God, Zen and the Intuition of Being

Chapter 5: Zen Enlightenment
from a Thomistic Viewpoint


In 1938 Jacques Maritain gave a paper at a Carmelite congress on religious psychology entitled, "Natural Mystical Experience and the Void." (1) This is one of the finest Thomistic contributions to a metaphysical understanding of Zen. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that Maritain did not have Zen directly in mind, but rather the religious experience of India, and found his inspiration in a work by Ambrose Gardeil, The Structure of the Soul and Mystical Experience. Père Gardeil in turn found it a complete surprise that his ideas developed in relationship to Christian mysticism would be applied to the mysticism of India. (2)

Maritain's starting point is the structure of our self-awareness. This self-consciousness is a reflection of the spiritual nature of the soul which is by nature transparent to itself. But since the soul is profoundly united to the body it cannot realize, or actualize, this transparency. We have no inner vision of our spiritual nature. Instead, our self-consciousness is founded upon a reflection on the operations of the soul. We act and reflect on our acts and become aware that we are the ones that are acting, as Sekida noted. In Maritain's language there is not "even a partial actualization of the latent self-intellection of the soul reflecting upon itself." (3) This kind of auto-intellection is hindered by the union with the body, but it can still serve as the "metaphysical condition and the first foundation for the faculty of perfect reflection upon its own acts which the soul enjoys by title of its own spirituality..." (4)

The two basic orientations to reality, what something is and that it is, return here but now from the inside, manifesting themselves in the very nature of our consciousness. Our knowledge is oriented outward to the world of the things around us, and we come to understand both what they are and that they are. But when we reflect on these acts of knowledge and grasp from within ourselves as the subject of these acts, we have an intimate living experience of the fact that we exist and can assert "I am," but we have no direct grasp of our own essence, or of what we are. Our "experiential knowledge" of ourselves is "purely existential and implies no other quid (what) offered to my mind than my own operations grasped reflexively in the emanation of their principles." (5) I may reflect upon the nature of these acts that come forth from me, and by way of concepts attempt to reason about my nature, but I do not have a direct intuitive grasp of my essence.

This state of affairs surrounds self-consciousness with particular paradoxes and possibilities. My self-awareness has a deeply attractive immediacy by which I am myself. I am no longer knowing things from the outside, but I am present to myself within myself without the mediation of concepts. This is a deeper and richer way of knowing, but it is hedged about by all sorts of limits. To lose my consciousness can appear to be a loss of what is most precious in me, and yet, each day, I am subject to this loss many times over, whether it is in my sleep, or by inattention. Instead of my self-awareness being located in the center of my soul so that I would once and for all be and possess myself without fluctuation, it rides on the waves of my activity. I know that I am, but I really do not know who I am in all my amplitude. My consciousness, this very ego I call myself, is not at the center of my being. The very structure of my consciousness makes me realize the radical insufficiency of the possession I have of myself. I am faced with the tantalizing mystery of how to become fully myself. If I pursue myself in the direction of knowledge of things outside myself, and even within, it is their whatness that most confronts me. I become aware of their differentness and separateness from me, and no matter how much I know them and use them as a spring board by which to reflect and grasp my own self, I still remain a

"prisoner of mobility and multiplicity, of the fugitive luxuriance of phenomena and of operations which emerge in us from the darkness of the unconscious… The phenomenal content which occupies the stage and, indeed, is the only set of qualities to be grasped in the existential experience of ourselves." (6)

But there is another direction to explore, and this is the purely existential grasp I have of myself. It could be called the way of existence rather than the way of essence. The starting point is this experience we have of being present to ourselves, but now it is a question of a journey from this ego consciousness to our inner or absolute self. This happens, according to Maritain, by

"reversing the ordinary course of mental activity" so that "the soul empties itself absolutely of every specific operation and of all multiplicity, and knows negatively by means of the void and the annihilation of every act and of every object of thought coming from outside - the soul knows negatively - but nakedly, without veils - that metaphysical marvel, that absolute, that perfection of every act and of every perfection, which is to exist, which is the soul's own substantial existence." (7)

This stopping of all conceptual thought Maritain calls "an act of supreme silence," and the objection that has been posed to many Zen masters comes to his mind. If every image is removed, will not the result be pure and simple nothingness? And he answers in traditional Zen fashion, without realizing it, that this process of purification results "in a negation, a void, and an annihilation which are in no sense nothingness." (8) And these words "signify an act which continues to be intensely vital, the ultimate actuation whereby and wherein the void, abolition, negation, riddance, are consummated and silence is made perfect." (9) Even the principle that the soul knows itself by its own acts is maintained, in this extreme case where "the act in question is the act of abolition of all acts." (10)

The emptiness that results from the abolition of all essence becomes the formal means by which the substantial existence of the soul is known, but "negatively - transferred into the status of an object, not indeed of an object expressible in a concept and appearing before the mind, but an object entirely inexpressible and engulfed in the night wherein the mind engulfs itself in order to join it." (11)

The emptiness that is the elimination of essences or concepts becomes itself the means of knowing, not, of course, by concepts, but by connaturality. In this kind of connaturality, the void itself connatures the knower with that absolute which is the existence of the soul. And Maritain, paraphrasing the famous passage of John of St. Thomas on supernatural mysticism, amor transit in conditionem objecti, says, "vacuitas, abolitio, denudatio transit in conditionem objecti." (12) Emptiness is the proper and formal means of knowing the "to exist" of subjectivity.

But since this very experience requires as its indispensable prerequisite the elimination of any essence which would limit and contract the existence of the reality perceived, then this experience of the existence of the soul is at the same time an experience of the metaphysical amplitude of existence and God as the source of existence. The soul is experienced as an absolute which cannot be conceptually distinguished from that absolute given in the intuition of being and the absolute who is the author of being.

God, in this experience, is not the object of possession or union through love as He is in Christian mysticism, but He is attained through the negative experience of the existence of the soul so that it is legitimate to speak of a "contact with the absolute" and an "experience of God in quantum, infundens et profundens esse in rebus, indirectly attained in the mirror of the substantial esse of the soul," (as far as he is pouring and infusing existence in things). (13) But what is mirrored cannot be distinguished from the mirror. What springs up is a powerful metaphysical mysticism attained at the price of negating all essences. (See Appendix II).

But this essence-less-ness is a consequence, from the Thomistic point of view, not of the actual constitution of things but of the means by which they are known. It is the price that must be paid to arrive at this experience, but the consequence on the speculative level is the risk that the formal means of knowing will so color what is known that the absolute that is the existence of the soul will be identified with the absolute seen in the intuition of being and with the absolute which is God. Thus, a Zen master can say when one of his students achieved enlightenment, "Now you understand that seeing mu is seeing God." (14) Or Suzuki, in one of his later essays, could describe the discovery of the self in its "native nakedness" or "isness" by saying, "It yields a kind of metaphysical formula: self = zero and zero = Infinity; hence self = Infinity." (15)


Yet we should not make this lack of distinctions into a rigid principle. The Zen master is well aware of the differences of things as reflected in this traditional Zen saying:

"In the beginning mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. Then all were one, and finally, mountains were really mountains and rivers were really rivers." (16)

This depicts, first of all, the state of unenlightenment, then the initial stage of enlightenment, and finally, a fuller development of that enlightenment. In some sense, distinctions do exist and it might be useful to comment upon this passage from the point of view of Thomistic metaphysics.

In the first stage, or what the metaphysician might call the stage of common sense, existing things are seen chiefly from the point of view of essence. What a thing is fills our whole vision and prevents us from seeing the rest of reality. We equate our idea of the thing with the thing itself. We look at the relationship between essence and existence and see only essence. We are looking from the circumference of the circle, and this circumference blocks our view of the center. Thus, mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers, flowers are flowers, all things are themselves and distinct from each other, and this sense of distinction fails to see the deeper ground of unity that exists between them all. Such essentialistic thinking is at the root of the opposition between myself and others. In actual fact, there is no me, no ego, that is purely essence without relationship to existence. In this sense the ego is a product of ignorance and a hindrance to genuine enlightenment. Zen language is moving on the practical and existential plane and not on the ontological one. Thus, when the ego stands in opposition to others in such a way as to deny the underlying unity of all things, it is a false ego. There is no ego in this sense.

In the second phase, where enlightenment has been attained in a certain degree, all appear as one. The unity of all things in existence has been revealed, the Thomist metaphysician might say. The view of existing things has been reversed. Now it is existence that is seen first and which blinds us with its splendor to the fact of essence. We see unity without diversity, where before we saw diversity without unity. Such a view is an important advance over the first, for it does not lead to opposition and strife, but it is still incomplete. Things are not simply existence without relationship to essence. Existence on the level of existing things is always the existence of something, and while the act of existence attains a relative unity in the mind, it is an analogical unity. Each existing thing has its own act of existence.

Balance is finally achieved in the third phase of full enlightenment. Mountains are again mountains and rivers are rivers, but there has been no return to the common sense notion of being. The everyday world is, indeed, the world of enlightenment, but the enlightened man does not see it the same way as the unenlightened man. Now existing things reveal themselves as transfigured by the mystery of existence. There is nothing in them that does not exist. Every fiber or fragment of everything exists. Essence is seen in its ultimate significance, which is its relationship to the act of existence, and existence is seen in those things which exist. In this sense there is no existence outside of the manifestation of existing things, and there are no essences outside of existence itself. In this sense form is emptiness, that is, essence is totally related to existence and emptiness is form.

Yet, the very real similarities between enlightenment and the intuition of being should not obscure the significant differences. The first and chief difference is the relationship between the insight and its elaboration in concepts or ideas. If both intuitions transcend the level of concepts, their transcendence is not the same kind. The intuition of being is radically open to concepts. It itself is an eidetic intuition. It is in continuity with the world of concepts even when it transcends them by pushing them to their limit.

With Zen the situation is very different precisely because the means to the intuition is the elimination of all conceptual thought. Zen looks at conceptual thought as a tyranny that it must overthrow. It avoids it, not simply because it has been overemphasized, but because the very nature of enlightenment demands that it be avoided. It asserts the absolute primacy of intuition not to restore the balance between intuition and concepts, but because the intuition it is striving for is antithetical to conceptual thinking.

This lack of conceptual continuity can be seen in the language of the Zen masters. They did not speak in cryptic sayings or koans out of a love of mystification, but firmly grounded in enlightenment they uttered or acted out some sign of this mystery, but always reluctantly, for they knew that words are a temptation to the beginner who will attempt to attain the insight through the concepts or by repeating the gesture. The words of the Zen master are an enigma and even a scandal to the beginner who is expecting him to reveal something and is constantly searching for their hidden meaning or someone who can interpret them and unveil their contents. These beginners miss the point, for they are looking for continuity between the concept and the insight. This is the pattern of knowing that they have grown up with and which appears much preferable to the work of stopping all conceptual thought, if, indeed, the latter even presents itself as a practical alternative. Only as the mind matures by means of Zen training does it become probable that the words and gestures that have originated from an experience of enlightenment in the master can trigger a stopping and a reversal of the mind in the student by which enlightenment can be attained.

Zen language, then, is highly distinctive. It communicates, but not conceptually. It is enigmatic without being a secret code. Even if we amass collections of koans, we cannot treat them as a cumulative collection of clues. There is no gradual dawning of understanding that results from our deeper and deeper penetration into the meaning of these Zen sayings. They are one-way realities: nonsense from the point of view of the discriminating ego but genuine expressions of enlightenment when seen from the point of view of enlightenment itself. By virtue of this unidirectionality they disconcert the mind's attempt to understand them, and they force it to exhaust its conceptual bag of tricks until finally, in the best of cases, conceptual thought dies out and enlightenment is born. The mind is forced out of its normal channels, and once satori is reached, then the koans yield their meaning. Thus, books that purport to give the answers to koans are not destructive because they can actually give away a genuine meaning, but they can be harmful inasmuch as they clutter up the mind with conceptual answers to something that cannot be answered conceptually.


In order to highlight both the similarities and differences between the metaphysics of St. Thomas and a metaphysical reflection on Zen, let us imagine a dialogue between Jacques Maritain and Toshihiko Izutsu, for as imaginary as it is, such a discussion can give us the flavor of what a Zen-Thomistic dialogue could be like in the future. Izutsu, in his collection of essays, Toward a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism, gives us one of the most penetrating modern accounts of metaphysics from a Zen perspective. I apologize to both men if I have put words in their mouths they would be unhappy saying. (17)

lzutsu: Each philosophy is based on a particular reality experience. Zen has its own noetic experience capable of giving rise to an ontology. (18)

Maritain: So does Thomism, and that was what I was driving at in describing the concrete experiences that give rise to the noetic experience of the intuition of being.

Izutsu: Yes, but in contrast to an Aristotelian perspective which asks, "What is man?", Zen asks, "Who am I?" It wants to intuit man in his most intimate subjectivity. (19) Western philosophy is primarily an essentialism. Zen would say it sees things as if in a dream and equates them with their essence. Zen devotes itself to breaking out of this ordinary consciousness split into subject and object, this thing and that, where the apple is the apple, A is A. Zen proposes to go beyond this level of essence, a solidly fixed ontological core which unalterably determines the essential limits of a thing. (20) In a certain way A is not A.

Maritain: And where does Zen want to go? What will it find beyond essence?

Izutsu: "At the ultimate limit of all negations, that is, the negation of all essences conceivable of the apple, all of a sudden the extraordinary reality flashes into our mind. This is what is known in Buddhism as the emergence of prajna, transcendental or non-discriminating consciousness. And in and through this experience, the apple again manifests itself as an apple in the fullest density of existence, in the 'original freshness of the first creation of heaven and earth'." (21)

Maritain: That is very interesting. It is easy to understand why you would look at Western philosophy as essentialistic. Many Westerners imagine St. Thomas as a simple follower of Aristotle and miss his originality. St. Thomas was as much concerned to take essence out of the center of the philosophical stage as Zen is. The ultimate principle of his philosophy was not essence, but existence. But he did not deny the reality of essence. Rather, he transformed it.

Izutsu: What did essence mean to him?

Maritain: It was simply this or that capacity to be. It was the contraction, reception or refraction of existence so as to bring about this or that existent thing. Existence holds the primacy. It is as act to potency, received to the receiver. There can be no meaning to essence outside of its relationship to existence. Essence is simply a certain capacity to exist. Thomists can say A is A, but we can also say A is not A if we understand this to mean the apple is not simply the apple in an identity of essence, but the apple exists, and to exist is itself not identical to the apple.

Izutsu: Let me put it another way. If something becomes itself, "thoroughgoingly and completely, to the utmost extent of possibility, it ends by breaking through its own limit and going beyond its determinations. At this stage, A is no longer A; A is non-A." And "it breaks through its own A-ness, and begins to disclose to him its formless, essenceless, and 'aspect'-less aspect." (22) Then it refinds the everyday world from the direction of essence-less-ness. A is A. Then A is not A. Therefore it is A. Can Thomism say this?

Maritain: Essence is the limit and determination of existence, of esse. And to see a tree or myself in the light of the intuition of being is no longer to see only its essence face. But, having seen how esse in itself is formless or essenceless, it is to see essence exercising the act of existing, transfigured, as it were, by this act of existence. A is A in that essence is essence. The tree is a tree and not something else. A is not A. The tree exists but it is not existence itself, rather one face or articulation of existence. Finally, A is A since this very tree is existing. Existence is actualized in this tree. In a certain way Thomism and Zen share an existential metaphysics, and this common ground should not be underestimated, but there are important differences, as well.

Izutsu: What are they?

Maritain: I believe we differ in the way we understand the realm beyond essence and its relationship to existing things.

Izutsu: Yes. I have the feeling that you believe in self-subsisting things, both the ego and the objects around us, while we do not. You believe in a metaphysical suprasensible substance governing the phenomenal world and we do not.

Maritain: Please elaborate your position further.

Izutsu: Let us say instead of subject or object actually existing, or a separate absolute being, there is an actus charging the entire field with its dynamic energy. (23) "Concrete individuals are actualizations of the limitless, aspectless aspect of an ever-active and ever-creative Act." (24) What you take as the experience of an individual existing thing we see as the "total concretization or actualization of the entire field." (25) It is the absolute at this very moment in this very place. (26)

Maritain: It is interesting that you would use the word actus, which is a word we apply to God in the sense of pure act, act without potentiality. I think we are at the crux of the matter. We believe the ego in the sense of the human person to have its own act of existence, just as we believe the tree or the butterfly does. We believe God to be existence itself, and thus a subsisting being. Are you saying that concrete things are nil or the absolute is a mere nothingness?

Izutsu: There is no nihilism in Zen. When we speak of the absolute as Nothingness, it is not mere emptiness. When we speak of the non-subsisting character of the tree, we are not idealists. Nothingness is the "plenitude of being, for it is the urgrund of all existential forms." (27) In everyday awareness things are closed, seen essentialistically, if you will. Then in the process of enlightenment they are reduced to absolute undifferentiation or nothingness, and when they emerge from this nothingness they are ontologically transparent or open. Both subject and object are abstractions from the field of actus. "Nothing is to be regarded as self-subsistent and self-sufficient." (28) Zen wants to see the nonarticulated field articulating itself. Let me recount a famous koan in the Mu Mon Kan: "Listen! Once a monk asked Chao Chou, "Tell me, what is the significance of the first Patriarchs coming from the West?" Chao Chou replied, "The cypress tree in the courtyard!"

"This cypress tree is not simply or only a cypress tree. For it carries the whole weight of the Field… Out of the very depths of nothingness - Eternal - Present being actualized at this present moment…" (29) Don't look for nothingness by itself as a subsisting absolute. Don't look for the concrete subsisting individual. The cypress tree is the absolute and the absolute is the cypress tree. There is no transcendental absolute beyond the concrete thing. "The cypress tree in its concrete reality is the absolute at this very moment in this very place." (30)

Maritain: So when we speak of the enduring personality or existing thing or God, it appears as if we are locked in an essentialitic perspective and have not made contact with that nothingness which is beyond subject or object.

But you must understand that when we speak of God as substance or as esse subsistens we make no claim to capture Him in our concepts or to know His essence like we might know the essence of man. While He must have an essence in the sense that He is not mere nothingness, He has no essence we can grasp as a contraction of existence. He is no-thing. He is not this or that. There is no potentiality or capacity in Him. He is actus and the most intimate subjectivity if we purify these terms of all limitations. I am not you nor am I the tree, says our ordinary awareness. We do not reject this ordinary awareness, but go beyond it and transform it. I see that my root, my most formal and actual reality, is my existence, just as existence is what is most actual and formal in the tree. But existence in each is not absolute existence, though it comes from Existence itself and is sustained each moment by Existence. But the existence in myself and the tree are analogous. We are various capacities and reflections of what it means To Be. And these capacities find their ultimate meaning in relationship To Be, but as limitations of it, so they become a certain this or that. So that at the heart of my I, I find existence, that existence that allows me to affirm that I am, that existence which is directly issuing from the fountain of To Be. I am not an I without the relationship to Am. I Am. The Am is not a core or pith within the I. It is the very act and reality by which the I exists. The cypress tree Is. There is no inner part which is Is rather than tree, but the tree is as directly and always in the present moment issuing forth from the hand of God. On the philosophical plane we know that God exists by seeing His handiwork, these existing things, but they do not directly show Him to us. We are limited existents, in which existence is received by essence.

Izutsu: But why do you see separate existing things no matter how intimately connected, while we admit no separation?

Maritain: I don't believe that the differences reside in what could be called the metaphysical structure of reality. We are seeing the same things, but through the spectacles of different methods, and these different methods are what the differences in language reflect. We are both attaining metaphysical insight, but Thomists go by the way of ideas or essences, pushing them to their limits, to their ultimate foundation in esse, to an eidetic visualization or intuition of being. Thomists proceed by ideas in the very act of transforming them and seeing their trajectory swallowed up in the abyss of Esse beyond all ideas or essences. Zen, on the other hand, it appears to me, goes by the way of the negation of all essences. The void becomes the very means by which you know the absolute, and therefore you can discern no essences in it because you had to eliminate them in order to come to this intimate contact with existence. When you discover esse in the I or in the cypress tree, it is esse without essence or limitation, for all essence has been necessarily left behind. And so what we would call the existence of the tree you experience as existence in all its analogical amplitude. There is no way to distinguish the esse of the I from the esse of the tree or the Esse of the Absolute. Thus, whether you approach the I or the tree, you will arrive at the same place in which esse is articulating itself in either one, while at the same time it cannot be a self-subsisting esse. In short, Zen can make no distinction between the esse of the soul, the esse of things and the esse of God, but the critical point is why? Is it because in reality there is none, or because the very elimination of conceptual thought makes it impossible to make these distinctions?

Izutsu: This is a serious matter. You are saying that our method of stopping all conceptual thought is what eliminates the distinctions which are actually there and which you discover because you have not suppressed essences.

Maritain: I am saying both methods have their limitations. Since Thomists go by way of essences, they often end in essentialism. They don't have to end up there, but because human nature is what it is with its weakness of intuitive powers, the mind lets essences concretize and become opaque to all else. While we are aware of this problem, we have put very little energy into finding effective methods to overcome it.

Zen, on the other hand, has faired much better in maintaining the intuitive roots of metaphysics. It has done this by devoting itself to experience rather than to conceptual knowledge. But there is a price for Zen to pay just as we pay ours. While it may be true that in some very important lived fashion Zen has an awareness of the distinction between things, in the post-experience reflection there is no way to conceptualize these distinctions, or at least there has not yet been a way. Zen has not articulated a metaphysics which would account for what we feel to be actually existing distinctions, for their elimination has been the price that Zen has paid for attaining the experience in the first place.

Izutsu: Isn't it asking a great deal of Zen to admit such a possibility?

Maritain: Here we come to the heart of the possibility of a real dialogue between Zen and Thomism. If Thomism cannot admit the possibility that Zen has outstripped it in metaphysical experience, it will remain with the ever-present problem of essentialism and the threat of the periodic oblivion of the insights of St. Thomas. But if Zen cannot admit the possibility that some of their post-experience formulas might reflect the very method of attaining the experience, as well as the experience itself, what room is there for genuine dialogue? If Zen has an actual experience of the esse of the soul, as we would put it, and through this esse the analogical infinitude of the act of existence, and God as the source of this esse, and thus an experience of God in and through this contact with the esse of the soul, this is all of the highest importance for Thomists as an inspiration to examine their own experiential roots. If St. Thomas has an articulated metaphysics of esse, could it not equally inspire Zen to clarify its own language, at least when it is aiming at metaphysical articulation?

Izutsu: Aren't you really asking more of Zen than of Thomism? Aren't you striking at the time-honored formulas of Zen which are intimately connected with Zen experience itself? When I say, "There is no longer I as a subjective reality, nor thou, or it, as an objective entity, there remains only Is..." (31) I do not think Thomists can follow me, for Zen "the undifferentiated cannot ex-ist in its original non-differentiation; that in order to ex-ist it must necessarily differentiate itself, i.e., concretely crystallize itself as something - whether subjective or objective." (32)

Maritain: This is precisely what the metaphysics of St. Thomas is trying to deal with. If ex-ist means not only to stand outside of causes and stand outside of mere nothingness, but to manifest or articulate a particular face of Is, then it belongs to the created existent in which Is is limited by essence. But we would say that in its most fundamental sense ex-ist is Is.

Izutsu: Yet we experience it otherwise and our words are a reflection of our experience, as I said, while yours are bound up with concepts.

Maritain: I admire your experience and the strength it takes to attain it, yet you must consider the possibility that the very way of attaining your experience will color what is experienced. To admit this, does it really effect Zen experience itself? The experience remains the same, but I wonder if some of your paradoxical language does not spring from attempting to articulate these distinctions. We agree that essence-less-ness is not mere nothingness.

Izutsu: Yes. In sunyata no fixed essence is established. (33)

Maritain: And the task at hand is to try to agree about the nature of this essence-less-ness, the positive meaning of No-thing-ness.

Izutsu: We are on the road, but it will be a long and difficult one.



In such a discussion Maritain would, no doubt, soon have had recourse to one of his favorite themes, which was the difference between the speculative and the practical sciences. Even if two people are speaking about the same thing, the very noetic structure of their languages can be different. A speculative science desires, above all else, to know things as they are in themselves, while a practical science desires to know things in order that this knowledge will serve an action to be accomplished. And these differences are reflected in the very texture of the concepts they use. And if these deep structural differences are not recognized, the surface similarity of vocabulary can be misleading.

Maritain illustrated the meaning and the fecundity of this distinction between the practical and the speculative by discussing the work of St. John of the Cross. St. John was not a speculative theologian, but was most of all interested in leading people to the goal of divine union. Therefore, when he wrote, it was not in the style, in the structural language, of a St. Thomas who, above all, wanted to know, but it was by fashioning a practical language that would aid seekers to attain this goal of union. So when he spoke of how all creatures are nothing in relationship to God, or how desires blacken and darken the soul, he was not making an ontological statement, as if he were not aware that creatures are not nothing, or that it is an inordinate desire, not any desire whatsoever, that blackens the soul. If we read St. John in a speculative-ontological way we can misread him. But if we read him in the practical register, then we can appreciate his concern with how easily we are misled by our desires and blinded by them, so that we fail to come to divine union.

It is possible to imagine that Maritain honored St. Thomas as a speculative theologian, but put St. John in second place as being merely a spiritual director. But this would be to misunderstand both Maritain's appreciation of St. John, which was very great, and the true import of what he meant by a practical science. St. John has deep speculative gifts, both philosophical and theological, but they were in the service of a greater gift. He was enamored by the ultimate goal, which is union with God, and so he instinctively subordinated everything to this goal. We can find fascinating speculative, theological and philosophical vistas in St. John's work, but in order to do this with the greatest effect and least error we have to understand his overall perspective and make the necessary transformation of vocabulary lest we extract certain statements, read them in a different ontological register, and come to a conclusion at odds with St. John himself. (34)

What has this to do with Zen? Would it be fair to say that Zen speaks in a practical language just as St. John does? Everything is geared, not to divine union through love, but to that emptiness which is not mere nothingness. The Zen master is not directly interested in the speculative gifts of his students, but in aiding them to achieve this goal. He does not speak so that they can know, but he speaks so that they can not-know, and thus truly know. His language is one with the whole of Zen life which urges the student to achieve enlightenment. It is a practical language, not in the pejorative sense, but in the highest sense that it contains within itself beautiful and profound metaphysical vistas, but subordinates them to the supreme goal of enlightenment. Thus, Izutsu and other Zen philosophers are keenly aware that they are not simply philosophizing in a mode too often found in a facile way in the West, but they' are reflecting on Zen experience. What does this mean but that they must enter into the particular structure of Zen and share its vital movement towards the goal that shapes all if they are to truly see Zen and interpret it properly? Zen metaphysics, then, has to make a delicate translation from one structural language to another, from the practical to the speculative, if you will. But here we are at the crux of the difficulty that arose in the dialogue between Izutsu and Maritain.

Is the Zen metaphysics that is emerging today written in the practical or the speculative register? Or is Zen itself so dominated by its practical intent and the supreme technique of stopping all thought that these metaphysical reflections still maintain a practical cast? If this is so, the clarification of the different kinds of languages used will be an indispensable prerequisite for a Zen-Thomist dialogue. As long as Thomists speak a speculative-ontological language, and their Zen partners speak a practical-ontological language, misunderstandings will abound.



  1. It appeared in Maritain's Quatre Essais and in English translation in Understanding Mysticism, ed. R. Woods.
  2. Ibid., p. 487.
  3. Ibid., p. 485.
  4. Ibid., p. 486.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., p. 487.
  7. Ibid., p. 489.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., p. 490.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., p. 499, note 18.
  14. The Three Pillars of Zen, p. 254.
  15. Self the Unattainable, p. 16.
  16. See the commentary in Abe's Zen and Western Thought and T. Izutsu's in Toward a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism, p. 28.
  17. The essays were given at Eranos and elsewhere.
  18. Toward a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism, p. ix.
  19. Ibid., p. 4.
  20. Ibid., p. 13.
  21. Ibid., p. 14.
  22. Ibid., p. 29.
  23. Ibid., p. 25.
  24. Ibid., p. 32.
  25. Ibid., p. 46.
  26. Ibid., p. 49.
  27. Ibid., p. 127.
  28. Ibid., p. 45.
  29. Ibid., p. 48.
  30. Ibid., p. 49.
  31. Ibid., p. 159.
  32. Ibid., p. 169.
  33. Ibid., p. 109.
  34. The Degrees of Knowledge, pp. 310ff.



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