Hubert Benoit
Zen and the Psychology of Transformation
The Supreme Doctrine

Chapter 24


We would like to end this book by insisting on a capital aspect of this theoretical and practical comprehension which alone can deliver us from our distress. It is a question of understanding the exact nature of humility and of seeing that in it is to be found the key of our liberty and of our greatness.

We are living from this moment in the state of satori; but we are prevented from enjoying it by the unceasing work of our psychological automatisms which close a vicious circle within us. Our imaginative-emotive agitation prevents us from seeing our Buddha-nature and, believing therefore that we lack our essential reality, we are obliged to imagine in order to compensate this illusory defect.

I believe that I am separated from my own 'being' and I am looking for it in order to reunite myself with it. Only knowing myself as a distinct individual, I seek for the Absolute in an individual manner, I wish to affirm myself-absolutely-as-a-distinct-being. This effort creates and maintains in me my divine fiction, my fundamental pretension that I am all-powerful as an individual, on the plane of phenomena. This task of compensating my psychological automatisms consists, in my imaginative representation of things, in refusing my attention to evidence of my impotence, in giving it to evidence of my power, and in withdrawing my pretension whenever the spectacle of my impotence cannot be eluded. I train myself never to recognise the equality between the outside world and myself; I affirm myself to be different from the outside world, on a different level, above whenever I can, below when I cannot. The fiction according to which I should be individually the Primary Cause of the Universe requires that it shall only be a question of the conditioning of the world by me: either I see myself as conditioning the outer world, or I see myself as not succeeding in conditioning it, but never can I recognise myself as conditioned by it on a footing of equality. From which arises the illusion of the Not-Self. If I condition the outside world, it is Self; if I do not succeed in doing so, it is Not-Self; never can I bring myself to recognise it as Itself, because I lack knowledge of the hypostasis which unites us.

The impossibility in which I find myself today of being in possession of my own nature, of my Buddha-nature, as universal man and not as distinct individual, obliges me unceasingly to invent a representation of my situation in the Universe that is radically untrue. Instead of seeing myself as equal with the outside world, I see myself either as above it or below, either on high, or beneath. In this perspective, in which the 'on high' is Being and the 'beneath' is Nullity, I am obliged to urge myself always towards Being. All my efforts necessarily tend, in a direct or a roundabout manner, to raise me up, whether materially, subtly, or, as one says, 'spiritually'.

All my natural psychological automatisms, before satori, are founded on amour-propre, the personal pretension, the claim to 'rise' in one way or another; and it is this claim to raise myself individually which hides from me my infinite universal dignity. The pretension which animates all my efforts, all my aspirations, is at times difficult to recognise as such. It is easy for me to see my pretension when the Not-Self from which I wish to be distinguished is represented by other human-beings; in this case a little inner frankness suffices to give its true name to my endeavour. It no longer works so easily when the Not-Self from which I wish to be distinguished is represented by inanimate objects or above all by that illusory and mysterious entity that I call Destiny; but it is, at bottom, exactly the same thing; my luck exalts me and my ill luck humiliates me. All perception of positivity in the Universe exalts me, all perception of negativity in the Universe humiliates me. When the outside world is positive, constructive, it is as I want it, and it then appears to me as conditioned by me; when it is negative, destructive (even if that does not directly concern me), it is as I do not want it, and it appears to me then as refusing to let itself be conditioned by me. If we see clearly the profound basis of our amour-propre, we understand that all our imaginable joys are satisfaction of this amour-propre and that all our imaginable sufferings are its wounds. We understand then that our pretentious personal attitude dominates the whole of our affective automatisms, that is the whole of our life. The Independent Intelligence alone escapes this domination.

My egotistical pretension towards the 'on high' has to express itself in an unceasing process of imagination because it is false, and in radical contradiction with the reality of things. If I look at my personal life as a whole with impartiality I see that it is comparable with the bursting of a fireworks-rocket. The shooting upwards of the rocket corresponds with the intra-uterine life during which everything is prepared without yet being manifested; the moment at which the rocket bursts is the birth; the spreading-out of the luminous shower represents that ascending period of my life in which my organism develops all its powers; the falling back of the shower in a rain of sparks which expire represents my old age and death. It appears to me at first that the life of this rocket is an increase, then a decrease. But in thinking about it more carefully I see that it is, throughout its duration, a disintegration of energy; it is a decrease from one end to the other of its manifestation. So is it with me as an individual; from the moment of my conception my psycho-somatic organism is the manifestation of a disintegration, of a continual descent. From the moment at which I am conceived I begin to die, exhausting in manifestations more or less spectacular an original energy which does nothing but decrease. Cosmic reality radically contradicts my pretension towards the 'on high'; as a personal being I have in front of me only the 'beneath'.

The whole problem of human distress is resumed in the problem of humiliation. To cure distress is to be freed from all possibility of humiliation. Whence comes my humiliation? From seeing myself powerless? No, that is not enough. It comes from the fact that I try in vain not to see my real powerlessness. It is not powerlessness itself that causes humiliation, but the shock experienced by my pretension to omnipotence when it comes up against the reality of things. I am not humiliated because the outer world denies me, but because I fail to annul this negation. The veritable cause of my distress is never in the outside world, it is only in the claim that I throw out and which is broken against the wall of reality. I deceive myself when I complain that the wall has hurled itself against me and has wounded me; it is I that have injured myself against it, my own action which has caused my suffering. When I no longer pretend, nothing will injure me ever again.

I can say also that my distress-humiliation reveals the laceration of an inner conflict between my tendency to see myself all-powerful and my tendency to recognise concrete reality in which my omnipotence is denied. I am distressed and humiliated when I am torn between my subjective pretension and my objective observation, between my lie and my truth, between my partial and impartial representations of my situation in the Universe. I shall only be saved from the permanent threat of distress when my objectivity has triumphed over my subjectivity, when the reality has triumphed in me over the dream.

