On the "Irrationality" of Zen
By Crowe, C. Lawson

Philosophy East and West
V. 15 No. 1 (1965)
pp. 31-36

Copyright 2000 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA




    D. T. Suzuki and Western adherents of Zen Buddhism make extraordinary claims for the efficacy and uniqueness of Zen and for satori, the experience of enlightenment which it produces. [l] As a way of life, Zen is said to be unsurpassed in excellence. It gives meaning and value to existence. It is the essence of life. According to Suzuki, Zen is not a religion, not a philosophy, not a psychology, nor any type of science. The fruits of its practice are serenity, liberation, a true intuitive grasp of the whole of reality -- in Buddhist terms -- enlightenment, transcendental knowledge, nirvaa.na. [2]

    Buddhism teaches that life is suffering for all conditions of men. It is a struggle characterized by pain and by the agony of death and rebirth. According to the well-known story, Gotama taught his fellow sufferers the cause of their "life-sickness" and showed them how they could escape from it. Many traditions and legends testify to his refusal to discuss metaphysical questions on the grounds that speculation was neither relevant to the problem of salvation nor conducive to its attainment. [3] The Buddha also held that no single metaphysical answer, no matter how sophisticated, would be appropriate.

    The Buddha's teachings are simple, but to grasp their true meaning in the attainment of enlightenment requires more than mere intellectual assent to them. From the beginning, the Buddha and his followers assumed that nirvaa.na was to be achieved by proper discipline of mind and conduct. For Buddhists of virtually every school, "salvation" requires "higher knowledge" resulting from meditation, ethical discipline, and, ultimately, mystical experience.

    In this respect, Zen expresses authentically Buddhist belief and practice, even while separated from its sources by centuries and schisms. It addresses itself to the problems which plagued Gotama a thousand years before the first Zen master appeared in China. Its approach to enlightenment, however, is different. The southern, or Hiinayaana, sects understood the way to enlightenment as a "progress" along a gradually ascending path requiring arduous

1. See, e.g., Christmas Humphreys, Zen Buddhism (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962); Hubert Benoit, The Supreme Doctrine: Psychological Studies in Zen Thought, Terence Gray, trans. (New York: The Viking Press, 1955).

2. D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki, William Barrett, ed. (New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1956), pp. 3 ff.

3. Clarence H. Hamilton, ed., Buddhism: A Religion of Infinite Compassion (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1952), pp. xvii, 55 f.




asceticism and prolonged concentration. The Mahaayaana, or northern, school produced a liberal version of Buddhism, emphasizing the role of faith and intuitive insight. It was, in fact, the Mahaayaanist metaphysical doctrines which provided the Zen understanding of satori. [4]

    Zen practice results in the opening of a "mental eye," in a sudden break-through to enlightenment. Its claim for uniqueness does not lie, however, in the "suddenness" of the enlightenment. Its uniqueness lies in the elimination of the stages in the journey to nirvaa.na. [5] Zen rejects revelation through scriptures, but, more important, it claims to transcend the intellect as well. Zen claims to achieve its results by direct reference to the so-called naked facts of experience, by "direct pointing at the mind of man." The end is "to see" into one's own nature and thus to attain buddhahood. This state can be achieved in the midst of ordinary daily activities, and, for this reason, extreme asceticism and prolonged meditation are also rejected.

    Emphasizing the aspect of Zen best known in the West, Suzuki says that "Zen is the most irrational, inconceivable thing in the world." [6] Not subject to logical analysis, it resists all attempts to understand it intellectually. Suzuki argues that it is intellectually impossible to comprehend spiritual facts. [7] He says, "Zen is one thing and logic is another.... Zen deals with facts and not with generalizations." [8] In sum, Suzuki claims that the essence of Zen is satori, the experience of "sudden enlightenment," and that it is irrational, inexplicable, and incommunicable. [9] He observes that mystical experience has a "noetic" quality, and hence does not involve cognition in the usual sense. It is not an ordinary sort of experience which can be shared -- i.e., described more or less well, more or less accurately, to another.

