QUESTION: Hi Joe, Zen Buddhists seem to like to say that 'wanting' is the cause of suffering, yet they also talk about meditating because you 'want' to and not because you should. How about wanting to live? Wanting to be happy? I am told 'wanting' leads to more 'wanting', 'having' leads to 'having', 'doing' leads to 'doing'. Did I misunderstand anything? What about 'wanting' not to 'want'?
ANSWER: Hello Miss Jane,
Once again you have pointed out the problems with weak philosophical or religious thinking. Yes, this is absolutely contradictory and when you ask a ‘master’ about these things you often get ignored or told you don’t get it because you don’t see what they see. There is a fundamental problem with human consciousness and we can’t escape from it and there is often a fundamental problem with how many try to explain Zen.
You can’t have desire without a sense of self first. It is the arising of a separate self where the problem starts. The Four Noble Truths do not list desire as one of the tenets. Suffering, Ignorance and release are what are stated. We suffer because we are ignorant. Desire arises as a result of ignorance. We develop self-identity by judging what we like and don’t like, by our desires and dislikes. You know yourself as Jane because of your tastes and desires. You think who you are is the thing that desires these things. We become attached to our self-identity, that self that we think will be fulfilled through our desires. No matter how much we fulfill desires we do not overcome suffering, we just get distracted from it.
The natural question that arises is: if desire is bad then what about the desire to get rid of desire? Nirvana is about awakening to our true nature, the true self that exists before desire and alienation and before this self-identity arose. Nirvana means extinction, not bliss or liberation. It is the extinction of the self which brings about the extinction of desire. You can master many desires but what about the desire to eat, breathe and sleep? You can only go so far with this. If you get rid of all desires are you then a robot or a rock? Ultimately, what is desire? Desire is the attempt to fulfill a craving through any means of gratification yet fulfilling the craving never truly satisfies that desire or more accurately, it does not fulfill your self. Once you get what you thought would fulfill your desire you realize that it has not fulfilled it ultimately but only temporarily and the desire will rise again. Desire is a contrivance of our consciousness that makes us think that when we gain the object of our consciousness we will be satiated but we never are. This creates a never-ending cycle of want/desire/craving that never realizes the object of its desire. So when we pursue a desire it never really gets fulfilled. We always want to be a better athlete or scholar or whatever and never get there. It’s because we think that we will know ourselves when we fulfill the desire. Who is it that has the desire? Desires block us from seeing the root of our self. So to overcome desire is to pursue our goals without being defined by those goals. You can’t just pick out some desires and make some bad and some good. Sexual desire is an important part of nature and is instinctual in most creatures. It can also be way out of perspective and ruin our lives. Animals don’t have this confusion; they are not defined by the desire. They do what they do in harmony with their nature. To be free of desire is to be your self fully in the moment without craving for something else.
There is a famous Zen story that addresses this situation. There was a Zen woman who was fully realized. She had a beautiful young daughter. One day a Zen monk came to live in a shack on her property. The woman was suspicious that he was not awakened and just ‘practiced’ Zen. Her daughter would bring food to this monk everyday. One day she instructed her daughter to throw herself on the monk when she visited him. When she came back to her house her mother asked her what happened when she offered herself to the monk. She said, “he pushed me away saying ‘dry like wood, cold like stone’. “ The mother then went down to the shack and threw the monk out. Why? He was not actualized, he was not alive in the moment, he was detached from pure living, from nature. He did not have to take advantage of the young daughter but to say he had no feelings was completely unnatural and dead. Lin Chi often described the monks he saw wandering about the forests desire less as “shave pated sh#t sticks”.
Due to this craving of desire/wanting many will say it’s the source of our problem but just to get rid of desire just leaves us in a blank unfulfilled position. We still stand apart from the universe in a somewhat null space. All animals have instinctual desire and motivation. They move towards fulfilling these desires as a means of survival. They are not broken from nature and trying to fulfill their nature through desire.
So we become attached to this idea of who we think we are, what we think will fulfill us and hope it will eventually make us happy. It will not. This self-identity we have is false but it is what we try to fulfill. It is a shadow we try to catch but we move towards it (fulfilling desire) and it moves away, we stand still it stays apart (have no desire). Because our minds can only know by contradistinction, to stand apart and judge, we cannot know who we are. We cannot be that which we perceive. If we perceive it then it stands outside from us, or contra-distinct, that we might be able to perceive it. This is the only way our mind works and at the same time it is the problem with our mind.
When we want t master it we first approach it with wil, desire and cognition. It is an object of our mind. We have goals and expectations. When we first practice whatever it is from knitting to archery or music, we are caught in the technique and the desire to master the technique. So long as we are aware of technique we stand apart from our goal of mastering it. The more we do it the more we become it. Eventually we lose the distinction between that which is practicing and that which is practiced. We are no longer aware of our desire; we have become one with the process. If we keep at it enough we become the art form. We are the picture painting itself, that which had the desire has dissolved. Desire/wanting is no longer there as it was.
Zen practice aims to block the process of the mind, to stop the desire/attachment process and to relieve suffering. When we fully realize our true nature we no longer identify with or are defined by our desires. They are still there but move like clouds across an open sky, momentary, evanescent. We may desire to pass on what we have realized in the hopes others will be free of their delusion of self. Does this desire/wanting cause suffering? No, because we are not rooted to or defined by it.
I hope this has helped you.
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QUESTION: Am I right that, it takes the contradistinction you talk about to know that we use contradistinction to understand things? Is it possible than to 'see' oneself with a spiritual mirror (whatever that may be) like we can see our own eyes in the mirror?
Is the idea of who we are a bad thing to have?
Are you saying that you do not support the Zen idea to 'block the process of the mind, to stop the desire/attachment process'?
I don't quite understand the part about not being rooted to or defined by the desire to pass on what we have realised such that it doesn't cause suffering.
'To be free of desire is to be your self fully in the moment without craving for something else.'- does this mean that if you have a desire in that moment, just accept that you have that desire and not desire not to have that desire?
'[Animals] are not broken from nature and trying to fulfill their nature through desire. '- How are humans broken from nature and how can one fulfill one's human nature without using desire?
ANSWER: Hello Jane,
Yes, we can only know by contradistinction, also called differentiated thinking and dualistic thought. Dualistic is one opposes the other; e.g.- we know light as opposed to darkness, heavy as opposed to light, etc. We don’t know things as they are to themselves. We know things by separating from them. I am I because I am not you, the chair, a rock and all the other things I observe. I know that I am but not who I am. This separation is what alienates us from our true self, from nature; it is the source of our problem. We know that we live and will die but we don’t know who it is that was born and will die. We try to fulfill ourselves by chasing our desires but they will never fulfill us.
From the Buddhist standpoint the idea of who we are is false and thus problematic. My teacher has a great saying that is ‘the fall of man from nature is the rise of man’, or in your case woman. Meaning that when man disconnected from nature he could now see all of nature, we rose out of it to be able to see it. Like a wave rising from the ocean we know see the ocean and its vastness. But if the wave loses its identity with the ocean, meaning it thinks it’s a wave autonomous from the ocean, it is lost. Its identity is based on falseness. Now it is alienated from the ocean and seeks to go back. This very process of separating to go back enhances the problem because it is separating to go back. To not try to overcome this problem does nothing but to go after creates the problem too. That creates a dilemma and that is the path.
Now you come to the big dilemma. How does that which is the problem settle the problem? It’s not that we have an ego, we are the ego, we are the act of separating. To stop this separating is the death of ourselves as we know ourselves to be, it is not the filling of ourselves, and thus, the last thing the ego wants to happen. To stop the ‘ego chatter’ is to simply have a silent ego. Those who practice this quietude in hope of awakening were the ones attacked by Rinzai. This idea that you quiet the mind and you become awakened is very faulty. I did this practice years ago and then came to my teacher one day and told him how I had quieted my mind, not a thought stirred, he bellowed at me, “Not thinking is your thinking”. This crushed me at the time but really put an arrow into the heart of the matter. This brings forth the dilemma that there is no one to be awakened so how can one seek awakening? We, as egos, want to ‘know’ and the only way we know is by separating. Just quieting the mind is separating the quiet mind from a noisy mind and it assumes the mind becomes awakened. If so, this would be a psychological state and not true awakening, not ‘mind and body fallen off’. Thinking, as we know it, is an ego product but you can’t limit thinking to the human situation. It is quite clear that animals think, though they do not create dualities.
The animal does not know itself as separate from the universe. It lives according to its nature and does not have anxiety about the past or future. One of the Buddhist definitions of humans is ‘that which is living/dying”, in other words, that which is alive and knows it is going to die. This causes a basic anxiety that underlies our state of being. No matter how happy we are we can also lose it all in a heartbeat. Animals do not have an objective view of themselves. They are pure subjectivity living in the moment and not pondering about tomorrow or what they did wrong in raising their kids.
I hope I did not say I don’t support the Zen idea of blocking the process of the mind, I fully endorse it. Please show me where I mislead you so I can correct it in the future. The question becomes how do I overcome that which I know to be me. By trying to overcome myself I am reinforcing my self so how to do this is the million dollar question. Why? Because you can’t do it, you are that which stands between you and the ocean/awakening. However, you can set up the conditions and train for it but you can’t do it. To do it is to know you are doing it and thus in the dualistic framework. What one strives for is to truly and fundamentally realize the dilemma of the human consciousness. DT Suzuki refers to this as ‘deep inquiry’, to reach a point where the mind becomes its own problem. In this sense it is a natural koan. Anything can be a koan, e.g. – I ask you where you are and you say ‘in my living room’ where’s that? – ‘in my house’ where’s is that ‘on such and such street’ where is that? ‘in this town, state, country, etc’ where is that? ‘on earth’ where is that? And so on ad infinitum. You can not really answer the question without it being relative to something else, it is always in contradistinction to something else. Here the relative subject/object dichotomy comes into play where both define the other. This in Zen is the problem of dualism or dualistic thought. We as individuals know that we are but do not know who we are. We are a subject that only knows itself as an object. We as the ego always separate and can only know things in contradistinction. We can not live in the real present because we can not self reflect in the present so our minds constantly flit between past and future. To be in the ultimate present, to see immediately in the eternal here and now is impossible for us, the ego. We are an ever regressing self stepping back to define itself. It is like seeing your shadow and wondering who is casting the shadow so you step back to see it, on and on, ever regressing. This is how the mind works in the Zen understanding of the human condition. There are ways to block this process the primary one being zazen. The koan is another. It is a question that must be answered ultimately but cannot be answered within the dualistic framework of the mind. It does its best to shut off or cut down the evasive nature of the mind. So when asked “where are you?” it is an ultimate question that cannot be answered dualistically or for that matter, with language per se. “What is the sound of one hand?” is not to be answered in the dualistic frame work; one has to breakthrough this dualistic matrix and express it in a way that is beyond normal consciousness. There are no set answers to these questions. If you read a history of Zen you will see the same koan given many times with a variety of different answers. The words in the answer don’t really matter; it is what lies behind the expression that counts. What is important is that we really and fully grasp that the mind as it is cannot really know anything and when this dilemma becomes all consuming the matrix of dualistic thought can be overcome.
Again this is done by zazen, koan practice, mindfulness or deep self inquiry. All attempts to stop the process, to impact it. I personally prefer self inquiry because when you fully realize the problem of your consciousness you cannot escape it. There is a fair amount of escapism in zazen and other practices but if you really inquire deeply you reach a devastating standstill and the problem now stands in front of your face. It consumes you morning, noon and night. Now if you practice zazen, koan or mindfulness you are trying in full earnestness to get out the poison arrow. Theory and ritual are meaningless and only awakening matters. You have set up the conditions for awakening.
So let’s now say the wave broken from the ocean by egoistic thinking, the act of separating, awakens. Yahoo! (the expression not the web site) Now it is the ocean seeing itself through the waves eyes. The wave has in effect, died to itself and awakened as the ocean yet still remains as a wave. It is no longer rooted to any problem the wave might have. It is free from conditions while being fully in conditions. It is no longer rooted in self identity; its identity is the wave being expressed in the ocean. If it wants, that’s cool, but its self identity is not based on that wanting. It has desires but its self identity is not rooted to those desires. It is fulfilled from the ocean up. It seeks a new job and gets it, cool, if not, cool. It is unmoved by the particular while still using the particular. It would be great to get the job but my self identity and happiness is not based on that or on any particular thing.
We see nature as that thing over there. We judge it from ‘here’. That thing is alive, that is dead’. We stand apart to make this judgment. Then we realize, I am born so I will die and the horror sets in. Nature is not alive or dead, it is living dying, a whole coming into and going out of existence. It is not one opposed to the other; they are each other. Our minds cannot comprehend this. Dualistic thought is stumped by this and thus scared by this. We are nature that rose up and separated like the wave. We say we are a part of nature and separate from nature but that is false, we are nature fully. If you look in a mirror do you point and say that is you? Which one is doing the pointing, the reflection or the real person? We are nature reflecting back on itself.
