Buddhist Meditations
Zen Action/Zen Person
by Thomas P.Kasulis
24/06/2010 13:24 (GMT+7)
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Zen Action/Zen Person
by Thomas P.Kasulis
Carl B.Becker

Journal of Chinese Philosophy



Copyright@1984 by Dialogue Publishing Company, Honolulu,

Hawaii, U.S.A.


Be not misled: Zen Action/Zen Person is not merely another introduction a survey of Zen Buddhism. Kasulis' philosophical project and purview is far grander; he is seeking a new grounds for understanding personhood through a Zen view of self and action. Even scholars with no interest in Zen per se will find much of philosophical interest and stimulation in this creative work. Kasulis' scope is vast indeed: he begins with Socrates and ends with Morita psychotherapy, with frequent references to Heidegger and other contemporary European philosphers.Kasulis quotes Taoist Chinese sages, Indian dialecticians, and German philosophers with equal ease, to illustrate and buttress his arguments. Although he sometimes ignores historic schisms among competing Zen schools, Kasulis is not writing a history of Zen,nor does he intend to do so. In his preface, his goal is explicit

"Often the explanations (of Zen Masters) are not fully satisfying to the critical Western reader. To fill in the gaps, we will resort in this study to some philosophical reconstruction.In other words, by extrapolating from the basic tenets of the Zen tradition, we can reason through certain arguments that are only implicit or fragmented in the Zen writings themselves...."(p.xi)

This is indeed a welcome volume for those of us who have fallen out of love with the perpetual paradox of cocktail party koans, and the smiling masters so unwilling to support or explain their deep-sounding pronouncements.

Kasulis recognizes that Zen emerges from a Sino-Japanese world with presuppositions very different from our own, He starts from two premises taken for granted among Japanese but too rarely elucidated for Westerners: that language is inadequate to describe reality, and that personhood (like language) is inescapably contextual. Zen Action/Zen Person opens with a discussion of context in Zen and in Japanese language, While oversimplified,


this unique approach has several merits. It acquaints the reader with the Japanese viewpoint, simultaneously denying that Zen need be inscrutable and impenetrable, while cautioning against wholesale translation of Zen ideas into Western :terminology. This beginning section is a good example of Kasulis' practicing what he preaches: all communication is inextricably context-bound, so each context must be understood before its language has any meaning. Kasulis takes the argument a step further, holding that personhood is also defined in terms of contexts in the Orient. While this is importantly true, Kasulis never even alludes to the Vedic or Confucian origins of the relationships and hierarchies which define persons in India and China. Taoism and Buddhism are reactions against mainstream Hindu and Confucian role-definitions of persons in society, which they never supplant. We may well wonder how far the Japanese notion of personhood in terms of context and action is Zen-inspired, and how much we should really trace back to the Analects and the cultures it nourished.

At the same time that Kasulis challenges the high regard in which Western thinkers have held propositional truths, he denies that Eastern philosophers have seen no need for consistent arguments in defending their own positions. To show that Zen's distrust of language is logically defensible, Kasulis turns to the critiques of time and causality in Nagajuna's Mulamadhyamikakarika. Time and causality are notoriously messy concepts, so to treat them as typical of the inadequacies of all language and conclude that "all utterances share the quality (of being contradictory or paradoxical) if we push them far enough," (p. 28) may be a little hasty. Most simple statements can be unpacked and analysed quite unproblematically, with sufficiently sophisticated definitions, syntax rules, and perhaps Montague grammar, unknown to the Japanese. Nevertheless, for the sake of the western reader, Kasulis' use of Nagajuna has the value of repudiating common-sense notions of the simplicity and referentiality of language. It would be a mistake to think of Nagarjuna's methods as father to the Zen tradition, of which Kasulis says he is a "patriarch." Historical links between Nagarjuna and Bodhidharma and the early Chinese patriarchs are unknown, and logical analyses with the force and clarity of Nagarjuna's dialectics are distinctly lacking in most of the Zen tradition. But Kasulis is not claiming that Nagajuna is a Zen Buddhist. Rather, he uses Nagarjuna to show how we may rationally criticize ratiocination, to defend and explain the background and consistency of Zen


philosophy as a Zen master might, if one ever felt the need to defend and explain,and in this he does a fine job.

Kasulis is probably best known for his writings on Dogen, and it is in his interpetations of Dogen that he really shines. He demonstrates a meticulous and empathetic reading of Dogen's Shobogenzo, particularly the difficult fascicles on genjokoan, bendowa, and uji. Here, Kasulis has done a commendable job in "demythologysing" Zen Buddhism of the metaphysicalisms which have encumbered it since D.T. Suzuki. By reinterpreting such Suzuki-isms as "manifestation of reality" as the more accessible "presence of things as they are," Kasulis indeed makes Zen more consistent with its claim to repudiate metaphysics, or at least to reject blanket statements about unexperienceable Ultimates. However, this very translation, "presence of things as they are," tends towards a naive realism so common in Sino-Japanese thought. The careful phenomenologist wants to "bracket out" the question of the reality of the objects of experience, and simply deal with experiences themselves. Indian Buddhists like Nagarjuna would surely agree. But the Zen (Ch'an) tradition often strays into a naive realism which asserts that not only experience but its objects are externally real and objectively, knowable. Reflecting the vacillation of his sources, Kasulis is sometimes very clear that Dogen is a phenomenologist (p. 69); at other times, he quotes with approbation the materialist version of Dumoulin, that "This physical world, just as it is, is genuine, patent reality." (p. 84). But such apparent inconsistencies are rare, and do not significantly detract from the argument for the primacy of experience.

