Finding a way forward when none of your options are viable
This week we're looking at case 43 in the Gateless Barrier. Regular readers of the blog might notice a striking similarity with the key moment in case 40, and you'd be right to do so - it's very similar. Rather than repeat the points I made in my discussion of that koan, though, today we'll go in a different direction (in other words, don't feel that you have to go and read that article first!).
Koans are annoying!
Zen is famous for its use of koans - short vignettes often describing an encounter between a teacher and a student in which some pivotal question is posed, or insight is arrived at in some other way.
At first glance, koans often appear totally nonsensical, and some people will tell you that that's exactly what they are - pure nonsense, designed to confuse and frustrate your thinking mind, with no intrinsic meaning beyond that. In general, I disagree with that view - as I've attempted to show over the course of this series of articles (which is almost complete now - only five more koans to go after this one!), koans are often filled with cultural and literary references that would have been well understood by practitioners of the era but which are now totally mysterious to modern readers until they're explained to us. (Imagine a Zen teaching story made up entirely of Star Wars references, and how that would look to a 12th century Chinese Zen practitioner!)
Nevertheless, although I wouldn't say that koans are total nonsense, it absolutely is true that koans are intended to take us beyond the purview of the analytical mind. You can see this even in the basic instructions for koan practice - students are advised not to think about the koan and try to 'figure out' the answer in a logical manner. Instead, we 'throw' the koan into our minds, like a stone into a lake, and then simply observe to see what splashes up in the air in response. If we do this for long enough, we'll notice something interesting. (Extending the lake analogy, we might say that Silent Illumination practice is a different means to the same end - in Silent Illumination, we simply allow the water to become still and clear all by itself, deliberately avoiding doing anything that might stir it up, until we can finally see all the way to the bottom of the lake.)
Of course, despite the standard instructions, many people (myself included) will find themselves thinking about the koan and trying to solve it like a riddle or a logic puzzle. This is a big problem for me - I've been a problem-solver my whole life (it got me good marks at school and a decent salary in adulthood), and I'll often find myself trying to 'figure out' something that really doesn't need to be figured out at all, just because it's a familiar activity that results in a periodic burst of pleasure when whatever puzzle I'm chewing over suddenly resolves itself. (As an aside, it's interesting to note that the source of that pleasure is actually relief from the mild stress of wrestling with an unsolved problem. In other words, I'm chasing those brief hits of pleasure, but in doing so I'm actually subjecting myself to much longer stretches of discomfort. Many of our habits are like this!) So a koan like this one - in which we're offered a binary choice, and explicitly told that neither option is acceptable - is a good one for people like myself who have this tendency to overthinking; there's simply no way out using logic, so in order to progress we have to find another approach entirely.
The present koan gives us an analogy for this kind of over-reliance on the thinking mind - Shoushan compares it to 'clinging' to the bamboo stick. What happens if we try to cling to a bamboo stick in real life, holding it as tightly as we can? Sooner or later, our muscles get tired, and spontaneously relax. Working with a koan can have an equivalent effect on our thinking minds - sooner or later, they simply run out of steam, and relax all by themselves. (That's why koans are such an effective approach, particularly for people who aren't able to 'just let go' into Silent Illumination - which I wasn't when I first learnt it!)
An equal and opposite mistake
We have to be careful, though. Letting go of the thinking mind is not the same as giving up on solving the koan - but that's a tactic that people sometimes try. 'It's just semantics!', 'It's just a game', 'I don't care what the answer is any more', 'Why can't you just tell me?' (I would if I could, but it wouldn't help!)
Koan practice only works if we're able to maintain what Zen master Hakuin called Great Doubt, and what my Zen teacher Daizan prefers to call 'wanting to know' - a sense of continuing to press forward toward some kind of resolution, even when the koan has become totally meaningless and we have no idea which way is up any more.
If, instead, we give up, then it's easy to fall into the seductive trap of a stagnant kind of quietism, sometimes called 'the ghost cave on the dark side of the mountain' (eep!). We say 'Well, I can't figure it out, so there's no point. Just let it all go. Just sit quietly and don't worry about anything.' That sounds a bit like the instructions for Silent Illumination, but the attitude behind it tends to point instead to what's sometimes called 'subtle dullness' - a condition in which the mind basically shuts down and disengages from what's going on, and the practitioner just sits there with nothing much going on. It feels kinda restful, and it definitely provides an escape from the struggle of wrestling with the koan, so that must be good, right? Wrong. (Sorry.)
If over-thinking was the mistake of 'clinging', the ghost cave is the equal and opposite mistake of 'ignoring'. Training ourselves to deal with problems by turning away from them is emphatically not what Zen practice is about - it's actually a kind of 'spiritual bypassing', a way of (mis-)using practice to avoid dealing with the things we don't want to have to face. The trouble is that life is full of things that we don't want to have to deal with, but we have to deal with them nonetheless, and turning away is just putting off (and often compounding) the problem.
A more extreme version of this mistake is to give up on practice entirely, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. A version of this actually came up for me recently. For pretty much my whole life, I've admired people who are very focused on doing one thing well, whereas I've always been prone to doing too many things at once, spreading myself too thinly. On a good day, I can recognise that I love the richness of having multiple interests, but on a bad day I'm convinced that all of my problems stem from a lack of commitment. A pretty big theme over the last ten or fifteen years of my life has been gradually streamlining my commitments and trying to bring more quality time to fewer things. Then, just recently, during a particularly disastrous meditation retreat (that's a story for another time, and probably not one that I'll publish on this blog!), I realised that I've now achieved what I set out to do - I really have pretty much pared things down to the minimum set of activities needed to pursue the most important things in my life. And yet I was still surrounded by problems and sources of unsatisfactoriness, and having a generally miserable time. My grand strategy to 'sort my life out' had, basically, failed - not because it was a bad strategy, but because life isn't like that. No matter what you do, there will be sources of dissatisfaction in all directions. In short, this was a very visceral experience of the Buddha's First Noble Truth - in life, we suffer.
The next thought that occurred to me was 'So what's the point of it all? Why not just give it all up and eat cookies all day? At least I enjoy that!' In other words, I'd overshot the mark - I'd gone from clinging to an unachievable ideal about how wonderful life would be if only I could sort out x, y and z to the opposite extreme, trying to retreat into a cocoon of pleasure where I could ignore the rest of the world.
Luckily, the habit of practice is pretty ingrained at this point, so I didn't give up entirely (otherwise I'd never finish this set of articles!). And, actually, once I got past the frustration that all my efforts had not resulted in a perfect life, the arguments for keeping up with all the various facets of my work and practice became obvious. Evidently on some level I'd been holding onto the hope that all those activities would sooner or later 'fix everything' - but I also do them because I enjoy them, and I wouldn't actually want to give them all up. On the other hand, it's also now manifestly clear that, while giving up eating cookies will help my waistline, it isn't going to eliminate my existential suffering, and so it probably isn't the end of the world if I continue to eat them from time to time.
I usually don't talk about what's going on in my practice right now because it's a risky thing to do - I'm never quite sure whether there's another massive revelation just around the corner, or whether I'm even getting my point across when I'm attempting to articulate something that's very much a work in progress as opposed to something that I can look back on with plenty of perspective. But maybe there's some value in sharing something a little 'rawer' than usual - well, you can be the judge of that!
So what's the take-home message here?
The koan presents us with an impossible choice: we can't cling to our analytical minds, but we can't ignore them either. So what the heck are we supposed to do?
We can see similar 'impossible choices' in many of the great paradoxes of spirituality - the apparent contradiction between the relative and the absolute, or Shunryu Suzuki's beautiful statement regarding the simultaneous need for self-cultivation and self-acceptance: 'Each of you is perfect the way you are... and you can use a little improvement.'
The simple answer to these kinds of problems is to recognise that context matters. Sometimes, we absolutely need self-acceptance. (I'm blind in one eye - no amount of yelling at myself to 'do better' is going to give me depth perception.) Sometimes, we absolutely need self-cultivation. (I'm taking on a new project at work and I don't know anything about it yet. My colleagues will not be impressed with my Zen 'don't know mind' - I'd better do some reading!)
The drawback with that 'simple' answer is that we've just created another problem. OK, in what situations do we need self-cultivation, and in what situations do we need self-acceptance? How can we tell?
The more we dig into questions like this, the harder it gets to find a nice answer that's easily articulated. Every system, every strategy seems to have its blind spots. Every situation is different, and it's impossible to foresee all of the consequences of whatever actions we take. The worst experience of our lives may turn out to be a turning point that ultimately transforms us for the better - but there's no guarantee that this will be true, and deliberately trying to have awful things happen to us isn't a good plan either!
Fundamentally, life is mysterious. As Kierkegaard said, 'Life can only be understood by looking backward; but it must be lived looking forward.' Or as Daizan puts it, 'None of us actually know anything about anything... and yet we still live and love.' Ultimately, all we can do in any given situation is the best we can at that moment, on the basis of our experiences and skills up to that point, and the intentions that we've cultivated within ourselves to act in the world in a way that seems right to us - whatever that means in practice. And even then we won't know if we're getting it right!
Another way to put this is using an image that occurred to me one night on the difficult meditation retreat that I mentioned earlier. In the moment, I was pretty convinced that the situation was totally unworkable - I couldn't see a way to get through it, given all of the challenges that were facing me at that point. (I couldn't even get to sleep, to make the time pass quicker!) But then I realised that I was getting through it, moment by moment. OK, time felt like it was passing like treacle, but even so each moment of experience was one moment closer to the end of the ordeal. It wasn't fun, it wasn't glamorous, I wasn't feeling how I thought a big fancy experienced meditator like myself should be feeling - but, nevertheless, I was getting through it.
The image that came to mind was the difference between a maze and a labyrinth. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably (as I was reminded when I was trying to find an image of a labyrinth and all I got was mazes!), but actually there's a difference.
A maze has wrong turnings and dead ends. You can get lost in a maze. You can wander a long time without getting any closer to your destination. The question posed in the koan at the top of this article evokes a maze - you can turn left or right, but they're both wrong!
A labyrinth, on the other hand, is actually just one long twisty path. It has one destination (usually the centre), and although the path itself twists and turns, there are no 'wrong choices' - you can't get lost in a labyrinth, and even when it looks like you're walking in exactly the wrong direction, your footsteps are actually carrying you closer to the destination with complete certainty.
My sense now is that life is a labyrinth. We know where we're going to end up - all that arises passes away, and all beings who are born will die sooner or later. The path we take through life is pretty twisty and turny, and sometimes it looks like we're going in a totally different direction than we'd intended. And yet, with each passing moment, we advance one step further. From an absolute perspective, there are no wrong choices, just choices. There's just life, flowing through us moment by moment. We do our best to make good choices, and sometimes the consequences line up with what we'd hoped for, and sometimes they don't. If we really understand this, we can perhaps at least let go of some of the stress, angst and guilt that goes into second-guessing our every move - we can realise that we're doing the best we can with imperfect information, and that's all anyone is ever doing. We can, perhaps, stop holding ourselves back from the moment at hand until we're able to calculate all the possible outcomes of our choices in order to choose the absolute best - and simply get on with it, doing whatever seems to need to be done, bringing as much presence, attention and care as we're able to muster right now. Little by little, moment by moment, we discover what lies ahead on the winding, labyrinthine path of our lives.
