[NB: This is a paper-- a long paper by blog standards but fairly short by academic standards-- I wrote back in 2000. Skip it if the subject doesn't interest you. In this paper (which could stand some revision; my position on some matters has shifted a bit), I'm evaluating Ray Grigg's contention that Zen is basically Taoism with a superfluous Buddhist cortex. Ultimately, I see some merit in his thesis, but am not convinced that Buddhism is superfluous. To the contrary, I find Buddhism to be quite integral to Zen, and while Grigg makes a clear distinction between "Zen" and "Zen Buddhism," I don't think the distinction holds, except maybe superficially. This paper appears, in slightly revised form, in my book Water from a Skull.]
It is a commonplace among scholars and "night-stand Buddhists" alike to summarize Zen's origins with a bumper-sticker aphorism such as "Zen is what happened when Indian Buddhism went north and met Taoism in China." Usually this is uttered along with the caveat that, as in all matters Zen, such is not the full truth. It is not quite so commonplace, however, to read, as Ray Grigg so bluntly puts it in the preface to his The Tao of Zen, that "Zen is Taoism disguised as Buddhism." The immediate implication is that if Buddhism is a disguise, it is not relevant to the question of what comprises the essence of Zen, to the extent that one can speak of essences in Zen.
This, in fact, is the tack Grigg takes through the rest of his book. His thesis is neatly summarized in the preface: Zen is Taoism in Buddhist clothing, and "Buddhism is the historical wedge that has separated Zen from its Taoist source." While acknowledging that Taoism and Buddhism share certain thematic affinities that, together, facilitate the melding of the two into Chinese Ch'an and eventually Japanese Zen, Grigg is far more fascinated by what he perceives to be the deep affinity between "pure Zen" and "original Taoism."
The rest of this discussion will proceed with an overview of the major points of Grigg's argument, passing through an examination of Grigg's possible biases when discussing original Taoism, then moving to a fuller examination of the question of what constitutes "real" Taoism, followed by a brief overview of what other thinkers have had to say on the matter of what Zen is. The discussion will conclude with a direct examination of the plausibility of removing Buddhist elements from Zen while somehow retaining Zen's Zenness.
Overview of Grigg's Argument
Zen is Taoism disguised as Buddhism. When twelve hundred years of Buddhist accretions are removed from Zen, it is revealed to be a direct evolution of the spirit and philosophy of Taoism. Indeed, the literature known as the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu begins a continuous tradition that can be followed through the Ch'an of China to the Zen of present-day Japan. The formative writings of early Taoism are essentially the teachings of Zen.
Thus begins The Tao of Zen. The first step in Grigg's argument is to note that, especially in the West, a curious but very telling distinction in usage has crept in between the terms "Zen" and "Zen Buddhism." Westerners' "nonsectarian sense of Zen" is a "fresh and innocent response" that is "uncomplicated by the traditional interpretations and assumptions which have seen Zen as an inseparable part of Buddhism." Evidence of this separation can be found in the many "Zen [and the X] of" expressions that have come into prominence in English: Zen of tennis, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, Zen and the art of drawing, etc. While populist, this new usage harks back to a very old Zen admonition "about the folly of becoming too attached to any system of understanding-- even Buddhism, and especially the religion of Mahayana Buddhism that has housed Zen in China and Japan for centuries."
It is Grigg's opinion that the "Buddhist accretions" are to blame for Zen's having moved away from its roots. The addition of rituals over the centuries "[has] created a formal practice that is stiff, austere, and monastic, qualities that are the antithesis of Zen's essentially organic identity. Once the trappings are removed, however, Zen returns to its original Taoist character."
Although Taoism and Buddhism share certain similarities, Grigg's most radical assessment excludes any possibility of their equation:
...the similarities between original Taoism and pure Zen are far more striking: the simplicity, the directness, the intuitiveness, the paradoxes, the importance of being natural and the prevalence of natural images, the skepticism about words and explanations, about institutions and dogma. Zen is Taoism.
