Bring me your mind, and I'll pacify it for you!
This week we're looking at case 41 in the Gateless Barrier, Pacifying the Mind. Like a number of koans, it reads almost like a joke - there's a 'smart-ass' quality to the master's reply that, on first inspection, makes the whole thing seem like a bit of a game. Nevertheless, this 'so sharp you'll cut yourself' exchange actually conceals a profound truth, one that I'll attempt to point the way to as the article goes on. First, though, let's take a look at this week's cast of characters.
Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, and Huike, his successor
Bodhidharma is generally regarded as a semi-legendary figure these days. He may or may not have existed as a real historical figure, and he probably didn't cross the Yellow River in China on a single blade of grass as the stories tell us he did, but nevertheless he represents the origin of the Zen school of Buddhism.
According to the story, Bodhidharma was an Indian (or possibly Persian) Buddhist teacher, who, already advanced in years, decided to travel to China to see how Buddhism was being practised over there. When he arrived, however, he wasn't impressed with what he found. Buddhism in China at the time was a scholarly affair, without much actual meditation practice happening. Disheartened, he retreated to a cave in the Songshan mountains, near the now-famous Shaolin Temple (yes, that one), and sat for nine years facing a wall. (Today, in the Soto style of Zen, the Silent Illumination practice is typically undertaken sitting facing a wall. The nine years of Bodhidharma's retreat have also been symbolically linked to the nine months of pregnancy, and in general there's a sense in Zen that awakening takes time to ripen and mature before it's really 'ready').
The koan begins with Bodhidharma at the end of his nine years of practice. Eventually, some of the monks at the Shaolin Temple started to take an interest in this crazy barbarian hermit living up in the cave, and eventually one named Huike approached him and asked for a teaching. At first, Bodhidharma ignored him, simply continuing to face the wall. This initial refusal to teach a new aspirant is echoed in the ritual that people wishing to become Zen monks must typically go through, where they're initially ignored and left outside the temple gates until they've proven their sincerity by waiting patiently for however long the temple deems necessary.
In Huike's case, he settled on a grand - and somewhat horrifying - gesture to show his sincerity - cutting off his own arm. Please don't try this at home! Quite a bit of self-mutilation has been practised in Chinese spiritual circles over the ages - one story about Bodhidharma says that, in order to stop himself falling asleep, he cut off his own eyelids and threw them away; where they fell to the ground, they sprouted into the first tea plants. Another story says that, as a result of his nine-year solitary retreat, he sat for so long that his legs fell off! In Japan today you'll often see 'Daruma dolls' (pictured above), Daruma being the Japanese pronunciation of Bodhidharma's name. These dolls have a round, weighted base to represent a body without legs, as a result of which they roll back upright each time they're pushed over - symbolising Daruma's indefatigable spirit, captured in the popular Japanese phrase 'seven times down, eight times up'. Getting back to Huike and the whole severed arm business, for modern readers it's probably better to interpret Huike's gesture as symbolic rather than literal - a sign of Huike's absolute dedication to take up Zen practice with Bodhidharma.
Anyway, eventually, Bodhidharma relented, and turned to face Huike, at which point the exchange described above took place. Commentators often suppose that there's a gap between Bodhidharma's request for Huike to 'bring me your mind' and the next line of dialogue, implying that Huike went away and spent some time searching for his mind, only to discover that he couldn't find it. This seems right to me - maybe I'm just a bit of a slowpoke, but it's always taken me quite a while to find genuine insights!
Whether or not this particular exchange led to an awakening for Huike is not recorded in the koan, but Huike went on to be considered Bodhidharma's foremost successor. (Bodhidharma had four students in total - not many for such a pivotal figure! - three men and one woman.)
But what does the exchange actually mean, and how can it help us in modern times?
Bringing peace to our minds
Huike comes to Bodhidharma complaining that his mind is not at peace. This is probably a state of affairs that we can all relate to. But what do we really mean when we say 'My mind is not at peace?'
One simple description of what it means to have a mind which is not at peace might be something like: I experience a string of disagreeable thoughts, emotions and other impressions, which I seem to be unable to prevent.
(If you have a different definition, let's hear it - please leave a comment down below!)
This experience of a seemingly unstoppable stream of unpleasant experiences does seem to be quite common, at least within the self-selecting population of people interested in meditation practice. Quite a few people have come to my Wednesday night class asking how they can 'stop thoughts' because those thoughts cause them so much pain.
The usual answer I give is that meditation isn't really about stopping your thoughts - it's about finding a different relationship with them so that they don't cause us to suffer so much. Actually, though, that isn't quite true. If we do a lot of meditation (we're talking many hours a day) with a strong samadhi component, we actually can sometimes enter a peaceful state, initially for short periods, then for longer and longer stretches as our mind settles more and more, until it eventually becomes continuous. This kind of peace of mind can often be glimpsed on longer retreats (a month or more). However, it isn't terribly practical for most of us, since we have jobs, families and responsibilities to fit around the eight or so hours of daily meditation required to maintain this kind of state.
So, assuming you don't have unlimited spare time to spend in meditation sufficiently quietening your mind and body in order to be permanently tranquil, what else can you do? The short answer is 'insight practice'.
Concentration practice is good at bringing about a change in 'state' - moving us from a more agitated state to a more peaceful one. Insight practice, on the other hand, brings about a change in 'trait' - when we see things deeply enough, we form a new relationship to them, and thus have a permanently different experience as a result. One of the things we can explore in our insight practice is the mind itself - and it turns out that, if we come to understand our minds well enough, then we no longer find the comings and goings within our minds so bothersome. Thoughts and emotions may still come and go, but they lose their sting, and so no longer 'trouble' our minds in the same way.
So, what does it mean to 'understand our minds well enough'? What are these insights that practice will somehow give us?
Insight practice, the importance of personal experience, and the futility of 'explanations'
I've previously written quite a number of articles where I've done my best to provide my own answer to these questions. I've talked about various insights that can come out of Zen practice - into emptiness, non-duality, the nature of mind/awareness, and so forth. But the more I do this, the more I start to question how valuable these kinds of explanations actually are.
If you've never eaten a mango, no description of mine will ever convey the experience to you. Maybe I start by saying that it's yellow, and you say 'Oh, so it's like a banana, they're yellow.' Well, no, it isn't like a banana. So maybe I say that, well, no, the texture is more like a melon. 'Ah,' you say, 'it's like a yellow melon. Got it.' Nope, that still isn't right. You can't help but map my words onto experiences that you're already familiar with, because you have no other reference point. But the only experience that's really like eating a mango is, well, eating a damn mango. There's no form of words clever enough to capture that experience for you without you doing the taste test for yourself.
My Zen teacher has often commented that Zen seems to attract people who are pretty clever, and I've certainly run into quite a number of people who have read a lot of books about philosophy and science, really thought carefully about them, and can describe a very intellectually convincing model about what's going on both in their own minds and the world around them. Such people often have some kind of objection to Zen practice because they feel that their intellectual understanding of what's going on is 'better' than Zen in some way - more modern, more sophisticated, whatever. It's very difficult to 'persuade' such a person to suspend their well-thought-out philosophy of life in favour of claims which seem to be based in intangible experiences that are not available to the person asking for proof. It's a tough sell.
And yet that's how this works. The reason that the old Zen texts (and probably most of these articles) don't make any damn sense at first is because reality isn't what we think it is. We need to engage in long hours of diligent practice to see the truth of these things for ourselves - at which point all of the cryptic writings of the ancient masters (male and female, lay and monastic) start to make sense - because, finally, we've tasted the mango for ourselves, and so we can relate what's being described to our own experience. (This is often a humbling transition. Beforehand, it's easy to think 'Oh, this is all so confusing, why can't they just say it in plain language?' Afterwards, we're forced to admit that, actually, the old masters did a pretty good job.)
