On the No Soul doctrine and reincarnation

Panta rhei. All flows. Everything changes. No man ever steps in the same river twice.

You know where this comes from. It’s not Buddhist, but it could be. It is attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus, one of the early Greek philosophers – or physikoi, as Aristotle called them: ‘physicists’, after physis, i.e. ‘nature’. Aristotle gave them this epithet because they sought natural explanations for phenomena, as opposed to the earlier theologoi (‘theologians’), whose ‘philosophies’ were based on religious beliefs.

Heraclitus lived around the same time as the historical Buddha (i.e. in the 5th century BCE) and, just for the record, at that time, Ephesus was a major trading city on the Anatolian peninsula (i.e. Asia Minor), connecting the East and the West. In fact, even today it is one of the best-preserved ancient cities. Hence, it is quite possible that the historical Buddha, as a well-educated young prince (Siddhārta), knew about these Greek ‘physicists’ who, for all practical purposes, we’d call freethinkers and atheists today.

I like to think that the historical Buddha was a rebel-philosopher too: a social revolutionary who fell out with the Hindu priest class (Brahmins), and who intended to ‘set in motion the Wheel of Dharma’ to do away with religion, rather than creating a new religion with its own priest class and its own set of dogmas. In fact, what we know of Heraclitus’ philosophy strongly correlates with what, in Buddhist thought, is referred to as the three marks of existence:

  1. Anicca (impermanence),
  2. Dukkha (suffering), and
  3. Anattā (no-soul).

These three concepts – or doctrines, I should say – form a coherent whole, which is why I consider them to reflect the true ‘spirit’ of Buddhist thought. The following description of dukkha as ‘a permanent state of angst’ captures the idea:

“Over a web of desire and frustration hangs the presence of sickness, old age and death […], which casts a pall of anxiety over ourselves and all our relationships.” (Jo Durden Smith, The Essence of Buddhism, 2004)

The Four Noble Truths

We also have the Four Noble Truths. Let me quote them from the sutra on the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), which is part of the Buddhist Canon. I quote the ‘original’ just to make sure that a small mistake in the beginning does not become a big one in the end. 🙂

Here you go:

  1. Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates [i.e. the skandhas] subject to clinging are suffering.
  2. Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.
  3. Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.
  4. Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

The Pāli Canon was written some 450 years after the death of the historical Buddha, and it was written in Sri Lanka, an island, some 1500 miles away from where he was born and lived. Hence, we should read the Buddhist Canon just like we would read the Bible or the Quran, i.e. with a pinch of salt, because we don’t know how accurate it is in terms of representing what the Gautama actually thought and taught. In fact, a priori, I would think that the New Testament and the Quran are likely to more accurately reflect the views of the historical Jesus and Mohammed respectively, because, unlike the Buddhist Canon, these texts were written relatively shortly after their death and, hence, there was less time to ‘canonize’ it all. Of course, Buddhists will point out that there is no reason to think that the oral transmission from the 5th century BCE to the first century BCE was somehow adulterated. However, that’s another discussion and it’s not relevant here because I actually have no issue whatsoever with these ‘truths’.

I do have an issue, however, with the doctrine of re-birth or reincarnation that Buddhist Canon associates with the second Noble Truth. I believe that, when we are dead, we are dead. We have no soul. That’s, in essence, what the Buddhist anattā doctrine is all about and, in my not so humble opinion, it’s not consistent with the doctrine of re-birth. Re-becoming and re-birth or reincarnation are not the same. So what is re-becoming?

Let me quickly get through the unavoidable pedantic remarks, if only to give you the impression that I know what I am talking about – which is an assumption which you should not take for granted.

1. Let me start with the mundane. If we’re going to use foreign words, the least we can do, is try to get the pronunciation right, isn’t it? As for the pronunciation of anattā (that’s Pāli: in Sanskrit it’s anātman), you can check it on the Web: the ā is basically a long a, and also marks where the stress is placed on the word.

2. The terms an-attā/an-ātman combine attā/ātman with the privative a– or an-, which negates or inverts. It’s the same privative in Ancient Greek (e.g. atypical or anarchy). In Latin, it’s in- (e.g. inactive) or im- (e.g. imperfect). In English and Germanic languages it’s un- (e.g. unknown).

3. This similarity leads me to a more general remark about these foreign languages. We’re lucky: Pāli and Sanskrit are, obviously, Indo-European languages and, hence, we can more or less trust that the attā/ātman concept and the ‘Western’ notion of a soul (however one would want to define it) are strongly correlated indeed. Correlations with terms used in Chinese or Japanese Buddhism, expressed in Sino-Tibetan or Japonic languages, may not be so strong.

