Hubert Benoit
Zen and the Psychology of Transformation
The Supreme Doctrine

Chapter 13


According to Zen man is of the nature of Buddha; he is perfect, nothing is lacking in him. But he does not realise this because he is caught in the entanglements of his mental representations. Everything happens as though a screen were woven between himself and Reality by his imaginative activity functioning in the dualistic mode.

Imaginative mental activity is useful at the beginning of man's life, as long as the human machine is not completed, as long as the abstract intellect is not fully developed; it constitutes, during this first period, a compensation without which man could not tolerate his limited condition. Once the human machine is entirely developed, the imagination, while still retaining the utility of which we have just spoken, becomes more and more harmful; it brings about in fact a wastage of energy which otherwise would accumulate in the interior of the being until the crystallisation of intuitive non-dualistic knowledge (satori).

The misfortune is that man takes the relief which imagination obtains for him for a real amelioration of his state; he takes the momentary relief of his distress for progress towards its abolition. In reality his momentary relief merely results in a progressive aggravation of the condition from which he wishes to be relieved. But he does not know this, and he cherishes an implicit belief in the utility of his imaginative activity and of his mental ruminations.

Experience should, one would think, contradict sooner or later a belief so mistaken. More often than not, however, it is not so. Why then does man believe so strongly in the utility of his agitation in spite of the experience which proves it to be harmful?

Man believes in the utility of his agitation because he does not think that he is anything but that personal 'me' which he perceives in the dualistic manner. He does not know that there is in him something quite different from this visible personal 'me', something invisible which works in his favour in the dark. Identifying himself with his perceptible phenomena, in particular with his imaginative mind, he does not think that he is anything more. Everything happens as though he said to himself: 'Who would work for me except myself?' And not seeing in himself any other self than his imaginative mind and the sentiments and actions which depend on it, he turns to this mind to rid himself of distress. When one only sees a single means of salvation, one believes in it because necessarily one wishes to believe in it.

However, if I look at the life of my body I observe that all kinds of marvellous operations are performed spontaneously in it without the concourse of that which I call 'me'. My body is maintained by processes whose ingenious complexity surpasses all imagination. After being wounded, it heals itself. By what? By whom? The idea is forced upon me of a Principle, tireless and friendly, which unceasingly creates me on its own initiative.

My organs appeared and developed spontaneously. My mediate dualistic understanding appeared and developed spontaneously. Could not my immediate understanding, non-dualistic, appear spontaneously? Zen replies affirmatively to this question. For Zen the normal spontaneous evolution of man results in satori. The Principle works unceasingly in me in the direction of the opening of satori (as this same Principle works in the bulb of the tulip towards the opening of its flower). But my imaginative activity counteracts this profound genesis; it wastes by degrees the energy generated by the Principle, which otherwise would accumulate until the explosion of satori. As an old Zen master said: 'What conceals Realisation? Nothing but myself.' I do not know that my essential wish—to escape from the dualistic illusion, generator of anguish—is in process of being realised in me by something other than my personal 'me'; I do not believe that I can count on anyone but on myself: I believe myself therefore obliged to do something. I take fright in believing myself alone, abandoned by all; necessarily then I am uneasy and my agitation neutralises by degrees the beneficial work of my deeper self. Zen expresses that in saying: 'Not knowing how near the Truth is, people look for it far away.... what a pity!'

This manner of thwarting the profound spontaneous process of construction is the work of mechanical reflexes. It operates automatically when I am not disposed to have faith in my invisible Principle and in its liberating task. In other words, the profound spontaneous process of construction only makes progress in me in the degree in which I am disposed to have faith in my Principle and in the spontaneity, always actual, of its liberating activity. Faith does not move mountains, but it procures that mountains shall be moved by the Universal Principle.

My participation in the elaboration of my satori consists, then, in the activity of my faith; it consists in the conception of the idea, present and actual, that my supreme good is in process of being elaborated spontaneously.

One sees in what respects Zen is quietist and in what respects it is not. It is, when it says to us: 'You do not have to liberate yourselves.' But it is not in this sense that, if we do not have to work directly for our liberation, we have to collaborate in thinking effectively of the profound process which liberates us. For this thought is not by any means given to us automatically by nature. The outer world unceasingly conspires to make us believe that our true good resides in such and such a formal success which justifies all our agitations. The outer world distracts us, it steals our attention. An intense and patient labour of thought is necessary in order that we may collaborate without liberating Principle.

