Truth in the Form of a Lie
American Zen is running sideways, writing books, lecturing, referring to theology, psychology, and what not. Someone should stand up and smash the whole thing to pieces.
These words could not have been uttered later than 1964, as they're quoted in the works of R.H. Blyth, one of the leading exponents of Zen philosophy of the West, who died that year. One could only imagine what the master Nyogen Senzaki might have to say today about Zen candles, Zen alarm clocks, Zen gardens that come in a box, and so on. Would you like a Zen screen protector? How about the Creative Zen 4GB Digital Player? Or audio treats such as The Zen of Golf, Husker Du's Zen Arcade, or The Zen of Screaming: Vocal Instruction for a New Breed? Those of you who (like my fiancee Nicole) are pregnant might consider a book entitled Zen Mama: Prenatal Yoga. (Actually Nicole has a book called Yoga Mom, Buddha Baby, which almost but not quite fits into this category.) Once it's born, the child might like the Uncle Milton Zen Dolphin.
Not only do you get the picture, but in all likelihood you have long since gotten the picture. This kind of commercialism has become so much a part of the American scene that even to rail at it at this point seems like something between a cliché and a cheap shot. So that is not my purpose. My purpose is to look into something a bit subtler: how ideas that are originally mystical or esoteric make their way into mass culture. How do these ideas get out? And what do such ostensibly terrible things as commercialization and vulgarization have to do with this process?
The best discussion of this issue that I know of appears in a classic work on the spiritual path: In Search of the Miraculous by the Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky. Originally published in 1949, it remains a perennial favorite. It tells about Ouspensky's studies with the enigmatic spiritual master G.I. Gurdjieff around the time of the Russian Revolution.
At one point Gurdjieff starts to talk about the work of an esoteric school.[ii] This is a group of people, he says, who have gotten together to achieve a specific undertaking. Gurdjieff does not give any examples, nor does he say what this work might be. If I were to guess, I would say that it usually has to do with elevating the consciousness of humanity at a specific time and place. If I were to suggest some examples myself, I might include the Academy of Plato, which recast the ideas of the Greek mystery schools in the then-newfangled language of philosophy; the Hermetic schools of the early Christian era, which sought to preserve the knowledge of ancient Egypt as its traditions were dying; the cathedral builders of medieval France; the Freemasons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who broke the back of spiritual and political tyranny in Western Europe; the Theosophical Society of the late nineteenth century, which reintroduced the wisdom of the East to the spiritually desiccated Western world.
Gurdjieff goes on to say, "When the work is finished the schools close. The people who began the work leave the stage. Those who have learned from them what was possible to learn . . . independently begin in one form or another their own personal work."
But it doesn't always turn out his way. Gurdjieff goes on: "It happens sometimes that when the school closes a number of people are left who were round about the work, who saw the outward aspect of it, and saw the whole of the work in this outward aspect. . . . To continue this work they form new schools, teach people what they have themselves learned, and give them the same promises that they themselves received. But when we look back on history it is almost impossible for us to distinguish where the real ends and where the imitation begins. Strictly speaking, everything we know about various kinds of occult, masonic, and alchemical schools refers to such imitation."
The point is that even these, shall we say, degenerate schools perform a function. According to Gurdjieff, they are the intermediaries between a humanity that is almost entirely immersed in the materialistic life and the higher level of the real schools, whose members have realized some genuine awakening. "The very idea of esotericism, the idea of initiation, reaches people in most cases through pseudo-esoteric systems and schools," Gurdjieff says.
There's a reason for this. People cannot hear "the truth in its pure form," Gurdjieff adds. "By reason of the many characteristics of man's being, particularly of the contemporary being, truth can only come to people in the form of a lie -- only in this form are they able to accept it; only in this form are they able to digest and assimilate it. Truth undefiled would be for them, indigestible food."
There's a lot in this view that cuts against current sensibilities. One is that, contrary to current notions of progress, we are less, not more advanced than our (extremely remote) ancestors; we have lost access to sacred truths that they understood. But of course the biggest objection is that this all sounds terribly elitist. It sounds as if knowledge is being withheld from the masses by self-described adepts who think they're too good to share what they have with the rest of us.
There is good reason to have this kind of suspicion. Over the past couple of generations, people have been waking up more and more to the fact that much of religion has, to quote J. Christ, consisted of "hypocrites" who "neither enter nor let them that are entering enter." In other words, the authorities often don't have much or any spiritual depth, and they're not too eager for you to have it either.
On the other hand, there is elitism and there is elitism. If you are going in for surgery, you have every right to expect that the guy who is cutting you open has the training to do so. You wouldn't say it's elitist to expect this. The same thing is true in the spiritual line.
What kind of knowledge are we talking about here? Here's one example: you are not your conditioning. You are not the sum total of things that you have been told you are by your parents, your teachers, your nasty little friends in the schoolyard, your high-school clique, or anyone since.
In one form or another, the idea that you are not your conditioning is bandied about a lot these days. You see it in practically every movie made for teenagers. The heroine is hemmed in by her parents, her teachers, her friends at school, and so on. In the midst of all these pressures, she eventually learns that she really has to be herself.
Does this sound corny? A hundred years ago it was an esoteric secret, transmitted by an initiation and couched in cryptic language. In a way it is corny. To see this idea on a computer screen or to be exposed to it in a movie is something, but not much; to look into yourself and see your conditioning and how it operates in the moment-to-moment life of your thoughts and emotions is very profound. A good spiritual teacher could show this to you in a way that is shocking without being damaging. This often requires a delicate touch.
Or take another once-esoteric idea: be here now. The Doctrine of the Present (as it's called in certain schools of esoteric Christianity) was long taught and understood, and much of traditional Zen practice is, as far as I can see, designed to further this awareness. For us it has become a slogan. But at least it is a slogan. And it's a better one than many of those that have been hoisted on the banners of causes and parties over the centuries.
Although I started out making fun of Zen chachkas, I have no idea whether the Zen schools as they exist now in this country are "real" schools or pseudoschools. Certainly I have met Zen practitioners who are as serious and dedicated as any. And it has always seemed humorous to me that this rigorous and ascetic tradition has come to be equated with a laid-back slacker attitude ("He's really Zen about it").
The point I'm making is not about Zen as such, but rather that these ideas leak into the mass culture in the form of cliches, slogans, and trinkets. As Gurdjieff said, they have to.
There is one little detail that complicates matters a bit. Supposedly there are the enlightened masters and the endarkened masses of mankind. Supposedly. But as a matter of fact, each of us has both of these levels in us. There is a part of the mind that is illumined (the problem is that the conscious mind usually isn't in touch with it). There is also a part of the mind that isn't illumined; it's naïve and mechanical. It only takes seriously what it can see and feel and touch. It may not like meditation but it may warm at the sight of a sacred picture or even a crystal. Yet this part of the mind is just as necessary to our functioning as are higher levels of consciousness.
Which all means, I suppose, that there's no reason to chide yourself for your collection of sacred crystals and feathers or to throw away your Zen alarm clock. Who knows? You may find one day that it wakes you up in more ways than one.
Photo by Guillermo, courtesy of Creative Commons license.
Richard Smoley's latest book is Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity. He is editor of Quest Books and executive editor of The Quest magazine. His Web site is www.innerchristianity.com.
[i] Quoted in Zen: Selections from R.H. Blyth, ed. Frederick Franck (Torrance, Calif.: Heian, 1978), 235.
[ii] P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of a Forgotten Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949)Tweet