The Gap Between: Being and Knowing in Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis

Paul C Cooper. American Journal of Psychoanalysis. Volume 61, Issue 4. December 2001.


The gap appears as a perennial dilemma that reveals itself in many forms in the various world religions, philosophies, and psychologies. By definition, the gap includes precipice and abyss. Interpersonally or relationally, gap includes subject and object and what connects (separates) them. Connectedness implies separateness by definition. Psychologically, from a practical point of view, the gap points to the separation between different aspects of self and thus expresses the need for establishing or regaining wholeness through healing of fragmentation. In this respect, Buddhism acknowledges the gap between subject and object. As Luk notes: “All of us are accustomed to the deep rooted habit of splitting our undivided whole into subject and object by clinging to the false ideas of the reality of an ego and phenomena” (1993, p. 11). The gap symbolizes this rift. The need to cling to the precipice becomes a clinging to ego (false solidified ideas of who we imagine ourselves to be). Therefore, bridging the gap has to do with the experience of wholeness. Wholeness in this context requires acknowledging both unity and duality that transcend linear polemic notions of concretized subject and object.

The gap charts an exploration that simultaneously reveals and veils ultimate reality and addresses both real and imagined distinctions that apply equally to the various depictions of the dimensions of experience. The gap evolves in many directions, multiply layered with meaning and function. As symbol, gap might point toward womb, abyss, death, breast (nourishment, entanglement, suffocation, safety), or the unknown. Precipice might function to represent commonsense, umbilical cord, the extent of and limits of relationships, a closing off to the unknown, freedom, imprisonment, or clinging to life and death. Abyss might represent womb, depression, the object’s narcissism, the path to creativity and freedom, the unknown. The unknown permeates all formulations and symbols. Thinking about the gap exclusively as a symbol for precipice and abyss might represent a resistance to the actuality of the gap itself. It may also be seen as a sign or expression of the futility of imprisonment—both psychically and as a human being caught in the space between life and death—in the moment-to-moment drama of the multitude of lives and deaths of emerging, crystallizing, and dissolving psychic states. The gap (precipice and abyss) functions as a metaphor for the relationship between being and knowing, which can become polarized and reified at extremes, maintaining a state of fragmentation, alienation, and various sociocultural manifestations such as phobias, chauvinism, racism, aggression, holocaust. When left to operate unfettered, each fragment might function like a still frame snapshot of a moment of the natural flow between being and knowing. The latter form constitutes the focus of this discussion, which explores converging and diverging expressions of the gap between being and knowing in the psychoanalytic writings of Wilfred Bion and in the Buddhist teachings of the eighth century Chinese Zen Buddhist master Hui-neng as explicated in the writings of D. T. Suzuki. Convergences provide points of entry that can be acknowledged, touched lightly, and let go. Divergences create openings. The tension between the two might promote vitality, continued growth of the individual and the discipline (Zen and psychoanalysis). In this respect, the gap demonstrates the close kinship between psychoanalytic and spiritual experiences and the simultaneously widening space between psychoanalysis and science if continued growth can be tolerated. The gap, precipice, and abyss find expression in Bion’s and in the satori (enlightenment) experience of Zen. Both allude to and hint at the ineffable, unknowable, fluid, ever-evolving aspects of psychic life that Suzuki (1994) describes as “being-in-itself” and by Bion (1970) as “beening.” Bion and Hui-neng both argue for the primacy of experience, but experience lived beyond sense, hearing, seeing, cognizing. Bion describes the experience of “at-one-ment,” which is not buffered by sense (without which an analysis is not complete). Sense (Cooper, 1998) maintains the subject and object dichotomy. Similarly, satori becomes experienced through a dissolution of dichotomous thinking. The following anecdote from Suzuki (1994) serves equally well to describe both Hui-neng’s and Bion’s shared stance regarding the primacy of experience: Self-realization never comes from merely listening and thinking … In a great desert there are no springs or wells … a traveler comes from the west going eastward; he meets a man coming from the east and asks him: I am terribly thirsty; pray tell me where I can find a spring and a cool refreshing shade where I may drink, bathe, rest, and get thoroughly revived?

The man from the east gives the traveler, as desired, all the information in detail, saying: When you go further east the road divides itself into two, right and left. You take the right one … you will surely come to a fine spring and a refreshing shade … do you think that the thirsty traveler from the west, listening to the talk about the spring and the shady trees, and thinking of going to that place as quickly as possible, can be relieved of thirst and heat and get refreshed? (pp. 12-13)

Being-in-itself and beening both keep in mind the active nature of psychic experience that can be destroyed by attempts at definition through the vehicle of ordinary language. In a similar indictment Suzuki describes meditative homeostasis as “psychic suicide” (Suzuki, 1972b, p. 25). However, Bion also, through “O” and “beening” reminds the reader of the paradoxical relationship between content and no-content, definite and infinite, or what Buddhists describe as ultimate and relative reality. Paradox keeps things open. Perhaps in therapy by keeping open to the gap, precipice and abyss edges can be pushed to greater extremes.

When Buddhists speak of wisdom (prajna) they mean intuitive experiential wisdom or “quick knowing” (Evans-Wentz, 1954). The problem is that over time, the wisdom derived through the original experiences of geniuses like Hui-neng or Freud becomes codified, concretized, intellectualized, and its potency tends to be neutralized “for it was identified with intellectual subtleties which dealt with contents and their analysis” (Suzuki, 1972a, p. 33).

Starting Points

Bion and Hui-neng work from different starting points. Bion deals with emotional pain and with the growth of the psyche. Bion’s dialogue attempts to connect, perhaps meeting at a preverbal (birth) state. His submergence in the psychic universe of the analysand (“participation in hallucinosis”) attempts to bring the latter to life, back to the surface, and into the world. Bion’s gap between being and knowing functions as a nodal point for his psychoanalysis. For Hui-neng being is knowing. Knowing is being. However, existential anxiety perpetuates an ignorant vicious cycle of separation and reification. The dialectic tension between being and knowing forms a connecting thread for both Bion and Hui-neng. Is it possible to live at the center of this tension of lived-in-the-moment truth while simultaneously pushing the edges? Is transcendence necessary or possible? Transcendence creates its own dualities; thus, Hui-neng speaks of a return to the ordinary. His movement is from the ordinary to the extraordinary and back to the ordinary. Ignorance is a human pathology that no one is immune to. Huineng deals with the relationship between pain and enlightenment, so perhaps they create a meeting point. Like “two arrows meeting in mid air” (Loori, 1996), the dialectic tension stemming from their differences explode in infinite directions and possibilities. The simultaneity of identity and distinction of all phenomena is basic to a psychoanalysis viewed from a subjective and experiential perspective. On this issue, Eigen writes: “We cannot trifle with the gaps between and within us. We learn to live in the movement between face and facelessness, at the point where union and difference cocreate one another” (1993, p. 242). The gap as an expression of simultaneity provides a vehicle for discussing the integration of Buddhism and psychoanalysis.

Both Bion and Hui-neng view ultimate truth to be beyond the reach of ordinary knowledge and argue that a search for knowledge obscures lived ultimate truth or its own 0-ness. Sense-making creates its own resistances to experience by attempting to foreclose the infinite. Bion remains open to the fluid unknown that is at the center of his psychoanalytic endeavor. Huineng discovers the unknowable in the basic facts of human existence: He speaks of the pain of a slap on the face, a kick in the shin, the coolness of a drink of water, the shade of a tree, a proper cup of tea. Both invite the individual to participate in the humanness of life with all of its terror and delight. Bion endeavors to stimulate the analysand’s birth, rebirth, or growth. Perhaps the latter will engage or re-engage the world of self and other, perhaps for the first time stepping out from a self-imposed prison. Hui-neng locates the extraordinary in the moment-to-moment being in the ordinary world. If Bion addresses the null dimension, Hui-neng addresses the dull dimension. At the level of discussion that Bion and Hui-neng address, alterations in psychic structure demand coming to terms with the paradox of the simultaneity of identity and difference. Failure to face this paradox reifies fragmentation and forecloses wholeness.

What parallels and distinctions exist between 0 and satori, “being-initself” and beening? What techniques do Bion and Hui-neng offer to engender psychic transformations that render these alternate realities accessible? What roads do they invite the reader to take? Does the “reality of sameness” (Suzuki, 1994, p. 13) have the same meaning and requirements as “at-onement” (Bion, 1970)? If so, facing the gap, whether illusion or actuality, becomes a primary concern for both analyst and meditator alike. Suzuki writes that the task of Zen has been, “upholding satori against ritualism and erudition and all forms of mere philosophizing” (p. 16). Similarly, Bion argues and cautions of the hazards of rote interpretations. He writes, “[Hlis ‘habits’ will lead him to resort to instantaneous and well-practiced saturation from ‘meaning’ rather than from 0” (p. 51).

In explicating the gap, neither Bion nor Hui-neng engage in philosophical speculation. They both concern themselves in a highly pragmatic way with ultimate truth and the reality of human suffering. Both provide difficult yet engaging solutions. One area of practicality includes the provision of a system and associated techniques that have the potential to relieve individual suffering. Their radical solutions simultaneously require that the system employed (psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism) remain alive and vital. Similarly, Buddhism concerns itself with both the causes and the antidotes to suffering. Zen provides a most radical and dramatic account of breaking through the unconsciously self-imposed and imprisoning veil of illusion to “being-in-itself” (Suzuki, 1972a, p. 40). Hui-neng and Bion both address the gap between words (theory, interpretation, philosophy, dogma) and experience (evolving lived-in-the-moment truth). They confront the gap between the ongoing actuality of experience of ultimate truth (spiritual, psychoanalytic, etc.) and the formulations designed to contain, restrain, or disavow the experience “in the minds of ordinary people” (Bion, 1970, p. 85). Bion writes: “as my practice with more disturbed patients increased, it became evident that more rigorous formulation of theory was needed if the gap between representation and realization was to be bridged by the analyst’s interpretation” (p. 9).

The Limits of Comparison

Paradoxically, comparisons that trace observed similarities between Buddhist meditation and psychoanalytic attention inadvertently serve to set them apart and maintain the gap. The discussion of similarities and differences between the Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhist technique of mindfulness meditation, or “Bare attention,” and the classical psychoanalytic attentional stance of evenly hovering attention has dominated the recent literature on Buddhism and psychoanalysis (Cooper, 1997). However, such comparisons do not represent accurate and stable estimations of the convergences and divergences between the two systems. Any point of view simply represents a point along a continuum of experience and is by definition too limited to embrace the actual experience. Intuitively speaking, for example, I have often felt a close kinship and less of a psychic and emotional distance with individuals whose points of view (Kaballah, Celtic mysticism, for example) are not entirely familiar to me. Conversely, a seemingly unbridgeable distance can exist between individuals who might share the identity of “psychoanalysts,” “Buddhists,” or both.


Bion expands the borders of psychoanalysis beyond the boundaries of the Cartesian dualistic pragmatism that characterized early psychoanalysis. He takes the reader into the ever-evolving realm of the mystical infinite. Bion moves freely and comfortably between the definite and the infinite. This realm of experience embraces what might be arbitrarily defined and known and what can only be “intuited” and lived through direct experience, or as Bion describes as “at-one-ment” with 0. Bion’s forays into the non-sense aspects of experience, which for him comprises the true realm of psychoanalysis, become most evident in Transformations (1965) and in Attention and Interpretation (1970). Both were written during what Bleandonu (1994) refers to as Bion’s “epistomological period.” The notion of gap constitutes one strand among many that threads its way through both of these works.

Bion’s Postulates

Bion’s postulates provide a loose framework to point toward the experience of, into, and beyond the gap. His axiomatic explication of the gap makes visible a series of relationships and themes common to both Buddhism and psychoanalysis. This holds equally true conceptually and experientially. For Bion, the gap becomes objectified in the distance between heaven and earth, the person and God, the sinner and the state of grace, subject and object, consciousness and unconsciousness, physical medicine and psychoanalysis, representation and realization, the sensuous and the non-sensuous, and K (knowledge) and 0 (ultimate truth). Here we follow and comment on two of Bion’s axiomatic explication of postulates that unfold the gap.

The Gap Between Phenomena and the Thing-in-Itself

In Transformations, Bion writes that “My theory would seem to imply a gap between phenonema and the thing-in-itself” (1965, p. 147). Here he criticizes the limits imposed on psychoanalysis by the scientific materialist matrix, concerned with sense and critical of non-sense, that both spawned and impinged on Freud’s thinking. He observes that, “From this conviction of the inaccessibility of absolute reality the mystic must be exempted” (p. 147). Bion argues that reliance on mystical experience can move psychoanalysis beyond the restrictions of Enlightenment secularism. However, a basic human need for protection generates its own resistance to ultimate truth. Regardless of an individual’s conscious beliefs, he observes that, “the remainder of us believe it unconsciously but no less tenaciously for that” (p. 147). Human nature both craves and resists truth.

The Gap Between Reality and Personality

Bion raises the stakes with geometrical logical precision and simplicity. The honesty and straightforwardness of his message become occluded by our own terror and disbelief. On this issue, Eigen writes: “One does not want to hear or bear or believe Bion’s message” (1993, p. 211). The intrinsic need to maintain the gap at the cost of psychological freedom and creativity operates fiercely. Bion moves from phenomena to personality and from the thing-in-itself to reality. He postulates: “The gap between reality and the personality … “ (1965, p. 147). Does Bion dare imply that the personality is unreal? He equates personality with unreal phenomena. The latter opposes the reality of the thing-in-itself. Here we find in Bion’s thought the confrontation with self, the central feature and purpose of Buddhist analysis. The Buddhist practitioner asks: “Are self and phenomena existent or nonexistent?” They answer enigmatically, “both real and unreal.” We find no shade of gray here. Bion continues: “The gap between “knowing phenomena” and “being reality” (p. 149). This distinction sets reality as direct experience apart from phenomena known (and thus the personality) through the limited vehicle of the senses. The person as phenomena becomes unreal and the insubstantiality of the person, self, phenomena becomes the truth. He at once demonstrates the limits of enlightenment secularism and departs radically from Freud’s use of knowledge, which true to his positivist forefathers, can provide layer upon layer of data about phenomena such as the “person” but seals off access to ultimate truth and the direct experience of being. The prospect of experiencing the ultimate insubstantiality of self produces existential terror.


Hui-neng speaks of the gap in relation to light and dark, day and night, the intellect and experience, the problem and the solution, the opposition of consciousness and the freedom of unconsciousness, between actual experience and ideology. The seeker bursts through the illusion of duality, he writes, “by making no distinction between confusion and enlightenment, by paying no attention to the presence or absence of a thought, by neither getting attached to nor keeping oneself away from the dualism of good and bad” (Suzuki, 1994, p. 58). Hui-neng’s revolutionary impact on Buddhism addresses healing this split (Suzuki, 1972a, p. 79). Hui-neng teaches: “The main point is not to think of things good and bad and thereby to be restricted, but let the mind move on as it is in itself and perform its inexhaustable functions” (1972a, p. 36). Healing the split in Hui-neng’s sense is not limited to the intrapsychic. Perceptual origins extend to all phenomena and address the essential connectedness and interrelatedness of all beings and phenomena. The foundational principle of dependent-arising expresses this experience. Without this experiential realization alienation, grasping and aggression continues. Suzuki asks: “How is it possible for the human mind to move from discrimination to nondiscrimination, from affections to affection lessness, from being to non-being, from relativity to emptiness, from the ten-thousand things to the contentless mirror-nature or self nature” (1972a, p. 52). This task might appear extreme. Actually it is since relative ordinary commonsense knowledge is dualistic and governed by the restrictions of secondary processes. Consciousness tends toward the relative and hence the gap. Ultimate knowledge derives from unconsciousness “to be back in the unconscious,” according to Suzuki, “is to attain Buddhahood” (1972a, p. 76). From Suzuki’s interpretation of Hui-neng, the Zen unconscious functions free from memory, desire, understanding, and sense-mediated data. The Zen practitioner relies not on “empirical consciousness” or the “six senses” but on intuited experiential wisdom; that is, “when both memory and intelligence are forgotten” (1972a, p. 76).

From the Zen point of view, Suzuki observes that “We can’t know what is fundamentally ultimate and intrinsic to our nature as human beings through the senses” (1972a, p. 59). He adds that ultimate reality (not unlike Bion’s 0), “is not subject to the laws of relativity, and therefore cannot be grasped by means of form” (p. 59).

Suzuki provides gripping descriptions from the Zen Buddhist perspective of resistance in relation to the gap that vividly portray experiences familiar to psychotherapists who venture into this realm. He writes

At first the seeker knows of no way of escape, but get out he must by some means … before him there yawns a dark abyss. There is no light to show him a possible way to cross it … the only thing he can do in this crisis is simply to jump, into life or death, but living he feels to be no longer possible. He is desperate, and yet something is still holding him back; he cannot quite give himself up to the unknown … Here begins a new world of personal experiences, which we may designate “leaping” or “throwing oneself down the precipice!” (1994, p. 52).

The dilemma that Suzuki’s “seeker” finds himself in requires an active effort to resolve. Suzuki writes: “It is distinctly understood that this period of incubation, which intervenes between the metaphysical quest and the Zen experience proper, is not one of passive quietness but of intense strenuousness . it keeps up an arduous fight against all intruding ideas … an intense seeking, or steady looking into the abysmal darkness is no less than that” (1944, p. 53).

Bion demands a similar effort to relinquish memory, desire, and understanding. According to Bion, this strategy enables the analyst to achieve “artificial blindness” (1970, p. 41). He writes: “By rendering oneself ‘artificially blind’ through the exclusion of memory and desire, one achieves F (Faith); the piercing shaft of darkness can be directed on the dark features of the analytic situation” (p. 57).

In the notion of avidya (ignorance, unknowing), Buddhist philosophy acknowledges this basic human habit of mind that craves and resists truth. Here, ignorance refers to a ruthlessly active not-knowing that resists truth and maintains the gap by generating a perceptual separation between subject and object. However, not unlike the neurotic defenses described in the psychoanalytic literature, the inadequate functioning of ignorance creates its own set of problems and perpetuates grasping, longing, aggression, and the repetition of cyclic existence. Ignorance as a habit of mind resists truth, maintains a self-constructed deception, and reifies the experience of lived truth. This unconscious, albeit active, not-knowing maintains the gap. The effort to fill in the gap through a futile pursuit of sense, the ongoing expansion of the territory of ego (“Where id was shall ego be.”), the endless accumulation of solid ground to stand on, the failure to maintain the solidity of what is essentially fluid, and the need to exclude the infinite from the definite paradoxically increases the gap and deepens the abyss.

Suzuki writes that, “Even when they are told that every being is endowed with Buddha-nature and that they are Buddhas, even as they are, they keep themselves from Buddha-hood by reason of their own discriminative understanding, which creates an artificial barrier between themselves and Buddha” (1972b, p. 82). Zen attempts to destroy this illusion between discriminative understanding and lived Buddha-hood. Hui-neng observes that, “From the first not a thing is.” No gap, no barrier, no self, no understanding, no Buddha. No crystal ball. Pop! No bubble. Only “being-in-itself.” He approaches this task by creating an abrupt awakening into satori by stripping away the buffers of logic, intellectual understanding, and reasoning processes. His purpose is to generate a radical transformation of consciousness and speaks of a “turning-back” or “turning-over” at the basis of consciousness. Suzuki describes this radical transformation of consciousness as follows: “By this the entirety of one’s mental construction goes through a complete change. It is wonderful that a satori insight is capable of causing such a reconstruction in one’s spiritual outlook” (1994, p. 17). Zen functions to transform knowledge and philosophical reasoning about emptiness into lived experience. “Emptiness is not at all the outcome of intellectual reflection, but simply the statement of direct perception in which the mind grasps the true nature of existence without the intermediary of logic” (1994, p. 47), and, “We may say that here a perception takes place in its purest and simplest form, where it is not at all tainted by intellectual analysis or conceptual reflection” (1994, p. 48). Thus, the seeker moves from “about” to “being” because “what one thinks or reads is always qualified by the preposition ‘of’ or ‘about’ and does not give us the thing itself” (1994, p. 48). Suzuki describes the transformation of consciousness associated with the satori experience as a movement from an intellectual analysis to “Zen consciousness” or the “final explosion.” Therefore, we find the master responding to the student’s question, as the following vignette reveals, by twisting the nose until tears fall from the eyes.

Shih-kung … wishing to see what understanding of Zen his head monk had, proposed this question: “Can you take hold of vacent space?” … The monk thereupon, extending his arm, made a grab at empty space. Remarked the master: “How can you take hold of space that way?” “How then?” retorted the monk. No sooner was this said than the master grabbed the monk’s nose and pulled it hard. The monk cried aloud, saying: “This is altogether too hard; you will pull it out!” The master concluded: “In no other way can you take hold of empty space.” (1972a, p. 82)

How does the analyst “twist the nose” of the analysand until tears fall? Bion’s way entails formulating interpretations that promote 0 and not simply add knowledge. The latter only strengthens the barrier of discursiveness and deepens the gap. How then does Bion evoke such an interpretation? He recommends suspending memory, desire, and understanding and having faith that the ineffable truth of the session “evolves” (1967, p. 18). This procedure enables the analyst to “participate in hallucinosis” and experience “at-one-ment” with the evolution of the session. Suzuki would say, “being-in-itself”; that is, according to Suzuki, when the unconscious is present everywhere. Or, in Bion’s terms, when the infinite or what we don’t know evolves. We might ask “how does the Zen master approach O?” Initially mondo (the ongoing dialogue between master and student) served this purpose. The Koan system developed when mondo evolved into another form of resistance through speculation, discursive reasoning, and intellectual dogmatic pursuit. Mondo lost its vitality in the service of reification, became formalized, and simultaneously kept vital through the institution of the koan.

By arguing for a psychoanalysis of being before knowing, Bion calls for a restoration of vitality into psychoanalysis. Similarly, prior to Hui-neng, Buddhism in China was limited to the privileged classes, remained orthodox, scholarly, and demanded much erudition. Hui-neng, by contrast, relied on his intuition. Thus, satori and 0 become the guardians of psychic life. They keep their respective systems moving, alive, and vital by honoring what cannot be “known” in the ordinary sense of the term and what objectification destroys. Definition kills the infinite. They both remind us that consciousness is not a “thing” that can be studied like an artifact of a dead civilization or like a scientific specimen. Zen and Bion’s psychoanalysis both honor and respect the moving, living, breathing “being-in-itself”/ “beeping” quality of psychic life: “The main point is not to think of things good and bad and thereby be restricted, but to let the mind move on as it is in itself and perform its inexhaustible functions” (Suzuki, 1 972b, p. 36).

Unconsciousness and Enlightenment

Bion has little to say about unconsciousness. He “prefers the infinite” and writes that “The differentiating factor that I wish to introduce is not between conscious and unconscious but between finite and infinite” (1965, p. 46). However, we can observe trends in Bion’s descriptions of “O” that point toward the Zen unconscious. After all, the Zen unconscious in many respects is the infinite. This connection between unconsciousness and 0 becomes clear in similar trends in Suzuki’s (1972b) writing on satori and in his discussion of Hui-neng’s “no-mind” doctrine. Hui-neng discusses tzuhsing, a Chinese philosophical term that Suzuki translates as “self-nature” or “being-in-itself” (p. 40). Not unlike Bion’s “O,” hsing, according to Suzuki, “is something ultimate in the being … though it must not be conceived as an individual entity, like a kernel or a nucleus which is left when all outer casings are removed, or like a soul which escapes from the body after death” (p. 39). Such conceptualizations would only serve to maintain the gap. Suzuki continues his description of hsing by noting that “This mysterious hsing, however, is not a logical a priori but an actuality that can be experienced …” and further, Suzuki notes, “it is not mere being, but knowing. We can say that because of knowing itself it is; knowing is being, and being is knowing.” (p. 40). Hui-neng, as Suzuki observes, calls for a different kind of seeing and knowing that, not unlike Bion’s “intuition,” pierces the veil of sense and reveals non-sense as a directly lived experience: “To be itself is to know itself”; “Hands are no hands, have no existence until they pick up flowers and offer them to the Buddha,” asserts Suzuki (p. 42).

Not unlike Bion, who points out serious limitations stemming from the classical psychoanalytic emphasis on knowing, Hui-neng criticizes the “seeing” related to classical Buddhist notions of wisdom. This sense dominated dualistic perspective advocated by Freud, keeps the analyst “removed as a surgeon” from the analysand’s experience, and maintains the gap. The following passage from Suzuki has relevance with respect to the affinity between Bion’s approach and Hui-neng. Both represent radical departures from the roots of their respective disciplines while simultaneously cutting through obstructions to the very same roots. Suzuki writes When we say, “See into thy self-nature,” the seeing is apt to be regarded as mere perceiving, mere knowing, more statically reflecting on self nature …. But as a matter of fact, the seeing is an act, a revolutionary deed on the part of human understanding whose functions have been supposed all the time to be logically analysing ideas, ideas sensed from their dynamic signification. The “seeing,” especially in Hui-neng’s sense, was far more than a passive deed of looking at a mere knowledge obtained from contemplating the purity of self-nature: The seeing with him was [my emphasis] self-nature itself, which exposes itself before him in all nakedness, and functions without any reservation. (1972 b, p. 42)

Technical Implications

Hui-neng’s critique of the “mirror wiping” meditation with its dualistic implications and Bion’s critique of Freud’s dualistic model with its emphasis on a return to homeostasis as a desired outcome, have far-reaching technical implications, Suzuki describes the Zen experience as a “psychological process of ‘self-forgetting’ and ‘cutting off both the past and the future’ … “ (1994, p. 62). Tai-hui, the 12th century Chinese Zen master, provides the following admonition: “The truth (dharma) is not to be mastered by mere seeing, hearing, and thinking. If it is, it is no more than the seeing, hearing and thinking; it is not at all seeking after the truth itself. For the truth is not in what you hear from others or learn through understanding. Now keep yourself away from what you have seen, heard, and thought and see … why? Because this is the abode where the senses never reach” (p. 87).

Bion concerns himself with the effectiveness of psychoanalytic interpretation. He argues that effective interpretation should bridge the gap between knowledge learned and truth lived. Within the context of this gap between reality and unreality he, unlike Freud, contends that, “The interpretation must do more than increase knowledge” (1965, p. 148) and asks, “Is it possible through psycho-analytic interpretation to effect a transition from knowing the phenomena of the real self to being the real self” (p. 149). Interpretations that simply increase knowledge maintain “the inaccessibility of “O” (p. 147), and “postpones ‘O’ indefinitely” (p. 149). From Bion’s point of view, accumulations of empirical knowledge function to occlude truth. Clinically, the analyst can offer interpretations that are true to the facts but that block the unfolding at-one-ment with the ultimate emotional truth of the patient. (See vignette “Ben” below.) For Bion, effective and accurate interpretations result in transformations in 0 (ultimate reality, truth) not simply in K (knowledge). They require a capacity in the analyst for “at-one-ment” because “it (0) cannot be known.”

Consider the following meditation instructions. Note the parallels with Bion’s stance regarding memory, desire, understanding, and sense data. Both Bion’s and Tai-hui’s technical instructions stem from nondualist assumptions. They both require temporary disengagement from and reengagement with the phenomonal world. Circular movements occur between sense and non-sense. Both experiences result in an intensification and involvement with reality and an ever-widening spiral of expansion from the definite to the infinite. Ultimately, the definite is infinite and the infinite definite. They transcend the gap. Suzuki provides the following meditation instructions.

“Purge your mind thoroughly of thoughts-thoughts about all things, thoughts about goodness and badness of things. Events past are already past; therefore have no thoughts of them [For Bion, this would include factual information about the analysand such as marital status, etc.], and your mind is disconnected from the past. Thus past events are done away with.” [Suzuki adds the following footnote: “Events to come are not yet come … do not seek for them. Thus your mind is disconnected from the future.”] Suzuki continues:

Present events are already here before you; then have no attachment to them. Not to have attachment means not to rouse any feelings of hate or love. [Bion observes that hate and love, not unlike K can saturate psychic space and obstruct the awareness of evolving truth.] Your mind is then disconnected from the present, and events before your eyes [sense data related to KI are done away with. When the past, present, and future are thus in no way taken in, they are completely done away with. When thoughts come, and go do not follow them, and your pursuing mind [Desire] is cut off. When abiding (with thoughts) do not tarry in them, and your abiding mind is cut off. When thus freed from abiding (with thoughts) you are said to be abiding with non-abiding [for Bion at-one-ment or participation in hallucinosis]. If you have a thoroughly clear perception as to the mind having no abiding place anywhere, this is known as having a thoroughly clear perception of one’s own being … All this is understood when the unconscious is in evidence anywhere. (1972b, p. 66)

Similarly, Bion (1970) advises, “It is necessary to inhibit dwelling on memories and desires. They are two facets of the same thing: both are composed of elements based on sense impressions … [and] If the mind is preoccupied with elements perceptible to sense it will be that much less able to perceive elements that cannot be sensed” (p. 41). And, “To repeat: the capacity to forget, the ability to eschew desire and understanding, must be regarded as essentail discipline for the psychoanalyst. Failure to practice this discipline will lead to a steady deterioration in the powers of observation whose maintenance is essential” (p. 51). [Further on Bion offers the following technical description. Note the parallels to the Suzuki “no-mind” meditation instructions presented above.] Bion writes,

To attain the state of mind essential for the practice of psycho-analysis I avoid any exercise of memory; I make no notes. When I am tempted to remember the events of any particular session I resist the temptation. If I find myself wandering mentally into the domain of memory I desist. In this my practice is at variance with the view that notes should be kept or that psychoanalysts should find some method by which they can record their sessions mechanically or should train themselves to have a good memory. If I find that I am without any clue to what the patient is doing and am tempted to feel that the secret lies hidden in something I have forgotten, I resist any impulse to remember what happened or how I interpreted what happened on some previous occasion. If I find that some halfmemory is beginning to obtrude I resist its recall no matter how pressing or desirable its recall may seem to be (p. 55).

Bion outlines a similar procedure with regard to desires. He writes that: “I avoid entertaining desires and attempt to dismiss them from my mind … Such desires erode the analyst’s power to analyse and lead to progressive deterioration of his intuition. Introspection will show how widespread and frequent memories and desires are. They are constantly present in the mind and to follow the advice I am giving is a difficult discipline” (1970, p. 56).

The no-mind school and Bion, as evidenced in the above technical instructions, both develop a position that transcends the linearity of dualism and nondualism. Considering the pre-Buddhist Indian Vedantic tradition that touched Bion during his early life and influenced both Bion’s and Huineng’s Indian ancestors, we can suggest that they represent branches of one root planted in the same soil. We become more entrenched in Freud’s dualism when we view Bion as “true to Freud’s” or simply a “supplement” as some authors suggest. (Epstein, 1984, 1988; Rubin, 1985). Further, it would seem reasonable to argue that previous discussions on psychoanalytic evenly hovering attention and Theravadan bare attention are limited to technical comparisons, in part because of a discrepancy that results from differing basic assumptions.

Freud’s efforts to squeeze his theory and technique into the Cartesian dualistic frame would appear to be dissonant with the basic monistic assumptions that drive the Buddhist system. This would appear to create a state of dissonance regarding the internalization of the two systems for individuals involved in both. Limiting the discussion to “either or”-“same or different” comparisons by focusing on the specific parallels and the relation to elements of technique avoids internal dissonance and, therefore, wards off catastrophe. However, this stance reflects and supports the gap.

Matte-Blanco (1975, 1988), who develops a most elaborate and detailed reformulation of the Freudian unconscious, observes that at the deeper strata of the unconscious experience, logical distinctions dissolve. He describes two modes of being and accompanying logical forms, “symmetrical” and “asymmetrical,” to understand and to discuss relations between conscious and unconscious. The relationship between asymmetrical and symmetrical provides a way to understand the combined experience of psychoanalysis and Buddhist practice as they merge toward indivisibility and become fully integrated by individuals involved in both disciplines. Further, it seems reasonable to speculate on the nature of the influence of Bion’s early life in India and the resulting internalization of those experiences that eventually emerge in his theory. Bleandonu comments on Bion’s interest in eastern philosophy. “Bion,” he writes, “describes psychological states which are not unlike those encountered in yoga. He was certainly very interested in the Orientalism which flourished in Western culture in the 1950s and 1960s … Bion spells out his sense of recognition as he finds aspects of his work confirmed in the Baghavad-Gita” (1994, p. 285).

Bion advises the reader that “no one who denudes himself of memory and desire, and of all those elements of sense impression ordinarily present, can have any doubt of the reality of the psychoanalytical experience which remains ineffable” (1970, p. 35). However, confrontation with the ineffable, or as Suzuki puts it, the “unobtainable” or “unknowable,” is “catastrophic” (Bion, 1965, 1970) and “terrifying” (Suzuki, 1972a, 1972 b). When met with any degree of success, the analyst who practices Bion’s recommendations, experiences a catastrophic threat to the sense of self that accompanies the resulting state of consciousness. Bion thus draws attention to a basic source of resistance. He says: “Resistance is only manifest when the threat is contact with what is believed to be real,” and, “Resistance operates because it is feared that the reality of the object is imminent” (1965, p. 147). Reality becomes a source of terror and delight. From the Buddhist point of view Nagao (1989, p. 4) notes, “By making one constantly look into the abyss of nothingness and confront the death of the self, emptiness becomes an object of human dread … emptiness was a dreaded reversal … an overturning of the ground of selfhood.” Fueled by existential anxiety the individual maintains the gap and remains imprisoned in the reified world of sense mediated experience. Dissolution of the gap simultaneously deepens symmetrization and intensifies lived experience. The imminent reality of the object, “anything whatever-its reality” (Bion, 1965, p. 147), is in this formulation, its ultimate unreality. What is wholeheartedly believed to be a solid crystal ball in reality is a bubble. Pop!

Bion’s positive message centers on his attempt to expand psychoanalysis beyond the confines imposed by atomist and materialist limitations of enlightenment secularism. He strives for a restoration of the spirit in psychoanalysis. In this respect, knowledge produces more ground and restricts freedom that remains embedded in the sense/ground. We crave solid ground to stand on. However, we constantly find ourselves slipping off the edge. We thus construct castles made of sand on which to stand. They dissolve, washed over by the shifting tides of ongoing movement between the definite and the infinite, sense and non-sense, consciousness and unconsciousness. Bion and Suzuki both continuously point to this faulty foundation. Therefore, Bion notes that “O does not fall in the domain of knowledge or learning save incidentally; it can ‘become,’ but cannot be ‘known”’ (1970, p. 26). Knowing based on sense creates and perpetuates the gap. Consistent with Bion’s thinking on non-sense, Suzuki makes the following remark concerning sense: “To know means to set the object of knowledge against the knower. Knowledge always implies a dichotomy and for this reason can never be the thing itself. We know something about it” (1972b, p. 118; My emphasis). Suzuki continues, “as far as knowledge is concerned, it stands outside the thing, can never enter into it, but to know the thing really in the true sense of the term means to become the thing itself, to be identified with it in its totality, inwardly as well as outwardly” (p. 118).

Duality/Unity: Illusion

From Bion’s psychoanalytic perspective and from Hui-neng’s Zen perspective the gap functions as a necessary illusion. The gap appears when asymmetrical processes predominate. The gap provides protection from the terror of “being-in-itself” or “beening O.” However, this tenuous protection forecloses the possibility of delight. This ultimate illusion holds very real consequences for the seeker who finds his way to the edge.

The gap as artifact reflects the reification of the experiential extremes of nihilism and eternalism-a freeze-frame moment of the natural psychic movement between being and non-being, or as Bion so eloquently depicts in the ongoing come together break apart flow. Here is a fundamental theoretical and philosophical break from Freud. Bion intends to free-up blocks to this natural infinite rhythm. Freud attempts to stop the movement with a return to homeostasis. Hui-neng’s criticism of “tranquilization,” which he equates with psychic death, applies equally to Freud as to his Buddhist opponents.

Paradoxically, the self-protective reification creates the illusion of the gap and the fear of the abyss by enlarging the gap. We prefer a sanctified heaven and a demonized hell to remain oceans apart. Deepening symmetrization dissolves the illusion that asymmetrization crystalizes. Continuous movement prevails. Things are not as solid or as permanent as we think (or need to think) they are. As unconsciousness manifests, the illusion, the form of the gap becomes revealed. What occurs as abyss, Matte-Blanco would attribute to the subject’s incapacity to perceive dimensions of experience not ordinarily accessible to asymmetrical consciousness. Consequently Hui-neng speaks of an abrupt awakening. This perceptual state finds expression in the following vignette.


Ben, a gifted psychic healer who I have seen in psychoanalysis for six years at the time of this writing, rarely practices. He expresses fear of his gifts and abilities. “To make them known,” Ben says, “would make others unbearably uncomfortable that I can see so deeply into their being.” I raise the question of possible connection between his hesitancy to practice and the possible threat to the emotional tie to his father and possibly to me. This transference formulation constitutes an important treatment theme and appears in many guises. The demands and restrictions of the tie determine Ben’s “permissible” range of creative movement and emotional expression. Ben’s father, a man of science and very restricted himself, criticized his son’s creativity, spontaneity, and intuitive powers. For example, Ben reports, “I would have to pretend not to have any feelings, or sense of what was going on between my parents in relation to their troubled marriage. I had to be blind and act like nothing was wrong.” Ben described his father as “obsessively analytic and antiemotional.” He was punished for writing songs and improvising or being a creative and feeling person in general.

These restrictions had the effect of making him feel like his arms were cemented to his body. He would become enraged. His contained rage would erupt in the form of hives, mostly on his hands and spreading up his arms. They dissipated once he allowed himself free expression of his rage. “I would like to strangle him to death for choking me.” Hands could both create and destroy. I equated his healing powers as “creative, intuitive, and as an expression of his empathy.” He disagreed and remarked that, “it only appears so because of its highly nuanced nature.” He continued to explain: “It is like a magician who knows the technique and makes a series of highly technical maneuvers that appear like magic to the audience.”

Ben’s need to maintain a logical stance with me and an accompanying anxiety that I was questioning his state of mind were obvious and perhaps accurate to a certain extent. However, something else was evolving that needed my acceptance, despite my lack of understanding. Ben could perceive a dimension of experience not accessible to others who had not bridged this gap. For him, logic and intuition become merged into a unitive experience.

This situation creates a dilemma. Should Ben’s comments or my reasoning be viewed as resistance to the offered observation as part of his pathology or as mystical experience? Are these arbitrary distinctions necessary? If existing formulations, as Bion argues, do not contain this experience, I can only perpetuate a gap by attempting to fit this experience into existing formulations. Does he need to insist on the nonintuitive so as not to threaten the tie to his father (myself). This becomes a source of dissonance. This dissonance results from reification and a resulting polarization. The distance between theory and experience, between what one learns to expect and what actually happens becomes infinitely vast. Does one hide at the edge of the gap and run into the safety of existing formulations that both illuminate and obscure? Or, can we leap into the abyss, trusting intuition and the message that both Bion and Hui-neng articulate so clearly? From the level of symmetrization that Ben reaches, he experiences intuition and logic as the same. If I can’t allow that due to my own anxiety, I will continue to stand firm with my “transference interpretation” and Ben’s “resistance.” This is not to say that this would be invalid. However, the opportunity exists that supports a continued evolution, one that at least momentarily dissolves the need to maintain the gap that leaves us both standing at opposite edges of a precipice separated by a bottomless abyss. What is at stake? Do I wish to “save” Ben from his delusion and pull him back to sense? What does he want? Can I follow his lead and participate in freeing us both from fears evoked by and that militate against evolving truth? Can we together realize and transcend the limitations on our experiences imposed by the illusion of the gap? Is it an illusion? If so, do we, for our own reasons, need to collude in this illusion?

Leap of Faith

It is difficult to talk about Bion or Hui-neng without some reference to faith. Faith becomes essential for plunging into the depths of the seemingly infinite gap between reality and phenomena. Without faith, the relinquishment of sense-mediated knowledge, according to Bion, results in “a simultaneous apparent deposition of the reality principle” (1970, p. 48). This generates terror and facilitates resistance to lived truth. Faith facilitates the existential leap from “knowing about” to “being O.” Suzuki observes that strong faith engenders a spirit of inquiry and generates the capacity within the practitioner required for throwing oneself down the precipice into the abyss created by the gap. Sense occludes faith, and faith allows for freedom from sense.

Consider the following graphic description of the Zen student’s confrontation with the gap. Through a continuous struggle with a koan, the student comes to the edge of a precipice and faces a life and death struggle not unlike the catastrophic confrontation with being that Bion describes when the analyst attempts to move beyond memory, desire, and understanding and stretch beyond the self-imposed restrictions of theoretical limitations toward 0.

If you want to get at the unadulterated truth of egolessness, you must once for all let go your hold and fall over the precipice … What does it mean to let go your hold on the precipice? Suppose a man has wandered out on the remote mountains, where no one else has ever ventured. He comes to the edge of a precipice unfathomably deep, the rugged rock covered with moss is extremely slippery, giving him no sure foothold; he can neither advance nor retreat, death is looking at him in the face. His only hope lies in holding on to the vine which his hands have grasped; his very life depends on his holding on to it. If he should by carelessness let go his hold, his body would be thrown down to the abyss and crushed to pieces, bones and all. (Suzuki, 1994, p. 94)

The nightmare that Suzuki’s seeker faces holds relevance and functions as a useful model to explore existential gaps in the psychoanalytic situation. Consider the following vignette.

Ethan’s Gap: Muddy Ditch/Bottomless Canyon

Ethan glides through life not living, tip-toeing around, dancing about on eggshells, always with regret as an afterthought. Ethan exists outside the mix. What was a separating “brick wall” according to him is beginning to feel more like a thin membrane. Awareness of how he keeps himself from breaking through is becoming torturous. Deadly to remain, deadly to break through. Like a nightmare, the gap fluctuates from what Ethan describes as a “shallow ditch and a bottomless canyon.” Is the abyss his widowed mother’s depression swallowing him up, or is it a measure of a much needed, yet feared, separation? The struggle is between life and death. All the while Ethan observes his dead life trickling away. The human condition-the inevitability of our mortality-looms large. The omnipresent cloud hanging overhead becomes an enveloping fog. Both analyst and analysand alike are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the human condition. We can collude to escape the dread of death. Collusion feels like a safer death. I can offer interpretations that function as a buffer, which cushions us both and keeps us both oblivious to the needed inevitable fall into the abyss. We are at a point of birth of emerging feelings. Ethan fidgets nervously. His body expresses his silent vulnerability as he feels me honing in on his feelings. Should he be “found out” he says, “would be both a horror and a relief.” He says: “If only I could give up this fight, lay down and cry.” Ethan’s terms are those of an armed conflict. He speaks of “defeat,” “losing my battle with you,” “letting up my guard, giving up my watchful defence.” His language points toward his relation to the gap. Ethan clings so close to the edge of a precipice, afraid to let go his hold, afraid and full of regret not to. Meanwhile, the sands of time gnaw away at his hold. It is truly a matter of life and death. Their paradoxical mutuality looms large, transcendence through embrace. Ethan is caught.

Gap As Actuality, Gap As Symbol

Ethan finds himself victim to the existential pathology that Hui-neng attempts to heal through an “abrupt” awakening. Human nature reifies either pole and dulls awareness that ultimately life is death, death is life, and either is neither. Gap and precipice could be breast, womb, depression, symbiosis, parasitism. However, symbol risks becoming another form of reification that resists the painful stark reality of this existential dilemma. Ethan hangs off the precipice fraying vine, rats gnawing away, tiger above, lion below. Symbols risk not hearing Ethan’s pleas for help. He gestures with an upheld hand Buddhalike, the barely inch of distance between the tips of his arched forefinger and thumb: “I feel that close to breaking through.”

Suzuki writes,

It is the same with the student of Zen. When he grapples with a Koan singlehandedly he will come to see that he has reached the limit of his mental tension, and he is brought to a standstill. Like the man hanging over the precipice he is completely at a loss what to do next. Except for occasional feelings of uneasiness and despair, it is like death itself. All of a sudden he finds his mind and body wiped out of existence, together with the koan. This is what is known as “letting go your hold.” As you become awakened from the stupor and regain your breath it is like drinking water and knowing for yourself that it is cold. It will be a joy inexpressible. (1994, p. 94)

Can we as analysts let go our hold on our symbols and theories of what we imagine should be and allow ourselves to experience the ever evolving truth being-in-itself? Can we let go, and then let go of letting go before it becomes another restricting force creating an endless repetition of gaps?