Four ways to open the heart, and their evil twins!
Early Buddhism features four heart-opening practices, usually called the Brahmaviharas (which you'll sometimes see translated as Divine Abodes). The same practices also show up in Tibetan Buddhism as the Four Immeasurables. (The topic of heart opening is treated a little differently in Zen, which I'll probably discuss in a future article.) They actually seem to pre-date Buddhism, but are a central part of the early teachings, and an important asset on the meditative path.
I have a page on this website in the Early Buddhism section which describes the basic practice of the Brahmaviharas, so I won't repeat that material here - do check it out if you aren't familiar with them. What I'd like to do in this article is to dig a bit deeper into what the Brahmavihara practices are pointing to - how we, as 21st century people, can understand the sometimes strange and archaic language used to describe them, and how we can potentially miss the mark if we're not careful.
What the Brahmaviharas are and aren't
The Brahmaviharas are four qualities of the heart which can be cultivated through practice: metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (resonant joy) and upekkha (equanimity). (See below for more on what these terms mean in practice.)
The key word here is 'cultivate'. These are practices, not moral commandments. The Buddha isn't saying 'you must be kind, compassionate, joyful and equanimous at all times or you're going straight to the Eight Hot Hells'. He's saying that these are good qualities to have - good both for you and for the people around you - and that it's a good thing to take active steps to cultivate those qualities, in just the same way that it's helpful to cultivate calm abiding (samatha) and clear seeing (vipassana).
In particular, it's better not to try to force anything. Don't go around trying to be kind, compassionate and so forth - honestly, it's usually pretty obnoxious when someone decides to make a 'project' out of being compassionate towards you and won't leave you alone until you acknowledge how wonderfully open their heart is. Don't do that.
Instead, look upon the cultivation of these qualities as you would cultivate a garden. You have a certain practice - planting the seeds and watering them - which creates the initial and supporting conditions for the growth and ultimate flourishing of the plants, but you don't make the garden grow through sheer force of will, and it's actively unhelpful to keep digging up the garden to see if the plants have started to grow yet. It's much more effective simply to follow the practice of tending the garden, and let the results take care of themselves.
In the same way, through diligent meditation practice over an extended period of time, these heart qualities will shine forth in a natural, integrated way; you will find your behaviour becoming naturally kinder, more compassionate, more open to the good fortune of others, and more stable and balanced in the face of strong emotions and difficult situations. You don't have to 'force' anything - and in fact it's better not to.
Near enemies of the Brahmaviharas
There's a classic practice manual which is at the heart of Theravada Buddhism (the tradition which developed out of the teachings of early Buddhism) called the Visuddhimagga (literally 'Path of Purification'); the Visuddhimagga is the source for many of the meditation practices which these days are typically attributed to the Buddha himself, since the actual discourses in the Pali canon are generally not enormously detailed in terms of specific practice instructions. By comparison, the Visuddhimagga goes into incredible (and often tedious) detail about every little aspect of practice, so, although it's a bit of a dry read, it can be a very useful sourcebook for fleshing out aspects of the path which are of interest to you.
In the case of the Brahmaviharas, the Visuddhimagga gives us both the traditional practice instructions of using a sequence of people and phrases to evoke each Brahmavihara (as described on my Brahmaviharas page). It also gives us 'near enemies' for each quality.
The 'near enemy' of something is another quality which looks pretty similar, but is different in an important way which subverts the practice. For example, early Buddhism teaches that grasping leads to suffering, and that a kind of detachment towards worldly things can free us from this suffering. But this healthy 'detachment' - in which our sense of wellbeing is not so bound up in factors beyond our control - can easily turn into a kind of indifference or even callousness. My first Zen teacher told a story of a time when his son was very ill; he was understandably very concerned, but a fellow Zen practitioner explained to him rather loftily that 'your problem is too much attachment'. For the avoidance of doubt, this statement - even if it was well-intended - was neither helpful nor compassionate. It was a demonstration not of an appropriate detachment but a near enemy of it.
Now, I took a look at the near enemies of the Brahmaviharas listed in the Visuddhimagga - and, to be honest, some of them were pretty puzzling. I've heard it said that emotions were understood (and perhaps even experienced) differently in the time of the Buddha - we're facing a 2,500-year cultural gap. So, rather than attempt to tease some relevance out of the Visuddhimagga, I'm instead going to walk through each of the Brahmaviharas in turn and try to give a 21st century interpretation of what they are, and how they can become twisted into near enemies.
Of all the Brahmaviharas, this one probably has the most translations, as different teachers try to find ways that don't sound nauseatingly sappy to half their audience whilst retaining enough force to inspire the other half. 'Loving kindness' is the most common translation, and it's the one that I tend to use myself these days, although when I started teaching I would cringe every time I said it and would often simply say 'kindness' instead. (Even today, if I'm talking to a room full of sceptical people, especially men, I'll tend to say 'kindness'.)
Other translations include benevolence, friendliness, well-wishing. From this constellation of terms, we can start to get a sense of what metta is all about. The basic attitude is one of wishing people well - but not because we believe (or assume) that they're not doing well right now. There's no 'corrective' quality to metta. It's more like this: do you like to be happy? You probably do, right? It's a good thing to be happy. And so it would be a good thing for other people to be happy too.
(Credit to my teacher Leigh Brasington for this approach to explaining metta. It's the best I've found, by leaps and bounds.)
The Visuddhimagga says that the near enemy of metta is greed, since 'both share in seeing virtues'. Meh. Personally, I see metta going wrong in a couple of ways.
One near enemy is a kind of 'faux niceness'. The person who always has a sugary compliment handy, often dressed up in 'spiritual' language so you can tell they're 'practising metta'. Such a person also often wants to tell you about all the wonderful things they've done which show off their strongly developed metta. Again, don't do this!
The other near enemy is to become a human doormat - never saying no to anyone. Metta is not about trying to 'like' everyone, and it isn't about being taken advantage of - it's about trying to relate to everyone, including the people we really don't like, with an attitude of kindness. The Thai Forest master Ajahn Sumedho uses the example of a belligerent, drunken person bursting into a meditation hall in the middle of a practice period, causing a ruckus and being generally obnoxious. It would be very difficult to like such a person in that moment - but you can still make the choice to respond with kindness (perhaps ushering the person out of the meditation hall in a tactful manner) rather than responding with cruelty (perhaps shouting, throwing things, mocking or attacking the person).
Pretty much everyone translates this one as 'compassion'. Sometimes you see 'empathy', but this term seems to mean wildly different things to different people (and is sometimes used as a very specific technical term), so I tend to stick with compassion.
The basic attitude of compassion is to recognise that suffering is a universal human experience. I suffer, you do too, and that will continue to be the case until we're dead or attain full, final enlightenment (which seems to be pretty difficult).
Compassion can be difficult to see and understand. Our heart's first, natural reaction to a situation is quickly obscured by the stories we tell ourselves about what's going on. An initial stab of self-compassion is replaced with either a tale of woe ('This isn't supposed to be happening to me!') or perhaps self-criticism ('I deserve this after what I did yesterday...'). But the basic attitude we're looking for is that initial flutter of the heart: this sucks! If metta is about how it's a good thing to be happy, compassion is the recognition that it's a bad thing to be unhappy, whether it's our own unhappiness or that of another.
The Visuddhimagga says that compassion has 'grief based on the home life' as its near enemy. Okaaaaay... There are two other options which - to me - seem much more common and problematic.
One near enemy is what we might call 'pity' - feeling sorry for that person over there, at a distance, perhaps with a subtle undercurrent of 'and I'm glad it isn't me!', or a judgemental quality ('well maybe he wouldn't be homeless if he didn't spend all his money on cigarettes'). True karuna is a recognition that suffering is part of the human condition; that which is in me which suffers is also within you. As our practice matures and the boundaries between self and other soften, we find ourselves responding more and more to 'suffering', as opposed to 'my suffering' or 'your suffering'.
Another near enemy is to allow our own discomfort in the face of someone else's pain to obscure what the situation actually needs. If a friend bursts into tears, we may feel anxious, conflicted or uneasy - and so might try to make the situation go away, telling them to 'cheer up' or distracting them with something irrelevant, not because that's what they need but because it makes us feel better. Sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is simply to be with someone in their moment of despair, not saying or doing anything at all, but equally not running away or pushing away the situation.
Mudita has almost as many popular translations as metta, but in the case of mudita it's because we don't really have the concept in the English language. Stephen Batchelor has described it as 'the opposite of schadenfreude' - if schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, mudita could be described as taking pleasure in the good fortune of others.
Personally, I like to look at mudita as the flip side of karuna/compassion. Both have a 'resonant' quality - and, in fact, you'll sometimes see mudita translated as 'resonant joy', 'sympathetic joy' or 'appreciative joy', to emphasise this way in which it emerges in response to something else. So if karuna is the heart's instinctive reaction on encountering suffering - 'oh no, this sucks!' - mudita is the heart's instinctive reaction on encountering joy - 'yay, this is great!'
Again, the initial momentary flicker of mudita is often quickly squashed by stories - 'huh, that person always gets nice things, what am I doing wrong?', 'it's all right for some, isn't it?'. And there are lots of situations that might make a particular person happy which we wouldn't necessarily want to celebrate in this way - if, for example, someone experiences pleasure from hurting others, it seems a little strange to say 'Hooray, the torturer is happy!' (In practice, it's likely that compassion for the victims would be the dominant response in that kind of situation anyway.)
The Visuddhimagga says that the near enemy of mudita is 'joy based on the home life'. Again, meh. In this case, there aren't so many common misunderstandings, because mudita is so rarely taught these days - very often people say they're going to talk about mudita but then just talk about 'joy' in general, as opposed to this 'resonant' heart quality. But perhaps a near enemy might be harbouring a kind of jealous appreciation of others - 'Oh, isn't that nice for you? You're so lucky to have that when so many others don't!'
Equanimity is the usual translation of this one; sometimes you see 'equipoise' instead, but if you didn't know what to make of 'equanimity', 'equipoise' probably won't help much either.
Wikipedia describes equanimity as 'a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind'. (Near enemies of upekkha may be jumping out at you already.)
Equanimity can seem like the odd one out in this list. Loving kindness, compassion and resonant joy are all about experiencing emotions - being touched and moved by the situations we encounter in the world. Yet equanimity seems to be the opposite - being unmoved by what we encounter. Sometimes it can seem like developing equanimity might turn us into emotionless robots or mindless zombies.
But equanimity turns out to be key to the other three Brahmaviharas. Without equanimity, loving kindness can start to shade over into desire and grasping; compassion can quickly overwhelm us with the pain of others; and mudita can turn into a giddy, ungrounded mania. Equanimity is not at all about getting rid of emotions and becoming robotic - on the contrary, equanimity is actually what allows us to feel strong emotions without being swept away by them.
The Visuddhimagga says that 'ignorance' is the near enemy of equanimity, which sounds crazy until you interpret 'ignorance' as 'ignoring' - i.e. consciously turning away. Understood in this way, it's actually pretty good, although I would use the term 'indifference' to describe the mild version of this near enemy, and perhaps 'callousness' for its stronger manifestations. Equanimity gone wrong says 'Who cares?'; equanimity done well gives us the stability to say 'What should we do about this?'
Bringing it all together
Personally, I would say that all four Brahmaviharas represent naturally emergent qualities of an open heart. Loving kindness is the 'default' radiance of a heart which is not bound up in self-centred concerns; compassion and mudita are that heart's natural response to unhappiness and happiness respectively; and equanimity is the stability that holds it all together and allows us to feel these emotions deeply without losing our footing.
Please enjoy your Brahmavihara practice. It's good for you, and it's good for those around you too. What's not to like?
Remembering my teacher's teacher
Last Friday we received the news that Shinzan Miyamae Roshi, teacher of my Zen teacher Daizan Roshi and abbot of Gyokuryuji temple in Japan, passed away.
I never met Shinzan Roshi myself, but his presence is felt in every aspect of the Zenways community, from the calligraphies at the Dojo in London, to the enso in the Zenways logo (seen behind Shinzan Roshi in the picture above), to the teaching curriculum used within Zenways, to the format of the Breakthrough to Zen retreats that Zenways runs throughout the year. Even some of his turns of phrase have made their way into the Zenways lexicon.
So in this week's article I'd like to take a look at the life of this remarkable man, and see what suggestions Shinzan Roshi might have had for our own practice.
(Many of the biographical details given below are taken from Daizan's book Practical Zen, and the Zenways Press book The Zen Character: Life, Art and Teachings of Zen Master Shinzan Miyamae.)
Challenges in lay life and introduction to Zen
Shinzan Roshi was a child during the Second World War. Towards the end of the war, the Japanese education system had largely broken down, and the country began preparing for an Allied invasion. The young Shinzan found himself and a group of other young children taken aside by a teenager with a sharpened bamboo pole, to be given 'lessons' in 'killing Americans'. Then, with the sudden, shocking detonation of the two atomic bombs, the war was over. Abruptly, these young killers-in-training found themselves surrounded by American soldiers who would give the local children sweets and teach them to play baseball. This dramatic reversal had a profound effect on the young Shinzan, who said simply, 'I cried.' From that point onward, Shinzan had an affinity for Westerners, and it is perhaps because of this openness that our lineage exists in the West at all today.
As a young adult, Shinzan was determined to go into business, but unfortunately didn't have much affinity for it. He was a soft touch, never charging enough, never able to make enough money to keep the lights on. Two business ventures failed, the second one taking with it not only his own money but his parents' savings too. In despair, he even tried to commit suicide, but found himself unable to go through with it.
Then, one day, he gave a lift to a Zen nun who had arrived at a train station. He had never been particularly interested in Buddhism, but something about this nun impressed him, and she gave him a small book on Zen called Senshin Roku (On Purifying the Heart). This was his first proper introduction to Zen - and, not long afterwards, he ordained as a monk in the Rinzai Zen tradition.
Shinzan trained with several teachers, most notably the fierce and demanding master Itsugai Roshi at Shogenji temple, a training monastery also known as oni sodo, the 'devil's dojo'. Itsugai was a strong advocate of the central importance of kensho - seeing one's true nature, the first step along the path of awakening in Zen.
Shinzan had to prove himself to Itsugai. At first, he wasn't even allowed to attend sanzen, the interviews/encounters with the teacher which are so central to Rinzai Zen. But Shinzan was determined to experience kensho, and spent as much time as he could meditating. One day Itsugai noticed Shinzan walking back to the temple after a week spent meditating alone in a cave, and this clearly convinced him that Shinzan meant business.
Shinzan was given the 'mu' koan to work with. This famous koan relates an exchange between a monk and the master Joshu/Zhaozhou. The monk asks 'Does a dog have Buddha nature?', and Joshu replies 'Mu', meaning 'no' or 'not'. On the face of it, this seems straightforward enough - except that a central tenet of Buddhism is that all beings have Buddha nature. So why does Joshu reply 'Mu'? What does this negation signify? Itsugai challenged Shinzan to 'Bring me this mu!'
Shinzan threw himself into the practice, and finally, late one night, he went up on the mountain behind Shogenji and shouted 'Mu!' with his whole being. In that moment, something happened. Shinzan would later say, in his simple English, 'I lost myself. After that, many koans, pass, pass, pass.' He had experienced kensho - Shinzan had seen his true nature - and the true world of Zen opened up to him.
Shinzan's controversial stances on kensho and social engagement
Kensho is a beginning rather than an end, and so Shinzan continued to train hard, progressing through the many koans in his lineage. As time went on, however, it became clearer and clearer that Shinzan's interest in awakening was relatively unusual. Many Japanese Zen temples are essentially family businesses which focus largely on conducting expensive funerals, and so many of the people who go to training monasteries like Shogenji have little interest in arduous spiritual training; they're simply there to become qualified as priests in order to take over the running of the family temple.
Shinzan was highly critical of those in the Zen world who lacked authentic insight - and, over the years, this stance ruffled enough feathers that Shinzan ended up outside of the mainstream of Japanese Rinzai Zen. Undeterred, he restored the former hermitage of the great 17th century Rinzai Zen master Bankei, set himself up there and hung a sign at the gate which read 'Training place for young and old people to realise their true nature.'
Kensho remained central to Shinzan's teaching for the rest of his life. His teachings would often begin 'The first priority is kensho. The second priority is kensho. The third priority is kensho.' However, rather than adopting an inflexible, one-size-fits-all curriculum, Shinzan recognised that different people had different needs, and so offered a range of practices to his students, including koan study but also offering Bankei's gentler style of practice, which has a close affinity to the Silent Illumination practice that I've written about on many occasions.
Shinzan was also determined that Zen practitioners should be engaged in the world, not cloistered away from it. (This attitude can be seen reflected in Zenways too - for example, their work with the homeless and imprisoned, some of which you can read about in the beautiful book Rough Waking.) In particular, after the sarin gas attacks instigated by the cult Aum Shinrikyo in the mid-90s, Shinzan worked with the notorious senior cult member Kazuaki Okazaki, a man who had committed terrible crimes in the name of the cult, trying to help Okazaki move beyond the beliefs Aum Shinrikyo had instilled in him. This was a profoundly controversial move at a time when the cult was regarded with deep fear and hatred throughout Japan, but Shinzan persisted nevertheless. Okazaki was ultimately able to move beyond his twisted world view, and became a Zen student of Shinzan's and a gifted artist (contributing a series of images to Rough Waking, mentioned above) until his execution in 2018.
Nari kiru: the heart of Zen
One of Shinzan Roshi's key teachings - and a frequent subject of his calligraphies - is the phrase 'nari kiru'. 'Nari' means 'become', and 'kiru' literally means 'cut off', in the sense of severing all ties. But what does this mean - is Shinzan pointing to a kind of renunciate stance on the world, casting off all worldly ties and retreating to a mountain hermitage?
Actually, it's the opposite, as can be seen from Daizan's preferred translation of nari kiru as 'completely becoming'. Shinzan Roshi is pointing to an attitude of total engagement with whatever situation is at hand. Very often, we're 'only half there' - partly engaged with what we're doing, partly thinking about something else. The nari kiru approach is to drop all distractions, let go of that part of ourselves that wants to think about what we're doing later on or how much we want this current task to be over with, and simply pour 100% of our energy into this, here, now.
Sometimes the Zen approach that Shinzan called nari kiru is described as 'engaging wholeheartedly' with whatever is going on, but a friend recently pointed out that this can make it sound like we're supposed to be enthusiastic about whatever we're doing, and very often in our lives we have to do things that we aren't at all enthusiastic about, so the 'wholehearted' attitude can be hard to find. An alternative suggestion comes from my friend's Zen teacher Domyo Burk, which is to think instead in terms of doing something 'undividedly'. Whatever is happening, we give it our full attention. We don't have to like it or be excited to do it - but we give the task our undivided focus nevertheless. In this way, we become increasingly present, increasingly absorbed in the moment-to-moment reality of our life, less and less distracted, less and less caught up in reactivity. We become free, not just in formal meditation, but in the midst of the very activities that make up our lives.
A final piece of advice from Shinzan Roshi
I'll give Shinzan Roshi the last word. Here is the closing passage from a talk given to his Western students concerning the Sixth Zen Ancestor Eno (Huineng in Chinese) and his fellow practitioner Myo (Huiming in Chinese).
'Soon Myo found his true nature, soon you will too. Please find quickly. You will be very happy and I will be very happy - and the world needs happy, awake people. Your practice is important.'
Five things to do at the end of a meditation session
Last week we looked at five things to do at the beginning of a meditation session, using a list from my teacher on the Early Buddhist side, Leigh Brasington. Leigh also has a list of five things to do at the end of each session, so let's take a look at those too!
(You can find Leigh's own thoughts on these steps on his website - what follows will be my interpretation of the same principles.)
(Leigh's term for this is 'recapitulation' but I find 'review' easier to remember.)
So, you've made it all the way to the end of your meditation session without screaming, throwing your timer at the wall or giving up and going for a walk. Well done! But before you rush off to do something else - and, by the way, if you've had a difficult sit, notice how much more relaxed you feel now that the bell has rung, even though almost nothing has changed yet - it can be helpful to review what just happened.
First up, what was the state of your body and mind at the beginning of the session (and, more broadly, especially off retreat, what were you bringing with you to the cushion)? Were you highly agitated, sleepy, hyper-caffeinated, ill, short on time? What effect did that have on the practice? Do you notice trends emerging over time (e.g. every time you sit down to do Silent Illumination when you're tired, you fall asleep without fail)?
Next, what was your practice or practices? What happened during the course of the meditation? Did your mind settle? If you were doing a samadhi practice, did you enter jhana or an equivalent state? If so, how did you get there?
(It's worth noting that Leigh teaches jhana retreats, and so in that context this step is mainly about looking at the quality of your jhana practice. The hardest part in the early days of jhana work is figuring out how to get into the first jhana at all, and so taking time to review which approaches worked and which didn't can be invaluable. Each person ultimately learns their own route into jhana, so it's essential to have a degree of introspection into the mechanics of your personal practice. That said, the same is true of other practices such as the Brahmaviharas too, so the review step is useful for all practitioners, not just people learning the jhanas.)
(Leigh puts this step third, but to me it makes more sense for it to flow naturally from the reviewing process.)
Something else to consider is what you learnt from the practice - whether any insights cropped up. Insights can come on the relative level, telling you something about yourself (for example, the discovery of a deep psychological mechanism which has been making unhelpful life choices for you for twenty years), or on the absolute level, telling you something about the nature of experience itself (for example, that all experience is mind-originated and we are not fundamentally separate from the rest of the universe).
Insights are tricky beasts. An insight is not the same as an experience - we can have a dramatic experience in meditation and learn nothing useful from it, or we can have a profound, life-changing insight with no experiential fireworks whatsoever, just a simple falling-into-place of understanding.
When we do have an insight, it's useful to take some time to reflect on it. My Zen teacher Daizan strongly recommends keeping a meditation diary and taking a few minutes for a 'brain dump' after every sitting, making a note of anything useful that you've learnt. At the same time, though, we should be careful not to over-intellectualise what we've learnt in practice. Meditative insight is transformative only when it's experiential in nature and fully embodied in our day-to-day life - otherwise it rapidly becomes just another spiritual trophy on the shelf, a story to tell other practitioners about 'that time I saw emptiness' to show what a great meditator you are.
(Leigh puts this step second, so I've switched Insights and Impermanence.)
One of the central insights in all forms of Buddhism is the impermanent nature of the phenomena of our experience. Everything comes and goes - civilisations, nations, loved ones, the food we eat, each breath we take. Nothing is ultimately stable or reliable, and trying to hold on to something and force it to be solid, dependable and permanent is a recipe for suffering.
Thus, we take a moment to recognise the impermanent nature of all things. Your practice is now over. Even if jhanas arose during the practice, they're gone now; if the practice has left you feeling peaceful, content or joyful, that's beautiful, but it too will pass sooner or later. While this might seem like a bit of a downer (what's the point in practising contentment if I'm just going to feel stressed again later?), it's really an opportunity to appreciate and celebrate whatever positive or beautiful qualities we experience in our practice and our lives right now, precisely because we know they won't be around forever. Sooner or later it all goes away, whether or not we choose to take a moment to enjoy it - so isn't it better to make sure we do take that moment when we can?
Impermanence is also particularly important to recognise if we've had an insight (noted in step 2) which was bound up in an experience. Experiences come and go, but insights change the way we see the world, and the deepest ones can't fully be un-seen or forgotten. However, if we associate the insight with the experience, we might start to feel like we're 'losing our awakening' when the experience wears off.
4. Dedication of merit
In last week's article we saw how Leigh's suggested things to do before a sitting helped to create a positive, supportive environment for meditation in part by connecting our practice to a wider context beyond ourselves.
In the same way, the dedication of merit at the end of any period of practice is a traditional Buddhist ritual used to re-connect ourselves with our wider community. Sometimes I'll end a day-long retreat by ringing a meditation bell three times and saying 'May any merit from our practice today be for the benefit of all beings.'
But wait, what's this 'merit' stuff? And where did this suspiciously religious-looking ritual business come from?
The concept of karma is found throughout Buddhist teachings - and it often means subtly or even wildly different things depending on the era of the text you're reading or the teacher who's talking about it. In modern-day Thailand, for example, it's common to hear people talking about 'making merit' by doing good actions, like if you do enough good stuff then it 'balances out' the bad stuff you've done on some set of cosmic scales. (I read a book once where the main character was involved in activities that she regarded as creating negative karma, but it was to earn money to send her highly intelligent kid brother to university so that he could become a doctor and help many people, and by her calculations the positive karma he would create through his work would outweigh the negative karma of her actions, so she regarded it as a net positive.)
In the Pali canon, we find the Buddha talking about karma (kamma in Pali) as 'intention'. He points to something that modern neuroscientists also recognise - whatever we do frequently becomes habitual, as our minds become trained to move in that direction naturally and instinctively. So if we routinely meet difficult situations with anger, we'll be more likely to respond with anger in the future, whereas if we practise responding with compassion instead, we'll be more likely to display compassion instinctively in the future. Personally, I find this a more useful way to relate to karma than the 'cosmic scales of justice' thing, because otherwise we have to explain why bad things happen to good people and so forth, which gets into multiple lifetimes and all that jazz.
Whatever you think about karma, though, the ultimate purpose of practice in the Buddhist context is the alleviation of suffering - and, with my Zen/Mahayana hat on for a moment, not just our own suffering, but the suffering of all beings. Our practice goes far beyond ourselves - the changes we make in ourselves are reflected in our relationships and interactions with other people, and those people will go on to interact with others, and on and on - the web of influence that spreads out from our personal thoughts, words and deeds reaches far and wide.
So it can be worth taking an explicit moment to remember that web of interconnection at the end of a practice. Even if you've just had the best sit of your life, experienced lots of wonderful jhanas or had lots of deep insights, this isn't ultimately about how great you are, and please don't run around telling everyone how much more enlightened you are than them. Dedicate the merits of your practice to the benefit of all. The interesting thing about this work is that, the more you give it away, the more you have...
5. Continuing mindfulness
In the context of a jhana retreat, off-cushion mindfulness is really important, because the concentration that you build up in your meditation practice is easily frittered away if you return to a scattered state when the practice ends. If you're trying to learn the jhanas, it's helpful to have the best concentration you can possibly muster, which means guarding the sense doors and paying attention to what you're doing between sits.
More generally, perhaps the biggest pitfall for experienced meditators is to 'compartmentalise' the practice. It can be easy to think that, because you meditate for twenty minutes every day, that's all you have to do - and yet, after a few years, you start to notice that you have a lovely experience whenever you go on retreat, but it all falls to bits when you come back to daily life, despite your best efforts to hold on to whatever peace of mind you found on the retreat. But if you've established a boundary between your 'spiritual life' (which happens all day on retreat, but only for 20 minutes a day off retreat) and 'normal life', even unknowingly, you'll tend to find that most of the benefits of your spiritual practice are confined to those moments when you're engaged in your 'spiritual life'.
Ultimately, the practice goes far deeper if we widen our sense of 'spiritual life' to include everything that we do. Our relationships, our work, our most mundane activities can all become opportunities for practice - which is not to say that we start having artificial conversations with our loved ones because we're trying to 'practise compassion' or whatever, but simply that we continuously work at bringing clear, bright awareness and total presence into whatever situation we find ourselves in, rather than spending most of our lives only half there, always thinking about what we'd rather be doing.
In the long run, we do this practice not to reach some final point where we don't have to practise any more. Rather, we practise so that this way of relating to our experience - with presence, clarity and openness - becomes who we are.
May all beings benefit from the merit of our practice!
Five things to do at the start of a meditation session
When my teacher Leigh Brasington is leading a retreat, a few days into the practice he'll introduce a list of five things to do at the beginning of each sitting. It's a neat little list that does a great job of setting up supportive conditions for any meditation practice, so let's take a look and see what's in there!
It's very helpful to begin your practice by cultivating a positive mind state. Whether you're interested in samadhi, insight, heart-opening, energy practice or something else, it all tends to go better when you're starting from a place of well-being. Negative states tend to reinforce contraction, grasping and clinging to old habitual patterns of thinking and behaving, whereas positive states tend to open us up to new possibilities.
Thus, Leigh recommends starting every meditation practice by generating a sense of gratitude. How you do this is really up to you, but here are some starting points for consideration:
So another approach is simply to cast your mind back over the last few days and pick out three or four small things for which you can feel some degree of gratitude. Even if this is hard at first, please persevere, because you'll find it gets easier over time, as you train your mind to notice and remember little incidents throughout the day that would otherwise be overlooked and forgotten.
Why are you doing this? What brings you here, to this website, to this article? More generally, what brings you to a meditation practice?
This inquiry can actually be a complete practice in itself (as can most of the items in this list, with the possible exception of the next one). You can work with 'Why am I here?' as a koan, just like 'Who am I?' or 'What is this?' (Koan practice is discussed in the latter part of this article.) However, for today's purposes, we're going to take it in a slightly different direction - koan practice is more about the exploration of the question than the answers we arrive at, but if we're looking at our motivation as a preliminary to a meditation practice, it can be more helpful to arrive at some kind of answer, even if it's only a provisional one.
We are meaning-making creatures. We like things to make sense, to be contextualised in a wider frame, to be part of a broad narrative that tells us who we are and what's going on. Generally speaking, people who feel that their lives are meaningful tend to report higher levels of subjective well-being than those who feel that life is meaningless and arbitrary. And, interestingly, people who spend time assigning meaning to things tend to report the subjective sense that their lives are more meaningful. In other words, by actively relating to our lives as meaningful, we feel that they are, indeed, meaningful. You may have heard the story of the janitor at NASA who, when asked why he was working so late, replied 'I'm helping put a man on the moon.' Now that's meaning!
So - why are we here? What is the meaning of our meditation practice to each of us as individuals? Are we here to find a way out of suffering? To explore a rich and fascinating historical wisdom tradition? To learn things about ourselves and how our minds work? To find peace of mind?
Leigh's term for this one is 'determination', but I'm personally not so keen on that word. Perhaps it's because my natural tendency is to try a bit too hard, but whenever I think of 'determination' I get a kind of anime-esque image of myself enwreathed in a halo of flames about to transform into my most powerful form. Then I tend to charge headlong into my meditation practice like a bull in a china shop, totally lacking the subtlety needed to navigate my internal landscape.
So let's not do that. But it's still useful to take a moment to set a firm, clear intention for our practice. In the previous step we reminded ourselves why we're here. Now we should get clear about what we're going to do. What is your practice for this sitting? Are you going to cultivate samadhi, do an insight practice, something else?
It's all too easy to sit down to meditate, start your timer, and then fifteen minutes later realise that you've been lost in thought and haven't actually started meditating yet. Deliberately setting a clear intention at the beginning of each sit can really help to avoid this pitfall.
Having a clear intention in mind can also help if you find yourself getting bored part-way into the sit. This is especially a problem if you have a sizeable toolbox of different practices (which is the way I teach, so the longer you hang around me, the more prone to this problem you'll be - sorry!); it's easy to think 'Ahh, this body scan thing isn't really working, I'll do some jhana practice instead. Hmm, nope, jhanas don't seem to be happening, how about some noting? Ugh, this is making me agitated, maybe I'll do some metta.' And ultimately you end up spending the entire session jumping from one practice to another, never settling into anything properly.
One last point worth mentioning is that part of your intention-setting can include a reminder to treat yourself kindly when you notice that your mind has wandered. As I mentioned in a previous article, if we beat ourselves up whenever we notice our mind has wandered, we'll ultimately train ourselves to be less likely to notice mind-wandering - because who wants to get yelled at? The intention-setting stage of practice can be a good time to remind ourselves 'For the duration of this sitting, whenever I notice that my mind has wandered, I will consciously celebrate that moment of clear mindfulness before returning to my practice', or something like that. (It sounds cheesy but it really works - try it!)