4. I actually don’t like the excessive use of foreign terms because, for me, it’s pretty obvious that, to a great extent, Eastern thought appeals to us Westerners because we do not understand the language. Using foreign words allows us to load meaning onto strange words that may actually not have the meaning we, as non- or non-native speakers, associate with them. There is a Shangri-La or Lost Horizon effect here: Buddhism often attracts us Westerners as part of the exoticism or romanticism associated with Orientalism. [If you’re not convinced, think about why you like The Last Samurai movie: I am sure it’s not only because of Tom Cruise.]

5. Finally, I’ll be very pedantic and give you even more useless specifics about the languages involved here. Pāli is the language in which the early Buddhist canons have been preserved. It is a largely unattested language. Unattested means that the language is dead (so no one speaks it any more) and that no inscriptions or literature survived. Hence, to a large extent, Pāli has been reconstructed as a language. It’s close to Sanskrit, a more literary language which served as the lingua franca in the Indian cultural zone. While Pāli is said to be close (or even identical) to the language that the historical Buddha was using, who can know for sure? Therefore, the author of the Wikipedia article on Pāli simply concludes his article as follows: “Whatever the relationship of the Buddha’s speech to Pāli, the Canon was eventually transcribed and preserved entirely in it that language.”

OK. Sorry for all of the above. Let’s return to the real question. What about this ‘re-becoming’? What is it?

Frankly, I don’t know. Who knows what the Enlightened One had in mind? Let me quote Wikipedia on it:

There is no word corresponding exactly to the English terms “rebirth”, “metempsychosis”, “transmigration” or “reincarnation” in the traditional Buddhist languages of Pāli and Sanskrit: the entire process of change from one life to the next is called “becoming again”(Sanskrit: punarbhava, Pāli: punabbhava), or more briefly “becoming” (Pāli/Sanskrit: bhava), while the state one is born into, the individual process of being born or coming into the world in any way, is referred to simply as “birth” (Pāli/Sanskrit: jāti). The entire universal process of beings being reborn again and again is called “wandering about” (Pāli/Sanskrit: samsāra).

[…] I don’t think that is of much help. Let’s try to think about it for ourselves.

The soul in the West and the East

In order to discuss the Oriental No Soul and reincarnation doctrines, we should first explore the Western concept of the soul (and its supposed transmigration to some ‘life after this life’) somewhat more in depth, so let’s do that.

There is a philosophical as well as a religious dimension to that discussion, which we should – ideally – distinguish. However, the medieval European thinkers who reflected on all this were both physikoi as well as theologoi. Indeed, some of what we now regard as ‘religious beliefs’ (the existence of God, for example) were considered to be fundamental philosophical truths in those dark times. Hence, making a distinction between what’s philosophical and what’s religious is not always easy. But I am digressing too much. Let’s try to crack the nut I want to crack here.

Eminent writers on Buddhism (I introduced D.T. Suzuki in my previous post, and I’ll soon introduce Christmas Humphreys, the founder of the Buddhist Society in Britain) look down on all those medieval European intellectuals who were trying to defend and define the concept of a soul. They basically assert that all these philosophers/theologians did nothing but continue the Greek philosophers’ search for the ‘essence’ of things, which is supposed to have led to the so-called “Western obsession with dualism.” Thomas Aquinas’ De Ente et Essentia (on Being and Essence) is often quoted in this regard as the example of where and why things went wrong in Western philosophy.

To some extent, these ’eminent authors’ are right. Let me just take one quote out of Aquinas’ little work:

“There is a distinction among separate substances according to their grade of potency and act such that the superior intelligences, which are nearer the first cause, have more act and less potency, and so on. This scale comes to an end with the human soul, which holds the lowest place among intellectual substances. The soul’s possible intellect is related to intelligible forms just as prime matter (which holds the lowest place in sensible existence) is related to sensible forms.” (Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia, Chapter IV)

I am sure you’re shaking your head now: Oh my God ! What nonsense ! And right you are. What nonsense !

To quote one of these ’eminent authors’ (Jo Durden Smith, The Essence of Buddhism (2004): the essence of man according to Aquinas and other medieval Christian thinkers is a “sort of soul-substance carried by a greedy machine-like body from which it has to be freed”, instead of “an organic unity in which physical and psychic forces each have their own parts to play.”

So Buddhist thought is supposed to be non-dualist, and to be looking at man as an ‘organic unity’. OK. […] Let me relativize this rather simplistic view of things by quoting yet another paragraph from Aquinas’ booklet – which is probably more relevant to what Aquinas actually tried to do, and that’s to arrive at a synthesis of what was around at that time in terms of ideas and intellectual constructs (remember: we’re talking the 13th century here, and the intellectual agenda at that time was to reconcile religion and philosophy):

“In composite substances we find form and matter, as in man there are soul and body. We cannot say, however, that either of these is the essence of the thing.” (Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia, Chapter II)

That doesn’t “smack of dualism”, does it? In fact, I don’t see anything that’s wrong with this statement. Where’s the supposed dualism here? Of course, it’s a statement which we may no longer regard as accurate in light of what we know now but, taking into account Aquinas wrote this around A.D. 1250, it’s pretty good, I would think.

In fact, I don’t hesitate to say that Aquinas’ philosophical distinction between form and matter, as exposed above, is not incompatible with what we know about the physical world today. As I’ve just spent a year trying to understand quantum mechanics, I cannot resist the temptation to provide you with a rough summary of it. So here we go.

The physical world consists of elementary ‘particles’ – because of their quantum-mechanical nature (they’re described by complex wave functions), some prefer the term ‘wavicles’ – that interact with each other through one of four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetics, the strong force (which holds a nucleus together) and, finally, the so-called weak force (which is responsible for nuclear decay). Now, it’s not all that difficult to tweak Aquinas’ conceptual framework and say that the math describing the interactions gives ‘form’ to the ‘matter’, which, according to the Standard Model of particle physics, consists of:

  1. Matter-particles: (a) leptons (electrons and neutrinos) and (b) quarks basically, which come in three so-called ‘generations’.
  2. Bosons: (a) photons, (b) gluons, (c) W/Z bosons (these are the so-called gauge bosons, which act as force-carriers for the electromagnetic, strong and weak force respectively), and then (d) the Higgs boson, which was, until very recently, only a theoretical ‘missing link’, but so the 2012 LHC experiments unambiguously confirmed its existence. The Higgs boson (or Higgs field I should say) explains why some fundamental particles have mass and others don’t.

Just so you know, the Standard Model actually does not look ‘nice‘. On the contrary. It is complex, very complex. The diagrams below give you some kind of idea how messy it actually is. It’s not aesthetically pleasing, and it would be even less so if I’d throw in its Langrangian or other math describing its specifics. I am talking from experience: I’ve been studying the Standard Model for over a year now and, hence, I am qualified enough to say that the atomic theory of the Greeks, Buddhist metaphysics, and even Aquinas’ metaphysics, are all much simpler, and very much so.

Standard_Model_of_Elementary_Particles Elementary_particle_interactions_in_the_Standard_Model

So why don’t we adopt the simpler theories? Well… Why would we stick to Greek or medieval theories when we know that the theories and concepts which are used in particle physics, neuroscience, social biology, evolutionary psychology and what have you are much more accurate in terms of describing the actual world we are living in? So, in short, I’d say: there’s nothing wrong with Thomas Aquinas. He makes for an interesting read (although I doubt you’d want to read him) but… Well… It’s just outdated stuff and his religion is no longer ours. In short, we should move on.

I obviously feel the same about Buddhist metaphysics, so let me get back to my little battle with those ’eminent Buddhist writers’.

I’d say the ‘obsession with duality’ they identify with Western thought is, in fact, not limited to European or Christian philosophy. Worse, I’d say that this perceived ‘obsession’ is less pathological than they suggest. Indeed, from what I know about Western philosophy (it’s not a lot but, just for the record, one of my degrees actually is a BPhil), I would actually conclude that European philosophers – including the ancient Greek – were very well aware of the ‘duality trap’, as evidenced by the early adoption of dialectics as a method of philosophical thinking in order to overcome both dualism as well as reductionism. [In case you wonder what I mean with ‘reductionism’, let me quickly define reductionism here by abusing one of my favorite Hegelian quotes: reductionism is a tendency to reduce all differences to “the night in which all cows are black.”]

Let me even more rebellious and bold: I am actually of the opinion that most Buddhist writings, including all those of the Western writers on Buddhism which I mention in this post, smack much more of dualism than any of the Western philosophies they are criticizing in this regard. For example, when I read Christmas Humphreys’ Zen – A way of Life, I am almost dumbstruck by the excessive use of meaningless oppositions, among which the opposition between ‘being’ versus ‘non-being’ probably stands out.

Of course, to be fair to Humphreys, and to Buddhists in general, I must mention that he notes, as all these writers do, that these ‘oppositions’ are ‘overcome’ when one attains Enlightenment. I don’t think one needs to attain Enlightenment or nirvana in order to overcome these ‘oppositions’: I overcome them by considering them as metaphysical nonsense in the first place.

Christmas Humphreys is not just anyone, of course. In fact, that’s why I quote him, rather than some lesser authority on Buddhism. Indeed, Humphreys was the best-known British convert to Buddhism during his time, and the founder of the Buddhist Society in the UK, so my sparring with him here is, I admit, quite haughty. So be it. Singling out Humphreys has the advantage that he, at the very least, he does not hesitate to clearly articulate the canonical Buddhist doctrines and positions. So, in one chapter of his Zen – A way of Life, he dwells on the No Soul doctrine, while, in the next, he unambiguously states that the doctrine of Re-birth is equally fundamental to understanding (Zen) Buddhism. In fact, he actually writes that “Zen training is only usefully attempted with the aid of this doctrine.

What nonsense ! How can he not be aware of the glaring contradiction between the two?

Humphreys would probably say I do not understand a iota of Buddhism. Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think it should be obvious, for any honest intellectual, that the doctrine of re-birth (or reincarnation, or ‘transmigration’ of some ‘soul’ – which is what it amounts to), is nothing but a remnant of Buddhism’s Hindu roots (see below also) and that, just like in Christian metaphysics, such doctrine also leads to nothing but dualist thinking.

Let me complete my sermon here by elaborating a bit.

As mentioned above, Pāli and Sanskrit is sufficiently close to English to argue that the Pāli/Sanskrit concept of attā/ātman actually does represent the idea of a subjective Soul (i.e. some Self) surviving the death of the body. Humphreys should not try to wiggle his way out of that. Now, that implies that, according to the Buddhist Canon, there is some kind of permanent Self indeed. However, the idea of a permanent Self is an idea which, in Buddhist metaphysics, is explicitly rejected ! Indeed, Buddhists are supposed to (also) believe that what is normally thought of as the ‘self’ is nothing but an agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents, generally referred to as skandhas (literally: aggregates).

Humphreys himself summarizes the theory of skandhas as follows: “All the components of the personality, the five skandhas of body, feelings, perceptions, karmic impulses and consciousness, are found to contain no ‘Self’ which we can call our own, still less a Self which is immortal and permanent. The thing we call ‘I’ is an illusion […].”

This reminds me of the bundle theory of the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, which is a more ‘western’ expression of the theory of skandhas. In fact, I must assume that Humphreys, as a well-trained barrister and judge, was intimately familiar with Hume’s writings. David Hume’s bundle theory is an ontological theory about objecthood in which the object consists only of a collection (bundle) of properties and relations. According to bundle theory, an object consists of its properties and its relations to other objects, and nothing more, “thus neither can there be an object without properties nor can one even conceive of such an object.” For example, bundle theory claims that thinking of an apple compels one also to think of its color, its shape, the fact that it is a kind of fruit, its cells, its taste, or of one of its other properties. Thus, the theory asserts that the apple is no more than the collection of its properties. Hence, according to Hume, there is no substance (or ‘essence’) in which the properties inhere.

That bundle theory makes sense, you’ll say. Yes. It does. In fact, what I’d say about this is what I’d say about Aquinas: nothing wrong with it. It’s just… Well… It’s just outdated and, hence, simplistic stuff, and so let’s move on. The point is that any honest intellectual would have a lot of trouble to reconcile the Buddhist metaphysical or ontological theory of skandhas with the doctrine of reincarnation – except, of course, when contradictory statements are being accepted as ‘meaningful’, but so I don’t want to go there.

Again, I acknowledge that I am sparring with very eminent writers here, but then – Surprise Surprise ! – I am actually in pretty good company here. For example, if you read Herman Hesse’s wonderful Siddharta, it is clear that he fully shares my view.

In fact, now that we are here, I’d like to note that Hesse also rightly identifies yet another fundamental contradiction in the Dhamma in his wonderful fictional account of the Buddha’s life: it’s the contradiction between Buddhism’s ‘message of salvation’ and its strict belief in causality (as expressed in the law of karma). I would tend to agree with Hesse’s observation, even if, personally, I actually am buying the Buddhist message of salvation. For me, Buddhism’s message of salvation resides in its emphasis on the power of the mind: in my view, it’s the power of analysis and (self-)consciousness that brings us some kind of salvation indeed. However, I’ll come back to this later and, hence, not dwell on this too much here.

So, what about it then? Well, when everything is said and done, it’s hard to escape the conclusion I mentioned above already: the Buddhist doctrine of Re-birth is nothing but a remnant from Buddhism’s Hindu roots and, taking into account the delay between the birth and death of the historical Buddha and the writing of the Buddhist Canon, it may well be that the historical Buddha did actually not believe in re-birth. Frankly, if he was a physikoi, he would not have.

In fact, my own little theory is that the monks who ‘canonized’ Buddhist thought some 450 years after the death of the historical Buddha just re-inserted the reincarnation theory, for the same reason why Thomas Aquinas couldn’t doubt the existence of God: for them, it was, most probably, a premise you wouldn’t want to challenge. When we’re dead, we’re dead. That’s hard to swallow, I guess. And so that’s why I think the reincarnation theory is just there to soften the blow.

Sacrilege? Perhaps. So be it. But so that’s my view indeed. Let me summarize it:

  1. I accept that the contradiction between the no-soul doctrine and the doctrine of re-birth is fundamental and, hence, cannot be solved.
  2. Hence, I feel we should drop one of the two.
  3. I’ve dropped the second one because – however one wants to look at it – any doctrine of re-birth requires an irrational or unscientific belief in some ‘essence’ of an individual human being indeed, and so I think that’s rubbish or – to use a less derogatory term – not in line with what I perceive as the ‘spirit’ of the Buddhist teachings.

To anticipate criticism: if you are somewhat familiar with the Buddhist Canon, you will say that I am misrepresenting it. You will point out that the doctrine of Re-birth and the law of karma are one and the same and, hence, it’s the law of cause and effect, i.e. the accumulated karma (good or bad), that goes beyond death. Not some ‘soul’. I will not elaborate on this but I feel this ‘explanation’ also belongs to the ‘realm of meaningless metaphysical statements.’ I have no doubt whatsoever on the law of cause and effect (it’s not easy to argue against determinism); however, I do not believe there is any rational basis for believing in the transmigration of a ‘soul’, or anything that comes near to it, and anything that has ‘individuality’ comes ‘near to it’, and that also includes the concept of ‘accumulated karma’, no matter how hard you try to camouflage it.

Religion and morals

Let me advance another reason why those monks would have stuck to a theory of re-birth. There is a more general moral-philosophical issue here. Put simply, it’s hard to deny that all doctrines of re-birth or reincarnation, whether they be Christian (or Jewish or Muslim), Buddhist, Hindu, or whatever, obviously serve a moral purpose in society, just like the concepts of heaven and hell in Christianity or, more generally, the concept of a Judgment Day in all Abrahamic religions – be they Christian (Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant), Islamic or Judaic. According to some, it’s hard to see how one could firmly ‘ground’ moral theory and avoid hedonism without such doctrine. One author who clearly is of this opinion and articulates it very well is the above-quoted Jo Durden Smith (see The Essence of Buddhism (2004), p. 68), and so he actually uses this pragmatic argument to ‘justify’ or ‘explain’ the doctrine of Re-birth.

I think that this approach to ‘justifying’, ‘explaining’ or ‘accepting’ the doctrine of reincarnation amounts to admitting the intellectual weakness of the whole argument. Personally, I don’t think we need this ‘ladder’ to ground moral theory: more modern moral theories do not need reincarnation theories or divine last judgments. So, in short, while the No Soul doctrine makes a lot of sense, the doctrine of Re-birth (or reincarnation) doctrine does not – in my not so humble opinion that is.

The No Soul doctrine in meditation

You probably noticed by now that I am quite dismissive of all of the writings I quote above, and of religious or philosophical texts and books in general. Indeed, I prefer hard science. Indeed,  I am of the opinion that they are not very relevant in terms of helping us to lead a ‘good’ life: the basics are fine, but digging further is a waste of time.

Having said that, I do like to think that the anattā doctrine is one of the few philosophical positions with a direct practical relevance. Indeed, I believe one can effectively reduce personal suffering – (such as ‘heartache’, for example 🙂 – by meditating and accepting that there is no real ‘me’, no ‘I’ or ‘self’ that is suffering.

In this regard, I could digress on what I see as the three fundamental phases or stages in meditation:

  1. Relax: ‘let go’,
  2. Focus: ‘observe the mind’, and
  3. Lose your individuality: ‘let the self evaporate’.

However, I will not go into more detail at this moment. Otherwise, this post risks becoming a long article, which is not my intent. What I can’t resist, however, is to conclude this post with a one-line 17th century ‘poem’, written by Matsuo Basho. [If you’ve read anything about Zen, you’ve heard his name before.] I think it captures the ‘spirit’ of the No Soul doctrine most beautifully:

On this road with no traveler, autumn night falls.

