Hubert Benoit
Zen and the Psychology of Transformation
The Supreme Doctrine

Chapter 3

THE IDOLATRY OF 'SALVATION'

One of the errors which most surely hinder man's intemporal realisation is that of seeing in this realisation a compulsive character. In many 'spiritual' systems, religious or otherwise, man has the 'duty' of achieving his 'salvation'; he denies all value to that which is temporal and concentrates all the reality imaginable on the 'salvation'. It is evident, however, that there is again here a form of idolatry, since realisation, seen thus as something which excludes other things, is then only one thing among others, limited and formal, and that it is regarded at once as alone 'sacred' and immeasurably superior to all the rest. All the determining, enslaving reality which man attributed to this or that 'temporal' enterprise is crystallised now on the enterprise of 'salvation', and this enterprise becomes the most determining, the most enslaving that can be imagined. Since realisation signifies liberation one arrives at the absurd paradox that man is subjected to the coercive duty to be free. Man's distress is concentrated then on this question of his salvation; he trembles at the thought that he may die before having attained his deliverance. Such a grave error of understanding necessarily entails anxiety, inner agitation, a feeling of unworthiness, an egotistical crispation on oneself-as-a-distinct-being, that is to say, it prevents inner pacification, reconciliation with oneself, disinterestedness towards oneself-as-a-distinct-being, the diminution of emotion—in short all the inner atmosphere of relaxation which governs the release of satori.

The man who deceives himself thus, however, can think again and better. There is no duty except in relation to an authority which imposes it. The believer of this or that religion will say that 'God' is the authority which imposes on him the obligation of salvation. But who then is this 'God' who while imposing something on me, is separate from me and has need of my action? Everything, then, is not included in his perfect harmony?

The same error is found among certain men sufficiently evolved intellectually no longer to believe in a personal God. They seem at least no longer to believe in him. If one looks more closely one perceives that they believe in him still. They imagine their satori, and themselves after their satori, and that is their personal God, a coercive idol, disquieting, implacable. They must realise themselves, they must liberate themselves, they are terrified at the thought of not being able to get there, and they are elated by any inner phenomenon which gives them hope. There is 'spiritual ambition' in all this which is necessarily accompanied by the absurd idea of the Superman that they should become, with a demand for this becoming, and distress.

This error entails, in a fatally logical manner, the need to teach others. Our attitude towards others is modeled on our attitude towards ourselves. If I believe that I must achieve my 'salvation' I cannot avoid believing that I must lead others to do the same. If the relative truth that I possess is associated in me with a duty to live this truth-duty depending on an idolatry, conscious or otherwise—the thought necessarily comes to me that it is my duty to communicate my truth to others. At the most this results in the Inquisition and the Dragonnades; at the least those innumerable sects, great and small, which throughout the whole of History, have striven to influence the mind of men who never questioned them, of men who asked nothing of them.

The refutation of this error that we are here studying is perfectly expounded in Zen, and as far as we know, nowhere perfectly but there. Zen tells man that he is free now, that no chain exists which he needs to throw off; he has only the illusion of chains. Man will enjoy his freedom as soon as he ceases to believe that he needs to free himself, as soon as he throws from his shoulders the terrible duty of salvation. Zen demonstrates the nullity of all belief in a personal God, and the deplorable constraint that necessarily flows from this belief. It says: 'Do not put any head above your own'; it says also: 'Search not for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.'

Why then, some will say, should man strive to attain satori? To put such a question is to suppose absurdly that man cannot struggle towards satori except under the compulsion of a duty. Satori represents the end of this distress which is actually at the centre of one's whole psychic life and in which one's joys are only truces; is it intelligent to ask me why I strive to obtain this complete and final relief? If anyone persists in asking I reply: 'Because my life will be so much more agreeable afterwards.' And, if my understanding is right, I am not afraid that death may come, today or tomorrow, to interrupt my efforts before their attainment. Since the problem of my suffering ends with me, why should I worry myself because I am unable to resolve it?

A clear understanding, on the other hand, neither forbids the teaching of others nor obliges one to undertake it; such a prohibition would represent an obligation as erroneous as the first. But the man who has understood that his own realisation is not in any manner his duty contents himself with replying, if asked, that if he takes the initiative of speaking it will be only to propose such ideas with discretion, without experiencing any need of being understood. He is like a man who, possessing good food in excess, opens his door; if a passer by notices this food and comes in to eat it, well and good; if another does not come in, that is equally satisfactory. Our emotions, our desires and our fears, have no place in a true understanding.

top of page