Wild fox, mountain, river: Wrestling with 3 questions on Zen Buddhism

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Introduction—a surprise at morning meditation

Time—Approximately 5:45am. Morning meditation.

Location—Meditation hall. Shogan-ji Zen Retreat, Oita Prefecture, Japan.

Incident—Not the sound of one hand clapping, but rather, the sound of a long wooden plank thwacking against a prostrate person’s back and punctuating the otherwise still morning air.

Persons involved—Zen monk Jiho-san, Richard, and myself. Myself being the bystander, not the recipient of the thwacking.

So began day 3 of my 5 day retreat at Shogan-ji. Turns out the thwacking is a procedure requested by disciples of a Zen master (or in this case, retreatants) to discipline the body and remind it to concentrate instead of falling into slumber.

Concentrate on what exactly? What is the object of meditation in Zen? I sought to explore these and other questions with my time at the retreat.

But first, some prep work.

From the entrance of the retreat

Background and purpose of Zen

I have been interested in meditation for around 5 years, and, as may be the case for you, it seems to the lay Westerner that Zen Buddhism is the aloof pinnacle of meditation. It has become a byword for extreme concentration and calmness, but its goals are deeper than that, and yet paradoxically simple.

Zen is a school of Buddhism that was imported to Japan from China in the 12th century. It had originally developed in the 6th century AD as Chan Buddhism, with influences from Taoism.

Zen advocates: See Reality exactly as it is, without any judgment about how it should be. This is rather difficult for the human mind, which is perpetually analysing events, the past, present and future, people’s motivations, judgments, perceptions, and so on.

Zen prioritises direct experience of Reality through meditation and insight, as opposed to empty recitation of sutras (Buddhist scripture purported to be records of oral teaching of the Buddha). Directly apprehending True Reality is satori (enlightenment). Yet satori is no simple matter to realise or to cultivate.

Zen has developed certain techniques and ideas for the attainment of satori. There is zazen, “sitting cross-legged in meditation”, which was “specifically devised in order that the subject might delve ever deeper into its own interior” (Izutsu).

There are also the seemingly nonsensical koans; sayings or stories that appear contradictory but are so designed in order to stump humans’ tendency to rationalise, seek logical conclusions, and categorise reality with language. This tendency is ultimately a hindrance to apprehending the True Reality, which can never be pinned down in concepts and language. One of the most famous examples is the injunction to contemplate “the sound of one hand clapping.”

The following example illustrates how difficult it is for a concept or word to describe reality fully. Think of the word “life.” It resonates with people in different ways, and so is difficult to describe. Some may first think of the biological workings of bodies, or the aquatic origins of life, while still others will think of experiences like breathing the ocean air, welcoming a child into the world, or even a dark struggle to preserve life from depression and destruction.

Things get still more difficult when trying to answer life’s deepest questions, at the frontiers of physics or metaphysics, and Zen does try to confront metaphysics.

My misconceptions and questions:

The deceptive simplicity of Zen, and its seeming promise of great spiritual and psychological insight, led me to have some misconceptions and questions in mind when I went on the retreat. They were:

  1. What do enlightened Masters do after satori? Do they just reside in a wonderland of bliss?
  2. To what extent do enlightened masters or practitioners of Zen “help” other beings?
  3. Is the emphasis on direct experience/insight completely at odds with longer-term cultivation of wisdom, particularly through the use of textual study, reason and logic?


Coming into the retreat, I knew it may be difficult to find answers to these questions. I had heard not to expect high-level philosophical discourse in English, and I knew my very limited command of Japanese would not do the trick. Fortunately I had the help of Richard, who did some translating for me over a cup of tea in the afternoon at the kitchen table. I also tried to appreciate the different parts of Zen temple life in light of what I read about Zen and of my past experience in meditation. Despite all the capital letters on Truth and Reality, I knew that Zen had a deep respect for the humble goings-on of every day life. Reality was not somewhere else, some Divine Plane, it was here right now, in the washing of dishes (rarely with soap, Jiho-san advises), in the collection of water from the spring, and in the unearthing of red onions from the field.

