Hubert Benoit
Zen and the Psychology of Transformation
The Supreme Doctrine

Chapter 22


The man who has not attained realisation, animated by the need to be absolutely as-a-distinct-being, cannot accept his existence such as it it. This impossibility is not due, as one might suppose at first, to the fact that individual existence is passed under a constant menace of partial or total destruction, for man's essential need is a need to 'be' absolutely and not to 'exist' perpetually; it is a need of infinite eternity and not of indefinite duration. Were illness and death definitely avoided man would be not less constrained by his need to be absolutely, to refuse his existence such as he knows it. What is inacceptable to man in his existence is not that the outer world menaces this existence, but that everything he perceives is not conditioned by his individual existence while that remains unconditioned. Man, because he is virtually capable of living his identity with the Absolute Principle, cannot accept the sleep of this identity; he cannot allow that he is not the First Cause of the Universe. But he cannot perceive his real and essential unity with the First Cause of the Universe as long as he lives in the belief that he is only his psycho-somatic organism, as long as he is identified only with this organism.

However, man accepts his existence, in fact, since he forces himself to maintain it. He accepts it, in fact, because, if he knows that his organism is not the motor centre of the Universe, his imagination preserves him from feeling it by recreating in his mind a universe centred on himself. The imaginative film masks the intolerable vision, saves the man from this vision. But it only saves him from it during the moments in which it functions; the danger remains and has to be conjured incessantly by a continuous imaginative activity. Imagination mitigates the distress without being able to destroy it.

Our imagination, this function which creates in us an imaginative film that is not based on the real present, is therefore our compensating function; it is the function which fabricates our compensations. Our compensations are systems of images which we borrow from our sensory and mental perceptions—from the material of images stored up by our memory—and which we arrange as we please, in accordance with the structure of our individual psycho-somatic organism. These constitute our inner personal world. Evidently they could not be a pure creation; they are recreation, with non-personal elements, of a personal representation of the world, according to a personal order which is like a special section cut in the volume of the Universe (for this personal order does not result, either, from a personal creation; it is a particular aspect, chosen according to our personal structure, from among the indefinite number of aspects of the cosmic order).

One can compare the universe personally recreated, which our compensations constitute, to a design imagined by an artist. No designer could create a form of which the prototype did not already exist in the Universe and which he has not perceived himself by the intermediary of a personal image based on outer reality. The creation of the designer only consists in choosing a form in the outer world by neglecting all others and, sometimes, in assembling as he wishes forms he has never seen assembled in this way in reality. Thus the personal element in the recreation of our imaginary universe does not reside in the elementary forms used, but first in using such and such a form rather than any other, and second in assembling universal forms in accordance with a personal style. The elaboration of a compensation is an imaginary artifice.

Our compensations correspond with what one currently terms our scale of values. Each man sees certain things as particularly real, particularly important, and it is these which give a meaning to his life. If I wish to know my compensations it is enough for me to ask myself: 'What gives a sense to my life?'

Before going further let us return to the question: 'What do our compensations compensate?' They do not compensate, as one often thinks, the particular negating aspects of existence. If it were thus our compensations would always be affirming, positive images; but we shall see that they can just as well be negative. The essential character of a compensation is not that it should be agreeable to me but that it should represent the universe to me in a perspective such that I am the centre of it. Only that matters, and not the fact that this universe centred on me is affirming or negating. Our compensations compensate our illusory belief that we are separated from Reality, that is the subjective non-appearance of our essential identity with the Absolute Principle. In other words, the recreated imaginary personal universe constituted by our compensations compensate the sleep of our vision of the Universe as it is in its total reality. It is because we do not yet see things as they are that we are obliged to see them in an imaginary way which is a partial way.

