Forget about heaven on earth

By Ben-Ami Shillony,, April 1, 2007

"Zen buddhism: filosofia ve'estetika" ("Zen Buddhism: Philosophy and Aesthetics") by Jacob Raz, Broadcast University, Ministry of Defense, 207 pages, NIS 48

Tel Aviv, Israel -- Israel's Broadcast University, which puts out "popular science"-books based on its lecture series on Army Radio, has produced another excellent volume. Like those that preceded it, "Zen Buddhism: Philosophy and Aesthetics" combines high-level scholarship with a clear style. Its author, Prof. Jacob Raz, has been writing about Japanese literature and Zen for many years.

Two of his previous Hebrew-language books, "Crazy Dialogues: Zen Stories" and "Guo-An: A Man in Search of a Bull," deal specifically with Zen. Others, like "Tokyo - Round Trip," "My Brother the Yakuza" and Raz' translation of the poetry of Basho, "The Narrow Road to Oku," are also suffused with Zen philosophy.

In the latest title, Raz has undertaken a seemingly impossible mission: to offer a logical explanation of Zen, which claims there is no such thing as logic or rational explanation. This is a dilemma faced by all scholars of religious mysticism. On the one hand, they say that mystical revelation needs to be experienced and cannot be described in words; on the other, they use torrents of words to convey the essence of the experience and its spiritual wellsprings.

Gershom Scholem wrote numerous books on kabbala, and Japanese theologian Daisetz T. Suzuki turned out thick tomes on Zen. In both cases, these thinkers wrote for an international audience, neither Jewish nor Japanese, with an interest in religious mysticism. In those days, neither kabbala nor Zen were well known in the West, and Scholem and Suzuki, respectively, put these subjects in the spotlight. Down to the present day, books continue to be written about these two spiritual movements by authors who insist they cannot be explained.

Although both movements are offshoots of large established religions - Judaism and Buddhism - Zen is more anarchistic than kabbala. It rejects all religious authority, has no sacred texts, worships no deity and sanctifies no belief. Buddhism, which is much more tolerant than Judaism, Christianity or Islam, could accept this kind of anarchy, which every other monotheistic religion would deem heretical. Zen was, and still is, one of Buddhism's largest and most revered schools. A few years ago, the Japanese foreign ministry advised its citizens traveling abroad who were being asked to state their religion, to say "Zen," because it is the most widely known and respected Japanese religion.

Negation of self

With all its popularity today, Raz emphasizes, Zen, and the Buddhism from which it sprang, views reality very differently than the modern outlook. People nowadays believe that by bettering the world, we can turn it into heaven on earth. All we need to do is wipe out hunger and poverty, put an end to war and bloodshed, promote education and science, protect the environment, introduce equality and justice, rid the world of tyranny and discrimination, improve standards of living, and allow people to choose their own way of life.

In fact, Buddhism starts out from the opposite point of view. It claims that this world, which we grasp with our deceptive senses, will always be a source of suffering. Our passions will never be satisfied and momentary fulfillment only increases our distress because we will always yearn for greater stimulation. However long we live, we will never escape sickness, old age, death and rebirth into another life of suffering. True and complete happiness, according to Buddhism, cannot be achieved by satisfying our urges, but by quietly extinguishing them. Only when we no longer want anything can we achieve negation of self, and merge fully with the universe. That is the total release called nirvana.

Different sects of Buddhism have different ways of gaining mastery over the senses. Zen believes in meditation, adopting the lotus position used by Buddha as he sat under the tree, lost in deep thought until satori, a great flash of enlightenment, came to him. Zen sprouted in India (where it is called Dhyana), took root in China (where it is called Chan), and moved to Korea (where it is called Son) and Japan (where it is called Zen). In eastern Asia, Zen had a tremendous impact on art and aesthetics, cultivating minimalism and symbolism.

Because it was highly influential in Japan, and reached the West via scholars from there, it became known throughout the world by its Japanese name. Other Zen terms, such as satori and koan (absurd riddles designed to undermine our faith in logic), are also familiar to the global public in their Japanese forms. In this way, the Japanese appropriated Zen, which reached them in the 12th century, before splitting into several sects.

