“The Supreme Doctrine: Psychological Studies in Zen Thought” is one of my favorite books. When I checked it out from the San Jose Public Library while I was a San Jose State University student, I couldn’t bear to return it.
It’s now thirty-six years overdue. I’m pretty sure I paid the library the $1.65 replacement cost. That’s a heck of a lot cheaper than 5 cents a day, times 365 days, times 36 years, which is what I would have owed by now.
This is the only library book I’ve ever kept permanently. I brought it on our Maui vacation (where my wife and I are now) because I haven’t re-read it for a long time, and I was curious to see if what attracted me so strongly to “The Supreme Doctrine” when I was twenty-one still was a spiritual magnet for me at the age of fifty-six.
Hubert Benoit, the author, was a psychiatrist and practicing psychoanalyst. I saw “was,” because “The Supreme Doctrine” was first published in 1951 and I assume Dr. Benoit is dead by now. I was a psychology major when I came across the book. I also was reading a lot of Zen literature at the time. So Benoit’s ability to translate Zen insights into a psychological framework fascinated me back then.
It still does.
Zen, along with Taoism, are wonderfully non-religious spiritual pursuits. So they continue to be mainstays of my Church of the Churchless faithless faith. Benoit’s discussion of Zen involves a bit of abstract metaphysics, but mostly he speaks directly about the immediately obvious human condition—just as Taoists do.
Religion, by and large, leaves me cold. It is too detached from my conscious reality, the world inside my head where I live my daily life. So far I’ve only re-read the first four chapters of “The Supreme Doctrine,” yet already I’ve been reminded why this book speaks so truly to me. It is as if Benoit knows my mind. Of course, I would expect nothing less from a psychoanalyst.
He says that Zen teaches that all of the false efforts to deal with the evident reality of human misery don’t reach the root cause of our problems:
At the back of all that there is the following simple-minded reasoning: “Things are going badly with me in such and such a way; very well, from now on I am going to do exactly the opposite.” This way of regarding the problem, starting from a form that is judged to be bad, encloses the searcher within the limits of a domain that is formal, and as a result, deprives him of all possibility of re-establishing his consciousness beyond all form.
Maybe that passage sounds rather intellectual to you. It doesn’t to me. I know just what Benoit is talking about. For most of my life I’ve believed that in order to be spiritually free, it’s necessary for me to confine myself within the bounds of a spiritual system. That doesn’t make sense to me now. Confinement isn’t freedom. Confinement may be followed by freedom, but the two states can’t be present at the same time. Either you are confined or you are free.
Benoit says that we always are free. We just don’t realize it. We are dreaming a dream of confinement. Virtually everything we do to escape this illusion just keeps us more tightly encased within it.
All my apparent ‘trouble’ derives from the sleep of my faith in the perfect Reality; I have, awakened in me, nothing but ‘beliefs’ in what is communicated to me by my senses and my mind working on the dualistic plane (beliefs in the non-existence of a Perfect Reality that is One); and these beliefs are illusory formations, without reality, consequences of the sleep of my faith.
In short, everything appears to be wrong in me because the fundamental idea that everything is perfectly, eternally and totally positive, is asleep in the centre of my being, because it is not awakened, living and active therein.
So let’s say that we agree with Benoit that something within us—call it “soul,” perhaps—needs to be awakened, enlightened, saved. What then? He says that we aren’t out of the frying pan; we’ve just jumped into another hot spot of illusion in our desire for salvation.
All the determining, enslaving reality which man attributed to this or that ‘temporal’ enterprise becomes the most determining, the most enslaving that can be imagined. Since realization signified liberation one arrives at the absurd paradox that man is subjected to the coercive duty to be free. Man’s distress is concentrated then on this question of his salvation; he trembles at the thought that he may die before having attained his deliverance.
Most spiritual seekers submit themselves to an external authority in hopes that they can become liberated from pain, suffering, sin, illusion, maya—whatever you want to call the fallen state that most of us believe we are trapped in. Yet Zen says that this very belief in the reality of being trapped is the true trap.
Benoit says that my desire to be someone unique, one of a kind, a “me” unlike any other, is the root of all of my problems, both spiritual and worldly. Yet here I am, seeking personal salvation, when the egotistical belief that I am a special person who needs to be saved is what I need to be saved from.
I’m afraid of existing, Benoit argues. I believe that existence is a mere foundation for the really important thing: living. He writes, “ A man declares: ‘My life is insipid and monotonous; I do not call that living; at most it is existing….According to my fiction of personal divinity, to found my sense of 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.”
Why? Because my emphasis on the importance of actions that only I can do places me at the center of the universe, whereas Benoit correctly says that only the First Cause (or what I’d call Ultimate Reality) can be that center. So according to Zen I would be much closer to the truth if I could tune into my pure and simple existence, my being, rather than all my doing.
I’ll probably share more from “The Supreme Doctrine” after I’ve re-read additional chapters. Apropos my current near-vegetative Maui beach life, here’s a nice Zen story from Benoit’s book that should make you feel better when you don’t feel like doing anything.
"Once upon a time there was a man standing on a high hill. Three travelers, passing in the distance, noticed him and began to argue about him. One said, ‘He has probably lost his favorite animal.’ Another said: ‘No, he is probably looking for his friend.’ The third said: “He is there only in order to enjoy the fresh air.’
The three travelers could not agree and continued to argue right up to the moment when they arrived at the top of the hill. One of them asked: ‘O friend, standing on this hill, have you not lost your favorite animal?’ ‘No, Sir, I have not lost him.’ The other asked: ‘Have you not lost your friend?’ ‘No, Sir, I have not lost my friend either.’ The third traveler asked: ‘Are you not here in order to enjoy the fresh air?’ ‘No, Sir.’
‘What then are you doing here, since you answer ‘No’ to all our questions.’ The man on the hill replied, ‘I am just standing.’”