TALKING ABOUT ZEN
Eric Carl Wolf
B.A., College of Wooster, 1969
A.D., University of Albuquerque, 1973
MPA, University of New Mexico, 1990
Fellow, University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center LEND Program, 1998
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of English
Kokuzu is the Japanese word for counting the black beads of a rosary. In the eighteenth century, the Rinzai Zen
orthodox masters held the opinion that scholarly research is as worthless as the religious practice of counting
beads [Faure, 1993, 103], In my decades of practicing Zen, I have counted quite a few thousand beads myself
and have similarly wasted my time in scholarly research. What a pleasure it has been!
This thesis for the Master of English
Eric Carl Wolf
has been approved
Wolf, Eric Carl (M.A., English)
Kokuzu: Talking About Zen
Thesis directed by Professor Michelle Comstock
The word Zen has vigorously elbowed its way into American discourse in
the arts, publishing, science and marketing (our most competitive and influential form
of discourse) This paper explores the influence of Zen writing and literature on
several American discourses during the past century, and the influences American
discourse has had on Zen writing and teaching here in America. This study is of
interest to those studying American culture and its transforming impact on the
cultures of the rest of the world. The study should also interest American Zen
practitioners, who tend to believe that Zen is changeless and eternal at the same
time that American culture changes the way Zen is taught in America. A discussion
of the Zen tradition itself as a literary artifact is used to challenge common
perceptions about Zen.
This study examines the rhetorical characteristics of Zen speech and writing as
they have emerged from Taoism and Indian Buddhism, identifying antilogic as a key
difference between Western and Zen rhetorics. The study briefly considers the
context of Zen rhetoric as conceived by Jacques Derrida (1930 2004) both in
Zen practice and as it enters American discourse. The study goes on to explore the
appearance of Zen in brain research, advertising, publishing and scandal narratives.
It notes the introduction of women into Zen teaching in a way never seen before, and
the transformation of Zen teaching to being more wordy, more psychological, more
democratic, less harsh and more referential to other aspects of contemporary culture.
The studys theoretical framework relies on Kenneth Burkes (1897 1993)
dramatism and his rhetorical analysis based on hierarchy and motivation. Finally, the
study argues that Zen rhetoric counters a dominant Western paradigm of Progress
with its own archetype of a golden age dominated by Oriental wise men, although this
myth is as dangerous, ultimately, as an uncritical belief in Progress.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend
I am grateful to Cheryl Gardopee, who has been rhetorically inspiring me for over
thirty years, and to Michelle Comstock, who encouraged me to make a fetal idea
become a squalling baby.
When Joshu was asked about the significance of Bodhidharmas coming east
(which, proverbially, is the same as asking about the fundamental principle of
Buddhism), he replied, The cypress-tree in the courtyard.
You are talking, said the monk, of an objective symbol.
No, I am not talking of an objective symbol.
Then, asked the monk again, what is the ultimate principle of Buddhism?
The cypress-tree in the courtyard, again replied Joshu.
(D. T. Suzuki 1964 106)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION: TALKING ABOUT ZEN
1. ORIGINS OF ZEN: A RELIGIOUS TRADITION OR A LITERARY
2. WESTERN REACTIONS TO ZEN........................12
3. RHETORIC AND ZEN................................23
4. THE BRAIN AND ZEN...............................56
5. ZEN LITERATURES IN AMERICA AND THE USE OF ZEN IN
6. THE MARKETING OF ZEN ITSELF, AND OF ZEN CENTERS AND ZEN
TEACHERS; NEW ZEN DISCOURSES....................94
7. SCANDAL NARRATIVES: CONTEMPORARY ZEN COMMUNITY
SCANDALS, IN WORDS.............................108
8. HOW HAS AMERICA CHANGED THE RHETORIC OF ZEN
THE GOLDEN AGE OF ZEN: WHERE IS ZEN RHETORIC TAKING
INTRODUCTION: TALKING ABOUT ZEN
In a trendy shop on Denvers Platte Street a fashionable young woman sells
dog toys and food to dog owners. The name of her shop is Zen Dog Boutique, and
among her products are Zen Doggie Treats. A mile away on Grant Avenue in the
Capitol Hill neighborhood a yard sign proclaims Zen Mountain Massage. Going on
the internet, I find Zen-station Shampoo for adults; Zen baby clothing and bedding;
Baby Zen Shampoo with cute cartoons of Asian toddlers on the label; and a Zen
Cart marketing system. Meanwhile, a mile west of Platte Street at the Zen Center of
Denver, barefooted men and women in floor-length dark robes can be found sitting on
cushions, legs crossed, silently staring at the floor most days of the week and,
sometimes, all hours of the day and night for a week at a time.
I practiced Zen for twenty-seven years, and have a certain sense of what
Zen means from many hours of meditation, through reading books, listening to
lectures, or participating in and helping to lead week-long retreats. It is clear that the
word zen means something entirely different to me than to many others. I could
shrug off the uses of the word zen in mass marketing, concluding that what I do and
think with regard to zen has little or no relationship to the broader culture, but I
would be mistaken. This little word has vigorously elbowed its way into American
marketing, the most competitive and influential form of discourse in our
contemporary world. As it becomes more commonly recognized and more frequently
used, it is changing the way Americans speak and write. Sometimes it changes the
way they understand life and the values they embrace. Listening to the news on
public radio, I hear: Saab: move your mind. I immediately think of a famous Zen
The wind was flapping a temple flag, and two monks started an
argument. One said the flag moved, the other said the wind moved;
they argued back and forth but could not reach a conclusion. The
Sixth Patriarch said, It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag
that moves; it is your mind that moves. The two monks were awe-
struck (Sekida 96).
This ancient story is not about advertising cars. It is not a casual comment to
stop two tiresome monks from arguing. It is a subtle and deeply perceptive remark
that taught the two monks about the absolute and relative nature of reality and
themselves, and I ask myself, Did that advertiser read the Zen classics?
How have Zen writing and literature influenced American discourse during
the past century? In turn, what influences has American discourse had on Zen
writing and talking? The first question should be of interest to anyone who is
watching the development of Americans perceptions of themselves, the world and
reality, particularly as these perceptions have a transforming impact on the rest of the
world. The second question will be of more interest to others like myself who
practice or teach Zen: within the culture of Zen practitioners there is, with varying
degrees, a presumption a false presumption, I will conclude that Zen is changeless
and eternal in a world of unceasing flux.
In this study I will present evidence that Zen as it has appeared in written
and spoken English is changing at least several areas of American discourse,
specifically touching on brain research, advertising, publishing and scandal narratives.
These changes include the introduction of nondualistic perceptions of reality, and a
shift in focus from externalized consumerism to internalized consumerism. These
developments have come about through a combination of historical factors including
a gradual introduction of Buddhist thought into the United States over a hundred
years, the postwar prosperity of the United States in the 1950s, the sudden availability
of mind-expanding drugs, and an increased access to new cultural influences from
Asia aided by American military success on that continent.
I will show that contemporary American culture is changing the rhetoric of
Zen in North America, particularly by introducing women into Zen teaching in a way
never seen before; but also by making Zen teaching more wordy, more psychological,
more democratic, less harsh and more in dialogue with other aspects of contemporary
culture. Finally, I will argue that Zen counters a dominant Western paradigm of
progress with its own archetype of a lost golden age dominated by Oriental wise men,
although this myth is as dangerous, ultimately, as an uncritical belief in Progress.
This encounter appears (for one instance) in the pages of Tricycle where advertising
promulgates a myth of a golden age of social harmony and inner peace in the
context of an American belief in self-betterment through acquisition (a sub-type of
My perspective in writing this paper is formed by long study and work in
several areas of experience. As a nurse and government health services administrator
(with a nursing degree, a Masters Degree in Public Health Administration and a post-
graduate fellowship in developmental disabilities), I believe strongly in clear and
accurate written and verbal communication as a tool of good government and
conscientious health care. Second, as an ordained practitioner of Zen I have
experienced enlivening, beneficial changes in my character and in my response to
both the joys and sorrows of life. Third, having spent many years studying the
writings of C. G. Jung and investing in the difficult work of psychoanalysis, I am ever
aware of the psychological context and formation of all rhetoric. Finally, I could not
have developed any of these perspectives if I had not been bom into the relatively
affluent middle class culture of the post-World War II United States.
Chapter 1 will review two competing histories of Zen, the traditional or
ecclesiastic history and a more scholarly history based on linguistic analysis of
ancient manuscripts. I will also explore how Zens words were used historically both
to obtain social power and to enlighten others. This discussion will inform later
discussion in Chapters 6 and 7 of how the same dynamics continue in contemporary
American Zen teaching and practice. In Chapter 1 I will introduce Kenneth Burkes
(1897 1993) rhetorical analysis based on hierarchy and motivation. Throughout this
paper I will refer frequently to Burke, a lively, far-ranging and psychological
American rhetorician uniquely appropriate to studying an American rhetorical
Chapter 2 will look at Western reactions to Zen; and ways Zen ideas and
rhetoric began to enter into Western discourse, from an initial repulsion based on
religious and moral grounds; to a later (beginning in the 1950s) infatuation with Zen
as a source of artistic, intellectual and spiritual authority. I end this chapter by
narrowing my study of Zen rhetoric to the words and actions of individuals distinct
from a tradition or set of beliefs and practices known as Zen.
In Chapter 3 I will identify basic characteristics of Zen word usage in the light
of Western perceptions about word usage (rhetoric) beginning with Aristotles
fundamental canons of rhetoric. I will find that, although Zen and Western rhetorics
are generally regarded as dissimilar, they share many commonalities. While Zen, for
example, is distinguished from Western rhetoric by frequent reliance on the rhetorical
strategy of antilogic, both traditions use words as persuasion. Finally I will settle on
an Aristotelian definition of Zen rhetoric, that the words and actions of the teacher are
intended to instruct and to induce cooperation.
Chapters 4, 5 and 6 will provide examples of how American discourses are
being shaped by Zen. The first will be a short venture into the literature on brain
research as it relates to Zen, in which scientist-writers bring together vocabularies
from both the Zen tradition and Western physiological and anatomic research to craft
a new vernacular. Chapter 5 will explore the appropriation of Zens cachet in
marketing, particularly of books, but also including consumer products such as Zen
dog food. Chapter 6 will study how Zen itself is marketed in America, examining
some famous books that teach Zen and some autobiographical literature by Zen
students with a strong psychological flavor. This chapter ends with a return to the
importance of context and extension.
Throughout these three chapters I will identify the merger of Zen and Western
rhetorics as occurring in two ways: through the conjunction of ideas and vocabulary
to create a new stream of rhetoric (syncretism); and as the subversion or cooptation of
Zen rhetoric as a cover-up for some entirely unchanged purpose of Western rhetoric.
Chapter 7 continues the discussion of Chapter 6 to examine Zen scandal
narratives in the light of Burkes dramatistic theory of rhetoric, a particularly useful
framework for this topic. Chapter 8 will tackle the somewhat more serious (and
hopefully not too arcane) matter of how American discourse is changing ancient ways
of Zen teaching by comparing the teachings of ancient and contemporary Asian and
American teachers, with particular attention to the influence of American women on
Zen rhetoric. In my conclusion I will return to my key questions and look at the myth
of the golden age as an archetype that appeals to post-modern Americans and helps
to drive this merging of rhetorics.
Zen words will only come into this discussion through the English language.
If a Chinese or Japanese text is not yet translated, it has not yet played a role in the
dynamic evolution of Zen discourse in America, nor has translation into English yet
begun to work its subtle metamorphosis upon the meanings of that text as they have
been known in Japan or China for so many centuries. One hundred years ago, a
discussion of Zen texts would hardly have been possible, and neither the word Zen
nor its paraphernalia of ritual, meaning and image were known outside a few drawing
rooms. As of 2011, however, there are not only many translations available, but a
choice in translations of some of the more influential texts. I have, for example, used
several different translations of zen k5ans in this paper. In general, I prefer to use the
translation closer to the Chinese, since this is the original language of most of them.
In one case I chose a Japanese usage because it is more commonly recognized in
America. In other cases, I relied on the only source I had for a specific kdan.
CHAPTER 1: ORIGINS OF ZEN: A RELIGIOUS TRADITION
OR A LITERARY ARTIFACT?
Zen texts emerge from an ancient tradition little known in America, but to
understand my discussion the reader must have at least a smidgeon of the origin and
development of this robust literary tradition. A bit of the history of Zen is necessary
too, since Zen emerged in China from the mating, in the fourth and fifth century CE,
of two major progenitors: Buddhism and Taoism.
Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, in the Fifth
Century BCE. The Buddha himself, before the great awakening that distinguished
him from other teachers, studied in the Yoga tradition, which extends back more than
2000 years BCE. The characteristics of yoga included, in the words of Heinrich
Dumoulin (21), ...consciousness of a cosmic unity, the body-soul totality of the
human person, the primacy of meditation, and the experience of liberation, traits
which can be found one and all in Zen Buddhism. It was the Buddha's own
personal experience of liberation (at about 35 years of age), his compelling
personality and his ability to lead others to this same experience often called
enlightenment that made him a great teacher. During the remainder of his long
life he taught throughout northern India and died, widely respected and with a great
The Buddha means one who is enlightened, and Gotamas teaching was
based on the experience of enlightenment which enabled him to develop a theory of
human suffering and the removal of that suffering. That teaching is outlined by the
Four Noble Truths which are:
1. Suffering is everywhere.
2. There is a cause of suffering.
3. There is liberation from suffering.
4. The Eightfold Path is the means of liberation.
According to the Buddha who is now often referred to by the title Shakyamuni
Buddha, the Sage of the Shakya Clan suffering is caused by our attachments, both
positive (I want) and negative (I hate). The Eightfold Path outlines conduct and
attitudes which will help one find liberation in a world in which suffering is
everywhere. The style of Indian Buddhism and the recorded lectures of the Buddha
- are often described as "discursive," consisting of detailed categorization and
discrimination: it produced enormous compendiums of intellectual analysis,
philosophical interpretation, and categorization of ideas which monks were expected
to study and master. To this day, in both the Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist
traditions, this type of study continues.
Within four to six hundred years of the death of Gotama a distinct stream of
Buddhist thought arose which came to be called "Mahayana Buddhism." It developed
its own literature emphasizing the idea that the adherent practices not for his own
enlightenment but for the enlightenment of all beings. This literature was discursive,
like Indian Buddhist literature, and claimed to be the words of a supra-historical or
timeless Buddha. In the next few centuries Mahayana Buddhism was carried over the
Himalaya to China, where various schools sects, really of Buddhism took root,
each revering a different lengthy written volume of teaching. This gradual
transplantation began at least as early as the first century CE and was missionary in
Reaching China Mahayana Buddhism, with its missionary determination to
save all beings, encountered Taoism, a uniquely Chinese form of mysticism.
