Little by little, practice accumulates
This week we're look at case 11 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Testing Hermits'. In this week's story we find our old friend Zhaozhou, who you may remember from case 1 and case 7, at it again. What's with this guy? Why does he say all this weird stuff? Couldn't people talk normally in the Tang dynasty?
Meeting people where they are
My day job is in technology, and from time to time I teach courses and give talks at conferences. The kinds of questions that people ask in those situations are generally easy to answer: a request for factual information, or advice on how to approach a concrete technical problem. I've always been blessed with a good memory for that kind of technical knowledge, and one of the functions I've tended to serve throughout my life has been to act as a repository of useful knowledge for the people around me.
By comparison, the questions I get in a meditation context are often quite different. Sure, every now and again someone will have a technical question about a specific meditation practice, or will want to know what's meant by a bit of Zen jargon. But often, when people speak, it's a mixture of confession, exploration out loud of some deep inner conflict, and/or a request for encouragement in the face of an impossible life situation.
When I first started teaching, I tended to assume that all questions could be dealt with as requests for information, following the same habit that had served me in my life up to that point. But over time I started to notice more and more that that type of answer was missing the mark, and what was needed was something else - to meet the person where they are, and address the hidden motivation behind the explicit question.
I'm not going to claim any great level of skill at this! I get it wrong all the time. Indeed, the ability to meet people exactly where they are seems to be the hallmark of true Zen masters - the classic texts talk about 'two arrows meeting in mid-air' as a poetic description of this level of skill. For me, right now, that's well above my pay grade.
Nevertheless, I try - it's vitally important to do so. I've heard teaching meditation likened to trying to help a blindfolded person walk along a narrow path with danger on both sides. Sometimes you need to say 'go left a bit', and sometimes you need to say 'go right a bit' - it depends on where they are in relation to the path. This can be a little confusing for the other students in the room, who hear me say one thing one week and then the opposite the following week, but that's the nature of the beast. I'm sometimes a little envious of my partner, who is a yoga teacher - I can't help but feel that it would be much easier to teach if one can see clear, visible signs of what's going on with someone's practice, and to be able to demonstrate it oneself in a similarly clear way. Perhaps for the more senior teachers those signs are obvious in themselves and others, but for someone at my level it's a bit of a mystery!
Getting back to the koan
In the story above, Zhaozhou is displaying consummate mastery of this skill. He visits two hermits, and essentially asks them what's going on in their practice. (In Chinese, it's apparently possible to ask a question with only a verb, hence: 'Is there? Is there?' What he's saying is something like 'is there deep realisation?', but without the inconvenient noun that tends toward turning the ongoing process of realisation into a thing.)
Both hermits answer apparently in the same way - by holding up a fist. But in one case, Zhaozhou seems to utter words of criticism, while in the other case he seems to offer praise. How does Zhaozhou know which one to praise and which one to criticise?
In fact, looking at this in terms of praise and blame, rightness and wrongness, is to miss the point. 'Move a little to the left' is just a suggestion to keep someone on the path, not a criticism for having strayed off to the right while blindfolded. Likewise, 'keep going straight on' is also just a suggestion to keep someone on the path, not praise for having stumbled blindly onto the path. In each case, Zhaozhou is saying what the student needs to hear in order to keep them moving in the right direction.
Nevertheless, it's also a mistake to think of both hermits as equal! Zhaozhou's statement to the first hermit is a word of caution: if one's practice is not yet deep, then one is at great risk of falling back into delusion when circumstances become difficult. The encouragement here is to continue to practise, deepening one's insights until they penetrate to the core. By comparison, Zhaozhou's statement to the second hermit indicates that they are free to act in the world from a place rooted in Buddha Nature - and, indeed, that the time is right to do so. Past a certain point, continuing to sit in silent meditation without ever acting in the world is a missed opportunity to express that Buddha Nature throughout the world, for the benefit of all sentient beings. (In fact, if we initially saw Zhaozhou's first statement as a criticism of shallow practice, we could instead see it as encouragement - 'hang in there, keep going, you're doing well but there's further to go' - and if we saw his second statement as praise of a more senior practitioner, we could instead see it as a bit of a spur into action - 'come on, get up off your ass and do something useful'!)
So how do I make enough space for a ship to moor?
Most of us are probably closer to the first hermit than the second! Maybe we've been doing the practice a while, and maybe we've even learnt a lot of the kind of information which is useful for answering those technical questions that I mentioned earlier - we can describe the techniques, the postures, the theory and philosophy. Nevertheless, life still seems to be pretty much the same. When are things going to change?
Our practice tends to pass through a series of stages - and not just once, but many times over, for many different facets of our lives. We begin in a condition of ignorance, or delusion - we think that things are a certain way, but we're mistaken. Over time, and through careful observation, we notice that things are the way we thought they were - we gain the knowledge that our habitual way of seeing things is inaccurate. Nevertheless, the momentum of habit energy is such that we continue to play out the same patterns that we always have - we know we should change our behaviour, but we still act unwisely. At this point, conscious effort is required, to keep reminding ourselves of what we know but have not yet fully absorbed, steering our behaviour in the new direction over and over. This stage can be frustrating, painful and exhausting, but the good news is that it doesn't last forever - eventually, we learn the new habit, and the knowledge we've gained transforms into wisdom. Our behaviour is now automatically aligned with the deeper truth that we've seen, without any need for conscious intervention. In time, we may even forget that we ever needed to use effort - the new behaviour has become so fully part of us, so obvious, that it becomes difficult to remember a time when it was any other way.
It can help to bear this progression of wisdom in mind when doing the same old insight meditation practice for the thousandth time, or trying and failing yet again to enter jhana. I've always been a fan of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and Call of Cthulhu, and one way that helps me is to think of even a failed attempt to enact a new behaviour or a totally uneventful, uninsightful meditation session as having given me one more experience point than I had before. (My notebook from my most recent retreat has many, many entries which contain '+1XP' - I was trying out some new stuff, and failed many many times over before I got anywhere with it, so the sense that I was racking up XP even in my unsuccessful forays was pretty helpful in keeping me motivated.) Eventually, we rack up enough XP to level up our characters and gain those new abilities we've been looking forward to - the only drawback is that we don't know how much XP we have right now, or how much we need to level up! (Honestly, it's a terrible user interface.)
A practice for grinding XP
Let's make this concrete. Here's a simple tweak to the practice from last week's article that you can use to explore the principle of anatta, not-self. As before, take one sense sphere at a time and notice the sensations arising within it, and the vedana associated with those sensations. Now, ask one more question: 'am I making this happen'? Are you, personally, causing those sensory phenomena to arise, or the associated sense of pleasant/unpleasant/neutral? Or are they just happening by themselves? And what's the difference between the two cases - what specifically indicates to you that 'I'm doing this!' versus 'that's just happening'?
Make it a genuine inquiry - there's no right answer here for any individual asking of the question. Over time you'll find a pattern starts to emerge, and as it does it can get quite interesting to look at the occasions when your answer doesn't fit the pattern. But for now, just start asking! Each time you ask, you gain an experience point. You'll probably need a lot of XP to level up, but that's all the more reason to start asking sooner rather than later... So give it a go!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!