In our desire to escape from distress at last, we search for doctrines of salvation, we search for 'gurus'. But the true guru is not far away, he is before our eyes and unceasingly offers us his teaching; he is reality as it is, he is our daily life. The evidence of salvation is beneath our eyes, evidence of our non-omnipotence, that our pretension is radically absurd, impossible, and so illusory, inexistent; evidence that there is nothing to fear for hopes that have no reality; that I am and have always been on the ground, so that no kind of fall is possible, so that no vertigo has any reason to exist.

If I am humiliated, it is because my imaginative autonomisms succeed in neutralising the vision of reality and keep the evidence in the dark. I do not benefit by the salutary teaching which is constantly offered to me, because I refuse it and set myself skillfully to elude the experience of humiliation. If a humiliating circumstance turns up, offering me a marvellous chance of initiation, at once my imagination strives to conjure what appears to me to be a danger; it struggles against the illusory movement towards 'beneath'; it does everything to restore me to that habitual state of satisfied arrogance in which I find a transitory respite but also the certainty of further distress. In short I constantly defend myself against that which offers to save me; I fight foot by foot to defend the very source of my unhappiness. All my inner actions tend to prevent satori, since they aim at the 'on high' whereas satori awaits me 'beneath'. And so Zen is right in saying that 'satori falls upon us unexpectedly when we have exhausted all the resources of our being'.

These considerations seem to indicate humility to us as the 'way'. It is true in a sense. Let us see, however, in what respect humility is not a 'way' if by this word we understand a systematic discipline. In my actual condition I cannot make any effort which, directly or indirectly, is not an effort towards 'on high'. Every effort to conquer humility can only result in a false humility in which I again exalt myself egotistically by means of the idol that I have created for myself. It is strictly impossible for me to abase myself, that is for me to reduce the intensity of my claim to 'be'. All that I can and should do, if I wish to escape definitively from distress, is less and less to resist the instruction of concrete reality, and to let myself be abased by the evidence of the cosmic order. Even then, there is nothing that I can do or cease to do directly. I will cease to oppose myself to the constructive and harmonising benefits of humiliation in the measure in which I have understood that my true well-being is to be found, paradoxically, where until now I have situated my pain. As long as I have not understood, I am turned towards 'on high'; when I have understood I am not turned towards 'beneath'—for, once again, it is impossible for me to be turned towards 'beneath' and every effort in that direction would transform the 'beneath' into an 'on high'—but my aspiration stretched towards 'on high' decreases in intensity and, in this measure, I benefit from my humiliations. When I have understood, I resist less and, on account of that, I see more and more often that I am humiliated; I see that all my negative states are at bottom humiliations, and that I have taken steps up to the present to give them other names. I am capable then of feeling myself humiliated, vexed, without any other image in me than the image of this state, and of remaining there motionless, my understanding having wiped out my reflex attempts at flight. From the moment at which I succeed in no longer moving in my humiliated state, I discover with surprise that there is the 'asylum of rest', the unique harbour of safety, the only place in the world in which I can find perfect security. My adhesion to this state, placed face to face with my natural refusal, obtains the intervention of the Conciliating Principle; the opposites neutralise one another; my suffering fades away and one part of my fundamental pretension fades away at the same time. I feel myself nearer to the ground, to the 'beneath', to real humility (humility which is not acceptance of inferiority, but abandonment of the vertical conception in which I saw myself always above or below). These inner phenomena are accompanied by a sentiment of sadness, of 'night'; and this sentiment is very different from distress because a great calm reigns therein. In this moment of nightly calm and of relaxation are elaborated the processes of what we have called the inner alchemy. The 'old' man breaks up for the benefit of the gestation of the 'new' man. The individual dies for the sake of the birth of the universal.

The conquest of humility, impossible directly, supposes then the use of humiliation. All suffering, by humiliating us, modifies us. But this modification can be of two sorts that are radically opposed. If I struggle against humiliation, it destroys me and it increases my inner disharmony; if I let it alone without opposing it, it builds up my inner harmony. To let humiliation alone simply consists in recognising to oneself that one is humiliated.

The Being, in our actual perspective, appears to us the unconciliated couple of zero and the infinite. Our nature urges us at first to identify it with the infinite and to try to reach it under this form, by incessantly rising. But this attempt is hopeless; no ascent in the finite can reach the infinite. The way towards the Being is not infinity but zero which, besides, being nothing, is not a way.

This idea that humility is not a 'way' is so important that we would like to come back to it for the last time. If I don't understand that, I shall inevitably withdraw such and such manifestations of my pretension in practical life, confine myself in a mediocre social rank, etc. I shall avoid humiliations instead of using them; imitations of humility are never anything but imitations. It is not a question of modifying the action of my fundamental pretension, but of utilising the evidences which come to me in the course of this action, owing to the humiliating defeats in which it necessarily results. If I cease artificially to fight against the Not-Self, I deprive myself of indispensable knowledge which comes to me from my defeats.

Without always saying so in an explicit manner, Zen is centred on the idea of humility. Throughout the whole of Zen literature we see how the masters, in their ingenious goodness, intensely humiliate their pupils at the moment which they judge to be propitious. In any case, whether humiliation comes from a master or from the ultimate defeat experienced in oneself, satori is always released in an instant in which the humility of the man fulfills itself in face of the absurdity, at last evident, of all his pretentious efforts. Let us recall that the 'nature of things' is for us the best, the most affectionate, and the most humiliating of masters; it surrounds us with its vigilant assistance. The only task incumbent upon us is to understand reality and to let ourselves be transformed by it.

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