I suppose most of you have heard of Zen. But before going on to explain any details about it I want to make one thing absolutely clear. I am not a Zen Buddhist. I am not advocating Zen Buddhism. I’m not trying to convert anyone to it. I have nothing to sell. I am an entertainer. That is to say, in the same sense that when you go to a concert and you listen to someone play Mozart ,he has nothing to sell except the sound of the music. He doesn’t want to convert you to anything. He doesn’t want you to join an organization in favor of Mozart’s music as opposed to say Beethoven’s. And I approach you in the same spirit as a musician with his piano or violinist with his violin. I just want you to enjoy a point of view which I enjoy.
Now then, having then…when that’s been said and I hope it’s put your minds at rest. Let me give you first of all some simple historical information. Zen is a form of Buddhism. It originated in Chinaa bout five hundred A.D.. and about twelve hundred A.D. it migrated to Japan where it exists today. And it is a form. It’s a way of life that has had an immense influence on the arts, and on the culture, the poetry and architecture of the Far East. It has lately become of enormous interest to many people in other parts of the world. Now, normally when one talks about Buddhism and Zen is a form of Buddhism, it is supposed that you’re talking about a religion, and people are apt to classify themselves as Buddhists as they might say I am a Catholic, or a Methodist, or a Baptist, or an Episcopalian, or a Jew. But that is rather misleading. Buddhism is not a religion in that sense.
If we want to find an equivalent to Buddhism in our society today in the West, probably the nearest thing to it is psychotherapy. When a person goes to a psychiatry store psychoanalyst to work out a serious personal problem, not because he’s just nutty. I mean not necessarily because he has hallucination or excessive singing in the ears with no clear physical origin but when a person feels that his whole life is somehow disoriented and wrong, and he doesn’t go to the preacher, because the preacher only moralizers to him and says, My man you should have more faith in God or something. So he goes instead to a doctor because in our day is a man with a tag of science on him has more prestige than a man who has the tag of religion. And so when psychiatrist goes to work on you, his objective is more or less to change your state of consciousness. That is to say, if your state of consciousness, your state of mind is one of being day after day constantly depressed, the objective of going to a psychiatrist, or a psychotherapist is to have your state of consciousness changed to one of happiness.
Now in a somewhat similar way, the object of Buddhism in all its forms, is to bring about a fundamental change in a human being’s everyday state of consciousness. If I make it yet more specific, it’s to bring about a change in your sense of personal identity, that is to say in your sensation of who and what you are. And in this way, Buddhism which I suppose you know, is a method of changing consciousness that was discovered or invented by a man called Guatama, who lived in India shortly after six hundred B.C.. Who was given the title Buddha because the word means the awakened one the man who woke up. And therefore that very title suggests that ordinary people are asleep. I remember a very wise man who used to give lectures like this and when he came in he used to be silent and he’d look at the audience and he had gaze at everybody in the audience particularly, for a long time, and everybody would begin feeling they get embarrassed, and when he gazed at them for a long time he’d say, “Wake up! You’re all asleep. And if you don’t wake up I won’t give any lecture.” Now in what sense are we asleep? The Buddhist would say that almost all human beings have a phony sense of identity. A delusion a hallucination as to who they are. I’m terribly interested in this problem of identity and I try and find out what people mean when they say the word I. I think this is one of the most fascinating questions. Who do you think you are? Now what seems to develop is this. Most people think that I is a center of sensitivity somewhere inside their skin. And the majority of people feel that it’s in their heads. Civilizations in different periods of history of differed about this. Some people feel that they exist in the solar plexus; other people feel that they exist about here, but in American culture today or in the Western culture in general most people feel that they exist in here [forehad]. And there is as it were a little man sitting inside the center of the skull. And he has a television screen in front of him which gives him all messages from the eyeballs. He has earphones on and that gives him all messages from the ears, and he has in front of him a control panel with various dials and buttons and things which enable him to influence the arms and legs and to get all sorts of information from the nerve ends and that’s you.
