Zen and Western Thought: Culture and Practice

Upon cracking my first book on Zen, I was naturally shocked to find these words as the introduction to the discourse: “In writing about Zen there are two extremes to be avoided: the one to define and explain so little that the reader is completely bewildered, and the other to define and explain so much that the reader thinks he understands Zen!” (Watts xi) Herein lies my initial predicament-how does one write an intelligent research paper on an idea that is, in fact, completely ambiguous? This disaster with opposites haunted me throughout my entire endeavor, as was indicated by further reading confirming this strange and cryptic message. If Zen is a concept that cannot be described in form, encompasses all things, defies all religions, and is nothing but also is everything at the same time, how, I ask myself, is there even a book to be written on it in the first place? What is the secret to this beautiful and harmonious way of life? After engulfing various respected authors that are from Western descent themselves, and comparing them with ideas formulated by Asians working with the English language, it seems that the problems Westerners encounter when attempting to understand the idea and theology of Zen is just that-they are trying to understand it. The intricate, intangible idea of Zen comes from many factors, including a rich history in culture and Buddhism, a language conducive to abstract concepts, and a culture profoundly different from its Western neighbors. Secondly, due to the nature of Western society, it is difficult to realize the concept of Zen without actually living in a culture that has been entirely shaped by it and not, as in the United States, by a religion such as Christianity.

The recent popularity of meditation and Zen spawns from a desire for the de-spiritualized West to confront its problems with spirituality and religion. These needs stemming from society range from “a need for community, a need for understanding of self, a need for experience in both emotional and intellectual levels, and a need for liberation from obsession with self-affirmation and materialism” (Merton 30-31). Some say that the West is “culturally-bankrupt,” and statistics indicate that Western society, with the United States in particular, is the “least happy” of all societies today, regardless of their economic triumphs or their seemingly relative stability (Ames 3-4). Advances in science and technology further alienate people from themselves and from others, causing them to become withdrawn and uneasy about their lives. The pressure and strain inflicted by their culture, due to lifestyle, entertainment, and the media, pushes them to feel valueless and disconnected from their world and themselves. Popular culture teaches that the idea of self-consciousness is a negative one, to be ignored and dealt with on a superficial basis (Ames 11). With this in mind, Westerners have unknowingly erased all potential areas for sheer “moments” of reflection, understanding, or self-awareness-key concepts in Zen. In order to allot time for meditation or relaxation, Westerners find themselves instilling “coffee breaks” and “happy hours” to achieve serenity and solitude, as just another appointment on their list of chores for the day. Why wouldn’t there be interest in an idea that might vaporize your stress and calm your life? Thus Zen found its way to the West, traveling first to Western Europe and finally landing in the United States.

In order to conceptualize the idea of Zen as its own entity and not as part of the religion Zen Buddhism, it is necessary to understand the latter as its own discipline. Buddhism, as a religion, is a cross between philosophy and history built around a priest in what is now India named Gautama the Buddha, a figurehead coming to encompass all that is “wisdom-power-compassion” (Humphreys 1). He became deeply troubled by the suffering he witnessed in the world and renounced his privileged life to seek a new understanding. Six years later, he eventually reached what today is known as “Enlightenment,” or some kind of profound spiritual realization pertaining to one’s place in the world. He began to realize that suffering and human discontent is a direct result of unnecessary attachment to circumstances and things, all of which are, by nature, impermanent. In order to achieve perfect understanding, Buddha postulated, one must rid one’s life of all these frivolous attachments. From this, it is obvious that Buddhism is a religion concerned with the ultimate knowledge; Zen, on the other hand, is more concerned with the path to this awareness by way of a unique and spiritual experience. Often, people confuse Zen with conventional religion-however, although being disconcerting and mystic in itself, it is not, and does not participate in, any dogma of any religion. It is not, as many assume, a “rival system competing with Christianity,” but instead embraces the idea that humans, depending on their culture, need an outlet, or a “raft” to get to the “mainland” by whatever religion necessary (Merton 35). As it is said, Zen is to Zen Buddhism as life is to form; but as the life is formless it is by the visible form that one must judge that quality and value of that life (81).

Buddhism, originating in India in the fifth century B.C. and finally being transferred to China by way of the monk Bodhidharma in the early part of the sixth century A.D., became highly popular and eventually spread to Japan, where it was embraced and identified as the term Zen Buddhism. At this time there were two schools of thought, both competing for better recognition. These two stems from Buddhism, called Hinayana and Mahayana, eventually took their own paths and separated into two different sects. Mahayana, the school deemed “greater” was born due to liberal attitudes towards traditional monastic tradition; it allowed the community a greater voice and a looser way of practicing religion. It is from here that the first signs of Zen became present (Watts 24). As the tale is told, Buddha, already a respected and lauded teacher, was meditating on the Mount of Holy Venture in Gaya when a man offered him a golden flower in return for a sermon on the dharma. Buddha gazed at the flower in silence and smiled-it was at this moment that Zen was born (Humphreys 26). Zen was, in fact, a direct revolt against Buddhism by erasing words to achieve personal insight into one’s nature, and was not part of the original Indian doctrine. Twenty-eight Patriarchs after the original Enlightenment, Bodhidharma orally spread this doctrine; six Patriarchs after him, a monk named Hui Neng established Zen in China under the name “Ch’an” (Chen-Chi 42). In the twelfth century, “ch’an” Buddhism finally spread to Japan, where eventually it adopted the widespread term of “Zen.” At this point in its evolution, Zen was spoken of as a sense of serenity, a sense of flow, and a sense of rightness in all action. The number of men in whom such a state of awareness flowered in China and Japan between the sixth and twentieth centuries produced in their outward influence what may be called the visible entities of Zen, as manifested in the original Zen Buddhism. It was at this time that this kind of doctrine was taught in secret and passed down only between master and student; the rest of the population was unable to decipher these mysterious messages. Only after some time passed was the idea of Zen infiltrated into society as a means of expressing oneself in art, literature, and music.

Zen is a relatively simple concept until one begins conceptualizing it. As it is almost impossible to organize it, label it, group it, or qualify it, the only reasonable method is to try to describe what it is not. Basically, Zen incorporates everything unspoken about life-every moment, every thought, every experience, and every emotion. It has no structure, no form, and no expression. It has no God, no traditions, no ceremonies, and provides no destiny. It is, in the words of learned Buddhist Christmas Humphreys, “a vision free from the constraints of dogma” (44-45). It eliminates all worldly possessions, erases money, possessions, honors, ambitions, ready-made formulas, habits, personal interests, and all the other materialistic objects that shroud the pure connection with Buddha. It is at this point, when the mind is clear, naturalistic, and untouched by the world of man, that one can achieve this state of “spacious poverty” in order to receive absolute detachment from the physical world. Within Zen, the discovery of the “original face before you were born” is not the discovery that one sees Buddha but that one is part of Buddha; the true seeing is when there is nothing to see (Merton 5). There is no distinction between a higher power and the self in the way that perhaps Christians or Islams have been taught. As used in Mahayana, the northern branch of Buddhism, Zen is often used as the meditation segment to become neither attracted to nor repelled from anything. In this way, it is an assistance to Buddhism, although it is neither essential nor forced. Obviously, Zen in its nature is quite ambiguous-the only requirement it has is that one see something differently rather than see something different. It does not ask anything of the practitioner other than to look inward and use intuition and serenity to balance situations and experiences in life. It is very moderating and extremely conducive to those who seek calmness and appreciation for life and nature. True Zen has no words-as explained by Humphreys, “words have their uses, but the noblest words are but noises in the air which dieâÂ?¦in the end is silence, silence and a finger pointing the way” (23). It is true that Zen flourishes on experiences broken free from the constraints of language that in turn merely identify them. One must be in direct communication with all living things and rise above the need to use language to express the connections found among them.