Our compensating vision of the world is not false, therefore it is merely partial; what is false is our belief that this vision is totally adequate for that which is seen. The importance that we attach to certain aspects of the world is not false, it is not illusory; what is illusory resides in the exclusive character of this vision, in the fact that it denies the same importance to the rest of the world. The vision of things as they are would attribute an equal importance to all aspects of the Universe; everything would be important and in consequence nothing would be important in the preferential sense that we usually give to this word 'important'. It is only in the partiality of our imaginary vision that the illusion resides, not in the vision itself. Let us establish then clearly, from the beginning of this study, that our compensations are not to be deplored as obstacles to satori, to the vision of things as they are. Our compensations are not illusory in themselves and are not opposed to satori; the idol is not an obstacle to Reality; the reality that we see in the idol is not opposed to our reunion with Reality. The obstacle is only the ignorance through which we deny to that which is not the idol the same reality that we see in the idol. The only obstacle is ignorance, and ignorance is partiality. Our compensatory vision of the world is not, then, a bad thing, to be destroyed; it is something incomplete, to be extended, to be accomplished, by dissipating restrictive ignorance that is exclusive and partial. Adhesion to that which is only a part is not bad but only 'partiality', that is ignorant belief in the total character of that which is only a part.

This should be well established before entering into a detailed study of compensations. When one speaks of the subjection in which a compensation places us it is really a question of the subjection in which we are placed by the ignorant partiality by which we deny implicitly what we are not affirming. A compensation is never enslaving in itself; what enslaves us is the partiality with which we consider it. Subjection does not lie in seeing Reality in the evocation of Jesus or of the Buddha, but in only seeing it there by denying it to the rest of creation.

Our compensations are necessary to our total realisation since without them we could not accept existence and we would destroy ourselves at once; they are on the way of our correct evolution towards satori. But the obtaining of satori assumes that some day we shall pass beyond our compensations. This passing-beyond should be understood not as a loss of the vivifying substance contained in our compensations, but as a bursting of the formal and exclusive circumference which was limiting this substance. The reality seen in the idol is not wiped out but is diffused outside the idol whose restrictive circumference has burst.

Compensation is at once favourable and unfavourable to the evolution towards satori. It is favourable by its affective aspects, which are nourishment to me and save me from suicide. It is unfavourable in the measure in which it comprises an intellectual belief in the Reality—or absolute value—of the compensating image. For example; one of my compensations is to have a healthy child. The joy which I find in this situation (the image of myself possessing this healthy child) is favourable to my evolution towards satori, for it forms part of that which helps me to accept existence. What is unfavourable to my correct evolution is my belief that this situation is absolutely good whereas the death of my child would be absolutely bad; it is the belief according to which my adhesion to the compensating situation excludes my adhesion to the eventuality of the contrary situation. In fact this exclusion limits what I perceive of cosmic reality and even prevents me from correctly perceiving what I perceive of it by cutting it off from its connexion with all the rest. I cannot perceive anything as it is in reality as long as anyone of its connexions with the rest of the Universe is cut; and all the connexions of anything are concentrated in its relation with the opposite thing, antagonistic and complementary.

Hui-neng refutes the deplorable 'belief' which resides in our compensations when he proclaims: 'From the beginning not a thing is.' In speaking thus he does not condemn my compensating joy; this joy is a moving phenomenon which 'exists' merely and does not pretend to 'be'; he refutes my belief in the Reality of a fixed image which pretends to 'be' by the exclusion of the contrary image. Hui‑neng does not condemn the affective point of departure of the idolatry, but he refutes the idolatrous intellectual belief. This belief, in isolating an image by the exclusion of the image which depends upon it in the cosmic equilibrium of the Yin and the Yang, attempts illusorily to confer on the isolated image the immutable Unity of the Absolute Principle. The image thus artificially isolated becomes a compensating 'idol', and it is not the image itself but this manner of seeing it as an idol that Hui-neng aims at when he reminds us that 'not a thing is'.

The declaration of Hui-neng does not at all advise us not to live our compensations, to feel that there is value in particular things. It merely invites us to pass beyond these compensations in breaking, by means of understanding, the enslaving exclusivity of our idolatrous 'opinions'. This breaking aims only at limiting intellectual forms, not at all at the living affective substance contained therein. It is possible for me, by means of understanding, to continue to feel value in this or that particular thing without persisting in implicitly proclaiming the anti-value of the contrary thing. My understanding shows me in fact that, from the only real point of view of my intemporal realisation, there is not value and anti-value, but that all things are fit to be used for this realisation.

