Zen Taoism

Stan Rosenthal (version 1993)

This aspect of Zen teaching, the existence of the positive in the negative is difficult for many people to comprehend, especially since it is also taught that both the positive and the negative (Yang and Yin) co-exist in interactive interdependency in what is termed the ‘Tai Chi’ (symbolised by the Yin and Yang aspects linked together in the two halves of a circle. But even more than this, it is further taught that the Tai Chi is only a way of conceptualizing the infinite or absolute which contains ‘all that which is, and all that which is not’. This concept seems to be unique to Taoism and Buddhism, and it is usually only advanced students who enter ‘mondo’ (question and answer, or discussion) on topics such as these, and such matters are not frequently discussed during normal sesshin. The reason for this (apart from the complexities involved) is that Zen students arae not encouraged to consider abstract or mystical matters until they are quite advanced. Such matters as ‘the infinite’, and ‘eternity’, are termed ‘the song of the absolute’, and we are warned in the precepts,
“Be diligent in your practice,
and on hearing the music of the absolute,
do not be so foolish as to try to sing its song.”

This statement is in fact a reference to the difference between experiential learning (learning through experience) and cognitive learning (learning through study). In meditation we lose awareness of the ego, and might sthus sometimes lose awareness of the ‘self’. Although this does happen without meditation (and without Zen) for some people, it is more usual for it to occur in a meditative state. It is an essential precursor to deep meditation, and to a state or attitude known as ‘kufu’ (the technique beyond technique). What the student is being told in the above precept is that although such states can and do occur, they are experiential rather than cognitive, which is to say that their value is in the experience rather than thinking about or discussing the experience. If this seems vague or esoteric, it shuld be considered in the same way as or riding a bicycle, both of which improve with practice rather than with discussion. Although we usually know that this is true, many people nevertheless do discuss how they swim, cycle, paint, etc, but the reason is quite often to seek the approval or praise of others. Whilst it can be constructive to receive honest criticism, when we request it, we usually hope that it will be favourable, and we therefore need to ask ourselves what is our true motive for asking. It should not surprise us if we find that the answer is insecurity.

It is a strong Zen belief that insecurity is a major inhibiter of human development, and that the ‘establishment’ or ruling faction is most social structures use insecurity as a means of gaining and retaining control over their members. In brief, many people will be prepared to accept considerable lack of personal growth for the sake of security, particularly since we cannot have experienced the result of growth or development which has not yet occurred … so it is that many of us settle for the security which results from what we believe is the ‘status quo’. Zen teaches that there is no real security other than that which we can find or develop within ourselves. The advice given in the precepts is quite simply,
“Seek security within yourself,
rather than in others.”

Whilst many people spend a lifetime seeking a security which in reality does not exist, others might spend their time in a tranquil way, neither seeking nor finding others. Whilst neither of these is strictly a Zen Taoist path, the latter is certainly closer to Taoist teaching than the first. However, it is a Zen Taoist teaching that although we should not strive with egotistical motive, life can be much more rewarding, both to oneself and others, if we are able to find or develop a purpose in life which has meaning for us, and if possible, to society. The precept tells us,
“Seek a meaningful purpose in what you do.”

Just what is considered to be a ‘meaningful purpose’ is difficult to define. This again is not because of any shortcoming in Zen Taoist teaching, but because each of us has a different concept of what is meaningful, and that which is meaningful to one person, may be meaningless to another. The reason for this is that ‘meaning’ is subjective.

When responding to a situation, we respond, not necessarily to what it is, but to what it means to us. Similarly, finding a purpose in life, or in what we do with life, is not so much a matter of ‘what life is’, but what life means to us. Without a meaningful purpose we can enter what is known as the ‘existential vacuum’, this being a state in which existence itself is empty and without meaning. Some people istakenly think that this is what is meant by the Buddhist term ‘Nirvana’, however Nirvana is not a state
devoid of meaning, but a state which is beyond subjective or objective meaning, and which, if it has any meaning at all, has a meaning which is neither subjective nor objective, but is absolute. Zen Taoism believes that it is very rarely, if ever, possible to develop ‘absolute meaning’ during one’s earthly life, since this period of our existence is material or finite, and it is the finite which exists within the infinite or absolute, rather than the reverse.

