This Zen Buddhism article starts with,

Zen often seems paradoxical - it requires an intense discipline which, when practised properly, results in total spontaneity and ultimate freedom. This natural spontaneity should not be confused with impulsiveness.

What would they mean by "intense discipline" there, for example ... is it the routine in a monastery?

More centrally, to this question, what is the role of "spontaneity"? Is it a goal? A means to the goal? A side-effect or symptom of having reached "the goal"? Is spontaneity practised somehow, or is that a paradox?

Is there famous (written and translated) Zen doctrine on the subject ... an explanation by someone?

Does it (or something like it) exist, as a value or as a goal or whatever it is, in other schools of Buddhism (e.g. Theravada, or ...)?

Is it spontaneity but within some limits? For example, within the limits of "ethical rules" ... or within the limits of, I don't know, calligraphic and/or other arts, for example?

Assuming it's a well-known concept, is "spontaneity" the right word, the right translation for it? What could be other translations? What's the original (pre-translated) word or words?

4 Answers 4


Does it (or something like it) exist, as a value or as a goal or whatever it is, in other schools of Buddhism (e.g. Theravada, or ...)?

Yes, it exists in Mahayana in general. From a Mahayana viewpoint, the mind of a buddha is free from conceptualization, and is effortless and free from intentions. (at least intentions that are conceptual consciousnesses, if not the omnipresent mental factor of intentions).

This effortlessness is often translated as naturalness, spontaneity, etc. In Chinese, the term is Tzu-jan (or ziran).

But while it is relevant on a soteriological path in Zen, it is not relevant in this specific way in other traditions or practices, to the exception of Mahamudra, Dzogchen and Tantra in general.

In China, it was a central concept to Confucianism and Daoism before Buddhism was introduced. It then became significant in Buddhism as well. The three teachings (Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism) all relate to this effortlessness / naturalness but they vary greatly in terms of soteriological paths.

Whether we speak of Confucianism, Daoism or Zen, the idea is to act in accordance with circumstances, as opposed to acting in accordance with abstract principles that are general and not fitting particular circumstances. The following koan conveys this idea:

A monk asked Seigen, “What is the essence of Buddhism?” Seigen said, “What is the price of rice in Roryo?”

According to commentaries, the meaning is that when rice is scarce, the price is high. Similarly, the essence of Buddhism depends on contexts. A Dharma practitioner must be adaptable and spontaneous/natural.

In the Chuangzu (a Daoist text), it says:

When a man shoots an arrow to win a tile he is skillful. But if he is trying to win a silver buckle he starts getting nervous. And if he’s competing for gold he almost loses his mind. His native skill is the same in each case, but because he has something to lose, he overvalues the external. Whenever the external is prized, the internal gets clumsy.

To simplify and resorting to an analogy: From a Confucian perspective, in order to play piano "freestyle", playfully and effortlessly, one must have trained before, abiding by the rules, rehearsing classics, etc. On the other hand, the Daoist approach is more like this: From the start, one has to drop off one's intentions and opinions and not try to control ways and outcomes for, by doing so, he is getting in his own way. One already possesses "the native stuff", he just has to drop off whatever is superfluous. By dropping off, nature reveals itself. (that might echo Dogen's way of characterizing his satori experience as a "dropping off of body and mind")

Zen is very complex and multi-faceted. The so-called sudden teachings are closer to Daoism while the so-called gradual teachings are closer to Confucianism in its approach of rules, classics and traditions.

In terms of soteriological path, what is unique to Zen is that Zazen is to be taken in relation to the whole of Buddhist teachings, especially Mahayana. Some teachers are more or less study-oriented (like Zongmi, Yanshou, Chinul, and even Dogen, etc) and others are not.

I would advise the following books:

  1. Effortless Action: Wu-wei As Conceptual Metaphor. By Slingerland.
  2. Yongming Yanshou's Conception of Chan, by Albert Welter.
  3. Collected Works of Chinul, Robert E. Buswell Jr.

And a few valuable Daoist books that are more accessible than the Tao Te Ching. For instance, the Chuangzu and the Liezhi.

