Welcome to Mystic Link!

This blog is dedicated to the exploration of mystical wisdom and life experience. It seeks to penetrate beyond the shadows and surfaces of our physical reality to discover vistas of unfathomable depth, beauty and meaning. These mystical realms are closer than you might imagine, for they exist in every multifold aspect of the observed empiricial world, as they do within the consciousness of the observer. In the infinite silence and contracted light, within the ethereal mirage of every passing moment, the eternal search begins and ends...

Thursday, 22 November 2007

The Paradox of Trashing the Ego

There is a popular Jewish joke about the former Novardok Yeshiva, one of the more extreme exemplars of the mussar movement that developed in Lithuania in the latter part of the 19th century. This yeshiva placed great emphasis on “the negation of the ego and the physical world” (Wikipedia). Students wore tattered clothing and engaged in deliberately humiliating activities to achieve that end. The joke goes as follows:

Chaim, a new student, arrived at the Novardok Yeshiva. Being a novice and not knowing exactly what was expected of him, he simply observed what the other students were doing and copied them. When it was time for davening, observing his fellow yeshiva students engaged in fervent prayer and shokeling back and forth with great intensity, he did the same. During the period for Talmud study, he mimicked the others with their sing-song chants and exaggerated hand gestures. Finally, it was time for mussar self-examination, when each student retreated to a private corner, beat his fist remorsefully against his chest and repeated the refrain in Yiddish: “Ish bin a gor nisht! Ish bin a gor nisht!” (“I am a complete nothing!”) Observing the behaviour of these students, Chaim sat down and, pounding his fist against his chest, likewise repeated the same mantra: “Ish bin a gor nisht! Ish bin a gor nisht!” One of the veteran students seated nearby observed Chaim disdainfully, turned to another old-timer and commented, “Look at this one! He’s been here just one day, and he already thinks he’s a gor nisht!”

The concept of bitul ha-yesh, literally the “negation of substance”, first appeared in certain schools of kabbalah and came to prominence with Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the 18th century pietist Hasidic revival in Eastern Europe. The idea of “annihilating the ego” is well-known from different forms of Eastern mysticism as well as in Sufi and Christian mystical thought. It has resurfaced with contemporary spirituality, including the new pop kabbalah, so that once again many spiritual seekers are pre-occupied with this arduous task.

The questions addressed in this article are three-fold:

What does it mean to annihilate the ego?
Can it in fact be done?
Should it in principle be done?

As the American philosopher Ken Wilber has pointed out, the whole notion of “ego” is based on a mistranslation of Freud. In German, Freud used the 1st person pronoun “das Ich” (the “I”) to indicate the self-sense that one possesses in relation to others. The translation of this into the Latin “ego” has led to the misunderstanding that the “ego” is some kind of entity independent of self; applying this mistranslation to the mystical concepts mentioned above, the “ego’ is viewed as a negative force that somehow obstructs the perception of a higher Self.

A statement such as “I am working hard to get rid of my ego” is an inherent tautology, for the “I” that is working hard is, in fact, according to Freud’s definition, none other than “das Ich”, i.e. the ego itself.

Even the lesser effort to eliminate pride, an endeavour endorsed in the ethos of most exoteric religions, is still laden with paradox. It is said that the last words of the Baal Shem Tov, a paragon of humility whose heart was open to every human being, were from Psalm 36: “אל תבואני רגל גאוה” (“Let me not succumb to the habit of pride…”). The Hasidic manifesto Yosher Divrei Emes heaps scorn upon those who adopt a manner of humility, as this pretext itself is used to enhance one’s perception of self, thus fuelling the fires of pride through its supposed negation.

Another well-known story is told of Reb Dovid of Lelov, a paragon of humility in the panoply of Hasidic masters. In addition to being humble, Reb Dovid practiced an extremely ascetic lifestyle, fasting during the entire week and eating only on the Sabbath. On a Friday afternoon on a scorching hot summer’s day, he was wandering through the Polish countryside on his way back home to Lelov. After six days of fasting, his stomach ached and his throat was parched. Suddenly, he came upon a clear, gurgling stream of pure spring water. He was sorely tempted to have but one small drink of water to make the remainder of his journey bearable. After all, it was nearly the Sabbath; in a few hours he would be enjoying a meal in the comfort of his home, so what did it matter if he had a little drink of water now? Surely, God in his mercy would understand.

