The power of dreams, and their relationship to the waking world
This week we're returning to the Zen stories of the Gateless Barrier, picking up where we left off, with case 25, 'Sermon from the Third Seat'. It's an interesting case that, as usual, packs quite a bit into a few words. So without further ado, let's see what we can squeeze out of it.
Don't you just hate a bait-and-switch?
As usual, it's a good idea to start by going through the koan at face value and translating the names and technical terms into something more approachable.
We start with Master Yangshan, who is having a nice dream. (We'll come back to that subject later.) He dreams, in fact, that he goes to visit Maitreya. In ancient times, it was considered that each age of humanity had one major Buddha; Shakyamuni Buddha (aka Siddharta Gaumata) was the Buddha of the present age, and Maitreya was the Buddha of an age yet to come. So Maitreya is a towering figure, sometimes regarded as second only to Shakyamuni himself. And so going to see him is kind of a big deal! So he's assigned a place in the assembly, and he sits down, presumably eager to hear what Maitreya is going to say. (I imagine this as being a little like going to see my favourite band play, and getting a really good spot right in front of the stage.)
But there's a nasty surprise waiting for Yangshan - maybe it isn't such a nice dream after all. One of the 'saints' - most likely an arahant, a profoundly awakened person who is nevertheless somewhat below the status of a Buddha on the Mahayana totem pole - strikes a gavel and announces that, actually, it isn't Maitreya who's going to be speaking today; it's Yangshan himself! (So this twist is, for me, a little like going to see my favourite band and then discovering that I'm the one who's going to be performing - in front of my favourite band, no less. No pressure!)
Fortunately, Yangshan is up to the task. He stands up, strikes the gavel to bring the assembly to order, and then utters a pretty pithy teaching. He starts by saying 'The teaching of the Universal Vehicle is beyond all propositions and denials. Listen clearly!' But what's the Universal Vehicle?
My vehicle is more universal than yours
Once Buddhism began to fork and schism into multiple different traditions, the upstart Mahayana tradition had to find ways to justify itself over the (arguably) more traditional schools it was breaking away from. So Mahayana scriptures often talk about three 'vehicles', or approaches to Buddhism, arranged in increasing order of awesomeness. Lowest of the pile is the sravakayana, the vehicle of the listeners; sometimes this is interpreted as those practitioners following the oral tradition of the oldest stratum of Buddhism, although I've also heard it explained as people who listen to the teachings but don't practice, or those whose approach to practice is simply to hang around enlightened masters in the hope that it'll rub off on them somehow. They may eventually become arahants, but it's generally considered that Buddhahood is out of reach because their view is too coarse and unsophisticated.
Next up the hierarchy we have the pratyekabuddhas - 'self-awakened' Buddhas, those who have awakened by themselves, but who are either unable or unwilling to teach others. Again there's a hint of shade being thrown at the earlier tradition here, since the emphasis in early Buddhism is more on personal liberation from suffering rather than the Mahayana motivation to save all beings.
Finally, top of the heap, we have the bodhisattvas - those who follow the Mahayana path, who are committed to the liberation of all beings, and who have (at least in some interpretations) vowed to postpone their own Buddhahood in order that they can keep being reborn again and again, coming back each time to help others along the road to full awakening.
It's probably not terribly surprising that a Mahayana model of the different 'vehicles' puts the Mahayana at the top. (There's another 'three vehicle' model used in the Vajrayana tradition, which was a later development than the Mahayana. This time the three vehicles are the Hinayana (the early stuff), the Mahayana and the Vajrayaya - oh look, the authors of the model occupy the top spot in this one too. Funny, that.)
However, this kind of sectarian approach has a few problems. One major one is that, if you're going to make a big deal about how all those other people have a practice that's inferior to yours, you have to explain how come what you're practising doesn't look a whole lot like what the historical Buddha actually taught. (Oops.) There are various ways out of this conundrum - Nagarjuna, for example, claimed that he came into possession of secret teachings of the Buddha which had been guarded by mythical serpents for hundreds of years because the world wasn't ready for them yet, and so he wasn't actually innovating, only revealing something that the Buddha had always wanted us to know when the time was right. Yeah, sure, OK.
In any case, a solution was proposed by the author(s) of the Lotus Sutra, amongst others, which was to suggest that all three vehicles (sravakayana, pratyekabuddha, bodhisattva) were actually just 'expedient teachings' designed to get people practising, and that in the long run all three vehicles would merge into the true teaching of the ekayana, the 'One Vehicle' or 'Universal Vehicle' which leads to complete perfect Buddhahood. The Universal Vehicle is the final truth of reality itself - which is why Yangshan says it’s ‘beyond all propositions and denials’. It isn’t something you can debate about or arrive at through logic; it simply is what it is.
Why should I care about a 1,500-year-old religious argument?
Fair question. What can a 21st-century practitioner take from this?
On one level, it's interesting to see that even a tradition like Buddhism - which has at its centre teachings of impermanence, emptiness and boundless love and compassion - can degenerate into sectarian squabbling when egos get involved. I need to find a reason to make people come to my website rather than reading someone else's, so I need to persuade you that I've got the good stuff and everyone else is wrong. The prevalence of some of the less desirable aspects of human nature among communities which are supposed to be dedicated to awakening and ethical action is, I think, quite instructive, and is an indication that we should approach unfamiliar communities and teachers with some caution. Not everyone is in this business for the benefit of others - sadly, sometimes it's as much about one's own power or reputation.
On a more positive note, however, we can also look at the frequent splitting apart and then coming back together of the Buddhist traditions as an indication of a deep perennial core of truth to all the world's great spiritual traditions, which nevertheless has found a profound diversity of expressions over the centuries. Pretty much everyone who practises any of the basic techniques of meditation - concentration, insight and self-inquiry, heart-opening - sooner or later traverses very similar terrain; we all arrive at the same fundamental Absolute, but perhaps coming from different directions and having taken slightly different routes to get there. As we return to the world, however, that Absolute has to find its own unique expression, through each individual teacher and tradition - and so we find the tremendous variety of teachers, styles and systems that are available to us these days.
Basically, it all works. We don't need to worry about finding the 'best' approach, and we certainly shouldn't worry about finding the 'One True Way'. It's all good. Just find something that you like - something that you get on with well enough to be willing to practise day in, day out, until you too arrive at the centre of the labyrinth. Then you can figure out how you're going to tell other people about it!
Dreaming and waking up
Assuming your eyes haven't glazed over from all the historical stuff by now, there's another interesting aspect to this koan: it takes place in a dream. The 'goal' of spiritual practice is sometimes called 'awakening' - implying that we're 'asleep' in some sense even when we're 'awake' in conventional terms. Can one 'awaken' in the spiritual sense within a conventional dream? And why suggest that our waking lives are some kind of dream?
On the face of it, dreams and waking life are obviously different - but if there's one thing I've learnt from years of insight meditation, it's that things which seem obvious to us are often extremely interesting to examine more closely, because they're not always what they seem. So let's take a look - and, by the way, feel free to pause reading here and perform your own examination of dreams and waking life, rather than taking my word for it.
Let's start with the differences. First of all, I quite often don't remember my dreams at all, whereas I tend to retain at least something from having been awake, for a few days at least. (I can't tell you in much detail what I was doing 17 days ago without going back and looking for evidence, but I remember yesterday evening's Tai Chi class pretty well.) Second, each time I wake up, I come back to the familiar world that I've inhabited since I was born 42 years ago, whereas each of my dreams tends to be in a totally different place. Third, the waking world obeys certain rules much more strongly than the dream world - for example, things tend to be where I left them, the layout of my house and the street outside remains consistent from day to day, and so on, whereas in dreams things seem to be much more changeable, often changing from one moment to the next, especially when I look away and look back again.
But then let's look at the similarities. In both the waking world and dreams, I have the same basic senses and types of experiences - I see, hear and feel things, I meet people and talk to them, I try to accomplish tasks (sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much). I have a sense of who I am, and what my relationship is to what's going on around me - the 'story of me' - just like I do when I'm awake. I might be tempted to say that the dream world is somehow fuzzier and less clear than the waking world, but really that seems to be more a function of how well I'm able to pay attention - if I'm awake but really sleepy or ill, the waking world is pretty fuzzy too. (I have migraines from time to time, and when one comes on, I can see in real time my ability to think logically getting worse and worse.)
So that raises an interesting question. Where do dreams take place? Perhaps we can say that dreams happen 'in my head', whereas waking life happens 'in the real world' - but are they really that different? As I noted above, both are composed of the same kinds of experiences. How is my tiny brain able to conjure up a whole dream world inside my not-unusually-large noggin, when normally it takes an entire universe 'out there' to provide my waking experience?
In fact, it turns out that my waking life happens 'in my head' as well. When I'm awake, my physical eyes receive light that's bouncing around, and when that light hits my retina it stimulates activity in my optic nerve, which feeds signals to my brain - and, boom, I have a visual experience. But our brains can also generate a visual experience without that external stimulus - and that's why we see things in our dreams. And so on for sounds and all the other senses too.
This is one way to understand what's meant by 'emptiness' in the Buddhist tradition. It seems like, when we're awake, we directly experience a real, concrete world all around us, a world that has very little to do with the purely imaginary world that we inhabit in our dreams. But in fact all we ever experience is the result of our brains whizzing away - it's just that the source of the data being used to construct that experience is different in dreams versus waking life. But the fundamental nature of experience - as being mind-originated - is the same in both cases.
Why does this matter? Because it means that what we experience is not how things are in some final, unalterable sense, but rather what we experience is merely an interpretation of what's going on - and interpretations can change. In particular, through meditation practice, we can come to see the world in a radically different way - we can come to the Buddhist meaning of 'awakening'.
When we're asleep, the dream seems 'real' - the sights, sounds, experiences, the sense of who I am in that dream is all very compelling. And yet, when I wake up, it's clear that it was just a dream. How would it be to wake up from the 'dream' of the waking world?
Who dreams the dreamer of the dream?
Why don't you find out?
The heart of early Buddhism
In this week's article, we'll look at the second half of the Buddha's first discourse, the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta (the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of Dhamma).
In the first part of the discourse, the Buddha introduced a 'middle way' between sensual indulgence and self-mortification, and then went on to elaborate this middle way in terms of the Eightfold Path. What comes next is equally important in the early Buddhist system - the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha.
The First Noble Truth is the truth of dukkha. Dukkha is a difficult word to translate - its meaning is broader than any one English term. Most commonly you'll see 'suffering', 'stress' or 'unsatisfactoriness', but none of these work in every situation. Literally, it means something like 'bad space', and was apparently used to refer to the mud and gunk that would get into the space between the axle and the wheel on a cart, resulting in a bumpy ride. In the Buddhist context, there's also a connotation of having a 'bumpy ride' through life. All sorts of things happen that we don't like, from the smallest (a stubbed toe, a misplaced set of keys causing us to be five minutes late for work) to the most severe (death, war, plague, famine). To the extent that we resist and resent those difficulties, we experience an unpleasant psychological condition - this is (one meaning of) dukkha. And here we can perhaps begin to see how meditation can help - by literally 'changing our mind', by cultivating the Right View of the Eightfold Path, we can learn to struggle less against what life throws at us, and thus experience less dukkha. In the long run - with full awakening - dukkha is said to be totally eliminated.
One key point to bring out here is that this First Noble Truth is not saying (as is sometimes believed) that 'all life is suffering'. That can be a real stumbling block for some people, because many of us can think of all sorts of wonderful things in our lives that don't feel anything like 'suffering' - friendship, love, art, beauty, the list goes on. Fortunately, this idea is a misunderstanding of that last line - that the 'five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha'. I've written previously about the five aggregates and won't repeat that hear, but in brief, it's a system of dividing up all of our subjective experience into five categories. But here the Buddha isn't saying that 'the five aggregates are dukkha' (i.e. 'all life is suffering') - he's saying that 'the five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha'. In other words, to the extent that we insist on things going our way, or try to hold a view of reality which is out of line with what's actually going on (Right View again), we will experience dukkha - and that can apply to any aspect of our life if we're not careful.
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the arising of dukkha: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.
The Second Noble Truth moves from the recognition of the fact of dukkha to an understanding of its causality. Why does dukkha arise? Because we want things to be a certain way - we want to have nice things (craving for sensual pleasures), we want to be seen in a certain way (craving for 'becoming'), or we want to get rid of something about ourselves that we don't like (craving for non-becoming). These desires tend to be repetitive in nature, causing us to go around in circles in our lives - this kind of 'Groundhog Day' situation is one way to understand 'renewed existence' in this context.
As we explore the roots of our dukkha more and more deeply, we come to understand the mechanisms that underlie all three of these forms of craving. In the end, we must question who we really are at the deepest level, and come to see what's really going on. As a starting point, however, it's very instructive to look at our cravings even on the surface level. What are we looking for? What are we trying to get? Do we feel a sense of insufficiency or inadequacy? Why?
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it.
But wait, there's good news, in the form of the Third Noble Truth. Because it turns out that it is possible to find relief from dukkha, no matter how pervasive it may seem. This is, fundamentally, the basic promise of Buddhism - that, by following a path of practice, we can find our way out of dukkha.
