Hubert Benoit
Zen and the Psychology of Transformation
The Supreme Doctrine


Philosophy in the Orient is never pure speculation, but always some form of transcendental pragmatism. Its truths, like those of modern physics, are to be tested operationally. Consider, for example, the basic doctrine of Vedanta, of Mahayana Buddhism, of Taoism, of Zen. 'Tat tvam asi—thou art That.' 'Tao is the root to which we may return, and so become again That which, in fact, we have always been.' 'Samsara and Nirvana, Mind and individual minds, sentient beings and the Buddha, are one.' Nothing could be more enormously metaphysical than such affirmations; but, at the same time, nothing could be less theoretical, idealistic, Pickwickian. They are known to be true because, in a super-Jamesian way, they work, because there is something that can be done with them. The doing of this something modifies the doer's relations with reality as a whole. But knowledge is in the knower according to the mode of the knower. When transcendental pragmatists apply the operational test to their metaphysical hypotheses, the mode of their existence changes, and they know everything, including the proposition, 'thou art That', in an entirely new and illuminating way.

The author of this book is a psychiatrist, and his thoughts about the Philosophia Perennis in general and about Zen in particular are those of a man professionally concerned with the treatment of troubled minds. The difference between Eastern philosophy, in its therapeutic aspects, and most of the systems of psychotherapy current in the modern West may be summarised in a few sentences.

The aim of Western psychiatry is to help the troubled individual to adjust himself to the society of less troubled individuals—individuals who are observed to be well adjusted to one another and the local institutions, but about whose adjustment to the fundamental Order of Things no enquiry is made. Counselling, analysis, and other methods of therapy are used to bring these troubled and maladjusted persons back to a normality, which is defined, for lack of any better criterion, in statistical terms. To be normal is to be a member of the majority party—or in totalitarian societies, such as Calvinist Geneva, Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, of the party which happens to be in power. For the exponents of the transcendental pragmatisms of the Orient, statistical normality is of little or no interest. History and anthropology make it abundantly clear that societies composed of individuals who think, feel, believe and act according to the most preposterous conventions can survive for long periods of time. Statistical normality is perfectly compatible with a high degree of folly and wickedness.

But there is another kind of normality—a normality of perfect functioning, a normality of actualised potentialities, a normality of nature in fullest flower. This normality has nothing to do with the observed behaviour of the greatest number—for the greatest number live, and have always lived, with their potentialities unrealised, their nature denied its full development. In so far as he is a psychotherapist, the Oriental philosopher tries to help statistically normal individuals to become normal in the other, more fundamental sense of the word. He begins by pointing out to those who think themselves sane that, in fact, they are mad, but that they do not have to remain so if they don't want to. Even a man who is perfectly adjusted to a deranged society can prepare himself, if he so desires, to become adjusted to the Nature of Things, as it manifests itself in the universe at large and in his own mind-body. This preparation must be carried out on two levels simultaneously. On the psycho-physical level, there must be a letting-go of the ego's frantic clutch on the mind-body, a breaking of its bad habits of interfering with the otherwise infallible workings of the entelechy, of obstructing the flow of life and grace and inspiration. At the same time, on the intellectual level, there must be a constant self-reminder that our all too human likes and dislikes are not absolutes, that yin and yang, negative and positive, are reconciled in the Tao, that 'One is the denial of all denials', that the eye with which we see God (if and when we see him) is the same as the eye with which God sees us, and that it is the eye to which, in Matthew Arnold's words:

Each moment in its race,
Crowd as we will its neutral space,
Is but a quiet watershed,
Whence, equally, the seas of life and death are fed.

This process of intellectual and psycho-physical adjustment to the Nature of Things is necessary; but it cannot, of itself, result in the normalisation (in the non-statistical sense) of the deranged individual. It will, however, prepare the way for that revolutionary event. That, when it comes, is the work not of the personal self, but of that great Not-Self, of which our personality is a partial and distorted manifestation. 'God and God's will,' says Eckhart, 'are one; I and my will are two.' However, I can always use my will to will myself out of my own light, to prevent my ego from interfering with God's will and eclipsing the Godhead manifested by that will. In theological language, we are helpless without grace, but grace cannot help us unless we choose to cooperate with it.

In the pages which follow, Dr. Benoit has discussed the 'supreme doctrine' of Zen Buddhism in the light of Western psychological theory and Western psychiatric practice—and in the process he has offered a searching criticism of Western psychology and Western psychotherapy as they appear in the light of Zen. This is a book that should be read by everyone who aspires to know who he is and what he can do to acquire such self-knowledge.


