2000-01-25: The Tao of Zen

The Tao of Zen (1994; 3rd ed 1999)

by Ray Grigg  (?)

Several years ago, I did some reading about Zen Buddhism. I was intrigued by aspects of it, but not by the Buddhist parts. Later I read Smullyan’s The Tao is Silent and discovered that all this time I had been a Taoist without knowing it! (I just noticed there is no book report on The Tao is Silent; I will have to reread and report on it.)

Grigg’s work is very well done. It describes the Taoist core of Zen Buddhism. In the process he highlights Taoist ideas (and non-ideas) in a fairly clear way (about as clear as a book can be expected to). I think he sets a good example for explicating Taoism, and the book made me want to read others of his.

He also describes the historical sources of Zen Buddhism, but not in as great depth as I would have liked. I think the history of ideas must not be as interesting to him as the ideas are. Of course, it is a ripe subject for a memetic approach.

I found a few parts of his book that I wanted to capture here, and also some of his sources that I want to follow up.

On page 139, after introducing the metaphor of non-understanding students of Zen “adding their own legs to the snake”, which cannot walk because it thinks it has legs, Grigg has this description of the Taoist sage:

Something undeniably simple and profoundly ordinary demands to be remembered, whether it be the legless snake or Chuang Tzu’s turtle. The equivalent human image is the Taoist sage, living peacefully and unnoticed among others. This is a person who belongs everywhere and nowhere, someone who seems deeply ordinary and yet subtly different, an inner outcast who follows some unknowable wisdom of great grace. Induced silence and enforced stillness are not Taoism or Zen. Monasteries are not the places to find those who follow the ordered freedom of nature. What other freedom is there?

In the chapter on Ordinariness, Grigg discusses the difficulty of recognizing the ordinary:

The trick is to be wholly empty while remaining receptive to concrete and specific experience. The boundless mystery of life is vividly explained merely by being alive. Ask someone who is about to die. Just being alive is what makes the ordinary so extraordinary. Being fully present explains the meaning of life; being wholly empty provides the receptivity that understands this explanation. There is nothing else to know. After the diver has taken the greatest breath and plunged into the darkest depth in search of the deepest truth, the answer can only live in the bright air of the surface. This is why all mythological heroes who survive the journey of their quest finally return to the place where they began. The end is the beginning. The ordinary is the answer.

But the dive, like the quest, is necessary. The shedding of the ordinary permits the diver to resurface and breathe again. The old is made new. The heavy becomes light. The ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary. The sun is brighter and warmer. And the trees are freshly ablaze with green. The dive is so difficult because the knowing that is known but not recognized must be wholly lost to be rediscovered. Each person must trust that the dark sinking will be followed by a sure rising, and that the struggling consciousness will flood again with empty sky.

Moment by moment the same old ordinary reappears, rejuvenates, and teaches. Here is Mahakasyapa’s smile offered to the Buddha’s flower. Here is the child’s birth-cry, the smell of fresh grass, the dew on the morning spiderweb. The eye sees. The ear hears. And the heart softly understands. The cycle of time, seasons, and generations continues on its profoundly ordinary course. Basho writes:

See: surviving sons

Visit the ancestral grave …

Bearded, with bent canes.

… Being ordinary, being naturally simple, is the balanced center between words and the invented poles of opposites. Ordinariness is the neutral position that does not generate the dance of metaphor or abstraction. It is just being, totally free from unjustified pretention or unnecessary humility.

Perhaps this condition of balanced wholeness is best expressed in literature as haiku, a succinct verse form that conveys ordinary experience without intellectually coloring it. In the world of words, haiku comes the closest to capturing the poignant extraordinariness of the ordinary, to saying something that is simultaneously lofty and grounded. Again, Basho:

Come! Let’s go see

The real flowers …

Of this painful world.

There is more, but you should read it yourself.

I particularly liked the chapter on Playfulness:

The playfulness that is so conspicuous in Taoism and Zen is not an indication of superficiality. Rather it is an expression of the profound insight that lies below the surface of appearances. Sobriety struggles with the world; playfulness dances with it.

The instinct that holds life as valuable must also hold it as worthless. Without this balance of opposite measures, life would be a commodity too valuable to spend on living. Without the reckless and defiant laugh, life could not properly risk, change, flourish, and spend itself. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his essay, Aes Triplex:

We may trick [ourselves] with the word life in its dozen senses until we are weary of tricking; we may argue in terms of all the philosophies on earth; but one fact remains true throughout – that we do not love life, in the sense that we are greatly preoccupied about its conservation; that we do not, properly speaking, love life at all, but living….

This insight recognizes that life lives itself by tricking everyone to follow what it demands. Anyone with a sense of humor will realize how this joke places all sobriety in the context of playfulness.

So playfulness always has a double edge; it is the levity offering balance to a game that is deadly serious. Its apparent irreverence is really an affirmation and a celebration of life’s own freedom to be itself. Playfulness balances what would otherwise be discouragingly heavy and weary. Without both halves, the whole of life would be crippled.

Since the rules of life are absolute and irrevokable, what choice is there but to accept them gracefully and play within their confinement? When placed beside the serious finality of life, the rules of people seem relative, arbitrary, and often foolish. But people take them seriously. So these rules are seen for their serious whimsy and they too become the ground of play.

What is the difference between the absolute and the arbitrary? Nothing. For opposite reasons play treats them as the same. The inevitability of destiny deserves a smile; and the nonsense of others also deserves a smile. There is no better option. …

The insight feeding … laughter comes from a gentle distancing that sees the human condition in the context of the greater Way. The view comes from a balance of detachment and involvement, from someplace where a compassionate perspective sees the magnificent silliness of human endeavor. All its busyness, its invented pomp and ritual, its individual and collective folly, is serious nonsense. And the grandness of self-importance is the empty bubble so easily popped by the common act of dying. Without this perspective, even the sorry drama of personal tragedy would somehow misrepresent itself. Distancing creates a clarity so that when it meets the seriousness of life, they remember their togetherness and greet each other with smiles and laughter.

Among the sources Grigg cites, the following seem particularly worth looking into (again if necessary; those I don’t already have are marked with an asterisk):

Alan Watts, The Way of Zen

Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way

* Alan Watts, Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen

* R. H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Robert Sohl and Audrey Carr, eds., Games Zen Masters Play: Writings of R.H. Blyth

Frederick Franck, Zen and Zen Classics

* Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Ray Grigg’s books that might prove interesting:

The Contemporary Lao Tzu  (unpublished)

The Tao of Relationships

The Tao of Being

The Tao of Sailing

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