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.”