December 29, 2012

Finding the Middle Path to Zen. ~ Chris Willitts

Is “experience” or history a better path to understanding Zen?

I think it depends on your definition Zen. Is it an experience? Is it a doctrine? Or is it both?

I believe it’s both to lesser and greater degrees, because this implies that there are two fundamentally opposed approaches to understanding Zen (objective and subjective). Naturally, there will be conflict amongst respective Zen experts. In this essay I will explain a brief history of Zen and discuss the consequences of only using one approach to understanding it. I will also make the case that if you had to choose one approach, why experiencing Zen trumps the research method using academic discipline. Finally, I will argue that there is a place for a middle path approach, which is the most optimal.

Let’s look at the history of the word itself.

The word Zen is Japanese for a style of Buddhism that came to fruition in China. When Buddhism arrived in China, the Chinese had to find a way to talk about these new ideas for which there were no Chinese words, so they imported the words along with the ideas. As the story goes, in the fifth century, an Indian monk named Bodhidharma came to China. Bodhidharma stressed meditation so much that he supposedly cut off his eyelids to keep from falling asleep when meditating.

His style of Buddhism came to be known as the Meditation School, or Chan for short. Many Chinese intellectuals, poets and artists were attracted to Chan’s simplicity and spontaneity, perhaps because it reminded them of their own Taoist tradition. Chan became a great influence in Chinese culture. Since China was the dominant nation of the day, many of its neighbors borrowed and learned from it. Many Japanese went to study in China, and eventually Chan Buddhism was brought to Japan by a monk named Eisai in the 13th century.

The Japanese, who had already imported Chinese characters into their own language, learned the character for Chan and pronounced it Zen. Zen became very influential in Japan, perhaps even more influential than it had been in China. In fact, it became so well-known that many people in the West think of it as a Japanese concept. Just as the Japanese borrowed the word from the Chinese, who borrowed it from the Indians, we have borrowed it from the Japanese, and now Zen is an English word.

According to Japanese Buddhist philosopher Dr. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki and his disciples, “Zen is illogical, irrational and, therefore, beyond our intellectual understanding.” Chinese scholar Hu Shih has taken offense to this claim and believes that Ch’an (Zen) “can only be understood only in its historical setting.” If Zen is an experience, then Suzuki is closer to the truth. If Zen is a doctrine, then Hu Shih would seemingly be correct.

So what is Zen? Is it an experience? Or is it a doctrine?

Zen is the transmission of the Buddha’s enlightenment itself, and is transmitted outside of words—direct from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the student. This means that Zen is ultimately an experience. However, there’s more to the story.

Zen is an experience that is invoked and cultivated by the daily practice of Zazen (seated-meditation), which is directed, in part, by doctrine.

Over time, Zazen produces self-mastery with regard to composure and tranquility of mind, but these are by-products of Zazen rather than its goals. The goal is the experience of enlightenment. This means that Suzuki is correct in his claim that the experience of Zen itself, especially enlightenment, is beyond our intellectual understanding. However, I think much can be gained by looking at the historical context of Zen and in what ways the doctrine drives the practice of Zazen, which is critical for the occurrence of the experience of Zen in the first place.

What are the consequences if we use only one approach to understanding Zen?

Generally speaking, we are at risk of rigid and egotistic thinking. Suzuki and Hu Shih are great examples of people who represent this kind of thinking. They rigidly hold on to the perceived superiority of their respective approaches in the name of human ego. To claim that you know something is an especially limiting way of being in this world. This is the number one consequence of adopting one approach, in either experience or academic, and could hold you back from discovering new truths. To say that you have an understanding of Zen and that you are open to new ways of thinking about Zen allows for the opportunity of deeper comprehension and appreciation.

One problem that may arise from focusing solely on an academic approach would be insensitive conclusions made about Zen as a result of the reductionist nature of the scientific method. Reducing Zen to names, places and dates could easily miss the qualitative aspects of Zen—its soul if you will. Qualitative aspects are what hold belief systems like Zen together. It’s what keeps practitioners coming back for more.

Additionally, there is an animate connection that comes to life when a group of people share the same experience as one another. The only genuine way to gain access to understanding this connection is to experience it for yourself. On the other hand, if you’re a Zen practitioner and choose to neglect its historical aspects, you may be subject to shortcomings or misinformation that your particular sect expresses. You also may miss out on the cultural richness of what Zen has to offer.

