Spoiler alert: nothing at all
Today we're looking at case 22 in the Gateless Barrier, At first sight, it's a classic non-sequitur koan, where the master doesn't even appear to be responding to the question. But, actually, it isn't so difficult to understand when we decode the imagery. (Putting into practice is another matter.) So let's get straight into it!
Deciphering the imagery
First of all, let's look at the cast of characters. Ananda and Kashyapa are two figures from the time of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.
Ananda was the Buddha's attendant, and is renowned for his remarkable memory - according to the stories, after the Buddha's death, Ananda was able to recite from memory all of the Buddha's discourses, as a result of which the texts of early Buddhism's Pali Canon have survived right down to the present day. If this is true, then we owe Ananda a great debt of gratitude. However, poor old Ananda has had a bit of a hard time throughout the history of Buddhism.
Even in the Pali Canon, he was a bit slow to catch on (perhaps because he was too busy looking after the Buddha's material needs to do his own practice), and he failed to attain arahantship (full awakening in the early Buddhist tradition) before the Buddha died. Sometime thereafter, a 'council of arahants' was declared so that the surviving community could discuss what to do next, and they weren't going to let poor old Ananda in, because he wasn't enlightened enough. He practised his socks off but still didn't get it! Finally, he gave up, and lay down to sleep, certain that he was done as a practitioner. In that moment of letting go - according to the discourse, before his head hit the pillow - he finally became fully awakened. And a good thing too!
In the Zen tradition, Ananda doesn't fare so well either (although he's in good company - several of the Buddha's key disciples are not held in such high regard in the Mahayana, including Sariputta/Shariputra, who was regarded as 'foremost in insight' in the Buddha's time, but in the Mahayana scriptures is constantly having to have things explained to him by the Mahayana Bodhisattvas, as a not-so-subtle way of 'proving' that Mahayana wisdom is superior to the old stuff). Because of Ananda's profound memory of the Buddha's discourses, and because Zen often promotes the view that true wisdom is found through practice rather than learning, Ananda often represents the insufficiency of abstract intellectual knowledge when he shows up in koans.
In this story, Ananda is asking a question of Kashyapa, aka Mahakassapa. Zen traditionally regards Kashyapa as the first successor of the Buddha - in fact, we've seen the moment when the 'transmission' took place, all the way back in case 6, 'Buddha Picks Up A Flower'. (If you don't know it, go check it out now, because it's of central importance to today's koan.) As an aside, Stephen Batchelor has written some interesting stuff about the historical figures of Ananda and Kashyapa and their (somewhat rocky) relationship, which you can find in his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, which I highly recommend. In the symbolism of Zen koans, however, Kashyapa tends to represent direct, intuitive insight into the true nature of things (as demonstrated in case 6), as contrasted with Ananda's intellectual knowledge.
In any case, this koan effectively serves as a kind of sequel to case 6. Ananda's question concerns the nature of the transmission Kashyapa received in that koan. Ananda asks about the 'golden-sleeved robe' that Kashyapa received from the Buddha. In the Pali Canon it's recorded that the Buddha gave a robe to Kashyapa, and after the Buddha's death, Kashyapa held up this robe as a symbol that the Buddha had intended Kashyapa to be his successor. According to the Pali Canon, on his deathbed the Buddha actually said that he was not nominating a successor (see DN16, part 2, paragraph 33!), but in the Zen tradition we just quietly skip over that part and say 'Yup, Kashyapa got the robe, he's the guy.' Subsequently, passing on the robe became a formal sign of transmission, a way of indicating who the next successor in the lineage would be. (That tradition continued all the way down the 28 Indian ancestral masters, and then into China to the first six ancestral masters, ending with Huineng, who we'll meet in two weeks' time in case 23, so stay tuned for that story!)
Getting back to the story, Ananda is effectively saying 'OK, so the Buddha gave you transmission. I can see that he gave you his old robe. Is that it? What else did you get?'
After a call-and-response, which will hopefully already be familiar to you from such koans as case 10 (if not, please check that article out, because I don't have time today to repeat that discussion - sorry!), Kashyapa gives the seemingly cryptic instruction 'take down the flagpole in front of the gate'. Making sense of this requires a bit of cultural context. In ancient times, monasteries would apparently raise a flag to indicate that a debate was taking place. When the debate was finished, the flag would come down again. So this is Kashyapa's way of saying 'the teaching has ended' - a bit like the slap all the way back in case 2.
But wait, where was the teaching?
What is 'transmission' anyway?
In order for the Zen lineage (or any other) to continue, sooner or later a teacher needs to nominate one or more successors, and authorise them to teach. Otherwise, when the teacher dies, that's the end of the lineage - and that can cause a bit of a mess for the community left behind. (Indeed, the early Buddhist tradition had its issues after the Buddha died. As Stephen Batchelor describes, Kashyapa essentially put himself in charge, using the aforementioned golden-sleeved robe as his credentials. Some people felt that Ananda should have been in charge instead, or at the very least was well worth listening to in his own right, whereas Kashyapa was rather more dismissive of poor old Ananda, presumably at least in part to establish himself as the new top dog.) And so, at a certain point, there'll be a ceremony, and probably some kind of scrolls and/or other trinkets handed over, as physical symbols that the transmission has taken place.
The trouble is, however, that Zen itself isn't something that anyone can ever give you. In fact, you already have what you need - it's just that you might not yet have discovered it for yourself. The work of the Zen practice is to turn inward and explore who you really are, until at last you see your true nature directly. Then, little by little, you deepen your connection with that true nature, until it begins to manifest in your daily life. At that point, you've become a teacher of sorts irrespective of whether you've had transmission. Nevertheless, it takes time for that connection to mature and ripen, and so typically there will be a period of time in which a teacher keeps an eye on you before deciding that you're ready to be cut loose and formally given transmission. The transmission, then, isn't really a 'giving' of anything to anyone. Rather, it's a teacher's way of saying 'OK, I think you've come far enough now that you're ready to be a full teacher in your own right.'
So when Kashyapa calls to Ananda, he's really speaking to Ananda's true nature, just like Caoshan and Qingshui in case 10. He's pointing directly to the heart of Zen, to what Ananda needs to see for himself. When Ananda finally sees it, he too will be in the same place as the Buddha and Kashyapa, seeing with the same eyes. When Ananda gets there, Kashyapa could then give him transmission (which is indeed what the Zen lineage charts say eventually happened) - but, in a sense, Ananda wouldn't really need it. He already has it all - Kashyapa is simply conferring a public seal of approval so that others (particularly those who don't yet have a sense of themselves of which so-called teachers have 'got it' and which haven't) can more easily figure out who's worth listening to.
Of course, this is an idealised picture of transmission. It doesn't always work that way. Historically, transmission has often been given to continue the 'family business', or been denied due to personality conflicts or factional politics. One teacher I spoke to when I was starting my teacher training said to me that 'The real authority for the dharma is the understanding of the dharma itself' - in other words, if you've got it, you've got it, regardless of whether the paperwork is in place. But, of course, that has its own disadvantages - the history of spirituality is rife with self-declared 'masters' who weren't as awakened as they thought they were. When it works, formal transmission within a lineage acts as a safeguard against that kind of thing. So there are pros and cons to both approaches.
(For the avoidance of doubt, I don't have transmission in a Zen lineage! So maybe I'm not worth listening to. I have a 200-hour Zen meditation and mindfulness teaching qualification, and I'm undergoing teacher training with Leigh Brasington, with whom I'm co-teaching a retreat next month, but I'm very much at the shallow end of the dharma pool. Even so, I think I have something to offer - I'll say more about my own approach to teaching in a moment.)
The role(s) of the teacher
So if we have to find this for ourselves, why do we need a teacher at all?
Throughout the ages, different models have arisen for what teachers can and should look like. At one end of the spectrum is the guru, sometimes called the 'sage on a stage' - someone in whom we can (ideally) place absolute trust, surrendering our own ideas about what's best for us and allowing the guru to lead us in the right direction. That can work very well under the right circumstances, and of course can also be highly prone to abuse in the wrong circumstances. At the other end of the scale is the 'spiritual friend', where we relate to one another more as fellow practitioners, sharing what we've found. Most teachers sit somewhere in the middle of that spectrum - the teacher holds some measure of authority but the student maintains some degree of autonomy. The teacher's role is then essentially one of 'coach' - sharing techniques, offering suggestions, trying to help the student along their journey with the benefit of the teacher's (presumably) greater knowledge and experience.
Personally, I see myself as an explorer. I was drawn to meditation not because of any great suffering in my life, but out of curiosity. I read books about this stuff that sounded very interesting but totally alien, and I wanted to know more - I wanted to do whatever needed to be done to taste it for myself. And I've been doing that pretty seriously for some time now, and through the practice my life has been substantially transformed. I've experienced all manner of benefits from my practice (although the benefits aren't really the point for me so much as the on-going exploration), and I see people around me who seem like they'd really enjoy those benefits as well, and so I'm highly motivated to share what I've found so far, and occasionally to speculate about things that I haven't experienced for myself but which are part of the Zen or early Buddhist traditions. If the people who come to my class express an interest in something that I've explored for myself, I'll share what I know. In the absence of that kind of clear direction, I talk about whatever happens to be interesting to me at the time. It isn't very systematic - I'm sometimes envious of teachers like Shinzen Young who have massively detailed systems worked out - but it keeps things interesting for me, and enough people keep coming back that I guess there's some value in it for others as well.
At the end of the day, though, all I can do is point things out. You still have to find them for yourself. So please do that! A good place to start is with the koan 'Who am I?', which gets directly to the heart of the matter. (Instructions for koan practice can be found here.) When you see who you really are, you will take your place together with Kashyapa, Ananda and everyone who has come since, male and female, young and old, near and far. I can highly recommend it!
The components of self, and other Satipatthana teachings
This week we're continuing our exploration of the Satipatthana Sutta, the early Buddhist discourse on how to practise mindfulness. Previous articles in this series have looked at the first two topics of exploration: the body (mindfulness of breathing, scanning the body, the Four Elements) and vedana (the way each experience strikes us as pleasant, unpleasant or somewhere in between). This week we'll cover the third section (mind states) and make a start on the fourth (dhammas - see below).
It's going to be a jumbo-sized article this week (in an ideal world I would have split it over several weeks, but unfortunately my schedule in preparation for next month's retreat won't permit that), so let's jump right in! You can always take a break after each practice and come back in a day or two - if nothing else, it's good for my website stats to get repeat visitors...
The third satipatthana: mindfulness of mind states
And how, monks, does [one] in regard to the mind abide contemplating the mind? Here [one] knows a lustful mind to be 'lustful', and a mind without lust to be 'without lust'; [one] knows an angry mind to be 'angry', and a mind without anger to be 'without anger'; [one] knows a deluded mind to be 'deluded', and a mind without delusion to be 'without delusion'; [one] knows a contracted mind to be 'contracted', and a distracted mind to be 'distracted'; [one] knows a great mind to be 'great', and a narrow mind to be 'narrow'; [one] knows a surpassable mind to be 'surpassable', and an unsurpassable mind to be 'unsurpassable'; [one] knows a concentrated mind to be 'concentrated', and an unconcentrated mind to be 'unconcentrated'; [one] knows a liberated mind to be 'liberated', and an unliberated mind to be 'unliberated.'
The passage above (taken from Ven. Analayo's translation) talks about 'contemplating the mind', but it's perhaps better to think of this one as 'contemplating mind states'. Unlike perceptual 'events' such as body sensations or their associated vedana, mind 'states' don't necessarily have any one single sensation or thought by which they can be identified. Rather, we determine our mind state by examining what's happening over time. For example, if you're experiencing a seemingly never-ending stream of negative thoughts toward someone, it may well be that you are experiencing 'an angry mind'. If most days you can stay with the breathing for a minute or so before the mind wanders, but today you barely make it five seconds without the mind drifting, it's likely that you're experiencing 'a distracted mind'. And so on.
Developing awareness of our mind states is both important and very helpful. Sometimes focusing very precisely on exactly what sensations are present right now is exactly what we need to be doing, but sometimes it can be used as an escape from something we need to deal with but would prefer to avoid, and even on a good day we miss a lot of important information about what's going on with us overall if we're solely focused on our experience in this particular microsecond.
It's perhaps worth noting that the practice recommended here is simple awareness of what's going on. If you're experiencing anger, simply notice 'oh, anger'. This willingness to recognise what's going on without immediately taking the next step into '...and here's how I'm going to fix it' is a very important part of mindfulness - it's how we cultivate the skill of equanimity. That's not to say that we should never take any active steps to extricate ourselves from negative mind states or cultivate positive ones, simply that the practice being suggested here is not about changing what's going on, but merely observing it. My Zen teacher Daizan often says that simply bringing awareness to what's going on within us can often be enough to start a process of release and healing, without needing any additional 'strategy' or 'technique', so it's well worth developing this ability for yourself and giving it a try.
Unpacking the list of mind states
The list above is not meant to be exhaustive (although later Buddhist practitioners did attempt to construct exhaustive lists of mind states - see the Abhidhamma if that kind of thing is more interesting to you than it is to me), but there are some interesting qualities in there, and a couple of odd ones, so let's take a look.
Greed (=lust), hatred (=anger) and delusion are central to Buddhism - variously known as the Defilements, Poisons or Fires, they represent the three roots of unwholesome states and behaviour. So we're starting the list with something pretty basic: 'Hey, am I in the grip of lust right now - is that why I want this particular thing?'
Once we start to examine our motives, we rapidly discover the extent to which greed amplifies our wants and hatred amplifies our aversions. We might catch ourselves reacting more strongly to something than is really appropriate or necessary, for example. In that moment, we have the opportunity to pause, let things calm down a bit, and then ask ourselves again whether this is really the right course of action. Often simply taking a moment is enough for the urge to pass, but sometimes the drive can be more deep-seated, in which case it can take a bit more patience. Keep at it!
The third one is a bit trickier, though. How are you supposed to know whether you're deluded? After all, what does it feel like to be wrong? The answer is that it feels pretty much the same as it does to be right, at least right up until the moment when you find out that you're wrong! If it felt obviously different to be wrong about something, we'd probably spend less time doing it...
However, people who've been doing this practice for a while tend to find that they've started to accumulate insight - into themselves, into their lives, into the way things work at a pretty deep level. And yet, despite having seen clearly what's going on, we don't always act in alignment with that insight. The power of our old habits can be ferociously strong, easily overwhelming the prompting of our new insights. So, in much the same way that we can check in from time to time to see whether our wanting is being fuelled by greed, or our aversion by hatred, we can periodically stop and ask ourselves 'am I really living in accordance with the insights from my practice, or have I forgotten them again?' It can be helpful to keep a practice diary and write down any key insights that come up for you, and then go back and review them from time to time to see whether those insights are becoming integrated into your actions, or whether they've been left at the side of the road.
Many of the terms in this discourse are just kinda thrown out there with no further explanation, so it isn't always totally obvious what 'contracted' and 'distracted' mean here. We've just had three pairs of terms where the bad one ('a mind with lust') is contrasted with the good one ('a mind without lust'), so potentially this could be the same - 'contracted' might be intended as the opposite of 'distracted', so meaning something like 'focused' or 'concentrated'. Then again, 'concentrated' and 'unconcentrated' come up later in the list, so it would seem redundant to have the same idea twice in the list.
