NonDualism & Christianity

Indian Wisdom, Modern Psychology and Christianity.
Part III. Chapter 4
The Non-Dualism Hidden at the Core of Christianity.

In this period of the turn of the millenium, some fundamental metaphysical conceptions such as non-duality are no more limited to their area of origin. Nevertheless, if this notion takes root rather easily among us, it may be that it was expected from inside by the Western tradition and by Christianity.
Non-dualism corresponds to the spiritual paths which do not distinguish God’s substance, or the Absolute, form the created and which affirm they are one. Dualists systems put on top a personal God, non-dualist systems a non-personal absolute. In this sense, dualism is usually associated with the path of devotion, and non-dualism with the path of knowledge. Vedanta, ancient buddhism and Zen are non-dualism. These non-dualist schools influenced modern psychology; there are relationships, for instance, between Zen and Gestalt. In a wider sense, one can discern a non-dualist background in many new emerging movements, from spiritual ecology up to the notion of unified field in physics via Heidegger’s philosophy of being. In this sense, an in-depth review of the potentialities of non-dualism in the West and of its real realationships with Christiantly seems to be proper in this book. We will first evoke a short history of non-duality in the West, and then will focus on the real relationships between non-dualism and Christianity before considering a few possibilities for the future.

Elements of the History of Non-Dualism in the West
Many things have happened since Vivekanands, at the end of the XIXth century, came to the West to speak of non-duality as a possible basis for universal spirituality. Hatha Yoga has become a common practice in the Western nations, even in the countryside. Some movenents inspired by non-duality such as Transcendental Meditation have grown to the dimension of a new religion. In Tanzania, they have been given 25% of the country to develop it both on spiritual and economic lines. In France, there are about two millions Buddhists, according to the latest estimations, which seems more than the practising catholics, whose number is about 2% of the population, i.e., 1200000. Jacques Brosse evoked the relationship between Zen and the West in one of his recent works (1). My friend Jean-Marc Mantel organized a conference on meditation in Jerusalem where delegates of the three religions of the Book talked and where the possibility of non-dual realization of the Absolute and the transcendence of religious barriers by the simplicity of an inner elevated experience was also emphasized. The coming of a non-dual and impersonal spiritual path in this sacred City is a new trend.
In India, Swami Abhishiktananda’s ideas are going their way. I visited in Poona a Christian ashram whose superior, Sara Grant, has been able to write a booklet : ‘Towards an Alternative Theology-Confessions of a Non-dualist Christian.’ (2) Her full-fledged studies of theology at Oxford do not prevent her from defining herself as a non-dualist Christain now. A disciple of Swami Abhishiktananda, Vandana Mataji, who received religious training in the Order of the Sacred Heart, was able to say in the Parliament of Religions in Calcutta in September 1993, to put it in a nutshell : ‘For me, it is hardly essential to know if I am rather a Hindu Christian or a Christian Hindu.’ For this, she received the ovation of an audience consisting of about five thousand people. Father Bede Griffith has also reflected and published on how to reconcile non-duality and Christianity.
This article is not written for those who are in the kindergarten of spirituality, but it is drafted for those who know how to ponder and who, through their evolution, have been able to create an inner distance from the emotional reflexes linked to the devotional or institutional conditioning. These three fields, emotional, devotional and institutional, are usually knotted together, and this very knot is an obstacle to a serene meditation on deep subjects. This should be kept in mind.
As for me, I have been following a Vedantic path for the last nine years that I mainly spent in India. My basic training is Christian and I think I have studied more the mysticism of this path than many active Christians. What I will give in this article are my impressions, my intuitions. I do not think that one can write in this field with the precision of a mathematician. Those professional theologians of the past who appeared to be able to do it seem rather dangerous to me because they freeze the vitality of inner experience and their work can easily be exploited by a centralized power as a penal code to determine which are the lawful ideas and which are not. Having said thus, it is not vital for me to tell what I think since the end of the Yoga I practice is not to think, but to attenuate this talkativeego which is only a small spot on the sun of the Self…
Let us come now to the history of the hidden non-dualityin the West. Since Christianity has imposed itself, and has therefore imposed devotion as the only way of salvation, non-duality and the path of knowledge have been able to discretly survive thanks to the teaching of Platonic and neo-Platonic Philosophy. I say survive, because Christian apologetics have made constant efforts to make people believe that the search for Unity was merely an intellectual process, keeping for Christianity the prerogative of genuine spiritual experience. Actually, the path of knowledge is a complete path is itself, able to transcend intellect as well as devotion can do, and to reach an intensity of being analogous to the union with Jesus. The experience of Vedantic sages of India shows it to us still today. On the other hand, intellectual deviation is possible in the devotional path as well, just correctly expounding the theology of grace does not make one automatically filled with the love which should gush out of this grace.
However, a really mystical non-dualist teaching has been able to be integrated with Christianity thanks to a trick : the translator into Latin of a text which has been strongly influenced by the neo-Platonician Proclus had the good idea to attribute it to the first disciple of Saint Paul in Athens, Denys the Aeropagite (3); consequently, it has been read and meditated upon by most medieval mystics, including Saint Thomas of Aquinas. The rejection of false conceptions one can have of God is an essential element of the path of knowledge and at the same time has deeply influenced eastern Christian mysticism. (4) Another author with a strong non-dualistic tendency, Evagrius Ponticus, was ‘smuggled’ into the Christian tradition for a couple of his texts under the name of Saint Nil of Sinai. The change of attribution was identified by Father Irénée Hausherr. One was reproaching to Evagrius his link with Origen’s thought and equally to have been able to write a whole book on inner life where he did not speak of Jesus.
As to Meister Eckhart, specialists usually make great efforts to bring him back in the direction of the official doctrine under the pretence of putting his ideas again in their context. It is the contrary, though, which seems obvious to me : if, in the heavily dualistic atmosphere of his epoch, Eckhart dares claim non-dual experiences, it means that the latter was fundamental for him. So one should interpret his writings in a not less but more non-dual sense than he has been able to write. It is the same for those other Christian mystics who have let appear non-dual experiences in their texts. If there have been only a few mystics to follow the path of knowldge in the west, it does not mean that they did not need it, but that they were discouraged by the heaviness, the monolithism of an Old Testament-like monotheism.
There have been in the West atypical experiences of the Self which have come out spontaneously among poets and philosphers. Louis Gardet devoted a good hundred pages to this subject (5). Heidegger also acknowledged that his view is common with Zen non-dualism when he discoverd the latter : ‘If I understand well Zen, that is what I tried to say in all my writings.’ (6) He also clearly describes the basis of the path of discrimination when he writes : ‘One should separate the authenticity of Being from the factitious character of existence.’ (7) Nevertheless, one should have much more than metaphysical intuitions to practically establish and transmit a complete spiritual path. Another example of non-dual intuition can be discerned in Camus’ book ‘The Plague’ :‘Can one be saint without God?’ That is the only concrete problem that I know today.’ (8)
In India, the unity of substance between man and the Absolute is so natural that the same is used to designate both : for’ ‘atman’ means both ‘self’ and ‘the Self’ (there are no capitals in Sanskrit). The leading thread of this path of knowledge is the ancient questionning of the Upanishads : ‘What is this knowledge by which everything can be known?’ To put it differently, that comes to affirm that there exists an experience through which Homo sapiens can become ‘fully sapiens’, a crowning of consciousness at the level of individual experience when it is becoming universal. In India, it is widely acknowledge that devotion which reaches its peak (parabhakti) is one and the same with knowledge (jnana); this idea could inspire Christian non-dualists.
The very title of my article echoes Raimundo Pannikar’s book: ‘The Unknown Christ of Hinduism’ (9). He has taken back Justinius the Martyr’s idea regarding Christ disseminated at the core of pagan religions and he tried to show the presence of an ‘unconscious Christ’ in Hinduism. Nevertheless, I have the impression that my task is easier than his. For non-dualism refers to an individual experience, but which is unconditionned since coming after the rejection of conditionings, while the word ‘Christ’ is bound to refer to Jesus, a personage which lived in a context very different from India.
To my eyes, the role of comparative mysticism is to feel the weight of one’s own cultural a priori which is almost impossible to see directly : one needs a mirror to observe his own face. For that, one requires a fundamental sympathy which is that of a genuine searcher for truth; ‘Non entratur in veritatem, nisi per charitatem’ : ’One does not enter truth , if not through charity’ (Saint Augustin, 10).
I find that the richness of our time is the plurality of religious groups; for instance I feel that the birth of an advaitic ashram in Rome is a sign of the times. Rafael, who started this center, teaches not only Shankaracharya but Plotinus as well, in its direct mystical significance and revives a tradition of religious pluralism which had been eclipsed for fifteen centuries in this capital. The more groups there are, the more chances people will have to find the path which actually suits them; and their interaction will be stimulating : from the rubbing of two stones springs the spark of consciousness. It is true that a religious monopoly can bring a seeming peace, but it may be the peace of the graveyard.
We will now consider the relationships of non-dualism with Christianity. We will first review several divergences which are sometimes presented as essential, but which will appear to us superficial after some reflection. Afterwards, we will see a few deeper differences. There is a famous Zen koan which says : ‘What is the significance of the coming of the Patriarch (Bodhidharma) from the West?’ Perhaps one will find in this article elements of an answer to this new possible koan in this turn of the millenium : ‘What is the significance of the coming of non-dualism from the East?’

Non-Dualism and Christianity : Twelve Points of ‘Parallel Divergences’
By this paradoxical designation of ‘parallel divergences’, I gather here twelve points where the differences between non-dualism and Christianity seem more due to misunderstandings than to irreconciable oppositions. This will also give an opportunity to discard a couple of specious arguments advanced by a few Christian theologians ignoring most of the philosophy and practice of non-duality. One should realize that in India, most people follow a devotional, therefore dualistic religion, but the already ancient interaction with the non-dualistic conceptions enables spiritual people and sages to readily pass from one to another; this contributes to the fecundity and vitality of Hindu thought and religious practices. Let us come to the various points of objections.
1) ‘Non-duality is a vague doctrine’, this idea is often heard. For instance, it could be the most prefered basis for drug-addicted people to interpret their experiences, etc… There are several answers to this : first, the ‘vague’ is often only in the mind of the Christian theologians who have acquired a superficial knowlwdge of a few non-dualist ideas, most often through the writings of other Christians and who do not have any experience of meditative practice corresponding to this path of knowledge. Fortunatly, there are exceptions who become more frequent nowadays, but not without tension with the rest of the Christian community. Non-dualists like Shankaracharya with advaita vedanta or Nagarjuna with Madyamika Buddhism have established philosophical systems whose coherence does not fall short form that of a Saint Thomas of Aquinas. It is true that most mystics do not like to imprison their experiences in rigid and overdetailed systems. Jesus, Buddha, do not have elaborated complex philosophies supposed to answer every question in detail. The Desert Fathers do not have a very explicit theology, but the radiance of their advice inspires us till now.
The notion of enstasis-‘staying inside’-(a word used by Mircea Eliade while speaking of Yoga) is not more hazy than that of ecstasis. On the contrary, one can note that the notion of ecstasis surmises the union with a God whose existence has ever been difficult to prove while enstasis only requires a return inside, and everyone can have a direct perception of what inside can mean. The term ‘enstasis’ indeed does not seem so well fitting : the non-dualist meditator searches and experience of the whole which abolishes differences between inside and outside, between enstasis and extasis; therefore, one could instead call this alternate state of consciousness ‘holostasis’.
2) ‘The non-dual experience of nirvana is a state of torpor which results in no real change in the individual’.
There are two important distinctions to make : first between the experience of ‘snoozing’ during a spiritual practice.This is called by M  Anandam yee ‘shyunya’ and the true experience of emptiness, ‘Mahashunya’. The other distinction is between a temporary dissolution of the mind and the ego (manolaya) and its definitive destruction (manonasha). The first is more or less effective according to its depth, but the second corresponds to the great experience which is definitive if we consider the benefit it provides. One can not even speak of transformation of ego, since before there was an ego, but after there is no more. In the path of devotion as well, every love experience is not transforming : it depends upon its authenticity and its depth.
3) ‘Non-duality teaches a truth for a select few, while dualism is a democratic teaching for the masses.’
Certainly, in Vedanta, there is a distinction between empirical truth (Vyavaharika) and absolute truth (paramartha). Nagarjuna also speaks of the two truths (satyadvaya) and in Japanese Buddhism one speak of ‘provisional law’ versus ‘definitive law’. I think this is a concrete attitude which respects the differences of level between people and which allows us to integrate various spiritual paths by simply hierchising them, not by choosing one and destroying the other. In this, there is no question of sociological discrimination : everyone is allowed to experience the absolute truth, but he will have to make an effort which few want to do. There is no possibility of non-dualism without this practical distinction between the two truths. Christ himself respected this distinction : if not, why has he not organised the Last Supper in the Temple courtyard, or has he not appeared to the crowds after his Resurrection?
The concept of rational unity between all the levels of inner development is an idol, and one should stop sacrifying to it. It is an attempt towards uniformization which hinders both beginners, who would like for instance to use violent trance to communicate with God, and the advanced mystics who emphasize upon knowledge and the spontaneous cessation of the sense of ‘I am the doer’. The real problem is that hierachy is afraid not to understand well the ‘definitive law’ and not to be able to check those who follow it naturally. Buddha tells the following story :
“Two brothers go the mountain to cut wood and come back heavily loaded. All of a sudden, the younger sees a big heap of copper coins and drops his wood to take as many coins as he can. The elder thinks : ‘I have worked so hard for this wood that I will not loose it. I will come back afterwards to take the coins.’ Further down on the path, the younger brother sees silver coins which he takes instead of the copper ones, while the elder remains attached to his wood which he had gathered by the sweat of his brow. Later, the same occurs again with golden coins. When afterwards the elder comes back to take the coins, they had disappeared.’ (11).
4) ‘Non-dualism is a doctrine which is cold and devoid of love because it does not acknowledge the supreme value of the human person.’
Here is an essential question and we will develop it in more detail. It may have been in the thirties that personalism asserted itself most; in Judaism, there has been Martin Buber’s book ‘I and You’ and in Catholicism, the foundation of the Journal ‘Esprit’ (‘Spirit’ or ‘Mind’) with especially Mounier and Berdiaev. The historical background of this epoch was rather ominous : democracies had paled before the ascent of totalitarisms and, actually, it was urgent to pass onto the crowds tempted by the over-simplification of mass movements that the human person was inalienable. By listening or reading certain western authors, one has the impression that the average Indian should be half schizophrenic under the pretext that he has not the notion of external person. For those who have lived in India, this idea appears of course fanciful. The ordinary Hindu has a personality and an ego as everyone. He may care more than westerners to be in harmony with his family and his clan (Gotra), and this is, to their eyes, a sign of psychological maturity. One who wants to be independent, which means to remain alone far from the family is seen as a kind of asocial element, as a failure; but for the spiritual life exists the possibility of renunciation where one cuts the links with the family. In this sense, it is a strong process of individuation, but which does not stop there, because it continues by a new widening, that of an opening to the Universal Consciousness, whatever name can be given to it.
Upon close scrutiny, the notion of the Christian person, difficult to clearly distinguish from the individual, is rather hazy. It is beyond the usual ego, it is ‘pure presence’, it is ‘strictly ineffable like the divine person’ (12) : one may wonder what is left of the person, except the result of a kind of pure act of faith claiming that the person must continue to exist. Lossky says : ‘by renouncing his own contents, by giving them freely, by stopping its existence for himself, the person manifests fully in the unified nature of all. By renouncing his particular good, he dilates infinitly and gets enriched by everything in everybody.’ (13) That describes exactly ego dissolution in the vedantic experience, and this process has hardly any reason to save the person as such.
Obviously, the belief in doomsday obliges one to keep a sort of shadow of individuality who can answer ‘present’ to the last call. Likewise, in Hinduism, there is something of the person, or of the ego, which passes from one life to another to convey individual karma; but Hinduism also acknowledges that beyond that, full Liberation is possible : then, karma and person dissolve in the Self. The candle light disappears into the sun, the process follows its logic until the end. Personalist theologians are so much attached to their idea that they feel obliged to correct the Fathers themselves: it is amusing to note that one of them, quoting Gregory of Nysse, ‘The concepts create God’s idols, the enraptured only feels something,’ needs to correct ‘rather someone’. (14) Gregory of Nysse, as a full-fledged mystic, had the intuition of the ultimately impersonal character of the Absolute. That is why he has said ‘something’ like the ‘tat’ (That) of the Upanishads when they evoke the Supreme. This annoyed those theologians who have less elevated experiences and who run after the person as someone could run after his own shadow, hoping one day to grasp it.
If Christ has become nothingness, has emptied himself (‘kenosis’ in Phil II-7), why could other human persons not do the same ? Should it not be the least to do ? This represents a logical process. Is it not written : ‘If the grain of wheat which fell into earth does not die, it will not bear fruit. ? Can we say, in thruth, what remains of the grain after it dies? Science itself, following its recent discoveries in neuropsychology, questions the notion of person and comes to a rather Buddhist concept of ‘agregates’ whose impermanent association gives the impression of personality. (15) This should not lead to nihilism or weakening. Plotinus says : ‘The man who denies his own individuality does not lessen himself but on the contrary grows to the dimension of universal reality.’ Recently, another exponent of the path of knowledge, Nisargadatta Maharaj, said : ‘The highest charity is to give the consciousness of ‘I am’.’ An idea which underlies the insistence on the notion of person is, ‘There is happines only in relation’. Hindu dualists take the simile of a lump of sugar : one must be different from the lump of sugar to be able to enjoy its taste : but it is less respectful of the Absolute to consider it as a lump of sugar and to want to make it an object of tasting. That leads us to speak of the question of anthropomorphism in dualism. The descriptions of the union to God as a marriage or as intercourse betwen lover and beloved are no more satisfying after a certain level of evolution. They sound too much like the projection of an unpurified desire, and psychiatrists rightly note that one gets delirium according to one’s desire. The dualists’ idea according to which we will experience more and more of God’s love and that indefinitely, sounds to me very anthropomorphic. This is the wish of lovers, but reality seems rather different. When we read more and more books, we know more and more things, so, by analogy, when we make more and more spiritual pratices, we should get more and more results. But can we reduce spiritual path to a geometrical progression? Can we not defintitely be attracted by the Eastern notion of sudden change of level in counsciousness? Is it not necessary beyond a certain level, just as the passage from Newtonian physics to Relativity has been needed to integrate new experiments? Strange enough, by going beyond the anthropomorphic notion of person, one comes back closer to man and to his direct experience. Nisragadatta Maharaj says : ‘There is no other God that this sense of presence.’ (16) Meister Eckhart boldly affirms in a famous sentence : ‘If I were not, God would not be either.’ (17)
What matters really is not the projection of desires, like laser into superior mists, but the letting of those desires, their complete giving up, in order that ‘That’ could reveal itself. This is not easy : that is why so many spiritual disciplines have been evolved. Personalists criticize non-dualism by saying, ‘Non-dualism employs techniques, dualism rests on love only.’ The first reflection which comes to my mind is that love is a technique too, or an ‘art’ if the term ‘technique’ makes one afraid. He who follows the path of devotion must gradually learn to play with his emotions, and not to be played by them in order to be able to fully direct them towards the Divine. Vedanta is not against Yoga as a practice of purifying the mind, but it repetitively underlines that ‘That’ reveals itself freely. The Realization of the Self is beyond the meditations which aim to unite us to a given divine form (upasana).
Dualism has a tendency to harden, to thicken the ego by granting it a substance of its own different from divine substance. One can wonder, from the viewpoint of depth psychology, if a relationship does not exist between dualism, the violently affirmed transcendence of Judaism and Islam (see ‘Qul Allahu Akbar…’ Say : ‘God is the Highest’ in the daily Muslim prayer) and the trauma of circumcision. This agressive occurence, even if it appears at different ages in the two religions, may represent a cut in the world of primeval unity. Is not this cut so effective because it acts on sexual force, because it creates an awakening of this inner energy which India calls Kundalini? By the way, this could be a theme of reflection for those interested.
One cannot speak of going beyond the person with precision if one does not clearly distinguish two exits from the ego, upwards and downwards. The latter can correspond to schizophrenia which is a state below the ego or in a more attenuated way, to a kind of modern thought which is reductionist, even nihilistic, and that Jean Wahl had aptly called ‘trans-descendance’. That is why I would prefer to speak of ‘transpersonalization’ rather than ‘depersonalisation’ which has a pejorative, even pathological undertone. Likewise, it seems to me better to speak of the path which liberates the person, which is ‘transpersonal’ regarding the path of knowledge, rather than speaking of ‘impersonal’ path, a word which is associated for most people with coldness and rejection. Speaking of this, one should note that the transmission of so-called ‘impersonal way’ like Vedanta or Zen is made in a very personal way, between master and disciple, through a vital relationship which extends for years. (16) In this sense, this relationship is less impersonal than the institutional transmission which is the most common in Christianity. A true practicioner of the path of knowledge has an intense devotion for the Being. He practices in this direction. Nisrgadatta Maharaj speaks of the ‘explosive illumination of the ‘I am” (20).
Jacques Maritain, who was a srict Thomist, tries to make an opposition between the path of devotion and that of knowledge : the first is meant to correspond to the mystic of fire, and the second to that of mirror. The simile is obviously pregnant with apologetic undertones, insinuting that the path of knowledge is frozen, and that is shows nothing else than his own face, which means the most external aspect of ego. First, one should note, fire fulfills it’s vocation only when the fuel has been completely consumed, which means when duality is consumed and only unity remains. Besides, when it is intense, the mysticism of knowledge is more than a fire, it is a laser which separates the Real from the unreal. On the other hand, those who need to rest on God with human face-therefore who looks astonishingly like them may be more like the mystic of mirror than those who directly dive in the formless Absolute. Is the other which has the same aspect with us really ‘other’?
Which sort of images evokes Saint Augustine’s famous ‘Deus intimior meo’ ‘God more intimate to myself than myself’. One could glimpse a kind of ultimate center under the various layers of personality and conditionings, or else, a ground of the human being which widens more and more by opening oneself into the Being. Both representations, the grain of conciousness or the limitless space,are regularly used to evoke the Absolute in Vedanta. (21).
A last objection to impersonal non-dualism is that one who does not believe in the person cannot respect him. It seems to me that, on the contrary, more so, since he is no longer prevented by the filter of his own person to appreciate the other objectivity, as he is. Only when two persons, which means practically two egos, are related, there are manipulations and conflicts.
The notion of person, in its concrete form of personality, is of course useful in the field of education so that adolescents and children could assert themselves as such. It is equally useful from the sociological viewpoint, in order for the individual not to be crushed by the mass or by the state machinery. More deeply, this notion is closely related with physical love, the smallest physical detail being invested by the lovers with strong emotions. For a mature mystic, this notion of person, which at the beginning had been a help, becomes an obstacle.
In conclusion the idea arises of ‘personalist stage’ : the human person is the very type of the empirical, provisional (vyavaharika) truth which disappears when one comes close to the Absolute, like the moth in a candle flame. Inasmuch as one believes in it, one is submissive to it, one is dominated by it. When one starts questioning it, the sun of Realization begins dawning. Non-dualism does not contradict any doctrine, it gives all of them their place instead and integrates them in its worldview. Those who still keep in their mind, as an aftermath, that ‘personal’ means life and ‘beyond personal’ means death, can meditate on this Zen koan for a long time : ‘The living enters the coffin, and the death carries it.’
5) One often objects to non-dualism that it is coldly technical, that it does not have the notion of gratuity because it does not have the concept of grace.
Even in Yoga which is the most technical part of Hindu spirituality, the notion of grace is present. Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras speak of ‘surrender to the Lord’ (ishwara-pranidhana, 1-23) as a possible way to reach the Absolute. Vedanta, being non-dualist, does not have the notion of God’s grace, but strongly emphasizes Guru’s grace and the notion of gratuity. Knowledge reveals itself on its own, without being the automatic reward of our spiritual endeavours. It is on this very point that Vedanta has differenciated itself fom Purva Mimansa, the school which imediately preceeded it. In Mahayana Buddhism, the notion of ‘spontaneous realization’ is equally at the forefront.
Christian prayer accepts the notion of the automatic efficacy of prayer up to a certain extent, and in this resembles Yoga : ‘Knock, and it shall be open.’ This efficacy not only depends upon God’s good will but also exists in spite of his reticence, as we can see in the parable of the bothered man who ends us yielding to the beggar to get peace. The Orthodox, unlike Catholics, even acknoweldge that grace has been wholly given, and that from the beginning of humanity. This grace is paradoxical, as it is well said in the apocryphal words of Saint Ignatius of Loyola : ‘One should act as if everything depended upon man and nothing upon God, and one should trust God as if everything depended upon God and nothing upon man.’ (22) One can interpret the proposition of theology : ‘Man is deified through grace, and not through nature’, by seeing under the term ‘nature’ the ego, for this seems to be his own nature for the ordinary man : ‘I am myself, and nothing else’. Then, this affirmation is not different from what Vedanta says : the force which transforms the ego comes from beyond the ego, from the Self in non-dual language.
The dependency of Christians upon God’s grace easily gives a tragic dimension to their spiritual life, inasmuch as they cannot eventually grasp why and how it comes. Philaret of Moscow says for instance : ‘Man is suspended between two abysses, like on a diamond bridge which is God’s will; above him is the abyss of divine darkness towards which he is called, below is the abyss of non-existence, from which he has been extracted and to where he can only fall if he renounces his vocation, without being able, though, to ever come back to pure non-existence.’ (23) One who follows the path of dualism has not only a bet to make, that of God’s existence, he must also bet that he will go to paradise and not to hell..From the viewpoint of spiritual psychology, the sense of absurdity and existential angusish may be the other side, the ‘shadow’, in the Jungian sense of the term, of the belief in the grace of a God who is completly good.
The question of grace is linked to that of transcendence and immanence. One often reproaches non-dualism for falling into complete ‘immanentism’, into pantheism by saying that the Absolute, the world and man are only one. It is true, non-dualism has no difficulty to integrate pantheism as a stage of spiritual development. It does not feel obliged to violently reject it as monotheism does. However, the very movement of non-dualism is transcendent and apophatic : it is the ‘neti, neti’ (not this, not this) of the Upanishads. It is interesting to know, by the way, that one speaks of non-dualism and not of monism, to be able to keep its character of ineffability to the Absolute, beyond the pairs of opposites, beyond even being and non-being. In Christianity, except perhaps for a few mystics, one is rather afraid to question, to go beyond the very being of God. In this sense, non-dualism is more transcendent than dualism.
7) Another frequent objection against non-dualists is that they would neither be able of action in the world, nor of demonstrating a scientific mind since they consider that the body as well as the world are illusions.
Let us start speaking of the body. Christians repeat that Incarnation only can give the body its ultimate dignity by returning it to its primeval vocation of temple of the Spirit. One should first say that, for non-dualists, body is not only the temple of the Spirit, but is is Spirit itself, since there is only one ‘substance – Spirit’ which is the ground of everything. In non-dualism, one acknowledges that the mind is based on the body, and it is repeated that we are lucky to have had a rebirth in an human body, and we should not waste it. We have seen that Vedanta accepts Yogic practices as a means to purify the mind. While speaking of this, it is interesting to note that it is precisely in the non-dualistic atmosphere of India that body techniques aiming to the spiritual and which are gathered under the general term of Yoga, are more developed : it may be because a good number of Hindus felt the limitations of the exclusive explanation of spiritual progress through God’s grace.
Indeed, affirming the reality of the body is common sense : the ordinary man is convinced of the reality of the body, and I am sure that if one could speak of metaphysics with animals, they would equally support this reality. Doubt regarding this basic fact comes from the skillfulness of human counsciousness to progress; the desequilibrium of doubt is the step of thought. This disengagement from body consciousness is not a question of body asceticism, but of understanding. In this sense, Christian ascetics, with their macerations, seem to have paid less respect for the body than neo-Platonicians who used to say that the latter was not so important vis-a-vis consciousness, but at least would not torture and martyrize it. I have more closely examined this question in the chapters 2 and 3 of this part.
Let us come now to the second point of the objection : ‘the unreality of the world according to non-dualism’. Certainly, there have been Buddhist schools which have supported the complete irreality of phenomena, like Vijnanavada. However, in Vedanta, the manifested world, maya, is described as neither real nor unreal, in practice challenging any description (anirvachaniya). Additionally, the world is unreal vis-a-vis the Absolute, (paramartha), but is has relative reality (vyavaharika), as we saw above when we spoke of the two truths.
If we want an example of the capacity of action of Vedantins, we may mention the Ramakrishna Mission inspired by Vivekananda’s ideas on practical Vedanta, which is said to be the biggest humanitarian organisation in the world. Although it is mainly spread in India, one should remember that India represents almost a billion inhabitants nowadays. This fact shows well that Vedanta and action are not incompatible.
On the other hand, it seems that Western science has not developed because of the Church, but in spite of it. Controversies on evolution which still continue today seem hardly to have troubled modern Hindu thought. The idea of an impersonal Self seems more readily assimilable to the notion of unified field developed by contemporary physics than a personal, creator God, ‘Deus ex machina’ of dualist doctrines. Scientists had to put aside this conception of God to be able to evolve. Every really religious man considers that God is in the world and that he is more real than him; if not, he is only a materialist who mayf ollow a few rituals from time to time. Nil of Sinai says : ‘Blessed is the monk who sees every man as God after God.’ (24) and also : ‘The monk is one who, while retiring from the midst of man, is united to them and sees himself in every body. (25)
What is important is not to give up the world, but to give up one’s ordinary conception of the world, to see God in it, to deify it as the Orthodox say, or as is written in the beginning of the Isha Upanishad : ‘By the Lord (Isha) enveloped must this all be whatever moving thing there is in the moving world. With this renounced, thou mayest enjoy…’ (Hume’s translation). Abbot Alonios had this non-dualistic intuition of the disappearance of our ordinary conception of the world thanks to the stoppage of the mind : “If man does not say in his heart, ‘there is in the world only myself and God’, he will not obtain rest.” (26) Isaac the Syrian, though his direct experience, had equally reached a conception close to the ‘creation by seeing’ (drishti shrishti) of Hindu thought : ‘The world dies where the current of passions stop.’ (27)
Saint Thomas acknowledges that the world may not exist when he writes : ‘It may be that everything which is not God does not exist.’ (28) Gregory of Nysse sensed the paradox of a world which is both real and unreal when he said : ‘The paradox of the world is to have its existence in non-existence.’ (29) Meister Eckhart does not hesitate to affirm the ultimate unreality of the creation as an obvious fact : ‘All creatures are pure nothingness. I do not say that they are minute or that they are something : they are pure nothingness. What has no being is nothingness. All the creatures have no being because their being depends upon God’s presence. The only difference between Christian classical theology and Vedanta is that the first says that man has lost his state of deification and must find it again, while the second says that man only believes he has lost it.
One can criticize the Vedantic notion of the world as ‘anivachaniya’, beyond any description. Is this not an easy solution, an escape which leaves the problem unsolved? This is true. But every metaphysics and theology leaves certain problems unresolved. Christians themselves acknowledge that ex nihilo creation (creation from nothing) is inexplicable. How has God been able to descend from the intemporal to the temporal to accomplish the act of creation ? If he is Almighty, how can we explain man’s freedom ? Out of love, they say. But if God is really complete, how is it that He needs love? And if man was perfect before the fall, is it not illogical that he chose the evil? Globally, the problem of evil is more difficult to solve in a dualist system where the world has been created by a compassionate God. For non-dualists, evil does not come from sin, but from ignorance, from maya which has no beginning, but has an end at the time of liberation. This conception of evil as ignorance is more in keeping with the spirit of modern psychology than that of evil as a fault.
The notion of an elected people which seems granted if seen from inside Judaism and Christianity will rather be a matter of scandal seen from outside. This God who has chosen a few percent of humanity to make them the elected people and who has rejected the others, if not to hell, but at least to a lower level, seem to be more an inferior being than a God in the eyes of these ‘others’. In this sense, these metaphysics which refrain to refer to an elected people and a personal God certainly represent a progress towards a possibility of real universal tolerance.
In India, one has tried totally pure non-dualism (advaita vedanta) as well as Vaishnavite dualism : Ramanuja created qualified non-dualism (vishishta advaita) trying to reconcile certain Vaishnavite religious beliefs with non-dualism. Most historians of philosophy confess that his attempt has been shabby, not because he was a bad thinker, but because his very initial aim was trying to put a circle square. (31) Just as Christian mystics did not like so much mitigated monastic rules, mystics of contemporary India hardly refer to mitigated (qualified) non-dualism when they speak of Vedanta, but rather to Advaita.
A last objection which has been often put by theologians regarding non-dualism is that it does not have the benefit of a revealed Word, by the very fact it does not acknowledge a personal God. Moreover, non-dualism would not have the possibility of a progressive revelation of God in history.
First, one should say that in Hinduism, the Vedas, including the great words (mahavakyas) of Upanishads are considered as revealed to ancient sages (rishis). They have not heard them from a personal God, as the Prophets did, but they have ‘seen’ them directly : it is the very meaning of the word ‘rishi’, the seer.
Non-duality has no special difficulty to accept the notion of evolution. This evolution take place within empirical truth and does not change anything of the Absolute. On the other hand non-dualism does not believe that our world goes towards a paradise on earth or that God reveals Himself more and more in it. There are indeed clear improvements in certain fields, but regressions also occur in others. People’s minds are more refined, but at the same time prone to suffer for more subtle motives. The very notion of a wholly compassionate God makes still more striking the scandal of evil. The belief that happiness on earth will follow a continuously growing graph like the industrial production of a country which develops well sounds a bit too much like ‘metaphysics of the industrial revolution’. The non-dualist deos not need it to motivate his work on himself or at the service of others.


