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Ming Zhen Shakya

Socrates Teaches Zen to Phaedrus

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

Plato is not usually regarded as a mystical philosopher, much less as a man of Zen. But we have, especially in his dialogue, Phaedrus, convincing evidence that he'd have known his way around a Zendo. The pity is that the Attic penchant for flagrantly admiring innocent male beauty - and the obvious necessity of this being young male beauty - has caused this dialogue to be considered more as an apology for pederasty than as a testament to Divine Union.

In the Phaedrus, much attention is given the dreary comparison of the soul's skill in self-governance to a charioteer's ability to manage two oppositely directed horses, while the dialogue's astonishing mystical revelations are nearly ignored. It is enough that Ganymede's name is mentioned in the dull analogy.

There's no denying that among the Greek aristocracy what was supposed to be an honorable mentoring relationship between a mature man and a pubescent boy occasionally degenerated into overt sexual partnering. Plato's stand, however, on the subject of homoerotic acts is clear. He draws the same line that is increasingly becoming familiar to us: a line that separates sexual child abuse and sex of any kind between consenting adults. But he creates a chasm of separation between the eroticism of worldly human love and the eroticism aroused by the earthly recognition of gods that have been seen in the "other" world, Nirvana's heavenly precincts. However fascinating homosexuality and bisexuality are, it is divine love - not human love - that is at the core of the Phaedrus. A more spiritual interpretation of the dialogue would suggest that the focus upon male-to-male relationships facilitates the exclusion of heterosexual love, a requirement for entry into mystical marriage. A man who has projected his Anima upon a human female has no resident Anima necessary to subsume his ego so that he may enter the Bridal Chamber. It is as simple as that.

Young Phaedrus and Socrates are sitting on a riverbank in the shade of a tree, and the subject Plato says they are discussing is love. But what kind of love? Love, in English, covers a lot of territory. We say that we love our country and we love our children and we love our new shoes and we love to play golf and we love chocolate. Oh, and yes, we love our lovers… sometimes. (But we always love chocolate.)

That same all-purpose word "love" intrigues Plato. Assuming a religious purpose to the dialogue, we expect that he will let Socrates define true mystical love for us, and in this we shall not be disappointed. But first he has to dispose of the mundane varieties. A fellow named Lysias will get that thankless job.

Phaedrus has recently gone to one of those all-male dinner-and-speeches affairs popular among the Greek literati; and his host Lysias has ventured to lecture the guests on the question of which type older man makes the better mentor and/or suitor of a "beloved" young male - the 'lover' type or the 'non-lover' type? Lysias much prefers non-lovers to lovers. Lovers, he insists, are too emotionally involved, tending to be jealous, unstable, petty, vain and capricious, while non-lovers display a cool maturity, acting always out of a kind of enlightened self-interest which, he insists, serves the interests of the beloved far better. Of course, both types crave worldly love and admiration. They manipulate, cajole, and otherwise exploit a "beloved" in order to satisfy their own egotistical desires. Lust, greed, anger, and the quest for social status - these are the usual characteristics of these outward archetypal projections. But if it is mystical love that Plato is considering, he will need to take us in another direction.

Spiritually engaged persons practice an inward mystical religion, while non-mystics or ordinary congregation members practice an outward religion. In Jungian terms this means that mystics integrate the archetypes, i.e., their ego is subsumed in the interior Alchemical Opus - either in terms of familiar European imagery or in a fully visionary Chakra or Microcosmic Orbit system, while members who are not mystics project their archetypes outward onto the people, places, and things of this material world. These projections may be benign: in a Zen group we find persons who sincerely seek religious instruction or expression, or emotional support during a personal crisis, or who selflessly strive to enrich the religious environment for others. But there are also those who are motivated by less than noble desires. Like Lysias' lover and non-lover types, whether consciously or not, they seek to satisfy their own needs, employing various strategies and tactics. To see this more clearly, we can substitute "some members" for his "lovers" and "other members" for his "non-lovers." For "beloved" we can substitute "group."

Lysias says some members will regret whatever kindnesses they have shown the group when their interest in it ceases, and this is indeed true. Other members "have no time of repentance, because they are free and not subject to necessity, and they confer their benefits as far as they are able, in the way which is most conducive to their own interest." These we immediately recognize as persons who join a Zen group and hand out business cards.

