Contradictory Teachings in Zen Buddhism

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©1999
Zen believers should be challenged to ask themselves how is it possible to know that Zen is true when the philosophy is riddled with contradictions?

Contradictory Teachings in Zen Buddhism

Zen believers should be challenged to ask themselves how is it possible to know that Zen is true when the philosophy is riddled with contradictions? D. T. Suzuki himself confesses that, “even among the Zen masters themselves there is a great deal of discrepancy, which is quite disconcerting. What one asserts another flatly denies or makes a sarcastic remark about it, so that the uninitiated are at a loss what to make out of all these everlasting and hopeless entanglements.”[1] The chart below notes some internal Zen contradictions.


“I put Samadhi foremost and wisdom afterwards.” Master Wanshi (cited in ZCLA [Zen Center of Los Angeles] Journal<>, p. 4) “I put wisdom foremost and samadhi afterwards.” Master Engo (cited in ZCLA Journal, p. 4).
“Without it [satori] there is no Zen, for the life of Zen begins with the ‘opening of satori’.” Dr. Suzuki (Sohl and Carr, The Gospel According to Zen: Beyond the Death of God, p. 33) “It’s not that Satori is unimportant, but it’s not that part of Zen that needs to be stressed.” (Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, p. 9)
“The achievement of the aim of Zen, as Suzuki has made very clear… implies overcoming the narcissistic self-glorification and the illusion of omnipotence.” (Ross, World of Zen: An East-West Anthology, p. 199) “I AM the Absolute.” The man who has realized Satori… being intensely aware of the infinite riches of his nature.” (Ross, World of Zen, pp. 67, 221)
“Enlightenment, when it comes, will come in a flash. There can be no gradual, no partial Enlightenment…. By no means can he be regarded as partially Enlightened.” (Huang Po in Ross, World of Zen, p. 69) “There are, however, greater and lesser satoris.” (R. F. Sasaki in Ross, World of Zen, p. 26)
“If your effort is headed in the wrong direction, especially if you are not aware of this, it is deluded effort.” (Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 59) “Even if it [your effort] is in the wrong direction, if you are aware of that, you will not be deluded.” (Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 61)
“So it can be said that a Zen which ignores or denies or belittles satori is not true daijo Buddhist Zen…. Today many in the Soto sect hold that since we are all innately Buddhas, satori is not necessary. Such an egregious error reduces Shikantaza, which properly is the highest form of sitting, to nothing more than bompu Zen, the first of the five types.”(Yasutani Roshi, Three Pillars of Zen, p. 45-46) “Error has no substance; it is entirely the product of your own thinking.” (Huang Po, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, p. 80)
“Zen is most emphatically not to be regarded as a system of self-improvement, or a way of becoming a Buddha. In the words of Lin chi, ‘if a man seeks the Buddha, that man loses the Buddha.” (Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 125) “Because searching one’s own mind leads ultimately to enlightenment, this practice is a prerequisite to becoming a Buddha. No matter whether you have committed either the ten evil deeds or the five deadly sins, still if you turn back your mind and enlighten yourself, you are a Buddha instantly.” (Yasutani Roshi, The Three Pillars of Zen, p. 161)

“It is said in the Diamond Sutra: ‘those who relinquish all forms are called Buddhas (Enlightened Ones).’” (The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai, p. 53)

“Sages seek from mind, not from the Buddha; fools seek from the Buddha instead of seeking from mind.” (Blofield, The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai, p. 44) “The Buddha is none other than Mind.” (The Three Pillars of Zen, pp. 283-284)
“In point of fact, Zen has no ‘mind’ to murder; therefore there is no ‘mind murdering’ in Zen…. Nothing really exists throughout the triple world; ‘where do you wish to see the mind?” (Lit-sen Chang, Zen Existentialism, p. 152, quoting D. T. Suzuki, Introduction to Zen Buddhism[New York: Philosophical Library, 1949], pp. 42-43) “Zen purposes to discipline the mind itself, to make it its own master, through an insight into its proper nature. This getting into the real nature of one’s own mind is the fundamental object of Zen Buddhism.” (Chang, Zen Existentialism, quoting D.T. Suzuki, Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p. 40)

One wonders, was the original face of the Zen practitioner smiling or frowning as he contemplated Zen contradictions?