The phrase of Hui-neng is not, therefore, a malediction on all particular things, but, very much on the contrary, a blessing, undifferenced, impartial, on all particular things. The same thought is found in many passages of a remarkable Zen text known by the title of 'Inscribed on the believing mind':

The Perfect Way knows no difficulties
Except that it refuses all preference.

If you would see the Perfect Way manifest
Take no thought either for or against it.
To oppose what you like and what you dislike,
That is the malady of the mind.

Do not try to find the truth,
Merely cease to cherish opinions,
Tarry not in dualism.

As soon as you have good and evil
Confusion follows and the mind is lost.

When the unique mind is undisturbed
The ten thousand things cannot offend it.

When no discrimination is made between this and that
How can a biased and prejudiced vision arise?

Let-go, leave things as they may be.

If you wish to follow the path of the One Vehicle
Have no prejudice against the six senses.

Whereas in the Dharma itself there is no individuation
The ignorant attach themselves to particular objects.

The enlightened have no likes or dislikes.

Gain and loss, right and wrong,
Away with them once and for all!

The ultimate end of things, beyond which they cannot go
Is not subject to rules and measures.

Everything is void, lucid, and self-illuminating
There is no strain, no effort, no wastage of energy.
To this region thought never attains.

In not being two all is the same
All that exists is comprehended therein.

It matters not how things are conditioned,
Whether by 'being' or by 'not being'.

That which is, is the same as that which is not.
That which is not is the same as that which is.

If only this is realised,
You need not worry about not being perfect!

All compensations are idolatries, attempts to see Reality incarnate itself in a particular image illusorily immobilised outside the cosmic whirlpool. The passing beyond compensation is not destruction of the image but of its artificial immobilisation; the image, devalorised as an idol, is replaced in the middle of the multitude of other images in the ceaselessly-moving flow of cosmic life such as it is in reality.

Passing beyond compensations, the devalorisation of idols, is a process which takes place in my intellectual intuition. This process supposes first of all the acquisition of a correct theoretical comprehension which demasks in the abstract the illusory idolatrous belief. It assumes on the other hand that I have experienced, by suffering, the unsatisfactory character of compensation. This painful dissatisfaction is inevitable; indeed the compensation, as we have seen, only mitigates my distress in the moment during which it functions, but I expect in the depth of my being, that it will definitively remedy my distress; and so I am necessarily led, more or less rapidly, to realise the deceptive character of my compensation in comparison with what I expected of it. It is then, in the suffering of deception, that my understanding will manifest itself by a correct interpretation of my suffering. Abstract comprehension and concrete suffering are both necessary; neither one nor the other is sufficient alone. We will return later to this question of passing beyond compensations, it is in fact impossible to deal with it without knowing how the various compensations are constituted.

Every compensation is essentially constituted by an image involving my Ego, by an image-centre around which is organised in a constellation, a multitude of satellite images. The image-centre is bi-polar, like everything that belongs to the domain of form. This explains why there are positive and negative compensations. Man has an innate preference for the positive—the beautiful, good, true—and tries always at first to build up a positive compensation; but failure can release the inversion of it into antagonistic negative compensation. For example, I begin to hate the being with whom I have tried in vain to establish a love relationship; and this hatred can give a sense to my life as love had. After pointing out this process of the possible inversion of our compensations, we will limit ourselves to describing the principle positive compensations that the observation of human-beings and our own inner world reveal to us.

The image-centre can represent me as receiving the service of the outside world, which is the compensation of being loved. It can represent me as actively seizing my nourishments in the outside world, which is the compensation of enjoyment (the affirmation of myself eating the outside world; the love of riches, which is a potential means of eating the outside world). The image-centre can represent me as serving the outside world, as nourishing it, and very many compensations proceed from this image: 'to love', 'to give pleasure', 'to give life', 'to help', 'to serve' (one's Country, a political cause, a cause regarded in general as just, humanity, the oppressed, the weak, etc.). There also should be placed the joy of doing one's duty, of doing well what one does, the joy of being faithful to a moral code, of being at the level of such and such an 'ideal'.