And so, to the responses.

Myself, Jiho-san and one resident kitten before departure on my last day

What do enlightened Masters do after satori?

Those who attain satori do not reside in a wonderland of bliss, detached from worldly concerns and from their fellow human beings. I think this conception has come about around the word enlightenment more generally, be it in a Buddhist context or not. I think first of the story of Eckhart Tolle, the New Age mystic who apprehended Reality by realising that he was not his “ego” when in a bout of extreme depression. He proceeded to spend the next two years wandering cities and sleeping on park benches in near “perpetual Bliss.” Regardless of the truth of what was spiritually or psychologically happening for Eckhart Tolle, we can see his two year stint inevitably came to an end! So what do people do then?

The three-stage process of Enlightenment

The question of what Zen masters do after satori can be refined by looking at the changing states of mind that the Zen practitioner undergoes. Dr Tadashi Nishihara, professor of psychology and Japanese philosophy at Kyoto University, has outlined a three-stage process for this mind-development, drawing on the work of comparative philosopher of religion, Toshihiko Izutsu.

Now, I’m going to stretch your imagination for a moment and illustrate the three stages or states of mind under the guidance of the improbably named Joe, Zen master extraordinaire. The stages are:

  1. Ordinary mind: Your average Joe
  2. No-mind-ness (mushin) 1: Joe sees the light
  3. No-mind-ness (mushin) 2: Joe returns to ordinary life, but as a kind of secret Super Joe.

Stage 1: Ordinary mind; Your average Joe

First, like any of us, Zen practitioners start with an “ordinary” mind. This is the mind that constantly sees objects as distinct entities, different from oneself. The mind goes through life, stored safely in a body and shielded from the rest of the world, observing everything outside in its own category: mountain, river, grocery store, mother, lawn mower.

One day, when Joe is hiking in the mountains, he slips at a river crossing and most of his gear is soaked through. He curses the river; it is just another object, in this case, merely a hindrance to his enjoyment of nature.  

Stage 2: No-mind-ness (mushin) 1; Joe has seen the light

Through a sudden realisation (perhaps born of meditation using zazen or koan study) Joe realises the true nature of things; that he, the subject, and the river, the object, are not fundamentally distinct. There is now an awareness that all forms are impermanent, composed of endless causes and effects, even if rivers and mountains endure for much longer than a human life. They are all constantly in flux, being created, maintained, destroyed and reborn in new forms.

For example, the river is composed of many droplets, and water vapour in the air that has condensed in mountains and gone on join it as tributary. It flows in crevices hollowed by melting glaciers and turned in different paths by landslides, which were precipitated by quivers in the earth’s tectonic plates. Who can say where and when it begins or will end?

Similarly, Joe is not conscious of where he begins or ends, which causes and which effects are foremost in determining who he is. He may have been born to a loving family, with an average metabolism and an affinity for peanut butter, but these are all mixed together, and the idea of the rational, always-in-control-ego is cancelled out.

All this doesn’t matter though, for, while the causes are endless and seemingly different between he and the river, both Joe and River are unified by not having one place or concept to point to that is definitely their own. Their fundamental quality is instability, and interdependence. It is meaningless at this point to affirm “Joe” or “river”, but to simply be conscious in a rejoicing of interdependence. Joe slips and falls in the river, and smiles, almost feeling that he is instead the river who is causing the effect of “soaked gear.”

This stage is called “no-mind-ness” because we can no longer point to Joe’s isolated, independent mind. It is not, however, a passive forgetfulness. There is still something Conscious and almost Divine at this no-boundary stage.  

In the words of Nishihara:

“From the ontological viewpoint, if there is anything here at the no-boundary-state, it must be the undivided Something. Izutsu explained that it is the absolutely undivided awareness of Something eternally illuminating itself as the whole universe. In such a state did the Zen master declare that a mountain is not a mountain.”

The Something, then, is perhaps the totality of causes and effects, Reality, in perpetual illumination or manifestation.

