Friday, November 02, 2012

Anti-Intelligence in Zen

On a website dedicated to bonsai, we find this description of zen:

The most salient characteristic of Zen when compared to other Buddhist schools is its anti-intellectualism. Zen is opposed to intellectual knowledge and instead promotes direct, intuitive experience of transcendental truths. It doesn't have holy scriptures, dogmas or myths. Lao-Tse is reported to have said: Those who know do not talk. Those who talk do not know.
These ideas about zen permeate the community of practitioners and yet it is missing something.  Zen has holy scriptures, dogmas, and myths.  It also has a history of literature, art, and philosophical debate.    These features have their limits, yet they also have their uses. 

It would be more consistent with the tradition to say that zen puts intellectual knowledge into a certain perspective.  Understanding does not dispel dukkha, the primary craving of existence.  There is no book, no formula, no explanation, no words or images that eliminate the craving at the root of the human condition.  It is also true that "direct, intuitive experience of transcendental truths" doesn't cure it either.  That experience can integrate it into a new perspective (though even this is not guaranteed), but the strongest satori in the world doesn't make you anything other than human. 

Seung Sahn is known for saying "put down your thinking" a lot, but he also acknowledged that thinking has a correct function.  The point was to use thinking correctly and then let it go.  He also said, "Everybody wants something." 

There are many uses of intelligence.  Our basic perceptive senses -- smell, sight, taste, touch, hearing -- and the way we put that information together is a function of intelligence.  We use intelligence for the basic competencies of staying alive: eating, dressing, cleaning ourselves, crossing a street without getting run over.  We use intelligence to figure out how to make a living and understand the system in which we do that.  We use intelligence in deciding to practice zen, for that matter.  The Sixth Patriarch may have been illiterate, but the legend goes that he was awakened by listening to someone read the Diamond Sutra. While it can be argued that Hui Neng experienced something "direct, intuitive, transcendental" upon hearing the words -- it remains that the spontaneous experience was sparked by listening to literature.

There are many uses of intelligence, and sometimes a word, an image, a note played on a flute, or some other sensation can actually penetrate our consciousness and "awaken" our attention to a much wider frame.  Consider all the zen legends about people "awakening" at the sound of a rock hitting a piece of bamboo, or falling down a hill, or hearing a bell.  Someday I'll tell you the story of a piece of ceiling falling on me -- it's very "zenny." 

Going further, though: the uses of intelligence don't need to be justified with some cliche description of a zen experience.  Wanting a certain experience is a very bad zen sickness, for starters, and in trying to induce it, people sometimes take a terrible pride in their austerity.  We could live on a diet of rice and beans, denying ourselves the fleeting pleasures of other foods or condiments -- and that may or may not be a useful practice for an intensive retreat -- but is that virtuous?  Is that "zen?"   Everybody wants something.

There are people I've known personally for many years in the Kwan Um school,  and with a few of these individuals I struggle to find any conversation.  Art?  History?  Current events?  Literature?  Those things aren't "zen."  Any interest in these topics is held as a distraction from a narrow focus on "clear mind."  It is simply not "zen" to bring up these things, and people exhibiting such interests are snared by the worldly.
A young friend of mine at Providence Zen Center was a talented musician living as a postulant monk.  One day, he announced he was giving up music.  I persuaded him to let me keep his banjo, and he proudly handed it over.  He then marched up the hill for the traditional three-month silent retreat at the monastery.  The banjo sat in my closet all winter.  I'm happy to say that after the retreat was over, he came back down the hill and asked for his banjo.  He played for us that night, and it was wonderful.  Appreciating good music is an act of intelligence, and does not seem "anti-zen" in the least -- unless one is holding onto some notion of austerity and calling that "zen." 

A fondness for playing the banjo or an occasional novel or making love with your partner, or whatever, does not necessarily diminish one's practice or the importance of enlightenment.  Here it might be useful to revisit the concept (yes, it is a concept) of the bodhisattva path:  we live and practice not so that we can achieve "enlightenment" for ourselves and whatever rewards we think go with it; we live in this world, with all these other beings, practicing for all beings while we are here.  When enlightenment comes, we give that to everybody else.  And while we're here, we might also play a little banjo.

And as a practicing person in the world, we might decide not to follow the same "rules" as everybody else -- but as in art, we know the rules we are breaking, nu?  

People differ in their interests and aptitudes.  One person might not have an ear for poetry at all; another can feel bored stiff about political economics; and so on.  But that is a different thing than what is being expressed when someone at your zen center dismisses art, or science, or politics, or whatever with something zenny ("Just put it all down and don't know!").  We have dogma after all.   

A monk once told me he did not vote because "I'm a monk and I'm not involved in the world."  I responded by showing him his mail: insurance statements, a statement from his mutual fund, a reminder that his car was due for an oil change.  I wasn't about to make him vote if he didn't want to, but the idea that he wasn't involved in the world was a fantasy.  Everybody wants something.

When the Japanese poet Takahashi Shinkichi became a monk, he made a big fire and burned all of his poetry.  Clearly, it survived, since I have read translations of it; and some of it is quite good. That bonfire was symbolic of "putting it all down" without actually destroying it.
Suppose for just a moment that someone a thousand years ago decided that using a hammer wasn't "zen."  Not only would there be no zen centers, but most of the sangha would be sleeping on the ground.  But hammers don't help us achieve enlightenment.  Or do they?  Bang bang bang.

What about medicine?  Medicine does not seem to have helped anybody achieve "enlightenment," but when I was suffering from pneumonia, medicine kept me alive so I could continue practicing.  A hammer is a tool, and so is medicine.

And so on for other uses of intelligence.  Formal meditation is a method of perception.  So is drawing.  So is writing -- arranging words either to transmit information or even to convey a sense of something ineffable.  Touching someone is a method of perception.  And so on to things like mathematics, engineering, economic analysis -- these are all methods of perception.  They are forms of consciousness.  Any one of them have their natural limits, of course, but they all help human beings process information and perceive the world in which we live.

Cutting off parts of our consciousness, mutilating our awareness by choice, does not seem conducive to enlightenment. It sounds like the opposite. 


Ji Hyang said...

Well written-- I know the worlds whereof you speak...
that is the Mahayana path: al phenomena are empty, and all phenomena are also just-like-this truth: the whole world is a single flower...

meditation said...

Nice post. I have a soft corner about zen:) I like your blog!