~D. T. Suzuki
What is the Absolute Tao?
Before we go on to the Zen conception of the ‘Absolute Tao’
or Godhead who sets itself up on ‘pure nothingness’, it may be
appropriate to comment on the Taoist conception of it as
expounded by Lao-tzu. He was one of the early thinkers of China
on philosophical subjects and the theme of the Tao Tê Ching
ascribed to him is Tao.
Tao literally means ‘way’ or ‘road’ or ‘passage’, and in more
than one sense corresponds to the Sanskrit Dharma. It is one of the
key terms in the history of Chinese thought. While Taoism
derives its name from this term, Confucius also uses it extensively.
With the latter however it has a more moralistic than
metaphysical connotation. It is Taoists who use it in the sense of
‘truth’, ‘ultimate reality’, ‘logos’, etc. Lao-tzu defines it in his Tao
Tê Ching as follows:
The Way is like an empty vessel
That yet may be drawn from
Without ever needing to be filled.
It is bottomless: the very progenitor of all things in the
world. . . .
It is like a deep pool that never dries
I do not know whose child it could be.
It looks as if it were prior to God.
There is another and more detailed characterisation of Tao in
When you look at it you cannot see it;
It is called formless.
When you listen to it you cannot hear it;
It is called soundless.
When you try to seize it you cannot hold it;
It is called subtle.
No one can measure these three to their ultimate ends,
Therefore they are fused to one.
It is up, but it is not brightened;
It is down, but it is not obscured.
It stretches endlessly,
And no name is to be given.
It returns to nothingness.
It is called formless form, shapeless shape.
It is called the intangible.
You face it but you cannot see its front.
You follow it but you cannot see its back.
Holding on to the Ancient Way (Tao)
You control beings of today.
Thus you know the beginning of things,
Which is the essence of the Way (Tao-chi).
When these quotations are compared with Eckhart’s we see
points common to both. Lao-tzu is expressing in his classical
Chinese way what the medieval Dominican preacher would talk
about in his German vernacular. Lao-tzu is poetical and concrete,
full of imageries, whereas Eckhart the theologian is more
conceptual. He would say:
‘God has no before nor after.’
‘God is neither this nor that.’
‘God is perfect simplicity.’
‘Prior to creatures, in the eternal now,
I have played before the
Father in his eternal stillness.’
For comparison I will give another definition for Tao from Tao
Tê Ching, Chapter XXV:
There is something in a state of fusion,
It is born prior to heaven and earth.
How still! How lonely!
It stands by itself unchanging,
It moves about everywhere unfailingly.
Let us have it as mother [of all things]
under the heavens.
I do not know its name,
But if needed call it Great.
The Great walks on,
Walks on to the farthest end,
And then returns.
Therefore the Tao is great,
Heaven is great,
Earth is great,
The ruler is great.
Within the realm there are four greats
And the ruler is one of them.
Man is earth when conforming to earth,
He is heaven when comforming to heaven,
He is Tao when conforming to Tao.
Let him thus conform himself to the suchness
(tzu jan) of things.
R. B. Blakney remarks in his preface to the Tao Tê Ching translation
that Lao-tzu’s book fascinated him for many years and that
he finally could not help producing his own translation in spite
of the fact that there are already a large number of such transla-
tions available. He suspects that every foreigner who at all knows
the Chinese language and can read Lao-tzu in the original would
feel the same as this new translator did. This remark or confession
on the part of the translator is highly significant. In my view
the fascination he feels about Lao-tzu is not just due to the Old
Philosopher’s contribution to ‘the literature of mysticism’, but
partly to the language in which it is expressed. It may be better
to say that the charm one feels about Chinese literature comes
quite frequently from visually going over those unwieldy ideogrammatic
characters with which thoughts or feelings are made
communicative. The Chinese books are best perused in large
type printed from the wooden blocks.
Besides this visual appeal of the ideograms there is an element
in the Chinese language which, while rare in others, especially in
Indo-European languages, expresses more directly and concretely
what our ordinary conceptualised words fail to communicate.
For instance, read the Tao Tê Ching, Chapter XX, in the
original and compare it with any of the translations you have at
hand and see that the translations invariably lack that rich,
graphic, emotional flavour which we after more than two thousand
five hundred years can appreciate with deep satisfaction.
Arthur Waley is a great Chinese scholar and one of the best
interpreters of Chinese life. His English translation of Lao-tzu is a
fine piece of work in many senses, but he cannot go beyond the
limitations of the language to which he is born.
The following story may not have historicity but it is widely
circulated among Zen followers who are occasionally quite disrespectful
of facts. It is worth our consideration as illustrating the
way in which the Zen teachers handle the problem of ‘Emptiness’
or ‘absolute nothingness’ or the ‘still desert’ lying beyond
‘this and that’ and prior to ‘before and after’. The story and
comments are taken from a Chinese Zen textbook of the Sung
dynasty of the eleventh century. The text is studied very much in
Japan and some of the stories are used as ko¯-an (problems given
to Zen students for solution).
Bodhidharma, who is the first Zen patriarch in China, came
from India in the sixth century. The Emperor Wu of the Tiong
dynasty invited him to his court. The Emperor Wu, a good pious
Buddhist studying the various Mahayana Sutras and practicing the
Buddhist virtues of charity and humility, asked the teacher from
India: ‘The Su¯tras refer so much to highest and holiest truth, but
what is it, my Reverend Master?’
Bodhidharma answered, ‘A vast emptiness and no holiness
The Emperor: ‘Who are you then who stand before me if
there is nothing holy, nothing high in the vast emptiness of
Bodhidharma: ‘I do not know, your Majesty’.
The Emperor failed to understand the meaning of this answer
and Bodidharma left him to find a retreat in the North.
When Bodhidharma’s express purpose of coming to China
was to elucidate the teaching of ‘vast emptiness’ (sunyata), why
did he answer ‘I do not know’ to the Emperor’s all-important
and to-the-very-point question? It is evident, however, that
Bodhidharma’s answer could not have been one of an agnostic
who believes in the unknowability of ultimate truth. Bodhidharma’s
unknowability must be altogether of a different sort. It
is really what Eckhart would like to see us all have – ‘transformed
knowledge, not ignorance which comes from lack of knowing;
it is by knowing that we get to this unknowing. Then we know
by divine knowing, then our ignorance is ennobled and adorned
with supernatural knowledge.’ It was this kind of unknowing
which is transcendental, divine, and supernatural that he wished
his imperial friend to realise.
From our ordinary relative point of view Bodhidharma may
seem too abrupt and unacceptable. But the fact is that the knowledge
or ‘I do not know’ which is gained only by ‘sinking into
oblivion and ignorance’ is something quite abrupt or discrete
or discontinuous in the human system of knowability, for we
can get it only by leaping or plunging into the silent valley of
Absolute Emptiness. There is no continuity between this and the
knowledge we highly value in the realm of relativity where our
senses and intellect move.
The Zen teachers are all unknowing knowers or knowing
unknowers. Therefore their ‘I do not know’ does not really mean
our ‘I do not know’. We must not take their answers in the way
we generally do at the level of relative knowledge. Therefore,
their comments which are quoted below do not follow the line
we ordinarily do. They have this unique way. Yengo (1063–
1135) gives his evaluation of the mondo (‘question and answer’)
which took place between Bodhidharma and the Emperor Wu of
the Liang dynasty in the following words:
Bodhidharma came to this country, via the southern route, seeing
that there was something in Chinese mentality which
responds readily to the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism. He
was full of expectations, he wanted to lead our countrymen to
the doctrine of ‘Mind-alone’ which cannot be transmitted by
letters or by means of word of mouth. The Mind could only be
immediately taken hold of whereby we attain to the perception
of the Buddha-nature, that is, to the realisation of Buddhahood.
