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.

‘Inclining the ear of the heart…’

‘Listen carefully, my son, to the teachings of a master and incline the ear of your heart.’ So begins the Prologue of St. Benedict’s Rule.

How carefully must one listen to incline the ear of the heart. To what? To the teachings. Of whom? Of the master whose words come from elsewhere, the teachings he imparts. But why him? What makes him a master? Why these teachings? Too soon, young man: first there is submission, the humbling to the humble one, the bowing of the tongue, the inclining of the ear. After, there is questioning yet not with the lavishing tongue but with the speaking ear.

(Doubting too early is a child dragging his heels. Do not be a child. In the beginning is ‘obtuse devotion’ (Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery.))

‘Listen carefully to the teachings of the master and incline the ear of your heart.’ I listen and incline. ‘Become listening and inclining.’ Listening and inclining, the heart becoming ear.

Learning from Zen: Withdrawing from a way of thinking

‘Brushing off thoughts which arise is like washing off blood with blood. We remain impure because of being washed in blood….’

–Bankei, Diaho Shogen Kokushi Hogo, quoted in Alan Watts, The Way of Zen

‘The new DSM would have everything right were it to forget such words as ‘diagnose’ and ‘treat’.’

–Zen Master

One learns from a certain practice of Zen that one must confront one’s way of thinking in general. And then, after the despair that comes from actively, persistently seeking to overcome this way of thinking, one acknowledges that the only way out is to withdraw. So that once one perceives that one has grown up in Shame Culture, one would acknowledge all the ways in which one has collided with and sought to overcome this way of thinking, only to be numbed by the impossibility of doing so of one’s own accord. After one is exhausted and completely relaxed, one might, in the form of a blessing, receive a new way of thinking. It would be as if Shame and its framework–secrecy, powerlessness, holding back, estrangement, solitariness, shame-releasing ritual, etc.–were to vanish for good. So that–to take another example–if one were to grow up with a set of diagnoses from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the newly published volume is DSM-5, out on May 22) one would finally let oneself withdraw from the categories of ‘mental illness,’ ‘diagnose,’ and ‘treat.’ The withdrawal, the unnaming, the forgetfulness would, after all these years, occasion a day-long belly laugh. And the subsequent belly ache would be well worth it.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, Chapter 2. ‘Confusion,’ The Art of Inquiry

A scholar was visiting an old monk…

A scholar was visiting an old monk. The monk filled the scholar’s teacup full, but kept on pouring. The scholar finally exclaimed, “It is full. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” said the monk, “you are overfull with your own opinions. I cannot show you the way of Zen.”

Compiled by Marc de Smedt. The Wisdom of Zen, New York: Abbeville Press, 1994.