How to Teach Zen in a College Classroom

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How to Teach Zen in a College Classroom

Chang-Seong Hong
Minnesota State University–Moorhead

Legend has it that the Buddha simply raised a flower when he was asked a question, “What is truth?” The entire assemblage of his followers that gathered to listen was completely puzzled at his response. Only one of the Buddha’s disciples understood the meaning of his silence and broke into a smile. This incident supposedly became the origin of the Zen tradition, the teaching of wordless transmission of truth.

It is exciting, but undoubtedly challenging, to try to convey the meaning of this “silent” teaching in a college classroom where we are expected to talk. Some Buddhists would even argue that it is not a coherent idea to verbally explain the teachings of Zen when the Zen tradition denies the usefulness of any conceptual approach to truth. But I wanted to find a way for this allegedly impossible job. After all, the Buddha used many “skillful means” of a great variety wherever and whenever he thought they could benefit different groups of people. The incoherent idea of verbal teaching of the silent truth may not be incoherent at all if it could help best “enlighten” my Western students who have virtually no knowledge of Buddhism. I was not going to miss any opportunity to use this skillful means. Seven years ago, I took up this challenge just the way only our reckless youths would prefer. I chose a story of Zen for the topic of my sample class when I was interviewed for a professorship to teach analytic metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and contemporary epistemology. I could not expect to have any good number of students or professors in the audience who were familiar with Buddhism, especially when they were going to observe and evaluate the teaching performance of a candidate whose job descriptions included nothing but hardcore analytic philosophy courses. My challenge was to use verbally skillful means to teach the Western audience the wordless truth of Zen and help them get enlightened in fifty minutes. Well, it seems my verbal teaching of nonverbal truth was effective in some way—I got a job offer from the professors in the audience (but, of course, I am not sure whether they offered me a job because my skillful means enlightened them), took it, and am still teaching at the same college. It was a very interesting and exciting experience. Naturally, I wish to have a chance to share this experience with other philosophers who teach, or want to teach, Zen in their college classes. Let me ask you not to be surprised how I taught the sample class. The topic I gave at the beginning of the class was: Why is the Buddha a piece of dogshit?

I taught the class as follows. Once upon a time, in ancient Korea, there was a renowned Zen monk. One day his student asked, “Master, what is the Buddha?” The monk answered, “Dogshit!” This dialogue is quite puzzling on its surface. Is the Buddha a piece of dogshit? The master and his student were both Buddhist monks, and it is hard to imagine that the famous monk was teaching some kind of blasphemy to his student. But the master’s answer apparently implied that the Buddha was a piece of dogshit. The Zen tradition is full of puzzling but interesting stories of this sort, and Buddhists have learned the teachings of Zen with a lot of jokes, fun, and laughter. But let me tell you: there is absolutely no blasphemy involved anywhere in these stories. When someone points to the moon with a finger, you do not want to see the finger itself; you should look at the moon to which the finger is pointing. Likewise, do not try to understand the meaning of these Zen stories by merely analyzing the syntax and semantics of sentences. I can assure you that, for instance, the master’s answer can never be truly understood by analyzing the meaning of the word “dogshit.” In other words, we need to try to go see what our dialogue points to, not the dialogue itself. The purpose of this class is to help you make sense of this puzzling dialogue that does not seem to make any sense on its surface structure.

Some brief introduction to the basic principles of Buddhism is necessary in order to understand the gist of the Zen teaching. Before getting into the philosophical teachings of Buddhism, I ask students if they know anything about Buddhism, I mean, anything. There is not much response—they talk about Dalai Lama, the fat happy Buddha (but he is, in fact, not a Buddha!), meditation, etc. I ask again if there is anyone who knows the meaning of the word “the Buddha.” This time, there is no answer, just silence. Then I give the answer myself. “The Buddha” means “the Enlightened One.” This is the etymologically correct answer. But it is not a philosophically good answer because we need to ask further what it is that the Buddha was awakened to. What is it that the Buddha was enlightened of? It is the truth about the world and life (or the worlds and lives, if you believe in transmigration). (1) This world and our lives in it are fundamentally unsatisfactory, (2) the cause of this unhappiness is our excessive attachment, but (3) we can avoid this unsatisfactoriness by eliminating its cause, which is our attachment, and (4) there is a way to eliminate the attachment. This is the famous noble fourfold truth that the Buddha was enlightened of. This is the most basic teaching of all schools in Buddhism, and, thus, it deserves more of our attention, although it is not directly related to the characteristic teachings of the Zen tradition.

