Zen Confusion and Martial Arts

D.T. Suzuki, who introduced Zen to the west, blamed the devotion of Zen priests to militant Japanese imperialism in the years leading up to World War II, on the fact that the priests were uneducated.

Zen priests, he said “…have no knowledge or learning and therefore are unable to think… independently…” (Cited by Brian Victoria, in Zen at War.)

Many modern Zen practitioners, who lack an understanding of the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy and practice, have minds permeated with ordinary disturbance and confusion. The faulty habits of mind which have caused them trouble, which they are trying to remedy by sitting still, may be reinforced by their meditation, rather than eradicated.

This may be why so many disgraced former Zen masters became grandiose instead of enlightened: turning to pleasure- and status-seeking, accumulating money and property, engaging in sexual activities with followers, beguiling devotees with confusing words, suppressing rivals, and enjoying the perks available to alpha dogs everywhere. And suffering the same consequences.

Their followers’ sincere aspirations arose in normal minds full of self-centered, worldly interests. These often deepened as they meditated. They declined to study texts, denied the value of reason, language, even of the profound moral commitment that is the foundation of the tradition they claimed to follow. Instead they “just sit” – firm in the belief that they understand this phrase, and that their posture will work its magic.

This magical belief in salvation through good form and persistent training, has made its way into martial arts. This claim can be examined.

There is a famous old story about a Diamond Sutra master which shows that the steps on the path require rational understanding as a means to access deeper understanding. You can’t skip steps and expect to progress. Modern practitioners know this story but reject or misunderstand its message.

The Diamond Cutter Sutra referenced in this story was a mainstay of the Chinese Zen tradition. It appeared in China in about 400 CE, was the first printed book, was venerated and widely circulated, as a great, endlessly nourishing, font of wisdom. It is an instruction book on how to become free of suffering and filled with joy forever.

The story below first appeared in Chinese Zen or Chan tradition about 1000 CE.

The story has it that a monk, a master of the Diamond Cutter Sutra, had been traveling on foot for many days. This day was hot. The road was dusty. 

The monk was carrying a great burden on his back: a trunk packed with scrolls and books, important books and their commentaries, all well-studied.  It was most of his library, as much as he could carry, and he was straining under its weight.

He was traveling a long way, heading to a great debate. There he would challenge the masters of these sutras. He would be challenged by any and all, everyone there to test the depth of their knowledge, and if he prevailed, be elevated to the ranks of the greatest scholars of the age. He had prepared his entire life for this. He knew everything he needed to know.

But now, on the road, he was hot. And very tired.

Soon, to his delight, he saw a little tea shop tucked into a bend in the road. He entered the shady courtyard and set his burden down. A little granny came out to greet him with a smile and cool drink. She saw he wore the shoes and cloak of a scholar.

He took the cup of water and drank it down. Then he ordered a cup of tea. “I need to refresh my mind,” he told her.

She smiled and nodded and began to go to get the tea, when she stopped abruptly and turned toward him.

Sir, I see you are a scholar?

Yes, I am he said.

What do you study?

The Diamond Sutra – the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, he said.

Ah, I see, said the old woman… Before I get your tea, can I ask you a question?

Of course, grandmother.

The Diamond Sutra says that the mind of the past is gone.

Yes, that’s right, said the scholar.

And the Diamond Sutra says that the mind of the future does not yet exist.

Yes, that’s right, he said.

And the sutra says that the present mind is ungraspable, is that right?

Yes, you really know the sutra well, he smiled kindly toward the simple, old woman.

Then sir, which mind is it that you would like to refresh?

With this he was completely stunned. He was speechless. He could not answer her.

He was shocked. Then relieved. Then the whole world became quite clear to him. And a freedom he had never experienced before permeated his heart and shattered the prison of his mind and all the world around him became brilliant and permeated with clear light, completely, like the oil in a sesame seed.

The plain, serene face of the tea lady vanished, as she went to get his tea.

It may be that this story means nothing to you. It evokes no feeling, no special insight, no significance. It may be that it breaks your heart and fills you with unexpected exhilaration, leaving a residue of joy. The effect does not depend on the qualities of the story on its own, but on the prepared condition of your mind.

The story goes on to say that the scholar burned his books and turned to meditation. Or that he abandoned scholarship and found direct experience. It is not surprising that the story was heard and interpreted by many people, some of whom were out of their depth, and some of whom grasped it with the mind for which it was intended.

We can be sure that if a beginner burns their books, they will not get the same result as someone who has mastered their content, sets them aside, and puts their knowledge to work.

The tea lady in this story performs the function of the Zen Master – that is someone of great experience and insight who can say just the right word at just the right time for the person he or she is teaching to produce a sudden insight that shatters the limitation, rigidity or ignorance of the student and opens them to deep and direct experience of truth or reality or of the nature of their own mind. In the original Diamond Cutter sutra these roles are played by the Buddha and a monk, his disciple, named Subhuti.

The premise is not that a generic waitress knows more than a generic scholar. That is not the message of the story. This tea lady has studied the sutra very well. Not only does she know what it says, she has worked that material hard and thoroughly, and lived it long enough to understand, deeply, what it means. She understands this so thoroughly that she can deploy this understanding deftly and accurately, like an acupuncture needle, to pierce the ignorance of the student – or in this case of the scholar who was in need of her teaching – and free the blocked energy that had built up over time in his heart and mind.

The tea lady makes no pretense of knowledge or show of status or of special purpose.  She acts as necessary. Gets tea. Catalyzes enlightenment. Whatever is needed. That’s it.

The premise is not that the scholar is stupid or foolish. He is brilliant, has a powerful mind that has been laser-focused on mastering this difficult material that has lit the way for generations of scholars and practitioners. He is filled to capacity with this work and it has fully occupied his rational mind, guided his heart, structured his path, and informed his worldview.

His maximum commitment to the mastery and the use of this material is what makes him susceptible to the dramatic revelation produced by the shift in perspective provided by the tea lady. This is his black swan: it is not an accident, or a pivot, or a shock, or something introduced from outside. It is the result of a life of preparation, habituation, cultivation and effort – the butterfly effect on his soul that was nearly – but not quite – impossible to foresee.

If you are untrained and you “just sit” you will cultivate the mind of kitty cat. You will be dependent on your Zen master for approval and you will be passive or petulant, yearning or cranky from fruitless self-attention.

If you consider Dogen’s “To study the way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by everything…” and lack understanding of the Buddhist technical term “self” and substitute for it the conventional, ignorant definition of self, then you will only deepen your confusion.

Dogen’s quote is meaningless jargon – unless you have studied and understood the technical terms and processes. Then it is plain. A concise expression of an obvious truth. It goes without saying.

If you are trained, if you cultivate profound and stable samadhi, and direct it to worthy matters, you will travel the paths of life swiftly, honestly and valiantly.

This applies to everything – not just Zen, not just religion – everything worth doing works this way.

Photo of Okinawan woman copyright David McLean – by permission

Photo of karate practitioner Cassandra Nelson copyright © 2019 Jeff Brooks and Mountain Karate LLC

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