A closer look at the path of Silent Illumination
I've written about the practice of Silent Illumination in several places already, but I've just spent a few days on retreat and feel the urge to take another crack at it, so here goes!
Awakening, non-duality and Buddha Nature
Zen practice points us toward awakening - a radical transformation in the way that we relate to our experience of the world. Awakening allows us to step out of the quagmire of stress, difficult emotions and conflict that characterises so much of our lives, unfolding a different perspective which is characterised not by the usual dualistic categories into which we normally divide our experience - self and other, good and bad, right and wrong - but instead by the seemingly paradoxical, intellectually slippery experience of non-duality.
Ordinarily, we see the world in terms of separate objects - me in here, everything else out there, clear boundaries between this and that. When we inhabit a world of solid objects, the relationship between those objects is primarily one of impact - we collide with the world, struggle against it, try to force it to move in the direction we want it to go. Through awakening, we can discover a much more fluid, flowing sense of reality, in which nothing is really solid or separate in quite the way that we had imagined. From this place of no separation, what we conventionally describe as 'problems' are seen as just another part of the unfolding experience, as opposed to a source of stress and conflict - it isn't that we lose touch with reality or become unable to function, but more that our resistance to the unfolding of the universe falls away. Over time we learn to trust and live from this place of non-separateness, and as we do so we find ourselves manifesting compassionate action in the world, living in accordance with our true nature, or Buddha Nature.
Traditionally speaking, the Zen path is usually described as involving an initial recognition of that Buddha Nature - a moment of waking up, called kensho (seeing true nature) - followed by a longer path of practice to ingrain this recognition of non-duality so deeply into our being that it becomes our habitual stance, and our Buddha Nature can manifest in the world for the benefit of all beings.
So how do we do it?
Silent Illumination as the embodied expression of awakening
Going back to the writings of Hongzhi, the 11th/12th century Chan (Chinese Zen) master who coined the term, Silent Illumination is actually a description of the awakened state - so 'practise Silent Illumination' is essentially an encouragement to rest in, and ultimately live from, our Buddha Nature. The 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen felt the same way, referring to 'practice-enlightenment' as one indivisible unit. For Dogen, you didn't practise meditation in order to become enlightened; your practice was your way of embodying and enacting your enlightenment. (Sounds easy, right?)
We could describe the practice of Silent Illumination very simply thus:
Set up the body in a relaxed, alert, aligned posture, with the eyes open. Become aware of the totality of your experience, making no distinctions. Continue to rest in this way.
We start with the body - we want to be relaxed on one hand, but alert on the other. Aligning the body helps with both the relaxation (because we can release unnecessary muscular tension) and the alertness (because if the body is aligned rather than hunched or curled up, we're more likely to stay awake).
What we do with the body exactly mirrors what we want to do with the mind. Our mind should be relaxed, fully open, taking in the totality of our experience; but at the same time we should be alert, bright and clear, aware of what is coming and going rather than drifting off into dullness and lassitude. As we maintain this bright, open awareness of our whole experience, refraining from dividing our experience up conceptually, we experience reality as it is - not carved up into objects, but not one meaningless soup of nothingness either. It's an experience that's impossible to describe in words, so I won't make any further effort here - all you can do is find out for yourself how it is, through practice.
Of course, if you haven't experienced it yet, then this might all seem pretty weird and out-there. You might even wonder if there's any point to practising in this way if you have no idea what non-duality means.
But this is the genius of Silent Illumination. We start by placing the body and mind in a condition which approximates as closely as we can the place we'd like to get to, even if we don't know what the place is like. By doing so, we set up the ideal conditions to cross over into the true experience of Silent Illumination - so all we have to do is keep practising, and sooner or later we will find ourselves moving naturally into awakening, gently and smoothly.
The Method of No Method
This is all well and good, but many people - perhaps most - find that it's basically impossible to do this 'pure' kind of Silent Illumination practice. The mind is too unruly, it wanders this way and that, and formal meditation just feels like 20 minutes of 'formal mind-wandering'. This type of experience can be difficult, frustrating, even feeling like it's a total waste of time, despite the teacher's best encouragements to 'just keep going'.
Taking a step back from Silent Illumination for a moment, the world's great spiritual traditions have tended to take one of two approaches to this problem. Some traditions follow this 'just go straight there' approach - Dzogchen and Advaita Vedanta both place a heavy emphasis on 'pointing out' our true nature and leaving it up to the practitioner to find their own way there, seeing any other kind of practice as a side-track, introducing artificial (and inevitably dualistic) activity into the mind, which - they would argue - simply takes us further away from our natural state.
Other traditions - like early Buddhism and Mahamudra - tend to proceed in a stepwise fashion rather than jumping straight to the end point. Here, we see the path of awakening presented in a series of stages, with a sequence of different practices intended to train and prepare our minds to wake up before we take the final step. Often, there will be some kind of samadhi practice - a kind of 'mind training' where we practise focusing our attention on some particular object, gradually cultivating our concentration and mindfulness - and some kind of insight practice - a kind of 'investigation of reality' where we examine what arises in experience through a variety of lenses which ultimately undermine our conventional, dualistic perspective on the world. Along the way, there may also be heart-opening practices which aim to loosen up some of the deepest tensions within our being, allowing us to open both to our true nature and to the people around us more easily.
Recognising that a stepwise approach could be helpful in many circumstances, the 20th century Chan master Sheng-Yen devised what he called 'the Method of No Method' as an approach to Silent Illumination - a series of stages of the practice itself, and a kind of 'map' of the different levels of experience which unfold as we proceed through the stages.
It's extremely important that we don't take this map too literally. You already possess the seed of Buddha Nature, and you don't need to pass through any stages or levels in order to realise it - you simply need to notice it and then learn to live from there. So if you ever find yourself in your practice thinking 'Oh, but I can't move on to that stage yet, I haven't had this experience', please drop that line of thinking at once - it simply doesn't work like that. Trust your direct experience and the spiritual intuition that will develop over time - if there's ever any conflict between the map and your intuition, follow the latter to see where it leads. The map is ultimately just another concept - but it can be a helpful one.
So let's now take a look at this map, and explore the stages of Silent Illumination.
1. Scattered Mind, and the first preliminary practice
The first stage is what Sheng-Yen calls 'Scattered Mind'. The good news is that you've already mastered it! This is the condition of most of us most of the time - distracted, half-doing one thing while half-thinking about something else, completely enmeshed in dualistic perception. This kind of experience is not something to be demonised - it's really just another thing that our minds can do, and ultimately we don't want to reject anything in our experience, because doing so is just setting up another duality between 'good experience' and 'bad experience'. Nevertheless, being scattered in this way is often a setup for having a really bad time, and the reason that these practice traditions exist at all is because this isn't the only way to be.
And so, we start to practise. We set up the body, upright, aligned and relaxed. Sheng-Yen then introduces his first preliminary practice: a progressive relaxation of the body. Typically we start at the head and work slowly down through the body, noticing any areas of tension, tightness or holding, and gently allowing these to relax and release, if that's available in the moment. Some patterns of tension are deeply held and will take time to work themselves out, and there's no need to rush or force this process. Nevertheless, the attitude here is one of moving toward relaxation. As the body relaxes, the mind will tend to settle too, and we'll tend to find that we become a little less scattered in the process.
2. Concentrated Mind, and the second preliminary practice
Even so, 'a little less scattered than usual' is still pretty scattered for most of us, so Sheng-Yen now introduces a second preliminary practice. Having done the progressive relaxation, we now bring a broad, gentle attention to the sensations of the body as a whole, and we rest here - perhaps for the rest of the session, perhaps just for a while.
This is a kind of samadhi training. We are training the mind to pay attention to something, notice when it's wandered and come back to the object of focus. As we continue to do this, over many sessions, our mind gradually becomes more responsive to our intention - as the early Buddhist texts describe it, 'malleable, wieldy and given to imperturbability'.
Some traditions like to use very small areas of focus (e.g. the breath sensations at the nostrils) and go deep into one-pointed stillness, allowing everything else to fall away. That kind of very deep, narrow samadhi isn't really where we're going with Silent Illumination. Rather, we want a broad, gentle resting of attention, which nevertheless is wide awake and aware of the changing sensations across the whole body. As we do this practice, we may notice thoughts, sights and sounds coming and going; we don't want to suppress or shut out those experiences, but we also don't want to take an interest in them. We simply let them come and go in the background as we stay focused on the body sensations.
(Sheng-Yen also has a whole other map describing the development of samadhi, which is worth checking out if you like this kind of thing.)
Although I've described this as a 'preliminary' practice, it can be a deep and powerful meditation in its own right. We shouldn't be tempted to rush past this stage to get to the good stuff - but, at the same time, if we try to stay here forever, we miss what comes next...
3. Unified Mind, and the limit of 'deliberate' meditation practice
At a certain point, we shift from focusing on the body sensations to a more inclusive awareness. We become aware of the totality of experience - sight, sound, body sensation, thought, emotion, the whole shebang. This becomes our new resting place. As before, the task is simply to remain aware, but now distractions take a slightly different form - we will find the mind 'grabbing on' to some aspect of awareness (a sound, a train of thought) and following it, at the expense of the rest of the experience. Whenever that happens, our task is simply to let go and open back up again, returning to the totality.
This shift of focus can happen in a few ways:
It's worth playing around with this. You might find that you have a preference, either to stay with the body sensations or to open up. Whatever your preference is, try the other approach from time to time. If you like to open up, try staying a bit longer in 'samadhi mode' sometimes before opening up, to see whether you find that you're a little less prone to distraction and can thus rest in the totality more easily. If you like to stay with the body sensations, open up from time to time, especially if you're waiting for the transition to happen naturally - it may be that you're holding the intention of samadhi a little too firmly, as a result of which you'll stay on the body sensations forever and the opening up will never happen by itself. It's especially important to make the move deliberately if you feel that your samadhi practice is rubbish and your mind is far too busy to move onto the next step yet - it's quite likely that the wandering thoughts in your mind are not the fatal obstacle you believe them to be, and you're simply setting the bar too high and being too hard on yourself. This is not a practice that requires perfection - and I say that as a long-time perfectionist myself.
One way or another, you end up with a practice where you are essentially 'holding the view of non-duality' - you've set the intention to remain aware of all phenomena equally, without discrimination. This is as close to awakening and 'true' Silent Illumination as you can take yourself. And it's a good place to be! Get used to hanging out here and you will eventually notice a subtle thread of contentment running through this experience. There are no problems to solve here, nothing to reject, nothing to change - your experience can be whatever it is and it's just fine. That contentment can deepen over time and become quite wonderful.
But we aren't quite there yet. We're still at the point where, on some subtle level, we're conceiving a 'me' who is 'doing something' in order to meditate - sitting in a certain way, doing a certain something with the mind, setting a subtle intention, etc. At some point, we must learn to let go even of that subtle somethingness.
4. No Mind
Chan master Guo Gu compares the stages of Unified Mind and No Mind by saying that Unified Mind is like looking through a perfectly clear window, whereas No Mind is like looking through no window at all. No Mind isn't something we can do deliberately, because the very act of conceiving a 'doer' who 'does' the practice contains the seed of duality deep within it, preventing No Mind from arising. But what we can learn to do, over time, is to develop a deep, stable Unified Mind and then let go of that last little piece of duality - and, rather than simply falling back into the mind-wandering of Scattered Mind, we instead cross over into No Mind.
In many respects, Unified Mind and No Mind are similar - both are characterised by non-duality, contentment and peace. But once you experience the shift from one to the other, the difference will be as clear as day.
Initially, we contact No Mind briefly - perhaps only for a moment - and it's a fragile, unstable experience. (At this point I'm supposed to do what all good Dharma teachers do and say 'Of course some people do become fully enlightened in one go, like the historical Buddha', but my experience so far is that it's a much more bitty process for 100% of everybody. Shrug.) But as we keep practising, we come back here again and again, and over time the experience deepens and becomes more robust. Ultimately, the aim is to learn to live from this place, in all circumstances and conditions. This seems to be a long road!
