Narcissism And No-Self

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Last week I read for the first time a translated collection of lectures by a Japanese Zen master I'd only heard about in distant passing, Bankei. It affirmed, or maybe I should say reaffirmed, a number of things about Zen I'd bee introduced to by other figures, but hearing it all from yet another figure helped snap some more implications of it all into focus.

Bankei lived and taught in the 17th century, right around the time Japan had consolidated under the Tokugawa shogunate. For anyone who doesn't know Japanese history in much detail, this was the end of something like a hundred-plus years of internecine warfare. That peace came at the cost of what amounted to, as Peter Haskel put it, a military dictatorship, one enforced by way of a caste system with virtually no social mobility. Buddhist orders were compelled to make themselves part of this new order, and that included the iconoclastic Zen order.

Haskel noted that Zen at the time was having something of an identity crisis, trying to figure out how to reassert itself as a living tradition after having spent centuries stagnating. Some of that revival came by way of individual figures with idiosyncratic teaching styles, and so it struck me as being amusing that Zen was reasserting its right to be iconoclastic and idiosyncratic in a time and place where those very things might be considered the enemy. (Then again, I suspect the people who ran the whole show didn't think Zen's variety of iconoclasty posed any direct threat to them, but I'm of the belief that's because a) they figured destabilizing forces from the outside, like Christianity, were the bigger threats, and b) they didn't think that a mere idea, especially from a tradition that was by then as hoary as Zen, could pose any significant danger to their power in the first place.)

Anyway, Bankei was one such highly idiosyncratic teacher, and his teaching amounted to variations on a simple theme: Whatever it is you're looking for — especially if it's "enlightenment" — is not something you can find outside yourself. It's something you've been carrying all along, the "Unborn Buddha Mind" as he called it. "Unborn" in the sense of not created, not destroyed, but ever-abiding.

This sounded familiar enough, as Obaku (Huang Po in Chinese, of the Huang Po Doctrine) had said much the same thing in his own lectures. What bothered me about this the first time I encountered it was how easily it could be mistaken for narcissism: If everything we need is something we already have, why bother with anything outside ourselves at all? Especially since greed and narcissism and self-centerdness are the engines of the ongoing destruction of our world?

Another confounding factor was the idiosyncracy and iconoclasty I was talking about before. Those behaviors, too, can be seen as narcissistic or selfish. Sometimes when people knock over the graven images in the temple, they're only doing it to be able to say that it was they who did it. What's the real difference between ideas like Bankei's unborn mind and the spontaneity of Zen, and mere selfishness or narcissism?

Whatever you could say about people in the premodern world, they may have been superstitious, but they knew human nature very well indeed. They didn't have the technical terminology we do now to describe conditions like narcissism (or the paranoid-political-reactionary mindset), but they could describe those things all the same, by way of analogy and example. I think they knew full well that when we talk about letting what's inside us come through naturally, they weren't talking about being full of one's self. If anything, they were talking about the exact opposite: giving one's self permission to empty out.

When Obaku (I tend to use the Japanese name) and Bankei talked about "Mind", they tend to talk about it in the same way — that it's this thing inside us that we need to shush the rest of ourselves up and listen to. It's not something loud and brassy the way a narcissistic mindset is; it's so small and quiet that it's no wonder most of us never hear it at all. As Brad Warner once put it, you've been conditioned to spend your whole life shouting it down, so no wonder it's hard to shut up and hear it for what it is.

Another aspect of this that's only becoming clearer to me now is how the Zen notion of the self — or rather, the no-self — sharply contrasts with the conventional Western notion of the self. We like to think of the self as this atom, where any one expression of it is an expression of the whole. If some part of you deep down is angry, that means you're an angry person, because the deep-down part of you that you hide from the world is the real you, see.

This is manifestly nonsense, but we believe in it anyway, because it gives us an excuse not to be introspective to the degree that something like Zen requires. Most of us will look inwards just long enough to confirm whatever prejudice we already have about ourselves, instead of just shutting up and looking inside to see whatever there is to see, without affixing any label to it. That's hard to do even once, let alone sustain for any period of time.

My take is this: The whole point of looking inside to the degree that Zen encourages, and in the manner that Zen encourages, is to see for yourself how all those things inside you're so possessive about aren't really all that important at all. Narcissism and greed and all the rest are the exact opposite of all that — they're about taking the self so seriously that it's impossible to see it for what it really is, just a bunch of tendencies with a collective label.

The other day, when talking about some of these issues with a friend, the term "navel-gazey" came up. I get why Zen and Buddhism and that whole clot of related topics has a bad rep in some circles; it's become associated with that mushy mindset of perpetual self-psychoanalysis that came out of the Human Potential Movement in the late '60s-early '70s. Before that, Zen and Buddhism were strongly associated with the beatnik movement; before that, Buddhism was associated with pacifist/peacenik thinking. In each one of those cases, it's more that people from those circles saw aspects of what they were doing reflected in Zen, and folks on the outside looking in decided that Zen meant those things by association. I don't really blame them for this; Zen has a weird cultural history in the West that has made it difficult to approach it on its own terms, rather than by way of all the other movements that have made it their own.

But that word, "navel-gazey", again brought me back to thinking about how this stuff looks from the outside. Sitting with your legs folded and staring at a wall — well, maybe then we should call it "wall-gazey", but yeah. It can sound like the sort of self-interest and -attention that's merely morbid instead of constructive. What's the difference? When is it not navel-gazing, and when is it actually Zen?

The only answer I can offer is that it's about the fruits of the labor. Zen is about turning inwards so that you can turn back outwards — about studying the self so that you forget the self, as Dogen put it. Navel-gazing and narcissism are about the self, period.

One of my other favorite Zen teachers, the Korean teacher Seung Sahn, talked a fair amount about how the motives behind things are worth paying attention to and understanding. If someone else's happiness is for you more a matter of your own self-worth than anything about the other person, then the other person is not really that important to you after all. You and them are I/It rather than I/Thou, to use Martin Buber's wonderful way of putting it. But we're very good at not admitting this.

I sometimes think one way to pitch Zen to people is to say it's a radical program of self-honesty. Radical in the sense that the way you deal with it is not by admitting that your deepest darkest impulses are "the real you", but by admitting that even your deepest darkest impulses are not "the real you". But that you also don't do this as a way to get away with anything, because nobody ever gets away with anything. You do this to get away from yourself, or rather to find out there's no self for you to get away from in the first place — that narcissism and selfishness are just monumental con games where you cheat yourself out of the experience of being there, really there, for others. And not just some select few others, but all others.

And cultivating that attitude might be one of the last best hopes we have as a species.

Tags: Zen  psychology 

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2018/10/09 08:00.

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