    What are we to make of Suzuki's description of satori, the essence of Zen? Can we speak meaningfully or intelligibly about "having an experience" which has no cognitive content, is irrational, inexpressible, and cannot be described to anyone else? How would we know when we had had it? "Having an experience" seems to entail knowing something about it even if the content of the experience could not be described fully, or, for that matter, very well. It is, of course, possible to have experience which no discourse describes adequately, because talking about feelings or sense perceptions is not the same thing as having them, but this is commonplace and not the extraordinary experience to which Suzuki points.

4. Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism, Paul Peachey, trans. (New York: Random House, Inc., 1963), pp. 34 f, passim.

5. Ibid. pp. 63 f.

6. Suzuki, op. cit., p. 13.

7. Ibid., p. 47.

8. Ibid., p. 19.

9. Ibid., p. 103.




    Suzuki's description requires that those who achieve satori have an experience which they alone can have, which, in an important (and not trivial) sense, they alone participate in, and which can never be shared with another. Satori has to be in the strictest sense a "private" experience.

    For a different purpose, Wittgenstein speculated about possessing a "private" language which he alone understood. [10] His thoughts, however, apply, mutatis mutandis, to Suzuki's claims for satori. The experience of satori is of such a definite nature that a man knows when he has it. If he did not know what satori was, and, if, in principle, he could not know, he would not know how to use the word "satori" to name the irrational, inexplicable, and incommunicable experience. But, if satori really is all these things, how could a man learn to name it? He could not learn from anyone else. No one else would know that he was having the experience, and, hence, no one could tell him when it would be correct for him to say he was experiencing satori. He could not guess just right, because he would have no way of deciding that he was using the word "satori" correctly when he did just happen to name the experience. On the basis of these and similar objections, it would seem necessary to allow that "satori," like other words, has a "public" context in which its meaning and application must be learned. Taken literally, or even if we allow that Suzuki exaggerates to make a point, it appears that his description is either unintelligible or false. To say that Suzuki would agree with this conclusion would be merely playing with words.

    Since we do have some notion of what Suzuki is trying to say, and because many mystics, including Zen Buddhists, do offer more or less intelligible accounts of their mystical experiences, it seems sound to conclude that Suzuki's description is hyperbolic for the sake of making his point. Consider, for example, the account of enlightenment attained by Hakuin (1685-1768), one of the greatest Japanese Zen masters.

    During the spring of my twenty-fourth year I was staying at the Eiganji (temple) in the province of Echigo where I practiced assiduously. I slept neither by day nor by night, and forgot both to rest and to eat. Suddenly I was overcome by the Great Doubt. I felt as though freezing in an ice field extending thousands of miles. My bosom was filled with an extraordinary purity. I could neither advance nor retire. It was as if I were out of my mind and only the word "nothing" remained.... Sometimes I felt as if I were floating through the air. This state continued for a number of days until one night while hearing the striking of the temple bell I experienced the transformation.

    It was like the smashing of a layer of ice, or the pulling down of a crystal tower.... All former doubts were fully dissolved like ice which melted away. With a loud

10. Norman Malcolm, "Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations," Philosophical Review, LXIII (1954), 530-559.




voice I called out, "How glorious, how glorious!" We need no escape from the cycle of life and death, nor need we strive after enlightenment. The seventeen hundred kooan exercises are not worthy of being posed.... To myself I thought that for two or three hundred years there had been no sudden breakthrough like mine, with such great ecstasy. [11]

In the light of this report, it seems quite pointless to describe Hakuin's experience as "incommunicable."

    After declaring that in Zen "we must forego all our ordinary habits of thinking which control our everyday life, we must try to see if there is any other way of judging things," Suzuki himself offers a "logical" definition of satori:

    Satori may be defined as intuitive looking into the nature of things in contradistinction to the analytical or logical understanding of it.... Logically stated, all its [the world's] opposites and contradictions are united and harmonized into a consistent organic whole.... [12]

    In the same way, Suzuki says that Zen, as a Mahaayaana school, is informed by the transcendentalism of the northern Buddhist tradition. He insists that "those who have experienced satori are always at a loss to explain it coherently and logically," [13] while in the next paragraph he spells out the "noetic" quality of satori:

    Without this noetic quality satori will lose all its pungency, for it is really the reason of satori itself. It is noteworthy that the knowledge contained in satori is concerned with something universal and at the same time with the individual aspect of existence.... Satori is the knowledge of the individual object and also that of Reality which is... at the back of it. [14]

    In the foregoing quotation and in many other places, Suzuki argues for the metaphysical doctrines of the Mahaayaanist Suutras of Transcendental Wisdom (the Praj~naapaaramitaa). These Suutras teach that the mind attains nirvaa.na when it comprehends the emptiness of all things. Reality is essentially void, and this experience of the void is what is referred to in the Zen doctrine of "seeing into one's self-nature." This "seeing" is not "seeing something." It is a state of no-seeing, no-consciousness, and no-mind. [15] Strictly speaking, nothing can be predicated of "no-consciousness." One cannot say that it is a reality or that it

11. Quoted in Dumoulin, op. cit., p. 249.

12. Suzuki, op. cit., p. 84.

13. Ibid., p. 103.

14. Ibid., p. 104.

15. Ibid., p. 163; see also pp. 191-192.




is not a reality. The Zen masters taught that it is like a mirror before which no objects appear and, therefore, in which nothing is seen.

    While the doctrine of `suunyataa (the void) may be greatly elaborated, it is enough to recognize that Suzuki understands it to be the essential content of satori. The significance of this fact is twofold. In the first place, it denies the claim that Zen cannot be apprehended intellectually (is not a philosophy, etc.), since Zen is intelligible to the degree that the metaphysical principles of Mahaayaana Buddhism are intelligible. Secondly, it helps us to see the true relation between Zen mysticism and Buddhist metaphysics. Suzuki writes: "... the knowledge realized by satori is final... no amount of logical argument can refute it. Being direct and personal it is sufficient to itself... it cannot be denied by outsiders who have no such experience." [16] Hence, satori is seen as the justification for certain Buddhist metaphysical doctrines which, in turn, provide the content for the experience of satori. Despite this claim, however, it is obvious that the connection between satori and Buddhist metaphysics is historically contingent. Mystics of all ages and cultures have found their mystical experiences self-justifying, but the content of their experiences invariably depends upon who and where they were in time and space. If the content of satori and Mahaayaana metaphysics were so related that one could not experience mystic ecstasy without inferring or recognizing the truth of Buddhist metaphysical doctrines, every mystic should reach the same conclusions about the essential nature of reality. While mystics in various ages share some opinions, they often differ and sometimes radically in their metaphysical views.

    Why do Suzuki and his followers place such emphasis on the "irrationality" of satori? They are betrayed, at least in part, by their own intellectualism. Buddhism rests on the assumption that a transcendental knowledge is necessary for salvation. Ordinary reason cannot rise unaided to the ecstatic level, and hence it is repudiated. This view seems to be based on an unwarranted regard for the power of reason. It seems that no Buddhist has ever wondered what a completely rational and exhaustive explanation of anything would be like. It is as if reason were blamed for not being able to do what it cannot do in principle, as if a snake were blamed for not walking upright. In this sense, Zen appears to be false to its own insight. It is true that reason and rational discourse can never exhaust the meaning of human experience at any level, but this amounts to a trivial observation -- except, of course, for Zen practitioners, who say it in a different tone of voice. There is, after all, nothing very surprising in the fact that the ecstasy of the mystic is not fully conveyed by commonplace language.

16. Ibid., p. 104.




    Finally, Zen appears to have substantially the same interests as many other mystical views. It is a meditative practice based on a certain belief designed to provide "metaphysical comfort." It promises to wipe out the tensions of human existence, to give peace of mind, and to prevent our entanglement with the persons and forces in society which cause us suffering. Although it begins by concentrating on the concrete character of the individual's immediate experience, it ends, paradoxically, by viewing the concrete as essentially formless and empty.