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

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 are irrelevant to the journey itself…participants should not be bothered by them, as it will ‘interpret’ their unique experience in a reductive way.


Who wants to hear that their experience of being inexorably sucked into a terrifying bottomless pit is just another typical experience of the violent void of the depressing unconscious?…the psyche unfolds just 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.


We have simply observed that the 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, ‘mind inside nature’ may emerge…these destructured states…are emergent, not stabilized states of consciousness, such as found in spiritual disciplines. For untrained participants, the states are not necessarily ‘repeatable at will’ as are those of 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 if 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 superficially…analogous to profound mystical states…


We could compare the four aspects of the nonrepresentational voids as the…



  1. Dead Void: physical void…interstellar space…

  2. Emotional Void: Void of depressing unconscious, with its empty trances…

  3. Existential Void: the imaginal realm with its bliss states, ecstasies and inspirations.

  4. Mystic Void: Void of objectless contemplation, transcendental unified state.


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 of 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 ther 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 t 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.


Stages Of Faith

Stages of Faith, James W. Fowler

Faith is not always religious in its content or context…Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. Faith is a person’s way of seeing him- or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose.

Even our nearest relatives in the animal world are endowed with far more set and specific instinctive guidance systems than are we. Matters such as dating, building dens or lairs, searching for food and knowing how to care for their young are far more programmed even in the chimpanzee than they are in us. But as far as we know none of these other creatures bear the glory and burden we carry of asking what life is about. They do not struggle under the self-consciousness of shaping their lives through the commitments they make or of searching for images of meaning by which to give sense to things. Homo poeta Ernest Becker call us, man the meaning maker. We do not live by bread alone, sex alone, success alone, and certainly not by instinct alone. We require meaning. We need purpose and priorities; we must have some grasp on the big picture.

In the 1950’s Paul Tillich published a small book that became a classic. Dynamics of Faith struck a fresh note of honesty about the ways we order our lives and the hungers we have. Pushing aside a too easy identification of faith with religion or belief, Tillich challenges his readers to ask themselves what values have centering power in their lives. The “god values” in our lives are those things that concern us ultimately. Our real worship, or true devotion directs itself toward the objects of our ultimate concern. That ultimate concern may center finally in our own ego or its extensions—work, prestige and recognition, power and influence, wealth. One’s ultimate concern may be invested in family, university, nation, or church. Love, sex and a loved partner might be the passionate center of one’s ultimate concern. Ultimate concern is a much more powerful matter than claimed belief in a creed or a set of doctrinal propositions. Faith as a state of being ultimately concerned may or may not find its expression in institutional or cultic religious forms. Faith so understood is very serious business. It involves how we make our life wagers. It shapes the ways we invest our deepest loves and our most costly loyalties…another theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr…sees faith in the shared visions and values that hold human groups together…in the overarching, integrating and grounding trust in a center of value and power sufficiently worthy to give our lives unity and meaning.

Faith…is a universal human concern. Prior to our being religious or irreligious, before we come to think of ourselves as Catholics, Protestants, Jews or Muslims, we are already engaged with issues of faith. Whether we become nonbelievers, agnostics or atheists, we are concerned with how to put our lives together and with what will make life worth living. Moreover, we look for something to love that loves us, something to value that gives us value, something to honor and respect that has the power to sustain our being…

As a way of clarifying these issues some of the more recent work of the comparative religionist Wilfred Cantwell Smith claims our attention. Smith is one of the very few students of the history of religion who has the linguistic competence to study most of the major religious traditions in the languages of their primary sources. For nearly two decades he has devoted himself to, among other things, the task of researching and interpreting the contribution each of the central world religious traditions makes to our understanding of faith…

In The Meaning and End of Religion Smith makes his first, seminal distinctions between religion and faith. Speaking of religions as “cumulative tradition,” he suggests that we see a cumulative tradition as the various expressions of the faith of people in the past. A cumulative tradition may be constituted by texts of scripture or law, including narratives, myths, prophecies, accounts of revelations, and so forth; it may include visual and other kids of symbols, oral traditions, music, dance, ethical teachings, theologies, creeds, rites, liturgies, architecture and a host of other elements…Faith, at once deeper and more personal than religion, is the person’s or group’s way of responding to transcendent value and power as perceived and grasped through the forms of the cumulative tradition. Faith and religion, in this view, are reciprocal. Each is dynamic; each grows or is renewed through its interaction with the other…

Smith says, somewhat wistfully, “Faith is meant to be religious.” But in fact, faith struggles to be formed and maintained in many persons today who feel they have no usable access to any viable cumulative religious tradition.

This situation, Smith believes, results in part from certain confusions that have arisen in our understandings of religion, faith, and belief. Having demonstrated that faith needs to be distinguished from religion, Smith turns…to the task of exposing as an error the widespread identification of faith with belief. This is an error both in an accurate reading of the history of religious traditions and in any adequate effort to describe the nature and functions of faith…

If we examine…religious traditions in the light of contemporary religio-historical knowledge, Smith says, we recognize that the variety of religious belief and practice is far greater than we might have imagined. But in like manner we find that the similarities in religious faith also turn out to be greater than we might have expected. In explaining why, he characterizes faith in contrast to belief:

Faith is deeper, richer, more personal. It is engendered by a religious tradition, in some cases and to some degree by its doctrines; but it is a quality of the person, not of the system. It is an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbor, to the universe; a total response; a way of seeing whatever one sees and of handling whatever one handles; a capacity to live at more than a mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of, a transcendent dimension. Belief he takes to be “the holding of certain ideas.” Belief, in religious contexts at least, arises out of the effort to translate experiences of and relation to transcendence into concepts or propositions. Belief may be one of the ways faith expresses itself. But one does not have faith in a proposition or concept. Faith, rather, is the relation of trust in and loyalty to the transcendent about which concepts or propositions—beliefs—are fashioned. Smith again writes:

Faith, then, is a quality of human living. At its best it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service: a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe, and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen to oneself at the level of immediate event. Men and women of this kind of faith face catastrophe and confusion, affluence and sorrow, unperturbed; face opportunity with conviction and drive, and face others with cheerful charity.

Smith gives a persuasive demonstration that the language dealing with faith in the classical writings of the major religious traditions never speaks of it in ways that can be translated by the modern meanings of belief or believing. Rather, faith involves an alignment of the heart or will, a commitment of loyalty and trust. His treatment of the Hindu term for faith, sraddha, perhaps puts it best: “It means, almost without equivocation, to set one’s heart on.” To set one’s heart on someone or something requires that one has “seen” or “sees the point of” that to which one is loyal. Faith, therefore, involves vision. It is a mode of knowing, of acknowledgment. One commits oneself to that which is known or acknowledged, and lives loyally, with life and character being shaped by that commitment.

The Hebrew (aman he’ min, munah), the Greek (pistuo, Pistis), and the Latin (credo, credere) words for faith parallel those from Buddhist, Moslem and Hindu sources. They cannot mean belief or believing in the modern sense. For the ancient Jew or Christian to have said, “I believe there is a God,” or “I believe God exists,” would have been a strange circumlocution. The being or existence of God was taken for granted and therefore was not an issue…

The failure to probe beneath this shallowing of faith, equating it with the modern understanding of belief, means to perpetuate and widen the modern divorce of belief and faith. If faith is reduced to belief in credal statements and doctrinal formulations, then sensitive and responsible persons are likely to judge that they must live “without faith.” But if faith is understood as trust in another and as loyalty to a transcendent center of value and power, then the issue of faith—and the possibility of religious faith—becomes lively and open again. Smith’s work makes an extraordinary contribution to our grasping the need for re-imaging faith. No summary can adequately evoke the rich new perspective that results from a meditative reading of these writings, but perhaps I have shared enough to enable us to benefit from a review of his major conclusions:

1. Faith, rather than belief or religion, is the most fundamental category in the human quest for relation to transcendence.

2. Faith, it appears, is generic, a universal feature of human living, recognizably similar everywhere despite the remarkable variety of forms and contents of religious practice and belief.

3. Each of the major religious traditions studied speaks about faith in ways that make the same phenomena visible. In each and all, faith involves an alignment of the will, a resting of the heart, in accordance with a vision of transcendent value and power, one’s ultimate concern.

4. Faith, classically understood, is not a separate dimension of life, a compartmentalized specialty. Faith is an orientation of the total person, giving purpose and goal to one’s hopes and strivings, thoughts and actions.

The unity and recognizability of faith, despite the myriad variants of religions and beliefs, support the struggle to maintain and develop a theory of religious relativity in which the religions—and the faith they evoke and shape—are seen as relative apprehensions of our relatedness to that which is universal. This work toward a “universal theory as to the relation between truth itself and truth articulated in the midst of the relativity of human life and history” represents a rejection of faith in “relativism,” (the philosophy or common sense view that religious claims and experience have no necessary validity beyond the bounds of the communities that hold them) and serves a commitment to press the question of truth in the living and in the study of faith.

Structural Stages and the Contents of Faith

At various points earlier in this book I have hinted at a conception of the sequence of faith stages and their interrelations in terms of a rising spiral movement. Although models can be misleading and each has decisive limits, I have found it helpful in communicating my understanding of faith stages and of the process of transition, regression and conversion, to (ask you to) imagine the whole process as dynamically connected, each successive spiral stage linked to and adding to the previous ones. Each stage…marks the rise of a new set of capacities or strengths in faith. These add to and recontextualize previous patterns of strength without negating or supplanting them. Certain life issues with which faith must deal recur at each stage; hence the spiral movements in part overlap each other, though each successive stage addresses these issues at a new level of complexity. Overall, there is a movement outward toward individuation, culminating in Stage 4. Then the movement doubles back, in Stages 5 & 6, toward the participation and oneness of the earlier stages, though at quite different levels of complexity, differentiation and inclusiveness. Each stage represents a widening of vision and valuing, correlated with a parallel increase in the certainty and depth of selfhood, making for qualitative increases in intimacy with self-others-world. Please do not forget that the transitions from one spiral stage level to another are often protracted, painful, dislocating and/or abortive. Arrests can and do occur at any of the stages. Also I ask you to keep in mind that each stage has its proper time of ascendency. For persons in a given stage at the right time for their lives, the task is the full realization and integration of the strengths and graces of that stage rather than rushing on to the next stage. Each stage has the potential for wholeness, grace and integrity and for strengths sufficient for either life’s blows or blessings.

