Zen Practice


Had a conversation with a friend on Zen today…

My problem with most Western reductions of the vision of Zen in zazen or praxis is that it is misleading and hinders most of those that might otherwise find it empowering. Zen is much more active than a “choiceless awareness”: think of the Koan… the point is to intensify one’s awareness to the point that thought and being as paradox are neither One nor Two, but rather unfold from both directions at once in a state of pure action, one that implies the full intensity of thought in movement and body in dance; a leaping. Even when practicing the repetitious forms of martial arts one can attain such intensive thought and physical movement that the tension between things awakens and one’s line of flight lures the world into the void to the point that one is the action while the act is happening. Yet, you are there in its unfolding…

“To stop your mind does not mean to stop the activities of mind. It means your mind pervades your whole body. Your mind follows your breathing. With your full mind you form the mudra in your hands. With your whole mind you sit with painful legs without being disturbed by them. This is to sit without any gaining idea. At first you feel some restriction in your posture, but when you are not disturbed by the restriction, you have found the meaning of “emptiness is emptiness and form is form.” So to find your own way under some restriction is the way of practice.” – Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Or, as Shunryu says: “Calmness of mind does not mean you should stop your activity. Real calmness should be found in activity itself. We say, “It is easy to have calmness in inactivity, it is hard to have calmness in activity, but calmness in activity is true calmness.”

Think of this: “If you leave a trace of your thinking on your activity, you will be attached to the trace.” The point is to leave nothing behind, to walk empty in the world. One is neither mirror nor lamp, but both at once: the traceless way of vanishing.

8 thoughts on “Zen Practice

  1. I was reading Juan Arnau’s “La Palabra Frente Al Vacio/Words Before Emptiness” (on the philosophy of Nagarjuna) where he writes that the word “emptiness” (sunyata) does not have a stable meaning. It is void like all things and so is not nothing or the absolutely inexpressible and is a characteristic of existence (samsara) from which we don’t try to free ourselves yet in which we can be awake here and now and be in search of beings that require our assistance. He quotes Nagarjuna to the effect that to “refute emptiness is in reality to defend it”. This is similar to his saying that “nirvana is samsara” or Suzuki’s saying “real calmness should be found in acitvity”. These ways of attempting to ‘define’ emptiness are oxymorons understood as a process that cuts away extremes, that does away with any either/or black and white thinking and finds itself in process, in the in-between of a transitional space that even a person can find himself inside of during a time of significant change when an old world is coming to an end and a new one is emerging. These are spaces where we don’t seem to be ourselves. We are ourselves in times of significant transition but also we are not ourselves. It is like we are in the middle of a metamorphosis or in a cocoon like a silkworm of the mulberry tree. And isn’t this already describing a moving vehicle that we call a “metaphor”? but also a birth?

    If words seem presently to be a silk road they are threading a yantra or mandala that gathers together that striving which would otherwise scatter in too many directions thereby loosing focus. This yoga of writing is the only activity which sharpens the edge of experience enough to leave an indentation that can become a deeper groove with further loopy thoughts and lo and behold, dare I say,– a beautiful, frivolous memory to hold onto. But I have read enough Nietzsche to have a little bit of a conscience about this greediness, this tendency to grasp and fix and I quickly forget a train of thoughts and try to do what he did when he danced a little jig with his pen, namely, become an enigma to ponderous German philosophers. This sense of ease he always associated with Mediterranean air. I associate with the play of the in-between…

