How a life lived from our true nature might unfold
The story above is case 10 in the Gateless Barrier, a classic collection of Zen stories. It concerns a monk named Qingshui, who at first sight appears to be in some distress, and a seemingly rather callous response from the Zen master, Caoshan.
As usual, though, there's more to this story than meets the eye. Qingshui is actually at a pivotal point in his practice, and Caoshan's response is truly kind and compassionate. But to get to the point where we can see that for ourselves, we'll need to dig into what's being said here. So let's do it!
Alone and poor
When we first begin to investigate our experience, we start to discover the many layers of our being. Our sensory is experience is actually quite simple - coloured shapes, sounds and tactile sensations which our minds translate into the objects of the world that we perceive - and then we overlay stories about who we are, what's going on and how it all relates back to us. We can learn to see these stories for the mental fabrications that they are, as we discussed in case 8 a couple of weeks ago, and ultimately start to see through them to a simpler, more fundamental layer of experience beyond them.
In due course we begin to let go of more and more of the stories we've clung to all our lives (like Zen Master Xiangyan in case 5), and gradually find freedom from those fictitious, limiting self-identities. And ultimately we discover that every aspect of our 'self' is like this - just a convenient, temporary way of explaining experience to ourselves, rather than an ultimately true 'thing' (as we saw in case 6). In Buddhist terminology, we sometimes call this 'seeing the emptiness of the self'. There's even a step beyond, which we might call 'seeing the emptiness of the world', in which we realise that the same process of deconstruction can be applied to literally everything else too. Ultimately, nothing is absolutely 'real' in the way that it normally appears to be.
As our understanding of emptiness deepens, we can sometimes find ourselves coming to a point of crisis. If I'm not any of the things I thought I was - who the heck am I? How am I supposed to operate in the world if I can't trust my own thoughts about myself? Am I going to become a kind of Zen zombie, a bland non-person who just sits there staring into space, or a doormat who everyone takes advantage of? And if nothing else is really real either, then what does it matter what I do? Does ethical behaviour even matter in an empty world? How come Buddhists talk so much about compassion if the world is empty?
And so, coming back to the koan, poor old Qingshui is having a bit of a wobble. He's gone deep into his meditation practice, and from the sounds of things he's seen deeply into emptiness. He describes himself as alone and poor - formerly he experienced himself as a thing in a world of things, surrounded by people and possessions, but now he finds himself 'being nobody, going nowhere', to borrow a phrase from Ayya Khema, my teacher's teacher on the Early Buddhist side. Qingshui is asking for help - he doesn't know how to act from the basis of his new experience.
Drinking the wine of the Zen purists
Caoshan's response looks a bit odd at first. Rather than answering Qingshui's question directly, he simply calls Qingshui's name. Qingshui responds automatically - as we tend to when someone calls our name. Caoshan then says that weird thing about the three cups of wine. Basically, the upshot of this is that Caoshan is saying 'Look, Qingshui, you already have everything you need. You don't need to ask me for anything. You're fine, just the way you are.'
Perhaps Caoshan's reply might come across as a bit of a platitude - like he's saying 'there, there, you'll be OK, just hang in there'. It's certainly true that, although Qingshui's experience can feel a bit disorienting, it's ultimately nothing to worry about. Most people do go through a period of adjusting to their new perspective on things, but with support from a teacher or spiritual friends, it generally works itself out just fine.
But Caoshan's reply actually goes beyond simple encouragement. Caoshan has, in effect, already proven to Qingshui that he knows how to function just fine. How? By calling Qingshui's name.
Qingshui describes himself as 'alone and poor' - head-first into emptiness, no longer any sense of himself as a separate individual. And yet, the moment his name is called, he responds automatically - just fine. There's no confusion - 'Who is this Qingshui person? What's going on?' No - his name is called, and he responds immediately.
So, although right now Qingshui is having a new and strange experience of the world, something within his mind-body system still knows how to function in the conventional world. Qingshui has already been through childhood and adolescence; he's learnt to interact with the world, take care of himself, and function as an independent being. Those practical skills don't suddenly go away just because we see that the stories about who we are are merely stories. But rather than simply talking about it (as I'm doing here), which may or may not be persuasive, Caoshan is showing Qingshui directly that he can still function just fine in the world.
(People who've been following these articles on the Gateless Barrier from the start might like to go back to case 2 at this point. At the time I glossed over the exchange at the end, where Baizhang and Huangbo have an exchange that involves a similar call-and-response, but in that case ends with the student outsmarting the teacher. When you understand what's going on in this week's koan, that exchange should make a lot more sense.)
So what changes?
At this point, we might have gone from one extreme to the other - previously, it sounded as though we wouldn't be able to do anything from this strange new perspective of emptiness, but now it sounds like I'm saying nothing of consequence has changed - so what's the point?
Actually, life changes significantly as we learn to live from the standpoint of emptiness, and those changes are for the better, both for ourselves and for others. We find ourselves naturally acting in ways that are kinder and more compassionate - in a sense, we discover that those positive qualities of the heart which we might previously have seen as something to be cultivated through practices like the Brahmaviharas are actually part of the natural expression of our true nature, when we're coming from this place of emptiness.
I've mentioned that I was on retreat recently, and on that retreat one of the teachers, Jason Bartlett, mentioned that he'd heard renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche explain the change in these terms (which I'll paraphrase, because I don't remember Jason's exact words):
Living organisms naturally orient towards what's pleasant and away from what's unpleasant. The difference is that we normally approach the pleasant in a self-centric way - 'Me (and mine) first, then everyone else second, if there's enough left.' When we see the emptiness of self deeply enough, our self-centric concerns (and all of the emotional reactivity and suffering associated with them) fall away. We still retain that orientation towards the pleasant and away from the unpleasant, but we no longer see it in terms of 'my pleasant' versus 'your pleasant' - there's simply a sense of 'this is what would be best in this situation'.
In my own experience, what I've found is that, over time, I've become less concerned with 'my suffering' and more open to what's going on around me - increasingly I simply notice 'suffering', whether 'mine' or 'someone else's', and the motivation to do something about that suffering arises naturally regardless of whose suffering it is. That quality of experience is most pronounced at times when my sense of self-centrism is at its quietest.
To be clear, this is absolutely not about saying 'I don't matter any more, I have to do things for other people now.' That's actually just another kind of (really quite strong) self-centrism, albeit a form which is rather negative towards oneself! When coming from the view of emptiness, we continue to take care of ourselves just fine - we no longer put ourselves either before everyone else or after everyone else. We're people, just the same as everyone else.
(And for those of you who read last week's article and have been mulling over what it means to 'fulfil the way of Buddhahood' - this should be a big clue!)
Exploring this orientation towards the pleasant
There's a practice from the Early Buddhist tradition which can help us to explore some of these themes in our direct experience. It's the second of the four establishments of mindfulness given in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, 'mindfulness of vedana'.
Vedana is a much-debated term, but for our purposes we can look at it as our immediate, intuitive sense that what we experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The colours and shapes we see with the eye, the sounds we hear with the ear, the sensations we feel with the body, the thoughts we think with the mind, all have this quality of being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, and so we can deliberately incline our attention towards observing this aspect of our experience.
A good way to work with vedana is to examine one sense sphere at a time - e.g. start with sounds, then body sensations, then sights, then thoughts. (I recommend that order because sound vedana tends to be the easiest way in for most people, while it's easiest to get lost in sights and thoughts.) What you'll probably find is that we actually pay relatively little attention to the direct sensory experience itself under most circumstances - instead, we experience thoughts or emotions in relation to our interpretation of what we're seeing, hearing or feeling, and the vedana of the mental activity is what dominates our experience. So it's an excellent exercise to see if we can distinguish between the vedana from the five senses and the vedana of the ensuing mental activity. Along the way, you may also notice the way we tend to be drawn subtly towards the positive aspects of our experience, and subtly repelled by the negative aspects of our experience.
So those are the core instructions for the practice, and it can be very fruitful to explore your experience in exactly the way I've described. Something else that might come up, however, is that you might find that your relationship to the positive and negative aspects of experience undergoes a shift at some point. You might find yourself in a place where the pleasant/unpleasant nature of things is still recognised, and yet there's no 'pull' or 'push' whatsoever associated with them - instead, there's a sense that things are totally fine exactly the way they are. If that quality is noticed strongly, experience may even appear to be 'perfect', just the way it is. If you find yourself there, you have two choices - one is to continue with the practice as I've described it, while the other is simply to rest in this experience of perfection. In such moments, what's happening is that the layer of self-centric preference that usually sits on top of our experience has temporarily gone quiet. It feels as though we're experiencing in a simpler, more direct, even more true way, undistorted by our personal preferences. This kind of experience is a taste of our true nature, a little glimpse of how it might be to live life from the standpoint of emptiness, as described above. So, if this perspective does arise, it's not only totally valid but - at least from the Zen perspective - actively encouraged to rest in it. In moments like this, we're seeing the world from a wiser perspective, and the more we have those glimpses, the more we learn to abide in that perspective - the more we learn to live from who we really are.
So give it a go and see what you discover!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!