Zen is not anti-interlectual or anti-learning and those that claim so have got confused by the Zen’s message, context, history and teachings.  This paper starts of by considering where the claim that Zen is anti-learning originated and then goes on to explain how that could not possibly be the case since Zen has a great intellectual and literary history spanning centuries and continuing on today. The essay then considers the educational activities and backgrounds of several modern Buddhist leaders to show that they are highly educated and how they have never stopped learning and teaching about Buddhism.


Throughout the whole of the Buddhist tradition there is the notion that we should not get lost in

D.T. Suzuki

metaphysical views and the Pali-cannon has Buddha saying that ‘no-view is supermundane right-view’.  This idea is completly legitimate and is the meaning behind the comments of Zen teachers when they say things like this from D.T. Suzuki:

     “Zen has nothing to teach us in the way of intellectual analysis,” and that the sutras are “mere waste paper whose utility consist in wiping off the dirt of the intellect and nothing more”. The goal is “absolute peace of mind,” and this is only attained by eliminating the “reasoning faculty,” which only “hinders the mind from coming into the directest communication with itself”

It is in this light that Western Buddhist anti-intellectualism is best understood, however, this can lead to a much misunderstanding of the tradition.


The claim that Zen is anti-learning doesn’t stand up to scrutiny as it is

impossible to reconcile the profound impact Zen philosophy has had on the intellectual world of East Asia where even its intellectual enemies were forced to answer to its perspectives and views. In fact, so strong were its arguments and so persuasive were its proponents that Zen’s opponents always found themselves unwittingly drawn into its intellectual terrain. Without learning, teaching and propagating it would have been impossible for Zen’s philosophy and ideas have to have influenced East Asian philosophy, aesthetics, culture and literature in the ways that it has. Furthermore, this scholarly and cultural heritage continues to be taught worldwide by scholar monks such as HH Dali-Lama, Reverend Park, Reverend Thich Nhat Han and Reverend D.T Suzuki all of whose scholarly achievements will be outlined below.


Furthermore, contrary to the popular image, Zen literature has played and continues to play a fundamental role in training novice monks and laymen alike and monks are expected to become familiar with the classics of the Zen canon. Zen has a rich textual tradition and a review of the early historical documents and literature of Zen masters clearly reveals that they were well versed in numerous Mahāyāna Buddhist sūtras and this tradition continues up to the present time.

Furthermore, Buddhist countries have established Buddhist Universities where monks have to study to gain a qualification in Buddhism before becoming ordained. For example, the Soto and Rinzai schools their own Universities in Japan, (Komazawa University and Hanazono University respectively) as do the Jogye Order in Korea (Dongguk University). For more information on Buddhist Universities read ‘further reading’ below.

The Tripitaka Koreana, Haeinsa temple in Korea

Furthermore, the Zen tradition has placed a high regard on its sutras which were carefully stored, preserved and studied. For example, the Haeinsa temple in Korea has a complete collection of almost all Buddhist texts (the Tripitaka Koreana) which are engraved on 80,000 woodblocks. The great regard the Zen tradition has for the sutras and commentaries is completely incompatible with the idea that learning is to be abandoned in Zen.

As has been pointed out by Seizen (2009),  

“Chan does not reject the scriptures of the Buddhist canon, but simply warns of the futility of relying on them for the attainment of emancipating insight. The sacred texts — and much more so the huge exegetical apparatus that had grown up around them in the older scholastic schools — were regarded as no more than signposts pointing the way to liberation. Valuable though they were as guides, they needed to be transcended in order for one to awaken to the true intent of Śākyamuni’s teachings.” 

Therefore, it is a mistake to underestimate the role of learning in Zen. It must be recognised that although final enlightenment is outside of the scriptures, the scriptures themselves are an indispensable signpost along the way. As it would be a mistake to confuse the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself, it would be just as mistaken to ignore the finger in the first place. And as much as “Zen has nothing to teach us in the way of intellectual analysis” it does not follow that one can reach the endpoint of Zen without first knowing the way.


