I want to continue to discuss some of the themes that are emerging in our discussion of Hakuin’s autobiography, Wild Ivy. We read last week about how as a young boy Hakuin had a morbid fear of going to hell after hearing the sermons of an itinerant preacher, and this further expanded into a base of anxiety and phobias about things like fires and hot baths and so forth. One thing we remarked on was how despite what seemed to be a very close and loving relationship with his mother, none of his mother’s reassurances did anything to relieve his anxieties. We raised the question of why was Hakuin as a boy particularly susceptible to this kind and degree of anxiety and phobia when his mother was so loving and close?
There’s a hint in the story that points to his relationship with his father, who was evidently very harsh and critical. But that connection is not made by Hakuin nor is it explored there at all. It points to a particular kind of problem we can encounter in practice and in therapy. Certainly in therapy, where a person will tell you that the therapist or maybe a significant person in their lives is warm and empathic and understanding and yet, somehow all that goodness never serves to touch or relieve their own self hate or sense of internal badness. If we think that therapy can simply work by the provision of missing empathy or goodness or understanding, then you have the dilemma of how come this replacement doesn’t do anything to make the person feel better? Why doesn’t it make a dent in their low self esteem or even their self hate?
One kind of answer that has been offered to that question comes out of Ferenczi, who said that in order for something to change, the original trauma has to in some sense be recapitulated in the analysis, and that that trauma get acknowledged and recognized in a way that it hadn’t been originally, that what is missing is not simply the goodness but the recognition of what really went wrong and that it’s only when that comes alive in some way that a real shift is possible. One way that can happen is when the therapist is too certain of their own goodness and never acknowledges a mistake, and that itself can be a recapitulation of a problem where no one would ever admit that they were doing harm, and that can reach a kind of breaking point and enactment where the therapist has to finally admit that their goodness isn’t absolute and they’ve inadvertently done something that is not just not good but actively harmful.
So what we would imagine in Hakuin’s case, to start, is that there is this whole unsalable, unsaid aspect of the relationship with the father whose harshness can never be spoken of and not only would we say it’s not denied but is then pursued. It’s as if Hakuin then goes off and pursues the harshest possible Zen training to begin to reenact something of the original position and find some new way of working through it. However, I think that what happens in fact is that when the recognition is not forthcoming in any way, the person basically gives up on the relational and retreats to the subjective, and they look for the solution solely inside, solely in terms of inner transformation and that’s part of what we read in Hakuin. He desperately pursues
inner transformation through enlightenment experiences and he gets one after another where the antidote turns out to be very fleeting and so more or less where we left it last time was him being stuck in this position of being totally convinced that the solution has to come from inner transformation and being repeatedly frustrated that he can’t find this all or nothing answer.
But another perspective on this dilemma is provided by another one of our favorite authors, Hegel, who talks about this dilemma and pseudo-solution as the problem of the beautiful soul. By that he precisely means this kind of failure of the relational and the turn inward and he sees that operating in history in a number of different ways and in different periods. One that we’ve talked about a little bit in the past occurred during the Roman Empire where the system of morality that existed then was one of patronage and reciprocal obligation, that ethics meant that you were placed in relationship to this particular patron -- what you were obliged to do for him and what he was obliged to do in terms of care-taking and protection in return. At some point this had at least the form of an ideal sense of reciprocity and harmony, but the reality turned into something where mutual responsibility turned into a simple power relation, one of domination and submission. The ethical was essentially evacuated and reduced to power relations.
In the face of that you have the emergence of a number of Hellenistic philosophies that turned inward to re-establish the ethical but solely in private terms, in terms of self-mastery, self-control. You get this in Stoicism and Epicureanism, where the ethics of Stoicism becomes a matter of being in accord with reason and having that be entirely internal and controlling what you can internally and abdicating control over anything on the outside. In Epicureanism it’s a matter of disavowing false allegiance to gods and arbitrary systems that are power or superstition based and returning to a sense of inner happiness as being the only ethical imperative.
Hegel sees an analogous turning inward at the end of the feudal era and the rise of the Enlightenment where again a whole Christian moral order becomes hollowed out and the divine right of kings, in the great chain of beings, becomes an increasingly hollow notion that’s replaced by simple power relations. And so you get this kind of moral revolution that he sees culminating in Kant, where ethics becomes a matter of inner conscience and duty and your obligation is entirely inward to this sense of duty and Kant famously makes doing right completely disconnected from the outcome of any behavior. It’s like you have the absolute responsibility to tell the truth even to the axe murderer at the door, that kind of paradoxical problem. But the issue that is about this turn inward and what he calls the beautiful soul, is the person who becomes preoccupied with their own inner state and often sees the world not as the arena of recognition and intersubjectivity but as a place of contamination and the potential for moral failure.
In one scenario, whatever we think we’re going to do, in an inevitable kind of way, has unpredictable consequences depending on the actions of others. The beautiful soul withdraws more and more into a world where he’s less dependent on the reaction of others, less dependent on having to make any impact, less dependent on his own sense of goodness being validated by anybody else because you can never count on the others accepting your apology by making an apology of their own so it becomes -- I’ll be entirely my own private criteria. I won’t rely on anybody else’s judgment. And the beautiful soul then can be preoccupied with this and the cultivation of a pleasant aesthetic, religious inner experience, or he can become preoccupied with the avoidance of contamination from the world, and a preoccupation with purity, and that leads to things like vows of celibacy and poverty and withdrawal from the world, all in the service of creating a kind of shield between the self and a contaminating world.
So I think we can see that a lot of what we call religious or spiritual practice runs the risk of getting caught in this kind of dynamic where the problems that we have with other people and in the world that are caused by our suffering, we no longer try to resolve through action in the world but we think we’re going to resolve privately and inwardly through some kind of experience on the cushion. And that’s where we left Hakuin, in his autobiography. In this next chapter we are going to see how and if he escapes that dilemma.