To be fair, when he wrote this, Matsuo Basho was obviously inspired by a much older verse, which captures the same idea:

Nirvana is, but not the man that enters it; 

The path is, but no traveler on it is seen.”

This comes out of the Visuddhi−Magga (quoted in: Bhikkhu Khantipālo, Buddhism Explained, 3rd edition, p. 161), a treatise written by Buddhaghosa, a Srilankan Buddhist scholar and commentator who lived in the 5th century, and whose commentaries are generally considered as the ‘orthodox’ understanding of Theravāda Buddhism, which is generally considered to be the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism (Theravāda literally means ‘the Teaching of the Elders’). It is said to be closer to early Buddhism than other existing Buddhist traditions, but it also sticks to the doctrine of re-birth.

Well… I’ll leave you with this because this post has become much too long indeed. Too many words ! 🙂

Dōgen’s advice

This is the easy way to become a Buddha:

Not to create the various evils,

Not to cling to life and death,

To have deep compassion for all sentient beings,

To venerate superiors and to sympathize with inferiors,

To hate nothing,

To desire nothing,

Not to reflect on anything,

Not to sorrow about anything—

This is what I call the Buddha.

Do not seek anything else.

The finger, the ladder and the label

“Zen does not rely on the intellect for the solution of its deepest problems. It is meant to get at the fact at first hand and not through any intermediary. To point to the moon, a finger is needed, but woe to those who take the finger for the moon.”

This is a quote from Daisetsu Teitaru Suzuki – the man who brought Zen to the West. It comes out of one of his Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927). However, this saying is an old Oriental proverb and, hence, it should not be attributed to any author in particular. In fact, associating it with Zen only is somewhat preposterous.

In any case, the quote makes it clear that, while Zen is taught by teachers (Roshis or masters), it is really not about thinking and writing. The quote goes even further, as it actually implies that the role of the teacher or the master should not be exaggerated either. Getting at the fact at first hand is like learning how to ride a bicycle: in the end, you just have to do it – and you have to do it all by yourself.

Suzuki. It makes one think of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, isn’t it? Maybe. Modern Suzuki motorcycles do not require much maintenance though. 🙂

I actually checked it out. Suzuki is a very common family name in Japan. So common, in fact, that it does not refer to any particular family. Indeed, family names do not mean all that much in Japan: families were forced to adopt a surname during the Meiji restoration, but they could choose it at will and, for some reason I don’t know, the name of Suzuki, which literally means bell tree (suzu = bell and ki = tree) was quite popular in certain regions of Japan. In any case, Teitaro Suzuki and Michio Suzuki, the founder of Suzuki Motor Corporation, were surely not related. They were born in very different families on opposite sides of the Honshu island: Michio Suzuki was the son of a farmer, while Teitaro Suzuki (Daisetsu is like an epithet he received later) was a scion of a samurai family. It was an impoverished samurai family (all samurai families were suddenly poor, as the samurai class was abolished during the Meiji restoration, and so they had to re-invent themselves), but samurai nevertheless.

Class surely mattered during those turbulent times (as it does today). Samurai families were generally well-educated and, hence, Teitaro Suzuki’s karma was much more likely to lead him to become a professor (a professor in Buddhist philosophy, in fact), rather than a shrewd businessman. [As for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, please don’t be offended, but the author, Robert Pirsig, would probably agree that it’s neither about Zen nor Motorcycle Maintenance. To be frank, I am not ashamed to admit I never quite got through the book. I tried to read it some twenty years ago but put it down after a few days, wondering why the author needed so many words (more than 400 pages!) to write what he wrote.]

Names and words. I often think that, to some extent, Eastern thought appeals to us Westerners because we do not understand the language. Using foreign words allows us to load meaning onto strange words that may actually not have the meaning we, non- or non-native speakers of the language, associate with them. We often don’t even know how to pronounce them correctly (just try to guess, and then check, the meaning and pronunciation of Daisetsu and Teitaru, for example). Those new meanings suit our purpose, which is to understand what we’ll probably never understand. In my view, the Laughing Buddha epitomizes the approach. Life and death are not meant to be understood: life is meant to be lived, and death… Well… That’s why we should live life to the fullest extent possible. By using strange foreign words, we invent a new language so to speak.