The first teaching of the noble fourfold truth is that the world and our lives are fundamentally flawed. Many important aspects of our lives are marked with painful experiences. Births are obviously traumatic experiences to both mothers and babies. Youth is short and we soon grow old. Aging comes with weakness and sickness. And we eventually die. No one can escape any of these unsatisfactory phases of life. Let me tell you of another couple of unsatisfactory stories that happen in everybody’s life. We cannot live with those who we love most—our loved ones often have to live far away from us, and they leave us behind for good when they die. This is very unsatisfactory. The other side of the same coin is that we have to live together with those who we dislike most. Almost everyone has bad experiences with roommates, so one can easily understand what this aspect of life is like. Imagine how those Jews must have felt when they had to live with Hitler and his followers in Nazi Germany. I suppose you do not need any more examples. But the point of this teaching is not to espouse any pessimistic point of view of the world and life. To the contrary, it is to courageously admit the unsatisfactory aspects of life so that we can find out a better way to improve it. So the Buddha did not stop his teaching when he recognized the unsatisfactoriness of our lives. He further analyzed its cause and concluded that it is our attachment that causes all our sufferings. This is the second teaching of the noble fourfold truth. What does it mean to say that attachment is the origin of our unhappiness? Perhaps the following formula, however crude it may be, can serve as a principle of happiness and help explain the problem of attachment: Happiness = satisfaction / desire (attachment). Happiness increases when desires are satisfied more or better. Given the same amount of desires, the increase of satisfaction results in the increase of happiness. If it is for some reason impossible to increase satisfaction, or if the satisfaction has to decrease, one may try not to increase desires, or, better, one may want to decrease them in order to remain at least as happy as before. The Buddha teaches that it is always a good idea to try to decrease any unnecessary or excessive desires for one’s happiness because, given very limited supplies of material goods and services available in this world, it is hard to increase the satisfaction of our evergrowing desires. Further, there are some desires that you can never satisfy—for instance, desires to avoid aging, sickness, and death. For your peace of mind, you need to learn not to have those desires. Suppose that one reduces his or her desires much, so much so as to have the amount of desires approach zero. According to our formula, the amount of happiness will approach infinity. No wonder the Buddha, who has completely eliminated all the attachments, always smiles with blissful joy. The third teaching of the noble fourfold truth is that we can avoid the unsatisfactoriness of our lives by eliminating its cause, that is, by eliminating attachment. I have already explained this third teaching. The fourth teaching is that there is a way to eliminate attachment: Follow the noble eightfold path. The gist of this teaching is one should do everything right, and I do not have time to explain all the eight right things to do. Further, I believe that, from a philosophical point of view, what interests us more is not what it is that is right but what right itself is. But the teaching of the noble eightfold path does not address the latter issue.

All the schools of Buddhism accept the noble fourfold truth. It was the Buddha’s very first sermon given right after his enlightenment. Other teachings of the Buddha, which are more closely related to the philosophical foundations of the Zen tradition, include the doctrines of impermanence and interdependent arising (or dependent origination). The teaching of impermanence may be compared to Heraclitus’s view of the world. Nothing remains the same over time, and everything changes constantly. Heraclitus’s examples will illustrate this point clearly. For instance, can we step in the same river twice? No, the river is made of water, the water flows constantly, we cannot step in the same water twice, so it is impossible to step in the same river twice. Although we use the same name, say, “The Mississippi,” to refer to a river, there is no such river that remains the same over any duration of time. No material objects stay the same because their constituent particles are constantly moving around, going away and coming in all the time. Our minds also never stay the same because different beliefs and thoughts are always coming and going in our minds. In Buddhism, there is not a thing that lasts over any time period. So, it is only a result of ignorance to be attached to anything in this world as if that thing would last permanently for us. The doctrine of impermanence teaches how futile our attachment is.

