Personal reflections on "The Three Pillars of Zen"

Why am I reading "The Three Pillars of Zen" by Philip Kapleau? In a sense I have read it all before and even practised some of it ("Meditations from the Tantras", Ken Wilber, Kriya Yoga, mantra meditation). There is nothing essential that is new to me in this book. Nor do I have a reason to believe that Zen is superior to Taoism, Sufism, yoga or other forms of Buddhism. Above all, I know that I am not going to devote five to ten years of determined meditation towards achieving enlightenment, seeing I lack belief in its achievability.

I don't know whether enlightenment is (a) possible, (b) the goal of human life, or (c) possible for me. Even if I were convinced that all three assumptions were true, I still probably would not devote myself to Zen practice, just as Jurek would not build a bomb shelter for himself even if he were sure of nuclear war. Mysticism is not my path.

Besides this, I have earnestly meditated twice a day every day for more than four months in 1985. I was not aware of any particular beneficial results, nor did I come to like meditation. It was a chore like washing teeth. I have no reason to believe that zazen (Zen meditation) is better or different in any real sense to the various kinds of meditation I have practised.

So why am I reading? I already know what my conclusion will be on finishing the book: interesting, but not for me. I guess that like Sue Brown, I never quite give up my flirtation with the search for meaning. The sceptic in me says 'no', the seeker says "maybe... keep looking". I think that in the end the sceptic will win out.

I'm reading this book because it will give me more knowledge and possibly more understanding of the mystical path. From the Zen point of view this is worthless, like reading about bathing instead of doing it. I will know more about a path not taken.

Essentially, Zen views normal life as a dream and holds that the deepest human purpose is to wake up, to free oneself from maya (delusion). This includes freeing oneself from thought, or is identical with it. They may be right that all that we take for reality is illusion or is not 'really' real. Yet I am unwilling to give it (reality) up. It reminds me of the yogic injunction to give up sex because in time "better things will come". Perhaps so, but I lack the belief required.

One thing that did surprise me was roshi (master) Yasutani's insistence that belief is an essential prerequisite for achieving satori. I had thought that Zen did not require belief. I was under the impression that Zen is supremely pragmatic and against all forms of theorising. Perhaps other Zen masters would dispute his claim.

The word Yasutani actually used was not 'belief' but 'faith'. Apart from faith being stronger, I don't know of any difference between the two. If faith is 'unshakable belief', as one of my dictionaries defines it, then I have grave doubts about faith. How can a leap into the unknown (which is the nature of all belief) be 'unshakable'. It can only be so if one has a credulous nature or a dogmatic cast of mind. Surely neither of these are to be admired or emulated.

Undoubtedly, I do hold beliefs that are so deeply embedded in my consciousness that, unless I strive to articulate them, I am not even aware that they frame my view of reality. I mean beliefs such as that I have a body, that there is a world out there, independent of my mind, that this room I am sitting in will still be here a moment later. Zen would deny the truth of at least some of these basic beliefs. They seek to replace them by other beliefs: that there is no separation, no observer and no observed. The fundamental belief they seek to extirpate is the separate self sense.

Perhaps belief is necessary in order to provide the motivation needed to devote oneself to meditation, to seek despite pain and frustration, for ten years, if need be.

I also have serious doubts of another kind. Zen is supposed to eliminate the ego, but from what I can tell it seems a good vehicle for the ego-aggrandisement of Zen masters. As well as this, I have grave doubts that human nature can be radically improved by passive sitting, isolated from human interaction.

Zen strikes me as being a form of brainwashing. The aspirant is put through many physical and mental trials, and their behaviour is rigidly controlled. It all happens in a closed environment of radical religiosity.

Another doubt I have always had about the claims of mystics is that they go to great lengths extolling the wonders of enlightenment, yet seem unable to produce someone who has achieved it. If an enlightened man is the greatest of all wonders then surely this should be apparent to those who meet him. Instead, we find that there are gurus and disciples. Though the former have great appeal to the latter, they seem to leave the rest of us unmoved. In fairness, I have not met anyone claiming to be enlightened.

Yasutani stated that satori is not self-validating. If it isn't then how can this supremely subjective experience be authenticated from outside? For that matter, who was there to authenticate the Buddha's original satori?

In fact the book goes on at some length about pseudo-enlightenment.