It is probably given to very few people that they develop the ability to achieve absolute meaning during their earthly lives. Such an occurrance is so rare however, that it is beyond the comprehension even of most students who have practiced for many years, and it is therefore very unlikely that discussion on this or similar matters would occur during normal sesshin unless a specific request were made to the Jikijitsu (Director of Ceremonies) by the student group. In common with other matters which might be the concern of a particular student, but possibily beyond the comprehension of the majority, such matters as this might however be a topic for dokusan or nisan. Whilst the nature of absolute meaning might not be commonly discussed during normal sesshin, the concept of meaningful purpose in life could be a topic for sosan (a short talk or lecture given by the Roshi during sesshin) or subsequent mondo. It is believed in Zen that human beings have free will, and that this is directed in its natural state towards the provision of meaning and the development of a meaningful purpose in life. It is also believed that where this fails to occur, the will may degenerate to power or nihilistic pleasure, or directly to the existential vacuum mentioned previously. A meaningful purpose in life is therefore considered to be important to the psychological health and wellbeing of any individual. As was also stated previously, just what constitutes a meaningful purpose in life can only be determined by the individual, but Zen Taoism believes that there are three essential prerequisites to a meaningful life. Because they are essential they are known as ‘the three treasures’. The relevant precept tells us also that Zen Taoism does not condemn or criticise the material aspect of our lives, provided it does not take precedence over the development of meaningful purpose in life. The precept reads,
“Know that even great worldly wealth,
and the accumulation of material things
are of little worth,
compared with the priceless treasures;
love, peace and the freedom to grow.”

Such terms as ‘love’, ‘peace’ and ‘the freedom to grow’ serve as an example of the subjective nature of meaning, for they are meaningful to some, but possibly in different ways, and meaningless to others. However, even those people for whom such terms as these are meaningful might have extreme difficulty or reluctance in discussing or describing them. In this sense at least it is not unfair to describe Zen as being somewhat ‘mystical’, for the word ‘mystical’ is really nothing other than a term we employ to describe processes which we cannot fully comprehend through logical analysis. Whilst this is probably true of many esoteric, spiritual or affective mental processes, it is probably nowhere more true than in relationship to the Zen concept which bears the name ‘Kufu’, and which is probabbly the aspect of Zen which is most concerned with the realization of individual creative potential. Even those whose successful application of Zen is in the creative (or martial) arts are usually unaware of how it works, or unable to explain the process of kufu, through which it functions.

‘Kufu’ is described in many ways, but it is in fact a difficult state to define or describe with accuracy, and in much of the Zen literature it is refered to as,
“the technique beyond technique”,
or more poetically, as
“The one technique which still remains
when all techniques are learnt”.

In order to understand such references, it is useful to know that virtually all forms of Zen expression are very much the products of their culture and period, and that they are expressed in a manner designed to appeal to a particular ‘student population’. When we also know that the particular expressions quoted immediately above were popularized in the ‘Kamakura Period’, the period in which the samuri warriors of Japan were beginning to express an interest in the philosophical teachings and techniques of Zen, it perhaps becomes easier to understand why so many of the best known references to ‘Kufu’ relate to swordsmanship and the other martial arts. The reality though is that this particular concept is probably the most wide reaching and diverse in application of all the Zen Taoist concepts, for ‘Kufu’ represents a particular aptitude which has a psychological and somatic (physical) manifestation which is possibly the most ‘Zen’ of all the Zen concepts, namely, ‘Transcendence of subject/object dichotomy’.

In the precepts, this process is referred to in conjunction with both creativity and receptivity, the precept being,
“Be creative and receptive,
transcending subject/object dichotomy.”

Although it is not easy to explain this concept briefly, it is useful to have at least some idea of its meaning. To this end, we can think of the first part of the phrase as advising us not to forget that an essential part of the creative process is receptivity. To understand the latter part of the phrase, it is helpful to think of it in terms of its constituent elements, these being:
transcendence; to overcome or rise above
dichotomy; to separate or divide into two
subject; the part of speech frequently represented by ‘I’
object; the part of speech frequently representing what is accomplished by subject, or the person or thing to whom it is done.

Therefore (in somewhat oversimplified terms) the phrase, ‘Transcendence of subject/object dichotomy’ represents the ability to overcome (transcend) that which divides or separates (the dichotomy) us (the subject) from what we do, or the person or thing (the object) to which we are trying to relate.

Referring once again to the ‘techniques’ mentioned in the literature of Zen, and shown earlier, it should now be more apparent that Kufu itself is not a technique at all, or at least, that it is not a technique in the sense of the techniques of painting or swordsmanship, but is in fact something which we might develop ‘when all techniques are learnt’; something which might enable us to reach beyond the level of technical ability (although that ability should not be belittled) to the level of creative, aesthetic or artistic accomplishment.

An area of life in which the influence of Zen has been of particular significance is creativity, as witnessed by the now quite frequent use of its philosophy of aesthetics, and adaptation of its unique visual imagery in the fine and graphic arts. Similarly, in literature, the terse, esoteric, but nevertheless hightly aesthetic nature of Zen poetry has been a considerable influence on many modern poets.

For many westerners, the word ‘Zen’ conjures up two pictures, one being of a person sitting deep in meditation, and the other being warriors locked in combat. These two pictures are in fact very symbolic of Zen, for both can represent the battle we might engage in when trying to discover our own true nature. Sometimes this battle will be quite ferocious, whilst at other times it can be a quiet and thoughtful process. In either case however, Zen is of course much more than either meditation or the martial arts; it contains a deep philosophy which can be applied to virtually any situation, and has been the source of inspiration to countless individuals and many aspects of Western as well as Eastern society. Its influences range from the creative or fine arts, to the martial arts; from drama to pottery, and from literature to philosophy.

It is probably the martial arts, rather than the fine or creative arts which have served to introduce Zen to the west, and today there is worldwide interest in the various forms of Karate, Judo, Ninjitsu, Kendo, Iaido and Aikido. In world literature there is now a wakening appreciation of Zen poetry epitomised by the Haiku, Waka and Tanka, whilst in music the sound of the Shakuhatchi is no longer strange to our ears. The effect of Zen upon the graphic arts such as surface pattern and fashion is well known to those with an interest in such matters, and in psychology, sociology and international politics, the Zen Taoist influence has been strengthened by the work of such eminent writers as Erich Fromm, Carl Gustav Jung, Abraham Maslow and Dag Hammarskjold to name but four. In ceramics the work of the potter Bernard Leach echos the techniques as well as the philosophy of his teacher, Shoji Hamada, the Zen potter who made rakuware famous.

To those who are unfamiliar with Zen Taoism or Zen Buddhism, it seems strange that a single philosophy could encompass and influence so many areas of life, but to the practitioners of Zen there is nothing surprising in this at all….in fact they would probably be surprised if it were not so. This is not to imply that everything in the world has been influenced by Zen, and neither is it to claim that the most eminent people in every field of work have been influenced by Zen, but it can be said in all honesty that Zen Taoism (the oldest form of Zen) and Zen Buddhism have between them influenced very many people, who through their own application of Zen philosophy have made real their own creative potential, and made a positive mark upon the world, not least of which are the outspoken and sometimes particuleative or fine arts, to the martial arts; from drama to pottery, and from literature to philosophy.

See also: Zen Taoist Reflection


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One thought on “Zen Taoism

  1. Anonymous September 19, 2013 at 2:04 pm Reply

    […] Zen Taoism | The Seven Worlds https://thesevenworlds.wordpress.com/AN INTRODUCTION TO ZEN TAOISM AND ITS PRECEPTS (Part IV) Stan Rosenthal (version 1993) […]

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