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The Way of Zen

Excerpts I found interesting from Alan Watt’s The Way of Zen, grouped by vibes:

Definition Convention Feel Growing Spontaneity Pointing Ego Interference Present Negation Liberation Za-zen Widespread Art


Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western thought.

As will soon be obvious, a way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.

An obvious reason for the lack of materials would be that a principle of this kind, so easily open to misinterpretation, might have been kept as a “secret doctrine,” discussed openly only in later times.

Zen points out that our precious “self” is just an idea, useful and legitimate enough if seen for what it is, but disastrous if identified with our real nature.

According to the famous saying of Ch’ing-yüan: Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

To remain caught up in ideas and words about Zen is, as the old masters say, to “stink of Zen.” For this reason the masters talk about Zen as little as possible, and throw its concrete reality straight at us.

Another master was having tea with two of his students when he suddenly tossed his fan to one of them, saying, “What’s this?” The student opened it and fanned himself. “Not bad,” was his comment. “Now you,” he went on, passing it to the other student, who at once closed the fan and scratched his neck with it. This done, he opened it again, placed a piece of cake on it, and offered it to the master. This was considered even better, for when there are no names the world is no longer “classified in limits and bounds.”


We have difficulty in communicating with each other unless we can identify ourselves in terms of roles–father, teacher, worker, artist, “regular guy,” gentleman, sportsman, and so forth.

According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real “me” than what I am at this moment. For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible, but what I was is.

A philosophy restricted to the alternatives of conventional language has no way of conceiving an intelligence which does not work according to plan, according to a (one-at-atime) order of thought.

To serve their purpose, names and terms must of necessity be “fixed and definite like all other units of measurement. But their use is–up to a point–so satisfactory that man is always in danger of confusing his measures with the world so measured, of identifying money with wealth, fixed convention with fluid reality. But to the degree that he identifies himself and his life with these rigid and hollow frames of definition, he condemns himself to the perpetual frustration of one trying to catch water in a sieve.

Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp.

We are so accustomed to this convention in speaking and thinking that we fail to recognize that it is simply a convention, and that it does not necessarily correspond to the actual experience of knowing. Thus when we say, “A light flashed,” it is somewhat easier to see through the grammatical convention and to realize that the flashing is the light.

The anxiety-laden problem of what will happen to me when I die is, after all, like asking what happens to my fist when I open my hand, or where my lap goes when I stand up.

The diffculty of making equations and comparisons between Eastern and Western ideas is that the two worlds do not start with the same assumptions and premises. They do not have the same basic categorizations of experience. When, therefore, the world has never been divided into mind and matter, but rather into mind and form, the word “mind” cannot mean quite the same thing in both instances. The word “man,” for example, does not have quite the same meaning when contrasted with “woman” as when contrasted with “animal.”


The general tendency of the Western mind is to feel that we do not really understand what we cannot represent, what we cannot communicate, by linear signs–by thinking. We are like the “wallflower” who cannot learn a dance unless someone draws him a diagram of the steps, who cannot “get it by the feel.”

We learn music, for example, by restricting the whole range of tone and rhythm to a notation of fixed tonal and rhythmic intervals-a notation which is incapable of representing Oriental music. But the Oriental musician has a rough notation which he uses only as a reminder of a melody. He learns music, not by reading notes, but by listening to the performance of a teacher, getting the “feel” of it, and copying him, and this enables him to acquire rhythmic and tonal sophistications matched only by those Western jazz artists who use the same approach.

By far the greater part of our important decisions depend upon “hunch”- in other words, upon the “peripheral vision” of the mind. Thus the reliability of our decisions rests ultimately upon our ability to “feel” the situation, upon the degree to which this “peripheral vision” has been developed. Every exponent of the I Ching knows this. He knows that the book itself does not contain an exact science, but rather a useful tool which will work for him if he has a good “intuition,” or if, as he would say, he is “in the Tao.” Thus one does not consult the


Whereas God produces the worldby maklng (wei), the Tao produces it by “not makmg” (wu wei) which is approximately what we mean by “growing.”

