I want to continue our discussion of the idea of freedom, here in this talk and later in the discussion group. We'll be looking at how that word goes through many permutations as it moves from an original literal meaning in a political context, where it starts off as the distinction between being a slave versus a free person and moves into religious and philosophical discussions, where freedom and slavery become complicated metaphors for our relationship to ourself in many ways, to our own minds, where we can be slaves to an idea, slaves to our passions. And our notion of liberation or emancipation changes as we develop more sophisticated or complex pictures of what it is we imagine enslaves us.
There's the case in which a young monk goes to the third patriarch and says, "Master, in your compassion, say a word that will emancipate me," and the patriarch says, "Who put you in bondage?" The young monk says, "No one." The patriarch replies, "Then why do you seek further emancipation?" Here, you already see this complicated playing out of the metaphor of slavery and liberation, where the young monk is already talking about feeling enslaved by his own mind, by his own desires, perhaps by his own self, and the patriarch is articulating it as a picture of original enlightenment, before it's time, a sense of original freedom. What is it you need to be freed from, what's the problem?
Sometimes the picture of enslavement to ideas and enslavement in a more literal political sense gets joined or worked through together. If you saw the discussion of the Frankfurt school in critical theory that I posted on Facebook, they speak explicitly of enlightenment and emancipation where the personal and the political are intertwined. They talk about a scenario where we're first enslaved by ideology, which they use in a technical sense to mean a kind of worldview that obscures our own self interest, that is created by some certain segment of society in order to exert coersion on another segment, but what's particularly pernicious is that the people being subjugated by that worldview adopted it so thoroughly that they support the worldview that keeps them coersed and blind to their own self-interest. So the Frankfurt school's notion of critical theory began first with the idea of enlightenment, getting people to be clear and to see the nature of ideology, what keeps it in place, in a certain sense, how they are duped into misunderstanding their own self-interest, and finally a next step of emancipation, in which armed with that knowledge, they're able to do something to change the coersive nature of the society in which they're living.
I wrote about how it's interesting to see Buddhism as a variety of critical theory in the sense that it says that we're in the grip of a worldview, or the grip of an idea, that blinds us to our own self-interest, and even more specifically, the whole idea of self-interest frames the problem in a way where we're wrong from the start, where we're blind to what needs to be done from the very beginning, just the way we are trained to see things in terms of self-interest versus the interest of others. And so the whole practice of Buddhism is first of all, a kind of deconstruction or critical examination of that whole notion of self and self-interest and the role of desire in our fulfillment or happiness, and then in what kinds of ways does our life have to change if we really understand how thoroughly we have been deluded by this notion of self-interest.
One of the things that happens as different theories of freedom evolve, is that we go from the simple idea of freedom from, where we talk about freedom from constraint, to a more sophisticated picture of freedom as freedom to, freedom as expression. And we'll talk a lot about that distinction in our discussion of Isaiah Berlin, but one way to bring that distinction home into the Zendo, in a very literal way, is to think that the two basic admonitions that you receive in instruction to sit, could be framed as one, sit still, and two, sit straight, and those two admonitions represent this polarity of freedom from and freedom to. Sit still means don't let yourself wiggle and be buffeted about by pain or restlessness or discomfort at a physical level, and sit still internally, stay present in the face of wandering thoughts and feelings, all sorts of things that come and go, which normally can make us feel buffeted about. Sitting still means having a still container, having a frame of mind that allows anything to come into it, without being knocked off balance.
When I give a beginner instruction to just sit as if you're looking in the mirror, and allow your face to appear, this is part of sitting still that's part of just allowing yourself to look directly without flinching, without looking away, with whatever aspect of your mind displays itself moment after moment. We just stay still and steady in the face of whatever arises. But the injunction to sit straight is somewhat different. Sitting straight means perform your Zazen. Perform being present and enact being present. This is what Dogen means by saying that practice and realization are identical. Zazen itself is the expression of enlightenment. The sitting straight is expressive freedom. It's the freedom of being able to fully be yourself. In Dogen's terms, it's the development of the expression of your most human capacity.
So we sit up straight. We assume this posture. We come into the Zendo and through the ritualization of practice, we perform our understanding of the completeness of this moment. We perform our understanding that in this moment, nothing is missing. That our sitting is the embodiment of this whole idea that we can simply be present, and that's sufficient. Nothing needs to be added or subtracted.
Sit still and sit straight are in a way very simple instructions, but they carry with them these very deep ideas about our true nature, what impedes our realization of who we are, and what it means to express it fully. See if you can feel your way into those two dimensions as you sit still and sit straight.
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.