He knelt down beside the brook and cupped the cool, fresh water in his hands. At that moment, the voice of his own conscience spoke to him: “Oy, Dovidl! Oy, Dovidl! You have gone for six days fasting for the sake of your Maker and now, because of your lowly desires, you intend to discard it all? Have you not the power to overcome your personal needs and wait but another three hours to enjoy a meal on the Sabbath as is your wont?” Reb Dovid braced himself with resolve, let the water slide from his hand, rose up, and resumed his hike back to Lelov. All at once, he was overcome with a sense of great elation and self-satisfaction at having overcome his thirst. At that very same moment, he froze in his tracks, having recognized that emotion for what it truly was: spiritual pride. He then returned to the stream and drank freely from the crystal waters.

I often visit the Bodhinyana Monastery of Theravada Buddhists in Serpentine, not too far from my home in Western Australia. It is always a serene experience for me. I have a warm rapport with the abbot, Ajahn Brahm, and often engage in discussions with the monks. Once, I discussed the issue of celibacy with one of them. Most kabbalists would find general agreement with the first three of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha: life is suffering, suffering is caused by desire and negation of desire eliminates suffering. The theoretical disagreement lies in the application of one facet of the Eight-Fold Path, the ostensible Middle Way and the means to eradicate desire.

That facet pertains to the Buddhist view (shared by Catholicism) that abstinence from sexuality is a way to overcome its magnetic allure. Apart from the Torah commandments to produce offspring and for a husband to provide his wife with sexual pleasure, according to kabbalah the sexual act is both paradigmatic and reflective of the union between Divine transcendence and immanence.

My somewhat wistful comment to the Buddhist monk was that I envied the simplicity of the Theravada sangha: no monetary possessions, no home (or mortgage on one), no wife and children to deal with. It seemed to me far easier to reach spiritual fulfilment under such idealised conditions. The monk expressed profound surprise; he had never before considered the path of the Buddhist monk to be an easy one. The Jewish mystic, however, is expected to reach enlightenment through engagement with the physical world rather than renunciation of it. Although, on the one hand, this might seem like a far more pleasurable experience in temporal terms, in spiritual terms it appears on the surface to be a gruelling if not outright impossible task.

That, however, is only the view from the surface, where physicality seen in dualistic terms is an impediment to the sublime. Indeed, this was the view reiterated by many of the kabbalistic schools, particularly those influenced by the Gnostic perception of the physical world as a reality that had to be transcended. Even the kabbalah of the Ari was tainted by this perception; the kabbalists of Safed followed a path of extreme asceticism, where extensive fasts, self-mortification, flagellation and tearful prayers were par for the course. It was the innovation of the Baal Shem Tov that developed Lurianic kabbalah beyond this surface dualism to the absolute unity of panentheism, where everything that existed was a manifestation of the One. The very notion of evil, according to the Baal Shem Tov, was only so insofar as our relative perception of it imbued it with this negative quality. The physical world was more than just an emanation from God, as defined by previous schools of kabbalistic thought; it was an actual manifestation of the Divine, present in all created things.

Bitul ha-yesh, “the negation of substance”, was not a state that one needed to struggle in order to achieve. It was the state of things as they are. For if every physical manifestation is in reality nothing more that the presence of the ineffable Ayn Sof, then there was no “substance” or “yesh” to begin with. Rather than an arduous task to alter reality, one only had to perceive it as it truly is. What need was there to annihilate the ego, when it never truly existed? Like the Buddhist doctrine of “emptiness is form, and form is emptiness”, every aspect of the manifest world, including the perception of self, was in fact the Nothingness of Ayn Sof. Even more, without that vessel of the “I’ or the “ego”, no manifestation of the Divine was even possible. The two were mutually symbiotic. Godliness would not exist without an ego to both perceive and manifest it.

In the Tibetan school of Dzogchen Buddhism the “Great Perfection” is considered the natural state intrinsic to all beings. Only as a result of karmic flaws do we miss seeing the absolute goodness inherent in what we truly are. The ultimate goal is to clear the mind of the mental clouds that obscure this truth and to then maintain it in every aspect of physical existence.

