Part Four - Who’s in the driving seat?
Dogen would normally addressing a remark such as ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’ to monks, ones with experience of his personality and teaching style. They would, no doubt, find it easier to comprehend the intent behind Dogen’s statement than we do now. Now, after extensively ruminating over the nature of the Self we find ourselves teetering at the threshold of the next questions to arise from ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’ - How would you approach binding the Self, if indeed this can be done? - What practice or action will take us beyond its bounds and limitations? Though, before we rush on to fully engage with these question of how and what, I feel the need to be sure we know why we are doing this. Aren’t we just creating an existential difficulty where there isn’t one? Why does Buddhism consider the Self such a problem?
Last year, for the first time in my life, I bought a car. Second hand, low mileage and in relatively good nick for a nine year old automobile. I’d passed my Driving Test a long time ago, when I was twenty. For the thirty years since then, matters of finance, lifestyle, concern for the environment, and most of all loss of confidence, meant I didn’t feel I needed a car. Once I got the job working at the Crematorium, which was far out on the other side of town, I knew I’d need to buy a car. My driving skills were very rusty, so it took some time to regain them, and my confidence. There are still times, as I step out to drive my car, when a feeling of dread comes over me, sometimes even a mildly nervous bubble of panic - I don’t really want to do this. Once I’m in the car and driving, a sense of capability gradually reasserts itself. In the background though, there’s still an anxious oracle, a sense of unspecified foreboding. Inside the protective metal skin of my car I feel vulnerable and exposed, only a thin membrane of tempered steel protects me. This petrol driven pram could easily be dented, punctured or mangled, with me ending up a jam-coloured splodge sandwiched in the middle. Being a careful driver reduces the odds of my being involved in an accident, but it's no insurance against an encounter with the unexpected fool. Driving has increased my mobility, but also my awareness of just how conditional my security and grasp on life is, as so much of it is out of my control. The Self might also appear substantial and protective but we instinctively know, even as we proceed self confidently driving through life, that it affords no defense against our ultimate collision with untimely death.
A motor car is an engineered extension of our body; its capabilities and boundaries. It even bares some anthropomorphic similarities in form and design. From the moment of its invention, it was inevitable that the car would be brought under the patronage of 'The Autobiographical Self.' It has its ‘practical’ functions; protective armouring, a sense of purpose, through speed, steering, movement and destination. It also has its ‘decorative’ functions; the sensual smoothness of its shiny skin, its style, colour and acceleration. All have associations with virility, ambition and success, that advertisers never fail to drive home all the time.
Now what if I was to say - Why is the Motor Car considered such a problem? It is easier with a car than with the Self, we can stand back and examine it in a more disassociated fashion, as if you’re buying it from a second-hand car dealer. The first thing to say, is that the pleasures of car ownership seem largely to be associated with how you engage with it imaginatively, and how it makes you feel when you drive it. The unpleasant aspects of car ownership, are mostly associated with the practicalities of maintaining and running it, the unexpected expense, the atmospheric pollution, traffic jams, accidents, mechanical failure, and its limited life span. Though, in contrast to our own perishable self and body, when a car finally dies, you do have the pleasure of going out and buying a new one.
What is pleasurable or unpleasant about owning a Self is not dissimilar. It is rich with a range of positive feelings and imaginative pleasures. These are only upset when our desire for pleasure encounters an obstacle. Such unpleasant intrusions of earthy practicality into our dreamy life, drags our imagination down from the clouds. There is no design or malevolence to this, its merely the working motion of an intransigent reality. Similar to a cheap car, the Self will bear you from birth to death. It’s fueled by desire and driven by The Worldly Winds, or lokadharmas. These contrary pairings of pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and infamy, praise and blame - define the possible outcomes of the gamble desire plays with reality.
The Self when it gets what it desires, feels the positive gain from delight and pleasure. Through being praised, it gains a sense of immortal fame. All in all, it seems such a life-enhancing experience, we feel emotionally and imaginatively complete. Reality is our best friend and servant. On such a day you’ve got the soft top down in your car, wind freely blowing through your hair, the throbbing soundtrack of Deep Purple declares “I’m a Highway Star,”as you cruise at ever faster speeds down the motorway of life.
The Self, when it doesn’t get what it desires, feels an irrevocable sense of loss as a well of negativity and pain arises. It blames itself for the apparent descent into eternal infamy. Life is torn asunder, we are left robbed of purpose and meaning. Reality is our enemy and torturer. On such a day you’re dressed in grubby overalls, hands and face covered in smears of dirty oil and grease. You’re staring bewildered at a car engine that refuses to start, the garage radio blares out Madonna, mercilessly teasing you “I’m living in a material world, and I’m a material girl.” Life can be such a bitch.
Desires are insatiable, it's hand reaches out further and further for an even more elusive, unattainable flower. Though we know the satisfaction of each desire dissolves once we’ve touched it. Desire can be an unreliable master, sometimes a beautiful angel, sometimes a three headed beast. As a beautiful angel, it acts as a handmaiden, in the early stages of the spiritual life it can, for example, allure, direct and lead our spiritual attention, hold and support our fledgling aspirations till they can fly unaided. In the opposite enclosure is the beast, the three-headed gorgon, that is fed by craving. Craving, as a word, has a coarser, impulsive, more animalistic urge to it than desire has. It denotes an almighty hunger, a thirsty unquenchable libido. It’s endless ravenous hunger, if not checked, can become unprincipled in how it grasps. It wants what it wants no matter what the cost maybe to itself or others. Craving behaves like Charles 1, the autocratic, English monarch who believed the he had a divinely inspired right to rule, attempting to bring everyone under his royal control and command. He was, as a result, the only English king ever to be publicly executed, to have his head chopped off from his body. Untrammeled craving can similarly make you lose your head, and thus all perspective. Unsurprisingly, craving has three aspects which we are already very familiar with.
