Zen Via Negativa: Pointing at the Moon

eat more sausages
[I think the Russian word translates as ‘sausages’. An older essay on Zen, with two poems.]

Zen Via Negativa: Pointing at the Moon

There is, brethren, a condition wherein there is neither earth, not water, nor fire, nor air, nor the sphere of infinite space, nor the sphere of infinite consciousness, nor the sphere of the void, nor the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception: where there is no ‘this world’ and no ‘world beyond’: where there is no moon and no sun.

That condition, brethren, do I call neither a coming nor a going, not a standing still nor a falling away nor a rising up: but it is without fixity, without mobility, without basis. That is the end of woe.

– From Some Sayings of Buddha, in Christmas Humphries, The Wisdom of Buddhism, p. 259

Zen Buddhism, like its cultural wellsprings in the Taoism of Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu, in Bodhidharma and Chan Buddhism, mostly eschews positive statements about ultimate realities. It lies firmly within the paradoxical and negational traditions (via negativa) of trans-cultural mysticism, the ‘perennial philosophy’. In this it is similar to the avoidance of the positive image of ‘God’ in the Jewish and Muslim traditions and to the radical negations of Christian mystics like Dionysius the Areopagite and Meister Eckhart. In a similar vein, the 20th century philosopher of the Frankfurt School T.W. Adorno developed a radical and secular ‘negative dialectics’ that constantly implies and circles around but refuses to positively name, define and thus limit, reify and falsify ‘the Other’ (das Andere), the ‘non-identical’ (das Nicht-Identische), i.e. that ineffably real that both grounds and escapes the grasping of language and the rational mind.

So many of us nowadays often talk about ourselves in reified ways, for example by ascribing various qualities to something we term our ‘self’ (‘I’m a ….kind of person’). However, if the Tao that can be named is not the ultimate Tao (Lao-Tzu), then also the self that can be bound and defined is not the ultimate Self. ‘Tao’, ‘Self’, ‘Buddha-Nature’… for Zen these are just words, ‘word magic’ in which we can get even more lost, just fingers pointing and which we can so easily mistake for what they are attempting to point at.

When the master points at the moon,
the fool looks at the finger.

From this perspective, our daily lives would seem to be predominantly quite foolish, mainly consisting of a never ending stream of fixations on a never ending stream of ‘fingers’. We seldom remember to stop and look at the moon. Perhaps we need something to occasionally remind us to snap out of our words spells. A fridge magnet perhaps, visible in the moonlit wee hours when we grope our way into the kitchen feeling a little spiritually peckish.

To Remember It By . A Zen Fridge Magnet

1. attention is energy

attention creates an energy field
in which meaning arises

2. you are (an aspect of ) what you perceive

3. ‘paradox is the barometer of enlightenment’

or, at least,
an indication of closeness to truth

4. as within
so without

as above
so below

5. ‘man’s mind is a mirror of the universe
that mirrors man’s mind’ (JC Pearce)

6. Do you perceive clearly
like a clean mirror

or do you react to your reactions
to what you perceive/construct

and thus not perceive
what is really real?

7. The circumference is noise,
distraction and speed

The centre is silence,
emptiness, stillness, void

8. The centre is always there
at centre and rim,

everywhere. Nowhere.
There. Here.

9. Mind/world is: Talking-To-Itself.

How does this arise?
How does this develop?

Are there recurrent patterns?
Can we really go into all this?

What happens then?

10. ever deepening silence
rushing without haste

into the unspeakable energy
of utter stillness

the movement of no movement
the observing of no observer

one awareness
no mind, no universe

Of course, a Zen fridge magnet is also bullshit. For in fact there is no teaching, no ‘idea’ or ‘truth’ separate from Reality to be taught. And no-one to teach it. As the Buddha himself clarifies for his disciple Subhuti in his famous Diamond Sutra (the tathagata here is the ‘he-who-goes-thus’, the Buddha himself):

Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata conceives the idea: I must set forth a Teaching. For if anyone says that the Tathagata sets forth a Teaching he really slanders Buddha and is unable to explain what I teach. As to any Truth-declaring system, Truth is undeclarable; so ‘an enunciation of Truth’ is just a name given to it.

Perhaps there’s a very fine line between enlightenment and not knowing whether you’re coming or going, your arse from your elbow. Or, to put it somewhat differently:

Not Poem

not positive nor negative nor neither
not God nor Devil nor either

not Buddha nor the road to kill him on
not Harry the horse nor a mermaid’s song

not me not you not I not we
not sky nor sense nor being free

not tree nor fowl nor cloud of unknowing
not mum nor dad nor not showing

up in Heaven or Hell or in school
not lying down at the bottom of the pool

not male nor female nor transvestite
not lively insight in the dead of night

not mellowing nor meditating
not lying nor levitating

not full nor empty
not I that’s plenty

not I that’s plenty


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on June 16, 2013.

2 Responses to “Zen Via Negativa: Pointing at the Moon”

  1. Thank you for this

    Walk on!

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