You may like to know why I regard the teaching of impermanence as a doctrine, not as a truth tout court. Well, it is because I think there may be good objections and counterexamples to this teaching. For instance, should we also regard the “truth” of impermanence itself as impermanent, thereby nullifying the importance of this teaching? Most Buddhists accept the doctrine of impermanence as a permanent truth, but this results in a serious logical problem—a paradox. Philosophers’ stock examples of necessary truth, such as “The sum of internal angles of a triangle is 180 degrees,” “Water is H2O,” and “Gold is the element with atomic number 79,” may also make good candidates of counterexamples. These truths do not seem to be impermanent; they never change. What is philosophically more troubling than the logical problem and counterexamples is that we can take the teaching of impermanence only as one of many possible ways to view the world and life. The material constituents of the city of Boston have constantly changed ever since it was named Boston several hundred years ago. But the proper name “Boston” has always designated the same city, and one may think that this evidence is good enough to make us believe that there is something permanent that has lasted with no change over hundreds of years. Another good example is our personal identity. It is said that all the molecules of a human body are completely replaced by other molecules every seven years or so. But Dave is still the same Dave after seven years, and Sarah is always the same person Sarah. Dave and Sarah may come to have very different beliefs and feelings every several years or so, but they will still be the same Dave and Sarah. This is a very strong intuition about our personal identity, and our belief system about persons crucially hinges on it. All in all, I do not really think that the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence can change much of our belief system that depends on different intuitions. Other competing worldviews than the doctrine of impermanence may be more appealing to us when we try to understand the world and life. So, it is at the moment good enough if we just remember that the Buddhists choose the doctrine of impermanence for their worldview.

More fascinating, and more closely related to the Zen tradition, is the doctrine of interdependent arising: everything arises interdependently of everything else. This doctrine was originally about the teaching of causal relation: nothing in this universe can escape the causal network; there is not a thing/ event that does not have a cause, and it will itself become a cause of other thing(s)/event(s). Well, there is nothing surprising or fascinating about this teaching of causal relation. However, the doctrine of interdependent arising came to get more extended and quite thoroughly metaphysical interpretations among the Buddhist schools in Central and Northeast Asia. Let me give you an example and explain the nature of these new interpretations. It is now 11 AM in Minnesota. It’s then 1 PM in Beijing, China. Do you believe that there is at least one Chinese man who is at the moment eating steamed dumplings on the other side of the world? It is pretty late at night in China, but considering the size of their population, you believe that there must be at least one hungry Chinese man eating steamed dumplings. I am related to this man in such a way that I have the property of having this Chinese man eating steamed dumplings at this moment. Suppose this man suddenly chokes on the dumplings and meets an untimely death. Then, I come to lose one of my properties that I have this unfortunate Chinese man on the other side of the world. I am totally unaware of the existence of this man, but I am quite related to this person in the way I just described. If we include this kind of relations in the relations we have with other things in the world, though they are obviously not causal relations, it is clear that ever ything is arising interdependently with everything else. In light of this view, the following line of a famous poem in the Zen tradition may be easily understood: “A drop of morning dew on the tip of a grass blade contains the whole universe”—Of course it does because everything penetrates into everything else in the universe!

But I think the doctrine of interdependent arising also faces powerful objections. If it is understood as a teaching of causal relation, the problem of free will becomes a difficult issue because it would be quite puzzling if our will to get enlightened should necessarily be determined by causal relations, not by our free choice. Some philosophers will also find it objectionable if the doctrine should include noncausal relations as well because those noncausal relations are too abstract to be real relations that can make any real changes in the world. However, it is again good enough for our purpose if we just note that the Buddhists in the Zen tradition choose to include all those possible relations in their doctrine of interdependent arising.

The doctrine of interdependent arising constitutes the famous teaching of Emptiness (or Void). Everything changes constantly, and nothing arises independently. In other words, everything is empty of independent existence (or intrinsic essence). When everything arises interdependently of everything else, nothing can have its own intrinsic essence and exist on its own. This emptiness is the very mode of existence of things that we have known of in this universe all along. This table in front of you, for instance, is not really something in the sense that it exists independently of other things. It does not have its own intrinsic essence that lasts permanently. So, it is not really something. But it is not nothing either because it does arise interdependently of everything else. In other words, this table is not something, but it is not nothing either. It exists well, mysteriously, somewhere between absolute existence and nonexistence. This mode of existence was named Emptiness; but later on, as time passed by, since Emptiness is the very mode of existence of everything, the name came to be used to refer to the reality of all things. These Buddhists see Emptiness in everything that exists in the universe. This Emptiness is thought to reveal the nature of existence; to grasp the very nature of reality is the ultimate goal of the Buddha’s teachings; the Buddha became the Buddha because he realized the truth of Emptiness in his meditation; so Emptiness is the very essence of the Buddha. In other words, the Buddha is nothing but Emptiness!

