Part One - Bound to Being
One evening I was lounging casually in an armchair, staring at, but only half reading, a magazine resting on my lap. What concentration I possessed, was chasing to keep up with proliferating trains of thought. These were growing associatively, like tendrils spreading out from a root phrase I’d just stumbled across in the magazine’s feature article. You may have had experience of such moments pf reverie, when a phrase manages to express in a few, carefully chosen, succinct words, what you’d previously conceived as a rather long and rambling paragraph. On this occasion I wrote it down excitedly into a small notebook I keep for quotations. Having pinned down this memorable aphorism so it couldn’t be forgotten, it then languished there unread for many years. When it did return to my conscious awareness, I’d actually been looking for another, half remembered ( but apposite ) quote to spice up an article I was writing. I turned a page, and there it was, staring reproachfully back at me, like a dog that hadn’t been taken out for a walk in a very long time. I read it once again with renewed delight.
In this manner ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’ was found, noted, forgotten and remembered. My recollection was stumbling and felt incomplete, it was still lacking in some significant details. It felt similar to bumping into an old acquaintance in the street, whose name briefly escapes your memory – For goodness sake, I do know you, where on earth was it we first met? - I hope I remember before this gets embarrassing.' According to my notebook it is by Dogen, but I’ve given no source for where it can be found in his writings. As it is, alone, and without context, the intended meaning of it remains somewhat indistinct; is this meant to be an urging, or an admonition? It's form of words is tantalisingly opaque, resisting full comprehension, but then, that seems to have been one of Dogen's gifts as a teacher. His poetic, mischievous nature leans his words more towards ironic paradox than categorical explanation. So, for my purposes here, I'll take it to mean both and just see where that leads. This six word phrase has a compact little world all of its own. A world reminiscent of a dried out old sponge, that expands infinitesimally once you water it with attention.
The structure of the phrase falls into three distinct sections; the first begins by describing what is being done – ‘binding’; the second is the subject to whom this is done – ‘one’s Self’; the third says how this is done – ‘without a rope’. Of course, words interact they don’t really exist in analytical isolation. Their proximity and the way they rub up against each other is what sparks meaning. If you playfully shuffle and reconfigure the order of these three sections, interesting shifts in emphases take place:- one’s Self binding without a rope - without a rope, binding one’s Self - one’s Self without a rope binding - without a rope one’s Self binding - binding without a rope one’s Self Is it the Self that is bound, or the Self that binds? This is ambiguity, is one countless generations of Buddhist practitioners have reflected on - How are we consciously ( or unconsciously for that matter ) bound by the Self ? - How much can we consciously bind it, and if so by what means?
Dogen, as I’ve mentioned, rarely spoke definitively about anything. His tongue rests firmly in his cheek, even when he is seemingly speaking from a position of authority. The meaning or intention of his inspired utterances, alter their shape, particularly if you try to pin them down too tightly with logical sense. Like the form of a shingle beach will change with the direction and force of each tide, it all depends on how you approach it, how the biases in your own perceptions collide with Dogen. Attempting to collude with any Dogen teaching can be a frustrating, if not humbling experience. What we bring to it, the concepts, the means of evaluating, the conclusions we've already come to, all circumscribe what we will discover. If we can remain open during this process, we might be lead to understand the limitations of any reasoned approach. He teaches a useful lesson; that insight is felt before it is understood, and not as we might think, understood before it is felt. So, what I want to do here is explore the possible, and even the more tenuous, interpretations of he phrase, bearing our two questions in mind as we progress – How much is the Self bound and by what means? - How much can it b bound, and by what means? All the while being conscious of the danger in sounding definitive about abstruse matters.