How then can we reconcile the claim that we must remove all “obstacles of knowledge and affliction,” and then “experience” reality directly as a “state of being refreshed” with the idea that we must ground ourselves in Buddhist philosophy? The answer lies in the dialectical process (the Middle Way of the Twofold Truth) which is essentially the way of emptiness. It is a path of eliminating extreme views so that one may be “empty” of attachments. This is a dialectical process of purifying the mind by eliminating attachment to things and views. In other words, “Emptiness” means “absolutely non-abiding” – but what is non-abiding?

The Sutra of Hui-neng says,

“Learned audience, to what are meditation and wisdom analogous? They are analogous to a lamp and its light. With the lamp, there is light. Without it, it would be dark. The lamp is the quintessence of the light and the light is the expression of the lamp. In name they are two things, but in substance they are the same. It is the same case with meditation and wisdom.”

 This tells us that to have meditation is to obtain wisdom, and to have wisdom is to refute erroneous views. So meditation and wisdom are not two separate things but one. People therefore should not emphasize the importance of meditation at the expense of wisdom. Nor should they stress the importance of wisdom at the expense of meditation. In other words, not attaching to any views is a meditation technique and not a call to do nothing else and is not a call to throw away the sutras or not to learn about them.

Park Kunsunim with Pope Benedict XVI


Despite the quotes above that saying that learning will not help one achieve enlightenment it must be  noted that this is an expression of the Buddhist concept of ‘TwoFold Truth’ and that those same authors Suzuki and Thich Nhat Hanh are scholar monks who never stopped learning before or after enlightenment and are themselves very well educated they have written extensively on Buddhism and have established their own universities in order to teach Buddhism. And furthermore, throughout history there have been great scholar monks who have developed and propagated Zen teachings and philosophy to a wide audience indicating that while meditation requires stopping ‘intellectual analysis’ it is neither anti-intellectual or anti-learning. Although there are many enlightened scholar monks four high profile monks are given below as an example (listed in alphabetical order):

H.H. Dali-Lama, (Monk and spiritual leader)

Education: Ph.D (Buddhist metaphysics)

Publications: 34 books

Reverend Park, (Monk and Patriarch of the International Taego Order)

Education: Ph.D (on the Avatamsaka Sutra)

Writings: Published six scholarly books on Buddhism

Spreading Dharma: teaches Buddhism at University; created his own Buddhist University

Reverend D.T Suzuki (Monk and teacher)

Education: Professor of Buddhist Philosophies and scholar of Chinese, Japanese, and Sanskrit literature

Writings: Many (several dozens), although I could not find a definitive list

Spreading Dharma: Professor of Buddhist Philosophies

Reverend Thich Nhat Han (Monk and spiritual leader)

Education: Graduated from Bao Quoc Buddhist Academy, Vietnam

Writings: Editor for the Unified Vietnam Buddhist Association (Giáo Hội Phật Giáo Việt Nam Thống Nhất), and has written 40 books

Teaching: Founded Lá Bối Press, the Van Hanh Buddhist University, Saigon, Vietnam


The idea that Zen means one should be anti-intellectual and anti-learning does not stand up to analysis on several grounds. The enormously varied Zen tradition, which is rich in philosophy, culture, prose, and literature could not have flourished and sustained itself without learning, propagating and teaching. It is also clear that ancient and modern Zen monks both were and are scholars who are well educated and who didn’t give up learning and teaching even after enlightenment. Therefore, the idea that Zen teaches anti-intellectualism or is anti-learning is to take the teachings out of context. That is not to say that meditation does not require one to relinquish attachment to one’s views, but it does not follow that one does not therein after have views, and indeed Buddhism has always taught right-views and these are subtle but important differences


Chi-tsang, The Meaning of the Twofold Truth; Taisho 1854, pp. 90-91.

Nhât Hanh, T. (2006) Understanding Our Mind. Berkeley: Parallax Press.

Suzuki, D.T. (1964) An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. New York: Grove Press, Inc.

Yanagida, Seizan (2009), Historical Introduction to The Record of Linji. In: The record of Linji, translated by Ruth Fuller Sasakia e.a., University of Hawaii Press


List of Buddhist Universities – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Buddhist_universities_and_colleges

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