Hubert Benoit: Zen and the Psychology of Transformation

According to Zen ‘the perfect way knows no difficulties except that it refuses all preference’

Several months ago I read Zen and the Psychology of Transformation by the French psychiatrist Dr. Hubert Benoit. Reading this work was for me the second step on my own path towards meaningful self-realisation. This was a book that appeared in my life at the right time along with a person who understood its potential. No interested reader could deny the sheer intellect of Benoit, an incredible scholar and writer who clearly made it his life’s work to absorb the spiritual teachings of Zen and other eastern traditions, placing these in parallel with western metaphysics, philosophy and psychology. Benoit brought his work to others through his psychiatric practice and writing which he continued almost up until his death in 1992.

Although a complex work, the effort of reading Benoit is extremely worthwhile; to fully absorb its wisdom I would recommend a pack of highlighters as this is a body of writing which one feels the need to constantly refer to. Indeed, those with a true desire for self-transformation will understand the profundity of Benoit’s work. It would not be an understatement to say that reading this book has possibly changed the course of my own life considerably.

I believe the real value in this writing is that Benoit himself had not experienced enlightenment personally. My view is based on this book and the Benoit material I have read online. It does not appear that anyone other than myself shares my view (based on what I have so far read), and I realize that this statement may offend Benoit’s admirers. However this takes nothing away from the achievement of writing such a profound spiritual work and, for this reason I am an admirer of Benoit myself. In my view Benoit’s words reveal his own frailty as a spiritual seeker, he writes with humility, and with the understanding of anxiety and inner conflict way beyond the objective psychiatrist/patient relationship. The anxiety is the authors own, this only makes the work more valuable to the suffering. In the preface Benoit identifies that he himself has had to reflect for years before beginning to be able to see how the need for inner attention taught by Zen could have some practical application. It appears also that Benoit is frustrated in his professional work as a psychiatrist, referring to the ‘poverty of therapeutic effect’ when referring to the condition of man. Throughout the book Benoit talks as a seeker who refers to the possibilities of Satori rather than concrete realization. Those seeking transformation will find this work lights the spiritual path regardless of the authors own ability to reach enlightenment. It is also a a very insightful book for those wishing to understand the source of their own anxiety.

On the subject of self-realisation or the possibility of satori, the author writes:

(p5) “In order that we may theoretically understand the existence in us of this faith which is asleep, and in the possibility of its awakening, and that only this awakening can put an end to our illusionary sufferings…..But this theoretical understanding changes nothing as yet in our painful condition….it must now be transformed into a condition that is lived” Here Benoit also refers to the 4th Mode of thought, which is described later in this study.

The author also asks himself in relation to his own search: (p84) “I ask myself then what this way may be. What is this way of looking, which possible in my present state, yet incapable by itself of giving me the ‘vision into my own nature’, will never the less modify my state in such a way that it will cease to oppose ‘the opening of the third eye’

Having identified how to achieve satori, by inner attentiveness, Benoit recognises that full realisation requires ‘the enlightened moment’ to become and endless series of moments. He writes: (p88) It is a question of transforming these instantaneous perceptions of existing-more-or-less a moment ago into a continuous perception. Man can arrive at that by training himself…

With the above in mind, I do not believe this book to be about Zen, although it discusses the practice in exhaustive detail in terms of psychology and philosophy. It is my belief that this is the author’s hypothesis on how he might bring about his own personal enlightenment. Although it appears cumbersome the message of this book to the reader, and its author is very simple: look at your true nature, that’s all. This book promises no feel good factors, no relief from anxiety nor does it aggrandise enlightenment, although reaching satori is the subject of the book. The only prerequisite required to understand this most radical approach to one’s own existence is the honest desire to look at oneself square on. That’s it, this is the message. Benoit understood what he needed to do very well. This book makes clear, the first step towards any meaningful enlightenment, or relief from mental agitation is the desire to manage one’s own ego. Success in this endeavour is entirely dependent on the individuals’ willingness to bring the aberrations of this false self and its attachments into full view. As the author says when we see our true nature all our false mental representations are smashed against the wall of objective reality. Enlightenment is the stage beyond this. Seeing ones nature increases rather than decreases anxiety as one’s own nature can be found to be at odds with the objective reality in which we exist (in my experience). My own belief is that willingness to unmask this falsity and act on it, is the only way to produce true humility which then fades (rather than removes) anxiety and suffering. The philosophy is simple, the on-going realisation and re-realisation of this task is not. This can form yet another desire and attachment and further anxiety.

Benoit says of himself: ‘If I observe myself I see that I struggle incessantly and instinctively in order to succeed whether my enterprises are egotistical (to win, to enjoy, to become admired etc.) or altruistic…

Benoit’s words lack joy and appear lonely as does his seeking. Although brilliant this work is written with the intellect of a scholar and life-long spiritual seeker, one who appears to be struggling to find their own truth within intellect and theory. These are not the words of a mystic. As a psychiatrist Benoit is able to describe how distress comes about and how the mind attempts to handle it, in his words “always unsuccessfully”. A statement which I believe applied to himself as well as his patients. The only real solution, he says, is the interior realization of our true state of being, which he identifies as being the radical transformation of satori. Through his research Benoit clearly understood exactly what was needed to manifest enlightenment, In fact he has undoubtedly enabled others to manifest it. Paradoxically it is probably this very western scientific approach that possibly prevented Benoit from experiencing the Satori that he himself desired.

