“What’s that you’re reading now?” said Euphemia.
“It’s called Living by Zen by DT Suzuki.”
“It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it?” she said.
I missed her point till it caught up with me a bit later. She meant that in my 84th year there wasn’t much time left to put whatever advice it might contain into practice.

I’m not sure that I haven’t been ‘living by Zen’ since at least 1963 when I first read Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen and certainly since Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sometime in the 1990’s. But to say that I’ve been ‘living by Zen’ means that I haven’t been. When you make the assertion that you’ve been ‘living by Zen’ you’re actually denying that you’ve been living by some alternative system which sets up a bifurcation – that’s a dualism, inimical to Zen.

On the other hand, so it is said, ‘Zen is Life’ in just the same way that my mate Ed used to declare that ‘Basketball is Life’.

I must have read Living by Zen by DT Suzuki before – it has the usual neat pencil underlinings. I found it in the remotest dark corner of a bookcase in a passageway under which moths have a permanent hidey-hole. I determined to rescue it and give it renewed attention so it wouldn’t feel neglected. I’m like that about books! They have a life of their own.

Anybody expecting straightforward advice in how to ‘live by Zen’ would be very disappointed. Suzuki’s method is to offer tantalisingly brief moments of apparent clarity – ‘one of the objects of Zen training is to crush the dualistic idea of mind & body…’, for example – only to cast a thin veil over them – ‘here stands no wall of obstruction [body], no vacuum [mind]… – and then the very dark shadow of a question – ‘how may we transform self into mountains, rivers and earth?’ and vice versa… so that there is ‘perfect interfusion’, ‘interpenetration’ as James Hackett used to say in relation to haiku-writing, no bifurcation which is the work of unbridled intellect, which, towards the end of the book, we discover to be a much valued human characteristic.

In another moment of clarity, Suzuki says that one of the ways in which we become used to being subjected to the process of bifurcation is that ‘…we are always exposing ourselves to the tyranny of the tools we have made… no more master of self but abject slave to surroundings without being conscious of it…’ Intellect is an invented tool that makes us think we know what we’re talking about; language is a tool by which we imagine that we are being accurate about what we are describing, like I’m doing right now; engines & machines set us apart from natural events like trees & mountains; the media provides us with apparently solid thinking; computers provide us with vast dubious systems of ideas. The upshot is that ‘…we take concepts for realities, thought for experience, systems for life…’

It is enough for me to go into a moment of ‘self-remembering’ (‘this is me here & now being me here & now’) to know all this intellectually and with a large degree of emotive satisfaction. It gets me into the truth that ‘there is no subject that experiences and no object that is experienced’ – I am the experience, the experience is my self.

the wooden horse neighs; the girl in marble dances

So engrossed am I in the Gurdjieff act of self-remembering, being in the present moment, that I can easily obey the command: ‘Do not turn your head around even when thousands of people are calling to you…’, an injunction similar to Gurdjieff’s against ‘curiosity’ for the sake of it. And as for language: ‘…all naming is provisional; there is nothing corresponding to names…’ – we can spin words till the cows come home but it all goes into the void. The words we have at our disposal create the world in which we imagine we live (Benjamin Lee Whorf). Bifurcation! As Gurdjieff points out we are 3rd Force blind. A moment on the pendulum takes you elsewhere…

the problem of birth & death is intellectual interference;
where would one find one’s final place of rest?
last night at midnight the moon shone through the windows…

A sudden burst of understanding, a moment of rare enlightenment, the advent of satori which detaches you from specifics in environment and makes you survey the entire global gestalt while still acknowledging the single cow and its calf – ‘the whole is not to be apprehended by accumulations’ – just what William James said:-

…it’s not correct to believe that ‘consciousness’ is built up of compounds of discrete elements – it’s the other way round. What we know directly, unthinkingly… (look up without naming anything and check it out right now…) is a unity to start with; it’s only afterwards that we choose to look at trees, cat, crackling bonfire, river, whatever it is that grabs our attention for the moment. Consciousness of some kind is always going on and only afterwards comes making the choice of things to focus on specifically.

Meta-I understands this and practises the process of standing apart from the 10,000 things to observe them while also understanding that it is still part of them.

Satori is an existential leap.

…in a handful of water scooped up in my palm
the mermaids are seen dancing to their heart’s content

Satori is the apprehending of the undifferentiated unity of the whole while still appreciating particularity. No bifurcation. Thus Meta-I sees all but also comprehends the Multiplicity of I’s, negates the everyday while affirming it. Satori is the whole continuum becoming conscious of itself. The attempt to gain it by intellect make it just one more everyday experience. Being-intellectual-I is just a feeble stray in the multiplicity.

Focus on fire rising through your form from the toes up
until the body burns to ashes, but not you…

and behold! the whole range of Eastern hills is walking on water…

Suzuki: ‘If you want to grasp any matter, grasp it at once – deliberation makes you miss the point forever…’ The attempt to understand all this intellectually simply stuns us into tick-tock-time so that we are ‘prisoners of our own fabrication’.

Zen is just a stick
which becomes a dragon –
one thought
in eternal now
satori in italics

10th February 2021 – the only day in the entire history of the universe called that… where for a moment the entire hoard of past & future is stored. The 11th February will be just the same only completely different.

It could be that we live two lives contemporaneously: one under the enthralment of tick-tock time the other not. Just what JBPriestley meant by being able to step into another dimension.

