From the sublime to the ridiculous
This week we've arrived at the final koan in the Gateless Barrier, case 48, 'One Road'. The road metaphor feels particularly appropriate this week, since we've been journeying through this classic Zen text for almost two years now. If you've read the whole set of articles, well done for hanging in there! If not, you can find a complete list of Gateless Barrier articles on the articles index page.
So today's article focuses on the final case in the collection - and, like last week's, it has a nice 'summarising' feel to it, showcasing the full range of Zen practice - from the mundane to the transcendent.
Decoding the imagery
First, let's walk through the koan itself and take a look at the cast of characters, the literary references and the cultural allusions. Koans are often intended to be puzzling, but not incomprehensible!
We start with a nameless monk asking Zen master Qianfeng about a line that he's read somewhere: 'The blessed ones of the ten directions have one road of Nirvana.' According to Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida, this quotation comes from the Surangama Sutra. 'Blessed one' is a respectful way to refer to a Buddha, and 'ten directions' just means 'everywhere' (the 'ten directions' are the cardinal points on a compass (north, south etc.), plus the in-between directions (north-east and so on), plus 'up' and 'down' to make ten). So the sutra is saying that all Buddhas everywhere have 'one road of Nirvana' - one path leading to enlightenment. And evidently this sounds pretty good to the monk, so he's asking his teacher Qianfeng 'So, uh, where exactly is this road? Because that's where I want to be.'
In a previous case we talked about the Zen teacher's staff as a symbol, but here Qianfeng is using it as a simple implement - a stick, with which he draws a line. This is Qianfeng's simple, direct answer to the question. The monk is asking where this mysterious 'road to Nirvana' might be, and the teacher is saying 'Right here in front of you.' A common trope in Zen teaching is for the teacher to answer in a way which is somehow opposite to the nature of the question - so if a student brings a fancy, high-falutin' question, they'll get a very simple, earthy answer back. (See, for example, the toilet humour of case 21.)
But the monk evidently doesn't get it, and later on he goes to ask Zen master Yunmen to explain further. Perhaps he's expecting another very simple, straightforward answer, because Yunmen takes the opposite approach and gives an answer filled with elaborate imagery. He speaks of a fan leaping up to the 'thirty-third heaven' - in Buddhist cosmology, this is a reference to the Trayastrimsa heaven, home of Indra, king of the gods (or, in Thomas Cleary's translation above, the 'chief of the celestial rulers'). How can something as simple as Yunmen's fan leap all the way to heaven to whack Indra on the nose?
And Yunmen's not done - when Indra's nose encounters Yunmen's fan, 'the carp of the eastern sea are given a blow'. In Chinese legend, the carp of the eastern sea can transform into mighty dragons when the time is right - a transformation which in Zen often symbolises attaining enlightenment - and dragons of Chinese legend are renowned for their ability to make it rain. And all of this from a little fan!
So maybe that's a little clearer now... or maybe it's still clear as mud. Let's take a look at this from another angle.
How to keep your eye on the ball when there's no ball
Zen practice seems to be riddled with contradictions. It can seem like, no matter what you do, there's a Zen teacher somewhere telling you to do the opposite. It's frustrating sometimes!
For example, in last week's article we looked a bit at the differences in approach between the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen. In Rinzai Zen there's a strong emphasis on kensho - seeing your true nature, experiencing a clear shift in perspective, having an 'awakening experience'. By comparison, the Soto school downplays kensho, focusing instead on practising right here, right now, manifesting your inherent Buddha Nature from moment to moment. So which is it? Should we focus on the here and now, or do we need to wake up and become enlightened?
Whether we think of ourselves as Zen practitioners or not, what actually matters most is what's happening right now. You might have had some lofty spiritual experience last month, or last year, or in 1970 when you dropped acid for the first time, but if whatever realisation came from that spiritual experience is not manifest in this moment right now then it's no use to you. There's a saying in Zen circles that 'last year's insight is last year's insight'. Who you were last year is of course related to who you are right now, but who you are right now is what actually matters in terms of your behaviour and relationships.
So in Zen we have this strong focus on the present moment. (Qianfeng draws a line right in front of the monk - the one road to Nirvana is right in front of you.) My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, liked to emphasise what he called 'nari kiru' - a 'total cutting off' of everything except this, here, now. Other teachers talk about 'becoming one with' whatever activity we find ourselves engaged in - by bringing ourselves so completely and wholeheartedly into that activity that there's no 'gap' remaining, nothing left over, no part of ourselves which is off in a corner somewhere else thinking about what we're doing later or worrying about what happened yesterday. The state of 'nari kiru' is similar to the Flow state talked about in popular psychology, but with one key difference - Flow is typically associated with being 'in the zone' in some particular, skilled activity (like sports or performance), whereas Zen invites us to bring the same level of presence to every aspect of our lives, not just the 'peak experiences'.
This means that, from a Zen perspective, nothing in particular is 'it' - there's no real difference between our sitting meditation practice and the rest of our lives. The challenge of really living Zen is finding a way to make every moment of our lives a part of our practice - or, alternatively, realising that every moment of our lives provides an opportunity to continue our practice and be supported by it.