May your journey go well.
The Eightfold Path, part 7
This article is the seventh in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're taking a look at the seventh factor of the path, right mindfulness. In the quotation above, the Buddha unpacks right mindfulness into what are often called the 'four foundations of mindfulness' - the body, feelings, the mind, and phenomena. These four categories are explained in much greater detail in the Satipatthana Sutta, and I've already done a series of articles on that discourse, so for today's article we'll instead take a look at why we might want to practise mindfulness at all, particularly through such an elaborate scheme as the four foundations.
The 'four foundations' of mindfulness, or four ways of attending with mindfulness
(Skippable linguistic aside: in the early translations of the Pali canon, the word 'Satipatthana' was understood as a compound of 'sati' (mindfulness, awareness) and 'patthana' (foundation or establishment) - perhaps not unreasonably. But scholars such as Bhikkhu Analayo have argued that it should instead be 'sati' plus 'upatthana', which means something like 'placing near' - and as such 'satipatthana' should be understood as 'attending (to something) with mindfulness'. The four categories of 'right mindfulness' are thus simply four types of experiences that can be attended to with mindfulness, as opposed to four 'foundations' of mindfulness. I prefer the 'attending with mindfulness' interpretation but you'll come across 'four foundations of mindfulness' very frequently, so I thought I'd mention what's going on there!)
The core of mindfulness is to cultivate one's present-moment awareness - that is, to be here now, rather than lost in worries, memories or irrelevant thoughts. That's not to say that we should never think of the future or the past - we should, when it's useful to do so. But very often we find ourselves carried away by trains of thought without any conscious intention on our part to do so - going through our lives absent-mindedly, not really noticing what's going on. As we do so, we easily fall prey to habitual patterns of mental reactivity, allowing ourselves to be led around by the nose rather than having sufficient presence of mind to choose how we would prefer to respond to the situation at hand.
So how do we achieve this state of mindfulness? Through training - in particular, through mindfulness meditation. In meditation, we typically take some object of focus - the breath, the sensations of the body, or some other aspect of our experience - and pay close, continuous attention to it. When we notice that the mind has wandered, we disengage from whatever has caught our attention, and return to the object of mindfulness. Repeat. Simple, right? But, of course, as anyone who has tried this will know, it's easier said than done. Nevertheless, over time, the practice bears fruit. Our minds become trained, better at focusing for longer periods of time, and more sensitive to their own condition (so that, for example, we know when we're getting too tired to concentrate on something and need to take a break).
Now, even a single meditation technique, such as paying attention to the sensations of the breathing, will help us to cultivate mindfulness, and as we practise more and more, we'll start to find the benefits showing up in the course of our daily lives as well. Some of the world's great spiritual traditions take the approach of going deep with a single technique - Soto Zen, for example, relies exclusively on Silent Illumination (aka shikantaza, 'just sitting').
The historical Buddha, however, seems to have valued a wide range of techniques and approaches. He emphasised not just one but four fields of mindfulness, emphasising different aspects of our experience and giving us multiple different ways to explore each of these. In the Satipatthana Sutta, we have:
But if we're just trying to learn to be more in the present moment, why do we need all this stuff? Some of those categories sound pretty weird and complicated - isn't the breath enough?
Three kinds of wisdom
Mindfulness is a powerful tool in its own right, but mindfulness is also the primary vehicle through which we can develop wisdom - a deeper, clearer understanding of what's actually going on in our experience. (There's more about this in the first article in the series, on right view.)
There's an especially tedious discourse in the Pali Canon, Digha Nikaya 33 in the Long Discourses, which is basically one gigantic list of lists. It starts with all the lists of one thing (of which there aren't very many), then all the lists of two things (of which there are lots and lots), then three things, and so on, all the way up to the lists of ten things. It's sort of like an index to the Pali Canon - there's no explanation, just lots of lists.
One of the lists of three things is 'three kinds of wisdom' - given in the Pali version as 'wisdom produced by thought, learning and meditation', although in the Chinese version the order is 'learning, thought and meditation', which makes more sense to me.
We can understand 'wisdom produced by learning' as the kind of wisdom we hear from other people. Someone tells us something interesting, and we store it away as an interesting little factoid. This sort of wisdom is akin to a borrowed possession - someone else came up with it, and now we've put it into our brains for safe-keeping.
At this point, however, the wisdom isn't really ours. It's second-hand - and that becomes very quickly apparent if we repeat it to someone else who doesn't agree. A fairly common occurrence for me is that I'll hear something interesting on a podcast and mention it to my partner - only to discover that she isn't as easily impressed as I am. 'But that's ridiculous,' she'll say, 'what about this, and this, and this, and this?' And I'll flounder, not having a counter to any of her points, because none of them have occurred to me - I was just uncritically repeating what I heard from someone else.
If we want to go beyond second-hand wisdom, we can spend some time thinking about it for ourselves, and arrive at 'wisdom produced by thought'. This is a largely intellectual process of thinking through various angles and ramifications, experimenting with possible criticisms, trying to find holes in what we've been told, and so on. Along the way we may discover that we have genuine objections to it - or we might find that, actually, it does appear to hold water, and now we can defend the idea against criticisms if we're challenged. The wisdom is no longer second-hand - it's become our own intellectual property, if you like.
However, it's quite common for intellectual wisdom to remain at the level of thought only, just 'an idea' that doesn't really impact the way we see the world from day to day. In the meditation world this is a real trap for clever people, since they're more than willing to do the hard work to think through something to reach the satisfying intellectual payoff, but then tend to think that that's it - they're done. They understand the thing now - what's the big deal?
It turns out that there's a third type of wisdom - 'wisdom produced by meditation'. This goes beyond just 'thinking about' the topic, and invites us to explore the reality of what's being discussed in our own subjective experience. It's the difference between seeing a picture of someone eating a melon and actually eating one ourselves - no matter how much information we get about a particular experience, it's no substitute for having that experience ourselves. When we do that, the experience becomes viscerally real for us in a way that can never be matched, or even approximated, by mere thought.
So when Buddhists talk about weird ideas like impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, emptiness, suchness, non-duality and so on, these are meant to be experienced - tasted - not just understood intellectually as a kind of complex eastern philosophy. The trouble is that it's difficult to have those experiences! Unconsciously, we cling to our current way of seeing things, which prevents us from opening up to different perspectives. So, in order to have those experiences, we'll usually need to pay very close attention to some aspect of our experience for quite a while before things open up for us - and that's where mindfulness comes in.
So we have these four categories of mindfulness because the Buddha is inviting us to look at many aspects of our experience, not just the breath. Buddhist teachings are wide-ranging, and it's often very helpful to explore a concept like 'impermanence' through multiple different lenses - noticing, for example, the impermanence of the breath, of feelings, of mind states and so on. While our exploration is only partial, our understanding may likewise remain partial - in the case of impermanence, for example, we might think 'Well, everything I've looked at so far has been impermanent, but I still know there's something permanent out there, I can feel it.' Well, go look for it! Look absolutely everywhere - leave no stone unturned. That's the kind of thoroughgoing investigation which will allow us to make that difficult transition from intellectual knowledge to experiential wisdom - and truly change our lives.
May you be mindful!
This week, we're taking a look at case 42 in the Gateless Barrier, 'A Woman Comes Out of Absorption'. It's a pretty mysterious one - despite its considerable length, at least compared to most of the other koans in the collection, it doesn't give us a lot to go on. Let's make a start by decoding the cast of characters, then see what we can make of it.
Dramatis personae: the characters of the koan
First up, we have Manjushri (sometimes written Manjusri or Manjuśri). Manjushri is one of the Bodhisattvas of Wisdom in the Mahayana tradition, and is typically depicted holding a sword which is used to cut the bonds of ignorance. (Manjushri can be contrasted with Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, who represents a gentler aspect of wisdom.) According to the legends, Manjushri is so wise that he's served as the teacher of seven previous Buddhas - that's a big deal!
The story begins with Manjushri visiting 'an assembly of Buddhas'. Usually, when we talk about Buddha, we mean the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived and died 2,500 years ago in what's now modern-day India. However, Buddhist mythology features many other Buddhas - early Buddhism recognised six historical Buddhas before Gautama, and in the more elaborate Mahayana mythologies it's often said that each of the infinitely many other worlds has its own Buddha too. In any case, the general image here is of a kind of 'conference of Buddhas', where the Buddhas of many worlds have come to hang out and talk about whatever it is that Buddhas discuss at such gatherings. (Sadly, the koan doesn't tell us!)
Our next character is a nameless woman who remains after the gathering has broken up, quietly meditating near Gautama himself. She's pretty central to the koan, so let's come back to her later.
Finally, we have another Bodhisattva with the curious name of Ensnared Light. (As usual, I'm following Thomas Cleary's translation - Guo Gu has a substantially different translation which leaves this Bodhisattva's name untranslated in Sanskrit, and Katsuki Sekida gives the name in Japanese.) The koan itself doesn't say so directly, but Wumen's commentary on this koan indicates that Ensnared Light is a rather lowly Bodhisattva, only having attained to the first of ten stages of Bodhisattvahood.
So the mystery of this koan is how a comparatively lowly figure like Ensnared Light is able to persuade the nameless woman to come out of her profoundly deep samadhi, while Manjushri, with all his incredible spiritual powers, can't. What's going on?
Trying to make sense of this koan
I'll admit, this koan has always been a bit of a head-scratcher for me. In preparation for writing this article, I consulted all three of the commentaries I have on hand, Googled a couple more, and even asked the Bing AI what it thought. The commentaries all had wildly different interpretations, none of which were terribly convincing to me, and poor old Bing - which has actually done a really good job when I've asked it about some of the other koans - basically said 'Uhh... yeah, this koan has a lot of different interpretations. I dunno.'
Of course, one of the beautiful things about koans is that they don't have just a single interpretation. Their very mystery provokes our own inquiry to go deeper, resisting a simple surface understanding. It's very common for a koan to reveal new layers of depth when we return to it after some time away - which I used to believe was a property of the koan, but these days I tend to think that it says more about how own own practice has deepened in the meantime.
Still, as tempting as it is to write a clever article about the multiple meanings of koans, in my heart I know I'd be dodging the question by doing so. So I'll take a stab at giving my own interpretation, as the koan lands with me right now. (It'll probably mean something else entirely a year from now!) In order to lay the groundwork, though, let's take a sidestep into one of my favourite Zen texts, master Keizan's Zazen Yojinki ('Notes on what to be aware of in meditation').
Keizan's portrait of the Zen life
The full text of Zazen Yojinki can be found here, and at some point in the future I'm planning to do a whole series of articles on the text. For today, though, we'll jump right to the end, to my favourite passage in all of Zen literature.
Arising from stillness, carry out activities without hesitation. This moment is the koan. When practice and realization are without complexity then the koan is this present moment. That which is before any trace arises, the scenery on the other side of time's destruction, the activity of all Buddhas and Awakened Ancestors, is just this one thing.
You should just rest and cease. Be cooled, pass numberless years as this moment. Be cold ashes, a withered tree, an incense burner in an abandoned temple, a piece of unstained silk.
This is my earnest wish.
Zazen Yojinki is talking about the Silent Illumination style of practice, which involves 'just sitting' and allowing reality to reveal itself, as opposed to the more 'forceful' Zen practice method of using a koan in meditation. The core of Silent Illumination is to settle deeply enough into stillness (the 'silence' part of the equation) that the habitual activities of the mind gradually run out of steam and quieten down of their own accord, allowing a deeper clarity (the 'illumination' part) to emerge. And so we have the imagery in the second paragraph above, which strongly depicts the equanimity of the Silent Illumination practitioner - resting, ceasing all activities, becoming 'cooled', willing to sit for 'numberless years' in the timeless present moment of meditation. Going further, Keizan gives us the images of cold ashes (the fire long extinguished), a withered tree (still, quiet, having long left behind the excitement of seasonal blossoms), an incense burner in an abandoned temple (once part of daily ceremonies, now simply at rest), a piece of unstained silk (pure, simple, no colour at all). All the excitement of the world can come and go outside, while we simply remain at rest, letting it all flow by without getting involved.
And yet, though this quietude is the path of practice of Silent Illumination, it isn't the end of the story - as the preceding paragraph makes clear. We sit in silence and stillness not to give up our lives altogether, but to free ourselves from the mental habits which obstruct our clear seeing of what's going on. The more fully aware we are of what's actually going on in any given moment, the more fully and appropriately we can respond to it, if the time is right to do so. And so we have this very dynamic imagery - we arise from our stillness, and carry out our activities without hesitation - no trace of clinging to stillness or silence, no regret to be leaving our peaceful time of meditation, simply and completely absorbed in the activity in front of us. In its own way, the activities of our lives - work, relationships, leisure - become another kind of meditation, another mode of practice inviting us to be fully present for what's going on. Rather than keeping one eye on the clock, waiting for the current tedious task to be over so that we can return to our nice peaceful meditation, we step fully into the here and now, the endless present on the other side of 'time's destruction'. This moment itself becomes a 'koan', the focus of our practice right now.
Coming back to the koan
So how does all this relate to the other koan, the one from the top of this article? Here's one way to look at it.
At the start of the story, the woman is deep in a state of absorption - thoroughly rooted in her meditation. I get the feeling that she probably meditated through the entire assembly of Buddhas! She's profoundly committed to her practice, and so that's what she's doing, absolutely 100%. Who wouldn't want to get up off the cushion and check out what's going on in an assembly of Buddhas?! But she's unmoved, just sitting, deeply absorbed in her own practice.
Then along comes Manjushri. Despite being the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, he seems a little envious in this story! He wants to know her big secret - but Buddha won't tell him. Instead, Manjushri has to get the woman to come out of her practice so he can ask her himself. And so he puts on his miraculous display of spiritual powers, which we might interpret as the coming and going of all kinds of wonderful spiritual experiences, altered states of consciousness and so forth - the kinds of things that most of us would get pretty excited about! Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking those experiences - after all, I teach the jhanas and the Brahmaviharas, and those practices lead to some pretty wonderful states - but Silent Illumination is a very 'pure' kind of practice that isn't terribly interested in any of that stuff. From the standpoint of a Silent Illumination practitioner, those states may come and go, and that's fine, but they aren't really the point of the practice - so there's no need to try to hang on to them, and no need to get too excited when they come along. Thus, Manjushri's display of power doesn't sway the woman, who simply continues to meditate.
Indeed, Buddha makes clear that Manjushri has the wrong approach ('even a hundred thousand Manjushris couldn't bring this woman out of absorption' - ooh, burn!). Instead, Buddha enlists the help of Ensnared Light, who is a comparative newbie, still finding his footing on the spiritual path. (Even his name implies that he's still entangled with the world and needs a bit of help from someone wiser.) Ensnared Light approaches the woman and snaps his fingers, symbolically asking for help - and immediately, the woman responds. A suffering being is asking for help, and the movement of her compassion is immediate - she arises from the stillness of her meditation to help Ensnared Light without hesitation, fully and completely engaged in the needs of the moment.
At this point, we might wonder if it isn't a little risky to respond immediately to whatever comes along, if we're also supposed to be overcoming our mental habits. Isn't meditation practice all about giving us some space and time to choose how we want to respond, rather than simply going along with whatever habitual reaction is triggered? This is a great question - and one we'll explore at length over the next four koans in the Gateless Barrier, as we explore Hakuin's Four Ways of Knowing.
For today, though, this article is long enough already! So, in the meantime, please keep up your practice - maybe your questions will answer themselves through your practice before I even get around to writing the articles. That would be pretty wonderful, wouldn't it?
The Eightfold Path, part 6
This article is the sixth in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're taking a look at the sixth factor of the path, right effort. This is an important dimension of the path with many subtleties, so we'll spend some time unpicking each step. First, though, I'd like to cover off another way you'll sometimes hear 'right effort' described.
Right effort as 'how much effort should you use in meditation?'
Effort is a contentious topic in Buddhism. Some people will tell you that practice should always be effortless, and anything else is wrong. My guess is that they're people who were prone to over-efforting themselves, and so their teachers gave them the most extreme advice in the hope of getting them to relax their grip just a little - and now they've taken that as a universal truth that applies to all meditators.
I've recently written about the dangers of using too much effort in practice, so I do absolutely agree that over-efforting is a problem - but I think it's going too far to say that any effort at all is bad or wrong. The fact is that we don't always want to practise, and it takes a certain amount of effort even to get ourselves to sit down on the cushion and start to meditate. Until the mind is quite deeply concentrated, it's also prone to distraction, and it does take a bit of effort to keep re-committing to the object of meditation until the mind settles sufficiently. This is why, in the article I linked above, I talked about 'relaxed diligence' - we absolutely do want to be relaxed, but we also need to be diligent, and that implies at least a bit of effort at times.
That previous article goes into this topic in more detail, so I'll leave it here for now and move on to the description of right effort found in Samyutta Nikaya 45.8, as shown at the top of this article.
The Four Great Efforts
SN45.8 defines right effort in terms of the 'four great efforts'. The definitions of the four are compact and sound a bit repetitive, so it's worth spending some time teasing each of the four apart to see how we might apply them in practice.
1. The effort to cause the non-arising of an unarisen unwholesome state
There's a whole lot of negatives in this one. Let's start at the end and work backwards. First, we need to understand what's meant by an 'unwholesome state'. What makes a state unwholesome? From the standpoint of early Buddhism, a state is unwholesome if it's conditioned by one or more of the Three Poisons - greed, hatred and confusion/delusion. Another classical list of unwholesome states is the Five Hindrances - sense desire, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, sceptical doubt.
More generally, though, there's an invitation here to observe ourselves as we go through our days, using the mindfulness that we've cultivated in our meditation practice to see what makes us tick. The first two Noble Truths relate to understanding our first-person experience of suffering and what causes it to arise. We can't do that in the abstract; all we can do is observe ourselves and see what gives rise to suffering and negative states of mind. As we come to understand those better and better, we'll begin to identify triggers, and we can then act on that knowledge and start to avoid problems before they even come up.
Here's a concrete example. Suppose I'm a busy person and I don't always have time to eat breakfast - but, after a while of doing this practice, I notice that, on the days when I've skipped breakfast, my mornings seem to be generally more difficult, particularly around about 11 o'clock, when everything starts to feel just a bit more annoying than it really needs to be. It turns out that there's a name for this unwholesome state: 'hangry' (angry because hungry). It isn't that the world is secretly conspiring against me at 11am on certain days; it's that, by skipping breakfast, my body is a little bit undernourished, and the hunger that I've been keeping swept under the carpet is actually manifesting as a more critical, negative view of the people and events around me. Fortunately, this one has a relatively easy fix - I can commit to doing my very best to have breakfast every single day, come what may, even if I have to get up a few minutes earlier on a really busy day. This will require some effort on my part, but it also means I won't get hangry at 11am, and that's good for me and the people around me.
2. The effort to abandon an arisen unwholesome state
Sometimes, though, we find ourselves already in an unwholesome state. We can't go back in time and avoid it - it's here already. So the invitation of the second Great Effort is to find a way to get ourselves out of that 'arisen unwholesome state' - to abandon it.
Whereas the first Great Effort was more about detecting patterns in our personal triggers and learning to work around them, and could thus potentially be performed with at least some degree of thought and analysis 'at a distance', the second Great Effort is a much more visceral experience. You're right there in the thick of it, caught up in anger, fear, worry, greed, whatever it might be. To make matters worse, negative states often tend to have a self-reinforcing quality - realising that we're angry can make us even angrier ('how dare he make me feel this way?'), realising that we're worried can make us even more worried ('if I keep worrying like this I won't be able to sleep, and then I'll feel even worse tomorrow...'), and so on - which can make it even trickier to extract ourselves from what's going on.
This step is where some skill in meditation is profoundly helpful - I honestly don't know of a better tool. The trick is that, in order to extract ourselves from a negative state, even if we have some kind of tool for changing our mind state (whether it's meditative, deep breathing, visualisation or something else entirely), we must first have that moment of mindfulness which says 'Oh, hey! I see what's going on. I'm in an unwholesome state, and it would be in my best interest to get out of it.' For me, at least, I've found that a regular meditation practice has greatly increased the frequency of those moments of mindfulness, and also their duration - giving me a longer window in which to do something about the negative state I've gotten myself into, before I get sucked back into it again.
Meditation is great training for the second Great Effort. A core part of the act of meditation is having those moments of mindfulness - noticing that, for the thousandth time this sitting, my attention has wandered away from the breath, body or whatever else I'm paying attention to, and that I need to make that small but significant effort to bring it back on topic again. That simple act is a kind of training is extracting myself from an unwholesome state (defined here as mind-wandering) and returning to a wholesome state (paying attention to my meditation object). We can liken this to lifting a small weight many, many times - over time, we get stronger, even if it takes a long time and we don't really notice the changes.
That moment of mindfulness is just the start, of course. We still need a way out of the unwholesome state. In some cases, that might be simple: in the hangry example, perhaps we notice that, once again, we skipped breakfast and now we're getting grumpy - but now that we're aware of the pattern, we can eat a banana or grab a handful of cashews from the secret stash under our desk at work, and that'll be enough to mollify the body until lunchtime. Some unwholesome states are likely to need individual solutions according to the specific situation. Other times, though, we may be able to bring general strategies to bear on the situation, and here again we see a benefit of a regular meditation practice, as we move on to...
3. The effort to cause the arising of an unarisen wholesome state
Many meditation techniques aim to bring about the arising of a wholesome state of some kind, thereby accomplishing the third Great Effort. Here are some examples:
In general, in early Buddhism the emphasis is on finding resources inside ourselves, rather than being dependent on the external world to supply sources of pleasure to keep us feeling good. It's easy to think 'Oh, I'll just eat another chocolate, that'll make me feel better,' but while that does trigger an all-too-brief experience of pleasure and a momentary decrease in stress, it's also not as good as having an inner source of wholesome states. (For one thing, maybe you've run out of chocolate and the shop is shut.) The momentariness of the pleasure of eating chocolate is also worth considering, particularly in light of the fourth Great Effort:
4. The effort to maintain and develop an arisen wholesome state
We don't just want a flash in a pan - a moment's relief from whatever unwholesome state we've dragged ourselves out of. Ideally, we want that wholesome state to persist, and even to get stronger.
My teacher's teacher Ayya Khema said that you should always begin a meditation session with some metta (loving kindness) practice. Quite apart from the cumulative benefit of the loving kindness practice itself, it also serves to put us into a wholesome state at the beginning of our meditation session, which tends to make everything that follows go a little more easily.
Sometimes, though, I'll sit down and try to get the metta going, but what comes out is a bit of a dribble... like a tap that's rusted up and doesn't want to open up all the way. There's some metta there, but it's a bit of a struggle and it'll fizzle out if I'm not careful - like the first wisp of smoke coming from a newly lit fire, that needs to be tended with care if it's going to become a steady blaze. What's needed at this point is care and subtlety - a nurturing attitude, providing an environment in which this embryonic feeling of metta can grow and develop, gradually opening up the tap until it's flowing more strongly.
This takes skill, and that skill comes from practice and repetition. Over time, we learn how to shift into this 'nurturing' attitude in order to help our fledgling wholesome states become their fullest selves. As we do so, we also learn how to maintain wholesome states in increasingly difficult situations. It's quite common for people new to meditation to start to find some peace and happiness in their practice, only for that to be shattered by a difficult encounter at work or a challenging family situation. This type of experience can knock the confidence of a new meditator - 'Oh, what's the use, it didn't work when it really mattered!' But it's just a matter of degree. Someone going to the gym for the first time isn't likely to be able to lift the heaviest weights. At any point in our practice, we'll have situations which really don't trouble us at all, situations which we can work with if we're careful, situations right on the edge of our abilities (which is where the most potential for growth can be found), and situations which are too much for us. A good sign of progress is when a situation that used to take some conscious effort to navigate no longer bothers us in the same way - our 'easy' category has grown larger, because our skills have grown stronger. Yes, there may still be situations which can knock us off balance and cause us to lose our cool, but expecting perfection is asking too much of ourselves. The fact is that, through regular practice, we can learn to inhabit more robust wholesome states more and more of the time - and each time we move the needle, even just a little, our lives get a little bit better overall.
May you develop the skill and wisdom needed to avoid unarisen unwholesome states, abandon arisen unwholesome states, bring about unarisen wholesome states and cultivate arisen wholesome states!
Bring me your mind, and I'll pacify it for you!
This week we're looking at case 41 in the Gateless Barrier, Pacifying the Mind. Like a number of koans, it reads almost like a joke - there's a 'smart-ass' quality to the master's reply that, on first inspection, makes the whole thing seem like a bit of a game. Nevertheless, this 'so sharp you'll cut yourself' exchange actually conceals a profound truth, one that I'll attempt to point the way to as the article goes on. First, though, let's take a look at this week's cast of characters.
Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, and Huike, his successor
Bodhidharma is generally regarded as a semi-legendary figure these days. He may or may not have existed as a real historical figure, and he probably didn't cross the Yellow River in China on a single blade of grass as the stories tell us he did, but nevertheless he represents the origin of the Zen school of Buddhism.
According to the story, Bodhidharma was an Indian (or possibly Persian) Buddhist teacher, who, already advanced in years, decided to travel to China to see how Buddhism was being practised over there. When he arrived, however, he wasn't impressed with what he found. Buddhism in China at the time was a scholarly affair, without much actual meditation practice happening. Disheartened, he retreated to a cave in the Songshan mountains, near the now-famous Shaolin Temple (yes, that one), and sat for nine years facing a wall. (Today, in the Soto style of Zen, the Silent Illumination practice is typically undertaken sitting facing a wall. The nine years of Bodhidharma's retreat have also been symbolically linked to the nine months of pregnancy, and in general there's a sense in Zen that awakening takes time to ripen and mature before it's really 'ready').
The koan begins with Bodhidharma at the end of his nine years of practice. Eventually, some of the monks at the Shaolin Temple started to take an interest in this crazy barbarian hermit living up in the cave, and eventually one named Huike approached him and asked for a teaching. At first, Bodhidharma ignored him, simply continuing to face the wall. This initial refusal to teach a new aspirant is echoed in the ritual that people wishing to become Zen monks must typically go through, where they're initially ignored and left outside the temple gates until they've proven their sincerity by waiting patiently for however long the temple deems necessary.
In Huike's case, he settled on a grand - and somewhat horrifying - gesture to show his sincerity - cutting off his own arm. Please don't try this at home! Quite a bit of self-mutilation has been practised in Chinese spiritual circles over the ages - one story about Bodhidharma says that, in order to stop himself falling asleep, he cut off his own eyelids and threw them away; where they fell to the ground, they sprouted into the first tea plants. Another story says that, as a result of his nine-year solitary retreat, he sat for so long that his legs fell off! In Japan today you'll often see 'Daruma dolls' (pictured above), Daruma being the Japanese pronunciation of Bodhidharma's name. These dolls have a round, weighted base to represent a body without legs, as a result of which they roll back upright each time they're pushed over - symbolising Daruma's indefatigable spirit, captured in the popular Japanese phrase 'seven times down, eight times up'. Getting back to Huike and the whole severed arm business, for modern readers it's probably better to interpret Huike's gesture as symbolic rather than literal - a sign of Huike's absolute dedication to take up Zen practice with Bodhidharma.
Anyway, eventually, Bodhidharma relented, and turned to face Huike, at which point the exchange described above took place. Commentators often suppose that there's a gap between Bodhidharma's request for Huike to 'bring me your mind' and the next line of dialogue, implying that Huike went away and spent some time searching for his mind, only to discover that he couldn't find it. This seems right to me - maybe I'm just a bit of a slowpoke, but it's always taken me quite a while to find genuine insights!
Whether or not this particular exchange led to an awakening for Huike is not recorded in the koan, but Huike went on to be considered Bodhidharma's foremost successor. (Bodhidharma had four students in total - not many for such a pivotal figure! - three men and one woman.)
But what does the exchange actually mean, and how can it help us in modern times?
Bringing peace to our minds
Huike comes to Bodhidharma complaining that his mind is not at peace. This is probably a state of affairs that we can all relate to. But what do we really mean when we say 'My mind is not at peace?'
One simple description of what it means to have a mind which is not at peace might be something like: I experience a string of disagreeable thoughts, emotions and other impressions, which I seem to be unable to prevent.
(If you have a different definition, let's hear it - please leave a comment down below!)
This experience of a seemingly unstoppable stream of unpleasant experiences does seem to be quite common, at least within the self-selecting population of people interested in meditation practice. Quite a few people have come to my Wednesday night class asking how they can 'stop thoughts' because those thoughts cause them so much pain.
The usual answer I give is that meditation isn't really about stopping your thoughts - it's about finding a different relationship with them so that they don't cause us to suffer so much. Actually, though, that isn't quite true. If we do a lot of meditation (we're talking many hours a day) with a strong samadhi component, we actually can sometimes enter a peaceful state, initially for short periods, then for longer and longer stretches as our mind settles more and more, until it eventually becomes continuous. This kind of peace of mind can often be glimpsed on longer retreats (a month or more). However, it isn't terribly practical for most of us, since we have jobs, families and responsibilities to fit around the eight or so hours of daily meditation required to maintain this kind of state.
So, assuming you don't have unlimited spare time to spend in meditation sufficiently quietening your mind and body in order to be permanently tranquil, what else can you do? The short answer is 'insight practice'.
Concentration practice is good at bringing about a change in 'state' - moving us from a more agitated state to a more peaceful one. Insight practice, on the other hand, brings about a change in 'trait' - when we see things deeply enough, we form a new relationship to them, and thus have a permanently different experience as a result. One of the things we can explore in our insight practice is the mind itself - and it turns out that, if we come to understand our minds well enough, then we no longer find the comings and goings within our minds so bothersome. Thoughts and emotions may still come and go, but they lose their sting, and so no longer 'trouble' our minds in the same way.
So, what does it mean to 'understand our minds well enough'? What are these insights that practice will somehow give us?
Insight practice, the importance of personal experience, and the futility of 'explanations'
I've previously written quite a number of articles where I've done my best to provide my own answer to these questions. I've talked about various insights that can come out of Zen practice - into emptiness, non-duality, the nature of mind/awareness, and so forth. But the more I do this, the more I start to question how valuable these kinds of explanations actually are.
If you've never eaten a mango, no description of mine will ever convey the experience to you. Maybe I start by saying that it's yellow, and you say 'Oh, so it's like a banana, they're yellow.' Well, no, it isn't like a banana. So maybe I say that, well, no, the texture is more like a melon. 'Ah,' you say, 'it's like a yellow melon. Got it.' Nope, that still isn't right. You can't help but map my words onto experiences that you're already familiar with, because you have no other reference point. But the only experience that's really like eating a mango is, well, eating a damn mango. There's no form of words clever enough to capture that experience for you without you doing the taste test for yourself.
My Zen teacher has often commented that Zen seems to attract people who are pretty clever, and I've certainly run into quite a number of people who have read a lot of books about philosophy and science, really thought carefully about them, and can describe a very intellectually convincing model about what's going on both in their own minds and the world around them. Such people often have some kind of objection to Zen practice because they feel that their intellectual understanding of what's going on is 'better' than Zen in some way - more modern, more sophisticated, whatever. It's very difficult to 'persuade' such a person to suspend their well-thought-out philosophy of life in favour of claims which seem to be based in intangible experiences that are not available to the person asking for proof. It's a tough sell.
And yet that's how this works. The reason that the old Zen texts (and probably most of these articles) don't make any damn sense at first is because reality isn't what we think it is. We need to engage in long hours of diligent practice to see the truth of these things for ourselves - at which point all of the cryptic writings of the ancient masters (male and female, lay and monastic) start to make sense - because, finally, we've tasted the mango for ourselves, and so we can relate what's being described to our own experience. (This is often a humbling transition. Beforehand, it's easy to think 'Oh, this is all so confusing, why can't they just say it in plain language?' Afterwards, we're forced to admit that, actually, the old masters did a pretty good job.)
So rather than attempt to describe what you might find by looking at the experience of a mind not yet at peace, I'll instead simply give you some suggestions for how to investigate it for yourself. In the long run, that's the only thing that will ever make a difference for you personally. (Notice that that's what Bodhidharma does in the koan - he doesn't attempt to explain to Huike why his seemingly troubled mind isn't really a problem, he simply asks Huike to go and find his mind so that he can pacify it. Huike then obligingly undertakes the search for himself.)
Some suggested ways to look for your mind
Here are three meditative approaches to explore the nature of the mind. Pursue whichever feels more appealing to you - but stick with it. Insights tend to take a while to show up. We can view the practice as a process of gathering evidence which challenges our current world view - we need to get a critical mass of data in order to tip the scales in favour of a new way of seeing things, and that's going to take some time.
It can also help very much to spend some time settling the mind with a samadhi practice before engaging in insight work. When the mind is more focused, there's less noise, and more of our being is paying attention to what's going on, so if insights do show up, they tend to go deeper. That's not to say that so-called 'dry insight' (pure insight practice with no samadhi component) doesn't work - but in my experience it's more efficient to spend some time on samadhi first, so that's my recommendation.
When your mind is at least a little bit settled - there's often a fairly clear transition where your mind goes from wandering very frequently to being rather more stable - then move into any of the following practices.
1. Silent Illumination
In Silent Illumination practice, we simply rest, allowing both body and mind to become still. As the stilling process deepens, the usual noise in our experience quietens down, and subtler aspects reveal themselves to us. This is, by nature, an undirected process, and it can take its sweet time to do anything, but the great benefit is that there's really nothing to remember or do. Just sit there, allowing your body to breathe, and anytime you find yourself doing anything else at all (focusing on something in particular, trying to 'direct' your practice in a certain way, thinking about the practice, etc.), stop doing that. Trust, and see what happens. (If you need instructions for Silent Illumination, you can find them here, and a guided practice on the Audio page.)
One key point to note is that the stillness of Silent Illumination will (eventually!) reveal the nature of your mind to you, but the stillness is not the mind itself. What we find in the depths of Silent Illumination practice can eventually be found in every moment of life, no matter what's going on.
2. Koan: 'What, and where, is mind?'
Usually I recommend that people interested in koan practice start with 'Who am I?' That will actually get the job done as well. But since today's koan involves Bodhidharma asking Huike to go and fetch his mind, it also works well to use 'What, and where, is mind?' What is it that we're trying to pacify, and where can it be found? As usual when working with a koan, don't try to 'direct' the investigation in any way - just keep asking the question, over and over; notice what comes up, let it go, and repeat. (If you haven't worked with a koan before, you can find instructions here, and a guided 'Who am I?' koan practice on the Audio page.)
3. Direct investigation of the qualities of the mind
This third approach is more akin to the sort of thing you might find in the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition. Mahamudra insight practice (vipashyana) commonly involves a long sequence of quite specific investigations, looking at different aspects of the 'mind' (or, synonymously, the 'awareness'). The investigations can seem weird or even silly at first, but there's real power in practising this way, and it's included in today's list because it gives you something a bit more concrete to do than either of the two Zen approaches, which may suit certain types of people better.
Some example inquiries:
...And so on. (For a more comprehensive list of inquiries, check out the Mahamudra Meditation Center's Meditation Manual.)
One final note - keep going!
Insight meditation is a strange business. The practices often come across as weird, trivial or absurd. And yet they work - but only if we stick at it. If your practice is taking you to uncomfortable places then it's very helpful to reach out to a teacher to talk about what's going on, but by far the bigger problem is the boredom and frustration of 'nothing happening'. And yet it's only by crossing the desert that we reach the oasis. So please keep going! And then, when you truly discover your mind for yourself, you can write back to me and tell me how I should have explained it in this article...
The Eightfold Path, part 5
This article is the fifth in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're taking a look at the fifth factor of the path, right livelihood. As you can see from the quotation above, the instruction for this one is pretty simple - just avoid wrong livelihood! But what does that actually mean, and what difference does it make anyway? Let's get into it.
What is the 'wrong livelihood' we're supposed to abandon?
As you may have noticed, the definition of right livelihood that we find in Samyutta Nikaya 45.8, the discourse that we've been using all the way through this series of articles for the definitions of each aspect of the Eightfold Path, is rather sparse - some might say useless. We're told to abandon 'wrong livelihood', but we had probably already figured that one out given that there's something called 'right livelihood' that we're supposed to be doing instead.
If we search around some more in the Pali canon (the collection of discourses from the earliest stratum of the Buddhist teachings), sooner or later we come across Anguttara Nikaya 5.177, which suggests one definition of wrong livelihood:
"Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison."
This is much more concrete, and thus at first sight appears to be much more helpful. OK, so we're supposed to avoid business in 'weapons' (selling weapons, maybe making them too?), business in 'human beings' (one imagines that this includes things like slavery rather than working in Human Resources), business in 'meat' (fishing, being a butcher?), business in 'intoxicants' (being a drug dealer is off the cards), and business in 'poison' (presumably both poisoning people and selling poison to others is frowned upon).
If you've read my previous article on right action and the precepts, however, you'll probably already know that I tend to get a bit suspicious of neat little lists like this. They seem to give a very straightforward answer to our moral questions, but a lot of it comes down to interpretation. While my comment above about Human Resources in relation to 'business in human beings' may have come across as facetious, there's a valid point there. I've lived a pretty sheltered life, but even I've worked for bosses who cared about me and looked out for my interests, and I've also worked for bosses whose only interest was to exploit me for everything I was worth and then throw me aside when I was all used up. Where do we draw the line with 'business in intoxicants' - are we concerned only with certain types of alcohol, or do we include creating apps which are designed to be habit-forming for the purpose of persuading people to part with significant amounts of money through hundreds of microtransactions?
Broadening our perspective on right livelihood
Let's set the specific list to one side for the moment. What's actually going on here? Why do these categories of 'right livelihood' and 'wrong livelihood' even exist?
Right livelihood is part of the section of the Eightfold Path concerned with sīla, or ethics. Fundamentally, all of the ethical teachings demonstrate how the second factor of the path, right intention, is to be practised - in particular, the intention of harmlessness. So we have the third factor, right speech, which points out how easily and immediately we can create harm through our speech, and provides some guidelines for how we can minimise that harm. Next, we have right action, which takes a broader perspective, looking not just at our speech but at our actions more generally, highlighting how we might cause harm through taking life, taking what is not given, or engaging in sexual misconduct. Finally, we arrive at right livelihood, which takes a broader perspective still, looking at the type of life we lead.
Our livelihood matters because it shapes so much of what we do - particularly if we broaden our sense of 'livelihood' to include 'lifestyle' rather than simply 'occupation'. Our lifestyle governs to a significant degree the types of situations we end up in - and thus some lifestyles are much more conducive to right speech and right action than others. A career criminal is very likely to have to tell lies (wrong speech) and take what is not given (wrong action) as a matter of course. Even leaving aside the harm that comes from such a lifestyle, being in this kind of life situation is very unlikely to lead to a peaceful mind which is well suited to meditation practice.
So I'm going to suggest that the most useful questions to ask ourselves in relation to right livelihood are not 'Is my occupation on the naughty list?', but rather 'How do I make my way through the world? What are the positive and negative aspects of my lifestyle? What effect does my lifestyle have on my state of mind? And, once I've really spent some time with this and come to a balanced assessment, how should I move forward?'
This kind of close examination of our lifestyle isn't necessarily a practice that needs to be undertaken every day - that could lead to endless second-guessing and self-paralysis - but it's definitely useful to go into great detail at least once, and then check in every so often (maybe every couple of years, or after a major life change) to see how things are going. Our lifestyles tend to drift rather slowly, usually too slowly to notice it happening in real time, so checking in every once in a while gives us the opportunity to notice how things might have drifted over the months and years.
Practice and life
The inclusion of right livelihood in the Eightfold Path really helps to highlight that, for the Buddha, 'practice' and 'life' were synonymous. For many of us, it's easy to relate to 'meditation' as just one of a wide range of activities in our busy lives, twenty minutes a day of self-care that we can treat a bit like going to the gym - we know we're better for doing it, but we leave the weights in the gym at the end of a session and forget about them until next time.
This is actually fine so far as it goes, and I don't mean to criticise anyone who has this kind of relationship to their meditation practice! I used to feel that way too, actually. For me, though, as my practice has gone deeper, I've started to notice more and more ways that my meditation practice and my life overlap. Insights that come up in meditation can often be applied to life situations - and conversely. (The model of 'excitation and stimulation' that I described in a recent article was something I first noticed as a result of looking at stress in my working life and experimenting with different strategies to manage it, not something that was directly related to meditation practice.)
In the Zen tradition, there's a strong sense that practice can be continuous - not limited to any particular time of day or posture, but rather an attitude of presence that is carried throughout all of the activities of the day. When we have work to do, we can apply ourselves wholeheartedly to it, focusing wholly on the task at hand. When we have a quiet moment, we can return to meditation, or simply rest in the present moment rather than letting our thoughts spin out into planning tomorrow's meeting for the seventeenth time.
As we do this, we start to feel the boundaries between 'practice' and 'life' dissolving. Meditation becomes more 'ordinary' and life becomes more 'extraordinary'. We discover that we can walk the spiritual path not in order to get to some special destination, but simply because walking the path is a good way to live.
May your practice (and your life) go well.
Making sense of a world in which nothing is as it seems
This week we're looking at case 40 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Kicking Over a Water Pitcher'. This rather peculiar story starts with Zen master Baizhang (last seen all the way back in case 2) asking a typically incomprehensible question, followed by equally bizarre answers. What's going on here?
Before we get into that in detail, let's go on a brief digression. It'll be relevant later, I promise.
How I became a recovering perfectionist
The seeds of my perfectionism were planted early. As a young'un I was academically gifted; my mum liked to see me do well, and my dad liked to needle people to wind them up ('Oh, 9 out of 10? Which one did you get wrong then?'), so I tended to set my sights pretty high (and avoid situations that would show me up to be less than perfect - not a great recipe for growth, but there you go).
Over the last decade or so of practice, that sense of perfectionism has gradually started to erode. Several factors have played into that. The lack of a clear external metric (marks out of 10) has been a big one, but somehow I still managed to hold on to an ideal of perfection for quite a while despite that. Then, in the last couple of years, as I've been confronting my tendency to apply too much effort to my meditation practice (see last week's article!), I've experimented with flipping from 'perfect' to 'good enough' as my ideal.
But that just replaces one problem with another - what's 'good enough'? This turns out to be a matter of perspective and context, rather than something that can ever be pinned down. To paraphrase a line from the Zhuangzi, if we say that something is good because it is praised by someone, then everything is good; if we say that something is bad beacuse it is criticised by someone, then everything is bad.
Let's take playing the piano as an example - this is something that I used to do (sadly I don't really have time any more). How good is 'good enough'? Well, it turns out that, no matter your level of skill, there will be some pieces of music that you can play easily (everyone can play a middle C if the right key is pointed out to them!), some which you can't play at all, and some which are right on the limit of your current level of skill. So you're 'good enough' to play the easy ones, need to get just a little better to play the ones that are right on the edge of your skill, and are not 'good enough' to play much more difficult pieces. The tricky bit is that it's easy to look at what we can't do and say 'Oh, I'm not good enough yet, I can't do xyz' - but that will always be the case. Many of the musicians who are regarded as the greatest in their field will comment in interviews that they're always practising, trying to get better, trying to reach some higher standard that feels forever beyond them.
To be clear, it isn't that it's a bad thing to want to improve! But if we're constantly beating ourselves up for not being 'good enough', then it may be helpful for us to investigate that notion to find out what it means to us. As we do that, we'll discover that it's much more of a moving target than we might have thought - and so our continual failure to achieve the satisfaction we thought we would find at the end of it all suddenly makes a lot more sense.
How does this relate to the koan?
What I've just described is one version of what's known as 'emptiness' in Zen. This slippery notion is all to do with pointing out how our concepts don't quite fit reality. We start with something simple like 'It needs to be perfect!' - that's a nice, apparently clear-cut target to aim for. Yet it turns out to be unreachable, again and again, and to the extent that we continue to cling to that idea of 'perfection', we suffer as a consequence of our failure to attain it. But then, through meditation and investigation of our experience, we realise that we've been chasing a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow - it's an optical illusion, something that doesn't really exist. And so we're able to relax and let go of the impossible goal, and the suffering that comes with it.
Seeing emptiness for ourselves (through a koan or Silent Illumination) is a major landmark on the path of Zen. It's a turning point, a point of no return - having seen the emptiness of the world, you can't ever go back to believing in a fully dependable, predictable world any more. And yet that isn't the end of the road by any means - in many ways it's more of a beginning.
As our understanding of emptiness deepens, we begin to notice more and more ways in which it applies to our experience. It turns out that all of our concepts are empty (including emptiness itself, but that's a head-scratcher for another day!). This can be very liberating, because all of a sudden the seemingly impenetrable walls keeping us trapped inside our suffering are revealed to be totally illusory. On the other hand, it can also be pretty confusing, as the seemingly dependable pillars of our life now appear to be shaky, impermanent and context-dependent. It's as if we've lived our whole lives with a road map which was beautifully clear but seriously misleading - we can no longer trust the road map any more, but then how are we going to get from A to B? How can we navigate at all in an empty world in which nothing is certain?
And that's what Zen master Baizhang is asking in this koan. He picks up a water pitcher - we know what a water pitcher is, you put water in it and you pour the water out when you want a drink. And yet we can assume that both Guishan and the leader of the assembly have done enough Zen practice to realise that the label 'water pitcher' doesn't fully capture what's going on here - it's just a limited concept, as empty as anything else. So if you can't call it a water pitcher, what do you call it?
What is a river?
Another example may help to clarify what's going on, at least at the intellectual level. (Intellectual understanding doesn't go far enough, but it's the best I can offer in an article! In time, your Zen practice will reveal emptiness to you on an experiential level, which is where it really makes a difference in your life.)
What's a river? Perhaps this seems like a daft question - everyone knows what a river is. It's when you've got a bunch of water flowing from somewhere upstream to somewhere downstream, probably ultimately ending up in the sea. What's hard about that?
OK, but what actually is the river? Is it the water? Presumably not, because the water is constantly flowing - if you stand and watch a river, you're seeing new water every moment. What else is involved? Well, there's a channel carved into the earth which makes the water flow in a particular direction, starting at a particular place and ending somewhere else. That's pretty important too - different rivers have different names, and if you're planning to go boating with friends it matters whether you're meeting on the River Severn or the River Thames. But, then again, the course of the river changes from time to time - if it's rained a lot, it might flood, or a shallower side channel might dry up entirely. And over a much longer period of time, the flowing water erodes the earth forming the river channel, causing it to change shape and direction. Sometimes a river can be diverted, either intentionally or unintentionally, so even the point where it reaches the sea can change significantly. And yet we still consider it to be 'the same river', even though pretty much every observable characteristic of it changes over time.
So why does this work? Because, in general, the changes to the river are small enough that they don't make much practical difference. Some days the brook behind my house is barely a trickle, some days it's a pretty strong flow, but either way there's usually some water down there - enough for the neighbourhood dogs to jump into and splash around in, anyway. Yes, it's much more of a process than a thing, but the process is consistent enough that it's sometimes useful to be able to label it and refer to it, even though the label doesn't refer to anything totally objectively real or dependable in any absolute sense.
Getting back to the road map analogy, perhaps we started out believing that we had access to satellite imagery which mapped out the terrain perfectly; then, when we discovered that the map wasn't perfectly accurate after all, we experienced a period of disorientation, not knowing how to move forward now that we felt we could no longer trust the map. But then, as our understanding of emptiness deepens, we realise that we're dealing with something more like the London Underground map. We can't take it too literally, but once we understand how it works, we can still use it to get around - and that's much better than not having a map at all!
The two answers
Coming back to the koan, we can perhaps now understand what's going on with the two responses to Baizhang's question.
The leader of the assembly (presumably the head monk at the temple) says 'It cannot be called a tree stump.' (As an aside, this is my own choice of terminology - one version I've seen says 'It cannot be called a wooden upright bolt', but I don't even know what a wooden upright bolt is(!), and another says 'It cannot be called a stump', which it take to mean a tree stump rather than a severed limb, hence my choice of translation.)
This seems like a pretty random answer at first sight, but what he's saying is 'Just because it's empty doesn't mean that you can use any old label to describe it! Some labels are more useful than others. It's much more useful to think of it as a water pitcher than as a tree stump, for example - neither is "ultimately true" but one fits the observed phenomenon a lot better than the other.'
This is an important point, and it's a bit of a relief for anyone who's been wondering how on earth they'll ever able to have a normal conversation with someone else after realising emptiness for themselves. It's fine - you can still use all the same words you always have. The difference is that you now know there's more to it than that - and that, if any of those words are taken too seriously and clung to, that's a setup for suffering. Instead, we simply take up the words as we need to, use them for the time being, and then put them down again when they've served their purpose.
So, actually, although the monk 'loses' the competition, he gives a pretty good answer! However, he's pipped the post by Guishan, who simply kicks over the pitcher and walks away.
Guishan is making the same point, but much more directly. Whatever you choose to call it - a pitcher, a jug, a container of water - its behaviour is the same. If you want it to hold water, it needs to be upright. If you knock it over, the water spills out and makes a big mess.
In the Zen tradition, answering a question through action is typically regarded as better than answering through words. Words can sometimes be helpful, but often can indicate that one's understanding only goes to the intellectual level. One can 'talk a good game', but if an insight hasn't yet reached the deeper levels of our being, it hasn't changed our lives. When an insight goes deeply enough, it's expressed in our actions, not just in our words - what's referred to as 'bodily attainment' in the Zen tradition. That's when it's truly useful - when it's so integrated into our being that no thought is required, no reflection, no debate - we simply act in accordance with the Great Way, without having to think about it at all. And so, by responding with an action rather than words, Guishan demonstrates the depth of his understanding - and his readiness to embody the path for others, not merely to talk about it.
May you, too, come to embody the Great Way of Zen through your practice.
Understanding excitation and stimulation in practice
I'm writing this on the penultimate day of a jhana retreat that my teacher Leigh Brasington and I have been running through Gaia House. Over the course of the retreat I've been noticing patterns in the challenges that come up in regard to settling the mind sufficiently for the jhanas to become available, and so I'm going to share a model that I use to understand what's going on here.
(While the article will be focusing on concentration/samadhi practice, I think the model actually works for any form of practice, or even any activity in general - I first started to notice this phenomenon in another context entirely. So even if samadhi isn't your bag, it might still be worth a read.)
Excitation and stimulation
There are two key aspects which come together in any meditation practice. For want of a better term (if you can think of better words, please suggest them!) I'm going to call them 'excitation' and 'stimulation'.
Excitation is a measure of how 'activated' we're feeling at the time. If you're having a stressful time at work, your level of excitation is likely to be pretty high. If you're several days into a relaxing holiday, your level of excitation is going to be much lower. In a nutshell, excitation is a measure of how 'shaken up' we are inside (in the sense of shaking up a Coke bottle). In other words, excitation relates to you, the meditator, and the inner condition that you're bringing to the present moment. It runs on a continuum from 'peaceful' (low excitation) to 'excited' or 'stressed' (high excitation, depending on whether positive or negative in nature).
Stimulation is a measure of how 'interesting' the current external situation is - whether that's the meditation object you're working with, or anything else. Going to a rock concert is very stimulating, sitting silently in an empty room facing a blank wall is not at all stimulating. Stimulation thus also runs on a continuum from 'subtle' (low stimulation) to 'intense' (high stimulation).
So excitation represents your inner condition, while stimulation represents the outer condition. The coming together of the two is the present moment.
Why does this matter? Because it's much easier for the mind to engage with something that's stimulating enough but not too much. If you're in a highly excited state and you try to move straight into a very subtle practice, it'll feel 'boring', and the mind won't want to stay there. By comparison, if you're in a very quiet, peaceful state, you may find a rock concert to be overwhelming - just too much to handle right now.
Compensating for a mismatch of excitation and stimulation with effort
It's very common for people to come on a jhana retreat and have a hard time at first. They're arriving from jobs, families, travel, all sorts of highly stimulating things, and so they're showing up with a fairly high level of excitation. Then we tell them to pay attention to the sensations of the breath, and do nothing else until the mind stops wandering, at which point they might be able to start trying to get into the jhanas. So they're coming from a place of high excitation, being offered something that sounds very cool (these altered states of consciousness called jhanas) - and then being asked to do something which, relative to the moment, is extremely boring, yet somehow they have to find a way to get through it to get to the cool thing on the other side that they're here to learn.
Needless to say, this can be a recipe for frustration.
A very common response to that sense of frustration is to apply more effort. 'OK, my mind is wandering, but I can't get into the first jhana until it calms down, so I'm damn well going to make sure it stays put!' Sometimes this is even consciously expressed, more often it's an unconscious manifestation of the practitioner's sincere wish to enter the jhana.
(As an aside, this is why the jhanas get a bad rap sometimes, because detractors will say 'Oh, that's just craving, it's unhelpful, don't do it.' But the jhanas are a powerful asset on the spiritual path, and in my view there's nothing wrong with wanting to learn a skill which will help someone in their practice. Yes, any craving that's present will need to be addressed, but the 'nice' thing about the jhanas is that you can't get in if you're craving too much, so that has a way of working itself out through practice.)
So does it work? Can we 'nail our attention to the breath'?
The answer is... kinda, but you probably shouldn't, and if you overdo it, it won't work at all.
Using a totally unscientific numbering scheme for effort, where 5 is maximum effort and 0 means you didn't even sign up for the retreat, we see this sort of thing:
5: Tight mind, no possibility of progress
Just as the body has a stretch reflex that kicks in when it feels it's in danger of being over-stretched to the point of injury (which is why we generally have to stretch gently if we want the body to open up), it seems that there comes a point where the mind is being pushed too far and it refuses to cooperate any longer. The mind becomes very tight, useless for concentration or meditation of any kind, and it generally feels pretty crappy to boot. When the mind has reached this stage, the only thing to do is to step away from the practice for a while. Go for a walk, take a break, do something else for a bit until you can relax internally.
4: Unpleasant glass ceiling
A lot of effort actually can take you some of the way - but usually it only goes so far. A lot of people find that they can get 'kinda concentrated', but not enough so to get into the jhanas. They'll arrive at a place of indistractibility, maybe even feel a sense of the body's energy (piti, see this page for more details) starting to gather, but it never really takes off. This is a really frustrating place to be, and it's very natural to feel that just a little more effort will surely tip it over the edge - but just a little more effort is going in exactly the wrong direction.
3: Workable concentration with unpleasant side effects
At the next stage, the mind is loose and mobile enough that it's possible to get concentrated and even enter the jhanas. However, it's unlikely to be the uncomplicated experience of bodily bliss and emotional joy that's described in the suttas. Instead, people will report strange muscle tensions, headaches and other unpleasant side effects.
I can relate to this very much. Historically, I've never been much of a 'middle ground' kind of person. Fortunately I wasn't at effort level 5 when I went on my first jhana retreat (that would come later, but that's a story for another day!), but I started out squarely at level 4. Fortunately I was able to chill out enough to get down to level 3, at which point jhanas started to happen - and so I stayed at that level for many years, basically doing my best to ignore the unpleasant side effects for as long as I could. These days the overall tone of my practice is much gentler, but because of the way I learnt the jhanas, I still find that doing a lot of jhana practice can trigger that more effortful mode of practising quite easily, so I have to keep an eye out for that.
2: Balance. Concentration develops in its own time, without being forced
This is where we want to be - just enough effort to keep the practice moving forward, not enough to cause ourselves problems. My sense is that 'level 2' is actually a pretty broad category, with some people more at the 'just let it happen' end of the scale while others are more 'on it'. Essentially what we're looking for here is the balance that Leigh calls 'relaxed diligence'.
1: Wandering, drifting, practice not firmly established
I'm mainly focusing on too much effort in this article, but of course the equal and opposite error is not to bring enough effort to the practice. You've got to do the work - it isn't enough to come on retreat and then spend the time 'goofing off', as Leigh would put it. If the retreat is turning into more of a holiday, the 'diligence' part might be lacking. It's always a shame when this happens, because clearly the person was interested enough to sign up for the retreat in the first place (and take a space away from someone else!).
(In case anyone from the present retreat is reading this, I'm not talking about anyone in particular here! I don't think anyone on this retreat has been goofing off - on the contrary, you've all done really well in the circumstances you've been working with, and it's been a pleasure to practise with you all.)
So if more effort isn't the answer, what is?
Coming back to the 'excitation' and 'stimulation' model, we still have this problem that you may be coming into your practice in a highly 'excited' state, relative to which a meditation practice like noticing the breath is much too subtle to hold your interest - as a result, the practice is boring, your mind wanders, and nothing much happens. What can we do about this?
In a retreat context, the problem will actually often 'solve itself' after a few days. When you're on retreat (particularly a residential retreat), you've removed yourself from most of the sources of stimulation that are present in your daily life. Just like a snow-globe is busy right after you've shaken it up but gradually settles down if you just leave it alone, your mind and body will gradually settle (i.e. your excitation level will decrease), and eventually you'll arrive at a place where the breath is a more accessible object. The breath hasn't become any more stimulating than it was, but because you're now less excited, the breath appears more interesting than it did.
This solution has some appealing qualities, particularly if you're prone to over-efforting. Going on a retreat knowing that your first few days will be spent settling down, and all you have to do is to allow that process to happen, can really help to create an attitude of openness rather than one of forcing. The drawback is that you're still working with a 'too boring' object for those first few days, which can potentially trigger frustration and restlessness, slowing down that process of settling.
An alternative is to vary the meditation practice over time. Leigh and I will offer a variety of 'aids' to settling the mind for people who have chosen to work with the breath as a means of settling the mind - for example, counting the breaths, visualising an ocean wave coming in and out with the breath, using a mantra in time with the breath, noticing the parts of the breath (beginning, middle, end, gap) or noticing the lengths of each breath (shorter than average, longer than average? shorter than the last, longer than the last?). Other teachers have suggested a wide range of similar approaches - imagining that you're breathing in a pleasant scent, feeling the movement of breath as a pleasurable sensation, relating to the breath as the breath of Buddha, all sorts of different ideas.
What all of these have in common is that the breath goes from the very subtle, very unstimulating 'in, out, in, out' to an experience which is richer and more engaging. As a result, people generally find it easier to rest the mind on this more highly stimulating object. The drawback is that, because the object is now more stimulating, it may limit how calm the mind can become. What was initially perceived as interesting can start to become irritating, noisy, 'too busy'. At this point, if the meditator moves to a less stimulating version of the object - for example, if they've been counting each in-breath and out-breath, shifting to just counting out-breaths, or even dropping the count entirely - then the mind can settle even more deeply. There's sometimes a moment of instability and disorientation, because some of the landmarks of the previous stage of practice have now gone away, but the mind typically settles down again and now goes deeper.
Developing sensitivity to excitation and stimulation
Perhaps the trickiest aspect of all this is that our excitation levels can be unpredictable, even on a retreat. While the overall trend on a retreat for most people is towards gradually decreasing excitation of mind and thus gradually deepening subtlety of object, it can vary day by day, or according to time of day (my mind is busier in the mornings and quieter in the afternoons), or even from one sit to the next (a 'good' sit will often lead to a more distracted next sit because the excitation level has risen).
While I have a deep appreciation for the simplicity and profundity of the 'just let it happen' approach to practice, I do think that there's great benefit to be had from developing an awareness of our internal condition and a sensitivity to how that condition is interfacing with the stimulation offered by the practice we're working with, and learning how to tweak the practice to meet ourselves where we are rather than where we'd like to be. Over time this will start to happen intuitively, and will need less and less conscious attention and intervention - you'll just start to feel 'Oh, needs a few more details right now to stay with it' or 'Ahh, mind getting settled - relax, simplify'.
I hope these reflections prove helpful in your meditation practice.
The Eightfold Path, part 4
This article is the fourth in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're going to take a look at the fourth aspect of the path: right action. Like the third aspect of the path, right speech, right action is part of the section on sila, or ethics - essentially, practices relating to how to live in the world in a way which minimises the harm we do to ourselves and others. I've already talked about the value of Buddhism's ethical teachings in the article on right speech, so I won't repeat that here - check that article out if you're curious.
So what is right action?
I've taken the quotation at the top of this article, which defines right action in terms of three factors (refraining from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct), from Samyutta Nikaya 45.8 for consistency with the other articles in this series. However, it's more common to find right action equated with the Buddhist precepts, of which there are five for householders and many more for monks and nuns - this includes the three listed above, plus precepts concerning lying and (ab)using intoxicants.
The version of the precepts that I use when teaching retreats runs as follows:
These are pretty simple, pithy and easy to remember. That said, I'm also a fan of the version of the precepts given in the Brahmajala Sutra from the Mahayana tradition, precisely because what's given there is not short, pithy and straightforward - it's actually pretty complex.
I like more complex takes on the precepts because the key word in the definitions I gave above is training. The precepts are not 'Buddhist commandments' phrased as 'thou shalt not' - like every other aspect of the Eightfold Path, they're intended as practices, something that we actually explore for ourselves rather than simply memorise and then repeat on command. Indeed, one of the signs of the first stage of awakening in the traditional model is that we are no longer bound by the fetter of 'rites, rituals and righteousness' - which means that it's clear that merely behaving a certain way because someone else told us to is not the way to awakening. Rather, our relationship with the precepts becomes a living exploration, more of a dance than a rigid, legalistic submission to an arbitrary set of rules.
With that in mind, I'm not going to write a huge article telling you what I think about each of the precepts. Rather, I'm going to present a contemplation practice which invites you to explore each precept for yourself.
Contemplation versus meditation
Contemplation is similar to meditation, but with a slightly different orientation. Contemplation can feel a bit weird the first time you try it because it seems to be 'breaking the rules' of meditation.
Typically speaking, in a meditation practice we're not really that interested in the content of our thoughts - we might be focused on the physical sensations of our breath, or the visual appearance of a candle flame; if we're doing something like Zen koan practice or the Brahmaviharas, we may be using words as part of the practice, but the idea is that the words support a focus on something else (a feeling of questioning in koan practice, an emotion in Brahmavihara practice).
By comparison, in contemplation, anything goes. In a contemplation practice we'll have some kind of theme that we're investigating - but how we investigate it is completely up to us. You're welcome to think about the theme as much as you like - but you're equally welcome to work with it like a koan (bringing up the theme from time to time to see what it stirs up), or simply to set the intention to explore the theme and then just sit and see what happens.
I typically suggest taking some time to settle your mind through meditation, perhaps by paying attention to your breath or doing a bit of loving kindness practice. Then, when the usual whirl of everyday thoughts has settled down a little, shift over to the contemplation.
I'll now suggest a contemplation on the precepts. For each of the five, I'll give the headline statement, then suggest a few 'probes' - particular lines of inquiry that you can introduce to explore different aspects of the precepts. You're entirely welcome to use these just as much or as little as you'd like. These are some 'ways in' that I've found helpful for myself, but each of us must ultimately find our own relationship to the precepts.
Trigger warning, and how to approach this practice
This is not lightweight stuff - exploring the precepts seriously can take you to some dark places. Please be kind to yourself. Please note also that some of the 'probes' below are deliberately provocative. I am not advocating any kind of unethical action, even as an 'experiment'.
Furthermore, please don't use this as an exercise in self-judgement or criticism. The point here is not to beat yourself up for what you perceive as your ethical failings. The point is to explore the precepts to get a feel for what they mean to us on a visceral level, to encourage us to engage with the material rather than simply treating it as yet another set of 'laws' handed down through the generations.
OK, without further ado, let's get into it.
A contemplation on the precepts
Take at least a few minutes just to sit quietly, perhaps focusing on the breath or doing metta, in order to settle your mind before proceeding. Then, when you're ready, start moving through the contemplations below.
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. Taking life could potentially include everything from killing another human, to stepping on an insect, to taking antibiotics, to cutting down a tree. What does 'taking life' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about life being taken?
Does it make a difference what kind of life is being taken, by whom, or for what reason?
When is the taking of life justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from taking life?
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. Taking what is not given could potentially include everything from armed robbery, to insider trading, to shoplifting, to taking more than your fair share, to watching copyrighted videos on YouTube, to taking up too much of someone else's time and energy. What does 'taking what is not given' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about someone taking what is not given?
Does it make a difference what is being taken, by whom, or for what reason?
When is taking what is not given justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from taking what is not given?
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. Sexual misconduct could potentially include everything from rape, to inappropriate physical contact, to adultery, to using sexuality to get what you want. What does 'sexual misconduct' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about someone committing sexual misconduct?
Does it make a difference what kind of sexual misconduct is being committed, by whom, or for what reason?
When is sexual misconduct justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from sexual misconduct?
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. False speech could potentially include everything from lying under oath, to committing fraud, to spreading lies about someone to damage their reputation, to misleading someone in order to manipulate them, to exaggerating your achievements to make yourself sound more impressive, to telling a little white lie for social convenience. What does 'false speech' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about someone speaking falsely?
Does it make a difference what kind of false speech it is, by whom, or for what reason?
When is false speech justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from false speech?
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. Intoxicants could potentially include everything from alcohol, to recreational drugs, to risk-taking behaviour, to anything else we can get addicted to - gambling, the Internet, even our work. Heedlessness could potentially include anything from total loss of control, to a significant impairment of judgement, to a subtle lowering of inhibitions. What does 'intoxicants causing heedlessness' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about someone using intoxicants leading to heedlessness?
Does it make a difference what kind of intoxicant it is, or what degree of heedlessness? Does it make a difference by whom, or for what reason?
When is the use of intoxicants leading to heedlessness justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from intoxicants causing heedlessness?
It's likely that the contemplations above have brought up quite a bit of material. I suggest closing the practice by taking a few minutes for meditation to let things settle down again - perhaps returning to the breath, or metta, or just sitting.
May you be well.
How to get free of the tangle
This week we're looking at case 39 in the Gateless Barrier. This is a rich koan offering many possible avenues of exploration; I won't have time to explore them all in today's article, even assuming I've noticed all the possibilities, which I probably haven't! But we'll dig into a few and see where they take us - and if you find another thread to pull on, please go right ahead (and let me know what you've found in the comments!).
The central question here is that of Zen master Sixin (pronounced something like see-shin) - where did the monk get trapped in words? Here are three possibilities, representing progressively deepening levels of realisation.
The monk became trapped in words when he read Zhang Zhuo's poem
Sometimes, we come across a passage in a Zen text or poem (or some other spiritual, philosophical, literary or scientific work) that stops us in our tracks. Perhaps it conjures up a picture of something that feels both deeply familiar and utterly mysterious at the same time - or perhaps it just makes no sense at all, and yet somehow we have an intuition that it isn't mere nonsense. Naturally, we want to know what it means - but we can't relate to it directly and immediately, so all we have is this mysterious set of words.
From a Zen perspective, this is actually a good place to be. What we have in moments like these is a kernel of what's usually known as 'Great Doubt' in the Zen tradition, although teachers like Martine Batchelor have argued that 'Great Questioning' might be a better translation due to the negative connotations of 'Doubt' in the English language. Essentially, what we've found is something we don't understand and would like to. That is the essence of all meditative inquiry, and is the necessary condition for insight to arise. If we 'do insight practice' but have no interest in what we might find, if we already feel that we've got it all worked out and this meditation stuff can't possibly show us anything new, then it's dramatically less likely that we'll make any meaningful progress along the wisdom dimension - and if we do somehow get a breakthrough nonetheless, it's likely to be jarring, upsetting, even distressing, as the comfortable world we were clinging to is turned upside down. By comparison, if we actively choose to undertake the quest for greater wisdom, we're more likely to hang in there when the going gets tough, because on the other side of that bumpy terrain is a place we're trying to get to. Seen from this perspective, we could make the case that the entire purpose of koans is for us to get caught in words - to find one of these strange stories that intrigues us enough that we're willing to spend hours on the cushion studying them in meditation, often getting absolutely nowhere for hours, days, weeks or months on end, until one day - boom, there it is.
So it could well be that this nameless monk has simply read a piece of poetry, been struck by the beautiful images it conjures up, and wants to ask his teacher something like 'What's it like to experience this for yourself? How do I get there?' In this reading, Yunmen's response is sharp but compassionate, directing the monk to put the books down and get back to practising - in essence, saying 'Don't ask me, ask yourself!' The word 'Zen' literally means 'meditation', and the essential principle behind the Zen school of Buddhism is to use meditation to find the answers we're looking for in our direct experience, rather than debating theories and philosophies in an intellectual way. It's possible to spend many years - even a lifetime - arguing about the fine scholarly points of non-duality and emptiness without ever having a personal experience of it, and so Yunmen is deeply concerned that the monk should not make this mistake. Words like these - the kind that describe the experience of someone who has broken through to the awakened perspective - are actually often more helpful after one's awakening than before; before awakening, they're at best a cryptic riddle that can inspire us to practise, but after we've had a glimpse of awakening, we can use them to confirm what we've experienced - or, more usually, to recognise that what we saw was only partial, and that there's further to go.
The monk became trapped in words when asking Yunmen his question
A second possible scenario is that the monk had indeed had some kind of awakening, or perhaps was right on the threshold of it, but couldn't put it into his own words. In the words of Zen master Wumen, the compiler of the Gateless Barrier, 'In a natural manner, inside and outside become one; like someone without the power of speech who has had a dream, you can know it only for yourself.'
Having this kind of 'private' experience can be beautiful and thrilling, but it's also limited. One of the strengths of the Breakthrough to Zen retreats run by Zenways, the Zen sangha I belong to, is that most of the practice happens out loud, with a partner in front of you. Whatever's going on, you must try, over and over, to put it into words. In the process of doing so, it both comes out into the world and becomes more fully your own. At the very beginning of this process, it's often clumsy, and you may find yourself resorting to lines from the old masters which you feel capture the spirit of what's going on. But in the long run, the language must become your own, the awakening fully integrated into your being, not someone else's.
And so perhaps that's what's happening here. The monk has had some kind of experience, but has no words for it. The best he can do is to say 'It's like radiant light was silently illuminating the whole world...' - and his teacher is challenging him to put down the books and find his own words for it. In part, this might be a test - anyone can quote one of the old masters, but it's usually very revealing to hear someone's first person experience in their own words rather than those of another. From the teacher's standpoint, this is a key 'diagnostic' technique - all sorts of interesting and wonderful things can happen in meditation, not all of which are due to insight or awakening, and so it's usually necessary to spend a bit of time talking back and forth to figure out what's going on.
The monk became trapped in words when Yunmen interrupted him
A third possibility is that the monk has indeed had some experience of awakening, and is now some way along the road to stabilising and integrating it.
Sometimes it's thought that enlightenment happens all at once, in a flash - bam, that's it, you're enlightened now. The stories of the historical Buddha usually imply that that's how it was for him. For most of us, however, it isn't quite so simple - and even the historical Buddha went on to teach a model with four 'stages' or 'paths' of awakening, gradually deepening over time. Likewise, one of the most important Zen masters in my lineage, Hakuin, taught at great length about the importance of 'post-satori training' - that practice does not end with a meditative breakthrough, but actually that that breakthrough is simply a transition from one phase of practice to another.
Now, this is a somewhat controversial subject, and there have been debates throughout the history of Zen. From a certain point of view - what we might call the standpoint of 'inherent awakening' or 'Buddha Nature' - what we wake up to is immediate, timeless, and has always been true. Nothing needs to be 'cultivated', nothing needs to be 'purified', it only needs to be recognised for what it is, in all its immediate, pristine, indestructible purity. This is the so-called 'sudden' school of awakening. From another point of view, however, practice is clearly necessary - although we may well possess the seed of awakening within ourselves, for most of us it isn't yet fully flourishing - if it were, there would be no need for Zen at all. And so we undertake this practice, meditating, cultivating mindfulness in our daily lives, exploring both inwardly and outwardly, and over time we come to see the truth of our Buddha Nature more and more clearly, in a wider and wider range of circumstances.
That last part is important. It's very common for people to reach a point where they can have a nice experience in meditation, reach a place of great stillness and oneness and so forth, but then it disintegrates the moment the meditation ends and they have to deal with other people again. (People, ugh.) And so the next challenge is to learn not just to visit that place but to live from that place.
And so maybe that's what's going on here. The monk has established himself to some degree in his awakening, he's doing his best to speak from that place, along the way he mentions a line from a poem because it's an authentic description of his experience - but then Yunmen abruptly interrupts, jarring the monk out of his place of awakening, throwing him straight back into the whirring machinations of his discriminating mind by asking him a challenging question. And so Yunmen's reply is not in fact a criticism of the monk's use of Zhang Zhou's words, but really more of a way of saying 'Gotcha! You fell right out of it again, didn't you?' One might imagine the poor monk sighing, rolling his eyes, muttering something like 'Ugh, not again...' and then going back to his practice.
I read a book recently where the author was describing his experience of Zen archery. He'd spent several years working to reach a point where he could shoot an arrow in perfect mental stillness and clarity, and he had come before his master to demonstrate his attainment. Halfway through, the teacher suddenly barked at him to stop, which he found rather irritating since he'd been in mid-flow at that moment. Then the teacher asked him to re-tie his bow string in a certain way that made it immensely harder to draw the bow. He felt tremendous sadness at this turn of events - this was supposed to be a crowning moment of his practice, but instead his teacher had pulled the rug out from under him and made things more difficult again. Evidently seeing his distress, his teacher gently explained that there had been no need for the demonstration - it was evident to the teacher from the moment the man picked up his bow that his training on that level was complete, and that he was ready for a fresh challenge, to take his art deeper still.
Very often, our teachers will say and do things we don't like. This can seem strange and hurtful - perhaps we've come to this practice to feel better, and mostly it does make us feel better, so how come our teachers are being mean to us? But - at least if you have a good teacher, rather than one who is genuinely abusive - your teacher is most likely pointing out a place where you're still stuck, where there's still work to do. This hurts, because nobody likes to have their flaws pointed out, but what's the alternative - that our teachers smile and nod and say 'Yup, you're super-enlightened, well done you' when it isn't true?
Don't be afraid of getting trapped in words
In this article I've outlined three ways in which we might get trapped in words. Note, however, that none of them are actually bad. It's easy to read this koan in a superficial way and say 'Oh, master Yunmen says we shouldn't get trapped in words - right, I'll throw away all my books and avoid learning anything at all, that'll fix it!' But I would argue that that's a mistake. For me, at least, most of the mysteries that have really fuelled my own practice came first from reading them in books, getting 'trapped in words' in the first sense above, and then pursuing my practice like a rabid dog, sometimes for years on end, until I found some measure of what I was looking for. Even at the second stage, when we're trying to find our own words for what's going on, I'd argue that it isn't actually a bad thing to try out the phrases of the old masters. It gives you a place to start, and as you start to feel into which phrases work for you better than others, you'll start to find your own language. And as for the third kind of trap, I'd argue that that's absolutely essential on the spiritual path - other people can see our blind spots far more easily than we can, pretty much by definition - if we could see them, they wouldn't be blind spots!
So, by all means, read, study, get confused, get in a mess, get so thoroughly trapped in words that you can't bear it any longer and have no choice but to meditate your way out of your entanglement. You'll be glad you did.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!