True Autonomy

A few days ago I came across this brilliant article called “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” by Alan Watts. It discusses a topic that I have wanted to write about on this blog for some time. It’s about what Zen or Vedanta does to the practitioner who “digs” it.

To me, the ultimate goal of training in these schools of thought is to become an undivided being, that is, an in-div-idual in the strictest sense of the word. An individual is a person who has no sense whatsoever that anything (s)he does, thinks, feels or looks like could be any other than perfectly natural. For him (or her) nothing exists apart or separate from nature. Any system that attempts to classify nature into “good” or “bad” aspects is understood as a social convention just as a half-filled glass could either be classified as half full or half empty. Such an individual lives in complete (self-) acceptance and does not have the “itch” to justify him- or herself through “works” (achievements) or “faith” (reasoning). For this reason, (s)he lives without getting hung-up on life and “flows” at-one-ed with it.

So, the (wo)man of Vedanta or Zen is a being who has grown out of its cultural and social conditioning. (S)he has emancipated from the struggle to either fit into or to revolt against the social order but has matured into an truly autonomous being, independent of popular beliefs and opinions.

In contrast, the practitioners of Zen or Vedanta (or any other Eastern philosophical school of “liberation”) could be classified into two groups. Alan Watts calls them “Beat Zen” and “Square Zen”. Working under the assumption that we are all already free and enlightened, Beat Zen postulates a sort of “anything goes” mentality where effortless practices and a drop-out from the dominant social order is emphasized. Square Zen, on the other hand, is a drop-into a new (social) convention of rules, techniques and hierarchy where effort is key for “attainment”. Broadly speaking we could think of these two groups as tantrics / indulgers and monastics / renunciates, respectively. Obviously, there are many blends of these two extremes.

What is important, though, is to recognize that both, Beat or Square are still fundamentally immature ways of dealing with the problem of adaptation to authority. While the Beats try to solve it by revolting and turning away from authority, the Squares just exchange one for another. It’s like the child who, feeling unable to adapt to the parent’s wishes, is faced with the choice of either revolting against them or looking for a cooler family.

Now, Alan Watts is not saying that there is anything wrong with Beats or Squares. The way children learn is by “persisting in their follies”. At some point it will dawn on them that to be freed from the demands of the parents, the only reasonable solution is to grow up and become independent of them. Similarly, Beats and Squares will eventually mature into individuals once they realize the futility of their attempt to become free from outside authority as long as they keep giving any authority credit.

Luckily, there are (authoritative) teachers out there who know how to make this fact obvious. All they need to do is keep letting their students follow their orders ad absurdum until they surrender. And when the student does, (s)he will realize that all that ever kept him (or her) in bondage was the mistaken belief in an authority on how things “ought” to be. The Truth is that there is no absolute truth because it is beyond any absolutes.

“The Westerner who is attracted by Zen and who would understand it deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously.”
~ Alan Watts