So we say in popular speech, I have a body. Not, I am a body, but I have one because I am the owner of the body in the same way as I own an automobile. And I can take the automobile to the mechanic and occasionally in the same way, I have to take my body to the mechanic the surgeon the dentist the doctor and have it repaired. But it belongs to me. It goes along with me, I mean it a child for example can ask mother mom who would I have been if my father had been someone else? And that seems a perfectly simple and logical question to a child asked because of the presumption that your parents gave you your body, and you were popped into it, maybe at the moment of conception or maybe at the moment of birth, from a repository of souls in heaven and your parents simply provided the physical vehicle.
So that age long idea that is indigenous, especially to the Western world, is that I am something inside a body. And I am not quite sure whether I am or am not my body. Some doubt about it. I say, I think. I walk, I talk, but I don’t say I beat my heart. I don’t say, I shake my bones, I don’t say I grow my hair. I feel that my heart beating, my hair growing, my bone shaping, is something that happens to me. And I don’t know how it’s done. But other things I do. And next, I feel quite sure that everything outside my body is quite definitely not me. There are two kinds of things outside my body. Number one is other people. And they’re the same sort of thing as I am. But also they are all little men locked up inside their skins. And they’re intelligent, they have feelings, and values and are capable of love and virtue. But number two is the world that’s non-human that we call nature. And that stupid. It has no mind. It has emotions maybe, and animals. But on the whole it’s a pretty grim business, dog eat dog. And when it gets to the geological level it’s as dumb as dumb can be. It’s a mechanism and there’s an awful lot of it. And that’s what we live in the middle of and the purpose of being human is, we feel, to subjugate nature. To make it obey our will and we arrived here, we don’t feel that we belong in this world. It’s foreign to us. In the words of the poet Housman.” I a stranger and afraid in a world I never made.”
And so all around us today we see the signs of man’s battle with nature. I’m living in the moment in a marvelous house in the Hollywood Hills. And we’re overlooking a lake. And on the other side of the lake the whole hill has suddenly been interrupted with a ghastly gash where they have made level lots for building tract homes of the kind you would build on a flat plane. This is called the conquest of nature. These houses will eventually fall down the hill. Because they are causing soil erosion and they’re being maximally stupid. The proper way to build a house on a hillside, is to do it in such a way as to effect the minimum interference with the nature of the hill. After all, the whole point of living in the hills is to live in the hills. There’s no point in converting the hills into something flat and then going and living there. You can do that already on the ground. So people the more people live in the hills the more they spoil the hills and they’re just the same as people living on the flat ground. How stupid can you get? Well anyway that this is one of the symptoms of a phoney sense of identity. Of our phony feeling, that we are something lonely locked up in a bag of skin and confronted with the world and external, alien, foreign world that is not me. Now according to certain of these great ancient philosophy is like Buddhism, this sensation of being a separate lonely individual is a hallucination. It’s a hallucination brought about by various causes the way we are brought up, being the chief of them of course. I remember as a child, and you probably have very similar memories to mine that all our parents were desperately interested in identifying us. Don’t you remember that sometimes you went out and played with other children and there was someone in the group of other children you admired and look up to and you came home imitating the mannerisms of that other child. And your mother said to you Johnny, that’s not you, that’s Peter. And you felt a little bit ashamed, because somehow you let her down. She wanted you to be you her child and not Mrs Jones’s child Peter. And so in many ways we are all taught this. For example, the main thing that we’re all taught in childhood is that you must do that which will only be appreciated if you do it voluntarily. Now darling, a dutiful child must love its mother, but now I don’t want you to do it because I say so but because you really want to. Or, you must be free. See, this comes into politics. Everybody must vote. You see, imagine. You are members of a democracy. And you must be members of a democracy, you’re ordered to. Crazy. Also, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God. Is that a commandment or a joke? You know, if you suggest that the Lord is joking, most people in our culture are offended, because they have a very moronically conception of God as a person totally devoid of humor. But the Lord is highly capable of joking because joking is one of the most constructive things you can do.
So when you are told who you are and that you must be free; furthermore, that you must survive, and you must go on living, and that becomes a kind of compulsion, you get mixed up. It’s very simple, of course you get mixed up if you think you must do something which will only be the thing required of you if you do it freely. These are the sort of influences then that cause human beings all over the world to feel isolated. To feel that they are centers of awareness locked up in bags of skin.