If the universe were made, there would of course be someone who knows how it is made-who could explain how it was put together bit by bit as a technician can explain in one-at-a-time words how to assemble a machine.

But the genuine “Zen flavor” is when a man is almost miraculously natural without intending to be so. His Zen life is not to make himself but to grow that way.

In the course of time it may grow, but one does not blame an egg for not being a chicken; still less does one criticize a pig for having a shorter neck than a giraffe.

But he watches as a gardener watches the growth of a tree, and wants his student to have the attitude of the tree–the attitude of purposeless growth in which there are no short cuts because every stage of the way is both beginning and end.

The Rinzai School has always forbidden the publication of formally acceptable answers to the various koan because the whole point of the discipline is to discover them for oneself, by intuition. To know the answers without having so discovered them would be like studying the map without taking the journey.

The Chinese proverb “What comes in through the gate is not family treasure” is understood in Zen to mean that what someone else tells you is not your own knowledge.


We saw that the I Ching had given the Chinese mind some experience in arriving at decisions spontaneously, decisions which are effective to the degree that one knows how to let one’s mind alone, trusting it to work by itself. This is wu-wei, since wu means “not” or “non-” and wei means “action,” “making,” “doing,” “striving,” “straining,” or “busyness.”

“No amount of working with the muscles of the mouth and tongue will enable us to taste our food more acutely. The eyes and the tongue must be trusted to do the work by themselves.”

Become unaffected;

Cherish sincerity;

Belittle the personal;

Reduce desires.

~ Lao Tzu

The idea is not to reduce the human mind to a moronic vacuity, but to bring into play its innate and spontaneous intelligence by using it without forcing it. It is fundamental to both Taoist and Confucian thought that the natural man is to be trusted, and from their standpoint it appears that the Western mistrust of human nature–whether theological or technological–is a kind of schizophrenia.

When a man has learned to let his mind alone so that it functions in the integrated and spontaneous way that is natural to it, he begins to show the special kind of “virtue” or “power” called te. This is not virtue in the current sense of moral rectitude but in the older sense of effectiveness, as when one speaks of the healing virtues of a plant[…] Te is the unthinkable ingenuity and creative power of man’s spontaneous and natural functioning–a power which is blocked when one tries to master it in terms of formal methods and techniques.

Nirvana can only arise unintentionally, spontaneously, when the impossibility of selfgrasping has been thoroughly perceived.

The doctrine of the Dharmadhatu is, approximately, that the proper harmony of the universe is realized when each “thing-event” is allowed to be freely and spontaneously itself, without interference. Stated more subjectively, it is saying, “Let everything be free to be just as it is. Do not separate yourself from the world and try to order it around.”

“Six Precepts” of Tilopa: No thought, no reflection, no analysis, No cultivation, no intention; Let it settle itself.

–that truly to know is not to know, that the awakened mind responds immediately, without calculation, and that there is no incompatibility between Buddhahood and the everyday life of the world.

He was the first to answer questions about Buddhism by hitting the questioner.

We feel that our actions are voluntary when they follow a decision, and involuntary when they happen without decision. But if decision itself were voluntary, every decision would have to be preceded by a decision to decide–an infinite regression which fortunately does not occur. Oddly enough, if we had to decide to decide, we would not be free to decide. We are free to decide because decision “happens.” We just decide without having the faintest understanding of how we do it. In fact, it is neither voluntary nor involuntary.

The master may begin a conversation with the student by asking a series of very ordinary questions about trivial matters, to which the student responds with perfect spontaneity. But suddenly he will say, “When the bath-water flows down the drain, does it turn clockwise or counter-clockwise?” As the student stops at the unexpectedness of the question, and perhaps tries to remember which way it goes, the master shouts, “Don’t think! Act! This way–” and whirls his hand in the air. Or, perhaps less helpfully, he may say, “So far you’ve answered my questions quite naturally and easily, but where’s your difficulty now?”

