The Middle Way
"A philosopher who has not realized his metaphysics," said Mohammed, "is an ass bearing a load of books." And so is the person, we sooner or later likewise believe, who practices a religion without experiencing it in its spiritual core. When we are that person, we start to feel - not without justification - a tad asinine. We study and go through the motions; but when practice seems pointless and all our actions are reduced to habit or duty, we grow weary of the burden of other men's opinions and revelations. Faith has its limits. We want some experience of our own.
After the essay Zen and the Discontented Worker appeared on our website, many people wrote asking how they might lighten their load of non-experience. They wanted to know by what means a god or goddess could be recognized and apprehended. Some weren't quite sure what a goddess was; but whatever it was, they wanted an introduction.
So we thought we'd back up a bit and give some background information and relate a personal experience which served for the writer to make sense out of what is, admittedly, a very illogical subject.
Usually, we enter a religion in one of two ways. We can be born into a specific religion, accepting its doctrines and attending its services as a matter of family tradition, identifying ourselves as members of a community in which it is assumed that we and our descendants will remain. Although we've inherited a religion with as little choice as we've inherited a gene, we nevertheless suppose that we are fortunate to number ourselves among those who have had the good taste and intelligence to be "chosen" for inclusion in its embrace.
The other way to enter a religious path is to jump onto it either as converts from another less betrothing path or as spiritual vagrants, wanderers who are tired of life's slippery slopes and seek direction and a smoother road.
But no matter how we came to find ourselves on a path, the problem remains. How do we experience the numinous within the phenomenal and encounter those divinities others so reverently quote or depict?
Every religion has a cast of spiritual characters: the gods, goddesses, saints, prophets, archetypes, bodhisattvas, buddhas, angels, nymphs, nixies, pixies, leprechauns, incubi, succubi, devils, djins, wrathful deities, et al. Even in monotheistic religions, the cast is endless. We see these creatures in visions or vivid dreams. But because we don't understand the kind of reality they possess, we usually don't know why they have appeared. The thought that we're hallucinating doesn't make for impartial investigation.
Historically, such spiritual creatures were lauded or blamed for foul weather, for sunny days and tidal waves, for thunder, lightning, rain. Their temper tantrums caused earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and whenever we felt compelled to act contrary to our ego's intentions, we blamed the gods. The Devil made me do it.
On a more prosaic level, gods lent their names to similarly characteristic human behaviors. A person who is volatile, of quickly changing mood, is mercurial. If he's petty in a militaristic way, he's a martinet. He can be taciturn and, naturally, saturnine... he can get venereal diseases. But always the gods have been seen as external; and if a person imitated their actions in some way, the behavioral impetus has invaded him as an inspiration, a curse, a seed, a charm, an arrow.
That it was the other way round, that the gods existed as personified patterns of behavior that existed within a human being's psyche as, say, genetically encoded survival programs, did not occur to anyone.
No one regarded the stories about gods as allegories... that the Judgment of Paris, for example, might mean something else besides a foolish prince's choice in a divine beauty contest. No one saw the mythic tales as being different from a movie's fictive images projected upon a silver screen: entertaining, arousing, or instructive, but always external shadows on a screen. The Buddha and Plato, too, insisted that these shadows were images that we ourselves cast. Samsara was the bitter and painful experience of the dreary Cave, the only light of which was a fire behind us that cast our own shapes upon the wall. Carl Jung finally explained that it wasn't just a wall, but it was other people, places and things upon which the fire of our own mind projected filmed images, the programs of instinctive action and reaction. And just as we, when watching movies, suspend credulity and are oblivious to the mechanics of film, projector and screen, so, too, do we remain oblivious to the mechanism of our own projections. We do not see that screen (the person, place or thing) as it is, but see only what we have projected upon it.