Heidegger And Zen West_Philosophy_

“Zen in Heidegger’s Way”
David Storey, Professor of Philosophy, Boston College

Abstract: I argue that historical and comparative analyses of Heidegger and Zen Buddhism are motivated by three simple ideas: 1) Zen is uncompromisingly non-metaphysical; 2) its discourse is poetic and non-rational; and 3) it aims to provoke a radical transformation in the individual, not to provide a theoretical proof or demonstration of theses about the mind and/or the world. To sketch this picture of Heidegger’s thought, I draw on the two texts from his later work that command the most attention from commentator’s seeking resonance with Zen, and discuss how his treatments of death, fallenness, facticity, and temporality in Being and Time square with Zen philosophy. Finally, I critique Heidegger’s ambivalence about the possibility of overcoming language barriers and reticence to prescribe concrete practices aimed at triggering the profound shift in thinking he clearly believed Western culture to be so desperately in need of.
In the introduction to an edition of essays by D.T Suzuki, the foremost ambassador of Zen Buddhism to the intellectual West, William Barrett mentions an anecdote that has generated a significant amount of scholarship about Heidegger’s connection to Buddhism. Barrett reports: “A German friend of Heidegger told me that one day when he visited Heidegger he found him reading one of Suzuki’s books; ‘If I understand this man correctly,’ Heidegger remarked, ‘this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings’”i (Barrett, 1956, xi). The truth of this story is unverifiable and irrelevant, but Barrett considers its moral undeniable:
For what is Heidegger’s final message but that Western philosophy is a great error, the result of the dichotomizing intellect that has cut man off from unity with Being itself and from his own being….Heidegger repeatedly tells us that this tradition of the West has come to the end of its cycle; and as he says this, one can only gather that he himself has already stepped beyond that tradition. Into the tradition of the Orient? I should say he has come pretty close to Zen (Barrett, 1956, xii).ii

In the spirit of this controversial claim, and in light of a host of similar and possibly apocryphal anecdotes, many scholars have undertaken historical and comparative analyses of Heidegger and Asian
philosophy (especially Taoism and Zen Buddhism) apparently on the gamble that where there is smoke, there is fire. The existence of this “fire” is predicated, I submit, on three simple ideas: 1) Taoism and Zen are uncompromisingly non-metaphysicaliii; 2) their discourses are highly poetic and decidedly non-rational; and 3) they aim to provoke a radical transformation in the individual that forever alters his comportment toward himself, others, and the world, not to provide a theoretical proof or demonstration of theses about the mind and/or the world. In this essay I will focus specifically on what role, if any, the Zen tradition plays in Heidegger’s early and later thought, with occasional references to Taoist themes.
The exploration of the nature of the Heidegger-Buddhism connection project has, roughly, taken at least one of two paths: influenceiv or resonance. While the hunt for an esoteric reading of any thinker is at best dangerous and at worst foolish, we are obligated to approach Heidegger armed with his own hermeneutical principle of retrieve, which William Richardson describes thus: “to retrieve, which is to say what an author did not say, could not say, but somehow made manifest” (Richardson, 2003, 159).v Dismissing the question of influence as moot and judging the evidence to be either indirect, inconclusive, or non-existent, commentators such as Graham Parkes have instead argued for a “pre-established harmony” between Heidegger’s thought as a whole and core tenets of Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. This claim presupposes the accuracy of William Richardson’s thesis that Heidegger’s works constitute a coherent, unified whole–a thesis verified by Heidegger Fashioning Being and Time as the last hurrah of metaphysics, the project whose residual metaphysics Heidegger came to recant, the argument for pre-established harmony sees in the existential analytic the fledgling formulations of a notion of selfhood and world that is quite alien to the Western tradition and rather congenial to Eastern thinking, a notion perhaps best described as nonduality. This residual metaphysics is repeated throughout Heidegger’s works along the lines of the ontological difference between Being and beings, and constitutes an ambivalence over which scholars are still squabbling. This ambivalence, I hope to demonstrate, is demonstrated by Heidegger’s reticence to prescribe any concrete practices for triggering the radical shift in thinking he labored to galvanize. Heidegger appears to warn us that blithely attempting to step outside of and transcend one’s tradition, situation, and heritage, a prospect so tempting and even advantageous in today’s world, might very well land us in even greater inauthentic peril than we were beforehand. However, by circumscribing the limits of his tradition and designating which practices are off limits and which are not, Heidegger, I argue, ultimately reifies “the West.”
In other words, neither the branches of the Western Enlightenment (Rationalism from Descartes to Hegel and Romanticism from Rousseau to Nietzsche) nor the roots of Greek philosophy provided Heidegger with what he was looking for, and I suggest that Asian philosophy in general and Zen in particular offer a corrective in the way of praxis to the very lopsidedness of theoria that Heidegger labored to amend. To sketch this picture of Heidegger’s thought, I briefly point out texts from both his early and later work that recommend comparison with key issues in Zen. First, I will draw on the two texts from Heidegger’s later work that command the most attention from commentator’s seeking for Eastern resonance. Second, I discuss how Heidegger’s treatment of death, fallenness, facticity, and temporality in SZ squares with Zen philosophy. Finally, I submit a critique of Heidegger’s aforementioned ambivalence about the possibility of overcoming language barriers and reticence to prescribe concrete practices aimed at triggering the profound shift in thinking he clearly believed Western culture to be so desperately in need of.
1. Two Dialogues
A. The Nature of Thinking: “Conversation on a Country Path about Thinking”vii
It is easy to plumb Heidegger’s later works and cherry pick passages that could have been plucked straight from the Tao Te Ching. The subtle, poetic flavor of this primary work of Chinese Taoism easily lends itself to later Heidegger’s notion of “poetic dwelling.” Since both Taoism and Zen operate from a decidedly non-metaphysical comportment, and prefer poetic and paradoxical forms of expression that intentionally thwart logical analysis and discursive reasoning, it is easy to see why many scholars have been struck by their similarity to later Heidegger’s experiments with language. Indeed, Otto Pöggeler, one of Heidegger’s most able and respected German commentators, charges that the Tao Te Ching played a crucial role in the development of Heidegger’s later thought.viii
Be that as it may (or may not), the stylistic similarities between two thinkers or two philosophical systems can all too easily seduce us into passing over the real and irrevocable differences that force them apart. This is especially dangerous in Heidegger’s case, since the recurrent character of his later attempts at reformulating the question of Being are aimed precisely at unseating the very notion of there being a master narrative, a complete system, a coherent body of doctrine. As David Loy observes: “It is not possible to discuss Heidegger’s system because, like Nagarjuna, he has none. For Heidegger thinking is not a means to gain knowledge but both the path and the destination” (Loy, 1988, 164).ix All is always already way, and that seems to be all that we are allowed to say about the matter—there can be no calculation or meaningful organization, sequence, or pattern to the various way-stations, moments, or thoughts that occur along the way. Reflecting on one of his own “moments”—Being and Time itself–Heidegger remarked: “I have forsaken an earlier position, not to exchange it for another, but because even the former position was only a pause on the way. What lasts in thinking is the way” (Dialogue, 1971, 12).x Compare D.T. Suzuki:
All Zen’s outward manifestations or demonstrations must never be regarded as final. They just indicate the way where to look for facts. Therefore these indicators are important, we cannot do well without them. But once caught in them, which are like entangling meshes, we are doomed; for Zen can never be comprehended (Barrett, 1956, 21).xi                                                                                                                                                   The Zen analogue to Heidegger’s notion of “preoccupation with beings” (CP) or “entanglement” (SZ) is tanha, popularly translated somewhat misleadingly as “desire.” A more proper rendering would be “attachment” or “clinging” to phenomena. To seize upon the flux and freeze Being/Tao in its tracks, to attempt to master, fix, or cling to it with language or logic, is, Heidegger believes, the mistake and mis-calculation of Western metaphysics. Being just sort of “does its own thing,” and we are inexorably caught up in its sway. Our best bet is to release ourselves to this Being-process, not in the sense of demurring or “giving way” to it, but offering or ourselves up to it as servants.
Two of later Heidegger’s works stand out due to their formal character: the CP and the DL. The dialogue is an ideal site for interrogating and pinning down the core of Heidegger’s later thought, and thus apprehending what kinship it may have with Taoist and Zen thought, because it is flexible enough to contain both rational and poetic discourse. That is, it suffers neither from the constraints of monologic—the metaphysics of subjectivity (inaugurated by Descartes and repeated by Sartre) laced within SZ that Heidegger eventually came to recant—nor from the vagary of poetic saying, yet provides a space in which both can have their say. Peter Kreeft usefully qualifies this as “a highly disciplined, exacting kind of poetry,” a kind of saying that, Heidegger thinks, is more rigorous than and indeed makes possible rational discourse itself (Kreeft, 1971, 521).xii In this section, I draw on these two dialogues in order to show the congruence of Heidegger’s later thought with some basic Zen tenets.
The CP is held between a scientist, a scholar, and a teacher. These three figures speak, respectively, for three basic comportments toward or from Being. The first is the Dasein who is blind to the phenomenon of the world. This is the objectifying stance criticized in SZ, the monological Scientist curious about and transfixed by phenomena, asleep to his own unheeded intentional comportments to the world. The Scientist disenchants the world by dissecting it with analytical reason and foisting his own conceptual straightjackets on things with a view to seizing their “essence,” and thus takes things, literally, only on his own terms. In Division II of SZ this comportment is described as “making-present.”
The second comportment is the Scholar, who represents Dasein as awakening to and reflecting on the existential-ontological structures that govern its engagement with the world and, by rendering itself transparent to those structures, seizing itself in its freedom unto death, toward its ownmost end and ultimate possibility. This is the “authentic” comportment championed in Division II, which enacts a non-conceptual way of thinking and assumes a place in and towards Being, yet draws up short at the transcendental horizon of temporality. The “way in which escstatical temporality temporalizes,” what makes the projection of Dasein’s existence possible, indeed, whether and how “time manifests itself as the horizon of Being” is what calls for interpretation (Heidegger, 1962, 488).xiii Yet interpretation, by definition, cannot overstep that very horizon, because meaning and sense can only be made and registered on this “side” of the temporal “border.” The project to think toward being thus fails, and Dasein is cast back upon itself in its having-been, and this calls for a new approach. This is the state of the Scholar, who has pushed rational discourse to its limit, and is left wanting and waiting for some clue as to how to proceed on the way towards Being.
The third figure, that of the Teacher, embodies a disposition unrepresented yet certainly hinted at in SZ: Gelassenheit. Whereas the prior two positions were subjectivistic insofar as they thought toward Being, the Teacher endeavors to think from Being, to keep silent about and wait for the temporalizing of ecstatic temporality—here called the “regioning” of “that-which-regions”—but not in such a way as to be frustrated by the lack of an answer, to be stymied about failing to find the words or concepts with which to interpret or locate the meaning of Being. The Teacher’s discourse is thus properly characterized as trans-logical.
Gelassenheit is not “giving up”; still less it is “cracking the code” of Being. As the translators note, “[Gelassenheit] is thinking which allows content to emerge within awareness, thinking which is open to content…meditative thinking begins with an awareness of the field within which these objects are, an awareness of the horizon rather than of those objects of ordinary understanding” (Heidegger, 1966, 24).xiv More specifically, Heidegger is claiming that all thinking necessarily begins this way, and so a thinking that explicitly acknowledges this fact enjoys a more primordial relationship with Being, and therefore with thought itself. This necessity is neither logical nor causal, nor it is contained in the nature of a substance called “human being.” Indeed, Heidegger makes it clear at the start that “the question concerning man’s nature is not a question about man” (Heidegger, 1966, 58).xv To go against this grain and attempt to calculate, plan, plot, represent, or frame Being in any totalizing manner is thus at once a perversion of both Being and thinking. This is surely why, as Peter Kreeft points out, “Heidegger uses a word designating what Being does (“regions”) rather than what it is” (Kreeft, 1971, 543).xvi
To be released toward things is to wait upon Being.xvii “Waiting” itself is defined two ways in the CP. These two definitions are tightly bound to the two conceptions of time contrasted in SZ. The first is the ordinary practice of “waiting for” things, events, occasions, etc. This waiting toward things is grounded in a making present which neutralizes the future qua possibility by interpreting it merely within the narrow scope of the desires, goals, and objectives of the present, following the rigid dictates of the schedule, the calendar, or the scheme. This fixing of the future is at once the constriction of the present, robbing the present of its possibility and significance by interpreting the “now” as a solipsized point in a succession of nows that is separated from the object that Dasein awaits. The ecstatical structures are thus dissociated and/or repressed, Dasein disperses itself among and invests itself in its worldly entanglements, and it fails to hold itself together precisely by rushing around trying to fix and control things; Dasein is ready for nothing because it is trying to be ready for everything, foreclosing its possibilities by trying to plan for all of them. The structures of involvement delineated in Division I of SZ—the “for-the-sake-of-which,” the “in-order-to”, etc.—correlate roughly with this notion of “waiting for.”
The second definition of waiting, “waiting upon,” is practiced without the expectation of the fulfillment of an intention. Indeed, it is characterized by the lack of any such intention. This cessation of intentional relations is indicative of an erosion of any notion of a “subject” with will, desire, self-sameness, and a shift in the locus of identity and the seat of action towards Being and away from Dasein. As the Scholar remarks: “the relation between that-which-regions [i.e., Being] and releasement, if it can still be considered a relation, can be thought of neither as ontic nor as ontological,” only, adds the teacher, “as regioning” (Heidegger, 1966, 76).xviii There is thus a shift in the language Heidegger uses to describe the matter of the conversation: not the “meaning of Being” (SZ) but the “nature of thinking.”xix To wait upon Being thus connotes service. The active connotations of freedom, authentication, individuation, and seizing one’s destiny that color SZ give way to more passive notions of serving, waiting, allowing, etc. Put differently: there is a shift in emphasis from existentiality to facticity, from man’s projecting to Being’s throwing.
Yet those so released are not merely “slaves” of Being. The Scientist observes that releasement “is in no way a matter of weakly allowing things to slide and drift along,” and “lies beyond the distinction between activity and passivity” (Heidegger, 1966, 61).xx Heidegger is not condoning an ascetic denial of world and will along the lines of Schopenhauer’s pessimism; releasement is most definitely not a renunciation that “floats in the realm of unreality and nothingness” (Heidegger, 1966, 80).xxi Similarly, Suzuki dismissed the
popular view which identifies the philosophy of Schopenhauer with Buddhism. According to this view, the Buddha is supposed to have taught the negation of the will to live, which was insisted upon by the German pessimist, but nothing is further from the correct understanding of Buddhism than this negativism. The Buddha did not consider the will blind, irrational, and therefore to be denied; what he really denies is the notion of ego-entity due to Ignorance, from which notion come craving, attachment to things impermanent, and the giving way to egoistic impulses (Barrett, 1956, 157).xxii                   Anticipatory resoluteness still has a place within releasement: “one needs to understand ‘resolve’ as it is understood in Being and Time: as the opening of man particularly undertaken by him for openness…which we think of as that-which-regions” (Heidegger, 1966, 81).xxiii Again, we are not permitted to think of openness as something “out there” ontologically separate from Dasein, since we have been told explicitly that terms such as ontic, ontological, relation, and thing either no longer apply in the former sense, or no longer apply, period.
The type of comportment Heidegger champions is thus active in so far as it calls for an adjustment in Dasein’s attunement, but not in the sense of operating upon any object in the world-horizon with a view toward engineering a different and desired state of affairs. Heidegger thus refers to it as a “trace of willing”; it is passive insofar as it holds itself steadfast in light of the knowledge that none of its actions can directly “get through” to Being and, more importantly, it ceases to resent or repress this inescapable fact (Heidegger, 1966, 51).xxiv As Peter Kreeft points out, a higher acting is concealed in releasement than is found in all the actions within the world…. Not only do we become supremely (though effortlessly) active as a result of releasement, but we must exercise the most strenuous activity in order to reach its inactivity, much as the Zen monk must beat his head against the stone wall of his koan with all his energy until his head splits and his brains spill out into the universe where they belong (Kreeft, 1971, 553).xxv Heidegger is clear on this point:

“Releasement toward things and openness to the mystery never happen of themselves. They do not befall us accidentally. Both flourish only through persistent, courageous thinking” (Heidegger, 1966, 56).xxvi

On a similar note, Joan Stambaugh remarks that “Heidegger’s idea of Austrag (perdurance, sustained endurance) bears a striking resemblance to Dogen’s ‘sustained exertion,’ the ‘highest form of exertion, which goes on unceasingly in cycles from the first dawning of religious truth, through the test of discipline and practice, to enlightenment and Nirvana.’ These two related ideas both implicitly have to do with time” (Stambaugh, 1987, 285).xxvii American Zen roshi Richard Baker once remarked that satori, or enlightenment, is an accident, and that meditation makes one accident prone. Meditation (zazen) is the preparation, the work that renders the self receptive to satori but does not directly trigger it. Speaking about the notion of “waiting upon,” Kreeft notes:

“Like a Zen master, Heidegger does not tell us what to do, only what not to do. And in response to the natural question complaining of the resulting disorientation, he intensifies instead of relieving the disorientation, again like a Zen master” (Kreeft, 1971, 535).xxviii

In a crucial but qualified sense, there is a process of spiritual “development” in Zen, but it not a teleological process. Zen practice is not the cultivation of positive qualities or characteristics; it is not about conditioning, but about deconditioning—hence, what not to do. The Zen analogue of releasement is “non-attachment,” and its purpose is not to crush and stifle the thought-process, but to let all phenomena—sensory perceptions, emotional tensions, concepts, etc.—simply go, to liquidate one’s cognitive assets, to exhaust the discursive mind, and gradually cease to identify with any bodily (gross) or mental (subtle) “substance”, until the bodymind itself is “dropped.”
Before leaving the CP, it is important to mention the discussion of ego, experiment, and the Being-process contained therein. Heidegger’s end of philosophy is really just the end of philosophy as the mirror of nature,xxix the end of a conception of science that regarded itself as unconditioned but was actually, according to Heidegger, only a historical emergence:
Scientist: ‘When I decided in favor of the methodological type of analysis in the physical sciences, you said that this way of looking at it was historical…. Now I see what was meant. The program of mathematics and the experiment are grounded in the relation of man as ego to the thing as object.’ Teacher: ‘They even constitute this relation in part and unfold its historical character…. The historical consists in that-which-regions…. It rests in what, coming to pass in man, regions him into his nature’ (Heidegger, 1966, 79).xxx

Thus the “ego” and its project of measuring, classifying, and discovering the world emerged over time, yet it tries to burn its birth certificate and cover up its contingency by grounding itself in some transcendent Other.
Two passages from WIM? powerfully capture the relationship between reason and the nothing, the egoic and the trans-egoic, the logical and the trans-logical: “If the power of the intellect in the field of inquiry into the nothing and into Being is thus shattered, then the destiny of the reign of ‘logic’ in philosophy is thereby decided. The idea of ‘logic’ itself disintegrates in the turbulence of a more original questioning” (Heidegger, 1977, 105).xxxi Compare Suzuki: “[Zen] does not challenge logic, it simply walks its own path of facts, leaving all the rest to their own fates. It is only when logic neglecting its proper functions tries to step into the track of Zen [or, for Heidegger, tries to soberly and seriously dismiss the nothing] that it loudly proclaims its principles and forcibly drives out the intruder” (Barrett, 1956, 21). Heidegger:
We can of course think the whole of beings in an ‘idea,’ then negate what we have imagined in our thought, thus ‘think’ it negated.” In this way do we attain the formal concept of the imagined nothing but never the nothing itself… the objections of the intellect would call a halt to our search, whose legitimacy, however, can be demonstrated only on the basis of a fundamental experience of the nothing (Heidegger, 1977, 99).xxxii

I want to emphasize that Zen, as Suzuki indicates, has a decidedly more “laissez-faire” attitude toward reason: it is only when reason purports to extend its validity claims beyond its proper sphere that problems ensue. Heidegger’s antagonism toward calculative thinking, I am claiming here, is somewhat exaggerated and fails to recognize the positive aspects of reason, aspects which, in fact, allot him the space to sight his quarry.
Heidegger initially regarded this birth of the ego as a deliberate choice made by a particular culture yet, as Michael Zimmerman points out, he eventually came to abandon this view and saw the rise of calculative thinking as but another regioning of that-which-regions.xxxiii This “Being-centric” view is operative as early as 1929 when Heidegger speaks in WIM? of “the direction from which alone the nothing can come to us,” and declares that “the nothing itself nihilates,” and that this is the basis of any affirmation or negation, i.e., any logical predication, on the part of humans” (Heidegger, 1977, 98, 103).xxxiv Zen could not agree more with the latter part of this sentence, yet I need to point out a crucial difference. Heidegger approaches the emergence of the ego from what we might call its decidedly phylogenetic dimension—as a kind of thinking in whose grip the West has unfolded and by whose limitations its has been constrained. Zen, however, focuses on the ontogenetic dimension through a set of pointing out instructions that get the individual to realize and disarm the self-contractions, interpretative projections, and karmic patterns that distort his experiences of himself, others, and the world.xxxv Zen is concerned with acquainting the individual with the genealogy of his or her own ego and breaking the spell of self-separateness. Moreover, Zen would find later Heidegger’s tendency to ascribe agency to Being/Nothing itself as bizarre and as harboring a residual dualism.
B. The Nature of Language: “The Language Barrier” and “Planetary Thinking
While Zen generally avoids philosophy—at least in its representational mode—and focuses on transformative practices, this is not to say that it has no philosophical heritage or support. If we were forced to distill a systematic Buddhist apologetics from the Eastern philosophical tradition that serves as the philosophical roots of Zen, it would probably be “negative dialectic.” The negative dialectic was put forth as a philosophical-pedagogical method by the second century Mahayana Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna, and it is the founding idea of Zen methodology to this day. Like Heidegger’s later writings, which scrupulously guard against any lapse into lazy metaphysical thinking by vigilantly reframing the question of the meaning of Being, negative dialectic is supremely practical in that it refuses to let any positive statement about the Absolute/Emptiness/Being stand and coagulate into a stale and rigid dogma, because the experiencexxxvi in question—satori, i.e., Enlightenment–is meaning- and content-less. I am referring to Heidegger’s nearly constant efforts to shift the terms of the debate to combat and dispel the forgetfulness that comes to obscure the originary experience of Being out of which metaphysics arises and by which it is possible in the first place. Richardson gives one such example:
the effort to lay bare the foundations of ontology was called in the early years ‘fundamental ontology,’ but after 1929 the word disappears completely. In 1949 we are told why:

the word ‘ontology’…makes it too easy to understand the grounding of metaphysics as simply an ontology of a higher sort, wheras ontology of a higher sort, which is but another name for metaphysics, must be left behind completely (Richardson, 2003, 15).xxxvii

As Zimmerman points out, Nagarjuna likewise feared that his message would be distorted into a “metaphysics of experience” and struggled to resist this reifying tendency: “Nagarjuna warned that conceiving of absolute nothingness as such a transcendental origin would lead to a metaphysics of sunyata and, inevitably, to a new kind of dualism” (Zimmerman, 1993, 253).xxxviii Ken Wilber summarizes Nagarjuna’s position:
above all, for Nagarjuna, absolute reality (Emptiness) is radically Nondual (advaya)—in itself is neither self nor no-self, neither atman nor anatman, neither permanent nor momentary/flux. His dialectical analysis is designed to show that all such categories, being profoundly dualistic, make sense only in terms of each other and are thus nothing in themselves (Wilber, 2000, 719.xxxix

Later, I will show how this so-called “apophatic” approach most certainly does not mean, however, that language is abandoned in Zen; fingers can and must be pointed, so long as they are not taken for the moon itself.
Consider Suzuki’s account of the Buddha’s own historical situation:
At the time of the introduction of Zen into China, most of the Buddhists were addicted to the discussion of highly metaphysical questions, or satisfied with the merely observing of the ethical precepts laid down by the Buddha or with the leading of a lethargic life entirely absorbed in the contemplation of the evanescence of things worldly. They all missed apprehending the great fact of life itself, which flows altogether outside of these vain exercises of the intellect and the imagination (Barrett, 1956, 20).xl                                      Five words should be highlighted here: addiction, satisfaction, lethargy, absorption, and vanity. What is Suzuki portraying but an intellectually soporific climate of metaphysical abstraction and ascetic detachment that, shall we say, induced a collective forgetfulness of Being? This suggests that Heidegger’s basic claims—whether about the status of the question of the meaning of Being in Western culture, the Being-process itself, or the nature of thinking/language—need not and cannot be confined and applied exclusively to the West.
In the “Letter on Humanism” Heidegger writes that “‘subject’ and ‘object’ are inappropriate terms of metaphysics, which very early on in the form of Occidental ‘logic’ and ‘grammar’ seized control of the interpretation of language. We today can only begin to descry what is concealed in that occurrence.”xli In the DL, Heidegger works to chip away at this Euro-/logo-centrism by making language itself the object of the dialogue, rather than “the meaning of Being”(SZ) or “the nature of thinking” (CP). The dialogue takes place between an Inquirer—Heidegger himself—and a Japanese Germanist whom we now know to have been Tezuka Tomio. The DL is based on a real conversation that took place roughly thirty years prior to Heidegger’s reconstruction. In “An Hour with Heidegger,” Tomio recounts his conversation with Heidegger: “When I mentioned ‘the open’ as a possible translation of ku (emptiness) [or, in Sanskrit, sunyata]… [Heidegger] was pleased indeed! ‘East and West,’ he said, ‘must engage in dialogue at this deep level. It is useless to do interviews that merely deal with one superficial phenomenon after another’” (May, 1996, 62).xlii
Referring to previous discussions with one “Count Kuki,” Heidegger confesses: “The danger of our dialogues was hidden in language itself, not in what we discussed, nor in the way in which we tried to do so” (Heidegger, 1971, 4).xliii The Japanese replies: “The language of the dialogue constantly destroyed the possibility of saying what the dialogue was about” (Heidegger, 1971, 5).xliv The connection to Nagarjuna’s negative dialectic should be obvious. David Loy succinctly sums this up: “any theory of nonduality, if it is to retain the prescriptive aspect of the nondual philosophies, must be paradoxical and self-negating” (Loy, 1988, 176).xlv Whether or not Heidegger’s thought can rightly be classified as “nondual,” a topic I will return to, is certainly problematic; as Loy notes, he certainly “affirms a paradox of thinking and no-thinking,” yet his focus on the “descriptive aspect” and failure to include a “prescriptive aspect,” as I will discuss below, is what ultimately sets him apart from the nondual traditions of Zen, Nagarjuna’s Madyamika, and Taoism.
One exchange in the DL details an actual historical example of how the metaphysical handicap of Western languages bungled the interpretation of Heidegger’s ideas. The Japanese asserts that “we in Japan understood at once your lecture [WIM?] when it became available to us in 1930…. We marvel to this day how the Europeans could lapse into interpreting as nihilistic the nothingness of which you speak in that lecture. To us, emptiness is the loftiest name for what you mean to say with the word ‘Being’” (Heidegger, 1971, 19).xlvi The “nihilistic nothingness” alluded to here is basically the “Sartrian” nothingness which Heidegger took to be a serious distortion of his work; indeed, the very title of Sartre’s magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, is emblematic of this confusion. As William Barrett discusses in detail in his study of existentialism, Irrational Man, this crucial difference—between “no-thingness” and “nothingness”—is very much the iron curtain between East and West” (Barrett, 1958 233-4, 285).xlvii The passage quoted above also draws out a more general but hardly vague or insignificant point: Heidegger’s philosophy powerfully influenced the Japanese intellectual culture of the time, a culture thoroughly versed in and informed by the Zen Buddhist tradition.xlviii The Japanese have produced no less than seven translations of Being and Time.
It is worthwhile comparing Heidegger’s non-Western no-thingness with what Suzuki has to say about “emptiness” or sunyata, which he claims is one of the hardest words for which to find an English equivalent: “[Sunyata] is not a postulated idea. It is what makes the existence of anything possible, but it is not to be conceived immanently, as if it lay hidden in or under every existence as an independent entity. A world of relativities is set on and in sunyata…. The doctrine of sunyata is neither an immanentalism nor a transcendentalism” (Barrett, 1956, 261).xlix This is entirely consonant with later Heidegger’s abandonment of the language of “transcendence,” since this would imply some sort of “progress.” One cannot get “closer to” or “further from” sunyata via some process of intellection. Referring to a passage from The Diamond Sutra, Suzuki writes that Zen “means nothing less or more than a non-teleological interpretation of life” (Barrett, 1956, 265).l
While Heidegger admits that his naming of language as the “house of Being” was “clumsy,” he nevertheless maintains that “Europeans dwell in an entirely different house than Eastasian man,” and that “a dialogue from house to house remains nearly impossible” (Heidegger, 1971, 22).li Heidegger’s position with regard to the possibility of “inter-house dialogue” is never made entirely clear, since, by this time, he has positively abandoned the allegedly metaphysical pitfall of attempting to occupy a definite position. This ambivalence over the potential overcoming of the language barrier is repeated in a message Heidegger sent to an East-West Philosopher’s Conference held in honor of his thought in 1969:
Again and again it has seemed urgent to me that a dialogue take place with the thinkers of what is to us the Eastern world…. The greatest difficulty in the enterprise always lies, as far as I can see, in the fact that with few exceptions there is no command of the Eastern languages in Europe or the United States…. [These doubts hold] equally for both European and East Asian language, and above all for the realm of their possible dialogue. Neither side can of itself open up and establish this realm (Quoted in May, 1996, 12-13).lii

In The Question of Being, Heidegger stresses that we are “obliged not to give up the effort to practice planetary thinking,” and that “there are in store for planetary building encounters for which participants are by no means equal today. This is equally true of the European and of the East Asiatic languages and, above all, for the area of possible conversation between them” (Quoted in Thompson, 1986, 235).liii  As we saw above, in the DL Heidegger suggested to his Japanese counterpart—in the midst of their conversation–that such a conversation is nearly impossible, yet here he proclaims that it is all but necessary. Heidegger’s skepticism over the possibility of trans-linguistic mutual understanding seems strange, especially since there are cases in which the Japanese clearly had a better intuitive grasp of his ideas than Western thinkers. Fencing off different language worlds as incommensurable is perhaps just as dangerous as divvying people up according to a standard of authenticity/inauthenticity, because it naively treats “language worlds” as present-at-hand things, solipsized bubbles with clearly defined and impenetrable borders that develop in isolation from each other. Moreover, it is never made clear how such a transcendental insight can even be obtained by a being imprisoned within the confines of one such language world.
The Japanese in the DL—who, we must recall, actually bothered to undertake the task of learning an Occidental language—remarks that “while I was translating, I often felt as though I were wandering back and forth between two different language realities, such that at moments a radiance shone on me which let me sense that the wellspring of reality from which those two fundamentally different languages arise was the same” (Heidegger, 1971, 24).liv From this, Heidegger concludes that the Japanese did not seek to yoke both languages under a “general concept,” which would be precisely to try and draw one language—the Eastasian—under the rubric of another—the Occidental. In light of this, the two speakers agree that the “same” referred to above can only be “hinted” at. And though Heidegger’s “exacting poetry” is geared toward just such a hinting and is meant to thwart the metaphysical designs of such a “general concept,” he says at the outset of the DL that he desires “the assurance that European-Western saying and Eastasian saying will enter into a dialogue such that in it there sings something that wells up from a single source” (Heidegger, 1971, 8).lv
This lingering attachment to language is what demarcates Heidegger from Zen. As John Caputo points outs,
The essential being (Wesen) of Zen is an experience which is translated directly, from mind to mind, from master to disciple. Language for Zen is like a finger pointing to the moon; it must be disregarded in favor of a ‘direct pointing’ without fingers, or words…. That is why where Bodhidharma says, ‘No dependence upon words and letters,’ Heidegger says that language is the house of Being: ‘Where words give out no thing may be.’ (Caputo, 1986, 216).lvi

There is certainly some truth to this, though I do not think the difference is as stark as Caputo maintains. For one thing, from the Zen perspective, to be dependent upon words and to use words are quite different things. Interestingly enough, Heidegger remarks in the DL that “language is more powerful than we,” indicating that so long as we trade in tokens of whose meaning, weight, and origin we are ignorant, we are dependent on language. Do we not then achieve a kind of liberation from and attain a new relationship to language once we have awakened to its limitations and strive after a more authentic saying? Zen masters employ not only abrupt and abrasive pedagogical techniques such as slapping a student’s face or hitting him with a stick, but also an enigmatic, elusive, dissonant grammar, something very much like an “exacting poetry.” From Heidegger’s perspective, as I showed above, the naming of language as the house of Being is not to be taken too literally, and the quote Caputo cites to bolster his claim could easily have been uttered by a Zen master, in the sense that “no thing” denotes “emptiness” or “no-mind.” David Loy captures the Heidegger-Zen relationship more adequately:
Heidegger, if not a philosopher, is still a thinker, which the Zen student is not…. both affirm a paradox which might be called ‘the thinking of no-thinking.’ But they emphasize different aspects of it. In meditation, one is concerned to dwell in the silent, empty source from which thoughts spring; as thoughts arise, one ignores them and lets them go. Heidegger is interested in the thoughts arising from that source (Loy, 1988,175).lvii

As we saw in the CP above, Heidegger thinks that Being needs human beings, and this claim recurs in the DL: “the word ‘relation’ does want to say that man is in demand, that he belongs within a needfulness that claims him…. Hermeneutically, that is to say, with respect to bringing tidings, with respect to preserving a message” (Heidegger, 1971, 32).lviii This is what Heidegger calls the “hermeneutic relation of the two-fold.” Where Zen is content to lets thoughts go, Heidegger labors to preserve them in some form. Yet Zen would also concede that defending, preserving and transmitting the dharma is the utmost responsibility of those who have realized it; after all, that is the essence of the bodhisattva, the awakened being who vows to remain in samsara until all sentient beings are enlightened. This sounds suspiciously like “bringing tidings,” even though the final “message” is always a stranger to words and a frank declaration of what is always already the case. Suzuki elaborates:

“Zen would not be Zen if it were deprived of all means of communication. Even silence is a means of communication; the Zen masters often resort to this method…. The conceptualization of Zen is inevitable; Zen must have its philosophy. The only caution is not to identify Zen with a system of philosophy” (Barrett, 1956, 260-1).lix

Indeed, as Heidegger and the Japanese agree in the DL, to be silent about silence itself would be truly authentic saying. This is surely what they are after in defining “dialogue” as “a focusing on the reality of language,” alluding to the sense in which silence is a positive mode of discourse, perhaps even its primordial mode.

