Zen, zen, and Intellect

The relationship between Zen, zen, and intellect is multifaceted and may seem paradoxical. 

Understanding the relationships between these three concepts is critical for getting the most out of our practice. To understand the relationships between these three terms, we have to start exploring what they point to.

Zen (with a big “Z”) captures the framework that supports our practice. Things like the morning service with its ritual roles, underlying belief structures, precepts, etc. It’s the “Buddhist” stuff.

zen (with a little “z”) points to the meditation practice of dhyana, which cuts away all doing until nothing is left. Well, sort of… wink wink.

Intellect is defined as “the power of knowing as distinguished from the power to feel. The capacity for knowledge, rational thought, and intelligence.” 

Using these terms in a couple of sentences may illustrate the whole point. 

Siddhartha Gautama used zen to feel into a more profound truth that he consciously integrated, synthesized, and articulated through his intellect. Over time, this evolved into many practice traditions, one of them being Zen

Now, let’s lay out some of the common ways anti-intellectualism shows up, things like:

“Why do you want us to write a discussion forum and articulate our thoughts (on Zen)? Isn’t that the opposite of cultivating ‘The Silence’?”

“Why do we have discussions at all about zen? Shouldn’t we just shut up all the time?”

“Why is there so much reading in this course? It just makes me think a lot.”

Digging into these one by one will (hopefully) bring about a well-rounded picture of why skillful understanding is essential to the work we’re doing here. 

“Why do you want us to write a discussion forum and articulate our thoughts (on Zen)? Isn’t that the opposite of cultivating ‘The Silence’?”

Starting from the end, yes, it is. When we’re speaking or thinking in words and engaging the world with any notion of self, we are not “cultivating The Silence.” There are two kinds of “Silence” in meditation practice, absolute and non-dual. “Absolute Silence” points to cessation events where there is a gap in consciousness without a gap in awareness. Non-dual silence refers to spontaneously intuiting the dependently originating nature of all experiences and integrating that into the worldview of the self-making apparatus. In my view, going through Absolute Silence is one of the key (though not indispensable) ways to realize non-dual silence. Zen is an efficient framework for “cultivating the Silence” when we know what, why, and how Zen supports it. Knowing is an intellectual capacity. Intellect is developed by reading, writing, discussing, and contemplating in words. A skillful and robust intellectual understanding is the first step toward using Zen and zen effectively. This is just like having “the right tool for the job” is predicated on knowing what tools do what, when to use them and why.

Further, having an intellectual integration (a knowing) of what we intuit (feel) to be confirmed through zen practice is essential to ending suffering. Put another way; the intellect serves as a bridge to prepare us for Silence and, more importantly, to bring Silence into our lives.  

“Why do we have discussions at all about zen? Shouldn’t we just shut up all the time?”

Well, yes? Provided one knows precisely what “shutting up” really means, it’s adequate to go practice it. Yet, understanding the route to my destination before I leave the house helps get me there with the minimum amount of difficulty. Similarly, we discuss zen as a way to effectively ” cultivate Silence” and not have to re-invent the wheel. Most of the time, when we are talking about meditation, we’re discussing concentration. For example, following or counting the breath is a concentration-meditation practice, not zen. To further contextualize this, zen lays at the peak of skill in meditation, just as Mahamudra/Dzogchen lay near the end of the Vajrayana path of mind training, which has 21 meditations. Little “z” zen is analogous to meditations 19 & 20. 

“Why is there so much reading in this course? It just makes me think a lot.”

This one is quite interesting. In one way, it’s as simple as what has already been discussed. In another, Hollow Bones Zen advances what is known as an integral awakening. Integral awakening means that we cultivate “spiritual” levels of development in multiple lines, known as “vertical growth.” The lines developed in our practice are spiritual/moral, emotional, cognitive, somatic, interpersonal, and self-identity. We also practice state development, or “horizontal growth,” as essential to spiritual awakening, liberation, and vertical growth. In some developmental theories, the complexity of our cognition and ability to take perspectives is the limiting factor in development across all other lines. Reading diverse perspectives on meaningful content that challenges our capacity, contemplating them, and then articulating them in dialogue and the written word is one of the best methods for cognitive development.

Hopefully now the relationship between Zen, zen and intellect is a little clearer. It feels appropriate for Jun Po to have the last word on this:

It matters because meditation with an incorrect understanding not only limits our insight but can lead to suppression of feelings, rigid self-identification, ego-inflation, mania, and spiritual materialism. Having various “spiritual experiences” or “insights” is only the beginning of true and sustained Enlightenment. Having a strong and consistent meditation practice is one of the most important steps you can take to awaken. But knowing exactly why you are meditating, having the right philosophical context is just as important.

-Mondo Manual, page 5

Umi no Nami Dan Rotnem is the executive director of Hollow Bones Zen, and a teacher of Hollow Bones programs.

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