But, ultimately, that is the invitation of Silent Illumination - a life of practice-enlightenment, lived in accordance with our deepest nature, manifesting compassion and wisdom in the world for the benefit of all beings.
Disassembling the fabricated world
The historical Buddha described two qualities to be developed through practice: samatha ('calm abiding') and vipassana ('clear seeing'). (Very similar concepts show up in Zen in the form of the balance of stillness and clarity in Silent Illumination practice.)
These days, 'vipassana' is often used to refer to insight practice generally, but commonly means a specific type of insight practice, based around deconstructing sensory experience through increasingly fine-grained examination. It's an interesting mode of practice that brings deep insights into impermanence, and it can work well for people who don't get on with the Zen style. However, if you're a hardcore Zennist yourself, don't dismiss this out of hand - after all, no less a figure than Zen master Dogen said 'Impermanence is Buddha Nature.'
So how do we do it?
The process of deconstruction
The basic approach here is one of examining your experience in fine detail, with the intention of observing what comes and goes with greater and greater clarity. This approach can be applied to any object - the breath, the body sensations, a candle flame, a visualisation, whatever you like to work with. For the rest of the article I'll talk about using the breath, but if you want to try it with something else, go right ahead - the Vipassana police won't come knocking.
So you start by setting up your meditation posture, relaxing, settling in, and then directing your attention to the breath. Your task now is simply to see what's going on with the breath, as clearly as possible; any time the mind wanders, just let go of whatever the mind has taken an interest in and come back to the breath.
As you do this again and again, over time, you're likely to pass through a few stages along the way. (This model is heavily inspired by Michael Taft's podcast on deconstructing sensory experience, with a few tweaks.)
Before we get into the stages, it's worth saying that all meditation maps are approximations based on the most common things that people experience. Not everyone will experience all of these things, and it won't be hard to find a 'step 2.5' or whatever. Don't waste your time arguing about it - so long as you're moving in the direction of greater sensory clarity and deconstruction, you're doing it right, whether your experience is lining up with the stages or not.
We tend to relate to the world almost entirely through our concepts about the world as opposed to our sensory experience of the world. If the two phrases 'think about the breath' and 'pay attention to the breath' mean the same thing to you, that's an indication of what I'm talking about.
When we open our eyes and look around the world, we see coloured shapes. That's all the eye can ever see - the coloured shapes don't come with little name tags. But, fast as lightning, our conceptual mind jumps in and identifies those coloured shapes, splitting them up into the familiar world of distinct objects that we actually experience. (Notice, too, that there's no lag there - it isn't like you're constantly going through a process of having to figure out what each new coloured shape is. The world is given to you in your immediate experience already carved up into neatly labelled objects.)
So when you're contacting the breath at the level of the conceptual, you're primarily working with the intellectual knowledge 'I am breathing in', 'I am breathing out'. At this stage, meditation practice is likely to be mind-numbingly boring, and focus will be very difficult. The 'label' ('breathing in') doesn't change for the entire in-breath, and we're used to the idea that once we've successfully categorised something and it poses no immediate threat, we can ignore it and our mind can wander to something more interesting or relevant.
(Counting the breaths can help to make the practice a little more interesting at this stage, because at least the labels change from one breath to the next. But it's still pretty heavy going.)
In order to move beyond this stage, we must take the advice of the famous Zen master Bruce Lee - 'Don't think, feel!'
Rather than thinking about the breath, our task now is to feel the breath.
Consider what happens when you pick up a cup of coffee. Right away, without any effort whatsoever, you can feel whether it's hot or cold. At the moment your fingers make contact, there's an immediate, direct ***knowledge of the temperature. You don't have to think about it, and if it's too hot to handle you don't need to think the label 'hot!' before you can put the cup down again (although thoughts about having hurt your hand will most likely follow along a moment or so later).
Right now, close your eyes and move your fingertips slowly and gently over the surface of whatever device you're using to read this article. Notice all of the subtle details in the texture that you normally overlook because you're busy using the device rather than investigating it. Feel the tactile sensations that arise as your fingertips contact the device.
That's what I'm talking about. Don't think about the breath - feel the breath. Experience the sensations of the breath directly, without labelling them.
Once you make this shift, you'll almost certainly notice that the breath suddenly seems to be more interesting - and more involved - than it was at the previous stage. 'The breath' isn't just one sensation - it's lots of different types of sensations, changing over time. At this point, we might say that we've moved from 'the breath' to 'the collection of sensations making up the breath' as our object.
At this point, the practice becomes about increasing our level of clarity about that collection of sensations. That can mean different things to different people - perhaps you find it interesting to get very specific about the shape, size and spatial location of each breath sensation, or perhaps you want to dig deeper until you can notice ever-more-fleeting sensations, arising and passing with incredible rapidity, or perhaps it's actually the ever-changing quality of the breath as a whole that draws you in.
Whatever your approach, sooner or later, you will arrive at...
At this stage, any sense of 'the breath' as a distinct entity dissolves, and you're left instead with a continual flow of micro-sensations. If you're going down the route of noticing individual sensations that are shorter and shorter, the breath might 'break up' into flickering vibrations. If you're tuning into the flowing quality, the breath might instead take on a 'fluid' quality with no beginning, middle or end, just an ungraspable, ceaseless river of experience.
Either way, you've gone pretty deep at this point. You've tuned your attention in such a way that the mind is no longer fabricating the 'usual' perceptions of sensory experience. This is clear evidence of the mind-created nature of perception - and it can feel pretty cool, too!
But even this isn't the end of the story. We can go deeper still - to the complete cessation of conventional experience, an experience which, if recognised and understood, can bring about the shift into awakening, called stream entry in early Buddhism and kensho in Zen.
There are actually a few different ways that conventional experience can come to an end, depending on the type of practice you're doing. (Here I'm indebted to my friend Ron Serrano for producing a beautiful model that brings these three seemingly disparate experiences together.)
A common inquiry practice in Tibetan Buddhism is to investigate 'stillness, movement and awareness' - noticing what stays the same in our field of experience, noticing what moves or changes within it, and noticing that which is aware of both stillness and movement.
The kind of 'deconstruction' practice I've been describing so far in this article is focused on movement - we're looking at the comings and goings in experience, noticing the impermanence of the events associated with the breath. If we take this deconstruction and investigation of impermanence far enough, we will eventually arrive at a cessation - a moment where we have no 'movement' in our experience at all. Experientially, this is felt as a kind of 'gap' in our experience - like a few frames were deleted out of the movie of our life.
If you're more of a samadhi or jhana practitioner, you're focused primarily on stillness - resting, calm abiding, absorption. And, in just the same way that we can go progressively deeper by tuning more and more closely into the movement of impermanence, we can also go progressively deeper into stillness. In this case, we will eventually arrive at a pure consciousness experience - a moment where we remain fully aware but consciousness is totally devoid of content; simply pure, bright and undefiled.
If your style of practice is more along the lines of Silent Illumination/shikantaza/open awareness (welcome back, Zen people!), then as the practice matures you'll find yourself becoming interested in the mind itself - that which is aware of both the stillness and the movement. We rest in this open awareness, simply observing the mind's natural functioning without interfering with it in any way. And as the practice reaches maturity, we arrive at a moment of non-duality - a recognition that the events and the awareness of those events are not actually two separate things, but are one and the same. Our conventional dualistic experience ceases, and we recognise our Buddha Nature clearly.
What's the point?
So this is all well and good, but why would you want to do it? Is this just some elaborate way of getting high without having to locate some psilocybin? And haven't I previously written about how these grand experiences aren't necessary for insight?
The experiences described above are indeed not the only way to open the door to awakening - but they do work, they're time-tested, and they're widely practised, so it's worth knowing about them if only to understand what people are talking about when they describe their own wacky enlightenment experiences.
The basic point of all of these 'end points' is that they shift the mind far, far outside its usual mode of operation. Then, as the experience comes to an end, our mind returns to normal - in this crucial moment, we can actually watch ourselves reconstructing our conventional experience, and thus see beyond a shadow of a doubt that the conventional perspective is just something that the mind is fabricating for our convenience, as opposed to the absolute, undeniable truth of things.
In particular, as we reach an end point, our sense of being a separate, individual self 'in here', with everything else 'out there', is totally gone, and in the moments that follow we can watch this 'autobiographical self' putting itself back together. We see clearly, beyond any doubt, that the self is what my Zen teacher Daizan describes as 'a kind of optical illusion', as opposed to a real, enduring entity.
Punching a hole in the illusion of the self is the key to stream entry/kensho - it's one of three 'fetters' which are described as falling away at stream entry, along with sceptical doubt about the teachings (once you've had a transformative experience like this, it's hard to argue that the practice doesn't do anything) and belief in the efficacy of rites and rituals to bring about awakening (you had this experience because of your own practice, not because you paid a priest to pray for you).
So what then? Well, we have a lifetime of habits built around the self, and it takes a while to shake that off. At first, we will continue to find ourselves continuing to behave pretty much the same as we always have, even though we might feel a profound inner lightness or relief from suffering.
Over time, however, our view realigns. We come to see that we're not really the small, separate creatures that the conventional perspective would have us believe - we're part of the great network of interconnection that is the universe, no more or less important than any other part. Our self-centred stress begins to fall away, and our behaviour becomes more naturally compassionate and altruistic as we find ourselves wanting to make this shared life that we all live better for everyone, not just ourselves. Ultimately, we completely let go of the fixations and hang-ups which have caused us such difficulties in the past, and merge completely into the stream of life, with nothing held back.
So don't delay - deconstruct today!
Did Buddha fail?
According to the most well-known traditional story of the Buddha, he grew up as a wealthy prince, cut off from the outside world, surrounded by every sensual pleasure imaginable. Yet one day he decided to travel beyond the palace walls, and encountered an unwell person, an old person and a dead person. His upbringing was so sheltered that this was the first time he'd ever encountered such things, and they shocked him to the core. He asked his charioteer if he, too, would become unwell, grow old and die, and his charioteer said yes, these things were inevitable.
The young Buddha-to-be was thrown into an existential crisis, and decided to leave home in search of an answer to these fundamental problems. In later years he would frame his teachings in terms of 'dukkha and the end of dukkha' - usually translated 'suffering and the end of suffering'. In his first formal teaching, he defines dukkha as follows:
Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha, separation from the loved is dukkha, not getting what is wanted is dukkha.
That's a pretty broad definition! And, to make matters worse - and despite his claim to teach 'dukkha and the end of dukkha' - the historical Buddha did, in fact, grow old, become unwell, and eventually die.
So did he fail in his spiritual quest?
Suffering = pain ✕ resistance
One standard answer to this most fundamental of all Buddhist problems is to redefine suffering ('dukkha'). And while this might seem like a bit of a dodge, it really works, so let's take a closer look at it.
The move here is to make a distinction between 'pain', which is the physical sensation that results when you stub your toe, and 'suffering', which is the psychological anguish that ensues when you experience pain, or more generally anything you don't like. Looked at in these terms, any situation can be broken down into two parts: the situation itself, and your relationship to it. We're often not in a position to change the situation itself, but through meditation and mindfulness we can learn to adjust our relationship to what's going on - with powerfully liberating consequences.
Modern mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young has captured this dynamic beautifully in a simple mathematical equation: suffering = pain ✕ resistance. What does this mean?
You stub your toe. Your foot now hurts. That's what happens when you have a body and you collide part of it into a solid object at speed. Sorry. It'll most likely stop hurting in a while, but for now you have pain. That's the situation.
