Excitement and Anti-intellectualism in Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen

I cannot imagine a more bracing, dramatic, stern, and triumphant account of Zen practice than Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen. The very atmosphere of Zen is “lit up,” the mood is intense and alive and awesome, the figures very human while being supremely committed. I can see why the book, published in 1963, has had a magnetic effect on the practice and popularity of Zen in the West, and I can feel how it seduces me.

On each page, zazen, sesshin, kensho all seem very exciting and full of energy, and the roshis, even in their ordinariness, are these dramatic figures singularly devoted to helping their pupils “get kensho.” Notwithstanding the cold, the sparse food, the vigorous daily schedules, the powerful monks, the monasteries Kapleau describes just seem to crackle with the utmost height of life. The whole book is saturated, just saturated by the feel of those who have finally, ultimately, truly found and lived what they are looking for. I am astonished and touched by the beauty, the care, and the attention Kapleau put into the design.

I note, however, a particular deficit of spirit, a certain miserly prejudice when it comes to what Zen practitioners call “philosophy” and “speculation.” Over and over again, roshis, Kapleau, and pupils denigrate philosophy as only (they would say) reinforcing dualistic thinking: making distinctions between self and Buddha-nature, creating and applying concepts, asking speculative questions that cannot be answered, generally getting wrapped up in one’s own thinking.

This prejudice against philosophy, marring the book, is too bad first because it mistakes the essence of philosophy as logic-chopping, as the adoption and analysis of concepts; second because it fetishizes the peasant whose mind is without such cogitating and therefore is more primed for sartori (is this not already a political assumption about the peasant and leisurely classes?); and third–and this on a deeper political level–because our minds need to make distinctions and often fine-grained discriminations at that in order for us to deliberate in the hope of acting well in political situations that would otherwise confound us. The charge against Zen is that, under certain political conditions, it could let us lean in the direction of fascism: toward acting spontaneously without the requisite, nuanced political considerations, toward what Hannah Arendt might call “thoughtlessness.”

I do not doubt that more subtle Zen apologists will find room for a reply to my quibble, but that does not change the way that Zen has been received in the West and Kapleau has helped to perpetuate this misconception. Zen’s appeal in the West is owing, in large measure, to the death of God, the focus on practice, the pragmatic tendency in the American mind, the anti-intellectualism, and the enigmatic phrasings–and the bias against good, hard thinking is only exacerbated by the cult of the “spontaneous act.”

In my own letters and thoughts, I confess that I am becoming more acquainted than I had ever been before with the limits of the intellect in general and of my intellectualism in particular. I am humbled by this realization. Still, traditions that make room for faith alongside the limited, legitimate powers of the intellect are those that stand still to receive my allegiance. Lumping the intellect in with the “delusional mind,” as happens in The Three Pillars of Zen, is a dangerous move. Believing that philosophy is opposed to practice is another. Anti-intellectualism is as scary a position to hold on the Right as it is on the Left.