Zen Metaphysics


Zen does not usually attempt logical explanations of what we might call zen metaphysics because zen is ultimately about perception and experience. The zen masters of old tended to regard any attempt at a logical articulation with regard to zen to be a hindrance to progress rather than a benefit and rightly so. From a Zen point of view the intellect is a problem and the last thing the Zen master wanted was for his students to engage in endless intellectual speculation, taking them further and further from the possibility of enlightenment. However, while it is true that ultimately we must abandon the use of the intellect, the intellect can be employed in a useful way and that is in coming to an understanding of what we must do in order to enlighten ourselves and why we must do it.

It is rare to see an attempt at explaining Zen metaphysics and the only case I have personally come across is in the writings of D. T. Suzuki, the famous Japanese Zen Buddhist. However, Suzuki’s explanations are difficult to piece together and tend to leave the reader at a loss as to their true meaning. They also give no clear insight in to what we must do in order to enlighten ourselves and why we must do it. Instead we are presented with various quotations from enlightened masters as to the nature of things like mind and no-mind. Most people find these explanations and quotations baffling and find themselves non the wiser for reading them. Indeed, it can be a rather disheartening experience to read these explanations when looking for a way forward. In this post I make an attempt to re-examine Suzuki’s writings on these matters and hopefully render them more intelligible and hopefully beneficial.

Perhaps one of the biggest omissions in Suzuki’s writings is a lack of any explanation regarding the relationship between the macrocosm represented by reality itself and the microcosm represented by living beings such as humans. This lack of explanation makes it difficult for the reader to understand where they personally fit in to the scheme of things with regards to Zen concepts such as mind and no-mind. We might for instance ask what the difference is between a living being and an inanimate object if they both arise out of Mind? Hopefully this post will illuminate some of these issues.

To try and illustrate the Zen scheme of things I have created the diagram shown below:


This diagram represents both the macrocosm ie. reality itself and the microcosm ie. living beings. The system ABC corresponds to the macrocosm and the system XYZ corresponds to the microcosm. In Zen Buddhist philosophy, everything exists due to opposition within something that Zen designates as “self-nature”, that is, the opposition between what Zen calls the “conscious” and the “unconscious” or “mind” and “no-mind”. This opposition is responsible for the self-reflecting or self-conscious aspect of the macrocosm, designated “Mind” with a capital M and the self-reflecting or self-conscious aspect of the microcosm, designated “mind” with a small m. The self-reflecting mind of a living being is identical to the self-reflecting Mind of reality itself. There is no separation between them, only perceived separation. The mind of a living being  suffers from a limited view or tunnel vision that is a consequence of the living beings physical and spiritual make-up. The living beings mind is a partial aspect of the universal or macro-cosmic Mind. Indeed, the minds of different types of creatures perceive the world very differently. We might ask how the fly perceives reality and whether the creature that lives for one day experiences life as a single day in human terms or something very different? Is duration an aspect of individual mind?  No manifestation is identical but we can talk of human nature just as we can talk about the nature of fly’s and dogs.

First and foremost in the Zen scheme, is self-nature represented by points B and Y. Self-nature is that from which all else issues and nothing exists but for self nature. Time and space, the physical world and consciousness itself  are all outgrowths of self-nature. At a point before the world has even come into existence, a division takes place within self-nature that creates the fundamental antithesis or duality from which the whole of existence arises. This antithesis has on one side what we call the conscious or mind and on the other side the unconscious or no-mind. The conscious and the unconscious therefore sit back to back conditioning one another and creating a self-reflecting mind. Without this fundamental antithesis, self-consciousness would not be possible because self-consciousness requires the presence of an object and a subject. There must in other words, be something for consciousness to be conscious of.

