Hubert Benoit
Zen and the Psychology of Transformation
The Supreme Doctrine

Chapter 4

THE EXISTENTIALISM OF ZEN

A man declares: 'My life is insipid and monotonous; I do not call that living; at most it is existing.' Everyone understands what this man means to say, which proves that everyone carries in himself the idea of this distinction. At the same time, everyone feels that '' is superior to 'existing'; and this opinion is so clear, so categoric, in the mind of man, that he comes to regard to 'exist' as nothing, and to 'live' as everything. The distinction between the two terms is such that often it demolishes itself; one ends by saying 'existence' for 'life' and vice versa. 'Life' appears so uniquely important to man that it annexes the word 'existence' stripped of all its own meaning.

Among the complex mass of phenomena which make up a human-being, which are those that proceed from and which from existing? We find there the distinction between the animal kingdom and the vegetable kingdom. Animal and vegetable are not two creatures entirely different; the animal has everything that the vegetable has (vegetative life) and something more (life of communication). Inside the vegetable and the animal, within the limit constituted by their form, phenomena occur, intimate movements (circulation of sap or of blood, breathing, birth and death of cells, anabolism and catabolism). But, whereas the vegetable is fixed to the soil and has no movement of its whole self in relation to the soil, the animal is mobile in relation to the soil and can make all sorts of movements that one describes by the word 'action'.

However, when man places so much above existing the frontier of this preferential distinction does not lie between their vegetative phenomena and their actions; it lies within the domain of action, and in the following manner: among my actions some have for object the service of my vegetative life (to eat, to repose, to perform the sexual act by pure animal desire); these actions affirm me (that is to say maintain my creation) in so far as I am an organism in all respects similar to all the other animals, in so far as I live from the point of view of the universe, as a cosmic cog-wheel, in so far as I am 'universal'. But every day, besides these actions, I perform others which do not serve my vegetative life, which often even impede it, and whose aim is to make me appear different from every other man, that is to say to affirm me as distinct from every other man, as a particular man.

Between these two kinds of action lies the frontier which we are studying. My egotistical state, which carries the fiction of my personal divinity, makes me regard as senseless my vegetative life and all the actions by which I serve this life (it is this ensemble which constitutes in my eyes the contemptible notion of existing) and leads me to see sense only in those actions which distinguish me (there in my eyes, is the precious, estimable notion of ). I do not count in my own eyes in so far as I am a universal man; I only count in so far as I am the individual 'I'. According to my fiction of personal divinity, to found the sense of my life on my vegetative phenomena and the actions which serve them is absurd, while to found this sense on actions which tend to affirm me as separate is sensible. This view is profoundly rooted in the mind of man.

It is evident to anyone who thinks about it impartially that it is this opinion which is absurd. It assumes implicitly that my particular organism is the centre of the cosmos (only the centre of a sphere is unique in its kind within this sphere; every other point is at the same distance from the centre as an indefinite number of other points). But only the First Cause of the cosmos constitutes this centre; and my particular organism is manifestly not this First Cause. My organism is a link in the immense chain of cosmic cause and effect, and I can only perceive its real sense by considering it in its real place, in its real connexion with all the rest, that is to say by considering it from the point of view of the Universe, in my capacity as universal man and not particular man, in so far as I am similar to all other men and not in so far as I am different.

Man achieves existence, but only (as he thinks) because existing is a necessary condition for . He eats, he rests, but he does so uniquely because he cannot otherwise affirm himself egotistically, as distinct; he only performs commonplace actions, common to all, in order to do something that no one but he will ever do, he exists in order to live. Basing, thus, the idea of existing on the idea of he runs counter to the real order of things since he bases the real on the illusory. And so the equilibrium of the ordinary egotistical man is always unstable; this man is comparable with a pyramid standing on its apex.

Zen literature contains, among many others, a remarkable little parable: 'Once upon a time there was a man standing on a high hill. Three travellers, passing in the distance, noticed him and began to argue about him. One said: "He has probably lost his favourite animal." Another said: "No, he is probably looking for his friend." The third said: "He is up there only in order to enjoy the fresh air." The three travellers could not agree and continued to argue right up to the moment when they arrived at the top of the hill. One of them asked: "O friend, standing on this hill, have you not lost your favourite animal?" "No, Sir, I have not lost him." The other asked: "Have you not lost your friend?" "No, Sir, I have not lost my friend either." The third traveller asked: "Are you not here in order to enjoy the fresh air?" "No, Sir." "What then are you doing here, since you answer 'No' to all our questions?" The man on the hill replied: "I am just standing."'

Reading this, the natural man will think in general that 'to be just standing' has no meaning. 'This man on the hill is an idiot,' he will say to himself, 'since he is doing nothing'. (That is to say, since he is not seeking there any egotistical affirmation. One remembers the ironical phrase of Rimbaud: 'L'action, ce cher point du monde!')

"Action, that dear part of the world."

'Exist' comes from ex sistere, 'to stand outside of, outside the immanent and transcendent Principle of all that exists; existing is the manifestation which emanates (centrifugal impulse) from the Original Being. To exist is dualist, it is positive through 'sistere' and negative through 'ex'. Therefore man feels himself to be therein both well and ill: he possesses something there and he lacks something. The situation in the state of existence necessarily comports, then, a tendency to complete itself, to fill up the void, to neutralise 'ex' by obtaining the consciousness of the Principle from which existing man emanates. But the human intellect develops progressively in such a manner that it is capable of procuring for itself the illusory, and always provisional, appeasement of the egotistical affirmation before being able to feel the fullness of the 'sistere', that is to say before being able to feel that emanation of the Principle, he is bound to the Principle by a direct filiation which confers on him the very nature of the Principle with its infinite prerogatives. When his intellect arrives at the stage of development at which man can be conscious of his identity with the Principle, this man has already firmly crystallised in his mentality the fascination of the egotistical affirmation; turned towards this affirmation which is the ersatz of the 'sistere' and which, because ersatz, cannot neutralise the 'ex', he turns his back on the 'ex', on the temporal limitation, and thus finds himself in a heart-rending dualism; he is torn between the 'ex', which is behind him and which he cannot destroy, and an illusory 'sistere' which seems to be in front of him in the semblance of the egotistical affirmation and which he never succeeds in seizing.

If man accepted the relative reality of existence, he would feel identified with the Principle from which he emanates. But egotistical man does not accept the relative reality of existence; his mentality, despising and rejecting existence, rushes towards the illusory egotistical affirmation of 'acting' as a distinct being, playing, in regard to this mirage which emanates from him, the role, usurped but flattering, of Principle. He thus seeks inner peace in a way that renders it unobtainable. In order to find inner peace, man should reconsider everything, realise the nullity of all his 'opinions', of all his judgments of the value of things, free himself entirely by that means from the centrifugal fascination of the egotistical affirmation, realise the nullity of the egotistical notion of and of the reality of the universal existing. Renouncing all false heavens he is given back to the Earth, he exists consciously, he 'is in the world' (Rimbaud: 'Nous ne sommes pas au monde'), and his reconciliaton with the 'ex' allows him to be in possession of the 'sistere'. He is the original source when he agrees to be, by his organism, only a phenomenon, a passing emanation of this source, emanation without any special interest and whose individual destiny is without the slightest importance.

It is interesting to examine in its entirety the organism of the human-being, his anatomy and his physiology, while asking oneself what is the use of all that one sees there. Digestion and respiration (and all the corresponding organs) serve to feed the blood with nutritive materials. The circulatory apparatus serves to deliver to all parts of the organism this nourishing blood. The delivery of this blood serves to maintain the bones, joints, and muscles; the bones are a framework without which the muscles could not carry out movements; the joints condition this use of the framework. The cerebro-spinal nervous-system releases and co-ordinates the muscular contractions; it regulates the execution of movements and the conception of movements to be made. The vegetative nervous system controls the harmonious functioning of the viscera on which depend, as we have seen, the maintenance of the motor muscles. The endocrine system is connected with the vegetative nervous system and has the same harmonising function. All, in short, except the genital apparatus which we leave aside for the moment, converge towards the muscles and their movements; that is to say that all existing converges on, on action; the human machine seems indeed to be made for action. But what purpose is served now by the action of this machine? We have seen that the ordinary man only attributes value, real usefulness, to action which affirms him egotistically. But this usefulness that is purely individual is illusory from the universal point of view; one cannot think that the human machine in general exists so that Mr. So-and-so may affirm himself in so far as he is Mr. So-and-so and not Mr. Somebody Else. This egotistical usefulness of action once eliminated, what purpose is served by the 'acting' of this machine-for-action which is the human organism?

Very numerous kinds of action evidently serve to maintain the acting-machine; man acts in order to get himself food, shelter, clothing, etc., or to get them for other acting-machines. There are other actions which have as much usefulness but of a less obvious kind; they are the actions which distinguish the man-animal from the non-human animals: scientific discoveries, artistic creation, intellectual research for the truth; that is to say search for the good, the beautiful, the true. But the good and the beautiful serve existence by tending to improve its conditions; truth also, since man expects of it the appeasement of his anxieties, and so the harmonious peace of his existing organism.