Sorry that this is so long and repetitive. Please read this and all answers a few times because it sometimes takes a while to sink in. When I first read my teacher’s thesis I hated it. He always said, “Read something once and then read it three more times and then you can start to read it”. I read his many times and after years I realized that it was brilliant and I did not have the capacity to understand it. Then again, I’m not so bright.
The ego mind, that which we are, will always resist its demise. It/we fear extinction/nirvana yet that is the answer. When are we happiest? When we lose ourselves in love or in play. What do we fear most? To lose ourselves in death. This is the paradox of the human condition. To lose our self is to gain our self and yet it terrifies us.
You’ll need a nap after reading this!
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QUESTION: Dear Joe
Thank you for the conscientiously written replies. I appreciate your thoughtful insights. I do not mind the reply being long and repetitive. I think this kind of subject has to be treated this way to properly convey the ideas involved.
‘I hope I did not say I don’t support the Zen idea of blocking the process of the mind, I fully endorse it. Please show me where I mislead you so I can correct it in the future.’
Thank you for the open and non-defensive attitude. I appreciate your humility. You didn’t chastise me for understanding you that way and even asked me to help you correct your way of expressing yourself. It is a nurturing attitude to have.
Regarding why I thought you don’t support the Zen idea of blocking the process of the mind, well upon rereading your answer a few times and paying close attention, I think that I got lost in all that text and misunderstood you. I thought that when you wrote that it is not possible to get rid of desires it meant that you think that it is not possible to block the process of the mind, to stop the desire/attachment process. Am I right to say that you meant that you cannot just repress your desires, but you can prevent their formation or stop their maintenance so either they do not come into existence or they disappear? But if your desire to eat or sleep is not there, what would motivate us to take care of ourselves? Practically, how I live my life now is to allow desire to arise, say to desire to learn a language to make myself a better person, then when I study that language I do not focus on that desire but on the task at hand. Is this the way to go? What if I engage the dualistic thinking and ask if all desire is good or bad? What about the desire to be enlightened or free from suffering? Am I right to say that to always want to be a better person is engaging desire because you are not at peace with the way you are now, that you are not even at one with different aspects of your ‘self’? But if one doesn’t want oneself to be better, or circumstances to be better, what would motivate one to go on living or engaging the world? I suspect there is a better way of being because like you said, desires like this desire to improve things is never fully satisfied and this is a cause of great suffering in my life.
‘What is important is that we really and fully grasp that the mind as it is cannot really know anything and when this dilemma becomes all consuming the matrix of dualistic thought can be overcome. ‘
How about knowing that the mind not really knowing anything? Isn’t this is a form of knowing something in itself? It seems like it is impossible to know that you do not know anything, because in that, you know you do not know. If the mind does not know anything isn’t it unconsciousness?
‘Eventually we lose the distinction between that which is practicing and that which is practiced.’ ‘When are we happiest? When we lose ourselves in love or in play. What do we fear most? To lose ourselves in death.’
May I know how you define ‘self’ or ‘ego’? Zen books I read say ‘ego’ is that which sees itself as separate, but a psychology book I read said ‘ego’ is the centre of awareness, which is something that is constant and perceives the continuity of experience. This latter book claims that life is more than self-contemplation so if that if we get lost in what we are doing, it is simply the ego going in the background; when ego is in the foreground we are engaged in self-contemplation. This book also suggests that if we do not know what we want or how to get what we want, we are living in relative unconsciousness and life would not be optimally fulfilling. Am I right to say that Zen does not contradict this, but adds to this by recommending that we live in the present, therefore enjoying each moment to the fullest and not demanding that we get our desires? If so, can this be said as desiring the present? But is desiring the present in itself stepping back from the present and being separate from it, so it is not possible to desire the present? So when we live in the present, we are like the wave being connected to the ocean again, being at one at everything? I find that I tend to only achieve this state very briefly, because the moment I achieve this state something in me starts trying to identify what state I am in in that moment and if I am doing the right thing. Then I am separate again. Is this constant state of trying to treat things as objects to analyse and label something that everyone faces, or is my ‘ego (i.e. that which perceives itself as separate)’ a particularly virulent one? Am I right that meditating (is meditation what you mean by zazen?) is how we practise not ‘objectifying’ things and to live in the present, at one with everything, as I have read in a Zen book? Am I right that you recommend deep enquiry as a means of ‘reuniting with the ocean’ i.e. overcoming dualistic thought? I sense that what you mean by deep enquiry is not the same as how you would analyse a math or science problem. I think I need you to use dualistic thinking to help me tell the difference between the two!