The drawback of this approach is that, when we treat every moment as special, that's indistinguishable from no moment being special. And while mature Zen masters will often talk about the sense of 'nothing special' as the highest ideal in practice, that can be discouraging for those of us who aren't so far along the path. All this talk of 'nothing to find, nothing to get, nothing special at all' can make it sound like there's 'no point to Zen' - so why bother with the practice at all? Why not just crack open a beer and see what's on Netflix instead of 'wasting' all that time meditating?
And this is why it's helpful to emphasise the other side of Zen practice sometimes - the transcendent moments of kensho, the carp that transforms into a dragon, the fan that bumps into Indra's nose and causes reverberations throughout the entire universe. Practice really does transform who we are and how we see and relate to the world. We really can 'wake up' - there really is a 'one road to Nirvana' that we can find and walk for ourselves. Where is that road found? Right here, in this moment. And so we come full circle.
Approaches to continuous practice
Extending practice beyond your meditation cushion is easier said than done, but here are some suggestions - some of which I've used myself, others come recommended from teachers I respect.
If your practice is Silent Illumination, it's actually relatively straightforward to translate the sitting practice into other activities. When you sit in Silent Illumination, you're 'just sitting' - that is, you aren't 'sitting and thinking about xyz' or 'sitting and listening to music'. When practising Silent Illumination, your total focus is on the experience of sitting, however that is unfolding for you right now. We can take that same attitude into walking meditation - when walking, we're now 'just walking', not 'walking and ...'. Then, when the formal meditation period is over and we make a cup of tea, we're 'just boiling the water', 'just getting the teabag or tea leaves ready', 'just pouring the water', and so on. The key point is that, whatever you're doing, you're 100% doing it - nari kiru. In particular, it's important to focus on the process of what you're doing rather than the outcome - to the extent that you're thinking about how your current activity is going to turn out, you aren't giving your whole attention to what you're doing right now. It can be pretty difficult to let go of the outcome entirely! But give it a try - the more you're able to let go and focus on the task at hand, the more satisfying the work tends to be, and usually the better the outcome is too.
If you like to work with a koan, things are a bit different. You can't necessarily bring the same level of total inward focus on the questioning process and the ball of doubt in the tanden when you're trying to make dinner or navigate a difficult conversation. Nevertheless, if we have the attitude of continuous practice, we can still make it work. My teacher Daizan likens the process of working with a koan to being in love. When you're in love, the person you love isn't always at the forefront of your mind. When you're with them, of course, there they are, but when you're both off doing different things, your awareness of the person you love can recede into the background. But because of the strength of the bond between you, it doesn't drop away entirely, and they'll often surface in your mind when there's a quiet moment. And in fact that's what Daizan recommends with the koan - when you have something else to do, just do that task completely (nari kiru again), but when you have a quiet moment with nothing going on - stuck in a queue, waiting for the printer at work - you can bring up the koan again and ask your question a few more times and see what comes up.
Certain koans can also translate to everyday activities, affording additional opportunities for practice. Let's say you're working with 'Who am I?' In your formal meditation, 'Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?' Then, in daily life, 'Who is typing on this keyboard? Who hears this jazz music? Who feels hungry right now?' Give this one a try - you'll find that, with practice, you're able to incorporate the attitude of exploring, questioning, investigating the 'centre point' of experience into a wide range of activities.
What about if your primary meditation technique is neither Silent Illumination nor koan practice? Perhaps your practice is primarily based in mindfulness of the breath, or awareness of the body. I've heard it said that it's possible to train yourself to maintain some level of awareness on the breath or body all day long, and that this is a powerful way to practise, with very beneficial results in terms of presence of mind, emotional stability, equanimity and so forth. That approach doesn't work well for me personally, for a number of reasons, but if you have a strong affinity for that kind of practice, it's definitely worth exploring. Alternatively, what if you primary practice is heart-opening? Well, how would it be to go through your day approaching each interaction with another person with the intention to send them some loving kindness or compassion? If you spend a lot of time with other people each day, this could be a very effective way to practise.
A closing word about the Gateless Barrier
As noted above, this is the final article in my series on the koans of the Gateless Barrier - but it's by no means the last word on this fascinating collection. Throughout the series I've used three texts as my primary references - 'Unlocking the Zen Koan' by Thomas Cleary, 'Two Zen Classics' by Katsuki Sekida, and 'Passing through the Gateless Barrier' by Guo Gu. All three provide discussions of each case, along with the prose and verse comments by Zen master Wumen who compiled the collection (which I've mostly omitted due to time and space constraints). Cleary's translation often includes verse comments from other Zen masters too.
As I've spent time with these koans - learning them, examining them, practising with them, attempting to unpack and explain them in these articles - I've had many surprises and discoveries along the way. A koan that I thought I understood might suddenly reveal a new layer of meaning, turning on its head everything I thought I understood about it. (It's been a bit inconvenient when that's happened a day before giving a talk on the koan in my Wednesday night Zen class!) And I have no doubt that they'll continue to reveal new meanings as I continue to study them - a koan is never really 'solved', it only provides us with a way to unlock the next step in our own practice, and it can serve that role many times over.
If you're interested in koans, the Gateless Barrier is a great place to start. The koans in this collection are much more accessible than many others, and with so many good translations and commentaries available, it's possible to get something out of them no matter where you are on your spiritual journey.
May your journey go well, and may you too find the one road of Nirvana walked by the blessed ones of the ten directions.
Overcoming the hurdles of Zen practice
This week we're taking a look at case 47 in the Gateless Barrier. We're almost at the end of this well-known collection of Zen koans (stories of Zen encounters and questions intended to stimulate insight), and I have the feeling that Zen master Wumen, who compiled the Gateless Barrier, was in a 'summarising' mood when he picked this one to occupy the penultimate slot. It's unusual among the koans in the Gateless Barrier because they're mostly pretty pithy, whereas today's case has not one but three distinct pieces, each of which relates to a specific challenge along the spiritual path. So without further ado, let's take a look!
First barrier: finding your essence
Zen master Tushuai's first barrier concerns the essential point of spiritual practice: finding out who, and what, we really are. In my lineage of Zen we typically use koans such as 'Who am I?' and 'What is my true nature?' to dig into this question. As I discussed in last week's article, koans have a way of exhausting our thinking minds to the point that they spontaneously release, revealing what lies beyond. A second approach is through Silent Illumination, simply allowing the mind to relax and let go naturally over time. And in a recent article I talked about Zen master Bankei's teaching on the 'Unborn Buddha Mind', which is another way of describing the 'essence' that is mentioned here, and I offered a third approach for finding that essence, by looking at what happens in your experience in the 'space between thoughts'.
All of these approaches are intended to move us beyond the habitual patterns of our minds. Master Tushuai calls this 'brushing aside confusion'. Perhaps it seems a little dismissive to summarise all of our usual mental activity as 'confusion'! The essential point, though, is that, prior to awakening, we see the world through a particular lens, a particular 'view', and that view is not giving us the full story. In Buddhism you'll often hear people talking about 'the relative perspective', by which they mean the conventional world view - a view of separation, a world of things and people each doing their own thing, a perspective of solidity, impact, comparison and conflict. That's then contrasted with 'the absolute perspective', which is what you hear described in spiritual circles - a view of no separation, no duality, no conflict, just ever-unfolding harmony. The absolute perspective is what we find when we discover our essence. Until you've done that, it's all just a bunch of words. So the first barrier is to find your essence!
Second barrier: fear of letting go
Tushuai's second barrier talks about 'when you are dying'. It's possible to understand this in terms of the end of life and the death of the physical body, but in Zen literature 'death' is often more symbolic than literal. Shifting from the relative perspective to the absolute requires us to let go of everything that comes with the relative perspective - which includes our sense of separate identity, our sense of being an independently functioning human with a name, a private life, interests, relationships and so on. Essentially, everything we've been carrying with us throughout our entire lives to give us a way to make sense of what is happening right now must be (temporarily!) put down. The more firmly we've identified with various aspects of ourselves - perhaps our profession, race, gender, belief system, etc. - the more difficult it is to set those aside, because they're so fundamental to how we understand what's going on. And yet that's exactly what we must do.
And so, in the run-up to an initial awakening - called kensho in Zen, 'seeing true nature' - it's extremely common for a kind of 'fear of death' to manifest. We may feel a very direct existential threat, a sense that 'if I keep going, I might not make it out of this in one piece'! And, in a sense, that's true - you won't. After awakening, you really won't be the same person any more. You can't be. You'll know for sure that the relative perspective is only part of the picture, not the whole of reality. At times you'll be fully immersed in that relative perspective, dealing with the demands of career, family, relationships and so forth, but at other times you'll have enough time and space to step back and remember, and perhaps reconnect with, the absolute.
This type of existential fear can show up at other points in practice too. A variant of it is often reported by people learning the jhanas - as the practitioner's mind begins to shift into one of the altered states of consciousness that we call jhana, there can be a sense of loss of control, of hurtling into the unknown, and that can be threatening enough to disrupt the practice. Even something as simple as letting go of a bad habit can sometimes trigger a version of this fear - when it's something that's been a part of us for a long time, letting it go can feel like losing a piece of ourselves. Perhaps we might feel like we won't know how to live without the bad habit - we don't know who we'll be if we don't do this thing which is so characteristic of ourselves.
All of these transitions do require us to step into the unknown. There's no getting around it. Other people can assure us that it's for the best in the long run, but we still have to take that leap of faith for ourselves. For some people, it can help to sidle up to the threshold repeatedly, slowly getting used to being in that uncomfortable space until we're finally ready to step over all the way. For others, it may be easier just to take the plunge directly - the 'rip off the plaster' approach. Either way, this is the second barrier: to overcome the fear of letting go.
Third barrier: life beyond awakening
Before we move on to Tushuai's third barrier, let's return to the first for a moment. We talked about the various types of spiritual exercises which can lead to seeing essence (kensho), all of which revolve around 'brushing aside confusion', i.e. escaping from our habitual mental activity.
But notice that Tushuai says that 'Brushing aside confusion is only for the purpose of seeing essence' (emphasis mine). Like I said in the Bankei article, the point of the practice is not to eliminate our thoughts once and for all. To put it in the language above, the aim of our practice is not to discard the relative perspective forever and live permanently in the absolute. I'm not even sure that's possible without someone on hand to take care of your bodily needs - feed you, wash you and so forth. Remember, all of those activities belong to the relative perspective - so if you have forever closed off that way of seeing the world, you aren't going to be taking a shower anytime soon.
In Zen, we have a saying that a mature practitioner needs to have 'both eyes open' - the eye of the relative and the eye of the absolute. Neither perspective is 'the truth'; both are simply aspects of reality.
But how is one supposed to do that? Is the idea that you live day-to-day from the relative perspective, then go on retreats a few times a year to hang out in the absolute? Well, that's an approach that some teachers do recommend, but Zen would tend to say no - if that's your chosen lifestyle, then it's starting to sound like you're becoming fond of sitting on a hundred-foot pole. The long-term aim in Zen is towards integration - of seeing that 'relative' and 'absolute' are not really separate at all.
Learning how to live after the 'spiritual death' described above is not an easy matter. As we come to understand emptiness more and more deeply, everything that we previously relied upon now seems unstable and insubstantial. We may even feel that the four great elements that make up the physical world are disintegrating all around us. How are we supposed to live when there's nothing we can depend on?
Much as I'd like to be able to describe the 24/7 fully awakened, fully integrated life from my own experience, alas, my practice still has some room for improvement! But the Zen masters of old do offer us some pointers. Bankei suggested that we could learn to live in the Unborn Buddha Mind, where 'everything is perfectly resolved'. And the third great Zen ancestor, Sengcan, wrote a poem called 'Faith in Mind' which points in the same direction - a profound trust in that which is within us to navigate the world without losing sight of who and what we really are. Zen invites us to learn to live from our essence whilst being in the world - neither hiding out in a cave enjoying the bliss of total extinction, nor being lost in the miseries and sufferings of the relative world.
It's tempting here to include a quotation from a well-respected teacher that attempts to summarise this process of integration, but I think it would be trite to do so. The truth is that the core of Zen practice is deeply mysterious to me, and continues to be so even after many retreats, insights and experiences. The unfolding of our lives is discovered through being lived, one moment at a time, not something which can be fully mapped out in advance - no matter how much I might like it to be otherwise!
May you overcome the barriers in your own life.
Where do we go when we've reached the pinnacle?
This week we're looking at case 46 in the Gateless Barrier. It's one of the more famous koans (Zen questions or stories) in the collection, and has a number of interpretations. We'll take a look at a couple of those interpretations in this article, but don't let my words here constrain you - if you find something else of value in the strange question posed above, so much the better.
How can you walk north at the North Pole?
At face value, the koan presents us with another impossible question. If you're a hundred feet up in the air, balanced on the top of a pole, how are you supposed to step forward without plummeting to your death? (Regular readers might be reminded of case 5!)
Whether or not you've found yourself in this exact situation, I suspect that many of us can relate to a sense of having taken something to its farthest practical extent - a sense that there's nowhere left to go. Perhaps you reach the top of your professional field - or the limits of your abilities. Perhaps it's as simple as a sense of having plateaued... and enough time has now passed that it's starting to look like the plateau is as good as it gets for you. Of course, it may be that that's good enough! But if you've been motivated by a sense of growth, and then that growth comes to an end, what do you do now?
In the meditation world, this sense of 'peak' or 'plateau' can show up a few different ways, some more problematic than others.
It may simply be that you've gotten what you were looking for, and that's enough for you. I know someone who finds that mindfulness meditation helps him to sleep when he's going through a rough patch - so he'll take up meditation when his sleep is bad, then put it down again when his sleep is back on track. With my snobbish Zen hat on, I might be tempted to look down on him and think about all the deep cosmic insights he's missing out on by not taking his practice deeper - but the fact is that, for him, meditation is a helpful way to sleep better, and that's it. And, honestly, there's nothing wrong with that! He has a need, meditation satisfies it, job done.
Things get a bit more difficult if reaching an apparent 'end of the road' isn't satisfying, though. Perhaps you were drawn to practice because you were interested in those aforementioned cosmic insights - you wanted to understand impermanence, emptiness and non-duality. And it's certainly possible to reach a point where you have had very clear experiences of all those things - so what next? How should you practise now? What comes next? What happens when the maps and texts no longer provide a clear way forward? How can you 'step forward' now?
Perhaps the most challenging situation is when you've developed your meditation to the point that you can find something very powerful - peace, stillness, joy - in your meditation practice, but haven't yet found a way to bring it into your daily life. Then the 'top of the hundred-foot pole' becomes a place to hide out - a refuge from the world, where you engage with your meditation practice in order to turn away from the unpleasant, inconvenient, difficult outside world and connect with the beautiful experiences that you find within. Actually, there are some meditation traditions that would regard this as a win, and which recommend a renunciate lifestyle so that you can shun the outside world to the fullest extent possible and spend as much time as you can enjoying the bliss of your meditation. In the Zen tradition, however, we regard that as stopping halfway - as the second part of the koan says, being able to touch into emptiness in your meditation practice is the start of something ('gaining initiation') rather than the end ('not yet reality'). The challenge now is to find that same sense of peace and stillness in every moment of life - in the language of the koan above, 'to manifest the whole body throughout the universe', or in the language of Zen master Bankei in last week's article, 'to live in the Unborn'.
There's also another, quite different, take on this koan, but in order to provide some context for that, we'll need to take a brief detour.
Two Zen views on 'awakening experiences'
During the golden age of Zen, five major lineages sprang up, of which two have survived in some form today - the Linji and the Caodong, to give them their Chinese names, or Rinzai and Soto in Japanese.