In short, if one looks at things objectively, the existing machine tends, through action, to maintain its existence, and one cannot perceive any object for existence other than existence itself. But is not that to say, at the same time, that existence has no object? (We are here leaving aside any thought of a cosmic utility for man's existence, utility of which the ordinary man cannot have any consciousness that is felt or experienced). The reproductive function, that we left on one side a moment ago, is not at variance with what we are saying now, since it seeks to maintain existence at the level of the existing human species.

Therefore, once the illusory utilisation of action for my egotistical affirmation as a distinct individual is eliminated, I see that my action, to which all the architecture of my organism tends, itself only tends towards the existence of this organism endowed with action; it only serves to prevent the cessation of existence, or death. The famous , beside which existing seemed to me to be nothing, only tends to serve this existing. Action emanates from existence and serves it, therefore existence is the principle of action, and so infinitely superior to it (every principle being immeasurably superior to its manifestation).

Existence, seen thus as the first cause of the totality of my 'acting', first cause of all my phenomena, is no other than the First Cause of the microcosm which is my organism, that is to say also the First Cause of the universal macrocosm, which is the Absolute Principle. The apparent absurdity of this existence which wills itself and seems thus not to have any aim, is the apparent absurdity of the Absolute Principle from the point of view of the discursive intelligence which emanates from it and which, in emanating, could not be able to seize and comprehend it.

My existence, seen thus as first cause of my existing organism, and which transcends the totality of my phenomena, is entirely independent of the continuation or of the death of my organism. It is at once mine, personally mine, as long as I am not yet dead (immanence of the Principle), and at the same time not mine in so far as I am distinct but only in so far as I am universal, a link in a chain, and as such identical with every other link. Thus my existence is not touched by the death of my organism (transcendence of the Principle).

This allows us to understand that fear of death, a fear which dwells in the natural man and constitutes the centre of all his psychology, is related to the absurd contempt with which this man regards his existence. In one way which at first sight may appear paradoxical, the egotistical man trembles lest he lose his existence because, with regard to acting, to , he looks upon existing as nothing. In existence resides, as we have seen, the Absolute Principle, this All that man does not know how to appreciate more or less, this All that can only be, for man, zero if he does not appreciate it, or the Infinite if he appreciates it. If man does not see any value in anonymous existence, he does not participate consciously in the nature of the Principle, he is consciously nothing, and in consequence incapable of supporting the subtraction which is death (which appears to him as a negative infinity). If, on the contrary, man sees an infinite value in anonymous existence, he participates fully in the nature of the Principle. He is then consciously infinite and in consequence the subtraction which is death appears to him as nothing.

One sees also the illusory character of the distressing questions which egotistical man puts to himself on the subject of an individual after-life. For these questions are founded on the illusory belief in the reality of the individual and on the ignorance of the universal existing.

The error of certain philosophical conceptions called existentialist results, among other things, from the fact that the actions of existing and of are there confounded. This confusion carries with it unfortunate consequences: existing assumes therein a purely phenomenal character and, all idea of the First Cause having disappeared, the fact that existence wills itself results in an absurdity that is categorical and no longer merely apparent (it is like the idea of a material eye that itself sees itself). And this , that is necessarily also absurd, is the capital thing; action, the 'doing and performing', become dogmatic necessities. The disappearance of the Principle entails logically this dualism torn asunder and heart-rending.

Let us return to the distinction that we have made between existing and , and to the border-line that we have traced between the two. This border-line passes, as we have said, within the domain of actions, between the actions which serve my vegetative life and those which serve my egotistical affirmation. If I study all this in its bearing on my psychological consciousness it seems at first that existing comprises an unconscious part, my vegetative phenomena, and a conscious part, the actions of which serve my vegetative life. But, if I think about it more carefully, I perceive that these actions are as unconscious as my vegetative phenomena, since their object is null for my consciousness. I cannot pretend that I consciously maintain my existence since I am entirely unconscious of the reality of my existence. Let us quote here a dialogue taken from Zen literature:

A MONK: In order to work in the Tao is there a special way?
THE MASTER: Yes, there is one.
THE MONK: Which is it?
THE MASTER: When one is hungry, he eats; when one is tired he sleeps.
THE MONK: That is what everybody does; is their way then the same as yours?
THE MASTER: It is not the same.
THE MONK: Why not?
THE MASTER: When they eat they do not only eat, they weave all sorts of imaginings. When they sleep they do not only sleep, they give free rein to a thousand idle thoughts. That is why their way is not my way.

The natural man is only conscious of images, so it is not astonishing that he should be unconscious of existing, which is real, which has three dimensions. In short I am unconscious of that in which I am real, and that of which I am conscious in myself is illusory.

