Zen is not irrational or anti-intellectual

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Photo by Mattia Faloretti on Unsplash

The Zen classic, Hsin Hsin Ming, says:

“If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.”

This must be carefully interpreted. It does not mean some kind of mental or spiritual laxity. Zen does not condone a wishy-washy attitude. It does not mean subscribing to anti-intellectualism. It does not mean rejecting science. It does not mean giving up critical thinking. It does not mean not fighting racism or Fascism.

There is a cliche which says that Zen is not for or against anything. So, let me ask you, is Zen against suffering? Is it against illness? Is it against discrimination and political oppression? Is it against environmental pollution?

The quoted text makes sense only if it is taken to mean stop labeling experiences as “good” or “bad,” especially if they are facts. Don’t aggravate your own suffering by labeling. In the Buddhist tradition, it is called “not taking the Second Arrow.” The Buddha said:

When touched with a feeling of pain,
the ordinary uninstructed person
sorrows, grieves,
and laments, beats his breast,
becomes distraught.
So he feels two pains,
physical and mental.
Just as if they were to shoot a man
with an arrow and,
right afterward,
were to shoot him with another one,
so that he would feel
the pains of two arrows…”

To take the second arrow is unwise. Don’t rub salt into a wound. For whatever is happening or is a fact, don’t immediately label it in a binary way. Even events that most people consider as “bad” or “unpleasant” may have a positive side. For example, a job lost, a business failure, a divorce, etc. It may bring wisdom or a benefit in the long run. Remain open to experience and learn from it. Let an unpleasant experience be your teacher.

In the meantime, don’t wallow in sloppy thinking. In the world of science, there are things which are true or false. There are theories or claims which can be refuted or falsified. If you do an experiment and find that something is true or false, it is not an opinion. It is not based on like or dislike. It is not based on an opinion.

The practice of Zen is not a matter of murky or fuzzy thinking. You can be a critical thinker and a scientist even if you practice Zen. You don’t have to give up reason. Just don’t label things based on popular opinion, mass culture, habit, herd thinking, etc. Decide for yourself what is true or false, and make room for the possibility that you might be wrong. This is why Buddha, in his speech to the citizens of Kalamas, asked us to question everything. Especially our own biases and opinion.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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