Zen’s Two Paths

Daowu asked, “Do you mean there is a second moon?”

Yunyan held up his broom and said, “What number moon is this?”

                              —Excerpted from The Book of Serenity Case #21

One of the puzzling things about Zen is the apparent co-existence of two seemingly contradictory spiritual paths—much like Daowu’s two moons—one a gradual developmental path of cultivating virtue and wisdom, the other an immediate non-path of uncontrived presence. It helps, however, to think of these paths as complementary rather than contradictory. Zen is both a path of character development and a path of uncontrived presence, each path facilitating and enriching the other. There really is only one moon—or better yet, the moons are “not two”.

The Zen path is, in the deepest sense, an ethical one. Ethical in the sense of promoting meaningful, fulfilling, and morally sensitive lives—lives that allow us to grow into the best possible versions of our selves. The great sages of the past—the Buddha, Confucius, Aristotle—saw virtues such as benevolence, courage, equanimity, truthfulness, fairness, and compassion as qualities that had to be cultivated through practice over time. The virtues are important because they allow us to build lives worth living and societies worth living in. While nature may have endowed us with the capacity to realize these virtues, our capacity waxes or wanes due to adverse or beneficial childhood experiences, adequate or inadequate social reinforcement, the presence or absence of appropriate role models, and the presence or absence of deliberate intention and effort.

Wisdom refers to the mental skills that tell us which virtues are called for in specific situations, allow us to discriminate truth from falsity, allow us to constructively solve problems, and allow us to properly judge the social contexts we are operating in. Wisdom also includes a set of attitudes — openness to the possibility of being wrong, willingness to consider other perspectives, an acceptance of things that can’t be changed, and an openness to the wisdom of the body. Finally there is the quintessential Zen wisdom that all phenomena are processual—that is, they are changing processes rather than “things” with fixed essences—and that they are pan-relational—that is, that every process “inter-is” and inter-affects every other process.

So much for the developmental path—cultivating virtue and wisdom.  The non-path of immediate presence also plays a role in flourishing. I discovered the spacious, non-reactive space of immediate and uncontrived presence the first time I ever sat zazen. I didn’t have to create that space—it was waiting to be discovered—yet I had never experienced it prior to sitting. Secular Buddhist author Stephen Batchelor says Nirvana is not some place we might arrive at in some distant future after considerable effort but is the non-reactive spaciousness we can encounter here and now at any time.

How does this kind of non-reactive spaciousness enhance flourishing? First, full, undivided, intimate presence enriches the very experience of being alive– it enriches everything it touches. Second, as we experience desires, urges, whims, and attitudes come and go in this non-reactive space we experience a freedom from compulsion and an equanimity that allows us to discern the wholesome from the unwholesome. Third, it creates a space in which we can observe how our thoughts are often conditioned mental reactions and not necessarily “true.” Fourth, whenever we feel conflicted, confused, or stressed it can serve as a place of refuge, respite, and equipoise. Fifth, unencumbered by preference and opinion, we can experience our lives freshly allowing experience to reveal itself in a new light. Sixth, as our ego-boundaries become more porous in this open spaciousness, we can palpably sense our vital interconnection with others and the world. Seventh, it allows us to access embodied ways of knowing that complement “disembodied” rationality. Eighth, it allows us to develop a fuller sense of who “we” are—as beings in flux, evolving, complex, and not separate from our larger cultures, social orders, and eco-systems which are themselves in flux, evolving, and complex.

To this way of understanding, Zen is more than “just being present,” it is also about growing in wisdom and virtue. Virtue without presence is just dry moralism. You can’t know what is virtuous by following a set of rules. Discerning what’s virtuous requires an open, intimate acquaintance with each situation. Presence without virtue allows us to savor moments, but offers no way to build a life worth living or to improve the larger social order we live in.

That’s why Zen teaches zazen along with the Bodhisattva vows and precepts, and why the Noble Eightfold Path includes right intention, speech, conduct, and livelihood along with the meditative factors of right effort, mindfulness, and concentration. There are not two paths; there is only one, or better yet, the paths are “not two.”

4 Replies to “Zen’s Two Paths”

  1. This is very well said, Seth; I especially like how rich that third to last paragraph is, full of the goods of Zen practice.

    These two aspects, the “gradual developmental path” aspect and the “non-path of uncontrived presence” aspect, were mentioned by Sojun Mel Weitsman in a way that struck me as funny in (someone’s notes from) a talk on the five ranks or five degrees in the Precious Mirror Samadhi (Hōkyō Zammai):

    Hakuin sees the five ranks as a progressive practice, but they can also be seen as just five positions and how things look from those five positions. We do learn in stages, but we are not so into talking about it. […] Hakuin made a system, but Soto Zen is like swimming around in the big ocean, just knowing where you are moment by moment.