The Way to which Zen refers is none other than the Way (Tao) to which Taoism refers, an idea supported by many other thinkers. Because the Tao is at heart undefinable, this very vagueness is what affords both Zen and original Taoism their robustness and richness. It is "the source of their wisdom and profundity." The core writings of original Taoism are, as Zennists say of Zen, "nothing special"; they are "descriptive rather than prescriptive, instructive rather than sacred." Whatever religious quality they possess is not so much inherent as imputed.
Grigg concludes his preface by focusing on functional distinctions between Buddhism, Zen, Zen Buddhism, and Taoism. He refuses to use Zen and Zen Buddhism interchangeably. Buddhism, whose original, philosophical form contains "some Zen," more usually refers to the religious tradition such as that exemplified by the Mahayana school, in which the Buddha has been deified and his teachings have become dogma. Therefore:
Zen refers to pure Zen, the practice in Chinese Ch'an and Japanese Zen that is likened to original Taoism but is wholly devoid of Mahayana Buddhism's religious allusions. Zen is also devoid of the inner analysis that is so characteristic of Indian Buddhist philosophy. Zen Buddhism, therefore, is the unlikely combination of Chinese and Indian sources; it began in Ch'an as a mixing of Taoism and Buddhism, and currently exists in Japan in the same combination. Because of the ubiquitous quality of Zen, it can be found in Zen Buddhism, but Zen and Zen Buddhism are not equivalent terms.
By the same token, Grigg's operational definition of Taoism refers very specifically to Taoism in its philosophical or contemplative form as sourced in the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu. "Except for their historical distinctions, Taoism and Zen are terms that can be used interchangeably."
The rest of The Tao of Zen supports the thesis laid out in Grigg's preface with a twofold approach. Part One covers the historical connections between Taoism and Zen, and Part Two is devoted to an examination of their philosophically similar elements.
In Part One, discussing the historical connections between Taoism and Zen, Grigg begins with "biographies" of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. He then briefly covers the history of Taoism and of Buddhism in China, devoting the rest of Part One to the rise of Ch'an and Zen with a nod to great figures like Bodhidharma, Hui-neng, Nonin, and Bankei.
A major theme in this historical exploration is Grigg's repeated assertion that Buddhism (by which he means those Mahayana practitioners with the most commitment to Buddhism as an institution or religion) has engaged in a constant effort over the years either to preserve or manufacture historical links with India in an effort either to justify a kind of "apostolic succession" of patriarchs, or simply to create a stronger link with Zen Buddhism's Indian roots.
In speaking about Bodhidharma and Hui-neng, for example, Grigg notes that very little is actually known about either of these great figures, which made them easy targets for hindsight reinterpretation. About Hui-neng and the historical forces of the time, Grigg says:
Since the operating principles of Taoism could not integrate with either religious beliefs or Buddhist philosophy, they were overwritten by Buddhist ideology and methodology. The result has been a tangle of misrepresentations... There was a Hui-neng. He was thoroughly Chinese. But he was unlikely a Buddhist, although later efforts attempted to make him one. All the evidence suggests he was an archetypal Taoist, or at least he was invented as such by the Chinese need to express its own character through him.
In his subsequent overview of Buddhism in Japan, Grigg notes that Shinto had done much to predispose the Japanese consciousness to the naturalistic themes in Taoism and Ch'an. Like the Chinese, especially the Taoists whom Grigg terms "Quietists" (i.e., Taoist practitioners who remained faithful to philosophical Taoism), the Japanese prize naturalness and simplicity; accepting this new Zen "[flower] in the garden of Buddhism" was, therefore, relatively easy: "It is sufficient to note that Taoism and Shinto, when they met, would have felt comfortable in each other's company."
Two significant chapters conclude Part One: "Zen Without Buddhism" and "Everyday Zen." In "Zen Without Buddhism," Grigg argues that Japanese Zen Buddhism is the result of the long and sometimes uneasy coexistence between Chinese Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, as they coexisted in Ch'an. Given Taoism's this-worldly orientation and Buddhism's otherworldly alignment, how were the two traditions able to meld as well as they did? Grigg offers two basic reasons: first, the Taoism of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu was possessed of both a paradoxical and inclusive spirit, perhaps a reflection of the often syncretic nature of the Chinese mind; second, when Buddhism entered China, "it was reshaped to fit the Chinese mind." Chinese Mahayana thought "was more practical, more earthy, and more immediate."