Actually I think when you mentioned losing oneself in love and play, then in death, were you also trying to suggest that we enjoy ourselves even in death, as we would enjoy love and play? I wonder what are the implications of this line of thought…
A Zen book I read said that there is no right or wrong, that if you are not suffering, it doesn’t mean you are good, and if you are suffering it doesn’t mean you are bad. All of this means nothing. If you are suffering, you are simply suffering; if you are not, you are not. For me I tend to think that if I have the correct attitude and figure out the truth I am right and if I keep doing the right thing, I will not suffer. It is exceedingly hard to get out of this dualistic thinking. Something in me strongly believes in right and wrong, and a psychology book I read claims that if one does not have a moral self or moral standards, a sense of right and wrong, the person is arrested at an early stage of psychological development. To make sense of both perspectives I am wondering if having dualistic thinking is actually natural and one must have it before one can proceed to the next stage: not having it anymore. To not have it at all in the first place – is this desirable? Is this how animal consciousness is? I am told that to lose your self you must have a self first. So it is actually good to develop a self or ego? Or is not developing it in the first place more desirable?
Looks like my enquiries are getting long and repetitive too. ;-)
Well, you’ve caught me on a rainy day in Philadelphia when I had planned to split logs but due to the rain I will not. It gives me the perfect opportunity to respond in a timely manner to your query.
I appreciate your probing intellect. It will be your way through this.
Forgive me while I cut and paste your questions so I can answer them directly. Here goes:
Am I right to say that you meant that you cannot just repress your desires, but you can prevent their formation or stop their maintenance so either they do not come into existence or they disappear?
No, not quite what I meant. There is a theme in Buddhism that suffering comes from desires and the goal is to get rid of them. As you’ve already stated, what about the desire to get rid of desire? It becomes the cat chasing its tail. Repressing desire is still desire and having no desire is being dead. I think I may have told you the story where decades ago I got into the practice of ‘having no thoughts’. I did this for about two years and did not see my teacher in that time period. I finally had the opportunity to see him and when we met he said, “What have you been up to”? and I replied “I’ve been practicing not thinking for two years!” He bellowed at me, “Not thinking is your thinking!” thus pulling the ground out from under me. In a sense you can’t not have desire. The problem is that we think that fulfilling our desires will make us happy. It’s not the desire that’s the problem it’s us thinking we can be fulfilled through desire. If someone alleviates their stress through drinking they delude their self into thinking drinking solves the problem. However, if they truly come to the realization that the desire to drink and drinking itself will never solve their problem then they have lost the illusion of fulfillment through desire. Is the desire to drink still there? Yes but you know it’s never going to work. You are not fooled by your desire. You have not removed the desire you have deflated it. You’ve smashed the illusion.
In every day life we desire many things and that is fine. Thinking they will satisfy me is not. They might gratify for a minute like the drink does but they will not satisfy. I can take aspirin to stop pain but it is not removing the pain. The source is untouched. When I stop chasing my desires in the hopes of fulfilling myself then I begin to see clearly. No matter how many languages I speak, how many instruments I play, partners I have, money I make or anything I can accumulate I will not be fulfilled. I am no longer fooled into thinking they will so I am no longer chained to them. I have not removed desire I have defanged it. It no longer holds sway on me.
Eating and sleeping are natural needs that can also be desires. The need to eat is vastly different from the desire to eat. It is the desire that creates so many health problems. Desire is neither good nor bad but it can be out of balance. Again, if you realize the limitations of what your desire fulfills then there is no problem with it.
What about the desire to be enlightened or free from suffering? Am I right to say that to always want to be a better person is engaging desire because you are not at peace with the way you are now, that you are not even at one with different aspects of your ‘self’? But if one doesn’t want oneself to be better, or circumstances to be better, what would motivate one to go on living or engaging the world?
