Or: how come I keep getting into arguments in the supermarket?
Most of the time, the approach taken in early Buddhism is pretty straightforward. Want to learn to focus your mind? Practise paying attention - and here's how you do that. Want to learn more about who and what you really are? Investigate your sense of self and how you relate to the world - and here's a technique for that. Want to open your heart? Practise generating emotions like love and compassion - and here's the method. And so on.
It isn't all plain sailing, though. There's a teaching at the heart of early Buddhism called 'dependent origination' which is considered fundamental enough that the Buddha is reported to have said 'One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma (the truth of the Buddhist teachings); one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination'. Sounds promising, but what's it all about? Well, it's often presented in the form of the 'twelve links' - a sequence of things, many of which are rather mysterious, and which don't always obviously connect to one another. It's tricky to understand, and you can find many lengthy books which attempt to unpack the subject - mostly disagreeing with each other.
In this article, we'll follow the approach set out by my teacher Leigh Brasington and his free book Dependent Origination and Emptiness, which offers an unusually clear way to get started with the concept. Then we'll see why this is something we might want to explore after all!
Dependent origination in a nutshell
One of the simplest ways of getting into dependent origination is through a story found in one of the earliest collections of Buddhist discourses, Sutta Nipata 4.11, titled 'Quarrels and Disputes'.
An unnamed student asks the Buddha 'Where do quarrels and disputes come from?' In other words, how come people are arguing and fighting all the time? (Take a look at Twitter if you don't believe me...)
The Buddha replies 'Quarrels and disputes come from what we hold dear.'
So why do we hold things dear? Because of desire, the Buddha replies.
And where does desire come from? From pleasure and pain.
And where do pleasure and pain come from? From sense contact - that is, from one or more of our sense organs (the eye, the ear etc.) encountering a sense object (a pleasing or displeasing sight, sound etc.).
The discourse goes on one step further - more on that later - but this has already given us enough to get a handle on what's happening here. Suppose I walk into Tesco, and I see a bag of cookies. My eye (the sense organ) encounters the sense object (the bag of cookies) - and right away, that's a pleasant experience, because I like cookies. I mean I really like them - a little too much, to be honest. I like them enough that, having seen them, and experienced the pleasure of that, I'm pretty soon going to be desiring to eat those cookies. Those cookies are dear to me, and soon they're going to be in my belly. ...And so, if you swoop in front of me and grab the last bag just as I'm about to get there, we're doing to have a quarrel and/or dispute.
Stepping back a bit, what's happened here is that we started with a question - how come I keep getting into fights in Tesco? - and walked back through a sequence of causes and conditions. At each step, we were able to identify a factor which contributed to the arising of the next step - in other words, 'because this arises, that arises'. And that's the basic principle of dependent origination - whatever we look at, no matter what it is, we discover that it depends on other things for its existence.
OK, so things depend on other things - so what?
Why is it interesting to know this? What difference does it make whether things depend on other things or stand alone, totally independent?
These are good questions - I had these questions too when I first encountered dependent origination, and I suspect most people do, even if they don't want to admit it while the rest of the group is nodding along with wise expressions on their faces.
It turns out that it's actually really, really interesting to spend some time exploring this chain of cause and effect - and, if we're willing to take the exploration far enough, it can really change the way we see the world.
Going right back to our early years, many of us were raised in what's sometimes called the 'entity' model of education. (I certainly was.) This is the idea that children are 'clever' or 'stupid', 'sporty' or 'weedy', 'good at maths' or 'bad at maths' and so on. A child produces a nice piece of work, an adult says 'Ooh, aren't you clever?', and boom, we have the makings of 'a clever child'. If it happens enough times in a row, we come to expect that the child will always produce good work, because the child is clever - so if the child produces a bad piece of work, or doesn't understand something, that means that something has gone wrong - because, after all, the child is supposed to be clever, right? If this attitude is taken on board by the child, it can lead to all kinds of problems - arrogance ('I'm clever, you're stupid'), fear of failure ('if I can't do this people won't think I'm clever any more') and so on. These problems can persist well into adult life, and warp our behaviour and views for many years.
