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Thread: Zen and Taoism

  1. #1

    Zen and Taoism

    Does anyone know what the connections are between philosophical Taoism and Soto Zen? When I read the Tao Te Ching, I get the sense of much the same things as when I read about Shikantaza, or certain other aspects of Zen. Is there a formal connection between the two? Did Taoism creep into Buddhism when Bodhidharma came to China and Ch'an was formed?

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  4. #4
    Thanks, guys. Both of those links were very helpful.

  5. #5
    Hello Folks!

    Although I am definitely not an expert on this topic, the little research I did a while ago pointed to the fact, that the similarities between Taoism and Chan/Zen are almost always exaggerated in the Western world. Indian Buddhism had to be "culturally translated", which in the case of China obviously lead to an exchange of ideas and sometimes even terms between Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

    The Tao-te-King has been a favourite of many a consciousness exploring-truth-seeking fellow, ever since it was popularized in the West during the last century. At the same time, confucianism never ever even came close to having the same buzz surrounding it (if compared with the Zen and Yin-Yang craze in the West), which is why the confucian influence doesn't get mentioned half as often, though (according to some) it may even have had a bigger impact than Taoism.

    Taoism in practice, though it cannot easily be reduced to only a few aspects, was/is very often concerned with the quest for immortality, extreme ascetic practices, folk magic, exorcism, pleasing/interacting with divinities, etc.

    Of course the philosophical Wu-Wei/Ying-Yang/be one with the dao aspects etc. were always present and maybe even integral as well, but if one was to define Taoism mainly through the West's representation of it, one could easily mistake it for being very close to Zen and Buddhism, whilst looking at it from a more asian perspective would lead to a very different picture indeed.

    My favourite difference between the two systems must surely be the comparative "lack" of compassion as a key term in Taoism, whilst it is absolutely central to any Mahayana-based branch of buddhism IMHO.

    Here's a link to a (at least partially) very interesting discussion thread on e-sangha: http://www.lioncity.net/buddhism/index. ... 34670&st=0

    Gassho,

    Hans

  6. #6
    Hi Kevin,

    I am currently reading Allan Watts' "The Way of Zen". The first half of this work pertains to the history of Zen, showing first the Hindu inspirations of the original Indian Dharma, then going into the Taoist influence that resulted from the dharma reaching China.

    It is a really good book and I highly recommend it.

    Cheers,
    Kelly

  7. #7
    Hey Kelly!

    Call me prejudiced, but although Alan Watts was a very good writer stylistically, I personally really wouldn't recommend his stuff when it comes to reliable historical and/or spiritual information. He had a great way of communicating certain concepts (at least from what I've seen and read), but he definitely didn't live according to any of the principles he discusses in his books. IMHO (please feel free to disagree at any time - no offense intended), what you get with Mr. Watts' books is first and foremost Mr. Watts' view of the world.

    For another great read try this one:

    Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius

    http://www.amazon.com/Turn-Off-Your-Min ... 984&sr=8-1

    It's not about Zen and Taoism per se, but a great read and packed with anecdotes about the 60's counter culture and its protagonists (including Mr. Watts).


    Gassho,

    Hans

  8. #8
    My teacher is always reminding me, "Taoism is not Buddhism, Confucianism is not Buddhism. The atman-like idea of an all encompassing "nature" is Taoist, not Buddhist."

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Hans
    Call me prejudiced, but although Alan Watts was a very good writer stylistically, I personally really wouldn't recommend his stuff when it comes to reliable historical and/or spiritual information. He had a great way of communicating certain concepts (at least from what I've seen and read), but he definitely didn't live according to any of the principles he discusses in his books. IMHO (please feel free to disagree at any time - no offense intended), what you get with Mr. Watts' books is first and foremost Mr. Watts' view of the world.
    I think that is the general consensus. Also, scholarship on Zen, and its understanding in the West, has progressed so much (yes, there is progress in some forms of Zen understanding!) since the 1950s and early 1960s. Western books from that time, and Mr. Watts, are worth a read, if that is kept in mind. However, many books from those decades must be treated with caution, in general.

    My teacher is always reminding me, "Taoism is not Buddhism, Confucianism is not Buddhism. The atman-like idea of an all encompassing "nature" is Taoist, not Buddhist."
    Hey Jun,

    I think that your teacher hit on something very important. There is a real division in feel among writers, all through the history of Chan/Zen, between those who leave the impression that "Buddha Nature" etc.is a thing or field (with some kind of independent substance) to be looked for (resembling the "Tao", something like "the Force" in Star Wars), and those who emphasize the Buddha's idea of anattman to point out that what we are looking for is not a thing, but an absence of anything with self-existence.

    Why is that important? It is not. But, since our Zen practice is not searching for anything, it is important that we not be mislead into not searching for the wrong thing! :-)

    I will try to find an article that discusses this with more precision and elegance than I just did (having just crawled out of bed) :-)

    Gassho, Jundo

  10. #10
    Why is that important? It is not. But, since our Zen practice is not searching for anything, it is important that we not be mislead into not searching for the wrong thing!
    hehe

  11. #11
    Hi Again,

    It is worthwhile just to give a quick summary of this Buddha Nature "debate". Although our Zen Practice is "not dependent on words or letters", understanding these various "viewpoints' is important The reason is that most students read many books on Zen, both by modern and ancient Chan/Zen writers. Students may wonder why there is a very different feel in wording and perspective in some writings compared to others in discussion of the "Buddha Nature" that is to be "found". It can be quite confusing, and misleading, to students who do not pick up on this ...

    However, I also hope to show that the "debate" ultimately does not matter, much like a debate about whether ice is "frozen water" or "very cold H20". It really does not effect our Zen Practice in the least.

    Okay, on the one hand, there is the school of thought that ...

    ... the Buddha Nature or Buddha Principle (Buddha-dhatu) is taught to be a truly real, but internally hidden, eternal potency [or entity] or immortal element within the purest depths of the mind, present in all sentient beings, for awakening and becoming a Buddha. In some Mahayana sutras it is equated with the eternal Buddhic Self, the Essence (svabhava) or Soul (atman) which is nothing less than the uncreated and deathless Buddha himself. ... The Buddha-nature is taught by the Buddha to be incorruptible, uncreated, and indestructible. It is eternal bodhi ("Awake-ness") ... and thus opens up the immanent possibility of Liberation from all suffering and impermanence.

    The eternality, unshakeability and changelessness of the Buddha-nature (often referred to as "Tathagatagarbha") is described in one Sutra: " TheTathagatagarbha is not born, does not die, does not transfer [Tib], does not arise. ... it is permanent, stable and changeless."

    A central aspect of the Buddha-dhatu (sometimes called the Tathagata-dhatu) is that it is utterly indestructible, invulnerable to all harm and contamination, and truly everlasting. It is the innermost, irreducible pure core within the being that cannot be eradicated or killed.


    This does not violate the Buddhist concept of Anatman because, unlike the Western concept of Soul or some interpretations of the Indian Atman, Buddha-nature is not presented in the primary Buddha-nature sutras as an isolated essence of a particular individual, but rather as a single unified essence shared by all beings with the Buddha himself.
    The other end of the debate tends to see "Buddha nature" rather as just an abstract potential within us (like "curiosity" or "inspiration" or "insight") that is more a description of a human characteristic or latent talent within ourselves than a concrete "entity"

    The Buddhist scholar, Sallie B. King, sees the Buddha Nature (tathagatagarbha) as merely a metaphor for the potential in all beings to attain Buddhahood, rather than as an ontological reality. She writes of the Tathagatagarbha Sutra in particular: “The tathagatagarbha [Buddha Nature] is here a metaphor for the ability of all sentient beings to attain Buddhahood, no more and no less.”
    Recent neurological research on meditators indicates that some or all of what is experienced during Zazen may be merely just various centers of the brain activating or quieting down. (Of course, everything we experience in life, including the computer screen you think you are looking at right now, are merely happening within the brain as a "simulation" of data entering via the senses). But, all the peace and harmony and "oneness" experienced during Zazen may just be a firing neuron within the temporal lobes.


