Who put you in bondage? Our ideas of the master and the novice. Barry Magid December 18th 2010

A young novice monk approached the third patriarch and said "Pray, Master, of your mercy, allow me to beg you for the teaching of emancipation." The patriarch said, "Who put you in bondage?" The young monk said, "No one has put me in bondage." The patriarch then asks, "Why do you seek further emancipation?"

The Transmission of the Lamp

When I wrote about this case in "Nothing is Hidden" I focused on the question of emancipation and particularly on the notion of what unconscious forces we can imagine at work in the young monk that made him feel so tied up. Today I want to look at it from a slightly different direction, starting with his question. Listen to the words of it: “Pray, Master, of your mercy, allow me to beg you. . . .” The Master might ask, “Where did you learn to talk like that?” It’s just a model of obsequiousness, The whole language enacts the sense of: I’m nobody, you’re everything. Please, of your mercy, somehow bestow something on me. You have all the answers, all the agency. I’m helpless. All I can do is beg.

He addresses the patriarch as Master, and it’s always an interesting question when we hear a word like that, particularly what is he the master of? In what sense is he the master of the novice? When Hegel wrote about the master-slave dialectic, he stressed the way the master’s very identity is dependent on having a slave to boss around. You can’t be a master unless you’re the master of somebody, and the master is seen in the end as needing the slave, being completely dependent on the slave for his identity, because without the slave, the master has no object on which to exert force and therefore to prove his strength, his power.

How much do we reenact that kind of dichotomy in student-teacher monk-master kinds of relationships? How much are they mutually defining and mutually perpetuating? When we think of the young monk in this story having a moment of enlightenment, what do we imagine that consists of in the context of this dichotomy of bondage and emancipation? Well, we might imagine that suddenly he realizes no one has bound him, that he is free. He is no longer a slave of something. What does that do to the master in that moment? What is he master of?

If the bonds that make the novice a slave to something in himself are seen as empty, at the same time, the idea that the master has something that he does not equally becomes empty. Now the fact is, that most of the time when we’re in a one-down position, when we’ve been a student of some teacher or the employee of some boss, what we want is to one day switch sides. Nobody’s going to boss me around! I’ll get to be the boss! After all these years of being a student, I’ll get to be the teacher. The most natural thing in the world is when we’re on the one-down side in these dichotomies is just to want to switch positions.

Years ago I read somewhere that it was the dream of every slave not to have freedom, but to some day have a slave of his own. In one way or another, that is something that most of us really enact in our practice -- that we don’t really know how to imagine stepping outside of -- He’s got it, I don’t. -- to finding a way that really dissolves both Have and Have not. But we practice with the idea, Well, someday I’ll have it. There’s no question that the structure and the rituals of Zen practice have for a long time embodied the skillful means of teachers acting like they’ve got it and challenging the students to get it. The form of this practice, me sitting up here, talking about koans, sometimes people don’t understand but I understand them. The whole thing, you can say, is designed just to bring out in everybody that latent fantasy of -- Oh, he’s got it and I don’t. So we can get it right out on the table and work on it. Just occasionally, however, I suspect that there have been teachers who enjoy the position of having it and being surrounded by students who want it. There can be something just a tad gratifying about being in that position that you could get pretty accustomed to if you weren’t careful.

So what starts off as skillful means becomes an occupational hazard. That’s the dilemma on the teacher’s side. On the student’s side, I think there’s something subtler that goes on, not just the projection outward of wisdom or perfection or wholeness or just okayness onto the teacher, but a reenactment within each person of this kind of master-slave dialectic in which one part of a person really tries to subjugate the other and gain mastery through a kind of sadistic discipline of what we will put ourselves through in the name of practice. So a certain kind of harsh ideal in ourselves makes us practice in a way that can be quite brutal to another part of ourselves, where we deny ourselves any right to be free of pain, have any right to have any choice, have any right to have any real needs whatsoever. We treat an aspect of our self as if it was a slave. And the way we will achieve mastery in this practice is to really totally subjugate a part of ourselves that we think is in some sense the unruly problem, whether it is our thought that we just want to extirpate somehow. Every time thoughts come up we whack them. Or we think our bodies are somehow the root of desire or need for comfort and attachment, so we sit in pain without sleep, under all sorts of harsh conditions, we’re going to somehow break that unruly servant of ours.

The stricter we are, the more we think we’re fulfilling some ideal, and the closer we think we’re getting to mastery. Yet there’s a very real way in which all we’re doing is recapitulating within ourselves this master-slave dialectic. It’s very hard to find a way not to simply switch sides or try to eliminate one side of that. You can have the revolt against all that discipline and just say, Whatever -- I’m not doing this anymore. There’s the idea that freedom will somehow just eliminate the master part, eliminate the boss. That’s sort of an adolescent version of, well, I don’t have to go to school anymore. I’ll just stay home and play games all day. Freedom is equated with getting rid of the boss. But this koan, and what we try to practice, is to try to get rid of the dichotomy of boss and slave, not get rid of one side of it. It’s much harder for all of us to really conceptualize that and find out what that would mean.

On day one I try to give beginners the instruction that practice is like looking in a mirror. Your original face immediately appears. You can’t do this right or wrong. I try. I try to start out with this idea. You can’t do this right or wrong. Nobody believes me. I think it’s such a great instruction for beginners, but nobody believes me. When we talk about no gain, again it’s trying to get out of that -- I’ve got it, you don’t picture. Nobody believes me. So much of what this koan is really about is not just the dissolution of the novice’s notion of bondage but our dissolution of the notion of the master. That’s what we have to grapple with particularly after we’ve done this for a fair amount of time.

Just as a thought experiment, what would it be like to imagine a sangha that practices together for years and years, decades and decades until it becomes a sangha of peers practicing together. Has there ever been such a thing? Can we imagine that? What happens to the discipline if there’s nobody to discipline you, if there’s no disciplining? How do we maintain form and motivation and a sense of the meaning if meaning is not all about He’s got it and I’ve got to get it? What else is there?

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