If satori is something real, ie if one experiences a real state of unity with all things, then why can't a person in satori share the subjective experience of another, ie get into their mind? At the least, two people in satori should be able to read each other's thoughts. Otherwise, I am tempted to think that satori is just a feeling, like Freud's 'oceanic feeling', only stronger. If, as the roshis claim, it is not a feeling but a direct experience of reality, then surely it must give new knowledge. A person experiencing unity with the entire universe would know how a frog or a stone feels.

As for solving koans (nonsensical puzzles) such as Mu, it seems that one is deemed to have solved a koan provided one confidently babbles random nonsense or else pronounces, "This is Mu," pointing to one's elbow.

I found it disheartening that reaching satori is only the first step, the beginning, not the end of the spiritual quest. One needs to sit in zazen for another ten years. There are small, medium and big enlightenments, and it looks like there is no end to it. Seeking ultimate enlightenment is a deficit need if ever there was one.

Even Zen masters seem to experience enlightenment only occasionally. I guess they would be unable to function on the human level if they were permanently in a state of inner bliss.

Yet this book did make an impression on me. It is a thoroughgoing attempt to present Zen theory and practice - including enlightenment - to the modern Western reader. Parts of it are moving. There is much to think about and the claims of the roshis are not easily dismissed. Certainly this book deserves the status of a classic.

Here is what I found noteworthy in the book. All unacknowledged quotes are by Kapleau.

I have resisted the temptation to analyze or interpret the masters' teachings. This would only have encouraged the reader to reinterpret my interpretations, and willy-nilly he would find himself sucked into the quicksands of speculation and ego-aggradizement, from which one day, if he would seriously practice Zen, he would painfully have to extricate himself. For precisely this reason 'idea-mongering' has always been discouraged by the Zen masters.

True, I am a frequent offender in this respect. Thinking about enlightenment may well be even more detrimental to achieving it than other kinds of thought. Be that as it may, this entire document is nothing but my selection and reinterpretation of the material in the book. If anyone reads this (are you still awake, Sue?) they will interpret it for themselves. No wonder enlightenment is so hard to come by, when we are so hooked on all these middlemen (internal and external).


You have told me that when a person becomes enlightened and perceives that he is the whole universe, he ceases grasping for things. Well, I have lived with people who have had an enlightenment experience, yet instead of becoming less grasping and selfish and egotistical they sometimes become more so...

Yasutani's reply:

With a first enlightenment the realization of oneness is usually shallow. Yet if one has genuinely perceived, even though dimly, and continues to practice devotedly for five or ten more years, his inner vision will expand in depth and magnitude as his character acquires flexibility and purity.

Enlightenment, while revealing our solidarity with all things... paradoxically gives rise to a fine mist of pride in such an accomplishment, and thus mars the inherent purity of the Mind.

Before reaching enlightenment, Dogen was tormented by the question, "If, as the sutras say, our Essential-nature is Bodhi (perfection), why did all Buddhas have to strive for enlightenment and perfection?." Finally, he found a roshi who gave an answer that precipitated Dogen's enlightenment: "No Buddha is conscious of its existence [ie of this Essential-nature], while cats and oxen [ie the grossly deluded] are aware of it." Kapleau explains: "In other words, Buddhas, precisely because they are Buddhas, no longer think of having or not having a Perfect-nature; only the deluded think in such terms." My re-interpretation of Kapleau's interpretation is, "If you've gotta ask, you'll never know."

Roshi Harada wrote of himself: "For forty years I've been selling water/ By the bank of a river,/ Ho, ho!/ My labors have been wholly without merit." Kapleau comments, "No Japanese Zen master in modern times strove more arduously to teach his students that there is nothing to learn than Harada-roshi."

It is impossible to talk meaningfully about Zen without getting into paradoxes. Zen is the active and determined struggle to discover that there is nothing to struggle for, that we already have perfection, completeness and unity within ourselves. Zen is the attempt to see the obvious truth which we are not seeing. The method is to bypass the intellect, or to so thoroughly exhaust and frustrate it, that the aspirant moves beyond delusional thought to the reality which thought is hiding from them. Simply put, Zen's aim is to switch from indirect to direct perception.

For the ordinary man, whose mind is a checkerboard of crisscrossing reflections, opinions, and prejudices, bare attention is virtually impossible; his life is thus centred not in reality itself but in his ideas of it. By focussing the mind wholly on each object and every action, zazen strips it of extraneous thoughts and allows us to enter into a full rapport with life.

Krishnamurti wrote, "The reason why we don't see reality are the noises of the mind." Here is his explanation of how our conditioning affects our perception:
We always look at things partially. Firstly because we are inattentive and secondly because we look at things from prejudices, from verbal and psychological images about what we see. So we never see anything completely. Even to look objectively at nature is quite arduous. To look at a flower without any image, without any botanical knowledge - just to observe it - becomes quite difficult because our mind is wandering, uninterested. And even if it is interested it looks at the flower with certain appreciations and verbal descriptions which seem to give the observer a feeling that he has really looked at it. Deliberate looking is not looking. So we really never look at the flower. We look at it through the image... We see the tree through the image which is the symbol of the tree, we see our neighbour through the image we have about him. Apparently it is one of the most difficult things for a human being to look at anything directly, not through images, opinions, conclusions, which are all symbols... When you say, 'I know my wife and my friend', you know only the image or the memory, and this is the past. Therefore you can never actually know anybody or anything. You cannot know a living thing, only a dead thing.

Anyone learning how to draw soon discovers the difficulty Krishnamurti is referring to. Most of us find drawing difficult not because we are unskilful with a pencil but because we don't really see what is before us. It seems the essence of Zen is to see what is right before our noses.

I had a trivial but suggestive experience this morning. Looking up from the bed to the window ledge I saw an unfamiliar curved shape. I tried to work out what it was without sitting up to get a proper look. I decided it was a piece of paper, not because it really looked like one, but because I couldn't think what else it might be. It was a carnelian cabochon. Nothing like what I thought. Back in the prone position, I found it impossible to see the now identified object as a piece of paper. For one thing, the colour was wrong. Are all my perceptions like this - basically seeing what I expect to see?

Enlightenment means "the obliteration of every feeling of opposition and separateness. In this state of unconditioned subjectivity I, selfless I, am supreme... Yet since awakening means an end to being possessed by the idea of an ego-I, this is as much a world of pure objectivity. Therefore Dogen could write: 'To learn the Way of the Buddha is to learn about oneself. To learn about oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is to experience the world as pure object. To experience the world as pure object is to let fall one's own body and mind and the 'self-other' body and mind.'"


Kensho is the direct awareness that you are more than this puny body or limited mind. Stated negatively, it is the realization that the universe is not external to you. Positively, it is experiencing the universe as your self. So long as you consciously or unconsciously think in terms of a distinction between yourself and others, you are caught in the dualism of I and not-I.

The essence of Zen is practice not theory. Zazen consists of three separate techniques. The first is sitting with eyes open counting breaths. The second involves sitting with attention but with no object in mind. The third is tormenting oneself with a koan, such as, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Just do this for ten years and you may reach shallow enlightenment, or you may not. Of course there are those who arrive at satori very quickly, but the average time seems to be of the order of eight years or so. One couple achieved satori (on different days) of their first week-long sesshin [group meditation]. The woman, an American schoolteacher aged 38 wrote:
... my husband told me that he had achieved kensho. 'Now or never!' I told myself. 'A pumpkin wife cannot be married to an enlightened husband!'

When she succeeded, she wrote:

A lifetime has been compressed into one week. A thousand new sensations are bombarding my senses, a thousand new paths are opening before me. I live my life minute by minute, but only now does a warm love pervade my whole being, because I know that I am not just my little self but a great big miraculous Self. My constant thought is to have everybody share this deep satisfaction.

One successful aspirant reached his goal when he realised that "there is Nothing to realize!"

Note that the terms kensho, satori, enlightenment, self-realisation, awakening to one's Buddha nature, transcending duality, reaching nirvana, awakening to reality, and becoming one with the universe all seem to mean the same thing, at least at a first approximation.

Yasutani explains how meditating on a koan works:

If you sit quietly and mark time you will never come to Self-realization. For enlightenment you have to penetrate Mu with your last ounce of energy; your absorption must be complete and unfaltering. Deep in our subconsciousness the conception of 'me' and 'other' is strong. We think: "I am here; what is not me is out there.' This is an illusion; inherently there is no such dichotomy. You know all this theoretically of course, but this 'I' is so powerfully imbedded that it can't be uprooted by reasoning. In single-minded concentration on Mu you are not aware of 'I' standing against what is 'not-I'. If the absorption in Mu continues without interruption, the 'I-ness' dies out in the subconscious mind. Suddenly 'Plap!' - there is no more duality. To experience this directly is kensho [enlightenment].

Another koan is "Who am I?" The idea is that you exhaust your mind looking for an 'I' that you will never find, since it does not exist, and in the process achieve self-realisation.

