Dharma Talk: “Death By Concepts”


NOTE: The following Dharma Talk was given by Rev. Charama on Sunday, January 14, 2018:

“Death By Concepts”

It’s probable most people have heard of – perhaps have even eaten – the rich and decadent dessert called “Death By Chocolate.”

Or, if you’re of a certain age (or if you have a yen for classic Hollywood movies), you may be familiar with the star-studded 1976 comedy “Murder By Death.”

Maybe, if you’re in the legal profession, you know the term “Death By Misadventure.”

There’s even a phrase “Death By Irony” that is defined as “when a character is killed in an allegorical or lyrical manner, often this is due to their own actions,” (according to one web site I consulted). That’s when, say, a beaver is killed by a tree it just felled.

There’s another phrase I just coined that I think is important to know: “Death By Concepts,” which describes what I believe is a key contributing factor to virtually all conflict, violence, and polarization in the world today.

Before I explain that in detail, I need to quote from Yamada Koun Roshi’s Teisho on Case #12: “Tôzan’s Masagin” from Hekiganroku (Blue Cliff Record). This koan has a counterpart in Mumonkan Case #18):


It’s often said that human beings are animals with emotions; as a matter of fact, human beings are animals with concepts. The human mind is heavily embedded in concepts; it even feeds on such concepts, so to speak. But concepts are never real facts. Since Zen aims at grasping the real fact, you must exhaust all of your concepts. If you say, for example, “Sugar is sweet,” that sentence is a concept. No matter how many times you repeat it or hear others say it, and no matter how well you believe you understand it, the proof of the sweetness is only in the tasting.

Various thoughts you produce in your head are, after all, not real at all. They are simply “photographs” of the realities. That’s why Zen calls those thoughts “delusions” or “conceptual products.” Taking away those concepts from the students is called “killing” [setsunin]. It’s vital for Zen teacher to use both “the sword that kills” and “the sword that gives life.” These two aspects are also expressed in such word combinations as “killing–giving life” [sekkatsu], “giving–taking away” [yodatsu], “folding–letting go” [shûdatsu]. You’ve got to “give life” as well as to “kill”; “taking away” and “giving” are both indispensable. This has been the principle of Zen guidance since of old and remains the key point even now.

The most crucial point is to first “kill” totally, eradicate all concepts and thoughts; then “giving life” follows naturally. This is called “dying the great death–coming to great life” [daishi-ichiban, daikatsu-genjô]. When you become totally void of any concepts or thoughts, suddenly you come to life. Here lies the most important point in Zen; it’s always been the same – in olden times as well as today.

Why does Yamada Roshi call the killing of concepts “the most important point in Zen”? And why does he make the claim that “When you become totally void of any concepts or thoughts, suddenly you come to life”?

Perhaps you’ll understand when I list a few commonly heard concepts making the rounds in memes and media alike today:

White Privilege
Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter
Economic Disparity
Occupy Wall Street
Love is Love
Science is Real
Capitalism is evil
Socialism is good
Climate Change
The Confederate Flag Is Racist
Hillary Clinton Should Have Won
Christians Are Bigots
Make America Great Again

All of those words and phrases are concepts. Even “love” is a concept, as is “Zen.” They’re ideas, opinions, mental constructs, usually media-created terms that some of which, once they take hold in one’s mind, become rallying cries that fuel demonstrations, protests, anger, and even, at times, violence.

We’ve all seen the signs stuck into people’s yards. Or the bumper stickers on their cars. (Basically, if it’s on a sign or a bumper sticker, it’s a concept.) Plus, there are countless memes we see on Facebook nearly every day that reinforce these concepts.

As silly as it sounds, people can (and often do) come to blows over concepts, largely because of two things:

1. There’s no set understanding of or definition for a concept. They mean different things to different people.

2. Each person is attached to his/her own definition of concepts, and they’re loathe to acquiesce their attachments.

Obviously, most of the above concepts are emotionally and politically charged. But what about the following, seemingly less hot-button phrases?

