2000-04-03: An Introduction to Zen Buddhism

An Introduction to Zen Buddhism

Foreword by Dr. C. G. Jung (1954)

by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966)

1954 was the earliest copyright I found in the book, but the essays were written during the 1914 war. The date of Jung’s foreword is not given.

Jung describes the aim of Zen thus:

The complete destruction of the rational intellect aimed at in the training creates an almost perfect lack of supposition of the consciousness. Conscious supposition is thereby excluded as far as possible, but not unconscious supposition; that is, the existing but unperceived psychological disposition, which is anything but emptiness and lack of supposition. It is a nature-given factor, and when it answers – as is obviously the satori experience – it is an answer of Nature, who has succeeded in conveying her reactions direct to the consciousness. 

The world of consciousness is inevitably a world full of restrictions, of walls blocking the way. It is of necessity always one-sided, resulting form the essence of consciousness. No consciousness can harbor more than a very small number of simultaneous conceptions. All else must lie in shadow, withdrawn from sight. To increase the simultaneous content creates immediately a dimming of consciousness; confusion, in fact, to the point of disorientation. Consciousness does not simply demand, but is, of its very essence, a strict limitation to the few and hence the distinct. For our general orientation we are indebted simply and solely to the fact that through attentiveness we are able to effect a comparatively rapid succession of images. Attentiveness is, however, an effort of which we are not permanently capable. We have therefore to make do, so to speak, with a minimum of simultaneous perceptions and successions of images. Hence wide fields of possible perceptions are permanently eliminated, and consciousness is always bound to the narrowest circle. What would happen if an individual consciousness were to succeed in embracing at one glance a simultaneous picture of all that it could imagine is beyond conception. If man has already succeeded in building up the structure of the world from the few clear things that he can perceive at one and the same time, what godly spectacle would present itself to his eyes were he able to perceive a great deal all at once and distinctly? This question only concerns perceptions that are possible to us. But if we add to those the unconscious contents – i.e. contents which are not yet, or no longer, capable of consciousness – and then try to imagine a complete spectacle, why, this is beyond even the most audacious fantasy. This unimaginableness is of course a complete impossibility in the conscious form, but in the unconsciousness form it is a fact, inasmuch as all that is seething below is an ever-present potentiality of conception. The unconscious is an unglimpsable completeness of all subliminal psychic factors, a “total exhibition” of potential nature. It constitutes the entire disposition from which consciousness takes fragments from time to time. Now if consciousness is emptied as far as possible of its contents, the latter will fall into a state (at least a transitory state) of unconsciousness. This displacement ensues as a rule in Zen through the fact of the energy of the conscious being withdrawn from the contents and transferred either to the conception of emptiness or to the koan. As the two last-named must be stable, the succession of images is also abolished, and with it the energy which maintains the kinetic of the conscious. The amount of energy that is saved goes over to the unconscious, and reinforces its natural supply up to a certain maximum. This increases the readiness of the unconscious contents to break through to the conscious. Since the emptying and the closing down of the conscious is no easy matter, a special training and an indefinitely long period of time is necessary to produce that maximum of tension which leads to the final breakthrough of unconscious contents into the conscious.

He goes on to relate these observations or suppositions to psychiatric experience. I am sympathetic to this description of the working of the mind, although I don’t care for some of his wording. In all of his words, I don’t find anything convincingly saying that he has known the satori experience personally (which, of course, doesn’t invalidate anything he says).

Suzuki writes on Zen in the familiar way of most writers (who are certainly following him). He goes on at length about what Zen is not, apparently trying to dispel certain preconceived notions he has encountered before. Early on he has the following positive statement:

The basic idea of Zen is to come in touch with the inner workings of our being, and to do this 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 intellect accomplishes its mission when it works as an intermediary, and Zen has nothing to do with an intermediary except when it desires to communicate itself to others. For this reason all scriptures are merely tentative and provisory; there is in them no finality. 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 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. What more may we hope?

Most of the book describes what someone approaching Zen with the idea of attaining satori might expect, and some of it is interesting. However, as I have no interest in subjecting myself to any Zen master, it is not attractive to me. After describing some of the austerities of a monk’s life, he has the following:

We ought not, however, to conclude that asceticism is an ideal of life for Zen monks; for as far as the ultimate significance of Zen is concerned, it is neither asceticism nor any other ethical system. If it appears to advocate either the doctrine of suppression or that of detachment, it is merely so on the surface, for Zen as a school of general Buddhism inherits more or less the odium of the Hindu ascetic discipline. The central idea, however, of the monk’s life is not to waste but to make the best possible use of things as they are given us, which is also the spirit of Buddhism everywhere. In truth, the intellect, the imagination, and all the other mental faculties as well as the physical objects that surround us, our own bodies not being excepted, are given for the unfolding and enhancing of the highest powers possessed by us, and not merely for the gratification of individual whims and desires, which are sure to conflict with and injure the interests and rights to be asserted by others. these are some of the inner ideas underlying the simplicity and poverty of the monk’s life.

I like Suzuki, and Jung talking about Suzuki.

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