Doing versus doing nothing

D. T. Suzuki vs Henry David Thoreau

B y S i n g u l a r N e w m a n

This paper will attempt to interpret contemplation differences between Henry David Thoreau1) and D. T. Suzuki2). I will also briefly touch on the question of how contemplation informs one’s actions in the world. The texts I will be basing my conclusions upon are Thoreau’s Walden and D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism3).

In my opinion these two writers differ widely on the subject of contemplation. I would say as far as the city of Tokyo is from New York. Just about the only thing these two men had in common was their mutual love for solving complex societal problems. The deep existential questions that have been plaguing mankind since the first man looked around himself in the forest and asked why. The two go in opposing directions however.

D. T. Suzuki focuses his thesis on the concept of Zen. This concept which is deeply rooted in Buddhism has been called many things by many different people. D. T. Suzuki makes his own interpretation on the subject. As opposed to the Buddhist monks that study the religious texts day and night and also follow a complex and rigorous ritual for reaching Zen, Suzuki seems to be saying that Zen is whatever you want it to be and it means different things to different people. He disassociates Zen from Buddhism, “No amount of meditation will keep Zen in one place. Meditation is not Zen” and “Zen is not to be confounded with a form of meditation as practiced by… some Buddhists.” (41, 40). Zen is about disciplining the mind itself, “to make it its own master, through an insight into its proper nature… The discipline of Zen consists in opening the mental eye in order to look into the very reason for existence.” (40). So what he seems to be saying is that even dough meditation and deep contemplation can be used to ponder the mystical ideal of Zen, contemplating Zen is not Zen. Contemplating Zen to in its fullest, one will find a bottomless pit, “Why? Because Zen is a bottomless abyss.” (43). He says that once you have reached this point in your meditation you will find this hole that’s impossible to fill. So in conclusion the art of practicing Zen is to look for the hidden meaning of why your soul exists but in the end you will reach nothing. You will arrive at an impenetrable abyss that can never be fully comprehended because it is made of this nothingness.

Thus the reason for contemplating Zen, is not to help your fellow man or to reach any thoughtful meaning, it is to help yourself become one with this nothing, the silencing of all thoughts and emotions, becoming completely empty and void of all. I suppose that if one were to wish for his mind to be completely free, than all thoughts that one has in his own mind become obstructions and obstacles for the mind to fly free. So emptying your mind completely gives you unlimited room to roam, but if you’re not thinking any thoughts how will you know where you want to fly to, will you even know what freedom is since you have no concept of it anymore? You will be as a rock that just exists and doesn't do or care or feel, it just sits there very nice and quiet unless somebody decides to pick it up and shatter it into a million pieces and make asphalt out of it. Either way, the rock can’t object because it has no emotions or willful thought process, anymore than a true Zen worshiper should have, and I say worshiper because I believe the practice of Zen is a religion. The definition of a religion as given by Webster’s Dictionary is: a cause, principle or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.

In sharp contrast to D. T. Suzuki, Thoreau believes that contemplation should lead to action. Action that will alleviate the human condition of suffering. To do nothing is to be part of the problem. It is to be insensible and inhumane, to delegate blame and become as a farm animal, without conscious process or logical reason. Thoreau’s Walden thesis centers on the concept of conscience and how this deep human thought process should relate to all matters of civil life and liberties.

Thoreau takes a couple of years to go it alone in the woods, contemplating the problems and thinking up solutions for a better society. This is a one hundred and eighty degree opposite to what Suzuki says Zen Buddhism is about. Thoreau contemplates for a deeper logical sense and looks for a solution based on reason and law, a solution that will help out his fellow citizens. Thoreau believes that something should be done to wake everybody up, to change their thought processes so that they can think and act as free men in an equal and just society.

Action therefore is the end means of contemplation as practiced by Thoreau, as opposed to Suzuki’s statement that the key to life’s problems is becoming one with nothingness.

I suppose all your problems would end if you were dead. The dead don’t have problems, even if the livings decide to put a casino on top of their old tomb stones. The dead don’t tell tales, they don’t do. They simply don’t. This is escapism at its worst. Try living as a dead man, with no wants wills or desires and somehow you will ignore your problems away, that’s basically the idea from what I am getting, ignorance is blissful I suppose. I am opposed to what D. T. Suzuki stated, I believe the form of Zen he is presenting is highly nihilistic and flawed.

Advocating the doing of nothing or becoming one with nothing to better the wrongs in our society, is equal in my opinion to willingly becoming a participant with those that practice these evils. It is a sophisticated way of saying that in the end nothing matters, because nothing matters and nothing is all you are in the end, so try becoming one with it and at least you’ll become closer to this god which is nothingness in nothing which is all. According to D. T. Suzuki, “Zen teaches nothing.”4) (38). How depressing, there is no room for anything else because all is nothing.

As I am a westerner and was brought up in an occidental conceptual frame work, I am ill equipped to decipher these concepts as understood by D. T. Suzuki. Coming from a western background, my understanding is that all things have an inherent meaning and the entire universe around me is logical, straight forward and can be at least conceptually described by words that have a meaning, a place where A is A and can never be B. D. T. Suzuki presents a different concept for the universe, a place where A is A but sometimes can be not A, a place where words and logic stop.

Thoreau, also coming from a Western mindset has words full of meaning and a natural tendency towards due process and logic and laws. It is entirely simple for any laymen to understand these truths which are self evident that all men are created with certain unalienable rights. These rights are defined by a simple set of laws and rules. Where these rights are infringed upon certain thoughtful regulations should be introduced to help society navigate murky waters that from time to time emerge. Thoreau reflects on these questions while secluded away from society, choosing to live by himself in the forest so as to not be disrupted from his contemplation by outside interference. This period of secluded contemplation allow him to clear his thoughts and to focus on the solution to the problem.

D. T. Suzuki advocates the practice of clearing all of your thoughts until nothing remains. As far as I know, in the universe that I live, nothing comes from nothing. Furthermore the evil caste system that still exists in some form to this day in India, has been largely enabled by the concepts of Zen Buddhism that advocates doing nothing to become better, because becoming one with nothingness is the highest achievement possible. So people born in a lower caste were encouraged to do nothing to better themselves because they were supposed to become one with nothing anyway so the less you had to your name the closer you were to the ideal.

Contemplating on nothing and becoming one with nothingness, as opposed to contemplating towards a goal or a solution, that is the difference between D. T. Suzuki and Thoreau.


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