Generally speaking (although there are exceptions), the Rinzai approach tends to emphasise koan study - an intense, often effortful investigation in which one explores a question (like the one at the top of this article), asking the question over and over, focusing so strongly that a tangible feeling develops in the body (what master Hakuin described as a 'great ball of doubt' in the lower abdomen). If the questioning is kept up for long enough (a process which brings its own challenges!), sooner or later the 'ball of doubt' will 'shatter', and the practitioner's perspective suddenly flips around to an entirely different way of seeing things. My Zen teacher Daizan often quotes one of his own teachers, who liked to say that a koan is a question that from the outside has no solution, but from the inside is no problem - that's the shift in perspective that we're talking about. It's very common in koan practice for that shift to happen suddenly and very noticeably - at the minimum, there's a distinct 'aha!' moment when things slot into place, and potentially things can get quite a bit more dramatic. The 'enlightenment experiences' written about in (for example) Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen describe some of the ways that these moments can play out. In Rinzai Zen, having an experience of kensho (seeing true nature) is considered an important landmark on the spiritual path for most people, because it represents a clear watershed point in the practice.
On the other hand, the Soto school tends to emphasise shikantaza (aka Silent Illumination) - a very simple, sparse, gentle form of practice in which one 'just sits', remaining fully aware of the present moment but not trying to do anything or make anything happen. There are many variations on this practice, some of which do emphasise a kind of gentle curiosity toward experience, but plenty of Soto teachers will tell you that there's no need for any of that - all that's required is to sit, and furthermore, there's no need for any kind of 'enlightenment experience' - Silent Illumination is enlightenment. There's nothing to attain, no insight to have - just sit. There can even be a view that it's unhelpful to have a kensho experience, because that becomes just another thing to let go of before we can just sit quietly.
How can we reconcile these two seemingly totally contradictory viewpoints? (I'm assuming here that you want to reconcile them! Throughout history, the simple answer to this question would have been 'My tradition is right, theirs is wrong.' But personally I like to find ways to understand and appreciate every tradition, no matter how different it looks from my own approach to practice.)
The way I understand it, the whole spiritual path is fundamentally about letting go. We cling to certain unconscious ways of seeing things, and the process of developing 'insight' is a matter of learning to let go of those unconscious views to make room for other ways of seeing. But how do we let go?
We can use a physical analogy. Let's suppose you have a tense muscle. It may be that you can simply relax it, if you're sufficiently connected to your body and the tension isn't so habitual and ingrained that it doesn't respond to your intention. Simply relaxing is the gentlest, easiest way to let go of that tension, by far. This is the Silent Illumination approach - just sit, gently relaxing the mind. If that doesn't work, though, we can actually try tensing up even more - tightening not just the muscle we want to relax, but the surrounding muscles as well. We make everything tight, tense, contracted - and then suddenly relax the whole area of the body, all at once. This approach is much more intense and effortful, and tends to lead to much more of a sudden moment of relaxation rather than a gradual process of softening. And that's the koan approach - focus the mind very strongly on the process of questioning, until all of a sudden the ball of doubt shatters and the mind lets go deeply.
I have some experience of both styles of practice. When I first came to meditation, I was very much a 'doer' - although I learnt Silent Illumination early on in my practice, I found it strange and maddening because nothing seemed to happen and I didn't know what I was supposed to do. Then I met my teacher in the early Buddhist tradition, Leigh Brasington, and he taught me how to use my 'doing' skills to practise the jhanas, Brahmaviharas and insight meditation techniques. I got on very well with that approach, and experienced some clear 'watershed' moments as a result of practising in that style. A few years later, though, on a month-long retreat, something totally flipped around in my practice, and on the last couple of days of that retreat I found myself drawn back to Silent Illumination. Suddenly, that approach to practice made sense, and it's been my main method ever since. Since then, I've had fewer 'watershed' moments, but my sense is that my practice has continued to deepen nevertheless. But now it's happening gradually, almost imperceptibly, rather than in noticeable jumps. Daizan has said that it's a bit like getting wet in the rain: sometimes you'll go outside, there will be a sudden downpour, and you can pretty much pinpoint the minute when you got drenched; other times, it isn't really raining but it's very misty, and although there's no particular moment when you realise 'gosh, I'm wet!', nevertheless you're soaked to the skin by the time you get home.
No hundred-foot pole, no stepping forward
Now that we have a bit of background about the Rinzai and Soto approaches, we can find two quite different ways to understand the koan at the top of this article.
In the Rinzai view, reaching the top of the pole might represent achieving kensho. It's a watershed, a turning point - it represents a kind of 'initiation', as the second Zen master in the koan puts it. But any Rinzai teacher worth their salt will tell you that that isn't the end of the path - as I indicated above, it's a starting point rather than a finish line. No matter how big or impressive the insight and attendant enlightenment experience were, it isn't the end of the journey - and if the student is tempted to cling to it (sitting atop the hundred-foot pole), the teacher is likely to give them a gentle (or not-so-gentle) nudge to get them moving again. This is the situation of taking the student's staff away in case 44, or Zhaozhou's response to the second hermit in case 11. The question of stepping forward is thus a challenge to let go of whatever the practitioner feels has been 'attained', and to find a way to move forward still further.