Arrived at this degree of understanding, a snare awaits us. We run the risk of believing that we must refuse to give our attention to life. We run the risk, thinking we are doing the right thing, of going through life like a somnambulist, incessantly bringing back, into our surface mind, the fixed idea of the Principle operating in us. And this could only lead to mental derangement.

We must proceed otherwise. At moments when outer and inner circumstances lend themselves to it we reflect upon the understanding of our spontaneous liberation, we think with force, and in the most concrete manner possible, of the unlimited prodigy which is in process of elaboration for us and which will some day resolve all our fears, all our covetousness. In such moments we seed and re-seed the field of our faith; we awaken little by little in ourselves this faith which was sleeping, and the hope and the love which accompany it. Then when we turn back to life we go on living as usual. Because we have thought correctly for a moment a portion of our attention remains attached to this plane of thought, although this plane penetrates the depths of our being and is lost to sight; a portion of our attention remains there while the remainder goes where it always goes. The man who has adored a woman or a piece of work which he is in process of conceiving will understand what we are trying to say. While he goes about his usual business it will happen that he no longer thinks consciously of the woman he loves, as though he were forgetting her; nevertheless when his thought comes back to this beloved image he realises that he had never entirely left her, that he had remained all the time beside her as though in a secondary state, on a subterranean plane of consciousness.

When it is a question of our participation in our liberation this secondary state is not granted to us gratuitously; we have to obtain it by means of special moments of reflection on the borderline of our practical daily life. Nevertheless these necessary moments are not what really matters; what will be really efficacious will take place when we are once more in our daily life and when our faith, now more or less awakened and vigilant on a subterranean plane of consciousness, will dispute victoriously with the outside world a part of our attention and, in consequence, a part of our energy.

In the measure in which this second subterranean attention develops we will perceive a less compelling interest in the world of phenomena; our fears and our covetousness will lose their keenness. We will be able to learn how to be discreet, non-active, towards our inner world, and we will thus become able to realise this counsel of Zen: 'Let go, leave things as they may be.... Be obedient to the nature of things and you are in accord with the Way.'

Let us note that the natural man sometimes has an attitude that is correct, discreet, non-active; he has it during deep sleep. There he stops being restless with the idea of doing himself good; he effaces himself, he 'lets go', he 'leaves things as they may be', he abandons himself to his Principle and lets it operate without interference. It is because man is then non-active that sleep has such a wonderful recuperative effect.

But the man who sleeps only behaves wisely through a kind of syncope of his mind; the pernicious egotistical imaginative film is only stopped because the imaginative film based on the real exterior present is stopped also. The harmful part of the mind only stops because its healthy part (that which perceives directly things that are present) stops too. And on that account sleep could not bring Realisation.

We can achieve wisdom without the whole of our mind coming to a full-stop. Each progression of our faith in our liberating Principle weakens our egotistical imaginative film without weakening our imaginative film based on the real present; the appearance and the growth of our faith establish by themselves a discrimination between our two imaginative films. Thus we go little by little towards a state in which deep sleep and the waking state are reconciled. There again let us affirm that this astonishing conciliation is established by itself; our inner manipulations are powerless to establish the slightest real harmony in us. For our Principle, which is the only artisan qualified for this Great Work, to operate in us it is enough that we think correctly, or more exactly that we cease to think wrongly.

In order to understand more clearly what has been said above we can use a symbolical illustration. Man, in his development, may be compared with a balloon-figure progressively inflated. At his birth he is like a little balloon very slightly inflated, without many indications of form, a little spherical mass. Then, the Principle inflating the balloon, it increases in volume; at the same time its form departs more and more from the simple form of the sphere; reliefs and hollows appear; a figure develops whose structure is unique in its particularities. It is the development of what one calls the character, the personality, of that by which I am 'I' and nobody else. That corresponds to the development of the human machine, soma and psyche.