In other compensations the image-centre no longer comprises action linking the Self with the outer world, but a simple perception. The compensating image is of the Self perceiving the outer world (joy of thus participating in beauty, in art, in intellectual truth, in knowledge in general). Or again, an image of Myself perceived by the outside world: the joy of attracting attention, of being admired, of being feared.

The image-centre can be the image of Myself as 'creator' of some work in the outside world, of a modification which I impose on the surrounding world and which I see as a distinct entity: the 'creation' of a work of art, a scientific or intellectual work, a political movement, a social organisation, religious order, etc.... It can be the image of Myself creating something in myself: 'developing myself1, 'realising myself, 'discovering who I am', 'developing my gifts', 'showing what I am capable of, 'cultivating myself, 'making efforts or experiments which make me rich', etc.... This category of compensation is very vast and important; it groups all the ambitions, either in the material or the subtle sphere, or in the sphere that is called 'spiritual'. (The obtaining of 'superior' states of consciousness, of 'spiritual powers', the cult, more or less disguised, of the 'superman'. We will come back more particularly to this question of 'spirituality'.)

Finally there is a very remarkable compensation in which the constituting elements of all the compensations already enumerated are found in fusion and so abolished as distinct (as all the colours are found together and abolished in white); that is adoration. In adoration I am dealing with my own Ego projected onto an exterior form that is more or less gross or subtle. The dualisms Self and the outer world, act and acted upon, nourish and to be nourished, perceive and to be perceived, create and to be created, disappear on account of the identity existing between the subject and the object. These dealings, besides, are reduced to the utmost simplicity; joy no longer comes to me from acting nor from seeing myself perceiving, but simply from perceiving in a unitive contemplation. It is a simple glance in which I believe that I see my Principle in the image onto which I have projected myself in an exclusive identification.

These various compensations can evidently be combined among themselves. Adoration in particular is combined, more often than not with loving and being loved, in the sense of affirming and being affirmed, serving and being served.

Every compensation, or imaginative constellation, constitutes in the being an element of fixity; but it is a dynamic fixity, like a stereotyped gesture of which I have the habit and which represents a fixity in my movement. The fixed compensation tends towards a certain ensemble of moving, living phenomena. Each compensation is a certain stereotyped form of living. I must therefore distinguish such compensation—which tends to make me live in such and such a manner—from the fact that I live, or not, in that manner; for it may happen that I have in myself such compensation and that nevertheless I do not live according to it, according to the bargain towards which it tends. This is clearly seen in neuroses; and the neurotic can be defined as a being who is badly compensated, incapable of living in accordance with his compensations. Let us imagine a being in whom exists the compensation 'loving and being loved', 'participation in the collective life by an exchange of services'. This being comes up against the wickedness of the outside world, a mischance unjustly wounds him. If the compensation were entirely inverted he could live in accordance with it so inverted: his life could find a sense in hatred and vengeance and he would be compensated in that way. But often the inversion only partially takes place, in its practical and not its theoretical aspect; the subject refuses his participation in the outside world in each particular eventuality, but continues to wish to participate in general. He would like to hit someone else, to wound him, in a particular practical action, but he cannot act thus because he persists in wanting to love, to serve, in general.

One often says that such persons have not found their compensations, but that is not true because each person always finds his compensations. These people have found their compensations but they are not able to live in accordance with them. The neurotic has split, divorced compensations in which he cannot live. He is paralysed between hatred and love of the same object. The impossibility of investing his vital energy therein entails a perturbation of the inner metabolism of his energy. The aggressiveness of the individual acts against itself; there is distress. This distress, felt up-stream of compensations that the subject does not succeed in using in his life, is of the same nature as the distress felt in the compensations that are lived-with when these exhaust themselves without comprehension. In the two cases there is 'de-compensation', but the happy issue of these two kinds of crisis is different. For the man who lives in accordance with his compensations it is desirable that he should come out of this stage; for the man who cannot live in accordance with his compensations it is desirable that he should enter this stage.