Now this sensation of our identity can be shown and demonstrated to be false by some of the disciplines of our own science. When we describe a human being or any other living organism from a scientific point of view, all that means is that we’re describing it carefully. We’re going to describe very carefully what a human being is and what a human being does. All right. And we find that as we go on with that description, we can’t describe the human being without describing the environment. We can’t say what a human being is doing without also saying what the world around him is doing. Just imagine for a moment that you couldn’t see anything up here except me. You couldn’t see behind me, you couldn’t see the stage you couldn’t see the microphone, you could only see me. That was all you could see. What would you be looking at? You wouldn’t see me at all. Because you wouldn’t see my edges, and my edges are rather important for seeing me. My edges would be identical with the edge of your eyesight, with that vague oval curve which is the field of vision, and what you would be looking at would be my necktie, my nose, my eyes and so on but you wouldn’t see my edges. So you’d be confronted with a very strange monster. And you wouldn’t know it was a human being. Because to see me you need to see my background. And therein lies a clue of which we are mostly ignorant. In Buddhist theory, because of our phony sense of identity is called Avidya, and that means ignorance, although it’s better to pronounce it ignore-ance. Having a deluded sense of identity is the result of ignoring certain things.
So when you look at me and I manage by behaving up here in a kind of a more or less interesting way, I cause you to ignore my background because I concentrate attention on me. Just like a conjurer stage magician in order to perform his tricks misdirects your attention. He talks to you about something he’s doing here, and he talks to you about his fingers and how empty they are and he can pulls something out of his pocket in plain sight and you don’t notice it. And so a magic happens. That’s ignoring. Selective attention focusing your consciousness on one thing to the exclusion of many other things. So in this way we concentrate on the things the figures. And we ignore what we don’t concentrate on the background and so we come to think that the figure exists independently of the background. But actually they go together, and they go together just as inseparably as backs go with fronts, as positives go with negatives, as ups go with downs. And as life goes with death. You can’t separate it. So there’s a sort of secret conspiracy between the figure and the background. They are really one, but they looked different. They need each other. Just as male needs female. And vice versa. But we are ordinarily completely unaware of this. So then when the scientist starts paying attention to behavior of people and things carefully, he discovers that they go together. That the behavior of the organism is inseparable from the behavior of its environment.
So you see if I am to describe what I am doing what am I doing. Am I just waving my legs back and forth? No. I’m walking. And in order to speak about walking you have to speak about the space in which I am walking about the floor. About the direction left or right in relation to what kind of room, what kind of stage, what kind of situation. Because if obviously if there isn’t a ground underneath me I can’t very well walk. So the description of what I am doing involves the description of the world. And so, the biologist comes to say that what he is describing is no longer merely the organism and its behavior. He is describing a field which he now calls the organism hyphen environment. And that field is what the individual actually is. Now this is very clearly recognised in all sorts of sciences, but the average individual and indeed the average scientist does not feel in a way that corresponds to his theory. He still feels as if he were a center of sensitivity locked up inside a bag of skin. The object of Buddhist discipline or methods of psychological training is as it were, to turn that feeling inside out. To bring about a state of affairs in which the individual feels himself to be everything that there is. The whole cosmos. Focused, expressing itself here. And you as the whole cosmos expressing itself there and there and there. And so on. That what, in other words, the reality of myself fundamentally is, not something inside my skin but everything, and I mean everything outside my skin, but doing what is my skin and inside. I mean, imagine that every one of us…look, in the same way that the sea when the ocean has a wave on it. The wave is not separate from the ocean is it. Every wave on the ocean is the whole ocean wave in the ocean waves and it says you I’m here. But I do I can wave all over the place I can wave in many different ways I can wave this way or that way. So the Ocean of being waves every one of us. And we are its waves, but the wave is fundamentally the ocean.
Now in that way, your sense of identity would be turned inside out. You wouldn’t forget who you were, you wouldn’t forget your name and address, your telephone number, your social security number and what sort of role you are supposed to occupy in society. But you would know, that this particular role that you play, this particular personality that you are, is superficial and the real you, is all that there is.