But you don't stop there. 'Owww! That really hurts! I really wish I hadn't done that!' 'Argh, I'm so clumsy, why don't I watch where I'm going?' 'Who left that there? I've told them not to! I'm going to find them and yell at them, because this is their fault!' That's your relationship to the situation - wishing that it were different, filled with self-criticism, judgement or anger.
What we can do to counteract this is to cultivate a practice of non-judgemental awareness, where we see clearly whatever is arising moment to moment, without trying to change it, without overlaying an expectation that it should be different. In other words, a mindfulness practice.
As we begin to develop some insight into our mental activity, we can see how we create and then prop up our own mental anguish through indulging in repetitive thoughts and negative emotions. Of course, we don't generally mean to do this - but we have the habit of reacting that way, probably because we learnt it at an early age from the people around us. And as we see into our patterns, we realise how much time we spent resisting what's here.
So, instead of resisting, we learn to find an attitude of acceptance. We recognise 'Oh, I stubbed my toe, now my foot hurts. No sense wailing about it - it's too late to take it back.' And so our experience still includes the physical pain of the hurting foot, but no longer includes the additional psychological misery caused by trying to wish the pain away or find someone to blame for it. As we shift into acceptance, the resistance drops to zero, and the suffering falls away with it.
Sidebar: what acceptance is, and isn't
Acceptance can be a red flag for some people. So, what, you're telling me I have to just lie down and let life roll over me? People should stay in abusive relationships and just accept them? We should accept social injustice and environmental destruction?
I'm not saying that at all. The kind of acceptance I'm talking about is not a passive submission to other people - it's simply a recognition that this is what's here right now. It's a willingness to see this situation for what it is, without that layer of how you thought it was supposed to be. You've already lost that battle. The universe has unfolded a certain way, it didn't go the way you wanted, and there's no Undo button.
However, in each moment we have a choice about what to do next. And we can make that choice most effectively if we aren't tying up most of our mental energy in wishing for a better past leading up to this moment.
If we can see this moment utterly without resistance, then two things happen. One, the suffering vanishes. And two, we're in the best possible position to make wise choices about how to respond to the situation - which can include taking action to address injustice, escape a toxic relationship, or whatever else needs to be done right now.
Going deeper: perception is reality
Up to this point, we've been talking about standard mindfulness 101. If you're a bit more experienced, you might be tempted to dismiss this as 'beginner stuff'. But do you actually put it into practice? All day every day? In all situations, no matter how difficult? Actually developing continuous mindfulness even of this 'basic' variety is a major undertaking - and one with transformative power if it's taken far enough. I have a long way to go on this myself, but I've gone far enough to know that it isn't just talk - it really works. But it's hard!
Even so, we can go further down the Buddhist rabbit hole. The model presented above - the situation, and our reaction to the situation - is useful in its own way, but it's also misleading in an important way. At the deepest level, the situation and our reaction to it are not separate at all - in fact, they're two sides of the same coin.
What we experience, moment to moment, is not actually 'reality in itself', but a representation of reality - a fabrication, in Buddhist technical jargon. One way of looking at it is that our senses take in information about our surroundings, which is fed up to the brain, and the brain's job is to assemble it all into a coherent picture of the world, which is what we then experience consciously. Our eyes are making tiny movements all the time, but our visual field typically appears to be stable rather than jerky - this is one of the ways you can tell that we aren't seeing anything as simple as 'things as they are'. Going deeper still, even concepts like 'sense organs' and 'brain' are also part of the fabricated experience - for all we know we could be brains in jars, or a line of code running in the Matrix, or whatever.
Making a distinction between 'the situation' and 'our reaction to the situation' can help us to disentangle ourselves from identification with thought and emotion, and find relief from suffering in the process. But ultimately both the situation and the reaction to it are part of the same representational experience - changing any aspect of it changes the whole thing.
As we come to see this more clearly, we may have a sense that reality is losing its substantiality. That's because the 'realness' of our perceptions is - here it comes again - just another part of the representation. And through practice we can learn to fine-tune that representation, and consequently experience things in different ways. We can learn to colour our experience with love, contentment or beauty; we can learn to see beautiful, awakened qualities in the most severe situations. The teacher Rob Burbea, who died last year from cancer, was a master of this kind of practice, and speaks very movingly about it in his final interview with Michael Taft.
This view of things might seem a little scary at first, like the rug has been pulled out from under us. But in the long run it's good news - we aren't victims of a merciless, implacable external world, of 'things as they are, and if you don't like it, tough'. Our experiential reality is a co-creation - mysterious, constantly new and fresh, full of possibilities. We can learn to see life as beautiful, no matter what's going on. And that's true liberation from dukkha.
Two notes of caution
Sometimes people find another way to use mindfulness practice to deal with pain: through distraction. After all, we spend all this time training our minds to go where we want to go - so why not put our mind in a nice safe warm bubble where we can totally ignore the pain? In fact, if you're good at jhana practice, after a while you can fairly easily escape to states where you have no perception of your body at all - so why not just do that?
The danger here is that we become cut off from the world. We practise anaesthetising ourselves to our experience, turning away anytime anything comes up that we don't like. In the long run, we become numb, and that isn't a good thing. The point of this practice is not to take us out of life so we can sit in a peaceful grey void until it's time to die; the point is to enrich our lives and give us greater freedom to move throughout all conditions, whether pleasant or painful.
So, don't do that.
The other question that can come up, particularly for people grappling with the deeper aspects of the fabricated nature of existence, is 'Does that mean the whole world is just in my mind?' And that's a dangerous line of thought, because it can rapidly turn into 'So it doesn't matter what I do, I can do anything I like and nobody gets hurt!'
Again, don't do that. Please don't become what one of my students once memorably described as 'an ethical husk'. When dealing with other people, you should always adopt a view that they're just as real as you are and just as worthy of respect and kindness. And if that perspective seems difficult to reconcile with the 'perception is reality' view described above - yeah. Learn to hold two opposing views in mind at the same time, or at least to shift back and forth as appropriate. At some point much further down the line you may find a way to integrate the two perspectives, but when you're starting out, there's still a lot of egocentric programming in your system and it's much too dangerous to allow yourself to believe that you can do anything you like without any consequences. At some point you'll wake up and realise that what you thought was a dream was actually a nightmare.
So please practise responsibly. If in doubt, work on cultivating all-day-every-day mindfulness, and take care of your relationships and ethics. With a solid grounding in engaged, compassionate action in the world, you can then reap the benefits of freedom from suffering.
May all beings be happy.
When the mind doesn't want to cooperate
Talking about difficulties in practice is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can be helpful - especially if you're new to meditation - to hear that the challenges you're facing in your practice are universal experiences, rather than a particular failing which indicates your personal unsuitability to meditate. On the other hand, focusing too much on the difficulties that can arise can make you more sensitive to them, and thus make them seem like bigger problems.
In the tradition of early Buddhism, they clearly weren't worried about the latter point, because the early discourses regularly talk about the Five Hindrances, a set of common challenges that all meditators encounter sooner or later. Naming and shaming the Hindrances in this way can be very powerful, both for better and for worse. By giving them names and specific descriptions, we develop a language to talk about our practice, to identify more easily what's going on and what we're finding difficult, and to work with the challenging condition that's coming up. On the other hand, giving something a name (and especially a capital letter!) makes it feel more like a Big Real Thing, and thus can actually make it more difficult to deal with.
We don't want to get to the point where, as soon as we recognise a Hindrance, we simply throw in the towel - 'Oh no, the Hindrance of Restlessness, I'm done for!' Rather, knowing about the Hindrances is useful precisely because it can help us to work through them and keep going with our practice.
So, with that in mind, let's take a look at a meditation session featuring a multi-Hindrance attack.
The worst meditation session EVER
So I sit down, get comfortable, start paying attention to my breath. So far, so good.
After a couple of minutes, I notice my mind is wandering. Specifically, it's wandering to cookies. I like cookies. And I know where I can get the good ones, the triple chocolate ones. Maybe I'll go and get some as soon as this meditation session is over. When's that going to be, anyway? Because I really want these cookies!
Uh oh. I see what's going on here. This is the First Hindrance, Sensual Desire. I'm caught up in wanting something - specifically those lovely, lovely cookies. But OK, I've been doing this a while, I know how it goes. I recognise the arising of craving and gently let go of it, coming back to the breath.
And it works. Maybe not at first, but after a few lettings-go, my mind gets the message. The cookies are set to one side for now. (They'll come back later.)
But then a car draws up outside, stereo blasting loudly enough to make my teeth rattle. I hear the car door open - the stereo still going, the engine still running. Someone come to visit a friend? Yep, I can hear voices. And the engine is still running, and the stereo is still going. That's pretty annoying, not to mention bad for the environment. How inconsiderate! Maybe I should say something? Maybe I should go out there and give that guy a piece of my mind! How dare he interrupt my meditation session like this?
Oh. Right. The Second Hindrance, Ill Will. The noise is annoying me and that's leading to anger directed at the source of the noise. The trouble is, I can't just 'let go and come back to the breath' this time - the noise is way too loud, and my attention might as well be glued to it.
Fine. I have another move - I can accept that this new state of affairs has arisen, and incorporate it into my practice. Rather than staying narrowly focused on the breath, I can shift to a more open awareness practice which includes both the breath and the noise from outside. Much better - now I'm not fighting with the sound to get back to my breath; even the anger is allowed to be there, but actually now that the struggle has stopped, the anger quickly evaporates too. Cool.
...What? Oh yeah, meditating. Think I might have dropped off for a moment there. Feeling... pretty tired actually. Each time I blink my eyelids take a little longer to come back up.
...Whoops, another lurch. Nearly fell off the cushion that time.
Oh, dang it. This is the Third Hindrance, Sloth and Torpor - dullness, drowsiness, falling asleep. I have to be a bit careful with this one, because when I've previously tried to accept it, I've just fallen asleep. This time I might need to take a more active step to counteract it.
So let's investigate - let's really go into the experience. What, specifically, does it feel like to be drowsy? How are my mind and body different to their non-drowsy condition? How clear can I become about how it feels to be drowsy?
Ah, good, that seems to be working - I'm getting a bit more energy now.
...Hmm, actually, maybe a bit too much energy. I'm now feeling kinda antsy, like that time at university when a friend had just bought a new espresso machine and we drank about eighteen cups each and didn't sleep for three days. I'm getting fidgety and uncomfortable. Surely it must be time for the bell to ring - I must have been here at least three hours by now. (I sneak a glimpse at the timer.) Fifteen minutes? You've got to be kidding me! I don't think I can survive to the end of the meditation session. Maybe I should stop early, or get up and do walking meditation, or think about something else to distract myself to make the time pass more quickly...
Oh, good grief. The Fourth Hindrance: Restlessness and Worry. OK, let's try letting it go. Nope. Accepting it? I'm going to tear my own face off if this carries on much longer. Investigate it? Yup, that's really unpleasant. So unpleasant that it's making me even more restless.
OK, it's time to bring out the big guns. Each of the Hindrances has a set of traditional antidotes. The one I like best for Restless and Worry is the practice of contentment, so let's flip over to cultivating contentment. (Fortunately, I practise both the Brahmavihara of Equanimity and the third and fourth jhanas, so I have some tools available to connect me with contentment without too much difficulty.)
Ahh. That's better. Relaxing into contentment. After a few minutes of that, I'm settled enough to go back to the breath.
Except... Good grief. This session has been a bit of a train wreck, hasn't it? I started out trying to focus on the breath but I've spent nearly the whole time dealing with Hindrances instead. Maybe I'm just not cut out for this meditation stuff. Maybe I'm doing it wrong, or maybe I've chosen the wrong teachers, I'm not sure, but either way it isn't working. Maybe I should give up meditating entirely and spend more time focusing on Tai Chi or something. I should at least try to find something I'm good at rather than persisting with this ridiculous endeavour.
This is the Fifth, and most insidious, Hindrance: Doubt. Doubt in yourself and your own abilities; doubt in the teacher; doubt in the path of practice. According to the early discourses, this kind of doubt was the final obstacle that the historical Buddha faced before his enlightenment.
But then I think of my teachers; Leigh, Daizan, Michael. They're all pretty remarkable people, each in their own way. It's evident that the practice has helped them, and I've seen them working tirelessly to help me along the path too. And even if I'm having a hard time right now, maybe I can trust that it'll get better, that not every meditation session will be a multi-Hindrance attack like this one. Maybe I can just focus on following the instructions, and put these thoughts to one side. Wait, hope, trust. Keep going, no matter what.
And then the bell rings.
The Five Hindrances
So let's go through those again.
More generally, any kind of attraction - any kind of strong 'movement towards' something.
More generally, any kind of aversion - any kind of strong 'movement away from' something.
Drowsiness, dullness, going blank, drifting. At a subtle level this one can be hard to spot because it can feel like your mind is becoming calmer, but actually you're just losing clarity. At a stronger level, it can be a real battle to stay awake.
It's worth saying that most of us are chronically sleep-deprived, and if you regularly find yourself falling asleep when you meditate, you might want to get a bit more sleep. On the other hand, if you're drowsy in meditation but then feel fine as soon as the bell rings, that's a sure sign that you were experiencing the meditative Hindrance of sloth and torpor.
Fidgety, itchy, incessant mind-wandering, irritability, any kind of agitation - all of these are signs of restlessness and worry. Most people have one Hindrance that predominates in their practice, and this one is mine for sure, so if you struggle with it too, I feel your pain!
As mentioned above, this is the most insidious of the lot, because it corrodes your practice from the inside out. Over time, you find yourself sitting less and less, maybe looking up articles on the Internet about how meditation isn't all it's cracked up to be, worrying about scandals involving meditation teachers and so forth, building up a body of evidence to justify your inevitable decision to stop practising.
Please don't do this. Find a good teacher, and/or some trusted friends who are into the practice. Connect with others, and let them support you through the hard times. Traditionally, we talk about the Three Jewels of Buddhism - the Buddha (symbolising the teacher), the Dharma (the teaching and path of practice), and the Sangha (the community of fellow practitioners). Many of us in the West are solo meditators, living without a Sangha of any kind, but that's a hard path to walk - it's much easier with friends.
Dealing with the Hindrances
All the big-name teachers seem to have cute little formulae for their teachings these days - Stephen Batchelor's ELSA, Tara Brach's RAIN - so I'm going to offer a formula for dealing with the Hindrances that I'll call RAGU, like the pasta sauce. (Mmm, pasta.)
Throughout the early discourses, Mara, a devil/tempter figure periodically shows up and tries to discourage the Buddha from doing whatever he's doing. The Buddha's response is always 'I see you, Mara', and poor old Mara ends up walking away, feeling sad and dejected, having failed to work his mischief yet again.
Sometimes, all we need to do to deal with a Hindrance is to notice it. 'I see you, Ill Will,' and back to the breath - job done. Simply deal with the Hindrances the way you would any other distraction in meditation - notice them, let them go, come back to the practice.
Sometimes a Hindrance just won't go away despite your best efforts to recognise it and let go of it. In that case, if you keep trying to drop it, you're setting yourself up for an internal struggle - you're essentially saying that the present moment is fundamentally wrong due to the presence of the Hindrance, and you're going to fight and fight until you fix it. But this kind of rejection of the present moment runs counter to the deep acceptance of reality that we must ultimately cultivate in our practice, in addition to being very unpleasant at the time.
So, if simply recognising the Hindrance isn't enough to shift it, you might need to adjust the scope of your practice to incorporate it. Generally speaking, more open practices are better for this - for example, if you try to pay one-pointed attention to your breath at the nostrils in a busy airport lounge, you're probably going to have a hard time, but something like Silent Illumination or a gently radiating metta is likely to be much easier.
Sometimes our 'acceptance' of a Hindrance turns out to be a sort of sneaky way of making it go away, as opposed to a genuine acceptance. Unfortunately, we can't fool ourselves in this way. True acceptance of a situation will tend to make that situation much more workable, but 'pretending' to accept the situation may actually make it worse.
If you can't get all the way to genuine acceptance of the Hindrance and you're still stuck with it, you might as well work with it directly. Investigate it - really go into it in detail, in the same way that you might investigate the breath or a koan. Get to know it in precise detail. Explore it, see what's going on.
As you make the shift into an active exploration, you're more likely to reach a place of genuine acceptance - in order to investigate something, you actually need it to stay around long enough to be investigated, which means it's OK for it to be there, at least for now.
(As an aside, if you struggle with boredom in your practice, use the opportunity to investigate how it is to be bored. Once you get interested in being bored, you'll never be bored ever again...)
There are various lists of antidotes for each of the Hindrances - you can find a great big list on Access To Insight.
Some of my go-to antidotes:
Final word: don't take the Hindrances too seriously!
The Hindrances are universal human experiences. They show up for everyone from time to time. But don't worry about it - you'll get through them. Everyone does, sooner or later. If it helps you to name them, or to use RAGU, or to have a list of antidotes memorised, then great; but if all that just gets in the way and gives you something else to worry about, forget about it - just keep sitting, doing your best to follow the instructions of the practice you've chosen to undertake. If you take care of the practice, the benefits will take care of themselves.
Escaping the wheel of Samsara, and why you'd even want to
A central, and controversial, feature of early Buddhism is the doctrine of rebirth. In this article we'll take a look at what it meant in the time of the Buddha, what it means to us now, and how to make sense of it as 21st century practitioners.
The views presented herein are not what would be considered 'orthodox Buddhism' by the majority of practitioners worldwide, and no offence is intended toward anyone with a traditional understanding of rebirth. My aim here is instead to make these teachings accessible to people who don't resonate with classical Indian metaphysics.
The challenge of translating teachings across 2,500 years
Buddhism is a bit of a mixed bag sometimes. Certain aspects of it are clearly perennial and speak to universal human problems - for example, the notion of the impermanent nature of all things, that in the long run we are separated from everything we love and hold dear. Teachings which help us address our existential situation - the evidence of which we can easily see all around us - are clearly valuable.
But then there are bits that need a bit more translation to make sense. The concept of anatta, for example, is a tricky one. Usually you see it translated these days as 'non-self' or 'not-self', and teachers will typically talk about how our sense of self is a kind of illusion. But when we see or hear the word 'self', we tend to view it through the lens of Western psychology, influenced by Freud and Jung, with concepts like ego and id, shadow and Inner Critic. In the time of the Buddha these concepts didn't exist - and, actually, anatta was a rejection of the Indian spiritual doctrine of the 'atta' or 'atman', a kind of 'eternal soul' that was seen as a kind of 'fragment' of the divine Brahman. Indian religion at the time of the Buddha was typically concerned with how to reunite the atman with Brahman and escape the wheel of Samsara; Buddha was pushing back on that notion, by pointing out that, no matter what part of your experience you examine, you can't find this supposedly eternal, unchanging 'atman'. That would have been a striking, challenging statement in the context of a classical Indian spirituality that was built around this concept of atman. But since you and I probably aren't starting out with a clear idea of what the atman is and why it's so important, it isn't obvious why we really need to negate it.
Hence most teachers tend to do a bit of sleight-of-hand, and reinterpret the classical terms in a way that makes sense to modern audiences - while staunch traditionalists point out that by doing so we risk missing the point of what the historical Buddha was actually talking about, because we've 'reinterpreted' his teachings to the point that they no longer bear any resemblance to the origins of the Buddhist path.
With that in mind, let's take another look at that 'wheel of Samsara' that I casually threw in a moment ago.
Cyclic existence and rebirth
Many of the discourses of early Buddhism talk about a process of 'rebirth'. You live, you die, you are reborn in another body as another person. And, because life is suffering (the First Noble Truth), this means that we're doomed to suffer forever and ever. Which sucks. This endless cycle of rebirth into a world of suffering is called Samsara (literally 'wandering'). So what we want to do is escape Samsara and never be born again - which is why practitioners who have reached the third stage of awakening are called 'non-returners', because even if they don't achieve full awakening in this lifetime, they at least won't be reborn into Samsara yet again.
Wait just a second, though. There are a number of problems with this. One is that, if we don't have an eternal atman after all, then what exactly gets reborn from life to life? That's a particularly knotty problem that has troubled Buddhist philosophers for millennia, and led to a variety of creative responses and doctrines, many of which bring back a kind of 'eternal true self' in the form of Buddha Nature.
Leaving aside the philosophy, though, a more obvious objection for modern readers is 'What's so bad about being reborn anyway?' If anything, most of us would be quite happy to be reborn again and again and, effectively, live forever. Wouldn't it be cool to be still around in some form a thousand years from now, go into space and terraform Mars, and so forth?
But this latter objection highlights another crucial way in which our world view is different to that of the classical Buddhists. They saw time as cyclic, whereas we see it as linear.
What does that mean?
Cyclic existence is a pretty alien paradigm to us now (unless you're a fan of the reboot Battlestar Galactica, I guess), but it actually makes a kind of sense if you live in the natural world and observe the fact that everything comes and goes in cycles. In spring, flowers burst forth; in autumn, everything dies off; the following spring, the flowers are 'reborn' and sprout up again. In just the same way, old people die, and new people are born. So we can form a kind of naturalistic picture of the world in which rebirth follows death as naturally and inescapably as death following birth.
Now, when you combine the cyclic nature of existence with the troubling problem of suffering, we end up in a Groundhog Day scenario. We're born into suffering, life is suffering and death is suffering too - and then it happens all over again, basically the same as last time. In this world view, nothing ever really changes - we just suffer over and over and over. Ouch.
We don't think that way. The Western conception of history is shaped by the stories of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) in which things change. Adam and Eve screw up, and are kicked out of the Garden of Eden - never to return. The Israelites escape their slavery in Egypt and travel to the Promised Land - they don't just stay stuck in endless slavery for the rest of time. After you die, you don't come back to Earth for another go-around - you (hopefully) move instead to Heaven, where everything's great, there's no suffering and you live forever.
More conventionally, we talk about 'progress' - moral progress, cultural progress, scientific progress. The whole idea of science, actually, is based on the idea that we can improve and refine our ideas across successive generations of research and innovation. Humanity as a whole changes over time as we learn and grow.
In the context of change and growth - particularly if you see that change and growth as being pointed to or convergent on something better - then why wouldn't you want to be reborn? Right now things might be a bit rubbish but they'll be better in the next life! So the prospect of doing Buddhist practice in order to ensure that we won't be reborn seems pretty weird to us.
So what are we going to do with this? Attempt to convince ourselves that time really is cyclic after all? That's a hard sell - we're so steeped in a different world view that it's extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to retrain ourselves to see things in cyclic terms. Alternatively, we could ignore rebirth completely, as many modern Buddhists do - but then we can't help but squirm or fidget every time we encounter the concept in a discourse or teaching. Is there a third way?
Escape from Samsara in this very life
Many teachers point out that the Buddha often talks about the Eightfold Path as showing the way to liberation in this very life. Not just at the point of death - ahh, no more rebirths, so no more suffering - but even while we're alive. (In Zen you'll sometimes find the imagery of 'dying before your death' as a poetic, if slightly grim, allusion to the same thing.) By looking at the way the Buddha described this liberation, we can see another way of understanding Samsara - this idea of being trapped in an endless cycle - which accords much better with our direct experience, and isn't at odds with our world view.
We've all had the experience of trying to break a bad habit (or form a good one) - and finding it surprisingly hard! No matter how sincerely we want to stop eating unhealthy foods, we find again and again that the habit has taken over our behaviour, and there we are yet again, doing the very thing we said we were going to give up. We find ourselves trapped by ourselves, unable to break out of this recurring loop of behaviour.