Of these two distinctly different ways to know about Zen, I believe that the kind of knowing gained by experience gives someone the most direct and deepest form of understanding. Through experience the practitioner knows what it’s like to practice Zen, whereas the academic knows about Zen by observing the practitioner who has the actual experience. It’s not the same thing. Observing something is not the same as experiencing it. Hi Shuh’s takes this a step further and claims that the experience of Zen is beyond intellectual inference—I tend to agree:

“If we are to judge Zen from our common-sense view of things, we shall find the ground sinking away under our feet. Our so-called rationalistic way of thinking has apparently no use in evaluating the truth or untruth of Zen. It is altogether beyond the ken of human understanding. All that we can therefore state about Zen is that its uniqueness lies in its irrationality or its passing beyond our logical comprehension.”

The primary goal of Zen is to attain enlightenment.

It is not to write a dissertation on how Zen spread throughout the East and arrived in the United States, or to understand it from and other academic standpoint. Can someone attain enlightenment and achieve the ultimate experience of Zen without pursuing the religion from an academic approach? Yes. Can someone attain enlightenment according to Zen doctrine without having the Zen experience? No. Even though academic study of Zen may deepen a practitioner’s understanding of the religion from a historical and cultural standpoint, it is not a needed to have the unique experience of enlightenment to which Zen reaches.

Practitioners simply don’t have to be concerned with the academic discipline. Academics, on the other hand, have things laid out in the opposite direction. They don’t have to experience Zen or attain enlightenment to write their academic papers and acquire their academic degrees. They have a different objective than the practitioner. In fact, in academic inquiry there is little room for subjective expressions of knowledge and so there is little to no incentive for the academic to experience Zen for themselves other than to observe the religion, even if participating, from an objective distance.

For instance, when writing this essay for an academic assignment, I had instructions not to include any personal thoughts, experiences or opinions because it’s an academic paper. That’s too bad because I have some interesting experiences to share regarding my own meditation practice that would be relevant to the subject of Zen practice. I would argue that I know much more about meditation, the focal point of Zen practice, than the academic who reads about others’ experience with meditation.

The experiential form of understanding gains access to a direct knowing about something that is intimate, practical and most advantageous. If you wanted to sail across the world would you prefer to go with someone who has experienced this kind of voyage several times or someone who has a degree in sailing with no actual experience? This to me illustrates why experiencing Zen trumps learning about it in class.

I have to admit that when I read the introduction on page three of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China Its History and Method, it gave me the impression that the academic and the practitioner have such fundamentally opposed approaches to the study of Zen that there was no place for the two to reconcile. The views of Suzuki and Hu Shih are rigid and inflexible, and I don’t believe understanding Zen is a black and white matter. I prefer a more nuanced middle path approach. Academic knowledge and experiential knowledge are two sides of the same coin. They are just two different methods of knowing about something.

Both are correct.

You gain the most when you integrate both approaches. The academic perception gets a good look at beginnings, the evolution and multiple expressions of Zen. The practitioner wouldn’t have access to this kind of information and knowing, by meditation, ritual and doctrine alone. Academic study of a religion in a specific place and time is a good reflection of what that society was going through at that time. This may not affect your practice specifically, but it may deepen your understanding of Zen from a cultural standpoint. Also, in an age where it is more acceptable to question you faith and its historical motivations and traditions, academic research can provide invaluable perspective. For the academic, experiencing Zen for yourself allows you know about the qualitative aspects of Zen. It allows you enter a realm of experience that has been celebrated for thousands of years. You get a glimpse of the soul of Zen, which cannot be put in words.

The experiential and academic practices are two fundamentally opposed approaches to understanding Zen. There are consequences if we use only one approach to understanding Zen. For a deep understanding of the practice of Zen, I recommend adopting the middle path approach that integrates both methods.


Chris Willitts is an expert of meditation, consciousness and strength training. He is also the founder of Mindful Muscle and teaches a course called Meditation Illuminates—a pioneering meditation class that integrates positive psychology applications. Chris’s academic background is in psychology/consciousness and meditation from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Check out Chris’s recent mindfulness project called Mindful Strength, a revolutionary mind-body system of meditation and strength training. Or, if you’re just getting started with meditation, please visit Meditation is Medication to get you going on the right path.


Assistant Ed: Amy Cushing


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