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REMEMBERING EXISTENCE: Asian Contributions to Psychology and Social Theory

By Richard Koenigsberg

Twenty-five years ago I popped into an Indian movie theater—the Bombay Cinema on 57th Street and Broadway in Manhattan and saw a movie entitled “The Girl from India.” This began my involvement in Asian culture that has continued to this day. Soon I began studying the writings of the Indian philosopher Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and then Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. Eventually I spent a considerable amount of time watching movies at the Japan Society and in Chinatown. In this paper, I will crystallize the ideas that became significant to me by virtue of my journey into Asian culture.

In the West, knowledge is pursued with the objective of knowing the world, seeking conceptual unity behind diverse phenomena, understanding and controlling reality, etc. The goal is not primarily to change the subject. By contrast, knowledge in the Asian philosophical tradition has the aim of transforming subjective consciousness. Asian writings growing out of Hinduism, Buddhism and Zen Buddhism may be viewed as “how to” texts. The objective of studying these texts is to improve one’s meditative practice in order to transform one’s being or state-of-consciousness.

Many forms of meditative practice are undertaken with the objective of separating from society and the external world: allowing one to focus more deeply on and within the self. One seeks to let go of “sticky attachments” that bind the self to objects in the world. In his study of Buddhism, Edward Cone states that our mental ill health goes back to “identifying ourselves with what we are not.” By virtue of identifying with objects external to the self, we become estranged from our true self. Rami Swami suggests that in order to attain one’s pure self, one must “cease identifying oneself with that which we are not.” One must regulate the tendency of the mind to flow out—to become identified and attached.

My research specialty is the psychology of collective forms of violence such as war, genocide and terrorism. I have discovered that political violence often grows out of the tendency of human beings to identify themselves in profound ways with Gods, nations or ideologies. When human beings equate their sense of self with a God, nation or ideology, they may become disturbed by the existence of people who worship another God, nation or ideology. Violent acts against others are undertaken in the name of shoring up one’s identification with ideals such as Communism or Allah or America.

Rajneesh presents a sutra whose purpose is to release people from identifications. He says that you should be aware simply that you are. The sutra says, “I am.” No name is needed, no country is needed. Rajneesh says: “Let there be simple existence, you are! You don’t have to say to yourself who you are. You don’t have to answer, ‘I am this and that’.” Rajneesh suggests that we rest within our own being; cease the quest to label ourselves. Instead of seeking to identify with objects and ideas outside the self, we should deepen our identification with our own being.

Rajneesh theorizes that a significant source of suffering is our tendency to identify too deeply with ideas, people, places and things outside the self. These identifications pull us out of or away from actual existence. When we remember something, Rajneesh says, we always remember something that is just a label, not existence itself. When people think about themselves, they think about their names, religions, countries, many things, but never existence itself. Rajneesh encourages us to abandon our symbolic selves—the selves we create through identification—and return to experience our being.

Traditional Asian thought focuses on attaining to a state of wordless consciousness. Asian philosophy thus differs radically from theories that dominate the contemporary academic landscape, where there is no concept of pure existence. Indeed, many scholars argue that the self does not and cannot exist apart from linguistic concepts and symbolic structures. According to Lacanian and post-structuralist theory, the self comes into being by virtue of its entry into the symbolic order. It is precisely the labels that we have about ourselves, these theories suggest, that endow us with identity.

When I was young, certain labels were conferred upon me—providing me with my cultural identity. My mother and father gave me the name Richard Koenigsberg. Because of my sexual characteristics, I was called a boy. Because of where I grew up, I was considered “American.” Eventually I became a “student” and an “athlete.” Society also provided evaluate labels: I was a good student and a good athlete and sometimes a bad boy.

I was a baseball player throughout my younger days. The measure of success in baseball is one’s batting average: the percentage of hits one makes in relationship to the number of at-bats. When I was a baseball player in the Little League, Pony League and high school, I identified with my batting average. This was a source of self-esteem. When batting .350, I felt good about myself. If batting .250, I felt depressed. I identified with a number—a symbolic definition of who I was.

In a baseball game, one tries to get a “hit” in order to help one’s team win and increase one’s batting average. Of course, apart from the result I was trying to achieve, I also was an embodied human being standing at the plate; holding a bat in my hands; watching the pitcher and the ball flying toward me; swinging the bat and feeling the impact of the ball against the bat. The physical act of batting or hitting was separate from the symbolic result of what I did: whether or not I got a hit that would help my team win and improve my batting average.

