Hubert Benoit
Zen and the Psychology of Transformation
The Supreme Doctrine

Chapter 23

THE INNER ALCHEMY

He who would understand Zen should never lose sight of the fact that here it is essentially a question of the sudden doctrine. Zen, denying that man has any liberation to attain, or has to improve himself in any way, could not admit that his condition can improve little by little until it becomes normal at last. The satori-occurrence is only an instant between two periods of our temporal life; it may be likened to the line which separates a zone of shade from a zone of light, and it has no more real existence than this line. Either I do not see things as they are, or I see them. There is no period during which I should see little by little the Reality of the Universe.

But if the idea of progression bears no relation to Realisation itself, if the transformation is rigorously sudden, Zen teaches that this transformation is preceded by successive changes in the form of our inner functioning. We have said successive and not progressive as a reminder that this evolution which precedes satori does not correspond with a gradual appearance of Reality, but with simple and gradual changes of the modalities of our blindness.

This point having been clearly recalled, it is interesting to consider this gradual but not progressive evolution which precedes satori. In the degree in which our understanding, our 'penetrating glance', grows deeper, we observe that our spontaneous inner life—emotions and spontaneous imaginations— are modified. 'You become, according to what you think,' says Hindu wisdom. This evolutive modification is comparable with the distillation which, applied to any sort of body, purifies it, renders it subtle. When one distils fermented fruits and draws alcohol from them, the modification of the original product consists in a quantitative rarefaction and a qualitative exaltation. There is less material, but the material is finer, less power of a gross nature (for example alcohol is lighter than the fruit from which it has been extracted), but more power of a subtle nature (the ingestion of alcohol produces effects that the ingestion of fruit could not produce). The alchemy of the Middle-Ages, with its retorts and alembics, its search for the quintessence, was a symbolic representation of the inner process which we are studying at this moment. The more a substance is thus rendered subtle, the less its essential characteristics are perceptible to the eye. The visible aspect of the fruit clearly evokes the idea of that which its consumption will give; alcohol, on the contrary, although possessing greater force, appears in an aspect that is less obvious. The word 'subtilise', in current language, means to cause to disappear. Subtilisation is also, as we have said, a purification, the subtler substance is at the same time simpler.

Evolutive understanding represents a distillation of our inner world, of our image-material. There is purification, subtilisation, simplification of this material and, correlatively, of all our imaginative-emotive processes. Let us give an example of this. As a child I believe in the Infant Jesus as in a perfect child who loves me and wishes me well, who watches me living and feels about me sentiments similar to my own; and this image is crude, very visible, charged with concrete details. As an adolescent I arrive at an understanding of God whom I represent to myself as a Being still personal, but without visible body, still having thoughts and sentiments, but vaguer, less easily imagined. The image is subtilised, it has lost some of its manifest clarity; it is more non-manifested and at the same time vaster, more powerful in the sense that it embraces more things. My age and my understanding again increasing, there forms in me the abstract idea of an impersonal Principle that I see as only good, constructive. At the next stage I arrive at the conception of this Principle as being above the dualism of construction and destruction, Non-Action dominating all phenomena, but I distinguish this Principle from its Manifestation, believing in the reality of this distinction. I understand that the Principle is my Principle, I perceive my identity with it, but I distinguish my Principle from my manifestation, believing in the reality of this distinction. At last I succeed in understanding that the distinction between Principle and Manifestation is a simple analytical artifice which my mind needs in order to express itself; I understand that I deceive myself as soon as I oppose among each other the elements that I have distinguished. The mental image of Reality, which at first had been the concrete image of the Child-Jesus, has been subtilised until it has become the abstract image of the Void of traditional metaphysics, Void which includes all the imaginable plenitudes. Parallel with this imaginative distillation it is evident that my affective reactions to my conceptions of Reality are subtilised also; the interior and exterior operation of my machine is modified when I cease to believe in a personal God, an object of love and of dread, and when I arrive at conceiving abstractly my Buddha-nature as being above all thought and all sentiment.

This process of distillation, due to the work of intellectual intuition, corresponds to the idea, often expressed in this work, that our correct inner evolution destroys nothing but fulfills everything. The apparent death of the 'old' man is not in reality a destruction. When I extract alcohol from fruit I do not destroy the essence of the fruit, but rather purify it, concentrate it, and fulfill it. In the same way I fulfill my conception of Reality when I evolve from the image of the Child-Jesus to the image of the Void. There is apparent death because there is a diminution of the visible, of that which is perceptible by the senses and the mind; but nothing has been destroyed just because the belief in the Reality of a perception ceases to exist. The fulfillment of the human-being carries with it the disappearance of the illusory Reality of images perceived by the senses and the mind.

The condition of man, at his birth, is to feel himself fundamentally unsatisfied; he believes that he lacks something. What he is and what he has does not suit him; he expects something else, a 'true life'; he seeks a solution of his pretended problem, claiming such and such situations in existence. This revendicative attitude, which engenders all our sufferings, is not to be destroyed, but to be fulfilled. We have seen, in studying the compensations, how our claim and attachment are subtilised. All our personal attachments derive from our central attachment to the image of our Ego, to the image of ourselves-as-distinct, by means of identifying association between a personal image and this general image. The more my understanding deepens, the more these associations are abolished; my attachment is thus purified, subtilised, and concentrated; it becomes less and less apparent, more and more non-manifested. The attached revendication is not reduced by an atom before satori, but it purifies itself, and fulfills itself according as the instant approaches of the sudden transformation when attachment and detachment are conciliated.

My amour-propre is an aspect of my revendicatory attention. It also is purified in the extent to which I understand. To the people who observe me from outside, I appear to be more modest. But I feel clearly that it is not so. My amour-propre becomes more and more subtle and concentrated, so that one sees it less; it fulfills itself, tending in one sense towards the zero of perfect humility, and in another towards the non-manifested infinite of my absolute dignity.

The distress which is associated with the egotistical claim is subjected to the same gradual modification. It is a serious mistake to believe that understanding can increase the anxiety of man. False information, by implanting in our mind constraining 'beliefs', can increase our distress. But the intuition of truth on the contrary subtilises distress, reducing its manifested aspect and increasing its non-manifested aspect. Profound distress, from which derives all manifested personal distress, is not reduced by an atom before satori; but it remains more and more non-manifested, so that the adept of Zen, in the measure in which he evolves (without progressing) feels distress less and less. When distress has become almost entirely non-manifested, satori is near.

The inner agitation of man reveals the conflict which exists between the vital movement on the one hand, and on the other the refusal of the temporal limitation which conditions this movement. Placed face to face with his life such as it is, man wants it and at the same time does not want it. This agitation purifies itself in the measure in which understanding entails a decrease of the refusal of the temporal limitation. The vital movement is not touched, whereas that which was opposed to it is reduced; and so this movement is purified, agitation disappears, our machine ticks over ever more smoothly.

The evolution that we are studying comprises before everything, as we have said, the subtilisation of our image-material. Our images lose little by little their apparent density, their illusory objectivity; they become more subtle, vaster, more general, more abstract. Their power of causing our vital energy to well up in emotive spasm decreases. The whole imaginative-emotive process loses its intensity, its violence. Our imaginative film presents less contrast; our inner dream is lightened.

One can consider satori as an awakening, our actual condition in relation to this awakening being a kind of sleep in which our conscious thought is the dream. There is truth in this way of looking at it but it contains a trap into which our understanding risks falling. I always have a tendency to wish to represent things to myself and to forget that satori, an unimaginable inner occurrence, cannot be assimilated by analogy with anything that I know. Thus I have a tendency to assume an analogy between satori, ultimate awakening, and that which I experience every day when I pass from the state of sleep to the state of wakefulness. In this illusory analogy there reappears insidiously the progressive conception; just as my ordinary awakening seems to me to be a progress in relation to my sleep, so satori should be a 'super awakening', a 'veritable' awakening, a supreme progress in relation to my actual waking state. Just as my ordinary awakening gives back to me a consciousness which was lacking to me while I slept, so satori should give me a 'supra-consciousness' which is lacking to me now. This false conception (it is false since I am from all eternity in the state of satori and since, in spite of appearances, I lack nothing) entails erroneous ideas concerning the inner process which precedes the satori-event. Between profound sleep and the state of wakefulness, I pass by the state of sleep with dreams. The appearance of conscious activity, in the course of sleep, is in the direction of awakening, and the more my dream is striking, moving, urgent, illusorily objective, the nearer I am to awakening myself. In following my false analogy of progress I begin to think that satori will be preceded by an exacerbation of my conscious thought, of my imaginative film; I believe that mental hyperactivity, in extasy or in nightmare, attaining a critical point of tension, will obtain the bursting of the last barrier and entrance into a state of cosmic supra-consciousness. All that is in complete contradiction with the 'sudden' conception of Zen. Let us note how there is found again, in this progressist chimera, the egotistical identification which entails the illusory adoration of our consciousness. Our imaginary inner universe, centred on our person, pretends that it is the Universe; the consciousness which fabricates this universe is thus assimilated to the Cosmic Mind; and it is not astonishing after that that we should depend on this consciousness in order to conquer Realisation.

In reality, whether I sleep or remain awake, I am from this moment in the state of satori. Sleep and waking are steeped equally in this state; the state of satori, with regard to sleep and waking, plays the role of a hypostasis which conciliates them. Steeped in the Intemporal, sleep and waking are two extreme modalities of the functioning of my psycho-somatic organism, extremities between which I oscillate. Between profound sleep and the waking state, sleep with dreams represents a middle stage, the projection, on the base of the triangle, of its summit. From this the transcendental wisdom of the dream is derived. The symbolic thought of the dream, in which are expressed the situations of our personal microcosm, stripped of all the illusory objectivity of the outside world, is actually the only thought in us capable of seeing certain things as they really are; that is why dream-thought expresses itself in symbolic fashion, things-as-they-are being impossible to express adequately in a direct manner.

In this correct perspective let us try to conceive how, in our waking dream the gradual non-progressive evolution which precedes Satori is revealed in our consciousness. Our waking dream, like everything in us, is fulfilled gradually by subtilising itself. Far from becoming more striking, more apparently real, more deluding, it becomes lighter, less opaque, less dense, more volatile; it is less attaching, less viscous. The affective charges, which certain images carry, decrease; our inner universe evens up. Under this waking dream that is ever lighter we fulfill more completely the sleep of our actual egotistical condition. In short the fulfillment of our conscious thought brings it nearer in a sense to profound sleep. And, at the same time that our conscious thought approaches sleep, it differentiates itself from it by developing to the maximum its subtle intellectual possibilities. There is a real approach in the non-manifested, and apparent separation in the manifested. One remembers the hermetic aphorism: 'That which is above is like that, which is below, that which is below is like that which is above'

The imaginative activity subtilises itself and tends towards non-manifestation, although the mind remains awake, and continues to function. A 'concentration on nothing' develops below the attention that is always held by images. My state then resembles that of the absent-minded scholar; but, as opposed to the scholar who is absent-minded because his attention is concentrated on something formal, I am absent-minded because my attention is concentrated on something informal which is neither conceived nor conceivable.

The whole imaginative-emotive process is lightened. This is revealed by the fact that I feel myself happy without apparent motive; I am not happy because existence seems good to me, but existence seems good to me because I feel myself to be happy. The evolution which precedes satori does not comprise an exacerbation of distress, but on the contrary a gradual relief from manifested distress. A neutralising balancing of our fundamental distress precedes the instant at which we will see directly and definitively that our distress has always been illusory. This links up with the idea that our nostalgia for fulfillment disappears in the measure in which we approach the 'asylum of rest'.

The Western mind often has difficulty in understanding the term 'Great Doubt' which Zen uses to indicate the inner state which immediately precedes satori. It thinks that this Great Doubt should be the acme of uncertainty, of uneasiness, therefore of distress. It is exactly the opposite. Let us try to see this point clearly. Man comes into the world with a doubt concerning his 'being', and this doubt dictates all his reactions to the outer world. Although I do not often realise it, the question 'Am I?' is behind all my endeavours; I seek a definitive confirmation of my 'being' in everything that I aspire to. As long as this metaphysical question is identified in me with the problem of my temporal success, as long as I debate this question within Manifestation, distress dwells in me on account of my temporal limitation; for the question so posed is always menaced with a negative reply. But, in the measure in which my understanding deepens and in which my imaginative representation of the universe is subtilised, the identification of my metaphysical doubt with the eventuality of my temporal defeat falls asunder; my distress decreases. My question concerning my 'being' is purified; its manifested aspect wears thin; in reality it is not reduced but becomes more and more non-manifested. At the end of this process of distillation the doubt has become almost perfectly pure, it is 'Great Doubt', and at the same time it has lost all its distressing character; it is at once the acme of confusion and the height of obviousness, obviousness without formal object, having tranquility and peace. 'Then the subject has the impression that he is living in a palace of crystal, transparent, vivifying, exalting and royal'; and at the same time he is 'like an idiot, like an imbecile'. The famous and illusory question 'Am I?', in purifying itself abolishes itself, and I shall at last escape from its fascination not in a satisfying solution of the problem, but in the ability to see that no problem ever existed.

Let us observe at last how this evolutive process which subtilises our inner world modifies our perception of time. We believe in the reality of time, as we have said, because we are expecting a modification of our phenomenal life capable of supplying what we illusorily lack. The more we feel the nostalgia of a 'becoming', the more painfully this problem of time harasses us. We reproach ourselves with letting time go by, with not knowing how to fill these days which are passing. In the measure in which my urge towards 'becoming' is subtilised in me, growing more and more non-manifested, my perception of time is modified. In so far as it is manifested in my anecdotal life, time escapes me more and more and I let it escape me in attaching to it less and less importance; my days are ever less full of things that I can tell, which I remember. Side by side with this I feel a decrease in my impression of lost time; I feel myself ever less frustrated by the inexorable ticking of the clock. Here as elsewhere, the less I strain myself in order to seize, the more I possess. Let us specify however that it is not a question here of a positive possession of time but of a gradual lessening of the keen impression of not possessing it. At the time of the Great Doubt we do not possess time at all, but it no longer escapes us for we no longer claim it. And this suspension of time announces our reintegration with the eternity of the instant.

Let us see now why this gradual process of simplifying subtilisation necessarily precedes satori. When we read the accounts that certain Zen masters have left us of their satori, we note that this inner occurrence happens in connexion with a sensory excitation that has come from the outer world, in connexion with a visual or auditive impression, or with a fall or a blow received. The impression can be of slight intensity but it has always this character of suddenness which awakens our attention. Just as a sudden perception habitually awakens the attention of our passive mind, this time the sudden perception conditions the awakening of the active autonomous functioning of the mind and renders conscious the vision of things-as-they-are.

The interpretation of this fact lends itself to two errors. If I am very much attached to the notion of causality I may believe that the sound of a bell has caused the satori of the Zen master, and I ask myself how the thing can be possible. I may be tempted to believe that there exist special bells, producing special sounds capable of revealing to a human-being his Buddha-nature. Or again, leaving aside this infantile interpretation, I may believe that the sound of the bell has played no part and that the Zen master has perceived it entirely independently of what was then taking place in his inner world.

