It has been well said that humility is no substitute for a good personality. Yet the emphasis in many discussions about Zen tends to focus on the former and rather neglects the latter. I’m sure there are good reasons why this occurs but, quite frankly, I find it confusing.
You see, if you probe a bit such humility often tends to be skin deep and an acquired affectation. And such self-mutilation then tends to parade as personality. This may be because, particularly among beginners, there is the sense that Zen, and Buddhism in general, is a focused assault on the idea of the self. This line of thinking tends to envisioning a “self” which is dominated by ego and grasping. It’s a fascinating stretching that I find most frequently among the mentally moribund.
In this strange dance of humanity, it’s easy to lose track of the importance of being yourself. The idea that the self can be “murdered” intentionally and, therefore, cease to exist, is a ridiculous idea. Fundamental to the definition of a sentient being is the entire idea of self-awareness. So, to state the obvious, a self that is murdered no longer represents the presence of sentience. As an old guru was fond of observing, “I poked my finger into my eye which disturbed my mind.” And after all of that, what is left?
At the foundations of this conundrum lie the inadequacies of language. Personality, as it emerges spontaneously, is essentially prelinguistic. Now, I’m not talking about the detritus of psychology or sociology here, but the spontaneous experience of the defining characteristics of another human being. And, in that sense, the experience of the personality of another is as well prelinguistic. Neither the possession of nor the experience benefits from extended linguistic analysis.
That being which meditates which we say has, or does not have, a personality which is engaging, open and inquisitive is only what we see at the surface. And that’s where the rub comes. The journey inward is towards the wellspring that is the resting place of what we might call “self”. The uniqueness that is being/time. Encrusted, in its outward appearance, as it is with the leavings of the living experience, it remains purely unique at its core.
Those who make the journey in anticipation of finding nothing will be disappointed. There is something there to be found and it is not nothing.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD