To Rejoice And Grieve With Our Whole Hearts

In the opening part of his essay, “Religion Challenged by Modern Thought,” which is included in Zen and Western Thought (1985), Masao Abe writes poignantly about what is lost in the secularization process:

I believe that this phenomenon [namely, secularization] has, in the last analysis, been caused by the fact that modern people have gradually become insensitive to their own hearts and souls, thus becoming spiritually impoverished. We modern people, I am afraid, are losing our ability to either rejoice or grieve with our whole hearts. Modern people are unable to cry or laugh in the depths of our being. (p. 232)

We must remember Jason’s betrayal of Medea as well as her overwhelming anger and pain; Job’s bereavement and his religious quest; the unspeakable yearning expressed when the second patriarch cuts off his arm and hands it to Bodhidharma, saying “I am not at peace!”; Romeo and Juliet’s profound, courtly, unrequited love; Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans (“fearful and fascinating mystery”) in the presence of the incomprehensible God. How much must their souls have ached! What hunger must they have felt!

Contrast the grainy, rough literary sketches above with that of homo psychologicus. Today we are beholden to the therapeutic dispensation from which, almost daily, new idioms are born, then borne. “My mental health is suffering,” wrote one person a few days ago. And what is sought? Wellness and well-being. Physical health. Physical attractiveness. Esteem. And what is to be avoided? Any genuine relationship with hardship. And what is to be mollified? Any negative emotions. The therapeutic dispensation creates monotones, cools, dampens, drabs life into functional nihilism.

Today there are no quests, only various forms of “secular spirituality.” Secular spirituality ensures that there is no real religious quest; indeed that one cannot even get off the ground. It does so by intuiting that Flatland Secularism is too flat to bear yet by rejecting out of hand the possibility of transcendence. In this no man’s land, one is presented with various seductive fetishes:

Insight Porn: some secular spiritualists get off on ‘having insights’ about themselves over and over again. As one insight fades, a novel one is grasped after.

State Changes: others want to ‘have’ certain altered states, not realizing that all this is temporary and, in the end, futile. More grasping; more tanha.

Experience Junkie-ism: others still need to ‘acquire’ or ‘have’ experiences. Bali today, Burning Man tomorrow, Wanderlust the week after. Then what?

Growth Mindset: lastly, some speak nauseatingly of continuing to grow and grow and grow but without knowing why. Why grow? Evidently, to continue to grow. Why learn? To keep learning, apparently. In sum, for no genuine, telic reason.

Sensitivity in our hearts and souls begins with actually experiencing, rather than deflecting, minimizing, or avoiding, real human suffering. My own as well as others’. Suffering, like Johnny Cash’s singing voice, has a texture. Out of suffering my soul can expand into depth.

If we don’t develop this sensitivity of the kind that lets us rejoice and cry and laugh with our whole, and–yea too–our own, hearts, then, to be honest, I have no idea what human beings are here for. No idea. Biding our time–for what? For what? For what?

Ego = Lack

Seemingly No Way Out

Deepen your meditation practice enough and soon you’ll realize something: unless you realize your true nature, the dis-ease you experience will never, ever end. This is because the root of your dis-ease is not living in the wrong place (so moving elsewhere won’t bring lasting peace and happiness), being around the wrong people, being in the wrong relationship, having the wrong job, not experiencing the right mental states, not having the right kind of experiences, not growing enough, not being recognized or seen or understood, and so on. No, the root of your dis-ease is ego itself.

The following diagram, somewhat influenced by Neoplatonism, came to me while I was meditating:

The purpose of this post is to set out how to interpret it and thus how it can be a guide that helps you to investigate yourself.

Thought: The Third Hypostasis

When you meditate, what you first notice arising is thought. For a while, it may seem as if there is no rhyme or reason to the emergent thoughts but, in reality, there is.

Most thoughts are enlisted on behalf of the ego to resolve a problem–namely, the problem of dis-ease. Consider the content of thoughts: you want to resolve X, you want to make sure that you have everything ready or prepared in advance of Y, you want to make sense of Z, you have relationship troubles with A, you intend to say this or that to person B, and so on. The presumption–a mistaken one–is that “objectification” (i.e., taking dis-ease and projecting it onto objective phenomena) will actually, ultimately dissolve all your dis-ease and, in turn, allow you to abide in lasting peace and happiness.

From your own experience, you can see that this strategy is doomed to failure. Every time. Momentary relief is not ultimate satisfaction.

Emotion: The Second Hypostasis

In lieu of going out into the world via thought in hopes of resolving our dis-ease, we can start to make the slow journey home or within.