In reality the perception of the outer world plays a necessary role at the instant of satori, but as perception of the outer world in general without the particular kind of perception being of the slightest importance. In fact, every perception, at every moment of our lives, contains a possibility of satori. A Zen disciple one day reproached his master for hiding from him the essence of the doctrine. The master led the disciple into the mountains; the oleanders were in flower there and the air was embalmed by them. 'Do you smell them?' asked the master; then as the disciple answered in the affirmative, he added: 'There, I have kept nothing hidden from you.' Every perception of the outer world contains a possibility of satori because it brings into existence a bridge between Self and Not-Self, because it implies and manifests an identity of nature between Self and Not-Self. We have said many times that our perception of an outside object was the perception of a mental image which is produced in us by contact with the object. But behind the exterior object and the interior image there is a single perception which joins them. Everything, in the Universe, is energy in vibration. The perception of the object is produced by a unitive combination of the vibrations of the object and of my own vibrations. This combination is only possible because the vibrations of the object and my own vibrations are of a single essence; and it manifests this essence, as one under the multiplicity of phenomena. The perceptive image is produced in me, but this image has its origin in the Unconscious, or Cosmic Mind, which has no particular residence, and dwells as much in the object perceived as in the Self who perceive it. The conscious mental image is individually mine, but the perception itself which is the principle of this conscious image neither belongs to me nor to the image. In this perception there is no distinction between subject and object; it is a conciliating hypostasis uniting subject and object in a ternary synthesis.

Every perception of the outside world does not, however, release satori in me. Why not? Because, in fact, my conscious mental image occupies all my attention. This purely personal aspect of universal perception fascinates me, in the belief in which I live that distinct things are. I have not yet understood with the whole of my being the declaration of Hui-neng: 'Not a thing is.' I still believe that this is essentially different from that; I am partial. In this ignorance, the multiple images which are the elements of my inner universe are clearly distinct, one opposed to another; each of them is defined in my eyes by that in which it differs from the others. In this perspective no image can anonymously represent, equally with any other image, the totality of my inner universe. That is to say that no image is 'Self', but only an aspect of self. In these conditions everything happens as if no union is realised, in the process of perception, between Self and Not-Self, but only a partial identification. The Self, not being integrated, only partially identifies itself with the Not-Self. The revelation of the total identity, or satori, does not occur.

This revelation only becomes possible at the end of the process of simplifying subtilisation. The more my images are subtilised, the more their apparent distinction is effaced. I continue to see wherein they differ one from another, but I see less and less these differences as oppositions; everything happens as though I foresaw little by little the unity underneath the multiplicity. The discriminative oppositions become more and more non-manifested. No veritable unity is realised, in my inner universe, before satori; but in the measure in which multiplicity becomes non-manifested, my inner state tends towards simplicity, homogeneity, mathematical unity (which must not be confused with metaphysical or fundamental Unity). Impartiality in face of my images, in fulfilling itself, accomplishes the integration of the Self. The partial identification with exterior objects decreases; I feel myself more and more distinct from the outer world. The process which precedes total identification does not consist in a progressive increase in the partial identification but on the contrary in its gradual disappearance. To use a spatial expression, the manifested Self is more and more reduced and tends towards the geometrical point that is without dimension. In the measure that I tend towards the point, my representation of the outer world also tends towards the point; everything happens as though an intermediate zone of interpenetration were purifying itself between Self and Not-Self, as though Self and Not-Self were more and more separated at the same time that their apparent opposition decreased. Thus two men who are enemies, in the degree in which their hatred disappears, feel themselves more and more strangers to one another while their opposition is disappearing.

At the end of this gradual evolution my inner universe reaches homogeneity in which not forms but the opposition of forms is abolished. Everything is equalised. Then any image can represent adequately the totality of my inner universe. I have become capable of experiencing, in a perception, no longer only a partial identification with the Not-Self, but my total identity with it. Still it is necessary that the Not-Self shall manifest; that is what happens at the time of this releasing perception of which the men of satori tell us. Before the Self, integrated in a non-manifested totality, the Not-Self appears totally integrated in a phenomenon which represents it; then perception flashes out, in which without any discrimination the totality of the Self and of the Not-Self are manifested together. The totality of the Self becomes manifest, but in the unity in which all is conciliated and in which this Self seems to be abolished at the very instant at which it fulfills itself.

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