Zen and the Art of Imitating the Ineffable
by John E. McCloud
I wrote the following essay, "Zen and the Art of Imitating the Ineffable," more than 20 years ago when I was living in Berkeley, California. It has never been published and has been read by only a few friends and other souls who have an interest in Jungian psychology, Zen Buddhism, mysticism, and similar subjects. I recently sent a copy to Eric Pettifor after reading his essay "Becoming Whole: Applied Psychoses," which I found in his web site on the internet. He suggested that I might want to make my essay available in the same way, and I agreed - so here it is. In the process of going through the essay again for the first time in many years, I found that I still agree with what I wrote 20 years ago, so for me at least it has passed the test of time. If any of you come across this and find it worth reading, I would enjoy hearing your comments. Please feel free to download it for your personal use.
Files zipped with WinZip, but any unzipper should do the trick.
John E. McCloud
In recent years much of my energy has been devoted to the study of the mind, especially those areas of it which are involved in what is usually called "mystical, spiritual, and nonordinary" states of consciousness. I have been involved personally through my own meditative techniques and through the study of disciplines such as Zen and the writings of persons describing their own inner experiences. I have come to recognize that there is a very big difference between such experiences as reported by those who have gone through them and the disciplines such as Zen which attempt to instruct persons in these areas of experience. Simply stated the problem is this. The disciplines generally trace their origins back to some individual who had deep inner experiences himself and then attempted to report or describe his own ineffable experience in the symbolic language of the world so that others might follow in his steps. Such persons attempt to report not only the nature of the experience itself but also the altered attitudes and viewpoints that come spontaneously to those who have had such experiences. What is important here is that the enlightenment being described has come about spontaneously as a result of the ineffable experience itself. Because the school or cult which follows after such a person is based on the symbolic language he has used in an attempt to describe both the experience and the resultant viewpoint, the discipline that develops can be based only on symbols rather than direct experience. The discipline then attempts to enlighten its members by instructing them in the attitudes and viewpoints reported by the founder. Unfortunately the process doesn't work since cause and effect have been reversed. A meaningful enlightened attitude comes about as a result of the ineffable experience, but instructing persons in such attitudes does not lead back to the ineffable experience. The process is not reversible.
Another problem is that when the discipline attempts to instruct persons and to lead them to the experience of enlightenment itself, the void or place of stillness of the mind, this too is generally a gross distortion of the original experience which has been described. Some persons who are active followers of such disciplines do actually experience the ineffable nature of their inner minds, but when this happens it is, as I will show, almost in spite of the discipline rather than because of it.
Since this is a complex and difficult subject and many emotions are involved because the personal commitment individuals tend to have to their particular approach, I shall resort to the rather mechanistic device of a diagram of the mind as an aid to making myself clear. Such a device should be seen for what it is: a convenience and an aid to understanding but not a representation of a reality that can be known only through experience.
The diagram below which I have called "Levels and Types of Consciousness" may at first appear complex but is actually rather simple. At the top of the diagram is rational or empirical consciousness which, moving from left to right, can be separated into three levels: waking (active); dozing (passive); and sleeping (inactive). Waking or active consciousness is where you are right now as you try to understand this. Dozing or passive consciousness is where you are when you are daydreaming or on your way to sleep but not quite there or in some types of meditation. When you are asleep, waking or active consciousness is totally at rest or perhaps active as an observer but only to the extent that it may later recall dreams that have occurred during sleep.
In contrast to consciousness we also have the unconscious which I have placed at the lower part of the diagram. The unconscious quite simply includes all contents of the mind of which we are not aware, and these can include both real events from our lives which have been repressed (personal material) and other contents which are of a more universal nature and thus are common to all men (collective material). This is, of course, the Jungian concept of the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is not subject to states such as waking, dozing, and sleeping, but it makes itself known or manifests itself in all three states of rational consciousness. In our waking states we often project or act out contents of the unconscious without realizing it. When we are daydreaming we may encounter forgotten or repressed personal memories and various types of fantasy material emerging from the unconscious And when we sleep our dreams are an expression of unconscious contents.
In the unconscious part of the mind I have indicated the two different types of material present, personal and collective, and three different ways in which this material may be experienced -- active or chaotic, state of rest, and void, which I shall explain in more detail as we go along. Normally we are aware of the unconscious component of the mind only indirectly through observation of the ways in which it affects the various states of rational consciousness through projections, fantasies, and dreams. The objective of the whole process we are talking about is to expand our conscious awareness so that we may encounter the contents of the unconscious through direct experience rather than indirect observation of affects. It must be made clear that for this to occur the rational or conscious mind as we usually think of it must relinquish all controlling, interpreting, and decision making functions while remaining a conscious observer of what is being experienced. After such direct encounters with the inner mind the conscious mind may recall some details of what has been experienced (at least until it gets to the level of the void) but it will not be able to fully recall the experience itself. This is the same as if we have once been in love with someone but no longer are. We can recall having been in love but we cannot truly recreate in our minds the emotional experience of being in love. We probably grew and changed as a result of the experience even through we can't remember it on an experiential level, and the same thing occurs because of our inner experiences even though we cannot fully recall them later.
For the remainder of this discussion we are going to ignore the waking and sleeping states of rational or analytical consciousness and concern ourselves primarily with the dozing or passive state in which the rational mind is an observer but not an active controlling force. As one descends deeper and deeper into the dozing or meditative state one encounters different types of experience. At the most superficial level we have daydreaming which serves a most useful function even when its contents seem unimportant. The act of daydreaming helps to introduce the active and controlling part of the mind to a type of experience in which it is not in control. Of course, because the active mind is conscious of what is going on it assumes that it is causing or creating and material it sees and thus it accepts the experience (even though it may later be critical of itself for indulging in such "unproductive" activity). The mind is thus tricked into a state of inactivity where it is simply an observer, and, of course, inactivity of the rational or controlling mind is essential to further movement into the deeper regions of the unconscious.
As one learns to go deeper into his daydreaming or meditative states he begins to free the unconscious contents which start to express themselves as memories, symbolic fantasies, and feelings. When this first starts to happen the conscious mind continues to act as an impartial observer. Although this material is personal in that it is a part of the individual's own unconscious mind, he is dealing with it in an impersonal manner. He is not emotionally involved. He simply observes but does not participate or experience on a direct level. This is what Jung calls active imagination, a technique for bringing unconscious material to the surface so that it can be recognized and rationally integrated in much the same way that dream contents are dealt with in Jungian therapy.