4. Metta / loving kindness
Of the five, this is the step that Leigh is 100% adamant that you should never, ever skip. Leigh's recommendation is that you should always do metta for yourself, and optionally for others if you have time and feel so inclined.
Actively cultivating loving kindness is a central practice in early Buddhism, and it can be powerfully transformative. By cultivating love within ourselves, we become less dependent on external sources of validation and affection; we also become kinder, friendlier people to be around. A deep enough metta practice can also lead us to states of samadhi and deep insights into the nature of dualistic perception, so don't be tempted to write it off as 'just some hippie thing', even if it isn't really to your taste at first. It took me a long time to 'click' with metta practice, and honestly it'll probably never be in my top three go-to practices, but equally there have been times when metta practice has been exactly what I needed in the moment, and my practice would be impoverished without it.
You can find out some more about metta on the Brahmaviharas page in the Early Buddhism section of this website. There are also a couple of 10-minute guided metta practices on my Audio page - one based around visualisation, the other using phrases. A third approach is simply to generate the felt sense of wishing someone well, and rest in that feeling.
By the way, metta isn't just a great practice in its own right, it's also serving an important purpose at this stage in Leigh's list of preliminaries. We started by generating a positive, relaxed, open frame of mind with gratitude, but the motivation and intention-setting stages can sometimes have a kind of 'sharpening' effect, generating a certain amount of intensity and 'spiritual urgency'. It's helpful to have this kind of energy fuelling our practice, but as I said above, we don't want to go too far in this direction. So bringing in metta at this point will tend to soften everything back down again, making us flexible rather than overly rigid.
5. 'Breathing in I calm body and mind, breathing out I smile'
The final step is a 'gatha' - a short verse recited mentally in rhythm with the breath. The use of a gatha is a practice popularised in modern times by the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, and indeed this particular gatha comes from him.
Reciting a phrase in this way acts as a support for mental focus, in much the same way as counting the breathings. Unlike counting the breaths, however, the meaning of the gatha is also intended to support the practice, reminding us to move towards relaxation and well-being. (Leigh has commented that this particular gatha is potentially all the instruction you need to enter jhana - one of Leigh's preferred techniques for entering jhana is to focus first on stilling the mind to the point of access concentration whilst smiling, then shifting the attention to the pleasantness of the smile itself as a route into the first jhana.)
So this is the final part of the 'on-ramp' for your main meditation practice - having cultivated gratitude, set up the frame of motivation and intention, and opened up the heart with metta, we now let go of all of that and simply focus on breathing, relaxing and smiling, calming the whole mind-body system down and letting us slide smoothly into whatever comes next.
How long should I spend on all this?
There's no single answer to that - as I mentioned above, steps 1, 2, 4 and 5 could potentially be complete practices in themselves. If you never got past the gratitude step for the rest of your life as a meditator, there are worse ways to spend your time!
In general, though, we're looking for these to be preliminary steps, and once you've done each one a few times you should be able to move fairly quickly through them. In a 30-minute meditation session, you might want to spend a minute or so cultivating gratitude (perhaps a little more if you're coming to the practice in a negative frame of mind); once you've clarified your motivation sufficiently, it only takes a few moments to reconnect with that, and likewise with the intention-setting. For metta, Leigh would recommend that the absolute minimum is a minute focusing on yourself, longer if you have more time and/or would like to include other people.
As for the gatha, it depends a little on how busy your mind is and where you're going next. In the same way that if you're working with the breath, you might start out by counting the breaths and then later drop the count once the mind is a bit more settled, you'll tend to find that you reach a point where the gatha is no longer supporting the practice and actually starting to get in the way. Certainly if you want to move on to an insight practice, at some point you'll have to shift gears and let go of the gatha to make space for the insight practice.
But there's no particular formula (35 seconds of gratitude, then 12 seconds of motivation, then...). Rather than looking at these preliminaries as a rigid set of obligations that you have to drag around with you like chains, see them instead as optional supports. As you learn more about your own mind states and the effects that these preliminaries have on them, you'll develop an intuitive sense of how much of each one is 'enough'.
So give them a go and see what works!
Is it OK to enjoy meditation? What if I don't want to?
There's more than one way to meditate, as anyone who has perused the dizzying array of practices on Insight Timer or YouTube will know. Within the Buddhist traditions alone, we find concentration/samadhi, insight, heart-opening and energetic meditation techniques, along with other related techniques like contemplation.
Different constellations of these techniques show up in different traditions. For example, early Buddhism has jhana practice for samadhi, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness for insight, and the Brahmaviharas for heart-opening, but not much in the way of energetic practices. Rinzai Zen, on the other hand, mainly stresses insight and energetics (Hakuin's 'two wings of a bird'). Within traditions, too, different teachers will have different emphases and different go-to practices to share with their students. (You can see my standard offering for new meditators in my free book Pathways of Meditation.)
But, in such a saturated marketplace, how are you supposed to know which techniques to practise, and what difference does it make anyway?
The Buddha's advice on different paths of practice
In the Pali canon (the oldest records of the teachings of the historical Buddha), we find a discourse (AN4.163 if you want to read the whole thing) which sets out some of the different paths available to us.
"Mendicants, there are four ways of practice. What four?
1. Painful practice with slow insight,
2. painful practice with swift insight,
3. pleasant practice with slow insight,
4. pleasant practice with swift insight."
To me, the fourth option sounds the best, no question! But actually there are arguments to be made for each approach.
Some of us are naturally more drawn to the unpleasant aspects of life. The historical Buddha initially became interested in practice precisely because of the problem of human suffering - sooner or later, all the things we love change and vanish, and we get old, sick and die, so what's the point of any of it? Why love anything when you know it's just going to be taken away from you?
If this is your orientation, a meditation practice which is primarily pleasant might actually feel inappropriate or unhelpful - a kind of spiritual bypassing, just sitting there with your head in the clouds ignoring the problems all around you. If you came here to study suffering in detail, then a practice which puts the microscope on the painful aspects of your experience might be a much better fit for your interest, and much more motivational (especially at first), than the cultivation of love or bliss.
On the other hand, some of us are here because we already feel bad and would like to feel a little better. If this is you, then cultivating love, compassion, contentment and joy might be exactly what you're looking for, and infinitely more appealing than the alternative.
There's even some nuance in the slow/fast distinction. Awakening is often framed as a goal at the end of a path, and when we look at it that way, it's only natural to want to move down that path as rapidly as possible. Whole traditions have set themselves up as 'the fast path to enlightenment' throughout the ages, playing into exactly this sentiment. My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, would sometimes encourage people to achieve kensho (initial awakening) quickly, both for their own good and the good of those around them. When we hear things like this, it can give rise to samvega, a kind of 'spiritual urgency' which can be helpful in giving us the energy to practise and the motivation to focus on our meditation rather than getting lost in distraction.
However, this way of looking has some drawbacks too. It sets up a situation in which we're deficient right now, trying to get somewhere to find a thing we don't have. The urgency of samvega can easily turn into a frantic grasping which actually tightens the mind and body rather than opening it. And we can become oblivious to our own needs and the needs of those around us in a way that's very unhelpful, ultimately becoming selfish and distant rather than open-hearted. Reportedly, the Dalai Lama was once asked what was the quickest way to enlightenment, and in response he burst into tears. Taking our time, proceeding slowly and carefully, can sometimes help us to avoid these negative excesses, whilst also giving us enough time to integrate what we're learning fully into our lives instead of simply chasing the next insight.
So what are the pleasant and unpleasant approaches?
Returning to AN4.163, the Buddha goes on to describe 'painful practice' thus:
And what’s the painful practice [...]? It’s when a mendicant meditates observing the ugliness of the body, perceives the repulsiveness of food, perceives dissatisfaction with the whole world, observes the impermanence of all conditions, and has well established the perception of their own death.
(Readers familiar with the Satipatthana Sutta will recognise some similarities with some of the suggested exercises in the first foundation of mindfulness.)
What's being suggested here is a form of insight practice: a deep inquiry into the body, its nutriment and the things of the world, recognising their fundamentally unsatisfactory nature (dukkha), an investigation of impermanence (anicca), and the contemplation of death.
By contrast, 'pleasant practice' is described as follows:
And what’s the pleasant practice with slow insight? It’s when a mendicant, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first jhana, [...]
(The whole passage is quite long, so I won't quote the whole thing here, but you can find a slightly shorter version of the standard formulation in my article on jhana practice.)
What's being described here is samadhi practice, specifically the cultivation of the four jhanas, since this is a discourse from early Buddhism and that's their approach to samadhi.
So the Buddha seems to be suggesting that insight practice is likely to be 'painful', whereas samadhi practice is likely to be 'pleasant' - and experientially this does seem to be pretty accurate. The modern proponents of 'dry insight' practices like Mahasi noting will tend to trumpet how effective these practices are for generating lots of insights pretty quickly, but at the same time will talk about the negative side effects of the practice (sometimes called the 'dark night', a term borrowed from the Christian contemplative St John of the Cross). By comparison, jhana practitioners (like my teacher Leigh Brasington) tend to have a much better time of it, since their practice involves training the mind to rest in positive states for extended periods, and seem anecdotally to have much less difficulty with the bumps along the spiritual road.
(As an aside, it's also interesting - and important - to note that you don't need to do the 'unpleasant practice' - i.e. formal insight meditation - to get even 'swift insight'. The yoga tradition of Patanjali described in his Yoga Sutras is a very deep samadhi practice with very little in the way of 'insight techniques', yet from Patanjali's descriptions it leads to the emergence of insight nevertheless. We talk about 'insight meditation', but insight is an outcome, not a technique. Insight meditation can lead to insight because it involves actively investigating some aspect of our experience which has been found to be fruitful over 2,500 years of exploration; but samadhi can just as easily lead to insight because it involves training, sharpening and quieting the mind to the point that we can see what's going on far more clearly than usual.)
What about the slow/swift thing?
The speed of progress depends on many factors. One is simply the amount of practice we do - more tends to move things along faster than less. My practice noticeably accelerates if I double the amount of sitting I'm doing each day. (Conversely, when someone is going through a difficult patch of practice - perhaps the aforementioned dark night - it can help to reduce the dosage a little bit to make things more manageable.) Another is our intention - if we are clear about why we're sitting, we tend to see clearer benefits than if we just sit out of habit or because we think we're supposed to for some reason.
Going back to AN4.163, however, the Buddha suggests another reason:
"they have these five faculties weakly: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. Because of this, they only slowly attain the conditions for ending the defilements in the present life."
(And conversely, by having those five faculties strongly, a practitioner may swiftly attain the conditions for ending the defilements in the present life, which is just another way of talking about awakening.)
We can interpret this passage in a couple of ways.
