What is Zen?

It is presented right to your face, and at this moment the whole thing is handed over to you. For an intelligent fellow, one word should suffice to convince him of the truth of it, but even then error has crept in. Much more so when it is committed to paper and ink, or given up to wordy demonstration or to logical quibble, then it slips farther away from you. The great truth of Zen is possessed by everybody. Look into your own being and seek it not through others. Your own mind is above all forms; it is free and quiet and sufficient. In its light all is absorbed. Hush the dualism of subject and object, forget both, transcend the intellect, sever yourself from the understanding.

Miyun Yuanwu

The basic idea of Zen is to come in touch with the inner workings of our being, and to do this in the most direct way possible, without resorting to anything external. Therefore, anything that has the semblance of an external authority is rejected by Zen. Absolute faith is placed in a man’s own inner being. For whatever authority there is in Zen, all comes from within. This is true in the strictest sense of the word.

Zen professes itself to be the spirit of Buddhism, but in fact it is the spirit of all religions and philosophies. When Zen is thoroughly understood, absolute peace of mind is attained, and a man lives as he ought to live. What more may we hope?

For Zen reveals itself in the most uninteresting and uneventful life of a plain man of the street, recognizing the fact of living in the midst of life as it is lived. Zen systematically trains the mind to see this; it opens a man’s eye to the greatest mystery as it is daily and hourly performed; it enlarges the heart to embrace eternity of time and infinity of space in its every palpitation; it makes us live in the world as if walking in the garden of Eden; and all these spiritual feats are accomplished without resorting to any doctrines but by simply asserting in the most direct way the truth that lies in our inner being.

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki – An Introduction to Zen Buddhism


If it is true that the ability to be puzzled is the beginning of wisdom, then this truth is a sad commentary on the wisdom of modern man. Whatever the merits of our high degree of literary and universal education, we have lost the gift for being puzzled.

Everything is supposed to be known — if not to ourselves then to some specialist whose business it is to know what we do not know. In fact, to be puzzled is embarrassing, a sign of intellectual inferiority. Even children are rarely surprised, or at least they try not to show that they are; and as we grow older we gradually lose the ability to be surprised. To have the right answers seems all-important; to ask the right questions is considered insignificant by comparison.

This attitude is perhaps one reason why one of the most puzzling phenomena in our lives, our dreams, gives so little cause for wonder and for raising questions. We all dream; we do not understand our dreams, yet we act as if nothing strange goes on in our sleep minds, strange at least by comparison with the logical purposeful doings of our minds when we are awake.

When we are awake, we are active, rational beings, eager to make an effort to get what we want and prepared to defend ourselves against attack. We act and we observe; we see things outside, perhaps not as they are, but at least in such a manner that we can use and manipulate them. But we are also rather unimaginative, and rarely — except as children or if we are poets — does our imagination go beyond duplicating the stories and plots that are part of our actual experience. We are effective but somewhat dull. We call the field of our daytime observation “reality” and are proud of our “realism” and our cleverness in manipulating it.

When we are asleep, we awake to another form of existence. We dream. We invent stories which never happened and sometimes for which there is not even any precedent in reality. Sometimes we are the hero, sometimes the villain; sometimes we see the most beautiful scenes and are happy; often we are thrown into extreme terror. But whatever the role we play in the dream we are the author, it is our dream, we have invented the plot.

Indeed, both dreams and myths are important communications from ourselves to ourselves. If we do not understand the language in which they are written, we miss a great deal of what we know and tell ourselves in those hours when we are not busy manipulating the outside world.

Erich Fromm – The Forgotten Language. An Introduction to the Understanding of Dreams Fairy Tales and Myths

Esse est percipi

It is indeed an Opinion strangely prevailing amongst Men, that Houses, Mountains, Rivers, and in a word all sensible Objects have an Existence Natural or Real, distinct from their being perceived by the Understanding. But with how great an Assurance and Acquiescence soever this Principle may be entertained in the World; yet whoever shall find in his Heart to call it in Question, may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest Contradiction. For what are the forementioned Objects but the things we perceive by Sense, and what do we perceive besides our own Ideas or Sensations; and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any Combination of them should exist unperceived?

Some Truths there are so near and obvious to the Mind, that a Man need only open his Eyes to see them. Such I take this Important one to be, to wit, that all the Choir of Heaven and Furniture of the Earth, in a word all those Bodies which compose the mighty Frame of the World, have not any Subsistence without a Mind.

George Berkeley – A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge

Talking to a Peasant

For the generality of men God is the provider of immortality. Talking to a peasant one day, I proposed to him the hypothesis that there might indeed be a God who governs heaven and earth, a Consciousness of the Universe, but that for all that the soul of every man may not be immortal in the traditional and concrete sense. He replied:

Then wherefore God?

Miguel de Unamuno – The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples

Honesty of thought

What had availed the fact that I had at least tried to make my thought honest? Indeed, what did we mean by honesty of thought? Was not that, too, vainglory and pride and delusion? What man – or, indeed, what beast – cared about such a bloodless abstraction, when he was warm in his bed, well fed, with his well-beloved close to him, comforting him and transforming existence from its original emptiness to an eternal triumph of comradeship and love? Why had we been created at all, if this agony of isolation could be our lot? How cheap seemed the agnosticism of youth, and yet how hopeless now to try to repudiate its skepticism. I could not say – I tried and tried again – “Our Father, who art in Heaven.” That was weakness and a desire to return to the warm protective womb.

I had tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and now, when so passionately I wanted to sink back into a kind of animal faith, I could not. I could do nothing; thought availed not at all, except to sharpen and intensify the sense of impotence and helplessness and depersonalization. Things – even the rocks and the sea – and myself were in the same blind, sensless category of non-being, of eternal death – made all the more piercing to us by the transient illusion of existence.

Yet if existence is only an illusion, perhaps no reality is stronger than it seems to be; its validity lies in that seeming. For where else could it lie? In an external world, the very awareness of which is necessarily a part of our limitations? There was no clear answer. I was caught in the old solipsistic net. Nor could I extricate myself from it – that is, so long as the pain of knowing I was aware (or the burden of consciousness, if you wish) could not be assuaged.

Harold E. Stearns – The Street I Know: The Autobiography of the Last of the Bohemians


All of a sudden he jerked his head up and looked me in the eyes. “Why,” he asked, “don’t you let me come to see you?” I explained that I didn’t believe in God. “Are you really so sure of that?” I said I saw no point in troubling my head about the matter; whether I believed or didn’t was, to my mind, a question of so little importance.

Almost without seeming to address me, he remarked that he’d often noticed one fancies one is quite sure about something, when in point of fact one isn’t. When I said nothing, he looked at me again, and asked: “Don’t you agree?” I said that seemed quite possible. But, though I mightn’t be so sure about what interested me, I was absolutely sure about what didn’t interest me. And the question he had raised didn’t interest me at all.

“Have you no hope at all? Do you really think that when you die you die outright, and nothing remains?” I said: “Yes.” He dropped his eyes and sat down again. He was truly sorry for me, he said. It must make life unbearable for a man, to think as I did. The priest was beginning to bore me.

Albert Camus – The Stranger