    JUNDO'S TAKE
    : I do not care whether or not there is truly an "ontological reality" that is "uncreated and eternal" ,"pure", "changeless" "one and unbroken" "indestructible". It is unimportant to my Zen Practice. Here is why:

    Through Zazen, we realize something special. Whether it is just a point of view, a state within our brains, or something that exists independent of us, makes no real difference. Is it how the universe really is, or just the way we really come to perceive the universe? Both are real, and perhaps they are the same. It does not matter, any more than whether ice cream is really "sweet" itself, or only "sweet" when we taste it on our tongues. In either case, the "sweetness" is sweet and true.

    So, when we sit Zazen and drop all thoughts of "this" "that" "good" "bad" "pure" "impure" "eternal" "transient" ... dropping "self" and "other" too ... what do we experience? It is a reality that is "purely" just what it is, without the slightest conflict in that it is experienced as "one piece". It is of one piece, as we stop creating separate divisions in our minds. It is a "Peace" beyond peace or war because the universe is experienced as just "one piece". It is timeless, because we stop thinking by any clock ... and realize that each moment can be an eternity unto itself. It is "unborn", because each moment and every thing in the universe is perfectly itself, right now, so no need to think of its past or future. When we drop all human thoughts of "clean" or "unclean", we find a reality that is beyond anything to add or take away. Dropping "self' and "Self", we find ... anyway, enough said! That is the sweetness. Whether it only exists on the tip of the tongue, in the ice cream or both ... it is just as sweet.The "Buddha Nature" is our innate capacity to realize that sweetness of the universe. Whether it is inside or outside the brain, independently real or just a real way to perceive reality ... it does not matter.

    The universe, when humans stop imposting labels on it, is quite likely beyond all human words like timeless or not timeless, pure or impure, etc. It does not matter to how we experience it via Zazen.

    Am I being clear?

    So, whether "Buddha Nature" or the "Tao" is an ontological entity, independent of you or me ... or whether it is just the capacity of our brains to experience the universe that way ... or whether both are really two sides of the same coin ... does not matter. Buddha Nature is real, that which is "found" is real too.

    Now, forget the debate ... go chop some wood, fetch some water. The Buddha Nature is Real, and will take care of itself.

    Gassho, Jundo

    PS - Dogen said, not that we "have" Buddha Nature, but that we 'are' Buddha Nature.

    PPS - Does a dog have Buddha Nature? MU!

  12. #12
    Hi Jundo,

    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo
    Through Zazen, we realize something special. Whether it is just a point of view, a state within our brains, or something that exists independent of us, makes no real difference. Is it how the universe really is, or just the way we really come to perceive the universe? Both are real, and perhaps they are the same. It does not matter, any more than whether ice cream is really "sweet" itself, or only "sweet" when we taste it on our tongues. In either case, the "sweetness" is sweet and true.
    I love that!


    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo
    Am I being clear?
    Definitely! I very much appreciate how you make some pretty dense teaching so clear, especially to such a numbskull like me.

    Gassho,
    Keith

  13. #13
    Senior Member Martin's Avatar
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    Thank you for your teaching Jundo. I like the vanilla ice cream analogy (but then I like vanilla ice cream).

    When I sit zazen there are moments when the experience is "all of one piece". And in those moments questions like the one that follows have no meaning. And, actually, the more I practice the more questions like this have no meaning when I'm not sitting (which may just mean I'm getting more vacant as I grow older). But, this is one of those moments when the brain is in questioning mood, and this is a question that does come up for me quite a bit.

    You say that "Recent neurological research on mediators indicates that some or all of what is experienced during Zazen may be merely just various centres of the brain activating or quieting down". You go on to say, I think, that the experience is "real" anyway. Which I can see. But if this experience is simply what happens when certain functions of my brain quieten down, then all that is happening is that I am feeling "all of one piece" with my own sense perceptions. Which is scarcely surprising. What could I, or my conciousness, be but the sum of my own sense perceptions and thoughts? And if the thoughts quieten down, then, logically, I must then be the sum of my own sense perceptions. Which I would expect to experience as being "all of one piece" with my sense perceptions. And yes, that experience is "real", but does it have anything wider to say about "reality". I'm not at one with, or of one piece with, the universe, I'm at one with, or of one piece with, my own sense perceptions. And then, isn't the feeling that I get of "no self" and "no other" or "oneness" itself a delusion? "I" am" feeling" "at one with the universe" (though to put it in words doesn't capture the actual feeling, as there's no "I" to do the feeling) but isn't the "reality" that I am merely at one with my own sense perceptions, cut off from the universe and for ever imprisoned within my own sense perceptions? At this point I usually ask myself what the broader "reality", within which the statement that "I am merely at one with my own sense perceptions" applies, is, and my brain just shuts down altogether. Help, please.