It is important to understand that this model applies to both the macrocosm represented by the universe itself and to the microcosm represented by living beings. The self-reflecting property of the macrocosm is the mechanism for the self-conscious functioning of living beings. There is no separation between the mind of a living being and the macrocosm. They are one and the same thing but the living beings mind represents a partial view of the macrocosm. What me might call the “channel” between the conscious and the unconscious is represented in a human being by the system XYZ and is in reality the system of the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch and the sixth sense of ideation or the intellect. In other words, the microcosm is the human body and it is thoroughly mixed up with the macrocosm in that it is an emanation from reality itself and it depends upon the transcendental functioning of the macrocosm for it’s existence. A quote from Zen literature makes this quite clear:

The five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch are the external gates, and ideation is the internal gate

The implications of this statement are profound and it points us to a number of truths and conclusions. Our view of the world, and our perceived consciousness is an amalgamation of the five senses and the intellect or ideation. The unenlightened human being is trapped in a limited world where they draw conclusions from information coming in through the sense channels and an internal process of ideation attempts to make sense of this information. Because the senses act as “gates” and their focus is in an outward direction towards the “real” world, the unconscious remains invisible consciously to the unenlightened person and this has two implications. Firstly the unenlightened person is cut off from the macrocosmic view of the world as they see only one side of reality, and secondly, they perceive themselves as separate from the world itself, as some kind of autonomous entity. This is inevitable as the senses themselves give a sense of “self”. A persons conception of self  is a result of the interaction between the five senses and ideation cut off from a view of the unconscious. We develop “ideas about ourselves” and consequently we develop an ego. The ego is nothing more than this combination of the five senses and ideation creating a kind of island within consciousness and as such it is illusory. It cuts us off from the macro-cosmic view of things and we develop a need to exist at any cost, precisely because we see ourselves as an island and are therefore vulnerable to “external” threats. We therefore become brittle and fearful of death, always trying to affirm ourselves in the face of the not-self which is in reality not the not-self.

It is important to also point out that while the intellect deals with information that it receives from the senses, it also receives information from what we call intuition and this intuition is an emanation from “that which knows” ie. the unconscious. Most peoples powers of intuition are very undeveloped and we tend to ignore intuitive thoughts even when they seem to intimate something threatening or negative. We don’t trust our intuition but it is actually more accurate than pure intellectual thought as it comes from a deeper source. When a person receives a genuine strong intuition they are receiving something from an authorative source and they should listen. These things do not happen for no reason. This information comes in Zen terminology from “prajna” or “wisdom” but this wisdom is a non-discriminating intelligence, in other words intuitive in nature:

“Prajna unknowing knows all, prajna unseeing see’s all”

We can draw important conclusions from these insights into how we should move forward with regard to enlightening ourselves and the role the intellect or ideation must play in this process. Since most people have very poor levels of intuitive insight, intuition is not going to help us here. If a person had access to very high levels of intuitive knowledge they would quickly become enlightened, but since most do not we have to look elsewhere. Intuitive knowledge will naturally develop in the individual who acts in a “skilful” manner as Zen often says. It is through acting skilfully, or with wisdom that we develop our faculties. As Zen says,

“When we increase our capacity, we increase our insight. When we increase our insight we increase our capacity”.

Ideation is the “internal gate” and for the unenlightened person it essentially sits on the conscious side of the dualism, able only to view and process information from senses that also sit on the conscious side of the dualism, it is powerless to help us with regard to seeing in to the unconscious. It has no knowledge of the unconscious, at least not consciously, and therefore has no information with which to work. It is like asking a blind man to read you todays newspaper. The intellect cannot conceive of any new perception without actually having the perception because the intellect in the unenlightened person is entirely dependent upon perception. It draws its conclusions from perceptions and from building what Zen calls “arbitrary views” based on those perceptions. To Zen these views are like the Tower of Babel, built on unsound foundations, so much “stuff and nonsense”. The more you intellectualise the further you move from enlightenment. The more you intellectualise the more you anchor yourself on the conscious side of the dualism. A careful study of the diagram above makes this fact obvious. If the senses face outwardly in to the conscious side of the dualism and the intellect receives it’s information from the senses then from where would it gain information about the unconscious? The senses do not look into the unconscious but rather the opposite direction. The intellect forms a layer between the senses and the unconscious but since the intellect is enamoured by the external world whose impressions it receives through the senses it  blinds us to that which lies at the back of consciousness. It is like a fog that won’t lift and which believes itself to be a self-contained entity rather than a part of a larger reality.

