‘This Old Monk Doesn’t Dwell In Clarity…’

The marvelous Chan master Joshu appears in Blue Cliff Record, Case 2:

Joshu, instructing the assembly, said, “The supreme Way is not difficult; it simply dislikes choosing. But even if a word is uttered, it is already an action of ‘choosing’ or of adhering to ‘clarity’. This old monk doesn’t dwell in clarity. Do you monks want to keep a firm hold on ‘clarity’ or not?”

At that time a monk asked, “You say you do not dwell in clarity. If so, what is there to keep a firm hold on?”

Joshu said, “I don’t know, either.”

The monk said, “If you, Master, don’t know, why do you say that you don’t dwell in clarity?”

Joshu said, “You have already asked amply. Bow and withdraw.”

In his opening remarks, Joshu is referring to the Chan poem Faith in Mind, which begins:

The Ultimate Path is without difficulty;

Just avoid picking and choosing.

Just don’t love or hate,

And you’ll be lucid and clear.

Notice that Joshu, “this old monk,” doesn’t cling even to clarity. Perfectly beyond picking and choosing, liking and disliking, he’s also not grabbing a hold of some dualistic state of clarity. What exquisite deconstruction is this!

A shrewd monk presses him: “You say you do not dwell in clarity. If so, what is there to keep a firm hold on?”

Masterfully, Joshu does not say, “Nothing.” Nor does he reply: “Something.” He effectively says “beyond something and nothing” when he says, “I don’t know, either.” Supreme nondual not-knowing. Brilliantly priceless!

This is to say that Joshu nests nowhere and also that he needs no-thing to hold onto. In fact, since he’s not like a hook upon which to place a coat, how could there be some need for a hook or a rack?

Joshu doesn’t dwell in clarity, but not dwelling in clarity does not entail “setting up shop” in some other ‘place,’ with some secret knowledge.

One translation ends the case: “It is enough to ask about the matter; bow and withdraw.” This one ends thus: “You have already asked amply. Bow and withdraw.”

Charitably put, “Young monk, you’re full of mystery and wonderment. Up to a point, this is good. Now don’t go pressing on in this conceptual direction. Be humble. Be filled with doubt. Bow, withdraw, and indeed withdraw into the Great Mystery.” In other words, “Dive deep into yourself. Only in this way can you be one with the Ultimate Way.”

Two Ways Of Freeing Thought (Thanks To Tskoknyi Rinpoche)

How do we, beginning or–most especially–more seasoned meditators, free ourselves from thought?

Tsoknyi Rinpoche speaks about three ways in his book Fearless Simplicity: The Dzogchen Way of Living Freely in a Complex World:

There are three ways to be free. The first one is called freed upon arising. In this state, arising and being freed are simultaneous, like a drawing made on the surface of the water. Second is naturally freed, a snake tied in a knot unties itself. And the third is freed beyond benefit and harm. This is like a thief entering an empty house: there is nothing to find, nothing to steal.

pp. 146-7

Freed upon arising refers to the “simultaneity” of “thought occurrence and its arising” (p. 148):

You are nearly distracted, but not really. When in mind essence [your essential nature], you stay with the nonmeditation [the basic nature] without distraction. But a movement [a thought, a stirring] comes, a distraction is about to take over, and as soon as it presents itself you have the opportunity to release the movement before getting carried away [hence, before clinging]. In the moment of almost straying, there is a refreshing of your own state that immediately dissolves the thought. In other words, the first onset of thought does not mean that you are really distracted yet.

p. 148

So much for being freed upon arising. What about being naturally freed?

This second mode of freeing comes about by recognizing the very fact that the identity of any type of thought is and always was rigpa [a Tibetan concept denoting one’s essential nature]. Recognizing that fact makes it so that no matter how much the thought jumps up and dances around, whatever it tries to do, the boss is still in charge. Rigpa is still in charge and can put it straight immediately, all by itself. It is never said that a separate remedy is necessary to do away with each type of thought.

pp. 149-50

Let’s set aside the third way in this post as the first two seem especially relevant for those who are reading this post.

What, in essence, is the first way? What the second way?

As I understand it, the first one relies upon cognizance or knowing: the knowing “brightens” just before one ‘gets caught’ and thus is ‘carried away’ by thought. While this may sound like a highly voluntary affair, in practice it’s almost automatic: like rigpa is doing itself itself. (In fact, it is.)

The second way of freeing is like realizing that any thought is only a ripple of water in a vast body of water. It is and has only ever been this water, this rigpa. This is seen directly and immediately and thus the thought, far from proving to be a distraction, is nothing but further “evidence” for the ubiquitous nature of rigpa.

Really Pinning Down The Nature Of Ego

In Fearless Simplicity: The Dzogchen Way of Living Freely in a Complex World, Tsoknyi Rinpoche offers us a tantalizing hint about the nature of the ego:

When you look for this “me,” for this “I” or ego, you find that it is mind. It is the knowing quality that you call “me.” In fact, there is no “me” to find anywhere other than the knowing quality. You can’t pinpoint anything other than the knowing quality. When that knowing quality is misconstrued, it is given the name “me.” If it is understood as just being what it is, then it is called intelligence [or original wakefulness–AT].

p. 100

This is brilliant, though I want to suggest that it’s only one category in a larger taxonomy of egocity.

I. Ego as Knower

In my experience, Tsoknyi Rinpoche nails (let’s say) 70%–to offer a fairly crude estimate–of ego rising. For it very often does rise in the unstated guise, “I am the knower.”

