Discovering yourself in stories a thousand years old
This week, we're looking at case 13 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Deshan Carrying His Bowl'. It's one of my favourites, for reasons that I'll explain later. First, a brief aside, and then we'll get into the story.
Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra
For some reason, the title of this koan always makes me think of the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'Darmok'. Captain Picard ends up stranded on a planet with Dathon, a member of an unfamiliar alien race. Picard tries to communicate with Dathon, but it appears that the Universal Translator is broken - Dathon's speech is composed entirely of cryptic statements like 'Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra' and 'Shaka, when the walls fell'.
As the episode goes on, we figure out that Dathon's people have developed a way of speaking which is almost entirely based around references to well-known past stories. Everyone knows the story of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra - which symbolises cooperation - and so by invoking the story, Dathon intends to convey that he and Picard need to cooperate to get out of their situation. But, of course, Picard doesn't know the story of Darmok and Jalad, and so the reference is meaningless to him. (One might imagine the historians of the future trying to make sense of an episode of South Park or The Simpsons.)
In many ways, we have the same issue with koans. At first glance, they're meaningless - many times, even when the story is translated into English, it relies on cultural concepts and references which are totally unfamiliar to us. For example, a classic way to begin a koan is for a monk to ask 'Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?' - which would have been a well-understood way of asking for a teaching in Tang dynasty China, but is totally opaque and mysterious for a modern reader until we know Bodhidharma (the founder of the Zen tradition in China) and the significance of his coming from the West (his journey from India to China to bring a form of Buddhism based primarily around meditation as opposed to scholarly study).
So a good first step in approaching a new koan is simply to decipher its meaning at face value - to find out who Darmok and Jalad are, and what they were doing at Tanagra. We don't stop there, of course - more on that later - but it's a good place to start. So on that note, let's meet this koan's equivalents of Darmok and Jalad.
The cast of characters
Most koans are encounters between two practitioners, but this time we have three.
First, we have Zen master Deshan, who is presumably the head of the temple where this story takes place. He's explicitly established as a Zen master - someone who knows what's what. He's senior enough to have received full transmission from his own teacher, and is the leader of this practice community.
Next, we meet Xuefeng, a monk at the temple. Reading between the lines, we can infer that Xuefeng is more junior in status. He takes his responsibilities seriously, but has a way to go in terms of his practice.
The third character is Yantou, who is most likely a senior of Xuefeng, but junior to the Zen master.
The interplay between these three is quite important to getting a grip on the koan, so make sure you've got the names straight before continuing, or come back here if you lose track of who's who. (The first time I encountered this koan I lost track almost immediately and got hopelessly confused, so don't be like me!)
Right, into the story.
Zen master Deshan makes an oopsie
The story begins with the Zen master screwing up - which may be shocking if you have the idea that Zen master should be fully enlightened, and that being fully enlightened means never doing anything wrong ever again. Sadly, the available evidence seems to point to the contrary. It's certainly possible for people to go so far in the practice to transform themselves in radical ways, but becoming totally perfect? I'm not convinced. Even the historical Buddha is recorded as having made mistakes. In modern times we have ample evidence of senior practitioners who are still evidently capable of serious errors of judgement, and in some cases of ethics - it's easy to say 'Ah well, they weren't really enlightened then,' but I think it's more realistic to acknowledge that, while enlightenment is unquestionably a good and helpful thing, it doesn't magically make you invulnerable to error.
In any case, here we have a portrait of a Zen master who is flawed in a very human way. He mistakes the time of day, and leaves the hall carrying his food bowl. But he's stopped in the corridor by the young monk Xuefeng, who points out his mistake quite directly - 'This is the wrong time, where do you think you're going?'
Personally, I think Deshan's response is telling here. Often a Zen master will respond to a question with an action rather than words, and in this case Deshan simply returns to his room right away. It's the wrong time - there's nothing to be gained by continuing to stand there. But when I think about how I might respond in that situation, it's quite different - I'd feel embarrassed for having made the mistake, maybe a little ashamed for having been caught in the act of being mistaken, and I might feel the need to defend myself. 'Oh really? I'm sure I heard the bell go a little while ago. I wonder what it could have been? Perhaps a bird has gotten into the bell tower again - someone should check that out.'
Honestly, if the koan stopped here, I'd be satisfied with it. I've found it very useful to reflect on when I've been in situations like this - when I should simply return to my room, but instead I feel the need to stand in a corridor trying to cover my embarrassment. Or, more generally, times when there's nothing going on, but rather than simply returning to rest peacefully, I've felt the need to make something interesting happen - reaching for my phone, turning on a computer, whatever it might be.
Nevertheless, the classical koan is far from done at this point. Let's see what happens next.
Xuefeng tells Yantou that the teacher screwed up
So now Xuefeng is feeling pretty good. He's wrong-footed the Zen master - caught him out in a mistake, and called him on it. The teacher didn't even have a reply! He just ran away. So Xuefeng runs to his senior Yantou and says 'Hey, guess what happened? Our crazy old teacher was wandering the halls with his food bowl in the middle of the morning! The old coot has totally lost it!'
There's a great temptation in poking holes in those above us in the social hierarchy, especially nowadays - we just love to tear people down and expose them as 'only human after all'. I remember with great embarrassment the first time I asked one of my teachers a question that he didn't have an answer for right away, and I felt a nasty little surge of pride - 'I've caught him out!' I even told some of my friends about it, just like Xuefeng is doing here.
This is a tricky moment. Xuefeng is in danger of losing respect for his teacher. That's a problem, because often a Zen teacher will ask a student to do something they don't want to do - persist with a difficult practice, explore a painful topic - and it really helps if the student is able to say 'Well, I don't want to, but my teacher says I should, so I'd better do it.' Now, even as I'm writing these words I'm thinking of the ways that that kind of relationship could be abused, and for the avoidance of doubt I'm not talking about the kind of warped power dynamic where students are abused or forced to do unhealthy things against their will. Rather, what I'm pointing to is the kind of Solomon Effect I mentioned in last week's article - a third party, such as a teacher, can often see much more clearly what's going on with you than you can, and a good teacher will sometimes encourage you to keep going when the going gets tough, because it'll be for your great benefit in the long run.
So Yantou could simply say something like 'Don't talk about our teacher that way! Have some respect.' And maybe that would work, but maybe not - maybe that would just cement Xuefeng's arrogance, because now he can think 'Not only have I caught out the teacher, but even my senior doesn't see it!'
So instead Yantou comes up with a scheme. He says 'Yep, the old man's losing it, all right. Calls himself a Zen master, but even he doesn't know what's what. He's missing something - if he were really fully enlightened he wouldn't make such a silly mistake!'
The master calls
Well, Zen master Deshan isn't going to take that lying down. He gets word that Yantou has been talking about him behind his back, and not in complimentary terms. This is probably pretty out of character for Yantou, so Deshan summons him and asks him what's going on.
The koan is a bit coy here, and simply says 'Yantou secretly revealed his intention, and Deshan dropped the subject.' As a result of this coyness, it's possible to overlook what's going on in the story - but we'll come back to that later.
Either way, Yantou and Deshan have a conversation, and we aren't let in on the details. (We could perhaps see this as Xuefeng's perspective - the arrogant young monk knows that a conversation has taken place, but not what exactly what discussed.)
But clearly something important happens in that conversation, because the next day, everything is different...
Deshan gets the last word
Whatever was discussed in that private audience, it seems to have had a significant effect on Deshan. The next lecture he gives is totally different - and it appears to impress Yantou, who previously agreed with Xuefeng's criticism of him. After this new lecture, Yantou makes a point of telling everyone that Deshan now seems to have 'got it' at last - he finally understands the 'last word', whatever that might be, and after this nobody will be able to touch him. Whatever Deshan does from now on is clearly an expression of enlightened wisdom, no matter how mysterious it might seem at the time.
And here the koan ends.
Wait, what just happened?
As I mentioned at the beginning, this koan is one of my favourites, at least partly because when I first read it, I made the exact same mistake as Xuefeng.
From Xuefeng's perspective, he finds a flaw in his teacher Deshan, and his senior confirms that Deshan hasn't gone all the way yet. Then a mysterious conversation takes place behind closed doors, after which Deshan's teaching is totally different. What final secret did Deshan realise? What's the secret teaching? What's the difference between 'nearly fully enlightened' and 'fully enlightened'? And how do we get the magic beans ourselves?
If we take a step back, however, the whole thing was one giant ruse, designed to have exactly this effect on Xuefeng (and, as it turns out, on me!). When Xuefeng goes to speak to Yantou, rather than simply telling him off for being disrespectful, Yantou decides to redirect Xuefeng's arrogance in a way that will ultimately benefit him, a kind of psychological aikido move. Yantou appears to agree with Xuefeng's criticism, then, when summoned to see the master, Yantou secretly tells him what's up. 'Master, I meant no disrespect. But Xuefeng is starting to get too big for his straw sandals - he thinks you're a daft old man who doesn't know what's going on. Maybe you could do something differently tomorrow, and then we can tell him that you're now fully enlightened - so he won't be able to criticise you any more!' And so the next day Deshan gives a teaching in a totally different style, and Yantou seizes the moment to say 'Look! From this point on, everything Deshan does is a deep and secret teaching, no matter how it seems on the surface!'
This is doubly clever, because it both capitalises on Xuefeng's fondness for secrets - he enjoyed one-upping the Zen master, and so will presumably be attracted to the idea of a secret, closed-door teaching that finally elevates Deshan to full enlightenment - and also reframes all of Deshan's future actions as sources of profound esoteric wisdom as opposed to the kind of simple mistakes that we make every day. Xuefeng will now be watching like a hawk, hoping to learn from Deshan rather than continue to undermine him.
Finding meaning in koans
As I said at the beginning of the article, we usually need to start our work with any new koan by simply deciphering the names and references involved - but if we stop there, we're making a mistake. Really, the worst outcome from any kind of koan study is to come away feeling that we now 'understand the koan' because the story makes sense on a superficial level: 'Oh, this story is about a monk who asked too many questions, so Zhaozhou is cutting him off to get him to go and meditate instead of thinking all the time.' That kind of understanding may be intellectually satisfying, but is of no practical value.
Instead, as we spend more time with a koan, we gradually find that layers of meaning will start to emerge - sometimes, these layers can even give rise to totally different interpretations of the story, as is readily apparent comparing any two commentaries on a given koan. We can see this for ourselves very clearly when coming back after some period of time to a koan that we previously felt we 'understood'. As we bring different eyes to it, we notice details we hadn't seen before, or find a new allegory buried in the story.
For my money, koans become most useful when we 'find ourselves in the story'. Perhaps we have the same question or issue as the koan's protagonist; perhaps we see how the teacher's reply can be applied to our own situation; perhaps we remember an incident from our own lives that played out exactly like part of the koan - or that perhaps could have played out that way, if we'd had more presence of mind.
In the present case, the koan made a profound impact on me when I found myself in Xuefeng - the same attitude, the same mistakes, the same arrogance. Once I began to see myself as Xuefeng, I could reflect on the times when I've treated my own teachers poorly, and began to imagine some of the work they've put in on my behalf to try to help me move forward in my own practice - work that, just like the closed-door meeting between Yantou and Deshan, I haven't been privy to, and in some cases might not even have been aware of. Reflecting on this, I was struck by the profound kindness that my own teachers have shown me, patiently taking the time to answer my questions and objections over and over, repeatedly having to watch me ignore their instructions and do my own thing because of course I know better. And at the end of it all, what is the 'secret' that I'm looking for? It was right there at the start of the story - Deshan immediately returned to his room. Perfect ordinariness, in a sense - but an extraordinary ordinariness that I'm certainly not capable of most of the time.
