"KILL THE BUDDHA": Quietism in Action and Quietism as Action in Zen Buddhist Thought and Practice

J. Raz
2010 Common Knowledge  
Kill the Buddha when you meet him on the way. -Linji Yixuan (d. 866) Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, teaches the nonduality of quietist and active practice. This nonduality is rooted in the deepest level of the Zen Buddhist philosophy of life; and in spite of continuous, often heated debates on the question, there has never been in Zen a true rivalry between quietist and active practices or between quietist and activist doctrines. I am aware that this assertion is tricky: claims of
more » ... : claims of nonduality presuppose duality -in our case, a duality of withdrawn, unworldly quietism and/versus action or activism in the world. It could be argued, I admit, that Zen masters noticed a duality of this kind in prior Buddhist practices and that they set out, successfully, to "bridge" it. But the Zen rejection of all dualities, including that between duality and nonduality, is uncompromisingly radical. The opposed terms in such dualities exist only in the realm of concepts, not in reality -certainly not in the reality of the Zen practitioner. Spiritually and practically, both quietism and action are words, whose use 439 S y m p o s i u m : A p o l o g y f o r Q u i e t i s m , Pa r t 6 C O m m O n K n O w l e D g e 4 4 0 should be to describe a unified state of being that includes and transcends them; which is to say that Zen Buddhism denies them altogether. A problem with making this case is that zen, short for zazen, means "sitting meditation," and indeed it is practiced while sitting quietly, legs crossed, observing one's breathing and all there is, inside or outside, rejecting nothing, holding on to nothing, preferring nothing. The word quietism will occur, on reading this description, to most students of comparative religion. Until the mid-twentieth century, Zen training ideally meant life in a monastery, often in a mountain forest, under the guidance of a master (roshi). Monastic practice involves two daily meditations; though periodically, disciples practice for longer periods intensively -full days or even weeks of constant, quiet meditation. This approach to Zen training, called shikantaza ("just sit"), was devised by the Japanese master Dogen in the thirteenth century. The Soto Zen school, which Dogen founded, is said to hold this approach, which often was criticized by its rival, the "activist" Rinzai school. (But as we shall later see, the distinction between the two is not so clear.) The ideal of the Zen practitioner involves everyday activities, such as teaching, cooking and cleaning, weeding, helping others, practicing martial arts and calligraphy. There have lived in history famous Zen painters, poets, sculptors, and ceramists. Both the "quietists" and the "activists" in the history of Zen have always included both these approaches in their lives and teachings, no matter how intense arguments between their advocates have become. Differences have been matters of emphasis rather than essence. Emphasizing one over the other has often been a matter of successive trends and local differences, as is often the case in religious movements. Ideas and Practices of a Quietist Nature in India At the time of its emergence in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, Buddhism was a growing movement within the spiritual and philosophical arena of India, where quietism was a significant factor in both theory and practice, especially in the Yoga schools and the Upanishads. We can begin with three representative examples: (1) A famous passage in the Mundaka Upanishad (III, i) offers a relevant simile: one bird, perched on a lower branch of the life-tree, eats both its bitter and sweet fruits. A second bird, perched on the top of the life-tree, eats neither its sweet nor its bitter fruit; the second bird just sits, calmly and serenely inactive. The bird above is represents the ultimate (the cosmic or transcendental) self; the bird below stands for the individual self. The Upanishadic ideal, this passage leaves no doubt, was a calm, serene, mostly inactive state of being, at one with Being.
doi:10.1215/0961754x-2010-005 fatcat:tldwiuwamjflxci2jj74oyyyky