Zen Abbot's Journal Vol 57 December 5, 2006

by Norman Fischer | December 12, 2006 at 7:12 PM

From Zen Abbot's Journal Vol 57 December 5, 2006 Mar de Jade, Chacala, Nayarit, Mexico

In one of my Dharma talks in the sesshin I discussed Isaiah's vision of the angels, six-winged, two wings covering their faces, two their legs, and with the last two flying up and down calling out to one another "Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with God's glory." We all stood up at the end of the talk and sang this prayer. I presented it as Isaiah's radical shift in viewpoint: after this vision he was furiously inspired as a prophet of God, having through the vision been purified of his sins when one of the angels touched his "unclean lips" with a live coal from the temple altar. So, I said, practice changes our point of view radically, if less dramatically. Buddha's enlightenment amounts to that: a radical shift in viewpoint.

But what's the new viewpoint? Well, ultimately, no viewpoint, the freedom from viewpoints, which is what we mean by "enlightenment" (to be without content, but full of light?) Is this possible? Well, yes and no. No if we think it means we have no viewpoint. Yes if it means we can hold our viewpoint lightly, knowing it to be not the way things are but simply a viewpoint. So that we are not mesmerized by it and are capable of letting it go in favor of another, at any moment. Freedom from viewpoint, one could argue, is a sort of viewpoint. Or could be. Could we be free also of that viewpoint? 

This is the sort of stuff Dale Wright is dealing with in his book "Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism:"

"It is important to realize that the ‘referents' of Zen concepts, that to which they refer, differ from most in that they come into being (in the mind) only through conception and not additionally through being perceived as objects in the world. While they can be experienced in relation to objects in the world, they are nonetheless of a different order than the objective. Concepts of this ‘order' such as ‘One Mind,' ‘emptiness,' ‘Buddha Nature,' lacking perceivable referents, have their origins in the imagination. They require the person thinking them to begin by imagining not some special object or entity, but the ordinary world around them now seen in some special light. These conceptions show the ordinary world ‘differently,' and thus open up modes of experience other than those with which we are already familiar. This difference in the appearance of the ordinary is at first fictional and abstract, a provisional projection of an imagined possibility. But as the concept is ‘used' or ‘practiced' it becomes more ‘natural' not a projection onto the world as much as the actual appearance of the world itself." P. 176

This is true of any religious or imaginative concept that one holds dear. But Zen seems to recognize explicitly that all its concepts are ‘empty,' and to offer a way to ‘train' in this fact. (Wright's use of quotation marks is contagious. If one were to be completely honest, all words would be written with quotation marks around them. I think once Alice [Notley] had a major poem that used this device).


"In the absence of critical thought only dogmatism remains — assertions grounded in desire but lacking justification." P. 178

As if the assertion were self evident and in no need of justification. The ‘justification' is where critical thinking comes in: to allow one to reach beyond the boundaries of faith and desire (interesting to think of conventional notions of faith as being connected to desire: that which we have faith in is in fact a projection of our desperate desire) in order to communicate fully and honestly. Critical thought as a way to critique and go beyond our concepts (Zen's ‘kill the Buddha!') is good; critical thought as a nihilistic destroyer of any wholesome attitude is not so good. I've known people dedicated to critical thought who were miserable as a consequence, because incapable of love. How can you love that which your critical mind can (conceptually) destroy? So love defies critical thought. But critical thought balanced by love is very useful; it even promotes love by continually opening us to the other by breaking down (gently, one hopes, and it would be gentle if you knew what you were doing and why) conceptual barriers to the other.

There is in fact ‘fundamentalist' Zen. Holding fast to concepts like ‘Zen' or ‘no mind' or ‘beyond thinking' or ‘Buddha Nature' etc as being actually true or real and beyond critical thought — this is exactly dogmatism as Wright defines it. 


"Our understanding of the goal of practice changes as we progress toward it. Our understanding of excellence, in any dimension of human culture, is altered by our striving to attain it. We make progress not only in our proximity to the goal, but in our conception of it as well." P. 205

This has been my experience. I began striving for enlightenment, for prajna, for piercing insight, and couldn't have cared less about compassion, or anyone, for that matter. But the very moving along in that direction brought love and compassion into view, so that wisdom dissolved into love and I couldn't see it anymore as something outside of love. And now, as I get older, the whole of practice itself dissolves into life.


"In the current world cultural situation, it is clear that the most promising resource for insights that might re-shape our ideals is cross- cultural and cross-historical reflection....modernity in Europe derived in part from Europe's encounter with Islamic culture, and, through it, Europe's first full-scale appropriation of a legacy from Greece and Rome. Similarly, China and other Buddhist countries have reshapes their thinking and practice through creative encounter with the West." P. 205-6

We have almost no appreciation of high Islamic culture in the middle ages and how influential it was on the West. The dishonor contemporary Muslims may feel over the West's current disregard and historical blindness may account for much of what is going on now in the Islamic world. Also, we have little appreciation for the fact that all the Buddhism we have received from Asia is a Buddhism already influenced by the West. Histories I have read of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are full of debates within the sangha about how much of the modern world to accept and incorporate. 


"Huangbo pictures enlightened patriarchs in real life situations effacing themselves so that the true contour of the situation comes to disclosure in them. They encounter the world, not through acts of will and mind primarily, but through relinquishment. Opening their own minds and will, the larger context of the situation comes manifest through them." P. 200

... or they help the situation along, help it come to fruition as it most beautifully can (even if sometimes painfully) not through their desire and action, but simply through their presence. This is renunciation. Renunciation is not giving up coffee or sex! It's giving up everything and merging with the flow of reality. It's easy to be criticized for this. People want you to do this and that, have many ideas about what you should be doing, how you should be acting. What's right and what's wrong. Sometimes "allowing the true contour of the situation to come to disclosure" in you might not look so good from a conventional point of view.


Norman Fischer