The simplicity and profundity in Zen and Tao

Why dwell in the Blue Mountain
I laugh without answering
Silence of water and blossoming flowers
World beyond the red dust of living

— Li Po, the Taoist poet with Zen flavour

Simple in Language, Profound in Meaning

So did Zhuang Zi write a fairy tale in the first passage?

Of course not. Taoist writings are arcane and symbolic. When Zhuang Zi wrote about the Kun fish that became the Peng bird, the famous Taoist master was, of course, not just talking about a fish becoming a bird. I'll leave it to the Taoist experts to explain the symbolism and the meaning behind the story.

Zen writings are simple. There is no play on words. There is no symbolism. When the Zen master Yue An mentioned a carriage in the story, he meant a carriage. When he mentioned wheels, he meant wheels.

Although the language is simple, the meaning is profound. Because of this profundity, many people may not understand the meaning. Or they may find the story illogical. This is because they approach Zen intellectually, rather than experientially.

Both Student A and Student B might answer that the carriage has wheels without spokes, yet the master might be pleased with Student A's answer but reprimanded Student B.

Or Student C might say that there is no carriage, and Student D might say there are no wheels. The master might be pleased with Student C but reprimanded Student D.

Or Student E might answer the same way as Student C, and student F the same way as student D. Yet the master might be pleased with Student F but not with Student E.

If Zen writings are not symbolic, then why would the master be pleased with some answers but not with others? What the Zen master wants from his students is not just the answer itself. The master is looking at how the student answers. He uses language as a tool to test his students, or to confirm whether his students have had a spiritual awakening (satori).

This use of language is not found in Taoism, but it was used by Zen masters long before Bodhidharma's arrival in China.

When Bodhidharma told Emperor Liang Wu Di that there is no holiness, but only emptiness, he used language in the same way. Or when Hui Ke told Bodhidharma that he could not bring out his heart (mind) because he had no heart, he also used language in this way. But from ancient times until now, this use of language to test or confirm satori has never been used in Taoism.

This use of language is another example of the important differences between Zen and Taoism. These many differences are what make Zen and Taoism distinct spiritual traditions. As I said earlier, both traditions lead to the same goal — they just get there along distinctly different paths.


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