The desire to be enlightened or to end personal suffering creates an interesting dilemma. The idea of becoming a better person also raises a fundamental problem; what or who is the person you are trying to make better? What does it mean to be a better person? How does a baby become a better person? And….what prevents you from being a better person? So you, this person says “I, Jane, the person I know myself to be, wants to be enlightened” but what is it that becomes enlightened? If you say it is me, Jane, well isn’t Jane the problem? So that which wants to overcome the problem is the problem itself. This is the fundamental dilemma of even seeking a solution. When my teacher, Masao Abe, left his family to enter a Zen monastery, upon his arrival he read this above the temple gate, “To seek awakening is itself hell creating karma”. He said this threw him into a deep despair. As dire as this sounds it is really the way out of the problem. There is a solution and it is within your reach. When the illusion of self and desires of that self are illuminated the way becomes clear.
A deer does not try to change its world, it is its world. It doesn’t need motivation to go on living for it is a full expression of life as are all the forms of nature. Only humans with their consciousness perceiving itself as separate from nature have this problem. The world is a construct of our mind; us here and the world out there. There is no world separate from self and no self separate from world. We create the world in our mind. Now this does NOT mean that the world is a figment of our imagination as so many New Agers suggest. It means that which we perceive as world is the object or our consciousness or thought and not the thing itself. I know this is confusing but try to think it out. The ocean only exists to the individual wave because the wave breaks away and objectifies it. In a sense there is no ocean, a separate object, until the wave creates it in its mind.
How about knowing that the mind not really knowing anything? Isn’t this is a form of knowing something in itself? It seems like it is impossible to know that you do not know anything, because in that, you know you do not know. If the mind does not know anything isn’t it unconsciousness?
Let’s define what it means to know something as opposed to perceiving it or understanding it. You can know personal strife and love. Let me give you a true example from my life. A friend lost a child and another person, who does not have children, commented, “I know what you feel; I lost my dog I loved after 13 years”. Now this is not an uncaring or mean person. They don’t know that they have no idea that they don’t know. They are sure they know this feeling from the limitations of their own thoughts and mind. Now if one day in the future they have a child and lose it they will then actually know the agony of losing a child versus losing a pet. Before that time you can’t possible convey this to them.
When it comes to knowing an object what does that mean? I look outside my window and I see a tree. Do I know what it is? No, I know the name given to it. I study horticulture and learn all I can about trees. Do I know the tree? No, I understand functions, biology, whatever but I still stand apart from it, I am still outside of it judging it from my standpoint. I can’t ever know it if I am not it. This is why we as humans so often say ‘nobody knows me’. In those rare moments in life when it does seem that someone does ‘know’ us we are elated to be validated by them. So the mind cannot stand apart and know. What do we say when we are great at something? We say, “I know everything about that”. We know the accoutrements, the behaviours, and all other aspects about it but we don’t know it as it is to itself. We can gather great amounts of information about a flower but we don’t know the flower as itself. We cannot stand apart and judge and say we know. Our minds must have the dualistic division to know the flower even exists and therefore can’t know it as it is independent from our viewpoint. This is why we can’t know our self. If you have to separate from something to analyze it, to even know it exists, then you can’t know it at its root. We cannot be that which we perceive!
Now, animals know but they don’t know that they know. This sounds like a contrived line but think about it. A deer just is what it is; there is no separate sense of self from the rest of nature. It is not broken to know. It does not need to study what to eat. Its unbroken consciousness knows intrinsically what to eat. It is not unconscious but it is not self conscious. I use deer as an example because they are always around my yard and it’s more aesthetically pleasing then using a squirrel as an example. Good thing I don’t live in the city or I’d be using pigeons!
May I know how you define ‘self’ or ‘ego’? Zen books I read say ‘ego’ is that which sees itself as separate, but a psychology book I read said ‘ego’ is the centre of awareness, which is something that is constant and perceives the continuity of experience.
There is a book called “Zen and Psychoanalysis” by Eric Fromm, D.T. Suzuki and my teacher, Dr Richard DeMartino. DeMartino delves deeply into this topic. In psychology we are a being that has an ego. There is this undefined self that has the ego and you can work on the ego. In the example of the Zen book you gave it almost supports this by saying ‘that which sees itself as separate..”. This implies that there is a self that is separate to do the seeing. If the ego in the psychological sense is the center of awareness that is constant then do we not exist when we sleep? That center would appear to be gone in this or in any altered state. Ego as defined by DeMartino is the act of separating; the schism of self from self is ego. He often stated, “It’s not that we have the ego, we ARE the ego”. We don’t have a problem, we are the problem. We are the act of separating. The person, the self, is this ability to be self aware through separating. When we lose this ability to separate, that is, we can’t regain it; we are dead as an individual. Someone in a coma who cannot come out of it is dead as an individual. They can no longer separate. All of this begs the question: who is separating from what?