But what path?
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of dukkha: it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
The Fourth Noble Truth brings us back to where we started - back to the Eightfold Path. By cultivating this path as a way of life, the Buddha says, we can find our way out of dukkha.
Unpacking the Four Noble Truths into Four Noble Tasks
Often, discussions of the Four Noble Truths end here, which can give the impression that these four statements are truths to be taken on faith, memorised and repeated like a catechism. Actually, though, taking things on faith is not really a big part of the early Buddhist path. Rather, the Buddha would invite people to 'come and see for yourself'. And so the discourse goes on to outline how to work with these four 'truths' - presenting them now as four tasks to be undertaken by one wishing to become free from dukkha.
Here's the First Noble Task:
“‘This is dukkha’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.
“‘Dukkha is to be fully understood’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, [...]
“‘Dukkha has been fully understood’: [...]
Here the Buddha presents a kind of survey of our experience. We are invited to examine our lives and see if we do, indeed, experience dukkha in the way suggested by the First Noble Truth. But more than just looking once or twice and then saying 'Yep, looks that way' and moving on, we're asked to go further - to fully understand dukkha. Rather than being satisfied with a superficial understanding of our discontent, we should instead study it carefully and closely, tracing it all the way back to its roots, coming to see at the very deepest level what our dukkha actually is.
Closely related to this is the Second Noble Task:
“‘This is the arising of dukkha’: [...]
“‘The arising of dukkha is to be abandoned’: [...]
“‘The arising of dukkha has been abandoned’: [...]
Now that we have a deep understanding of our dukkha, we can turn our attention to its arising. We must learn the triggers for our dukkha, and develop skilful ways to avoid setting them off. We soon learn that we can't control our external environment - it's impossible to arrange our lives in such a way that nothing bad ever happens. But what we can do is go inside and work with our own minds. And by doing that, we can find ways to reduce our dukkha.
This tends to be a slow process. Maybe we begin to cultivate mindfulness of negative emotional states, so that we can lift ourselves out of them rather than continuing to be overwhelmed. At first, we only realise what's going on when the negative state has been going on for some time, but with practice it gets quicker and quicker. I still remember very clearly the day that I first saw a train of angry thoughts about a former boss just about to start, and made the decision not to jump on that train of thought. In that moment I became free from the toxic anger that had been making me miserable for months. That was a powerful moment!
In case this is all starting to sound a bit grim and unpleasant, constantly wading through the dark recesses of our minds examining our negative states, take a look at the Third Noble Task:
“‘This is the cessation of dukkha’: [...]
“‘The cessation of dukkha is to be realized’: [...]
“‘The cessation of dukkha has been realized’: [...]
Just as important as seeing the arising of dukkha is seeing its cessation - and feeling the relief that comes with it. That moment of letting go of anger was so powerful not just because the anger was gone, but because of the intense relief that came with the realisation that I wouldn't be angry that morning. It's extremely instructive to pay close attention to what happens when we let go of dukkha. As we let go of a negative emotional state, we very often enter a positive one - perhaps a feeling of peace, contentment, compassion, or even joy.
Our minds learn based on experience. If we do something and realise that we get a positive result from doing it, we tend to be more motivated to do it again. (This applies both on the conscious level and, more powerfully, on the unconscious level. Take a look at Jud Brewer's work on reward-based learning for more details on this!)
So the payoff for our hard work exploring our dukkha and the triggers for it is the experience of the cessation of dukkha - a cooling of the passions, a deep and profound peace and joy.
But, of course, it isn't enough to see this once. We must practise diligently to make this a greater and greater part of our experience - and it helps if we can align our whole lives behind this intention, rather than treating it as just something to be done for twenty minutes a day. And so we come to the Fourth Noble Task:
“‘This is the way leading to the cessation of dukkha’: [...]
“‘The way leading to the cessation of dukkha is to be developed’: [...]
“‘The way leading to the cessation of dukkha has been developed’: [...]
And this is, of course, the cultivation of the Eightfold Path.
Waking up is equated with completing the Four Noble Tasks
The Buddha then emphasises that it isn't enough just to 'know' the Four Noble Truths - one has to complete the three 'phases' of each task, for a total of twelve 'aspects'. Once we've done that, we can truly say that we're fully awakened.
“So long, bhikkhus, as my knowledge and vision of these Four Noble Truths as they really are in their three phases and twelve aspects was not thoroughly purified in this way, I did not claim to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment in this world with its devas, Mara, and Brahma, in this generation with its ascetics and brahmins, its devas and humans.
“But when my knowledge and vision of these Four Noble Truths as they really are in their three phases and twelve aspects was thoroughly purified in this way, then I claimed to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment in this world with its devas, [...].
The knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘Unshakable is the liberation of my mind. This is my last birth. Now there is no more renewed existence.’”
Unshakable liberation - sounds pretty good, eh?
The end of the First Discourse
So this is the Buddha's first teaching. But did it have any impact on his audience? According to the discourse itself (which is, of course, not necessarily an impartial source!), it did:
This is what the Blessed One said. Elated, the bhikkhus of the group of five delighted in the Blessed One’s statement. And while this discourse was being spoken, there arose in the Venerable Kondañña the dust-free, stainless vision of the Dhamma: “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.”
Then the Blessed One uttered this inspired utterance: “Koṇḍañña has indeed understood! Koṇḍañña has indeed understood!” In this way the Venerable Koṇḍañña acquired the name “Añña Koṇḍañña—Koṇḍañña Who Has Understood.”
My teacher Leigh Brasington likes to point out that we have a lot to thank Koṇḍañña for. Imagine if the Buddha had delivered this teaching to his five closest friends from his ascetic days - sincere practitioners who he knew should be receptive to what he had to share if he had any ability to share it at all - and all five had sat there blankly and said 'Yeah, so what?' According to another discourse, the Buddha had already had a moment of indecision about whether there was even any point in trying to teach his understanding to others, but finally he decided to give it a go. Luckily for us, two and a half thousand years later, at least one of his friends was sharp enough to get it right off the bat.
Living a spiritual life
For the next two weeks, we're going to take a look at what is traditionally considered to be the first discourse given by the historical Buddha (SN56.11, the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, 'the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of Dhamma'). There's some scholarly debate (of course!) about whether it's actually a later invention, but either way it's an excellent introduction to the core principles of Buddhism.
More than that, though, it also gives us a framework through which we can examine what it means to live a spiritual life. Whether or not you're interested in Buddhism per se, if we have a meditation practice which is confined to a specific period of time (say twenty minutes each morning) and which is unrelated to the rest of our lives, we'll soon find that the benefits of our meditation practice are likewise rather limited. If, on the other hand, we can find a way to approach our whole lives from the standpoint of contemplative practice, the consequences can be much more transformational.
So hold on to your hats, we're going in!
The opening of the First Discourse
Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Baraṇasi in the Deer Park at Isipatana. There the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus of the group of five thus:
Hang on a minute - who are the 'bhikkhus of the group of five'?
The earlier part of the Buddha's story can be pieced together from a variety of other discourses. Briefly, the young Siddhatta Gotama (aka Siddharta Gautama in Sanskrit) was born into a life of privilege, but soon realised that he, like everyone else, would grow old, fall ill and ultimately die, and he would be separated from all that he found dear and delightful in this world. In search of a lasting solution to life's existential problems, he left home and became a wandering ascetic.
During his travels he tried all the popular methods of the age, including severe austerities such as eating almost nothing - basically trying to torture himself into enlightenment. This approach didn't work, and ultimately just made him miserable. After a time, he realised that if he took better care of himself, he would be in a better condition to contemplate the nature of the world, and so he abandoned his ascetic practices in favour of meditation. Finally, he attained enlightenment.
Wanting to share his insights, he first sought out some of the teachers he'd trained with - but, sadly, they'd already passed away. Then he remembered a group of five fellow ascetics who he'd spent time with during his period of self-mortification, and so he tracked them down. And those are the 'group of five bhikkhus' in the discourse. (The word 'bhikkhu' is often translated as 'monk' but more accurately means something like 'spiritually inclined wanderer', and that's how it's meant here.)
So, having located his five friends, what did he say to them?
“Bhikkhus, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.
Here we see the Buddha explaining to his old friends that the self-punishment they've been undertaking is not what ultimately led to his release from suffering - but nor did he simply return to his life of luxury. Instead, he found a 'middle way' between the two - neither indulgent nor excessively ascetic.
We might well imagine a certain scepticism. The five friends could well have been experiencing a bit of the sunk cost fallacy here - they've been doing all these painful practices the whole time, and now this guy who dropped out has come back saying that they never needed to do them in the first place?
And yet the Buddha is saying very clearly that he's found something really valuable. He calls himself 'the Tathagata' - literally, 'one gone to suchness', but meaning something like 'one who sees reality as it really is'.
So what does this 'middle way' consist of?
Introducing the Eightfold Path
The Buddha continues:
“And what, bhikkhus, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision ... which leads to Nibbāna? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, bhikkhus, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.
Here, in highly concentrated form, the Buddha lays out the central framework of his new approach: the Eightfold Path.
This discourse doesn't actually expand on the eight bullet points given above, but from elsewhere in the early discourses we can get a sense of what each involves. So let's take a look at each of the eight steps to see what might be involved, and whether we can see any relevance to our modern, non-monastic lives, here and now - whether we, too, can find an Eightfold Path for each of us.
Aside: a note about the word 'Right'
It can be easy to read a kind of moralistic or superior tone into the Eightfold Path - like the Buddhists are saying they have the right way to do everything, and everybody else is wrong about everything. In this case, however, 'right' really means something more like 'helpful' or 'supportive to the path'. Some teachers prefer to translate it as 'wise' or 'appropriate' instead, to convey this nuance. Nevertheless, I'll stick with 'right' for today's article - feel free to tell me I'm wrong to do so!
Right View (aka Right Understanding)
In some ways, the Buddhist path begins and ends with Right View. One of the central ideas in Buddhism is that we don't see things clearly right now, and as a result of that lack of clear seeing, we cause ourselves to suffer unnecessarily. If we could just see more clearly what's actually going on, a great deal of our suffering would evaporate like morning dew.
Sometimes, Right View is elaborated in terms of some of the deeper insights of early Buddhism, such as Dependent Origination. In other places, Right View is equated with an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, which we'll talk about next time. In all cases, there's a great emphasis on exploring the nature of cause and effect - looking to see how our experience comes to be what it is, and what gives rise to the presence or absence of suffering. This is very much the realm of insight practice, and is a major focus of the early Buddhist tradition.
Whether or not you're interested in 'being a Buddhist', there's a lot to be said for cultivating greater self-knowledge. It's remarkable how little we understand ourselves, really. Socrates claimed that the unexamined life was not worth living, and I think he was on to something. There are tremendous benefits available from doing pretty much any kind of insight practice, and those benefits greatly enrich our lives. Moreover, approaching life with a sense of curiosity, an attitude of continuous learning, seems to me to be a much more interesting way to live than sticking our heads in the sand and becoming set in our ways.
Right Intention (aka Right Thought)
Three intentions are suggested in the early discourses under the banner of 'Right Intention'. These are: the intention of renunciation/non-craving (and the cultivation of generosity); the intention of non-ill-will (and the cultivation of kindness, joy and peace); and the intention of non-cruelty and harmlessness (and the cultivation of compassion).
Perhaps these intentions speak to you, perhaps not. One thing is for sure - our intentions have great power, especially when we take the time to identify them clearly and commit to them formally. Pretty much everything around us has been shaped by someone's intention in one way or another. In a meditation practice, clarity of intention is tremendously important - if we aren't clear about what we're trying to do, we can easily spend countless practice hours getting absolutely nowhere.
What are your intentions for your practice?
Traditionally, the advice here is to speak in a way which is truthful, helpful and timely, and also delivered considerately - so if you need to say something which is true, helpful and timely but won't go down well with the listener, you should choose the right time to say it.
It can be extremely interesting to look at the way we speak, both to others and to ourselves. (Many readers will be familiar with a harsh 'inner critic', a voice that speaks to ourselves in a way we would never dream of speaking to someone else.) We can look both at the impact our words have on others, and the intentions behind what we choose to say. This can be a complete practice in its own right, and profoundly eye-opening. This doesn't need any kind of 'religious' commitment - it's simply a manner of examining our interactions, looking to see what we say, how we say it, and why.
Traditionally, Right Action is defined as the Buddhist precepts. These are: to refrain from killing living beings; to refrain from taking that which is not freely given; to refrain from sexual misconduct; to refrain from false speech; and to refrain from intoxicants (some teachers give this last one as refraining from the abuse of intoxicants).
Personally, I think these five points are pretty good advice, and I have no problem accepting them into my own life - although, when I really look closely at the situations in my life, I'll often find grey areas where it isn't quite as clear-cut as I'd like it to be.
It's perhaps also worth saying that the precepts are traditionally given as 'I undertake the training to refrain from...' - in other words, these are not 'commandments', handed down by Buddha and to be obeyed on pain of death or the threat of being sent to Hell. These are trainings, ways to engage with our lives which will hopefully have a positive effect both for ourselves and for those around us.
Even if these five precepts don't speak to you, it can be very worthwhile to take some time every now and again to reflect on what ethical behaviour means to you. Do you live up to your aspirations for yourself? And if not, what could you do about it to become the person you would like to be?
Again, there's a traditional list of livelihoods which the Buddha recommended against - things like selling weapons and poisons. More generally, though, we can ask whether the work that we do in this world allows us to live a life in line with our sense of Right Speech and Right Action. If we have a job which requires us to deceive others on a routine basis, for example, that's something worth looking at closely. Is this really making the world a better place? Or does it benefit you at the expense of others? In the latter case, is there something else you could do which would perhaps weigh less heavily on your conscience?
It's not for me to tell you what you should or shouldn't do with your life, of course. All I'm suggesting here is that this is another topic which rewards some quiet contemplation. Please give it some thought.
Earlier, I mentioned that a key part of the early Buddhist path is the cultivation of insight - Right View, coming to see things more clearly. In the long run, that approach will alleviate our suffering - but in the short term, it can be helpful to have some other tools in our belt as well.
Right Effort offers us the 'Four Great Efforts': to make an arisen unwholesome mind state go away; to prevent an unarisen unwholesome mind state from arising; to make an unarisen wholesome mind state arise; and to keep an arisen wholesome mind state around and bring it to perfection.
So the emphasis here is on noticing when we're in a bad place - generally speaking, in a state which is conditioned by greed, hatred or delusion - and finding a way to get to a better place - generally speaking, a state conditioned by generosity, kindness or wisdom. Again, there's a certain amount of cause and effect involved here - a process of learning what triggers our negative states and how to shift them into more positive states.
There's a big discussion here (which I don't have time for today) about the dangers of suppressing negative emotions. For now, suffice it to say that it can be very beneficial to spend time actively cultivating positive states, and it usually isn't terribly helpful to allow ourselves to wallow in negative states if we have an alternative.
In a nutshell, mindfulness means bringing presence of mind to whatever's going on. I've just recently completed a long series of articles discussing the many and varied mindfulness practices in the Satipatthana Sutta (the Discourse on Attending with Mindfulness), so go and check those out if you're interested.
Mindfulness is that rare quality which is always appropriate, no matter what's going on. Again, you don't have to be Buddhist to practise mindfulness - it's a really good idea to be mindful no matter who you are.
A key part of meditation is the cultivation of the skill of concentration - the ability to focus our minds where we want them to go, rather than being at the mercy of whatever distractions are around us.
On a deeper level, Right Concentration is often taken to refer to the jhanas, deep states of consciousness which can be reached through meditation. I recently taught an 11-day retreat on the jhanas with my teacher Leigh Brasington, and I plan to teach more such retreats in the future. If you're interested in attending one, I suggest you get on my mailing list (which is very low traffic and zero spam!), and I'll let you know when I have the next one coming up.
If it seems like I've given the least attention to the last two of these eight steps, it's because they're the most familiar to us already. Anyone with any kind of meditation practice already has at least some experience of cultivating both mindfulness and concentration. What I really wanted to expose in today's article was the other six steps - the rest of the early Buddhist roadmap for a rich, well-considered life.
So please give this some thought. Whether or not you ever choose to identify as a 'Buddhist', take a look at these principles and see what value you might be able to derive from them. Personally, I've found each to be a tremendous source of inspiration and insight in my own life - I hope the same is true for you too.
Circulating energy to nourish the body
In this week's article, we'll continue with the discussion of Zen energy practices which we started in last week's article. If you haven't read that one yet, please do go back and check it out, because it's important - that article lays foundations which we're going to build on this week, and if you don't have a stable foundation, your house may come tumbling down!
So what is this energy stuff anyway?
Last week we discussed the importance of drawing energy down into the lower part of the body, and in particular not allowing too much energy to collect up in the head. But what actually is this energy anyway?
The modern scientific picture of the body's 'vital energy' is still very much evolving, but traditionally several cultures have found parallel and largely equivalent ways of describing the 'spark of life'. In Indian culture (and the modern yoga world which has spun out of it) it's often called prana (although in some contexts you'll find people talking about shakti energy as well); the Chinese refer to it as qi (pronounced 'chee'), which in Japanese is rendered ki; the Tibetans refer to it as lung, which roughly translates to 'wind'. In each case, this energy is said to flow around the body according to a system of channels - nadis in the Indian system, mai ('meridians') in the Chinese view, tsa in Tibetan.
In the Chinese view, there are twelve major meridians, each linked to one of the organs, and eight 'extraordinary' meridians (sometimes called 'vessels'). It's the latter which are of interest to us in the context of Zen's energy practices. The three most important for today's purposes are the governing vessel, which starts at the perineum, runs up the back, over the top of the head, and ends at the roof of the mouth; the conception vessel, which starts at the tip of the tongue and runs down the front of the body to the perineum; and the thrusting vessel, aka the 'central channel', which runs from the perineum to the crown right up the centre of the body.
In addition to the meridians and vessels, another important concept is the dan tien (tanden in Japanese), the body's energetic centre. Strictly speaking, the body has three dan tiens, each located at a point along the thrusting vessel/central channel. The lower dan tien is in the abdomen, about three fingers' width below the navel; the middle dan tien is behind the point on the chest directly between the nipples; and the upper dan tien is behind the 'third eye', the point between and slightly above the eyebrows. Of the three, the lower dan tien is the most important, and when you hear someone referring to 'the dan tien' without further qualification, they mean the lower dan tien. The lower dan tien is like the body's 'battery pack' - it's a safe place to store and build energy, and it acts as a kind of distribution hub for the rest of the energetic system.
Ensuring harmony in the body
The Chinese view is that the body functions as a community of organs - provided the community is in harmony, the body is healthy. Last week we saw Zen master Hakuin in conversation with a mountain hermit about the body's energetic system - let's see what the hermit has to say about this 'community' idea:
"The Great Way is divided into the two instruments of yin and yang. Combining, they produce human beings and all other things. A primal inborn energy circulates silently through the body, moving along channels or conduits from one to another of the five great organs.
"Sustaining life is much like protecting a country. Whereas a wise lord and sage ruler always thinks of the common people under him, a foolish lord and mediocre ruler concerns himself exclusively with the pastimes of the upper classes. When a ruler becomes engrossed in his own self interests, his nine ministers vaunt their power and authority, the officials under them seek special favors, and none of them gives a thought to the poverty and suffering of the people below them. The countryside is filled with pale, gaunt faces; famine stalks the land, leaving the streets of the towns and cities littered with corpses.
