Zen and Some Comments on A Mondo
Harold E. McCarthy
Philosophy East & West
(1967) pp. 91-96
Copyright 1967 by University of Hawaii Press
D. T. SUZUKI HAS, in his writings, insisted again and again
that Zen is not a philosophy and that Zen is not a religion, but that it
is essentially different from both philosophy and religion, and yet,
relevant to both as a significant alternative. Unless this much is
understood one does not even approach Zen on the right foot, let alone
in the right direction.
Zen is not, certainly, a system of speculative philosophy. Zen is
not concerned with an attempt to formulate, systematically and
intellectually, answers to questions concerning the ultimate nature of
man, the ultimate nature of the totality of reality in which man is
caught up, or the ultimate nature of the good life and the good society
for man. Zen gives us no laws, no rules, no principles, no "truths"
which could possibly be construed as metaphysical, epistemological, or
even moral. Thus it is that Zen cannot properly be spoken of as a form
of materialism, idealism, dualism, pantheism, mysticism, or even
existentialism. Nor can we say that Zen advocates the elimination of
speculative philosophy. Zen is the elimination of metaphysics in the
sense that Zen is not metaphysical at all. It does not solve or resolve
metaphysical questions. Metaphysical questions do not, for Zen, come up
from within the Zen orientation. When metaphysical questions are
directed to Zen, Zen smiles broadly and marks them, one and all: Return
to Sender. The understanding is that, if one can speak of understanding
in this context, they have been sent to the wrong address.
But if Zen is not a system of speculative philosophy, Zen is not a
form of critical philosophy either. Zen is not concerned with the
intellectual analysis of the meanings of terms and concepts, the rules
of logic, or the diverse modes of linguistic functioning. Some who are
students of Wittgenstein have been of the opinion that there is
Wittgenstein in Zen and Zen in Wittgenstein. Nothing, it seems to me,
could be farther from the truth. The writings
of Suzuki and the writings of Wittgenstein cannot be compared. They
move in opposite directions, and if they appear to arrive at times at
somewhat similar conclusions, the similarity is appearance only. If
Wittgenstein cannot be studied as Wittgenstein, let him be studied not
as a student of Zen but as a student of Aristotle who, after all, was
very much concerned with the rectification of names, the formulation of
what it is to be a science, and the setting forth of rules of formal
logic, though without the advantage of truth-table analysis.
Just as Zen is not philosophy, speculative or critical, so Zen,
as presented by Suzuki, is not religion either. In Zen there are no
rites, no rituals, no dogmas, no doctrines, no sacred scriptures, no
theologies, and no formulated "truths," noble or ignoble as the case may
be. The religionist who claps his two hands together to summon a
servant, natural or divine, is answered by the Zen man who holds one
hand aloft and calls attention to the impact of its soundlessness. Even
this is something one reads about but does not do. Holding one hand
aloft is not Zen. There are too many things to do, quietly, with both
hands to spend any time at all holding one hand aloft. A Zen man may
meditate, just as the emotionally ill man may seek out an analyst, but
meditation is not Zen. At best, meditation in Zen is a means to an end,
not an end in itself-though even this dichotomous distinction between
means and end is, at best, a symptom of our fallenness, our departure
from and separation from the on-going immediacy that is Zen.
It may be said, of course, from the outside, peering in, that the
goal of Zen is the achievement of satori. Satori may be achieved, we
are told, by way of zazen, or seated meditation, though enlightenment is
not something that can be guaranteed in advance. Satori may also be
achieved quite apart from zazen. If the eye has been opened, it is
ridiculous to say that satori has not been achieved because zazen has
not been systematically practiced. If the eye has been opened, if
suddenly we find ourselves free from names and forms, if -- in response
to whatever occasion or stimulus -- our world shines forth in its
original face, no longer sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
this is -- if it is -- satori.
Properly speaking, in Zen there are no sacred scriptures nor
expository analyses. The basic "literature" of Zen consists, for the
most part, of mondos and koans. Mondos and koans are happenings, and
there is a difference between a happening and the report of a happening.