The Chicago Cubs Are Cursed
Pumpkin Pie Is The Best

They’re concepts, too.

Why? Because they’re opinions, mere ideas. There’s no way to prove the Chicago Cubs are cursed, despite their abysmal record. Same for Pumpkin pie. Is it the best? Depends on whether or not you like the taste of pumpkin.

Zen teaches the way to know a real fact – what is moment after moment – is to experience it oneself. Even then, what is being experienced may differ from one person to another.

For example, there’s no way to experience “Pumpkin Pie Is the Best” unless one already likes the taste of pumpkin and has a piece in front of him to bite into. In other words, two people at a table can take a bite of a pumpkin pie (the experience) and yet disagree as to its superior taste (the opinion). Are either one wrong? Hardly.

As to the fate of the Chicago Cubs, their cursedness is the stuff of legend. Yet, curses don’t actually exist, as far as I know. So to believe the team is cursed isn’t skillful.

As for “Hillary Clinton Should Have Won,” how can that assertion be proved? The word “should” is an immediate tip off. “Should” and “supposed to” are traps because they can paralyze a person from making a skillful decision, or to live in regret.

The phrase “Hillary Clinton Should Have Won” is usually only uttered/posted by those predisposed to agree with it. It’s an opinion. Despite that, there are some to this day who have staked their entire lives on that idea and have suffered for it since Mrs. Clinton lost the election.

Consider the concept “Christians Are Bigots.”

Unless one is standing in front of a Christian who exemplifies traits consistent with bigotry, there’s no way to prove that phrase true. Plus, even if one person claiming to be a Christian is an avowed (or proved) bigot, that doesn’t mean all Christians are bigots.

Yet, the concept persists.

Why? Because it’s a rallying cry, a way to amass a large group of people who agree with the concept. Once gathered together, and empowered by the concept “Christians Are Bigots,” people can say or do anything to achieve their desire goal – including demonstrating against Christians and/or companies owned by Christians.

In that instance, people are literally going to battle over an idea – one that may not even be true.

Therein lies the deceit and allure of concepts. They’re powerful because they resonate with one’s already held beliefs/opinions/concepts. That seems to make them true. But the number of people who ascribe to their veracity doesn’t make them true – any more than the Flat Earth theory is true just because thousands of people believe it.

Unchecked concepts can make people do horrendous things –including stick human beings in ovens, gas them to death, or make lampshades out of their skin. Concepts have been at the root all sorts of atrocities and wars and violent demonstrations over the millennia

Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn said the way to know watermelon is to bite into a slice of it. Volumes of words and descriptions can explain watermelon. But one will never truly know watermelon unless one bites into one.

Screenwriting guru Robert McKee echoes this when he describes the classic 1982 movie Blade Runner in his book Story. McKee says no screenwriter, even using tens of thousands of words, can capture a single frame of the movie Blade Runner. The film must be seen (not explained) to be experienced.

I’ve been saying people can’t “out-concept one another” for years. But it’s only been the past couple of years that I proved to myself the import of those words.

Take the phrase “White Privilege,” for example.

What does that mean? And does it exist in the real world?

No. It doesn’t exist anywhere except in memes and as talking points – and in the heads of those who embrace it.

(If your first reaction to that statement was, “How can you write that?!?! That’s insane!” then you may are attached to concepts.)

That’s because “White Privilege” is a concept. For every person who insists that it exists, another person can testify with certainty that it doesn’t.

Who’s right?

Both could be.

(NOTE: I did not write that there may not be occasions of unfair treatment between races. However, for every instance that can be proved of such a disparity, others can prove the opposite. Furthermore, the phrase itself raises the hackles of people who have never seen or experienced it in their own lives. They see it as fightin’ words.)

So then what? How are either/or discussions, or polarized opinions, all too often resolved in the world today?

As we’ve seen too many times, by employing the principles of war.

That is, those on one side amass forces to overcome forces on the other. Boycotts, demonstrations, protests, even violence are the usual tactics.

In short, it’s a battle for supremacy. It’s the social equivalent of trying to take Hamburger Hill.

Those controlled by concepts, people who live under delusions, are not free. As such, they are not truly alive.

Furthermore, concepts polarize. They fling people, much like matter in a centrifuge, toward one side or the other.

This is why Zen is so important to me.

Zen teaches us how to avoid the extremes, how to choose the “middle way,” how to avoid attachments, especially to our own delusions.

Which brings me back to Yamada Roshi’s assertion that “When you become totally void of any concepts or thoughts, suddenly you come to life.”

People who are alive are able to experience each moment as it arises. They are not buffeted by their emotions, lead by concepts, sometimes whipped into a frenzy as they seek to rectify that which they firmly believe is a wrong. They are compassionate and wise and kind.

So what’s the answer? How can people “come to life”?

There may be many ways. But I will list four:

1. Recognizing that concepts are part of the human condition, and that one may be suffering under their delusions without even knowing it.

2. Training the mind – via meditation and koan training – to cut through the delusions.

3. Eschewing attachments, even to your most cherished and longest-held concepts. Attachment to opinions is bad enough. Attachment to concepts is a double whammy.

4. By living by love, which is – to my way of thinking – most clearly and sublimely defined in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (ESV)

In addition, love is powerfully expressed by the phrase “Only love dispels hate” from Chapter One of the Dhammapda.

If one practices love as it is defined in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, one can test the Buddha’s words in the Dhammapda, see if they’re true, if they work.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

Let’s take the concept “Hillary Clinton Should Have Won.”

Those who believe that see the world through that lens. It’s like the phrase, “If all you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail.”

Those who embrace the concept “Hillary Clinton Should Have Won” often hate Trump. They hate Republicans. They claim to be fearful of the GOP-controlled government. As a result, their minds are in turmoil. They latch onto anything they can find that supports their concept. They lash out at others. They share hateful memes on Facebook.

And then the truth of the first few lines of the Dhammpada manifests itself:

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.

The world made by people who are ruled by concepts is often an angry, contentious, even violent one. They are not at peace, emotionally, because they’ve staked their happiness on the outcome of their concepts. In this case, it goes something like this: “If we can get Trump out of office, we can get Hillary in…and all will be well.” But all will not be well because the millions who voted for Trump will be upset. Then what?

Here’s another concept to consider, one of the most emotionally charged to come around in many years: “Make America Great Again.”

That’s the ultimate concept. It’s a phrase that deeply resonates with some, and powerfully repels others.

Why? Because it’s meaning differs from person to person. Those for it believe America’s way has been lost and our country needs to find its footing again. Those against it believe the “greatness” never existed and America’s past was plagued by prejudice, racism, sexism, pride, etc.

They’re both right.

But you can’t out-concept someone. You can’t, generally, successfully argue with people who hold fast to their concepts.

However, you can try to befriend them. You can allow others to think/believe differently from what you think/believe. And you can accept what is.

In addition, you can try asking, “How may I help you?”

You can take them to dinner, offer to drive them to work. You can exhibit compassion and empathy. You can listen to them, try to befriend them. That may not change their concepts. But it will likely defuse potentially incendiary situations.

The alternative – stridently engaging entrenched concepts head on – will likely light the metaphorical fuse.


This is why I titled this Dharma talk “Death By Concepts.”

If we continue down the path of being ruled by concepts, the world will become increasingly unhappy and unsuitable for joyful living. We will see an opportunity and a justifiable reason to fight at every turn. Everyone will become a potential enemy.

As always, the choice is ours to make. We can continue to live out of our heads, ruled by concepts, or we can take the path as Yamada Roshi revealed it:

“When you become totally void of any concepts or thoughts, suddenly you come to life.”

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