In many of the classical sutras and commentaries, you'll find practitioners split into three categories - those of inferior, middling and superior spiritual capacities. Those of inferior capacities are traditionally said to need simpler instructions, take longer to understand the ultimate truth, and so on. (Often you'll find texts saying 'That tradition over there is designed for inferior types; we've got the good stuff, but it's only for superior types!')
But this rather fixed way of categorising people is pretty limited, in my humble opinion. The whole point of the Buddhist concept of emptiness is precisely that we aren't fixed, enduring entities with permanent qualities that simply can't be changed. We're much more like processes than entities. And so if, right now, someone is finding that their 'spiritual faculties' of faith, energy, mindfulness, samadhi and wisdom are a little on the weak side, that doesn't mean they're doomed to a life in the 'inferior spiritual faculties' club.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the seven factors of awakening, and how we could see the subsequent factors emerging naturally from the earlier ones. Rather than trying to develop one-pointed samadhi on the breath simply through force of will, we could instead approach our practice as taking an interest in our breath, and allow the one-pointed samadhi to develop as a consequence.
In just the same way, approaching our meditation practice with the right attitude helps our spiritual faculties to develop as a consequence of our practice, rather than a prerequisite. Going back to the earlier discussion of pleasant and unpleasant practice, this is why it matters that you choose a practice that speaks to you, rather than one that doesn't. If the practice looks interesting and appealing, you'll more easily trust that it's going to be helpful for you (faith), you'll be more motivated to do it and to keep going when it gets tough (energy), you'll pay more attention to what's going on (mindfulness), you'll focus on the practice better (concentration) and you'll learn more as a result (wisdom). Conversely, if you're forcing yourself to do something you think is stupid, you won't have any confidence that it's going to be useful, you'll give up when you get bored, you'll only be half there when you aren't totally lost in mind-wandering, and you'll learn nothing of value.
So this stuff really matters. When you're starting out, explore what's on offer. Be critical. Try things out. Figure out what speaks to you, and go with that. Don't keep jumping around forever, though - by all means take your time choosing your means of transport, but at some point you have to set off on the journey.
And remember to notice the scenery along the way!
Getting a better grip on what's going on
A couple of years ago, someone in my meditation class with a deep personal practice commented how strange it was that 'sitting and doing nothing' could be so transformative. And we laughed... but his comment stuck in my mind, and I've spent a lot of time reflecting on it ever since. What actually are we doing here? We talk about insight and seeing the true nature of reality - but how is that even possible, and even if it is, why does meditation help us to do it?
Meditation practice clearly does something, after all. You can find any number of books in which people describe the profound spiritual experiences that changed their lives forever. Often these experiences involve unusual, altered states of consciousness, in which things appear 'more real' than before, and there's a sense of 'waking up' to a 'deeper truth' that was previously hidden from us.
But why should altered states of consciousness be given any credence at all, let alone be regarded as life-changing? We enter an altered state of consciousness every night when we go to sleep, but we don't typically regard our dreams as revealing a 'real truth' to us - if anything, dreams are easy to dismiss as a kind of 'mental garbage'. (I've kept a dream diary for a while, and most of my dreams are pretty lame remixes of whatever's been happening to me lately. Not terribly exciting, and not particularly insightful!)
But why do we dismiss dreams, yet accept spiritual experiences? Both are private experiences - you have them, but the people around you don't notice anything different to usual. And both are completely out of line with 'consensus reality' - the generally agreed-upon version of 'how things are'.
In a nutshell, what makes meditation and spiritual experiences different from dreams is that they're insight-producing. Dreams might be interesting but are not terribly useful. Insight, however, changes the way we see ourselves, our lives and the world around us for the better - it helps us to get a better grip on what's going on.
What the heck is insight?
Take a look at this picture. Can you find a way to connect all nine dots using exactly four straight lines?
(If you give up, the solution is here.)
Whether or not you've seen this problem before, the first time you encountered it you probably had a hard time with it. You try all the obvious things, but they all seem to need at least five lines. It's not until you're able to make the mental leap to 'think outside the box' (this problem is the origin of that expression) that you can solve it.
What's going on here? When we first look at the nine dots, our minds tend to see a square, and thus draw a kind of implicit boundary around the nine dots. That boundary delimits the 'playing area' for the problem, and so we try to find a way to work inside that space to connect all the dots. But that boundary is something that we put there, not something that was imposed by the problem. In essence, we unconsciously self-limit in such a way that the problem becomes insoluble. Even being told 'think outside the box!' is unlikely to help us, because we're doing this unconsciously - we don't realise we're self-limiting, so it's very hard to move beyond that limitation until we finally see it for ourselves.
Transparency and opacity
We say something is 'transparent' if we can see through it. In the case of the nine-dot problem, our limiting belief that we have to work 'insight the box' starts out as a 'transparent' constraint. It's there, but we don't see it - we look straight through it to focus on the problem. It's only when we're able to notice the constraint - when the constraint becomes opaque - that we understand how we've been limiting ourselves, and can move beyond it.
We can explore transparency and opacity in another way too, in a way that's going to be relevant for meditation practice. To do this exercise, you'll need two objects - a cup and a pen. You'll be doing the exercise with eyes closed, so read the instructions first!
1. Close your eyes, and begin to tap the cup with the pen. You're trying to explore the cup in a tactile way, using the pen - just by tapping it, you're trying to get a sense of what shape the cup is. Really put your full attention into the cup. (Notice how effortlessly you can do that - how quickly the pen becomes a part of you, and your whole focus goes into the cup.) Spend maybe 15-20 seconds doing this.
2. Then, continuing to tap, shift your attention into the pen. Feel the pen moving as you continue to tap - put your full attention into the pen, now ignoring the cup as completely as you can. Spend another 15-20 seconds here.
3. Then, still continuing to tap, shift your attention into your hand. Feel the sensations in the hand and fingers as they move, holding the pen, tapping the cup. Put your attention as fully into your hand as you can. Spend another 15-20 seconds here.
4. Now we'll go the other way - continuing to tap, shift your attention back into the pen. Again, spend 15-20 seconds here.
5. Finally, shift your attention back into the cup again, and spend another 15-20 seconds here.
This simple exercise illustrates how we can shift our reference frame very quickly and easily, almost effortlessly changing what is transparent and what is opaque in each moment. We started out with the cup opaque, and the pen and fingers transparent; then we made the pen opaque (and largely forgot about the cup); then we made the fingers opaque (and largely forgot about the pen); and then we went back the other way again.
What does all this have to do with meditation and insight?
We see the world through a particular conceptual frame, based around the idea of duality. I see myself as a separate individual, living my own life, with the rest of the world 'out there' and generally not terribly in line with how I want it to be. And we've seen the world this way for so long that it's become completely transparent to us - it's simply obvious, natural, just how the world is.
Except it isn't. It turns out that this is a form of self-limiting constraint that our minds are imposing on our experience in order to help us navigate it, based on an over-emphasis of the mind's powerful ability to divide and compare. And what meditation is intended to do is to help us make this self-limiting constraint opaque, and then move beyond it and its many drawbacks (suffering, isolation, alienation, feelings of inadequacy and insufficiency... the list goes on).
We can take a couple of different approaches to try to bring about this shift. Our starting perspective is the conventional one - I'm an entity in my own right, you're a different entity in your own right, and so on. From there, we can either 'go small' or 'go large' in our attempts to break out of our self-limiting prison.
To 'go small', we can use what some teachers call the 'event perspective' approach, where we look at the phenomena that come and go in our experience in more and more detail. For example, we could work with the sensations of the breath in the deconstructive way I described in a previous article. As we dive further and further into the micro-sensations of the breath, moment to moment, we arrive at a seething flux of phenomena, constantly in motion, nothing fixed, solid or ultimately reliable, and nothing which we can honestly call 'me' or 'mine' - simply a field of rapidly changing sensations. And if we can get down there deeply and clearly enough, we may see our minds constructing the usual 'entities' that we experience out of that sea of ever-changing phenomena, and know clearly that the usual perspective of duality is not 'just how things are', but is simply the mind's projection.
To 'go large', we can use the 'mind perspective' instead, where we look at that which is aware of all events. In the cup experiment, we shifted our transparency/opacity up and down the hand, the pen and the cup - this approach is asking us to shift back one step further beyond the hand, to that which is aware of the hand - the source of all experience, the ground of being. The mind itself must become opaque. To do this, we might use a practice like Silent Illumination. As our practice deepens, and we settle into mental and physical stillness, our minds naturally begin to let go of self-imposed concepts and boundaries, and we naturally shift into unification, oneness and finally the ultimate stillness and clarity of the Buddha Nature itself. (Instructions for several approaches to mind perspective practices can be found in a previous article.)
This is the promise of the world's great contemplative and spiritual traditions - that we can come to see through our implicit, self-limiting constraints, and arrive at a totally different relationship with the world, one which is more useful (and in a deep sense truer) than the conventional perspective.
So what are you waiting for?
(Parts of this article were inspired by John Vervaeke's lecture series, Awakening From The Meaning Crisis.)
Unusually clear advice from Zen master Dogen
This week we're going to take a look at some guidelines for Zen practice written by the great Soto Zen master Eihei Dogen in the 13th century. If your heart sinks at the mention of Dogen's name, fear not - unusually for Dogen, they're comparatively straightforward and accessible!
Eihei Dogen, 1200-1253
Dogen is one of the greatest Zen masters who ever lived, and is the founder of the Japanese Soto Zen lineage. Dogen started out in the Tendai school of Buddhism, who promoted the idea of 'intrinsic awakening' found in (for example) the Lotus Sutra; like many who encounter that approach, Dogen wanted to know 'If I'm enlightened already, why do I need to do all this practice?' Dogen wasn't satisfied with the answers he was given, which largely boiled down to 'Because we say so', and so ultimately he went to China in the hope of finding a more satisfying answer. Evidently he did, because he came back to Japan a changed man, founded a succession of Zen monasteries and taught in the Soto style for the rest of his (sadly short) life.
Soto Zen stresses the primacy of shikantaza ('just sitting') as the main (and often only) practice.
(I'm going to pick out the key points, but if you want to read the whole text, you can find some translations here - scroll down for the text. I'll use the Brown/Tanahashi translation for the headlines, and offer the Nishijima translation for the alternative readings.)
1. You should arouse the thought of enlightenment.
(Alternatively: Establish the will to the truth.)
My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, likes to say 'First priority is kensho [awakening]; second priority is kensho; third priority is kensho.'
It's pretty common today to find meditation teachers presenting it as a kind of psychologised self-therapy, as a performance enhancer, as a tool for relaxation and stress relief, and so on. And that's fine - it can be used for all those things, quite effectively. But the purpose of Zen practice goes beyond those applications, to something much more fundamental - to awaken us to who we really are, much deeper than the level of our thoughts or personality. Zen awakening is about discovering for ourselves the true nature of who we are and what our subjective experience actually is, and radically changing our relationship to everything that we encounter.