One may, perhaps, learn from a report just as one may learn from the
critical review of a novel; but reading the review of a novel is not
undergoing a novel. Reading the reports of mondos and koans may be a way
of "studying" Zen, but it is not a way of
undergoing Zen nor of achieving satori. Koans are personal challenges
and mondos are personal experiences, each one with a unique form of its
My first koan, which emerged as a genuine happening, was given to
me by Suzuki himself at the time of the 1949 East-West Philosophers'
Conference. I was, at that time, young and fresh and full of spit and
empirical tough-mindedness. Devoted to logic and philosophy of science, I
was -- or so I thought -- carrying out in my way the program outlined
by A. J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic. Before meeting Suzuki I had
never heard of Zen, and what Suzuki had to say during the meetings of
the Conference seemed to make no sense to me at all. I decided at first
that he must be some kind of odd and offbeat mystic concerned with
uttering the unutterable. Later, in contrast to what I was learning
about Advaita, it seemed to me that Zen was not mysticism at all but,
really, an odd form of pragmatic naturalism that could be improved, or
possibly brought up to date, by removing its chosen air of paradox and
deliberate mystification. Becoming more and more perplexed and disturbed
toward the end of the Conference, I came, as it were, to the end of my
rope. Leaning across the conference table in the direction of Suzuki, I
asked what I took to be a real payoff of a question. "Sir," I said,
"answer me just one question and I shall be content. Is the empirical
world real for Zen?" Suzuki, it seemed to me, replied without a moment's
hesitation : "The empirical world is real just as it is." I felt that I
had struck home. This was no mystic but a tough-minded empiricist. I
was elated. My elation, however, lasted hardly more than a few seconds.
The arrow that had pierced my skin possessed a barb. For suddenly I was
face to face with the question: If the empirical world is real just as
it is, how is it when it is just as it is? Philosophers and scientists,
East and West, had attempted to describe the empirical world just as it
is -- the outcome was disagreement, conflict, and the canceling out of
mutually incompatible descriptions. I turned the coin over. There it
was, the empirical world, just as it is, beyond all manner of speech;
and there, so clear in the morning light, were the traps, the nets, that
encircled it on every side, designed to catch what mainly crept away.
I had never done zazen. I had never practiced the art of archery.
I had, however, surfed. I was once asked by an outsider what I thought
about when riding in on the shoulder of a wave. My answer was immediate
and direct: "I think about nothing at all. If I were to think I could
not keep my balance." No two boards are the same, no two waves are the
same, no two winds are the same, no two days are the same. Surfing is
not a knowing but a doing. And when one surfs, the empirical world is
real just as it is. Only afterwards, over one's shoulder, does not
reflect. Although not a saint, it would appear that, face to face with
Suzuki, I had kept an appointment.
The mondos are many, and many of the classical mondos are
familiar. But mondos, when they happen, are happenings; and there is all
the difference in the world between a living mondo in which one is
caught up and a dead mondo which lends itself only to dissection after
the fact. During the 1959 East-West Philosopher's Conference, Suzuki was
present again, older, to be sure, but with a vigor that defied his
years. Some time during the second week or so of this Conference I
learned from Van Meter Ames that Suzuki had arranged, outside the
framework of the Conference proper, a number of Zen discussion meetings.
Suzuki, Professor Ames indicated, would like me to be present. "Thank
you," I replied; and I did not go. My presence may, in some manner, have
been missed. The following week, possibly as an envoy from Suzuki,
Kenneth Inada (a former student of mine, and at that time an advanced
student at the University of Tokyo) informed me that there was to be
another Zen discussion meeting and that Suzuki would like me to come.
"Thank you," I replied; and once more I did not go. The third week
Suzuki himself arrived on the scene and informed me that there was to be
a Zen discussion meeting to which I was invited. I bowed and smiled.
Suzuki bowed and smiled. Then we both laughed. Suzuki went his way and I
went mine. I had been invited not once but three times. It was in the
end as if the master and I understood on a level beyond analysis and
discussion. I had been given my koan. Ten years later I had now lived
through my mondo. If not satori, I had achieved, or so it seems to me, a
measure of insight.
