Zen for Beginners

00:00

The subject which has most interested me for many, many years is the simple question: who or what am I? What do we mean by the word “I”? And I find (as I investigate this question and talk with all kinds of people) that, generally speaking, the word “I” refers to something that we sense or experience as a center of consciousness and decision, living somewhere inside a bag of skin. Common speech reflects this in many ways. We say, “Face facts.” We talk about being confronted with reality, and we talk about the difference between the knower and the known, the subjective and the objective, the internal thinker and feeler facing an external world. We say, “I came into this world.” I find there is, therefore, a general sense that I am something to which this external world is a stranger; that there is a feeling that there’s deep hostility between the subject and the object. And this, again, reflects itself in our common language where we talk about the conquest of nature, the conquest of space, and the conquest of great mountains like Everest. And all that this adds up to is that the human being experiences himself to be very lonely, and feels that death is a terrifying threat. Because he’s been brought up—in our kind of society and our kind of culture—to experience himself as something isolated.

02:44

Let’s review this historically, because we shall see that, in Western civilization, we have been in the past 2,000 years under the influence of two great myths. When I use the word “myth” I don’t mean a kind of false story. The way I use the word “myth” is to signify an image, a great symbol. Men use symbols to make sense of the world. And there are—we keep changing our symbols, and different cultures have different symbols. But a myth is an idea, or generally an image, which we use to explain the world and our own lives. So then, Western man has had two great images.

03:55

The first image is that the world is the handiwork of a creator king: the lord, God. We are his creatures, and he has made us in rather the same way that a potter makes pots or a carpenter makes tables. In the Book of Genesis the creation of Adam is described in terms of ceramics, because the lord God fashions a figurine out of the dust of the Earth—that is to say, out of clay—and then, having made this little figure of a man, he breathes the breath of life into its nostrils and the man becomes alive. And it’s not insignificant in this line of tradition that Jesus is the son of a carpenter. Because the whole idea of the universe is that it’s an artifact. It is something made. It could have been different from that. The universe could have been considered not as something made, like a table or a pot, but something grown like a plant. And that children might say to their mothers not, “Mommy, how was I made?” but “Mommy, how was I grown?” But in our culture it’s natural for a child to ask the question, “How was I made?”

05:43

Now then, this whole imagery of the human being as something made by a master craftsman became too much for the Western world. Because everybody constantly felt that they were under the surveillance of the lord, being watched and being judged at every moment. I have a friend who is a very intelligent convert to Catholicism, and in her bathroom she has one of those old-fashioned toilet operations where there’s a tank near the ceiling and a chain which you pull, and then there’s a pipe which goes down from the tank to the seat. And on this pipe there is a little plaque with a big eye on it—this kind of eye—and underneath in Gothic lettering it says: “Thou God seest me.” So in the most private apartment of the house, where one closes the door and locks it, there is the all-seeing eye of the eternal judge of the universe.

07:10

See, this was a very, very awkward idea. You know how you feel in school, when you were a child, and you were doing some work—you were writing, you may have been doing arithmetic, or writing an essay—and if the teacher comes and looks over your shoulder while you’re writing, you somehow feel blocked. You wish she would go away until you finished. So, in the same way, Western man has tended to feel blocked by the all-seeing judge of the universe, and therefore invented another myth altogether: the universe considered as an unintelligent mechanism. What a relief! No God to judge me, no hell to go to, no conscience that I need follow except my own sense of taste. A world, however, that is perfectly stupid. A vast mechanical gadget in which I am trapped like a mouse in a cotton gin.

08:34

And very many intelligent people in the Western world have, since the beginning of the 19th century, settled for this conception of the universe: that it is an unintelligent mechanism, a display of blind forces, in which human intelligence has arrived by the merest chance of natural selection and evolution. So that we are confronted with a system of stupidity called life in which we (as intelligent accidents) are trapped, and which therefore we have to subjugate to our wills by every conceivable technological device. And we know that in the end it will beat us, that each individual will die, and this kind of consciousness that we have that seems intelligent and that is capable of loving and being loved will simply become nothing. That, in the end, life will be a brave gesture against futility.

