Religion and the Drive of Life

The Drive of Life

In these postings I am not out to give you a new theory of human nature––although this may well be an offshoot––but to get you to challenge your own deeply held assumptions and prejudices.  You are not what you think you are; others are not what you think they are; the world is not how you think that it is.  Self-examination, after all, is the point of Zen practice: to liberate you from your prison of an unexamined life.  See these postings as a way to penetrate the koan that you are working on.

One way to use what I say is to assume that I am wrong, then, look into your own experience  (not into books that you have read) for confirmation of your assumption.

Is not the idea of ‘dynamic unity ‘ somewhat abstract and indeed farfetched? This seems particularly so when we realize that nothing can be said about what lies beyond experience.  Even to call it ‘dynamic unity’ is saying something about it? What reason would one have for accepting dynamic unity as a meaningful idea?

Such a challenge is quite justified.  So often we accept high-sounding words and feel that we have been given some truth, particularly if these words are used over and over again.  So what evidence do we have that the expression ‘dynamic unity’ is not just an empty phrase?  The same question can be asked of the word ‘energy.’  Richard Feynman, a celebrated theoretical physicist, declared, “It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is.” According to a dictionary of philosophy, energy is “the power by which things act to change other things…potentiality in the physical…the capacity to do work.”[i] Webster’s dictionary defines it as, “The capacity for being active or acting…intellectual energy…natural power vigorously exerted…work with energy.” None of these definitions says what energy is but rather what it does.

So what does dynamic unity do? To answer that let me ask another question, “What is one of the most basic feelings in life?”

Is it not the feeling of being driven? Do not most of us feel driven, a feeling that comes from the dynamic drive of life?

At first we are driven to survive, to survive as a separate, independent organism.  The “struggle to survive” is the foundation of Darwin’s theory of evolution. You only have to tune into the National Geographic TV channel, and see the ferocity with which animals fight, the ardor with which they hunt, and the desperation with which they flee, to see the terrible truth of the struggle to survive. Moreover, people battle with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and other terrible diseases, reluctant to the very end to give up the fight.

The struggle to survive evolves into the struggle for autonomy, the drive to freedom, to be one’s own master.  I wrote of the cat in the garage, relentlessly, restlessly, tirelessly, scratching and biting, trying to be free from the confines of the garage. Animals have been known to gnaw off a limb to escape from a trap and go free.  Human history is studded with stories of men and women suffering and dying for freedom.  Wars, revolutions, and mob demonstrations have been waged in the name of freedom, in the name of autonomy.

After this, dynamic unity expresses itself in the need to be unique, to be alpha, to be the one.  Competition and conflict, the drive to exclude all else, the need to be the master race, ‘exceptionalism,’ all are outcomes of the drive of exclusive unity.  Nationalism, religious intolerance, and racism are scourges of the human race, and each comes from the same urge to be unique, to be the chosen race, to be the elect. The worst offences, and the most terrible atrocities, have been committed in the name of uniqueness.  The nuclear confrontation in 1962 between Kennedy and Khrushchev, which brought the world to the brink of self-destruction, had underlying it the question: who is unique: the Americans or the Russians.

The Greek Armenian teacher, G.I. Gurdjieff, said that the consequence of the drive to be unique is expressed in the need for “arrogance, the need to provoke astonishment in others, bragging, cunning, the vice of eating, egoism, envy, hate, imagination, jealousy, lying, offensiveness, partiality, pride, wishing the death or weakness of others, self-conceit, self love, swagger, vanity, slyness, ambition, double-facedness.”

Through each of these stages, the drive to survive, for autonomy and uniqueness, we can see the influence of dynamic unity, exclusive unity. Yet, we are not only driven as exclusive unity, the dynamism of inclusive unity also impels us.  Because of inclusive unity’s drive we long to belong, to be part of a greater whole, to participate in a way of life dedicated to the welfare of others as well as of ourselves. Perhaps a perfect example of such a life was that of Mother Theresa.

From there, unity impels us to create, to encompass experience in a unified and harmonious form: in music, painting, dancing, poetry, mathematics, pure science and philosophy.  Some of us are impelled to the point of being driven to create. The so poignant words that Vincent Van Gogh, the great Flemish painter, wrote to his brother, attest to this, “I can do without God in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life––the power to create.”

Finally, inclusive unity awakens us to the quest for transcendence, awakens us to seek our true home. The quest is no less a drive, a drive with all the strength and passion of the drive to survive.  Regrettably, it must force its way through the sludge of habits learned along the way, as well as through the inertia that they create. Initially, the quest for transcendence is so painful and frustrating, seemingly so pointless and endless, that the drive sinks back, exhausted, to earlier ways.

The religious quest, therefore, is not handed down from on high by some messiah, by a savior such as Jesus, Moses, Krishna, Buddha or Mohammed.  Nor is it a part time activity that we can participate in or not as the mood takes us: food for the soul is as necessary as food for the body.  Throughout all these stages we see the influence of what can only be called dynamic unity.

Dynamic unity has a subjective dimension as well as an objective. Subjectively, dynamic unity is knowing; objectively, it is being or reality.

We have a jumble of words that we see as meaning more or less the same thing: awareness, knowing, consciousness, even attention and intention are often confused and used interchangeably. If we are to have a meaningful discussion about the soul, or ‘psyche’ to use the Greek word for soul, we must have some agreement about the words we are going to use.

I will use the word ‘knowing’ for what is basic.  By ‘basic’ I mean knowing has no cause, source or origin. (This is worth meditating on, as its implications are vast.) Awareness is active knowing.  To use a metaphor: knowing is like a light; awareness is like the rays of light.  Consciousness is complex awareness, and we shall have to unravel some of its complexity as we go on with these postings. Interest and attention, both are the result of the activity of dynamic unity in awareness.

Seeing, hearing, feeling, or using any other of our senses, is knowing at work. Zen master Rinzai put it like this,

“Mind [knowing] is without form and pervades the ten directions:

In the eye it is called seeing,

In the ear it is called hearing.

In the nose it smells odors,

In the mouth it holds converse.

In the hands it grasps and seizes,

In the feet it runs and carries.

Fundamentally, it is one pure radiance; divided it becomes the six harmoniously united spheres of sense.”

Knowing, although it is most obvious, is the most mysterious and elusive of subjects. In Zen it is said that it is plainer then the nose on your face. It quite escapes flashlight awareness, and in no way can it be focused upon and made the object of observation.  Flashlight awareness isolates one thing from another.  For example, one can have a bowlful of apples and yet pick out, or focus upon, one particular apple. But flashlight awareness cannot focus upon knowing, because knowing has no parts that can be isolated and focused upon. In any case, flashlight awareness is knowing at work.

Because it is so elusive, yet so very obvious, knowing is a subject of many koans. One of the questions that Zen Masters ask themselves is, “How can I get a student to realize what we cannot talk about, or of which we cannot even be aware?” Koans are one answer to this question. For example:

A monk: What is my essence [knowing]?

Joshu:  The tree sways, the bird flies about, the fish leaps, the water is muddy.

Monk: I have heard that men of old said,  “It is void, it is clear, it shines of itself.”   To shine of itself what does that mean?

Joshu: It does not mean that something else shines.

Monk: When it fails to shine what then?

Joshu: You have betrayed yourself.

Monk: What is returning to the source (knowing)?

Joshu: The moment you try to do it you have missed.

A non-Buddhist once asked the World-Honored One, “I do not ask for words nor do I ask for no words.” The World-Honored One just sat.”

The non-Buddhist does not ask for words because words are useless; he does not ask for silence because silence is still in the realm that we can be aware of.  To see what ‘Buddha just sat’ means, we must go beyond thoughts and their objective counterparts, words.  Then we must go deeper still beyond all that we can be aware of to awareness, or knowing, itself.  A master commenting on this koan says, “It has no form and yet appears. Filling the ten directions, it is boundless. It responds spontaneously, arises in emptiness.”
 Knowing has no form yet it appears as all we can know. It appears as houses and cars, as trees and flowers, as thoughts and feelings.  It is not a thing and so has no boundaries. (What is there outside us?) The apparent nonsensical and illogical nature of koans arises because knowing eludes sense, logic and reason.

We have already discussed two ways of knowing, or, better still, two ways of being aware: lantern and flashlight awareness.  But, if we are to make headway, it is essential that you ‘know’ for yourself what these two ways mean.  So perhaps you would take a moment to do the following.

Look around the room that you are in.   Pick out an object in the room, say a chair.  When you do this you separate the chair from its environment.   It emerges, so to say, from a background.  That ‘picking out’ was the activity of flashlight awareness.  Moreover, as you pick the chair out, its nature appears to change fundamentally:  it apparently becomes ‘something.’ (Svabhava in Buddhist terms.) It seems to acquire its own being; it seems to ‘exists’ in itself. This existence is, furthermore, fixed by naming it: ‘chair.’  By ‘fixed’ I mean the chair seems to endure as an isolated thing in an unchanged, that is to say permanent, state.  A metaphor would be ‘fixing’ a photograph when developing it.

Although I am not saying anything that you did not already know, I invite you to do the ‘experiment’ because all that I shall say later will depend on what I am saying now. Please be sure to confirm for yourself all that I say.  If you cannot confirm it then perhaps I am wrong, or you have misunderstood.

If you are very attentive you will see that the ‘background’ from which the chair emerges is provided by lantern awareness.  You call the background, ‘the room.’ The reason you are convinced that the room is there, independently of whether you see it or not, is that lantern awareness has lit up the room that flashlight awareness focuses upon. Only if flashlight focuses on the room, will the room exist. The word ‘exist’ is derived from two words: ex meaning outside, as in exit, and from sister to stand.  When you focus on the chair, it exists, it stands out from the background of the room.

Lantern awareness is always ‘switched on,’ although we are not conscious of this. Flashlight awareness is switched on now and again, when it picks out, or allows to emerge, specific aspects of all that is revealed by lantern awareness. We are then ‘conscious of these specific aspects. Reverting back now to my own language: we are never aware-of the world; we are only ever aware-of awareness-as the world. It is for this reason that Zen Buddhism would say that the world is a dream.  (Putting it rather crudely: in a dream I am only aware of what goes on in my own awareness.) Furthermore, with awakening we do not awaken from the dream; we awaken as the dream. Or perhaps it would be better to say that we do awaken from the dream that the dream is real. Koan number 42 of the Mumonkan, ‘the Girl comes out of samadhi’ deals just with what I am now saying: we all are always in Samadhi (‘awareness as’ or ‘lantern awareness.’) Don’t forget that even Manjusri could not get the girl out of samadhi. It is Momyo (flashlight awareness) that gives us the impression that we are not always in samadhi.

The ‘experiment’ that we are doing moreover, gives us another reason for accepting dynamic unity as a reality.  Flashlight awareness is exclusive unity at work.  In order to pick out the chair we exclude all else, while bestowing on the chair an identity or ‘itness.’ It becomes a, or, ‘one’ chair. (In French une chaise.) This is the Greek philosopher Plotinus’ meaning when he said, “It is by the One [dynamic unity] that all beings are beings. (If) not a one, a thing is not. No army, no choir, no flock exists except that it be one. No house, even, or ship exists except as the one.”

On the other hand, lantern awareness is inclusive awareness at work; lantern awareness includes everything equally without distinction or separation. (The knowing of equality of Hakuin’s Four Ways of Knowing.)

Knowing is the ‘inner’ aspect, the subjective aspect, of dynamic unity; I have called the ‘outer’ aspect, the objective aspect, ‘being.’  Let us use a metaphor: a cup has an inside and an outside.  They are manifestly different, but inseparable as one cup. Dynamic unity has an inside and an outside; they are manifestly different, yet inseparable as dynamic unity. In Zen Buddhism, ‘being’ is called ‘form,’ as in ‘form it emptiness.’  It is like a clay jug, which has the form of a jug, but is made of clay.  Knowing is the ’substance’ of dynamic unity; being is the form. You cannot have clay without some kind of form; you cannot have knowing without being. This means that dust and ashes are not only matter (being;) they are also knowing [awareness-as.] Knowing and being are not the same, but they cannot be separated. Without being there is no knowing; without knowing there is no being. To see the room is to be the room.

Materialism, therefore, only gives half the story; idealism, gives the other half. “Knowing is being; being is knowing,” is an alternative saying to, “Emptiness is form; form is emptiness.” The English philosopher, F. H. Bradley put it this way, and in so doing describes lantern mind:

“The life of [lantern] mind begins with immediate experience.   In the beginning there are no relations and no feelings, but only differences that work and are felt but not discriminated.  The total state is an immediate feeling, a knowing and being in one.  Feeling here does not mean mere pleasure and pain…Feeling is immediate experience without distinction or relation in itself.  It is unity, complex but without relations …..Feeling is not one differentiated aspect but holds all aspects in one.”

As I have said, Unity is dynamic. If you listen to classical music you will have the impression that the music is flowing; it seems to be going somewhere.  Very often its flow is like the waves of the ocean driving to shore. This is particularly noticeable with Beethoven’s symphonies and Palestrina’s masses.  Dynamic unity also flows; it too seems to be flowing in a direction. Because dynamic unity seems to be flowing, our knowing, as the subjective aspect of dynamic unity, also feels like it is flowing in a direction. This feeling of knowing flowing is what we feel to be passing time. Moreover, knowing, with its necessary accompaniment of flowing in a direction, gives the impression that life has a purpose, that it is going ‘somewhere.’ The idea that “time is an ever-flowing stream,” as Rudyard Kipling would say, is now quite a cliché, as is “life is a journey.”

The direction in which music is flowing is given by the keynote, its dynamic center.  Music flows away from, and, at the same time, towards its dynamic center. This ‘impossibility’ creates the tension and the resolution of tension that is the heart of the musical experience.  Life, in a similar way, flows towards and away from its dynamic center, and this contributes to the tension and its resolution in life.

[i] Runes, Dagobert D., et al. Dictionary of Philosophy (Littlefield Adams: Totawa,) p.91.

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15 Responses to Religion and the Drive of Life

  1. Randy H. says:

    If “knowing” is beyond words, reality beyond comprehension, then what value is awakening? Waking up to the dream we are still dreaming, still doing, still piling sin on sin. What is one to do?

    • Randy H. says:

      I should add that my question is meant to be rhetorical and provocative, another way of asking, ‘why practice?’ Practice, awakening has nothing for ‘me.’ And yet…

      • Marc Domville says:

        Hi Randy, Well said! I believe Albert is trying to get us to ask just that question, continually and at an ever deeper level. Thanks!

  2. Marc Domville says:

    I believe there is an unfortunate (at least to those unfamiliar with the “Heart Sutra”) typo in the fifth to last paragraph. I think ‘form IT emptiness’ was intended to read ‘form IS emptiness’. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
    Thank you for the concise, concrete (though quite ‘difficult’) meditation on Knowing/Being.

  3. alain says:

    The question I ask myself regarding lantern awareness and flashlight awareness is if somehow it would not iterate like fractals. Kind like those Russian puppets. Take this example; sometimes I take a nap in the afternoon during the weekend. And once in a while, as I wake up, I do not know what time it is, or where I am. I feel lost for a few second. And then I attempt at finding back my referents, but before I find or see where ‘exactly’ I am both spatially and temporally, I need to see from kind of my cultural holistic sets of referents (western civilization conception of time and space). When this ‘background’ is ‘found’, then I know the specific time and specific space I am ‘in’. This background is similar to lantern awareness and the specifics time and space is similar to flashlight awareness. I ‘become’ aware as ‘a holistic, inclusive, implicit western civilization conception of time and space’ and I am aware of the specific time and space I am in. Although this awareness as isn’t strictly speaking ‘verbal’, it is nevertheless part of our world of words, and it is also a specific way of seeing; a specific way of being aware as and of. That is why I ask if there would be some kind of iteration, or a puppet within a puppet within a puppet, etc, of which words would be one of those puppets. We seem to be under the spell of words; kind of a background made up of implicit words which we cannot look at and to some extent do not even know we look from and an explicit foreground which we are/is our awareness of which is in direct relation to this background, being specifics of this background.

  4. Marcel DesRosiers says:

    Religion is a default setting or a safety guard given to all human beings, it gives dynamic actions yearning to a basic drive of life. The keywords I found in my religion to live with and the yearning to link my body life to them have been my own drive of life and still are. But soon I came to ask others questions with no answers, like who was my God and why do I have to believe in Him to give a sense to my life. The resurrection looked to me too far from my present short life, appearing some sort of an impossible dream: and what will happen after that? Those questionings remains, I keep them alive by purpose, and that gives me another impulse to live, a more dynamic one, closer to the meaning of who am I and what is life. This is why I became this year interested in Buddhism, also a religion, but which is looking at this sense of questioning, at the meaning of it, the meaning of the impossibility to find answers to all questions, and proposing a way to do it with the Zen practice. It gives me now a dynamic path where I can found a more meaningful drive to live without discarding my basic values retained from the blurred holy waters of my religion.

  5. Jacqueline V. says:

    Dynamic unity and dynamic centre – hmmm I have struggled with these before. Not sure they are synonymous but neither benefits from being tamped down by definitions so I am not motivated to press for a distinction. What I understand you to say is that we are and we know as dynamic phenomena as and while we are both within and of dynamic phenomena. So perhaps – as water and music flow – there is a dynamic draw to the common centre while and as we and all living beings grow then age within a more entropic dynamic draw of which we are all part. Having taken some time to write that I see I have in fact written nothing at all but will leave this comment in anyway.

    • Albert Low says:

      Dear jacqueline,

      Many thanks for the comment on my posting. After 18 books, 1300 hours of teishos and endless hours of dokusan I still have not said it… so don’t be discouraged!


      Albert www.

      • Monique D says:

        Dear Mr. Low,

        Thank you for not having said it! And thank you also for unceasingly trying to, pointing to what cannot be said.
        Po Chang says somewhere that in spite of the frustrations that it gives, “you cannot go without making an utterance.”
        So what is it you cannot say? That is the question.
        I find your postings very helpful and I am looking forward for the next ones in the year to come. Hoping there will be plenty of them.

  6. Sandra O says:

    I always have the feeling of one foot firmly planted in, say, knowing, and the other in being, or one in materialism and the other in idealism, or one in classical mechanics and the other in quantum mechanics – and they cannot talk to each other. How to get beyond them?

  7. Pierre Gilles Lebel says:

    Vous affirmez que l’unité dynamique comporte une dimension subjective et une dimension objective, lesquelles semblent correspondre respectivement au Chit et au Sat du Sat-Chit-Ananda de la philosophie indienne. L’unité dynamique n’aurait-elle pas une troisième dimension: Ananda (bliss en anglais)? Vous en faites très rarement allusion dans vos teishos et dans vos écrits. Pourquoi?

    Pierre Gilles

  8. Helmut Mohelsky says:

    Helmut M.
    There is no difference between the art of saying it and the art of unsaying it.

    True, but what a difference that no difference is!

  9. While reading your book ‘I am therefore I think’ one realise that the sangha has invested you with the center, some more than others, and that after you are no more, there will be a period of anguish and chaos. Do you have any suggestion on how to cope with this situation?


    The only refuge is at your own centre, or, perhaps I should say, the only refuge is to transcend the need for any and all centres

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