    I laughed when I read “we are not so into talking about it”, since that has been my experience in Soto Zen. More precisely, some people are not so into talking about the “gradual developmental path” aspect, and I have come to accept that as okay. In my sangha there is a lay teacher who always talks only about the “non-path of uncontrived presence” aspect in his talks, and in my mind I’m always silently responding: but what about the other aspect? But it’s all good, because he talks about that one aspect so well, and not everyone has to talk about both aspects as long as there are others in the sangha who can do it: at least, that’s what I tell myself.

    Personally, I find the developmental aspect too important to omit, and I find the analysis of what development is and how it works to be very useful, pragmatic. (And speaking of pragmatism, John Dewey had his own five degrees: in, for example, his book How We Think.) If this tends to be underemphasized in Soto Zen, it may be because the main practice, zazen, is not an analytical meditation practice? And I wouldn’t want it to be otherwise, but I have often found myself having to compensate for what seemed to me to be an underemphasis in Soto Zen on a modern analytical understanding of the “gradual developmental path” aspect and how it integrates with the “non-path of uncontrived presence” aspect. For a Zen teacher to emphasize and integrate both aspects well requires, I think, a good grasp of modern psychology, which the author of this blog clearly has but not all Zen teachers do.

    1. Thanks, Nathan, for your helpful comment. I’m sorry I am just responding to it now, but I missed noticing that you had posted a while back. There is a one-sidedness in the Zen tradition both as it has been passed down through the ages and as it is often taught today that I find worrisome. In my Zendo we have been reviewing all the koans in chronological order (not the order in which they were composed, but going through the main protagonists in “historical” order). We had to get through 58 koans before we got to a koan that touched on compassion (Yunyan’s “The whole body is hand and eye”). Compare this emphasis with the emphasis Bhante Pemaratana gives in his interview with Belinda Khong in the March 2021 issue of The Humanistic Psychologist that Belinda and I coedited. Bhante’s Theravada monastic training in Asia emphasized lovingkindness and ethical practice more than the kind of meditation we see as the single-monded focus in most Western Zen convert sanghas. I like to fantasize that our Chinese Zen ancestors practiced a Zen that was informed by the larger Buddhist envelope in which it resided–as well as an acquaintance with the thought of Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, and Zhu Xi, Laozi, and Zhuangzi. The practice of zazen existed against that larger backdrop which was implicit in all that they said and did. If we grow up in a different cultural milieu and see Zen as a stand alone practice that erases everything that preceeded it (all those “letters and words”) we are in danger of missing something essential.

      1. Thanks, Seth: it’s amazing that you read so many koans before encountering one explicitly about compassion. In my years of Soto Zen practice, I’ve never systematically studied koans, which were never emphasized in my sangha(s) except for unsystematic quotation of them in dharma talks. (The sangha in which I’ve practiced longest is in a Shunryu Suzuki lineage close to Sojun Mel Weitsman’s, which may explain why his quotation resonated with my experience so much.)

        My last sentence said “For a Zen teacher to emphasize and integrate both aspects well requires, I think, a good grasp of modern psychology”: I still think this is true, and the Zen teachers from whom I’ve probably learned the most are the ones who are also psychologists/therapists. Secular psychotherapy has been around long enough now that it is an important shared knowledge base and lingua franca for us. But I should have said that ancient Yogācāra psychology was also crystal clear about the process of psychological development. Popular books by modern Zen teachers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh’s Transformation at the Base and Tenshin Reb Anderson’s The Third Turning of the Wheel, explain this well. You mention Yogācāra too in your great 2005 article “Mindfulness and self-development in psychotherapy”. I think Zen teachers benefit from having a cosmopolitan view that draws on any relevant psychology from past to present. I would guess you wouldn’t disagree.

        One of my favorite modern books about psychological development is Mike Basseches & Mike Mascolo’s Psychotherapy as a Developmental Process. One of their organizing schemes is three processes: the dialectic of attention, of interpretation, and of enactment. All three dialectics are present in Zen practice; they are vaguely analogous to samādhi, prajñā, and śīla. (This is my interpretation; Basseches & Mascolo don’t mention Buddhism.) Much of what you call the non-path of immediate presence in Zen corresponds to their dialectic of attention and the provision of attentional support in psychotherapy. What I like about the work of psychologists such as them and you (and to some degree even classic Buddhists such as the Yogācārins) is the clear discussion of the mechanics of development, or how development works as a process.

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