In a recent interview in The Sun Magazine*, Jacob Needleman tells the story of his 1957 encounter with Zen Master D.T. Suzuki. Needleman was just finishing his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Harvard and had become interested in Zen Buddhism. He heard that Suzuki was visiting New York and he managed to arrange a visit at a friend’s apartment. He had prepared a question for Suzuki: “What is the self?” Needleman was confident about having a high-level discussion with Suzuki as he had just written his senior thesis on this topic and had the support of Heidegger, Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Hegel and other philosophers. As he walked into the room with Suzuki, he was impressed with this little man with bat-wing eyebrows. Suzuki had a quiet, powerful presence that seemed to energize the atmosphere.
“What is the self?” Needleman asked.
Suzuki replied, “Who is asking the question?”
Needleman felt angry. What did he mean, “Who is asking?” “I am! I’m asking the question!”
Suzuki replied, “Show me this ‘I’”.
Needleman goes on to describe his anger and confusion and disappointment. He was ready for an intellectually rigorous debate about the most existentially compelling of philosophical issues and he was stopped dead in his tracks. This was no clever, intellectual game. This was an encounter with a man who compelled respect and attention, and yet resulted in his being left with no ideas or answers.
Looking back on that encounter Needleman realized that Suzuki did not give an intellectual answer so that he could enter a questioning state…a stopping the mind…that would allow him to experience something about the self rather than just understand it.
The first sentence of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, sums up the irony of the human search for meaning, “Human reason has this particular fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.”
The problem is profound. The mind cannot answer the questions of the heart.
Karen Armstrong, in her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, suggests that if one is to live a compassionate life, it must begin with having compassion for one’s self. I find that task to be exceedingly difficult. I am trying to do the 12 Step Program and I am stuck at the beginning.
Needleman suggests that although the mind and the ego can accept and understand our flaws and mistakes, that total acceptance and forgiveness is impossible for the mind. Such compassion can come only from a deeper level of awareness and consciousness that is both within and beyond us.
That message is found in the teachings of Christianity and of most other world religions. But in the institutional practice of those religions, that experience of compassion often is traded for sentimental comforts or theological explanations. With the mind we can affirm our belief in God. But only when the mind stops, can we have an experience of God.
Any search for meaning that expects less than an encounter with the Divine will prove deeply unsatisfactory.
*The Sun Magazine, December 2011