27 January 2008

God, Chan, and the Intuition of Being

In 1938 Jacques Maritain gave a paper at a Carmelite congress on religious psychology entitled, "Natural Mystical Experience and the Void." (1) This is one of the finest Thomistic contributions to a metaphysical understanding of Zen. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that Maritain did not have Zen directly in mind, but rather the religious experience of India, and found his inspiration in a work by Ambrose Gardeil, The Structure of the Soul and Mystical Experience. Père Gardeil in turn found it a complete surprise that his ideas developed in relationship to Christian mysticism would be applied to the mysticism of India. (2)

Maritain's starting point is the structure of our self-awareness. This self-consciousness is a reflection of the spiritual nature of the soul which is by nature transparent to itself. But since the soul is profoundly united to the body it cannot realize, or actualize, this transparency. We have no inner vision of our spiritual nature. Instead, our self-consciousness is founded upon a reflection on the operations of the soul. We act and reflect on our acts and become aware that we are the ones that are acting, as Sekida noted. In Maritain's language there is not "even a partial actualization of the latent self-intellection of the soul reflecting upon itself." (3) This kind of auto-intellection is hindered by the union with the body, but it can still serve as the "metaphysical condition and the first foundation for the faculty of perfect reflection upon its own acts which the soul enjoys by title of its own spirituality..." (4)

The two basic orientations to reality, what something is and that it is, return here but now from the inside, manifesting themselves in the very nature of our consciousness. Our knowledge is oriented outward to the world of the things around us, and we come to understand both what they are and that they are. But when we reflect on these acts of knowledge and grasp from within ourselves as the subject of these acts, we have an intimate living experience of the fact that we exist and can assert "I am," but we have no direct grasp of our own essence, or of what we are. Our "experiential knowledge" of ourselves is "purely existential and implies no other quid (what) offered to my mind than my own operations grasped reflexively in the emanation of their principles." (5) I may reflect upon the nature of these acts that come forth from me, and by way of concepts attempt to reason about my nature, but I do not have a direct intuitive grasp of my essence.

This state of affairs surrounds self-consciousness with particular paradoxes and possibilities. My self-awareness has a deeply attractive immediacy by which I am myself. I am no longer knowing things from the outside, but I am present to myself within myself without the mediation of concepts. This is a deeper and richer way of knowing, but it is hedged about by all sorts of limits. To lose my consciousness can appear to be a loss of what is most precious in me, and yet, each day, I am subject to this loss many times over, whether it is in my sleep, or by inattention. Instead of my self-awareness being located in the center of my soul so that I would once and for all be and possess myself without fluctuation, it rides on the waves of my activity. I know that I am, but I really do not know who I am in all my amplitude. My consciousness, this very ego I call myself, is not at the center of my being. The very structure of my consciousness makes me realize the radical insufficiency of the possession I have of myself. I am faced with the tantalizing mystery of how to become fully myself. If I pursue myself in the direction of knowledge of things outside myself, and even within, it is their whatness that most confronts me. I become aware of their differentness and separateness from me, and no matter how much I know them and use them as a spring board by which to reflect and grasp my own self, I still remain a

"prisoner of mobility and multiplicity, of the fugitive luxuriance of phenomena and of operations which emerge in us from the darkness of the unconscious… The phenomenal content which occupies the stage and, indeed, is the only set of qualities to be grasped in the existential experience of ourselves." (6)

But there is another direction to explore, and this is the purely existential grasp I have of myself. It could be called the way of existence rather than the way of essence. The starting point is this experience we have of being present to ourselves, but now it is a question of a journey from this ego consciousness to our inner or absolute self. This happens, according to Maritain, by

"reversing the ordinary course of mental activity" so that "the soul empties itself absolutely of every specific operation and of all multiplicity, and knows negatively by means of the void and the annihilation of every act and of every object of thought coming from outside - the soul knows negatively - but nakedly, without veils - that metaphysical marvel, that absolute, that perfection of every act and of every perfection, which is to exist, which is the soul's own substantial existence." (7)

