Nothing Exists

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There once was a young student of Zen who studied under many different Roshi (Zen masters), by the name of Yamaoka Tesshu. Yamaoka changed masters again and called upon the training of master Dokuon of Shokoku.

He wished to impress upon his new master his level of attainment. "The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist" he said. "The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received."

The master, Dokuon, remained quiet and motionless, only smoking his pipe. Then, suddenly, he hit Yamaoka upside the head with his bamboo pipe. At this, the student got very angry.

"If nothing exists," inquired Dokuon, "where did this anger come from?"

The thing I like about Zen stories is that they convey complex ideas with simple concepts. Philosophers will often point out the existence problem, you can only know of things through your senses and you cannot tell if your senses are deceiving you. There is no way to know the true nature of things. However, there are emotions, thoughts, and consequences in the real world that cannot be ignored. Dokuon realizes this and illustrates it with one swift point.

I also think there is a secondary point in this story. No matter how much you think you know, you don't know everything. Zen is an all or none kind of thing. When you're enlightened, it all makes sense. If you have not yet achieved true enlightenment, then your statements will contain error. True Zen is devoid of absolutes and lives in the "real world". The arrogance and desire of the student can be construed to be negative or undesirable qualities.