Pai-chang’s method

In seeking to construct a philosophy of solitude, resources are nearly endless, for solitude is a common thread in much Western thought, and in Eastern traditions solitude is an intrinsic value. Perhaps solitude is more ambiguous in the West because of the dichotomy of egoism and social obligation, of self and other, and ultimate of God versus everything else or “not-God.” This dualism cannot be resolved by Western reason, science, psychology, or social thinking, for the social contract and the political construction of the individual as an inviolate entity automatically removes the possibility of a solitude so profound as to link that which can be called God and not-God.

Nor does the West dare to call “not-God” the same as God in order to relieve the tension of dualism, in order to permit the relaxation of the warfare of good and evil. Dualism seems inevitable and necessary in Western thought.

Western religion, the three dominant scriptural religions, originated in a primitive tribalism and failed to evolve beyond a crude dualism. Even the development of a universalism was not authentic but merely an adaptation of the tribe to the world, a conglomerate rather than a unity, a wider subjugation. Western religion has witnessed many who sought, from different psychological and spiritual angles, to break through the limitations of a mentality still rooted in the tribalism of its origins, but all of them, from gnostics to mystics, cannot succeed working on Western terms alone. Limitations of knowledge, whether of non-western approaches or of a deep understanding of its own psychology, has and always will frustrate such efforts.

Science has not transcended the dualism of Western thought. In obliterating traditions, it has fended off institutional control, liberating its methodology but also its purpose, replacing itself as God and the universe of objects as “not-God,” for it cannot be “not-God” and see itself. How can the eye see itself?

In the East, surely tribalism was the same social origin of peoples as in the West. But time and circumstances allowed the evolution of a more subtle perception of the universe. On the one hand, the primitive stages of animism and pantheism (or “pandivinity,” as one might prefer) gave no preference to absolute depictions of God. Even the Brahma of Hinduism can be traced back to an Aryan introduction. The subsequent evolution of Hinduism properly fixes a dispersion of divinity within a non-dualism that no one can mistake for anthropomorphism in a strict sense. Let the popular manifestations of religion carry on as the poor recompense of a sad world intent on a little conviviality. Poetry and enthusiasm will always attempt humane depictions of divinity. But in ancient India it is the Jainism and Buddhism subsequent to the Vedic era that forced expression to a stricter system of non-dual thinking.

The wisdom of Buddhism is the understanding of the many realms, deities, and forces as manifestations of the greater consciousness that seethes in the current of the planet’s complexity and the universe’s mystery. Western religion, however austere will not go so far as to gainsay its own origins and traditions, to eviscerate its angels and its supreme deity.

But to gather all these forces into fragments of consciousness is not but the beginning for Eastern thought, especially Taoism, esoteric Buddhism, and Zen. Here the premise is no longer the claim that our purpose is to break through the pain and suffering of existence in order to storm heaven or even to studiously define divinity. The premise is early made, and put to rest, so to speak, for the great task. Suffering is built-in, it is consciousness itself, it is every manifestation of consciousness and thought.

So our use of consciousness and thought must be severely measured. Every word can be the destruction of self, every thought can be the annihilation of virtue. Not in the superficial social or political sense of regulating thought and expression. These are noises and temporal forays that need every latitude. Words and thoughts are not the privilege of powerful regulators. There are more urgent issues, though. For the arrest of suffering is not in the relief of suffering as such but in the relief of perception and thought. This relief effort goes on even while, as Pai-chang, the Chinese Chan master, says, we are every moment compelled by the logic of being to behave as bodhisattvas.

The premise from which we may begin is that what we may call “divinity” — if it must be called or identified as something like an object or status — is not subject to reason. Such a statement does not support religion as such. The term only means that which is the counterpart of reality, of mundanity, of what Pai-chang calls the “non-existent.” The context of this notion breaks through the religious debate as much as it breaks through the anti-religious point of view (which is primarily a Western one sharing the confines of Western religion as theism; atheism being “anti-theism” but saying nothing more than theism says).

The excesses of Western thought, including Western religion and philosophizing, is the confident attitude that human reason or reasoning is accurate, true, reliable, insightful, a machine for revealing the secret mechanisms of the universe. And the history of the West, culminating in this mad era of science, technology, and near-annihilation, gives witness to the radical arrogance of the notion that reason is eventually right no matter what is being proposed, even if it is used to defend one view against another view. Everything is partly right, according to Western thought, especially modern expression. Everything is partly right because it exists as cultural tradition or expression, even when the view contradicts its own tradition because it is itself a counterpoint, a necessary opposite that maintains the credence of the other half in clean Hegelian cycles. Thus the good requires the bad, the black requires the white, and God requires the devil — not in the Eastern sense of a continual flow between elements, but as distinct and absolute entities, beings, as necessary applications of universal reason.