It's widely recognised now that the 'process' model of education is much healthier. In this view, the outcome of a particular task is seen as the product of a process rather than a fixed attribute. In a process, many factors come together to produce the final outcome. Change one or more factors, change the outcome. If you study hard for a test, you're more likely to get a positive result than if you don't. And conversely, if you get a bad result on a test, the implication is that more work is needed in that area of your studies, rather than 'you failed because you suck at this and you always will'. The process model recognises the potential for growth and change in a way that the entity model doesn't, and so it's empowering where the entity model is fatalistic.
It turns out that this 'entity view' vs 'process view' applies much more broadly than just in education. Actually, everything is like this - no exceptions. Take anything you like, explore it deeply enough, and you'll find a web of relationships, causes and conditions, with no fixed centre or 'entity' to be found.
Seeing the world in this way can really help us to get past our personal sticking points in life. Have you ever found yourself in a difficult situation, wondering how it could possibly have happened - because this sort of thing isn't supposed to happen? Our minds love to make assumptions and take shortcuts, because it makes the world easier to understand, and so we freeze 'how things are' into a static entity - but then, from time to time, something will happen that violates that model, and we'll find ourselves in that unpleasant moment of frozen horror, unable to understand what just happened, caught in the gap between what's actually happening and what our understanding of the world says should be happening.
Looking at these situations in terms of dependent origination can help us to identify and uproot the fixed ideas which give rise to those moments where our mental gears grind together. It can be very instructive to take an incident where we thought to ourselves 'It isn't supposed to be that way!' and dig into it - OK, what's going on there? Why do I think it isn't supposed to be that way? What assumptions am I making about how things are supposed to be, and which ones were violated here? What combination of conditions came together to give rise to this unexpected, unpleasant situation?
Going through this exercise doesn't necessarily mean that we end up happy about what happened - often the situations that cause us the most pain are still unpleasant whether or not they violate our world view - but at least we don't have to deal with the additional pain of the damage to our mental gearbox.
Going further into dependent origination
More generally, we don't have to limit this kind of exploration just to the unpleasant stuff in life. It can be very instructive, and at times quite beautiful, to take any phenomenon and unpack it in this way. When looking at what gave rise to a situation, we can go both 'sideways' and 'backwards'.
By 'sideways', I mean looking at all the different conditions which feed into this particular event. Right now, I'm writing an article for my website. That's made possible because, earlier today, it occurred to me that I hadn't done a class on dependent origination in quite some time. But it's also possible because I finished work early today so that I'd have time to write this article - I have a day retreat coming up on Sunday so I wasn't actually expecting to have time to prepare a new class for Wednesday as well. And it's also possible because my computer, monitor, keyboard and internet connection are all in good working order - if any of those were broken, I'd be out of luck. And it's also possible because enough people continue to come to my Wednesday night class that I keep teaching it, and enough people come to my website that it's worth publishing an article each week for people to read, and there are enough people interested in Buddhist meditation practices that I have an audience at all, and...
By 'backwards', I mean tracking back through time step by step, much like we did in the example of quarrels and disputes at the top of the article. So, again, I'm writing an article for my website. Well, I have something to say about dependent origination because I've sat multiple retreats with my teacher Leigh Brasington and heard him speak on the subject many times. I started doing retreats with Leigh because I heard of him through another teacher, and because I was looking for a retreat with a strong focus on concentration practices, after struggling to get into Zen in the early years of my formal practice. I did that first Zen retreat because I was curious about Zen, I read a book called 'Ten Zen Questions' by Susan Blackmore, and in that book she wrote extensively about the value of going on retreat. I got into that because, when I was a kid, I was interested in martial arts, and eventually I read enough martial arts books to run into some weird stuff about the role of meditation and qigong in high-level martial arts, and...
In both cases, all of these factors have combined to bring me to my home office at 5.35pm on a Friday evening, banging away at the keyboard trying to produce an article on dependent origination that might be useful to however many people read these things each week. If any factor in the chain - either sideways or backwards - had been different, who knows how my life would have played out, and what I would be doing right now? And the examples I've given above are only a tiny fraction of all of the causes and conditions which have to come together to make this moment what it is - actually, sooner or later, it turns out that it takes the whole universe coming together in each moment to make anything at all possible. But don't just take my word for it - check it out for yourself!
Going back to the discourse
Earlier, I mentioned that there's one more step in the discourse on quarrels and disputes that I mentioned above. So far, we've followed the chain of dependencies as follows:
The next step given in the discourse is 'name and form'. On one level, name and form represents the physical objects of the world (the 'forms') and the names we give those objects. If we didn't live in a world composed of recognisable objects, we wouldn't have sense contacts involving those objects, and so all the rest of the sequence would be impossible.
OK, but again, so what - we do live in a world of objects, right?
Well, if you take your exploration of dependent origination far enough, you'll find that the answer is 'er... sorta?' Once again, this is the 'entity' view of what's going on, as opposed to the 'process' view - and, like I said, if we check things out carefully enough, all we find is processes. The 'forms' of our experience are really processes temporarily coming together, rather than solid 'things', and the 'names' of our experience are actually just temporary labels attached to processes for the time being because it's convenient. When our view changes in this way, a lot of the 'sticking points' in our lives melt away - because there's nothing fixed to get stuck on any more. As we come to see ourselves as a process in a world of processes, rather than a thing in a world of things, our lives become much easier, taking on a quality of flow rather than fixation and collision.
Like the Buddha said, one who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma. If you go deeply enough into this exploration, your world will change too - for the better.
Give it a try!
Who do you want to be?
In the early Buddhist tradition, meditation (and spiritual practice more broadly) is often described using the word 'bhavana', which means something like 'cultivation'.
It's a good metaphor. When you cultivate a garden, you decide what you want to grow, select and plant the seeds, ensure that the conditions are good for growth, weed out unwanted invaders that are taking resources away from your plants, and - most of all - you understand that it's a long-term project. While you can absolutely work to improve the conditions of your garden, you can't force your flowers into bloom overnight by watering them extra-hard.
So if we view spiritual practice in terms of cultivation, we might ask what's available - what varieties of seeds could we plant, how should they be cultivated, and what's it going to look like when things are coming into bloom?
Four dimensions of spiritual cultivation
For convenience, I've broken down spiritual work into four categories. This is my own invention rather than a traditional scheme of practice, and I'm sure it has some holes in it, but it'll do for now. In some ways it's a bit artificial to break things out like this - many forms of practice aim to cultivate multiple dimensions simultaneously, as we'll see below - but it may be helpful in terms of exposing the range of possibilities for a meditation practice.
The four categories I've chosen are: samadhi; wisdom; heart opening; and energy work. Let's take each of those in turn.
We all have the ability to pay attention - that is, to choose to focus on some aspect of our experience, at the expense of whatever else is going on. As I'm writing these words, I'm paying quite a bit of attention to the writing itself, while some portion of my attention is on the music I've got playing in the background (which acts mainly as a screen against other noises that might snag my attention). As a result, I'm not particularly aware of the room around me, or sounds from outside my house, or the precise alignment of my body, or any of the many, many other things going on right now that I could have chosen to focus on instead.
It turns out that this faculty of attention is very trainable - that is, we can practise it and get better at it. We're prone to distraction, particularly in the information-rich environment of modern urban life. We often find our minds wandering when we'd prefer them not to, and at times we can find ourselves beset by unwanted, intrusive thoughts, or caught in a negative spiral of anxiety or obsession, unable to break free.
So what can we do about this? That's where samadhi practice comes in. Samadhi training is fundamentally very simple: it's about putting your attention on an object, noticing when your mind has wandered, and coming back to that object. That's it! But if you do it over and over and over, you start to develop some serious concentration power. Your mind becomes more flexible and responsive, better able to stay with something for extended periods. In the traditional language, your mind can become 'purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfections, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability.' Sounds pretty good, right?
Different traditions go about the cultivation of samadhi in different ways. Early Buddhism has dedicated samadhi practices - namely the jhanas - whereas Zen prefers to build samadhi alongside wisdom, using techniques like Silent Illumination and koan practice.
Speaking of wisdom...
This dimension of practice is about exploring who and what we really are and what's going on in the world around us. As meditators, we explore these questions from a first-person perspective, looking at our direct experience, as opposed to the third-person perspective that a scientist might take. In other words, we examine ourselves from the 'inside' rather than the 'outside'.
People are often drawn to spiritual practice because of the promise of wisdom. Perhaps they've suffered greatly in their lives and want to know if there's a solution; or perhaps they're simply curious to know what else is out there beyond the rat race. (Personally, I was attracted to meditation because of all the weird, incomprehensible, almost magical things that people would say about the results of spiritual practice - it sounded so far out there that I wanted to try it for myself to see what all the fuss was about. I haven't been disappointed!)
Early Buddhism has dedicated insight practices specifically for the cultivation of wisdom. These typically revolve around investigating some aspect of our experience very closely, perhaps exploring the impermanent nature of sensory phenomena, or studying dependent origination. As noted above, Zen's main practices (Silent Illumination and koans) tend to cultivate wisdom and samadhi simultaneously.
(So which is the better approach? Whichever one you prefer! Early Buddhism has a clarity and precision that I really enjoy, and I've found the combination of jhana practice to sharpen the mind followed by insight practice to investigate reality to be immensely effective. On the other hand, early Buddhism can come across as quite technical and fiddly at times, whereas Zen is fundamentally very simple indeed - but just as effective. Zen also tends to have more of an air of mystery and beauty, whereas early Buddhism is comparatively clinical. Personally I love both styles, which is why I continue to practise and teach them both, but to each their own!)
A third dimension of spiritual practice relates to the heart, and our emotional life. Meditation can allow us to connect with and cultivate some beautiful qualities within ourselves, such as loving kindness, compassion, joy and peace.
Some people are immediately drawn to this side of practice because, more than any other, it tends to make us feel good. It's nice to be happy! For others, opening the heart may be a slower process - perhaps we've been hurt, perhaps we have good reason to want to protect ourselves from the world around us.
The great power of heart-opening practice is that it shows us that we already have everything we need to be happy. If we find ourselves habitually craving the love and kindness of others (and maybe not receiving it reliably enough!), we can learn to meet our own needs by cultivating a deep well of love and kindness within ourselves. As my teacher's teacher, Ayya Khema, put it, if you feel cold, become a radiator - then you'll never be cold again.
Early Buddhism really shines where heart-opening is concerned - the Brahmaviharas are my go-to set of practices for cultivating these qualities. I've found them to be hugely helpful, and wouldn't trade them for anything. By comparison, Zen doesn't place so much emphasis on the heart, preferring to allow it to open organically as a consequence of other practices; that can work well for some people, and tends to result in a more down-to-earth, practical kindness and compassion rather than the more ostentatious 'spiritual kindness' that you'll sometimes find in other traditions.
We've looked at cultivation of the mind (samadhi, wisdom) and heart - what about the body? Is spiritual practice purely something that happens from the chest upwards?
Well, for some people the answer is yes - the phrase 'disembodied meditators' refers to people who have spent years cultivating their minds, but their bodies haven't really come along for the ride. And in early Buddhism you'll often find a fairly negative slant toward the body, which is seen as the source of sensual cravings which are to be overcome through diligent practice.
In Zen, it's a different story. Perhaps influenced by the Daoist tradition, where longevity and good health are very highly regarded, Zen places great emphasis on having an embodied practice. Within Rinzai Zen in particular, we find a whole set of energy practices, which aim to cultivate our bodies' natural vitality, grounding and energising us. This is a big topic in its own right, and I've written previously about how to go about getting into energy practices in a safe way, so check out that article if you're interested.
How cultivation unfolds
On a practical level, how do we achieve this cultivation?
The first (and, in many ways, most important) step is to clarify your intention. What are you hoping to achieve? What are you drawn to? To be blunt, what do you want?
My Zen teacher Daizan likes to say that people tend to get what they want out of their practice. If you have a clear intention, you'll gradually move in that direction even if your technique is far from perfect. If your intention is vague and muddled, you can spend decades sitting without really getting anywhere - and that's a sad state of affairs. So be clear! Maybe the menu of options I've presented above can help with that; maybe you'll find another system you prefer. But, whatever you do, don't skimp on this step!
OK, so you know what you're trying to do. Next, you need a practice. There are literally squillions of meditation techniques out there, and each and every one will have its fierce, ardent defenders, who are convinced from their own personal experience that their favourite technique is the One True Way to enlightenment.
In truth, there's no 'best' technique, and you can waste a lot of time looking for it. People tend to be big fans of what worked well for them, and if a technique brought about enough of a pivotal shift for someone, they can get very passionate about it. I was pretty obnoxious about the importance of jhana practice for quite a long time, and I probably still am to some extent!
The key is to find one or more techniques that you like well enough to be willing to spend a lot of time with them. Spiritual cultivation is more of a marathon than a sprint, and most people will need to log some serious hours to get where they want to go. So find something you don't hate, and stay with it long enough to see where it takes you. That means getting past the initial hump, where sitting is uncomfortable and nothing seems to be happening - having a group to sit with can really help here, providing social support and normalising your experiences of discomfort and mind-wandering. If you can stick with it, though, soon enough you'll start to see changes in your life, and you'll know the value of the practice.
When we first start practising, having a specific technique is very helpful. We need to know what to do! Being clear about the mechanics of what we're doing can be very helpful, particularly for those of us in the West who like to understand things rather than simply blindly following along with what a teacher says even though nothing seems to be happening.
However, I said above that there's no 'best' technique, and that's true. Over time, you may encounter other techniques which point at the same target as the ones you're using. Maybe you've been working with the Brahmaviharas and then you encounter tonglen; maybe you've been using the breath to develop jhana and then you get into the fire kasina. Or maybe you simply start to wonder why other people seem to be getting similar results to you despite doing such different practices.
To quote the late, great Bruce Lee, 'It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory!' Each technique simply points us toward an underlying principle. For example, in samadhi practice, the underlying principle is steadying the mind on an object. We can do that with many techniques - by focusing on the breath, or using a candle flame, or reciting a mantra - but all techniques point to the same principle. And, once we recognise the principle, we can start to see how it shows up in many other techniques, including techniques which ostensibly serve another purpose - continuing the samadhi example, we may begin to notice more clearly how working with a koan or an energy practice can build samadhi, for example.
This is a very liberating stage of practice, because it frees us from our dependency on any particular method, and opens the door to a lot of creativity. The danger is that we then fall into doing just whatever we fancy at the time, which can turn into a subtle avoidance strategy. Hopefully, this is the point where a good teacher will keep us honest.
We can sometimes get to a point where our formal meditation practice feels like it's going very well, especially if we have the opportunity to go on retreat, but the benefits don't seem to extend much into daily life. And, indeed, it may be that our practice needs to evolve, to break down the barrier between 'practice time' and 'everything else'.
Nevertheless, in the long run 'practice' and 'life' ultimately become inseparable. Particularly once we've reached the principle that the technique was pointing to, we can start to see and apply that principle more and more widely. Continuing the samadhi example some more, maybe we can begin to approach simple tasks in daily life with the focused attitude of our samadhi practice, rather than allowing our minds to wander as they usually do. Gradually, we come to use our mental sharpness in more and more aspects of life, until it becomes fully integrated - an effortless, natural part of our being. Our garden is in bloom; we have fully become what we sought.
May you become what you seek.
How our subjective experience comes to be
This week we're looking at case 30 in the famous koan collection The Gateless Barrier. (Case 30 is, rather unimaginatively, titled 'The very mind itself is Buddha'. I guess they weren't careful about spoilers in those days...)
So what's this all about? Well, there are really two important words here, 'mind' and 'Buddha', so let's take them in turn, and see what happens. Along the way we'll also take a brief look at some cutting-edge ideas in the scientific community about what our conscious experience actually is and how it comes about.
What is 'mind'?
First, we have to be clear about what we mean by the word 'mind' in this context, because it can mean several different things. In fact, if you've been following this blog for at least a few weeks, you might remember an article just before Christmas on this very topic - appropriately titled 'What is the mind?' (The relevant sections for today's purposes are 'Mind as a synonym for awareness' and 'Whoah, excellent!')
Rather than repeat that material again so soon, today I'll come at it from a slightly different angle. The short version is that 'mind' in this case is synonymous with 'awareness', and is also synonymous with 'our subjective conscious experience'. The second of these synonyms might not be quite so easy to accept at face value, so let's dig into that a little bit.
There's a school of Buddhism which is very influential in the Zen tradition called Yogacara, and is sometimes known as the 'mind-only' school of Buddhism. Amongst other things, the Yogacara way of understanding things attempts to dissect our experience into eight layers, or 'consciousnesses', which together represent the totality of our experience. The eight are:
The first six are the six sense consciousnesses found in early Buddhism, and represent the simple elements of our conscious experience - what we see and hear, think and feel. But the Yogacarans were interested in another couple of aspects of experience: the sense of self, and the source of habitual reactions and patterns. These were assigned to the seventh and eighth consciousnesses respectively.