Some members, he continues, tally up the benefits they've conferred, the troubles they've endured, and the cost of having neglected their interests - and then worry about having paid out too much; while other members have "no such tormenting recollections." Their relationships, having been casual or exploitative, can be abandoned without even feeling the need to make an excuse. Further, Lysias notes, some members of a group are too eager to martyr themselves, seeing this sacrifice as evidence of the value of their commitment; but other members denigrate such martyrdom, regarding it as the kind of brainless enthusiasm that easily switches loyalties. They expect that when the switch occurs the martyr will sacrifice his present group's interest and reputation to the new one's. And it usually happens that when a member of one congregation leaves it to join another, the old group is thoroughly trashed. Some members over-praise their religion to the point of ridicule, while other members hold themselves in a superior position and are always 'instructively critical.' And, Lysias says, as to showing gratitude for the time and money some members donate to the group's welfare, well, since such generous persons are obviously too emotionally needy and "not in their right minds" nobody has to worry about repaying them. Ouch.

On and on Phaedrus recounts to Socrates the various means by which Lysias says people interact with others, bonding and breaking bonds all in the name of Love (or religion). It is all too much for Socrates to bear. At first he attempts to rid himself of the problem by agreeing with Lysias, even amplifying his argument; but the burden of enlightenment presses on him, and he recants. The cool, emotionally uninvolved "non-lover" is not the superior of the two. It is love and only love that matters. And we have returned to the main point of the dialogue. What kind of love are we talking about?

Human love is, after all, the stuff of samsaric existence, the conditional world's theatre of the ego and its responses to all the instinctive projections of love and hate it launches. Sometimes human love works out and sometimes it doesn't. We unconsciously project a god upon a mortal and then worship the god. If the mortal has the wherewithal to sustain the projection, half the battle is won. The other half of the battle is with the other half of the couple. But whether the bonding evolves into a Golden Wedding Anniversary or breaks apart in a divorce court, it is, despite poetic hyperbole, still earthly love. For so long as the lovers are deified by one another in blissful delusion, their union continues. Just so, social interests and ethics imposed by code and reinforced by sermon are good enough reasons to join religious groups; and there are many persons who live decent lives in accordance with religious principles; but this is only the earthly function of religion. None of it has anything whatsoever to do with the "other" world, the world of the Holy Spirits, the heavens in which we experience different levels or kinds of divine love.

To enter such spiritual precincts we turn inward to a world in which nothing is rational. This is where we experience that love which incinerates the ego, that manic state - the euphoria known as Zen Disease or, as Socrates puts it, Divine Madness. And here we find those kinds of spiritual attainments that successful Zen practitioners experience.

Socrates lists four mystical attainments. The first is one which many Zen people report: the peculiar ability to "sense" or intuit what someone is thinking or is about to do, an uncanny awareness of an intention, or an anticipation of a future event. These intuitions usually occur because in true meditation the ego has been transcended; and, as in martial arts' mastery, data is received and responded to subliminally. Socrates calls this "prophecy" and differentiates it from divination and other forms of prognostication which are based upon the appearance of omens. A product of achieving a self-controlled trance state, this ability is also akin to the strange insights that come from studying oracular messages - such as furnished by the I Ching or Tarot cards - or while pondering a question while gazing into a crystal ball or a dark mirror. Anything that tricks, occupies or stymies the mind, so that awareness can do an 'end-run' around the ego to enter the meditative state - and discern personality or situation without prejudicial input from the ego, functions as an instrument of prophecy. Koan study or the focus on certain lines of poetry or scripture also accomplishes this necessary thought deflection. To the Greeks, the god Apollo presided over this attainment.

The second form of spiritual attainment comes through prayer and ritual. Faith (belief magnified to conviction) when acquired as the result of direct communication with the divine through prayer or meditation, can give an ordinary person extraordinary powers. When beset by woe, says Socrates, "…madness, lifting up her voice and flying to prayers and rites, has come to the rescue of those who are in need; and he who has part in this gift, and is truly possessed and duly out of his mind, is by use of purifications and mysteries made whole and delivered from evil, future as well as present, and has a release from the calamity which afflicts him." He cites one cause of trouble, an "ancient wrath"- perhaps what many Buddhists would call Karma - that can be eradicated or atoned for by such prayer and ritual. Since it is Dionysus who presides over this level, the stipulated "initiation" is no doubt into the first level of the Dionysian Mysteries.

Prayer and ritual, then, are not accomplished by mere recitation or the repetition of a sequence of actions. The prayer has to be fervent, the acts compelled by an unseen force that seizes the celebrant. Rationality has to be suspended - whether it is in a miracle of transubstantiation - as when consecrated water becomes amniotic fluid for the nourishment of the Divine Foetus in our Buddhist ritual, or whether it is the flesh and blood of the Savior as in the Christian Eucharistic service. It is not a ritual if the stuff of celebration is mere symbol. For in that case, rationality has replaced manic adoration. Earthly affection and gratitude have replaced enthralled passion, and communal fellowship has replaced Divine Union. No matter how controlled it appears on the surface, ritual must have a "frenzied" component. Adoration (eros) has to consume all thought and reason (logos). If, when we chant scripture we notice our own voice, we know that we are doing it wrong.

The third attainment Socrates describes is the creative surge that a person feels as a result of achieving true meditation. This, too, has a Dionysian element - for it was Dionysus who inspired the very first drama, language as a medium of worship, literature as an inspired expression. Often the person so "creatively enthusiastic" finds himself seized by the desire to master an academic discipline or to produce artistic works. In his efforts he can become so concentrated that he loses all sense of time. His products are entirely spontaneous, the mark of 'genius'. Critics may or may not appreciate his work, but the excitement of the execution, the exhilaration that attends his endeavors is quite beyond rational explanation. Any person possessed by one of the Muses may experience this fury of artistic or intellectual activity. "This madness," says Socrates, "enters into a delicate and virgin soul, and there inspiring frenzy, awakens lyric and all other numbers." The same irrepressible enthusiasm affects persons who have succeeded in attaining Satori or other high states of consciousness. Although it is the Muses who preside over this level, it is Dionysus who is the divine patron.

The fourth kind of Divine Madness, Socrates says, "…is the greatest of heaven's blessings, and the proof shall be one which the wise will receive, and the witling disbelieve." And here we get to the heights of the religious experience, Divine Union, the Empty Circle or Void, and the glorious, transsexual Divine Marriage, Zen's Union of Opposites. Aphrodite and her son, Eros, preside over this attainment.

First, describing the Void, Socrates says, "Now of the heaven which is above the heavens, no earthly poet has sung or ever will sing in a worthy manner. But I must tell, for I am bound to speak truly when speaking of the truth. The colorless and formless and intangible essence is visible to the mind, which is the only lord of the soul." No Zen adept would dispute this description.

But as to the ecstasy that attends states beyond Sunyata, Socrates rapturously describes the exquisite visions of the divine that he knew in what we would call the Alchemical Opus. "Let me linger thus long over the memory of scenes which have passed away," he says plaintively.

How long the old philosopher lingers, we do not know; but when he speaks again, he is transported into a super-sensual world, and beauty has become not only the Soul, itself, but a goddess - Aphrodite who is apprehended only by wisdom. In lines reminiscent of the devotions to the Prajna Paramita, both as goddess and as principle, he says, "But of beauty, I repeat again that we saw her there shining in the company with the celestial forms; and coming to earth we find her here too, shining in clearness through the clearest aperture of sense. For sight is the keenest of our bodily senses; though not by that is wisdom seen, for her loveliness would have been transporting if there had been a visible image of her..." Again, he states that the qualification necessary for the apprehension of such beauty is "initiation." Without initiation man pursues only the name of beauty which "like a brutish beast" he enjoys "in violation of nature."

"Initiation" is the operative word. All that Socrates continues to rhapsodize about is dependent upon this event. Plato is clear in his qualification of this erotic state: it applies only to those experiences which follow spiritual initiation.

Homoerotic desires among ordinary men lack this spiritual qualification; while those in the Opus are curiously heterosexual since the man who enters the Bridal Chamber is, for so long as he is in the meditative state, entirely feminine. It is this meditative trans-sexuality that initiation into this fourth phase confers. In spiritual literature, the male mystic usually refers to himself in the feminine third person - as his feminine Soul or Anima. Socrates claims "Soul" possession by Aphrodite, herself, through the efforts of her son, Eros. In Mahayana Buddhism, the guise assumed by the male mystic is usually represented as the feminine aspect of the androgynous Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara or Samantabhadra. D.T. Suzuki in his Third Series of Essays on Zen displays a lovely Japanese drawing of Samantabhadra as a beautiful courtesan, demurely mounted on an elephant. To the same effect, the legendary Chinese Princess Miao Shan personates Guan Yin, in, however, a purely virginal role.

All this is, of course, extremely difficult for the uninitiated person to comprehend.

We are reminded immediately of the conflict surrounding Jalaladin Rumi's relationship to Shams of Tabriz.. Rumi was a heterosexual husband and father who attained Divine Marriage upon meeting the Sufi master, Shams. In his transcendental feminine aspect, Rumi fell madly in love with Shams. The two were inseparable for months, secluding themselves in a private house. Scandal followed. Few laymen understood Divine Marriage or the transsexual nature of the meditative trance that possessed Rumi. Scandal prompted murder, and Rumi's own son was implicated in Shams' assassination.

