Zen for Americans, by Soyen Shaku, , at sacred-texts.com
THE fundamental idea of Buddhism is "to disperse the clouds of ignorance in order to make the moon of enlightenment shine out in her glory."
By ignorance Buddhism understands the assertion of self-will, which is the root of all evil and misery in this world. Self-will is ignorance, because it is blind to the truth that the world is a relative existence, that the self separated from other fellow-selves is non-entity, and that individuals acquire their reality in proportion as they penetrate the foundation of existence. This truth is ignored by the principle of self-assertion. A man who is self-assertive pushes himself forward without any regard to the welfare of his brother creatures; he hails himself when he reaches the heights of self-aggrandizement; but unfortunately he fails to perceive that his success is but the road to his final destruction. For self-assertion really means self-annihilation. We live in fact in the oneness of things and die in isolation and singleness.
In Christian terminology, selfhood is the "flesh," or "the old man"; such is the meaning
when Jesus exclaims that "the spirit is truly ready, but the flesh is weak" (Mark xiv, 38), or when Paul speaks of "the old man which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts" (Eph. iv, 22), or when the flesh is spoken of as profiting nothing (John vi, 63), or allusion is made to its infirmity (Rom. vi, 19), or to its not pleasing God (Rom. viii, 8), or to its lusting against the spirit (Gal. v, 17). Christians are not so intellectual as Buddhists, and therefore, philosophically considered, the terminology of the former is not so definite and to the point as is that of the latter. Besides, the adoption of popular terms often suggests a wrong conception which is not intended; for instance, the distinction between the flesh and the spirit has a tendency to a dualistic interpretation of life. To conceive the nature of the flesh to be diametrically and radically opposed to that of the spirit is not in accord with the essentially monistic teaching of Buddhism. Those who are prone to asceticism and self-mortification are as much condemned by Buddha as the followers of hedonism for being ignorant and far from attaining the path of enlightenment.
When the ignorance of self-assertion is removed, Buddhism teaches, the enlightenment of universal lovingkindness takes its place; and the arrogance, tenacity, indefatigability, and impertinence which characterize egotistic impulses are all converted to do service for the general welfare of humanity,
and they will then assume different names as most desirable virtues. As soon as the veil of ignorance is raised, the glory of enlightenment which is love is revealed, and we do no more hanker after self-gratification. Why? Because the Buddha-intelligence is universal and works in every one of us to bring out the consciousness of oneness underlying all individual phenomena. We as individuals are all different; mine is not thine and vice versa; and in this sense egoism is true, and the assertion of self-will is permissible to that extent. But we must never lose sight of "the same God that worketh all in all," and "in which we move and live and have our being," for he is the source of eternal life and the fountain of love. "Not what I will, but what thou wilt," is the most fundamental religious truth, not only in Christianity, but in Buddhism. Not the assertion of self-will, but the execution of the will of that being in which we are all one, constitutes the condition of enlightenment.
We must not, however, suppose that the divine will becomes manifest only when all the lust and passions of the flesh are destroyed. This is the teaching of anchorites and not of Buddhists. What the latter teach is to make the inclinations of the flesh those of the spirit, so that there will be left no hiatus between the two. What one wills, the other wills, and no discord or mutual exclusion is then allowed. To express this more Buddhistically, ignorance does
not depart when enlightenment comes in, but ignorance itself becomes enlightenment; self-will is not annihilated in order to make room for the divine will, but self-will itself assumes divinity.
In the beginning of this discourse, I said that the fundamental idea of Buddhism is to disperse the clouds of ignorance in order to see the moon of enlightenment in her glory. This may suggest the thought that ignorance and enlightenment are fundamentally different and mutually contradicting, and that one thing called ignorance goes out and another thing called enlightenment comes in to take its place, as these two do not agree. But in truth I have there followed the popular dualistic conception of the matter; and therefore let me repeat that in Nirvâna, according to Buddhism, there is not such distinction as light and shade, ignorance and enlightenment, coming and going. If there is anything in Nirvâna, it is all enlightenment, all purity, and an unconditioned freedom from selfishness. Accordingly, when one attains Nirvâna, which is the realization of the Buddhist life, ignorance itself becomes enlightenment and self-will the divine will. What we thought ignorance is now enlightenment; where we located the final abode of the ego-soul, we have now the fount of divine will. This may sound somewhat sacrilegious, but the Buddhists are such consistent and never-yielding monists that they do not shrink from carrying out their logic to the end; they are not
at all afraid of the charge of blasphemy or irreligiosity likely to be preferred by some pious Christians.
This purification or illumination of self-will, however, must not be confused with antinomianism. or libertinism. The latter is given up to the wantonness of self-will and not to the free activity of the divine will. What the pure-hearted do is always pure, while whatever comes from a heart defiled with egoism is defiled and irrational. There are many points in the religious life which make it very difficult to distinguish the latter from the ethical life, for both are so closely related. But we could consider the subjectivity of religion as most characteristically contrasted to the objectivity of ethics. The distinction between the self-will and the divine will must be personally felt and individually experienced. This may sound vague and be considered as taking refuge in the maze of subjectivism; but the fact is that religion has its foundation in our subjective life, and anything that relates to it lacks in definition and exactitude so typical of things objective and intellectual. Religion, when devoid of this mystical element, loses its irresistible fascination. Of course, we must not make it abide always in the camera obscura of imagination and mysticism. We must take it out in the broad daylight of science and subject it to an intellectual scrutiny. But we cannot for all that ignore the fact that there is something in religion which defies
or escapes the most penetrating searchlight of intellectual analysis. And in this something there lies its charm, its raison d’etre, and its power to remove vexation of spirit.
Whatever this be, Nirvâna, in which the spirituality of a human being is fully realized, can be attained only after most strenuous moral efforts on the part of the aspirant. Intellectual knowledge can be acquired through an outside agency; we of latter days may be far wiser in this particular respect than all our venerable moral and religious teachers of bygone ages, such as Socrates, Plato, Buddha, and Christ. But the spiritual region lies within, and each of us must strive, through our own inner and individual efforts and not through any outside agency, to unfold ourselves and bring about enlightenment. We may have high ideals, but let us remember that they can be realized only after long discipline and untiring exertion. Let those therefore forever strive--those that wish to follow the fundamental idea of Buddhism.