Despite the ensuing cohabitation of these two thought-systems in Ch'an, it would be incorrect to attempt to trace Zen directly to the original teachings of the Buddha. Grigg offers three reasons why: (1) doctrinally, Chinese Mahayana Buddhism is "not the austere silence of Gautama sitting alone," especially since Gautama was not Buddhist, and his search for truth had an existential motivation as opposed to a religious one; (2) stylistically, the Buddha's teachings are highly systematized, lacking the freewheeling, spontaneous, illogical tenor of Zen; and (3) historically, as mentioned above, pious fabrications have effaced most or all reliably traceable links from the Buddha to the Zen patriarchs to Japanese Zen.
The Buddhism in Zen Buddhism represents all that is structural and institutional, while the Zen is nothing less than Taoism in its original or Quietist form-- the philosophical Taoism sourced in the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu.
The chapter titled "Everyday Zen" is less a historical treatment than a philosophical capstone to Grigg's historical argument. (It is not the final chapter; that chapter spends some time discussing Zen's arrival in the West, initially as Japanese Zen Buddhism, but rapidly evolving-- or reverting?-- into the more originally Taoist "Zen" that has become practically a household word.) "Everyday Zen" is a more focused look at what Grigg perceives to be the Taoist temperament of Zen.
Zen, like Taoism, is natural and intuitive, so ordinary that it is easily missed. This is why Zen without Buddhism seems so close to Taoism. When stripped of formality and returned to its natural shape, Zen is earthy and ordinary, nothing special. [...] ...a total, undivided presence transcends the duality of here or somewhere else. [...] Immersion in the everyday is the essential practice of the Taoist sage."
In Part Two of The Tao of Zen, Grigg systematically notes the philosophical similarities between philosophical Taoism and "pure" Zen. While this discussion occupies fully half of The Tao of Zen, it is easily summarized if one understands Grigg's approach as an explication of the qualities he feels epitomize both original Taoism and pure Zen. Those qualities are wordlessness, selflessness, softness, oneness, emptiness, nothingness, balance, paradox, non-doing, spontaneity, ordinariness, playfulness, and suchness.
Grigg's Biases and the Notion of "Real" Taoism
Grigg quotes extensively from thinkers and scholars such as Alan Watts, Shunryu Suzuki roshi, D.T. Suzuki, Philip Kapleau, Victor Mair, Christmas Humphreys, Thomas Merton, and others. D.T. Suzuki in particular is a cruel favorite; Grigg engages in posthumous debate with Suzuki at several points throughout The Tao of Zen in order to highlight Suzuki's Mahayana biases-- the better for the reader to see Mahayana Buddhist revisionism in action. But Grigg also seizes upon Suzuki passages indicating a grudging admission of Zen's Chinese tenor, so Suzuki is puppeteered into engaging in a morbid debate with himself. Alan Watts, whom Grigg avidly terms a "modern Hui-neng," is quoted mainly for his "iconoclastic" spirit and for those passages from his The Way of Zen and The Spirit of Zen that explore the temperamental incompatibility of institutional Buddhism with Zen's Taoist bent.
What is most striking in Grigg's book is his refusal to discuss Taoism's evolutionary history except in the most general of terms. Grigg sniffs at what Taoism has become: namely, the religious, magical, folk Taoism that adds nothing to Grigg's thesis. Implied in this refusal is the assumption that original Taoism, the Quietist, philosophical variety to which Grigg makes repeated reference, is real Taoism.
It is appropriate at this point to examine the question of what makes a thought system "real." What is "real" Christianity? Or "real" Islam? If, for example, Muslim terrorists are featured on the American news to the extent that peaceful Muslim apologists must explain that the fundamentalist strains of Islam do not represent the "real" or "true" spirit of Islam, what then qualifies as the most representative form of Islam?
If it is recognized that a religious tradition acts much as a living organism does-- growing, evolving, multiplying, fighting, dying partially or wholly, changing over time-- can one ever speak of a "real" form of that tradition? The Christianity of today is so diverse that it is no longer safe to speak of Christianity as if it were a monolithic entity. Polymorphic present-day Taoism may have strayed from its philosophical roots, as Grigg contends, but upon what grounds can Grigg treat philosophical Taoism as more "real" than its modern incarnation? By extension, how is it possible to speak of a "true" Zen?
It is perhaps safest to assume that Grigg is positing the original = real premise without seeking any deep justification for his stance. His larger point is, after all, simply to highlight the essentially Taoist character of Zen, and he is obliged to start somewhere. However, his chapter on Zen's entry into Western culture is very telling on this point: the West's egalitarianism, secularism, and individualism have acted as a paring knife to peel off the structured, ritualized, institutional cortex of Japanese Mahayana Buddhism (very hierarchically East Asian in character) and left Zen in a more or less pristine state where it can be examined à l'occidentale.
Much is implied in this argument. The most important implication is that the West in recent decades has arrived at a point where its own religious explorations are at a sort of dead end, and the usual answers no longer suffice. Enter Far Eastern thought which, because it is generally devoid of an overtly (mono)theistic aspect, has been able to penetrate the Western psyche more or less quietly but steadily. Because modern Western thinking has been so profoundly shaped by scientific skepticism, Grigg may well be implying that Zen's being "nothing special" is a virtue in an age of doubt. Karen Armstrong has described the Western experience of God as "traumatic," filled with intense emotion, drama, and not a little magic. It is entirely possible that turn-of-the-century science-fueled cynicism has made such drama hard to swallow. At every turn, Zen proclaims its ordinariness and commonsense nature; for a Westerner weary of the monotheistic fireworks display, calm profundity might appear as a relief. In France, the best-selling Le moine et le philosophe (The Monk and the Philosopher) serves as an example of the French intellectual hunger for a religious answer other than a staid, moribund Catholicism.
Of course, the West does not lack for a love of magic or superstition, but this love usually stands in diametrical opposition to the scientific impulse that presently occupies a position of increasing prominence in the West's collective psyche. Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World plants itself firmly against what Sagan saw as humanity's continued and disappointing fascination with self-bamboozlement:
The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance... The plain lesson is that study and learning-- not just of science, but of anything-- are avoidable, even undesirable.
But his book also serves to highlight the starkness of the contrast between religious and scientific thinking that continues to haunt the Western mind. Zen and original Taoism are welcome in the West because they straddle the boundary between religion and science: there is nothing about Grigg's pure Zen or original Taoism that is antithetical to scientific thinking. Religious Taoism will probably never be as welcome in the West as original Taoism for the simple reason that its religiosity bears a recognizably magical odor to a Westerner. In this sense, it is perfectly legitimate to read Grigg as implying that original Taoism is more real... to a Westerner.
Other Thinkers On Zen
Where do other thinkers stand on the issue of Zen's Taoist nature? Do others agree with Grigg's contention that Mahayana Buddhism has done much to obfuscate the truth by forcing a link between Zen and India?
In his An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki says the following:
Buddhism in its course of development has completed a form which distinguishes itself from its so-called primitive or original type-- so greatly, indeed, that we are justified in emphasizing its historical division into two schools... As a matter of fact, the Mahayana, with all its varied formulae, is no more than a developed form of Buddhism and traces back its final authority to its Indian founder, the great Buddha Sakyamuni. When this developed form... was introduced into China and then into Japan, it achieved further development in those countries. ...At present the Mahayana form may be said not to display, superficially at least, those features most conspicuously characteristic of original Buddhism.