"On the other hand, when the ruler turns his attention below, focusing on the common people, his ministers and officials perform their duties simply and frugally, the hardships and suffering of the common people always in their thoughts.
"As a result, the farmers produce an abundance of food, their wives an abundance of cloth. The good and the wise gather to the ruler to render him service, the provincial lords are respectful and submissive, the common people prosper, and the country grows strong.
"It is the same with the human body. The person who has arrived at attainment always keeps the heart's vital energy below, filling the lower body. When the lower body is filled with the heart's vital energy, there is nowhere within for the seven misfortunes to operate and nowhere without for the four evils to gain an entrance. The qi and blood are replete, the heart and mind vigorous and healthy. The lips never know the bitterness of medical potions; the body never feels the discomfort of the acupuncture needle or moxa treatments.
So a healthy body is one which is well nourished throughout the whole system, all of its parts functioning together in harmony. As we saw last week, there's a great emphasis placed on bringing the energy down to the lower body - to the (lower) dan tien - to ensure good health and long life. Drawing energy up to the head and neglecting the lower body is a recipe for trouble.
At the same time, we need to ensure that energy can circulate freely, going where it needs to go, rather than ending up trapped and stagnant. Hakuin himself asks about this point:
At this point, I [Hakuin] said to the hermit: "I am deeply grateful for your instruction. I'm going to discontinue my Zen study for a while so that I can concentrate my efforts on Introspective Meditation and cure my illness.
"There is something that still bothers me, however. Wouldn't the method you teach be an example of 'overly emphasizing tooling remedies in order to bring the heart-fire down,' which the great physician Li Shih-ts'ai warned against? And if I concentrated my mind in a single place, wouldn't that impede the movement of qi and blood and make them stagnate?"
A flicker of a smile crossed the hermit's face. "Not at all," he replied. "You mustn't forget that Master Li also said the nature of fire is to flame upward, so it must be made to descend; the nature of water is to flow downward, so it must be made to rise. This condition of fire descending and water ascending is called intermingling.
"Intermingling is a configuration of life. Not intermingling is a configuration of death. When Master Li and those of his school speak of 'overly emphasizing cooling remedies to bring down the heart-fire,' they do so in order to save people who study the teachings of the Tan-hsi school from the harm that could result from over-emphasizing such remedies."
So we have a second layer to what's going on here - drawing the energy down to the dan tien is a good start, and avoids the extreme of allowing it all to rise to the head and get us into trouble. (The hermit led with that advice because, as we saw last week, Hakuin got himself into precisely that mess through his unbalanced practice.)
But we don't want our energy to become stagnant and static either - it is, after all, our life force, and its nature is inherently dynamic. As a result, we need to encourage and cultivate that energetic circulation to avoid falling into a different trap.
The microcosmic orbit: ensuring energetic harmony in the body
In the qigong world, there's a very popular technique called the 'microcosmic orbit' which is designed for precisely this purpose. The same technique has found its way into the Zen tradition, known by a variety of names, including naitan ('inner transformation') and tenborin ('turning the Wheel of the Dharma'). Names aside, though, it's the same thing.
The essence of the technique is very simple: using the breathing and our focused attention, we encourage energy to move up the governing vessel and down the conception vessel. The specifics of how to do this vary from teacher to teacher, so I'll share two methods that I've used very successfully myself - I'm not saying that these are the only legitimate way to do this technique by any means, but I can say for sure that I've found them to work well.
So if you'd like to try these out, set yourself up in a comfortable sitting posture, perhaps take a few minutes to settle your mind, and then follow the instructions below!
Preparation: drawing energy to the dan tien
First, I recommend spending some time focusing on the (lower) dan tien, drawing your energy back to its 'home base'. If this is done with the intention of 'charging up' the body in preparation for circulation - a sense of getting ready to 'open up' the energetic system - then it serves as an excellent preparation for the next part of the practice.
(If you don't have a good sense of where your lower dan tien is, one way to connect with it is to use the practice of Ah-Un breathing. I've previously described this in another article, and there's a guided version of the practice on my Audio page.)
So all you have to do here is focus your attention on the lower dan tien. Stay here for at least three breaths, or longer if you prefer.
Connecting with the key points around the orbit: the 'water' method
When you're ready to start circulating energy, place your tongue in contact with the roof of your mouth, if it isn't already. This connects the conception and governing vessels, and allows energy to flow around the whole orbit. Don't skip this step!
Next, a nice way to 'warm up' the governing and conception vessels is to move very slowly and gently around some key points along the circuit. These are:
1. The perineum. Right in the middle, between the anus and the genitals; the point where the governing and conception vessels meet, and also where the thrusting vessel starts.
2. The tailbone. A little way up the governing vessel.
3. The point on the back between the kidneys. (Called the 'life gate', ming men in Chinese.)
4. The point on the back between the shoulder blades.
5. The base of the skull on the back of the neck.
6. The crown of the head.
7. The third eye.
8. The throat.
9. The point between the nipples on the front of the body.
10. The navel.
11. Back to the perineum. (And so on.)
I suggest moving the attention to each point in turn and staying for at least three breaths. Have the intention of allowing this part of the body to soften and 'wake up' energetically. Don't try to 'force' a sensation to happen - it's more like applying a very gentle heat and waiting for the ice to melt.
This gentle way of moving around the orbit is a very nice way of connecting with the subtler energetic sensations that are the heart of these practices. These days, when I'm learning a new energy practice, I'll spend a lot of time working with it in this style before moving on to something 'faster' or more 'flowing'.
You can keep going around the orbit in this way until you're either ready to close the practice (at which point jump down to the 'ending the practice' section below) or would like to try the more flowing approach to the orbit which I'll describe next. Be sure to complete your current orbit (i.e. get all the way back to the perineum) before moving on.
Flowing around the orbit with the breath: the 'fire' method
In this approach, we move more quickly around the orbit.
Place your attention on the perineum point, where the conception and governing vessels meet.
Then, on your next inhale, draw your attention up the back of the body, over the top of the head, and down to the top lip. Then, as you exhale, draw the attention from the bottom lip down the front of the body, all the way down to the perineum. In other words, as you breathe in, run your attention up the length of the governing vessel, and as you breathe out, run your attention down the length of the conception vessel.
Again, don't try to 'force' anything to happen. A more suitable intention is the idea of 'showing the energy where to go', allowing it to follow in its own time.
For most people it's easier to draw energy up the back than it is to encourage it to sink down the front. That means the downward direction is doubly important! You may find that an attitude of letting go and allowing the energy to sink down 'with gravity' may help to open the front channel when you're starting with this practice.
Do at least three full orbits this way, or more if you have time, ideally at least nine if this is your only energy practice. This can be a complete practice in its own right, so if you have longer to spend on it, feel free - so long as you have a gentle touch!
Closing the practice: coming back to dan tien
When you're ready to close the practice, at the end of your final orbit, bring you attention back to the lower dan tien, and stay here for at least three breaths. Having the attitude of 'closing down' the practice, storing the energy in the battery pack where it's safe, is very helpful here.
And that's it - you're done! At first you might not feel very much at all, but over time this practice begins to feel highly energising and refreshing. It's a nice way to start the day.
Enjoy your energy practice!
'Take everything in life easy'
When I went to university, I joined a Tai Chi club. I'd been interested in meditation and related matters for some time, and I'd read a book which suggested that the absolute best way to get enlightened was through the esoteric energy practices found in certain martial arts, including Tai Chi. I'd separately been fascinated by the idea of a system promoting health and relaxation which could apparently be used for fighting, and since the entertainment of my childhood had given me the idea that adult life would involve a long string of attacks by gang members who needed to be fended off with kicks and punches, my attention was piqued.
As it happened, I didn't learn much in the way of esoteric energy practices with that particular club, and while I did spend a fair bit of time engaged in combative pushing hands, I wouldn't say that these skills have really been all that necessary in daily life. My teacher did, however, say two things (one of them many, many times) which have stayed with me. One - 'shoulders, Matt!' - was his frequent comment whenever he saw he doing the form, my body a solid mass of tension as always, my shoulders up somewhere around my ears. Gradually, through repetition that was probably painful for us both, I figured out how to relax. The other thing that has really stayed with me was the last line of an email he sent me one day - 'Take everything in life easy.'
At the time, it seemed like such obviously terrible advice that it really stuck in my mind. I was an academic high achiever, blazing my way to a fancy degree, working so hard I gave myself repetitive strain injury in the run-up to Finals. My general approach to life was to apply effort, and if that wasn't working, try harder. I didn't have time to take it easy!
Well, it turns out that 21-year-old me had at least one thing in common with one of the greatest Zen masters of the last five hundred years, Hakuin Ekaku.
Hakuin's youthful exuberance
Hakuin tells his own story in a short work which he titled 'Idle talk on a night boat'. (Excerpts below are from Norman Waddell's translation.) Describing his early years of practice, he begins:
On the day I first committed myself to a life of Zen practice, I pledged to summon all the faith and courage at my command and dedicate myself with steadfast resolve to the pursuit of the Buddha Way, I embarked on a regimen of rigorous austerities, which I continued for several years, pushing myself relentlessly.
Then one night, everything suddenly fell away, and I crossed the threshold into enlightenment. All the doubts and uncertainties that had burdened me all those years suddenly vanished, roots and all - just melted like ice.
So far, so good. Hakuin has attacked his practice with vigour, and it's paid off! It turns out that, contrary to what you'll sometimes hear, a high-effort approach actually can result in some spiritual progress - particularly when you're young and healthy. My own Zen teacher Daizan has commented that he attacked his own practice in a similar manner, and there were times when he could see quite clearly that the only thing keeping his body from breaking down entirely was his youth and robust constitution. If you're over the age of about 25, this is probably not the path for you!
Nevertheless, Hakuin had scored an early victory. But, as is so often the case, his initial opening to his true nature wasn't the end of the story.
Afterwards, however, as I began reflecting upon my everyday behavior, I could see that the two aspects of my life - the active and the meditative - were totally out of balance. No matter what I was doing, I never felt free or completely at ease.
Again, this is very often the case. We reach a point of breakthrough in meditation, but the benefits of what we've discovered don't immediately transfer to the rest of our lives. Indeed, after a while we begin to notice more the ways in which we're not awakened than the ways we are, and we recognise the need for further practice.
I realized I would have to rekindle a fearless resolve and once again throw myself life and limb together into the Dharma struggle. With my teeth clenched tightly and eyes focused straight ahead, I began devoting myself single-mindedly to my practice, forsaking food and sleep altogether.
Before the month was out, my heart fire began to raise against the natural course, parching my lungs of their essential fluids. My feet and legs were always ice-cold: they felt as though they were immersed in tubs of snow. [...] I felt totally drained, physically and mentally exhausted.
Much like my younger self, Hakuin really only had one 'gear' at this point in his practice. He knew how to apply himself with maximum effort, and if that didn't work... well, he just tried harder.
The thing is, we can only maintain maximum effort for so long before we start to burn out. I've been through cycles of burnout myself, and it took me a while to learn the lesson because I'm so bull-headed when I'm in my 'must try harder' mood. Fortunately I never pushed things quite as far as Hakuin!
Meeting the hermit
Searching for a solution to his predicament, Hakuin got word of a hermit who lived up in the mountains above Kyoto (where Hakuin was based at the time). This hermit was rumoured to have studied traditional Chinese medicine, and to have a great understanding of the principles and methods involved. And, as is often the case with hermits in stories like these, there was a bit of an air of mystique around him:
Then I happened to meet someone who told me about a hermit named Master Hakuyu, who lived inside a cave high in the mountains of the Shirakawa district of Kyoto. He was reputed to be three hundred and seventy years old.
His cave dwelling was two or three leagues from any human habitation. He didn't like seeing people, and whenever someone approached, he would run off and hide. From the look of him, it was hard to tell whether he was a man of great wisdom or merely a fool, but the people in the surrounding villages venerated him as a sage.
(Sorry that the names Hakuin and Hakuyu are so similar - henceforth I'll refer to Hakuyu as 'the hermit' to avoid confusion.)
Anyway, Hakuin decided to pay this hermit a visit - after all, he was pretty desperate at this point. Despite his weakened condition, he hiked up into the mountains to find the hermit's dwelling. After a bit of an adventure, he finally tracked him down, and made his introductions:
I introduced myself as politely as I could, explained the symptoms and causes of my illness in some detail. and appealed to the master for his help.
After a while, [the hermit] opened his eyes and gave me a good hard look. Then, speaking slowly and deliberately, he explained that he was only a useless, worn-out old man - "More dead than alive." He dwelled among these mountains living on such nuts and wild mountain fruits as he could gather. He passed the nights together with the mountain deer and other wild creatures.
He professed to be completely ignorant of anything else and said he was acutely embarrassed that such an important Buddhist priest had made a long trip expressly to see him.
It has long been a tradition in Zen to be actively unwelcoming to people wishing to join a community, as a way of testing their resolve. New aspirants might have to stand out in the snow for a couple of days before being let into the temple, for example. Here we see the hermit giving Hakuin the same treatment. But he wasn't to be deterred!
