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“Zen Buddhism:  A Psychological Review” by Edward W. Maupin

Zen, a sect of Mahayana Buddhism, originated in China and has played an important role in Japanese culture since its introduction there in the thirteenth century. It has traditionally sought to bring about in its students a direct experience of the enlightenment which characterized the Buddha. What makes this of interest to psychologists is that enlightenment is considered to be essentially a psychological problem to be worked out by the student. Appeals to divine intervention or intensive study of scriptures are felt to be irrelevant.

Zen involves a variety of training techniques designed to guide the student to a turning point, satori, which appears to be a major shift in the mode of experiencing oneself and the world, and which is an important step on the way to enlightenment.

Since the individual, with satori, is described as living an increasingly effective and satisfying life, Zen is of interest in terms of psychotherapy. . . .

The experience of satori is the central core of Zen. Everything else is considered secondary to it. Since it must be experienced in order to be fully understood, I have given primary attention to the authors who have had it. Where pertinent issues are raised, and especially where these bear on psychotherapy, I have turned to the secondhand sources.

The Ordinary Adult Mind and Satori

Zen literature makes no particular distinction between types of psychopathology. As a therapy it seems designed for people who are normally mature and have achieved a fair degree of self-control. Existential problems are seen as resulting from the way the ordinary adult experiences himself and his world —from the terms in which the problems are couched. For an answer, a radical shift in the mode of experience, satori, is proposed. The term satori seems to be used in two ways in Zen literature.

One is to refer to an experience of insight, lasting only a short time, which may recur more than once. Another, vaguer usage refers to the changes in one’s outlook and ability to function which are brought about as a result of the insight. A part of the confusion seems to stem from the timelessness of the experience, a feeling of immortality, which leads the person having it to deny that it comes and goes. It is an insight into the nature of things as they have always been. Satori is not a trance. Consciousness is not lost, nor does it impair the ability to use ordinary cognitive functions as required. It is not a quietistic retreat. All of these possible outcomes of the training procedures are considered byways to be guarded against with the help of the Zen master. Satori is described as an added mode of experience, comparable to the opening of a third eye. It is considered impossible to express in rational language.

This raises the problem of irrationality in Zen literature, which warrants a short digression. The confusing, non-logical quality seems to stem from three main sources. First, there is the ordinary difficulty in describing any state of consciousness.

Under the proper circumstances we can specify the content of consciousness—what fantasies, thoughts or sensations are present—but the formal qualities are much more difficult to communicate. One recourse is to speak in analogies and hope that the hearer has had such experience that the analogy seems familiar. We find one Zen master counseling his students to keep a kind of “doubt” which arises in the course of meditation “neither too fine nor too coarse.” Both the term “doubt” and the sensory terms with which he qualifies it are analogies which become meaningful only when the student reaches that stage.

This first source of unclarity in Zen literature, then, is one which often plagues the attempt to communicate subjective experience.

A second source is the teaching method of Zen. The problem to which the Zen master addresses himself is to have the student get beyond concepts of satori to the experience itself. The student may come with a question about some important aspect of Buddhism, the training, or his own problems in reaching satori. But a direct, conceptual answer would only be about the topic; it would not bring the student to see the thing itself. There is a deep feeling in Zen that conceptual knowledge can come only so close to its object. In satori one no longer mediates experience through concepts. So the Zen master may make an apparently illogical retort which may jolt the student into seeing the thing for himself.

The third source of unclarity seems to be a genuinely illogical quality of satori itself. Certain aspects of this new mode of experience, such as the feeling of oneness, seem genuinely inexpressible in a language posited on a subject - object dichotomy, conventional time, space, and so on.

Although descriptions of satori are given with a caution that they are only inadequate analogies, there are certain uniformities in the way people compare it with the ordinary mode of experience. The first contrast is between intellection and intuition. Suzuki writes that man tends to mistake his conceptual tools for reality. “He forgets that concepts are his own creations and by no means exhaust reality. Zen is fully conscious of this and all its mondo are directed towards casting off the false mask of conceptualization” (1949a, p. 28). Chang (1959, p. 141) outlines other characteristics of the ordinary mind. It must break reality into discrete entities and can only deal with a few things at a time. It is rigid and fixed, unable to deal with all possible aspects of a thing, and it tends to “cling” to the object thus separated and objectified.

The term “clinging” hints at personal motivation to maintain the stability achieved by this kind of structuring. It will be noted that the conceptual mode is under attack not because it is useless in general, but because, improperly used, it separates the individual from another, more direct contact with his experience. It is this loss of immediate experience which plunges the individual into existential problems.

“Zen Buddhism:  A Psychological Review” by Edward W. Maupin is an extract from The Highest State of Consciousness edited by John W. White, published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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