Nature is mighty. Nature is strong. Nature is usually always right. Nature is rarely ever wrong. Nature is beauty. Nature is moody. Nature is smart. Nature always has the greater part. Nature is blue. Nature is green. Nature is every color possibly seen. Nature is true. Nature Is Beaming. Nature is dreaming. Nature is in every place. Nature is always with grace. Nature is true. Nature is you. Nature is me. Nature will forever be free.
The reason why Taoism and Zen present, at first sight, such a puzzle to the Western mind is that westerners have taken a restricted view of human knowledge. For westerners, almost all knowledge is what a Taoist would call conventional knowledge, because they do not feel that they really know anything unless something represents to them in words, or in some other system of conventional signs such as the or notations of mathematics music. Such knowledge is called conventional because it is a matter of social agreement as to the codes of communication. Just as people speaking the same language have unspoken agreements as to what words shall stand for what things, so the members of every society and every culture are united by bonds of communication resting upon all kinds of agreement as to the classification and valuation of actions and things.
Thus the task of education is to make children fit to live in a society by persuading them to learn and accept its codes, the rules and conventions of communication whereby the society holds itself together. There is first the spoken language. The child is taught to accept “tree” and not “boojum” as the agreed sign for that (pointing to the object). Westerners have no difficulty in understanding that the word “tree” is a matter of convention. What is much less obvious is that convention also governs the delineation of the thing to which the word is assigned. For the child has to be taught not only what words are to stand for what things, but also the way in which his culture has tacitly agreed to divide things from each other, to mark out the boundaries within daily experience. Thus scientific convention decides whether an eel shall be a fish or a snake, and grammatical convention determines what experiences shall be called objects and what shall be called events or actions. How arbitrary such conventions may be can be seen from the question, “What happens to my fist (noun-object) when I open my hand?” The object miraculously vanishes because an action was disguised by a part of speech usually assigned to a thing! In English the differences between things and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished, but a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs; so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than entities.
Besides language, the child has to accept many other forms of code. For the necessities of living together require agreement as to codes of law and ethics, of etiquette and art, of weights, measures, and numbers, and, above all, of role. We will have difficulty in communicating with each other unless we can identify ourselves in terms of roles; father, teacher, worker, artist, regular guy, gentleman, sportsman, and so forth. To the extent that we identify ourselves with these stereotypes and the rules of behavior associated with them, we ourselves feel that we are someone because our fellows have less difficulty in accepting us-that is, in identifying us and feeling that we are under control. A meeting of two strangers at a party is always somewhat embarrassing when the host has not identified their roles in introducing them, for neither knows what rules of conversation and action should be observed. Once again, it is easy to see the conventional character of roles. For a man who is a father may also be a doctor and an artist, as well as an employee and a brother. It is obvious that even the sum total of these role labels will be far from supplying an adequate description of the man himself, even though it may place him in certain general classifications; but the conventions which govern human identity are more subtle and much less obvious than these. We learn, very thoroughly though far less explicitly, to identify ourselves with an equally conventional view of “myself.” For the conventional “self” or “person” is composed mainly of a history consisting of selected memories, and beginning from the moment of parturition. According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real “me” than what I am at this moment; for what I am seems so fleeting and intangible, but what I was is fixed and final. It is the firm basis for predictions of what I will be in the future, and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is!
It is also important to recognize that the memories and past events which make up a man’s historical identity are no more than a selection. From the actual infinitude of events and experiences some have been picked out and abstracted as significant, and this significance has of course been determined by conventional standards as the very nature of conventional knowledge is that it is a system of abstractions. It consists of signs and symbols in which things and events are reduced to their general outlines, as the Chinese character ‘jen’ stands for “man” by being the utmost simplification and generalization of the human form. The same is true of words other than ideographs. The English words “man,” “fish,” “star,” “flower,” “run,” “grow,” all denote classes of objects or events which may be recognized as members of classes of objects or events which may be recognized as members of their class by very simple attributes, abstracted from the total complexity of the things themselves.
