Agnostic Vs. Zen

by Chris Deziel

The biologist Thomas Huxley coined the term "agnostic" in the late 1880s, and it took only fifteen years for Buddhist practitioners to apply it to Buddhism. Philosopher Bertrand Russell, one of the 20th century's best known agnostics, discussed the term in 1953. His pragmatic assertions fit well in a Zen context, because of all the branches of Buddhism, it is the one that most actively eschews belief and certainty. Nevertheless, Zen and agnosticism aren't identical.

The Meaning of Agnostic

"Gnosis" is a Greek word that refers to knowledge pertaining to spiritual mysteries, so an agnostic person is one who doesn't know, as far as these mysteries are concerned. It's a middle way between theism; the assertion of Divine presence, and atheism; its denial. Huxley coined the term almost jokingly because, among freethinkers, rationalists, theists and atheists, he "wanted to have a tail like all the other foxes." The agnostic, according to Russell, "thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time."

The Pragmatism of the Buddha

The teachings of the Buddha have inspired volumes of philosophical writing, but they are essentially practical. They present the nature of the problem that man faces, the reason for the existence of the problem and the way to solve it. In a well-known Buddhist passage, Buddha speaks to Malunkyaputta, a disciple. He discusses the absurdity of avoiding the practice of the teachings simply because spiritual questions concerning God, life and death and the soul remain unanswered. This passage, the sixty-third discourse in the Majjhima Nikaya of the Pali canon, can be taken as evidence of Buddha's pragmatism and his agnostic leanings.

Zen Crazy Wisdom

The pragmatism and agnostic leanings expressed in the Pali canon achieve ferocious overtones in the Zen tradition. It is full of "crazy wisdom" stories in which masters and monks alike go to extremes like cutting off eyelids or arms to achieve a state of awareness incomprehensible to the mind and sought by all Buddhists. In the stories, masters typically eschew any attempt to quantify, describe or explain this state. An element of not-knowing, or agnosticism, exists in this lack of mental data, but the goal of Zen practice is nevertheless gnosis -- knowing the state through experience.

Apples and Walnuts

Agnosticism is the philosophical creed that comes closest to the Zen approach to spiritual practice, but equating them is like equating apples and walnuts. The agnostic is essentially a thinker who remains in a state of neutrality until presented with conclusive evidence requiring one position or another regarding spiritual matters. The Zen practitioner seeks to go beyond thought altogether and uses disciplined techniques to achieve that goal. Whether sitting in zazen, struggling with koan or engaging in artistic activities, the Zen practitioner proceeds from the assertion, elucidated by the Buddha, that a state beyond thinking exists and is possible to achieve.

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About the Author

A love of fundamental mysteries led Chris Deziel to obtain a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in humanities. A prolific carpenter, home renovator and furniture restorer, Deziel has been active in the building and home design trades since 1975. As a landscape builder, he helped establish two gardening companies.

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