Tag Archives: Zen

Ryutan Blows Out the Candle

(Note: This is a continuation of the last post, “The Mystic Eye,” and you may need to read that post to make sense of this one.)

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“Ryutan Blows Out the Candle” is a classic Zen story from Tang Dynasty China and also a koan, Case 28 of the Mumonkan. It is sometimes also called “Ryutan Renowned Far and Wide,” or variations of that title. The full story has several components, but I’m going to simplify it a bit. I’m also going to use the more familiar Japanese forms of the names of the main characters.

Tokusan (Te-shan Hsüan-chien, 782-865) was a famous scholar, praised especially for his commentaries on the Diamond Sutra. He was invited to lecture far and wide, and as he traveled he carried the scrolls containing his notes and commentaries with him. One day he heard about some teachings of the Zen school on the Diamond Sutra that clearly were wrong, he thought, so he traveled to the monastery of Zen Master Ryutan (Lung-t’an Ch’ung-hsin or Longtan Chongxin) to set the master straight.

The two men met and discussed the Diamond Sutra far into the night. Finally Tokusan prepared to leave, but it was very dark out. Ryutan lit a candle and gave it to Tokusan, but as Tokusan reached for the candle Ryutan blew it out. At that moment, Tokusan experienced deep realization.

The next day, according to the Mumonkan, Tokusan brought his notes on the Diamond Sutra to the front of main assembly hall, pointed to them with a torch, and said,

“Even though you have exhausted the abtruse doctrines, it is like placing a hair in a vast space. Even though you have learned all the secrets of the world, it is like a drop of water dripped on the great ocean.”

And then he burned his scrolls and departed. He eventually became Ryutan’s student and dharma heir.

(Notice: I should put a disclaimer on this post that says “This blogger is not a Zen teacher.” I’m not going to pretend I see everything the koan is presenting. I have a couple of commentaries by Zen teachers at hand, one by the late Robert Aitken and one by my teacher, Susan Postal, and I’m leaning very heavily on what the teachers say. However, whatever I misrepresent is my fault entirely, not the teachers’.)

At the beginning of the story, we have the great scholar Tokusan, who is the Expert. Everyone says so. He says so. And the Diamond Sutra is his baby. For those of you unfamiliar with the sutra, it’s part of the larger Prajnaparamita Sutra, from which also comes the Heart Sutra. The Diamond seems to present one paradox after another, making it especially difficult to “grasp” intellectually, but Tokusan seems to have grasped it that way.

As Aitken wrote,

“If your defenses are impervious, no one can get in–and you can’t get out. There is no fissure through which your vine of life can find its way to the sunshine.”

But on his way to the monastery, Tokusan met a woman in a tea shop who asked him a question about the sutra he couldn’t answer. From the Mumonkan:

When he reached the road to Reishû, he asked an old woman to let him have lunch to “refresh the mind.”

“Your worship, what sort of literature do you carry in your pack?” the old woman asked.

“Commentaries on the Diamond Sutra,” replied Tokusan.

The old woman said, “I hear it is said in that sutra, ‘The past mind cannot be held, the present mind cannot be held, the future mind cannot be held.’ Now, I would like to ask you, what mind are you going to have refreshed?”

Tokusan was dumbfounded by the question. He felt a flicker of doubt. A crack appears! And then he encountered Ryutan, whose insight into the sutra opened the crack further. And after his realization Tokusan burned his scrolls.

Mumon says in his capping verse, “Alas! He lost his eyes!” Aitken says, “He became altogether blind at last!” Here is some classic Zenspeak. In the English language, blindness is often used as a metaphor for ignorance. But it’s not unheard of in Zen Lit to use blindness as a metaphor for wisdom, because one who is blind is not fooled by appearances.

I recently came across a fascinating academic paper on this koan, titled “Approaching the Language of Zen: Clarke, Heidegger, and the Meaning of Articulation in Zen Koans” by Professor Anton Sevilla of the the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. Academic papers on Zen tend to be dreadful, but this one makes some good points I’d like to share. The professor writes,

The light of Ryutan’s candle is likened to words, and in this case, could be likened to the words of the Diamond Sutra and other notes and commentaries. Through this light, Tokusan was able to grasp things, to see them, to navigate about them and so forth. His philosophical purview into the sutras allowed him a mode of articulating reality and grasping it in an intelligible fashion.