If man's ignorance did not intervene to counteract his normal evolution, this is what would happen. The balloon, at the moment at which the human machine is fully developed (towards puberty, when the somatic machine is complete with the appearance of the sexual function and when the psychic machine is complete with the appearance of the impartial intelligence, abstract and generalising), the balloon then is fully inflated and it attains in surface an extension which it can no longer exceed. But Principle continues to inflate it; and this brings about a state of hypertension. Under the influence of this hypertension the inextensible surface will be deformed so that its content may increase, that is to say that it will flatten out its folds, reduce its reliefs and its hollows, progressively become spherical, since the simple form of a sphere corresponds to the greatest possible capacity for a given surface. Little by little the irregularities of the balloon-figure disappear. Finally the perfectly spherical form is attained; no increase of contenance is any longer possible. The Principle still inflating, the balloon bursts.

In the course of this normal evolution one sees three phases succeed one another. The little sphere at the beginning, little spherical bundle of the balloon as yet uninflated, that is the phase which is up-stream of man's temporal realisation, up-stream of the development of his personality, of his Ego. One might say that the small child is still spherical. The second phase, that of the developed personality, corresponds to the figure endowed with particular contours, complex and personal. In the third phase, which precedes the final explosion, the irregularities are smoothed out, the personality is blurred according to the degree in which the thought attains a universal point of view, or, more exactly, frees itself from the narrowness, from the rigidity of personal points of view. Man comes back to his initial spherical form, but this time down-stream of his temporal realisation. This phase then resembles the first although it is in a sense its opposite (one recalls the words of Jesus: 'In truth I say unto you, whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child shall not enter therein').

Let us note that this third phase appears to us necessarily at the same time as progress and as regression. It is progress from the point of view of the universal, since the balloon increases its capacity and approaches an explosion which will make it coincide with the immense sphere of the cosmos; but it is at the same time regression from the point of view of the particularities of shape, from the point of view of the personality. That which distinguishes this man from all others grows less, he becomes more and more ordinary, his reliefs disappear; the 'old' man wastes away and approaches death in the measure that the birth of the 'new man', with the bursting of the balloon, comes nearer. (One can thus understand the words of St. John the Baptist: 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make smooth his paths. Every hollow shall be filled up, every mountain and every hill shall be made flat.')

The outcome of the third phase, the bursting of the balloon, is the explosion of satori, the instant at which every limitation disappears, and at which the one is united with the all.

We have said that man's ignorance thwarts this normal evolution. In fact man, before any initiation, does not recognise any reality in what his balloon-figure contains, but he sees reality that is indisputable and unique on its surface and in the particular shape of this surface. In this ignorance his will to 'be' expresses itself only by the will to 'be as one distinct'. This ignorant balloon, built up into a figure, refuses to accept the smoothing-out of its distinctive reliefs: it stiffens itself in its particular form, it is opposed to any stretching of its folds which would increase its capacity by tending towards the spherical. The hypertension being unable to resolve itself in this normal manner must resolve itself otherwise; and there comes into play the man's imaginative-emotive activity, a kind of safety-valve by which is released the pressure caused by the continuous inflation of the Principle. This corresponds to the wastage, of which we have spoken, of energy which ought to have been accumulated with a view to an explosion.

Every man who observes himself realises that he is unceasingly more or less overstrained inwardly. He feels it through the agitation of his emotive states, positive or negative, exalted or depressed, states which correspond with the unconscious resistance which he opposes to the opening-out of the folds of his personal form. But, if it is easy to see to what the hypertension in our concrete psychology corresponds, it is less easy to see in what consists the normal inner release of this tension. This release occurs at the moment at which I become conscious of my tension while neglecting the contingent circumstances in connexion with which this tension appeared, and at which I accept it in myself.

In the extent to which I have overcome ignorance, in the extent to which I have understood that reality is not at all to be found in the external forms which are the object of my fears and of my covetousness, but that it resides in the vital hypertensive pressure itself; to this extent my attention abandons forms and directs itself towards my centre, towards my source, the place from which wells-up my vital pressure. I can do this if I have understood that my Principle is engaged in leading me to my true fulfillment and that I need not trouble myself about anything in this matter. Then my imaginative-emotive activity stops for a moment, and I feel my hypertension yield. That is all that I feel, but I know furthermore that the capacity of my balloon has just increased a little as a result of the simplification of its form. Evidently this docility to the opening-out of folds, which helps my realisation, is passing, instantaneous, and this 'letting go' has to be done afresh with perseverance as often as may be necessary.

