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Zen and the Not-Two

15 Sep

Zen and the Not-Two


Jason Giannetti


The Western philosophical tradition has long been known for its reliance on dualistic distinctions. From the time that Aristotle articulated the Principle of Non-contradiction as the fundamental principle of thought, Western philosophy has been rigorous in its pursuit of discovering Truth through the instrument of logic and its dualistic structure.  This structure has pervaded Western thought to such a great degree that it is the building-block of artificial intelligence and computerized models of the mind, as exemplified by the 0/1 foundation of binary code.  This deeply ingrained “programming” could be why many Westerners find Buddhism in general and Zen Buddhism in particular so mysterious and confusing.  But in this brief account I would like to demonstrate the strange logic of Zen and the critique it offers of more traditional Western forms of logic.


In Zen and Western Thought, Masao Abe lays out a three-stage formula of Zen understanding.  Simply stated it is: 1) samsara; 2) negation of samsara; 3) satori. The Sanskrit term “samsara” could be understood as everyday-mind, or the mind of a novice or non-initiate. This is the mind that is caught up in the experience and phenomena of day-to-day existence and the formidable questions of life and death. After some training in Zen, one begins to see that things as they seem are not as they really are, and thus one moves to the transitional stage of negation. But finally, upon “awakening” or “enlightenment” (also known as “satori” in Japanese, or nirvana in Sanskrit), one is able to re-affirm the original position.


Abe uses a passage from the Chinese Zen master Ch’ing-yüan Wei-hsin who says:


Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, ‘Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.’


After I got an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, ‘Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.’


But now, having attained the abode of final rest, I say, ‘Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.’ (Zen and Western Thought, 4)


This three-step process is also examined by Malcolm David Eckel in his study of the Mādhyamaka philosopher Bhavaviveka. There Eckel says:


It is customary in Mādhyamaka studies to speak of this way of thinking as a dialectic, for obvious reasons. The assumption of conventional distinctions seems to function as a thesis, the denial of distinctions seems to function as an antithesis, and the reappropriation of distinctions seems to resolve the two antithetical positions in a new synthesis. (To See the Buddha: A Philosopher’s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness, 44).


Eckel rejects this Hegelian understanding of what is happening in passages such as the one about the mountains and the waters above. However, to explain this, a little must be said about the fundamental Mādhyamaka position.


According to the Mādhyamaka tradition, especially as articulated by such great Indian Buddhist philosophers as Nāgārjuna and Bhavaviveka, but having its origin in some of the earliest texts in Buddhist literature, nothing is permanent, nothing is fixed, nothing has persistent identity, selfhood, or essence. This is impermanence (anitya). All, ultimately, is empty of atman (self). This is the ultimate insight of satori, the insight that the Buddha was granted when he attained enlightenment. Thus everything resolves into Emptiness. However, saying this posits some kind of permanent position, a point of resolution akin to a ground with its own essence—the essence of Emptiness (śūnyatā). Thus, as Eckel says:


From the point of view of Emptiness, none of the normal distinctions between things applies [for they are all empty]. But emptiness itself is a distinct position, too, and when it is analyzed from the point of view of Emptiness, it also has to be empty. So the ‘intelligent’ readers who have followed the argument faithfully through all of its [distinct] stages finally see the last distinction, the distinction between distinction and no-distinctions, vanish before their eyes. At the end they are left where they began. It is not that they can plunge into the distinctions of ordinary consciousness with the same naïveté as before, but they are aware that Emptiness ultimately is not different from the process of distinction-making with which they began . . . Without denying the distinction between distinction and no-distinction, the concept of Emptiness would be essentially sterile. It would leave the philosopher trapped in a world of Emptiness as opposed to something else.  But with the emptiness of Emptiness, the argument not only pushes the concept of Emptiness to its final limit; it also forces the transition from the stage of denial to the stage of reappropriation, the transition that returns the argument to the world of distinctions out of which it came. (Eckel, 43)


To illustrate this terminology, we can return to the saying of Ch’ing-yüan Wei-hsin. In the first stage he was caught up in the everyday-mind of distinctions whereby mountains are distinguished from waters and each has its own essence. This is called “conventional truth” or “conventional perspective.” In the second stage, after some Zen training, he begins to realize that everything is ultimately empty. Thus, this stage, from the perspective of “ultimate truth,” is negative and denies the conventional truth of the first stage. Hence, mountains are not mountains and waters are not waters. But in the third stage, where Emptiness “itself” is understood as empty, thus negating the negation of distinctions, the conventional distinctions can again be affirmed.