The point of mo chih ch’u is not to eliminate reflective thought but to eliminate “blocking” in both action and thought, so that the response of the mind is always like a ball in a mountain stream-“one thought after another without hesitation.”

Yet this is why the Western mind is dismayed when ordered conceptions of the universe break down, and when the basic behavior of the physical world is found to be a “principle of uncertainty.”

The same is true in learning to use the brush for writing or painting. The brush must draw by itself. This cannot happen if one does not practice constantly. But neither can it happen if one makes an effort. Similarly, in swordsmanship one must not first decide upon a certain thrust and then attempt to make it, since by that time it will be too late. Decision and action must be simultaneous.

To use the imagery of a Tibetan poem, every action, every event comes of itself from the Void “as from the surface of a clear lake there leaps suddenly a fish.”


Thus from the standpoint of Zen the Buddha “never said a word,” despite the volumes of scriptures attributed to him. For his real message remained always unspoken, and was such that, when words attempted to express it, they made it seem as if it were nothing at all.

Yet it is the essential tradition of Zen that what cannot be conveyed by speech can nevertheless be passed on by “direct pointing,” by some nonverbal means of communication without which the Buddhist experience could never have been handed down to future generations.

In its own (probably rather late) tradition, Zen maintains that the Buddha transmitted awakening to his chief disciple, Mahakasyapa, by holding up a flower and remaining silent.

The basic position of Zen is that it has nothing to say, nothing to teach. The truth of Buddhism is so self-evident, so obvious that it is, if anything, concealed by explaining it. Therefore the master does not “help” the student in any way, since helping would actually be hindering. On the contrary, he goes out of his way to put obstacles and barriers in the student’s path.


It is fundamental to every school of Buddhism that there is no ego, no enduring entity which is the constant subject of our changing experiences.

We can, for example, imagine the path of a bird through the sky as a distinct line which it has taken. But this line is as abstract as a line of latitude. In concrete reality, the bird left no line, and, similarly, the past from which our ego is abstracted has entirely disappeared. Thus any attempt to cling to the ego or to make it an effective source of action is doomed to frustration

Here, too, lies the basis of the Buddhism of faith, of the Sukhavati or Pure Land school, in which it is held that all efforts to become a Buddha are merely the false pride of the ego.

There is often a deceptive resemblance between opposite extremes. Lunatics frequently resemble saints, and the unaffected modesty of the sage often lets him seem to be a very ordinary person.

This is why the sage Fa-yung received no more offerings of flowers from the birds after he had had his interview with the Fourth Patriarch, for his holiness no longer “stood out like a sore thumb.”

No one notices him because he does not notice himself.

So often one thinks of the saint as a man whose sincerity provokes the enmity of the world, but Ryokan holds the distinction of being the saint whom everyone loved–perhaps because he was natural, again as a child, rather than good.


This, however, cannot quite be compressed into the sweeping assertion that “life is suffering.” The point is rather that life as we usually live it is suffering-or, more exactly, is bedeviled by the peculiar frustration which comes from attempting the impossible.

Man is involved in karma when he interferes with the world in such a way that he is compelled to go on interfering, when the solution of a problem creates still more problems to be solved, when the control of one thing creates the need to control several others. Karma is thus the fate of everyone who “tries to be God.” He lays a trap for the world in which he himself gets caught.

This nonduality of the mind, in which it is no longer divided against itself, is samadhi, and because of the disappearance of that fruitless threshing around of the mind to grasp itself, samadhi is a state of profound peace.

However, not exterminating the passions does not mean letting them flourish untamed. It means letting go of them rather than fighting them, neither repressing passion nor indulging it. For the Taoist is never violent, since he achieves his ends by noninterference (wu-wei), which is a kind of psychological judo.

To concentrate on the mind and to contemplate it until it is still is a disease and not dhyana.

On the principle that “the true mind is no-mind,” and that “our true nature is no (special) nature,” it is likewise stressed that the true practice of Zen is no practice, that is, the seeming paradox of being a Buddha without intending to be a Buddha.