So Dogen wants to stress that we should hold this 'thought of enlightenment' - the intention to look deeply into our experience, not settling for less than full awakening. He says: 'If in the past or present, you hear about students of small learning or meet people with limited views, often they have fallen into the pit of fame and profit and have forever missed the buddha way in their life. What a pity! How regrettable! You should not ignore this.'
He also gives us a practice instruction: 'Just forget yourself for now and practice inwardly—this is one with the thought of enlightenment. We see that the sixty-two views are based on self. So when a notion of self arises, sit quietly and contemplate it. Is there a real basis inside or outside your body now? Your body with hair and skin is just inherited from your father and mother. From beginning to end a drop of blood or lymph is empty. So none of these are the self. What about mind, thought, awareness, and knowledge? Or the breath going in and out, which ties a lifetime together: what is it after all? None of these are the self either. How could you be attached to any of them? Deluded people are attached to them. Enlightened people are free of them.'
2. Once you see or hear the true teaching, you should practise it without fail.
(Alternatively: When you meet and listen to the authentic teachings of Gautama Buddha, be sure to learn them through practice.)
Dogen's instructions here are brief and to the point. In the same way that a king should take heed of the advice of his wise ministers and follow through on that advice, those who hear the teachings of Zen shouldn't stop there, but must actually practice it for themselves in order to realise the truth. Hearing the teachings is only the first step, and is frankly pretty worthless unless backed up by your own direct experience.
3. In the buddha way, you should always enter enlightenment through practice.
(Alternatively: To enter into and experience Buddhism, always rely upon practice.)
Dogen now elaborates on the nature of practice. He points out that different people will practise in different ways - each person has affinities for certain practices and difficulties with others - but in all cases practice is required.
He also offers some encouragement. 'You should know that arousing practice in the midst of delusion, you attain realization before you recognize it. At this time you first know that the raft of discourse is like yesterday's dream, and you finally cut off your old understanding bound up in the vines and serpents of words. This is not made to happen by Buddha, but is accomplished by your all-encompassing effort.' And this is very true - while we occasionally have moments of breakthrough in practice, often it's a long, slow process in which nothing much seems to be happening for long stretches of time. But if we keep going, sooner or later we'll get where we're going - not because the teacher decides to 'bless' us with enlightenment as a reward for our practice, but because we've done the work ourselves.
4. You should not practise Buddha's teaching with the idea of gain.
(Alternatively: Do not practise Gautama Buddha's teachings with the intention of getting something.)
Dogen counterbalances the emphasis of the previous point, so that we don't fall into the trap of self-centredness. Yes, we must do the practice ourselves; yes, enlightenment comes as the fruit of our own efforts rather than as a gift from the teacher; and yes, enlightenment brings tremendous benefits.
However, in order to see who we really are, we have to let go of who we think we are right now. If we pursue Zen practice as a way of getting something good for ourselves that other people don't have, as a way of earning a trophy to put in our spiritual display cabinet, we're not only missing the point but actually reinforcing precisely the self-centred way of relating to the world that we need to move beyond in order to wake up.
Dogen emphasises this point: 'Clearly, buddha-dharma is not practiced for one's own sake, and even less for the sake of fame and profit. Just for the sake of buddha-dharma you should practice it. All buddhas' compassion and sympathy for sentient beings are neither for their own sake nor for others. It is just the nature of buddha-dharma.'
5. You should seek a true teacher to practise Zen and study the way.
(Alternatively: To practise Zazen and study the truth, look for a true master.)
Having access to a teacher is a powerful support for any contemplative or spiritual practice. Books and YouTube videos (and blogs like this!) are all well and good, but they can only ever present very generalised instructions. A good teacher can work with you as an individual to understand your particular circumstances and give you tailored advice to help you move forward.
These days, access to teachers is easier than at any previous point in history. You don't need to travel hundreds of miles on foot through the mountains of China to reach a monastery - you can attend teachings, sit in meditation and have Skype interviews with Zen masters online (see the Zenways website for more details on how to connect with my teacher Daizan). And, of course, I also run an online class on Wednesdays, although I'm not a Zen master, so take whatever I say for what it's worth!
Actually, Dogen also has some advice on how to recognise a true teacher: 'Regardless of one's age or experience, a true teacher is simply one who has apprehended the true teaching and attained the authentic teacher's seal of realization. One does not put texts first or understanding first, but one's capacity is outside any framework and one's spirit freely penetrates the nodes in bamboo. One is not concerned with self-views and does not stagnate in emotional feelings. Thus, practice and understanding are in mutual accord. This is a true master.'
So there you go - five points to consider in your practice. Come back next week for the second half of this text, and five more pearls of Dogen-shaped wisdom!
More practice advice from Zen master Dogen
This week we're looking at the second half of Gakudo-Yojinshu, 'Advice on studying the way', written by the great Soto Zen master Eihei Dogen in the 13th century. (You can find the first half of the text, and a bit of background about Dogen, in last week's article.)
(As with last week, I'm going to pick out the key points, but if you want to read the whole text, you can find some translations here - scroll down for the text. I'll use the Brown/Tanahashi translation for the headlines, and offer the Nishijima translation for the alternative readings.)
6. What you should know for practising Zen.
(Alternatively: What we should know in practising Zazen.)
Dogen starts this lengthy section by emphasising that Zen practice is not quick or easy, and you shouldn't expect it to be that way. The ancestors of the past made tremendous sacrifices to practise as diligently as they could for our benefit, and we should expect our own practice to be similar.
If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll have seen me say the exact opposite - that beginners should find something they find relatively easy as a way in - perhaps an approach which is enjoyable, interesting, or seems to come naturally. So am I saying Dogen is wrong? Heck no - in a Dharma battle between the greatest Soto Zen master in history and me, I know who's going to win. But I still stand by what I wrote.
Dogen was writing for monastic practitioners, encouraging them to work hard and use their time well. The students I tend to encounter already have full lives, jobs, families, complex domestic situations and all the rest of it, and so it's a big deal even to come to a single class and think about trying out meditation, let alone find twenty minutes a day for an on-going practice. The key thing in the early stages is to build the habit of practice until it becomes clear that this is something that's going to be useful in our lives, after which the motivation to continue develops more naturally and we can start to look at cranking things up a bit.
After delivering his opening salvo, Dogen then changes tack to something much more encouraging. He notes that success in Zen practice is not a matter of bone-crushing austerities, not a matter of being highly intelligent or well-read, not a matter of being philosophically inclined, not a matter of being young or old, not dependent on good health, and not limited only to men (he specifically cites the example of an excellent 13-year-old female practitioner). Rather, the practice is available to anyone willing to dedicate themselves to it and put in the practice hours on the cushion.
Finally, he offers a typically Zen warning against relying too much on the thinking mind: 'Students should know that the buddha way lies outside thinking, analysis, prophecy, introspection, knowledge, and wise explanation. If the buddha way were in these activities, why would you not have realized the buddha way by now, since from birth you have perpetually been in the midst of these activities? Students of the way should not employ thinking, analysis, or any such thing. Though thinking and other activities perpetually beset you, if you examine them as you go your clarity will be like a mirror. The way to enter the gate is mastered only by a teacher who has attained dharma; it cannot be reached by priests who have studied letters.'
7. Those who long to leave the world and practise buddha-dharma should study Zen.
(Alternatively: Any person who hungers to practise Buddhism and to transcend secular society should, without fail, practice Zazen.)
This section is largely a polemic about how great Zen Buddhism is and how sad it is that there are dark corners of the world where people still follow other teachings and traditions. These things crop up throughout Buddhist history, but I've never found them particularly interesting - clearly I'm a big fan of Zen myself, but I also have a lot of respect for the world's many other great contemplative traditions, and wouldn't want to throw them out just because they aren't 'Zen' enough for me.
8. The conduct of Zen monks.
(Alternatively: About the conduct of Buddhist priests and nuns who practise Zazen.)
From the title of this section, you might think it would have something to do with the monastic precepts, or one of Dogen's famous lists of incredibly detailed, precise instructions governing every activity taken throughout the day in his monastery. Actually, though, most of this section is a compilation of Zen stories, in highly condensed form, pointing to the many occasions in the Zen records of great masters waking up.
He then concludes with another practice instruction. As an aside, Dogen, and the Soto lineage in general, is overwhelmingly associated with shikantaza, a just sitting practice, and it's sometimes thought that meditative inquiry and investigation has no place in Soto Zen. From the following passage, I think it's clear that that's not the case at all:
'Please try releasing your hold [on conceptuality], and releasing your hold, observe: What is body-and-mind? What is conduct? What is birth-and-death? What is buddha-dharma? What are the laws of the world? What, in the end, are mountains, rivers, earth, human beings, animals, and houses? When you observe thoroughly, it follows that the two aspects of motion and stillness do not arise at all. Though motion and stillness do not arise, things are not fixed. People do not realize this; those who lose track of it are many. You who study the way will come to awakening in the course of study. Even when you complete the way, you should not stop. This is my prayer indeed.'
9. You should practise throughout the way.
(Alternatively: Direct yourself at the truth and practise it.)
In this section, Dogen sketches an outline of how the path unfolds. He suggests that beginners should sit and 'sever the root of thinking' (in other words, connect with direct experience rather than thinking about your experience) - he goes as far as to say that 'If once, in sitting, you sever the root of thinking, in eight or nine cases out of ten you will immediately attain understanding of the way.' Once you've developed the knack of sitting without being constantly bound up in intellectual activity, then continue to sit that way, 'let[ting] body and mind drop away and let[ting] go of delusion and enlightenment'. The more you do this, the more you become immersed in the way, and 'for those who are immersed in the way, all traces of enlightenment perish'.
In Zen practice, kensho is just the beginning of awakening. It's necessary to continue to practise, deepening your insight into who you really are and integrating it fully into your life. This process of sudden awakening followed by gradual cultivation is described in several of the classic Zen maps, such as the Ox-herding Pictures and Tozan's Five Ranks. In all cases, the final goal is not some kind of transcendent condition where you float several feet above the ground shooting rainbows in all directions, but actually that you become completely and utterly ordinary, but at the same time completely and utterly in accordance with the way. Hence 'all traces of enlightenment perish' - while we're still attached to the sense of ourselves as 'an awakened person (look at me!)', there's still much further to go. So we don't stop after kensho - as Daizan likes to say, we don't just get out the deckchairs and wait to die. We keep going, working in the world for the benefit of those around us, letting go of every last trace of our enlightenment.
10. Immediately hitting the mark.
(Alternatively: Taking a direct hit here and now.)
For this final section, I'm just going to let Dogen speak for himself.
'There are two ways to penetrate body and mind: studying with a master to hear the teaching, and devotedly sitting zazen. Listening to the teaching opens up your conscious mind, while sitting zazen is concerned with practice-enlightenment. Therefore, if you neglect either of these when entering the buddha way, you cannot hit the mark.
'Everyone has a body-and-mind. In activity and appearance its function is either leading or following, courageous or cowardly. To realize buddha immediately with this body-and-mind is to hit the mark. Without changing your usual body-and-mind, just to follow buddha's realization is called "immediate," is called "hitting the mark."
'To follow buddha completely means you do not have your old views. To hit the mark completely means you have no new nest in which to settle.'
So there you have it. You've heard the teaching - now go and sit zazen, and hit the mark right now!
How to work with 'non-literal' practice instructions
I received a question recently about an instruction I'd given in that evening's koan practice - to 'put the question into your belly'. (I'd actually just finished a Korean Zen retreat with Martine Batchelor, who gave that same instruction, so it was fresh in my mind when we looked at the question 'What do I know for certain?' in last week's class.)
The questioner expressed a sentiment that I've shared many times in my own practice: how is one supposed to work with seemingly non-literal instructions? How can one, for example, 'breathe into the feet', when the lungs are in the chest? How is one supposed to 'be like a mountain' if we aren't rocky and over a thousand feet tall? And how is one supposed to 'put a question into one's belly'? Surely thoughts live in the head - we can't move our brains!
Different ways of using language
Over the last two and a half thousand years of contemplative practice, different cultures and different traditions have found wildly different ways to describe the territory we explore in meditation. The earlier tradition of Indian Buddhism - as represented in the Pali canon, for example, but especially in the commentarial tradition that came from it, including the Abhidhamma and texts like the Visuddhimagga - tends to be logical, descriptive, list-based, at pains to be precise and technical. On the other hand, the later tradition, particularly as exemplified by Chinese Buddhism, is frequently poetic, flowery, full of paradox and imagery.
Indian Buddhism might say something like 'In this practice, pay attention to the arising and ceasing of mental factors; here is a complete list of the 52 mental factors which can arise and cease.' Nice and neat, if perhaps a little pedantic at times. On the other hand, Chinese Buddhism features koans such as 'A monk asked Joshu, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming to China?" Joshu said, "The oak tree in the garden."' Riiiight.
Since my own background is in both early Buddhism and Zen, I've seen the benefits of both approaches, and also have some sense of where I've personally found each approach a little frustrating at different times. I've seen people fall in love with the clarity and precision of early Buddhism after spending many frustrating years banging their head against Zen practice; I've also seen people literally 'wake up' and come more fully alive when exposed to a tradition like Zen which incorporate art, metaphor, imagery and poetry after years of clinging to a narrow interpretation of a limited set of instructions. I've also found that, as a teacher, one of the greatest challenges is to find a way of expressing the Dharma which connects with each listener, with their unique background, conditioning and preferences. What works for one person might not land so well with another, and it's often hard to tell when everyone is sitting quietly, sometimes even with their eyes closed.
As a result, I tend to use a range of different approaches. (If you've been reading these articles for a while, you've probably noticed this already!) Even when teaching the same practice I'll sometimes word the instructions differently, in case a different phrasing makes it 'click' for someone when it had previously left them cold. Another benefit of this approach - at least as I see it - is that we can start to build up a kind of 'translation guide' for crossing the boundaries of different traditions, teachers and ways of expressing the core ideas of contemplative practice. If we can learn to recognise the same ideas expressed in different ways, a much greater body of spiritual and contemplative literature becomes accessible to us, and we can gain greater confidence that what we're doing is part of a vast human tradition of awakening which is available to everyone, not some narrowly defined 'secret truth' which is available only to the initiated in one specific sect.
Non-literal practice instructions
When it comes to non-literal practice instructions ('breathe into your heels', 'sit like a mountain'), these can serve several purposes, depending on who's listening to them.
Poetic language may strike a chord with someone who finds technical language too dry; and poetic language is also a subtle reminder that no instruction, no matter how precise, is ever it - the best we can ever do is point to it. The shifts and insights of Zen are not purely conceptual and cannot be expressed purely in conceptual terms, and whenever you find yourself caught in a theoretical, intellectual debate which is not grounded in practical experience, it can be helpful to remind yourself of this. (One interpretation of the famous koan about Nansen's cat is that Nansen is showing how too much intellectual engagement 'kills' the Dharma.)
However, we can also find ways through practice of relating to statements which initially seemed to be only poetic. For example, the great Soto Zen master Dogen talks about how 'grasses and trees, fences and walls demonstrate the Dharma for the sake of living beings'. On one level, this can be taken as a poetic metaphor that 'the truth is all around you', close at hand rather than far away on some mountaintop. You can also see it as a coded description of the fabricated nature of experience - pointing out that it isn't just 'my thoughts' or even 'my sense of self' which are mind-originated, but also everything that we typically perceive as 'outside us'.
Actually, though, even with something that looks at first glance like metaphor or poetry, we can find a concrete, practical way to work with it - to turn it into a specific practice instruction.
Let's say we're doing koan practice, working with the question 'What is this?' (The word 'this' in the question is usually taken to mean something like 'this present moment experience', so the koan is a way of exploring our immediate subjective experience, right here and now, as opposed to speculating intellectually about metaphysics or whatnot.)
Normally, the practice loop goes like this:
But instead, if we understand (and ideally have some direct experience of) the view of emptiness/the mind-originated nature of things, we can remind ourselves just before we begin the practice that everything we ever experience (including grass and trees, fences and walls) has the same ultimate nature, and so it's just as valid to ask 'What is this?' of a tree as it is of a body sensation, an abstract idea about what 'this present experience' actually is, or anything else. So then the practice loop becomes:
(For the avoidance of doubt, the idea of step 4 is not that we start trying to understand what a tree is made of, how big its root system is or where it gets its nourishment, etc. - the point is the instantaneous recognition that 'the-appearance-which-we-label-tree' is just as much an expression of mind-nature as anything else, and so there are no 'right' or 'wrong' referents for 'this' in the question.)
Notice that the loop is a little tighter, the return to the practice a little more efficient, and also it helps to dissolve the apparent duality between 'asking the question correctly' and 'being distracted by something irrelevant' - instead, we can integrate the question into every experience. This not only helps the on-cushion practice but also helps us to bring the sense of questioning associated with the koan into our everyday activities, which makes the inquiry vastly more powerful - the more we can hold the question in mind, even in the background, the deeper the investigation will go. In the long run we want our awakening to touch every aspect of our lives, not just the time we spend sitting quietly on a cushion.
So how do I put a question into my belly?
Now, specifically in relation to the weird business about putting the question into the belly, again we can look at this on several levels. For some people, particularly the more intuitive types, this may be all the permission you need to throw off the shackles of intellectual thinking right away, perhaps bringing to mind the association of 'gut feeling' with intuitive wisdom and so forth. But we can also work with this instruction on a more technical level - actually, in a few different ways.
The simplest way to 'put the question in the belly' is to combine asking the question (50% of your attention is on 'What is this?') with paying attention to the physical sensations in your lower abdomen (50% of your attention is on the space of the tanden, a point about two inches below the navel in the centre of the body).
Why would you want to do that? A straightforward answer is that keeping some focus on the body sensations helps to keep the practice grounded, reduce the risk of headaches from exerting yourself too much, and reduce the risk of mind-wandering (strange as it sounds, this does work for most people!).
A deeper - and somewhat more esoteric-sounding - answer is that 'energy flows where attention goes', and by paying attention to the tanden you encourage the body's vital energy to gather there; that's a good idea, because the tanden is a 'safe' place to collect energy, whereas if it roams free around the body you can get strange physical side effects such as spontaneous movements, and if it goes up to the head you can get really bad headaches.
(What's this energy stuff? That's a huge topic in its own right that I've written about previously, so check out that article if you're curious. Again, it's something that sounds very mysterious when you first encounter it, but is something that we can learn to experience in a very concrete, tangible way in time.)
Perhaps the deepest interpretation of the instruction to put the question into your belly, however, is to take it completely literally. What could I possibly mean by that? Well, this is a tricky thing, and probably requires a certain amount of direct experience of the fabricated nature of perception before it'll really make much sense, but bear with me for a minute.
Where do you think your thoughts?
(Take a moment to test it out - think some thoughts, and see where they are.)
Most people have a general sense that thoughts happen in their head, because we think with our brains, right? On the other hand, thoughts are not physical objects like tennis balls or pizzas - they don't weigh anything, and they don't have a size or shape. (In a minute I'll describe a way of exploring this in meditation.) So does it really make sense to say that thoughts have a location? We can perhaps talk about the physical location of the electrical activity in the brain that science tells us correlates with our subjective experience of thoughts, but in meditation we care primarily about what we can experience directly, not what fMRIs tell us.
(Another clue that our sense of thoughts being located in the head is only a fabrication, not 'how things are', is that the impression that thinking lives in the head is not a universal human experience. Many cultures have instead associated thoughts with the heart - my teacher Leigh Brasington has commented that at the time of the Buddha, the brain was thought to be simply the 'marrow' of the head, while everything interesting happened in the heart centre, and although I can't track down the reference now I'm pretty sure I remember reading about the first Tibetan monks to be studied scientifically, who laughed uproariously when the scientists started attaching electrodes to their heads rather than their chests.)
Something that sounds totally impossible at first, but which can become clear through practice, is that our sense of the spatial location of our thoughts - or even the spatial location of the sense of 'me' - is just another fabrication, like everything else, and with sufficient training we can actually learn to move it around. In a previous article I've mentioned a very common experience that comes up as people move more deeply into non-dual perception, where the sense that awareness has a 'centre' falls away entirely, and awareness is experienced as non-local rather than emanating from a particular point in space. But we can also learn to move that sense of locality around - so 'I' can experience 'myself' as being centred in my head, my heart, my belly, or even somewhere else entirely. (Some teachers recommend trying to put your sense of self outside the boundaries of your body - like on the far wall - as a fun exercise.)
In any case, it's certainly true that we can learn to shift our sense of where our thoughts are taking place, and if we consciously shift the koan to the belly, this has two advantages: we get the energetic benefits of focusing in the belly that I mentioned above, but also we don't have to deal with the 'splitting' of attention that's required if you normally feel the questioning happening in your head. (Shifting your sense of centre from the head to the belly also has a number of other benefits - in a future week I'll be writing an article on hara cultivation which will address some of that, so stay tuned!) In the long run the question can come to permeate the whole body and even the whole environment ('grass and trees, fences and walls') - and again, I now mean this 100% literally in terms of one's felt sense of experience, as opposed to some poetic metaphor about how 'the truth is all around us'.
