Does Zen Work in the Real World?



Zen as Self-Disintegration

Sooner or later “zazen leads to a transformation of personality and character.”[1] It “effects a fundamental change in oneself, philosophical and intellectual, as well as psychological. It is the total conversion of one’s personality.”[2]

But Zen constitutes far more than a “conversion” of one’s personality; it aims at the destruction of the personality, the “lower” self. The first question that could be raised is whether Zen transformation really benefits the individual. “We have to fix our will on the void, to will the void…. This void is fuller than all fullness…. This nothingness is not unreal. Compared with it everything in existence is unreal.” [3] If Zen’s monistic philosophy is in error, then radical personality transformation (destruction) based on it can hardly be considered helpful. If Zen attempts the destruction of the personality, so that the individual is no more, of what value is that—to anyone? What is true for yoga is true for Buddhism; with every step along the Buddhist path the individual is destroyed a little more until there is a complete abolition. In its essence, then, Zen represents a radical denial of life, a denial of what it means to be human. As Professor of Religion Dr. Robert E. Hume remarks in The World’s Living Religions, “An utter extinction of personality and consciousness would seem to be implied by the fundamental principles of Buddhism and also by explicit statements of Buddha….”[4] Buddhist scholar Edward Conze remarks of different Buddhist schools generally, “What is common to all of them is that they aim at the extinction of belief in individuality.” [5]

Nevertheless, Zenists have to live in the real world, and it is here we wish to examine an additional consequence of their monistic philosophy: the denial of morality.


Zen believers claim Zen “also molds our moral character.”[6] But this is not true. Or put another way, it is true only from a Zen perspective that denies morality. First, Zen teaches that “only upon full enlightenment” can one distinguish good from evil.[7] As a result, those without Zen enlightenment remain ethically unaware, or blind to Zen’s “true morality.”

Does Zen really inculcate morality, as it claims? It is interesting that when asked, “What is the primary meaning of the holy reality,” the alleged founder of Zen, Bodhidharma, replied first, that there is “nothing that can be called holy” and, second, that reality was “Emptiness, not holiness.”[8] When asked if he were a holy man, he replied, “I don’t know.” [9] If Zen is so moral, why was Huang Po concerned about “harmful” concepts like virtue, lest people be led astray into dualism?[10] More than one Buddhist has told us that all actions, even the most virtuous, are to be considered evil if they tie one to duality. Virtually all Christian social work is thus obliterated, not to mention Christian missions.

Buddhists may claim that their moral ideal always consists in the highest good, but it must be remembered that this is said from the perspective of Buddhist philosophy. The highest good in Buddhism is enlightenment, something destructive of morality. Only “enlightened” actions are considered good, because once one is enlightened everything one does is good by definition even if it is evil, even if it conflicts with social convention or biblical standards. This approach to ethics is demonstrated by a dialogue between Dom Aelard Graham, author of Zen Catholicism, and Buddhist Fuji Moto Roshi: “Christians try to conform their conduct to some external law given by God or given by the church. That cannot be, of course, in Buddhism…. The concept of ethics does not come into Buddhism…. If one is enlightened, everything he does is good…. In other words, he lives in the domain where there is no distinction between good and evil…. As to ethics, we are not concerned with ethics, good and evil, in Buddhism…. The function of religion is to let us work out or live in accordance with the true nature, with the self-nature.” [11] Thus, to adopt a system of Christian ethics, or Christianity itself for that matter, would be to work against one’s true nature, and that, naturally, could not be something good in Buddhism. In fact, it would be something evil. Zen does not exalt righteousness, it demeans it as an illusion, even as an “evil” concept.