However, that's what I take from his koan. Someone else might get a totally different read from it. A student contacted me recently with a different take on case 8, The Wheelmaker, pointing out an aspect of the story that my own analysis totally overlooked. His own interpretation was very good, seeing the overly-fancy hundred-spoked wheels as a symbol of our greed for unnecessary things, cutting right to the heart of the Three Poisons of Buddhism (greed, hatred and delusion). But does that mean that his interpretation is what the koan is really about, and that my emptiness-based explanation was wrong? Or vice versa? I would say no - both interpretations are valid and useful.
Ultimately, koan study is 'just' another insight practice - another way of examining our experience carefully, looking to see how we deceive ourselves, how we fall into patterns of reactivity and suffering again and again, and how we might become free. Reading a koan on the intellectual level, as a story about something that happened in China a thousand years ago, perhaps interesting as a historical artefact but not particularly relevant to our lives today, is ultimately a missed opportunity. Finding ourselves in the stories, though - wherever and however we do that - is when this practice really comes alive, and really shines a light onto our own situation in a way that can be transformative.
So I suggest you now go back and spend some time with this koan - in meditation, as a contemplation, talking about it with a friend, whatever you'd like to do. And then come back tomorrow, and the next day, and keep going, until it starts to connect with you on a more direct, visceral level - until you find yourself in it. And when that does happen, really explore its implications. What can you learn? What can you apply in your own life?
Maybe what you'll ultimately take from this koan has nothing whatsoever to do with any of my commentary above - and that's fine! Whatever you find, may it be of true and lasting value for you.
This week we're looking at case 12 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Calling the Master', in which we meet Zen Master Ruiyan, who talks to himself every day. A lot of us do! But what he has to say to himself is quite interesting - there's a lot packed into just a few words here, so over the course of this article we're going to take it line by line and see what's going on.
The value of daily practice
The koan starts with the words 'Every day' - this isn't just a one-off, unlike most koans, which are records of specific noteworthy encounters. Rather, Ruiyan has something of a practice here - a daily custom of calling to himself in this way.
Practice is powerful. One of the first books about meditation that I ever read contained a line that I've never forgotten: 'Consistency is more important than intensity or sincerity.' Ultimately, as Buddhism constantly reminds us, everything is impermanent. If we practise for a while, we gain a little skill; but if we stop, that skill tends to fall off again. If we're interested in a breakthrough in our meditation practice, the stream entry of Early Buddhism or kensho of Zen, consistency is even more important - we need to build up a head of steam before we go anywhere.
Generally speaking, the 'right' amount of practice to do is the amount that you actually do - it's much better to meditate for ten minutes three times a week than to intend to practise an hour a day but actually never get around to it. That said, having a daily practice is something that I find psychologically very helpful. When I do something every day, it becomes routine, just a part of who I am; if I do something a couple of times a week, it's something that I do from time to time, when I can fit it in, and it often falls by the wayside when I'm busy. So establishing a daily meditation practice (alongside a daily movement practice in my case) and sticking to it has been tremendously helpful over the years - it's kept me practising at times when I really haven't wanted to, and in retrospect it's been hugely supportive to keep it going in those hard times.
My Zen teacher Daizan likes to say that you're in a good place when your practice has become like brushing your teeth - you know the world won't end if you miss a day, but you feel a bit icky, and you want to get back to it as soon as you can. I think that's pretty good advice.
Calling the Master
So having established that Ruiyan has a daily practice, what is it that he actually does?
He starts by calling to himself - 'Master?' - and responding - 'Yes?' This format of call-and-response may look familiar, especially if you've read my article on case 10, 'Alone and Poor', in which we saw exactly the same pattern. The difference is that in case 10, Caoshan was calling and Qingshui was responding, but in this case Ruiyan is calling to himself - or is he?
Specifically, Ruiyan is calling 'Master?' Sometimes in Zen, the imagery of master and servant is used, or equivalently 'host' and 'guest' (using the model of a roadside guest house). Servants come and go, doing the bidding of the master; guests come and go, partaking of the hospitality of the host. In our own experience, all kinds of things come and go - sights, sounds, feelings, thoughts, impulses, even consciousness - but the true nature of our experience, our Buddha Nature, what Zen Master Bankei called our Unborn Buddha-Mind, is beyond coming and going. When we learn to recognise the distinction between what comes and goes and who we really are, we can rest in the Unborn Buddha-Mind, free from suffering. And, over time, we can learn to live from that place, going out into the world and being of value to those around us.
The trouble is that it's easy to forget that we have this capacity for resting in Buddha Nature. So Ruiyan has made a practise of reminding himself, every day, by calling to his Unborn Buddha-Mind and allowing it to respond naturally, spontaneously and immediately, in just the same way that Qingshui responded to Caoshan's call in case 10. Ruiyan knows, on some level, that he has this capacity within himself - but a daily reminder doesn't hurt!
Be awake! Be alert!
A central term in Buddhism is 'awakening' (also known as enlightenment, but 'awakening' suits today's purposes better). 'But I'm already awake - I've been awake for hours!' you might protest. Well, maybe. But how fully awake are you?
The historical Buddha observed that much of our lives is driven by habitual emotional reactivity. We find ourselves in a situation that isn't quite what we'd like it to be, and reactivity rises up within us, as it tends to do in situations like this one. If we're not careful, we can be swept away by the ensuing tide of thoughts and emotions, and in severe cases only recognise hours or days later what's happened. The Buddha likened this playing-out of patterns of reactivity to being dead - in a certain sense, when a reactive pattern has taken over and is playing out, you aren't fully alive in that moment. You've lost your agency, your ability to make meaningful choices. Someone pushed one of your buttons and now you're acting out a pre-written script.
So a central part of all forms of Buddhist practice is the cultivation of presence - mindfulness, clear comprehension of what's going on. We train ourselves, over and over, to come back to the here and now, putting down the seductive trains of thought or emotional fantasies that pull us away. This simple practice is the core of the modern secular Mindfulness movement, and is also at the heart of Early Buddhism, whose Satipatthana Sutta presents four ways of establishing mindfulness, using the body, vedana (our categorisation of sensations as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), mind states, and mental phenomena.
The third of these 'establishments' of mindfulness is particularly relevant for today's purposes. The Buddha invites us to watch the state of our mind - to see whether it's focused or distracted, contracted or expansive, deluded or clearly aware. Using the mind to watch the mind in this way develops a skill sometimes called 'metacognitive awareness' - using our own cognition to track that very cognition, and thus enabling us to notice when we are starting to drift away from our awake alertness.
Coming back to Ruiyan, his daily practice starts by connecting with his Buddha Nature, calling the master and listening for the response. Next, he forms the intention to be awake, and remain alert in the face of the day's comings and goings - to maintain metacognitive awareness throughout the day. Connecting with one's Buddha Nature is a good start, but the habitual patterns of the mind can easily obscure it again if we aren't careful. So Ruiyan is instructing himself to remain grounded in his Buddha Nature, and resist the lure of reactivity to draw him out of it, invoking his keen self-observational skills to keep himself on track.
Intention is a powerful thing. Having a clearly held intention for our meditation practice is hugely helpful for getting us where we want to go - and, conversely, having a vague or muddled intention is a good setup for going nowhere fast. Similarly, forming intentions for our lives outside of practice is a powerful thing to do, and all the more so if that intention is formed when the mind is focused, perhaps as the result of samadhi practice. So, by taking time each day to set a strong intention for his practice, Ruiyan is increasing the power and effectiveness of his practice significantly.
From now on, don't be fooled by anyone!
In his excellent series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, John Vervaeke talks about 'internalising Socrates' - developing a kind of inner version of the great philosopher, so that the wisdom of Socrates is available to us throughout the day. (You might have encountered another version of this practice in the form of 'What would Jesus do?')
Socrates can come across as a bit of an unsympathetic figure at times, constantly haranguing people and picking apart their arguments without offering anything constructive in return. But what Socrates is really trying to do is to show us our capacity for self-deception - for fooling ourselves into thinking that we know more than we do, or that we understand something that we actually don't. Socrates challenges us to explain how we know what we claim to know - and, in the course of that examination, it often rapidly becomes clear that we aren't as sure as we thought we were.
Like Socrates, Buddhism also suggests that we don't see what's going on as clearly as we might. Buddhism talks about suffering as arising from three 'poisons' or 'fires' - greed, hatred and delusion. Furthermore, greed and hatred are sometimes said to arise dependent upon delusion - so if we can deal with delusion once and for all, that's the whole thing taken care of. Easier said than done! But the invitation here is to examine our experience with great care and caution, looking closely to see how much of what we 'know' to be true is actually true.
This is a hard thing to do. We have all kinds of insight practices and koans to help us to see through what's going on, but on the other hand we're surrounded by reminders of the conventional (and, Buddhism claims, deluded) world view. Unless we live in a community of highly enlightened people, almost everyone around us sees the world in a way that we're trying to see beyond, and thinks, speaks and acts accordingly. Even our architecture reinforces our standard world view - we construct buildings with hard lines and flat surfaces, imposing linear geometric shapes onto the world, and regarding them as successful if they change as little as possible over time. Take a walk in nature, on the other hand, and everything is non-linear, in constant motion, changing, growing and dying. Personally, I think the practitioners of the Thai Forest tradition are onto something by practising out in nature rather than in an urban centre. For those of us who do live in towns and cities (like me), we need to be extra careful!
So Ruiyan is reminding himself that the people 'out there' can't necessarily be trusted to embody the kind of way of life that Ruiyan is seeking for himself. Rather, Ruiyan needs to rely on his 'inner master' - his internalised Socrates, his Buddha Nature and metacognitive awareness - to steer him clear of self-deception.
In some ways, talking to one's 'inner Socrates' as if it's a different person is a pretty smart move. Anything we can do to reduce our identification with me and mine tends to be helpful. One of my first technology mentors used to get me to explain my problems to a stuffed teddy bear if he was too busy to speak to me himself. As ridiculous as it felt to do that, it was actually remarkably helpful - almost always, simply articulating the problem in detail was enough to organise my thoughts sufficiently that a next step would suggest itself. I'm grateful to that bear! There's also a well-known phenomenon, called the Solomon Effect or Solomon Paradox, in which people make much wiser decisions in regard to other people's problems compared to their own. By asking our inner Socrates what he might do in our position, we can potentially engage this Solomon Effect by inviting ourselves to look at what's going on from a dispassionate third-person perspective, rather than the ever-tricky first person, which may be mired in greed, hatred or delusion.
Bringing it all together
We can combine all of the features of Ruiyan's practice into a simple insight meditation practice, using the breathing as our object of focus. We'll start by setting a clear intention, then explore the master/servant relationship in our minds, using metacognitive awareness to keep track of when we're straying away from the practice, and exploring a couple of aspects of reality by bringing in some traditional insight ways of looking from Early Buddhism.
First, establish yourself in a comfortable posture, whatever that means for you. Allow yourself to relax, both physically and mentally. You might like to spend a few minutes resting the attention on the body sensations, or cultivating loving kindness, as a way to settle the mind and establish the conditions for practice.