First, there is a craving for sensual delight, for a pleasure-filled balm to preserve the meaning and vitality of the senses. Second, there is craving for a continuity of purpose to existence, for an element of consciousness to survive and go beyond death itself. Third, there is craving for an end to it all, for life with all its trivial fripperies and trappings to be consigned to oblivion. We may, however, be less familiar with the third form, perhaps only experiencing it briefly during times of personal crises. If not, we may be aware of individuals who have literally drowned in their own sensual intoxication; knowingly drinking, eating or drugging themselves to the point of death. Nothing is worth the effort, because we’re all going to hell in a hand-cart, so lets blot it all out of our minds in the meantime.
One problem with the Self does reside in the beastly nature of these cravings. Cravings distract our attention, evading face to face contact with disillusion, dissatisfaction and death. Death can become more consciousness through the archetypal power of dreams. At the time when I began working full-time at the Crematorium, I had a series of disturbing nightmares. They usually consist of some form of chase, in which my arms and legs would literally flail and hit out violently at my imagined pursuers, trying to shake them off my trail. The reasons for this escaped my memory the moment I awoke, but the sense of panic and alarm could persist all night. The last time this happened, I do remember what was chasing me, it was a dog. The dog, jet black and longhaired, was pelting after me, saliva dribbling out of each corner of its mouth. This was no friendly mutt, but a harbinger of death, ferociously in pursuit of me, its foam covered teeth nipping at my trouser turn-ups. One bite closer, it would succeed in delivering its rabid infection directly into my bloodstream. No wonder I was running as if my life depended on it. Endlessly running, over and over, round and round the same ground, never ever fully escaping the death-delivering dog, forever snapping at my heels.
I cannot escape that dog, one day it will catch up with me, no matter how much I run from it, or crave for it to cease its pursuit. For what happens after death is an eternal conundrum for humankind, as life cannot provide us with an empirical answer. Such an answer, were it to exist, would help us handle our deaths with better grace and dignity. Most religions, in trying to provide answers to our craving for certainty, formulate a future place for the sense of one's Self to exist in beyond death. Creating a continuity for life that salves our existential anxiety. Whether that future is heaven or hellish, is dependent upon the content and style of life just completed. We might stay in eternal bliss or in perpetual damnation, or return at some designated point in the future to live again in the human realm. Either way, something recognisable is said to survive death. The Buddha described this view as eternalistic. All theistic religions fall under its hope-filled auspices.
Another response to death is to say absolutely nothing happens, when your body dies, you die completely, nothing survives of the Self into another world. In the absence of facts to prove otherwise, this world is all there is. What you achieve or succeed in, and whatever good you do in the life between birth and death, is all left behind. This turns life an interesting eventful journey heading towards an concluding terminus. Enjoy it while it lasts – shop till you drop. The Buddha called this view nihilistic. Various forms of humanism, atheism, materialism (scientific or otherwise) and secularism are driven by this view. Eternalism or nihilism, our cravings and desires will frequently switch between one or other of these two beliefs, though one may be more prevalent.
The Self is a common factor to both these views, in either it has some form of concrete existence. Whether it is for one life in this world, or for further lives in this or other realms, is an argument about duration. Though one of these views will no doubt inform our modus operandi within life, it is, none-the-less, an unresolvable issue. I don’t believe Dogen was much concerned about ‘How long the Self exists’ but with the core issue of 'Whether, and in what sense, the Self exists.’
Buddhism gives only a temporary and grudging credence to the Self and is suspicious of any eternalist or nihilist viewpoint. Though it does appear superficially to incorporate elements of both views, but gives both of them an evasive twist; the body dies, you die, but something survives that is linked karmically to who you were, but will not be in any way shape or form, identifiable as you in any future re-birth. For Dogen felt it was not really important, and might even be a waste of intellectual effort, to try to prove either eternalism or nihilism to be right or wrong. If either view is used to buttress the sense of one’s Self as a fixed unchanging entity, this is the primary wrong view he thought we should be most concerned about. Its not about correct or incorrect views either, but also how we hold it mentally, the rigidity with which we endorse it. This would make it doubly incorrect.
From a Buddhist point of view the Self’s consistency is seen as a concoction, without substance. What we present as a stationary, stable Self traveling immutably through time, is really a shifting unstable Self stretched thinly across the gaps between successive moments. The sense of one’s Self could be seen as a giant mutant monster emerging out of a frothy pool of processed singular experiences. Though consciousness would seem, in its origins at least, to be pure, it being one of the six elements; Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Space and Consciousness. Only when Consciousness becomes embodied within a human form, with feelings, perceptions and desires, does it become discriminating. This discriminating consciousness distorts how we feel and respond to reality. Once consciousness is confined to a body, it's no longer pure, it becomes tainted and biased by the incestuous relationship it has with the Self. This why within the Buddhist context of seeking clearer, purer awareness, The Self is seen as such a problem- because it thoroughly muddies the water of consciousness. This might indeed be what Enlightenment is, a simple re-awakening to Pure Consciousness.