The comparison we have just used may be criticised, like all comparisons. But it can help us to understand the modalities of our normal growth, and above all the essential notion that this growth will take place by itself right up to its perfect accomplishment if, having faith in it, we cease to oppose it by our restlessness and our inner manipulations.

Let us return to this idea that man, in the measure in which he is still ignorant, is lacking in faith, and consequently also in hope and in charity. We will show that, faith being absent, everything happens in man in a sense radically opposed to the normal. The normal direction is from above downwards: when man abandons ignorance, his understanding (which preexisted through all eternity but which was sleeping in unconsciousness) awakens in his intellectual centre. Of the three theological virtues it is Faith which leads the way, intellectual intuition of the absolute Principle and certainty that it is 'my' Principle. The awakening of Faith carries with it the awakening of Hope: there is no longer anything to fear, I can hope for everything, from the moment that the absolute Principle is 'my' Principle. Thus that which began in the intellectual centre continues in the emotional centre. Finally the awakening of Faith and of Hope brings the awakening of Charity. It is in error that Charity is often thought of as an emotion, as adoration-love; it is in reality desire-love, an appetite felt by the whole of our organism for a kind of existence that the spectres of duality have ceased to conceal from us. It is a constant appetite for all aspects of existence. Thus that which began in the intellectual centre, and which continued in the emotional centre, ends up in the animal or instinctive centre; that which began in the head has passed by the heart in order to finish up in the entrails.

In so far as man is still in ignorance the succession is reversed. That which begins in him is the appetite to exist, the desire to affirm himself as distinct, the desire for the positive aspects of existence only. This natural awakening of the desire to exist carries with it the awakening of all sorts of 'hopes' (which are the opposite of Hope), hopes of this or that success on the plane of phenomena; that which began in the animal centre continues in the emotional centre. Finally the awakening of the desire to exist, and of hopes, entails the awakening of 'beliefs' (the opposite of Faith) which build up false values, the aims which the hopes need, the image-idols necessary to polarise the impulses coming from below. That which began in the animal centre and has continued in the emotional centre has risen to the heart, and then to the head.

One observes the radical opposition which exists between these two directions that man's life takes. The natural direction is from below upwards: appetite for the positive aspects of existence, then hopes, then beliefs. The normal direction is from above downwards: Faith, then Hope, finally Charity or appetite for all aspects of existence.

The natural direction exists only at the outset of life. Realisation consists in the appearance of the normal direction and in its final triumph. This final triumph is satori. Before satori the normal direction should appear in concurrence with the present natural direction and should play an ever bigger part at the expense of this natural direction. ('He must increase and I must decrease.')

When we study the problem of Realisation we incessantly come across all sorts of paradoxes. 'He who loses his life shall save it,' says the Gospel for example. These paradoxes cease to embarrass us when we thoroughly understand that there are in us two life-currents; one is natural, given to us and starting from below to move upward; the other is normal, possible to us and starting from above in order to descend. The natural life can thus be called the 'life of the "old" man', the normal life the 'life of the "new" man'. ('It is necessary to die in order to be reborn.')

The new current should appear while the old natural current is still flowing. The new current begins, let us repeat, at the place at which the natural current stops, in the intellectual centre. The life of the new man takes its departure in the Independent Intelligence, pure thought, intellectual intuition removed from affective influences. The work of the Independent Intelligence destroys little by little the 'beliefs' which polarise the natural current, ascending, and without which this current could not flow. In the extent to which man 'ceases to harbour opinions', as Zen says, he abolishes absolutely the natural current within him. Faith increases in him in the extent to which beliefs decrease.

But it is on the emotional plane that we shall find in its most interesting aspect this inverse evolution. It is there that we shall best be able to understand the 'letting go' of Zen. Just as Faith pre-existing from all eternity but asleep, awakens in the measure that beliefs are abolished, so Hope, pre-existent from all eternity but asleep, awakens in the measure that 'hopes' in general are wiped out. That which is sunrise in the new life is sunset in the old; that which is triumph in the new life is disaster in the old. Satori can only be foreseen by the 'old' man as the most radical of all imaginable disasters.

