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Thomas Merton on Zen Koans and Untying the Knot of Individuality

Those of us unfamiliar with the practice of the study of koans might view it as a method of problem solving, of learning how to think out of the box enough to understand the non-sequiturs entrenched in the recorded dialogues of Zen masters and disciples through the ages. In his essay, ‘The Zen Koan‘, Thomas Merton approaches the subject with a wider cultural lens and examines why it is particularly hard for people in the west to comprehend the koan method, which has nothing to do with the intellect and more to do with a dissolution of individuality. This excerpt is taken from the book, ‘Mystics and Zen Masters‘ in which Merton, himself a Trappist monk, considers religious and thought and contemplation from a variety of different religious schools, including Taoism and Zen.


The practice of Zen aims at the deepening, purification, and transformation of the consciousness. But it does not rest satisfied with any “deepening” or a superficial “purification.” It seeks the most radical transformation: it works on depths that would seem to go beyond even depth psychology. It has, in other words, a metaphysical and spiritual dimension. It seeks the pure ontological subject, at once unique and universal, no longer “individual.” Let us set aside the question whether or not it is “mystical,” as this is frequently denied by the Buddhists themselves (notably by Suzuki), and in any case creates semantic problems. But from the moment that we are dealing with “consciousness” we face the fact that there is quite probably, as William Haas maintained, a profound difference between consciousness in the East and in the West, at least in the traditions of East and West. The Western consciousness is object-oriented. The Eastern consciousness, says Haas, does not shrink from the possibility of a pure subjectivity that needs no object. For the West, consciousness is always “consciousness of.” In the East, this is not necessarily so: it can be simply “consciousness.” Zen summons one to a realization which will at first confuse and mislead the Western mind. (This becomes very clear in the struggles, the frustrations, and sometimes the neurotic resentments of the Western students in their recorded interviews with the Roshi, in Kapleau’s book.) Western man sees himself as a subject with various possibilities of fulfillment: a package of desires for things, or states, which can be “attained.” What matters is to find and use effective means to get what one wants. Attainment of one’s object brings happiness. One rests in the possession of what one has sought.

This is an individual project first of all. It is centered in egos identity, but the autonomy of the individual remains ambiguous. The individual is constituted by his ability to exist in the presence of others, to stand up and differentiate himself from them while at the same time making the necessary accommodation to their demands. Individual happiness is the result of a dialogue which resolves the ever renewed conflicts between one’s own desires and the desires of other individuals. Depending on one’s philosophy of life, this accommodation can spell itself out variously from a decision in favor of the highest possible individual self-determination to a total submersion of the self in the collectivity. In either case, however, the will arises out of the individual center and “attains” its end, which is the consciousness of individual achievement, the sense that one’s individual existence has been justified, that one’s natural desires have been satisfied due to the fact that one has made “the right choice.” One has, in a word, turned up with a winning ticket in the lottery of life, not only by good luck but also by an astute and careful selection of a number that seemed likely to win. Put in these terms, we see that there is still a great deal of magic in our individualistic thought, no matter how scientific may be the terminology by which it is justified.

Such is the project which the Western mind instinctively sets itself in life. A man sets his mind on something, he uses his will and energy to get it, and when he has it he keeps it, enjoys it, rests in it, if necessary protects it. Happiness consists in the full conscious certitude that he has in fact attained what he sought, that it is and remains his possession. But the basic tenet of Buddhism is that an identity built on this kind of consciousness is false. Such a “self” has no metaphysical status. If it exists at all, as a valid possibility, it can only be realized and enjoyed momentarily, and when it passes, it leaves behind it suffering, death, and the whole train of evils which are rooted in “craving.” Such a consciousness is nothing but the illusory fire which is kindled by craving (The Fire Sermon). The consciousness which lies at the heart of Zen is quite different from this dialectic of craving, striving, and rest. It rests not in attainment but in non-attainment, and, really, the whole question of rest and attainment becomes irrelevant to it. So also do other questions like the conflict between the individual and society, and the casuistical problems of behavior which result from it. In such a context the question of ends and means becomes totally different—it cannot be formulated in our Western terms, which still approach it in terms of cause and effect. Therefore, the koan (a paradigm of life itself) cannot be treated as a problem having a solution (end to be attained) which can be arrived at by setting certain causes into operation. If the Zen student is pushed to the limit, urged to force himself onward in his struggle with the logically meaningless koan, even to the point of near breakdown, it is not in order that he may cause an effect, attain a limited result, but in order that he may learn to get along definitively without any illusory need to attain anything or to rest in anything that accrues to him from “outside” in the guise of an object.

Koan study does not enhance the individual self with a new and special efficiency in attaining its particular ends, in causing its desires to be fulfilled. It seeks rather to liberate the individual consciousness from desires by dissolving its very individuality. Indeed, “individuality” and “desire” are the same thing, in this view of man. It is not as if the “individual” were a hard, substantial, ontological core from which desires proceed, but rather that desires themselves form a kind of knot of psychic energies which seeks to remain firmly tied as an autonomous “self.” This knot is certainly real, in the empirical sense of the word—no question about that. But this does not mean that one can draw conclusions such as: “The reality of the knot is an ultimate value to be preserved at all costs” or “It is better for the knot to remain tied than for it to be untied.” Buddhism “brackets” all these value judgments by the basic assumption that in the end all the knots will be untied anyway. Hence it denies any special value to the limited and transitory experience of “self” which is constituted by the little knot of desires tied for us by our heredity and our moral history (karma). It urges us to dissolve this limited subjectivity—this “consciousness of our self, our desires, our happiness or unhappiness”—into a pure consciousness which is limited by no desire, no project, and no finite aim. Such a consciousness will be in a sense “unconscious”‘ but this term must not be negatively understood. On the contrary, the lack of a limited and restricted consciousness, the freedom of the consciousness that has no finite object, is in fact the highest and most positive affirmation. In it, “no” rejoins “yes,” and all affirmations and negations are swallowed up in the ineffable —in the famous “Mu” of Joshu’s koan for beginners:

Question: “Does the dog have Buddha nature or not?”
Answer: “MU!”

Pure subjectivity is then no subjectivity: “Consciousness is void and void is consciousness; void does not differ from consciousness, consciousness does not differ from void. Whatever is consciousness, that is void . . . whatever is void, that is consciousness. Therefore, it is because of his indifference to any personal attainment that a Bodhisattva dwells with his thought completely naked” [i.e., not clothed with forms, objects, or even with a consciousness of self—an ego] (Prajnaparamita Sutra).


Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

From: Mystics and Zen Masters

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