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being Zen but having an opinion?
July 25th, 2012

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

being Zen but having an opinion?

A few days ago, someone posted a list. I found such a list biased (like… forgetting more than half of Humanity) and said so, but I also took care to explain why and to constructively propose several additions.
This generated some tense response though, that a list could never be complete even if rendered by the opinionated Denis who seems to have a greater call to criticism rather than a vocation to a simple solution of matters. (…) But, of course Denis, if you are up to the job I can't really wait to read your own list.
Visibly, the suggestions had not been seen… It continued by stating a first impression that your character is more inclined to open criticism (…) than it is to Zen as your beautiful profile photo may firstly suggest.

I will not respond to the various personal sides of the attack questioning ability (to propose a solution), photographic integrity or faithfulness to a spiritual path… Incident closed! I will however address one point: can someone practicing Zen have an opinion (potentially leading up to –constructive– criticism) ?

Let's be clear: a Zen mind is not a door-mat! 臨濟義玄 was highly regarded but, at times, taught by hitting and shouting! His famed "If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha" hardly defines the ideal of Zen as being an always smiling, silent, immobile, mindful meditator. Línjì hardly was the first (or last) 'opinionated' Buddhist though: Gotama himself did not shy away from qualifying some 'views' as right or wrong. He also made exhaustive analyses, in which 'no other' case was to be found. The presentation of the ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo starts with "right views" (also translated as "right perspective," "right outlook" or "right understanding")… "Seeing things as they are" (the end of ignorance) also supposes a judgement. Teaching people in the wrong is seen as the example of Great Compassion by the Buddha…

When someone thinks it is enough to tell a Zen practitioner that (s)he has an opinion and shouldn't, in order to avoid facing an inconvenient truth this practitioner brought to attention, it only shows little understanding about Zen, about the search for the end of ignorance (in Buddhism at large) and it shows a lot of misplaced expectations about what a Zen practitioner 'should' be.

Nonetheless:  #Buddhism   in general and  #Zen   in particular have issued, time and again, warnings against opinions and views. "If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha" applies just as much to what other people say as to what one may come to believe by himself/herself. The lower 'fetters' of suffering include e.g. identity view and ritual attachment… So, it might indeed seem that the Buddhist path requires one to drop opinions (including about how Buddhism should be practiced, or what Zen is). Attachment (sensual desire, but also attachment to existence and to non-existence) should be dropped, but is attachment not just an expression of seeing (viewing, having an opinion of) some state of the world as desirable? In a video shared recently (, roshi Joan Halifax mentioned "not knowing," which echoes Seon's traditional "only don't know"…

Attachment to views is different from having views. Enlightened or not, we are subject to stimulations, that we will perceive, conceptualise and bring to consciousness not as a mass of electric signals but as 'entities.' Such conceptualisation may be tainted by previous experiences and other concepts; or, having worked to get free from such biases, it may be neutral, perceived with equanimity. In all cases, the mind-constructed entity hides the reality in its sheer diversity and impermanence. Having views is unavoidable. Being attached to views is a different question.

"Not knowing" is not "not having an opinion!"
"Not knowing" is "not believing that one's opinion is the truth!"

Attachment to desire is believing that the object (of desire) is intrinsically desirable, i.e. unconditionally satisfactory. In its purest form, attachment to desire would be the belief that such intrinsically desirable object exists, even if one has no idea yet of what the object might be. So weakening attachment to desire is really about weakening attachment to an opinion that some object means 'happiness' per se. But rejecting attachment is not denying that a caress might be pleasant, so it is not in denying all opinion. It is in denying that the pleasure is unconditional, that the same caress would always be this pleasant, even if one is about to die of thirst or hunger, even if the same caress is given by a corpse, a torturer or a rapist, even if it is repeated until the skin tears or a rash develops, even if the contact is by a temperature of -30˚C and the cold burns… Rejecting attachment is rejecting that the "this is pleasant" opinion (or "there exists a Holy Grail" opinion) is some unconditional truth.

A Zen mind avoids the pretence, the illusory feeling of safety and/or identity, that come from (the posture of) 'knowing.' A Zen practitioner accepts that knowledge is a veil of concepts, which can be useful at times but ultimately blinds him/her from seeing reality as it is; a Zen practitioner knows that a 'tree' is a useful concept if one wants to grow trees and produce apples and pears but (s)he also knows that no concept will ever satisfactorily capture the tree right in front of their eyes in how it differs from all other trees (including from the same family, the same garden, or even the same tree a moment ago); a Zen practitioner understands why scientists always explore the limits where a model fails, or might fail, rather than where it appears to work. Models are not ultimate Truths.

A Zen mind doesn't identify with his/her views or knowledge, and so can accept updates, refinements or contradictions without feeling his/her own existence being at risk and in need of 'fighting back.' A Zen mind doesn't need to be defensive when a suggestion is brought forward by another to complete some knowledge…
That doesn't mean accepting any silly idea just for the sake of open-mindedness; that doesn't mean being a door mat and staying silent when one could voice some useful response; that doesn't mean staying passive in front of mistakes, small or gigantic. Being open to change and understanding the limits of concepts and formal knowledge doesn't go with a "it's all the same" stance, because the promotion of some ideas has consequences. And when one understands consequences (karma), one has views on unwholesome ideas (or biases).

So, yes, one can 'be' Zen and have opinions. Like with everything, Buddhism doesn't question opinions as much as it questions how one relates to his/her opinions. A Zen mind has opinions, it simply doesn't cling to them; it doesn't identify with them; it doesn't feel threatened when facing an opportunity to learn any different… A Zen mind is free to change an opinion when the consequences of doing so are wholesome; it would likely question the intention behind a change though, and would not change opinions only to adopt a posture (e.g. as an always smiling, silent, mindful, nice, sweet meditator — unless there is some incredible benefit for all beings in such 'posturing'?).

To go back to roshi Halifax, "wisdom is not knowing" is an opinion, a view, some 'knowledge.' Is she contradicting herself? She's not: rejecting all considerations on suffering, accepting the worst frauds and genocides, refusing to use your brain on the basis of "not knowing" would be a misunderstanding of what "not knowing" means.