Similarly, in Hasidism the aphorism בכל דרכיך דעהו (“Know him in all your ways…”) was foundational in establishing this material world, and the perception of self known as ego essential to it, as the meeting place of the Divine rather than the escape route implied by the earlier ascetic versions of kabbalah. One might argue that all of this is mere polemics. Is there any difference in the end between getting rid of ego and clearing away the mental flak that hampers a true perception of what ego really is? My contention, however, is that the difference is existential rather than semantic. By viewing the ego as inherently evil, one not only perpetuates a dualistic outlook but also runs the risk of falling into the trap of spiritual egotism, where the ego takes pride at its very efforts to eradicate itself. When, however, we relinquish not our ego but our mental pre-conceptions as to what that is, we arrive at the foundational understandings in both Dzogchen and Hasidism. Then, the ego itself becomes the “Great Perfection”, the mirror of Emptiness in which the divine Form is reflected. It is at that point that we can all heave a deep sigh of relief, sit back and, whatever we are doing, perpetually enjoy the blissful condition as the gor nishts we really are.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Eyes on the Road

“Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel…
The future’s uncertain, and the end is always near.”
-- The Doors, Roadhouse Blues

In the spring of 1989 I was privileged to host a most distinguished guest in my home at that time in Safed. Then President of Hanazono University in Kyoto, Japan’s largest academic centre for the study of Zen Buddhism, the late Zen master Roshi Hirano had come to Israel with an intent to learn more about kabbalah. Professor Yoel Hoffman of the Asian Philosophy Department at the University of Haifa, noted author and a personal acquaintance, had arranged the meeting between us.
We had organised to meet first in the old Abouhav Synagogue around the corner from our former home. When he walked into that bastion of Sephardic tradition with his flowing grey robes, clean-shaven skull and furtive smile, he caused more than one head to turn in his direction. He watched the Kabbalat Shabbat service, a hallmark of the emotionalism in Jewish ritual, with that pristine equanimity so characteristic of Zen Buddhists.
After the service, I brought him to our home, as planned. In the vestibule we had one of David Friedman’s prints, Pardes Ha-Torah (The Torah Orchard), displayed on the wall straight opposite the entry. (The PaRDeS is meant to be acronym for the four basic levels of Torah: P for pshat, the literal meaning; R for remez, the allegorical meaning; D for drash, the exegetical meaning; S for sod, the secret or kabbalistic meaning.) Like a mandala, the print displayed the levels of the Torah orchard concentrically rather than hierarchically. On the outer ring were the surface layers of the 24 books of the Tanach (Bible); another level deeper displayed the six orders of the Mishnah, corresponding to the second allegorical level; further in were diagrams representing the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud along with the four tomes of the Shulchan Aruch, the main compendium of Jewish law, signifying exegesis; finally, in the centre was a picture of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his companions illuminated with the radiance of the secret Torah, the kabbalah.
Without any prompting on my behalf, Hirano walked straight into the vestibule and stood quietly in front of this picture for some time. Finally, turning in my direction, he pointed his wizened finger towards the print and said: “Zen!”
I thought that was amazing. It was even more amazing that after the Shabbat he returned to the art gallery where David Friedman sold his work to purchase a Pardes Ha-Torah for his meditation shrine at Hanazono. But that amazement pales in comparison to what I experienced, when, after being seated in our living-room Hirano asked me his first query, translated by Yoel Hoffman, in his quest to understand more about kabbalah:
“Does one who studies the kabbalah become stricter or more lax in the observance of outer ritual and commandments?”
Even way back then, nearly two decades ago, I was beginning to have a faint inkling as to the profundity of that question, though I had no idea back then of how much of my life in the years to follow would be affected by it. Even more puzzling though was that this question was addressed to me by a Zen master. Were there any such parallels in Zen itself? Would a reciprocal question have been: “How important are the Buddhist precepts once you have practiced zazen or experienced satori?” Somehow, it seemed to me that Hirano had touched on a dichotomy that, in many ways, was fundamentally applicable to Judaism.
One pole of that historical dichotomy had manifested itself right there in Safed four centuries earlier. At that time, when the master kabbalist the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) and his disciples walked the cobblestone alleyways of this Galilean town, a seamless integration occurred between the halachic (legalistic) and mystical aspects of Judaism. Simultaneous to the renaissance of kabbalah in the wake of the Spanish exile, Safed was also the centre of legalistic development. While most Jews are familiar with Rabbi Yosef Karo as the author of the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative compendium of Jewish law, fewer are aware of the fact that he was also an accomplished kabbalist. His work Magid Mesharim is a mystical interpretation of the Mishnah transmitted to him by an angelic intermediary. At that point in history, kabbalah was universally accepted as central to Judaism. Many of the customs and much of the liturgy practiced today emerged from this mystical zenith. The esoteric kabbalah, however, in no way contradicted the exoteric aspects of Torah law; in fact, it only served to enhance it.
A century later the mass movement of Shabbtai Zevi, the self-proclaimed Messiah who ultimately apostatised at the command of the Ottoman Sultan, reversed this trend of integration. Gershom Scholem, the late pioneer in academic research on kabbalah, defined the Shabbatean movement as antinomian, i.e. opposed to the dominance of Torah commandments. Although many of Shabbtai’s whimsical breaches of Jewish law stemmed more from his personality than from any defined philosophic outlook, they were nonetheless rationalised as the Messianic materialization of the “new Torah”, one rooted in the spiritual revelation of the Messiah himself rather than the existing legal structure.
Although at its peak the Shabbatean faction succeeded in attracting many of the most prominent rabbis across the Jewish world, following the apostasy the practice and study of kabbalah were severely repressed by the rabbinic establishment. The esoteric and exoteric, once so effortlessly integrated, disconnected and finally drifted apart.
The dichotomy that had expressed itself in Jewish history has also displayed itself in my personal life. At the time of Hirano’s visit, I had already been studying Talmud and commentaries for close to a decade. Every month the students in the Klausenberg Hasidic kolel (an academy for married men) were tested on 30 pages of Talmud with Rashi and Tosafot commentaries; the amount of our monthly stipend depended on the scores of these tests. Although I also studied some kabbalistic texts during that time period, it was tangential to my primary studies in Talmud and Shulchan Aruch. In point of fact, the philosophy of the Klausenberger Hasidim was that the study of kabbalah was superfluous for most; a rigorous devotion to exoteric study alone would bring about all the purification necessary to lead a good and holy life. Only the rare tsaddikim, the spiritual pillars of the community, were supposed to engage in the esoteric domain.
Looking at my life today, the situation is precisely opposite. Although I still observe many facets of Jewish law, I no longer devote time to its study. After so many years, much of that observance functions, rightly or wrongly, on automatic pilot. These days my focus is on the centre of David Friedman’s Pardes: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai illuminated by spiritual fire and grasping the Tree of Life. By this, I don’t mean to imply that I study volumes of kabbalah, although I at least try and keep up with the monthly Zohar allotment for our group study. For me, that paradigmatic picture of Rabbi Shimon is not so much about the theoretical study through text but rather the experiential perception of the Divine in every aspect of life.
In the wake of the Shabbatean disaster, the rabbis who attempted to restrict the study of kabbalah confined it to “married men, over forty, whose stomachs were full from the Talmud and law codes.” In my particular case, although I cannot claim to have swallowed that prescribed quantity of Talmud that would make my “stomach full”, my ten years of Talmud study nonetheless managed to have that effect. (Incidentally, I have recently started again a daily page of Talmudic study for the sake of balance in my spiritual path.)
Obviously, however, I did not simply wake up one morning to find myself on the other side of the divide. It was a process containing many pivotal points: one, which I distinctly recall, involved the use of a toilet.
Before proceeding, it is important to explain that Jewish law does not shy away from any question, no matter how personal, that entails an aspect of life experience. The Talmud recounts how Rav Kahana hid in the outhouse to watch how his master, Rav, would defecate. When rebuked by Rav for this breach of privacy, Rav Kahana replied; “This is Torah, and to learn it, I have come here.” (A similar is story is told about Rav Kahana concealing himself under Rav’s bed to study the Torah implications of sexual intercourse.)
In the year 2000 my late father took our family on a kosher cruise of the Greek islands in celebration of my mother’s seventieth birthday. My wife and I had no sooner settled into our cabin, when the phone rang. It was my brother, a staunchly observant Hasid, phoning from his cabin on the same deck. He was very upset upon discovering that the toilets flushed electrically. How would we be able to use them on the Jewish Sabbath, when the usage of electricity was forbidden, akin to the lighting of fire explicitly forbidden by the Torah?
Although there was a mashgiach (kashrut supervisor) on board to oversee the meals, there was no ship’s rabbi to whom to address the question. Since the cruise boarded on a Friday morning, the question would become relevant in a matter of hours. I briefly discussed the situation with my wife. I was already somewhat claustrophobic in the confines of the cabin. To imagine being stuck in that room with the foul odour of unflushed faeces was unthinkable.
That night we enjoyed a scrumptious Shabbat meal together with my family. Upon arising the next morning, I made use of the toilet and made an unhesitating executive decision to flush using my elbow instead of my finger to press the “Flush” button. (This legal device, known as a shinui, or a change from the usual manner of performing an act, is actually of no avail whatsoever when making use of an electrical appliance on the Sabbath.)
My brother appeared at breakfast, looking quite happy and self-satisfied. He asked me how I had solved the toilet dilemma. I told him that I hadn’t; I had just flushed it. He was aghast.
“How could you do that? You violated the Sabbath!”
I asked him in return how he had solved the problem.
“Simple,” he answered. “I just used the public toilets on the deck.”
“But you still had to flush it,” I said.
“Says who?” he asked rhetorically.
When I expressed my disgust at his solution, he just shrugged it off. “Most of the passengers are goyim. What does it matter if a goy flushes the toilet?”
To me, it mattered a lot. If appeasing God meant that I would have to cause any kind of revulsion to my fellow human being, this was just not the God I was interested in pleasing. So I continued to wantonly flush, even without the shinui.
When the cruise ended, I took my wife and immediate family to Switzerland for a few days. There I had a meeting with a well-known rabbi, also a rebbe of Hasidic group in Jerusalem, who had been a friend and advisor for many years. I decided to ask him the question, even though it was by now post-facto. I described the situation with the toilets and told him what I had done and how my brother had approached the issue.
The rabbi was thoughtful and quiet for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, he said, “In such a situation, you were right to flush because of כבוד הבריות (kavod ha’briuth), the 'honour' due to all created beings.” I felt vindicated that my intuition had been correct. I then realized that it was only when one had a vision of the “big picture” that one could truly understand and properly apply the halacha.
As the word “halacha” has its etymological roots in the verb “holech”, meaning “to go”, I have often used the analogy of driving a car as a means of understanding this correct application.
When one first begins to drive, it is necessary to know exactly how the vehicle functions. The brakes, accelerator, steering wheel, shift, clutch, headlights and blinkers must be thoroughly mastered if one is to travel without coming to harm. Yet, once one has become familiarized with the vehicle and is ready to travel, it is necessary to keep one’s vision focused on the road. If instead, one were to concentrate on all those inner mechanisms that make the car function without regard to the big picture of where one is going, catastrophe is likely to follow. Furthermore, once the mechanics of driving has become second-nature, it behooves the driver to pay attention to the road ahead, not only as a means of getting to the proper destination but also to enjoy the passing scenery.
Returning again to Hirano’s question, the implied dichotomy has also manifested in the contemporary approaches to kabbalah. On the one hand, the elite group of rabbinic scholars engaged in the study of חכמת האמת (the wisdom of truth) practice Jewish law with a scrupulousness that borders on asceticism. On the other hand, the Kabbalah Centre, in opening its doors to all and sundry to spread the Messianic tidings of Jewish mysticism, has purposefully erased kabbalah’s quintessential Jewish nature and its inherent connection to Jewish law and Torah commandments. So, is there, in fact, an answer to Hirano’s enigmatic question?
When I first quoted from The Door’s Roadhouse Blues at the onset of this article, I was fully aware of the nihilistic tone of those lyrics. The Doors, after all, were the pioneers in the glorification of lethal hedonism. My interpretation, however, in relation to what has been discussed, is antithetical to the original meaning conveyed in that characteristically raunchy style Jim Morrison made famous.
“Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel” says that we need both the mystical vision to transmit the desired destination as well as the exoteric vehicle that provides the mechanics of the actual movement. “The future’s uncertain, and the end is always near.” In kabbalistic terms, the future is not only uncertain, it is non-existent. The only reality is Infinite Ain Sof manifesting in every mutable aspect of the Eternal Moment. The destination, or “the end”, towards which our vehicle must be heading, is that utter unity with the ceaseless Now wherein the Living God is revealed. That “end” is not only very “near”; it is actually inevitable.
The Ari declared that when one removed the final samech ("s") of the secret wisdom from the Pardes, what remained was the word pered, suggesting the “separation” between the human being and the Divine. I would also say that one could use that analogy in the reverse sense: when one neglects the exoteric levels of Torah and extricates them from its mystical wisdom, all that remains is the samech, which, on its own, resembles nothing more than a hiss, like that of the primordial serpent. Recall that that creature tempted Eve with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil by declaring that it would “open your eyes and make you like God, knowing good and evil.” Perhaps this is an allegorical reference to a certain type of antinomian narcissism that seems to permeate much of the New Age spiritual smorgasbord.
After twenty years of mentally churning and regurgitating this issue, and then writing this article, I have finally come to the conclusion that Hirano never even asked me a “question” to begin with. Instead, what he gave me, like the sound of one hand clapping, was a beautiful, meditative koan. For his supposed question has no fixed answer; rather, like his pointed finger, it merely signifies a dynamic process that ascends and descends both infinitely and infinitesimally. Only through an awareness of that process, however, can one fully understand the flawless unity inherent in the Pardes Ha-Torah and secretly embedded in Hirano’s monosyllabic proclamation: “Zen!”