In the Soto view, all this talk of achievement and moving forward is wrong from the start. There's nothing to achieve, nowhere to get to; and, to make matters worse, looking at practice in those terms is actively unhelpful, since it only reinforces the acquisitive, dualistic tendencies of the small self. So, in truth, there's no hundred-foot pole to climb, and nowhere to go from the top of it. Our Buddha Nature - our Unborn mind, in the language of last week's article - is already here, right now. We don't need to go anywhere to find it, and we don't need anyone to give it to us. We just need to look within and find it for ourselves. Seen this way, the koan is a way of inviting us to check in with our intentions for practice. Are we practising 'just sitting' with the secret idea that it'll take us somewhere special, like one of those exciting enlightenment experiences?
The trickiest part about the Soto view is that meditation practice really does do something for us (otherwise, why bother!), but if we sit down to practise with a materialistic motivation then that motivation will interfere with the practice. The correct attitude to have when practising Silent Illumination is that we're simply sitting for the sake of sitting, resting in awareness because that's something worth doing for its own sake - not to get anywhere or give us any particular result. A distracted, confused sit isn't 'worse' than a tranquil, clear sit - both are just this present moment arising in practice. Insight isn't 'better' than confusion - both are just experiences that can arise through practice.
In the long run, both approaches actually converge. The effortful path and the relaxed path both lead to the same ever-present Buddha Nature, just by different routes - and at the end of either path, you'll discover that you haven't moved an inch, let alone climbed a hundred-foot pole.
May all beings discover their Buddha Nature - no matter how they get there.
Breaking free from the prison of the mind
This week we're looking at case 45 in the Gateless Barrier. It's a simple koan that points to a truth which is both profound and extremely difficult to express in words, for reasons that will soon become apparent!
Spiritual authorities, Zen and 'self-power'
Japanese Buddhism makes a distinction between approaches to practice which depend on 'self-power' and those which depend on 'other-power'.
A tradition like Pure Land Buddhism is an example of 'other-power'. The basic idea is that if you speak the name of Amitabha Buddha (a celestial Buddha who rules over the Pure Land, a kind of heavenly realm in Buddhist cosmology), then when you die you'll be reborn in the Pure Land where it's really easy to get enlightened. It's an easy method - anyone can say 'namu amida butsu' or 'namo amituofo' - and it results in an easy road to enlightenment. The key is that someone else (Amida Buddha) is doing most of the hard work for you - hence we call this an 'other-power' approach, because you aren't doing the heavy lifting yourself.
By comparison, Zen is considered a 'self-power' approach. In Zen, nobody is going to do the heavy lifting for you. A teacher can provide you with a meditation method (like koan study or Silent Illumination), but when it comes to getting the work done, that's all on you. Yes, it helps to have a sangha to practise with, and a teacher to offer support and guidance, particularly if you're going through a tough patch, but fundamentally it's you sitting face to face with yourself, day in, day out, that gets the job done.
There's something to be said for both approaches. Awakening requires us to open up to something beyond our conventional ideas of who we are - and it may be helpful for some people to frame that as a kind of grace received from totally outside ourselves. On the other hand, many people who've grown up in a culture heavily influenced by Abrahamic religions find that that approach isn't satisfying, and that they're drawn to meditation practice precisely because it doesn't rely on an external force to intervene on our behalf - and so framing things in terms of 'self-power' might be a much better fit. And, actually, in the long run, the two approaches do kinda meet in the middle. It's said in Japanese Buddhism that even the most ardent devotee of other-power needs a bit of self-power in their practice too, and even the most determined self-power practitioner has to be open to a bit of other-power along the way too.
Nevertheless, this koan is very much aimed at encouraging the self-power approach that's characteristic of Zen, and it starts by taking aim at two possible candidates for other-power: the 'past' and 'future' Buddhas.
The 'Buddha of the past' referenced here is Shakyamuni Buddha, aka Siddhartha Gautama. This is the 'historical' Buddha, the man who lived 2,500 years ago in what is now modern-day India, the spiritual teacher who kicked off the whole tradition that subsequently became known as Buddhism. If you're looking for a Buddhist authority figure, you can't go far wrong with Sid himself. At least if we take the Pali canon literally, this is the guy who discovered the Four Noble Truths, came up with the Eightfold Path and introduced insight meditation as a path to enlightenment. The historical Buddha's teachings have been tremendously helpful to me personally, and that's why they're a big part of what I teach, despite this site being called 'Cheltenham Zen'. The ancient teachings of the Pali canon can be a great source of inspiration, not to mention a treasure trove of practical methods for developing generosity, compassion and wisdom. In a broader sense, Shakyamuni represents the tremendous body of wisdom that has been developed and handed down to us over the centuries by the many practice lineages all over the world.
The 'Buddha of the future' is Maitreya, a Buddha who currently resides in a heavenly realm, and who is prophesied to come to Earth to revive the Dharma (the true teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha) at a time when the teachings have completely decayed. Plenty of people argue that that's already happened, and several people have claimed to be Maitreya. Whether or not we believe in this kind of prophecy, the point here is that Maitreya represents the promise of future salvation - OK, things might be crappy right now, but if we can just hold on a little longer, Maitreya will come and sort it all out for us - so take a deep breath and keep going!