The attainment of satori is nothing else than the becoming conscious of existing which actually is unconscious in me; becoming conscious of the Reality, unique and original, of this universal vegetative life which is the manifestation in my person of the Absolute Principle (that in which I am I and infinitely more than I; imminence and transcendence). It is that which Zen calls 'seeing into one's own nature'. One understands the insistence with which Zen keeps coming back to the maintenance of our vegetative life. To the disciple who asks for the way of Wisdom the master replies: 'When you are hungry you eat; when you are tired you lie down.' There is therein the wherewithal to scandalise the vain egotist who dreams of 'spiritual' prowess and of 'extatic' personal relations with a personal 'God' whose image he creates for himself.

It would be false to consider the revalorisation of the vegetative life, and of the actions which serve it, as a concrete inner effort on the plane of 'feeling'. The Zen master is too intelligent to advise the natural man to suggest to himself, when he satisfies his hunger, that he is at last in contact with Absolute Reality; that would be to replace the old imaginative reveries by a theoretical image of cosmic participation which would change nothing whatever. The natural man has not to revalorise his vegetative life, he has only to obtain one day the immediate perception of the infinite value of this life by the integral devalorisation of his egotistical life. The necessary inner task does not consist in 'doing' anything whatever, but in 'undoing' something, in undoing all the illusory egotistical beliefs which keep tightly closed the lid of the 'third eye'.

Indeed what we have just said on the unconscious character of our vegetative life was only an approximation. It would be more exact to speak of 'unconscious consciousness' or of 'indirect or mediate consciousness'; and to conceive of satori not as a consciousness being born ex nihilo, but as the metamorphosis of a mediate consciousness into an immediate consciousness. In speaking of indirect consciousness I mean to say that I am indirectly informed concerning the reality of my vegetative life in perceiving directly the fluctuations which menace the phenomena constituting this life. When I am hungry I perceive directly the menace with which inanition threatens my vegetative existence. If I had no kind of vegetative consciousness I would not be conscious that its phenomenal manifestation is menaced; by my hunger I am indirectly conscious of my vegetative existence. In the same way the joy and the sadness of my egotistical affirmations and negations denote diminutions and augmentations of the menace with which the outside world constantly threatens the whole of my vegetative existence; they constitute, then, the becoming-conscious indirectly of this existence.

In short, all the positive and negative fluctuations of my affectivity spring from pure and perfect fundamental vegetative joy. This is not directly felt; it is so only indirectly, in the fluctuation of the security or insecurity of this vegetative life. And let us repeat that the direct perception of this perfect existential vegetative joy should not entail any fear of death but, on the contrary, should definitely neutralise this; indeed the fear of death presupposes the imaginative mental evocation of death; but the direct perception of existential reality in three dimensions, in the present moment, would cast into the void all the imaginative phantoms concerning a past or a future without present reality. Man, after satori, is perfectly joyous to exist as long as he exists, up to the last moment at which the disappearance of the mental functions entails the disappearance of all human joy or human pain.

I can say that I am not directly conscious of my existence, that is to say of myself existing, but only of the phenomenal variations of this existence; and that it is my actual belief in the absolute reality of these variations which separates me from the consciousness of that which is beneath them (and which does not vary: noumenal existence, principle of my phenomenal existence). I ought to understand the perfect equality of the varying phenomena (joy or sadness, life or death) in regard to that which is beneath these variations, and this understanding should penetrate right to the centre of me, in order that I may obtain at last the consciousness of that which is beneath the variations, that is to say of my existence-noumenon, my Reality.

Noumenon: Thing in itself (Kant).

Zen says that the slavery of man resides in his desire to exist. The intellectual apparatus of man develops in such a way that his first perceptions are not perceptions of his existence, but images both partial and biased which suggest the absence of all consciousness of existence and which implant in his mentality the seed of the desire of this consciousness. It is a part of the condition of man that he ought necessarily to pass through the desire to exist in order to reach the existential consciousness which will abolish this desire. And it is the checkmate, correctly interpreted, of all attempts to satisfy the desire to exist which alone can break through the obstacle constituted by this desire. Among how many human-beings can one observe the terror of 'ruining their lives'! Whereas there is in reality nothing to make a success of and nothing to spoil. But a certain temporal realisation is necessary for satori, of a kind that is in some sort negative. As long as man is in the impossibility of succeeding fully in his attempts to satisfy his desire to exist, he cannot go beyond this desire.

It is in this sense that man ought to pass by the illusory in order to reach the real existing. In reality existing precedes , in the sense that the Principle necessarily precedes its manifestation; but, in the unfolding of temporal duration, man ought to traverse the consciousness of in order to reach that of existing, which is identical, as long as the human organism lives, with that of 'being'.

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