Zen, Dogen, Hillman, and the Self...
Zen practice can only begin when we come to terms with the thorniest questions of all; “Who or what is the subject that practices?” What is this “self” whose “true nature” the Zen masters urge us to awaken to?”
The majority of contemporary books whose subject centers on the “self,” books on health, psychology, religion (including Zen), and even on so-called self-help, show a marked propensity to avoid defining what it is they mean by the “self” as if this was self-evident.
Self One, Self Two?
In Buddhist literature the term “self” is used in two distinct ways, to refer to the ordinary, personal, or ego self, and to refer to the original, great, or true self; which “self” is meant is determined by its context.
The “Ordinary” Self
The “ordinary” self is depicted as the subject of experience that is experienced as independent of the object of experience. That is, the content of conscious experience is experienced by the ordinary self (which we ordinarily identify as “myself” or “our self”) as something distinct from, or other than itself. One thing this means is that the consciousness of the ordinary self is always divided by a sense of “self” and “other than self.” As Dogen says:
When speaking of consciousness of self and other, there is a self and an other in what is known; there is a self and an other in what is seen.Shobogenzo, Shoaku Makusa, Hubert Nearman
In sum, the “ordinary” self is the subject of experience as distinct from the object of experience.
The “True” Self
In contrast to the “ordinary” self, the “true” self is portrayed as being inclusive of both the subject and the object of experience. In the context of Dogen’s line above, the “ordinary” self is the self of “self and other,” while the true self corresponds to his “what is known” and “what is seen” (which Dogen says contains both a self and an other).
It should be noted that the perspective of the “true self” does not deny the reality or significance of the “ordinary self,” it is inclusive of it. In other words, the ordinary self is not illusory or provisional; it is a real aspect of the true self, is in fact totally constituted of the true self – thus, the ordinary self is wholly contained by the true self, but the true self is not contained by the ordinary self, far from it. This is complex and not essential to the point of this post; we mention it only to preclude hasty conclusions. We are all aware of the basic notion of the ordinary self, thus we’ll move on to the main topic; the true self.
As suggested by Dogen’s words on the constituents of “what is known” and “what is seen,” the self (“self” means “true self” hereafter) is the location or moment of experience. Thus, the self is a position or occurrence of space and time rather than a particular entity or capacity in space and time. Further, the self is inclusive of both the subject and the object of experience.
Seeing and Seen – One or Two?
Experience is always two-fold, that is, experience is always the experience of something experienced by someone. In experience there is “a self and an other.” For example, the experience of “seeing a mountain” can only be realized by the presence of “a mountain” and “a seer.” The self, then, is not the mountain or the seer, but the self is “seeing a mountain.” So it is with all experience; to see a mountain, hear a waterfall, or contemplate a thought, there must be both something experienced (mountain, waterfall, or thought) and someone that experiences it; the self is the location where or moment when experiencer and experienced are joined in the actualization of experience.
With this it should be clear that the self cannot be qualified as either an ontological or an epistemological element or entity; now we can move on to some more significant aspects of the self – some aspects that make the Zen goal of “seeing the true nature of the self” a worthy pursuit.
Dogen and Hillman: The Self – A Worthy Pursuit?
In Buddhism, the great significance of the self is demonstrated by the fact that the Buddha is said to be found within the self, and nowhere else. This accounts for Dogen’s (and other Zen masters) assertions that only the self contains anything worth getting; the self is the only place or moment value exists. In this aspect, the self portrayed by Dogen is not unlike the “soul” of “Archetypal Psychology” (James Hillman et. al). Consider these words from Hillman’s landmark book, Re-visioning Psychology:
However intangible and indefinable it is, soul carries highest importance in hierarchies of human values, frequently being identified with the principle of life and even of divinity.Re-visioning Psychology, James Hillman, p.xvi
Dogen certainly seems to agree with James Hillman here; for example, consider this passage in which he identifies the “ascendant state” of Buddha” with the “vigorous activity of playing with the soul.”
