Alfred Pulyan

Letters from a
Zen Master

Sept. 28, 1960

Dear Dick,

You have understood me very clearly. We have given a name to our problem -- egocentricity. You have this disease & I see you have it. I am the doctor and have cured cases before. So the thing to do is clear-cure it. And you “thank me for my efforts.” And you say that prior to my last letter you “made statements” & my treatment consisted in saying “you are full of bologna.” (a)

You make the widest (& truest!!) generalization: “The M. knows that one too,” but IN DETAIL you are (probably of necessity, my poor friend!!) forced to act against your own words because you are so trying to watch the process of your own deliverance!

Hence the “analysis” like (a) above (knocking down all statements).

But IF WHAT YOU SAY WERE TRUE then any Tom, Dick or Harry -- & in particular the "Dick" that is you, could set up in business as an A.P. (not “Alfred Pulyan” but “awakened person”!) and have an orgy of destruction, name-calling, epithet-inventing, & so forth, while looking hopefully to CURING his dupes. But, physician heal thyself!! It might not work. In rare cases it might! But, oh boy, what a mess --- what a fight! However there are quite a number of people who do habitually act this way; in a mild degree Groucho Marx, Alexander King, Alexander Woollcott, -- in fact most intellectuals, especially those just emerged from the egg -- & even you with your “dialectical attack” & “analytical affront” on the fairer & pleasanter sex.


Everything above may be true & we may both know it. “The M. knows that one too” however means that he can thread his way with ease & assurance in the most god-awful tangle the ingenious mind can throw up!!


Your whole letter, as I said, is really excellent.

You get involved here & there and of course you feel it & you say, very naturally, “What the hell!!” But here are cases where you try to go further as in (a) above & investigate my technique:

(b) “I presume anything I might say would be superfluous. So I keep my words to a minimum.”

The second sentence is very true & honest. Often people say “I can find nothing to say to you.” They then go to someone else and deliver themselves of 25,000 assorted words on the same subject!! Literary men say often “I have no ideas and stare at a blank page.” Wow! Again they have millions (& can “breed” more at that --- ), but they are NOT satisfied with what they have, so they clam up.

Thus you put your finger on it “I KEEP MY WORDS --- “ etc. But “I” is at the moment my enemy, the enemy of Alfred Robert Pulyan! So I say -- do not do so. So talk!   Orders!

You say, “But I don’t wanna talk.” That is your disagreeable task & you have my sympathy! UB-GUB doesn’t help!

Your first sentence “I PRESUME ---” shows the first wound to ego. It hurts. He retreats. That is all. But such a “light affliction” can “win so great a prize” (Christianity has all the words somewhere!).1

Verse from a hymn: "O Happy Band of Pilgrims".

(c) “I do understand that you may be trying to clarify my thinking processes.”

Not at all. They are perfectly clear & pellucid as is. We shall use them -- even against themselves -- but my aim is otherwise. “Thinking” is a barren desert. Even so-called psychological integration demands a fusion of thinking & feeling. You may not even be able to define “feeling”; “intuition” is on the intellectual or thinking side STILL. Nor will “imagination” help! It falls short of course. Define “feeling,” “intuition” & “imagination” & see if they can help & how much. 


So much for a general analysis of the position (in cold blood) and for (a), (b), (c), where the student attempts to divine the process & to help it along.


I have asked some & suggested some things to examine. These will give you pegs to hang your discourse upon.

But you asked some questions, too! So: “What will happen to money, houses, farm, wife when the universe goes up in smoke”? (What will happen to you & me anyway eventually?)

This is a Zen koan & the M. does not attempt to answer it verbally. He may -- as regards himself, say, -- remark that he will be on his back with his face to the sky or variants of this ----


“Psychic research” & the less respectable religion of Spiritualism attempt to answer this. So does the Western group of religions & some of the Eastern ones (like Shin-shu & its “happy Western land” presided over by Amida or Amithaba who helps us to the “awakening” we have missed on earth).


So does Theosophy & the school of rebirth, transmigration & reincarnation.

These things (1) & (2) are not very compatible! Researchers try to get messages through -- via a medium -- from their loved ones deceased, but rarely look around in society to find where their loved one has “reincarnated”!! Of course there may be a longer time between incarnations --- As a factual matter Spiritualism fights Reincarnation --- & so does Christianity.

This is your only real question & so I must comment on some statements you make.


“I do not know what you mean by guarantee.”

Did you trust your Hindu “Master”? Or were there reservations? Long before I “got anywhere” I sensed what my teacher was & had. It is essential even if it does not immediately “do what has to be done.” In the “Buddha” Gautama men sensed a curious plus-value & evidently in Jesus there was “something” beyond normal personality, even though the disciples may have maintained the idea that he was some sort of a “Messiah” & a wonder-worker.

Transcendence goes beyond miracles & all phenomena. If you only find my “personality” you will have found nothing unusual. It is as “unique” as yours is, or for that matter anything in nature whatever, since we all pick up different odds & ends for our memory-boxes as we live & experience. As such it is interesting, but so is your own. The “wonderful thing” is NOT UNIQUE, it is not prized for its unusual nature as compared with other things. It is common to all, even if buried under metaphorical tons of rubble.


We seek what is common to all, not what is unique. You mention “personalities” or “faces” -- all are “real” as such & that is awkward, isn’t it?! Listen to a man’s voice change as he gets a “female” voice on the phone, or a salesman trying to sell him a Canadian copper-mine stock or an old friend or his wife or “the priest,” or the boss, or a child ---

So you ask -- how in the name of God does he talk when alone? Try it -- feels awkward doesn’t it? Afraid of two men in white with a butterfly net? You can always talk to “God”! But apart from the fact that you do not know what you are addressing (& what language It talks!) it would involve “sincerity” -- and that is very tiring, rather objectionable --

Similarly when we lose memory (amnesia). Then there is confusion.


Do we have “one” something? Oh yes! Ever since you became self-conscious (awakening No. 1!) as a child you have had this. It is overlaid but recoverable.

I do not say that this process (of recovering the puer aeternitatis) is directly a technique for awakening, but it has a relation to it, as his envisaging the same thing in the M. As far as the student is concerned the work is NOT, NOT, NOT to “improve” his God-damn understanding (item (c)). Charmingly fatuous (the sweet odor of decay). If you will allow me to make reference to God I would put it that this will not help you as far as God is concerned!! “Look! Me Richard. Me smart boy, no?”   (No)

Christ Jesus ---- oh well --- (one thing you cannot fool.)


You have as many spikes as an ancient “mace” or as the spiked sphere (the centrosome) which is crucial to mitosis (cell-division) -- and which by the way “calmly” divides & “sits” one on each side of the nucleus of the cell-to-be-split! Such spikes are the obstacles to being a warm, high-minded human-being. The true process of awakening therapy is more like house-breaking a cat or explaining to an “underprivileged” child that there are good reasons why he should not casually expectorate on the carpet.

The pride of an Einstein or a Sir Julian Huxley or a C.G. Jung or an Erich Fromm (who ALREADY “know it all”) would not endure such a process for one moment. I know. And add the “urbane” (well-armed!) third Earl Russell, Bertrand Russell, under whom I once studied briefly. Such humor, such Ajax-like “resting on a foundation of unyielding despair”(!) 2, 3

Greek tragedy

This Bertrand Russel quote also appears in Pulyan's essay "Life's Pretty Forlorn as Some See It".

And that of course suggests Sartre who has made a good thing out of plays, articles, books --- on that same “despair.”

Not only are you in numerous company but, as these names show, in excellent company!


As for “envisaging the same thing in the M.” Zen calls this “the transmission.” Words do not “transmit” it, but negatively they can show the way. Tangents may define a curve although not one tangent is part of  the curve:

A series of straight lines progressing around an implied spiral. In this case a spiral.
(Altho’ I am a mathematician I have forgotten the word for “the curve which is enveloped by tangents.” There is a word.)
A spiral.
[A series of straight lines progressing around an implied spiral.]

Neti. Neti. “Not this way.” As Lao-Tse says “men love by-paths.” More accurately ego seeks at every moment the easy by-path that corresponds to his inclination & makes him “purr.” One must go against this tendency:

A segmented line which has dotted “by-ways” at diversion points    & ignore dotted alternatives.

[A segmented line which has dotted “by-ways” at diversion points]

Am I speaking vaguely & “generally”? Oh no! Each dotted line represents an occasion where the student fights by one means or another, he “changes” the subject under discussion to a more “satisfactory” one, he ignores a remark, he counterattacks (“let’s stop squabbling,” “say something definite,” “we are not getting anywhere.” “what I would do is ... ,” “you don’t understand me,” “most of what you say is wrong,” etc.), or he withdraws.

When you say “you are making a thousand guesses” I would naturally say “give three.” Guessing at what?” Need I “guess” when you can enlighten me so easily? So -- please give three. (However you may have changed a little since you wrote that. But “there is nothing hidden that shall not be revealed.” (Curious statement -- but I mean it literally -- don’t hint, talk out.)

This is not a contest. The usual dirty fighting (of everyday intercourse) doesn’t “go.” This is not for my benefit. When I was myself “working” there was also physical “work” (which you are spared) & here ego’s shrieks rose to a crescendo so to say!

You may say -- “have I got to keep putting my chin up for your fist?” To that I would say -- if that were true & the “way,” then: “Yes, by all means.”

But actually you have a certain “nature” right now. It needs to be changed (γνῶθι σεαυτόν -- “know thyself”). Psychoanalysis goes into minute detail but no synthesis appears even after five years. Other “therapies” are usually gentle -- & so very long. No doubt a kid-glove technique might be possible -- but with the same result requires the same “pain” -- either to take the tooth out with one yank or to play with it for hours!

The Gestapo of SS men would be ideal -- but maybe too much for our purposes! We need to desensitize ego. These urbane & polished people & many others have actually a raw & inflamed ego that cannot bear the gentlest touch. If a waiter says “Not that fork, sir” they would never recover. Actually the pain is absurd and quite unreal. In business some pretty crude terms are used (tricky old son-of-a-bitch & so forth) but a smile makes them a compliment. Suppose there were no smile?

The ego does not surrender “in vacuo.” There are attendant circumstances. Otherwise it would be open theoretically for the most unlikely people to “go over the hump” all of a sudden. However intelligence is requisite, even cunning, or “discrimination” (which sounds better). Also the highest of “standards,” a deep love of beauty (although not of a “formal” nature -- you will know what I mean, no pretentious yak-yak) ---- so that the “change-over” occurs because for a moment you are already there anyway. That is why “bhakti” or devotion is considered so good a “way” by the Hindus (& myself, since if “bhakti” is sufficiently pure it is the very experience we seek -- ).

I am really speaking of “feeling” as additional to “knowing,” of “spontaneity” as opposed to a “system,” of a full man.

If you asked for examples (now living) I could give no more than a couple dozen of my own knowledge.

If you say “do you regard me, Dick, as a yahoo?” I would say -- I rank you with the great ones of the earth, the great psychologists, scientists, etc. etc., the most perceptive, scholarly, charming, kindly men ----

If you then said “in other words a yahoo” it would be embarrassing! After all between them such persons have all the virtues, a wonderful personality, great kindness, a fine appearance, ---- & so why this pejorative comparison with a mere horse? Well, I didn’t do it; it was Swift.4


A Yahoo is a legendary being in the novel Gulliver's Travels. Swift describes them as being filthy and with unpleasant habits, resembling human beings far too closely for the liking of protagonist Lemuel Gulliver, who finds the calm and rational society of intelligent horses, the Houyhnhnms, greatly preferable.


For our first aim then let us see if we can agree. Not verbally because that is a mere nothing, but in detail. Thus you would investigate, analyze or attack vigorously anything not clear -- but use legitimate arguments (not devices!).

You would also agree not to “withdraw” until I say there is no more to be done. Any specific requests I make you would follow. I have made some in this letter, marked Kindly confirm.

Yoga: “Joining” what is already one!! Quite a trick.

Yoga” -- if we “decide” to meditate we have one strike against us! Besides it is a do-it-yourself technique. Those are only for heroes. How to decide not to decide? Wu-wei. Hatha-Yoga seeks to “control.” You control more than you can handle (in the body) already. You need to “decontrol.”

We cannot follow science & intuition.” Intuition is the method of science -- I feel you regard “intuition” as a higher faculty than it is, it is only short-cut thinking & does not include ESP & other methods, or alleged methods, of direct knowledge. In other words if “intuition” represents your advance upon “intellection” it is a trifling one and in the same field. What do you think “intuition” is?

Nothing” In many of your letters you voice the curious fear that you might become a “nothing.” The fact is that you are NOW a “nothing,” but you can be a “something.” Another metaphor is the top of a submerged iceberg (7/8 under water) -- & I do not mean the “subconscious.”

You can have “attachment” & anything else you like after you have done what is needful. I am not suggesting your way of life -- only the way to being able to “live.” The “cast” is while the broken leg heals, not the normal way of living. I am not prescribing WAYS OF LIFE, I am trying to work a change-over experience. You confuse means with ends! The scaffolding is not the skyscraper. Questions about what you are & where you go have no place in the “work” we are doing, which is to free you to judge & act (or at least to know whether it is “you” or what it is).

Jesus & Gautama & others elaborated a philosophy from their understanding. So have I. So could you. But to use it to get the understanding is ridiculous. Hence the folly -- utter folly -- of reading books on philosophy etc. (And that cuts out thousands of enticing old & new issues.)



[The following is a left margin note.]

First stage -- “normalcy”(!)
Dissatisfaction, frustration -- no way out seen.
Second stage -- “working”
More frustration as this seems still more pointless & leading nowhere. Rebellion. Far too austere.
Third stage -- period of change-over, Satori
Satisfaction handed to you on a platter. Oh boy. Hope it lasts for ever. (It doesn’t.)
Fourth stage -- truly normal living
After some months however (or a year) of “digestion,” you seem to yourself the same as before, i.e. normal. Men find you pleasant maybe no more than that. But ---- ! No questions --

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