Why an intellectual understanding of Zen isn't enough
There's a saying in Zen that 'a painting of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger'.
If you're anything like me, you might think of those puffed rice cake things whose only real value is as a flat surface for chocolate spread or peanut butter, but the saying comes from Tang dynasty China, so they probably had something else in mind. Modern-day Asian rice cakes actually look pretty appetising to me.
These are Japanese rather than Chinese, but they still look pretty nice.
However, no matter how appealing the image above is, I find that I can't derive any actual nourishment from staring at the pixels on my screen. Seeing the image of the rice cake is not the same experience as eating the rice cake.
Another way of saying this is that, when you go to a restaurant, it's not enough to look at the menu. No matter how closely you read and re-read the menu, taking extensive notes, perhaps even calling the waiter over to ask many detailed questions about exactly how the various ingredients are combined in the dishes you're interested in, none of this will fill your belly. Reading the menu gives you some idea of what the meal may involve, but you still have to eat the actual food.
(Bear with me, this is going somewhere. I promise.)
The importance of view
We tend to think that we see the world as it is - that our eyes are like little windows looking out onto an objectively real, measurable, dependable universe. In fact, this seems so obvious that it's actually very hard to challenge, because the evidence is right there in front of your eyes.
Or is it?
The world I see is not necessarily the same as the world you see. For example, I'm a little bit blue-green colour-blind; assuming you aren't colour-blind in the same way, there are colours that look different to you but the same as each other to me. So we literally see different worlds. OK, you might say, but that's just because my eyes are defective whereas yours work properly, so you see things 'as they are' whereas I'm mistaken.
So here's another example - maybe you like aniseed (my partner does), but I really can't stand it. To her, aniseed tastes pleasant, but to me it tastes unpleasant. Where is the objective reality here? The standard way of explaining this one away is to say 'oh well, that's just a matter of taste', but that's really just sweeping the problem under the carpet - there's still an underlying view that aniseed has an objectively existing flavour, but somehow it's OK for two people to perceive that objectively real reality differently in this instance. Of course, often it really isn't OK to perceive objective reality differently from the social norm - for example, if I tried to tell you that the sky is green for me and the grass is blue, you'd think I had a problem with my eyes, or that I was 'losing touch with reality'.
Underlying all of this is a view - a basic underlying assumption about 'what's going on', or 'how reality is'. Our view gives us a kind of framework into which we can fit our many and varied perceptions of the world, and put together narratives to explain what's going on in terms that help us to understand the world around us and make effective choices. In order to live in a society with other people, it's helpful to have narratives that line up at least reasonably well with each other - allowing some wiggle room for 'matters of taste', so that the contradictions between those narratives aren't too unbearable or obvious. Where those narratives clash strongly, we see protests, wars, irreconcilable rifts in families.
The role of Zen practice is to challenge our underlying view, by asking us to look deeply into our experience and see the places where the view we developed through our childhood and adolescence isn't quite as accurate as we tend to assume. Seeing those holes in our picture of the world opens the door to new ways of seeing what's going on - ways which can transform our lives.
Understanding on the intellectual level versus the emotional level
Coming back to our painted rice cake, it's important to understand that I'm not talking about 'mere philosophy' here. Zen is not a collection of interesting ideas to add to your library and admire from afar. Zen practice only really works if it touches us deeply.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you behaved very differently from the way you thought you would behave in that situation? For example, maybe you decided to eat more healthily, and then found yourself in a shop buying chocolate. (This happens to me from time to time.) You'd certainly had the thought 'I'm going to eat more healthily', but somehow that thought hadn't penetrated down deep enough to change your behaviour.
A more poignant example comes from a philosopher who once described the moment at which he realised the superficiality of his lifelong philosophical endeavours. His particular area of expertise was in free will - the philosophical question of whether we choose our actions, or whether everything is merely some combination of determinism and randomness, which is strongly implied by the way we tend to understand physics. He subscribed to the latter view - that everything happens either because of inevitable cause-and-effect, or because it's simply random, with no 'choice' or 'intention' behind it - and had spent his life looking at the consequences of this, particularly in the moral domain. He pointed out that, if you really believe that free will is an illusion, then the concept of 'blame' doesn't make any sense: you can only hold someone 'responsible' for their actions (and thus blame them if they do bad things) if there was the possibly of their having done differently - if they'd had any choice in the matter.
He had thought quite deeply about this, and believed himself to be fully convinced that free will was an illusion, and that he had entirely let go of blaming others for their actions. He even said that he found this quite liberating. And then, one day, one of his children was attacked and badly beaten. In that moment of profound human suffering, he discovered that the urge to blame others for doing terrible things was still alive and well within him, and it had simply been buried under layers of intellectual sophistry.
Many of us come to Zen practice because we're looking to be changed by the process. But if the insights we discover remain merely at the intellectual level, we don't really change deep down. We admire the painting of the rice cake, but the deep nourishment of the meal never comes.