We should know that “there are human beings in the ascendant state of buddha.” [The state] is, in other words, the vigorous activity of playing with the soul. That being so, we can know it by taking up [the study of] eternal buddhas, and we can know it by holding up a fist.Shobogenzo, Butsu-kojo-no-ji, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
In the same passage just cited, Hillman writes:
In another attempt upon the idea of soul I suggested that the word refers to that unknown component which makes meaning possible, turns events into experiences, is communicated in love, and has a religious concern.Re-visioning Psychology, James Hillman, p.xvi
While he might prefer unconcealed in place of Hillman’s unknown, Dogen too finds the “religious concern” of the soul (letting the Buddha-Dharma play as our soul) as that which “makes meaning possible” – even implying that failing to engage the soul in this way is to live “in vain.” Moreover, Dogen frequently makes the same connection as Hillman in regard to communication or preaching for others (expression, transmission) in love (compassion); for example:
We should let the Buddha-Dharma play as our soul. This is called not passing any life in vain. Do not think, on the contrary, that because we are not yet clear we should not preach for other people.Shobogenzo, Jishō-zanmai, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
After re-stating his original views on the soul, Hillman goes on to say:
Now I am adding three necessary modifications. First, “soul” refers to the deepening of events into experiences; second, the significance of the soul makes possible, whether in love or religious concern, derives from its special relation with death. And third, by “soul” I mean the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image, and fantasy—that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical.Re-visioning Psychology, James Hillman, p.xvi
As we see in Shobogenzo, Dogen also affirms the soul’s (true self’s) role in “deepening” events into experiences, and even regards the soul (as does Hillman) as the source of the “events” that can be deepened into experiences. Also, Dogen’s frequent allusions to the notion that insight into impermanence is the beginning of authentic religious aspiration testifies to his agreement with Hillman’s notion that the soul’s capacity to fuel love and the religious concern is directly linked to its “special relation with death.”
Zazen and the Imaginative Capacity of the Self
It is Hillman’s third “modification” though, that is particularly significant in throwing some light on Dogen’s vision of the self. For Dogen, it is the “imaginative possibility in our (true) natures,” which he most commonly calls “shikantaza” (zazen-only), that is the keystone of Zen, the “art” of Zen practice-enlightenment. It is this “imaginative possibility” that “recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical” that facilitates (via authentic zazen) the human capacity to “fashion” a (ordinary) self and an other, that is, to actualize the universe (genjokoan).
In Shobogenzo, Udonge, Dogen describes (metaphorically of course) the “maintenance of ‘the right Dharma-eye treasury’” (Shobogenzo; authentic Buddhism) as changing “what I possess… into the transmission” (of the Buddha-Dharma from Buddha to Buddha). In the same passage Dogen metaphorically equates “The ancestral master’s coming from the west” (Bodhidharma’s coming to China) with “twirling flowers” (a triple metaphor; at once evoking and combining the “transmission” from Shakyamuni to Mahakasyapa, the story of Huineng and the “Lotus Sutra turning monk,” and the universe of the Lotus Sutra). Dogen then identifies “twirling flowers” as “playing with soul” which he further equates with “zazen-only” (sole sitting), “becoming a Buddha and becoming a Buddha ancestor,” “putting on clothes and eating meals,” and finally as “the matter which is the ultimate criteria of a Buddha ancestor.”
When we take what I possess and change it into the transmission, that is maintenance of “the right Dharma-eye treasury.” The ancestral master’s coming from the west was the coming of twirling flowers. Twirling flowers is called “playing with the soul.” “Playing with the soul” means just sitting and dropping off body and mind. Becoming a buddha and becoming a patriarch is called “playing with the soul.” Putting on clothes and eating meals is called “playing with the soul.” In sum, the matter which is the ultimate criteria of a Buddhist patriarch is, in every case, playing with the soul. While we are being met by the Buddha hall, or while we are meeting with the monks’ hall, variety in their flowers becomes more and more abundant, and light in their colors deepens layer upon layer.Shobogenzo, Udonge, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross