The Essence Of Core Rinzai Zen

It has taken me some years to understand what Rinzai Zen is. In what follows, I’d like to outline the essence of what I’m calling “core Rinzai Zen.”

I. Expression of Rinzai Zen’s Essence

Consider these quotes from a Chan (Chinese Zen) master and a Buddhist philosopher:

Guishan Lingyou (Chan master, 771-853): “Inquire exhaustively into the Dharma Principle, / Take awakening as your standard.”

Masao Abe (Japanese Buddhist philosopher, 1915-2006): Zen is “direct pointing at man’s Mind.”

Rinzai Zen is a religion whose sole purpose is to be a vehicle for the practitioner who yearns to wake up to man’s essential nature. That’s it!

Guishan Lingyou pithily alludes to how.

II. Warrior Spirit, Gentle Heart

Two dispositions are often jammed together when we hear about Rinzai Zen. One I’ll call “the warrior spirit,” the other “the gentle heart.”

Rinzai Zen teachers harangue their students, urging them to take with the utmost seriousness the great matter of birth and death. Here, to underscore this point, is one Zen chant: “Life and death are of grave importance / impermanent and swift. / Wake up all of you! Do not waste your life!”

From this point of view, it is vitally important to keep rousing oneself to remember what is at stake: to awaken to Buddha nature. Thus what is roused is the warrior spirit, whose purpose is to ensure (as I’ll come to shortly) that one keeps the koan vibrantly alive and that one keeps coming to zazen (seated practice) with a sense of urgency, freshness, and, perhaps above all, resolve.

Yet Rinzai Zen is completely misunderstood if it’s thought that it is immensely effortful, if it’s presumed that one is going to “push through” to enlightenment. Not so! In fact, completely off the mark! When seated in zazen, one must, rather, give oneself over to the gentle heart and rest fully into being. So resting, one quiets seeking mind, for it is seeking mind that continually turns one away from what is already here, always already underfoot.

The warrior spirit ensures that there is resolve and enthusiasm while the gentle heart enables one, in ways that are loosely akin to yin yoga, to relax every fiber of one’s being.

III. The Practice (1): Zazen

Unlike other traditions like Advaita Vedanta, Zen, at least initially, privileges the pretzeled seated position above the other three modes (walking, standing, and lying down). Unlike more intellectual approaches, Zen believes that study and argumentation can actually exacerbate “discriminating” or “discursive” mind.

It should be said that it’s not true that there is no room for study of, say, the Diamond Sutra in Zen. But what should be emphasized is that Zen cares so deeply about seated meditation just because the latter seems to be, for those of a certain constitution, the best “laboratory” in which one can very deeply explore the true nature of reality. My experience with sitting confirms this privileging or weighting. When the body is very still and the breathing regular, the investigation can really go deep–especially when zazen is done over and over again as it is true when one is on sesshin.

IV. The Practice (2): Koan

Essentially, a koan is a question that the discriminating mind cannot answer. The koan is in a virtuous circle with the warrior spirit: the more the koan has “flavor” (as one Chan master put it), the more the warrior spirit is roused; the more the warrior spirit is roused, the more the koan takes on a greater sense of mystery, presentness, and unavoidability.

The point of the koan, which could be said to be a “hyped-up” version of self-inquiry (Ramana Maharshi), is to stop seeking mind in its tracks and thus to reveal–right here–no-self to itself. (There are other points to koan; the first point, however, is to allow one to wake up. See, again, I. above.)

The koan is usually freshest during zazen. In fact, zazen and the koan come to be experienced as one and the same.

V. Ripening (3): Guidance from a Teacher

As I understand it, until one has ripened, one may not need to seek out a teacher. By “ripening,” I mean, in the very least, that one is able to maintain a state of samadhi.

At which point, we encounter what is a rather unique feature of Rinzai Zen: the one-on-one with the teacher.

In such encounters, the teacher is not there to do anything but belie the efforts of the discriminating mind, frustrate the ego-self looking for recognition, challenge the student to see where the practice is really at, and point to the nameless absolute. One-on-ones are not for the faint of heart not because the teacher is mean or hardhearted but because he or she, out of compassion, shall not provide the student with any consolation. What the teacher cares about is to help the student realize his or her true nature. That’s it!

