Clinging to a square peg in a world of round holes
This week we're looking at case 7 in the Gateless Barrier, appropriately titled 'Wash your bowl'. You might recall Zen Master Zhaozhou from case 1, in which a monk asks about Buddha Nature and is given a surprising answer. Now Zhaozhou is at it again, apparently placing more importance on cleanliness than teaching Zen - or is he?
Beginner's Mind, and the drawback of excessive learning
One of the first, most influential and most beloved Zen teachers in the West was Shunryu Suzuki, who ran the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1960s, and introduced a whole generation to a particular take on Zen practice. He is widely known for encouraging people to cultivate what he called 'beginner's mind' - indeed, the term is popular enough that a great many people who know nothing whatsoever about Zen will be familiar with at least the second half of Suzuki's famous statement:
'If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.'
Now, a little care is needed here. This statement is sometimes taken as a rejection of any kind of expertise at all, an indication that someone with no knowledge whatsoever about a field of study is not only just as capable of solving problems within that field as a so-called expert, but they're actually better able to do that, because the narrow-minded expert is supposedly hamstrung by their prejudices, whereas someone who just walked in off the street will produce more creative ideas due to being free of preconceptions. Personally, I hope I don't have to have brain surgery performed by my eight-year-old god-daughter anytime soon. I think there's a definite role for the cultivation of expertise, and I'm personally very grateful for the many years of hard work put in by those at the top of their fields. I have no idea how to build a bridge or repair a leaking gas main, and I'm very glad that there are people who do!
Suzuki is not rejecting experts and expertise. Rather, he's pointing to the way our perceptions change over time, with experience, and suggesting that we cultivate a certain kind of flexibility in our outlook, as opposed to allowing ourselves to become jaded, narrow-minded, painted into a corner by our own repetitive patterns of thought.
Let's now take a brief detour through some of the ideas of modern cognitive science, to get a sense of what's going on behind the scenes, and then bring it back to our direct experience to see if we can understand Suzuki's point at a subtler (and much more useful) level than the common interpretation.
Salience and cognitive framing
(The information in this section comes from John Vervaeke's excellent YouTube series Awakening From The Meaning Crisis. Highly, highly recommended if this kind of thing is of interest to you.)
One of the most important functions of our brains is what's called 'salience landscaping'. Basically, in any given situation, we have to figure out what matters most. At any moment, there's an infinite number of things we could be paying attention to - sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, memories, plans - but usually only a particular subset of those possible experiences is salient, i.e. relevant, to what we're trying to do. If I'm cycling in heavy traffic, I probably don't want to be analysing the sensations in each of my toes to see which one feels the warmest - I have more immediate concerns, like the cars whizzing past me and the traffic light changing to red up ahead.
Over time, we learn to identify what information is most salient in a wide range of different circumstances - and, as if by magic, that information 'pops' into our consciousness, like someone has applied a highlighter pen to certain sections of a page of text before handing it to us. When we're speaking to someone in an environment with a moderate amount of background noise, their words are salient while other conversations are not, so we're able to follow what's being said without having to sift through all the other simultaneous sounds at the conscious level. When we're scrolling through the latest offerings on Netflix, the movies and shows which match our interests are more salient than those that don't - they stand out from the crowd, so we can scan through screen after screen of junk fairly quickly looking for something that interests us. We sometimes find that a person we only vaguely know suddenly becomes more interesting to us when we learn that they have the same hobby as us - by virtue of the shared interest, that person is suddenly more salient to us than they were.
Key to this process is that our 'salience landscape' is adaptive - different features of our experience are salient in different situations. Noticing whether a traffic light is red or green is very important to me when I'm cycling, but if I'm sitting at a desk writing an article about Zen, I don't care whether the traffic light on the street outside my window is red, green or not working at all - honestly, I'd rather not know at all, because I'd prefer to focus all of my attention on what I'm trying to say. So it's very good news that we're able to move from one situation to another, shifting from one 'cognitive frame' to another as required.
However, this process isn't perfect. For one, if we don't recognise that it's happening, we won't realise that whatever we experience is only a way of looking at what's going on, as opposed to the truth. Our immediate subjective experience seems very clear and direct, doesn't it? There's no hint that what we're experiencing has been shaped by our cognitive frame in any way. Yet we also know that other people can bring different cognitive frames to the same situation, with different salience landscapes - and we may find that we disagree or even argue as a result, unable to understand why some trivial detail seems to be so important to the other person when they're blindly ignoring what's really important here.
Furthermore, the system is prone to error and distortion over time. If we consume a lot of negative news, we'll come to see the world as much darker and more hostile than someone who limits their media consumption - the threats will have become more salient to us than to the other person. And if we are repeatedly exposed to inaccurate, harmful ideas (such as racist ideologies), our salience landscape may shift to accommodate those poisonous ideas - we can become more and more likely to notice little details that 'prove' what we already 'know' about certain groups of people, for example. (This 'confirmation bias' also shows up in a more benign form as the 'yellow car phenomenon' - typically you don't care about yellow cars and never notice them, until one day you start thinking about buying a yellow car, at which point you start seeing them everywhere.)
Go wash your bowl
Let's get back to the koan now. On the face of it, we have a simple exchange. A monk wants an instruction from the teacher; Zhaozhou then asks if he's had his breakfast, and when the monk says yes, Zhaozhou tells him to go and wash his bowl.
We need to eat to survive. (I was going to say 'we need to eat breakfast' but I don't want to alienate readers who subscribe to a different eating model...) In the case of Zhaozhou's monastery, the monks eat a simple breakfast of gruel; the gruel goes in a bowl, and the monk eats the gruel. So far, so good. But now that the bowl and gruel have served their purpose, it's time to wash the bowl - to clean out the remaining bits of gruel, so that they don't weld themselves to the bowl and go nasty over time. Washing the bowl every day keeps it clean and fit for purpose, and stops the monks from getting ill from eating gruel out of horrible mouldy bowls.
We can look at our minds in the same way. We need to adopt particular cognitive frames to deal with the situations that life throws at us. But it's also very helpful if we can learn to put those frames down again - to move deliberately toward a condition of simplicity, through a practice such as Silent Illumination. By doing so, we 'clean' our minds - we return over and over to a condition of openness, the 'beginner's mind' which is open to many possibilities. In so doing, we become flexible, responsive, able to move from frame to frame as needed but without getting stuck there. A hand is useful because it can pick up objects, but if we never put those objects down again, we lose the utility of the hand. In the same way, our minds can adapt to all sorts of different situations, but if we aren't willing to put down the cognitive frame that served us in the last situation, we may not be able to pick up an appropriate frame for the next situation. We find ourselves thinking 'But it isn't supposed to be like this!', unable to move forward because we're still trying to fit the square peg we expected to need into the round hole of the actual situation.
In the long run, then, we can view the entire path of Zen training as learning to wash our bowls. We spend time in silence, letting go of whatever is encrusting our minds over and over, and we develop introspective awareness, becoming sensitive to our own state, able to notice when we're still holding on to yesterday's gruel rather than making room for today's. In time, we get better and better at noticing when we're sliding into a cognitive frame that doesn't fit the situation, letting go and opening up to a wider view which affords us more possibilities, and then bringing our genuine expertise to bear on whatever's going on. Life becomes less stop-start, less of a battle, more of a flow.
So what are you waiting for? Go wash your bowl!
Overcoming the inner critic with emptiness
The story above, case 6 in the collection of koans known as the Gateless Barrier, represents a pivotal moment in the history of Zen. Sometimes called the 'flower sermon', it is the moment when the first 'transmission' took place - when Kashyapa was formally identified as the Buddha's successor.
We'll talk about lineage and succession more when we get to case 22, in which the Buddha's chief attendant Ananda asks Kashyapa what exactly the Buddha transmitted to him. This week, however, we're going to go in a different direction.
The language of the koan
These koans were written and compiled many hundreds of years after the time of the historical Buddha - the Gateless Barrier was a product of the Chinese Sung dynasty, and is believed to date from the early 13th century CE. By comparison, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, lived in the 5th century BCE - so we're already talking about a distance of almost two thousand years.
So the koan begins by situating us in time and space - specifically ancient times, and on Spiritual Mountain, which is also known as Vulture Peak. (I must admit, I've only ever heard it called Vulture Peak, so I'm not sure why Thomas Cleary, whose translation I used above, went with Spiritual Mountain instead.) Vulture Peak was one of the historical Buddha's favourite retreat sites, and was located in Rajagaha, modern-day Rajgir. Many of the discourses of early Buddhism mention Vulture Peak, and many of the sutras of the later Mahayana tradition are also set there, including the Lotus Sutra and Heart Sutra.
Next, we have the Buddha's mysterious floral gesture, which we'll get to in a minute. Nobody knows what to make of it, except for one member of the assembly - the 'saint Kashyapa'.
Early Buddhism had four 'ranks' or 'stages' of awakening - stream enterer, once-returner, non-returner, and arahant, literally meaning something like 'deserving' or 'worthy'. In the Pali canon, arahantship is commonly presented as the goal of the spiritual life, when suffering is finally eradicated, and those who become arahants often mark the occasion by uttering the phrase 'Done is what needed to be done.' The term 'saint' is sometimes used in Western translations to refer to arahants, perhaps because it indicates someone of significant religious attainment, although I have to say it's never done much for me!
In any case, the story is presenting Kashyapa as a highly attained practitioner - and clearly he's a cut above the others, because he alone breaks out in a cheeky smile (or perhaps a goofy grin? Who knows) at the Buddha's gesture.
Buddha then teases the other practitioners in the assembly, giving them a long list of all his cool attainments - the treasury of the eye of truth, the ineffable mind of nirvana, the most subtle of teachings on the formlessness of the form of reality - and then indicating that Kashyapa has those things now too. At just such a time, wouldn't you feel a stirring of envy, a sense that 'I want those things too!'
Gimme the goodies!
First, the treasury of the eye of truth. As an aside, those of you familiar with the great Soto Zen master Dogen, who founded the Soto lineage in Japan, are probably well acquainted with his vast and largely impenetrable book Shobogenzo - whose title translates as 'treasury of the eye of truth'. So one approach to discovering this treasury is to read and understand Dogen's works. Good luck - you'll need it!
Really, though, this is a rather grandiose way of saying that Buddha has learnt to see the world in a certain way, free from the obscurations which ordinarily cloud our vision. Another way of saying this, in the language of early Buddhism, is that Buddha has attained Right View. But what is that? Fear not, we'll get to that in a minute.
Next, Buddha talks about the ineffable mind of nirvana. Nirvana is the Sanskrit equivalent of the Pali term Nibbana, and both words literally mean something like 'extinguished', in the sense of a candle whose flame has been blown out. There are many explanations (and, arguably, several different conceptions) of nirvana - one way of looking at it is that the fires of greed, hatred and confusion have been extinguished, and the ineffable mind of nirvana is what remains in their absence, free from reactivity and able to respond effortlessly to whatever circumstances arise. It is ineffable because it can't be said to be like something in particular - it isn't a strategy, or an altered state of consciousness, or a particular theory about how to be in the world. It's simply where we find ourselves when we finally see clearly - in other words, when we have this Right View, this Shobogenzo.
But how do we learn to see clearly? Here the Buddha offers his 'most subtle teachings on the formlessness of the form of reality'. Here the Buddha confirms that the Matrix was right all along - there really is no spoon. This is the famous Buddhist teaching of emptiness.
The story of the nun Vajira
There's a story from early Buddhism (Samyutta Nikaya 5.10) in which a nun named Vajira is sitting in meditation in the spookily-named Dark Forest, when Mara shows up and attempts to scare her into giving up her practice.
Mara is a kind of tricksterish devil figure in early Buddhism who periodically shows up and tries to tempt practitioners away from their course of action. It's common to read Mara literally, but that doesn't always work for modern audiences, and Stephen Batchelor has suggested that, instead, Mara may meaningfully be taken to represent our inner voices of criticism and doubt.
Let's see what Mara says to Vajira:
Then Mara the Wicked, wanting to make the nun Vajira feel fear, terror and goosebumps, wanting to make her fall away from samadhi, went up to her and addressed her in verse:
Who created this sentient being?
Where is its maker?
Where has the being arisen?
And where does it cease?
These are some of the Big Questions - who created all of this, and where are they hiding? Where did my eternal soul come from, and what happens to it when I die?
Now, Buddhism usually recommends avoiding grand metaphysical questions, in favour of examining our own state right here in this very moment. But this kind of metaphysical speculation was very common in the time of the Buddha, and one could easily imagine a practitioner in the Buddha's assembly wondering from time to time if they were missing out on something vitally important, following a teacher who dismissed these huge questions that the other teachers of the day focused on so much. (FOMO isn't just a modern phenomenon!)
However, Vajira is a good practitioner, and she's sufficiently on the ball not to fall for Mara's tricks. Instead, she quickly recognises what's going on, and thinks to herself:
This is Mara the Wicked, wanting to make me feel fear, terror, and goosebumps, wanting to make me fall away from immersion!
Here we see a key benefit of a well-developed mindfulness practice - when unhelpful, parasitic trains of thought start to spin up in our minds, we learn to see them coming and dodge out of the way, rather than getting sucked in.
Then she replies:
'Why do you believe there's such a thing as a "sentient being"?
Mara, is this your theory?
This is just a pile of conditions,
you won't find a sentient being here.
When the parts are assembled
we use the word "chariot".
So too, when the aggregates are present
"sentient being" is the convention we use.
Vajira understands the Buddha's 'most subtle teachings on the formlessness of the form of reality', and as a result she knows that asking questions about entities like eternal souls is a waste of time. As a result, she dismisses Mara's promptings, with the following result:
Then Mara the Wicked, thinking 'The nun Vajira knows me!', miserable and sad, vanished right there.
Poor old Mara.
OK, so we've traded one difficult story (the koan) for another (the sutta). But stay with me, I promise it's all related.
How is Vajira able to dismiss Mara's questions? Because she has attained Right View - she has learnt to see things clearly. In particular, she knows who she really is - and as a result knows that she isn't the kind of 'thing' that Mara's questions are aimed at. Mara wants her to worry about where her eternal soul came from, where it's going after her body dies, who created it, and all that stuff. In other words, Mara is presupposing that there's some kind of fixed, permanent, essential 'Vajira' which we can ask questions about. In the time of the historical Buddha, it was widely supposed that we each had an atman, an eternal soul, which was on a journey from life and life through the endless cycle of rebirth, and so it was quite reasonable to ask questions about it and speculate about its fate in future lives.
Buddhism suggests a different approach, based on observation. Buddha invites us to look at the components that make us up - just as a chariot is made of parts, such as wheels, an axle, and so forth. Honestly, I don't know a lot about chariots, so let's use the example of a car instead. A car has wheels and tyres, doors, seats, an engine and all sorts of other bits. When all of these parts come together, we say we have a car. When those parts disperse and end up thrown into a disarrayed heap in a scrapyard, we don't have a car any more. So where did the car go? Moreover, the car seems to be able to withstand a certain amount of change in the parts - when you replace a tyre, you probably don't feel that you have an entirely new car. But if you take away all the parts, there's nothing left, and certainly no car. So, again, what exactly is the car? We clearly have a car - we can get in it and drive it around - but you can't put your finger on a specific part which is 'the car'.
When we're talking about cars and chariots, maybe this is kinda curious, but there's a big 'so what?' factor for most people. But stay with me, because this kind of analysis becomes truly powerful when applied to the self.
Vajira says that 'when the aggregates are present' we talk about sentient beings. The Five Aggregates are a way of describing the parts that go together to make up a person. We have:
Now, this list is offered as a suggested starting point. It works for me, but maybe for you there's an all-important sixth bucket of experience that's missing. That's fine - you can have six aggregates if you want, or twenty. The point really is first to convince yourself that each of these aggregates is in some sense part of who you are, and second to convince yourself that there isn't some other secret part left out of the list.
Once we have a list of aggregates we're happy with, we can apply the same analysis as we did with the car. When all of these parts are present, we can say that there's a person. When the parts are dispersed or missing, we don't really have a person any more. So where did the person go?
Moreover, just as you can change the tyres on a car, notice that each of the aggregates can change. Our bodies visibly change over time. As we grow older, we tend to find sweet things less pleasant and other flavours more pleasant. As we learn, we gain new concepts - and forget others. Time and experience changes our inclinations and attitudes. And consciousness comes and goes every day, at least when we're sleeping well. So where's the person? As with the car, it isn't that you don't exist at all - if I believed that, I wouldn't have much motivation to write this article - but you're likely to find that it's very hard to put your finger on exactly where this 'you', which seems so obvious and self-evident, actually is. Can you actually find it, or is it simply a kind of optical illusion?
Analytical meditation on emptiness of self
The following exercise is stolen wholesale from Rob Burbea's excellent book Seeing That Frees, although it's a traditional meditation that can be found in many sources.
Given the aggregates as a satisfactory list of 'parts' of the self, we can then look for this 'self' in various places, and ultimately discover that it cannot be found in the way that we might imagine. And in the process, we can find out who we really are.
Here are seven possibilities we can explore in our attempt to find the self in relation to the aggregates - and, again, feel free to add and explore more possibilities if you don't think this list is complete!
To do this, set yourself up in meditation and maybe spend a few minutes settling the mind. Then take each of these questions in turn, exploring them deeply in whatever manner you like, until you're totally convinced that a fixed, unchanging, identifiable 'self' is not to be found in the way that's being proposed.
The all-important 'so what'
It's not too difficult to get a kind of intellectual sense of the emptiness of the self, but we need to spend time with this, really thoroughly convincing ourselves, going past the level of 'mere philosophy' until it touches us on a deep, visceral level. Because when you really grasp the emptiness of self, it changes your experience of yourself in very important ways.
Consider the following negative thoughts, which so many of us are prone to:
'I'm not good enough.'
'They don't like me.'
'I don't deserve this.'
'Will I ever be happy?'
'Why is this happening to me?'
All of these thoughts - all of these whispers of Mara - presuppose a solid, fixed 'me' at the centre of the story. When we know beyond doubt that that simply isn't how things work, we can make the same move Vajira did - and Mara, miserable and sad, will vanish right there and then. When we see the world as it is - constantly in motion, dynamic, alive and beautiful - you might even find yourself smiling along with Kashyapa the Elder.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!