This strange “logic” can perhaps be better illustrated if, instead of mountains and waters, one uses the concepts of true and false—the foundational dyad of all Western logic. According to conventional truth, statements are either true or false. But, according to the Mādhyamaka, the ultimate truth is that all conventional truth is empty. That would include conventional terms such as “true” and “false.” Hence there is no distinction between “true” and “false.”  Both are empty.  Both resolve into Emptiness, for Emptiness alone is. . . is what?—True, of course. But, based upon the truth of Emptiness, we just declared that there is no distinction between true and false, thus the claim that Emptiness is true is itself an empty claim. This would seem to undermine the whole argument, and from the point of view of conventional truth (or from Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction) the argument would fail as self-contradictory. But rather than admit defeat, the Mādhyamaka insist on the fact that the claim that Emptiness is true is itself an empty claim. The emptiness of Emptiness thus allows all the conventional claims and distinctions to stand as they are.


According to Eckle, the Mādhyamaka argument


holds the perspectives of the two truths [conventional and ultimate] together simultaneously in a kind of double vision or, as Jacques Derrida would say, in a double register that permits no synthesis. The Mādhyamaka critique ‘deconstructs’ in the sense that it brings to the surface the contradictions that lurk within particular systems of thought. [Or, one could say, all systems of thought.] It does not resolve the differences in a higher synthesis but unmasks the differences for what they are. Instead of the Hegelian Aufhebung [sublimation] that negates a previous position and conserves it by ‘lifting it up’ to a higher level, there is a différence that “differs” and defers” the contradiction without leading it to a higher synthesis. (Eckel , 44-45)


Hence, we must recall what we said earlier, and now claim that there is no “fundamental Mādhyamaka position,” for any and all systemizing philosophy is, according to the fundamental Mādhyamaka position, deficient, for all discursive thought and language are dependent upon conventional truth. Ironically, however, it is only by means of an explication of “the fundamental Mādhyamaka position” that we discover its impossibility and that Mādhyamaka cannot be reduced to any system.


Thus we find in the great collection of Zen stories, The Gateless Gate, it said that “Daibai asked Baso: ‘What is Buddha?’  [Or, ‘What is Enlightenment?’]  Baso said: ‘This mind is Buddha.’ [Or, ‘Everyday-mind is Enlightenment.’]” (Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, Shambhala Press, Boston, 1994, 210). And then, separated by just two stories, we find, “A monk asked Baso: ‘What is Buddha?’ Baso answered: ‘This mind is not Buddha’” (Reps, 214). Or, as Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an (Chinese for “Zen”) Buddhism, said:


If, in questioning you, someone asks about being, answer with non-being. If he asks about non-being, answer with being. If he asks about the ordinary man, answer in terms of the sage. If he asks about the sage, answer in terms of the ordinary man. By this method of opposites mutually related there arises an understanding of the Middle Way. For every question that you are asked, respond in terms of its opposite. (Quoted in: Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, Vintage, New York, 1985, 94)


In other words, if one speaks about what is profane, reply in terms of things profound, and if one speaks about what is profound, reply in terms of what is profane. Thus we find snippets of dialogue such as:


A monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax: ‘What is Buddha?’

Tozan said: ‘This flax weighs three pounds.’ (Reps, 192)




A monk told Joshu: ‘I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.’

Joshu asked: ‘Have you eaten your rice porridge?’

The monk replied: ‘I have eaten.’

Joshu said: ‘Then you had better wash your bowl.’

At that moment the monk was enlightened. (Reps, 175)


Or, as an example of taking a mundane statement and responding from the perspective of the ultimate:


As the Layman [P’ang] and Sung-shan were walking together one day they saw a group of monks picking greens.

‘The yellow leaves are discarded, the green leaves are kept,’ said Sung-shan.

‘How about not falling into green or yellow?’ [replied the Layman]. (A Man of Zen: The Recorded Sayings of Layman P’ang, trans. Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Yoshitaka Iriya, and Dana Fraser, Weatherhill, New York, 1992, 83)


And finally, an almost shocking transposition of profound and profane:


A monk asked Ummon: ‘What is Buddha?’ Ummon answered him: ‘Dried dung.’ (Reps, 195)


Of course, if one takes the statement of Hui-neng as a prescription and applies it formulaically, one has completely misapplied the statement. For, as Alan Watts has pointed out, such usage can become an “institutionalized technique, and therefore lends itself to affectation and artificiality . . . This, too, can become a fetish” (Watts, 169). And what is a fetish but an attachment?  And whether we subscribe to the complex and difficult philosophical discourses on Buddhist metaphysics and logic, or we look no further than the clarity and simplicity of the Four Noble Truths, the maxim is: The cause of suffering is attachment.  Thus, the crux of Buddhism is giving up our attachments and that means, paradoxically, even our attachments to Buddhist logical systems, truths, and maxims.  Hence, if you’ve followed me thus far, I congratulate you, but it is now high time to throw away the proverbial ladder and see the mountains and the waters.