If they are frank, even committed Zenists must acknowledge the superiority of the Christian view, both philosophically and practically. Tucker Callaway records an interesting discussion that he had with D. T. Suzuki, a discussion which points out the difficulty that even the most devoted Zen teacher has with his own philosophy. “Toward the end of the interview with Daisetz Suzuki, I said that while Buddhism accepts all things, just as they are, as good, [Christians] find things imperfect and therefore strive to change them. To this Suzuki surprisingly replied, ‘Yes, that’s the good side of Christianity. Buddhists accept everything as it is, perhaps. That is bad. They don’t go out of their way to do good.’”[2] Even Suzuki could not live consistently as a Zenist. Callaway points out the implications:

It is difficult for me not to believe he meant this seriously. It seemed to me that at that moment he departed from his Zen presuppositions and expressed a genuine value judgment. Whether he did, or whether he remained only-mind viewing himself, me, and the entire interview with complete detachment, the value judgment he articulated is crucial.

From the Zen point of view, not going out of one’s way to do good is evidence of Enlightenment, as also would be not going out of one’s way not to do good. Picking and choosing and the urge to “do good” are evidences of Ignorance. The freedom of the Zen Way is the freedom not to choose. But the freedom of the Jesus Way denies one the freedom not to choose…. If Suzuki seriously meant what he said… he, at least for that moment, was off the Zen way.[3]

How could Dr. Suzuki possibly admit to Dr. Callaway, as he did, that “Buddhism has a great deal to learn from Christianity,”[4] if Zen is really true? Perhaps Zenists should listen to the words of Dr. Suzuki, learn from Christianity and read the words of Jesus Christ in detail. Here they will find true enlightenment, for in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).

The difficulty for Zen is that even Zen masters betray Zen by how they live and think. Is a philosophy that one consistently betrays, and that consistently betrays itself, a true philosophy of life? Or is Zen itself the real koan?

Zenists have declared that “ignorance is in reality the Buddha-nature.”[5] Read that again, slowly! Based on this statement we might conclude with a “koan” of our own predicated upon Christian presuppositions. “When we say perception is an illusion, are we in our senses or are we not?”

Questions for Practitioners

1. How can koans originate from the Buddha nature?[6]

2. How many Zenists are unnecessarily struggling “no matter what the hardship or anxiety may be?”[7] How many Zenists have committed suicide because of its meaninglessness? “For example, Ch’u Yuan said, ‘Everybody in the world is drunk. Only I am sober!’ He refused to follow the ways of the world, but he ended his life in the waters of the Ts’ang-lang River.”[8]

3. If conflict between right and wrong is the sickness of the mind, why do Zen masters concern themselves with distinguishing right from wrong?[9] If Zen Masters have sick minds should their conclusions be heeded?

4. Some people have practiced Zen for ten years (or longer) without ever attaining enlightenment.[10] Is it wise to spend so much time seeking a condition described even by Zen Masters as encompassing a “half-mad state”?

5. How can Zen monks speak of other Zen “approaches [that] are not authentic, true Zen at all”?[11] If Zen Masters deny each other’s basic teachings on zazen,[12] satori and other key elements, how can its disciples be certain that what they learned is true? As Callaway points out:

In fact, Zen cannot even believe that Zen’s own doctrine is more true than the doctrine of other religions. The moment one thing is preferred to another, the realization that all things are equally Only Mind has been set aside. This leads to the basic dilemma of Zen and, for that matter, of all other monistic or non-dualistic systems of thought. The only possible conclusion to believing that the insights of Zen are true is to believe that truth cannot be known. But if it is believed that truth cannot be known, it cannot be believed that the premises of Zen are true.[13]

6. After satori is achieved, “When the ecstasy resides, we have acquired nothing extraordinary and certainly nothing peculiar.”[14] If it is nothing special, why practice zazen? “If you think you will get something from practicing zazen, already you are involved in impure practice.”[15]

