How the three flows of compassion can help your Brahmaviharas
Over the next few weeks I'll be putting out a series of shorter articles exploring aspects of the Brahmaviharas. I'm currently writing a four-week course exploring these rich, beautiful practices, and I'll be using these articles (and my Wednesday night class) as a way of beta-testing the material. They'll probably be a little bit shorter than usual because I already have fairly comprehensive Brahmavihara instructions elsewhere on my website, so feel free to check those out if you aren't familiar with these practices and want a concise introduction.
What are the Brahmaviharas anyway?
The Brahmaviharas are a set of four heart-opening practices. The name of these practices comes from a discourse in early Buddhism, Majjhima Nikaya 99, in which Subha, a practitioner of Brahminism, comes to the Buddha. Subha has heard that the Buddha teaches 'a path to companionship with Brahma', and wants to know what it is. Buddha replies with the following:
Firstly, a mendicant meditates spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. [...] This is a path to companionship with Brahma.
The same formula then repeats for 'a heart full of compassion', 'a heart full of rejoicing' and 'a heart full of equanimity', giving us four heart-opening practices in all. This week we'll focus on the first one.
The first Brahmavihara: loving kindness, goodwill or well-wishing
The first Brahmavihara is best known either by its Pali name, metta, or by its standard English translation, loving kindness. However, a wide variety of other translations exist - benevolence, friendliness, well-wishing, and so on. Personally, I like 'goodwill' (which I'm borrowing from Soto Zen teacher Domyo Burk, whose 'Zen Studies Podcast' I highly recommend), for reasons I'll explain momentarily. You'll sometimes also see the Sanskrit spelling, maitri, especially in Tibetan circles. (This is the same word that forms part of the name of the Buddha of the future, Maitreya, 'the kindly one'.)
However you want to translate it, the general idea is that it's the quality of wishing someone well - not because they aren't currently doing well, but just because it's good when things are going well.
Genuine metta is sometimes compared to its near enemies - qualities which are superficially similar, or have something in common, but miss the point in important ways. Traditionally, lust and greed are said to be near enemies of metta, because all involve a kind of attraction (a 'movement towards'), but metta is open-hearted and no-strings-attached whereas lust and greed have personal gain in mind. There's also another kind of 'near enemy' of metta that people in the spiritual world are often prone to - a kind of showy, ostentatious 'kindness' which is really just another ego support. Genuine metta practice actually does make you feel good, but not by lording your infinite kindness over the people around you!
Metta can also be contrasted against its far enemy - ill will, or wishing harm to others. (Contrasting metta with ill will is why I like 'goodwill' so much as a translation!) Ill will is 100% in the opposite direction to metta, so much so that metta is often given in the early discourses as an antidote to ill will.
The three flows of compassion
So far so good - but not everyone has the textbook experience of boundless love and goodwill when they sit down to do metta practice. In fact, for many people, this practice can leave them totally cold, or even bring up unpleasant feelings. What's going on here, and is there anything we can do about it?
A very helpful concept that's been doing the rounds for the last few years is the idea of the 'three flows of compassion' (although they aren't limited just to compassion - they work equally well for all four Brahmaviharas). These are three directions that emotions can travel:
It's very common in Western society to find people with extraordinary levels of self-hatred, or who have had extremely damaging experiences that make them mistrustful of others. Consequently, we can find ourselves 'blocked' in one or more of these directions.
Traditionally, metta practice starts by wishing ourselves well (self to self), then moves on to wishing others well (self to other). But if we're blocked in the self-to-self direction, it can feel like we're pushing against a brick wall even to get started. Or if we're blocked in the self-to-other direction, we might start out okay but then come to a screeching halt when it comes to extending goodwill to others. To make matters worse, there's usually at least one person in each group who falls in love with metta right from the first practice session and can't stop talking about how great it is - which only makes us feel worse if we're experiencing blockages in our own practice. What kind of stone-hearted monster are we, anyway?
If our blockages are really severe, perhaps because they're rooted in trauma, then actually it might be more helpful to speak to a therapist rather than continuing to bang our heads against a brick wall. Silent meditation is a great practice but it isn't a universal panacea, and if our inner landscape is a difficult place to be then closing our eyes and turning inward for long periods of time might actually not be the most skilful thing we can do until we've done some other work first.
That said, it can be worthwhile playing around with the three flows of compassion, to see if we can find any direction in which we can connect with the feeling of the Brahmavihara in question. Once we have it up and running, we may be able to turn very gently in another direction, and gradually chip away at our blocks over time. So if you find it difficult to start with yourself, you could either put yourself last, or you could swap out the 'self-to-self' step for an 'other-to-self' step: imagine someone else sending goodwill to you, and see how it feels to receive it. You can experiment with feeling the goodwill coming from a friend, a mentor, a parent or anyone who has helped you in the past. If nobody comes to mind, or the relationships that do come up are too fraught, complex and problematic, you can alternatively imagine an ideal caregiver - the kind of person you would love to have in your corner, who always has the time, patience, care and interest to give you, whenever you need it.
As with any meditation practice, go gently, and remember that you can come out of the practice at any time - you're in control of what's happening. If difficult memories or emotions start to surface, and it's all getting too hot to handle, you can open your eyes, look around, feel your feet on the floor, and deliberately notice that you're safe right now, no longer in the difficult situation that the practice has brought up.
Designing your own metta practice
If you're one of the fortunate people for whom traditional metta practice works straight off the bat, then enjoy it! It's a great practice, with many benefits that we'll explore in coming weeks.
But if it doesn't feel like such a good fit on your first try, don't worry about it. It doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with you - it just means that the practice might need to be tweaked before it's a good fit, perhaps by exploring the three flows of compassion to find the direction(s) that are easiest for you, or even set aside for a while so that you can pursue other practices that do resonate better with you.
Personally, it took me quite a while to get into metta practice, and from time to time I would wonder if I was some kind of monster with a cold, dead heart of stone! These days, metta is a go-to technique for me, and I'm immensely grateful to the teachers who have shared it with me. I hope you benefit from it too.
Walking the Elephant Path to tranquillity
A key meditative skill is samadhi - the practice of focusing the mind on an object, calming the usual mind-wandering process and bringing greater clarity to one's experience. Different traditions have come up with different approaches to achieve the same end; the early Buddhist tradition used jhana practice as its primary vehicle (the Pali canon defines 'right samadhi' as practising the jhanas), but later traditions evolved other approaches that were less reliant on altered states of consciousness, placing greater emphasis simply on working with the raw material of attention itself.
In this article we'll look at what's sometimes called the 'Elephant Path', a description of the stages of cultivation of samadhi commonly found these days in Tibetan Buddhism, but also sometimes used in other systems - notably in The Mind Illuminated by the late John Yates, a manual of samadhi practice which is largely framed in Theravada terms despite its use of a Mahayana/Vajrayana map.
Long-time readers of these articles may notice some similarities to the stages of samadhi described by Chan master Sheng-Yen which I've previously written about. This is no accident - while the specific language and techniques vary from tradition to tradition, the actual process of stabilising the mind is universal, and travels through very similar territory from person to person. The only difference between these maps is the specific landmarks along the way that each map has chosen to highlight.
Basics of samadhi, and the cast of characters
In a sense, samadhi practice is very simple. Place your attention on an object of focus - anything will do:
Then, whenever you notice that your mind has wandered away from your object, simply let go of the distraction, take a moment to relax, and then return to the object. That's it!
Sounds simple, right? But give it a try, and you'll find that the actual experience is not so straightforward.
In the picture, the mind is represented by an elephant. It's huge and powerful, and can be a valuable ally when it cooperates, or alternatively it can rampage around causing destruction. And so the purpose of samadhi training is to teach the mind to cooperate with us through the use of focused attention, represented in the picture by the monk.
The first obstacle to samadhi that we encounter in practice is distraction, represented in the picture by a monkey. The mind loves to wander! Some days it can seem that no sooner have you placed your attention on the object than it's already wandered away. Just as a monkey moves through the trees by grabbing first one branch and then another, the mind loves to grab on to whatever comes its way.
The second obstacle that we run into is dullness, represented in the picture by a rabbit (perhaps because they sleep a lot during the day?). Dullness is when the mind begins to switch off, either subtly or dramatically. Although the rabbit doesn't show up until the third stage of the picture, many beginning meditators find dullness can creep in almost immediately, their eyelids becoming heavy within moments of starting the practice. I suspect this is at least partly due to the busyness of modern life - our bodies are trained to understand that the only time we stop moving and close our eyes, it's time to sleep, and we're so chronically sleep-deprived that any excuse will do.
There are other obstacles that can come up (e.g. the Five Hindrances), but basically we can categorise all of them as leading to distraction or dullness, for the sake of convenience. So the process of cultivating samadhi relies on finding our way between the twin pitfalls of distraction and dullness, gradually training our minds to focus more and more consistently on our object.
Two basic strategies can help us to navigate the winding path between distraction and dullness, which we might call 'intensifying' and 'easing up'. Intensifying here means strengthening your intention to focus on the object; easing up means relaxing. Intensifying can be a helpful strategy for dealing with dullness - literally waking yourself up by bringing a little more energy into your practice - while easing up can be a helpful antidote to distraction.
The latter point is especially important, because often our instinctive reaction to mind-wandering is to knuckle down and 'try harder'. Unfortunately, though, this is often counterproductive, resulting in a mind which is increasingly tense and ***constricted. The knack is to maintain a sense of relaxation without dropping the intention to focus entirely.
Generally speaking, the sweet spot in samadhi practice is just enough intensity of focus to stay with the object, without slipping down into dullness and without becoming tense. The only problems are that it takes quite a while to develop enough sensitivity to your own mind state to get a feel for whether you're too tight or too loose, and that the sweet spot moves around as we progress along the path toward greater focus. So we're aiming for a moving target in the dark - no wonder it's not as easy as it sounds! Nonetheless, the skill does come with time - it's just a matter of practice.
Having now set the stage, let's take a look at the Elephant Path in detail. (The names I'm giving to each stage come from the Dalai Lama's book How To See Yourself As You Really Are, which I highly recommend.)
Stage 1: Putting the mind on the object
We start at the bottom of the path, leaving home and attempting to climb the winding path to enlightenment. But it quickly becomes clear that the elephant has no interest in listening to our suggestions - it runs off ahead, following the monkey, going this way and that, as we chase along helplessly behind it.
This stage represents a very common experience which beginning meditators unfortunately tend to interpret as proof that they 'can't meditate'. The mind resists any attempt to impose order or focus; all the practitioner sees, in their brief moments of lucidity, is a fast-flowing river of thoughts and emotions which is too powerful to resist. How can this possibly be brought under control?
Actually, as unpleasant as this experience can be, it's the first sign of progress. Many people have no idea how chaotic their minds are, whereas at least the beginning meditator has taken a close enough look to see the current state of affairs. That very perception of the torrential flow of thoughts and feelings is the first insight of the practice.
Stage 2: Periodic placement
If we keep practising, we begin to make some headway. The mind is still largely out of control, but we have moments where we can stay with a few breaths in a row, or a few repetitions of our mantra. In the picture, the elephant and the monkey are still way out in front, but they've slowed to a walking pace, and the tops of their heads have changed colour, to symbolise the gradual purification of the mind through practice.
At this point we're still mostly distracted rather than focused, but those brief moments of stability offer us an important glimpse that the practice is starting to bear fruit. It's helpful if we can notice and celebrate those moments as a positive sign of progress, as opposed to using them as an opportunity to beat ourselves up for being 'bad meditators' - which, unfortunately, is a common reaction, even among experienced meditators. But if we slap ourselves on the wrist every time we have a moment of focus, we're actually subtly discouraging ourselves from learning to concentrate - because who wants to get slapped on the wrist? If, instead, we make those moments a positive and rewarding experience, we're more likely to gravitate there in the future.
Stage 3: Withdrawal and resetting
As time goes on, we become more sensitive to the process of getting distracted, and we notice sooner when the mind has wandered. We start to experience more continuity with the object, and we don't wander quite as far away when we do lose it, although we may still lose it quite frequently. In the picture, we've finally got the elephant's attention - previously, the elephant was being led around by the monkey, but now the monk has taken hold of the rope.
However, notice that the rabbit has now made an appearance. As the mind settles and becomes more stable, we become more prone to sinking into dullness. The mind isn't wandering so much, and so there's less excitation in the system generally. If we don't balance that with a certain degree of energy from our own side, we tend to sink toward mental blankness, a kind of 'zoning out' that can feel vaguely pleasant but which is actually drawing us away from the cultivation of samadhi. The Buddha described a concentrated mind as 'clear, sharp and bright' - the opposite of dullness. So watch out for that sneaky rabbit!
Stage 4: Staying close
As we progress beyond stage 3, and the major distractions and dullness of the earlier stages are gradually more under control, we can start to feel like we've cracked it. But now is the time to 'stay close' - to keep a closer and closer eye on the wavering of our attention, represented in the picture as the monk closing in on the elephant, monkey and rabbit, to see them more clearly.
At this point, we might no longer find ourselves waking up from a ten-minute mental digression, but we might notice that we're quite capable of continuing to focus on the breath whilst holding a conversation with ourselves at the same time. This is a subtler kind of distraction - we don't fully lose the object, but we aren't fully focused on it either. So the focus at this stage is staying closer and closer to our object, without drifting into subtle distraction.
Stage 5: Disciplining the mind
As we get to grips with subtle distraction, its counterpart, subtle dullness, comes to the fore. (Notice that in this picture the monkey isn't even shown - it's all about the rabbit here.) In the same way that in the previous stage we felt we've conquered distractions, only to notice a subtler form coming to light, we may feel that we're no longer flat-out falling asleep in practice, but even so a subtle dullness can still creep in. If you notice sudden noises triggering a much greater-than-usual startle response, that's a good indication of subtle dullness. Again, intensifying is the antidote, but because the dullness is subtler, the intensifying will have to be subtler too. Our practice is becoming much more refined at this point - by comparison, our previous techniques start to look a bit ham-fisted, even though they were exactly the right thing to be doing at the time.
In the picture, this stage is represented by the monk touching the elephant's head with his staff, as a symbol of the subtle but continuous holding of intention required to overcome subtle dullness at this point. Note, too, that the monk is now out in front of the elephant, rather than trailing behind as in the previous stages.
Stage 6: Pacifying the mind
In the picture, the monk is now out in front, looking ahead and enjoying the scenery rather than focusing on the elephant, who is now sufficiently on-side to follow the monk obediently. But the monkey isn't quite done yet - he's still there, quietly tugging on the elephant's tail, hoping to persuade his old friend to come for another adventure.
We're now at a delicate point in the practice. The mind has become stable, and we've overcome subtle laxity - but the balance between intensifying and loosening up is becoming increasingly delicate, and we can easily put too much energy into the system and wobble off into subtle distraction again. The key now is to take the foot off the pedal and relax, allowing the system to find its equilibrium.
Stage 7: Thoroughly pacifying the mind
At this stage, the mind is almost - but not quite! - fully pacified, represented in the picture by the elephant having almost entirely changed colour, apart from part of one leg. Also, the monk is standing between the monkey and the elephant, preventing the monkey from distracting the elephant's progress.
We're nearing the end of the road now. Our skills of introspection, gently intensifying to counteract the very beginnings of dullness and gently loosening up to counteract the very beginnings of over-excitation are now fully developed, and almost nothing has to be done to keep the mind focused on its object. Soon we won't need even this much deliberate focus - but if we try to jump too soon to completely effortless practice, we might find that we fall back a stage or two, so this is a tricky point in the process.
Stage 8: Making the mind one-pointed
The monkey is gone, the elephant fully purified. It's enough for the monk to indicate the way; the elephant will obediently follow the path without further instruction.
In the same way, at this stage we simply set the intention to focus on our object at the beginning of practice, and the rest of the practice unfolds effortlessly.
Stage 9: The mind placed in equipoise
The culmination of the path of stabilising the mind, now the monk is shown in a state of calm abiding, the elephant curled up at his side.
At this point, the state of effortless focus establishes itself at the slightest intention, and remains in place without any need for interference. The mind is simply at rest.
The path beyond, and the insights that await
The picture then shows two more stages along a rainbow road. These symbolise the path to enlightenment through insight. Samadhi and insight practices have always appeared together in Buddhism, and for good reason - while insight is certainly possible without a deep samadhi practice, it tends to come more easily and touch us more deeply when the mind is focused.
So why not give it a try? If you have a samadhi practice already, does this map resonate with you? If so, perhaps the suggested points of practice along the way will help you to take it a little further. And if you've never tried this type of practice before, you can set off on your journey secure in the knowledge that you have a roadmap, and that the inevitable obstacles you'll encounter at the start of the journey are categorically not a sign that you're 'failing' or 'a bad meditator', but simply part of the path that we all go through.
Zen's approach to thought
I once saw an advert for a local Zen group which said: 'Zen: it's not what you think.' I liked that, because I like wordplay, although to be fair I didn't like it enough to go to the Zen group, so make of that what you will.
Regardless, Zen has an interesting relationship to thoughts, knowledge and learning. Sometimes Zen is presented as being totally anti-intellectual, anti-thought, anti-philosophy, anti-learning, but that isn't entirely accurate. While the central core of Zen is experiential rather than intellectual, nevertheless Zen has produced a vast body of literature, and experienced students will typically be required to study classic texts and demonstrate their knowledge and understanding. Ultimately, Zen practice must be integrated with every aspect of life, and that includes our relationship to thought.
Thoughts are not the enemy
When I meet people who are interested in taking up meditation and I ask them what they're hoping to get out of it, the most common answer by far is something like 'I want to be able to clear my mind.' Despite my best efforts to manage their expectations, they're usually disappointed to find that their minds don't fall silent the moment they sit down to practise, and if anything they start to notice their thoughts even more as they begin to develop some introspective awareness.
However, this is one of those good news/bad news situations. On one hand, it's very unlikely that beginning practitioners will be able to 'stop their thoughts' - most folks will need a pretty heavy-duty level of samadhi to come even close to a silent mind, and that takes a lot of practice. On the other hand, though, people who persist with the practice long enough usually find that they don't actually need to stop their thoughts. It becomes clear after a while that it isn't the thoughts themselves that are the problem so much as our relationship to them. Thoughts are like sounds - they come and go. We hear sounds because we have ears; likewise, we think thoughts because we have a brain. It's what happens next that's the key bit.
We tend to give our thoughts a lot of weight. When a compelling thought arises ('oh no, I forgot to do something at work yesterday!'), our attention will often naturally shift to that thought, and more similar thoughts will start to come up ('that means so-and-so won't be able to do what they need', 'they're going to be angry with me', 'I'm so careless, why do I do these things?'). To make matters worse, we tend to assume that our thoughts are true - after all, it's me thinking it, and I'm pretty switched-on, so it's gotta be right, hasn't it? The trouble is that thoughts are just thoughts, just ideas that have bubbled up into our heads, and they may or may not have any connection with reality at all - so the more easily and unquestioningly we believe them, the more we're prone to self-deception and confusion.
So meditation practice very often involves turning the focus deliberately away from the thoughts, or cultivating specific thoughts rather than letting the mind roam freely. In mindfulness of breathing, for example, we place our attention on the physical sensations of the breath, and when thoughts come up we simply let them go and come back to the breath. After a while our mind starts to get the message that, at least while we're doing this meditation, the breath is interesting to us and thoughts are not interesting, and so the thoughts fade into the background and stop distracting us so much. In metta practice, we might use specific phrases ('may I be happy') to focus the mind on a particular thought which evokes goodwill, and again after a while the mind gets the idea that, just for now, we're staying on this one thought of wellbeing rather than wandering around freely as usual.
'Don't know mind'
Zen is often associated with something called 'don't know mind'. As I mentioned earlier, it can be easy to interpret this as some kind of 'philosophy of ignorance', especially if you've heard Bodhidharma's classic description of Zen as 'a special transmission outside the scriptures, not depending on words and letters'. (If you've ever tried to read one of the more difficult Zen texts, such as the Lankavatara Sutra, it can be very tempting to say 'Oh, well, Zen is outside words and letters' and quietly put the heavy, impenetrable book down in favour of the latest Expanse novel... Or maybe that's just me.)
Rather than a suggestion to avoid learning, however, 'don't know mind' is actually a teaching which encourages us to explore our thinking mind and see its limitations. Again, our thinking mind is not a bad thing - it's super-useful to be able to solve the problems that come up in the course of our work and our lives. The only danger lies in letting it completely run the show.
I've written several times about insight - here, here and here, for example. One of the most powerful and transformative uses for meditation is to develop insight - to see deeply into our true nature, to see things as they are, to discover for ourselves what's really going on as opposed to what we think is going on. And that's the key right there - we think that our minds and our lives work a certain way, but our thoughts are not quite in sync with our experience - sometimes not at all! Nevertheless, we tend to see the world through the reference frame of our concepts - our ideas about the world. We filter what we experience through what we expect to have experienced - and if something doesn't fit, we explain it away, brush it under the carpet, or get angry with the universe for subverting our expectations. Insight comes about when we can break out of that reference frame and see something new about what's going on - when we realise the limitation of our old way of seeing, and adapt accordingly.
