Zen for Americans, by Soyen Shaku, , at sacred-texts.com
THERE are two avenues leading to the realization of the Buddhist life; one may be called positive and the other negative. They are complementary and mutually supporting. They are like the two sides of a shield, the two wings of a bird, or the two wheels of a cart. When one is asserted, the other necessarily follows as a logical consequence. What are they? The negative phase of Buddhism I may call the doctrine of the non-ego and the positive phase the doctrine of Dharmakâya (which latter may be considered to correspond to the Christian conception of God, though not exactly, as explained later).
Let me first expound the doctrine of the non-ego. Non-ego may not be a very appropriate term to express the Buddhist conception of Anâtman, but what I mean by this will become clearer, I hope, as I proceed. The Sanskrit term, Atman, which is generally translated by "ego," "self," "soul," or "individuality," is rather comprehensive and is used by different philosophical schools in different senses. Buddhists understand by Atman that something which,
lurking behind all our mental experiences, directs them as it pleases, somehow after the fashion of an organist striking the notes as his whim or sentiment moves, or like a show-performer who makes his marionettes dance up and down according to his good pleasure. This strange something which is popularly supposed to be a concrete individual existence abiding somewhere within the body, and which is known by the masses as the ego or soul forming the central part of our existence, is denied by Buddhists as a superstitious belief, which has no foundation in reality. And this denial constitutes the negative side of Buddhism.
The absolute denial by Buddhism of the existence of the ego-soul may be somewhat startling to our Christian audience. They have been accustomed to such expressions as "the resurrection of the soul," "the immortality of the soul," "the redemption of the soul," "the reality of individuality," and so forth. Besides, we use the term "soul," or "ego," so constantly in our common parlance, taking the notion as the most positive fact, which does not allow of any doubt or refutation whatever. Our thoughts have thus become saturated, as it were, with the ego-conception; and when we see some one attempting to prove the phantasmagorial character of the ego or soul, we are unconsciously and unrestrainingly inclined to ridicule him. But let us stop for a moment and reflect seriously
whether there is really such a thing as soul or self. Are we not deceiving ourselves when we condemn those who refuse to believe in the reality of self as agnostics, atheists, blasphemers, and charge them as immoral and faithless? Is not our own deception so fundamental and thoroughgoing as to put ourselves in a most puzzling position, difficult to extricate from when our cherished notion is brought out into the daylight and mercilessly examined by the tribunal of most advanced thoughts? Let us see how it is.
The first question I wish to ask is: What do we understand by the soul or ego? For instance, when we speak of the immortality of the soul, what mental image do we have about the soul? Do we not think that there is something, possibly within the body, as it cannot be abiding outside of us, which is so subtle and ethereal as to elude our gross senses, but which is a sort of concrete individual existence not belonging to any part of the body, and which departs from the latter when it breathes its last and either ascends to Heaven or goes into Hell, whereby this mythical entity receives its due and last judgment? As to the manner of its ascent or descent after the expiration of its earthly life, we are entirely ignorant, for no soul has ever come down among us to tell its unique experience, its flight through the air. It may be conceived that the soul performs this miraculous deed after the fashion of the Egyptian Ba, which
is pictured commonly with two wings, earthly and material. Does such a ghostly being really reside within us? The very idea seems ridiculous.
We wanted to make the soul as immaterial as possible, but we have only succeeded in making it as material as any body which we have around us. For, however ethereal and astral the soul may be conceived, it cannot be anything but material, as long as it is concrete and individual. And for this reason I can declare that those self-advertising spiritualists are no more nor less than crass materialists,--the designation they wanted so much to hurl upon others.
Next, let us search in our own minds whether there abides such a thing as the self, to which we are so fatally attached. Is the will my self? Is intelligence my self? Are my ideas my self? Is consciousness my self? Are my numerous desires my self? My instincts? my judgment? my imagination? my experience? They are all my self in a sense, to be sure, but are they of such nature as to be thoroughly simple, constant, self-willing, and permanent, as we imagine the soul to be? Consciousness seems to be so, but are there not many occasions in our mental life when consciousness is altogether gone? And, again, are there not many cases of double or triple personality? In these cases, which consciousness shall I have to call my own real, permanent self or soul, which goes after my death to some unknown region? And, again, every one
of us is acquainted with the fact that when I was a child I had a child-consciousness, that when I was a young man, I had a youth-consciousness, and that when I have grown to full manhood, I have a man-consciousness, and that when I am an old man, I shall have an old-man consciousness. My personality is thus constantly changing, in no case being the same. Which of these consciousnesses shall I call my real and true ego or soul and wish its immortality?
Of course, we have to admit that there is a unity of consciousness in our mental activities. But how fragile and inconstant is this so-called unity! This is so, not only in pathological cases, but in our normal condition. When I have an idea, I am the idea; when I have a desire, I am the desire; when I will, I am the will; for it is not warranted by experience to say that I have such and such thoughts or desires or impulses. But I am those thoughts or desires or impulses. I am constantly shifting from one thing to another, now a desire, now an idea, and so forth. However hard you may endeavor to catch this sort of "Wandering Jew," you will find it so slippery, so evasive, so inconstant, and finally you have to give it up as wasting labor.
A learned scholar was once very much troubled with the problem of the soul. He utterly lost peace of mind, and spent many years in agony and vexation, when at last he was informed of the news of the arrival of a saintly Buddhist
monk in his land. He hastened to the monastery where the monk was settled in his temporary sojourn, and most piteously implored him to be instructed in spiritual discourse. The monk was, however, apparently so absorbed in his contemplation that he did not even turn his head to acknowledge a stranger. The scholar was not disappointed, however, and it is said that he stood at the same spot for a period of seven days and nights. Finally, he drew a sword which he carried in the belt as was the fashion of the time, and cut off his own left arm, which he reverentially presented to the inscrutable mystic, saying: "This is a token of my sincere desire to be instructed in your religion. I have been searching for my soul for so many years, and I am indescribably vexed in my spirit. Please be gracious enough to pacify my soul." The Buddhist monk then slowly turned toward the supplicant and said, "Where is your soul? Bring it to me, and I will have it pacified." The scholar said, "The very trouble is that I cannot find it." The monk exclaimed, "Pacified is your soul!" and it happened that upon hearing this a sort of spiritual flashlight went across the mind of the scholar.
A favorite parable used by Buddhists to illustrate the unreality of soul or self (I take these two meaning the same thing), is that of the house. The house is composed of the roof, walls, posts, floor, windows, and so forth. Now, take each
one of these apart, and we have no such thing .as a house, which appeared to have a permanent actuality awhile ago.
The house did not have any independent existence outside the material whose combination only in a certain form makes it possible. From the beginning there was no house-soul or house-ego, which willed according to its own will to manifest itself in such and such way by combining the roofs, walls, et cetera. The house came into existence only after all these component parts were brought together. If the house-soul insisted that "I am a thing by itself, distinct from any of you, members of my being, and therefore I shall abide here forever even when you, component parts, are disorganized. I will go up to heaven and enjoy my reward there, for I have sheltered so many worthy people under my roof," this soul would be the most appropriate object of laughter and derision. But are we not standing in a similar situation when we speak of our eternal self dwelling within us and departing after death in its heavenward course?
* * *
So far the argument has been theoretical. Let me see the practical, ethical consequence of the ego-soul hypothesis. I find it producing most pernicious effects on our daily life, for the assertion of self-will, which is the root of all evil, is the logical, inevitable conclusion of the belief in the existence of a real ego-soul. But most people seem not to be aware of this fact. They
complain so much of the weakness of the flesh, or the worldly inclinations of the "old man," but they do not endeavor to go to the bottom of the matter and to find there the cause of all spiritual vexations. When the cause is discovered the remedy is at hand. Let us ask, therefore: "What is the flesh? Who is the 'old man'? Why does the flesh eternally interfere with the aspirations and doings of the spirit? Why is the flesh so meddlesome? Why has the old man an evil eye on the new man?" When these spirit-harassing questions are thoroughly investigated, we find that the arrogance of the flesh is based on belief in the ultimate reality of the ego-soul, that the impertinence of the "old man" comes from the secret thought that the self is real and abiding. "Crucify him," therefore, says Buddhism, "as the first work in your religious discipline; destroy this chimerical, illusory notion of self; get convinced of the truth that there is no such creature dwelling in the coziest comer of our minds; free yourselves from the yoke of the ego-soul which exists not; and you will see how vexatious and spirit-harrowing it was to be confined within the self-made, self-imposed prison. You will see again how free and unhampered your life is in the ego-less atmosphere where we all forget the limitations of individualism and participate in the feeling of universal brotherhood." The so-called "I" is possible only when it is thought of in connection
with its fellow-selves. Indeed, this self and other selves are one in each other, I in you and you in me; and this sense of universal oneness breaks most effectually the barrier of egoism and glorifies the significance of individual existences. When we realize this exalted spirituality, we can truly say with the Gospel of John that "all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them."
