Where do we go when we've reached the pinnacle?
This week we're looking at case 46 in the Gateless Barrier. It's one of the more famous koans (Zen questions or stories) in the collection, and has a number of interpretations. We'll take a look at a couple of those interpretations in this article, but don't let my words here constrain you - if you find something else of value in the strange question posed above, so much the better.
How can you walk north at the North Pole?
At face value, the koan presents us with another impossible question. If you're a hundred feet up in the air, balanced on the top of a pole, how are you supposed to step forward without plummeting to your death? (Regular readers might be reminded of case 5!)
Whether or not you've found yourself in this exact situation, I suspect that many of us can relate to a sense of having taken something to its farthest practical extent - a sense that there's nowhere left to go. Perhaps you reach the top of your professional field - or the limits of your abilities. Perhaps it's as simple as a sense of having plateaued... and enough time has now passed that it's starting to look like the plateau is as good as it gets for you. Of course, it may be that that's good enough! But if you've been motivated by a sense of growth, and then that growth comes to an end, what do you do now?
In the meditation world, this sense of 'peak' or 'plateau' can show up a few different ways, some more problematic than others.
It may simply be that you've gotten what you were looking for, and that's enough for you. I know someone who finds that mindfulness meditation helps him to sleep when he's going through a rough patch - so he'll take up meditation when his sleep is bad, then put it down again when his sleep is back on track. With my snobbish Zen hat on, I might be tempted to look down on him and think about all the deep cosmic insights he's missing out on by not taking his practice deeper - but the fact is that, for him, meditation is a helpful way to sleep better, and that's it. And, honestly, there's nothing wrong with that! He has a need, meditation satisfies it, job done.
Things get a bit more difficult if reaching an apparent 'end of the road' isn't satisfying, though. Perhaps you were drawn to practice because you were interested in those aforementioned cosmic insights - you wanted to understand impermanence, emptiness and non-duality. And it's certainly possible to reach a point where you have had very clear experiences of all those things - so what next? How should you practise now? What comes next? What happens when the maps and texts no longer provide a clear way forward? How can you 'step forward' now?
Perhaps the most challenging situation is when you've developed your meditation to the point that you can find something very powerful - peace, stillness, joy - in your meditation practice, but haven't yet found a way to bring it into your daily life. Then the 'top of the hundred-foot pole' becomes a place to hide out - a refuge from the world, where you engage with your meditation practice in order to turn away from the unpleasant, inconvenient, difficult outside world and connect with the beautiful experiences that you find within. Actually, there are some meditation traditions that would regard this as a win, and which recommend a renunciate lifestyle so that you can shun the outside world to the fullest extent possible and spend as much time as you can enjoying the bliss of your meditation. In the Zen tradition, however, we regard that as stopping halfway - as the second part of the koan says, being able to touch into emptiness in your meditation practice is the start of something ('gaining initiation') rather than the end ('not yet reality'). The challenge now is to find that same sense of peace and stillness in every moment of life - in the language of the koan above, 'to manifest the whole body throughout the universe', or in the language of Zen master Bankei in last week's article, 'to live in the Unborn'.
There's also another, quite different, take on this koan, but in order to provide some context for that, we'll need to take a brief detour.
Two Zen views on 'awakening experiences'
During the golden age of Zen, five major lineages sprang up, of which two have survived in some form today - the Linji and the Caodong, to give them their Chinese names, or Rinzai and Soto in Japanese.
Generally speaking (although there are exceptions), the Rinzai approach tends to emphasise koan study - an intense, often effortful investigation in which one explores a question (like the one at the top of this article), asking the question over and over, focusing so strongly that a tangible feeling develops in the body (what master Hakuin described as a 'great ball of doubt' in the lower abdomen). If the questioning is kept up for long enough (a process which brings its own challenges!), sooner or later the 'ball of doubt' will 'shatter', and the practitioner's perspective suddenly flips around to an entirely different way of seeing things. My Zen teacher Daizan often quotes one of his own teachers, who liked to say that a koan is a question that from the outside has no solution, but from the inside is no problem - that's the shift in perspective that we're talking about. It's very common in koan practice for that shift to happen suddenly and very noticeably - at the minimum, there's a distinct 'aha!' moment when things slot into place, and potentially things can get quite a bit more dramatic. The 'enlightenment experiences' written about in (for example) Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen describe some of the ways that these moments can play out. In Rinzai Zen, having an experience of kensho (seeing true nature) is considered an important landmark on the spiritual path for most people, because it represents a clear watershed point in the practice.
On the other hand, the Soto school tends to emphasise shikantaza (aka Silent Illumination) - a very simple, sparse, gentle form of practice in which one 'just sits', remaining fully aware of the present moment but not trying to do anything or make anything happen. There are many variations on this practice, some of which do emphasise a kind of gentle curiosity toward experience, but plenty of Soto teachers will tell you that there's no need for any of that - all that's required is to sit, and furthermore, there's no need for any kind of 'enlightenment experience' - Silent Illumination is enlightenment. There's nothing to attain, no insight to have - just sit. There can even be a view that it's unhelpful to have a kensho experience, because that becomes just another thing to let go of before we can just sit quietly.
How can we reconcile these two seemingly totally contradictory viewpoints? (I'm assuming here that you want to reconcile them! Throughout history, the simple answer to this question would have been 'My tradition is right, theirs is wrong.' But personally I like to find ways to understand and appreciate every tradition, no matter how different it looks from my own approach to practice.)
The way I understand it, the whole spiritual path is fundamentally about letting go. We cling to certain unconscious ways of seeing things, and the process of developing 'insight' is a matter of learning to let go of those unconscious views to make room for other ways of seeing. But how do we let go?
We can use a physical analogy. Let's suppose you have a tense muscle. It may be that you can simply relax it, if you're sufficiently connected to your body and the tension isn't so habitual and ingrained that it doesn't respond to your intention. Simply relaxing is the gentlest, easiest way to let go of that tension, by far. This is the Silent Illumination approach - just sit, gently relaxing the mind. If that doesn't work, though, we can actually try tensing up even more - tightening not just the muscle we want to relax, but the surrounding muscles as well. We make everything tight, tense, contracted - and then suddenly relax the whole area of the body, all at once. This approach is much more intense and effortful, and tends to lead to much more of a sudden moment of relaxation rather than a gradual process of softening. And that's the koan approach - focus the mind very strongly on the process of questioning, until all of a sudden the ball of doubt shatters and the mind lets go deeply.
I have some experience of both styles of practice. When I first came to meditation, I was very much a 'doer' - although I learnt Silent Illumination early on in my practice, I found it strange and maddening because nothing seemed to happen and I didn't know what I was supposed to do. Then I met my teacher in the early Buddhist tradition, Leigh Brasington, and he taught me how to use my 'doing' skills to practise the jhanas, Brahmaviharas and insight meditation techniques. I got on very well with that approach, and experienced some clear 'watershed' moments as a result of practising in that style. A few years later, though, on a month-long retreat, something totally flipped around in my practice, and on the last couple of days of that retreat I found myself drawn back to Silent Illumination. Suddenly, that approach to practice made sense, and it's been my main method ever since. Since then, I've had fewer 'watershed' moments, but my sense is that my practice has continued to deepen nevertheless. But now it's happening gradually, almost imperceptibly, rather than in noticeable jumps. Daizan has said that it's a bit like getting wet in the rain: sometimes you'll go outside, there will be a sudden downpour, and you can pretty much pinpoint the minute when you got drenched; other times, it isn't really raining but it's very misty, and although there's no particular moment when you realise 'gosh, I'm wet!', nevertheless you're soaked to the skin by the time you get home.
No hundred-foot pole, no stepping forward
Now that we have a bit of background about the Rinzai and Soto approaches, we can find two quite different ways to understand the koan at the top of this article.
In the Rinzai view, reaching the top of the pole might represent achieving kensho. It's a watershed, a turning point - it represents a kind of 'initiation', as the second Zen master in the koan puts it. But any Rinzai teacher worth their salt will tell you that that isn't the end of the path - as I indicated above, it's a starting point rather than a finish line. No matter how big or impressive the insight and attendant enlightenment experience were, it isn't the end of the journey - and if the student is tempted to cling to it (sitting atop the hundred-foot pole), the teacher is likely to give them a gentle (or not-so-gentle) nudge to get them moving again. This is the situation of taking the student's staff away in case 44, or Zhaozhou's response to the second hermit in case 11. The question of stepping forward is thus a challenge to let go of whatever the practitioner feels has been 'attained', and to find a way to move forward still further.
In the Soto view, all this talk of achievement and moving forward is wrong from the start. There's nothing to achieve, nowhere to get to; and, to make matters worse, looking at practice in those terms is actively unhelpful, since it only reinforces the acquisitive, dualistic tendencies of the small self. So, in truth, there's no hundred-foot pole to climb, and nowhere to go from the top of it. Our Buddha Nature - our Unborn mind, in the language of last week's article - is already here, right now. We don't need to go anywhere to find it, and we don't need anyone to give it to us. We just need to look within and find it for ourselves. Seen this way, the koan is a way of inviting us to check in with our intentions for practice. Are we practising 'just sitting' with the secret idea that it'll take us somewhere special, like one of those exciting enlightenment experiences?
The trickiest part about the Soto view is that meditation practice really does do something for us (otherwise, why bother!), but if we sit down to practise with a materialistic motivation then that motivation will interfere with the practice. The correct attitude to have when practising Silent Illumination is that we're simply sitting for the sake of sitting, resting in awareness because that's something worth doing for its own sake - not to get anywhere or give us any particular result. A distracted, confused sit isn't 'worse' than a tranquil, clear sit - both are just this present moment arising in practice. Insight isn't 'better' than confusion - both are just experiences that can arise through practice.
In the long run, both approaches actually converge. The effortful path and the relaxed path both lead to the same ever-present Buddha Nature, just by different routes - and at the end of either path, you'll discover that you haven't moved an inch, let alone climbed a hundred-foot pole.
May all beings discover their Buddha Nature - no matter how they get there.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!