The more this happens, the more it becomes clear that we should hold our concepts and reference frames lightly. The tighter we cling to them, the more upsetting and destabilising it is when we discover their limitations - or the harder we have to work to keep pretending that those limitations aren't there. If we can instead acknowledge that we really don't know how things work, at least not completely, then we can be more flexible and responsive in situations that challenge the way we see the world.
What can we know, anyway?
Through this practice, we also begin to discover how complex the world truly is. At any given moment, we only see one tiny part of what's going on, and it can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to predict how even the simplest of decisions will turn out. Suppose a valuable member of my team at work is becoming dissatisfied and thinking about leaving. I value that person, and so I want them to stay - so I should try to encourage them to stay, right? Then again, leaving might be absolutely the right decision for them - and for all I know, the person I recruit to replace them might be even better. Or perhaps the person I recruit is actually worse, and causes lots of problems in the team - but in the process, the actions we take to fix the damage they're going actually makes things better in the end than they had been before. Or... You get the picture.
I've mentioned Prof John Vervaeke's excellent YouTube series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis before. In one of his videos, Vervaeke asks the question 'Do you want to be a vampire?', and points out that we can't answer that with any degree of certainty. We might have ideas about what it would be like to be a vampire, but those ideas are rooted in who we are now. Becoming a vampire would change our lives so radically that, by the end of the transformation, we would have little in common with who we are now, and that person might feel totally differently about whether they want to be a vampire or not. Even if the idea repulses you right now, the future vampire you might think it's totally cool - or vice versa.
The more we explore these kinds of questions, the more we see how very contextual our experience is. We tend to think of ourselves as fairly solid entities with fixed personalities, travelling through a fairly solid world made up of fairly solid things that are the way they are. But the more we look, the more we find not things but relationships. If I lose interest in what used to be my favourite TV show, that might be because the quality of writing or acting has declined (i.e. the TV show changed), or it might be because my personal tastes have drifted (i.e. I changed), or that something in the wider world has happened which has changed the context (e.g. maybe my favourite TV show was about a global pandemic which is somehow less appealing than it used to be in light of Covid-19).
The more we look, the more we see connections and relationships in all directions - and those relationships depend on further relationships, which depend on further relationships and so on. Sooner or later we find that it takes the whole universe to be as it is for even a single thing to happen. The world, and our relationship to it, becomes more mysterious as we realise the limitations of our knowledge - but, far from being threatening or confusing, it's actually beautiful, even miraculous. (We might even start to notice how very certain the people around us are about everything, and how often that certainty is misplaced.)
Applying this to our practice
So how can we work with all of this in meditation?
One approach is simply to practise treating thoughts like sounds, or any other distraction. Whether you're sitting in Silent Illumination, focusing mindfully on the breath or doing jhana practice, simply let the thoughts come and go in the background, like someone's left a radio switched on in your mind but the radio programme is completely irrelevant to your interests right now. Even in a practice like the Brahmaviharas or working with a koan, where you're deliberately introducing a thought from time to time, remember that the thoughts are not the ultimate point of the practice - they're just a means to an end, and so we can and should let them go, in order to make more room for the practice to unfold.
Another approach is to explore this directly. You could perhaps work with a question such as 'What do I know for certain?' as a koan, or examine a recent decision in your life and look at all of the hidden dependencies, all the things you didn't know then that you've since discovered, all the things you may never know. See for yourself the limitations of our knowledge - and maybe catch a glimpse of life's mystery for yourself.
Finding the stillness within all things
The great Rinzai Zen master Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) gave a series of talks to lay practitioners near the end of his life in which he described the entire practice of Zen as 'resting in the Unborn'. It sounds simple - but what does it mean, and how do we do it? Let's find out!
The Unborn Buddha-mind
Bankei's phrase 'the Unborn' refers to a discourse from early Buddhism, in which the Buddha declares the following:
There is, mendicants, an unborn, unproduced, unmade, and unconditioned. If there were no unborn, unproduced, unmade, and unconditioned, then you would find no escape here from the born, produced, made, and conditioned. But since there is an unborn, unproduced, unmade, and unconditioned, an escape is found from the born, produced, made, and conditioned.
Clear as mud?
Anyway, when Bankei had his great moment of awakening, it was this passage which resonated with him, and he later described his realisation as 'Everything is perfectly resolved in the Unborn.' (Bankei felt that 'unborn, unproduced, unmade and unconditioned' was a bit of a mouthful, so he shortened it to 'unborn'.) So the approach to practice that he recommended was first to discover the Unborn for yourself, and then learn first to rest and eventually to live entirely from that place. (And if that sounds like the approach I described in last week's article of discovering, connecting with and living from your Buddha Nature - yep, that's it!)
As an aside, at other times Bankei referred to the Unborn by another name, the Buddha-mind. I tend to use the term Buddha-mind myself because the word 'unborn' can sometimes have unhelpful associations for people who have had difficult pregnancies or similar experiences. For the purposes of today's article, however, I'd like to stay with the term 'unborn' because exploring it will lead us into a fruitful meditative inquiry into the nature of our experience. If the term does have unwanted associations for you, please accept my apologies.
We name the wars but not the peace in between
I think I was still a teenager (a long time ago now!) when I first heard someone observe that historians tend to give names to periods of war (the First World War, the Hundred Years War, the Gulf War) but not the periods of peace in between - as if the wars are when 'something happens', and are thus worthy of a name, whereas the peace is a period when 'nothing happens', so there's no need to name it.
This tendency to notice and focus on the 'things' and ignore the 'nothing' is pretty deeply wired into us. If you take a moment to look around you, you'll probably notice the things around you - computer, phone, chair, table, tree - rather than the space between the things. Why bother to notice the space? It's just space, after all - it's empty, there's nothing there.
In the same way, when we meditate, we tend to be naturally drawn to the 'things' in our experience; indeed, most meditation techniques actively involve placing the mind on a particular 'something' - the bodily sensations, the sounds, the sights, a visualisation. And when we get distracted, we're invariably distracted by another 'something' - who ever heard of getting distracted by nothing?
As we spend time with the 'things' in our experience, we gradually realise that they aren't 'things' at all - they're actually 'events'. Everything we see, hear, feel and think has a beginning, a middle and an end. Some events are very short-lived and some hang around for longer, but they're all fundamentally impermanent - they all come and go sooner or later. This is a classic insight that can come out of 'event-focused' meditation practices such as paying close attention to the sensations of the breath.
As you've probably already guessed from the way I'm setting this up, though, focusing on the 'events' in our experience isn't the only way to practise insight meditation. Another approach is to 'turn the light around' and focus on the awareness itself - on that which is aware of the events.
How do you persuade a knife to cut itself?
It's relatively obvious how to pay attention to the sensations of the breath. But how is one supposed to be aware of the awareness itself? The very thing you're looking for is the thing doing the looking!
As strange as it may sound, this seemingly paradoxical - perhaps even impossible - inquiry can provide a turning point for many practitioners. So if you fancy a challenge, stop reading now and give it a go.
And to be sure, it's a bit mind-bending at first (no pun intended). But there are a few approaches which can help us to get in touch with our awareness.
One approach is to come at it indirectly - to start by working with the events of the mind, but then turn your attention to trying to discover what all of these events have in common with one another - their 'true nature', if you will, the thread that binds them all together. This binding thread turns out to be awareness itself - by definition, whatever event you're looking at, that event is arising within awareness. We never experience anything outside of awareness; whatever events we examine, we are examining the functioning of our awareness. Another way to say this is that awareness is the nature of the events we experience.
Another approach is to direct our attention away from the events of our experience in a deliberate way, the idea being that if we continue to be aware but we aren't drawn into any particular event, there's nowhere left to go but the awareness itself. For example, we can pay attention to the space between objects, the silence between sounds or the gap between thoughts. (After a while, we start to get a sense that the spaciousness, silence and stillness is actually everywhere - for example, that the silence is not just 'between' but also 'behind' and 'around' sounds, and perhaps even 'within' sounds in a certain way. This is another sign that we're connecting with awareness.)
A third approach is to search for something that you can't find, such as the self (as we discussed last week) or even the awareness itself. You can't find 'self' or 'awareness' no matter how carefully you search the events of your experience, because they aren't themselves events - and in the repeated failure to find them and the ensuing frustration, the mind becomes disillusioned with the failing strategy of focusing on the events all the time, and opens up to the possibility of connecting with experience in a different way.
Connecting with awareness and discovering the Unborn
So what happens when we connect with awareness itself? It's sometimes described as a kind of foreground-background shift - everything kind of turns on its head.
Rather than seeing things in terms of separation and comparison, we see things holistically, all part of one seamless whole. We experience a kind of unity, a sense that everything is deeply interconnected and not truly separable. We sense that the 'things' of our experience are not really 'things' at all, but only appear that way to us because our minds are putting boxes around parts of our experience and labelling them for our convenience - essentially, that the 'world of things' that we experience is only a projection of the mind as opposed to being an ultimately true account of how the world is.
On closer inspection, our experience becomes more mysterious still. Previously, we may have thought of our 'awareness' as something arising from our brain and body, but experientially it's actually the other way around - awareness comes first, and within that awareness arises all the events that we then identify as brain and body.
Even time itself can flip around if we look deeply enough. What actually is time, anyway? We experience the passage of time by tracking events - the sound of a ticking clock coming and going, or the rhythm of the breath rising and falling. Again, if we search for 'time', we can't actually find it - we can only find more events, which imply time to us, but time itself is nowhere to be found. Our sense of time is simply another event arising within awareness. Awareness itself is 'outside' of time.
This is what the Buddha means by 'unborn, unproduced, unmade and unconditioned', and thus what Bankei is pointing to as well. The awareness - the Unborn Buddha-mind - is not a thing, not an event, not something which comes and goes in our experience. Awareness is the foundation of experience itself, its true nature. Everything else - time, space, thinking, brain and body - arises within awareness.
But we're hard-wired to experience things in terms of events, and so even when we begin to connect with awareness, at first we tend to see it terms of the 'nothing' between 'somethings'. People often report having encountered a 'still point' in their experience, or a deep 'inner silence'. The awareness is often compared to space - vast, boundless, empty. And we can start to tap into a profound sense of peace in practice when we connect with awareness in this way, a substantial relief from the crazy bustle of events in our experience.
Living in the Unborn
Simply chilling out isn't the end of the road, though. The stillness and silence of awareness is only half the story, and if we stop here, we're missing the best part! Zen practice has never been about cutting ourselves off from our lives and simply sitting immobile in peace or bliss waiting to die.
Awareness has two aspects. One is its nature, or essence - this spacious, silent, unchanging emptiness that we've been talking about. But it also has a dynamic aspect - usually called its function. The function of awareness is precisely to produce the events of our experience that we had to turn away from in order to see its nature clearly. The awareness is not separate from the events - the events are the awareness, or at least one aspect of it.
Awareness is sometimes compared to an ocean for this reason. When we look at an ocean, we see the waves - the 'events' of the ocean, if you like. Waves come and go, change and vanish. Each wave is, in a certain sense, different to every other wave, unique and individual in its own right. Equally, the whole ocean has the nature of water - every wave is simply a different shape of water, and can never be anything else. The watery nature of the ocean never changes, no matter whether the waves are calm or stormy.
And, in just the same way that we can enjoy the display of waves whilst at the same time remembering that it's all water, we can learn to experience the spontaneous display of our awareness's functioning whilst remembering that its true nature is stillness, spaciousness and silence. No matter what happens, that true nature never goes away - it simply can't, because it's the Unborn, beyond time and space.
As we begin to recognise the true nature of our experience, we gradually find ourselves coming to rest on this bedrock of peace and stability, even in the midst of activity. We can engage more fully than ever in the world, knowing that in a certain sense we're always safe and secure - we've come home to rest in the Unborn.
The art of getting out of our own way
One of my favourite Zen texts, 'Zazen Yojinki', aka 'Notes on what to be aware of in sitting meditation', comes to us from the 13th century Soto Zen master Keizan. By the standard of most Zen texts, it's actually pretty readable, full of practical advice about meditation, like what to do if you're feeling sleepy or distracted. (If you'd like to read the whole thing, you can find a translation here.)
But the part I'd like to highlight today comes at the very end. It's a simple instruction which sums up the spirit of the 'quiet Zen' practice of Silent Illumination, aka shikantaza, just sitting, or resting in the Unborn. (If you aren't familiar with Silent Illumination, I recommend taking a moment to check out my page on that practice, so you have some sense of what's involved.) The passage in question is, for me, one of the most beautiful expressions of Zen practice that I've ever encountered, and it rarely fails to move me.
You should just rest and cease. Be cooled, pass numberless years as this moment. Be cold ashes, a withered tree, an incense burner in an abandoned temple, a piece of unstained silk.
This is my earnest wish.
What on earth does it mean to 'be a piece of unstained silk'? Wouldn't that be boring, or passive? And isn't this recommending that we hide away from the world and refuse to deal with our problems?
I'm going to suggest that it's actually quite the opposite of all of those things, but in order to get there we need to cover a little theory first. So let's dig in!
Being no-one, going nowhere
In last week's article we looked at the Three Characteristics, a teaching from early Buddhism on the nature of phenomenal reality. I chose to translate one of the Three Characteristics, anatta, as 'essencelessness', even though the more usual translations you'll find are 'not-self', 'non-self' or - worst of all - 'no self'. I went with 'essencelessness' because I wanted to sidestep the whole discussion about the Buddhist view of the self, but if we're going to understand what it means to be a piece of unstained silk, it'll help to examine this in a bit more detail.
It's sometimes suggested that the Buddha taught that we don't have a 'self', or even that we somehow don't exist. And if this strikes you as a strange idea (perhaps even one that fails basic reality testing - after all, if you don't exist, who's reading this article?), you're not alone.
The Buddha wasn't actually saying 'you don't exist' or 'you don't have a self'. What he was inviting us to do was to look at what our sense of self actually is - not to say 'it doesn't exist!' but rather to ask 'in what way does it exist?' There are two key points to notice about the self. One is that, although it feels like we have a stable, unchanging identity as 'me' (haven't I always been me? It certainly seems that way!), actually the way that identity manifests is constantly changing, both from one situation to the next and over time.
The other is that this sense of 'me' is at the centre of all of our stories about what's going on in the world - a kind of 'organising principle' that helps us to figure out what to do to stay alive and do what needs to be done. Unfortunately, this 'me' is also at the heart of our experience of suffering. Any kind of 'problem' in my life comes about because I can't get what I want, or because I got something I didn't want. The 'problems' are really just 'situations', but when viewed from the perspective of 'my gain and loss', 'my pleasure and pain' and so on, those situations can easily become unpleasant and painful in a very personal way.
So when we've spent a bit of time looking into this, a natural response can be to suppose that we should try to get rid of our 'self'. The damn thing isn't doing us any good, it's at the centre of all these problems - we should eradicate it totally, and thus be free from suffering! Right? It's a nice idea in principle, but it doesn't work in practice - if you ever hope to access your bank account in the future, you'll need to have at least a minimal sense of your identity.
Another common move - perhaps informed by the Christian values of self-sacrifice and humility, which are written deeply into our culture even if we don't think of ourselves as Christian - is to try to diminish our sense of self. We speak quietly and humbly about ourselves, we avoid making claims about our talents and achievements, we let other people go first even when we're in a hurry, we make sure never to take the last chocolate in the box, that kind of thing.
Actually, though, this is just replacing one kind of self-narrative with another one - the 'humble self' or 'spiritual self'. In many ways we can actually be more self-conscious when trying to act in this way because we have to stop periodically to think 'Now how would a humble person act in this situation?', and so we second-guess our natural instincts.
So what's the answer? Just do whatever comes naturally? But isn't that what we were doing anyway?
How we get in our own way
A central idea in Zen is the search for our true nature, or Buddha Nature. Our Buddha Nature is already awake, wise and compassionate, peaceful and untroubled - but it's covered over by a lifetime of accumulated mental habits and obscurations, with the result that the reality we experience and the behaviour we manifest day-to-day is anything but peaceful and untroubled. So we practise in order to reconnect with that true nature, and learn to manifest it in the world.
If that sounds a bit mysterious, we can perhaps get a clearer sense of it by looking at the Brahmaviharas. In early Buddhism these four positive qualities of the heart - kindness, compassion, delight in the good fortune of others, and equanimity - are considered something to be actively cultivated through practice. but in Zen the view is more that these qualities are inherent within us as part of our Buddha Nature and simply need to be uncovered. Whichever view you prefer, though, it's instructive to look at how we can get the Brahmaviharas slightly wrong, twisting them into their 'near enemies' - qualities which look and feel kinda similar to the true Brahmaviharas, but with a sour tinge to them.
Kindness, for example, is simply the natural radiance of an open heart. We encounter others, and we wish them well. It's as simple as that. But, if we're not careful, kindness can slide over into a kind of calculated 'niceness', wanting to be seen as a nice person, deliberately looking for opportunities to demonstrate your kindness. Notice that there's still an element of pure kindness here, but now it's been infiltrated by the 'story of me' - I want to get some advantage for myself in this situation.
Compassion is another practice which can easily lose its way if we aren't careful. Compassion in its purest form is simply the recognition of suffering and the heartfelt wish for it to be relieved - whether that suffering is ours or someone else's. But compassion can easily become 'pity' instead, a mood where we distance ourselves from 'that person over there' and 'feel sorry for them' from a place of superiority. What started out as the recognition of a universal human condition has now become a way of asserting my status over someone else's, pushing us further apart rather than bringing us closer together.
In the same way that a truly open heart will resonate with suffering no matter 'whose' suffering it is, that same open heart will resonate with joy, whether it's 'my joy' or 'your joy'. But see how quickly the recognition of another person's good fortune can be tinged with jealousy when 'I' get involved with the story - how lucky for you! I'd quite like to have that myself!
And - perhaps worst of all - equanimity, which is simply a condition of balance, calmness and ease in the face of whatever comes up, can so easily slide over into indifference. (We can even do this deliberately if we've heard people talking about the value of 'detachment' as an antidote to 'attachment'.) It doesn't matter to me, therefore I don't need to care, and so I turn away from my experience, numb to whatever is happening, safe in my cocoon of indifference.
So what can we do about this?
Here we have to be very careful. We're used to seeing the world through the lens of the 'self', and it's very likely that anything we try to do in an intentional way will be coming from that same place. As I said before, we have to be very careful that, in our attempts to extract the distorting effect of the self from our experience of the world, we don't simply replace it with another, fancier self which is ultimately just as problematic as the previous one.
Instead, we make a different move - we don't do anything at all. We 'just sit'. We practise being with our whole experience, just as it is, without reacting. We see our self-based habitual reactions firing off in response to whatever is coming up over and over, but - to the extent that we can - we simply let those reactions go and watch them fizzle out. Over time, our habitual patterns start to slow down, and we become more able to sit in the midst of our experience with greater and greater equanimity (but not indifference!).
In other words, we rest, and cease our usual activities. Our inner fires of reactivity die down, and we become like cold ashes where a fire once blazed. Like a withered tree, an incense burner in an abandoned temple. A piece of unstained silk.
But the end result of this is not passivity. Rather than becoming nothing at all, we simply get out of our own way. Without stopping entirely, the 'self-narrative' loses its central importance in our decision-making process. We don't forget who we are, and we don't have to pretend to be less than we are, but at the same time we no longer need to put so much energy into telling everyone else who we are, projecting the image of ourselves that we've worked so hard to create.
And as that self-image recedes into the background, our Buddha Nature can shine forth. The vital force which animates us continues to respond to the arising circumstances of our lives, but we are no longer so obsessed with our personal projects at the expense of everything else, no longer so distracted by self-conscious considerations or motivated by personal gain. Our do-gooding becomes genuine kindness, our pity becomes compassion. If anything, we have more energy to invest into the world, now that we're no longer so preoccupied with our own stuff - our own suffering gradually relieves itself, and we become available to help others with their own problems.
This is my earnest wish.
How letting go of the need for certainty frees us to enjoy our lives
A central teaching in early Buddhism is the Three Characteristics of Existence - three fundamental properties which apply to literally everything we experience. It's said that having a clear enough experience of any two of these at the same moment can trigger stream entry, the first stage of awakening in the early Buddhist path - so it's clearly important material. On the other hand, at first glance the Three Characteristics can strike modern readers as pessimistic or gloomy, and we can feel discouraged from exploring them further.
So in this article I'll lay out each characteristic in turn, to give us a sense of what's being described, and then look at why their seemingly negative message is actually good news after all.
The Three Characteristics
Impermanence (Pali: anicca, Sanskrit: anitya), also translated as inconstancy, is the recognition that all things in our experience change. At one level, it's obvious to us that civilisations rise and fall, fashions come and go and so on, but here we're talking about something much more immediate and in-your-face. The claim here is that everything we experience - whatever we see, hear or feel, internally or externally - is subject to change. The phenomena of our experience arise, hang around for a while, and then pass away again. Your most compelling thoughts, that itch on your nose in meditation that seems like it's never going to stop, the deep-seated conviction in the depths of heartbreak that you'll never be happy again - all of these things come and go. Some of them come and go faster than others, but nothing lasts forever.
Unsatisfactoriness (Pali: dukkha, Sanskrit duhkha), also translated as unreliability, or (somewhat unhelpfully, I think) 'suffering', is the recognition that nothing in our experience provides a complete, self-sufficient, lasting source of happiness. In one sense this is obvious if we've already accepted impermanence - if all things come and go, how could anything provide lasting happiness? But the characteristic of unsatisfactoriness has a slightly different spin on it - it points to the subtle sense of discontent which is present even in the most positive experiences. You may have had the experience of your enjoyment of a concert, film or book being slightly tainted by the sense that you expected it to be better somehow. Perhaps you bought a new house, and at first it was a beautiful palace, everything you wanted it to be... and then you noticed that the roof leaks in heavy rain, or the toilets don't quite flush right, or the wallpaper is peeling, or the neighbours are noisy. Little by little, the unsatisfactory elements creep into your awareness, eating away at your perfect happiness.
Essencelessness (Pali: anatta, Sanskrit: anatman), also translated as corelessness or (again, not entirely helpfully) as 'non-self', is the recognition that nothing has any 'inherent existence'. Of the three, this is the trickiest to explain, but I'll take a swing at it. What this is pointing to is that everything in our experience comes about as the result of causes and conditions coming together, rather than simply popping into the world fully-formed exactly the way it has always been. Consider a candle, which gradually melts into a puddle of wax. Is the puddle of wax still a candle? No. Where did the candle go? Well, it changed into the puddle of wax, maybe. But at what exact moment did it stop being a candle and start being a puddle of wax? It turns out that, although we tend to look at the world in terms of solid objects - a world of things - it's actually much more accurate to look at it in terms of processes, where the name 'candle' is simply a temporary label we hang onto part of our experience for a brief period of time, for the sake of convenience. Early Buddhism focuses on applying this teaching first and foremost to our sense of self - as we look inside and try to find any element of ourselves which is the 'essence of me', we discover that we can't find it at all. All we find is more and more processes, each of which break down into more and more sub-processes the more closely we look.
What's going on here?
But hang on, you might be thinking, if it really is true that absolutely all of our experience is characterised by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and essencelessness, how come we don't see things that way? On the contrary, we see a world of solid objects, and we tend to have a sense that lasting happiness is just around the corner, if only we could solve enough of our problems.
One way to look at this is in terms of the developmental process that we undergo when we're born. At first, we're ejected from the womb into a strange world that we don't understand at all. We're totally helpless, utterly dependent on those around us to keep us alive. But over time, we learn to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world, start to figure out what we can and can't eat, what we like and dislike, and so on. We gradually develop a sense of individuality, and with it, the ability to take care of ourselves and navigate the world as independent individuals. (That's one way to look at what it means to become an adult.)
So we develop a way of seeing the world which is based fundamentally around bringing order to chaos. Rather than experiencing our visual field as a meaningless soup of colours and shapes, we learn to divide it up into discrete, labelled objects and compare those objects to see which ones we like and which ones we don't. And, of course, we do the same for what we hear, think and feel. Soon, we have access to a view of the world which is nicely carved up into boxes, each rated out of 10.
The problem is that this way of viewing the world is so effective that we come to rely almost exclusively on this way of being, to the point that we forget that it's just one way of looking. The view becomes the truth. At rare moments in our lives, we may touch into another way of being - perhaps we're standing on a beach watching the ocean, or walking in the woods, and for a time we seem to be able to take in the whole scene all at once, with no need to divide it up into categories. And perhaps those moments are simply happy memories that we don't think about too much, or perhaps we start going to the beach or the woods from time to time, because those places give us access to this experience that is strangely rewarding even though we don't fully understand it.
These kinds of experiences are a clue that something important is missing from our usual carved-up way of seeing the world. If we live only from the perspective of division and separateness, we attempt to inhabit a world which is fundamentally out of step with the way things are - as the Three Characteristics point out. All phenomena are impermanent - the objects we experience refuse to stay in one neat box for all time, but pop into existence, move from one box to another and then vanish, just as we were starting to feel like we'd got them figured out. All phenomena are unreliable, and not a source of lasting happiness - we might have something pegged as an 8 out of 10, but the more we look at it, the more we notice its flaws, and that 8 drops to a 7. And all phenomena are without a fundamental essence - including us. Something might move from an 8 to a 7 not because of some as-yet unnoticed flaws, but because we ourselves changed, and as a result our relationship to the object is different.
Three doorways to mystery and beauty
At this point, you might be feeling a little uneasy. After all, I'm kinda pulling out the rug from underneath you - I'm pointing out that everything in our lives, absolutely everything, is subject to change, is ultimately unsatisfactory, and isn't even well-defined to begin with. Even if this were true, why on earth would we want to inhabit the unreliable, murky, chaotic world that the Three Characteristics seem to describe?
So at this point I'd like to offer a different sense of the world view that a sufficiently deep grasp of the Three Characteristics can open up for us, heavily informed by the Zen tradition, which in general tends to place greater emphasis on engaging with life in the midst of all its complexities, as opposed to renouncing the whole thing in disgust and removing oneself from it.
First, impermanence. Yes, this means that everything comes and goes - and, ultimately, that everything we love will someday change and vanish. But, given that this is true whether we like it or not, what should we do about it? Refuse to engage with anything because it will only be taken away from us? Or can we instead take this opportunity to see our present good fortune and experience some genuine gratitude for the people and things in our life - even the difficult ones, who help to make us who we are? It's easy to take the conveniences of modern life for granted, but it's really pretty amazing that we live at a moment in human history when we can use the Internet to access so much of humanity from the comfort of a chair. Frankly, it's pretty amazing that many of us can get clean, drinkable water in our homes just by turning on a tap. Most of the people who've ever lived have not had these conveniences - and there's no guarantee that people in the future will have them either. Furthermore, recognising our own impermanence can be a powerful spur to action. Death is certain, and the time of death is uncertain; how do we want to use the time we have left? Seeing the world in this way can open up a profound sense of the preciousness of each moment of our lives, allowing us to appreciate what we have, and act in ways that we won't regret when we no longer have the opportunity to go back and try to fix our mistakes.
Second, unsatisfactoriness. As one teacher once put it, this sounds a bit crap. Everything is unsatisfactory? Everything sucks? Wow, fun meditation practice you have there, buddy. But here's another way to look at it. If nothing ever possibly could be 100% perfect and completely satisfactory, and we really, truly understand that, then we're free to drop our demands that our experience be exactly what we want. We can see the imperfections in our favourite things not as irritating flaws that should have been better, but as the inevitable result of being a thing in the world. We can move from loving the attractive and resenting the flawed to embracing the flaws as part of the whole - we can enjoy what we have for what it is, warts and all. And we can bring this same approach to the people in our lives - including ourselves. That isn't to say that we stop trying to improve ourselves because 'that's just how I am', but at the same time we recognise that our ideal of perfection is simply a guiding star for us to follow because we feel inspired when we do so, as opposed to an attainable standard that we're currently failing to reach.
And third, essencelessness. As we explore this deep and profound teaching, we find that 'things aren't things' - that what we experience only exists because of the coming together of inconceivably many other factors, each balancing, supporting and contextualising everything else. If we go far enough, we can see that in order for anything at all to exist, it depends on the whole universe. Starting from a simple exploration of how a single, seemingly solid object came into being, we soon find ourselves exploring a vast, interconnected web of relationships, a kind of universal tapestry in which each thread is constantly shifting and changing. As we realise the mind-boggling complexity required for anything at all to happen, we shift from a world of neat little formulas and reductive explanations to a world which seems increasingly mysterious and full of wonder. We can, at times, be struck by sheer amazement that we're here at all, and profoundly grateful for the opportunity to explore even the tiny corner of the universe that's available to us in our brief lives.
Ehipassiko: come and see for yourself
The Buddha would frequently tell his followers not to accept what he said simply because he'd said it, but to investigate it for themselves, using the phrase 'ehipassiko', literally meaning something like 'come and see'.
In the same way, the Three Characteristics are not something we're supposed to 'believe' in order to be 'good Buddhists'. They're a description of reality which we can explore and test for ourselves, not by thinking and philosophising but by looking at our immediate experience, in any moment, including right now. Do you find anything at all which is permanent and completely unchanging? Do you find anything which is totally satisfactory and will always remain so? Do you find anything which exists 100% solidly in its own right, rather than as the product of a combination of conditions?
In fact, not only do you not have to believe anything you read here, but if you've read it and still think it sounds crap, you're very welcome to remain sceptical - in the words of the great Zen teacher Jiyu Kennett, if a teaching doesn't sit well with you, you are right to doubt what you think it means. This practice isn't about blindly accepting things that strike you as stupid, unhelpful or wrong. Come and see for yourself! If you're right and it's a load of rubbish, then your own explorations should confirm that, shouldn't they?
And if it turns out that there's some merit in the Three Characteristics after all, then maybe you, too, will discover a way of relating to the world that makes plain the preciousness of each moment; that allows us to accept flaws as an integral part of something's beauty rather than merely a sign that things could have been better; and that opens up a sense of the profound mystery of existence and the vast web of interconnectedness that produced us, sustains us and will continue long after we're gone.
Letting go into the universe
I've spent the last few days on a meditation retreat. If you aren't familiar with the concept, a retreat involves setting aside a period of time to remove oneself from daily life and focus on practice, often maintaining silence and restricting one's behaviour in other ways (e.g. refraining from watching TV or reading). It's often on retreats when the deeper insights and meditative experiences open up for the first time, because the relatively secluded environment allows us to set to one side all the usual clutter of our minds and go deeper. (More on that later.)
My main practice for this retreat was Silent Illumination. Silent Illumination is a very simple practice - another name for it is 'just sitting', the theory being that if you simply sit and do nothing, reality will reveal itself to you (eventually!). Essentially, the practice is about relaxing the core of our being until the contraction at the centre that we call 'me' relaxes, and we dissolve into the wider ocean of reality.
Relaxation is often included in meditation instructions, but it can be easy to skip over that step as 'just a preliminary', part of the warm-up before the 'real practice' begins. That's a mistake! Let's take a closer look at relaxation and see why it's so important.
Constriction and relaxation
In last week's article I used the metaphor of the zoom lens to talk about concentration practice - focusing on something is equivalent to 'zooming in' on it, while stepping back into our broader awareness is equivalent to 'zooming out'. I still think it's a reasonable metaphor as far as it goes, but there's an aspect missing which is crucial to practice, which we might describe as how 'tightly' the focus is being held.
In the Satipatthana Sutta - the early Buddhist discourse on the four ways of establishing mindfulness - one of the aspects in the third category of mindfulness practices is to notice whether the mind state is 'constricted'. (Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation uses the word 'contracted', and that's probably the more commonly encountered version these days, but both Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Ajahn Sujato translate it as 'constricted', and I like the mental image it gives me - of a fearsome snake wrapped around its prey gradually squeezing the life out of it - so that's the one I'll run with today.)
What does it mean for the mind to be 'constricted'? It's a little different to being 'zoomed in' (in fact, the sutta also talks about 'expansive' and 'not expansive' mind states, so it clearly isn't just a reference to having a narrow field of focus). Rather, 'constriction' is something to do with how we're holding the object of focus, whether large or small.