Before we can go farther in our journey into the unconscious mind we have a very mighty obstacle to overcome and this involves going from observation to direct experience. This is most difficult because it involves being out of rational control, and this is a most fearful concept for the rational mind to cope with. Allowing one's self to descend totally into the regions of emotional or nonrational experience is about the psychological equivalent of being willing to leap into a dark pit when you have only faith to tell you that you are not plunging to your death on the sharp rocks below, or that you are not entering into a state of madness from which you will never return. For good reason Jung called this process "anticipated psychosis." The term psychosis is used because the material encountered during such experiences is the same that so-called psychotics confront. The difference is that in anticipated psychosis the individual is able to control his descent into and out of these regions rather than being overwhelmed by the unconscious contents. The thing that keeps anticipated psychosis from turning into psychosis is the individual's ability to differentiate between inner and outer reality or the regions of rational consciousness and the unconscious. (The difference between the "differentiation" we are talking about here and the "undifferentiated" state of Zen is a subject I will get into in more detail later in this paper.)
In order for the conscious mind to allow the direct experience of unconscious contents to occur, it must be deceived in much the same way it was tricked into a state of inactivity during daydreaming. This deception is accomplished by getting the conscious mind to accept the experiencing of personal emotions -- that is, personal memories and other repressed material with high emotional content. The rational mind is more willing to accept this type of total nonrational or emotional experience because it can identify it with things that have happened in real life. The value of such experiences is that they help the rational mind to become more accepting of such states and at the same time they open the door to the deeper collective material in the unconscious. As Herman Hesse said it:
All the books in the world full of thoughts and poems are nothing in comparison with one minute's sobbing when feeling surges in waves, soul perceives and finds itself in the depths. Tears are the melting ice of the soul, all angels are close to one who weeps. ("A Dream Sequence," Strange News from Another Star)
When the individual has changed from being an observer and has become a full participant in his heretofore unconscious but now emerging inner material, he has entered what I have called the active or chaotic level of meditative experience. He may initially have feelings of great elation and a sense of being truly enlightened when he begins to encounter these experiences, but he will soon find that there is much worse to come before things get better. The nature of the inner experiences changes as the individual moves gradually from the personal or repressed contents of the unconscious and gets into the collective material. He may encounter experiences that seem truly divine, but along with these he must face the black feelings of terror and anguish from which he will learn the real meaning of the word "hell." The writings of the mystics and the literature of mythology contain many symbolic descriptions of such descents into the underworld of the mind.
Beyond the active or chaotic level is what I have called in this diagram the state of rest. This is a trance-like state of contemplation in which the mind still experiences images. It may be in this state that many profound insights come to the individual. This is the lowest level in which the rational or empirical mind plays a part. In the previously discussed states of pure experience, the controlling aspects of the conscious mind had to be deactivated, but it continued to exist at least to the extent that it could later recall having had the experience. However, following the state of rest there comes that which is truly called the ineffable or the void, and of this there is no conscious awareness or memory. It is from this state that the "pure knowledge" or states of understanding emerge which are the marks of the enlightened ones.
The Enlightened Viewpoint
Persons who have gone through the purging process of the descent through the circles of hell seem to emerge from the experience with remarkably similar viewpoints. Each will use the symbols of his particular background or discipline to express his knowledge, but all express essentially the same thing. What each has attained is the Buddha state, Christ consciousness, gnosis, the True Self, the unitive state, individuation, etc. Let us consider some of the attitudes and characteristics that are common among such persons.
One interesting quality of the enlightened is that they seem to have acausal or nonrational thought patterns. It appears that they violate the usual rules of cause and effect that the rational mind accepts as valid. Enlightened thinking is not actually acausal or nonrational or in violation of the rules of cause and effect. The enlightened mind simply has at its disposal increased areas of awareness, and from the enlightened viewpoint the conclusions reached are totally rational and within the rules of cause and effect. In the language of psychology we can say that the enlightened person understands the influence of unconscious mental contents on conscious behavior. Rational thinking tends to interpret events in terms of observable cause and effect relationships, while the enlightened viewpoint may be able to see a real underlying or unconscious source of the event which may be quite different from the apparent one.
Let's say for example that someone who is involved in a discipline such as Zen has a deep inner experience which has a profound effect on his life. In all probability he and his teacher and his fellow students will see the discipline as the cause of the experience. The enlightened mind, on the other hand, may recognize that the real cause of the experience was something in the unconscious mind, a force which chose to make itself known in such a way that the conscious mind would be deceived into thinking that it (through the discipline) had caused the event. This is the same type of thinking expressed in Zen "koans" such as "does the water pass under the bridge or does the bridge pass over the water." We shall discuss further along how the Zen discipline attempts to instill this type of thinking in its disciples.
Another universal quality of the enlightened is the unitive state or the condition of at-one-ment. In the language of the Gnostics this is the state of rest that occurs after the experience of gnosis. We might say that it is a state of contentment that the enlightened person achieves when he has found within himself that which most men strive for but never find outside themselves. Psychologically we might say that the enlightened person has attained true self-knowledge by facing and experiencing the contents of his unconscious mind, and thus he no longer has any need to run from himself or to seek himself through symbolic external acts. Consciousness and the unconscious have merged. Such a person has found all within (whether he calls it God, individuation, or Nirvana) and thus he needs to seek nothing without. He can thus be "in the world but not of it." He no longer has to be anything -- guru, seeker, man or woman (liberated or not) -- he simply is. After he has received enlightenment and thus knows that everything he ever sought was there all the time within him, then he can honestly recognize that he is and always has been "all right'' just the way he is. Some disciplines (such as EST) attempt to instill this kind of attitude through training or conditioning without the benefit of the underlying experience, and the results are often less than desirable.
