Stop making sense.
– David Byrne and Talking Heads, lyric from “Girlfriend is Better”
Since my early twenties I have been fascinated with Asian religious traditions, particularly Japanese Zen Buddhism, which appealed to me because it is a highly distilled version of the general Asian metaphysic found in Hinduism and other forms of Buddhism. Having shed many of the complex cultural and philosophical trappings of its historical predecessors, such as the beautiful though impossibly dense symbolism of Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism, Zen presented their core perspectives in a way that was more comprehensible to me, an untutored Westerner. Unlike the Abrahamic religions with which I was familiar, I immediately saw that Zen offers no solutions, no escapes, and no prospect of avoiding the vicissitudes of the human condition. I was rather taken with its suggestion that one stop trying to achieve salvation, and get into the habit of simply looking dispassionately at the ebb and flow of the mind’s activities and of the movement of life around one.
Zen as a Method That is not a Method
The fundamental teaching of Zen, as of all Asian spirituality, is that the realm of daily life, including its horrible suffering and loss, is itself the very realm of enlightenment that we crave . This being so, there is really nothing to do because there is nothing to achieve. Zen methodology is a means of arriving at the realization that no methodology can provide deliverance from this life. It is a device to which we might temporarily cling while we struggle to cease the impatient mental straining and striving toward happiness that occupies the better part of most lives.
Zen Buddhism’s take on reality is deceptively simple. The various schools of Chinese, Korean and Japanese Zen Buddhism quite plainly say that one must give up the desire to intellectually understand and control the nature of existence through any system or creed, no matter how sophisticated it may be. Our lives are quite naturally filled by such mental templates, which we invent to provide us a fragile sense of mastery in the face of life’s unknowableness and terror. They go by different names: God, an impersonal “Higher Power”, Atman, “family values”, romantic love, liberalism, atheism, consumerism, and so on. We adhere to these worldviews because we reflexively assume that any set of values addressing how best to live exists primarily to abolish or at least ease insecurity. Hence, we are baffled by a worldview suggesting a response to life based entirely upon giving up the security of any system, including its own, and the development of a capacity to simply look at existence as it unfolds within our subjectivity.
Zen teaches that we cannot and should not avoid awareness of our fundamental helplessness; its proposal that we accept and contemplate the void at the center of Being works paradoxically, allowing us to live more fully human lives by underscoring the futility of any and all ego-based efforts to achieve this goal. The seventeenth-century ink drawing displayed on this essay’s banner depicts the fabled Chinese Zen priest Hui-Neng destroying the scriptures, or sutras. It is a piece of art illustrating the belief that no teaching can offer certainty and safety, and so finally must be surrendered. Zen is paradoxical in this regard, holding that the only way to transcend our fundamental anxiety about life is to abandon faith in any method that promises to help us achieve this, regardless of how astute or popularly celebrated it may be.
Aspiring Buddhist monks in the Japanese Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism meet privately with their teachers for a series of interviews, and there are often presented with a riddle that they must solve, their chance to display an understanding of the tradition. Rinzai literature lists various answers to these riddles to help students prepare for their interviews (though no response is considered legitimate unless it comes from the unpremeditated movement of the student’s mind). Some of the answers to these word problems are well known in the Western world. Hence, in response to the koan “What should you do if you meet the Buddha on the road?”, a memorable answer reported in the literature is “Kill him”. We may understand this interchange as metaphoric of the act of seeing through the ego and its need to categorize things. Buddhist abandonment of ego-intent is thoroughgoing and unsparing, extending to everything in one’s life, including one’s devotion to Buddhism itself, as ultimately it too is just another static, reified formula that we will use to buffer ourselves against life.
So, short of suicide, there is nothing that will allow an exit from the fact of having been born, including the Buddha’s teachings themselves; hence, “true” Buddhism undermines itself logically and emotionally, aiming at its own demise. It is properly understood to be a vehicle or “raft” (to use the Mahayana term) to be discarded once one has reached the “other shore” (which is really not different from the metaphoric shore where one began), rather than be reified and enshrined as something marvelously healing. So, paradoxically, Buddhism only succeeds when it fails, and is understood to be just another illusory system, doomed to exposure as such. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we begin to study Buddhism believing that it will get us somewhere, only to discover that we have been where we need to be all along. In a sense, Buddhism operates like any other religious system promising us fulfillment, with the exception that it ultimately seeks to undermine its own credibility, at which point there is a chance that the devotee may give up the quest, stop, and simply look around. Put differently, it is a discipline that urges us to pursue the logical implications of our quest for happiness to the bitter end…and then see what happens. As William Blake put it, “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.”
