Zen (禅) Philosophy


—How many Zen masters does it take to screw a light bulb?
The cypress tree in the courtyard.


The initial Zen

In brief

My dictionary tells me that Zen is “a Japanese sect of Mahāyāna Buddhism that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation”.

The word “Zen”

The Japanese word “Zen”, or “禅” (“ぜん”), is a deformation, through Chinese (“禪”, pronounced “chan2” in Mandarin), of the Sanskrit “dhyāna” (“ध्यान” in the original script), meaning “meditation”.

Keep in mind that “Zen” is the japanese word. When insisting on authenticity (something I am emphatically not doing here), it is probably better to use the Chinese word “Chan”.


Buddhism is a philosophy, or a religion, that was founded by the Indian prince Siddhārtha Gautama, the first Buddha, presumably in the fifth century BCE. (The Sanskrit word “buddha”, “बुद्ध”, means “awake”, while “siddhārtha”, “सिद्धार्थ”, means “successful”.)

The Zen (Chan) branch descends from the semi-legendary figure Bodhidharma, heir of a line of Indian patriarchs starting from the first Buddha. Bodhidharma left India for China (sometime in the late fourth century CE) and started a new line of Chinese patriarchs. In that country, Zen Buddhism was highly influenced by Taoism. It was introduced in Japan sometime around the twelfth century.

Very succint description

Zen aims at achieving a state of mind named “Enlightenment” (“覺悟”). Exactly what Enlightenment is is not easy to describe, but very loosely described, it is the liberation from the material world and its dualism. Enlightenment implies Oneness with the Universe and abolishment of mental barriers separating the Enlightened from all other things.

The path to Enlightenment is simply called the “Way”. It is this path that the Zen adept seeks to find and to follow. Meditation, various mental exercises, can help; so can the short texts called “kōans” (“公案”). But there is no royal road to Enlightenment.

The Hackers' Zen

In brief

The Hackers' Zen is the particular form of Zen developped by the True Hackers, mingling elements from the historical Zen, and others from a great number of other sources.

The True Hackers

The True Hackers were a group of computer enthusiasts, scientists and programmers (notably in Lisp) that originally flourished around the MIT's AI lab, from the lab's creation in 1959 to approximatively 1983 (with the Lisp Machine debacle). Their story was immortalized in (the first part of) Steven Levy's book, Hackers. Though it was originally born in the AI lab, the True Hacker spirit, and its followers, radiated to various other locations, such as the Universities of the American West Coast.

The True Hackers in their original embodiment may have mostly disappeared today (notably because of the rise of personal computers), but the original spirit of hackerdom, and its associated culture, still lives on, notably in the world of the Unix operating system. Their bible, the “Jargon File” (or New Hacker's Dictionary) still exists (and still is maintained) as a compendium of that culture.

The True Hackers' relation to Zen

The True Hackers were a particularly open-minded people, and curious about the world. Many had a great interest in Oriental philosophy in general, and Zen in particular. But, being generally non-mystic, and because of their centers of interest, the Hackers interpreted Zen in their own way and modified it to better conform with their spirit and times, and with their sense of humor; thus perhaps, in fact, renewing with certain of Zen's original principles.


There were probably numerous paths which led the Hackers to Zen, but one book above all had an overwhelming importance in shaping their way of thinking and stimulating their interest in Zen: Douglas R. Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach (ISBN 0-39-475682-7). Hofstadter quotes and discusses many Zen kōans and connects them, in his typical ingenious way, with the many other topics (such as mathematical logic, molecular biology, computer science, artificial intelligence, and art) discussed in the book.

Hackers' Zen

The Hackers' Zen is at once very different from, and very true to, the original Zen. Its main feature is that it reconciles the philosophy with science (even hard-core science), in particular computer science, and also, perhaps above all, with humor.

Meditation is in no way excluded, but Hackers' Zen recognizes that there are many different roads to Enlightenment, and that each must find his own: humor can be an effective help.

Gro-Tsen's Zen

In brief

Mine is a particular form of Hackers' Zen to which I have added the teachings of several esteemed fellows and other sources.


“Gro-Tsen” is David Madore's name as a Zen master. The origin of the name is complicated, and not worth explaining. It is definitely not Chinese (it has been transcribed in Chinese as “哥老特森”, “ge1lao3te4sen1”, meaning the Old Brother's Special Forest).

Richard Bach

Apart from the previously mentioned GEB, one other great spiritual influence during my youth were the works of Bach: not the Johann Sebastian Bach of Gödel, Escher, Bach, but the American writer Richard Bach, through his two wholly remarkable books, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (ISBN 0-38-001286-3) and Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah (ISBN 0-44-020488-7).

Glimpse at principles

Gro-Tsen's Zen claims, as the Hackers' Zen, the compatibility of, indeed, the deep relationship between, humor and Zen. But a special emphasis is also placed on happiness in the material world, which is seen as completely compatible with Enlightenment. And thanks mostly to Richard Bach's influence, belief is held that anyone can be Enlightened and that it's not even very difficult.

The philosophy claims to be eclectic in its sources and united in its principles. Perhaps I shouldn't be calling it “Zen” at all.

A disclaimer on authenticity

One thing must be made clear: all that is described here is my vision of Zen. I make no claim that it represents anybody else's opinion, or that it is true to the teachings of this or that Zen master other than myself.

Perhaps this page would better have been entitled “Gro-Tsen's personal philosophy of life”, to remove all doubt. But since the Zen influence is, at least, not absent—since the word “Zen” is heavily overloaded anyway—and since I do say a few things about the original (historical) Zen, I allowed myself to trick readers with this title (which is shorter, besides). So sue me.

In any case, if you need that sort of disclaimer, you are erring from the Way. The idea that some teachings are right and others are wrong, or that some are better than others, is basically dualistic. Zen is not about authority, nor about authenticity, and you cannot follow a Master's path to Enlightenment, although a Master can help you reach your own truth.

Zen Concepts, Relations and Teachings

Patriarchs and other Zen Masters

“Patriarchs” is the name given to the six semi-legendary founders of Zen.

The first Patriarch was Bodhidharma (who left India for China), called “菩提達摩” in Chinese; he died around 532CE. Legend says that Bodhidharma sat and taught in a cave.

The sixth was 慧能 (“hui4neng2” in Mandarin, “えのう” in Japanese or “Enō”), who lived 638–713 .

Here we mention also a few of the other (later) historical Zen masters we will be alluding to, so we can refer to them more conveniently.


Enlightenment, in Chinese “覺悟” (“jue2wu4”, something like “awake-aware”) or sometimes just “覺”, is a central concept in Zen, right from its Buddhist origins (since the word “Buddha” means, precisely, “awake”). To reach an Enlightened (mental) state is the goal of any unenlightened Zen adept.

As has already been noted, the exact nature of Enlightenment is not easy to describe, and to do so would anyway be contrary to Enlightenment itself. But we can give some ideas for the benefit of minds still not free from dualism.

Enlightenment is a form of liberation: very roughly, liberation from the material world, but that is not an accurate description because it reeks of mysticism. To be Enlightened one must remove the mental barriers one has constructed and the dualism of one's vision. The Enlightened is One with the Universe.

Exactly how difficult Enlightenment is to each, is unclear. Superficially it may appear as a difficult quest, a life goal's accessible only to the happy few. But the answer, and the question itself, is contrary to Enlightenment: for Enlightenment is as difficult as you set it to be. You can travel as far as you will on the path, and never reach the end because there is no end: it is only when you know you have reached your goal that you are Enlightened.

Being Enlightened is a very much like understanding a joke: often it makes no sense to spell out the terms of the joke. Either you “get” it, or you don't (see also below on the question of suddenness).

It is also worth mentioning at this point that Enlightenment is not madness or a form of madness.

Dualism, Logic, Words

Dualism is the general idea that two concepts, or two things, can be opposed to one another. This is a very un-Zen-like idea, one that prevents the Enlightened state of mind, in which all these barriers are removed and the Universe is One.