Zen Action/Zen Person is made the more readable by its inclusion of examples taken from everyday experience. In drawing the essential distinction between "not thinking" and 'without thinking," Kasulis analogizes "not thinking" to the state of the insomniac worrier who rolls over, takes a deep breath, and makes a conscious effort to blank his mind and stop all thought (p. 74). He analogizes 'without thinking" to thoughtlessly saying "ouch" upon stubbing a toe, or to the one who gazes thoughtlessly over his lawn after mowing it. The insomniac example is a good example of "not thinking"-the conscious rejection of further conscious thought. The examples of "without thinking" are inadequate;let us see why.

Clinical studies of Zen masters have shown that the Zen state is one in which there is no judgment,categorization, nor habituation of experience.


Kasulis is aware of the earliest of these studies (Naranjo and Ornstein, 1971), stating that "every click (experience) is a first click (experience)" to someone in this state of mind (p. 163). We grant that there is no self-conscious reflection in saying "ouch" or blankly gazing over the lawn, as Kasulis says.But the Zen person would do neither. For there is a component of emotional display in the "ouch" reaction, which the non-judgmental, non-categorizing Zen attitude precludes. The Zen master's stubbed toe is fully experienced, but it requires no further verbalization. Nor is the dazed gaze of the weary lawn-mower, unintentional and self-forgetful as it may be, analogous to the undimming perceptual receptivity of the Zen master. These examples are misleading if they leave the impression that surprised or dazed unthinking moments (Jap.: bonyari/boketto shite) are ,phenomenologically similar to the flood of unanalysed immediacy, "the presencing" by which we should characterize Zen masters. Zen non-reflection is not the un-selfconscious thoughtlessness of the animal, the child, the insane, the exhausted laborer, or the fool caught off guard. They all lack the unhabituating and continuous total awareness--the undimmed and non-verbal at-one-ness with their experience-that the Zen master attains through years of discipline.

Zen Action/Zen Person tends to slight the role of discipline and dedication, so crucial to the Japanese and so rare in the modern West. That most of Kasulis' examples fail to capture the fullness of the Zen masters' experiences is very understandable, and Kasulis himself admits the limitations of some of his examples.To equate mere thoughtless reaction with the spontaneity of Zen

enlightenment,as he does (pp.88 ff.)answers the troublesome old query, "In what sense are all beings already enlightened? " with, "They all have pre-reflective experiences." But it fails to treat the concomitant question, "Then what is the need for discipline, what the need to do anything at all, much less sitting in meditation? " The latter may be answered in the master's ability to put himself in a fully selfless and fully aware, non-habituating state of mind at will, fully feeling every moment as totally new and unique. But all this is a question of emphasis rather than of error, and our own preferences may be skewed in an opposite direction. Kasulis' more important theme is importantly correct: that further examination of pre-reflective states (enlightened or not) may give new dimensions to our understanding of personhood in terms of act.


It is to be regretted that Zen Action/Zen Person took so many years to publish--but it is good to have it in hand at last! Kasulis' discussion of important terms like mu, basho, jisetsu, is too rich to encapsulate here, but deserves full reading by scholars and Zen practitioners alike. Kasulis brings together seminal insights of Taoist, Zen, and contemporary philosophy, reaching towards new understanding of man's being-in-the-world, and of the non-being which is prior to and makes possible that being. He finds points of compatibility between Dogen and Hakuin, representing rival schools of Soto and Rinzai Zen. He finds close kinship in Buddha's process philosophy, Basho's haiku,:and Morita's psychotherapy, miles and millenia removed. In a study of millenia, a decade is not long, and Kasulis' sources are not old, but they are aging. 90% of his references are more than a decade old. none are younger than five years. Much interesting scholarship has emgerged since his Yale dissertation, and it would be interesting to have Kasulis' responses to other comparative scholars. Cleary and Kodera have brought out new translations of Dogen, while Leebrich and A.C. Graham have improved on previous translations of the Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, respectively. Bossert and Steffney have compared Zen and phenomenology, while others like Akishige, Izutsu,Hirai, and Sekida have discussed the Zen mind in ways particularly relevant to Kasulis' interest in psychotherapy. But we have surely not heard the last from this insightful interpreter of Zen.

Zen Action/Zen Person is a good book about Zen. It shows us that there is more of philosophical significance in the Japanese tradition than it is normally credited with having. It makes good sense of some Buddhist thinkers, and explains what others would have wanted to say if they had had both the interest and the linguistic abilities to be philosophically consistent, as Kasulis does. But it is not only a book about Zen; it is a major and creative philosophical reconstruction. It demonstrates that Japanese Zen can be intelligible to a western intellectual on his own terms-while clearly recognizing its deep roots in a very foreign context of culture and language. It demystifies much confusion created by the metaphysical language of his predecessors, after Suzuki. It traces pregnant parallels between the Zen world-view and western phenomenology, particularly of Heidegger and Husserl. In so doing, Kasulis not only finds fruitful new directions for an understanding of persorlhood, but opens a wide door to more creative Japanese-American philosophical dialogue.

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