4. If the mind does not exist, how can it realize satori and then perceive its own illusion? Is it like discovering one has a mind, after thinking one does not? If the mind does exist, why deny its reasoning abilities? But if so, why teach Zen? As Huang Po said: “If I now state that there are no phenomena and no Original Mind, you will begin to understand something of the intuitive Dharma silently conveyed to Mind with mind.[16]


Scripture Contrasts

“There is no this and no that.” (Huang Po in Ross, World of Zen, pp. 70-71) “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen. 1:1)
“Why seek a doctrine? As soon as you have a doctrine you fall into dualistic thought.” (Huang Po, Zen Teaching of Huang Po, p. 71) “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.” (Titus 2:1)
“Even to have a good thing in your mind is not so good.” (Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 127) “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.” (Phil. 4:8 NAS)
“The master does not ‘help’ the student in any way, since helping would actually be hindering. On the contrary, he goes out of his way to put obstacles and barriers in the student’s path.” (Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 163) “In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35 NAS)
“Your own Mind is itself Buddha, the Void-universe. There will then be no anxiety about life or death….” (The Three Pillars of Zen, p. 162) “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:5 NAS)


  1. D. T. Suzuki, “The Koan,” in Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen, an East-West Anthology (New York: Vintage Books), p. 54.
  2. Tucker N. Callaway, Zen Way—Jesus Way (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1976), pp. 238-239.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., p. 148.
  5. Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Knopf, Inc. and Random House, Inc., 1957), p. 146.
  6. Ernest Wood, Zen Dictionary (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1962), p. 66.
  7. Beiho Masunaga, A Primer of Soto Zen (Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1971), p. 84.
  8. Ibid., p. 44.
  9. Ibid., pp. 71-72, 106-107; ZCLA Journal, Summer/Fall 1973, pp. 41-42.
  10. Philip Kapleau, ed., The Three Pillars of Zen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 57.
  11. R. C. Zaehner, Zen Drugs and Mysticism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), p. 115, citing Z. Shibayama, A Flower Does Not Talk (Tuttle Publishing, 1989), pp. 47-48.
  12. Kapleau, p. 56.
  13. Ibid., p. 50.
  14. Ibid., p. 57.
  15. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1976), p. 60.
  16. John Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, on the Transmission of Mind (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1958), p. 106.


  1. terefe on January 10, 2016 at 9:22 pm

    True Christianity does not assert itself by finding fault on others. Your article does not change the view people have to other religions. When You dedicate and practice Your faith with integrity then people can take it.
    With this kind of mindset of trying to find fault on other religion does not help You at all. Other religions can do the same to Christianity as well. I have seen it.
    I and my family are from Christian origin. We don’t judge others but we try to practice our faith.
    This is my heart felt advice to share with You.

  2. A Student on May 4, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    Well… Qu Yuan WAS NOT a zen-buddhist, because he lived in Zhanguo era, when buddhism still was not introduced in China. He was a state official, and his attitudes to life were far from those of zen. He was a passionate man who does not fit the calm zen ideal at all. With all respect, if you wish to show contradictions in a certain teaching, fine, but do not contradict the history, please.

  3. MarcoSolo on July 17, 2016 at 9:45 am

    Great Heart of Wisdom Sutra: indeed, there is nothing to be attained.
    Great Heart of Wisdom Sutra: and therefore reach the most supreme enlightenment.

    For the logically impaired, if there is nothing to be attained, why is there an implicit goal to reach the most supreme enlightenment, to reach the other shore, having never left.

    In “The Whole World in a Single Flower” there is an exclusivity between those who ‘get it’ and those who don’t which reminds me of the movie “Semi-Tough”.

    I have had satori-like revelatory experiences three times in my life and they were transitory flashes, like water which boils and then cools again but I am still me, feet of clay.

  4. Avery on September 8, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    Shotty scholarship. I wont’ even take the time to point out all the misunderstandings on Dr. Weldon’s part. This article is not very good at all, and many of those “contradictions” are either:

    1. Not taken into context
    2. Some of them don’t contradict one another if you understand the teachings.

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