How a life lived from our true nature might unfold
The story above is case 10 in the Gateless Barrier, a classic collection of Zen stories. It concerns a monk named Qingshui, who at first sight appears to be in some distress, and a seemingly rather callous response from the Zen master, Caoshan.
As usual, though, there's more to this story than meets the eye. Qingshui is actually at a pivotal point in his practice, and Caoshan's response is truly kind and compassionate. But to get to the point where we can see that for ourselves, we'll need to dig into what's being said here. So let's do it!
Alone and poor
When we first begin to investigate our experience, we start to discover the many layers of our being. Our sensory is experience is actually quite simple - coloured shapes, sounds and tactile sensations which our minds translate into the objects of the world that we perceive - and then we overlay stories about who we are, what's going on and how it all relates back to us. We can learn to see these stories for the mental fabrications that they are, as we discussed in case 8 a couple of weeks ago, and ultimately start to see through them to a simpler, more fundamental layer of experience beyond them.
In due course we begin to let go of more and more of the stories we've clung to all our lives (like Zen Master Xiangyan in case 5), and gradually find freedom from those fictitious, limiting self-identities. And ultimately we discover that every aspect of our 'self' is like this - just a convenient, temporary way of explaining experience to ourselves, rather than an ultimately true 'thing' (as we saw in case 6). In Buddhist terminology, we sometimes call this 'seeing the emptiness of the self'. There's even a step beyond, which we might call 'seeing the emptiness of the world', in which we realise that the same process of deconstruction can be applied to literally everything else too. Ultimately, nothing is absolutely 'real' in the way that it normally appears to be.
As our understanding of emptiness deepens, we can sometimes find ourselves coming to a point of crisis. If I'm not any of the things I thought I was - who the heck am I? How am I supposed to operate in the world if I can't trust my own thoughts about myself? Am I going to become a kind of Zen zombie, a bland non-person who just sits there staring into space, or a doormat who everyone takes advantage of? And if nothing else is really real either, then what does it matter what I do? Does ethical behaviour even matter in an empty world? How come Buddhists talk so much about compassion if the world is empty?
And so, coming back to the koan, poor old Qingshui is having a bit of a wobble. He's gone deep into his meditation practice, and from the sounds of things he's seen deeply into emptiness. He describes himself as alone and poor - formerly he experienced himself as a thing in a world of things, surrounded by people and possessions, but now he finds himself 'being nobody, going nowhere', to borrow a phrase from Ayya Khema, my teacher's teacher on the Early Buddhist side. Qingshui is asking for help - he doesn't know how to act from the basis of his new experience.
Drinking the wine of the Zen purists
Caoshan's response looks a bit odd at first. Rather than answering Qingshui's question directly, he simply calls Qingshui's name. Qingshui responds automatically - as we tend to when someone calls our name. Caoshan then says that weird thing about the three cups of wine. Basically, the upshot of this is that Caoshan is saying 'Look, Qingshui, you already have everything you need. You don't need to ask me for anything. You're fine, just the way you are.'
Perhaps Caoshan's reply might come across as a bit of a platitude - like he's saying 'there, there, you'll be OK, just hang in there'. It's certainly true that, although Qingshui's experience can feel a bit disorienting, it's ultimately nothing to worry about. Most people do go through a period of adjusting to their new perspective on things, but with support from a teacher or spiritual friends, it generally works itself out just fine.
But Caoshan's reply actually goes beyond simple encouragement. Caoshan has, in effect, already proven to Qingshui that he knows how to function just fine. How? By calling Qingshui's name.
Qingshui describes himself as 'alone and poor' - head-first into emptiness, no longer any sense of himself as a separate individual. And yet, the moment his name is called, he responds automatically - just fine. There's no confusion - 'Who is this Qingshui person? What's going on?' No - his name is called, and he responds immediately.
So, although right now Qingshui is having a new and strange experience of the world, something within his mind-body system still knows how to function in the conventional world. Qingshui has already been through childhood and adolescence; he's learnt to interact with the world, take care of himself, and function as an independent being. Those practical skills don't suddenly go away just because we see that the stories about who we are are merely stories. But rather than simply talking about it (as I'm doing here), which may or may not be persuasive, Caoshan is showing Qingshui directly that he can still function just fine in the world.
