Hegel and the freedom you find within constraint Barry Magid July 28th 2018

"I fought the law and the law won." There's a certain kind of suffering we undergo when we beat our head against the wall of suffering, when we somehow fail to recognize necessity for what it is, and we see it instead as the kind of removable obstacle that we metaphorically describe as slavery. We think of it as the kinds of chains that are removable. When someone once asked D.T. Suzuki how is freedom defined in Zen, he replied, "The elbow doesn't bend backwards." Freedom was movement within a defined dimension of functioning. It did not try to break out of those bounds and do something that it was not designed to do, or even capable of doing. Are there further, equally determined necessary aspects of something called human nature? What is it to be a person? To what extent is love or attachment a necessity?

We've been discussing the nature of freedom from a number of different angles, beginning with the notion of freedom from slavery, whether we take that literally as a paradigm of physical constraint, or metaphorically as when we speak of a slave to our passions or desires. This whole way of looking at freedom being freedom from, freedom from interference, coercion, control, and on the other side, the other dimension, being the freedom to develop ourselves, to fulfill ourselves, to become who we potentially can be, become our best selves. And that's not just a matter of the removing of constraints. That requires a whole system of provisions, of opportunities, situations in which we can learn and develop our capacities.

Today, I want to begin to look at another dimension of freedom, one that we're going to take up with our discussion of Hegel in the book group, and that has to do with the relation between freedom and necessity. When we talk about necessity, we're certainly talking about some kinds of constraints, but they're not the kinds that we expect to remove. We don't have freedom because we escape from necessity. And at the same time, when we talk about our development, our potential, it's not clear that we would use the word freedom to describe something that's going to happen inevitably, anyway.

The kind of freedom that we have to concern ourselves with, though, has more to do with the kind that's expressed in that old song, “I fought the law and the law won.” It's the kind of suffering we undergo when we beat our head against the wall of suffering, when we somehow fail to recognize necessity for what it is, and we see it instead as the kind of removable obstacle that we metaphorically describe as slavery. We think of it as the kinds of chains that are removable. When someone once asked D.T. Suzuki how is freedom defined in Zen, he replied, "The elbow doesn't bend backwards." Freedom was movement within a defined dimension of functioning. It did not try to break out of those bounds and do something that it was not designed to do, or even capable of doing.

We usually think of submitting to necessity, or resigning ourselves to necessity, in purely negative terms. There's a kind of grim resignation involved in admitting that something is unchangeable. And yet, we could say that a certain kind of religious perspective sees freedom precisely in becoming aligned with or attuned to that necessity. That language is explicit when people talk about God's plan, or it was meant to be. There's a way in which a greater good or intention or purpose is invoked behind necessity. By and large, Buddhism doesn't imagine anything behind the curtain of necessity. It describes that necessity, I would say, in terms of two particular laws that we have to understand and come into accord with, and that when we fail to see the inviolability of those laws, we get ourselves in a heap of unnecessary trouble. And those two laws are the laws of impermanence and the laws of karma.

The law of impermanence, or emptiness, basically sets a limit to our capacity to control things. Basically it says that everything is in a process of change and interaction, and our desire to have everything, perhaps especially including ourselves, be in a stable, permanent state, is going to be doomed to failure, and that the only kind of peace we can find is never going to be the peace of stasis, but the peace of going with the flow.

The other law, the law of karma, is the law of cause and effect, which also has to do, basically, with the limits of our control and the predictability of things. If we have a kind of Newtonian picture of cause and effect in our lives, we might imagine that we're able to see the consequences of our action the way we’re able to line up a billiard shot. We can say if I hit this one into that one it's going to hit that rail and bounce over here. And then we think we can define the forces involved and predict the course of consequences from any given action. But a bigger picture of karma says that that very linear model of cause and effect is simplistic and naive, and that all actions have ripples and consequences that we cannot know beforehand and cannot predict afterwards. The metaphor here is much more like throwing a stone into a pond, where the ripples head out in all sorts of directions and interact with lots of things in the water and underneath the water that we can't see and can't really predict, even if we can imagine where the waves are going to go.

It's interesting that when we look at Hegel's view of necessity and cause and effect, it's not so much that we're tossing a pebble into a still pond, it's much more that we're caught up in a turbulent river, and that necessity is going with the force and turbulence of that river, and what’s particularly different in that metaphor is that that river has a direction, a velocity. We don't think that way typically in Buddhism, that our practice has a direction or velocity. Dogen has a lot of esoteric things to say about the nature of time, but basically he talks in a way that sees every moment as complete in itself, not as a step on the way to something else. Most famously he talks about firewood having a complete existence as firewood, ash having a complete existence as ash. We should not understand this merely sequentially, as if things are headed in a particular direction, but wherever things are in whatever moment, the whole of life is manifest in that state, in that moment. It's not about getting from here to there. And particularly he uses that to describe our relationship to enlightenment. We're not in the process of getting from here to there; we're engaged in trying to find it or recognize it where we already are.

It's a very complicated question, however, to identify what counts as necessity in our life, what are the bedrock elements. We defined these two, impermanence and cause and effect, but are there further, equally determined necessary aspects of something called human nature? What is it to be a person? To what extent is love or attachment a necessity? To what extent is aggression an inevitable part of our biological make-up? These are the kinds of conundrums that religious and psychological practices argue over: What is given and what is malleable?

In the Zendo, we create a laboratory for watching our reaction to necessity. That's what it means to have a highly disciplined, rule-governed, ritualized form in a Zendo, where you sit still, where sitting still is the equivalent of a necessity that you have to come to terms with, where when the bell rings, we get up, we do kinhin, we bow. These things are the channels through which our practice flows, and they're not in any given moment ours to define or redraw. How do we deal with that? Do we always feel like we're always bumping up against an obstacle? Is there always some element of resistance, of “when is the bell going to ring?” “Why can't I move or scratch my ear?” “Why do they do these chants, and why do they have to be in Japanese?” Whenever we set up a ritualized practice, it immediately is a laboratory for examining what we do when we bump up against something that's not under our control. We're choosing to do this, but once we enter into it, we give up a certain level of control. Does that feel like a relief? For a few hours I don't have to make any decisions, I just get carried along? Or is it just one damn thing after another that I have to put up with until it's over? Which is the way to approach your life?

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