Hakugen’s Dimensions of Freedom

Hakugen was particularly interested in the contradiction between the forms of freedom espoused by Chinese Zen master Linji (Rinzai), the founder of Hakugen’s sect, and the socialist tradition, as represented by the thought of Karl Marx. It was, in a sense, a koan which he worked with throughout his career. 

Linji famously exhorted students of Zen to express the freedom of their enlightenment by becoming the “master of each situation”, acting from a palace of wisdom to act appropriately in any context while maintaining a balanced, compassionate and relaxed mind. Marx believed that the worker should strive to “become master of oneself” through the process of consciousness raising, class struggle, and revolution, thereby overcoming the alienation of themself from their labor and humanity. This question of finding intersection between two seemingly opposite dimensions of freedom, the religious and the worldly, became a recurring theme of Hakugen’s work. He would often characterize these ideas with the metaphor of a two dimensional graph, with Marx’s vision of political, economic and social freedom between humans (stateless communism) represented by the horizontal x axis, and the personal, transcendent, existential freedom of Linji (emptiness, nirvana) represented as the vertical y axis, with each individual subject located at the origin, or intersection between the two. 

This search to find and prove the necessity of  attaining an intersectional praxis between existential and political freedom mirrors Gary Snyder’s famous assertion that “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.“ Hakugen’s metaphor neatly abstracts East and West into y and x, or vertical and horizontal, which is helpful for avoiding thinking in essentialist terms — a necessary change in a world where such cultural dichotomies are becoming less and less relevant.

While it is useful, Hakugen’s two-dimensional view of freedom is still rather vague about its details: do the two lines have some sort of coordinate system of greater and lesser freedoms? Does one approach greater freedom the farther one gets from the origin, or the closer? After pondering the idea for a while, I feel that it is probably better to not look to the metaphor for such precise answers. For Hakugen it seems that the graph was less of a prescriptive or descriptive metaphor, and more a representation of his own struggle, and the struggle of each person, as a political and spiritual militant, to realize the two sorts of freedom in their life. Rather than feeling pulled every which way by his interests and difficulties, or to definitively overcome either dimension, Hakugen sought to inhabit a standpoint at the origin of the two struggles towards freedom, striving to infuse all his actions with the qualities of each. The struggle to practice from this intersection is something which Hakugen referred to as “origin humanism” or “origin radicalism”. While he associated the vertical axis with freedom in sunyata, it is perhaps the origin, with the coordinates (0, 0), which best captures the heart of sunya-anarchist praxis, a centerless center at the fecund, developmental intersection of self and society and the “three worlds” of past, present, and future. 

Zen monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh also emplys the two dimensional framework in his book Interbeing, where he notes that it originally comes from Christian theology; he states that the vertical means “getting in touch with God” and the horizontal means “getting in touch with humans”. It is also a model used to explain competing views of the nature of the divine and their relationship to one another, where the vertical axis represents transcendence, which sees God as existing separately from and above the world, and the horizontal as immanence, where matter and spirit are one (seeing “God in all things”). Thich Nhat Hanh criticizes Buddhists who believe in a vertical, “higher level of practicing the Buddha’s Way” and a horizontal, “lower level of helping living beings”. Instead, he believes that “Buddhahood, the nature of enlightenment, is innate to every being and not just a transcendental identity” affirming that “in Buddhism the horizontal and vertical are one”. This would appear to agree with Hakugen’s position of origin humanism, which collapses the apparent contradiction of vertical and horizontal praxis down to the mutually interpenetrating thoughts, words and actions of each person. Hanh’s conclusion that for a bodhisattva, or an engaged Buddhist, “means and ends cannot be separated”, closely resembles the anarchist argument for a unity of means and ends in the process of social revolution, but extends this unity to encompass all actions of the individual, which he urges each person to undertake “mindfully and peacefully”. 

The role of the individual and their subjectivity was clearly as important to Hakugen as to Thich Nhat Hanh. Osamu Morimura writes that for Hakugen’s S.A.C. (Sunya-Anarchist-Communism), “the abbreviation ‘A’ is ‘anarchist’, not ‘anarchism’”.  According to Hakugen, “Anarchism is an idea,” but “an anarchist is a raw human being.” He elaborated on this distinction by pointing out that, “there is usually some distance or fault between an idea and its advocate” to which Morimura adds, “what we must be careful about when talking about philosophy and thought is that we must consider the thought that is expressed and the nature and individuality of the thinker who speaks it separately.” This emphasis on the struggle of the individual to realize freedom in their own actions, and the separation between anarchist ideology and anarchist subjectivity, suggests that Hakugen’s purpose with this metaphor was not to describe a Buddhist anarchist position, but to determine his own position and subjectivity as a Buddhist anarchist. This invites people who shared Hakugen’s dilemma to do the same.

