Zen claims to be the true Buddhism, but since no one can prove what true or original Buddhism taught, the claim means little. The reason that no one can prove what original Buddhism was like, is due to the following factors: 1. The late nature of Buddhist manuscripts. 2. Their contradictory teachings. 3. Buddhism’s long-standing emphasis on subjectivism. 4. Buddha’s mixture of legend and history. In the end Zen is simply one of innumerable schools of conflicting Buddhism. Even within its own ranks there are many sub schools claiming that they alone constitute the highest truth and some even argue that conventional Zen cannot offer true enlightenment (such as Zenmar’s so-called “Dark Zen”. The traditional origin of Zen is said to have been India, and came to China around 520 A.D. From there Zen moved to Japan. The martial arts of judo, Karate, and Kendo (fencing), together with Japanese gardens, architecture, poetry, painting, and the tea ceremony all more or less reflect Zen influence.
According to Zen, its doctrine and essence were transmitted mystically or psychically from disciple to disciple. Actually, the issue of Zen origins and orthodoxy is largely irrelevant for most Zen believers. The experience of Zen is what matters to them. Alan Watts observed, comprehending Zen is like trying to chew one’s teeth off; it simply can’t be done. Zen only makes sense when one enters Zen practice and achieves an altered state of enlightened consciousness.
The Denial of Everything
Zen today fascinates millions of people, even though Zen teaches them to believe in nothing, and that they are only illusions. Zen accepts only one reality. This is termed “Not Two”, “Only Mind”, “Buddha Nature” and so on. Separate things, whether people, places, or objects, are illusions hiding this one true reality. Zenists presume that there is no objective world out there, that it is all in their mind; or, more accurately, since their mind does not exist, everything is an illusionary manifestation of the “Only Mind”. Because Zen involves the denial of everything, and is inherently contradictory, readers can expect to encounter significant confusion in studying Zen. D.T. Suzuki was responsible for bringing Zen to the West in 1906 and was often called “the greatest living authority on Zen”. Concerning Zen he said, “Zen has nothing to teach us in the way of intellectual analysis; nor has it any set doctrines which are imposed on its followers for acceptance…If am asked, then, what Zen teaches, I would answer “Zen teaches nothing” (What is Zen, pp. 13-14). Of course, this is a contradiction; Zen does teach definite doctrines such as people are only illusions.
Zen masters teach that since Zen is supposedly noncommittal religiously, Christians can practice it. The truth of the matter is that Zen is opposed to what Christianity teaches. D.T. Suzuki pointed out, in Zen “the story of Creation, the Fall from the Garden of Eden, God’s sending Christ to compensate for the ancestral sins, His crucifixion and Resurrection—they are all symbolic”(Essays p. 152). Western Zenist Alan Watts, who called the idea of God the Father “ridiculous”, said that Jesus Christ was a false idol. “Poor Jesus! If He had known how great an authority was to be projected upon Him, He would never have said a word” ( The Gospel According to Zen, Beyond the death of God, Sohl and Carr, pp. 16-17,60). In contrast: 1. Jesus and the Apostles did not view the above mentioned events as being “symbolic” (Matthew 19:4-6; 16:20-21; 1 Corinthians 15:12-14; 1 Timothy 2:13-15). 2. Far from shunning a place of authority, Jesus plainly stated that He had been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). He specifically claimed equality with the Father and claimed to be equal in honor (John 5:18-19,23). 3. Far from being ridiculous, it was Jesus who told us to address God as “Father” (Matthew 6:9).
“It is ironic that a system stressing the importance of the mind so radically dismantles the mind by denying its most basic functions, such as rational conceptualization, logic, and common sense. How a dualistic entity itself (the mind), which according to Zen has no ultimate existence, can lead to anything, let alone to spiritual enlightenment, is never explained” (Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, Ankerberg and Weldon, p. 631). In contrast, the Bible says we are created in the image of God(Genesis 1:27), and we are commanded to use our rational powers to understand God’s revelation to us (Ephesians 3:3-4; 5:17; 2 Timothy 2:15; Acts 17:11; Hebrews 5:12-14).