Though mondos are happenings, meaningful when one is really
caught up in them, not analyzed but lived through, the reports of
mondos are not altogether beyond analysis, explication, elucidation so
long as one remembers that the analysis of a mondo is not a mondo any
more than the analysis of a poem is itself a poem. Poems, if they are to
be analyzed at all, must be grasped from within in the dimension of
sense, feeling, emotion, and imagination; and mondos, if they are to be
explicated at all, seem to presuppose a unique kind of Einfuehlung. The
student of Zen may have a favorite mondo; but one thing is certain -- if
the student has one favorite mondo, he has many favorite mondos, and
the explication of one mondo, however partial and personal, will lead
him to the explication of another and another. There is really no
termination. Suzuki, it seems to me, is wise. He provides us with mondos
but resists, on the whole, complicated explication. I am certainly not
as wise as Suzuki. I have a favorite mondo, presented by Suzuki without
comment. Where he maintains a noble silence, I play the game of
Let me conclude this chapter with the following quotation from
one of the earliest Zen writings. Doko (Tao-kwang), a Buddhist
philosopher and a student of the Vijnaptimatra (absolute idealism), came
to a Zen master and asked:
"With what frame of mind should one discipline oneself in the truth?"
the Zen master, "There is no mind to be framed, nor is there any truth
in which to be disciplined."
"If there is no mind to be framed and no
truth in which to be disciplined, why do you have a daily gathering of
monks who are studying Zen and disciplining themselves in the truth?"
master replied: "I have not an inch of space to spare, and where could I
have a gathering of monks? I have no tongue, and how would it be
possible for me to advise others to come to me?"
The philosopher then
exclaimed, "How can you tell a lie like that to my face."
have no tongue to advise others, is it possible for me to tell a lie?"
Doko despairingly, "I cannot follow your reasoning."
"Neither do I
understand myself," concluded the Zen master.
Although Suzuki warns us that in Zen "Questions and Answers"
there "are no quibblings, no playing at words, no sophistry," this
little dialogue sparkles with the most serious wit, irony, and
directness. Involved is the immediate confrontation of a Buddhist
philosopher and a Zen master. The philosopher, being a philosopher,
assumes -- on the basis of his own ignorance, which he undoubtedly
regards as wisdom -- that Zen is, indeed, a philosophy, concerned with
disclosing a truth to be grasped by the mind or intellect. The reply on
the part of the master is completely to the point. The philosopher has
come to the wrong place. Zen is not a philosophy; there is no "truth" to
be grasped by the "mind," and one who supposes that there is such a
truth has already come in the wrong frame of mind (or the wrong frame of
something), exhibiting his ignorance by speaking about a "frame of
mind" in the first place.
The master's reply may be surprising, but Doko is not set back on
his heels. Like a chess player determined to win and sure of his rules
and his skills, he tries again, pointing out what he takes to be
evidence incompatible with the master's statement: the obvious presence
of monks who are, equally obviously, studying Zen and disciplining
themselves in the truth. The master's reply is without hesitation as he
sticks to his guns. Men there are, but there are no monks; indeed, in a
zendo there is no more room for monks of the traditional variety than
there is for deaf men at a musical concert -- occupying seats, they
would deny room to others and yet would hear not a sound. More-
1. D. T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (New York: The
Philosophical Library, 1949), p. 57.
2. Ibid., pp. 56-57.
over, the men who have come have come of their own accord. The
master, so to speak, is not a recruiter. He has no cross to carry and
has no slogan of the form: "Take up my cross and follow me." Thus the
master's reply is simple and open and is most certainly not intended to
But the philosopher, forgetting his manners, forgetting that he
himself is, at best, an uninvited guest and, not realizing that he is a
bull in a china shop, now accuses the master, to whom his initial
approach was that of a humble seeker, of being a liar. The master,
undisturbed by such rudeness, replies with the utmost simplicity,
suggesting in his way that it was Doko who formulated the questions in
the first place. If he is not satisfied with the replies, they have been
given in good faith, not on the basis that stupid questions deserve
equally stupid replies, but perhaps with the suggestion that questions
themselves are not without presuppositions (which may be quite
erroneous), such that those who ask illegitimate questions may not be
satisfied at all with the answers they receive. If Doko had been
enlightened enough to ask the right questions, he would not have asked
any questions at all.
At this point Doko is in despair. He does not understand. The Zen
master is sympathetic and human. He does not understand either. Left
hanging in the air, unformulated but clearly involved, is the question:
"Who started this discussion in the first place?"
Insofar as this question applies to me, it is easy to answer. I
initiated the discussion in this paper. At this point I now terminate
it, with salutations and -- if need be -- apologies to Suzuki, the
master, and Charles A. Moore, the Conference Director, without whom this
paper would never have been written