The Buddha wanted to know what was going on here - why we do things we don't want to do, why we allow ourselves to be pushed around by our instinctive, habitual reactions to our environment. Why can't we follow through on our intentions? What actually happens in the moment when we lose our presence of mind and fall back into the same old habit yet again? And how can we cultivate that very presence of mind so that we don't lose it in the future?
That investigation, as simple as it sounds, is ultimately what led to the formulation of the Four Noble Truths, one of the most foundational aspects of Buddhism. The Buddha observed four key points:
And so it's precisely through cultivating this presence of mind - more commonly called mindfulness in Buddhist circles - that we can escape the cyclic existence of our habitual reactions, and be liberated from a kind of Samsara in this very life. This reclamation of our autonomy, this process of becoming more fully alive in each moment, is of value to everyone, no matter what we might believe about death, rebirth and the nature of time.
A handful of fingers pointing at the moon
One of Zen's most iconic practices is known by a variety of names - just sitting, shikantaza, Silent Illumination. This week we're going to take a look at how one of the great Zen masters of history, the 12th century Chinese Chan teacher Hongzhi Zhengjue, described Silent Illumination, and how the practice has come down to us today through a variety of different routes, leading to a family of related-but-subtly-different approaches.
Hongzhi's Silent Illumination
Hongzhi lived in the 11th and 12th centuries, and was a contemporary of Dahui Zonggao, another very important Chinese Chan/Zen master who formulated the style of koan practice which is most commonly used in Rinzai Zen lineages these days. Hongzhi didn't invent Silent Illumination (there are arguments that it can be traced back to the historical Buddha), but his conception of the practice has been hugely influential on the schools that came since. (The founder of Japanese Soto Zen, Dogen, refers to Hongzhi in his writings more than any other Zen master apart from Dogen's own teacher.)
Hongzhi describes Silent Illumination in this way (translations taken from Guo Gu's marvellous book Silent Illumination, which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in this mode of practice):
Sounds pretty nice, doesn't it? But what on earth is he talking about?
Returning to the source
The Silent Illumination that Hongzhi describes is known by many names in different traditions: Buddha Nature, the Ground of Being, primordial awareness (rigpa), mind-essence. If we're coming from a modern, scientific world view, we might instead talk about coming to understand the nature of our conscious experience, seeing how the brain weaves together perceptions of ourselves and the world from the data coming from our senses.
There's a deep paradox at the heart of this kind of teaching. On one hand, we're discovering the fundamental nature of our experience, our basic Buddha Nature. This is something we already have - it isn't something that anyone else can give us or take away from us. But then if we have it already, why isn't it obvious to us? Because the fact is that it isn't obvious to us without practice - if it were, we wouldn't need to practise! Typically speaking, instead of perceiving our Buddha Nature directly, we experience the world very differently, through many layers of identification, contraction and separation.
Before someone has done any practice, it's very common to be identified with our thoughts. We have so many thoughts, all the time, that it seems like we're always thinking - in fact, people often use the terms 'think about' and 'pay attention to' interchangeably, as if they're the same thing. So one of the first discoveries in a meditation practice is that they're not the same at all - we can pay attention to the physical sensations of the breath or the body without thinking about it at all. Thoughts are discrete mental events - mental images, mental talk or sounds, and depending on where you want to draw the line you might include emotions, intentions and so on as well. But all of these are simply events which come and go in our experience, just like the sights and sounds around us. We can pay attention to our experience even in the absence of thought.
The next layer down is the personality - our sense of who we are as people. This is formed at a very early age - notice how adults are always asking children 'What's your favourite food?' or 'What do you want to be when you grow up?', encouraging them to define themselves concretely so that the adult has a better sense of 'who the child is'. And, of course, there's a deep truth to this - we do have very deep, strong patterns in our thoughts, emotions and behaviour which can quite accurately be said to be an important part of who we are. But notice also that who we are changes significantly depending on the situation - who we are at work is not who we are at home, or when visiting our parents, or when hanging out with friends. As we move from situation to situation, we pick up and put down different roles - different aspects of our personality. So this, too, comes and goes - and, through practice, we can find a perspective in which those things are seen to be simply empty constructs of the mind, rather than 'really true' features of reality.
But this exploration can take us deeper still. Even basic features of our experience like time and space turn out to be empty constructs too - techniques that our minds develop to help organise our experience. (Again, you can see this in young children, who haven't yet developed a conventional sense of time or spatiality - they don't have an inner calendar that extends beyond 'now!' or a mental map of the world beyond their immediate surroundings.) And, at the deepest level, even the sense of duality - the clear, obvious difference between this and that, self and other - turns out to be just another mental construction. This is what Hongzhi means when he talks about 'relinquishing external objects'.
But hang on - who wants to go back to the mental state of a newborn infant? That sounds terrible!
Fear not. This practice does not require you to become dependent on a parent to keep you alive. You've already done the work of developing the mental models of time, space and duality; you've developed a sense of who you are as a person, and you've learnt to use your thoughts to solve problems. You aren't going to lose any of that.
What we are going to do, however, is break the stranglehold that these empty concepts have over us. We've seen the world through the lens of thought and conceptuality for so long that we tend to believe everything our thoughts tell us - and with that identification with thought comes a lot of suffering. Once we realise that we aren't our thoughts - they're simply mental events that come and go - negative thoughts lose their power over us, and we don't get so carried away by positive thoughts either. Similarly, as we see the emptiness of the personality, we can let go of our need to 'defend' our sense of who we are against threats and criticism. Ultimately, we can find the peace and beauty that Hongzhi describes.
OK, so how do we do it?
Here's the tricky part. Hongzhi wrote a lot about the experience of Silent Illumination, but he didn't leave much in the way of a method. In fact, at one point in his writings he even says that it can't be 'practised' because it's intrinsically complete. Again, this paradox comes up again and again in spiritual practice - in a sense, there's nothing to do, because you already have it. But - to borrow a phrase from the Tibetan Dzogchen teacher Lama Lena, it will not have been so until you notice it for yourself. So we still have to find a way to practise!
Different teachers have found different ways to point to the same destination. Here are three of my favourites, chosen in part because I like them and in part because of their diverse approaches.
Bankei: pointing out instructions
The Rinzai Zen master Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) favoured a 'pointing-out' approach, where the teacher attempts to guide the student into an experience of Silent Illumination (which Bankei called 'resting in the Unborn' - compare with Hongzhi's 'This field is where birth and death do not reach'). The primordial awareness that we're trying to experience is always here, it's just 'covered over' by our usual way of using the mind, and so pointing-out instructions invite us to direct our minds in a different way, in the hope that we will notice what was 'behind' our usual perceptions all along.
In particular, it's very helpful to shift the 'centre of gravity' of our experience away from our 'attentional focus' - the 'laser beam' that we use to focus our minds on a specific, dualistic piece of what's going on - and toward our 'panoramic awareness' - the expansive 'floodlight' which effortlessly tracks everything around us at all times, regardless of where we're 'focusing'.
Bankei liked to point to a noise in the environment, such as the caw of a crow - he would point out that, even as his students were listening to his instructions, their 'Unborn' minds effortlessly noticed and identified the crow, without their having to do anything at all. Another approach is to 'spread out the gaze' - to allow the eyes to take in the whole visual field all at once, rather than focusing on whatever object we happen to be looking at. You can also do a similar thing with sounds, by listening to the whole sonic landscape as if it's a symphony, rather than picking out individual sounds.
Once you've noticed what's being pointed to, the rest of the practice is simply learning to rest there - at all times, in all circumstances, in stillness and in activity. (Sounds easy, right?)
You can find more about the Zen take on pointing-out instructions described in Meido Moore's book Hidden Zen. If you don't mind crossing the streams a little bit, the aforementioned Lama Lena has a great Dzogchen video on YouTube which features pointing-out instructions in that tradition.
Dogen: just sitting, no attainment
One possible drawback with the pointing-out approach is that it reinforces the idea that there's 'something to get' that you don't already have. The idea that there's something outside my current experience reinforces the very dualistic mechanism that we're trying to uproot.
The Soto Zen master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) tended to emphasise a pure 'just sitting'/shikantaza practice - no thought, no analysis, no pointing-out instructions, no tricks or techniques to try to get anything special. Since the mind is already functioning at the base of our experience, there's absolutely nothing that we need to do to make it happen. In fact, anything we try to do just gets in the way.
So, rather than do something specific, we instead do nothing. We just sit - we don't think about anything (Dogen suggests that we 'think the thought of no-thought', which he adds is 'not like thinking' - let me know what you make of that!), we don't do anything, we don't try to make anything happen. Ultimately, the activity of the mind which obscures our view of the Buddha Nature settles down all by itself, and we see it clearly - but not as a result of our efforts.
Dogen even goes as far as to say that practice and enlightenment are the same thing - that there is no enlightenment apart from shikantaza. We just sit, doing nothing, letting our minds function naturally according to their intrinsic Buddha Nature - that's all.
Dogen's approach is exemplified by the Soto school - I'm a fan of teachers such as Brad Warner and Domyo Burk, and I hear good things about Steve Hagen too, but there are plenty of them out there.
Sheng-Yen: the method of no-method
People who are new to Zen practice - and, frankly, many people who've been doing Zen practice for decades - find this style of practice very difficult. It's ungraspable by its very nature. What are you supposed to do when you aren't supposed to do anything? What does it even mean to 'do nothing'? Is it OK to have thoughts - but then, aren't you thinking - isn't that doing something? But isn't stopping thinking doing something too? Aaargh!
The 20th century Chan master Sheng-Yen (1931-2009) was a big fan of this approach to practice, but after working with lay Westerners he realised that telling them to 'just sit' wasn't really working. So he developed a method - a way of approaching this methodless practice. I've written about Sheng-Yen's approach previously (and mentioned some other variations), but in a nutshell, he suggests starting with a firmly embodied approach, taking us out of our whirling minds and settling into our physicality.
We begin with relaxation, sensitising ourselves to our bodily experience and softening as much as we can. Then, we maintain awareness of the body as we continue to sit. This provides a gentle, broad focus for the attention in the early stages of practice. Yes, it's using the attention, and yes, it's a kind of doing, but it provides a vehicle for the mind to settle and become focused. In Sheng-Yen's language, we move from a scattered mind to a focused mind.
As the practice deepens and the mind settles further, we find that the panoramic awareness becomes more prominent in our experience. The practice shifts naturally from 'focusing on body sensations' to 'aware of body and environment together'. Sheng-Yen talks about this as moving from the focused mind to the unified mind. And, finally, as we approach true Silent Illumination, we shift to Sheng-Yen's final stage, 'no-mind' - as described by Hongzhi.
To learn more about Sheng-Yen's approach, his successor Guo Gu's wonderful book Silent Illumination is where I'd suggest you start.
Which approach is the right one?
Whatever works for you! All of the approaches are just means to an end - a handful of fingers pointing at the ungraspable moon of Silent Illumination. Every teacher you'll meet will have a slightly different emphasis, a slightly different sense of what's crucial to realising Silent Illumination, different language and terminology and so forth - but all these are just slightly different routes to the same destination. So don't worry about it too much. If you have a practice already, just keep going. If you don't, try out the practice styles above and see what you like!
Four ways to open the heart, and their evil twins!
Early Buddhism features four heart-opening practices, usually called the Brahmaviharas (which you'll sometimes see translated as Divine Abodes). The same practices also show up in Tibetan Buddhism as the Four Immeasurables. (The topic of heart opening is treated a little differently in Zen, which I'll probably discuss in a future article.) They actually seem to pre-date Buddhism, but are a central part of the early teachings, and an important asset on the meditative path.
I have a page on this website in the Early Buddhism section which describes the basic practice of the Brahmaviharas, so I won't repeat that material here - do check it out if you aren't familiar with them. What I'd like to do in this article is to dig a bit deeper into what the Brahmavihara practices are pointing to - how we, as 21st century people, can understand the sometimes strange and archaic language used to describe them, and how we can potentially miss the mark if we're not careful.