The enlightened individual will also have some rather different concepts of reality. Because of having journeyed through his own inner mind he will have come to recognize that most of what men see around them and become concerned about is a projection of their own inner or unconscious minds. That is, reality as most men see and experience it is actually in large part an illusion, the specific nature of which they themselves have created. When the source of the illusion, that is, the unconscious contents of the mind, has been resolved through direct experience, then external "reality" can be viewed more as it is and less as illusion. In the language of Jungian psychology, only unconscious material is projected onto external objects and persons. As one faces and experiences more and more of the contents of his own unconscious mind, then less and less remains to be projected. Thus, when one views the world he sees more of it as it is and less of his own inner or hidden nature being projected onto it.
I might go on and on presenting examples of the enlightened viewpoint but it would be rather pointless since there is already abundant literature in the field (the works of Krishnamurti for example) and also because reading the enlightened viewpoints of another does not bring enlightenment to the one who is doing the reading. It will be much more beneficial for us now to consider how the experience of enlightenment itself and the viewpoints resulting from it are taken over and made into a discipline such as Zen which attempts to bring enlightenment to others.
Zen and the Confusion of Cause and Effect
(Note: In this discussion of Zen I will be using as my main source the book The Three Pillars of Zen edited by Philip Kapleau, although I may also refer to similar or differing viewpoints expressed by others within the Zen tradition.)
Within all spiritual movements there are differing viewpoints and Zen is no exception. Often these differences concern minor matters such as slightly different interpretations of a word or doctrine, but in some cases the differences are much greater. Perhaps the main point of disagreement concerns an exoteric versus an esoteric interpretation of the discipline. In The Three Pillars of Zen editor Kapleau is critical of Alan Watts and others for being too concerned with the mere study or Zen as a philosophy as opposed to the direct experience of it through the discipline of meditation (zazen). It does appear that some schools of Zen have become highly intellectualized, and some contemporary Zen masters even say that the state of unity or the one-mind does not exist. Some followers of Zen now see it almost totally from a behavior-in-the-world kind of viewpoint. I find it interesting to see references in Zen literature to parallels between Zen and the ideas of the existential German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Strange bedfellows indeed since Heidegger is first and foremost a phenomenologist and thus espouses a viewpoint predicated on phenomena -- that is, experiences in the world of external reality, while the traditional Zen viewpoint is that such phenomena are illusion and thus not worthy of concern.
Editor Kapleau, himself a Zen master, suggests that the philosophical approach represented by such as Alan Watts is merely an exoteric discipline since it involves intellectual study rather than direct esoteric experience through the discipline of zazen. I would contend that the discipline of Zen as presented in The Three Pillars of Zen is itself for the most part an exoteric rather than an esoteric doctrine even though its emphasis is on experience rather than intellectual or philosophical understanding. The practice of zazen meditation as presented in this book appears to be a discipline evolved through a rational or intellectual interpretation of the experience and viewpoint of enlightenment expressed by those who indeed have become enlightened. Thus, while the discipline is evolved out of esoteric experience, it is in itself still exoteric because it is the product of the rational mind and thus at best a pale imitation and distortion of the original meanings. As clearly stated again and again in this book, the type of Zen being described by Mr. Kapleau places almost total emphasis on the need for absolute compliance with the strict rules of a discipline which involves control of the body and mind and total obedience to the master or "roshi." Now let's see what is involved in this discipline.
It would be beyond the intent of this paper for me to go into great detail about the discipline of Zen presented in The Three Pillars of Zen, and I am assuming that those who read this have a basic understanding of the main points I will be talking about. I do wish to discuss some of the major aspects of the discipline and point out how they relate to the diagram of the mind I presented earlier and to the traditional reports of mystical experience and enlightenment reported by persons both within and outside of the Zen tradition.
In the first stages of Zen meditation the student is given certain basic exercises which are intended to distract the mind and get the person involved in experience rather than observation and interpretative thinking. One method is to direct the attention to the process of breathing; not to control the breathing but simply to direct all attention to it. Thus, the mind is directed toward an autonomic function of the body, something that it can control but generally does not. The discipline recognizes that the mind will continue to generate thoughts and images, and it advises the student to take a passive attitude toward this material -- that is, to make no effort to accept or reject it but simply to let it pass. This stage of the discipline corresponds to the daydreaming state of dozing or passive consciousness I discussed earlier. I see these steps as positive in that they do have the effect of tricking the thinking or controlling mind into accepting a type of experience which is actually out of its control.
The discipline recognizes that as the person continues with and becomes more adept at the process of zazen his mind may start to generate images of higher emotional content: personal memories, fantasies, etc. The discipline regards these as "abnormal visions'' called "makyo" and instructs the student to ignore them so that the mind may be still. As the student advances he is assigned a "koan" to keep in mind as he practices zazen. An example of a koan is the well known one about "the sound of one hand clapping." Koans are nonrational or acausal in the sense that they defy comprehension by the usual cause and effect thought processes of the rational mind. Thus, they have the effect of both confusing the student's ordinary or conditioned thought processes and at the same time of introducing him to the type of thinking that is a natural quality of enlightened persons.
Now let's see what is really happening in this exoteric adaptation of esoteric experience. As I said, I see as positive the first two stages of directing attention to breathing and simply allowing thoughts to flow since these steps serve to distract the thinking mind and help get it used to accepting types of experience which are not under its direct control. However, from this point on it appears that the discipline misses the real point by imposing a rational interpretation on the symbolic language through which someone has attempted to express his experience and understanding. We see this clearly in the way the training process attempts to ''still" the mind through a rigid discipline which is not really stilling the mind but simply teaching it to cut itself off from direct experience. All mystics and enlightened persons talk about this place where the mind is still, but that place can only be comprehended through the experience of it. The rational or conditioned mind which has not learned by direct experience can only interpret the concept of stillness from the limited viewpoint of external or apparent cause and effect. Thus, since the rational mind has no comprehension of the real nature of the unconscious mind, it can only interpret stillness in terms of the external or controlling mind -- that is, itself. Thus, stillness is seen as a process of employing disciplines and techniques to control the activity of the mind.
The use of koans and instructing students to believe that mind-generated images are naught but illusion are misguided attempts to train or condition students into ways of thinking and levels of comprehension that emerge spontaneously after someone has experienced the true inner place of stillness. Instructing someone in such ways of thinking may actually prevent his entering into the process that will lead him to the place of inner stillness. I would suspect that the contemplation of koans ends up largely as a "head trip" and often as a game in which both the disciples and masters try to best each other and prove who is the most "enlightened."