(People who've been following these articles on the Gateless Barrier from the start might like to go back to case 2 at this point. At the time I glossed over the exchange at the end, where Baizhang and Huangbo have an exchange that involves a similar call-and-response, but in that case ends with the student outsmarting the teacher. When you understand what's going on in this week's koan, that exchange should make a lot more sense.)
So what changes?
At this point, we might have gone from one extreme to the other - previously, it sounded as though we wouldn't be able to do anything from this strange new perspective of emptiness, but now it sounds like I'm saying nothing of consequence has changed - so what's the point?
Actually, life changes significantly as we learn to live from the standpoint of emptiness, and those changes are for the better, both for ourselves and for others. We find ourselves naturally acting in ways that are kinder and more compassionate - in a sense, we discover that those positive qualities of the heart which we might previously have seen as something to be cultivated through practices like the Brahmaviharas are actually part of the natural expression of our true nature, when we're coming from this place of emptiness.
I've mentioned that I was on retreat recently, and on that retreat one of the teachers, Jason Bartlett, mentioned that he'd heard renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche explain the change in these terms (which I'll paraphrase, because I don't remember Jason's exact words):
Living organisms naturally orient towards what's pleasant and away from what's unpleasant. The difference is that we normally approach the pleasant in a self-centric way - 'Me (and mine) first, then everyone else second, if there's enough left.' When we see the emptiness of self deeply enough, our self-centric concerns (and all of the emotional reactivity and suffering associated with them) fall away. We still retain that orientation towards the pleasant and away from the unpleasant, but we no longer see it in terms of 'my pleasant' versus 'your pleasant' - there's simply a sense of 'this is what would be best in this situation'.
In my own experience, what I've found is that, over time, I've become less concerned with 'my suffering' and more open to what's going on around me - increasingly I simply notice 'suffering', whether 'mine' or 'someone else's', and the motivation to do something about that suffering arises naturally regardless of whose suffering it is. That quality of experience is most pronounced at times when my sense of self-centrism is at its quietest.
To be clear, this is absolutely not about saying 'I don't matter any more, I have to do things for other people now.' That's actually just another kind of (really quite strong) self-centrism, albeit a form which is rather negative towards oneself! When coming from the view of emptiness, we continue to take care of ourselves just fine - we no longer put ourselves either before everyone else or after everyone else. We're people, just the same as everyone else.
(And for those of you who read last week's article and have been mulling over what it means to 'fulfil the way of Buddhahood' - this should be a big clue!)
Exploring this orientation towards the pleasant
There's a practice from the Early Buddhist tradition which can help us to explore some of these themes in our direct experience. It's the second of the four establishments of mindfulness given in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, 'mindfulness of vedana'.
Vedana is a much-debated term, but for our purposes we can look at it as our immediate, intuitive sense that what we experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The colours and shapes we see with the eye, the sounds we hear with the ear, the sensations we feel with the body, the thoughts we think with the mind, all have this quality of being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, and so we can deliberately incline our attention towards observing this aspect of our experience.
A good way to work with vedana is to examine one sense sphere at a time - e.g. start with sounds, then body sensations, then sights, then thoughts. (I recommend that order because sound vedana tends to be the easiest way in for most people, while it's easiest to get lost in sights and thoughts.) What you'll probably find is that we actually pay relatively little attention to the direct sensory experience itself under most circumstances - instead, we experience thoughts or emotions in relation to our interpretation of what we're seeing, hearing or feeling, and the vedana of the mental activity is what dominates our experience. So it's an excellent exercise to see if we can distinguish between the vedana from the five senses and the vedana of the ensuing mental activity. Along the way, you may also notice the way we tend to be drawn subtly towards the positive aspects of our experience, and subtly repelled by the negative aspects of our experience.
