Religions typically disparage our animal and vegetative nature. They urge us to embrace soul, mind, spirit -- whatever immaterial essence supposedly lies within us and connects us with a higher divine reality.
Re-reading the first chapters of Hubert Benoit's marvelous book, "Zen and the Psychology of Self-Transformation: The Supreme Doctrine, " I was struck again by how brilliantly Benoit talks about Zen. His outlook is pleasingly fresh.
In The Existentialism of Zen chapter, Benoit says that we mistakenly value living more than existence.
We aren't content with just being an integral part of a much larger reality. No, we seek to elevate that part -- our individuality -- above a status commensurate with the way things really are. So figuring out how to live life fully and meaningfully to the greatest possible extent becomes an obsession, while simply embracing our everyday existence is seen as not enough, too obvious, insufficient for the Fulfillment Task at hand.
Benoit wrote in French, which was translated. He's intellectual. He's a psychoanalyst. He's philosophically sophisticated. So it can take a bit of effort to absorb his words. But I've found that the effort is worth it.
Here's some passages from the above-mentioned chapter. I've bold-faced some passages that I really like:
A man declares, "My life is insipid and monotonous; I do not call that living; at most it is existing." Everyone understands what this man means to say, which proves that everyone carries in himself the idea of this distinction. At the same time, everyone feels that "living" is superior to "existing"; and this opinion is so clear, so categoric, in the mind of man, that he comes to regard to "exist" as nothing, and to "live" as everything.
...However, when man places living so much above existing the frontier of this preferential distinction does not lie between their vegetative phenomena and their actions; it lies within the domain of action, and in the following manner: among my actions some have for object the service of my vegetative life (to eat, to repose, to perform the sexual act by pure animal desire); these actions affirm me (that is to say maintain my creation) in so far as I am an organism in all respects similar to the other animals, in so far as I live from the point of view of the universe, as a cosmic cog-wheel, in so far as I am "universal."
But every day, besides these actions, I perform others which do not serve my vegetative life, which often even impede it, and whose aim is to make me appear different from every other man, that is to say affirm me as distinct from every other man, as a particular man.
Between these two kinds of action lies the frontier which we are studying. My egotistical state, which carries the fiction of my personal divinity, makes me regard as senseless my vegetative life and all the actions by which I serve this life (it is this ensemble which constitutes in my eyes the contemptible notion of existing) and leads me to see sense only in those actions which distinguish me (there, in my eyes, is the precious, estimable notion of living).
I do not count in my own eyes in so far as I am a universal man; I only count in so far as I am the individual "I." According to my fiction of personal divinity, to found the sense of my life on my vegetative phenomena and the actions which serve them is absurd, while to found this sense on actions which tend to affirm me as separate is sensible. This view is profoundly rooted in the mind of man.
It is evident to anyone who thinks about it impartially that it is this opinion which is absurd.
... My organism is a link in the immense chain of cosmic cause and effect, and I can only perceive its real sense by considering it in its real place, in its real connexion with all the rest, that is to say by considering it from the point of view of the Universe, in my capacity as universal man and not particular man, in so far as I am similar to all other men and not in so far as I am different.
Man achieves existence, but only (as he thinks) because existing is a necessary condition for living. He eats, he rests, but he does so uniquely because he cannot otherwise affirm himself egotistically, as distinct; he only performs commonplace actions, common to all, in order to do something that no one but he will ever do, he exists in order to live. Basing, thus, the idea of existing on the idea of living he runs counter to the real order of things since he bases the real on the illusory.
... The natural man is only conscious of images, so it is not astonishing that he should be unconscious of existing, which is real, which has three dimensions. In short, I am unconscious of that in which I am real, and that of which I am conscious in myself is illusory.
The attainment of satori is nothing else than the becoming conscious of existing which is actually unconscious in me; becoming conscious of the Reality, unique and original, of this universal vegetative life which is the manifestation in my person of the Absolute Principle (that in which I am and infinitely more than I'; imminence and transcendence).
It is that which Zen call "seeing into one's own nature." One understands the insistence with which Zen keeps coming back to the maintenance of our vegetative life. To the disciple who asks for the way of Wisdom the master replies: "When you are hungry you eat; when you are tired you lie down."
There is therein the wherewithal to scandalise the vain egotist who dreams of "spiritual" prowess and of "extatic" personal relations with a personal "God" whose image he creates for himself.
I love Hubert Benoit and his book. Writing in 1951, his words speak as strongly and persuasively now as then.
Both science and everyday experience tell us that the natural, physical, material, evident world is the ONLY WORLD THERE IS. Yet we humans place so much importance on our vaunted capacity to imagine, to conceive of worlds that don't exist, but could, if our individual imaginations were to be converted into universal reality.
There's nothing wrong with thought and imagination. After all, nature evolved us Homo sapiens, who do that stuff. But Zen, and Benoit's take on Zen, remind us that the best form of spirituality is accepting that there's no need to be spiritual. It is letting go of the unnecessary.
The Zen master is too intelligent to advise the natural man to suggest to himself, when he satisfies his hunger, that he is at last in contact with Absolute Reality; that would be to replace the old imaginative reveries by a theoretical image of cosmic participation which would change nothing whatever.
The natural man has not to revalorise his vegetative life, he has only to obtain one day the immediate perception of the infinite value of this life by the integral devalorisation of his egotistical life. The necessary inner task does not consist in "doing" anything whatsoever, but in "undoing" something, in undoing all the illusory egotistical beliefs which keep tightly closed the lid of the "third eye."
Here's some of my previous posts about Benoit's book: