Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Thomas Merton, Zen and the Nature of the Ego

The ego (or small "self") is wholly narcissistic and driven by fear, or its counterpart, desire. When one first becomes aware of the spiritual nature of one's being there arises a real risk that the ego will say: "Spiritual? You want to be spiritual and become enlightened? Just watch how spiritual I can become!"

Thomas Merton
The renowned Trappist monk and prolific author, Thomas Merton, addresses this process of spiritual self-sabotage in his book, "Mystics and Zen Masters." In recounting the story of how Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chinese Zen (Ch'an) Buddhism was chosen, Merton illustrates how the self-seeking ego can embrace spirituality and the concept of enlightenment itself and, thus, fool even the most ardent spiritual seeker.

The Fifth Patriarch, when choosing his successor, asked each of the monastery's monks to write a verse illustrating their Zen insight. The much accomplished monk who was presumed to be the heir-apparent wrote:
"The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror standing.
Take care to wipe it all the time,
Allow no grain of dust to cling to it."
Profoundly dissatisfied with this explanation, Hui Neng, the monastery's unordained cook, wrote:
"The Bodhi is not like a tree,
The clear mirror is nowhere standing.
Fundamentally not one thing exists:
Where then is a grain of dust to cling?"
The "clear mirror" is - or, so it seems -  really the ego which the heir-apparent was constantly trying to wipe clean. The problem, however, seems to be that it was the "ego"or "self" that was trying to wipe itself clean. Illustrating the principle that "self" cannot rid itself of "self" or "ego-nature," Hui Neng -  the unordained cook - was appointed as the Sixth Patriarch.

In rejecting the "mirror wiping" concept of meditation, Merton observed that Hui Neng "was not rejecting meditation itself, but what he believed to be a totally wrong attitude to meditation." Merton explains that a "wrong attitude" or error may occur when the ego, in a last-ditch effort to retain its hold on the spiritual seeker, embraces spirituality itself. He explains:
"1.  This wrong attitude assumes and gives primacy to a central ego-consciousness, an awareness of an empirical self, an "I" which, with all the good intentions in the world, sets out to "achieve liberation" or "enlightenment." This is the familiar empirical ego which is aware of itself, observes itself, remembers itself, and seeks ways to preserve and perpetuate its self-awareness. This "I" seeks to affirm itself not only in its actions, and its thoughts, but also in contemplation. In stripping off the exterior and sensible trappings of superficial experience, the ego seeks to realize its own spiritual nature more perfectly. This implies a rejection of one's sensible and active self in order to attain to an inner "silent" self, which is still, however, our "ego."

2.  The empirical and self-conscious self then views its own thought as a kind of object or possession, and in so doing accounts for this thought by situating it in a separate, isolated, "part of itself," a mind, which it compares to a "mirror." This is also considered a "possession." "I have a mind." Thus the mind is regarded not as something I am, but something I own. It then becomes necessary for me to sit quietly and calmly, recollecting my faculties and reaching down to experience my "mind."

3.  The empirical self then resolves to purify the mirror of the mind by removing thoughts from it. When the mirror of the mind is clear of all thought (so it imagines), the ego will be "liberated." It will affirm itself freely without thoughts. Why does it aim at this bizarre attainment? Because it has read in the sutras that "enlightenment" is a state of "emptiness," of "suchness." It is an awareness of an inner and transcendental mind. Presumably if all thoughts of material and contingent things are kept out of the mirror, then the mirror will be filled with the pure spiritual light of the Buddha mind, which is a kind of "emptiness.""
"So," Merton observes, "the ego-consciousness is able, it believes, to eat its cake and have it. It renounces its empirical autonomy in order to sink into spiritual, pre-biological nature. But since this nature is regarded as one's possession, the "spiritualized" ego thus is able to affirm itself all the more perfectly, and to enjoy its own narcissism under the guise of "emptiness" and "contemplation.""

In this manner, the ego, it turns out, becomes the ultimate ego-trap. The old axiom, "Know thyself!" is thus, still valid, albeit with the corollary: "But beware of thyself, and all its ways!"

(Excerpts from Thomas Merton, "Mystics and Zen Masters," pp. 19-23.)

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