Next, set your intention. You can say to yourself (either silently or out loud) something like: 'May I see my experience clearly. May I notice when my mind has wandered, and return to the practice. May my investigation benefit all beings.'
Now, bring your awareness to the sensations of your breathing. Allow yourself to breathe naturally - there's no need to control the breath at all, although if you can't help it, it doesn't really matter. Either way, your focus should be on the physical sensations of breathing themselves. Notice the breath flowing in and out of the body, and the gaps in between the in- and out-breaths.
Notice that you don't have to do anything in order to be aware of the breath sensations - and, in particular, you don't have to engage the thinking mind at all in order to notice the breath. The breath sensations are just happening, and are immediately and effortlessly known. Although we very often approach our experience from the standpoint of the thinking mind, in fact the thinking mind is the servant here, and the awareness is the master.
Also, notice that thoughts introduce a kind of subtle disturbance into the mind. It's easiest to notice in the immediate moment after a thought has ceased, where we can observe a kind of peace arising in the wake of the vanishing of the thought. Seeing this subtle disturbance many times can help to break our addiction to our thinking processes, allowing us to rest more consistently in the effortless awareness.
Now simply remain with the breathing, noticing the impermanence of the sensations, the 'just-happeningness' of awareness even in the absence of thought, and/or the subtle disturbances caused by thinking. And whenever you notice that your attention has wandered (using your metacognitive awareness), simply return to noticing these qualities of the breath sensations.
Now do this every day!
Little by little, practice accumulates
This week we're look at case 11 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Testing Hermits'. In this week's story we find our old friend Zhaozhou, who you may remember from case 1 and case 7, at it again. What's with this guy? Why does he say all this weird stuff? Couldn't people talk normally in the Tang dynasty?
Meeting people where they are
My day job is in technology, and from time to time I teach courses and give talks at conferences. The kinds of questions that people ask in those situations are generally easy to answer: a request for factual information, or advice on how to approach a concrete technical problem. I've always been blessed with a good memory for that kind of technical knowledge, and one of the functions I've tended to serve throughout my life has been to act as a repository of useful knowledge for the people around me.
By comparison, the questions I get in a meditation context are often quite different. Sure, every now and again someone will have a technical question about a specific meditation practice, or will want to know what's meant by a bit of Zen jargon. But often, when people speak, it's a mixture of confession, exploration out loud of some deep inner conflict, and/or a request for encouragement in the face of an impossible life situation.
When I first started teaching, I tended to assume that all questions could be dealt with as requests for information, following the same habit that had served me in my life up to that point. But over time I started to notice more and more that that type of answer was missing the mark, and what was needed was something else - to meet the person where they are, and address the hidden motivation behind the explicit question.
I'm not going to claim any great level of skill at this! I get it wrong all the time. Indeed, the ability to meet people exactly where they are seems to be the hallmark of true Zen masters - the classic texts talk about 'two arrows meeting in mid-air' as a poetic description of this level of skill. For me, right now, that's well above my pay grade.
Nevertheless, I try - it's vitally important to do so. I've heard teaching meditation likened to trying to help a blindfolded person walk along a narrow path with danger on both sides. Sometimes you need to say 'go left a bit', and sometimes you need to say 'go right a bit' - it depends on where they are in relation to the path. This can be a little confusing for the other students in the room, who hear me say one thing one week and then the opposite the following week, but that's the nature of the beast. I'm sometimes a little envious of my partner, who is a yoga teacher - I can't help but feel that it would be much easier to teach if one can see clear, visible signs of what's going on with someone's practice, and to be able to demonstrate it oneself in a similarly clear way. Perhaps for the more senior teachers those signs are obvious in themselves and others, but for someone at my level it's a bit of a mystery!
Getting back to the koan
In the story above, Zhaozhou is displaying consummate mastery of this skill. He visits two hermits, and essentially asks them what's going on in their practice. (In Chinese, it's apparently possible to ask a question with only a verb, hence: 'Is there? Is there?' What he's saying is something like 'is there deep realisation?', but without the inconvenient noun that tends toward turning the ongoing process of realisation into a thing.)
Both hermits answer apparently in the same way - by holding up a fist. But in one case, Zhaozhou seems to utter words of criticism, while in the other case he seems to offer praise. How does Zhaozhou know which one to praise and which one to criticise?
In fact, looking at this in terms of praise and blame, rightness and wrongness, is to miss the point. 'Move a little to the left' is just a suggestion to keep someone on the path, not a criticism for having strayed off to the right while blindfolded. Likewise, 'keep going straight on' is also just a suggestion to keep someone on the path, not praise for having stumbled blindly onto the path. In each case, Zhaozhou is saying what the student needs to hear in order to keep them moving in the right direction.
Nevertheless, it's also a mistake to think of both hermits as equal! Zhaozhou's statement to the first hermit is a word of caution: if one's practice is not yet deep, then one is at great risk of falling back into delusion when circumstances become difficult. The encouragement here is to continue to practise, deepening one's insights until they penetrate to the core. By comparison, Zhaozhou's statement to the second hermit indicates that they are free to act in the world from a place rooted in Buddha Nature - and, indeed, that the time is right to do so. Past a certain point, continuing to sit in silent meditation without ever acting in the world is a missed opportunity to express that Buddha Nature throughout the world, for the benefit of all sentient beings. (In fact, if we initially saw Zhaozhou's first statement as a criticism of shallow practice, we could instead see it as encouragement - 'hang in there, keep going, you're doing well but there's further to go' - and if we saw his second statement as praise of a more senior practitioner, we could instead see it as a bit of a spur into action - 'come on, get up off your ass and do something useful'!)
So how do I make enough space for a ship to moor?
Most of us are probably closer to the first hermit than the second! Maybe we've been doing the practice a while, and maybe we've even learnt a lot of the kind of information which is useful for answering those technical questions that I mentioned earlier - we can describe the techniques, the postures, the theory and philosophy. Nevertheless, life still seems to be pretty much the same. When are things going to change?
Our practice tends to pass through a series of stages - and not just once, but many times over, for many different facets of our lives. We begin in a condition of ignorance, or delusion - we think that things are a certain way, but we're mistaken. Over time, and through careful observation, we notice that things are the way we thought they were - we gain the knowledge that our habitual way of seeing things is inaccurate. Nevertheless, the momentum of habit energy is such that we continue to play out the same patterns that we always have - we know we should change our behaviour, but we still act unwisely. At this point, conscious effort is required, to keep reminding ourselves of what we know but have not yet fully absorbed, steering our behaviour in the new direction over and over. This stage can be frustrating, painful and exhausting, but the good news is that it doesn't last forever - eventually, we learn the new habit, and the knowledge we've gained transforms into wisdom. Our behaviour is now automatically aligned with the deeper truth that we've seen, without any need for conscious intervention. In time, we may even forget that we ever needed to use effort - the new behaviour has become so fully part of us, so obvious, that it becomes difficult to remember a time when it was any other way.
It can help to bear this progression of wisdom in mind when doing the same old insight meditation practice for the thousandth time, or trying and failing yet again to enter jhana. I've always been a fan of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and Call of Cthulhu, and one way that helps me is to think of even a failed attempt to enact a new behaviour or a totally uneventful, uninsightful meditation session as having given me one more experience point than I had before. (My notebook from my most recent retreat has many, many entries which contain '+1XP' - I was trying out some new stuff, and failed many many times over before I got anywhere with it, so the sense that I was racking up XP even in my unsuccessful forays was pretty helpful in keeping me motivated.) Eventually, we rack up enough XP to level up our characters and gain those new abilities we've been looking forward to - the only drawback is that we don't know how much XP we have right now, or how much we need to level up! (Honestly, it's a terrible user interface.)
A practice for grinding XP
Let's make this concrete. Here's a simple tweak to the practice from last week's article that you can use to explore the principle of anatta, not-self. As before, take one sense sphere at a time and notice the sensations arising within it, and the vedana associated with those sensations. Now, ask one more question: 'am I making this happen'? Are you, personally, causing those sensory phenomena to arise, or the associated sense of pleasant/unpleasant/neutral? Or are they just happening by themselves? And what's the difference between the two cases - what specifically indicates to you that 'I'm doing this!' versus 'that's just happening'?
Make it a genuine inquiry - there's no right answer here for any individual asking of the question. Over time you'll find a pattern starts to emerge, and as it does it can get quite interesting to look at the occasions when your answer doesn't fit the pattern. But for now, just start asking! Each time you ask, you gain an experience point. You'll probably need a lot of XP to level up, but that's all the more reason to start asking sooner rather than later... So give it a go!
How a life lived from our true nature might unfold
The story above is case 10 in the Gateless Barrier, a classic collection of Zen stories. It concerns a monk named Qingshui, who at first sight appears to be in some distress, and a seemingly rather callous response from the Zen master, Caoshan.
As usual, though, there's more to this story than meets the eye. Qingshui is actually at a pivotal point in his practice, and Caoshan's response is truly kind and compassionate. But to get to the point where we can see that for ourselves, we'll need to dig into what's being said here. So let's do it!
Alone and poor
When we first begin to investigate our experience, we start to discover the many layers of our being. Our sensory is experience is actually quite simple - coloured shapes, sounds and tactile sensations which our minds translate into the objects of the world that we perceive - and then we overlay stories about who we are, what's going on and how it all relates back to us. We can learn to see these stories for the mental fabrications that they are, as we discussed in case 8 a couple of weeks ago, and ultimately start to see through them to a simpler, more fundamental layer of experience beyond them.
In due course we begin to let go of more and more of the stories we've clung to all our lives (like Zen Master Xiangyan in case 5), and gradually find freedom from those fictitious, limiting self-identities. And ultimately we discover that every aspect of our 'self' is like this - just a convenient, temporary way of explaining experience to ourselves, rather than an ultimately true 'thing' (as we saw in case 6). In Buddhist terminology, we sometimes call this 'seeing the emptiness of the self'. There's even a step beyond, which we might call 'seeing the emptiness of the world', in which we realise that the same process of deconstruction can be applied to literally everything else too. Ultimately, nothing is absolutely 'real' in the way that it normally appears to be.
As our understanding of emptiness deepens, we can sometimes find ourselves coming to a point of crisis. If I'm not any of the things I thought I was - who the heck am I? How am I supposed to operate in the world if I can't trust my own thoughts about myself? Am I going to become a kind of Zen zombie, a bland non-person who just sits there staring into space, or a doormat who everyone takes advantage of? And if nothing else is really real either, then what does it matter what I do? Does ethical behaviour even matter in an empty world? How come Buddhists talk so much about compassion if the world is empty?
And so, coming back to the koan, poor old Qingshui is having a bit of a wobble. He's gone deep into his meditation practice, and from the sounds of things he's seen deeply into emptiness. He describes himself as alone and poor - formerly he experienced himself as a thing in a world of things, surrounded by people and possessions, but now he finds himself 'being nobody, going nowhere', to borrow a phrase from Ayya Khema, my teacher's teacher on the Early Buddhist side. Qingshui is asking for help - he doesn't know how to act from the basis of his new experience.
Drinking the wine of the Zen purists
Caoshan's response looks a bit odd at first. Rather than answering Qingshui's question directly, he simply calls Qingshui's name. Qingshui responds automatically - as we tend to when someone calls our name. Caoshan then says that weird thing about the three cups of wine. Basically, the upshot of this is that Caoshan is saying 'Look, Qingshui, you already have everything you need. You don't need to ask me for anything. You're fine, just the way you are.'