Pick up a small object, preferably something fairly sturdy like a pebble. Now, hold it in your clenched fist. Squeeze it! Really hold on tightly. This is a 'constricted' way of holding the pebble. It's quite unpleasant, isn't it? Now turn your hand so that the palm is facing upwards, and completely relax your grip, so that the object simply rests on your open palm. This is a 'relaxed' way of holding the pebble - and you'll probably find it's quite a lot nicer than the constricted way of holding it.
We can do the same thing with our mind. And it turns out that - unless you're particularly trying to explore what it's like to have a constricted mind - it's basically always more helpful to be relaxed.
(As I write this, I feel a little uneasy about writing such a categorical statement. So I'd encourage you to check it out for yourself! Explore what it's like for the mind to be constricted and relaxed, and see if you can find any situations where it's preferable to be constricted. If you do, leave a comment below!)
It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it
My teacher Daizan is a superb repository of pithy little phrases which seem very simple on the surface but are incredibly profound when you dig into them. One of these phrases is this: in any situation, there are two things going on - the situation itself, and our relationship to it. And while we often don't have much control over the situation, we can at least work with our relationship to it.
Some schools of meditation encourage us to try to eliminate 'negative' aspects from our experience - weeding out negative thoughts and emotions, for example. In Zen, however, we take a different approach. From the perspective of Buddha Nature, negative thoughts and emotions are just as much a totally pure, pristine manifestation of reality as anything else, and so there's no need to eliminate anything at all. What matters is not the content of our experience so much as the way we see and understand that content. Can we see even our afflictive emotions as Buddha Nature? (If not, keep practising!)
In the same way, it doesn't really matter whether our attention is focused on something large or something small - but it does matter how we're focusing. Is the attention soft and relaxed, or rigid and constricted?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about living a Zen life, bringing present-moment attention to everything we do all day long, and I mentioned Dahui Zonggao's advice to maintain the thread of one's practice throughout the day, reconnecting with it whenever there's a quiet moment. My partner subsequently pointed out that this kind of instruction, though simple and well-intentioned, can actually lead to someone getting themselves in a bit of a mess if they go about it the wrong way. (Unfortunately, I can describe this kind of mistake from personal experience!)
What happens when we notice we've become distracted? The standard instruction is to let go of the distraction and come back to the practice. So far so good, but how do you do that? It's easy to experience a moment of frustration - 'Dammit, mind wandered again!' - and in that moment of frustration, there can be a little bit of constriction in the mind, and when you return to the practice, your attention is now held just a little bit tighter than it was previously. Then, a moment later, your mind wanders again - dammit - and you come back again, gripping just a little bit more firmly again. Ten 'dammits' later and your meditation practice is starting to be a pretty unpleasant place to hang out. Your mind won't stay on the object, you don't know why, and your frustration is mounting.
Again, there's nothing wrong with experiencing frustration in meditation - it's a natural human emotion, the same as any other, just as much Buddha Nature as anything else. But equally - at least from a certain point of view - we do this practice to move ourselves in a certain direction, and repeatedly constricting the mind ain't it. So it's in our interest to be aware of this danger and practise in such a way that we don't make life harder for ourselves than it needs to be.
The importance of relaxation in practice
Many teachers strongly emphasise the importance of relaxation in practice - but if you're anything like me, it's the kind of instruction that's easily overlooked, or not understood to be of such crucial importance.
For example, when Chan master Guo Gu teaches Silent Illumination, he leads students into the practice starting with a whole-body relaxation process, and stresses the importance of physical relaxation as a continuing touchstone throughout the rest of the practice, both in stillness and in movement. (In the same vein, last time I wrote about Silent Illumination I noted that the relaxed body posture embodies the quality of mind that we're seeking to cultivate.)
My jhana teacher Leigh Brasington teaches a practice which is very different to Silent Illumination, but he also stresses the importance of relaxing. In fact, when giving the basic meditation instructions at the start of a retreat, he says that when you notice your mind has wandered, you should first consciously relax - every single time - before returning to your object.
The American teacher Bhante Vimalaramsi goes a step further in his 'Six-Rs' formula for dealing with distractions - his third step is to relax consciously, and his fourth step is to smile (technically 're-smile', so it starts with R…) - again, a smile is a physical manifestation of relaxation and deliberately cultivating a smile can help the body and mind to rest in a more relaxed state in general.
However you want to do it, relaxation is a vital part of practice - please don't neglect it.
Emptying yourself out to become free
Another mental image that came up during my retreat was of practice being a kind of emptying-out process. Life throws all kinds of stuff at us, and over time we end up carrying a great burden. Silent Illumination (and many other types of practice, such as the jhanas or the Brahmaviharas) invites us to sit quietly and begin to let go of some of that stuff - allowing it to release and dissolve, gradually emptying us out. A little practice every day helps to keep our load manageable; a retreat provides us with an opportunity to empty ourselves more profoundly, perhaps to the point that we can more easily see our true nature shining through all the junk we've piled onto it. When we leave the retreat, the stuff will start to pile up again, but over time we get better at letting it go - somehow it dissolves more efficiently, so we carry less of a burden in general and we can go deeper faster when the conditions to do so present themselves.
But we can't let go of our burdens if we're wrapped around them like a boa constrictor. If we're clinging tightly to each little bit of mental detritus, our practice may actually just remind us how much we're carrying. So it's crucially important that we're able to relax our grip - to let go of all that stuff, rather than gripping it even more tightly.
Please remember this next time you're practising and you notice that your mind has wandered. Maybe that little 'dammit!' will still slip out - but don't let that set the tone for the rest of the practice. Relax, soften, maybe even smile, and then come back to your practice. What you're doing doesn't matter nearly as much as how you're doing it - both in practice and in life.
Taking a look at our in-built zoom lens
There's a story in early Buddhism - specifically number 127 in the Majjhima Nikaya, the 'middle-length discourses' of the Pali canon, the collection of texts which purport to record the teachings of the historical Buddha - in which a householder, Pancakanga, approaches a senior monk, Anuruddha, with a question.
"Sir, some senior mendicants have come to me and said, 'Householder, develop the limitless release of heart.' Others have said, 'Householder, develop the expansive release of heart.' Now, the limitless release of the heart and the expansive release of the heart: do these things differ in both meaning and phrasing? Or do they mean the same thing, and differ only in the phrasing?"
In other words: these people are telling me to do one thing, but these other people seem to be saying something else. What's going on? Are these two ways of saying the same thing, or are they totally different?
This is a common question in today's oh-so-complex spiritual world as well. In the age of the Internet we have access to so many traditions, so many teachers and so many practices that it can be hard to tell what's what. (My website alone has about a dozen practices drawn from two different traditions.) Are there meaningful differences between them? And do they all end up in the same place eventually?
While you can find people at both extremes of the spectrum, I personally incline toward a moderate view. It seems clear to me that there's great commonality between the world's great contemplative traditions. Equally, though, there's a great diversity of methods available, and different ways of describing and understanding the territory that those methods lead us into, and those differences make a tangible difference to the practitioner's experience along the road. So, while I'm willing to believe that we're probably mostly heading up the same mountain, we're definitely taking different routes up, and some of the terrain is going to be quite different.
Let's get back to Pancakanga's question. Specifically, he wants to know about the 'limitless release of the heart' and the 'expansive release of the heart'. Are they the same, or different? It's a fair question! One person's 'limitless' might well be another person's 'expansive'. That's the problem with language in general - although two people might use the same word, the meaning behind it can easily be different, and sometimes the difference is enough to matter a lot. And that's the case here too.
"The limitless release of the heart and the expansive release of the heart differ in both meaning and phrasing. This is a way to understand how these things differ in both meaning and phrasing.
Anuruddha gives us a nice clear answer: the limitless release of the heart is not the same as the expansive release of the heart. Even better, he's going to explain what they are! (We don't always get an explanation in the Pali canon, so it's always nice when we do.)
"And what is the limitless release of the heart? It’s when a mendicant meditates spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. They meditate spreading a heart full of compassion ... They meditate spreading a heart full of rejoicing ... They meditate spreading a heart full of equanimity to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of equanimity to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. This is called the limitless release of the heart."
This is a description of Brahmavihara practice - the cultivation of four wholesome and beneficial emotional qualities, which I tend to translate as loving kindness, compassion, resonant joy and equanimity. (If you're familiar with Brahmavihara practice, you might wonder where the instructions to send each emotion to a friend, then a neutral person, then a difficult person etc. are. Those instructions are actually not found in the early discourses themselves, but were developed as part of the later commentarial tradition, to give people a more step-by-step approach to cultivate these qualities.)
OK, so that's the limitless release of the heart - what about the expansive release?
"And what is the expansive release of the heart? It’s when a mendicant meditates determined on pervading the extent of a single tree root as expansive. This is called the expansive release of the heart. Also, a mendicant meditates determined on pervading the extent of two or three tree roots ... a single village district ... two or three village districts ... a single kingdom ... two or three kingdoms ... this land surrounded by ocean. This too is called the expansive release of the heart. This is a way to understand how these things differ in both meaning and phrasing."
What's being described here is quite different to the Brahmaviharas. Instead of cultivating particular emotions, the practitioner is instead being invited to contemplate spaciousness - starting small, and gradually getting bigger and bigger.
What's this all about?
A mind like space
Take a moment to look around you. (I'll wait.) You'll probably find that your eye falls naturally on the objects, the things around you - computer, phone, table, chair, wall, floor, that kind of thing. You probably don't notice the space in the room - you look straight through it to see the objects.
And this is quite a natural thing to do - after all, 'space' isn't actually a 'thing', so much as an 'absence of thing'. But - as chapter 11 of the Dao De Jing reminds us - the space in a room is what makes the room useful. If there were no space in the room - if the room were a solid block of stone, with no doors or windows and no interior space - we wouldn't be able to enter the room, see into it or store anything in it. It wouldn't be a room at all.
So take another look around, and notice the space. There's the space between things, and there's also the space occupied by things. The space is not disturbed or marked by the coming and going of the things - the space doesn't try to cling to whatever object is placed there, and it doesn't feel sad when the object is taken away. The space is simply there.
And it turns out that our awareness is like this too. Awareness isn't a thing - you can search for it all you like (and you should - it's a good insight practice) - but you'll never find it. And yet without awareness, we wouldn't experience anything. But because we have awareness, we can experience everything - no matter how big or small, delightful or terrible. Awareness itself doesn't judge or cling, resent or reject - all of that comes later, arising within our awareness in the form of emotional reactions and thoughts.
Zooming in and out
Awareness itself has a kind of panoramic quality - we can rest in total openness, aware of all the sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings in our experience in a gentle way, and in fact that is where the Silent Illumination practice leads us.
