The Role of Criticism in Zen

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Ted Biringer
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The Role of Criticism in Zen

Post by Ted Biringer »

After the Socratic aphorism, we might say that an unexamined Zen is not worth living—but then, in the same breath, add that an unlived Zen is not worth examining.
Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection on His View of Zen, p.10

Do not misunderstand Buddhism by believing the erroneous principle ‘a special tradition outside the scriptures.’
Eihei Dogen, Shobogenzo, Bukkyo

Clyde’s recent post – in defense viewtopic.php?f=69&t=34161 – got me thinking about the place and significance of criticism within the realm of learning and study in Zen practice.

In recent decades our knowledge of Zen has greatly improved – and greatly altered – our understanding of it. New discoveries, advances in technology and methodology, and more extensive research have revealed much that was formerly unsuspected. As a result, whole new avenues of study have opened up. For example the scholarship confirming the continuity between the Zen koan literature of China and the works of Eihei Dogen (until recently explicitly denied) has led to new understandings of both the koan literature and Dogen’s works.

While newly established facts are crucial, of perhaps even greater significance are the toppling of fallacies – some of which had been sustained for decades or even centuries. For example, both eastern and western scholarship has obliterated the nearly universally accepted fallacies postulating Zen’s anti-literary, anti-philosophical stance. In contradiction to longstanding notions of Zen as aloof from, or even disparaging of literary and philosophical pursuits, scholarship has shown that such pursuits are and have been essential elements of authentic Zen practice. Learning and study, it turns out, is as integral to Zen practice as is meditation (zazen). As the great Dogen scholar Hee-Jin Kim puts it in one place:

The issue was not so much whether or not to philosophize as it was how to philosophize… [The] philosophic enterprise was as much the practice of the bodhisattva way as was zazen.
Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, Wisdom Publications; 3 Revised edition (January 1, 2000), p.98

Nevertheless, anti-literary, anti-philosophical fallacies concerning Zen continue to thrive not only outside the Zen community, but within it as well. Why is this? It seems to me that Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a clue:

If we take something to be the truth, we may cling to it so much that when the truth comes and knocks on our door, we won't want to let it in.
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the
Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra
, Parallax Press (November 24, 1964), p.6

We human beings seem to have a propensity to ‘cling’ or become attached to our own views. I think this is why the crucial importance of an accurate understanding of knowledge (epistemology), commonly treated in terms of the Buddhist notion of ‘right views’, has been a defining characteristic of Buddhist thought since its very beginning. It is no mystery why fallacies denigrating learning and study have been and continue to be so pernicious. By deliberately cultivating a disdain for knowledge and a distrust of language, those that ascribe to such views effectively bar themselves from its only remedy: learning and study. The significance of this is clear; our understanding of Zen teaching functions as the very foundation of our Zen practice – that is, the way we think, speak, and act in the world.

The emphasis in Buddhism on accurate knowledge (or ‘right views’) harmonizes with the great insight from which Buddhism developed. Crystallized in the Four Noble Truths, this insight reveals that bondage to suffering (dukkha) has its cause in ignorance or delusion about the true nature of reality. To be deluded about reality is to be inherently incapable of thinking, speaking, or acting in a manner harmonious with reality. To think, speak, or act in conflict with reality naturally results in suffering. Accordingly, enlightenment – seeing the true nature of reality – is the Buddha Way or Way of Zen; the Way to liberation from suffering.

Ignorance is the absence of knowledge. Delusion is the presence of distorted knowledge. Ignorance is relatively easy to remedy – the ignorant need only be acquainted with right knowledge. Delusion, however, is more pernicious – the deluded must recognize and acknowledge the fallibility of their current views before they can even begin to be receptive to right knowledge. Accepting that one’s own views are invalid is inherently difficult. The measure of this difficulty is proportional to the depth of attachment with which a view is held. No beliefs are prone to deeper attachment than those concerning one’s own knowledge about the nature of reality.

In sum, the presence of wrong views (delusion) is a great barrier to enlightenment; liberation from suffering. Accordingly, the great Zen scholars as well as the great Zen masters devoted much time and energy criticizing fallacies. Indeed, such criticism was part and partial to their practice of Zen.

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Re: The Role of Criticism in Zen

Post by Wayfarer »

Greetings and Salutations


Excellent post, and glad to see you posting at DharmaWheel. I used to enjoy your posts on Zen Forum International.
'Only practice with no gaining idea' ~ Suzuki Roshi
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