Alfred Pulyan

Letters from a
Zen Master

April 10, 1961

Dear Dick,


Occasionally on the stage an actor will doff his “mask” & disguises & make-up & appear as himself. It is sometimes a very different personality, in fact usually.

Thus in this letter I am not speaking as “one of the few” or somebody who claims to “know” about what you call “essence” and I call the “One Self.” I leave that to one side.

I am just another human being in this letter and I trust you will find me agreeable & courteous.


I think all of us humans should feel a deep sympathy for one another in this vale of tears. Thus any “caustic sarcasm” you may have found in any of my previous letters I deeply regret (from the point of view of this letter). Also the “vulgar choice of words” that you observed, and the possible “adolescent desire to shock.” Also I regret any “nagging” you may have noticed. All such things are merely adding fresh disagreeableness to the ample supply that exists anyway.


The few cases that I have had where a person withdrew were all characterized by more or less acerbity & I think this is due to a misunderstanding. Let me illustrate.


A young girl student of Zen was walking along Sixth Avenue, New York, when a “drunk” decided to give her a scare. He shouted out something as loud as he could, “BOO!!” The girl smiled as it reminded her of the Zen Master. The drunk said, “Christ, she LIKES it!!!”

You remember the character in the Mikado, who was unable to find anybody to contradict him? Everybody was too darn nice!

The person who is “awakened” understands that the only way to such an attainment is AGAINST EGO. That means that the guru, or whatever you call him, has to be constantly throwing barbs, harpoons -- being disagreeable, sarcastic, unreasonable, vulgar, adolescent, nagging, caustic & so forth. It is his job as it is the job of the architect to design buildings.


Obviously it is a thankless task. He does not, I assure you, enjoy his rôle in life but, like a surgeon, he has a job to do. The results are beyond glory & beyond all imagination & any little temporary inconvenience is negligible or should be.


But it is surprising how the slightest touch on our ego (& now that includes mine too of course) makes us flare up, get resentful & so forth. We assume there is, AS IS USUAL IN THIS WORLD, no love behind the barbed insult but forget that IN THE CASE OF THE GURU (and MY GURU TOO!) there is all the Love in the world.

We mix up quarreling & nagging (so familiar in marital life & daily life) with the guru’s technique.


Now the poor guru doesn’t want to keep up this stream of unreasonable invective but it is the only way if results are to be achieved (ego must be desensitized). So if the pupil screeches loudly enough the guru happily* gives up the whole horrible business & is only too glad* to get back on a mutually agreeable basis, where friends (as the world understands that word) can interchange pleasant discussions about ultimate problems.

(* sadness too because another person has failed to see what was being aimed at, i.e. has “missed the mark”)


If you regard the whole business as being nonsensical and leading nowhere, & you are entitled you your point of view, then obviously the so-called guru is merely a disagreeable old bastard having a crude kind of fun with the poor student. From your point of view this is how I spend my life. Naturally from my point of view I think you have a caricature, because I can actually point to at least 70% of successes where the student was too grateful for any words & fully understood the means it was necessary to use to bring him or her to a realization.


Even psychotherapy whose aim is more limited, & whose goal is not so far off, has to go contra ego or self to some extent. However here the time is paid for so it is possible by spreading out the annoyance over a long, long period to make the mental disturbance seem much less. We had farther to go & less time to do it in.


It is usual for an agreement to be reached so that although the guru & student are fencing, boxing or what have you, yet they agree that whatever injuries are received (not really very serious one -- only to the self-esteem!) they will remain friends & continue whatever happens. In this way Jacob wrestled with the Lord. Always their friendship is reaffirmed at the close of each letter.


Naturally I wanted more than “a flow of correspondence” (especially when you refused to “argue” at times & wrote only a couple of sentences).

(a) I did expect that you would appreciate my motives & the necessity of this unfortunate technique (monks have to be dragged in to face the Zen Master sometimes -- when they cannot answer their “koans”). If the fencing or boxing turns into a grudge-fight then the cooler head will call a halt, even apologize if necessary & politely avoid further occasions with the same person.

(b) I also expected that “friend” would gradually come to mean something so that together we could examine what you call our “diversity in the field of metaphysics” & together make a reasonable decision about it. I must however protest against the word “metaphysics,” as what happened to many other students was not an understanding of “metaphysics,” but a conscious experience quite unlike anything else, that happens all by itself when we cease to oppose the current of life.


I will say that your present attitude is no different from that which I myself had to my own teacher or guru. (I wish I could avoid Indian terms as I am not concerned with Oriental metaphysics!)

I was sullen, revengeful, spiteful, angry, -- more so in fact than yourself -- even murderous & we all have a touch of that in us.

It seems now that to be so moved by insults to my precious “super ego” is the most absurd thing in the world. But let a waiter say to you in a whisper “Not that fork sir, use the other one” & you “burn” slowly (even if it is a practical joke). Self-esteem is awfully strong .


With a student like yourself IT IS YOUR INTERESTS SOLELY THAT ARE CONSIDERED. (What do I gain by the time I spend on these letters? The pleasure of being “sarcastic”?? Hardly. That is Dead-Sea fruit & a vain “pleasure” when I have enough to trouble me in the natural course of life without seeking you out as a butt for mere rudeness!) (Besides, you don’t have to take it you know.)

Thus: you can call me caustic & sarcastic (or far worse) but when you add “that I consider unnecessary” then I see that you are not clear as to what we are doing. If I were all sweetness & light I somehow think it would not make much change in Richard! He can get that kind of glucose from a thousand easy sources (from the pulpit to the inspirational articles, books, pamphlets -- etc.).


I am not really a louse, but you have somehow to learn to handle these “harpoons” & not to regard it as a marital squabble. The real trouble however which makes our work so difficult is that you have no actual belief that there is any such experience (as I so often refer to as “awakening”) available to human beings. Thus it all seems useless to you.

(The last line of the letter is cut off in the copy machine.)

Your friend,


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