The word ‘binding’, like all words, has its own distinctive sound-scape. The function of a word when spoken is to some extent onomatopoeic. What we hear on the level of sound alone suggests a words meaning. If you speak the word ‘binding’, there is a sense of strain or restraint to its sound and formation, causing the mouth to extend and narrow, the tongue briefly to press on the back of teeth that are clenched almost closed. Vocally, sounds are flattened, squeezed and constrained within our mouth cavity by lips, teeth and tongue. In this way we feel meaning as much as we attribute it. The sort of definition we find in a dictionary describes only a broad principle. For binding it is - ‘to tie or fasten together with a band’ but this is followed by an extensive range of applications, both literal and metaphorical.
Binding brings numerous associations to mind, revolving around containment or restriction. You are being forced to stay put, held to account, your freedom of movement impeded, often as a form of punishment. Images arise - of being bound to the stake, like Joan of Arc - bound hand and foot in a mental asylum - bound over and taken into custody – a woman’s feet being bound in Imperial China - or of legs being bound together for a children’s race. These examples of physical restraint, also provide us with visual metaphors for forms of binding that are more concealed. The binding referred to by Dogen is - ‘without a rope’, so it would appear not to be visible to the human eye. There isn’t any tangible imprisoning rope, lying within our grasp, that needs to be loosened. It has more to do with the limits that mind, feelings and circumstances create, with more than a passing reference to the sense of one’s Self and its evolution.
We can be bound by, or bound too, many things in life. Environment and social context can bind you to places, or to people. If your farm barely produces enough to feed and clothe you, the struggle to survive binds you to the land. The simple conventions of earning a wage, or pursuing a career, provide financial ease and a degree of security, but also restrict what use your time and energy can be put to. If you are married, have children or elderly parents ,you are honour bound to look to their care and safety. Any form of relationship, whether with work or at home, binds you to one option, and denies your pursuit of a whole range of others. All our choices bind us to certain consequences, known or unknown. These choices are semi-voluntary, you bind yourself to it, but the rope is an invisible one made of responsibility, duty and obligation. This trio supports our personal relationships, and encourages social cohesion on a very basic level. It helps us to know what is expected of us from those we live, love and work with. If such semi-voluntary ‘binding’ is no longer respected, then more coercive forms might be resorted to by a family, a religion, or a law enforcing authority.
As children we absorb, mostly unconsciously, the ways our parents have learnt to operate and interact within the world. Adopting some of their preferences, insecurities, conceptions, misconceptions and coping strategies. Assuming that they know, or have discovered, what is best, we learn by using them as role models. At the time we are too young and inexperienced to know what will be of benefit to us, and what will not. There comes a time when we do have to ‘sift the wheat from the chaff’. To decide what in our inheritance we’ve found useful, and what was not, so we can then form our own mode of being that represents more accurately the sense of one’s Self.
For some, the teenage years are distinguished by revolt against this unquestioned acceptance of parental authority, of the ties that bind. Usually this marks out an individual’s independence from parental or social control. There are rules to this non-conformity, however unwritten they may seem to be; to not be like one’s parents; to not respect authority in whatever form; to not be conventional, fit in, or accept the status quo; to make yourself unique in some way. Paradoxically, all revolutions - religious , political or social - quickly develop their own group identity; the traditions, rituals and institutions that its paid up members conform to. Somehow, we cannot escape the desire to be bound into a social group, however unconventional its style.
Each succeeding generation creates its own archetypal and demonised rebel – Teddy Boys, Mods, Hippies or Punks. They coalesce around a specific choice of music, dress code, or an identifiable ethos or lifestyle. For some, this is just a self defining phase, to express an aspect of their psyche that dislikes conformity, before they settle down to marriage, children and a respectable career. Others can get permanently stuck in a state of reactive rebellion, in a constant struggle to define themselves as outside, if not against, the conventions of belonging to a society. This endless search for personal freedom, finally becomes a defining characteristic of how they see themselves.
The poet David Whyte, in his book Crossing the Unknown Sea, sees our apparent unease with freedom and belonging as characteristic of our era :-
“ Freedom is perhaps the ultimate spiritual longing of an individual human being, but freedom is only really appreciated when it falls within the parameters of a larger sense of belonging.
In freedom is the wish to belong to structure in our own way….
We are strange, difficult creatures who long for both freedom and belonging at the same time, and often run a mile when the real thing appears. That is the frontier on which we dwell.”1
Quentin Crisp, in his youth, defied the conventions expected of his gender in the pre and post-war years. Wearing make-up, dying his hair with henna and generally dressing in an overtly feminine manner. Yet, having so publicly demonstrated who he was, he found he didn’t need society, or a continual rebellion from its norms, to define him. He knew who he was - end of story. He’d learnt that reacting to any sense of restriction, can be a never ending process. A feeling of being constrained by your own internal sense of one's Self, as much as any genuine external source of oppression, fuels the demonstrations and placards of rebellion. An inner conflict becomes projected outwards onto an imperfect world, for it to solve. Crisp’s view was, that though this was entirely an understandable response, it was, nonetheless, a hopeless endeavour. For everywhere you looked your freedom is being restricted and bound by something:-
“ The difference between a mob and a society is order
and any order is a prison for somebody. Men are not even born free.
Merely to have parents is an almost intolerable restriction.
Nor do men as a rule become free. When they leave home they merely enter a more populous jail. The only thing that can be said for going out into the world is that one’s failure to find fulfillment can be blamed on a larger number of people than the two unfortunate beings with whom one started off ” 2
Taken broadly, any society or sub group within it, will place binds upon us; there’s an expectation that we will obey their laws, pay what is due and dance to their music. A sterner subliminal message often lies beneath the surface gilding of responsibility, duty and obligation – do so, or suffer the social consequences. Fears of social ostracism, related to our class, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religious or political affiliations, even down to the trivialities of what is considered politically correct, fashionable or in good taste, all affect our perception of what choices are available to us. These, as much as money ,class and opportunities, bind the sense of one’s Self and prejudice our sense of liberty. All of the above conditions bring form to the sense of one’s Self – what we are – what we are not - what we consider is, or isn’t, possible for us. They tie us into a way of being in the world; ways more often arrived at by accident than design, but consistently applied, they are the way the Self is unconsciously bound, they are ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’.
We are bound, simply by virtue of having a human nature and form. A human body has evolved to be held upright, and has developed great dexterity in what it can accomplish. Though it has its limitations too; for our bodies cannot fly like birds, lift tree trunks with the ease of an elephant, or swim with the speed and agility of a dolphin. Our mind, inventive and ingenious, compensates for our lack of physical strength and prowess. Over the millennia, the mind has extended the capabilities of our body, through the development of tools, beyond the practical limitations of our skeletal and muscular form. We can make subtle adjustments to how we will be before we are even born. We’ve learnt how to ease or banish most sickness from the body. Though we have considerably extended our life span over the last century,as a result. We cannot, however, seem to prevent our mind and body from sinking into decrepitude and dying. These conditions are unlikely ever to be transformed, they come, not just with being human, but as part of the very fabric and texture of existence. Buddhism says that there are three such immutable factors, defining, governing, and binding existence:- existence is bound by its impermanent nature - existence is bound by its unsatisfactory nature - existence is bound by being devoid of any unchanging notion of self, mind, body or nature.
From the moment you are born, right through to the moment you die, these binding factors are inescapable. Collectively called the laksanas, they are the dominant characteristics of conditioned reality, the nature of the world we live in and our own existence within it. These factors interleave and reinforce each other; if existence is impermanent there cannot be anything that is permanent, or unchangeable within it, we, as finite beings existing within it, are included within this. It is a profoundly unsatisfactory position to find ‘one’s Self’ in, and lies at the centre of our existential dilemmas. We may try very hard to flout, deny or evade them, but they will continue - ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’ - none-the-less, drawing us, however unwillingly, ever closer to the extinction of our individuality.
Part One - References
1 – Taken from – Crossing the unknown Sea – By David Whyte.
Published by Penguin Books 2002.
2 - Taken from – How to have a Lifestyle - By Quentin Crisp.
Published by Cecil Woolf Publishers 1975.