Mysticism in Chan Buddhism – Kant, Synthetic Logic and William James

Mysticism in Chan Buddhism – Kant, Synthetic Logic and William James

This paper is about Chan Buddhism and mysticism. I would like to study a koan called “Juzhi Raises a Finger” in order to understand the mysticism in Chan Buddhism. Firstly, I would talk about Kant’s concept – Thing in itself and Chan Buddhism, then discuss the similarity of their understanding on “reality”. Secondly, I would talk about synthetic logic and mysticism in Chan Buddhism. At the end of this paper, I would discuss William James theory on this koan.

First of all, I would like to introduce Chan Buddhism briefly so that we can have a basic understanding on it. Chan Buddhism is one of the schools in Buddhism. It began in China. In Chinese word, we call it ‘Chan’. In Japanese word is ‘Zen’. It is important for us to know what the difference between traditional Buddhism and Chan Buddhism is. Bodhidharma was the founder of Chan Buddhism and brought Buddhism from India to China in the early 5th century. We can see what the Bodhidharma said to comprehend the characteristics of Chan Buddhism.

“A special transmission outside the scriptures; No dependence upon words and letters; Direct pointing to the human mind; Seeing into one's own nature and attaining Buddhahood.”

This shows that Chan Buddhism is not focus on the format of religious rituals, worship Buddha image, and read the classic scriptures. The traditional Buddhism may tell you go to read and recite the scriptures; Chan Buddhism would ask you to forget it. More importantly, Chan is not dependence on words and letters and the human mind is the key to be the Buddha.

Now, I would analyze a koan for us to look into Chan Buddhism and study the mysticism in this religion. What is koan? A koan is a story or dialogue, generally related to Zen or other Buddhist history. Why we are going to study Chan’s mysticism by looking at the koan?

“Koan and Mondo are the bridge which help one to cross to the “other shore of enlightenment”. This is an instrument, as we have seen, used mainly by the Rinzai master to break blockade of conceptual thought.” “Satori is a wonderfully rubbery concept. There are small satoris and big satoris. They occur when one solves a koan, or in meditation.”

From the views of Chan Buddhist scholars, we can know that koan help people to break the ordinary thinking. Besides, koan is an instrument for people to reach enlightenment. In this paper, the basic assumption is that the experience of enlightenment in Chan Buddhism is mystical. I would explain it later in this paper. Now, let’s see the koan “Juzhi Raises a Finger”:

“Whenever Ven. Juzhi was asked about Chan, he simply raised his finger. Once a visitor asked Juzhi's boy attendant, "What does your master teach?" The boy too raised his finger. Hearing of this, Juzhi cut off the boy's finger with a knife. The boy, screaming with pain, began to run away. Juzhi called to him, and when he turned around, Juzhi raised his finger. The boy suddenly became enlightened. When Juzhi was about to pass away, he said to his assembled monks, "I obtained one-finger Chan from Tianlong and used it all my life but still did not exhaust it." When he had finished saying this, he entered into eternal Nirvana. (倶胝和尚、凡有詰問、唯擧一指。後有童子。因外人問、和尚説何法要。童子亦堅指頭。胝聞遂以刃斷其指。童子、負痛號哭而去。胝復召之。童子廻首。 胝却堅起指。童子忽然領悟。胝將順世、謂衆曰、吾得天龍一指頭禪、一生受用不盡。言訖示滅。)”

I. Kant (Thing in itself) and Chan Buddhism

The first argument is that what the Kant thinks is very similar to what the Chan Buddhism think. Using Kant’s theory to interpret the enlightenment in Chan Buddhism can be workable. First of all, let’s talk about the “Thing in itself”. What’s the meaning of this concept?

“The substantial is the thing in itself and unknown.” “This object as appearance is to be distinguished from itself as object in itself.” “We have no insight whatsoever into the intrinsic nature of things.”
“Whatever is outside the boundary, Kant called “transcendent”: since we can never have any experience of such things, called “noumena”, they can never be known by human reason. But whatever is inside the boundary line defines the things open to discovery by ordinary, “empirical reflection”. Kant called such empirically knowable object “phenomena”.”

From Kant’s view, we have no insight and cannot know the thing in the essence. It is because what we know is already through our human mind, but not the thing in itself. The subject to think the object is not the original object. What we know is just the appearance, but not the reality. In this sense, what appears to be true is different from what is true in reality. We never know anything on thing in itself because an actual object and its properties independent of any observer.

The above would be a good example to illustrate the relationship between subject and object. The earth is subject and the sun is object. When we looking at the sun, we would think the sun is revolving around the earth. However, this is not true. Why we would think the sun is moving, but not the earth is moving? The answer is we are living in the earth. This is the subject’s perspective. It tells us the subject to think the object can be wrong and far from the reality. Therefore, Kant said that “We have no insight whatsoever into the intrinsic nature of things” .

Now, let’s look into the Chan Buddhism. How can the Chan masters have the experience of enlightenment?

“To study Buddhism is to study oneself. To study oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is to realize oneself as all things (in the world). To realize oneself as all things is to strip off bath one’s own mind and body and the mind and body of others.”

“If you are attached to perception, then this is a perception - it is not the arriving at the Truth. Those who arrive the Truth transcend perception, but they manage to use perception without dwelling in perception.”

Enlightenment is awake of consciousness. It would happen only if you look into things in intuitive way. Chan Buddhism believes we should not use our ego to perceive things. Using ego would lead you to the false conclusion and not the Truth. Chan Buddhism is actually arguing that we should only use intuition to see the object, put down your mindset and you can experience the enlightenment. If you can cut off outward clinging to objects and inwardly forget your false ideas of self, things themselves are the true self.

In this sense, Kant’s philosophy and Chan Buddhism also think that human mind (subject) would lead you to appearance, but not the reality. And only if you can directly percept an object without ego, you can know the truth (reality). Kant and Chan both emphasize the subjectivity of human would lead you to false ideas. One of my arguments is that Chan Buddhism provides some practical methods and train people to forget self.

The following would discuss Kant and Chan’s mysticism. Would Kant accept the Chan Buddhism? It seems that Kant is going to destroy metaphysics and religion by saying that we know nothing about transcendence. Actually, he is going to reform it by linking to the moral practice. Let’s see what the Kantian said:

“Kant warns, for example, that fanaticism ultimately leads us to ‘the moral death of reason’ [Kt8:175(163)], and so also to the end of all philosophy.” “The important thing is not to prolong life beyond its natural end, but to insure that life’s purpose is fulfilled.”

We can presume that Kant is opposed to fanaticism mysticism because it leads to “the moral death of reason”. According to Kant , some Chinese mysticism is a sort of pantheism and it may lead you to nihilism. Kant would think that is immoral. However, he was not going to oppose all kinds of mysticism. The key point would be – does the mystical experience give us the moral insight? Is Chan Buddhism a moral one? I think Kant would not reject Chan, since Chan lead people to do moral thing. The aim of enlightenment is to see into one's original nature. Zenists must cultivate their moral character and discipline their mind so as to attain enlightenment.

“Zen is not nihilistic, though it treats all the Buddhist teaching and sutras as a crutch only. Nihilism according to Zen is self destructive.” “Zen believes in the Mahayana doctrine of causation (karma). It believes that what you sow you reap; it believes in action and reaction.”

According to the Buddhist scholar, Chan Buddhists believe in karma. The belief of Karma is that good actions produce karma which brings good effect. In this sense, Chan Buddhists would do moral thing. Therefore, I think Chan Buddhism is not fanaticism mysticism and Kant would accept Chan.

II. Synthetic Logic and Mysticism

The second part of this paper would talk about synthetic logic. Synthetic logic is the key to attain enlightenment in Chan Buddhism. In “The Tree of Philosophy” this book, it mentioned two logics. One is Analytic logic and another one is synthetic logic.

From the above picture, we can know that analytic logic is something identity and noncontradiction. Synthetic logic is something nonidentity and contradiction. Let’s take an example. In analytic logic, we say the color which black is black; in synthetic logic, we would say black is not black.

The problem is that how contradiction and nonidentity could be the foundation to build up a meaningful proposition. However, “The tree of philosophy” explains to us that synthetic logic is meaningful and especially useful for looking at mysticism. “Whereas analytic logic offers us the clarity of eyesight (i.e., thorough knowledge), synthetic logic offers us the clarity of insight (i.e., depth of understanding).”

Analytic logic is a tool to describe things within the transcendental boundary, and you can gain knowledge from these kinds of logic. The knowledge within the boundary is provable and sayable. Yet, if you use analytic logic to describe things outside the boundary which are unprovable and unsayable, it may mislead you into a false conclusion.

“This suggests that the purpose of speaking in an intentionally unclear (or paradoxical) way is to point our hearts and minds beyond the realm of ordinary distinctions, where analytic logic suffices, to a deeper and far more important realm – to a reality that cannot be spoken about clearly and truthfully at the same time.”

Let’s see what the Chan Buddhist scholar said:

“The purpose of koan is to produce a cul-de-sac in the seekers mind and to close every way until there is no exit, so that the meaning of koan is extracted to burst the dam of intellect or tension which has been created in the mind and see the release of self as a free self because egoself is dead.”