    I don't suppose that made a lot of sense: I hope someone can pick something out of it. Or should I just go and chop wood and carry water?

    Gassho

    Martin

  14. #14
    Hi Martin,

    Quote Originally Posted by Martin
    And then, isn't the feeling that I get of "no self" and "no other" or "oneness" itself a delusion? "I" am" feeling" "at one with the universe" (though to put it in words doesn't capture the actual feeling, as there's no "I" to do the feeling) but isn't the "reality" that I am merely at one with my own sense perceptions, cut off from the universe and for ever imprisoned within my own sense perceptions? At this point I usually ask myself what the broader "reality", within which the statement that "I am merely at one with my own sense perceptions" applies, is, and my brain just shuts down altogether. Help, please.
    Let me toss out a couple of observations.

    POINT I - Look around the room you are sitting in right now, look out the window, and at the people important in your life too. We now understand that you only are only experiencing each and all of these as a simulation within the brain reconstructed from electrical impulses transmitted through your senses. In other words, you have never experienced actually touching your lover, you have only experienced touching a virtual image of your lover recreated, from tactile and visual data, among your neurons somewhere.

    Philosophers have debated for centuries whether there is even a lover "out there" at all, or is it 100% a dream within the brain ... but let's put that all aside and assume, for practical purposes, that there is some object "out there" that is the source of the data. Even so, the mind is always interpreting the incoming data, such that the reality is always a mixture of the incoming data and your psychological and emotional interpretation of the data. In other words, your experience of your lover bears about as much relation to your actual lover "out there" as a dramatic "made for TV movie" of Ancient Rome bears to the actual Rome (assuming that there really was a Rome once, "out there").

    JUNDO'S CONCLUSION I - If so, then what's "out there" (the world) is just what's "out there", and our Zen Practice has great effect on our inner interpretation of the incoming data. Thus, if the world is just "what it is" (World X), and if your heart is tranquil and whole, you will tend to experience World X as tranquil and whole. If you heart is violent and disturbed, you will tend to experience World X as a violent and disturbed place. In both cases, it is the very same "World X". If you experience the universe as broken into pieces, or as One, it is all a matter or you and the interpretation filtered through your brain ... World X is always World X. (I oversimplify, but I hope you get my point).

    _____________________

    POINT II - Sentient beings are unique in the universe for being, well ... sentient beings. We do something that rocks and trees and brick walls cannot do (at least as far as we know) ... feel and think. So, concepts such as "tranquil" "disturbed" "one" "many" "this" "that" "me" "you" "pure' "impure" "right" "wrong" all come from us sentient ones. We are the source that brings these judgments into the universe, much as the universe contains light because there are stars and suns, oranges because there are orange trees. Without orange trees, no oranges in the world ... without us, no sentient thoughts and judgments like the foregoing.

    JUNDO'S CONCLUSION II - So, since you and other sentient beings are the source of all these judgments, when you feel hate ... hate is brought into the world, when you feel love ... love is brought into the world. You are the love/hate tree that brings forth that fruit. Same for all the rest, such as your feelings of peace/violence, one/many, etc. You are to each of those what the stars and sun are to light, what orange trees are to oranges in this world. This is a sentient universe cause ... gosh darn it, there is the sentient life (that's us).

    As well, when you drop the sense of separate "self", you see that you are just the world and the world is just you (in absolute terms), much as a tree is the fruit and flowers that grow from its branches, and the fruit and flowers are just the tree ... then, when you feel love or hate, it is none other than the universe feeling love or hate in an absolute sense (This is much like saying that when your right hand feels pain or warmth, it is Martin feeling pain warmth in an absolute sense, and not just Martin's right hand). It is also like saying that an orange tree is an orange tree because it brings forth the individual oranges (you are one). If it brought forth apples, it could not be an orange tree!

