neng’s Zen is that it liberates the mind from servitude to imagined spiritual states as “objects” which too easily become hypostatized and turn into idols that obsess and delude the seeker. In this, the Zen of Hui Neng comes rather close to the Gospels and St. Paul, though on an ontological rather than on a specifically religious level."

In the last sentence, Merton offers a surprising turn: He claims that Zen psychology leads to a dissolution of the subject/object boundary, which is something that Merton already knows from the Christian tradition: God, the object of contemplation, can never be assimilated and forces the "I" to fully open up and surrender itself into a divine power.

Rinzai and Soto

Merton locates Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, in the tradition of Shen Hsiu. "Dogen and the so-called Soto school of Zen in Japan follow the lines laid down by Shen Hsiu: emphasis on meditation, asceticism, and method .... Curiously enough, on one point Dogen seems to rejoin Hui Neng, or to come close to a similar result, when he teaches the Zen monk not to desire any special experience of enlightenment."

Dogen famously admonishes the monks: “Do not think about how to become a Buddha.” Dogen insists that meditation should be without purpose. If the monk is already enlightened without knowing it, she does not have to attain anything any more. For Dogen, enlightenment is already present in Zazen itself. It is reported that Dogen himself was enlightened when the master rebuked one of the monks who had fallen asleep in his meditation, exclaiming: “In Zen, body and mind are cast off, why do you sleep?”

Merton favors the Rinzai school over Soto Zen: "The Rinzai school, which follows Hui Neng’s teaching, while not abandoning meditation, takes a totally different view of it, and instead of emptying the mind of concepts by “quiet sitting,” it seeks to plunge the Zen disciple into satori, or a metaphysical intuition of being by non-seeing and emptiness, through struggle with the koan."

He explains it in these words: "Thus, what we have is a breakthrough in which subjective and psychological consciousness is transcended and there is an awareness which does not look at being (or the void) as an object but enters into the self-awareness of the being-void which is the prajna mind. .... Once again, the illumination of the Hui Neng school is a breakthrough which does not simply produce an enlightened state of consciousness or super-consciousness in the experience of the individual - which for Buddhism would be a fundamental error and evidence of “ignorance” (avidya)—but which allows being itself to reveal its light, which is no-light and void.

The Zen intuition of Hui Neng is then an intuition of the metaphysical ground of all being and knowledge as void. This void itself is infinite. Suzuki loves to repeat the formula that for Zen “zero equals infinity,” and in this he is close to the todo y nada of St. John of the Cross. The infinite emptiness is then infinite totality and fullness. The ground of this void is sunyata, but the pure void is also pure light, because it is void of all (limited) mind: and the light of the pure void manifests itself in act. But since this can be translated into positive terms, pure void is pure Being. And pure Being is by that very fact pure illumination. And the illumination springs from pure Being in perfect Actuality. This is only an intellectual intuition, but one which penetrates far more deeply than mere metaphysical speculation. This is the light of an experience of the ground of being, the light therefore of pure ontological contemplation."

Zen and trinitarian structure?

If someone wanted to translate the Zen enlightenment experience into the language of Western philosophy, it would probably be useful to search for parallels in the field of phenomenology. The emphasis in phenomenology is on the act, not on the object. There is the attempt to overcome the subject-object split, and a focus on re-interpreting Cartesian philosophy. This inner transparency of the acting mind can also be found in Zen.

Merton quotes a comment by Suzuki, in which he states that Ma Tzu “had no idea of the self-seeing [prajna-dhyana, Hui Neng school] type [of Zen], no conception that self-nature which is self-being was self-seeing, that there was no Being besides Seeing which is Acting, that these three terms, Being, Seeing, and Acting, were synonymous and interchangeable.” (my emphasis.) This is a quite remarkable passage for Merton, because it suggests something akin to a Trinitarian structure in the attainment of being itself: an "experience of the ground of being as pure void which is light and act because it is fullness and totality." (My emphasis.)

Merton writes: "And this “Trinitarian structure” is this: the ground of all Being is pure Void (sunyata-emptiness), which is prajna, light illuminating everything in a pure Act of being-void without any limitation. The ground-Being is not distinct from itself as Light and as Act. And to this basic constitution of being there corresponds the threefold disposition of the mind in illumination. First, the ground which is Void; second, the emptiness and no-whereness of no-mind which is dhyana (right meditation) and illumination; and third, the act of realization, or prajna, in which the void and light are so to speak let loose in pure freedom and power to give and spend in action this self which is no-self, this void which is the inexhaustible source of all light and act, and which has broken through into our own life, bursting its limitations and uniting us to itself so that we are lost in the boundless freedom and energy of prajna-wisdom."

Hui-Nengs description of Zen enlightenment is canonized in the Platform Scripture. This text insists that enlightenment is attained suddenly, and not as the result of quietistic meditation or any other discipline. It portrays Hui Neng as completely non-doctrinal, concrete, and, one might say, existential in his view of Zen as a unity that cannot be divided into stages or degrees such as “meditation,” "contemplation” (or prajna-wisdom).

Merton's attempts to find similarities between Zen and Christian theology are somewhat speculative, but interesting. It is also noteworthy that there is a message of salvation in Buddhism as well as in Christianity. Merton says that "...Buddhism has been the most important popular religion in China, for it brought to the masses a definite message of salvation: but it has not influenced Chinese thought as much as primitive Taoism or, especially, Confucianism."