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#1736 Sunday, March 14, 2004 - Editor: Gloria Lee

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  "If we study Japanese Art, we see a man who is undoubtedly wise, philosophic and intelligent, who spends his time doing what? In studying the distance between the earth and moon? No. In studying Bismark's policy? No. He studies a single blade of grass."    -

- Vincent Van Gogh

From the writings of D.T. Suzuki

The answers given by Zen masters to the question "Who or what is
the Buddhas?" are full of varieties; and why so? One reason at
least is that they thus desire to free our minds from all
possible entanglements and attachment such as words, ideas,
desires, etc., which are put up against us from the outside. Some
of the answers are, then, as follows:

    "One made of clay and decorated with gold".
    "Even the finest artist cannot paint him".
    "The one enshrined in the Buddha Hall".
    "He is no Buddha".
    "Your name is Yecho".
    "The dirt-scraper all dried up".
    "See the eastern mountains moving over the waves".
    "No nonsense here".
    "Surrounded by the mountains are we here".
    "The bamboo grove at the foot of Chiang-lin hill".
    "Three pounds of flax".
    "The mouth is the gate of woe".
    "Lo, the waves are rolling over the plateau".
    "See the three-legged donkey go trotting along".
    "A reed has grown piercing through the leg".
    "Here goes a man with the chest exposed
        and the legs all naked".

These are culled at random from a few books I am using for the
purpose. When a thorough systematic search is made in the entire
body of Zen literature we get quite a collection of strange
statements ever made concerning such a simple question as, "Who
is the Buddha?" Some of the answers given above are altogether
irrelevant; they are, indeed, far from being appropriate so far
as we judge them from our ordinary standard of reasoning. The
other seem to be making sport of the question or of the
questioner himself. Can the Zen masters who make such remarks be
considered to be in earnest and really desiring the Enlightenment
of their followers? But the point is to have our minds work in
complete union with the state of mind in which the masters
uttered these strange words. When this is done, every one of
these answers appears in an altogether new light and becomes
wonderfully transparent.

Being practical and directly to the point, Zen never wastes time
or words in explanation. Its answers are always curt and pithy;
there is nothing circumlocutory in Zen; the master's words come
out spontaneously and without a moment's delay. A gong is struck
and its vibrations instantly follow. If we are not on the alert
we fail to catch them; a mere winking and we miss the mark
forever. They justly compare Zen to lightning. The rapidity,
however, does not constitute Zen; its naturalness, its freedom
from artificialities, its being expressive of life itself, its
originality -- these are the essential characteristics of Zen.
Therefore, we have always to be on guard not to be carried away
by outward signs when we really desire to get into the core of
Zen. How difficult and misleading it would be to try and
understand Zen literally and logically, depending on those
statements which have been given above as answers to the question
"What is Buddha?"


A monk asked Daiju:

Q. Are words the Mind?

A. No, words are external conditions; they are not the Mind.

Q. Apart from external conditions, where is the Mind to be

A. There is no Mind independent of words. [That is to say, the
Mind is in the words, but is not to be identified with them.]

Q. If there is no Mind independent of words, what is the Mind?

A. The Mind is formless and imageless. The truth is, it is
neither independent of nor dependent upon words. It is eternally
serene and free in its activity. Says the Patriarch, 'When you
realize that the Mind is no Mind, you understand the Mind amid its

Daiju further writes: "That which produces all things is called
Dharma-nature, or Dharmakaya. By the so-called Dharma in meant
the Mind of all beings. When the Mind is stirred up, all things
are stirred up. When the Mind is not stirred up, there is no
stirring and there is no name. The confused do not understand
that the Dharmakaya, in itself formless, assumes individual forms
according to conditions. The confused take the green bamboo for
Dharmakaya itself, the yellow blooming tree for Prajna itself.
But if the tree were Prajna, Prajna would be identical with
non-sentient. If the bamboo were Dharmakaya, Dharmakaya would be
identical with a plant. But Dharmakaya exists, Prajna exists,
even when there is no blooming tree, no green bamboo. Otherwise,
when one eats a bamboo-shoot, this would be eating up Dharmakaya
itself. Such views as this are really not worth talking about".

If Zen is to be called a form of mysticism, then it is so with a
rigorous discipline at the back of it. It is in that sense, and
not as it is understood by libertines, that Zen may be designated
naturalism. The libertines have no freedom of will, they are
bound hands and feet by external agencies before which they are
utterly helpless. Zen, on the contrary, enjoys perfect freedom;
that is, it is master of itself. Zen has no "abiding place", to
use a favourite expression in the "Prajnaparamita Sutra". When a
thing has its fixed abode, it is fettered, it is no more
absolute. The following dialogue will very clearly explain this

A monk asked, "Where is the abiding place for the mind?"

"The mind", answered the master, "abides where there is no

"What is meant by 'there is no abiding'?"

"When the mind is not abiding in any particular object, we say
that it abides where there is no abiding".

"What is meant by not abiding in any particular object?"

"It means not to be abiding in the dualism of good and evil,
being and non-being, thought and matter; it means not to be
abiding in emptiness or in non-emptiness, neither in tranquillity
nor in non-tranquillity. Where there is no abiding place, there
is truly the abiding place for the mind".

  In Zen Buddhism D.T. Suzuki describes the relationship between the brush and the act of painting as follows: "Sumi-e artists chose these materials so as to transfer the line onto the paper as rapidly as the brush allowed with no deliberation, no erasing, no repetition, no 'doctoring', no building up. The artist must follow his inspiration as spontaneously and absolutely and instantly as it moves he just lets his arm, his fingers, his brush be guided by it as if they were all mere instruments, together with his whole being, in the hands of somebody else who has temporarily taken possession of him. - We may say that the brush itself executes the work quite outside the artist; who just lets it move on without his conscious efforts. If any logic or reflection comes between brush and paper, the whole effect is spoiled. In the way sumi-e is produced."(5)    

  bamboo image:  

       view images:  

Ying Yu-chien’s
“A Mountain Village in Clearing Mist”
This "spilled-ink" painting (1), is done in the free-spontaneous style of the Ch'an (2) monks of the 11th-century China (southern Sung), which later developed into the Sumiye painting of Japan.

Here the philosophy of sudden enlightenment is pictorialized. Just as the sage might see the truth in a flash, so the artist, seized by inspiration, could paint his picture in a matter of minutes. What counted was not hours of laboriously worked-out detail but brief moments of highly concentrated activity. Nothing could be changed once the brush strokes had been put down. The empty spaces were considered as significant as the painted areas — what was left out was as important as what was left in, leaving the viewer to supply the missing detail. The essence of Zen is shown in the swift abstract brush strokes, almost like calligraphy.

The poem, an integral part of the painting, translates:

  "Rain clings like a robe to the foot of the clouds, hiding Ch'ang-sha

A rainbow arches over the evening mist.

How beautiful are the meadows lying between the hamlet and the bridge.

The flag on the inn hangs slackly down and the traveler thinks of home." (3)

~ ~ ~  

But how can such things be made in words or visual shapes? In poetry, perhaps, when it is no longer descriptive but retains an echo of the thing behind the words; in painting which is not imitative but a spontaneous expression for the creative vision. In order to be true and alive these things must be done on the spur of the moment, before the light has faded or the 'spirit-resonance' has died away. It is evident that no kind of painting could be better fitted for such expressions that the Indian inkwork which by its very nature requires the greatest spontaneity in the handling of the means of expression. It must be done quickly and irretrievably, as the paper soaks up the ink; every stroke of the brush must be definite, no subsequent corrections or alterations are possible. As is well-known, this required the most careful and assiduous training, psychological as well as technical, because the brush-strokes became reflections from the mind transmitted by the skill of the hand. Indian ink-painting in its purest form became thus a kind of Ch'an practice, an example of what the 'direct method' of Ch'an meant when applied to art.


Excerpt from Suzuki's biography

After his retirement from Columbia in June 1957 and the subsequent summer in Cuernavaca, Suzuki traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lectured and helped found the Cambridge Buddhist Society. Until his death in Tokyo at age ninety-five, Suzuki continued to travel widely, lecturing, attending conferences, and receiving a variety of honors.

In addition to playing a key role in the popularization of Buddhism in the Western world, Suzuki, who never formally graduated from any of the schools he attended, also made significant contributions to Buddhist scholarship, particularly to modern understanding of the Gandavyha and Lankvatra sutras. In addition, his work resulted in a reawakening of interest in Buddhism in Japan after a period during which the study of Shinto had dominated Japanese religious scholarship.

Suzuki's collected complete works in Japanese occupy thirty-two volumes. The more than thirty titles he published in English include An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (first published in 1934) and Zen and Japanese Culture (1959).

Suzuki's last words were "Don't worry. Thank you! Thank you!"

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Nonduality: The Varieties of Expression Home

Jerry Katz
photography & writings

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