by Sensei Lou Mitsunen Nordstrom
In Dogen’s Genjokoan something rather surprising—even startling—happens. After having summarized—in a very unconventional, unorthodox way—what could be called the essence of Buddhadharma, he says (and I slightly paraphrase): “Nonetheless, even though this is the case, flowers fall, making us sad, weeds spring up, arousing antipathy.” What is surprising and startling about this is the radical departure from the Asian stereotype of the Buddha as an impassive, unemotional being. But what precisely is the tone here? Very subtle. What’s being implied is that even though all is empty and therefore, strictly speaking, there is nothing to emotionally respond or react to, it is nevertheless true that even Buddhas emotionally respond and react to circumstances for which such response and reaction are in fact both appropriate and unavoidable. No matter what one says, one can’t help feeling things! It’s unfortunate, but this is the case. Why be apologetic about feeling things? Because emotional response and reaction imply that what one is responding and reacting to is NOT empty. It’s sad when flowers fall and most annoying when weeds spring up no matter how much one weeds. In his poetry, which is markedly different from his well-nigh impenetrable prose, Dogen seems fond of the following locution: “Who would not feel such-and-such under such-and-such circumstance?” Again, the oddly apologetic stance, the ironic distance from emotion.
This line could well serve as the motto or slogan of Western lay Zen practice because it authorizes in effect a new concept of Buddha: the feeling or emotional Buddha. For laypersons, human beings are emotional creatures, and there is of course nothing to be apologetic about. For those monks seeking to escape from the human condition, still feeling something is still being in a state of bondage to that condition.
The Asian and Buddhist idea that there is something deluded about emotion is just nonsense. So a real human Buddha would be one who is one with emotional experience, not alienated or dissociated from it, capable not only of feeling but of feeling deeply. It’s an illusion that Samadhi is an unemotional state. This may be true of the surface but not of the depths. In fact it stirs up the unconscious, and this results in the surfacing of repressed emotion. This is a turbulent state, full of life; at the same time, paradoxically enough, there is profoundly energized equanimity. As is said in the tokudo or Zen monk ordination ceremony: “The mind is oceanically calm.” Oceanically. Not like a placid lake with a glass-like surface. Samadhi gives one both the strength (virya) and the courage to embrace such emotional turbulence. This enables one truly to experience whole being (another notion of Buddha-nature in Dogen is “wholebeingBuddha-nature”), really being-at-one, not only without separation of mind and body, but without separation from emotional experience, the final obstacle to overcoming self-alienation (and thus likewise alienation from others, for as Montaigne says, “The distance between yourself and others is the same as the distance between you and yourself”). As Suzuki Roshi says, “When you are one, all is one.” But you are not one until the separation and alienation from emotional experience has been overcome. This is a daunting task indeed. I believe psychoanalysis and psychotherapy can help, can in effect function as a supplement to Zen practice. But the crucial thing is to directly experience this ocean that is emotion, to learn to swim in it, perhaps even play in it.
The Asian monastic anti-emotional bias is clearly expressed in a section entitled “Nirvana, The Waterfall” in Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. There he contrasts the undifferentiated waterfall with the falling waterfall that disperses into individual drops of water. The undifferentiated waterfall is nirvana. The individual drops suffer or “have difficulty” because they “have feeling.” So nirvana is to be without feeling, a state that existed before one was born and presumably exists at the moment of death or after death. This negative view of individuality, of an individual, personal life as opposed to a transindividual, trans-personal, impersonal “universal life” (what Soen Roshi called “Endless Dimension Universal Life”) is Asian and monastic and thus cannot serve as a foundation for Western lay Zen practice. Behind this view is the pernicious Buddhist notion of nirvana which must be rejected as a goal of practice for Western lay Zen. The goal has to be not liberation from suffering but the elimination of separation from suffering. This is actually the Mahayana view expressed in The Lotus Sutra and The Heart Sutra. “Samsara is nirvana; nirvana is samsara.” But if being one with samsara is nirvana, why speak of nirvana at all? And if “nirvana is already here,” again, why not just get rid of the notion? If the only nirvana there is is not the extinction of suffering (which the Buddha declares in The Lotus Sutra is a mistaken view) but oneness with suffering, it would seem better to dispense with the term altogether, rather than engage in misleading paradox. When the monk asked the master where he could find nirvana in the context of an insufferably hot summer day that made practice unpleasant, the master responded, “SWEAT!” In other words, “SUFFER!” Being one with one’s own suffering makes compassion toward the suffering of others possible. Conversely, the common state of alienation and dissociation from, as well as denial of suffering, results in the systematic projection of one’s suffering onto others, which serves to increase the degree of separation between self and other.
Also behind this negative view of emotion which results in the archetype or stereotype of the unemotional Buddha is the equally pernicious notion of no self. We have to distinguish between self and individuality. No self doesn’t—or shouldn’t—mean no individuality, that there is something negative about individuality. Self is a reified conceptualization that attempts to specify what sort of reality that individuality has. Denying that it has such reality doesn’t mean denying individuality or seeing it as delusion or illusion. Rather than speaking of no self, we should speak, with Dogen, of “forgetting the self.” This of course implies that in some sense there is self. This is undeniable. What Dogen is saying is that under certain conditions, the self is forgotten; under other conditions, it isn’t. Under certain conditions, there is the absence of self-consciousness; under other conditions, there is self-consciousness. So the question isn’t at all whether there is a self or not, but rather WHEN there is and WHEN there isn’t. No self is pernicious because it has obviously negative psychological and moral consequences. (I will speak at length of this elsewhere.) Psychologically, this leads to a negative self-concept, to put the matter briefly; and morally, to irresponsibility. Western lay Zen has to affirm the reality of the self, but also has to be very clear about what sort of reality in involved. It is a programmed and conditioned reified conceptualization of one’s individuality. This conceptualization has enormous utility, both morally and psychologically. But it must always be remembered that the self is a reified concept! So attachment to it is ill-advised. There are better and worse self-concepts, however. Remembering that it is a concept, one can revise and edit it to make it better. A better selfconcept is one that enables one to affirm and value one’s individuality, to wholeheartedly embrace—and thus truly live—one’s life with positive self-esteem and self-worth.
The self-concept can be construed as the narrative or life-story. This narrative or life-story is not identical to the lived life; it is obviously a conceptualization of that life. But although attachment to such narrative is ill-advised—it leads to essentializing the self and thus foreclosing and precluding the possibility of change and improvement—it must not be disowned or renounced because it’s a conceptualization. This is so simply because the narrative or life-story provides the individual life with meaning. Lay Zen practice cannot do without meaning, even though such meaning is constructed and not inherent. Another problem with Asian Zen is the devastating critique of meaning, the insistence that one must be liberated from meaning, the iconoclastic espousal of no-meaning. (This is bad iconoclasm.)
I confess to having been guilty of the renunciation of my individual life in favor of “Endless Dimension Universal Life” and of my narrative as mere reified conceptualization. Psychotherapy has helped me see the profound error of my ways. I have now been reunited as it were with my individual life and with my narrative. But having embraced my narrative, I’m able also to let go of it. And I strive to live my individual life in such a way that it’s not separated from the lives of other beings; and I strive to live it as unselfconsciously as possible (where appropriate).