indifferent zen

“How prosaic and emotionally indifferent Zen is! When it sees a mountain id declares it a mountain; when it comes to a river, it just tells us it is a river. When Chokei (Chang-ching) after twenty hard years of study happened to lift the curtain and saw the outside world, he lost all his previous understanding of Zen and simply made the announcement: ‘How mistaken I was! Raise the curtain and see the world! If anybody asks me what philosophy I understand, I’ll straightaway give him a blow across his mouth with my hossu.’

“Chokei does not say what he saw when the screen was lifted up. He simply resents any question being asked about it. He even goes to the length of keeping the questioner’s mouth tightly closed. He knows that if one one even tried to utter a word and say ‘this’ or ‘that,’ the very designation misses the mark. It is like another master bringing out before the entire congregation a monk who asked him who Buddha was. The master then made this remark, ‘Where does this monk want to find Buddha? Is this not a silly question?’ Indeed, we are all apt to forget that every one of us is Buddha himself. In the Christian way of saying, this means that we are all made in the likeness of God or, in Eckhart’s words, that ‘God is-ness is my is-ness and neither more nor less.’” ~Daisetz T. Suzuki

Emotionally Indifferent Zen

Is Zen Buddhism truly emotionally indifferent? I am not convinced of it. I can remember during the Vietnam war scenes of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire (self-immolation ) to protest the war and the rule of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. That is not at all indifference. Of course, some of these monks may have been practicing a form of Buddhism other than Zen. Yet I still believe that Zen is not truly indifferent.

For starters, why bother to be a monk at all if you are indifferent to the condition of the world, the people in it, or your own fate? Unless forced to by circumstances beyond their control, I think one becomes a monk (or spiritual adept) because he wants to better himself, the world, and all of humanity. So if they later achieve this emotionally indifferent Zen, why don’t they quit being monks?

I think the idea is actually to not worry about the conditions of the world, especially those things you cannot change, to the point that it makes you behave contrary to common sense.

Raise the Curtain

On this, I can totally agree with the Zen teachers. We do need to raise the curtain and see the outside world. But wait a minute! Don’t many spiritual schools of today teach that all truth, all knowledge, is within ourselves and we need not look outside for anything? Indeed they do, but they are wrong. It is certainly true that we need to look within ourselves for our own truth, as well as to find the lies we think are true. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should ignore the outside. Most schools do teach that we can learn something from everyone we meet. But don’t we have to look outside of ourselves to pay attention to what the other person has to teach us? And not only every person but every being, every tin, has something to teach us. But it can only teach us if we end the arrogance and look outside of ourselves.

To raise the curtain is more of an allegory than a literal statement. We raise the “curtain” of false beliefs, false teaching, to see truth and wisdom. And the Zen teacher looked outside, not inside to find it. We all need to do the same. Emotionally indifferent Zen Masters do this, but so should all other spiritual students.

This or That

The Zen Master doesn’t say what he saw when he lifted the curtain because, as Suzuki says, to say it is this or that is to miss the mark. In other words, if you say that what is beyond the veil between matter and spirit is “this,” you have not defined it, but limited it. Even to say “it is like this, but not quite this,” is a false definition, and even more confusing. The problem is that words define things of matter, or perhaps more accurately, bind them in their place. They cannot define the spiritual, only vaguely suggest what it is. Trying to use words to define and explaining spiritual things is harder than explaining the colors of things to a blind person. That is what the Zen master doesn’t want the student to ask what was seen, but instead to ask how he can lift his own curtain and see reality. It isn’t really indifferent Zen in play here, it is a desire to avoid giving incomplete or inaccurate answers which are therefore untrue. To get the truth, you must seek and find it yourself. You start by awakening your spiritual faculties.


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