Back to Suzuki. So Teitaro (Daisetsu is a sort of epiteth he received and adopted later) was born into an impoverished samurai family and, while he is widely known as “the man who brought Zen to the West”, I should set the record straight. D.T. Suzuki’s own Zen master, Soyun Shaku (1860–1919), had already traveled to the United States to participate in the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions (Chicago). That gathering is generally referred to as “the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions” and as “the birth of formal world-wide inter-religious dialogue.” Hence, his appearance there was significant (another ‘significant’ representative of world religions was Swami Vivekananda, but I shouldn’t digress here) and Soyun Shaku returned to the US afterwards to teach Zen there just before World War (1905–1906). However, his knowledge of English was poor, and so he didn’t write as much as D.T. Suzuki did: Soyun was an abbot, while Suzuki was a professor in Buddhist philosophy. On top of that, D.T. Suzuki was married to an American theosophist, who surely stimulated him writing even more. So that’s why Soyun Shaku is much less remembered – if at all.

Dr. Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, was just one of the many influential people who took an interest in Suzuki’s writings in-between the two World Wars. Jung actually wrote an elaborate 30-page foreword to Suzuki’s 1934 Introduction to Zen Buddhism, and thereby gave it instant recognition. However, despite the interest of such prominent people, Zen never really made it in the West, unlike Tibetan Buddhism. I am not sure why.

Frankly, I am not attracted to Tibetan Buddhism because of its eclecticism (anything goes really), its excessive monasticism (just think about the disputes between Red and Yellow Hat orders, for example) and, finally, its tantric and shamanic core that continues to permeate everything (examine some of its symbolism, for example, and you’ll know what I mean). In fact, I’ve concluded that Tibetan Buddhism is far removed from the original Buddhist teachings. Of course, that’s my own viewpoint only, and it’s obviously a minority point of view. In any case, my own views don’t matter here.

Why is it that Western intellectuals took to Tibetan Buddhism, rather than Chinese or Japanese Buddhism?

One obvious reason is that Zen is associated with Japanese nationalism and, hence, with Nazism (see, for example, Zen at War, 1997). While Tibetan Buddhism has (or has had) its violent strands too, in particular in regard to the question of the Chinese occupation of the Tibetan homelands (see, for example, Buddha’s Warriors, 2004), Tibetan nationalism is obviously more acceptable to us. Or should we say more romantic? I note, for example, that associating Zen with the samurai or warrior culture is not very problematic for a Western audience.

All major religions or philosophies are obviously tainted with blood and violence: when one’s homeland is threatened, one has to take a stance in this life, not in the next, and then it’s unavoidable that some choose to accept that the doctrine of nonviolence may not be unconditional. In regard to Shaku and Suzuki, it is said that, at the occasion of the Russo-Japanese war (1904–1905), Leo Tolstoy wrote Shaku and asked him to join in denouncing the war. Shaku refused, concluding that “…sometimes killing and war becomes necessary to defend the values and harmony of any innocent country, race or individual.” (quoted in Zen at War, 1997) Just for the record, the Japanese victory in that war surprised the world, and underscored Japan’s emergence as a new world power, and Shaku attributed the victory to Japan’s samoerai culture. Likewise, some comments from Suzuki suggest he sympathized with the German Nazi views on the question of the Jews. It’s sad, but it’s the truth.

Another reason why Zen never became as popular as Tibetan Buddhism in the West, may be that the pioneer, D.T. Suzuki, actually moved away from Zen himself. Indeed, Suzuki, in his later life, turned to the more popular religion which his mother (and many of his compatriots) practiced: plain Shin Buddhism. While a somewhat more encompassing approach should not be a problem as such, it’s obvious it’s never a good thing for the followers if the master suddenly distances himself from his own teachings: we like to identify ourselves with a particular group, or a particular school of thought, and if our teachers say that it doesn’t matter all that much, we’re confused. We shouldn’t be, because it doesn’t matter indeed: when everything is said and done, we should get at the fact at first hand indeed.


By now, you probably wonder what I want to get at here. Nothing much. I just started a blog documenting my own spiritual journey. This blog is surely not about Zen. And – believe it or not – it’s not about Buddhism or Orientalism either. I quoted the warning above as a warning indeed: when everything is said and done, finding truth and living a ‘good’ life is not about knowledge but about practice, and so that’s what that quote above is about really. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Let me conclude this introduction by making a few more remarks about labels, and about this ‘finger pointing to the moon’ expression in particular. Fans of Bruce Lee will probably remember the reference to a finger pointing to the moon from the 1973 Enter the Dragon movie, in which he slaps one of his pupils while teaching him Kung Fu: “Don’t think! Feel! It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger… Or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” [Note, once again, that associating Zen or Buddhist thought with violence is, apparently, not something that antagonizes the Western mind, as long as it’s in the sphere of martial arts. It’s only when it becomes associated with a nation fighting a war with some other nation, that we apparently take sides or, else, invoke the  ‘separation of church and state’ principle. I find that somewhat strange. It is just like we seem to fail to acknowledge that all religions in the real world are tainted with blood and violence. I can’t think of any exception here. Indeed, as mentioned above, Tibetan Buddhism has or had its warriors too – literally.]