09:59

Now, I want you to understand that that idea, although it sounds very realistic and hard-boiled, is also a myth. And it has been for a long time, among thinking people, a plausible myth after the myth of the creator-God had become implausible. See, the trouble is this: no kind of science ever proved that the lord God, on the throne of heaven, doesn’t exist. What happened was simply that we—through scientific investigation—acquired a sense of the universe, a conception of time and of space, which made the old-fashioned idea of the lord God simply implausible. The universe was something much grander, something much more spectacular, than could possibly have been worked out by an old gentleman with a white beard on a golden throne surrounded with winged angels. That was all. Besides, he was a nosy parker and we didn’t want him.

11:28

But the new idea—that man, that intelligence, and consciousness, and love, and so on are flukes in an utterly irrational universe (or rather, mechanical universe)—is simply to be understood as a reaction against the first myth. Because, as a matter of fact, the idea that man is a fluke in a mechanical universe is palpably absurd. But it has an enormous influence on the way we think and, above all, on the way we feel. I said we say normally: “I came into this world”. Why don’t we say much more correctly: “I came out of it”? Because, you see, a human being is a symptom of the universe in exactly the same way that an apple is a symptom of an apple tree. When an apple tree produces apples we might say: “This tree apples”—using “apples” as a verb. And so in precisely the same way that an apple tree “apples,” we are living in a universe which “peoples.” We are symptoms of the kind of system in which we are living, and our appearance in the system tells us about the system. That is to say, just as (in the words of Jesus) “figs do not grow on thistles, nor grapes on thorns,” so human beings do not grow on a tree which is merely mechanical. Because human beings are not merely mechanical.

13:42

What we have to realize is that a universe which “peoples” is an intelligent, thinking, organic, living system. And furthermore, we are not just separate little islands of life and consciousness existing in this world, but rather we should say that my self, my consciousness, is something that the whole universe is doing. You know, in ancient times when people wanted to draw a map of the human soul, what they did draw was a picture of the universe as it was arranged at the moment when the individual was born. This was called his horoscope: the whole arrangement of the planets and the stars (as they were then known) as they were at the moment of your birth. And this was supposed to be a picture of your character and of your destiny. Now, there was a lot of superstition in this, but one thoroughly valid idea: that the real you is not just something inside your skin, the real abiding you is all that there is: the works, as it is focused here and now at a particular place and in a particular time. And we call this particular place and time “my body,” “my organism.” So your soul is not something inside your body. Your body is something inside your soul. Because your soul is the total cosmos—all stars, all galaxies, the whole thing—focused here and now at this moment.

16:11

And just—I know you’ve had experiences around here that this may be an unfortunate illustration—but just as a tornado dips down out of the sky here, then it withdraws, and then here, and then here, so in the same way everything that there is dips down and becomes an individual, and then withdraws—that’s what we call death—and it dips down again (shall I say: incarnates again), and it’s doing it all over the place as all us people, all us rabbits, dogs, cats, trees, mountains, stars, everything. But why don’t we feel that way? Instead of having this feeling that I am a lonely little creature watching the world almost from outside and feeling that it’s something with which I have to do battle? Well, the answer is: we’ve been brought up the wrong way. We’ve been brought up to play the game of cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys. That is to say: the game of pretending that each one of us is separate, each one of us behaves on his own. And this gets us into the most amazing messes.

18:12

Think back to your own childhood. Think back to how you came to find out that you were you, and to have this sensation of being a separate and lonely individual. For example, we are told by our parents that there are certain things that we must do: you must go to sleep, you must love your parents, you must have a bowel movement every day after breakfast. Now, what is the meaning of this word, “must”? Is it a commandment or is it simply stating a set of affairs, a set of conditions? “To be human you must have a head.” Did you ever see people go around trying to have heads? No. Well, so in exactly the same way, you remember very well that when you try to go to sleep, you stay wide awake. And supposing you try to love somebody. Look: supposing you, as a husband or a wife, say to your spouse, “Darling, do you really love me?” What kind of answer do you want? Do you want your spouse to say, “Darling, I’m trying my best to do so”? No! What you want as an answer to the question “do you really love me”—you want the person to say, “I can’t help loving you. I love you so much I could eat you.”

20:14

But yet, we can say to our children such a remark as, “Darling, all good children love their mothers.” And you ought to love your mother not because I say so, but because you really want to. Do you see? This is a request which says: I command you to do something which will be acceptable to me only if you do it voluntarily. And that situation is called a double bind. And it goes on all the time. The most important double bind that we are put under in our upbringing is one which could be expressed as “you must survive.” We call it the instinct for survival, but actually there is nothing of the kind. But “you must survive” is something really pushed into us.

21:22

I remember talking some years ago to a woman who came to me and said, “I’m scared out of my wits. I have high blood pressure and I’m afraid I’m going to die. And this terrifies me.” So we had a long conversation. I wanted to try and find out what she was really afraid of in death. And we found out that it wasn’t pain, it wasn’t the idea of annihilation, of just endless not being. She said, “Do you know—what I’m really afraid of is what people are going to say. They’re going to be at my funeral and they’re going to say, ‘Poor old Gert. She couldn’t make it, could she?’” Because, you see, there’s something disgraceful about dying. Your will to live gave out. You didn’t have the guts to go on. You succumbed. Aww, too bad. In other words, it’s an injury to one’s pride. Because you must go on living.

22:37

Now this is the double bind again, because living is a spontaneous process—just like sleeping, breathing, growing hair, shaping your bones, and so on. You don’t have to think how this is done, it happens. Marvelous! But it does. And to let it happen optimally you mustn’t get in the way of it. I mean, if you try to color your eyes blue, what a ridiculous thing if they’re brown. So living, you see, is something that happens of itself. The Chinese term for nature, when translated into English, means “that which is of itself so,” which happens by itself automatically—though not in the sense of a machine that’s automatic. So if you tell the process of nature, the process of life, “you must happen,” it’s exactly the same sort of thing as telling another person, “you must love me.” And if they try to obey that commandment they put themselves into a state of contradiction. “I am trying to love you” means: I don’t love you.

23:57

“I am trying to go on living” is also an approach to life which turns life into a drag. You know, there are a lot of people who would really like not to go on living and commit suicide, but they feel it’s their duty to go on living because they have dependents. They also feel afraid to die because the social injunction “thou shalt live” is so powerful. See, suicide is a crime in many countries and states. You must do this. So, you see, you go on living desperately. It’s so desperate that if you have terminal cancer, the doctors have to keep you alive. They keep you on the end of tapes and tubes and wires. A ghastly, tortured organism that must go on living! Because a doctor is out of role when he is faced with an incurable disease. He doesn’t know what to do with it without breaking his code of ethics.

25:08

Now, when we’re in the state of mind in which we must go on living, our children—who are the alibis for this; that is to say, we feel we must go on living because we are responsible for bringing up the succeeding generations. But all we do by this is that they catch the same attitude from us. And they’re going to drag on for the sake of their children, who are going to learn to drag on for the sake of their children. Well isn’t that great? This is simply a system of hereditary stupidity. Because, you see, children learn more from the adults’ attitudes than they do from anything the adults say. We try to say the right things, but the way we actually live is what counts. So if we go on living under a sense of compulsion—must live, must get on, must earn that living, must make that grade (whatever it is), must look after the family, must be faithful to your wife, husband, or whatever—that’s a mockery. And everybody knows it but won’t admit it.

26:40

And, you see, that double bind—“you must love me”—is the trap in which we live and constitutes the main cause for our feeling isolated from the rest of the world. I do not feel that I live as an expression of the whole cosmos just as a leaf or an apple is an expression of a tree, but I am taught to feel that I live in spite of the cosmos. Only to the degree that I struggle against it, to wrest my life from the soil and the waters, we breed a race of human beings, a culture, which is (in technical psychological jargon) alienated and which feels that it has a sacred duty to beat the physical world into submission. And the symbol, today, in Western culture—especially in the United States—of this state of mind is the bulldozer.