Any time we feel emotion we are projecting an archetype or symbol out of what Jung called "the collective unconscious" - collective because it is an endowment which all human beings share, a repository of our human survival instincts. "E' means "away from" and "motion" is movement and what moves away from us is this projected image which then attaches us, as an emotional tie or bond, to the person upon whom we have projected it. This attachment may be experienced as revulsion or desire, but whatever it is, in our delusion we believe that the qualities which we have cast upon the recipient are actually possessed by the recipient. Our baby seems to be a perfect baby because we have projected a divine Child upon him; our lover seems to be a perfect lover because we have projected a divine Anima or Animus upon her or him. Our enemy seems to be evil... because we have projected Satan (the Enemy Shadow) upon him. For as long as our projection remains secure, we see no flaw in our baby or our lover and no good quality whatsoever in our enemy.
In Zen, we strive to become detached and to have no emotional links to any particular person, place or thing; to possess no special friends, for example, but merely to be friendly. To achieve this detachment is to attain freedom and independence.
Jung also noted that an archetypal or instinctual drive is represented in our psyche in three forms: it can be personified as an anthropomorphic presence such as a god or goddess; or as a geometric shape or object; or as an animal. A check of the Chakra axle likewise shows a god and goddess, an animal, and a geometric shape in each wheel. These, then, are the creatures we see in vivid, archetypal dreams or in deep meditative states; but how do we integrate spiritual information into an academic program? The necessary insight, that first step in the realization of our metaphysics, will take us to a level of awareness we must be primed to appreciate.
I used to wonder about these gods or goddesses and how they managed to inflict their instinctive will upon us to make us function in the way we do. It wasn't until the 1960s that I got my first insight into the way the instinctive behavioral traits related to divinity. Prior to this I had heard about archetypes, their positive and negative aspects, and their complexes, constellations and contaminations; but while I could more or less recite definitions and differentiate symbols, I had not really appreciated the terms as anything more than psychspeak.
Carl Jung had recently died and his work was having a postmortem renaissance; Konrad Lorenz was a few years shy of winning a Nobel Prize for his revelations about animal behavior, most notably about the astonishing power of instincts to dictate conduct - as when a gosling assumed the first creature it saw upon hatching was its mother; and Edith Hamilton's retelling of the Greek myths, a smoother but no less superficial treatment of the Olympian presences than Bulfinch's had been, had found its way onto everybody's bookshelf.
I was attending the celebrations of Frontier Days, a major event on the rodeo circuit, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. A group of us was sitting around a dinner table, talking quietly after a good meal, when somebody remarked that the moon was gibbous and there'd soon be a full moon; and one of the men asked what had been planned that year for the Hunter's Moon. I didn't know what that meant and a woman sitting next to me whispered that it was a particularly bright full moon, occurring usually in October or November. Then two of the men began to reminisce about a hunting trip they had once been on in Alaska. Their quarry was a specific bull moose.. an evidently majestic animal with enormous antlers and a nasty reputation for attacking anything that moved when it was rutting. "Moose," my informant allowed, "are usually docile but during mating season they're vicious."
As the story unfolded I learned that this particular moose had killed a girl who was on her way to school, and her father, aggrieved, was determined to kill it. My two dinner companions had agreed to form a hunting party with him. They, having no grudge against the animal, were interested only in the sport of it, although one of them had the additional purpose of wanting the trophy head and antlers to hang on the wall of his game room.
There were then only three men in the party and they needed and got two others because, as my companion explained, a moose is a large animal and there's no point in killing a food animal if the meat isn't going to be eaten. After they dressed the animal, they'd quarter it and would have to haul it out on foot, possibly for many miles. So I learned that hunting parties are not just for safety in numbers or for teamwork pursuit but also are needed for transporting the meat back to waiting families. This was all interesting enough, but then the two reminiscing hunters began to talk about the experience; and I could see in their eyes and in the hushed tones of their voices that they, in a sense, were reliving the experience. Jung called this state a "feeling-toned" retelling of an archetypal encounter.
