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Message from Henry: “Demons”

From the point of view of practice, the overarching objective of these “demons” is to block our aspiration, and our natural quest in our path of practice, and indeed the extent to which we do practice. Best of all, for them, is to do it in ways we don’t recognize.

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In one of his writings, quoting from the Shoshikan, Yamada Koun Roshi talks about various kinds of “demon,” both internal and external. A “demon” is basically whatever obstructs our path of practice toward complete realization. Internal demons would include: excessive greed, doubts about practice, self-doubts, regret, fear, anger, hidden self-pride, and so on. External ones would include, for example, not being able to get to sesshin, because of sickness or transport delays.

Today in the modern West for many of us, outside of Harry Potter, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about “demons.” We don’t generally have a world-view which includes a place for whatever kind of disembodied non-material malevolent entities demons might be. So how might we understand the kinds of phenomena the Roshi is talking about?

From a psychological perspective, we surely get afflicted by mental and attitudinal formations which seem to colonize parts of our psyche, which have their own dynamics, and which convince us of their veracity, to the point where we don’t even see them. Like stowaways, hidden sets of assumptions become part of ourselves, so it’s all the harder to see them.

Coming back to a non-secular terminology, we could say that “demons” love that. Their favorite thing is to be invisible, so that unseen, surreptitiously, they can cause us misery, and those around us. Again, from a more modern viewpoint, we might call them patterns of behavior, feeling and cognition that cause distress to ourselves and others, and which have their own self-sustaining dynamics. The term “complex” in traditional Freudian analysis would apply here.

From the point of view of practice, the overarching objective of these “demons” is to block our aspiration, and our natural quest in our path of practice, and indeed the extent to which we do practice. Best of all, for them, is to do it in ways we don’t recognize.

One of the virtues of zazen (seated meditation) extolled by Dogen Zenji is that while in the “dignigied body and dignified mind” of zazen, we are immune to “demons.” We might go further, and say that diligent and sustained practice of the Way, under the blessing and shelter of the “three treasures” (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha), will in time expose all “demons” – these habit-patterns and self-harming and other-harming dynamics of the psyche.

As they are seen and released, in time we will also be freed from the greatest “demon” of all, Mara, our all-encompassing view of self and world. When this breaks open, or collapses, even for a moment, and the vast reality without space and time is glimpsed, our entire view of things is cast in a new light, and the very nature of life and death is realized in a new way. But the effect of this is not just cognitive or intellectual; it’s not merely a matter of new information. Awakening is not a mere expansion of view. There is a change in the depth of our being, after which there is no place left for any “demon” to occupy.

But we might remember that this path is not just about “waking up” – it’s also, as Ken Wilbur says, also of “growing up” and “cleaning up.” In other words, awakening may shed marvelous light on our real condition. Yet long and diligent practice and training ae required, if we are to live up to the reality of that condition.

PRACTICE TIP

For people working on koans: it’s helpful to trust the specificity of the koan. Don’t think about other koans, or all koans, or generalities such as “all things are empty” or “all things are one.” Just this leg, for example: why can it not be raised? Just this word. Just this winding road, with its many curves: how on earth to walk straight as I go round this curve? And so on. Each koan has its own integrity and universality within itself. Just as each moment is infinite. Now is infinite. Where else could the infinite be? Among other things, koans are a training precisely in here and now.

Message from Henry taken from our October 21, 2015 Newsletter
Image: Demon, by Farrokh_Bulsara, CC0 Public Domain from Pixabay.com

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