At the symbolic level, both of these represent 'something outside ourselves' that we might secretly hope will solve all our problems. That kind of wish can manifest in a variety of ways. Perhaps it's a subtle sense of restlessness, never settling with any one teacher because maybe the next one will say the right thing to me. The next book, the next retreat, the next empowerment, the secret scroll with the hidden teaching - these all hold the tantalising promise of being 'it', the thing that's going to turn our lives around and enable us to live trouble-free for the rest of time.
Zen master Wuzu is gently and compassionately suggesting that, if this is the approach we're taking, we might be looking in the wrong place for salvation. He suggests that both Shakyamuni and Maitreya are 'servants of another' - that's a bold claim, suggesting that even the founder of Buddhism and its promised future Messiah are just underlings in the service of someone much greater. Who could it be - and do they have any books on Amazon?!
Zen master Bankei's 'Unborn Buddha-mind'
After a period of incredibly intense practice which very nearly led to his death, Zen master Bankei had a profound realisation, which he summarised by saying 'Everything is perfectly resolved in the Unborn.'
'The Unborn' was Bankei's way of referring to what we might alternatively call 'Buddha nature', 'true nature', 'Mind with a capital M', 'awake awareness' or 'pure being'. The Unborn is not something outside of ourselves; we don't need to climb a mountain to find it. In fact, whether we look for it to the north, south, east or west, we're looking in precisely the wrong direction. In order to find it, we need to turn the light of awareness around and look inside ourselves, to find out who we really are at the deepest level.
So much for the spiritual cliches - but what does any of this actually mean?
Fully understanding Bankei's teaching is, I think, the work of a lifetime - my Zen teacher's teacher apparently once commented that 'Practice is so much deeper in one's seventies than one's sixties', and I'm not even fifty yet, so I have quite a way to go! But we can perhaps get a foot in the door, so to speak, by looking at what lies beyond our thinking minds.
Zen often comes across as being pretty anti-intellectual. There's a lot of rhetoric about how thoughts won't help you, and arguably one of the major purposes of koan practice is to frustrate the thinking mind.
But the point isn't to eradicate the thinking mind, only to break its stranglehold on our experience. The thinking mind is a wonderful thing. It can figure things out, solve problems, learn skills, allow us to analyse facts dispassionately to overcome unconscious biases - honestly, it's great. I make my living using my thinking mind to solve complex technical challenges, and so I have the thinking mind to thank for the roof over my head and the food in my belly. Thanks, thinking mind!
But the thinking mind also has its limitations. The thinking mind sees the world through two major operations: divide and compare. This is different to that, and I prefer the first one. That oh-so-simple mechanism can allow us to do all kinds of cool things - for example, we can project ourselves into an imaginary future to figure out how we want things to turn out tomorrow, allowing us to make plans to increase the chances of things going our way, while taking steps to avoid some of the obstacles that might come up and stop us from getting where we want to be. That's an immense power, and likely goes a long way to explaining the dominance of the human species on this planet.
But the world of 'divide and compare' comes with some drawbacks too. Maybe you're familiar with the phenomenon of 'overthinking'. Maybe you've caught yourself planning tomorrow's important meeting for the seventh time - even though the first six runs really did cover all the important stuff. Maybe you've felt that you could be doing better - you have a clear idea of how you should be getting on, and your actual performance falls short by comparison. Or perhaps you're really good at the 'divide' part of the equation, and every time you walk into a room you start finding reasons why you don't belong there, dividing the room into 'them' and 'us' more and more effectively, until 'us' has become 'just me, all alone, unwanted and unwelcome'.
So - and bear with me on this for a moment - what would happen if we stopped thinking, even for a moment? How would the world appear to us then, if not viewed through the lens of 'divide and compare'?
There are two tricky points here. One, it's quite literally impossible to put that experience into words. This isn't just me being spooky and enigmatic. The moment we start to use words, we have to step back into the world of thought, because that's where words come from. So as soon as we start to 'talk about it', we have to stop 'living it'. But that's not actually as bad as it sounds, because it's like anything else - we just have to experience it for ourselves, and then we know what it's like. No description of the taste of a mango will ever convey the experience of its flavour to someone who's never eaten one, but luckily it isn't that hard to get hold of a mango and try it for yourself, at least in our affluent Western society - if you're reading this article, the chances are that you have access to a mango for the purposes of a taste test.
But how the heck do we experience 'not thinking'? That's the second, and altogether trickier, point. At first, we might not even realise how much we're thinking all the time - a very common experience for beginning meditators is for people to think that the practice is actually making them think more than usual, because as soon as we get quiet and start paying attention to what's going on, the thoughts are absolutely everywhere, like an unstoppable mental fire hose thrashing around and spraying thoughts left, right and centre. If you've found this for yourself, let me assure you that the meditation didn't put the thoughts there - they were there already, you just hadn't noticed them. We tend not to notice things that are always there, like the way we rapidly stop hearing the hum of the air conditioning or central heating because it's a steady drone. In the same way, when our minds are bombarded by thoughts, we actually tend not to notice most of them - they just fade into the background of our experience.
So first things first, we need to do enough practice that we start to notice our thoughts coming and going, to identify each thought as a discrete mental event with a beginning, middle and end. We can either undertake a meditation practice specifically focused on mindfulness of thoughts, as we discussed in last week's article, or we can simply allow the awareness of thoughts to develop over time as we do another practice, such as Silent Illumination.