But I persisted, begging repeatedly for his help. At last, he reached out with an easy, almost offhand gesture and grasped my hand. He proceeded to examine my five bodily organs, taking my pulse at nine vital points.
Furrowing his brow, he said with a voice tinged with pity, "Not much can be done. You have developed a serious illness. By pushing yourself too hard, you forgot the cardinal rule of spiritual training. You are suffering from meditation sickness, which is extremely difficult to cure by medical means. [...] You came to this grievous pass as a result of meditation. You will never regain your health unless you are able to master the techniques of Introspective Meditation. [...]"
"Please," I said, "teach me the secret technique of Introspective Meditation, I want to begin practicing it, and learn how it's done."
Introspective meditation (naikan)
Rather confusingly, the term 'naikan' (translated above as 'introspective meditation') has two meanings. One is as an umbrella term for Zen energetic practices in general; the other is as the name of a specific technique, which you can find on my Audio page (complete with a video showing the physical component of the practice).
The energy practices we find in Zen today have a very strong overlap with the techniques of qigong - hardly surprising, since many of them trace back to Hakuin and this mountain hermit versed in traditional Chinese medicine. (I guess I did learn some esoteric energy practices after all!) In a forthcoming article we'll talk more about the energetic model of the body that's found in traditional Chinese medicine.
For now, however, I'd like to focus on the remedy that the hermit gave to Hakuin. Why? Well, first of all, as we've seen from Hakuin's story, if we push too hard, we can get ourselves in a mess. If we jump into energetic cultivation practices without having adequately prepared the environment, we can develop severe headaches and other physiological imbalances. To make matters worse, many of us are not particularly in touch with our bodies - we work at desks, consume our entertainment from screens, and spend long periods of time sitting in cars or on public transport. Our bodies are often stiff, awkward and insensitive, to the point that it's quite common for people to struggle to feel normal bodily sensation in a simple body scan practice, never mind the subtle energetic sensations of naikan practices.
The practice that the hermit offered Hakuin is a nice way to get into this style of practice. It's a gentle, grounding practice which gradually wakes up the sensation of our body whilst simultaneously relaxing it, and as such it's an excellent preparation for the more active cultivation practices to come.
But I'm getting ahead of myself! Back to the story...
With a demeanor that was now solemn and majestic, [the hermit] softly and quietly replied, "Ah, you are determined to find an answer to your problem, aren't you, young man? All right, I suppose I can tell you a few things about Introspective Meditation that I learned many years ago. It is a secret method for sustaining life known to very few people. Practiced diligently, it is sure to yield remarkable results. It will enable you to look forward to a long life as well.
The hermit goes on to describe the functioning of the body in energetic terms - and, as I mentioned, we'll look more at this next time. Eventually, the hermit gets around to addressing Hakuin's unbalanced condition.
"The Buddha himself taught that we should 'cure all kinds of illness by putting the heart down into the soles of the feet.' The [early discourses] teach a method in which butter is used. It is unexcelled for treating debilitation of the heart."
"When a student engaged in meditation finds that he is exhausted in body and mind because the four constituent elements of his body are in a state of disharmony, he should gird up his spirit and perform the following visualization:
"Imagine that a lump of soft butter, pure in color and fragrance and the size and shape of a duck egg, is suddenly placed on the top of your head. As it begins to slowly melt, it imparts an exquisite sensation, moistening and saturating your head within and without.
"It continues to ooze down, moistening your shoulders, elbows, and chest; permeating lungs, diaphragm, liver, stomach, and bowels; moving down the spine through the hips, pelvis, and buttocks.
"At that point, all the congestions that have accumulated within the five organs and six viscera, all the aches and pains in the abdomen and other affected parts, will follow the heart as it sinks downward into the lower body. As it does, you will distinctly hear a sound like that of water trickling from a higher to a lower place. It will move lower down through the lower body, suffusing the legs with beneficial warmth, until it reaches the soles of the feet, where it stops.
"The student should then repeat the contemplation. As his vital energy flows downward, it gradually fills the lower region of the body, suffusing it with penetrating warmth, making him feel as if he were sitting up to his navel in a hot bath filled with a decoction of rare and fragrant medicinal herbs that have been gathered and infused by a skilled physician.
"Your body and mind will be in perfect peace and harmony. You will feel better and enjoy greater health than you did as a youth of twenty or thirty."
This practice has become known as nanso no ho - 'the soft ointment technique'. You can find a guided version of this practice on my Audio page.
So did it work?
It sure did! Here's what Hakuin has to say on the matter:
I went directly back to Shoin-ji. There I devoted myself to Introspective Meditation, practicing it over and over on my own. In less than three years—without recourse to medicine, acupuncture, or moxacautery—the illnesses that had been plaguing me for years cleared up of themselves.
What is more, during the same period I experienced the immense joy of great satori six or seven times, boring through and penetrating to the root of all those hard-to-believe, hard-to-penetrate, hard-to-grasp, and hard-to-enter koans that I had never before been able to get my teeth into at all.
I am more than eighty years old this year, but even now I never suffer from the slightest indisposition. Surely all of this is due to the lingering benefits I enjoy from having practiced the wonderful secret technique of Introspective Meditation.
So what about 'take everything in life easy'?
Well, the truth is, Hakuin didn't actually slow down, even right up until the end of his life. But introducing the gentler naikan practices gave him a counterbalance to all that effort - a way to relax and restore himself before resuming his fierce self-cultivation. Ultimately, he extended that attitude to the monks studying under him as well - he worked them hard, but when they began to show similar signs of burn-out, he shared the techniques he'd learnt from the hermit, and they too found the same health benefits.
There's a lot to be said for this. Often our lives place a great many demands on us, and we can't simply opt out of them all in order to live a quiet life - we may aspire to move our lives in that direction, but we generally can't get there overnight, and in the meantime there's work to be done. Given this, having a nourishing, recuperative practice like the soft ointment technique can be a tremendous asset.
That said, I do find that there's a lot of wisdom in my Tai Chi teacher's words as well. I've found it very interesting to investigate what happens when I find myself making a strong effort in a certain direction. There's definitely tremendous value in having a kind of quiet persistence, an energy that keeps us going even when times are tough. But a lot of my 'effort' is actually not terribly useful - a kind of internal pressure that builds up when I'm trying to force an outcome which isn't (yet) available to me. I've found that 95% of what needs to be done can be achieved with substantially less than maximum effort - and doing so leaves me with some energy in reserve, which is great when there's an unexpected demand on my time.
So, while I wouldn't yet say that I take everything in life easy, I'm certainly a lot more easy-going than I used to be - and I think that's for the best.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!