Shogan-ji, from the garden

Stage 3: No-mind-ness (mushin) 2; Joe returns to ordinary life, but as a kind of secret Super Joe

Yet the lofty experience of stage 2 is not the end goal of the Zen practitioner. Instead, Zen seeks “to attain the state of ‘No-mind-ness’ in ordinary, daily consciousness” (Nishihara). The ordinary life is not to be scorned, but to be honoured as an eternal gateway to the infinite ways of experiencing Reality. It is seen by a new angle:

“Izutsu has explained this final stage as ‘bifocal eyes’ (ein Doppelfokus-Auge). He said the Zen master who has once experienced ‘Nothing-ness’ (Non-articulation/stage 2) can never forget the absolute phase.”

So, average Joe has now become Bifocal Joe. If he had only stopped at stage 2, locked in wonder at his soaked gear, the river would have eroded him and washed him out to sea, which wouldn’t  have been good for anyone. Except perhaps the hungry fish who would have welcomed the sudden feast.

Instead, with “bifocal eyes”, Joe can recognise distinct forms so as to navigate them, but also delight at their hidden, more fundamental nature. In either case, Joe is still subject to cause and effect. The enlightenment of stage 2 doesn’t stop water from its eroding and flowing powers. Similarly, Joe goes on in life, making decisions and taking actions that ripple out their incalculable effects.

One of my favourite koans, The “Wild fox” koan, brings home this point about the necessity of cause and effect, and embracing the return to ordinary life. I have cited the first half here:

Every time Baizhang, Zen Master Dahui, gave a dharma talk, a certain old man would come to listen. He usually left after the talk, but one day he remained. Baizhang asked, "Who is there?"
The man said, "I am not actually a human being. I lived and taught on this mountain at the time of Kashyapa Buddha. One day a student asked me, 'Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?' I said to him, 'No, such a person doesn't.' Because I said this I was reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. Reverend master, please say a turning word for me and free me from this wild fox body." Then he asked Baizhang, "Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?"
Baizhang said, "Don't ignore cause and effect."
Immediately the man had great realization. Bowing, he said, "I am now liberated from the body of a wild fox. I will stay in the mountain behind the monastery.

Side note: Forget for the moment that the old man first appears as an old man (not as a wild fox, as he claims he is). Perhaps he has flitted into his old form for a moment, to listen to his once-fellow humans discussing dharma?

This koan, as well as Nishihara and Izutsu’s analyses, emphasises a teaching that has its roots in the 12th century: that understanding true Reality is sudden, but that one must “ripen the insight” to truly become a Buddha (enlightened one).

Stage 3 is the “acme of Enlightenment” because, I would say, it embraces Reality even more fully than stage 2. Stage 2 can be pursued as an end itself, the ethereal goal of romantic New Age soul-seekers. But it is a denial of reality to think you can escape your own mind and body.

To what extent do enlightened Zen masters “help” other beings?

A key part of the post-satori experience is to help others achieve enlightenment. This would be impossible for any hypothetical students of Joe if he had simply been washed away into oblivion. Helping others achieve enlightenment is a key element in the broader Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, of which Zen is a part. However, there are some differences in interpretation as to how this occurs.

Some believe that those who postpone enlightenment reside in an intermediate plane between our world and nirvana, which is not a place, but rather a state of tranquillity and freedom from the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (samsara). Here they act as bodhisattvas, almost like deities it seems. Still others stress that enlightened beings choose to re-enter the cycle of rebirth in order to help others. Finally, there are those who simply focus on this world, helping others in their everyday lives through teaching and studying. I am most interested in this last suggestion, as the rest can be impossible to flesh out with philosophy and language, sometimes in a frustrating way.

Yet does one need to attain enlightenment in order to be such an aid to “un-enlightened” beings? By attain enlightenment, I mean have the full experience of Reality, and progress to the level of a Zen Master. I had originally thought the answer was “yes”, however, I learned more when I asked Jiho-san if he was a Zen Master.

“No, no!” he informed me, reclining in his kitchen chair and gesturing with his empty cup of tea.

