Academic journal article Asian Culture and History

The Poetic Transmission of Zen Buddhism

Academic journal article Asian Culture and History

The Poetic Transmission of Zen Buddhism

Article excerpt


This paper intends to understand the experience of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism from a perspective of poetics. Enlightenment is understood as an existential breakthrough, which delivers people from the habitual or conventional mind set into new horizon of consciousness. This breakthrough takes place in one's overall consciousness rather than only in cognitive thought. Therefore, it cannot be adequately described on an abstract level with a conceptual paradigm. The poetic language provides a significant alternative for capturing this leap and revealing the spiritual meaning and the practical wisdom of enlightenment. Enlightenment, as concrete experiences in the "flux" of the mind, can be most directly expressed and effectively transmitted in poetic language.

Keywords: philosophy, Asian religions, Buddhism, Zen, language, poetry, Chinese poetics, enlightenment, higher consciousness

The link between spirituality and poetry has long been known by all religious traditions, from the Vedic to the Psalms, while the relationship between poetry and philosophy has since the ancient Greeks fascinated both philosophers and poets. We will see in the case of Zen Buddhism, poetry is intrinsic to the spiritual practice, both as the expression of and as the path to enlightenment which will be seen as poetic leaps into higher consciousness.

1. The Meaning of Enlightenment and the Poetic Language

We will start our discussion by analyzing the meaning of enlightenment from Zen's perspective and see how it can be better captured in poetic language rather than conventional language. One essential aspect of enlightenment is emancipation, as Suzuki writes:

Zen is discipline in enlightenment. Enlightenment means emancipation. And emancipation is no less than freedom. We talk very much these days about all kinds of freedom, political, economic, and otherwise, but these freedoms are not at all real. As long as they are on the plane of relativity, the freedoms or liberties we glibly talk about are far from being such. The real freedom is the outcome of enlightenment (Suzuki, 1973).

One question is from what is one emancipated? Suzuki indicates that liberation from relative things is not profound or authentic enough to constitute enlightenment. According to Suzuki, the real freedom in enlightenment is "free from all forms, inner and outer" (Suzuki, 1962). Suzuki thinks that those linguistic and cultural forms artificially condition the mind, and the path to enlightenment is by ridding the mind of the social filter of language, and achieves "liberation from linguistic and cultural conditioning" (Wright, 1992). However, based on an earlier discussion, this enterprise is rendered impossible from the prevalent standpoint of modern philosophy, which considers language indispensable in any kind of experience.

Suzuki sees the tension between Zen and language and realizes that the key to enlightenment lies in the resolution of the tension, although his criticism of language does not really accomplish this. Various philosophical and spiritual thinkers, such as Heidegger and the Daoist founders, have discussed the critical role of language and discovered that language is the double-edged sword that discloses and conceals, liberates and entraps. It both leads the way in peoples' searches for meaning and meanwhile leaves traces to mislead and traps for people to fall. From Zen's perspective, enlightenment is the act of disclosing and speaking, which breaks free from what has been disclosed and spoken. Enlightenment is not the emancipation from language, but the emancipation from what has been spoken. It is the breakthrough or the leap toward a new horizon beyond what has been disclosed. The act of disclosing and speaking is always against the backdrop of the established. From this perspective, language is the gate to enlightenment, although the door in the gate seems to be closed until one breaks it open, therefore, Zen calls it the gate-less gate. …

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