The Zen Task

Most people who have an interested in Zen Buddhism are aware that the end goal of Zen practise is a new state of being commonly referred to as “enlightenment”. Many people become frustrated with their practise because they seem to make little progress and
can’t quite decide what course of action to take to make their practise more effective.

Part of the problem is that many people don’t realise how thorough going this process of transformation must be. You can’t play at Zen as if it were another hobby, you have to integrate it into your entire life. You must make a commitment to remember to implement some form of practise into your entire day. It’s no good meditating a couple of times a week and expecting to make great progress.

Another problem is that people often don’t realise that this process is a process of self sacrifice. You are going to have to give something up in the course of your practice. Perhaps the single most important thing that differentiates those who are really serious about this process and those who merely want to play at it is the ability to engage in self sacrifice and to give things up. If you’re not capable of this or you’re not willing to do it then you will probably find that you just coast along, never really experiencing any significant insights. It is fundamental to understand that Zen is a psychology of renunciation and humility. It is not something that a person can pretend at. It requires effort, thought and practise.

You might be asking at this point what is meant by renunciation and to answer this question we have to ask what it is in the psychology of a person that they are most reluctant to give up. This is important because Zen considers the unenlightened person to be somewhat puppet like, a plaything of their thoughts, emotions, desires and feelings. If this is so then clearly something drives us and something concerns us. Careful and honest analysis of this question leads to the following conclusions; we seem to have a desperate desire “to be” and a consequence of that desire “to be” is a desperate desire to be noticed, to express ourselves and to be successful. We compare ourselves to others all the time and often make ourselves unhappy if we feel that we aren’t as successful as we should be. At the heart of this desire “to be” is something else; the desire to express opinions. It is the act of having opinions and expressing those opinions that people hold most dear. The thought of giving up on opinion fills most people with horror. This after all represents their very being. What are they if they give up commenting on the world? The idea threatens their very sense of self. But the fact that it does so is a good indication that we have arrived at the heart of human psychology.

The reason people are so reluctant to give up on opinion is because opinion is the egos main avenue of expression and the ego is an expression of the desire “to be”. Cut this avenue of expression off and from the egos point of view all hell breaks loose. The ego sees this as a mortal threat. It doesn’t want it, it doesn’t like it and if at all possible, it isn’t going to have it. The ego sees this as an attempt to extinguish it’s very being. It perceives it as death, as the end to all it’s ambitions and it’s concerns. So an attempt to control opinion produces in a person a feeling of deep distaste. It feels uncomfortable, it feels unpleasant, it feels undesirable. The ego will chomp at the bit, producing ever greater egotistical pressure until the person finds it intolerable and reverts to their usual ways. The experience of cutting off the egos avenue of expression by cutting off the expression of opinion is literally painful if done thoroughly. But the person who can persevere, who can tolerate the discomfort while simultaneously inducing humility in themselves as a weapon against the ego and as an act of self sacrifice will be rewarded for their pains. This process if maintained can produce a transformation in a person.

We can see two things going on here which it is useful to point out. When the ego is constrained, pressure builds. We might call this psychological pressure or egotistical pressure. At the same time there is a part of us that seems to observe this process. This observer is the awareness discussed in a previous post “Awareness and Consciousness the Mysterious Twins“. There is a dualism going on here that is interesting to note. The ego appears to be ourselves and we tend to think of it as “me” but it is observed by awareness. This is why it can be controlled. There is a “self” or identity that is above and superior to ego and which is in a constant state of observance. This “self” is as Zen puts it “free of all characteristics” and therefore escapes the attention of the average person. It is you and it isn’t you. It is the invisible visible observer. Without it we would not exist and yet we fail to perceive it. Everything that we think of as ourselves occurs within this awareness. There is nothing that is outside it.

The person who identifies very strongly with their ego and is convinced that this ego is “themselves” will find it harder to control the ego and more difficult to perceive awareness than someone whose identification with the ego is weaker. Since most people are quite heavily identified with their ego it will require hard work to put into practise the things mentioned in this post. However if you can persevere and put a large amount of effort into it you will reap benefits.

Another aspect of the ego that is worth mentioning is that it develops preferences. It tends to cling tightly to some aspects of reality as things that it “likes” and takes a strong dislike to other aspects of reality. This is what is really meant by the term “attachment”. A person who has no likes and dislikes and consequently no preference, has no attachment to the world and has freed themselves from their ego identity. In this state they become aware of their identity with underlying reality.

With regard to these things Zen says,

Do not seek enlightenment, merely stop cherishing opinions 

The perfect way knows no difficulties except that it allows itself no preference. A difference of a tenth of an inch and heaven and earth are thereby separated

Sit back in your mind and observe


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