When a man succeeds in living his compensatory life the functioning of his psycho-somatic machine is harmonised, made flexible thereby. The man who thinks he has found Reality in one thing or another — whether it be money, or honours, or power, or any kind of exalting undertaking — possesses a point of orientation which allows his life to be efficiently organised. The apparent concentration of Reality on an image confers on the man an apparent inner unity by means of simplification of his dynamism. This simplification, which assumes the putting to sleep of a part of the world of his tendencies, clearly should not be confused with the simplicity of the man of satori in whom all is united without distinction in a total synthesis. But they resemble one another as the plane projection of a volume can resemble that volume. If a compensation of the 'adoration' type is pushed to a very high degree of subtlety, the inner simplification which it entails can actualise, in the psycho-somatic machine, rare powers which seem to be 'supernatural' (such as thought-reading, clairvoyance, psychic influences upon others, unconscious actions exactly adapted, power of healing, etc.).

The well-compensated man is, in the exact sense of the word, an idolater in the measure in which he 'believes' that the harmonising effects of his compensation come from the compensating image itself, the measure in which he identifies this image with Reality. This belief, which renders objective the subjective value of an image, evidently drives the idolater to think that all men ought to see as he does. If the idolater is of a positive type this results in proselytism, in apostleship, in a mission; if he is of a negative type it results in intolerance, in the persecution of unbelievers. The belief in the Reality of a form also entails the need of formal manifestations; the rite, which in reality is only a facultative means of expression, becomes where the idolater is concerned a constraining necessity.

Compensation forms an integral part of the period of human development which stretches from birth up to satori. Until satori, man is in unstable equilibrium, and this equilibrium is conditioned by the compensations. Therefore he should not totally pass beyond the compensations before satori, for satori alone constitutes this complete passing-beyond. But before the transformation (passing beyond form) which represents an inner event that is unique and instantaneous, there are produced in the human-being modifications and changes of form. These changes reveal the progressive elaboration of the inner conditions necessary for satori, and it is in this sense that we will speak of passing-beyond compensations as a progressive process. An illustration will make this point clear. It is said that the fox, when he wants to rid himself of his fleas, seizes a piece of moss in his mouth and enters the water backwards; the fleas leave the parts that are immersed and take refuge on that which still remains above water. Little by little the fox carries his fleas on an ever smaller part of his body, but this reduced surface is ever more and more infested with fleas. Ultimately all the fleas are concentrated on his muzzle, then on the piece of moss, which the fox then lets go into the flowing stream. Up to the instant at which the fox abandons the totality of his fleas he is not freed from a single one of them; nevertheless a certain process has modified the distribution of the parasites and prepared their complete and instantaneous disappearance.

Progressively passing beyond the compensations, thus understood as a reduction of extent and an increase of intensity, corresponds to a purification of the compensating image which evolves from the particular towards the general. All compensation being an image of the Universe centred by my Ego—a constellation of which the Ego is the central star and certain images the satellites—the purifying process of which we speak consists in the satellites becoming more and more subtle, whereas the central star increases in density. But then occurs something very particular which no illustration can demonstrate: the Ego having no reality, either absolute or relative, the density which accumulates there remains without any manifestation. Progressive detachment is a purification of that attachment to oneself which is at the centre of all attachments in general; but this central attachment to an illusory hypothetical image can purify itself and condense itself again and again without manifesting itself by anything perceptible. When St. John of the Cross passes beyond his mystical compensation, when he detaches himself from the image of 'God' after this image has been as far as possible rendered impersonal, he does not feel attached to the image 'Ego' from which the image 'God' drew its apparent Reality; he does not feel attached to anything. He no longer feels anything; it is the 'Night' in which nothing exists any longer in connexion with what can be felt or thought. But there is still an ultimate attachment to the Ego which links together all the powers of the being, an ultimate and invisible compensation. It is passing-beyond this invisible compensation which is the veritable detachment, total and instantaneous. To the Night succeeds what St. John of the Cross calls the theopathic state, that which Zen calls Satori.

Detachment, or passing-beyond the compensations, is often imperfectly understood; people believe that it is a question of destroying the affective preference that is felt for the compensating image, or that it is a question of tearing desire out of oneself. One forgets that attachment does not lie in desire but only in the claim to satisfaction of the desire. Desire need not disappear, but only the claim resulting from it. And the abandonment of the claim does not result from an inner struggle; it results from the correct interpretation of the deception that is inherent in the claim, whether it be satisfied or not. Distress, revendication, belief that the image claimed is Reality—these are the pieces of faulty scaffolding which is undermined by understanding and which that will one day bring crashing to the ground. Detachment is not a painful inner occurrence but, on the contrary, a relief.