Hundreds of Observers, millions all in their own time; you can step outside what we call NOW back into the ‘past’ where all these Observers are left seemingly stranded but accessible even in conventional 3-D tick-tock time. You can step outside ordinary time – it’s just one dimension amongst many. Time is breath, says Gurdjieff – every breath a new time. You can always go back & forth on your time-line to take another breath; it’s always there, timeless. Priestley writes:-

We may be doing two things in this life: playing a part in the ever-enduring Time One [tick-tock] drama of the world, and shaping our fourth-dimensional body, perhaps assembling the raw material – scenery, properties & characters of the drama – to be used in future lives…

Then there’s a fifth dimension and so on. Multiple-observers, Multiple-I’s, this one looking at that one and so on.

the forever of the gulls that fly inland
in the morning and outland at eventime


When you say you’ve experienced satori, you haven’t. But then, yet another moment of apparent clarity: there are several names (remember from earlier on: ‘there is nothing corresponding to names…’) for satori:-

the mind that has no abode
the mind that owns nothing
the homeless mind
the unattached mind
one mind
seeing into one’s own nature

For certain sure there’s something going on in the brain, the body moves in synch, neurons relate together in unfathomable multitudinous conjunction, but ‘mind’ as such is an abstraction – an invention of the coming together of neurons, just a happening. We think of it as some sort of container – all those ideas & concepts, love, anger, rage, quietude, internal considering, external considering – a false metaphor. Just a stream of consciousness (William James). There are no thoughts until we invent words to describe them.

A describable satori is not a real satori

Gurdjieff suggested a distinction between simple daily small c consciousness and a larger capital C Consciousness which I think of as Meta-I. Just a word.

When things that are past are not pursued
there is no minding them; when we ignore the future
there is no mind for it;
being now
is an absence

Paradoxically, the return to nothingness enables all the rationalistic superstructure to find a solid base and from it one climbs up to the 10,000 things in their concrete existence.

Suchness is nothingness/emptiness charged with vitality. Gurdjieff said that until you realise that you are No-thing going No-where there’s no chance of being able to grow.

Talking (and writing) means to appeal to intellect – we talk too much, says Demian; we have to delve right down deep inside ourselves… ‘As satori has no tangible body to lay hands on, aspirants have to evolve it somehow from within themselves…’ Negate concepts, even the concept of nothingess/emptiness – they are just mental inventions. Then negate negation. Then empty out the very awareness of its possibility. Then empty that. Inner working doesn’t come by intellection.

miraculous deeds & acts of wonder
I carry water I fetch kindling

Really to know something is to become the thing itself. Oh, Whitehead! Turning inert ideas into something of your own…

From an intellectual point of view Zen may be seen as thriving on nonsense.

Consider the spider at the centre of a perfect web. The phenomenal world and human ‘consciousness’ exist at the periphery; any disturbance there is detected by Mr Zen, the spider, who picks up every vibration, all the concrete operations of bus conductor & brain surgeon & chimney sweep; he knows both the still centre of his turning world and all the endless folly at its outside.

extrication from a puzzle
is satori
but only when the puzzle
remains unsolved

guard against
abstract conceptualisation
and absorption
in emptiness

Suzuki concludes with a few unaccustomed moments of intellectual clarity: in order to live with Zen one must have single-mindedness, determination and operate with attention (just as Mr Gurdjieff says…) There must be no expectations, no self-suggestion.

A SHOCK would be a useful event (just as Mr Gurdjieff says…) to get stuff going: some intense emotional excitement, indignation, humiliation Then…

and escape the Zen label
rooting around in DTSuzuki’s sublime mixture
of clarity & uncertainty
which is more than can be said for
Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks
which I’ve just finished skimming through

I’ll either put Living by Zen back where it came from
or file it alphabetically in my library’s philosophy section

8 thoughts on “LIVING BY ZEN (R16)

  1. Ah, Colin, you seem not to be any longer physically incarcerated. Bueno.
    There is much familiar in this your-story. ‘Zen and the Art…’, Gurdjieff and his explainers, Watts, Watts, Watts, and later Suzuki, Matthiessen, and others–all tending toward the same something. I declare you and I can perceive that which is being wordified by all these seers. The perceived something has no name, but has lots of occupants: birds, trees, children….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I confess to having had a resistant reaction to this post –

    however – I came across a fork in the road and took it.

    Thank you for the provocation xx

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Forgive me Colin – I was having a “what’s the use of all this pointless stuff” type of day. Your piece provoked in me a frustration at our insistence that we have any control over our lives – we seem to take solace from believing that we do. If Plaguetime has taught me anything – it is the humbling reality that something we cannot even see can bring the world to a halt within a very short time and expose the deep inequalities that we inflict on each other. What it is to be human??? And so it is with fungi, not mushrooms, but the sort that form an unseen vast web beneath the surface of the soil through which trees can communicate with each other and without which – our world would not be. We are specks who don’t seem to have any real clue about the interconnected nature of life. In fact we do our best to destroy it.

        That’s all… – The fork – I was trying to represent the fact that there is value in exploring ourselves – and so I was trying to hold both perspectives, your piece and my reaction – both and etc.

        I busied myself with doing physical things – like upcycling a chest of drawers originally made by my grandfather, and decorating – that seemed to sort me out, as something like that usually does. Another lesson about balance I expect.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t know that I understand all of this but I think I get the gist of it. Put the book back lovingly where it came from to discover anew again another day …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Clive – When Zen masters get asked questions they throw their pen out of the window, empty a glass of water on the study floor or box the questioner’s ears. The gist of it is all one ought to get. Putting the book back where it came from is the equivalent probably! 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

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