28:11

I don’t know how it is here in Michigan, but where I live in California the bulldozer is ubiquitous. And this great, blunt, powerful, shoving thing it has on the front of it is knocking down hills, is putting flat tract lots in the middle of mountains, and is the most aggressive, domineering symbol of man flattening the Earth. I sometimes wonder whether that passage in Isaiah—“every valley shall be exalted and the hills laid low and the rough places plain”—is that a prophecy of something nice or a forecast of doom? The flattened out Earth. No mountains, no valleys. How boring can you get? And the funny thing is this: that when people want to live in the hills, they want to live in the hills because the hills are great. They like the hills. But if by going and living there they destroy them, is that sensible? What eventually happens, of course, to all these tract lots in the hills is that the rains come and the houses fall down the slope, because they’ve upset the natural balances of the area. They’ve torn up all the topsoil, scrubbed up all the brush and the vegetation, because that’s tidy and neat according to these people’s notions.

29:49

But all this sort of thing is a symbol of man at war with his environment, because he does not realize that his own physical existence includes the external world. Let me put it in another way: your body is not just what is inside your skin, your body includes what you call the external world. The skin doesn’t divide you from nature, it joins you to it. Because the skin is simply a spongy, porous membrane through which you breathe and through which your nerve ends have contact with everything outside it. It’s the bridge between you and the outside. And you on the inside and it on the outside always go together.

30:50

You see, look: do you know the most fundamental important thing in all metaphysics to understand everything, all mysteries of the universe? You just realize that every inside has an outside and every outside has an inside. They just go together—as do, incidentally, black and white, light and darkness, and life and death. They go together in the same way as the crest and the tough of a wave. Did you ever see a wave with a crest and no trough, or a trough and no crest? Never was there such a wave. Did you ever see an inside without an outside? Could you have light without the contrast of darkness or vice versa? Of course not! This is the simplest thing that everybody should learn before they learn 1-2-3 or A-B-C. But it’s always left out.

31:48

And, you see, when that’s left out and you don’t understand that black and white are brothers—they’re inseparable although different; see, they’re explicitly different but implicitly one—if you don’t understand that, you get involved in a game called “Uh-oh, black might win!” In other words, it would be easier for there to be death than life. It’s a little bit funny, isn’t it, that anything exists at all? Has that ever struck you? I mean, it’d be so much easier for there not to have been anything, because being is a bit of an effort. It’d be a much more rational universe if nothing had ever happened. But, as a matter of fact, that’s an impossible state of affairs. There can’t be nothing.

32:55

But something—existence—is not just being, it’s an alternation of being and non-being. Do you understand that? Listen to a sound. Noise. There: “noise” is something you hear. But noise isn’t just sound, it is an alternation of sound and silence. It’s a vibration. Now you see it, now you don’t. And everything is that way. Supposing I’m sitting next to a pretty girl in the movies, and I put my hand on her knee and leave it there, in a short time she will cease to notice it. Because it’s pure being. But if I pat her on the knee, then she knows I’m still there. Because I put my hand on and take it off, and on and off, and on and off, and on and off. And that’s what creates existence.

33:57

So, in the same way, all our sensations are sensations of vibration. Of now you see it, now you don’t. And these two together constitute being. Life and death, black and white, solid and space, something and nothing. But we play the game, you see, that nothing might win. Now when—you see, you’ve forgotten the connection between these two things, which is the secret: that Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle—when you’ve forgotten that connection and you’re afraid that the black side may win, that everything may be lost, that all existence may plunge into the abyss of endless night, then you play the contrary game “but white must win!” And that’s where you get into trouble. “You must love.” “You must live.” And that’s the biggest hoax ever invented. And so we go around doing battle against our own nature.

35:39

Now, can we get out of this trap or are we hopelessly hypnotized? Is there anything—I mean, supposing you realize this is true, can you change your state of consciousness so that you don’t any longer have to feel that you are an isolated island of sensitivity locked up in a bag of skin? Could you come to feel that you are really, deep down, simply a particular expression of everything that there is? To put it stronger: could you realize as clearly as when you put your hands on something hard and you know it’s there—could you realize that clearly that your real self is the works, is the whole cosmos? How would you go about that?

