The Discipline of Freedom

A Kantian View of the Role of Moral Precepts in Zen Practice

By Phillip Olson

Subjects: Zen Buddhism
Series: SUNY series in Buddhist Studies
Paperback : 9780791411162, 217 pages, August 1993
Hardcover : 9780791411155, 217 pages, August 1993

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Table of contents



Chapter 1. Introduction

i. Moral Law As the Basis for Zen Meditation Practice

ii. Structure of the Study

Chapter 2. Interpreting the Term Zazen in Kantian Language

i. Why a Kantian Interpretation of Zazen ?

ii. Zazen Interpreted As a "Discipline of Freedom"

Chapter 3. In Defense of Thesis Z1:
Zazen practice, according to Suzuki, is a necessary means for realizing the requirements of moral law, as Kant understands these requirements .

i. The Practice of a Discipline of the Speculative Restriction of Reason Is, According to Kant, a Necessary Means for Attaining Consciousness of Freedom

ii. Consciousness of Freedom Interpreted As Consciousness of Emptiness

iii. Zazen Interpreted as a Discipline of the Speculative Restriction of Reason

(a) Suzuki's distinction between form and emptiness parallels Kant's distinction between phenomena and noumena

(b) Like Kant, Suzuki treats insight into the critical distinction between form and emptiness, or phenomena and noumena, as a necessary means for realizing consciousness of freedom

(c) Zazen practice, as a method of cultivating consciousness of freedom as emptiness, is a necessary means for the realization of the requirements of moral law

Chapter 4. In Defense of Thesis Z2:
In order to practice zazen correctly, according to Suzuki, my sole intention in performing that practice should be that of realizing the requirements of moral law, as Kant understands these requirements .

i. Consciousness of Duty Is Necessary, According to Both Suzuki and Kant, for Attainment of Consciousness of Freedom

ii. Compatibility of the Idea of Duty in Suzuki and Kant

(a) Interpreting what Suzuki calls consciousness of "true nature" (or "original" or ''Buddha" nature) as consciousness of a fundamental principle of morality, which is a fact of human reason

(b) How the idea of duty in both Kant and Suzuki is modeled after the way things happen in nature, according to natural laws

[1] Kant's law of nature formula for the fundamental moral principle

[2] Compatibility of Suzuki's idea of Buddha nature with Kant's idea of a fundamental moral principle modeled upon natural laws

(c) How the rules of Zen life, as Suzuki explains them, have a truly moral component when viewed from a Kantian perspective, because the stated function of these rules is the elimination of selfishness

iii. Defending Thesis Z2: The Bodhisattva Vow Interpreted As a Commitment to Realize the Highest Possible Good in this World

(a) Buddha's view of life: the Bodhisattva vow

(b) Kant's view of life: the "vow" to realize the highest possible good in the world

(c) Interpreting the object of the Bodhisattva vow as the highest possible good in the world

[1] To practice zazen with the sole intention of saving all sentient beings means to practice with the sole intention of helping people (a) realize happiness, and (b) cultivate virtue in the sense of cultivating a perfect moral character

[2] To practice zazen with the sole intention of helping people realize happiness and cultivate a perfect moral character is to practice with the sole intention of realizing what Kant understands to be the highest possible good in the world

Chapter 5. Conclusion

Appendix: Dogen and Kant


Works Cited



Seyyed Hossein Nasr is University Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. He is the author of Islamic Art and Spirituality, Islamic Life and Thought, and Knowledge and the Sacred; and the co-editor of Expectation of the Millenium: Shi'ism in History, and Shi'ism: Doctrines, Thought, and Spirituality, all published by SUNY Press. He is also the General Editor of the SUNY series in Islam. Nasr was educated at M.I.T. and Harvard and has taught throughout America, Europe, the Middle East, Pakistan, India, Japan, and Australia.

The author shows that both Shunryu Suzuki and Kant posit a reciprocally supportive relationship between the development of personal autonomy and the respectful observance of moral rules or precepts, and that both see the practice of a discipline restricting the speculative activity of reason as essential to the attainment of true freedom and moral worth. By cultivating consciousness of freedom through insight into emptiness, the discipline of zazen acts as what Kant calls a "moral ascetic," cultivating a mind and body responsive to universal moral concerns. Olson concludes by showing how Kant's notion of the ultimate end of moral behavior—the highest good—is manifested in the Bodhisattva's vow to work for the salvation of all sentient beings.

Phillip Olson is an ordained Zen Buddhist monk, and currently practices law in Seattle, Washington.


"It flashes with challenging and thought-provoking insights and novel explanations that concretize and personalize the abstract and metaphysical issues of meditation and morality, while remaining clear about its philosophical direction." —Steven Heine, The Pennsylvania State University