Learning to Love: Zen & the Problems of the Ego

Learning to Love: Zen & the Problems of the Ego March 13, 2018




I am a dedicated practitioner observer of the establishment of Zen in the West. I am particularly focused on the transmission of Soto Zen and the Soto reformed koan system developed by Daiun Sogaku Harada.

In my practice and studies I’ve found myself considering how Zen deals with the ego.

Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of that word “ego” is “the self especially as contrasted with another self or the world.” While there is also an important definition within psychoanalytic theory, and it is probably the back of most of our minds when we use the term, that’s not what we usually mean in Zen. It is that first thing. And, of course, it begs another definition. What is “self?” Here we need to go to Merriam-Webster’s second definition, “the union of elements (such as body, emotions, thoughts, and sensations) that constitute the individuality and identity of a person.”

Traditionally Buddhism doesn’t use “ego,” but rather self, and self describes an aggregate of things. It has a list of what those things are. It is a highly intuitive list, and generally useful – although it is always wise not to literalize things. And, this is a good example. Actually that warning is the great contribution of Buddhism to the study of the human mind.

Buddhism notices the profound problem in what we call ego or our sense of self is how we do literalize it. Or, I think an even better term than literalization is reification, as in the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. A term I think coined by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. As it relates to our sense of self, we are in fact the confluence of many events, genetics, history, choices. And that confluence mysteriously, beautifully, and terribly, becomes aware.

We can argue about what we are aware of. It’s obvious to those who study things that we cannot be aware of everything, our senses are too limited to do that. But, we are aware of aspects of reality, of that we can be sure just because our awareness allows us to make decisions and take actions that allow us to survive – if for a period of time. So, I’m going out on a limb, and I’m going to say we are aware of the real.

Or, we have it in our capacity to encounter the real.

I’ll go a step further and say it is a good thing to encounter the real. More in a moment.

Back to the concrete thing. Back to the problems of literalization, of reification. Our lives are strewn with traps that prevent our awareness of the real. And the worst of these traps is a tendency, in fact an overwhelming tendency to interpret this coalescence that is aware as itself something permanent. My self. My ego. Me. I. And, along with that, the things I love. We want it all permanent. And we trick ourselves into thinking it is. That’s the great trap. Literalizing, reifying, making what isn’t permanent, permanent.

And, this is critical. Living as if it, let’s cut to the chase, living as if “I” am permanent leads inevitably to sadnesses, small and great. In fact Buddhism has a powerful term for this grasping after the passing as if it were permanent. That term is Dukkha. It is most commonly translated as suffering. But, in fact the term requires many further nuances of anxiety and anxiousness, that I see it is increasingly entering the English language as its own term.

Dukkha is the normative experience of the self. And, it leads us to misread what is going on. It isolates us from a larger mystery which we can intimately encounter. And, it causes us to make decisions that are harmful.

Now the ego, well, it actually has a place. We need it to navigate reality. Our ego, our self is a gift of the universe. It puts things together. It allows us to function. The problem is that what we need is a captain to navigate through life. But, it sees itself as the lord admiral of the high seas.

When healthy, that is when in harmony with reality, it becomes the coalescence, the universe’s awareness of the universe. When we do this right, we find the mysteries of love manifest. We usually call it awakening. But, an equally good term is love. When unhealthy it crashes us on rocks. Endless hurt.

So, what do we do about it? How do we find this love?

The most important gift of the Zen way is the practice of zazen, or shikantaza, or just sitting, or, sometimes, it is called silent illumination, or, if we’re feeling particularly flowery, serene reflection. Each accurately points to the practice and its gift, what the Soto master called, practice-enlightenment. It is a discipline;line of bare presence, the thoughts begin to slow, and the dynamic that is the real begins to present.

The disruptions we experience, when guided by an experienced teacher, open us to many possibilities. It is the great way of love unfolding.

But, and what sparked this particular reflection came out of conversations with several Soto Zen priests, both Western and Japanese turning on the cornerstone of ordained Soto Zen practice, monastic training. The term I’ve heard by both Japanese and Western priests for that monastic experience is how it “crushes the ego.” In some ways an unfortunate term. Those of us who hear the word ego with the psychoanalytic understanding hanging in the background have some pause. But, also those of us who see the problem of a ship without a captain find pause.

And it is a misstatement, if also sometimes a misunderstanding. That they misstatement and misunderstanding get mixed up is itself a problem. So, yes, there are those within the Zen project who don’t really get it, and if given authority in the Zen monastery are in fact going for crushing. But the system itself tends to mitigate against this.

In the Japanese system which is by general agreement more aggressive and forceful, the unsui, the training monastic, is constantly confronted with double binds, demands without sufficient information to make good choices. Until recently it included physical violence. These days it is more verbal. But, it is harsh. Some have suggested it could even be illegal here in the West.

And, here in the West the emerging training monasteries/temples, the focus is more gentle. What it brings to the table is relentlessness.

I enjoy witnessing my friends advocate for one approach over the other and with that displaying varying degrees of disdain for the other approach. We humans are endlessly entertaining, when we’re not too violent.

But, the gift of all three of these things, the baseline of zazen, seated meditation, and for those of us who are gifted with opportunities of more intense periods, whether the taste found in three or five or seven day retreats called sesshin or in the more traditional ninety day intensive called ango, we are given an opportunity.

And I find it delightful it is spelled out by a poet who, best I know, had nothing to do with the Zen project. But, she gets it.


Marge Piercy

Learning to love differently is hard,
love with the hands wide open, love
with the doors banging on their hinges,
the cupboard unlocked, the wind
roaring and whimpering in the rooms
rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds
that thwack like rubber bands
in an open palm.

It hurts to love wide open
stretching the muscles that feel
as if they are made of wet plaster,
then of blunt knives, then
of sharp knives.

It hurts to thwart the reflexes
of grab, of clutch ; to love and let
go again and again. It pesters to remember
the lover who is not in the bed,
to hold back what is owed to the work
that gutters like a candle in a cave
without air, to love consciously,
conscientiously, concretely, constructively.

I can’t do it, you say it’s killing
me, but you thrive, you glow
on the street like a neon raspberry,
You float and sail, a helium balloon
bright bachelor’s button blue and bobbing
on the cold and hot winds of our breath,
as we make and unmake in passionate
diastole and systole the rhythm
of our unbound bonding, to have
and not to hold, to love
with minimized malice, hunger

and anger moment by moment balanced.

It is hard. Unimaginably hard. Impossible.

And, we can. We really can learn the mysteries. Navigate the waters. Find our true home in love.

Only this.

Just this…


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