The Problem of Zen Values

Zen values can be perceived from the essence of the information and messages contained in Zen literature.  Obviously, a particular koan may describe a real event (which could have taken place in reality), but it may also express just a metaphor for the values (or essence), which the koan contains.  In either case, the described statements in koans offer a glimpse into the qualities contained in the teachings of Zen masters as conveyed to disciples generation after the other. 

Zen literature present a rich heritage of descriptions of events, which show confusion of Zen masters about basic concepts of Buddhism (such as the Buddhanature) - but regardless of theoretical issues, the character of behaviour (behaviour, which reflects the values of the mind of Zen masters) is highly questionable - from the humanistic and rational perspectives of mental stability, respect to others and refrain from arrogance and even bullying. 

  1.         One of various bizarre events (proudly described in Zen literature) relates to a master killing a cat and another master putting his sandals over his head - a scenery from a madhouse:   Killing a Cat and Predicting the cat’s Enlightenment


  1.           Another is about “pinching a nun” (as a way to enlighten her to the truth), while still another is about slapping the face of a younger monk (in reply to a question about Buddhism), and hurting a follower .... etc.  Such juvenile behaviours or standards of presenting Zen values - show also the depth of arrogance and mental suppression Zen masters used towards young practitioners, who in tern became masters and treated their followers in a similar way.

  1.             An example of superficial level of values in Zen mind - may be viewed through a question about what is value in Buddhism:

The Head of a Dead CatA disciple asked the master: What is the most expensive thing in the world”? The master replied: “The head of a dead cat, because no body gives it a price”.

In his book Pointing at the Moon , Alexander Holstein offers an explanation to the  abovementioned koan, as being the master’s attempt to ‘shock the usual way of thinking’ of the questioner, and to teach his disciple to destroy the common values of ordinary mind”.

It is evident in this teaching, that the question of “what is valuable?” - was answered through “what is not valuable”.  It is also apparent that the commentator who tried to explain the master’s bizarre answer – did not answer the question: what is valuable in life, or what does Buddhism consider as valuable.

The master’s intention to give an answer aiming to “destroy the values of ordinary mind”  - is non-Buddhist in essence.  Buddhism teaches, that the ordinary mind of common people (of the Nine Worlds) contains within it the Buddha mind or Buddhanature as well. The “common values of ordinary mind” contain also humanistic values such as compassion, courage, seeking spirit, altruism, love…etc… common values which can be rather enriched through Buddhism - rather than “destroyed”.

What is “valuable” in Buddhism ?

The question (of what is the most precious thing in the world) was in fact about what is precious (sacred or divine) in Buddhism.  This question was also treated by Nichiren, and he gave the following explanation:

        One day of Life is more valuable than all the treasures of the major world system

        A single life is worth more than the major world system” WND1 p 955 

Nichiren also refers to the value of a compassionate heart of ordinary people:

        More valuable than treasures in a storehouse are the treasures of the body,

        and the treasures of the heart are the most valuable of all.

        From the time you read this letter on, strive to accumulate the treasures of the heart”.

WND1 p 851

SGI literature comments on these statements:

        When we base our values on the treasures of the heart [compassion], the true value    

        and worth of the treasures of the storehouse [material wealth] and the body [health and

        skills] also become apparent in our lives.

        In short, we need to make accumulating the treasures of the heart our fundamental

        purpose in life.  If we lose sight of this elemental objective, but seek to accumulate the

        treasures of the storehouse and the body – it will only give rise to attachment.

        When that happens, fear of losing such material or physical treasures

        can become a cause of suffering.

        It is therefore important above all to accumulate the treasures of the heart.

        This reflects a correct sense of purpose in life.”

Source: SGI Newsletter No. 7929, Lecture on The Three kinds of Treasures, 2010)


Zen at War

One of the basic differences between Soka Buddhism and Zen as well as all other Buddhist traditions - is the stand during the ii World War.  While the founders of the Soka Gakkai refused the demand of the authorities to declare their support for the war and emperor worship,  Zen masters in particular issued and published books of support to the aggression and violence of the “Holy War”.   Zen masters regarded the war as “divine”, and the emperor as superior to the Buddha, and encouraged people to commit suicide as purification of their karma and serving the emperor:


                                                   Zen & Nichiren Buddhism      


                     The Origin of Zen          Ikeda on Zen        Why did Nichiren criticise Zen?



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