I bet many of you find lots of logical problems in these unsophisticated inferences. Further, it is an outright contradiction to claim that the essence of the Buddha is Emptiness when the doctrine of interdependent arising, which resulted in the teaching of Emptiness, denies any intrinsic essence of anything that includes the Buddha himself. But it is also a historical fact that there have been a good number of Buddhist schools that have accepted these unfortunate inferences and claimed that everything in the world is Emptiness, which is the very essence of the Buddha, and, thus, everything is already a Buddha, or at least has the Buddha-Nature. These Buddhist schools saw the Buddha in everything they saw; so, for them, even a piece of dogshit contained the Buddha-Nature! Well, this is one possible way to interpret the puzzling dialogue I introduced at the beginning of this class: “Master, what is the Buddha?” “You can see the Buddha present even in such a low, insentient thing as a piece of dogshit!” There have been Buddhist schools whose views are very much consistent with this rather embarrassing interpretation. Some Buddhists actually took this kind of interpretation quite seriously. But it is hard for me to accept this interpretation because (1) it is consistent only with the views based on the fallacious inferences I described above, (2) it erroneously presupposes that the Buddha has an intrinsic essence that his teaching of interdependent arising denies, and (3) this is not the orthodox interpretation of the Zen tradition, which I think is more preferable. Let me now turn to the Zen tradition and try to help you understand the puzzling dialogue better.

In the Zen tradition as well, Buddhists see Emptiness in everything at every instant. The interdependent arising is the very mode of existence; so everything, including the Buddha, is Emptiness. The understanding of the nature of Emptiness is the key to understanding the nature of enlightened beings like the Buddha and bodhisattvas. But you do not have to meet and listen to the Buddha or bodhisattvas in order to grasp and comprehend the nature of Emptiness because Emptiness is everywhere all the time. You can use anything at any instant as an instrument for your enlightenment. You can enjoy the bliss of nirvana while simply breathing in and breathing out as long as you realize that the breathing is itself Emptiness, eating a good breakfast is to actualize the Buddha-Nature, a cup of tea is full of the Buddhas once you only realize it, you can be struck by the utmost beauty of the full moon and get immediately enlightened, and sitting meditation effectively helps experience enlightenment. All this teaching of the Zen tradition may be summarized in the following famous phrase: Samsara (the secular world of transmigration) is nirvana (the state of being enlightened), with “is” in the sense of “is identical with.” The ultimate Emptiness is here and now; so the enlightenment is also here and now, everywhere and allembracing. What is culturally fascinating about this view of Emptiness is that, combined with the teachings of Taoism, the Zen tradition greatly espoused the love of nature among Northeast Asians. How can anyone not love and cherish nature when every corner of it is full of the Buddhas? There are only a handful of Asians living in New England, but if you go see the beautiful autumn foliage of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, you will come to realize that virtually half of all the tourists are Northeast Asians—Chinese and Koreans cannot miss the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of nature! There would have been much fewer environment issues if the Zen tradition had rooted in the other parts of the world as well.

But we need to be careful here. Most schools in the Zen tradition do not go and claim that even such a low entity as a piece of dogshit is a Buddha just because the mode of its existence also reveals the truth of Emptiness. It is only sentient and intelligent beings that can be enlightened and become Buddhas; all the other insentient things may be used as instruments for enlightenment, but they are not themselves Buddhas. I think this is the right view Buddhists should accept if they do not wish to oppose our commonsense with their exotic metaphysics. A piece of dogshit must not be a Buddha. In order to make sense of the dialogue I introduced above, we need to find a different interpretation.

The Zen tradition has created so many interesting but apparently puzzling stories for instructional purposes. Let me give you another example. A master asked a group of students, “There is a reflection of the moon on the surface of the water. Is that water or the moon?” A student answered, “Last night I saw the North Star in the southern sky.” The master responded, “Excellent!” We all know that it is impossible to see the North Star in the southern sky. Then why did the Master like the answer? This is very puzzling, and the master’s question was designed to provoke intensive research on the part of students. Let me call these puzzling questions Zen riddles. Students are expected to struggle much to solve these riddles—until they come to realize that there is no solution!

