Earth, water, fire and air aren't just for the Ancient Greeks...
This week's article is the second in a series on the Satipatthana Sutta, the early Buddhist discourse on four ways of establishing mindfulness. Check out the first article in the series if you missed it, because it provides an introduction to the discourse and puts the practices contained therein into context, as well as looking at the first few practices in the first section of the discourse, focused on mindfulness of the body. In the second Satipatthana article we continued working through the mindfulness of body section, looking at the deconstructive 'parts of the body' technique. This week we'll take that deconstruction further still, by looking at the Four Elements. (I've actually written about the Four Elements relatively recently, but this time we'll be looking at the original text, so hopefully you'll get a slightly different flavour from the material,) So buckle up, and let's get into it!
The Four Elements, as described in the discourse
Again, monks, one reviews this same body, however it is placed, however disposed, as consisting of elements thus: ‘in this body there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element’.
That's it for the description of the core practice. Pretty simple! Basically, whatever's going on with the body, the practice is to regard it in terms of what are sometimes called the Four Great Elements - earth, water, fire and air. But what does that mean exactly?
The Four Great Elements are seen as the constituent aspects of physical reality in early Buddhism. Each represents a different quality:
Before we go further, it may be helpful for some readers to clear something up. If you're of a scientific bent, I'm not asking you to throw away your Periodic Table, and I'm not suggesting that a dry twig secretly 'contains fire' somehow, or that this can be demonstrated by setting it alight to 'release the fire element'. The types of 'elements' we're talking about here are not like carbon, copper and plutonium. Although the Pali word 'dhatu' is often translated as 'element', it also has the sense of 'aspect' or 'characteristic', and that's how we're being invited to look at reality here.
The point of this exercise is not to replace a modern scientific understanding of the types of atoms which form the physical structures of the universe. Rather, the purpose of this practice is to take the deconstructive process that we applied to the body last time, by looking at it in terms of its parts, and to go one step further - not even looking at identifiable parts of the body now, but breaking everything down into these four primal aspects of materiality: solidity, liquidity/cohesion, temperature and movement.
But why would we want to deconstruct our experience to such a primitive level of analysis?
Excellent question, thanks for asking.
Whenever we encounter something through one of our senses - sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch or thought - we tend to conceptualise it; that is, we form an idea about what we're sensing, often represented in shorthand in the form of a label ('chair'). Hanging off that label is a whole host of associations - for example, ideas about how the object can be used ('good for sitting, or possibly for fighting off a room of attackers if you're Jackie Chan'). Those associations may then bring up impulses to take certain actions ('let's sit down, that would be nice'), or trigger more thoughts ('y'know Jackie Chan really made some great movies back in the day, I ought to watch Rush Hour again'), and so our minds spin on and on into the process of mental proliferation - unless we've meditated enough to be able to let thoughts go when they arise rather than simply being swept away.
An interesting point about this process is that we tend to put a lot of credence in our thoughts very readily. In a sense, it seems to us that our concepts about reality actually are reality. It feels like we're seeing and hearing an objectively real world, and any sensible observer in the room with us would experience basically the same thing, doesn't it? In fact, when another person perceives something differently to us, it often comes as a surprise, and can even lead to arguments, unless we can 'agree to disagree'.
The power of deconstructive meditations like the four elements (and last time's parts of the body) is that they can show us the extent to which we're experiencing our conceptualisation of what's going on, rather than some objective Truth of the universe. In a nutshell, if we change the labels, we change our experience. This is because the labels, or concepts, are the building blocks of the stories we tell ourselves about what's going on, and if we change the labels, we change the building blocks, which means we ultimately change the story. I talked about this at length in my previous article on the Elements, so check out the section titled 'Change the label, change the story, change the experience' in that article if you'd like to read more.
For today's article, let's get back on to the discourse. Right after the description of the practice, the Buddha includes his inevitable simile, which clearly emphasises the deconstructive nature of what's being suggested.
The inevitable simile
Just as though a skilled butcher or [their] apprentice had killed a cow and was seated at a crossroads with it cut up into pieces; so too [one] reviews this same body.... (continue as above).
As my teacher Leigh likes to point out, this simile was evidently written at a period in Indian history before cows were considered sacred!
Unlike the simile of the bag of different types of rice from last time, this one is short and sweet. We have a butcher and an ex-cow, who for some reason are sitting at a crossroads (if you have any idea of the significance of the crossroads, please let me know!). But whereas in the previous simile we had a long list of distinct, identifiable contents, this simile simply says that the cow has been reduced to 'pieces'. The deconstruction has gone far enough that it's now difficult to say whether we're looking at a section of leg or whatever; we're simply seeing a heap of nameless bits. The most we can say is that the bits have some kind of size (extension) and solidity, some kind of moisture or cohesion, and so forth.
The refrain, and suggested avenues of exploration for this practice
Again, as before, we have the same 'refrain', the 'chorus'-like section that follows each practice in the discourse.
In this way, in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body internally … externally … both internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising … of passing away … of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body.
As with the body scan, you could look at 'internally' and 'externally' in terms of what you feel beneath the surface of the body versus what you feel on the surface.
However, it can also be very interesting to look at the Four Elements as they're found in the external world. Notice the solidity of the ground beneath your feet, the moisture in the air on a misty day, the temperature of the sun beating down, the movement of birds in the sky and fish in a river. Going outdoors is a great asset here; humans like to construct environments to live in which are comparatively safe, orderly and sterile compared to the vibrant chaos of nature.
Then, when you've got a sense of the Four Elements all around you, notice that the Elements in you are the same as the Elements around you. Both you and the world around you have aspects of solidity, liquidity, temperature and motion. We sometimes think of ourselves as very special, separate creatures, making a distinction being 'man-made' and 'natural', but at the level of the Elements we're totally continuous with nature, just as much a part of the natural world. Reflecting on the sameness of yourself and your surroundings can be a powerful way to dissolve the felt sense of separateness between yourself and everything else, and can be an interesting way to explore anatta, non-self/essencelessness, one of the Three Characteristics which form the core of many insight meditation techniques from the early Buddhist tradition.
The refrain also explicitly suggests another of the Three Characteristics, anicca, impermanence or inconstancy. We're invited to notice the experience of the Four Elements arising within the body and subsequently passing away - impermanence at work.
In the same vein, we can use the Four Elements to explore the third and final of the Three Characteristics, dukkha, unsatisfactoriness. One way is to notice that the Elements are often experienced as unsatisfactory - for example, maybe there's not quite enough Fire in your environment (i.e. you're too cold), or too much (too hot). Maybe your breakfast porridge doesn't have the right balance of Water element - it's too sticky, or too runny. And so on. It can be especially interesting to pair this one up with impermanence, and notice how even a balance that seemed pretty good at first rapidly loses its sheen; that refreshing breeze soon turns into an unpleasant, chilly draught.
We can also use the Elements to work with the dukkha in our experience, following the theme of 'change the label, change the story, change the experience' - again, I described that approach in some detail in my previous article on the Elements, so check that out if you're interested.
That's a lot of options!
Yes, it is. But that's OK - you don't need to do all of them right now! If one or more of these approaches sounds interesting, then great, but there's no obligation to try every single variation that I'm suggesting. If you were tempted to do that, I'll point out that these are just some of the variations that I've personally explored in my own practice - you can also find other teachers offering many more.
The point of these meditations is not really to try each approach once to get a tick in the box and be able to say that you've 'done' Four Elements. The point of all of these meditations is to provide methods by which you can explore reality, so that in the long run you'll develop insight into what's going on in your experience. Which method is best? The one that interests you enough to do it! Is it better to use one method, or several? Again, whatever holds your interest. There's definitely something to be said for a period of focus on a single technique rather than doing a new meditation every day - as the saying goes, it's better to dig one deep well rather than many shallow ones - but insight meditation can be a fun, creative exploration of reality, and that exploration can take many forms. If you're continuing to delve deeper and deeper into what's going on then it doesn't really matter whether you're using one technique or several; conversely, if you want to use your meditation practice to sit in a happy bubble disconnected from the world, never encountering anything that might trouble you, you can do that just as easily with your one favourite technique as you can by jumping around a dozen practices.
For me, exploring the unknown is what got me into this practice in the first place, and it remains my greatest joy, so I'm totally unapologetic in offering many ways to engage with today's topic, or indeed anything else. If you're more of a 'One True Technique' person, good for you. (Sometimes I wish I was - it would make life simpler.) On the other hand, if you're more naturally inclined to creative exploration, but feel that you need someone's permission before you can really dive in, then consider my permission granted - for whatever that's worth!
Opening to life's natural flow
This week we're looking at one of my favourite koans in the Gateless Barrier, case 19, 'The normal is the Way'. It features two characters who we've seen before, one several times - Zhaozhou showed up in case 1 (giving a puzzling answer to a question about Buddha Nature), case 7 (telling a monk who was asking for a Zen teaching to go and do the washing up), case 11 (where he tested the realisation of two hermits), and case 14 (where we also met his teacher Nanquan for the first time).
In today's story, however, Zhaozhou has not yet become the profoundly realised Zen practitioner that we've seen in those previous koans. Rather, he's earlier in his practice career, asking perfectly reasonable questions and getting frustrating answers from his teacher, just like the students in the other koans. Perhaps it's a sign of my own insecurities as a practitioner, but I like that we get to see this younger, less experienced (and perhaps more relatable) Zhaozhou, sitting alongside other koans where he's at the height of his considerable powers.
We also find his teacher, Nanquan, in a kind and patient mood. (If you've read case 14, you'll recall that last time we met Nanquan he cut a cat in half to stop his monks arguing!) Zhaozhou has a string of questions - but rather than shout at him or hit him with a stick (as we might imagine Yunmen might have done), Nanquan does his best to give a kind of explanation. Of course it isn't totally straightforward - it would hardly make for a good koan if it were! - but I like the fact that Nanquan is trying to lead Zhaozhou forward gently. I've always responded better to teachers who take that approach with me!
So let's get into the story and see what's going on. After the last few which were pretty short, this one gives us a fair bit to work with, so we'll take it one piece at a time.
What is the Way?
When Buddhism arrived in China, it encountered the native philosophy/religion of Daoism. The word 'Dao' translates as 'Way' or 'Path'. There are many such Ways; each profession is said to have its own Dao (the Way of pottery, the Way of accountancy), each animal has its own Dao (the Way of a tiger is quite different to the Way of a sheep), and so on. Encompassing all of that, however, is the Great Way, the Way of Heaven, the universal Dao. Daoist texts such as the Daodejing and Zhuangzi are concerned with pointing to this Great Way so that Daoist practitioners can learn to live in harmony with the universe, and thereby attain peace.
According to some sources I've read, Buddhism was initially regarded as a form of Daoism by the Chinese, and Daoist language found its way (no pun intended) into Chinese Zen (aka Chan Buddhism). Some of the Daoist terminology is somewhat repurposed in Zen, so we should be careful about placing too much emphasis on the similarities - it's not really accurate to say that Daoism and Zen are 'the same', although they share much in common. Nevertheless, there's a strong family resemblance, and most Zen folks will find much to appreciate in Daoist writings (and vice versa).
So Zhaozhou opens this exchange by asking his teacher 'What is the Way?' This is one of those questions like 'What is Buddha?' or 'What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the west?', which is really used symbolically - we could equally well say 'How should I practise Zen?', 'What is Zen?' or 'What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything (and don't say 42)?' It's an invitation for the teacher to offer whatever teaching suggests itself in the moment, as opposed to asking about a specific point of practice or doctrine.
The normal mind is the Way
Nanquan replies that the 'normal mind' is the Way. (In other translations we find 'ordinary mind'. Same difference.)
Readers familiar with case 18 should recognise this theme straight away. It's in the same spirit as 'Just breathe naturally' - on the face of it, the answer seems to suggest that there's nothing at all that needs to be done; one should simply do whatever comes naturally. But, as we explored in that article, if that's the case, why do we need to practise at all? And is it really OK to do whatever comes to mind? Seems like that could be a recipe for trouble!
I won't rehash the whole of the previous article here - go back and read it if you want to see a more detailed explanation. The basic point here is that there's a distinction between the habitual mind, which is plagued by reactivity and fettered by negative learnt patterns of behaviour, and the natural mind, aka the normal or ordinary mind, which has let go of that reactivity and conditioning, and can instead respond freely and spontaneously to whatever arises, coming from a place of generosity, compassion and wisdom rather than greed, hatred and delusion.
Can it be approached deliberately?
So far so good - this 'normal mind' thing sounds great. But Zhaozhou has an obvious question - how are you actually supposed to get to this 'normal mind'? Is there a method for the cultivation of the ordinary mind?
Again, I really like this question. It's very human. I've read quite a number of Zen (and Daoist) texts and come away thinking 'Wow! That sounds amazing!' But then, when the initial thrill has worn off, there's the inevitable question: 'OK, so now what?'
Unfortunately, Nanquan's answer probably isn't going to spark joy for most of us.
If you try to aim for it, you thereby turn away from it
So here's the central problem. The ordinary mind, by definition, responds spontaneously to circumstances. There's no method for that - the moment you reach for a method, you've already moved away from a spontaneous reaction which is wholly tailored to the situation. Contrary to the stereotypes of what it means to 'be Zen', there's no single strategy that will magically resolve all of life's difficulties.
To make matters worse, though, the very search for such a strategy gets in the way of the natural mind. By looking for a one-size-fits-all way of being in the world, we're simply trying to replace one set of conditioned responses with another - a little like trying to learn good information to replace the bad information we previously had. Zen is asking something much more radical of us - that we let go of strategies completely, and take each moment as it comes.
As it says in the Daodejing (chapter 48):
In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of Dao, every day something is dropped.
Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.
If one does not try, how can one know it is the Way?
Zhaozhou is perhaps getting a little frustrated at this point. It seems like Nanquan's answer didn't really help at all. He started by saying 'just behave naturally', and when Zhaozhou asked 'OK, but how do I learn to do that?', Nanquan is saying 'You can't learn to do it - even trying to learn to do it is already moving you in the wrong direction.'
And so, not unreasonably, Zhaozhou is wondering how this is supposed to work. If there's no method, if you can't act deliberately in order to reach the Great Way, then how will you ever know if you've made it? Once again, we're back to the central problem: if there's nothing to do, what's the difference between that and never having practised?
A less compassionate koan might already have stopped, leaving us to chew on 'The ordinary mind is the Way', or even 'If you try to aim for it, you thereby turn away from it.' Fortunately, Nanquan was in a compassionate mood that day, and so gives us more to work with.
The Way is not in the province of knowledge, yet not in the province of unknowing. Knowledge is false consciousness; unknowing is indifference.
This is a fascinating answer, because it cuts directly to the heart of the matter. Nanquan rejects both sides of the duality implicit in Zhaozhou's question. He says that the Way is not something that can be 'known' - but, at the same time, that doesn't mean it's 'unknowable'.
'Knowledge', he continues, 'is false consciousness.' In other words, when you 'know' something, you don't really 'know' it. Huh?
Zen is full of sayings like 'mountains are not mountains, rivers are not rivers'. But of course they are - that's why we call them mountains and rivers! That's what the word means! But what the Zen folks are getting at is that the word 'mountain', or even the concept of a mountain that the word points to, is not the same as the actual mountain. In order to identify a mountain as a mountain, you move from the direct experience to a concept about the experience - and, in so doing, you reduce the specific, unique mountain that's in front of you to an element of a generic category of 'mountains'.
More generally, as soon as we think about something we must, by necessity, separate ourselves from that thing. But if we simply allow ourselves to be in the experience, there's no need for that conceptual gap between 'me over here, thinking about the experience' and 'the experience over there'. To use a spiritual cliché, we become one with the experience.
And Nanquan wants us to be clear that there's a difference between this 'being one with' and simple ignorance. 'Unknowing is indifference,' he says - obliviousness, inattention, lack of interest. The 'normal mind' that Nanquan wants us to find is absolutely not a matter of stopping caring or giving up on the world and just doing whatever comes to mind, no matter how harmful it is to ourselves or to others. We cultivate mindfulness for a reason!
Indeed, in Nanquan's closing salvo, he reaffirms that the Great Way absolutely is something that we can align ourselves with, and there's a meaningful difference between the experiences of alignment and misalignment. It's just that the difference between the two is not a matter of knowledge, not a matter of having a particular idea in mind that separates you from all the dummies who have the wrong ideas. Rather, it's a way of being - letting go of the separation between us and the experience, and finding ourselves in a place which Nanquan describes as 'like space, empty and open' - no barriers, no separation, no obstacles. Simply the unfolding of experience.
The flow state
There's a clear parallel here with the 'flow' state described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who spent a great deal of time studying the types of experience that people reported as being most enjoyable and most effective. His book on the subject is very good and surprisingly readable, but in brief, flow is a state characterised by the following:
As the second point notes, in flow there's no 'knowledge' in the sense that Nanquan means it - there's no gap, no split, no separation between you and what's happening. There's simply the unfolding activity.
What Nanquan is suggesting is that the flow experience can increasingly become our natural state. We can learn to find our way into this 'ordinary mind' and then rest there, at first only briefly, but eventually for longer and longer, until it becomes our default way to be in the world. It's perhaps a little ironic that the flow state, which is considered rare and exalted in Western psychology, is regarded as the mind's 'ordinary' condition in Zen - but perhaps that's just a sign of how far out of step with the Great Way our modern society has become.
One thing is for sure - the flow experience is rewarding enough that there's really no need for 'affirmation and denial', as Nanquan points out. When we're in flow, we're so fully engaged in the flow that there's no space to ask 'Wait, am I in flow yet?' - if you have to ask, you ain't there yet. But once you are, you don't need to ask any more.
So don't delay - enter the Great Way today!
'Just as though there were a bag with an opening at both ends...'
This week's article is the second in a series on the Satipatthana Sutta, the early Buddhist discourse on four ways of establishing mindfulness. Check out the first article in the series if you missed it, because it provides an introduction to the discourse and puts the practices contained therein into context.
In this article, we're going to dive straight in with the next practice in the first section - the parts of the body. (Those of you who are interested in which are the 'original' practices in the Satipatthana might like to know that today's practice is the only one in the first section to appear in all versions of this discourse, although the actual practice I'll be recommending is a little different to what's in the sutta.)
The parts of the body practice, as described in the discourse
Again, monks, [one] reviews this same body up from the soles of the feet and down from the top of the hair, enclosed by skin, as full of many kinds of impurity thus: ‘in this body there are head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, bowels, mesentery, contents of the stomach, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine.’
What's being presented here is an exercise in deconstruction. We may typically think of 'the body' as a 'thing', a single object which goes about the world doing things. Here, however, the Buddha is inviting us to consider the body as an assembly of parts. Actually, it's more accurate to say 'a system of parts' rather than 'an assembly of parts' - an assembly could imply something static, like a structure made out of Lego bricks, whereas a system has more of a processual quality to it.
And, indeed, the body has this quality of 'process'. Our nails and hair grow; when (if?) we clip them shorter, we don't typically look at the off-cuts in the bin and weep for the loss of part of ourselves. They'll only grow back and need cutting again anyway! As we continue to examine the body in this way, we can see more examples of the body's nature as a process, and we start to get a feel for the dynamic nature of the whole thing. And that's the gist of the practice - seeing the body in terms of its constituent parts, seeing the trees that make up the forest.
Of course, there's a simile
Followers of early Buddhism will be familiar with the many similes that the Buddha uses throughout the Pali canon to try to explain the Dharma in terms of everyday language for the time in which he lived. And this practice is no exception:
Just as though there were a bag with an opening at both ends full of many sorts of grain, such as hill rice, red rice, beans, peas, millet, and white rice, and [someone] with good eyes were to open it and review it thus: ‘this is hill rice, this is red rice, these are beans, these are peas, this is millet, this is white rice’; so too [one] reviews this same body.... (continue as above).
OK, we have a bag - well, the body is a kind of skin-bag, right? It's a big collection of stuff enclosed with skin. 'Skin-bag' is perhaps not the most attractive metaphor for the body, but it'll do for these purposes.
So what's in the bag? All sorts of stuff! Hill rice, red rice, beans, peas, millet and white rice. And they're all mixed together. (Not a good storage system if you ask me.) But someone with good eyesight can look at this mixture of stuff and pick out the hill rice from the red and white rice, separate the beans from the peas and the millet, and so on and so forth. The point here is that at first sight the mixture in the bag appears as just one thing - 'the mixture' - with a bit of careful examination we can start to tease it apart into multiple constituent parts (hill rice, red rice and so on). In the same way, through careful examination of the body, we can come to relate to it in terms of its constituents, rather than as a monolithic entity.
Note also that the bag in the simile has an opening at both ends (again, I'm not convinced this is a good way to store rice). Bodies have quite a few openings! If you had a rice bag with a hole at both ends, rice would fall out of the bottom hole every time you picked it up, and need to be replenished through the top hole. In much the same way, our bodies expel various bits and bobs over the course of a day, and some of that needs to be replenished by inserting new things at the top. So although the simile perhaps isn't the best advice for the long-term storage of food, it describes the body pretty accurately.
The practice as written
The main drawback with the practice is actually highlighted in the simile - we don't actually want to open up our skin-bag to review its contents with our eyes! As a result, there's likely to be a certain amount of imagination involved when taking the inventory of the body - I don't know about you but I'm certainly not hyper-aware of my spleen. In fact, in general I'm only aware of the innermost bits of my body when something is going wrong with them.
Working with the list of body parts as given can make for an interesting contemplation practice. However, when doing insight meditation, it can be extremely helpful to work with what we can concretely experience with the five senses, rather than what we think or imagine might be going on. One of the foundations of Buddhism is the idea that we are fundamentally confused or deluded about what's going on in our experience, and so it can be very helpful to focus exclusively on what we can actually see, hear and feel for ourselves, temporarily stepping out of the world of thoughts, ideas and what we 'know' to be true about our experience in order to see what's actually there.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a modern variant of the practice, which is very much in line with the spirit of 'deconstructing the body', but which focuses more on what we can feel directly.
The body scan
The body scan seems to have been developed in Burma during the colonial period, as part of a nationalistic effort to revive Buddhism within the country. (Buddhist scholar Ven. Analayo argues that the Burmese creators of the body scan were actually drawing inspiration from the 'mindfulness of breathing' practice earlier in this discourse, but I think it's close enough in spirit that it makes a good 'parts of the body' practice too.) Subsequently, the body scan was picked up by Jon Kabat-Zinn and incorporated into his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, and as a result has found itself front and centre in many modern presentations of secular mindfulness. There's also a family resemblance with certain yoga nidra practices.
Bearing all this in mind, it's no surprise that there are many, many different versions of the body scan. At their core, though, they all revolve around bringing our attention to the physical sensations of the body, one area at a time, and gradually moving around the body until we've covered the whole thing. The most important part is that we should feel what's going on in the body - not think about the body, not imagine what might be going on, not visualise the body parts, but tap into the physical sensations present, whatever they might be. (Actually, in some parts of the body, we might not feel anything at all! That's fine. Generally speaking, the body will 'wake up' over time and you'll get more and more sensation, but your experience in the moment is whatever your experience is - there's no right or wrong level or type of sensation to find when doing the body scan.)
The major difference between all the different body scans is the route taken around the body. I was taught to start at the top of the head and spiral slowly down to the soles of the feet, scanning horizontal 'layers' of the body like an MRI scanner. I'm told that the Jon Kabat-Zinn version is similar, but starts at the feet and moves up to the head. My teacher Leigh's version starts at the top and works down but does the whole arm before moving on to the torso rather than jumping across horizontally. You may have learnt another version again.
Ultimately, the route doesn't matter. What matters is the continuity of awareness, and - at least if you're interested in developing samadhi - the speed at which you move. But we'll talk more about that in a moment - for now, we have the standard 'refrain', which appears after every practice in the Satipatthana Sutta.
In this way, in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body internally … externally … both internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising … of passing away … of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body.
As I said, this is the same thing we had last time, so the same considerations apply.
How should we interpret 'internally' and 'externally' here? We have a few options:
We also see again the explicit nod to the impermanence (anicca) practice. Body sensations come and go like everything else, so looking at the fine arisings and passings as you do the body scan is a good way to practice.
The body scan also makes for an excellent non-self (anatta) practice. When you bring your attention to your forearm, you're making the forearm the object - if you're the subject and your forearm is the object, then I guess the body ain't you. Repeat for the rest of the body parts, and sooner or later you can't help but find the identification with the body lessening. (At which point you may want to ask 'So what exactly is the 'subject' here anyway?)
And, of course, the body is also a good opportunity to contemplate unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). The body is often a source of unsatisfactory sensations, and even if it starts out feeling pretty good, if you continue to examine it for long enough that'll change.
What about samadhi?
In addition to using the body scan for insight, it also makes a good access concentration practice. The fact that you're moving around every few seconds makes the practice inherently more engaging than following the breath, so it can be easier to build up some sustained focus.
The main point to watch out for is that you do continue to stay with the sensations from moment to moment, rather than simply observing the sensations in an area of the body and then switching off. I think of this as the 'tick-list' approach to the body scan - 'Yep, still got a left shoulder. Now, what am I doing this evening? Oh, time for the left upper arm. Still there, good. Right, tonight I think I'll watch that new series on Netflix...'
The other key point is the speed of the practice. Doing a relatively swift body scan can be OK for insight, but will tend to be a little on the quick side to build up good concentration. My teacher Leigh Brasington recommends that you between 30 and 60 minutes on a body scan if you want to build up solid access concentration.
Some guided body scans, including one by Leigh Brasington
On my Audio page you'll find two shorter body scans - one is about 10 minutes long, the other 25. The 10-minute one is nice when you don't have much time, and can give you a feel for how the practice unfolds. The 25-minute version works well for insight, but is on the short side to be building up much concentration. If you're interested in concentration, my teacher Leigh Brasington has a 45-minute body scan on his website which is more suitable.
It's worth saying that you might not like it much the first time you do it. If that's the case, then you should do it a lot! The body scan can often bring us into contact with aspects of our bodies (including unpleasant memories that we've 'buried' on the physical level) that we would prefer not to confront, but it's usually extremely helpful to bring some awareness to that very material. The only exception is in the case where there's a history of severe trauma, in which case body-based practices should be approached carefully and in collaboration with a mental health professional who can provide appropriate support.
May your explorations of the body prove fruitful!
Postscript: Should you use an audio recording or self-guide?
This morning I got a question from a student about whether it's better to use an external guide (e.g. the audio recordings linked above), or to do it yourself. It's a good question; here's my answer.
Personally, I think it's better to learn to self-guide. It's a bit fiddly at first because there are lots of instructions and it can take a while to learn a route around the body, but in the long run learning to self-guide means that you aren't dependent on having the audio file handy. Self-guiding is also a little more challenging in terms of maintaining mindfulness because you don't have an external prompt tapping you on the shoulder every few seconds (although see caveat below).
In terms of the route, any route that encompasses the whole body will do - it doesn't have to be mine if you're already familiar with someone else's. I linked to my teacher Leigh's 45-minute version of the scan above, as well as my own 10- and 25-minute recordings; as mentioned, Leigh is interested in generating a reasonable level of samadhi (he finds the body scan good for developing access concentration) so it's understandable that he would want to take his time. For me, I was taught to teach the body scan in a Rinzai Zen context where the standard length of meditation is 25 minutes - which Leigh would regard as too short in general, because he sees 30 minutes as the bare minimum, and prefers an hour. And I run a lot of mindfulness sessions for beginners where 10-15 minutes is a more appropriate length of time.
Once you have a route, it's relatively easy to tailor how long it takes - I suggest that you don't just move faster from place to place, but rather divide the body into smaller or larger sections. For example, if you want to take more time, you can take the upper arm in four sections - the outside (the side facing away from the body), the front, the inside (next to the body), and the back. If you don't have so much time, you can simply gently scan the whole upper arm all at once. You can even tweak the size of the body regions you're using as you're going through, if you find that it's taking too long (or not long enough). I suggest that your route is symmetric, though - so if you did the left upper arm in four parts, do the right upper arm in four parts as well.
I mentioned a caveat in relation to the superiority of self-guiding. I used to be pretty hard-line about this, because I'd always found it vastly preferable to self-guide my own meditations. Generally speaking, guided meditations annoy me - I want to be getting stuck into the practice, so the guidance only serves to interrupt what I'm doing, and I don't like to be interrupted! But then toward the end of last year, when my Dad was very poorly, I found that my mind was so chaotic when I sat to meditate that there was no chance of being able to focus on anything without some kind of external support. During that period I took great comfort from working through Zen teacher Henry Shukman's series of koan practices on Sam Harris's Waking Up app - it was nice to have something new, but mainly I found it very supportive to have a kind, gentle voice in my ear throughout the sitting period. Since then I've been a lot more accepting of guided meditation - although I still think it's better to self-guide if the conditions allow for it.
I hope this helps!
Easier said than done!
It sounds like the setup for a joke - 'What's the difference between Buddha and three pounds of burlap?' But it's actually case 18 in the Gateless Barrier, a collection of Zen koans compiled in the early 13th century, and it's the subject of today's article. So buckle up, and let's try to make sense of this bizarre exchange.
What on earth..?
I must admit, I haven't been looking forward to this one! The koan doesn't give us much to work with - there's no sense of a back story, and Dongshan's reply seems pretty meaningless on the face of it. Sometimes these pithy phrases are references to other well-known Zen stories, but that doesn't appear to be the case here.
When I first came across this koan I had no idea what to make of it, so I spent quite a while looking up the commentaries of other teachers. I found pretty universal acknowledgement that this is one of the harder ones. In fact, quite a few of the 'commentaries' I read started with a vague attempt at an 'explanation' ('Maybe Dongshan was weighing out flax at the time?') and then go on to fill up many more paragraphs with unrelated 'Zen stuff'. By the time I'd finished reading the commentary, I'd often feel like I'd read a good Zen teaching - just not one that was particularly relevant to the actual koan!
Another common device - which seems to be the last resort of commentators who don't quite know what to say, and I'll admit to having used this trick myself at times - is to say 'Ah, well, the function of this koan is to stir up doubt.' It's certainly true - many koans are designed to present seemingly impenetrable problems, as a way of inviting the practitioner to go beyond their analytical mind and 'interrupt the circuit of thought', as Wumen (the compiler of the Gateless Barrier) put it in his prose comment to the first case in the collection. But I think that's a bit of a cop-out too - critics of the koan method will often claim that koans are meaningless gibberish, but that hasn't been my experience at all. There's something of value in each and every koan, and if I can't make sense of a particular case yet, that's a sign to me that I have a blind spot in my practice, and thus an opportunity to discover something new.
After sitting with this one for a while, I think I have an inkling of what's going on. Much like the previous case, I have a long way to go in terms of being able to embody the teaching myself, but I believe I can at least see the direction of travel, and that alone may be worth sharing. And even if it misses the mark in terms of this koan, at least I'll have produced a few paragraphs of Zen-related stuff as a result...
The medium is the message
Sometimes, a Zen master will respond to a question with an action, rather than a verbal response. We've seen this before in case 14, where Zhaozhou responded to Nanquan by putting his sandals on his head and walking out of the room. (If you don't know the story, go and read the article - it's a fun koan!) I'd argue that a similar thing happens in case 13, where the Zen teacher is caught out in a mistake, going for his food at the wrong time, and when he's challenged by the young monk Xuefeng, he doesn't stand around debating the point or making excuses, he simply returns to his room.
In this case, I believe Dongshan is responding to the monk's question with an action - it's just that the action happens to be a verbal one. But it isn't what's being said that's important in this case so much as how he's saying it.
When I was training as a meditation teacher, my teacher said something which has (ironically) stayed with me pretty much word for word ever since. He was describing the experience of teaching to a group of students, and how one's attitude and embodiment of the teachings was much more important than the specific words and phrases used to explain the mechanics of those teachings, and he recounted some advice given to him by his own Zen teacher: 'Two weeks from now, they won't remember a word you said; but they'll always remember how you were.' Certainly when I think back to some of the memories seared mostly strongly into my own mind, the specifics of the words exchanged are not always particularly clear, but the emotional tone of the encounter is crystal clear.
So perhaps in this case the 'three pounds of burlap' are not so important - what matters is where Dongshan is coming from when he says it. But where's that?
Spontaneity in Zen, and 'just breathe naturally'
In Zen (perhaps more so than some other forms of Buddhism), emphasis is placed on the importance of naturalness and spontaneity. (Perhaps this is a sign of Daoism's influence on Zen.) Within my own Zen lineage, we have practices of 'spontaneous movement' which are meant to help us get in touch with a kind of innate, intuitive wisdom, rather than living purely from the place of our rational, reflective mind. As mentioned above, we can also see koans as a tool that can be used to break us free from our deliberate thinking and connect us with something deeper.
But what does 'spontaneity' actually mean? One possible answer is 'just do what comes naturally, without worrying about it', but that doesn't seem terribly appealing. I'm sure we've all had the experience of taking the path of least resistance in a situation and subsequently regretting it - when I'm in an angry state of mind, for example, certain actions may suggest themselves to me which would be pretty dreadful if I followed through on those impulses. Another possible objection is that, if all we have to do is to do whatever comes naturally, then why do we need to meditate and do all this other stuff? What's the point of Zen if the ultimate message is 'just do what you were going to do anyway?'
I'm reminded of my Tai Chi teacher, who is endlessly annoyed by the advice in some of the classic texts on Tai Chi, which say 'Just breathe naturally.' Take a room full of people off the street who've never done Tai Chi before, and the last thing you want them to do is 'breathe naturally'. Most people have very poor breathing habits (because we as a society collectively breathe inefficiently and unhealthily, and children learn their breathing habits from the people around them), and so need to be trained out of breathing that way. When we finally do let go of the awkward habits we've had up to that point, the resulting breath feels beautifully natural, and so from that perspective it makes total sense to say 'just breathe naturally'!
Perhaps the distinction we should make, then, is between 'breathing naturally' and 'breathing habitually'. What we want is the natural breath, but what we typically get when we don't do anything special with the breath is instead the 'habitual breath'. It takes a deliberate process of training to 'unlearn' the habitual breath, until we finally arrive at the truly natural breath. There's even a period in the middle where we can consciously choose to breathe 'naturally', but as soon as we forget - as soon as our mindfulness slips - we go back to breathing 'habitually'. Eventually, though, the natural breath replaces the habitual breath (or, to put it another way, natural breathing becomes habitual), and there's nothing left to do.
The same applies to the mind in Zen. As we'll see in the next koan in the collection, the 'ordinary mind' is sometimes said to be the totality of the Way - but, in just the same way, your 'ordinary mind' is not your 'habitual mind', or at least not at first. A considerable process of training and discipline is required to unlearn the mind's old habits before the 'ordinary mind' can become our everyday state.
A method for learning to 'breathe naturally'
As I mentioned above, many of us breathe in an unhealthy, inefficient manner, taking many breaths each minute and using only a tiny portion of our lung capacity.
So how should we breathe? There are lots of breathing techniques and methods out there. Some teachers advocate breathing as slowly and deeply as possible, while some practices such as qigong and yoga pranayama breathe in very specific ways.
One approach to breathing which is well supported by science is 'coherent breathing'. In a nutshell, the idea is to take five breaths per minute, breathing in for six seconds and breathing out for six seconds. It's called 'coherent' because when we breathe at a consistent pace (and, in particular, when each in-breath is the same length and each out-breath is the same length), the variability of our heart rate decreases (becoming 'coherent'). Decreased heart-rate variability has various beneficial effects, including enhanced brain function.
Taking five breaths per minute also has the effect of balancing the parasympathetic ('rest and digest') and sympathetic ('fight or flight') branches of the nervous system. This might seem like an odd thing to want to do from a meditative point of view - don't we want to relax and de-stress? But actually the ideal condition for a meditation practice is a state which is balanced between stillness (parasympathetic) and clarity (sympathetic), where we aren't just quiet and relaxed to the point of drowsiness and dullness, but we actually also have a bright, clear awareness of what's going on in the present moment.
So give this a go. You can use one of the recordings on my Audio page (inspired by this one, credit where it's due) to time the in-breath and out-breath. As you're breathing, pay attention to where and how you feel the breath, too. When the body is relaxed, you should find that the breath starts in the abdomen, then fills up the chest, and maybe you even get some movement at the top of the chest, around the clavicle area. As you breathe out, the process reverses - the clavicle, the chest, and then the belly. There's no need to force this to happen, but if you find that your breath is only in one part of the body - perhaps just the chest, or maybe just the belly if you've previously learnt abdominal breathing - see if you can allow the body to relax until you can ultimately feel movement in all three areas.
I suggest practising this every day for a few months. If you have a daily meditation practice already, you could use the first few minutes of your meditation time to breathe in this way - I'm currently using the first 20 minutes of my hour-long morning sit, for example. Although it might feel at first like you're 'losing' meditation time, you should find that coherent breathing puts you into a good place from which to begin the meditation - in essence, you get some mindfulness and concentration 'for free', just by preparing the body in the right way. (I like to think of this as configuring the hardware correctly before starting to run the software, but then I'm a giant nerd.)
Give it a go and see what happens! If you need further persuasion, check out this Guru Viking interview with Charlie Morley, especially the section starting at 34:36 and then going into a guided coherent breathing session at 46:10.
Coming back to the koan
A monk asks Dongshan, 'What is Buddha?' In other words, what is the Way? How should I practice? What are we trying to do here? What's this Zen thing all about?
Dongshan replies not by telling him the answer, but by showing him to answer. Dongshan is resting his his ordinary mind, breathing naturally, totally alive to the moment. Rather than engage his thinking mind to find a way of describing this natural state to the monk, Dongshan reacts spontaneously - in this case, by saying the first thing that comes into his mind, 'Three pounds of burlap!' The words are unimportant - he could have said 'Rice in the pan', or 'It's sunny today', or broken into song. The point is the immediacy and freshness of the response - no tired Zen cliche, no lengthy lecture on formal practice. Just a momentary flash of activity, here and gone again in the blink of an eye. That's where Zen points us - to a place where each moment is fresh, alive and brimming with vitality.
May you find this place for yourself, and then share it with others - just like Master Dongshan.
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, part 1
The Satipatthana Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10) is a central text in early Buddhism, and one which contains a whole host of powerful insight practices that can bring us to a radical shift in the way we see the world. So over the next couple of months, interleaved with the on-going series of Zen-themed articles on the Gateless Barrier, we'll take a look at this fascinating text and see what it has to offer.
Skippable section mainly for people who are into suttas
Strictly speaking there are two Satipatthana Suttas - Middle-Length Discourse 10, mentioned above, and its slightly larger cousin the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, Long Discourse 22. The only difference between the two, however, is that DN22 contains a detailed exposition of the Four Noble Truths which is absent in MN10. Otherwise, the texts are identical.
I'll be using Bhikkhu Analayo's translation for these articles, even though I linked to Thanissaro's translation above, and I've tweaked the language for gender neutrality, because the original discourse is framed as if addressed to a group of monks, but of course there's no reason at all why these practices can't be explored by anyone at all.
What's the text all about, then? (If you skipped the previous bit, start here)
The 'sati' part of Satipatthana is the Pali language word which is most commonly translated as 'mindfulness' nowadays. The word literally means something like 'remembering', and can be interpreted in myriad ways. For our purposes, we'll take it to mean something like 'paying careful attention to an aspect of our present moment experience'.
The 'patthana' part is usually translated as 'foundations' or 'establishments'. There's a whole area of scholarly debate here, but to keep things simple, we can simply take it to mean something like 'various ways to practise mindfulness'.
The Satipatthana Sutta is an anthology of practices - and boy, there are a lot of practices in the version we're going to look at! Actually, there are many different versions of the text which can be found in the canons of different Buddhist traditions, and by comparing them we can get a sense of which might have been the 'original' practices and which might have been added later by Buddhist practitioners who'd thought up even more interesting ways to practise mindfulness and decided to wedge them into this text so they were all collected together in one place.
Honestly, though, I'd suggest not getting too hung up on which are the 'original' practices and which were 'added later'. As we'll see, there are multiple ways to interpret the instructions for each of the practices, and for my money a better question than 'Yes, but which is the right one?' is 'OK, which of these possible interpretations leads to useful insight practices?' Unless you're determined to be precious about only practising the earliest of early Buddhism (and good luck with that - I look forward to seeing your PhD thesis), it's much more effective just to jump in and start trying things out to see what happens.
So what we're going to find is a whole range of practices, arranged into four categories (you'll sometimes hear this text called 'the four foundations of mindfulness' even though the word 'four' doesn't appear in the title). There are enough practices that we'll need several articles to get through them all - so enough preamble, let's get started!
The opening of the discourse
Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living in the Kuru country at a town of the Kurus named Kammāsadhamma.
Early Buddhism was an oral tradition, and so discourses begin 'Thus have I heard' - because the monk or nun reciting the discourse had literally learnt it by hearing it from someone else.
Often, the discourse will then say where and when the talk was given. Sometimes this is useful information. The Buddha would typically give deeper teachings to a monastic audience than to a group of householders, for example. In this case, the audience is monastic, so we can infer that we're getting the good stuff.
There he addressed the monks thus: 'Monks.' 'Venerable sir,' they replied. The Blessed One said this:
'Monks, this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent, for acquiring the true method, for the realization of Nibbāna, namely, the four satipaṭṭhānas.'
The phrase 'this is the direct path' has been the subject of much debate. The Pali words literally mean 'one going path', and the commentaries offer no fewer than five explanations:
Personally, I'm not a really big fan of sectarianism. That attitude was easier to pull off in the days when you only had access to the spiritual teacher in your valley and only had his or her word for it, but in the age of the internet it's a bold person who can claim with a straight face that their particular style of practice is the only valid route up the mountain. Good people (and not-so-good ones!) show up in every tradition throughout history - nobody has a monopoly on wisdom.
In any case, what's being offered here is a path that will lead us to such positive outcomes as overcoming sorrow, lamentation and discontent, and achieving the inner peace of Nibbana - basically, a path to awakening. You have to walk the path yourself - nobody else can walk it for you - but if you're willing to put in the hours, you'll get the results. Can't say fairer than that.
The four satipatthanas
The discourse continues:
What are the four? Here, monks, in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to feelings [one] abides contemplating feelings, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to the mind [one] abides contemplating the mind, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.
So we have four ways to practise mindfulness:
So that's the table of contents, if you will - the four buckets into which all of the subsequent practices will be sorted.
For the remainder of today's article, we'll look at the first three practices in the 'body' section, and then in future articles we'll explore the rest.
Anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing
And how, monks, does [one] in regard to the body abide contemplating the body? Here, gone to the forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, [one] sits down; having folded [one’s] legs crosswise, set [one's] body erect, and established mindfulness in front of [oneself], mindful [one] breathes in, mindful [one] breathes out.
We start with some general instructions for how to set up a meditation practice. First, we find a suitable place for practice - somewhere that you're unlikely to be disturbed by someone wanting to talk to you. Maybe you don't live near a forest or an empty hut, but nevertheless it's extremely valuable to have some kind of space for practice, and an agreement with the beings (human and animal) who share that space with you that you'll be left alone for the duration of the practice.
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.
Once your posture is set up, establish your mindfulness - that is, become clearly aware of what's going on right here and now. Bring your attention to your breathing, and feel what happens as you breathe in and as you breathe out.
Where should you focus on the breathing? It depends what you're trying to do, and to a certain extent personal taste comes into it as well. If you're interested in samadhi, stabilising and focusing the mind, my teacher Leigh would always recommend using a small area of focus, such as the sensations of breath at the nostrils. If you're interested in insight - and we'll talk more about this shortly - then wherever the breath sensations are clear to you will be fine as a starting point. It's worth experimenting and finding out what happens if you focus in different places - but don't jump around during a single meditation session, just pick a place and stay there, then try somewhere else next time. Jumping from place to place can be an outlet for the mind's boredom and an excuse not to settle down and focus, and thus ultimately counterproductive.
The discourse continues:
Breathing in long, [one] knows ‘I breathe in long,’ breathing out long, [one] knows ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, [one] knows ‘I breathe in short,’ breathing out short, [one] knows ‘I breathe out short.’ [One] trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body,’ [one] trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.’ [One] trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in calming the bodily formation,’ [one] trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out calming the bodily formation.’
So now we get some more specific instructions for the kind of relationship we should have with the breath. Experienced readers may notice the similarity with another famous meditation discourse of the Buddha's, the Anapanasati Sutta (MN118, the discourse on mindfulness of the in-breath and out-breath). The instructions here represent the first four of sixteen steps given in that discourse.
First, it's clear that we're supposed to notice the details of the breath, not just the mere fact of 'in-breath, out-breath'. We're invited to recognise when our breath is long, when it's short. (The 'long' and 'short' here may be a reference to the way the breath tends to start out a little deeper, and then gradually become shallower as the mind becomes settled. That might be the opposite way round to what you'd expect if you have the idea that 'meditation' means 'breathing deeply', but if you meditate for a while and simply watch your breath without manipulating it in any way, you can see it for yourself.)
What about 'experiencing the whole body'? Some teachers argue that this means we should be aware of the breath throughout the whole body, while the traditional commentaries interpret it as 'the whole body of the breath', i.e. noticing every part of the breath rather than just touching in with it from time to time.
And what about 'calming the bodily formation'? My teacher Leigh takes this to mean that one simply holds the intention of allowing the body to settle while continuing to focus on the breathing, rather than breathing in a particular way in order to cause the body to become relaxed.
Finally, we have a simile, which underscores the attitude one should take toward the breath:
Just as a skilled turner or [their] apprentice, when making a long turn, knows ‘I make a long turn,’ or when making a short turn knows ‘I make a short turn’ so too, breathing in long, [one] knows ‘I breathe in long,’ … [continue as above].
When a woodworker is carving something, it's very important to pay attention to what's being done. If you carve a long turn when a short one is required, the piece is ruined! So a diligent artisan will pay close attention to the details of the work at hand, sensitive to the changes, following along carefully rather than allowing the mind to wander freely. That's how we should follow the breathing in this practice.
So those are the instructions for mindfulness of breathing as found in the Satipatthana Sutta (as I mentioned, there are more instructions in the Anapanasati Sutta). But we're not quite done yet! After every practice in the Satipatthana Sutta, there's a section known as the 'refrain', kind of like the chorus in a song. It goes as follows:
In this way, in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body internally, or [one] abides contemplating the body externally, or [one] abides contemplating the body both internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising in the body, or [one] abides contemplating the nature of passing away in the body, or [one] abides contemplating the nature of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world.
That is how in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body.
We have three important points here.
Opinion is divided as to what the Buddha meant by this. Fortunately, both interpretations give us interesting and helpful practices, so you can try both and see which you prefer.
One interpretation is that 'internally' means 'your breathing', and 'externally' means 'the breathing of others'. If you've ever been in a meditation hall and there's that one person with the loudest breath in the world - well, that's your chance to practise mindfulness of breathing externally. How nice!
Another interpretation is that 'internally' means 'internal to me' while 'externally' means 'external to me'. In this case, we might regard the 'internal' aspect of breathing as the physical sensations felt in the body (which are not available to other people), while the 'external' aspect is the sound of the breathing and perhaps the visible movements of the body. So you can pay attention to the physical sensations of your breath, the sound of your breath, or both.
In my recent article on insight contemplation, I mentioned the Three Characteristics, three aspects of reality which are commonly suggested as topics for insight practice. One of the three is anicca, impermanence or inconstancy. (We'll discuss the other two, dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) and anatta (essencelessness) in future articles in this series,)
So here we have an explicit instruction to investigate impermanence. This is seen as a critical insight in early Buddhism - so much so that one of the standard ways in the Pali canon to describe someone attaining stream entry, the first stage of awakening, is to say that so-and-so saw for themselves that 'Whatever is subject to arising is subject to passing.'
We should check this out! Here are some ways to explore the theme of impermanence while working with the breath:
There's a balance to be struck here. If we bring too much effort to our practice, the mind will become tight and unpleasant, easily distracted and skittish. But if we don't apply enough effort, the mind will be lax, dull and lazy, not seeing what's going on with sufficient clarity to make any headway. So we need to find the sweet spot in the middle - enough focus to stay on topic, but enough relaxation to keep things light and open rather than unpleasantly contracted.
Generally speaking, you'll probably oscillate between the two extremes - and to make matters worse, it's something of a moving target, because as the mind settles it becomes capable of greater subtlety, which means you need a gentler and gentler touch over time. I go into all this in some detail in my article on the Elephant Path, so check that out if you want to know more.
The intention of samadhi vs the intention of insight
At this point it's worth taking a step back. I said at the start of the article that the practices in the Satipatthana Sutta are for insight, but you may well have encountered meditations on the breath being used for concentration/samadhi. What's going on?
Simply put, the breath is just an object. We can use pretty much any object for meditation - the breath, the body, a candle flame, a mantra, a visualisation, you name it. What makes the difference is how we work with that object.
For samadhi, we're interested in settling and stabilising the mind. As we work with the breath, we thus focus on the continuity of the breathing. The breath is like a wave, coming and going, but we have a sense that the breathing process continues from moment to moment, whether we're breathing in or out, or whether we're in a gap between breaths. That sense of continuity gives us a kind of stability on which the mind can rest, allowing it to settle and become stable. If we take an interest in the sensations that make up the breathing, it's as a kind of 'texture' that makes the breathing a more interesting subject for the mind to rest on, rather than because we're particularly interested in dismantling the breath into its component parts.
By comparison, for insight into impermanence, we're actually going in the opposite direction. We're concerned with the coming-and-going nature of the breath sensations, not the continuity of breathing. Our practice is likely to deconstruct rather than stabilise the sensations, ultimately disintegrating subjective experience rather than unifying it. We focus on the parts rather than the whole, and the parts of the parts, and so on, all the way down to whatever we find at the deepest level of experience.
It can be interesting to try both approaches in a single meditation period. For the first half of the time, focus on samadhi - settling the mind, stabilising and calming, emphasising continuity. Then for the second half, focus on insight - exploring arising and passing, deconstructing the breath. Notice the effects that both modes of practice have, and what you notice in each case.
Finally, it's worth saying that the division between samadhi and insight isn't absolute by any means - insights may arise during 'samadhi' practice and the mind may become stable and focused during 'insight' practice. Generally speaking, though, you tend to get what you aim for in this practice, so it's helpful to be clear about what you're trying to do.
Two more practices
To close out this article, we'll also look at the next two practices in the 'body' section. Both of these are 'off-cushion' practices, i.e. something to be explored when you're not in formal meditation.
Here's the first, mindfulness of postures:
Again, monks, when walking, [one] knows ‘I am walking’; when standing, [one] knows ‘I am standing’; when sitting, [one] knows ‘I am sitting’; when lying down, [one] knows ‘I am lying down’; or [one] knows accordingly however [one’s] body is disposed.
This is a (seemingly!) simple mindfulness practice. Basically, notice when your posture changes - when you go from sitting to standing, from standing to walking, from walking to standing, and so on.
Mindfulness off the cushion is hugely important, and can be under-emphasised in systems where meditation is highly valued. If we're mindful on the cushion but mindless off the cushion, all the concentration, calmness and stability we build up in our meditation will dissipate rapidly, and we will tend to lose our presence of mind. If you find yourself wondering why the benefits of your meditation practice don't seem to be translating to your daily life, this is the number one place to look.
An exercise like mindfulness of postures can be a great one to keep the continuity of practice going on retreat. It's a bit more difficult in daily life, however, where we often have a lot of different things to do. Which brings us to the third (and, for today, final) practice in the 'body' section, mindfulness of activities:
Again, monks, when going forward and returning [one] acts clearly knowing; when looking ahead and looking away [one] acts clearly knowing; when flexing and extending [one’s] limbs [one] acts clearly knowing; when wearing [one’s] robes and carrying [one’s] outer robe and bowl [one] acts clearly knowing; when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting [one] acts clearly knowing; when defecating and urinating [one] acts clearly knowing; when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent [one] acts clearly knowing.
Taken literally, this is epic-level daily-life mindfulness - it's an invitation to maintain continuous awareness throughout all of your activities, from dawn 'til dusk.
This is perhaps best seen as an aspiration. Of course, if you can be mindful of everything all day long, don't let me stop you. But particularly when you're new to the practice, it's an unachievably high bar.
It's best to start out small - perhaps commit to being mindful when you brush your teeth, bringing your full attention to the present moment, feeling the sensations of the toothbrush in your hand, tasting the toothpaste, hearing the running water and so on. Focus initially on establishing the habit of bringing mindfulness to teeth-brushing, and let yourself off the hook the rest of the time. Then, once you have a foot in the door, start building on it. Perhaps you could add being mindful as you get dressed, or as you wash the dishes (or load the dishwasher), or as you walk down the road. Little by little, increase the duration and number of moments of mindfulness throughout the day, until over time they begin to string together, and mindfulness becomes more and more your natural state of being.
And in the meantime, keep your formal meditation practice going as well! It isn't one or the other - both support each other. So why not give mindfulness of breathing a try right now, and then once you're done, go and make a cup of tea or coffee as mindfully as you can. Good luck!
Sometimes doing nothing at all is the right response
This week we're looking at case 17 in the Gateless Barrier, a classic collection of Zen koans. This story, titled 'The National Teacher's Three Calls', simultaneously holds up an ideal of Zen practice, and poses some interesting practical questions. So without further ado, let's get into it!
Who is the National Teacher, and what is he up to here?
Nanyang Huizhong was a Zen teacher who lived in the Tang dynasty in China, and became known as the 'National Teacher' because he served as teacher to two Tang dynasty emperors, Suzong and Daizong. Needless to say, this is a high office, and the Tang dynasty is regarded as the golden age of Zen in China, so we're either dealing with the best of the best, or at the very least an individual in a very influential place at just the right time. So we should probably take him seriously!
Nevertheless, he isn't going out of his way to endear himself to his attendant. The role of attendant typically involves looking after the teacher - fetching water and tea, packing the luggage when going on a trip, basically seeing to their every need. Attendants are typically expected to be at the beck and call of their teacher most or all of the time; as a result, they have an opportunity to spend perhaps more time with that teacher than anyone else, and see them in a wider range of circumstances. This can be both good and bad! The present-day Chan (Chinese Zen) teacher Guo Gu has written and spoken at length of his time serving as attendant to his teacher Sheng-Yen - for example, in this Guru Viking interview. It's fascinating stuff!
In the case of today's koan, the National Teacher appears, for want of a better term, to be trolling his poor attendant. Perhaps it unfolded something like this:
National Teacher: Attendant! Come quickly!
Attendant: *arrives* What do you need, sir?
NT: Oh, nothing. You can go.
NT: Wait, wait, come back!
Attendant: *arrives* What do you need, sir?
NT: Ah, nothing. Never mind. Please leave.
NT: Where have you gone?! I need you! Come here at once, it's urgent!
Attendant: *arrives* What do you need, sir?
NT: You know what, never mind.
What an annoying thing to do!
Haven't we seen something like this before?
Yes! Those of you who've been following this series of articles on the Gateless Barrier may recognise the call-and-response format that's implied here - we've seen it most explicitly in case 10, and also alluded to in cases 2 and 12. I won't repeat the material from my article on case 10 - check out that article if you're interested - but in a nutshell, the call-and-response format is designed to evoke a natural, spontaneous response, just as you naturally turn your head when you hear your name being called.
In this case, however, the National Teacher is turning up the heat. He expects his attendant to respond promptly with compassion and equanimity - both qualities of a flourishing Buddha Nature - but today he's putting his attendant under some pressure to see what happens.
How would you react to this situation? If it were me, I know I'd fail the test! The first time the teacher called and then decided he didn't want anything after all, I'd probably be puzzled, perhaps a bit irritated if I'd been interrupted in the middle of doing something important. The second time, I'd definitely be annoyed. And the third time? As I was sitting with this koan, I was amused to realise that three repetitions of an annoyance is my personal internal threshold for 'OK, that's enough, something has to be done about this.' So after that third call, I'd be looking to start some kind of conversation along the lines of 'Teacher, could you perhaps think for a moment whether you really need me before calling me like that? It's hard for me to get my other work done when I'm being interrupted. It's fine if you need me, but these three times you didn't need anything, so it's just a waste!' (At least, that's how the conversation would go on a good day. On a bad day, the language might be a little different...)
Fortunately, the attendant is a much stronger practitioner than I am, as is reflected in the National Teacher's admission of defeat. 'I had thought I was disappointing you,' he says - in other words, I was doing my best to bait you into getting annoyed with me. 'Actually, it is you who are disappointing me,' he continues - in other words, despite my best efforts to get a rise out of you, I failed!
Why the National Teacher gotta be like that, though?
But why would the National Teacher want to treat his attendant in this seemingly rather unkind, perhaps even cruel, manner? As strange as it might sound, the root answer is actually 'compassion'.
At a certain point in practice, we can get to a point where life is pretty good. We've developed our equanimity to the point that a whole range of things that used to bother us don't really get to us any more. If we've also had some insights into topics like emptiness, we can start to feel like we're pretty good at this Zen thing - we can take our foot off the pedal of our practice, and start coasting along, telling ourselves (and perhaps everyone else) how enlightened we are.
The role of the teacher at this point is to expose the areas where we haven't yet woken up - to find those places where we can still get caught, where we still need to practise. At this stage, the most annoying people in our lives become our best teachers, because they effortlessly push the very buttons that we most urgently need to find and explore for ourselves. And if there isn't an annoying person handy to do that organically for you, the teacher's job is to step up and take on that role. (Again, check out that interview with Guo Gu for multiple examples of Sheng-Yen's efforts to press Guo Gu's buttons.)
So, ultimately, the National Teacher is being cruel to be kind - or at least attempting to! But the attendant has perhaps played this game many times in the past, and they're wise to the National Teacher's tricks. And so they don't take the bait.
Skilful responses to suffering
There's a broader question here. Does this story suggest that, no matter what happens to us, we're simply supposed to grin and bear it? Is Zen promoting a blind, quasi-militaristic obedience to hierarchy, where we're obliged to do whatever our superiors demand without ever questioning it?
Well, no. What we're seeing here is a teaching device which is being employed in a specific relationship for the purpose of helping the attendant to cultivate their practice. The National Teacher isn't simply being an abusive boss - he's employing a strategy for a particular effect. Once the attendant has become truly immune to these tricks, they'll stop. (Perhaps this is even the turning point in their relationship, where the National Teacher concludes that the game is finally played out.)
However, there's a broader and subtler question here, and one which is perhaps more relevant to those of us who don't live in a training monastery. When should we simply accept sources of discomfort in our lives, using them as grist for the mill of practice, and when should we do something about them?
(All of these are questions which have come up for me personally; the latter is a live situation for me right now.)
Much as I'd like to have figured this out and be able to give you a neat flow chart for deciding when and how to take action, I don't think there's ultimately any one strategy which will fit all situations. (Indeed, this 'no size fits all' is a recurring theme in Zen koans which we'll see later on in the Gateless Barrier.) The skilful response in a given situation will depend on many factors - what else is happening in our lives at the time, our own capacity to withstand suffering versus act on it, the tractability of the problem (scratching an itch is easier than changing someone's opinion!), and no doubt all sorts of other considerations too. (An interesting insight exercise might be to explore what other factors play into a decision like that - give it a try sometime!)
Another important question to consider is whether what we're about to do in the face of suffering is an intentional response, coming from a place of spaciousness and choice, or whether it's a knee-jerk reaction to a source of discomfort. Generally speaking, the former tend to be better than the latter in the long run - but, depending on the circumstance, we won't always have the choice! Nevertheless, it's useful to have a sense of a helpful direction of travel as we grow in our practice, even if the ideal standard isn't necessarily achievable.
Working with suffering
Let's say that we've decided to allow a particular source of discomfort to remain so that we can work with the attendant suffering, rather than taking action to resolve it. How do we do that?
One approach, very common in early Buddhism, is what my teacher's teacher Ayya Khema called 'substitution' - the deliberate application of an antidote to replace the experience of suffering with a wholesome experience. For example, if experiencing anger toward someone, we might deliberately bring up loving kindness toward them instead, replacing an unskilful mental factor with a skilful one.
Another approach, typified by Zen master Huangbo, is to use awareness itself. Huangbo's observation is 'that which sees suffering is not itself suffering', and this is something we can check out directly for ourselves. If you find yourself experiencing something unpleasant - a mild physical pain, a difficult emotion - see if you can redirect your attention to the awareness of the unpleasant sensation. Notice that the unpleasant sensation arises within awareness, but the awareness itself is not unpleasant. The awareness just is - it's like a mirror, effortlessly reflecting what's in front of it, without taking sides or rendering judgements. Furthermore, awareness is always a little 'bigger' than whatever it's holding - the space of awareness is large enough to hold whatever is arising for you, and then some.
If we can tune in to this quality of spaciousness around the difficult experience, and notice that the spaciousness itself is not difficult at all, then we can allow ourselves to hold all manner of suffering in our awareness without immediately needing to take action to 'fix' it or make it go away. We aren't ignoring or suppressing what's going on - we're actively allowing it to remain in our awareness - but we're holding it in such a way that we don't slip into resisting the experience. Perhaps paradoxically, resisting an unpleasant experience actually supplies it with energy which tends to perpetuate it - or, more pithily, 'whatever you resist persists'. Simply through holding it in our awareness, openly and non-judgementally, we can give space for our suffering to unwind itself, be fully felt and processed, and then to release itself.
As strange as it may sound, sometimes doing nothing at all with our suffering, but simply holding it in the light of our awareness, can be the most transformative thing we can do.
Meditation's less-known counterpart
First, I should say that this week's article is a break from what we've been doing so far this year, going case-by-case through the collection of Zen stories called the Gateless Barrier. So if you were hoping to read about case 17, please come back next week! The fact is that this summer I'll be assisting my teacher Leigh Brasington with a retreat at Gaia House, and my role in this retreat has recently expanded, so I have quite a few talks to prepare between now and then. I also work a full-time job, so, rather than try to fit in retreat prep in addition to my regular class planning - and run the risk of phoning in some of my weekly classes and articles - some weeks I'll use the Wednesday night class and the corresponding article to do some of my retreat preparation. Fear not, the material I'll be presenting here (and on Wednesdays) will still be accessible to people who are not experienced meditators on a 10-day retreat!
An outline of the Buddhist path
At a high level, we can divide the Buddhist path into three areas, or 'trainings'. We have sīla, the training in ethics, which focuses on living a life which avoids causing harm to others; samādhi, the training for the mind and heart, where we learn to settle and focus the mind and open the heart; and pañña, the training in wisdom, where we learn to see clearly what's going on.
We don't talk a lot about ethics in these articles - maybe that's a shortcoming. But basically the idea is to lead a life which gives us as little cause for regret, shame and worry as possible, treating one another with kindness and compassion. People wishing to become Buddhists formally may go through a precept-taking ceremony in which they commit to upholding at least the Five Precepts - not to kill, not to steal, not to misuse sexuality, not to misuse speech, and not to misuse intoxicants. (Zen has five more precepts for lay practitioners, which you can read about on the Zenways website.)
The second training, for the mind and heart, is where meditation makes its first appearance. Developing samādhi can be accomplished through jhana practice, or more generally through any kind of focused attention practice, where the emphasis is on placing the mind on an object and returning whenever the mind wanders. Heart-opening practices such as the Brahmaviharas are also included under this training, since the focus is on stabilising and cultivating the positive qualities of the heart that those practices open up for us.
The third training, in wisdom, is the domain of insight practice, and that's the focus of today's article.
The intention of cultivating wisdom
In the traditional stories of the Pali canon, the Buddha often presents the teachings in what has become known as the 'gradual training' - first, a monk or nun undertakes the training in ethics, then cultivates the jhanas to develop a stable, focused mind. Finally, 'with a mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, one directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision.'
So in the third training, we shift our intention from stabilising the mind or cultivating the heart qualities of the Brahmaviharas, toward seeing clearly what's going on, as it really is. We can examine our experience in many, many ways - and some suggestions from the early Buddhist tradition are provided on my Insight practice page, while koan study offers a Zen-based approach to insight.
Some insight techniques look superficially pretty similar to samādhi practice. For example, we might pay attention to the sensations of the breathing, or the body. However, the difference is in the intention. In a samadhi practice, we emphasise the continuity of awareness of the object, allowing the mind to settle and stabilise over time. In an insight practice, we might instead choose to examine the breath through the lens of one of the Three Characteristics - impermanence (anicca), essencelessness (anatta) or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and in future articles we'll look at how to do exactly this.
For today, however, I'd like to talk about a different approach to the cultivation of insight, which is perhaps a little less widely discussed - the practice of contemplation.
What is contemplation?
In contemplation, we take a theme of interest - perhaps the Four Noble Truths, or Dependent Origination - and examine it in detail. We consider it from many angles, look to see whether we agree with what's being proposed, how it manifests in our lives, and what the implications might be for us.
Whereas meditation tends to be primarily a wordless experience (although see the caveat below), contemplation can involve plenty of thinking. We can also contemplate through journalling, talking to a spiritual friend, or pretty much anything else you can come up with. The only real 'rule' in contemplation is to try to stay on topic - so if you find that you've drifted away from contemplating Dependent Origination and have started to plan what you're doing at the weekend, it's time to come back to the contemplation.
(The caveat: especially for people coming from the Christian tradition, this way of using the words 'contemplation' and 'meditation' might feel back-to-front. In most cases, 'meditating on a subject' means 'thinking about it' - see, for example, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - whereas 'contemplating something' often points to a more wordless experience, such as when we contemplate a sunset or a work of art. Unfortunately, however, when Buddhism first came to the West, the translators chose the word 'meditation' to describe the wordless practice, and it's so firmly established now that probably more people associate 'meditation' with something like mindfulness practice than with thinking deeply and carefully about a subject. That leaves us with a 'spare' word, contemplation, and a practice which involves thinking about a subject that we can't call 'meditation' because that's already taken - and so here we are. Sorry about that.)
Enough theory - let's contemplate something!
There's a classic set of five contemplations in the early Buddhist tradition, taken from AN5.57 in the Numerical Discourses in the Pali canon. The Buddha presents these as 'five themes that should often be reflected on by a woman or a man, by a householder or one gone forth' - in other words, by everyone. 'Often' came to be interpreted as 'every day', and these became known as the Five Daily Reflections or Five Daily Recollections.
There are many ways to work with these. One option, which I'll present below, is to take all five themes and spend some time contemplating each one, say five to ten minutes on each theme. (Adjust the length of time to taste, but less than five minutes on a single contemplation probably won't get you very far.) Another approach is to read through the whole list right away, and notice which of the five stands out the most for you, either positively (perhaps it seems interesting) or negatively (perhaps it seems like something you really wouldn't want to contemplate!), and then spend the rest of your practice time on that one. A third approach is to take one of the five and spend a week or more just working with that one - personally, I've found that, like working with a koan, these contemplations tend to bring up a bunch of stuff pretty much right away, after which things go quiet for a while, but then another wave of material will start to come up after a while, and so the contemplation goes deeper and deeper over time.
What I'll present in the remainder of the article is pretty close to the way my teacher Leigh does things on retreat. For each of the five themes, we'll start with the headline statement, which you're encouraged to say out loud to yourself to begin the contemplation. Then I'll include a variety of other statements and questions designed to help you probe into the subject matter. If these aren't helpful, there's no need to use them - just stay focused on the theme you're contemplating. But some of these probes might help to open up aspects of the contemplation which wouldn't otherwise have occurred to you straight away. I'll also include some additional reflections on each theme from the Buddha which come a little later in the discourse.
I tend to shy away from doing these contemplations in class because I often get beginners and new people showing up who I don't know anything about, and the subject matter of the contemplations is pretty stark at times. We're going to examine old age, sickness, death and loss, and these subjects can hit us hard. A certain amount of discomfort is likely to come up in the practice, but if you start to feel overwhelmed, remember that you can come out of the practice at any time - open your eyes, stand up, go for a walk, take a shower. If you have a history of trauma and it starts to come up in this practice, it's generally best to work one-on-one with a trauma-aware professional rather than trying to 'meditate through it' on your own.
Getting started with the contemplation practice
It can be helpful to begin with a period of samādhi practice - perhaps a few minutes, perhaps longer if you have time. Remember the Buddha's advice: insight practice is best done with a mind that is 'concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability'. You can meditate on the breath, on the body sensations, do some loving kindness practice, or whatever else you find has a calming, stabilising effect on the mind.
Once you're ready to move into the contemplations, read the first contemplation aloud and see what comes up for you. As mentioned, the subsequent questions and statements are offered as options to help the contemplation, but there's no need to use them if you get enough out of the primary statement.
1. I am subject to old age; I am not exempt from old age.
2. I am subject to illness; I am not exempt from illness.
3. I am subject to death; I am not exempt from death.
4. All that is dear and delightful to me will change and vanish.
5. I am the owner of my actions, the recipient of my actions, born from my actions, bound to my actions, inseparable from my actions. Any action that I take - whether it is good or evil - I will receive its result.
What is freedom, anyway?
This week we're looking at case 16 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Putting on a formal vestment at the sound of a bell.' And unlike last week's koan, there's not much to decipher in this one, so we can get pretty much straight into exploring the deep and profound question that's at the root of the story here.
The koan at face value
Master Yunmen showed up in the previous koan, where he told poor old Dongshan that he deserved a damn good thrashing for answering Yunmen's questions at face value. Thus, it's with a certain trepidation that I approach this koan in literal terms. Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere.
We might imagine that Yunmen is speaking to an assembly of monks, all adorned in their 'formal vestments' - other translations say 'the three-piece robe', which is the traditional garment for monks in training. Perhaps this is the first talk of the morning - the wake-up bell has just rung, and so the monks have quickly dressed in their robes and hurried to the teaching hall to hear Yunmen speak.
When he does speak, he opens with a direct challenge. 'The world is so wide, so vast' - there are so many possibilities in this life. You could be anywhere, doing anything! And yet here is a group of monks, voluntarily submitting to the notoriously hard life and rigorous schedule of a Zen monastery - little sleep, little food, lots of hard work, little in the way of comfort. Why would anyone choose this?
Perhaps this is a hard question for us to relate to - after all, presumably most people reading this article are not Zen monks. (I'm not!) But we can rephrase the question in a way that keeps the original meaning intact but broadens it out to a wider range of life circumstances.
Why are you here?
Given all the things you could possibly be doing with your life, why are you here, at this moment, reading these words? What calls you to this practice?
This question invites us to examine and clarify our intention. My Zen teacher Daizan likes to say that we tend to get out of this practice whatever it is that we want to get out of it - and so it's important to be clear about that! If our intentions are muddled, or we're just doing it because someone else suggested it and we're going along with it, we can practise for a long time without achieving much of anything. By comparison, having a clear intention is a powerful thing. Daizan likes to tell a story of a student of his who found himself suddenly unemployed, with a few months on his hands before his next job. The student declared to Daizan that he wanted to achieve kensho - the initial awakening in the Zen tradition - before Christmas, which was a few months away at the time. He got it the next day.
You can't always get what you want
Now, earlier I said 'you could be anywhere, doing anything.' But how true is that, really?
The world of human society is governed by many rules. Some of these are explicit - we call them laws, and we formalise systems of punishment for people who contravene those rules. It doesn't mean you can't break the rules, but there will be consequences if you're caught. Other rules are implicit - social conventions, for example. We expect people to dress, speak and behave in certain ways, and there are plenty of alternatives which are not explicitly illegal but nevertheless carry severe social consequences if we violate them. We find that factors such as wealth, ancestry and class are tremendously important in society, and open certain doors to us while closing others, in ways that can be extremely difficult to overcome. And then, over time, we impose rules on ourselves as well, internalising criticism from parents or teachers - perhaps we learn not to talk so much, or that nobody wants to hear us sing, or whatever it might be.
When we undertake the practice of insight meditation, we start to see the structures in our views, beliefs and habitual thought patterns which have hitherto been implicit. As they become conscious, we have the opportunity to decide whether these structures are really serving our interests, or whether they're simply getting in our way. In the long run, we can drop the ones that are limiting our potential, and gain some freedom in the process.
As the practice deepens, we begin to see the emptiness - the arbitrariness, the fundamentally fabricated nature - of more and more of the structures in our lives. We understand that even laws are not absolute truths of the universe - they're simply very well understood and widely upheld agreements, and at any time we can choose to adhere to them or not. Even our sense of who we are is just a story that we repeat to ourselves and others, a way of making sense of the disparate events of our lives and packaging it in a neat form, but one which can become self-limiting if held too tightly.
Nevertheless, just because all of these things are found to be empty upon close examination, that doesn't mean we can ignore them, or simply decide for ourselves how we want things to be. Simply discovering the emptiness of the structures around us may give us a certain amount of freedom from self-imposed limitations, but it doesn't magically free us from the need to earn money to buy food, at least if we continue to live in a capitalist society. And even though, on one level, 'Matt' is not really who I am, but rather just one facet of my experience which arises from time to time, it's still pretty helpful for the people around me if I continue to respond when they call my name, rather than deciding that I'm now too enlightened to come when called.
Indeed, in many ways structure is very helpful. If I compare my life to that of the squirrel I can see sitting on the fence in my back garden, I have all sorts of obligations that the squirrel doesn't - I have to pay my mortgage every month, for example. But there's a trade-off there. The squirrel is free to roam wherever it wants to go, whereas I'm tied to this pile of bricks and mortar. On the other hand, though, the squirrel has to bury its food and hope that it's still there when it comes back later, whereas I have walls and locked doors to protect my possessions. You could view me as limited by association with this physical structure, or you could instead view it in terms of the opportunities that the house provides for me to keep various possessions safely, not to mention running water and electricity. Being 'limited' by my house actually enables many features of my lifestyle that would be much more difficult if I were living in nature like the squirrel.
(OK, that was a whole paragraph about squirrels. Sorry about that. I came up with the analogy a few months back and I've been waiting for an opportunity to use it.)
In the long run, the skill in Zen is not so much in casting off all the structures we discover, but in learning to use structure skilfully, to support our aims and intentions rather than holding us back. We become able to adopt roles, responsibilities and stories as necessary, and then put them down again afterwards. This is a more valuable freedom than the initially appealing but ultimately impractical notion of simply throwing off every rule and convention.
In the end we may well choose to put on a formal vestment at the sound of a bell - not because anyone is forcing us to, but because we see how submitting ourselves to the rigorous discipline of Zen training will ultimately help us get where we want to be in our lives, and so we make the conscious choice to adopt the structure for as long as it serves us.
Coming back to the koan
So far I've provided an interpretation of this koan which is focused on structure and freedom. But if I leave it there, I've only provided you with structure and not offered any freedom! So, in closing, let's take a totally different look at the central question of the story - 'Why am I here?' - as an illustration of the multiple avenues of exploration that a good koan provides for us.
In this case, it can actually be very interesting to take the question apart and examine each word in turn. So let's do that now - I'll offer a suggested route for contemplation in each case, but if something else comes up for you, by all means explore that too, or instead!
How does one answer a 'why' question? Here's a seven-minute video of physicist Richard Feynman explaining at length that it isn't as easy as it might appear to explain 'why' something happens:
I really recommend watching the whole video - it's genius - but in brief, when we answer a 'why' question, we provide a story which describes what's going on in terms of something else that we feel we understand. But that understanding is itself either built on an explanation in terms of something else, or it's simply accepted on faith. Sooner or later, we run out of 'Why?' and end up with 'Just because, OK?'
So it can be very interesting to play the 'annoying child' game, and ask 'Why do I habitually behave this way?' or 'Why do I hold this belief?', and then, when an answer comes back, question that too. See how deep the rabbit hole goes, until you finally get to 'Just because.' It can be eye-opening!
'Am' is the first-person present tense of the verb 'to be'. But what does it mean, exactly, for something 'to be'? What is being? What does it mean for something to exist, and how do we know whether or not something exists? How do I know that 'I am'?
We can also use 'to be' to assert equivalence or identity. 'He is tall,' 'this is really good,' 'Capitalism is good/bad/<insert your political philosophy here>'. We say 'it is' to indicate that something is true - but what is truth? What do we know for certain, and where is the source of our certainty?
My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, used to say that 'All koans are just footnotes to "Who am I?"' This most fundamental of all spiritual questions points us right back at the source of our experience, looking back at our 'original face'.
If you only ever study one koan, make it 'Who am I?'
In a previous article I've written about the strange nature of time, and that popular spiritual concept, the 'present moment'. Generally speaking, we tend to think of time as a kind of line, with 'the present moment' being a point moving along that line. In direct experience, however, it turns out to be more accurate to say that 'the present moment' - or perhaps more accurately 'now' - is all that really exists, and all of our experience of past, present and future is contained within that timeless, endless 'now'.
(Don't just take my word for it, or write this off as typical Zen double-speak. Check it out for yourself!)
It turns out that we can perform a similar analysis of space, and 'here-ness'. What does it mean to be here, as opposed to there? Does space come first, and we occupy a mobile piece of it - or is our experience now and always 'here', and our experience of space flows through and around that ever-present 'here'?
(Again, in the likely event that the paragraph above didn't make a lick o' sense, forget the words and examine 'here-ness' for yourself. It's well worth it.)
Finally, we can, of course, work with the whole question as well. We can interpret it at face value (what bought me to this place at this moment? - which of course has many levels of possible answer), as a more existential question (what is the meaning of life? do I have a purpose, and if so, what is it?), or in any other way that seems fruitful to us.
Whatever approach we pick, it's good to stay with the investigation longer than we think we need to. Often these kinds of investigations will deliver an info dump fairly quickly, then we can enter a kind of dry spell where it feels like we've already answered the question and there's nothing left to discover. Don't be fooled.
There's always more to discover.
Great doubt, great awakening; no doubt, no awakening!
This week's Zen story is case 15 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Threescore Blows'. And once again we have a mysterious encounter, in which a teacher threatens a student with violence, and apparently this is helpful. But why?
Decoding the koan
The story opens with a student, Dongshan - who we will later see in case 18 as a full-fledged Zen master - coming to train with Master Yunmen, who will also show up several more times in this collection (including next week, in case 16).
In their first meeting, Yunmen asks Dongshan some questions to test his level of understanding. Often, the questions a Zen teacher asks can be interpreted on many levels, from the superficial to the profound, as a way of testing to see whether someone is just starting out, has some level of understanding, or is themselves a master.
In this case, Dongshan takes the questions at face value. 'Where you are from?' is one of the koans used at the Breakthrough to Zen retreats organised by the sangha I belong to, Zenways, and, like all breakthrough koans, it can take us all the way to the experience of kensho, or seeing our true nature. If Dongshan had some experience of this, he might have interpreted the question in a deeper, more existential way, but instead he simply says 'Chadu'. Some scholars interpret this as the name of a forgotten Chinese town, so perhaps he's simply saying the equivalent of 'I'm from Birmingham', but the characters making up the word can (apparently) be interpreted as something like 'the ferry crossing', so perhaps Dongshan was saying 'I just got off the boat.'
At this point, Yunmen may not have been entirely sure whether Dongshan was the total beginner he appeared to be, or whether his answer actually reveals an understanding so deep and profound that it is indistinguishable from ordinariness. Because, as weird as it sounds, the ultimate goal of the Zen path isn't to become magical and mysterious and float off on a cloud - it's to integrate one's wisdom into one's being so completely that no trace of 'specialness' remains.
So Yunmen asks more questions... but Dongshan continues to answer them at face value. The question about the summer is a reference to a traditional 90-day training period, which Dongshan spent at a well-regarded monastery in the heartland of Zen - equivalent to doing a three-month retreat with Pa Auk Sayadaw, perhaps. Yet, despite having had access to this marvellous training environment, Dongshan displays no sign of having learnt anything.
Hence Yunmen's next statement, 'I forgive you threescore blows' - today we might say something like 'I oughtta give you a damn good thrashing.' (In case the term is unfamiliar, threescore is an old-fashioned way of saying sixty.) So Yunmen dismisses Dongshan with this rather ominous threat of violence - giving poor old Dongshan no clue about what he might have done wrong.
And, indeed, Dongshan comes right back the next day with exactly this complaint. 'You said you oughtta give me a damn good thrashing, but I have no idea what I did wrong!' But rather than explain his words, Yunmen blows up at him. 'You rice bag!' - good for nothing but consuming rice. Again, today we might say something like 'You waste of space!' Then Yunmen lists the places that Dongshan has travelled through - we know he spent the summer in Henan province, and Jiangxi is between Henan and Yunmen's monastery. Both were, at the time, considered the strongest Zen training places in all of China. Yunmen is saying 'You've had access to all of this, and you've learnt nothing at all - you're a hopeless case! Get out of here!'
And yet, at that very moment, Dongshan is greatly enlightened. But why?
The role of negative reinforcement
How should one teach? Is it better to praise a student when they do well, and encourage them to continue? Or is it better to withhold your praise and highlight their mistakes, spurring them on to overcome their failings? Should one be kind, or strict? Generous, or severe?
I doubt there's any one right answer - different approaches work for different people, and probably at different times too. Personally, I've never been big on negative reinforcement (goading and criticising students to spur them on to working harder) - when teachers have used that approach on me, it generally just annoys me and makes me want to quit, and as a result I tend not to use the approach myself either. (This is, no doubt, a personal weakness, and a potential area for growth. Nevertheless, it does mean that teachers whose primary style is critical rather than encouraging have not been a good fit for me, and students who need that kind of spur probably won't get it from me.) On the other hand, my Tai Chi teacher is the opposite - he thrives on negative reinforcement, and has told many stories of his own teacher's often contemptuous attitude toward him. He even said one time that he had no idea how to 'encourage' people to train because he'd never either received or needed encouragement from someone else.
Criticism has a tendency to create doubt. 'I thought I was doing OK, but now I'm not so sure.' And this doubt can be a double-edged sword. Harnessed correctly, it becomes a powerful fuel for practice. Misused, it becomes a corrosive force that can totally undermine the practice. So let's take a closer look at these two kinds of doubt and see if we can get clear about the distinction, so that when we experience doubt ourselves, we can tell whether it's ultimately going to help us or get in our way.
Two kinds of doubt
In a previous article I've written about the Five Hindrances - sense desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. (Often the Hindrance of doubt is called 'sceptical doubt', and that's the term I'll use for the rest of this article, to distinguish it from the second kind of doubt that we'll discuss momentarily, 'Great Doubt'.)
Sceptical doubt is the kind of doubt that says 'I'm not sure about this. I don't know whether I should practise in this way or that way. Nothing seems to be working for me. Maybe I'm just not cut out for this! Look at all those other people, meditating away peacefully while I'm wrestling with my turbulent thoughts. My knees hurt, my back aches, I hate it. I'm not achieving anything here, and even the teacher thinks I'm useless - he told me this morning that he oughtta give me a damn good thrashing, and I don't even know what I did wrong! This is pointless, my Mum was right, I should never have left home to come here, I'm just wasting my time. I'm going to get my things and go home in the morning.'
Sceptical doubt is overcome to some extent when we start to see the effects of our practice. Traditionally, the first stage of awakening (called 'stream entry' in early Buddhism, basically equivalent to the kensho I mentioned earlier) is said to eradicate sceptical doubt forever, and it's certainly true that after you've had a significant shift of perspective it's very difficult to deny that the practice works, because you know it so clearly in your own experience. Nevertheless, and especially if you're prone to self-criticism, the insidious whispers of doubt can still creep back into our practice after a while. 'Maybe that wasn't it after all. Maybe I'm just kidding myself.' Talking to a teacher can be helpful at this stage - provided that teacher isn't the kind who only uses negative reinforcement!
The second kind of doubt, Great Doubt, is seen as central to the Zen path - so much so that there's a popular saying in Zen circles: 'Great Doubt, great awakening. Small Doubt, small awakening. No Doubt, no awakening!'
Really, 'Doubt' is a bit of a tricky word for this quality, and some modern teachers (e.g. Stephen and Martine Batchelor) prefer to translate it as 'Great Questioning' instead. The whole point of insight meditation (whatever style you like to practise, whether early Buddhist, Zen or something else) is to give us tools to examine our subjective experience and discover the extent to which our conventional way of seeing the world doesn't tell the whole story. In order to progress in insight meditation, we must be able to question everything, no matter how obvious or true it appears to be. To the extent that we're able to do that, we have the potential to break free of our existing views and habits and discover something new. The greater the questioning we can cultivate, the greater the potential breakthrough when the practice matures.
Koans aim to spark Great Doubt quite directly, by giving us what appears at first to be an impenetrable mystery. The teacher tells us that there's great wisdom buried in here somewhere, but from the outside the koan appears totally opaque. As we continue to investigate it, we go through a series of stages of generating deeper and deeper questioning, until finally our Great Doubt shatters and insight arises - when viewed from the 'inside', the koan is seen to be no 'problem' at all.
Great Doubt can be frustrating at times! Sitting down to work on an insight practice for the hundredth time, it can feel like you're banging your head against a brick wall. When is the insight going to come? But - at least on a good day - Great Doubt will be fuelled by a kind of curiosity, a sense of wanting to know what's really going on here, and that curiosity will keep you coming back, whereas sceptical doubt is more likely to lead in the other direction - what's sometimes called the 'rolling up the mat' stage of practice.
Coming back to the koan
So Dongshan arrives at the monastery, fresh-faced, having spent the summer training hard but not really getting anywhere. Yunmen asks him some questions, which he does his best to answer, but then the teacher says 'I oughtta give you a damn good thrashing!' and sends him back to his room. Poor old Dongshan is probably pretty dismayed at this point. He's just arrived at a new place, and somehow he's already pissed off his new teacher - and he doesn't even know what he's done wrong! What kind of hellhole is this new monastery anyway?
But something in Dongshan remains deeply committed to this mysterious Zen path, even if he doesn't yet have the first idea what it's really all about. And so, determined to do better next time, he stays up all night, going over and over that meeting with the teacher, trying to work out where he went wrong. What if he'd said something different? Or was it the way he said it? What was it? What was it?
As Dongshan pours his energy into this questioning, he is cultivating Great Doubt. Given that he's just come off a three-month retreat, his mind is probably pretty focused, which amplifies the power of the whole process - in the space of one night he's able to go deep into the particular kind of samadhi that arises when we focus uninterruptedly on a koan.
The next morning, he goes to see the teacher again, without having resolved his central matter. We might imagine him either so lost in questioning that he's barely even aware of Yunmen in front of him, or alternatively so distressed that he's at breaking point. And at this pivotal moment, when Dongshan is deeply focused on resolving this problem, and far removed from his usual complacent state, the teacher explodes at him, giving him the verbal equivalent of a sudden slap - which shatters Dongshan's Great Doubt and catapults him into awakening.
(Those of you who've been following this series of articles may notice a similarity with the servant boy's awakening when Zen master Judi cuts off his finger in case 3.)
Generating some Great Doubt of your own
If you'd like to explore this theme in your own practice - which I would highly recommend - one way is to take Yunmen's first question to Dongshan, and work with 'Where am I from?' as a koan.
However, there's possibly a better approach if you already have some spiritual matter which is of great interest to you. Zen master Bankei was very critical of the use of koans, feeling that they could lead to the cultivation of an 'inauthentic' Great Doubt in which practitioners were just going through the motions for the sake of tradition. On the other hand, Bankei was himself powerfully motivated to investigate from a very early age when he encountered a striking phrase in a Confucian classic - 'The way of great learning lies in clarifying bright virtue' - and so his life became a mission to discover the meaning of the text.
Bankei didn't need a classical Zen koan because he'd already found something that served the equivalent purpose for him. Maybe you have too - in which case, take it and run with it! But if not, you could do worse than start with 'Where am I from?'
May your doubts be great rather than sceptical!
Escaping the thicket of views
This week we're looking at case 14 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Killing a cat'. And before we go any further, let's get one thing clear: no live cats were harmed in the making of this story.
If taken literally, this story appears to be yet another example of the bizarre cruelty of old men with too much power, killing a cat to make some kind of obscure point - the same kind of men that would cut off a boy's finger if they didn't like what he was doing, or who would hit people with sticks as a way of asserting their dominance.
While there have certainly been spiritual communities both in modern times and throughout history where teachers have exerted an abusive power over their students, there are also many (less headline-worthy) communities where teachers are kind, compassionate and responsible, and do their best to help their students. In this case, I don't think Nanquan really hacked a cat to pieces, any more than Erwin Schrödinger really constructed a feline murder-box for his famous thought experiment. Rather, the cat is symbolic.
OK, so what does the cat symbolise?
The koan begins with a situation all too common: two groups arguing with each other.
In one of the early Buddhist texts, the Book of Eights (which some scholars argue is one of the very earliest teachings from the tradition), there's a discourse called the Kalaha-vivada Sutta (Quarrels and Disputes). It begins as follows:
In other words - we get into disputes because we find things endearing. We become attached to our own point of view, and then when someone else comes along with a different view, we feel the need to defend our own position or attack theirs. Elsewhere, the Buddha spoke of spiritual practitioners trapped in a 'thicket of views', unable to escape. And because of this self-centred habit - my views are obviously better than yours, and now I need to prove it! - we end up quarrelling, disputing, and experiencing lamentation, sorrows, selfishness, conceit, pride and divisiveness. Not bad for a morning's work.
Coming back to the story, and seeing what happens next, it seems very likely that the two groups of monks were arguing over some aspect of the Zen teachings (symbolised in the story by a cat). For example, perhaps one group believed that awakening happens suddenly, while the other group believed in a gradual process of awakening. (I've chosen this example because it's been a subject of great debate for well over a thousand years - a famous and much-beloved cat indeed.)
And so the two groups are arguing back and forth, not really getting anywhere, when the teacher comes to see what all the fuss is about.
When Nanquan speaks, his challenge is a bit cryptic - 'If you can speak, I'll spare the cat.' The koan doesn't say, but it seems likely that at least some of the monks would have been capable of speech - and yet nobody speaks out, even though Nanquan has threatened the life of their beloved cat! Perhaps we might imagine that Nanquan's presence is so imposing that the monks are all frozen - but, honestly, if your beloved cat's life were in danger, wouldn't you at least say something, like 'Please don't kill my cat!'
Again, an overly literal interpretation isn't going to help us make sense of this. Instead, however, if we bear in mind that the cat symbolises some point of Buddhism doctrine that's being debated, we can see that Nanquan is really asking something like 'Well, what was it like for you? Tell me about your awakening! Was it sudden, or gradual? Come on, speak up! You all seem to know so much about the awakening process, so tell me about how it unfolded for you!'
But instead of answering, the monks all stare at their feet. None of them can confidently claim to be awakened. In that moment, they're exposed - they're arguing about something of which they have no direct experience themselves. Suddenly, the certainty with which, just moments ago, they were defending their own position and attacking that of the other group, vanishes in a puff of smoke, and they're confronted directly with their own ignorance. The cat is dead.
The pain of discovering that we don't know what's going on, and the freedom of relinquishing views
Having the rug pulled out from under us like this can be a painful experience. There have certainly been times in my own practice when I've felt a sudden upwelling of dread because I know I'm about to discover a way in which I've been cheerfully deluding myself for decades. To make matters worse, I won't even have a new 'truth' to replace the old one - I'll simply be fully aware that I didn't know as much as I thought I did. (Socrates would surely approve.)
Nevertheless, even though it's uncomfortable to have a cherished belief ripped away from us in this way, in the long run it's actually a good thing - Nanquan is doing a great service for the monks of the eastern and western halls in this story. Indeed, a major theme in the Book of Eights mentioned earlier is the importance of not clinging to views. It might seem like a strange idea for a tradition which lists Right View as the first step of its Eightfold Path! But the Book of Eights emphasises again and again that, although views (including Right View) may be helpful expedients on the path, if we start to cling to those views - perhaps seeing them as superior to the views of others - we are setting ourselves up for quarrels, disputes and suffering.
We see this most directly in a famous and much-debated passage from the discourse to Magandiya in the Book of Eights:
'Sage, you speak
of not grasping
at any theorized judgments.
This "inner peace":
What does it mean?
How is it,
by the enlightened,
'He doesn’t speak of purity
in connection with view,
habit or practice.
Nor is it found by a person
through lack of view,
of habit or practice.
Letting these go, without grasping,
one wouldn’t long for becoming.'
The Buddha here suggests that a sage should orient toward peace, composure and equanimity through non-grasping. We won't get there simply by adopting whatever we think 'Right View' is and arguing with others about whose View is really the Rightest View. If the practice isn't personal and experiential - just as the koan says - then it's no use to us. On the other hand, we can't throw out the baby with the bathwater either - it probably won't help much to discard the teachings and practices entirely because 'there's no Right View anyway, so who cares?' That way will only lead to even more confusion. These practices and this tradition have survived for as long as they have because they're valuable. They work - so long as we don't get too attached to them.
(If you're interested in the Book of Eights, there's an excellent translation and commentary by Gil Fronsdal which I highly recommend. Stephen Batchelor also touches on these themes in his book The Art Of Solitude.)
What about this business with the sandals?
The second part of this koan, in which we meet our old friend Zhaozhou again (familiar to us from case 1, in which he replies 'no' to a question whose answer is clearly 'yes'; case 7, where a new monk asks for a teaching and Zhaozhou instead tells him to go and do the washing up; and case 11, where Zhaozhou asks two hermits the same question, and they both give the same answer, but he approves of one and not the other). This is perhaps earlier in Zhaozhou's life, when he's still living with his teacher Nanquan; but, as we see from his decisive - and mysterious! - answer to Nanquan, he's clearly well on his way to being the cryptic individual we've already seen in those past stories.
Zen koans have a bit of a reputation for being nonsensical, almost Monty Python-esque at times, and 'the one where he puts his sandals on his head' is commonly held up as an example of this type of story. It's certainly pretty bizarre at face value, and if we compare it side-by-side with the simple, sparse, direct language of early Buddhism, there's a clear difference in style. Nevertheless, even these seemingly silly stories contain valuable teachings, if we can wrap our heads around them. ('Unearthing' the buried meaning is part of the challenge of koans, and - at least for me - also part of the fun.)
In this case, we have a similar situation to what we saw last week in case 13, when Zen master Deshan was challenged, and responded not in words but with an action. In many of life's situations, actions speak louder than words, and a key part of Zen practice is learning to embody our wisdom, not merely talk about it. If all we have is fancy words then we're really no different to the monks of the eastern and western halls - it's when our wisdom guides our actions that the practice is truly valuable.
In the present case, Nanquan tells Zhaozhou about what had happened earlier in the day - two groups of monks embroiled in an argument that was purely theoretical for them, with no grounding in experience. Nanquan is almost certainly not just relating gossip to Zhaozhou for the sake of it - rather, it's a test, to see if Zhaozhou will also fall into the trap of words.
But Zhaozhou is too wily for that. Wordlessly, he takes off his sandals and puts them on his head, then walks out. What's that about? Well, normally Zhaozhou would wear the sandals, but now the sandals are wearing Zhaozhou. In a more modern idiom, we might instead do something like go outside, get a horse and cart, then put the cart before the horse, climb in, and start whipping the cart. In both of these situations, things are back to front.
In Zen practice, direct experience has primacy over intellectual knowledge. In comparison with some other traditions, which start with a great deal of study and only gradually introduce meditation practices, Zen likes to throw its students into the practice head-first, and only introduce sutra study after some degree of experiential insight has arisen. Arguing about the finer points of doctrine without the experience to back it up is, for Zhaozhou and Nanquan, putting the cart before the horses.
Wumen, the compiler of the Gateless Barrier koan collection, provides both a prose comment and a verse comment on each koan in the collection. Usually I don't include them because there's enough to chew on with just the main case, but for once I'll include his verse comment, since it neatly illustrates this back-to-front metaphor in yet another way.
Practising with this koan
If you'd like to explore the themes of today's article in your practice, here are a couple of suggested ways to go about it. One is, of course, to work with the koan directly - you could perhaps use a phrase like 'Can I speak?', or - a little more abstractly, and borrowing from Adyashanti, 'What do I know for certain?'
Another approach is to use a practice like Silent Illumination, being alert for those moments when we find ourselves caught once again in the thicket of views. In those moments, we have two opportunities: one, to practise letting go of whatever opinion we're holding, no matter how dear; and two, to notice the peace of mind that arises in the wake of that letting go. In so doing, we both develop the skill of letting go, and teach ourselves on the deepest level that letting go in this way is a smart move.
(No matter how you decide to practise with the koan, please don't hurt any cats - unless they're purely symbolic...)
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.