Welcome to The Path of Water

This site is dedicated to exploring the Tao and Philosophical Taoism; and how it relates to everyday modern life in the 21st Century. It also includes posts relating to how I feel Taoism can provide insights for dealing with the problems of everyday living.

The process of writing out my thoughts helps me to explore what I believe and why, so these posts will probably develop over time. I hope that you'll find this site interesting and, for those of you new to the Tao and Taoism, I hope that it can provide you with a first step on the path to a rich spiritual life. If you want to post comments relating to a post or the site as a whole I'd be grateful as all feedback is helpful.

Enjoy your visit - In Tao - Woody

Who would follow the Way must go beyond words.
Who would know the world must go beyond names. *

No man ever steps in the same river twice,
for it's not the same river and he's not the same man. **

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Taoism & Zen

I've recently started looking into Zen Buddhism. This may seem strange in a blog ostensibly about Taoism, but I've come to realize how close the two are. In the process I've had to shed a lot of ideas I held about Zen which were based on ignorance or misunderstandings. For anybody interested in Taoism I'd recommend they investigate the basics of Zen to see if it can be of use to them.

The origin of Zen Buddhism (or in Chinese - Chán) is credited to the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidarma, who is said to have travelled to China to bring a new method of directly achieving enlightenment. Chán Buddhism evolved through the fusion of Taoist and Buddhist ideas, developing its full expression in China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea.

By my understanding, the enlightened state that Zen students seek is one and the same as the harmony sought by Taoists. Where Taoism & Zen differ is the path to this harmony or enlightenment. Taoism at its purest is spontaneous and unstudied. To practice any kind of discipline in order to achieve harmony is to have missed the point. Zen on the other hand is developed on the principal that while there are many paths to enlightenment, they are unreliable, erratic and transient. The Zen approach has been developed to enable more predictable and permanent results. Whichever side of the debate you find yourself, it is obvious that each have a lot to offer the other in the way of observations and perspective.

For myself, my interest in Zen relates to this idea of the transitory nature of enlightenment. I've had experiences which I'd describe as having glimpses of harmony, but after lasting seconds, minutes, or once a sequence of sporadic experiences over a few days, the state is lost again. Almost at will I can reach the state but I don't have the tools to keep myself there. I'm hoping that Zen may shed some light on this.

The experience of harmony also led me to misunderstand its significance. At first I attributed to it an almost mystical nature - something beyond the ordinary world, but now I've come to appreciate more of its true meaning. I hope that through understanding the observations of the Zen masters I might be able to even better judge my own experiences and continue to progress along the path.

To get a flavour of the similarities between Zen and Taoism, here's something written by Dr. D.T. Suzuki in his book An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (ISBN 0-09-151121-6) which is based on a series of essays he wrote during World War I. It's an interesting and thought provoking book which I'd recommend...

The basic idea of Zen is to come in touch with the inner workings of our being, and to do so in the most direct way possible, without resorting to anything external or superadded. Therefore, anything that has the semblance of an external authority is rejected by Zen. Absolute faith is placed in a man's own inner being. For whatever authority there is in Zen, all comes from within. This is true in the strictest sense of the word. Even the reasoning faculty is not considered final or absolute. On the contrary, it hinders the mind from coming into the directest communication with itself....

The central fact of life as it is lived is what Zen aims to grasp, and this in the most direct and most vital manner. Zen professes itself to be the spirit of Buddhism, but in fact it is the spirit of all religions and philosophies. When Zen is thoroughly understood, absolute peace of mind is attained, and a man lives as he ought to live...

Some say that as Zen is admittedly a form of mysticism it cannot claim to be unique in the history of religion. Perhaps so; but Zen is a mysticism of its own order. It is mystical in the sense that the sun shines, that the flower blooms, that I hear at this moment somebody beating the drum in the street. If these are mystical facts, Zen is brim-full of them...

When a Zen master was once asked what Zen was, he replied, "Your everyday thought". Is this not plain and straightforward? It has nothing to do with any sectarian spirit. Christians as well as Buddhists can practise Zen just as big fish and small fish are both contentedly living in the same ocean. Zen is the ocean, Zen is the air, Zen is the mountain, Zen is thunder and lightning, the spring flower, summer heat, and winter snow; nay, more than that, Zen is the man...


donna said...

Well, I think the main difference to me is that zen tends to view enlightenment as something that requires some effort to perceive, and to Tao, the real experience of Tao is effortless, "work without effort". It is more a philosophy of how the world works and how to work in harmony with everything, where zen tries to perceive some overall higher state.

It's like zen makes something simple obscure, Tao makes the obscure simple.

The Rambling Taoist said...

In all honesty, I have a copy of the book you cite. I've never gotten around to reading it though. Maybe I'll try to tackle it this Spring if for no other reason than to learn more about Zen (which I know nothing about).

Woody said...

Donna - I agree with you about the process but not the end result. Both Tao and Zen aim to get us to experience reality. The reason Zen uses seemingly obscure language is that its aim is to bypass the logical/rational mind.

RT - If you do decide to read the book, I'd recommend that you skip the introduction by Jung until after you've read what Suzuki writes.

amy said...

Hmmm. This is interesting. I'm relatively unschooled in taoism and zen (my education being limited to reading the Tao Te Ching and Thich Nhat Hanh books, respectively).

I guess I never equated taoism as having any focus other than recognizing the dual nature of existence and living in harmony in nature as much as possible, whereas it does seem that zen is oriented toward a goal (enlightenment).

And I guess I thought as a branch of Buddhism, zen was also focused mankind's ultimate escape from suffering, whereas taoism (I thought), was more about accepting all aspects of life, including suffering, and learning to flow through them as effortlessly as possible.

Tao as a philosophy and zen as a religion.

Seems I have a lot more to learn about both paths! Thanks for the book reccomendation.

Woody said...

I believe that this is the problem with a lot western understanding of Taoism - that Taoism is a about a way of living. Of course it can be, but IMHO that's only a starting point & if that's all there were to it, it wouldn't have lasted & developed over 2000 years.

While Zen & Taoism take different paths I believe the ultimate destination for both are a state of being - not accepting, not escaping.

mr stephen said...

Interesting how different paths often cross.
I know of some YouTube films suggesting that Jesus was a Taoist.

TaoBoxer said...

Interesting. I, for right or wrong, view Tao as the Universal Energy & Zen as the way to understand it.

momus1 said...

If one did not diligently practice Zen meditation, it would be easy to assume that there is some sort of effort required to experience enlightenment. In reality, we are already enlightened but has been covered over by our beliefs and conditioning. It is in this very moment, not somewhere "out there" in space or time, and most certainly is not in our minds. It is living each moment in the moment. Enlightenment is not a permanent state, all things in the universe are impermanent and in constant change. In the best of our lives, enlightenment appears. It cannot be held. It has been said that there are no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity. I would heartily agree, from my own experience w/ this.

In any case, enlightenment is not required in Zen. One should ACT as if they were enlightened. It is not the final destination. Helping all beings is the purpose of Zen. First we help ourselves to become more sane, more compassionate, and to shed our conditioning and programming through meditation. Then we carry that meditation into the world in mindfulness. When "we" are out of the way, then something greater is allowed to operate. Call it god, the universe, whatever you call it it is simply a name and is not it. The 4 truths give us the reason why we suffer, and we should investigate them to see if they are true or not. The 8 fold path is a formula for compassionate and sane living. By living an ethical life of meaning that helps others..... the bug, the tree, the cat, the human, the sky, the water, we become centered, and our life has purpose. We become....happy.