David R. Loy argues that our true fear is not of dying but of not existing in the first place.
In contrast to the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism does not turn the sense of lack into an original sin. The Buddha declared that he was not interested in the metaphysical issue of origins, and emphasized that he had one thing only to teach: how to end dukkha. This suggests that Buddhism is best understood as a way to resolve our sense of lack. Since there was no primeval offense and no divine expulsion from the Garden, our situation turns out to be paradoxical: what ails us is the deeply repressed fear that our groundlessness, or no-thing-ness, is a problem. But when I stop trying to fill up that hole at my core by making myself real in some symbolic way, something happens to it—and therefore to me.
This is easy to misunderstand, for the letting go that is necessary is not something consciousness can simply do. The ego cannot absolve its own lack, because the ego is the flipside of that lack. When generalized guilt is experienced as the feeling that “something is wrong with me,” there seems to be no way to cope with it, and usually we become conscious of it as the neurotic guilt of “not being good enough” in this or that particular way. The Buddhist path challenges us to respond differently. The guilt expended in these situations is converted back into the simple feeling of guilt, and rather than find an object for it, we simply endure it, and do not invent stories about ourselves to protect ourselves from it. The method for doing this is simple awareness, which meditation cultivates.
Letting go of the mental devices that sustain my self-esteem, “I” become more vulnerable. In that state, there is nothing one can do with the guilt except be conscious of it and bear it and let it burn itself out, like a fire that exhausts its fuel, which in this case is the false sense of self. If we cultivate the ability to dwell in it, then ontological guilt, finding nothing else to be guilty for, consumes the sense of self and thereby itself, too. From this Buddhist perspective, our most problematic duality is not life against death but self versus nonself, or being versus nonbeing. As in psychotherapy, the Buddhist response to such dualisms involves recognizing the side that has been denied. If death is what the sense of self fears, the solution is for the sense of self to die. If it is no-thing-ness (the repressed intuition that the self is a fiction) that I am afraid of, the best way to resolve that fear is to become nothing. The thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master Dogen sums up this process in a well-known passage from Genjo-koan:
To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
“Forgetting” ourselves is how we lose our sense of separation and realize that we are not other than the world.
This type of meditation is learning how to become nothing by learning to forget the sense of self, which happens when I become absorbed in my meditation exercise. If the sense of self is an effect of self-reflection—of consciousness attempting to grasp itself—such meditation practice makes sense as an exercise in de-reflection. Consciousness unlearns trying to grasp itself, real-ize itself, objectify itself. Liberating awareness occurs when the usual reflexivity of consciousness ceases, which is experienced as a letting go and falling into the void. The ninth-century Zen master Huang-po wrote, “Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real dharma.” Then, when I no longer strive to make myself real through things, I find myself “actualized” by them, says Dogen.
This process implies that what we fear as nothingness is not really nothingness, for that is the perspective of a sense of self anxious about losing its grip on itself. According to Buddhism, letting go of myself into that no-thing-ness leads to something else: when consciousness stops trying to catch its own tail, I become no-thing, and discover that I am everything—or, more precisely, that I can be anything. With that conflation, the no-thing at my core is transformed from a sense-of-lack into a serenity that is imperturbable because there is nothing to be perturbed.
David R. Loy, a professor in the faculty of International Studies at Bunkyo University in Japan, is the author of the forthcoming book The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory (Wisdom Publications, July 2003). This essay is an adaptation of material that originally appeared in his book A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack.
Image: The Estate of Louis Faurer/Licensed by Vaga, New York, NY