Common Beliefs of Zen Buddhism

By: John Akenberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©1999
In this article, we will briefly note several common beliefs and features of Zen: monism; the centrality of Mind; irrationalism; nihilism; the priority of Self; pantheism; antiauthority; influence by Taoism and Mahayana; exclusivism.

Common Beliefs of Zen Buddhism

In this article, we will briefly note several common beliefs and features of Zen: monism; the centrality of Mind; irrationalism; nihilism; the priority of Self; pantheism; antiauthority; influence by Taoism and Mahayana; exclusivism.

Monism. According to Zen, until one is enlightened one cannot know reality. People may think that there is individual existence, that there is an agreed upon reality, but they are wrong. There is no validity or reality to dualistic concepts such as Creator and creature, object and subject, right and wrong, life and death, good and evil, heaven and hell and so on. Everything is one. At best, what we perceive around us and in normal patterns of thinking is an illusory manifestation of an underlying unitary reality that is itself indescribable.[1] Soikei-an stated: “Though all day long you are speaking, raising your eyebrows, standing, sitting, walking and lying, nevertheless in reality nothing has happened.”[2] Huang Po asserted quaintly: “There has never been a single thing.”[3] “The arising and the elimination of illusion are both illusory. Illusion is not something rooted in Reality; it exists because of your dualistic thinking.” [4]

Suzuki declared that “with satori the whole universe sinks into nothingness.”[5] Of course, the universe was nothingness to begin with, so Zenists are really “leaping out of an abyss of absolute nothingnesss[6] “into” their version of reality. But paradoxically, one could also describe their reality, at least theoretically, as an experience of absolute nothingness. Reality is Only Mind, the one monistic consciousness that alone “exists.” However, Huang Po asserted that even enlightenment and Mind are illusions. “In the teaching of the Three Vehicles it is clearly explained that the ordinary and Enlightened minds are illusions…. As thought or sensation arises, you fall into dualism [illusion]…. There is no this and no that…. Just as those categories [enlightened; ordinary] have no real existence, so Mind is really not ‘mind.’ ‘And, as both Mind and those categories are really illusions wherever can you hope to find anything?’”[7] Zenists, then, find nothing. The “path” of Zen (there is really no path) travels from the perception of “conventional reality as absolute nothingness” to the perception of “Only Mind as absolute nothingness” or what is often termed “the Void.” In a sense, Zen begins at absolute nothingness and ends at absolute nothingness.

The Centrality of Mind. Paradoxically, Zen is known as “Hsin-tsung,” the discipline of the mind. It emulates the Buddha’s supposedly illuminated individual mind (an illusion) and produces full realization of Mind or Reality. For Rinzai and other Zen masters, “Zen is no other than the Mind.” “The Buddha is the Mind.” The very purpose of the koan is to train the mind to experience satori. Suzuki states: “According to the philosophy of Zen, we are too much of a slave to the conventional way of thinking, which is dualistic through and through…. Zen, however, upsets this scheme of thought and substitutes a new one in which there exists no logic, no dualistic arrangement of ideas.”[8] Ironically, then, as in advaita and other monistic systems stressing enlightenment, Zenists depend entirely upon the mind to subvert the mind and move beyond its normal methods of functioning.