II. The Meaning of Being: Early Indications in Being and Time
In this section I briefly explore how four themes in SZ—death, fallenness, facticity, and temporality—relate to Zen. Though there is no direct evidence that Heidegger was significantly influenced by Eastern thought in his pre-SZ phase,lx this does not rule out the possibility that his early formulations demonstrate what Parkes calls a “pre-established harmony” with basic Taoist and Zen ideas. Reinhard May makes the strong claim that Heidegger’s notion of thinking-poeticizing received its (‘silent’) directive…from ancient Chinese thought—for metaphysics, so conceived, was never developed there. Being neither indebted to an Aristotelian logic, nor receptive to an ontology involving a subject-object dichotomy, nor, above all, being conditioned by any theology, ancient Chinese thought was completely remote from the assertion of ‘eternal truths,’ which belong according to Heidegger ‘to the residue of Christian theology that has still not been properly eradicated from philosophical problematics’ (Heidegger, 1962, 229).                                  While May’s claim is backed up by an impressive body of evidence, that evidence is largely circumstantial,lxi and it therefore fails to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Heidegger was directly influenced by Eastern thought from the beginning.
What are the elements that contributed to Heidegger’s novel conception of death, and where did he obtain them from, if anywhere? In the footnotes to H249 in SZ, which outlines the investigation of death, Heidegger encourages the reader to consult Dilthey’s and Simmel’s writings on death, and to “compare especially Karl Jaspers’ Psychologie der Weltanschauungen…especially pp. 259-270…. Jaspers takes as his clue to death the phenomenon of the ‘limit-situation’ as he has set in forth—a phenomenon whose fundamental significance goes beyond any typology of ‘attitudes’ and ‘world-pictures’” (Heidegger, 1962, 495).lxii We are to understand by this that the full import of the “limit-situation” exceeds the bounds of any psychology, and is only properly approached from an existential-ontological perspective, which cannot itself by the subject of a typology and/or conceptual schematization, since it is the ground of all such categorizing. Nevertheless, as Parkes points out, “the concern with totality, an experiential relation to death, and the idea of death’s ‘entering into’ experience figure importantly in the existential conception of death that Heidegger would elaborate in SZ,” and all of these components are contained in the cited passages from Jaspers. Moreover, on page 262 of the same work, Jaspers commences a brief discussion of the Buddhist conception of death, framing it, Parkes observes, as “thoroughly nihilistic and pessimistic—an account apparently influenced by the (rather unreliable) interpretations given by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche: ‘Death and transitoriness give rise in the Buddhists to a drive for the eternal reign of the peace of nothingness’” (May, 1996, 265). The Buddhist path, Jaspers claims, is essentially a death cult bent on renunciation, quietism, indifference, and pessimism.
There are two points we should note here: one, Jaspers commits the classic Western fallacy, misinterpreting Buddhistic nothingness in precisely the same way most of Heidegger’s European interpreters would misunderstand his treatment of the Nothing in WIM?; and two, at this early stage, Heidegger was already aware of an Eastern interpretation of death, albeit a misinterpretation, and was at this time engaged in forging his own conception, a conception without precedents in the Western tradition. As Parkes relays, it was precisely the originality of Heidegger’s approach to death and nothingness within the Western tradition that prompted Kyoto School member Tanabe Hajime to attend his 1923 lecture course entitled “Ontology: The Hermeneutics of Facticity,” and pen the first commentary on Heidegger’s work ever published.lxiii “Heidegger,” Parkes reports, “had ample occasion to be impressed by the visitor from Japan, having gladly acceded to his request for private tutorials in German philosophy” at a time when his existential conception of death was still fomenting (May, 1996, 82).lxiv In light of these circumstances, Parkes wagers that since Heidegger had written on Jaspers’ idea of death as a Grenzsituation, and read his discussion of the Buddhist attitude towards death, it is probable that this topic came up in his conversations with Tanabe. And if it did, Tanabe would have explained to him that the attitude toward death of the later (Mahayana) schools of Buddhism [e.g., Zen] is…positive and life-promoting—just as their understanding of nothingness is by no means nihilistic (May, 1996, 85).lxv                                                                         The point here is that this understanding of nothingness, which Heidegger would hint at in SZ via the existential conception of death and sketch more explicitly in WIM? two years later, is found in none of the Western sources from which he drew, but was all but obvious to a Japanese thinker with whom he was in close consort. Ultimately, it is not important whether we regard this as a matter of direct influence or independent congruence, but the similarity cannot be denied.
Heidegger’s discussion of death is similar to the Buddhistic conception of death in several respects; ultimately, however, is it markedly different. Heidegger writes that temptation, tranquilization, and alienation are distinguishing marks of the kind of Being called ‘falling.’ As falling, everyday Being-towards-death is a constant fleeing in the face of death. Being-towards-the-end has the mode of evasion in the face of it—giving explanations for it, understanding it inauthentically, and concealing it (Heidegger, 1962, 298).lxvi             Earlier on in Division I, he defines this “falling” clearly: “Fallenness into the ‘world’ means an absorption in Being-with-one-another, in so far as the latter is guided by idle talk, curiousity, and ambiguity.” The translators are specific: “The idea is rather of falling at the world or collapsing against it” (Heidegger, 1962, 220).lxvii So far, Zen is in basic agreement. The majority of the time humans stumble through life, invest their energies and hopes in objects, and flee from themselves by pretending to be familiar with themselves. Humans become addicted to and entangled with substances, and begin to interpret their sustenance and even salvation exclusively in terms of them. For Buddhism, the basis of all suffering (dukkha), including the fear of death, arises from tanha—from clinging to, investing oneself in, and ultimately identifying with transitory phenomena, with entities in the world. Heidegger’s notions of fallingness, entanglement, and dispersal are nearly identical.
As such, the so-called “Great Death”—the dissolution of the ego—is deferred, and the self contracts, attaches itself to passing phenomena, and opts to die less radical and less painful deaths as all of the entities it clings to pass away. The Zen analogue of falling is ignorance. Out of a perceived lack, humans hustle about trying to attain security, comfort, and stability by hanging onto what they wrongly perceive to be real, persisting, genuine objects. The so-called “cycle of birth-and-death” (samsara), stripped of its mythological connotations of reincarnation, actually means being dependent on both outward objects and the sense of self-separateness, the ego. This is what Zen calls the “co-dependent arising” of phenomena, the self-contraction that immediately generates karma, the chains of causation and patterns of influence that induce suffering. Karma is the Zen analogue of facticity; it refers to the various circumstances into which people are thrown, the “debts” they inherit and the limits by which they are bound. As such, people interpret their death in terms of release from such bondage, that is, they hope to be reborn with a clean slate, purged of all concupiscence. So by identifying with their karma—their feelings of lack, desire, limitation, etc., all of which are erroneously tied up with birth—they create a conception of death, which entails a futural rebirth, etc., ad infinitum.
The way out of samsara is to realize that the cycle is an illusion that is projected when the self objectifies both karma and nirvana, birth and death, bondage and freedom. For Zen, birth and death do not primarily denote physiological events; indeed, these are derivative, in much the same way that Heidegger claims that there are inauthentic, derivative modes of interpreting death or “end”, such as “stopping”, “getting finished”, “perishing”, and “demise” (Heidegger, 1962, 289-292).lxviii As such, Zen agrees with Heidegger that an “existential analysis is superordinate to the questions of a biology, psychology, theodicy, or theology of death,” (Heidegger, 1962, 292) even though it has a very different idea of what properly constitutes an “existential analysis” and a conception of psychology that is very different from the Western one Heidegger is reacting to.lxix For Zen, birth and death are epiphenomenal concepts that are generated by the consolidation of the ego.
Heidegger makes clear that to free oneself for death, to awaken from the dream fabricated by “the They-self” that blinds Dasein to its final possibility and represses it as a possibility, is to gather oneself together from out of one’s dispersion in worldly attachments and to concentrate oneself resolutely in anticipating death. This stance is “anticipatory” only with respect to Heidegger’s notion of “primordial temporality,” not toward death as a future “now” that will eventually “occur.” Heidegger also appears to claim that adopting either an optimistic or a pessimistic attitude toward death are equally repressive, since all of these latter stances fix death as an imminent, actual, forthcoming event-in-the-world, i.e., as something present-at-hand. This squares with Suzuki’s claim that Zen is neither an immanental pessimism nor a transcendental optimism.
All of the inauthentic responses toward death, Heidegger claims, arise from treating death as an object, in which case fear, not anxiety, is the dominant state-of-mind. Fear is in all cases the repression of anxiety. And while each temporal ecstasis always comes together with all of the others, and though all of them are explicitly held together in the “moment of vision” or “authentic present,” Heidegger ascribes a certain primacy to the future: “Ecstatico-horizonal temporality temporalizes itself primarily in terms of the future” (Heidegger, 1962, 479).lxx Just as the inauthentic comportment toward death robs death of its significance and objectifies it, inauthentic temporality, governed by what Heidegger calls a “making-present,” represses the past and the future by treating them merely as receding and forthcoming “nows.” In both cases, Dasein must collect itself from its dispersion and absorption in its proximate concerns. This emphasis on futurity, possibility, and anticipation is what distinguishes Heidegger’s concepts of death and time from the Zen perspective.
Referring to the “within-time-ness” characteristic of inauthentic temporality, Heidegger claims that the “‘now’ is not pregnant with the ‘not-yet-now.’” That is, in falling, we have uprooted ourselves from the “stretching-along” characteristic of authentic temporality; we orient ourselves merely in terms of the present instead of the future, which is to say, we fail to orient ourselves. Speaking from the Buddhist perspective, David Loy asks: “what if there is a ‘now’ which is pregnant with the ‘not-yet-now’?.” He notes that Heidegger rejects the mystical notion of an “eternal now” on the grounds that it is derived from the traditional conception of time and is therefore a mere abstraction. Loy questions whether or not Heidegger’s alternative of authentic temporality is really adequate:
The problem with both of Heidegger’s alternatives is that both are preoccupied with the future because in different ways both are reactions to the possibility of death; thus both are ways of running away from the present. Inauthentic existence scattered into a series of disconnected nows is “a fleeing in the face of death”; authentic life pulled out of this dispersal by the inevitable possibility of death is more aware of its impending death, but still driven by it. This means that neither experiences the present for what it is in itself, but only through the shadow that the inescapable future casts over it. What the present might be without that shadow is not considered in SZ (Loy, 1988, 15).lxxi

Heidegger would likely respond that Loy is simply lapsing back into inauthentic temporality by pointing to what the present is “in itself,” but this simply calls us back to Bodhidharma’s warning: “No dependence on words.” In short: I am suggesting that there are two kinds of “eternal now.” The first, criticized by Heidegger, is a “conceptual” eternity that is opposed to time and is indeed both derived from the ordinary experience of time and driven by death. This we might call “ego-” or “other worldly-” “eternity”; on this point, Buddhism and Heidegger are in complete agreement. The second kind, however, is what we have all along been calling nirvana. When Zen masters say that birth is no-birth, that death is no-death, they are neither kidding nor speaking metaphorically. The radical claim, to be verified only in experience by following the meditative injunction and checking one’s results in a community of the experienced, is that birth and death, that past, present, and future, all dissolve when the ego dissolves. One is no longer afraid of or anxious over death, not because one is resolved, but because one realizes that there is no-thing to be afraid of or over anxious over, and, more importantly, that there isn’t even anyone to be afraid or anxious. Moreover, this entails that the entire dualistic business of finding oneself stuck or thrown into a world with finite possibilities (an imperfect, “this-worldly” samsara), speculating an endless eternity out a feeling of desire/lack (an “other-worldly” heaven) and, finally, violently laboring to transcend the present by resolutely striding into the future, are all the desperate flailings of the ego trying to deny its groundlessness. In this way, we might say that through his treatment of death, fallenness, facticity, and temporality in SZ, Heidegger comes very close to Zen’s radical nonduality, yet draws up short. And though he later recanted the residual metaphysics of subjectivity that he came to believe encumbered SZ, even his later works bears the marks of a residual—though unmistakable—dualism. As John Steffney sums up:
Although Heidegger’s attempt to think from Being, which became evident with his famous ‘turn,’ is admirable—the attempt to think from Being toward Dasein, not from Dasein toward Being—Zen would say that this reversal would have to be further radicalized, for both the attempts to think ‘toward’ Being or ‘toward’ Dasein are equally dualistic (Steffney, 1981, 52).lxxii
III. Heidegger’s Ambivalence
This is why I have suggested throughout that no matter which way Heidegger happens to be turning, leaning, or thinking—toward Being or from Being—and no matter how he is framing his question—the meaning of Being, the nature of thinking, or the nature of language—he is unquestionably in transit, on the go, in between two radically different ways of understanding human existence. Though he clearly had some minimal exposure to Eastern thought even from an early point in his career before the composition of SZ, and probably was, as Pöggeler claims, significantly influenced by it in his later career, I conclude that he remains tethered, albeit tenuously, to Western thinking. In the DL he remarks that the transformation of thinking he envisions is to be understood as a movement from one site—that of metaphysics—to another—which, obviously, is left nameless. Heidegger is perpetually adventuring in the wasteland between these two “poles”; as Steffney puts its, “because he could not break—entirely—through the matrix of ego-consciousness with its inherent bifurcations, his thinking was never genuinely trans-metaphysical. It was at best quasi-metaphysical” (Steffney, 1977, 352).lxxiii
While there are indications that he regarded the positive task of a dialogue between Western and Eastern thought—“planetary thinking”–as important and essential for the future, it appears that he was more concerned with the negative task of clearing away the calcified vestiges of metaphysics still enclosing the Western mind. One could even argue that they are two folds of the same task. In 1953, Heidegger wrote that “a dialogue with the Greek thinkers and their language…has hardly even been prepared yet, and remains in turn the precondition for our inevitable dialogue with the East Asian world” (Quoted in May, 1996, 103).lxxiv Clearly, Heidegger wanted to make absolutely sure that such a dialogue would, as it were, not get off on the wrong foot.
In closing, I suggest three basic criticisms of Heidegger’s overall approach: Heidegger reifies “the West,” he neglects to provide an account of human development, and he refuses to prescribe any practices to cultivate the primordial experience of Being he clearly felt Western culture to be so desperately in need of. The first can be traced to comments made in the famous Der Spiegel interview of 1966, in which Heidegger proclaimed that “a reversal can be prepared itself only from the same part of the world in which the modern technological world originated, and that it cannot come about through the adoption of Zen Buddhism or any other Eastern experience of the world…. Thinking itself can only be transformed by a thinking which has the same origin and destiny” (Quoted in May, 1996, 8).lxxv In light of my discussion of the language barrier and planetary thinking above, it is unclear precisely why this “origin” is properly framed as ancient Greece, rather than “the same” from which language springs. By drawing this line in the sand, Heidegger sets up a rigid distinction between East and West that echoes throughout his later works. Zimmerman sums up this phenomenon:
In making such a distinction between East and West, Heidegger not only tended to downplay the impact of Eastern thinking on the German philosophical tradition, but also seemed to be thinking metaphysically in accordance with a binary opposition between ‘East’ and ‘West,’ an opposition that seems to privelige the West as the origin of the technological disclosure of things that now pervades the planet (Zimmerman, 1993, 251).lxxvi                                                                           In short, Heidegger treats “the West” as something present-at-hand. However, Heidegger makes explicitly clear in the DL that he is not envisioning some sort of return to Greek thinking. It remains to be seen, then, in what sense we should approach his thinking as “Western.”
Zimmerman continues: “in calling for another beginning that would displace the Western metaphysical quest for the ultimate ground of things, Heidegger questioned the validity of the West’s claims to cultural superiority” (Zimmerman, 1993, 251).lxxvii True enough, yet the deeper question is about superiority per se, which we might generally construe as the problem of “verticality”—of hierarchy, ranking, and teleology. Caputo’s poststructuralist reading of Heidegger wants to level the ontological playing field. Referring to Heidegger’s colorful ruminations on the destining of the West in ancient Greece, Caputo writes that there is a dream-like, indeed I would say Camelot-like quality…to this discourse…. when [Heidegger] talks about the transition to the end of philosophy to the ‘new beginning,’ then he gives way to the hope which is the other side of nostalgia. Thinking becomes recollecting and aspiring; time is a circle in which what comes about in the primordial beginning traces out the possibility of what can come again. Such thinking is nostalgic, eschatological, a higher-order, more sublated version of metaphysics.” “Derrida was quite right, I think, to delimit Heidegger’s talk about ‘authenticity.’ It is Platonic and politically dangerous to go around dividing people up into the authentic and inauthentic (Caputo, 1986, xxii-iv ).lxxviii                                                                                                                        Zen agrees with the first criticism, but not with the second. Though I quoted Suzuki above as saying that Zen is a “non-teleological view of life,” this is not to say that it does not recognize degrees of spiritual development. Suzuki writes that it is impossible not to speak of some kind of progress. Even Zen as something possible of demonstration in one way or another must be subjected to the limitations of time. That is to say, there are, after all, grades of development in its study; and some must be said to have more deeply, more penetratingly realized the truth of Zen…. This side of Zen is known as its ‘constructive’ aspect…. And here Zen fully recognizes degrees of spiritual development among its followers, as the truth reveals itself gradually in their minds… (Barrett, 1956, 364)lxxix lxxix                                                   There is no “phallo-centrism” or “patriarchy” at work here, imposing some arbitrary standard or telos on an unsuspecting multitude; no vicious dichotomizing of people into authentic and inauthentic; no nasty elitism. On this matter, Zen is in complete disagreement with this de-mythologized version of Heidegger and the postmodern tradition that follows it. Heidegger fails to offer any account of human development because of his insistence in SZ that the existentiales are “permanent”—i.e., facticity, untruth, inauthenticity, “the They”, etc., cannot be overcome. Since the existential categories smack of the same metaphysical foundationalism of, say, Aristotelian teleology, Heidegger abandoned the discourse of authenticity and existentiality, which is to say, he abandoned structures, period. Yet Zen allows that we cannot help but acknowledge what I would term “fluid” structures of the selflxxx—referred to variously as karmas, yanas, skandas, sheaths, etc.—which certainly do coagulate and linger, yet which may ultimately be undone. And the more a person has sloughed off these inauthentic trappings, the more evolved, the more mature, the more developed he or she is said to be. This judgment, moreover, is made by a community of practitioners who have already, as it were, walked the path. Only in this very qualified sense are individuals deemed authentic or enlightened. Ultimately, for Zen, all humans possess buddhanature, yet they can fail to realize it, and it is this ignorance that creates the illusion of ignorant and enlightened.lxxxi
This relates directly to Heidegger’s ambivalent relationship toward rationality and modernity. For example, near the outset of SZ, Heidegger repeatedly refers to Dasein’s pre-conceptual understanding of Being, the basic, average, everyday way in which people go about their business and pursue their worldly engagements within a background called the world which they rarely attend to yet tacitly assume in all of their dealings. That is, they either never stop to thematize Being, it never arises as an issue, or they actively repress its emergence, yet they would be unable to even be engaged in the world without some dim, pre-thematic grasp of Being. In the final paragraph of the treatise, however, Heidegger remarks that “Being has been disclosed in a preliminary way, though non-conceptually” (Heidegger, 1962, 488).lxxxii While both the former and latter modes of disclosing Being are non-conceptual, there is a substantial difference. The pre-conceptual is thoroughly in the sway of the ontic and entangled with phenomena, while the latter has conceptually reckoned with its own existence and realized the poverty of both the average everyday (pre-conceptual) and the rational-scientific (conceptual) comportments and been propelled to interpret its own being, and Being itself, in an entirely different yet still non-conceptual nature, that is, trans-conceptual. Richardson’s attempt to thin this thicket does not lend much light: “Taken in its totality, Dasein is not a subject, but it is a self—a non-subjective, rather trans-subjective, or even pre-subjective self, sc. transcendence” (Richardson, 2003, 101).lxxxiii We are thus forced into speaking of Dasein as the “between,” yet this dialogical cipher still moves within a notion of duality.
The attempt to get back to Being—to re-awaken to the forgotten meaning of Being, re-peat a heritage, re-tap some dormant reservoirs, to return to the roots and origins—that inheres in Heidegger’s early and late work lends itself to the idea that the modern world, and the mode of cognition by which it was constituted, namely, monological reason or calculative thinking, is a great mistake, a collective entanglement with entities in the world, and that we should therefore seek to regress to some sort of pre-modern, pre-rational form of society. While there are a plethora of passages in both SZ and in later works such as the DL which contradict this Romantic, mythological reading of Heidegger, it is necessary not to overlook this very real ambivalence in his thought. This ambivalence, I think, derives from Heidegger’s failure to differentiate the non-conceptual, the non-rational, the non-discursive, into its pre- and trans- modes. Michael Zimmerman, appropriating Ken Wilber’s “pre-/trans- fallacy,” notes that one must first be an ordinary egoic subject before existing authentically as the transpersonal clearing, within which something like ‘personhood’ can manifest itself. In other words, before one can become ‘no one,’ one must first be ‘some one.’ Recognizing the constructed nature of the egoic subject is possible only insofar as such a subject has been constructed in the first place (Zimmerman, 2000, 140).lxxxiv                                                                                                                  Put differently: it is one thing to have mastered reason, experienced its inherent limitations and empty claims to totality and self-consistency, and transcended it, what Heidegger calls meditative thinking, or thinking from Being; quite another to have never bent oneself to its rule. The former is trans-conceptual thinking, the latter is pre-conceptual.
The relevance of this strain in Heidegger’s thought to Zen is crucial. Zen readily admits the bankruptcy of reason’s attempts to calculate existence and treat entities as, in Kant’s terminology, transcendentally real, or in Heidegger’s parlance, as present-at-hand, yet this emptiness of phenomena is at once the emptiness of the ego. There is, for Zen, quite literally a world of difference between the pre-egoic—which is a jumble of drives, perceptions, and intentional comportments that have not yet congealed into a relatively stable self—and the trans-egoic—which, after attaining the sense of personal identity and assuming the notion of a soul substance persisting over time, confronts its own nothingness and transcends the illusion of a separate self. The space between is the very same rational-ego whose ignorance about its own being is deconstructed in SZ. However, Zen goes further than Heidegger in denying what duality lingers in the subjectivist metaphysics of his early work and the ontological difference of the later works through the doctrine of an-atman (no-self).
The key difference is that Zen has an attendant set of psychophysical practices that train the mind.lxxxv This is a training regimen that has successfully been passed down for centuries. It has taken root and flourished in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and American cultures. The nature of mind—“no-mind”—is directly communicated from teacher to student. The sangha is the intersubjective space in which this exchange takes place. The key here is that the process does not consist in the dogmatic imposition of a set of allegedly eternal truths, i.e., facts about the world, which belong to the domain of the mythos and the logos, apprehended through faith or reason. The individual is not asked to uncritically swallow the assertions of “the They,” but is instead invited to perform the experiment, to test his findings in a community of the adequate, and to confirm/refute those findings based on his own empirical research. Heidegger resists signing off on any such set of practices, because they seem to suggest a calculative, scientific, and technological kind of thinking that does violence to and covers up the mystery of Being, that commercializes and thus de-sacralizes a secret: “the program of mathematics and the experiment are grounded in the relation of man as ego to the thing as object” (Heidegger, 1966, 79).lxxxvi However, the truth of Zen is something to be experientially verified in the laboratory of one’s own awareness by performing the experiment called meditation. This is why Suzuki described Zen as a “radical empiricism” (Barrett, 1956, 140).lxxxvii
The overblown tendency to destabilize, unsettle, and disturb which permeates Heidegger’s work as a whole makes it all but impossible for any such healthy institutional incarnation or individual transformation to occur. This deconstructive tendency is so bent on the negative tasks of inverting stodgy hierarchies, delimiting conceptual binaries, liberating excluded middles and drilling holes through master narratives that it never constructs anything. It is hard enough handing “no-thingness” down, and harder still when one refuses to prescribe any methods by which to transmit it or to consider the legitimacy of “foreign” methods. Such is the world of difference between handing down no-thingness and passing on nothing.








Buddha’s Brain

Buddha’s Brain

Rick Hanson, PH.D., with Richard Mendius, MD

…no one yet knows exactly how the brain makes the mind, or how—as Dan Siegal puts it—the mind uses the brain to make the mind. It’s sometimes said that the greatest remaining scientific questions are: What caused the Big Bang? What is the grand unified theory that integrates quantum mechanics and general relativity? And what is the relationship between mind and the brain, especially regarding conscious experience? The last question is up there with the other two because it is as difficult to answer and as important.

…It could be 350 years, and maybe longer, before we completely understand the relationship between the brain and the mind. But meanwhile, a working hypothesis is that the mind is what the brain does.

Therefore, an awakening mind means an awakening brain…

The Causes Of Suffering

Although life has many pleasures and joys, it also contains considerable discomfort and sorrow—the unfortunate side effect of three strategies that evolved to help animals, including us, pass on their genes. For sheer survival, these strategies work great, but they also lead to suffering…To summarize, whenever a strategy runs into trouble, uncomfortable—sometimes even agonizing—alarm signals pulse through the nervous system to set the animal back on track. But trouble comes all the time, since each strategy contains inherent contradictions, as the animal tries to:

Separate what is actually connected, in order to create a boundary between itself and the world

Stabilize what keeps changing, in order to maintain its internal systems within tight ranges

Hold onto fleeting pleasures and escape inevitable pains, in order to approach opportunities and avoid threats.

Most animals don’t have nervous systems complex enough to allow these strategies’ alarms to grow into significant distress. But our vastly more developed brain is fertile ground for a harvest of suffering. Only we humans worry about the future, regret the past, and blame ourselves for the present.

We get frustrated when we can’t have what we want, and disappointed when what we like ends. We suffer that we suffer. We get upset about being in pain, angry about dying, sad about waking up sad yet another day. This kind of suffering—which encompasses most of our unhappiness and dissatisfaction—is constructed by the brain. It is made up. Which is ironic, poignant—and supremely hopeful.

For if the brain is the cause of suffering, it can also be its cure.

Virtue, Mindfullness, And Wisdom

More than two thousand years ago, a young man named Siddhartha…spent many years training his mind and thus his brain. On the night of his awakening, he looked deep inside his mind…and saw there both the causes of suffering and the path to freedom from suffering. Then, for forty years, he wandered northern India, teaching all who would listen how to:

Cool the fires of greed and hatred to live with integrity

Steady and concentrate the mind to see through its confusions

Develop liberating insight

In short, he taught virtue, mindfullness…and wisdom. These are the three pillars of Buddhist practice, as well as the wellsprings of everyday well-being, psychological growth, and spiritual realization.