However, is this space that is navigable by words and intellect all there is to reality? Candlelight illuminates some things, but leaves other things in the dark.

Here I’m going to go back to the way our brains create reality, discussed in the last post. Very briefly, the way we experience “reality” depends a great deal on the way our brains interpret and organize sensory input. We depend especially on the left temporal lobe, which creates the way we experience time and position, and which also is the part of the brain that generates language, logic, and categories. This includes the categories “me” versus “everything else.”

Our brains evolved in a way to allow us to navigate through space and matter to find food and shelter and each other, and eventually to create civilization, the arts, science, and many wonderful things. For humans, intellect is one of our primary “interfaces” with the world. But it’s also a kind of trap, because we assume there is no other way to know or experience. Yet it’s really more like a candle, illuminating some things but leaving other things dark.

Professor Sevilla speaks of “The tension between the abundance of the coming to light of reality and the finitude of man’s grasp and articulation,” and within that tension is the realm of mystical practice. The mystic seeks to push beyond the boundaries of the left temporal lobe, and to illuminate the places intellect doesn’t reach.

They don’t always succeed, of course, and the word “mysticism” is used to cover everything from Zen practice to fortune telling. But it’s striking to me how the great mystics of the many religions so often seem to agree with each other more than they do with the dogmatists of their own religious traditions.

The story of Tokusan and Ryutan is the story of a man who experienced realization when his intellect dropped away. Intellect isn’t bad, of course. You have to have some cognitive skills to be functional. I sincerely believe more critical thinking would make the world a better place. Yet it can also be a trap, keeping us from seeing the whole thing, so to speak.

Language also is generated by the left temporal lobe, and the languages of humankind are designed to work within the reality created by the left temporal lobe. When you leave that reality, left-temporal-lobe language doesn’t function. Mystics often fall back on poetry, or something like it, to explain what they’ve realized. People tightly locked in linear logical left-temporal-lobe mode usually dismiss such expression outright. Or, they’ll attempt to make sense of it logically, find it riddled with what they think are inconsistencies and paradoxes, and then dismiss it.

And many generations of Zen teachers have told us, don’t get stuck in words. Zen’s definition of itself:

A special transmission outside the scriptures;

No dependence on words and letters;

Direct pointing to the human mind;

Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.

Much of Professor Sevilla’s paper compares Heidegger’s notion of language with the way Zen uses language, and some of you might enjoy reading this. Very briefly, he argues much of Zen language is an “unsaying,” a deconstruction of conventional cognitive frameworks. “In language as ‘unsaying,’ articulations attempt to release human beings from their attachments to particular ways of seeing reality,” he writes.

When the Buddha realized enlightenment, he said,

Oh housebuilder! You have now been caught!

You shall not build a house again.

Deconstruct! Unsay! Blow out the candle! This is not normally how we learn things, but this is what the dharma requires.

Even if you have only a basic knowledge of the Buddha’s story of enlightenment, it ought to be obvious that what he realized was not cognitive knowledge. Yet time and time again, I find very bright, very intellectual people trying to understand Buddhism who can’t “get” that. If you explain to them that an intellectual approach won’t work, they smile indulgently at you, as if you were a small child talking about Santa Clause, and go back to labeling, categorizing, and constructing. It’s quite astonishing.

As Dogen wrote in Genjokoan,

When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you grasp things directly. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illumined the other side is dark.

[This post originally appeared on About.com Buddhism on October 6, 2010]

The Mystic Eye

The late John Daido Loori, Roshi, was a man of keen intellect. He had a seemingly bottomless depth of knowledge about many things — science, arts, literature, psychology, history, you name it. And, of course, there was that Zen thing as well.

And yet one of Daido’s frequent themes was the trap of intellect. This is from one of Daido Roshi’s dharma talks:

The eye that grasps the universe is beyond both being and non-being, beyond self and no-self. And it is not dependent upon intellectual comprehension. It is here that most of us run into trouble. Whenever we encounter anything, our intellect, the linear rational faculty, shifts into high gear. And it immediately dulls the possibilities of discovery because we’re busy naming, categorizing, analyzing, judging, and processing. The mystic eye sees beyond all that.

Our conventional perception is is grounded in a dualistic and materialist view. We assume there is an external world that is independent from the consciousness that perceives and experiences it.  We relate to the world by labeling, analyzing and manipulating it.  This is the chief cause of our difficulties.

No one is saying there is nothing “out there.” Rather, as I understand it, the appearance of things depends partly on their physical qualities and partly on how our senses and nervous systems “display” them in our brains. For example, a particular configuration of molecules is a “bowl” because that’s how I recognize and affirm it. Put another way, “bowl” exists as “bowl” in my perceptions; but in and of itself, there is just energy, molecules, space. Form is emptiness.

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And, you know, there is nothing “supernatural” about this. If you’ve never seen this astonishing lecture by the neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor on how she experienced a brain hemorrhage, please make the time (less than 19 minutes) to watch the video. It perfectly illustrates this very point.

Dr. Taylor’s hemorrhage impacted her left temporal lobe, which is the part of the brain that judges, categorizes, and creates context. It’s also where the ego hangs out, she says. As brain functions shut down, she realized how much of the “external world” is actually created in the left temporal lobe. She felt like a genie liberated from a bottle, she said, experiencing herself as everything, without boundaries.

Of course, the left temporal lobe is essential to our survival. Without it, tasks such as finding food and avoiding large predators would be impossible. And I’m not going to rest my head on the bowl and pour soup into a pillow. Emptiness is form.

Daido spoke of the “mystic eye.” “Mysticism” is a word people use a lot without appreciating what it actually means, and it can mean several things. There’s a nice online article about the many types of mysticism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and in this article one definition of mysticism is an “experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of sense perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection.”

In other words, it’s an experience or perception of reality that is different from the way our senses and intellects normally perceive reality. Religious people often call this a “direct experience of the divine,” but of course for at least some Buddhists the word “divine” is a bit problematic.

Scrolling down the article a bit, we see that one of the common attributes of mystical experience is “ineffability” or “indescribability.” Language is very much a creation of that left temporal lobe, you know. People who have strokes on the left sides of their brains often lose the ability to speak, even though they are just as aware and intelligent in other ways as they ever were.

But it’s important to understand that languages also are calibrated to describe the world created by the left temporal lobe. This is a world that exists in a context of time and place, and which is filled with myriad distinct phenomena. Bypassing that left temporal lobe provides a perspective of reality that is nearly impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t “been there.” Usually, the listener assumes the speaker is either crazy or stupid.

Now, sometimes the speaker is dressed up in a robe or otherwise invested with some kind of authority, so that some listeners may choose to assume he knows something and take him seriously. But when the speaker’s words hit their brains, the first thing they do is put those left temporal lobes to work judging, categorizing, sorting, tagging, contextualizing, etc. etc., based on what they already know and what they’ve personally experienced.

In other words, they try to fit this ineffable thing into a left-temporal-lobe context. If they succeed at all, what they end up with usually is very different from what the guy in the robe was trying to tell them. If Left Temporal Lobe World is all they know of reality, any other way to perceive reality is unimaginable and nonsensical.

This takes us to the Primordial Problem of the Dharma — the “realization” or “enlightenment” of which we speak requires seeing the truth about Left Temporal Lobe World — that, in a way, it’s just a light show, neither real nor not-real. Us included

And this takes us to Buddhist practice and the trap of intellect. We are so accustomed to “knowing” things through our intellects that we assume that’s the only way to “know.” But that brings us to practice. So much of practice is getting the left temporal lobe to shut up, even for a little while. One way to understand practice is that it enables another way of knowing beside an intellectual one.

I was once told that in deep meditation, in the dhyanas, some brain functions are suppressed. I don’t know if science has found this to be true, but it makes sense to me. Further, so many of our practices are more physical than intellectual; bowing, chanting, to be done with whole-body-and-mind attention, as zennies say. These things make no sense, meaning they have no apparent function in left-temporal-lobe reality. Yet, somehow, they work.

The Primordial Problem means that you have to practice Buddhism for at least a little while to begin to appreciate even what it is, never mind realizing the Great Ineffable Whatever. I despair sometimes at the many online articles I stumble into that look at Buddhism as a purely intellectual exercise. And, of course, the authors of these articles are dismissive of everything about Buddhism that doesn’t make sense. Just get rid of that stuff, they say, and it would be so much better.

At this point, those of us who have been in practice for awhile hear alarm bells, and we dash about babbling about babies and bathwater.

But this is an old problem. It is said that the first person the historical Buddha met after his enlightenment asked him what he had realized. And when the Buddha tried to explain, the man laughed at him and walked away.

So, instead of only preaching doctrines about what he had realized, the Buddha taught people to realize for themselves. This makes Buddhism different from most other religions, in which people are presented with doctrines to be accepted on faith. We have doctrines, also, but for us they are more like maps, guiding us to realization. Merely believing in them is pointless. Believing in some doctrine of enlightenment is not enlightenment.

I’ve gone on a bit long, so I will continue this discussion in the next post.

[An earlier version of this post was originally published on About.com Buddhism on October 3, 2010.]

Religion Doesn’t Need Miracles

I recently read an online discussion of the intersection of science and religion. The discussion very quickly turned to talk of miracles and proposed that religion and science would be reconciled when science either acknowledges miracles or somehow verifies the connection between miracles and some divine agent.

In which case, science and religion will never be reconciled. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

One of the things that I’ve realized through Zen is that our conceptual division of  “natural” and “supernatural” is based largely on a failure to appreciate the truth of the “natural.” We take the natural world for granted and call it mundane, and we look for shiny, sparkly whoo-dee-doo out-of-this-mundane-world stuff to confirm our hope that the ordinary, common world isn’t all there is.

But some parts of science are telling us the world we see around us isn’t all there is, and indeed, the world we see around us isn’t even around us. It’s a fabrication of our brains and nervous systems. What’s really “around us,” or the stuff from which this temporary confluence of mind-and-matter fabricates the world, is to us a mystery. And the temporary confluence of mind-and-matter we call “I” also is a mystery. We assume we know what it is, but we don’t.

Science, particularly in such areas as theoretical physics and neuroscience, is gradually putting together a picture of reality that tells us everything we think we know about it is wrong. The Buddha said the same thing.

Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The true miracle is not walking on water or walking in air, but simply walking on this earth.” People interpret that to mean something like “don’t forget to stop and smell the roses,” but that’s not what I see. When you begin to appreciate the truth of reality and the truth of our existence, you see he means that literally.

This so-called “mundane” world is a bleeping five-alarm wonder. Looking for miracles “out there” is like sitting at a table at Maxim’s with a plate of gourmet food in front of us, wishing we had something to eat. And appreciating the wondrous nature of our existence does not require the mundane world to behave in ways that are scientifically inexplicable.

Soyen Shaku Roshi, who as far as I know what the first Zen teacher to set foot in North America, carried on a productive correspondence with some Christian critics of Buddhism. This is from a latter he wrote to Dr. John Barrows in 1896:

I have not as yet been able to see that mankind can be benefited by believing that Jesus Christ performed miracles. I do not deny the miracles nor do I believe them; I only claim that they are irrelevant. The beauty and the truth of many of Christ’s sayings fascinate me, but truth does not become clearer by being pronounced by a man who works miracles.

This is a very Zen perspective. As a Zen student I don’t interpret was the Roshi said to mean that what Jesus said was just philosophy, or just intellectual or conceptual. He’s saying that the truth of reality — the amazing, brain-bending truth — is not proved or disproved or otherwise revealed by what we call miracles. Miracles are, literally, irrelevant, whether they happen or not.

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It’s certainly true that early Buddhists enshrined the Buddha’s memory in stories of his supernatural exploits, but that was a common thing to do in the ancient world. No powerful person did anything important without tales of the event being embroidered with miraculous signs and wonders. As I wrote in Rethinking Religion, in ancient times “truth” was about meaning, not facts. Accounts of important people and events often were dressed up with fantastical details that expressed how people felt about, or understood the significance of, this important thing. Equating truth with what is factual is something that happened gradually, beginning about the 15th century or so in western culture.

And now much of religion is stuck in conceptual cul-de-sac that mixes up mythos and logos and demands literal signs and wonders that science can measure. This is ass-backward, people. I sincerely believe that even the monotheistic religions don’t need miracles to be valid.

This is not to say that Buddhism and science don’t butt heads over some things, especially in the area of materialism. But I don’t necessarily think science and religion have to see things the same way, especially since the two disciplines are operating within different parameters. There are places Buddhism goes that science does not, and vice versa. In all these years as a Zen student, however, I’ve never been asked to believe anything I knew contradicted science, and I honestly don’t see why that would ever happen. It just isn’t necessary.

Deluded About Enlightenment

This is a follow up to the post before last, about the death of Joshu Sasaki. The New York Times published an article about it, and apparently not all of the Roshi’s former students acknowledge that what he did was wrong.

“The idea that he was a predator is mistaken,” said Harold D. Roth, a professor of religious studies at Brown University and a former student of Mr. Sasaki’s. “Everything he did was in the devoted service of awakening enlightenment in his students.”

Oh, please. He was hitting on women students in freakin’ sanzen.

They said he would tell them that sexual contact with a Zen master, or roshi, like him, would help them attain new levels of “non-attachment,” one of Zen’s central objectives. If they resisted, they said, he used intimidation and threats of expulsion.

The Roshi was particularly devoted to the service of enlightening women, apparently, since by all accounts male students didn’t get the same opportunity to attain new levels of non-attachment.

An independent panel of Buddhist leaders concluded in 2013 that the allegations were essentially indisputable. The panel report said that students had complained to Mr. Sasaki’s staff about his behavior since the early 1970s, and that those “who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed or otherwise punished.”

Some of the senior students who make excuses for the Roshi note that no rape charge was ever filed. That’s not unusual, however. Women probably figured it was futile to file charges, considering the Roshi’s seniors students obviously were going to shield him from accountability.

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I would say to Professor Roth that nobody is absolutely bad or absolutely good. Nobody is absolutely anything. I don’t doubt a lot of people who studied with the Roshi and learned Zen practice from him feel the experience was worthwhile. But just as it is delusion to assume a person who has done something wrong is evil, it’s also a delusion to assume a person whose life has otherwise been beneficial is good. This proposes a permanent essence of Sasaki Roshi upon which attributes may be hung — good, bad, enlightened, deluded.

That’s not how it works.

Zennies must affirm that there is no excuse for sexual predation, and that the Roshi’s acts were harmful and wrong. This is not about punishing him, but about giving affirmation to the women he abused while also saying loudly and clearly that this is not what Zen does.

Flaws and Zen Teachers

The death of Joshu Sasaki Roshi at the age of 107 was noted in several major U.S. newspapers, but I haven’t heard much about it in the U.S. Zen community, possibly because many would like to forget him entirely.

James Ford, a Soto Zen lineage holder, did post on his blog Monkey Mind about the Roshi, and wrote,

By all accounts a great teacher.

By all accounts a sexual predator.

A great sadness for the Dharma come west.

There is no question flawed people can still be great teachers. Were it not so, there would be no great teachers. But there are flaws, and then there are other flaws. wrote in the Los Angeles Times,

Decades later, allegations from dozens of former students that he had sexually abused them surfaced. The allegations included molestation and rape, and some had been reported to the Rinzai-ji board, which never took effective action, according to an investigation by an independent council of Buddhist leaders.

The council’s report suggested he may have abused hundreds. “We see how, knowingly and unknowingly, the community was drawn into an open secret,” the council wrote. “We have reports that those who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed, or otherwise punished.”

A council of senior Zen teachers ordained under Roshi later responded with an apology, acknowledging that it failed to address the teacher’s alleged sexual misconduct.