Sometimes our too feeble understanding does not allow us for a long time to pass beyond such and such a compensating situation. Our inner growth seems to bump up against this obstacle. But, let us repeat, that which we love, to which we are attached, is never in itself an obstacle; the obstacle is only in the false identification of the loved image with Reality, the obstacle lies only in ignorance.

Our chances of passing beyond such and such a compensation depend then on the power of our intellectual intuition. They depend also on the degree of subtlety of our compensatory image. First of all, the more subtle this image the less the chances that it will deceive us; every image loses its value in course of time, but the more subtle the image the stronger it is and the slower in exhausting itself. Then, if nevertheless fatigue and deception occur the correct interpretation of this deception is as much more difficult as the compensating image happens to be subtle. Instead of throwing doubt on the Reality of this image I am tempted to consider myself inadequate, maladroit, idle, or cowardly, in the dealings that I have with it. It is useful, from this point of view, to draw special attention to a species of compensation that is very subtle and that one ordinarily designates by the word spirituality. In 'spiritual' compensation man loves and serves a very high cause; an infinitely just and good 'God' of whom he tries to obtain a unitive knowledge: 'superior' 'elevated' states of consciousness, which he wishes to attain; a total realisation conceived as something that ought to be conquered; or an 'ideal' aimed at the reign of love and justice among men, etc.... What in fact are these 'spiritual' values? One often hears three kinds of values distinguished: material, intellectual, and spiritual. These spiritual values evidently form part of Manifestation, since one can indicate them, love them, and serve them; but if Manifestation presents a gross or material aspect and a subtle, psychic or intellectual aspect, it is hard to see what could constitute a third aspect called 'spiritual'. The adorers of the 'spiritual' say that it is the Absolute (every idolater says that of his idol); it is assumed to be the 'Spirit' dominating and conciliating 'soul' and 'body'. But the Absolute cannot be conceived as opposed to any other values existing in Manifestation, for this opposition assimilates it with Manifestation. And the Absolute could not be indicated, nor loved, nor served, like an object placed in front of our Self-subject. 'Spiritual' values cannot be the Absolute. Under the different forms assumed by these values there is always the conception of something perfectly positive which represents in short the positive principle of 'temporal' dualism. One can call it God or the Constructive Principle of the World, or the Principle of Good opposed to the 'Devil', the Destructive Principle of the World, or Principle of Evil; it is the Principle of Light opposed to the Prince of Darkness. It is normal that man should love construction and detest destruction, that he should love 'God' and detest the 'Devil'. The idolatry of 'spirituality' only begins when 'God' is illusorily identified by the intellect with the Absolute or Reality or the Intemporal. When this error is committed 'God' is identified with the Absolute Principle and the 'Devil' with Manifestation; 'Satan' becomes the Prince of this World; 'spiritual' goods are opposed to 'temporal' goods. This forgetfulness of Metaphysical Unity results in an inner dualism, in the impossibility of the synthesis of the being; as one sees, besides, in all idolatrous compensation.

We have insisted on drawing attention to these compensations called 'spiritual' because they are the most subtle of all. The mental image of 'God', of the positive principle of temporal dualism, is the most powerful compensatory image, the most resistant to devalorisation; consequently the most difficult to pass beyond. It is not in our power to choose our compensations; if our psychic structure is such that we have the 'sentiment of holiness', the 'love of God', it just happens that we are thus. But we have then a very special interest in reminding ourselves that nothing that is conceivable can be Reality. Our 'own nature' is the Absolute itself; nothing of that which we can conceive, contemplate, love, lies beyond the domain of the images created by ourselves, by us as the Absolute. Zen is categoric on this point and could not in any way be considered as a 'spiritual' doctrine. It is radically atheist if, by the word God, one means Reality assumed to be conceivable by Our mind. 'From the beginning not a thing is.' Rinzai said also:


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