Rinzai kõan practice, as it is presently conducted in the Rinzai monasteries
of Japan, involves an element of literary study. Zen monks all have books. They
need them to support their kõan practice, and the further they progress, the more
their practice involves the study of texts and the writing of words. The Zen school,
however, describes itself as “not founded on words and letters, a separate tradition
outside scripture.” ...
Why then do Japanese Rinzai monks study books as part of their kõan practice? What
books do they study? How can the study of such books be compatible with the struggle
to attain the awakening that is beyond language?
If one begins from the assumption that the Zen tradition has a single, fixed attitude
to language—namely, that Zen is not founded on words and letters, and that language
cannot express the awakened mind—then Rinzai literary kõan practices can
only seem totally misguided. But once one recognizes that Rinzai Zen, like the Chinese
literary tradition from which it developed, works with more than one paradigm
of language, then the inclusion of literary study as part of kõan practice will be both
natural and desirable. ... In fact, those who successfully complete the Rinzai Zen curriculum
need to develop many of the same skills that were required for successful
completion of the imperial examinations—a prodigious ability to memorize long
passages verbatim, the ability to compose elegant classical Chinese verse, a beautiful
calligraphic hand, and so on. The closest present-day counterpart of the classical Chinese
Confucian literati scholar is the Japanese Rinzai Zen rõshi. He is one of the last
remaining examples of those whose daily lives involve use of the literati scholar’s four
treasures: writing brush, ink stick, ink stone, and paper.
According to the widely accepted stereotypical image, Zen completely rejects language
and conceptual thought. Zen enlightenment, it is believed, breaks through the
false dichotomies imposed by language and destroys the artificial categories
implanted in our minds by social conditioning. Zen enlightenment, it is assumed,
directly apprehends things as they are in an ineffable pure consciousness outside the
realms of language and intellect. This stereotype, with its crude dichotomy between
a realm of intellectual thought and a realm of pure intuition, topples on close inspection
from its own internal inconsistencies.
But as [this book] Zen Sand makes clear, the kõan practice is not a breaking out of language
into a realm of silence but a sophisticated use of language to express and realize awakening.
The study of the capping-phrase practice makes explicitly clear that Zen
seeks not freedom from language by rejecting it, but freedom in language by mastering