Hubert Benoit’s books were our first introduction to Zen. A small group of friends used to meet of an evening and read his texts and discuss what he said. This was in Johannesburg; we had just left Scientology, disappointed that it did not live up to its promise. These books had a very different flavour.
Hubert Benoit had been a surgeon and a violinist but was severely injured during an American bombing raid and spent many years recovering. This left him no longer able to play the violin or to practice as a surgeon. When we feel sorry for ourselves at no longer having a teacher available, day after day, we should think of this man. No teacher and a body that no longer functioned with the exquisite ability that brought forth music and healing. But what determination.
We made a stay in England on our way from South Africa to Canada in order to visit with our families. During this time Albert went across to France to meet with Benoit.
He was very impressed with his writing about humility and recommended it to many of you. And so I am printing that chapter again as a blog for those of you who have not read it. And for those of you who have.
On Humility by Hubert Benoit
We must emphasize a fundamental aspect of the theoretical and practical understanding which alone can free us from our distress. We must understand humility, what it is precisely and to see that in humility is to be found the key to our freedom and to our greatness.
We are at this very moment in satori, fully awakened, but we cannot enjoy it because our normal habits and reactions are constantly at work and these set up a vicious circle within us. Our rumination and inner monologue prevent us from awakening to our Buddha-nature. We, therefore, believe that we lack essential reality, and so we are obliged to imagine in order to compensate for this illusory defect.
I believe that I am separated from my own ‘being’ and I look for it to reunite myself with it. Only knowing myself as a distinct, separate individual, I seek for the Absolute as a distinct individual; I want to affirm myself-absolutely-as-a-distinct-being, as being unique. This effort creates and maintains in me, at the level of phenomena, my divine fiction, my fundamental claim that I am omnipotent as an individual.
This work of bolstering my psychological habits and reactions consists in my imaginative representation of things, in my refusal to give attention to proofs of my impotence, by giving to myself proofs of my power, and by withdrawing my claim whenever I cannot help seeing my impotence. I train myself never to recognize the equality of the outside world and myself; I consider myself to be different from the outside world, on a different level: above it whenever I can sustain the illusion, below it when I cannot. The fiction according to which I am as an individual the Primary Cause of the Universe requires that only I should be able to condition the world. I either see myself as conditioning the outer world, or I see myself as failing to condition it, but never can I recognize myself as conditioned by it on a basis of equality. From all of this arises the illusion of the Not-Self. If I condition the outside world, it is Self; if I do not succeed in doing so, it is Not-Self; never can I bring myself to recognize it as Itself, because I lack knowledge of the underlying reality which unites us.
Because it is impossible for me at the moment to be in possession of my own nature, of Buddha-nature, to be universal man rather than being a distinct individual, I am ceaselessly obliged to represent my situation in the Universe in a way that is radically untrue. Instead of seeing myself as equal to the outside world, I see myself either as above it or below, either on high, or below. In this perspective, in which the ‘on high’ is Being and the ‘below’ is Nothingness, I am obliged to urge myself always towards Being. All my efforts necessarily tend, in a direct or a roundabout manner, to raise me up, whether materially, subtly, or, as one says, ‘spiritually’.
All my natural psychological habits and reactions, before satori, are based on self-love, the claim of me as a person to be able to ‘rise’ in one way or another; and it is this claim to raise myself individually which hides from me my infinite, universal dignity.
The claim which animates all my efforts, all my hopes, is at times difficult to recognize as such. It is easy for me to see my claim when the Not-Self from which I wish to be distinguished is represented by other human-beings; in this case a little inner frankness suffices to give the true name to my endeavor. It is no longer so easy when the Not-Self from which I wish to be distinguished is represented by inanimate objects, even more so when it is represented by that illusory and mysterious entity that I call Destiny. However, basically it is exactly the same thing; my luck exalts me and my bad luck humiliates me. All perception of affirmation in the Universe exalts me, all perception of denial in the Universe humiliates me. When the outside world is positive, constructive, it is as I want it, and it then appears to me as controlled by me. When it is negative, destructive (even if it does not directly concern me), it is not as I want it, and it then seems to me to be refusing to allow itself to be controlled by me. If we see clearly the profound basis of our self-love, we understand that all imaginable joys come from this self-love being satisfied and that all imaginable sufferings come from it being wounded. We then understand that our pretentious personal attitude dominates the whole of our affective habits and reactions, that is the whole of our life. Only the Independent Intelligence escapes this domination.
