What is Zen? ...I

I do not know what answer learned persons give to this question, but personally I am at a loss each time that it is asked. I might reply, 'Zen is the science of the realisation of our cosmic nature', but there are few questioners who would find that adequate. So I will attempt a fuller definition, and see what happens.


Historically I believe Zen to be the philosophy of original Taoism, rendered immortal by the words attributed to Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, which proved to be too eclectic for the popular religion which Taoism became, but which, being a profound expression of relative truth, could not die and came to be absorbed by that very pure and dépouillée form of Buddhism said to have been introduced into China by Bodhidharma in the sixth century, and probably based on the Lankavatara sutra.

That form of Buddhism, traditionally the most authentic, comprehended by only a few, was termed DHYANA in Sanscrit, CH'AN in Chinese, and ZEN in Japanese. We are told that Dhyana means meditation, and this is repeated by all authorities despite the fact that meditation is continually condemned by the Masters of Zen and is in direct conflict with the way of life recommended by them. That Dhyana meant meditation in Sanscrit is presumably a fact, but what it meant, and still means, in China as CH'AN and in Japan as ZEN, is stated in the clearest and simplest possible manner by Hui Neng (Wei Lang) the sixth Patriarch from whom the modern doctrine directly descends. He states, in his sutra, 'Dhyana means to be free from attachment to all outer objects', and again, 'To be free from attachment to all outer objects is Dhyana.' Nothing could be less ambiguous. If it is desirable to put it in different words one might say, 'Dhyana means a state of mind unaffected by the field of sense-perceptions'. What matters is what is meant by the word, not what the word meant in another language, at another period, in another land. It can be rendered in negative terms - Detachment, Non-identification, Non-reaction.


Let me attempt to state what Zen is. I believe Zen to be a doctrine only in so far as it has an object and employs a method. Its object is the (necessarily instantaneous) realisation of a state of mind termed Satori in Japanese, Wu or Chienhsing in Chinese, and Sambhodi in Sanscrit, the most general English word for which may be Enlightenment. Many words are used in a similar context, but all are inadequate; for instance Liberation - but since there is nothing from which to be freed, except ignorance, the term is unfortunate. Terms such as Salvation, Nirvana, have a special context. 'Realisation' alone ('of our cosmic nature' understood) is perhaps the best.


The method by which this result is to be obtained may be defined as the elimination (by abolition or integration) of the artificial ego which has developed in the course of our lives as a result of our reactions to our surroundings. The reaction of the 'me' to the 'not-me' has produced an illusory entity, impermanent, ever-changing, whose apparent continuity is due to the circumstance of memory. As long as we suppose that this illusory entity, this phantasm, is 'us' it remains impossible for any human being to realise his real, or original, nature which is one with the cosmos.


The technique whereby this elimination may be achieved consists in the attainment of non-attachment, complete detachment from values based on sense-impressions, such values being necessarily dualistic, constructed on a comparison of the opposites and thereby relative. No dualistic values - those according to which we normally conduct our lives - can have any existence in Reality. This technique is applied not by discipline but by understanding.


The Japanese have sought to make Zen the basis of a way of life, applying it to archery, swordsmanship, flower-arrangement, the tea-ceremony, and no doubt to other activities. It is also used as a religion (in the popular sense). But however satisfactory it may be in these adaptations its essential function is the realisation of the state of Satori (which has always existed in all of us) by means of the instantaneous Satori-occurrence. It is this or nothing. And if such be the aim of all forms of Buddhism (termed Nirvana), or of all religions (termed Salvation or otherwise) Zen represents the most direct method and the only one that rejects all dogma, all ritual, all devotion, and all belief. It might be regarded as the pure essence of religion.

The basis of its teaching is that from the beginning nothing phenomenal is, and that cosmic essence (Mind-only, Absolute Mind) is the only Reality.

Note. It is suggested above that the term 'Liberation' is unfortunate, because no one has put us in prison; on the other hand, since liberation from an unreal ego is the essential fact of Zen and constitutes Satori, it can equally be considered precise and accurate. It depends on what the term suggests to whoever uses it.

Satori... 2

(referring to Satori 1, Ch. 8)

On the other hand, if Satori be regarded as the realisation that the 'I' is all-and-everything - which is the same thing looked at from another point of view - the 'I' should disappear as consciousness of an entity, and the Satori-occurance which released that realisation would disappear with it.

Both concepts are probably necessary to a full understanding.

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If Satori is access to a further dimension, then the opposites should be transcended therein, since the splitting into opposites is the effect of the screen or prism of Time (which is the limitation of perceived dimensions).

From the second dimension the first becomes observable in its entirety. From the third (height or depth) the first and second (a plane surface) become observable in their entirety. It follows that from a fourth dimension (another right-angle to all other dimensions) the first three (a volume) are observable in their entirety. Therefore if Satori is access to that further dimension perception therefrom includes all things. This is surely another way of describing the metaphysical concept that Satori is a realisation that the 'I' is all-and-everything.

Expressed differently: the second dimension, being infinite repetition of the first at right-angles, contains the first an infinite number of times within itself. The third dimension, being infinite repetition of the two first at right-angles to them, contains them (a surface) an infinite number of times within itself. Therefore a fourth dimension, being an infinite repetition of volume at right-angles thereto, contains that an infinite number of times within itself.

If Satori represents access to that fourth dimension then the 'I' that perceives must automatically realise that it includes within itself all-and-everything.

Note. When it is pointed out that from a fourth dimension a volume becomes observable in its entirety - that means that it becomes observable also from what we regard as 'within'.

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Dimensions have been regarded above as if they formed part of the structure of an external reality. Regarded as analytical elements of the human mind the result will be found to be the same though the concept will be considerably more difficult.

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In regarding Realisation as a personal phenomenon, if not attainment, are we not making a fundamental and disastrous error? Surely Realisation is impersonal - the realisation of our basic impersonality?

(© RKP, 1958)

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