This stopping of all conceptual thought Maritain calls "an act of supreme silence," and the objection that has been posed to many Zen masters comes to his mind. If every image is removed, will not the result be pure and simple nothingness? And he answers in traditional Zen fashion, without realizing it, that this process of purification results "in a negation, a void, and an annihilation which are in no sense nothingness." (8) And these words "signify an act which continues to be intensely vital, the ultimate actuation whereby and wherein the void, abolition, negation, riddance, are consummated and silence is made perfect." (9) Even the principle that the soul knows itself by its own acts is maintained, in this extreme case where "the act in question is the act of abolition of all acts." (10)

The emptiness that results from the abolition of all essence becomes the formal means by which the substantial existence of the soul is known, but "negatively - transferred into the status of an object, not indeed of an object expressible in a concept and appearing before the mind, but an object entirely inexpressible and engulfed in the night wherein the mind engulfs itself in order to join it." (11)

The emptiness that is the elimination of essences or concepts becomes itself the means of knowing, not, of course, by concepts, but by connaturality. In this kind of connaturality, the void itself connatures the knower with that absolute which is the existence of the soul. And Maritain, paraphrasing the famous passage of John of St. Thomas on supernatural mysticism, amor transit in conditionem objecti, says, "vacuitas, abolitio, denudatio transit in conditionem objecti." (12) Emptiness is the proper and formal means of knowing the "to exist" of subjectivity.

But since this very experience requires as its indispensable prerequisite the elimination of any essence which would limit and contract the existence of the reality perceived, then this experience of the existence of the soul is at the same time an experience of the metaphysical amplitude of existence and God as the source of existence. The soul is experienced as an absolute which cannot be conceptually distinguished from that absolute given in the intuition of being and the absolute who is the author of being.

God, in this experience, is not the object of possession or union through love as He is in Christian mysticism, but He is attained through the negative experience of the existence of the soul so that it is legitimate to speak of a "contact with the absolute" and an "experience of God in quantum, infundens et profundens esse in rebus, indirectly attained in the mirror of the substantial esse of the soul," (as far as he is pouring and infusing existence in things). (13) But what is mirrored cannot be distinguished from the mirror. What springs up is a powerful metaphysical mysticism attained at the price of negating all essences. (See Appendix II).

But this essence-less-ness is a consequence, from the Thomistic point of view, not of the actual constitution of things but of the means by which they are known. It is the price that must be paid to arrive at this experience, but the consequence on the speculative level is the risk that the formal means of knowing will so color what is known that the absolute that is the existence of the soul will be identified with the absolute seen in the intuition of being and with the absolute which is God. Thus, a Zen master can say when one of his students achieved enlightenment, "Now you understand that seeing mu is seeing God." (14) Or Suzuki, in one of his later essays, could describe the discovery of the self in its "native nakedness" or "isness" by saying, "It yields a kind of metaphysical formula: self = zero and zero = Infinity; hence self = Infinity." (15)


Yet we should not make this lack of distinctions into a rigid principle. The Zen master is well aware of the differences of things as reflected in this traditional Zen saying:

"In the beginning mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. Then all were one, and finally, mountains were really mountains and rivers were really rivers." (16)

This depicts, first of all, the state of unenlightenment, then the initial stage of enlightenment, and finally, a fuller development of that enlightenment. In some sense, distinctions do exist and it might be useful to comment upon this passage from the point of view of Thomistic metaphysics.

In the first stage, or what the metaphysician might call the stage of common sense, existing things are seen chiefly from the point of view of essence. What a thing is fills our whole vision and prevents us from seeing the rest of reality. We equate our idea of the thing with the thing itself. We look at the relationship between essence and existence and see only essence. We are looking from the circumference of the circle, and this circumference blocks our view of the center. Thus, mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers, flowers are flowers, all things are themselves and distinct from each other, and this sense of distinction fails to see the deeper ground of unity that exists between them all. Such essentialistic thinking is at the root of the opposition between myself and others. In actual fact, there is no me, no ego, that is purely essence without relationship to existence. In this sense the ego is a product of ignorance and a hindrance to genuine enlightenment. Zen language is moving on the practical and existential plane and not on the ontological one. Thus, when the ego stands in opposition to others in such a way as to deny the underlying unity of all things, it is a false ego. There is no ego in this sense.

In the second phase, where enlightenment has been attained in a certain degree, all appear as one. The unity of all things in existence has been revealed, the Thomist metaphysician might say. The view of existing things has been reversed. Now it is existence that is seen first and which blinds us with its splendor to the fact of essence. We see unity without diversity, where before we saw diversity without unity. Such a view is an important advance over the first, for it does not lead to opposition and strife, but it is still incomplete. Things are not simply existence without relationship to essence. Existence on the level of existing things is always the existence of something, and while the act of existence attains a relative unity in the mind, it is an analogical unity. Each existing thing has its own act of existence.

Balance is finally achieved in the third phase of full enlightenment. Mountains are again mountains and rivers are rivers, but there has been no return to the common sense notion of being. The everyday world is, indeed, the world of enlightenment, but the enlightened man does not see it the same way as the unenlightened man. Now existing things reveal themselves as transfigured by the mystery of existence. There is nothing in them that does not exist. Every fiber or fragment of everything exists. Essence is seen in its ultimate significance, which is its relationship to the act of existence, and existence is seen in those things which exist. In this sense there is no existence outside of the manifestation of existing things, and there are no essences outside of existence itself. In this sense form is emptiness, that is, essence is totally related to existence and emptiness is form.

Yet, the very real similarities between enlightenment and the intuition of being should not obscure the significant differences. The first and chief difference is the relationship between the insight and its elaboration in concepts or ideas. If both intuitions transcend the level of concepts, their transcendence is not the same kind. The intuition of being is radically open to concepts. It itself is an eidetic intuition. It is in continuity with the world of concepts even when it transcends them by pushing them to their limit.

With Zen the situation is very different precisely because the means to the intuition is the elimination of all conceptual thought. Zen looks at conceptual thought as a tyranny that it must overthrow. It avoids it, not simply because it has been overemphasized, but because the very nature of enlightenment demands that it be avoided. It asserts the absolute primacy of intuition not to restore the balance between intuition and concepts, but because the intuition it is striving for is antithetical to conceptual thinking.

This lack of conceptual continuity can be seen in the language of the Zen masters. They did not speak in cryptic sayings or koans out of a love of mystification, but firmly grounded in enlightenment they uttered or acted out some sign of this mystery, but always reluctantly, for they knew that words are a temptation to the beginner who will attempt to attain the insight through the concepts or by repeating the gesture. The words of the Zen master are an enigma and even a scandal to the beginner who is expecting him to reveal something and is constantly searching for their hidden meaning or someone who can interpret them and unveil their contents. These beginners miss the point, for they are looking for continuity between the concept and the insight. This is the pattern of knowing that they have grown up with and which appears much preferable to the work of stopping all conceptual thought, if, indeed, the latter even presents itself as a practical alternative. Only as the mind matures by means of Zen training does it become probable that the words and gestures that have originated from an experience of enlightenment in the master can trigger a stopping and a reversal of the mind in the student by which enlightenment can be attained.

Zen language, then, is highly distinctive. It communicates, but not conceptually. It is enigmatic without being a secret code. Even if we amass collections of koans, we cannot treat them as a cumulative collection of clues. There is no gradual dawning of understanding that results from our deeper and deeper penetration into the meaning of these Zen sayings. They are one-way realities: nonsense from the point of view of the discriminating ego but genuine expressions of enlightenment when seen from the point of view of enlightenment itself. By virtue of this unidirectionality they disconcert the mind's attempt to understand them, and they force it to exhaust its conceptual bag of tricks until finally, in the best of cases, conceptual thought dies out and enlightenment is born. The mind is forced out of its normal channels, and once satori is reached, then the koans yield their meaning. Thus, books that purport to give the answers to koans are not destructive because they can actually give away a genuine meaning, but they can be harmful inasmuch as they clutter up the mind with conceptual answers to something that cannot be answered conceptually.

1. It appeared in Maritain's Quatre Essais and in English translation in Understanding Mysticism, ed. R. Woods.
2. Ibid., p. 487.
3. Ibid., p. 485.
4. Ibid., p. 486.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., p. 487.
7. Ibid., p. 489.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid., p. 490.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid., p. 499, note 18.
14. The Three Pillars of Zen, p. 254.
15. Self the Unattainable, p. 16.
16. See the commentary in Abe's Zen and Western Thought and T. Izutsu's in Toward a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism, p. 28.
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