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Religion Library: Zen

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Julia Hardy

The purpose of existence for the follower of Zen is simply to live an ordinary life, but with mindfulness. The fact that Huineng was put to work chopping wood and threshing rice when he arrived at the monastery, and yet was deemed the student with the greatest understanding of the master's teachings, supports this aspect of Zen. Numerous Zen sayings reinforce this practice, such as "No work, no food" or "Nothing special." One oft-repeated story relates a question asked of a master: "What did you do before you became enlightened?" The response, "Chop wood, carry water." "What did you do after you became enlightened?" "Chop wood, carry water."

For most of us, everyday actions are done habitually, without thinking. According to Zen, this lack of attention is evidence of a separation between the individual and the world around him or her. One is often looking ahead to what will happen next or looking back to what happened in the past, instead of experiencing the present moment. Mindful attention to everyday tasks provides an awareness of the present moment, and the opportunity to recognize the Buddha-nature within both self and other.

A final note: one element of Zen that is not usually linked to theories of human nature, but that carries an implicit understanding about it, is the tradition of shock treatment. The Zen tradition is full of stories of teachers bullying pupils, including beatings and even mutilations. These are mirrored in Zen's monastic training practices, which include regular strikes with the keisaku (alt. kyosaku), or "encouragement stick." These punishments are intended to shock the recipient into or toward enlightenment, and enlightenment is often the outcome in the Zen stories.

While Zen scriptures do not state that human nature is evil, the popularity of these stories and the practice of "encouraging" students with physical blows suggest an assumption about human nature. There is an implication here that there is something within human nature, or at least within the nature of some people, that is so stubborn, so unyielding, so undisciplined, that it must be beaten out of them.

Study Questions:
1.     What are the major conflicting views of the nature of the self?
2.     Why might Zen be viewed as a form of nihilism?
3.     What is zazen?
4.     What does Zen teach about ordinary life? What does it mean to be mindful within ordinary life?
5.     What does “shock treatment” reveal about the nature of human existence?


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