About this statement, however, I need to be clearer. Far better to say that it rises in the regimen of knowing. Thus, it may rise as follows:

  • “I know period.”
  • “I presume that I know.”
  • “I must know.”
  • “I need to know, but I don’t know.”
  • “I doubt whether I know.”
  • “I wish I knew.”
  • “I don’t know how to…, but I need to know how to…”
  • And so on.

II. Ego as Victim

Now we come to what Jung called the inner child. (I like to call it “the little boy” or “the little girl.”) Here, so far as I can discern in my own experience, the rising of ego is not a matter of the knowing quality; instead, it is a matter of lingering hurt. Some examples:

  • I am worthless. I am unworthy.
  • I am unlovable. I am loveless.
  • I am alone. I don’t belong anywhere.
  • I am utterly insignificant. I don’t matter at all.
  • And so on.

Notice that the ego, rising in the presence of hurt, is tacitly adopting the position of the victim.

To see this, take a simple example: you find yourself complaining about cracks in the sidewalk in your neighborhood. “Why isn’t anyone in charge of taking care of this?” This is the ego as the victim experiencing hurt.

What is the hurt? Well, it needs to be discovered. Here is but one hypothetical possibility. “I am the caretaker, and nobody cares about anything or anybody, including–and most especially–me.”

III. Ego as Doer

A third basic guise in which the ego rises is that of the doer. Examples:

  • I have so much to do.
  • I need to plan.
  • I can’t forget X.
  • I’m overwhelmed by…
  • I need to be organized.
  • I’m imagining strategies for…
  • And so on.

Here, the ego rising isn’t coming with the intention of knowing this or that (unless, perhaps too reductively, one wished to say that one want so know what’s the right way to do X or Y). Instead, ego is rising in the mode of the doer.

A Lack of Reduction

I’m not sure that we can easily reduce any of these three to one reduction base (e.g., all have to do, Procrusteanly, with knowing). And, more to the point, I’m not sure that such is necessary.

Speedier Pinpointing

For what we, as practitioners, are really after are simply more skillful ways of identifying ego just when it rises so as to observe it and see it off. The point at hand, in other words, is not to get caught with ego way downstream.

Endnote: Relation to Samskaras

For those curious about the relationship between these three basic types (knower, victim, and doer) and samskaras (= false identities: for more, see here), I would say that these three types are (a) completely formal in nature and (b) are “one hypostasis higher” than the rising of samskaras. After all, samskaras are already content-rich. If “I am the victim” is the one-higher-up basic type, then “I am insignificant” (one samskara) is already one level further down.

Happiness Is A Life Having Come Together Into A Whole

Dear friend,

As for the Signal recording, sorry about that. Obviously, I’m not sure what happened. The basic line of thought was this one:

1.) Let’s suppose, as a child, that you begin thinking about happiness. Naturally, it occurs to you that happiness is pleasure. (This is essentially what Epicureans, or followers of Epicurus, said in defense of their position that happiness = pleasure.) In the nineteenth century, more sophisticated hedonic theories arose from this starting point–most notably the form of quantifiable hedonism known as utilitarianism. 

We may have some doubts about hedonic theories because we might come to understand that we value all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily pleasant. For instance, I value meditation, and it’s only rarely pleasant and, at that, only fleetingly so. But shouldn’t what I value figure in my account of happiness?

2.) As one gets older and in light of the above, one might come to think, “No, happiness is not about feeling good just now or about feeling good over a longer period of time. Given this, happiness must be about getting what I want.” So desire, or desire-satisfaction, theories spring up. For isn’t a happy life one in which we got pretty much what we wanted? 

Like certain others, I find this one suspect too. Shouldn’t, from the outside, we have reason to care about whether John’s scratching himself all day, provided that it was what John wants to do, is actually leading a happy life? “Well, what if John were more well-informed?” If John were more well-informed, then he might come to discover that the center, or focal point, of happiness is not desire or desires fulfilled or even well-considered desires fulfilled.

In my view, the desire theory feels “adolescent.”

3.) At this point, some serious consideration finally arises, and this comes in the form of objective-list theories. These state that a happy life is one that consists of having a specifiable set of goods like safety, health, wealth, knowledge, or whatever. 

Most students, I trust, will find 3 quite appealing. For one thing, it avoids the objections to naive subjectivity found in the first two: what if your pleasure (e.g., the pleasure gained from shooting up) isn’t worth it, and what if your desires (e.g., the desire to massacre countless people) are totally out of whack? For another thing, it starts to build into its account the sorts of things we may have good reason to care about.

And yet, objective-list theories don’t have any grip on the shape of a life, the coherence or coming together of a life. It’s at this point that my favorite comes in.

4.) Eudaimonist theories (eudaimonia is the noun) state that happiness has something or other to do with the relation between (a) virtue, understood as excellent perhaps across a wide array of activities, and (b) happiness, or flourishing. The key points, well emphasized by Julia Annas in an excellent article called “Happiness as Achievement,” are these: the first is that we care about our life as a whole–that is, we care about the overall shape of our life, of how it all came together, of what it is that provides it with shape and coherence.

The second is that we care about “the achievement” of happiness–that is, about carrying it out or bringing it off. For my part, I don’t just care about the idea we call wisdom. I care about (a) how it shapes my life as a whole, helping thereby to organize my daily activities, and I care about (b) actually carrying out being wiser, actually contributing to making or fashioning a wise life. In this sense, happiness is a life achievement–like a complete, or complete enough, work of art–and not a passing feeling, a desire, a (mental) state), or even a sense of satisfaction with my life. The most basic idea is that I can be said to be leading, or to have led, a happy life just in case my life came together around what was truly worth it all (telos).