by Sensei Lou Mitsunen Nordstrom
This title echoes and alludes to the famous essay by Jean-Paul Sartre, “L’existentialisme, est-il un humanisme?” Or, “Is existentialism a humanism?” And in this case, “Is Zen a humanism?” Western lay Zen practice requires that the answer be yes. As for Asian monastic Zen practice, the answer may well be no.
No, because such practice is about individual nirvana, being a Buddha who has liberated himself from suffering; being a monk who has left the world and is therefore superior to the layperson who hasn’t. No, because being a Buddha, according to the Asian monastic Zen stereotype, involves an anti-emotional and anti-psychological bias, as well as a bias against individuality, ascribing a negative value to having an individual life as opposed to a trans-personal “universal” life. A Buddha is fundamentally unemotional, never gets upset, never loses his temper, never feels fear or anxiety, is impassive, dispassionate, “cool, calm, and collected,” never losing his composure, always being in Samadhi. Well, guess what? Real human beings aren’t like this. So if this is what it is to be a Buddha, then a Buddha isn’t a real human being. And if real human beings are supposed to aspire to being a Buddha (I will talk about so-called Buddha-nature later, and have much to say about it), then what they’re really aspiring to is self-dehumanization! A Buddha doesn’t have an individual, personal life, is free from psychological experience, and certainly doesn’t have psychological problems. (I’ve spoken with Japanese Zen masters who confess to not understanding the notion of “psychological problem.” The transmission of Zen from East to West is no easy matter!)
For a Buddha, “Every day is a good day!” Real human beings have bad days, very bad days; hence the common greeting, “Have a good day!” A Buddha’s good day isn’t a real human being’s good day. A Buddha’s good day is any day because any day is just TODAY! JUST TODAY, NOTHING BUT TODAY, JUST AS IT IS, REGARDLESS OF WHAT HAPPENS! Don’t ask a Buddha, “How did your day go?” He won’t understand you. So Western lay Zen practice obviously requires that one iconoclastically shatter this icon of what it is to be a Buddha or enlightened. Can this be replaced by the notion of a Buddha who is a real human being? Western lay Zen practice requires a yes answer to this question, but such an answer isn’t easily arrived at. Perhaps it is precisely the challenge of such practice to arrive at such an answer.
A Buddha who is a real human being is someone who doesn’t believe he has something called “Buddha nature” that sets him apart from other human beings and makes him superior to them. Of course the Mahayana contribution to Zen says that all sentient beings are Buddhas, but oddly enough it is rare to find statements to the effect that a human Buddha is just a sentient being, fully sentient, the gates of the senses being open (to paraphrase Joshu). Amazingly enough, in almost the same breath sentient beings are characterized as being deluded! What could possibly be deluded about sentience! It is by definition unmediated, immediate, direct sense-experience, with no separation between perceiver and perceived. So isn’t this, for lack of a better word, enlightened?
Buddha-nature is also frequently described in terms that sound inappropriately reminiscent of the Hindu atman or soul that the Buddha rejected on the grounds that there is no such thing as a permanent, unconditioned reality. This is most unfortunate. Obviously the iconoclastic move here is simply to point out that there is no such thing as Buddha-nature; it’s a reified concept. Echoing The Diamond Sutra: Buddha-nature is not Buddha-nature; therefore, it’s called Buddha-nature. But although Zen is committed to a consistent application of this antimetaphysical exposure of metaphysics as reified conceptualization, Zen is nonetheless full of unfortunate metaphysical notions: Buddha-nature, Original Face, The Unborn, True Nature, Mind. One major obstacle to a humanistic Zen is the presence of such metaphysical notions. So Western lay Zen will require a Zen without metaphysics.
Buddha-nature is also described not as something so to speak that any being “has” but rather as the enlightened way of perceiving the phenomenal world, seeing manyness as empty, an empty manyness being equivalent to so-called oneness. This is an improvement in that it doesn’t involve thinking of a Buddha as someone who has transcended the human condition, but rather as someone who sees the phenomenal world differently. Dogen goes as far as one can go to completely de-reify Buddha-nature. He says, “Buddha-nature is No-nature; No-nature is Buddha-nature.” But why not simply say that there’s no such thing? He also famously identifies Buddha-nature with impermanence. But if this is so, then Buddha-nature becomes redundant and meaningless; for if there is no such thing as permanence, then impermanence has no meaning. Dogen also says that “there is no need to be aware of being Buddha.” He must mean self-consciously aware in such a way that the awareness results in putting another head—a Buddha head—on top of one’s own. I like this very much. I’d say that a real human Buddha isn’t aware of himself or herself as such. Doesn’t put another head on top of his own. In my case, I’ve had enlightenment experience (kensho). I didn’t know it when it happened, and it was three years after the fact that this was confirmed by one of my teachers. Strictly speaking, I still don’t understand what happened. And I certainly never interpreted that experience as being evidence of my possessing so-called Buddha nature, or that it was an experience of Buddha-nature. But it’s also a fact that all of my teachers have encouraged me to believe I’m a Buddha, even going so far as to insist that there would be something sacrilegious, as it were, in denying this. But I certainly don’t think of myself that way because, to be honest, I don’t really know what that means! What I’d like it to mean is that I’m a real human being, fully and wholeheartedly human, swimming—and occasionally almost drowning—in the ocean of samsara along with my fellow human beings, for whose suffering I feel sympathy and whose wrongdoing I try not to be too judgmental about. This is what I mean by a humanistic Zen, which is what Western lay Zen practice requires.