Hubert Benoit: Makes my head hurt, but might be good for you

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Hubert Benoit’s Zen and the Psychology of Transformation: The Supreme Hubert BenoitDoctrine is considered a classic in Zen literature, at least among Westerners. Benoit states that, “In order to enlighten an Occidental, dissertations are, within a certain measure that is strictly limited, necessary.” The Supreme Doctrine is a convoluted, intellectual dissertation — a theoretical conceptualization which sheds more light on the author’s psychology, than upon Zen. Also of interest is the fact that Hubert Benoit’s little known last book, The Interior Realization, refutes much of The Supreme Doctrine. I credit Benoit for his honesty, for he was a lifelong seeker. As I remember, though, The Interior Realization was an equally unimpressive dissertation on the efficacy of humility in the search.

Hubert Benoit does make some intriguing points:

Man obtains satori, then, as a result of turning his back, as thoroughly as possible, on his centre, as a result of going right to the ultimate limits in this centrifugal direction, as a result of pushing to its ultimate degree of purity the functioning of the discursive intelligence which keeps him away from Wisdom. He ought to accomplish formal thought to the point of breaking up the form. In order to do that he ought to make his formal mind function in a persevering attempt to perceive, beyond it limits, the in-formal; an attempt that is absurd in itself but which brings about the release one day of the miracle of satori … .
In short, to obtain satori, it is a question of obtaining the transformation of these instantaneous perceptions of existing-more-or-less-than-a-moment-ago into a continuous perception which will then be just perception of existing.

Here are two translations of a typical paragraph from Hubert Benoit. The paragraph on the right is a new translation by Graham Rooth.

From Zen and the Psychology of Transformation From The Light of Zen in the West (©2004)
At the end of this gradual evolution my inner universe reaches homogeneity in which not forms but the opposition of forms is abolished. Everything is equalised. Then any image can represent adequately the totality of my inner universe. I have become capable of experiencing, in a perception, no longer only a partial identification with the Not-Self, but my total identity with it. Still it is necessary that the Not-Self shall manifest; that is what happens at the time of this releasing perception of which the men of satori tell us. Before the Self, integrated in a non-manifested totality, the Not-Self appears totally integrated in a phenomenon which represent it; then perception flashes out, in which without any discrimination the totality of the Self becomes manifest, but in the unity in which all is conciliated and in which this Self seems to be abolished at the very instant at which it fulfils itself. At the end of this gradual evolution, my inner universe has achieved homogeneity, not by getting rid of forms, but by abolishing the opposition between forms. Everything becomes equivalent. Now any image can represent the totality of my inner universe adequately. I have become able to experience, in a single perception, not just a partial identification with the not-self, but my total identity with it. All that remains is for not-self to manifest itself; and this is what takes place with the triggering perception reported by those who have experienced satori. In the presence of the self, which is now integrated in a non-manifested totality, not-self makes its appearance, represented by a single phenomenon in which it is totally integrated. A perception then springs forth in which is manifested the totality of self and not-self without any discrimination between them. The totality of the self becomes manifest, but this occurs in the Unity where all things are reconciled and the self seems to vanish utterly in the instant of its fulfilment.

If you enjoyed the previous quote, then by all means read his book. It’s been seven years since I first read Benoit and I find his writing as opaque now as I first did. The only change is that now I think there are no profound secrets under the opacity.

Here is a brief synopsis of Graham Rooth’s translation:
Following the success of the publication of “The Supreme Doctrine” in 1998, Sussex Academic is proud to announce a completely new and updated translation by Graham Rooth, MD, MRCPsych, of this seminal work. “The Light of Zen in the West” — a Centenary Commemorative — also includes a new translation of one of Benoit’s other major texts, “The Realization of the Self”. The volume also contains two lesser known works — ‘Buddha and the Intuition of the Universal’ and ‘Techniques of Timeless Realization’ — and has a Glossary and Index.

For another opinion on Hubert Benoit, go to:

6 thoughts on “Hubert Benoit: Makes my head hurt, but might be good for you”

  1. ” Also of interest is the fact that Hubert Benoit’s little known last book, The Interior Realization, refutes much of The Supreme Doctrine”

    What exactly does he refute? The concepts he puts forth themselves?

    It’s taking me a very long time to get through “The Supreme Doctrine” And it’s a little disheartening to hear that he refutes much of the Supreme Doctrine in a later book…

    “The only change is that now I think there are no profound secrets under the opacity.”

    In my own opinion, he makes some really profound statements in “The Supreme Doctrine.” But to be fair, most of it is either written/translated in such an intellectually exhausting way that I don’t think we can really discuss his work because it’s not always clear what he is trying to say.

    Great article.

    1. Thanks for the comments Clayton. I no longer recall what was refuted, but I remember it was Benoit himself who said in his last book that he was refuting the prior books.

    2. The opacity of Benoit’s dissertation appears to be a phenomenon of perspective; for me, he is transparent, that is, transparently contradictory and transparently obtuse. I have read much denser and opaque writers from a breadth of philosophical traditions, and I suspect it is that mental training which reveals his points as clear and distinct to me. Often I see The Supreme Doctrine trying to conciliate western principles while denouncing them; one such is the Absolute Yes as the superior conciliatory principle, which in most Zen perspectives would be taken to be an absurd, trivial, and unnecessary instantiation of a value which Benoit himself denounces. ‘Yes’ is already stumbling past the point he seems to be trying to make. But in the experiential sense, he is also absolutely correct in that the will is only a function of admittance and Yes. If it were not, nothing would happen – you could not think or act if your body refused to operate. It is in this very opaque sense that Benoit is opaque: he is trying to combine an objective metaphysical perspective applicable to his patients with an inherently individually experiential phenomenal practice in Zen. According to Benoit and Zen, even writing this book is a practice in anti-Zen; but at the very same time, the Zen masters say “without complexity, the new would have no place to rest.” In this way, a complexity such as Benoit is necessary to be inducted into the Zen path, but is actually at the same time contradictory to the Zen path. If you are confused, then you are finally beginning to understand what Benoit and the Ancient Zen masters are trying to convey.

  2. In one of her two books Charlotte Joko Beck says that Zen and the Psychology of Transformation, The Supreme Doctrine, was more important to her than any teacher in the flesh. I would say definitely get the Rooth translation, The Light of Zen in the West, it’s much less convoluted.

  3. There are aspects of Benoit’s work, which can be better understood today from the perspective of newer psychological and physical writings. If one introduces these understandings then what seems opaque will become clear.
    Hubert certainly is important as one puts the pieces together. His insights are certainly an important ground , but when these newer insight perspectives are included then ,then we have the most powerful teaching.

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