Zen is, as we have seen, a relatively simple concept in theory. If one is to merely accept life as the way it is, how could such an idea be presented as so difficult to understand? Imagine this-when researcher Van Meter Ames asked a renowned Zen master to describe the idea of Zen, the master replied that “Zen is not Zen” (7). If Zen is not Zen, than what is Zen? The seemingly simple conclusion takes a rather interesting turn as we find out that Zen is much more involved than simply sitting back and accepting what may come or occur without resistance. Zen becomes a way of life when implemented-a mindset that has spread through East Asia and changed the reference point people use to live their lives. As in Confucianism, whose family-oriented attitude towards life prevents animosity between members, so does Zen fit in quite nicely with Taoism and Buddhism. According to Alan Watts, “coupled with the ‘let well enough alone’ attitude of Taoism, it nurture[s] a mellow and rather easygoing mentality which, when it absorb[s] Buddhism, [does] much to make it more ‘practical'” (29). Zen preaches nothing; it provides a framework for life by advocating the “here and now” in a way to seize the moment and awaken the senses (Ames 7). This idea gets carried into daily activities and interactions between people in every facet of their lives, as this idea can be applied to almost any social situation, discussion, or activity. For example, there is a part of Zen called the “Higher Third” theory: naturally, being in opposition to classification and rationality, it states that there is a synthesis above all opposing pairs (Humphreys 13). Basically, the opposition from which we seek to escape never, in fact, existed in the first place. For example, the Zen master who enigmatically replied that Zen is not Zen also concluded with “above true and untrue there is TRUTH” (Humphreys 14). To be at peace with oneself and broken free from the constraints of competing explanations, one must get to a spiritual world of non-distinction which involves achieving and activating an absolutist view-one that assists in breaking away from the “prison of rationality.” This allows for much more flexibility in life, when all is not “set in stone.” For when something is white, it is black-it is black and white. Zen is not Zen, true; yet, Zen is Zen, had the master finished his statement.

So if Zen is above all classification of thought, how would one discuss the idea of a “soul,” an “identity,” “infinity,” or “God”? People have had trouble identifying abstractions since language has existed. There is a typical inability of language, especially those written in the Latin alphabet or similar system, to say two things at once, although our world is notorious for millions of things occurring at one time (Watts 21). This paradox prevents people from adequately expressing themselves to the point of frustration and eventually to abandonment of the idea altogether. Throughout history, people have dealt with the disastrous problems that are created by this paradox: men die for “freedom,” they kill for “honor,” and they slaughter for “communism” (Humphreys 90). These things have caused war, famine, death, and betrayal just because they have been given a name and a realm of connotation. Zen cautions the idea of abstractions and reminds people that the combination of fact and experience does not create a concrete conclusion. It supports the practical acceptance that abstractions are exactly that-abstractions, or things that cannot be assigned to mere words. As did Buddha while atop the mountain gazing at his flower, so does Zen hope that others can follow this simple lifestyle. This is important to remember, as Westerners, whose Enlightenment period during the 1700s changed their entire way of thinking, turned their backs on anything that wasn’t a concrete conclusion.

Typically, a student of Zen in East Asia devotes his entire life to learning the secret of Enlightenment. He will acquire a master, someone who is extremely proficient in the art and who can guide him in his endeavors. The devices used to discover serenity and flow do not come easy; this is one reason why is it so tempting to associate Zen with Zen Buddhism in particular. Although tactical devices are not essential to one finding Zen within their own life, many East Asian cultures have implemented controls to assist the aspiring Zen masters. These include things such as the mondo, a rapid question and answer session using enigmatic phrases between master and student. Mondo has been classified by Dr. Suzuki, the Zen master responsible for bringing Zen to the West, into a series of main divisions. These series of questions and answers implement ideas such as Paradox, Going beyond Opposites, Contradiction, Affirmation, Repetition, and Exclamation to obtain a less-than-rational view of the universe. Basically, this technique is used as a mental control to tap into the unconscious to eventually achieve satori (in Japanese), or wu (in Chinese), the highest state of purity and sublimity in Zen. The teacher spits out questions called koans to the student, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “How does a hill go up and down?” to induce rapid thoughts of unconscious analyzing (Humphreys 117-124). These phrases are obviously insoluble by rationalism and cannot be discussed in a scientific manner. The master’s reply to the student’s response will be an oral answer, a physical action, or mere silence. In this way, the student can learn to realize the intensely informal and random world of Zen. These associations are taught indirectly and do not reduce answers to rules or concrete right-and-wrong solutions (Ames 7). Zen is, of course, illogical, irrational, and beyond the understanding. There are said to be at least 17,000 documented koans, but, according to modern Zen masters, “for all practical purposes, less than ten, or even less than five, or just one may be sufficient to open one’s mind to the ultimate truth of Zen” (Humphreys 132).

To find a place for Zen in the Western world, one must first look at the structure and nature of its environment. From the 1700s to the early 1900s, the Enlightenment era flourished in both Europe and the United States, bringing with it the largest advances in science and reason that the world had yet experienced. There was a turn from personal reward to large factories and a faster, more chaotic lifestyle. There was no time for reflection, no time for family, and no time to explore the “self”. They learn to identify themselves with a concrete “self:” a composition of historical events consisting of collected memories and conventionally edited versions of past experiences. This alludes to the idea that Westerners see themselves, their bodies, and their minds as what they are in terms of what no longer exists (Watts 6). East Asians deal much better with this complicated abstraction due to the nature of their language. As well as fundamental ideas, Zen exemplifies the idea of being wholly and quietly alive, aware and alert for what may come, whereas the Enlightenment shunned emotion and instead focused on the appreciation of the sciences, innovation, and technology. From that point on, people in these communities have been taught to laud scientific “truths” and supportable “theories” (Merton 31). Zen consciousness, instead of distinguishing and categorizing what it sees in terms of social and cultural standards, blossoms on the notion that all things are possible. It does not put things into preconceived structures but rather “filters the light through a system as if convinced that it will improve it” (Merton 7-8). However, in the West, branches of science sprung up in all universities and businesses with people interested in the way the world worked and why people develop the way that they normally do. Psychology as a study in modern science brought people to concrete notions about the human psyche and its nature. These ideas, beginning with Sigmund Freud and his hypothesis of the id, ego, and superego, surpassed all former knowledge and awareness of the subconscious mind in the West. Carl Jung presented theories of personality, adding that there are traits specific to different people that cannot be altered due to the subconscious mediating behavior. Unbeknownst to these scientists, however, was the striking similarity to ancient Buddhist teachings up to 2,500 years ago, which taught intuition and reliance on the “inner self” (Humphreys 201). Psychologists in the West are only beginning to discover things that Buddhists knew through intuition and discovery alone while altogether ignoring the relevance of science and reason.

Religion is also a major deterrent for the initiation of Zen in the Western lifestyle. As it is a region closely associated with Christianity, there is debate on whether these two ideas can mix harmoniously. Zen is usually associated with cultural movements and a need for spirituality in a person who is, in some ways, “empty” of it. If there is not a widespread need for a revival, it cannot manifest itself in people who do not live by its simplistic nature (Chang 119). This is why Zen fits nicely with Buddhism, as their ways of life are all too similar. Many will remember that Zen is not a religion and does not answer to any God, and tradition, or any doctrine. When related to Christianity, many people assume that Buddhists are trying to explain things, when in reality they are attempting to experience them (Merton 49). This misconception leads people to wrongly believe that the Buddhist religion is trivial, and therefore it becomes misleading. Westerners instead thrive on knowledge, on answers to questions about existence and the unknown. They view God as an object and attempt to reach him through prayer and worship. It is here that Christianity deviates from Zen, as Zen defies abstractions. “God” becomes not “goodness,” for if God is good, then He is evil (Humphreys 50). If there is one certainty, there most certainly lies the other. With an attempt to reach God in this way, there is no separation of God and evil, which many Christians believe goes against most religious doctrines. Westerners are skeptical by nature; they have been raised in a society to doubt anything “metaphysical” or impractical. They tend to test the value and existence of a religion based on the immediate success it brings society and the quick personal returns it brings the individual. Westerners analyze religion this way partly due to cultural standards and the heavy influence of advertising and quick and easy returns. In Eastern societies, rewards are much less imminent (Humphreys 202). Also, due to the idea that Zen lies above all religions and believes that religion is only a convenient means to Enlightenment, it would be difficult to present this to a society of people whose belief in God is already defined. It is said that Zen is a certain way beyond the revealed, spoken message in Christianity-when one breaks through the limits of structural, conventional religion, one may instead end up in a simple void where limitless creativity can stir and eventually induce Enlightenment. Although this is the thought of many religious theorists, it would be impossible to present this to a society which prides itself on “modern consciousness,” or the idea that modern man is a subject for whom his own self-awareness as a thinking, observing self is primary (Merton 22-23).

As well as culture and religion, language is also an extremely important aspect to society and the Western thought process as well in dealing with the fluidity of Zen. Within a Western culture, it is very normal to assume that everything provable is conventional knowledge; in other words, the idea that one does not truly know anything until it can be dictated in something concrete such as in words, numbers, or some sort of notation (Watts 4). Music is notated, mathematics is notated, and stories are notated. In the case of many East Asian cultures, things are much less rigid and can take many forms to explain the same concept. Westerners must classify and place value on each object, both physical and abstract, due to the compounding nature of many Latin languages. The spoken language stems from this culture’s need to provide an agreement on the difference of one thing from another; in this way, people can identify an action from a physical object and thus understand each other. The languages that string together letters to portray experience are particularly linear and are loose translations of a universe in which millions of things are occurring at one time. The linear nature of one-at-a-time character speech and thought is generally felt incapable to explain many feelings that the Chinese characters can provide simply with one character. More so, in the Chinese language, a great number of words do duty for both nouns and verbs, allowing the person who thinks in Chinese to have little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events in time and overlap in many ways. They understand that our world is a collection of processes and changing events rather than static entities (Watts 4-9). Furthermore, in relation to written language, cultural notations, such as that of music, are taught to be “felt” rather than “learned” in East Asian cultures. In Western cultures, an aspiring musician learns the technique, learns the scales, and learns the proper sequence of notes; in Oriental music, a musician learns not by reading but by listening and copying. Thus music takes a lucid form, flowing, changing, and moving with whatever direction the mind may take. Western minds, not as a fault of their own but by cultural norms emphasized since childhood, function by proven techniques and linear structures. Their tendency, whether it involves music or language, is to restrict things to the point of “understanding” them and not, like Asians, to “realize” them. Here is another defining characteristic of Zen: it has assumed perfect mastery over words and concepts, assigning words where necessary yet never allowing them to become part of the spiritual teaching. It is aware of the important social role language plays, and gives it a place where it properly belongs without substantiating parts of speech with human experience. Zen peaks its head once again in yet another area of life.

Because Zen teaches nothing in particular and merely teaches awareness of one’s surroundings, it is difficult to apply to various aspects of Western life, which has been conditioned by a demanding and disconnected lifestyle. However, although many people in these cultures do not have the means to devote their lives to the study of Zen, there are other proven ways people have applied this balance. Dr. Suzuki, the author responsible for bringing and teaching Zen and Buddhism to the Western world, translated ancient Buddhist works and Zen philosophies to English in the early 1900s. He provided a basic framework for people interested in this calm lifestyle, and wrote numerous books to assist them in finding their Zen. He invented stages in Zen training for the West, comprising a list of four concrete steps that must be completed in order to achieve satori. He suggests that first, there must be a sincere, private interest in the teachings, “for Zen can never be popular” (Humphreys 195). He then attests that there must be a conscious desire to transcend oneself from the limitations of humanity. Once acknowledging this upcoming spiritual quest, one must locate a “guiding hand,” or someone to lead then from their struggling soul to finally achieve the fourth step, which is the final upheaval, involving satori. However, this is the part in which Suzuki did not adequately expound-he listed a series of steps, yet did not take into consideration the stubborn, inquisitive mindset of most Westerners, who would not thrive in a mondo-koan type of environment. He recognized the pervasive works of modern psychologists, explaining personalities in terms of introvert and extrovert, yet kept the distinction between them as primarily East and West exclusively. He did not work the Western religions into harmonious balance with Zen, which at that time had only been related to Buddhism, which has no Pope, no Rome, no Bible, and no missionary following. People did not have adequate information to incorporate these ideas into their lives, and many who pursued interest dropped it once discovering its Buddhist origins. Suzuki did, nevertheless, provide a framework for future writers to explore and define.

Since Dr. Suzuki’s works, there has been a small amount of available literature to people interested in this way of life, mainly written by Westerners who have taken up the study of Zen in an Oriental society and brought their experiences back with them. According to Humphreys, the culture surrounding Christianity has “failed many people who are now looking for something psycho-analytical and spiritual-a kind of reform” (200). Obviously, he feels that one day there may be a catalyst for some kind of new Enlightenment in the West, whether it is in light of Buddha or another spiritual figure. The “old light,” that used to inspire people, he says, does not need “a new light,” for the light is one and not old and new, but rather a “new expression” (200). The huge impact of psychology and the study of the human mind have grown incredibly since the early 1900s as an outlet for people who feel empty to find solace once again. The market is enormous for all kinds of medicines that “balance” the mind, where in other societies this need is hardly as great. It may be that Westerners need to develop their sense of intuition, their sense of self, or their sense of awareness; whatever the need may be, a harmonization of Western thought and Zen is not impossible. Although more difficult to understand in terms of history and lifestyle, it is not altogether outside the realm of human experience. For human experience, that which excites and pains us all, is Zen.

Through the different sources of suggestions available on Westerners and Zen, there is one idea that runs particularly common to all-the idea of developing the mind. According to Alan Watts, there are three basic Western needs that are applicable to Zen: one, a philosophical need that includes those looking for a step beyond rational empiricism; two, a scientific need that includes psychotherapy and the study of language semantics; and three, an artistic need arising from people’s desire to express themselves (24). To simplify this, he suggests that possible Europeans and Americans could benefit from “just sitting to sit” in order to calm their jittery, scattered minds and agitated bodies, so long as they do not believe this will turn them into Buddhas themselves. Other sources suggest a mere development of intuition by incorporating such ideas as disregarding the habit of synthesis of thought and imagining the “Higher Third.” This helps the mind to objectively account for trivial matters and put things in perspective. If meditation clears the bothered mind, it could help to alleviate stress and assist in becoming closer to the inner self. Encouraging intuition, or simply avoiding wasting time in frivolity, expands people’s observations and acceptance of others. If a person modestly sits and reflects within nature, it might encourage a sense of the “here and now,” something that many Westerners have forgotten how to do. Life flows and will continue to flow until eternity, whether one chooses to focus on the moment or not. Focusing on the moment brings stability and relaxation, rather than inducing frets about the future (Humphreys 212-215). Westerners have a tendency to believe that each situation causes an effect and that effect in turn induces yet another. Nothing is allowed to just “be” and exist-everything must lead to something else, something bigger, or something greater (Merton 49). Zen emphasizes experience, denounces sheer intellectual knowledge, and adores the personal experience. Zen is falsified once categorized, true; one only needs to read any Romantic author in the West to discover that these ideas are as fresh and as real in any place where people are living the human experience.

Zen lives without words and thrives on silence. Zen is, in some words, a “cloud wafting in the sky,” having no form, no structure, and no way to structuralize it. It is control of the rational mind in a very irrational way, a complex paradox without a key. Perhaps then, at this understanding, the best words to summarize it are these: “any book about Zen is rather like an engaging mystery story with the last chapter missing” (Watts 122-123). From ancient Indian Buddhism to the modern era of widespread religion and countless deviation, I ask myself again the question that inspired me to begin this initial research: have I discovered the secret to the beautiful and harmonious life of Zen? Have I formulated a solution to a de-spiritualized Western culture that is in desperate need of awakening? Upon much contemplation, and after numerous attempts to understand it, I have come to this: the only answer remains a puzzle encrypted in a language spoken by the trees.


Ames, Van Meter. Zen and American Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1962.
Chang, Chen-Chi. The Practice of Zen. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958.
Humphreys, Christmas. Zen Buddhism. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957.
Merton, Thomas. Zen and the Birds of Appetite. New York: New Directions, 1968.
Watts, Alan W. The Way of Zen. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1957.

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