It is by now well known that the Zen tradition emphasizes the importance of sitting meditation where you try to have all your thoughts fall off from your mind. It is relatively easier to concentrate on a particular thought that you have in your mind than to have no thought at all. Just try not to think about anything even for one moment. You will find it very difficult to empty your mind—but you need to practice this meditation in order to grasp and experience the truth, which is nothing other than Emptiness itself. The doctrine of interdependent arising teaches us that everything penetrates into, arises only interdependently from, everything else. Since everything is necessarily interconnected to everything else, any attempt to differentiate a thing (or a group of things) from every other thing inevitably goes against the doctrine of interdependent arising. That attempt clouds the true nature of reality from our vision and, thus, hinders us from grasping and comprehending the truth itself. Now we are going to see why the Zen tradition focuses so much on the value of silence. Language uses concepts, and conceptualization is always differentiation, and differentiation blocks us from the true nature of reality because it attempts to sever the relation of the necessarily interconnected things of the world. Let me give you an example to explain this point. Suppose you entertain a concept of human in your mind. Is there anything that you are differentiating from humans with your concept of human? Yes, you are differentiating from humans everything else that is not human. This way, using any concept in your thought necessarily results in the division of the whole world that cannot be divided, which makes us unable to see the true nature of reality and, thus, makes our enlightenment impossible. This is why silence is so much valued in the Zen tradition: not just silence of not talking but also complete pause of your thoughts in your mind.

The truth cannot be verbally expressed because any use of language/concept involves differentiation, and differentiation goes against the interdependent arising that is the very mode of existence. Now we can understand why the Buddha simply raised a flower when he was asked the question, “What is truth?” Any verbal answer would have inevitably distorted the nature of truth that cannot be verbally expressed. The Buddha could have also kept silent gently smiling, or he could have said, “Have a cup of tea,” “Birds are singing beautifully,” etc., all of which are completely unrelated to the given question. Another Zen riddle we discussed above may also be understood in the same light. “There is a reflection of the moon on the surface of the water. Is that water or the moon?” This question itself is nonsensical. The only good answer to nonsense is more nonsense. So, the student answered, “Last night I saw the North Star in the southern sky.” The master, of course, responded positively. Shall we now turn to the very first puzzling dialogue we introduced at the beginning of this class? In the Zen tradition, “What is the Buddha?” is itself a misleading question. In Buddhism, the Buddha is often another name of truth, but the question requires a verbal answer of what truth is when the truth cannot be verbally expressed. The master’s answer “Dogshit!” actually means “Nonsense!” (Westerners would have used “Bullshit!” to mean nonsense, but Koreans were not much familiar with the shit of bulls because they were not cattle-raising people, although they had dogs in their neighborhood. Koreans would say, “The guy is dog-barking” when Westerners want to say, “The guy is bullshitting.”) The Zen tradition is full of jokes and humor—foul language and even beatings are sometimes allowed for instructional purposes. Wouldn’t it be exciting to have a lot of fun and get enlightened?

The Zen tradition takes the value of nonattachment quite seriously. For instance, although the doctrine of interdependent arising is of paramount importance, one should not be attached even to the teaching of this doctrine. So, although everything is empty of intrinsic essence, the teaching that everything is Emptiness is itself also empty of intrinsic essence. But that that everything is Emptiness is Emptiness is also empty of intrinsic essence. …that that that everything is Emptiness is Emptiness is Emptiness is in its turn also empty of intrinsic essence…. And this constant process of infinite negation is the very state of nirvana! Another example of Zen riddle may also show how the Zen tradition approaches the teachings of Emptiness and nonattachment. “In order to get enlightened, kill your master and the Buddha!” Perhaps this is the most puzzling riddle one can encounter in Buddhism. But we can now make good sense of it. One should not be attached even to the teachings of his/her master and the Buddha, especially when the teachings were given in the form of verbal expressions, because the Buddha, the master, and their teachings themselves are also empty of intrinsic essence.

I have tried for fifty minutes to convey the teachings of this tradition of the wordless transmission of truth. Those who have understood my lecture must now realize that everything I said in this class is empty of intrinsic essence. Please do not be attached to anything I said if you are going to get enlightened.