Related to this point is a dialogue, penned by ninth-century Chinese Zen master Yunmen Wenyan, describing an interaction he had with a young Buddhist monk. He wrote that the monk asks him for a characterization of the Buddha’s nature, and is told “A dried shit-stick” (an apparatus used to clean oneself after toileting). In other words, the Buddha is ultimately of no importance; while it is perfectly fine to venerate this historical figure, doing so has little to do with the fundamental nature of his teaching, which is that we allow ourselves to be drawn in to an unscripted, unpremeditated encounter with existence.
As an aside, I should mention that it is most unwise to repeat this essay’s perspective on Buddhism to those who have been born and raised in Buddhist cultures, such as Japan, Thailand, and Tibet. I have learned through painful experience that the vast majority of Asian Buddhists are just as uninterested in knowing the metaphysical constituents of their spiritual traditions as most Christians are in knowing theirs. Hence, they are only irritated by those who want to discuss their tradition’s inner meanings. Like “nominal” Catholics and Protestants, their form of Buddhism is heavily intertwined with cultural and familial significance, such that, say, the holiday celebrating the Buddha’s enlightenment is approached, not as a time for reflection on the nature of suffering, but as a social obligation and/or opportunity to solidify family bonds; that is, a chance to shore up and protect the ego. Most Buddhists are just as enamored of the possibility of exiting life and traveling to a pristine, other-worldly Nirvana as are ordinary Christians determined to claim their reward in Heaven. The nominal Buddhist is no more likely to see anything in this essay as representing the Buddhism they know as a typical Christian would be to recognize Soren Kierkegaard’s statement about genuine Christian faith – that it is a leap at the edge of an abyss – as having to do with their experience of going to church.
Social Norms as Obstacles to Contemplative Practice
It is surprising to me that Buddhism has flourished as well as it has in the West, and particularly in North America, where the influence of Protestantism, with its ethic of hard work toward the goal of furthering God’s will, has found secular expression in barren competitive capitalism. A spirituality that explicitly asks us to cease our anxious striving after spiritual advancement and “progress” is generally met with blank incomprehension by those raised in social orders imbued with Protestantism, as it runs counter to everything they have been told constitutes a normal, well-lived, and respectable life. A relative of mine, a successful corporate executive in a comfortable St. Louis suburb, once asked me to explain Zen Buddhism to him, which I did. He listened, and, after staring at me for the longest time with an expression of disbelief, he asked “Can it help me improve my golf score?” To which I said, “Probably not, but you might feel less upset when you hit the ball into the woods”. Several more expressions of incomprehension issued from the poor man’s lips before the discussion moved to the value of Monsanto stock, at which point the tension eased.
Like all of us to some degree, my relative is simply another victim of our “can do”, extraverted social ethos, which cannot easily conceive of the relevance of an activity that cannot be put to use in the service of bettering the world in a tangible way, be it social, economic, or spiritual. The typical North American is socialized to practice constant anxious self-monitoring, toward the goal of ensuring that they are acting purposefully in all things, which is why most of us know at least one person who complains that they feel guilty if they aren’t constantly in motion, diligently completing some work or household task. Societies that have adopted the Protestant work ethic set aside time throughout life for what are called “vacations”, brief periods where one is allowed to ease up on self-monitoring and enjoy the simple pleasure of being alive; though, of course, this time is often approached as yet another opportunity to demonstrate one’s productivity, such that middle-class families set themselves the chore of self-consciously trying to “have fun” by spending ungodly sums of money so that they can sit on artificially pristine beaches sipping cocktails and deliberately trying to “relax”.
Hence, it is exceedingly difficult for Westerners living in first-world nations to grasp the meaning or use of such an “empty” spirituality as Zen; though, that said, the mystical strains of the three Abrahamic traditions (such as Islamic Sufism, the Kabbalist tradition of Judaism, and the “negative theology” of Catholic figures such as Eckhart and San Juan de la Cruz) share compelling similarities with the Buddhist worldview, inasmuch as they accent a contemplative encounter with the source of Being, rather than one based upon adherence to moral doctrine. However, it is no accident that the contemplative dimensions of the Abrahamic religions all live underground existences, enjoying little popularity with the majority of the faithful. This is so because, like Zen, their theologies run counter to the Western idealization of mental effort, persistence, and progress.
The various schools of Japanese Zen suggest that suffering derives, to some important degree at least, from the confusion of ideas and our immediate, lived encounter with reality. In his early years as stand-up comedian Bill Cosby had a routine in which he poked fun at how our confusion between words and their referents leads us to confuse our intellectual formulas with the felt, sensuous, and immediate experience of life as we encounter it prior to the attempt to capture it in abstract ideas, specifically, in verbal definitions, categories, and formulas. As part of this routine Cosby asked the audience, rhetorically and with exasperation, “Where does your lap go when you stand up?”. This question provoked peals of laughter, probably because listeners immediately understood that the word “lap” refers to something that doesn’t actually exist, except as an arbitrary social convention created and maintained by our vulnerability to the illusions created by words. Hence, the sudden disappearance of one’s lap in the act of standing up is not a genuine “problem”, but one created and maintained solely by the hypnotic effect of words. Further, the audience’s laughter likely also expressed the sudden dawning of a heightened critical self-awareness provoked by Cosby’s joke: namely, that they are going through life enthralled by the illusions created by verbally-ensconced social conventions that, if examined closely, are seen as a source of false problems.
This property of language is at work when we consider bigger existential issues, such as death, which we are socialized to understand as something alien that invades our lives, and which is opposed to life. Arguably, this is not a real problem, because, apart from the dichotomizing action of verbal formulas, there is no actual opposition between “being” and “non-being”. One is merely the flip side of the other, two interrelated and interdependent states of existence that are not actually in conflict with one another, just as the sunrise only seems to be distinct from sunset in the realm of verbal conventions: the sun that rises in the morning is in fact the same sun that sets in the evening. Just as the sunset does not do battle with the sunrise, so too death is not in conflict with life. “Sunrise” and “sunset”, “life” and “death” are simply the verbal labels assigned to different manifestations of a single phenomena. Asian religions scholar and writer Alan Watts (1972) comments on this property of language…
…the individual is separate from his universal environment only in name. When this is not recognized, you have been fooled by your name. Confusing names with nature, you come to believe that having a separate name makes you a separate being. (p. 63)
I will conclude with a case study illustrative of how the foregoing ideas can be usefully applied to certain emotional problems. I recently treated a man in his mid-twenties for feelings of derealization and depersonalization that beset him following his having undergone a bad experience with hashish. He orally consumed the drug with some friends, and soon fell into a state of panic as he experienced himself losing control over his heretofore unassailable sense of certainty about his identity. He described himself as feeling that he was standing outside of his own body, observing himself at a distance, as it were, which provoked profound dread that he was no longer physically alive. In the weeks that followed he endured persistent doubt about the reality of his own mind and the physical world around him, both of which seemed increasingly phantasmic and unreal. During our first session he asked me what technique I might recommend to help him reconstitute the feeling of oneness between his mind and body, and between his subjectivity and the physical environment.
After mulling over his request, I replied that there is nothing that he could do to overcome this subjective state of alienation. I suggested to him that he had become a victim of his own intellect, and that striving and straining to restore a sense of unity with his body and life about him was actually the primary cause of his suffering. I told him, “Just let the feelings of derealization and depersonalization arise naturally. Don’t try to control or avoid them. Simply find a comfortable sitting place and observe them, as if you are on the sidelines of a parade route, watching a passing procession. Just look, without intention or any wish for mastery, as the sense of panic builds…in all likelihood your dread will expend its energy after a spell, and you will feel better.” The young man did so, and several sessions later reported that this simple exercise had had a remarkable positive effect on his emotional state, with episodes of derealization and depersonalization waning in duration and power.
The case study just describes illustrates the application of contemplative spirituality to the resolution of an emotional problem. Speaking for myself, my study of Zen Buddhism has not helped with many “practical” problems, if by “practical” we mean those difficulties that are part and parcel of life in this world, such as financial stressors, romantic disappointments, and the occasional bouts of depression that beset me. However, Zen has relieved me of a fundamental existential anxiety caused by my all-too-human wish to flee from awareness of my psychic pain. It has done so by suggesting a philosophical perspective that encourages me to allow misery into consciousness as an object of contemplation, rather than as a noxious, foreign element which I feel must be excised from awareness. This leaves me with only the original source of my suffering to understand, rather than adding to it the refusal to accept the presence or meaningfulness of that suffering in the first place.
Watts, Alan. (1972) The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Vintage Books: NY, NY.