So rather than attempt to describe what you might find by looking at the experience of a mind not yet at peace, I'll instead simply give you some suggestions for how to investigate it for yourself. In the long run, that's the only thing that will ever make a difference for you personally. (Notice that that's what Bodhidharma does in the koan - he doesn't attempt to explain to Huike why his seemingly troubled mind isn't really a problem, he simply asks Huike to go and find his mind so that he can pacify it. Huike then obligingly undertakes the search for himself.)
Some suggested ways to look for your mind
Here are three meditative approaches to explore the nature of the mind. Pursue whichever feels more appealing to you - but stick with it. Insights tend to take a while to show up. We can view the practice as a process of gathering evidence which challenges our current world view - we need to get a critical mass of data in order to tip the scales in favour of a new way of seeing things, and that's going to take some time.
It can also help very much to spend some time settling the mind with a samadhi practice before engaging in insight work. When the mind is more focused, there's less noise, and more of our being is paying attention to what's going on, so if insights do show up, they tend to go deeper. That's not to say that so-called 'dry insight' (pure insight practice with no samadhi component) doesn't work - but in my experience it's more efficient to spend some time on samadhi first, so that's my recommendation.
When your mind is at least a little bit settled - there's often a fairly clear transition where your mind goes from wandering very frequently to being rather more stable - then move into any of the following practices.
1. Silent Illumination
In Silent Illumination practice, we simply rest, allowing both body and mind to become still. As the stilling process deepens, the usual noise in our experience quietens down, and subtler aspects reveal themselves to us. This is, by nature, an undirected process, and it can take its sweet time to do anything, but the great benefit is that there's really nothing to remember or do. Just sit there, allowing your body to breathe, and anytime you find yourself doing anything else at all (focusing on something in particular, trying to 'direct' your practice in a certain way, thinking about the practice, etc.), stop doing that. Trust, and see what happens. (If you need instructions for Silent Illumination, you can find them here, and a guided practice on the Audio page.)
One key point to note is that the stillness of Silent Illumination will (eventually!) reveal the nature of your mind to you, but the stillness is not the mind itself. What we find in the depths of Silent Illumination practice can eventually be found in every moment of life, no matter what's going on.
2. Koan: 'What, and where, is mind?'
Usually I recommend that people interested in koan practice start with 'Who am I?' That will actually get the job done as well. But since today's koan involves Bodhidharma asking Huike to go and fetch his mind, it also works well to use 'What, and where, is mind?' What is it that we're trying to pacify, and where can it be found? As usual when working with a koan, don't try to 'direct' the investigation in any way - just keep asking the question, over and over; notice what comes up, let it go, and repeat. (If you haven't worked with a koan before, you can find instructions here, and a guided 'Who am I?' koan practice on the Audio page.)
3. Direct investigation of the qualities of the mind
This third approach is more akin to the sort of thing you might find in the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition. Mahamudra insight practice (vipashyana) commonly involves a long sequence of quite specific investigations, looking at different aspects of the 'mind' (or, synonymously, the 'awareness'). The investigations can seem weird or even silly at first, but there's real power in practising this way, and it's included in today's list because it gives you something a bit more concrete to do than either of the two Zen approaches, which may suit certain types of people better.
Some example inquiries:
...And so on. (For a more comprehensive list of inquiries, check out the Mahamudra Meditation Center's Meditation Manual.)
One final note - keep going!
Insight meditation is a strange business. The practices often come across as weird, trivial or absurd. And yet they work - but only if we stick at it. If your practice is taking you to uncomfortable places then it's very helpful to reach out to a teacher to talk about what's going on, but by far the bigger problem is the boredom and frustration of 'nothing happening'. And yet it's only by crossing the desert that we reach the oasis. So please keep going! And then, when you truly discover your mind for yourself, you can write back to me and tell me how I should have explained it in this article...
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!