According to tradition the sage Laotse, a contemporary of the Buddha bom in 571
BCE, founded Taoism with his book of 81 poems called the Tao te Ching, or Book of
the Way. The word "tao" means "the way," and is heavily nuanced in Chinese
literature. In contrast to Buddhism, which so far had relied on lengthy sutras (the
recorded teachings of the historical Buddha or, in Mahayana Buddhism, a cosmic,
timeless Buddha), the Tao te Ching taught, among other things, the danger of words.
Its opening lines (Lin 41) are:
The Tao that can be told of
Is not the Absolute Tao;
The Names that can be given
Are not Absolute Names.
This suspicion of words found resonance for Buddhists in one of the teachings of the
Eightfold Path: right speech.
Again, in the second poem of the book (47), we find that the Sage Preaches
the doctrine without words, and in the last poem (312) it is written:
True words are not fine-sounding;
Fine-sounding words are not true.
Taoism, writes Lin Yutang (14), is a philosophy of the essential unity of the
universe (monism), or reversion, polarization (yin and yang), and eternal cycles, of
the leveling of all differences, the relativity of all standards, and the return of all to the
Primeval One.... The union of these principles with a Mahayana Buddhist tradition
(that still contained the Yogic consciousness of a cosmic unity, the body-soul totality
of the human person, the primacy of meditation, and the experience of liberation)
resulted in Zen Buddhism. Buddhism, so far still dependent on scripture, added the
missionary spirit, the assurance that anyone could achieve enlightenment, and the
concept of practicing for the liberation of all beings.
The Zen tradition ignores the above history (written by secular historians and
linguists) and asserts that Bodhidharma, a 6th Century Indian Buddhist monk, made
his way to China teaching:
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to [ones] mind
It lets one see into [ones own true] nature and [thus] attain
Buddhahood. (Dumoulin 91)
The history of Bodhidharma as the originator of Zen has been taught for centuries,
and is still taught today both in Asia and America, but this neat homily falls apart on
closer inspection. A thorough study of texts finds (Dumoulin 102; Faure 1993, 196;
Fischer-Schreiber et al 261) that Bodhidharmas formula came from much later,
perhaps from the ninth century monk Nan-Chuan Pu-yuan or even from texts dating
as late as 1108, five hundred years after Bodhidharma lived and taught.
A biography of Bodhidharma written about a century after his life, states
(Faure 1993 127) that he transmitted to his disciples the Lankavatara Sutra, a text
originally written in India in Sanskrit in the First Century CE or before. Translated
into Chinese in the Fifth Century CE (Goddard 667), not long before the time of
Bodhidharma, this sutra explains that words
are subject to birth and death, whereas meaning is not; words are
dependent upon letters and meaning is not; meaning is apart from
existence and non-existence, it has no substratum, it is un-bom....
Anyone who teaches a doctrine that is dependent upon letters and
words is a mere prattler, because Truth is beyond letters and words and
The Lankavatara did not originate from the memories of the historical Buddhas
disciples (as more ancient texts supposedly did), but was first composed and written
down centuries after the Buddhas death. By beginning with the traditional words,
Thus have I heard implying that the historical Buddha originally recited the
teaching2 the text adopts the authority of a Buddhist tradition already several
hundred years old to help found the new stream of thought and practice known as
The traditional or ecclesiastical history of early Zen, according to historians,
is the work of Ho-tse Shen-hui (670 762), who wrote and promoted a version of the
past that made his own teacher the principal heir of the teaching of Bodhidharma.
Bernard Faure (op cit 128) dismisses the standard history: "...the biographies that do
exist have literary but little or no historical value; Bodhidharma should be seen as a
textual and religious paradigm, not reconstructed as either a historical figure or a
psychological essence." Shen-huis disciples developed momentum for the primacy
of their school (emphasizing sudden rather than gradual enlightenment) by
assembling the sermons that make up The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (also
called The Sutra of Hui Neng). At best this text, which can make no great claims to
historical credibility (DuMoulin 129), is made only partially of the words of Hui-
neng, the Sixth Patriarch. Nevertheless, the book is considered a key explication of
Zen doctrine and in its biography of Hui-neng, however fabricated describes the
Although this practice of making up new teachings for the Buddha long after his death may seem quaint at our
time in history, it is not so foreign. During the Twentieth Century newly revealed teachings of Jesus Christ were
published and are still widely circulated among New Age adherents attempting to bridge between traditional
Christian ideology and contemporary ideas. These texts include The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ A
Course in Miracles and the much more scientifictional Urantia Book.
wordless transmission of teaching from teacher to student.
Following in the steps of the writers of the Lankavatara and other works of
that era, Shen-hui and his associates put together The Platform Sutra, announced that
their heavily fictionalized forebear had been a living buddha and called their book a
sutra when it did not even pretend to be the words of Siddhartha Gotama (Faure
1993 240). Voila! A new tradition was created with a past and a pantheon of saints
already in place!3 A series in time is also a series in principle, Kenneth Burke
wrote (1955 197). In other words, if the (manufactured) Sixth Patriarch preceded
Shen-huis Tang Dynasty China, then the Sixth Patriarchs teaching was higher in
principle than any present-day teaching.
Although agreeing firmly with Aristotle that Rhetoric is the art of persuasion,
or a study of the means of persuasion available for any given situation (1955 46),
Burke bases his analysis of all rhetoric on motivation and uses the powerful principle
of hierarchy as key to showing how motives are furthered and disguised by
rhetoric. His analysis explains Shen-huis development of a false history. All
persuasions, Burke argued, are based on an ordered set of terms: each term is placed
in a hierarchy with an ultimate term of terms at the top which represents the
principle or idea behind the positive terminology as a whole (189). To ultimately
base our argument on such a principle, he argued, we may have to go from a
We see a similarity in the history that St. Peter made his way to Rome and became the patriarch of the Roman
church, a tradition that produced the same results as Shen-huis efforts.
principle to a principle of principles (from the dialectical order to an ultimate order of
terms) ... a leap from morality to religion (253). Shen-hui exploited this principle,
attacking rival Zen teachers by inventing a dichotomy between sudden and
gradual enlightenment, and vilifying the latter. His factitious history, which
elevated the Sixth Patriarch to Buddhahood, now dominates Zen culture and is taught
even in American Zen centers. His domination of Zen history accomplished another
thing: the concept of a pure or true Zen, and
... pure or authentic Chan masters ... themselves became pawns on a
given ideological chessboard, protagonists in a controversy they did
not create or could not help creating. Furthermore, they were in most
cases soon set aside, destined to become mere signs of a convenient
ideal.... As Foucault points out, The successes of history belong to
those who are capable of seizing [the] rules, to replace those who had
used them ... to overcome the rulers through their own rules (Faure
The debate between a Zen historical truth and ecclesiastical or liturgical
truth calls into question the central tenet of the new pure tradition. If words and
scriptures are not the source of religious truth, if the ultimate authority is the direct
experience of the meditating practitioner, why build a history of patriarchs -
particularly one founded upon a fabricated sutra and a brand new buddha to give
authority to the ultimate authority? If one asserts that direct experience is the ultimate
authority, all other citations of authority (being unnecessary) would deny the initial
assertion. Chan history is essentially a literary artifact Faure asserts (1993 123),
because of Shen-huis strategies, a manufactured history and polemics against other
teaching lines. This history eventually resulted in Shen-huis recognition and
elevation by the Emperor, which may reveal, as Burke predicted, the underlying
motivation of his rhetoric.
Faure added (124) that Shen-huis objections to his rivals ... seem to have
diverged less on doctrinal matters (sudden vs. gradual) than on questions of style
and rhetoric, and that the result of Shen-huis polemics was homogenization of Zen:
As a result, the heterogeneity or multivocality of the tradition its tensions and
divergences is silenced. Even when they claim to be critical, scholarly writings
about tradition turn out to be in league with the tradition they describe (ibid 10). By
examining the interaction of Zen rhetoric with Western life ways and Western written
and spoken traditions, therefore, I am not looking at some aberrant deviation from
true Zen, but am exploring the heterogeneity or multivocality, the living words of
Zen teaching as it is: full of differences in style and persuasive strategy; influenced
by and influencing the cultures which it comes into contact with.
The very basis of Zen is transmission of enlightenment without words, and to
study Zen rhetoric at all is to challenge its honesty. Yet it must be challenged: not
only Shen-huis official history, but the very existence of libraries upon libraries of
Zen writings from ancient times to the present are a contradiction by Zen teachers of
their own teaching that words are useless in arriving at enlightenment. Students have
themselves reported the profound effect of the right words at the right moment in
inducing enlightenment. Zen teachers from ancient times have invited students to
question vigorously and determine for themselves whether the teaching is true or not
because study cannot bring discovery without discernment and questioning (Cleary
1997 13). Besides, the rhetorical (persuasive) arguments which have furthered Zen
influence (and the authority of Zen teachers) do not undercut the value or efficacy of
the teachings and practices of Zen. On the contrary, it is clear that the rhetorical
artifice of teachers attracts students who wish to experience liberation in the yogic
sense (p. 1, above). As a student of Zen myself, however, I find the two different
streams of tradition frustratingly contradictory when delivered simultaneously by the
same teacher, in the same setting.
Not all Zen teachers in ancient China were interested in political power or in
being honored by the Emperor with the title National Teacher. Many slipped away
to teach on obscure mountains far from cities where they developed a style of
teaching that emphasized rigorous sitting meditation, hard work, communal living and
the absolute primacy of the enlightenment experience:
In 1134, Renzong, Emperor of China, sent a court messenger with a
letter to Chan Master Yuantong Na, summoning him to become abbot
at the great monastery Xiaozi. Yuantong claimed to be unwell and did
not rise to the summons (Cleary 1997 15).
Enlightenment (kenshd or satori in Japanese) occurred unpredictably, but
teachers produced circumstances which made students more likely to enter a state of
pure experience, a state without thoughts and without words, a state in which they
perceived their fundamental identity with all things and the fundamental emptiness of
the idea of a self. This experience was called awakening, enlightenment,
realization of Buddha-mind or seeing ones Buddha nature and a variety of other
terms. On their isolated mountains, teachers kept their students away from reading
and philosophical thinking, and instructed them to meditate and to carry on daily
activities and monastic rituals without thinking about them, to become one with
Contrary to the ecclesiastic tradition of Zen, multiple kinds of Zen whether
practiced for wider influence and authority or practiced strictly for enlightenment;
whether transmitted by words and letters or transmitted mind-to-mind were
practiced simultaneously in ancient China, and there are multiple kinds of Zen being
practiced now. Zen is both a living religious tradition and a literary artifact, as will
be seen, and the rhetoric of Zen as it has spread in America is every bit as complex
and contradictory as its roots in Asia.
CHAPTER 2: WESTERN REACTIONS TO ZEN
The minute we begin discussion of Zen rhetoric we are faced with a rhetorical
knot formed in three other languages. The word zen is a Japanese pronunciation of
the Chinese ch an, which is in turn a Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit word dhyana.
The origin of the term in Sanskrit is thought to derive from dha, to direct the mind or
thoughts toward, or dhi, to hold, have or possess. The word drips foreign mystique,
which allows Americans to project both negative (Orientalist) and positive, or
reverse ethnocentrist (Faure 1993 223) thoughts and feelings upon it. Christmas
Humphreys, for example, spoke of zen and ch an as being corruptions of their
antecedents (Humphreys 1). His choice of words may reveal a good deal about the
perceptions of his day about original purity (embodied in the Buddha) and its eventual
contamination, and how those concepts were projected on the Asian cultures from
which Buddhism sprang. The original had to be the purest form, and all later forms
progressively corrupted, a sequence which inevitably makes any form in our own
day the most corrupt of all. I will look again at this idea in my conclusion.
In this short chapter I will examine some well-known Western reactions to
Zen in order to cut away cultural overlays and to distinguish between the complex
tradition of Zen and the words of Zen for the purposes of this paper.
Its unfortunate that D. T. Suzuki, the first Japanese scholar to seriously (and
brilliantly) explain Zen to Americans, relied heavily on the categories of nineteenth-
century Orientalism (Faure 1993 64), asserting simplistically that Zen helps to
explain the Oriental mind, something somehow altogether different from the
Western logical mind. Although Suzuki recognized in a theoretical way that all
beings without exception are buddhas, he chose to differentiate between Oriental
and Western for the express purpose of explaining Zen to Westerners. Zens roots
extend back to India, a culture dramatically different from those of China and Japan
(and from present-day America); and to Sanskrit, an Indo-European language, and do
not represent any single Oriental culture in any way. How could Zen be a pure
tradition, in other words, if it results from the blending of many distinct cultures?
Whether or not Suzuki contributed to ethnocentric projections upon Zen here in
America, such projections were bound to be made, especially since certain
assumptions already existed in America about Asia.
Another question: since Zen strongly emphasizes the nondualism of all
phenomena, how can Suzuki speak of an Oriental mind as opposed to a Western
mind? Faure explains: Suzukis obvious sincerity and his intense yearning for
transcendence did not prevent his thinking from being ideologically flawed, informed
as it was by his culture, his social status, and his sectarian affiliations (1993 54).
This failure of sincerity and intense yearning for transcendence afflicts other
teachers of Zen as well, and Chapter 7 will provide some more recent examples.
For the most part, Americans are untroubled by contradictions in the way the
word zen is promulgated. The word has entered American parlance (Faure 1993 8-
9) with positive connotations, with an aura of wisdom, equanimity and aestheticism.
Some are attracted by the aura to practice Zen meditation with a teacher. Writers and
advertisers borrow that aura to spice their work and to give their rhetoric more
ethos, as I will show in Chapters 5 and 6.
From the very beginning Zen rhetoric has unsettled Westerners because it uses
unfamiliar expressions and defies familiar categories. Jesuit missionaries in China,
among the first Westerners to write about their encounter with Zen, condemned it as
godless (Faure 1993 Chapter 1; Fields 20 ff.), and reported that the monks were
brilliant at reasoning and challenging the Jesuit arguments, a sure sign of the devils
influence. They complained that meditation was a passive waste of time, that the
whole enterprise was anti-intellectual, and that Chinese Buddhism in general was
moral decadence (Faure 1993 37). This assessment may have been further
influenced by the tolerance of homosexual love within the monasteries (Stevens 1990
Zen arrived in America when Soyen Shaku lectured on cause and effect at
the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. As a result of his lecture,
Americans interested in his version of Buddhism and the aptness of Buddhism in a
scientific age invited his protege D.T. Suzuki, then a young scholar, to come to
America to assist in translating Chinese texts. Suzuki first arrived in 1897. Soyen
Shaku returned in 1905 to teach meditation to a few individuals but in 1906 Suzuki,
whose English was better, took the first inklings of Zen to the general public in
Chicago and New York. Suzuki took a decidedly scholarly approach to Zen rather
than trying to teach Americans to meditate.
From that point on, a steady trickle of Zen teachers visited America, some to
stay, some only to visit, and a gradually growing stream of Americans went to Japan
to study Zen in Japanese monasteries, to learn Japanese and Chinese, to study the
texts and to carry back to America what they had learned. They produced a gradually
increasing body of literature in English including both translations of Asian texts and
their own introductions to Zen.
One of the first things Western writers wanted to explore was whether Zen is a
religion or not. At the end of the 20th Century this was still not settled. In 1949
Christmas Humphreys, a British Buddhist, wrote (30), Zen is the essence and value
of life, that which makes life worth living (Humphreys, ix), a phrase which sounds
profoundly religious, but then asks, Is Zen Buddhism a religion? It depends, of
course, upon what is meant by religion. Similarly vague, the American Zen teacher
Philip Kapleau wrote in the 1960's (1980 xv), Briefly stated, Zen is a religious
practice with a unique method of body-mind training.... Erich Fromm, a psychiatrist,
took a stab at it with: Zen is a theory and technique to achieve enlightenment, an
experience which in the West would be called religious or mystical (Fromm et al
C. G. Jung, undismayed, quickly found a place for Zen in his thinking.
Religion and psychology are not separate, he argued, since religion is a psychological
activity and the psyche is our doorway to spirit. He wrote in his introduction to
Suzukis Introduction to Zen Buddhism, I treat satori [enlightenment] first of all as a
psychological problem (1964 15). Jung also wrote, in 1963, Psychology, as a
science, observes religious ideas from the standpoint of their psychic phenomenology
without intruding on their theological content (Jung 1989 326). However, Jung went
on to explain, (ibid 366) a struggle for psychic healing ...usually takes the form of a
subjective experience which... is always of a religious order. Jungs concept and
descriptions of psychic healing bear strong resemblance to a Zen students struggle
for kenshd. James Austin, a physician, writes in Zen and the Brain that (xix)
mankinds basic trend toward spiritual growth... implies a dynamic, intimate
perennial psychophysiology. He details scientific study of brain chemistry, electric
brain waves, interactions between the two hemispheres and much more.
Who is speaking? In most of these discussions about Zen the observer finds
the understanding of Zen that suits his purposes, another form of projection on top of
ethnocentric projections. Jesuits and other Christians find it best to deny that Zen is
even a religion, usually on the grounds that Zen teachers issue no opinions on a deity
or an afterlife. Then, because it denies that there is a deity to condemn us, and denies
that we must be saved, they dismiss Zen and preserve for themselves the exclusive
property that goes with salvation.
Jung handily places Zen into a category of psychological experience that fits
his theories, taking it as one more of many examples that prove him correct. Austin,
in spite of his own direct experience with Zen practice, continues to look for its effect
on the brain and to study it from his perspective as a western-trained physician. Zen
somehow defies these Western writers, gets under their skin, demands a response
from them. Their responses to Zen, moreover, represent the principal response of the
West to Zen throughout most of the twentieth century: it is held up as if a specimen
in a laboratory and examined with the tools at hand. Only Austin, in the course of his
study, was infected by the disease he studied, no doubt due to sloppy technique in the
And rhetoricians? Roland Barthes, sounding like one of those wary Jesuits,
wrote that all of Zen... appears as an enormous praxis destined to halt language,...
to empty out, to stupefy, to dry up the souls incoercible babble.... (Faure 1993 197).
This is an ironic comment from Barthes, who well understood the traps that words set
for the soul. Why is it stupefying to relieve the soul of words, which Barthes
otherwise in his writing finds so thoroughly confounding? If they are incoercible
babble, why should the soul not be helped with a few moments of blessed silence? I
would argue here that Barthes could not distinguish between the babble and the
soul, whereas in Zen teaching it is categorical that the true self or Buddha
nature is encountered without words, vast and silent
Bernard Faure noted that for writers about Zen, the existence of something
called Zen is always taken for granted (ibid 88). Falling into the same trap, he
writes, With Suzuki, Zen coopted the whole field of Japanese culture.... (1993 87).
Suzuki has become a passive medium through which Zen performs its cooptation.
Barthes and even Faure imply that Zen is something that can be spoken of as a unity,
identified or located in some way, something that speaks with a voice and has
opinions, either consistent or inconsistent.
We are used to treating a religion or philosophy as an actor, as a discrete
phenomenon, or perhaps as a historical movement, in which individuals are
subordinated to an abstraction and become its tools. By making Zen into the
author, we can pin down what Zen says. Once pinned down, those words become
exhibits for researchers and graduate students. Taking this activity to an extreme, the
words of persons become reified in religion. As we know, religion can be a cultural
container and a solace to the human spirit, or it can be a dangerous and violent force
which launches wars.
It is not Zen that speaks, however, but people who speak. Zen is a
conglomeration of practices, temples, organizations, books, dogmas, beliefs,
perceptions and people. In The Zen Institution in Modem Japan Foulk
characterizes Zen by counting sects, denominations, temples, monasteries, clergy
and adherents. He describes general ritual practices, holiday schedules and the
relationship of institutional Zen to the laity. While this characterization of Zen might
leave one comfortable with the thought that Zen has been captured, measured and
tamed, it would be incorrect to attribute anything consistent or organized to the broad
sum of all these things in China, Japan, Korea, America, Europe and throughout the
rest of the world. It would be grossly incorrect to assert that Zen has remained
consistent, organized or united throughout history.
Just as the Buddha explained in what may have been the first example of
rhetorical deconstruction that you can progressively disassemble the Self into
component parts (Warren 133 ff) until there is no Self, if we disassemble Zen, there
is nothing left to be called Zen. Nevertheless, just as people around us act toward
and respond to something we and they conceive of as a Self, people who practice
Zen or read about Zen or give lectures about Zen, speak and write as if there is Zen.
People who pick up a book about Zen or buy a product marketed as Zen behave as
if there is something called Zen that interests them or that can empower them.
The best efforts of the best Western minds have only confused things through
the very fact of a human tendency to reify Zen. The more Westerners have tried to
define it, the more protean and maddening Zen has become. Zen practices are by no
means consistent from person to person or place to place; Zen teachers have
numerous differences in emphasis and technique. Meditation techniques, even within
the Zen fold, are manifold, and practices includes not only meditation techniques;
but also behaviors of monks living in monasteries; the behavior in America of lay
people practicing daily in homes and temples and meditation retreats; chanting and
reciting; the use of bells, clappers, drums and gongs; bowing to people; bowing to
images; putting on various garments; counting beads; eating; keeping silence;
venerating ancestors; and a plethora of other activities. All of these may be
subdivided and distinguished by increasing detail. Faure (1991) has described
additional practices that are not so well-known in America: thaumaturgy, preserving
and venerating the relics of dead teachers, uses of dreams, funeral practices and the
sexual practices, both homosexual and heterosexual, of monks and abbots. Nor will
temples, either independent or organized into groups of temples, nor the organizations
that own the temples, nor the bodies of students who attend the temples, nor the
monks who wash the floors, none of these will be defined as Zen in this paper.
Temples do not speak, although their very existence, their architecture, their
decorations, their age may all be interpreted by scholars, readers and idle wanderers
from the marketplace as speaking.
Beliefs are the interior possessions of individuals, and dogmas are the
institutionalized opinions of organizations, which are in turn groups of individuals.
For the purposes of this discussion I will separate beliefs and dogmas from words,
since it is the words that this paper will study. In the same way, Jung chooses to study
the psychic phenomenology of religious experience without intruding on the
Zen is actually a tradition of multiple voices and at least two histories.
Because Zen teachers deny the capacity of words to convey truth, no one text could
possibly represent the whole. I believe with Faure that the heterogeneity and
multivocality of Zen is undeniable and cannot be brushed aside, as Suzuki tended to
do, as perhaps Barthes did. Doing so tends to lead to new age naivete, abuses,
misconceptions and simplistic summations of a sophisticated rhetorical tradition.
A Zen master has said that eating is Zen, walking is Zen, which means there
is no limit to what we can refer to as a Zen practice ... but what of words? Although
words are one of those practices because no matter how desperately Zen teachers
protest that Zen is not transmitted by words, Zen teachers have spoken and written
more words than may ever be counted they are the words of individuals; the words
are not Zen
But what are those words uttered so freely by Zen teachers? Aristotle
understood that rhetoric is the study of the means of persuasion, and he dissected the
skill nicely, but what of the purpose ofpersuasion? Persuasion is a tool in the grasp
of the Zen teacher: to what end? Burke always asks the motivation behind words,
and he is not alone. Brock and Scott (16) write, Rhetoric may be defined as the
human effort to induce cooperation through the use of symbols. If the teacher is
inducing cooperation through words, shouts, blows, pantomime, all the symbols at his
disposal, cooperation in what? George Campbell (1719 1796, a rhetorician of the
other sort of Enlightenment) concluded that the purposes of discourse are ...to
enlighten the understanding, to please the imagination, to move the passions, or to
influence the will (Black 12). He conceives the latter (Aristotles persuasion) to be
Aristotle (185) found rhetorical persuasion to fall into three broad purposes:
political (concerned with the future), forensic (concerned with the past) and
ceremonial (concerned with the present).
In the remainder of this paper I will define Zen rhetoric as the words and
actions of Zen teachers, which are primarily used for two of the purposes identified
by Campbell: to enlighten the understanding (instruct) and to influence the will
(induce cooperation). Zen rhetoric is primarily political (following Aristotle), in that
it is concerned with the future actions of the student. As to the purpose of this
persuasion, I will rely on Burke to reveal motivation behind the words of Zen
CHAPTER 3: RHETORIC AND ZEN
In this chapter I will examine Zen rhetoric in light of an Aristotelian approach
to rhetoric and find that Zen and Aristotelian rhetorics are not all that different with
one notable exception: antilogic is used in Zen as a specific rhetorical device to stop
the listener from using rational thought to try to reach enlightenment. I will also
compare Zen rhetoric to J. Vernon Jensens six rhetorical emphases of Taoism.
Jensens rhetorical analysis gives us a theoretical basis for rhetorical principles we
might expect to find operant in the words of Zen teachers, but I will find that Zen
teachers both do and do not adhere to Taoist principles in their speech and writing. I
will find instead that the authority of the Zen teacher and the teachers appeal to
upaya, skillful means, are competing rhetorical strategies. To Jensens count (in his
spirit of categorization) I will add four Zen rhetorical emphases or characteristics I
will contrast two purposes of Zen rhetoric: to enlighten and to induce cooperation,
thus linking Zen rhetoric back to Aristotelian rhetoric.
Zen and the Western canons of rhetoric
In discussing rhetoric, which Aristotle defined as the faculty of observing in
any given case the available means of persuasion (181), he famously followed Plato
in recognizing three forces in rhetoric, traditionally thought of as three points of a
rhetorical triangle: ethos, the personal or cultural authority of the speaker; logos,
the words themselves or the persuasiveness of the argument; and pathos, the
reactions, feelings and beliefs of the listener. Aristotle then summarized five
categories canons for the study of rhetorical art: invention, arrangement, style,
memory and delivery. I have not found translated into English, however, any primers
on rhetoric for Zen teachers; they learn from their teachers, who learned from theirs
and so on back into antiquity. We do, however, have bits of instruction on the matter
from the volumes of Zen literature.
In the Diamond Sutra, a text written before the emergence of Zen, but highly
respected in Zen teaching, we read that the Buddha has no formulated teaching to
enunciate (Price et al 32). This basic idea of Zen may be taken as a comment on
logos, and continues to be repeated in countless ways by Zen teachers into the
present: Sometimes I feel there is something blasphemous in talking about
[Buddhism] as a philosophy or teaching.... There is no need to intellectualize about
what our pure original nature is, because it is beyond our intellectual understanding
(S. Suzuki 123-24).
In the final chapter of The Sutra of Hui Neng the (fictionalized) illiterate dying
patriarch promises his disciples some hints on preaching (Price & Wong 99). First
giving them a summary review of Mahayana theory (hardly spontaneous), he goes to
the question of whether Buddhist scriptures are necessary for the study of Buddhism.
He points out that even the statement literature is discarded is literature, and warns
his successors against the dualism of discarding or not discarding. Rather, he rejects
being addicted to scriptural authority (ibid 101). This may be taken as instruction
on ethos, recommending that teachers speak only from the authority of their
enlightenment rather than from what others have written, although permitting them to
use literature as they deem appropriate. Thus this text legitimizes itself. Reminding
his listeners that their authority comes from living according to the teaching of the
Law (op cit), he goes on to scorn the man addicted to scriptures: He may furnish
spacious lecture-halls for the discussion of Realism or Nihilism, but such a man will
not for numerous kalpas realize the Essence of Mind (op cit).
Just in case this did not seal the matter of ethos, however, the Patriarch taught
his disciples the lineage of teachers from the Buddha with himself as 33rd in
succession (ibid 107-108). Given that the text has already pointed out the traps of
dualism, it is hard to know whether the recitation of the lineage was done in a self-
conscious way, or whether the text misses the contradiction of arguing, first, that we
should not be addicted to scriptural authority and, second, that we must not forget
the authority of the patriarchal lineage.
For a comment on pathos I turn to Japans great Thirteenth Century teacher,
Eihei Dogen. He tells the story of a monk who claims to have been enlightened by
the phrase, The fire god comes looking for fire. His teacher denies that he is
enlightened. Crushed and angry, the student retreats and then
on his way out he thinks, This Zen master is the teacher of five
hundred people. There must be some point to his warning that Im
wrong. The student returns to the teacher and asks for help. The
master says, The fire god comes looking for fire, and this time the
student is greatly enlightened (Cleary 1995 48 49).
The point of Dogens tale is that to learn from teaching is largely a matter of pathos,
the attitude of the listener.
What about Aristotles five canons?
The Sixth Patriarch says, in The Sutra of Hui Neng (Price & Wong, 20), As I
happen to be bom on the frontier, even my speaking is incorrect in pronunciation, (but
in spite of this) I have had the honour to inherit the Dharma4. We may take this as a
comment on delivery and style in a sect that supposedly scorns formal education.
The wider intention of this line is to attack the learned and wealthy Buddhist sects
with their libraries of treatises and their skilled written and preaching skills while at
the same time asserting the authority of Hui Neng and his delivery style.
To address invention, the Sixth Patriarch provided this mnemonic:
Whenever a question is put to you, answer it in the negative, if it is an
affirmative one; and vice versa. If you are asked about an ordinary
man, tell the enquirer something about a sage; and vice versa.... If all
other questions are answered in this manner, you will not be far away
The word dharma, while loaded with nuance in Buddhism, is used in this paper to mean teaching.
from the truth.... [T]his instruction should be handed down from one
generation to another (Price and Wong 102).
This simple mnemonic which Aristotle would call a topos directly
contradicts the Patriarchs emphasis on ethos: if the teacher truly speaks from his
realization of the Essence of Mind, why is it necessary to teach heuristics? Arent
heuristics based in rational, dialectical thinking? The strategy does, however, draw
attention to a key difference in underlying assumptions or, to use Derridas term -
transcendental signified a final reference from which all meanings take their
meaning (Eagleton 113-14). In spite of its many variations, Zen has been taught
consistently from the perspective that the human self is fundamentally empty
(illusory), and that something called Buddha mind ultimately confers meaning. Zen
teachers insist that humans are capable of experiencing and demonstrating Buddha
mind. Modem Americans have written about this experience:
All at once the roshi, the room, every single thing disappeared in a
dazzling stream of illumination, and I felt myself bathed in a delicious,
unspeakable delight... For a fleeting eternity I was alone -1 alone was
... (Kapleau 1980 239).
An experience of this kind of intensity5 causes the ordinary categories of experience -
and the very self to shift. Then the ultimate referent for meaning (the transcendental
signified) shifts to become very different from those commonly used in our culture:
This sounds at least as good as having sex with Plato, which was his reward for a good student
truth, god, economy, progress.
Although I have referred to the use of rhetoric by Zen teachers to gain cultural
authority, we cannot dismiss all Zen rhetoric as political. Zen rhetoric continually
returns to the fundamental experience of Buddha mind enlightenment and the
Zen tradition includes centuries of the transmission of a wordless experience from
teachers to students. Their testimonies to the power of their experience continue into
modem times. Why, then, Hui Nengs teaching invention?
The Sixth Patriarchs recitation of the patriarchal lineage (above, p. 24) could
be taken as a demonstration of the importance of memory, one of Aristotles five
canons; and most Zen students, even today, learn the patriarchal line and several
sutras by heart so that they can chant them without reference to a text.
Finally, for some thoughts on arrangement, the Sixth Patriarch advises his
followers to fall back on dogmatic categories, perhaps when all inspiration has fled
them: He mentions (ibid, 99 ff) the three categories of Dharmas, the five Skandhas,
the twelve Ayatcmas, the thirty-six pairs of opposites ... on and on back into the
discursive style of the more ancient Indian Buddhism.
Teachers of Zen who came after the Sixth Patriarch harkened to his advice less
and less as the years passed, developing the more quixotic, enigmatic style that has
made Zen so popular in America. In other words, Zen rhetoric shifted after the Sixth
Patriarch from a more Aristotelian conception to rely more on other rhetorical
characteristics, particularly authority and upaya.
Zen Rhetoric. Upava and Authority
Western rhetorical analysis has from the beginning been concerned with
questions about purpose and classification. This began with the debate among the
classical Greeks (continuing to the Romans, including Cicero and Quintilian) about
the relative roles of persuasion and dialectic in rhetoric (Bizzell & Herzberg 22 39;
Burke 1955 49 65). The Sophists saw that rhetoric could be used to argue on behalf
of any point of view and willingly did so, unconvinced that absolute knowledge of
anything could ever be arrived at. In present-day America this is the legal and civic
role of attorneys, although they are often vilified as much as were the Sophists in their
own day.6 Convinced, on the other hand, that truth could be arrived at, other teachers
developed logical dialectic we now call it the Socratic method as a teaching
Socrates and Plato began and ended with opinion, not with facts, and the
Socratic method was better suited for such linguistic enterprises as the dialectical
search for ideas of justice, truth, beauty, and so on, than for the accumulating of
knowledge derived from empirical observation and laboratory experiment (Burke
1955 53). The most powerful tool (topos) of persuasion, Burke holds (55 ff), is
identification. In other words, the speaker casts himself as being like his audience to
gain their trust and then brings them around to his opinion.
It has been fashionable to defame sophists ever since Plato. Victor Hugo called them a poisonous vegetation
mingled with the healthy growth (981), although he himself can easily be accused of having used sophist
arguments in favor of his beliefs.
Zen rhetoricians, just as concerned as Plato with persuading an audience of
their point of view, didnt trouble themselves with the same questions as Western
rhetoricians. Their focus, they have frequently stated, is on the effect of the message,
and to that end they have clearly stated that virtually any rhetorical technique is fair,
including shouts and blows:
Ryuge asked Suibi, What is the meaning of Bodhidharmas coming
from the West? Suibi said, Pass me the board [chin rest]. Ryuge
passed the board to Suibi who took it and hit Ryuge with it (Sekida
This bias toward pragmatics as opposed to the idealism of Plato had a long
history extending back into Indian Mahayana Buddhism, which characterized the
means used by the Buddha and other teachers as upaya, skillful means. According
to this principle a teacher is understood to intuitively perceive what each individual
student can understand at a given point in time, and to teach each student accordingly.
The teacher is persuasive as he sees fit, whereas it seems that most Western
rhetoricians would argue that the speaker is to use various techniques to align himself
with his audience and sway their opinion. A review of Aristotles topoi shows that
many of them provide subtle ways that a speaker may appear to share his audiences
point of view. A Zen teachers upaya is often a means of identification, but in
reverse. Rather than trying to occupy the students identity (I, like you, was raised
on a farm), the Zen teacher will try to persuade the student to occupy the teachers
point of view. In the case of Ryuge and Suibi, above, Ryuge uses a wordless message
to shake Suibi out of his fixation on a meaningless question. Such methods arrived in
America along with Zen: He just pushed me down Poom! To the floor, and he began
hitting me with the stick everywhere (Downing 126). As to whether the teacher
chooses to be persuasive, traditionally he is said to exert his full effort for the serious
student, whereas the lazy one will be dismissed as a worthless rice bag.
A belief in upaya is not that different from Platos opinion (in the Phaedrus)
that the teachers role is to lead the student to recognition of ultimate truths (Buddha
nature) that are already known by the students own soul (original nature). The
teachers upaya is also not that different from Aristotles means of persuasion
available for any given situation. The problem with a belief in upaya is that it cannot
be refuted: if the student achieves awakening, it was the teachers upaya; if the
student did not, it is no evidence that the teacher didnt use upaya, but more likely
shows that the student didnt apply himself hard enough. Upaya is a principle,
therefore, that defends the teachers actions and words on all occasions.
The dangerous shadow of upaya appears when the teacher injures the student
or uses him for his own purposes. The student is required to believe that this also is
upaya. Almost categorically, to challenge the teachers upaya is effectively to reject
and to be rejected by the whole structure that goes with the teacher, be it a monastery
or a contemporary American lay teaching center. What is upaya, really, then? An
implied threat by the teacher? An agreement by the student to acquiesce to whatever
the teacher chooses to do or say? Ironically, a belief in upaya is anything but a belief
in skillful means; rather, it is a belief in a rigid power gradient defended by a
traditionalist, male-dominated hierarchy in which every adherent can recite the
lineage back to the Buddha, over 90 generations. I will return to this subject in
In his Republic Plato argued that he, representing a class of philosopher
kings, determined what ultimate truths are, and all his dialogues result in his
opinions being proven correct. Augustine and all Christian rhetoricians base their
views on the authority of a god as revealed through a closed canon of scripture. Zen
teachers, each within his own monastery or teaching center, have full authority over
the teaching and how it is taught, and are the sole arbiters of whether a student has
achieved kenshd. There are no objective tests to confirm or gainsay a teachers
Reliance on the authority of the teacher biases Zen discourse toward rejection
of any dialectic reasoning. Plato uses dialectic but Zen teachers do not because of
their desire to stop reasoning altogether. I cannot find a great difference between Zen
teaching and Platos discourses, in which his students always seem like willing
dunces who fall over themselves to agree with him whether his arguments can be
proven or not. In either case the end result is that the student has to accept the
Believe, that you may understand (crede, ut intelligas), Augustine preached
(Burke 1989 117). Like the Zen teacher, he attempted to persuade his readers as to
ultimate truths, but while the Zen student has faith that his own efforts will eventually
lead to enlightenment, and faith that his teacher knows what he is doing, the student is
not called upon to have faith7 in any particular philosophic or religious statements.
He is invited instead to test the teachers statements and to verify them through
personal experience. This bears more resemblance to Aristotles acquisition of
objective data than to any rhetorical persuasion, although only the student himself can
report on the validity of those data. When the students direct realization of truth
conflicts with the teachers pronouncement, however, the teacher is always considered
to have the final say. The student who wishes to reach enlightenment must yield to
the teachers authority in every case: thus, the teachers words also are designed to
If I summarize my discussion so far, I find that Zen rhetoric and Western
rhetoric only differ modestly:
Zen rhetoric Aristotles rhetoric
Reasoning and use of dialectic (logos) Rarely Often
Rhetoric as persuasion Yes Yes
Appeal to objective facts or experience Yes Sometimes
Reliance on self-affirmation or opinion (pathos) Yes Yes
Reliance on authority Yes Yes
Be persuaded that, since faith comes from Greek peitho, persuade.
Resort to whatever works Yes, as upaya Yes, as persuasion
Purpose persuasion for instruction and to induce cooperation persuasion (political, forensic and ceremonial)
Within one area reasoning and use of dialectic rhetorical differences exist
which widely separate Zen and Western rhetoric, and these are the differences which
are having the greatest influence on American writing and speaking. Those
differences, ultimately, are based on differences between Zen and Western
The characteristics of Zen rhetoric
It is one thing to compare Zen rhetoric with Aristotelian rhetorical theory, and
quite another to consider it in light of its own tradition, which includes descent from
Taoism, culturally the stronger element that gave rise to Zen. J. Vernon Jensen has
provided a framework for such an analysis with his short article, Rhetorical
Emphases of Taoism. Jensen found six characteristics:
1. silence, cautious speech;
2. avoid argumentation;
3. not acquiring knowledge, learning;
4. avoid critical thinking;
5. proceed from authority; and
6. sincerity, humility, respectfulness, goodness, trustworthiness.
Although my initial purpose is to look at the rhetoric of Zen teachers in the
context of the Taoist and Zen traditions, I will note as I go that in many respects they
are not different from Aristotelian rhetoric. For example, I note that Jensens first,
third and fourth rhetorical emphases are related to logos, to the message itself. The
second is the only one that might recognize the importance of pathos, since avoiding
argumentation shows a give-and-take with, a recognition of the listener. The
remaining two are clearly about ethos, the authority and character of the speaker.
Each of Jensens emphases can be found in Zen but, more interestingly, all of
them are also ignored or contradicted by Zen teachers. This indicates that, as Zen
took on a character of its own separate from Taoism and Indian Buddhism, it deviated
from its Taoist roots. I have already noted (p. 28) that a shift began some time after
the life of the Sixth Patriarch. As I discuss these emphases with examples from Zen
literature, I will propose that we can determine the purpose of an utterance depending
on whether it sticks to the standards or violates them. As noted above, Zen rhetoric
has been used not only as instruction to help a student reach enlightenment, but also
for persuasive purposes, to induce cooperation.
Jensen begins, First, eloquence, and even speaking in general, is
deprecated.... Eloquence is spoken of as glibness ... and is identified with
shallowness.... [C]autious speech, non-expressiveness, and total silence are
honored... (221 222).
Zen teachers often have used very limited replies or even silence to teach.
Once, Chao-chou asked Nan-chuan, Please say a word that goes
beyond the four statements and the one hundred negations.
Nan-chuan uttered not a word but went back to his own
(D.T. Suzuki 1953 47)
A monk asked Nansen, Is there any Dharma that has not been
preached to the people? Nansen answered, There is. What is the
truth that has not been taught? asked the monk. Nansen said, It is
not mind; it is not Buddha; it is not things.
As if this comment was not cautious enough, Mumon commented on it as
Talking too much spoils your virtue;
Silence is truly unequaled. (Sekida 91-92)
Zen Master Baiyun is quoted, What can be said but not practiced is better not
said (Cleary 1997 28).
A disdain for eloquence is often found in the roughness of Zen teachers
expressions. A monk asked Ummon, What is Buddha? Ummon replied,
Kanshiketsu! (Sekida 77). This word is translated shit-stick and refers to a stick
the monk would use to wipe his butt.
Although Jensen correctly identifies cautious speech as an essential
characteristic of Taoist (and Zen) rhetoric, Zen teachers can also be eloquent, as in
Hakuin Ekakus Song ofZazen (Daily Chants 22):
From the beginning all beings are Buddha.
Like water and ice,
without water no ice,
outside us no Buddhas....
Like the son of a rich man
Wandring poor on this earth,
we endlessly circle the six worlds.
This earth where we stand is the pure lotus land
And this very body, the body of Buddha.
Zen teachers would dismiss their more verbose eloquence, as Mumon dismissed
Nansens words (above), explaining that eloquence consists of speaking simply,
spontaneously and perfectly for the occasion, because in principle they agree with
Laotse that, Fine-sounding words are not true. Thus they forewarn us that a well-
delivered speech by a Zen teacher is not a sign of enlightenment.
The ability of Zen teachers to transmit profound truth to their students with
few or no words is an emphasis of their rhetoric (and they are famous for it) that has
not been tried in Western discourse since Heraclitus, but I cannot avoid contrasting a
Zen teachers insistence on few words with the volumes of words that Zen teachers
have left behind them (even Laotse left not four or five poems, but 81). This is a
glaring contradiction in Zen literature that cannot be reconciled with stated ideas
about rhetoric. When a Zen teacher enters postmortal extinction, his texts remain
for two purposes: they continue to instruct students, who are sometimes profoundly
moved by the speeches of ancient teachers; and they also keep alive the memory of
the deceased speaker and help to maintain the force of the lineage. The words carry
weight not only in their volume, but also by bringing the entire tradition into the
presence of the student as a teacher reads the words of the deceased.
Zen Master Shibayama (1894 1974) has bequeathed a lecture to us in which
Zen master comments upon Zen master. Shibayama says, Master Goso Hoen...
inquires.... Needless to say, he is not asking you.... Master Mumon, too, agrees with
Master Hoens intention and asks.... (Shibayama 253). By casting the words of long
dead masters in the present tense, Shibayama brings them into the room with himself
and the student and triples his authority. A teaching technique? Yes, but also one
that reinforces the might of the ancient tradition. Cautious speech? I do not think so:
the teacher wields great strength when suddenly he summons the entire lineage of Zen
masters all asking questions and demanding answers of the student. Violation of the
characteristic of silence and cautious speech, then, may be not entirely for the purpose
of enlightenment, but to subdue the student by the force of the tradition. In Chapter 8
I will study Shibayamas lecture in more depth.
A final thought on cautious speech: one way Zen teachers limit the number of
words is through generous use of simile and metaphor. Some have already been used
above in the Song ofZazen: the identity of water and ice, a rich man wandering in
poverty, endless circling. The use of imagery in simile and metaphor not only allows
the teacher to limit speech, but also fosters the fourth Taoist emphasis, avoidance of
critical speech. If the student is trying to comprehend something like Joshus the
cypress tree in the courtyard, he simply cannot use logical thinking. The teacher
directs his attention to the simile, away from rationality.
Jensens second rhetorical emphasis is that argumentation is heavily
deprecated, for it is equated with contentiousness, with exaggerating differences, with
decreasing mutual understanding, with undermining harmony.... Publicly expressing
an unwelcome truth or arguing for ones opinions breeds contentiousness, destroys
the tranquility of relationships, and does not permit the other party to save face...
(Jensen 223). The following koan8 is an example of Zen rhetoric which avoids
argumentation, which does not undermine harmony, and which allows the other party
to save face.
A monk said to Chao-chou, I have just entered this monastery.
Please teach me.
A koan (Japanese; Chinese, kung-an) is a short story or a question, usually the words or actions of a Zen teacher.
