Kritische und Kreative Kultur Debatte





We do not deal this harsh critic of ZEN by Arthur Koestler in all points but what he is saying about Herrigel and Suzuki is absolutely correct.



Arthur Koestler – "Neither Lotus nor Robot" – in: Encounter, Vol. XVI, London 1961, 59


Neither Lotus nor Robot


In the November issue of ENCOUNTER, John Strachey accused me, rather flatteringly, of having started “with Darkness at Noon... the literature of reaction... the retreat from rationalism... a reaction against five hundred years of rationalism and empiricism; against, in short, the enlightenment. That is its scandal.” In the December issue, Mr. Christmas Humphreys, Q.C., accused me of the opposite crime, of being too much of a rationalist to share in the "intuitive delights" of his particular brand of mysticism, i.e., Zcn. I am not complaining, falling between two stools may be preferable to settling down, if both of them smell of dry rot.


That Western rationalism has acquired that smell is evident, and tacitly agreed by all participants in this controversy. It seems equally obvious, and inevitable, that a culture threatened by strontium clouds should yearn for the Cloud of Unknowing. My point was that the simple abdication of reason in favour of a spurious mysticism does not resolve the dilemma; and I have tried to prove that both Yoga and Zen, as practised to-day, are spurious and degenerate. I am grateful to Professor Jung for his authoritative endorsement of this diagnosis, and not only for personal reasons; his statement will help to dispel the fog. With the remainder of his article, defending intuition against the monopolistic claims of logic, I am in full agreement; he apparently did not realise that this was the starting point of my book (and implied in its title, The Lotus and the Robot).


Mr. Christmas Humphreys objected to my being only concerned with Zen in Japan and not in China. But Chinese Zen, which went into decline some five hundred years ago, is virtually extinct; and it is the Japanese brand, packaged for export by Professor Suzuki, that is dumped on the West. Then he quoted Suzuki himself to show that Zen should be tied neither to Japan nor to China, because it "has its own life independent of history." Now that statement is true of any system of ideas, but no longer true when that system becomes embodied in a church, cult, or school; and the only contemporary embodiment of Zen is Japanese Zen, as Mr. Humphreys well knows. So why quibble?


AND WHY MUST the Master and his pupils write book after book to explain that Zen cannot be explained, that it is "literally beyond thought, beyond the reach of thought, beyond the limits of the finest and most subtle thinking," in a word, that it cannot be put into words? We know that not only mystical experience defies verbalisation; there is a whole range of intuitions, visual impressions, bodily sensations, which also refuse to be converted into verbal currency. Painters paint, dancers dance, musicians make music, instead of explaining that they are practising no-thought in their no-minds. Inarticulateness is not a monopoly of Zen; but it is the only school which made a philosophy out of it, whose exponents burst into verbal

diarrhœa to prove constipation.


In medieval Japan and earlier in China, Zen fulfilled a vital function as a deliberately amoral and illogical antidote to the rigours of a hierarchic, crampeds, elf-conscious society. Its motto was: reverse the paradox of the centipede, don’t think, just walk. That’s good advice to the centipede, but very bad in societies which tend to run amok. In the form in which it is taught and practised to-day, Zen spells intellectual and moral nihilism. The first, because the emphasis is not on marrying intuition to reason but on castrating reason. And the second, because its moral detachment has degenerated into complacency towards, and complicity with, evil. As the Master himself tells us:


Zen is... extremely flexible in adapting itself to almost any philosophy and moral doctrine as long as its intuitive teaching is not interfered with. It may be found wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism, democracy…. (Zen and Japanese Culture  - London 1959, p. 63)


What is one to think of an "intuitive teaching" that can be "wedded" to the mystique of genocide? By virtue of its anti-rationality and amorality, Zen always held a fascination for a category of people in whom brutishness combines with pseudo-mysticism, from Samurai to Kamikaze to Beatnik. Mr. Humphreys is an exception; but the case of Herrigel (Zen in theArt o[ Archery), mentioned in Professor Scholem’s letter [in this number, p. 96] is typical. He was the star pupil among Western converts both before and after his Nazi career. In Dr. Suzuki’s preface, written in 1953, to "’this wonderful little book by a German philosopher," there is no mention of that past and no word of apology; instead the Master has the sweet gall to tell us how, through the practice of archery, the mind is brought into contact with the ultimate reality... "childlikeness" is restored after long years of training .... When a man reaches that stage of spiritual development, he is a Zen artist of life .... He is the showers, the ocean, the stars, the foliage. –  And the gas-chambers.


WHEN THE ARCHER had gone to Valhalla, Frau Gustie, his faithful and formidable widow, published a companion volume about Zen in theArt o[ Flower Arrangement, with another gushing preface by Dr. Suzuki in which reference was made to "the lilies of the field whose beauty was not surpassed by Solomon." It is time for the Professor to shut up and for the Western intelligentsia to recognize contemporary Zen as one of the "sick" jokes, slightly gangrened, which are always fashionable in ages of anxiety.


Debunking is not an inspiring job. When John Donne wrote, "T’is all in pieces, all cohesion gone," he was uttering an earlier "strangled cry." He also wrote, "With a strong sober thirst, my some attends"; and that thirst cannot be quenched by hooch.


Arthur Koestler


© Victor & Victoria Trimondi