Stillness and motion in Zen practice
This week we're looking at case 36 in the Gateless Barrier, a classic collection of Zen stories, or koans, compiled in the early 13th century. Once again we find ourselves dealing with Zen master Wuzu, who we met for the first time last week in case 35. In that case, he asked a monk a question about a well-known Chinese folk tale. This week, he seems to have more practical matters on his mind.
So - when you're out and about, and you meet someone who is enlightened, what should you do? Master Wuzu seems to be saying that we shouldn't speak to such a person, but we shouldn't remain quiet either. So what the heck are we supposed to do?
Encountering people who have attained the Way
Before we go further, there's an interesting point here. The question presupposes that we have met someone who has 'attained the Way' - in other words, someone who has realised the awakening of Zen for themselves. But how are we supposed to know whether someone else is enlightened or not? Tellingly, Wuzu's question begins 'On the road' - in other words, outside the confines of the monastery, with its rigid hierarchy and small population, where everyone knows who the Roshi is, everyone's heard the gossip about how highly attained the head monk or nun is or isn't, and so on. When we're working within a community that we know very well, we automatically have a fairly clear sense of the pecking order - we know who should be treated with respect (and whether or not they've earnt it, at least in our eyes!). But once you step out of that environment, the situation is much more ambiguous. A random person walking down the street might be a Buddha in disguise - or a criminal mastermind. How can you tell?
What are the signs of someone who is fully enlightened, anyway? Different traditions seem to hold different ideals - and the highly experienced teachers I respect all seem pretty different to one another. My Zen teacher Daizan, my early Buddhist teacher Leigh Brasington, Stephen Batchelor and Brad Warner are all pretty different to each other. Does that mean only one of them has 'got it'? Exploring this question can show us a lot about what we're hoping to get out of our practice, which in turn can clarify and strengthen our intention, helping us to move in that direction (assuming we still want to after we realise why we've been practising up to this point!).
Another way this question is important is that it exposes the way we can treat people differently depending on our relationship to them. It's quite natural (rooted in our biology) to treat our family with greater kindness and attention than total strangers, for example. But a big part of Zen practice is about questioning the validity of the dualities we set up - in this case, between 'us' and 'them'. (My teacher Leigh Brasington likes to ask 'How big is your "us"?') In this case, Zen master Wuzu asks us how we might behave towards someone we regard as enlightened - but if I find myself thinking 'Oh, well, I should clearly be very respectful and listen carefully to what such a person would have to say,' well, does that mean that I don't feel the need to be respectful or attentive toward someone who I don't regard as enlightened? Do I have a sense of a kind of 'spiritual elite' who are worth my time and attention, as compared to a vast mass of ignorant plebs who I'm free to ignore because they haven't 'got it'? Hmm.
This problem can also show up in a more insidious form as we get more into Buddhist practice, particularly if we have some significant shifts or insights. It's very easy to think 'Ahh, now I get it - not like those losers over there who talk a good game but don't know the real stuff!' When someone is a bit too impressed with their own level of insight, it's sometimes said that they 'stink of Zen' - Daizan's teacher Shinzan Roshi would sometimes hold his nose and say 'Stinky, stinky!' This is a very sneaky problem indeed, because we don't want to devalue the genuine power of insight - but equally it's very easy to start thinking of yourself as special if you've had a breakthrough. (At the end of a retreat, if there's been a bit of this kind of thing going on, Daizan will sometimes get us to turn to the person next to us and say 'Hi, I'm Matt, and I'm a bit special...') If you do fall into this trap, it isn't the end of the world, but at some point you'll come back down to earth, perhaps with a bit of a bump. Finding out that you're not so special after all is a hard lesson to learn, but learn it you must. (Went a bit Yoda at the end there, not sure what that's about.)
Not speech, not silence
Leaving aside for a moment the thorny problem of how to recognise someone who is enlightened, we also have Wuzu's other conundrum to deal with. He says 'You do not face them with speech, you do not face them with silence. So tell me, how do you face them?' That's a bit like saying 'You can't turn left, you can't turn right, so which way are you going to turn?'
I've mentioned a few times before that Zen master Wumen, who compiled the collection of koans that this story comes from, provides both a prose and a verse comment for each case. Usually I don't include those, in general because they're just as difficult as the main case and I only have so much time on a Wednesday night to render all this stuff into an accessible enough form that we can practise with it. This time, however, Wumen takes the unusual step of giving us a direct answer to the case in his verse comment.
On the road, meeting people who've attained the Way,
You do not face them with speech or silence:
Punch them right in the jaw;
If they understand directly, they understand.
As usual, we're not meant to take this entirely literally, fun as that might be. (One of my martial arts teachers used to say 'The problem with you guys is that you take things too literally', to which I was always tempted to suggest that he could just say what he meant instead... but he was a pretty scary dude, so needless to say I never said that to him.)
Wuzu is cautioning us against two possible errors when approaching a situation (any situation, actually, not just an encounter with an enlightened master). Koans are often critical of an overly intellectual approach to Zen - we commonly see scholars defeated by uneducated tea sellers and the like. 'Speech' here could be seen to represent an academically wise, philosophically erudite approach, perhaps based on some kind of well-intentioned principles - in other words, an attempt to 'figure out' what to do in advance, using the powerful tool of the intellect to reason our way to success in every circumstance. Alternatively, we can simply withdraw, and hope to avoid error by not committing to any definite action, remaining silent, perhaps hanging out in the peaceful stillness of our meditation practice where we don't have to deal with the messiness of other people 'out there'.
The alternative is what we might call dynamic action - a response which fits itself to the situation like a hand fits a glove (or like Wumen's fist fits my jaw). We engage, but not in a predetermined way, simply acting out a script written long ago. Rather, the focus of our practice is on bringing ourselves as fully as possible into the here and now, and trusting that an appropriate response will arise within us to meet the needs of the moment. (What is 'an appropriate response'? That's another koan in its own right - I'll leave that one as an exercise to the reader!)
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form
One of the most famous lines in all the Buddhist canon is 'Form is emptiness, emptiness is form'. This line, from the Heart Sutra, can be viewed as a very concise map of Zen practice. Most of us come to practice seeing the world in a certain way - a world of separate, disconnected things, like a series of billiard balls rolling across a table crashing into each other. Zen practice invites us to find a different way of seeing things which is based not on separation but rather on wholeness. That sense of wholeness can be reached through a variety of means, but very commonly through developing an orientation towards stillness, silence, nothingness, emptiness. When we're caught up in the things of the world (and in particular the thoughts that represent our discriminating mind's activity of chopping up the world into separate, individually labelled pieces), it's very difficult to see the wholeness - so we incline toward the gaps between the things, rather than the things themselves - the space in the room, rather than the furniture.
When we find our way to emptiness, it's often a tremendous relief. The mind is able to let go of all its usual worries and obsessions, at least for a moment. Finally, we can rest - but rather than falling asleep, we're wide awake, perhaps more fully awake than we've ever been before. It's a lovely experience, and it's quite natural to want to hang out there as much as possible.
However, as another Zen saying puts it, 'heaven is the most dangerous place'. If we become too fixated on the peaceful stillness, we become intolerant of any disturbance, allergic to the world and the day-to-day dealings of our lives, seeking only to get back to that peaceful place as soon as possible.
So the next step of the practice is to recognise that emptiness is form. It turns out that the peaceful stillness is not so much an end in itself as a very helpful doorway that leads us to that sense of wholeness. Once we're more familiar with it, we can start to find it everywhere - even in the particular things of the world. Ultimately, all of our experience has the same underlying nature - the nature of mind - and if we can recognise that in any given moment then we're right back in touch with that sense of wholeness. Trying to push away form to get to emptiness (or trying to suppress thoughts or sounds to get to inner and outer silence) is fundamentally to misapprehend what's going on, setting up a false duality between stillness (good) and movement (bad) rather than recognising them to be two sides of the same coin. Instead, wholeness can become a kind of background texture throughout all of our experience, no matter what's going on.
Acting effectively in the world
The Zen tradition thus places a strong emphasis on continuous practice, which flows between stillness and movement and back again. We sit in meditation (zazen), of course, but we also walk, work and speak with the same attitude of mindful presence that we bring to our sitting meditation. (This 'meditation in action' is sometimes called 'do-zen'.)
This is also where Zen's energy practices fit into the picture. We can see sitting meditation as a fundamentally subtractive activity - resting in stillness, letting go moment by moment, gradually becoming less in the process. By comparison, energy practices such as qigong can be seen as fundamentally additive in nature - generating and circulating energy, promoting health, refining the functioning of the body to live longer, becoming more in the process. I've written several articles on energy practices, so check those out if this is a side of Zen practice that you haven't encountered before.
The bottom line is that we want to get to a place where our well-being is not dependent on the conditions of the moment, where we can see the wholeness that unites all experiences even in the midst of dealing with the particulars of a live situation in the moment. Daizan likes to say that we need both eyes open - the eye that sees emptiness and the eye that sees form. If we're fixated on one at the expense of the other, we become a 'board-carrying fellow' in the Blue Cliff Record (another famous koan collection) - like someone carrying a plank on their right shoulder who can thus only see what's to their left. While it's definitely valuable to focus on silence, stillness and emptiness in the early stages of the practice in order to break through to a clear sense of this new way of seeing things, in the long run it's all about integration. We don't need to set up a competition between form and emptiness, relative and absolute, enlightened and non-enlightened, and then try to make sure we're always on the winning team.
So what's this place of integration like? Unfortunately, it can't be boiled down to a simple strategy ('just do this, this and this in every situation and you'll be fine') - 'speech' is not a viable option here. But doing nothing ('silence') isn't going to work for us either. Ultimately, we have to find out for ourselves, moment by moment, as the activity of our lives plays out. In the right circumstances, maybe that even looks like a punch to the jaw. Let's find out!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!