God, Zen and the Intuition of Being

Chapter 6: Metaphysical Koans


If Zen cannot give Thomistic metaphysics its supreme technique, which is the stopping of all thought, for they are both pursuing different goals, what can it offer? It can give two things of the greatest importance: an atmosphere of dedication to enlightenment, and the inspiration for Thomism to attempt to create its own metaphysical techniques and koans.


The spirit of Zen with its love of nature, the arts, and simplicity are vital ingredients for the cultivation of metaphysical insight, and would be a powerful antidote to the dangers of an over-academic Thomism. The things of nature have a vibrancy of existence that man-made objects rarely match. Nature can purify the senses and allow them to open and become attuned to the whole range of sensations. Listening to the falling rain or the wind sighing in the trees can be a step closer to the mystery of being. But we must listen to and exercise Maritain's active and attentive silence and avoid composing conceptual answers which separate us from the thing itself. This kind of listening or seeing lets things soak into us like a gentle rain and leads towards a deep union between the knower and the known. It is under these conditions that we can hope to meet being.

Zen's love of nature is not some vague nature mysticism or search for tranquillity. It is much more vigorous, and even metaphysical. Zen cultivates transparency of mind through which it attempts to fathom the ultimate secret not only of the mind, but of the flower or the pine tree. In ordinary perception, D.T. Suzuki writes:

"The one who beholds is separated from the object which is beheld; there is an impassable gap between the two; and it is impossible for the beholder to come in touch inwardly with his object. Here is no grasping of actual facts as we face them. If heaven and earth, with all the manifold objects between them, issue from the one root which you and I also come from, this root must be firmly seized upon so there is an actual experience of it." (1)

It is from the vantage point of this one root that the flower is beheld. Then nature is not something to be mastered or classified, or simply utilized. It is the face of this mystery of the one root, if we only have eyes to see. Ryokan, a Soto Zen monk, lets a bamboo shoot grow in his hut until it is scraping the ceiling. Then, while trying to make a hole in the roof for it with a candle he accidentally burns his hut to the ground. Is this foolishness and folly, or is true folly to confine our children in streets of asphalt surrounded by homes, cars, and all the objects of men's hands? Then what they see of nature is on television or in a zoo. But is this really nature? This nature is confined by men's ideas like the sterile landscaping of a shopping mall. Nature has been neutralized. It can no longer speak of its inner meaning. It is constantly being overwhelmed by man's conceptual mind and treated as part of his equipment. The poor animal in a cage loses the sense of mystery that its brother in the brush possesses as it flashes before our eyes, clothed in grace and freedom. This momentary sighting is a symbol, a tongue-tip taste of a world beyond consciousness and its grid of ideas. Not that nature has to be physically imposing. It can speak of its mystery in a butterfly fluttering over a field, or a tree simply standing in its native splendor, or the snow silently falling in the midst of a forest. As long as our minds are filled with our own ideas and preconceptions there is no room left for the message of nature to penetrate.

The transparency which Zen demands is the silencing of all this mental noise, and even of the concepts themselves. Though the intuition of being does not proceed by way of the elimination of all concepts, to lock philosophy in the lecture hall is to deal it a mortal wound. It is in nature that it finds its food by drinking of its infinite variety. We must soak ourselves in nature, listen to it and be carried by its gentle rhythms to its depths where metaphysics can be born. And it is the love of nature in this sense that Zen can teach to Thomistic metaphysics.

Another aspect of the love of nature is the love of simplicity. The simplification of life allows basic things to emerge from the shadows where they have been driven by the incessant clamor and din of the mind. The cup of water, the loaf of bread, is redolent with the mystery of being. The simple satisfaction of eating when we are hungry and drinking when our throat is parched can be done with a mindfulness in which we bite being and drink it down. How different all this is from a philosophy classroom filled with the discussion of the history of ideas. While history is of great importance in both metaphysics and Zen, it must be living history, living first because its students are actually becoming the heirs to the minds and hearts of their illustrious predecessors. It is not a dead system they are studying, but a living tradition that ought to resonate in their spirit. Thus, for a Thomist of today to read Augustine, Thomas or John of St. Thomas, or a student of Zen to hear the words of Huang Po, Dogen or Hakuin, there can be no complacency as if the mere passage of time has inexorably conferred on them some sort of superiority. These men ought to be our guides in our penetration of the metaphysical depths, and we cannot remain simply in the words of the great masters of the past, but have to attain in a burst of spiritual intensification and inner sight the very realities they perceived. And nature and simplicity are closer to these realities than an intellectualism that never goes beyond the study door.

A final aspect of nature and simplicity is found in the Japanese concepts of wabi and sabi, which Suzuki calls "an active aesthetic appreciation of poverty." (2) It is the sense that poverty does not have to crush the spirit but can liberate it. It is "an inexpressible quiet joy deeply hidden beneath sheer poverty." (3) If we are to look for such a thing in the West we have to look back to its monks, or to some of these modern descendants who have attempted to recapture the spirit of simple monasticism. In the true spirit of wabi a man learns "to be self-sufficient with the insufficiency of things" (4) and that very poverty helps pacify and purify the mind so that it can finally see that the golden leaves blown in the wind of autumn are finer than any jewelry, that the greatest riches reside not in material possessions but in simple things and a simple spirit to penetrate their ultimate meaning.

Zen's love of nature and simplicity and its cultivation of the transparency of mind permeates the Oriental arts, whether painting, the cult of tea, flower-arranging or calligraphy. All the training and techniques of these arts finally become swallowed in a deeper simplicity:

"Look! In the midst of the pure white paper, an instant touch of black ink is flashed and with the minimum possible number of strokes a persimmon is composed. There are no unnecessary strokes at all. The brush has caught a purest moment of change in which the beginningless, endless undifferentiation has cut into differentiation - persimmon! Do you understand?" (5)

With nature, art, and simplicity must come a sense of inner peacefulness so that things are not always being viewed in the context of equipment, as Sekida, following Heidegger, would have it. The mind has to stop its practical mode of operating, where each tree represents so many boards and each piece of ground a potential field, and simply let nature be, for it is this very sense of letting being be that brings us closer to our goal. It is the beauty of a spider's web caught in the ray of the rising sun, or a drop of water sparkling like a rainbow on the tip of a pine needle after a storm, that we have to see. These objects have no utilitarian value. They cannot be put to any human use, and as such, they can help inspire a sense of the mystery of existence that exceeds concepts and human consciousness. The senses become filled with the incredible variety of natural being, with the manifold faces of existence, and at the same time, each individual existent begins to loom up as actively exercising the extraordinary mystery of existence.


But the heart of Zen practice is zazen, and the most common form of zazen is wrestling with a koan. Can Thomistic metaphysics devise its own koans to help someone arrive at the intuition of being? Such a koan, if possible, would be essentially different from the koans of Zen. Zen's koans are aiming at stopping the mind and thus are not conceptually intelligible. A favorite koan for beginners is Joshu's Mu. A monk once asked Master Joshu if a dog had Buddha nature and Joshu replied, "Mu", literally, "No." But the Zen student cannot solve Mu by mentally debating whether the answer should be yes or no and what circumstances dictated Joshu's answer or what theoretical principle could be brought to bear to make Mu yield an answer. Instead, he learns to concentrate on Mu itself and to breathe in and out with it, to cling to it with all his strength, to become one with Mu. Mu becomes the way he stops the flow of conceptual thought, and when this happens he gains a realization of what Mu means. We might say that what draws him and gives him the strength to persevere is not something in Mu itself, which entices him, for Mu is likened to an iron wall. His motivation is the thirst for meaning that has come from the suffering and pain he has experienced in the world, and from his faith that the Buddha has found an answer to this suffering, an answer which is embodied in the community he lives in and, in a special way, in the Master, who by becoming enlightened, has become the Buddha in a very real sense. In this community of faith in the Buddha's achievement, he is urged, even pushed, to apply himself to Mu - to not to let go no matter how slippery Mu may be in itself. The lectures and dokusan, or interviews with the Master, help fasten him to the koan, while the striving of the whole community in sesshin, or retreat, helps enkindle his enthusiasm to stick with Mu until he arrives at enlightenment.


But things would be different in the cultivation of the intuition of being. Since the object is not to stop the conceptual mind, the same kind of pressure cannot be used. While a community geared to the attainment of this intuition is conceivable, the metaphysical koan must draw the student more than the community pushes him to apply himself, for it is out of the words of the metaphysical koan itself that the answer must emerge in order to maintain the conceptual continuity between essence and existence and safeguard the eidetic nature of the intuition of being. It is the metaphysical koan that must, in some fashion, function as the master. It must have intrinsic safeguards to steer the student in the right direction, and an internal structure that generates an increasing conceptual tension that will hopefully be resolved at the moment of insight.

Is it possible to frame such a "koan"? There are several preliminary difficulties that stand in the way. Who is to do this? If the framers of the koan have not had the intuition, how can they formulate a path to it? Yet, if they have it, it came by happy chance and not by technique, and so can they in actual fact personally experience the validity of such a technique and test its efficacy? Zen again provides a historical background to this kind of paradox. Somehow it made the transition from spontaneous enlightenment of its early masters to the cultivation of enlightenment. The antecedents of an intuition that comes by happy chance can be reflected upon and tentative techniques tested on new students, and slowly an effective method can emerge.

If the intuition of being is crucial, according to Maritain, why did it go virtually unmentioned by the other leading figures of the Thomistic renewal? Perhaps Zen can suggest an answer here, as well. There are two basic attitudes about coming to enlightenment: the Soto school of gradual enlightenment and the Rinzai school of sudden enlightenment. In the idiom of the intuition of being it is possible to conceive two ways, as well. There is the slow process of the scholar who ponders the texts and finds moments of joy in penetrating more deeply into them. He has flashes of insight in the course of his pursuit of understanding, but he does not pause to distinguish these insights from the context of conceptual elaboration that they are embedded in. He is content that he has arrived at the insight without reflecting on its gift-like qualities.

But Maritain is the first of the Rinzai school of the intuition of being. He stresses its discontinuity with ordinary experience, and ordinary philosophical thought. He calls our attention to the intuition of being embedded in personal experience. He refuses to accept any merely verbal substitutes. He urges us to mobilize our energies to break through the habits of ordinary consciousness, the common face of is, and see its true countenance. He expects this intuition to come in a decisive if not explosive moment.


Maritain left us with a valuable approach to the formulation of such a metaphysical koan when he described the approaches to the intuition of being. In addition to the various concrete approaches, he indicated an approach by way of judgment. This way of judgment is intriguing, not as a confirmatory rational analysis which would explore the intellectual content of the already given intuition and show its rational necessity, but precisely as an approach to the intuition in the first place.

The pathway of judgment is much less tangible than the emotionally charged experience of the concrete approaches, but it has its own kind of advantages. We don't have to wait for it to happen, but can attempt to initiate it, and it brings with itself an understanding of the intellectual content of the intuition.

A lifetime of exposure to existing things has up until now made them safe from our metaphysical scrutiny. Who would think of meditating on a tree or a butterfly in order to unravel the mystery of existence? Our eyes have been conditioned to name and classify things, to discover their chemical makeup and to find ways of utilizing them. But now all this must be put aside in order for us to confront them at a deeper level. What, then, are the most fundamental facts that are waiting to be recognized?

The first fact is simply that things are. They exist. We are surrounded by existing things: birds, trees, sun, water, you and I. The existence of these things is not a figment of our imagination. They are there. They have tenacity and solidness and resist our purely mental manipulations. We stumble over a stone and hurt our toe. We bite into a juicy apple. Instead of nothing, amazingly, things actually exist. Even philosophers who like to call everything into doubt live and act on the basis of this certitude.

The second fact is equally obvious and undeniable: different kinds of things exist. Apples are not eggs and I am not you. These differences are not illusions that will be someday unmasked by the advances of nuclear physics. Existence does not belong to things like a pit inside a cherry. Things are different through and through, and they exist through and through.

These two facts, undeniable and apparently unremarkable, are the foundation for an entire metaphysics. There is more to them than our common sense finds. An apple is an apple. A = A. An orange is an orange. B = B. An apple is not an orange. A is not B, nor is B, A. But an apple exists. A = C. And an orange exists. B = C. Therefore, does not A, in fact, really = B? How can we reconcile these two reports of the mind? One focuses on diversity and shows us that there are many different things. The other focuses on the fact of existence and assures us that both the apple and orange exist. In this sense , they are one. How can they be one and many at the same time?

It would be a mistake to try to eliminate this tension too quickly. We should intensify it because it is in the genuine resolution of this tension that we could arrive at the intuition of being.