The hunters claimed that for the nearly three days they tracked the moose they had not eaten or drunk anything. This puzzled me and one of them interrupted his narrative to explain, "animals identify other animals by scent - scat or urine... if you don't drink, you don't urinate; and if you don't eat..." I got the message. The hunters further insisted that they had not deliberately refrained from eating and drinking.. but that they simply were not hungry or thirsty. They had one objective only - obtaining the moose - and the five of them were united as one stalking machine. They were not simply trying to kill the moose - they could have done that at a distance. They needed to access the moose safely and in a place from which they could carry the carcass out.
Clearly, hunting large game in a mountainous wilderness was as complicated as a game of chess.
As they resumed their detailed pursuit narrative they again became completely mesmerized by the recollection. There is a boundary between desire and obsession and during the hunt they had clearly crossed that boundary. And so, as they recounted the adventure, their eyes glazed over as they spoke of those infinite nuances of the chase that evidently only hunters can appreciate.
A waiter came to the table and dispelled the mood.
I asked the woman beside me if she liked to go hunting. "I prefer supermarket meat," she said. and then she added, surprised, "Besides, women are not allowed in hunting parties. It just isn't done."
On and off I thought about this for a couple of days and then, suddenly, it all came together... this strange force that enabled a hunter to be completely one-pointed in concentration and determination, even to the degree that his own body fluids would be so radically conserved. This was physiological as well as psychological - evolutionary behavior no doubt unchanged in a few hundred thousand years of carnivore existence. This was not simple blood lust or sporting fun or jock camaraderie... this was a survival motif. Nature had programmed men to respond in this specific behavior pattern. Only a peculiar kind of emotion, i.e., the complete evocation of an archetype, could account for such profound physical change.
And suddenly it came to me... the Hunter's Moon... Artemis/Diana is the Goddess of the Moon as well as the Goddess of the Hunt. Jung called the gods and goddesses "archetypes" or basic survival instincts - instincts that were hormonally fueled, ignited by a maturation process or by an egregious external stimulus.
Obviously, the hunters' behavior had survival value. Human beings need protein. And to someone out in the wilderness hunting, the bright moon is indispensable. So finally I grasped a connection between a Greek goddess and a fact of human behavior. And even that peculiar representation of Artemis/Diana with multiple breasts began to make much more sense than regarding ten nipples as an appropriate attribute of a virgin goddess. The hunting party in its fasting mode was "spiritually" drinking from the goddess' font. I recall being stunned at putting this together. It didn't matter whether or not the explanation was completely accurate or even if it were totally inaccurate. It worked. It made sense, and it provided an insightful method of connecting gods and goddesses with human behavior. Did Diana's virginity indicate that things sexual should never insinuate themselves into the sacred act of hunting? I consulted Sir James Frazer's "The Golden Bough" to see what he had to say about the subject.
Frazer cited numerous accounts of sexual taboos that hunters around the world assiduously observed. Pre-hunt purity in spirit was achieved by confession, penance and various austerities; and abstinence from sexual activity for a week or more prior to the hunt was mandatory. To break this rule was to invite disaster. There were instances in which a man was prohibited from being included in a hunting party if he so much as looked upon a woman during the purification period that preceded the hunt. (No wonder Actaeon's dogs attacked him after he spied upon the bathing Artemis!) Needless to say, the biggest taboo of all was the presence of a menstruating woman in or even near the vicinity of preparation and purification. That a woman would be excluded from participating in the hunt was a given... but that a menstruating woman would even enter the vicinity of preparation and purification so jinxed the plans that the whole idea of a hunt had to be abandoned. Fasting, was of course, universally required.
The efficacy of these taboos and rituals can be understood in terms of pheromones produced by visual and olfactory stimuli, the musks of estrus and such,.and of the heightened state of awareness induced by fasting; but it does not explain the ecstasy of the hunt. What does explain it is that the hunters were totally focussed upon an object. Concentration is a prerequisite of meditation; and it is in the meditative state that such exhilaration is attained. It is a kind of irrational Zen Disease.