Thus, it appears that the dividing point between Zen training and what I consider to be the path that leads to the experience of inner stillness is the crucial point in development where one must let go and leap from observation into experience, a step that certainly cannot be made while the mind is striving to control itself and trying to regard feelings and fantasies as mere illusion. This subject of single pointedness of the mind, the state in which experience has become total and there is no longer any separation between observer and that which is observed, hearing and that which is heard, etc., is another area that became highly distorted in the process of being translated from symbolic language into a discipline. This can be doubly confusing because direct experience or single mindedness is an essential part of the enlightenment process itself and is also a characteristic of the enlightened state that results from the experience.
When this concept is expressed as part of the Zen discipline it is stated: "In the broad sense zazen embraces more than just correct sitting. To enter fully into every action with total attention and clear awareness is no less zazen." (Kapleau, p. 10) This would be fine if total attention were being directed to the emerging contents of the inner mind, but in practice it is usually construed to mean attention directed at some external object or action since as we have noted the emerging contents of the inner mind are considered to be mere illusion. To practice this concept one can look at a vase, for example, until there is no conscious awareness of separation between the observing mind and the vase being observed. This type of single mindedness can also occur in life when one becomes so engrossed in some activity that he "loses track of time," but this is not what was originally meant. Single mindedness means quite literally what it says -- singleness of mind; that is, no separation between inner and outer consciousness or between what we usually call rational consciousness and the unconscious. This can only be accomplished by experiencing rather than simply observing the contents of inner consciousness.
The real meaning of singleness of mind is more evident in the following passages:
If you want to realize your own Mind, you must first of all look into the source from which thoughts flow. . . . What is called zazen is no more than looking into one's own mind. . . . Because searching one's own mind leads ultimately to enlightenment, this practice is a prerequisite to becoming a Buddha.
Bassui, quoted by Kapleau, p. 161
The distorted concept of single mindedness has been carried over into the current vogue for "Zen and the Art of You Name It," everything from motorcycle riding to flying airplanes. The ability to be at one with whatever you are doing is a quality that comes naturally as a result of inner experience, but in this matter as in many others rational comprehension has confused cause and effect.
One of the things that I find most interesting about the book The Three Pillars of Zen is that it presents conflicting viewpoints within itself. While its main argument seems to be that enlightenment can come only through a very rigid discipline of zazen and mind control, it also presents examples which seem to indicate the exact opposite is true. I am thinking in particular here of Chapter IV, "Bassui's Sermon on One-Mind and his Letters to his Disciples."
Bassui was a famed Japanese Zen master and enlightened one who lived in the 14th century, and the traditions associated with his birth and early years seem to offer the possibility for interesting symbolic interpretation which, however, is beyond the scope of this discussion. I find the path followed by Bassui on his way to enlightenment especially interesting because it seems to be in many ways in conflict with the discipline of Zen as it is generally stated. For one thing, Bassui was a loner who refused to be a part of the ceremonialism of any temple. He lived and practiced his form of meditation in virtual solitude although he did go to temples occasionally for interviews with masters. Bassui's writing also reveals another interesting point. Although he uses the term zazen for his meditation, he never mentions the breathing exercises, postures, and techniques of mind control that seem to be such a central part of most Zen disciplines.
Thus, it appears that Bassui was something of a renegade or individualist rather than a joiner. I find this interesting because separateness and solitary seeking appear to be common characteristics among those who achieve enlightenment. In fact, if the seeker is a part of any organized discipline, his individuality often gets him into trouble with the "system'' even to the extent in some cases of his being labeled as a heretic. For example, Meister Eckhart, the 14th century Catholic theologian. I have been told there are contemporary Zen leaders who disagree with Bassui's writings and even deny the existence of the one-mind that he preached about.
There is also a very interesting difference between the experiences that led Bassui to enlightenment and the techniques of mind discipline which seem to be such an inherent part of present Zen methods. For example, the following passage about Bassui:
All at once, his biographer relates, Bassui felt as though he had "lost his life root, like a barrel whose bottom had been smashed open." Sweat began to stream from every pore of his body, and when he left Koho's room he was in such a daze that he bumped his head several times along the walls trying to find the outer gate of the temple. Upon reaching his hut he wept for hours from his very depths. The tears overflowed, "pouring down his face like rain." In the intense combustion of his overwhelming experience Bassui's previously held conceptions and beliefs, we are told, were utterly destroyed.
quoted by Kapleau, p. 158
This hardly sounds like one who is viewing his emerging emotions with dispassionate disinterest since they are, after all, merely makyo or illusion. The above passage is an excellent description of what happens when one goes from merely observing to directly experiencing the contents of the unconscious mind. Note also that as a result of this experience ". . . Bassui's previously held conceptions and beliefs . . . were utterly destroyed." That is, his enlightened viewpoint came about spontaneously as a result of his experience. There are many interesting passages in Bassui's writings which can be compared directly to similar ideas expressed by Plato, Meister Eckhart, the gnostics, and the other explorers of the soul. I find the following statement interesting since it seems to so closely parallel the steps I have outlined for the descent through the inner mind to the place of total silence.
In your zazen think in terms of neither good nor evil. Don't try to stop thoughts from arising, only ask yourself: "What is my own Mind?" Now, even when your questioning goes deeper and deeper you will get no answer until finally you will reach a cul-de-sac, your thinking totally checked. You won't find anything within that can be called "I" or "Mind." But who is it that understands all this? Continue to probe more deeply yet and the mind that perceives there is nothing will vanish; you will no longer be aware of questioning but only of emptiness. When awareness of even emptiness disappears, you will realize there is no Buddha outside Mind and no Mind outside Buddha. Now for the first time you will discover that when you do not hear with your ears you are truly hearing, and when you do not see with your eyes you are truly seeing Buddhas of the past, present, and future. But don't cling to any of this, just experience it for yourself.
Bassui, quoted by Kapleau, p. 172
Elsewhere in Kapleau's book there is another description of experiences that are much like those reported by Bassui, these written by Mrs. Kapleau, the wife of the editor of the volume. Although she attended formal training sessions under the supervision of a Zen master, she also found it necessary to work alone because of family responsibilities and other circumstances. Sometimes she reports that she even practiced zazen in bed rather than in the accepted sitting postures. The following are reports about two of her experiences which were separated in time by six years.