I suspect Hakugen made this distinction in order to clearly examine and critically evaluate the actions of each person as an anarchist (or Buddhist) separately from their professed ideals. Both anarchists and Buddhists emphasize the importance of ethical conduct as a measure of wisdom, but few actually live up to the high standards they set. Of course, an idea is not necessarily invalidated by the hypocritical misconduct and wrong views of its creators. But at the same time, when we examine our own practices, our thoughts, words and actions can be used as a measure of progress. The Buddha also recommended this kind of behavioral evaluation to students seeking a qualified teacher, using ethical behavior as a measure of wisdom. Buddhist ethical conduct is both a means and an end centered around the choices we make and the actions we take; an anarchist is, in the words of Ursula K. LeGuin, in her acclaimed anarchist science fiction novel, The Disposessed, “one who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.” The paths of Buddhism and anarchism are not merely identities which we assume, but are tangible actions which we take that have effects on others in the material world.

Part of what makes socialism, and therefore anarchism, such a compelling basis for social morality and individual action is that it does not ground its thought in notions of divine justice (theism), the metaphysical justice of karma, or on secularized interpretations of either, as does much modern moral philosophy. Instead it relies solely on human reason and compassion, as well as the evolutionary principle of mutual aid, as a means of discerning right and wrong, and in doing so takes full responsibility for its errors as well as its truths, changing as it learns through the actions of individuals, who in turn contribute to the growth of its theory and practice. It recognizes the hard truth that there is no justice in nature beyond the justice we choose to make. A moral order based on reason, compassion and mutual aid is potentially compatible with the results-based, causal morality of Buddhism, which enshrines the importance of wisdom and compassion, at least as a theory of causation with regards to subjective mental states and actions, but is unequipped to analyze social problems. Libertarian socialism supplements Buddhism’s ethical shortcomings; Buddhist morality may also act as a supplement to the anarchist ethics, lending militants greater insight into the subjective dimensions of personal conduct, ethical thought, and action. In his critique, Hakugen points out that for Buddhists, and particularly for Zen, this focus on an individual, emotional, “ethics of feeling” has come at the expense of the development of an “ethic of responsibility” towards the others, something which he believed libertarian thought had developed to a greater depth.

Hakugen emphasizes the equal importance of responsibility and existential-religious wisdom for all “engaged”, “social”, or even “socialist” Buddhists, writing that “If Buddhist socialism ever has the chance to exist, its structure will be Sunya-Anarchist-Communism.” Here, the compound of Sunya-Anarchist serves as “the basis of wisdom to prevent it from becoming narrow-minded Buddhist socialism”, a dynamic relationship between reason and insight, ethics and feeling, which he hopes can serve to “purify” the power-seeking, egoistic, instrumentalizing pitfalls of democratic and authoritarian socialism and create a subject who is able to avoid getting caught in religious and political dogmatism. Not only Japan, but the modern history of Asia contains many attempts to construct a socialist system rooted in Buddhism, from individual Buddhist leaders, to social movements, political parties, and in rare cases, entire democratic socialist governments. None have yet lived up to the promised peace and tranquility of Buddhism nor of socialism. Hakugen proposes that this struggle takes place simultaneously between the interpenetrating struggle for self-transformation of individual subjects and the struggle of collectives towards greater actualization of freedom, self-consciousness and self-transcendence. 

This collision of a radical social science of the self and a radical Buddhist “science” of the self may in fact be a key element in the development of a revolutionary subjectivity which is able to go beyond the atomized neoliberal self and collectively progress towards new horizons of being. In his 1967 essay, Desire and Need, Murray Bookchin writes, “The fact is, the self cannot be resolved into an inherent “it,” a cryptic “soul” covered and obscured by layers of reality. In this abstract form, the self remains an undifferentiated potentiality, a mere bundle of individual proclivities, until it interacts with the real world. Without dealing with the world it simply cannot be created in any human sense.” 

In Buddhist doctrine, the self, or more accurately “soul”, is a fictitious construct composed of skandhas — bundles, or “aggregates”, of sensory and mental data which gives rise to the illusion of a soul with permanence and autonomy. Bookchin’s dialectical perspective on social science lends to this insight the fact that not only is the self constructed by the senses, but that through “Valid introspection turns out to be the conscious appropriation of a self formed largely by the world, and thus a judgment of the world and of the actions needed to reconstitute it along new lines.” 

With this small addition and flip of perspective, the realization that not only is the self constructed by the world, but that self-consciousness of this self-world therefore forms the basis for an “objective”critique of the world, and thus the development of an egalitarian theory of ethics and justice; the “valid introspection” of the meditator as well as the ordinary thinking person transforms from mere contemplative navel-gazing to the means of horizontal as well as vertical liberation through an internal (as well as active, material) process philosophy of study, action and reflection. Since individuals, groups and societies are also interdependent, this is a process which can occur on multiple levels of social complexity. When this kind of self-conscious development happens very rapidly in history, we call it a revolution. Bookchin elaborates, “This order of self-consciousness reaches its height during our time in revolutionary action. To revolt, to live revolt, is the complete reconstitution of the individual revolutionary, a change as far-reaching and as radical as the remaking of society. In the process of discarding accumulated experiences, of integrating and re-integrating new experience, a self grows out of the old. For this reason it is idiotic to predict the behavior of people after a revolution in terms of their behavior before it. They will not be the same people.”

This rethinking of contemplation, justice, and subjectivity in the realm of religious and political practice will necessarily transform the means and even the ends of such practice. Rather than the “solitary aloofness” of Zen tranquility, Hakugen suggests that for the Buddhist anarchist, abiding equanimously in the more unpleasant contradictions of emptiness and form, rather than a blissfully empty “peace of mind”, is the aim of practice. He writes, “This original humanism will try to discover the significance of living as man, devoted to creating a contrary oneness of tranquility and un-tranquility, within the constant, individual or collective practice within actuality, in the dialectical process of theory and praxis.” For Hakugen, the aim of Zen practice is then not to transcend or escape the absurdity and contradictions of life, but to fully inhabit and encompass them, with a mind that is broad and flexible enough to be both free from emptiness and free within and because of emptiness. 

By suggesting that neither duality nor non-duality will do, Hakugen, the arch-critic of Zen, sounds much more truly, profoundly, and inscrutably Zen than his religious contemporaries. By explicitly incorporating the dialectical logic of contradiction and development Hakugen also aims to motivate the Zen dialectic of soku, which he earlier claimed results in passivity rather than growth and action. Because traditional Buddhist dialectic only seeks to describe “what is”, it fails to move in the direction of the possible, and thus lacks an inclination for self-conscious social change. Hakugen seems to employ Marxist-Hegelian logic in his critique of Buddhism. It stands to reason that a postive reconstruction of Hakugen’s Zen would incorporate elements of this form of dialectic, and like a true Hegelian, Hakugen’s thought, frustratingly at times, does not satisfy the desire for resolution or synthesis, but remains squarely focused on the kaleidoscopic infinitude of contradiction.

In the Buddhist tradition, desire has a bad reputation. However, it has been often noted that desire itself is not the problem. There are desires which result in unsatisfiable cravings and harmful actions, and therefore suffering, but there are also so-called “noble desires”, which cause people to pursue virtue and wisdom from a less-than-enlightened perspective. The very desire for enlightenment is one such desire, born from our response to dukkha (suffering). Bookchin, in Desire and Need, argues that desire is a “sensuous apprehension of possibility,” which may lead to wholesome actions and growth,  “a complete psychic synthesis” which is nonetheless “achieved by a ‘yearning for’.” This “dialectic” is necessarily difficult, painful, and involves a degree of suffering without which we could not pursue freedom from suffering. Hakugen and Bookchin also seem to agree that even when one has attained a measure of wisdom, in order to continue to grow, it is necessary to return to the struggle for possibility. By only cultivating the passive, solitary aloofness Hakugen criticized in Zen, the actual content of possibility, which we discover through engagement with the world’s contradictions, is never discerned nor developed.

Dukkha, most often translated as “suffering”, is a very difficult word to define, despite being so fundamental to the entire Buddhist project of liberation. It is not merely “pain”, as in injury, discomfort, distress, or anxiety, but the “root, or the reality, of Pain”, according to LeGuin, an experience of dis-ease and entropic friction, a coarseness which both encompasses and is constitutive of our day to day discomforts and sorrows. Hakugen speaks to it from a Marxist perspective, likening dukkha to alienation (or to alienation as a social form of dukkha); he connects our estrangement from our own humanity by class society to the almost imperceptible, infinitely subtle, and all-pervasive rift in the fabric of experience, the basic wrongness of being, the existential dilemma which makes strangers of ourselves to ourselves, and which cuts us off from each other and all of nature.

It comes as no surprise that the Buddha identified this dukkha as the fundamental problem of mankind precisely in a time in which his world was rapidly urbanizing, transforming from a world of rural tribal republics into an urbanized society ruled by kings and brahmins. His entire system of practice was devoted to overcoming this growing estrangement, and unsurprisingly it relied heavily on social and economic practices in addition to individual techniques of mental cultivation; the attainment of enlightenment is frequently described as a realization of the fundamentally inalienable “formless self”, an intimate familiarity with all things, or in the Buddha’s own words “an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned.” The inclusion of social practices as essential to enlightenment suggests that dukkha is not simply a universal constant of sentience, but is itself socially conditioned and historical. Surely even Homo erectus experienced it, but Homo sapiens economicus appears to have refined, amplified, and perfected it over the course of recent human history. In their search for mere peace of mind at any cost within an inherently (and increasingly) alienating and irrational society, Zen Buddhists appear to have lost the plot, mistaking the pain of the “contrary oneness of tranquility and un-tranquility” with the real Pain of the estranged. Perhaps, as Bookchin suggests, “The real responsibility we face is to eliminate not the psychic pain of growth but rather the psychic suffering of dehumanization, the torment that accompanies the frustrated and aborted life.” To achieve this growth, to mature through an ethics of responsibility and feeling, to salvage what is good in the human experience, it seems that we do indeed have to dive headfirst into the difficulty and contradictions, remaking ourselves as we struggle to remake the world. To conclude his remarks on S.A.C., Hakugen reminds his readers to embrace these contradictions with an old Zen proverb:  “After all, is not the way of the enlightened, not of the unenlightened?”

It is from this “unenlightened” wisdom of origin humanism that Hakugen begins to elaborate the personal and political dimensions of S.A.C. Hakugen proposes that the wisdom of emptiness, viewing itself through the lens of origin humanism, establishes, “the vertical foundation of both the subjectivity that engages in social revolution and, in terms of that subjectivity’s basic choices, the humble and open spirit that has been purified of dogmatism, self-absolutism, and the will to power.” This purification “amounts ultimately to negating, in the horizontal dimension, state power; politically, this constitutes anarchism…Through the mediation of the reckoning of philosophical conscience, and by means of social-scientific discernment and praxis, one negates the capitalism system of private ownership and eliminates the social basis of the commodification of human labor power; economically, this amounts to communism. This is to realize the complete return and release of the relationship between estranged man and man, estranged man and nature.”

I suspect that most people interested in Buddhist anarchism, including myself, have experienced the struggle to find our “origin” and to act freely and courageously from it. Hakugen speaks to this struggle for origin humanism when he writes, “In the place of dynamic unity of these two types of freedom we confront the problem of Zen freedom and social justice. We should not negate the wisdom of the [religious] state of mind by virtue of which one lives freely in places that lack freedom, nor scorn the effort, while living in the contemporary culture of commercialism, to work as free from this logic of commercialism as possible — in Linji’s terms ‘not getting confused by one’s surroundings’ and ‘freely availing oneself of one’s surroundings’”. Hakugen further describes the dynamic freedom of the origin as a new form of freedom in “non-abiding”, a “place where we objectify and overcome both the vertical axis of subjectivism and the horizontal axis of group egoism”. The value of this freedom is that it “transcends attachment to conventional social ethics and preserves critical distance”, both helping to liberate the subject’s mind from conditioning dogmas while retaining the self-awareness needed to critique one’s own views and methods, in order to constantly move towards more ethical means and ends as history unfolds and expands our utopian horizons.

Through his dialectic of horizontal and vertical freedoms, between reason and prajna, ethics and compassion, the personal and the political, Hakugen proposes that something entirely new arises, a revitalized, world-engaging prajna which preserves the previously negated wisdom of emptiness. The self which was previously negated through Zen’s “Great Death” is reborn as a spiritual and political militant, a new kind of bodhisattva-revolutionary, capable of both great wisdom, compassion, and the great discernment needed to become a self-conscious historical actor – in other words, a perfectly fallible, ignorant, ordinary person – but one who understands this, embraces this, and acts accordingly. Hakugen writes, “To die a ‘Great Death’ signifies, in my view, not merely to eradicate our dichotomy of reasoning, but to awaken our humble and open minds of inquiry, aiming at the establishment of peaceful and blissful world for all mankind. An idealistic attitude as well as a rational mode of thinking once denied by prajna is now restored, by the same prajna, with deep serenity on an entirely new foundation. ‘No shadow of Buddha-dharma is here,’ declared once a great Zen master.”

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