Ego Extinction in Zen

Sentience is clearly a magnificent experience, infinitely more to be preferred than the antagonistic conditions of unconsciousness or death, but for all its grandeur and richness it carries within itself a bitter seed: foreknowledge of personal death. The grave awareness of personal extinction is not even necessarily a purely human curse. We can do little more than speculate about the experience and worries native to some other creature, nor in any ultimate sense convince ourselves beyond certain circumstantial proofs that other human beings experience existential doubts, fears and uncertainties in the way we feel ourselves subject to. It remains in any case a truth that human beings are of sufficient intellect to be aware of the logical necessity and sober fact of personal death.

The extinction of ego so central to Zen philosophy and meditation illuminates an interesting response to death. It is of course not even necessarily purely death which is central here when it is the desiring, longing and dissatisfied Self which is the source of so much unhappiness and psychological negativity which may (aspirationally) in some sense be “extinguished”.

In regards to death itself, dissolving the ego-self and psychological attachment to the thousands of things, places, events, desires and other beings that the mind is prone to is clearly at the very least a preparation for the inevitability of physical and psychological self-extinction. If we can resolve this one intractable fact of life while still alive then we can truly be free to live, unfettered. This is of course the promise and goal of so much of religion and metaphysical or mystical (i.e. magical) thinking.

I don’t think that the promise of afterlife, rebirth or reincarnation is a genuinely sufficient comfort in light of the cold hard fact of inevitable self-extinction. I do think (and subjectively feel) that untangling the psychological enigmas inherent to an awareness of the inevitability of death is not entirely implausible and that the Zen approach is a more effective and direct path to a mature acceptance of this than any other I have encountered.

I have said little of actual Zen practise as I am aware that I am both significantly unqualified to speak of it and that it is at essence, contra my complex wordy affectations, profoundly anti-intellectual. Not unlike the effective “suburi” (cutting practise) of Kendo swordsmanship, I assume the practise of Zen is to direct the mind towards the correct technique for making this one single cut which both is (and implements) or enables “Satori“, a sudden Enlightenment. When the cutting sword successfully extinguishes the wielder of the sword but does not kill them, what can we call this happy paradox other than “mu“, void or nothingness ?

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