Logic and words are mental tools which mostly serve to strengthen the dualism of thought. Thus, while words (and even logic, to some extent) can prepare the seeker to Enlightenment (especially if they are used in unintended ways, such as in kōans), they cannot bring him to it. On the other hand, intuition, or direct perception of the Universe at peer with oneself, is a spark of Enlightenment.

This is not to say that dualism is evil: Zen is not about Good and Evil, for these are themselves dualistic notions. In the Avesta, Ahurā Mazdā, the embodiment of Good, fights his twin brother Ahriman (“adversary”), embodiment of Evil, and we are probably much more influenced by this mental picture than we care to admit. But Zen is simply elsewhere.

Furthermore, the very distinction between dualism and monism is again dualism: there is not a dualist Universe and a Zen one, or a world of logic and one of intuition, but merely two ways of looking at the same Tao. Zen does not oppose things, it unifies them. One of the fundamental precepts of the Hackers' Zen is that even that bastion of logic and dualism that is (hard) science is not beyond the reach of Zen and Zen ways of thinking.

The author of this page believes that the painting by René Magritte shown at the top of this page is a wonderfully striking artistic rendition of the Oneness that transcends dualism. Chapter IX of Gödel, Escher, Bach gives some more pictures, by M. C. Escher which illustrate beautifully the concept at hand.


Kōans, in Japanese “公案” (“こうあん”, something like “legal case” or “riddle”) are short stories (generally recounting the actions of Zen masters and patriarchs) used to train the disciples, to encourage them to set reason and dualism aside and reach Enlightenment through direct intuition. In a shorter and perhaps more appropriate definition, kōans are Zen jokes: in the original Zen's form, the humorous dimension is not absent from kōans, but in the Hackers' version of the philosophy, kōans have been made into exactly that—a (rather sophisticated) form of humor that tries to boggle your mind and force you to Enlightenment.

Historically, kōans did not take a great importance in Zen until master Sōkō and the Japanese Rinzai school emphasized them. The kōans of the historical Zen often picture a rather cruel attitude of masters toward their students: the idea is to corner the disciple into absurdity and force him, figuratively spoken, to explode and thus free himself. To my mind, the attitude is somewhat reminiscent of some of the strangest cartoons by Gary Larson, with their disturbing black humor. In the Hackers' Zen, kōans mostly emphasize the comical dimension; the pattern is typically: master asks question, student answers question, master imitates student's answer in a parallel context that makes its absurdity obvious. There is a distinct Socratic influence there. Gro-Tsen's kōans are more diverse and show eclectic influence.

The Mumonkan is assuredly the most famous collection of kōans.

The Mumonkan

The 無門關 (in Japanese, “Mumonkan”, or “むもんかん”) means the “gateless gate”. It is a famous collection, published in 1228 CE, of fourty-eight (or fourty-nine, the fourty-ninth having been added later) kōans (cases), each one followed by a “commentary” and a poem. The kōans were compiled by Zen master Mumon. He is the author of the commentaries and poems.

The term “gateless gate” refers to the nature of Enlightenment: one who passes into Enlightenment walks freely and knows no further barriers; but how can one pass through a gate that is gateless? The name is a mockery at dualism.

In view of what has already been said concerning words and the role of kōans, it will come as no surprise that the text of the Mumonkan often “makes no sense”. What may be more surprising, however, is that Mumon's “commentaries” and poems appear just about as incomprehensible as the kōans they are suppose to explain. But this should not be so much of a surprise either, for the commentaries play much the same role as the kōans: not to explain, but to Enlighten. Once again, Zen is not an exercice in hermeneutics.


The ideogram “無”, transcribed “MU” in English (it's actually “wu2” in Mandarin: “mu” or “む” is the Japanese pronunciation), has become much the same kind of hallmark-mantra of Zen as the sacred syllable “ॐ” (“ŌM”) has become for Hinduism.

This comes from a famous kōan, the first of the Mumonkan, telling of how master Jōshū answered to a monk who asked “has even a dog the Buddha-nature?”: Jōshū's answer was “MU”.

We could waste tedious hours trying to explain this MU. Basically, the Chinese ideogram 無 means “no”, “not”, “none”, “have no”, “lack”, “not to exist”; this is a pretty vague semantic field, but it seems anyhow that Jōshū is not merely stating that a dog does not have the Buddha-nature: rather, his reply is more something like “nothing exists”, or, even more closely, a denial of the dualism of “is” and “is-not” (or “has” and “has-not”).

According to Mumon's comment on this kōan, Jōshū's MU is the very barrier set up by the patriarch, which to go through one must uproot all the normal working of the mind: it is the gateless gate (and the MU ideogram is the first ideogram in 無門關).

Now the Hackers, following Douglas Hofstadter, have made MU into something rather different (or, if not different, differently interpreted and less sacred). Namely, answering “mu” to a question means refusing to be trapped in the answers “yes” or “no” (which is certainly what Jōshū did, in refusing their dualism). In the words of Hofstadter, answering “mu” is to “unask” the question. (See also the “mu” entry in the Jargon File.) Sometimes, as a pun, the Greek letter μ (mu) is used for this MU.

The cypress tree in the courtyard

As for “MU”, this phrase is another answer of Jōshū's, in the Mumonkan (case 37): a monk asked him, “why did Bodhidharma come from the West?”: Jōshū answered “the cypress tree in the courtyard”, in Chinese “庭前柏樹子”.

(This has been translated in a great number of ways. The ideograms mean something like “courtyard / in front / cypress / tree / (child)”. Among the translations commonly found are “the cypress in front of the yard”, “that oak tree in the garden”, “the tree in the middle of the garden”, and even stranger things. The “oak” translation apparently comes from the Japanese reading of the ideogram “柏”, which may or may not have been the Chinese meaning at the time when Jōshū spoke this, or at the time when the Mumonkan was written, I have no idea. But really it doesn't matter.)

The answer is as deliberately absurd as the “MU”, of course, and quite comparable. But this time the emphasis seems different. Jōshū seems to be point out how inadequate words are to convey meaning; at the same time, he recalls in a humorous way the unity of the world.

Not only the answer but also the question merits further examination. The reason why Bodhidharma came from India into China is, of course, a very valid historical question, but it is also has a symbolic level which is like “what is the inner meaning of Zen?” or something of the kind. The same question appears in the fifth case of the Mumonkan: “Zen is like a man hanging by his teeth in a tree over a precipice: his hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no lib, and under the tree another person asks him, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come to China from India?’. If the man in the tree does not answer, he fails; and if he answers, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?”

Concerning Jōshū's tree (not over a precipice), I am also reminisced of Douglas Adam's famous “answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything”, which is fourty-two, the only problem being that the actual question is unknown.

To bring about the next topic, I quote from Gödel, Escher, Bach (“A Mu Offering”):

Perhaps Zen is instructive because it is humorous. I would guess that if you took all such stories entirely seriously, you would miss the point as often as you would get it.
Maybe there's something in your Tortoise-Zen.
Can you answer just one question for me? I would like to know this: Why did Bodhidharma come from India into China?
Oho! Shall I tell you what Jōshū said when he was asked that very question?
Please do.
He replied, “That oak tree in the garden.”
Of course; that's just what I would have said. Except that I would have said it in answer to a different question—namely, “Where can I find some shade from the midday sun?”
Without knowing it, you have inadvertently hit upon one of the basic questions of Zen. That question, innocent as it sounds, actually means, “What is the basic principle of Zen?”
How extraordinary. I hadn't the slightest idea that the central aim of Zen was to find some shade.
Oh, no—you've misunderstood me entirely. I wasn't referring to that question. I meant your question about why Bodhidharma came from India into China.


The whole point of the Hackers' Zen is that they took the original Zen philosophy and made it into a rather peculiar form of humor, whose jokes are the kōans.

This may seem disrespectful; an uncharitable description would be that the Hackers did not understand anything about Zen and simply caricatured it and made fun of it.

But in my mind this is not at all the case. It is not clear whether the historical Zen masters were jesters or whether kōans were meant humorously, but Zen is not about authority. It seems on the contrary that humor is a particularly efficacious way of freeing oneself from dualism and logic—which is essentially what Enlightenment is all about. And the state of understanding a joke is extremely close to the Enlightened state.

