Words and Theories

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Living process and words about it are not the same and should not be treated as equal in worth. When we perceive the incongruity between theories about life and what we feel intuitively to be true on the nonverbal, nonjudging plane, there is nothing to do but laugh.

Here is a picture of demoniac energy in action. The monk tearing up the papers has a look of fiendish glee. What is he tearing up? A scroll of Buddhist scriptures. In any religion but Zen such an action would surely be regarded as evil. Yet this is a picture of Huineng, the first great Chinese Zen master, painted by a Zen-inspired artist who was one of China's greatest masters of brush and ink.

What's going on? What's the Zen point? For you?

Perhaps a couple of exchanges between Zen masters and their disciples will furnish a pertinent background. Here is one, as it was told by the Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki:

A monk asked Huineng, "Who has attained to the secrets of Wobai?"

Huineng: "One who understands Buddhism has attained to the secrets of Wobai."

Monk: "Have you then attained them?"

Huineng: "No, I have not."

Monk: "How is it that you have not?"

Huineng: "I do not understand Buddhism."

Another exchange reported by Suzuki tells how, in attempting to get an answer to his wondering about the essence of Buddhism, a monk once asked:

"What is the meaning of the First Patriarch's coming from the West?"

Master Shihtou answered, "Ask the post that's standing over there."

The monk replied, "I don't understand what you mean."

Thereupon Master Shihtou ended the colloquy by saying, "My ignorance far exceeds yours." 

Here we have two Zen masters, living embodiments of Buddhist insight and enlightenment, disclaiming any understanding of Buddhism and even of their own replies to inquiries about it.

Understandings and discussions must be phrased in words. But the words of any language fall far short of mirroring the vital processes of life. Words of wisdom have no meaning until one's own experience gives them meaning. Each person must be enlightened by his own experience. The Zen masters try to give their disciples experiences that will shock them into this realization.

Tearing up the holy books of one's religion is shocking to a respectful student of that religion. But from the Zen point of view this is an ideal situation to paint, impressing on the sensitive viewer the difference between the inner meanings of a way of life and verbal descriptions of it.

Not only may the idea behind the painting contribute to insight, but so may the technique of the painter. Note how the brushwork itself projects the contrast between the intense energy of living process and the dead papers fluttering in the wind. The strokes are mostly short and straight or angular. Some are very black and some very light, with a startling, staccato effect like that of a series of shouts. The angular figure has one leg raised, showing the intensity of the emotion behind the tearing of the sutra scroll.

The monk seems to be almost dancing—with rage at the pretensions of writers? With glee that he has the power to tear the writings to pieces?