But Suzuki warns us that even satori has its degrees. What we seek is a thorough-going and clear-cut turning-point in life, a complete mental revolution founded in extreme effort that allows us to “drink deep of the inexhaustible fountain.”8 The greatest chance of success seems to come from focusing on a koan so intensely that one neglects sleep, eating, other thoughts, wrapping of one’s entire existence continuously in that single question9 until one achieves a state of tranquility and purity.10 Suzuki’s description:
“When thus all mentation is temporarily suspended, even the consciousness of an effort to keep an idea focused at the center of attention is gone – that is, when as the Zen followers say, the mind is so completely possessed or identified with its object of thought that even the consciousness of identity is lost as when one mirror reflects another, the subject feels as if living in a crystal palace, all transparent, refreshing, buoyant, and royal.”11
And yet there is one more step – an explosive awakening from that spell of concentration on a kaon to the truth of Zen, the seeing of one’s true nature and the oneness of things. The earlier ‘equilibrium tilts for one reason or another. A stone is thrown into a sheet of water and spreads all over the surface. A sound knocks at the gate of consciousness so tightly closed, and it at once reverberates through the entire being of the individual.”12 This then is satori, a state of enlightenment and perpetual serenity.
Of course all of this is fascinating, but in achieving contentment, Zen in general and Suzuki’s interpretation in particular remain problematic for many of us. There is the requirement of tutelage of a master, extended time focused on seemingly trite puzzles, even physical assaults. When one is older as I am, the idea of supplicating to a master seems retrogressive, even juvenile. On the other hand I have found remarkable (if temporary) tranquility in contemplation not of trivial or commonplace issues, but (following Aristotle) of more profound questions such as the metaphysical (e.g. “What is free will?”) or ethical (e.g. “Do any ends permit treating another person as a means?”). I remain open-minded, but suspect that the real lesson of Zen may be that intense concentration on fundamental truths of reality is a vital piece of achieving contentment, rather than conformity to specific practices.
Next time I will pull together the path to contentment revealed in the various Eastern traditions we have examined.
8Barrett, William (editor), Zen Buddhism; Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki. Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, NY, 1956. Page 97.
9Suzuki offers as an example the case of one student who spent eight years pondering the question: “Who is he who cometh towards me?”
10Ibid., page 101.
11Ibid., page 102.
12Ibid., page 102-103.
2 Replies to “CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WISDOM OF THE EAST – PART V (continued)”
Not fully convinced the wisdom of the east has moment now. Something called contextual reality may change that. When enough conditions are altered to suit new expectations, reality loses older meaning. Accepted truth takes on plasticity. The surreal becomes real. We can go on, seeking solace in past wisdom. But, if there is no practical sense to that, all that happens is perpetuation of a facade…
Again I appreciate your thoughtful comments, though I think I disagree about the place of Eastern Wisdom in modernity. There are after all some 1.2 billion Hindus and over 500 million Buddhists worldwide. There are over one million of each in the United States alone and of course Yoga in one form or another is practiced by up to 37 million Americans. Books by authors such as Eckhart Tolle, Eknath Easwaran, Deepak Chopra and others continue to be popular. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Johnathan Livingston Seagull were best sellers early in my life adding a gloss of linearity to the continuing influence of these traditions.
Still your larger point is a good one. We live in a world of blunt materialism, concrete thinking, facts, and artificial electronic experiences. Truth is most often identified with empiricism and scientific demonstration. Internal or subjective truth is discounted and striving to grasp the whole of reality is considered folly. Meanwhile meditation is simply another object for psychological study. My goal in this section is to introduce or reintroduce a perspective alien to many of us – especially in the West.
As I read history, I am impressed by how few of the greatest minds of the West (at least since antiquity) have found contentment in life or have even addressed the subject of tranquility. How happy or meaningful is a life spent in unending turmoil and unease? No matter how much we deny it, I suspect we all wish to achieve a state of lasting peace within ourselves and with reality before we die. This seeking is interwoven with the ultimate goals of the thoughtfully lived life.
And this is the point where science and modernity’s immense knowledge break down. Just as the blind man learns to hear the subtleties of sound that the sighted miss, so ancient thinkers may have find the path to contentment which the overstimulated overlooks. And I think these traditions offer practical steps we can take should one be persuaded of their validity.
Thank you again for your interest in Philosophicalguidance.com