Zen scholars often attempt to deny the charge of nihilism, but Zen is clearly a teaching of meaninglessness and despair. The experiential state of Zen enlightenment may be described in glowing terms, but that hardly makes it meaningful when “you” do not even really exist to perceive or experience. One Zen master argued, “In my talks there is nothing absolutely real”. Alan Watts described entering the Zen path as “to enter a life which is completely aimless”. Soikie-an stated: “Though all day long you are speaking, raising your eyebrows, standing, sitting, walking and lying, nevertheless in reality nothing has happened”. If this is true, then there never has been any crime or any good deeds. We have accomplished absolutely nothing. If nothing has really happened, then Zen would have to deny all human suffering, every crime, every war, the holocaust, and so on. What possible comfort does Zen have to offer to the person who has just lost a loved one or has been the victim of a terrible crime? In contrast, Gods says that life really does matter, and what we do in this life matters (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14; Ephesians 2:10).
On one level, Zen accepts no supreme authority except that of subjective and ineffable experience. Not Buddha or parents or Scriptures, and certainly not the God of Christianity. Every source of authority must be destroyed. Yet, on the other hand, the Zen master is the supreme authority, to whom one must always submit. Jesus certainly had a different view of things (Luke 12:4-5). In Zen we see a trend in many false religions, that is, all lawful authority is denied, and it then replaced by an unlawful authority, that is, the prominent false teacher (2 Peter 2:19 “promising them freedom”).
Most people know about Zen from the koans (nonsense riddles) that are associated with Zen. Supposedly such riddles open the mind to truth. Koans are designed to attack the mind, to dismantle the reason, logic, history, ordinary consciousness, and duality until it finally breaks down and perceives and alternate reality. Looking the world logically, morally, reasonably, or scientifically must be discarded. The most famous koan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping”? Each one of the 1700 or so koans has a “classic” answer, and the poor, unenlightened disciples who reason with them, often while intermittently beaten with a stick, must try to find it. Koans are not solved by reason or intellect. For example here are some koans with the supposed right answer:
Q. What is Buddha? A. The cat is climbing the post.
Q. Where is emptiness? A. It is like a Persian tasting red pepper.
Q. Who is Buddha? A. Three measures of flax.
Q. Does a dog have a Buddha nature? A. Wu (nothing).
In contrast, may I recommend to anyone who desires true enlightenment, to study and ponder the pithy sayings that are given in the book of Proverbs. As I consider the above koans and their answers, I am reminded that at one time in his life, Solomon attempted to find the meaning of life in “madness” and failed. “And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:17). But, even the koans themselves violate the principles of Zen Buddhism. For example, “What is the sound of one hand clapping”, according to Zen, there is no such thing as a hand, sound or a hand clapping!
Alan Watts admits, “It is indeed the basic intuition of Zen that there is an ultimate standpoint from which ‘anything goes’”. He then quotes another Zen master who says, “If you want to get the plain truth, be not concerned with right and wrong.” The writer Dogen said, “To offer a diet of beans and water in an effort to save the old and infirm merely caters to the misguided love and deluded passions of this brief life” (Beiho Masunaga, A Primer of Soto Zen, p. 88). Jesus had a different perspective (Luke 16:19ff; Matthew 25:40; Matthew 15:5-6; 1 Timothy 5:8).
The individual has no value The individual has eternal value
Extinction at death Consciousness after death
No God An all-powerful and loving God
No meaning in life Meaning now and forever
There is no this or that God created everything
No doctrine Sound doctrine
Think about nothing Think on these things (Phil. 4:8)
The master does not help the student Acts 20:35
In Zen no one needs salvation. “If I believe that I must achieve my salvation I cannot avoid believing that I must lead others to do the same. The refutation of this error that we are here studying is perfectly expounded in Zen, and as far as we know, nowhere perfectly but there. Zen tells man that he is free now, that no chain exists which he needs to throw off; he has only the illusion of chains. Man will enjoy his freedom as soon as he ceases to believe that he needs to free himself, as soon as he throws from his shoulders the terrible duty of salvation” (Sohl and Carr, pp. 48-49). Of course, this goes against everything that the Bible teaches. Such a claim ridicules the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world (John 3:16). The above quote explains why many would call such teachings as Zen, nothing more than the glorification of self or self-worship. I cannot help but remember what Paul said about the proponents of man-made religious systems, “Professing to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22).
Mark Dunagan/Beaverton Church of Christ/503-644-9017