No Magic in Zen?

The essence of Zen, of course, is direct seeing into the nature of reality, unmediated meditation.  The Buddha, of course, was a scientist, a psychologist, a meditative technologist, whose primary interest was untangling the inner knots of delusion to reveal the clear ground of awakening and peace.  He eschewed, of course, the supernatural and had no interest in the cosmological – he cared only about liberation from suffering.  Buddhism is not properly a religion at all, of course, but simply “Awake-ism,” a set of practical, universal techniques for freeing the mind and opening our compassionate hearts.  The staffs and shouts of the Zen adepts of old, of course, are completely without baggage – they cut equally through all conditioning, speculation, hesitation, and superstition.

So why is it that the more I come to understand our ancestors, the more it strikes me that their lives and their Dharma unfolded in a supernatural world populated by powerful Buddhas and bodhisattvas and beset by demons and erratic deities?

I recently read the amazing diary of the Japanese monk Ennin’s travels to China around 840 AD.  Really a wonderful read, and part of what surfaces incontrovertibly in the account is that in Japan as well as in great Tang China – the “Golden Age of Zen” – the primary religious act was petitionary prayer.  The role of a Buddhist monk was much less about salvation than about technology:  he was there to call forth spiritual power to aid and support the unreliable maritime, military, and agricultural technologies.  Ennin does make passing references to the wisdom and compassion of the great teachers of the age, but it is abundantly clear that the success of a monk and a lineage was more than anything related to the efficacy of his spiritual interventions.  It was for these supernatural powers, this access and leverage in the realm that brought rain and waves and military defeat, that the Emperor patronized Buddhism when he did.  The popularity of Buddhism, in aristocratic and common society alike, wasn’t based on its profound teachings of emptiness or the great compassion of its saints – it was based on winning magic competitions, on getting rain during the drought faster than the Daoists can.  Ennin’s pilgrimage is for the “Dharma,” and he does collect sutras and receive teachings, but what really seems to light him up are the miraculous stories of Manjushri’s manifestations, of Buddha relics, of strange and auspicious happenings. 

Society has moved on, we say – we’ve evolved.  Those supernatural accretions of Buddhism can be easily shed, revealing a basically secular humanist, scientific materialist essence.  But who is to say?  Only we secular humanist scientific materialists would see it that way, would claim to identify the wheat and the chaff as we have.  It would certainly startle Monk Ennin to learn that the essence of the Buddha Way is completely apart from prayers to the sea, rain-bringing dragons, and the miraculous manifestations of Manjushri and Kannon.

I don’t suggest that we should pretend to adopt some cosmology, some forced understanding of a spiritual world that in fact we don’t have.  I appreciate that we should question the “essence” of Zen that we are so often offered.  I do think it’s important to look in our practice for what a friend of mine has been calling “Whole Religion,” not just settling for a religion of “essences” like white flour and vitamins.  But at the same time I resist the impulse I sometimes see in the Sangha and feel in myself to try to believe in these things – in literal rebirth, in the more-than-psychological efficacy of ritual, etc.  It can be sincere, no doubt, but it often has the flavor to me of an imposition, a stretch of one’s own credulity.  Because deep down, at the root of our conditioning as twenty-first century, first world people, it’s just not how we see the world.  It may be how we’d like to see it, or how we think it’d be cool to see it, but it goes against everything we’ve been taught.

I’m not sure where this leaves us, but it’s on my mind.  And being on my mind, everywhere I turn – from the Green Gulch altar to the Dogen on my bookshelf – I see reference to Buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities, and a spirit world much richer and odder than our own.


5 thoughts on “No Magic in Zen?

  1. Hi Jiryu,

    Great post. Being immersed in a secularized version of Tibetan Buddhism here at Naropa University, I often wonder about these same ideas. What are we to make of the gods and demons that populate the stories of Buddhism all the way back to the Buddha himself?

    I really love Reggie Ray’s book, Indestructible Truth, especially his descriptions of the Bon faith, which predates Buddhism in Tibet. What does it mean for a rock to have a spirit? His language is so engaging, as he describes these spirits as absolutely real in every way, then goes on to describe how it is all empty of inherent existence.

    As I gradually deepen my practice of life, I sometimes find myself “tuned in” to something that feels larger than myself, but is not empty of content, but filled with imagery or sensations. This seems to happen more often in yoga class or when I am lucky enough to tap into primordial silence in the midst of a tumultuous period.

    It seems to me that the world is an ever-modulating, ever-evolving chorus of vibrations–a symphony of life and death. I find that my awareness of the various vibrations occurring around me (whether that be a therapy client, a friend, a dog, or a puddle of mud) is quite variable.

    It’s all rather mysterious–perhaps it’s just that different interpretations are useful at different junctures.


  2. This ‘magical’ world is still available in this age even if the magic may not be real. When ego takes a break and right hemisphere is more dominant you will have all the ‘magic’ you can stomach and maybe more. The realm of magic is the realm of demons as well they are manifestations of the same thing.

    However that particular little rabbit-hole is also the path to madness. A little magic and you are no longer entirely separate from this world. A little magic and the I Ching is an interesting tool.

    A lot of magic and it can get real ugly.

    A world where every thing and every act has meaning is not a fun place to live. A world where the distinction between internal and external is lost is the world of pure magic and heaven and hell.

    When the magic is truly seen as an externalisation and manifestation of internal state then it’s harmless and useful – but getting there. Well….

    Finally with the Tibetan stuff they don’t distinguish between literal and allegorical and write about experiential stuff as if it were real without worrying about provability. This creates useful maps or confusing photographs depending on what you see.

    “be careful what you wish for” is the rule for this area.

    Maybe it’s possible to control weather with the mind maybe not. But when you are in a place where you perceive such a thing it migh be wise to proceed with caution.

    With people there’s the science of mirror neurons and being able to make fuller use of then makes for an interesting world – but it’s not magic however it manifests…

  3. I would like to offer arguments in support and opposition to believing in the supernatural. In opposition I would like to reiterate the essential argument advanced by the atheist philosopher Sam Harris. The argument begins by noting that belief in the supernatural is not rooted in evidence. We have no strong evidence that rebirth or deities exist. He then goes on to claim that if there are no strong standards for evidential support then all supernatural claims share the same epistemic status. If all supernatural claims are in the same epistemic boat then the distinction between benign supernatural beliefs and harmful beliefs such as radical Islam is dissolved. In essence, the liberal supernaturalists have no ground to critique the hardcore supernaturalists. One could object by stating that the consequences of a belief system are far more vital than its epistemic status. The response to that objection is that the “good” or “bad” consequences of a belief system are dependent on the belief system itself. So if radical Islamic beliefs are true that it is also true that terrorism is good. My second argument touches on Jiryu’s difficulty with trying to believe something. If intellectual honesty is a virtue then trying to believe anything is a vice. We simply look at the evidence and try to make reasonable decisions. Furthermore, for an intellectually honest person, trying to believe something is tantamount to trying to keep a secret from oneself. Finally, if there isn’t a supernatural order, then spending energy on that order would be a waste of valuable time better spent working with the natural order.
    In defense of the supernaturalists I would maintain that believing in rebirth would encourage a person to take the religious life very seriously. Conversely, if upon my death the spiritual journey is terminated, then I could imagine have a more easygoing approach to my life. In a world were anger results in long stretches in hell, anger is very scary.
    My personal solution to this problem is to try to act as though rebirth is real as well as be intellectually open to the possibility. In other words I try, albeit unsuccessfully, to live with the same fervor as the ancestors and find no intellectual dishonesty in being open to the possibility of rebirth.

  4. Dogen Zenji’s successor, Kaizan Jokin compiled the Transmission of the Lamp; a chronicle of the Zen lineage from Shakayamuni to himself. In this book there is a lot of magic and sorcery. Most of the magic is from rival or ‘heretical’ schools of Buddhism. Sometimes a ‘True Buddhist’ will come along and defeat a sorcerer at his own tricks–but only to reveal that magic and sorcery is entirely beside the point. What is the point? Great Awakening is the point.

    I have a lot of friends who are Pagan and New Age. Some of it is a legitament form of spiritual practice, driven by the desire to be in Harmony with one’s True Self and with the Ground of Being. But a lot of it is just a big distraction. It is astonishing what some people are willing to believe–sometimes it is utterly appalling. It is remarkable the lengths that many people will go to have some feeling or inkling of a super-natural or a mystical or a magical space or reality.

    Life in this new age is hella boring. Spirit Worlds and Spells and Astral Planes are really exciting and mysterious. They are exotic. They are other. And a mysterious other is much better than the mundane world that is all too familiar to us. This also goes for many Buddhist practitioners. Many people completely adopt a Buddhist Cosmology exactly because it is a foreign and mysterious and exciting new idea.

    That said, I have adopted both a Buddhist and a Pagan framework. The Buddhist is a Zazen practice, the study of Emptiness and devotion to Awakened beings in all World-systems. The Pagan is a reverence for the Earth, the Sky, and the Great Spirits who inhabit all World-systems. But for me, both the Buddhist and the Pagan frameworks are just props. They must be dispensed with.

    Therefore, my position is this: Magic is great. But does it produce Great Awakening? Does it just prop up our Ego, or reify some fantastical Cosmology that makes us feel good? Is it a path to the Source? If not, we can dispense with it. Even if old masters of the past thought that it was indispensable, I think that we can dispense with it. (I think that we are given permission to dispense with the indispensable.) Basically, does it bring Karmic entanglements or cut them?

    I feel that some of my Pagan practices cut entanglements. I feel that some of my Buddhist practices cut entanglements. And I am working on a fusion of the two. But Emptiness is the basis, and Great Awakening is the motivation. If Emptiness is not the basis, it should not be admitted. If Great Awakening is not the motivation, it should not be admitted. Otherwise we are just clod surfing. I hope this is helpful.

  5. Diagan Lueck of Green Gulch in Marin County, CA provided me with the simple answer to my question about “supernatural” phenomena: “It’s stuff we don’t understand”. I received that brilliant truth in light of a koan that my dharma teacher had earlier hit me with in the middle of a dokusan, when I was persisting beyond her patience in asking unanswerable, paradoxical questions. “You should leave now”, she said. I dutifully bowed and left without a further word. My solution to her koan was that I my compulsion to understand was barking up the wrong tree. From that insight, I was able to boil my own cosmology down to bumper sticker length: “There are Patterns and Potential for Patterns”.
    I have tested the accuracy of my simplistic answer to the question “What’s going on?” against scientific, philosophical and religious teachings, and have not yet needed to adjust it. Patterns (repetition with variation, including unique instances) are what we have noticed, invented, explained, formulated, taught, languaged, etc. Potential for Patterns is the Mystery, Chaos, the inscrutable, the ineffable, etc. The point is that Knowledge is not the same as Reality.
    I have spent most of my life struggling to deal with Pattern and fending off Potential for Pattern as dangerous, disabling ignorance. Convinced that there was a right way to behave, right solutions to problems, correct answers to difficult questions, etc., I needed either to explain phenomena, or suffer under my inability to do so. When I relaxed into the realization that I did not need to, and could never explain very much, my inquiry shifted from striving to understand (control), to practicing appreciation, and learning to enjoy (infuse with joy). This shift has opened me up to the human capacity to discover Pattern in the Potential for Pattern, which we honor as creativity, leadership, genius, etc.
    From my new perspective, Science, Religion and Magic fall into the same basket. They are all patterns of inquiry, ritual and explanation to be appreciated, though not necessarily adopted, believed in, committed to or applied. Science has an advantage in being less rigid than religious dogma, and more open to the consideration of new observations and formulations, but is still vulnerable to the tragic-comic human foible of Belief, often confused with Faith, which I think is very close to what the Buddha called dukkha.
    “Patterns and Potential for Pattern” is for me as complete and whole an explanation of existence/non-existence as Brahman’s inhalations and exhalations, the Earth on the back of an elephant standing on an infinite stack of turtles, Yahweh, Al Lah, the Big Bang, or Superstrings. In my Zen practice it’s my opening to mindful awareness. I hereby invite intercession from any muse that might be willing to inform and support my relationship with the unknown.

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