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The limitations of Zen (free post)
Nirvana, epectasy, and meditation "beyond the beyond"
There is a being [wu] – formless, complete in itself [hun] –
Preceding Heaven and Earth
Tranquil, vast, standing alone, unchanging
It provides for all things yet cannot be exhausted
It is the mother of the universe
I do not know its name
so I call it “Tao”
Forced to name it further
I call it
“The greatness of all things”
“The end of all endings”
I call it
“That which is beyond the beyond”
“That to which all things return”…
Tao depends on itself alone
Supremely free, self-so, it rests in its own nature 
One could say without much qualification that the book of Lao Tzu (or, Laozi) is one of the “urtexts” of Ch’an (in Japanese, Zen). The poet and scholar of Chinese literature, David Hinton, certainly regards it as such. His most recent collection of texts, The Way of Ch’an: Essential Texts of the Original Tradition , places it right after the I Ching as the most foundational text of both Taoism and Ch’an. And being the fundamental text “of the original tradition” that it is, it implies something rather striking about that tradition. Whatever else Ch’an or Zen practice is, it isn’t an end in itself; its aim is not limited to a meditative experience of “waking up” to see everything and oneself as somehow “illusory” or “empty.” Original Zen was not nihilism; it wasn’t looking inward until one’s “self” was perceived to be “non-existent” or a sort of something with a “black hole” at the center. It wasn’t intellectual elimination, even if it sought to break down reliance on the strictly rational (something that all contemplative traditions do).
I say this because a latter-day version of Zen has gradually developed – mainly in the West, but also, by way of association, in the East as well – that has gotten itself tangled up with (Western) philosophical materialism or physicalism, with scientism (which isn’t to be confused with genuine science) and the bad arguments of the “New (though now old and quite dreary) Atheism,” and has forgotten that “original” Zen had a transcendent aim: to “know” and to flow with the Tao (“Way”), to seek and to cling to what Hinton translates as the “Source-Ancestral” – a word that can more simply be translated as “Ancestor” (宗 – zōng). “The sage,” said Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), “is one who holds fast to the Ancestor.” There are, in fact, a few synonyms employed by both Taoist and early Ch’an writers for what they meant by “Tao,” reinforcing the idea that no name could contain what it was they strove to encounter; but what is abundantly clear in their texts is that this elusive, but essential, reality is “that which is beyond the beyond,” in other words, what is meant — even in its immanence — by the “transcendent.” (As we will see, modern Buddhists – frequently Western converts, but not always – endeavor to reduce or explicitly deny the transcendental elements in their religion.)
This, of course, gets too close for comfort to a concept of “God” for more than a few Zen practitioners – especially for those in the West who are fleeing some form of organized religion (often, in all fairness, for defensible reasons). Their appeal to Buddha’s celebrated agnosticism in matters metaphysical would be more convincing, however, if some of those same practitioners of Zen appealed just as strongly to his precepts. I have always admired Sokei-an Sasaki (1882 – 1945) among the early Zen teachers in America precisely because he not only taught brilliantly about the Zen of Lin Chi (in Japanese, “Rinzai”; he is the one who famously told a disciple, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him” – meaning, “kill” your own mental idol of the Buddha), but because in his later years he almost exclusively taught the precepts and ethics of “primitive” Buddhism – becoming a sort of rigorous Zen “desert father.” For him, not the “wild and crazy Zen guy” model, but the man of sage-like wisdom who firmly showed in word and deed that he truly had encountered “that which is beyond the beyond.” Nor, incidentally, was he hesitant to call that reality “God” – even as he distanced himself from the anthropomorphism he saw in Western religion. He understood that Zen practice was an engagement with transcendence, breaking through the false dualisms that obscure our clarity of mind, passing beyond the physical-metaphysical distinctions and conceptual limitations, and coming into a “formless” encounter with “the Ancestor,” “the Tao,” essential Buddha-nature, or what the Christian might call “God” or “Logos” or “Spirit.”
“[T]he common meaning of 宗 is ‘ancestor,’” David Hinton confesses, “which suggests a remarkable sense of the source as ancestral to us, as kindred.”  Describing the Chinese character above, which shows “three streams of light emanating earthward” (from the sun, moon, and stars), he says that these “were considered bright distillations of, or embryonic origins of ch’i, that breath-force that pulses through the Cosmos as both matter and energy simultaneously. Hence, 宗 is the cosmological source of ch’i as a dwelling-place, a dwelling-place that is the very source of the Cosmos.”  One can substitute “cosmological” here (which, in our culture, suggests a strictly materialist notion) with “transcendent” without, in any way, damaging the true ancient idea behind the word. To put it succinctly, “the Ancestor” is that which radiates and, indeed, exhales the “breath-force” of life. Anyone who isn’t afraid or, through tendentiousness, unwilling to equate that image of transcendent and “kindred” creativity with some notion of “God” should feel entirely free to do just that, despite the hemming and hawing of those who would claim otherwise.
And when Ch’an, following its own original Chinese understanding of things, spoke of “emptiness,” it didn’t have in mind a vast void devoid of life or sheer “nothingness,” but a “kenotic” self-emptying by the inexhaustible source of creation: “[Tao] provides for all things yet cannot be exhausted,” as Lao Tzu says. Again, here we have an analog of “God” – in this case, described as a “mother” with a womb (that is, an encompassing “emptiness” burgeoning with life), giving (continuous) birth to all things. A “kindred Ancestor,” indeed.
And it’s this primordial, all-encompassing reality that Zen, despite its many permutations down the centuries, is actually all about. This is what it’s really after: an encounter with the source of life and light, that transcendent “being” (wu) that generates the cosmos and can be found by going “within” oneself in meditation. If it’s not this, then it’s not much of anything at all, or at least it’s not much more than a relaxation exercise with some helpful tips for mental and emotional hygiene. In other words, simply getting past “dualistic concepts” (right and wrong, good and bad, etc.), which is one of the goals of Zen practice, isn’t an end in itself; it’s simply the beginning. Zen practice is, as Shunryu Suzuki put it, what “beginners” do. Unfortunately, one can get stuck at this level, never getting past this liminal stage, and move on to what the ancient Western spiritual tradition means by “purgation, illumination, and union with the divine” (which, in this life, will also be the work of “beginners” only). The chief obstacle in our culture right now for the Zen practitioner who is fleeing “religion” (so-called) is to put aside his or her attachment to physicalism/materialism/naturalism and scientism – all of which come from a post-Enlightenment Western philosophical worldview and are entirely alien to early Taoist/Ch’an thought. Unless that obstacle is avoided as the delusion or idol it is, Zen practice will be relegated to the mediocre level of mental technology and its meaning reduced to a darkly energizing kind of nihilism (and don’t for an instant doubt that nihilism has its attractions – hovering over a conceptual abyss can feel freeing and empowering, a sort of thrill-ride above the common herd of humanity and the ceaseless fray of stupid quotidian existence; it leads to ego-inflation despite its illusion of ego-reduction).
Maggie Ross, an Anglican solitary living in Oxford, has written what, in my opinion, may be the finest contemporary book – in two volumes – on “the work of silence.” Anyone who is sincerely seeking to engage the subject should do oneself a favor and purchase it. In it, she warns about the dangers of meditation, even though she is obviously advocating a mature, aware, and responsible practice of it. She writes:
Meditation practice is but one very minor aspect of the work of silence: it is an entry-level, beginning step in an all-encompassing commitment. The language of meditation is not necessarily inclusive of the whole person (incarnational), whereas, by contrast, the work of silence engages all of the person. It is possible to practice meditation under the illusion that one is outside of any perceived value system, but this idea is deceptive and dangerous: meditation will intensify whatever values a person holds, whether or not they are acknowledged [emphasis added] – and every person has a value system, positive or negative, creative or destructive. Meditation can be abused as well as used: One can meditate in order to become a more efficient killer [emphasis added].
Meditation needs to have a context and be subject to deliberate intent. It is for this reason that the contemporary division between religion and “spirituality” is perilous [emphasis added], as is the division between so-called spirituality and ordinary life. While it is not essential to believe the tenets of a particular sect, it is vital to be aware of one’s own beliefs, one’s own ethics, and the purpose for which one is meditating – that is, intent – and intent is supremely important in this process, for meditation accesses the deep mind, and the attention of the deep mind is influenced by intention…
Many teachers limit themselves to various techniques of meditation – in effect making meditation in itself something of a panacea, a goal, even an idol, and therefore a dead-end [emphasis added]… 
Those paragraphs merit re-reading, the lines I have stressed in particular. In brief, one can meditate intensely, single-pointedly, deeply – and still be deluded. Meditation is not a panacea, as Ross says. Lifted to the status of “goal” or “idol,” it is a “dead-end.” One gets so far and no further. Mix in our culture’s prevailing philosophical materialism/physicalism/scientism, devoid of all notions of the transcendent, and it is little wonder that a great deal that passes for “mindfulness” and even “Zen” is actually stuck in a cycle of experiencing and re-experiencing a merely liminal mental or spiritual state. It feels good, this intermittent sense of expansive “nothingness,” and one can get hooked on it. But it isn’t “the cloud of unknowing” or, for that matter, nibbana or nirvana. It isn’t impressive.
Glenn Wallis, following the lead of Thanissaro Bhikku, has translated nibbana/nirvana in his two excellent translations of seminal Buddhist scriptures, as “unbinding.” He confesses that this translation is controversial, but he holds to it (I believe rightly so), and speaks of his decision to do so in this way:
So, “blowing out” is only one way of construing the term. Another way that Buddhists themselves have understood the meaning of nibbana/nirvana is precisely as “unbinding.” Since I am following Thanissaro Bhikku’s lead, I will let him speak for himself in defending this unusual choice. I am quoting him at such length because I think his argument is an important one…
The Buddha’s choice of the word Unbinding (nibbana) – which literally means the extinguishing of a fire – derives from the way that the physics of fire was viewed at his time. As fire burned, it was seen as clinging to its fuel in a state of entrapment and agitation. When it went out, it let go of its fuel, growing calm and free. Thus, when the Indians of his time saw a fire going out, they did not feel that they were watching extinction. Rather, they were seeing a metaphorical lesson in how freedom could be attained by letting go…
What kind of unbinding [does this metaphorical lesson indicate]? We have already gained some kind of idea – liberation from dependency and limitations, from agitation and death…
Then Wallis, in my opinion, makes an all-too-typical mistake, when he continues: “[Thanissaro Bhikku’s use of the uppercase “U” in “Unbinding”] creates the danger… that some readers will turn this process into a static place or thing, like the Absolute, the Transcendent, God, et cetera.”  His mistake isn’t that the “process” will be misconstrued to mean “a static place or thing,” it’s his assumption that “the Absolute, the Transcendent, [and] God” are terms that refer to anything of a static nature at all. His assumption is dead wrong; it’s certainly not the case, no more than it would be correct to say that the Chinese concept of the Tao is static – as we have already seen, the Tao is the great “Way” that harmonizes all opposites and dynamically pours forth endlessly from its womblike “emptiness” all that exists. And, in fact, early Ch’an Buddhists, who were Chinese first and Buddhist second where metaphysics and physics were concerned, assumed that the “process” (an important word) of nibbana was to return to “that which is beyond the beyond, that to which all things return,” in the words of Lao Tzu quoted above. Similarly, in the classical theology of the West, following the apophatic path, it cannot be said that God is conceived of as a “static” being. Where one real difference lies is that the experience of transcendence towards which original Ch’an is directed is conceptually more an “It” than a “Thou,” while that towards which Western mysticism is directed is regarded as a “Thou”: God, in other words. And God is no more by nature static than the process of interior growth we must undergo to stretch ourselves “in the Spirit” toward God.
It was Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) who developed the concept of “epectasy” (from the Greek word ἐπέκτασις – it is used by Paul in Philippians 3:13, for example  ), the idea already implicit in the New Testament that the disciple is engaged in a process that – as Gregory taught – is endless in scope. God is incomprehensible, infinite, always creating and filling all things with his energies. Existence is permeated by God, but his nature defies our rational and conceptual processes (all our logical “dualisms,” we might say). He can be encountered, beginning in this life with a process of – forgive me – “unbinding,” and this ἐπέκτασις will continue “from glory to glory,” forever united to “that which is beyond the beyond.” What that reality will be, to borrow the words of Paul, “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived” (1 Cor. 2:9; RSV). Or, as the Third Zen Patriarch, Seng-ts’an (d. 606) wrote in a similar vein, “When you live this non-separation, all things manifest the One, and nothing is excluded. Whoever comes to enlightenment, no matter when or where, realizes personally this fundamental Source… Each thing reveals the One, the One manifests as all things… Words! Words! The Way [Tao] is beyond language, for in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.”  Gregory of Nyssa might well have appreciated such an idea.
But to return to my main point. Zen, like all the other contemplative traditions, presents us with one set of tools for meditation. That’s all. What we do with those practical tools if we choose to pick them up – and we can easily, unwittingly abuse them – depends on our intent regarding meditation. And our intent will inevitably be rooted in how we think, our preconceptions, our “value system.”
If, on the other hand, we are open to the reality of transcendence – to God, to a living “Thou” – then meditation is open-ended, all-embracing, dynamic, motivated by love, and endless. If our interior process of “unbinding” means being unbound (as Lazarus was “unbound” after his resurrection) for the sake of reaching “that to which all things return,” then our hearts and minds can be expanded “beyond the beyond.” But should we practice meditation and yet remain mentally bound to the mechanistic physicalism of current cultural and scientistic prejudices, we will stay stuck only at the kindergarten level of “the work of silence.” We will hover round and round our fascination with the liminal state of negation, perhaps toy with the tangible gratifications of nihilism, eschew anything that “cramps our style,” and make meditation itself our idol, futilely willing it to be a panacea.
Without a proper transcendent aim, even the practice of meditation will become a distraction rather than what it should be: the pragmatic means to an infinitely unfolding end.
Originally, I intended to include in this post my reflections on Jung’s deficient view of God (as an admirer of Jung, I think it’s important to state where I have serious disagreements with his thought), as well as my thoughts on the limitations of Zen practice. As you can see, I gave that idea up. I will come back to that forsaken topic, however, probably after I’ve concluded my series of posts on the Gospels.
 See: Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition, Translation and Commentary by Jonathan Star (New York, 2001). This is taken from Verse 25, with some alteration.
 Boulder, 2023.
 The Way of Ch’an: Essential Texts of the Original Tradition, p. 94. Emphasis added.
 Ibid., p. 329.
 Maggie Ross, Silence: A User’s Guide; Volume 1: Process, Foreword by Rowan Williams (Portland, 2014), pp. 32-33, 34.
 The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way, translated and annotated by Glenn Wallis (New York, 2007), pp. 113 – 115. His companion volume, Basic Teachings of the Buddha (New York, 2007), makes an identical argument on pp. 142 – 143.
 “Brothers, I do not yet reckon myself to have seized hold, save of one thing: Both forgetting the things lying behind and also stretching out [ἐπεκτεινόμενος] to the things lying ahead…”
 Hsin-Hsin Ming (Buffalo, 1973).