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Three Lesser-Known Figures in the Zen Tradition

All three emphasized the Tao side of Zen

Photo by Andre Guerra / Unsplash

I think it’s safe to say that pretty much everyone has heard of Shakyamuni (Gautama Buddha) and Lao-Tzu, the semi-historical founders of Buddhism and Taoism.

A lot of people have probably also heard of Bodhidharma, the 28th patriarch of Buddhism (and first patriarch of Zen Buddhism) who brought Indian metaphysics to China in 520 AD, where it started to mix with Taoism, leading to the entirely new phenomenon that we call “Zen.” See D. T. Suzuki, “History of Zen,” in Essays in Zen Buddhism.

But most of us in the West haven’t heard of the hundreds of other philosophers and monks in the Zen tradition whose insights and lives deserve attention.

Now, as a Catholic, I don’t believe these men merit the attention of the saints, but they do merit attention. They represent the highest attainment of natural philosophy.(FN)

By “natural philosophy,” I primarily mean “philosophy without any revelation.”

The Zen tradition is almost entirely deprived of Christian revelation. More troubling, its ontology is monistic, meaning that it presumes there is not even a transcendent being (God) that could impart revelation.

It wouldn’t be accurate to call Zen “atheistic,” but it wouldn’t be inaccurate either.

As far as philosophical traditions go, you could argue that Zen is the one tradition that, through its premises and practices, has done everything possible to deprive itself of grace. I’m not saying it is deprived of grace (and I’m inclined to think that, despite its unknowing attempts to eliminate grace, it has received it in spades nonetheless), but any grace it receives is applied solely on the natural plane.

Yet Zen’s insights are enormous and important. Its insights are often wrong and incomplete, but that’s unavoidable in a tradition that denies one-half of existence (the transcendent half). In the half that it occupies (the immanent half), its insights are penetrating and, in my experience, edifying.

Its insights also provide a different angle on Christian practice. I believe that every Zen insight is captured better somewhere in the Christian tradition, but Zen, bringing zero revelation (and possibly grace) to the analysis, and talking from a cultural tradition wholly detached from the Judeo-Christian, provides a perspective that we might not see otherwise.

Hopefully, a few of those perspectives come through in the brief biographies below.


One sentence summary of his teaching: If you persist in striving, you will be destroyed, so be content to wait, listen, and accept.

Chuang-Tzu was not a Zen practitioner. He lived about 750 years before Bodhidharma and was the second greatest philosopher of the Tao (after Lao-Tzu).

He was playful in his approach to the Tao, and it’s that playfulness that mixed with the seriousness of Buddhist metaphysics to create the Zen phenomenon.

Chuang-Tzu was one of the greatest proponents of the Chinese concept of wu-wei: non-doing, non-action. His was a wu-wei born of a profound humility that seeks nothing for oneself, not even self-improvement.

Chuang-Tzu’s profound humility emanates from his perception of the Tao, which is a mysterious “force” that surpasses all understanding . . . especially the “understanding” born of discursive reasoning, categories, and rules.

Chuang-Tzu rejected all such things because they exist outside oneself. The problem with things outside oneself is, because they exist outside, a person needs to strive to attain them, but the mere act of striving, Chuang-Tzu taught, is defeat.

It’s important to emphasize that even striving for goodness or virtue is defeat. The mere act of striving, no matter for what, is defeat because it’s steeped in self-aggrandizement. The person who seeks to improve himself is discontented with himself, which necessarily means he thinks he should be more than he really is.

It is, in other words, pride.

It runs counter to the deep humility Chuang-Tzu was trying to explain. Man, he taught, out to be content with his natural state: simplicity, obscurity, unimportance, littleness.

Chuang-Tzu’s teaching provides a response to the paradox that has dogged Christian spirituality for 2,000 years: the mere desire to be selfless is selfish. Chuang-Tzu said don’t be selfish; practice profound humility; accept yourself as you are in your simplicity, obscurity, unimportance, and littleness.

Quote: “[Y]ou never find happiness until you stop looking for it.”


One sentence summary of his teaching: We must recognize the independent man of the Tao inside each of us.

Lin-Chi is arguably the high watermark of Chinese Zen. In him, the psychological revolution launched by the Sixth Patriarch that gave Zen its unique disposition started to take on the external forms that many of us associate with Zen.

When you hear about a Japanese monastery, do you get an image of a master shouting in his disciple’s face?

That would be Lin-Chi, trying to shake disciples to enlightenment.

His aggressive approach to enlightenment wasn’t gratuitous. “Underneath all his roughness,” said John Wu, “there was a burning compassion.” John Wu, The Golden Age of Zen.

Lin-Chi’s burning compassion wanted to shake his disciples out of their artificial selves so they could find the independent man of the Tao inside each of them. He wanted them to find their “true man” (which should sound familiar to any Catholic acquainted with Catholic spirituality’s current emphasis on becoming the person God created us to be).

The true man, said Lin-Chi, is ordinary. “Tao is nothing but the ordinary mind.”

He wanted his disciples to put aside all artificial effort and to do ordinary things without any fuss.

He was deeply steeped in the Taoism of Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu, as evidenced by this quote: “The truly noble man is a man of non-concern and non-ado. Don’t try to be clever and ingenious. Just be ordinary.” He taught the doctrines of “wu-shih” (no concern) and “wu-ch’iu” (no-seeking), which are brother-sister concepts of wu-wei (see above).

Quote: “When you encounter your father and mother, kill your father and mother.” (A harsher version of Luke 14:26)

The Kitchen Worker

One sentence summary of his teaching: Zen can be practiced in every setting (think: St. Therese of Lisieux’s Little Way).

Dogen, the father of the Soto School of Japanese Zen, is arguably the greatest intellectual in the Zen tradition. In 1223, when he was young and still learning, he sailed to China so he could learn at the birthplace of Zen. After a difficult trip, he was forced to stay on the ship for three months while waiting for clearance to come on land.

While on the ship, a monastery cook came on board to buy shiitake mushrooms from the Japanese. Dogen was impressed by his wisdom and asked him to stay on board to talk more, but the cook said he had to go back to work. Dogen asked why. The cook said it was his form of Zen practice.

Dogen, noting the cook’s advanced years, suggested the cook should instead devote himself to meditation and koans.

The cook laughed and said, “My good fellow from a foreign land, you do not yet know what practice means, nor do you yet understand words and scriptures,” then abruptly left.

They later met again and Dogen asked what the cook meant by “words and scriptures.” The cook replied, “Words and scriptures are: one, two, three, four, five. Practice means: nothing in the universe is hidden.”

Absurd? Yes, absolutely . . . that’s Zen. Absurd responses are gentle and humorous forms of slaps and shouts. The good Zen master applies whichever approach best fits the disciple.

The absurd words transformed Dogen, who wrote about it years later in The Lessons from the Monk-Cook.

Dogen said the old cook was a “man of the Tao” who showed Dogen how daily work that flows out of enlightenment is a religious practice. The cook brought him to understand how any activity can be a Zen practice.

From this, it flowed that Zen practice can be pursued just as rigorously in daily service to the community as it can in cross-legged meditation. (Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History: Japan.)

Quote: “Judging others from within the boundaries of your own opinions, how could you be anything other than wrong?” Dogen, The Lessons from the Monk-Cook.

Footnote regarding Zen’s status as the highest attainment of natural philosophy. Classical Greek philosophy may have a stronger claim to this award, but I’m inclined to put Plato, Aristotle, and others in the Christian tradition, with at least a glimpse of revelation and grace at work.