Now I want to take a stab at writing about this book entirely in my own words. I’d like to share what has stuck in my mind after making my way through this wonderfully insightful treatment of man’s spiritual psyche. Benoit probably wouldn’t like the word “spiritual” used to describe his book, but now I get to describe it the way I want to.
That’s just the approach Benoit took toward Zen. In a concluding chapter he says that he isn’t sure how the great Zen masters would look upon his work. But he believes that they would approve of his effort to maintain his own personal thoughts in the face of all that has been written about Zen by others.
Breaking the rule I just made for myself (firmly in the Zen spirit), I’ll quote Benoit: “One remembers that Zen master who, seeing one of his pupils pouring over a Sutra [Buddhist scripture], said to him: ‘Do not let yourself be upset by the Sutra, upset the Sutra yourself instead.’ For only thus can there be established between the pupil and the Sutra a real understanding.”
So here’s my take on four themes that stick in my mind after reading “The Supreme Doctrine.” They’ve stuck because Benoit’s analysis of the human condition and the spiritual pursuit rings so true to my own experience. The minds of Homo sapiens' work much the same, no matter in what bodies they function. Frequently I’d read a passage where Benoit describes an introspective experience and think, “Why, he's just like me!”
Self and not-self. At the root of every thought and action, says Benoit, is the primal distinction between self and not-self. This rings absolutely true for me. I’m constantly evaluating how the world is affecting me and how I’m affecting the world. There’s a constant give and take between what seems to be “out there” and what seems to be “in here.”
When the world affirms me, my spirit soars. When the world denies me, my spirit sinks. My self is constantly at risk of being annihilated by the not-self, which is ever so much bigger and more powerful than I am. I’m just a teeny-tiny speck compared to the vastness of even just planet Earth, not to mention the inconceivable expanse of the entire universe.
Now, if I was nothing and the world was everything, then obviously there would be no problem. My self couldn’t get anxious about the prospect of being obliterated if I didn’t exist. However, this isn’t an appealing solution to my chronic anxiety about how the relationship between my self and the not-self is going, because what I’m anxious about is not existing. If the prescribed treatment is becoming nothing, then the cure is worse than the disease.
So how about if I become everything? That sounds a lot more appealing. I get to preserve my individuality. Even better, I get to expand my self so it encompasses the entire world. My Brian ego finds it easy to smile at that prospect. The only problem is how to accomplish this ballooning out of me. Obviously it can’t be attained physically—it isn’t possible to devour the Earth—so the solution has to be psychic.
Compensations. Which gets us to a word with psychoanalytic connotations that Benoit uses a lot (no surprise, since he was a practicing psychoanalyst), and I don’t claim to fully understand: “compensation.” My understanding of this term is that the self has to somehow compensate for the tremendously greater power of the not-self.
I couldn’t function if my ego recognized how insignificant I am compared to the cosmos. I’d be overwhelmed, crushed, psychically smashed to smithereens. Thus I conjure up some defenses. My mind, like all human minds, finds ways to make itself the center of the universe around which all else revolves.
Since everyone else is doing the same thing, we end up with a crazy quilt of overlapping compensations that produces the ever-entertaining dynamics of interpersonal relationships and intrapersonal psychology. My main compensative mechanism is identifying myself with what is not me. I assuage my anxiety about what the not-self might do to me by psychically bonding with as much of not-me as I can. And so do we all.
Attachment to my marriage partner. Patriotic commitment to my country. Devotion to my religion. Adherence to my ethical values. Belief in my core philosophical concepts. Engagement with my community. Appreciation of my natural surroundings. Interaction with my friends, pets, acquaintances, strangers on the street. Scientific understanding of my world and universe.
All of these attempts to build bridges between little me and the infinitely larger not-me (the above-mentioned obviously are just a sampling) have the effect of maintaining the integrity of my existence in the face of what otherwise seemingly would be a cold, cruel world. When they function as they should, my compensations nicely compensate for the fact that, crudely but accurately put, the universe could wipe me off its butt and flush me down the cosmic toilet without losing a speck of anything valuable.
This indeed is what will happen when I die. And seemingly it would happen before I die if my compensations fail me. If I let down the barriers between my self and my not-self, why, it would be like opening up the hatch of a submerged submarine. I’d sink like a stone to the bottom of an existential abyss. Or so I believe.
