Self-Discovery Portal

Supreme Doctrine: A recap of Benoit's main ideas

A directory of items following the introductory remarks:
Soto Zen Abstract Self | Compensations | Compensation Categories | Conciliation of Opposites | Faith, Hope & Charity | Humility and acceptance | The Idealist | Instinctive Self | The Materialist | Not-doing | Opposing tendencies | Pretenses | Satori | Values inventory

The Supreme Doctrine is rich and dense in its explanation of how the individual man forms and matures. Benoit refers to this process as the pattern of our natural development, which leaves us with a great sense of metaphysical distress.

The central experience of our existence, beneath the surface waves of happiness and sadness, is a feeling of being continually overstrained. When we look inside ourselves, we see an ongoing conflict that creates this distress. Benoit describes how this distress comes about and how the mind attempts to handle it, always unsuccessfully. The only real solution, he says, is the interior realization of our true state of being, which he identifies with the radical transformation of satori.

Following is a list of key terms used by Benoit and a description of how he presents them. If they stir your interest to the point of reading the book, be forewarned that you may not find it easy reading. But if your experience is like mine, you'll find the effort truly rewarding. Benoit says that interior change requires two distinct components: conceptual understanding and concrete suffering. When I first read The Supreme Doctrine nearly twenty years ago, I knew it was an important book for me, but I couldn't have said why. Then a few years ago I was inspired to blow the dust off and reread it. I read the first several chapters a little bit at a time over a month or so and then took the book with me on a personal retreat, where his definitions of acceptance and humility proved to be a catalyst for an experience in which I felt as if I encompassed a sphere of knowing too large for my mind to comprehend, where from "up there" everything "down here" was (is) perfect just as it is, including all the humiliations that life had brought me and all the characteristics that I didn't like about myself. The experience lifted a great weight from my shoulders.

My friend and teacher for over twenty years, Richard Rose – a man who experienced satori or Self-realization in 1947 – recommended Benoit's book especially for the description of the Conciliatory Principle. Rose described the conciliation of opposites, or triangulation in his terms, as the process by which every seeker goes within, climbing Jacob's Ladder as he retraverses his ray of life back to its Source.

Instinctive or animal self

Our inner conflict arises around age two, at which time our psychosomatic organism matures to the point where the concept forms that we are a distinct being separated from the outside world. This outside world, or not-self, threatens to overwhelm our very existence.

The instinctive or animal self knows that to survive it has to have the love, or at least the approval of, the "big people." Rejection by the big people represents more than emotional upset, for the child realizes that abandonment means death.

This perspective was captured eloquently by W.H. Auden in The Sea and the Mirror, his reflections on Shakespeare's Tempest:

When I awoke into my life,
a sobbing dwarf
whom giants served
only as they pleased,
I was not what I seemed.

Abstract self

Our inner conflict really heats up around puberty, when our psychosomatic organism, or body-mind, forms an intellectual ability to see things from someone else's point of view. We begin to realize, at least at odd moments, that we're not the prime mover and beneficiary of the universe.

This abstract self has an intuition of being divine, or having a divine essence, but the constant evidence assailing us contradicts this intuitive feeling. We see that we're not omniscient, not unchanging, etc.

The abstract self alias The Saint, and the instinctive self (see above) alias The Sinner, with their incompatible world views, come into immediate and ongoing conflict in their struggle for who's going to get the upper hand. Imbalances between these two sides of us result in the creation of materialists and idealists (see below).

The materialist

When our abstract self is weak and the animal self strong, we become convinced that the threatening not-self can be neutralized over time, by accumulating material wealth and thus building a moat of security. The abstract self's existential doubts are suppressed, and the materialist lives a relatively smooth life.

The Idealist

When the abstract self rides high and the animal self low, the idealist comes into being. He has to squelch the animal side of himself, because admitting its existence implies the existence of the not-self, and the abstract self knows that a confrontation with the not-self cannot be won. Therefore he lives with his head in the clouds.


The very nature of our inner, personal world is a system of images from our memory arranged according to our individual psychosomatic structures into compensations. These compensations keep us from feeling that we're not the center of the universe, by structuring a universe in our mind that is centered on us.

What do these compensations compensate for? Our illusory belief that we're separated from Reality. This feeling is captured poignantly in the opening lines of a poem by Richard Rose, "A Worm Beneath a Highway":

I was an earthworm yesterday
And all my life I lived in clay
And did aspire the light....

To understand our compensations, the starting point is to look at our values:

Values inventory

To understand our compensations, all we need to do is to look at our values. Here's a list of twelve common ones. Select the ones that are particularly real or important to you, that give meaning to your life, that you would be lost without:

1.  Acceptance
2.  Creativity
3.  Love, family
4.  Friendship
5.  Fulfilling responsibilities
6.  Enjoyment, excitement
7.  Helping others
8.  Honesty, moral integrity
9.  Wealth
10. Respect, status, stature
11. Self-development
12. Truth, beauty

Then look for the corresponding compensation categories:

Compensation categories

Benoit describes six compensation categories and how they are related to our individual values. This is how we keep ourselves at the center of our imaginary universe:



Family, love,

     * Being loved (or hated; we prefer the positive, but the negative also works as a compensation if the positive fails)
     * Being nourished, served


Fun, pleasure


     Seizing its nourishment from the outside world
     * Enjoyment
     * Love of riches (eating the outside world)

Family, love, helping

     Nourishing the outside world
     * Loving, giving pleasure, giving life, helping, serving

Fulfilling responsibility
Honesty, moral integrity

     * Joy of doing one's job well, doing one's duty
     * Being faithful to a moral code, living up to an ideal



     * The joy of attracting attention, being admired (or feared)


Truth, beauty, knowledge

     * Joy of participating in beauty, art, knowledge



     * Joy of creating a work of art, an intellectual work, an institution



     All the inner ambitions, material and subtle, such as showing what I can do, working to become rich or famous, developing my gifts, obtaining superior states of consciousness or spiritual powers, realizing myself, discovering who I am, etc.

Compensations often occur in combination with each other. A common combination, for example, is that of loving and being loved, which is the ego both nourishing and being nourished by the outside world. This compensation maintains the two necessary, and conflicting, pretenses (see below): that of the animal self, being a separate creature cut off from the universe, and that of the abstract self, being the divine center of the universe. But what happens when the compensatory images don't cooperate, as in a rebuff by a loved one? This may lead to either full inversion or partial inversion.

In the case of full inversion, the compensation of loving flips over to one of hating. This still "works." A partial inversion, however, is dysfunctional. In this case, we want to be loved but are unable to accept any particular opportunity that comes along, because we both love and hate the same object. The partial inversion represents a compensation that is no longer working to handle distress. Benoit defines this situation as neurosis.

The key to change is either through shock, as in the case of the rebuff above, or from an extended period of ordinary living, since compensatory images eventually lose their effectiveness. This occurs through two channels, both of which have to be activated. The first is the channel of intellect, in our abstract side, where we comprehend that any compensation only works temporarily and can't relieve our distress permanently. There is never enough money, love, etc. to permanently "fix" us. The other channel is that of concrete suffering. Our animal or emotional self has to learn the same lesson in its own way.

Zen, or any system of facing ourselves rather than running away from ourselves, accelerates the process. One compensatory image loses its effectiveness and is replaced by another, more subtle one. Thus change occurs on a horizontal surface, approaching the vertical wall or abyss of satori.


The cause of our distress is never in the outside world, according to Benoit. As our projections, or pretenses, are dashed against the wall of reality, we experience humiliation. This comes in the form of loss of pride, dignity or self-respect. How can this occur? Only because our self-image is faulty.

The pretense of The Saint (the abstract self) goes something like this: he projects an idealized image of himself onto the imaginary screen we view in our mind (the only place we actually "see"), and he falls in love with this image, the Ego, as Narcissus fell in love with his image reflected in the pool of water. This projected Angel pretends ignorance of its animal self and escapes into dreams.

The Sinner (the emotional self), on the other hand, projects a divine image onto some aspect of the outer world – another person, a just cause, a personalized god, an ideal – identifying with and falling in love with that projected image. Unfortunately the projected image often doesn't go along with this pretense, and rejection occurs.

Benoit offers the hope that when we no longer pretend, nothing will ever injure us again.

Opposing tendencies

Our central feeling of distress comes from an ongoing inner argument trying to resolve opposing tendencies. Fritz Perls in his pop-Gestalt psychology referred to this as a conflict between Top Dog and Underdog. Transaction Analysis pictured it as Parent Tape versus Child Tape. Do I watch TV or do something I've been putting off? Do I exercise or get out the ice cream? The general argument often takes the form of indulgence versus restraint. We make a value judgment of the conflicting voices, assigning positive and negative, good and bad, etc. tags to the opposing sides, and then we identify ourselves with the preferred side. When the preferred tendency wins, we attribute it to will power. When the disavowed side wins, we say we lack will.

There's a Zen saying that as soon as you have good and evil, confusion results and the mind is lost. Our value judgments elevate one aspect of reality at the expense of a truer composite picture.

Humility and acceptance

Benoit distinguishes between acceptance and resignation. Unlike resignation, acceptance follows from considering something with our whole being and arriving at the view that we wouldn't change it even if we had the power to do so.

Acceptance in the form of the conciliation of opposites (see below) may appeal to us as the way out of our existential distress, but how do we actually go about it? Benoit tells us that humiliation is the way, but it is not a way. It is not a discipline to be practiced, since trying to be humble is really a form of pride.

In our desire to escape from distress, we search for doctrines of salvation and personal gurus. But the true teacher is our daily life. All that we can do and should do is to allow the instruction of concrete reality to sink in – to recognize our humiliation when reality strikes our pretense rather than run from it. Instead of trying to modify our pretenses so that we become more adept at avoiding reality, this approach involves using the evidence that comes to us to understand reality and be transformed by it.

Satori is released at the instant when the absurdity of all our pretentious efforts produces true humility. Remaining motionless in the recognition of humiliation allows the intervention of the Conciliatory Principle. Suffering fades. Calm and relaxation occur. The "old" person dies. You find yourself in the only place in the world where there is perfect security – the asylum of rest.

Conciliation of opposites

What do we generally do about our inner conflict or distress? We either try to change the outside world or the inside world. How? By doing the opposite of or negating whatever we think is causing the problem. For example, if our compensation is one of being loved, rejected affection often turns to anger, and frustrated desire turns to fear of being hurt. On an inner level, we pursue self-mastery. Disappointment may lead to a plan to have "no expectations." If conceit is seen as our problem, we may decide to become humble. If desire is the perceived problem, we may decide to become detached.

Does our ploy work? When unrequited love turns to hate we're still caught in the web of obsession. Similarly, when self-love turns to self-loathing or, in its milder form, approval turns to disapproval, we're still mired in confusion. Picture a line with love at one end and hate at the other. We vacillate back and forth, eventually hoping to find some resolution at the midpoint when all else fails. We may find temporary rest there, but it doesn't last.

Now picture a triangle with the love-hate line as the base. What Benoit tells us is that if we can view both love and hate with an impartial eye, we may be able to triangulate to a point of observation where a conciliation of opposites occurs, which yields understanding. This superior point of observation is the apex of the triangle, where we've risen above the plane of the problem. Similarly, triangulating above affection and anger, or above passion and revulsion, may yield a view of compassion.

What happens when we struggle between fear and desire? This often produces anxiety, which might be pictured as the nadir of an inverted triangle, whereas if the triangle is flipped upright through a conciliation of fear and desire, it may produce a magical neutrality of view. Likewise, trying to offset disappointment by adopting an attitude of no-expectation doesn't work, since it creates an expectation of no-expectation, but a conciliation of these opposites yields an impartiality to fulfillment or disappointment of our expectations. Thus we can work more effectively for fulfillment of a desire since we no longer fear the possible outcome. This is much more straightforward than negating desire by attempting to cultivate detachment, which is creating the desire to be desireless. Triangulating to a point of observation above desire and offsetting fear produces true detachment.

This triangulation may sound like an enormous effort, or like something that requires adroitness beyond our level, but Benoit tells us that there is a Conciliatory Principle at work all the time – and this Conciliatory Principle is what created us in the first place.

Faith, Hope & Charity

Our psychosomatic organism is built by a flow of energy or life-force from below. First to coalesce is the instinctive center, with its appetite to exist, its desire to affirm a distinct self, and a desire for only the positive aspects of existence. Next to form is the emotional center, with its hopes for success of various sorts on the phenomenal plane. And then comes the intellectual center, with beliefs to support the hopes of the emotional center. Benoit refers to this organism as the "natural man." Later there is activated a downward-flowing current that first transforms the intellectual center into a new man with Faith: the intellectual intuition realizes that the Creative Principle has not abandoned its creation and in fact has never stopped working for its benefit. Next the emotional center is transformed by Hope: paradoxically, hopes are annihilated because they are seen as absurd, and there is no longer anything to fear, since nothing is any longer expected from the phenomenal world. And then the instinctive center is transformed by Charity: what was once a desire for only positive aspects of existence becomes an appetite for all aspects of existence.

Before satori both currents exist simultaneously. "He [the new man] must increase and I [the old man; the ego] must decrease." The instinctive and the emotional life go on as usual, while the downward current brings understanding and transformation in parallel.

And finally "A wandering cur who begs food and pity, pitilessly chased away by the street urchins, is transformed into a lion with a golden mane, whose roar strikes terror in the hearts of all feeble creatures."


There's a Zen saying that there is nothing to be done. This is often rationalized to mean "going with the flow," but the concept of not-doing is more subtle than that. Benoit tells us that while we don't disturb the course of our life, what needs to be done is an inner task which is done in parallel with our life, not in it.

An analogy he uses is that of contracting and relaxing a muscle. Close your fingers into a fist, for example. For this contraction of muscles to occur, cells in the medulla oblongata have to be active, or "doing." Now relax your fingers. This occurs after the medullar cells became deactivated ("not doing"), which they cannot do on their own. They have to receive messages from cerebral cells, which are active, or "doing," telling the medullar cells to stop doing.

Our inner world is like a muscle spasm and needs to relax in order to allow satori. But this relaxing or not-doing is accompanied by a higher-level doing.


This is the word used in Zen teaching to designate the promise or payoff of Self-realization, of finding the answer to the question "Who am I?" Synonyms include self-definition, awakening to our Inner Self, sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi, and becoming the Truth. It's often confused, though, with the lesser amazement of the "aha!" experience, when after great tension and bewilderment something becomes perfectly clear to us.

Every one of us lives in the expectation of eventually finding perfect happiness (the truth of which took me some time to accept), and we believe that some modification either of the outside world or within ourselves is the key that will unlock the door to this lost paradise. The truth, according to Benoit and to Zen, is that this paradise is not something past or future but has always been our state and is our eternal being. But something keeps us from becoming aware of it. Becoming conscious of that state is not something that will be available to us in the future but is offered to us from this moment, at every moment.

Benoit Zen Home Page | Benoit Bio | Benoit Recap | Benoit Technique | Self-Discovery Portal

© 2000-2024. All rights reserved. | Back to Top