Perhaps Caoshan's reply might come across as a bit of a platitude - like he's saying 'there, there, you'll be OK, just hang in there'. It's certainly true that, although Qingshui's experience can feel a bit disorienting, it's ultimately nothing to worry about. Most people do go through a period of adjusting to their new perspective on things, but with support from a teacher or spiritual friends, it generally works itself out just fine.
But Caoshan's reply actually goes beyond simple encouragement. Caoshan has, in effect, already proven to Qingshui that he knows how to function just fine. How? By calling Qingshui's name.
Qingshui describes himself as 'alone and poor' - head-first into emptiness, no longer any sense of himself as a separate individual. And yet, the moment his name is called, he responds automatically - just fine. There's no confusion - 'Who is this Qingshui person? What's going on?' No - his name is called, and he responds immediately.
So, although right now Qingshui is having a new and strange experience of the world, something within his mind-body system still knows how to function in the conventional world. Qingshui has already been through childhood and adolescence; he's learnt to interact with the world, take care of himself, and function as an independent being. Those practical skills don't suddenly go away just because we see that the stories about who we are are merely stories. But rather than simply talking about it (as I'm doing here), which may or may not be persuasive, Caoshan is showing Qingshui directly that he can still function just fine in the world.
(People who've been following these articles on the Gateless Barrier from the start might like to go back to case 2 at this point. At the time I glossed over the exchange at the end, where Baizhang and Huangbo have an exchange that involves a similar call-and-response, but in that case ends with the student outsmarting the teacher. When you understand what's going on in this week's koan, that exchange should make a lot more sense.)
So what changes?
At this point, we might have gone from one extreme to the other - previously, it sounded as though we wouldn't be able to do anything from this strange new perspective of emptiness, but now it sounds like I'm saying nothing of consequence has changed - so what's the point?
Actually, life changes significantly as we learn to live from the standpoint of emptiness, and those changes are for the better, both for ourselves and for others. We find ourselves naturally acting in ways that are kinder and more compassionate - in a sense, we discover that those positive qualities of the heart which we might previously have seen as something to be cultivated through practices like the Brahmaviharas are actually part of the natural expression of our true nature, when we're coming from this place of emptiness.
I've mentioned that I was on retreat recently, and on that retreat one of the teachers, Jason Bartlett, mentioned that he'd heard renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche explain the change in these terms (which I'll paraphrase, because I don't remember Jason's exact words):
Living organisms naturally orient towards what's pleasant and away from what's unpleasant. The difference is that we normally approach the pleasant in a self-centric way - 'Me (and mine) first, then everyone else second, if there's enough left.' When we see the emptiness of self deeply enough, our self-centric concerns (and all of the emotional reactivity and suffering associated with them) fall away. We still retain that orientation towards the pleasant and away from the unpleasant, but we no longer see it in terms of 'my pleasant' versus 'your pleasant' - there's simply a sense of 'this is what would be best in this situation'.
In my own experience, what I've found is that, over time, I've become less concerned with 'my suffering' and more open to what's going on around me - increasingly I simply notice 'suffering', whether 'mine' or 'someone else's', and the motivation to do something about that suffering arises naturally regardless of whose suffering it is. That quality of experience is most pronounced at times when my sense of self-centrism is at its quietest.
To be clear, this is absolutely not about saying 'I don't matter any more, I have to do things for other people now.' That's actually just another kind of (really quite strong) self-centrism, albeit a form which is rather negative towards oneself! When coming from the view of emptiness, we continue to take care of ourselves just fine - we no longer put ourselves either before everyone else or after everyone else. We're people, just the same as everyone else.
(And for those of you who read last week's article and have been mulling over what it means to 'fulfil the way of Buddhahood' - this should be a big clue!)
Exploring this orientation towards the pleasant
There's a practice from the Early Buddhist tradition which can help us to explore some of these themes in our direct experience. It's the second of the four establishments of mindfulness given in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, 'mindfulness of vedana'.
Vedana is a much-debated term, but for our purposes we can look at it as our immediate, intuitive sense that what we experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The colours and shapes we see with the eye, the sounds we hear with the ear, the sensations we feel with the body, the thoughts we think with the mind, all have this quality of being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, and so we can deliberately incline our attention towards observing this aspect of our experience.
A good way to work with vedana is to examine one sense sphere at a time - e.g. start with sounds, then body sensations, then sights, then thoughts. (I recommend that order because sound vedana tends to be the easiest way in for most people, while it's easiest to get lost in sights and thoughts.) What you'll probably find is that we actually pay relatively little attention to the direct sensory experience itself under most circumstances - instead, we experience thoughts or emotions in relation to our interpretation of what we're seeing, hearing or feeling, and the vedana of the mental activity is what dominates our experience. So it's an excellent exercise to see if we can distinguish between the vedana from the five senses and the vedana of the ensuing mental activity. Along the way, you may also notice the way we tend to be drawn subtly towards the positive aspects of our experience, and subtly repelled by the negative aspects of our experience.
So those are the core instructions for the practice, and it can be very fruitful to explore your experience in exactly the way I've described. Something else that might come up, however, is that you might find that your relationship to the positive and negative aspects of experience undergoes a shift at some point. You might find yourself in a place where the pleasant/unpleasant nature of things is still recognised, and yet there's no 'pull' or 'push' whatsoever associated with them - instead, there's a sense that things are totally fine exactly the way they are. If that quality is noticed strongly, experience may even appear to be 'perfect', just the way it is. If you find yourself there, you have two choices - one is to continue with the practice as I've described it, while the other is simply to rest in this experience of perfection. In such moments, what's happening is that the layer of self-centric preference that usually sits on top of our experience has temporarily gone quiet. It feels as though we're experiencing in a simpler, more direct, even more true way, undistorted by our personal preferences. This kind of experience is a taste of our true nature, a little glimpse of how it might be to live life from the standpoint of emptiness, as described above. So, if this perspective does arise, it's not only totally valid but - at least from the Zen perspective - actively encouraged to rest in it. In moments like this, we're seeing the world from a wiser perspective, and the more we have those glimpses, the more we learn to abide in that perspective - the more we learn to live from who we really are.
So give it a go and see what you discover!
Making space for insight to arise
The story above is case 9 in the Gateless Barrier, 'The Buddha Capable of Great Penetrating Knowledge.'
It's an exchange which looks like it could have been quite irritating from the perspective of the monk! The monk asks a question, and the teacher just replies 'Yep, that's a good question all right.' So then the monk asks again, and the teacher essentially replies 'because'.
Sometimes, Zen masters just point-blank refuse to answer questions. As annoying as this might appear, in the long run it's because that's what is in the student's best interest. Perhaps this was a student who had an extensive academic knowledge of Buddhism but not a particularly strong meditation practice - maybe the monk felt he didn't need to do all that tedious meditation practice because he already 'knew' what the point of meditation practice is.
Ultimately, though, second-hand insights are not that much use - certainly not compared to the transformative power of insights we've had for ourselves, through honest and diligent practice. We might hear about how hot Egypt is in the spring, but until we've been there and endured the stifling 40-degree heat for ourselves, our knowledge lacks the visceral quality of direct experience. Zen is no different.
A question we might well ask, however, is why sitting still and doing nothing should produce any kind of insight at all - particularly if, given the story above, the Buddha Capable of Great Penetrating Knowledge sat still for ten whole eons (that's a long time!) and still wasn't able to fulfil the 'way of Buddhahood', whatever that means.
How does sitting still doing nothing help?
Clearly, meditators throughout the ages have found great value in sitting still for extended periods of time, although opinions vary as to the extent to which one should 'do nothing' versus 'doing something'. Many of the practices in Early Buddhism certainly have a quality of doing something - jhana practice, many insight practices, and the cultivation of the Brahmaviharas all involve at a minimum setting an intention and focusing the mind in a certain way, and some are considerably busier than that. Within Zen, we have two main practices representing two schools of thought - working with a koan is again very much a 'doing something' practice, whereas Silent Illumination (also known as 'just sitting') is much more in the 'doing nothing' vein.
Zen Master Dogen, founder of the Japanese Soto school of Zen, was a strong advocate of the 'just sitting' practice. There's an anecdote about Dogen that I came across in Karlfried Graf Dürckheim's book Hara: The Vital Center of Man that I really like:
[I]t is said of Master Dogen that, when asked his opinion of the method practised in the Rinzai sect, he answered, 'Very good, very good.'
'How so?' the other asked. 'They practise the koan, don't they?'
'Well,' said Master Dogen, 'there may be people who can sit still only if they have something to think about. However, if they achieve enlightenment that way, it is not thanks to their thinking but to their sitting still.'
Maybe it's just my sense of humour, but I chuckle every time I read that.
So what's the big deal about sitting still? Why would it help?
One explanation I came across recently (on Michael Taft's Deconstructing Yourself podcast) is that the experience of 'insight' - a sudden shift in perspective or discovery of the solution to a problem, seemingly arrived at 'out of the blue', rather than as the result of a patient process of analytical deduction - is that it occurs when our brains simplify themselves. As we study a problem over a period of time, we gradually build up more and more conceptual scaffolding around the problem, probing it from multiple directions to understand it better. Then, abruptly and unconsciously, the solution is discovered, and the unnecessary scaffolding falls away, leaving a new, elegant structure in its wake.
It's very common to solve a problem whilst in the bath, out walking the dog, or otherwise doing something totally unrelated to the problem. That's because problem-solving continues at the unconscious level even if we aren't working on it consciously, and in some ways it can actually help if we aren't working on it consciously, because we may simply be filling our heads with more and more thoughts - adding more and more scaffolding - so there isn't enough space left in our system for that radical simplification to occur.
That isn't to say that the 'work' of thinking about a problem (or engaging in a 'doing something' meditation practice) is useless, of course. If nothing else, doing that work allows us to focus on the problem for an extended period of time - and, as Dogen suggests, there's no getting around the need to spend that time one way or another. We also do need that conceptual scaffolding - it's hard to build something new if you don't have a supporting structure. So we can see the 'do something' practices as explicitly contributing to that scaffolding - and in the case of a pure 'just sitting' tradition like Soto Zen, that scaffolding has to come from other sources, such as listening to Dharma talks and contemplating them outside of formal practice.
Correlation is not causation
Considering the possibility that simply spending time with something is what's most important, and how you spend that time is less important, can actually be quite liberating and empowering for one's personal practice. It takes the pressure off to find the 'right' or 'best' practice, and assures us that it's enough just to do something.
I was on a two-week retreat recently, and partway through the retreat I had some fairly strong fear come to the surface. It was quite interesting to watch the progression - first I started having disturbed (and disturbing!) dreams, but nothing on the conscious level. After a few days in which I repeatedly set an intention to allow the fear to come to the surface, it started to show up during the waking hours (and stopped showing up in my dreams), first as a kind of subtle undercurrent of anxiety, and later as a much clearer, strong experience of fear. Some time later, it gradually released itself, and didn't come back for the rest of the retreat.
I've learnt a few techniques for working with fear (loving kindness, compassion, using the second, third and fourth jhanas, deconstructing the fear through noting, the list goes on), and especially when the fear was quite strong, I cycled through all of them, trying to find something that worked. Then I had an interview with one of the teachers on the retreat, who gave me a new method for dealing with it (holding the fear in the background of awareness whilst maintaining awareness of awareness in the foreground) - and a day later, the fear was gone.
At first, I thought 'Wow, that method is incredibly powerful, it's much better than the others!' Then, a couple of days later, another strong emotion started to come up, and so I naturally turned to this new technique... and, yeah, it helped, but it didn't immediately 'fix' the situation. Crushing disappointment - it was a fluke, the new technique isn't a silver bullet after all. Bah!
But my experience makes a lot more sense if viewed in the light of the Dogen quotation above. My Zen teacher Daizan has often said that all we need to do (in most cases) to work with difficult emotions is to bring non-judgemental awareness to them and sit with them; naturally, over time, they will 'untwist' and release themselves. What's important here is the combination of awareness and elapsed time, not having a super-secret technique to work with it. However, particularly when a difficult emotion is very strong, it can be extremely difficult to 'just sit' with it for extended periods, and so having other techniques that we can use to work with the emotion a little more actively can really help us to keep going.
This way of looking at practice may also explain the kind of experience that we often see reported in spiritual circles - where a teacher trained for 15 years in a certain style and got 'nothing' out of it, then switched to a different approach and 'immediately' had a breakthrough, as a result of which they now only teach the thing they were doing at the moment they 'got it' - but they seem to have a whole lot of students who aren't 'getting it' quite that easily. Just like I assumed that my whizzy new technique for dealing with fear was what had finally caused it to release, and in so doing I ignored all the prior work that had gone into it with the other techniques, it may well be that it was actually those 15 years of training which laid the groundwork for the breakthrough. Zen Master Bankei could be argued to fit that pattern, and so could Dogen. I can think of a number of modern-day teachers who fit the mould as well.
Working with the koan
Coming back to the koan, we can't deny that the Buddha Capable of Great Penetrating Knowledge had put in the hours. I don't know how many hours are in ten eons, but it's a lot - more than I've practised! But even with all that sitting, he still didn't fulfil the way of Buddhahood. Why was that?
Rather than having me simply tell you, maybe it would be better for you to find out for yourself - perhaps even by sitting still. Give it a go!
The power of story-telling
(This is the second time I've written this article. The first time around, the article was 90% complete, then the whole thing vanished when I tried to save the post - ironically so that it would be backed up in case I accidentally closed the page in my browser. I'd like to say 'a lesson in impermanence!' but honestly it's just a bit annoying... Anyway, here we go for the second time.)
This week we're looking at case 8 in the Gateless Barrier, titled 'The Wheelmaker'. This particular koan is another case where I find the translation I've been using so far - that of Thomas Cleary - actually not to be as helpful as it could be. So let's take a look at Guo Gu's translation, which provides a bit more detail that Cleary omits:
Xizhong Makes a Carriage
Master Yue'an asked a monk, 'Xizhong makes carriages with wheels of a hundred spokes. Yet, dismantle the two parts, the front and the back of the carriage, and remove the axle, then what will the carriage be?'
OK, that gives us more to work with. We have an image of an evidently very fine carriage made by the master artisan Xizhong, who makes very elaborate hundred-spoked wheels. The carriage is composed of front and back parts (presumably where the driver and the passenger sit respectively?), two of these fancy wheels, and an axle holding the whole thing together. And the questioner is asking: if we take away everything except the two wheels, at that point, what use are the wheels, no matter how fancy they are?
To put it in modern language: Rolls Royce make beautiful engines, but if you take a Rolls Royce car and remove the wheels, the seats, the chassis and the transmission, what good does that beautiful engine do now?
This question by itself is well worth contemplating in the koan style. A related question which is also very worthy of exploration is this: 'In the absence of any thoughts about who I am, who am I?' In other words, if we remove all of our usual ego supports, all the usual patterns of thought and behaviour which we use to remind ourselves of our identity from moment to moment, what's left? In a moment with no thought at all, who are you then?
However, I'm going to go in a different direction this week. I spent the last two weeks on a retreat in the early Buddhist style, and I've come away with a reinvigorated appreciation for the techniques in that tradition. Maybe you're a Zen person through and through, in which case the first part of this article may well be enough for you. But I think it's interesting to explore other approaches, and different methods work for different people, so over the next few weeks I'm going to bring a few perspectives from early Buddhism into these articles as well, even as we keep working through the Zen stories in the Gateless Barrier. I hope you'll enjoy the journey!
Direct experience and the stories we weave to explain it
Buddhism sometimes describes our experience as fabricated - that is, 'constructed' by the mind. When we look around, we see a world of 'things' - computer screen, keyboard, door, wall, tree, antelope and so on. But what our eyes actually 'receive' is light at particular frequencies impacting the retina at the back of the eyeball. Similarly, our ears receive vibrations in the air through our eardrum, and so on. Our brain then takes that sensory input and makes sense of it, first understanding those light frequencies as colours and shapes, then recognising patterns and providing labels like 'car', 'cat', 'banana', and finally deciding how we feel about cars, cats or bananas and what we want to do as a result. By the time our conscious experience arises, all of that processing has taken place, and so our conscious experience is presented to us in finished form - a world of things, about which we have a variety of feelings, and toward which we may have various impulses (eat the banana, chase the cat out of the back garden so it doesn't kill the birds).
Notice that, in that last example, we were already moving well beyond the simple perception of 'cat'. We've now recognised that there's a cat, it's in the back garden, we remember that it likes to kill birds and we don't want it to do that, and so we feel motivated to take action. There's a level of interpretation taking place now - we're starting to develop a narrative to explain what's taking place, rather than simply noticing a bunch of objects and going no further than that.
In general, our minds like to have an explanation for what's going on. We feel much more at ease when we feel we know what's happening - even if the explanation we have is actually not very good! (I could cite scientific research to justify this claim, but for our purposes it's much better if you check it out for yourself. Look at the stories you tell yourself. How do you know they're true? Are there other stories which fit the same events?)
So what tends to happen is that an initial perception ('cat') will trigger a subsequent thought (memory of cat chasing birds), which triggers something else (a memory of sadness the last time the cat killed some birds), ... and on and on. The Buddha had a term for this, panañca, usually translated as 'mental proliferation', and it's here that the bulk of our avoidable suffering arises. Our minds come up with negative stories (I'm not good enough, so-and-so doesn't like me), and then latch onto them, newly alert for more 'evidence' which can be used to support the story (look, it happened again, I knew I was no good at this), until eventually we become trapped, unable to step out of the story to see ourselves differently. (Or, of course, it goes the other way - we start to buy into our own publicity and become so enamoured in our stories about how great we are that we overlook our shortcomings.)
So what can we do about this?
Change the label, change the story, change the experience
The key point here is that there's a vicious circle going on. We perceive something negative, we generate a negative story, the negative story conditions us to perceive more negative things, which feeds the negative story, and on and on. Sometimes we can escape this cycle through a simple bare awareness practice, where we just sit with our experience and allow it to quieten down naturally - it can be, especially if we've seen the fabricated nature of our minds experientially, that just sitting in this way can be enough to see through the stories and rediscover our original freedom. At times, though, that can be really difficult! And it can help to have another approach.
A technique that we find in early Buddhism comes from the Satipatthana Sutta, the discourse on establishing mindfulness. This discourse has a wide range of different mindfulness practices, grouped into four categories - the body, the vedana of experience (our sense that this or that is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), the state of our mind, and mental phenomena - and this week we'll take a brief look at one of the body-based practices, that of the Four Elements.
First, what are the Four Elements? Classically, we have:
If those don't make any sense to you, my teacher Leigh Brasington prefers to interpret them in scientific terms:
So pick a definition that you like (either will do, it really doesn't matter), and then set yourself up in meditation. Bring your attention to your body, and notice what sensations arise. When you notice a sensation, give it one of four labels - Earth, Fire, Air or Water. Then let it go, and see what sensation you notice next. If you notice anything other than the body, such as sounds or thoughts, that's fine, but just let them go without labelling them. Right now, your attention is on the body, labelling and classifying the sensations into these four buckets. And that's it - just keep doing that.
Why does this work? Well, let's suppose you're having a common meditation experience: you've been sitting for a while, and your body is starting to ache. Now you're feeling uncomfortable, and you want to move. You start to wonder if the sitting is nearly over - oh, but there's that pain again, and although you know you aren't actually hurting yourself, it's still really unpleasant, and you'd like it to stop, and ...
Now let's bring the Elements to it. So you've been sitting for a while, and now Earth, Earth, some Fire, Earth, Air, Fire, Fire, Earth, Water, and ...
Notice how much less interesting the second story is! The first one is a tale of pain, sadness and frustration. The second one is just a list of elements. It's hard to get too excited - or dismayed - about the second story, whereas the first one is pretty captivating.
Two valuable things are happening here. First, in a pinch, we're avoiding mental suffering due to the discomfort of sitting by consciously, deliberately working with our experience in such a way that we're telling a simple, boring story rather than a rich, distressing one. We should never do this to get out of a situation where we're actually damaging ourselves, but as a way of dealing with the usual everyday discomforts of sitting, it can be very helpful. Second, and much more importantly in the long run, we're also seeing directly, in real time, how the labels that we bring to our experience actually contribute to creating that experience. When we start to take that on board at the deepest level, the fabricated nature of our experience becomes much more evident, and we naturally take our mentally constructed vexations less seriously than we did before.
Coming back to the koan
Now that we know the Four Elements practice, we can see the koan in a new way. Like carriages, stories are useful. If all we have is a pile of disconnected parts, it's difficult to get anywhere. It's helpful to have a sense of who we are and how we're moving through the world.
At the same time, though, it's invaluable to remember that it's just a collection of parts which have been assembled in a certain way. And if one of the wheels of our carriage starts sticking instead of turning properly, we're going to have a bumpy ride - unless we're able to take the carriage apart, clean the various bits, replace anything that's totally bent out of shape, and then put the whole thing back together again.
May your ride be smooth!
Clinging to a square peg in a world of round holes
This week we're looking at case 7 in the Gateless Barrier, appropriately titled 'Wash your bowl'. You might recall Zen Master Zhaozhou from case 1, in which a monk asks about Buddha Nature and is given a surprising answer. Now Zhaozhou is at it again, apparently placing more importance on cleanliness than teaching Zen - or is he?
Beginner's Mind, and the drawback of excessive learning
One of the first, most influential and most beloved Zen teachers in the West was Shunryu Suzuki, who ran the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1960s, and introduced a whole generation to a particular take on Zen practice. He is widely known for encouraging people to cultivate what he called 'beginner's mind' - indeed, the term is popular enough that a great many people who know nothing whatsoever about Zen will be familiar with at least the second half of Suzuki's famous statement:
'If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.'
Now, a little care is needed here. This statement is sometimes taken as a rejection of any kind of expertise at all, an indication that someone with no knowledge whatsoever about a field of study is not only just as capable of solving problems within that field as a so-called expert, but they're actually better able to do that, because the narrow-minded expert is supposedly hamstrung by their prejudices, whereas someone who just walked in off the street will produce more creative ideas due to being free of preconceptions. Personally, I hope I don't have to have brain surgery performed by my eight-year-old god-daughter anytime soon. I think there's a definite role for the cultivation of expertise, and I'm personally very grateful for the many years of hard work put in by those at the top of their fields. I have no idea how to build a bridge or repair a leaking gas main, and I'm very glad that there are people who do!
Suzuki is not rejecting experts and expertise. Rather, he's pointing to the way our perceptions change over time, with experience, and suggesting that we cultivate a certain kind of flexibility in our outlook, as opposed to allowing ourselves to become jaded, narrow-minded, painted into a corner by our own repetitive patterns of thought.
Let's now take a brief detour through some of the ideas of modern cognitive science, to get a sense of what's going on behind the scenes, and then bring it back to our direct experience to see if we can understand Suzuki's point at a subtler (and much more useful) level than the common interpretation.
Salience and cognitive framing
(The information in this section comes from John Vervaeke's excellent YouTube series Awakening From The Meaning Crisis. Highly, highly recommended if this kind of thing is of interest to you.)
One of the most important functions of our brains is what's called 'salience landscaping'. Basically, in any given situation, we have to figure out what matters most. At any moment, there's an infinite number of things we could be paying attention to - sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, memories, plans - but usually only a particular subset of those possible experiences is salient, i.e. relevant, to what we're trying to do. If I'm cycling in heavy traffic, I probably don't want to be analysing the sensations in each of my toes to see which one feels the warmest - I have more immediate concerns, like the cars whizzing past me and the traffic light changing to red up ahead.
Over time, we learn to identify what information is most salient in a wide range of different circumstances - and, as if by magic, that information 'pops' into our consciousness, like someone has applied a highlighter pen to certain sections of a page of text before handing it to us. When we're speaking to someone in an environment with a moderate amount of background noise, their words are salient while other conversations are not, so we're able to follow what's being said without having to sift through all the other simultaneous sounds at the conscious level. When we're scrolling through the latest offerings on Netflix, the movies and shows which match our interests are more salient than those that don't - they stand out from the crowd, so we can scan through screen after screen of junk fairly quickly looking for something that interests us. We sometimes find that a person we only vaguely know suddenly becomes more interesting to us when we learn that they have the same hobby as us - by virtue of the shared interest, that person is suddenly more salient to us than they were.
Key to this process is that our 'salience landscape' is adaptive - different features of our experience are salient in different situations. Noticing whether a traffic light is red or green is very important to me when I'm cycling, but if I'm sitting at a desk writing an article about Zen, I don't care whether the traffic light on the street outside my window is red, green or not working at all - honestly, I'd rather not know at all, because I'd prefer to focus all of my attention on what I'm trying to say. So it's very good news that we're able to move from one situation to another, shifting from one 'cognitive frame' to another as required.
However, this process isn't perfect. For one, if we don't recognise that it's happening, we won't realise that whatever we experience is only a way of looking at what's going on, as opposed to the truth. Our immediate subjective experience seems very clear and direct, doesn't it? There's no hint that what we're experiencing has been shaped by our cognitive frame in any way. Yet we also know that other people can bring different cognitive frames to the same situation, with different salience landscapes - and we may find that we disagree or even argue as a result, unable to understand why some trivial detail seems to be so important to the other person when they're blindly ignoring what's really important here.
Furthermore, the system is prone to error and distortion over time. If we consume a lot of negative news, we'll come to see the world as much darker and more hostile than someone who limits their media consumption - the threats will have become more salient to us than to the other person. And if we are repeatedly exposed to inaccurate, harmful ideas (such as racist ideologies), our salience landscape may shift to accommodate those poisonous ideas - we can become more and more likely to notice little details that 'prove' what we already 'know' about certain groups of people, for example. (This 'confirmation bias' also shows up in a more benign form as the 'yellow car phenomenon' - typically you don't care about yellow cars and never notice them, until one day you start thinking about buying a yellow car, at which point you start seeing them everywhere.)
Go wash your bowl
Let's get back to the koan now. On the face of it, we have a simple exchange. A monk wants an instruction from the teacher; Zhaozhou then asks if he's had his breakfast, and when the monk says yes, Zhaozhou tells him to go and wash his bowl.
We need to eat to survive. (I was going to say 'we need to eat breakfast' but I don't want to alienate readers who subscribe to a different eating model...) In the case of Zhaozhou's monastery, the monks eat a simple breakfast of gruel; the gruel goes in a bowl, and the monk eats the gruel. So far, so good. But now that the bowl and gruel have served their purpose, it's time to wash the bowl - to clean out the remaining bits of gruel, so that they don't weld themselves to the bowl and go nasty over time. Washing the bowl every day keeps it clean and fit for purpose, and stops the monks from getting ill from eating gruel out of horrible mouldy bowls.
We can look at our minds in the same way. We need to adopt particular cognitive frames to deal with the situations that life throws at us. But it's also very helpful if we can learn to put those frames down again - to move deliberately toward a condition of simplicity, through a practice such as Silent Illumination. By doing so, we 'clean' our minds - we return over and over to a condition of openness, the 'beginner's mind' which is open to many possibilities. In so doing, we become flexible, responsive, able to move from frame to frame as needed but without getting stuck there. A hand is useful because it can pick up objects, but if we never put those objects down again, we lose the utility of the hand. In the same way, our minds can adapt to all sorts of different situations, but if we aren't willing to put down the cognitive frame that served us in the last situation, we may not be able to pick up an appropriate frame for the next situation. We find ourselves thinking 'But it isn't supposed to be like this!', unable to move forward because we're still trying to fit the square peg we expected to need into the round hole of the actual situation.
In the long run, then, we can view the entire path of Zen training as learning to wash our bowls. We spend time in silence, letting go of whatever is encrusting our minds over and over, and we develop introspective awareness, becoming sensitive to our own state, able to notice when we're still holding on to yesterday's gruel rather than making room for today's. In time, we get better and better at noticing when we're sliding into a cognitive frame that doesn't fit the situation, letting go and opening up to a wider view which affords us more possibilities, and then bringing our genuine expertise to bear on whatever's going on. Life becomes less stop-start, less of a battle, more of a flow.
So what are you waiting for? Go wash your bowl!
Overcoming the inner critic with emptiness
The story above, case 6 in the collection of koans known as the Gateless Barrier, represents a pivotal moment in the history of Zen. Sometimes called the 'flower sermon', it is the moment when the first 'transmission' took place - when Kashyapa was formally identified as the Buddha's successor.
We'll talk about lineage and succession more when we get to case 22, in which the Buddha's chief attendant Ananda asks Kashyapa what exactly the Buddha transmitted to him. This week, however, we're going to go in a different direction.
The language of the koan
These koans were written and compiled many hundreds of years after the time of the historical Buddha - the Gateless Barrier was a product of the Chinese Sung dynasty, and is believed to date from the early 13th century CE. By comparison, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, lived in the 5th century BCE - so we're already talking about a distance of almost two thousand years.
So the koan begins by situating us in time and space - specifically ancient times, and on Spiritual Mountain, which is also known as Vulture Peak. (I must admit, I've only ever heard it called Vulture Peak, so I'm not sure why Thomas Cleary, whose translation I used above, went with Spiritual Mountain instead.) Vulture Peak was one of the historical Buddha's favourite retreat sites, and was located in Rajagaha, modern-day Rajgir. Many of the discourses of early Buddhism mention Vulture Peak, and many of the sutras of the later Mahayana tradition are also set there, including the Lotus Sutra and Heart Sutra.
Next, we have the Buddha's mysterious floral gesture, which we'll get to in a minute. Nobody knows what to make of it, except for one member of the assembly - the 'saint Kashyapa'.
Early Buddhism had four 'ranks' or 'stages' of awakening - stream enterer, once-returner, non-returner, and arahant, literally meaning something like 'deserving' or 'worthy'. In the Pali canon, arahantship is commonly presented as the goal of the spiritual life, when suffering is finally eradicated, and those who become arahants often mark the occasion by uttering the phrase 'Done is what needed to be done.' The term 'saint' is sometimes used in Western translations to refer to arahants, perhaps because it indicates someone of significant religious attainment, although I have to say it's never done much for me!
In any case, the story is presenting Kashyapa as a highly attained practitioner - and clearly he's a cut above the others, because he alone breaks out in a cheeky smile (or perhaps a goofy grin? Who knows) at the Buddha's gesture.
Buddha then teases the other practitioners in the assembly, giving them a long list of all his cool attainments - the treasury of the eye of truth, the ineffable mind of nirvana, the most subtle of teachings on the formlessness of the form of reality - and then indicating that Kashyapa has those things now too. At just such a time, wouldn't you feel a stirring of envy, a sense that 'I want those things too!'
Gimme the goodies!
First, the treasury of the eye of truth. As an aside, those of you familiar with the great Soto Zen master Dogen, who founded the Soto lineage in Japan, are probably well acquainted with his vast and largely impenetrable book Shobogenzo - whose title translates as 'treasury of the eye of truth'. So one approach to discovering this treasury is to read and understand Dogen's works. Good luck - you'll need it!
Really, though, this is a rather grandiose way of saying that Buddha has learnt to see the world in a certain way, free from the obscurations which ordinarily cloud our vision. Another way of saying this, in the language of early Buddhism, is that Buddha has attained Right View. But what is that? Fear not, we'll get to that in a minute.
Next, Buddha talks about the ineffable mind of nirvana. Nirvana is the Sanskrit equivalent of the Pali term Nibbana, and both words literally mean something like 'extinguished', in the sense of a candle whose flame has been blown out. There are many explanations (and, arguably, several different conceptions) of nirvana - one way of looking at it is that the fires of greed, hatred and confusion have been extinguished, and the ineffable mind of nirvana is what remains in their absence, free from reactivity and able to respond effortlessly to whatever circumstances arise. It is ineffable because it can't be said to be like something in particular - it isn't a strategy, or an altered state of consciousness, or a particular theory about how to be in the world. It's simply where we find ourselves when we finally see clearly - in other words, when we have this Right View, this Shobogenzo.
But how do we learn to see clearly? Here the Buddha offers his 'most subtle teachings on the formlessness of the form of reality'. Here the Buddha confirms that the Matrix was right all along - there really is no spoon. This is the famous Buddhist teaching of emptiness.
The story of the nun Vajira
There's a story from early Buddhism (Samyutta Nikaya 5.10) in which a nun named Vajira is sitting in meditation in the spookily-named Dark Forest, when Mara shows up and attempts to scare her into giving up her practice.
Mara is a kind of tricksterish devil figure in early Buddhism who periodically shows up and tries to tempt practitioners away from their course of action. It's common to read Mara literally, but that doesn't always work for modern audiences, and Stephen Batchelor has suggested that, instead, Mara may meaningfully be taken to represent our inner voices of criticism and doubt.
Let's see what Mara says to Vajira:
Then Mara the Wicked, wanting to make the nun Vajira feel fear, terror and goosebumps, wanting to make her fall away from samadhi, went up to her and addressed her in verse:
Who created this sentient being?
Where is its maker?
Where has the being arisen?
And where does it cease?
These are some of the Big Questions - who created all of this, and where are they hiding? Where did my eternal soul come from, and what happens to it when I die?
Now, Buddhism usually recommends avoiding grand metaphysical questions, in favour of examining our own state right here in this very moment. But this kind of metaphysical speculation was very common in the time of the Buddha, and one could easily imagine a practitioner in the Buddha's assembly wondering from time to time if they were missing out on something vitally important, following a teacher who dismissed these huge questions that the other teachers of the day focused on so much. (FOMO isn't just a modern phenomenon!)
However, Vajira is a good practitioner, and she's sufficiently on the ball not to fall for Mara's tricks. Instead, she quickly recognises what's going on, and thinks to herself:
This is Mara the Wicked, wanting to make me feel fear, terror, and goosebumps, wanting to make me fall away from immersion!
Here we see a key benefit of a well-developed mindfulness practice - when unhelpful, parasitic trains of thought start to spin up in our minds, we learn to see them coming and dodge out of the way, rather than getting sucked in.
Then she replies:
'Why do you believe there's such a thing as a "sentient being"?
Mara, is this your theory?
This is just a pile of conditions,
you won't find a sentient being here.
When the parts are assembled
we use the word "chariot".
So too, when the aggregates are present
"sentient being" is the convention we use.
Vajira understands the Buddha's 'most subtle teachings on the formlessness of the form of reality', and as a result she knows that asking questions about entities like eternal souls is a waste of time. As a result, she dismisses Mara's promptings, with the following result:
Then Mara the Wicked, thinking 'The nun Vajira knows me!', miserable and sad, vanished right there.
Poor old Mara.
OK, so we've traded one difficult story (the koan) for another (the sutta). But stay with me, I promise it's all related.
How is Vajira able to dismiss Mara's questions? Because she has attained Right View - she has learnt to see things clearly. In particular, she knows who she really is - and as a result knows that she isn't the kind of 'thing' that Mara's questions are aimed at. Mara wants her to worry about where her eternal soul came from, where it's going after her body dies, who created it, and all that stuff. In other words, Mara is presupposing that there's some kind of fixed, permanent, essential 'Vajira' which we can ask questions about. In the time of the historical Buddha, it was widely supposed that we each had an atman, an eternal soul, which was on a journey from life and life through the endless cycle of rebirth, and so it was quite reasonable to ask questions about it and speculate about its fate in future lives.
Buddhism suggests a different approach, based on observation. Buddha invites us to look at the components that make us up - just as a chariot is made of parts, such as wheels, an axle, and so forth. Honestly, I don't know a lot about chariots, so let's use the example of a car instead. A car has wheels and tyres, doors, seats, an engine and all sorts of other bits. When all of these parts come together, we say we have a car. When those parts disperse and end up thrown into a disarrayed heap in a scrapyard, we don't have a car any more. So where did the car go? Moreover, the car seems to be able to withstand a certain amount of change in the parts - when you replace a tyre, you probably don't feel that you have an entirely new car. But if you take away all the parts, there's nothing left, and certainly no car. So, again, what exactly is the car? We clearly have a car - we can get in it and drive it around - but you can't put your finger on a specific part which is 'the car'.
When we're talking about cars and chariots, maybe this is kinda curious, but there's a big 'so what?' factor for most people. But stay with me, because this kind of analysis becomes truly powerful when applied to the self.
Vajira says that 'when the aggregates are present' we talk about sentient beings. The Five Aggregates are a way of describing the parts that go together to make up a person. We have:
Now, this list is offered as a suggested starting point. It works for me, but maybe for you there's an all-important sixth bucket of experience that's missing. That's fine - you can have six aggregates if you want, or twenty. The point really is first to convince yourself that each of these aggregates is in some sense part of who you are, and second to convince yourself that there isn't some other secret part left out of the list.
Once we have a list of aggregates we're happy with, we can apply the same analysis as we did with the car. When all of these parts are present, we can say that there's a person. When the parts are dispersed or missing, we don't really have a person any more. So where did the person go?
Moreover, just as you can change the tyres on a car, notice that each of the aggregates can change. Our bodies visibly change over time. As we grow older, we tend to find sweet things less pleasant and other flavours more pleasant. As we learn, we gain new concepts - and forget others. Time and experience changes our inclinations and attitudes. And consciousness comes and goes every day, at least when we're sleeping well. So where's the person? As with the car, it isn't that you don't exist at all - if I believed that, I wouldn't have much motivation to write this article - but you're likely to find that it's very hard to put your finger on exactly where this 'you', which seems so obvious and self-evident, actually is. Can you actually find it, or is it simply a kind of optical illusion?
Analytical meditation on emptiness of self
The following exercise is stolen wholesale from Rob Burbea's excellent book Seeing That Frees, although it's a traditional meditation that can be found in many sources.
Given the aggregates as a satisfactory list of 'parts' of the self, we can then look for this 'self' in various places, and ultimately discover that it cannot be found in the way that we might imagine. And in the process, we can find out who we really are.
Here are seven possibilities we can explore in our attempt to find the self in relation to the aggregates - and, again, feel free to add and explore more possibilities if you don't think this list is complete!
To do this, set yourself up in meditation and maybe spend a few minutes settling the mind. Then take each of these questions in turn, exploring them deeply in whatever manner you like, until you're totally convinced that a fixed, unchanging, identifiable 'self' is not to be found in the way that's being proposed.
The all-important 'so what'
It's not too difficult to get a kind of intellectual sense of the emptiness of the self, but we need to spend time with this, really thoroughly convincing ourselves, going past the level of 'mere philosophy' until it touches us on a deep, visceral level. Because when you really grasp the emptiness of self, it changes your experience of yourself in very important ways.
Consider the following negative thoughts, which so many of us are prone to:
'I'm not good enough.'
'They don't like me.'
'I don't deserve this.'
'Will I ever be happy?'
'Why is this happening to me?'
All of these thoughts - all of these whispers of Mara - presuppose a solid, fixed 'me' at the centre of the story. When we know beyond doubt that that simply isn't how things work, we can make the same move Vajira did - and Mara, miserable and sad, will vanish right there and then. When we see the world as it is - constantly in motion, dynamic, alive and beautiful - you might even find yourself smiling along with Kashyapa the Elder.
How our own clinging obstructs our freedom
This week we're looking at case 5 from the Gateless Barrier, aptly named 'Up in a Tree'.
(If you don’t know what the heck a koan is or have never heard of the Gateless Barrier, go back to the first article in this series and read at least the opening section, which will fill you in.)
We'll get into the details of the koan in a moment, but first I'd like to present the verse commentary from Wumen, the compiler of the Gateless Barrier, because it's one of my favourites. (It may also forestall the question of why I only include the main koan in these articles and not Wumen's commentaries...)
Xiangyan is truly inept
His vile poison is limitless
He silences Zen students' mouths
And demon eyes squirt out all over their bodies
Now it all makes sense, right?
The whole tree business
First things first - as usual, the tree is symbolic, so don't waste your time wondering how on earth someone got themselves into that position in the first place.
A subtler question we could ask is why the poor soul hanging from the branch actually needs to answer the question. The koan says 'if he does not answer, he is avoiding the question', but so what? If the alternative is falling to your death, avoiding the question might seem like a pretty sensible strategy.
Sometimes I've seen commentaries to this koan which suggest that the person asking about the meaning of Zen is the Emperor of China, so he's obliged on pain of death to answer (in which case it isn't much of a choice!), but I think that actually detracts from the conundrum here. After all, you might equally well ask why we need to do anything at all. (This theme will recur in case 16, 'Putting on a Formal Vestment at the Sound of a Bell', but that's a few months away yet.) Why can't we simply ignore what's inconvenient, difficult or dangerous? Why should we expose ourselves to risk, especially for the sake of others?
This question can become especially pertinent for people with a deep meditation practice. After a while, we discover deep resources within ourselves - contentment, joy, even bliss. When we have the option of turning inward and finding everything we really want in that moment, why continue to get involved with other people, with all their messy problems and inconsiderate behaviour? Why not - as my teacher puts it - get out the cosmic deck chair and relax?
Ultimately, only you can answer that question for yourself. But I will say that there's a strong emphasis in the Zen tradition on 'returning to the marketplace' after enlightenment, coming back into society and finding ways to be of service. I would argue that, as our insight deepens and we see our sense of self for what it really is, the motivation to engage in self-centred behaviour at the expense of others really falls away, and the only approach that makes sense any more is to get involved in what's going on around you. But that's my answer - you'll have to find your own.
Life, death and tree branches
Koans can be surprisingly violent on the surface, considering that Zen has attracted stereotypes of equanimous monks sitting silently drinking tea while watching the cherry blossoms. A couple of weeks ago, we looked at a story which seemed to focus on a boy's finger being cut off. Now we have another hapless practitioner plummeting to his doom. This Zen thing is dangerous!
Koans are generally heavy on symbolism. There's often a surface meaning which has nothing to do with the deeper insight being pointed toward. Why is this? Maybe the old masters had a sense of humour. Maybe it's a trap for the unwary. Personally I like to see it as a kind of hook - when I read a koan, I often then think to myself 'OK, that makes no sense at all - I wonder what's really going on here?' That sense of wonderment - sometimes called 'Great Doubt' in Zen - is the heart of the koan practice. If you don't care what a story means one way or another, you're unlikely to stay with it long enough to get any insight out of it. But if you find a koan that gets under your skin, that keeps coming back to mind when you have a quiet moment, that just won't leave you alone - that's a recipe for insight.
In this case, we have a graphic, visceral depiction of someone holding on to something for dear life - with his teeth, no less. We might talk about 'getting our teeth into something' to indicate really getting a firm grip on it, rather than just taking a superficial interest. So there's a picture here of someone who is really quite firmly attached to something, and has good reason not to let it go.
We tend to hold our sense of ourselves in this way. We have a very clear, instinctual, deeply rooted sense of 'this is me, this is who I am, this is the kind of person I am,' and when that deep belief in ourselves is threatened, we may react with anger, fear or confusion. Yet Zen practice challenges us in exactly this way, inviting us to ask ourselves 'Who am I?' or 'What is my true nature?', with the implication that what we've believed about ourselves all our lives might not be the whole story after all.
As the practice develops and deepens, we tend to find ourselves confronting our fixed ideas about ourselves, discovering them to be limiting at best and actively harmful at worst. It's common to undergo a kind of 'purification' process, as we find wave after wave of unprocessed psychological 'stuff' coming up in our meditation practice until we finally give it the attention it needs to be fully digested and released. This is typically a long, slow process of being shown what we least want to see about ourselves, and ultimately having to let it go. When we do finally release it, we find that freedom opens up in its wake - now we are no longer fettered by whatever pattern we were holding on to. In the language of the koan, the 'death' of the pattern brings us a new kind of 'life'.
But often we don't want to let it go! It may even be there for a good reason, and perhaps even appear to serve a useful purpose. For example, I have pretty bad social anxiety in certain situations. As a kid, I wasn't particularly socially astute, and would often find myself making social blunders that would earn me a round of mockery from my peers. After that had happened enough times, some part of me learnt that social situations are fundamentally unsafe, and, honestly, maybe it would be better just to avoid them altogether. OK, it's a bit limiting, but at least it avoids the pain of yet another social catastrophe. These days I have much better social skills, and although I still screw things up from time to time, social interaction isn't anything like the minefield it used to be - but the part of me that wants to run a mile from any group of people is taking a while to get the message. All I can really do is be patient, and keep chipping away at it, little by little.
This sense of letting go of something close to one's heart was very much personal for Zen Master Xiangyan, whose koan this is. In his earlier life, Xiangyan had been a great scholar, collecting, studying and writing many books about Buddhism. One day, he encountered a Zen teacher, Weishan, who challenged him to answer another classic koan ('Before you were born, what was your original face?' - we'll see another version of this question in case 23 of the Gateless Barrier). No matter what Xiangyan said, however, Weishan rejected his answers. Xiangyan searched far and wide in his books and notes, but nothing would satisfy the master. In sadness and desperation, Xiangyan finally uttered the famous phrase 'A painting of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger', left behind all his books - his life's work up to that point - and took up the study of Zen himself. So, if it's any consolation, when we find ourselves struggling to let go, Xiangyan knows how we feel.
What are you holding on to?
Well, if Xiangyan can do it, so can we. One way to start is by asking ourselves a simple question: 'What am I holding on to?' To put it another way, 'What am I unwilling to let go of?'
It's important to say that 'letting go' doesn't have to mean 'getting rid of'. You don't have to give away all your possessions. But do you have any possessions you feel you simply couldn't live without? What about relationships? What aspects of your life are so foundational that you couldn't imagine being without them - and how would it be if they went away? As Guo Gu puts it in his commentary on the Gateless Barrier, don't you realise that whatever can be gained will be lost?
One approach to exploring this question is to work with five themes that the historical Buddha recommended that we reflect on frequently (and which have now become known as the Five Daily Recollections or Five Daily Reflections, probably because 'frequently' was kinda imprecise and someone decided to nail it down). I don't bring these up all that often in my Wednesday night class, because I get a lot of beginners coming through and these can be a bit of a bummer at first, but spending some time exploring these themes, especially in the quiet environment of a retreat but also more generally, can be profoundly eye-opening.
To work with these as a contemplation, one approach is simply to settle into meditation, bring up any one of these themes, and then sit with it for a while. Think about it, see how the theme applies to your own life, explore its implications. If you have enough time, you can work through all five - but don't short-change them. You can profitably spend an entire meditation period on any one of these.
Another way to explore the themes is to use some additional 'probes', follow-up questions along the same lines. My teacher Leigh Brasington and fellow jhana teacher Mary Aubry have developed a thorough exploration of the Five Daily Reflections which is really quite excellent; you can find that here.
Whichever approach you take, I hope you get down from the tree safely.
Do you need to have a beard to do Zen practice?
This week we continue our exploration of the Zen stories in the Gateless Barrier with this blink-and-you'll-miss-it question from Master Huo'an.
(If you don’t know what the heck a koan is or have never heard of the Gateless Barrier, go back to the first article in this series and read at least the opening section, which will fill you in.)
Without a bit of background, this koan is a totally opaque slab of words, so let's start by unpacking it a little.
Deciphering the words themselves
Over the last couple of months I've undertaken a project to memorise all the koans in the Gateless Barrier, inspired in part by this Guru Viking interview. I decided to go with Thomas Cleary's translation, because it's a little simpler than the others I have, but every so often I'll hit a koan that makes me really wish I'd chosen Guo Gu's translation instead, due to the sometimes bizarre word order or choice of phrasing that Cleary uses. This week's case is positively Yoda-ish, which may well make it sound wise but doesn't necessarily trip off the tongue.
Anyway, Huo'an is asking why 'the foreigner from the West' doesn't have whiskers, by which he means facial hair - he isn't talking about a cat. In fact, 'the foreigner from the West' is a reference to Bodhidharma, the quasi-mythical first ancestor of the Zen tradition. Bodhidharma was from India, or possibly Persia, and is commonly depicted as having a huge bushy beard.
So the question is effectively asking 'Why doesn't Santa Claus have a big white beard?', when everyone knows that of course Santa has a big white beard - that's how you know it's Santa!
However, it turns out that Bodhidharma - who is an interesting character in his own right, and who we'll encounter directly in case 41 - has two functions in koans. Sometimes, a koan will relate a particular episode from Bodhidharma's own life, in which case the koan is simply talking about Bodhidharma as a historical figure. More often, however, references to Bodhidharma are actually a code for talking about our true nature, or awakening itself.
What is our true nature?
This is an excellent question in its own right - you're more than welcome to stop reading right now and go and practise with the koan 'What is my true nature?' until you see it for yourself - a moment called kensho in Zen, literally 'seeing true nature', and considered to be a pivotal point in the process of awakening, after which the Zen path really opens up. (Indeed, doing such practice is likely to be more useful than reading more of my words. However, for those of you who find something of value in the words, I'll write on nevertheless.)
So what do we discover when we see our true nature? One traditional way to describe it is as the 'ground of being' - the most fundamental level of who we are, the source of all conscious experience, what it means to be a living being at the most primal level. (My Dharma name, Togen, means 'penetrating the source', and is a reference to this quest to discover our true nature.) It's beyond all categorisations and classifications, entirely beyond the framework of language and the world of separate 'things' that language describes, and it's something that ultimately has to be experienced for oneself. It's also the same for everyone - no matter your gender, race, background, politics or preferences, we all have the same ultimate nature. Seen from the standpoint of true nature, there are no distinctions, no separate things, no this or that, no conflict and no problems. Seeing this for ourselves tends to have the immediate effect of helping us to connect with others, because no matter who the other person is, we have at least this much in common.
So, in one sense, the symbolic Bodhidharma in the koan doesn't have a beard because our true nature is not limited by specific characteristics. You don't have to have a beard to practise Zen, and it doesn't even necessarily help (which is a shame for me, because I do have a beard).
Principle and manifestation
However, there's another level to this koan, just as there's another level to Zen practice. It isn't enough to find our true nature, to connect with this place of no problems and hang out there in peace. Once we've done that, we need to find a way to bring it back into the world of separate things, and integrate the peace and unity of our true nature with the complex differentiations of the phenomenal world and all the baggage that comes along with that.
So what does that look like? The short answer is 'I don't know' - not because I'm a dummy (although...), but because the answer is different for each of us. We each come from different backgrounds, different families, different educations; we have different interests, different preferences, different hobbies, different work. We think, speak and act in different ways, so why should our enlightenment look the same when viewed from the outside? Last week we talked about authenticity and the importance of grasping the principle behind an outward manifestation of enlightenment; this week we're going the other way, and seeing how, even though we each start at the same basic principle, the same fundamental nature, we then each go on to manifest it in different ways.
So why doesn't Bodhidharma have a beard? Because Bodhidharma is in the heart of each one of us, whether bearded or not. We can easily go down the rabbit hole of looking at senior teachers and saying 'Hmm, is she really enlightened? What about him? Can't be!' because this person or that one doesn't line up with our idea of what enlightenment is 'supposed' to look like, but all we're doing there is holding on to a fixed idea of where we think our path should lead us, and ultimately any fixed conceptions will only hold us back. There are as many manifestations of enlightenment as there are enlightened people, and they can look quite different on the surface.
The Great Way can be found anywhere and expressed in any medium
For Christmas, my partner bought me a Humble Bundle of over 20 books about samurai and Japanese martial arts. They've made for fascinating reading. Martial arts and Zen practice have been interwoven in Japan for hundreds of years, and it's been eye-opening for me to see familiar Zen principles being discussed and expressed through the medium of martial arts.
For example, Yamaoka Tesshu was a famous 19th century sword master and Zen practitioner. His writings on the correct understanding of sword technique line up exactly in many places with fundamental Zen teachings, to the point that when Tesshu was asked on one occasion to give an answer to a koan, he picked up a sword to demonstrate. For Tesshu, the sword was his primary means of expression, and so the perennial truths pointed to by the Zen tradition could most easily be demonstrated with a blade.
If we look more broadly at Chinese and Japanese culture, there's a strong association between spirituality and the arts and crafts. Zen is strongly associated with both calligraphy and poetry. Daoism has many stories of enlightened sages living as wood carvers or butchers. If we read enough of these stories, we start to get a sense that the 'Great Way' that Zen points to can be found anywhere, if we're willing to look for it. For a while I was an enthusiastic amateur at the board game Go, and many of the more philosophical 'Go proverbs' - little phrases pertaining to some aspect of tactics or strategy - had equally broad application to life.
In fact, this has sometimes been a cause of some irritation for me. I've done many hours of silent meditation retreat, struggling with my practice but ultimately coming back with deep, life-changing insights - only to find a friend who has no interest in meditation at all coming to a similar conclusion by another route. It can feel unfair - 'But you don't even meditate! How come you get to have these insights too?'
Recently I was chatting to a colleague at work, who has a keen interest in golf. He mentioned some of the life lessons he has derived from the game - for example, when lining up the next shot, he said, you can't carry with you the previous bad shot, otherwise it'll throw this one off as well. All you can do is learn to let go and focus on the present shot, right now. When he said this, I laughed, and said (rather arrogantly) 'Well, you're talking to a mindfulness teacher, so I know all about that!' He stared at me like I'd made a total non-sequitur - as far as he was concerned, he was talking about golf, so why was I bringing up mindfulness?
So why meditate, then?
If we can find insights in any aspect of life, is there anything special about meditation? As a meditation teacher, I really want to say 'Yes, of course!', but after reflecting on the question for some time, I'm really not so sure. Martial arts make you fit and strong; if you're a poet or a painter, you create works of art that others can enjoy. In meditation, we're just sitting there! OK, maybe we learn to open the heart, chill out, or explore the nature of consciousness. And you're very unlikely to pull a muscle... except maybe the ones in your forehead. But I think all we can really say is 'Well, meditation does some nice stuff too', as opposed to 'meditation is clearly the best approach'.
It's certainly true that meditation develops tremendous skills of concentration power, sensory clarity and equanimity. We learn to focus the mind where we want it to go, and we become much more sensitive to the quality of our attention and much quicker to notice when the mind wanders. We develop the ability to examine our experience in much more detail, seeing a richness which was not previously there. And we learn to be present with whatever comes up in our practice, without being knocked off our perch and falling into reactivity.
Even better, those skills are transferable. For example, my partner sometimes works as an exam invigilator - one of the people who supervises the students who are taking the exams, to make sure they don't cheat or disturb the other students by messing around. She's found that it's immensely helpful to have a clear sense of when her attention is fresh and sharp and when it's starting to drift. It's also extremely useful to be able to see the students as clearly as possible, because even the subtlest movement can give away an attempt to communicate with someone else or look at a hidden crib sheet. And equanimity is a vital quality for an invigilator, because the teenage students can often be very difficult, and if she lets herself get too worked up then it's much harder both to focus on the job.
On the other hand, though... She and I both tend to understand those skills as having originally been developed in the meditation practice, and now they're being applied in the context of exam invigilation, so in a sense they 'belong' to meditation. But maybe if she'd been an invigilator before taking up meditation, we would see the arrow of cause and effect the other way around - we might instead say that those same skills which she had developed as an invigilator were now applicable to the meditation practice instead, perhaps interpreting meditation as a kind of 'invigilation of the mind'.
Maybe there's another way to look at it. Perhaps it's possible to find fulfilment, insight and wisdom through the deep cultivation of any skill, whether it's golf, karate or meditation - and all that really matters is to find a skill that we find interesting enough to be willing to pursue. We begin by learning the outward manifestation of the skill - the basic techniques. Swing the club a certain way; practise a basic front kick over and over; keep coming back to the breath each time the mind wanders. Over time, the techniques etch themselves into our muscle memory. Now the performance of the technique becomes effortless, and - if we're so inclined - we can begin to delve deeper, exploring the deeper principles behind the skill. And if that exploration goes deep enough, we can touch into transformative insights, and discover our true nature. Once we have those insights, the next step is to take those insights back into our life and apply them in different contexts - manifesting those deep principles in new, creative ways.
And maybe that's what it means to live in accordance with the Great Way - to go deep enough to find something truly of value, then bring it back to the surface and live in accordance with it. And you don't need to grow a beard to do that - unless you want to.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.