This latter book claims that life is more than self-contemplation so if that if we get lost in what we are doing, it is simply the ego going in the background; when ego is in the foreground we are engaged in self-contemplation. This book also suggests that if we do not know what we want or how to get what we want, we are living in relative unconsciousness and life would not be optimally fulfilling. Am I right to say that Zen does not contradict this, but adds to this by recommending that we live in the present, therefore enjoying each moment to the fullest and not demanding that we get our desires? If so, can this be said as desiring the present? But is desiring the present in itself stepping back from the present and being
separate from it, so it is not possible to desire the present? So when we live in the present, we are like the wave being connected to the ocean again, being at one at everything?
Zen does not contradict this but knowing what we want or how to get it is not Zen. There are a lot of cut throat people in the world who know what they want and how to get it and they are not the least fulfilled. It is exactly their lack of fulfillment that drives them in their madness. By attempting to live in the moment we are creating time and not living in the moment. Also, if you are in the moment doesn’t necessarily mean the moment is good. I may be living in the moment in a blizzard and ultimately that might be fine but personally I am not comfortable. Let’s talk about ‘being in the moment’.
To try to be in the moment is precisely not being in the moment. The Japanese expression for this is, “to try to lift the mat you are sitting on”. How do you do that which your doing negates? In Taoism this is described as wei-wu-wei. Embodying this is essential to true mastery of any discipline. The phrase means ‘wei-wu-wei’ to do without doing. How can we do something without doing it? It’s a contradiction. How can I be in the moment or play an instrument without being there to do it? The fact that I choose to do this means I am doing it and therefore I have lost ‘not doing’ or lost the moment. To understand this fully you have to think about the process of learning. When we first learn there is a conflict between mind, body and teacher. Our teacher shows us something and we attempt to imitate him. We see what we are supposed to do and try to understand it. Our minds are fully involved in the process of learning or doing it: it is a conscious act of our mind. Since our bodies aren’t conditioned to do it freely yet we practice over and over. After a time our body grows and adapts and we can do it freely without taxing our bodies but it is still a product of the mind. It is a product of our thought, we think practice being in the moment or koan or zazen or ehru and knitting. We are doing technique. There is something dramatically different between what a real master is doing and what we are doing, but it’s hard to see what it is. If we really practice over and over it will become ingrained in us to such an extent that we are the motion, we are the erhu, we just ‘do it’ without any self awareness or thought in our mind, it just happens. This is a type of doing it without doing it, it has become a reflex, we do not decide to do it, it just flows outward from us. Though this is more desirable than just doing, it is still not complete for at anytime our mind can arise and we will be aware of ourselves and be doing it again. In other words we can become self conscious of our actions. We learn how to do it by doing it but until we become it, we are just imitating it. A real master is it all the time, he doesn’t practice Zen he is Zen, he/she doesn’t practice erhu, he/she is the erhu.
I find that playing music often works well when trying to explain this concept. Since you play an instrument you know how hard it is to overcome technique. Your fingers hurt, you’re trying to remember what to do and it sounds bad. Because it’s an external instrument it’s easy to see the difficulty in learning it. After a while you might master a few patterns or songs but you are limited by that knowledge, you are still playing the instrument or ‘doing it’. You might reach a point where you can play quite well and be pretty content with the warehouse of songs or techniques you’ve built up. The real test comes when you go out into the world of real musicians and realize you are lost, you can’t keep up with them, they play circles around you and they are not trying to do that. Someone who has not just practiced but played over and over again can become free of their instrument, they are no longer aware of it, they just express the song through it. After you hear someone great play you might ask them what they did and often they reply, “I don’t know”. They are no longer a person playing an instrument but the expression of the song or music, in the moment. It flows freely without the self or mind in between. They are unconscious of technique but they are aware of what is happening in the moment and playing it as it happens. If they need to hear what the other players are doing then they will be behind, be re-acting, and thus not gel with the other players. In a sense playing happens all at once and not as a reaction to the other players. It’s pure communication without a thought for the instrument. It is in the moment. It’s like speaking a foreign language fluently; you no longer think about syntax or grammar you are just concerned with the point you are trying to make.
