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Zen Unmaintained (and held lightly!)

What follows is my clear understanding of Zen. All I know was gleaned from my reading of ‘The Book of Zen – Freedom of the Mind’.1 It’s set in Eastern feudal times and is printed in comic format but is no laughing matter. To back up my claims about Zen, I’m appending page numbers from the book at various points by way of proof. So here goes:

The Book of Zen - Freedom of the Mind

The protagonists in the world of Zen are the monks. They are the fundamental units of the whole system, the worker bees of the Zen colony as it were, the seekers. They’re finding. Their antagonists or co-protagonists if you like, are the Zen masters. They have found, and it is they who dispense Zen. Outside of these poles, extraneous to the system yet tangential to it, are an assortment of adventitious characters like bun vendors, old women, bamboo, big fish, waves, small fish, beautiful girls by a stream, cypress trees, water buffalo whose tails get stuck in a window, emperors, bamboo again, calligraphy scrolls, teacups, pagodas, paper houses, what-have-you.

Now, to focus on the monks: There are a lot of monks, monks who previously were warriors, generals, governors, artists, men of letters, calligraphers, physicians, swordsmen, zither players, merchants, high officials, enlightened lay persons, princes – sometimes refreshingly even plain lay persons. Refreshing too is that there are no ex-biotech, IT, corporate finance types, Libor manipulators, Volkswagen emission suppressing engineers or hedge fund managers among them. This makes one immediately drawn to the monks. Monks become monks when they’re struck by a crisis of emptiness so go in search of something, and end up looking for Zen, which teaches that all is nothingness. Nasty types say it’s actually a crisis of impotence and not emptiness that turns someone to monkhood, as monks are not allowed to lust. That’s not nice. Despite that, some monks have even been known to sell their Ferrari and turn the experience into a best seller.2 After all, of what use is a Ferrari if you’re not allowed to lust? What do you do with all the fluff you can pick up with it? Now, a word of caution when reading Zen: Not all monk-like beings in the encounters are monks; there are also devotees and temple overseers and Zen wayfarers in the mix, difficult to tell apart from monks, so please be on guard.

Monks know their karma from their dharma and their sutra from their shastra. In case you do not know the meaning of dharma, it is the cypress tree in the courtyard (p.81).3 Monks also know a lot about Tao and Wu. In case you do not know the meaning of Tao, Tao means when hungry, eat, when tired, sleep (p.108).4 Monks are, however, ignorant of the big pressing questions in life, for which they have to consult the Zen Masters, who know. Now all Zen masters live in the mountains, mountains which monks have to climb in order to consult the masters. This keeps monks fit. Emperors though, don’t have to climb mountains when studying Zen. Zen masters come to them. Emperors have armies to make Zen masters come to them. Zen masters are usually depicted in large form, bearing over monks, but never over the emperor (p.62 and appended pics). If they dare bear above the emperor, a bushido-complaint Samurai will karate-chop and judo hip-toss them into place. Instead, in the book, the emperor bears over them. From this we conclude that a Zen master is higher than a monk, but lower than an emperor. Much lower.

Emperor and Zen Master

Emperor and Zen Master

Zen Master and Monks

Zen Master and Monks

Which brings us to the Zen masters. Zen masters have titles like Bodhisattva and names like Sengai Gibon, Bankei Eitaku and Schichiri Kojun. This contrasts with wrestlers who have names like “Great Waves” (p.53). Zen masters either belong to the Song or the Tang dynasties (pp. 64, 70, 75, 93, 95…) Zen masters dispense the Inner Truth in many ways; the problem for the poor monks is that it’s not always straight-forward. Zen masters at times would like to tell the monks what the meaning of Zen is, but can’t because they have to go urinate (p.82). Monks from this learn that because they cannot urinate on behalf of the Zen master, they have to rely on themselves to understand matters of life and death. Zen masters will of a day even deign to go walking with a monk on a mountain, and ask the monk whether he smells the fragrance of the osmanthus. If he does, then the Zen master has hidden nothing from him (p.110). Zen masters also make existential claims like ‘I am the sound of raindrops’ (p.114). This is neither superciliousness nor braggadocio nor delusion nor even aspiration on the part of the masters, no. It is pure Zen. They also teach that to advance is to retreat, and to retreat is to advance.5 Zen masters teach that to grasp nothingness is not the same as to grasp nothing. One grasps nothingness by grasping someone’s nose until they shout ‘ouch’ (p.128). At this their questioners, the monks, fail to break into spontaneous enlightenment.

This makes the poor monks climb further mountains in search of other Zen masters to whom they pose the same questions to get another version of the Truth, after which they must climb yet other mountains. The cartoons abound with upward sloping lines depicting mountain slopes up which monks walk in search of whatever it is they’re searching for. Zen, I think it’s called. It’s a tiring quest. After a while your necks starts straining from all the upward sloping lines you have to follow. You yourself have to be fit to follow the monks! Sometimes the Zen masters are kind and live at the foot of the mountains which makes it easier for the monks and for your straining eyes. Other masters again are eccentric in their habitat, like ‘Bird Nest’ Daolin, who meditated up a tree (p.127). Up a tree on a mountain. This does not make things easier for the monks.

Zen masters have acolytes, protégés and disciples in attendance who receive the monks, and who, if chosen, become elevated to successors. Protégés can be every bit as enigmatic as their Zen masters, but in more mundane ways, not being masters of course. For example, when asked where he is going, a protégé might answer ‘wherever my feet go’ or ‘wherever the wind blows’, except when you actually ask him where they’re going, to which he invariably answers ‘to the market’ (p.69). The trick, you learn, is to actually ask them, and not to merely ask them. Got it? Good. You’re on your way to getting the whole Zen thing.

Sometimes the monks find other people – non-Zen masters – standing in the mountains. When monks ask such people what they are doing there, they answer ‘I’m just standing here’ (p. 51). This has deep Zen significance. Of course, the aim of all this is to find enlightenment. Some monks do eventually find enlightenment, but in unexpected ways. Deshan Xuanjian e.g. found enlightenment the instant someone blew out his candle on a dark night (p.88). Yue of Chaling found enlightenment when he fell off a bridge, along with lots of water (p.121). At which you may ask why he wasn’t extinguished instead. But that would not be a question worthy of Zen. Meditating monks are hermits, but have been known to be supported by women for up to twenty years. Pretty lasses can also bring them food while they meditate. Monks are, as I’ve said, not supposed to lust after women (or anyone for that matter), but they must have compassionate hearts towards them and should respond favourably to their embraces, else the women who support them will burn down their huts (p.105). This has been known to bring a meditating monk rapidly out of transcendence. Serves them right for not performing. From this we conclude that all is not mind, and concur with Rod Stewart that even the president – needs passion.

The whole essence of Zen can be wrapped up by ‘to understand or not to understand; be sure to avoid dualistic thinking’ (p.139). After all, Zen is the Middle Way that is neither the one nor the other (p.67). So despair not; for life is all in the breathing (p.20). That, I conclude, is the zing, the very zing – of Zen. If all else fails, at the end of each cartoon an infuriating little man clarifies the moral of the cartoon for you, casting you entirely in the grace of Zen.

You are now in a position to answer the classic Zen question: What is the sound of one hand, clapping?



  1. ‘The Book of Zen – Freedom of the Mind’. Published in 1990 by Asiapac Publications, ISBN 9971-985-48-9, edited and Illustrated by Tsai Chih Chung and translated from the Chinese by Koh Kok Kiang. As befitting a translator of a book of this nature, Koh Kok Kiang states he is a quietist by inclination. It’s one of those books one idly picks up at a second-hand store, in my case at the Muizenberg market on a blustery Friday evening.
  2. See ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’ by Robin Sharma. The title of the piece is perhaps a take-off of ‘Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert M. Persig…
  3. Alternatively, dharma is the short bamboo on the other side (p.111). Also, bits of it are to be found in a piece of thread from a robe (p.127).
  4. Practicing the Tao concerns changing one’s clothing and eating (p.76). In addition, Tao holds that the definition of ‘it’ is ‘this’ (p.115).
  5. The two states are both to gain and to give up. This is the state of harmony (p.120).