Logic would therefore lead us to one conclusion; the intellect is a hindrance to enlightenment not a help. We must in essence transcend the intellect or at least the little voice that thinks it has a cogent view of things. We must overcome the intellects fascination with the external world and with commenting on that world. This fascination causes the intellect to remain a part of the ego illusion because it considers it’s own survival as important. We must ask ourselves some simple questions such as why do we feel the need to comment on things so strongly, why do we get angry, why do we want to live so badly, why do we feel threatened if somebody contradicts our views on things, why do we think we must be successful etc. There is obviously something within that feels threatened in some way and has a certain self-image of itself that it must maintain. Likewise, we could ask what our attitudes would be like  if we had very high degrees of humility and if we lack a high degree of humility, then why is that? Are we afraid of humiliation? If so why? Humility and humiliation are two bedfellows. We often feel a sense of humility after being humiliated and therefore it can be useful to remember past humiliations as a means of inducing humility. When talking of humility I am revering to the act of ceasing to assert oneself, of losing the desire to win or dominate, not some pretend humility where a desire to project a certain image of oneself is the motive. That is false humility.  True humility could be classed as an absolute neutrality where one is unconcerned with the idea of conquest or gain in it’s many different manifestations. Even under severe provocation, one remains unmoved internally. Even if you have the power to do someone damage you desist. There is transcendental functioning and merit in this.  It is linked to the Buddhist concept of secret virtue whereby one may act to reduce harm to an individual without their knowledge, should such opportunity present itself. Unfortunately there is something in the human psyche that makes many reluctant to act in this manner, to act wholeheartedly as Zen would say. As the Zen teacher Alfred Pulyan said “We mortals are so rock ribbed”.

So how do we go about the process of enlightening ourselves? It’s absolutely essential to get the ego and intellect in to a state of passivity. Metaphysically speaking, it’s not possible to enlighten oneself while the intellect points in the direction of the conscious world and is enamoured with it’s own musings. This should be obvious from all that’s been said.  To be enamoured with ones own thought is to be like the obsessive hoarder who refuses to discipline themselves. Thoughts and views are intellectual possessions that engender pride and the need to assert ourselves. Ask yourself, whether you’re a plaything of your thoughts, emotions and desires or an independent being? If you can’t even control your thoughts how do you know what drives them and where they come from? Could the subject matter of much thought be essentially random in nature? Is the desire to think caused by an internal pressure with no particular aim behind it? In other words do we think because we can’t stop ourselves? Why does one person appear to have a particular bee in their bonnet and another person a different one? Is one persons obsession more valid than another’s or are they both deluded? Since you’re going to die can you immortalise yourself somehow or is that another delusion? What is the possibility that you’ll be remembered a million years from now? When you remember a dead person does it give them a sense of importance or have they stopped caring?

Zen requires us to be brutal with ourselves in this way. Self deceit and zen are poor bedfellows  because zen requires the ability to see the bigger picture and then the ability to act in accordance with those insights. It would be enough to say “I’m going to die, maybe I should be quiet, quit my job of comment and transcend myself”. However, the desire for recognition is subtle and strong. All our worldly effort revolves around this, either subtly or grossly. We are like blind men wandering in the desert or a person who insists on remaining in a building as it burns down. “Time is the fire in which we burn”.

All of Zen literature points to the fact that the intellect and opinionation are the problem, but a large does of faith in the teachings is required because the initial stages are difficult and it takes time. Consider the following:

“Do not seek enlightenment, merely stop cherishing opinions”

“The way consists in it’s entirety of the following; when things happen make no reaction, remain forever still as the void and spontaneously attain deliverence”

Student : “How should one think in order to obtain enlightenment”
Master : “One should think solely of enlightenment”
Student: “How does one think of enlightenment”
Master: “Since enlightenment is intangible one cannot think about it, therefore to think of enlightenment is called      right thinking”

Student: “How should one use the mind in order to obtain enlightenment”
Master: “There is no mind to be used and no enlightenment to obtain”

Student: “How should I use the mind in order to enlighten myself”
Master: “To talk of using the mind is a great mistake”

It’s quite clear from these quotes that it is continual involuntary use of the mind that is the problem. What the Zen Masters are essentially saying is “stop using your mind, that which you think is your mind is not really your mind”. It’s not compulsory to continually think. The person who cannot stop thinking has no internal solidity and no gentle neutrality. Something happens and then something stirs inside them and a thought is produced. There is no stability in their inner core. The slightest notion or event stirs up a train of thoughts. Their inner core is like mercury forever shifting and moving at the slightest nudge or tilt.

Therefore, at the most basic level, we must stop using the mind. This does not mean we become a walking automaton, with no perception or ability to function in the world. A person can carry out all the things they normally do without the slightest though crossing their minds. You don’t need to think to make a cup of tea, you just do it. You don’t need to think to drive a car, you just do it. As Zen says, “When hungry eat, when tired sleep”. The reason this is possible is because perception itself is intelligence. The thoughts that pop in to a persons head are after thoughts generated by an intellect fed by perception. Perception comes before the thought and is called “real thinking”. It is non-discriminative thinking. It simply knows because it perceives. There is no further ado about it. It doesn’t need to discuss how to make a cup of tea because it knows how to make a cup of tea. It also knows how to move your body without you having to think “now I’ll move my leg”. It knows because mind and body are one and it directly perceives the body. It doesn’t need the intermediary of explicit thought.

The problem from the point of view of enlightenment is that this knower remains at once hidden and yet not hidden. It is not hidden because we make use of it all the time, or perhaps it would be better to say we are in the midst of it at all times. But it is hidden because the intellect takes all the credit for it’s actions. We say “I did this”, “I did that”, “I like Mozart” etc. and yet perception came before these thoughts and perception simply did the deed, it didn’t claim credit and it didn’t intellectualise about the matter. Perception is absolutely still, there isn’t an iota of movement or intellectual expression in it and so it escapes our notice. To notice it we must also become absolutely still internally so that the process of usurpation ceases. When you look at the “external” world, is it not in essence in  a state of absolute stillness? Look at an object sitting on a table. If you look carefully, it is supernaturally still and something perceives it. That which perceives is also supernaturally still and escapes our notice and yet there we are in the midst of it! It is there yet apparently not there.

To see into this mystery then we need to become absolutely still internally. We have to stop the “mad monkey” as the Hindu’s call it. I have suggested numerous ways of going about this in other posts, but will suggest another that is quite gentle in nature but will still require effort and attention. Consider the following statement:

“If you put nothing out to the world, what is there for the world to oppose”?

This statement is designed to bring your attention to the fact that we only feel opposed by the world because we insist on putting out mental phenomena to the world. If you stop doing this there is nothing to be opposed and one lives in peace. The non-enlightened person is like the drunk who goes into a bar, insults someone and then gets punched on the nose and wonders why it happened. It happened because the drunk asserted himself and having done so now feels sorry for himself. We are all a bit like this. It’s a comedy of errors, where we act but can’t quite see that it is our desire to assert that lands us in trouble. The person who no longer asserts and is internally as “solid as a diamond” will not bring trouble upon themselves and comes to perceive that it was their internal agitation that kept them from seeing their real nature.

The enlightened person is solid internally and they no longer react reflexively. The heavens could fall in and not an iota of thought would cross their mind and yet in the midst of it they know all that is occurring because they perceive. However, their perception there is a transcendental insight that the non-enlightened person lacks. They perceive things that the non-enlightened person does not, such as the real nature of the senses, the real nature of the mind etc. This all comes from the act of desisting, resisting the desire to create mental formulations and phenomena. Therefore, stop putting out mental phenomena and live a life of peace and ease. Things are not as important as they seem. The process becomes delightful in time because one becomes free of conflict and contradiction. Use the statement “If you put nothing out to the world, what is there for the world to oppose”? as your starting point. Think about it’s implications and try to act in accord with it. Use it as a base for meditation whereby the sole aim is to halt the outgoing processes through a process of inner relaxation and pacification. Try and put it in to action in your daily life and become an observer rather than a commentator. Try to stop your mind from “leaking”, because that is what is going on in the unenlightened mind, it is leaking.


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