The dialectic of mastery and self-acceptance Barry Magid January 14th 2012

Download Talk

Miscellaneous Koans

In The Transmission of the Lamp there is a story of a fourteen-year-old novice monk who approaches the Third Patriarch and beseeches him, Master, of your deep compassion, please open the gate of emancipation for me. The Master replies, Who has you enslaved? And the boy says, No one. The Master says, Then why do you need emancipation?

This being The Transmission of the Lamp, the boy attains great enlightenment and goes on to become the Fourth Patriarch. When we read a story like that, we can ask a lot of different kinds of questions. What kind of emancipation? What kind of bondage, enslavement, are we talking about? What was tormenting him? What was he freed from? What does his great enlightenment consist of?

If you imagine a life of a fourteen-year-old novice monk a thousand years ago in China, there are probably all sorts of ways his life is very literally constrained, politically, economically, culturally. And if you re-told the story and made it a fourteen-year-old girl, a novice nun, it would really be obvious all the ways in which she would be in need of emancipation. And yet none of those factors are at play in this kind of dialog. There’s a way in which that level of constraint or conditioning is by-passed in this kind of story, which is both its virtue and its problem. We should always be a little wary of stories of emancipation that can totally by-pass all those kinds of conditions.

That kind of question and answer, I think, reoccurs in a lot of forms and a lot of traditions. I believe there’s a similar saying of Lao-tzu, and it would be very at home in the writings of Epictetus or other stoic or Hellenistic philosophers. Those kinds of contexts that we will be talking about are a kind of absolute inner freedom regardless of external circumstances. The stoics would speak about learning the difference between what is outside and out of your control and what’s inside and under your control and learning to master your internal world so that you have the freedom that no one can take away, ascent to or say no to. Do I want this? Do I need that? Do I have this belief or that belief? That level of freedom in stoic philosophy is the kind of thing that can never be taken away from you.

It’s a picture of freedom that goes along with freedom as self-mastery, so that we learn not to be buffeted about by our desire for uncontrollable things from the outside, material goods, opinions of others, all the way up to health and illness and mortality. Now, self-mastery is a large part of Buddhist and monastic practice as well, but it’s a side that in a way tends to get taken for granted within the realm of training. We learn to sit still, we don’t let ourselves be buffeted around by momentary notions of comfort and discomfort, and so on and so forth. In different meditative disciplines there are varying degrees of how self-mastery is viewed in terms of thought and feeling, whether we use practice to form the ability to have one-pointed concentration so as not to be buffeted around by monkey-mind thought, or what our relation to desire is going to be.

Now, in this story, for this fourteen-year-old boy to ask the question with enough personal intensity that the answer actually transforms him, he must have been deeply troubled by some sense of being enslaved, presumably by his own thoughts and desires. Even though this is long ago and far away, one can imagine what most fourteen-year-old boys are preoccupied with, and I don’t know that that has changed that much.

It’s interesting that at that phase of life we’re first confronted with this whole dilemma of self-mastery versus self-acceptance. What does a fourteen-year-old boy do with sexual desire fantasy? What does a teenager do with that compulsive desire to just masturbate all the time? It’s often the first lesson that a lot of people get in mastery versus acceptance, and that’s part of the dilemma of this kind of version of what counts as emancipation, what counts as bondage. Do you want to get absolute control over your desire and behavior or do you want to have freedom from judgment on it? Do you want to be free from constantly judging yourself as good or bad, constantly imposing a sense of guilt or shame on yourself for having these feelings? Or do you want to make sure you control yourself so you’re blameless?

Now, the kind of emancipation that happens in this koan, you can say, is similar to what happens in the story of Bodhidharma, where the Second Patriarch comes and says, Master, my mind is not at peace. Please, put it at peace for me. Bodhidharma says, Bring me your mind. I’ll put it at peace for you. The Second Patriarch-to-be says, I’ve looked everywhere. I can’t find my mind. Bodhidharma says, I’ve put it at peace for you. In both cases there seems to be something too easy about this. We have to try to imagine the level of deep acceptance that is taking place there. What I think has to happen in that story of Bodhidharma, is that the whole dichotomy between bondage and emancipation, between my mind being at peace and my mind not being at peace, dissolves. Suddenly it’s a complete non-issue.

In general the tendency toward self-mastery brings us down on one side of that dichotomy, and that keeps the dichotomy intact. We’re able to achieve something like peace of mind through controlling our mind. We achieve a certain kind of peace by being able to master or control our behavior under a lot of circumstances, and that’s something that certainly Zen students can get very good at. They can sit a long time in heat and cold and pain, with or without sleep, in all sorts of conditions. In a certain way they’re training themselves to see that external differences don’t make that big a difference. I’ll let myself be hot, I’ll let myself be cold, I’ll sit tired, I’ll sit awake, whatever it is, I’ll face that and feel it. But it’s a fine line between I can stand anything, which is a kind of mastery of toughness, and a kind of wide-open acceptance.

I think that the deep emancipation of these koans really is an experience of the emptiness of the categories of all the choices that we make between good and bad, at peace or not at peace, when it just doesn’t matter at all what the state of our mind is. For our mind to be truly at peace, in that sense of Bodhidharma’s, our mind is inseparable from everything happening in the whole world. There’s no boundary, there’s no way to control it, there’s no sense of: I’ve finally got it into one state. I’ve practiced all this time and now it’s really calm and clear, just the way I like it, and I’m going to keep it this way. That’s the practice of mastery. We can do that up to a point, and most of the time we really long for the mastery side.

But these two have to be in some kind of dialectic in our life and in our practice. If you have just mastery without deep self-acceptance, you’re always at war with yourself. You’re winning the war, but the war never ends. On the other side, though, if you have deep self-acceptance without mastery, then you’ve got a kind of complete self-indulgence that can be fine, except for the fact that there are other people and there’s all sorts of karma and consequences in the world and then self-acceptance is the same as self-indulgence. This will play out in all sorts of ways that don’t look particularly spiritual. Anybody who’s ever thought about their weight or their diet knows how you can get stuck between these two poles: mastery versus acceptance. Are you endlessly trying to control yourself, fight yourself, fight your appetite, or do you want to just say, Oh, this is just the way I am. What’s one more pint of ice cream in the scheme of things?

So in a way we each have to see which ditch we tend to fall into: the one of excessive mastery or the one of excessive acceptance. The middle way goes down the middle. We have to establish both sides, but our practice really has to go down the middle.

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.