Zen Is Not Nihilistic

Zen judged from ancient Zen masters' aphorisms may seem, at the first

sight, to be idealistic in an extreme form, as they say: "Mind is

Buddha" or, "Buddha is Mind," or, "There is nothing outside mind,"

or, "Three worlds are of but one mind." And it may also appear to be

nihilistic, as they say: "There has been nothing since all eternity,"

"By illusion you see the castle of the Three Worlds"; "by

Enlightenment you see
but emptiness in ten directions." In

reality, however, Zen is neither idealistic nor nihilistic.

Zen makes use of the nihilistic idea of Hinayana Buddhism, and calls

its students' attention to the change and evanescence of life and of

the world, first to destroy the error of immutation, next to dispel

the attachment to the sensual objects.

These words were repeatedly uttered by Chinese and Japanese

Zenists of all ages. Chwen Hih (Fu-dai-shi) expressed this very idea

in his Sin Wang Ming (Shin-o-mei) at the time of Bodhidharma.

The Rin-zai teachers mostly make use of the doctrine of

unreality of all things, as taught in Prajnya-paramita-sutras. We

have to note that there are some differences between the Mahayana

doctrine of unreality and the Hinayana doctrine of unreality.

It is a misleading tendency of our intellect to conceive things as if

they were immutable and constant. It often leaves changing and

concrete individual objects out of consideration, and lays stress on

the general, abstract, unchanging aspect of things. It is inclined

to be given to generalization and abstraction. It often looks not at

this thing or at that thing, but at things in general. It loves to

think not of a good thing nor of a bad thing, but of bad and good in

the abstract. This intellectual tendency hardens and petrifies the

living and growing world, and leads us to take the universe as a

thing dead, inert, and standing still. This error of immutation can

be corrected by the doctrine of Transcience taught by Hinayana

Buddhism. But as medicine taken in an undue quantity turns into

poison, so the doctrine of Transcience drove the Hinayanists to the

suicidal conclusion of nihilism. A well-known scholar and believer

of Zen, Kwei Fung (Kei-ha) says in his refutation of nihilism:

"If mind as well as external objects be unreal, who is it that knows

they are so? Again, if there be nothing real in the universe, what

is it that causes unreal objects to appear? We stand witness to the

fact that there is no one of the unreal things on earth that is not

made to appear by something real. If there be no water of unchanging

fluidity, how can there be the unreal and temporary forms of waves?

If there be no unchanging mirror, bright and clean, bow can there be

the various images, unreal and temporary, reflected in it? If mind

as well as external objects be nothing at all, no one can tell what

it is that causes these unreal appearances. Therefore this doctrine

(of the unreality of all things) can never clearly disclose spiritual

Reality. So that Mahabheri-harakaparivarta-sutra says: " All the

sutras that teach the unreality of things belong to the imperfect

doctrine " (of the Shakya Muni). Mahaprajnya-paramita-sutra says The

doctrine of unreality is the entrance-gate of Mahayana."

See the appendix, chap. ii., 'The Mahayana Doctrine of