If you'd like to explore this for yourself - which I would highly recommend - we can do this very directly in a kind of analytical meditation, of the sort commonly found in traditions like Mahamudra.
I'd suggest taking a chunk of time to settle the mind before starting to look at thoughts, using whatever samadhi or just-sitting practice works well for you. Thoughts are slippery beasts, and it's a very fine line to tread between 'looking at thoughts' and 'engaging in thinking' - it's often easier to quieten down the mind first, then deliberately introduce specific some thoughts to work with.
When you're ready to investigate thoughts, here are some questions you can investigate. Any one of these can be explored for many meditation sessions, or you can play with a mixture of them to see what catches your interest most keenly.
It's likely that sooner or later you'll reach the point of recognition that thoughts - and mind itself - are totally unfindable, without any kind of substance at all, and yet they're not non-existent either - when you're having a thought, you know you're having a thought. Analysis can take you no further into this apparent paradox - so at this point, simply rest in the paradox itself, the sense of the simultaneous presence and unfindability of thought and mind. Rest there and allow yourself to marinate in this sense of ungraspable presence. There's nothing more 'you' can do at this point - just keep out of the way and let the practice work on you.
How radical questioning can save us from self-deception
Image from Wikipedia, courtesy of user Sting; Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos; CC BY-SA 2.5.
Socrates was a Greek philosopher from Athens who lived in the 400s BCE - roughly the same period of time as the historical Buddha - and is widely regarded as one of the founders of Western philosophy. It's fair to say that the way we think about things even today is shaped in large part by Socrates (and those who came after him, like Plato and Aristotle). And, in many ways, the work of someone like Socrates is a more natural fit to the modern Western mind than Eastern figures like the Buddha, Bodhidharma (the semi-legendary founder of Zen) or Hakuin (one of the most important Japanese Zen masters in the Rinzai Zen lineage).
Despite the great gulf in time and space between Socrates and Bodhidharma, however, there's an aspect of Socrates' work which dovetails beautifully with the essential project of Zen - peeling away our false beliefs about who we are, what life is and what it means to be happy. Shortly before his death, Socrates famously said 'The unexamined life is not worth living' - but how should we examine our lives?
The Socratic method
Socrates was deeply interested in truth - but not just any old truth, a certain kind of truth. Socrates was interested in how to life the good life - how to be a good person, what it meant to live a life of virtue and meaning. He was relatively uninterested in the work of the Natural Philosophers (a kind of forerunner of modern-day scientists), who could tell you what something was made of and how it worked, but not how to live a good life. And he was deeply critical of the Sophists - those who studied the arts of debate and persuasion, but in a rather mechanical way; a Sophist could teach you how to convince someone to agree with you, but not whether you actually should! (We only need to look at the world of politics to see plenty of finely honed debating skills employed for the sake of personal gain rather than the flourishing of humanity.)
Socrates could see the people around him pursuing their busy lives, doing this and that, each searching for happiness in their own way - but often struggling, suffering, chasing the wrong things, looking for happiness in places that clearly weren't satisfactory to them. (The historical Buddha made exactly the same observation, of course.) And so Socrates started to inquire into truth itself - how we can know something to be true, and what it means to make decisions from a position of wisdom rather than ignorance.
The method he came up with for doing this - the famous Socratic Method - looks like it would have been pretty annoying to be on the receiving end of! Picture the archetypal annoying four-year-old child, who just won't stop asking 'But whyyyy?' - except that the people Socrates was questioning didn't generally have the option of saying 'Because mummy and daddy said so, now it's time for bed.' Here's a typical example, lifted wholesale from John Vervaeke's lecture on Socrates.
Socrates would come up to somebody and say "Well, what are you doing here?"
"Oh, I'm in the marketplace!", his unwitting victim would reply.
Socrates: "Well, why are you in the marketplace?"
Victim: "Well, I'm purchasing something!"
S: "Well, why are you purchasing something?"
V: "Well, I want to get these goods!"
S: "Well, why do you want these goods?"
V: "Because they'll make me happy?"
(Now the claws come out.)
S: "Oh, so you must know what happiness is?"
V: "Well happiness is pleasure, Socrates, I guess! And these things give me pleasure!"
S: "But is it possible to have pleasure and still find yourself in a horrible situation that you really dislike?"
V: "Well of course, Socrates, that's possible!"
S: "Oh, so then happiness isn't pleasure! You're being coy with me! Tell me, tell me, what is happiness?"
V: "Oh it's, you know, it's getting what's most important to you!"
S: "Well that means that you have to have knowledge. Is it any kind of knowledge?"
V: "Well no, it's the knowledge of what's important!"
S: "What's truly important? Or what you only think is important?"
V: "I guess what's truly important, Socrates!"
S: "OK, so, what's that knowledge of what's truly important called?"
V: "I guess that would be wisdom, Socrates!"
S: "Oh, so, in order to find happiness, you must have first cultivated wisdom! Tell me how you cultivate wisdom and what wisdom is..?"
(This last exclamation signifies that Socrates' latest debate partner has fallen into a state called Aporia, literally 'lacking passage', i.e. 'no way to move forward'. Compare this with the Zen koan from the Mumonkan: 'How can you proceed on further from the top of a hundred-foot pole?')
'All I know is that I know nothing' and Great Doubt
Socrates is often misquoted as having said 'All I know is that I know nothing,' and taken in that light, we might see Socrates' method as a kind of cruel one-upmanship, a way of showing how much cleverer he is than you by tying you up in knots of confusion, tripping you up with your own words.
But that's not really what he's up to. A better translation of his famous saying is 'What I do not know I do not think I know' - and anyone familiar with Zen might recognise the resonance with its concept of Great Doubt.
What Socrates is pointing to is that, generally speaking, we lack secure foundations for what we think we know - and yet we act as if it's a sure thing. We pursue what we believe will make us happy, all too often failing to realise that it isn't actually working. Essentially, we deceive ourselves - and it's this self-deception that Socrates is trying to overcome. When we arrive at the point where we no longer think we know what we actually don't know, we throw off the shackles of false, limiting beliefs about who and what we are, and we gain the capacity to open to what's really going on, in all its mystery and wonder.
We can see exactly the same dynamic going on in another koan from the Mumonkan:
One night Tokusan went to Ryutan to ask for his teaching. After Tokusan's many questions, Ryutan said to Tokusan at last, "It is late. Why don't you retire?" So Tokusan bowed, lifted the screen and was ready to go out, observing, "It is very dark outside." Ryutan lit a candle and offered it to Tokusan. Just as Tokusan received it, Ryutan blew it out. At that moment the mind of Tokusan was opened. "What have you realized?" asked Ryutan to Tokusan, who replied, "From now on I will not doubt what you have said."
This koan symbolises our tendency to rely on others - we often believe what we do because we heard it from someone else; we approach teachers to receive the wisdom that we believe they hold and we do not. Here, Tokusan is pestering the master Ryutan with many questions, in the hope that if he just asks the right one, he will gain the missing piece of knowledge that Ryutan has been concealing from him, and will finally become enlightened. Unwilling to go out into the darkness (presented as physical darkness, but an allegory for the intellectual darkness of not-knowing) all by himself, he again turns to the teacher to offer him a light. But at the crucial moment, Ryutan snatches the light away from him, and Tokusan is forced to confront the darkness in a moment of wordless surprise. As it happens, Tokusan was ripe for awakening, and this sudden dislocation out of the comfort zone of knowledge and certainty was enough to catapult him not just into darkness but all the way through the darkness into the light of awakening.
Why do this at all? Why question everything, especially if the result is to arrive at the uncomfortable-sounding place of Great Doubt?
Because it turns out that the way we decide what's relevant to us - and hence what informs our decision-making - has nothing to do with whether or not it's true, and thus our capacity for self-deception is limitless. And only by noticing this startling disparity can we start to train ourselves to see more clearly and accurately - to make relevant what is true.
Our minds categorise perceptions according to their 'salience'. Right now, you probably aren't paying attention to the sensations in your right foot - although after reading this sentence, maybe you are! Your right foot suddenly became salient because I called attention to it; previously, it wasn't remotely salient, so it wasn't part of your experience at all.
We've talked many times before about how our experience is fabricated - our minds select which particular stimuli out of the available soup of sensory information are going to be woven into our direct experience in any given moment. And this is a really good thing - if it didn't happen, we would immediately be overwhelmed. Think about a time when you've been in a noisy environment surrounded by too many conversations and you can't pick out the one you're trying to focus on - and now imagine that you could never focus on anything, never select any particular piece of information out of the sea of events. Doesn't sound much fun, does it?
It turns out that salience is highly adaptive. Maybe you've heard of the yellow car phenomenon - normally you don't see yellow cars much at all, until you start thinking about buying one, and suddenly it seems like half the world is driving yellow cars! Yellow cars became significantly more salient when you started thinking about buying one, and so now you're noticing every single one, rather than mostly ignoring them.
Unfortunately for us, many of our sources of salience are not particularly helpful. We learn a lot of what to pay attention to and how to behave from the people around us - and it's fair to say that we aren't living in a particularly enlightened society. But we're also constantly bombarded by advertisements and other messages from people who have made a life's work of studying the manipulation of salience - people who know how to make a catchy slogan or earworm, something that your mind just won't put down once it's found its way in.
And so our salience is constantly hijacked by what other people are telling us to think, believe, feel and desire. We believe what the media tells us to believe (or our alternative, non-mainstream news sources, if we're so inclined - but either way it's the same mechanism), we want the things that the people around us want, we do the things that everybody does, and because everybody calls this 'happiness' we do too, even if on some level we can tell it isn't quite working for us.
And this is how we can deceive ourselves. It's extremely difficult to believe something that we know to be false - try telling yourself that you're actually a small green tomato and see how well that works, even if you try really hard - but we can bias our sense of salience in whatever direction is most convenient for us, regardless of whether that bias has any grounding in truth. If we decide that someone is unkind, we start to notice every little unpleasant thing they do - all the time gathering evidence to justify our belief - whilst simultaneously ignoring the times when they don't act that way. And, of course, notice that we don't even have to do this deliberately - the input of salience into our experience is pre-conscious, so we aren't necessarily even aware that we're seeing the world through a tinted lens.
The Socratic method - and Zen practice - are designed to explore the way we experience reality - what we perceive, why, and whether our perceptions are as accurate and helpful as we believe them to be. Working with a partner and trying an actual Socratic dialogue is a really interesting exercise, but if you'd like to keep things within the remit of Zen practice, a good question to bring into your koan practice is 'What do I know for certain?'
So don't delay - experience Aporia today!
(This week's article is heavily inspired by John Vervaeke's magnificent lecture series, ***Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, in particular episode 4.)
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.