...short reflections on Whitehead and Zen Buddhism...
When I Fall Down I Get Up Again
A monk asks the Zen Master what it's like to be enlightened? The Master says: "Nothing special. It's just that when I fall down I get up again."
At each moment of our lives we are born again. Just as every day is a new day, so every moment is a new moment. Our selves are the moments of our lives. This fact does not contradict the fact of inter-being (pratitya-samutpada). No moment is an island. Each moment is a coming together - a concrescence - of the entire universe. We are these concrescences, these gatherings of many into one. Thus we are not simply ourselves; we are also the universe becoming itself through us. And so is everyone else. In the face of the other person the universe appears to us, not as a cosmic consciousness but rather as that person in his or her individuality. Jeff and Jane, Mei and Zhihe, Jose and Maria, Vladimir and Anna, Muhammad and Adiba -- all are the universe presenting itself.
All of these presentations take place in the only time we really have: the present moment. Now and then we have tastes of this. We feel the radical inter-being which is the essence of who we are and who others are. None of this belies our individuality. No two moments are same, and no two people are the same. Even as we are composed of other people and the more-than-human world, we are self-creative in how we respond. This self-creativity is our true self. "When I fall down I get up again."
Tastes of Self-Awakening
A few years ago I caught a glimpse of the non-dual interdependence of all things and events caught in the field of space-time while hiking alone on the northern coast of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I followed a game trail through opaque, self-concealing forest that broke onto a boulder-and driftwood-covered beach. It was an old trail, mostly taken over by deer on their way to a nearby creek that emptied onto the beach. Old-growth western hemlock, Douglas fir, and red cedar loomed overhead from a floor matted with feathery moss, as if pulled up by invisible wires into the coast fog. In this rain forest, it’s always dark and wet, even in summer.
I walked onto the beach into a setting sun that painted everything in orange acrylic—waves breaking hard on the rocks, forest crowding the beach in an unbroken line running northwest to southeast, fog covering the beach like a shroud, light rain dimpling the creek losing itself in the breakers. Sharp sounds popped across the rocks on my left, and I saw two elk—a bull and a cow—run as if on cue over a tree-lined hill...more
“One day I wiped out all notions from my mind. I gave up all desire. I discarded all the words which I thought and stayed in quietude. I felt a little queer — as if I were being carried into something, or as if I were touching some power unknown to me…and Ztt! I entered. I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos. I spoke, but my words had lost their meaning. I saw people coming toward me, but all were the same man. All were myself! I had never known this world. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos; no individual Mr. Sasaki existed.” From: The Little Zen Companionby David Schiller
Now and Zen A Technical Analysis
In Whitehead's philosophy as in Zen Buddhism, the human self is not a solid entity that endures unchanged over time, but rather a series of moments of experience, each of which has subjective immediacy as it occurs. Whitehead speaks of such a moment as an actual entity. An entity is not a "thing" but rather a happening, an event, an occasion in time. Subjective immediacy is the internal aliveness of the actual entity as if unfolds: its combination of self-enjoyment and self-creativity. Self-enjoyment is the feeling the entity enjoys or suffers as it happens. Self-creativity is an act of decision, conscious or unconscious, that the entity makes, concerning how it will constitute itself out of past influences. The entity chooses from among various options for integrating influences from the past; its decision is how the many become one. In human life we call this freedom.
Partly Free and Partly Determined: Together, both the self-enjoyment and the self-creativity are the actual entity as a reality for itself, its immediacy. The entity at issue may be 99% determined by past influences, which in human life can include bodily, social, and historical influences and, for Whitehead, divine influences (a lure for positive feeling and self-creativity). But even as 99% determined, the entity is 1% free. This 1% is its self-creativity and even God cannot override it.
Karma: After it happens, the actual entity loses its immediacy. This loss is everywhere apparent; it is the universality of what Whitehead calls perpetual perishing. A Buddhist will call it impermanence. When the moment loses its immediacy in the ongoing life of a human being, the moment becomes past and a new moment takes its place. This loss is not the perishing of the moment as such, but rather the perishing of its immediacy, after which the moment becomes an influence in the future. In Whitehead's language, the moment becomes objectively immortal, affecting the entire future of the universe one way or another. This is how a Whiteheadian would understand karmic connections with the past. Consciously and unconsciously, we are influenced by everything that has happened in the world and in the universe. We are karmically connected, positively and negatively. The lure of God is toward the elimination of negative karmic connections (greed, hatred, and ignorance) and the cultivation of positive karmic connections (wisdom and compassion). The lure of God is that we become bodhisattvas, each in our way.
Self-Awakening of the True Self: The question remains: Where is the first-person amid all this? Where is the self? From a Zen perspective and from a Whiteheadian perspective, the true self is always here and now, in the immediacy of the self-enjoying moment. This self is forever flowing; it is always different from who and what it has been in the past. We are born again in each moment. Always our act of being born again is relational; it is a concrescing or gathering together of the entire universe. Most of us do not really know this. We may say that we are connected to everything else, but we do not really feel this inwardly, in our bones. The Zen enlightenment experience is a the self-awakening of this true self. The gift of Buddhism, not only to Buddhists but to the world, is to invite us into this awakening.