Finding the stillness within all things
The great Rinzai Zen master Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) gave a series of talks to lay practitioners near the end of his life in which he described the entire practice of Zen as 'resting in the Unborn'. It sounds simple - but what does it mean, and how do we do it? Let's find out!
The Unborn Buddha-mind
Bankei's phrase 'the Unborn' refers to a discourse from early Buddhism, in which the Buddha declares the following:
There is, mendicants, an unborn, unproduced, unmade, and unconditioned. If there were no unborn, unproduced, unmade, and unconditioned, then you would find no escape here from the born, produced, made, and conditioned. But since there is an unborn, unproduced, unmade, and unconditioned, an escape is found from the born, produced, made, and conditioned.
Clear as mud?
Anyway, when Bankei had his great moment of awakening, it was this passage which resonated with him, and he later described his realisation as 'Everything is perfectly resolved in the Unborn.' (Bankei felt that 'unborn, unproduced, unmade and unconditioned' was a bit of a mouthful, so he shortened it to 'unborn'.) So the approach to practice that he recommended was first to discover the Unborn for yourself, and then learn first to rest and eventually to live entirely from that place. (And if that sounds like the approach I described in last week's article of discovering, connecting with and living from your Buddha Nature - yep, that's it!)
As an aside, at other times Bankei referred to the Unborn by another name, the Buddha-mind. I tend to use the term Buddha-mind myself because the word 'unborn' can sometimes have unhelpful associations for people who have had difficult pregnancies or similar experiences. For the purposes of today's article, however, I'd like to stay with the term 'unborn' because exploring it will lead us into a fruitful meditative inquiry into the nature of our experience. If the term does have unwanted associations for you, please accept my apologies.
We name the wars but not the peace in between
I think I was still a teenager (a long time ago now!) when I first heard someone observe that historians tend to give names to periods of war (the First World War, the Hundred Years War, the Gulf War) but not the periods of peace in between - as if the wars are when 'something happens', and are thus worthy of a name, whereas the peace is a period when 'nothing happens', so there's no need to name it.
This tendency to notice and focus on the 'things' and ignore the 'nothing' is pretty deeply wired into us. If you take a moment to look around you, you'll probably notice the things around you - computer, phone, chair, table, tree - rather than the space between the things. Why bother to notice the space? It's just space, after all - it's empty, there's nothing there.
In the same way, when we meditate, we tend to be naturally drawn to the 'things' in our experience; indeed, most meditation techniques actively involve placing the mind on a particular 'something' - the bodily sensations, the sounds, the sights, a visualisation. And when we get distracted, we're invariably distracted by another 'something' - who ever heard of getting distracted by nothing?
As we spend time with the 'things' in our experience, we gradually realise that they aren't 'things' at all - they're actually 'events'. Everything we see, hear, feel and think has a beginning, a middle and an end. Some events are very short-lived and some hang around for longer, but they're all fundamentally impermanent - they all come and go sooner or later. This is a classic insight that can come out of 'event-focused' meditation practices such as paying close attention to the sensations of the breath.
As you've probably already guessed from the way I'm setting this up, though, focusing on the 'events' in our experience isn't the only way to practise insight meditation. Another approach is to 'turn the light around' and focus on the awareness itself - on that which is aware of the events.
How do you persuade a knife to cut itself?
It's relatively obvious how to pay attention to the sensations of the breath. But how is one supposed to be aware of the awareness itself? The very thing you're looking for is the thing doing the looking!
As strange as it may sound, this seemingly paradoxical - perhaps even impossible - inquiry can provide a turning point for many practitioners. So if you fancy a challenge, stop reading now and give it a go.
And to be sure, it's a bit mind-bending at first (no pun intended). But there are a few approaches which can help us to get in touch with our awareness.
One approach is to come at it indirectly - to start by working with the events of the mind, but then turn your attention to trying to discover what all of these events have in common with one another - their 'true nature', if you will, the thread that binds them all together. This binding thread turns out to be awareness itself - by definition, whatever event you're looking at, that event is arising within awareness. We never experience anything outside of awareness; whatever events we examine, we are examining the functioning of our awareness. Another way to say this is that awareness is the nature of the events we experience.
Another approach is to direct our attention away from the events of our experience in a deliberate way, the idea being that if we continue to be aware but we aren't drawn into any particular event, there's nowhere left to go but the awareness itself. For example, we can pay attention to the space between objects, the silence between sounds or the gap between thoughts. (After a while, we start to get a sense that the spaciousness, silence and stillness is actually everywhere - for example, that the silence is not just 'between' but also 'behind' and 'around' sounds, and perhaps even 'within' sounds in a certain way. This is another sign that we're connecting with awareness.)
A third approach is to search for something that you can't find, such as the self (as we discussed last week) or even the awareness itself. You can't find 'self' or 'awareness' no matter how carefully you search the events of your experience, because they aren't themselves events - and in the repeated failure to find them and the ensuing frustration, the mind becomes disillusioned with the failing strategy of focusing on the events all the time, and opens up to the possibility of connecting with experience in a different way.
Connecting with awareness and discovering the Unborn
So what happens when we connect with awareness itself? It's sometimes described as a kind of foreground-background shift - everything kind of turns on its head.
Rather than seeing things in terms of separation and comparison, we see things holistically, all part of one seamless whole. We experience a kind of unity, a sense that everything is deeply interconnected and not truly separable. We sense that the 'things' of our experience are not really 'things' at all, but only appear that way to us because our minds are putting boxes around parts of our experience and labelling them for our convenience - essentially, that the 'world of things' that we experience is only a projection of the mind as opposed to being an ultimately true account of how the world is.
On closer inspection, our experience becomes more mysterious still. Previously, we may have thought of our 'awareness' as something arising from our brain and body, but experientially it's actually the other way around - awareness comes first, and within that awareness arises all the events that we then identify as brain and body.
Even time itself can flip around if we look deeply enough. What actually is time, anyway? We experience the passage of time by tracking events - the sound of a ticking clock coming and going, or the rhythm of the breath rising and falling. Again, if we search for 'time', we can't actually find it - we can only find more events, which imply time to us, but time itself is nowhere to be found. Our sense of time is simply another event arising within awareness. Awareness itself is 'outside' of time.
This is what the Buddha means by 'unborn, unproduced, unmade and unconditioned', and thus what Bankei is pointing to as well. The awareness - the Unborn Buddha-mind - is not a thing, not an event, not something which comes and goes in our experience. Awareness is the foundation of experience itself, its true nature. Everything else - time, space, thinking, brain and body - arises within awareness.
But we're hard-wired to experience things in terms of events, and so even when we begin to connect with awareness, at first we tend to see it terms of the 'nothing' between 'somethings'. People often report having encountered a 'still point' in their experience, or a deep 'inner silence'. The awareness is often compared to space - vast, boundless, empty. And we can start to tap into a profound sense of peace in practice when we connect with awareness in this way, a substantial relief from the crazy bustle of events in our experience.
Living in the Unborn
Simply chilling out isn't the end of the road, though. The stillness and silence of awareness is only half the story, and if we stop here, we're missing the best part! Zen practice has never been about cutting ourselves off from our lives and simply sitting immobile in peace or bliss waiting to die.
Awareness has two aspects. One is its nature, or essence - this spacious, silent, unchanging emptiness that we've been talking about. But it also has a dynamic aspect - usually called its function. The function of awareness is precisely to produce the events of our experience that we had to turn away from in order to see its nature clearly. The awareness is not separate from the events - the events are the awareness, or at least one aspect of it.
Awareness is sometimes compared to an ocean for this reason. When we look at an ocean, we see the waves - the 'events' of the ocean, if you like. Waves come and go, change and vanish. Each wave is, in a certain sense, different to every other wave, unique and individual in its own right. Equally, the whole ocean has the nature of water - every wave is simply a different shape of water, and can never be anything else. The watery nature of the ocean never changes, no matter whether the waves are calm or stormy.
And, in just the same way that we can enjoy the display of waves whilst at the same time remembering that it's all water, we can learn to experience the spontaneous display of our awareness's functioning whilst remembering that its true nature is stillness, spaciousness and silence. No matter what happens, that true nature never goes away - it simply can't, because it's the Unborn, beyond time and space.
As we begin to recognise the true nature of our experience, we gradually find ourselves coming to rest on this bedrock of peace and stability, even in the midst of activity. We can engage more fully than ever in the world, knowing that in a certain sense we're always safe and secure - we've come home to rest in the Unborn.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!