So those are the core instructions for the practice, and it can be very fruitful to explore your experience in exactly the way I've described. Something else that might come up, however, is that you might find that your relationship to the positive and negative aspects of experience undergoes a shift at some point. You might find yourself in a place where the pleasant/unpleasant nature of things is still recognised, and yet there's no 'pull' or 'push' whatsoever associated with them - instead, there's a sense that things are totally fine exactly the way they are. If that quality is noticed strongly, experience may even appear to be 'perfect', just the way it is. If you find yourself there, you have two choices - one is to continue with the practice as I've described it, while the other is simply to rest in this experience of perfection. In such moments, what's happening is that the layer of self-centric preference that usually sits on top of our experience has temporarily gone quiet. It feels as though we're experiencing in a simpler, more direct, even more true way, undistorted by our personal preferences. This kind of experience is a taste of our true nature, a little glimpse of how it might be to live life from the standpoint of emptiness, as described above. So, if this perspective does arise, it's not only totally valid but - at least from the Zen perspective - actively encouraged to rest in it. In moments like this, we're seeing the world from a wiser perspective, and the more we have those glimpses, the more we learn to abide in that perspective - the more we learn to live from who we really are.
So give it a go and see what you discover!
Making space for insight to arise
The story above is case 9 in the Gateless Barrier, 'The Buddha Capable of Great Penetrating Knowledge.'
It's an exchange which looks like it could have been quite irritating from the perspective of the monk! The monk asks a question, and the teacher just replies 'Yep, that's a good question all right.' So then the monk asks again, and the teacher essentially replies 'because'.
Sometimes, Zen masters just point-blank refuse to answer questions. As annoying as this might appear, in the long run it's because that's what is in the student's best interest. Perhaps this was a student who had an extensive academic knowledge of Buddhism but not a particularly strong meditation practice - maybe the monk felt he didn't need to do all that tedious meditation practice because he already 'knew' what the point of meditation practice is.
Ultimately, though, second-hand insights are not that much use - certainly not compared to the transformative power of insights we've had for ourselves, through honest and diligent practice. We might hear about how hot Egypt is in the spring, but until we've been there and endured the stifling 40-degree heat for ourselves, our knowledge lacks the visceral quality of direct experience. Zen is no different.
A question we might well ask, however, is why sitting still and doing nothing should produce any kind of insight at all - particularly if, given the story above, the Buddha Capable of Great Penetrating Knowledge sat still for ten whole eons (that's a long time!) and still wasn't able to fulfil the 'way of Buddhahood', whatever that means.
How does sitting still doing nothing help?
Clearly, meditators throughout the ages have found great value in sitting still for extended periods of time, although opinions vary as to the extent to which one should 'do nothing' versus 'doing something'. Many of the practices in Early Buddhism certainly have a quality of doing something - jhana practice, many insight practices, and the cultivation of the Brahmaviharas all involve at a minimum setting an intention and focusing the mind in a certain way, and some are considerably busier than that. Within Zen, we have two main practices representing two schools of thought - working with a koan is again very much a 'doing something' practice, whereas Silent Illumination (also known as 'just sitting') is much more in the 'doing nothing' vein.
Zen Master Dogen, founder of the Japanese Soto school of Zen, was a strong advocate of the 'just sitting' practice. There's an anecdote about Dogen that I came across in Karlfried Graf Dürckheim's book Hara: The Vital Center of Man that I really like:
[I]t is said of Master Dogen that, when asked his opinion of the method practised in the Rinzai sect, he answered, 'Very good, very good.'
'How so?' the other asked. 'They practise the koan, don't they?'
'Well,' said Master Dogen, 'there may be people who can sit still only if they have something to think about. However, if they achieve enlightenment that way, it is not thanks to their thinking but to their sitting still.'
Maybe it's just my sense of humour, but I chuckle every time I read that.
So what's the big deal about sitting still? Why would it help?
One explanation I came across recently (on Michael Taft's Deconstructing Yourself podcast) is that the experience of 'insight' - a sudden shift in perspective or discovery of the solution to a problem, seemingly arrived at 'out of the blue', rather than as the result of a patient process of analytical deduction - is that it occurs when our brains simplify themselves. As we study a problem over a period of time, we gradually build up more and more conceptual scaffolding around the problem, probing it from multiple directions to understand it better. Then, abruptly and unconsciously, the solution is discovered, and the unnecessary scaffolding falls away, leaving a new, elegant structure in its wake.
It's very common to solve a problem whilst in the bath, out walking the dog, or otherwise doing something totally unrelated to the problem. That's because problem-solving continues at the unconscious level even if we aren't working on it consciously, and in some ways it can actually help if we aren't working on it consciously, because we may simply be filling our heads with more and more thoughts - adding more and more scaffolding - so there isn't enough space left in our system for that radical simplification to occur.
That isn't to say that the 'work' of thinking about a problem (or engaging in a 'doing something' meditation practice) is useless, of course. If nothing else, doing that work allows us to focus on the problem for an extended period of time - and, as Dogen suggests, there's no getting around the need to spend that time one way or another. We also do need that conceptual scaffolding - it's hard to build something new if you don't have a supporting structure. So we can see the 'do something' practices as explicitly contributing to that scaffolding - and in the case of a pure 'just sitting' tradition like Soto Zen, that scaffolding has to come from other sources, such as listening to Dharma talks and contemplating them outside of formal practice.
Correlation is not causation
Considering the possibility that simply spending time with something is what's most important, and how you spend that time is less important, can actually be quite liberating and empowering for one's personal practice. It takes the pressure off to find the 'right' or 'best' practice, and assures us that it's enough just to do something.
I was on a two-week retreat recently, and partway through the retreat I had some fairly strong fear come to the surface. It was quite interesting to watch the progression - first I started having disturbed (and disturbing!) dreams, but nothing on the conscious level. After a few days in which I repeatedly set an intention to allow the fear to come to the surface, it started to show up during the waking hours (and stopped showing up in my dreams), first as a kind of subtle undercurrent of anxiety, and later as a much clearer, strong experience of fear. Some time later, it gradually released itself, and didn't come back for the rest of the retreat.
I've learnt a few techniques for working with fear (loving kindness, compassion, using the second, third and fourth jhanas, deconstructing the fear through noting, the list goes on), and especially when the fear was quite strong, I cycled through all of them, trying to find something that worked. Then I had an interview with one of the teachers on the retreat, who gave me a new method for dealing with it (holding the fear in the background of awareness whilst maintaining awareness of awareness in the foreground) - and a day later, the fear was gone.
At first, I thought 'Wow, that method is incredibly powerful, it's much better than the others!' Then, a couple of days later, another strong emotion started to come up, and so I naturally turned to this new technique... and, yeah, it helped, but it didn't immediately 'fix' the situation. Crushing disappointment - it was a fluke, the new technique isn't a silver bullet after all. Bah!
But my experience makes a lot more sense if viewed in the light of the Dogen quotation above. My Zen teacher Daizan has often said that all we need to do (in most cases) to work with difficult emotions is to bring non-judgemental awareness to them and sit with them; naturally, over time, they will 'untwist' and release themselves. What's important here is the combination of awareness and elapsed time, not having a super-secret technique to work with it. However, particularly when a difficult emotion is very strong, it can be extremely difficult to 'just sit' with it for extended periods, and so having other techniques that we can use to work with the emotion a little more actively can really help us to keep going.
This way of looking at practice may also explain the kind of experience that we often see reported in spiritual circles - where a teacher trained for 15 years in a certain style and got 'nothing' out of it, then switched to a different approach and 'immediately' had a breakthrough, as a result of which they now only teach the thing they were doing at the moment they 'got it' - but they seem to have a whole lot of students who aren't 'getting it' quite that easily. Just like I assumed that my whizzy new technique for dealing with fear was what had finally caused it to release, and in so doing I ignored all the prior work that had gone into it with the other techniques, it may well be that it was actually those 15 years of training which laid the groundwork for the breakthrough. Zen Master Bankei could be argued to fit that pattern, and so could Dogen. I can think of a number of modern-day teachers who fit the mould as well.
Working with the koan
Coming back to the koan, we can't deny that the Buddha Capable of Great Penetrating Knowledge had put in the hours. I don't know how many hours are in ten eons, but it's a lot - more than I've practised! But even with all that sitting, he still didn't fulfil the way of Buddhahood. Why was that?
Rather than having me simply tell you, maybe it would be better for you to find out for yourself - perhaps even by sitting still. Give it a go!
The power of story-telling
(This is the second time I've written this article. The first time around, the article was 90% complete, then the whole thing vanished when I tried to save the post - ironically so that it would be backed up in case I accidentally closed the page in my browser. I'd like to say 'a lesson in impermanence!' but honestly it's just a bit annoying... Anyway, here we go for the second time.)
This week we're looking at case 8 in the Gateless Barrier, titled 'The Wheelmaker'. This particular koan is another case where I find the translation I've been using so far - that of Thomas Cleary - actually not to be as helpful as it could be. So let's take a look at Guo Gu's translation, which provides a bit more detail that Cleary omits:
Xizhong Makes a Carriage
Master Yue'an asked a monk, 'Xizhong makes carriages with wheels of a hundred spokes. Yet, dismantle the two parts, the front and the back of the carriage, and remove the axle, then what will the carriage be?'
OK, that gives us more to work with. We have an image of an evidently very fine carriage made by the master artisan Xizhong, who makes very elaborate hundred-spoked wheels. The carriage is composed of front and back parts (presumably where the driver and the passenger sit respectively?), two of these fancy wheels, and an axle holding the whole thing together. And the questioner is asking: if we take away everything except the two wheels, at that point, what use are the wheels, no matter how fancy they are?
To put it in modern language: Rolls Royce make beautiful engines, but if you take a Rolls Royce car and remove the wheels, the seats, the chassis and the transmission, what good does that beautiful engine do now?
This question by itself is well worth contemplating in the koan style. A related question which is also very worthy of exploration is this: 'In the absence of any thoughts about who I am, who am I?' In other words, if we remove all of our usual ego supports, all the usual patterns of thought and behaviour which we use to remind ourselves of our identity from moment to moment, what's left? In a moment with no thought at all, who are you then?
However, I'm going to go in a different direction this week. I spent the last two weeks on a retreat in the early Buddhist style, and I've come away with a reinvigorated appreciation for the techniques in that tradition. Maybe you're a Zen person through and through, in which case the first part of this article may well be enough for you. But I think it's interesting to explore other approaches, and different methods work for different people, so over the next few weeks I'm going to bring a few perspectives from early Buddhism into these articles as well, even as we keep working through the Zen stories in the Gateless Barrier. I hope you'll enjoy the journey!
Direct experience and the stories we weave to explain it
Buddhism sometimes describes our experience as fabricated - that is, 'constructed' by the mind. When we look around, we see a world of 'things' - computer screen, keyboard, door, wall, tree, antelope and so on. But what our eyes actually 'receive' is light at particular frequencies impacting the retina at the back of the eyeball. Similarly, our ears receive vibrations in the air through our eardrum, and so on. Our brain then takes that sensory input and makes sense of it, first understanding those light frequencies as colours and shapes, then recognising patterns and providing labels like 'car', 'cat', 'banana', and finally deciding how we feel about cars, cats or bananas and what we want to do as a result. By the time our conscious experience arises, all of that processing has taken place, and so our conscious experience is presented to us in finished form - a world of things, about which we have a variety of feelings, and toward which we may have various impulses (eat the banana, chase the cat out of the back garden so it doesn't kill the birds).
Notice that, in that last example, we were already moving well beyond the simple perception of 'cat'. We've now recognised that there's a cat, it's in the back garden, we remember that it likes to kill birds and we don't want it to do that, and so we feel motivated to take action. There's a level of interpretation taking place now - we're starting to develop a narrative to explain what's taking place, rather than simply noticing a bunch of objects and going no further than that.
In general, our minds like to have an explanation for what's going on. We feel much more at ease when we feel we know what's happening - even if the explanation we have is actually not very good! (I could cite scientific research to justify this claim, but for our purposes it's much better if you check it out for yourself. Look at the stories you tell yourself. How do you know they're true? Are there other stories which fit the same events?)
So what tends to happen is that an initial perception ('cat') will trigger a subsequent thought (memory of cat chasing birds), which triggers something else (a memory of sadness the last time the cat killed some birds), ... and on and on. The Buddha had a term for this, panañca, usually translated as 'mental proliferation', and it's here that the bulk of our avoidable suffering arises. Our minds come up with negative stories (I'm not good enough, so-and-so doesn't like me), and then latch onto them, newly alert for more 'evidence' which can be used to support the story (look, it happened again, I knew I was no good at this), until eventually we become trapped, unable to step out of the story to see ourselves differently. (Or, of course, it goes the other way - we start to buy into our own publicity and become so enamoured in our stories about how great we are that we overlook our shortcomings.)
So what can we do about this?
Change the label, change the story, change the experience
The key point here is that there's a vicious circle going on. We perceive something negative, we generate a negative story, the negative story conditions us to perceive more negative things, which feeds the negative story, and on and on. Sometimes we can escape this cycle through a simple bare awareness practice, where we just sit with our experience and allow it to quieten down naturally - it can be, especially if we've seen the fabricated nature of our minds experientially, that just sitting in this way can be enough to see through the stories and rediscover our original freedom. At times, though, that can be really difficult! And it can help to have another approach.
A technique that we find in early Buddhism comes from the Satipatthana Sutta, the discourse on establishing mindfulness. This discourse has a wide range of different mindfulness practices, grouped into four categories - the body, the vedana of experience (our sense that this or that is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), the state of our mind, and mental phenomena - and this week we'll take a brief look at one of the body-based practices, that of the Four Elements.
First, what are the Four Elements? Classically, we have:
If those don't make any sense to you, my teacher Leigh Brasington prefers to interpret them in scientific terms:
So pick a definition that you like (either will do, it really doesn't matter), and then set yourself up in meditation. Bring your attention to your body, and notice what sensations arise. When you notice a sensation, give it one of four labels - Earth, Fire, Air or Water. Then let it go, and see what sensation you notice next. If you notice anything other than the body, such as sounds or thoughts, that's fine, but just let them go without labelling them. Right now, your attention is on the body, labelling and classifying the sensations into these four buckets. And that's it - just keep doing that.
Why does this work? Well, let's suppose you're having a common meditation experience: you've been sitting for a while, and your body is starting to ache. Now you're feeling uncomfortable, and you want to move. You start to wonder if the sitting is nearly over - oh, but there's that pain again, and although you know you aren't actually hurting yourself, it's still really unpleasant, and you'd like it to stop, and ...
Now let's bring the Elements to it. So you've been sitting for a while, and now Earth, Earth, some Fire, Earth, Air, Fire, Fire, Earth, Water, and ...
Notice how much less interesting the second story is! The first one is a tale of pain, sadness and frustration. The second one is just a list of elements. It's hard to get too excited - or dismayed - about the second story, whereas the first one is pretty captivating.
Two valuable things are happening here. First, in a pinch, we're avoiding mental suffering due to the discomfort of sitting by consciously, deliberately working with our experience in such a way that we're telling a simple, boring story rather than a rich, distressing one. We should never do this to get out of a situation where we're actually damaging ourselves, but as a way of dealing with the usual everyday discomforts of sitting, it can be very helpful. Second, and much more importantly in the long run, we're also seeing directly, in real time, how the labels that we bring to our experience actually contribute to creating that experience. When we start to take that on board at the deepest level, the fabricated nature of our experience becomes much more evident, and we naturally take our mentally constructed vexations less seriously than we did before.
Coming back to the koan
Now that we know the Four Elements practice, we can see the koan in a new way. Like carriages, stories are useful. If all we have is a pile of disconnected parts, it's difficult to get anywhere. It's helpful to have a sense of who we are and how we're moving through the world.
At the same time, though, it's invaluable to remember that it's just a collection of parts which have been assembled in a certain way. And if one of the wheels of our carriage starts sticking instead of turning properly, we're going to have a bumpy ride - unless we're able to take the carriage apart, clean the various bits, replace anything that's totally bent out of shape, and then put the whole thing back together again.
May your ride be smooth!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!