Once we have some level of familiarity with the contents of our minds, we can then start exploring what happens when we don't have any thought present.
If we really pay attention, we'll start to notice moments like this, particularly if we practise meditation for long enough that the mind begins to settle and the thoughts quieten down. We may begin to find that gaps open up naturally between thoughts, and in between is... something else. Perhaps it shows up first of all as a kind of silence - one student described it to me as 'a deafening, horrifying silence', because it was such an unfamiliar and unexpected experience for him. (It doesn't stay horrifying! It's actually quite nice, but it can be a bit of a surprise the first time you encounter it.)
Alternatively, if the space isn't opening up by itself, we can sometimes 'trick' our minds into falling silent for a few moments. Spend a few moments noticing your thoughts coming and going, and then ask yourself this: 'What is my next thought going to be?'
Everything is perfectly resolved in the Unborn
The first step here is to get a taste of this 'deafening silence'. Then, like so many things in meditation, the second step is to figure out how to get back there! It's not at all uncommon to 'stumble' quite easily into some kind of meditation experience the first time, and then really struggle to get back there. It isn't just a case of beginner's luck - often, the problem is that we want to get back to the prior experience so much that the mind actually tightens up and becomes less flexible, thus blocking the path leading back to the desired experience. Fortunately, this is something we can learn to overcome - we 'just' have to figure out how to incline our minds gently towards wherever we want to go, without getting so 'grabby' that we get in our own way.
Once you can get back to 'the space between thoughts', even if it's just for a few moments at a time, you can start to explore what it's like. It's a delicate business - remember, you can't use words, because as soon as you do you're back in the world of thought again. (There's nothing worse than finding yourself thinking 'Oh hey, I'm back there in the space between thoughts!', because, of course, you aren't - at least, not any more! But maybe you were, right up until the thought came along, and that's still something.)
As you start to become familiar with the space between thoughts, several things become apparent. One, you don't stop existing when you aren't thinking about something! This might sound facetious, but a genuine source of resistance to letting go of thought can be a kind of fear of annihilation. If we live entirely in our thoughts, and then we stop thinking... eek. But give it a try, and notice that it's OK - usually, quite a bit better than OK, actually, but 'OK' will do for now.
Two, if you're able to rest in that space for a reasonable length of time, you'll start to notice how simple your experience has become. Although you aren't thinking, you haven't suddenly become stupid, or incapable of functioning. If something needs to be done, it's immediately, intuitively obvious what it is - unless it's a complex problem that genuinely does need to be thought about, of course, but what you'll start to notice is how rarely that actually happens. It turns out that life isn't an endless series of challenges to be figured out - unless we make it so.
Third, as you continue to taste that direct, wordless simplicity, you'll start to notice that it feels pretty good. Not 'exciting', like cookies and ice cream, but more of a quality of deep contentment. When we aren't using our thinking minds to compare the present moment to an idealised alternative version of itself, things are just what they are - they don't need to be any different. Unexpectedly, this can be true even if what's actually here is unpleasant in some way. For example, right now I have a bit of a stomach ache, because I've drunk way too much coffee this week and my digestion is a bit upset. If I start thinking about what I should have done instead (like sticking to green tea, which doesn't affect me in the same way), I'll quickly become resistant to and resentful of the present discomfort and my role in creating it. But if I'm simply here, in the space between thoughts, then the pain in my guts is just something else in the room, along with the computer screen in front of me, the music coming out of the speakers, the sensations from other parts of my body, and so on. It's unpleasant, but it's also fine - it just is what it is, no need to make a fuss about it. No need to suffer over and above the discomfort, which is already here anyway.
I believe that some combination of the above is what master Bankei is getting at with his statement that 'everything is perfectly resolved in the Unborn'. On one hand, we're quite capable of functioning from that place - despite the lack of thought, we understand what's what and what needs to be done. And in the absence of comparison, things are just what they are and don't need to be otherwise - which is one way to define 'perfect', isn't it?
Now, Bankei was a big advocate of 'resting in the Unborn', not just as a meditation practice (although Silent Illumination is an ideal vehicle to practise this way of being), but as a way of life - sit in the Unborn, eat in the Unborn, work in the Unborn, sleep in the Unborn. To what extent that's really possible for someone in a household life, I don't know. (Maybe I'll look back in ten years' time and laugh at how shallow my practice was in my forties!) For me, there are peaks and troughs in the amount of thinking that goes on. Sometimes I'll have long stretches where my daily meditation is pretty quiet. At other times, I'll be in the early stages of a new creative or research project, and my head will be a whirlwind of thoughts (that's where I am right now, as it happens). But sometimes, things quieten down enough that I can connect with that space between thoughts - and if I can do it, you can too. And even if we only have occasional access, it's a very powerful practice to connect with it whenever we can. Whatever we're dealing with at the time, it's quite likely that the situation will seem simpler, and our immediate response more obvious, when we step out of the stream of thoughts. (I've started to think of this as 'asking my Unborn mind what needs to happen next' - perhaps there's a hint of other-power sneaking into my framing there!)
Give this one a try and see how you get on. Master Bankei would say that rediscovering your innate Unborn mind is the entire path of practice, and that each moment you spend there is a moment that you already are a fully awakened Buddha. Maybe Zen isn't so difficult after all?
May you discover your Unborn Buddha mind today.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!