    It was Pico della Mirandola that taught us that the constant metamorphosis of a human being defined our dignity. We are empty because we don’t have an essence and this is also empty if it is an abstract article of faith that is fixed when in fact it points to the constant becoming of all beings. In terms of language this means that it is dignified, language that is, just because it is conditioned by metaphor. Arnau reads just this when Nagarjuna puts in the mouth of Buddha “If identity is given between a word and its object, the word “fire” would burn the mouth. If their difference is given, knowledge would not be possible.” Arnau comments that this “ambivalent participation in identity and difference is the condition of all metaphor and perhaps the very condition of all language.” It is a dream, illusion, maya that is between appearance and reality, between difference and identity. Emptiness seems to be this and it is who we are and all of conditioned existence (samsara) is. There is sense of ease in “knowing” this because we let go of trying to fix the essence of anything. In this way there is no difference between “knowing” and emptiness. We are by things because we go with the procedural propensity of that which is emerging and withdrawing like the dance of some martial arts. The Diamond Sutra Chapter 32 is the question of how we go about knowing the things, beings, people and the situation in which we are in while holding to a sort of readiness because we don’t have conceptions of anything or have a suspended understanding. The answer is that we do this “Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream; like a flash of lighting in a summer cloud, Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.” This is how we are by things, people and the situation we happen to find ourselves in at a particular time. We have this manner of thinking also in the West. It is there in Cicero and Quintilian as absorbed by Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Origen and others. We don’t stay with the established norm or law but this is always changed by new precedents according to the intention of the law that time fleshes out changing its letter.


  2. Hi,
    Firstly, can I thank you for your work here, which has been a good resource for me for quite a while now. One has only to scan the archive to confirm your depth of knowledge and breath of interest.

    Reading you latest post though makes me wonder why, when it comes to Zen , or “Zen practice” , even the most erudite seem to lose their critical edge.

    “My problem with most Western reductions of the vision of Zen in zazen or praxis is that it is misleading and hinders most of those that might otherwise find it empowering.”

    Yes, I thought, now for a thorough Hickman analysis and deconstruction of the Buddhist “juggernaugh” What followed I have to say, looks more like an x-buddhist peon to Zens charsism—its capacity to seduce one into exchanging ones critical faculties for a few conceptual baubles—neither One nor Two, stop your mind, emptiness is emptiness and form is form, to walk empty in the world.

    Disappointing, when what followed might have tackled the way what passes as Zen Buddhism is a western concoction with a long European and American history intimately associated with western imperialism and the general European crisis of religion which prompted Europeans to seek in the east what they saw as a more acceptable version of religious practice befitting a rational and secular ethos. 8 Not to mention its connection with Japanese militarism, itself a reaction against western imperialist big power politics and military expansion.

    Shrunras writings are a perfect example of this westernised Buddhism which originated in the work of the other Suzuki , itself an interpretation of Nishida’s formulation of “ineffable inner experience” as the core principle of “Zen practice”.Suzukis work had a huge influence on how westerners came to see Zen. He introduced ‘New Buddhism’ to the west (the Chicago World Fair 1893. Suzuki wrote many of the papers presented by the Japanese delegation) In Japan lay meditation movements appeared inspired by this new interpretation of Zen, most notably the Three Treasures Association. It declared its independence from the existing temple and monastic authorities and promoted a form of intense meditative practice combined with strident anti-clericalism,and western style proselytization.

    The work of Robert Sharp and Richard K payne, to name but two Buddhist scholars from a long list, shed much light on the re-invention of Zen as a continuation of Eurocentric preoccupations, inclinations and trajectories, glossed with a brush dipped into a pot labelled “alluring eastern exotica”-a concoction as stupid as it is dangerous, since it is implicated in the evisceration of native traditions everywhere via the engine of capitalist expansion, not to mention the invention of a corporate quasi-Buddhism of political quietism and commodification.

    All of this, I know, is already familiar to you. All the more mysterious that you write of Zen (or “martial arts”, a thourally westernised designation, and a practice with a ridiculous ethos of the bogus esoteric ) so uncritically. Perhaps it has something to do with a romantic flight from the horrible scenarios of the coming social and ecological catastrophe perpetrated on us by capitalist acceleration and mindless innovation. Here again I think, reading so many posts by you, that such a flight is unlikely. Maybe you were having a bad day?