There is no place in Buddhism for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special.

Whereas the koan advocates used this technique as a means for encouraging that overwhelming “feeling of doubt” which they felt to be essential as a prerequisite for satori, the Soto School argued that it lent itself too easily to that very seeking for satori which thrusts it away, or–what is worse–induces an artificial satori.

The temptation is all the stronger because it upsets the fondest illusion of the human mind, which is that in the course of time everything may be made better and better. For it is the general opinion that were this not possible the life of man would lack all meaning and incentive. The only alternative to a life of constant progress is felt to be a mere existence, static and dead, so joyless and inane that one might as well commit suicide. The very notion of this “only alternative” shows how firmly the mind is bound in a dualistic pattern, how hard it is to think in any other terms than good or bad, or a muddy mixture of the two.

To succeed is always to fail–in the sense that the more one succeeds in anything, the greater is the need to go on succeeding. To eat is to survive to be hungry.

Consequently the whole notion of getting something “out” of life, of seeking something “from” experience, becomes absurd.

In short, Zen begins at the point where there is nothing further to seek, nothing to be gained. Zen is most emphatically not to be regarded as a system of self-improvement, or a way of becoming a Buddha

Furthermore, the effort to remain always “good” or “happy” is like trying to hold the thermostat to a constant 70 degrees by making the lower limit the same as the upper.

To the Taoist mentality, the aimless, empty life does not suggest anything depressing. On the contrary, it suggests the freedom of clouds and mountain streams, wandering nowhere, of flowers in impenetrable canyons, beautiful for no one to see, and of the ocean surf forever washing the sand, to no end.

Yet the superficiality of this consciousness is seen in the fact that it cannot and does not regulate even the human organism. For if it had to control the heartbeat, the breath, the operation of the nerves, glands, muscles, and sense organs, it would be rushing wildly around the body taking care of one thing after another, with no time to do anything else. Happily, it is not in charge, and the organism is regulated by the timeless “original mind,” which deals with life in its totality and so can do ever so many “things” at once.

Clear sight has nothing to do with trying to see; it is just the realization that the eyes will take in every detail all by themselves, for so long as they are open one can hardly prevent the light from reaching them. In the same way, there is no di8culty in being fully aware of the eternal present as soon as it is seen that one cannot possibly be aware of anything else–that in concrete fact there is no past or future.


On the one hand, it is one-pointed in the sense of being focused on the present, since to clear awareness there is neither past nor future, but just this one moment.

In the same way Dogen pointed out that firewood does not become ashes and life does not become death, just as the winter does not become the spring. Every moment of time is “self-contained and quiescent.

To Po-chang is attributed the famous definition of Zen, “When hungry, eat; when tired, sleep.” For when asked about seeking for the Buddha nature he answered, “It’s much like riding an ox in search of the ox.”

Dogen is here trying to express the strange sense of timeless moments which arises when one is no longer trying to resist the flow of events, the peculiar stillness and self-sufficiency of the succeeding instants when the mind is, as it were, going along with them and not trying to arrest them.

A Zen poem says: The morning glory which blooms for an hour Differs not at heart from the giant pine, Which lives for a thousand years.

On the contrary, the measuring of worth and success in terms of time, and the insistent demand for assurances of a promising future, make it impossible to live freely both in the present and in the “promising” future when it arrives. For there is never anything but the present, and if one cannot live there, one cannot live anywhere.

This is not a philosophy of not looking where one is going; it is a philosophy of not making where one is going so much more important than where one is that there will be no point in going.

The story is told of a Zen monk who wept upon hearing of the death of a close relative. When one of his fellow students objected that it was most unseemly for a monk to show such personal attachment he replied, “Don’t be stupid! I’m weeping because I want to weep.”

The silence which prevails is deepened rather than broken by occasional sounds that float up from a near-by village, by the intermittent ringing of soft-toned bells from other parts of the monastery, and by the chatter of birds in the trees.

