copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 6 (The trouble with Reality) part c

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Reality is here and now


However, there is a third kind of approach to Reality found in the Buddhist tradition: that of Zen Buddhism, which is descended from the Tathagatagarbha school of Indian Mahayana Buddhism. Perhaps seeing some of the limitations of both early Buddhist and early Mahayana approaches I have discussed above, Zen contradicts, or transcends, both. Rather than seeing Reality as something accessible to us only in the future when we are enlightened, Zen says that Reality is here and now, in our experience, for we are already enlightened now.


This Zen approach does have the virtue of pointing us towards our experience. Unfortunately the underlying model of what we are seeking has not changed from other forms of Buddhism, only the model of how we are seeking it. We are still trying to gain “enlightenment”, even if the Zen terms for enlightenment, such as kensho, often do not seem to refer to an achievement on the scale of the Buddha’s. The idea is still to break through to a Reality which is different from the delusion we experience now. Even though on the Zen account, we can break through to that Reality suddenly and unexpectedly during our everyday lives, we still need to shift to a qualitatively different state to perceive that Reality.


If one could drop the language of enlightenment (or its lesser versions) from Zen, one could interpret it as talking about smashing through delusions. There may well be occasions when a delusion is dispelled suddenly, by an intuitive process, so that one experiences being on a new level. However, dogmatic metaphysics enters the frame whenever Zen assumes that there is anything final about this type of insight. This idea of finality might not just show itself in outwardly metaphysical language (which Zen generally tries to avoid), but also in the revelatory authority placed on the masters who have achieved it, or in a neglect of the aspects of spiritual life which require a more gradualist approach, such as ethics (for Zen is effectively forced to deny the possibility of moral progress). Revelatory authority given to a Zen master on the grounds of them having had an absolutised experience is no more justified than such authority given to the Buddha (see chapter 2).


Zen has a discontinuous model of spiritual progress, which might fit with some aspects of experience, but certainly conflicts with other aspects. Its simplicity and directness have often appealed to Westerners, but as with the Madhyamaka, the apparently critical stance towards metaphysics functions more as a spoiler than as a stimulus for applying a critical perspective (rather than just a mysterious paradoxicality) to the assumptions that are still being made. These assumptions also still underlie the social and moral structure of Zen. It is a matter of course in Zen to deny that there is any path or any goal, but this denial functions in a similar way to the absolute sayings about emptiness in the Madhyamaka (discussed in the previous section), that are not taken seriously at a conventional level. It is better to affirm that there is indeed a path and a goal, in terms that can possibly be related to our experience, than to compensate for the abstraction of metaphysics by playing paradoxical games with it.


It is not Reality, but reality, which is here and now.


Continue to Chapter 6 part d 'Quantum irrelevancies'

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