Zen and the Art of Self-Mutilation

 By Jed McKenna

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(This is adapted from a letter Jed McKenna wrote in reply to a self-professed “serious seeker” who made an impassioned offer to turn over his belongings and himself in exchange for being accepted as Jed’s student.)

Dear William,

You don’t need to add me to your equation, you need to subtract yourself. Begin by re-examining your assumptions. It’s clear from your letter that you consider yourself a serious person, a serious seeker. That’s the first assumption you’ll want to challenge. You’re sure that a serious seeker is what you are and you think I see you that way too, but this is not the case. I know serious when I see it and I know a handpuppet of Maya when I see it. You think you’re on top of something, but the only thing to be on top of is Maya, and she’s on top of you like a house on a mouse.

I receive many offers from people who want to come be with me. Maybe anyone perceived as a spiritual solution-provider receives this kind of offer, I wouldn’t know. People want to give up everything; their stuff, their money, their very lives, really. They don’t know what to do with them so I guess they figure, why not dump them on someone who seems more qualified, like a mother leaving her baby on the rich man’s doorstep. This may appear to be the ultimate sacrifice, a grand act of selflessness, but it’s really the ultimate entrenchment; fear gone haywire, ego solidifying its hold for decades to come. This isn’t how you surrender the self, this is how you abandon it; abdicate responsibility for your own life. I understand this can be a very tempting response to a very perplexing challenge.

Nevertheless, your gesture suggests that you’re in an uncomfortable place. Good for you. That’s always the best place to be. Being so uncomfortable means you’ll soon have to move. That’s good. That’s the motivation that drives the journey of awakening. It’s a series of steps, none taken voluntarily, all necessitated by the kind of discomfort that caused you to write your letter to me. The motivation behind your letter is good, but throwing yourself at me is not a solution. What would I do with you? What possible instruction could I give?

Maybe I would tell you to cut off one ounce of your body every day until you can answer the question, “What is true?” Any ounce as long as it’s an ounce. That should bring you quickly into focus; light a fire under you. If you had to do this, cut off an ounce of your body every day, how much time do you think you would waste on meditation? On attending satsang or reading the latest spiritual bestseller? Not bloody much. You would soon become an enlightenment machine. Sleep and food would be reduced to barest minimums. Relationships and activities once deemed essential would be forgotten. You would enter into a burning mania of single-pointedness. Soon, anything other than the question What is true? would seem comically irrelevant. There’s your new-Zen; Zen for the new millennium. It would be interesting to see how many sand gardens and books of pithy aphorisms the self-mutilation approach sells.

What is true? That’s the only koan there is; the only one anyone ever needs. Every day you don’t answer this question, another ounce. Take a moment to think about what it would mean to have to sit down with a scalpel at a certain time every day and amputate an ounce of your body. You would quickly have to learn things about asking and answering, about how the process works and doesn’t work, about how to help it and how to get out of its way. You would have to learn how to unlearn, and you would need access to a tremendous amount of resources in order to accomplish such an unlearning. You would discard clever spiritual concepts for cold facts, pretty Eastern vocabulary for words of scientific precision. The process is one of seeing clearly, not just blindly lashing out. That act of seeing clearly takes time and resources and the mind must work almost ceaselessly at levels far beyond the everyday.

Would this work? Well, let’s say it did. Say it worked in 500 days. There you are after hacking off over 30 pounds of yourself, and now you’re truth-realized. Now you know directly, for yourself, without the slightest possibility of error, the truth. You are free from delusion; awakened from the dreamstate. You have joined the ranks of the spiritually enlightened. You look at your toeless feet, fingerless hands, noseless face, earless head, and what would you say? Here’s what you’d say:

“Well, uh, that was kinda dumb.”

I’m happy to tell you that right up front. Waking up is kinda dumb. There’s no point. It’s not merely pointless, it’s pointlessness. Who would do such a thing? Only someone who absolutely couldn’t not do it. Once you become the person who can’t not do it, it’s a whole different thing, but trying to do it before you absolutely must is as ludicrous as slicing off parts of your body. (Which, by the way, don’t do.)

As barbaric and unthinkable as this ounce-a-day approach may seem, I can assure you that anyone who has ever managed to awaken from the dreamstate was driven by equally unendurable mental and emotional forces, something to consider the next time you hear the pop guru de jour recount the moment of his glorious epiphany: “I was walking in the park, children were laughing, birds were singing, when all of a sudden…”

This is where the process of Spiritual Autolysis comes in. Spiritual Autolysis is ultimately about clear seeing; clearly seeing what is, which is what we do when we stop seeing what’s not. We can use SA to raise the ordinary powers of the mind up to the extraordinary levels necessary in order to see life and the world and ourselves as they truly are. Many people can build nuclear reactors, compose symphonies, conquer nations or perform brain surgery, but very few can see what is.