Western dualism means that God equates with the existence and necessity of evil, that consciousness always equates with suffering, that existence itself equates with non-existence, that life equates with death.

The Chan master Pai-chang, like so many sages, wrote nothing but had disciples who remembered and recorded the essence of his sayings in the “Record of Sayings” and the “Extensive Record.” Over and over, Pai-change demolishes the premises of thought and consciousness itself and its tendencies to spin dualisms, beginning at the basic point of witness and object. That may be so, he argues, but that is immediately to separate ourselves and our consciousness from the rest of the universe. Yes, this is inevitable, but is it true? Does it reveal anything new that the universe does not already have? Pai-chang admits that:

In language you must distinguish the esoteric and the exoteric, you must distinguish generalizing and particularizing language, and you must distinguish the language of the complete teaching and the incomplete teaching.

Here, the lesser vehicle is the incomplete teaching and the greater vehicle is the complete teaching, but ultimately Pai-chang will argue that scriptures and teachings, all these utterances, are automatically incomplete, versus the complete teaching, which is unnameable and ineffable — as Lao-tzu would say of the tao. This is not an ineffability that means an abstraction invented for the occasion or a non-verifiable phenomenon. Enter consciousness and perception to see immediately the duality-making propensity of the mind. It does not invent but observes in one sweep. Invention comes later. It is not necessary to deny the dualism between mind and objects. The pompous Zen student who claimed to have reach that transcendent point got a bamboo stickblow on the shoulders from his master, as if to say “Have you transcended even this pain?”

Even while Pai-chang bids us start practicing and to leave off scriptures and discourses, practice is only half-way there. Meditation takes us to a point of feeling good, of self-confidence. This is another necessary virtue, but to stop there, like the foolish student, is precarious. Japanese Zen master Takusui called meditation the sickness of submergence. We see this sickness in the profligate use of Eastern techniques in the Western world. Yoga and meditation become remedies for stress, palliatives that refresh us so that we can charge full throttle again into the rat race. This is the sickness of attachment, though in ignorance we pride ourselves on a work ethic and integrity.

The beginning of detachment is the fruit of meditation, but it is never attained by allegiance to the world and its insistence on service to itself and by extension (it will say) service to others. After we have wrestled with the dilemma of attachment, non-attachment becomes a new obstacle. We cannot apply the same desire and grasping for worldly objects to a new desire and grasping for non-attachment. Non-attachment is what Pai-chang calls the “intermediate good,” the “half-word teaching.” At least you “avoid falling into the way of the two vehicles, and avoid falling into the way of demons.” But its practice is still meditation sickness.

Once you no longer dwell in non-attachment, and do not even make an understanding of not dwelling either, this is the final good, this is the full-word teaching. You avoid falling into the formless realm, avoid falling into meditation sickness, avoid falling into the way of bodhisattvas, and avoid falling into the state of the king of demons.

Thus we have not only the barrier of knowledge — that inheritance of nature, culture, socialization, environment, heredity, and experience that comprises our personality — but also have the barrier of station, which is our present existential situation, no matter what the barrier of knowledge. Conscience is a “wound,” Pai-chang says, and we all share this characteristic of being.

But further, the practice we undertake, such as meditation, presents a third barrier, the barrier of activity. We want to act, to strive, in our new-found realization of a path. Yet while the first two barriers are existential in character — and can theoretically be addressed and mitigated — the last barrier merely shows how weak and vulnerable we are as fickle human beings. We cannot contrive a device for transcendence because we fall back on our finitude.

A deep understanding of self, in practice that goes beyond the mere desire for equanimity — in short, a radical solitude — is inherent in the Eastern traditions and will work, Pai-change insists. Even the doctrinal school will show this, he notes. We don’t need to be scholars to get there; there isn’t enough time. So we have to start now by grasping the essence of the teaching. This is the “highest knowledge,” says Pai-chang.

This is called an enlightened one beyond confinement — no thing can capture or bind such a one. Here is one of the Buddhas succeeding to the Burning Lamp. This is the supreme vehicle, the highest knowledge — this is standing on the way of enlightenment. This person is Buddha, and has the enlightened nature; he is a guide, able to employ the unobstructed wind. This is unimpeded illumination.