Between Stockholm Syndrome and Lima Syndrome
Part 37: How Acceptance or Resistance to Change and Impermanence could be a Predictive Factor for Pacifism or Violence
and it points the way from bondage to freedom.
-D.T. SUZUKI (1870-1966)
In addition to eschatological and temporal orientation differences as outlined in Part 35 (Religious Obsessions Versus Spiritual Awakening) and Part 36 (Being in the "Zone"), another critical difference between Zen Buddhism and Abrahamic religions is their perceptions of ego. Ego, as per Oxford Dictionary definition is "a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance". Whereas Zen Buddhism has a very modest interpretation of the ego (if any), even suggesting the notion of egolessness, Abrahamic religions are more based on egotistically outlooks.
While the Buddha taught that the illusionary ego or the notion of "self" is the source of all suffering, the maxim of French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596-1650)--Cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am")—became a fundamental element of Western philosophy. As underlined by Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-1987): "The entire Buddhist path is based on the discovery of egolessness and the maturing of insight or knowledge that comes from egolessness." Now, what the heck is egolessness? For most of us with a Western mindset of me, me, and nothing but me (yes that applies to yours truly!), egolessness is a foreign concept.
Without getting too philosophical, let's borrow John Welwood's explanation in his Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation (2014). Egolessness is a common experience, and appears "in the gaps and spaces between thoughts, which usually go unnoticed". According to Welwood, "existential anxiety arises when one realizes that the feeling of "I" is nothing more than a perception." Thus, "only egoless awareness allows us to face and accept death in all forms." In its essence, the notion of "I" denies a holistic outlook of nondualism. Indeed it creates a sharp division between "me" and "you", between "us" and "them", between "in-groups" and "out-groups", even between "life" and "death". In a nutshell, whereas Buddhism seeks the liberation from the self, Abrahamic religions flourish in the tyranny of the self.
In fact, if we are honest to ourselves, is it a coincidence that Buddhism which does not introduce any eschatological concept happens to be the same religion that suggests egolessness and accepts impermanence? On the other hand, is it another coincidence that to Abrahamic religions—with their eschatological concepts from the seemingly violent Armageddon to Yawm al-Qiyāmah (Resurrection Day) to Yawm ad-Dīn (Judgment Day)—the notion of egolessness and impermanence seem foreign? As argued by David Nichtern in The Discovery of Egolessness (2010): "the fundamental mistake we make (which causes all kinds of trouble and suffering) is the assumption that we exist as a permanent, unified, independent being. What causes our most fundamental suffering and anxiety is that we are ignorant of the true nature of our existence. Because of our assumption, we cannot fully understand or relate to impermanence (including our own) and the interdependence of all phenomena."
Contrast the focus on Life in Zen Buddhism with the focus on Afterlife in Abrahamic religions, and the difference explains a lot. Whereas Zen Buddhism teaches the importance to accept changes and impermanence, Abrahamic religions have a strong tendency to deny change and cling to permanence. Whereas Zen Buddhist believers (like Tanzan) focus on each precious moment in life before moving on to the next one, Abrahamic believers (like Ekido) focus only and only on the afterlife which is manifested by fretting incessantly about what is good and what is evil, what punishments deserve hell and what rewards deserve heaven.
Whereas Zen Buddhism accepts impermanence as something inevitable, Abrahamic religions have never been at peace with the notion of impermanence. Whereas in Zen Buddhism, death is accepted as something natural, in Abrahamic religions death is denied, thus strategically sugarcoated as a "temporary transition to an afterlife". The resistance to death is basically the resistance to impermanence. Thus while Zen Buddhist pacifism can be traced back to the acceptance to change and impermanence, Abrahamic violence can be traced back to the resistance to change and impermanence.
The Pascal's Wager is a good example. In Section 233 of his Pensées ("Thoughts"), French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) argued that we have to live "as though God exists and seek to believe in God." If God does not actually exist, then we will only incur a finite loss (all the money we donated to the church or the cost of pilgrimage to Mecca, etc.). On the other hand, if God does exist, we stand to receive infinite heavenly rewards and avoid hellish punishment—in eternity. If we read Pascal's Wager carefully and thoroughly, however; there is a not-so-divine element of a cost-benefit analysis. Is it truly about the existence of a God or is it merely about the self interests of a bunch of egotistical creatures who only care about their own salvation—with or without God?
"If there is a sin against life," French Nobel Prize author and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) wrote, "it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life."
[To be continued.]
Johannes Tan, Indonesian Translator & Conference Interpreter