Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Zen philosophy?

Philosophy is often times regarded as an artificial covering, at best reflecting approximations. One Webster definition is “...a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means.” Another is “...a theory underlying or regarding a sphere of activity or thought.” To many—especially Westerners—Zen is seen as an obscure philosophy, with little relevance to actual life. This view hasn’t changed much since the Buddha walked the earth 2,500 years ago and perhaps for good reason. Theories about life rarely match reality. They may be useful in mapping limited situations but it is impossible to develop a theory or philosophy which perfectly fits life.

Theories and philosophies need always be measured against the standard of reality. Knowing something as bone-embedded fact will always win the day against speculation. The proof of such comparison thus comes down upon how reality is understood. Are our senses to be trusted? Do we see clearly (without bias or distortion)? Seeing from within a cloud of obscurity is not the same as seeing on a clear day and for this reason the practice of Zen is concerned with clearing away obscurity which clouds the mind to reveal our untarnished original mind.

In the Lankavatara Sutra the Buddha spoke about these matters and said...“To philosophers the conception of Tathagata-womb seems devoid of purity and soiled by these external manifestations, but it is not so understood by the Tathagatas—to them it is not a proposition of philosophy but an intuitive experience as real as though it was an amalaka fruit held in the palm of the hand.”

The Tathagata-womb is fairly self evident. The Sanskrit word used is Tathagatagarbha which is rendered as the birth-place of the Buddha. The term Tathagata means—one who has thus gone (Tatha-gata) or one who has thus come (Tatha-agata), the import being one who has transcended the ordinary view of reality. Is this birth-place in some distant place? Zen teaches that it is ubiquitous; there is no coming nor going since it is impossible to be where it is not.

This is, of course, a difficult thing to embrace. When we think of the exemplary and pure nature of a Buddha, and compare this incomparable state to our own, it seems impossible to accept that we too contain this nature (e.g. Buddha-Nature) but that is exactly what Zen teaches. But it is one thing to think such a purity resides in us, as a philosophical consideration and quite another to experience it intuitively. When the latter occurs, doubt goes away.

In this sense Zen is not a philosophy. It is opposed to speculation and philosophy of all kinds. The preeminent focus of Zen is to intuitively experience the purity and clear vision that comes from our very own being. And when that happens reality is seen in a radically new way.
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