What the Brahmaviharas are and aren't
The Brahmaviharas are four qualities of the heart which can be cultivated through practice: metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (resonant joy) and upekkha (equanimity). (See below for more on what these terms mean in practice.)
The key word here is 'cultivate'. These are practices, not moral commandments. The Buddha isn't saying 'you must be kind, compassionate, joyful and equanimous at all times or you're going straight to the Eight Hot Hells'. He's saying that these are good qualities to have - good both for you and for the people around you - and that it's a good thing to take active steps to cultivate those qualities, in just the same way that it's helpful to cultivate calm abiding (samatha) and clear seeing (vipassana).
In particular, it's better not to try to force anything. Don't go around trying to be kind, compassionate and so forth - honestly, it's usually pretty obnoxious when someone decides to make a 'project' out of being compassionate towards you and won't leave you alone until you acknowledge how wonderfully open their heart is. Don't do that.
Instead, look upon the cultivation of these qualities as you would cultivate a garden. You have a certain practice - planting the seeds and watering them - which creates the initial and supporting conditions for the growth and ultimate flourishing of the plants, but you don't make the garden grow through sheer force of will, and it's actively unhelpful to keep digging up the garden to see if the plants have started to grow yet. It's much more effective simply to follow the practice of tending the garden, and let the results take care of themselves.
In the same way, through diligent meditation practice over an extended period of time, these heart qualities will shine forth in a natural, integrated way; you will find your behaviour becoming naturally kinder, more compassionate, more open to the good fortune of others, and more stable and balanced in the face of strong emotions and difficult situations. You don't have to 'force' anything - and in fact it's better not to.
Near enemies of the Brahmaviharas
There's a classic practice manual which is at the heart of Theravada Buddhism (the tradition which developed out of the teachings of early Buddhism) called the Visuddhimagga (literally 'Path of Purification'); the Visuddhimagga is the source for many of the meditation practices which these days are typically attributed to the Buddha himself, since the actual discourses in the Pali canon are generally not enormously detailed in terms of specific practice instructions. By comparison, the Visuddhimagga goes into incredible (and often tedious) detail about every little aspect of practice, so, although it's a bit of a dry read, it can be a very useful sourcebook for fleshing out aspects of the path which are of interest to you.
In the case of the Brahmaviharas, the Visuddhimagga gives us both the traditional practice instructions of using a sequence of people and phrases to evoke each Brahmavihara (as described on my Brahmaviharas page). It also gives us 'near enemies' for each quality.
The 'near enemy' of something is another quality which looks pretty similar, but is different in an important way which subverts the practice. For example, early Buddhism teaches that grasping leads to suffering, and that a kind of detachment towards worldly things can free us from this suffering. But this healthy 'detachment' - in which our sense of wellbeing is not so bound up in factors beyond our control - can easily turn into a kind of indifference or even callousness. My first Zen teacher told a story of a time when his son was very ill; he was understandably very concerned, but a fellow Zen practitioner explained to him rather loftily that 'your problem is too much attachment'. For the avoidance of doubt, this statement - even if it was well-intended - was neither helpful nor compassionate. It was a demonstration not of an appropriate detachment but a near enemy of it.
Now, I took a look at the near enemies of the Brahmaviharas listed in the Visuddhimagga - and, to be honest, some of them were pretty puzzling. I've heard it said that emotions were understood (and perhaps even experienced) differently in the time of the Buddha - we're facing a 2,500-year cultural gap. So, rather than attempt to tease some relevance out of the Visuddhimagga, I'm instead going to walk through each of the Brahmaviharas in turn and try to give a 21st century interpretation of what they are, and how they can become twisted into near enemies.
Of all the Brahmaviharas, this one probably has the most translations, as different teachers try to find ways that don't sound nauseatingly sappy to half their audience whilst retaining enough force to inspire the other half. 'Loving kindness' is the most common translation, and it's the one that I tend to use myself these days, although when I started teaching I would cringe every time I said it and would often simply say 'kindness' instead. (Even today, if I'm talking to a room full of sceptical people, especially men, I'll tend to say 'kindness'.)
Other translations include benevolence, friendliness, well-wishing. From this constellation of terms, we can start to get a sense of what metta is all about. The basic attitude is one of wishing people well - but not because we believe (or assume) that they're not doing well right now. There's no 'corrective' quality to metta. It's more like this: do you like to be happy? You probably do, right? It's a good thing to be happy. And so it would be a good thing for other people to be happy too.
(Credit to my teacher Leigh Brasington for this approach to explaining metta. It's the best I've found, by leaps and bounds.)
The Visuddhimagga says that the near enemy of metta is greed, since 'both share in seeing virtues'. Meh. Personally, I see metta going wrong in a couple of ways.
One near enemy is a kind of 'faux niceness'. The person who always has a sugary compliment handy, often dressed up in 'spiritual' language so you can tell they're 'practising metta'. Such a person also often wants to tell you about all the wonderful things they've done which show off their strongly developed metta. Again, don't do this!
The other near enemy is to become a human doormat - never saying no to anyone. Metta is not about trying to 'like' everyone, and it isn't about being taken advantage of - it's about trying to relate to everyone, including the people we really don't like, with an attitude of kindness. The Thai Forest master Ajahn Sumedho uses the example of a belligerent, drunken person bursting into a meditation hall in the middle of a practice period, causing a ruckus and being generally obnoxious. It would be very difficult to like such a person in that moment - but you can still make the choice to respond with kindness (perhaps ushering the person out of the meditation hall in a tactful manner) rather than responding with cruelty (perhaps shouting, throwing things, mocking or attacking the person).
Pretty much everyone translates this one as 'compassion'. Sometimes you see 'empathy', but this term seems to mean wildly different things to different people (and is sometimes used as a very specific technical term), so I tend to stick with compassion.
The basic attitude of compassion is to recognise that suffering is a universal human experience. I suffer, you do too, and that will continue to be the case until we're dead or attain full, final enlightenment (which seems to be pretty difficult).
Compassion can be difficult to see and understand. Our heart's first, natural reaction to a situation is quickly obscured by the stories we tell ourselves about what's going on. An initial stab of self-compassion is replaced with either a tale of woe ('This isn't supposed to be happening to me!') or perhaps self-criticism ('I deserve this after what I did yesterday...'). But the basic attitude we're looking for is that initial flutter of the heart: this sucks! If metta is about how it's a good thing to be happy, compassion is the recognition that it's a bad thing to be unhappy, whether it's our own unhappiness or that of another.
The Visuddhimagga says that compassion has 'grief based on the home life' as its near enemy. Okaaaaay... There are two other options which - to me - seem much more common and problematic.
One near enemy is what we might call 'pity' - feeling sorry for that person over there, at a distance, perhaps with a subtle undercurrent of 'and I'm glad it isn't me!', or a judgemental quality ('well maybe he wouldn't be homeless if he didn't spend all his money on cigarettes'). True karuna is a recognition that suffering is part of the human condition; that which is in me which suffers is also within you. As our practice matures and the boundaries between self and other soften, we find ourselves responding more and more to 'suffering', as opposed to 'my suffering' or 'your suffering'.
Another near enemy is to allow our own discomfort in the face of someone else's pain to obscure what the situation actually needs. If a friend bursts into tears, we may feel anxious, conflicted or uneasy - and so might try to make the situation go away, telling them to 'cheer up' or distracting them with something irrelevant, not because that's what they need but because it makes us feel better. Sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is simply to be with someone in their moment of despair, not saying or doing anything at all, but equally not running away or pushing away the situation.
Mudita has almost as many popular translations as metta, but in the case of mudita it's because we don't really have the concept in the English language. Stephen Batchelor has described it as 'the opposite of schadenfreude' - if schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, mudita could be described as taking pleasure in the good fortune of others.
Personally, I like to look at mudita as the flip side of karuna/compassion. Both have a 'resonant' quality - and, in fact, you'll sometimes see mudita translated as 'resonant joy', 'sympathetic joy' or 'appreciative joy', to emphasise this way in which it emerges in response to something else. So if karuna is the heart's instinctive reaction on encountering suffering - 'oh no, this sucks!' - mudita is the heart's instinctive reaction on encountering joy - 'yay, this is great!'
Again, the initial momentary flicker of mudita is often quickly squashed by stories - 'huh, that person always gets nice things, what am I doing wrong?', 'it's all right for some, isn't it?'. And there are lots of situations that might make a particular person happy which we wouldn't necessarily want to celebrate in this way - if, for example, someone experiences pleasure from hurting others, it seems a little strange to say 'Hooray, the torturer is happy!' (In practice, it's likely that compassion for the victims would be the dominant response in that kind of situation anyway.)
The Visuddhimagga says that the near enemy of mudita is 'joy based on the home life'. Again, meh. In this case, there aren't so many common misunderstandings, because mudita is so rarely taught these days - very often people say they're going to talk about mudita but then just talk about 'joy' in general, as opposed to this 'resonant' heart quality. But perhaps a near enemy might be harbouring a kind of jealous appreciation of others - 'Oh, isn't that nice for you? You're so lucky to have that when so many others don't!'
Equanimity is the usual translation of this one; sometimes you see 'equipoise' instead, but if you didn't know what to make of 'equanimity', 'equipoise' probably won't help much either.
Wikipedia describes equanimity as 'a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind'. (Near enemies of upekkha may be jumping out at you already.)
Equanimity can seem like the odd one out in this list. Loving kindness, compassion and resonant joy are all about experiencing emotions - being touched and moved by the situations we encounter in the world. Yet equanimity seems to be the opposite - being unmoved by what we encounter. Sometimes it can seem like developing equanimity might turn us into emotionless robots or mindless zombies.
But equanimity turns out to be key to the other three Brahmaviharas. Without equanimity, loving kindness can start to shade over into desire and grasping; compassion can quickly overwhelm us with the pain of others; and mudita can turn into a giddy, ungrounded mania. Equanimity is not at all about getting rid of emotions and becoming robotic - on the contrary, equanimity is actually what allows us to feel strong emotions without being swept away by them.
The Visuddhimagga says that 'ignorance' is the near enemy of equanimity, which sounds crazy until you interpret 'ignorance' as 'ignoring' - i.e. consciously turning away. Understood in this way, it's actually pretty good, although I would use the term 'indifference' to describe the mild version of this near enemy, and perhaps 'callousness' for its stronger manifestations. Equanimity gone wrong says 'Who cares?'; equanimity done well gives us the stability to say 'What should we do about this?'
Bringing it all together
Personally, I would say that all four Brahmaviharas represent naturally emergent qualities of an open heart. Loving kindness is the 'default' radiance of a heart which is not bound up in self-centred concerns; compassion and mudita are that heart's natural response to unhappiness and happiness respectively; and equanimity is the stability that holds it all together and allows us to feel these emotions deeply without losing our footing.
Please enjoy your Brahmavihara practice. It's good for you, and it's good for those around you too. What's not to like?
Remembering my teacher's teacher
Last Friday we received the news that Shinzan Miyamae Roshi, teacher of my Zen teacher Daizan Roshi and abbot of Gyokuryuji temple in Japan, passed away.
I never met Shinzan Roshi myself, but his presence is felt in every aspect of the Zenways community, from the calligraphies at the Dojo in London, to the enso in the Zenways logo (seen behind Shinzan Roshi in the picture above), to the teaching curriculum used within Zenways, to the format of the Breakthrough to Zen retreats that Zenways runs throughout the year. Even some of his turns of phrase have made their way into the Zenways lexicon.
So in this week's article I'd like to take a look at the life of this remarkable man, and see what suggestions Shinzan Roshi might have had for our own practice.
(Many of the biographical details given below are taken from Daizan's book Practical Zen, and the Zenways Press book The Zen Character: Life, Art and Teachings of Zen Master Shinzan Miyamae.)
Challenges in lay life and introduction to Zen
Shinzan Roshi was a child during the Second World War. Towards the end of the war, the Japanese education system had largely broken down, and the country began preparing for an Allied invasion. The young Shinzan found himself and a group of other young children taken aside by a teenager with a sharpened bamboo pole, to be given 'lessons' in 'killing Americans'. Then, with the sudden, shocking detonation of the two atomic bombs, the war was over. Abruptly, these young killers-in-training found themselves surrounded by American soldiers who would give the local children sweets and teach them to play baseball. This dramatic reversal had a profound effect on the young Shinzan, who said simply, 'I cried.' From that point onward, Shinzan had an affinity for Westerners, and it is perhaps because of this openness that our lineage exists in the West at all today.
As a young adult, Shinzan was determined to go into business, but unfortunately didn't have much affinity for it. He was a soft touch, never charging enough, never able to make enough money to keep the lights on. Two business ventures failed, the second one taking with it not only his own money but his parents' savings too. In despair, he even tried to commit suicide, but found himself unable to go through with it.
Then, one day, he gave a lift to a Zen nun who had arrived at a train station. He had never been particularly interested in Buddhism, but something about this nun impressed him, and she gave him a small book on Zen called Senshin Roku (On Purifying the Heart). This was his first proper introduction to Zen - and, not long afterwards, he ordained as a monk in the Rinzai Zen tradition.
Shinzan trained with several teachers, most notably the fierce and demanding master Itsugai Roshi at Shogenji temple, a training monastery also known as oni sodo, the 'devil's dojo'. Itsugai was a strong advocate of the central importance of kensho - seeing one's true nature, the first step along the path of awakening in Zen.
Shinzan had to prove himself to Itsugai. At first, he wasn't even allowed to attend sanzen, the interviews/encounters with the teacher which are so central to Rinzai Zen. But Shinzan was determined to experience kensho, and spent as much time as he could meditating. One day Itsugai noticed Shinzan walking back to the temple after a week spent meditating alone in a cave, and this clearly convinced him that Shinzan meant business.
Shinzan was given the 'mu' koan to work with. This famous koan relates an exchange between a monk and the master Joshu/Zhaozhou. The monk asks 'Does a dog have Buddha nature?', and Joshu replies 'Mu', meaning 'no' or 'not'. On the face of it, this seems straightforward enough - except that a central tenet of Buddhism is that all beings have Buddha nature. So why does Joshu reply 'Mu'? What does this negation signify? Itsugai challenged Shinzan to 'Bring me this mu!'
Shinzan threw himself into the practice, and finally, late one night, he went up on the mountain behind Shogenji and shouted 'Mu!' with his whole being. In that moment, something happened. Shinzan would later say, in his simple English, 'I lost myself. After that, many koans, pass, pass, pass.' He had experienced kensho - Shinzan had seen his true nature - and the true world of Zen opened up to him.
Shinzan's controversial stances on kensho and social engagement
Kensho is a beginning rather than an end, and so Shinzan continued to train hard, progressing through the many koans in his lineage. As time went on, however, it became clearer and clearer that Shinzan's interest in awakening was relatively unusual. Many Japanese Zen temples are essentially family businesses which focus largely on conducting expensive funerals, and so many of the people who go to training monasteries like Shogenji have little interest in arduous spiritual training; they're simply there to become qualified as priests in order to take over the running of the family temple.
Shinzan was highly critical of those in the Zen world who lacked authentic insight - and, over the years, this stance ruffled enough feathers that Shinzan ended up outside of the mainstream of Japanese Rinzai Zen. Undeterred, he restored the former hermitage of the great 17th century Rinzai Zen master Bankei, set himself up there and hung a sign at the gate which read 'Training place for young and old people to realise their true nature.'
Kensho remained central to Shinzan's teaching for the rest of his life. His teachings would often begin 'The first priority is kensho. The second priority is kensho. The third priority is kensho.' However, rather than adopting an inflexible, one-size-fits-all curriculum, Shinzan recognised that different people had different needs, and so offered a range of practices to his students, including koan study but also offering Bankei's gentler style of practice, which has a close affinity to the Silent Illumination practice that I've written about on many occasions.
Shinzan was also determined that Zen practitioners should be engaged in the world, not cloistered away from it. (This attitude can be seen reflected in Zenways too - for example, their work with the homeless and imprisoned, some of which you can read about in the beautiful book Rough Waking.) In particular, after the sarin gas attacks instigated by the cult Aum Shinrikyo in the mid-90s, Shinzan worked with the notorious senior cult member Kazuaki Okazaki, a man who had committed terrible crimes in the name of the cult, trying to help Okazaki move beyond the beliefs Aum Shinrikyo had instilled in him. This was a profoundly controversial move at a time when the cult was regarded with deep fear and hatred throughout Japan, but Shinzan persisted nevertheless. Okazaki was ultimately able to move beyond his twisted world view, and became a Zen student of Shinzan's and a gifted artist (contributing a series of images to Rough Waking, mentioned above) until his execution in 2018.
Nari kiru: the heart of Zen
One of Shinzan Roshi's key teachings - and a frequent subject of his calligraphies - is the phrase 'nari kiru'. 'Nari' means 'become', and 'kiru' literally means 'cut off', in the sense of severing all ties. But what does this mean - is Shinzan pointing to a kind of renunciate stance on the world, casting off all worldly ties and retreating to a mountain hermitage?
Actually, it's the opposite, as can be seen from Daizan's preferred translation of nari kiru as 'completely becoming'. Shinzan Roshi is pointing to an attitude of total engagement with whatever situation is at hand. Very often, we're 'only half there' - partly engaged with what we're doing, partly thinking about something else. The nari kiru approach is to drop all distractions, let go of that part of ourselves that wants to think about what we're doing later on or how much we want this current task to be over with, and simply pour 100% of our energy into this, here, now.
Sometimes the Zen approach that Shinzan called nari kiru is described as 'engaging wholeheartedly' with whatever is going on, but a friend recently pointed out that this can make it sound like we're supposed to be enthusiastic about whatever we're doing, and very often in our lives we have to do things that we aren't at all enthusiastic about, so the 'wholehearted' attitude can be hard to find. An alternative suggestion comes from my friend's Zen teacher Domyo Burk, which is to think instead in terms of doing something 'undividedly'. Whatever is happening, we give it our full attention. We don't have to like it or be excited to do it - but we give the task our undivided focus nevertheless. In this way, we become increasingly present, increasingly absorbed in the moment-to-moment reality of our life, less and less distracted, less and less caught up in reactivity. We become free, not just in formal meditation, but in the midst of the very activities that make up our lives.
A final piece of advice from Shinzan Roshi
I'll give Shinzan Roshi the last word. Here is the closing passage from a talk given to his Western students concerning the Sixth Zen Ancestor Eno (Huineng in Chinese) and his fellow practitioner Myo (Huiming in Chinese).
'Soon Myo found his true nature, soon you will too. Please find quickly. You will be very happy and I will be very happy - and the world needs happy, awake people. Your practice is important.'
Five things to do at the end of a meditation session
Last week we looked at five things to do at the beginning of a meditation session, using a list from my teacher on the Early Buddhist side, Leigh Brasington. Leigh also has a list of five things to do at the end of each session, so let's take a look at those too!
(You can find Leigh's own thoughts on these steps on his website - what follows will be my interpretation of the same principles.)
(Leigh's term for this is 'recapitulation' but I find 'review' easier to remember.)
So, you've made it all the way to the end of your meditation session without screaming, throwing your timer at the wall or giving up and going for a walk. Well done! But before you rush off to do something else - and, by the way, if you've had a difficult sit, notice how much more relaxed you feel now that the bell has rung, even though almost nothing has changed yet - it can be helpful to review what just happened.
First up, what was the state of your body and mind at the beginning of the session (and, more broadly, especially off retreat, what were you bringing with you to the cushion)? Were you highly agitated, sleepy, hyper-caffeinated, ill, short on time? What effect did that have on the practice? Do you notice trends emerging over time (e.g. every time you sit down to do Silent Illumination when you're tired, you fall asleep without fail)?
Next, what was your practice or practices? What happened during the course of the meditation? Did your mind settle? If you were doing a samadhi practice, did you enter jhana or an equivalent state? If so, how did you get there?
(It's worth noting that Leigh teaches jhana retreats, and so in that context this step is mainly about looking at the quality of your jhana practice. The hardest part in the early days of jhana work is figuring out how to get into the first jhana at all, and so taking time to review which approaches worked and which didn't can be invaluable. Each person ultimately learns their own route into jhana, so it's essential to have a degree of introspection into the mechanics of your personal practice. That said, the same is true of other practices such as the Brahmaviharas too, so the review step is useful for all practitioners, not just people learning the jhanas.)
(Leigh puts this step third, but to me it makes more sense for it to flow naturally from the reviewing process.)
Something else to consider is what you learnt from the practice - whether any insights cropped up. Insights can come on the relative level, telling you something about yourself (for example, the discovery of a deep psychological mechanism which has been making unhelpful life choices for you for twenty years), or on the absolute level, telling you something about the nature of experience itself (for example, that all experience is mind-originated and we are not fundamentally separate from the rest of the universe).
Insights are tricky beasts. An insight is not the same as an experience - we can have a dramatic experience in meditation and learn nothing useful from it, or we can have a profound, life-changing insight with no experiential fireworks whatsoever, just a simple falling-into-place of understanding.
When we do have an insight, it's useful to take some time to reflect on it. My Zen teacher Daizan strongly recommends keeping a meditation diary and taking a few minutes for a 'brain dump' after every sitting, making a note of anything useful that you've learnt. At the same time, though, we should be careful not to over-intellectualise what we've learnt in practice. Meditative insight is transformative only when it's experiential in nature and fully embodied in our day-to-day life - otherwise it rapidly becomes just another spiritual trophy on the shelf, a story to tell other practitioners about 'that time I saw emptiness' to show what a great meditator you are.
(Leigh puts this step second, so I've switched Insights and Impermanence.)
One of the central insights in all forms of Buddhism is the impermanent nature of the phenomena of our experience. Everything comes and goes - civilisations, nations, loved ones, the food we eat, each breath we take. Nothing is ultimately stable or reliable, and trying to hold on to something and force it to be solid, dependable and permanent is a recipe for suffering.
Thus, we take a moment to recognise the impermanent nature of all things. Your practice is now over. Even if jhanas arose during the practice, they're gone now; if the practice has left you feeling peaceful, content or joyful, that's beautiful, but it too will pass sooner or later. While this might seem like a bit of a downer (what's the point in practising contentment if I'm just going to feel stressed again later?), it's really an opportunity to appreciate and celebrate whatever positive or beautiful qualities we experience in our practice and our lives right now, precisely because we know they won't be around forever. Sooner or later it all goes away, whether or not we choose to take a moment to enjoy it - so isn't it better to make sure we do take that moment when we can?
Impermanence is also particularly important to recognise if we've had an insight (noted in step 2) which was bound up in an experience. Experiences come and go, but insights change the way we see the world, and the deepest ones can't fully be un-seen or forgotten. However, if we associate the insight with the experience, we might start to feel like we're 'losing our awakening' when the experience wears off.
4. Dedication of merit
In last week's article we saw how Leigh's suggested things to do before a sitting helped to create a positive, supportive environment for meditation in part by connecting our practice to a wider context beyond ourselves.
In the same way, the dedication of merit at the end of any period of practice is a traditional Buddhist ritual used to re-connect ourselves with our wider community. Sometimes I'll end a day-long retreat by ringing a meditation bell three times and saying 'May any merit from our practice today be for the benefit of all beings.'
But wait, what's this 'merit' stuff? And where did this suspiciously religious-looking ritual business come from?