The community was drawn into an open secret … those who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed, or otherwise punished. To me, this is the most critical issue. There is no group of people immune to herd mentality, including scientists, self-described skeptics — and Zen students. And I feel compelled to point out that “great teachers” don’t haul their students into co-dependency and complicity.

His senior students, quoted in the news stories, still speak of him with gushing reverence.  Apparently he had great presence, even charisma. But in Zen, genuinely great teachers are praised for their ordinariness. Genuinely great teachers don’t encourage emotional dependency.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971), who founded the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) in the late 1960s, once compared working with one’s own delusions to climbing a stepladder. Then he added,

Sometimes I may be a delusion. You may overestimate me: “He is a good teacher!” That is already a kind of delusion. I am your friend. I am just practicing with you as your friend who has many stepladders.”

Shunryu Suzuki was a great teacher. I’ve never heard even a hint of a scandalous thing about him. However, as he was dying he rushed transmission of his senior student Richard Baker, who apparently was not ready, and Baker became embroiled in scandals that nearly destroyed SFZC. But SFZC survived, partly through the guidance of Shunryu Suzuki’s son Hoitsu Suzuki. My second Zen teacher, Jion Susan Postal (1940-2014)  received transmission from a teacher in Suzuki Roshi’s lineage through Hoitsu Suzuki. Susan was a great teacher.

(If you are unfamiliar with the Zen lineage tradition, see the explanation beneath the asterisks below.)

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American Zen has done a lot of soul-searching, so to speak, in recent years. A relative handful of Japanese and Korean teachers came to the U.S. in the 1950s through 1970s to teach Zen, and out of that small group several were accused of sexual impropriety eventually. The first generation of American-born teachers, almost all men, also included some teachers who arguably allowed their sexual choices to compromise their roles as teachers, which doesn’t mean they were all predators. Japanese Buddhism is not celibate, and I know of at least a couple of teachers who engaged in publicly acknowledged, serially monogamous relationships with students who were old enough to know what they were getting into. Whether this was detrimental to either the students or the community is a matter of opinion, I suppose.

However, I sense a consensus is growing that teachers shouldn’t be messing with their own students, period. Also, more and more American lineage holders are women, so western Zen is not nearly as much of a boy’s club as it was in the 1970s. More importantly, as western Zen matures students are less likely to think of Zen masters as people with magic powers. They provide essential guidance in the process that is Zen, but ultimately they are just people with flaws and stepladders.

*   *   *

Joshu Sasaki Roshi established a network of Zen centers called Rinzai-ji but left no dharma heirs, in spite of being a teacher for more than 60 years, which throws the future of those centers into doubt.

The news stories and articles about the Roshi persistently confuse terms like “priest” and “teacher,” so let me explain. Rinzai and Soto Zen (the two primary schools in Japan) operate a bit differently, but generally priest ordination roughly is equivalent to novice nun or monk ordination, and “dharma transmission” is equivalent to full ordination. Usually the term “Zen teacher” is limited to the transmitted and is not used to describe priests without transmission, even if the priest is filling the function of a teacher. However, I don’t know if that’s a hard-and-fast rule everywhere.

Someone who has received transmission is also called a “lineage holder,” “dharma heir” or even “Zen master,” although within American Zen it’s unusual to hear the title “Zen master.” The lineage tradition is the primary container that has maintained the integrity of Zen lo these 15 centuries, since Bodhidharma sat in the cave at Shaolin. Zen defines itself as the “face to face transmission of the dharma outside the sutras,” and “dharma” in this case is understood to be the Buddha’s own enlightenment, kept alive by students and teachers working together, person-to-person, mind-to-mind, through the generations. It’s not a matter of learning stuff from books, in other words. Obviously the system doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s the only system Zen has. Without it, no Zen.

There are many functions only a lineage holder is supposed to be able to do, such as give formal private spiritual interviews (called dokusan or sanzen) and confer ordinations at any level. Zen centers that have no affiliation with a transmitted teacher have limited functionality and, I would argue, are not really “Zen centers.” The Rinzai-ji centers will have to recruit teachers from outside Rinzai-ji to remain “Zen.” But if they can do that, they should be able to survive.