The Existential Tragedy
The typical human condition, cast upon an ocean of impermanence and insubstantiality, is one of profound existential anxiety, of a heartfelt sense of ‘lack’ This is commonly veiled by the degree of success in experiencing whatever imparts a sense of emotional security and a sufficiently strong sense of self-identity, both individual and collective. Especially in modernity, individual achievement and acquisitiveness, as well as the more traditional belongingness, are endeavours for achieving ‘this’. These, however, are precarious never enough and always threatened by ‘that’ – which is to say everything that threatens to undo the well fortified sense of self that may have been achieved. In Hubert Benoit’s metaphor, this is our long and ultimately unwinnable lawsuit with reality, a lawsuit, incidentally, which is now becoming evident on an historical and global scale. . Krishnamurti dramatically expressed it when, in front of an audience, he displayed a gap between the thumb and index finger of one of his hand, proclaiming that all the miseries of the world were to be found in that gap, the gap between the ‘this’ of our existential needy self and the ‘that’ of all the forces that threaten to deprive us of it.
‘This’ versus ‘that’ is, I believe, the starting point for an understanding of Dogen. The theme that runs through the essays in his great collection the Shobogenzo is the unmasking of this delusive dualism, and demonstrating the Great Way of opening to a sense of duality which is freed of the self-neediness which drives dualism. The distinction between duality and dualism was nicely encapsulated by R H Blyth in his observation that things may be hopeless, but not dispiriting, unjust, but not hateful; beautiful, but not desirable, loathsome but not rejected.
An opening to duality opens the way to suchness, which sees the duality of this and that in their oneness, their wholeness. Thus, in the Xin-xin-ming (a seventh century foundational scripture of the Chan tradition): ‘When we stop movement, there is no movement; when we stop rest, there is no rest; these are two names of one thinglessness.’ For example, as an erstwhile prison chaplain, the convicted inmates were undoubtedly bad fellows, but when I got to know them better it became clear that each also possessed good attributes. And on deeper acquaintance I was able to perceive the whole man in his suchness, and better able to appreciate how he had come to where he was now.
The Great Way
The practice of the Great Way, the opening of delusion to wisdom, involves a transcendent shift from one kind of consciousness to another. Inevitably elements of our delusive consciousness become unknowingly embodied in the very practice whereby we hope to achieve this existential revolution. This perception is experienced in dualistic terms which Dogen was determined, again and again, to uproot. The practice is typically understood in terms of endeavours like learning to use a computer or play tennis. By strenuous application of the will we advance step by step over time to greater levels of competence, with corresponding awards and recognition both by self and others, and hope finally to become acknowledged experts. Thus, in our ‘law suit with reality’ we hope to achieve the stronger self identity for which we yearn. This can be an insidious and deeply embedded urge. It is the more so when institutionalised, leading sometimes to what Jung called ‘spiritual inflation’ of the ego, with the corruption of spiritual insights, and a ‘spiritual bypassing’ whereby the practice becomes a thing-in-itself beyond the rest of the practitioner’s life. He or she is urged on with metaphors like climbing a glass mountain, the whole process attended by some stress and anxiety, and perhaps competition with peers. There is an assumption that eventual failure may result in an awareness of the futility of this scenario and that deeply felt acceptance which is essential in the shift towards wisdom.
Deluded beginners understandably see the mastery of the specialised technique of meditation as the key to achievement – in this case of ‘enlightenment’, the achievement of an entirely new self. In the Zen tradition this means zazen, which, with Dogen, apparently refers not only to sitting meditation but to mindfulness and reflective practice in other situations. Again and again Dogen emphasises the need to free one’s meditation from any trace of gaining or achieving: what is important is sustained practice. ‘If you wish to practice the way of the Buddhas ..you should expect nothing, seek nothing. Cut off the mind that seeks and do not cherish a desire to gain the fruits of Buddhahood’ (Zuimonki). In zazen, he taught, enlightenment and practice are one and the same. Thus our Buddha nature is already enlightened before we mature sufficiently to open fully to enlightenment (wisdom). In the same vein, Shunryu Suzuki wrote:
Which is more important: to attain enlightenment, or to attain enlightenment before we attain enlightenment ? To make a million dollars or to enjoy your life in your effort, little by little, even though it is impossible to make that million; to be successful or to find meaning in your effort to be successful? If you do not know the answer you will not even be able to practice zazen; if you do know you will have found the true treasure of life.
(Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind 122-3)
‘Whether you practice zazen or not you have the Buddha nature. Because you have it there is enlightenment in your practice. The points we emphasize is not the stage we attain, but the strong confidence in our original nature and the sincerity of our practice… practice based on any gaining idea is just a repetition of your karma. Forgetting this idea, many late Zen masters have emphasized some stage to be obtained… We do not slight the idea of attaining, but the important thing is this moment, not some day in the future’ (op.cit., 99-101).
I suspect that in sanghas where attainment is emphasised this must diminish the prominence given to our Buddha nature , for which I prefer the term ‘authentic nature’), even though there is a danger of seeing two selves – top dog and bottom dog.. The deluded self and the authentic self are, of course, simply manifestations of the same self. The latter is recognizable by its spontaneity as when we are naturally moved by compassion to intervene when, say, we see an animal mistreated. But, of course, our motives tend to be mixed, and not least when we are moved to help, as David Brandon showed so eloquently in his ‘Zen and the Art of Helping’. The needy self loves to feel ‘good’ and ‘kind’ or maybe somehow superior to the one who requires his or her help. And can one say how far one’s love for one’s nearest and dearest springs from a selfless spontaneity of affection and how far from more calculative motives? At all events the cultivation of a belief that one is, at bottom, wise and compassionate is surely better than a dominant sense of inadequacy and battling one’s law suit against reality.
Ken Jones is a founder member of the Network of Engaged Buddhists and presently President. He has a background in radical politics and Zen Buddhism. His books include, The New Social Face of Buddhism in which he addresses the question of Buddhist social theory.
Ken has been an influential teacher and writer over many years within socially engaged Buddhism. He is also an authoritative interpreter of Dogen and a talented Haiku/Haibun poet. He lives in Wales. You can see his website here.