The concept of karma is found throughout Buddhist teachings - and it often means subtly or even wildly different things depending on the era of the text you're reading or the teacher who's talking about it. In modern-day Thailand, for example, it's common to hear people talking about 'making merit' by doing good actions, like if you do enough good stuff then it 'balances out' the bad stuff you've done on some set of cosmic scales. (I read a book once where the main character was involved in activities that she regarded as creating negative karma, but it was to earn money to send her highly intelligent kid brother to university so that he could become a doctor and help many people, and by her calculations the positive karma he would create through his work would outweigh the negative karma of her actions, so she regarded it as a net positive.)
In the Pali canon, we find the Buddha talking about karma (kamma in Pali) as 'intention'. He points to something that modern neuroscientists also recognise - whatever we do frequently becomes habitual, as our minds become trained to move in that direction naturally and instinctively. So if we routinely meet difficult situations with anger, we'll be more likely to respond with anger in the future, whereas if we practise responding with compassion instead, we'll be more likely to display compassion instinctively in the future. Personally, I find this a more useful way to relate to karma than the 'cosmic scales of justice' thing, because otherwise we have to explain why bad things happen to good people and so forth, which gets into multiple lifetimes and all that jazz.
Whatever you think about karma, though, the ultimate purpose of practice in the Buddhist context is the alleviation of suffering - and, with my Zen/Mahayana hat on for a moment, not just our own suffering, but the suffering of all beings. Our practice goes far beyond ourselves - the changes we make in ourselves are reflected in our relationships and interactions with other people, and those people will go on to interact with others, and on and on - the web of influence that spreads out from our personal thoughts, words and deeds reaches far and wide.
So it can be worth taking an explicit moment to remember that web of interconnection at the end of a practice. Even if you've just had the best sit of your life, experienced lots of wonderful jhanas or had lots of deep insights, this isn't ultimately about how great you are, and please don't run around telling everyone how much more enlightened you are than them. Dedicate the merits of your practice to the benefit of all. The interesting thing about this work is that, the more you give it away, the more you have...
5. Continuing mindfulness
In the context of a jhana retreat, off-cushion mindfulness is really important, because the concentration that you build up in your meditation practice is easily frittered away if you return to a scattered state when the practice ends. If you're trying to learn the jhanas, it's helpful to have the best concentration you can possibly muster, which means guarding the sense doors and paying attention to what you're doing between sits.
More generally, perhaps the biggest pitfall for experienced meditators is to 'compartmentalise' the practice. It can be easy to think that, because you meditate for twenty minutes every day, that's all you have to do - and yet, after a few years, you start to notice that you have a lovely experience whenever you go on retreat, but it all falls to bits when you come back to daily life, despite your best efforts to hold on to whatever peace of mind you found on the retreat. But if you've established a boundary between your 'spiritual life' (which happens all day on retreat, but only for 20 minutes a day off retreat) and 'normal life', even unknowingly, you'll tend to find that most of the benefits of your spiritual practice are confined to those moments when you're engaged in your 'spiritual life'.
Ultimately, the practice goes far deeper if we widen our sense of 'spiritual life' to include everything that we do. Our relationships, our work, our most mundane activities can all become opportunities for practice - which is not to say that we start having artificial conversations with our loved ones because we're trying to 'practise compassion' or whatever, but simply that we continuously work at bringing clear, bright awareness and total presence into whatever situation we find ourselves in, rather than spending most of our lives only half there, always thinking about what we'd rather be doing.
In the long run, we do this practice not to reach some final point where we don't have to practise any more. Rather, we practise so that this way of relating to our experience - with presence, clarity and openness - becomes who we are.
May all beings benefit from the merit of our practice!
Five things to do at the start of a meditation session
When my teacher Leigh Brasington is leading a retreat, a few days into the practice he'll introduce a list of five things to do at the beginning of each sitting. It's a neat little list that does a great job of setting up supportive conditions for any meditation practice, so let's take a look and see what's in there!
It's very helpful to begin your practice by cultivating a positive mind state. Whether you're interested in samadhi, insight, heart-opening, energy practice or something else, it all tends to go better when you're starting from a place of well-being. Negative states tend to reinforce contraction, grasping and clinging to old habitual patterns of thinking and behaving, whereas positive states tend to open us up to new possibilities.
Thus, Leigh recommends starting every meditation practice by generating a sense of gratitude. How you do this is really up to you, but here are some starting points for consideration:
So another approach is simply to cast your mind back over the last few days and pick out three or four small things for which you can feel some degree of gratitude. Even if this is hard at first, please persevere, because you'll find it gets easier over time, as you train your mind to notice and remember little incidents throughout the day that would otherwise be overlooked and forgotten.
Why are you doing this? What brings you here, to this website, to this article? More generally, what brings you to a meditation practice?
This inquiry can actually be a complete practice in itself (as can most of the items in this list, with the possible exception of the next one). You can work with 'Why am I here?' as a koan, just like 'Who am I?' or 'What is this?' (Koan practice is discussed in the latter part of this article.) However, for today's purposes, we're going to take it in a slightly different direction - koan practice is more about the exploration of the question than the answers we arrive at, but if we're looking at our motivation as a preliminary to a meditation practice, it can be more helpful to arrive at some kind of answer, even if it's only a provisional one.
We are meaning-making creatures. We like things to make sense, to be contextualised in a wider frame, to be part of a broad narrative that tells us who we are and what's going on. Generally speaking, people who feel that their lives are meaningful tend to report higher levels of subjective well-being than those who feel that life is meaningless and arbitrary. And, interestingly, people who spend time assigning meaning to things tend to report the subjective sense that their lives are more meaningful. In other words, by actively relating to our lives as meaningful, we feel that they are, indeed, meaningful. You may have heard the story of the janitor at NASA who, when asked why he was working so late, replied 'I'm helping put a man on the moon.' Now that's meaning!
So - why are we here? What is the meaning of our meditation practice to each of us as individuals? Are we here to find a way out of suffering? To explore a rich and fascinating historical wisdom tradition? To learn things about ourselves and how our minds work? To find peace of mind?
Leigh's term for this one is 'determination', but I'm personally not so keen on that word. Perhaps it's because my natural tendency is to try a bit too hard, but whenever I think of 'determination' I get a kind of anime-esque image of myself enwreathed in a halo of flames about to transform into my most powerful form. Then I tend to charge headlong into my meditation practice like a bull in a china shop, totally lacking the subtlety needed to navigate my internal landscape.
So let's not do that. But it's still useful to take a moment to set a firm, clear intention for our practice. In the previous step we reminded ourselves why we're here. Now we should get clear about what we're going to do. What is your practice for this sitting? Are you going to cultivate samadhi, do an insight practice, something else?
It's all too easy to sit down to meditate, start your timer, and then fifteen minutes later realise that you've been lost in thought and haven't actually started meditating yet. Deliberately setting a clear intention at the beginning of each sit can really help to avoid this pitfall.
Having a clear intention in mind can also help if you find yourself getting bored part-way into the sit. This is especially a problem if you have a sizeable toolbox of different practices (which is the way I teach, so the longer you hang around me, the more prone to this problem you'll be - sorry!); it's easy to think 'Ahh, this body scan thing isn't really working, I'll do some jhana practice instead. Hmm, nope, jhanas don't seem to be happening, how about some noting? Ugh, this is making me agitated, maybe I'll do some metta.' And ultimately you end up spending the entire session jumping from one practice to another, never settling into anything properly.
One last point worth mentioning is that part of your intention-setting can include a reminder to treat yourself kindly when you notice that your mind has wandered. As I mentioned in a previous article, if we beat ourselves up whenever we notice our mind has wandered, we'll ultimately train ourselves to be less likely to notice mind-wandering - because who wants to get yelled at? The intention-setting stage of practice can be a good time to remind ourselves 'For the duration of this sitting, whenever I notice that my mind has wandered, I will consciously celebrate that moment of clear mindfulness before returning to my practice', or something like that. (It sounds cheesy but it really works - try it!)
4. Metta / loving kindness
Of the five, this is the step that Leigh is 100% adamant that you should never, ever skip. Leigh's recommendation is that you should always do metta for yourself, and optionally for others if you have time and feel so inclined.
Actively cultivating loving kindness is a central practice in early Buddhism, and it can be powerfully transformative. By cultivating love within ourselves, we become less dependent on external sources of validation and affection; we also become kinder, friendlier people to be around. A deep enough metta practice can also lead us to states of samadhi and deep insights into the nature of dualistic perception, so don't be tempted to write it off as 'just some hippie thing', even if it isn't really to your taste at first. It took me a long time to 'click' with metta practice, and honestly it'll probably never be in my top three go-to practices, but equally there have been times when metta practice has been exactly what I needed in the moment, and my practice would be impoverished without it.
You can find out some more about metta on the Brahmaviharas page in the Early Buddhism section of this website. There are also a couple of 10-minute guided metta practices on my Audio page - one based around visualisation, the other using phrases. A third approach is simply to generate the felt sense of wishing someone well, and rest in that feeling.
By the way, metta isn't just a great practice in its own right, it's also serving an important purpose at this stage in Leigh's list of preliminaries. We started by generating a positive, relaxed, open frame of mind with gratitude, but the motivation and intention-setting stages can sometimes have a kind of 'sharpening' effect, generating a certain amount of intensity and 'spiritual urgency'. It's helpful to have this kind of energy fuelling our practice, but as I said above, we don't want to go too far in this direction. So bringing in metta at this point will tend to soften everything back down again, making us flexible rather than overly rigid.
5. 'Breathing in I calm body and mind, breathing out I smile'
The final step is a 'gatha' - a short verse recited mentally in rhythm with the breath. The use of a gatha is a practice popularised in modern times by the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, and indeed this particular gatha comes from him.
Reciting a phrase in this way acts as a support for mental focus, in much the same way as counting the breathings. Unlike counting the breaths, however, the meaning of the gatha is also intended to support the practice, reminding us to move towards relaxation and well-being. (Leigh has commented that this particular gatha is potentially all the instruction you need to enter jhana - one of Leigh's preferred techniques for entering jhana is to focus first on stilling the mind to the point of access concentration whilst smiling, then shifting the attention to the pleasantness of the smile itself as a route into the first jhana.)
So this is the final part of the 'on-ramp' for your main meditation practice - having cultivated gratitude, set up the frame of motivation and intention, and opened up the heart with metta, we now let go of all of that and simply focus on breathing, relaxing and smiling, calming the whole mind-body system down and letting us slide smoothly into whatever comes next.
How long should I spend on all this?
There's no single answer to that - as I mentioned above, steps 1, 2, 4 and 5 could potentially be complete practices in themselves. If you never got past the gratitude step for the rest of your life as a meditator, there are worse ways to spend your time!
In general, though, we're looking for these to be preliminary steps, and once you've done each one a few times you should be able to move fairly quickly through them. In a 30-minute meditation session, you might want to spend a minute or so cultivating gratitude (perhaps a little more if you're coming to the practice in a negative frame of mind); once you've clarified your motivation sufficiently, it only takes a few moments to reconnect with that, and likewise with the intention-setting. For metta, Leigh would recommend that the absolute minimum is a minute focusing on yourself, longer if you have more time and/or would like to include other people.
As for the gatha, it depends a little on how busy your mind is and where you're going next. In the same way that if you're working with the breath, you might start out by counting the breaths and then later drop the count once the mind is a bit more settled, you'll tend to find that you reach a point where the gatha is no longer supporting the practice and actually starting to get in the way. Certainly if you want to move on to an insight practice, at some point you'll have to shift gears and let go of the gatha to make space for the insight practice.
But there's no particular formula (35 seconds of gratitude, then 12 seconds of motivation, then...). Rather than looking at these preliminaries as a rigid set of obligations that you have to drag around with you like chains, see them instead as optional supports. As you learn more about your own mind states and the effects that these preliminaries have on them, you'll develop an intuitive sense of how much of each one is 'enough'.
So give them a go and see what works!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.