Anapanasati Sutta, part 3
This week we're continuing once again with our discussion of the Anapanasati Sutta, looking at the third section (or 'tetrad') of practices. Each step in the Anapanasati Sutta builds on the ones that came before it, so there will be a few references back to the previous parts (part 1, part 2) - it may be worth reading those first before proceeding unless you're already familiar with this discourse.
Moving into the third tetrad - 'turning the light around'
As I've noted above, the Anapanasati Sutta consists of sixteen sequential steps grouped into four 'tetrads' (subgroups of four steps each).
In the first tetrad, we focused on the activity of the body, first by examining the breath, then broadening out our awareness to encompass the entire body. Finally, we allowed our comparatively coarse bodily activity to calm down sufficiently for it to fade into the background, allowing us to observe the subtler activity of the mind with greater ease.
In the second tetrad, we then began that transition toward examining subtler phenomena, first starting with subtle/energetic body phenomena, then moving into the purely mental. Finally, and in parallel with the last section of previous tetrad, we allowed our mental activity to calm down as well, allowing us to observe something subtler still.
And, apart from the activity of body and mind, what else is there?
In his essay Fukanzazengi (Universally Recommended Instructions for Seated Meditation), Zen master Dogen says this:
You should stop the intellectual activity of pursuing words and learn the stepping back of turning the light around and shining back (ekō henshō); body and mind will naturally drop off and the original face will appear... Think of what doesn't think. How do you think of what doesn't think? Nonthinking. This is the essential art of sitting meditation.
Many meditation practices are focused on the 'events' in our experience - a bodily sensation, a thought, a sound, a visual image. We tend to think of these as corresponding to 'things' which are 'out there in the world', but from the subjective perspective they're better thought of as 'events'. An event is something with a beginning, middle and end. Every sound, every thought, every sensation in the body begins at a certain moment in time, has some duration (be it long or short), and finally comes to an end. Examining the 'events' of our experience can lead us to deep insights into fundamental Buddhist principles such as impermanence, and as such is well worth doing.
Another approach, however, is to examine the 'mind' (or 'awareness') that experiences those events. What is it that hears the sounds around us? What is it that feels the sensations in the body? What is it that thinks the thoughts flowing through each moment of experience?
Dogen describes this investigation as 'turning the light around' because you won't find the answer 'out there'. There's no 'event' which will reveal that which experiences the event - what we're trying to find is the very thing which is looking at all of those events. So instead we must try to find a way to turn our awareness back on itself.
That is the work of the third tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta.
The third tetrad
Here's what the Buddha has to say for this section:
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing the mind'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing the mind.' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in gladdening the mind'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out gladdening the mind.' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in concentrating the mind'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out concentrating the mind.' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in liberating the mind'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out liberating the mind.'
As mentioned in previous weeks, each tetrad is associated with one of the four satipatthanas, key aspects of mindfulness practice in the early Buddhist tradition which are elaborated in great detail in the Satipatthana Sutta (on which I've written a whole series of articles). Appropriately enough, the third satipatthana is concerned with the mind. In the Satipatthana Sutta, however, 'mind' is pointed to indirectly, through an examination of 'mind states'. We're invited to determine the difference between 'a mind with greed' and 'a mind without greed', 'a mind with aversion' and 'a mind without aversion' and so on.
This investigation can reveal some surprising results. It certainly appears to us that our experience of the world is pretty 'objective' - I see a table, you see the same table, we agree that there's a table there. Anything else would be madness! But what we find when we look at our mind states is the extent to which they colour our experience. Maybe you've had the experience of being in a rush to get somewhere, and wouldn't you know it, every bad driver is out on the roads today, all the traffic lights are against you, every little thing is annoying. So unfair! Then again, maybe you've had the experience of being pretty chilled out, maybe on holiday or at a weekend, and although the person you're with is getting very worked up about something, you don't see why it's such a big deal. Just let it go!
What we discover when we explore our mind states is that our state of mind has a powerful impact on our overall experience of the moment. There's more going on in every single moment of our lives than we could possibly take in all at once, which means that our minds have to be selective - something within us has to decide 'these bits are important and need to be highlighted, and everything else can take a back seat'. And when we're in a negative frame of mind, the negative aspects of our present-moment experience tend to be sharply highlighted, whereas when we're in a positive frame of mind, the world appears softer and gentler. The world is the same (it really isn't a conspiracy of slow drivers trying to get in our way!) but our experience of it is different - because our mind is different.
So that's the Satipatthana practice - pointing to the mind indirectly, by inviting us to examine our mind states and see what effect they have on our experience. The Anapanasati practice is more direct - we're simply invited to 'experience the mind' directly. How do we do that?
Step 9: Experiencing the mind
The key to this step is to become aware of awareness, to know that you are knowing.
Find a nearby object and look at it for a few moments. You're knowing the object. Now, see if you can notice that you are aware of the object. The object is still there, but your focus has shifted from the object itself to your knowing of the object. It's a subtle thing at first, but with practice you'll get the hang of it.
A practice like Silent Illumination leads us toward this 'awareness of awareness' quite directly. We begin by focusing the mind on the body sensations, so that it's less prone to distraction. Then we open up to become aware of everything in the field of experience, so that we're not focused on any particular event. As we continue to rest in this open awareness - essentially, declining to take an interest in the events of experience no matter how exciting they might be - it's very natural for awareness to flip around and take itself as an 'object'.
Another way of looking at it is that Silent Illumination practice invites us to be aware of everything - the entire contents of awareness - and as such leads us in the direction of noticing awareness itself. It can help to have an attitude of being aware of 'experience as a whole' rather than 'lots and lots of sensations all at once' - the latter is still approaching experience from a separative, 'divide and conquer' mindset, whereas the former tends to have a unifying quality to it that helps to step out of the 'event perspective' and shift into the 'mind perspective'. I found it very helpful to train myself to rest in this sense of 'experiencing all of awareness at once' when I was trying to 'experience the mind' for myself.
Maybe some of that helps, or maybe it sounds like gibberish! I remember very well when I was first getting into this style of practice that I would spend many hours poring over instructions like these, trying and failing to make heads or tails of them. Just keep at it, and sooner or later it'll click.
When it does, the experience is often described as like finding a 'still point' in awareness, a feeling of having found something that doesn't come and go and doesn't change like the 'events out there' do. This experience can actually be a bit misleading, and can lead to people reifying 'The Mind' as the 'One True Thing That Really Exists', or the 'Eternal Witness' or what have you. Actually, when we explore the mind more deeply, it can't be found - it's just as empty as everything else. But we can cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, if you're trying to 'experience the mind' and you discover a 'still point' in awareness, it's likely that you're moving in the right direction. For me, that 'still point' felt like it was slightly 'behind me' somehow - I resonated very much with a description given by a highly experienced practitioner, who said 'It's like standing with your back to a still lake. You can't see it, but you know it's there.'
See if you can find the still lake, then learn to rest there.
Steps 10 and 11: Gladdening and concentrating the mind
As Bhikkhu Analayo points out in his book on this discourse, once you find a way to 'experience the mind', the next two steps tend to happen pretty automatically provided you stay with the practice.
The 'gladdening' described in step 10 is a much subtler experience than the kinds of 'joy' and 'happiness' we discussed in last week's article. Those are comparatively coarse emotions which arise out of the experience of having calmed the body and mind to some extent, but are still tied up in the causes and conditions of the relative world. By comparison, when we're able to rest in awareness of awareness, that experience turns out to have a subtle inherently pleasant quality to it. It doesn't matter what's going on externally - if we're able to maintain awareness of awareness, that inherently pleasant quality can be found.
To find this for yourself, I suggest first getting step 9 nice and clear, and then simply noticing 'Hey, this is nice.' Don't go looking for big eye-popping bliss, just notice that there's something quietly, subtly pleasant about resting in awareness of awareness. (In the Zen tradition, it's sometimes called 'a place of thin gruel and weak tea', to emphasise the subtlety of the experience compared to the kinds of coarse sensory pleasures we're typically accustomed to. The experience of the mind actually becomes profoundly beautiful in time, but at first it's usually pretty subtle. You're probably better off looking for a sense of 'Hey, this isn't so bad' rather than 'Holy cow, this is amazing!')
As you continue to stay there, the mind will 'concentrate' further - which means that the mind become less and less prone to distraction, less and less likely to be pulled back 'out' into the world of events. (We aren't talking about the kind of 'concentration' in which attention is narrowly focused on the square millimetre of skin below the nostrils - again, the mind is not a thing, not an event that we can focus on in that way.)
As with steps 4 and 8 in the previous tetrads, there's nothing particular that needs to be done to make this happen - it's actually a 'refraining from doing anything else'. So just keep coming back to the mind, and noticing that subtly pleasant quality, over and over, and the mind's tendency to wander will diminish further and further over time.
Step 12: Liberating the mind
'Liberation' is a term that shows up in a few different contexts in the Pali canon. Perhaps the best known is the idea of total liberation from suffering, achieved through full awakening. That probably isn't what's meant here, though - while I wouldn't want to stop you getting fully awakened at step 12, we do have four more steps to go, so it's likely that the Buddha had another kind of liberation in mind.
A more likely possibility is that the Buddha is talking about liberation from the five hindrances - sense desire, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and sceptical doubt. These are potentially significant obstacles which can derail our practice, leading us off track or even pushing us into giving up completely. We study the hindrances in the context of jhana practice - in order to enter the jhanas it's necessary to abandon the hindrances at least temporarily, for which my teacher Leigh Brasington and I recommend developing 'access concentration' - that is, a sufficient level of concentration (non-distractibility) to suppress the hindrances temporarily and enter the jhanas. Since the present step comes immediately after 'concentrating the mind', one fairly natural interpretation of this step is therefore that it's about liberating the mind temporarily from the hindrances. That would make step 12 a natural extension of step 11, and thus all four steps in this tetrad follow naturally from resting in the experience of the mind, simply allowing our concentration to deepen more and more.
Alternatively, we might look at step 12 as an invitation to 'liberate the mind' in another way - either through the jhanas or the Brahmaviharas. For example, Majjhima Nikaya 70 refers to the higher jhanas (5-8) as 'peaceful liberations', while MN111 describes Sariputta progressing through all eight jhanas with a mind 'liberated, detached, free from limits'. Meanwhile, in MN127 the Brahmaviharas are described as the 'limitless release of the heart' - another form of liberation.
If we go the jhana route, then steps 1-11 become a process for developing access concentration, then at step 12 we enter the jhanas, before moving on to our insight practice in steps 13-16 (which we'll cover next week). That would align this discourse quite well with the 'concentration first, then insight' approach which is taught elsewhere in the Pali canon. The drawback is that, unless you already know the jhanas - which are pretty difficult to learn outside of a retreat environment - then you won't be able to progress beyond this point.
If we go the Brahmavihara route, we have to be a little careful. The first 11 steps of this discourse have been leading us from comparatively coarse experiences of bodily and mental activity to the subtler experiences of the 'mind in itself'. We don't want to shake things up too much by moving to a practice which takes place at a coarser level of experience - but the Brahmaviharas are often practised by bringing to mind a sequence of people, perhaps visualising in a certain way or using phrases to evoke emotions, and so forth. All of that belongs to the realm of physical and mental activity which we left behind in the previous tetrads.
What we can do, however, is focus a little more on that sense of 'gladdening the mind' from step 10. Let's say that we found our way to an 'experience of the mind' in step 9 by opening up our awareness to take in 'everything everywhere all at once'. (Sorry, couldn't resist. Michelle Yeoh is a legend.) That 'holistic' approach to awareness can lead us very naturally to 'turning the light around' and becoming aware of awareness itself. Then, in step 10, we notice that awareness of awareness is inherently pleasant. If we can stabilise both of these, then all we have to do is to notice that 'awareness' and 'the contents of awareness' are two sides of the same coin - actually inseparable, indivisible. There's no 'awareness' separate from its contents, nor 'contents' separate from the awareness of them. This is a subtle point, but if we can see it then that 'inherently pleasant' quality associated with awareness can become an 'inherently pleasant' feeling toward all of experience - a truly universal loving kindness. At this point, we don't need to send loving kindness to one person at a time, or even 'radiate' it in all directions - instead, love is infused into everything we experience. (You'll sometimes hear teachers say that the true nature of everything is love - that's what they're getting at.)
So we have a few options here. Perhaps we simply continue to deepen the progression from steps 9-11 into step 12, further concentrating the mind and liberating it from the hindrances. Perhaps we shift into the jhanas and allow those to sharpen our minds still further. Or perhaps we invoke the universal loving kindness that's accessible through this 'awareness of awareness', and rest there. All three of these approaches are beautiful, intrinsically rewarding, and will also set us up very effectively for the final tetrad - which we'll come to next week.
See you then!
Anapanasati Sutta, part 2
This week we're continuing with our discussion of the Anapanasati Sutta. We covered the background of the discourse last week, so if you haven't read that article already it's probably better to start there.
Moving into the second tetrad, and the progression of the Anapanasati Sutta
In the first tetrad, we used the breathing first to establish a basic level of mindfulness, then proceeded to refine it by giving ourselves progressively subtler and more challenging tasks: to become aware of the lengths of the breaths in relation to one another; to expand our awareness to encompass the whole body, without losing the breathing in the process; and, finally, to incline towards calming bodily activity. This final step is important because bodily activity is comparatively coarse, and the second tetrad is going to ask us to look at something subtler, namely mental activity. If there's too much 'noise' from the body then we won't be able to detect the subtler aspects of experience that the second tetrad invites us to examine - or at least not so easily.
Actually, it's by no means impossible to turn the attention toward the subtler aspects of experience even without first calming the bodily activity. If we know what we're looking for, it's usually possible to tune into pretty much any aspect of experience. The challenge is to stick with it, and to perceive it clearly enough for the practice to have a significant impact on us. In the world of insight meditation, it's certainly possible to turn one's attention to impermanence right away, without any prior preparation - such an approach is commonly called 'dry insight'. The difficulty with dry insight is that our minds tend to be pretty unruly, easily distracted and prone to wandering for extended periods, so the meditation that results is not very efficient - perhaps you spend a few seconds looking at impermanence, then the mind wanders for a minute or two, then you realise what's happened and go back to looking at impermanence for another few seconds before the mind wanders again, and so on. With time and practice, of course, you'll get better at it, and the mind learns to stay with the inquiry more consistently. But another school of thought suggests that it's fruitful to spend some time stabilising and focusing the mind (e.g. with a samadhi practice of some sort) before moving on to insight practice - yes, it means you have to spend some time up front not doing insight practice, so you either have to sit for longer or have less time for insight work overall, but the trade-off is that the mind is calmer, clearer and better suited to the insight work, so the time you do spend on insight practice is much more efficient.
A common approach found in the early Buddhist discourses is to stabilise the mind through jhana practice (or sometimes Brahmavihara practice), then to shift gears and move into insight practice. That approach absolutely works and is very effective - it's what my teacher Leigh Brasington and I teach on jhana retreats, where we recommend structuring one's practice time to start with Brahmaviharas and jhanas, then shift into an insight practice taken from the Satipatthana Sutta or another source.
The Anapanasati Sutta does things a little differently, though. Here we have sixteen steps of one integrated practice that combines both samadhi and insight. As you'll see over the next few weeks, some steps are more explicitly aimed at the samadhi side (e.g. step 11, concentrating the mind) while others have a strong insight focus (e.g. steps 13-15, which are explicitly pointing to insight ways of looking), but the practice itself is also structured in a very clever way, starting with the coarser aspects of experience (which are both easier to focus on and easier to investigate at first) and then gradually leading the mind through progressively subtler experiences until the mind is in an ideal place to look for the deepest insights available to us.
So it's totally fine to pick out just a few steps of the Anapanasati practice and work with those - and that's what we'll be doing in my Wednesday night class over the next few weeks, because we won't have enough practice time to do all the prior steps as well as the tetrad we're focusing on that week. But it's also very helpful to bear in mind that the practice is structured in such a way that each step makes the subsequent step easier to access - so if you're having a hard time with a particular step, it might be worth revisiting the previous steps and spending more time there before moving on.
The second tetrad
Here's what the Buddha has to say:
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing joy/rapture [piti]'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing joy/rapture [piti].' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing happiness/pleasure [sukha]; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing happiness/pleasure [sukha].' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing mental activity [citta sankhara]'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing mental activity [citta sankhara].' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in tranquillising mental activity [citta sankhara]'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out tranquillising mental activity [citta sankhara].'
As I mentioned last week, each tetrad is associated with one of the four satipatthanas - and the second tetrad is associated with the second satipatthana, on vedana. There's a discussion of vedana in my series on the Satipatthana Sutta, so check that out if you aren't familiar with the term and would like to know more. In brief, though, vedana is that quality of experience which indicates whether something is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It's often translated as 'feeling' or 'feeling tone', because vedana is about 'how something feels', but we have to be a bit careful, because we're not talking about emotions here. Vedana is 'feeling' in the sense of 'this feels nice' as opposed to 'I feel angry about xyz'.
The practice given for exploring vedana in the Satipatthana Sutta is pretty straightforward - simply bring mindfulness to the vedana of your experience! In practice, when Leigh and I are teaching it, we'll often start by pointing people toward the vedana of a specific type of experience - noticing the vedana of sounds - and then invite people to broaden their practice to include the vedana of other types of sensations as well.
The Anapanasati Sutta takes a different approach. It begins by pointing specifically to pleasant aspects of experience of increasing levels of subtlety, piti and sukha (more on those terms later!). Then, rather than staying with vedana but broadening out to include neutral and negative vedana, it actually goes even further and broadens out to mental activity as a whole - making a similar move to the one we saw last week in the first tetrad, where after having spent time tuning in to subtle aspects of the breath, we then opened up the awareness to encompass the whole body. The final step of the second tetrad also parallels the final step of the first tetrad - last week, the final step was 'calming bodily activity', while this week we have 'tranquilising mental activity'. So, once again, the practice invites us into the experience of one of the satipatthanas through a specific window, then broadens out our view before allowing things to settle down even further, making an even more subtle layer of experience available as we prepare to move into the third tetrad.
Focusing on the pleasant - piti and sukha
The first two steps of the second tetrad open up a bit of a minefield of terminology. The first step invites us to breathe in and out experiencing piti, and the second invites us to breathe in and out experiencing sukha. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates these as 'rapture' and 'pleasure' respectively, while Bhikkhu Analayo gives them as 'joy' and 'happiness' respectively. Personally, I first learnt these terms in the context of my teacher Leigh's presentation of the jhanas, where piti is a physical sensation of energy in the body (which can show up as tingling, heat or a kind of electrical or sexual sensation) and sukha is an emotional bliss, joy or happiness, both of which show up in the first few jhanas.
So who's right? Well, I'm certainly not qualified to disagree with renowned scholars like Bhikkhu Bodhi or Bhikkhu Analayo, but I've practised enough with Leigh to have a very palpable sense of his interpretation of the terms. Perhaps we can split the difference and avoid having to pick a side, however.
At the end of the first tetrad, we practised calming bodily activity - allowing the physical body to relax so that we could experience subtler sensations. Anyone who has spent time doing energy practices (qigong, kundalini yoga, ...) or practices which result in 'energetic sensations' (jhanas, chanting, ...) will know that the sensations we experience in those practices are subtler than the coarse body sensations of muscular tension and so forth. In fact, too much muscular tension typically prevents us from having those energetic experiences (which is why practices like qigong and yoga place emphasis on relaxing and opening up the body). So as we 'calm bodily activity' at the end of the first tetrad, a range of subtler experiences become available to us - some of which are very pleasant. We can experience pleasure in the subtle body (which, if focused upon deeply, can lead to rapturous states of consciousness), and we can experience positive emotional states of various sorts (joy, happiness, delight), arising simply out of the calm, focused, subtle nature of the mind at this point in the practice. Generally speaking, the emotional states are subtler than the physical ones, so as the mind settles deeper and deeper, the progression is typically one that moves from the physical to the subtle body to the purely mental.
Thus, one way to put this into practice might be as follows:
Focusing specifically on pleasant aspects of experience is a pretty smart move. By definition, it's a nice experience, which makes it intrinsically rewarding - and so it's generally easier for the mind to rest here and continue to become calmer and more focused than if we were paying close attention to unpleasant, difficult or distressing aspects of our experience, which are more likely to trigger a 'flinch' reaction. So although we're only focused on a small subset of the total sphere of vedana available to us (remember the 'guided tour' analogy from last week's article!), the result will get our minds into a good place to go deeper still.
Mental activity - citta sankhara
Steps 7 and 8 invite us first to become aware of 'citta sankhara' and then to 'tranquilise it'. But what the heck is a citta sankhara?
Again, the terminology here is a bit fiddly and has multiple popular translations. 'Citta' is usually translated as 'mind', but also has connotations of 'heart' - sometimes you'll encounter the term 'heart/mind', which is an attempt to convey the fact that, whereas Western cultures posit a strong distinction between 'mind' (the rational thinky bit) and 'heart' (the emotional/intuitive feely bit), Asian cultures don't.
'Sankhara' means something like 'making together', and can be translated variously as 'formation(s)', 'fabrication(s)', 'concoction(s)' and so forth. In this instance, it's indicating the various things 'made by the mind' - thoughts, emotions, and so on - so I tend to follow Leigh in translating it as 'mental activity'.
In modern times we have a very different understanding of the mind compared to the time of the Buddha. There's evidence that the Buddhist understanding of psychology evolved over time - what's found in the earliest discourses tends to be quite simple, then it becomes a bit more elaborate in the later discourses, and more elaborate still in the Abhidhamma (the 'higher teachings', texts composed after the Buddha's death) and subsequent commentaries. The later Buddhist traditions in the Mahayana also developed detailed models of 'mind', which don't always line up with what's in the early teachings. In the Western world two and a half thousand years later, the legacy of Freud and Jung has powerfully impacted how we understand the nature of mind, thoughts, subconscious and so on, so we have yet another picture of what's going on.
Rather than try to pick apart every possible interpretation of the terminology, though, it's perhaps more helpful for the purposes of practice to take a step back and see what the overall strategy is here. We've used the first two steps of this tetrad to get a 'foot in the door' of the world of mental activity, by focusing on aspects of experience that particularly strike us as pleasant. (In the Buddhist understanding, vedana is regarded as a mental phenomenon, whether the vedana is associated with a physical or a mental stimulus.) Now, just as we broadened out the scope of our awareness to take in the whole body at the equivalent point in the first tetrad, we open up our awareness to become aware of the full breadth of our mental activity.
Step 7 is a tricky step! Meditation practices often focus on the body because it's so much easier to work with than the mind. One thought leads to another with very great rapidity, to borrow a phrase from S.N. Goenka - before you know it, you've been sucked into a train of thought, and the meditation is forgotten. But if we've spent some time on the preceding steps and built up some stability of mind, it becomes possible to be more broadly aware of thoughts and emotions coming and going without getting drawn into them - and so we can 'safely' open up our awareness to include mental activity as a whole.
Once we've successfully made the move into step 7, and we have a general awareness of our mental activity coming and going while remaining anchored on our ever-present mindfulness of the breath, we can then move into step 8 - tranquilising mental activity.
Step 8 contains the same subtle trap as step 4 - the problem of how to 'actively relax'. Any positive action we take in relation to our mental activity is going to introduce more energy into the system, but in order to tranquilise it, we need less energy overall. It's like we have a jar containing some water and some sand, and the jar has been thoroughly shaken up so that the sand is swirling all around and the water is totally opaque. How do we get the water to be clear (assuming we can't take the lid off and filter it!). Shaking up the jar even more won't work, and even well-meaning things like subtly, gently tilting the jar from side to side won't help. The best thing we can actually do is to put the jar down on a table and leave it totally alone. Then, little by little, the sand will sink to the bottom of the jar, and eventually the water will become clear quite naturally. This isn't something we can make happen, and it definitely isn't a process that we can 'speed up' by applying more effort - quite the opposite. All we can do is to leave it alone and wait patiently.
When that happens, we'll be ready to move into step 9 and the third tetrad - which we'll explore next week!
Anapanasati Sutta, part 1
For the next few weeks we're going to be taking a look at the Anapanasati Sutta, number 118 in the Middle-Length Discourses. The name literally means something like 'The discourse on mindfulness of in-breath and out-breath', but despite the modest title it's a hugely important text for followers of the teachings of the historical Buddha - along with the Satipatthana Sutta (which we've discussed at length previously), it's one of a relatively small number of discourses in the Pali canon to give really detailed meditation instructions, and it presents a really comprehensive roadmap of early Buddhist practice.
The practice is divided into four sections (commonly called 'tetrads', because each section has four elements, so this practice has sixteen steps altogether), and so over the next four weeks we'll look at each tetrad in turn, before concluding this series (and the year!) with a broader view of the path of practice laid out in this discourse.
This week we're starting with the first tetrad, which is focused on the body, but before we get into that it's worth saying a few words about a line in the excerpt from the discourse that I quoted above: 'When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness.'
Satipatthana and Anapanasati - different approaches to the same terrain
We've previously discussed another foundational discourse from the Pali canon, the Satipatthana Sutta. You can find the whole series of six articles on that discourse here, but for today's purposes I'll provide a brief recap.
'Satipatthana' is made up of two parts, 'sati' and 'upatthana'. 'Sati' means something like 'remembering', but in a Buddhist context is usually translated as 'mindfulness', and 'upatthana' means something like 'attending' (in the sense of 'waiting on' or 'looking after'), so the compound has a sense of paying careful attention to something, usually an aspect of our present-moment experience. Some older translators interpreted 'satipatthana' instead as composed of 'sati' and 'patthana', the latter meaning something like 'foundation' or 'establishment', and since there are four 'satipatthanas' described in the discourse, you'll often hear 'satipatthana' translated as 'four foundations of mindfulness', as in the excerpt from the sutta above.
Either way, the Satipatthana Sutta lays out four aspects of our experience to which we are invited to pay careful attention. Those four are:
Both the Satipatthana Sutta and the Anapanasati Sutta address these four categories of experience, but they do so in different ways. The Satipatthana Sutta is like being given a map of an unfamiliar city and then being left alone to explore however you like - the discourse contains a large anthology of different practices with no particular over-arching structure except for a general trend to start with the simpler, coarser aspects of experience and progress toward the subtler. In contrast, the Anapanasati Sutta is like taking a guided tour with an experienced guide. You won't see everything and you won't have as much freedom to explore every curiosity and dark alley, but you'll get your Instagram photos of all the major sights, and you'll do so much quicker than if you had to figure it all out for yourself.
Unfortunately but inevitably, these two different approaches have led to something of a division in those surviving Buddhist lineages which place great emphasis on the Pali canon. Some teachers and traditions strongly emphasise the Satipatthana Sutta and dismiss the Anapanasati Sutta, while others take the opposite approach. Someone once walked out of a retreat I was teaching because I was offering practices from the Satipatthana and they had previously been taught the Anapanasati. Sigh. The fact is that both discourses are packed full of great practices, and both approaches have tremendous potential to enrich and transform you if you're willing to engage with them - it isn't about which one is 'right', or even which one is 'best' - or at least it shouldn't be! Personally, I've done more practice with the Satipatthana approach, and I really appreciate it deeply, but I've also explored the Anapanasati approach enough to have tremendous respect for it, so I'm happy to present both discourses here.
Enough background - let's get into the teachings!
The sales pitch
Like most Pali canon discourses, the Anapanasati Sutta starts with a fair bit of preamble setting the stage for the teaching that's about to be given. I've skipped over that for today's purposes because I'd rather focus on the practice, but feel free to click on the link above and check out the first section of MN118 for yourself if you're interested.
Next, the Buddha says a few words about the value and importance of the Anapanasati practice (translated here as 'mindfulness of breathing'):
"When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it is of great fruit and great benefit. When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness. When the four foundations of mindfulness are developed and cultivated, they fulfil the seven enlightenment factors. When the seven enlightenment factors are developed and cultivated, they fulfil true knowledge and deliverance."
The Buddha starts by saying simply that the practice of Anapanasati is 'of great fruit and great benefit'. It's a good thing to do!
Next, he says that it 'fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness', i.e. the four satipatthanas listed above - body, vedana, mind, dhammas. We'll see how that works in detail over the next few weeks, but, as already noted, the general idea is that we'll be doing a four-part practice where each part explores one of these satipatthanas in detail.
Then he says that Anapanasati '[fulfils] the seven enlightenment factors', or seven factors of awakening. These factors - mindfulness, investigation of reality, energy, joy/rapture, tranquility, concentration and equanimity - are supporting conditions for the transformative insights that lead to awakening, or enlightenment, in Buddhist practice. I've already written previously about how bringing mindfulness to something enjoyable or otherwise rewarding leads these seven factors to arise naturally - and, as we'll see, the invitation in this discourse is to develop an enjoyable, rewarding relationship with our own experience through the vehicle of the breath.
Finally, the Buddha says that Anapanasati '[fulfils] true knowledge and deliverance' - in other words, that this practice will lead us to insight and, ultimately, awakening. As sales pitches go, that's pretty good.
Preliminaries - setting up your practice
OK, so we've bought the sales pitch and signed up to the Anapanasati Newsletter - now, how do we actually do the practice?
"And how is mindfulness of breathing developed and cultivated, so that it is of great fruit and great benefit?
"Here, a practitioner, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded one's legs crosswise, set one's body erect, and established mindfulness in front of oneself, ever mindful one breathes in, mindful one breathes out."
These are the same instructions we saw in the Satipatthana Sutta (which actually begins the practice instructions with the first tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta). First off, we need a suitable place to practise. We're going to be going deep in this practice, so it's in our interests to minimise distractions to whatever extent we can. In the time of the Buddha, the standard approach was to head off into the forest and find a quiet place where nobody would bother you; in today's world, perhaps that means closing the door and asking whoever you share your space with not to bother you for a while.
Once you have your place, the Buddha recommends sitting down cross-legged and holding the body erect. What you do with your legs is actually not so important - the main thing is that the hips should be higher than the knees, to enable the core of the body to relax. Sitting in a chair is fine if you find that easier than sitting on the floor.
It is helpful to have an upright spine, however. Holding the body in an upright, aligned posture helps to keep us awake and alert during the practice, and once the postural muscles have strengthened sufficiently to allow us to sit without back support, it can actually become a comfortable and relaxed way to be. That said, if you have trouble with back pain, do what you gotta do. The key is to find a posture which balances comfort and relaxation with alertness. If you can do that, you're good to go.
The final preliminary step is to establish mindfulness on one's breathing. You don't have to breathe in a particular way - your natural breath is fine, although if you do find yourself controlling your breath it isn't a big deal. Over time you'll find that you're able to let go and just allow the body to breathe by itself, while you simply observe the process.
It can be worthwhile to take a bit of time to explore the breath. You may feel multiple different types of sensations as you breathe - perhaps the flow of air against the nostrils or the mouth, maybe movement in the shoulders or chest, the ribcage, the diaphragm or the abdomen. There's no right or wrong sensation to be feeling - this step of the practice is simply about getting in touch with what you're noticing in your own breathing, right now, moment by moment. Then, once you have a sense of what's going on, find wherever the breath feels clearest or most noticeable to you, and 'anchor' your attention there, rather than continuing to move around the body. Paying attention to a single place in the body will help your mind to settle and stabilise as the practice continues.
Of course, your mind will wander from time to time, perhaps often. That's fine. Whenever you notice that your attention has wandered, simply let go of whatever distraction the mind has taken an interest in, take a moment to relax, and then return your attention to the process of breathing. Take particular care around the 'gaps' in the breath - the moment after the in-breath has finished and before the out-breath has started, or vice versa. In those brief moments of 'no breath', the sensations of breath have temporarily stopped, and that's a prime time for the mind to wander. I find it helps to keep focusing on the space where the sensations are happening, even when the sensations themselves are absent - that has a way of 'bridging the gap' between one breath and the next.
At this point, you might have noticed that we're already practising 'mindfulness of breathing', but we're still in the section of the article labelled 'preliminaries'. What's up with that? Well, it turns out that although the Anapanasati Sutta is literally called 'the discourse of mindfulness of in-breath and out-breath', the practices we're going to explore actually use mindfulness of breathing as a kind of 'foundational' practice. Throughout each of the following sixteen steps, we'll continue to keep part of our attention on the breathing, using the breath as an 'anchor' to keep us grounded in the practice, but we'll also be doing other things as we go along. So it's very helpful to have established this 'simple' mindfulness of breathing before proceeding further - that's not to say that you have to have 100% uninterrupted mindfulness of breathing with no mind-wandering (which is a very high standard, and not practical for most people off retreat), but if you've never done this kind of meditation before, it's worth spending some time getting used to it. It's a great practice even without the 'extra bits'!
Once your foundations are in place, we can move on to the first tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta: the body.
Mindfulness of the body, steps 1 and 2: the length of the breath
Breathing in long, one understands: 'I breathe in long'; or breathing out long, one understands: 'I breathe out long.' Breathing in short, one understands: 'I breathe in short'; or breathing out short, one understands: 'I breathe out short.'
Having already established our mindfulness of breathing as a preliminary step, we now begin our deeper exploration by focusing on the length of each breath. This is not a matter of controlling the breath, and deliberately breathing more deeply or more shallowly, but rather about noticing the natural variation in each breath. The chances are that your breaths are not perfectly uniform - that some are slightly longer and some slightly shorter. So this is the first part of the practice: to notice those variations in length, whether significant or subtle.
(Sidebar: although these two are counted as separate 'steps' for the purposes of making the practices in this section add up to four in total, it doesn't really make sense to practise noticing only the long breaths, then subsequently practise noticing only the short breaths. After all, how do you know that a breath is long if you don't have a sense of a shorter breath to compare it to? For this reason, some scholars have suggested - and some parallel copies of the discourse also indicate - that, actually, the 'simple mindfulness of breathing' that we discussed in the 'preliminaries' section above should actually be the first practice in the first tetrad, and that 'noticing short/long breaths' should be the second practice. It really doesn't make much difference, though - either way, we start by establishing 'plain' mindfulness of breathing, then move on to noticing the lengths of the breath.)
Notice that, although the breathing is still at the forefront of the practice, we've already had to 'zoom out' a little. In order to tell whether a breath is short or long, we have to have a sense of how long a 'typical' breath is, which means we have to track what's happening over time, not merely have our noses pressed up against the window of the present moment. So even these first two steps are moving us beyond 'simple' mindfulness of breathing, and asking us to develop a broader, more inclusive awareness of what's going on. As we do that - as we take a step back, 'zooming out' a little bit - we're likely to find that the mind tends to wander a little more at first, because it's now doing something a bit subtler and more complicated. But stay with it - the mind will settle down again if you give it time, and when it does settle, it'll be more focused and more powerful than it was before.
Then, when we're ready to move on, we're going to zoom out even more, but this time in space rather than in time.
Mindfulness of the body, step 3: experiencing the whole body
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.'
(Sidebar: sometimes you'll see this translated as '...experiencing the whole body of breath', which is a popular translation among people who like to keep their area of focus small and precise rather than broader and more expansive. Here, I follow Bhikkhu Analayo's translation and interpretation, which makes more sense to me.)
Up until now we've been focusing on the sensations of the breath at a particular place in the body. In the first two steps we expanded our awareness out in time, becoming aware both of the length of the breath that's happening right now and also the lengths of breaths in general.
Now, in this third step, we zoom out in space, opening up our awareness to take in the body as a whole. We continue to track each breath, using the rhythm of in-breath-out-breath to keep us anchored; but now we experience the breath as it's felt in the whole body, not the single point where we originally chose to focus. This presents us with a different kind of challenge. Some people find it more difficult at first to keep track of the breath when the field of attention is opened up more broadly - there's potentially more to distract us, and we can potentially find our attention 'wandering around' within the broader field of the body, rather than resting in a more focused way on the body as a whole. So that's the challenge! With practice, it's possible to stabilise the attention on this larger field of sensation, still 'primarily' focused on the feeling of the breathing, but 'secondarily' having a broader awareness of what's going on in the rest of the body. If we previously had the breath-at-a-point in the 'foreground' of our experience and everything else relegated to the 'background' of experience, now we have a 'middle ground' of experience as well.
Developing this kind of flexibility of attention is a very helpful skill. We'll need to be able to manage foreground, background and middle ground as we continue to move through this sutta; and, more generally, the ability to focus broadly as well as narrowly is a tremendous asset in life, most of which is not about focusing on microscopic details - at least for most people!
Once you're able to broaden your attention out to encompass the whole body, without losing the rhythm of the breath at the heart of your experience, you can move on to the fourth and final step for this tetrad.
Mindfulness of the body, step 4: calming the body
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in calming bodily activity'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out calming bodily activity.'
Now we make another interesting move: we introduce a deliberate intention into the practice, specifically the intention to calm bodily activity.
The theme of this first tetrad is mindfulness of the body. We begin by paying attention to one aspect of bodily activity - the breathing. Then we refine that attention, sharpening our minds by challenging ourselves to notice not just the immediate sensations of the breath but also something more complex - the lengths of the breaths. These first steps are designed to train the mind to pay close attention; we start small, because for most people that's easier, then gradually expand in both time and space, until we're able to bring some degree of mindfulness to the whole body - thereby fulfilling the first satipatthana, mindfulness of body.
As we now look ahead to the subsequent tetrads, we must prepare ourselves to move beyond the body so that we can explore mental activity. Generally speaking, bodily activity is comparatively coarse while mental activity is comparatively subtle, so it makes sense to start with the body and then move on to mental activity. But if the body is still creating a lot of noise then it'll be difficult to focus on the quieter mental activity 'behind' it - so the fourth and final step of the present tetrad is to calm the body.
Body and breath are closely intertwined, as you'll see very clearly when you start doing this practice. By calming the breath, we calm the body; and by calming the body, we calm the breath. How can we do this? Subtly emphasising and extending the exhalation helps to calm the breath; relaxing muscular tension and settling into stillness helps to calm the body; and because the two are interrelated, calming one will tend to calm the other.
It's crucially important to approach this with a spirit of gentleness. Trying to force something to relax is deeply counterproductive, and will typically increase the discomfort, agitation and tension in the long run. If you suddenly try to slow down your breath dramatically, your body will fight back. So take it slowly and gently. It can be enough to hold the intention to calm breath and body, without taking any conscious steps to make that happen. Give it a try - you might be surprised.
Something else to notice in this step is that, as the breath and body calm down, you'll probably start to feel pretty good. It turns out that the body likes to be calm and quiet - although you wouldn't know it based on how strongly we tend to associate being 'excited' with 'feeling good'. Earlier on in this article I noted that the seven factors of awakening arise naturally when we pay attention to something enjoyable or otherwise rewarding - and experiencing a calm body fits the bill.
This first tetrad can thus actually be a complete practice in itself, a step-by-step means to cultivate mindfulness of the body, concentration and relaxation. Indeed, there are other discourses elsewhere in the Pali canon which only list these first four steps, and not the subsequent twelve.
So, for now, please take this tetrad away and give it a go - and then come back next week for the second tetrad, which will take us beyond the body and into our mental activity. See you then!
From the sublime to the ridiculous
This week we've arrived at the final koan in the Gateless Barrier, case 48, 'One Road'. The road metaphor feels particularly appropriate this week, since we've been journeying through this classic Zen text for almost two years now. If you've read the whole set of articles, well done for hanging in there! If not, you can find a complete list of Gateless Barrier articles on the articles index page.
So today's article focuses on the final case in the collection - and, like last week's, it has a nice 'summarising' feel to it, showcasing the full range of Zen practice - from the mundane to the transcendent.
Decoding the imagery
First, let's walk through the koan itself and take a look at the cast of characters, the literary references and the cultural allusions. Koans are often intended to be puzzling, but not incomprehensible!
We start with a nameless monk asking Zen master Qianfeng about a line that he's read somewhere: 'The blessed ones of the ten directions have one road of Nirvana.' According to Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida, this quotation comes from the Surangama Sutra. 'Blessed one' is a respectful way to refer to a Buddha, and 'ten directions' just means 'everywhere' (the 'ten directions' are the cardinal points on a compass (north, south etc.), plus the in-between directions (north-east and so on), plus 'up' and 'down' to make ten). So the sutra is saying that all Buddhas everywhere have 'one road of Nirvana' - one path leading to enlightenment. And evidently this sounds pretty good to the monk, so he's asking his teacher Qianfeng 'So, uh, where exactly is this road? Because that's where I want to be.'
In a previous case we talked about the Zen teacher's staff as a symbol, but here Qianfeng is using it as a simple implement - a stick, with which he draws a line. This is Qianfeng's simple, direct answer to the question. The monk is asking where this mysterious 'road to Nirvana' might be, and the teacher is saying 'Right here in front of you.' A common trope in Zen teaching is for the teacher to answer in a way which is somehow opposite to the nature of the question - so if a student brings a fancy, high-falutin' question, they'll get a very simple, earthy answer back. (See, for example, the toilet humour of case 21.)
But the monk evidently doesn't get it, and later on he goes to ask Zen master Yunmen to explain further. Perhaps he's expecting another very simple, straightforward answer, because Yunmen takes the opposite approach and gives an answer filled with elaborate imagery. He speaks of a fan leaping up to the 'thirty-third heaven' - in Buddhist cosmology, this is a reference to the Trayastrimsa heaven, home of Indra, king of the gods (or, in Thomas Cleary's translation above, the 'chief of the celestial rulers'). How can something as simple as Yunmen's fan leap all the way to heaven to whack Indra on the nose?
And Yunmen's not done - when Indra's nose encounters Yunmen's fan, 'the carp of the eastern sea are given a blow'. In Chinese legend, the carp of the eastern sea can transform into mighty dragons when the time is right - a transformation which in Zen often symbolises attaining enlightenment - and dragons of Chinese legend are renowned for their ability to make it rain. And all of this from a little fan!
So maybe that's a little clearer now... or maybe it's still clear as mud. Let's take a look at this from another angle.
How to keep your eye on the ball when there's no ball
Zen practice seems to be riddled with contradictions. It can seem like, no matter what you do, there's a Zen teacher somewhere telling you to do the opposite. It's frustrating sometimes!
For example, in last week's article we looked a bit at the differences in approach between the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen. In Rinzai Zen there's a strong emphasis on kensho - seeing your true nature, experiencing a clear shift in perspective, having an 'awakening experience'. By comparison, the Soto school downplays kensho, focusing instead on practising right here, right now, manifesting your inherent Buddha Nature from moment to moment. So which is it? Should we focus on the here and now, or do we need to wake up and become enlightened?
Whether we think of ourselves as Zen practitioners or not, what actually matters most is what's happening right now. You might have had some lofty spiritual experience last month, or last year, or in 1970 when you dropped acid for the first time, but if whatever realisation came from that spiritual experience is not manifest in this moment right now then it's no use to you. There's a saying in Zen circles that 'last year's insight is last year's insight'. Who you were last year is of course related to who you are right now, but who you are right now is what actually matters in terms of your behaviour and relationships.
So in Zen we have this strong focus on the present moment. (Qianfeng draws a line right in front of the monk - the one road to Nirvana is right in front of you.) My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, liked to emphasise what he called 'nari kiru' - a 'total cutting off' of everything except this, here, now. Other teachers talk about 'becoming one with' whatever activity we find ourselves engaged in - by bringing ourselves so completely and wholeheartedly into that activity that there's no 'gap' remaining, nothing left over, no part of ourselves which is off in a corner somewhere else thinking about what we're doing later or worrying about what happened yesterday. The state of 'nari kiru' is similar to the Flow state talked about in popular psychology, but with one key difference - Flow is typically associated with being 'in the zone' in some particular, skilled activity (like sports or performance), whereas Zen invites us to bring the same level of presence to every aspect of our lives, not just the 'peak experiences'.
This means that, from a Zen perspective, nothing in particular is 'it' - there's no real difference between our sitting meditation practice and the rest of our lives. The challenge of really living Zen is finding a way to make every moment of our lives a part of our practice - or, alternatively, realising that every moment of our lives provides an opportunity to continue our practice and be supported by it.
The drawback of this approach is that, when we treat every moment as special, that's indistinguishable from no moment being special. And while mature Zen masters will often talk about the sense of 'nothing special' as the highest ideal in practice, that can be discouraging for those of us who aren't so far along the path. All this talk of 'nothing to find, nothing to get, nothing special at all' can make it sound like there's 'no point to Zen' - so why bother with the practice at all? Why not just crack open a beer and see what's on Netflix instead of 'wasting' all that time meditating?
And this is why it's helpful to emphasise the other side of Zen practice sometimes - the transcendent moments of kensho, the carp that transforms into a dragon, the fan that bumps into Indra's nose and causes reverberations throughout the entire universe. Practice really does transform who we are and how we see and relate to the world. We really can 'wake up' - there really is a 'one road to Nirvana' that we can find and walk for ourselves. Where is that road found? Right here, in this moment. And so we come full circle.
Approaches to continuous practice
Extending practice beyond your meditation cushion is easier said than done, but here are some suggestions - some of which I've used myself, others come recommended from teachers I respect.
If your practice is Silent Illumination, it's actually relatively straightforward to translate the sitting practice into other activities. When you sit in Silent Illumination, you're 'just sitting' - that is, you aren't 'sitting and thinking about xyz' or 'sitting and listening to music'. When practising Silent Illumination, your total focus is on the experience of sitting, however that is unfolding for you right now. We can take that same attitude into walking meditation - when walking, we're now 'just walking', not 'walking and ...'. Then, when the formal meditation period is over and we make a cup of tea, we're 'just boiling the water', 'just getting the teabag or tea leaves ready', 'just pouring the water', and so on. The key point is that, whatever you're doing, you're 100% doing it - nari kiru. In particular, it's important to focus on the process of what you're doing rather than the outcome - to the extent that you're thinking about how your current activity is going to turn out, you aren't giving your whole attention to what you're doing right now. It can be pretty difficult to let go of the outcome entirely! But give it a try - the more you're able to let go and focus on the task at hand, the more satisfying the work tends to be, and usually the better the outcome is too.
If you like to work with a koan, things are a bit different. You can't necessarily bring the same level of total inward focus on the questioning process and the ball of doubt in the tanden when you're trying to make dinner or navigate a difficult conversation. Nevertheless, if we have the attitude of continuous practice, we can still make it work. My teacher Daizan likens the process of working with a koan to being in love. When you're in love, the person you love isn't always at the forefront of your mind. When you're with them, of course, there they are, but when you're both off doing different things, your awareness of the person you love can recede into the background. But because of the strength of the bond between you, it doesn't drop away entirely, and they'll often surface in your mind when there's a quiet moment. And in fact that's what Daizan recommends with the koan - when you have something else to do, just do that task completely (nari kiru again), but when you have a quiet moment with nothing going on - stuck in a queue, waiting for the printer at work - you can bring up the koan again and ask your question a few more times and see what comes up.
Certain koans can also translate to everyday activities, affording additional opportunities for practice. Let's say you're working with 'Who am I?' In your formal meditation, 'Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?' Then, in daily life, 'Who is typing on this keyboard? Who hears this jazz music? Who feels hungry right now?' Give this one a try - you'll find that, with practice, you're able to incorporate the attitude of exploring, questioning, investigating the 'centre point' of experience into a wide range of activities.
What about if your primary meditation technique is neither Silent Illumination nor koan practice? Perhaps your practice is primarily based in mindfulness of the breath, or awareness of the body. I've heard it said that it's possible to train yourself to maintain some level of awareness on the breath or body all day long, and that this is a powerful way to practise, with very beneficial results in terms of presence of mind, emotional stability, equanimity and so forth. That approach doesn't work well for me personally, for a number of reasons, but if you have a strong affinity for that kind of practice, it's definitely worth exploring. Alternatively, what if you primary practice is heart-opening? Well, how would it be to go through your day approaching each interaction with another person with the intention to send them some loving kindness or compassion? If you spend a lot of time with other people each day, this could be a very effective way to practise.
A closing word about the Gateless Barrier
As noted above, this is the final article in my series on the koans of the Gateless Barrier - but it's by no means the last word on this fascinating collection. Throughout the series I've used three texts as my primary references - 'Unlocking the Zen Koan' by Thomas Cleary, 'Two Zen Classics' by Katsuki Sekida, and 'Passing through the Gateless Barrier' by Guo Gu. All three provide discussions of each case, along with the prose and verse comments by Zen master Wumen who compiled the collection (which I've mostly omitted due to time and space constraints). Cleary's translation often includes verse comments from other Zen masters too.
As I've spent time with these koans - learning them, examining them, practising with them, attempting to unpack and explain them in these articles - I've had many surprises and discoveries along the way. A koan that I thought I understood might suddenly reveal a new layer of meaning, turning on its head everything I thought I understood about it. (It's been a bit inconvenient when that's happened a day before giving a talk on the koan in my Wednesday night Zen class!) And I have no doubt that they'll continue to reveal new meanings as I continue to study them - a koan is never really 'solved', it only provides us with a way to unlock the next step in our own practice, and it can serve that role many times over.
If you're interested in koans, the Gateless Barrier is a great place to start. The koans in this collection are much more accessible than many others, and with so many good translations and commentaries available, it's possible to get something out of them no matter where you are on your spiritual journey.
May your journey go well, and may you too find the one road of Nirvana walked by the blessed ones of the ten directions.
Overcoming the hurdles of Zen practice
This week we're taking a look at case 47 in the Gateless Barrier. We're almost at the end of this well-known collection of Zen koans (stories of Zen encounters and questions intended to stimulate insight), and I have the feeling that Zen master Wumen, who compiled the Gateless Barrier, was in a 'summarising' mood when he picked this one to occupy the penultimate slot. It's unusual among the koans in the Gateless Barrier because they're mostly pretty pithy, whereas today's case has not one but three distinct pieces, each of which relates to a specific challenge along the spiritual path. So without further ado, let's take a look!
First barrier: finding your essence
Zen master Tushuai's first barrier concerns the essential point of spiritual practice: finding out who, and what, we really are. In my lineage of Zen we typically use koans such as 'Who am I?' and 'What is my true nature?' to dig into this question. As I discussed in last week's article, koans have a way of exhausting our thinking minds to the point that they spontaneously release, revealing what lies beyond. A second approach is through Silent Illumination, simply allowing the mind to relax and let go naturally over time. And in a recent article I talked about Zen master Bankei's teaching on the 'Unborn Buddha Mind', which is another way of describing the 'essence' that is mentioned here, and I offered a third approach for finding that essence, by looking at what happens in your experience in the 'space between thoughts'.
All of these approaches are intended to move us beyond the habitual patterns of our minds. Master Tushuai calls this 'brushing aside confusion'. Perhaps it seems a little dismissive to summarise all of our usual mental activity as 'confusion'! The essential point, though, is that, prior to awakening, we see the world through a particular lens, a particular 'view', and that view is not giving us the full story. In Buddhism you'll often hear people talking about 'the relative perspective', by which they mean the conventional world view - a view of separation, a world of things and people each doing their own thing, a perspective of solidity, impact, comparison and conflict. That's then contrasted with 'the absolute perspective', which is what you hear described in spiritual circles - a view of no separation, no duality, no conflict, just ever-unfolding harmony. The absolute perspective is what we find when we discover our essence. Until you've done that, it's all just a bunch of words. So the first barrier is to find your essence!
Second barrier: fear of letting go
Tushuai's second barrier talks about 'when you are dying'. It's possible to understand this in terms of the end of life and the death of the physical body, but in Zen literature 'death' is often more symbolic than literal. Shifting from the relative perspective to the absolute requires us to let go of everything that comes with the relative perspective - which includes our sense of separate identity, our sense of being an independently functioning human with a name, a private life, interests, relationships and so on. Essentially, everything we've been carrying with us throughout our entire lives to give us a way to make sense of what is happening right now must be (temporarily!) put down. The more firmly we've identified with various aspects of ourselves - perhaps our profession, race, gender, belief system, etc. - the more difficult it is to set those aside, because they're so fundamental to how we understand what's going on. And yet that's exactly what we must do.
And so, in the run-up to an initial awakening - called kensho in Zen, 'seeing true nature' - it's extremely common for a kind of 'fear of death' to manifest. We may feel a very direct existential threat, a sense that 'if I keep going, I might not make it out of this in one piece'! And, in a sense, that's true - you won't. After awakening, you really won't be the same person any more. You can't be. You'll know for sure that the relative perspective is only part of the picture, not the whole of reality. At times you'll be fully immersed in that relative perspective, dealing with the demands of career, family, relationships and so forth, but at other times you'll have enough time and space to step back and remember, and perhaps reconnect with, the absolute.
This type of existential fear can show up at other points in practice too. A variant of it is often reported by people learning the jhanas - as the practitioner's mind begins to shift into one of the altered states of consciousness that we call jhana, there can be a sense of loss of control, of hurtling into the unknown, and that can be threatening enough to disrupt the practice. Even something as simple as letting go of a bad habit can sometimes trigger a version of this fear - when it's something that's been a part of us for a long time, letting it go can feel like losing a piece of ourselves. Perhaps we might feel like we won't know how to live without the bad habit - we don't know who we'll be if we don't do this thing which is so characteristic of ourselves.
All of these transitions do require us to step into the unknown. There's no getting around it. Other people can assure us that it's for the best in the long run, but we still have to take that leap of faith for ourselves. For some people, it can help to sidle up to the threshold repeatedly, slowly getting used to being in that uncomfortable space until we're finally ready to step over all the way. For others, it may be easier just to take the plunge directly - the 'rip off the plaster' approach. Either way, this is the second barrier: to overcome the fear of letting go.
Third barrier: life beyond awakening
Before we move on to Tushuai's third barrier, let's return to the first for a moment. We talked about the various types of spiritual exercises which can lead to seeing essence (kensho), all of which revolve around 'brushing aside confusion', i.e. escaping from our habitual mental activity.
But notice that Tushuai says that 'Brushing aside confusion is only for the purpose of seeing essence' (emphasis mine). Like I said in the Bankei article, the point of the practice is not to eliminate our thoughts once and for all. To put it in the language above, the aim of our practice is not to discard the relative perspective forever and live permanently in the absolute. I'm not even sure that's possible without someone on hand to take care of your bodily needs - feed you, wash you and so forth. Remember, all of those activities belong to the relative perspective - so if you have forever closed off that way of seeing the world, you aren't going to be taking a shower anytime soon.
In Zen, we have a saying that a mature practitioner needs to have 'both eyes open' - the eye of the relative and the eye of the absolute. Neither perspective is 'the truth'; both are simply aspects of reality.
But how is one supposed to do that? Is the idea that you live day-to-day from the relative perspective, then go on retreats a few times a year to hang out in the absolute? Well, that's an approach that some teachers do recommend, but Zen would tend to say no - if that's your chosen lifestyle, then it's starting to sound like you're becoming fond of sitting on a hundred-foot pole. The long-term aim in Zen is towards integration - of seeing that 'relative' and 'absolute' are not really separate at all.
Learning how to live after the 'spiritual death' described above is not an easy matter. As we come to understand emptiness more and more deeply, everything that we previously relied upon now seems unstable and insubstantial. We may even feel that the four great elements that make up the physical world are disintegrating all around us. How are we supposed to live when there's nothing we can depend on?
Much as I'd like to be able to describe the 24/7 fully awakened, fully integrated life from my own experience, alas, my practice still has some room for improvement! But the Zen masters of old do offer us some pointers. Bankei suggested that we could learn to live in the Unborn Buddha Mind, where 'everything is perfectly resolved'. And the third great Zen ancestor, Sengcan, wrote a poem called 'Faith in Mind' which points in the same direction - a profound trust in that which is within us to navigate the world without losing sight of who and what we really are. Zen invites us to learn to live from our essence whilst being in the world - neither hiding out in a cave enjoying the bliss of total extinction, nor being lost in the miseries and sufferings of the relative world.
It's tempting here to include a quotation from a well-respected teacher that attempts to summarise this process of integration, but I think it would be trite to do so. The truth is that the core of Zen practice is deeply mysterious to me, and continues to be so even after many retreats, insights and experiences. The unfolding of our lives is discovered through being lived, one moment at a time, not something which can be fully mapped out in advance - no matter how much I might like it to be otherwise!
May you overcome the barriers in your own life.
Where do we go when we've reached the pinnacle?
This week we're looking at case 46 in the Gateless Barrier. It's one of the more famous koans (Zen questions or stories) in the collection, and has a number of interpretations. We'll take a look at a couple of those interpretations in this article, but don't let my words here constrain you - if you find something else of value in the strange question posed above, so much the better.
How can you walk north at the North Pole?
At face value, the koan presents us with another impossible question. If you're a hundred feet up in the air, balanced on the top of a pole, how are you supposed to step forward without plummeting to your death? (Regular readers might be reminded of case 5!)
Whether or not you've found yourself in this exact situation, I suspect that many of us can relate to a sense of having taken something to its farthest practical extent - a sense that there's nowhere left to go. Perhaps you reach the top of your professional field - or the limits of your abilities. Perhaps it's as simple as a sense of having plateaued... and enough time has now passed that it's starting to look like the plateau is as good as it gets for you. Of course, it may be that that's good enough! But if you've been motivated by a sense of growth, and then that growth comes to an end, what do you do now?
In the meditation world, this sense of 'peak' or 'plateau' can show up a few different ways, some more problematic than others.
It may simply be that you've gotten what you were looking for, and that's enough for you. I know someone who finds that mindfulness meditation helps him to sleep when he's going through a rough patch - so he'll take up meditation when his sleep is bad, then put it down again when his sleep is back on track. With my snobbish Zen hat on, I might be tempted to look down on him and think about all the deep cosmic insights he's missing out on by not taking his practice deeper - but the fact is that, for him, meditation is a helpful way to sleep better, and that's it. And, honestly, there's nothing wrong with that! He has a need, meditation satisfies it, job done.
Things get a bit more difficult if reaching an apparent 'end of the road' isn't satisfying, though. Perhaps you were drawn to practice because you were interested in those aforementioned cosmic insights - you wanted to understand impermanence, emptiness and non-duality. And it's certainly possible to reach a point where you have had very clear experiences of all those things - so what next? How should you practise now? What comes next? What happens when the maps and texts no longer provide a clear way forward? How can you 'step forward' now?
Perhaps the most challenging situation is when you've developed your meditation to the point that you can find something very powerful - peace, stillness, joy - in your meditation practice, but haven't yet found a way to bring it into your daily life. Then the 'top of the hundred-foot pole' becomes a place to hide out - a refuge from the world, where you engage with your meditation practice in order to turn away from the unpleasant, inconvenient, difficult outside world and connect with the beautiful experiences that you find within. Actually, there are some meditation traditions that would regard this as a win, and which recommend a renunciate lifestyle so that you can shun the outside world to the fullest extent possible and spend as much time as you can enjoying the bliss of your meditation. In the Zen tradition, however, we regard that as stopping halfway - as the second part of the koan says, being able to touch into emptiness in your meditation practice is the start of something ('gaining initiation') rather than the end ('not yet reality'). The challenge now is to find that same sense of peace and stillness in every moment of life - in the language of the koan above, 'to manifest the whole body throughout the universe', or in the language of Zen master Bankei in last week's article, 'to live in the Unborn'.
There's also another, quite different, take on this koan, but in order to provide some context for that, we'll need to take a brief detour.
Two Zen views on 'awakening experiences'
During the golden age of Zen, five major lineages sprang up, of which two have survived in some form today - the Linji and the Caodong, to give them their Chinese names, or Rinzai and Soto in Japanese.
Generally speaking (although there are exceptions), the Rinzai approach tends to emphasise koan study - an intense, often effortful investigation in which one explores a question (like the one at the top of this article), asking the question over and over, focusing so strongly that a tangible feeling develops in the body (what master Hakuin described as a 'great ball of doubt' in the lower abdomen). If the questioning is kept up for long enough (a process which brings its own challenges!), sooner or later the 'ball of doubt' will 'shatter', and the practitioner's perspective suddenly flips around to an entirely different way of seeing things. My Zen teacher Daizan often quotes one of his own teachers, who liked to say that a koan is a question that from the outside has no solution, but from the inside is no problem - that's the shift in perspective that we're talking about. It's very common in koan practice for that shift to happen suddenly and very noticeably - at the minimum, there's a distinct 'aha!' moment when things slot into place, and potentially things can get quite a bit more dramatic. The 'enlightenment experiences' written about in (for example) Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen describe some of the ways that these moments can play out. In Rinzai Zen, having an experience of kensho (seeing true nature) is considered an important landmark on the spiritual path for most people, because it represents a clear watershed point in the practice.
On the other hand, the Soto school tends to emphasise shikantaza (aka Silent Illumination) - a very simple, sparse, gentle form of practice in which one 'just sits', remaining fully aware of the present moment but not trying to do anything or make anything happen. There are many variations on this practice, some of which do emphasise a kind of gentle curiosity toward experience, but plenty of Soto teachers will tell you that there's no need for any of that - all that's required is to sit, and furthermore, there's no need for any kind of 'enlightenment experience' - Silent Illumination is enlightenment. There's nothing to attain, no insight to have - just sit. There can even be a view that it's unhelpful to have a kensho experience, because that becomes just another thing to let go of before we can just sit quietly.
How can we reconcile these two seemingly totally contradictory viewpoints? (I'm assuming here that you want to reconcile them! Throughout history, the simple answer to this question would have been 'My tradition is right, theirs is wrong.' But personally I like to find ways to understand and appreciate every tradition, no matter how different it looks from my own approach to practice.)
The way I understand it, the whole spiritual path is fundamentally about letting go. We cling to certain unconscious ways of seeing things, and the process of developing 'insight' is a matter of learning to let go of those unconscious views to make room for other ways of seeing. But how do we let go?
We can use a physical analogy. Let's suppose you have a tense muscle. It may be that you can simply relax it, if you're sufficiently connected to your body and the tension isn't so habitual and ingrained that it doesn't respond to your intention. Simply relaxing is the gentlest, easiest way to let go of that tension, by far. This is the Silent Illumination approach - just sit, gently relaxing the mind. If that doesn't work, though, we can actually try tensing up even more - tightening not just the muscle we want to relax, but the surrounding muscles as well. We make everything tight, tense, contracted - and then suddenly relax the whole area of the body, all at once. This approach is much more intense and effortful, and tends to lead to much more of a sudden moment of relaxation rather than a gradual process of softening. And that's the koan approach - focus the mind very strongly on the process of questioning, until all of a sudden the ball of doubt shatters and the mind lets go deeply.
I have some experience of both styles of practice. When I first came to meditation, I was very much a 'doer' - although I learnt Silent Illumination early on in my practice, I found it strange and maddening because nothing seemed to happen and I didn't know what I was supposed to do. Then I met my teacher in the early Buddhist tradition, Leigh Brasington, and he taught me how to use my 'doing' skills to practise the jhanas, Brahmaviharas and insight meditation techniques. I got on very well with that approach, and experienced some clear 'watershed' moments as a result of practising in that style. A few years later, though, on a month-long retreat, something totally flipped around in my practice, and on the last couple of days of that retreat I found myself drawn back to Silent Illumination. Suddenly, that approach to practice made sense, and it's been my main method ever since. Since then, I've had fewer 'watershed' moments, but my sense is that my practice has continued to deepen nevertheless. But now it's happening gradually, almost imperceptibly, rather than in noticeable jumps. Daizan has said that it's a bit like getting wet in the rain: sometimes you'll go outside, there will be a sudden downpour, and you can pretty much pinpoint the minute when you got drenched; other times, it isn't really raining but it's very misty, and although there's no particular moment when you realise 'gosh, I'm wet!', nevertheless you're soaked to the skin by the time you get home.
No hundred-foot pole, no stepping forward
Now that we have a bit of background about the Rinzai and Soto approaches, we can find two quite different ways to understand the koan at the top of this article.
In the Rinzai view, reaching the top of the pole might represent achieving kensho. It's a watershed, a turning point - it represents a kind of 'initiation', as the second Zen master in the koan puts it. But any Rinzai teacher worth their salt will tell you that that isn't the end of the path - as I indicated above, it's a starting point rather than a finish line. No matter how big or impressive the insight and attendant enlightenment experience were, it isn't the end of the journey - and if the student is tempted to cling to it (sitting atop the hundred-foot pole), the teacher is likely to give them a gentle (or not-so-gentle) nudge to get them moving again. This is the situation of taking the student's staff away in case 44, or Zhaozhou's response to the second hermit in case 11. The question of stepping forward is thus a challenge to let go of whatever the practitioner feels has been 'attained', and to find a way to move forward still further.
In the Soto view, all this talk of achievement and moving forward is wrong from the start. There's nothing to achieve, nowhere to get to; and, to make matters worse, looking at practice in those terms is actively unhelpful, since it only reinforces the acquisitive, dualistic tendencies of the small self. So, in truth, there's no hundred-foot pole to climb, and nowhere to go from the top of it. Our Buddha Nature - our Unborn mind, in the language of last week's article - is already here, right now. We don't need to go anywhere to find it, and we don't need anyone to give it to us. We just need to look within and find it for ourselves. Seen this way, the koan is a way of inviting us to check in with our intentions for practice. Are we practising 'just sitting' with the secret idea that it'll take us somewhere special, like one of those exciting enlightenment experiences?
The trickiest part about the Soto view is that meditation practice really does do something for us (otherwise, why bother!), but if we sit down to practise with a materialistic motivation then that motivation will interfere with the practice. The correct attitude to have when practising Silent Illumination is that we're simply sitting for the sake of sitting, resting in awareness because that's something worth doing for its own sake - not to get anywhere or give us any particular result. A distracted, confused sit isn't 'worse' than a tranquil, clear sit - both are just this present moment arising in practice. Insight isn't 'better' than confusion - both are just experiences that can arise through practice.
In the long run, both approaches actually converge. The effortful path and the relaxed path both lead to the same ever-present Buddha Nature, just by different routes - and at the end of either path, you'll discover that you haven't moved an inch, let alone climbed a hundred-foot pole.
May all beings discover their Buddha Nature - no matter how they get there.
Breaking free from the prison of the mind
This week we're looking at case 45 in the Gateless Barrier. It's a simple koan that points to a truth which is both profound and extremely difficult to express in words, for reasons that will soon become apparent!
Spiritual authorities, Zen and 'self-power'
Japanese Buddhism makes a distinction between approaches to practice which depend on 'self-power' and those which depend on 'other-power'.
A tradition like Pure Land Buddhism is an example of 'other-power'. The basic idea is that if you speak the name of Amitabha Buddha (a celestial Buddha who rules over the Pure Land, a kind of heavenly realm in Buddhist cosmology), then when you die you'll be reborn in the Pure Land where it's really easy to get enlightened. It's an easy method - anyone can say 'namu amida butsu' or 'namo amituofo' - and it results in an easy road to enlightenment. The key is that someone else (Amida Buddha) is doing most of the hard work for you - hence we call this an 'other-power' approach, because you aren't doing the heavy lifting yourself.
By comparison, Zen is considered a 'self-power' approach. In Zen, nobody is going to do the heavy lifting for you. A teacher can provide you with a meditation method (like koan study or Silent Illumination), but when it comes to getting the work done, that's all on you. Yes, it helps to have a sangha to practise with, and a teacher to offer support and guidance, particularly if you're going through a tough patch, but fundamentally it's you sitting face to face with yourself, day in, day out, that gets the job done.
There's something to be said for both approaches. Awakening requires us to open up to something beyond our conventional ideas of who we are - and it may be helpful for some people to frame that as a kind of grace received from totally outside ourselves. On the other hand, many people who've grown up in a culture heavily influenced by Abrahamic religions find that that approach isn't satisfying, and that they're drawn to meditation practice precisely because it doesn't rely on an external force to intervene on our behalf - and so framing things in terms of 'self-power' might be a much better fit. And, actually, in the long run, the two approaches do kinda meet in the middle. It's said in Japanese Buddhism that even the most ardent devotee of other-power needs a bit of self-power in their practice too, and even the most determined self-power practitioner has to be open to a bit of other-power along the way too.
Nevertheless, this koan is very much aimed at encouraging the self-power approach that's characteristic of Zen, and it starts by taking aim at two possible candidates for other-power: the 'past' and 'future' Buddhas.
The 'Buddha of the past' referenced here is Shakyamuni Buddha, aka Siddhartha Gautama. This is the 'historical' Buddha, the man who lived 2,500 years ago in what is now modern-day India, the spiritual teacher who kicked off the whole tradition that subsequently became known as Buddhism. If you're looking for a Buddhist authority figure, you can't go far wrong with Sid himself. At least if we take the Pali canon literally, this is the guy who discovered the Four Noble Truths, came up with the Eightfold Path and introduced insight meditation as a path to enlightenment. The historical Buddha's teachings have been tremendously helpful to me personally, and that's why they're a big part of what I teach, despite this site being called 'Cheltenham Zen'. The ancient teachings of the Pali canon can be a great source of inspiration, not to mention a treasure trove of practical methods for developing generosity, compassion and wisdom. In a broader sense, Shakyamuni represents the tremendous body of wisdom that has been developed and handed down to us over the centuries by the many practice lineages all over the world.
The 'Buddha of the future' is Maitreya, a Buddha who currently resides in a heavenly realm, and who is prophesied to come to Earth to revive the Dharma (the true teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha) at a time when the teachings have completely decayed. Plenty of people argue that that's already happened, and several people have claimed to be Maitreya. Whether or not we believe in this kind of prophecy, the point here is that Maitreya represents the promise of future salvation - OK, things might be crappy right now, but if we can just hold on a little longer, Maitreya will come and sort it all out for us - so take a deep breath and keep going!
At the symbolic level, both of these represent 'something outside ourselves' that we might secretly hope will solve all our problems. That kind of wish can manifest in a variety of ways. Perhaps it's a subtle sense of restlessness, never settling with any one teacher because maybe the next one will say the right thing to me. The next book, the next retreat, the next empowerment, the secret scroll with the hidden teaching - these all hold the tantalising promise of being 'it', the thing that's going to turn our lives around and enable us to live trouble-free for the rest of time.
Zen master Wuzu is gently and compassionately suggesting that, if this is the approach we're taking, we might be looking in the wrong place for salvation. He suggests that both Shakyamuni and Maitreya are 'servants of another' - that's a bold claim, suggesting that even the founder of Buddhism and its promised future Messiah are just underlings in the service of someone much greater. Who could it be - and do they have any books on Amazon?!
Zen master Bankei's 'Unborn Buddha-mind'
After a period of incredibly intense practice which very nearly led to his death, Zen master Bankei had a profound realisation, which he summarised by saying 'Everything is perfectly resolved in the Unborn.'
'The Unborn' was Bankei's way of referring to what we might alternatively call 'Buddha nature', 'true nature', 'Mind with a capital M', 'awake awareness' or 'pure being'. The Unborn is not something outside of ourselves; we don't need to climb a mountain to find it. In fact, whether we look for it to the north, south, east or west, we're looking in precisely the wrong direction. In order to find it, we need to turn the light of awareness around and look inside ourselves, to find out who we really are at the deepest level.
So much for the spiritual cliches - but what does any of this actually mean?
Fully understanding Bankei's teaching is, I think, the work of a lifetime - my Zen teacher's teacher apparently once commented that 'Practice is so much deeper in one's seventies than one's sixties', and I'm not even fifty yet, so I have quite a way to go! But we can perhaps get a foot in the door, so to speak, by looking at what lies beyond our thinking minds.
Zen often comes across as being pretty anti-intellectual. There's a lot of rhetoric about how thoughts won't help you, and arguably one of the major purposes of koan practice is to frustrate the thinking mind.
But the point isn't to eradicate the thinking mind, only to break its stranglehold on our experience. The thinking mind is a wonderful thing. It can figure things out, solve problems, learn skills, allow us to analyse facts dispassionately to overcome unconscious biases - honestly, it's great. I make my living using my thinking mind to solve complex technical challenges, and so I have the thinking mind to thank for the roof over my head and the food in my belly. Thanks, thinking mind!
But the thinking mind also has its limitations. The thinking mind sees the world through two major operations: divide and compare. This is different to that, and I prefer the first one. That oh-so-simple mechanism can allow us to do all kinds of cool things - for example, we can project ourselves into an imaginary future to figure out how we want things to turn out tomorrow, allowing us to make plans to increase the chances of things going our way, while taking steps to avoid some of the obstacles that might come up and stop us from getting where we want to be. That's an immense power, and likely goes a long way to explaining the dominance of the human species on this planet.
But the world of 'divide and compare' comes with some drawbacks too. Maybe you're familiar with the phenomenon of 'overthinking'. Maybe you've caught yourself planning tomorrow's important meeting for the seventh time - even though the first six runs really did cover all the important stuff. Maybe you've felt that you could be doing better - you have a clear idea of how you should be getting on, and your actual performance falls short by comparison. Or perhaps you're really good at the 'divide' part of the equation, and every time you walk into a room you start finding reasons why you don't belong there, dividing the room into 'them' and 'us' more and more effectively, until 'us' has become 'just me, all alone, unwanted and unwelcome'.
So - and bear with me on this for a moment - what would happen if we stopped thinking, even for a moment? How would the world appear to us then, if not viewed through the lens of 'divide and compare'?
There are two tricky points here. One, it's quite literally impossible to put that experience into words. This isn't just me being spooky and enigmatic. The moment we start to use words, we have to step back into the world of thought, because that's where words come from. So as soon as we start to 'talk about it', we have to stop 'living it'. But that's not actually as bad as it sounds, because it's like anything else - we just have to experience it for ourselves, and then we know what it's like. No description of the taste of a mango will ever convey the experience of its flavour to someone who's never eaten one, but luckily it isn't that hard to get hold of a mango and try it for yourself, at least in our affluent Western society - if you're reading this article, the chances are that you have access to a mango for the purposes of a taste test.
But how the heck do we experience 'not thinking'? That's the second, and altogether trickier, point. At first, we might not even realise how much we're thinking all the time - a very common experience for beginning meditators is for people to think that the practice is actually making them think more than usual, because as soon as we get quiet and start paying attention to what's going on, the thoughts are absolutely everywhere, like an unstoppable mental fire hose thrashing around and spraying thoughts left, right and centre. If you've found this for yourself, let me assure you that the meditation didn't put the thoughts there - they were there already, you just hadn't noticed them. We tend not to notice things that are always there, like the way we rapidly stop hearing the hum of the air conditioning or central heating because it's a steady drone. In the same way, when our minds are bombarded by thoughts, we actually tend not to notice most of them - they just fade into the background of our experience.
So first things first, we need to do enough practice that we start to notice our thoughts coming and going, to identify each thought as a discrete mental event with a beginning, middle and end. We can either undertake a meditation practice specifically focused on mindfulness of thoughts, as we discussed in last week's article, or we can simply allow the awareness of thoughts to develop over time as we do another practice, such as Silent Illumination.
Once we have some level of familiarity with the contents of our minds, we can then start exploring what happens when we don't have any thought present.
If we really pay attention, we'll start to notice moments like this, particularly if we practise meditation for long enough that the mind begins to settle and the thoughts quieten down. We may begin to find that gaps open up naturally between thoughts, and in between is... something else. Perhaps it shows up first of all as a kind of silence - one student described it to me as 'a deafening, horrifying silence', because it was such an unfamiliar and unexpected experience for him. (It doesn't stay horrifying! It's actually quite nice, but it can be a bit of a surprise the first time you encounter it.)
Alternatively, if the space isn't opening up by itself, we can sometimes 'trick' our minds into falling silent for a few moments. Spend a few moments noticing your thoughts coming and going, and then ask yourself this: 'What is my next thought going to be?'
Everything is perfectly resolved in the Unborn
The first step here is to get a taste of this 'deafening silence'. Then, like so many things in meditation, the second step is to figure out how to get back there! It's not at all uncommon to 'stumble' quite easily into some kind of meditation experience the first time, and then really struggle to get back there. It isn't just a case of beginner's luck - often, the problem is that we want to get back to the prior experience so much that the mind actually tightens up and becomes less flexible, thus blocking the path leading back to the desired experience. Fortunately, this is something we can learn to overcome - we 'just' have to figure out how to incline our minds gently towards wherever we want to go, without getting so 'grabby' that we get in our own way.
Once you can get back to 'the space between thoughts', even if it's just for a few moments at a time, you can start to explore what it's like. It's a delicate business - remember, you can't use words, because as soon as you do you're back in the world of thought again. (There's nothing worse than finding yourself thinking 'Oh hey, I'm back there in the space between thoughts!', because, of course, you aren't - at least, not any more! But maybe you were, right up until the thought came along, and that's still something.)
As you start to become familiar with the space between thoughts, several things become apparent. One, you don't stop existing when you aren't thinking about something! This might sound facetious, but a genuine source of resistance to letting go of thought can be a kind of fear of annihilation. If we live entirely in our thoughts, and then we stop thinking... eek. But give it a try, and notice that it's OK - usually, quite a bit better than OK, actually, but 'OK' will do for now.
Two, if you're able to rest in that space for a reasonable length of time, you'll start to notice how simple your experience has become. Although you aren't thinking, you haven't suddenly become stupid, or incapable of functioning. If something needs to be done, it's immediately, intuitively obvious what it is - unless it's a complex problem that genuinely does need to be thought about, of course, but what you'll start to notice is how rarely that actually happens. It turns out that life isn't an endless series of challenges to be figured out - unless we make it so.
Third, as you continue to taste that direct, wordless simplicity, you'll start to notice that it feels pretty good. Not 'exciting', like cookies and ice cream, but more of a quality of deep contentment. When we aren't using our thinking minds to compare the present moment to an idealised alternative version of itself, things are just what they are - they don't need to be any different. Unexpectedly, this can be true even if what's actually here is unpleasant in some way. For example, right now I have a bit of a stomach ache, because I've drunk way too much coffee this week and my digestion is a bit upset. If I start thinking about what I should have done instead (like sticking to green tea, which doesn't affect me in the same way), I'll quickly become resistant to and resentful of the present discomfort and my role in creating it. But if I'm simply here, in the space between thoughts, then the pain in my guts is just something else in the room, along with the computer screen in front of me, the music coming out of the speakers, the sensations from other parts of my body, and so on. It's unpleasant, but it's also fine - it just is what it is, no need to make a fuss about it. No need to suffer over and above the discomfort, which is already here anyway.
I believe that some combination of the above is what master Bankei is getting at with his statement that 'everything is perfectly resolved in the Unborn'. On one hand, we're quite capable of functioning from that place - despite the lack of thought, we understand what's what and what needs to be done. And in the absence of comparison, things are just what they are and don't need to be otherwise - which is one way to define 'perfect', isn't it?
Now, Bankei was a big advocate of 'resting in the Unborn', not just as a meditation practice (although Silent Illumination is an ideal vehicle to practise this way of being), but as a way of life - sit in the Unborn, eat in the Unborn, work in the Unborn, sleep in the Unborn. To what extent that's really possible for someone in a household life, I don't know. (Maybe I'll look back in ten years' time and laugh at how shallow my practice was in my forties!) For me, there are peaks and troughs in the amount of thinking that goes on. Sometimes I'll have long stretches where my daily meditation is pretty quiet. At other times, I'll be in the early stages of a new creative or research project, and my head will be a whirlwind of thoughts (that's where I am right now, as it happens). But sometimes, things quieten down enough that I can connect with that space between thoughts - and if I can do it, you can too. And even if we only have occasional access, it's a very powerful practice to connect with it whenever we can. Whatever we're dealing with at the time, it's quite likely that the situation will seem simpler, and our immediate response more obvious, when we step out of the stream of thoughts. (I've started to think of this as 'asking my Unborn mind what needs to happen next' - perhaps there's a hint of other-power sneaking into my framing there!)
Give this one a try and see how you get on. Master Bankei would say that rediscovering your innate Unborn mind is the entire path of practice, and that each moment you spend there is a moment that you already are a fully awakened Buddha. Maybe Zen isn't so difficult after all?
May you discover your Unborn Buddha mind today.
Reward-based learning and the Buddha
In the meditation world, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the present moment. Eckhart Tolle's well-known book is called 'The Power of Now' - it doesn't get much more on-the-nose than that.
The present moment is certainly an important part of spiritual practice, to be sure. But there's another dimension of practice which can sometimes be overlooked if we focus too much on 'right here, right now' - and that's how the practice can help us to change over time.
Pre-enlightenment practices of the Buddha-to-be
When looking at the discourses in the Pali canon (the records of the earliest period of Buddhist teachings, and generally thought to be closest to the teachings of the historical Buddha), the Buddha doesn't talk much about his personal practice history. Instead, he mostly focuses on giving practice advice tailored to the audience he's addressing. (Notice the resonance with the role of the teacher as discussed in last week's article!)
However, in Majjhima Nikaya 19, the Buddha does talk about a practice that he undertook in the early years of his spiritual journey, before reaching awakening.
“Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, it occurred to me: 'Suppose that I divide my thoughts into two classes. Then I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of cruelty, and I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non-ill will, and thoughts of non-cruelty.'
(Readers familiar with the Eightfold Path will note that the Buddha-to-be chose to divide up his thoughts based on those in line with Right Intention and those not in line with it.)
The basic premise here is that thoughts can be conceptually divided into two categories: those which support our growth in the directions we wish to move, and those which don't. This is potentially helpful in two ways. Firstly, by getting clear about the types of thoughts we have, we start to develop an awareness of how much time we spend engaging in mental activity that is beneficial and supportive of our aims in life, and how much we spend doing the exact opposite! Then, secondly, we can start to do something about it. But what should we do, and how? Well, let's see what the Buddha has to say. Continuing with MN19:
"As I abided thus, diligent, ardent, and resolute, a thought of sensual desire arose in me. I understood thus: 'This thought of sensual desire has arisen in me. This leads to my own affliction, to others' affliction, and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna.’"
(The discourse later goes on to describe the same process for thoughts of ill will and thoughts of cruelty, but to keep things simple we'll focus on thoughts on sensual desire here.)
What's being described here is a mindfulness practice - specifically, mindfulness of thoughts. Typically, when thoughts arise in meditation, we simply let them come and go, doing our best not to pay too much attention to them, perhaps remaining focused on an object such as the breath or the body sensations. In this case, though, the practice is actually to look at the thought carefully - but without being drawn into the story associated with the content of the thought. That's tricky! The reason that most meditation practices work with something other than thoughts is because they're so 'sticky' - a thought comes up about something disagreeable that happened to us, and before we know it we're replaying the memory and getting annoyed all over again. At this point, the meditation practice has usually been lost, swept away in the tidal wave of thoughts and emotions associated with the story.
Nevertheless, if we're able to pay attention to our thoughts without getting drawn into them (which is possible, with practice), then we start to notice some interesting things. Over time, we can observe where our thoughts lead us. In the example above, the Buddha describes noticing the arising of a thought of sensual desire. We might think 'Well, what's wrong with that? What's wrong with wanting something nice?' Maybe nothing - but you should check it out for yourself! In my case, I've noticed that thoughts of sensual desire often over-emphasise the positive aspects of the experience that I'm craving, and brush under the carpet the negative side. When I see a chocolate cookie, the pleasure I'll experience when I taste it is immediately apparent to me... and I tend not to think about the regret I'll feel when I weigh in the next morning and the scale has bad news for me. There's also a subtler detail that has taken a lot longer for me to notice - which is that, after I eat a sugary snack, my body actually feels pretty bad not long after. The taste is great at first, but it leaves a kind of slightly unpleasant residue in my mouth afterwards - which, ironically, my habits tell me can most easily be assuaged by eating another cookie. Eating too much sugar can also lead to a sugar high, in which both my mind and body become slightly agitated and uncomfortable. It's not a big deal, easily missed - usually missed, because I've gone straight from eating the cookie to focusing on something else - but it's there in the background of my experience nonetheless, making me feel 5% crappier than if I hadn't eaten the cookie in the first place.
Humans have a tremendous capacity for selective awareness. I know I do! It's easy to focus on the positive aspects of an unhealthy behaviour - the taste of the cookie, the rush of the cigarette, the thrill of doing something dangerous - and ignore the negative aspects.
But something interesting starts to happen if we're able to bring the light of awareness to the totality of a situation. Slowly but surely, we arrive at a more balanced view of what's going on - the good and the bad. This can help to take the sting out of very difficult experiences, as we notice the silver lining to the cloud, and it can also help to reveal the dark side of patterns like unhealthy pleasure-seeking.
The Buddha describes coming to this exact realisation. By examining his own thoughts of sensual desire, he discovered that, ultimately, they led to his own 'affliction' - a strong word, perhaps, but the point is that he realised that, in the long run, chasing material sensual pleasures wasn't taking him where he wanted to go - and, looking more broadly, the same pattern seemed to apply to the people around him as well.
Becoming disillusioned - which isn't as bad as it sounds!
One slightly annoying feature of insight meditation is that it's possible to see something once, twice or even a few times without it really having much impact. Perhaps we notice 'Gosh, things really are impermanent, aren't they?', and yet we're still left with a sense of 'Yeah, but so what?' In just the same way, it's quite possible to notice the negative aspects of some of our behavioural patterns, and to accept fully on the intellectual level that this is something we should probably stop doing... and yet the behaviour still doesn't change. (Unfortunately, I speak from experience!)
I once heard a teacher compare insight meditation to a process of conducting a survey. You ask a couple of people what they think about something, and you get a bit of information - but it isn't really enough to draw conclusions from. You ask a thousand people, maybe a pattern starts to emerge - you're starting to get somewhere, but there's still a way to go. By the time you've asked a million people, you've now got a pretty solid basis to draw conclusions.
In the same way, each time we observe our experience, we're gathering evidence. Maybe that first glimpse of impermanence doesn't seem like a big deal - OK, you definitely noticed something, but you've spent a lifetime building up the implicit world view of permanence and solidity, and it'll take more than a few experiences of impermanence to really make a difference. But if you keep at it, then sooner or later the sheer weight of evidence you've accumulated becomes undeniable - and that's when things flip around, and your world view changes.
And the same applies to behaviour change. The Buddha goes on:
"When I considered: 'This leads to my own affliction,' it subsided in me; when I considered: ‘This leads to others’ affliction,’ it subsided in me; when I considered: ‘This leads to the affliction of both,’ it subsided in me; when I considered: ‘This obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna,’ it subsided in me. Whenever a thought of sensual desire arose in me, I abandoned it, removed it, did away with it."
By examining his thoughts of sensual desire and noticing that they consistently led away from where he wanted to go, those thoughts began to subside. The Buddha realised that the promise of lasting happiness offered by those thoughts of sensual desire was an illusion - and so he became disillusioned.
The experience of disillusionment is generally not a happy one. I experienced a fairly significant disillusionment recently, and it sucked! But - as a friend was kind enough to point out at the time - disillusionment means letting go of an illusion - something that wasn't real in the first place. It's uncomfortable and embarrassing to realise that we've been operating under a false impression all this time, but in the long run it means we're moving into closer alignment with the truth of things - and that's ultimately what this path is all about.
And, just like a magic trick that's been seen through, when we become disillusioned with something, it loses its power over us. In the Buddha's case, when he deeply understood that his thoughts of sensual desire weren't taking him where he wanted to go, the thoughts subsided. As we can see, this wasn't an immediate process, like flicking a light switch - the thoughts continued to come up for a while, but each time they did, he reflected on negative consequences, and again those thoughts lost their power.
Reward-based learning and habit change
The understanding of psychology has undergone some pretty significant changes since the time of the Buddha 2,500 years ago, and this can sometimes lead to a bit of a language barrier when trying to map traditional teachings on to modern concepts. (For example, you might be surprised to hear that there's no Pali word for 'emotion', since the concept didn't exist back then - perhaps that's even shocking, given how central emotion is to our modern understanding of human behaviour.) Nevertheless, MN19 is describing a deep truth about human experience - and one which is now being validated and fleshed out in modern terms by scientists.
There's a biological mechanism called 'reward-based learning' (or simply 'reward learning') which is key to how living beings learn to navigate their environment. At the simplest level, 'if it feels good, I should do it again; if it feels bad, I shouldn't do it again'. It hurts to stub your toe, so you learn to try to avoid doing that - which means that, overall, you're less likely to damage yourself. It feels good to spend time with friends, so you learn to do that - which means that humans tend to build communities that support each other and help us to survive by pooling our skills and resources. And so on.
While this is probably an oversimplification (if you're more knowledgeable on the science of all this and want to fill in some of the blanks, please leave a comment below!), we can start to see both where our bad habits come from, and how bringing clear awareness to an experience (including its downstream consequences) can lead to behavioural change.
We start with that first bite of the cookie. It's sugary - and that's good, because our bodies use sugar as an energy source. Unfortunately we evolved in an environment which didn't have shops selling chocolate on every corner, and so we're biologically geared to load up on resources when they're available, since we might not get to eat tomorrow. That ingrained biological response is then exploited by junk food manufacturers, who take great care to design sweet treats that are as appealing as possible to our old-fashioned instincts. So we take that first bite - and it's good! Reeeeeally good! The behaviour of taking a bite of a cookie leads to a significant positive reward - and by the time we've eaten the whole thing, we've repeated that pattern a few times. Already, our brains are starting to learn 'eating cookie = good, more please!'
But this only works if we do what we usually do, which is focus on the pleasant aspects of the experience and distract ourselves (whether deliberately or not) from the unpleasant aspects. If we instead bring mindfulness to the whole experience, then the overall 'reward' of the activity starts to go down - because now we're noticing not just that initial high but then the low that follows it. And if we do this repeatedly (that 'gathering evidence' process I mentioned above), then we can recalibrate our brains to the new reward level. We start to realise that, although the cookie still looks good, actually there are some significant downsides to it as well. Maybe we'll just have one today, rather than the whole bag - or maybe we'll just get a cup of tea instead.
For more on reward-based learning, habit change and mindfulness, check out the work of Dr Judson Brewer, who uses mindful approaches inspired by the early Buddhist suttas to help people to quit smoking and make other positive behavioural changes.
Closing on a tangent: a few thoughts on pleasure, happiness and the spiritual life
It's pretty common for people to object to the idea that sensual desire could be viewed in a negative light. To Western audiences, it smacks of joyless puritanism, asceticism for its own sake, an anti-life philosophy. It's usually easier for people to see why thoughts of ill will and cruelty should be abandoned - but what's wrong with pleasure?
One response to this is to say that it isn't about eliminating pleasure from our lives, but about coming to a more balanced appreciation of what's going on. As I've outlined above, eating a cookie is neither 100% positive or 100% negative. It tastes great - that's a nice thing! But it also has some negative consequences - and if we're focusing only on the positive and ignoring the negative, we're deluding ourselves as to what's really going on. When we have a more balanced appreciation of the whole picture, we might still choose to eat the cookie - but we'll be making that decision with our eyes open, rather than sleepwalking into it because we're too distracted by the promise of pleasure.
A slightly more sophisticated version of this argument (which is admittedly harder to justify in the context of MN19 above) is that we aren't necessarily trying to eliminate sensual desire, but rather to be free from it. What does that mean? It means that we have a choice in the matter. I've had times in my life when I've been so hooked on caffeine that at 11am every day my legs carry me to the shop at work and my hands grab the Coke bottle out of the fridge and pay for it with my credit card without my conscious intervention - I can watch the process happening, vaguely aware on some level that I'd been planning to cut down on my caffeine intake, yet the habit is so strong that it feels like I'm watching it play out on a TV screen. When we're really hooked on some kind of sensual desire, we really don't have much say in the matter - we're at the mercy of our habits and our environment. Part of the reason for cultivating mindfulness is to bring some agency back into the picture - to open up a space in which we can see our impulses come up and decide whether to act on them.
Both of these answers lead to an approach which is eminently compatible with being fully 'in the world'. We continue to have families and friends, jobs and hobbies; and we continue to do things just because they're fun - but this is balanced by the cultivation of mindfulness and a gradually deepening awareness of the full story of how these things affect us. It becomes easier to notice when a 'harmless fun' activity is starting to get problematic - that addictive mobile phone game is starting to take up a bit too much time in the morning, and we're beginning to arrive late for work, or we no longer have enough time to make a healthy packed lunch to take with us, so instead we're going to the shops and buying junk food instead. If there's no problem, there's no problem - but when there's a problem, we're more likely to spot it, and to have sufficient presence of mind to steer ourselves back on track.
This is fine so far as it goes. But you won't have to look far to find spiritual teachers and philosophers advocating something much stronger - a deep renunciation of the world, a total cutting off of 'frivolous' activities in favour of solitude and spiritual pursuits. What's going on here?
First, I should say that I'm not a monk and have never been one, so I can't really say what the monastic life is like from personal experience. The closest I've come is doing residential meditation retreats, the longest of which have been two month-long retreats at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in the U.S. - but I think that's long enough to give me a sense of what the more thoroughly renunciate life offers.
I've previously offered a model of 'excitation and stimulation' to describe the process of 'settling the mind' in meditation. The basic idea is that, at any given moment, we have some internal level of 'excitation' - from being utterly calm to being excited, terrified or stressed out - and that, in order to meditate effectively, we need to find a meditation technique which offers a level of 'stimulation' (how interesting/engaging/active/busy the technique is) which approximately matches our current level of excitation. If the technique isn't stimulating enough, we get bored and can't stay with it. If it's too stimulating, we actually disturb our minds rather than settling them.
Well, it turns out that when you get the mind settled enough - which typically happens for me after a few days on a residential retreat - it feels really, really good. Not 'cookies and ice cream' good, but a different kind of experience - a subtle, beautiful, deeply profound contentment. Like the taste of a mango, you have to have experienced it to know what I'm talking about. But the key point is that, when you're there, it's very obvious that it's a really, really good place to be, and that all of the usual pleasure-seeking activities of your busy life don't come close. And a very natural thought that comes up at such a time is 'Why would I ever want to go back to how things were before?' Because here's the thing - accessing that kind of peace really isn't compatible with going to the cinema at weekends and playing video games in the evenings. Those activities are so stimulating - being aimed at people who are living highly stimulating lives in our busy modern society - that they're utterly destructive to the peace of mind that comes from solitude.
Whether or not you've experienced the kind of deep peace that the renunciate sages are pointing to, it isn't so outlandish to believe that if we want to take something to its farthest, deepest extents, we're going to have to make some sacrifices along the way. Suppose you want to play the piano. If you play for ten minutes two or three times a week, the chances are you'll have some fun but you'll never play to a sold-out crowd at the Royal Albert Hall. If you want to be a professional concert pianist, you're most likely looking at practising for many hours every day - and you'll also have to give up any activities that would interfere with your piano playing (for example, anything which has a serious risk of injury to the hands). I remember one point when I was practising both Kung Fu and Tai Chi with the same teacher, and I was having some trouble taking my Tai Chi to the next level of subtlety due to habitual muscular tension in my wrists. My teacher nodded and said 'Yeah, that's a Kung Fu thing, unfortunately.' At that moment I knew I'd have to give up Kung Fu if I wanted my Tai Chi to go deeper - not because Kung Fu was bad and Tai Chi was good, but simply because they were pulling me in opposite directions. (I quit Kung Fu - and while I miss it sometimes, overall I don't regret my decision. Deepening my Tai Chi was very much the direction I wanted to go, and my practice has developed significantly in the years since then.)
Getting back to the spiritual life, in the same way as the Tai Chi-Kung Fu example, it isn't that worldly pleasures are intrinsically bad - but, past a certain point, if you want to go as deep as possible in terms of deep states of peace and tranquility, you can't have it both ways. Either you pursue the path of solitude in a very dedicated way, sacrificing a great deal of modern life in the process, or you accept that by remaining embedded in the world you're only going to touch into that place of peace deeply on long retreats. Which is it to be?
And I suspect that the way we each answer that question is what makes the difference between those who choose to pursue a truly renunciate lifestyle and those who don't. I have friends who are very strongly drawn to that way of life above and beyond everything else - but I'm not one of them. I'm drawn to the world. I enjoy learning complex technical things and solving problems. I want to play a hands-on role in helping people - and not just in the spiritual world, but in wider society as well. So I have a day job in which I try to solve technical problems in a way that benefits the wider society. I also have hobbies and interests - I really like science fiction (as you can probably tell from some of the references that make their way into these articles), I enjoy writing, making music, playing games with my friends (we just started a Cyberpunk RED campaign that I'm very excited about - note, excited, not peaceful and content!), going to the cinema and so on. I also have a dedicated daily spiritual practice - which brings me the kinds of benefits I've outlined above and more - and at least a couple of times a year I go on retreat, and reconnect with that deeper place of stillness. My personal sense - and I could be totally wrong - is that some degree of that peace and stability does work its way into daily life, maintained by my daily practice and deepened by my time on retreat. And that's enough for me. I find that it's worth the trade-off to give up the full depth of contentment that might be available if I had a more renunciate lifestyle, in order to remain more fully in the world, committed to making whatever small contribution I can to our modern society from within rather than leaving it behind - and enjoying some conventional pleasures along the way too.
But that's just me. I don't say this to criticise anyone else's lifestyle choices! Maybe meditation helps you but going on a retreat is a step too far - great, meditation helps you! Or maybe you're making that transition to the more fully renunciate way of life - good for you. Sometimes I wish I could join you!
May you find your own path to happiness - whatever that looks like.
Postscript: as synchronicity would have it, Zen teacher Domyo Burk has recently uploaded two podcasts on the subject of renunciation and the household life. Check them out: part 1 and part 2.
The winding road of Zen practice
The image above is a painting of a staff transforming into a dragon, symbolising Zen awakening. Copies of this scroll have historically been given to Zen students who have met a certain bar in their practice. Within Zenways, my Zen sangha, it was the practice at one point to give a copy of this scroll to students who'd studied all five Group Sanzen koans, as you can see from Daizan's inscription above. The image is taken from Nigel Feetham's website, used without permission.
This week we're looking at case 44 in the Gateless Barrier, simply titled 'A Staff'. As usual, on the face of it, it doesn't seem to make much sense - but once we get into the symbolism involved, it'll hopefully become a bit clearer.
Giving you a staff: formlessness to form
Zen teachers often have a staff, which represents their role as a teacher. More generally, the staff represents a method, a form of practice.
When we are first drawn to the spiritual life, we begin in a state of 'formlessness'. Perhaps we have an aspiration - to be a better person, to achieve enlightenment, to find peace of mind - but unless we have a practice of some sort - something to do - it's difficult to make that aspiration a reality in our lives.
Traditions like Zen and early Buddhism offer us a whole variety of methods of practice. Perhaps we're drawn to exploring a spiritual question through koan study, or perhaps the holistic nature of the Eightfold Path appeals to us as a way of life. One way or another, in the early stages, we very much need some kind of 'form' - a practice or set of practices that we can undertake consistently over a period of time (weeks, months, years).
Here, a teacher is very helpful. Of course we can concoct our own spiritual path, either from a single tradition or by blending together techniques from a variety of sources (just like I tried to 'teach myself' to play the guitar when I was a teenager!). But it tends to be much easier and more effective to find a teacher that we're willing to work with - in an ideal world, a teacher has already travelled at least some of the path that interests you, and they can help to save you time by pointing out the common pitfalls and correcting mistakes that are easily seen from the 'outside' but more difficult to spot from the 'inside'.
Different teachers take different approaches to providing 'form' for the student. Some teachers develop systems and curriculums which encapsulate what that teacher understands the Dhamma to be. Other teachers prefer to guide students on a more individual basis, trying to find the forms which best suit that individual. I tend more toward the latter, although I had a bit of a stab at system-building here - in a nutshell, I generally recommend that people have a practice that combines concentration, insight, heart-opening and energetic cultivation, with a strong ethical foundation.
In any case, when it's working well, the teacher will be supporting the student to develop in a way that's working well for them. That's the first part of the koan here - 'If you have a staff, I will give you a staff.' At least the way I understand Dhamma teaching, it isn't my job to tell you how to live your life; rather, it's my job to help you work within the life you already have and do my best to support and accelerate your progress. As such, I'm not looking at you as a person with no staff who needs to be given my staff (which is, of course, the best of all staffs) - rather, I recognise that you already have a staff, and I'm just supplementing what you already have, to the best of my limited ability.
Taking your staff away: form to formlessness
In the fullness of time, practice begins to mature. In the early stages, you're learning 'how to' - you're getting the basic instructions for a practice and figuring out how to do it in the most basic sense.
As we continue to practise over the months and years, however, a transition takes place. At the beginning, we're working with a technique that someone else has given us. In the fullness of time, however, the practice becomes our own. We develop our own relationship to it, our own sense of how the practice works, and how best to engage with it in this moment, with this particular set of conditions.
This transition reflects a process of integration - a blurring of the boundaries between 'this technique' and 'me'. Gradually, the separation between the two disappears. My daily Silent Illumination practice is no longer a fancy Zen meditation performed with much ceremony and specialness; it's simply how I start each day, sitting quietly and watching my experience. At times I'll find myself sitting in the same way on train or coach journeys, simply observing. There's no real distinction between 'formal practice' and 'informal practice' - resting in awareness has simply become one expression of my life, which emerges when the conditions are right.
(Perhaps that sounds a bit grandiose! I don't mean to suggest that I'm incredibly advanced or have an amazing practice, or anything like that. I'm just trying to highlight the way in which my relationship to my practice has changed over the years.)
In some ways, this period of practice can even bring up a bit of sadness. The novelty has very much worn off! Indeed, there can be a sense that practice 'used to be more interesting' - particularly when things are first taking off, it's quite common to have lots of deep insights, and to start to feel a bit special as a result. 'Look at me!', you might think. 'All these other suckers don't understand anything, but I know what the Buddha was getting at, I understand all these Zen texts!'
The technical term for this stage of practice is 'the stink of Zen'. My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, would sometimes hold his nose and say 'stinky, stinky!' if people were getting a bit too impressed with themselves. It's an exciting period, but it's also an immature one, and a responsible teacher will typically do their best to bring the student's feet back down to the ground.
And that's what the second part of the koan indicates - 'If you have no staff, I will take your staff away'. Early on, a very intense fascination with and attraction to the forms of practice can be very helpful - but past a certain point it simply becomes another kind of attachment, another ego support to make ourselves feel special because of all of our wonderful insights. In the long run, the spiritual path is all about letting go - and that includes letting go of the story of what a great meditator we are.
And thus we return again to formlessness - letting go of our attachment to specific techniques, allowing our practice to integrate itself so completely that there's no distinction between 'practising' and 'not practising'. This is a long and difficult journey, and perhaps one that takes a whole lifetime to 'complete' - but it's also a rewarding one. Along the way, we learn the true value of these practices as they manifest in our own lives, not as they're portrayed in ancient texts from other cultures around the world. Gradually, we return to formlessness; this second formlessness is both fundamentally different to, and fundamentally the same as, the first formlessness at the beginning of our practice.
As T.S. Eliot put it:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Or, in the words of the great Zen master Bruce Lee:
Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.
After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick.
Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.
Where are you on this journey? Do you have a staff, and if so, do you have the support of a teacher who can ensure that your staff is in the best shape it can be? Or is it time to let go of your staff - and if so, do you have a teacher on hand to point out when you're reflexively grasping at the familiar, comfortable staff that's brought you so far, and to prise it gently out of your grasp?
Training the mind
This article is the final one in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're taking a look at the eighth factor of the path, right concentration. In the quotation above, the Buddha explains right concentration as the practice of the four jhanas - altered states of consciousness which we can train ourselves to enter through diligent practice. I've written about jhana several times before (giving detailed instructions here, setting the jhanas in the context of the wider path here, and looking at the so-called 'higher' or 'formless' jhanas here), so rather than repeat that material here, I'll instead try to give a sense of my current understanding of what the jhanas actually are, what function they serve in the context of the Eightfold Path, and then take a look at how some other traditions have arrived at different solutions to the same problems.
What actually are the jhanas anyway?
The jhanas are altered states of consciousness that can be entered through meditation. Each has a number of associated 'factors', but at a high level, the first jhana is a state of strong bodily bliss, the second jhana is a state of strong emotional joy or happiness, the third jhana is a state of quiet contentment, and the fourth jhana is a state of deep peace and equanimity. (I go into much more detail about the jhana factors here.)
The jhanas are sometimes described as 'concentration states', and they're strongly associated with samadhi practice, often called 'concentration meditation'. The basic idea with samadhi practice is to rest your attention on an object, and when you notice that your mind has wandered, let go of the distraction, relax, and come back to the object. Rinse and repeat until the mind wanders less and less - there's often a kind of tipping point when you notice that you aren't really getting distracted any more (a state which my teacher Leigh Brasington would call 'access concentration'). Following the instructions from this article, you can then enter the first jhana - at least, the way Leigh and I teach it.
It turns out that this is not the only interpretation of jhana. Some teachers require a much, much deeper level of concentration than what's described above before they're willing to call the resulting state 'jhana' - see the work of teachers like Pa Auk Sayadaw, Tina Rasmussen and Beth Upton for examples. And other teachers require less concentration, such as Bhante Vimalaramsi, because they want to use their version of the jhanas to do things that are difficult to do when the mind is more deeply concentrated. And to cap it all, every teacher worth their salt will tell you that their version of the jhanas is what the Buddha really taught, accept no imitations! What's a meditator to do?
My impression now, after ten years of jhana practice in Leigh's style and having dabbled a bit with a few other approaches (both a bit lighter and a bit deeper - I haven't gone really deep, so if you'll only accept the deepest of the deep, you can stop reading now!), is that it isn't really accurate to call the jhanas 'concentration states'. I say that because I can enter an altered state of consciousness which is recognisably one of the jhanas at will, without having first done the preparatory practice to stabilise my mind and build up concentration. The resulting state is weak, unclear and easily lost, but is still clearly whichever jhana I was aiming for - it's the same state, just with substantially less concentration. If I build up more concentration first, I go into a version of the jhana which looks exactly like what Leigh taught me. If I build up even more concentration first, the phenomenology starts to resemble some of the deeper jhanas taught by other teachers. And I presume that if I built up incredibly strong concentration, I would end up in the version of the jhanas taught by Pa Auk and friends.
So if the jhanas aren't 'concentration states', why do they come under the heading of 'right concentration', and why are they taught on 'concentration retreats'?
Well, for one, it's very helpful to have a concentrated mind to learn the jhanas in the first place. When you're first learning the practice, you're asking your mind to go somewhere unfamiliar, and that's a difficult thing to do. It's very helpful to have stabilised the mind beforehand so that it's less prone to wandering - otherwise you'll probably fall out of the state before you've had a chance to get used to it. Once you've become more familiar with the jhana, you'll probably find that you can intuitively 'incline' your mind toward it, and enter the jhana with less concentration than it took when you were first learning.
Secondly, and more relevantly for the Eightfold Path, the jhanas are also a fabulous way to deepen your concentration. Fundamentally, the jhanas are states of enhanced wellbeing - they're nice states that the mind likes to inhabit. Bliss, joy, contentment, peace - these are good places to be, so once the mind figures out how to find them, it gets easier to stay there for long periods. While you're in the jhana, you're focused on the qualities of the jhana itself, and so the mind will tend to be even less prone to distraction than it was previously, and thus become more deeply concentrated. The stillness and clarity of the mind coming out of the fourth jhana is typically much stronger than the stillness and clarity of a mind which has spent the same length of time in access concentration.
So concentration helps us to find the jhanas in the first place, and then in turn the jhanas help us to deepen our concentration further. That sounds like a solid definition of 'right concentration' to me.
Other interpretations of right concentration
As I mentioned above, some teachers have extremely high standards for jhana - high enough that most people don't have the time or even the capacity to develop concentration deep enough to meet their requirements. Perhaps as a result, you'll now find many teachers who will say that jhana isn't necessary at all, or even that it's a bad idea - just another cause for attachment. (To that I would say - can you get attached to the jhanas and start using them just to get high? Sure. Don't do that. There are lots of ways to misuse spiritual practice, but that doesn't mean you should reject the whole thing. That's like saying that because you might burn yourself on a flame, everyone should eat all their food raw all the time to avoid the terrible risk of getting burned. Raw food is fine if that's what you're into, but you could alternatively learn not to burn yourself and then enjoy cooked food. To each their own.)
At the extreme end of the spectrum, you'll find teachers offering what's usually called 'dry insight'. This approach doesn't have any 'concentration practice' per se - students will simply go directly into an ***insight practice. (See, for example, Mahasi noting.) But now these teachers have a problem, because 'right concentration' is one of the aspects of the Eightfold Path, and they've deleted the concentration practice.
Their solution is to emphasise 'momentary concentration', or 'khanika samadhi'. This is the type of concentration needed to stay focused on a complex, moving task - such as noting the arising and/or passing away of every sensation in your sensory experience. By comparison, the type of concentration I described above - putting your attention on one object and staying with it for a prolonged period - can be called 'one-pointed samadhi'. The noting practice is not one-pointed - since you're moving your attention from one sensation to another in order to note it - but you do nevertheless stay engaged in the (moving) practice for an extended period of time, so there's a kind of 'concentration' there.
The 'momentary concentration' approach has a couple of advantages. First, it's simpler - you only have one type of practice to do (your insight practice), rather than two. Second, some people have a really hard time focusing the mind, and so find one-pointed samadhi practice to be pretty unbearable. Being given permission to 'skip' the concentration can actually be really helpful in a circumstance like that, because it allows the practitioner to focus on their strengths rather than having to suffer through their weaknesses.
Another, more middle-ground, approach to redefining 'right concentration' is to make some effort to develop one-pointed concentration, but to omit any mention of jhana. (See, for example, the concentration practice in the Goenka tradition, which builds one-pointed concentration on the breath without referencing jhana at all.) Again, this has some advantages. Most practitioners will develop more concentration this way than through the 'dry insight' route, which will in turn make their insight practice deeper and more impactful. And by omitting any mention of jhanas, there's no need to learn altered states of consciousness which - depending on whose definition you're using - may be difficult or even unattainable.
Needless to say, I'm a fan of the jhanas! They really helped me, and I've seen them help plenty of other people too. But I've also seen people do well in other styles of practice too, so - despite the quotation at the top of the article - I don't want to give the impression that I think you'll go straight to Buddhist hell if you don't learn the jhanas right away. (Even so, I'd encourage you to give them a try! Come on a retreat with Leigh or me and see what happens. I'm currently hoping to arrange some retreats in Europe over the next few years, and I'd like some people to come to them - maybe you could help me out here?)
What does Zen make of all this?
Amusingly enough, although the words 'Zen' and 'jhana' actually come from the same root (Pali 'jhana' -> Sanskrit 'dhyana' -> Chinese 'chan'na', shortened to 'chan' -> Japanese 'zen'), the Zen tradition tends not to teach the jhanas, at least not openly.
It's actually very common for meditators of all traditions to stumble into the jhanas - I recently met a guy who said he was interested in them but had no idea how to get there, and when I asked him about his practice it was clear that he'd been in at least the first jhana many times without recognising it. In the case of Zen, though, the teacher will typically show little interest in reports of altered states of consciousness, saying something like 'Oh yes, that happens from time to time, just let it come and go like everything else.' Within the Soto tradition there's a much greater emphasis on 'ordinariness' and integration into daily life, while Rinzai Zennies are usually more interested in insight, kensho and satori than altered states which are not themselves intrinsically insight-producing. (Another risk of jhana is that people might mistake them for insights, because 'look, something's happening!' - again, in my mind, that's an argument in favour of teaching the jhanas openly, so that practitioners know what's happening, rather than concealing or demonising them, but whatever.)
As far as Zen is concerned, though, it's also worth noting that there's perhaps a little less need for a jhana practice in that context than in the early Buddhist context. Many of the insight practices in early Buddhism (and the Theravada tradition that developed out of it) place great emphasis on noticing impermanence and unreliability - and it can be unsettling or even destabilising to notice these things directly. Spending time cultivating the jhanas sharpens the mind, allowing you to notice impermanence more easily, but also stabilises it, allowing you to face aspects of your experience which would be unnerving or upsetting under normal circumstances, but which are easier to bear with the equanimity cultivated through samadhi. So you end up with two practices: samadhi to stabilise the mind, then insight which unsettles it, then back to samadhi to restore the stability, then back to insight to keep digging deeper, and so on.
By comparison, Zen's two major practices are Silent Illumination and working with a koan.
Silent Illumination can actually be defined as a balance of stillness (the silence, aka samadhi) and clarity (the illumination, aka insight). We stabilise our attention on the totality of the present moment and allow it to reveal itself to us more and more deeply - we aren't particularly focusing on impermanence or unreliability, or deconstructing anything, we're not actually doing anything apart from simply remaining aware. Individual moments of insight may have a destabilising effect, but the practice itself doesn't have an intrinsically abrading effect on the mind's calmness - quite the opposite.
Working with a koan can be a bumpier process, especially at first, when asking the question is bringing up all kinds of thoughts and ideas. But the key is that we don't do anything with whatever comes up - we simply notice it, let it go, and then ask the question again. Over time this has a kind of 'winnowing' effect, ultimately allowing the mind to become focused on the questioning itself rather than whatever 'answers' might be coming up. This focus on 'wanting to know' (sometimes called Great Doubt in the Zen tradition) should be balanced with a kind of radical openness, a willingness to receive an answer in any form, from any direction, at any moment. Thus, again, we have a balance of stillness (the focus on the questioning) and clarity (the receptivity to whatever may come up) - incorporating both 'concentration' and 'insight' into one practice.
So what exactly is 'right concentration'?
Well, if you're a purist, and you want to go with what the Buddha is reported to have said in the Pali Canon, then click on the link at the top of this article and check out Samyutta Nikaya 45.8 - and you'll find right concentration defined in terms of the four jhanas. You can use the resources on this website, or buy Leigh Brasington's excellent book Right Concentration, or (best of all) come on a retreat with Leigh or me and give it a go. (In fact, you can do any of those things even if you aren't a purist!)
If you're more inclined to the Zen way of things, then the key is to ensure that your practice includes both aspects - the silence and the illumination, the questioning and the receptivity.
More generally, any amount of concentration, of any sort, is likely to strengthen your insight practice - so even if you aren't interested in jhana, it's worth taking a look at how concentration might manifest itself in your practice. It's in the Eightfold Path for a reason!
The end of the Eightfold Path?
So, this brings us to the end of this article, and this series. Like I said at the start, though, the Eightfold Path isn't really sequential - you don't start with right view or end with right concentration. All eight aspects are to be practised as part of one holistic path. Different aspects will come to the fore at different times - but they're all helpful in their own ways. It can be interesting to reflect on this from time to time - are there aspects of the path where you're stronger, aspects which don't get so much attention? What might happen if you spent some time focusing on a neglected aspect of the path? And what does each aspect mean to you - not just in terms of the 'textbook' definition, but as an actual, living practice?
How might the Eightfold Path manifest itself in your life?
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!