Zen Self Inquiry

The Problem: the Dualistic Aspect of Human Consciousness

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Both Dr DeMartino and Dr Abe were insistent on us understanding the problem of the self at the onset. It isn’t that we have a self that needs fixing but that the very self itself is the problem. It is not a matter of adding on to the self, reaching a level or enriching the self but knowing in the deepest manner possible that you, yourself, are the problem, and whatever you come up with to solve it won’t work. The whole nature of us ‘knowing’ something creates the dualistic dilemma between that which is doing the knowing and that which is known. That which is known stands apart from I/me the knower. Here is the fundamental problem of the subject/object duality of human consciousness. The “I” is the subject, and everything else is the object that stands outside the subject to be known as the object of our thought. This is subject/object duality at its most basic. To observe something you must stand apart from it. There must be a distinction to make such a judgment. So to observe something you must be separate from it. There must be a dualism, me here and that there, the observer and the observed. From this fundamental standpoint we say we know something, we know it by observing it. We stand apart from it to observe it. This very process of separation to know, this dualism between self and other, creates the problem of actually not knowing it. Why? How can you know something when you have to stand apart from it to know it? This is the basic problem with our consciousness. We know a tree because it is not a rock or a bush or our self, but we don’t know a tree as it is in itself. We must differentiate to know it. We must see the difference in it to know it as apart from other things. We do not see it for what it is but define it by what it is not.

More importantly, we have to stand apart from ourselves to know who we are. We know who we are because we are not the other person or the tree or rock, but in doing so do we actually know who we are? No, we know our self as only relative to those other things. In order for us to know something, we have to have it as an object of our consciousness; it must stand apart from us in order for us to perceive it. We objectify ourselves, which creates the dualism between mind and body. So we have a perception of our self—that which stands apart and perceives, and that which is perceived. But here’s the problem: if we perceive it, it exists outside of our self to be perceived and is therefore not the self. If we perceive it, it cannot be us. We cannot be that which we perceive. Since perception is the only way we know things, then we cannot know our self; we will always stand apart from it with this form of consciousness.  This stepping back to ‘know’ who you are is called the ever regressing self.  It’s like seeing your shadow and trying to see who is casting it by stepping back, ever regressing.  Of course you cannot see who casts the shadow by so doing.  This can only be faced in the immediate.

In contrast, most often religious teachings try to go forward for a solution. By this, I mean that there is a future time in which you will resolve the issue by practice, prayer, reincarnation or some other method. When you do not know that the very root of your coming into being is itself problematic then you can easily be misled. It is the nature of the ego-self (dualistic self) to find ways of avoiding its pain, and it will do so in a myriad of ways, from physical self-indulgence to ‘spiritual’ self-indulgence. “Good comes to me because I am good” appears to be a mantra of today’s gurus. There are many people who seek out Zen as a solution to their basic unhappiness or discontentment. They are now taught that if you do the right things, practices, chants, whatever, then you will find happiness. And that if you are following this path and not happy, it is something you are doing wrong. The self-help section of every bookstore is full of books on how to find your spiritual happiness, how to live in the present and what ‘spiritual’ laws there are to obey. This to me always smacks of a modern day class system. Instead of being Brahmans and Untouchables it’s the worthy and the unworthy. Besides, you can do all of these things they teach and still not be any closer to a solution. You can practice mindfulness, but if what you are mindful of is the constant misery around you how does that offer a solution? The Zen masters of old did not sell these remedies and promises of sunshine and unicorns. Bodhidharma did not tell Huike, “You know, if you follow the spiritual laws, the universe will shine upon you and you’ll be happy”. In fact, what he said was, “the way is long and difficult”. For most people the way is exactly that—long and difficult—and the path can often be unpleasant before there is a resolution. Facing the ground of your own existence and realizing its precariousness is awfully upsetting.

I really think the Poison Arrow Sutra uniquely points to what I am trying to achieve here. Simply stated, the story goes like this: a man is hit by a poison arrow; if he takes the time to know everything about the arrow and the shooter, he will die in the process. On the other hand, if his desire is to immediately remove the arrow, he may save himself. I have found in Zen that there are two types of people: those who want to study “Zen” and those who want to solve a problem—and Zen, properly understood, can point the way. You can go into medicine because you are curious about it, or you can go into it because you are gravely ill and need a cure. If you can understand the nature of your problem, you can attack it in a focused manner and with great determination. You do practices to overcome it, not to quiet it. It is not something you can come to and leave behind. The motivation behind these two paths is vastly different. To those who wish to get the arrow out, I devote this website.


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