. . . Just before this state erupted I began to feel the most profound and agonizing sorrow, with which came violent shivering spasms and a gnashing of my teeth. Nervous paroxysms shook my body again and again. I wept bitterly and writhed as though a torrent of electricity were surging through me. Then I began to perspire profusely. I felt that the sorrows of the entire universe were tearing at my abdomen and that I was being sucked into a vortex of unbearable agonies.
Kapleau, p. 262
. . . I suddenly felt as though I were being struck by a bolt of lightening, and I began to tremble. All at once the whole trauma of my difficult birth flashed into my mind. Like a key, this opened dark rooms of secret resentments and hidden fears, which flowed out of me like poisons. Tears gushed out and so weakened me I had to lie down. Yet a deep happiness was there. . . .
Kapleau, p. 267
When the lady reported the first experience described above to her roshi or Zen master, he told her it was makyo (illusion) and to keep on doing zazen. However, in another passage she talks about the thoughts and images that arose "like clouds" during her meditation.
. . . But they were not discursive. They were like steppingstones directing me. I jumped from one to the next constantly moving along a well-defined path which my own intuition bade me follow. . . .
Kapleau, p. 264
It is obvious that the lady's intuition is giving her much better advice than is her roshi. As I said, it sometimes appears that people achieve enlightenment in spite of rather than because of the discipline they are engaged in. But does anyone come to enlightenment or is it that enlightenment comes to them? Does Muhammad come to the mountain or does the mountain come to Muhammad?
My comments about the confusion of cause and effect in the practice of sitting zazen described in The Three Pillars of Zen might be discredited by editor Kapleau and other followers of this technique on the grounds that as a Westerner with no formal training in Zen I could not possibly understand the inner meaning of this discipline. My critical comments may indeed have evolved from the viewpoint of a Western mind existing in the twentieth century, but the things I am saying as a contemporary "outsider" were also said long ago in seventh century China by someone who was very much an insider -- in fact, by the very person who no less an authority than D. T. Suzuki regards as the founder of modern Zen -- one Hui-neng who lived between the years 638 and 713 A.D. (Zen Buddhism; Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki, Edited by William Barrett.)
Hui-neng is interesting for several reasons. It appears that he was a naturally enlightened person or at least one to whom enlightenment came outside of any established formal discipline. He is described as a man of extremely humble origins and little formal education who wished to study under the most famed Zen master of his time, Hung-jen who was the fifth patriarch and the spiritual leader of some 500 monks. Hui-neng did not become a regular monk, but rather was assigned to the humble station of being a rice-pounder and wood-splitter who served the monks.
Within a year after Hui-neng became a rice-pounder, the elderly Hung-jen announced that he wished to select as his successor the most enlightened of his followers. The regular monks assumed that this honor would fall to one Shen-hsiu "who was the most learned of all the disciples and thoroughly versed in the lore of his religion . . ." (Suzuki, p. 67) In order to demonstrate his knowledge and enlightenment, so tradition has it, Shen-hsiu composed the following stanza and posted it outside the meditation hall:
This body is like the Bodhi-tree,
The soul is like a mirror bright;
Take heed to keep it always clean,
And let not dust collect on it.
What Shen-hsiu is describing here is the type of meditation in which the mind is disciplined into a tranquil state of noninvolvement, the "mirror" representing the mind which must be kept free of "dust" or distracting thoughts. The other monks were most impressed with this statement of wisdom, but in the morning they were startled to find another stanza posted alongside the first, this one written by the humble rice-pounder and wood-splitter Hui-neng who, of course, was not even a monk.
The Bodhi is not like the tree,
The mirror bright is nowhere shining;
As there is nothing from the first,
Where can the dust itself collect?
What the humble Hui-neng is talking about here is the deepest state of inner experience or the void in which there is no rational conception of mind or soul or anything else. While Shen-hsiu talks about a state of meditation in which the mind is cleared of distracting thoughts (the mirror is kept clean of dust), Hui-neng speaks of the state of "No-mind" or the void in which thoughts do not exist. When the master Hung-jen read these two stanzas, so the tradition goes, he immediately recognized that the humble rice-pounder was indeed the most enlightened one and selected him to be his heir and the next patriarch. There are various details relating to this story, but the general outcome was the creation of two conflicting schools of thought, one following the ideas of Shen-hsiu (the mirror dusting school of meditation) and the other those of Hui-neng (the "No-mind" school).
The primary difference between these two schools concerned the subject of cause and effect and the relationship between "Dhyana" and "Prajna." (Dhyana and Prajna are, respectively, the Chinese equivalents of the Japanese Zazen and Satori.) One meaning of Dhyana is the type of meditation in which one attempts to train oneself into a state of tranquilization. Dhyana can also be seen from another viewpoint as the state of contentment or naturalness that comes to one who is enlightened. Prajna means wisdom, but in a larger sense it means both the power to penetrate into the nature of one's own being and the intuitively derived wisdom or knowledge that results from this experience.
Thus, the primary difference between the two schools founded by Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng is that the former places first importance on Dhyana or meditation and the latter on Prajna or direct intuitive wisdom. It appears that the most common school of contemporary Zen both in Japan and the United States, that in which the discipline of zazen meditation is of first importance, is much closer to the tradition of Shen-hsiu than to that of Hui-neng. Hui-neng believed that Prajna or direct knowledge of the inner mind led automatically to the level of consciousness represented by Dhyana, but that the practice of Dhyana did not in turn lead back to the source of enlightenment. In regard to meditation alone he said:
"If you attempt to attain Buddhahood by sitting cross-legged in meditation, this is murdering the Buddha. As long as you cling to this sitting posture you can never reach the Mind."
Suzuki, p. 177
But what is this "Mind" that Hui-neng speaks of and how is it to be reached. When Hui-neng speaks of "Mind" he means something very different from mere "mind." The word "mind" means pretty much what we usually think of when we hear it used in common speech; that is, our empirical and discursive mind or that with which we think. On the other hand, "Mind" means the same as "Self-nature," "Suchness," the "Absolute," the "Void," "Buddha-nature," and the "Unconscious." And to reach this "Mind" we must use Prajna since "It is Prajna which lays its hands on Emptiness, or Suchness, or Self-Nature." (Suzuki, p. 191) Hui-neng's Prajna or technique of "seeing" into the "Mind" is a very different type of experience from either an intellectual- philosophical approach to understanding Buddhism or the stilling of the mind through meditative zazen.
