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(13 pages total)

Page 11 - From India to China: Transformations in Buddhist Philosophy


In response to the question, is Zen Buddhism a philosophy, Linssen implies that it may not be a philosophy in itself, but it is certainly something we can philosophize about. "Buddhism in general and Zen in particular are essentially 'nonmental,'" Linssen writes. "...we would define Buddhism as a dialectic pragmatism of a psychological and nonmental nature."17 Linssen considers the "superior" forms of Buddhism in general and Zen in particular as "maieutic18, rather like that of Socrates....(Socrates) and the Zen masters tend to exhaust the possibilities of thought by obliging it to demonstrate to itself by its own means, its powerlessness to discover the Real. When thought realizes its impotence to 'give birth' to the essence of things, it is silent; and in this very silence the 'giving birth' is realized." Based on Linssen's comments, it is apparent that he does believe that Zen is a philosophy; however, it is one which relies on forms of knowing outside of the normal range of semantics and language. While this is a very intriguing concept (i.e., philosophy without words; in fact, without symbols, since one could argue that much of the music of Beethoven and Liszt is philosophical, using musical symbols instead of words), it is also just about impossible to verify according to standard measures of intellectual attainment. But perhaps it is just this notion of the "standard" which prevents us from seeing or personally experiencing higher levels of truth. Supposedly, Zen masters, trained and confirmed in this method and its realization, can identify and legitimize the experiences of their students. Nonetheless, one wonders if the force of centuries-old tradition is not in itself a kind of vice shutting off access to unbiased acquisition of knowledge; or whether the tradition itself--maieutic and critical though it may be--is not just another set of limiting and hackneyed symbols, like words and conventional philosophical concepts.

Contrary to Nakamura's contention that the Chinese mind is prone to rituals and rites, Zen in China challenged the ritual trappings which impeded intellectual and spiritual progress. Ritual, at the popular level, persisted in all religious practices--Zen-like practices included; it was Zen's emphasis on a monastic, more contemplative existence which inspired intellectual consideration of the role of ritual in the pursuit of truth. As Zen developed in China until the 11th century C.E., masters increasingly criticized reliance on rituals for a number of reasons: one begins to depend on the practice of rites for the comfort of a psuedo-religious atmosphere; rites encourage personal laziness and discourage individual search for answers; one becomes attached to temples or other sites and to certain modes of behavior, none of which inspire bold individual initiatives; rituals can lull us to sleep philosophically and spiritually, acting as a kind of Novocaine(R) of the mind and soul.19

Opposed to rigid religious formalism, the Chinese love of nature became an important element in Buddhism, especially in Zen. In Indian philosophies, nature is part of Prakriti, the gross, material filter through which Transcendent Reality may be expressed. The Indian goal--whether intellectual or spiritual--is to transcend nature, which is often portrayed as a deluder of the senses, in order to attain a higher order of consciousness. In contrast, the practical Chinese mind delights in a nature which is the source of all good things. For this reason, when Buddhism became part of the Chinese mindscape, love of nature and what is "natural" became a significant part of its philosophy. Rather than a lower state fraught with traps and temptations, the natural world was seen as an absolute existence. Nirvana which in India was perceived as a state akin to samadhi, of ultimate transcendence, became in China a state of heightened, all-absorbing awareness of a reality which included nature and the ordinary. Members of the T'ien-t'ai sect taught that all existences--even grass, trees, and earth can attain Buddhahood. In Zen, in answer to the question (or koan) "What is absolute existence?" the answers could be, "It is the cypress tree in the garden" or "Three pounds of hemp."20 Zen writers from antiquity to the present day reiterate that there is no difference between Zen mind and natural mind or between any mind and the phenomenal universe--it is only a matter of the degree of awareness. Because they were forced to express this unique philosophy in nonlogical terms and because of the limitations of the Chinese language, Zen adepts became masters of innuendo and the arts such as calligraphy, ink painting, archery, flower arrangement, and impressionistic poetry.


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