The finger, the ladder and the label

“Zen does not rely on the intellect for the solution of its deepest problems. It is meant to get at the fact at first hand and not through any intermediary. To point to the moon, a finger is needed, but woe to those who take the finger for the moon.”

This is a quote from Daisetsu Teitaru Suzuki – the man who brought Zen to the West. It comes out of one of his Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927). However, this saying is an old Oriental proverb and, hence, it should not be attributed to any author in particular. In fact, associating it with Zen only is somewhat preposterous.

In any case, the quote makes it clear that, while Zen is taught by teachers (Roshis or masters), it is really not about thinking and writing. The quote goes even further, as it actually implies that the role of the teacher or the master should not be exaggerated either. Getting at the fact at first hand is like learning how to ride a bicycle: in the end, you just have to do it – and you have to do it all by yourself.

Suzuki. It makes one think of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, isn’t it? Maybe. Modern Suzuki motorcycles do not require much maintenance though. 🙂

I actually checked it out. Suzuki is a very common family name in Japan. So common, in fact, that it does not refer to any particular family. Indeed, family names do not mean all that much in Japan: families were forced to adopt a surname during the Meiji restoration, but they could choose it at will and, for some reason I don’t know, the name of Suzuki, which literally means bell tree (suzu = bell and ki = tree) was quite popular in certain regions of Japan. In any case, Teitaro Suzuki and Michio Suzuki, the founder of Suzuki Motor Corporation, were surely not related. They were born in very different families on opposite sides of the Honshu island: Michio Suzuki was the son of a farmer, while Teitaro Suzuki (Daisetsu is like an epithet he received later) was a scion of a samurai family. It was an impoverished samurai family (all samurai families were suddenly poor, as the samurai class was abolished during the Meiji restoration, and so they had to re-invent themselves), but samurai nevertheless.

Class surely mattered during those turbulent times (as it does today). Samurai families were generally well-educated and, hence, Teitaro Suzuki’s karma was much more likely to lead him to become a professor (a professor in Buddhist philosophy, in fact), rather than a shrewd businessman. [As for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, please don’t be offended, but the author, Robert Pirsig, would probably agree that it’s neither about Zen nor Motorcycle Maintenance. To be frank, I am not ashamed to admit I never quite got through the book. I tried to read it some twenty years ago but put it down after a few days, wondering why the author needed so many words (more than 400 pages!) to write what he wrote.]

Names and words. I often think that, to some extent, Eastern thought appeals to us Westerners because we do not understand the language. Using foreign words allows us to load meaning onto strange words that may actually not have the meaning we, non- or non-native speakers of the language, associate with them. We often don’t even know how to pronounce them correctly (just try to guess, and then check, the meaning and pronunciation of Daisetsu and Teitaru, for example). Those new meanings suit our purpose, which is to understand what we’ll probably never understand. In my view, the Laughing Buddha epitomizes the approach. Life and death are not meant to be understood: life is meant to be lived, and death… Well… That’s why we should live life to the fullest extent possible. By using strange foreign words, we invent a new language so to speak.

Back to Suzuki. So Teitaro (Daisetsu is a sort of epiteth he received and adopted later) was born into an impoverished samurai family and, while he is widely known as “the man who brought Zen to the West”, I should set the record straight. D.T. Suzuki’s own Zen master, Soyun Shaku (1860–1919), had already traveled to the United States to participate in the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions (Chicago). That gathering is generally referred to as “the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions” and as “the birth of formal world-wide inter-religious dialogue.” Hence, his appearance there was significant (another ‘significant’ representative of world religions was Swami Vivekananda, but I shouldn’t digress here) and Soyun Shaku returned to the US afterwards to teach Zen there just before World War (1905–1906). However, his knowledge of English was poor, and so he didn’t write as much as D.T. Suzuki did: Soyun was an abbot, while Suzuki was a professor in Buddhist philosophy. On top of that, D.T. Suzuki was married to an American theosophist, who surely stimulated him writing even more. So that’s why Soyun Shaku is much less remembered – if at all.

