This week we're looking at case 12 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Calling the Master', in which we meet Zen Master Ruiyan, who talks to himself every day. A lot of us do! But what he has to say to himself is quite interesting - there's a lot packed into just a few words here, so over the course of this article we're going to take it line by line and see what's going on.
The value of daily practice
The koan starts with the words 'Every day' - this isn't just a one-off, unlike most koans, which are records of specific noteworthy encounters. Rather, Ruiyan has something of a practice here - a daily custom of calling to himself in this way.
Practice is powerful. One of the first books about meditation that I ever read contained a line that I've never forgotten: 'Consistency is more important than intensity or sincerity.' Ultimately, as Buddhism constantly reminds us, everything is impermanent. If we practise for a while, we gain a little skill; but if we stop, that skill tends to fall off again. If we're interested in a breakthrough in our meditation practice, the stream entry of Early Buddhism or kensho of Zen, consistency is even more important - we need to build up a head of steam before we go anywhere.
Generally speaking, the 'right' amount of practice to do is the amount that you actually do - it's much better to meditate for ten minutes three times a week than to intend to practise an hour a day but actually never get around to it. That said, having a daily practice is something that I find psychologically very helpful. When I do something every day, it becomes routine, just a part of who I am; if I do something a couple of times a week, it's something that I do from time to time, when I can fit it in, and it often falls by the wayside when I'm busy. So establishing a daily meditation practice (alongside a daily movement practice in my case) and sticking to it has been tremendously helpful over the years - it's kept me practising at times when I really haven't wanted to, and in retrospect it's been hugely supportive to keep it going in those hard times.
My Zen teacher Daizan likes to say that you're in a good place when your practice has become like brushing your teeth - you know the world won't end if you miss a day, but you feel a bit icky, and you want to get back to it as soon as you can. I think that's pretty good advice.
Calling the Master
So having established that Ruiyan has a daily practice, what is it that he actually does?
He starts by calling to himself - 'Master?' - and responding - 'Yes?' This format of call-and-response may look familiar, especially if you've read my article on case 10, 'Alone and Poor', in which we saw exactly the same pattern. The difference is that in case 10, Caoshan was calling and Qingshui was responding, but in this case Ruiyan is calling to himself - or is he?
Specifically, Ruiyan is calling 'Master?' Sometimes in Zen, the imagery of master and servant is used, or equivalently 'host' and 'guest' (using the model of a roadside guest house). Servants come and go, doing the bidding of the master; guests come and go, partaking of the hospitality of the host. In our own experience, all kinds of things come and go - sights, sounds, feelings, thoughts, impulses, even consciousness - but the true nature of our experience, our Buddha Nature, what Zen Master Bankei called our Unborn Buddha-Mind, is beyond coming and going. When we learn to recognise the distinction between what comes and goes and who we really are, we can rest in the Unborn Buddha-Mind, free from suffering. And, over time, we can learn to live from that place, going out into the world and being of value to those around us.
The trouble is that it's easy to forget that we have this capacity for resting in Buddha Nature. So Ruiyan has made a practise of reminding himself, every day, by calling to his Unborn Buddha-Mind and allowing it to respond naturally, spontaneously and immediately, in just the same way that Qingshui responded to Caoshan's call in case 10. Ruiyan knows, on some level, that he has this capacity within himself - but a daily reminder doesn't hurt!
Be awake! Be alert!
A central term in Buddhism is 'awakening' (also known as enlightenment, but 'awakening' suits today's purposes better). 'But I'm already awake - I've been awake for hours!' you might protest. Well, maybe. But how fully awake are you?
The historical Buddha observed that much of our lives is driven by habitual emotional reactivity. We find ourselves in a situation that isn't quite what we'd like it to be, and reactivity rises up within us, as it tends to do in situations like this one. If we're not careful, we can be swept away by the ensuing tide of thoughts and emotions, and in severe cases only recognise hours or days later what's happened. The Buddha likened this playing-out of patterns of reactivity to being dead - in a certain sense, when a reactive pattern has taken over and is playing out, you aren't fully alive in that moment. You've lost your agency, your ability to make meaningful choices. Someone pushed one of your buttons and now you're acting out a pre-written script.
So a central part of all forms of Buddhist practice is the cultivation of presence - mindfulness, clear comprehension of what's going on. We train ourselves, over and over, to come back to the here and now, putting down the seductive trains of thought or emotional fantasies that pull us away. This simple practice is the core of the modern secular Mindfulness movement, and is also at the heart of Early Buddhism, whose Satipatthana Sutta presents four ways of establishing mindfulness, using the body, vedana (our categorisation of sensations as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), mind states, and mental phenomena.
The third of these 'establishments' of mindfulness is particularly relevant for today's purposes. The Buddha invites us to watch the state of our mind - to see whether it's focused or distracted, contracted or expansive, deluded or clearly aware. Using the mind to watch the mind in this way develops a skill sometimes called 'metacognitive awareness' - using our own cognition to track that very cognition, and thus enabling us to notice when we are starting to drift away from our awake alertness.
Coming back to Ruiyan, his daily practice starts by connecting with his Buddha Nature, calling the master and listening for the response. Next, he forms the intention to be awake, and remain alert in the face of the day's comings and goings - to maintain metacognitive awareness throughout the day. Connecting with one's Buddha Nature is a good start, but the habitual patterns of the mind can easily obscure it again if we aren't careful. So Ruiyan is instructing himself to remain grounded in his Buddha Nature, and resist the lure of reactivity to draw him out of it, invoking his keen self-observational skills to keep himself on track.
Intention is a powerful thing. Having a clearly held intention for our meditation practice is hugely helpful for getting us where we want to go - and, conversely, having a vague or muddled intention is a good setup for going nowhere fast. Similarly, forming intentions for our lives outside of practice is a powerful thing to do, and all the more so if that intention is formed when the mind is focused, perhaps as the result of samadhi practice. So, by taking time each day to set a strong intention for his practice, Ruiyan is increasing the power and effectiveness of his practice significantly.
From now on, don't be fooled by anyone!
In his excellent series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, John Vervaeke talks about 'internalising Socrates' - developing a kind of inner version of the great philosopher, so that the wisdom of Socrates is available to us throughout the day. (You might have encountered another version of this practice in the form of 'What would Jesus do?')
Socrates can come across as a bit of an unsympathetic figure at times, constantly haranguing people and picking apart their arguments without offering anything constructive in return. But what Socrates is really trying to do is to show us our capacity for self-deception - for fooling ourselves into thinking that we know more than we do, or that we understand something that we actually don't. Socrates challenges us to explain how we know what we claim to know - and, in the course of that examination, it often rapidly becomes clear that we aren't as sure as we thought we were.
Like Socrates, Buddhism also suggests that we don't see what's going on as clearly as we might. Buddhism talks about suffering as arising from three 'poisons' or 'fires' - greed, hatred and delusion. Furthermore, greed and hatred are sometimes said to arise dependent upon delusion - so if we can deal with delusion once and for all, that's the whole thing taken care of. Easier said than done! But the invitation here is to examine our experience with great care and caution, looking closely to see how much of what we 'know' to be true is actually true.
This is a hard thing to do. We have all kinds of insight practices and koans to help us to see through what's going on, but on the other hand we're surrounded by reminders of the conventional (and, Buddhism claims, deluded) world view. Unless we live in a community of highly enlightened people, almost everyone around us sees the world in a way that we're trying to see beyond, and thinks, speaks and acts accordingly. Even our architecture reinforces our standard world view - we construct buildings with hard lines and flat surfaces, imposing linear geometric shapes onto the world, and regarding them as successful if they change as little as possible over time. Take a walk in nature, on the other hand, and everything is non-linear, in constant motion, changing, growing and dying. Personally, I think the practitioners of the Thai Forest tradition are onto something by practising out in nature rather than in an urban centre. For those of us who do live in towns and cities (like me), we need to be extra careful!
So Ruiyan is reminding himself that the people 'out there' can't necessarily be trusted to embody the kind of way of life that Ruiyan is seeking for himself. Rather, Ruiyan needs to rely on his 'inner master' - his internalised Socrates, his Buddha Nature and metacognitive awareness - to steer him clear of self-deception.
In some ways, talking to one's 'inner Socrates' as if it's a different person is a pretty smart move. Anything we can do to reduce our identification with me and mine tends to be helpful. One of my first technology mentors used to get me to explain my problems to a stuffed teddy bear if he was too busy to speak to me himself. As ridiculous as it felt to do that, it was actually remarkably helpful - almost always, simply articulating the problem in detail was enough to organise my thoughts sufficiently that a next step would suggest itself. I'm grateful to that bear! There's also a well-known phenomenon, called the Solomon Effect or Solomon Paradox, in which people make much wiser decisions in regard to other people's problems compared to their own. By asking our inner Socrates what he might do in our position, we can potentially engage this Solomon Effect by inviting ourselves to look at what's going on from a dispassionate third-person perspective, rather than the ever-tricky first person, which may be mired in greed, hatred or delusion.
Bringing it all together
We can combine all of the features of Ruiyan's practice into a simple insight meditation practice, using the breathing as our object of focus. We'll start by setting a clear intention, then explore the master/servant relationship in our minds, using metacognitive awareness to keep track of when we're straying away from the practice, and exploring a couple of aspects of reality by bringing in some traditional insight ways of looking from Early Buddhism.
First, establish yourself in a comfortable posture, whatever that means for you. Allow yourself to relax, both physically and mentally. You might like to spend a few minutes resting the attention on the body sensations, or cultivating loving kindness, as a way to settle the mind and establish the conditions for practice.
Next, set your intention. You can say to yourself (either silently or out loud) something like: 'May I see my experience clearly. May I notice when my mind has wandered, and return to the practice. May my investigation benefit all beings.'
Now, bring your awareness to the sensations of your breathing. Allow yourself to breathe naturally - there's no need to control the breath at all, although if you can't help it, it doesn't really matter. Either way, your focus should be on the physical sensations of breathing themselves. Notice the breath flowing in and out of the body, and the gaps in between the in- and out-breaths.
Notice that you don't have to do anything in order to be aware of the breath sensations - and, in particular, you don't have to engage the thinking mind at all in order to notice the breath. The breath sensations are just happening, and are immediately and effortlessly known. Although we very often approach our experience from the standpoint of the thinking mind, in fact the thinking mind is the servant here, and the awareness is the master.
Also, notice that thoughts introduce a kind of subtle disturbance into the mind. It's easiest to notice in the immediate moment after a thought has ceased, where we can observe a kind of peace arising in the wake of the vanishing of the thought. Seeing this subtle disturbance many times can help to break our addiction to our thinking processes, allowing us to rest more consistently in the effortless awareness.
Now simply remain with the breathing, noticing the impermanence of the sensations, the 'just-happeningness' of awareness even in the absence of thought, and/or the subtle disturbances caused by thinking. And whenever you notice that your attention has wandered (using your metacognitive awareness), simply return to noticing these qualities of the breath sensations.
Now do this every day!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!