Zen generally rejects conventions, but there is one it has adhered to - the strict practice of seated meditation (zazen). At least twice a day, the practitioner of Zen sits cross-legged, listening to his breathing and emptying his mind of all thoughts or desires. In this way, he gains mastery over his body, attains spiritual elevation, and turns himself into Buddha. People who practice Zen are thus "yeshiva" students in the literal sense of the word ("yeshiva" is derived from the Hebrew word for "sit").

Raz does not address this question, but can a Jewish yeshiva student practice Zen without compromising his faith? Ostensibly, Zen is a religion, an important Buddhist sect. Yet its detachment from religious belief, faith in God and sacred texts, along with its focus on a certain type of sitting, allow us to treat it as a kind of physical exercise designed to strengthen and cleanse the body, as claimed by many Christian and Jewish Zen practitioners in the West.

Yeshivas and Buddhism

The role of ethics in Zen is another issue. One might think that a person who masters his urges and achieves spiritual elevation would be a better person, free of selfishness, hate or desire for revenge. But the emotions from which the practitioner of Zen is supposed to free himself also include love, compassion and concern for others. Zen is neutral on matters of good and evil. The important thing is not what the individual does, but how he does it. Whatever a person does perfectly, in beautiful form, while exercising self-control and without letting emotion get in the way, is good. That includes even killing, if it is carried out in the proper aesthetic form (Japanese samurai adopted Zen because it helped them strengthen their bodies and character, hone their military skills and rid themselves of moral apprehensions).

Raz quotes the anarchist teaching of the 9th-century Chinese Zen master Linji, who told his students: "Followers of the Way, if you want to get the kind of understanding that accords with the Dharma, never be misled by others. Whether you're facing inward or facing outward, whatever you meet up with, just kill it! If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha. If you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch ... If you meet your parents, kill your parents. If you meet your kinfolk, kill your kinfolk. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, and will pass freely anywhere you wish to go."

True, this was rhetoric, and hence full of the paradoxes so beloved of Zen masters, and Raz offers the quote to illustrate the kind of supreme freedom that the practitioner of Zen was meant to achieve. But from a humanistic point of view, the implications are frightening.

The book's first three chapters are devoted to Buddhism. The author explores its evolution in India and China, and how it mingled with Taoism. The next three chapters discuss Chinese Zen (Chan) and the great Zen masters of China, who shaped it for the coming generations. The rest of the book is about Japanese Zen.

One chapter covers the "crazy" Zen masters of Japan - Ikkyu (14th and 15th centuries) and Hakuin (17th and 18th centuries) - who took the anarchism and metaphysical humor of Zen to new heights. The monk Ikkyu, for example, would get drunk and patronize brothels to prove that religious tenets, even those of Buddhist monks, were of no consequence whatever.

Two chapters explore the influence of Zen and the tea ceremony on various art forms in Japan, such as painting and ceramics. Another chapter focuses on haiku poetry, with its super-minimalistic structure (17 syllables per poem), humor and revelatory highlighting of banal details, which is so central to Zen. Yet another is devoted to absurd riddles ("What is the sound of one hand clapping?" is an example). The last chapter is about the centrality of sitting. Appended to the book is a long bibliographical listing of source material about Buddhism and Zen in both Hebrew and English.

In contrast to D.T. Suzuki, who dwells at length in his books on the relationship between Zen, the sword and Japanese martial arts, Raz concentrates on the philosophy and aesthetics of Zen, and such matters are hardly mentioned.

Buddhism may have been a religion in eastern Asia for 1,500 years, but it was never the sole religion. Its pessimistic view of the world was neutralized by other philosophies and religions, such as Confucianism and Shinto, both of which featured a positive attitude toward life and sanctified human nature.

In the same way that Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs sit side by side in the Hebrew Bible, Buddhism and Confucianism in China, and Buddhism and Shinto in Japan, lived together in peace. It was possible for different world views to co-exist. For Western readers, who tend to equate religion with fundamentalism, it is very refreshing to read about a religion that neither takes offense nor offends others. Buddhism views other religions as part of the human fabric; it does not fight against them.

Altogether, Zen loves to poke fun at Buddha and other revered religious leaders. One Zen riddle asks: "What does Buddha look like?" The answer: "A stick for wiping excrement." One can only wonder what would happen in the world today if someone wrote such a thing about Moses or Jesus or Mohammed.

Prof. Ben-Ami Shillony is the author of "The Last Enigma of the Emperors," published by Global Oriental, and "Poetics and Culture in Wartime Japan," published by Oxford University Press.

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