“The Tao of Physics”

Fritjof Capra


When the Chinese mind came in contact with Indian thought in the form of Buddhism, around the first century A.D., two parallel developments took place. On the one hand, the translation of the Buddhist sutras stimulated Chinese thinkers and led them to interpret the teachings of the Indian Buddha in the light of their own philosophies. Thus arose an immensely fruitful exchange of ideas which culminated in the Hua-yen (Sanskrit: Avatamsaka) school of Buddhism in China and in the Kegon school in Japan.

On the other hand, the pragmatic side of he Chinese mentality responded to the impact of Indian Buddhism by concentrating on its practical aspects and developing them into a special kind of spiritual discipline which was given the name Ch’an, a word usually translated as “meditation.” This Ch’an philosophy was eventually adopted by Japan, around A.D. 1200, and has been cultivated there, under the name of Zen, as a living tradition up to the present day.

Zen is thus a unique blend of the philosophies and idiosyncrasies of three different cultures. It is a way of life which is typically Japanese, and yet it reflects the mysticism of India, the Taoists’ love of naturalness and spontaneity and the thorough pragmatism of the Confucian mind.

In spite of its rather special character, Zen is purely Buddhistic in its essence because its aim is no other than that of the Buddha himself: the attainment of enlightenment, an experience known in Zen as satori. The enlightenment experience is the essence of all schools of Eastern philosophy, but Zen is unique in that it concentrates exclusively on this experience and is not interested in any further interpretations. In the words of Suzuki, “Zen is discipline in enlightenment.” From the standpoint of Zen, the awakening of the Buddha and the Buddha’s teaching that everybody has the potential of attaining this awakening are the essence of Buddhism. The rest of the doctrine, as expounded in the voluminous sutras, is seen as supplementary.

The experience of Zen is thus the experience of satori, and since this experience, ultimately, transcends all categories of thought, Zen is not interested in any abstraction or conceptualization. It has no special doctrine or philosophy, no formal creeds or dogmas, and it asserts that this freedom from all fixed beliefs makes it truly spiritual.

More than any other school of Eastern mysticism, Zen is convinced that words can never express the ultimate truth. it must have inherited this conviction from Taoism, which showed the same uncompromising attitude. “If one asks about the Tao and another answers him,” said Chuang Tzu, “neither of them knows it.”‘

Yet the Zen experience can be passed on from teacher to pupil, and it has, in fact, been transmitted for many centuries by special methods proper to Zen. In a classic summary of four lines, Zen is described as:

A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters,
Pointing directly to the human mind,
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.

This technique of “direct pointing” constitutes the special flavor of Zen. It is typical of the Japanese mind which is more intuitive than intellectual and likes to give out facts as facts without much comment. The Zen masters were not given to verbosity and despised all theorizing and speculation. Thus they developed methods of pointing directly to the truth, with sudden and spontaneous actions or words, which expose the paradoxes of conceptual thinking and, like the koans I have already mentioned, are meant to stop the thought process to make the student ready for the mystical experience. This technique is well illustrated by the following examples of short conversations between master and disciple. In these conversations, which make up most of the Zen literature, the masters talk as little as possible and use their words to shift the disciples’ attention from abstract thoughts to the concrete reality.

    • A monk, asking for instruction, said to Bodhidharma: “I have no peace of mind. Please pacify my mind.”


    • “Bring your mind here before me,” replied Bodhidharma, “and I will pacify it!”


    • “But when I seek my own mind,” said the monk, “I cannot find it.”


    • “There!” snapped Bodhidharma, “I have pacified your mind!”


    • A monk told Joshu: “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
    • Joshu asked: “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”


    • The monk replied: “I have eaten”


    • Joshu said “Then you had better wash your bowl”

These dialogues bring out another aspect which is characteristic of Zen. Enlightenment in Zen does not mean withdrawal from the world but means, on the contrary, active participation in everyday affairs. This viewpoint appealed very much to the Chinese mentality which attached great importance to a practical, productive life and to the idea of family perpetuation, and could not accept the monastic character of Indian Buddhism. The Chinese masters always stressed that Ch’an, or Zen, is our daily experience, the ‘everyday mind’ as Ma-tsu proclaimed. Their emphasis was on awakening in the midst of everyday affairs and they made it clear that they saw everyday life not only as the way to enlightnment but as enlightment itself.

In Zen, satori means the immediate experience of the Buddha nature of all things first and foremost among these things are the objects, affairs and people involved in everyday life, so that while it emphasizes life’s practicalities, Zen is nevertheless profoundly mystical. Living entirely in the present and giving full attention to everyday affairs, one who has attained satori, experiences the wonder and mystery of life in every single act.

How wondrous this, how mysterious!
I carry fuel, I draw water.

The perfection of Zen is thus to live one’s everyday life naturally and spontaneously. When Po-chang was asked to difine Zen, he said, “When hungry, eat, when tired, sleep.” Although this sounds simple and obvious, like so much in Zen, it is in fact quite a difficult task. To regain the naturalness of our original nature requires long training and constitutes a great spritual achievement. In the words of a famous Zen saying,

Before you study Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; while you are studying Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; but once you have had enlightenment mountains are once again mountains and rivers again rivers.

Zen’s emphasis on naturalness and spontaneity certainly shows it Taoist roots but the basis for this emphasis is strictly Buddhistic. It is the belief in the perfection of our original nature, the realization that the process of enlightenment consists merely in becoming what we already are from the beginning. When the Zen master Po-chang was asked about seeking for the Buddha nature, he answered, “It’s much like riding an ox in search of the ox.”

There are two principal schools of Zen in Japan today which differ in their methods of teaching. The Rinzai or ‘sudden’ school uses the koan method, and gives emphasis to periodic interviews with the master, called sanzen, during which the student is asked to present his view of the koan he is trying to solve. The solving of a koan involves long periods of intense concentration leading up to the sudden insight of satori. An experienced master knows when the student has reached the verge of sudden enlightenment and is able to shock him or her into the satori experience with unexpected acts such as a blow with a stick or a loud yell.

The Soto or ‘gradual school’ avoids the shock methods of Rinzai and aims at the gradual maturing of the Zen student, “like the spring breeze which caresses the flower helping it to bloom”. It advocates ‘quiet sitting’ and the use of one’s ordinary work as two forms of meditation.

Both the Soto and Rinzai schools attach the greatest importance to zazen, or sitting meditation, which is practiced in the Zen monasteries every day for many hours. The correct posture and breathing involved in this form of meditation is the first thing every student of Zen has to learn In Rinzai Zen, zazen is used to prepare the intuitive mind for the handling of the koan, and the Soto school considers it as the most important means to help the student mature and evolve towards safori. More than that it i seen as the actual realization of one’s Buddha nature; body and mind being fused into a harmonious unity which needs no further improvement. As a Zen poem says,

Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.

Since Zen asserts that enlightenment manifests itself in everyday affairs, it has had an enormous influence on all aspects of the traditional Japanese way of life. These include not only the arts of painting, calligraphy, garden design, etc., and the various crafts, but also ceremonial activities like serving tea or arranging flowers, and the martial arts of archery, swordsmanship, and judo [and many other do Martial Arts]. Each of these activities is known in Japan as a do, that is, a tao or ‘way’ toward enlightenment. They all explore various characteristics of the Zen experience and can be used to train the mind and to bring it in contact with the ultimate reality.

I have already mentioned the slow, ritualistic activities of cha-no-yu, the Japanese tea ceremony, the spontaneous movement of the hand required for calligraphy and painting, and the spirituality of bushido, the “way of the warrior”. All these arts are expressions of the spontaneity, simplicity and total presence of mind characteristic of the Zen life. While they all require a perfection of technique, real mastery is only achieved when technique is transcended and the art becomes an “artless art” growing out of the unconscious. We are fortunate to have a wonderful description of such an “artless art” in Eugen Herrigel’s little book Zen in the Art of Archery. Herrigel spent more than five years with a celebrated Japanese master to learn his “mystical” art, and he gives us in his book a personal account of how he experienced Zen through archery. He describes how archery was presented to him as a religious ritual which is “danced” in spontaneous, effortless and purposeless movements. It took him many years of hard practice, which transformed his entire being, to learn how to draw the bow “spiritually,” with a kind of effortless strength, and to release the string “without intention,” letting the shot “fall from the archer like a ripe fruit.” When he reached the height of perfection, bow, arrow, goal, and archer all melted into one another and he did not shoot, but “it” did it for him.

Herrigel’s description of archery is one of the purest accounts of Zen because it does not talk about Zen at all.