A Buddhist Model of the Human Self
Working Through the Jung-Hisamatsu Discussion
Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.
Chuang Tzu, chapter 2 (Watson 1968:49) Introduction
On 16 May 1958, Shin’ichi Hisamatsu (1889–1980) met with C.G.Jung at Jung’s home outside of Zurich. Hisamatsu, an outstanding Zen layman and professor of Buddhism, was on his way back to Japan after lecturing on Zen Buddhism and Zen culture at Harvard University the previous year. On his one and only trip abroad, Hisamatsu was eager to meet and have discussions with leading figures in the fields of religion, philosophy, and psychology. He had had a number of discussions in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. On 18 May, two days after Hisamatsu’s meeting with Jung, the German thinker Martin Heidegger led a colloquy with Hisamatsu at Freiburg University.
The conversation with Jung was held in Japanese and Swiss German with interpretation. Communication problems arose, naturally enough, in the course of their conversation, and Jung did not consent to its publication. After his passing in 1961, however, transcriptions of the discussion have been repeatedly revised, translated, and published in English and in Japanese. This was due to the profound and ground-breaking nature of the discussion, communication problems notwithstanding. I can think of no better way to address, from the Zen perspective, the fundamental issues raised in the present volume than in clarifying—in ‘unpacking,’ so to speak—what Hisamatsu was driving at in this discussion with Jung.
Toward the end of the conversation, Hisamatsu asks whether or not one can be liberated even from the collective unconscious, and Jung replies affirmatively. Shoji Muramoto suggests that this is ‘the gravitational center of the entire conversation, comparable with a critical confrontation between a Zen Master and his disciple in Zen mondo (question and answer)’ (Muramoto 1998:48, note 8). I agree with Muramoto’s assessment, but further suggest that throughout the entire discussion Hisamatsu is attempting to engage Jung in just this manner. In short, from beginning to end, Hisamatsu is not only showing or explaining what Zen Buddhism is; he is provoking, rousing Jung to awaken to it himself.
For example, immediately after the preliminary introductions Hisamatsu already jumps into the fray by stating that he is asking about the final goal or aim of psychoanalysis so that he can compare it with Zen Buddhism. Hisamatsu then queries Jung on the relation between conscious and unconscious: Which, he asks, is the ‘true self’? He pointedly inquires into the nature of dukkha and whether or not it is the goal of therapy to free us from dukkha itself. (The Pali term dukkha expresses the first of the fourfold Noble Truths so central to Buddhism. It has been translated as ‘suffering’ but is perhaps better rendered as discontent or dis-ease; in the conversation with Jung, Hisamatsu used the common Japanese term nayami.) In spite of Jung’s objections, Hisamatsu concludes by repeatedly stating that the true self has no form or substance whatever. He is clearly speaking to—and from—what he is speaking about: ‘The true self is without form or substance. Thus it can never be bound by anything. Precisely this is the essence of religious liberation.’
Some of Hisamatsu’s assertions and questions may strike the reader as radical Zen mondo at its best—or worst, depending on one’s viewpoint. The mutual linguistic, cultural, and intellectual stumbling-blocks that arose during the conversation add to the effect, occasionally giving the discussion, especially the earliest English translation, a somewhat bizarre tone, described by one reviewer as sounding like Alice in Wonderland (see Muramoto 1998:38–9).
Upon a careful reading, however, one may be struck by the fact that Hisamatsu’s statements and questions constitute a dynamic, persuasive, and penetrating presentation of the fundamentals of Buddhism: that dukkha is inherent in life, and that there is, indeed, a liberation or awakening in which dukkha is eliminated at its root source. While we need to be wary of monolithic statements about Buddhism (and facile comparisons or contrasts with psychotherapy), I will try my best here to present Buddhism rather than sectarian or dogmatic Zen. When presenting a specifically Zen Buddhist position, I will state it as such.
Masao Abe, in his article ‘The self in Jung and Zen,’ states: ‘Although it is a relatively new scientific discipline, modern Western psychology shares with older Western spiritual traditions the affirmation of the existence of a self.’ Thus, for Abe, despite Jung’s long and deep interest in Eastern spiritual traditions, and his discussion with Hisamatsu, ‘there is no suggestion of the realization of the No-self in Jung.’ Jung, on his part, refused to allow the publication of the discussion, based on what he considered basic East-West differences—linguistic, philosophical, and psychological —that would take years to sort out (see Meckel and Moore 1992:114–15).
Let us now ‘work through,’ in the sense of uncover, clarify, and make our own, what Hisamatsu was driving at in that ground-breaking encounter with Jung. In a word, my task here is to elucidate Buddhism’s fundamental standpoint of ‘No-self’ in terms of ‘formless self.’
The Pali term dukkha calls out for clarification in this context. Hisamatsu probes Jung about the possibility of psychotherapy liberating us from dukkha itself, at a stroke, ‘in one fell swoop’ (see Muramoto 1998:44–5). Jung seems taken aback at the very possibility—or desirability—of such a thing. A bit later in the conversation, however, Jung agrees, at least in principle. But what is dukkha?
Dukkha can be described as the universal and constant discontent or dis-ease caused by blind desire or craving to have or to be something. One of the basic tenets of Buddhism is that not only is the desired object ultimately illusory, but so is the desiring self as subject. And yet, as long as craving continues, this complex of dukkha continues. In a word, the entire complex of self-world is dukkha. And it is truly unbearable: we can neither find, nor ourselves be, the ground or bearer of this, and thus we cannot stand or bear it.
Buddhism does not posit some substantial, underlying reality called dukkha. (Interpreters have sometimes made this mistake, thus branding Buddhism as pessimistic, gloomy, and without hope.) There is no substantial, underlying reality. The self, ignorant of this fact, is ceaselessly driven by restless desire and thus cannot avoid experiencing dukkha.
Nor can the self do anything to free itself from dukkha. We are unable to free ourselves from the constant threat of death even in the most intense living, unable to be free of illness even in our healthiest state, unable to extricate ourselves from pain even in our most pleasurable moments. In short, we are unable to free ourselves of negativity in all its forms, be it death, illness, error, evil, or sin. Hisamatsu often presented this ineluctable human situation as a fundamental koan: ‘As I am—however I am—will not do. Now what do I do?’
Pleasures as such are not, of course, denied. Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor morbid. Rather, it points out the fact that even pleasures grasped and aversions avoided are part and parcel of dukkha. Being trapped within the dualistic matrix of pleasure-pain, good-evil, life-death, is itself dukkha. It is easy to see that we are in dukkha when we do not have or become what we desire, or when we cannot avoid what we are averse to. But are we really free from dukkha even when we do have or become what we desire? Don’t we then fret over losing it, or doesn’t the object of our desire lose its appeal once we possess it? In a word, we do not truly come to rest even when the desired end is attained or the aversion avoided. This is the universal truth of dukkha, the first Noble Truth of Buddhism.
But it is not enough just to be aware of dukkha or ‘the existence of suffering.’ Thus, Hisamatsu often speaks of the need to inquire into, to penetrate, dukkha in a manner that is ‘fundamentally subjective.’ Fundamentally subjective means that it is not merely arbitrary, individual, or personal in contrast to being ‘objective.’ This attitude can be discerned in Shakyamuni sitting under the bodhi tree. In the preface to his major study on Eastern Nothingness, Hisamatsu spells it out:
Here my very being becomes an urgent problem. And yet I myself cannot become some objective data to be solved, for the problem is the totality of my own suffering existence. This living problem is no other than my own suffering existence. Like a doctor suffering from a fatal illness with which he might live or die: not something which can be examined objectively, it is his own illness which moment by moment draws nearer, threatening. The concreteness of this problem is realized when I suffer, just as the concrete fact of illness is realized when the doctor gets ill rather than when he deals with it as the object of his research.
The problem that I have is my suffering. Because it is I myself that am suffering, it cannot be dealt with in an objective manner. Because I myself am suffering I try to free myself—to save myself—from suffering. I am none other than the problem that must be resolved. And since this existence is a problematic existence, it cannot be said to truly be existence. This problem resolved is true existence, in which I find myself settled.
This fundamentally subjective attitude is crucial in Buddhism. Any approach— whether practical or theoretical—will fall short if it remains merely object-oriented, assuming something to be grasped, understood, or attained by the subject. This is true whether the approach involves entering samadhi, passing koans, contemplating the Buddha in various forms, calming, or introspection. Through such Buddhist practices it is possible to attain a special state of mind, even to gain some insight. If the root-source of dukkha is not cut off, however, there is the danger of falling into a vicious cycle, an infinite regress, of merely going into and out of samadhi or other such states. Thus, Hisamatsu stressed the need to cut off the entire complex of dukkha once and for all. This can be done only in a fundamentally subjective manner.
Total and immediate
In his commentary on his conversation with Jung, Hisamatsu pointed out this danger in relation to psychotherapy by contrasting psychotherapy with ‘deliverance from all suffering’ through self-awakening to ‘complete and final emancipation’:
Awakening to the self unbound by anything whatever, one is liberated from all illness at once. If each illness is treated individually as it arises, one recovers
from one illness only to fall victim to another. We can never be free from illness that way. This in itself can be considered a most deep-seated illness.... I pointed this out as the vicious cycle of psychoanalytic therapy. It is the fatal shortcoming of psychoanalytic treatment. A truly thoroughgoing cure can only be achieved by severing the root of all illness.
(cf. Meckel and Moore 1992:117)
Zen Buddhist expressions such as ‘One cut, all is cut’ describe this complete and final, total and immediate awakening. ‘Immediate’ here does not mean temporally sudden or abrupt, but, literally, un-mediated: dukkha—the entire temporal-spatial complex of self-world—has collapsed. Awakening cannot be a gradual, step-by-step process; it is, naturally, total and immediate.
Thus, neither can it be approached through mere theory—nor through practice in the ordinary sense of the self trying to do something. This is likened to trying to free oneself while only becoming more tightly bound and entangled. In a very real sense the self cannot go toward or approach awakening; we can only decisively come from it, through self-awakening in which the root of dukkha has been severed once and for all.
From No-self to formless self
Severing the root of dukkha has a positive as well as a negative significance. The basic Buddhist teaching of ‘No-self,’ mentioned above, was given a more affirmative rendering in Mahayana Buddhism, and especially in Chinese Zen. Hisamatsu preferred terms like ‘true self,’ ‘original self,’ and ‘formless self’ because one is not just breaking free from all conditioned forms, but rather realizing who I truly am—and that I am originally so.
The same holds true for ‘dependent origination’ or ‘dependent co-arising’—the basic Buddhist teaching that all things and events, internal and external, mutually arise and cease while depending on conditions which are themselves interdependent. In Zen Buddhism, dependent co-arising was transformed into ‘self-emancipated and independent’ (doku-datsu mu-e). This is another key expression used often by Hisamatsu, based on two terms found in The Record of Lin-chi (Japanese: Rinzai, the leading Tang dynasty Zen master after whom Rinzai Zen is named). ‘Self-emancipated’ refers to being awakened by oneself; ‘independent’ means not dependent on anyone or anything. In short, ‘self-emancipated and independent’ not only declares that there is no substantial reality anywhere; it requires that one actually awaken to this by and as oneself. Further, one then works freely and autonomously as this living, active ‘Nothingness’ or ‘Emptiness.’
In their discussion, Jung emphasized the importance of the unconscious. Hisamatsu countered by stressing the necessity to be liberated ‘even from the collective unconscious, and from the bondage which derives from it’ (cf. Meckel and Moore 1992:111). Hisamatsu was not denying the relative value of psychotherapy for the troubled self; rather, he was directly pointing out the need to awaken to our formless, original self as the ultimate source of wholeness and health.
As Hisamatsu has written in Zen and Culture: The Formless Self and Its Creation:
In Buddhism this genuine subjectivity is intrinsically the complete and final emancipation, just as this emancipation is genuine subjectivity. Therefore, genuine subjectivity can work freely or be active without any hindrance. If it is not active, it could not be called complete and final emancipation. And if emancipation is lost when it is put into action, it is not genuine subjectivity. Buddhism’s genuine subject works freely without losing its emancipation.
Indeed, for Hisamatsu it is not even limited to Buddhism:
Speaking of this ‘Buddhist subject,’ it may sound like it is a particular subject in the specific religion known as Buddhism.... It is, however, the ultimate and true subject of humankind itself. It is called the Buddhist subject only because it has been decisively realized in Buddhism. But it is not limited to Buddhism; it is the universal subject of humankind.
Hisamatsu is not beating around the bush: Not only is this ‘complete and final emancipation,’ it is each and everyone’s true self—whether we are aware of it or not. It is not limited to certain ‘enlightened’ individuals, nor to states of mind, consciousness, or the individual or collective unconscious. This is one of the reasons Zen Buddhism prefers the term ‘no-mind.’
What does all this mean for the therapist or caregiver? The Vimalakirti Sutra, a Mahayana text held in high regard in Zen Buddhism, provides a decisive answer. In this sutra, when the great layman Vimalakirti is asked about his illness, he responds that as long as living beings are ill, his illness is prolonged. And when the illness of all living beings comes to an end, then his illness will also end. Just as loving parents share in the suffering of their child when ill, and feel relieved when their child recovers, so does the Bodhisattva (awakening being) suffer out of compassion for all beings. And where does this ‘illness’ come from? Vimalakirti states that a Bodhisattva’s illness itself arises out of Great Compassion.
In a word, the formless self is free from all suffering even as it compassionately ‘takes on’ the suffering of all. As Hisamatsu emphasized in conversation with Jung (and hammered out in detail in his commentary on the Vimalakirti Sutra), awakening to this formless, original self, we are free from all suffering. As mentioned above, this is not limited to certain ‘enlightened’ individuals; thus, we naturally and freely take on the suffering of others to help them awaken and thus realize that they, too, are originally and fundamentally free from all suffering. Here is the heart of genuine ‘Buddhist therapy.’ I will return to this crucial point at the end.
The dreamer awakes: a Buddhist model of the human self
Many metaphors and images have been employed to clarify certain aspects of the Buddhist No-self or formless self. For example, the metaphor of oceanwave is used in the sutras. The self-as-wave is attached to the form of itself and thus endlessly rises and falls, ignorant of its own nature, source, and end, never at rest until it realizes itself as none other than the vast ocean. This metaphor was also a favorite of Hisamatsu’s; he mentioned it at the end of his conversation with Jung. When Jung passed away in 1961, Hisamatsu wrote the following (based on a translation by Hisamatsu and Richard DeMartino in the FAS Society Journal, Summer 1992):
The All-Bearing Empty Sea
On May 15 [sic—the date was 16 May], 1958, I visited Professor C. G.Jung at his home in Zurich, Switzerland, and talked with him about the ‘collective unconscious’ and Zen’s ‘no-mind.’ Recently he passed away, leaving this koan unsolved. My respect for him and regret for his untimely death being so deep, I dedicate the following poem to his memory.
Waves without number large and small from the beginningless beginning appearing only to disappear disappearing only to appear endlessly, ceaselessly rising and falling.
But who is it who knows
that ever fulfilled and undisturbed the ocean originally bears not the slightest trace of a wave
That formless it is present now— where there obtains neither past, present, nor future, And is present here— where there obtains neither east nor west neither above nor below?
Bearing all yet grasping none
Grasping none yet bearing all
How wondrous— this all-bearing ocean is none other than the empty sea!
In this poem Hisamatsu summarized, and clarified, the crux of his discussion with Jung.
But there is no need to rely on Hisamatsu. To tie together what has been said so far, I will draw out the implications of ‘awakening’ as a metaphor and present it as a living model of the human self—of our selves.
In the Pali canon, Shakyamuni is asked if he is a god (deva). No, he replies. Are you a spirit, then? No. A demon? No. Are you a human being? No. (Note that Shakyamuni even denies this category—at least as the questioner intended it.) What then are you? I am awake (Buddha) (see Kalupahana 1992: 122–3). Buddha means ‘an awakened one.’ Keep in mind that, the ‘dream’ or ‘sleep’ from which we awaken is the dukkha of life-death in its entirety, including our ordinary dreaming, sleeping, and waking states—conscious and the unconscious. Let us now consider what this metaphor really means.
Can I wake up in a dream? I can dream that I woke up—but I’m still in the dream. Within the dream there is nothing I can do to get out of the dream. I am the one dreaming, yet within the dream I become caught, entangled in the dream and cannot get out of it. This shows the universal and inescapable aspect of dukkha. Recall the crystal-clear, razor-sharp challenge to directly break free and wake up expressed by Hisamatsu’s fundamental koan: As I am—however I am—will not do. Now what do I do?
Is suffering in a dream real? Within the dream it sure as hell is! Dukkha is real, seemingly the only reality, while I am dreaming. Once I wake up, however, where is dukkha?
What happens when I wake up? I awaken to the fact that the whole complex—for example, in a nightmare, the scary figure chasing me and myself scared—was all just a dream. Everything in the dream, including myself in the dream, was just a dream. The entire dream world was just a dream, including rivers and mountains, space-time, life-death, health-illness. Now awake, it is all gone without remainder.
Nothing remains? Nothing of the dream, and yet everything! The whole world and I myself are still here and yet, unlike in the dream, all is now unbound, unrestrained, formless-form. Everything is still here—really here for the first time in their original nature, wondrously transformed. Not one thing has been added, yet all is fundamentally transformed from the ground up.
What about ‘myself’? Is the self that awakens the same as the self in the dream? Or is it different? The same, except for one tiny difference: Now it’s awake. And that makes all the difference in the world. But I do not become another self; on the contrary, I become truly myself. Unencumbered by the entire dream complex, I ‘come back’ to my original, formless self. No more, no less.
When I wake up I realize who I really am and have always been, yet was somehow lost in a dream. Within the dream it could not be realized, although I may have had an intimation. In a sense the original self was not there in the dream (not awakened, realized, or actualized). And yet the original self is never totally absent. After all, who is dreaming?
This original self—now awake as the boundless, formless universe—is not some projected or objectified reality (like what appears in a dream). The original, formless self can in no way be measured or grasped by the standards of the dream-complex. Thus the difficulty—in a very real sense impossibility—for the self in the dream to waken. Only the awakened self truly knows the nature of the dream as dream, and now truly comes to, and knows, itself, the other, and the world directly and immediately.
How then do I wake up? Zen Buddhism stresses that, finally, there is no way to wake up short of waking up! This accounts for the paradoxical logic of Zen mondo or spiritual debates. To give one sterling example: Shih-t’ou (700–90) was one of the great early Chinese masters. Once he was speaking to a group about the fact that this very mind is Buddha—awakened. (This was before the idea became fashionable in Zen circles.) A monk came forward and asked him, then what about emancipation, the Pure Land, and Nirvana? For the monk these were perhaps inevitable problem-questions that Shih-t’ou’s statement had aroused. After all, aren’t we supposed to practice diligently in order to get emancipated from all that binds us? Aren’t we supposed to achieve the Pure Land, free of all defilement? Aren’t we supposed to attain Nirvana and get out of the miserable cycle of samsara? How do we answer?
Here is how Shih-t’ou resolved the problem:
What about emancipation? Who binds you? What about the Pure Land? Who defiles you?
What about Nirvana? Who puts you in samsara? (see Miura and Sasaki 1966:301)
To each question of the dreaming monk the master answered—simply by being awake. The master could see the monk’s self-confusion; he could also ‘see through’ to the monk’s formless self. Thus, the master’s paradoxical—yet perfectly honest and straightforward—responses. He might just as well have said: ‘I see no chains on you, brother!’
In Buddhism and in Zen a variety of provisional methods have been put forth. For example, the method of concentrated sitting in which one does not hold onto anything in the dream, nor even to the dream itself or the dreamer. One thus confirms that one is indeed awake by allowing the entire dream complex to fall away. Another method is shocking the dreamer awake when the conditions are ripe. But any method must break through the total dream complex from within, in a fundamentally subjective manner, and not just convert, modify, or diminish the ‘dream state.’
As long as I continue to dream I can’t truly practice. Only the awakened can truly practice. Genuine practice itself is by the awakened. And yet, this truly practicing one is never separate from you or me, here and now. Each and every one of us practices by being awake—we don’t wake up by practicing.
Unlike dreaming, awakening is completely unattached and without form—even the form of itself. To what, then, do I awaken? To the dream? No, the dream is gone when one wakes. If I don’t awaken to the dream, do I awaken to being awake? No. I awaken to there being nothing whatever to awaken to, nor any one to be awakened. Here there is no such thing as awakening—let alone anything to be called dukkha or a dream. This is ‘self-emancipated and independent.’
In a sense, the dreamer cannot wake. Boundless reality awakens of itself, to itself, by itself. This is the end of dukkha, this is dependent co-arising awakening to itself as self-emancipated and independent.
Let us now return to the role of therapist or caregiver. When a person in a nightmare —metaphorically speaking—screams out for help, what do we do? A Buddha or Bodhisattva, that is, an awakened person, willingly enters another’s dream to help them awaken. Therapeutically, it may be necessary to enter another’s ‘dream’ to work with the contents of the dream, change a nightmare into a better dream, and so on. This, of course, can be extremely valuable.
But the person is still dreaming. A Buddha enters another’s dream to help the other wake up. Sometimes, just being awake in the presence of another is enough; you don’t necessarily have to do anything. Of course, you don’t wake them up to your awakening; you help to wake them to their own awakening. One cannot—indeed, need not—awaken another. One can, however, help to spur and spark another. This is perfectly natural, for it is not something that some special person possesses but the awakening and true ground of all humankind.
Besides the Vimalakirti Sutra, mentioned above, another Mahayana sutra that Zen Buddhism holds in high esteem is the Diamond Sutra. This sutra makes clear that our task is none other than to save all beings. And yet, when all is said and done, there is no one to save—nor is there any one who saves. This is indeed the awakening of all humankind, the free functioning of the formless self in which one, who is neither other nor self, ceaselessly works to help awaken those still entangled in self and other. Here is the basis for a genuinely Buddhist therapy.
Sometimes when you try to wake someone up they respond, in their sleep, ‘I’m awake, I’m awake.’ One task of the Buddhist therapist can be to gently nudge them and remind them; ‘No, you’re still asleep. Wake up, wake up!’
Hisamatsu ended his commentary on the conversation with Jung by reminding us that even though Jung had initially denied the possibility of release from suffering once and for all,
he later acknowledged Nirvana as complete and final emancipation, and agreed that we can be liberated even from the collective unconscious. This was a momentous statement for a psychoanalyst to make. If Professor Jung’s statement is accurate, then a way from psychoanalysis to Zen Buddhism could indeed be opened....
(cf. Meckel and Moore: 118)
Just as a small child grows out of its sensory-centered world and awakens to the world of reason, so the rational person awakens to a world beyond mere senses or reason. This awakening is no regression to, nor a mere denial of, the senses or reason. The limits of the senses and reason have been broken through; now, the senses and reason come back into full and unhindered play—for they have been returned to, and thus themselves reveal, their original, formless ground.
Psychotherapy can be a genuinely Buddhist therapy if it actually reveals this formless self-awakening, rather than only dealing with the ordinary self’s interminable integration of non-rational, unconscious elements. This crucial distinction should neither be exaggerated, nor be understated.
How does this actually play itself out in our daily lives? In the discussion, Jung spoke about how a healthy young man’s anxiety over and fear of death differs from Jung’s own as an old man. Here is how Hisamatsu, in another discussion, described composure unto death:
Authentic composure is not lost even when you’re turned head over heels. That’s the way it is: Even in death you are composed. Not composure because you’re resigned to die, but composure even unto death. Otherwise, it’s not authentic.
People sometimes say things like they are free from life and death, or there is no living and dying. But right now if you were on the brink of death and you were able to remain undisturbed, that’s not freedom from life and death at all, though it’s often misconstrued that way. If you were terminally ill, yet able to remain calm and unshaken in your last moments, wouldn’t that be just a matter of your mental or psychological state?
On the contrary, death itself must be composed. It’s not a matter of remaining calm though you fear death: death itself is ‘free from all fear’ [as the Heart Sutra states]. Saying, ‘I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid’—that’s not real freedom from all fear. Truly be the formless self, and you are totally free of fear.
(Hisamatsu 1998:79, with revisions)
More concretely, in 1957, during Hisamatsu’s visit to the United States, Albert Stunkard (Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine) brought a friend and medical student named Alan Balsam, who was dying of cancer, to meet Hisamatsu at his hotel in New York City. As soon as they met and sat facing each other, here is how Dr Stunkard recalls that encounter:
There followed a long but comfortable pause. Then Professor Hisamatsu said, slowly, ‘I understand that you are dying.’
The direct, matter-of-fact quality of this statement, or question, stunned me. This was a time when doctors still shielded patients from information about their illnesses, particularly fatal illnesses, and we went to great pains to speak in euphemisms about death. I had never heard a physician talk to a patient about his death.
Before I had a chance to do more than register my surprise, Alan, looking intently at Hisamatsu, replied in firm voice, ‘Yes.’
Another pause. Then Professor Hisamatsu said, ‘Does that frighten you?’ Still looking intently at Professor Hisamatsu, Alan again said ‘Yes.’ Another long silence followed. ‘What frightens you about it?’ Professor Hisamatsu asked. Again silence. Alan began slowly but with an assurance that surprised me. ‘For a long time I have wanted to come to terms with myself, what Christians
might call knowing God.’ After a pause, he added, ‘Enlightenment.’ Professor Hisamatsu nodded encouragingly. ‘I guess that I had always thought that I would have an infinite amount of
time to get there. Now I know that I won’t. And I’m afraid that I won’t get there.’
‘That is a good answer,’ Professor Hisamatsu said quietly. The two continued to look at each other.
After another long period of quiet, Professor Hisamatsu began to speak. Exactly what he said in those days so long ago eludes me now. It had to do with the waves on the surface of the sea and the deep stillness under it. The stillness is always there, no matter how turbulent the waves. He spoke only briefly and then asked if we would like to have tea....
How does this fit in with dealing with the individual problems and distress that people bring, for example, to psychotherapy? To those unfamiliar with Buddhism, it may seem narrow and inflexible, even cold and heartless, to focus only on the fundamental problem of dukkha and the fundamental solution that is Buddhism.
But is there better medicine for the fundamental suffering of each and everyone than that of directly revealing the one who is originally free of suffering? This is what Hisamatsu tried to impress upon Jung in their conversation—and upon Alan Balsam, for that matter. It can be the beginning of truly ‘working through’ (not only in the sense of uncovering, clarifying, and making our own, but also in the Freudian sense of overcoming) the particular problems that plague us all.
The fundamental problem that we are, and the particular problems and distress that we have, need to be clearly distinguished. They are not, however, completely separable but vitally conjoined and present in and as each of us. Thus, professional
therapists and other caregivers can help to nudge and spur others awake in the very process of dealing with particular problems. Not ignoring or denying the particular problem, but taking it to its very root; precisely here the root problem of dukkha can be solved once and for all. This, by the way, is what real koan practice is all about, what Vimalakirti is all about—and what Buddhism is all about.
Let me close by offering some other suggestive illustrations of this in practice, although Shih-t’ou’s above-mentioned responses to the monk and Hisamatsu’s encounter with Alan Balsam are worthy of much deeper reflection. Much could be said about each of these stories, but I will keep my comments to a minimum, and leave the interpretations to you.
A group of men were enjoying themselves in the woods when one of the women with them stole some of their valuables and ran away. Encountering Shakyamuni as they chase after the woman, Shakyamuni asks them, ‘Which is better for you, that you should seek for a woman or that you should seek for the self?’ (Horner 1971:31– 2). This may sound like Shakyamuni is unconcerned with the stolen items, or with the woman—he is only concerned with the men’s fundamental problem. But is that really so?
The traditional parable of the mustard seed tells of a mother, distraught over the death of her only son, who carries him in her arms to Shakyamuni in hopes of obtaining medicine for him. Shakyamuni tells her to enter the city and get mustard seeds for medicine, but they must be from homes where no one has ever died. During her search, she hears the sorrows of many others when they explain to her why they cannot give her a mustard seed from their homes, for indeed many have died there. Her heart is eventually opened to the universal—not just objective—truth of impermanence. She then takes her dead child to the pyre and returns to Shakyamuni (see Burtt 1955:43–6).
What do you see when looking in the eyes of another? I heard that once Mother Theresa was asked what she saw when she looked in the eyes of the filthy, diseased, and dying cradled in her shoulder. She replied, ‘Christ in his distressing disguise.’ While we should not gloss over the differences in this Christian ‘metaphor,’ I take it as an illuminating illustration of who the other truly is: A Buddha. Perhaps a Buddha who has not yet fully awakened to this fact. But a Buddha nonetheless.
Is this not what genuine Buddhist therapy comes down to?: Buddha encountering Buddha.
While he is dreaming he does not know it is a dream, and in his dream he may even try to interpret a dream. Only after he wakes does he know it was a dream. And someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream. Yet the stupid believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman—how dense! Confucius and you are both dreaming! And when I say you are dreaming, I am dreaming, too.
Chuang Tzu, chapter 2 (Watson 1968:47–8)