Yasutani on this koan:

... but you must not ask the question mechanically, like a stamping machine. When eating, ask yourself, "What is eating?" with an intense yearning to resolve the question. When listening, inquire of yourself, "Who is listening?" When seeing, "Who is seeing?" While walking, "Who is walking?"

Yasutani to a student

Stop striving to achieve unity with Mu and profoundly question yourself, 'Why can't I realize that when I hear there is nothing more than hearing? Why can't I realize that when I look there is nothing more than seeing?'

In other words, there is no see-er, no hearer, no self, no experiencer. There is only experience. The self is an unnecessary concept and the feeling of being a separate entity is a (deep-seated) illusion.

Hume came to the same conclusion regarding the concept of the self back in the 18th century. Whitehead: "My present experience is what I now am." Shroedinger, "The world is given but once. Nothing is reflected." The intellect is like a mirror, making two worlds out of one. It is this split that Zen seeks to heal.


Your mind, like a mirror, reflects everything: this table, this mat - whatever you see. If you don't perceive anything, the mirror reflects itself. Now, everybody's mind is different. How my mind reflects objects differs from the way yours does. Whatever is in your mind is the reflection of your mind, therefore it is you. So when you perceive this mat or this table you are perceiving yourself, Again, when your mind is devoid of all conceptions - opinions, ideas, points of view, values, notions, assumptions - your mind is reflecting itself. This is the condition of undifferentiation, of Mu.

The point is not to understand this but to experience it. Zen is a whodunnit where you know the answer before you start, but must find it the hard way, ie by direct perception, not through thought.


... only by direct apprehension of our Self-nature can we actually know who and what we are. The fundamental purity and clarity of the mind is obscured by the ceaseless waves of thought which pitch and toss about in it; consequently we falsely see ourselves as individual existences confronted by a universe of multiplicities. Zazen is a means of stilling these waves so that our inner vision can be brought into accurate focus, and counting the breath is one type of zazen.

... through zazen you are gradually ridding yourself of the basic delusion which leads man to commit evil, namely, the delusion that the world and oneself are separate and distinct.

Yasutani to a student who complained she was becoming more cold and selfish despite her practice:

What you have described to me, rather than making you out to be cold-hearted and selfish, reveals a deepening of your natural sympathies, but all this lies outside your consciousness, One who thinks of himself as kindhearted and sympathetic is truly neither. That you no longer are consciously aware of these emotions only shows how deeply entrenched they have become.
Lao-tzu wrote in a similar vein:
The truly virtuous is not conscious of his virtue. The man of inferior virtue, however, is ever consciously concerned with his virtue and therefore he is without true virtue. True virtue is spontaneous and lays no claim to virtue.

This reminds me of the four stages of acquiring counselling skills: unconsciously unskilled (not knowing what's involved), consciously unskilled (beginning to learn), consciously skilled (practising with effort) and unconsciously skilled (practising without effort). The same applies to learning to drive or any other skill.

Yasutani warns about the one-sidedness of the external orientation:

There are many people who spend all their time giving aid to the needy and joining movements for the betterment of society. To be sure, this ought not to be discounted. But their root anxiety, growing out of their false view of themselves and the universe, goes unrelieved, gnawing at their hearts and robbing them of a rich, joyous life. Those who sponsor and engage in such social betterment activities look upon themselves, consciously or unconsciously, as morally superior and so never bother to purge their minds of greed, anger, and delusive thinking. But the time comes when, having grown exhausted from all their restless activity, they can no longer conceal from themselves their basic anxieties about life and death. Then they seriously begin to question why life hasn't more meaning and zest. Now for the first time they wonder whether instead of trying to save others they ought not to save themselves first.

... man is forever seeking and grasping. Why? He grasps for the world because intuitively he longs to be rejoined with that from which he has been estranged through delusion. It is in consequence of this alienation that we find the strong overcoming the weak... The Buddha in his enlightenment perceived that ego is not indigenous to man's nature. With full enlightenment we realise we possess the universe, so why grasp for what is inherently ours?

... Many think that when they are tired effective zazen is impossible. But this is a mistaken idea. When you are tired so is your "foe" that is, the mind of ignorance - and when you are energetic so is it. In reality they are not two... Your enemy is your discursive thinking, which leads you to differentiate yourself on one side of an imaginary boundary from what is not you on the other side of this non-existent line. Or to put it in terms that may be more meaningful, your enemy is your own personal ego.

