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Julius Evola

The Meaning and Context of Zen

We know the kind of interest Zen has evoked even outside specialized disciplines,
since being popularized in the west by D.T. Suzuki through his books Introduction
to Zen uddhis! and "ssays in Zen uddhis!. This popular interest is due to the
parado#ical encounter between "ast and West. The ailing West perceives that Zen
has so!ething $e#istential$ and surrealistic to offer. Zen%s notion of a spiritual
realization, free fro! any faith and any bond, not to !ention the !irage of an instantaneous
and so!ehow gratuitous $spiritual breakthrough$, has e#ercised a fascinating attraction on
!any Westerners. &owever, this is true, for the !ost part, only superficially. There is a
considerable difference between the spiritual di!ension of the $philosophy of crisis$, which
has beco!e popular in the West as a conse'uence of its !aterialistic and nihilist develop!ent,
and the spiritual di!ension of Zen, which has been rooted in the spirituality of the uddhist
tradition. (ny true encounter between Zen and the West, presupposes, in a Westerner, either
an e#ceptional predisposition, or the capability to operate a !etanoia. y !etanoia I !ean an
inner turnabout, affecting not so !uch one%s intellectual $attitudes$, but rather a di!ension
which in every ti!e and in every place has been conceived as a deeper reality.
Zen has a secret doctrine and not to be found in scriptures. It was passed on by the uddha to
his disciple )ahakassapa. This secret doctrine was introduced in *hina around the si#th
century *.". by odhidhar!a. The canon was trans!itted in *hina and +apan through a
succession on teachers and $patriarchs$. In +apan it is a living tradition and has !any
advocates and nu!erous Zendos ,$&alls of )editation$-.
(s far as the spirit infor!ing the tradition is concerned, Zen !ay be considered as a
continuation of early uddhis!. uddhis! arose as a vigorous reaction against the
theological speculation and the shallow ritualis! into which the ancient &indu priestly caste
had degraded after possessing a sacred, lively wisdo! since ancient ti!es. uddha !ad tabula
rassa of all this. he focused instead on the practical proble! of how to overco!e what in the
popular !ind is referred to as $life%s suffering$. (ccording to esoteric teachings, this suffering
was considered as the state of caducity, restlessness, $thirst$ and the forgetfulness typical of
ordinary people. &aving followed the path leading to spiritual awakening and to i!!ortality
without e#ternal aid, uddha pointed the way to those who felt an attraction to it. It is well
known that uddha is not a na!e, but an attribute or a title !eaning $the awakened /ne$, $&e
who has achieved enlighten!ent$, or $the awakening$. uddha was silent about the content of
his e#perience, since he wanted to discourage people fro! assigning to speculation and
philosophizing a pri!acy over action. Therefore, unlike his predecessors, he did not talk
about rah!an ,the absolute-, or about (t!an ,the transcendental Self-, but only e!ployees
the ter! nirvana, at the risk of being !isunderstood. So!e, in fact, thought, in their lack of
understanding, that nirvana was to be identified with the notion of $nothingness$, an ineffable
and evanescent transcendence, al!ost bordering on the li!its of the unconscious and of a
state of unaware non0being. So, in a further develop!ent of uddhis!, what occurred again,
!utatis !utandi, was e#actly the situation against which uddha had reacted1 uddhis!
beca!e a religion, co!plete with dog!as, rituals, scholasticis! and !ythology. It eventually
beca!e differentiated into two schools. )ahayana and &inayana. The for!er was !ore
grandiose in !etaphysics an )ahayana eventually grew co!placent with its abstruse
sy!bolis!. The teachings of the latter school were !ore strict and to the point, and yet too
concerned about the !ere !oral discipline which beca!e increasingly !onastic. Thus the
essential and original nucleus, na!ely the esoteric doctrine of the enlighten!ent, was al!ost
(t this crucial ti!e Zen appeared, declaring the uselessness of these so0called !ethods and
proclai!ing the doctrine of satori. Satori is a funda!ental inner event, a sudden e#istential
breakthrough, corresponding in essence to what I have called the $awakening$. ut this
for!ulation was new and original and it constituted a radical change in approach. 2irvana,
which had been variously considered as the alleged 2othingness, as e#tinction, and as the
final end result of an effort ai!ed at obtaining liberation ,which according to so!e !ay
re'uire !ore than one lifeti!e-, now ca!e to be considered as the nor!al hu!an condition.
y these lights, every person has the nature of uddha and every person is already liberated,
and therefore, situated above and beyond birth and death. It is only necessary to beco!e
aware of it, to realize it, to see within one%s nature, according to Zen%s !ain e#pression. Satori
is like a ti!eless opening up. /n the one hand, satori is so!ething sudden and radically
different fro! all the ordinary hu!an states of consciousness1 it is like a catastrophic trau!a
within ordinary consciousness. /n the other hand, satori is what leads one back to what, in a
higher sense, should be considered as nor!al and natural1 thus, it is the e#act opposite of an
ecstasis, or trance. It is the rediscovery and the appropriation of one%s true nature. it is the
enlighten!ent which draws out of ignorance or out of the subconscious the deep reality of
what was and will always be, regardless of one%s condition in life. The conse'uence of satori
is a co!pletely new way to look at the world and at life. To those who have e#perienced it,
everything is the sa!e ,things, other beings, one%s self, $heaven, the rivers and the vast
earth$-, and yet everything is funda!entally different. It is as if a new di!ension was added to
reality, transfor!ing the !eaning and value. (ccording to the Zen )asters, the essential
characteristic of the new e#perience is the overco!ing of very dualis!. of the inner and outer1
the I and not I1 of finitude and infinity1 being and not0being1 appearance and reality1 $e!pty$
and $full$1 substance and accidents. (nother characteristic is that any value posed by the finite
and confused consciousness of the individual, is no longer discernible. (nd thus, the liberated
and the non0liberated, the enlightened and the non0enlightened, are yet one and sa!e thing.
Zen effectively perpetuates the parado#ical e'uation of )ahayana uddhis!, nirvana0
sa!sara, and the Taoist saying $the return is infinitely far$. It is as if Zen said. liberation
should not be looked for in the ne#t world1 the very world is the ne#t world1 it is liberation
and it does not need to be liberated. This is the point of view of satori, of perfect
enlighten!ent, of $transcendent wisdo!$ ,pra3napara!ita-
asically, this consciousness is a shift of the self%s center. In any situation and in any event of
ordinary life, including the !ost trivial ones, the ordinary, dualistic and intellectual sense of
one%s self is substituted with a being who no longer perceives an $I$ opposed to a $non0I$, and
who transcends and overco!es any antithesis. This being eventually co!es to en3oy a perfect
freedo! an incoercibility. &e is like the wind, which blows where it wills, and like a naked
being which is everything after $letting go$ 0abandons everything, e!bracing poverty.
Zen, or at least !ainstrea! Zen, e!phasizes the discontinuous, sudden and unpredictable
character of satori disclosure. In regard to this, Suzuki was at fault when he took issue with
the techni'ues used in &indu schools such as Sa!kya and 4oga. These techni'ues were also
conte!plated in early uddhist te#ts. Suzuki e!ployed the si!ile of water, which in a
!o!ent turns into ice. &e also used the si!ile of an alar!, which, as a conse'uence of so!e
vibration, suddenly goes off. There are no disciplines, techni'ues or efforts, according to
Suzuki, which by the!selves !ay lead one to satori. /n the contrary, it is clai!ed that satori
often occurs spontaneously, when one has e#hausted all the resources of his being, especially
the intellect and logical faculty of understanding. In so!e cases satori it is said to be
facilitated by violent sensations and even by physical pain. Its cause !ay be the !ere
perception of an ob3ect as well as any event in ordinary life, provided a certain latent
predisposition e#ists in the sub3ect.
5egarding this, so!e !isunderstandings !ay occur. Suzuki acknowledged that $generally
speaking, there are no indications on the inner work preceding satori$. &owever, he talked
about the necessity of first going through $a true baptis! of fire$. (fter all, the very institution
of the so0called $&alls of )editation$ ,Zendo-, where those who strive to obtain a satori
sub!it the!selves to a regi!en of life which is partially analogous to that of so!e *atholic
religious orders, bespeaks the necessity of a preli!inary preparation. This preparation !ay
last for several years. The essence of Zen see!s to consist in a !aturation process, identical to
the one in which one al!ost reaches a state of an acute e#istential instability. (t that point, the
slightest push is sufficient to produce a change of state, a spiritual breakthrough, the opening
which leads to the $intuitive vision of one%s nature$. The )asters know the !o!ent in which
the !ind of the disciple is !ature and ready to open up1 it is ten that they eventually give the
final. Decisive push. This push !ay so!eti!es consist of a si!ple gesture, an e#cla!ation, in
so!ething apparently irrelevant, or even illogical and absurd. This suffices to induce the
collapse of the false notion of individuality. Thus, satori replaces this notion with the $nor!al
state$, and one assu!es the $original face, which one had before creation$. /ne no longer
$chases after echoes$ and $shadows$. This under so!e aspects brings to !ind the e#istential
the!e of $failure$, or of $being shipwrecked$ ,das Scheitern, in 6ierkegaard and in +aspers-.
In fact, as I have !entioned, the opening often takes place when all the resources of one%s
being have been e#hausted and one has his back against the wall. This can be seen in relation
to so!e practical teachings !ethods used by Zen. The !ost fre'uently e!ployed !ethods, on
an intellectual plane, are the koan and the !ondo. The disciple is confronted with a saying or
with 'uestions which are parado#ical, absurd and so!eti!es even grotes'ue and
$surrealistic$. &e !ust labor with his !ind, if necessary for years, until he has reached the
e#tre!e li!it of all his nor!al faculties of co!prehension. Then, if he dares proceed further
on that road he !ay find catastrophe, but if he can turn the situation upside down, he !ay
achieve !etanoia. This is the point where satori is usually achieved.
Zen%s nor! is that of absolute autono!y1 no gods, no cults, no idols. To literally e!pty
oneself of everything, including 7od. $If you !eet uddha on the road, kill hi!$, a saying
goes. It is necessary to abandon everything, without leaning on anything, and then to proceed
forward, with one%s essence, until the crisis point is reached. It is very difficult to say !ore
about satori, or to co!pare it with various for!s of initiatory !ystical e#perience whether
"astern or Western. /ne is supposed to spend only the training period in Zen !onasteries.
/nce the disciple has achieved satori, he return to the world, choosing a way of life that fits
his need. /ne !ay think of satori as a for! of transcendence which is brought to i!!anence,
as a natural state, in every for! of life.
The behavior which proceeds fro! the newly ac'uired di!ension, which is added to reality as
a conse'uence of satori, !ay well be su!!arized by 8ao Tzu%s e#pression. $To be the whole
in the part$. In regard to this, it is i!portant to realize the influence which Zen has e#ercised
on the 9ar0"astern way of life. Zen has been called $the sa!urai%s philosophy,$ and it had also
been said that $the way of Zen is identical to the way of archery,$ or to the $way of the
sword$. This !eans that any activity in one%s life, !ay be per!eated by Zen and thus be
elevated to a higher !eaning, to a $wholeso!eness$ and to an $i!personal activity$. This
kind of activity is based on a sense of the individual%s irrelevance, which nevertheless does not
paralyze one%s actions, but which rather confers ca! and detach!ent. This detach!ent, in
turn, favors an absolute and $pure$ undertaking of life, which in so!e cases reaches e#tre!e
and distinct for!s of self0sacrifice and herois!, inconceivable to the !a3ority of Westerners
,e.g. the ka!ikaze in WWII-.
Thus, what *.7. +ung clai!s is si!ply ridiculous, na!ely that :sychoanalysis, !ore than any
other Western school of thought, is capable of understanding Zen. (ccording to +ung, satori
coincides with the state of wholeness, devoid of co!ple#es or inner splitting, which
psychoanalytic treat!ent clai!s to achieve whenever the intellect%s obstructions and its sense
of superiority are re!oved, and whenever the conscious di!ension of the soul is reunited with
the unconscious and with $8ife$. +ung did not realize that the !ethods and presuppositions of
Zen, are e#actly the opposite of his own. There is no $subconscious$, as a distinct entity, to
which the conscious has to be reconnected1 Zen speaks of a superconscious vision
,enlighten!ent, bodhi or $awakening$-, which actualizes the $original and lu!inous nature$
and which, in so doing, destroys the unconscious. It is possible though, to notice si!ilarities
between +ung%s view%s and Zen%, since they both talk about the feeling of one%s $totality$ and
freedo! which is !anifested in every aspect of life. &owever, it is i!portant to e#plain the
level at which these views appear to coincide.
/nce Zen found its way to the West, there was a tendency to $do!esticate$ and to !oralize it,
playing down its potential radical and $antino!ian$ ,na!ely, antithetical to current nor!s-
i!plications, and by e!phasizing the standard ingredients which are held so dear by
$spiritual$ people, na!ely love and service to one%s neighbor, even though these ingredients
have been purified in an i!personal and non0senti!ental for!. 7enerally speaking, there are
!any doubts on the $practicability$ of Zen, considering that the $doctrine of the awakening$
has an initiatory character.
Thus, it will only be able to inspire a !inority of people, in contrast to later uddhist views,
which took the for! of a religion open to everyone, for the !ost part a code of !ere !orality.
(s the re0establish!ent of the spirit of early uddhis!, Zen should have strictly been an
esoteric doctrine. It has been so as we can see by e#a!ining the legend concerning its origins.
&owever, Suzuki hi!self was inclined to give a different account1 he e!phasized those
aspects of )ahayana which $de!ocratize$ uddhis! ,after all, the ter! )ahayana has been
interpreted to !ean $7reat ;ehicle$, even in the sense that it e#tends to wider audiences, and
not 3ust to a few elect-. If one was to fully agree with Suzuki, so!e perple#ities on the nature
and on the scope of satori !ay arise. /ne should ask whether such an e#perience !erely
affects the psychological, !oral or !ental do!ain, or whether it affects the ontological
do!ain, as is the case in every authentic initiation. In that event, it can only be the privilege a
very restricted nu!ber of people.