Insight: the 'understood experience'
My teacher's teacher on the Theravada side, Ayya Khema, liked to define spiritual insight as 'understood experience'. There are two aspects to this, and in the absence of either one, the insight doesn't fully materialise.
On one hand, there's the understanding. Without understanding, mere experience isn't really all that interesting. Sometimes we might have wild, crazy spiritual experiences from meditation practice - bliss, joy, seeing bright lights, becoming one with everything - but if we don't understand those experiences for what they are, then at best they'll have no impact on our underlying view, and at worst they might even confuse us more.
On the other hand, we do need the experience. It isn't enough to read the menu. If all we do is think about our experience, we don't get down to the juicy stuff. Thinking about something removes us from that something, putting us at a distance from which we can survey it. Fortunately, thinking is not the only way to know our experience - we can also experience it directly. When you pick up a cup of tea, you don't need to think about it to know whether the cup is hot or cold; you know immediately, from the direct experience. It's a more immediate, intuitive kind of knowing than the intellectual kind - and for many of us it can take a while to get in touch with it, because we're so used to seeing the world through the filter of our thinking minds. But it's a necessary step on the road to insight.
Levels of understanding: from the superficial to the visceral
We can look at the development of understanding in Zen practice as a kind of progression. At first, even the ideas don't make any sense, because they're too far outside our current view. When asked to explain something about Zen, we might be able to parrot the words we read in a book, but there's no real understanding. Sometimes people seem content to remain at this level - perhaps because what they were really looking for was a community to hang out with, and they've learnt enough of the lingo to enjoy spending time with the other people in the group.
But many people are not content with simply being 'in the scene', and want to go deeper. So we start to think more carefully about the meaning behind the words in the books, trying to get a sense of what's being talked about. After a while, those ideas will start to make some intellectual sense, and we might now feel that we 'get it' - that we 'understand Zen', because we can articulate the concepts in our own words. But, on a deeper level, we don't really feel any different, and don't really see the big deal about all this Zen stuff. We might even become rather sceptical about Zen, because the teachers say it's this amazingly transformative thing, but we can't see the big deal about it. Why do they keep banging on about meditation? What can sitting there doing nothing give you that you can't get from reading books?
Still, if we persist with practice, and continue coming back to our immediate direct experience, as opposed to simply piling thoughts on top of more thoughts, we begin to see more clearly. We move beyond the intellectual sense of 'yeah, that makes sense' to a more immediate, visceral knowledge - in other words, we taste the food. When we come into contact with the 'taste' of direct experience, we open the door to insights that can begin to change our view, little by little.
Over time, those insights accumulate, until one day we reach a watershed moment when our view shifts substantially enough that we abruptly see reality in a whole new way. In Zen, this moment is called kensho (literally, 'seeing true nature'), because it's the moment when we realise the limitations of our old way of seeing things, and a world of possibility opens up for us. In early Buddhism, the moment is called stream entry, because we enter the stream that will lead us inevitably to full awakening - the total transformation of our view.
OK, so how do we do this?
All insight meditation practices are intended to bring about this kind of understood experience, in a variety of different ways. You can find a range of good insight practices on my Audio page. But, since I've been talking about thoughts and feelings in this article, here's another simple but profound practice which you can use to explore some of these ideas directly.
To begin, set yourself up in a comfortable meditation posture. You might like to take a few minutes simply following the breath, to allow the mind to settle so that you can see what's going on more clearly.
Then, take a look at your hand. (Either hand will do.) Think clearly to yourself: 'this is my hand, these are the fingers, I can bend and straighten them'. Then, bend and straighten your fingers, and pay attention to the physical sensations of moving your fingers, without thinking about it. Try this with eyes open (looking at the hand) and closed.
Go back and forth between thinking about your hand and feeling the sensations in your hand, many times. As you examine more closely you'll notice more subtle mental activity - not just the deliberate thinking that's part of the practice, but also other layers of thinking. You will likely also find that the sensations of the hand are more complex than they initially appeared - rather than simply a sensation of 'hand', there's 'hand' and 'fingers'; the 'fingers' have 'joints', and there are other physical sensations too, like a sense of the shape of the hand and its position in space relative to the rest of your body.
As the practice deepens, you may find that you reach a point where the difference between thoughts and physical sensations is crystal clear, beyond any doubt. However, don't be fooled - many times the thought will occur 'oh yeah, I get it now' and there will still be more to discover - so take your time over this. If you feel like you've figured the whole thing out after ten minutes, there's probably more to go!
Nonetheless, if you know with complete clarity which aspects of your experience of your hand are mental and which are physical, you can start to look at how the two aspects interoperate. What happens when you bend your finger? Is it purely a physical phenomenon, or is there an associated mental phenomenon? Does one precede the other, or do they arise together? And how can mental phenomena influence physical phenomena - where is the connection between them? Which of the phenomena is 'you' - the one who is choosing to bend and straighten the fingers, the one who is thinking the thoughts?
Enjoy your meal!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.