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  • Who Hears?A Zen Buddhist Perspective
  • Robert Aitken

Western psychologists and neurologists have attempted to use their concepts to explain East Asian religions for more than seventy-five years. Carl Jung (1875–1961) wrote a long foreword to Richard Wilhelm's The Secret of the Golden Flower back in 1931, which gave many readers in Europe and the Americas their first glimpse of philosophical Daoism.1 A generation later, Erich Fromm's conversations with D. T. Suzuki were recorded in Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis.2 In our own time, the Dalai Lama's collaborative work with neuroscientists and psychologists has received widespread attention,3 while academia has given James H. Austin's Zen and the Brain hearty approval.4

The process of mutual understanding between Western scientists and teachers of East Asian religion is still incomplete, however, and in earlier times it had barely begun. I remember my amusement back in the 1970s, watching a video of monks trailing streams of wires attached to biofeedback instruments while they were walking formally and solemnly. Even in those early days it was apparent to me that for all their academic credentials, the scholars had started with an ignorance of the subject of their study. They were successful in measuring something in the brain relating to a samādhi condition, but while the monks may have grounded themselves more or less in a settled practice, who is to measure their appreciation of the mejiro chirping in the camellia bush just outside? Great masters of Zen, Zhaozhou, and Deshan and their successors did not talk about being settled, any more than neuroanataomists discuss the importance of the alphabet.

The chirping of the mejiro might have reminded the monks of a case, a case that would lie in a dimension even further from the world of wires and dials. "Who is the master of hearing that sound?"5 This was the gist of a question by Bassui Tokushō Zenji—a question that became a public case, one kōan among many other kōans that have not been studied by science. It is time for such a study.

My directory of Chinese kōans holds more than 5,500 neatly framed traditional stories set forth to guide the student.6 The modern Zen teacher is conversant with some 550 of these kōans, a number that is sufficient if . . . if . . . . There are several caveats. If the teacher treats kōans as historical artifacts, then the stories are no [End Page 89] longer kōans, and the teaching is perniciously misleading. Sometimes the teacher has gone only part way in kōan study. The great house of conventional wisdom has fallen, but he or she doesn't know it is ruined and holds forth in the old explanatory way. Sometimes the teacher has completed the long course of study, but elects to pontificate from within the wreckage of the old manor. Finally there are those who abandon the ruins completely for practice on the open road. Here is my gāthā pointing to that way:

Stepping forth on the open road,I vow with all beingsTo distinguish the voices of birds,And make good use of my time.

Bassui Zenji's kōan "Who is the master of hearing that sound?" could be paraphrased here at the Pālolo Zen Center as "Who is hearing that thrush singing on the railing outside?" If, in the days before I retired, a student were to respond, "I hear the thrush," I would not have approved. Bassui would not have approved. Intimacy would be missing, and intimacy is the Dao. Intimacy is the way of all the Buddhas. There is no Zen without intimacy; intimacy with what? Both the self and the thrush. That was Bassui's intention, you can be sure.

Fayan met Dizang while on pilgrimage. Dizang asked, "What are you up to these days?"

Fayan said, "I'm going around one pilgrimage, wherever my feet will carry me."

Dizang asked, "What to you expect from pilgrimage?"

Fayan said, "I don't know."

Dizang said, "Not knowing is most intimate." Fayan underwent great realization. 7

Zen Buddhism stresses intimacy, while in...


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