Zen and the Birds of Appetite

As a matter of face, Zen is at present most fashionable in America among those who are least concerned with moral discipline. Zen has, indeed, become for us a symbol of moral revolt. It is true, the Zen-man's contempt for conventional and formalistic social custom is a healthy phenomenon, but it is healthy only because it presupposes a spiritual liberty based on freedom from passion, egotism and self-delusion. A pseudo-Zen attitude which seeks to justify a complete moral collapse with a few rationalizations based on the Zen Masters is only another form of bourgeois self-deception. It is not an expression of healthy revolt, but only another aspect of the same lifeless and inert conventionalism against which it appears to be protesting.

As long as this “brokenness” of existence continues, there is no way out of the inner contradictions that it imposes upon us. If a man has a broken leg and continues to try to walk on it, he cannot help suffering. If desire itself is a kind of fracture, every movement of desire inevitably results in pain. But even the desire to end the pain of desire is a movement, and therefore causes pain. The desire to remain immobile is a movement. The desire to escape is a movement. The desire for Nirvana is a movement. The desire for extinction is a movement. Yet there is no way for us to be still by “imposing stillness” on the desires. In a word, desire cannot stop itself from desiring, and it must continue to move and hence to cause pain even when it seeks liberation from itself and desires its own extinction.

Buddhist philosophy is an interpretation of ordinary human experience, but an interpretation which is not revealed by God nor discovered in the access of inspiration nor seen in a mystical light. Basically, Buddhist metaphysics is a very simple and natural elaboration of the implications of Buddha’s own experience of enlightenment. Buddhism does not seek primarily to understand or to “believe in” the enlightenment of Buddha as the solution to all human problems, but seeks an existential and empirical participation in that enlightenment experience. It is conceivable that one might have the “enlightenment” without being aware of any discursive philosophical implications at all.

Christians are now wide open to Asian religions, ready, in the words of Vatican II, to “acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral goods” found among them.

Faith is the door to the full inner life of the Church, a life which includes not only access to an authoritative teaching but above all to a deep personal experience which is at once unique and yet shared by the whole Body of Christ, in the Spirit of Christ.

Is the basic teaching of Buddhism—on ignorance, deliverance and enlightenment—really life-denying, or is it rather the same kind of life-affirming liberation that we find in the Good News of Redemption, the Gift of the Spirit, and the New Creation?

It is this kind of consciousness, exacerbated to an extreme, which has made inevitable the so called "death of God." Cartesian thought began with an attempt to reach God as object by starting from the thinking self. But when God becomes object, he sooner or later "dies," because God as object is ultimately unthinkable. God as object is not only a mere abstract concept, but one which contains so many internal contradictions that it becomes entirely nonnegotiable except when it is hardened into an idol that is maintained in existence by a sheer act of will. For a long time man continued to be capable of this willfulness: but now the effort has become exhausting and many Christians have realised it to be futile. Relaxing the effort, they have let go the "God-object" which their fathers and grandfathers still hoped to manipulate for their own ends. Their weariness has accounted for the element of resentment which made this a conscious "murder" of the deity. Liberated from the strain of willfully maintaining an object-God in existence, the Cartesian consciousness remains none the less imprisoned in itself. Hence the need to break out of itself and to meet "the other" in "encounter," "openness," "fellowship," "communion".

It is true, the Zen-man’s contempt for conventional and formalistic social custom is a healthy phenomenon, but it is healthy only because it presupposes a spiritual liberty based on freedom from passion, egotism and self-delusion. A pseudo-Zen attitude which seeks to justify a complete moral collapse with a few rationalizations based on the Zen Masters is only another form of bourgeois self-deception.

live,” said Paul,

Modern man, in so far as he is still Cartesian (he is of course going far beyond Descartes in many respects), is a subject for whom his own self-awareness as a thinking, observing, measuring and estimating "self" is absolutely primary. It is for him the one indubitable "reality," and all truth starts here. The more he is able to develop his consciousness as a subject over against objects, the more he can understand things in their relations to him and one another, the more he can manipulate these objects for his own interests, but also, at the same time, the more he tends to isolate himself in his own subjective prison, to become a detached observer cut off from everything else in a kind of impenetrable alienated and transparent bubble which contains all reality in the form of purely subjective experience. Modern consciousness then tends to create this solipsistic bubble of awareness - an ego-self imprisoned in its own consciousness, isolated and out of touch with other such selves in so far as they are all "things" rather than persons.

Nirvana is the extinction of desire and the full awakening that results from this extinction. It is not simply the dissolution of all ego-limits, a quasi-infinite expansion of the ego into an ocean of self-satisfaction and annihilation. This is the last and worst illusion of the ascetic who, having “crossed to the other shore,” says to himself with satisfaction: “I have at last crossed to the other shore.” He has, of course, crossed nothing. He is still where he was, as broken as ever. He is in the darkness of Avidya. He has only managed to find a pill that produces a spurious light and deadens a little of the pain.

Suzuki also frequently quotes a sentence of Eckhart’s: “The eye wherein I see God is the same eye wherein God sees me” (Suzuki, Mysticism: East and West, p. 50) as an exact expression of what Zen means by Prajna.

The story of the Fall tells us in mythical language that "original sin" is not simply a stigma arbitrarily making good pleasures seem guilty, but a basic inauthenticity, a kind of predisposition to bad faith in our understanding of ourselves and of the world. It implies a determined willfulness in trying to make things be other than they are in order that we may be able to make them subserve, at any moment, to our individual desire for pleasure or for power. But since things do not obey our arbitrary impulsions, and since we cannot make the world correspond to and confirm the image of it dictated by our needs and illusions, our willfulness is inseparable from error and from suffering. Hence, Buddhism says, deluded life itself is in a state of Dukkha, and every movement of desire tends to bear ultimate fruit in pain rather than lasting joy, in hate rather than love, in destruction rather than creation. (Let us note in passing that when technological skill seems in fact to give man almost absolute power in manipulating the world, this fact is no way reverses his original condition of brokenness and error but only makes it all the more obvious. We who live in the age of the H-bomb and the extermination camp have reason to reflect on this, though such reflection is a bit unpopular.)

they are still satisfied with the old clichés about “life-denying Buddhism,” “selfish navel-gazing,” and Nirvana as a sort of drugged trance.

What Zen communicates is an awareness that is potentially already there but is not conscious of itself. Zen is then not Kerygma but realization, not revelation but consciousness, not news from the Father who sends His Son into this world, but awareness of the ontological ground of our own being here and now, right in the midst of the world.