Most of the time in daily life, though, we don't use awareness in that way. Instead, we use our faculty of attention to 'filter' our awareness, focusing on certain aspects of it at the expense of others. Sometimes we focus deliberately, but often our attention is drawn, seemingly automatically, to something in our experience.
Thus, many meditation techniques work deliberately with the attention, training it to go where we want it to. (Samadhi practice is basically all about training the attention.) And once we have a bit of skill with the attention, we can start to play with it in ways that can be quite helpful, especially once we start to notice the effect that focusing the attention has on our overall experience.
Focusing on something is a bit like 'zooming in' on it. If we focus on a particular sensation for an extended period of time (e.g. the sensation of the breathing at the nostrils), it can sometimes feel like the sensation is actually getting bigger. It isn't, but what's happening is that our mind is becoming so focused on the sensation that everything else is falling away - that sensation is becoming our whole (subjective) universe in that moment.
If we 'zoom in' on a pleasant sensation, or even a neutral one, the resulting experience is often very nice. Amongst other things, by zooming in like this, we take our attention away from the habitual negative thoughts and emotions which otherwise swirl through our minds. As a result, we tend to find those thoughts and emotions calming down and dwindling away, because we're no longer supplying them with the energy we normally invest in them. Thus, we become calm and peaceful, and have a nice meditation experience.
Conversely, at times we may find ourselves 'zoomed in' on something unpleasant, such as a feeling of fear, pain or sadness. Needless to say, having one's whole subjective universe become an experience of sadness is not especially pleasant. And while it isn't wrong to feel sad from time to time, it's also quite legitimate to use our meditative skills to alleviate the pain - at least so long as we aren't using those skills to avoid dealing with situations in our lives that do need some attention.
One way we can work with negative experiences is to 'zoom out' deliberately - using the same faculty of attention that we previously used to 'zoom in' on a pleasant or neutral sensation, but now moving in the other direction, opening out towards a more expansive view, bringing more of our peripheral awareness into the picture.
What we find in this case is that expanding the scope of our focus has a kind of 'diluting' effect on the unpleasantness of the negative experience. If you put a spoonful of salt in a small glass of water, the water becomes totally undrinkable, but if you put the same spoonful of salt into a huge freshwater lake, the net effect is basically nothing. In the same way, the great space of awareness can become a kind of refuge for us - a space which is vast enough, open enough, non-judgemental and neutral enough to hold whatever comes up for us without being overwhelmed.
So this is Anuruddha's invitation to us - to practise working with the scope of our attention, and in particular practising this 'zooming out' move, providing a greater and greater space in which to hold whatever's coming up for us.
Give it a go!
The marrow of Zen
Zen practice has the power to transform the way we experience our lives for the better. But how does it work? In this article we'll take a look at the meaning of 'insight' in the context of meditation practice, and how we might cultivate it for ourselves.
Meditative insight vs Buddhist philosophy, and why this article is a fool's errand
First, it's important to make a distinction between 'meditative insight' and 'Buddhist philosophy'.
Throughout the ages, both meditators and philosophers have explored the Big Questions. What is the meaning of life? How can we live well and be happy? Who are we, really? Where do we come from, and what happens when we die?
These kinds of questions can be approached in two ways, which correspond to two ways that we can 'know' something more generally. One approach is to use our intellect - to examine the question through logic, using evidence and careful reasoning to arrive at a conclusion, perhaps discussing it with others to take their perspectives on board. The other approach is to look at our direct experience - 'feeling' our way into the question as opposed to 'thinking' about it.
The world's great spiritual traditions have all amassed a great body of philosophy - carefully reasoned theories about the nature of the universe and what it means to be human. Buddhism is no exception - the Madhyamika and Yogacara schools of philosophy are particularly influential, but there are many more. Some people (myself included) find this type of philosophical exploration very interesting, and enjoy reading, thinking and arguing about it with like-minded people. If taken far enough, the study of philosophy can even change the way we see the world, by persuading us that our old ideas weren't quite right, and giving us a better way to relate to what's going on.
Insight-based paths such as Zen have a similar goal - changing the way we understand and relate to our experience - but approach it very differently. Rather than thinking about our experience, we explore our experience directly. When we pick up a cup of tea, we don't need to think about it using logic and careful reasoning to determine whether it's hot or cold - we simply know, immediately and directly. And if we'd never drunk a cup of tea before, no amount of intellectual analysis will really enable us to know what it tastes like - we can only do that by drinking the tea and experiencing it for ourselves.
Meditative insight thus seeks to change us through direct experience, rather than reasoning and persuasion. We examine our experience very closely, generally over and over again, until we at last come to see for ourselves what's actually going on, rather than having to rely on the argumentation of others.
Of course, the major drawback of this approach is that it's impossible for me as a teacher to give you the experience of insight. If we were doing philosophy, I could explain the theories and principles and we could debate them. But when it comes to insight, all I can do is point the way - you have to look for yourself.
Approaching insight practice
One approach to insight practice is simply to explore for yourself. If you hear a teacher say something (or read something in one of these articles) that sounds interesting, check it out for yourself! Maybe you start wondering where thoughts come from, or what exactly they are, or where they go when they vanish - well, take a look! Sit in meditation, take some time to settle your mind, and then look at your thoughts and see what's going on. Following your nose in this way can potentially be much more powerful than using someone else's technique just because they told you to - if you don't really care about the outcome of the practice, or you only have a vague, theoretical idea that it might be interesting, your practice is likely to be far less diligent than if you're exploring something that's of immediate personal interest. (Zen master Bankei likened using someone else's technique to a monk pretending to have lost their robe and searching for it. If you'd really lost your robe - by the way, you only get one, so you're naked until you find it again - you can bet that you'd keep hunting until it turns up. But if you're only pretending to have lost it, what happens when you start to get bored and hungry?)
That being said, over the millennia, various meditation techniques have developed which have proven to be effective at leading diligent practitioners to realise the key insights of the path. It's important to emphasise that the technique is simply a means to an end, rather than an end in itself - you might practise a particular meditation technique many times without learning anything of interest, and conversely insight might arise at any time, with or without a technique. But the techniques have been tried and tested throughout the centuries, and the ones that have survived the test of time are the ones that seem to work fairly well for a decent range of people. There's a popular saying in contemplative circles: 'Insight is an accident, but insight meditation makes you accident-prone.'
Where to look?
Different traditions have adopted different approaches for exploring phenomenal reality, and arguments have raged for millennia about whether the different approaches ultimately lead to the same insights or not. A fairly moderate interpretation, which I tend to favour, is that we're all climbing the same mountain, but different traditions have charted routes up different faces of the mountain, so the experience of climbing will be quite different for most - if not all - of the journey.
So let's take a look now at two different routes up that mountain...
Examining the perceived
The Theravada tradition of Buddhism focuses primarily on deconstructing the 'events' of our phenomenal reality - the sights, sounds, feelings and thoughts that come and go from one moment to the next. (Some ways of doing this are described on my insight practice page.) Over time, we come to see that whatever is seen, heard, felt and cognised is impermanent (subject to coming and going), unreliable (not a source of lasting happiness) and made up of the coming-together of various causes and conditions, as opposed to existing in its own right. As such, nothing is ultimately worth clinging to, because sooner or later everything in our experience will change and vanish. Although this might sound rather drab and depressing, in the long run it's a deeply liberating insight, because it allows us to let go of our craving to have things the way we want them to be. We can simply let go into the flow of our lives, and see what happens next.
Examining the perceiver
Whereas the Theravada tradition focuses mainly on the 'events' of our experience, Zen prefers to 'turn the light around' and focus on who, or what, perceives those events. What actually is this awareness? Where is it? What is it made of? What is it that looks out through our eyes and listens with our ears? What is our true nature, exactly - not who we think we are, but where is the essential essence of 'me' in our direct experience?
One classic Zen approach to explore these questions is koan practice. Here, we use the question itself as the object of our meditation - settling the mind, then turning our full attention to a question such as 'Who am I?' or 'What is this?' But rather than thinking discursively and analytically about it, as we might if we were taking the philosophical approach, we instead use the question as a way of going deeper into our direct experience. We bring the question to mind, focus intently on it, and then see what we notice as a result of holding this spirit of inquiry. At first, it's likely that we'll have all sorts of thoughts about the question, but in time these fall away, and the practice begins to go deeper, until finally insight dawns in a sudden 'breakthrough' moment.
The other practice most commonly associated with Zen is Silent Illumination/shikantaza/just sitting, which, in its usual form, is simply a matter of resting in a calm, alert manner, aware of whatever's coming up. The basic view here is that, rather than using a koan like a stick to poke at our experience and see what comes up, we instead come to rest and allow reality to reveal itself to us. In this way, we may naturally discover the truth of the strange concepts that we've heard about in Dharma talks or read about in books (or on this website). Some lineages of Zen are quite strict on this point, saying that one should never try to explore anything intentionally in shikantaza practice, but simply allow whatever arises to arise. Other teachers (such as Chan master Sheng-Yen, whose approach to teaching Silent Illumination has been highly influential on my own) allow for the possibility of incorporating insight practice explicitly into 'just sitting' - Sheng-Yen, for example, would sometimes advise his students to settle into the attitude of Silent Illumination and then actively contemplate emptiness or impermanence from that calm, alert place.
Establishing the conditions for insight to arise
One of the most interesting (and irritating) features of insight practice is that the reality we're investigating is literally all around us, right in front of our faces, and so we don't have to go anywhere special to find it - seeing anything clearly enough will do the job.
So how come we aren't all fully enlightened already?
Basically, because we aren't seeing it clearly enough. The role of meditation is to sharpen our metaphorical vision to the point that we can see what's going on as it really as, as opposed to how we think it is. Part of the role of meditation practice is thus to train our minds to focus and see more clearly, without the usual mental noise of habitual distraction and layers upon layers of interpretation.
In many traditions, meditation practices are split out into concentration/samadhi practices and insight practices. Samadhi practice is used to calm the mind down and enable us to see clearly, before we shift gears to insight practice and look closely at what's going on. A good approach is to use the first 50-75% of your practice time to settle the mind - e.g. with jhana practice, the Brahmaviharas, or the 'concentrated mind' step of Silent Illumination - and then the remaining time for insight work. Balancing insight practice with concentration is especially useful if you're taking an event-perspective, deconstructive approach to insight work, because deconstructing sensory experience tends to be agitating and unsettling, and you'll have a much better time of it if you have a calming, soothing practice alongside the deconstruction.
On the other hand, Zen tends to prefer to practise in a way that combines samadhi and insight. Silent Illumination is, by definition, the balance of stillness and clarity, calmness and clear seeing. And even though we tend to think of koan practice as a kind of insight work, it really involves a deep, single-pointed focus on the question at hand, as opposed to a discursive intellectual exploration of the topic or an active deconstruction of sensory phenomena - in a sense, you can look at koan practice as focusing your whole mind on the question mark. Some of the great Zen masters of history have described their experiences of 'breaking through' a koan, and it's clear to anyone with a samadhi practice that these masters were profoundly concentrated on their koan at the decisive moment.
However you prefer to practise, there's no getting away from it - insight practice is both easier and deeper with a calmer mind. Don't neglect samadhi!
The importance of going deep
Insight practice takes time, patience and repetition. Typically, you will need to examine your experience many, many times before insight arises, and you may need to experience the same insight directly quite a few times before it really sinks in.
There's a story about the first Zen teacher, Bodhidharma, which says that when he decided his time in China had come to an end, he called his four primary disciples together, and asked them to explain their understanding. To the first, he said 'you have attained my skin'; to the second, 'my flesh'; to the third, 'my bones'; to the fourth, 'my marrow'. Leaving aside how grisly this sounds, the implication is that all four had understood Bodhidharma's essential teachings, but to different levels of depth.
A shallow understanding can be interesting for a while, but rapidly fades and becomes just another weird thing that happened one day while meditating. A deep understanding can change our lives. So don't settle for skimming the surface - go as deep as you can, and when you think you've understood it all, keep going!
Change your body, change your mind, change your life
The subtitle of this article - change your body, change your mind, change your life - is the motto of my Zen sangha, Zenways. And while it's perhaps tempting to write this off as a tweetable marketing catch-phrase, there's a deep truth to it that I'd like to explore in this week's article. Zen practice really can touch every aspect of who we are and what we do - if we're willing to let it, and if we know how.
Levels of engagement, and Daizan's sports analogy
From time to time I teach mindfulness courses for beginners, and it's always interesting to see to what extent people are willing to engage with the material. I do my best to advertise up front the expectations of the course - a daily 30-minute meditation practice and various additional exercises - but often when people actually start the course, they find it's difficult to fit the practice into their day, or they simply aren't willing to give up their free time at all.
My teacher Daizan has a sporting analogy for one's level of engagement with meditation practice and the benefits that ensue. Some people use mindfulness as a kind of topical ointment when they're feeling stressed - do some practice when they're having trouble sleeping, perhaps, and then drop it again once they're back to normal. That's the equivalent of playing football every once in a while, when the mood takes you: it's enjoyable while you're doing it, but you don't really start to accrue any particular long-term fitness or skill from playing that way.
The next level up is the equivalent of playing regularly for an amateur team. Maybe you're in a local league, you attend training sessions, and you start to get quite a bit better at football. You're also developing a higher level of baseline fitness, which will have other benefits beyond simply playing the game. In a mindfulness context, at this point you've established a regular meditation practice which keeps going through good times and bad, and as a result you're starting to develop some side benefits, such as a generally higher level of focus in daily life, lower blood pressure, and greater resilience to stress rather than simply temporary relief from the symptoms of stress.
Then we have the professionals - people who have devoted a significant chunk of their lives. These are the salaried football players whose lives revolve around the game - training, fitness and performance have become part of who they are. In the meditation world, you're looking at people who may practice for several hours a day and attend multiple silent retreats throughout the year. For people at this level, the benefits go well beyond simple stress relief or even resilience - the deeper insights of the path will inevitably open up over time. From personal experience, I can say that there are quite a few people with this level of commitment out there, and it's always a pleasure and a privilege to meet someone with a deep practice like this.
At the top end are the world champions - those with unusual talent or skill. In the football world these are the celebrated players whose every movement is scrutinised by the sporting press. (I'm not going to expose my woeful sports knowledge by attempting to name some of them.) Thankfully the meditation world doesn't get that kind of attention, but nevertheless the most extraordinary practitioners develop a certain kind of renown. Some practitioners seem to reach a point where they can continue to sit in meditation without eating, drinking, sleeping or indeed moving at all for days or even weeks, for example. Whether these kinds of skills are really useful for someone with a family and a day job is really beside the point - the point is simply that there are incredible depths to this seemingly simple practice, and most of us are merely scratching the surface.
So let's take another look at that Zenways motto: change your body, change your mind, change your life. How can we do that?
Changing your body
When you see a phrase like 'change your body' in a spiritual context, you might immediately think of something like Yoga or Tai Chi. These are great practices in their own right, but they can also become powerful vehicles for Zen practice if we approach them in the right way.
At the heart of Zen practice is the notion of presence. In any moment of our lives, we can be fully present, entirely distracted, or somewhere in between, split between the present-moment situation and some other activity of our minds. Zen training is about becoming more and more present in an ever-wider range of situations, arguing that time spent distracted is time wasted, and that our lives are lived most fully when we show up for each and every moment of them. (If that sounds like hyperbole, check it out for yourself! Get your meditation practice good enough that you can see where your mind is going and what happens in your experience when you're focused versus when you're distracted, and then track it across many different situations.)
So a physical activity such as Yoga or Tai Chi not only has health benefits in terms of strengthening our bodies and making them more fluid and flexible, but we can also use the practice to train this quality of presence. As we go through a sequence of asanas or a form, are we present, or are we simply going through the motions? Are we focused on the physical sensations of the body and the subtle intentions of the mind, or are we thinking about something else whilst absent-mindedly copying the shapes the people around us are making with their bodies? And, actually, we quickly find that our physical practice goes better when our mind is on what we're doing, so both our Zen practice and our physical practice can benefit each other.
But Zen also has its own physical cultivation practices. Japanese culture places great emphasis on the development of the hara - essentially, the guts. I've previously written about Zen master Hakuin's energy practices, which are one way to train the hara (particularly the ah-un breathing, which is briefly mentioned in the article; there's also a guided audio version of the practice on my Audio page).
If you keep up a practice like ah-un breathing over a period of several weeks, you'll start to get a concrete physical feeling associated with the hara - as if your upper body is relaxing and your centre of mass has moved down into the abdomen. In the martial arts world, the hara is sometimes described as the 'stone ball', because when it's well developed it really can feel like your hara becomes a heavy ball.
Interestingly, in order to maintain a sense of connection with this 'stone ball' sensation, it's necessary for the upper body to stay relatively relaxed. This has a corresponding effect on the nervous system - physical tension is associated with the sympathetic ('fight or flight') branch while relaxation is associated with the parasympathetic ('rest and digest'). So by training the hara and maintaining an awareness of it in our daily activities, we actually train our bodies to be more physically soft and relaxed throughout the day, meaning that we don't get so stressed and have an easier time dealing with whatever comes up.
Changing your mind
The second part of the motto is the more obvious part - meditation involves doing something with your mind, so of course you're changing your mind. Simple, right?
Even here there are some subtleties, though. Psychologists like to talk about 'states' and 'traits': a state is a temporary experience, such as the condition of feeling briefly happy when you receive some good news, whereas a trait is a characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling or behaving that tends to remain pretty stable across time, such as being generally optimistic about the future.
Meditation can produce changes in both states and traits. Of the two, the state changes are usually easier to observe and show up more rapidly - for example, you might find that after just two or three meditation sessions you start to notice that you tend to feel a bit calmer afterwards, i.e. the meditation practice is changing your state toward one which is less agitated. But all states are temporary, and so if you get nice and peaceful in your meditation practice and then go straight back into a stressful environment, the calm state will probably wear off pretty quickly.
As I mentioned above in the section on 'professional meditators', our practice can take us beyond state changes. A dedicated practice over a period of years can retrain the mind's default states, shifting our traits - for example, a long-term jhana practice will lead to the practitioner experiencing more positive states naturally, irrespective of circumstances, while a committed practice of the Brahmaviharas tends to lead to practitioners becoming kinder and more compassionate by default. Insight practice can also lead to shifts in the way we see the world, fundamentally changing our relationship with our experience, and at the deepest levels even cutting the roots of suffering itself. These types of insights are most likely to open up in retreat conditions for people with a deep, committed practice, but can come up for anyone at any moment - there's a saying in meditation circles that insight is always an accident, but through deepening your practice you can make yourself accident-prone.
Changing your life
I once asked Stephen Batchelor how I could better integrate my Zen practice into my life, and he said that the question was already a mistake. It was better, he said, to ask how I could come to see my life as my practice. I've been chewing on that one ever since.
It seems to me that Stephen's essential point is that to distinguish between 'practice' and 'life' sets up a split between some period of time in our day when we 'do Zen', and the rest of the time, when we don't. Zen becomes a 'technique' or a 'training', like doing sit-ups in the morning, which confers certain benefits in the background but is largely forgotten outside formal practice times.
But if we come back for a moment to the basic principle of presence that I introduced above when talking about doing physical practices such as Yoga or Tai Chi, there's really no reason why the attitude of becoming ever-more present to whatever we're doing should be limited to physical exercise or meditation. Actually, is there any part of our lives that wouldn't go better if we paid more attention to it? Scientific research says no - people report higher levels of well-being when they're more focused on whatever they're doing, even when it's an unpleasant activity.
We can see this attitude reflected in Zen teachers through the ages. My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, constantly spoke of 'nari kiru' - becoming completely one with whatever activity one was engaged in, all day, every day. He said that this was the true and only way to live the Zen life. We also have the following classic Zen story, taken from a collection compiled in the 19th century:
Zen students are with their masters at least two years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: 'I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.'
Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in's pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.
But maybe this all sounds like a lot of work - far too much for modern-day people, with all our responsibilities and things to do. Well, it turns out that people have been too busy for a long time! Back in the 12th century, a Chinese teacher named Dahui Zonggao worked with senior Chinese officials of the Song dynasty at a time when northern China had been invaded by the Jurchen people. Chaos, destruction and continual fear of imminent death were the order of the day. Zen has always thrived in times of hardship, as people turn to the practice to help them navigate the difficult conditions of their lives, and so Dahui found himself working with many highly committed students who nevertheless had their hands very full indeed.
His basic approach was to give them a simple core practice (in Dahui's case, he recommended koan study, but whatever practice you prefer will do fine), and the following instructions. When working, or engaged in any other kind of activity, you should be 100% focused on your work. Simply do what is in front of you as completely as you can, not splitting your attention in multiple directions. (Nari kiru.) Then, when you find yourself with a moment of respite - perhaps while waiting for a meeting to begin, or travelling from one place to another - bring up the practice and reconnect with it, grounding ourselves physically and mentally rather than simply allowing the mind to wander. In this way, Zen practice threads through your entire life - sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, but never totally absent, never making that hard distinction between 'Zen' and 'life' that limits the potential of your practice.
Ultimately, Zen is a way of life. We do the practice not to achieve some kind of exalted state or spiritual trophy, but rather to live a Zen life - to be present, grounded, focused and engaged in each moment of our lives, no matter what our personal conditions might be.
May you discover your own Zen life.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.