36:56

A lot of people do know this. In the East they call them Buddhas. And they know this in a very natural way. But in order to approach that kind of knowledge, really, the main problem about it is to get rid of our chronic objections to it. For example, this is not something you know in quite the same sort of way that you know a thing you can look at from the outside by looking at your own hand. See, the funny thing about consciousness is this: that it’s like the headlights of a car. The headlights of a car shine down the road, but they don’t shine on the wires immediately behind the bulb that connects it to the battery. They don’t even shine on the battery. Consciousness does not illumine its own origin. You are conscious, you are aware, but you don’t know how. That’s because consciousness looks out instead of in.

38:19

But in just the same way that underlying your consciousness is the whole complexity of your nervous system—which is very much you, but you don’t know it—so in just that sort of way your essential self looks out rather than in. You don’t feel it just as you don’t see your own brain. But there it is. And when you die you go back, as it were—you are withdrawn into yourself. The place, the center, from which you came out when you were born. And what happens once can happen again. Ever think it was funny to be born? Think about it: what will it be like to go to sleep and never wake up? Think about that! Imagine! To die, and that’s that. Now, don’t imagine yourself lying around forever in a dark room; buried alive as in Edgar Allan Poe. No experience of darkness—no experience of anything, neither darkness nor light.

40:01

I can give you an immediate illustration of that by asking you: what color is your head? From the point of view of your looking around without having a mirror near you: what color is your head? I can’t see it. But do you experience darkness there? No. It’s not dark. I don’t have a black thing behind my eyes. I don’t have a white thing. I can’t get it at all. It just has no color. You see? But it’s a very lively thing, isn’t it? You can’t have any conception of it. But on this thing which you can’t get a color on, on this depends all the colors you can see. So, in the same way, when you’re dead you go back into this thing which can’t be seen and which can’t be thought about. Because, you see, the moment you think about what will it be like to go to sleep and never wake up, there comes the corollary: what is it like to wake up without ever having gone to sleep in the first place? In other words: that’s birth.

41:27

Now, you were born. And you have no memory having existed before. And what happened once can happen again. Doesn’t matter how long the interval between is, because that won’t bother you. If everybody on this planet is suddenly annihilated in a huge atomic explosion, well… maybe in several billion years the human experiment will happen again in some other galaxy, and it’ll feel just like we feel now. That’s the way it works. Just as, in a seasonal way, the apples come on the trees.

42:13

But what we need for our health at this time is human beings who have the sense of belonging, who have the sense that they really do come out of this world. Because people who have that sense are, in a way, better fitted to live in the world than those who don’t have it. They’re better fitted to live because they respect their environment. They respect the Earth as they respect their own skins. And you aren’t fit to interfere with the outside world—and you must interfere with the outside world, there’s no way of getting around that—but you aren’t fit to interfere with it unless you reverence it; unless (when you build a town) you do it with love.

43:25

Now, the striking thing about our countryside—Americans are materialists: everybody says that. They’re not. They hate material. Look at any American city—almost any American city—does it look as if it was made by people who loved material? No. It’s a junk heap. It’s a set of fronts down main street, and behind there are wrecked automobiles and shacks and junk of every conceivable description. The most fantastic example of this is Los Angeles. You can drive from central Los Angeles way out to Fairmont, forty miles to the east, and go continuously through pasteboard and junk. This is not a materialist culture. It is devoted, rather, to the abolition of material in all its aspects. To the abolition of time and space. Not to the civilization of the universe, but to the Los-Angelization of the universe. But don’t think that because I put this thing off 2,000 miles to the west that it isn’t here, too.

44:54

A race of people, you see, who is not at home, doesn’t love the environment, and is blind. You can go to the mountains of the west, the most gorgeous valleys, and see cities put up by people who obviously don’t know where they are. Huge billboards, weird and grotesque structures that absolutely are out of any kind of harmony with the environment. Expensive ugliness. And so, by this means, this is merely a symptom of the fact that we are destroying our planet. And we are destroying it because we don’t realize and have no awareness of the fact that this planet is ourselves. The Earth is not merely our mother, it’s close to our heart, and closer still is the solar system in which the Earth moves, closer still to our heart is the galaxy in which the solar system moves, and the very heart of hearts is the whole system of universes and galaxies in which we exist. That is the middle of you, not something far off.



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