Two Piers, Michael Kenna, Imazu, Honshu, Japan, 2001
Two Piers, Michael Kenna, Imazu, Honshu, Japan, 2001

We are going to examine the different conclusions of Zen and Tantra. If we begin to discuss the two approaches, we will be lost. If we take a glimpse at the conclusions, we might have something more concrete. The reason is that all of us are more or less thoroughly involved in, or at least interested in, the practice of meditation.

At this stage in the Buddhist development of America, both Zen and Tantra have become extraordinarily seductive. In comparing the two, we are not talking about competition between them or which is best. Instead, we are looking at the landmarks that have developed in the Zen tradition, as well as the landmarks of the Tantric tradition. Although we are mainly talking about different landmarks, we still cannot dismiss the gradual, linear process in which the teachings were presented by the Buddha. We cannot dismiss the turning of the dharma wheel of the sutra teachings of the Hinayana and Mahayana and of the teachings of both lower and higher tantras. We still have to go through that linear approach.

First comes Zen. In the Zen tradition, the basis of life or the basis of discipline is accuracy. We could quite safely say that: It is accuracy. To a certain extent, it is the accuracy of black and white. That is the paramita of meditation: dhyana practice, Zen practice, or Ch’an. In the Zen tradition, there is no gray, nor is there yellow, red, green, or blue: it is black and white. The very nature of black and white brings a student of Zen into a highly disciplined place, without any escape. A practitioner of Zen or Ch’an has been cornered by the choicelessness and also cornered by the lack of entertainment. So we could say that Zen is a practitioner’s lineage, and a Zen student is a traditional practitioner in the Mahayana school of discipline, the highest one of all.

Another branch of the Mahayana school, which developed in Tibet, can be seen in the Gelugpa tradition. In India, the Nalanda and Vikramashila Universities developed a school of logic in which, instead of doing pure sitting practice, you replace the sitting by the practice of sharpening your intellect. This demands that the basic sophistication of intelligence is raised up to the highest point, as much as one can, to the point of limitlessness. At that point, ordinary logical conclusions and logical debates become meaningless, and one develops higher thinking—the epitome of the highest way of relating with the reasoning mind.

In the Zen tradition, it seems that the whole approach is intuitive. The student’s mind is put into situations of practice and into the simplicity of discipline, so that the student does not have a chance to use his or her intellect or logical mind at all. The only use of logical mind such a student could develop is the choice at the beginning to decide to go to such and such a temple and study under such and such a master. That is the student’s only intellectual choice; and that choice may be tinged with emotionalism and intuitive feelings toward Buddhism and committing oneself to it. But beyond that, once a student has entered into Zen discipline, there is no place for intellect. It is simple and direct. For example, if you are composing your own verses about the dharma, the master catches you if the slightest intellectualization comes up. Such intellectualization is cut down and swept away along with the dust on the meditation hall floor.

A dichotomy arises at this point, in that Zen logic is constantly engrossed with relative reference points. We could almost say that if a person doesn’t have any relative reference to the world, it is impossible for that person to understand Zen.

“If, as it’s been said, prajna is neither big nor small, then what?”

“Since it has been said that prajna is neither big nor small, then I don’t know.”

“That’s it! You don’t know.”

Not knowing prajna, you are confronted with the choice of whether you should associate yourself with prajna as large or small. But you have lost your choice because you have no hold on either of them and you are bewildered. At that point, in the middle of bewilderment, a very refreshing glimpse of a gap begins to appear in your state of mind. You caught something—or you missed it.

Ironically, the Zen tradition is largely based on dichotomies and paradoxes of all kinds, but those paradoxes are more about feeling rather than purely about logic. It’s like ordering a meal in a restaurant. Most people don’t think in terms of the chemical interaction between certain foods or the combinations that would bring health, happiness, and pleasure—they order food according to what they desire. You choose based on what you intuitively desire or need; you lack something and you want to fulfill it. You may desire a certain particular dish that sounds tasty—but then another dish also sounds tasty, so how do you choose between the two? You don’t know. Then somebody gives you a dish. They push it onto your table and say, “Take it and eat it.” You are handed this plateful and you have no idea what it is. That was the choice: a choice was made because of your uncertainty. You were confused by the two simultaneous extremes and now you have no idea what it is. In the same way as you have no idea what it is, because of bewilderment and confusion—as well as prajna—Zen students are extraordinarily receptive and open. From that point of view, Zen could be said to be the biggest joke that has ever been played in the spiritual realm. But it is a practical joke, very practical. However, there is a difference between a joke and a trick. One of the problems that we in America have ended up with is that when people try to be “Zennie,” they do that by being tricky. A lot of seeming charlatans have managed to escape, to get away with that. Not only do they get away with it themselves, but they impose their egohood onto others. Their trickiness undermines others’ openness, and the whole thing feels so extremely awesome and reverent, so solid and solemn. In the name of Zen in this country, a lot of people were misled. We should pray for them—if they still survive.

One of the most important and powerful principles, the utmost essence of Zen, is the principle of prajna. Prajna is a state of mind in which we have complete clarity, complete certainty. Such an experience is very rare, but at the same time very precise and penetrating. It can only occur in our state of mind for, say, one in a hundred moments. The nature of prajna starts with bewilderment. It is as if we were entering a school to study a certain discipline with great, wise, learned people. The first self-conscious awareness we would have is a sense of our own ignorance, how we feel extraordinarily stupid, clumsy, and dumb. At the same time, we begin to get wind of the knowledge; otherwise, we would have no reference point to experience ourselves being dumb.

The first glimpse of prajna is like that. There is a sense of confusion, stupidity, and utter chaos, in that you have no systematic way of organizing your mind or your intelligence. You are all over the place, and you feel that your existence is a big heap of apology. The minute you walk into such a learned circle of great teachers—of art, or science, or whatever else—your footsteps sound louder and louder and louder and your shadow becomes thicker and thicker, as if you had a gigantic body. You feel so clumsy entering into such a circle. You begin to smell your own perspiration, and you feel big and clumsy and in the way. Your whole being, trying to communicate with such teachers, is a gigantic attempt to apologize that you exist. Strangely enough, that is the wind of prajna. Knowing one’s own stupidity is, indeed, the first glimpse of prajna, very much so.

Hand of Buddha, Michael Kenna, Yakuri Temple, Shikoku, Japan, 2002
Hand of Buddha, Michael Kenna, Yakuri Temple, Shikoku, Japan, 2002

The interesting point, however, is that we cannot consistently be stupid. Our stupidity is not all that well fortified. There are certain gaps in which we forget that we are stupid, that we are completely bewildered. Those glimpses, those gaps where we have some room—definitely that is prajna. This is demonstrated very beautifully in the Zen tradition of monastic discipline. From morning to evening in Zen training periods, every activity has been planned and taught. In the morning you are dealing with sitting practice, at mealtimes you are dealing with oryoki, how to eat food, how to unfold your napkins. Then there are walking practices and study period, cooking duty and cleaning duty. Even when you are sleeping, you may be sleeping in the temple or in the meditation hall, on duty.

Whatever duty you are assigned, all of them are a challenge and a mockery. They are making a mockery of you, making you feel completely bored and extraordinarily inadequate. The more you become associated with learned people, that much more self-conscious you become. It is extraordinary discipline, and it is an extraordinary, extraordinary joke—but it’s not a trick. Such a big joke is being played on you that you find that the environment around you, where you practice, has no room for anything else. Occasionally, you indulge in your confusion. That’s the only break you have—indulging in your confusion and bewilderment. Strangely enough, such discipline works, and prajna gradually grows.

