You’re Going to Carry That Weight

Déshān Xuānjiàn

I vaguely remember a story—I’m not sure if it’s true or a joke, or if I am even remembering it correctly—that someone once asked Sigmund Freud about a patient who successfully completed psychoanalysis but still behaved like a jerk. How did Freud account for this? Freud allegedly quipped the patient was a “well-analyzed jerk.” Freud’s quip points to the possibility of a complex relationship between psychological health and being a decent human being. The two, according to psychoanalysis, are not necessarily the same. But one can imagine other psychotherapeutic approaches that include an ethical component: ones that hold it is impossible to be optimally psychologically healthy but still be a jerk. Good arguments can be made for and against each of these kinds of approaches. While we believe there ought to be some relationship between health and decency, we don’t want to insist that all bad behavior is necessarily due to illness or insist that very bad people are necessarily incapable of experiencing untroubled well-being. “Healthy” and “good” often go together, but sometimes part company.

Zen raises the similar question of whether being an enlightened being makes one an admirable one. According to the classical Theravada Buddhist tradition it certainly does. According to the Theravada tradition, enlightened people are characterized by non-greed, non-hatred, equanimity, wise speech, compassion, and lovingkindness. But in Zen—both in the traditional Zen stories from antiquity and modern stories about present-day Zen masters—we encounter allegedly enlightened beings who behave like jerks.

Consider the Tang Dynasty Chinese Chan master Déshān Xuānjiàn as he appears to us in the Blue Cliff Record case entitled “Déshān Carries His Bundle.” Déshān visits Guīshān Língyòu’s monastery, but he enters the assembly hall with his pilgrim’s bundle under his arm (instead of taking out his robes and donning them) and crosses back and forth across the assembly hall without acknowledging Guīshān’s presence. And then he mutters, “wú!” (“nothing, nothing!”) and leaves without further ado. His “wú” is both an expression of his degree of realization (recall the “wú!” in Zhàozhōu’s Dog) and simultaneously a dismissal of Guīshān and his assembly as having nothing to offer.

Later in the koan Déshān reconsiders his action. He decides he shouldn’t have acted like such a barbarian and ought to try again. This time he dons his monk’s robes, approaches Guīshān, takes out his zagu (bowing cloth) as if to bow and acknowledge him–but in the end, he doesn’t actually bow down. Guīshān returns his feint, moving “as if” to pick up his hossu (symbol of teaching authority) but not actually picking it up. We are told Déshān shouted “Kaatz!” and left “swinging his sleeves,” turning his back to the assembly hall, and stomping off into the sunset.  

The next day, Guīshān comments on Déshān saying that one day he will “go to an isolated mountaintop, establish a hermitage, and scold the Buddhas and abuse the patriarchs.” Guīshān seems to be saying three things. First, that he recognizes Déshān’s very real degree of realization, but second that he realizes Déshān is not quite “there” yet. Déshān has been to the mountaintop but hasn’t yet re-entered the marketplace. One day, however, he predicts, Déshān will be “there.” But—and here is the third point—even when he has reached the end of the Zen path he will still be a bit of a jerk. We can read “scolding the Buddha and abusing the patriarchs” in two ways. The first is a positive way–the way exemplified by the saying, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.” But second, Guīshān is saying something important about Déshān’s character—”yes, enlightened, but still a barbarian.” 

When I read the title of this koan, “Déshān Carries His Bundle” I was reminded of the Beatle’s lyric, “Boy, you’re going to carry that weight a long time.” It seems it’s Déshān’s fate to have to carry his character a long time. Enlightenment is not going to alter it, and like everybody else, he is condemned to express his enlightenment through the character he has been granted by genetics, upbringing, and the vicissitudes of fate. Everyone’s understanding and expression of realization is, for better or worse, partial and unique. 

Déshān’s koan reminds me of disgraced teachers like Eido Roshi and Joshu Sasaki Roshi who were renowned (by many) for their degree of realization and yet were also serial sexual abusers. How could teachers revered for their degree of realization be repeatedly and unapologetically abusive?  Was their realization just a mirage—a mixture of performance on their part and projection on the part of their students? If one can have genuine realization and still behave like a jerk, what good is it? 

Part of me would like to dismiss their realizations as simply a mere lie—but I know and respect two of Eido Roshi’s former students—one male, one female—who remain appreciative of what they learned from him despite acknowledging his substantial character flaws. Similarly, Shozan Jack Haubner, the author of Single White Monk (Shambhala, 2017), remained appreciative of what he learned from Joshu Sasaki Roshi despite also acknowledging his substantial character flaws. 