Zen masters are quite human. They get sick and die; they know joy and sorrow; they have bad tempers or other little “weaknesses” of character just like anyone else, and they are not above falling in love and entering into a fully human relationship with the opposite sex. The perfection of Zen is to be perfectly and simply human. The difference of the adept in Zen from the ordinary run of men is that the latter are, in one way or another, at odds with their own humanity, and are attempting to be angels or demons.

It hurries on and on, and misses everything. Not hurrying, the purposeless life misses nothing, for it is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to receive the world.

Aware is not quite grief, and not quite nostalgia in the usual sense of longing for the return of a beloved past. Aware is the echo of what has passed and of what was loved, giving them a resonance such as a great cathedral gives to a choir, so that they would be the poorer without it.

Zen has no goal; it is a traveling without point, with nowhere to go. To travel is to be alive, but to get somewhere is to be dead, for as our own proverb says, “To travel well is better than to arrive.

A world which increasingly consists of destinations without journeys between them, a world which values only “getting somewhere” as fast as possible, becomes a world without substance. One can get anywhere and everywhere, and yet the more this is possible, the less is anywhere and everywhere worth getting to.

For if we open our eyes and see clearly, it becomes obvious that there is no other time than this instant, and that the past and the future are abstractions without any concrete reality. Until this has become clear, it seems that our life is all past and future, and that the present is nothing more than the in-nitesimal hairline which divides them. From this comes the sensation of “having no time,” of a world which hurries by so rapidly that it is gone before we can enjoy it. But through “awakening to the instant” one sees that this is the reverse of the truth: it is rather the past and future which are the ,eeting illusions, and the present which is eternally real.

Both Takuan and Bankei stressed the fact that the “original” or “unborn” mind is constantly working miracles even in the most ordinary person. Even though a tree has innumerable leaves, the mind takes them in all at once without being “stopped” by any one of them.

He had surpassed all the other disciples and Bodhisattvas by answering a question as to the nature of the nondual reality with a “thunderous silence”–an example frequently followed by Zen masters.


Even at the conventional level it is surely easy to see that knowing what is not so is often quite as important as knowing what is […] Furthermore, the function of negative knowledge is not unlike the uses of space–the empty page upon which words can be written, the empty jar into which liquid can be poured, the empty window through which light can be admitted, and the empty pipe through which water can flow.

Indeed, when Hindu and Buddhist texts speak of the “empty” or “illusory” character of the visible world of nature–as distinct from the conventional world of things–they refer precisely to the impermanence of its forms.

Thus the greater part of Nagarjuna’s work was a carefully logical and systematic refutation of every philosophical position to be found in the India of his time.

It must therefore be repeated that the negations apply, not to reality itself, but to our ideas of reality.

Awakening is to know what reality is not. It is to cease identifying oneself with any object of knowledge whatsoever.


But Taoism must on no account be understood as a revolution against convention, although it has sometimes been used as a pretext for revolution. Taoism is a way of liberation, which never comes by means of revolution, since it is notorious that most revolutions establish worse tyrannies than they destroy.

The Fourth Patriarch, following Seng-ts’an, is believed to have been Tao-hsin. When he came to Seng-ts’an he asked, “What is the method of liberation?” “Who binds you?” replied Seng-ts’an. “No one binds me.” “Why then,” asked Seng-ts’an, “should you seek liberation?”

True dhyana is to realize that one’s own nature is like space, and that thoughts and sensations come and go in this “original mind” like birds through the sky, leaving no trace. Awakening, in his school, is “sudden” because it is for quickwitted rather than slow-witted people. The latter must of necessity understand gradually, or more exactly, after a long time, since the Sixth Patriarch’s doctrine does not admit of stages or growth. To be awakened at all is to be awakened completely, for, having no parts or divisions, the Buddha nature is not realized bit by bit.


The following story is told of Huai-jang, initiating into Zen his great successor Ma-tsu, who was at the time practicing sitting meditation at the monastery of Ch’uan-fa. “Your reverence,” asked Huai-jang, “what is the objective of sitting in meditation?” “The objective,” answered Ma-tsu, “is to become a Buddha.” Thereupon Huai-jang picked up a floor-tile and began to polish it on a rock. “What are you doing, master?” asked Ma-tsu. “I am polishing it for a mirror,” said Huai-jang. “How could polishing a tile make a mirror?” “How could sitting in meditation make a Buddha?”

it could be assumed that the type of za-zen under criticism is za-zen practiced for a purpose, to “get” Buddhahood, instead of “sitting just to sit.” There is, of course, a proper place for sitting–along with standing, walking, and lying–but to imagine that sitting contains some special virtue is “attachment to form.”

Yet however much za-zen may have been exaggerated in the Far East, a certain amount of “sitting just to sit” might well be the best thing in the world for the jittery minds and agitated bodies of Europeans and Americans–provided they do not use it as a method for turning themselves into Buddhas

Although the West has its own contemplative tradition in the Catholic Church, the life of “sitting and looking” has lost its appeal, for no religion is valued which does not “improve the world,” and it is hard to see how the world can be improved by keeping still. Yet it should be obvious that action without wisdom, without clear awareness of the world as it really is, can never improve anything. Furthermore, as muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone, it could be argued that those who sit quietly and do nothing are making one of the best possible contributions to a world in turmoil. There is, indeed, nothing unnatural in long periods of quiet sitting. Cats do it; even dogs and other more nervous animals do it. So-called primitive peoples do it–American Indians, and peasants of almost all nations. The art is most diffcult for those who have developed the sensitive intellect to such a point that they cannot help making predictions about the future, and so must be kept in a constant whirl of activity to forestall them. But it would seem that to be incapable of sitting and watching with the mind completely at rest is to be incapable of experiencing the world in which we live to the full

But just as there is no need to try to be in accord with the Tao, to try to see, or to try to hear, so it must be remembered that the breath will always take care of itself. This is not a breathing “exercise” so much as a “watching and letting” of the breath, and it is always a serious mistake to undertake it in the spirit of a compulsive discipline to be “practiced” with a goal in mind.

every human activity can become a form of za-zen

The late Dr. Kunihiko Hashida, a lifelong student of Zen and editor of the works of Dogen, never used formal za-zen. But his “Zen practice” was precisely his study of physics, and to suggest his attitude he used to say that his lifework was “to science” rather than “to study science.”


Confucianism, in other words, preoccupies itself with conventional knowledge, and under its auspices children are brought up so that their originally wayward and whimsical natures are made to fit the Procrustean bed of the social order. The individual defines himself and his place in society in terms of the Confucian formulae. Taoism, on the other hand, is generally a pursuit of older men, and especially of men who are retiring from active life in the community. Their retirement from society is a kind of outward symbol of an inward liberation from the bounds of conventional patterns of thought and conduct. For Taoism concerns itself with unconventional knowledge. with the understanding of life directly. …Confucianism presides, then, over the socially necessary task of forcing the original spontaneity of life into the rigid rules of convention-a task which involves not only conflict and pain, but also the loss of that peculiar naturalness and un-self-consciousness for which little children are so much loved, and which is sometimes regained by saints and sages. The function of Taoism is to undo the inevitable damage of this discipline, and not only to restore but also to develop the original spontaneity, which is termed tzu-jan or “self-so-ness.”

Popularity almost invariably leads to a deterioration of quality, and as Zen became less of an informal spiritual movement and more of a settled institution, it underwent a curious change of character. It became necessary to “standardize” its methods and to find means for the masters to handle students in large numbers…For the Zen community became less an association of mature men with spiritual interests, and more of an ecclesiastical boarding school for adolescent boys. Under such circumstances the problem of discipline became paramount. The Zen masters were forced to concern themselves not only with the way of liberation from convention, but also with the instilling of convention, of ordinary manners and morals, in raw youths. The mature Western student who discovers an interest in Zen as a philosophy or as a way of liberation must be careful to keep this in mind, for otherwise he may be unpleasantly startled by monastic Zen as it exists today in Japan. He will find that Zen is a discipline enforced with the big stick. He will find that, although it is still an effective way of liberation at its “upper end,” its main preoccupation is with a disciplinary regimen which “trains character” in the same way as the old-fashioned British public school or the Jesuit novitiate.