For hundreds of years since that event people have been asking just what went on between the "lover and the beloved" in that secluded house. The same question has been asked about the close relationships that many saints and Zen masters have had with certain of their disciples. Theologians, knowing of the sacred implications of the event, have no problem with it. Chastity is assumed.

Plato, however, lived in different cultural circumstances. There, according to Socrates, who admittedly is speaking while in an ecstatic state, we find more than just a suggestion of physical intimacy between lover and beloved. Yet his explanations do not illuminate the fascination for the young which is so evident in the Phaedrus.

As any Buddhist or Daoist mystic can attest, there is more to the Alchemical Opus than marriage and honeymoon. There is the formation of the Immortal Foetus who quickly becomes the Child Mercurius. This is this playful, "mercurial" spirit which, when projected onto someone in the material world, can become so problematic for the alchemist. The great Gerhard Dorn thought the projection owed its stunning force to an amalgamation of residues, the leftover, unused psychic energy originally allotted to the now-integrated archetypes. The boy becomes at once son, brother, lover, pupil, friend, hero. Encountered in the everyday samsaric world, the mystic or alchemist reels from the strange attracting force, astonished that he has been so unreasonably drawn to a young person. Here, too, we can see the differences between the responses of the uninitiated and those which are pursuant to sacred encounters. Often we find that a mature and entirely responsible - but uninitiated - man finds himself inexplicably drawn to a young person, an attraction which is usually disastrous. The identical attraction may be felt by the mystic who is able to respond to it either by calculated rejection (as in the prescribed Mahayana response) or by a managed involvement as in the response put forth by Plato in the Phaedrus. Socrates says, "but he whose initiation is recent, and who has been the spectator of many glories in the other world, is amazed when he sees anyone having a god-like face or form, which is the expression or imitation of divine beauty… then looking upon the face of his beloved as of a god he reverences him, and if he were not afraid of being thought a downright madman, he would sacrifice to his beloved as to the image of a god." Ethical restraints are supposed to be self-imposed by the Lover. In the spirit of friendship and in the name of a chosen god, he nurtures the beloved and in no way seeks to corrupt him.

But in the material world, as in the spiritual, the boy becomes a man. "And so the beloved who, like a god, has received every true and loyal service from his lover, not in pretense but in reality, being also himself of a nature friendly to his admirer… now as years advance, at the appointed age and time is led to receive him into communion."

That this communion can be sexual, Socrates leaves no doubt.

Lover and beloved otherwise seem to lead normal sexual lives. The Greek hero Achilles was the beloved of Patroclus, an older man who was his mentor. Whatever their intimacy, there was big trouble on the Trojan beaches when a young woman, Briseis, who had been given to Achilles for his sexual pleasure, was weasled away from him by the Commander of the Greek forces. Achilles, indignant, withdrew from combat and sulked in his tent. In support, Patroclus, too, refused to fight until it became evident that the Greeks were losing the war. He returned to the battle but failed to persuade Achilles to join him. Not until Patroclus was killed by Hector did Achilles relent, vowing, "I will kill the destroyer of him I loved." We find these protestations odd; but the Greeks evidently did not.

Whether the love is homosexual, friendly, or paternal, Socrates insists that it is occasioned by the impact of seeing an earthly reproduction of a celestial being. This is not so bizarre as it at first seems. Very often Zen practitioners are startled to see a statue or other artwork that faithfully reproduces the features of someone they saw in a meditative vision. Visionary birds, too, are especially meaningful. The androgynous spirit Eros, familiar to us as Cupid, flies around at will. Socrates quotes two lines from Homer:

'"Mortals call him Eros (love), But the immortals call him Pteros (fluttering dove), Because fluttering of wings is a necessity to him.'"

Regardless of the constraints or lack of them imposed by the participants themselves or the degree of understanding with which society responds to such spiritual ascendancy, or whether the participants are shamans, laymen, high priests, or Zen masters, the experience is universally known. Common among the rare, this is the Rebis Experience of the Alchemical Opus, Zen's Union of Opposites: Divine Marriage and its subsequent conception of the divine child.

The Phaedrus ends with a discussion about oratory, rhetoric, logic, and a warning about the dangers of the written word, particularly when the author cannot be questioned. "He would be a simple person…" says Socrates, "who deemed that writing was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters." Zen practitioners are in complete accord, for since its founding Zen has prided itself on being a special transmission outside the scriptures.'

The study of spiritual experiences is not a substitute for the experience of them. Zen, as Plato would have affirmed, is in the doing. 


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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