Dr. Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, was just one of the many influential people who took an interest in Suzuki’s writings in-between the two World Wars. Jung actually wrote an elaborate 30-page foreword to Suzuki’s 1934 Introduction to Zen Buddhism, and thereby gave it instant recognition. However, despite the interest of such prominent people, Zen never really made it in the West, unlike Tibetan Buddhism. I am not sure why.

Frankly, I am not attracted to Tibetan Buddhism because of its eclecticism (anything goes really), its excessive monasticism (just think about the disputes between Red and Yellow Hat orders, for example) and, finally, its tantric and shamanic core that continues to permeate everything (examine some of its symbolism, for example, and you’ll know what I mean). In fact, I’ve concluded that Tibetan Buddhism is far removed from the original Buddhist teachings. Of course, that’s my own viewpoint only, and it’s obviously a minority point of view. In any case, my own views don’t matter here.

Why is it that Western intellectuals took to Tibetan Buddhism, rather than Chinese or Japanese Buddhism?

One obvious reason is that Zen is associated with Japanese nationalism and, hence, with Nazism (see, for example, Zen at War, 1997). While Tibetan Buddhism has (or has had) its violent strands too, in particular in regard to the question of the Chinese occupation of the Tibetan homelands (see, for example, Buddha’s Warriors, 2004), Tibetan nationalism is obviously more acceptable to us. Or should we say more romantic? I note, for example, that associating Zen with the samurai or warrior culture is not very problematic for a Western audience.

All major religions or philosophies are obviously tainted with blood and violence: when one’s homeland is threatened, one has to take a stance in this life, not in the next, and then it’s unavoidable that some choose to accept that the doctrine of nonviolence may not be unconditional. In regard to Shaku and Suzuki, it is said that, at the occasion of the Russo-Japanese war (1904–1905), Leo Tolstoy wrote Shaku and asked him to join in denouncing the war. Shaku refused, concluding that “…sometimes killing and war becomes necessary to defend the values and harmony of any innocent country, race or individual.” (quoted in Zen at War, 1997) Just for the record, the Japanese victory in that war surprised the world, and underscored Japan’s emergence as a new world power, and Shaku attributed the victory to Japan’s samoerai culture. Likewise, some comments from Suzuki suggest he sympathized with the German Nazi views on the question of the Jews. It’s sad, but it’s the truth.

Another reason why Zen never became as popular as Tibetan Buddhism in the West, may be that the pioneer, D.T. Suzuki, actually moved away from Zen himself. Indeed, Suzuki, in his later life, turned to the more popular religion which his mother (and many of his compatriots) practiced: plain Shin Buddhism. While a somewhat more encompassing approach should not be a problem as such, it’s obvious it’s never a good thing for the followers if the master suddenly distances himself from his own teachings: we like to identify ourselves with a particular group, or a particular school of thought, and if our teachers say that it doesn’t matter all that much, we’re confused. We shouldn’t be, because it doesn’t matter indeed: when everything is said and done, we should get at the fact at first hand indeed.


By now, you probably wonder what I want to get at here. Nothing much. I just started a blog documenting my own spiritual journey. This blog is surely not about Zen. And – believe it or not – it’s not about Buddhism or Orientalism either. I quoted the warning above as a warning indeed: when everything is said and done, finding truth and living a ‘good’ life is not about knowledge but about practice, and so that’s what that quote above is about really. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Let me conclude this introduction by making a few more remarks about labels, and about this ‘finger pointing to the moon’ expression in particular. Fans of Bruce Lee will probably remember the reference to a finger pointing to the moon from the 1973 Enter the Dragon movie, in which he slaps one of his pupils while teaching him Kung Fu: “Don’t think! Feel! It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger… Or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” [Note, once again, that associating Zen or Buddhist thought with violence is, apparently, not something that antagonizes the Western mind, as long as it’s in the sphere of martial arts. It’s only when it becomes associated with a nation fighting a war with some other nation, that we apparently take sides or, else, invoke the  ‘separation of church and state’ principle. I find that somewhat strange. It is just like we seem to fail to acknowledge that all religions in the real world are tainted with blood and violence. I can’t think of any exception here. Indeed, as mentioned above, Tibetan Buddhism has or had its warriors too – literally.]