VI. Putting It All Together

Rinzai Zen is a direct path to awakening. It draws those who have warrior spirits and requires those to sit with gentle, feminine hearts (call this a yin/yang dynamic, if you’d like). It affirms the centrality of the “psychotechnology” called zazen, citing, as evidence, not only Gotama’s waking up beneath bodhi tree but also, and more importantly, the direct experience of each practitioner. It utilizes the koan (or, indeed, multiple koan) as a tool or device to keep raising the temperature on the practitioners. And it places great value on the direct, immediate, sometimes intense encounter between student and teacher.

To put the matter incorrectly yet perhaps not unhelpfully, Rinzai Zen makes enlightenment into an obsession, into the singular focus of one’s life.

The Limits Of A Relationship Boil Down To The Limits Of Its Participants

Integral theory suggests that the limits of any relationship boil down to the limits of the developmental capacities of its participants. (*) Below, I’ll show why, if true, this is an important insight.

In his essay, “The Miracle of ‘We,” which can be found in the collected volume Cohering the Integral We Space, Ken Wilber concludes:

The Integral level in individuals is a prerequisite for “Integral We” practices (although anybody can be invited to those practices; but realize that an “Integral” depth of the “We” will not be achieved in any group where the majority of those individuals are not themselves at Integral). (310, my bolding)

Let’s set aside “Integral We-ness” and instead unpack the basic elements contained in the above.

To begin with, Wilber is referring to the lower level quadrant in his AQAL model (“All quadrants all lines of development”). That lower left quadrant has to do with group formations and with culture; sometimes it is simply labeled “We.”

It might be asked: “What kind of ‘We’ is possible in any given situation?” The broader suggestion Wilber is making is that–to put the point roughly–participants in any dialogue will be hindered by the lowest common denominator. Said differently, if, in a group of four people, John and Jane aren’t very developed in terms, say, of their emotional capacities, then the group won’t be able to achieve a higher level of Integral We-ness with respect to emotionality. The group won’t be able to “go there” together.

This makes good intuitive sense. Take an example from meditation: it’s impossible for someone who’s been meditating very seriously for 40 years to speak about certain states of consciousness or direct realizations with someone who has only been meditating for 20 minutes daily for the past month. Thus, mutual understanding isn’t possible except if the adept meditator is willing to engage at the level at which beginning meditator is at.

From this case, one discernible principle operating in integral theory can be gleaned: the most developed person, according to Doshin of Integral Zen, has a responsibility to speak with those who are less developed, in the salient respects, in terms that make sense to the latter.

One benefit of integral theory is that it helps to reorient practitioners in their relationships with family, friends, acquaintances, and so on. Rather than being emotionally reactive because your brother “doesn’t get you,” could it be that your brother is at, say, an orange line of development while you’re at green? If this is correct, then while, on this theory, someone at green can speak orange’s language, it’s not true that someone at orange can speak green’s language.

Remind me: what’s the point again? Any relationship will be limited by the limits of the capacities of those in the relationship. Therefore, there really are certain things that family members and friends just can’t talk about. In lieu of feeling puffed-up pride upon coming to this realization, shouldn’t this understanding body forth in compassion?

* I’m grateful to my wife Alexandra for helping me see this basic point and for formulating it so clearly.

Andrew Taggart On The Jim Rutt Show: Narcissism, Culture, & Dying

I had a very enjoyable, and quite lively, conversation with Jim Rutt of the Jim Rutt Show. Here’s the link. And the description:

In this Currents episode, Jim talks to Andrew Taggart about what philosophy is & once was, the impacts of our psychotherapeutic culture, the good life & virtue, narcissism, friends of utility, changing family dynamics, GameB, close community living, what polling tells us about meaning & happiness, promoting & scaling the good life at the right times in the right ways, possible COVID-19 impacts, what it means to die well, and much more.

Are You Meletus Or Socrates?

Each of us, right now, is presented with a choice: to be Meletus or Socrates. Most of us haven’t heard about Meletus and so, to be on the safe side, we may incline toward Socrates. But that is the dangerous option, as will be seen shortly.


Meletus is one of Socrates’s accusers in Plato’s Apology, the dramatic text whose protagonist Socrates will be tried and convicted–perhaps–for corrupting the souls of the youth and for believing in other gods (or for not believing in any gods at all) or perhaps for reasons of slander or perhaps for political reasons.

In his cross examination of Meletus, Socrates is groping for a concept that, I suspect, was not yet available to Classical Athens because, I conjecture further, it hadn’t yet been invented. Among other things, Socrates charges Meletus with “dealing frivolously with serious matters,” and what we see, in the brief dialogue that ensues, is just this–and a whole lot more.

Meletus panders to the jurors, cheerleading them, saying whatever is most likely to achieve a guilty verdict. You might think: “Well, that’s just how the law court works,” and without a doubt you have a point. Yet, it can be seen, Socrates is trying to make a larger point stick.

This starts to become clearer as Socrates demonstrates that Meletus is not being consistent. In the initial charges, Meletus alleged that Socrates believed in divine beings that are different from those in Athens. In the trial, however, he states that Socrates doesn’t believe in any gods at all and thus is what, in later centuries, would come to be called an “atheist.” For one engaged earnestly in Socratic dialogue, falling into contradiction means something. It means that some premise must be false, and often it implies that the initial proposal must be discarded or revised. A contradiction has consequences, has teeth.

But not so for Meletus. He just doesn’t care. Specifically, he just doesn’t care either way. Tell the truth? Good enough. Lie? All right. Confabulate? Fine by me.

Are you starting to see Socrates’s point? Meletus is essentially a bullshit artist, and bullshitting, as Harry Frankfort sought to show in On Bullshit, is not only pervasive in modern culture; it is also pernicious. The truth gleaned from The Apology is that if you have no care whatsoever for the truth and if, to boot, you’re too thoughtless to even want to care one way or another about investigating the truth, then you can have no care for the souls of the youth. We can generalize this conclusion: then you can have no care about the souls of any human being. Worse, your carelessness and thoughtfulness, once these become grist for bullshitting, actually corrodes others’ characters.

Using the words available to him, Socrates calls Meletus “a jester,” but Meletus is much worse than that. Because a jester recognizes that he’s acting in jest and thus holds onto some point of reference called “truth” or “truths” whereas a bullshitter does not.

If you think that Meletus is just a fictional character or a historical personage, think again: Meletus is all around us. Observe on social media, in organizations, in political forums how a lack of any genuine care for the truth makes possible the power-driven theatricality–the optics of Instagram, the kudos for leaders at Google, the strict bullshit of a Trump–that Alasdair MacIntyre sought to skewer in his book After Virtue (1981). The Meletuses of the world are like acid: given enough time, they’ll eat through everything but not because all becomes strictly frivolous. No, because all becomes idolatry as the frivolous masquerades increasingly in the guise of “serious matters” or “ultimate concerns.” In the end and by such means, the ultimate becomes veiled.

Or Socrates

Much can be said, and has already been said, about the figure of Socrates, but one seminal, albeit oft-repeated, thing must be reasserted in this context. “Socrates” or “Socratic” is the name we give to anybody who relentlessly investigates her own beliefs with a view to realizing that she doesn’t know what she she thought she did. These were just presumptions or strong convictions–all the way down. She’s empty-handed. Period.

If you’re Socratic through and through, then you start to see–at first dimly but then with greater clarity–that you don’t know how to live; that you don’t have any reason to believe that others do either; that, to be utterly candid, you’re pretty much clueless and therefore–and this too is certain to you–routeless. To say that you’re confused is an understatement.

(I do not say that all of one’s life will be purely Socratic, but I do say that some periods of one’s life, if it to be wholesome and good, ought to be.)

But why call this the “dangerous option” as I did at the outset? Simply because Meletus achieves wealth, status, and power, and Socrates (had he not had a Plato and had he not died in the dramatic way he did) would likely have remained a nobody. If you care more about gain, then be Meletus, the proto-Macchiavelli. No one will be the wiser anyway. However, if you care about ultimate things, about the quality of your soul, and about the quality of others’ souls, then dare to be Socratic. Nota bene: it does come with one hell of a warning label: your life will be turned upside-down.

After Virtue 40 Years Later

I think this is the third or fourth time that I’ve read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981). What surprises me–each time–is just how good the book is. How insightful. How spot on. How prescient even in 2020.

Here’s a brief summary of the first half of the book (since I haven’t finished it yet):

  1. First, MacIntyre posits that modern culture is mired in moral incoherence owing to the loss of Aristotelian teleological virtue ethics. This moral incoherence, the result of fragments of different traditions, issues forth in interminable moral disagreements and in shrill voices yelling above the din.
  2. Next, he seeks to establish what actual social life is like in the light of this moral incoherence. In brief, the loss of a shared conception of the good entails the preeminence of power. Our time is theatrical, performative, rhetorical, mask-like.
  3. At this point in time, we are faced with a choice: either the Nietzschean will to power baldly endorsed or the reconstitution of Aristotelian teleological virtue ethics for our time.

In the second half of the book, he will make his case for the latter.