This seems to play into Grigg's overall argument, particularly to the idea that Suzuki is a Buddhist apologist intent on defending Zen Buddhism's Indian lineage. Suzuki's remarks also support Grigg's contention that the character of Buddhism was changed when it entered China, thus facilitating the eventual coexistence of Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism in Ch'an. But what Suzuki says next seems to undercut Grigg's thesis:
...there are people who would declare that this branch of Buddhism [i.e., Mahayana] is in reality no Buddhism in the sense that the latter is commonly understood. My contention, however, is this: anything that has life in it is an organism, and it is in the very nature of an organism that it never remains in the same state of existence. An acorn is quite different, even as a young oak with tender leaves just out of its protective shell is quite different from a full-grown tree... But throughout these varying phases of change there is a continuation of growth and unmistakable marks of identity, whence we know that one and the same plant has passed through many stages of becoming.
By this reckoning, Buddhism's acquisition of Chinese qualities (of which a Taoist bent would be one such quality) would reflect an organic process that keeps its Indian traits at the core of what will eventually become Zen Buddhism. Here, Taoism is arguably the cortex and not Buddhism.
If nothing else, Suzuki's writings do not easily lend themselves to Grigg's argumentation, which explains Grigg's understandable ambivalence toward Suzuki. Moreover, what Suzuki is saying is important as a critique of Grigg's reasoning, whose weakest link resides in his repeated implication that pure Zen need include no Buddhism. If Taoism propounds an organic understanding of the world, this understanding should be applicable to a thought system's evolution through history. It is therefore possible to interpret Taoism's "uneasy" coexistence with Buddhism in Ch'an and Zen as perfectly "easy," with the tension ascribable not so much to a concerted Taoist resistance to an imposed Mahayana Buddhist structure as to Taoism's natural "squishiness." Taoism would have bumped gently against any thought system with which it had had to cohabit. Such is its nature.
Wing-Tsit Chan agrees that Buddhist meditative techniques took on a decidedly Chinese cast. In speaking about the use of shouting and beating in Ch'an, Chan says without irony, "This type of mental training is utterly Chinese." Along with other scholars, and consistent with Grigg's thesis, Chan too remarks on the this-worldly character of Chinese thought as opposed to the otherworldly cast of Indian thought. More: "[Ch'an] Meditation was not understood in the Indian sense of concentration but in the Taoist sense of conserving vital energy, breathing, reducing desire, preserving nature, and so forth."
Alan Watts, whose quotes do in fact serve Grigg quite well, does, however, make a distinction between Taoism and Zen when he says in The Spirit of Zen, "... it must be remembered that Zen is not always a gentle breeze, like decadent Taoism; more than often it is a fierce gale which sweeps everything ruthlessly before it, an icy blast which penetrates to the heart of everything and passes right through to the other side!" One senses here an emotional immediacy and urgency quite unlike the almost placid metaphor of Chuang Tzu dragging his tail in the mud like a happy tortoise.
Grigg is in good company when propounding the distinctly Chinese quality of Ch'an and Zen Buddhism, but there is some doubt as to the degree to which other scholars' and thinkers' words can be of service to Grigg's larger argument: that pure Zen is original Taoism, and that Mahayana Buddhism "is not Zen." Both Suzuki and Watts make statements that can be interpreted in ways both friendly and antagonistic to Grigg's thesis, and it is difficult to see whether their writings move beyond an affirmation of Zen's Taoist roots (already acknowledged by scholars) to an active support of the outright equation of Taoism to Zen.
Zen Without Buddhism? A Concluding Critique of The Tao of Zen
Grigg's most compelling argument for Zen's being original Taoism is probably summarized in his chapter on Zen Buddhism's arrival in the West.
When institutionalized Zen Buddhism came to the West, it found itself disconnected from the stabilizing traditions of the Japanese culture. As it interacted with different attitudes and values in its new environment, it began to reconstitute itself. It relaxed its formality, and changed shape and expression. [...] This did not happen dramatically but it did happen quickly. It was evolution accelerated, the consequence of similar but different traditions from the East finding themselves in close proximity to each other in an atmosphere of open and trusting exploration. The similarities between Zen and Taoism became more apparent and their differences were defined more softly.