Irrationalism. It is ironic that a system stressing the importance of the mind so radically dismantles the mind by denying its most basic functions, such as rational conceptualization, logic and common sense. How a dualistic entity itself (the mind), which according to Zen has no ultimate existence, can lead to anything, let alone to spiritual enlightenment, is never explained. It is accepted on blind faith. Suzuki himself admitted that “Zen is the most irrational, inconceivable thing in the world.”[9] But Suzuki may also contradict himself and claim that Zen “always deals with facts concrete and tangible.”[10] The truth, however, is that Zen has no facts; it is irrational in its denial of reason and language, and nihilistic (see following) in its implications. [11]“Logically considered Zen may be full of contradictions…. But as it stands above all things, it goes serenely on its own way.”[12] Thus, Bodhidharma stressed the necessity of “a special transmission outside the scriptures, no dependence upon the words and letters.”[13] Rinzai said, “I tell you this: there is no Buddha, no Dharma, no training and no realization…. Rather than attaching yourselves to my words, better calm down and seek nothing further.”[14] Yashutani Roshi noted, “Buddhism has clearly demonstrated that discriminative thinking lies at the root of delusion. I once heard someone say: ‘Thought is the sickness of the human mind.’ From the Buddhist point of view this is quite true.” [15] “To realize your self-nature you have to break out of the cul-de-sac of logic and analysis.” [16]

Now consider Hung Po’s (Than Chi, Hsi Yun) description of the Zen path:

That which is fundamentally pure and clean, is beyond word, speech, question and answer…. Your words and speeches should be disengaged from the worldly way of life thereby [causing] all your utterances to become transcendental [non-dual] in the twinkling of an eye…. Why do not they, together with me, reduce the mind to the state of empty space, of a withered log, of a stone, of cold ashes and extinct fire? Only then can there be some little degree of responsiveness (to the absolute thatness), otherwise they will have later to be flogged by Yama (the god of the hell) for their sins. You will have only to keep from all that is and is not so that your mind will be solitary….[17]

As Dr. Suzuki said, “Zen is the most irrational, inconceivable thing in the world.”

Nihilism. Zen scholars often attempt to deny the charge of nihilism, but Zen is clearly a teaching of meaninglessness and despair. Where can any meaning or purpose be found in Zen?

The experiential state of Zen enlightenment may be described in glowing terms (along with the usual “Nothingness,” “Voidness” and “Emptiness”), but that hardly makes it meaningful when “you” do not even really exist to perceive or experience it. If nothing matters, why not become a thief or a hedonist? As one Zen master argued, “In my talks there is nothing absolutely real. If you see it thus, you are a true leaver of home and can spend ten thousand pieces of yellow gold per day (enjoy yourself).”[18] Indeed, why endure the “violent howling, shouting and beating methods” of the Rinzai school in order to break the dualistic mind,[19] when the mind is only an illusion to begin with? Alan Watts described entering the Zen path as “to enter a life which is completely aimless”: “To the logician it will of course seem that the point at which we have arrived is pure nonsense—as, in a way, it is. From the Buddhist point of view, reality itself has no meaning…. To arrive at reality—at “suchness”—is to go beyond karma, beyond consequential action, and to enter a life which is completely aimless.” [20]

Zen enlightenment may be described as “full emptiness” rather than “empty emptiness” (implying that “something” remains after enlightenment), but no Zenist has ever been able to say what remains, let alone supply any meaning to Zen enlightenment. Further, one need only examine the lives of people like Alan Watts, who adopted this nihilistic philosophy, to see the personal havoc wrought by this kind of teaching. [21]

Zenists may claim that enlightenment gives one freedom and peace of mind. But “peace of mind” is as meaningless as everything else. What peace? What mind? Can inner peace be experienced by a nonentity? And is it not true that such “freedom” could easily slide into a freedom from responsibility? [22] As the Bible warns, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’” (1 Cor. 15:33). “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7).

What then is the meaning of Zen? The meaning is ostensibly in the simple experience of Zen, but of what value is that within the confines of Zen philosophy? Note a typically characteristic Zen saying: “Who is the teacher of all the Buddhas, past, present, and future? John the cook.”[23] Absurd? That’s Zen.

The Priority of Self. Zen is a religion that lives and breathes glory to one’s true “Self.” As the “false” self of individual personality is slowly eradicated, the true Self supposedly emerges in the process of enlightenment. Zen is thus a process “through which self-denial is simultaneously self-election—choice of one’s self as infinite and absolute.”[24] Akisha Kondo observes: “The answer must come out of oneself, by one’s own experience. Single-mindedness is just single-mindedness and leaves no room for interrogation. It is a sheer act of faith in oneself. It implies, therefore, total respect toward the real self.” [25] But what is this “real Self”? Zenists cannot say. Even the “real” Self cannot be truly described, since concepts are meaningless. One would assume then that the ineffable Self cannot be described as real when the concept of “real” is meaningless.