The model needs to be imagined as at least four-dimensional. Looked at from above or below the “spiral” of your stage or mine will not appear perfectly rounded or smooth. We all exhibit warps and indentations, skews and broken places. (There is a) broken line passing through the centers of the stages (indicating) thematic and conventional continuities across stage transitions. These may be centering and supportive, funding the readiness for the relinquishment of one’s way of making meaning that begins the process of stage change. The line of thematic and convictional continuities may, on the other hand, symbolize a deficit of assured meanings, salient in our lives as crippling images of faith and convictions of an untrustworthy ultimate environment. The new structural features of each successive stage mean a reworking of the contents of one’s faith stage. Radical changes in the contents of one’s faith—as in conversion…may either lead to or result from structural stage change.

Stage 1: Intuitive—Projective

This stage is the fantasy-filled, imitative phase in which one is powerfully and permanently influenced by examples, moods, actions, and stories of the beliefs of primarily related adults.

The stage most typical of the child three to seven, it is marked by a relative fluidity of though patterns. The child is continually encountering novelties for which no stable operations of knowing have been formed. The imaginative processes underlying fantasy are unrestrained and uninhibited by logical thought. In league with forms of knowing dominated by perception, imagination in this stage is extremely productive of long lasting images and feelings (positive and negative) that later, more stable and self-reflective valuing and thinking will have to order and sort out. This is the stage of first self-awareness. The “self-aware” child is egocentric as regards the perspectives of others. Here we find first awareness of death and sex and the strong taboos by which cultures and families insulate those powerful areas.

The gift or emergent strength of this stage is the birth of imagination, the ability to unify and grasp the experience-world in powerful images and as presented in stories that register the child’s intuitive understandings and feelings toward the ultimate conditions of existence.

The dangers in this stage arise from the possible “possession” of the child’s imagination by unrestrained images of terror and destructiveness, or from the witting or unwitting exploitation of her or his imagination in the reinforcement of taboos or moral or doctrinal expectations.

The main factor precipitating transition to the next stage is the emergence of concrete operational thinking. Affectively, the resolution of Oedipal issues or the submersion in latency are important accompanying factors. At the heart of the transition is the child’s growing concern to know how things are and to clarify for him or herself the bases of distinctions between what is real and what only seems to be.

Stage 2: Mythic—Literal

This stage is the stage in which the person begins to take on for him- or herself the stories, beliefs and observances that symbolize belonging to his or her community. Beliefs are appropriated with literal interpretations, as are moral rules and attitudes. Symbols are taken as one-dimensional and literal in meaning. In this stage the rise of concrete operations leads to the curbing and ordering of the previous stages imaginative composing of the world. The episodic quality of the Intuitive-Projective stage gives way to the more linear, narrative construction of coherence and meaning. Story becomes the major way of giving unity and value to experience. Marked by increased accuracy in taking the perspective of other persons, those in Stage 2 compose a world based on reciprocal fairness and immanent justice based on reciprocity. The actors in their cosmic stories are anthropomorphic. They can be affected deeply and powerfully by symbolic and dramatic materials. They do not, however, step back from the flow of stories to formulate reflective, conceptual meanings. For this stage the meaning is both carried and “trapped” in the narrative.

The new capacity or strength in this stage is the rise of narrative and the emergence of story, drama and myth as ways of finding and giving coherence to experience.

The limitations of literalness and an excessive reliance upon reciprocity as a principle for constructing an ultimate environment can result either in an over-controlling, stilted perfectionism or “works righteous” or in their opposite, an abasing sense of badness embraced because of mistreatment, neglect or the apparent disfavor of significant others.

A factor initiating transition to Stage 3 is the implicit clash or contradictions in stories that lead to reflections on meanings. Previous literalism breaks down; new cognitive conceit leads to disillusionment with previous teachers and teachings. Conflicts with authoritative stories must be faced. The emergence of mutual interpersonal perspective taking creates the need for a more personal relationship with the unifying power of the ultimate environment.

Stage 3: Synthetic—Conventional

At this stage a person’s experience of the world now extends beyond the family. A number of spheres demand attention: family, school or work, peers, street society and media, and perhaps religion. The challenge of this stage is to find a coherent orientation in the midst of that more complex and diverse range of involvements, to synthesize values and information and provide a basis for identity and outlook. It structures the ultimate environment in interpersonal terms. Its images of unifying value and power derive from the extension of qualities experienced in personal relationships. It is a “conformist” stage in the sense that it is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others and as yet does not have a sure enough grasp of its own identity and autonomous judgment to construct and maintain an independent perspective. While beliefs and values are deeply felt, they typically are tacitly held—the person “dwells” in them and in the meaning world they mediate. But there has not been an occasion to step outside them to reflect on and examine them explicitly or systematically. At this stage a person has an “ideology,” a more or less consistent clustering of values and beliefs, but he or she has not objectified it for examination and in a sense in unaware of having it. Differences of outlook with others are experienced as differences in “kind” of person. Authority is located in the incumbents of traditional authority roles (if perceived as personally worthy) or in the consensus of a valued, face-to-face group.

The emergent capacity of this stage is the forming of a personal myth—the myth of one’s own becoming in identity, incorporating one’s past and anticipated future in an image of the ultimate environment unified by characteristics of personality.

The dangers in this stage are the expectations and evaluations of others can be so compellingly internalized (sacralized) that later autonomy of judgment and action can be jeopardized; or interpersonal betrayals can give rise either to nihilistic despair about a personal principle of ultimate being or to a compensatory intimacy with God unrelated to mundane relations.

Factors contributing to the breakdown of this stage and to readiness for transition may include: serious contradictions between valued authority sources; the encounter with experiences or perspectives that lead to critical reflection on how one’s beliefs and values have formed and changed, and how “relative” they are to one’s particular group or background.

Stage Four: Individuative—Reflective

The movement from Stage 3 to Stage 4 is particularly critical for it is in this transition that the late adolescent or adult must begin to take seriously the burden of responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes. Where genuine movement toward stage 4 is underway the person must face certain unavoidable tensions: individuality versus being defined by a group or group membership; subjectivity and the power of one’s strongly felt but unexamined feelings versus objectivity and the requirement of critical reflection; self-fulfillment or self-actualization as a primary concern versus service to and being for others; the question of being committed to the relative versus the possibility of an absolute.

Stage 4 most appropriately takes form in young adulthood (but many adults never construct it and for others it emerges in the mid-thirties or forties). This stage is marked by a double development. The self, previously sustained in its identity by an interpersonal circle of significant others, now claims an identity no longer defined by the composite of one’s roles or meanings to others. To sustain that new identity it composes a meaning frame conscious of its own boundaries and inner connections and aware of itself as a “world view.” Self (identity) and outlook (world view) are differentiated from those of others and become acknowledged factors in the reactions, interpretations and judgments one makes on the actions of self and others. It expresses its intuitions of coherence in an ultimate environment in terms of an explicit system of meanings. This is a “demythologizing” stage. It is likely to attend minimally to unconscious factors influencing it judgments and behavior.

Stage 4’s ascendant strength has to do with its capacity for critical reflection on identity (self) and outlook (ideology). It dangers inhere in its strengths: an excessive confidence in the conscious mind and in critical thought and a kind of second narcissism in which the now clearly bounded, reflective self overassimilates “reality” and the perspectives of others into its own world view.

Restless with the self-images and outlook maintained by Stage 4, the person ready for transition finds him- or herself attending to what may feel like anarchic and disturbing inner voices. Elements from a childish past, images and energies from a deeper self, an gnawing sense of the sterility and flatness of the meanings one serves—any or all of these may signal readiness for something new. Stories, symbols, myths and paradoxes from ones’ own or other traditions may insist on breaking in upon the neatness of the previous beliefs. Disillusionment with one’s compromises and recognition that life is more complex than Stage 4’s logic of clear distinctions and abstract concepts can comprehend, press one toward a more dialectical and multileveled approach to life truth.

Stage 5 Conjunctive

The Conjunctive Stage involves the integration into self and outlook of much that was suppressed or unrecognized in the interest of Stage 4’s self-certainty and conscious cognitive and affective adaptation to reality. This stage develops a “second naivete” in which symbolic power is reunited with conceptual meanings. Here there must also be a new reclaiming and reworking of one’s past. There must be an opening to the voices of one’s “deeper self.” Importantly, this involves a critical recognition of one’s social unconscious—the myths, ideal images and prejudices built deeply into the self-system by virtue of one’s nurture within a particular social class, religious tradition, ethnic group or the like.

Unlike before mid-life, Stage 5 knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts. What the previous stage struggled to clarify, in terms of boundaries of self and outlook, this stage now makes porous and permeable. Alive to paradox and the truth in apparent contradictions, this stage strives to unify opposites in mind and experience. It generates and maintains vulnerability to the strange truths of those who are “other;” ready for closeness to that which is different and threatening to self and outlook (including new depths of experience in spirituality and religious revelation), this stage’s commitment to justice is freed from the confines of tribe, class, religious community or nation. And with the seriousness that can arise when life is more than halfway over, this stage is ready to spend and be spent for the cause of conserving and cultivating the possibility of others’ generating identity and meaning.

The new strength of this stage comes in the rise of the ironic imagination—a capacity to see and be in one’s or one’s group’s most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality. Its dangers lie in the direction of a paralyzing passivity or inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal, due to its paradoxical understanding of truth.

Stage 5 can appreciate symbols, myths and ritual (its own and others’) because it has been grasped, in some measure, by the depth of reality to which they refer. It also sees the divisions of the human family vividly because it has been apprehended by the possibility (and imperative) of an inclusive community of being. But this stage remains divided. It lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision and loyalties. In some few cases this division yields to the call of the radical actualization that we call Stage 6.

Stage 6: Universalizing

In order to characterize Stage 6 we need to focus more sharply on the dialectical or paradoxical features of Stage 5. Stage 5 remains paradoxical or divided because the self is caught between those universalizing apprehensions and the need to preserve its own being and well-being. Or because it is deeply invested in maintaining the ambiguous order of a socioeconomic system, the alternatives to which seem more unjust or destructive than it is. In this situation of paradox Stage 5 must act and not be paralyzed. But Stage 5 acts out of conflicting loyalties. Its readiness to spend and be spent finds limits in its loyalty to the present order, to its institutions, groups and compromise procedures. Stage 5’s perception of justice outreach its readiness to sacrifice the self and to risk the partial justice of the present order for the sake of a more inclusive justice and the realization of love.