Why spontaneity is not relevant on a soteriological path in other traditions or practices? From the 8th century (Kamalashila), Tibet sought to go back to the source (Indian Buddhism, not Chinese or Korean) but it took them centuries. In the 10th century, Atisa was summoned from India to Tibet to help revive Buddhism after it has been persecuted. Before even reaching Tibet, he sent the Tibetans the very first Lam rim. Lam rim is a textual genre that means: gradual path. The cultivation became a matter of expedients applied more or less forcefully. It is not about simply seeing one's own nature, but carving oneself.

In addition, where Zen generally focuses on the effortless aspect of the mind of a buddha, Tibetan traditions focus on the omniscient aspect of the mind of a buddha. Omniscience is often not posited, and sometimes not accepted, by Zen masters. Sam van Schaik wrote a valuable book on the topic Tibetan Zen: Discovering a Lost Tradition.

The Huayan tradition also focused on omniscience rather than naturalness; on expedient means rather than sudden teachings.

The Pure Land tradition was far away from spontaneity, since they though the practitioner was unable to reach enlightenment by its own power. In Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, there is a chapter on the topic. It is called From Dispute to Dual Cultivation: Pure Land Responses to Chan Critics by David W. Chappell.

  • Thank you for the answer (and the references). Could you add a sentence, to explain why it's "not relevant on a soteriological path in other traditions or practices" (e.g. by saying what instead is more relevant in those)? Also fwiw I can't say I remember something like that in the Analects: I dimly remember that as being all about study, e.g. learning the classics so that you have something (appropriate) to play at all.
    – ChrisW
    May 7, 2018 at 23:21
  • 1
    @ChrisW done. Also, in Slingerland's book, there is a chapter "The paradox of Wu-wei in the Analects". Right from the starts, he says "Confucius places a great deal of emphasis upon the importance of "naturalness" in the moral life." May 8, 2018 at 8:59
  • Hard to say without chinese signs roryo, seems to be 'faraway'.
    – Oni
    Apr 11, 2019 at 4:07

(In my personal understanding, based on study and practice:)

"What would they mean by "intense discipline" ...?"

This refers to your standard Buddhist training, sila/prajna/samadhi - the paramitas, the minimalism, the discipline of the mind, the tranquility, the egolessness etc. The idea is that "a gorilla" can't be spontaneous until it learns how to behave itself. It has to acquire some real skill before it can relax and let go.

"More centrally, to this question, what is the role of "spontaneity"? Is it a goal? A means to the goal? A side-effect or symptom of having reached "the goal"?

As I understand, spontaneity is an "internal" aspect of Liberation, while Suchness is an "external" aspect of Liberation. When one has fixed one's coarse karmic issues (primarily in terms of one's personal situation and livelihood), has no mental obscurations (illusions, reifications), and no emotional obscurations (active neuroses, attachments) - then one has no conflict with the world, every moment is subjectively perceived as "right" or "such" - everything is just so. This is cessation of dukkha with regards to the world. Similarly, because one has no inner conflict, the discipline being completely integrated, and no illusion of self, one's own activity is subjectively perceived as effortless and full of certainty - i.e. lacking any sense of inner resistance. This is cessation of dukkha with regards to self.

"Is spontaneity practised somehow, or is that a paradox?""

It is generally understood that the lack of remorse due to accomplished ethics, realization of selflessness through practice of murdering Ego's defense, altruistic compassion to others, right meditation, simple living conditions, direct experiential realization of Emptiness, and a certain amount of sleep deprivation - together lead to spontaneity. Also, different teachers have different means of inducing it, e.g. my Zen Master arranged for someone to suddenly blow a vuvuzela in the middle of meditation session. Tibetan masters are known to shout "Phat" with the same intent. Much of Zen anecdotes and some of Tibetan folklore (e.g. Life of Marpa, Life of Milarepa) are full of stories about teachers pulling the rational ground from under the student's feet.

"Is there famous (written and translated) Zen doctrine on the subject ... an explanation by someone?"

I don't know of any. In my experience, Zen masters are not fond of conceptual elaboration. They tend to demonstrate more than explain, or if they do explain they do so in extremely pithy form, that most of the time can't be carried outside of the immediate context.

"Does it (or something like it) exist, as a value or as a goal or whatever it is, in other schools of Buddhism (e.g. Theravada, or ...)?"

There is plenty of texts about this in Tibetan tradition, especially in Dzogchen which is considered by some to be a cousin of Zen. Reference Tögal.

In Pali Canon, supposedly suchness&spontaneity are implied as the culmination of those typical sequences of Jhana that go from coarser to finer, until the student realizes that "even this state is conditioned" - and then follows Release. See for example Cula-suññata Sutta:

He discerns that 'This theme-less concentration of awareness is [still] fabricated & mentally fashioned.' And he discerns that 'Whatever is fabricated & mentally fashioned is inconstant & subject to cessation.' For him — thus knowing, thus seeing — the mind is released [...]

"Is it spontaneity but within some limits? For example, within the limits of "ethical rules" ... or within the limits of, I don't know, calligraphic and/or other arts, for example?"

It is spontaneous manifestation of fully-realized wisdom and compassion - so naturally it represents the very essence of Sat-Dharma that we typically attempt to capture with the ethical rules.

"Assuming it's a well-known concept, is "spontaneity" the right word, the right translation for it? What could be other translations? What's the original (pre-translated) word or words?"

I've seen this referred to as "finding one's true nature", "realization", and even just "zen" as in "show me your zen". Not sure what the Pali Canon level word is though. Perhaps "freedom/liberation/release" and "certainty"?


Case 5 of the Mumonkam Kyogen Mounts the Tree

Kyogen said: "Zen is like a man hanging in a tree by his teeth over a precipice. His hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no limb, 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 does answer, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?"

Mumon's comment: In such a predicament the most talented eloquence is of no use. If you have memorized all the sutras, you cannot use them. When you can give the right answer, even though your past road was one of death, you open up a new road of life. But if you cannot answer, you should live ages hence and ask the future Buddha, Maitreya.

Kyogen is truly a fool
Spreading that ego-killing poison
That closes his pupils' mouths
And lets their tears stream from their dead eyes.

I remember one sesshin that I went to. My instructor was recounting the story of a student, who, having been given this koan, showed up to dokusan room, took off all of his clothes, and sat down across from his roshi. That roshi, not missing a beat, rang his little hand bell signaling that the interview was over.

"What!?" the student exclaimed, "This koan is about spontaneity! How can you get anymore spontaneous than stripping naked???" The roshi smiled, started meowing like a cat, and rang the bell a second time.

Zen spontaneity is not a mysterious thing. At least, not when you've been gazing into emptiness (or mushin) for any extended period of time (that's your vigorous practice, btw). In fact, this relationship between deep engagement with emptiness and spontaneity is at the very heart of the work we do with koans. Our small mind is tirelessly verbal. It give us explanations for everything. It plans. It makes excuses. When we look into mushin, we first put aside that smaller mind. We must make ourselves free from the burdensome practice of judging. The rest of the process is watching and waiting to see what comes up. Sometimes what we find makes sense; sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes what we see is related to our koan and sometimes it isn't. No matter what we find, it's important to remember that these things are just appearances. They miss the source. The source is what we're after. It's where all spontaneity comes from.

That student? He knew what he was going to do before he ever showed up into the dokusan room. That roshi? Before his big mind told him to make the sound of a cat (which was really the lion's roar of the true dharma), the thought never occurred to him. Had he lifted his leg and peed on that student, made him tea, or cut off his own head, he would have been no more right or wrong.


This koan always helped me with the 'goal'.

Luoshan asked Yantou, "When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then?"

Yantou shouted and said, "Whose arising and vanishing is it?"

It is the dichotomy that makes 'difficult' from 'easy' and 'goals' from the void. Maybe it is less about where you're from or going, and more about where 'you' are. But hey, what do I truly know.

Basically, keep it up!

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