Thursday, August 1, 2013

Zen and Philosophy

A student in one of the classes at Buddha Dharma University asked the following question: In Philosophy, there is an emphasis on the generation of opinions and the development of the so-called Schools of Thought. I wonder if Zen could be considered a school of thought by Philosophy. Is Zen even a Philosophy?

So this is interesting. Many people who read Sutras, the words of the Buddha, the words of the patriarchs, the words in many Zen and Buddhist books, develop a philosophy based on these teachings. The past masters were trying to be helpful putting "enlightened" concepts into words. To try to help others find the way, they risked diluting the Dharma.

The concept of Sunyata leads to things like: What did the Zen Master say to the hot dog vendor? Make me one with everything :-). In pop culture, Caddyshack, has the line: be one with the ball. Even ideas like "one world" or "we are all one" or "we are all in this together". So these are ideas. The Enlightened sages have taught emptiness, and people have run with it as thought experiments.

What about the precepts? We have many precepts handed down to us. Some from enlightened folks, I suppose, some maybe not. Yet people run with those, too. Kind of like the ten commandments. They even go so far as to make them sacred.

Another example. In the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, the first chapter talks about how to directly wake up. By the end of the Sutra we have Buddhism, types of meditation, retreats, etc.

Often, in Koan practice, students will often try to give philosophical answers to questions. [E.g. where will you go when you die?]. A good Zen teacher will not accept philosophical answers! Another example is the question "What is Buddha?" that received an answer of "Dried shit on stick" from a great Zen Master of the past. People have taken this answer to mean many, many things. Such as Zen is the mundane, or Zen is not special. The philosophy of dried shit! If you gave me any of these answers, I would most likely say something like "Now you are getting into philosophy."

So, yes a lot of philosophy has come out of Buddhism and Zen. As Zen students trying to wake up, we need to put it all down. With practice, maybe we will attain some clarity that will help us see what these past masters were trying to get at. Maybe we will realize for ourselves what it really means and not be limited by concepts and words.