My thinking here stems from the fact that Benoit’s writing appears to flow from research and lacks the feeling of direct experience. Chapter 12 for example is called ‘How to achieve the inner task according to Zen’ The work feels remote in its orderly approach, each chapter of the book looks at the question of enlightenment or ‘task’ from a slightly different perspective, The mystic ‘discovers’ enlightenment from outside of systems, expectations, doctrines and rituals. The mystic is rebellious not formulaic.

According to Benoit’s hypothesis, enlightenment is achieved through triangulation psychology, thinking which he refers to as the conciliatory principle. This is represented in the diagram below, The Superior Conciliatory Principle (in my understanding) appears to be a ‘balance’ between the positive and negative, it is my belief that this ‘superior’ state is observed from a point (our consciousness) outside of, and superior to our own interior conscious awareness. Although shown resting on its base, the triangle could also be shown be resting on its apex in order to demonstrate the on-going inner attention to ‘balance’ and management of ego that is required to maintain the enlightened state.

Benoit writes on the Conciliatory principle (the theory of which I have simplified in the paragraph above)

(p8) In this intemporal triad…one sees the perfect equality of the two inferior principles….it is impossible to assign a superiority, either qualitative or quantitative, to either of these two principles (which Benoit refers to as similar to Yin and Yang)….(p10) when the apex of the triangle is lacking the base of the triangle cannot remain horizontal….the positive principle swings and becomes ‘God’ and the negative the ‘Devil’….Since this dualism of the principles contradicts the intuition that man has in other respects of a unique principle which unifies everything…..(p18) My life is insipid and monotonous; I do not call that a living; at most it is existing….At the same time everyone feels that ‘living’ is superior to ‘existing’…..(P19/ 20) Man achieves existence, because existing is a necessary condition for living….he cannot otherwise affirm himself egotistically as distinct…basing the idea of existing on living he runs counter to the real order of things since he bases the real on the illusionary. And so the equilibrium of the ordinary man is always unstable; this man is comparable with a pyramid standing on its apex.

Superior conciliatory principle Hubert Benoit

Following on from the above; Benoit’s interpretation of Zen tells us our emotions and fears have no place in true understanding. Love and hate, positive and negative must be viewed with an impartial eye in order to transcend the on-going conflict that creates distress; this yields the understanding which is referred to as Satori. This is what Zen means when it instructs us that our task does not consist of any ‘doing’ but in ‘not doing’ This inner task is performed in the course of our life, in parallel with our life. However this ‘not-doing’ is accompanied by a higher-level doing which is explained in what Benoit calls the five modes of thought of the natural man.

The five Modes of thought of the natural man- Psychological Conditions for Satori

In Benoit’s words the psychological consciousness of the natural man functions in five different ways which form a single series. (p46)

1st mode: Deep sleep, without dreams. The mentality contains no images. A mode of functioning which is non-functioning. 2nd mode: Sleep with dreams. 3rd mode: Waking with reveries. Here I concern myself with only the 4th and 5th modes:

4th mode: Waking with definite thought that takes account of the real  external present. (real life) -This in my view represents realisation, the equilibrium of the ordinary man living in a state of enlightenment and able to manage his own ego. In Benoit’s words (p91) this man is capable of concrete thought without containing these thoughts within himself. In other words he knows no preference and is able to deal with his life objectively and from the apex of the pyramid. In the words of the Zen master on the way of things: The Tao is our daily life.

5th mode: Waking with pure intellectual thought.- This is the single point conscious awareness state of existence that is experienced in meditation. God consciousness, Buddha consciousness etc. In Benoit’s words this man’s thoughts are not constructed in a realistic style and are in contrast to the concrete thoughts described in the 4th mode.

The 4th mode of thought appears to me to be equilibrium, the effective management of the conciliatory Principle, keeping this at work within oneself at all times – the 5th mode of thought and the Superior Conciliatory Principle (consciousness) is our true understanding, the creator of the other two principles and thus our own creator and ‘God’ consciousness.

‘Knowing no preference’ as Zen calls it, or as the 4th Mode of thought suggests, the ability to manage one’s own ego, also frees the self from attempting to cultivate detachment, an attachment in itself which can create the ‘desire’ to be ‘desire-less’ Triangulating to a point of observation above desire (the superior conciliatory principle) and offsetting fear produces true detachment.

Finally Benoit identifies that when man does not complete his inner task of ‘seeing into his own nature’ and manifesting satori he compensates himself. Rather than the higher-level doing that arises from the enlightened state, man, in Benoit’s words (p218) thinks he has found reality in money or honours or power….an image which confers an apparent inner unity….This is not to be confused with the man of satori. Benoit identifies: (p215) “Every compensation is essentially constituted by an image involving my ego….the image centre is bi-polar….this explains why there are negative and positive compensations.”

All page references are from the Inner Traditions paperback (1995) edition

Free e-book of the Psychology of Transformation- The Supreme Doctrine by Hubert Benoit. Page numbers run slightly behind the printed version referenced above.