Buddhists argue that practitioners will not abuse the Buddhist denial of ethics. But if Zen’s denials of morality will not be misused, why does Alan Watts note that “many a rogue has justified himself” by them?[12] Do not people generally live consistently with their presuppositions about life? So will not Zen practitioners be influenced by Zen philosophy, such as its nihilism and amoralism? How could it be otherwise? Buddhist teachings have logical, practical consequences. To think otherwise is foolish. Did not many Zenists of the tenth century use Buddhist philosophy as a means “to antinomianism and even to licentiousness”?[13] Does not Alan Watts himself warn us of our own era: “Therefore Zen might be a very dangerous medicine in a social context where convention is weak, or, at the other extreme, where there is a spirit of open revolt against convention ready to exploit Zen for destructive purposes.” [14] In Japan has not Zen been used to justify Japan’s aggressive wars against other nations historically? We might ask, what in the name of Buddha did the Zen masters expect? Do they think that when they say that good and evil do not exist, or that evil can be something good, that it will have no impact? Scripture speaks clearly to this: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight” (Isa. 5:20-21)

We also encounter the ungodliness of Zen morality when we are told that Buddhist love (termed “compassion”), being “all-embracing” and fully non-discriminative, should love even evil. “The greater love is, the less it binds itself to conditions.” Thus it is implied we should love heresy, and false gods, and even the Devil![15] In such a philosophy, what then is the real evil? “A clinging to the ‘one true God,’ the ‘one true religion.’”[16] Christianity, it seems, is the true malevolent force in this world. Quoting two Western Zenists (Christmas Humphreys and Alan Watts), Lit-sen Chang observes how Zen compromises God’s holiness:

Zen compromises the holiness of God in a very serious manner. In the conception of Zenists, sin against God does not exist. As they boldly declare that the “immaculate Yogins do not enter Nirvana and the precept violating monks do not go to hell; to avoid sin and evil by obedience to any moral law is only an idle attempt. Every being must act according to their Nature. “There is no question and no need of rules of morality.” Our Lord says of men “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The same rule of judgment applies to doctrines. Even they themselves do not deny that “immature disciples would make the inclusiveness of Zen an excuse for pure libertinism.”[17]

And so we find Zen authorities, not to mention mere practitioners, employing Zen philosophy to justify whatever behavior they wish. As the famous novelist Aldous Huxley confessed in his Ends and Means, referring to sexual, economic and political liberation, “For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation.[18]

If Zen truly supports moral character, why do we find such appalling statements as the following?

Alan Watts:

It is indeed the basic intuition of Zen that there is an ultimate standpoint from which “anything goes”…. Or as is said in the Hsin-hsin Ming [quoting Seng-ts’an]: “If you want to get the plain truth,/Be not concerned with right and wrong./The conflict between right and wrong/Is the sickness of the mind.” Within the conventional limits of a human community, there are clear distinctions between good and evil. But these disappear when human affairs are seen as part and parcel of the whole realm of nature. [19]

The extremes of beat Zen need alarm no one, since, as Blake said, “the fool who persists in his folly will become wise.” [20]

Huang Po:

Then comes the concept “God is good” which, as Christian mystics have pointed out, detracts from His perfection; for to be good implies not being evil—a limitation which inevitably destroys the unity and wholeness inseparable from perfection. This, of course, is not intended to imply that “God is evil,” or that “God is both good and evil.” To a mystic, He is none of these things, for He transcends them all.[21]


To offer a diet of beans and water in an effort to save the old and infirm merely caters to the misguided love and deluded passions of this brief life.[22]

If you renounce this life and enter Buddhism, your aged mother might starve to death…. How can this not accord with the Buddha’s will? It is said that if one son leaves his home to become a monk, seven generations of parents will gain the Way. How can you afford to waste an opportunity for eternal peace because of concern for the body in this present fleeting life? [23]

Yet Dogen also says that if we “practice evil” we “violate the will of the Buddha; that we should ‘practice good.’”[24] Does he mean to say that moral living is Zen living, because to do good in Zen is as “evil” as to do evil, both being “binding” concepts? Or is he perhaps here speaking of doing good in a Christian sense, as Zenists are sometimes forced to do? If so, we must ask why, if Zen is true, Zenists are forced to live in a Christian world rather than a Zen one?