Alternatively, 'contracted' may refer to 'dullness' - when the mind starts to lose energy and sink into a kind of grey void of unawareness. That contrasts well with 'distracted', because dullness and distraction are the two pitfalls either side of the middle way of focus that we look for in meditation. I've done a whole bit on dullness and distraction in my article on the Elephant Path, so check that out if you want more detail.
This pair is also a bit of a mystery. The commentaries suggest that it's to do with the size of the space pervaded by your meditation practice - so if you're doing something like the boundless radiation of loving kindness, you're pervading a 'great' area, whereas if you're focusing on the breath at the nostrils, you're pervading a 'narrow' area. Shrug.
Meditation can lead us to a lot of interesting places. Experiences of bliss, joy, contentment and so forth can be achieved in a variety of ways. None of these experiences are the ultimate point of the practice, however - so, at least until we're fully awakened, it's a good idea to keep in mind that, no matter how amazing and blissful this experience you're having right now might be, it isn't the end of the story.
There's also a more technical and specific meaning to this instruction which often comes out in discussion of jhana. The first jhana is really nice... but the second is more concentrated, more stable, better as a preparation for insight practice. So the first jhana is a surpassable mind state, with the second jhana being higher. And so on down the line, all the way to the total cessation of feeling and perception, which (pretty much by definition) is an 'unsurpassable' mind state, because you've reached the end of the road of the human experience at that point.
Try to follow your breath without the mind wandering - how long do you last? If the answer is measured in a small number of seconds, yeah, you're pretty unconcentrated. If the answer is measured in a small number of minutes, you've definitely made significant progress in concentrating the mind. If the answer is measured in hours, you're probably either a concentration master or well on the way to becoming one.
Why is it important to be aware of how concentrated you are? Well, for one thing, it can help to give yourself a break if your mind is wandering frequently. You aren't necessarily doing anything wrong, and you certainly aren't a terrible meditator - you just have an unconcentrated mind state. Similarly, if you hit a patch of inner peace and everything is super-focused, it doesn't necessarily mean you're the next Buddha - you just have a concentrated mind state. Good to know!
Traditionally, liberation refers back to the defilements that started this list. Since we've already examined the mind to see whether greed, hatred or delusion are present, we can take this final step in one of two ways.
Looking over a long period of time, we could see 'OK, my mind doesn't have any greed, hatred or delusion present right now - but how often do they come up?' In other words, to what extent has your mind become liberated from the defilements? Are they a major factor in your experience, or are they losing their bite? Measuring one's progress on the spiritual path is a tricky business, but a simple metric like 'how caught up in greed, hatred and delusion am I compared to five years ago?' can be a useful way to check in and see how things are going.
On a more immediate level, it's one thing to check for the presence or absence of each of greed, hatred and delusion, but do we actually stop and recognise those moments of our lives where we're free from all three at once? The Third Noble Truth invites us to see for ourselves the cessation of suffering, to taste - even for a moment - freedom from struggling against life. The more we take time to notice and appreciate those moments of freedom, the more likely they'll be to come up more often, as our mind-body system learns that this is a beneficial direction in which to develop.
As usual, the discourse then continues with the familiar 'refrain':
In this way, in regard to the mind [one] abides contemplating the mind internally ... externally ... internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising ... of passing away ... of both arising and passing away in regard to the mind. Mindfulness that ‘there is a mind’ is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That is how in regard to the mind [one] abides contemplating the mind.
So: recognise that you are subject to mind states which condition your thoughts, speech and actions; recognise that other people are also subject to mind states; and then reflect on the universality of conditioned mind states. Notice the arising of mind states, notice their cessation, and then reflect on the impermanence of mind states (and thus their unreliable nature). Simply notice what's going on, without automatically attempting to change your mind states to your liking. And, by doing this, cultivate greater and greater mindfulness from moment to moment, until you can rest in cool flow at will.
The fourth satipatthana: mindfulness of dhammas
'Dhamma' is a word with many meanings. With a capital d, it usually refers to the teaching of the Buddha. With a lower-case d, it means something like a law (in the sense of a law of nature) - the way that something works. And when it's pluralised, it means 'phenomena' or 'things'.
In the case of the fourth satipatthana, there's possibly a bit of wordplay going on. The fourth satipatthana covers several different lists of phenomena, whose operation we will examine in terms of cause and effect, thereby furthering our understanding of the Buddha's teaching. In other words, we're going to look at dhammas, in order to investigate the dhamma of each one, for the purpose of exploring the Dhamma. Ba-dum tish...
This week we'll look at the first two categories in this section, the Five Hindrances and the Five Aggregates. Next time (two weeks from now) we'll look at the remaining categories in this section - tune in then for more details!
The Five Hindrances
And how, monks, does [one] in regard to dhammas abide contemplating dhammas? Here in regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas in terms of the five hindrances. And how does [one] in regard to dhammas abide contemplating dhammas in terms of the five hindrances?
If sensual desire is present in [oneself], [one] knows 'there is sensual desire in me'; if sensual desire is not present in [oneself], [one] knows 'there is no sensual desire in me'; and [one] knows how unarisen sensual desire can arise, how arisen sensual desire can be removed, and how a future arising of the removed sensual desire can be prevented.
[and similarly for aversion, sloth-and-torpor, restlessness-and-worry, and doubt]
I've previously written about the Five Hindrances, so I won't repeat that material here - this article is already too long! Instead, let's get into the distinctive feature of this practice, as opposed to a discussion of the Hindrances more generally.
Cause and effect
The first part of the practice here looks a lot like the mindfulness of mind states that we saw in the third satipatthana. The Hindrances are, after all, unwholesome mind states.
But what's different here is that we start to bring in an exploration of cause and effect. A major theme in early Buddhism is dependent origination, which can be thought of as a deep exploration of the nature of cause and effect.
Here, the Buddha is suggesting that we explore cause and effect in relation to the Hindrances. Can we identify what causes each one to arise? Can we identify how to let go of it when it's arisen? And can we figure out how to avoid it coming up again in the future?
We're now building a very helpful toolkit for ourselves. By learning what triggers each of the Hindrances in ourselves, we're getting some valuable information about how we can organise our lives and our practice environment in a supportive way - establishing conditions which will be less likely to send us spinning off into the Hindrances rather than doing our meditation practice.
In the next article, we'll see a complementary practice - cultivating the Seven Factors of Awakening, which are the Jedi to the Hindrances' Sith. Come back in two weeks for details of that one.
Yup, the refrain again.
In this way, in regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas internally ... externally ... internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising ... of passing away ... of both arising and passing away in dhammas. Mindfulness that 'there are dhammas' is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That is how in regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas in terms of the five hindrances.
Now on to the next - and, for today's article, the last - practice.
The Five Aggregates
Again, monks, in regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas in terms of the five aggregates of clinging. And how does [one] in regard to dhammas abide contemplating dhammas in terms of the five aggregates of clinging? Here [one] knows, 'such is material form (rupa), such its arising, such its passing away; such is feeling (vedana), such its arising, such its passing away; such is cognition (sañña), such its arising, such its passing away; such are volitions (sankhara), such their arising, such their passing away; such is consciousness (viññana), such its arising, such its passing away.'
The Five Aggregates give us a way of dividing up our subjective experience into categories. (The word usually translated as aggregate, khanda, literally means 'heap', so you could think of this as carving up experience into five heaps of stuff.)
The suggestion - which we'll explore in a moment in a contemplation practice - is that these Five Aggregates comprise everything which makes us who we are - in other words, we can't find ourselves outside these Five Aggregates. And yet, when we examine the aggregates, all we find is change. The aggregates are fundamentally impermanent, unreliable and not totally under our control. So... who the heck are we?
Before we get into the contemplation, though, let's take a moment to define the aggregates, so we know what we're looking at.
The first aggregate, rupa, refers to material form. In terms of ourselves, that means the body, and we've already spent a lot of time working with the body in this discourse - we've looked at mindfulness of breathing, postures, activities, parts of the body, aspects of the body such as solidity, liquidity, movement and temperature, and the inevitability of the body's death and decay.
Sometimes the first aggregate is also used to cover our experience of materiality more generally, so that would include things like your experience of the solidity of whatever device you're using to read this article, or the ground beneath your feet.
The whole second satipatthana is devoted to vedana, and I wrote extensively there about what exactly it is, so go back and check out that article if you aren't sure. In a nutshell, though, vedana is the quality of 'pleasantness' of experience - whether something is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
Simply put, vedana is 'how something feels' - whether you like it or not.
If vedana is the 'how' of experience, sañña is the 'what'. Sañña is the process by which our sensory experience (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, thoughts) is woven together to make the 'things' that we experience. So the 'solid sensation' combines with the 'patch of brown' to become 'tree trunk'.
When we're newborn, we don't have any concepts by which we can understand the world, so we're totally helpless and dependent on others. As we develop, we learn how to 'make sense' of the world around us - we pick up concepts unconsciously from our environment, and use them to build conceptual frameworks that 'explain' what's going on and enable us to navigate the world independently without too much trouble. As we grow older we can also choose to seek out knowledge that's of interest, and thereby enrich our store of concepts deliberately. Thus sañña applies both on the moment-to-moment level (in terms of helping us to understand what's present in our environment right now) and on a broader level (in terms of having a sense of who we are, what we're doing in life, what's going on in the world around us, and so on).
The word 'sankhara' is used a few different ways in early Buddhism, and I've already written way too much to want to get into a discussion of that right now!
In the context of the aggregates, sankhara refers to our sense of having the ability to act in the world, so it includes our intentions (what we want to accomplish with the things around us) and our impulses (the things that occur to us to do). How do I want to respond to this thing that has just appeared? How could I use that thing for my own ends? Ooh, chocolate, I want some!
'Consciousness' is another of those words that mean different things in different contexts. In the context of the aggregates, it very specifically refers to our 'knowing' that something is present.
Here's an example. Suppose you're sitting at a table in a cafe, and a friend comes in and sits down opposite you. Right at that moment, you have no consciousness of what's in your friend's pockets, because you haven't seen what (if anything!) is in there yet.
Now your friend takes a bunch of keys out of a pocket and puts them on the table. Now, you are conscious of the keys - you can see them (eye-consciousness) and you have conceptualised them as a bunch of keys (sañña, leading to mind-consciousness - the thought that says 'keys!').
Then your friend puts the keys back into the pocket again. Now the situation is slightly different - you can't see them any more, so you no longer have 'eye-consciousness' of the keys, but it only happened a moment ago so you can clearly remember that the keys were there, and you saw them go into your friend's pocket, so you still have 'mind-consciousness' of the keys.
Hopefully that makes sense! In particular, I'm trying to distinguish this meaning of 'consciousness' from something like 'the vast spacious field of awareness in which experience comes and goes', or alternatively 'the animating force that makes humans different from rocks'.
The kind of consciousness meant by the aggregates is closely related to 'presence of mind'. If you're doing a task but you aren't paying much attention and make a mistake, that mistake likely occurred because you weren't conscious of what you were doing at the point of the mistake.
The Five Aggregates in a nutshell
(With thanks to Ven. Analayo, from whose book I pinched this example)
Suppose you encounter a tall, solid, pleasant, shady tree, which you could lie under to escape from the heat, and you can see the tree right now.
In this way, in regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas internally ... externally ... internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising ... of passing away ... of both arising and passing away in dhammas. Mindfulness that ‘there are dhammas’ is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That is how in regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas in terms of the five aggregates of clinging.
On which note, let's contemplate the Five Aggregates!
Contemplating the self in terms of the aggregates
We've talked about contemplation practice before - again, go check out the previous article if you aren't familiar with the term. What I'll do to close out this article is simply to offer some themes of contemplation in regard to the aggregates, and in particular how our sense of self relates to them. I suggest setting aside some practice time, taking a while to get settled, and then spending at least a minute on each bullet point in each section, ideally longer. (For bonus points, come back to some version of this contemplation every day for a few weeks - it's a really profound source of insight.)
The case for taking the scenic route
This week we're taking a look at case 21 in the Gateless Barrier, one of the most well-known and popular collections of Zen stories. As you can see, it's one of the brief, punchy ones, verging on abrasive in this case. But despite its pithy nature, it conceals a wealth of wisdom. So let's dive in and see what we can find...
(For those of a sensitive disposition, please note that this article will contain coarser language than is typical for this website. There's a point to it, which I'll explain as we go.)
What is this, toilet humour?
The story, or koan, opens in a way which is becoming familiar to us now (basically the same question kicked off case 18 and case 19). A monk asks 'What is Buddha?', which is shorthand for 'please give me a teaching on Zen' - the student asks the teacher to point out the Great Way of Zen practice, right here and now, in whatever manner seems most appropriate to the teacher in that moment.
Yunmen's answer initially seems rather brusque, even disrespectful. Aren't Buddhists supposed to venerate Buddha? Calling him an old, worn-out piece of poop surely verges on the offensive! Of course we've previously seen Yunmen threaten poor old Dongshan with a damn good thrashing (case 15), so maybe we expect a certain level of roughness from him, but even so.
(By the way, you'll encounter other translations of this koan which translate the key word as 'shit-stick', and which relate this back to an implement used to clean oneself after using the toilet back in the day. I've followed Thomas Cleary's translation for reasons that will soon become apparent. Ultimately it doesn't really matter, though - it's making the same point either way.)
The crudeness of Yunmen's reply is precisely the point, however. Maybe the monk asking the question had just bowed in an excessively fancy, reverential way, after looking down his nose at the other, clearly inferior, monks at the monastery, before asking in hushed tones 'What is Buddha?' in the hope of receiving a divine revelation.
This happens sometimes. People approach Zen in a 'religious' manner, and start to make big distinctions between 'holy things' which are worthy of their concern, and 'mundane things' which are not. (You could argue that this approach is even encouraged in early Buddhism - consider last week's article looking at vedana, and the suggestion that vedana should be separated into spiritual and mundane categories.) Zen then becomes a platform for superiority, a way of looking condescendingly at others because you now live a 'higher' life than the plebs around you. You start to feel special, because you're engaged in something special, and that makes you better than everyone else except the hallowed few who are even further along the sacred spiritual path than you.
From the standpoint of Zen, however, splitting the world into 'Zen things' and 'not-Zen things' is a false distinction. We see the same point expressed in this story from the Daoist tradition:
Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, 'This thing called the Way (Dao) - where does it exist?'
Chuang Tzu said, 'There's no place it doesn't exist.'
'Come,' said Master Tung-kuo, 'you must be more specific!'
'It is in the ant.'
'As low a thing as that?'
'It is in the grass.'
'But that's lower still!'
'It is in the tiles and shards.'
'How can it be so low?'
'It is in the piss and shit.'
To translate this into Zen language, we could just as easily replace Tung-kuo's initial question with 'What is Buddha?' But when Chuang Tzu replies that the Way is to be found everywhere, Tung-kuo is surprised - he doesn't believe that something as lofty as the Way could be found in just any old thing. Sensing this, Chuang Tzu doubles down, saying that it can be found in ants, in grass, in tiles and shards, and even in the piss and shit. The story doesn't say how Tung-kuo reacted to the final line, but I like to imagine him struck dumb with horror at his teacher's coarseness, perhaps turning slightly red in the face. Sometimes that kind of rather embarrassing experience is necessary to penetrate one's conceit.