Pantheism. Pantheism is both affirmed and denied in Zen. God is and is not the universe. For example, even though Dr. Suzuki asserts that Zen “never subscribes to pantheism,”[26] he also declares “the Creator is the creation and yet the Creator is the Creator.”[27] “And the world is God and God is the world, and God exclaims, ‘it is good!’… God’s is-ness is my is-ness and also the cat’s is-ness sleeping on her mistress’ lap.”[28]

Perhaps we could say that Zen is pantheistic in a qualified sense, or that it is panentheistic. In Zen, does it finally matter? Or perhaps Dr. Suzuki was being careless with words: “If I should say ‘I am God’ it is sacrilegious. No, not that. I am I, God is God, and at the same time I am God, God is I. That is the most important part.” [29]

Blofeld argues that if Mind is Only Reality, the illusory, insentient creation itself cannot be that Reality.[30] And yet Suzuki admits in an interview, “The banana plant can be saved. Snow, too.” [31] Again, what difference should it make?

Anti-authority. On one level, Zen accepts no supreme authority except that of subjective and ineffable experience. After all, what else exists but mystical experience to place authority in? Not Buddha or parents or Scriptures, and certainly not the God of Christianity. Every source of authority must be destroyed: “Followers of the Way, if you wish to see this Dharma clearly, do not let yourselves be deceived. Whether you turn to the outside or to the inside, whatever you encounter, kill it. If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha; if you meet the patriarchs, kill the patriarchs; if you meet the Arhats, kill the Arhats; if you meet your parents, kill your parents; if you meet your relatives, kill your relatives; then for the first time you will see clearly.” [32]

On the other hand, the Zen master, allegedly enlightened, is the supreme authority, which one must always submit to. What he declares is law. If he tells you that something must be cast aside, you must obey. “Next you must vigorously undertake even what is difficult to do and difficult to endure, without concerning yourself at all with right and wrong and without clinging to your own opinions. You must cast aside anything [even Jesus Christ] that does not accord with the Buddhist truth, even though it be something you most earnestly desire.”[33]

Taoism and Mahayana. As noted, Zen claims to be the true Buddhism, its real essence. Dogen argued that Zen is the universal truth, which is also the essence of true Buddhism. “Anybody who would regard Zen as a school or sect of Buddhism… is a devil.”[34] Zen, however, is simply an odd combination of the occult religion of Taoism and of Mahayana Buddhism. As Alan Watts pointed out, “The origins of Zen are as much Taoist as Buddhist.”[35] He notes the first principle of Taoism as: “when everyone recognizes beauty as beautiful, there is already ugliness; when everyone recognizes goodness as good, there is already evil.”[36] Dr. Lit-sen Chang describes Zen as a kind of Taoist revolt against Buddhism:

Zen is not considered classical Buddhism, but a “Chinese anomaly of it.”… All that we can say with assurance is that in China itself, as early as the Period of Disunity (396-588), the theory of instantaneous enlightenment had been developed…. Dr. Hu-Shih describes Zen as a Chinese revolt against Buddhism. He accepts neither the historical reality of Bodhi-Dharma nor the authenticity of the earlier Zen works…. Zen grew out of a combination of mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. “From Hui-Neng, Zen lost all its distinctively Indian characteristics, it became thoroughly transformed by the more practical Chinese mentality.” It was actually more deeply influenced by Taoism…. The central theme of Taoism is “Wu Wei” (non-action)…. Humphreys asserted more affirmatively, ‘The Taoist doctrine of “Wu-Wei” is excellent Zen. “According to him, ‘Taoism is “The god-mother of Zen”.’”[37]