The key point here is synthetic logic can break out the “black and white” way of thinking and lead us to a deeper level. In a certain degree, the language is a barrier to think as language is arbitrary. Language is trying to represent something. However, the meaning is constructed by us. If there is no human, then there is no language. What I am talking about is language cannot indicate things which indescribable. We should not fall into language trap.

After we knew the limitation of language and analytic logic, I would talk about this koan. I believe many of us don’t know how come the Chan master raises one finger when someone asked him about Chan. It is because we are using analytic logic (A=A, Finger=Finger) to look into what the Chan master did.

Whenever the Chan master was asked about Chan by someone, he just raised his finger. There is no doubt that the finger is the answer of Chan. And when Chan master asked the boy about Chan and the boy’s also raised his finger. The key point is how come the Chan master cut off his finger while the boy got the right answer? If the answer is not the finger? So how come the Chan master use his finger to answer other people?

Firstly, the point is that not to imitate without knowing. The boy just followed what the Juzhi did and doesn’t know why his master raised the finger. However, if you think Juzhi cut off the boy’s finger is warning him not to do that, then it would be a wrong interpretation of this koan. The main point is not depending on the finger. Indeed, the Chan master is using synthetic logic to teach the boy. Cutting off his finger is to encourage the boy to break out the ordinary thinking. Since, the boy use analytic logic to think Chan, he inevitably have gone to the wrong direction.

If the Chan master accept the boy’s answer  Analytic logic
If the Chan master deny the boy’s answer  Synthetic logic

Analytic logic: Chan = Finger
Synthetic logic: Chan≠Finger
One of the key point I want to make in this paper is Juzhi used the synthetic logic to guide the boy to attain enlightenment. This koan proves the synthetic logic can guide people to accomplish mystical experience.

III. William James and the koan - Juzhi Raises a Finger

William James is a famous philosopher. He suggested four characteristics of mystical experience in his book which called “The Varieties of Religious Experience”. The four marks are, respectively, Ineffability, Noetic quality, Transiency and Passivity. After we look into his William James description, I would like to use his theory to analyze “Juzhi Raises a Finger”.

“The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect.”

When people ask about Chan, Juzhi just raised one finger. It is because Chan cannot express in words. That’s why Juzhi did not explain it in any language. Besides, its quality must be directly experienced through synthetic logic. In the koan, the boy doesn’t know what Chan is and doesn’t attain the enlightenment before his finger cut by his master. After he directly experienced and not just imitate the action of his master, he got the enlightenment. Based on Chan cannot be given in words and cannot be transferred to others, ineffability is match to Chan.

Noetic quality:
“They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of signification and important, all inarticulate though they remain.”

At the end of this koan, Juzhi talked about his experience. When he was about to die, he told the monks that he obtained one-finger Chan and he used all his life but still didn’t exhaust it. Chan lead Juzhi insight deeply. Before the enlightenment, he felt lost in his life. After Master Tianlong guided him to attain enlightenment, Juzhi became a famous Zen master. There is a noetic quality in the experience of Juzhi’s enlightenment
“Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two…their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory.”

The enlightenment of the boy came in a flash. The moment is very short and even within few seconds. Juzhi cut off the boy’s finger and called to him, and at that very instant, Juzhi raised his finger again and the boy got enlightenment. Based on the mystical state of enlightenment is in a flash, its match to what the William James point out.

“Yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”

Chan Buddhism is no like the Christianity which believe in Father, Jesus and Holy Spirit. Zenists do not believe in a personal God and creator. Therefore, it is very difficult to say there is a superior power to lead the Zenists. In “Juzhi Raises a Finger”, Juzhi cut off the boy’s finger. I don’t think Juzhi is the superior power.

On top of that, was the boy own will were in abeyance? Chan Buddhism think one has the experience of enlightenment is to see into one’s nature. The enlightenment is actually the experience of know yourself truly. Here, the boy old understanding of himself were in abeyance. I think Passivity is not totally match to Chan and worthy for us to think.

To conclude William James four marks, his thought in mystical experience is match to Chan’s enlightenment. James think Ineffability and Noetic quality are more important. In this koan, these two characteristics are totally matched. Therefore, we can claim Chan’s enlightenment is a mystical experience.

IV. Reflection

The most interesting thing to me is that Chan treats all the scriptures and intellectual learning as useless. Even one of the Chan Buddhist practice is to say foul language to the Buddha. Just like Juzhi cut off the boy’s finger and the boy got enlightened, we would think it is amazing and incredible. It seems that everything is illogical. Yet, it is logical on the transcendent level. Moreover, this koan told us that the act of copying is fundamentally wrong and fall into doctrine. That is really a big reminder.


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