Hundreds of these questions and short stories some based on true events, some apocryphal are collected in
books which serious Zen students, at least in some traditions, must study, memorize and demonstrate. To
demonstrate a koan the student must show the teacher, usually not in words but in actions, that the student has
mastered the meaning of the koan.
Chao-chou said, Have you eaten your rice gruel?
The monk said, Yes, I have.
Chao-chou said, Wash your bowl. The monk understood.
There are hundreds of such stories, which portray the brilliance and precision of Zen
teaching. This story may be interpreted metaphorically by treating the monks rice
gruel as the teaching he has already received, and washing his bowl as the
actualization of his teaching. Good enough, but Chao-chou was far beyond that. He
was pointing to the simple fact of enlightenment in every day actions and rituals, and
sending the monk right back to look within himself for the answer to his question.
The teacher spoke gently and clearly, giving the best instruction the student could
have asked for in the situation.
Unfortunately, there are quite as many stories in Zen of teachers striking their
students, shouting at them, calling them rude names and expelling them. As I noted
above, however, metaphor is heavily used by Zen teachers, and even physical blows
are metaphorical in nature in that they demonstrate the immediacy of manifest reality.
A scholar once came to Mu-chou and the latter asked: I am
told that you can discourse on seven sutras and sastras; is that so?
Scholar: Yes, master.
Mu-chou without a word raised his staff and struck him.
(D.T. Suzuki 1953 301).
The hundreds of stories similar to this can hardly be said to be stories in which face is
saved and the tranquility of relationships is preserved, unless the relationships are
based on absolute authority, as has been the case with Zen teachers (more on this
subject anon). Shen-huis polemics against rival Zen teachers did not avoid
argument. I myself have heard a Zen teacher deliver all-out verbal attacks on the
New Age. Although these lectures were presented as attempts to give students right
understanding, they may also be received as polemics against a rival sect, and wholly
argumentative. Verbal attacks on other sects, rather than inducing the student to
avoid critical thinking, arouse dualistic criticism and thoughts of we and they,
which are contradictory to the Zen tradition from the beginning.
Receiving blows and being shouted at does not only work on a metaphorical
level or for the purpose of shocking a student into a break with rationality in order to
come to awakening. The physiological response to such things is the mobilization of
the sympathetic nervous systems fight or flight reaction. Stated otherwise, shouts
and blows invoke fear. In spite of the fact, therefore, that Zen teachers defend then-
shouts and blows as teaching methods, I must hold out the possibility that they are
violations of the standard to avoid argumentation and contentiousness; and that they
also serve the purpose of frightening the student into obedience, and to keep the
student from fleeing to rivals. This is as much political speech as any that Aristotle
Third, Jensen lists non-acquisition of knowledge or learning. Master Baofeng
Ying said: The old abbots everywhere commenting on the sayings and teachings of
the enlightened ones of old ... are adding dirt, as it were, to a mountain, pouring water
into an ocean (Cleary 1997 37). This element appeared with the emergence of Zen
practice as a rebellion against an ecclesiastical establishment in China in which the
number and size of Buddhist temples and monasteries generally far surpassed those of
the Taoist temples. These massive complexes [contained]... Buddhist scriptures and
commentaries, numbering in the hundreds and, in some temples, thousands of
volumes (Chung 9). Monks had become specialists in specific sutras, and a culture
of words (and debate about words) had grown up which separated Buddhist teachings
from Buddhists and Buddhist practice. Reacting against this politically entrenched,
wealthy, bureaucratic establishment, Zen teachers rejected texts and critical thinking
altogether to attack an elitist, Confucian social order (Faure 1993 221).
Teachers emphasize this characteristic of Zen rhetoric particularly before and
during Zen meditation retreats, when they advise students not to read anything,
particularly not Buddhist teachings, as they want the mind to be clear of ideas in order
to go about the serious business of courting enlightenment. From my own experience
I can report that this is appropriate to the practice of teaching students to be ready for
enlightenment. Nothing advances emptying the mind like, well, emptying the
Yet this is contradicted too, as Zen has built up its own literature in the books
of koans that serious Zen students are encouraged to study, memorize, and
demonstrate understanding of; and the biographies of great Zen teachers which
students are encouraged to become familiar with. Moreover, as I will show in
Chapter 8, Zen teachers of the twentieth century both in Japan and America include
expositoiy material in their teisho, their formal talks. On the one hand, the addition of
increasing amounts of expository knowledge in Zen teachers lectures upholds the
teachers purpose in a society where lay students have much more access and
exposure to broad educations. On the other hand, in a society so completely bathed in
entertaining information of every kind, it hardly seems consistent with the Zen
teachers desire to help students empty their minds of rational thoughts.
More problematic for the Zen tradition, however, is its reliance on stories
about the words of ancient Zen teachers. This practice has steadily over centuries -
weakened the original tactic of Zen teachers to avoid and sneer at learning. Zen has
built up its own library quite as formidable as the one that ancient Zen teachers
reacted against. At the risk of repetition, I must conclude that continuous use of this
library to train students violation of Jensens third emphasis serves as much the
purpose of promoting a Zen sect as it does enlightening students.
Fourth, Jensen cites avoidance of critical thinking (logos), which goes so far
as to insist that there really is nothing to teach (above p. 25). This is demonstrated in
Zen teachers many illogical and contradictory statements and actions, and must be
understood to be an absolutely basic characteristic of Zen rhetoric: Zen is decidedly
not a system founded upon logic and analysis. If anything, it is the antipode to logic,
by which I mean the dualistic mode of thinking (D.T. Suzuki 1964 38). Because it is
the antipode to logic, I will refer to it as antilogic.
Zen teachers are not above using logic when it suits the occasion (a reliance
on upaya), on the other hand, or even using both together. A teacher may ask
students to closely observe themselves during meditation and report the results, an
appeal to logic. Then the students will report hours of daydreaming, worrying and
other mental activity, and that they have completely forgotten they are sitting in the
zendo (the meditation hall) with their legs crossed. Then the teacher will flip to
antilogic: Where were you when you were daydreaming? Would you be yourself
without memories? How about without your feet? What if you were in a coma?
Thus, through attacking logic, the teacher disassembles the students notions of self.
Case 17 in the Hekiganrofcu gives a good example of antilogic. A monk
asked Kyorin, What is the meaning of Bodhidharmas coming from the West?
Kyorin said, Sitting long and getting tired (Sekida 191). When Zen Master Kyorin
originally issued this teaching, it was without resort to text, to commentary, to
tradition. It was a spontaneous and gentle response to the monks question, but when
it was memorialized in a book and cited through generations, used to elevate Kyorin
to sainthood and treated as a sacred text, the emphasis on non-acquisition of learning
has been added to, like adding dirt to a mountain.
Zen teachers argue (as I will discuss further in Chapter 8) that koans are used
to deepen a students enlightenment, to give the student something to chew on
during long hours of meditation practice after kensho, but it does not appear that
Kyorin needed to rely on a book to deepen his students enlightenment. Why should
later Zen teachers need to do so? Once again, I come back to the hypothesis that the
use of these annals of Zen literature serve a different purpose than enlightenment: the
purpose of promoting the sect and the authority of the teacher in the lineage of the
The style of antilogical, metaphorical thinking (to return to Aristotles
categories) includes, very often, natural imagery such as Quietly wading the rapids,
you extinguish the sound of the waters. Watching at leisure, you retain the tracks of
flying birds (Sekida 162), a style which supports the Taoist emphases of cautious
speech, humility or avoiding argumentation, but even Zen metaphor has its alter ego.
This gentle style (very popular in haiku poetry) is just as often replaced with warrior
imagery in which students are urged to slay the demon of sleep and to wield the
sword that cuts through delusion. The latter imagery, compared with haiku poetry, is
less known in the West outside the walls of the Zen center. Cultivating a warrior cult
language can serve to hold the Zen community together, to create a notion of elitism
(rife with critical thinking) and to keep students from wandering away from the
battlefront. In other words, even the metaphors and poetic imagery used by Zen
teachers can contradict the underlying rhetoric of Zen, which is to see into [ones
own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood (Dumoulin 91). When one is
engaged in battle, even a battle with sleep, there is a self and an other.
Fifth, Jensen notes that Taoist rhetoric must proceed from authority (ethos).
Zen teachers have long insisted that their words mean simply what they mean and no
more. This implies that they defy critique, and by making many of their utterances
brief they make it difficult to dissect utterances. This is a direct defense against any
assault on their authority. Joshu, for example, has tried to preclude analysis of his
statements in the inscription to this paper, but there is one element of his statement
that bears analysis. Here is the story again:
When Joshu was asked about the significance of
Bodhidharmas coming east (which, proverbially, is the same as asking
about the fundamental principle of Buddhism), he replied, The
cypress-tree in the courtyard.
You are talking, said the monk, of an objective symbol.
No, I am not talking of an objective symbol.
Then, asked the monk again, what is the ultimate principle of
The cypress-tree in the courtyard, again replied Joshu
(D.T. Suzuki 1964 106)
Joshus statements mean only what he wants them to mean, but we can cannot
miss the trace of authority his words leave. J5shu does not have to explain himself in
any way because he is the master. The monk can ask once, even twice, but it is clear
that if he asks again he will be summarily dismissed as an idiot. This demonstration
of authority is consistent throughout Zen literature. Even in stories in which a monk
decides to challenge the wise old man it is clear that the challenger does so because he
recognizes the masters authority:
Tokusan came to Isans temple ... dressed formally and entered... to
have an interview. Isan was sitting in his place. ... Tokusan gave a
katsu shout, swung his sleeves, and went out (Sekida 154).
Only when two equally enlightened masters encounter one another do the
stories show how they mutually acknowledge one anothers brilliance and authority,
often with wit and humor. Otherwise, the challenger is humiliated or flees, as did
Tokusan (who later managed to become a revered master himself in an incident which
will appear in Chapter 8 below).
Zen teachers have traditionally taken great pains to assert their authority. This
includes the use of strict discipline, careful preservation of documents certifying then-
receipt of authority from their teachers, and the reverence students must pay to them
to receive the teaching. Yet the assertion of Bodhidharma is that the student will see
into his own true nature. How this requires the presence of an authoritarian tradition
is not at all clear. It may be completely true that there are many charlatans who will
take the students money and loyalty, but how is this prevented by the imposition of a
lineage of authority? As Chapters 6 and 7 will make clear, it isnt, and the genuinely
seeking student had better beware.
Jensens final emphasis of Taoist rhetoric is sincerity, humility,
respectfulness, goodness, trustworthiness, and we have seen examples of these
characteristics of ethos in the stories of Joshu, who is so soft-spoken to the monks
who question him, but we have seen the exact opposite in the case of Tokusan, who
flaunted Isans authority and wisdom because he was unable to best the old man, or
Suibis whacking Ryuge with a chin rest. Zen is replete with stories of both kinds,
demonstrating again that any characteristic of Zen rhetoric is regularly contradicted.
Once again, I note that there are no stories of the Buddha striking his disciples, and I
cannot conclude that hitting students or shouting at them furthers the teaching in any
way. Rather, students who come to enlightenment in an atmosphere of fierce
intimidation do so not because of it but in spite of it. The difference between the
teaching and the result is the space taken up by enforcement of authority.
Additional characteristics of Zen rhetoric
I have already mentioned metaphor as a salient characteristic of Zen and have
touched on a triad of other characteristics of Zen rhetoric not included by Jensen.
First is precision, exemplified in Nansens direct and unarguable, It is not mind; it is
not Buddha; it is not things, and in Jbshus profound instruction to a monk to wash
his bowl. The beauty of these statements is that there is no point to argue with. They
defy the discursive intellect and are perfect for the situation. Nothing needs to be
added to them.
Spontaneity is considered a key element of a Zen utterance, as in Joshus
selection of the cypress tree as his answer to an ancient question of Chinese Zen that
tree was right there before him and his questioner, and he spontaneously chose it
without a thought. It was a perfect answer for the occasion. This element bears
strong resemblance to the ancient Greek rhetorical kairos or fitness for the
occasion9, speech or action perfect for a specific moment, and is connected in Zen
rhetoric with the teachers timing of a shout or a blow, which is supposedly based on
the teachers intuitive understanding of exactly what will move a student at a given
moment toward enlightenment (his upaya).
Finally, cmtilogic itself is a topos of Zen rhetoric, as demonstrated by Joshus
cypress-tree in the courtyard or his answer to another monk:
A monk asked Joshu, All [phenomena] are reduced to oneness, but
what is oneness reduced to? Joshu said, When I was in Seishu I made
a hempen shirt. It weighed seven pounds (Sekida 271).
In summary, every one of these rhetorical emphases of Taoism is violated by
Zen teachers. Silence and cautious speech (frequently expressed with natural
imagery) may be countered with warlike metaphors. Avoidance of argumentation
may be abandoned for a polemic against a rival Zen teacher or a verbal assault on the
student. Not acquiring knowledge is violated as students are directed to study books
of koans. Sincerity, humility and respectfulness are often demonstrated in the
...oratory is good only if it has the qualities of fitness for the occasion, propriety of style, and originality of
treatment... (Isocrates, 73).
utterances of Zen teachers, but they can also be fiery, disparaging and combative.
Avoidance of critical thinking (logos) is set aside for publication of books teaching
or explaining Zen. The appeal to authority (ethos) is highly consistent, but there are
many stories of students challenging teachers (Tokusans challenge of Isan is cited
Antilogic, however, is so fundamental to Zen rhetoric that, although it is not
always adhered to, I conclude that it is the one characteristic which clearly
distinguishes Zen from Aristotelian rhetoric. By this I do not include self-
contradictory rhetorical practices which I continually find as I study Zen teaching,
such as the assertion that there are no differences in Buddha nature while at the same
time relegating women to an inferior position. That is not antilogic or Zen teaching;
that is cultural bias.
Zen teachers continually return to antilogic as an underlying principle (a
signifier which refers itself to the transcendental signified Buddha nature) and as a
rhetorical stratagem. This strategy has not been used in Western rhetoric since
Heraclitus (6th and 5th centuries, BCE), whose ways of writing and speaking fell by the
wayside by the time of Socrates and Plato. The path up and down is one and the
same, (Barnes 51) he wrote, which is taken to imply the unity of opposites (ibid
xxxix) and We step and do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not (ibid
70), a challenge to a Western concept of self, and to a conventional perception of
Heraclitus made other statements that cannot be defended through logic, and
has been considered a riddler much like teachers of Zen. As to the level of Asian
influence on him he lived in Asia Minor we can only speculate. We can be
certain, though, that a minority line of thought similar to Zen once existed in Western
philosophy, but was edged out by more prolific and influential writers.
Uses of Zen rhetoric
I noted above (p. 21) that Western studies of rhetoric consider the purpose of
speech and writing, and I have so far looked at two purposes of Zen rhetoric: to
instruct and to induce cooperation. We have seen that the historical purposes of Zen
rhetoric ever since the days of Shen-hui have included seizure of social power and
development of political influence; as well as to induce students to come to
The latter purpose is the professed and famous purpose, the mystique of which
has made the word zen popular in many American contexts. Throughout centuries,
and even here and now, thousands of Zen students have attested to the effectiveness
of Zen practices in inducing an experience called enlightenment. We cannot doubt,
therefore, that the stated purpose of Zen rhetoric is what we are told. Whether Zen
teachers regularly violate the emphases of Taoist rhetoric or not, they seem to succeed
with serious students.