If I observe myself I see that I struggle incessantly and instinctively in order to succeed; whether my enterprises are egotistical (to win, to enjoy, to be admired, etc.) or altruistic (to affirm others, to become 'better', to uproot my 'faults', etc.) I struggle incessantly, instinctively, to succeed in these enterprises; I struggle unceasingly 'upwards'. Incessantly I am agitated by upward-tending contractions, like a bird which continually makes use of its wings in order to rise, or to fight against a downward motion which a down-blowing wind imposes on it. I conduct myself as though my hopes were legitimate, as if the real good which I need (Realisation, satori) were to be found in the satisfaction of these hopes. Nevertheless just the contrary is true; my hopes lie to me, they are part of a vicious circle in which I wear myself out in useless efforts. All my upward-tending exertions are only gestures of ignorant resistance opposed to the happy spontaneous transformation that my Principle is always ready to bring about. Perfect Felicity does not await me above, but below; it does not await me in that which I see actually as a triumph, but in that which appears to me actually as a disaster. My perfect joy awaits me in the total annihilation of my hopes.

One must thoroughly understand that the total disaster in the middle of which satori awaits us does not necessarily coincide with a practical exterior disaster. The realising disaster, the satori-disaster, consists in an understanding, an intellectual intuition of the radical absurdity of our natural ascending current, in the clear vision of the nullity which is at the end of all our hopes. The realising despair does not consist in the practical ruin of hopes which would continue to exist in us (this would lead to suicide, not to satori), but in the annihilation of the hopes themselves. The man that one habitually calls 'desperate' is definitely not desperate; he is filled with hopes to which the world opposes a flat refusal; therefore he is very unhappy. The man who has become really desperate, who no longer expects anything from the world of phenomena, is flooded by the perfect joy which at last he ceases to oppose.

Here is the way in which I can, in practice, make progress in the annihilation of my absurd and deplorable 'hopes'. I am not going to set myself to organise the failure of my enterprises; to hope to succeed in ruining myself instead of hoping to succeed in enriching myself would not change anything in any way. No, I let my instinctive and emotive life go on as usual. But my understanding, initiated into the reality of things, works in parallel. At the moment when I suffer because my hopes come up against the resistance of the world I remind myself that my old successes have never brought me that absolute accomplishment in which I had placed my hopes; all my surface satisfactions, sometimes so intense, were in the last instance deceptions in depth, that is to say in truth. Profiting by this experience, correctly interpreted, of my fallacious successes I think now of the new successes which I am in process of coveting; I imagine their concrete realisation, and feel afresh their vanity. The bad moments, the moments of anguish, are the best for this work; the suffering felt by the organism-as-a-totality curbs the illusions which show us satori in the opposite direction from that in which it awaits us. On the condition that all our essential hopes have been more or less fulfilled in the past our actual hope, recidivist, is the more readily annihilated as it is thwarted by the world. It is easier for me to let go when my muscles are very tired. Zen affirms: 'Satori comes to us unexpectedly when we have exhausted all the resources of our being.'

What we have just been saying should not be understood as a masochistic appetite for torment. The man who works according to Zen has no love of suffering; but he likes suffering to come to him, which is not at all the same thing, because, in helping him to 'let go', these moments will make easier for him that inner immobility, that discretion and silence, thanks to which the Principle works actively in him for Realisation.

One perceives how much the 'progressive' doctrines which invite man to climb up an ascending hierarchy of states of consciousness, and which more or less explicitly conceive the perfect man as a Superman, turn their back on truth and limit themselves to modifying the form of our hopes. Zen invites us on the contrary to a task which, up to satori exclusively, can only appear to us as a descent. In a sense everything becomes worse little by little up to the moment when the bottom is reached, when nothing can any longer become worse, and in which everything is found because all is lost.

We can imagine nothing of the transformation of satori; therefore we risk a new idolatry if we try to imagine anything of it whatsoever. At the point at which we are today we are not able to see the true evolution except as a progressive annihilation of all that we call 'success'; we are not able to see the man who has attained realisation otherwise than as a man who has become absolutely ordinary. Only he who has obtained satori can say: 'A wandering cur who begs food and pity, pitilessly chased away by the street urchins, is transformed into a lion with a golden mane, whose roar strikes terror in the hearts of all feeble spirits.'

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