For one of the main objects of this work was to establish a proper “apostolic succession” for the Zen tradition, so that no one could claim authority unless his satori had been approved by someone who had been approved … right back to the time of the Buddha himself

Nothing, however, is more difficult than establishing proper qualifications in the imponderable realm of spiritual insight. Where the candidates are few the problem is not so grave, but where one master is responsible for some hundreds of students the process of teaching and testing requires standardization. Zen solved this problem with remarkable ingenuity, employing a means which not only provided a test of competence but–what was much more–a means of transmitting the Zen experience itself with a minimum of falsification. This extraordinary invention was the system of the kung-an ee (Japanese, koan) or “Zen problem.” Literally, this term means a “public document” or “case” in the sense of a decision creating a legal precedent. Thus the koan system involves “passing” a series of tests based on the mondo or anecdotes of the old masters.


Even in painting, the work of art is considered not only as representing nature but as being itself a work of nature

When you paint it is the brush, ink, and paper which determine the result as much as your own hand.

Since writing and poetry were among the chief preoccupations of Chinese scholars, and since the Chinese way of painting is closely akin to writing, the roles of scholar, artist, and poet were not widely separated

Since the touch of the brush is so light and fluid, and since it must move continuously over the absorbent paper if the ink is to flow out regularly, its control requires a free movement of the hand and arm as if one were dancing rather than writing on paper. In short, it is a perfect instrument for the expression of unhesitating spontaneity, and a single stroke is enough to “give away” one’s character to an experienced observer.

One of the most striking features of the Sung landscape, as of sumi-e as a whole, is the relative emptiness of the picture–an emptiness which appears, however, to be part of the painting and not just unpainted background. By filling in just one corner, the artist makes the whole area of the picture alive. Ma-yüan, in particular, was a master of this technique, which amounts almost to “painting by not painting,” or what Zen sometimes calls “playing the string-less lute.” The secret lies in knowing how to balance form with emptiness and, above all, in knowing when one has “said” enough. For Zen spoils neither the aesthetic shock nor the satori shock by filling in, by explanation, second thoughts, and intellectual commentary.

The Western eye is immediately struck by the absence of symmetry in these paintings, by the consistent avoidance of regular and geometrical shapes, whether straight or curved. For the characteristic brush line is jagged, gnarled, irregularly twisting, dashing, or sweeping–always spontaneous rather than predictable. Even when the Zen monk or artist draws a solitary circle-one of the most common themes of zenga–it is not only slightly eccentric and out of shape, but the very texture of the line is full of life and verve with the incidental splashes and gaps of the “rough brush.”

But the non-Japanese listener must remember that a good haiku is a pebble thrown into the pool of the listener’s mind, evoking associations out of the richness of his own memory. It invites the listener to participate instead of leaving him dumb with admiration while the poet shows off

Even when robbed he is still rich, for: The thief Left it behind The moon at the window.

They were always sparing and reserved in their use of color, as were the Sung painters before them, since masses of flowers in sharply varying colors are seldom found in the state of nature.

Herrigel spent almost five years trying to find the right way of releasing the bowstring, for it had to be done “unintentionally,” in the same way as a ripe fruit bursts its skin… After all those years of practice there came a day when it just happened–how, or why, Herrigel never understood.

The artificial haiku always feels like a piece of life which has been deliberately broken off or wrenched away from the universe, whereas the genuine haiku has dropped off all by itself, and has the whole universe inside it.

The point, therefore, of these arts is the doing of them rather than the accomplishments. But, more than this, the real joy of them lies in what turns up unintentionally in the course of practice, just as the joy of travel is not nearly so much in getting where one wants to go as in the unsought surprises which occur on the journey.