Someone pointed me to this fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine (23 April). It’s about a 63-year old academic who has spent much of his life as a dedicated Zen practitioner – now a Zen master – but who has in recent years undergone a personality crisis. He went into therapy with Jeffrey Rubin, author of Psychotherapy and Buddhism: Toward an Integration, and had a breakthrough.
Basically, he realised that he had used the Buddhist concept of no-self to evade his inner process and unconscious traumas. All his ‘stuff’ came back to him, and with his owning it came a joyful rediscovery of self.
I have long had a problem with the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. I think it is based on a profound truth: that ultimately all is one, “one without a second”, utterly devoid of form. But I think this has been (or at least can be) twisted into a harsh form of self-denial, as the article illustrates.
Some people have directly experienced the ultimate nature of reality in a moment of enlightenment or awakening, and have described it using terms like “absolute emptiness” and “utterly impersonal”. But religious leaders have a habit of making dogma out of such insights and realisations – “You must experience pure emptiness or your insight is not real enlightenment.” And what’s more: “To experience real enlightenment, you must stop experiencing the self.” So any form of self-awareness or self-related experience becomes anathema.
One or two examples of this harsh teaching of self-denial are mentioned in the article.
The thing is, the direct experience of the absolute can be framed by different people at different times in different ways. Truth is truth, and there is only one absolute. But to a human being discovering the nature of that truth there are many—perhaps infinitely many—aspects to it.
An enlightement experience isn’t always and only the realisation of emptiness—there are many varieties of enlightement experience (in terms of what people “get”). Some, for instance, might describe the same experience using terms like “absolute fullness” rather than “absolute emptiness”. Others call it “God”. Also, people get to it from different places, different contexts, different perspectives.
I think what we remember most about the absolute after we’ve experienced it is probably what surprises us the most. What struck me the most about my first experience was the fact that I really do exist—I had been assuming that “I” was just a figment of “my” imagination.
Indeed, the doctrine of no-self is flat-out contradicted by many, many people’s enlightenment experiences. You can, and people frequently do, directly experience the self, the true nature of one’s innermost being or essence. Perhaps the commonest enlightenment experience people have on an Enlightenment Intensive is pure and simple self-realisation: I AM.
In addition to this realisation of being, other common self-experiences inclue the realisation of the nature of being: I AM FREE, I AM LOVE, and I AM GOD or I AM ALL THAT IS.
So I think it would be advisable for those who are seeking enlightenment (however they define that) through Zen or other forms of Buddhism to be aware of these dogmatic aspects. The article shows the psychological dangers (as well as seductiveness) of making oneself believe that one’s own experience and awareness of self is irrelevant.
Imagine spending 40 years suppressing your own feelings and life experiences in the belief that they are ultimately meaningless. At the very least the doctrine of no-self confuses people because it denies the validity of self-experience and self-awareness. Worse, it encourages a pointless, potentially pathological self-denial where any sign of personality or individualness is regarded as the enemy.
I wonder if more cases like this will come out of the closet now.
See my other posts on enlightenment.
And here’s the article link again: Enlightenment Therapy.