The conclusion thus here reached sheds light on another field of spiritual experience where many religionists are groping in the dark. They tell us that we must love our neighbors and even enemies. The injunction is noble, but we are not enlightened as to the reason why we must not assert ourselves to the destruction of enemies or to the disadvantage of neighbors. They simply insist that it is the command of a divine authority. This is very well with those who blindly accept it.. But there are other religious people, often designated as heathens or pagans or atheists, who want to know the reason why. Seeing that man is a rational being in some measure, we cannot afford altogether to suppress their legitimate doubt by the name of some august being. When we want to prove the universality of a certain proposition, we find mere appealing to a power above us not so convincing and satisfactory as appealing to our own human nature or rationality. When we are told, "Say this, or do that, because it is in
accord with the inner reason of our being," we feel more the nobility of human nature.
According to Buddhism, the question why we must not discriminate between friends and foes is answered by the doctrine of non-ego, as above explained at some length. Therefore, the Buddhists declare: Regulate your thoughts and deeds according to the feeling of oneness, and you will find a most wondrous spiritual truth driven home to your hearts. You are not necessarily thinking of the welfare and interest of others, much less of your own; but, singularly enough, what you aspire and practise is naturally conducive to the promotion of the general happiness, of others as well as of yourselves. In such an enlightened mind as has realized this most homely and yet most ennobling truth, there is no distinction to be made between friend and enemy, lover and hater. He is filled with lovingkindness and brotherly-heartedness. And such a one is called by Buddhists a Bodhisattva, which translated means "intelligence-being," or is one who has realized wisdom."
* * *
At this point we can turn to the positive phase of Buddhism and ask ourselves what is the doctrine that supplements the theory of non-ego; for the latter is mainly concerned with the destruction of the popular belief relating to the nature of the ego, and, on that account, it tends to emphasize the negative aspect of
[paragraph continues] Buddhism. We must have something positive when this erroneous belief is removed and be taught how to behave among the new surroundings into which we have thus been ushered. Most people are exceedingly alarmed when they are told that the self or the soul, which they cherished so fondly, is void in its nature, and will overwhelm us with a multitude of questions. To answer all these, however, is not my present purpose, as it will require a volume to satisfy those anxious truth-seekers. I wish only to say a few words here concerning the doctrine of Dharmakâya, which is the affirmative side of Buddhism.
Dharmakâya is a Sanskrit term, and it is very difficult to find a good English equivalent for it. Dharma means "doctrine," "law," "religion," "righteousness," "being," "essence," "norm," and such like; while kâya means "body," "organized being," "system," and so forth. Dharmakâya as a combined form of the two may be rendered "essence-body," "system of being," or "totality of existence." Whichever way we translate it, we find it very inadequate to express all that is contained in the original. In a word, it may be considered to be equivalent to the Christian conception of Godhead, and as such I will treat it in this discourse.
The Dharmakâya, however, differs from the Christian God, perhaps in its most essential aspects. Of course, even among Christians the
[paragraph continues] God-conception is subject to various interpretations; and the Buddhist notion of Dharmakâya, I venture to say, somewhat corresponds to the Johannean view of God. Intelligent Christians, I think, are well aware of the fact that the Gospel of John strikes quite an independent key among the Synoptics. Philosophically speaking, it rings with a pantheistic note, while the other gospels are monotheistic, true to the Jewish tradition. Buddhism has a pantheistic tendency, too, and in this respect the Gospel of John may be considered echoing somewhat the Buddhist sentiment.
Buddhists do not think that God has any special abode, that his administration of the universe comes from a certain fixed center or headquarters, where he-sits in his august throne surrounded by angels and archangels and saints and pious spirits who have been admitted there through his grace. In short, the Buddhist God is not above us, nor below us, but right in the midst of us; and if we want to see him face to face, we are able to find him in the lilies of the field, in the fowls of the air, in the murmuring mountain streams; we can trace his footsteps in the sea, we can follow him as he rides upon the storm; we can meet him in the bush; indeed, wheresoever we may turn, we are sure to be greeted by the smiling countenance of the author of this universe. Who says, then, that God is in Heaven, in some unknown region where we
mortals are never allowed to venture in without his special permit?