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This book contains a certain number of basic ideas that seek to improve our understanding of the state of man. I assume, therefore, that anyone will admit that he has still something to learn on this subject. This is not a jest. Man needs, in order to live his daily life, to be inwardly as if he had settled or eliminated the great questions that concern his state. Most men never reflect on their state because they are convinced explicitly or implicitly, that they understand it. Ask, for example, different men why they desire to exist, what is the reason for what one calls the 'instinct of self-preservation'. One will tell you: 'It is so because it is so; why look for a problem where none exists?' This man depends on the belief that there is no such question. Another will say to you: 'I desire to exist because God wishes it so; He wishes that I desire to exist so that I may, in the course of my life, save my soul and perform all the good deeds that He expects of His creature.' This man depends on an explicit belief; if you press him further, if you ask him why God wishes him to save his soul, etc., he will end by telling you that human reason cannot and is not called upon to understand the real basis of such things. In saying which he approaches the agnostic who will tell you that the wise man ought to resign himself always to remaining ignorant of ultimate reality, and that, after all, life is not so disagreeable despite this ignorance. Every man, whether he admits it or not, lives by a personal system of metaphysics that he believes to be true; this practical system of metaphysics implies positive beliefs, which the man in question calls his principles, his scale of values, and a negative belief, belief in the impossibility for man to know the ultimate reality of anything. Man in general has faith in his system of metaphysics, explicit or implicit; that is to say, he is sure that he has nothing to learn in this domain. It is where he is most ignorant that he has the greatest assurance, because it is therein that he has the greatest need of assurance.

Since I write on the problems that concern the state of man I should expect some difficulty in encountering a man who will read my words with an open mind. If I were writing on pre-Columbian civilisation or on some technical subject my reader would assuredly admit my right to instruct him. But it is concerning the most intimate part of himself that I write, and it is highly probable that he will rebel and that he will close his mind, saying of me, 'All the same I hope you are not going to teach me my own business.'

But I am not able to give anything in the domain of which I speak if it is not admitted that there is still something to learn therein. The reader to whom I address myself in writing this book must admit that his understanding of the state of man is capable of improvement; he should be good enough to assume also—while waiting for proof—that my understanding therein is greater than his and that, therefore, I am capable of teaching him; finally, and this is certainly the most difficult part, let him not adopt the attitude of resignation according to which the ultimate reality of things must always escape him, and let him accept, as a hypothesis, the possibility of that which Zen calls Satori, that is to say the possibility of a modification of the internal functioning of Man which will secure him at last the enjoyment of his absolute essence.

If then, these three ideas are admitted: the possibility of improving the understanding of the state of man, the possibility that I may be able to help to this end, the possibility for man to arrive at a radical alteration of his natural state; then perhaps the time spent reading this book will not be wasted. 'But,' it may be argued, 'perhaps the book will enable one to accept these ideas that are not now admitted?' This, however, is not possible; a man can influence another man in the emotional domain, he can lead him to various sentiments and to various ideas that result from such sentiments, but he cannot influence him in the domain of pure intellect, the only domain in which today we enjoy freedom. I can lay bare pure intellectual points of view that were latent; they were there, asleep, and I shall have awakened them; but nothing of pure intellectuality can be 'introduced' within the reader; if, for example, the reading of my book seems to bring to birth a definite acceptance of the idea that 'Satori' is possible, it will be in the degree in which such acceptance already existed, more or less dormant, within the reader. In order that the reading of my book may have a chance of being helpful it is certainly not necessary to admit with force and clarity the three ideas that I have mentioned—although it is necessary to admit them a little at least. But above all it is necessary to avoid a hostile attitude a priori; if the attitude were hostile I could not convince, and anyhow I would not even make the attempt; metaphysical ideas do not belong to the domain of that which can be demonstrated; each one of us accepts them only to the degree in which we understand intuitively that they explain in us phenomena otherwise inexplicable.

All that I have just written deals with the fundamental misunderstanding that we have to avoid. There are a certain number of misunderstandings of less importance which we should now consider.

Very little will be gained from this book regarding it as a 'digest' that seeks to explain to you 'what you should know concerning Zen'. To begin with it is impossible to conceive of a 'vulgarised' treatment of such subjects; no book will give a rapid initiation in Zen. And then, as a matter of fact, my book is written for those who have already thought much on Oriental and far-Eastern metaphysics, who have read the essential among what is available on the subject, and who seek to obtain an understanding adapted to their occidental outlook. My supposed reader should have read particularly The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind of Dr. D. T. Suzuki, or, at least, the preceding works of the same author. I do not pretend that my endeavours conform to a Zen 'orthodoxy'. The ideas that I put forth therein have come to me in espousing the Zen point of view as I have understood it through the medium of the books that set it forth; that is all. Moreover it is impossible here to speak of 'orthodoxy' because there is nothing systematised in Zen; Zen compares all teaching with a finger that points at the moon, and it puts us unceasingly on guard against the mistake of placing the accent of Reality on this finger which is only a means and which, in itself, has no importance.

Nor do I call myself an 'adept of Zen'; Zen is not a church in which, or outside which, one can be; it is a universal point of view, offered to all, imposed on none; it is not a party to which one can belong, to which one owes allegiance. I can help myself from the Zen point of view, in my search for the truth, without dressing myself up in a Chinese or a Japanese robe, either in fact or in metaphor. In the domain of pure thought labels disappear and there is no dilemma as between East and West. I am an Occidental in the sense that I have an occidental manner of thinking, but this does not hinder me from meeting the Orientals on the intellectual plane and participating in their understanding of the state of man in general. I do not need to burn the Gospels in order to read Hui-neng.

It is because I have an occidental manner of thinking that I have written this book in the way that I have written it. Zen, as Dr. Suzuki says, 'detests every kind of intellectuality'; the Zen Masters do not make dissertations in reply to the questions that they are asked; more often they reply with a phrase that is disconcerting, or by a silence, or by repeating the question asked, or by blows with a stick. It seems that, in order to enlighten an Occidental, dissertations are, within a certain measure that is strictly limited, necessary. Doubtless the ultimate, the real point of view, cannot be expressed in words, and the master would injure the pupil if he allowed him to forget that the whole problem lies precisely in jumping the ditch which separates truth which can be expressed from real knowledge. But the Occidental needs a discursive explanation to lead him by the hand to the edge of the ditch. For example, Zen says, 'There is nothing complicated that Man needs to do; it is enough that he see directly into his own nature.' Personally I have had to reflect for years before beginning to be able to see how this advice could find practical application, concretely, in our inner life. And I think that many of my brothers in the West are in the same case.

If the style of my book is, in one sense, occidental, it differs nevertheless, by the very nature of the Zen point of view, from that strictly ordered architecture which appeals to our 'Cartesian' training. Within each paragraph there is indeed a logical disposition; but it is by no means the same as regards the chapters as a whole, as regards the book as a whole. Again and again breaks intervene, which interrupt the pleasant flow of logic; the chapters follow one another in a certain order, but it would make little difference if they were arranged in almost any other manner. From one chapter to another, certain phrases, if one gave them their literal meaning, may seem to contradict one another. The Western reader should be warned of that; if he begins his reading expecting to find a convincing demonstration correctly carried through from alpha to omega he will try to make the book accord with this preconceived framework; in this he will fail rapidly and he will abandon the task.

This difficulty depends, I repeat, on the very nature of the Zen point of view. In the teaching of most other doctrines the point of view aimed at comprises a certain invariable angle of vision; if I regard a complex object from a single angle I perceive its projected image on the plane surface of my retina, and this projection is made up of lines and surfaces that are in regular relation. But Zen attaches no importance to theory as such, to the angle from which it studies the volume of Reality. It is this Reality alone which interests it, and it experiences no embarrassment in moving round this complex object in order to obtain every sort of information from which an informal synthesis may result in our mind. Worshipping no formal conception, it is free to wander among all the formal ideas imaginable without worrying itself about their apparent contradictions; this utilisation, without attachment, of conceptions allows Zen to possess its ideas without being possessed by them. Therefore the Zen point of view does not consist in a certain angle of vision, but comprises all possible angles. My reader should realise that no synthetic understanding is deemed to pass from my mind to his by means of this text which might attempt to embody it; this synthesis should occur in his mind, by a means proper to himself, as it occurs in my mind by a means proper to me; no one on Earth can do this work for us. My text offers only the elements suitable for this synthesis; the discursive method, based on logic that is continuous or interrupted, in which these elements are presented, should be accepted for what it is, without demanding the harmonious and formal architecture which would only be an imitation of a true intellectual synthesis based on the depths of the 'being'.

My special thanks go to my friend, Mr. Terence Gray, for his translation of my book; he has solved perfectly the very difficult task of giving a faithful rendering of my thoughts.

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