Abstraction is thus almost a necessity for communication, since it enables us to represent our experiences with simple and rapidly made grasps of the mind. When we say that we can think only of one thing at a time, this is like saying that the Pacific Ocean cannot be swallowed at a gulp. It has to be taken in a cup, and downed bit by bit. Abstractions and conventional signs are like the cup; they reduce experience to units simple enough to be comprehended one at a time. In a similar way, curves are measured by reducing them to a sequence of tiny straight lines, or by thinking of them in terms of the squares which they cross when plotted on graph paper. Other examples of the same process are the newspaper photograph and the transmission of television. In the former, a natural scene is reproduced in terms of light and heavy dots arranged in a screen or grid-like pattern so as to give the general impression of a black-and-white photograph when seen without a magnifying glass. Much as it may look like the original scene, it is only a reconstruction of the scene in terms of dots, somewhat as our conventional words and thoughts are reconstructions of experience in terms of abstract signs. Even more like the thought process, the television camera transmits a natural scene in terms of a linear series of impulses which may be passed along a wire. Thus communication by conventional signs of this type gives us an abstract, one-at-a-time translation of a universe in which things are happening altogether-at-once–a universe whose concrete reality always escapes perfect description in these abstract terms. The perfect description of a small particle of dust by these means would take everlasting time, since one would have to account for every point in its volume.
Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western thought. It is not religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or a type of science. It is an example of what is known in India and China as a way of liberation, and is similar in this respect to Taoism, Vedanta, and Yoga. A way of liberation can have no positive definition. It is suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.
Historically, Zen may be regarded as the realization of long traditions of Indian and Chinese culture, though it is actually much more Chinese than Indian, and, since the twelfth century, it has rooted itself deeply and most creatively in the culture of Japan. As the end result of these great cultures, and as a unique and peculiarly instructive example of a way of liberation, Zen is one of the most valuable gifts of Asia to the world.
The origins of Zen are as much Taoist as Buddhist, and, because its essence is so peculiarly Chinese, it may be best to begin by inquiring into its Chinese ancestry; illustrating, at the same time, what is meant by a way of liberation by the example of Taoism. Much of the complexity and mystification which Zen presents to the Western student is the result of Western student’s unfamiliarity with Chinese ways of thinking; ways which differ startlingly from Western and which are, for that very reason, of special value to Western in attaining a critical perspective upon Western ideas. The problem here is not simply one of mastering different ideas, differing from Western Ideas, say, the theories of Kant differ from those of Descartes, or those of Calvinists from those of Catholics. The problem is to appreciate differences in from those of Catholics. The problem is to appreciate differences in the basic premises of thought and in the very methods of thinking, and these are so often overlooked that Western interpretations of Chinese philosophy are apt to be a projection of characteristically Western Ideas into Chinese terminology. This is the expected disadvantage of studying Asian philosophy by the purely literary methods of Western scholarship, for words can be communicative only between those who share similar experiences.
This is not to go so far as to say that so rich and subtle a language as English is simply incapable of expressing Chinese ideas. On the contrary, it can say much more than has been believed possible by some Chinese and Japanese students of Zen and Taoism whose familiarity with English leaves something to be desired. The difficulty is not so much in the language as in the thought patterns; which have up till now seemed indivisible from the academic and scientific way of approaching a subject. The inappropriateness of these patterns for such subjects as Taoism and Zen is largely responsible for the impression that the “Oriental Mind” is mysterious, irrational, and enigmatic. Furthermore, it need not be supposed that these matters are so peculiarly Chinese or Japanese that they have no point of contact with anything in Western Culture. While it is true that none of the formal divisions of Western Science and thought corresponds to a way of liberation, R. H. Blyth’s marvelous study of Zen in English Literature reveals for the most part clearly that the vital insights of Zen are universal.