Bassui wrote:

If you would free yourself from the sufferings of samsara [the world of flux - birth, decay and death], you must learn the direct way to become a Buddha. This way is no other than the realisation of your own Mind... When we are born it is not newly created, and when we die it does not perish. It has no distinction of male or female, nor has it any coloration of good or bad. It cannot be compared with anything, so it is called Buddha-nature. Yet countless thoughts issue from this Self-nature as waves arise in the ocean or as images are reflected in a mirror.

To realize your own Mind you must first of all look into the source from which thoughts flow. Sleeping and working, standing and sitting, profoundly ask yourself, "What is my own Mind?" with an intense yearning to resolve this question... What is called zazen is no more than looking into one's own Mind.

... What is obstructing realization? Nothing but your own half-hearted desire for truth. Think of this and exert yourself to the utmost.

... The Mind-essence is intrinsically bright and unblemished, in it there is no distinction of Buddha and sentient beings. But its clarity is hidden by delusive thoughts just as the light of the sun or the moon is obscured by clouds. Yet such thoughts can be dispelled by zazen.

... Consider a person suffering intensely in a dream where, having fallen into hell, he is being tortured. Once he awakens, his suffering ceases, for he is now liberated from this delusion. In the same way, through Self-realization one frees himself from the sufferings of birth-and-death... there is no difference between ordinary beings and Buddhas except for one thing - delusion. When it is dissolved they are identical.

... The essential thing for enlightenment is to empty the mind of the notion of self.

Kapleau is no sexist:
For some reason, many people imagine it is harder for women to come to Self-realization than for men. On the contrary, women usually attain kensho quicker because their minds are less prone to play with ideas than are men's. But both men and women, if they expunge every thought from their minds and become self-less, can equally attain enlightenment during one week of sesshin.

Seeing I love ideas I don't like my chances!

One sutra says: "The teachings of the sutras are like a finger pointing to the moon." This means "that the sutras themselves are not truth but are like an arrow pointing to the truth."

The Zen model of consciousness is a witch's hat. The apex of the triangle is the realm of the senses and the intellect. "While the intellect, interpreting the data of the senses, creates the illusion of a subject 'I' standing apart from an object world, it is not persistently conscious of this 'I'." Below that is an unconscious layer called manas, the source of persistent I-awareness. It functions as a conveyor of the seed-essence of sensory experiences to the level below, which returns seeds back up to the senses and intellect (as sensations and thoughts). At the base is the third layer, alaya-vijnana, which is a seed repository. Beneath the base of the triangle is pure consciousness - the formless self, symbolised by a large circle. This is the part we all have in common.

The triangular portion represents the life of the individual. Only the topmost part of the triangle is subject to birth and death. The life of the individual is like a wave on the ocean. Its brief existence seems apart from the ocean, but in substance it is not different from the ocean out of which it arose and to which it will return and rise up again, ie reincarnate.

According to Buddhism, the notion of an ego, that is awareness of oneself as a discrete individuality, is an illusion. It arises because, misled by our bifurcating intellect... into postulating the dualism of 'myself' and 'not myself,' we are led to think and act as though we were a separated entity confronted by a world external to us. Thus in the unconscious the idea of 'I', or selfhood, becomes fixed, and from this arise such thought patterns as 'I hate this, I love that; this is mine, that is yours.' Nourished by this fodder, the ego-I comes to dominate the personality, attacking whatever threatens its position and grasping at anything which will enlarge its power. Antagonism, greed, and alienation, culminating in suffering, are the inevitable consequences of this circular process.

Each reincarnation reinforces the I-sense harboured in the unconscious, which does not die with the conscious mind.

The question "Who am I?" is the koan I would choose if I were to take up zazen. What is the source of my thoughts? Is it just a matter of more or less random irruptions from my unconscious? I find that pondering who I am results either in a feeling of inner emptiness, or the intellectual conclusion that I am a consciousness (a field of experience) and a will, associated with a body.

A logical answer to the one hand clapping koan occurred to me. If I and the universe are one then similarly one hand and two hands are also the same thing. Hence there is only the clapping.

I don't plan to take up zazen because it seems to be something there is no point in doing half-heartedly. No point in trying it a few times unless I want to continue doing it for years. I lack belief and motivation. Enlightenment sounds great, but is it real, and how long would it take me? The roshis encourage flagging aspirants, saying that if they try hard but fail in this life, they surely will achieve enlightenment in the next.

That isn't good enough for me.

Tad Boniecki

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