Along with this, "...things changed because the Japanese system could not sustain itself in its new cultural context. The greatest changes took place in its formal expression: in its hierarchy, its institutional structure, and its Buddhism." Zen is moving from its formalized Mahayana Buddhist incarnation to a practice that might be described as "less structured, a lay form of practice" that still retains the essential Taoist spirit.
Nevertheless, the strongest critique of this view is, ironically, the organically (and perhaps inadvertently) Taoist critique implicitly offered by D.T. Suzuki in his acorn analogy. Zen Buddhism's "historical accretions" are not merely accretions; they are absorbed into and have become part of the essence of Zen. Robert Pirsig offers a brilliant example of how this is so in the idiosyncratic language of his book Lila, in a passage that deserves to be quoted at length:
...you would guess from the literature on Zen and its insistence on discovering "the unwritten dharma" that it would be intensely anti-ritualistic, since ritual is the "written dharma." But that isn't the case. The Zen monk's daily life is nothing but one ritual after another, hour after hour, day after day, all his life. They don't tell him to shatter those static patterns to discover the unwritten dharma. They want him to get those patterns perfect!
The explanation for this contradiction is the belief that you do not free yourself from static patterns by fighting them with other contrary static patterns. That is sometimes called "bad karma chasing its tail." You free yourself from static patterns by putting them to sleep. That is, you master them with such proficiency that they become an unconscious part of your nature. You get so used to them you completely forget them and they are gone. There in the center of the most monotonous boredom of static ritualistic patterns the Dynamic freedom is found.
This reasoning indicates an intimate fusion of Buddhist religious structure with Taoist notions of compliance, and is still readable, without contradiction, in a purely Taoist way. Grigg may be right to claim that a crucial element of Taoism is its spontaneity, but he misses the Zen paradox that, if Zen can truly be found anywhere, it can just as easily be found in ritual practice as in any other activity or phenomenon. Taoism's natural Brownian motion guarantees a bumpy ride for whatever thought system cohabits with it, and there is nothing insurmountably antithetical to Taoism in Buddhist praxis. If anything, Pirsig's passage is an example of how nameless, formless original Taoism can meld with a fellow passenger during a long journey. Along with Suzuki, it is possible for us to affirm that Taoism's addition to and fusion with Mahayana Buddhism is part of a larger, organic, natural evolutionary process.
1. Ray Grigg, The Tao of Zen (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1994), xiii.
2. Ibid., xiv.
4. Ibid., xiii.
8. Ibid., xiv.
10. Ibid., xv.
12. Ibid., xvi.
13. Ibid., xvii.
14. Ibid., 9, 109, etc.
15. Ibid., 109-110.
16. Ibid., 119.
17. Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), 9.
18. Ray Grigg, The Tao of Zen (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1994), 122.
19. Ibid., 128.
20. Ibid., 132.
22. Ibid., 167-168.
23. Ibid., 136.
24. Ibid., xvi-xvii.
26. Ibid., 173-179.
27. Karen Armstrong, A History of God (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), xxii
28. Jean-François Revel and Mathieu Ricard, Le moine et le philosophe (Paris: Editions NIL, 1997), 13.
29. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 25-26.
30. D.T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (New York: Grove Press, 1964), 31.
32. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, trans. and ed. Wing-tsit Chan (Princteon: Princeton University Press, 1969), 429.
34. Ibid., 425.
35. Alan Watts, The Spirit of Zen (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1958), 59-60.
36. Ray Grigg, The Tao of Zen (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1994), 127.
37. Ibid., 173.
38. Ibid., 174.
39. Ibid., 176.
40. Robert Pirsig, Lila (New York: Bantam Books, 1991), 440.
Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.
Chan, Wing-tsit, trans. and ed. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princteon: Princeton University Press, 1969.
Grigg, Ray. The Tao of Zen. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1994.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. Living Buddha, Living Christ. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995.
Pirsig, Robert. Lila. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
Revel, Jean-François and Mathieu Ricard. Le moine et le philosophe. Paris: Editions NIL, 1997.
Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.
Suzuki, D.T. An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. New York: Grove Press, 1964.
Watts, Alan. The Spirit of Zen. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1958.