St. Thomas' proofs for the existence of God are like Zen's koans. We cannot simply repeat them verbally and expound them conceptually and expect to grasp them. But since they are in plain language, in simple Latin, they fare worse than Zen's mysterious sayings. The words delude teacher and student alike into believing that they truly know what they mean. We may scoff at Zen for spouting nonsense, but since we do not understand, there is always a latent uneasiness that we are missing the real point, and this uneasiness can draw us back for a more careful consideration. But with St. Thomas, since he spoke so simply, we are deluded into thinking we grasp what he says and find it inadequate. He is simple-minded and we are clever. He wants to talk of the existence of God and we know better. We hear the words and follow their logic but do not see into them. The words remain simply words instead of windows on the transcendent world of metaphysics. We fail to share St. Thomas' metaphysical vision. And this is the failure that explains how a multitude of students exposed to St. Thomas have come away indifferent or self-satisfied. Thomas must use words, but we have never considered what steps must be taken if we are to become capable of understanding them.

The weakness of Thomism is not a weakness of reasoning or careful scholarship. It is a pedagogical failure in the deepest sense of that word, and this failure has no greater dramatization than the fact that in decades following the publication of Maritain's works, especially his metaphysical studies, Thomism still clung to the manuals. Even when Thomism held undisputed sway in the days before the Second Vatican Council, these manuals were turning a whole generation against St. Thomas. Given the opportunity, they threw these books aside in a moment. Who can blame them? Yet, at the same time, too often they had the mistaken impression that it was Thomas himself they were rejecting. (6)


The same kind of tension can be generated when we look at the what and the that from the inside. If ego-consciousness is not the center of the soul, then the possibility exists for a radical shift and transformation of our awareness. From the perspective of ordinary consciousness there must be some sign or doorway to this deeper dimension of the human spirit. The Zen master says, "Show me your face before your parents were born." The Thomists might say, "In consciousness I grasp in an experimental fashion the fact that I exist." In either case there is an existential sense to human consciousness that can be pursued. We do not simply know what things are, but we know that we exist, and we can transcend the level of essence by attempting to pursue the isness of all things, particularly the isness of the self. We constantly say, "I am going to do this" or "I know that," but we do not reflect on the foundation of all these statements, which is simply, "I am." How simple this "I am" appears, but who really is this ''I"? We are convinced we know, since we live with our "I" on such intimate terms, but the foundation for the true meaning of the "I" is not simply the "I" itself but it is the "am". The "I" is an expression, a contraction, of the "am", but do we know what this "am" is? All the attributes we can give to the "I" when we say, "I am wealthy" or "I am famous" or "I am powerful" or "I am intelligent" or "I am strong," all these attributes are secondary to the fact that "I am." If we do not know this "am" we do not really know this "I". If we question the "I" in the light of "am", it can lead us to an abyss where the very meaning of our "I" seems to crumble and we grow afraid that our "I" is dissolving and there is nothing beyond it. The Zen master would advise courage. The abyss is not the abyss of mere nothingness. Push on and discover the true nature of the "I", your own true nature.

The Thomist might frame his metaphysical koan: "I am, but is am I?" or "What is this am? Show me this am." Or he could say, "What is whatness?" and strive to reconcile the what and the that. And if he cultivates the tension involved in this question, he might finally arrive at the intuition of being.

Has anyone actually arrived at the intuition of being by means of pondering such metaphysical koans? Possibly not, intentionally. Just as the concrete ways of Maritain are potential ways, so are these ways of judgment or metaphysical koans. All of these things may have been used in a more or less spontaneous manner by individuals who arrived at the intuition, but the issue now is their conscious cultivation.


What would actual training in the cultivation of the intuition of being, patterned after Zen, look like? In it simplicity of life would join with love of nature. Quieting the mind, aided by posture and breathing, would provide the inner preparation for taking up the actual techniques that could lead to the intuition of being. These techniques could include wrestling with metaphysical koans, spirited interviews with an accomplished metaphysician, careful reflection on the writings of the great metaphysicians, the stimulation of living with people who share the same aspirations, etc.

But there is another factor that cannot be ignored. In actual fact, the metaphysics of St. Thomas has taken place within a Christian context, and the pursuit of Zen enlightenment has taken place within the context of Zen Buddhism. Is this simply a historical accident, or does this Christian or Buddhist religious context form an indispensable existential setting for the cultivation of metaphysical insight? If it does - and it will be the task of Part III to explore these religious settings - then any formal cultivation of the intuition of being would have to deal not only with the aspirations we have as metaphysicians, but the aspirations we have as men and women for the absolute.


The imaginary discussion between Maritain and Izutsu points out the difficulty that Zen practitioners and metaphysicians of the school of St. Thomas will have in coming to grips with basic issues. Zen stresses immediate experience, but because of the means it must employ to arrive at it, it cannot reflect on the essential differences between the existence of the self, the intuition of being and God. The gateless gate that prevents the conceptual mind from entering also prevents it from emerging and conceptually articulating what it has seen. The very efficacy of the Zen technique is a guarantee that a metaphysics in the ordinary conceptual sense will not easily emerge from it, no matter how much these basic distinctions might be lived out in the practical order.

What are the implications of such non-conceptuality for a dialogue? From the Thomistic side, there must be men and women who actually possess the intuition of being and have a clear understanding of its implications. Yet, even if they met this requirement, would they not be hesitant to enter into a field of discussion in which the indispensable ground-rule is the cessation of conceptual thought and where concepts are not means to insight but hindrances to it? The Zen practitioners, on the other hand, who have learned through powerful inner experience the pitfalls of reasoning and the fruitfulness of the practice of no-mind, will be hard pressed not to immediately conclude that the words of the metaphysician are those very words that hinder real insight and thus, they are talking with someone who has no real insight into the nature of reality but only words about it. What will the medium of communication be? One will not trust words, the other cannot speak the nonconceptual "language" of the enlightened master. Is this an insuperable barrier? On the practical level this kind of dialogue has hardly begun, so it is impossible to say what can happen. Perhaps the genuine feel for metaphysical experience that both sides possess will go a long way in mitigating these difficulties.

But if such an interchange did take place, what could Thomism offer to Zen? The greatest gift Thomistic metaphysics could give to Zen is to help it advance and develop the kinds of reflections on Zen experience described in this Part. If Zen could articulate its nature in speculative metaphysical terms it would not become a metaphysical system, nor even a philosophy, but this process would create a bridge by which it could reflect on its relationship with the major aspects of Western culture.

In Japan, where the problem of the synthesis between East and West is particularly acute, Zen is called upon to establish a relationship to the sciences of nature, metaphysics, art and social philosophy, as well as theology and Christian mysticism. Thomism could help it in this task. It was one of Maritain's greatest achievements not only to clarify the subjective side of metaphysics, but to bring this revitalized metaphysics into relationship with modern science and art, as well as theology and mysticism. (7) A Thomism which, in fact, has certain remarkable affinities to Zen and rejects with Zen the subject-object dichotomy that was born with Descartes, could aid it in conceptually expressing its own nature. If Zen-inspired philosophers have virtually ignored Thomism up until now, it is a consequence of the recent date of the dialogue between Zen and the West, the poor external appearance of Thomism, and the small amount of work Thomists have expended on Zen. Thus, a Zen-Thomist dialogue could take place with great benefits for both sides, and it would prepare the way for understanding the relationship between Zen and Christian mysticism.

We have accomplished part of our task by beginning to situate Zen in relationship to the metaphysics of St. Thomas, and by suggesting the great benefits that Thomism could derive from drinking deep from the spirit of Zen. And we have looked briefly at what Thomistic metaphysics can offer to Zen. Now we must turn our attention to the other part of our work, which is Zen in relationship to Christian mysticism.


  1. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, p. 353.
  2. Ibid., p. 284.
  3. Ibid., p. 286.
  4. Ibid., p. 288.
  5. Kobori Sohaku Nanrei, A Dialogue, p. 146. In The Buddha Eye, ed. Franck.
  6. See Gilson's "Thomas Aquinas and Our Colleagues" in A Gilson Reader, pp. 278ff.
  7. It was one of Maritain's lifelong dreams that a restoration of a genuine philosophy of nature would bridge the gap between metaphysics and the sciences of nature, and he devoted considerable effort to this project which is stated succinctly in The Degrees of Knowledge. Unfortunately, Thomism as a whole has failed to pursue this possibility.



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