The Zen of peak experiences
But maybe you're wondering how to reconcile all this talk of mundanity with the strong emphasis found in Rinzai Zen on kensho - moments of great breakthrough, a sudden flash of insight in which one see's one's true nature (which is what kensho literally means). Perhaps you've read Three Pillars of Zen or another book which describes dramatic experiences of sudden awakening. Or perhaps you've come across people describing their psychedelic experiences and talking about how those are 'exactly the same' as spiritual insights.
This is a tricky and nuanced topic, and I'll start by saying that I've never taken psychedelic drugs so I can't compare LSD or 5-MEO-DMT trips with the kinds of experiences that can arise out of meditation practice. But I have had some of the latter, and I can say for sure that they aren't the be-all and end-all of Zen practice, so I'm not just totally making this up.
First of all, peak experiences can happen in meditation practice - dramatic moments of a felt sense of oneness with the universe, a seemingly total disappearance of the sense of self, the dissolution of the whole sensory experience into pulsating energy, and so forth. (My least glamorous spiritual experience was a sense of becoming 'one with' a urinal - unfortunately, I was using it at the time. I'll leave the rest of that particular story to your imagination.)
Not everyone seems to get them. They seem to be more common for people doing more intensive practice, both in terms of the technique (e.g. highly focused koan work is more likely to trigger one than the relatively gentle practice of Silent Illumination), but on the other hand Zen teacher Brad Warner has written and spoken about his meditation experiences on many occasions, and he's a pure shikantaza/Silent Illumination guy. Some people don't seem to have anything particularly dramatic happen, however - the great modern-day Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was once famously asked why he never talked about his 'enlightenment experiences', and his wife quipped that it was because he'd never had one.
Even talking about the possibility of 'enlightenment experiences' can be divisive, separating meditators into those who have had such experiences and those who haven't (with a middle group of people who think something weird might have happened in their practice but they're not sure if it 'counts'). And no matter how much a teacher says that the experiences don't really matter, it's hard to be in the 'have-not' category. As one Zen practitioner I met put it, 'I know the experiences aren't the point, but sometimes I think it would be nice.'
The apparent importance of these 'enlightenment experiences' has also led to the debate I alluded to earlier about the comparative value of psychedelic experiences. After all, meditation takes a serious commitment of time and energy, compared to which taking psychedelics potentially seems much more efficient. (Brad Warner compares it to the difference between climbing a mountain on foot or taking a helicopter to the summit.)
The way my own Zen teacher Daizan puts it is this: kensho, or awakening of any sort, is not an experience. It may be accompanied by an experience - though not always - but kensho itself is actually more of an inner shift in the way that we relate to all experiences. Experiences are temporary - they have a beginning, middle and end. Kensho, however, is a permanent change, like travelling abroad for the first time, or losing your virginity. Afterwards, you're different, and you can't go back to the way you were. In the case of kensho, what you've seen can't be un-seen.
A dramatic spiritual or psychedelic experience can have a value, don't get me wrong. The view from the top of the mountain is pretty striking. An experience can show you a wildly different way of perceiving that totally undermines your previous understanding of who and what you are, and as such it can be the trigger for the shift of kensho. And that seems to be true whether the experience comes from your meditation practice or from psychedelics - I know several people who report having had a shift from psychedelics, and I'll take their word for it.
But kensho isn't the end of the story by any means. Kensho is really in some ways a starting point - a crack in the door which must then be opened further until we can fully integrate our discoveries into our lives. This is where having something like a regular Zen practice is so helpful - first, you have a community of fellow practitioners on the same journey, so you aren't so likely to feel isolated, misunderstood or possibly mentally unstable; and second, you have something that you can continue to do every day which will gradually move you away from the strong duality between the highs of peak experiences (in which you see 'the truth') and the lows of everyday mundanity (in which you're back in 'the illusion'). Ultimately, we want to erase that duality altogether.
Hot and cool flow - from peak experience to normal mind
Peak experiences can be both fascinating and great fun, but they're often not terribly functional. (Experiencing the universe disintegrating into energetic vibrations was certainly a very freeing experience, because in that condition there was literally nothing to bother me, but I kinda doubt that I could have gone to the shops to buy bread.) People in highly altered states are often having a good time but don't always take good care of themselves.
On a more mundane level, we can also look at another kind of peak experience - the experience of Flow, which we discussed a few weeks ago. When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi originally defined Flow, he was describing a particular - and actually somewhat narrow - type of experience, one in which someone is engaged in a challenging activity which provides immediate feedback. Flow states are incredibly rewarding experiences, and people who learn to get into Flow will often go to great lengths to pursue those activities. I'm fortunate enough to be able to get into flow when writing computer code, and I began organising my life around becoming a computer programmer long before I'd ever heard of the concept of Flow - I just knew I liked it and wanted to do it as much as possible. It's the same for many athletes, dancers and so on.
The trouble with this kind of Flow, though, is that it needs various conditions - and it can be interrupted if those conditions are disturbed too badly. A colleague walking up to my desk for a 'five minute' chat will totally break my Flow, and it may take much longer than five minutes to re-establish it afterwards. (I've even seen guidance for how to run technical teams which is aimed at deliberately preventing Flow by providing regular disruptions, because some people can become so unhappy when their Flow is broken that it's deemed to be better not to let them get into Flow in the first place!)
This kind of Flow is also tiring. It's very engaging, and as a result it's very draining. Sooner or later you'll burn out, drop out of Flow and need to go away and recharge before you can do it again. The same is true of peak experiences in meditation - much as we might like to, we can't sustain them indefinitely.
But it turns out that there's another way. Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke (whose excellent Awakening from the Meaning Crisis I've mentioned before) makes a distinction between 'Hot Flow' - the Csikszentmihlayi variety - and 'Cool Flow', which is what traditions like Zen and Daoism are pointing to.
After kensho, Zen practice is largely a matter of continuing to develop the same skills of presence and clarity that brought us up to the moment of kensho (which is an argument for having arrived at kensho as a result of cultivating those skills, rather than trying to jump straight there and then beginning the second - and altogether more difficult - part of the journey without the requisite skills to make progress).
Post-kensho practice does take on a different feel after a while, however. Whereas before kensho it may have felt like a search to try to discover some deep truth about who we are, after kensho it's more of a process of repeatedly encountering and gradually removing the obstacles within ourselves which keep us from seeing clearly at all times. We find habitual behaviours, skewed world views and other deep-rooted sources of clinging within ourselves, and we work to unpick those. With each letting go comes greater freedom, less reliance on our past conditioning, and a greater willingness to place our trust in the present moment, rather than trying to figure everything out in advance. Life gradually takes on more of a quality on spontaneity, a moment-by-moment unfolding where what we thought was going to happen becomes less and less important compared to the reality of what actually is happening now. We find ourselves approach the Flow state once again, but this time without the intense energy required for Hot Flow.
Hot Flow is so enjoyable because it suppresses self-referential thoughts and worries and our sense of separation and disconnection - we're simply too engaged in the activity to have the mental space for any of that, so it temporarily shuts off. But as we gradually unravel the mechanisms that give rise to that sense of separation through our Zen practice, our life naturally gravitates toward the Cool Flow experience - with that same quality of smooth moment-to-moment unfolding, but now taking on an effortless quality that can be sustained for much longer periods - perhaps even indefinitely.
So the path of Zen is not ultimately about finding some special exalted state and then working as hard as possible to stay there forever. In the end, our lives return to utter ordinariness, no trace of 'peak experiences' or anything 'special' or 'holy' - but an ordinariness which has been liberated from those conditions which previously made our ordinary lives so painful at times.