So, what is one to make of this?

First, it helps to avoid absolutization. “Realization,” enlightenment,” and “awakening” are neither all-or-none nor once-and-forever events. They are awarenesses that can be more-or-less, gained or lost, and manifest or obscured. The Zen path is a journey without a final resting place or destination. We are never “there”—we are always just “here” at this juncture in our journey, with all that “here” currently implies. Whatever is realized can also be compartmentalized–held separate from the rest of one’s personality—although under ideal conditions it gradually generalizes until it comes to infuse most (but probably never all) aspects of one’s being. 

Second, it helps to think about the domain of enlightenment as something developing along multiple semi-independent lines. The developmental lines of becoming more compassionate or developing ethical discernment may start out as separate or semi-independent from the lines of glimpsing non-duality or developing one’s capacity for mindfulness, immediacy, and presence. 

Third, people are never as entirely good as their best accomplishments, nor entirely as bad as their worst crimes. Is it possible to see people whole without idealizing or vilifying them in toto? Aristotle was a great philosopher with awful views on slaves and women; Thomas Jefferson advanced the cause of democracy while owning a plantation full of slaves; Roald Dahl wrote glorious children’s books and was an unrepentant antisemite; Pablo Picasso was a gifted artist and a misogynist; Martin Luther King was a visionary civil rights leader and cheated on his wife; and it’s possible to be a spiritual teacher who inspires some students and abuses others. This is not an argument that teachers who abuse students should be allowed to continue teaching. It is an argument for not dismissing out-of-hand that these teachers may have some genuine degree of attainment along with their significant character flaws. 

Fourth, there is a difference between the Zen path that emphasizes wholeness and the reconciliation of opposites and a more traditional Buddhist path that emphasizes virtue. The tension between these two paths is unresolvable. They are the yin and yang of human flourishing: are we trying to be good or trying to be whole? Trying to be good without trying to be whole–and trying to be whole without trying to be good–are both already mistakes—but the paths to wholeness and goodness do not always lead us to the same place. 

Fifth, these issues are exacerbated by the culturally and historically conditioned role of Zen master—a role that creates opportunities for character flaws to go unrealized and metastasize. Students project their aspirations for infallible wisdom onto the Zen master; the danger is the Zen master may reciprocate, taking on those projections and acting them out as if they were real. The private, secretive nature of dokusan creates a theater where the drama of these projections and ego-inflations can then be played out. Whenever alleged wise-persons and supplicants meet in secrecy and private, the same problems readily arise. The psychoanalytic literature has a good deal to say about this problem and aspiring spiritual teachers and their mentors ought to deeply acquaint themselves with it.

So, what good is realization then? 

Intimations of interbeing, transience, and the open, unfixed nature of “self” enrich our lives and provide the basis for future well-being and moral growth, but they don’t guarantee it. The consolidated reactive patterns of character—the results of innate temperament, trauma, and miseducation—are hard to displace and do not simply vanish like a puff of smoke in a moment of enlightenment. Some reactive patterns become more tractable over time, others do not–and they never dissipate entirely and once-and-for-all. Many remain invisible to the doer unless someone—a mentor, colleague, friend, therapist, or victim–calls them to awareness—no matter how many hours a person spends alone on the cushion. 

This is how Déshān can have some degree of realization and still behave like a barbarian. 

6 Replies to “You’re Going to Carry That Weight”

  1. Seth – Once again, an astute and discerning essay. I believe it was Paul McCartney who wrote “You’re Going to Carry that Weight,” though the song is credited to Lennon-McCartney. Its realism stands in sharp contrast to the idealism of “Imagine.” I might question the assertion that bad people are “never as entirely bad as their worst crimes.” That notion might apply to the examples cited, but in the case of Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, and few other monsters I could mention, it seems wide of the mark. I would agree that certain patterns of reactivity are so deeply embedded as to be virtually impervious to change. I make a similar point in my most recent essay. But perhaps we can become more aware of those reactive patterns of character through practice and in that way meliorate their destructive impact.

    1. Ben, thanks for clearing up the authorship of “You’re Going to Carry That Weight,” and I agree practice can help illuminate and change our perspective on our deeply ingrained reactive patterns and meliorate their destructive impact. You have certainly included a list of genuinely awful people on your rogue’s gallery of people who might very well be as bad as their worst crimes. Perhaps I should have said that people are rarely as bad as their worst crimes and left myself a loophole. But the issue with the people on your list is that they did not just commit one terrible crime but engaged in a great many terrible crimes over an extended period of time. Mencius might have wondered whether they even deserved the title “person.” In my prior life as a clinical psychologist I met people who committed a single terrible crime (e.g.,murdering their children, or murdering their wife’s lover) but had much about them one might still appreciate–the behavior was a one-time event committed under extreme circumstances that did not define their totality–and they still were deserving of compassionate care. That’s what I was thinking about when I wrote what I wrote. I remain agnostic about whether Hitler or Stalin had any redeeming qualities. Perhaps Eva Braun found Hitler occasionally charming?

  2. A very interesting essay about something which has troubled me for a long time, not just as to zen masters or teachers, as you may well imagine, but with so many in positions of venerated status re: spirituality, with regard to the vast rest of us, as well as those gifted with great talent in the arts and science.
    On its face, seeking enlightenment and compassion invite the initiate to again give “the answer to everything” status to this endeavor, and superpower to its most venerated practitioners.

    Many of your points ring true and are helpful in understanding this complex matter.

  3. Hi Seth, thanks for this post. The case about Déshān that you recounted reminded me of a chapter titled “Laughing at the Buddhas and Abusing the Patriarchs” in Conrad Hyers’s book The Laughing Buddha: Zen and the Comic Spirit. The chapter began with a different translation of one line: “That young man will after this go to some isolated mountain top, establish a hermitage, laugh at the Buddhas, and abuse the Patriarchs.” The chapter proceeds to connect what Hyers calls Zen iconoclasm with the book’s theme of humor. The chapter ends:

    Veneration and profanation, reverence and irreverence, profound respect and equally profound parody, are united in such a way that the total effect is not discord but an alerting dissonance, not a chaotic cacophony but a dynamic rhythmic harmony. “By experiencing opposite poles of reality simultaneously, we actually intensify them. They are like the counterpoints in a musical composition … Seriousness and a sense of humor do not exclude each other; on the contrary, they constitute and indicate the fullness and completeness of human experience, and the capacity to see the relativity of all things and all truths and especially of our own position.” [Source of inner quotation: The Way of the White Clouds (London: Hutchinson, 1956), page 176.]

    After recalling Hyers’s chapter, I asked myself: What’s the connection between humor and what Seth is talking about in this post? There’s so much that could be said. Behavior that is very bad, i.e. very harmful, isn’t funny. (Perhaps I could try to justify this position philosophically, but I won’t try here.) But Déshān’s behavior doesn’t reach that very bad level of badness, so we can find humor in it if we look for it. We would even be missing something important if we didn’t see the humor. Similarly, there are plenty of movies with comic relief provided by grumps, jerks, or bad guys who are too incompetent or too conflicted to pull off something very bad, not to mention something very good. (I provide this kind of comic relief for myself all the time.)

    It seems to me that “the Zen path that emphasizes wholeness and the reconciliation of opposites and a more traditional Buddhist path that emphasizes virtue” are not different in their attitude toward behavior that is very bad, i.e. very harmful. Sexual abuse is just as bad in Zen as in Theravāda. Bhikkhu Bodhi said “the whole path is ethics” (see his article with that title), and I think that’s a pan-Buddhist statement, just as true of Zen as of Theravāda. “Zazen includes all the precepts”, as Tenshin Reb Anderson put it. This could even be generalized to all religion: as the scholar of religion Hendrik Vroom put it, “right conduct is a criterion for true religion”.

    So a Buddhist monk who is a serial sexual abuser may not be “entirely as bad as their worst crimes”, but he has certainly failed at his vocation as a religious professional. While your idea of people “developing along multiple semi-independent lines” is probably true in general, I don’t think it is relevant to evaluating Zen teachers or religious professionals, because there is one line that is most important: ethics or right conduct. (It’s different with athletes or actors or poets, for whom other lines of development may be more important for their careers.) Those Zen teachers who are so stunted in the development of ethical discernment that they engage in very harmful behavior such as serial sexual abuse have completely failed at being Zen teachers. But if their level of badness is low enough that we can laugh at it, like Déshān or like Tenshin Reb Anderson (sorry Reb! LOL), then they’re doing okay. It’s only by avoiding the very bad that we can live in the realm where “veneration and profanation, reverence and irreverence, profound respect and equally profound parody, are united in such a way that the total effect is not discord”.

  4. I have read a number of books on Buddhism over the years and I seem to reject much of what I read from authors that seem to be writing from an inflated ego. I recognize good advice from authors that write from a more humble perspective more readily. (Thich Nhat Hann for example). My sangha discusses books and we offer opinions on what we have read. Long thought made short: some folks might go with the big ego writer and others not. Each person is responsible for their path. Some paths may be more dangerous than others.

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