Saturday, April 2, 2011

Nothing's Sacred

Nothing's Sacred
by Scott Bradley

I've been reading Thomas Hoover's The Zen Experience which deals with the evolution of Zen by way of presenting the lives and teachings of its masters. I thought I'd share bits of Zen lore here. But first I should probably explain that Ch'an (Zen) is and was very much a Taoist philosophy. When Buddhism arrived in China, it was in many ways considered alien to Chinese values and thus underwent a radical transformation at the hands of Taoism. Some would say that it in fact became Taoist, though it surely transformed its Taoist roots as well.

Bodhidharma (470-532) is considered the First Patriarch of Zen. When he arrived in China from India, he came before the Emperor, a devout Buddhist, who told him of all the great things he had done for Buddhism and asked how much merit he might have accrued. (I paraphrase.) Bodhidharma replied: None at all. Taken aback, the Emperor asked: What then is the most sacred doctrine of Buddhism? Bodhidharma replied: There is nothing sacred; it's all empty. To this the Emperor replied: Who then exactly are you? Bodhidharma replied: I do not know.

I offer my non-scholarly opinions on this exchange.

With respect to things eternal, there are no merit or demerits -- the universe does not work on the basis of good and bad. There are no rewards and punishments. That this does not sit well with us is, I think, a potentially powerful opportunity to escape the burden of guilt and recrimination.

There is nothing sacred. If there is the sacred, there must also be the profane. Because no one thing is sacred, all things are sacred. All things are included, nothing is excluded. All is affirmed.

I do not know who I am -- in an eternal sense. Just as I do not know what is the Ultimate, I do not know what my ultimate purpose might be. All that's left is to surrender in trust.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.


  1. Two comments..

    "Surrender in trust" sounds almost like Islam.

    While I find the "intellectual" precepts of zen intriguing, and compatible or derived from tao, the problem I have with zen goes outside the zendo. Where is the social ethic? I think --for many Westerners, at least --zen becomes an escape. Show me something positive for application in ordinary daily social life. If you say "all things are sacred," cleverly the opposite of the title of the post, are you suggesting that, for instance, Charles Manson committed a sacred act?

    In the sense that philosophy continued after the dead end of logical positivism, life continues beyond satori. You can't just sit there. Or maybe you do?

  2. Baroness, excellent points. It's a true point of confusion and contradiction: how do you square non-dual thought with acts that are obviously atrocious? Is it equivocating to say "well, on the spiritual level, yes he acted in a sacred manner, but on the social issue, no." One might say that the best course is to have harmony across all the levels, but then, what is "better" in a non-dual thought system.

    I don't think any of this makes sense until you're enlightened (if ever?). So maybe that "surrender with trust" is pretty appropriate.

    Nothing wrong with it sounding like Islam, in my mind. I figure all religions have some kernel of truth, however they get used by the unenlightened followers. I'm a Universalist in thinking, and always looking at the similarities. The differences often seem less important than the similarities. The essence is there.

  3. Re: the Islam comment. I was indeed observing the similarity of the concept of surrender. Even the Greek Stoics make a similar point of "acceptance" which I think can be understood as "surrender."

    As I was pondering this issue of Zen Buddhist social ethics I came cross an interesting article:

    I haven't finished it yet, but I think there is much food for thought in it.


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