I have particularly emphasized in these last few pages, however, the
uncomfortable appearance of an alternative use of the rhetoric of Zen teachers: the
seizure of social power and development of political influence, particularly through
violations of traditional Taoist rhetorical emphases to gain control over their students.
One striking example of this contradiction can be found in a key Twentieth Century
exponent of Zen in the West. D. T. Suzuki wrote volumes in English both to
influence Western thought with Zen (Japanese) thought, and (supposedly) to
encourage Americans to seek enlightenment: With the development of Zen,
mysticism has ceased to be mystical.... Zen... opens a mans eye to the greatest
mystery as it is daily and hourly performed ... it makes us live in the world as if
walking in the garden of Eden... ( 1964 45). Teasing, eloquent, enigmatic and
confident, Suzuki persuaded thousands of Americans (mostly young) to pursue Zen.
His books combined (well edited) articulate English with the tantalizing hints of the
Zen master to inspire particularly the Beat poets and their friends:
In point of fact, no plainer and more straightforward expressions than
those of Zen have ever been made by any other branch of human
experience. Coal is black this is plain enough; but Zen protests,
Coal is not black. This is also plain enough, and indeed even plainer
than the first positive statement when we come right down to the truth
of the matter (ibid 33).
But if his purpose was to encourage Americans to seek enlightenment, why did he
never encourage them to sit in zazen, to meditate? He wrote at length about Zen and
Japanese culture, but was later surprised when Americans actually started practicing
Suzuki returned to Japan before World War II and eventually wrote that the
war happened due to Western intellectualism. Apparently, Suzuki was unaware that
perhaps the chief cause of war and its fuel were found in the same warrior mystique
that he exalted... (Faure 1993 70 71). That warrior mystique is a link between the
Samurai warrior caste and Zen practice, something Zenophiles usually overlook.
Suzukis writing has been a positive influence on my own lifes course, but his
rhetoric contains contradictions reminiscent of the polemics of Shen-hui centuries
ago: was his purpose really to encourage enlightenment, or to promote Japanese
culture? Rhetoric is the two-ness of language that we often do not wish to talk
about (McPhail 2), and Zen teachers in particular do not want to talk about the fact
that their words may have more than one effect (if not more than one purpose). But
the two-ness of Zen rhetoric is something that must be talked about as its influence on
American culture evolves.
The warrior element of that two-ness, unknown to most Americans, includes
what Burke refers to as hazing: meditation retreats traditionally include no talking,
looking down at the floor for days at a time, sleeplessness, many hours of painful
sitting, shouts and frequent use of the kyosaku, the wake-up stick.10 The isolation,
This is the regimen for beginning students. As students gain in seniority they are permitted to discretely ignore
these rules in order to help run the retreat.
pain and sensory deprivation can be intense. People have been known to crack and be
taken for psychiatric care under this intense regimen, and Robert Aitken Roshi, for
one, has remarked on the people who came to him after having been traumatized at
other centers. Hazing is a trial, Burke writes, and the guilty defendant may hope
... to become an insider, even while he undergoes ritual punishments that impress
upon him his nature as a partial outsider (1955 234 235). In Burkes scheme the
Zen novices nature is divided into two (the guilty victim and the one who punishes
him), and one nature must triumph through asceticism as one self brutalizes the
other in a contradiction of Zen teaching, which holds that all dualities are false.
I have never come across evidence of the extremes of Zen (shouting, blows,
the use of the stick) in the original Buddhism taught by Siddhartha Gotama (who
rejected both asceticism and luxury, and advocated a middle way), and I have to
conclude that they were added in order to achieve high social esteem in Sung China
and Samurai Japan; to build a close-knit elitist community prepared to defend itself
(in uncertain political times); and to extend its authority over non-members. Hazing
functions as a rhetorical (persuasive) technique by also drawing on a hierarchy of
terms with Buddha nature as the transcendental signified, followed by the teacher
and the community. The individual self, individual desires and especially desires of
the flesh became lower strata of the hierarchy, such that students had to develop an
internal elitism that subjugated and punished scapegoated or drove out undesirable
There was another reason for the hazing in Chinese monasteries, at least at one
time: monastics were exempted from some civil duties and guaranteed a meal and a
place to live, so in uncertain times many men went to them as refuges. In order to
weed out the insincere and to avoid being inundated, monasteries developed brutal
hazing, including the tradition of requiring a new applicant to sit outside the gate for
several days to demonstrate sincerity. This use of hazing and the encouragement of
self-denial continues as a strong element in Zen practice, building a strong esprit de
corps within Zen communities even in America today. This same esprit has been
used as a tool to develop character and enlightenment, but also to manipulate, control
and exploit students, as will be discussed in Chapters 6 and 7.
The rhetorical techniques used in Zen centers (including shouts and blows,
which teachers use unexpectedly almost as magical spells to induce sudden
enlightenment) also induce students to conform to the communitys rules and
standards. Whether the violent rhetorical style of some Zen teachers serves the
purpose of bringing students to enlightenment, or only serves the purposes of the
teacher to control and exploit becomes an important question in Zen and also in any
other institution that represents itself as religious. I will touch again on this important
issue in Chapter 7.
Western writers commonly object to Zen antilogical rhetoric, but those who
raise this objection overlook the irrational premises of the most popular Western
religion, Christianity, which holds that a certain individual who was tortured to death
2000 years ago, through his literally excruciating death, saves those who believe that
he was a god (and only those who believe) from being subjected to eternal torture
upon their deaths. Even the Christians admit that this can only be taken on faith.
Zen rhetoric is not in most respects different from Aristotelian rhetoric, with
the notable exception of its willing use of antilogic as a specific rhetorical device to
stop the listener from using rational thought (which will not help him to reach
enlightenment). The purposes of Zen rhetoric are persuasive, just as in Western
rhetoric: both to gain political and social advantage; and to persuade the listener to
value and seek enlightenment.
There are some characteristics of Zen rhetoric, however, which help to
distinguish it from Western rhetoric, and throughout the remainder of this paper, in
reviewing and discussing Zen writing, discourse and ritual, I will refer back to these
ten characteristics: silence or cautious speech; avoidance of argumentation; not
acquiring knowledge or learning; avoidance of critical thinking; reliance on
authority; sincerity, humility, respectfulness, goodness, trustworthiness (ethos);
metaphor, particularly using natural or warrior imagery; spontaneity; precision; and
CHAPTER 4: THE BRAIN AND ZEN
I stated in my introduction that the development of Americans perceptions
of themselves, the world and reality ... have a transforming impact on the rest of the
world, and that the entrance of Zen into American discourse is changing those
perceptions. Now that I have identified salient elements of Zen rhetoric, in the next
four chapters I will demonstrate different ways in which Western discourse is being
changed by Zen and will examine them in the light of Burkes analysis of rhetoric as
revealing or hiding motivation.
Burke relied on hierarchy of terms and the idea of terministic screens to
expose motivation. Ive already referred to his idea that an ordered set of terms exists
in a hierarchy with an ultimate term of terms at the top which represents the
principle or idea behind the positive terminology as a whole (1955,189). Burke
refers to such sets of terms (nomenclatures) as terministic screens. Any
nomenclature, Burke proposes (2001 1341), necessarily directs the attention into
some channels rather than others. In one sense, this likelihood is painfully obvious.
A textbook on physics, for instance, turns the attention in a different direction from
the textbook on law or psychology. Burke calls the focusing of attention by a
vocabulary a terministic screen. The terministic screen of Zen includes terms that
focus the students attention on meditation and the effects of meditation: kenshd,
joriki, and samadhi are specific mental phenomena, for example, that a student of Zen
will seek and identify and talk about once he has the words for them and knows
I find two parallel trends in the mating of Zen & Western rhetoric. Both use
Zen terminology as a terministic screen. I think of the first trend (syncretism) as the
same as the transition from a pidgin to a creole when two languages encounter each
other: in this case, ideas from two distinct cultures encounter each other and find a
way to communicate and shape one another through discourse, eventually forming a
new culture, discourse and vocabulary. This happened, for example, when Mahayana
Buddhism encountered Taosim in China, and Zen resulted. In this chapter I will
discuss a distinct example of this type. In this case, the terministic screen is used
more to direct attention toward something than away from something.
The second trend is a more deceptive process and consists of cooptation, the
use of new terminology as a terministic screen to disguise the real motivation of an
existing discourse, and is not about the confluence of two cultural or rhetorical
streams at all; it turns the attention away from something. I will generally refer to
these two trends as syncretism and cooptation.
One field of discourse in which Zen plays a syncretistic role is in brain
research. There is nothing more Western than positive scientific research, which
proceeds on the basis that discriminatory intellect can get to the bottom of any
question. This attitude is diametrically opposed to the Zen argument that dualities are
illusory and that pursuit of intellectual knowledge produces a false view of ultimate
reality. Zen, for its very defiance of positive science, has intrigued physical scientists
some of whom could not help but rise to the challenge of Zen, with researchers in the
areas of psychology and brain research particularly diligent. This encounter has
resulted in literature breaking through terministic screens which explores Western
concepts vis-a-vis Zen teaching and practice.
The first exploratory contact that I have found between science and Zen came
from psychoanalysts in the 1950s. Erich Fromm took a serious interest in Zen but,
writing for an audience which worshiped science and was suspicious of the Orient,
found it wanting: Psychoanalysis is a scientific method, nonreligious to its core.
Zen is a theory and technique... (De Martino et al 77). The comparison of scientific
method with theory and technique serve to defend the Western and demean the
eastern approaches, when actually these two phrases could be reasonably
Fromm went on nevertheless to completely undercut his initial comparison:
...Freuds own system transcended the concept ofillness and cure and was
concerned with the salvation of man, rather than only with a therapy for mentally
sick patients, he wrote, and Freuds aim was the optimum knowledge of truth... the
knowledge of reality.... Freud represents the culmination of Western rationalism...
(ibid 81). Oddly enough, Zen could be described by its adherents in much the same
way: concerned with something like salvation; searching for optimum knowledge of
truth and reality; a culmination of rationalism. If Freuds scientific methods were not
primarily about mental illness, but were attempting to achieve the same thing as Zen,
then in what respect were they superior to Zen? Only in being rendered as scientific
method instead of theory and technique.
Fromm, without ever having practiced Zen, but having learned of it directly
from D. T. Suzuki, allows that both psychoanalysis and Zen aim to make the
unconscious conscious (ibid 95), but somehow could not acknowledge the
possibility that they are equally scientific techniques discovered through testing
theoiy in practice over a long period of time and may actually achieve the same
purposes. In spite of his dismissiveness of Zen, Fromm only piqued the curiosity of
Americans who sought the optimum knowledge of truth ... the knowledge of reality.
Raul Moncayo compares Zen with Lacanian psychoanalysis and finds them
more or less equivalent: ...following Lacan, it becomes possible to argue that
mystical experience and psychoanalysis share a practice of subjective destitution and
benevolent depersonalization. What is destroyed or deconstructed in such a process
are not the ego-functions per se but the imaginary construct of a substantial ego
entity (338). Moncayo sees the relationship between words and experience, which
are addressed both by Lacan and by Zen: Lacan often described the Real in terms of
an absence or a lack within the Symbolic to pinpoint the Real. Such lack alludes to a
limitation of language to represent a Real beyond symbolization (346).
Recognizing the similarity of Zen to Lacanian psychoanalysis, Moncayo calls
his essay on this subject The Finger Pointing at the Moon, from the observation of
an ancient Zen master that his finger pointing at the moon is not itself the moon.
Having identified the incapability of rational language to pinpoint the Real,
Moncayo goes on to point out the similarity between the poetic, irrational language of
Zen teachers and the language of psychoanalysis: Within the psychoanalytic
situation, dreams and unconventional linguistic formations, such as slips, puns, jokes,
and so forth, are matched by the use of interpretative speech on the part of the
analyst (353-354). Writing as a Lacanian, Moncayo does not dismiss Zen, as does
Tomio Hirai took a decidedly more scientific step with his Psychophysiology
of Zen (1974) in which he reported extensive scientific research utilizing
electroencephalograms, blood tests, Rorschach tests and other controlled
psychological tests (82 83):
Zen meditation ... produces a slowing of the electroencephalogram
[which means] a series of EEG changes towards the theta train during
meditation.... It is different from the ordinary awakening state and
sleepiness. But, it is specified as neither excitation nor depression of
the cortical activities. And it is not a short-acting change but a long-
lasting one, i.e. not phasic but tonic.
Hirai, who set out to demonstrate the effects of Zen meditation more objectively than
through the verbal reports of monks, blended scientific statements like the above with
ancient (i.e., non-scientific) reports about the meditation experience:
It has been said from ancient times that there are several levels of
consciousness in human beings in the Buddhistic sense. The highest
level of consciousness is called arayashiki, which means supreme
consciousness.... And... this supreme consciousness naturally appears
from the inner world of mind.... It can be called an innate empirical
state of mind, which is so submerged that there is no longer 1 and it but
a consciousness of pure existence. This is the reason why it is called
the foundation of consciousness. ... As discussed before, we have
pointed out that changes in the electroencepha-logram during Zen
meditation indicate a particular awareness which is neither ordinary
awakening nor a psychedelic or hypnotic state of mind. We have
called this particular awareness a relaxed awareness with steady
responsiveness "... correlating with the physiological changes of the
By combining both traditional and scientific perspective, Hirai ends up with Zen
meditation, relaxed awareness, and physiological changes of the brain in the
same paragraph, a combination of subjective and objective perspectives that Fromm
and Lacan could not achieve. Hirais discourse is unique in attempting to fashion a
vocabulary and a perspective that was not possible without combining Zen meditation
with scientific tools of analysis. His combination of both scientific and metaphorical
language is stunning: It may be said in an analogous way that the consciousness in
Zen meditation is like a film which is never exposed to the light. ... Needless to say,
no mind in the Zen sense is equated with this clear and lucid consciousness (111).
Hirais terminology acts as a terministic screen to direct the attention toward a
perception that the special mental states of Zen can be described and validated
James Austin, a physician trained in the United States and attracted to Zen
meditation, produced in 1998 an enormous compendium of brain research and his
analyses of it in an attempt to understand exactly what happens to the human mind
on the road to enlightenment. His bias, he states, is that ...mankinds basic trend
toward spiritual growth... implies a dynamic, intimate perennial psychophysiology. It
is a series of processes, slowly evolving, that culminate in defining moments of an
extraordinary character (xix). And, like Hirai, he comes up with some remarkable
We will be applying the term extraordinary states to the
psychophysiological events which then surge up through the fissures
into consciousness. We will define none of these states as arcane or
exotic. They are innate, existing brain functions, rearranged into new
configurations. Their raw data anticipate all words, doctrines, and
sacred texts, all theological, philosophical, and neurological
In this paragraph Austin has combined the scientific psychophysiological
events with the metaphorical surge up through the fissures a way of speaking
forbidden in professional medical research. His prose thus defines itself as non-
scientific by professional scientific standards and non-Zen by traditional Zen
standards, but he develops a unique rhetoric which is not possible without violation of
the rules. And rules must be violated. As D5gen (1200-1253) wrote, When one side
is clarified, one side is obscured (Faure 1993 6). That is, terministic screens must be
identified and pulled away so as not to obscure our vision.