God & Zen

4 Sep

God and Zen


Jason Giannetti


יִמְצָאֵהוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִדְבָּר וּבְתֹהוּ יְלֵל יְשִׁמֹן יְסֹבְבֶנְהוּ יְבוֹנְנֵהוּ יִצְּרֶנְהוּ כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינוֹ


[God] found [the people Israel] in a desert land, and in the waste, a howling wilderness; [God] encircled [them], cared for [them], kept [them] as the pupil of [God’s] eye.


– Deuteronomy, 32:10



What does it mean: God kept the people of Israel “as the pupil of His eye”?  It would seem, on first look, that this suggests closeness, even intimacy.  It also implies watchfulness and protection; that God watched over them carefully.  But when we think about this anthropomorphic analogy carefully we find that there is something peculiar about it.  The eye sees, but the one thing the eye does not see is its own pupil.  So, what could this mean?  Did God not see the Israelites, or did God protect them as carefully as one does one’s most valuable sense organ?

I am indebted to Alan Watts, the great populist of Asian religions, for pointing out that when one approaches the Bible (both New Testament and Hebrew Scriptures) with the hermeneutic utilized in reading Hindu and Buddhist sutras, one finds to one’s surprise and delight that the God of the Israelites and Jesus both seem to be expressing some very “Eastern” notions to a “Western” audience and that the message gets lost in translation.  More specifically, Watts suggests, the God of the Israelites presents a number of Zen koans to the sangha.  Starting with the perplexing story of the Garden of Eden, we find that the serpent and not God tells the truth – thus suggesting a behind-the-scenes conspiracy of the two in order to allow the human drama to unfold.  (See Watts, Beyond Theology)

We are told about how God commands “You shall love the Lord your God.”  But such a command to intentionally and consciously elicit a feeling that, in order to be love, must freely, spontaneously, unintentionally, unconsciously even, and certainly unforced, arise in one, seems to put one in an untenable position: If one follows the command because it’s a command, then one isn’t really loving God, but if one loves God independently of the command, then one isn’t really following the command.  (Watts, Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion, p. 62)

Further, with reference to the New Testament, Watts insightfully comments about the seemingly unique life and death of Jesus.  In the “Western” mind-set of Second-Temple Judea, Jesus’ claim to be God was heretical and got him killed.  “But,” says Watts, “if you wake up in India and tell your friends and relations, ‘My goodness, I’ve just discovered that I’m God,’ they’ll laugh and say, ‘Oh, congratulations, at last you found out.’”  (Watts, “The Drama of It All,” in The Essential Alan Watts)

I believe that the quote from Deuteronomy is another koan that reveals something crucial about God.  The pupil is so close to one that it is not noticed.  It is that by which the eye sees, but not that which is seen by the eye.  Or, as Alan Watts puts it in an essay about the ego, “When your eyes are functioning well you don’t see your eyes.  If your eyes are imperfect you see spots in front of them.  That means there are some lesions in the retina or wherever, and because your eyes aren’t working properly, you feel them. . . .  [T]he sensation of I is like spots in front of your eyes – it means something’s wrong with your functioning.”  (Watts, “Ego,” in The Essential Alan Watts)

Here Watts is suggesting that the thing we call the “I,” or the ego, is an illusion created by some sort of being out of joint.  When all is working properly, the illusion disappears, or it never appears in the first place.  In the quote from Deuteronomy, it would seem that when all was well, the Israelites and God were not aware of any duality between them.  It is only when some disturbance appears that with it arises both a sense of humanity’s separation from God and God’s imperial and imposing presence.  In other words, when out of step, when disturbed or diseased, two mutually exclusive egos are created: God’s and human’s.  This duality brings with it a whole host of other difficulties: duty, responsibility, sin, guilt, punishment, longing for redemption.

The entire Torah (Pentateuch) could be broken down into three basic sections: creation, revelation, path to redemption.  The last section takes the form of a journey from slavery into freedom, or, said slightly differently, from attachment to liberation.  If we approach this narrative arc with an “Eastern” hermeneutic, we could say that what is asked for here is not slavish obedience to commands, but rather the sudden insight, gained through meditation on God’s divine koans, which results in seeing that God exists, if God exists anywhere, in the pupil of the eye.