Virtue simply involves regulating your actions, words, and thoughts to create benefits rather than harms for yourself and others. In your brain, virtue draws on top-down direction from the prefrontal cortex (PFC)…Virtue also relies on bottom-up calming from the parasympathetic nervous system and positive emotions from the limbic system…

Mindfullness involves the skillful use of attention to both your inner and outer worlds. Since your brain learns mainly from what you attend to, mindfullness is the doorway to taking in good experiences and making them a part of yourself…

Wisdom is applied common sense, which you acquire in two steps. First, you come to understand what hurts and what helps—in other words, the causes of suffering and the path to its end…Then, based on this understanding, you let go of those things that hurt and strengthen those that help…As a result, over time you’ll feel more connected with everything, more serene about how all things change and end, and more able to meet pleasure and pain without grasping after the one and struggling with the other…[and} finally…what is perhaps the most seductive and subtle challenge to wisdom: the sense of being a self who is separate from and vulnerable to the world.

Regulation, Learning, And Selection

Virtue, mindfullness, and wisdom are supported by the three fundamental functions of the brain: regulation, learning, and selection. Your brain regulates itself—and other bodily systems—through a combination of excitatory and inhibitory activity: green lights and red lights. It learns through forming new circuits and strengthening or weakening existing ones. And it selects whatever experience has taught it to value; for example, even an earthworm can be trained to pick a particular path to avoid an electric shock.

Nonetheless, each pillar of practice corresponds quite closely to one of the three fundamental neural functions. Virtue relies heavily on regulation, both to excite positive inclinations and to inhibit negative ones. Mindfullness leads to new learning—since attention shapes neural circuits—and draws upon past learning to develop a steadier and more concentrated awareness. Wisdom is a matter of making choices, such as letting go of lesser pleasures for the sake of greater ones. Consequently, developing virtue, mindfullness, and wisdom in your mind depends on improving regulation, learning, and selection in your brain. Strengthening the three neural functions…thus buttresses the pillars of practice.

Inclining The Mind

When you set out on the path of awakening, you begin wherever you are…Some traditions describe this process as an uncovering of the true nature that was always present; others frame it as a transformation of your mind and body…

On the other hand, your true nature is both a refuge and a resource for the sometimes difficult work of psychological growth…It’s a remarkable fact that the people who have gone the very deepest into the mind—the sages and saints of every religious tradition—all say essentially the same thing; your fundamental nature is pure, conscious, peaceful, radiant, loving, and wise, and it is joined in mysterious ways with the ultimate underpinnings of reality, by whatever name we give That. Although your true nature may be hidden momentarially by stress and worry, anger and unfulfilled longings, it still continues to exist. Knowing this can be a great comfort.

On the other hand, working with the mind and body to encourage the development of what’s wholesome—and the uprooting of what’s not—is central to every path of psychological…development. Even if practiced is a matter of ‘removing the obscurations’ to true nature…the clearing of these is a progressive process of training, purification, and transformation. Paradoxically, it takes time to become what we already are. [It takes time to personally actualize universal potentials]

In either case, these changes in the mind—uncovering inherent purity and cultivating wholesome qualities—reflect changes in the brain. By understanding better how the brain works and changes—ow it gets emotionally hijacked or settles into calm virtue; how it creates distractibility or fosters mindful attention; how it makes harmful choices or wise one—you can take more control of your brain, and therefore your mind…

The Evolution Of Suffering

…To make any problem better, you need to understand its causes. That’s why all the great physicians, psychologists, and spiritual teachers have been master diagnosticians. For example, in his Four Noble Truths, the Buddha identified an ailment (suffering), diagnosed its cause (craving: a compelling sense of need for something), and prescribed a treatment (the Eightfold Path)….

The Evolving Brain

Life began around 3.5 billion years ago. Multicelled creatures first appeared about 650 million years ago…By the time the first jellyfish arose about 600 million years ago, animals had grown complex enough that their sensory and motor systems needed to communicate with each other; thus the beginnings of neural tissue. As animals evolved, so did their nervous systems, which slowly developed a central headquarters in the form of a brain.

Evolution builds on preexisting capabilities. Life’s progression can be seen inside your brain, in terms of what Paul MacClean (1990) referred to as the reptilian, paleomammalian, and neomammalian levels of development…

Cortical tissues that are relatively recent, complex, conceptualizing, slow, and motivationally diffuse sit atop subcortical; and brain-stem structures that are ancient, simplistic, concrete, fast, and motivationally intense. (The subcortical region lies in the center of your brain, beneath the cortex and on top of the brain-stem; the brain stem roughly corresponds to the “reptilian brain.” As you go through your day, there’s a kind of lizard-squirrel-monkey brain in your head shaping your reactions from the bottom up.

Nonetheless, the modern cortex has great influence over the rest of the brain, and its been shaped by evolutionary pressures to develop ever-improving abilities to parent, bond, communicate, and love.

The cortex is divided up into two “hemispheres” connected by the corpus callosum. As we evolved, the left hemisphere (in most people) came into focus on sequential and linguistic processing while the right hemisphere specialized in holistic and visual processing; of course, the two halves of your brain work closely together. Many neural structures are duplicated so that there is one in each hemisphere; nonetheless, the usual convention is to refer to a structure in the singular…

Three Survival Strategies

Over hundreds of millions of years of evolution, our ancestors developed three fundamental strategies for survival:

Creating separations—in order to form boundaries between themselves and the world, and between one mental state and another.

Maintaining stability—in order to keep physical and mental systems in a healthy balance.

Approaching opportunities and avoiding threats—in order to gain things that promote offspring, and escaping or resisting things that don’t.

These strategies have been extraordinarily effective for survival. But Mother Nature doesn’t care how they feel. To motivate animals, including ourselves, to follow these strategies and pass on their genes, neural networks evolved to create pain and distress under certain conditions: when separations break down, stability is shaken, opportunities disappoint, and threats loom. Unfortunately these conditions happen all the time, because:

Everything is connected.

Everything keeps changing.

Opportunities routinely remain unfulfilled or lose their luster, and many threats are inescapable (aging and death).

Not So Separate

The parietal lobes of the brain are located in the upper back of the head (a ‘lobe’ is a rounded swelling of the cortex). For most people, the left lobe establishes that the body is distinct from the world, and the right lobe indicates where the body is compared to features in its environment. The result is an automatic, underlying assumption along the lines of I am separate and independent. Although this is true in some ways, in many important ways it is not.

Not So Distinct

To live, an organism must metabolize: it must exchange matter and energy with its environment. Consequently, over the course of a year, many of the atoms in you body are replaced with new ones. The energy you use to get a drink of water comes from sunshine working its way up to you through the food chain—in a real sense, light lifts the cup to your lips. The apparent wall between you body and the world is more like a picket fence.

And between your mind and the world, it’s like a line painted on the sidewalk. Language and culture enter and pattern your mind from the moment of birth. Empathy and love naturally attune you to other people, so your mind moves into resonance with theirs. These flows of mental activity go both ways as you influence others.

Within your mind, there are hardly any lines at all. All its contents flow into each other, sensations becoming thoughts feelings desires actions and more sensations. This stream of consciousness correlates with a cascade of fleeting neural assemblies, each assembly dispersing into the next one, often in less than a second.

Not So Independent

…Most of the atoms in your body—including the oxygen in your lungs and the iron in your blood—were born inside a star. In the early universe, hydrogen was just about the only element. Stars are giant fusion reactors that pound together hydrogen atoms, making heavier elements and releasing lots of energy in the process. The ones that went supernova spread their contents far and wide. By the time our solar system started to form, roughly nine billion years after the universe began, enough large atoms existed to make our planet, to make the hands that hold this book and the brain that understands these words. Truly, you’re here because a lot of stars blew up. Your body is made of stardust.

Your mind also depends on countless preceding causes. Think of life events and people that have shaped your views, personality, and emotions. Imagine having been switched at birth and raised by poor sharecropers in Kenya or a wealthy oil family in Texas; how different would your mind be today?

The Suffering Of Separation

Since we are each connected and interdependent with the world, our attempts to be separate and independent are regularly frustrated, which produces painful signals of disturbance and threat. Further, even when our efforts are temporarily successful, they still lead to suffering. When you regard the world as ‘not me at all,’ it is potentially unsafe, leading you to fear and resist it. Once you say, ‘I am this body apart from the world,’ the body’s frailties become your own. If you think it weighs too much or doesn’t look right, you suffer. If it’s threatened by illness, aging, and death—as all bodies are—you suffer.

Not So Permanent

Your body, brain and mind contain vast numbers of systems that must maintain a healthy equilibrium. The problem, though, is that changing conditions disturb these systems, resulting in signals of threat, pain, and distress—in a word, suffering.

We Are Dynamically Changing Systems

Let’s consider a single neuron, one that releases the neurotransmitter serotonin. This tiny neuron is both part of the nervous system and a complex system in its own right that requires multiple subsystems to keep it running. When it fires, tendrils at the end of its axon expel a burst of molecules into the synapses—the connections—it makes with other neurons. Each tendril contains about two hundred little bubbles called vesicles that are full of he neurotransmitter serotonin. Every time the neuron fires, five to ten vesicles spill open. Since a typical neuron fires around ten times a second, the serotonin vesicles of each tendril are emptied out every few seconds.

Consequently, busy little molecule machines must either manufacture new serotonin or recycle loose serotonin floating around the neuron. Then they need to build vesicles, fill them with serotonin, and move them close to where the action is, at the tip of each tendril. That’s a lot of processes to keep in balance, with many things that could go wrong—and serotonin metabolism is just one of the thousands of systems in your body…

The Challenges Of Maintaining Equilibrium

For you to stay healthy, each system in your body and mind must balance two conflicting needs. On the one hand it must remain open to inputs during ongoing transactions with its local environment; closed systems are dead systems. On the other hand, each system must also preserve a fundamental stability, staying centered around a good set-point and within certain ranges—not too hot, nor too cold. For example, inhibition from the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and arousal from the limbic system must balance each other: too much inhibition and you feel numb inside, too much arousal and you feel overwhelmed.

Signals Of Threat

To keep your systems in balance, sensors register its state (as the thermometer does inside a thermostat) and send signals to regulators to restore equilibrium if the system gets out of range…But some signals for corrective action are so important that they bubble up into consciousness. For example, if your body gets too cold, you feel chilled; if it gets too hot, you feel like you’re baking.

These consciously experienced signals are unpleasant, in part because they carry a sense of threat—a call to restore equilibrium before things slide too far too fast down the slippery slope. The call may come softly, with a sense of unease, or loudly with alarm, even panic. However it comes, it mobilizes your brain to do whatever it takes to get you back in balance.

This mobilization usually comes with feelings of craving; these range from quiet longings to a desperate sense of compulsion. It is interesting that the word for craving in Pali—the language of early Buddhism—is tanha, the root of which means thirst. The word “thirst” conveys the visceral power of threat signals, even when they have nothing to do with life or limb, such as the possibility of being rejected. Threat signals are effective precisely because they’re unpleasant—because they make you suffer, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. You want them to stop.

Everything Keeps Changing

Occasionally, threat signals do stop for a while—just as long as every system stays in balance. But since the world is always changing, there are endless disturbances in the equlibria of your body, mind, and relationships. The regulators of the systems of your life from the molecular bottom all the way up to the interpersonal top, must keep trying to impose static order on inherently unstable processes.

Consider the impermanence of the physical world, from the volatility of quantum particles to our own Sun, which will someday swell into a red giant and swallow the Earth. Or considers the turbulence of your nervous systems: for example, regions of the PFC that support consciousness are updated five to eight times a second.

This neurological instability underlies all states of mind. For example, every thought involves a momentary partitioning of streaming neural traffic into a coherent assembly of synapses that must soon disperse into fertile disorder to allow other thoughts to emerge. Observe even a single breath, and you will experience its sensations changing, dispersing, and disappearing soon after they arise.

Everything changes. That’s the universal nature of outer reality and inner experience. Therefore, there’s no end to disturbed equilibria as long as you live. But to help you survive, your brain keeps trying to stop the river, struggling to hold dynamic systems in place, to find fixed patterns in the variable world, and to construct permanent plans for changing conditions. Consequently, your brain is forever chasing after the moment that has just past, trying to understand and control it.

It’s as if we live at the edge of a waterfall, with each moment rushing at us—experienced only and always now at the lip—and then zip, it’s over the edge and gone. But the brain is forever clutching at what has just surged by.

Not So Pleasant Or Painful

In order to pass on their genes, our animal ancestors had to choose correctly many times a day whether to approach something or avoid it. Today, humans approach and avoid mental states as well as physical objects; for example, we pursue self-worth and push away shame. Nonetheless, for all its sophistication, human approaching and avoiding draws on much the same neural circuitry used by a monkey to look for bananas or a lizard to hide under a rock.

The Feeling Tone Of Experience

How does your brain decide if something should be approached or avoided? Let’s say you’re walking in the woods; you round a bend and suddenly see a curvy shape on the ground right smack in front of you. To simplify a complex process, during the first few tenths of a second, light bouncing off this curved object is sent to other occipital cortex…for processing into a meaningful image. Then the occipital cortex sends representations of this image in two directions: to the hippocampus, for evaluation as a potential threat or opportunity, and to the PFC and other parts of the brain for more sophisticated—and time-consuming—analysis.

Just in case, your hippocampus immediately compares the image to its short list of jump-first-think-later dangers. It quickly finds curvy shapes on its danger list, causing it to send a high-priority alert to the amygdala: “Watch out!” The amygdala—which is like an alarm bell—then pulses both a general warning throughout your brain and a special fast-track signal to your flight-or-fight neural and hormonal systems…

Meanwhile, the powerful but relatively slow PF has been pulling information out of long-term memory to figure out whether the darn thing is a snake or a sticks. As a few more seconds tick by, the PFC zeros in on the object’s inert nature—and the fact that several people ahead of you walked past it without saying anything—and concludes that it’s only a stick.

Throughout this episode, everything you experienced was either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. At first there were neutral or pleasant sights as you strolled along the path, then unpleasant fear at a potential snake, and finally pleasant relief at the realization that it was just a stick. That aspect of experience—whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—is called, in Buddhism, its feeling tone (or, in Western psychology, its hedonic tone). The feeling tone is produced mainly by your amygdala and then broadcast widely. It’s a simple but effective way to tell your brain as a whole what to do each moment: approach pleasant carrots, avoid unpleasant sticks, and move on from anything else.

Chasing Carrots

Two major systems keep you chasing carrots. The first system is based on the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine-releasing neurons become more active when you encounter things that are linked to rewards in the past—for example, if you get a message from a good friend you haven’t seen in a few months. These neurons rev up when you encounter something that could offer rewards in the future—such as your friend saying she wants to take you to lunch. In your mind, this neural activity produces a motivating sense of desire: you want to call her back. When you do have lunch, a part of your brain called the cingulate cortex (about the size of your finger, on the interior edge of each hemisphere) tracks whether the rewards you expect—fun with your friend, good food—actually arrived. If they do, dopamine levels stay steady. But if you’re disappointed—maybe your friend is in a bad mood—the cingulate sends out a signal that lowers dopamine levels. Falling dopamine registers in subjective experience as an unpleasant feeling tone—a dissatisfaction and discontent—that stimulates craving (broadly defined) for something that will restore its levels.

The second system, based on several other neurotransmitters, is the biochemical source of the pleasant feeling tones that come from the actual—and anticipated—carrots of life. When these ‘pleasure chemicals’—natural opoids (including endorphins), oxytocin, and norepinephrine—surge into your synapses, they strengthen the neural circuits that are active, making them more likely to fire together in the future. Imagine a toddler trying to eat a spoonful of pudding. After many misses, his perceptual-motor neurons finally get it right, leading to wavers of pleasure chemicals which help cement the synaptic connections that created the specific movements that slipped the spoon into his mouth.

In essence, this pleasure system highlights whatever triggered it, prompts you to pursue those rewards again and strengthen the behaviors that make you successful in getting them. It works hand in hand with the dopamine-based system. For example, slaking your thirst feels good both because the discontent of low dopamine leaves, and because the pleasure chemical—based joy of cool water on a hot day arrives…

Sticks Are Stronger Than Carrots

So far, we’ve discussed carrots and sticks as if they were equals. But actually, sticks are usually more powerful, since your brain is built more for avoiding than for approaching. That’s because it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival.

For example, imagine our mammalian ancestors dodging dinosaurs in a worldwide Jurassic Park 70 million years ago. Constantly looking over their shoulders, alert to the slightest crackle of brush, ready to freeze or bolt or attack depending on the situation. The quick and the dead. If they missed out on a carrot—a chance for food or mating, perhaps—they usually had other opportunities later. But if they failed to duck a stick—like a predator—then they’d probably be killed, with no chance at any carrots in the future. The ones that lived to pass on their genes paid a lot of attention to negative experiences.

Let’s explore six ways your brain keeps you dodging sticks.

Vigilance And Anxiety

When you’re awake and not doing anything in particular, the baseline resting state of your brain activates a “default network” and one of its functions seems to be tracking you environment and body for possible threats. This basic awareness is often accompanied by a background feeling of anxiety that keeps you vigilant. Try walking through a store for a few minutes without the least whiff of caution, unease, or tension. It’s very difficult.                                  This makes sense because our mammalian, primate, and human ancestors were prey as well as predators. In addition, most primate social groups have been full of aggression from males and females alike. And in the hominid and then human hunter-gatherer bands of the past couple million years, violence has been a leading cause of death for men. We become anxious for good reason: there was a lot to fear.

Sensitivity To Negative Information

The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information. Take facial expressions, a primary signal of threat or opportunity for a social animal like us: fearful faces are perceived much more rapidly than happy or neutral ones, probably fast-tracked by the amygdala. In fact, even when researchers make fearful faces invisible to conscious awareness, the amygdala lights up. The brain is drawn to bad news.

High-Priority Storage

When an event is flagged as negative, the hippocampus makes sure it’s stored carefully for future reference. Once burned, twice shy. Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones—even though most of your experiences are probably neutral or positive.

Negative Trumps Positive

Negative events generally have more impact than positive ones. For example, it’s easy to acquire feelings of learned helplessness from a few failures, but hard to undo those feeling, even with many successes. People will do more to avoid a loss than to acquire a comparable gain. Compared to lottery winners, accident victims usually take longer to return to their original baseline of happiness. Bad information about a person carries more weight than good information, and in relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one.

Lingering Traces

Even if you’ve unlearned a negative experience, it still leaves an indelible trace in your brain. That residue lies waiting, ready to reactivate if you ever encounter a fear-provoking event like the previous one.

Vicious Cycles

Negative experiences create vicious cycles by making you pessimistic, overreactive, and inclined to go negative yourself.

Avoiding Involves Suffering

As you can see, your brain has a build-in “negativity bias” that primes you for avoidance. This bias makes you suffer in a variety of ways. For starters, it generates an unpleasant background of anxiety, which for some people can be quite intense; anxiety also makes it harder to bring attention inward for self-awareness or contemplative practice, since the brain keeps scanning to make sure there is no problem. The negativity bias fosters or intensifies other unpleasant emotions, such as anger, sorrow, depression, guilt, and shame. It highlights past losses and failures, it downplays present abilities, and it exaggerates future obstacles. Consequently, the mind continually tends to render unfair verdicts about a persons character, conduct, and possibilities. The weight of those judgments can really wear you down.

In The Simulator

In Buddhism, it’s said that suffering is the result of craving expressed through the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. These are strong, traditional terms that cover a broad range of thoughts, words, and deeds, including the most fleeting and subtle. Greed is a grasping after carrots, while hatred is an aversion to sticks; both involve craving more pleasure and less pain. Delusion is a holding onto ignorance about the way things really are—for example, not seeing how they’re connected and changing.

Virtual Reality

Sometimes these poisons are conspicuous; much of the time, however, they operate in the background of your awareness, firing and wiring quietly along. They do this by using your brain’s extraordinary capacity to represent both inner experience and the outer world. For example, the blind spots in your left and right visual fields don’t look like holes out there in the world; rather, your brain fills them in, much like photo software shades in the red eyes of people looking toward a flash. In fact, much of what you see “out there” is actually manufactured “in here” by your brain, painted in like computer-generated graphics in a movie. Only a small fraction of the inputs to your occipital lobe comes directly from the external world; the rest comes from internal memory stores and perceptual-processing modules. Your brain simulates the world—each of us lives in a virtual reality that’s close enough to the real thing that we don’t bump into the furniture.

Inside this simulator—whose neural substrate appears to be centered in the upper-middle of your PFC—minimovies run constantly. These brief clips are the building blocks of much conscious activity. For our ancestors, running simulations of past events promoted survival, as it strengthened the learning of successful behaviors by repeating their neural firing patterns. Simulating future events also promoted survival, as it strengthened the learning of successful behaviors by repeating their neural firings. Simulating future events also promoted survival by enabling our ancestors to compare possible outcomes –in order to pick the best approach—and to ready potential sensory-motor sequences for immediate action. Over the past three million years, the brain tripled in size; much of this expansion has improved the capacities of the simulator, suggesting its benefits for survival…

Simulations Make You Suffer

The brain continues to produce simulations today, even when they have nothing to do with staying alive. Watch yourself daydream or go back over a relationship problem, and you’ll see the clips playing—little packets of simulated experiences, usually just seconds long. If you observe them closely, you’ll spot several troubling things:

By its very nature, the simulator pulls you out of the present moment. There you are, following a presentation at work, running an errand, or meditating, and suddenly your mind is a thousand miles away, caught up in a mini-movie. But it’s only in the present moment that we find real happiness, love, or wisdom.

In the simulator, pleasures usually seem pretty great, whether you’re considering a second cupcake or imagining a response you’ll get to a report at work. But what do you actually feel when you reenact the mini-movie in real life? Is it as pleasant as promised up there on the screen? Usually not. In truth, most everyday rewards aren’t as intense as those conjured up in the simulator.

Clips in the simulator contain lots of beliefs: Of course he’ll say X if I say Y…It’s obvious that they let me down. Sometimes these are explicitly verbalized, but much of the time they’re implicit, built into the plotting. In reality, are the implicit and explicit beliefs in your simulations true? Sometimes yes, but often no. Mini-movies keep us stuck by their simplistic view of the past and by their defining out of existence real possibilities for the future, such as new ways to reach out to others or dream big dreams. Their beliefs are the bars of an invisible cage, trapping you in a life that’s smaller than the one you could actually have. It’s like being a zoo animal that’s released into a large park—yet still crouches withing the confines of its old pen.

In the simulator, upsetting events from the past play again and again, which unfortunately strengthens the neural associations between an event and its painful feelings. The simulator also forecasts threatening situations in your future. But in fact, most of those worrisome events never materialize. And of the ones that do, often the discomfort you experience is milder and briefer than predicted. For example, imagine speaking from your heart; this may trigger a mini-movie ending in rejection and you feeling bad. But in fact, when you do speak from the heart, doesn’t it typically go pretty well, with you ending up feeling quite good?

In sum, the simulator take you out of the present moment and sets you chasing after carrots that aren’t really so great while ignoring more important rewards (such as contentment and inner peace). Besides reinforcing painful emotions, they have you ducking sticks that never actually come your way or aren’t really all that bad. And the simulator does this hour after hour, day after day, even in your dreams—steadily building neural structures, much of which adds to your suffering.


Each person suffers sometimes, and many people suffer a lot. Compassion is a natural response to suffering, including your own. Self-compassion isn’t self-pity, but it is simply warmth, concern, and good wishes—just like compassion for another person. Because self-compassion is more emotional than self-esteem, it’s actually more powerful for reducing the impact of difficult conditions, preserving self-worth, and building resilience. It also opens your heart, since when you’re closed to your own suffering it’s hard to be receptive to the suffering of others.

In addition to the everyday suffering of life, the path of awakening itself contains difficult experiences which also call for compassion. To become happier, wiser, and more loving, sometimes you have to swim against ancient currents within your nervous system. For example, in some ways the three pillars of practice seem unnatural: virtue restrains emotional reactions that worked well in the Serengeti, mindfullness decreases external vigilance and wisdom cuts through beliefs that once helped us survive. It goes against the evolutionary template to undo the causes of suffering, to feel one with all things, to flow with the changing moment, and to remain unmoved by pleasant and unpleasant alike.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it! It just means we should understand what we’re up against and have some compassion for ourselves.

To nurture self-compassion and strengthen its neural circuits:

Recall being with someone who really loves you—the feeling of receiving caring activates the deep attachment system circuitry in your brain, priming it to give compassion.

Bring to mind someone you naturally feel compassion for, such as a child or a person you love—this easy flow of compassion arouses its neural underpinnings (including oxytocin, the insula [which senses the internal state of your body], and the PFC), “warming them up” for self-compassion.

Extend this same compassion to yourself—be aware of your own suffering and extend concern and good wishes toward yourself; sense compassion sifting down into raw places inside, falling like a gentle rain that touches everything. The actions related to a feeling strengthen it, soplace your palm on your cheek or heart with the tenderness and warmth you’d give a hurt child. Say phrases in your mind such as May I be happy again. May the pain of this moment pass.

Overall, open to the sense that you are receiving compassion—deep down in your brain, the actual source of good feelings doesn’t matter much; whether the compassion is from you or from another person, let your sense of being soothed and cared for sink in.

The First and Second Dart

Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.

–Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

Some physical discomfort is unavoidable; its a crucial signal to take action to protect life and limb, like the pain that makes you pull your hand back from a hot stove. Some mental discomfort is inevitable, too. For example, as we evolved, growing emotional investments in children and other members of the band motivated our ancestors to keep those carriers of their genes alive; understandably, then, we feel distress when dear ones are threatened and sorrow when they are harmed. We also evolved to care greatly about our place in the band and in the hearts of others, so it’s normal to feel hurt if you’re rejected or scorned.

To borrow an expression from the Buddha, inescapable physical or mental discomfort is the “first dart” of existence. As long as you live and love, some of those darts will come your way.

The Dart We Throw Ourselves

First darts are unpleasant to be sure. But then we add our reactions to them. These reactions are “second darts”—the ones we throw ourselves. Most of our suffering comes from the second darts.

Suppose you’re walking through a dark room at night and stub you toe on a chair; right after the first dart of pain comes a second dart of anger: “Who moved that darn chair?” Or maybe a loved one is cold to you when you’re hoping for some caring; in addition to the natural drop in the pit of you stomach (first dart), you might feel unwanted (second dart) as a result of having been ignored as a child.

Second darts often trigger more second darts through associative neural networks: you might feel guilt about your anger that someone moved the chair, or sadness that you feel hurt yet again by someone you love. In relationships, second darts create vicious cycles; your second dart reactions from the other person, which set off more second darts from you, and so on.

Remarkably, most of our second-dart reactions occur when there is in fact no first dart anywhere to be found—when there’s no pain inherent in the conditions we’re reacting to. We add suffering to them.

For example, sometimes I’ll come home from work and the house will be a mess, with the kid’s stuff all over. That’s the condition. Is there a dart in the coats and shoes on the sofa or the clutter covering the counter? No, there isn’t; no one dropped a brick on me or hurt my children. Do I have to get upset? Not really. I could ignore the stuff, pick it up calmly, or talk with them about it. Sometimes I manage to handle it that way. But if I don’t, then the second darts start landing, tipped with the Three Poisons: greed, makes me rigid about how I want things to be, hatred gets me all bothered and angry, and delusion tricks me into taking the situation personally.

Saddest of all, some second-dart reactions are to conditions that are actually positive. If someone pays you a compliment, that’s a positive situation. But then you might start thinking, with some nervousness and even a little shame: Oh, I’m not really that good a person. Maybe they’ll find out I’m a fraud. Right there, needless second-dart suffering begins.

Heating Up

Suffering is not abstract or conceptual. It’s embodied: you feel it in your body, and it proceeds through bodily mechanisms. Understanding the physical machinery of suffering will help you to see it increasingly as an impersonal condition—unpleasant to be sure, but not worth getting upset about, which would just bring more second darts.

Suffering cascades through your body via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Let’s unscramble this alphabet soup to see how it all works. While the SNS and the HPAA are anatomically distinct, they are so intertwined that they’re best described together, as an integrated system. And we’ll focus on reactions dominated by an aversion to sticks (e.g., fear, anger) rather than a grasping for carrots, since aversive reactions usually have a bigger reaction to the negativity bias of the brain.

Alarms Go Off

Something happens. It might be a car suddenly cutting you off, a put-down from a coworker, or even just a worrisome thought. Social and emotional conditions can pack a wallop like physical ones since psychological pain draws on many of the same neural networks as physical pain; this is why getting rejected can feel as bad as a root canal. Even just anticipating a challenging event—such as giving a talk next week—can have as much impact as living through it for real. Whatever the source of the threat, the amygdala sounds the alarm, setting off several reactions:

The thalamus—the relay station in the middle of you brain—sends a “Wake up!” signal to your brain stem, which in turn releases stimulating norepinephrine throughout your brain.

The SNS sends signals to the major organs and muscle groups in your body, readying them for fighting or fleeing.

The hypothalamus—the brain’s primary regulator of the endocrine system—prompts the pituitary gland to signal the adrenal glands to release the “stress hormones” epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol.

Ready For Action

Within a second or two of the initial alarm, your brain is on red alert, your SNS is lit up like a Christmas tree, and stress hormones are washing through your blood. In other words you’re at least a little upset. What’s going on in your body?

Epinephrine increases your heart rate (so your heart can move more blood) and dilates your pupils (so your eyes gather more light). Norepinephrine shunts blood to large muscle groups. Meanwhile, the bronchioles of your lungs dilate for increased gas exchange—enabling you to hit harder or run faster.

Cortisol suppresses the immune system to reduce inflammation from wounds. It also revs up stress reactions in two circular ways. First, it causes the brain stem to stimulate the amygdala further, which increases amygdala activation of the SNS/HPAA system—which produces more cortisol. Second, cortisol suppresses hippocampal activity (which normally inhibits the amygdala); this takes the brakes off the amygdala, leading to yet more cortisol.

Reproduction is sidelined—no time for sex when you’re running for cover. The same for digestion: salivation decreases and peristalsis slows down, so your mouth feels dry and you become constipated.

Your emotions intensify, organizing and mobilizing the whole brain for action. SNS/HPAA arousal stimulates the amygdala, which is hardwired to focus on negative information and react intensely to it. Consequently, feeling stressed sets you up for fear and anger.

As limbic and endocrine activation increases, the relative strength of executive control from the PFC declines. It’s like being in a car with a runaway accelerator: the driver has less control over her vehicle. Further, the PFC is also affected by SNS/HPAA arousal, which pushes appraisals, attributions of other’s intentions, and priorities in a negative direction: now the driver of the careening care thinks everybody else is an idiot. For example, consider the difference between your take on a situation when you’re upset and your thoughts about it later when you’re calmer.

In the harsh physical and social environments in which we evolved, this activation of multiple bodily systems helped our ancestors survive. But what’s the cost of this today, with the chronic low-grade stresses of modern life?

Life On Simmer

Getting fired up for good reason—such as becoming passionate and enthusiastic, handling emergencies, or being forceful for a good cause—definitely has its place in life. But second darts are a bad reason to light up the SNS/HPAA system, and if they become routine, they can push the needle on your personal stress meter into the red zone. Further, apart from your individual situation, we live in a pedal-to-the-medal society that relies on nonstop SNS/HPAA activation; unfortunately, this is completely unnatural in terms of our evolutionary template.

For all of these reasons, most of us experience ongoing SNS/HPAA arousal. Even if your pot isn’t boiling over, just simmering along with second-dart activation is quite unhealthy. It continually shunts resources away from long-term projects—such as building a strong immune system or preserving a good mood—in favor of short-term crises. And this has lasting consequences.

Physical Consequences

In our evolutionary past, when most people died by forty or so, the short-term benefits of SNS/HPAA activation outweighed its long term costs. But for people today who are interested in living well during their forties and beyond, he accumulating damage of an overheated life is a real concern. For example, chronis SNS/HPAA stimulation disturbs these systems and increases risks for the health problems listed:

–Gastrointestinal; ulcers, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and constipation

–Immune; more frequent colds and flus, slower wound healing, greater vulnerability to serious infections

–Cardiovascular; hardening of the arteries, heart attacks

–Endocrine; type II diabetes, premenstrual syndrome, erectile dysfunction, lowered libido.

Mental Consequences

For all their effects on the body, second-darts usually have their greatest impact on psychological well-being. Let’s see how they work in your brain to raise anxiety and lower mood.


Repeated SNS/HPAA activity makes the amygdala more reactive to apparent threats, which in turn increases SNS/HPAA activation, which sensitizes the amygdala further. The mental correlate of this physical preocess is an increasingly rapid arousal of state anxiety (anxiety based on specific situations).

Additionally, the amygdala helps form implicit memories (traces of past experiences that exist beneath conscious awareness); as it becomes more sensitized, it increasingly shades those residues with fear, thus intensifying trait anxiety (ongoing anxiety reagardless of the situation).

Meanwhile, frequent SNS/HPAA activation wears down the hippocampus, which is vital for forming explicit memories—clear records of what actually happened. Cortisol and related glucocorticoid hormones both weaken existing synaptic connections in the hippocampus and inhibit the formation of new ones. Further, the hippocampus in one of the few regions in the human brain that can actually grow new neurons-yet glucocorticoids prevent the birth of neurons in the hippocampus, imparing its ability to produce new memories.

It’s a bad combination for the amygdala to be oversensitized while the hippocampus is compromized; painful experiences can then be recorded in implicit memory—with all the distortions and turbo-charging of an amygdala on overdrive—without an accurate explicit memory of them. This might feel like: Something happened, I’m not sure what, but I’m really upset. This may help explain why victims of trauma can feel disociated from the awful things they experienced, yet be very reactive to any trigger that reminds them unconsciously of what once occurred. In less extreme situations, the one-two punch of a revved-up amygdala and a weakened hippocampus can lead to feeling a little upset a lot of the time without exactly knowing why.

Depressed Mood

Routine SNS/HPAA activation undermines the biochemical basis of an even-keeled—let alone cheerful—disposition in a number of ways:

–Norepinephrine helps you feel alert and mentally energetic, but glucocorticoid hormones deplete it. Reduced norepinephrine may cause you to feel flat—even apathetic—with poor concentration; these are classic symptoms of depression.

–Over time, glucocorticoids lower the production of dopamine. This leads to a loss of enjoyment of activitiess once found pleasurable; another classic criterion of depression.

–Stress reduces serotonin, probably the most important neurotransmitter for maintaining a good mood. When serotonin drops, so does norepinephrine, which has already been diminished by glucocorticoids. In short, less serotonin means more vulnerability to a blue mood and less alert interest in the world.

An Intimate Process

Of course, our experience of these physiological processes is very intimate. When I’m upset, I sure dont think about all of these biochemical details. But having a general idea of them in the back of my mind helps me appreciate the sheer physicality of a second dart cascade, its impersonal nature and dependence on preceeding causes, and its impermanence.

This understanding is hopeful and motivating. Suffering has clear cause in your brain and body, so if you change its causes you’ll suffer a lot less. And you can change those causes. From this point on, we’re going to focus on how to do just that.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System

So far, we’ve examined how reactions powered by greed and hatred—especially the latter—ripple throgh your brain and body, shaped by the sympathetic nervous system. But the SNS is just one of the three wings of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which operates mostly below the level of consciousness to regulate many bodily systems and their responses to changing conditions. The other two wings of the ANS are the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the enteric nervous system (which regulates your gastrointestinal system). Let’s focus on the PNS and SNS as they play crucial roles in your suffering—and its end.

The PNS conserves energy in your body and is responsible for ongoing, steady-state activity. It produces a feeling of relaxation, often with a sense of contentment—this is why it’s something called the “rest-and-digest” system, in contrast to the “fight-or-flight” SNS. These two wings of the ANS are connected like a seesaw; when one goes up, the other goes down.

Parasympathetic activation is the normal resting state of your body, brain, and mind. If your SNS were surgically disconnected, you’d stay alive (though you wouldn’t be very useful in an emergency).

If your PNS were disconnected, however, you’d stop breathing and soon die. Sympathetic activation is a change to the baseline of PNS equilibrium in order to respond to a threat or an opportunity. The cooling, steadying influence of the PNS helps you think clearly and avoid hot-headed actions that would harm you or others. The PNS also quiets the mind and fosters tranquility, which supports comtemplative insight.

The Big Picture

The PNS and SNS evolved hand in hand in order to keep animals—including humans—alive in potentially lethal environments. We need both of them.

For example, take five breaths, inhaling and exhaling a little more fully than usual. This is both energizing and relaxing, actvating first the sympathetic system and then the parasympathetic one, back and forth, in a gentle rhythm. Notice how you feel when you’re done. That combination of aliveness and centeredness is the essence of peak performance zone recognized by athletes, busnesspeople, artists, lovers, and meditators. It’s the result of the SNS and PNS, the gas pedal and the brakes, working in harmony together.

Happiness, love, and wisdom aren’t furthered by shutting down the SNS, but rather by keeping the autonomic nervous system as a whole in an optimal state of balance:

–Mainly parasympathetic arousal for a baseline of ease and peacefulness

–Mild SNS activation for enthusiasm, vitality, and wholesome passions

–Occasional SNS spikes to deal with demanding situations, from a great opportunity at work to a late-night call from a teenage who needs a ride home from a party gone bad.

This is your best-odds prescription for a long, productive life. Of course, it takes practice.

A Path Of Practice

As the saying goes, pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. If you can simply stay present with whatever is arising in awareness—whether it’s a first dart or a second one—without reacting further, then you will break the chain of suffering right there. Over time, through training and shaping your mind and brain, you can even change what arises, increasing what’s positive and decreasing what’s negative. In the meantime, you can rest in and be nourished by a growing sense of the peace and clarity in your true nature.

These three processes—being with whateve arises, working with the tendencies of mind to transform them, and takng refuge in the ground of being—are the essential practices of the path of awakening. In many ways they correspond, respectively, to mindfulness, virtue, and wisdom—and to the three fundamental nerual fuctions of learning, regulating, and selecting.

As you deal with different issues on your path of awakening, you’ll repeatedly encounter these stages of growth:

–Stage one—you’re caught in a second-dart reaction and don’t even realize it; your partner forgets to bring mild home and you complain angrily without seeing that your reaction is over the top.

–Stage two—you realize you’ve been hijacked by greed or hatred (in the broadest sense), but cannot help yourself; internally you’re squirming, but you can’t stop grumbling bitterly about the milk.

–Stage three—some aspect of the reaction arises, but you don’t act it out; you feel irritated but remind yourself that your partner does a lot for you already and getting cranky will just make things worse.

–Stage four—the reaction doesn’t even come up, and sometimes you forget you ever had the issue; you understand that there’s no milk, and you calmly figure out what to do now with your partner.

In education, these are known succinctly as unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, and unconscious competence. They’re uselful labels for knowing where you are with a given issue. The second stage is the hardest one, and often where we want to quit. So it’s important to keep aiming for the third and fourth stages—just keep at it and you’ll definitely get there!

It takes effort and time to clear old structures and build new ones. I call this the law of little things; although little moments of greed, hatred, and delusion have left residues of suffering in your mind and brain, lots of little moments of practice will replace these Three Poisons and the suffering they cause with happines, love, and wisdom.

Swann’s Way

                                                            Dream Town

This groggy time we live/this is what it’s like/A man goes to sleep in a tow/where he has always lived/and he dreams of living in another town.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    In the dream he doesn’t remember/the town he’s sleeping in his bed in/He believes the reality of the dream town.

The world is that kind of sleep/The dust of many crumbled cities/settles over us like a forgetful doze/but we are older than those cities.

 We emerged as a mineral, emerged into plant life/then into the animal state, and then into being human/and always we have forgotten our former states..

That’s how a young person turns into a teacher/Humankind is being led along an evolving course/through this migration of intelligences/and though we seem to be sleeping,/there is an inner wakefulness/that directs the dream/and that will eventually startle us back/to the truth of who we are.                                                                                                                                    –Rumi

Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust


For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not time even to say to myself: “I’m falling asleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would make as if to put away the book which I imagined was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between Francois I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I awoke; it did not offend my reason, but lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to apply myself to it or not; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for my eyes, but even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, something dark indeed.

I would ask myself what time it could be; I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, showed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveler is hurrying towards the nearby station; and the path he is taking will be engraved in his memory by the excitement induced by strange surroundings, by unaccustomed activities, by the conversation he has had and the farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp, still echoing in his ears amid the silence of the night, by the imminent joy of going home…

Sometimes too, as Eve was created from a rib of Adam, a woman would be born during my sleep from some strain in the position of my thighs. Conceived from the pleasure I was on the point of consummating, she it was, I imagined, who offered me that pleasure. My body, conscious that its own warmth was permeating hers, would strive to become one with her, and I would awake. The rest of humanity seemed very remote in comparison with this woman whose company I had left but a moment ago; my cheek was still warm from her kiss, my body ached beneath the weight of hers. If, as would sometimes happen, she had the features of some woman whom I had known in waking hours, I would abandon myself altogether to the sole quest of her, like people who set out on a mission to see with their eyes some city of their desire, and imagine one can taste in reality what has charmed one’s fancy. And then, gradually, the memory of her would dissolve and vanish, until I had forgotten the girl of my dream.

When a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly host. Instinctively, when he awakes, he looks to these, and in an instant reads off his own position on the earth’s surface and the time that has elapsed during is slumbers; but this ordered procession is apt to grow confused, and to break its ranks. Suppose that, towards morning, after a night of insomnia, sleep descends upon him while he is reading, in quite a different position from that in which he normally goes to sleep, he has only to lift his arm to arrest the sun and turn it back on its course, and, at the moment of waking, he will have no idea of the time, but will conclude that he has just gone to bed. Or suppose that he dozes off in some even more abnormal and divergent position, sitting in an armchair, for instance, after dinner: then the world will go hurtling our of orbit, the magic chair will carry him at full speed through time and space, and when he opens his eyes again he will imagine that he went to sleep months earlier in another place. But for me it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was so heavy as completely to relax my consciousness; for then I lost all sense of the place in which I had gone to sleep, and when I awoke in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was, I could not be sure at firsts who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal’s consciousness; I was more destitute than a cave dweller; but then the memory—not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived and might now very possibly be—would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I never would have escaped by myself; a blurred glimpse of oil-lamps, then of shirts with turned-down collars would gradually piece together the original components of my ego.

Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our conception of them. For it always happened that when I awoke like this, and my mind struggled in an unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was, everything revolved around me through the darkness: things, places, years. My body, still too heavy with sleep to move, would endeavor to construe from the pattern of its tiredness the position of its various limbs, in order to deduce therefrom the direction of the wall, the location of the furniture, to piece together and give a name to the house in which it lay…

These shifting and confused gusts of memory never lasted for more than a few seconds; it often happened that, in my brief spell of uncertainty as to where I was, I did not distinguish the various suppositions of which it was composed any more than, when we watch a horse running, we isolate the successive positions of its body as they appear upon a bioscope…

Habit! that skillful but slow-moving arranger who begins by letting our minds suffer for weeks on end in temporary quarters, but whom our minds are none the less only too happy to discover at last, for without it, reduced to our own devices, they would be powerless to make any room seem habitable.

Certainly I was now well awake; my body had veered round for the last time and the good angel of certainty had made all the objects stand still, had set me down under my bedclothes, in my bedroom, and had fixed, approximately in their right places, in the uncertain light, my chest of drawers, my writing-table, my fireplace, the window overlooking the street, and both the doors.

At Combray, as every afternoon ended, long before the time when I should have to go to bed and lie there, unsleeping, for from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom became the fixed point on which my melancholy and anxious thoughts were centered. Someone had indeed the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lantern, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come; and after the fashion of the master-builders and glass-painters of gothic days, it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colors, in which legends were depicted as on a shifting and transitory window. But my sorrows were only increased thereby, because this mere change of lighting was enough to destroy the familiar impression I had of my room, thanks to which, save for the torture of going to bed, it had become quiet endurable. Now I no longer recognized it, and felt uneasy in it, as in a room in some hotel or chalet, in a place where I had just arrived by train for the first time.

Riding at a jerky trot, Golo, filled with an infamous design, issued from the little triangular forest which dyed dark-green the slope of an convenient hill, and advanced fitfully towards the castle of poor Genevieve de Brabant. This castle was cut off short by a curved line which was in fact the circumference of one of the transparent ovals in the slides which were pushed into position through a slot in the lantern….Golo stopped for a moment…then he rode away at a jerky trot. And nothing could arrest his progress. If the lantern were moved I could still distinguish Golo’s horse advancing across the window-curtains, swelling out with their curves and diving into their folds. The body of Golo himself, being of the same supernatural substance as his steed’s, overcame every material obstacle—everything that seemed to bar his way—by taking it as an ossature and embodying it in himself; even the doorhandle, for instance, over which, adapting itself at once, would float irresistibly his red cloak or his pale face, which never lost its nobility or its melancholy, never betrayed the least concern at this transvertebration.

And, indeed, I found plenty of charm in these bright projections, which seemed to emanate from a Merovingian past and surround me the with reflections of such ancient history. But I cannot express the discomfort I felt at this intrusion of mystery and beauty into a room which I had succeeded in filling with my own personality until I thought no more of it than of myself. The anaesthetic effect of habit being destroyed, I would begin to think—and to feel—such melancholy things. The door-handle of my room, which was different to me from all the other door-handles in the world, insomuch as it seemed to open of its own accord and without my having to turn it, so unconscious had its manipulation become—lo and behold, it was now an astral body for Golo. And as soon as the dinner-bell rang I would hurry down to the dining-room, where the big hanging lamp, ignorant of Golo and Bluebeard but well acquainted with my family and the dish of stewed beef, shed the same light as on every other evening; and I would fall into the arms of my mother, whom the misfortunes of Genevieve de Brabant had made all the dearer to me, just as the crimes of Golo had driven me to a more than ordinarily scrupulous examination of my own conscience.

Deconstruction–Derrida’s Axioms

London Review Of Books

Vol. 5 No. 13 · 21 July 1983

pages 17-18 | 3990 words

Derridas’s Axioms, E.D. Hirsch

Deconstruction, the subject of six new books reviewed in a recent issue of the American journal the New Republic, must be judged, simply by virtue of the commentary it has generated, an important cultural phenomenon. Although it originates in the philosophical writings of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, deconstruction has exercised its main influence upon the teaching of literature in American universities. Just a few years ago, Derrida’s work was introduced into the American academy by Professor Paul de Man; it was then taken up by his students and colleagues; and for the past five years it has been at the centre of academic literary debate. Intellectual culture thrives upon debate. Although opponents of deconstruction may accuse it of nihilism and anti-humanism, nothing could be more humanistic than vigorous arguments about the nature and aim of literature. Deconstruction has forced traditionalists to look to their assumptions and protect their theoretical flanks. Defensive critics have responded to its challenge by denying the importance of literary theory altogether. That manoeuvre will not work, for anti-theory is itself a theoretical position, and a particularly vulnerable one at that.

But deconstruction has itself benefited from cultural impulses that are anything but theoretical, and has served as an outlet for emotional and institutional needs that have no logical connection with Derrida’s philosophy. Indeed Jonathan Culler rightly says in his workmanlike book that Derrida has not dealt with the ‘task of literary criticism’ and that ‘the implications of deconstruction for the study of literature are far from clear.’ In fact, Derrida’s philosophy has no special implications for literary study or any other subject. As a general philosophy, it entails no specific program in politics, literature, or anything else – though by accident of history it did imply for Paul de Man a scepticism that happened to suit his temperament as a literary critic. But deconstruction as a philosophy holds no more implications for reading books than does, say, the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley. Nonetheless, deconstruction has been applied to literary study, and because of its elusiveness and difficulty, graduate students and others interested in literary theory will wish to have a reliable guide to Derrida’s philosophy from a literary point of view. This Jonathan Culler has supplied in On Deconstruction with his customary lucidity and care. He does not address the non-literary, cultural question as to why Derrida should have caught on in the American academic scene. (This baffled even Derrida, as he told me some years back.) Nor does Culler place Derrida in a wider philosophical context. Culler sticks to the literary applications of deconstruction and he speaks as a disciple and advocate.

In this review I shall pay rather less attention to Culler than to his master. For Culler is mainly an accurate transcriber of Derrida’s views and an acute observer of their uses in de Man and others. Moreover, it is easy to get lost in the details of Culler’s account, despite its lucidity, and I shall use material in his book as a starting-point for rather general observations about Derrida’s philosophy. The sanction that Derrida gives to deconstructive literary criticism must in the end derive from his adequacy as a philosopher. And we will not get very far in gauging his philosophy if we approach deconstruction either as acolytes who accept Derrida at his own (high) estimation or as antagonists who demonise him as a nihilist and anti-humanist. Derrida deserves to be taken seriously – but perhaps not as seriously as either his epigones or his opponents have taken him.

He belongs to a school of modern philosophy that has representatives in both the Anglo-American and Continental camps and includes such diverse names as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Quine and Sellars – all of whom, despite their diversity, are united in their criticism of the idea that knowledge can have a firm foundation in anything. Not in sense data, nor intuition nor divine revelation. Everything we know is already theory-laden, imprinted with foreknowledge, already an interpretation rather than a given. (The best description of this theme in modern thought is Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.) Derrida, in criticising ‘presence’ and ‘Western Metaphysics’, is, along with Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Sellars and Quine, criticising the ‘myth of the given’ – the myth that knowledge can be based on something to which we could have direct access. I believe that this attack on the given has succeeded, and that it marks a genuine advance in the history of philosophy. But I don’t by any means accept the idea that it therefore puts an end to ‘truth’ or ‘Western Philosophy’, or does anything as portentous as Derrida and others claim. (It simply marks the end of the myth of the given.)

Derrida’s version of this modern theme makes claims that are open to challenge, but one must concede him both the basic seriousness of his effort and the basic correctness of his attack on ‘presence’ and the given. What raises doubts about the adequacy of his philosophy is its reduction of thought and experience to ‘textuality’. (‘Il n’y a pas de hors texte,’ there is nothing outside text.) This, the most distinctive element in Derrida, is of course the element that has appealed to some of the experts about texts – literary critics. It is also a theme in his philosophy which deserves careful scrutiny.

1. Axioms of Deconstruction

Only the central section of Jonathan Culler’s work is devoted to Derrida’s philosophy as such, the rest being concerned with literary criticism. And even the philosophical section of Culler’s book refers constantly to Derrida’s relevance for the activities of professional critics. This weighting of Culler’s exposition towards the literary domain makes perfectly good sense for the audience he has in mind. But it also creates a certain haziness of focus for those interested in understanding and evaluating Derrida’s thought. Culler’s emphases on ‘iterability’, ‘marginality’ and ‘hierarchical oppositions’ identify points of contact with literary criticism, but these deconstructive fruits have roots that lie elsewhere. If, in seeking those roots, I were to avoid Derrida’s lingo and were to describe his underlying ideas in ordinary terms, something like the following axioms would emerge:

     Axiom 1. Everything can be given at least two equally cogent explanations.

     Axiom 2. In the temporal process of thinking about anything, one explanation collapses into its contrary.

     Axiom 3. This entire process occurs within a linguistic-semiotic structure of thought. From these three axioms and the critique of the given mentioned above can be derived all of the chief doctrines of Derrida’s writings.

1. The Antinomies of Thought. ‘Everything can be given at least two equally cogent explanations.’ Derrida does not argue that everything has at least two equally cogent explanations: he assumes it, and makes it the basis of his second axiom, which is the central principle of his philosophy. But this first assumption should be brought into the light, not only because it is true, as Hume demonstrated in his Treatise of Human Nature, but also because it exposes the hidden connections between Derrida and the traditions of Western philosophy he rejects. Here I refer not only to such traditions as the Cretan liar paradox and Kant’s antinomies (which disclose irreducible bafflements of understanding) but, more particularly, to Hume, the deconstructionist par excellence, who bluntly stated his version of deconstruction as follows: ‘The understanding, when it acts alone, and according to its most general principles, entirely subverts itself and leaves not the lowest degree of evidence in any proposition.’

2. The Instabilities of Thought. ‘In the temporal process of thinking about anything, one explanation collapses into its contrary.’ This collapse into the contrary is the characteristic movement of deconstruction. What we thought to be present turns out to be absent; what we thought to be marginal we discover to be central. This movement is the hallmark of Derridean criticism. Culler states the critical implications of the principle: ‘to deconstruct a discourse is to show how it undermines the philosophy it asserts.’ We know in advance that this interpretative manoeuvre will succeed, because it is founded upon Hume’s inviolable principle that ‘the understanding entirely subverts itself.’

 This collapse into the other has its antecedents in other pre-Derridean philosophers, particularly Hegel. Hegel explored how the here and now, the given, is subverted by the passage of time: ‘The Now is pointed out; this Now. “Now”: it has already ceased to be when it is pointed out. The Now that is, is other than the one indicated, and we see that the Now is just this – to be no longer the time when it is.’ Hegel observed that it is the same with any ‘This’: ‘A This is set up; it is however rather an other that is set up; the This is superseded: and this otherness, this cancelling of the former, is itself again annulled’ (The Phenomenology of Mind, Chapter One). A brilliant development of this Hegelian insight is to be found in Heidegger’s introduction to Being and Time, where he meditates on the concept of ‘phenomenon’ – the given that is not given. In still other writers – Blake, William James – this collapse into the contrary is conceived as a cyclical process within intellectual history. Certainly, in this central feature of his philosophy, Derrida has not broken with ‘Western Metaphysics’.

3. The Textuality of Thought. ‘The collapse into the contrary occurs within a linguistic-semiotic structure of thought.’ Like the structuralists his predecessors, Derrida accepts as a starting-point the idea that thought is language in some sense of the term ‘language’. Both structuralists and post-structuralists hold that thought is dependent upon language, and that the structure of thought is like the semiotic structure of a language. Derrida’s originality lies in his further development of this idea. The normal view had been that speech is the basis of language, and thus of thought. Derrida reverses this. He argues that ‘writing’ (in a special sense) is prior to speech. Derrida reasons that since nothing in speech is truly present we must interpret speech as a ‘trace’, an iterable ‘engram’ in memory, which is just what writing is, an engram. Hence writing founds speech, not vice versa. But having made this point (which properly understood is less paradoxical and significant than first appears), Derrida goes on to treat writing as the structuralists treated speech – that is, as a ‘system of differences’.

This notion of language as a ‘system of differences’ started with Saussure, whose original account – from Part One, Chapter Four of the Course in General Linguistics – is worth quoting for its clarity:

    Psychologically, our thought, apart from its expression in words – is only a shapeless and indistinct mass. Philosophers and linguists have always agreed in recognising that without the help of signs we would be unable to make a clear-cut, consistent distinction between two ideas. Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language … In language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up: but in language there are only differences without positive terms.

Since thought is a language-like system dependent upon language, and since language is a structure of differences without positive terms, it follows that thought will also exhibit this structure of differences. But from Axiom Two (the collapse into the contrary) we know that when a thought arises from a momentary play of differences it will never be available as a stable present. ‘Now’ constantly becomes ‘Then’, and is constantly deferred. The meaning that arises from the play of differences is therefore never present, but is always being deferred. By combining Axiom Two (deferment) with Axiom Three (Saussure’s ‘difference’), we join deferment with difference, yielding the punning neologism ‘differment’, or in Derrida’s original French, Différance. This neologism and the metaphor of ‘writing’ are twin features of Derrida’s philosophy.

2.  One-Sidedness of Deconstruction

Unfortunately for the coherence of that philosophy, deferment and difference do not fit together harmoniously. The principle of difference as enunciated by Saussure requires a stable system of oppositions: Saussure is very clear that the system must be momentarily stable in order to give rise to meaning and the play of differences. That is the basis for his discrimination between ‘synchronic’ (stable) states of language and ‘diachronic’ changes of language over time. The principle of deferment, however, is a principle of constant instability for the system as a whole. Deferment creates a system in which nothing stands still, in which nothing is synchronic. Hegel memorably describes such a system as a ‘bacchanalian revel, where not a member is sober’. One is here compelled to choose between Hegel and Saussure.

That choice ought to be in favour of Hegel. For one thing, it was empirically wrong of Saussure to claim that meaning in language arises exclusively from the systematic play of differences. Although Saussure rightly stressed the autonomous character of language systems, and rightly opposed the view that language is just a set of names for extra-linguistic realities, he was wrong to state his point so absolutely. Language is partly an autonomous system and is partly a set of names that derive their meaning from outside the system. Saussure’s purely internal conception of a language system encouraged him to state flatly that ideas cannot exist before language, but the truth is the other way round. First we have ideas (object concepts), and then we name them. For a recent account of empirical work on names and the function of language in the development of concepts and vice versa, see Language Acquisition.​ Saussure was a great and original linguistic theorist, but his idea of language as purely a system of differences is incorrect, and is a very weak foundation on which to erect the whole edifice of modern French thought.

But even if the concept of ‘difference’ were not based on an overstated linguistic theory, it would still consort badly with the concept of ‘deferment’. Difference is a kind of pan-lingualism (in Derrida, it is a pan-textuality –Il n’y a pas de hors texte). Difference is thus monistic, even idealistic, in flavour. But deferment – the collapse of one thought into its contrary – is dualistic in flavour. Hegel overcame this inherent dualism by positing an Absolute at the end of the process – an end to deferment. Derrida does not end in an Absolute, not even an Absolute Text. Deconstruction, by coming to a stop in a monistic conception of difference à la Saussure, is at odds with its own genuine insights.

Derrida’s literary followers are even less careful than Derrida on this score. Here is a statement by Culler (the italics are mine):

    When one attempts to formulate the distinction between reading and misreading, one inevitably relies on some notion of identity and difference. Reading and understanding preserve or reproduce a content or meaning, maintain its identity, while misunderstanding and misreading distort it; they produce or introduce a difference. But one can argue that in fact the transformation or modification of meaning that characterises misunderstanding is also at work in what we call understanding … We can thus say, in a formulation more valid than its converse, that understanding is a special case of misunderstanding.

In a similar vein, Culler argues that for the opposition literal-v.-metaphorical, the latter is foundational: a literal expression is a ‘metaphor whose figurality has been forgotten’. Such tendencies to monism are a persistent danger for deconstructionists, and a danger that they rarely avoid in practice. Yet to be a monist is precisely not to be a deconstructionist! One ought therefore to distinguish between authentic deconstruction and capital-D Deconstruction, which in its monistic forms is a very inconsistent philosophy indeed.

As an example of the one-sidedness of Big-D Deconstruction, we may consider how it treats the following list of contraries:

1. part ……………………………… whole

2. percept ………………………… object

3. signifier ……………………… signified

4. temporal ……… spatial (non-temporal)

5. difference …………………… sameness

Big-D Deconstruction characteristically chooses the left-hand side of this list. It reduces the right-hand side to an illusion whose reality is on the left. The collapse into the contrary seems to go just one way and come to a halt. Of those contraries listed above, perhaps the fourth, the non-temporal v. the temporal, could be viewed as the basis for Deconstruction’s other leftward-tending preferences. Temporality, after all, is the ground for ‘Deferment’. Derrida holds that mental life is purely temporal, is just one-thing-after-another; one moment is always different from another moment of mental life. Husserl’s profound argument against this temporal conception of mental life led Derrida to devote a whole book (Speech and Phenomena) to attacking Husserl. But Derrida never touched Husserl’s key argument favouring a dualistic, i.e. a temporal-nontemporal, conception of mind. Derrida concentrated instead on Husserl’s admittedly vulnerable conception of Presence, as though by thrashing Husserl on that peripheral issue he could also defeat his other ideas. But to the extent that empirical psychology has any say in the matter, Husserl’s dualism is a correct, and Derrida’s monistic temporality an incorrect, account of mind. Even if that were not so, Deconstruction would be inconsistent in accepting temporality as an adequate description of mental life. On this point, as on so many others, Hume showed himself to be the more authentic deconstructionist when he admitted that the persistence of self-identical objects over time cannot be either confidently asserted or denied. Hume also said in similar vein that ‘a true sceptic will be diffident of his philosophical doubts, as well as of his philosophical conviction’ (Treatise, VII). That is the authentic principle of deconstruction – not Derrida’s ‘différance’ but Hume’s ‘diffidence’.

3. Deconstruction and Formalism

Derrida’s weaknesses as a philosopher are somewhat beside the point, however, when we enter the realm of literary deconstruction as Culler describes it. Culler seems to admire the success of Deconstruction in sanctioning and continuing the professional occupation of writing about writing. His account suggests that Deconstruction has a self-sustaining effect on university publication. An academic institution, like any other, adopts an ideology that preserves the institution as it is. This is the powerful principle of institutional homeostasis.

No harm in that. But the cultural question that needs to be asked is whether we want to sustain the institutions of textual analysis that have dominated academic literary criticism in the past forty years. The trouble with keeping that tradition going under a new deconstructive guise is not that it is wrong or radical, or inhumane, but that the tradition of academic literary analysis is uncommitted to any cultural values at all. Literary Deconstruction is another version of formalism. It is quite unconcerned, for example, with choosing a new canon. (The old canon will do fine, Culler informs us.) Deconstruction stresses the how of criticism rather than the what. And like the New Criticism before it, Deconstruction claims that the how is the what of literature. Similarly, just as the New Criticism tended to find that the subject of literature was literature, Deconstruction finds that the subject of literature is Deconstruction. In exposing this feature of Deconstruction, Culler’s account exhibits the twin virtues of clarity and explicitness: ‘When considered at the first level, literature is remarkable for the diversity of its themes … At the second level, a powerful theory with literary implications seeks to analyse those structures which it takes to be most fundamental or characteristic, and thus emphasises repetition … Although deconstructive readings work to reveal how a given text elucidates or allegorically thematises this ubiquitous structure, they are not thereby promoting one theme and denying others but attempting at another level to describe the logic of texts.’

‘To describe the logic of texts’ is to describe their form, logic being the study of form par excellence. Such preoccupation with form in the American academy is part of a general tendency in American education to inculcate reading and writing skills without committing one to any preference for particular cultural contents. Recently we have discovered that this educational formalism will not work even in teaching elementary reading skills. To think that formalism could suffice in teaching a literary tradition is an even more obvious mistake. Deconstruction as practised in America is part of a pervasive educational formalism that avoids advocating specific values and contents. But in literary education such formalism is an evasion.

Nothing could be more illustrative of this evasive, American use of Deconstruction than Culler’s treatment of feminist criticism. Culler deserves praise for treating that subject at all, and he is right to say that feminism is ‘one of the most significant and broadly based critical movements of recent years’. But after spending twenty pages in analysing recent work on the subject, he summarises feminist criticism as follows:

From these varied writings a general structure emerges. In the first moment or mode, where woman’s experience is treated as a firm ground for interpretation, one swiftly discovers that this experience is not the sequence of thoughts present to the reader’s consciousness … In the second mode, the problem is how to make it possible to read as a woman … In the third mode, the appeal to experience is still there … But experience always has this divided, duplicated character; it has always already occurred and yet is still to be produced.

In short, the logic of feminism follows the general logic of Deconstruction. Whether or not that is so, this abstracting of feminism to its Derridean ‘logic’ or ‘structure’ seems to me to express no significant truth at all about the feminist movement in criticism, and provides no basis for calling it ‘one of the most significant’ critical movements of recent years. That it certainly is, because of its content, not its form, and because it has encouraged a change in our canon, and in our estimate and use of particular works.

In my view, the most glaring weakness of American Deconstruction is not its intellectual incoherence but its cultural evasiveness. ‘English’ in American schools and universities has always been a cultural, not a progressive, intellectual subject. Although ‘English’ does have connections with the genuine disciplines of history and philosophy it came into being for cultural rather than disciplinary reasons. Every attempt to show that ‘English’ is a discipline with a logic and method of its own has so far proved specious and unenduring. Such narrow approaches to literature do not butter any intellectual or cultural bread. The function of ‘English’ is to help sustain or change traditions, to help provide the myths and values we live by, and to help create a culture that is worth living in. Formalism has seduced American literary study away from these authentic and original cultural purposes. Is it too much to hope that Deconstruction, the reductio ad absurdum of formalism (and also a very inconsiderable philosophy), may be the last gasp of this evasive tradition?


Buddhism–On The Ego

 Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Chogyam Trungpa

On the ego

According to Buddhist tradition, the spiritual path is the process of cutting through our confusion, of uncovering the awakened state of mind. When the awakened state is crowded in by ego and its attendant paranoia, it takes on the character of an underlying instinct. So it is not a matter of building up the awakened state of mind, but rather burning out the confusions which obstruct it. In the process of burning out these confusions, we discover enlightenment. If the process were otherwise, the awakened state of mind would be a product, dependent upon cause and effect and therefore liable to dissolution. Anything which is created must, sooner or later, die. If enlightenment were created in such a way, there would always be the possibility of ego reasserting itself, causing a return to the confused state. Enlightenment is permanent because we have not produced it; we have merely discovered it…

The heart of the confusion is that man has a sense of self which seems to him to be continuous and solid. When a thought or emotion or event occurs, there is a sense of someone being conscious of what is happening. You sense that you are reading these words. The sense of self is actually a transitory, discontinuous event, which in our confusion seems to be quite solid and continuous. Since we take our confused view as being real, we struggle to cover up any possibility of discovering our real condition. “But,” we might ask, “if our real condition is an awakened state, why are we so busy trying to avoid becoming aware of it?” It is because we have become so absorbed in our confused view of the world, that we consider it real, the only possible world. This struggle to maintain the sense of a solid, continuous self is the action of the ego.

Ego, however, is only partially successful in shielding us from pain. It is the dissatisfaction which accompanies ego’s struggle that inspires us to examine what we are doing. Since there are always gaps in our self-consciousness, some insight is possible.

The Three Lords Of Materialism

An interesting metaphor used in Tibetan Buddhism to describe the functioning of ego is that of the “Three Lords of Materialism”: the “Lord of Form,” the “Lord of Speech,” and the “Lord of Mind.” In the discussion of the Three Lords which follows, the words “materialism” and “neurotic” refer to the action of the ego.

The Lord of Form refers to the neurotic pursuit of physical comfort, security and pleasure. Our highly organized and technological society reflects our preoccupation with manipulating physical surroundings so as to shield ourselves from the irritations of the raw, rugged, unpredictable aspects of life. Push-button elevators, pre-packaged meat, air conditioning, flush toilets, private funerals, retirement programs, mass production, weather satellites, bulldozers, fluorescent lighting, nine-to-five jobs, television—all are attempts to create a manageable, safe, predictable, pleasurable world.

The Lord of Form does not signify the physically rich and secure life-situations we create per se. Rather it refers to the neurotic preoccupation that drives us to create them, to try to control nature. It is ego’s ambition to secure and entertain itself, trying to avoid all irritation. So we cling to our pleasures and possessions, we fear change or force change, we try to create a nest or playground.

The Lord of Speech refers to the use of intellect in relating to our world. We adopt sets of categories which serve as handles, as ways of managing phenomena. The most fully developed products of this tendency are ideologies, the systems of ideas that rationalize, justify and sanctify our lives. Nationalism, communism, existentialism, Christianity, Buddhism—all provide us with identities, rules of action, and interpretations of how and why things happen as they do.

Again, the use of intellect is not in itself the Lord of Speech. The Lord of Speech refers to the inclination on the part of ego to interpret anything that is threatening or irritating in such a way as to neutralize the threat or turn it into something “positive” from the ego’s point of view. The Lord of Speech refers to the use of concepts as filters to screen us from a direct perception of what is. The concepts are taken to seriously; they are used as tools to solidify our world and ourselves. If a world of nameable things exists, then “I” as one of the nameable things exist as well. We wish not to leave any room for threatening doubt, uncertainty or confusion.

The Lord of Mind refers to the effort of consciousness to maintain awareness of itself. The Lord of Mind rules when we use spiritual and psychological disciplines as the means of maintaining our self-consciousness, of holding onto our sense of self. Drugs, yoga, prayer, meditation, trances, various psychotherapies—all can be used in this way.

Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality. For example, if you have learned of a particularly beneficial meditation technique of spiritual practice, then ego’s attitude is, first to regard it as an object of fascination and, second to examine it. Finally, since ego is seeming solid and cannot really absorb anything, it can only mimic. Thus ego tries to examine and imitate the practice of meditation and the meditative way of life. When we have learned all the trick s and answers of the spiritual game, we automatically try to imitate spirituality, since real involvement would require the complete elimination of ego, and actually the last thing we want to do is to give us the ego completely. However, we cannot experience that which we are trying to imitate; we can only find some area within the bounds of ego that seems to be the same thing. Ego translates everything in terms of its own state of health, its own inherent qualities. It feels a sense of accomplishment and excitement at having been able to create such a pattern. At last it has created a tangible accomplishment, a confirmation of its own individuality.

If we become successful at maintaining our self-consciousness through spiritual techniques, then genuine spiritual development is highly unlikely. Our mental habit becomes so strong as to be hard to penetrate. We may even go so far as to achieve the totally demonic state of complete “Egohood.”

Even though the Lord of Mind is the most powerful in subverting spirituality, still the other two Lords can also rule the spiritual practice. Retreat to nature, isolation, simple, quiet, high people—all can be ways of shielding oneself from irritation, all can be expressions of the Lord of Form. Or perhaps religion may provide us with a rationalization for creating a secure nest, a simple but comfortable home, for acquiring an amiable mate, and a stable, easy job.

The Lord of Speech is involved in spiritual practice as well. In following a spiritual path we may substitute a new religious ideology for our former beliefs, but continue to use it in the old neurotic way. Regardless of how sublime our ideas may be, if we take them too seriously and use them to maintain our ego, we are still be ruled by the Lord of Speech…

The Buddha…examined the process by which the Three Lords rule. He questioned why our minds follow them and whether there is another way. He discovered that the Three Lords seduce us by creating a fundamental myth: that we are solid beings. But ultimately the myth is false, a huge hoax, a gigantic fraud, and it is the root of our suffering…

The Lords’ defenses are created out of the material of our minds. This material of mind is used by the Lords in such a way as to maintain the basic myth of solidity. The…Buddha…discovered that struggling to find answers did not work…He began to realize that there was a sane, awake quality within him which manifested itself only in the absence of struggle…meditation… does involve dealing with neurotic states of mind. The neurotic state of mind is not difficult or impossible to deal with. It has energy, speed and a certain pattern. The practice of meditation involves letting be—trying to go with the pattern, trying to go with the energy and the speed. In this way we learn how to deal with these factors, how to relate with them, not in the sense of causing them to mature in the way we would like, but in the sense of knowing them for what they are and working with their pattern.

If the strategy of continually overlapping thoughts is penetrated, then the Lords stir up emotions to distract us. The colorful, dramatic quality of the emotions captures our attention as if we were watching an absorbing film show…we neither encourage emotions or suppress them. By seeing them clearly, by allowing them to be as they are, we no longer permit them to serve as a means of entertaining and distracting us. Thus they become the inexhaustible energy which fulfills egoless action.

In the absence of thoughts and emotions the Lords bring up a still more powerful weapon, concepts. Labeling phenomena creates a feeling of a solid definite world of “things.” Such a solid world reassures us that we are a solid, continuous thing as well. The world exists, therefore I, the perceiver of the world, exist. Meditation involves seeing the transparency of concepts, so that labeling no longer serves as a way of solidifying our world and our image of our self. Labeling becomes simply the act of discrimination…

By the examination of his own thoughts, emotions, concepts and the other activities of mind, the Buddha discovered that there is no need to struggle to prove our existence, that we need not be subject to the rule of the Three Lords of Materialism. There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom. The egoless state is the attainment of Buddhahood. The process of transforming the material of mind from expressions of ego’s ambition into expressions of basic sanity and enlightenment through the practice of meditation—this might be said to be the true spiritual path.

The Development of Ego

The Five Skandas

As we are going to examine the Buddhist path from beginning to end, from beginners mind to the enlightened one, I think it would be best to start with something very concrete and realistic, the field we are going to cultivate. It would be foolish to study more advanced subjects before we are familiar with the starting point, the nature of the ego…Any spiritual practice needs this basic understanding of the starting point, the material with which we are working.

If we do not know the subject with which we are working, then our study is useless; speculations about the goal become mere fantasy. These speculations may take the form of advanced ideas and descriptions of spiritual experiences, but they only exploit the weaker aspects of human nature, our expectations and desires to see and hear something colorful, something extraordinary. If we begin our study with these dreams of extraordinary, “enlightening” and dramatic experiences, then we will build up our expectations and preconceptions so that later, when we are actually working on the path, our mind will be occupied largely with what will be rather than what is. It is destructive and not fair to people to play on their weaknesses, their expectations and dreams, rather than to present the realistic starting point of what they are

It is necessary, therefore, to start on what we are and why we are searching. Generally, all religious traditions deal with this material, speaking variously of alaya-vijnana or original sin or the fall of man or the basis of ego. Most religions refer to this material in a somewhat pejorative way, but I do not think it is such a shocking or terrible thing. We do not have to be ashamed of who we are. As sentient beings we have wonderful backgrounds. These backgrounds may not be particularly enlightened or peaceful or intelligent. Nevertheless, we still have soil good enough to cultivate…Therefore, in dealing with this subject we are not condemning or trying to eliminate our ego psychology; we are purely acknowledging it, seeing it as it is. In fact understanding the ego is the foundation of Buddhism. So let us see how it develops.

Fundamentally, there is just open space, the basic ground of what we really are. Our most fundamental state of mind, before the creation of ego, is such that there is basic openness, basic freedom, a spacious quality; and we have now and have always had this openness. Take, for example, our everyday lives and thought patterns. When we see an object, in the first instant there is a sudden perception which has no logic or conceptualization to it at all; we just perceive the thing in the open ground. Then immediately we panic and begin to rush about trying to add something to it, either trying to find a name for it or trying to find pigeon-holes in which we could locate and categorize it. Gradually things develop from there.

This development does not take the shape of a solid entity. Rather, this development is illusory, the mistaken belief in a “self” or “ego.” Confused mind is inclined to view itself as a solid, on-going thing, but it is only a collection of tendencies, events. In Buddhist terminology this collection is referred to as the Five Skandas or Five Heaps…

The beginning point is that there is open space, belonging to no one. There is always primordial intelligence connected with the space and openness. Vidya, which means “intelligence” in Sanskrit—precision, sharpness, sharpness with space, sharpness with room in which to put things, exchange things. It is like a spacious hall where there is room to dance about, where there is no danger of knocking things over or tripping over things, for there is completely open space. We are this space, we are one with it, with vidya, intelligence and openness.

But if we are this all the time, where did the confusion come from, where has the space gone, what has happened? Nothing has happened, as a matter of fact. We just became too active in that space. Because it is spacious, it brings the inspiration to dance about; but our dance became a bit too active, we began to spin more than was necessary to express the space. At this point we became self-conscious, conscious that “I” am dancing in the space.

At such a point, space is no longer space as such. It becomes solid. Instead of being one with the space, we feel solid space as a separate entity, as tangible. This is the first experience of duality—space and I, I am dancing in this space, and this spaciousness is a solid, separate thing. Duality means “space and I,” rather than being completely one with the space. This is the birth of “form,” or “other.”

Then a kind of blackout occurs, in the sense that we forget what we are doing. There is a sudden halt, a pause; and we turn around and “discover” solid space, as though we had never before done anything at all, as though we were not the creators of all that solidity. There is a gap. Having already created solidified space, then we are overwhelmed by it and begin to become lost in it. There is a blackout and then, suddenly, an awakening.

When we awaken, we refuse to see the space as openness, refuse to see its smooth and ventilating quality. We completely ignore it, which is called avidya, A means “negation,” vidya means “intelligence,” so it is “un-intelligence.” Because this extreme intelligence has been transformed into the perception of solid space, because this intelligence with a sharp and precise and flowing luminous quality has become static, therefore it is called avidya, “ignorance.” We deliberately ignore. We are not satisfied just to dance in the space but we want to have a partner, and so we choose the space as our partner. If you choose space as your partner in the dance, then of course you want it to dance with you. In order to possess it as a partner, you have to solidify it and ignore its flowing, open quality. This is avidya, ignorance, ignoring intelligence. It is the culmination of the First Skanda, the creation of Ignorance-Form.

In fact, this skanda, the skanda of Ignorance-Form, has three different aspects or stages which we could examine through the use of another metaphor. Suppose in the beginning there is an open plain without any mountains or trees, completely open land, a simple desert without any particular characteristics. That is how we are, what we are. We are very simple and basic. And yet there is a sun shining, a moon shining, and there will be lights and colors, the texture of the desert. There will be some feeling of the energy which plays between heaven and earth. This goes on and on.

Then, strangely, there is suddenly someone to notice all this. It is as if one of the grains of sand had stuck its neck out and begun to look around. We are that grain of sand, coming to the conclusion of our separateness. This is the “Birth of Ignorance” in its first stage, a kind of chemical reaction. Duality has set begun.

The second stage of Ignorance-Form is called “The Ignorance Born Within.” Having noticed that one is separate, then there is the feeling that one has always been so. It is an awkwardness, the instinct toward self-consciousness. It is also one’s excuse for remaining separate, an individual grain of sand. It is an aggressive type of ignorance, though not exactly aggressive in the sense of anger; it has not developed as far as that. Rather it is aggression in the sense that one feels awkward, unbalanced, and so one tries to secure one’s ground, create a shelter for oneself. It is the attitude that one is a confused and separate individual, and that is all there is to it,. One has identified oneself as separate from the basic landscape of space and openness.

The third type of ignorance is “Self-Observing Ignorance” watching oneself. There is a sense of seeing oneself as an external object, which leads to the first notion of “other.” One is beginning to have a relationship with a so-called “external” world. This is why these three stages of ignorance constitute the Skanda Of Form-Ignorance; one is beginning to create a world of forms.

When we speak of ‘ignorance” we do not mean stupidity at all. In a sense, ignorance is very intelligent, but it is completely two-way intelligence. That is to say, one purely reacts t one’s projections rather than just seeing what is. There is no situation of ‘letting be” at all, because one is ignoring what one is all the time. That is the basic definition of ignorance.

The next development is the setting up of a defense mechanism to protect our ignorance. This defense mechanism is Feeling, the Second Skanda. Since we have already ignored open space, we would like next to feel the qualities of solid space in order to bring complete fulfillment to the grasping quality we are developing. Of course space does not mean just bare space, for it contains color and energy. There are tremendous, magnificent displays of color and energy, beautiful and picturesque. But we have ignored them altogether. Instead there is just a solidified version of that color; and the color becomes captured color, and the energy becomes captured energy, because we have solidified the whole space and turned it into “other.” So we begin to reach out and feel the qualities of “other.” By doing this we reassure ourselves that we exist. “If I can feel that out there, then I must be here.”

Whenever anything happens, one reaches out to feel whether the situation is seductive or threatening or neutral. Whenever there is sudden separation, a feeling of not knowing the relationship of “that” to “this,” we tend to feel for our ground. This is the extremely efficient feeling mechanism that we begin to set up, the Second Skandha.

The next mechanism to further establish the ego is the Third Skandha, Perception-Impulse. We begin to be fascinated by our own creation, the static colors and the static energies. We want to relate to them, and so we begin gradually to explore our creation.

In order to explore efficiently there must be a kind of switchboard system, a controller of the feeling mechanism. Feeling transmits its information to the central switchboard, which is the act of perception. According to that information, we make judgments, we react. Whether we react for or against or indifferently is automatically determined by this bureaucracy of feeling and perception. If we feel the situation and find it threatening, when we will push it away from us. If we find it seductive, then we will draw it to us. If we find it neutral, we will be indifferent. These are the three types of impulse: hatred, desire, and stupidity. Thus perception refers to receiving information from the outside world and impulse refers to our response to that information.

The next development is the Fourth Skandha, Concept. Perception-Impulse is an automatic reaction to intuitive feeling. However, this kind of automatic reaction is not really enough of a defense to protect one’s ignorance and guarantee one’s security. In order to really protect and deceive oneself completely, properly, one needs intellect, the ability to name and categorize things. Thus we label things and events as being “good,” “bad,” “beautiful,” “ugly,” and so on, according to which impulse we find appropriate to them.

So the structure of ego is gradually becoming heavier and heavier, stronger and stronger. Up to this point ego’s development has been purely an action and reaction process; but from now on ego gradually develops beyond the ape instinct and becomes more sophisticated. We begin to experience intellectual speculation, confirming or interpreting ourselves, putting ourselves into certain logical, interpretive situations. The basic nature of intellect is quite logical. Obviously there will be the tendency to work for a positive condition: to confirm our experience, to interpret weakness into strength, to fabricate a logic of security, to confirm our ignorance.

In a sense it might be said that primordial intelligence is operating all the time, but it is being employed by the dualistic fixation, ignorance. In the beginning stages of the development of ego this intelligence operates as the intuitive sharpness of feeling. Later it operates in the form of intellect. Actually it seems that there is no such thing as the ego at all; there is no such thing as “I am.” It is an accumulation of a lot of stuff. It is a “brilliant work of art,” a product of the intellect which says, “Let’s give it a name, let’s call it something, let’s call it ‘I am’, “ which is very clever. “I” is the product of intellect, the label which unifies into one whole the disorganized and scattered development of ego.

The last stage of the development of ego is the Fifth Skandha, Consciousness. At this level an amalgamation takes place: the intuitive intelligence of the Second Skandha, the energy of the Third, and the intellectualization of the Fourth combine to produce thoughts and emotions. Thus at the level of the Fifth Skandha we find the Six Realms as well as the uncontrollable and illogical patterns of discursive thought.

This is the complete picture of ego. It is in this state that all of us have arrived at our study of Buddhist psychology and meditation.

In Buddhist literature there is a metaphor commonly used to describe this whole process, the creation and development of ego. It speaks of a monkey locked in an empty house, a house with five windows representing the five senses. This monkey is inquisitive, poking it head out of each window and jumping up and down, up and down, restlessly. He is a captive monkey in an empty house. It is a solid house, rather than the jungle in which the monkey leapt and swung, rather than trees in which he could hear the wind moving and the rustling of the leaves and branches. All these things become completely solidified. In fact, the jungle itself has become his solid house, his prison. Instead of perching in a tree, this inquisitive monkey has been walled in by a solid world, as if a flowing thing, a dramatic and beautiful waterfall, had suddenly been frozen.

This frozen house, made of frozen colors and energies, is completely still. This seems to be the point where time begins as past, future and present. The flux of things becomes solid tangible time, a solid idea of time.

The inquisitive monkey awakens from his blackout, but he does not awaken completely. He awakens to find himself trapped inside of a solid, claustrophobic house with just five windows. He becomes bored, as though captured in a zoo behind iron bars, and he tries to explore the bars by climbing up and down. That he has been captured is not particularly important; but the idea of capture id magnified a thousand times because of is fascination with it. If one is fascinated, the sense of claustrophobia becomes more and more vivid, more and more acute, because one begins to explore one’s imprisonment. In fact fascination is part of the reason he remains imprisoned. He is captured by his fascination. Of course at the beginning there was the sudden blackout which confirmed his belief in a solid world. But now having taken solidity for granted, he is trapped by his involvement with it.

Of course the inquisitive monkey does not explore all the time. He begins to become agitated, begins to feel that something is very repetitive and uninteresting, and he begins to become neurotic. Hungry for entertainment, he tries to feel and appreciate the texture of the wall, attempting to make sure that this seeming solidity is really solid. Then, assured that the space is solid, the monkey begins to relate to it by grasping it, repelling it or ignoring it. If he attempts to grasp the space in order to possess it as his own experience, his own discovery, his own understanding, this is desire. Or, if the space seems a prison to him so that he tries to kick and batter his way out, fighting harder and harder, then this is hatred. Hatred is not just the mentality of destruction alone; but it is even more a feeling of defensiveness, defending oneself against claustrophobia. The monkey does not necessarily feel that there is an opponent or enemy approaching; he simply wants to escape his prison.

Finally the monkey might try to ignore that he is imprisoned or that there is something seductive in his environment. He plays deaf and dumb and so is indifferent and slothful in relation to what is happening around him. This is stupidity.

To go back a bit, you might say that the monkey is born into this house as he awakens from the blackout. He does not know how he arrived in this prison, so he assumes he has always been there, forgetting that he himself solidified the space into walls. Then he feels the texture of the walls, which is the Second Skandha, Feeling. After that, he relates to the house in terms of desire, hatred and stupidity, the Third Skandha, Perception-Impulse. Then, having developed these three ways of relating to house, the monkey begins to label and categorize it: “This is a window. This corner is pleasant. That wall frightens me and is bad.” He develops a conceptual framework with which to label and categorize and evaluate his house, his world, according to whether he desire, hates, or feels indifferent to it. This is the Fourth Skandha, Concept.

The monkey’s development through the Fourth Skankha has been fairly logical and predictable. But the pattern of development begins to break down as he enters the Fifth Skandha, Consciousness. The thought pattern becomes irregular and unpredictable and the monkey begins to hallucinate, to dream.

When we speak of “hallucination: or “dream,” it means that we attach values to things and events which they do not have. We have definite opinions about the way things are and should be. This is projection: we project our version of things onto what is there. Thus we become

completely immersed in a world of our own creation, a world of conflicting values and opinions. Hallucination, in this sense, is a misinterpretation of things and events, reading into the phenomenal world meanings which it does not have.

This is what the monkey begins to experience at the level of the Fifth Skandha. Having tried to get out and having failed, he feels dejected, helpless, and so he begins to go completely insane. Because he is so tired of struggling, it is very tempting for him to relax and let his mind wander and hallucinate. This is the creation of the Six Lokas or Six Realms. There is a great deal of discussion in the Buddhist tradition about hell beings, people in heaven, the human world, the animal realm, and other psychological states of being. These are the different kinds of projections, the dream worlds we create for ourselves.

Having struggled and failed to escape, having experienced claustrophobia and pain, this monkey begins to wish for something good, something beautiful and seductive. So the first realm he begins to hallucinate is the Deva Loka, the God Realm, “heaven,” a place filled with beautiful, splendid things. The monkey dreams of strolling out of his house, walking in luxuriant fields, eating ripe fruit, sitting and swinging in the trees, living a life of freedom and ease.

Then he also begins to hallucinate the Asura Realm, or the Realm of The Jealous Gods. Having experienced the dream of heaven, the monkey wants to defend and maintain his great bliss and happiness. He suffers from paranoia, worrying that others may try to take his treasures from him, and so he begins to feel jealousy. He is proud of himself, has enjoyed his creations of the God Realm, and this has led him into jealousy of the Asura Realm.

Then he also perceives the earth-bound quality of these experiences. Instead of simply alternating between jealousy and pride, he begins to feel comfortable, at home in the “human world,” the “earthly world.” It is the world of just leading a regular life, doing things ordinarily, in a mundane fashion. This is The Human Realm.

But then the monkey also senses that something is a bit dull, something is not quite flowing. This is because, as he progresses from the Realm of the Gods to the Realm of the Jealous Gods to the Realm of Human Beings, and his hallucinations become more and more solid, then this whole development begins to feel rather heavy and stupid. At this point he is born into the Animal Realm. He would rather crawl or moo or bark then enjoy the pleasure of pride or envy. This is the simplicity of animals.

Then the process is intensified, and the monkey starts to experience a desperate feeling of starvation, because he really does not want to descend to any lower realms of the gods; so he begins to feel hunger and thirst, a tremendous feeling of nostalgia for what he remembers he once had. This is the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts or Preta Realm.

Then there is a sudden losing of faith and the monkey begins to doubt himself and his world, begins to react violently. All this is a terrible nightmare. He realizes that such a nightmare could not be true and he begins to hate himself for creating all this horror. This is the dream of the Hell Realm, the last of the Six Realms.

Throughout the entire development of the Six Realms the monkey has experienced discursive thoughts, ideas, fantasies, and whole thought patterns. Up to the level of the Fifth Skandha his process of psychological evolution has been very regular and predictable. From the First Shandha each successive development arose in a systematic pattern, like an overlay of tiles on a roof. But now the monkey’s state of mind becomes very distorted and disturbed, as suddenly this mental jigsaw puzzle erupts and his thought patterns become irregular and unpredictable. This seems to be our state of mind as we come to the teachings and the practice of meditation. This is the place from which we must start our practice.

I think that it is very important to discuss the basis of the path—ego, or confusion—before we speak of liberation and freedom. If I were only to discuss the experience of liberation, that would be very dangerous. This is why we begin by considering the development of the ego. It is a kind of psychological portrait of our mental states. I am afraid this has not been an especially beautiful talk, but we have to 88iface the facts. That seems to be the process of working on the path.

you just have to see what you are. Often we tend to look for the positive side, the beauty of spirituality, and ignore ourselves as we really are. This is the greatest danger. If we are engaged in self-analysis, our spiritual practice is trying to find some ultimate analysis, an ultimate self-deception. Ego’s intelligence is tremendously talented. It cn distort anything. If one seizes on the ideas of spirituality or self-analysis or transcendence of ego, immediately ego takes hold of them and translates them into self-deception.

Creative Consciousness Process


Creative Consciousness Process, Iona Miller

Analogies are hermeneutic interpretations of the metanarratives of the Conscious Creative Process (CCP). They are the metaphors we “see” by, “how we know what we know.”  They are useful models.  As such, they may function as useful orientations, but also “interpret” what are unique experience in a reductive way.   The psyche unfolds  what each participant needs for healing in a nonrational way we could never guess or make up.  The importance lies in the experience; meaning is inherent within it, embodied as a gestalt.

Consciousness journeys and (quantum) theory are analogous in many ways and may shed light on one another. The same patterns appear over and over in the journeys.

In either case, a fundamental state-of-the-art understanding of the nature of physical reality is a useful foundation for consciousness exploration.  CCP is not only an empirical orientation of “mind observing matter,” but also a phenomenology of “mind observing mind,” and sometimes “mind observing spirit.” Of course it is understood that “observation” is participatory and transformative. When the images unfold and change, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are modified.

We can recycle our consciousness by feeding it back into itself, viewing itself from a panoply of infinite relative perspectives. Such experiences as “mind-as-inert-matter,” and “mind inside nature” may emerge. These destructured states are emergent, not stabilized states of consciousness, such as found in spiritual disciplines. For untrained participants, such  states are not necessarily “repeatable at will” in the way they are for skilled meditators.

There are infinite possibilities for explicating implicate consciousness as images. However, each individual embodies a gestalt of “probabilities”; because of “sensitivity’” explication of certain patterns is more likely based on initial conditions at conception and birth and the complex effects of subsequent psychophysical trauma, which pattern primal self-image.

Theory is also a “way of seeing,” alerting us to what to look for in the experiment. Theories are science’s versions of mythic reality. Without the matrix of theory, the data flies by incomprehensibly, unnoticed for its deeper importance it becomes essentially invisible.

Participants in the (CCP) report states which are analogous to these scientific models of wholeness, unfolding, and void states, which are analogous to profound mystical states.

In (CCP), participants may become experientially aware of the deeper implicate order and respond with oceanic feelings, mystical awe, and psychosomatic phenomena. Bohm refers to meaningful symptoms as “somasignificance” and “signasomatic” to describe the patterns of flow between that aspect of the world that is more material and that which is more mind-like.

Consciousness is information—consciousness-in-forming—the process of unfolding. The intensity of consciousness at any level is a function of the amount of information at that level (Bustista, 1978). All the potential information about the universe is holograhically encoded in the spectrum of frequency patterns that constantly bombard us.

Through destructuring in meditation, one quiets the brain becoming sympathetically in tune with (entrained to) the universal frequency pattern. When this occurs, the encoded information about the universe becomes holographically decoded, and the individual experiences a state of unitive consciousness with the entire universe.

Much of the transformative work in CCP takes place at the threshold between the manifest and nonmaifest. As imagery unfolds deeper and deeper levels of psyche, it becomes more primal, less structured, until perceptions of forms and patterns dissolve entirely in chaotic consciousness. Thus, CCP is a self-deconditioning process, leading to an experience of the process of awareness itself, leading to a meaningful void.

When the new order emerges creatively, it is literally “displayed” or unfolded, made manifest. That display instantly communicates the information it embodies in imagination. The image is an immediate guide to activity and its dynamic display is also feedback which recycles and patterns the whole system.

Mystics are attuned to the inner display of consciousness, much deeper within the implicate order. Bohm notices that, “every thought forms a display in what I call the imaginal world, in terms of the feeling, the image, the idea, the excitement, the muscular tension, which are associated with thought.”

He also has said that, “when the content of thought is totality, it is carrying out a dance:  making a display which is fundamentally its own deep inner nature, the whole of itself. In that process it becomes totally involved, and therefore it becomes in a way a work of art which is displaying its inner principle rather than anything superficial…Metaphysical thought has a drive inherent in it to go further, to the point of being without an external content.”

Bohm suggests that we transform as eternity unfolds in us, but that eternity may also transform, as it returns to itself enriched by our participation.

Bohm contends that the nonmanifest frequency realm is n-dimensional and atemporal, inconceivable to 3-D thought.  He asserts that only when the individual has dissolved their 3-dimensional self consisting of gross matter, can the ground of our being flow through us unobstructedly.

He extends this notion to psychology, urging us to dissolve the “thinker” as the highest priority the seeker for truth can undertake. He advocates a kind of ‘psychological atom smashing’ in which the illusory ego clusters are dissolved.

Knowledge consists in this theory of the process of tuning in on the manifestation (phenomenon) of the nonmanifest in order it make it accessible, through a state of consciousness which lies outside the barriers of the finite senses. Bohm maintains that this capacity exists in the universe, not in us strictly speaking.

However, “the challenge for the individual locus of consciousness is to provide the condition that allows the universal force to flow through it without hindrance. The result is not knowledge, in the Kantian sense, but direct nondualistic awareness.”

Its precondition is emptiness, as Bohm repeatedly insists, which entail a suspension of the Kantian categories and of 3-dimensional space-time. Such emptiness brings about the cessation of consciousness as the knower and transforms us into an instrument receptively allowing the noumenal intelligence to operate through us, irradiating our daily lives and those of others.


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