Panpsychism is the view that mind or soul (Greek: ψυχή) is a universal feature of all things, and the primordial feature from which all others are derived and this is a common theme in Zen.  Master Mangong Wolmyeon described it as [2]:

“What is referred as ‘mind-only’ in Buddhism— the central philosophy of the Avatamsaka-sutra, meaning that all things that exist in the universe are projections of the mind, that there is nothing that exists apart from the mind, and that the mind is the original essence of the myriads of things—is not the ‘mind-only’ that stands in distinction to ‘materiality only,’ but is instead the ultimate ‘mind-only,’ in which materiality and mentality are nondual.”

Panpsychist ideas can be found in many teachers with respect to the doctrine of Buddha nature which is often attributed to inanimate objects such as lotus flowers and mountains [a].  As Master Cheonghhwa put it [3] :

“Shakyamuni Buddha attained the consummation of incomparable enlightenment.  However, when realised that it was not only him but all phenomena in the whole universe were also awakened.  In other words, he realised the inborn Buddha-nature of all existence in the whole universe including the bodhi tree under which he was sitting, even it’s every leaf and stem, the bushes around the tree, etc.  It is very important to understand that there is nothing, no matter how trivial and insignificant it might be, in the whole universe that is not Buddha, or that does not possess the innate Buddha-nature.

..no matter what it is, the tiny stones or the huge mountains, they are full of life; they are all living things just like us; so teaches the Avatamsaka-sutra.  It teaches us that all mountains, rivers, trees, animals, etc. are alive just like us, not a bit different from human beings.  They all posses spirit, mind, or the Buddha-nature, just like us.” 

The celebrated master Dogen likewise argued for the universality of Buddha nature and claimed that “fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles” are also “mind” (心,shin). Dogen also argued that “insentient beings expound the teachings” and that the words of the eternal Buddha “are engraved on trees and on rocks . . . in fields and in villages”. This is the message of his ‘Mountains and Waters Sutra’ (Sansui kyô) [4] and other teachings [5] [6] [7] [8] [9]


No form of panpsychism attributes full, human-style consciousness to the fundamental constituents of the universe and Zen agrees with this assessment.  Instead Zen teachers often say that ‘mind’ is the fundamental reality. In the words of Master DaeHeung [5] :

“Your fundamental mind, your true self is invisibly connected to all things in the world and through it all things communicate with each other and work together as one. In this way, the whole universe is functioning together as one through fundamental mind, so this working together is called One mind (Hanmaum).

Fundamental mind… is not the mind that arises and disappears. On the contrary, it is tranquil and unshakable, and has infinite ability to encompass the entire universe. It is the source of unlimited energy, which you can freely use whenever you want.

Fundamental mind is within you, is the source of your existence, and has led you over the eons. Thus, that is what you have to believe in and rely upon. Money, fame, relationships, etc. may give you some satisfaction, but it will be short-lived. Only by knowing your true nature will you be able to know true satisfaction. “

Although we are using a western philosophical word to describe an ancient tradition there is certainly strong overlap between Zen and panpyschism and it is useful, I think, to use the strengths and similarities of the two traditions to resist the assumption that materialism is in fact correct, and Zen as it has been traditionally conceived of is religious wishful thinking.


At this point it might sounds like Zen is pointing to some kind of cosmic consciousness and is sneaking some kind of theism in by the backdoor and is really some kind of pantheism.  However, Zen is quite explicit and insists that there is no substantial self (ie, ‘anatman’)  and so what Zen is talking about here is quite different from a theological concept. 

This is why Zen also talks of ‘no-mind.’  Master SeungShan described ‘no-mind’ like this:

“The Buddha taught about mind. For forty years, he talked about Dharma. His whole teaching was concerned with how you can use Dharma to attain your mind. Attaining your mind actually means losing mind. The Buddha’s teaching is that when you have mind, you get suffering, and you have a problem. If you have no mind, then everything is no problem. “

In the Zen world view both emptiness and ‘mind’ transcend a dichotomy of being and nonbeing, existence and nonexistence, self and nonself, suffering and happiness and so on.  In fact we find it transcends all dictomonies.  As the Heart Sutra puts it, “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”. 

Panpyschism is the western philosophical thesis that ‘mind’ is fundamental and this idea is seen running through the Zen tradition.  The popular western philosophical thesis of materialism denies that ‘mind’ is fundamental and instead postulates that matter is fundamental and would, if accepted, have consequences for Zen as it has been traditionally understood and it isquite rational to believe that ‘mind’ is in fact a fundamental component of nature as has been maintained in the Zen tradition for over a thousand years.


[1] The Dharma of mind Transmission: Zen Teachings of Huang-po

[2] Mangong Wolmyeon. (2006). Dharma Talks/Teachings. Available: http://www.koreanbuddhism.net/master/dharma_talk_view.asp?cat_seq=32&content_seq=414&priest_seq=0&page=1. Last accessed 13 Sep 2013.

[3] Cheonghwa KunSunim (2008). The Most Joyful Study: The Dharma Talks of Cheonghwa Sunim. Seoul, Korea: Muju Publications. 185-186

[4] Parks, Graham. The awareness of rocks. Skrbina David, Ed. mind that Abides.’ Chapter 17, pg 326.

[5] Parkes, Graham (2009) ‘Dōgen’s `Mountains and Waters as Sūtras” In: William Edelglass and Jay L. Garfield (eds).Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press

[6] Heisig, JW; Raud, R (2010) ‘Body-min’ and Buddha-Nature: Dōgen’s Deeper Ecology’ In: Frontiers of Japanese Philosophy: Classical Japanese Philosophy. Nagoya, Japan: Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture

[8] OUP. (2013). Dogen Kigen. Available: http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095724851. Last accessed 13 Sept 2013.

[7] OUP (2005). Oxford Dictionary of Philsophy. Oxford: OUP.

[9] Parkes, Graham (2009) ‘The Awareness of Rock: East-Asian Understandings and Implications’ In: David Skrbina (eds).mind that Abides: Panpsychism in the New Millenium. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins

[10] Various. (2013). Secular Buddhism. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_Buddhism. Last accessed 13 Sept 2013.

[11] TAKASAKI Jikidõ. (2000). The Tath„gatagarbha Theory Reconsidered.Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 2000 27. 27 (1), 1-2.

[12] TAKASAKI Jikidõ. (2000). The Tath„gatagarbha Theory Reconsidered.Available: http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-MAG/mag133535.pdf. Last accessed 13 Sept 2013.

[13] Hakamaya Noriaki. (1997). Critical Philosophy versus Topical Philosophy. Available: http://www.nanzan-u.ac.jp/SHUBUNKEN/publications/nlarc/pdf/Pruning%20the%20bodhi%20tree/Pruning%203.pdf. Last accessed 10 July 2013.

[14] Hakamaya Noriaki, ‘Critical Philosphy versus Topical Philsophy’, Prunning the Bodh Tree, Hubbard, Jamie and Paul Swanson ed (Honolulu: UK Press, 1997)

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