Enter the Dragon was Bruce Lee’s last movie: he died the same year, aged 32 only, and his religious beliefs – if any – were vague. In fact, Bruce would not associate himself with any particular school of thought but, in his posthumously published Tao of Jeet Kune Do, he did jot down things like: “In Buddhism, there is no place for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water and when you’re tired go and lie down.” Is that Buddhist, or Zen? The booklet also quotes literally from D.T. Suzuki’s publications.

So what? 

Well… Nothing. I just underscores what I wrote above: expressions like this finger pointing to the moon saying are universal wisdom. In fact, I’d say the ‘finger pointing to the moon’ expression is very similar to the metaphor that Wittgenstein used to describe what his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was all about. He saw it as a sort of ladder, which you can kick away once you’ve used it to climb up the roof. In other words, we should go beyond the words.

OK, you’ll say – but what about that quote of Dōgen Zenji above? Dōgen is the founder of the Sōtō school of Zen, isn’t he?

Maybe. We now label Dōgen as such, as the founding father of Sōtō Zen. However, Dōgen himself would never have claimed that label. Now that we are talking labels, let me quickly try to dot all the i’s and cross all of the t’s in this short introduction. Let me first note that, while Shaku, as the abbot of a Rinzai temple, was definitely a purebred Rinzai roshi, D.T. Suzuki was, as a professor of Buddhist philosophy, much less explicit in his affiliation. What’s the difference? In practice, nothing much: both Sōtō and Rinzai Zen are, by now, calcified traditions or – if you prefer a more upbeat term – beautiful gardens. That being said, Rinzai is usually associated with a more impregnable approach to enlightenment, involving difficult games such as the kōan, which are designed to achieve ‘lightning-like enlightenment’ – as Dumoulin puts it. In contrast, the Sōtō school does not attach all that much importance on ‘sudden enlightenment’. In contrast, as can be seen from the quote, Dōgen advised against consciously seeking Buddhahood, stressing that “practice and enlightenment are one and the same.” I like that – a lot – so let me repeat it: practice and enlightenment are one and the same.

In any case. We should not attach much importance to these labels. As mentioned above, Dōgen himself did not think he belonged to a specific school or sect. He actually even rejected being referred to as a master. I sometimes like to think all of the founding fathers (why are there are few or no founding mothers?) of the world’s greatest religions rejected labeling. They were all revolutionaries, creating something new from the old and, hence, they would surely reject the current labeling. None of them believed in any ‘transmission principle’ when it came to truth, knowing God, or leading a ‘good’ life. None of them claimed to be the ‘master’, or to be entitled to tell others what to do or what to believe. In many ways, they were loners attracting a crowd.

I said this blog is not about Buddhism, but let me note that there’s quite a ‘tradition’ of Buddhist loners as well. [Note the contradiction is the use of the term ‘tradition’ here: there is none.] Just think of the Zen master Dokuan Genko (1630-1698), for example, who broke with tradition indeed by openly questioning the ‘transmission’ principle and, hence, his own role as a ‘master’: “The only genuine transmission is the individual’s independent experience of Zen enlightenment, [which is] an intuitive experience that needs no external confirmation.” And while Suzuki himself does not do away with the principle of ‘transmission’ (he also confirms the role of the master on the road to ‘getting to the fact at first hand’), he does point out that Zen stands apart because “the direct method of Zen is to see straightway into the truth of Enlightenment and attain Buddhahood without going through so many stages of preparation prescribed by the scholars.” (Essays in Zen Buddhism (First Series), Essay IV (History of Buddhism), p. 176).

These loners are usually dismissed because, as mushi-dokugo (‘independently enlightened without a teacher’) or jigo-jisho (‘self-enlightened and self-certified’), they do not adhere to the lineage, or because they left ‘no transmission’. Of course not: if they would have created their own ‘independent transmission’ or lineage, they would not be what they are: loners. The freethinker in me makes me respect them more than any of those great abbots or rinpoches. When everything is said and done, I’d think most of them are just monks in straitjackets. Also note that doing some exercise today, by going out for a ride on your bike, for instance – or just sit and breathe – is probably better for you than reading this blog, because it’s practice and, remember, practice is the only way to ‘get at the fact at first hand.’ 🙂