Zen Taoism Lecture 1

Stan Rosenthal (version 1993)

In common with many things which are unusual, deep or complex, it is easier to say what Zen is not, rather than what it is.  To many people, looking at it from the outside, Zen seems to be an introverted process in which the practitioner sits for hours, contemplating, daydreaming, or undergoing some form of self-indulgent analysis.  To others, who perhaps have read something of the history of Zen, it is a philosophy for warriors to live by; whilst those who are concerned with cultural pursuits, probably interpret the information with which they are presented as meaning that Zen is for the intellectual elite.

As though to add to the confusion, some publications from the U.S.A. during the 1950s and 1960s described various psychadelic experiences as being ‘Zen-like’ (which of course, they are not).  Since there was comparatively little authentic information available on Zen in the English language at that time, Zen became thought of quite commonly as being an ‘alternative’ or ‘hippy philosophy’, whereas in reality the misleading information published at that time now seems to have been an attempt to promote the use (or abuse) of hard drugs, an activity which no Zen practitioner would condone.  Such misconceptions are of course common, and can occur easily with regard to any philsophy, especially since philosophy is not something which many people think about, much less, practice in their lives.

Whilst the ‘hippy’ picture is an inaccurate picture, painted by those who are prepared to capitalize on the deprivation needs (discussed later) ignorance or weaknesses of others, the other three pictures, the warrior, the intellectual and the meditator are not without some validity, and are in some ways each
quite symbolic of Zen, for each 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 stressful process, but a process which results in quietude and serenity.

In any instance though, it is a misconception to think of Zen as being no more than meditation, intellectualization or the martial arts, for it is much more than these, and more even than self-awakening; 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.

Some early misconceptions concerning Zen probably resulted from the fact that it was the martial arts, rather than the fine or creative arts which served to introduce Zen to the west, for there has long been a worldwide interest in the various forms of combat and self-defence, such as Karate, Judo, Ninjitsu, Kendo, Iaido and Aikido, which have their roots in Zen philosophy.  However, 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 now well known, whilst 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, and in ceramics the work of the raku potter, Shoji Hamada, echoes the same philosophy.

To those unfamiliar with Zen, 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 positive marks upon the world, not least of which are the outspoken and sometimes particularly courageous arguments for world peace.

Such acts as these, the deep rooted philosophy, its application to such a wide range of topics and areas of life, do indicate that Zen is unlike many other ways of life. Although it considers thoughts and words to be important, it also considers that action is important.  In this respect an ‘action’ can be a single act, or it can be ‘the act of living’, which is to say ‘the manner in which we live our lives’.  This of course is the major difference between Zen and other philosophies or religions which frequently satisfy their adherents at a verbal, conceptual or ‘public appearance’ level, and which do not call upon them to show any kind of ‘active’ proof.

Briefly then, the proof of Zen philosophy is in its application.  This does not mean that the Zen student has to prove to his teacher (called a ‘Roshi’, which translates literally as ‘old scholar’) that everything he or she does is a Zen act; what it does imply is that as the student progresses in study and application, more and more of the actions concerned with life are performed in a Zen manner.  Just what it is that constitutes a ‘Zen manner’ is difficult to define in summary form, but in essence, it is to act according to the principles of Zen.  In Zen Buddhism these fundamental principles are found in ‘The Four Noble Truths’ and ‘The Eightfold Path’ and in Zen Taoism (discussed in more detail later) they are found in the ‘precepts’, these being guidelines which it is believed lead the individual to realization (making real) of his or her latent potential.

There is no pretence in Zen Taoism that it is easy to apply the precepts, but this is not so much due to the precepts themselves as it is to the manipulative, inhibiting and even damaging aspects of society which they assist us in overcoming.  Novice students are usually reminded when ‘the going gets tough’
that if the precepts were unnecessary there would be no need of Zen itself, and that if they were easy to apply there would be no need of ‘sesshin’ (group meetings), ‘naisan’ or ‘dokusan’ (private, confidential tutorials), and no need of private study.

Zen Taoism believes that the vast majority of human beings are born with inherent potential which is never realized (made real by being manifested or used), because it is inhibited or repressed by certain negative elements in society which we allow, frequently by default, to govern our lives.  The fact that Zen never has been, and probably never will be an ‘establishment philosophy’ is probably due to the fact that it considers the socio/economic/political philosophy of most establishment orders to be generated around what it terms ‘self-serving motivation’ (the need, which they percieve, to serve or preserve their own power or authority, rather than serving those who give them that power or authority).  This self-serving motivation is believed in Zen to be a major negative element in our lives, the manipulative aspects of which are often mirrored within the smaller units of the social structure (even the family), and between individuals at all levels from the public and political to the personal and intimate.

It must be admitted however that there is a particular problem which underlies the application of Zen Taoist precepts; this is not a problem in actually applying them, but in understanding them.  This problem exists for many novice Zen students, and (it must be further admitted) is due in no small part to the esoteric or mystical language in which they are expressed.  There have been attempts to explain the reason for this, the most common being that Zen Taoism is iteslf essentially spiritual.  This is not my own belief.  Without going into considerable detail on the history of Zen Taoism, it is hopefully sufficient to say that both Lao Tzu and the Boddhidharma, who between them originated what we call Zen Taoist philosophy, were both extremely pragmatic men.  This is not to say that they were without spirituality, but they were both ‘of the world’, being concerned more with saving humanity from itself, than from anything which might exist on a ‘spiritual plane’.

Having accepted though, that the literature of Zen Taoism is more than liberally strewn with poetic, esoteric or mystical phrases, the question still remains as to why should this be the case if it is meant to be practical and useable. There is hopefully no need to explain the poetic nature of much of the literature, since that which is beautiful needs to be defended only against barberians, and one reason why so much of Zen literature is shrouded in mysticism is, in my opinion, similar to this. It is that the use of this style defended the teachings from the establishment figures and groups who might have perceived it as a danger to their own self-serving interests if it had been phrased in more obvious terms.

The second reason for the use of such language is, I believe, the inherent limitaion of language itself.  Those states, processes and experiences which Zen speaks of are not of themselves mystical, but are meant to be experienced, and many of them can be understood only through experience.  The Bodhidharma expressed this ‘experiential’ nature of Zen perfectly in the phrase, “It is a transmission beyond words.”

It is with these words in mind that the Zen student is advised to both study and practice; and the reason for this is that the realization of Zen occurs through both.  Whilst a book might provide a means of study, there is no book which is a valid substitute for experience.  Zen sesshin is not only a ‘study group’ because it also provides the opportunity for experience…and that which might be experienced in a Zen Taoist sesshin is something of the reality of the precepts.  However, Zen teaches that ‘experience makes knowledge real’, not that experience replaces knowledge.  Provided that we enter Zen ‘with an empty cup’, any Zen Taoist Roshi would appreciate the fact that a would be student has at least tried to discover what Zen is about….. and what it is about is described in its precepts, which are discussed in the following essays.  For your convenience however, and because so many of us like to experience where we are going before we arrive (or in s/me cases, even before we set out on the journey) the precepts are listed overleaf.

Have compassion for all sentient beings,
causing them no unnecessary hurt, nor needless harm.

Refrain from needless competitiveness,
from contriving for self-advantage,
and from subjugating others.

When accepting authority over others,
k.ow also that you accept responsibility for their wellbeing.

Value true friends(ip, and fulfidd your obligations,
rather than striving with egotistical motive.

Seek liberation from the negative passi
let the mind be like running water.

When you are required to act,
remember that right motive
is essential to right action,
just as right thought is essential to right words.

Beware of creating burdens
for yourself or others to carry.

Act with necessary distinction,
being both creative and receptive,
and transcending subject/object dichotomy.

Know that you are not the centre of the universe,
but learn to put the universe at your centre,
by accepting the instant of your being.

Seek security within yourself,
rather than in others.

Know that even great worlddy wealth,
and the accumulation of material things
are of little worth,
compared with the priceless treasures;
love, peace and the freedom to grow.

Allow yourself to be,
so that your life may become a time of blossoming.


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