Batting and hitting a baseball was a joyful, pleasurable experience. But I identified deeply with the fruits of my activity: whether or not I got a “hit.” In the Bhagavad Gita, we are instructed not to let being become overshadowed by action. The danger is that we get so caught up in the results that we forget the source of our performance. Because I was so concerned with trying to get a “hit”—a social construct that reflected the fruits of my activity—I sometimes forgot about the source of my hits: my own self and body.

The Bhagavad Gita writes about the man whose delight is in the Self alone: who is not consumed by action and the desire to produce results. “Renouncing all attachment to the fruits of actions, ever content and independent,” the Bhagavad Gita says, such a person even if engaged in action “does not do anything at all.” How can one become engaged in action and at the same time not be doing anything? How can one do something yet simultaneously be unconcerned with the “fruits” of one’s actions?

What the Bhagavad Gita is saying—this is one of the main points of the text—is that one should not let action overwhelm one’s sense of being. One should remember the source of one’s action—one’s self. When I was playing baseball, I became overly concerned with the fruit of my action: producing a “hit.” The danger was that I might become so absorbed with the result that I lost or forgot my self: the source of the action and result.

I might forget the concrete, embodied person standing there at home plate, holding a bat in my hand, waiting for the ball to come hurdling toward me. I might become so intent on producing a performance that would be recorded (and applauded) by society that I was in danger of losing my being. The Bhagavad Gita tells us that when we focus on our self—the source of action—fruits will come naturally. We should not allow the anticipation of fruits to overshadow the being that is acting or creating.

We can conceptualize anything we do in terms of two dimensions: The act of doing and producing a something and the experience of one’s self in the process of doing and producing something. Shunryu Suzuki in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind says that there are several kinds of creation. One is when one acts to produce or prepare something, like food or tea. Another is when one becomes involved in education or culture or art or in creating some system in society. These first two kinds of creating are what we do when we work or teach, producing something for other people or society.

Often, Suzuki says, people become so caught up in creating or producing things for society—that they forget the being that is the source of what they are creating or producing. The practice of meditation or zazen, Suzuki suggests, is intended to help us to resume our fundamental activity of creation. When we sit, we recover our sense of being.

When we meditate, Suzuki says, we “do not even realize what we are; we just sit.” But when we stand up, “We are there!” Meditation thus is the first and most fundamental act of creation. “When you are there,” Suzuki declares, “Everything else is there.” The purpose of Zen Buddhism, like other forms of Asian practice, is to return us to the source; to remember our self or being as the source.

Why is this simple act of returning to the source so significant? Why is the idea of remembering the self a central preoccupation of Asian thought? Because human beings tend to become so profoundly caught up in and by their day-to-day activities and realities. We become bound to our cultural and symbol world, and are hijacked by this world.

When people define themselves through the mirror of society—identifying with their names and accomplishments and reputations—they have become captured by culture. Existence is defined by symbolic representations of the self. Many students and Professors post resumes or CVs online. These declare: “This is what I have achieved. This is who I am.” The resume or CV becomes a record of what one has done: symbol of the being who has created or produced the accomplishments.

Of course, a human being is the source of the accomplishments that appear on a resume. I once held a small conference and noticed that several people who were coming to speak at my conference—before the event had occurred—already had listed their presentations on their CV. It was as if the purpose of coming to my conference and giving a lecture was not to come to the conference and give a lecture—but to create a line on their resume.

Suzuki says that forgetting zazen—forgetting the self as originator of action—is the cause of suffering. People work like mad dogs to produce and create things, but become so caught up in the world that they forget the fundamental source of their efforts. Meditation or Zazen is a practice that allows is to forget the world and return to the self in order to remember the wellspring of what we produce and create.

Meditation can be thought of as a time for digesting experience; reflecting upon and assimilating what we have done. When we do something, we should do it not only for the sake of producing something, but in order to create and expand our sense of self. We should allow what we do and create to reverberate back upon and be integrated within the self; to enhance our sense of being.

At the core of Indian thought is the idea of the self. The Bhagavad Gita revolves around the cultivation of a form of knowing (jhana) that is not based on knowledge of phenomena. What is sought is experience of a self that is beyond or beneath knowledge, described as “not burned by fire, not wetted by water, untouched by wind, eternal, unmoving, unmanifest, unchanging.” This idea of a permanent, unchanging self—referred to as atman or purusa—is the foundation and ending point for almost every system of Indian philosophy.

Indian thought enjoins us to engage in meditative practice so that we remember our own existence as foundation and fountain. It is easy to become caught up or entangled in events and activities and people to the extent that we forget who we are. Meditation means remembering the self. Meditative consciousness might be described as awareness of one’s own being in relationship to the ongoing experience of existence. Rajneesh calls our continually-present self the witness.

The witness is that mental function representing constant awareness of one’s self in relation to the present moment. The witness is the ever-present observer of what is going on—both within one’s mind and outside of it. Rajneesh instructs us to make a continual effort to identify with our witnessing function; to be that witness. To be a witness is to endlessly observe and check up on oneself.

This idea of identifying with one’s witnessing consciousness has profound implications. If everything is bound to one’s witnessing consciousness, then there can be no such thing as permanent truth. Truth is always bound to the present moment of existence. According to Dainin Katagiri, “Impermanence is Buddha-nature.” Impermanence is the state of existence that is “constantly changing from day to day, from moment to moment.” Everything changes, and consequently each moment of change produces new truths. Truth is relative to one’s consciousness and experience.

This is a tragic vision—this sense of existence as perpetual, endless change. Buddha’s idea of non-permanence means that each moment exists only temporarily. Then there is another moment that comes into being and the moment that existed once no longer exists. Given non-permanence, it is not possible to become attached to a given activity or moment—because soon that activity or moment will pass away. The best we can hope for is to connect to each moment or activity as it occurs. When one moment has occurred, we let go of that moment in order to be present within the next moment. Sadly, there is no other choice.

Rajneesh’s idea of the witness seeks to identify something that is permanent even in the flux of experience: a basis for self-constancy. While phenomena change, one’s witness is present to observe and register each phenomenon. Our witnessing consciousness provides stability amidst endless change. As Rajneesh puts it, “Only you are the constant factor in existence, nothing else.”

Everything changes, but one is always present within change—endlessly witnessing. Our experiences and moods and states-of-being continually change, but if we make the effort, our capacity to witness remains stable. As each moment occurs and passes, what remains constant is our awareness or capacity to witness each moment—to pay attention. Our witness provides permanence and stability in the face of endless change. Rajneesh declares: “Only you are eternity, nothing else. Your awareness is never in flux.”

One continually returns to re-connect with the reality of one’s state-of-being in the present moment. The objective of such a practice or epistemology is not to create knowledge, but to remain rooted in oneself. The capacity to remain rooted in the self is what Rajneesh calls bliss. The world and one’s desires and one’s moods continually change. However, by virtue of one’s capacity to witness what is occurring, one remains stable. Rajneesh says: “Suffering comes, you witness it. Then happiness comes—you witness it. Only one thing remains constant—witnessing—and witnessing is you.”

Suzuki articulates this idea of a self that is present within each moment in a different way. “The body is a house,” he says, and “it must have a master.” The master of the house is known as the “original face.” “Experiencing heat and cold and so on,” Suzuki claims, or feeling a lack, or having desires, these are only “delusive thoughts and do not relate to the true master of the house.”

Suzuki uses this term “delusive” in a provocative way. Of course, heat and cold and having desires are not delusions in the conventional meaning of this word. Suzuki seeks to evoke the idea that any particular experience or state of being should not be equated with our self. Rather, these temporary or delusive subjective states are “something added.” They are impermanent, “vanishing with each breath.”

What is real or permanent is the “master of the house:” the self that experiences heat and cold and desires. Sensations or perceptions or ideas or desires are like transient visitors passing through the house. They come into being with each breath and disappear with the next breath. To be dragged along by these transient visitors, Suzuki says, is to “fall into hell.”

Why does he make this radical statement—that paying too much attention to sensations like heat or cold and desires is like falling into hell? Suzuki seems to be saying that paying inordinate attention to temporary states of being is equivalent to being dragged out of the self; losing one’s mental balance or equilibrium. By paying too much attention to visitors passing through one’s house, one ceases to be master of the house.

What has it meant for an American to incorporate Asian thought into his psyche? The change has meant that I have moved toward paying more attention—focusing more deeply—upon my concrete experience or actual existence. I’m still a scholar and writer who values symbolic productions. But I place less value upon the idea that I am creating products as “immorality symbols” that I imagine will live on after I die.

A scholar writes a book and has it published. Then it is purchased and catalogued by a library. Consequently, the book sits in the stacks along with books by other authors. The scholar identifies his ego with the book that he has written. He may imagine that he exists within the pages of his book in the library. But of course the scholar is not a library book. The book is a symbolic representation of the scholar’s ego.

Most scholars take symbolic representations very seriously. Post-modern thinkers argue that that we come into being at the moment that we enter the symbolic order. “We are no other but the other,” some Lacanians declare. Human beings according to this conception are subjects of discourse, constituted by and created through the medium of language.

Asian thought seeks identity at a place separate from discourse and symbolic representations. Asian philosophies encourages us to engage in practices that bring us back to our concrete, embodied, experiential self. The living path to Buddhahood and liberation, Suzuki says, is to take the stand “ever on the self, always and everywhere to be lord and master; to concentrate on where one stands and bring to life what is before one.”