In Zen discipline, you can sleep for only four hours a night, and the rest of the time you spend either sitting, working, or doing something. Getting into such definite, real discipline in the fullest sense provides you with enormous boredom and enormous uncertainty. At a certain point, you find that you are so tired and sleepy that the boundary between the day and night begins to dissolve. You are uncertain as to whether you are awake and functioning in the daylight as a normal, ordinary human being, or whether you are dreaming the whole thing. That is prajna all-pervading. When the boundaries begin to become fuzzy, that’s where prajna is taking hold of you.

Zen discipline is fantastic and extraordinary. Such an approach is obviously not the dream of one person, or one person’s idea; it has been developed throughout generations. The drowsiness and sleepiness and confusion and extreme heavy-handed disciplines you go through bring out the underlying light and clarity within your being. It’s not particularly exciting or beautiful at all, it’s a big drag: your clumsiness and your laziness and every worst thing you can ever think of is being brought up. A big joke is being played on you; and at the same time, there is constantly room for prajna. One is halfway through prajna and confusion—it’s happening constantly.

The only thing that keeps you in such a set-up is your romantic notion toward the practice and discipline—your heroic approach to the path. Then there is the secret that only you know, or maybe only you and your teacher know, which is that a very secret and subtle love affair is taking place. You want to go on and you are getting something out of this. That is prajna, that you are getting something out of this. It is very smart and very business-like. Halfway through, you wake up in the morning and you see the morning star. You say, “Ah, it’s morning; that’s the morning star,” then you fall back to sleep. Seeing the morning star is a glimpse of prajna. But you’re still too lazy to write down, “I saw the morning star when I woke up in the morning.” You think, “Never mind about that.”

The prajna that the Zen people talk about is trying to catch yourself halfway through. It’s almost a kind of subtle double take. You are just about to be confused, then you—Ahhhh! Something happens! Then you go on confusing. But then, something else comes up. There is a little jerk taking place constantly. In an ordinary situation of laziness, if you are in prison or an ordinary concentration camp or something like that, that dynamic doesn’t take place, because your attitude is entirely different. You are not seeking enlightenment; you are just trying to get through the time. In this case, being in such an institution may physically seem equal to being in prison or a very skillfully organized torture chamber. Nevertheless, there is that faint smile—the big joke quality, the morning star quality—taking place all the time, which provides comic relief. There are little glimpses, little crumbs of light-handedness in the midst of the enormous black robes, black zafus, and black heavy-handed environment that goes on in Zen.

It’s very interesting to see that the way in which Zen people seek prajna is extraordinarily precise. We could say that it is much more accurate than those logicians in Nalanda or Vikramashila. Zen has a more organic, more definite, more direct way of approaching the underlying glimpse of prajna. In Zen, prajna is only a gap; there is no chance to redefine prajna in any way at all. Prajna simply means “transcendental knowledge.” Pra is “transcendent,” or “supreme,” jna means “knowledge,” so prajna is the wisdom of knowing; it is to know who you are and what you are.

One of the problems with such an approach and experience is that however much you talk about the sameness between samsara and nirvana, between that and this, between prajna and non-prajna, still you are subject to choice. Although you say, “Not here, not there, it’s everywhere,” you are still going from here to there. There is the awareness that you are making a particular journey and that journey is going to lead you through a certain process. You have no chance to speculate more than that, because you are hassled by your schedule, your practices, and your mindfulness of details, which cuts down unnecessary bullshit, you might call it.

We could say that the Zen approach is a beginner’s point of view of how to produce prajna in an ordinary person who is confused but still inspired. Latching onto that process is based on a combination of a Mahayana spirit and Hinayana discipline. That seems to be one of the basic points of the Zen tradition of Japan, as much as we know. There also seems to be a faint emphasis on goodness, being good. A notion of being morally pure and kind and precise goes along with it always. Processes such as recycling your food or eating your meal completely and cleaning your plate are very general examples of the Mahayanist attitude of not polluting the air of the universe. Bodhisattvas should not become a nuisance to other sentient beings—moreover, you should save them.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .