Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Tao of Zen

The way that most people, myself included, usually explain Zen to beginners is to say that Zen is the child of an Indian Buddhist father and a Chinese Taoist mother. Ray Grigg, author of The Tao of Zen, would disagree. In this fascinating book, Grigg points out that there are two forms of Zen--Zen and Zen Buddhism. Most of the time we use the two terms what's the difference?

According to Grigg, if we examine classical Zen literature, we find two distinct traditions, one serious, stern, and world-transcending. This is Zen Buddhism, situated in the austere monastic halls. It is exemplified by bowing, chanting, and countless hours of seated meditation.

Then there's the playful, lighthearted, earthy Taoist-flavored Zen. This Zen is free-spirited, spontaneous, and world-embracing. This is expressed by the unencumbered nature of flowing water, and personified by the paradoxical dialogues of the ancient masters.

In my opinion, the first half of the book is a little heavy and sometimes didactic in illustrating this dichotomy, but it's well worth it. The second half is absolutely beautiful in its poetic depiction of Zen and Taoism. Lately, I have been reading about Advaita Vedanta, the nondual Hindu school which teaches that the differentiated world of samsara is an illusion; that the true reality is one unified Ground called Brahman. While this is metaphysically similar to the Tao, the unnameable reality that embraces and supports all phenomena, it is much closer to traditional (Pali) Buddhism in its implications, namely that it encourages world transcendence.

Taoism, on the other hand, and its Zen counterpart, is primarily concerned with living in the world of name and form, though not bound by it. This difference is what Grigg's book delineates.

I'm not a Zen scholar so I'm not in a position to critically evaluate his thesis. My main reason for reading The Tao of Zen was to learn more about Taoism and its influence on Zen. And while the books' treatment of this subject was more incidental than anything else, I was overwhelmingly pleased by what I learned about Taoism and Zen.

I highly encourage any student of Zen (Buddhism) to read it.

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