When we say, "See into thy self-nature," the seeing is apt to be regarded as mere perceiving, mere knowing, mere statically reflecting on self-nature, which is pure and undefiled, and which retains this quality in all beings as well as in all the Buddhas. Shen-hsiu and his followers undoubtedly took this view of the "seeing". . . . The "seeing", especially in Hui-neng's sense, was far more than a passive deed of looking at, a mere knowledge obtained from contemplating the purity of self-nature; the seeing with him was self-nature itself, which exposes itself before him in all nakedness, and functions without any reservation. Herein we observe the great gap between the Northern school of Dhyana and the Southern school of Prajna.
Suzuki, p. 175
For Hui-neng Prajna or "seeing" means a direct, nonrational, experiential encounter with the unconscious mind.
That the process of enlightenment is abrupt means that there is a leap, logical and psychological, in the Buddhist experience. The logical leap is that the ordinary process of reasoning stops short, and what has been considered irrational is perceived to be perfectly natural, while the psychological leap is that the borders of consciousness are overstepped and one is plunged into the Unconscious which is not, after all, unconscious This process is discrete, abrupt, and altogether beyond calculation; this is ''Seeing into one's Self-nature."
Suzuki, p. 185
It would be beyond the intended scope of this paper to go into greater detail about Hui-neng's doctrine of No-mind, but it should be evident from the above passages that what he means by the term Prajna sounds very much like the intense and very direct experiences of "Satori" described by Bassui and Mrs. Kapleau and what Jung calls active imagination and (in its more intense manifestations) anticipated psychosis. I find the following two passages interesting because they are the statements of an Eastern Buddhist (D. T. Suzuki) and a Western psychiatrist (C. G. Jung) who are both using the language of psychology to talk about the same type of experience, while at the same time both recognize the limits of scientific and empirical language to convey the real meaning of what they are describing. It should be evident from these passages that the East and West may not be so far apart after all.
Hui-neng's Unconscious is thus fundamentally different from the psychologist's Unconscious. It has a metaphysical connotation. When Hui-neng speaks of the Unconscious in Consciousness, he steps beyond psychology.
Suzuki, p. 191
. . . The unconscious is too neutral and rational a term to give much impetus to the imagination. The term, after all, was coined for scientific purposes, and is far better suited to dispassionate observation which makes no metaphysical claims than are the transcendental concepts, which are controversial and therefore tend to breed fanaticism. Hence I prefer the term "the unconscious," knowing that I might equally well speak of "God" or "Daimon" if I wished to express myself in mythic language. When I do use such mythic language, I am aware that "mana," "daimon," and "God" are synonyms for the unconscious.
Jung. Memories Dreams, Reflections., pp. 336-37
Satori and the Intimations of Enlightenment
The process of experiencing the unconscious mind on a direct level involves certain risks and undesirable side effects. These can be described under the two headings of "differentiation" and "inflation" -- the latter in part at least the result of having failed to achieve the former. Let's deal first with the somewhat confusing term differentiation.
Part of the confusion here results from the same term being used in very different contexts. When we talk about "differentiation" and the ''undifferentiated state" we are talking about two things that are not really in conflict. Differentiation is a term that comes from Jungian psychology and it means the ability to separate the experiences of inner and outer reality. In the language of Zen it is the ability to recognize the difference between the experience of satori (Prajna) and the experience of ordinary consciousness. On the other hand, the undifferentiated or unitive state is a level of consciousness characteristic of persons who have reached enlightenment. The following quotation gives an idea of what this term means:
This stage can be equated with the fifth or most advanced degree, called kenchuto (a condition of absolute naturalness where the mutual interpenetration of the world of discrimination and the world of equality is so thorough that one is consciously aware of neither).
Kapleau, p. 283
We might say that the ability to differentiate is most important in the early stages of spiritual growth long before the undifferentiated state has been achieved.
The ability to differentiate is crucial because of certain side effects that seem to occur when one first begins to make contact with the contents of the unconscious mind, which is what happens in states of satori or Prajna (such as those described a few pages back by Bassui and Mrs. Kapleau). These contents can also be activated or freed to much lesser extent simply by the meditative process itself. (For a full explanation of what can happen one should read Jung's extremely interesting essay entitled "The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious.") Simply stated, what tends to happen is that as the contents of the unconscious begin to surface they trigger tremendous feelings of inflation in the individual. It is at this point that most seekers are convinced that they have found the secrets that will save all mankind, and they are strongly driven to go out and enlighten the world. This is a stage that must be gotten past in some way, although it may take time. Zen masters too (at least the more advanced ones) are aware of this problem. For example, the following passage from The Three Pillars of Zen in which a master talks about a young lady's experience of kensho.
An ancient Zen saying has it that to become attached to one's own enlightenment is as much a sickness as to exhibit a maddeningly active ego. Indeed, the profounder the enlightenment, the worse the illness. In her case I think it would have taken two or three months for the most obvious symptoms to disappear, two or three years for the less obvious, and seven or eight for the most insidious. Such symptoms are less pronounced in one as gentle as she but in some they are positively nauseating. Those who practice Zen must guard against them. My own sickness lasted almost ten years. Ha!
quoted by Kapleau, p. 289
Another way to put all this is that if one fails to differentiate between his inner experience and his outer reality he may end up with an "illness" in which he cannot distinguish between an inner sense of God and his outer reality. Because he has experienced a sense of God within, in his illness he may see himself as God. It is not difficult to find examples of this type of illness in the contemporary scene, and I think specifically of one Bubba Free John who puts himself on the same level as Jesus Christ, Buddha, and the other avatars of history. From a psychological viewpoint Bubba and his philosophy are interesting.
One of the basic principles of the psychology of the unconscious mind is that only unconscious contents of the mind are projected. That is, we project onto others only those things about ourselves of which we have no conscious awareness. Thus, if we view what a person projects onto the world around him we may learn things about him that he himself is not aware of (has not differentiated), the nature of his illness as it were. This unconscious inner material can also be expressed through the types of behavior or acting out that the individual engages in.
