Doug Bruns

Zen and Being

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 28, 2013 at 6:00 am
Chinese character for "Tao" -- the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

Chinese character for “Tao” — the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

I used to study Zen with a Korean Zen Master. He said a lot of things I did not–do not still–understand. For instance:

“Any single word loads all sorts of connection and is always valuable as the wholeness of the truth.”rightcol_banner_art


“Mistake or error is still good.”

A Zen Master will typically give the student a koan. A koan is like a riddle without an answer–at least most of us would think it is without an answer. The Master, however, might differ. Most likely, the Master would not consider it in such terms. Here is the first koan my teacher gave me:

A Monk asked Zen Master Yunmen the following: “When not producing a single thought, is there any fault or not?”

To which Master Yunmen replied: “Mount Sumeru.”

It would be bad form to discuss it here. That is a matter between teacher and student. But you are welcome to pick it up and noodle it. Mount Sumeru, indeed!

I like Zen in its austerity. Zen has no doctrine, no sacred texts, no gods, saints, or sinners. There is no heaven, no hell,  devil, or superstition. There is simply the practitioner and the meditation cushion. Despite all that, I don’t practice any longer. I cannot explain why. It is the koan of my life, the way I plunge into a pool, dive deeply, then dry off and never swim again. Like I said, some koans have no answer.


I opened Alan Watts’s classic, The Way of Zen, the other day. Watts was a

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

friend of Ginsburg, Burroughs, and the Beats. He was also a scholar. His book on Zen is considered a classic introduction to eastern philosophy. This passage caught my eye, in particular:

“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 an example of what is known in India and China as a “way of liberation,”…a way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be 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.”

To pull Watts’s metaphor, the working sculptor, a smidgen down the road, let us consider sculpting in clay and sculpting in marble. One day you, the artist, arrive at your studio, lets say, and want to create something three dimensional. You grab some clay and start molding, adding a piece here, a piece there. You form it to your vision, building it, smoothing it, building more. That, it seems to me, is how we live. We build on existence until an object conforming to our vision is created. We call it our life. It is a process of addition. I note that this method does not conform to the Zen Master of New England‘s  admonition to simplify, simplify, simplify.

David, as released from the stone.

David, as released from the stone.

But, should we turn to marble, that is altogether a different matter. That is a process of subtraction, of chiseling away, of polishing and removing until the form is revealed in the rock. Michelangelo looked at the block and saw his David locked inside. As “a way of liberation,” David must have been grateful.

What is inside? is the question. It is the opposite of What should be added? Eastern thought asks the first question, Western thought the latter.

For me, after years of working in clay, building an image to conform to my vision, I wish to turn to the marble block and attempt to release its contents. Now where did I put my chisel and hammer? (Boy, I love exhausting a metaphor!)

Thanks for reading

  1. Your description of” the koan of your life” loaded all sorts of connections for me. If only I could express them all in one word, perhaps it would be valuable as wholeness of the truth. But I can add only trivia, as is my western tradition…

    Alain de Botton was interviewed in yesterdays NYT Book Review. He commented on books whch fired up his passion and “Now, a few years later, I’m bewldered and deeply worried by the way one can be impressed and moved …and yet do absolutely nothing about one’s indignation and simply put all the good arguments to one’s side.” Maybe AdB’s shares your life koan!

    Same publication, did you notice Jeff Bridges & Bernie Glassman collaborated on the new book, “The Dude and the Zen Master?” The side comment caught my eye because I actually heard the Dude being interviewed on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” Saturday morning on NPR and heard this quip:

    Glassman is quoted by Bridges as saying, “Oh yea, [the Big Lebowski] is full of koans. You know what a koan is, right?” Replied the NPR panelist, “Yeah, they wrote the movie.”

    Perhaps I need a hook more than a chisel and hammer. Mount Sumeru to you!

    • S ~ I’m glad you mentioned Botton in yesterday’s review. Yes, I read it, taking notes, as Nabokov has taught us. In particular I was interested in his quote from Schopenhauer: “We can regard our life as a uselessly disturbing episode in the blissful repose in nothingness.” Schopenhauer is often called the philosopher of depression, or of gloom, etc. He was highly influential to thinkers who followed him, Nietzsche, in particular (who influenced everyone else). But what I don’t think many people are aware of, is that Schopenhauer had more than a passing interest in Buddhism. When I read the quote Bottom shared, I made a note in my Moleskine, that S. was here, in my humble estimation, not talking doom and gloom but attempting to articulate his understanding of eastern thought. Of course, that is complete and utter conjecture on my part, but it does cast a different light on the quote.

      (The quote of Botton you share, struck home–I was glad to see that such situations are not just trafficked by us common folk.)

      And yes, The Dude and the Zen Master. Read that as well. I need to watch that movie again. Om mani padme hum

      Thanks for keeping the gray matter sparking! d

  2. […] and seeing it whole, as a universe.” I felt as if I was in the presence of a prophet, a seer, a Zen Master. In fact, he had been a teacher. Fifth grade. Retired. “I was a great teacher,” Elliott told […]

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