Notice–and this will come as a surprise–that what is immediately underwriting most of our thoughts is some negative emotion. In fact, as your thoughts fade away during meditation, if you meditate long enough you’ll observe that emotions are more basic. Now that there is greater quietness here is anger! Here fear! Here excitement!

In the early stages of this inquiry, it might seem as if an emotion is just that. You might intuit: “I’m angry because John threatened to harm me or actually did harm me.” And that’s that! No, don’t stop there!

See, first of all, that emotion often “hands the baton” to thought to try to dissolve the dis-ease (second –> third hypostasis). If anger arises, then are there not some thoughts having to do with how to resolve the situation (or how to actually act vengefully)? On whose behalf is one fearful? Etc.

See, second of all, that emotion itself is also enlisted on behalf of an alleged entity dwelling farther upstream. What is that alleged entity?

Ego-self Identification: The First Hypostasis

By “ego-self identification,” I mean to suggest the following formula: “I am ______.” A basic form of hurt will emerge. Examples:

–“I am powerless.”

–“I am lonely.”

–“I am insignificant.”

Observe how, for instance, “I am powerless” –> anger –> thoughts about doing something or else thoughts about not being able to do anything. Observe how, for instance, “I am uncomfortable” (in this full-lotus position) –> fear (“I am hurting this body.”) and desire (“I want to get up.”) –> thought about (a) pushing through the pain, (b) enduring the pain, (c) getting up right now, (d) bargaining, and so on.

But what is at the root of all this? What is the source of this endless dis-ease?

The Ego Itself: Ego = Lack

“I am insignificant” is simply the first hypostasis of the more basic illusion, which is the illusory belief and feeling that an ego-self exists. And what is the character of the ego itself?

It can be seen that its basic character is lack. It’s not that ego has lacks; it’s that ego IS lack! It’s not that ego has problems or troubles; it’s that the ego IS the problem, IS trouble itself!

This is the most basic insight. The First Noble truth states, “There is dis-ease.” The Second Noble Truth states, “There is a cause of dis-ease.” The ego, as lack or lack itself, IS that cause!

The key to this understanding is to see that ego, as lack, will continue to produce more dis-ease in myriad forms. Ego is like a vibrating string; it will always find one way or another to vibrate. Ego is restlessness or agitation itself; as such, it will always find ways of agitating. If it’s not “I am uncomfortable” (and thus it goes down the path of endless desire), then it is “I am unworthy” (and then it goes down the path of fear and sadness). Pick your poison.

The Crux

Of course, all this must be seen in one’s actual experience. One of the points of meditation.

The situation, in a nutshell, is impossible. For the ego will continue to try to get rid of its dis-ease without–irony of ironies!–being able to see that it is itself the source of dis-ease. The illusion will have to be fully seen through for dis-ease to come to an end and thus for there to be genuine rest, complete peace.

We have a name for this dis-ease coming to an end. It is nirvana. And nirvana is enlightenment.

Great enlightenment means being fully established in this non-egoic way of being.

Four Basic Negative Emotions Arising From Ego-selves

Once you look into the research further, you realize that there are as many classification of basic emotions as you can shake a stick at. Still, I don’t know how many are beginning from the actual experience of meditation. The latter will be my starting point.

While I don’t want to say anything conclusive here about how many negative emotions there are, I do want to focus on four basic negative emotions that I’ve experienced in others and observed in myself:

  1. Anger
  2. Excitement
  3. Sadness
  4. Fear

A Simple Buddhist Starting Point

How is it necessary to get each emotion off the ground in the first place? To begin with, Each of these emotions is related to, while emanating from, an ego-self.

Against Me.– If I believe and feel that something is against me (understood as an ego-self), then I’m bound to feel anger along a continuum. It may be minor irritation, a passing bout of peevishness, a stronger feeling of annoyance, or all the way up to great rage.

For Me.– Whatever I take to be for me (again, throughout this post swap “ego-self” for “I” and “me”) may lead first to excitement and, after a time, to greed (one of the Buddhist “Three Poisons”). Notice, in your direct experience, how excitement really feels.

An Event or Actor Threatening Me or Mine.– Fear will arise whenever an event (e.g., the idea, or actual prospect, of a plane crash) or actor threatens me or mine (where “mine” could, variously, be “those I care about” or “my worldly possessions,” etc.).

An Event or Actor Actually Doing Harm to Me or Mine.– Provided that I feel that I have no control and provided too that I feel that I can’t fight back (so, anger is ruled out), I will likely experience sadness in the event of harm befalling me or those I care about. Sadness presupposes a certain powerlessness.

The Mind’s Seminal Contribution

Notice, in the above, that it is the mind’s seminal contribution to the experience of these four negative emotions that enables each to arise. Without the deep sense of “for me,” “against me,” and “threatening” or “actually harming” me or mine, would these emotions even be able to arise?

This goes to show that the root source of dis-ease is the ego-self, and it is the ego-self that precisely keeps looking elsewhere for amelioration. Yet is not the case that the ego-self has a problem; the ego-self is the problem!

Two Groupings

One puzzle you may have been sitting with is why I call “excitement” a negative emotion. The reason is actually quite simple: excitement is simply the belief and feeling that things are in my favor, that events are going my way, that an opportunity–for me–is on the horizon, etc. If you’re a very careful observer or if you have a meditation practice, just notice how excitement actually pulls you out of samadhi (centered, peaceful, brought-into-one wholeness) and thrusts you forward. Excitement is, in reality, quite jolting, and it is nothing like the abiding peace and happiness that we all truly seek.

Now to the two groupings. It seems to me that we can, very roughly, investigate our ego-selves more closely by keying into whether we tend to be “warm” (the anger-excitement axis) or “cold” (the fear-sadness axis). For instance, I tend to be “warm”–I am prone to anger (from mild upset to genuine outbursts)–while others may be prone to be “cold.” If the latter observe their thoughts and feelings, they will find that they have a “certain tone.”

Why This Matters

Ego-selves tend to have certain “characters”–certain habits, certain actions taken, certain thoughts and feelings experienced, and so on. You might say, in the language of the day, that the ego-self just is ‘a profile.’

Why does this matter? Well, the more one investigates “warmth” (if one tends to be “warm”) and “coldness” (if the latter is true for you), the easier it will be to find a pathway back to this illusion called “ego” or “ego-self.” And the more one comes back to the illusion itself, the easier it will be to see it as an illusion.

Then, of course, the question is: if the ego-self on whose behalf I seem to have been living is not really real, then what is really real? What am I, really?

Fledglings And Us

When I looked at them, they struck me as spellbound. For long hours, they would sit beside the pine tree in the corner of the yard, wearing the guise of the uninitiated. Big eyes. Tender feet. Trepidation when flying was proposed. You mean now?

The fledglings were brother and sister, or brother and brother, or sister and sister. (Please–I’m no expert on birds, let alone mourning doves!) And they looked, for all the world, as if they weren’t quite sure about this place. Not, I mean, about their former nest or our backyard but about the whoooooooole thing.

When they landed on a tree branch or a fence or a wall (do not mention an old telephone wire!), they appeared surprised. Did their socks just get knocked off? Had they held onto their seatbelt? What did it feel like to yo-yo so?

They are, of course, versions of our younger selves. And while I appreciate their ability to grow and, in virtue of growing, learn how to navigate through the world, I’m saddened by their loss of feeling spellbound. When, for them, did the world start to feel too familiar? When did it lose its mysterious cast and sheen and become a tired old simple abode?

For their loss is akin to ours, though ours feels more thoroughgoing. Early on, we forget the great mystery and the especial horror and subsequently, consequently fall into the rut of automaticity. And there we may remain.

After many years, though, an existential opening may leap up into us, splitting us open while grabbing our throats. If it does, how fortunate are we to realize that the religious or spiritual quest is only beginning.

The feeling of being spellbound is what, always, we must remember for, as we wind and wend our way backward, this sense just may bring us back to the source. The source is home.

The Zen Koan’s Life Challenge

There is an unbridgeable gulf between the therapeutic dispensation and Rinzai Zen. While the former seeks to “cool your jets” and help you “cope” with secular life’s vicissitudes, the latter wants to show you how to turn up the temperature on your own dis-ease with a view to your fundamental, direct realization of your being. Matsuo Abe beautifully puts the essence of Zen thus: it is a “direct pointing to man’s Mind.”

But that direct pointing can only be felt and registered once one’s dis-ease has become more and more present to one–that is to say, has become an irresolvable life-problem that burns and burns in, and into, one’s very core. Cooling your jets sidesteps the dis-ease, ultimately prolonging it when not actually evading it.

In this post, I turn to the Zen koan as one skillful means of turning up the heat with the idea of getting the practitioner to see his or her own inability, qua ego-self, to resolve what must needs be resolved.

Existential Opening

Before one can even be address the koan, one must have had what I call an existential opening.

In his lecture series, “Zen Koan from the Inside,” the Rinzai Zen teacher Jeff Shore interprets Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness as follows:

Nishitani goes on to state that the question “What is religion?” can only truly be asked, let alone answered, when the question has been deepened to the extent that it gets turned around, turned inside out. That is, only when the questioning deepens to include the very questioner himself–when the question of what religion is for transforms into the question of what I am for–does one enter the realm of the religious: “When we come to doubt the meaning of our existence in this way, when we have become a question to ourselves, the religious quest awakens within us.”

This is strikingly similar to the formulation of an “existential opening” that I gave in a public talk I delivered in 2019:

What I experienced then [i.e., in 2009] could be called an “existential opening.” By the latter, I mean whatever it is that breaks one open in such a way that the questioner is turned back on herself. That is, an existential opening is, well, what opens me to my existence. Rattled, shaken, partially awakened, I look at my face, my hands, the world, and wonder–maybe–whether it is all just a dream. All this, yes. But, even more, once I’m existentially opened, I bend each question I ask back on myself because, if only dimly or inchoately, I know that I am implicated in what it is I seek. In the beginning and in the end, the one I seek is myself. Henceforth, I cannot bracket myself from my investigations.

The existential opening precipitates the religious question Nishitani points to yet often in a slow burn sort of way. By “slow burn,” I mean to suggest that the religious quest may not yet be like a great fire leaping into life. One may feel within oneself soft embers glowing and flickering without yet being grasped completely and single-mindedly by the Great Matter of Life (or Birth) and Death.

Often it may take years be the slow burn becomes something much more: a central pursuit that one must get to the bottom of.

Dynamics of the Koan: Problem and Challenge

Shore argues that the koan’s dynamics can be understood in terms of problem-challenge and probe-expression. The koan, in fact, ranges across all these. In this post, I’ll only, and that very briefly, be discussing the problem-challenge aspects of the koan.

Let’s suppose that the existential opening has begun to open more and more. Then what is one to do? How is one to go deep in one’s explorations of this matter of ultimate concern? Indeed, how is one going to begin the process of looking straight-on at the matter, let alone truly get to the very bottom of it?

Shore provides us with a textbook case of a natural, living koan:

Bodhidharma [the first patriarch in Zen] sat in zazen [seated meditation] facing the wall. The second patriarch, who had been standing in the snow, cut off his arm and said, “Your disciple is not yet at peace. I beg you, my teacher, please give me peace.” Bodhidharma said, “Bring your self forth, then you shall have peace!” [After some time] the second patriarch said, “I have searched for my self and I am, finally, unattainable.” Bodhidharma said, “Now you have thoroughly found peace!”‘

For now, set aside the second patriarch’s startling, direct realization (“I am, finally, unattainable”) and come back instead to how the story begins. Notice the second patriarch’s articulation of his basic life problem: I am not at peace. (Or: my mind is not at peace).

Let’s be even clearer: he’s not suggesting that sometimes his mind is perfectly content while at other times it is not. No, what he is saying is that he has surveyed the course of his life and plumbed the depths of his experiences, and what he has discovered is the central theme that, no matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, no matter how often he changes circumstances, still–still!–he is not at peace. Perhaps this formulation of the problem merits bolder treatment: I AM NOT AT PEACE!

And does Bodhidharma just listen nonjudgmentally to this guy? No! Does Bodhidharma provide him with coping strategies? No! Does he tell the man, who by the way has just cut off his arm, that everything will be all right? No! Indeed, does he do anything to mollify or console or cool down the one who is in the grips of dis-ease? No! None of these! Instead–get this!–Bodhidharma challenges the fella: “Bring your self forth, then you shall have peace!” That is, don’t worry about peace per se; instead, go on and look as hard as you can for this ego-self that is not at peace. Go to the root, the very source of your dis-ease. Get behind it all.

The key to the challenge feature of the koan is that it takes this energy we call suffering and then invites that energy to become even more intense as well as pointier. Gives it energy and focus. In effect, “Take all the energy you have, take all that dis-ease you’re experiencing, and pour it into this one search. Just this one search and no other. Intensify it until you bring the water to a rolling boil. And whatever you do, don’t dissipate it and don’t let it go!”

To our contemporary ears, this sounds crazy. But, I assure you, we are the crazy ones for it is our dis-ease that continues simmering, occasionally flashing up in horrific acts that make the news while often showing up sideways in acts of cruelty and unkindness that we’re barely conscious of.

As the bodhisattva vow says, “Delusions are endless; I vow to put an end to all of them.” In the case of our dis-ease, it is truly, i.e., ultimately, a matter of all or nothing.