Zen is Not Buddhism

Zen is Not Buddhism February 18, 2010

Tonight I’ve taken on the task of “talking about Zen” for our campus Sangha. Not an enviable task for someone who is admittedly very ignorant about the subject. But what is the saying, “fools walk where angels dare not tread”?

There are, I think, four ways to “talk about Zen.” Or perhaps 4000, or 84,000, or whatever. I like to keep things simple.

First, there is a scholarly history of Zen: very textual, lots of dates and names, fancy words with arrows like Zen <– Ch’an <– Dhyāna <– Jhāna. Second is a Zen history of Zen: The Buddha holds up a flower in front of a great assembly of gods and men and all are perplexed at this seemingly meaningless action, except Mahākāśyapa, who smiled; and thus Zen was first transmitted in India. This is from D.T. Suzuki’s wonderful book, “Studies in Zen.” Scholars don’t much like D.T. Suzuki. As one remarked in reviewing another Zen history:

…Dumoulin outlined the evolution of Zen Buddhism in straightforward and easily comprehensible terms. There was nothing here of the intentionally obfuscatory tone taken in some of D. T Suzuki’s (1870—1966) works on Zen, for example, in which the author’s goal was as much to mystify as to explain his subject matter.

Perhaps it’s too broad to say that scholars don’t like Suzuki, but he can frustrate things. Such is the case when he writes, “In such wise [wisdom?] the Zen masters handled their religion. They were boldly original and not at all hampered by any traditional teaching of Buddha.” (p.23)

Thirdly, we can begin to talk about experience. First we may speak of a gradual path within Zen, as taught perhaps in the 10 oxherding pictures. Gil Fronsdale (a Theravada teacher, mostly) has a great talk on this here.

And fourth, we might talk about the other side of Zen experience, sudden awakening. Sudden awakening is the notion that we are all already Buddhas and all we need to do is realize that; any thought of a path or progress or development is inherently dualistic and missing the ultimate point of Zen, which is to be awake here now.

I suppose I could look too at Zen philosophy, but I think history and experience nicely sums up What Zen Is. Here are some assorted notes for the talk, which may or may not find their way into the final product:


That ‘Zen is Not Buddhism’ is an assertion I first heard in my MA days (2005), and goes back at least to the publication of “Pruning the Bodhi Tree: The Storm Over Critical Buddhism.” It’s with much gratitude that I note that the book may be downloaded in its entirety from here (a pdf of contents with links).

The heart of the argument is something like this (From Swanson’s introduction, p.7):

Buddhism is the teaching of non-self (muga; anātman) and the teaching of causality (pratītyasamutpāda). This teaching of causality is not that of universal mutual co-arising and non-temporal causality developed later (as, for example, in the Hua-yen tradition), but the temporal, twelvefold chain of dependent arising as discovered by the Buddha during his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and classically expressed in the Mahāvagga…. Dhātu-vāda is antithetical to Buddhism, since it is the very teaching that Śākyamuni intended to deny. The idea of a tathāgata-garbha, the “womb,” “matrix,” or “seed” of Buddhahood inherent in all sentient beings, is a form of Dhātu-vāda and thus is not Buddhist.

The ethical outcome for this, it is argued is:

In practice it leads to discrimination, since if one assumes a single basis and underlying reality for all things—that good and evil, strong and weak, rich and poor, right and wrong, are fundamentally “the same”—there is no need or incentive to correct any injustice or right any wrong or challenge the status quo.

And indeed this teaching was found to be useful for soldiers throughout Japanese history: if there is ultimately no being to be killed, there is no wrong in the act [of killing].


On the other hand, this may not phase a Zen master or student. Returning to D.T. Suzuki, we find the teaching that, “Zen has nothing to teach us in the way of intellectual analysis; nor has it any set of doctrines which are imposed on its followers for acceptance. In this respect Zen is quite chaotic if you choose to say so…. If I am asked, then, what Zen teaches, I would answer, Zen teaches nothing.” (p. 38 of “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism”)

We, Zen and non-Zen alike, might condemn murder, but this is a dualistic act and has nothing to do with Zen. It may be “good” to do so, but good is a dualistic judgment and has nothing to do with Zen. Ethics are important, and indeed are probably taught and enforced by all Zen teachers, but… they have nothing to do with Zen.

But… They might have a lot to do with this thing we call Buddhism.

Then again, I might just flip through the Sayings of Linji (Chao-chou) and Wumen’s Gate (Wu-men kuan), tell a few stories and enjoy the laughter and puzzlement of the students. And then, meditate.

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