You mention in your letter that Alan Watts said that we are the apertures through which the universe sees and experiences itself. It might be more useful to say we are the imperfect lenses through which the universe, or the I-universe, observes itself; through which the undifferentiated creates the illusion of differentiation. It’s an amusing idea to play with. Self is distortion: distortion by design. The exact distortion of the lens is what makes the exact individual; distortion itself is self. All personal attributes, understood this way, are flaws; imperfections in a lens that exists to be imperfect. Imperfection does not otherwise exist, so an artificial imperfection is created; ego. Seekers may strive to become a perfect lens but, of course, the perfect lens is no lens; no imperfections, no lens, just what is. Your imperfections are not only who and what you are, but why you are. The finiteness and the imperfection of the lens are the reasons for the lens. No lens means the universe goes unbeheld, so what has been accomplished by this act? Who is served? Who benefits? This reinforces my earlier statement that awakening is pointless—trading segregated self for integrated no-self, finite being for infinite non-being—all this by way of saying not that perfection is unattainable, but that it’s unavoidable. Perfection is. It is what is. There is no other. In truth, there is no such thing as non-perfect or imperfect. The point of finite and imperfect lenses is to create artificial realms of finiteness and imperfection in which to play.

(The original letter cites an Indian saint to bolster an argument and then proceeds as if the words of the sage were accepted fact.)

Don’t come at me brandishing dead guys like potent allies. It doesn’t help you. They can’t put up a fight. If you can’t make the argument, you can’t summon the dead to make it for you. That’s a logical fallacy called Ipse Dixit: “He himself said it.” In law, it’s called the dead man’s statute and it’s inadmissible. You can’t elect a ghost proxy. You’re borrowing authority from someone who is incontestable not by merit, but by death. Your argument is unassailable because the person making it is unavailable. You’re saying that if he were here, he could make the argument, but he’s not here. You can borrow words and ideas and quotations from the terminally absent to help illustrate a point, but if it’s your point, it’s your problem; your argument to make.

In any case, if he were here, he couldn’t make the argument. I’m familiar with the beloved teacher of whom you speak. I promise you that if he were here I could slice him into a garnish while rubbing my tummy and patting my head. No effort required. No contest. You could do the same by this time tomorrow if you’d stop being lazy and start thinking for yourself.

Your spirituality is just another false garment, another layer of the lie of self. Your spirituality defines the dimensions of your cell and the fact that you don’t see that tells me that you have no idea where you are or whose rules you are living under. You have no grasp of your true situation, of the nature of your captive status. You’re clinging desperately to your lies; shielding them with emotional energy. Why? Because these lies are you. They are who you are. You don’t have imperfections, you are imperfections. Ask yourself why you even write to me? What’s the point? None of what I’m saying is new to you. And yet here you are, writing impassioned letters to me, trying to stand your lies back up on their feet. If you like your lies, fine, but you’re not going to make them true through the power of your conviction. Who you are is a lie; that’s a fact. You’re a fictional character in a state of wondrous denial. What you think of as your uniqueness is really nothing more than a series of randomly set toggle switches, and the particular settings you call “me” amount to nothing more special than the distinctions between any two snowflakes in an endless blizzard.

A serious person must remember at all times where he is and who’s running the show. This is Maya’s house. She controls everything. She has every advantage. We are patients in Maya’s asylum, and all instruction to sit still and quiet the mind come directly from her. Stillness and silence are the antithesis of the awakening process, and those who advocate peace and compassion and a quiet mind are just reselling their preferred sleep potions. There are even popular spiritual teachers and authors who advocate doing nothing at all; they say that effort itself is the problem, that the discontentment that drives the spiritual pursuit is the only thing standing between ourselves and the goal of that pursuit. Is it any wonder that such a message would be popular? Is there any doubt from whom such a message really comes? You indicate in your letter that you believe a teacher’s lineage is important, so there’s the one true lineage; Maya. If you wish to understand any spiritual teacher’s lineage, you need only imagine him dangling from marionette lines of which he is unaware, spouting off about free will, the hand of Maya above, controlling everything.

Even as you write to me and I write to you, we are dissolving in a vat of a corrosive chemical called oxygen. We are genetically programmed to self-destruct. Our lives are being swallowed by time and every inhalation may be the last. The inescapable fact is that we are all practitioners of the New Zen I described above. Every day we lose an ounce or a gram or a pound and someday, poof!, gone as if we never were.

There’s only one koan and it’s the same for all of us:

What is true?

Yours, &tc


Jed McKenna is the author of The Enlightenment Trilogy and The Dreamstate Trilogy. Learn more at WisefoolPress.com.

"I say an eternal thank you for The Trilogy. The books continue to challenge my mind and life.
I ordered my 4th complete set. Nothing compares to this writing." -JH, MN

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