My egotistical claim for the ‘on high’ has to be maintained by an unending activity of the imagination because it is false, and is in radical contradiction with the reality of things. If I look impartially at my personal life as a whole I will see that it is comparable to the bursting of a fireworks-rocket. The shooting upwards of the rocket corresponds to the intra-uterine life during which everything is prepared, prepared without yet being manifested; the moment at which the rocket bursts is birth; the spreading out of the luminous shower represents that ascending period of my life in which my organism develops all its powers; the falling back of the shower in a rain of sparks which expire represents my old age and death. It appears to me at first that the life of this rocket is an increase, then a decrease. But in thinking about it more carefully I see that it is, throughout its duration, a disintegration of energy; it is a decrease from beginning to end of its manifestation. So is it with me as an individual; from the moment of my conception, my psycho-somatic organism is the manifestation of a disintegration, of a continual descent. From the moment at which I am conceived, I begin to die, exhausting in manifestations more or less spectacular an original energy which only decreases. Cosmic reality radically contradicts my claim towards the ‘on high’; as a separate individual being I have before me only the ‘below’.
The whole problem of human distress is summed up in the problem of humiliation. To cure distress is to be freed from all possibility of humiliation. Where does my humiliation come from? From seeing myself powerless? No, that is not enough. It comes from the fact that I try in vain not to see my real powerlessness. It is not powerlessness itself that causes humiliation, but the shock experienced by my claim to omnipotence when it comes up against the reality of things. I am not humiliated because the outer world denies me, but because I fail to negate this negation. The true cause of my distress is never in the outside world, it is only in the claim that I throw out and which is broken against the wall of reality. I deceive myself when I complain that the wall has hurled itself against me and has wounded me; it is I that have injured myself against it, it is my own action that has caused my suffering. When I no longer claim, nothing will ever injure me again.
It could also be said that my distress-humiliation reveals the laceration of an inner conflict between my tendency to see myself all-powerful and my tendency to recognize concrete reality in which my omnipotence is denied. I am distressed and humiliated when I am torn between my subjective claim and my objective observation, between my lie and my truth, between my partial and impartial representations of my situation in the Universe. I shall only be saved from the permanent threat of distress when my objectivity has triumphed over my subjectivity when the reality has triumphed in me over the dream.
In our desire to escape from distress, at last, we search for doctrines of salvation, we search for ‘gurus’. But the true guru is not far away, he is before our eyes and unceasingly offers us his teaching; he is reality as it is, he is our daily life. The proof of salvation is before our eyes, it is the demonstration of our non-omnipotence, the demonstration that our claim is radically absurd, impossible, and therefore illusory, non-existent. It is also in the demonstration that there is nothing to fear for hopes that have no reality; that I am and have always been on the ground, and therefore no kind of fall is possible, and so vertigo has no reason to exist.
If I am humiliated, it is because my imaginative habits and reactions succeed in overcoming a true perception of reality and so keeps the confirmation in the dark. I do not benefit by the teaching of salvation which is constantly offered to me, because I refuse it and adroitly set myself up to elude the experience of humiliation. If a humiliating circumstance turns up, offering me a wonderful chance of initiation, at once my imagination strives to get rid of what appears to me to be a danger; it struggles against the illusory movement towards ‘beneath’; it does everything to restore me to that habitual state of satisfied arrogance in which I find a temporary relief, but also the certainty of further distress. In short, I constantly defend myself against that which offers to save me; I fight inch by inch to defend the very source of my unhappiness. All my inner actions tend to prevent satori, since they aim at the ‘on high’ whereas satori awaits me ‘below’. And so Zen is right in saying that ‘satori falls upon us unexpectedly when we have exhausted all the resources of our being’.
What we have just been saying seems to suggest that humility is the way’. In a way this is true. Let us see, however, in what respect humility is not a ‘way,’ if we understand by this word a systematic discipline. In my present condition I cannot make any effort which, directly or indirectly, is not an effort towards ‘on high’. Every effort to bring about humility can only result in a false humility in which I again exalt myself egotistically by means of the idol that I have created for myself. It is strictly impossible for me to abase myself, that is for me to reduce the intensity of my claim to ‘be’. All that I can and should do, if I wish to escape finally from distress, is to resist the instruction of concrete reality less and less, and to let myself be abased by the evidence of the cosmic order. Even then, there is nothing that I can do or cease to do directly. I will cease to be opposed to the constructive and harmonizing benefits of humiliation to the degree to which I have understood that my true well-being is to be found, paradoxically, where until now I have situated my pain. As long as I have not understood, I am turned towards ‘on high’; when I have understood I am not now turned towards ‘below—because, once again, it is impossible for me to be turned towards ‘below’ and every effort in that direction would transform the ‘below’ into ‘on high’—but the drive of my aspiration towards ‘on high’ decreases in intensity and, to this degree, I benefit from my humiliations. When I have understood, I resist less and, on account of this, see more and more frequently that I am humiliated; I see that all my negative states are fundamentally humiliations, and that I have taken steps up to now to give them other names. I am now capable of feeling humiliated, vexed, without any other feeling in me than the feeling of this state, and of remaining there motionless, my understanding having wiped out my reflex attempts at flight. From the moment at which I succeed in no longer moving in my humiliated state, I discover with surprise, that there is the ‘asylum of rest’, the unique harbour of safety, the only place in the world in which I can find perfect security. By remaining in this state, which is placed face to face with my natural refusal, brings about the intervention of the Conciliating Principle; the opposites neutralize each other; my suffering fades away and one part of my fundamental claim fades away at the same time. I feel myself nearer to the ground, to the ‘below’, to real humility (humility which is not acceptance of inferiority, but abandonment of the vertical conception in which I saw myself always above or below). These inner phenomena are accompanied by a feeling of sadness, of ‘night’; and this feeling is very different from distress because a great calm reigns therein. During this moment of nightly calm and of relaxation are elaborated the processes of what can be called the inner alchemy. The ‘old’ man breaks up for the benefit of the gestation of the ‘new’ man. The individual dies for the sake of the birth of the universal.
The attainment of humility, impossible directly, supposes then the use of humiliation. All suffering, by humiliating us, modifies us. But this modification is of two kinds that are radically opposed. If I struggle against humiliation, it destroys me and it increases my inner disharmony; if I leave it alone without opposing it, it builds up my inner harmony. To let humiliation alone simply consists in recognizing to oneself that one is humiliated.
Being, in our present perspective, reveals to us the unconciliated duality of zero and the infinite. Our nature urges us at first to identify being with the infinite and to try to reach being in this form, by constantly ascending. But this attempt is hopeless; no ascent in the finite can reach the infinite.
This idea that humility is not a ‘way’ is so important that we would like to come back to it for the last time. If I do not understand this, I shall inevitably withdraw the various ways of making my claim in practical life. I will therefore confine myself in a mediocre social rank and so on. I shall avoid humiliations instead of using them. Imitations of humility are never anything else but imitations. It is not a question of modifying the way I express my fundamental claim, but of using the negative results which come to me in the course of this expression, owing to the humiliating defeats which necessarily occur. If I stop fighting against the not Self in an artificial way I deprive myself of invaluable knowledge which comes to me from my defeats.
Without always saying so in an explicit manner, Zen is centered on the idea of humility. Throughout the whole of Zen literature we see how the masters, in their ingenious goodness, intensely humiliate their pupils at the moment which they judge to be propitious. In any case, whether humiliation comes from a master or from the ultimate defeat experienced in oneself, satori is always released in an instant in which the humility of the man fulfils itself in face of the absurdity, at last evident, of all his pretentious efforts. Let us recall that the ‘nature of things’ is for us the best, the most affectionate, and the most humiliating of masters; it surrounds us with its vigilant assistance. The only task incumbent upon us is to understand reality and to let ourselves be transformed by it.