If you are a real man, you may by all means drive off with the farmer’s ox, or grab the food from a starving man. [25]

Shunryu Suzuki:

When the Buddha comes, you will welcome him; when the devil comes, you will welcome him. [26]

We should find perfection in imperfection…. Good is not different from bad. Bad is good; good is bad.[27]

Christmas Humphreys:

Without any sense of separateness there is no need of benevolence, or of love for one’s fellow men.[28]

Alan Watts:

Therefore in Zen there is neither self nor Buddha to which one can cling, no good to gain and no evil to be avoided, no thoughts to be eradicated and no mind to be purified, no body to perish and no soul to be saved. [29]

Hui Hai:

Thinking in terms of good and evil is wrong; not to think so is right thinking.[30]

Shunryu Suzuki:

Even to have a good thing in your mind is not so good.[31]

The Apostle Paul, then, from the Zen perspective, is quite mad, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).

Of course we might ask, given the Zen mind-set and philosophy, who is to say good is not evil or that evil should not be done? Remember, in Zen, to “do good” is as “evil” as “doing evil.” We must thus be mentally “free” from doing good. If “morality… must be relinquished” [32] isn’t the reason because “doing good” will bind us to illusions and prevent enlightenment?

Scripture supplies a different attitude: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). The Scripture tells us we are to be “zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14 NAS); and to be “careful to engage in good deeds” (Titus 3:8 NAS); and be “ready for every good deed” (Titus 3:1 NAS). The Apostle Peter illustrates his lack of Zen enlightenment when he writes, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” (1 Pet. 3:13).

But do not all Zenists live as dualists? Do not Zen monks say to practice good? Then why not practice evil? If “all is one, what is bad,” as Charles Manson once asked? Whatever is, is “good”—or simply “IS”—and this is a tacit approval of evil, no matter how uncomfortable practitioners may feel or “logically” attempt to deny it. “In Zen, ‘evil’ is non-Zen, period.” [33]



  1. Philip Kapleau, ed., The Three Pillars of Zen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 14.
  2. R. C. Zaehner, Zen Drugs and Mysticism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), p. 126, citing Z. Shibayama, A Flower Does Not Talk (Tuttle Publishing, 1989), p. 117.
  3. Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen, an East-West Anthology (New York: Vintage Books), p. 288.
  4. Robert H. Hume, The World’s Living Religions (New York: Charles Schribner Sons, 1952), p. 76.
  5. Edward Conze, Buddhism: It’s Essence and Development (1951), p. 13.
  6. Daisetz Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), p. 25.
  7. Kapleau, p. 14.
  8. ZCLA Journal, Summer/Fall 1973, p. 19.
  9. Kapleau, p. 231n.
  10. “The Zen Teaching of Huang Po on the Transmission of the Mind,” in Ross, p. 67.
  11. Dom Aelard Graham, Conversations: Christians and Buddhists (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanivich, 1968), pp. 100-103.
  12. Watts, “Beat Zen Square Zen and Zen,” in Ross, pp. 337-338.
  13. Ernest Wood, Zen Dictionary (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1962), p. 159.
  14. Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Knopf, Inc. and Random House, Inc., 1957), p. 143.
  15. Garma Chang, The Practice of Zen (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1970), pp. 196-197.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Lit-sen Chang, Zen-Existentialism: The Spiritual Decline of the West (MA: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., Co., 1969), pp. 132-133.
  18. Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means (London: Chatto and Windus, 1946), p. 270; cf. p. 273.
  19. Watts, “Beat Zen,” in Ross, p. 335.
  20. Ibid., p. 339.
  21. John Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, on the Transmission of Mind (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1958), p. 26.
  22. Beiho Masunaga, A Primer of Soto Zen (Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1971), p. 88.
  23. Ibid., p. 260.
  24. Ibid., p. 50.
  25. Cited in Watts, p. 147.
  26. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1976), pp. 42-43.
  27. Ibid., p. 103.
  28. “Christmas Humphreys on Satori,” in Ross, p. 47.
  29. Watts, pp. 152-155.
  30. John Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai on Sudden Illumination (New York: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1972), p. 50.
  31. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 127.
  32. Blofield, The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai, p. 37.
  33. ZCLA Journal, Summer/Fall 1973, pp. 41-42.

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