In the end, we can find Zen even in the lowliest of things - even in a dry turd!
Don't be like Sisyphus
(In case you're wondering about that title, yes, I've been watching the fourth season of Stranger Things. No spoilers please!)
This week we're continuing our exploration of the Satipatthana Sutta, the early Buddhist discourse on mindfulness practice. Previously we've looked at the sections on mindfulness of breathing, the body scan, and the Four Elements - all aspects of the first satipatthana, mindfulness of the body. This week we'll conclude the first satipatthana and also cover the second, and perhaps make sense of the title and subtitle of this article along the way.
Let's get into to it!
The nine charnel ground contemplations
Again, monks, as though [one] were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground – one, two, or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter, [one] compares this same body with it thus: ‘this body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.’
Again, monks, as though [one] were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals, or various kinds of worms … a skeleton with flesh and blood, held together with sinews … a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, held together with sinews … a skeleton without flesh and blood, held together with sinews … disconnected bones scattered in all directions … bones bleached white, the colour of shells … bones heaped up, more than a year old … bones rotten and crumbling to dust – [one] compares this same body with it thus: ‘this body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.’
Yikes! The Buddha isn't messing around.
As we've discussed previously, impermanence is a major theme in Buddhism - one of the Three Characteristics, no less. (Hui-Neng, the Sixth Ancestral Master of Zen, equated impermanence with Buddha Nature.) But whereas in the previous Satipatthana meditations we've primarily focused on moment-to-moment impermanence - of the breath, the bodily postures and activities, sensations in the parts of the body, and the four elemental aspects of the body - the charnel ground contemplations invite us to take a longer view.
As the saying goes, the only certain things in life are death and taxes. But Western culture typically goes to great lengths to conceal the realities of death from us. Every funeral I've attended here in the UK has been what an American would call 'closed-casket' - there's a coffin, which presumably contains the body of the person who has died, but really we're all just assuming that; we don't open it up to check it out. And in American open-casket funerals, the body generally undergoes a long process of preparation - being cleaned, dressed in nice clothes, makeup applied and so on - to hide the ugly realities of death, and give people a chance to see the dead person one last time as they remembered them in life, rather than as they are now.
The practice that the Buddha is suggesting here invites us to move beyond the polished, delicate, polite rituals we have in the West, and stare death in the face. We are asked to imagine that we are walking through a charnel ground - a place where dead bodies are discarded in the open air rather than buried, a practice which was commonplace in the time of the Buddha and which still occurs in India and other parts of the world today - and bring to mind corpses in various states of decay, and then reflect that our own body will undergo a similar process after our own death. (The Visuddhimagga, a key commentarial text in Theravada Buddhism, goes one step further and recommends visiting a charnel ground in person to do the contemplation 'in the flesh', no pun intended.)
If we've never seen a human corpse, this can be tricky. (Hollywood's various presentations don't count.) Even so, there are a couple of options open to us. If you can get out into nature, you can often find the corpse of an animal that has died (either of natural causes or due to predation), and if you then return over the next few days and weeks, you may have the opportunity to observe the process of decay. A slightly different option is to go to the ever-reliable YouTube and watch some videos of autopsies. It's an interesting experience.
Once again, we have the standard refrain that follows all of the practices in the Satipatthana Sutta.
In this way, in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body internally … externally … both internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising … of passing away … of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body.
We first consider our own death. What effect does that have on us? What are the implications? How should we live in light of this knowledge?
Then we consider the deaths of others. Everyone in our lives will die someday. Again, what are the implications of that?
Finally, we shift to a broader perspective, acknowledging the impermanence of life in general, both our own life and the lives of others. Again, what are the implications of that?
We've already talked extensively about impermanence, but again we're invited to explore it in detail. As death arises, life passes away. As each stage of decay arises, the previous stage passes away. As each moment arises, the previous moment passes away. Is anything stable?
An aspect of this refrain that we haven't discussed so far in these articles is the 'bare knowledge' part.
Generally speaking, the Satipatthana meditations, and insight meditation more generally, are intended to encourage us to look at the nature of our experience rather than its content. In other words, we should focus on seeing clearly the impermanent nature of life and the inevitability of the process of death and decomposition, rather than allowing ourselves to be drawn into the emotions and stories around how terrible it might be to die, how we don't want to die and still have so much to live for, how so-and-so was taken before their time, and so on.
Death contemplations can be challenging. They can bring up a lot of psychological material, especially if we've lost someone recently, and I'm not saying that there's no value in working with that material. But insight meditation is not therapy, and if we're interested in the cultivation of insight, we should make sure that that's what we're doing, at least some of the time, rather than focusing entirely on working through our issues. Both are beneficial activities, with different intentions and different outcomes. By all means pursue therapy if that's something that will be helpful for you - I have, and I highly recommend it. But insight meditation is helpful as well, and I highly recommend that too.
That's it for the first satipatthana!
The nine charnel ground contemplations bring us to the end of the first satipatthana, the section on mindfulness of the body. Now we move into the second satipatthana, the section on vedana (to be defined shortly). After the extensive first satipatthana, the others are pretty terse by comparison - especially the second and third, which only have one practice each. So let's take a look at the second satipatthana now.
Mindfulness of vedana
And how, monks, does [one] in regard to vedana abide contemplating vedana? Here, when feeling a pleasant vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel a pleasant vedana’; when feeling an unpleasant vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel an unpleasant vedana’; when feeling a neutral vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel a neutral vedana.’
First question: what the heck is a vedana?
This is actually a hotly debated topic, to the point that the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in the U.S. actually held a 'Vedana Conference' in 2017 to discuss it. I'm not going to get into all the different definitions today - that would be an article in itself - but if you're interested, the papers from the conference are freely available online.
I'm going to follow my teacher Leigh Brasington interpretation of vedana, and his practice of leaving the word vedana untranslated. We don't really have an everyday concept in English to describe vedana, and the various translations that are popular in the Buddhist world are usually either misleading (feelings, sensations) or require enough explanation (valence, feeling tone, hedonic tone) that they might as well have been left untranslated in the first place. Without further ado, then, I'll get into the explanation.
Vedana is simply that aspect of experience which categorises any arising phenomenon as pleasant, unpleasant, or neither-unpleasant-nor-pleasant, i.e. neutral. That's it. Something happens, it strikes you as nice, nasty or neither, that's your vedana right there.
So the basic practice being described here is one in which we attend to the quality of our experience related to the sense of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It sounds simple, but it's a fascinating practice, with many layers. Indeed, the discourse goes on to describe a second layer to the practice right away.
When feeling a worldly pleasant vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel a worldly pleasant vedana’; when feeling an unworldly pleasant vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel an unworldly pleasant vedana’; when feeling a worldly unpleasant vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel a worldly unpleasant vedana’; when feeling an unworldly unpleasant vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel an unworldly unpleasant vedana’; when feeling a worldly neutral vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel a worldly neutral vedana’; when feeling an unworldly neutral vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel an unworldly neutral feeling.’
So, what do 'worldly' and 'unworldly' mean? Again, there's some debate. There are two major interpretations:
I'm going to use the latter interpretation, partly because (as a Zen guy) I'm not super-excited about talking about renunciation, and partly because exploring the body/mind duality is a very interesting practice.
When we start to look closely, it turns out that we don't actually spend much time at all with that five-sense experience. Rather, we see, hear or feel something, and that triggers some thoughts; those thoughts then trigger more thoughts, which trigger even more thoughts, and pretty soon we're on the fast track to papanca, 'mental proliferation'. Apparently something like 80% of our mental activity is in response to other mental activity, rather than sensory experience.