In a then current film, War Hunt, John Saxon captured perfectly that strange, possessed quality of the hunter, the thrill of creeping through the night to pick and stalk his prey and kill it. Robert Redford (who made his acting debut in this film) played a character who tried to understand the hunter's behavior rationally. But the hunt, involving as it does transcendental logic, cannot be understood rationally. Yes, we can say, "We need the protein," but this need does not explain the excitation. The hunter is seized by a godlike force that gives him 'supernatural' powers evidenced in both its physiological and psychological affects.
We find this total-body involvement every time we experience a pure archetypal encounter. A mother's spontaneous cry of joy made when she first sees her newly delivered baby has no ego in it, no contrived plan, no scheme or intended effect. This cry of joy, as any woman who has had a child can attest, is Nirvanic in its purity. We would expect that physiological changes would accompany this stupendous moment, and, of course, they do. Her milk begins to flow and her powers of concentration on the baby become so acute that a muffled cry is magnified to blare. She is prepared to sacrifice anything for the well-being of her child, i.e., for the maintenance of this divine connection.
Later, when I began to experience deep states of meditation and knew for myself the exhilaration of an altered state of consciousness and the amount of time, energy and money I was prepared to devote to that state, I could appreciate the devotion men had and still have for the hunt. This was the reason they could spend thousands of dollars on vehicles, weapons and camping equipment and undergo the hardships of the hunt. Hunters could purchase a herd of cattle for what they spend hunting down a single deer. And didn't I purchase books, religious objects and special garments, receive instruction and go to China four times and struggle through the ordeal of Buddhist Ordination to maintain that financially unprofitable spiritual connection? People have asked me what I thought of the Great Wall. Great Wall? I saw no Great Wall... nor Imperial City... nor clay soldiers at Xian... nor famed Shao Lin Ji. I went directly to Nan Hua monastery and returned home. Four times. That's a lot of Pacific Ocean to cross just to visit a monastery. Like modern hunters, I had no plan of enrichment, no future prospects. I simply felt compelled to go, that I was under the spell of an archetypal force, that I had no choice. This is the religious impulse, the spiritual imperative. Personally, as a survival program, I would gauge it the most significant of all.
So this is what a god or goddess is... a personified instinct which motivates us to act in certain ways, a biological survival program, one that gives us the force to act aggressively or defensively or to reproduce or make ourselves desirable as mates, to nurture our young, or even to pursue the interior path to Self-realization.
We don't have to have epiphanies, though, in times of extremity or during meditation or particularly vivid archetypal dreams, we often see these creatures with our own eyes. But more significantly we can experience these deities when we become self-aware and recognize that we are in thrall to them whenever we become emotional, whenever we are angry or lustful or greedy or when we nurture and protect. Zen requires us to discipline ourselves, to strengthen our egos sufficiently to resist deleterious impulses... but then to destroy our egos sufficiently to demolish pride and hubris. It's a fine line, a Middle Way, but it is the Aryan (Noble) Path. Zen Buddhism is a Solar religion, there is more Yang than Yin to it. The Head must study the Eightfold Path and guide the Heart along it.
So how do we realize our metaphysics? We submit to the dictates of the first seven steps on the Eightfold Path... and then, as supplicants, purified and prepared, we perform our meditation practice... not as a social event, a facade of politicized righteousness, or a public display of piety, but in quiet devotion...in private or in almost secret ritual, as personal as an entrance into one's spiritual interior - that Sacred Refuge - should be, do we begin that Eighth Step... meditation. There are many forms of meditation, of union, of yoga. Zen uses them all.
We shouldn't be put off by what we regard as a lack of progress. Things come in their own time and we each bring different talents and accomplishments with us when we approach the divine.
In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has Malvolio write, half in jest, "some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."
The Middle Way suggests the very hard work of achieving greatness.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts