Chinul's way of Korean Zen
This week's article is heavily indebted to Robert Buswell's excellent Tracing Back the Radiance.
One of the big debates in Buddhist circles is about the nature of awakening: is it sudden or gradual? In other words, is it something where you 'wake up' just like that, in a moment of inspiration, or is it the result of a lengthy process of practice? If it's sudden, why do we need the lengthy training? But if it's gradual, why are there so many stories of 'enlightenment experiences' and all this talk of kensho and satori?
This week we're going to take a look at the answer to these questions given by Chinul, a 12th century Korean master generally regarded as the most influential figure in the Korean Seon (Zen) tradition: 'awakening is sudden, cultivation is gradual'. At first glance, this looks suspiciously like Chinul is trying to have his cake and eat it too, but let's dig into the details to see what he's getting at.
Sudden awakening to the nature of mind
The first step in Chinul's approach is sudden awakening - which, as we will see, is vitally important for the second step, the gradual cultivation, to be conducted properly. But what are we waking up to?
Fundamentally, awakening is about discovering something about the nature of our own minds. As I discussed in some detail last week and elsewhere, what we experience is not the objective world 'out there' that it appears to be; rather, we experience a mental projection, our minds' best effort to understand and interpret the information coming in through our senses and weave it all together into a coherent whole that helps us to navigate our surroundings successfully.
From the standpoint of the Zen tradition, the mind is said to have two aspects: 'essence' and 'function'. (Sometimes you'll see 'principle' instead of 'essence', but I find this super-confusing, so I'll stick to 'essence'.)
When we talk about 'mind essence', what we mean is that the fundamental nature of everything we experience is 'mind', in the sense that everything we experience is a mental construct/projection. The whole thing is 'mind', in the same way that the fundamental nature of the ocean is 'water' - whether you're looking at the crest of a wave or the deepest depths, it's all 'made of water'.
However, we don't just experience a uniform blank grey goo - we experience a moving, changing world. This aspect of our experience is the mind's 'function'. We know things - experiences come and go, sights, sounds, body sensations and all the rest of it. This 'shaping' of the mind essence into all the different forms of reality is the functioning of the mind, and is what leads to us having an experience at all.
(A terminological aside: Zen tends to use the terms 'samadhi' and 'prajna' quite differently to earlier Buddhist traditions. In early Buddhism, 'samadhi' usually means something like 'stable attention', i.e. the outcome of concentration practice, where you focus your attention on an object, and 'prajna' means something like 'wisdom' or 'insight', i.e. the outcome of insight practice, the result of investigating reality. However, when Zen is talking about mind essence and function, you will often find 'samadhi' used to refer to mind essence, and 'prajna' to mind function. This isn't totally unreasonable - in a sense, mind essence never changes, so has the quality of 'stability' to it, while mind function is synonymous with 'knowing', and hence has the quality of 'wisdom' to it. Nonetheless, these uses of 'samadhi' and 'prajna' are different enough that it's incredibly confusing if you come from a Theravada/vipassana background and try to read a Zen text, so watch out for that!)
I went into a lot of detail about why the insight into the mind-originated nature of all things is important last week, so I won't repeat myself today. The short version is that seeing the mind-created nature of all things dramatically undermines the 'reality' of suffering, and so to the extent that we can come to see our experience as mind-created, we will be correspondingly free of suffering. That's where the next step - the gradual cultivation - comes in.
Before we move on to that, though, it's worth saying a few more words about the sudden awakening. It's 'sudden' because it's a recognition - it isn't something we have to figure out gradually over a long period of time, piecing together the clues. But it's also sudden because we don't have to cultivate our enlightened nature gradually. The fundamental nature of your mind - yes, yours - is already awake, right now, and always has been. You are reading this article right now because of the functioning of your mind, and the words on the screen are 'made' of mind essence, just like the screen itself, the eye looking at the screen and the thoughts in your head.
There's a koan which points to this always-already-so nature of the mind. In the koan, a student is practising sitting meditation when the teacher approaches and asks what he's doing. The student says he's practising meditation in order to become enlightened. In response, the master picks up a tile and starts polishing it. The student asks what he's doing, and the master replies that he's polishing the tile to make a mirror. Confused, the student says that you can't make a mirror by polishing a tile - and the master retorts that you can't become enlightened by meditating either! The master is not saying that practice is pointless, of course, but rather is saying that you don't need to practise in order to get something. You have it already - sudden awakening is simply a matter of recognising what is already true.
Gradual cultivation of the recognition of mind essence
Recognising the mind-originated nature of phenomena is an important step, but the work isn't done yet. We have a lifetime of habits of treating our experience as objectively real and getting caught up in the ensuing reactivity. Indeed, for many Zen students it can be pretty frustrating to have had a kensho experience - to have seen the mind-originated nature of all things - and then to go straight back to being caught up in suffering again. After awakening, our task now becomes to bring that light of awakening into every aspect of our lives - to train ourselves to see 'mind essence' in everything, all the time, never forgetting, never losing sight of it, never slipping back into unconscious reactivity. In the language of Zen master Bankei, we've discovered the Unborn - the mind essence, that aspect of experience which is neither born nor dying, arising nor passing, coming nor going - but now we have to learn to live from the Unborn, not just touch into it from time to time.
This aspect of the practice is a long, difficult process of small, incremental gains - hence 'gradual cultivation'. Having established a foothold in awakening, the challenge now becomes to find those areas of our life which cause us to slip back into old ways of relating to our experience, and then to find an 'edge' where we can work to expand our capabilities. There's almost certainly no point in trying to go straight to recognising mind essence in all situations all day long - generally, you'll remember several hours later that you managed it for maybe twenty seconds before you got distracted and forgot the whole thing.
Gradual cultivation is crucial to the path, essential for making our awakening meaningful in the course of our lives. We are forced to confront every aspect of our lives, looking at our relationships, our interactions, our emotions, our hopes and fears. Little by little, we find ways to bring our awakening into each domain of our lives. We find ways to strike a balance between enjoying relief from suffering by seeing the mind-originated nature of phenomena on the one hand, and dealing with our conditioning and the trouble it leads us into on the other hand.
Having a strong ethical foundation in your practice is vitally important here, to avoid becoming what one of my students memorably referred to as 'a moral husk' - the history of spirituality is unfortunately full of people who found ways to convince themselves that they were personally fine no matter what happened and nothing else really mattered, and as a result inflicted all kinds of unpleasant behaviour on the people around them. Indeed, there have been plenty of sects of Zen and other forms of Buddhism which have tried to do without the pesky 'gradual cultivation'. You're already enlightened, they'll say, so why practise at all? Why not just do whatever you want? It's all an expression of enlightened activity, after all!
Another objection that has been raised historically, and which still comes up today, is that if you're going to have to go through the tedious process of gradual cultivation even after awakening, then what's the point of awakening? And there are certainly traditions (both Buddhist and non-) which place much greater emphasis on cultivation than awakening, if they even mention awakening at all. Actually, the historical Buddha taught a 'graduated training' which starts with ethical behaviour, moves on to concentration meditation, and only gets around to insight towards the end, and this is sometimes taken to indicate that the Buddha wanted practitioners to do quite a bit of 'gradual cultivation' before they could meaningfully start meditation.
The counterargument to this is that awakening makes the gradual cultivation much easier. Before you recognise the nature of mind, you relate to the world as objectively real - 'that's just how things are'. Much of our deepest conditioning can seem similarly immovable, and when difficulties (such as the Five Hindrances) come up in our practice, if we don't recognise that these, too, are just more mind-originated stuff, it's very easy to buy into those difficulties completely and end up stuck. Once we're able to make the move to recognising the mind-originated nature of all things, however, we have a powerful weapon in our arsenal to 'de-stick' ourselves from these problems, and so it's much easier to work with those problems. (Note that I said 'much easier', but not necessarily 'easy' - some of this stuff is still really hard to work with even after awakening.)
Methods for sudden awakening and gradual cultivation
So how do we do all this?
Most Buddhist meditation techniques are aimed at awakening, cultivation or a mixture of both, but Zen is particularly well known for two practices which are each especially well suited to one aspect of this process.
For sudden awakening, most Zen teachers in the Rinzai tradition (which includes Korean Zen and Chinese Chan) agree that koan study (discussed in the second half of this article) provides the most efficient way to reach a 'breakthrough' to the true nature of mind. Working with a question such as 'Who am I?', particularly in an intensive way such as on a Zenways 3-day retreat, is a great way to get a first glimpse of what's going on. (In Korean Zen, they tend to use 'What is this?' as their question instead of 'Who am I?' Both work well.)
For gradual cultivation, the essential point is to develop the recognition of the mind-originated nature throughout all the comings and goings of the mind's functioning. One powerful vehicle for doing this is just sitting (variously known as resting in the Unborn, shikantaza and Silent Illumination), where we simply sit openly, observing the comings and goings of our experience in a natural, uncontrived way. Once we've cultivated the ability to recognise mind essence in our sitting practice, we can begin to bring that same attitude into all of our daily activities, and learn to live from the Unborn as Bankei suggests.
Guided 'Who am I?' and shikantaza practices are available on my Audio page. So why not make a start right now? Wake up to your true nature, and then integrate it into every aspect of your life - and become the Buddha that you already are.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.