Now let's look at Bubba Free John again. The view he projects onto the world is rather simple. What ails all men (except for himself, of course) is that they are afflicted with Narcissus. (According to Bubba's own admission he had something of an advantage over the rest of us since he was born already enlightened.) By Narcissus Bubba means that people are directed toward themselves rather than outward toward relationships with others. But the type of outward relationship people require is not simply the usual human interactions that occur in daily life -- marriage, work, love, etc. What is really needed is a relationship with an enlightened one such as himself. When this kind of relationship is established, the individual acquires gradual enlightenment through a process of exposure or cosmic osmosis in much the way someone gets a sun tan just by being in the sun. The person simply needs to be there and the sun, or in this case the enlightened one (Bubba), effects the change. (Terrence Patten in The Laughing Man, Vol. 1, No. 1)
Thus, Bubba projects onto the world the flaw of self-directedness, the flaw of Narcissus, and at the same time in his behavior he acts out the ultimate in Narcissistic delusion, the attitude of being a divine personage himself. Enough said about the types of illness that can result from direct encounters with the contents of the unconscious mind.
The attainment of the void, entry into the kingdom within, the achievement of gnosis, or whatever other symbolic language may be used to describe the experience appears to be at the heart of all spiritual seeking. And judging from the descriptions of the hazards and terrors of the pathway that must be followed, it does not appear to be a suitable one for all persons. Jung, for example, felt that this was the right path only for a certain few who, before starting the inner journey, had a very firm grasp on outer reality to serve as a balance and compensation for an experience of equally great potential risk and reward. It seems that all religions or spiritual disciplines in their origins at least have recognized that men have different potential levels of achievement in regard to how far they can go along the road of direct religious experience. As religions grow old they tend to become more and more exoteric and less and less esoteric, and in becoming more externalized and demystified the teachings are seen to apply equally to all men. Most who have pondered this problem finally seem to conclude that the capacity to experience God directly may be potential in all men, but for most the possibility is very remote. (Many are called but few are chosen.)
Traditionally the inner practices of esoteric religion have been kept secret and made available only to the elect or chosen. Of course, the secrets have always been there, but the real meaning was generally apparent only to those who could recognize the underlying content (those who have eyes to see and ears to hear). I feel that this attitude of secrecy is based on a misconception of the rational mind -- that is, the belief that it is the discipline itself which has brought about the experience of enlightenment. As I said before, after reading about many disciplines and the experiences of persons both within and outside of them, I have concluded that those persons who have it as their destiny to experience such enlightenment do so almost in spite of rather than because of their particular discipline. Of course, they may have been drawn to such a discipline in the first place because they needed the protection and support that the discipline may offer. In our highly rational, empirical, and largely antimystical times, those who do have these strong inner drives for merging with the ultimate may have to express them symbolically through actions which have underlying meanings they themselves are not consciously aware of. Let's see if we can identify some of the characteristics of such potential seekers after the infinite. Meister Eckhart says:
The highest agents of the soul are three. The first is intuition; the second, irascibilis, which is the upsurging agent; and the third is will.
Eckhart, p. 163
The first and last of these qualities, the intuition (of the divine) and the will (to pursue the goal), seem fairly obvious. It is the second quality that I find most interesting, that which Eckhart calls irascibilis and defines as follows:
The second is that upsurging agent whose proper function is to lift man upwards. . . . it is the property of the soul ever to struggle upward by means of this agent The soul cannot bear to have anything above it. . . . So the grace that is won by special wisdom and effort is far sweeter to the soul than the grace which is the common property of all people.
Eckhart, p. 163
Hermann Hesse was another who had a sense of irascibilis and who recognized the difference between those who have this quality and other men who seem to lack it.
You have a picture of life within you, a faith, a challenge, and you were ready for deeds and sufferings and sacrifices, and then you became aware by degrees that the world asked no deeds and no sacrifices of you whatever, and that life is no poem of heroism with heroic parts to play and so on, but a comfortable room where people are quite content with eating and drinking, coffee and knitting, cards and wireless. And whoever wants more and has got it in him -- the heroic and the beautiful, and the reverence for the great poets or for the saints -- is a fool and a Don Quixote.
Hesse, Steppenwolf, p. 171
It is the kingdom on the other side of time and appearances. It is there we belong. There is our home. It is that which our heart strives for. And for that reason, Steppenwolf, we long for death. . . . And we have no one to guide us. Our only guide is our homesickness.
Steppenwolf, p. 175
Hesse like others of a mystical or interior orientation had little use for the mechanistic and material world of machines, which has become even more prevalent in the nearly fifty years since he wrote Steppenwolf. But strangely even in the midst of such a seemingly alien world of machines, there are those whose inner nature makes itself known through symbolic expression. For example, I was very surprised recently to read the following passages in an article entitled "The Compass and the Clock" by Peter Garrison which appeared in the publication Flying (Dec. 1975, Vol. 97, No. 6) which claims to be the "world's most widely read aviation magazine," hardly the place one would expect to find expressions of inner seeking and mystical experience. The article is largely a technical description of the problems of flying a small, single-engine, homebuilt airplane round trip across the Atlantic Ocean, but it begins:
I am drawn by the thought of flying long distances. It is my mountain climbing, my archery, my test of strength. I don't know why it appeals to me so much, but I like to look at a globe, mentally measuring the great-circle routes and translating them into hours and into pounds of fuel. The more remote and lonelier the route, the greater its magnetism for me. My reason sees such long flights as long sits, merely tedious waits for a machine to tick up its appointed number of revolutions; but in my heart, they appear as the door handles to eternity, glimpses of the inaccessible and the sacred.
Later in the article the writer talks about the thoughts and images that passed through his mind as he looked down at the surface of the ocean from his fragile perch. In his reverie or meditative state the contents of his inner mind surface and express themselves in symbolic language that brings to mind many other descriptions of the underworld of the mind which appear in the literature of mythology and religious experience.
The engine sound is a barometer of my state of mind, which slowly alternates between blissful complacency and an anxious, hollow feeling of having gone too far. I wonder at times what I am doing out here, as I look out at the water stretching from horizon to horizon, the rugosity of its surface endlessly repeated, its coloration sometimes mottled as though there were sandbars a few fathoms down; but that is an illusion, for the water here is two miles deep, perhaps three, an awesome weight of liquid darkness through which a pensive drowned man occasionally descends. The depth, the pressure and darkness, the vermin-devoured serpents, the twisted trees, they are repellent and awful to me; I feel as though I were suspended by a delicate thread above a yawning, hungry maw. Again and again I idly retrace the same nightmare path: the leaden depth, glowing worms, the bottomless darkness; the fragility of fuel lines; the inevitability -- and therefore the unimportance -- of death; the ennuis and chagrins of life that make one sometimes long for death;. . . to lie in cold obstruction and to rot. . . full fathom five. . . alas, poor Yorick. I think of all the poor devils of past times and present who trusted their fortunes to fragile shells who traced like tiny laborious insects the web of their travels across this gulf, and of them whom fortune failed, on whom the immensity and indifference of the universe dawned only when they were treading a thousand fathoms of water at night, shouting vainly for help into the gale . . .
In the language of The Tibetan Book of the Dead we might say that this pilot has viewed the ''wrathful Deities" of his mind even though he has not yet become "merged into them" through direct experience. The following passage from The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the terror and fear involved in facing the Wrathful Deities which makes the intellect want to turn away from them. It also points out that because of their intensity such feelings can be most helpful in aiding the mind to achieve one-pointedness, that is, total experiential involvement as opposed to intellectual observation. The Bardos are the various levels of the inner mind that must be passed through in order to reach the final void.
This is the Bardo of the Wrathful Deities; and, they being influenced by fear, terror, and awe, recognition becometh more difficult. The intellect, gaining not in independence, passeth from one fainting state to a round of fainting states. Yet, if one but recognize a little, it is easier to be liberated at this stage. If it be asked why? the answer is: Because of the dawning of the radiances -- which produce fear, terror, and awe -- the intellect is undistractedly alert in one-pointedness.
Evans-Wentz, p. 132
The following passage seems to say that most people cannot face and endure a direct confrontation with the unconscious, but those who can will obtain the "pearl" of great worth.
As for the common worldly folk, what need is there to mention them! By fleeing, through fear, terror, and awe, they fall over the precipices into the unhappy worlds and suffer. But the least of the devotees of the mystic mantrayana doctrines, as soon as he sees these blood-drinking deities, will recognize them to be his tutelary deities, and the meeting will be like that of human acquaintances. He will trust them; and becoming merged into them, in at-one-ment, will obtain Buddhahood.
Evans-Wentz, p. 132
And here is the same message stated again elsewhere in the same book in slightly different language.
At this time when the Fifty-eight Blood-Drinking Deities emanating from thine own brain come to shine upon thee, if thou knowest them to be the radiances of thine own intellect, thou wilt merge, in the state of at-one-ment, into the body of the Blood-Drinking Ones there and then, and obtain Buddhahood.
Evans-Wentz, p. 146
Of the numerous written expressions which deal with this type of inner experience, I think the following passage from the works of Jung is the clearest statement I have encountered of the nature of this experience and its risks and rewards.
Naturally there is an enormous difference between an anticipated psychosis and a real one, but the difference is not always clearly perceived and this gives rise to uncertainty or even a fit of panic. Unlike a real psychosis, which comes on you and inundates you with uncontrollable fantasies irrupting from the unconscious, the judging attitude implies a voluntary involvement in those fantasy-processes which compensate the individual and -- in particular -- the collective situation of consciousness. The avowed purpose of this involvement is to integrate the statements of the unconscious, to assimilate their compensatory content, and thereby produce a whole meaning which alone makes life worth living and, for not a few people, possible at all. The reason why the involvement looks very like a psychosis is that the patient is integrating the same fantasy-material to which the insane person falls victim because he cannot integrate it but is swallowed up by it. In myths the hero is the one who conquers the dragon, not the one who is devoured by it. And yet both have to deal with the same dragon. Also, he is no hero who never met the dragon, or who, if he once saw it, declared afterwards that he saw nothing. Equally, only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard, the "treasure hard to attain." He alone has a genuine claim to self-confidence, for he has faced the dark ground of his self and thereby has gained himself. This experience gives him faith and trust, the pistis in the ability of the self to sustain him, for everything that menaced him from inside he has made his own. He has acquired the right to believe that he will be able to overcome all future threats by the same means. He has arrived at an inner certainty which makes him capable of self-reliance, and attained what the alchemists called the unio mentalis.
Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, Paragraph 756
Most persons I suspect will turn away in horror at the prospect of even coming close to experiences such as these, and this is as it should be because this is not the path for them. They are like persons who live in relative contentment in a peaceful village next to a mountain and never question what is on top of the mountain or on the far side of it. However, there are always those few, even in small peaceful villages, who will never know true contentment until they have scaled the heights and plumbed the depths, regardless of the risks involved. If this is one's nature, then he has little choice, and for him no other goal is worth pursuing.
©1996 John E. McCloud
Blakney, R. B., trans., Meister Eckhart, A Modern Translation (New York: Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row, Pub., 1941).
Evans-Wentz, W. Y., Ed., The Tibetan Book of the Dead (London: Oxford University Press, 1960).
Garrison, P., "The Compass and the Clock," Flying, Dec. 1975, Vol. 97, No. 6 (New York: Ziff-Davis Pub. Co.).
Hesse, H., "A Dream Sequence," Strange News from Another Star (New York: Farrar, Straus and Firoux, 1972).
Steppenwolf (New York: Bantam Books, 1969).
Jung, C. G., Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffe (New York: Vintage Books, 1961).
Mysterium Coniunctionis. Collected Works, Vol. 14, Bollingen Series XX (Princeton Univ. Press, 1966).
Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. Collected Works, Vol. 7, Bollingen Series XX (Princeton Univ. Press, 1966).
Kapleau, P., ed., The Three Pillars of Zen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967).
Patten, T., "Bubba Free John on Meditation," The Laughing Man, Vol. 1, No. 1 (San Francisco: The Laughing Man Institute for Traditional and Esoteric Studies, 1976).
Suziki, D. T., Zen Buddhism. Selected writings, edited by William Barrett (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956).