Imaginative film. My compensations are beliefs. My anxieties are beliefs. My hopes and fears for the future are beliefs. My understandings of myself are beliefs. My dreams are beliefs. My conceptions of God, heaven, and hell are beliefs. Virtually everything that I do and am is a belief embedded on the film of my imagination. It is through this film that I perceive the world. Not as it is, but as I imagine it to be.
“Imagine” may seem like an excessively strong word to describe all my thinking and emoting. Indeed, thoughts and feelings appear to be closely connected with what I consider to be objective reality. I see a beautiful sunset and think, “Ah, what a beautiful sunset.” Our dog wags her tail when I enter her room in the morning and I feel a burst of affection for this beloved canine companion.
And yet. The sunset doesn’t have any genuine connection with my thoughts about it. Nor do my feelings about our dog truly reflect the nature of her. The contents of my imaginative film are vitally important to me, the Brian “in here,” but to the world “out there,” they make not a whit of difference. If I vanished, the sunset and our dog would still exist. Less dramatically, if my imaginations vanished, the same would hold true.
Indeed, Zen teaches that things outside in the world would be more real for me if my internal world wasn’t filled with so much that is purely of my own making. If I could simply sense what is actually there, without adding on to that “is” all the thoughts and feelings that I customarily plaster over reality via my mental imaginative film, then I’d be much closer to the truth. Satori. Enlightenment. Salvation. Wisdom. Whatever you want to call it, I’d be nearer to it.
Thus, Benoit says, it turns out that all my efforts to defend my self against the inroads of the not-self actually end up making me less safe. For what I should be fearing isn’t the world of not-me, but rather the continuance of an illusory ego that maintains the fiction of a distinct difference between the self and the not-self.
A difference there is, but it is more like an ever-shifting boundary line between two similar entities—such as a small inlet and a vast ocean. At high tide the distinctions are erased; at low tide each is separate. Waves and water are fluid, though. You can’t draw a firm line between a inlet and the ocean to which it is connected.
Well, you can. Yet it would be an imaginary line, existing only as a concept, not part of real reality. Similarly, if we want to know the cosmos as it is, in contrast to how we imagine it to be, the contents of the imaginative film that normally obscures our perceptions have to be set aside. Somehow we need to perceive our self in relation to the world as that relationship is naturally, before we added on all of the extraneous thoughts and feelings that, though undeniably a part of being human, prevent us from realizing our divinity.
Buddha nature. Original self. Soul. More words to describe the wordless. Those words, those descriptions, they don’t help us see clearly. Rather, they are part of the imaginative film that has to be scrubbed clean of concepts before consciousness can look through an open window onto what is really there—not what is imagined to be there.
Humility. People who aspire to being spiritual usually consider, correctly, that humility is central to their pursuit. However, Benoit cautions against any sort of forced effort to be anything other than what we truly are. Reality, he says, will produce in us the perfect proportion of humility, for when we understand truly how self relates to not-self, there isn’t much of us left to be excessively proud about.
Further, it is self-evident that the self is virtually powerless against the not-self. Even without the just-mentioned understanding, life lived as it is at every moment screams at us a message that cannot fail to be heard: “The individual is nothing compared to the all that is everything.” Whatever I do, whatever I think, whatever I feel—the world proceeds on its own way, heedless of my actions, thoughts, and emotions.
I will drive myself crazy if I continue to believe that I am separate and distinct, that I exist as a firmly defined bubble of Brian, bobbing on my own in the otherwise fluidly connected ocean of the cosmos. The walls within which I have enclosed myself are of my ego’s own making. When they fall, my existence won’t be obliterated, but my imagined life that has Me at the center of the universe will.
I can’t will that will, however, for such an effort would simply sustain my erroneous belief in a self that acts independently of the rest of the world. Benoit says that genuine self-realization or satori isn’t caused by all of my efforts to bring it about. Rather, it follows those efforts. Not casually, but sequentially.
The cause isn’t under my control. All I can do is prepare myself for the cause—what Benoit calls my Principle—to work its way within me. That’s a humbling thought.
And when the thought of the humbling goes, that’s when the real humility has a chance to appear.