Red Thread Zen. The term
‘Red Thread’ refers to a Chinese custom in which a red thread
is tied around a new bride’s wrist as a sign of hope for a happy
and fruitful marriage, the red thread being a symbolic umbilical cord.
The Rinzai Zen tradition which adopted this symbol did so as a way of
acknowledging that sexuality was a natural aspect of human life and
hence, innately good. Considering how sexually puritanical standard
Buddhism has often been it may be wondered how the Red Thread tradition
could have arisen in Zen at all. The answer is that Zen is the result
of a merging between a world accepting or more or less sexually positive,
Taoism, with a world rejecting, more or less sexually negative, Buddhism.
In traditional Buddhism sex, and all of the attachments that normally
go with, it sours life. But the Taoist element in Zen allows Zen to
accept sex and those attachments as a completely natural part of the
here and now, and even of enlightenment.
In understanding Red Thread Zen it needs to be made clear that this
Zen is not some form of Zen Tantrism. Tantrism is founded on the idea
that the world goes through cycles of spiritual and material birth,
decay and death, and that the world is presently in a late stage of
spiritual and material decay. In more ancient times, such as when the
Buddha was alive, the average spiritual practitioner could, through
a feat of great will power and ascetic practice, gain enlightenment
and liberation from the world. Since according to Tantrism human spiritual
capacities have significantly degenerated from the Buddha’s time
the average practitioner can no longer achieve on his or her own the
enlightenment that was possible in that earlier time. Nonetheless, Tantrism
says that there is hope. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
The sexual imagery of right handed Tantrism or the explicit sexual activities
of left-handed Tantrism are considered to be fire to fight fire, poison
to neutralize poison, or sex to either overcome sexual desire or to
sublimate it into non-erotic compassion. This view of sex as something
ultimately to be conquered is a very Indian and a very standard Buddhist
one; and very different from the Red Thread tradition.
The East Asian traditions of Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism have
always seen sex in more positive terms. In these traditions sex, if
one is not overly attached to it, functions as an enhancement to life.
Ironically, this actually means that Red Thread Zen is less compatible
with Buddhist orthodoxy than is even the erotic philosophy of Left-handed
What is Zen?
Zen is a thirteen hundred year old spiritual system which teaches:
1. That all things come into existence interdependently. Everything
is both the creator and the creation of everything else.
2. That there is no separate, independent or isolated self. There is
only an interdependent beingness.
3. That interdependent beingness is the source of our innate perfection
and unconditional worth or Buddha nature here and now.
4. That by living neither in the past nor future, but in the immediate
present we can realize our Buddha nature. This realization is called
an enlightenment experience (kensho or satori).