France, Zen, and Musings

I still am fascinated by the conference of the Academie du Midi, which was held at the Hostellerie d’Eveche in Alet-les-Bains, southern France. Many of the people there were from Germany and in fact almost one whole day of the four-day conference (one day was off for excursion) was devoted to German papers. I tried to listen to some of them and could possibly understand about a third of one paper, but other than that it was as good as a complete blank.

Nevertheless, I met Guenther Wohlfart, the progenitor of the Academie du Midi and one who actually found Alet-les-Bains as the site of the conference. He is a Western philosopher who is very interested in Chinese and Buddhist thoughts. And in fact the Academie du Midi was found under the principle that there should be more interaction between the intellectual traditions of East and West. 

At the conference Wohlfart gave away his little book on Zen und Haiku, a collection of poems that he wrote. He also wrote a long introduction to the principle of Zen. Wohlfart said that according to Zen, one who does not know anything about it would think of a mountain just as what it is unreflectively. But those who have gone halfway into Zen would think that the mountain is not a mountain. However, those who have mastered Zen would think of the mountain just as what it is, a mountain, nothing more and nothing less. 

This parallels the stages of development of a Buddhist practitioner. One who does not know anything and who is nothing but an ordinary man or woman in the street would think of a mountain just as what it is. What’s the problem about it? But those who have studied the Buddhist thought for a while would think: This in fact is not a mountain at all, but a collection of atoms and the elements. So what looks like a mountain is not exactly a mountain. It only appears that way. This is the same for all other things. The self is composed of the five aggregates — bodily form, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications and consciousness. So the self is what exactly what it is. This is of course contrary to the thinking of the ordinary man in the street who thinks there is nothing problematic about the self, or the mountain for that matter.

Nonetheless, for those who have mastered Zen and other Buddhist teachings would think that the mountain is in fact the mountain. According to Wohlfart, “everything is none other than what it is. It reminds one of nothing other than itself. It shows itself in its this-unique-thing-ness.” 

This is my translation from the German. When one is realized enough, the mountain returns to being itself. Instead of just a collection of atoms and elements, it *is* a mountain and *is* what it is since the beginning. Instead of there being two levels of thing-ness, one appearing and the other existing hidden behind the appearance, there is only one level. In fact there is no level at all. Just things as they exist as they are, in the very thing-ness of it. (Now I am speaking German style 🙂 )

This could be thought of as returning to the pre-reflective stage of development. But that is no longer possible. One might think of the awakened one as a baby who is wondering at everything, perceiving everything in its pure bareness. Strictly speaking this is not possible, but there is some grain of truth in it though. One might say that the arahat or the Buddha to see the world as does the baby, but with the full understanding lying behind.



2 thoughts on “France, Zen, and Musings

  1. Cittasamvaro May 24, 2008 / 10:54 pm

    As I recall the original was something like
    I thought birds were birds, mountains were mountains
    Knowing Zen I realised birds are not birds, mountains are not mountains.
    Having realised Zen I know birds are really birds, and mountains are really mountains.

    D.T. Suzuki, always a hit with the Germanic mind, made a number of comments on this.

  2. soraj May 25, 2008 / 7:41 am

    Thanks a lot. Perhaps I will look for Suzuki’s comments on this. Hope to see you again soon. 🙂

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