Hirai and Austin are fashioning a new terministic screen that directs the
attention toward specific phenomena that could not be perceived before, or at least not
in America. Said differently, they fashion new, Western ways of describing Zen
perceptions in such a way that they become Western perceptions. They create a new
terministic screen. We should stay tuned. It might not be so many years before
millions of Americans are tweeting to one another about their joriki and samadhi.
CHAPTER 5: ZEN LITERATURES IN AMERICA AND THE USE
OF ZEN IN MARKETING
By the early 1800s translations of Asian Buddhists texts were beginning to
reach America thanks to the labors of William Jones and the Asiatick Society,
founded in 1784. Thanks to them, Thoreau, Emerson and Walt Whitman had access
to the Bhagavad Gita and the Lotus Sutra. Buddhist ideas entered American
discourse through them and the other Transcendentalists (Fields Ch. 4). Sir Edwin
Arnolds The Light of Asia, an English poem telling the story and teachings of the
Buddha, reached Bronson Alcott (one of the Transcendentalists) by 1878 and was
immensely popular in America.
So far these translations and Arnolds new work were syncretistic, a merging
of ideas and terms, a directing of the readers attention toward one thing and away
from something else. The next development, however, was the seizure of unfamiliar
Buddhist ideas and terms by occultists, people on the hunt for new ways to explain
phenomena such as miracle healings and communications from the dead. They
coopted Buddhist teaching as occult authority and turned it to their own purposes.
This contributed to theosophy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Sometimes this movement included sincere people, but too often they were frauds and
opportunists, the infamous Helen Blavatsky the most notorious (Fields 103 104).
Charismatic and smooth-tongued, such people were able to snitch whatever aura of
wisdom or authority they could find in something new and unknown that comes into
the culture and use it for their own purpose, which was to appropriate the authority of
this strange new terminology and to attract devotees and their money.
The new ideas introduced by Buddhism traveled from the cultural boundary to
the cultural center, carried along by both syncretists and the insincere, and the word
zen developed more and more cultural recognition, gradually establishing
legitimacy." There is precedent. European Christians for 2,000 years have coopted
the cultural authority of Hebrew, Greek and Sumerian myths and beliefs for their own
purposes. As a result we have American cities named Bethlehem, Salem, Jericho and
Palestine. Just as the Asian foreignness of messianic Judaism entered Europe in the
past, the Asian foreignness of Zen Buddhism is entering America now and being
incorporated in the same way.
One way Zen practice has willingly allowed itself to be appropriated is that
Zen teachers have trained others outside Buddhism in Zen practice. Joshu Sasaki, for
example, trained Catholic monasteries (Fields 245), and to this day Roman Catholic
Father Pat Hawk trains Catholics to use Zen methods in contemplative retreats as
well as leading Buddhist sesshins. Thus Catholicism has been syncretized with Zen.
I do not know if I can conclude from this that authority is autopoietic (self-replicating) but, contrary to my
expectations, it seems to expand infinitely.
It remains to be seen how widespread or permanent this syncretism will be. Will a
Vatican pogrom wipe it out, or will it persist, as Native American dances have
survived in the Catholicism of New Mexico Pueblos?
The introduction of Zen practice to America remained slow due to the
difficulty of the practice, and in 1938 a fledgling Zen group under a Japanese teacher
in New York City still had only thirty members. The teacher, however was not in a
hurry. It had taken around three hundred years for Zen to take root in China, and he
felt it would take at least that long in America (Fields 181). By the late 1940's
enough literature had reached the market and enough teachers had established
footholds in American cities that Zen concepts were being talked around in
intellectual circles, and
by the latter half of the fifties, the idea of Zen had become so
popularized that it achieved the status of a fad. Zen has always been
credited with influencing Far Eastern Art, Mrs. Sasaki observed
somewhat ironically from Kyoto in 1959. But now the discovery has
been made that it was existing all along in English literature. Ultra-
modern painting, music, dance, and poetry are acclaimed as
expressions of Zen. Zen is invoked to substantiate the validity of the
latest theories.... (Fields 205).
Mrs. Sasaki was the most prominent woman in the early transmission of Zen
to America. An American, she married a Japanese Zen teacher and then, after his
death, went to Japan to study for many years in monastic style.
The chic use of zen that Sasaki described has continued to this day. To cite
an example from the visual arts, in the New York Times a reviewer (Cotter C22)
describes a newly opened, refurbished architectural monument: McKims white
marble exterior, clean of line, clear of ornament, [is] a Beaux-Arts version of Zen.
The interior, however, is ... emphatically not Zen, and it looks less Zen than ever after
its recent refurbishment. Self-consciously using it three times in rapid fire, both as
adjective and norm, without explaining what he means any more than he explains
Beaux-Arts, the writer seems to expect the reader to know what he means by the
word Zen. The word is used commonly in literary discussions too: Mr. Updike
said he admired that open-ended Zen quality [Salingers stories] have, the way they
dont snap shut (McGrath A16).
In neither of these two cases, in which the word zen is used to critique the
arts, is there any syncretism of ideas. The word zen is used simply as an adjective;
Cotter might have used the word spare in the first case, and Updike could have used
a word such as ambiguous in the second. What was the purpose of the writers
using these words, therefore, other than to overlay Western ideas with a word that
adds artistic cachet or authority, to demonstrate that the writer has the word in his
vocabulary? Both are examples of cooptation, and represent the substitution of one
terministic screen for another.
In the 1950s the Beatniks created a new English literature influenced by Zen.
They included poets Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder12, novelist Jack
Kerouac and essayist Alan Watts. Kerouac, while commanding the widest readership,
actually practiced Zen the least, being too manic (or too inebriated) to sit still long.
Watts essays and books introduced thousands to Zen and contributed to the sudden
flood of young people who, a decade later, began to bend their knees and sit in actual
Zen practice. Watts branded Suzukis Zen (the more formal Zen of actual Japanese
teachers) as square Zen in contrast to the antinomian beat Zen of the 1950's and
1960's (Faure 1993 58), but more and more people made the enormous effort to
practice square Zen. By 1998 Don Morreales Complete Guide to Buddhist America
listed upwards of 500 Zen centers, groups and temples in the United States.
The writing of the Beats inspired the next generation, the rucksack
revolution predicted by Kerouac in The Dharma Bums, also known as the hippies.
The sudden interest in Zen by thousands of young Americans was not due only to the
appearance and magical lure of Zen itself (although by now the word commanded a
certain authority, thanks largely to Kerouac and the Beats); it was also due to a long,
hated war; the arrival in the black market of psychedelic drugs, and frustration with
conformity in American life induced by a period of mind-numbing affluence never
seen before in the history of the world (and still running). An excerpt from
Ginsbergs seminal poem Howl might give a clue as to the sense of alienation from
Whalen (1923 2002) was eventually ordained as a Buddhist teacher. Snyder (b. 1930) helped to found the Ring
of Bone zendo in northern California and still writes poetry today. In 1998 he received the Buddhism
Transmission Award from the Japan-based Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai Foundation.
mainstream culture that drove many youth to study and practice eastern religions,
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless
jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are
judgement! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned
Ginsberg began his collection of poems, Selected Poems 1947 -1995, with an
inscription from the Prajnaparamitra Sutra, a highly revered Zen text.
Jack Kerouac (1922 1969) may have done more to spread interest in Zen
than any other single member of the Beatniks through his stories about the lives and
wanderings of the Beats. His stories were thinly disguised autobiography, really, in
which he and his friends were given pseudonyms but otherwise remained
recognizable living people.
Everythings all right, I thought. Form is emptiness and emptiness
is form and were here forever in one form or another which is empty.
What the dead have accomplished, this rich silent hush of the Pure
I felt like crying out over the woods and rooftops of North
Carolina announcing the glorious and simple truth. Then I said, Ive
got my full rucksack pack and its spring, Im going to go southwest to
the dry land, to the long lone land of Texas and Chihuahua and the gay
streets of Mexico night, music coming out of doors, girls, wine, weed,
wild hats, viva! What does it matter? (1976 147).
Regardless of ones response to Kerouacs brand of poetic, stream-of-
consciousness prose, one has to acknowledge the frenzied mishmash of Zen and
hedonism in his thinking (or lack thereof). On the one hand he is a product of a self-
indulgent American affluence which sees self-entertainment to be the most important
thing in life; and on the other hand he is inspired by meditating under a tree in North
Carolina to truly grasp some of the import of the lines of The Prajna Paramita Sutra
(emptiness and form are one), and to merge these into a creed attractive to other
young people like him. Unfortunately, Kerouacs grasp of the dharma never escaped
the taint of the alcoholism which killed him, and the reference to girls, wine, weed
was not lost on those who could not distinguish between the clarity of kensho and the
ecstatic delusions of inebriation (sexual or chemical).
Kerouac managed to write something more traditionally Zen with a delightful
American, twentieth-century flavor, in The Scripture of the Golden Eternity.
Challenged in 1956 by Gary Snyder to write a sutra (10), Kerouac wrote this long
poem. By calling it a sutra Kerouac followed the Mahayana tradition of penning
new works and attributing them to the historical Buddha himself. Also within that
tradition, he presented the dharma in a format expressive of his own time and culture
(including a use of scientific understanding in a way complementary to that of the
writing cited above in Chapter 4):
All these selfiiesses have already vanished.
Einstein measured that this present universe is an
expanding bubble, and you know what that means (33).
Kerouac also draws on and uses the imagery of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in
Roaring dreams take place in a perfectly silent
mind. Now that we know this, throw the raft away (35).
This is a reference to the ancient metaphor of a raft to describe the Buddhist teaching:
one uses a raft to cross a river but, that done, one leaves the raft behind and goes on
without it. And Kerouac also follows the ancient Chinese tradition of word play in
Everythings alright, cats sleep (54).
In this line he not only evokes the ability of cats to be at one with their reality, but
also reminds us of the cats that he traveled with, drank with, recited poetry with and
made love with. This punning is not only playful, but helps to carry his theme, that
everything is one and all is well in the Golden Eternity:
...one smiling smile, one adorable adoration,
one gracious and adorable charity, everlasting
safety, refreshing afternoon, roses, infinite
brilliant, immaterial golden ash (60)....
Was Kerouacs work Zen? Although many Americans decided it was, another
writer of the same period, Alan Watts, felt compelled to distinguish it from other
experiences of Zen by writing of Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen (1959). D.T. Suzuki,
the most prominent proponent of Zen in America by 1958 when The Dharma Bums
was published, rejected Kerouacs version as well:
As he became more aware of the dangers of antinomianism,
presumably in response to the initial Western understanding of Zen as
a kind of libertarianism as exemplified by the Beat Zen of Jack
Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Alan Watts he began to warn against
this misinterpretation (Faure 58).
Whether or not Kerouacs beat Zen was valid Zen, it represents a
significant element of the interpenetration of Zen with American culture and an
example of how the two changed each other. Kerouac used Western expressions to
give life to Zen terms in a new way and a new context truly syncretistic. Using Zen
rhetoric as a terministic screen, he directed his readers attention to a philosophy
which would otherwise have been labeled hedonism but took on a distinctive
quality with his persuasive use of words. If emptiness and form are the same, after
all, how can the bliss of deep meditation be different from the bliss of girls, wine,
weed, wild hats? Kerouacs interest in wild hats might also indicate that his
conception was not pure sensuality, as the phrase hints at some of the childlike
craziness often associated with ancient Zen masters.
Regardless of the various opinions about different kinds of Zen, the public
was awakened to the new vocabulary. To capitalize on and to further encourage -
this boom in interest, Zen books began to chum out at a greater rate than ever. In
1965 Kapleaus The Three Pillars of Zen was published, and in 1970 Shunryu
Suzukis Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, two books which remain much-loved and much
read by American Zen practitioners. Both of them presented, in contrast to beat
Zen, a much more square kind of Zen that began to take hold more as wild young
Beats and hippies aged and entered the middle class.
Kapleau was introduced to Zen as a court reporter covering war crime trials in
Japan after World War II, a profoundly disturbing experience which eventually drove
him to serious study of Zen in Japan for thirteen years and, eventually, to zealously
teach Zen in the United States. Another American of the same period, Robert Aitken,
was captured by the Japanese and learned about Zen in a Japanese prisoner-of-war
camp. He too became an American Zen teacher with a wide following of young,
educated, largely affluent Americans looking for more meaning in their lives than that
offered by post-war prosperity.
In The Three Pillars of Zen Kapleau included translations of Asian texts and
talks by his own teacher that hed translated during his years in Japan. More
influentially, and speaking directly to the interest of the current market, he also
included descriptions by contemporary Asians and Americans of their
enlightenment experiences. Most important, for those inclined to give it a try,
Kapleau included a practical primer for zazen, sitting in Zen meditation (neither D. T.
Suzuki nor Alan Watts had given practical instructions), and Shunryu Suzuki made it
accessible by speaking in an American Buddhist voice, unlike any heard before, and
yet utterly familiar (Fields 257). Kapleaus instruction manual, however, was the
first practical guide published in English. It represented another completely American
product influenced by Zen: the self-help book, the how-to manual on a 1500-year-old
means to spiritual awakening one of the best examples of the marriage of rhetorics.
A key factor of these two books is their American qualities. Consider the
following comment from a woman practitioner who contributed her story to
When my husband suggested a vacation in Hawaii in the summer of
1962,1 said: Why not? In spite of the fact that we were roaming
about the beach at Waikiki with three children and two surfboards,
both of us were actually looking for something more spiritual.
Fortunately my husband discovered a zazen group which was meeting
at a private residence in Honolulu (Kapleau 1980 252).
This woman writes in colloquial prose, not in a mystical tone. She tells an
ordinary story with children and surfboards that many Americans can relate to. Most
important, she expresses both the desire for physical, material pleasure that
Americans take for granted a vacation in Hawaii and a more private, usually
unspoken desire for something more spiritual. Her simple statement speaks to
much that represented many Americans of the sixties and, in fact, a multitude of
human beings throughout history who find that material comfort does not provide
spiritual peace. And what could be more American than to pursue spiritual
enlightenment while on a beach vacation in Hawaii: Honey, would you take the kids
surfing while I realize my Buddha nature?
In Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Shunryu Suzuki similarly spoke in a
vernacular that felt completely accessible to young middle-class Americans who
wanted more than just material success: The more you understand our thinking, the
more you find it difficult to talk about it. The purpose of my talking is to give you
some idea of our way, but actually, it is not something to talk about, but something to
practice (90). Shunryu Suzukis prose is not theoretical: he does not use complex
sentences and few words have more than two syllables. In an unassuming way he
repeats over and over in this short book that you cant learn it by talking about it: you
have to practice it. This plain prose from a Japanese Zen master holds the ancient
wisdom of the Orient tantalizingly close. Yet Suzuki also takes advantage of the
terministic screen afforded by Zen:
The Soto way always has double meaning, positive and negative. And
our way is both Hinayanistic and Mahayanistic.... Actually we have Hinayana
practice with Mahayana spirit rigid formal practice with informal mind
Having lured his reader in with simple phrases, Suzuki now creates intrigue by
throwing in unfamiliar words and some confusing double-talk. Treading through this
mine field, the reader comes across another phrase in plain English that seems to
promise, This is how you come to awakening! Its very simple: you just have to
have a rigid formal practice and an informal mind! Young Americans of the 1960's
had truly mastered informal mind, so all they needed to do was learn the rigid
New, musical words (hinayana, mahayana) create a terministic screen that
draws the attention toward new ideas and practices; the student who now wants to
learn about Hinayana and Soto is not focusing on other, more mundane interests.
Secondly, the passage links something that seems simple (informal mind) with
something that is really very difficult (rigid formal practice). With the terministic
screen of informal mind, readers of Suzukis essays were able to turn their attention
away from the difficulty of formal practice, and thrust themselves into a seductive
quest for enlightenment.
Kapleau and Shunryu Suzuki effectively advertised the accessibility of Zen
awakening to a public that wanted to believe it was possible (not to mention resulting
in a tea product on todays grocery store shelves called Beginners Mind Green
Tea). As they flocked to Zen, many of the young (coming from educated middle-
class homes) spent money, which resulted in the greatest boom of all for a category of
rhetoric that depends upon, if not Zen, at least the word: American advertising fell in
love with Zen.
Aristotle announced that rhetoric is the faculty of observing in any given case
the available means of persuasion, (Aristotle 181), and a principal use of rhetoric in
present-day America (and in world culture, probably) is advertising. It might seem
from day to day, in fact, that the best rhetorical minds in America gravitate to
advertising, where the big money is. The use of the ethos or cachet of Zen to sell
things dates at least to 1970 when The Tassajara Bread Book was released, teaching
the baking methods used by the Tassajara Zen Monastery in California. This popular
book, still in print, has a somber brown matte cover that evokes a monks robe. In the
center is a circle containing a drawing of flowers and baked goods, an image of
wholeness, good health and nature, presumably. On the back cover, also in a circle, is
a drawing of a couple of rustic dwellings and a tree, perhaps recalling some ancient
long-lived Buddhist monk like Han Shan in a lonely dwelling in the mountains. The
message: monastic practices produce good health.
Inside, the book is dedicated with colorful language typical of Zen liturgy,
something intriguing for a public eager to know more about Zen, presumably eager to
become like Zen monks by practicing their cooking methods. The dedication is to
all my teachers/past, present and future:/ gods, men and demons;/beings, animate
and inanimate;/ living and dead, alive and dying./ Rock and Water/ Wind and Tree/
Bread Dough Rising/ Vastly all/ Are patient with me. The overall message of this
packaging may be that the buyer will benefit spiritually from nourishing food, a
simple, natural way of life and the patience of the monk/cook/author who is in
touch with past, present and future; and with all beings, even the inanimate ones.
Who wouldnt buy this cookbook? Enlightenment is practically guaranteed
with the first muffin out of the oven, but the book is not syncretistic: the images and
words and veneer of Zen are used to sell what would otherwise be an ordinary
cookbook with no claim to the status that this book has enjoyed for decades. The
success of the book not only provided income for the author but became an important
source of income for San Francisco Zen Center, enabling the Center to take in more
students and teach more Zen. Thus the book did help to promote Zen (conceivably a
syncretic function), but at a time when the Centers growth exploded, and when its
leader made self-serving financial decisions, as I will discuss in Chapter 7. We could
possibly conclude that this book serves both trends of the merging of Zen and
The covers of the paperback copies of Zen Buddhism by Christmas
Humphreys and The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau are strikingly similar to
the bread book, with monkish brown covers, but these also take advantage of Chinese
calligraphy to create a mystique of oriental wisdom, to deliberately draw on the
reverse ethnocentrism of which even Derrida, among so many Westerners blinkered
by the bright lights of Zen, has been accused (Faure 1993 223). Both covers display
the word Zen in large characters. On Humphreys book the tall white letters are
separated by large circular white bullets, with the word Buddhism, also in white, in
smaller letters below that. Perhaps the separation of the letters in Zen is supposed
to create a sense of openness or space while at the same time uniting the three letters
to form the word not too much openness. The largest image on the cover, however,
is the Chinese character in black sumi calligraphy. The fact that the meaning of the
ideogram is explained nowhere in this paperback book may be an indication that its
only purpose is to sell the book.
On Kapleaus book the word Zen has been written with the sumi brush, and
below that, in a yellow square bounded by black and white lines, is the stylized
ideogram that is used as the logo of Kapleaus center in Rochester and its affiliate
centers throughout North America and on other continents. The juxtaposition of the
freely flowing sumi painting of Zen and kanji-as-logo-in-a-box reveals the contrasts
found in the practice of Zen almost anywhere: freedom on the one hand, and
institutionalization on the other. The kanji has been captured, stylized and trapped in
a box. It is the freedom of Zen practice harnessed to the will of a teacher, the efforts
of a group, and the construction of a building. Kapleaus organization is one of the
oldest, most revered and most tightly run Zen organizations in the West, and this
image reflects that prestige. It is as if the kanji in the box has tied up its long hair, put
on a well-fitted robe and sat down perfectly in the middle of a square meditation mat,
just as thousands of zennies do every day.
Although these books are about Zen, and therefore the advertising techniques
are in ratio to what is sold, they demonstrate the strategic use of the terministic screen
of Zen to achieve a purpose. Does the rhetoric of these book covers sell Zen, or does
Zen sell books? Unfortunately, by the time these books were published, the
difference between these two trends was becoming harder to distinguish.
Although the word Zen does not appear in the title of Lust for
Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex, it is certainly present in the marketing and text.
The back of this paperback has a picture of the non-smiling author captioned, Zen
scholar and Aikido instructor John Stevens is the author of several books.... The
blurb, also on the back of the book, lists some of the contents, including Zen in the
art of love. Thus the marketing juxtaposes a scholarly impression with a titillating
sexual content. The message may be that reading about sex (what some people might
call pornography) is somehow both serious and spiritual. Not only can no one object
to my reading something so important, but possibly, as a Buddhist, I have a duty to
The colorful front cover includes not just a picture of two people having sex
but a tantric painting of two beings, one blue and demonic with skull earrings, one
yellowish, full-breasted and reclining, both with a third eye in the middle of their
foreheads. This image pictorially combines spirituality (represented by the third eye)
with sexuality, as these two beings seem carnally connected in some way, although
the painting has been chastely cropped. Lest we worry that too much negation of
opposites has taken place, the two figures in the image are stereotypically male
(demonic) and female (submissive). The book includes pictures of Japanese art, not
only in the Zen style but by Zen masters, including a phallic fertility charm in the
brushwork of the great Hakuin, naughty pictures of well-endowed Buddhist monks
and nuns interrupting their sitting meditation for a little nooky, a photo of a monastic
garden in which the gravel has been raked into two piles to resemble female breasts
(although a bit too geometric to be really convincing) and a calligraphic wall hanging
by the lusty Master Ikkyu stating, Entering the realm of Buddha is easy; entering the
realm of the devil is difficult.
To go beyond its marketing, is the book about Zen? Stevens includes a
lengthy discussion of the sexual attitudes and exploits of the few Zen masters who
openly acknowledged their sexuality. He provides love poetry (by Zen monks and
nuns, of course), poetry about lust, and stories particularly of the Japanese Master
Ikkyu (1394 1481) who frequented brothels, had many affairs and spent his last days
in a happy love affair with a young, blind minstrel woman. Hand-in-hand with his
sexually entertaining history, Stevens book provides historical documentation of an
age-old debate between puritan idealists, who perceive enlightenment to be
emancipation from physical nature, and the more earthly practitioners who insist that
body and mind (our most abiding and demanding binary) cannot really be separated.
Stevens provides yet another iteration of the notion that Zen can be pretty
much anything, and enlightenment can be found almost anywhere, including in the
arms of a prostitute. But he also provides evidence that there is no one thing that
anyone can call Zen. A final note: this book, superficially not very serious, is one
of only two I have come across that acknowledges that Buddhist monasteries have, for
centuries, hosted homosexuality, something I have not heard discussed in Zen circles.
Stevens history leads to an interesting question: if one can attain enlightenment
through sex, then is reading about sex the same as reading about enlightenment?
The book does talk about sex in light of a Buddhist cultural perspective, but it
is not exclusively about Zen, and the use of zen in the cover advertising seems
gratuitous. Again, Zen has been coopted to sell copy. On the other hand, the book
provides a blend of Western and Eastern cultural motifs by combining Americas
delight in books about sex with an increasing curiosity about Buddhism in general and
Zen in particular. Once again, it is difficult to separate cooptation from syncretism.
Writing Down the Bones: Feeling the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg is
another popular text that has remained in print and on shelves for years. Goldberg
utilizes both Zen and contemporary popular psychological rhetoric to encourage
people to write. The title recalls Bodhidharmas statements (as told in tradition)
about how well his students understood him: one student had his flesh, another his
bones, another his marrow (Rational Zen 53 54). The subtitle, however, is purely
from American pop discourse, furthering the image that we have a child within us, an
artist within us or, in this case, a writer within us. Never mind statements of Zen
teachers to the effect that within and without are one and the same, Goldberg
mixes her metaphors and rhetorical traditions in a way that has appealed to many,
The white cover of this popular paperback includes, at the top, two yellow
boxes stating, Foreword by Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People. The two
words ordinary people highlighted by themselves in a yellow box may imply
that anyone, including the buyer of this book, may free the writer within. The main
title, Writing Down the Bones is written boldly in black script in an angle across the
page, eliciting the image of someone writing by hand. Below that, in two blue boxes,
are the words Freeing the and writer within. Again, setting the latter two words
by themselves emphasizes them and enforces the idea that this elusive writer within is
readily available in a little box, if we only know how to get her out.
Below this, in a graphic, we also see an old-fashioned ink bottle and a long-
handled ink pen ready to dip. The ink bottle, however, is turned up-side-down, and
the black ink flows out and down the cover. A number of yellow five-pointed stars
appear in the widening blotch of ink, as well as a circular black-and-white image of a
face that might have come from some medieval alchemical illustration or a Tarot
card. Possibly it is the moons face. This mixture of symbols may imply that
writing the old-fashioned way (with the kind of pen you actually dip repeatedly in the
ink) is more related to the within, and that, with the within free and poured out of
the bottle one can have the moon and the stars, if not also the sun. These nocturnal
images, associated with the word within, and the blackness of ink, may indicate that
what is within is moody, unhappy, soulful or secret. The sun, being more associated
with light and consciousness, may not be so easily connected with the black ink and
the night-time landscape of the writer within.
It is the back cover that links the book to zen. There are two reviews of the
book, one written by Guest, who says the book could even save your life, and
another by Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,
who mentions Natalies experience in Zen meditation and the simple style of a Zen
archer. Interestingly, Pirsigs famous book is not about Zen, nor does he pretend to
be an expert on Zen, but the phrase Zen and the art of has become associated with
his name in the minds of the American intellectual public. Further Goldbergs book
doesnt purport to be about Zen, but the covers of this book imply that something that
can be indicated by the word zen has something to do with releasing the writer
within and finding some heavenly lights in the darkness down inside. Possibly this
book appeals to journal-writers, maybe somewhat to depressives, certainly to people
who feel they have something to let loose from within. The back cover gives the
only clue as to a relation between zen and the process of freeing the writer within,
and that is the phrase experience in Zen meditation.
In contrast to the suggestion that Zen will somehow release the writer within,
the back cover of the book also includes a small black-and-white photo of the author
not, we should note, wearing Zen robes and with her head shaved, but fashionably
dressed and coifed, smiling at the camera. The caption states that she lives in Taos
and is available to teach. There are darned few people who want to practice Zen
meditation for more than a few minutes, so the buyer of this book may be hoping that
reading Goldbergs book will be a shortcut to whatever it is that Goldberg got through
all that meditation. She certainly looks happy in her picture maybe the buyer will be
happy too! So do Zen books appeal because they might be some kind of a shortcut?
A shortcut to what? Any Zen teacher will tell you theres nowhere to go.
The text of Goldbergs book is about writing, with occasional witty comments
from Zen teachers, such as (23), Katagiri Roshi has a wonderful term: fighting the
tofu. ... It is fruitless to wrestle with it; you get nowhere. But then there are
remarks that seem to indicate a complete disconnect between Zen and writing, for
example a quote of Katagiri Roshi saying (46), Literature will tell you what life is,
but it wont tell you how to get out of it. This remark makes no sense and does not
seem to advance Goldbergs effort to persuade the reader that one can write. Getting
out of life is not a Zen aspiration, nor would most teachers in the Zen tradition argue
that literature can tell us what life is. Katagiris remark appears profound and
provides a patina of eastern mysticism, but actually contradicts the foundation of the
Zen tradition, which teaches that you cant learn the truth from words.
Goldberg succeeds better when she writes from her own experience: The
problem is we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp
us forever. Thats not true. We write in the moment. Sometimes when I read poems
at a reading to strangers, I realize they think those poems are me. They are not me,
even if I speak in the I person. (32). Goldbergs Zen ideas fundamentally challenge
a Western, Christian concept that a new soul is created by a deity each time a person
is bom, and that this soul is a fixed quantity that goes on after death, somehow
unchanged. She also questions rhetoric itself by pointing out that words are
ephemeral and possibly dangerous: ...those poems are me. They are not me....
Watch yourself. Every minute we change (ibid).
Americans buy and read Goldbergs book with enthusiasm, evidence that Zen
Buddhist perceptions have, in the space of less than one hundred years, gained a
foothold in the American consciousness; and that the cachet of the word zen can be
used to sell something in a market eager for even a hint of something called
enlightenment. More importantly her popularity shows that Zen practice is
changing the way Americans think. This book is a good example of the conjunction
of cultures and the development of a new vocabulary of terms, a new terministic
Ever since the success of Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance there has
been a steady production of books with titles that include the words zen and art.
There is now a whole shelf of books teaching the Zen of such things as the internet,
changing diapers, making a living, resource editing, the SAT, martial arts, fatherhood,
climbing mountains, insight, leadership, windsurfing, diabetes maintenance ... please
dont make me go on. Frederick Francks Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing is one of these
innumerable books (not a well known one, but typical of the lot). Franck, who also
published The Zen of Seeing, quotes Zen poetry and short sayings of Zen masters in
this book which purports to be about drawing. His interest, he says, is in having
artists achieve an epiphany of the commonplace (19) as they become one with their
seeing and drawing, but there are neither instructions on how to draw nor on how to