The marrow of Zen
Zen practice has the power to transform the way we experience our lives for the better. But how does it work? In this article we'll take a look at the meaning of 'insight' in the context of meditation practice, and how we might cultivate it for ourselves.
Meditative insight vs Buddhist philosophy, and why this article is a fool's errand
First, it's important to make a distinction between 'meditative insight' and 'Buddhist philosophy'.
Throughout the ages, both meditators and philosophers have explored the Big Questions. What is the meaning of life? How can we live well and be happy? Who are we, really? Where do we come from, and what happens when we die?
These kinds of questions can be approached in two ways, which correspond to two ways that we can 'know' something more generally. One approach is to use our intellect - to examine the question through logic, using evidence and careful reasoning to arrive at a conclusion, perhaps discussing it with others to take their perspectives on board. The other approach is to look at our direct experience - 'feeling' our way into the question as opposed to 'thinking' about it.
The world's great spiritual traditions have all amassed a great body of philosophy - carefully reasoned theories about the nature of the universe and what it means to be human. Buddhism is no exception - the Madhyamika and Yogacara schools of philosophy are particularly influential, but there are many more. Some people (myself included) find this type of philosophical exploration very interesting, and enjoy reading, thinking and arguing about it with like-minded people. If taken far enough, the study of philosophy can even change the way we see the world, by persuading us that our old ideas weren't quite right, and giving us a better way to relate to what's going on.
Insight-based paths such as Zen have a similar goal - changing the way we understand and relate to our experience - but approach it very differently. Rather than thinking about our experience, we explore our experience directly. When we pick up a cup of tea, we don't need to think about it using logic and careful reasoning to determine whether it's hot or cold - we simply know, immediately and directly. And if we'd never drunk a cup of tea before, no amount of intellectual analysis will really enable us to know what it tastes like - we can only do that by drinking the tea and experiencing it for ourselves.
Meditative insight thus seeks to change us through direct experience, rather than reasoning and persuasion. We examine our experience very closely, generally over and over again, until we at last come to see for ourselves what's actually going on, rather than having to rely on the argumentation of others.
Of course, the major drawback of this approach is that it's impossible for me as a teacher to give you the experience of insight. If we were doing philosophy, I could explain the theories and principles and we could debate them. But when it comes to insight, all I can do is point the way - you have to look for yourself.
Approaching insight practice
One approach to insight practice is simply to explore for yourself. If you hear a teacher say something (or read something in one of these articles) that sounds interesting, check it out for yourself! Maybe you start wondering where thoughts come from, or what exactly they are, or where they go when they vanish - well, take a look! Sit in meditation, take some time to settle your mind, and then look at your thoughts and see what's going on. Following your nose in this way can potentially be much more powerful than using someone else's technique just because they told you to - if you don't really care about the outcome of the practice, or you only have a vague, theoretical idea that it might be interesting, your practice is likely to be far less diligent than if you're exploring something that's of immediate personal interest. (Zen master Bankei likened using someone else's technique to a monk pretending to have lost their robe and searching for it. If you'd really lost your robe - by the way, you only get one, so you're naked until you find it again - you can bet that you'd keep hunting until it turns up. But if you're only pretending to have lost it, what happens when you start to get bored and hungry?)
That being said, over the millennia, various meditation techniques have developed which have proven to be effective at leading diligent practitioners to realise the key insights of the path. It's important to emphasise that the technique is simply a means to an end, rather than an end in itself - you might practise a particular meditation technique many times without learning anything of interest, and conversely insight might arise at any time, with or without a technique. But the techniques have been tried and tested throughout the centuries, and the ones that have survived the test of time are the ones that seem to work fairly well for a decent range of people. There's a popular saying in contemplative circles: 'Insight is an accident, but insight meditation makes you accident-prone.'
Where to look?
Different traditions have adopted different approaches for exploring phenomenal reality, and arguments have raged for millennia about whether the different approaches ultimately lead to the same insights or not. A fairly moderate interpretation, which I tend to favour, is that we're all climbing the same mountain, but different traditions have charted routes up different faces of the mountain, so the experience of climbing will be quite different for most - if not all - of the journey.
So let's take a look now at two different routes up that mountain...
Examining the perceived
The Theravada tradition of Buddhism focuses primarily on deconstructing the 'events' of our phenomenal reality - the sights, sounds, feelings and thoughts that come and go from one moment to the next. (Some ways of doing this are described on my insight practice page.) Over time, we come to see that whatever is seen, heard, felt and cognised is impermanent (subject to coming and going), unreliable (not a source of lasting happiness) and made up of the coming-together of various causes and conditions, as opposed to existing in its own right. As such, nothing is ultimately worth clinging to, because sooner or later everything in our experience will change and vanish. Although this might sound rather drab and depressing, in the long run it's a deeply liberating insight, because it allows us to let go of our craving to have things the way we want them to be. We can simply let go into the flow of our lives, and see what happens next.
Examining the perceiver
Whereas the Theravada tradition focuses mainly on the 'events' of our experience, Zen prefers to 'turn the light around' and focus on who, or what, perceives those events. What actually is this awareness? Where is it? What is it made of? What is it that looks out through our eyes and listens with our ears? What is our true nature, exactly - not who we think we are, but where is the essential essence of 'me' in our direct experience?
One classic Zen approach to explore these questions is koan practice. Here, we use the question itself as the object of our meditation - settling the mind, then turning our full attention to a question such as 'Who am I?' or 'What is this?' But rather than thinking discursively and analytically about it, as we might if we were taking the philosophical approach, we instead use the question as a way of going deeper into our direct experience. We bring the question to mind, focus intently on it, and then see what we notice as a result of holding this spirit of inquiry. At first, it's likely that we'll have all sorts of thoughts about the question, but in time these fall away, and the practice begins to go deeper, until finally insight dawns in a sudden 'breakthrough' moment.
The other practice most commonly associated with Zen is Silent Illumination/shikantaza/just sitting, which, in its usual form, is simply a matter of resting in a calm, alert manner, aware of whatever's coming up. The basic view here is that, rather than using a koan like a stick to poke at our experience and see what comes up, we instead come to rest and allow reality to reveal itself to us. In this way, we may naturally discover the truth of the strange concepts that we've heard about in Dharma talks or read about in books (or on this website). Some lineages of Zen are quite strict on this point, saying that one should never try to explore anything intentionally in shikantaza practice, but simply allow whatever arises to arise. Other teachers (such as Chan master Sheng-Yen, whose approach to teaching Silent Illumination has been highly influential on my own) allow for the possibility of incorporating insight practice explicitly into 'just sitting' - Sheng-Yen, for example, would sometimes advise his students to settle into the attitude of Silent Illumination and then actively contemplate emptiness or impermanence from that calm, alert place.
Establishing the conditions for insight to arise
One of the most interesting (and irritating) features of insight practice is that the reality we're investigating is literally all around us, right in front of our faces, and so we don't have to go anywhere special to find it - seeing anything clearly enough will do the job.
So how come we aren't all fully enlightened already?
Basically, because we aren't seeing it clearly enough. The role of meditation is to sharpen our metaphorical vision to the point that we can see what's going on as it really as, as opposed to how we think it is. Part of the role of meditation practice is thus to train our minds to focus and see more clearly, without the usual mental noise of habitual distraction and layers upon layers of interpretation.
In many traditions, meditation practices are split out into concentration/samadhi practices and insight practices. Samadhi practice is used to calm the mind down and enable us to see clearly, before we shift gears to insight practice and look closely at what's going on. A good approach is to use the first 50-75% of your practice time to settle the mind - e.g. with jhana practice, the Brahmaviharas, or the 'concentrated mind' step of Silent Illumination - and then the remaining time for insight work. Balancing insight practice with concentration is especially useful if you're taking an event-perspective, deconstructive approach to insight work, because deconstructing sensory experience tends to be agitating and unsettling, and you'll have a much better time of it if you have a calming, soothing practice alongside the deconstruction.
On the other hand, Zen tends to prefer to practise in a way that combines samadhi and insight. Silent Illumination is, by definition, the balance of stillness and clarity, calmness and clear seeing. And even though we tend to think of koan practice as a kind of insight work, it really involves a deep, single-pointed focus on the question at hand, as opposed to a discursive intellectual exploration of the topic or an active deconstruction of sensory phenomena - in a sense, you can look at koan practice as focusing your whole mind on the question mark. Some of the great Zen masters of history have described their experiences of 'breaking through' a koan, and it's clear to anyone with a samadhi practice that these masters were profoundly concentrated on their koan at the decisive moment.
However you prefer to practise, there's no getting away from it - insight practice is both easier and deeper with a calmer mind. Don't neglect samadhi!
The importance of going deep
Insight practice takes time, patience and repetition. Typically, you will need to examine your experience many, many times before insight arises, and you may need to experience the same insight directly quite a few times before it really sinks in.
There's a story about the first Zen teacher, Bodhidharma, which says that when he decided his time in China had come to an end, he called his four primary disciples together, and asked them to explain their understanding. To the first, he said 'you have attained my skin'; to the second, 'my flesh'; to the third, 'my bones'; to the fourth, 'my marrow'. Leaving aside how grisly this sounds, the implication is that all four had understood Bodhidharma's essential teachings, but to different levels of depth.
A shallow understanding can be interesting for a while, but rapidly fades and becomes just another weird thing that happened one day while meditating. A deep understanding can change our lives. So don't settle for skimming the surface - go as deep as you can, and when you think you've understood it all, keep going!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.