Enter the Dragon was Bruce Lee’s last movie: he died the same year, aged 32 only, and his religious beliefs – if any – were vague. In fact, Bruce would not associate himself with any particular school of thought but, in his posthumously published Tao of Jeet Kune Do, he did jot down things like: “In Buddhism, there is no place for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water and when you’re tired go and lie down.” Is that Buddhist, or Zen? The booklet also quotes literally from D.T. Suzuki’s publications.

So what? 

Well… Nothing. I just underscores what I wrote above: expressions like this finger pointing to the moon saying are universal wisdom. In fact, I’d say the ‘finger pointing to the moon’ expression is very similar to the metaphor that Wittgenstein used to describe what his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was all about. He saw it as a sort of ladder, which you can kick away once you’ve used it to climb up the roof. In other words, we should go beyond the words.

OK, you’ll say – but what about that quote of Dōgen Zenji above? Dōgen is the founder of the Sōtō school of Zen, isn’t he?

Maybe. We now label Dōgen as such, as the founding father of Sōtō Zen. However, Dōgen himself would never have claimed that label. Now that we are talking labels, let me quickly try to dot all the i’s and cross all of the t’s in this short introduction. Let me first note that, while Shaku, as the abbot of a Rinzai temple, was definitely a purebred Rinzai roshi, D.T. Suzuki was, as a professor of Buddhist philosophy, much less explicit in his affiliation. What’s the difference? In practice, nothing much: both Sōtō and Rinzai Zen are, by now, calcified traditions or – if you prefer a more upbeat term – beautiful gardens. That being said, Rinzai is usually associated with a more impregnable approach to enlightenment, involving difficult games such as the kōan, which are designed to achieve ‘lightning-like enlightenment’ – as Dumoulin puts it. In contrast, the Sōtō school does not attach all that much importance on ‘sudden enlightenment’. In contrast, as can be seen from the quote, Dōgen advised against consciously seeking Buddhahood, stressing that “practice and enlightenment are one and the same.” I like that – a lot – so let me repeat it: practice and enlightenment are one and the same.

In any case. We should not attach much importance to these labels. As mentioned above, Dōgen himself did not think he belonged to a specific school or sect. He actually even rejected being referred to as a master. I sometimes like to think all of the founding fathers (why are there are few or no founding mothers?) of the world’s greatest religions rejected labeling. They were all revolutionaries, creating something new from the old and, hence, they would surely reject the current labeling. None of them believed in any ‘transmission principle’ when it came to truth, knowing God, or leading a ‘good’ life. None of them claimed to be the ‘master’, or to be entitled to tell others what to do or what to believe. In many ways, they were loners attracting a crowd.

I said this blog is not about Buddhism, but let me note that there’s quite a ‘tradition’ of Buddhist loners as well. [Note the contradiction is the use of the term ‘tradition’ here: there is none.] Just think of the Zen master Dokuan Genko (1630-1698), for example, who broke with tradition indeed by openly questioning the ‘transmission’ principle and, hence, his own role as a ‘master’: “The only genuine transmission is the individual’s independent experience of Zen enlightenment, [which is] an intuitive experience that needs no external confirmation.” And while Suzuki himself does not do away with the principle of ‘transmission’ (he also confirms the role of the master on the road to ‘getting to the fact at first hand’), he does point out that Zen stands apart because “the direct method of Zen is to see straightway into the truth of Enlightenment and attain Buddhahood without going through so many stages of preparation prescribed by the scholars.” (Essays in Zen Buddhism (First Series), Essay IV (History of Buddhism), p. 176).

These loners are usually dismissed because, as mushi-dokugo (‘independently enlightened without a teacher’) or jigo-jisho (‘self-enlightened and self-certified’), they do not adhere to the lineage, or because they left ‘no transmission’. Of course not: if they would have created their own ‘independent transmission’ or lineage, they would not be what they are: loners. The freethinker in me makes me respect them more than any of those great abbots or rinpoches. When everything is said and done, I’d think most of them are just monks in straitjackets. Also note that doing some exercise today, by going out for a ride on your bike, for instance – or just sit and breathe – is probably better for you than reading this blog, because it’s practice and, remember, practice is the only way to ‘get at the fact at first hand.’ 🙂


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