Being and Having
Once upon a time there was a man who desired enlightenment, and he sought the opinions of some known Zen masters in order to become illuminated about enlightenment. The first Zen master he talked to told him that the essence of the way of Zen was “to eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, sleep when tired.” This puzzled him. He decided to get a second opinion. So, he consulted another noted Zen master, and this Zen master told him that the way of the master was “he eats, though he is not hungry; he drinks, though he is not thirsty; he sleeps, though he is not tired.” After this, he became even more conflicted and confused.
He need not be. Both Zen masters were correct, paradoxical as it may seem. This is a story about being and having and of the very roots of man’s existence in desire and desiring. For man is born of desire and as himself desire, the desirable, and the desiring. Desire is the very engine of life, of evolution (and of revolution, too), although it is quite impermissible to say so in our present subjectless, unconscious, and dissociated scientistic culture.
Dissociation (dis-integration or dis-memberment) and its rectification (re-integration or re-membrance) will be the explicit theme of the next few posts.
The roots of man’s being and existence lie in desire. Desire is energy. Energy is action. Action is life. The Greek name for desire is “Eros” (Latin “Cupid”). Eros encompasses more than sexual desire alone. It is the desiring itself. “Cupidity”, for example, refers to excess of acquisitiveness more generally — “lust”, “avarice”, “greed” and so on are aspects of desiring — of possession, acquisition or “having” more generally. Virtually all myth is the story of Eros and its workings. It was said that even the gods were all subordinate to the powers of Eros, who is desire.
“Desire” itself means “from the stars” or planets or the sidereal — de – sidere. This etymology attests to a time when early man’s ego consciousness was not experienced as the centre of the cosmos. The “vital centre” was not the ego structure. This is reflected in the meaning of the word “enthusiasm”. En-theos means “filled with a god” or “a god within”. The desires and passions were not felt as originating with the ego or the human personality, but from the gods. The human ego or person was but like a dry leaf blown about by the strong winds of desire descending into the body from the influence of the stars (the gods in their sidereal or celestial form). “Person” (persona or “mask”) was itself only a role or office one performed in society. “God is no respecter of persons” has this meaning. Your office, role, or social status — your “mask” — was only an image and self-image, therefore something empty and insubstantial in itself.
The word “consider” — con + sidere — is the counterpart to desire. Like “person” it doesn’t have the same meaning today as earlier. Although it still means “to observe”, it then had astrological significance. To “consider” was an attempt to read the will of the gods from the observations of the stars, planets, constellations as they might affect the course of human conduct and affairs. “Man” — the human part — was still too feeble a creature, still too much a plaything of the passions, desires, the “gods” to think of himself as the innovator, instigator, or originator of desire. The human (the ego nature) was the moved, not the mover. The human experienced himself or herself as a being “fated”.
Energy, desire, action, life are various phases of a single process, and not separate issues. These are, in some respects, reflected in Blake’s image of the Four Zoas of fallen Albion. They are the dissociated or segregated energetic aspects of the human totality — the human whole. This is the significance of Blake’s manifesto “There is No Natural Religion“, particularly the lines,
- V. … More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.
- VI. If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot.
- VII. The desire of Man being infinite, the possession is Infinite & himself Infinite.
We’ll return to the significance of this later. The handling of desire — of energy, as the root of the human form — is the very issue of the differences between East and West, (as Rudyard Kipling put it “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”). This dualism is, however, quite in error. Being and Having (or East and West) pertain to the different approaches to the handling of energy and power as desire.
But at extremes, opposites meet and become indistinguishable — and perhaps even trade places.
A human being’s first experience of the world is the shock of learning that desire arises, but comes up against resistance to the satisfaction of the desire. Such is the first experience of distance and delay, or space and time. Therewith begins the first inklings of a separation between “inner” and “outer”, between “subject” and “object”. The world is simply objectionable. The distance and delay between desire’s arising and its satisfaction becomes a struggle with anxiety, fear, and frustration. Thus, the child has stumbled upon the first of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha: “the truth of dukkha” (suffering, malaise, anxiety, pain, fear, unsatisfactoriness).
From this realisation comes the second of the Four Noble Truths: “the truth of the origin of dukkha” as arising in and through desiring and the resistance of the world of distance and duration to the satiation of this desire. The desire and the desired arise together in their mutual contrariness, and this realm is called “samsara” — the realm of pain. Here, Heraclitus’s agonistics — ie “strife is the father of all things” — is at its most pertinent, which is reflected in William Blake’s remark that “without contraries there is no progression”. For the infant must begin to learn to strategise how to resolve the contradiction of this strange alien feeling of desire coming up against resistance to the satisfaction of the desire.
This brings us to the third of the Four Noble Truths: “the truth of the cessation of dukkha” is the realisation that desire is the root of dukkha and the cause of samsara. They mutually arise, and mutually condition one another. Desire and pain are entwined.
Which brings us to the last of the Four Noble Truths: “the truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha“, which is the extinguishment of desire. The Buddha compares desire to fire, which must be put out. The ideal condition is non-desiring, or not-wanting. This “non-desiring” is the condition of the entity before birth, when “the struggle for survival” becomes a matter of desire now meeting resistance to its satiation in the matrix of space and time or, distance and delay. Heraclitus, too, makes “fire” the archon or first element. This is not just the physical element of fire, but mythically also energy as desire.
This non-desiring factor is the meaning of the Zen koan “Show me your face before you were born”.
(And a side note: those familiar with the writings of Carlos Castaneda might recognise in these “Four Noble Truths” also an echo of the “four enemies of the man of knowledge” — fear, clarity, power, and old age).
This brings us back, now, to the story of the two Zen masters and how it bears on desire. The first master experienced the extinguishment of desire by immediate satiation. His might be called “the Western” approach. There is no distance or delay between the rise of the desire (for food, drink, sleep) and its satiation. Thus dukkha is extinguished. This approach is “having”. The second approach is the one more typically associated with Buddhism and the East — the extinguishment of desire by not-desiring. This is the approach of just “Being”. In both cases, what is extinguished, actually, is distance and delay as they effect the workings of desire or eros — samsara.
The Western approach to overcoming what is called “samsara” and the extinguishment of desire has been the approach of “instant gratification”. Desire does not have time to arise before it is satiated. The entire thrust of Western “progressive” history has been to abolish distance and delay, or space and time, completely. This belongs to the utilitarian and behaviourist doctrine that it is “natural” and instinctual even for man to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The ideal is to satisfy all desire even before it arises to cause pain or dissatisfaction, and it places a heavy emphasis on “having” or possession or “stuff” as satiating, and so also on medical technology in distinction to Buddhism which taught, rather, cultivating non-attachment or non-identification with pain.
The problem for man of the Western type — which the Western type is now facing — is that desires are infinite, as Blake states, and in consequence, some degree of despair will be his “eternal lot”.
… More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.
What Blake means by that, of course, is that the total fulfillment of man’s being cannot be bought or achieved by accumulation or acquisition, nor by extinguishing desire either. “More! More!” means, “never enough” along with an endless sense of lack. “More! More!” is the fragmentation and atomisation of desire. Being driven by desires — and lots and lots of them — is actually considered a good thing in economic society as long as one has the resources to satisfy them.
Until one doesn’t, that is. Then one is left with only desires without the means to satisfy them, leading back once again to the old childhood states of resentment, anxiety, frustration, and more dukkha.
As mentioned, even the gods feared Eros — desire — with good reason. Probably all of human history — all evolutionary history even — can be interpreted as the working out of eros, for good and ill both. So, we’ll see how following that thesis and its implications plays out over the next few posts.