The transition to Stage 6 involves an overcoming of this paradox through a moral and ascetic actualization of the universalizing apprehensions. Heedless of the threats to self, to primary groups, and to the institutional arrangement of the present order that are involved, Stage 6 becomes disciplined, activist incarnation—a making real and tangible—of the imperatives of absolute love and justice of which Stage 5 has partial apprehensions. The self at Stage 6 engages in spending and being spent for the transformation of present reality in the direction of a transcendent actuality.

Persons best described by Stage 6 typically exhibit qualities that shake our usual criteria of normalcy. Their heedlessness to self-preservation and the vividness of their taste and feel for transcendent moral and religious actuality give their actions and words an extraordinary and often unpredictable quality. In their devotion to universalizing compassion they may offend our parochial perceptions of justice. In their penetration through the obsession with survival, security, and significance they threaten our measured standards of righteousness and goodness and prudence. Their enlarged visions of universal community disclose the partialness of our tribes and pseudo-species. And their leadership initiatives…constitute affronts to our usual notions of relevance.

Stage 6…(is) “contagious” in the sense that they create zones of liberation from the social, political, economic and ideological shackles we place and endure on human futurity. Living with felt participation in a power that unifies and transforms the world, Universalizers are often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious structure) by which we sustain our individual and corporate survival, security and significance…The rare persons who may be described by this stage are more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us…Life is both loved and held loosely. Such persons are ready for fellowship with persons at any of the other stages and from any other faith tradition…Persons who come to embody the Universalizing Stage are drawn into those patterns of commitment and leadership by the exigencies of history…as if they are selected by the great Blacksmith of history, heated in the fires of turmoil and trouble and then hammered into usable shape on the hard anvil of conflict and struggle.

Structural Stages and the Contents of Faith

At various points earlier in this book I have hinted at a conception of the sequence of faith stages and their interrelations in terms of a rising spiral movement. Although models can be misleading and each has decisive limits, I have found it helpful in communicating my understanding of faith stages and of the process of transition, regression and conversion, to (ask you to) imagine the whole process as dynamically connected, each successive spiral stage linked to and adding to the previous ones. Each stage…marks the rise of a new set of capacities or strengths in faith. These add to and recontextualize previous patterns of strength without negating or supplanting them. Certain life issues with which faith must deal recur at each stage; hence the spiral movements in part overlap each other, though each successive stage addresses these issues at a new level of complexity. Overall, there is a movement outward toward individuation, culminating in Stage 4. Then the movement doubles back, in Stages 5 & 6, toward the participation and oneness of the earlier stages, though at quite different levels of complexity, differentiation and inclusiveness. Each stage represents a widening of vision and valuing, correlated with a parallel increase in the certainty and depth of selfhood, making for qualitative increases in intimacy with self-others-world. Please do not forget that the transitions from one spiral stage level to another are often protracted, painful, dislocating and/or abortive. Arrests can and do occur at any of the stages. Also I ask you to keep in mind that each stage has its proper time of ascendency. For persons in a given stage at the right time for their lives, the task is the full realization and integration of the strengths and graces of that stage rather than rushing on to the next stage. Each stage has the potential for wholeness, grace and integrity and for strengths sufficient for either life’s blows or blessings.

The model needs to be imagined as at least four-dimensional. Looked at from above or below the “spiral” of your stage or mine will not appear perfectly rounded or smooth. We all exhibit warps and indentations, skews and broken places. (There is a) broken line passing through the centers of the stages (indicating) thematic and conventional continuities across stage transitions. These may be centering and supportive, funding the readiness for the relinquishment of one’s way of making meaning that begins the process of stage change. The line of thematic and convictional continuities may, on the other hand, symbolize a deficit of assured meanings, salient in our lives as crippling images of faith and convictions of an untrustworthy ultimate environment. The new structural features of each successive stage mean a reworking of the contents of one’s faith stage. Radical changes in the contents of one’s faith—as in conversion…may either lead to or result from structural stage change.

Japanese Zen

Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy

Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy

First published Wed Jun 28, 2006; substantive revision Fri Oct 8, 2010

Zen aims at a perfection of personhood. To this end, sitting meditation called “za-zen” is employed as a foundational method of prāxis across the different schools of this Buddha-Way, through which the Zen practitioner attempts to embody non-discriminatory wisdom vis-à-vis the meditational experience known as “satori” (enlightenment). A process of discovering wisdom culminates in the experiential dimension in which the equality of thing-events is apprehended in discerning them. The most distinguishing feature of this school of the Buddha-Way is seen in its contention that wisdom, accompanied by compassion, is expressed in the everyday “life-world” when associating with one’s self, people, and nature. The everyday “life-world” for most people is an evanescent transforming stage in which living is consumed, philosophically speaking, by an either-or, ego-logical, dualistic paradigm of thinking with its attendant psychological states such as stress and anxiety. Zen demands an overcoming of this paradigm by practically achieving an holistic perspective in cognition, so that the Zen practitioner can celebrate, with a stillness of mind, a life of tending toward the concrete thing-events of everyday life and nature. For this reason, the Zen practitioner is required to embody freedom expressive of the original human nature. Generally speaking, Zen cherishes simplicity and straightforwardness in grasping reality and acting on it “here and now,” for it believes that a thing-event that is immediately presencing before one’s eyes or under one’s foot is no other than an expression of suchness, i.e., it is such that it is showing its primordial mode of being. It also understands a specificity of thing-event to be a recapitulation of the whole; parts and the whole are to be lived in an inseparable relationship through an exercise of nondiscriminatory wisdom, without prioritizing the visible over the invisible, the explicit over the implicit, and vice versa. As such, Zen maintains a stance of “not one” and “not two,” i.e., “positionless position,” where “not two” signals a negation of the stance that divides the whole into two parts, i.e., dualism, while “not one” designates a negation of this stance when the Zen practitioner dwells in the whole as one, while suspending judgment in meditation, i.e., non-dualism. Free, bilateral movement between “not one” and “not two” characterizes Zen’s achievement of a personhood with a third perspective that cannot, however, be confined to either dualism or non-dualism (i.e., neither “not one” nor “not two”).

1. The Meaning of the Term Zen

2. Zen’s Methods: Kōan Practice and Just Sitting

3. Zen as Anti-Philosophy

4. Overcoming Dualism

4.1 Logical Meaning of Not Two

4.2 An Epistemological Meaning of Not Two

4.3 Zen’s Meaning of Not Two

5. An Experiential Meaning of Not-Two

5.1 Zen’s No-Thought and No-Image

5.2 Zen’s Nothing

5.3 Zen “Seeing”

6. Zen’s Understanding of Time and Space

6.1 Here and Now

6.2 Zero Time and Zero Space

6.3 An Integrated Time and Space

6.4 The Structure of Things Appearing

7. Returning to the Everyday “life-world”: Not One

7.1 Zen Person

7.2 Zen’s Freedom

  1. Concluding Remarks

1. The Meaning of the Term Zen

The designation of this school of the Buddha-Way as Zen, which means sitting meditation, is derived from a transliteration of the Chinese word Chán. Because the Chinese term is in turn a transliteration of the Sanskrit term dhyāna, however, Zen owes its historical origin to early Indian Buddhism, where a deepened state of meditation, called samādhi, was singled out as one of the three components of study a Buddhist was required to master, the other two being an observation of ethical precepts (sīla) and an embodiment of nondiscriminatory wisdom (prajñā). The reason that meditation was singled out for the designation of this school is based on the fact that the historical Buddha achieved enlightenment (nirvāna) through the practice of meditation. In the context of Zen Buddhism, perfection of nondiscriminatory wisdom (Jpn., hannya haramitsu; Skrt., prajñāpāramitā) designates practical, experiential knowledge, and secondarily and only derivatively theoretical, intellectual knowledge. This is, Zen explains, because theoretical knowledge is a form of “language game” (Jpn.; keron; Skrt., prapañca), i.e., discrimination through the use of language, as it is built in part on distinction-making. Zen believes that it ultimately carries no existential meaning for emancipating a human being from his or her predicaments, for it maintains that discriminatory knowledge of any kind is delusory/illusory in nature. To this effect it holds that it is through a practical transformation of the psychophysiological constitution of one’s being that one prepares for embodying nondiscriminatory wisdom. This preparation involves the training of the whole person and is called “self-cultivation” (shugyō) in Japanese. It is a practical method of correcting the modality of one’s mind by correcting the modality of one’s body, in which practice (prāxis) is given precedence over theory (theōria). (Yuasa, 1987.)

2. Zen’s Methods: Kōan Practice and Just Sitting

There are basically two methods utilized in meditation practice in Zen Buddhism to assist the practitioner to reach the above-mentioned goals, together with a simple breathing exercise known as “observation of breath count” (Jpn., sūsokukan); one is the kōan method and the other is called “just sitting” (Jpn., shikan taza), a form of “single act samādhi.” For example, the former is employed mainly by the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, while the latter by the Sōtō school; they are the two main schools of this form of the Buddha-Way still flourishing today in Japan. In the Rinzai school, the kōan method is devised to assist the practitioner to become a “Zen person” (Kasulis, 1981) who fully embodies both wisdom and compassion. A kōan is formulated like a riddle or puzzle and is designed in such a way that intellectual reasoning alone cannot solve it without breaking through ego-consciousness by driving it to its limit. This is, Zen believes, because it is fortified by the shield of a dualistic conceptual paradigm with all its attendant presuppositions and conditions which the ego-consciousness in a given cultural and historical milieu accepts to be true in order to live a life anchored in the everyday standpoint.

According to Hakuin (1685–1768), who systematized kōans, there are formally seventeen hundred cases of kōans, and if sub-questions are added to them, a total number of cases comprising the system would roughly be three thousand. The Zen practitioner of the Rinzai school is required to pass them all in a private consultation with a Zen master who checks the practitioner’s state of mind before he or she is granted a seal of transmission. This transmission is said to occur “only from a Buddha to a[nother] Buddha” (yuibutsu yobutsu). Kōans are accordingly grouped into five categories in a most fully developed system: the first group is designed for 1) reaching li (suchness) (richi) or the body of truth (hosshin), 2) the second group for a linguistic articulation (gensen) of meditational experiences, 3) the third group for those kōans truly difficult to pass (nantō), 4) the fourth group for the practitioner to make an insight of kōan experiences pertinent in daily life (kikan), and 5) the fifth group for going beyond the state of buddhahood by erasing traces of enlightenment (kōjō). The Rinzai school summarizes this process of self-cultivation in four mottoes: “a special transmission outside of the scriptures,” “no dependence on words and letters,” “point directly into [one’s] human mind,” and “see into [one’s] nature to become a buddha.” (See, for examples, The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Record.) While the first two phrases point to the fact of discovering an extra-linguistic reality that naturally opens up in meditational experience and of articulating it linguistically in the “best” way according to the capacity of an individual practitioner, the last two phrases indicate a concretization of the original enlightenment (hongaku) in the Zen practitioner, where the original enlightenment means that the human being is innately endowed with a possibility of becoming a Buddha.

On the other hand, the Sōtō school, of which Dōgen (1200–54) is the founder, does not rely on an elaborate kōan system to learn to become a Zen person, but instead follows a method called “just sitting” (shikan taza). It refers to a single-minded, diligent practice where the qualifying term “just” means the practice of meditation without any intervention of ego-logical interest, concern, or desire, so that the practice remains undefiled. This is a method of meditation predicated on the belief that the Zen practitioner engages in the practice in the midst of the original enlightenment. Or to characterize it by using Dōgen’s phrase, it is a method of “practice-realization.” By hyphenating practice and realization, the following implications are suggested: meditation is not a means to an end, i.e., a means to realization, and thereby Dōgen closes a dualistic gap, for example, between potentiality and actuality, between before and after. Accordingly, he collapses the distinction between “acquired enlightenment” (shikaku) and “original enlightenment,” where the “acquired” enlightenment means an enlightenment that is realized through the practice of meditation as a means. With this collapsing, the Sōtō School holds that practice and realization are non-dual to each other, i.e., “not two.”

According to the Sōtō school, the meditational practice, when it is seen as a process of discovery, is a deepening process of becoming aware of the original enlightenment with an expansion of its corresponding experiential correlates and horizons, and it is for this reason called the school of “gradual enlightenment” or “silent illumination.” On the other hand, the Rinzai school is called the school of “sudden enlightenment,” because it does not recognize a process leading to enlightenment (satori) as something worthy of a special attention; what counts is an experience of satori only. Even though there is the above difference in approach between Rinzai and Sōtō schools, the outcome is the same for both insofar as the embodiment of wisdom and compassion is concerned. This is because they both follow the same practice of sitting meditation. Whatever differences there are between the practitioners of the two schools in regard to the linguistic articulation of their meditational experience, they arise from an individual practitioner’s personality, disposition, intellectual capacity, and/or linguistic ability.

3. Zen as Anti-Philosophy

As may be surmised from the foregoing explanation on Zen’s methodological stance, it is perhaps best to understand Zen as an anti-philosophy if the term “philosophy” is taken to mean the establishment of “the kingdom of reason,” which has been launched vis-à-vis an intellectual effort of the most brilliant minds in Europe since the modern period as a way of emancipating human nature from the confines of Christian theological dogmas. Since then, various Western philosophers have attempted to capture human nature with this goal in mind by using ego-consciousness as a starting point as well as a destination in philosophy; to name a few representative ones, human nature has been captured in terms of ego-consciousness (e.g., Descartes), Reason, Personality, Transcendental Subjectivity (e.g., Kant and Husserl), Life (e.g., Dilthey), Existence (e.g., Existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Sartre) and Dasein (Heidegger). (Yuasa, 2003, 160–61.)

By contrast, Zen’s stance of “anti-philosophy” maintains among other things that reason in its discursive use is incapable of knowing and understanding in toto what reality is, for example, what human beings are and what their relation to nature is. For this reason, Zen contends that physical nature and human nature must be sought in an experiential dimension practically trans-descending, and hence transcending, the standpoint of ego-consciousness. That is to say, it must go beyond “the one” and “the two,” as both of these stances are prone to generate a one-sided, and hence incomplete world-view. Instead, they must be sought in the depths of one’s psychē and beyond. For example, Zen Master Seigen (Chin.,; Qīngyuáng, 660–740) expresses the process of self-cultivation to the effect that: “Before the practice, mountains are mountains, during the practice, mountains are not mountains, and after the realization, mountains are [truly] mountains [again].” In the meditational process of discovery then, Zen moves from an ordinary, commonsensical standpoint to an extraordinary standpoint and with this transformation returns to the everyday “life-world,” wherein no Aristotelian either-or logic is accepted as the standard for knowing and understanding reality. Due to this reason, paradoxes, contradictions, and even what appears to be utter nonsense abound in Zen literature. The kōan method mentioned above exemplifies this point. To cite just one such example: “the river does not flow but the bridge does.” If one attempts to understand it by relying on Aristotelian either-or logic as one’s standard for understanding, one will be under the impression that this expression is nonsensical or meaningless.

As may be surmised then, by relying on the above-mentioned methodological stance, Zen Buddhism has produced an understanding of reality—one’s own self, living nature and human nature—quite different from those offered by Western philosophy. Therefore, we can say that Zen is an anti-philosophy in that it is not a systematization of knowledge built on the use of a discursive mode of reasoning anchored in the (alleged) certainty or transparency of ego-consciousness, by following an Aristotelian either-or logic. Yet, it upholds something like a philosophy that springs forth through a reflective restatement of the practice, though this “upholding” must be understood with a proviso that it maintains, as mentioned in the foregoing, a “positionless position.” (Abe, 1989.) This is because Zen abhors “holding onto” anything, which Zen considers an instance of “self-binding without a rope.” That is, this self-binding traps the Zen practitioner into a mode of attachment that is the source of suffering and, consequently, disrupts the sense of embodied freedom it cherishes.

4. Overcoming Dualism

Accordingly, Zen demands the practitioner to overcome the dualism operative in the everyday standpoint, which it speaks of by using the phrase “not two.” The use of the phrase “not two” expresses Zen’s proclivity to favor the simple and the concrete, such that it is not expressed as a negation of dualism. This overcoming is an existential, practical project, a goal for the Zen practitioner, although it is paradoxically stated as “if you face it, it goes away.” This is because “facing” presupposes a dualistic stance. “Two” in “not two” designates any “two” things appearing from within the everyday standpoint, especially when it is taken to designate an absolute sense of reality. This standpoint, as mentioned in the foregoing, relies on the discursive mode of reasoning to understand reality, while presupposing an ego-consciousness as the standard referential point. From this perspective for example, a distinction between the outer and inner worlds emerges, using a sensory perception as the point of reference. One of the salient characteristics of this standpoint is that the world appears to be dualistic in nature, that is to say, it recognizes two (and by implication, many) things to be real. Zen questions this standpoint when it is used as the paradigm for daily living, including philosophical thinking, for this standpoint accepts as its foundation an individual’s discrete “I” with a belief that “I” am self-contained and self-sufficient and, therefore, am distinguished and isolated from other individuals and things of nature. Zen observes that it renders opaque, or at best translucent, the experiential domains beyond the sensible world as well as ego-consciousness, both either taken naturalistically or by means of theoretical speculation. The inability to go beyond these experiential domains, Zen explains, occurs because ego-consciousness is physiologically rooted in the body and psychologically in the unconscious. This points to a philosophically important consequence. Namely, once the practitioner accepts this outer-inner dichotomy even provisionally, he or she is led to accept as true a host of other “two” things that are affirmed to be real, as is seen in pairs of opposites such as mind vs. body, I vs. others, love vs. hate, good vs. evil, and I vs. nature.

4.1 Logical Meaning of Not Two

Logically speaking, Zen explains that “two” things arise because the everyday standpoint stipulates Aristotelian either-or logic as the standard for cognizing the whole, however the whole may be construed. (Nagatomo, 2000, 213–44.) This logic thinks it reasonable to divide the whole into two parts when knowing or understanding reality. That is, when this logic is applied to the whole, it compels the user of this logic to choose, reasonably in the mind of the user, one part, while disregarding the other part(s) as irrelevant or meaningless. It prioritizes one part at the expense of the other part(s), while celebrating the exclusion. In so doing, it looks to the explicit while becoming oblivious to the fact that the implicit equally exists as a supporting ground for the explicit, where the explicit is something “obvious” to the senses and the rational mind. It champions one-sidedness in cognition and judgment as the supreme form of knowing and understanding reality. However, Zen thinks that this prioritization, this exclusion, violates a cardinal principle of knowing, for knowledge of anything demands an understanding of the whole. Either-or logic fails on this account. Moreover, it contends that when this logic attempts to understand the whole, it theoretically reduces the other to the one that is judged to be true and/or real. For example, if one maintains that the mind is real, one disregards the body as unreal, yielding an idealist position. On the other hand, if one thinks the body is real, it disposes of the mind in the same way, favoring materialism as true and real, which is presupposed, for example, by natural science. Either position commits itself to reductionism. Here, questioning this practice and the consequences it entails, Zen instead speaks of mind-body oneness, an holistic perspective, as it abhors one-sidedness. However, it warns that as soon as “one” is contrasted with “two” in a discourse, it is no longer genuine and authentic, because once it is objectified linguistically or reflectively, it slips into being an idea, an abstraction.

4.2 An Epistemological Meaning of Not Two

From the point of view of epistemology developed by modern European philosophy, the “two things” are the subject who knows and the object that is known. Zen finds that these two things impose on the epistemological subject a structuring that is framed dualistically and either-or ego-logically. Accordingly, this structuring unknowingly frames things to appear dualistically and either-or ego-logically to the epistemological subject, while extending the paradigm to itself for self-understanding as well as things other than itself in the same manner. Consequently, the subject stands opposed either to the outer world (e.g., nature) or to the inner world (the world of psychē), or both, and hence it promotes an oppositional mode of thinking. Moreover, Zen notes that the subject cannot by definition become the object or vice versa, for they are distanced from each other either really or ideally. It depends on whether the “distance” and “opposition” occur in space-consciousness or in time-consciousness; an object appears to be “out there” with space-consciousness, while it appears to be “in here” as an immanent object in the field of consciousness in time-consciousness. Suppose one applies this epistemological structure in knowing others, for example, one’s friend. When one attempts to know her from the everyday standpoint, one relies on the language she speaks and her body language. Here one cannot know her in toto, let alone the destiny of her life-history, because she is shielded from an observer by the spatial-temporal density of her being.

