Goso asks: A water buffalo walks out of its enclosure. The head, the horns, and the four legs go through, but why doesn’t the tail, too?
If the buffalo goes through, it will fall into the abyss,
If it retreats into the enclosure, it will be butchered.
This little bit of a tail, that is a strange thing indeed! – The Gateless Gate
“A man must learn to give up self in all gifts, and keep or seek nothing for himself, not profit or enjoyment or inwardness or sweetness or reward or Heaven or own-will. Where God finds His own will, there He gives Himself and bestows Himself with all that He is. And the more we die to our own will, the more truly we come to be in That. Therefore it is not enough for Him that we give up self and all we have and can do just once, but we must constantly renew ourselves and so make ourselves simple [non-dual] and free in all things.” — Meister Eckhart (Vol. III, pp. 45-48)
“The just have no will at all: whatever God wishes, it is all one to them, however great the discomfort may be.” — Meister Eckhart
Through determination and effort the seeker attains the seventh stage, that which comes before complete realization, but then is stopped cold at the gate, unable to pass. What is the tail that prevents the ox from passing through the gate and gaining its freedom? It turns out that it is the very will that has brought the seeker thus far. Now it, too, must be abandoned.
Here lies a seeming paradox, which isn’t really a paradox. The will belongs to the mind, manas. It is necessary to employ the mind with its intellect and reason in order reach the moment where one finally casts off the mind: this is generally understood. But the mind does more than attempt to understand the teachings; it wills. It wills to seek enlightenment, and it is by will that one applies oneself to the various disciplines. The mind also wills to believe in the Dharma and to believe that enlightenment is attainable in this lifetime, faith too being an act of the will. Erich Fromm (1960) alluded to the willful activity of seeking liberation as follows:
To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible; it is the paradoxical hope to expect the Messiah every day, yet not to lose heart when he has not come at the appointed hour. This hope is not passive and it is not patient; on the contrary, it is impatient an active, looking for every possibility of action within the realm of real possibilities. Least of all it is passive as far as the growth and liberation of one’s own person are concerned.
There comes a point, however, when the mind can do no more, and it has become itself a hindrance. So long as the mind continues to will the gate to open and contrives ways to get through, it will remain firmly closed, because one is still identified with the limited mind and not the Absolute—“I” am still in this, not in that.
Wherever there is self-will, the mind is active. Even suicide is an act of self-will; as such it creates karma and sends us along the path of existence to another rebirth.
First Zeal (Viraya), then Passivity (Ksanti)
Meister Eckhart addressed this issue of the mind (intellect) supporting a soul in its search for God, only to become passive when the time came for God to move in:
Man has an active intellect, a passive intellect and a potential intellect. The active intellect is ever ready to act, whether it be in God or in creatures, for it exerts itself rationally in creatures in the way of ordering the creatures, and bringing them back to their source, or in raising itself to the honour and glory of God. All of that is in its power and its domain, and hence its name active. But when God undertakes the work, the mind must remain passive. . . . In the one case there is activity, where the mind does the work itself; in the other case there is passivity, when God undertakes the work, and then the mind should, nay must, remain still and let God act. . . . But when the mind strives with all its might and with real sincerity, then God takes charge of the mind and its work, and then the mind sees and experiences God. (Walshe, Vol. I, pp. 25-26)
D. T. Suzuki (1929) made the same point in his Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra:
Up to the seventh stage (called Duramgama) of Buddhist life, the Bodhisattva has not been free from the sense of making effort for the attainment of a certain definite object; he has so far always been conscious of strain and effort; he has been making a definite attempt at accomplishing something, at bringing forth some tangible result as the outcome of his labour. But he has now completed this part of his work, he has now graduated, so to speak, from an effortful life (prayogikacarya), he is now on the way to a life of Anabhogacarya, where no efforts are made, no consciousness of strain is left . . .
So we read in the Avatamsaka Sutra that up to the seventh stage the Bodhisattva has endeavoured not to be affected or contaminated by a life of evil passions (klesa), but has not yet been able to go beyond it. He is like a great king who goes about riding on a fine elephant. He knows thus that there are many poverty-stricken people in his country, but he himself has no fear of becoming one of these unhappy creatures. He is quite free indeed from such contamination, but he cannot be said to be a super-man who has passed beyond the frailty of a mortal being. He can attain to this transcendental state only by abandoning his kingly position and being born in the Brahman world, where, enveloped in the celestial light, he looks down at thousands of worlds and freely walks among them. The Bodhisattva, up to the seventh stage, has gone through this world riding in the carriage of the Paramitas, and because of these virtues he has been secluded from the contamination of this world though he knows well that there are defiled lives enough here. But he still cannot be called one who has gone altogether beyond evil passions and deeds (karman) following them. If, however, he abandons all his conscious strivings or purposeful efforts, that is, if he finally passes from the seventh to the eighth stage, and, riding in the Bodhisattva’s carriage of immaculacy, he walks through the world free from contaminations, he is really one who has altogether gone beyond.
What will is
Suzuki defined will in a 1957 lecture given to psychologists at the invitation of Erich Fromm, in Mexico:
The will in its primary sense is more basic than the intellect because it is the principle that lies at the root of all existences and unites them all in the oneness of being. The rocks are where they are—this is their will. The rivers flow—this is their will. The plants grow—this is their will. The birds fly—this is their will. Human beings talk—this is their will. The seasons change, heaven sends down rain or snow, the Earth occasionally shakes, the waves roll, the stars shine—each of them follows its own will. To be is to will and so is to become. There is absolutely nothing in this world that has not its will. The one great will from which all these wills, infinitely varied, flow is what I call the “Cosmic Unconscious,” which is the zero-reservoir of infinite possibilities. . . .
The wisdom (adarsanajnana) which reveals itself when the bottom of the unconscious, that is, of the Alayavijnana, is broken through is no other than prajna. The primary will out of which all beings come is not blind and unconscious; it seems so because of our ignorance, which obscures the mirror, making us oblivious even of the fact of its existence. The blindness is on our side and not on the side of the will, which is primarily and fundamentally noetic (thinking) as much as conative (purposeful). The will is prajna plus karuna—wisdom plus love. On the relative, limited, finite plane, the will is seen as revealed fragmentally; that is to say, we are apt to take it as something separated from our mind-activities. But when it reveals itself in the mirror of adarsanajnana, it is “God as he is.” In him prajna is not differentiated from karuna. When one is mentioned, the other inevitably comes along. . . . (Fromm, Suzuki, et al., 1960, p. 43)
The above passage shouldn’t be misunderstood to mean that there are myriad distinct wills: in truth there is only one will. Everything that happens, happens according to this one will, so the best thing that one can do is to surrender one’s self to it.
Meister Eckhart captured the feeling of creation, “Sprung in completeness, where His feet pass,” in the following sermon (‘Distinctions Are Lost in God”):
In God all things are equal and are God himself. . . . In this likeness or identity God takes such delight that he pours his whole nature and being into it. His pleasure is as great, to take a simile, as that of a horse, let loose to run over a green heath where the ground is level and smooth, to gallop as a horse will, as fast as he can over the greensward—for this is a horse’s pleasure and expresses his nature. It is so with God. It is his pleasure and rapture to discover identity, because he can always put his whole nature into it—for he is this identity itself. (Blakney, pp. 203 et seq.)
