Someone told me that I don't need to read about Dogens teachings of zen. They said that "zen is just about being spontaneous and free from rules." Are they right? Why or why not? Is it deeper than just being spontaneous?

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    Note to answerers: if you never studied/practiced Zen but still have an opinion - you can leave it in the comments. Please don't answer based solely on hearsay.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 15:50

3 Answers 3


They said that "zen is just about being spontaneous and free from rules." Are they right? Why or why not? Is it deeper than just being spontaneous?

Well, it depends on the audience. Take a martial art analogy, you'll never hear a serious master instructing his white-belt student to be "spontaneous and free from rules". You'll only hear that once you've earned a 3rd dan on your black belt. If you're a white-belt, he's gonna have you do tons of drills, physical conditioning, fixed katas, sparring, etc. until your knuckles bleed. Why? 'cuz for any fighting discipline, one still has to put his money where his mouth is by proving how his "spontaneity and freedom from rules" helps him surviving 3 rounds inside the ring. Similarly for spirituality, tell a zen novice to be spontaneous and free from rules on day one, and he'll die inside the ring against Mara in under 3 seconds, let alone 3 rounds.

  • Very true. This is why it is often said that Zen (and Mahayana in general) is for a more advanced practitioner, who has no problems with handling the basics.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 18:18

Spontaneity is possible where a conceptual system of ethics is replaced with an embodiment of Truth and Reality. In theistic terms - God can be spontaneous and must be, since He must always act according to His nature. The same would be the case for the true sage.

As Andrei says, this all about discovering ones' true nature. Once one has then one can and will act spontaneously according to that nature. By his very nature the true sage will act appropriately.


Good question. Zen has everything to do with spontaneity!

Zen is about discovering your true nature. This means being true - true to yourself, true to others. Being true to oneself can also be described as spontaneity. This goes very deep, being true without inner conflict.

As for the rules, one should be free from blindly taking them as something absolute - while understanding that certain actions do have certain results. One should be certainly free from the cargo-cult mentality: following rules superficially without true understanding.

Within this framework: being careful about results of one's actions, going beyond the cargo-cult mentality, being true to others, and being true to oneself - spontaneity is the pinnacle, the cherry on top.

And how can one be spontaneous if one is bound by definitions of self: "I am such, I am someone, I am [xyz]"? Hence emptiness, going beyond definitions.

Your interlocutor has a point, in the sense that action is what really matters - action moment by moment, suchness, fearlessness, being true. That said, Dogen is good too.

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