When the Nature is attained, we shall be absolutely free from
all bondage and will not be led astray because of linguistic
complications. For here Reality itself is revealed in its nakedness
with no kinds of veil on it. In this frame of mind Bodhidharma
approached the Emperor. He also thus instructed his
disciples. We see that Bodhidharma’s [emptied mind] had no
premeditated measures, no calculating plans. He just acted in
the freest manner possible, cutting everything asunder that
would obstruct his seeing directly into the Nature in its entire
nakedness. Here was neither good nor evil, neither right nor
wrong, neither gain nor loss. . . .
The Emperor Wu was a good student of Buddhist philosophy
and wished to have the first principle elucidated by the great
teacher from India. The first principle consists in the identity of
being and non-being beyond which the philosophers fail to go.
The Emperor wondered if this blockage could somehow be
broken down by Bodhidharma. Hence his question. Bodhidharma
knew that whatever answers he might give would be
‘What is Reality? What is Godhead?’
‘Vast emptiness and no distinctions whatever [neither Father
nor Son nor Holy Ghost].’
No philosopher however well trained in his profession could
ever be expected to jump out of this trap, except Bodhidharma
himself who knew perfectly well how to cut all limitations down
by one blow of a sword.
Most people nowadays fail to get into the ultimate significance
of Bodhidharma’s pronouncement and would simply cry
out, ‘vast emptiness’ as if they really experienced it. But all to
no purpose! As my old master remarks, ‘When a man truly
understands Bodhidharma, he for the first time finds himself at
home quietly sitting by the fireplace.’ Unfortunately, the
Emperor Wu happened to be one of those who could not rise
above the limitations of linguistics. His views failed to penetrate
the screen of meum and tuum (you and me). Hence his
second question: ‘Who are you who face me?’ Bodhidharma’s
blunt retort, ‘I do not know’ only helped make the august
inquirer blankly stare.
Later, when he learned more about Bodhidharma and realised
how stupid he was to have missed the rare opportunity of
going deeper into the mystery of Reality, he was greatly upset.
Hearing of Bodhidharma’s death after some years he erected a
memorial stele for him and inscribed on it: ‘Alas! I saw him, I
met him, I interviewed him, and failed to recognise him. How
sad! It is all past now. Alas, history is irrevocable!’ He
concluded his eulogy thus:
‘As long as the mind tarries on the plane of relativity,
It forever remains in the dark.
But the moment it loses itself in the Emptiness,
It ascends the throne of Enlightenment.’
After finishing the story of the Emperor Wu, Yengo the
commentator puts this remark: ‘Tell me by the way where
Bodhidharma could be located.’ This is expressly addressed
to the readers and the commentator expects us to give him an
answer. Shall we take up his challenge?
There is another commentator on this episode, who lived
some years prior to the one already referred to. This one, called
Seccho (980–1052), was a great literary talent and his comments
are put in a versified form full of poetic fantasies. Alluding
to the Emperor Wu’s attempt to send a special envoy for Bodhidharma,
who after the interview crossed the Yang-tzu Chiang
and found a retreat somewhere in the North, the commentator
‘You [the Emperor Wu] may order all your subjects
to fetch him [Bodhidharma],
But he will never show himself up again!
We are left alone for ages to come
Vainly thinking of the irrevocable past.
But stop! let us not think of the past!
The cool refreshing breeze sweeps all over the earth,
Never knowing when to suspend its work.’
Seccho (the master commentator) now turns around and
surveying the entire congregation (as he was reciting his
versified comments), asks: ‘O Brethren, is not our Patriarch to
be discovered among us at this very moment?’
After this interruption, Seccho continues, ‘Yes, yes, he is here!
Let him come up and wash the feet for me!’
It would have been quite an exciting event if Eckhart appeared
to be present at this session which took place in the Flowery
Kingdom in the first half of the eleventh century! But who can
tell if Eckhart is not watching me writing this in the most
modern and most mechanised city of New York?