So, one may ask, this whole (Hackers') Zen philosophy is just a farce? Well, in a way, it is. But that doesn't prevent it from being deep and profound. In a typical Hacker way (see the “ha ha only serious” entry in the Jargon File) that is completely compatible with Zen's own non-dualistic thiking, we see no contradiction between humor and profoundness. On the contrary, philosophy is something too important to be taken seriously.

The Point

At this stage, one may legitimately begin to wonder whether there is any point at all to this Zen thing, or whether it is not simply vacuous—a collection of meaningless texts (kōans) and a somewhat mystical emphasis on an undefined (and undefinable!) concept of “Enlightenment”. Indeed, the natural (and quite justified!) reaction of any rational mind to something that cannot be defined, cannot be explained, and somehow transcends the dualistic realm of logic and language, is to dismiss that idea as empty. And certainly Zen trifles with emptiness (as in the MU kōan) and absurdity in general.

I have already observed the similarity and relations between Zen and humor. And certainly if I were to explain the concept of humor to one who had no idea of it (but a full power of reason), I would be in a similar difficult position. Much it is the same with Zen.

So I can perhaps get away by claiming that Zen is “simply” a form of humor. Yet this remains unsatisfactory, for it is also more than that. Better compare Zen with an artistic practice, which tries to achieve a particular state of mind, that shares some properties with humor, the drawings of Magritte or Escher, or the phenomenon called “intuition” in (otherwise) rational thought, though it doesn't precisely overlap any of them.

Is Zen Madness?

All right, one may retort, but maybe Zen is madness. The idea certainly seems tempting: Zen's refusal of logical dualism, its seek for a state of mental unity, are such things not to be found in madness? And certainly the behavior of the Zen patriarchs described in the kōans appears as madness.

This is, however, a confusion of ideas. In the first place, madness is certainly not a mental state in which barriers are removed (as the Enlightened state). Quite the contrary, madmen are encumbered with great barriers which they cannot rid themselves of, and which often torment them; it is just that these barriers are different, or differently placed, than the ones which plague mentally sane people. This explains why madmen are not Enlightened, but their conversation sometimes can be Enlightening (but not always; mostly it is simply monotonously repetitious); and also why the behavior of the Enlightened may seem like madness.

Nor is Zen randomness (much as the paintings of Magritte, which may seem to be arbitrary combinations of a small number of fixed elements, are not random, despite what it seems). Certainly, if we were to produce an infinite number of kōans, in which Jōshū would answer “MU”, then “the cypress tree in the garden”, then “foo”, then “the cow jumped over the moon” and many other silly things, to an equally infinite number of questions, we would obtain randomness. But although each kōan in the series might have the Buddha nature (as Jōshū's exact reply is unimportant), the infinite number bring nothing. When there is no longer the element of surprise to the reader, the kōans no longer fulfill their function. So like in any other form of art, the trick is to subtly balance the order and chaos.

Meditation and its role

As we have pointed out from the start, the very word “Zen” means “meditation”, so we might expect meditation to have a central importance in Zen. And certainly, meditation, and in particular “zazen” (sitting meditation) is the most visible part of Zen; but there is some doubt as to its importance (in reaching Enlightenment).

There is, or rather there appears to uninformed eyes to be, a quarrel among Zen masters, on the importance of meditation (and, parallel, on the way Enlightenment is reached). On the one hand, “gradualists” claim that Enlightenment is a progress, in whose steps meditation can be of help. On the other, “subitists” hold that Enlightenment (being the sudden realization that we are all Buddhas, whether we know it or knot), is an all-or-nothing phenomenon, and that meditation can only prepare the mind to be enlightened, not bring it about. As irreconcilable as these points of view may seem, they are not completely contradictory. Indeed, the path to Enlightenment is to be trodden in one's own mind: as sudden as the realization of the Enlightened state may be, its prior acceptance can be gradual. Each man's Way is his own, and for some it may be very progressive, and marked by meditation. The important point, in any case is not to mistake the meditation for Enlightenment. And the idea is not to think of nothing, for it is not by putting our minds to sleep that we chance becoming Awake.

TODO on this page