4.3 Zen’s Meaning of Not Two

Zen maintains that the situation created by assuming this epistemological standpoint is not ideal, or real, for that matter. Hence, Zen says “not two.” “Not two” is in part a recommendation for experientially achieving oneness through the practice of meditation, informing the holder of the “two” of the narrow and limited scope of her/his understanding, where the idea of oneness may, for now, be conceived at many levels, starting with the physical, the subtle, and the samādhic. Generally speaking then, Zen takes “not two” to designate a negation of any “two” things that are affirmed to be individually real, in which the perspective that realizes the place or domain where two things occur is ignored. The dualistic standpoint also ignores the logical fact that any “two” things cannot be individually one because for one to be, it must be dependent on, and interconnects with, the other one. An either-or logic ignores this interdependence. With this recommendation, Zen maintains that mind and body, I and others, I and nature ought to be experienced as one for those who remain in the everyday standpoint. To express this idea, Zen states that “Heaven and Earth share the same root, and I and the myriad things are one (-body).” It demands an holistic perspective necessary to achieve knowledge that is genuine and authentic. Otherwise, Zen fears that the practitioner will fall into one-sidedness, in which knowledge claim ends up being partial, imbalanced, and even prejudiced. Dōgen captures it by stating: “When one side is illuminated, the other side remains in darkness.” To characterize the dualistic, either-or ego-logical standpoint by borrowing Nietzsche’s phrase, Zen would say that it is “human, and all too human.”

Care must be exercised in understanding the meaning of “not” in the phrase “not two” however. Zen insists that the “not” primarily refers to an existential, practical negation of the “I,” which means “up-rooting the ego-consciousness” and in turn yields, by implication, a logical negation as well. This is because Zen thinks the practitioner cannot achieve this negation simply by following either-or logic, or for that matter by following the intellectual process of reasoning, because both logic and reasoning intrinsically involve two things, for example, the thinker and the thought. Or with either-or logic, a mere logical negation involves an infinite regress in negating the “I”; one who negates the “I” retains the affirmative act of holding “I” in the mind as that which negates. And when the “I” further attempts to negate this affirming act, there still remains an “I” who negates it and the process goes on ad infinitum. For this reason, Zen recommends the practitioner to “forget the ‘I”“ when engaging oneself in any action, be it a mind-act, bodily-act, or speech-act, as is seen for example in both Dōgen and Takuan (1573–1645).

To recapitulate the idea of the Zen meaning of negation as expressed in ”not two,“ Zen sees its self-cultivation as involving a thoroughgoing negation of the ”I“ to the point that no problem, either existential or psychological, entrenched in the ”I“ remains. Hence, we have Rinzai’s phrase: ”if you becomes a master in any place, wherever you stand is true.“ (Iriya, 1989, 70) Truth for Zen is not merely a matter of formulating or uttering a propositional statement, but rather embodying it by becoming, to use his phrase again, a ”true person of no rank,“ (ibid, 20) where ”no rank“ designates the freedom of standing beyond social or linguistic conventions such that a Zen person can use convention freely. Equally important is Zen’s contention that both logical and intellectual methods are abstract, for they become divorced from the actual reality of day-to-day existence. In other words, in the eyes of Zen, these methods lack consideration for the concreteness and immediacy of lived experience. This is because the theoretical standpoint defines the human being who observes things of nature from outside, which can be characterized, by using Yuasa’s phrase, as a ”being-outside-of-nature.“ Instead, Zen maintains that the human being must be understood as a being rooted in nature. To use Yuasa’s phrase again,it is a ”being-in-nature.“ This point is well portrayed in Zen’s landscape paintings wherein a human figure occupies the space of a mere dot in vast natural scenery. (Yuasa, 2003, 160–1)

5. An Experiential Meaning of Not-Two

How does Zen then articulate the experiential meaning of ”not two“? Throughout its long history, which spans from the sixth century in China to the twenty-first century in Japan, Zen has produced numerous ways of linguistically capturing a response to this question, depending on what ”two“ things are thematized in the Zen dialogue (Zen mondō). As a textual study, these dialogues are a primary paradigm for the non-practitioner to learn what ”two“ things are by studying a discourse that unfolds between a Zen master and his disciple. Moreover, this situation is complicated by the fact that a Zen master’s response is usually tailored to an individual disciple’s caliber. This is in keeping with a general method of teaching in Buddhism, i.e., to speaking to the caliber of a listener (taiki seppō). This complication is further compounded by the differences in the personality of Zen masters. Hence, Zen’s responses to the above question are as varied and numerous as there are Zen masters. In spite of this situation, it is reasonably possible to provide a glimpse into the experiential meaning of ”not two“ by looking into a phrase that often appears in Zen dialogues. This phrase is ”no-thought and no-image“ (munen musō), whose experience point to practically going beyond ”not one“ and ”not two.“

5.1 Zen’s No-Thought and No-Image

Upon hearing the phrase, ”no-thought and no-image,“ one may wonder if there could be such a thing. To properly respond to this question, Zen thinks it important to determine whether it is posed with a practical concern or a theoretical concern in mind. The difference allows a Zen master to determine the ground out of which this question is raised, for example, to determine if the inquirer is anchored in the everyday standpoint or in a meditational standpoint. In the case of the former, for instance, Zen would respond by saying that as long as the inquirer poses this question from within the everyday standpoint with a theoretical interest, relying on Aristotelian either-or logic, the inquirer cannot understand the meaning of ”no-thought and no-image,“ as intended by Zen. This is because to formulate the question, ”Is there or is there not no-thought and no-image?“ linguistically drives the inquiry into a contradiction, for one cannot predicate ”is“ on ”no-thought“ or ”no-image.“ Only insofar as ”no-thought“ or ”no-image“ is treated as an idea in a linguistic space without consideration for its referent, can one ask if ”there is“ or ”there is not“ such a thing as ”no-thought.“ In response, Zen maintains that when ”there is“ or ”there is not“ is topicalized in its tradition, it is not the same as ”there is“ or ”there is not“ as understood from within the everyday standpoint. Zen claims that neither ”no-thought“ nor ”no-image“ can be linguistically or logically apprehended from this standpoint.

Why does Zen insist on this? Zen explains that both ”there is“ and ”there is not“ (or more generally ”being“ and ”non-being“) are intellectually framed from within the everyday standpoint by accepting the oppositional ontology where the meaning of ”is“ is predicated on the meaning of ”is not,“ and vice versa. Therefore, Zen maintains that to understand ”no-thought“ or ”no-image“ we need an experiential dimension that goes beyond the oppositional thinking of the everyday standpoint.

5.2 Zen’s Nothing

Zen condenses ”no-thought and no-image“ into a singular word ”no“ in keeping with its proclivity to favor the simple, as this contraction allows Zen to expand the scope and the meaning of ”no-thought and no-image.“ This ”no,“ for example, is made pivotal by Zen Master Joshū (Chin., Zhaozhōu; 778–897). It is usually rendered in English as ”nothing“ and has been presented to the Western reader as if it is the central and cardinal concept of Zen philosophy. At the risk of de-emphasizing other important aspects of Zen such as how it understands the living phenomena of nature, humanity’s relation to them, and aesthetic sensitivity, we will here focus on the scope and meaning of this Zen ”no.“

This ”no“ appears in a Zen dialogue between Joshū and a monk, in which is thematized an issue of whether or not a dog has Buddha-nature. It reads as follows: A monk asks Joshū: ”Does the dog have buddha-nature?“ He replies: ”No[thing].“ The monk says: ”All sentient beings have buddha-nature. Why doesn’t the dog have it?“ Joshū replies: ”He has discrimination due to his karma.“ Joshū’s response of ”no“ to the monk’s question points to the latter’s inadequate, and hence also mistaken, understanding of being. However, as articulated in the Nirvānasūtra, Mahāyāna Buddhism, of which Zen is an offshoot, asserts that all sentient beings have buddha-nature. With this understanding in mind, the monk asked the question, to which Joshū replied ”no.“ His ”no“ points to the fact that the way the monk formulates his question regarding being is predicated on an either-or logical understanding or an affirmation-negation linguistic device. In so doing, the monk relativizes Buddha-nature qua being, while contrasting and opposing it with non-being. Buddha-nature is not something that the dog can have or not have; Buddha-nature is not something contingent. Joshū’s ”no“ allows the monk to return to the ground from which the idea of the Buddha-nature springs forth as an essential characterization of all beings. As such, Joshū’s ”no“ points to a transcendence of being and non-being. Insofar as Zen’s ”no“ is turned into an issue questioning the ground of being, it is appropriate to understand it as ”nothing,“ and in fact as ”absolutely nothing,“ because the latter goes beyond the relative nothing that is contrasted with being.

As Joshū’s ”nothing“ has been made a kōan, numerous Zen masters have used it to test a student’s progress in meditation. In such a case, a Zen master expects a monk to come up with his or her original response by stipulating a condition: ”I don’t expect you to answer that the dog has buddha-nature nor that the dog does not have buddha-nature. Nor do I expect you to reply that the dog neither has nor does not have buddha-nature. How do you respond to this?“ This is a warning that a monk cannot rely on Nāgārjuna’s tetralemma as an acceptable response, namely the four possible ways of understanding thing-events insofar as logic is concerned: ”there is,“ ”there is not,“ ”both ‘there is’ and ‘there is not,’“ and ”neither ‘there is’ nor ‘there is not.’“ This master is admonishing that as long as a monk’s response is framed from within the logic of the everyday use of language, no answer is forthcoming. Here the reader can sense that the scope and the meaning of ”no-thought and no-image“ has been expanded to include the logical use of language, not simply a rejection of oppositional thinking.

A further expansion of the scope and the meaning of ”no“ can be found in an instruction Zen Master Daie (Chin., Dàhuì;1089–1163) gives to his students, though it is given via negativa—when they attempt to discover a response to Joshū’s ”nothing.“ (Yanagita, 1974, 181–2.) Prefacing his remark that ”this one word [i.e., “no(-thing)”] is a cane that shatters numerous [instances of] erroneous knowledge and perception,“ Daie instructs the students not to take ”no[thing]“ in the context of being or nonbeing by applying either-or logic. An appeal to discriminatory thinking based on the standpoint of [ego-]consciousness is of no use either. It is also unacceptable to appeal to bodily action, let alone to engage in a mere verbal exchange. Not even a metaphysical response will do either, for Daie states: ”Do not throw it out into an empty-void where there is nothing. Do not swallow it where something is generated.“ To seek an answer in a text is also out of the question. Daie demands that the practitioner come up with his/her own original answer.

What is evident in the above instructions is that the Zen practitioner must tackle this ”no[thing]“ by mobilizing the whole of his or her person in order to delve into the ground of his or her personhood, where the ”whole“ in question involves both the mind and the body, both the consciousness and the unconscious. This is, no doubt, an existential challenge to the Zen practitioners, and so they make an all-out effort, staking life and death, because it guarantees them an embodiment of truth and freedom. In this context, Zen metaphorically speaks of reaching the whole as ”kicking through the bottom of a bucket“ to designate the ground of a person, which Zen understands to be bottomless. That is, it understands this ground to have ”no“ bottom, i.e., it is a bottomless ground. To avoid the danger of interpreting this ground nihilistically or relativisitically, the modern Japanese thinker, Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945) adds that it is absolutely nothing, where ”absolutely“ means cutting off all pairs of polar opposites.

5.3 Zen ”Seeing“

The experiential dimension in which Zen’s ”nothing“ becomes understandable refers to a quiescent state of meditation in which is arrested the activity of an individual practitioner’s ego-consciousness that functions in a close correlation with his or her body. Upon reaching such a meditational state, the Zen practitioner comes to experience an event generally known as ”seeing into one’s nature“ (kenshō), an initial satori experience. Although this phrase may on the surface suggest a dualistic state, namely that there is something that is called ”nature,“ which the Zen practitioner comes to see as an object, it refers to an experiential fact that seeing has turned into one’s nature (according to the interpretation vis-à-vis the acquired enlightenment), or that one’s nature is seeing (according to the interpretation vis-à-vis the original enlightenment). The Zen tradition interprets ”nature“ to be ”buddha-nature,“ i.e., a possibility to be awakened from the fundamental ignorance. That is to say, to become a Buddha, and the way of its being is designated by the term tathatā, suchness or a thing-event’s being such that it is showing its primordial mode of being. When this aspect of knowledge is emphasized, Zen calls it ”original“ or ”natural“ knowledge. In this connection, it contends that the ”seeing“ is ”not two,“ i.e., it is non-dualistic in nature.

To illustrate an experiential basis for the above observation, we may cite another example, namely Dōgen’s enlightenment experience. This will aid the reader to catch a glimpse of an experiential meaning of ”not two,“ for it is descriptive of the experience itself. He expresses it as ”dropping off the body and the mind“ (shinjin datsuraku). (In order to get an idea of this experience from a contemporary point-of-view, or from outside of Zen tradtion, one may also consult out-of-body experiences.) The experience of ”dropping off the body and the mind“ informs us that the dualistic relationship between the mind and the body has disappeared in meditational awareness and by implication ”I“ and others, and ”I“ and nature. Hence they are ”not two.“ If the distinction has disappeared, it implies that the Zen practitioner is thrown into a non-dualistic domain of experience. It points to a practical transcendence from the everyday either-or, ego-logical, dualistic standpoint.

In light of the outer-inner distinction Zen interprets the non-dualistic experience to mean that the distinction has been epistemologically collapsed, as it arises in such a way to respond to the dualistic perspective from which the outer and the inner worlds appeared. It understands this collapsing of the distinction then to be the meaning of ”not two,“ from which an holistic perspective emerges. Conceptually, Zen takes this holistic perspective to mean the de-substantialization and de-ontologization of any two polar concepts, such as one and many, being and non-being, universal and particular, absolute and relative, transcendence and immanence, and birth and death. Zen’s observation is that each of the polar terms is non-dualistically related to each of the other polar terms such that they are connected with, interdependent on, and relative to, each other for their being and meaning. They are thrown into a holistic context of an interdependent causal series. And for this series to be operative, Zen maintains, following Nāgārjuna, that each of these terms that enters the relationship is empty of self-nature, where self-nature means a power to generate itself on its own without dependence on anything. For if thing-events designated by these terms are endowed with self-nature, they cannot enter into the series; what enters such a series is only an accidental attribute or property. According to the substantialistic or essentialistic ontology, nothing can really change. For example, criminals who want to correct their criminal behavior cannot change themselves if being a criminal is the essential characterization of their being. This would pose an insurmountable challenge, if not impossibility, to a correction officer at a prison. Or, for that matter, anyone who wants to correct one’s own psychological characteristic or tendency, particularly if it happens to be pathological, cannot succeed in such self-correction if it is an essential characterization of one’s being.

In order to give a still more concrete sense of what Zen-seeing is like, we now return to the question of how Zen understands the experiential meaning of ”seeing into one’s nature.“ Zen’s contention is that the bottomless ground is that which non-dualistically ”sees“ when the practitioner experiences the state of nothing, (or no-thought and no-image). How then does Zen articulate this ”seeing“? This question points to an examination of the epistemic structure of how knowledge operates in Zen experience. For this purpose, the following Zen dialogue between Jinne and Chōsetsu concerning ”no-thought“ is illuminating. Although it is lengthy, I will quote it in full in order to provide a sense of how a Zen dialogue unfolds:

The disciple asks: What then is it [i.e., no-thought]?

The master replies: It is nothing like ”what is.“ Therefore, we can not explain ”no-thought.“ The reason why I am speaking about it now is because you have asked about it. If you haven’t asked about it, there is no need to explain it. Suppose that there is a clear, transparent mirror. If it does not face a thing, no image is reflected in it. To say that it mirrors an image means that because it faces something, it just mirrors its image.

The disciple asks: If it does not face any thing, is there or is there not a reflection in the mirror?

The master replies: That the mirror reflects a thing means that it always mirrors regardless of whether it is facing or not facing a thing.

The disciple asks: If there is no image and since you do not give an explanation, how can all beings and nonbeings become an issue? Now when you say that it always mirrors, how does it mirror?

The master replies: When I say that the mirror always mirrors, it is because a clear, transparent mirror possesses an original nature as its essential activity of always mirroring things. Analogously, people’s mind is originally undefiled, and naturally possesses a superb light of wisdom that illuminates the perfect world of nirvāna.

The disciple asks: Insofar as people’s minds are originally like that, when do people get it?

The master replies: It just sees nothing.

The disciple asks: When it is nothing, what can it see?

The master replies: Seeing is not like something you can call a thing.

The disciple asks: If it is not like anything one can call a thing, what does it see?

The master replies: it sees no-thing. That is the true seeing. It always sees.

(Yanagita, 1974, 132–3.)

Unlike most Zen dialogues that are often enigmatic and puzzling to those people who stand outside of this tradition, this dialogue provides a kind explanation in elucidating what ”seeing“ is like in Zen experience. This ”seeing“ is said to be ”seeing nothing or no-thing,“ and Jinne speaks of it by appealing to the analogy of a mirror, although he makes a disclaimer that it cannot adequately be explained in words. To get a glimpse of what he means by ”seeing,“ it is helpful to take note of the following points regarding this analogy. Jinne conceives of a mirror in terms of two modalities: the mirror in and of itself and the mirror as it engages an object other than itself. It is important to keep in mind that both are understood in light of their activity. He characterizes the ”original nature“ of the mirror in and of itself as being ”clear, transparent“ (or ”undefiled), wherein it is said to always mirror. “Original” means that it is not contingent on experience, while “always” refers to the mirror’s ceaseless activity of mirroring. Whether “there is” or “there is not” a specific object to mirror is a contingent matter for the mirror in and of itself. What makes a mirror the mirror that it is is its activity of always mirroring, and when considered in and of itself, it possesses no specific image to mirror. There is no characteristic to it and hence no image appearing in it, i.e., “no-thought” or “no-image.” This is the meaning of “no-thing or nothing” in the phrase “seeing no-thing or nothing.” In other words, the mirror is turned into nothing, or to use the earlier phrase, the bottomless ground is nothing except, epistemologically speaking, its capacity to mirror, and even this capacity is rendered “nothing” when it is in no use.

Zen explains the fact that the mirror “just sees no-thing or nothing” when its act of seeing is mobilized in “facing” a thing. The adverb “just” is crucial. “Just” here means without discrimination, without superimposition, without projection, or in short, without positing an ego-consciousness as that which sees. In phenomenological terms, there is no thetic positing in this kind of seeing. Zen maintains that these characterizations obtain because the Zen practitioner “kicked through the bottom of the bucket,” a practical transcendence. In other words, Zen’s contention is that there is no determination whatsoever in the mirror’s activity of “just seeing.” That there is no determination means to Zen that because the bottomless ground is nothing, it does not impose form on things that are mirrored. When these qualifications are taken together, Zen interprets “just seeing no-thing or nothing” to mean seeing or mirroring things without discrimination, that is, with a sense of equality. When a mirror, for example, reflects an image of a beautiful object, it does not make any discriminatory value judgment that it is beautiful. And neither does it make any discriminatory value judgment when it mirrors an ugly object. It mirrors thing-events as they are. That is, the mirror does not take any stance of likes and dislikes; it does not take a stance of “for” or “against.” It is non-egological in mirroring each thing equally. Moreover, Zen observes that the nature of the mirror is such that it does not change due to the kind of object it mirrors. For example, it does not increase or decrease in size in virtue of the fact that it mirrors an object. (Bankei, for example, expresses it as the “unborn.”) It remains as it is in its original nature of always mirroring, which highlights the fact that it is clear and transparent. Because equality is the characteristic of this seeing, Zen speaks of the activity of this seeing as nondiscriminatory. Yet, because an object is mirrored as object, whether beautiful or ugly, Zen considers the act of mirroring to be a “discernment.” Therefore, Zen characterizes the “seeing” in “seeing no-thing or nothing” in its act-aspect as a discernment vis-à-vis nondiscrimination (mubunbetsu no funbetsu). This, Jinne says, is “true seeing,” which is non-discriminatory wisdom (prajñā). The obvious point Zen wants to make through this analogy is that the minds of people are analogously the same in their original nature and activity. Zen summarizes all of the above characteristics of seeing by employing a simple phrase: “motion in stillness” (seichū no dō). However, an objection may be raised contra Zen’s holistic, non-dualistic meaning of its “seeing” or “mirroring,” namely the objection that if there is something that is mirrored, is there not still operative a dualistic epistemological structure? Zen would respond that this objection ignores the fact that the ground of seeing is the bottomless ground that is nothing. What appears against mirror qua nothing is just an object. In such a seeing, the object alone shines forth. Hence, it is characterized, to use Nishida’s terminology, as “seeing without a seer.” Below, we will explore further the structure of how things appear in Zen.

Although it may sound paradoxical, Zen maintains that this ground is also a fount of creativity. Because there is no determination in the ground, it is pregnant with many possibilities or meanings to be realized. Zen maintains, via the influences from philosophical Daoism, that this creativity is in the same order as that of nature, for the practitioner reaches the original source prior to the distinction between the outer world and the inner world. (Hence, Zen understands, as was mentioned in the foregoing, the human being to be “a being-in-nature.”)

It often uses the phrase “no-mind” (Jpn., mushin; Skrt. nirodha-samāpatti) to generally designate the above experiential dimension. However, Zen does not mean it to be a mindless state, much less losing the mind. Nor does it mean a disappearance of the mind. Rather it designates a dimension of experience in which the ego-logically discriminatory activity of the mind disappears. This is, Zen maintains, because the Zen practitioner trans-descends into, and hence transcends, the ego-logically discriminatory activity of the mind which, Zen contends, arises due to adhering to “name-form” (Jpn., myōshiki; Skrt., nāmrūpa). This transcendence results in a rejection of the belief that there is a reality corresponding to a name, or generally that there is a reality corresponding to a linguistic activity. Through the state of no-mind, Zen observes that each individual thing that is mirrored is recognized for the first time to be individual qua the individual with a sense of equality that is due to other individual things.

6. Zen’s Understanding of Time and Space

Given Zen’s seeing as articulated above, one may entertain a natural question: how does Zen understand time and space? Are they significantly different from time and space as conceived by many other theories of time and space? In what follows, we will briefly provide how Zen understands “here and now,” “zero time and zero space,” and “an integrated time and space.”

6.1 Here and Now

In spite of, or rather because of the above-mentioned experiential dimension of Zen-seeing, Zen insists that the Zen practitioner plant his or her feet in the everydayness of “here and now.” In this respect, Zen philosophically advocates a position of “not one.” Otherwise, it fears that if the practitioner remains in the stillness of meditation, while suspending judgment for action, it falls into one-sidedness, a source of prejudice and misunderstanding of reality. How then does Zen understand “here and now”? In this connection, one may reasonably ask: “how far and wide is ‘here’ and how long is ‘now,’” when Zen speaks of “here and now.” Are they each limited by a present perceptual experience? In the case of “now,” for example, is it an internal phenomenon of consciousness that allows the practitioner to experience time sometimes as a “memory” (or retention) and some other times as “anticipation” (or “protention”) in the ever flowing stream of “present” (e.g., St. Augustine, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty)? And in the case of “here,” is it delimited by the practitioner’s spatial range of perception within the sensory field, situating the Zen practitioner as the point of reference? (There is in both cases a suggestion of involvement of the autonomous activity of the unconscious, of which Zen demands we must stand outside.) Zen’s response to both of these questions is a resounding “Yes!” and “No!” however contradictory it may sound. “Yes,” because the practitioner, while living, cannot depart from the “here and now,” because he or she is incarnate, in which case time and space is always experienced as “here and now.” “No,” insofar as the perceptual model implies an ego-logical “human, all too human” stance (Nietzsche) with its attendant limitations, even though Zen does not exclude this model as long as it is not delimited by the dualistic, either-or ego-logical perspective. In the everyday human world that is “here and now,” Zen maintains that “riddhi and [its] wondrous activity all shoulder water and carry firewood” where “riddhi” refers to a power that naturally becomes available to the practitioner through the practice of meditation.

6.2 Zero Time and Zero Space

Yet Zen thinks that the preceding is still a partial understanding of “here and now.” To fully understand it, it is helpful to examine the following often-quoted phrase, as it is particularly illustrative. Zen demands the practitioner “to show one’s original face before one’s parents were born.” This demand points to an experiential dimension prior to the bifurcation between the subject and the object—and hence “not two”—where “prior” means negation of the spatial-temporal ordering principles such as in Kant’s understanding of time and space as a priori forms of intuition. It points to a non-dualistic experiential dimension that is zero time and zero space, by which Zen means that neither time nor space is a delimiting condition for Zen-seeing. In zero time there is no distinction between past, present, and future, or between “before” and “after,”; in zero space there is no distinction between the whole and its parts. One can also say that both time and space, experienced from the point-of-view of the everyday standpoint, is relativized when zero time temporizes and zero space spatializes, where zero time and zero space characterize the bottomless ground. Accordingly, Zen contends that zero time and zero space are the natural and primordial being of all things including human beings, for they are all grounded in it. Taking these points together, the Zen enlightenment experience suggests a leap from a causal temporal series.

Consequently, Zen contends that “here and now” is enfolded in both zero time and zero space. This means that one time contains all times and one part contains the whole, as in the case of a holographic dry plate in which a part contains the whole. Seen in this manner, “now” for the Zen person is a temporalization of zero time, while “here” is equally a spatialization of zero space, even though he or she may be anchored in the perceptual field of “here and now” as understood above. In other words, for the Zen person both “now” and “here” are experienced as an expression of thing-events in their suchness, because, as mentioned in the foregoing, Zen takes zero time and zero space to be the original abode of thing-events. Caution must be exercised here, however. Zen’s zero time should not be confounded with the idea of eternity standing outside a temporal series (e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Newton’s “absolute time”) by means of a logical or intellectual transcendence, nor the zero space to be identified with “absolute space” (e.g., Newton) wherein there is no content of experience. In other words, Zen does not understand time and space by imposing a formal category on them, by presupposing in advance a form-matter distinction, which indicates an operation of the discursive mode of reasoning by appealing to the either-or, dualistic, and ego-logical epistemological structure.

6.3 An Integrated Time and Space

Zen makes another equally important contention through this abstention, namely that time and space are lived as integrated space-time in the interfusion of a concrete temporalization and spatialization. For example, Dōgen speaks of it as “being-time” (u-ji) to indicate their inseparability; being cannot be apart from time, and time cannot be apart from being, where a being spatializes through the process of temporalization, and where it temporalizes through the process of spatialization. This is a concrete spatialization-temporalization that is lived without any intellectual abstraction, reflecting the Buddhist position that everything, excluding no-thing, is impermanent. Zen abhors an intellectual abstraction that merely thinks time and space. This is because the Zen person rides on the rhythm of living nature. That is, “here and now” is one experience (and hence “not two”), and for this reason they should be designated as “here-now.”

In living this integrated, living space-time, Zen does not understand time to be a quantifiable and homogeneously punctuated unit (i.e., the clock time of natural science), nor does it conceive of it as a linear progression from past to future through the present, although it does not exclude them insofar as they are useful for everyday life. The negation of the linear idea of time also includes the negation of the idea of time as symmetrical as well as reversible, because in the Zen experience of space-time, a teleological intentionality, an “in order that,” is absent. Yet, Zen does not accept, time as a “fleeing image of eternity” (i.e., Plato). Zen takes time to be living. According to Zen, theories of time built through conceptual abstraction, are distanced and separate from the immediacy of “here-now.”

Space, too, is neither a container (i.e., Newtown’s “absolute space”) nor an a priori limiting condition (i.e., Kant), nor the place of displacement for the volume of an extended thing (i.e., Aristotle). Rather it is a living space. Dōgen for example captures this sense of space as “the bird flies the sky and the sky flies the bird.” In this statement an independence of both the sky and the bird is recognized, but it also recognizes that the sky and the bird each become themselves only through their interdependence. In other words, what makes this space a living space is the dynamic, interdependent, bilateral play of both bird and sky, from which the living space-time as the continuum of “here-now” emerges as an ambience, where each of the terms entering the relationship through the activity is granted a full recognition of their being. This is because the Zen person lives the dynamic activity of non-dualistic “coming-together” of “the two,” whether this “two” happens to involve the “betweenness” of two individuals, individual and nature, or individual and trans-individual.

6.4 The Structure of Things Appearing

Given Zen’s mode of seeing, which is non-dualistic in nature, occurring in zero time and zero space, one may be curious to raise a question as to how things appear to the Zen mind under these condtitions. We can interpret Zen’s nondualistic experience epistemologically as that experience which arises from a nondiscriminatory state of meditational awareness. To be more specific, the nondiscriminatory awareness means that it is the foundational background, as articulated in the foregoing, that is bottomless or is nothing, and as such it does not participate in the discriminatory activity. However, when a thing appears, a discrimination occurs on this foundational, though, bottomless, background. Because it occurs on this foundation, it does not distort the shape of things to appear along with its force. We designated its activity as discernment vis-à-vis nondiscrimination in the foregoing. Or, it may also be characterized as nondiscriminatory discrimination, in order to capture a sense of how things appear in meditational awareness. In this nondiscriminatory discriminatory awareness, no ego is posited either as an active or a passive agent in constituting things of experience as this awareness renders useless the active-passive scheme as an explanatory model. This awareness lets a thing announce itself as a thing. It is a rejection of the idealist position, e.g., Husserl’s intentionality thesis in which a meaning-bestowing activity is assigned to the act of consciousness. It is also a rejection of the British empiricist’s stance in which the epistemological subject is considered a passive being of tabula rasa upon which attributes are impressed. These implications are suggested because Zen’s nondiscriminatory discriminatory awareness arises out of the state of no-ego in which no projection from the unconscious and no superimposition of intellectual ideas occur in the field of meditative awareness.

Moreoever, because things are experientially “constituted” in this manner, we can interpret the epistemological structure of appearing to be such that things appear in the field of meditative awareness without presupposing the Gestalt psychology’s distinction between foreground and background. This is because the ego is turned into nothing in the state of nondiscriminatory discriminatory awareness, and hence no-ego, where this nothing is paradoxically a background that is not the background at all, because it is a bottomless background. To use Nishida’s terminology again, the nondiscriminatory discriminatory awareness is an act of “seeing without being a seer.” Or, to use the terminology of Phenomenology, the bottomless background or the background of nothing is the stance in which the noetic act is rendered nothing. Accordingly, the noematic object is allowed to announce iteself without an intentional constitution by the latter. This is the meaning of “no projection” and “no superimposition” mentioned above. It consequently opens up a bottomless horizon, on which a noematic object announces itself in toto as a phenomenon.

This opening up simultaneously accompanies, as mentioned in the foregoing, a de-substantialization and de-ontologization of things of experience, because there is no act of the ego that substantializes and ontologizes them; substantialization and ontologization both arise as a consequene of an anthropomorphic activity that is intricately tied to the discursive mode of reasoning. Consequently, we are led to conclude that things of experience announce themselves in toto without concealing anything behind them. This is because there is nothing in the bottomless background to determine or delimit how things appear. Zen uses such terms as “suchness” or “thusness” to designate it. For example, Dōgen captures it by stating in “the Buddha Nature” fascicle that “nothing is concealed in the universe.”