Exclusivism. Religions in general claim tolerance and unity while simultaneously teaching that only their path is valid or is the best path. Zen is no exception: “Few if any achieve ‘satori’ without Zen training.”[38] “There is no Nirvana outside our [Soto Zen] practice.”[39]



  1. Philip Kapleau, ed., The Three Pillars of Zen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), pp. 76-79.
  2. Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen, an East-West Anthology (New York: Vintage Books), p. 64.
  3. John Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, on the Transmission of Mind (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1958), p. 78.
  4. Ibid., p. 71.
  5. D. T. Suzuki, “The Koan,” in Ross, p. 232.
  6. Ross, p. 232.
  7. Blofeld, trans, “The Zen Teaching of Huang Po on the Transmission of Mind,” from the Chun Chow Record of the Zen Master Huan Po (Tuan Chi) in Ross, World of Zen.
  8. Daisetz Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism Series 1 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949).
  9. Ibid., p. 21.
  10. Ibid., p. 18; cf. p. 23.
  11. Ibid., pp. 70-71.
  12. Ibid., p. 18
  13. Ross, p. 5, citing The Diamond Sutra I Believe.
  14. Irmgard Schloegl, The Zen Teaching of Rinzai (The Record of Rinzai) (Berkeley, CA: Shambhala Publications, 1975), pp. 44-45.
  15. Kapleau, ed., The Three Pillars of Zen, p. 112.
  16. Charles Luk, ed., The Transmission of the Mind Outside of Teaching (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1975), pp. 133-135.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Schloegl, p. 28.
  19. Ernest Wood, Zen Dictionary (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1962), p. 74.
  20. Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Knopf, Inc. and Random House, Inc., 1957), p. 146; cf. p. 125.
  21. For a look at the theological consequences, see David Clark, The Pantheism of Alan Watts (InterVarsity Press, 1978), pp. 41-48. Also see Watts, Beyond Theology (Vintage, 1973).
  22. Some of this was discussed in the chapter on Eastern Gurus in our Encyclopedia of New Age Beliefs.
  23. Ross, p. 13.
  24. Lit-sen Chang, Zen-Existentialism: The Spiritual Decline of the West (MA: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., Co., 1969), p. 127.
  25. Kondo, “Zen in Psychotherapy: The Virtue of Sitting,” in Ross, p. 206.
  26. Ross, p. 269.
  27. Tucker N. Callaway, Zen Way—Jesus Way (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1976), pp. 146-147.
  28. Ross, pp. 228-229.
  29. Callaway, p. 146.
  30. John Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai on Sudden Illumination (New York: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1972), p. 139.
  31. Callaway, p. 146.
  32. Schloegl, pp. 43-44.
  33. Beiho Masunaga, A Primer of Soto Zen (Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1971).
  34. Z. Shibayama, A Flower Does Not Talk (Tuttle Publishing, 1989), p. 81, cited by R. C. Zaehner, Zen Drugs and Mysticism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), p. 116.
  35. Watts, p. 3.
  36. Ibid., p. 115.
  37. Lit-sen Chang, Zen-Existentialism, pp. 30-32.
  38. Kapleau, p. 69.
  39. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1976), pp. 127-128.


  1. Jason on July 18, 2016 at 10:07 am

    The author has an axe to grind and seeks not to understand but to curtail serious study. In part, the good doctor approaches zen as if it were a set of dogmatic beliefs that can be captured by knitting together disparate quotations. He forgets that nonconceptual and nondualistic does not inherently entail conecptual or monistic. For someone who sees the lack of conceptual beliefs to be a problem, Zen is too subtle. Life is not a probelm that must be solved with belief. The article ignores the soteriological qualities of zen and tries to backstop argument by labeling practitioners of zen apologists. Weak arguments.

    • jimmy on May 17, 2023 at 9:49 am

      im 4 yera old

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