God, Zen and the Intuition of Being

Part II: Zen Enlightenment

Chapter 4: Zen as Metaphysical Insight


It is Zen that provides a graphic example of the cultivation of metaphysical insight. Zen has been compared to Christian monasticism and mysticism, and to contemporary philosophy and psychotherapy. But it finds its closest Western parallel in an area that has received the least attention, the metaphysics of St. Thomas. The fact that Thomistic metaphysics is so rarely considered as a suitable partner in a dialogue with Zen is but another indication of the fundamental problem of Thomism that we have been reflecting upon in Part I. Thomistic metaphysics has failed to examine the role the intuition of being plays in it and the possibility of cultivating this intuition. It is only a Thomism without this intuitive dimension, and without the living, concrete experiences that give rise to it, that appears as a poor partner in any discussion with a dynamic Zen Buddhism.

Zen needs no introduction to the English-speaking world. A wealth of literature is available that ranges from simple introductions, translations of Zen classics, stories of modern Zen experiences, and attempts to bring Zen face to face with various facets of Western culture. (1)

The essential structure of Zen is simplicity itself. The goal is enlightenment, the experience of our true nature or Buddha nature, and the means is the stopping of all conceptual thought. Sitting in the lotus or half-lotus and regulating the breath stabilize the body, making the control of thought easier. The lectures of the master to his community, his private interviews with his students, and the intensive Zen retreats all provide the setting conducive to the stopping of the mind. The inner techniques of such an abolition of thought is the use of special Zen sayings or sitting with inner intent to stop all thought without any particular aid to focus the mind.

But if the end and means are simple, the actual accomplishment of this task can be exceedingly difficult. In this context, it becomes understandable why the Zen masters steer their students away from metaphysical studies. Any kind of conceptualization, no matter how noble, can become a hindrance by cluttering the mind with thought. Yet this general prohibition should not be taken as an impossibility of there being, not so much a Zen metaphysics, but a metaphysical reflection on Zen experience. A number of books that have appeared in recent years can introduce us to this kind of reflection, which in turn can lead to the possibility of the metaphysics of St. Thomas reflecting on the nature of Zen enlightenment. We have only to briefly look at some themes from Keiji Nishitani and Katsuki Sekida to see that this world of Zen metaphysics would not have been entirely strange to St. Thomas or Maritain.


Keiji Nishitani, a noted philosopher of the Kyoto School, (2) allows us a glimpse of some of the ideas of Part I from a Zen perspective. Philosophical thought has often equated being with substance: "Substance is used to point out the essence of a thing, the self-identity in which a thing is what it is in itself." (3) But this notion of being is incomplete and inadequate. Can the "selfness of a thing" really be grasped by the notion of substance, or is it beyond the level of concepts and essences? Nishitani's solution: "The emptiness of sunyata is not an emptiness represented as some "thing" outside of being and other than being. It is not simply an empty nothing but rather an absolute emptiness, emptied even of these representations of emptiness." (4) In contrast to nihility that would be a nothingness in opposition to being, on the field of absolute emptiness "all are returned to the possibility of existence. Each thing is restored anew to its own virtus - that individual capacity that each thing possesses as a display of its own possibility of existence." (5) Despite the initial strangeness of the language, the notion of absolute emptiness shows remarkable affinities to the esse of St. Thomas and Maritain, which is no-thing and in relation to which essence or substance finds its ultimate meaning. Thus, Nishitani goes on to say: "The "what" of a thing is a real "what" only when it is absolutely no "what" at all." (6) And he calls it "a completely different concept of existence, one that has not up to now become a question for people in their daily lives, one that even philosophers have yet to give consideration." (7) And he has especially in mind the philosophers of the West who have made the identification of substance and being. This same point has been made by the historians of the Thomistic renaissance when they contrasted the being of Aristotle as substance with the being of St. Thomas as esse, or existence. Further, Nishitani gives a role to nihility in showing the weakness of the equation of being with substance, while these same historians show how the doctrine of creation from nothing played a role in Thomas' metaphysical formulation of existence.

The way things appear to us by way of their form or shape are "like rays of light issuing from a common source," or "forms that appear on the perimeter" while the center "represents the point at which the being of things is constituted in unison with emptiness..." (8)

Nishitani clarifies this metaphysical conception by a diagram which contains two concentric circles. Reason is the outer one and sensation the inner. When a radius from the center crosses the two circles, these two points of intersection represent the objective forms under which the thing appears to sensation and reason, while the center of the circle represents the thing as it is in itself. Each radius coming from the center produces its distinctive objective forms, but all things as they are situated in the center "in their selfness are gathered into one." (9) Our normal way of viewing things is to look at the center from the circumference and see the One at the center as a result of mere non-differentiation. But this is not how Nishitani would have us view it. Not only should the One not be viewed with multiplicity and differentiation extracted from it, but it should not even be seen as a center within the circumference, but rather, "a center that is only a center and nothing else, a center on the field of emptiness… Each thing in its own selfness shows the mode of being of the center of all things." (10) And "even the tiniest thing, to the extent that it "is" is an absolute center situated at the center of all things." (11) Thus, while Nishitani's diagram has many similarities with the metaphysical circle discussed in Part I, at the end it veers away from it by avoiding the notion of an absolute center.


Sekida, a modern Zen master, engagingly attempts in his Zen Training to postulate some physiological bases of Zen experience and some of the parallels that exist between Zen and contemporary Western philosophy. He, like Nishitani, leaves us a number of passages that resonate with Thomists:

"Man thinks and acts without noticing. When he thinks, "It is fine today," he is aware of the weather but not of his own thought. It is the reflecting act of consciousness that comes immediately after the thought that makes him aware of his own thinking." (12)

The discipline of Zen concentration eliminates this reflecting activity in order to come to what Sekida calls absolute samadhi or pure existence:

"ultimately the time comes when no reflection appears at all. One comes to notice nothing, feel nothing, hear nothing, see nothing. This state of mind is called "nothing." But it is not vacant emptiness. Rather is it the purest condition of our existence. It is not reflected, and nothing is known directly of it." (13)

It has been the reflecting activity of consciousness, the delusive pattern of thought, the ego as it is looking at everything as objects, that has prevented the awareness of this pure existence, "where you can vividly see existence in its nakedness," (14) "a state in which absolute silence and stillness reign, bathed in a pure, serene light." (15) "In this stillness, or emptiness, the source of all kinds of activity is latent." (16) "Zen students train themselves earnestly in the first place only for the purpose of experiencing existence." (17)

Absolute samadhi eliminates all reflecting consciousness which has dominated and clouded our perception of the true nature of ourselves and of things. When we emerge from this absolute samadhi and before this consciousness wedded to essentialistic thinking and to the distinction between subject and object can assert itself, we encounter some existing thing, and its true nature can assert itself. The falling of a peach blossom or the sound of a pebble, coming through our purified senses, resounds with the whole mystery of existence. "At the moment of kensho intuitively activated sensation takes the initiative," (18) and "One looks at the external world with unblinkered eyes. Then everything is found to be admitting a brilliant light." (19) This is close to what Maritain describes as the vital role of the senses in the primordial judgment of sense which gives to intuition the raw material to feed upon in order to come to the intuition of being. Zen and Thomism share a fundamentally realistic epistemological position. Sekida's "intuitively activated sensation" (20) is that which "directly (intuitively) penetrates the object and thereby achieves transcendental cognition." (21)

At the moment of enlightenment or kensho the true meaning of existence is revealed, or better, there is a direct experience of existence, even in the "bowl of rice, pail of water":

You must once have this experience and you will discover what a splendid thing the boiled rice in the bowl is. It shines like diamonds in the incandescent heat of a fire... It is the ultimate in spiritual revelation; you have looked into existence." (22)

It is not consciousness itself that is wrong, but consciousness that has lost sight of its roots. It is not the process of making distinctions that is wrong but is the essentialistic mode of thinking that has lost sight of its foundation of existence. There is another kind of consciousness given in ordinary experience besides the dualistic one. This is what Sekida calls the warm feeling of the eye which comes "from the mood that is latent in each nen," (23) that is, in each thought impulse. This existential sense of the self can develop in the direction of the reflecting action of consciousness, (24) but it can also be pursued in the direction of pure existence. In the actual experience of enlightenment Sekida describes the expansion and extension of this feeling to all things; he emerged from absolute samadhi and looked at the bookshelves along the wall and they appeared to be coming into him. There was no spatial resistance:

"In a word, they and I were one. If I am you, you also are me. In the field of vision, they and I are distinct structures, each separately standing in its place. However, just as my own existence is intimate and warm to me, so now are they intimate and warm to me. We are not strangers; another me is standing there." (25)

This beautiful description of the direct experience of existence also indicates a difficulty in maintaining essential distinctions. The same lack of the sense of essence appears when Sekida discusses the relationship between the child and the man he has become. "Nothing is left of the child except one thing, your existence itself... there is nothing to be called a person." (26)

Neither is there any talk of God directly, yet Sekida will say: "Existence does not exist for others. It is of itself, for itself, by itself," (27) giving it the very qualities that a Thomist metaphysician could attribute to God as existence.

These brief but suggestive metaphysical passages from Nishitani and Sekida could be augmented from the writings of others like Masao Abe. (28) Later we will look at powerful reflections of Toshihiko Izutsu. (29) But enough has been said to indicate that Zen has a rich metaphysical language which is at once tantalizingly familiar yet pursues goals strange to the metaphysics of St. Thomas. If Thomism is to avail itself of the gifts that Zen offers, an indispensable preliminary is a clear idea of the similarities and differences between Zen enlightenment and the intuition of being.


It is clear that Maritain's intuition of being is going to be a valuable tool in developing a Thomistic appreciation of the nature of Zen enlightenment, which is the task of the next chapter. But he also provides another essential instrument for this work in his reflection on the relationship of reason to intuition, and their relationship, in turn, to a nonconceptual knowledge which he calls knowledge through connaturality.

We have already seen how Maritain had to struggle to reformulate the notions of intuition and concept that he had received from Bergson. And this reformulation under the light of St. Thomas was a task whose accomplishment can be traced from his first essay "Modern Science and Reason," (30) to his first book Bergsonian Philosophy and Thomism, (31) all the way to one of his last essays, "No Knowledge Without Intuition", (32) written more than a half century later.

In Heidelberg, he finally had to admit to himself that Bergson's notion of the concept was wrong and he would have to begin his philosophical work anew. Later, St. Thomas showed him the way to do this. Certainly the concept could be and was abused. It was treated as a lifeless likeness of the thing to be known and subjected to mechanical manipulation. But our minds needed both intuition and concepts. To save intuition Maritain saw we cannot disconnect it from intellect and reason, and thus split the mind into an intuitive faculty and a separate and deficient conceptual one. It is intuition that is the heart of the intellect. We know. We see. Knowledge terminates not in ideas but in things. But we see through concepts. These concepts are not opaque to actually existing things. They are the very means, by which and through which, we see the thing. Our intellects are not angelic. We can't grasp something all at once. The intellect achieves its seeing, its intuition, this immaterial, intentional union with things, by bathing them in its own inner active light, thus raising them to the level of immateriality it enjoys and partially penetrating them with this light in order to carve and release from them a certain aspect of their intelligibility. Concepts are the thing brought into the mind, the thing existing in those conditions in which the mind can know it. And this creation of concepts, or intelligible aspects, by the mind finds its culmination in the affirmations we make that join these concepts together, and by which we assert that these diverse concepts are really united in the existing thing. In short, for Maritain following St. Thomas, the concept's entire being is subordinated and transparent to insight and intuition, for it is created in order that we might see.

If we understand concepts not as things to be known, but the conditions that the intellect needs in order to know and see, then we can steer a path between the various forms of idealism in which the idea is known first, and conceptualism in which intuition fades and concepts and their manipulation dominate. In both cases, knowledge of the existing things themselves is subordinated to our ideas.


Strange as it may seem, it was because Maritain championed the concept that he could become the champion of non-conceptual knowledge, as well. He could respect the validity of knowledge through the careful elaboration of concepts and judgments, while at the same time he recognized that the whole notion of a concept was much more flexible than the advocates of reason and logic would have it, and further, there could be genuine knowledge in which concepts played a minimal role.

Knowledge through connaturality is "produced in the intellect but not in virtue of conceptual connections and by way of demonstration." (33)

"In this knowledge through union or inclination, connaturality or congeniality, the intellect is at play not alone, but together with affective inclinations and the dispositions of the will, and is guided and directed by them. It is not rational knowledge, knowledge through the conceptual, logical and discursive exercise of Reason. But it is really and genuinely knowledge, though obscure and perhaps incapable of giving account of itself, or of being translated into words." (34)

In Maritain's hands knowledge by connaturality becomes a fluid notion that embraces art, poetry, morality and mystical experience. It extends to the hunches and image-laden primordial insights of the empirical scientist groping towards a new theory. It aids the artist whose dim perceptions do not reach the daylight of consciousness except in the work of art itself. Connatural knowledge is found in the conduct of the good man who consults his instinct rather than a text on moral theology in order to decide how to behave. It is intuition as divinatory, feeding not only on the input of the senses but of the imagination, emotions and heart. And it was this knowledge by connaturality that was to play a role in Maritain's understanding of the mysticism of the East.


  1. An excellent introduction is Philip Kapleau's The Three Pillars of Zen.
  2. See Notto Thelle, "The Flower Blooms On The Cliff's Edge; Profile of Nishitani Keiji, a Thinker between East and West," and James W. Heisig's East-West Dialogue: Sunyata and Kenosis, Part I. p. 142-145.
  3. Religion and Nothingness, The Standpoint of Sunyata, p. 119.
  4. Ibid., p. 123.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., p. 125.
  7. Ibid., p. 128.
  8. Ibid., p. 130.
  9. Ibid., p. 143.
  10. Ibid., p. 146.
  11. Ibid., p. 147.
  12. Zen Training, p. 108.
  13. Ibid., p. 94.
  14. Ibid., p. 161.
  15. Ibid., p. 30.
  16. Ibid., p. 34.
  17. Ibid., p. 70.
  18. Ibid., p. 194.
  19. Ibid., p. 101.
  20. Ibid., p. 194.
  21. Ibid., p. 190.
  22. Ibid., p. 135.
  23. Ibid., p. 182.
  24. Ibid., p. 183.
  25. Ibid., p. 201.
  26. Ibid., p. 122.
  27. Ibid., p. 162.
  28. Yamaguchi takes up the theme of connaturality in relationship to Bergson and Zen, and see especially Abe's remarks on the appropriateness of contrasting Buddhism's Mu with Christianity's U, that is, the Aristotelian concept of being: Zen and Western Thought, p. 98, note 8.
  29. See p. 62ff.
  30. This essay appeared in the Revue de philosophie in 1910 and was reprinted in Antimoderne.
  31. La Philosophie Bergsonienne, 1914, 1930, 1948.
  32. See, as well, some of the companion essays in Approches sans entraves.
  33. On knowledge through connaturality: The Range of Reason, p. 22.
  34. Ibid., p. 23.



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