In order to see how the above mentioned structure of appearing operates under the conditions of zero time and zero space, we must capture a sense of a temporal-spatial awareness reflective of the nondualistic experience. In the foregoing, we discussed zero time temporalizing and zero space spatializing in which temporalization is spatialization and spatialization is temporalization, e.g., Dōgens theory of “being-time,” wherein there is no formal separation between temporalization and spatialization. Hence, neither time nor space is conceived to be a container. Rather, they are expressions of things “thinging” the primordial mode of their being. This thinging of things springs from zero time and zero space. One must stand in ground zero to see the “thinging” of things where there is no temporalization and no spatialization of things.

7. Returning to the Everyday “life-world”: Not One

If we are to stop at sketching what Zen-seeing is together with its understanding of time and space as an integrated space-time, Zen fears there occurs a danger of fixing the stance thus “obtained,”—although we must keep in mind that Zen “obtains” the stance of “not two” in such a way that it cannot be obtained, for in the non-dualistic dimension nothing can be “obtained.” However, Zen also recognizes at the same time that any stance that is fixed is one-sided and partial. It will deprive Zen, for example, of an opportunity to utilize Zen-seeing in the actions of everyday life. For this reason, Zen insists that the practitioner move to the stance of “not one.” What then is Zen’s stance of “not one”? This question affords the reader, for the purpose of the present essay, to get a glimpse into Zen’s movement from “not two” to “not one,” although in actuality this movement operates in a dynamic bilateral movement between them. This movement is symbolized in Zen by a circle, an image of the whole, which is also an image of perfection. Insofar as “one” is a negation of “not two,” “not one” then brings the Zen practitioner back to the everyday “life-world,” the world of multiplicity that is ordinarily constructed either-or ego-logically and dualistically.

7.1 Zen Person

For the Zen person, the move from “not two” to “not one” is an issue of concretely instantiating in the everyday “life-world” what is experienced through the stance of “not two.” This point, for example, is well illustrated in the following Zen dialogue between Zen Master Ungen (Chin. Yúnyán, 780–841) and a fellow practitioner, Dōgo (Chin., Dàowú; 769–835). It runs as follows:

Dōgo: Who are you going to serve the tea you are preparing?

Ungen: There is one person who wants it.

Dōgo: Can’t the person who wants it make the tea himself?

Ungen: Fortunately, I am here to do it for him. (Ueda, 1981, 165–66.)

This dialogue points to an activity of “trans-individual qua the individual,” where the “trans-individual” designates a Zen person with nondiscriminatory wisdom, while the “individual” designates those who remain in the everyday “life-world”. (In the above quote, the former is designated by the phrase “one person,” while the latter by the pronoun “you.”) However, in the everyday human “life-world,” the “trans-individual” cannot “make the tea himself,” because he is not incarnate like the individual who remains in the dualistic, either-or ego-logical, everyday standpoint. This is because he or she is one who follows the non-dualistic, non-ego-logical standpoint having practically transcended the former. This creates the dilemma of how to be trans-individual while assuming the form of an individual. If this is not properly dealt with, Zen warns that it results in developing a pathological condition or a mana-personality. For this reason, Ungen says “fortunately ‘I’ am here to do it for him.” Here, Zen conceives of the relationship between the individual and the trans-individual as one, i.e., “not two,” and yet they are “not one.” Insofar as both the trans-individual and the individual refer to the same person (in the above quote, “I”), they are “not two,” but insofar as their stances operate differently, they are “not one” (“I” and “him” in the quote). “Both individual and trans-individual” designates a harmonious assimilation of the two stances, a consequence of which is a person who can avail him or herself of both of these perspectives, i.e., the dualistic world of the everyday life and the non-dualistic world of “not two.” On the other hand, “neither individual nor trans-individual” refers to a person who cannot be pinned down or delimited by linguistic means. In spite of, or because of this, such a person is a carrier of freedom who goes beyond these perspectives, i.e., an person in whom the trans-individual and individual have disappeared in action, in which case the individual qua trans-individual is no longer ordinary, but extraordinary. Yet, he or she is quite ordinary in appearance. All of these points are synthesized into a Zen person.

7.2 Zen’s Freedom

How then does the Zen person, thus understood, live freedom? The term that Zen uses to express the idea of “freedom” is “jiyū” and it consists of two characters; “ji” meaning “self on its own,” while “yū” means “out of.” When they are used together as a compound, the phrase as a whole designates an action arising out of self on its own. This action then carries a sense of spontaneity, much like the spontaneous creative act of living nature. This idea of freedom is foreign to Western intellectual tradition, however. For example, consider how freedom is defined by British empiricists like John Locke. According to Locke, freedom (or to be specific, liberty) is defined as a lack or absence of external constraint. According to this model, freedom is to express an ego-desire save in the name of will arising from an individual in “the state of nature” where and when there is no external constraint. By contrast, because it arises out of the self on its own, where the self in Zen is a groundless ground that is nothing, Zen’s free action is not delimited by ego-desire, because it arises out of nothing. It “kicks through the bottom of the bucket,” that is, it purifies all the “defilements” interlaced with the activity of the ego-consciousness, as well as the personal and collective unconscious. For this reason, there is no issue involved in the Zen person’s action that addresses the will of ego-consciousness. For what motivates the Zen person to action is a thrust he or she feels, surging from the creative source in the bottomless ground. Moreover, the Zen person does not experience, as Nietzsche has it, “bad-faith” or “self-deception” when explaining a motivation for action as a rationalist would, because a rationalist must rationalize an irrational desire rooted in the body and the unconscious. (See, for example, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.)

Does this mean then that the Zen person has eliminated the demand of instincts or desires? If they are eliminated, the Zen person would turn into a living corpse. Such a person can perform no action, let alone a free action. Obviously then, the Zen person does not eliminate them, but rather transforms them into “non-defilements,” into a higher spiritual energy. We see a heightened spirituality upheld by Zen master Baso (Chin., MÄzū; 709–788), which he insists to be concretely expressed in the everyday “life-world.” He expresses it by phrasing it: “the mind as it is is the way.” (Yanagita, 1974, 147.) This statement, “the mind as it is is the way” (heijōshin kore michi) is sometimes rendered in English as “the everyday mind is the way.” This rendition can be misleading if we ignore Baso’s qualification that this “everyday mind” operates without defilements such that it is not “[entrenched in the samsāric cycle] of birth and death,” and moreover that it is not dominated by a teleological intentionality, i.e., it negates the “in order that.” Otherwise, there is a danger of interpreting Baso’s statement as promoting an evil naturalism. That is, whatever a person desires in the state of “nature,” i.e., “the everyday mind,” is the expression of the Way. There is no problem of a misinterpretation then, as long as Baso’s “everyday mind” is understood to mean the mind which is freed from “the samsāsric cycle of birth and death,” and yet it is the mind which is concretely instantiated in the everydayness of a human everyday “life-world.”

Let us see how Baso’s idea of “the mind as it is is the way” is carried to a highly artistic action, whether it be a performance technique of martial artist, dancer, actor/actress or musician. Takuan’s reflection on this point is illuminating. He speaks of a “nondiscriminatory knowledge” realized in action as “immovable wisdom”: “It [immovable wisdom] moves as the mind is wont to move: forward or back, to the left, to the right, in the ten directions and to the eight points; and the mind that does not stop at all is called immovable wisdom.” (Takuan, 1986.) Zen’s free action is predicated on the fact that the mind “does not stop at all,” what Takuan paradoxically calls “immovable wisdom.” Here one can discern an echo of Jinne’s mirror analogy. Takuan calls it “immovable” because the mind remains absolutely still (i.e., not two) in the midst of action, like the stationary shaft of a top. Such a mind does not fluctuate in its center, in the deep region of psyche. In this state, because the mind moves in such a way that it does not dwell on anything, there is no obstruction for the mind to move freely.

Generally Zen describes the freedom of bodily movement as “stillness in motion” (dōchū no sei) and is contrasted with “motion in stillness.” It is noteworthy that “stillness in motion” cannot accurately be analyzed by appealing to the active-passive scheme, which presupposes a dichotomy as a proper method for understanding. However contradictory it may seem, this is a description of how Zen understands its freedom as expressed through an integrated mind and body. In order for this sense of freedom to be embodied, however, Zen emphasizes that a performer of any kind repeatedly undergoes mind-body training. Takuan calls this the “body’s learning,”—that is the core meaning of self-cultivation—because in “body’s learning,” both the mind and the body are brought to action in one integrated whole. (The “body’s learning,” neurophysiologically speaking, is closely related to an activity of the cerebellum in conjunction with the hippocampus, although it is not only that.) When a skill or performing technique is learned through this method, one’s own body moves freely as it is habituated to move without waiting for a command from the mind. This describes a freedom of action in a Zen person for whom the mind is completely assimilated into the object-body, while the body is equally rendered into the subject-body. They are one. At such a time, Takuan says, a spiritual life-energy of psychophysiological nature, called “ki,” permeates “one’s body”—an energy that cannot be delineated by either the mind or the body. (Yuasa, 1993) In this connection, Zen also speaks of Zen’s free action as a purposeless purpose, as an actionless action, for neither the purpose nor the action arises from the everyday consciousness which sets up a purpose or a goal for action. Zen calls it “samādhi-at-play,” where there is no individual qua the trans-individual, but what there is is just “play,” for the Zen person is absorbed in the activity when engaging a thing of the everyday “life-world.” In short, Zen freedom designates a term of achievement. What Zen says of freedom of action has an implication for every action people perform in daily life, from the simple act of opening a door to the magnificent play of a great athlete or performer of any kind. In them, Zen contends however, the spirituality of a performer must be expressed. Zen extends an invitation to all of us to act in this way, so that the quality of life will be enhanced with a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, free from stress and anxiety.

8. Concluding Remarks

This essay has articulated a Zen Philosophy, though as anti-philosophy, by thematizing such topics as “overcoming dualism,” “Zen-seeing,” “Zen’s understanding of time and space,” “Zen person,” and “Zen freedom,” in which process is noted a sense of the movement from “not two” to “not one.” This was to indicate Zen’s sense of achieving personhood. Zen’s methods of meditative practice are concrete ways for an individual to become a Zen person by awakening to the fundamental reality in the everyday human “life-world.” In so doing, it teaches to participate in the whole, and to express freedom in daily action, by showing one’s “original face” right here-now and right in front of one’s eyes.

In closing this essay, a cautionary remark is in order, however: all of the preceding accounts are simply a heuristic way of conceptually articulating Zen philosophy. Or to use a Zen phrase, this conceptual articulation is only “a finger pointing to the moon,” where Zen insists that there should not be a confounding of the moon with a finger. In Zen language, the moon metaphorically designates an experience of enlightenment and the finger a linguistic or reflective endeavor.

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