This God of Buddhism works constantly and everlastingly; he knows no rest, no fatigue, he has not to stop his work after six days of toil; he does not resort to any special revelation in order to announce his existence to the world; he has no favored son to sacrifice for the sake of the sin of which the poor innocent child has no conception. On the other hand, the Buddhist God is able to turn the meanest creature in the world to the noblest figure in which his glory is manifest to its full extent. He can destroy this whole universe and raise it again in the twinkling of an eye, it not being necessary for him to wait even for three days. His revelation is not an historical event, but it is happening every minute, and those who have eyes see it, those who have ears hear it. And to know the truth of this, it is only necessary to cleanse the heart of its egoistic impurities and defilements, which have been accumulating by virtue of our subjective ignorance. When this fundamental purification is completed, "we all, with unveiled face reflecting as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image, from glory to glory." Again, we are glorified with the "glory which he had with him before the world was." When we arrive at this exalted stage of spiritual enlightenment, Buddhism declares that we have attained Nirvâna. (Most Christian critics have
a very mistaken notion about the nature of Nirvâna, and this allusion is made with the view to clearing their minds.)
* * *
Supposing that I have made the Buddhist conception of God now somewhat intelligible to you, however broadly and sketchily, let me see what practical conclusion is drawn by the Buddhists from the above statement. If Buddhism teaches, as the Gospel of John declares, that "the Father is in me and I in him," or that "I and my Father are one," the practical ethics of Buddhism, it is evident, is to manifest the glory of God in all our conduct, in all our thoughts, in all our wishes and desires. It is evident, further, that as we are all one in God, his glory cannot be made manifest unless we break down the barrier of egoism which our ignorance and shortsightedness have built between mine and thine. Though this world, as it is, is manifesting the glory and love of God, the thought of selfishness which is so dearly cherished by our limited consciousness must be removed from the root, in order fully to appreciate the fact and truth. Buddhism does not exactly agree with Christianity when the latter emphasizes so much the distinction between the flesh and the spirit, as if they were altogether antagonistic to each other in their fundamental nature.
Buddhism, on the other hand, declares that all such distinctions as thine and mine, ego and God,
soul and flesh, "old man" and "new man," come from our own subjective ignorance, and that when this darkness of nescience is eradicated the flesh becomes at once the spirit, the ego instantly assumes the aspect of the Holy Ghost, as Christians would say. For from the beginning there is neither flesh nor spirit, neither "I" nor "thou," but the infinite intelligence and love of the Dharmakâya. Therefore, Buddhists do not complain, "The spirit is willing, and the flesh is weak"; but of the evil influence of ignorance; and they concentrate all their spiritual energy on the eradication of this ignorance and on the bringing about of enlightenment. For enlightenment is Nirvâna; and herein the doctrine of non-ego merges with the doctrine of Dharmakâya.
* * *
I am not going here to draw a parallelism between Buddhism and Christianity, nor to present you a list of differences between the two: I wish to give you in a summary way the main points of the preceding discourse and conclude this address. In a word, Buddhism is the religion of enlightenment, in which the intellect and the sentiment are harmoniously blended together so as to realize the beatific state of Nirvâna. Through the intellect Buddhists know that there is no ego-soul which hides itself snugly in the deepest recesses of the mind, that the universe is the immanent expression of an
absolute, whence we come and whither we go, and that when we recognize negatively the unreality of the ego-monster we positively perceive the truth of the universal oneness of all sentient beings in the Body of Intelligence. While this is attained through the intellect, we come to feel through the objectives of the religious consciousness that the ultimate reality in which we live and move and have our being is not only intelligence but love--by love meaning the complete union and sameness of me and you.
Therefore, the Buddhist does not make it the purpose of his life to rise from the dead, to gain the immortality of a mythical being known as self, to lay up treasure for the future, to expect some reward in Heaven however spiritually that reward be considered, or to find consolation, to seek tranquillity of mind in relying upon some historical personage; but he endeavors to actualize the glory of God in this world while he is alive--the glory which he had before the world was--and which is made manifest only by following the way of God, by doing his will, that is, by practising in thought as well as in person the doctrine of non-ego, the precept of lovingkindness.