So in practicing ‘being in the moment’ you lose this ideal, you become it. There is no longer question and questioner, you’ve merged into one. You consciously attempted this but at one point this quest is no longer conscious, it is you. If you are trying to enlighten yourself, to become enlightened or to be aware of your so called ‘higher state’ then you will never enter into this. All of that is from the ego.
The wave does not ‘reconnect’ with the ocean, it was never apart, that was an illusion. It does not go forward or back but realizes it never lost its true nature. The attempt to ‘reconnect’ creates the break.
I find that I tend to only achieve this state very briefly, because the moment I achieve this state something in me starts trying to identify what state I am in in that moment and if I am doing the right thing. Then I am separate again. Is this constant state of trying to treat things as objects to analyse and label something that everyone faces, or is my ‘ego (i.e. that which perceives itself as separate)’ a particularly virulent one? Am I right that meditating (is meditation what you mean by zazen?) is how we practise not ‘objectifying’ things and to live in the present, at one with everything, as I have read in a Zen book? Am I right that you recommend deep enquiry as a means of ‘reuniting with the ocean’ i.e. overcoming dualistic thought? I sense that what you mean by deep enquiry is not the s
ame as how you would analyse a math or science problem. I think I need you to use dualistic thinking to help me tell the difference between the two!
Ah, yes, you are the cat chasing its tail, resting and chasing again. This is the typical function of all egos not just yours. All practices are ultimately the same; the attempt to stop the dualistic functioning of the mind, to block it. All forms of mindfulness, zazen, sanzen and koan practice are ultimately doing this. The problem is that many do the practice as itself being productive; it’s a badge, a brand or a status symbol. It is not practicing to decimate practicing but to enhance it. Remember the word nirvana means extinction. This is critically important. To say, “I have gained awakening” is not extinction of the self but a bloated self and completely problematic. The wave did not gain the ocean. Its individuality became extinguished to realize what it always was. There can be no egotism or self adulation here, all becomes illuminated.
Deep inquiry is the process of fully and profoundly realizing the problem of your everyday mind in such a way that you have to solve the problem and know you can’t. Self enquiry pushes us to find the root of self identity. When you begin to realize all the things that you thought make you who you are and they don’t then you get a glimpse of the problem. Slowly the illusion of self identity gets torn down and you begin to see the weak foundation our identity is built upon. Like realizing your desires cannot fulfill you then you come to realize that nothing can fulfill you. This decimates your concepts of self. Once you realize this illusion you can then truly seek a solution; it won’t be just practicing meditation. All your striving and anything you practice will work for you, will become more profound and poignant. It will be like the doctor who practices medicine because she is sick; she will strive with every ounce of her being to cure it. Everything you do will be from a state of arduous practice. You will not fool yourself.
A Zen book I read said that there is no right or wrong
That is a little too simplistic. There is no ultimate right or wrong but there is definitely relative right and wrong. If someone conks you on the head and steals your purse it’s wrong. Did you deserve it? No, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. You were the prey that got caught. It is an innate sense of what is good for the species, human or animal, that helps it survive. There is this relative right and wrong that happens all the time. If you have no sense of this then you will not be in harmony with nature.
To make sense of both perspectives I am wondering if having dualistic thinking is actually natural and one must have it before one can proceed to the next stage: not having it anymore. To not have it at all in the first place – is this desirable? Is this
how animal consciousness is? I am told that to lose your self you must have a self first. So it is actually good to develop a self or ego? Or is not developing it in the first place more desirable?
Yes, it is our nature to have dualistic thinking; it’s what makes us who we are. Without it you would not be asking these questions. Even though the arisal of the self also creates the problem of the self it is the birth of human self identity. The fall of humanity from nature is the rise of humanity to appreciate and interact with nature in a profound manner. Our separating causes our suffering but it also enables us to enhance and express nature in a compassionate manner. To just be in an animal state of consciousness is to just be unbroken from nature. To realize our fundamental nature is to be both self aware and universally aware simultaneously, to be self and other, a living paradox. Without the arisal of the ego we do not exist, there is no good or bad to it, there just isn’t a question then. Since we have arisen from nature we can now express nature beyond just our human consciousness. The bird that is self aware can now sing any song with pure glee and self expression. We are nature enjoying itself.
……and this is the record for the longest answer I’ve ever given! I hope it helps you. Keep at it!