    Or maybe you have already made the journey through Zen “practice” and have something new to say about its potential. I would dearly like to know.


    • Tell the truth… “Yes, I thought, now for a thorough Hickman analysis and deconstruction of the Buddhist “juggernaugh”.”

      Nothing of the kind. I wasn’t even thinking of such a thing. You seem both embittered and – might I say, upset, because I did not give you what you wanted, what you desired? You sound almost petty and un-Buddhistic, a little bit peeved because I did not live up to some estimation or judgment you had of a fictitious, Mr. Hickman? I’m not even versed in this so called “x-Buddhism”… and, if you represent the spirit of such a thought I probably would not find it to my liking, either. The only one who is having a bad day here seems to be you, not me… I was merely relaying a bit of my own personal thoughts, not some profound in-depth discussion on the intricacies of Buddhist or … x-Buddhist philosophy from some non-Westernized perspective (after all that would be difficult to do, since I am very much Western…), only from my own singular and very personal account of much I’ve read. You don’t even know me, or what I truly believe. How can you make such sly unwarranted judgements from such an insignificant personal post…? Take a deep breath, back up for a moment, I am not the enemy… just another human among humans, and other non-human creatures… at least I hope so? I have no fight with you, nor am I trying to expound on the depths of Zen. Just a small tid-bit from a conversation… 🙂


  3. Hi again,

    “I was neither having a bad day, nor being stupid or inane about what I said. You’re the one that seems to be having a bad day. Judging both those who come before for not being you, and for whatever you perceive in their writings. Wow… you seem very embittered”

    Well, the bad day reference was simply a turn of speech , immediately qualified by an appeal to whatever knowledge you might have of an academic or “personal” nature, since I regard you as an astute commentator on a huge variety of philosophical and political issues. Of course, everyone is free to guard from the net any aspect of his life .

    That said , your post for all its brevity, expressed typical x-buddhist philosophical tropes which , probably for the reasons I outlined, almost always go unexamined by those who use them. My question stands and is a legitimate one to ask of anyone who liberally quotes from Suzuki in such a small and obviously conversational piece. (three times in the space of so few words). Your combination of brevity, conversational tone and liberal quotations from a very obvious example of a westernised Buddhism is what struck me as disturbing and unexpected. Perhaps you wear two hats-a critical and a not-so-critical one. If so my comment is, perhaps, an intrusion .

    I value many aspects of Buddhist practice and philosophy and have, along with others, put in a good amount of time trying to critique, from within Buddhism, its blatantly commodified and quietist discourse and social practice. To call such a stance embittered is silly, but excusable since, as you said, you know nothing of the Non-buddhist project.

    Since most if not all of those who are interested in non-Buddhism come from within the Buddhist community and were, for the most part, practising and committed Buddhists, we have experienced the cognitive and emotional dissonance which goes with a rupture not only to ones sense of self identity but also ones experience of community. To reduce such experience to the level of pop psychology (issues, embittered, problems etc.) is again very silly but again excusable on grounds of disinterest. Although I bet if you were to peruse the Speculative Non-Buddhist site (one of the Non-Buddhist sites ) for more than ten minutes you might become at least a little interested, if not in the content at least in ourcommitment to trying to bring spiritual practice into proximity with critical thought.

    Perhaps my self- critical abilities are having a “bad day” and I mistook a “bitter diatribe” for a reasonable comment. If so apologies.


  4. Wow, your comment seems to have changed and now does not contain any of the bits I quoted you as saying…or am I displaying my techno-stupidity and just cant find them


    • Yea, I know nothing of x-Buddhism… I think I’ve had posters or followers that have mentioned it in the past. But since I was never a Buddhist, how could I be an ex-Buddhist? Tell the truth personally I’ve always tended toward the skeptical naturalist world view, and yet over time I’ve modulated between a non-dialectical inquiry and a dialectical materialist inquiry of life, things, and what some now term – the Real (Lacan). I am an Iconoclast, and hate labels, hate being pegged to any one specific modality or philosophical heritage. Being a singularity (Guattari) I do no like being trapped in other people’s systems (William Blake). I’ve always gone with the notion that language cannot describe everything, that there are aspects of reality that remain open and unknown. The sciences are problematic at best, working on a reality that is always changing never set in stone, and never will be. There can be no totalized system of description or knowledge. Reality is ongoing… a process without end. And even though we end as these specific vehicles I cannot conclude what comes next… that is to be decided. No one has come back from the dead to tell us. Even though we have testimony from many traditions, they are just that, testaments of the beyond… not being of a belief that we need transcendence, but rather an affirmer of an open ongoing universal system that has as one of its axiomatic principles: a system that is in movement, swerving toward the new and unbounded. We have no definitive statements on anything at all. Words are not the things they point too… they are merely signs in the darkness of the human mind struggling with the unknown within which it finds itself. All the great metaphysical systems of the past whether of religious or philosophical origins have yet to give us a definitive statement about reality. I doubt they ever will… humans are the restless animal, half-demigod, half-beast… we live in-between worlds where we remain dissatisfied with ourselves and our neighbors. I doubt humans will ever be at peace, I tend to agree with Heraclitus on that point: “Time is a game children play in innocence and beauty.” Poetry? Philosophy? A non-sense statement… a hyperbole onto the realm of the unknown or non-known? I think the key here is “children”, and even as Jesus once said: “The keys to the kingdom or in the hands of children.” We can observe in the curiosity and wonder of a child’s eyes the path we should all take in approaching the universe within which we live and have our being. There is none other…

      As far as reducing anything to pop-cultural reference… I think most people live at that level. Why should I try to speak in arcane or even technical terms to the average reader of blogs? I hated post-structuralist bullshit linguistic elitism during the post-modern era, and still hate those who use such abstruse terms. Yet, sometimes it is difficult not too. I understand it, but for the most part I try to translate the arcane and abstruse into common parlance. Simplify, abstract out the difficulty… maybe it’s a part of my skeptical heritage? I can’t say… but why speak as if you were above people, better than them because you have some specialized vocabulary and technical jargon? That to me defeats the purpose of communication. If I lose something in the translation because of it… that’s the point. I, like many of the literary critics before me, seek to both entertain and instruct, not to bludgeon people with some truth.

      If anything I still follow the Socratic dictum of the “unexamined life is not worth living”. More than anything words can never capture the excess of one’s life. I’ve for the most part been an iconoclast. I hate labels, or being reduced to some specific modality or perspective. Why should we be part of some school of thought, a follower? I think that was probably one of the great lessons I gathered in my romantic rebellion period as a youth reading Nietzsche was the notion that one does not need followers.

      What does it truly mean to become individuated now? How to attain singularity? The age of autonomous norms is dead, we are now driven by technologies of self (Stiegler/Foucault) that broker our lives intrinsically and extrinsically. Transitional beings at best, we are caught in an age when one Symbolic Realm is exploding or imploding around us, and the next has yet to come into its own metastable power. We use terms like post-human, pos-capital, post-socialist, post post post… this or that… all shifting, sliding terms that offer us no stable relation, but rather hint at this transitional process in-between, an apocalypse – or revelation or revealing of things about to be but not yet… etc. As we forget ourselves, our cultural references slip into disrepute day by day as scientists and philosophers plow under the ancient dead who have guided civilization up to this point. They no longer offer us living thought onto what we are going through, so we stumble into the future like children … But maybe that is the best, maybe we need to attain that innocence and wonder at the unknown and frightening worlds around us. Begin again from the beginning…. asking the questions of self and world without reducing it to the known…. maybe we need to open our eyes again, our minds, to the blank before us, to the unanmed and unnameble… to shape a new name for the impossible.


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