Religion 21st Century

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Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism is well known in Europe and North America even though it involves an obscure and difficult philosophy. Zen psychology contradicts common assumptions and doctrines. The practices found in Zen have evolved through several cultures in India, China and Japan. Zen can be considered a highly refined but tough and "bare bones" school of self-development that insists on a sustained and disciplined practice of meditation. Some would argue that Zen teaching is “pure Buddhism” as taught by the Buddha himself. In contrast to European philosophy and psychology, Zen discourages preoccupation with one's own story. If you keep a dairy, it could contain pictures of nature, little poems and drawings. Zen and science go well together.

Zen teaching takes a surgical approach to the cognitive lesions created by clinging to the past, egotism and the misuse of language: idle speculations, false story-telling, casemaking, memes and dualistic thinking. While dialectical processes of the brain appear to be built in and natural, a world view based on dualism distorts or conceals the seamless meshwork of events in the really real world. I would argue that paranoia is impossible in a proper Zen mind because there are no terrorists, there is no conspiracy, there is no blame, there is no danger, and there is no fear. Stories that blame others for the way you think and feel have no value and no one will listen to them.

The government is not responsible. You are responsible. I am responsible. Everyone is responsible.

Zen developed in China and manifests the work ethic of Chinese peasants who were pragmatic and lived close to nature. Suzuki contrasted the Chinese as "the most practical people” with the Indians who tend to be “visionary and highly speculative... subtle in analysis and dazzling in poetic flight.” Suzuki stated: ”the Chinese are children of earthly life, they pod, till the soil, observing social duties and developing the most elaborate system of etiquette. He contrasted the Indian Mahayana Sutras that burst with multiple deities, kaleidoscopic colors, fantastic exaggeration and magical, supernatural powers attributed to the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, with the more grounded Chinese Sutras that contain Confucian principles; the superior man never talks about his magical powers nor does he refer to supernatural events.

I first encountered Zen Buddhism as a teenager in the form of Alan Watts book, the Way of Zen.Watts had a lasting impact on my understanding. Watts introduced the idea that language determined thought and misrepresented what is really going on. Watts stated: “…man is always in danger of confusing his measures with the world so measured, of identifying money with wealth, fixed conventions with fluid reality. But to the degree he identifies himself and his life with these rigid and hollow frames of definition, he condemns himself to the perpetual frustration of one trying to catch water in a sieve.”

Watts also introduced the Tao, wu wei and the value of emptiness – all heretical concepts in the West. The Tao pointed to the natural way; the way of the natural mind and nature.The Taoist might be a sage in the forest who sat by a stream and conversed with birds. Wu wei means something like not doing, not acting, not making. Wu wei points to an insight into the way of the mind that is embedded deeply in Zen. Wu wei has at least two roots. The first root is a pragmatic assessment of the human condition. Human action is often un-necessary, wasteful and destructive. Why make hydrogen bombs when you could be sipping tea in a Zen garden?

Desires are often unattainable. Criticism and hate is invented and harmful. Ownership of things and people brings worry, frustration and ultimate loss. Why strive for all this stuff when happiness is your goal and sitting quietly by a stream brings happiness?

The second root is insight into the processes of the mind. All creativity is spontaneous and needs space; emptiness is valuable because it permits movement. The emergence of new forms of thought and experience require spaciousness in mind.

Cluttered minds are not creative. So do nothing, empty the mind, be quiet and appreciate the natural world. Zen is paradoxical, self-contradictory and iconoclastic, as exemplified in the following discourse:

Dako came to the Zen Master and said: I am seeking the truth. In what state of mind should I train myself to find the truth? The Zen master said:  There is no mind, so you cannot put it in any state.There is no truth so you cannot train yourself for it.

Dako asked: If there is no mind to train and no truth to find, why do you have these monks gather before you to study Zen?

The Master replied: But, I haven’t an inch of room here, so how could the monks gather? I have no tongue so how could I call them together or teach them?

Dako in frustration exclaimed: How can you lie like this?

But if I have no tongue to talk to others, how can I lie to you? asked the master.

Dako said sadly I cannot follow you. I cannot understand you.

 I cannot understand myself said the Zen master.


  • Religion for the 21st Century is available as an eBook download. The book is intended for a well-educated smart reader who is interested in a world view of religious expressions past, present and future. The main theme is that each religious group has its own claims and stories and will tend to reject others. A reader committed to one point of view may not accept the egalitarian review presented here. Innate tendencies are expressed as religions and in the past have created conflicts that hinder progress towards the real and true. The book examines paths for religious renewal in the 21st century.

    The author is Stephen Gislason

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