Julie’s Thoughts on Zen
Zen Buddhism especially emphasizes the importance of quality time, the inner workings
of our own being. B/c all comes from within, Zen emphasizes that we must reject and avoid
anything that hinders the mind from coming into direct communication with itself – which may
sometimes include reason itself. Though the Greeks valued reason above almost all else, all
would admit that there is a difference in good and bad reasoning, and b/c rhetoric can deceive,
words can as easily lead to evil as to good…especially if we do not learn how to distinguish
fallacy from truth.
To begin with, good minds do think alike. This is why those who pride themselves on
being liberal thinkers argue that it’s not necessary to teach people what to think – only to teach
them to think! Reason rules truth; reasonable people will come to reasonable conclusions.
Teaching them to be reasonable is the challenge, especially since they have been raised on
fallacies, as we all have in this culture (e.g. advertising, political rhetoric, interpersonal BS, etc.),
just as we all have in this culture. And the consequent is that, given two competing arguments,
one well constructed and one a flat out lie, few of us can discern the truth from the BS.
In my line of work, this seems the real sin/error of our education system: that our children
make it all the way to college not even knowing what a fallacy is, and thus having absolutely no
skills in distinguishing good reasoning from bad. How can we expect them to be able to think at
This shortcoming is especially dangerous in a democratic world, and appetite competes
so formidably with reason, and freedom and license are too often conflated. In such an
environment, our better sense of our higher self-interest is too easily confused with our
immediate and material self interest. The difference in what we want and what is fair for us to
have is a critical discovery for a young people (especially important for many young Americans).
It is a condition that dialectic reasoning can help rectify. This is what philosophy ought to be
good for, but the way we teach Philosophy these days, it seldom is.
At any rate, this is part of the reason why “anything that has the semblance of an external
authority is rejected by Zen.”(Suzuki, p.44) Eastern philosophy recommends we think of
religion, for instance, the way we would take medicine; it if cures what ails us, all the better, but
if not, stop swallowing it. Because words can too easily deceive, and thus become the very thing
that makes us sick. Anything that creates the appearance of authority can play on our wants,
insecurities, and selfish interests, and so control us by controlling the goods that we are
conditioned to desire. In this, religion, politics, economics, and even education can amount to
little more than sheep’s clothing for wolves. This is why Zen recommends that we consider all
the sutras and sastras, all rituals and scriptures, to be “mere waste paper whose utility consists in
wiping off the dirt of the intellect and nothing more.”(Suzuki, p. 38)
As Socrates says, “Everybody wants what’s good for them, but not everybody knows what
that is.” Figuring out what is truly good for us, rather than what is merely desirable, ought to be
the end goal of education. As Aristotle would say, maturity off the mind comes when we
understand that not all pleasures are good pleasures. The point is not that we should not still seek
pleasure at all, but rather that we should seek pleasure intelligently, as the Hindus say, and thus
come to understand what is worth trading for what.
Eastern philosophy thus sees the project of education to be reducing everything that gets
in the way of vision, joy, knowledge, and being…or as Smith put is, “to clean our own
chimney,”(Smith, p.22) so that we might have free and unobstructed understanding of, well, the
meaning of life. To the western mind, this seems perhaps so hopelessly idealistic as to be
considered ridiculous. But there is no denying that human beings can be more of less awake,
more or less sensitive to the full experience of life.
If the end of education was enlightenment in this sense, it would help the young
understand the true value of what is inside them. Which would, in turn, help them see that the
goals we typically pursue are in fact too trivial for enduring interest, compared to the higher
goods that are available to us all, karmically.
Last night in my Eastern philosophy class, the childlike wonder and capacity for delight
inside these students, indeed, all of us, was actually tangible as we talked about how much we
would all give to be able to feel again that happiness we felt in play as children. That warm rush
of play and cool tingle of healthy sweat in which we can take such thorough delight as
children…. If there were a drug that would help us fully appreciate, say, the warmth of the sun,
the cool of the breeze, the scent of a garden, the sound of birds, and the precious life sustaining
energy of breadth – you can bet it would be a best seller (especially considering how anxious we
are these days to medicate every state of mind that is at all out off the norm).
What most of us wouldn’t give to find the following in this life:
“Zen reveals itself in the most uninteresting and uneventful life…it opens a man’s eye to the
greatest mystery as it is daily and hourly performed; it enlarges the heart to embrace
eternity…it makes us live as if walking in the garden of Eden…see the truth that lies in our
inner being.”(Suzuki, p.45) “It is like coming across a light in thick darkness; it is like
receiving treasure in poverty. You gain an illuminating insight into the very nature of
things…you gain peace, ease, non-doing, and inexpressible delight. All the sutras and sastras
are no more than communications of this fact; all the sages, ancient as well as modern, have
exhausted their ingenuity and imagination to no other purpose than to point the way to
this.”(Suzuki, p. 47)
There is no doubt that we desire such pure experience, such complete happiness – we just
don’t know how to get it, or more to the point, are distracted from pursuit of it, largely b/c our
education system that cares more about generating a material economy than a spiritual one.
Granted, this is a real concern. We do need to survive and support our families, and so need a
form of education that will help us find work that the world will pay us to continue doing.
Communities and countries do need to produce things that others need sufficiently that they will
pay for them. But little do we yet realize the superior economic value of a way of life based on
human creativity and quality goods, rather than industrial production and quantity consumption
(not the least of which to the environment!)
The important question, Smith argues, is not, ‘How much have I got?’ but, ‘What am I
worth?’ The ancients would have us learn by first hand experience that self-respect is more
important than the esteem of others. And that what truly matters is “the realms of gold…hidden
in the depth of our being.”(Smith, p.25)
As Hugo says:
“If thou wishest to search out the deep things of God, search out the depths of thine own
spirit”… ‘The way to ascend onto God is to descend into one’s self’.”(Suzuki, p. 43)