Passivity as surrender of the will
In his essay “Passivity in the Buddhist Life” Suzuki explored the highest state of consciousness, that of no effort (anabhisamskara) and no thought (anabhoga). He found a philosophical similarity between Pure Land Buddhism and Christianity as regards passivity, which is that both religions place complete faith in a greater power or “other-power” that helps the devotee as well as purifying him of his sins. Suzuki also devoted part of his essay, “The Koan Exercise,” to the Pure Land school and the practice of reciting the Nembutsu. Pure Land Buddhism is looked down on by followers of Zen, which emphasizes self-reliance, as is seen in this statement by Hui-neng:
“Good friends, each of you must observe well for himself. Do not mistakenly use your minds! The sutras say to take refuge in the Buddha within yourselves; they do not say to rely on other Buddhas. If you do not rely upon your own natures, there is nothing else on which to rely.” (Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra)
Nevertheless, Suzuki, following Hakuin, goes to great lengths to show the positive aspects of Pure Land (his family’s sect), and calls the recitation of the Nembutsu “the magic sesame that carries you to the other side of birth and death.”1
Surrender of the will to God is of the utmost importance in Christianity, which moreover demands obedience to religious authority in matters of doctrine. Zen takes the opposite approach: it does not provide students with any doctrine, nor are students given answers to metaphysical questions, forcing them discover them for themselves. Zen aims to bring about self-abandonment, not through obedience, but through intense concentration and questioning, leading to a crisis in which the self is exposed in its non-reality. As Suzuki explains,
Zen starts with skepticism, or more appropriately, with quite an unpreoccupied, unprepossessed and thoroughly blank mind. There is in it no postulate of an Absolute or Infinite. Whether there is God, all-creating, all-governing, and all-comprehensive, Zen does neither assert nor deny, for assertion and denial are foreign to Zen, at least in its start. When the monk Ming understood the meaning of the question, “What was your original face you had before you were born of your own parents?” set forth by the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, Ming asked the Patriarch if there was any other secret to be explored. The answer was, “If there is any, it will be on your own side.” (“Zen and Meditation“)
In the early years, masters tried to create a “questioning mind” (tai-i) in students by requiring them to pose questions to the master. The responses given were always calculated to puzzle and perplex, to make the student doubt his view of reality. Masters commonly struck students or put them down in order to upset them, to depress them, to make them look for the “I” that felt bad, to expose the self for the nothing that it is (the paramita of ksanti). Deshan (790-865) used to say, “If you say ‘yes’ you get thirty blows from my stick; if you say ‘no’ you get thirty blows just the same.” These blows were referred to as “grandmotherly love.” It wasn’t uncommon for a monk, at the moment of his enlightenment, to return his master’s love by striking him, in the realization that he and the master were not two beings after all.
This method of mandatory questioning was formalized in the twelfth century by the assigning of koans, or cases, no one of which has an answer that can be expressed verbally. The aim of the koan is to provide a subject for single-pointed concentration, which excludes all else; this prolonged concentration creates a crisis and exposes the non-reality of the self, thus bringing about an awareness of Self. (See Richard De Martino’s essay, The Human Situation and Zen Buddhism.)
In spite of their opposite approaches, however, both Christianity and Buddhism can lead to enlightenment so long as there is a complete surrender or abandonment of the self; conversely, neither will lead to enlightenment so long as followers refuse to either surrender or abandon the self. Leaving aside the sin-expiating aspect, the main philosophical difference between them is that Christianity teaches ‘surrender’ or giving-up of an eternal self called a soul to a personalized other (a father-figure or a husband-figure), while in Buddhism there is an abandonment or leaving-behind of a nonexistent self in order that one may realize one’s own God-nature.
No enlightenment is possible without giving up one’s self-will and passive acceptance (ksanti) of a greater will in everything. Very few have the sudden awakenings that Lester Levenson and Hui-neng experienced; most of us have to go through a slow, methodical process, a necessary step of which is forming the intention to abandon the will. The first step of a twelve-step recovery program is surrendering one’s will to a higher power, and lay Buddhists would be well advised to do the same.
Thus, for most of us, there are two distinct phases in the attainment of enlightenment as regards effort: the active phase of zeal (viraya) involving the will, and the passive phase of acceptance (ksanti) in which one lets go of zealous self-will (artificial discipline) in the realization that it, too, is a hindrance.
As unsettling as abandoning the self seems to most people, the abandonment isn’t absolute and it isn’t irreversible. The Buddha said that there was no annihilation in complete enlightenment, and Lester Levenson explained what this means: “The word ‘I’ as you use it to mean your individuality will never, ever leave you. It expands.” When Moses asked God by what name he should call it, God replied, I am what I am. I think this sums it up: you are still “I,” but “I” now expands to include everything there is. The word ‘individual’ now reverts to its original meaning, which is ‘indivisible.’
Most beings don’t remain in the highest state; they return to humanity in varying degrees. Hinduism, Buddhism and Catholicism train masters so that they will live by high moral standards and be good teachers. Meister Eckhart’s third sermon discusses the complexities involved in returning from the highest state without losing one’s attainment altogether. As Suzuki pointed out, the enlightened still have a self-will and are not completely passive, and this means that one can remain in Nirvana or go all the way back into egotism if one so wills. Indian sutras have described various types of bodies that enlightened ones can possess, which are (from lowest to highest) the Enjoyment-body (Sambhogakaya), the Transformation-body (Nirmanakaya), and the Dharma-body (Dharmakaya). These are also known as “will-bodies” (manomakaya).
Other-power, or the Buddhas adding their power to yours
Since we lose our ego when we die, and have no choice about who we will be in our next life, there is no advantage in dying without attaining liberation—holding on to the ego won’t save it. The only reason to wonder what happens to a Tathagata after death is to find out whether departed masters can help us. The answer lies in one of the central doctrines of Buddhism: that a Tathagata can choose whether or not to enter Nirvana. Lester said, “Usually those of us who want to come back to help others to that point will come back, just to help others” (https://youtu.be/ggQknGLq-8I). They can choose physical rebirth (Lahiri Mahasaya, Meister Eckhart), or they can choose something the Maha-Prajnaparamita Sutra calls apparitional rebirth. Lester Levenson (2003) said, “They do exist in a body, one made of finer substance than the physical body. They are still with the world, helping those of us who want help. Being in the higher realm, they are far more helpful because they can be anywhere at any moment” (p. 137).
Whatever the reality is, enlightenment may come more readily to those who believe in other-power, that is, the willingness of departed buddhas to help us independently of our desserts. Madame Guyon emphasizes that her attainment of union with God was by His grace and not by her own efforts, that her efforts hindered her because they came from self-will.
There is also a recognition by Christianity and Buddhism of a need for confidence, which Francois Fenelon, a defender of Madame Guyon, defined as follows: “The state of pure love does not exclude the mental state which is called Christian hope. Hope in the Christian . . . may be described as the desire of being united with God in heaven, accompanied with the expectation or belief of being so.” (Upham, Felon’s Maxims of the Saints, 2016)
Even though putting one’s faith and hope in other-power is the philosophy of Pure Land Buddhism, the idea of the buddhas adding their power to yours has its roots in Mahayana Buddhism, which is the reference point for Zen.
I would like to finish this post with a story, which illustrates how ceasing one’s own efforts—giving up—is equivalent to surrendering one’s self-will. It is about Ananda, one of the Buddha’s most esteemed disciples, famous for being able to recite any of the Master’s teachings by heart.
With all his memory and learning, Ananda could not sound the bottom of the Buddha’s wisdom while the latter was still alive. According to tradition, Ananda’s attainment to Arhatship took place at the time of the First Convocation, in which he was not allowed to take part in spite of his twenty-five years’ attendance upon the Buddha. Grieving over the fact, he spent the whole night perambulating in an open square, and when he was about to lay himself down on a couch all exhausted, he all of a sudden came to realize the truth of Buddhism, which with all his knowledge and understanding had escaped him all those years. (Suzuki, 1953, p. 67)
* * *
Suzuki: Self-discipline and the Buddha’s Power (1932)
As long as Paravritti is an experience and not mere understanding, it is evident that self-discipline plays an important role in the Buddhist life. This is insisted upon in the Lanka as is illustrated in the use of such phrases as “Do not rely on others,” “Exert yourselves,” etc. But at the same time we must not forget the fact that the Lanka also emphasizes the necessity of the Buddha’s power being added to the Bodhisattvas in their upward course of spiritual development and in the accomplishment of their great task of world-salvation. . . .
The doctrine of Adhishthana (sustaining power) gains all the more significance when we consider the development of Mahayana Buddhism into the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. The power of a Bodhisattva’s original vows may also be judged as being derived from the Buddha. If the possibility of enlightenment is due to the Adhishthana or Prabhava (sovereign power) of the Buddha, all the wonders that are to take place by the strength of the enlightenment must be inferred ultimately to issue from the fountain-head of Buddhahood itself.
Rinzai (Lin-chi, died 867):
The truly religious man has nothing to do but go on with his life as he finds it in the various circumstances of this worldly existence. He rises quietly in the morning, gets dressed and goes out to his work. When he wants to walk, he walks; when he wants to sit, he sits. He has no hankering after Buddhahood, or the remotest thought of it. How is this possible? A sage of old says, “If you strive after Buddhahood by any conscious contrivances, your Buddha [focusing on yourself] is indeed the source of eternal transmigration.” (“Passivity in the Buddhist Life“)
Meister Eckhart: “The Talks of Instruction” (1990)
(p. 13) People say: ‘Alas, sir, I wish I stood as well with God or had as much devotion and were as much at peace with God as others are, I wish I were like them, or that I were so poor’, or: ‘I can never manage it unless I am there or there, or do this or that; I must get away from it all, or go and live in a cell or a cloister.’
In fact, the reason lies entirely with yourself and with nothing else. It is self-will, though you may not know it or believe it: restlessness never arises in you except from self-will. Though we may think a man should flee these things or seek those things—places or people or methods, or company or deeds—this is not the reason why methods or things hold you back: it is you yourself in the things that prevents you, for you have a wrong attitude toward things.
Therefore start first with yourself, and [renounce] yourself. In truth, unless you flee first from yourself, then wherever you flee to, you will find obstacles and restlessness no matter where it is. If people seek peace in outward things, whether in places or in methods or in people or in deeds or in . . . poverty or in humiliation, however great or of whatever kind all this may be, this is all in vain and brings them no peace. Those who seek thus seek wrongly; the further they go the less they find what they are seeking. They are like a man who has taken a wrong turn: the further he goes, the more he goes astray. But what should he do? He should [renounce] himself to begin with, and then he has abandoned all things. In truth, if a man gave up a kingdom or the whole world and did not give up self, he would have given up nothing. But if a man gives up himself, then whatever he keeps, wealth, honour or whatever it may be, still he has given up everything.
He who [renounces] himself and his own will has left all things as truly as if they were his free possession and completely at his disposal. For that which you don’t want to desire, you have handed over and renounced for God’s sake. That is why our Lord said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, that is, in will. And none should doubt this, for if there were any better way, our Lord would have declared it, just as he said: “If any one would follow me, he must first deny himself’. It all depends on that. Observe yourself, and wherever you find yourself, leave yourself: that is the very best way.
(p. 14) You must know that no man ever left himself so much in this life, but he could find more to leave. There are few who are truly aware of this and who are steadfast in it. It is really an equal exchange and barter: just as much as you go out of all things, just so much, neither more nor less, does God enter in with all that is His—if indeed you go right out of all that is yours. Start with that, and let it cost you all you can afford. And in that you will find true peace, and nowhere else.
(p. 26) God’s intent in all things is that we should give up our will. . . . Nothing can make a true man but the giving up of the will. Indeed, except by giving up our will in all things we cannot achieve anything with God. But if it should come to the point that we gave up all of our will, daring to abandon all things for God’s sake, then we should have done all things, and not before.
Madame Guyon (1648-1717)
The following, from “A Short and Easy Method of Prayer” (1875) landed Mme. Guyon in prison for nine years, even though it was lauded, printed and widely disseminated by Catholic clergymen.
ABANDONMENT TO GOD–ITS FRUIT AND ITS IRREVOCABILITY–IN WHAT IT CONSISTS–GOD EXHORTS US TO IT.
Abandonment is the casting off of all care of ourselves, to leave ourselves to be guided entirely by God.
All Christians are exhorted to abandonment, for it is said to all, “Take no thought for the morrow; for your Heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things” (Matt. vi. 32, 34). . . . Abandonment, then, ought to be an utter leaving of ourselves, both outwardly and inwardly, in the hands of God, forgetting ourselves, and thinking only of God. By this means the heart is kept always free and contented.
Practically it should be a continual loss of our own will in the will of God, a renunciation of all natural inclinations, however good they may appear, in order that we may be left free to choose only as God chooses: we should be indifferent to all things, whether temporal or spiritual, for the body or the soul; leaving the past in forgetfulness, the future to providence, and giving the present to God.
D. T. Suzuki: (1929)
When thus the Bodhisattva, discarding all effortful works, attains to the effortless state of consciousness, he enters upon the eighth stage known as Acala, the Immovable.2 But we must remember that effortlessness is the outcome of intense effort, and that when the former is not preceded by the latter, it can never be realised. Says the Dasabhumika: “It is like a man who in a dream finds himself drowning in a river; he musters all his courage and is determined at all costs to get out of it. And because of these very efforts and desperate contrivances he is awakened from the dream and when thus awakened he at once perceives that no further doings are needed now. So with the Bodhisattva: because of the great determination and the constant strivings that he has put forward in order to save all beings from drowning in the river of ignorance and confusion, he has at last reached, the eighth stage, and once here all his conscious efforts are set aside, his perception is not obstructed by dualistic views, nor by appearances.” (pp. 224-225)
If then, I were asked what is a poor man who wants nothing, I should reply as follows. As long as a man is so disposed that it is his will with which he would do the most beloved will of God, that man has not the poverty we are speaking about: for that man has a will to serve God’s will—and that is not true poverty! For a man to possess true poverty he must be as free of his created will as he was when he was not. For I declare by the eternal truth, as long as you have the will to do the will of God, and longing for eternity and God, you are not poor: for a poor man is one who wills nothing and desires nothing. (Sermon Eighty Seven)
1. The Pure Land method has several virtues, as Suzuki points out. However, the path of “love and devotion” is for certain personality types; it isn’t for everyone. The clinging to dualism is a major hindrance in itself, but there is also the risk that the devotee will confuse love for God with romantic ecstasy. Catholicism seems to take this for granted, and the earliest Christian writings–both gnostic and orthodox–use the analogy of a male-female union. I suspect that the sexual aspect of devotion found in Indian tantrism may be one reason why the Mahayana school omitted both love (metta) and compassion (karuna) from its perfections. The main reason, though, was undoubtedly that dispassion is a higher state than love, since love is directed either towards beings, which endows them with self-nature, or towards God, which presupposes duality between God and the devotee. (With thanks to Meister Eckhart and D. T. Suzuki).
2. Acala is also translated as the stage of no regression. Regression refers to resting in the incomplete attainment of a sravaka or a pratyekabuddha, neither of which is devoted to the liberation of others.
Conze, Edward (1975). The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. University of California Press.
Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, Richard de Martino. Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, N.Y., Harper Colophon Books, 1960.
Goddard, Dwight (1932). A Buddhist Bible (First Edition). (http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/bb/index.htm)
Guyon, J. M. B. de La Mot. A Short Method of Prayer. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle, 1875. https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/spiritualformation/texts/guyon_shortmethodofprayer.pdf
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Walshe, M. O’C. (1987). Meister Eckhart: Sermons & Treatises Volume I. Element Books Limited, UK.
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