The seventh consciousness is important because, when we look closely at our experience, we find that we tend to relate everything that's going on back to ourselves in some way. There's a sound - is it attractive (in which case I want it), is it repulsive (in which case I don't want it), or is it neutral (in which case I don't care and can ignore it)? This self-referential layer of experience significantly colours our experience of the world and leads us into trying to arrange the external world to our personal satisfaction and resenting it when that doesn't work out. Much of Buddhist practice is aimed at investigating this sense of self and trying to loosen its grip on our experience - not so that we forget who we are, but so that we find a smoother, gentler way to be in the world. (We'll come back to this point later when we move on to talking about 'Buddha'.)
The eighth consciousness is also important, because it recognises that we are not simply a blank slate meeting every moment completely afresh. (And, actually, that's a good thing - having a memory is useful!) The idea is that we have a 'storehouse' which contains the 'seeds' that we plant in each moment - over time, those seeds ripen, and we experience the result. So if we routinely react to difficult situations with anger, we plant a lot of angry seeds, and anger will become more and more a go-to state of being when faced with something difficult. If we instead start to plant seeds of kindness and compassion, e.g. by practising the Brahmaviharas, then as those seeds ripen our disposition will shift in a more open-hearted direction.
The storehouse makes us who we are as distinct individuals. Each of us has a unique history, a unique body, unique interests and capabilities, and so forth. That stuff is important - it's not OK for you to withdraw money from my bank account. But if we grasp that stuff too tightly, and it becomes all about me and mine - which is the role of the seventh consciousness - then we become cut off from our wider environment, a tiny, fragile being alienated from a big bad world, and we set ourselves up for suffering. That's why it's called 'deluded awareness' - because it leads to a view of the world which is both not entirely accurate and quite unhelpful on a practical level. The main thrust of Zen practice is to undo that alienation and reunite ourselves with the universe. Speaking of which, perhaps it's time to switch gears and talk about 'Buddha'!
What is 'Buddha'?
Well, according to master Mazu in the koan, the very mind itself is Buddha! But maybe just repeating the koan isn't the most useful commentary, so let's dig a bit.
When someone asks 'What is Buddha?' in a koan, they're not typically asking for a story about Siddhartha Gautama, aka Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical figure who lived about 2,500 years ago in what we now call India. Rather, 'What is Buddha?' is a shorthand way of asking for a teaching on awakening. Equivalent questions include 'Who am I?', 'What is my true nature?', and 'What is this?' The fundamental point of Zen practice is to investigate this very moment, right here, right now, and to 'awaken' to its true nature.
What does that mean? Well, the best way to find out is to take one of those questions ('Who am I?' is a good starting point) and work with it as a koan. (You'll find a guided 'Who am I?' practice on my Audio page.) Until you've experienced it for yourself, any attempt to describe it is just words.
Nevertheless, we might say that the process of awakening is a matter of changing our relationship to what's going on. In the language of the Yogacara, we might talk about loosening the grip of the seventh consciousness - the 'deluded awareness' - and rediscovering our connection to the universe as a whole. We work with 'Who am I?' because it invites us to question the apparent separation between 'me' and 'not me', 'mine' and 'not mine'. As we see deeper and deeper into the question, we begin to let go of the fixed ways in which we typically understand ourselves and our surroundings, and ultimately we come to a different relationship with our experience, one which is much freer.
Now, this can be where Zen might start to sound like a con, like something that would actually increase delusion rather than lessening it. Surely it's perfectly obvious that we're each separate individuals, totally disconnected from the wider universe; is Zen basically a process of brainwashing ourselves to believe something that isn't true, against the evidence of our senses?
But that's where it gets interesting. What does the evidence of our senses really tell us? When we start to investigate this, we rapidly find that what we perceive through the senses is intimately intertwined with thoughts and memories. If all we had to go on was our eye consciousness, we would only experience coloured shapes - but we don't. We experience computer monitor, tea cup, fingers, keyboard and so forth. Those labels aren't coming from our eyes! The sensory information we receive is interpreted and woven together by our brains to produce an overall 3D 'picture' of what's going on - and that's our subjective experience. Although it may seem like our eyes are windows looking out onto an objectively real world, what we actually experience is the product of our minds - hence, 'mind-only'.
Actually, it's even worse than that! At the cutting edge of current scientific thinking is the idea that our brains are actually 'prediction engines'. Rather than meticulously build up a complete picture of what's going on by weaving together every piece of sensory information every moment, our brains actually start with a kind of 'guess' as to what's going on - a 'model' about what we expect to be experiencing, based on past experience. Then the information coming in through the senses is checked against that model - and if the model is wrong enough to be concerning, it's updated based on the sense data. But if things are ticking along pretty much as expected, then the sense data is simply checked and dropped.
This is a little bit mind-blowing, at least to me! It does explain a lot of oddities about our experience, though. For example, you may be aware that our eyes are actually constantly making tiny movements, called saccades - but our visual field usually appears to be stable, rather than jiggling around all over the place. Previously I'd assumed that the brain had some kind of 'image stabilisation' feature, like the camera in my phone, but actually it makes a whole lot more sense if the role of the eyes is to dart around all over the place checking to see if the mental model of my surroundings is accurate.
Anyway, the upshot of all this is that, no matter how obvious it seems that we're simply experiencing things exactly as they are, what's really going on is the product of a complex process, and one of the inputs to that process is what we expect to experience. We've grown up surrounded by people who believe themselves to be separate, and we've picked up and internalised that world view - so that's what we see, because it's what we expect to see. But if you spend long enough hanging out with Zen people (at least those with some degree of realisation), it soon becomes apparent that that way of seeing things isn't the only game in town.
Back to the koan
So, what is Buddha? The very mind itself is Buddha. Our subjective consciousness experience is a projection of our minds - and that projection can be self-centred, alienated, painful and riddled with grasping, in which case we call it samsara; or it can be liberated, free from grasping, flowing freely in each moment, bright, clear and seamlessly unified. It isn't that the external world changes when we wake up - we aren't transported to a heavenly realm, perhaps somewhere in the Himalayas. It's our own minds that change - transforming from the habitual mind of suffering to the wide-awake mind of a Buddha.
May you awaken swiftly.
Be like water, my friend
On Sunday January 22nd, I'll be running a Silent Illumination practice day. (We still have some spaces left, so sign up if you're local!)
Silent Illumination - variously known as shikantaza (just sitting), resting in the Unborn, or simply zazen (sitting meditation) - is perhaps Zen's most iconic practice. It's deceptively simple: you just sit there, right? But that simplicity belies an incredible depth and power.
How does Silent Illumination work?
In a nutshell, the practice involves sitting (or standing, or walking, or lying down) and simply paying attention to the experience of sitting. What does that mean, the 'experience of sitting'? Well, that's what you find out when you do Silent Illumination!
Many styles of meditation use a particular 'object' - something specific to focus on during your meditation. You might be invited to count your breaths, or observe a candle flame, or feel the physical sensations throughout your whole body, or focus on reciting a mantra. This way of practising uses our faculty of attention - our ability to pay attention to this as opposed to that - as a kind of spotlight. We place a bright light on whatever object we're using, and that bright light casts correspondingly deep shadows on whatever else is in our experience. Over time, our object becomes more and more prominent - eventually, the object is all that we're aware of, and everything else falls away.
That's a good way to practise. It's very helpful for training the mind, for developing focus and mindfulness, for learning to discern exactly what's going on in your mind moment to moment, noticing when you're paying attention to your object and when the mind has wandered. The core skills developed through this kind of practice are very important, and are absolutely necessary for most people before true Silent Illumination is really accessible.
Because Silent Illumination is different. In Silent Illumination practice, we don't focus on anything in particular - and, as a result, we can be aware of the totality of our experience. Zen master Takuan Soho put it this way:
"When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others. When the eye is not set on one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there."
In Silent Illumination, the idea is to face the tree without allowing any particular leaf to catch our attention.
But why would you want to do that?
The mind can be likened to a hand, picking things up and putting them down. When the spotlight of attention falls on an object, we pick it up. Then, in order to pick up the next thing, we have to put down what we're currently holding.
Except, as we all know, sometimes it isn't as easy as that. Maybe you've experienced intrusive thoughts - repetitive patterns of thinking that just won't go away no matter how much you try to focus on something else. I remember lying awake the night before one of my GCSE exams, listening to a short snippet of incredibly loud music looping over and over in my head. I'd been writing a song on my guitar earlier in the day, as a way of blowing off a bit of steam before the exam, and that riff lodged hard in my head. That was not a fun night!
Actually, long before I was wrestling with catchy guitar music, the historical Buddha was studying the problem of human suffering, trying to understand how it is that we come to struggle against what's going on in our lives with such disappointing frequency. In what's traditionally considered to be his first teaching, he said this:
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of dukkha [suffering/unsatisfactoriness]: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five aggregates [i.e. everything we experience] subject to clinging are dukkha.
In short: whenever we cling to something, we're setting ourselves up for pain when that thing doesn't go exactly the way we want it to. The only solution is to learn to let go, to allow our experience to be just the way it is.
And that's what Silent Illumination is - a training in letting go.
Because what you'll find when you start doing it is that the mind is fundamentally not used to resting openly in this way. Instead, it jumps onto every little thing that comes along - particularly thoughts, which are especially 'sticky' for most of us. You've probably heard the term 'the monkey mind', so called because, when monkeys swing through the trees, they grab one branch, then another, then another, then another... See if your mind is like this too!
Well, if that's what my mind wants to do, why fight it?
It's a fair question. Our minds do seem to want to be constantly grabbing everything that comes along - so why try to go against that 'natural' tendency?
Well, it turns out that there's a big difference between 'natural' and 'habitual'. We have learnt certain mental habits, which keep us jumping from one thing to the next, filling our heads with a seemingly never-ending stream of thoughts and emotions which our monkey minds eagerly grab. But it doesn't have to be that way. Through a practice like Silent Illumination, we can allow our minds to relax.
It might sound like that would result in a kind of passive oblivion, in which we're unresponsive to what's going on around us. But, actually, it's quite the opposite. Returning to Zen master Takuan Soho, here's how he describes it:
"The basic mind is the mind that does not stay in a particular place but pervades the whole body and whole being. The errant mind is the mind that congeals in one place brooding about something; so when the basic mind congeals, focused on one point, it becomes the so-called errant mind.
"When your mind congeals in one place, resting on one thing, it is like ice that cannot be used freely because it is solid — you can't wash your hands and feet with ice. Melting the mind to use it throughout the body like water, you can apply it wherever you wish. This is called the basic mind."
The monkey mind is at the mercy of whatever happens to come along. The 'basic mind' that Takuan describes is free to flow with conditions, picking up whatever it wishes at any time, responding immediately and effortlessly to whatever comes along, rather than simply reacting in a knee-jerk manner.
When we touch into this for the first time, we discover that the 'basic mind' that Takuan is describing feels much more 'natural' - and much more enjoyable! - than the frenetic energy of the monkey mind.
OK, so how do we do it?
It's simple, really.
How do you know when you're ready for step 6? You might set a timer, or you might stay with the body sensations until you notice that your mind has settled and isn't wandering nearly as much as when you started. Or you might find that it happens automatically - when the mind gets really settled, the effort required to maintain the focus on the body starts to feel a bit onerous, and the mind may spontaneously let go. It's a tricky one, though - it takes some practice to learn to distinguish between a genuine letting-go of this sort, versus the mind simply getting bored and wanting to wander.
It's very important not to kid ourselves in this practice - Silent Illumination is not the same as Silent Mind-Wandering or Silent Zoning Out! In an ideal world, you'll have a balance of calmness (the Silent part) and clarity (the Illumination part). Things won't always be that way, of course - another part of Silent Illumination is seeing your mind lurching around from bright clarity to foggy dullness and back again and learning not to take it personally when the practice isn't going the way we want it to.
In the long run, Silent Illumination isn't any particular 'state' or 'experience' - it's a way of relating to all of our experiences, a kind of subtle intimacy with the present moment which allows it to be completely as it is, without any part of ourselves held back from what's going on. In Silent Illumination, we allow the ice at the heart of our being to melt into life's river, and see where the flow takes us next.
May your practice take you where you need to go!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!