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Zen Meditation

By Ron Martin

Part 3

Chapter 5: The Ego

The impression we have that grass possesses greenness is derived, not from the experience itself (reality), but from the concept arising from that experience — that there is an ‘I’ (the subject) which experiences seeing green grass (the object), so that the grass is ‘out there’ and ‘I’ am ‘in here’. The impression we have of time is derived, not from experience (reality), which is timeless, but from the notion that there is an ‘I’ (the subject) which experiences an event (the object), so that ‘I’ am one thing and the event is another. But, if we know that experience is both absolutely real and timeless, are these not also the very qualities we attribute to ‘God’? If this is so then, as Meister Eckhart put it, Man “need seek nothing, not even God”, because there is nothing to seek — it is right here, now, at this very moment! We cannot find it, because there is no ‘we’ to find it; we cannot lose it, because there is no ‘we’ to lose it — we are it! Because we have become conditioned by language, and possibly through thousands of years of separation from ‘God’, we believe that ‘God’ is ‘out there’ and ‘I’ am ‘in here’. This is the Original Sin of Christianity — it is the Karma of Buddhism — and it began when our level of awareness rose above that of the animal kingdom from which we evolved.

The Christian view is that this Original Sin is so powerful that only an ‘Act of Grace’ can overcome it. It is at this point that the principal divergence between Christianity and Buddhism emerges. If an ‘Act of Grace’ is necessary then this must come from ‘out there’, but this implies a duality between God and Man. The Buddha’s answer is, “Look within, thou art Buddha” but this still poses the question as to how we are to realise the Buddha within. Had the Buddha nothing more to say on the matter he would have left us with the same insoluble problem that Christianity has done, but he also gave us the method whereby union with ‘God’ is achieved. Consideration of this method must wait until we have explored the problem in greater detail — we still have a long way to go in trying to think our way to ‘God’, or to Nirvana, because only when this is found to be impossible can the alternative be seen in its true perspective.

Starting from a point of certainty, we know that we are seeking ‘God’, or Nirvana, (because we are experiencing that desire and all experiences are real) but what does it involve? It involves a consciousness of an ‘I’ seeking something, whether it be ‘out there’ (the Christian view) or ‘in here’ (the Buddhist view). But the very act of seeking is trying to achieve contradictory aims; it is trying to unite the self with ‘God’ or realise Nirvana, but by requiring the self to do the seeking it reinforces the separation we are trying to overcome. If, therefore, it is the desire for the Goal which separates us from it then it is a self-perpetuating desire — and it is this that must be eliminated. It must be totally eliminated, because all that we desire creates the same situation — an ‘I’, or ego, desiring something, whether it be ‘God’ or anything else — so it is not simply a question of not seeking ‘God’, or Nirvana, we must seek nothing.

How can this be? If we were to have no desire at all how could we provide ourselves with a home, obtain food, know when to eat (hunger is a desire), have children (sex is a desire) and do the thousand and one things necessary for us to live? Surely, desiring is essential to life, since we cannot do anything unless we first have the desire to do it and, in any case, some of these desires have been given us by nature to ensure continuation of life on Earth and cannot be dispensed with without life, itself, becoming extinct? Furthermore, desire must be real, because it is experienced, but how can it exist without someone to do the desiring? Before we give up, in despair, at trying to think our way out of this, let us pursue the matter of desire still further.

Assume that you want to go to a local shop for some eggs. If it was essential for you to have desire in order to complete this operation in its entirety then you would have to be conscious of desire at every stage of it. (We have just said that we cannot do anything unless we first have the desire to do it). Merely to desire some eggs is not enough, since you must first rise from your chair and this would require a desire to stand up; you must walk to the door and this would not happen without a desire to do it; you have to reach your destination and this would require a continuous desire, otherwise you would lose your way; you must bring the eggs home without dropping them and this would require a constant desire to be careful. But these desires are only a tiny fraction of those needed to complete the expedition — you could not even put one foot in front of another, or lift it from the floor, unless you first had the desire to do so. In fact, the desires required even for the act of walking would be so numerous as to be impossible to list.

Walking is such a complicated process that no computer controlled robot has yet got anywhere near simulating it. We have seen on television or film attempts to make robots walk, yet the result is always a ludicrous, clumsy caricature of walking. But we can do it without thinking how we do it and, since walking is beyond our ability to understand, if we had to think how to walk we would not be able to walk at all!

This is what happened to the centipede:

The centipede was happy, quite
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”
This worked his mind to such a pitch,
He lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.

We have a reversed experience to the centipede when learning to ride a bicycle. In the early stages, when we feel that we must concentrate on every detail of balance and movement, it is very difficult; we wobble all over the place; we cannot steer straight, and after a few seconds the bicycle falls away from beneath us. As time goes by we improve, but why do we improve? Is it because we are concentrating more and more on the technique of cycling? Quite the contrary, we are thinking less and less about it, until there comes a moment when, miraculously, we can ride a bicycle as efficiently as we can walk. The transformation that has taken place is that we no longer say to ourselves “I must hold my balance”, or “I must turn the pedals”, or “I must steer the handlebars”.

A psychologist might say that we have merely transferred the technique to our unconscious mind, but this is not good enough for the kind of enquiry we are making here, because we want to know. We can only infer that the unconscious mind exists, and it would be a contradiction of possibilities to say that we must be conscious of the unconscious before we are convinced. In any case, the psychologist would merely be expressing in psychological terms what we have already said, namely, that ‘I’ am no longer conscious of doing these things. But, if it is no longer necessary for us to believe that ‘I’ am riding a bicycle for a bicycle to be used, do we have to believe that ‘I’ desire some eggs before they are bought from the shop, or that ‘I’ desire food before it is eaten? Could it not be that we know that there is hunger (because hunger is experienced) and that we know a meal is eaten (because the eating of it is experienced) but that there is no ‘I’ to have the experience — there is only the experience? It still seems impossible? Let us make a further attempt to comprehend Reality by following a different route.

Can you imagine what it would be like if you had been blind and deaf from birth and then, suddenly, were to receive normal sight and hearing? To see, for the first time, lush meadows surrounded by trees and, overhead, a bright blue sky; gardens containing flowers of great beauty and glowing with colour. And birds appear, as if by magic, out of the sky, to alight on the branches of a nearby tree. And to see the sea, in all its moods, with sometimes grey clouds overhead and with enormous waves crashing against the rocks; and at other times with blue sky overhead that causes the calm sea to mirror its colour.

To hear, for the first time, birds in the garden, wind in the trees and waves breaking on the shore. To hear a choir singing in a cathedral and even the sound of your own footsteps, as you walk along, admiring what you see and hear.

While you absorb the glory of it all into your very being you glance round and see a dustbin overflowing with filthy rubbish; and then you hear a jet airliner roaring overhead.

As you have not been blind and deaf from birth you take the fact of sight and hearing for granted, but you get more selective in what you want to see and hear. You desire to see the flowers, the birds, the sea and the sky, but you desire not to see the dustbin, overflowing with filthy rubbish. You desire to hear the birds, the choir and the sound of the sea, but you desire not to hear the jet airliner roaring overhead. Your life has become bound by desire which, in extreme cases, can even result in suicide or murder.

If your desire to pick and choose experiences were to end right now you would see and hear as if sight and hearing were given to you afresh. It is self-perpetuating desire and only self-perpetuating desire that holds us back from this union with the Goal. Buddhism agrees with Eckhart in maintaining that we must seek (desire) nothing, not even God (or Nirvana). But, even as we say this, language traps us in the world of subject and object; because even to think about God, or Enlightenment, binds us to duality, because we then have a concept of something we are trying not to seek.

Before we come to the way out of this trap the point must be made that there is a significant difference between Zen acceptance of all that IS and the philosophy of Stoicism and that of Marcus Aurelius, or the traditional British “stiff upper lip”. These may start from the standpoint of accepting the inevitability of undesirable things happening but they do not reject desire itself; indeed, annoyance at the filthy dustbin and the noise of jet engines is regarded as laudable. Zen, on the other hand, follows the universal doctrine of Buddhism that desire, itself, is undesirable. In the Old Wisdom Schools it forms part of the Four Noble Truths on the origin of Dukkha (suffering).

The full text of Ron’s free book Zen Meditation is available online until August 2019. Ron also wrote an extension to Chapter 13 of this book, answering readers’ questions.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 To be continued...

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