    This is all also closely related to the idea of co-dependent origination (another Buddhist idea we will study in the near future). For example, your relationship to the universe is much like the relationship of a children's chorus to the children in the chorus. Can you have a children's chorus without children? Can you have children in a chorus without the chorus? Thus, you cannot have a sentient universe (which, apparently, is what the universe became) without sentient beings (that's us!) If the children are in harmony, it is an harmonious chorus. If the children are off key, the chorus is an off key chorus. This is your relationship, in absolute terms, to the universe ... If your mind is harmonious and filled with love, it is an harmonious and love filled universe ... if your mind is disturbed and angry, it is an off key and angry universe.

    So, it makes no sense to say that what is happening to "you" is separate from what is happening in the universe, or even that what the universe is doing is separate from what you do (cause your doing is just the universe doing).

    _____________________

    POINT III - Finally, in the traditional view of many Eastern philosophies, "Harmony" "Oneness" "Peace" "Love" and "Purity" really exist as the True State of the Universe somewhere hidden, and we are merely "rediscovering" that Reality through our meditation practice ... like treasure hunters uncovering buried treasure.


    JUNDO'S CONCLUSION III - If so, great! Keep digging!!

    Now, back to fetching water. Wood is already cut for today.

    I hope that was clear, and of some help.

    Gassho, Jundo (or just his virtual recreation via this Forum??)

  15. #15
    Is there a Jundo screensaver?

    Gassho

  16. #16
    Senior Member kirkmc's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Martin

    You say that "Recent neurological research on mediators indicates that some or all of what is experienced during Zazen may be merely just various centres of the brain activating or quieting down". You go on to say, I think, that the experience is "real" anyway. Which I can see. But if this experience is simply what happens when certain functions of my brain quieten down, then all that is happening is that I am feeling "all of one piece" with my own sense perceptions. Which is scarcely surprising. What could I, or my conciousness, be but the sum of my own sense perceptions and thoughts? And if the thoughts quieten down, then, logically, I must then be the sum of my own sense perceptions. Which I would expect to experience as being "all of one piece" with my sense perceptions. And yes, that experience is "real", but does it have anything wider to say about "reality". I'm not at one with, or of one piece with, the universe, I'm at one with, or of one piece with, my own sense perceptions. And then, isn't the feeling that I get of "no self" and "no other" or "oneness" itself a delusion? "I" am" feeling" "at one with the universe" (though to put it in words doesn't capture the actual feeling, as there's no "I" to do the feeling) but isn't the "reality" that I am merely at one with my own sense perceptions, cut off from the universe and for ever imprisoned within my own sense perceptions? At this point I usually ask myself what the broader "reality", within which the statement that "I am merely at one with my own sense perceptions" applies, is, and my brain just shuts down altogether. Help, please.
    If I may be so bold and toss in my unenlightened two cents...

    What is real, to paraphrase William James, is what happens to us. Whether it is inside our outside, it is real. Even hallucinations are real, to the extent that our minds perceive them as real.

    Everything we perceive depends on what our brains do. You are, indeed, the sum of your thoughts, feelings and perceptions. I think the difference when you quiet down is that your thoughts calm and another part of the mind can perceive things that are usually hidden by the noise. The idea of "being one with the universe" is a cliché, and one can think that is what happens, because one is led to believe that is what happens. What actually happens, as I understand it, is that you simple drop the barrier between yourself and what is around you; so in a way, you become the universe, but in another the universe and you merge. There is no "I" but there is still an "I" because there has to be for you to perceive. But when you get to that state, the "I" is so soft and receptive that it starts realizing that it isn't an "I" but a part of everything.

    I think...

    Kirk

  17. #17
    Senior Member Martin's Avatar
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    Jundo, Kirk

    Thank you both for your replies, which I have read several times.

    At the end of the day, I suppose the craving "I want to be at one with the universe" is doomed to failure as it posits an "I" that is doing the "being one". Which is why it feels different in zazen when the boarders of the "I" soften a bit.

    Gassho

    Martin.

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