He proceeded to tell me, with the help of Richard as translator, that he had studied with some harsh Masters all around Japan, but had never become a master himself. Surely, I wondered, he had had glimpses of satori in all this time, and now he was fulfilling a purpose in helping others to see things a little more clearly.

I wondered, what is the difference between Jiho-san and the Masters, if all humans must return to cultivation of wisdom after such an experience? They are not freed, as the Wild Fox koan tells us, from cause and effect. Perhaps the satori of a practitioner such as Jiho-san is just not of the same strength or depth as that of the masters. In any case, the intention is the same, assist in the quest for truth and to alleviate suffering. This, I can attest, Jiho-san does with kindness, laughter, book recommendations, and some interesting health advice (avoid breakfast; and if you keep chickens, never fear, they will do their best to find their shellfish).

The kitchen table: the site of tea in the morning, main meals, reading and discussion

Is the emphasis on direct insight completely at odds with longer-term cultivation of wisdom, particularly through the use of textual study, reason and logic?

I think the tripartite development of the Zen mind has already given a decent response to this question. We inevitably return to ordinary life, and it is now our role to deepen that insight and share it with others. Textual study does have a place here. Ancient Zen masters have advised that reflection on collections of koans and Buddhist scripture is necessary to deepen insight. I imagine this is fruitful also for helping others to see more clearly, as the broader and deeper one’s knowledge of koan study, the more one will be able to prompt, challenge and direct a disciple or early practitioner of Zen with the right koan.

Yet Zen does bear a disdain for rational thinking at its core. This goes back to the very origins of the tradition. As described by Izutsu:

Zen arose in China as a vigorous reaction against the multitudinous systems of Mahayana philosophy that had developed in India and China, in which Buddhist thinkers indulged themselves in extremely complicated, and often hair-splitting, abstract arguments. Regarding these arguments simply as nothing but futile entanglements of discursive intellect, Zen started by shattering the grandiose systems of philosophical thinking and trying to bring Buddhism back to its simplest and most original form, that is to say, to what in the view of Zen was the fundamental personal experience of the historical Buddha himself. (Toward a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism, p.148.)

This disdain is borne out in the instructions of Zen teachers ever since to “remove all thinking, ideas, concepts” from the mind of the student. Yet it should be noted the conceptual understanding of the world is most detested during meditation, when one should turn all one’s powers of concentration towards stage 2 of Izutsu/Nishihara’s development of the mind. It seems textual study may take place more in stage 3, when the master knows its rightful place, and can use its lessons to push the still early-stage practitioners.

Takeaways and questions

The retreat was a nourishing experience. While I was not the recipient of any thwacking, I did still develop more self-discipline, among other things:

  • I have a more nuanced view of enlightenment in the Zen tradition. I’ve learned that things are not as black and white and high-pressure as I’d assumed. For example, there was my assumption that one broke through to enlightenment and then never interacted with human beings or the day-to-day world again. This always seemed very anti-human or even anti-life to me!
  • I developed my powers of concentration during morning and night meditation, and in the hours of cooking and wandering and reading in between. This helped me to see myself a little more clearly, to become even more fine-tuned to the desire to organise, or be content, or discover; all of which may have their place but in the proper time and measure.

As always, I still have some questions and directions I would like to explore further.

  • I would go on to have a discussion with Dr Tadashi Nishihara about Zen, the link between contemplation and virtuous action, educating and improving oneself and others, and the bizarre sense of being drawn to certain books and philosophies.
  • I am still yet to see much engagement between, on the one hand, Zen or Taoist views on forms, cause and effect, and on the other, philosophical and scientific evidence for creation and the nature of space time (cosmological argument, argument from contingency). I understand that reasoning and language can have limitations, but I think Zen sometimes does not give them the time of day. After all, one could also suggest that the “pure” individual experience of reality is conditioned by biology and psychology, and so how can we know that it is more Real than ordinary consciousness? This has been partly addressed by Sam Harris and Robert Wright.

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