Submission or Surrender?

(Following up the last post) I want to say a little more about the new book by Zen teacher Barry Magid, Nothing Is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans. This book is not primarily about teacher scandals, but there’s a lot in it that speaks to why they happen.

Available at Amazon!

The chapter on surrender versus submission shows the issue from the students’ perspective.  The koan discussed in this chapter is Tung-shan’s Cold and Heat from the Blue Cliff Record. Very basically, it’s about things we try to avoid. A monk asked Master Tung-shan (Tozan in Japan) how to avoid cold and heat. Master Tung-shan said, “Let the cold kill you. Let the heat kill you.” This is metaphorical killing; the death of discriminating mind that is averse to discomfort — surrendering to cold and heat. There’s a lot more to it, but let’s leave it at that for this discussion.

If you do a keyword internet search for “Buddhism surrender” you get a lot of articles and quotes about the importance of surrender. We surrender our egos to wisdom; we surrender our lives to dharma. As part of that, many of us enter into a formal practice in a particular tradition, with other students, and with a teacher.

So here we are, in some kind of institution participating in long-established practices with other people. We choose to submit to this, even the parts that are boring or make our legs hurt. Our reasons and motivations may differ, but usually we submit to this in the beginning because our lives are bleeped up and we want to make them better. We may also have deep and inexpressible spiritual yearnings for something else that “normal” life doesn’t seem to offer us.

So we submit to a path of practice. What seems to happen next, in some sanghas, is that people sink deeper and deeper into submission. If the teacher is exploitative, students wall up the parts of themselves that are uncomfortable with it. They get caught up in the role of good little soldier dharma students and laugh about the woman who complained that roshi groped her in dokusan.

Roshi may encourage this submission by telling his students that it will help them kill their egos. However, submission and surrender are not the same thing. Barry Magid, who is also a psychoanalyst, writes,

“Psychoanalyst Emanuel Ghent has suggested that the longing for liberation inherent in genuine surrender lies behind the maladaptive compromises involved in submission and masochism. He went so far as to call masochism a ‘perversion’ of surrender, a way in which our longing for genuine release at the deepest level is hijacked by submission to another person’s will.”

Drawing upon Ghent’s work, Barry Magid lists the characteristics that distinguish surrender from submission. I’m not going to go through the whole list in this post, but I want to mention the first couple of items.

First, although the process of spiritual surrender may be guided by another, spiritual surrender is not to another.

Second, surrender is not voluntary. Submission is something you choose to do, but spiritual surrender happens when conditions are ripe for it. This reminds me of the Buddhist understanding of renunciation. In Buddhism, renunciation happens naturally when we thoroughly perceive how our grasping and clinging is causing our difficulties. It’s an act of liberation, not self-denial.

I want to emphasize that the solution to the pitfall of masochistic submission is not to avoid teachers and dharma centers. That’s just another avoidance, another kind of clinging, and it’s not going to help you surrender. And I sincerely believe the majority of teachers and dharma centers in the West are not exploiters. But there is a difference between what is nourishing and what isn’t, spiritually speaking, and it’s good to be able to tell one from another.

[This post originally appeared on Buddhism on October 2,2013.]

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