This gets pretty interesting, because under normal circumstances we tend to experience both the sensory phenomena and the mental phenomena as a kind of gestalt - one giant tangled hairball of 'thing'. As we explore vedana, however, we can start to distinguish between the vedana of the five-sense aspect of experience and the vedana of the ensuing conceptual interpretation, and thus we can start to separate our five-sense experience from our mental experience. Unravelling which parts of experience are due to the body and which are due to the mind is a key step on the path of insight.
Here's that refrain again
“In this way, in regard to vedana [one] abides contemplating vedana internally … externally … both internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising … of passing away … of both arising and passing away in vedana. Mindfulness that ‘there are vedana’ is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how in regard to vedana [one] abides contemplating vedana.
(Notice that the refrain has the same form but is slightly different this time around - we're in the second satipatthana rather than the first now, so references to body have been replaced by references to vedana.)
Again, we start close to home, exploring our own vedana. Then, when we have a thorough appreciation of our own vedana, we start to notice how others respond to their vedana. The vedana of others isn't always the same as our vedana! There are people in this world who enjoy the taste of aniseed, but I am not one of them. Conversely, I enjoy heavy metal, but that's pretty much a minority interest in terms of the global population - some people even claim to find the music indistinguishable from noise. Vedana can be deeply subjective, as it turns out - which begins to explain why there are so many people holding views which to us seem ridiculous and obviously wrong.
Once we have familiarised ourselves with our own process of vedana and observed that process unfolding for others, we can again shift to a broader perspective, noticing the key role that vedana plays in the unfolding of the world at large. How much of society is built up around the so-called 'hedonic treadmill', endlessly running up that hill (see what I did there?) chasing more and more pleasant vedana in the hope that it will ultimately fulfil us?
Continuing on from the previous contemplation, there's plenty of interesting material to explore here too.
First, notice the arising of vedana. It's quick! Unless you're unusually concentrated and really focusing on watching the fine details of your experience unfolding, vedana is usually 'baked in' to what we experience - and not just the initial five-sense vedana, but the subsequent vedana of the mental conception too. As a result, it's really central to our experience, and merits its place in the scheme of the Five Aggregates (which we'll discuss in more detail in the next Satipatthana article).
Then notice the passing away of vedana. Like everything else, vedana is impermanent. It doesn't last. Even the really good stuff wears off sooner or later. The new car, the new house, the new job, the new partner -sooner or later, the shine will begin to tarnish. That isn't to say that those things weren't worth having; it's just that novelty always wears off in the end.
As we recognise this, we can move to a broader contemplation of the impermanence of vedana. As we do so, the futility of the hedonic treadmill becomes apparent. Chasing pleasant vedana in the hope of making it stick that way and turn into permanent lasting fulfilment is a bit like playing keepy-uppy with a football and expecting it to hover in the air if we can just figure out how to do it right. We're like Sisyphus, the figure from Greek mythology who was cursed to spend all eternity rolling a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll all the way back down each time he was about to reach the top.
Worse, there's also a kind of pendulum effect. The more we've tried to grab on to our pleasant vedana and pull it toward us, the further away from us it will swing when it finally slips out of our grasp, and we feel more bereft than before. Similarly, the harder we push unpleasant vedana away from us, the greater the momentum the pendulum has when it slips beyond our grip and swings back to hit us in the face. When we define ourselves in terms of what we want to get, we cannot help but notice all the ways in which we lack that very thing or quality, and conversely.
Working with vedana can be a powerful way to be present with our experience with some degree of equanimity - not pushing it away, but not getting sucked into it either. By attending to the quality of vedana in the experience, we're paying attention to what's going on, but we're focusing on its nature rather than its content. We can also use this in the other direction - if we notice that we've just spent the last five minutes trying to work out why something is triggering unpleasant memories, that can serve as a kind of mindfulness bell to return to simply noticing 'unpleasant'.
So far, we've looked at the impermanence (anicca) of vedana, and how, as a result, chasing pleasant vedana can never be a source of lasting happiness - in other words, vedana are ultimately unsatisfactory (dukkha). That's two of the Three Characteristics - what about the third?
Central to our sense of self is the feeling of agency. It feels to me like I make decisions - I'm in charge, I get to decide what I do next, how I respond to what's happening, and so on. A great deal of my experience is therefore nothing to do with me, because it isn't under my control - the sounds of birds outside my house, or that one neighbour with the unnaturally noisy lawnmower, for example.
So what about vedana? Is that something I control? Do I cause vedana to arise, or to pass away? Can I decide what type of vedana I would like to have? Can I stop vedana from happening entirely? Or do vedana simply continue to arise, moment to moment, spontaneously co-arising with other phenomena, and taking on a positive, negative or neutral tone regardless of how I might like them to be?
Check it out!
...comes immobility, apparently?
This week we're taking a look at case 20 in the Gateless Barrier, a classic collection of Zen stories. (You can find the other commentaries in this series on the Article Index page.)
As usual, we're presented with something that's pretty weird, borderline nonsensical, at face value. In fact, this koan gives us a second helping of strangeness - not only does it offer us a person whose power is so great that they apparently can't move, but it doubles down and claims that speaking doesn't involve the tongue, which - at least last time I checked - was best described as inaccurate.
Before we get into the meat of the koan, however, a digression. (Or is it?)
How do you embody Zen in your life?
Recently, Zenways (my Zen sangha) put together a video of sangha members answering the question 'How do you embody Zen in your life?' I'm not in it myself - with this summer's retreat coming up, I have my hands pretty full and have been doing my best to resist my usual pattern of taking on way too much - but when I saw the final video (which is good fun - definitely take a look if you haven't already), I spent some time pondering how I would have answered it.
The conclusion I came to is that I'd have said 'I sit zazen for an hour every morning.' (Zazen is the Zen term for sitting meditation.)
'But Matt,' I hear you say, 'the question was about how you embody Zen in your life, not in your sitting practice!'
That's a fair point. Honestly, I wonder whether, if I'd submitted that as my answer, I'd have been left on the cutting-room floor. But bear with me, and I'll try to explain.
A few years ago now I attended a Zen retreat taught by Stephen and Martine Batchelor. (Stephen has sadly now retired from teaching retreats, but Martine is still active, and is a fabulous teacher - I highly recommend sitting with her if you have the opportunity.) I had an interview with Stephen, and one of the questions I asked was something like 'How do you integrate your practice into your life?'
Stephen's reply was that the question was, in his view, already mistaken. Rather, he said, it was better to ask how I could make my life my practice. He didn't say much more than that, and we ran out of time shortly thereafter, but I've spent a lot of time since then contemplating his reply, and trying to find ways to implement it.
Here's what I think he's getting at. When I ask a question like 'how do I integrate my practice into my life?', I have the idea that my Zen practice is one thing - probably the hour each morning I spend in zazen - and my life is something separate, something involving people, activity, work, travel, entertainment and so forth. And by 'integrating my practice into my life' I might be asking something like 'how do I bring the peace of mind that I find in my zazen practice into the course of my daily life, dealing with irritations and frustrations and suchlike?' I might conceive of an answer in terms of something like daily life mindfulness exercises - brushing my teeth mindfully, for example, or taking a few moments each day to recall events from the day for which I feel some gratitude.
In contrast, Stephen is suggesting something more thorough-going - an approach which erases the distinction between 'practice' and 'life'. But what does that mean? Sometimes I encounter people who claim that they're 'meditating all the time', or that 'everything is meditation for them'. Maybe that's true for them, I don't know. It seems like a stretch to me, and perhaps just an excuse not to sit formal meditation.
So let's come at it from another angle. What are the skills we train in a meditation practice? Borrowing some terminology from Shinzen Young, we might speak about concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity. Stephen Batchelor promotes qualities like care and compassion. For me, one of the big themes is exploration - taking an interest in what's going on, being willing to learn even from the most difficult experiences, cultivating an active curiosity which isn't satisfied with what 'everyone knows' about how things work.
Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but I've never been terribly good at those formal 'mindfulness exercises'. I certainly get some benefit out of them, but I often struggle to remember to do them, especially in social situations - I'm not the most socially intuitive person around, and so dealing with other people takes up a lot of my mental real estate, so much so that it tends to push my resolution to practise 'mindful speech' straight out of my head.
Nonetheless, I've benefitted tremendously from my practice - it's no exaggeration to say that it's totally changed my life. And, when I look closely, I can see that many of the changes in my life precisely parallel those qualities that I've developed in meditation (or strengthened, in the case of qualities which I already had to some extent before starting to meditate). I am more attentive to the people around me, more careful in my work and my dealings with others, calmer and more resilient in the face of stress, kinder and more generous with my time when I'm in a position to help someone, more connected to my environment, more aware of subtle details in my sensory experience.
Now, in case it sounds like I'm just telling you how great I am, I should hasten to add that I still have considerable room for improvement in all of these areas! I'm very much a work in progress. Indeed, it isn't just the good stuff that carries over. I also find that the same struggles which are present in my life also show up in my practice. Restlessness, frustration, self-doubt, arrogance and fear are familiar companions both on the cushion and in the office.
My point here is not how wonderful a meditator I am, but simply how, on close inspection, I can find no meaningful division between my practice and my life.
And so my honest answer to the question 'How do I embody Zen in my life?' is to say that I sit zazen for an hour every morning. I start the day as I mean to go on - by taking the time to cultivate qualities which are important to me, to continue my exploration of myself and the world around me. Then I do some exercise, have breakfast, and go out into the world, hopefully in a way that benefits both myself and those around me. That's the best way I've found so far to make sense of Stephen's advice to make my life my practice, and it seems to be going OK so far!
So now, with that extensive digression at the back of our minds, let's get back to the koan.
Returning to the koan
'Why is it,' Master Songyuan asks us, 'that someone of great power cannot lift a foot?'
We have an additional clue in the verse commentary provided by Wumen, the 13th century Chinese Zen master who compiled the Gateless Barrier koans. Wumen says this:
Lifting a foot, one stamps over the ocean;
Lowering the head, one looks down upon the heavens:
The whole body has nowhere to stay;
Please follow up with another line.
(That last line is one of Wumen's many teasing attempts to goad you, dear reader, into taking this koan with both hands and making it your own. How would you conclude his verse?)
We have imagery here which is best described as 'immense' - one might imagine some kind of giant, so huge that they look down on the heavens rather than up to them.
There are two aspects to what's being described here - a meditative experience, and the ultimate consequences of the insight that that experience is pointing to.
Correcting our topsy-turvy view
A common theme in Buddhism - going right back to the discourses in the Pali canon - is that our conventional view of the world is somehow 'upside down'. (Frequently, after the Buddha gives a discourse, his audience will say something like 'It is as if something which had been turned upside-down has been set right.') You'll also hear this described as a kind of figure-ground shift - a reversal in the way that we perceive.
Here's a question. Where does your awareness come from? We tend to have the idea that awareness originates in our brain - so first, there's the brain, and then awareness comes along secondarily. But is that actually what you experience, or is it merely how you think things work?
'Of course awareness comes from the brain!' you might retort. After all, we have lots of science demonstrating that if people suffer certain kinds of brain damage, their awareness seems to be dramatically impaired. There's no question that our ability to function depends on having a brain in good working order, and I'm not trying to claim otherwise.
But now we're talking about what we know to be true on the level of intellectual models, thoughts, logic, rationalisation, science - what we might call 'third-person' knowledge, knowledge relating to the material world as measured by independent observers.
By contrast, in my first-person subjective experience, I don't find any 'brain'. I have a visual field, an auditory field, a tactile field, an olfactory field, a gustatory field, and a field of mental activity. I can't see, hear, feel, smell or taste my brain. I can think about my brain, but those thoughts are not my brain - they're just thoughts. Maybe I could get someone to cut my head open and show me my brain, but I'd rather not!
Meditation is concerned with this first-person type of experience, as opposed to third-person knowledge. (Generally, the third-person knowledge just gets in the way when we're trying to explore our first-person experience.) Many of us spend so much time in our thoughts that it's hard even to understand the difference at first! But it's from this first-person perspective that I'm inviting us to explore the origin of our awareness.
When I examine my experience, it's actually very difficult to examine awareness. Everything in my experience is, by definition, arising in awareness. No matter what arises - sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, thought - by the time I've noticed it, I'm already aware. Awareness got there first! And that seems to be true whether I'm examining my experience of my head (which, I'm led to believe, contains my brain), my feet, the walls, or the distant stars. No matter what it is, where it is or how far away, awareness is already there.
I am forced to conclude that, at least in my first-person experience, it's actually awareness that is primary. Far from awareness being generated by my brain, I find that, actually, my experience of 'brain' arises within a pre-existing awareness.
So previously I believed that my body came first, and awareness came second. Now, that appears to be back-to-front - or upside-down, if you prefer. If I shift to the other perspective - taking up a view from the perspective of awareness, rather than a view from the perspective of the person arising within awareness - then things look very different.
From the perspective of the person, I have a definite size and shape. I'm limited. I have arms and legs, and I'm strong enough to lift my legs, although I wouldn't necessarily describe myself as a person of great power! But from the perspective of awareness, I have no particular size, no particular shape, no particular limitation. I can't really say that awareness has a 'size' because there's nothing outside of awareness to compare it to - I can't say it's a 'big awareness' or a 'small awareness'. It just is what it is. It doesn't have distinct moving parts, like arms and legs - it doesn't have much of anything, except that the entire universe arises within it.
So, from the perspective of awareness, I am indeed someone of great power - powerful enough to contain the whole universe. Yet, from this perspective, I have no legs to lift. I have nothing, yet contain everything at the same time. I am everything and nothing.
Speaking out is not a matter of the tongue
Master Songyuan's second statement is initially just as perplexing as his first. How can speaking not be a matter of the tongue?
(There's a tale about a traditional Chinese storyteller who met a Zen master. The storyteller wanted to impress the Zen master, and asked what story he would like to hear. The Zen master asked for a very simple tale, the kind you might tell to children - the Chinese equivalent of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, perhaps. The storyteller was a bit put out by this - there are so many stories, but this silly old Zen master wants to hear Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Nevertheless, the storyteller gave a performance. At the end, the Zen master said 'Not bad, but you're using your tongue too much.' Needless to say, the storyteller was perplexed, and became the master's student. Many years later, after the storyteller's insight had deepened, he gave a masterful performance of the story, and this time the master replied 'Oh, this time you've lost your tongue.')
In Zen, words are considered to be tricky beasts. It's easy to fall into the trap of 'talking about Zen'. You learn lots of clever philosophical things and interesting facts, and then regurgitate them for the entertainment of others, and call it teaching. (I'm probably frequently guilty of 'talking about Zen' in this way.) The trouble is that words typically belong to the world of ideas, that third-person world of 'knowledge' - we use them to transmit concepts between ourselves, so that we each end up thinking about something in broadly the same way.
How, then, is one to impart Zen, if not through words? The traditional answer is to 'embody Zen' - hence the question that Zenways asked its sangha members, all the way back at the beginning of this article. Hence Songyuan's statement that 'speaking out is not a matter of the tongue' - a true teacher speaks not only with words but through their very life, through how they are in the world. This is how we make our lives our practice; this is how we speak without using the tongue; this is how we embody Zen.
How do you embody Zen in your life?
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!