Rediscovering your experience
This week we're looking at case 37 in the Gateless Barrier, 'The Cypress Tree in the Garden'. (Sometimes the cypress tree is said to be in the (monastery) courtyard; Thomas Cleary translates it as 'yard', which I've rendered as 'garden' because I live in the UK. It really doesn't matter where the cypress tree is, though!)
This koan is especially memorable to me because I once complained to my teacher Daizan about it! I'd recently been reading a book about the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition; the insight practices in that tradition tend to be written in very straightforward, technical language, so they're right up my street and something I can get my head around very quickly. In comparison, Zen presents us with the cypress tree in the garden. I mean, come on! Daizan just smiled, as he usually does, and said 'What are you supposed to do with that, eh?' And maybe that's a sign that I should stop this article right now and just leave you to chew on it. But that isn't my style, so let's take a closer look and see what's going on here.
Seeing the world through jade-tinted glasses
When we're young, everything is interesting. Everywhere we go is a new place, or has something new to offer - a new experience, a new person. Sometimes that can be a bit daunting (like getting lost in a busy shopping centre), but most of the time it's pretty great - a seemingly endless banquet of new experiences, things to explore and try out.
As we grow older, we become more defined as individuals. We learn the kinds of things that we like and dislike - maybe I discover that I enjoy heavy guitar music but can't abide jazz, for example. We may regard ourselves as becoming more sophisticated in our tastes as we develop more and more refined tastes - not just classical music, but Beethoven; not just Beethoven, but his string quartets; not just any string quartets, but specifically the late ones; not just any old performance, but this particular set of players at this venue on this date. Along the way, more and more of the world becomes familiar to us - and, if we have sophisticated tastes, we'll probably find that more and more of it leaves us cold, while it takes more and more specific conditions to truly delight us. In other words, as we grow older, we become jaded.
There's a famous poem written by the third Zen ancestor in China, Sengcan, the name of which translates to something like 'Faith in Mind'. It begins as follows:
The Great Way is not difficult
If only you do not pick and choose
Neither love nor hate
And you will clearly understand.
Be off by a hair,
And you are as far from it as heaven from earth.
If you want the Way to appear,
Be neither for nor against.
For and against opposing each other
This is the mind's disease.
Without recognising the mysterious principle
It is useless to practise quietude.
That last line is a kicker - he's saying that if you don't understand this bit about not picking and choosing, it's a waste of time to meditate at all. Bit harsh!
There's a fun passage in one of Brad Warner's early books (I think it's Sit Down and Shut Up, although I can't find the reference and now I'm starting to wonder if I dreamt the whole thing) where he comments that Sengcan doesn't actually mean that, in order to be a Zen master, you're not allowed to have a favourite flavour of ice cream. (Daizan often says that if you preferred vanilla ice cream to chocolate ice cream before awakening then you'll still prefer it after awakening, although how anyone could prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate is the deepest mystery of all to me.)
So if Sengcan isn't suggesting that we need to systematically eradicate all our preferences and become equally comfortable with Metallica and Miles Davis, what actually is he getting at?
The Satipatthana Sutta and the fetters arising dependent on the senses
One of the key discourses in the early Buddhist tradition is the Satipatthana Sutta, which means something like 'the discourse on cultivating mindfulness'. (I have a series of articles on this discourse, so check those out if you're interested.)
The discourse is a big anthology of insight practices, one of which involves examining our experience through the lens of the 'six senses' - seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking. The instructions take each of the senses in turn and say the same thing for each one:
Here [one] knows the eye, [one] knows forms, and [one] knows the fetter that arises dependent on both, and [one] also knows how an unarisen fetter can arise, how an arisen fetter can be removed, and how a future arising of the removed fetter can be prevented.
The instruction here is to examine our visual experience in order to discover the 'fetter' that arises dependent on it - in other words, to see how our visual experience can lead us into suffering. On a simple level, it might go something like this: we see someone holding the latest iPhone, and suddenly we want it, we've got to have it, how come that person has it and we don't? Life is so unfair! On a more sophisticated level, perhaps it's something like 'Oh, it's a Picasso. I'm really more of a Rothko person, it's a shame they don't have any of those here.' In both cases, the visual experience has triggered an idea of how the present situation could have been better than it in fact is, and as a result our experience of the present moment is just that little bit more disappointing.
This is what Sengcan is getting at. It doesn't have to be a problem to prefer Rothko to Picasso (or Metallica to Miles Davis) - but if our wellbeing is dependent on getting the Rothko, we're in trouble. It's a wonderful ability to be able to imagine something other than what's here right now - it allows us to make plans, figure out solutions to problems and do all sorts of clever things - but if that faculty gets out of hand and taints every moment of our lives with a twinge of unhappiness, our minds can truly be said to be 'diseased', to use Sengcan's metaphor.
Emptiness and freshness
So what's the solution? In Zen practice, we make a big deal about emptiness. In a nutshell, 'emptiness' is the idea that the way we experience things is the product of our own minds, rather than how things 'really' are in themselves. What we experience starts with the information from our senses, but then it's filtered through our lifetime of experiences, preferences and prejudices, so that the end product has a distinctly jaded quality to it a lot of the time.
While this might all sound a bit abstract and theoretical, the practical result of exploring emptiness is that we can start to rediscover a sense of freshness in experience. (The Zen teacher Guo Gu actually uses the word 'freshness' rather than 'emptiness' for this reason, emphasising the practical effect rather than the theoretical underpinnings.)
As we do our meditation practice - whether it's a Zen practice like Silent Illumination or working with a koan, or an early Buddhist insight practice like the 'six senses' one I mentioned above - we start to discover a dynamic quality to our experience, a moment-by-moment transience, an ungraspability. As we look around the familiar room where we've meditated hundreds or thousands of times before, we begin to see not the boring old stuff that we've long since learnt how to ignore as our minds wander in search of something more interesting to distract us, but instead a new world, each moment sparkling with freshness. The experience can be something akin to being on holiday in an unfamiliar place, where buildings, people and cars are suddenly interesting again, simply by virtue of being not the same old stuff we're used to. Actually, nothing in the world is ever really 'same old, same old' - but we have to learn how to take off our jade-coloured glasses before we can see the freshness all around us.
One approach to experiencing this freshness is to use the method of 'direct contemplation', which I first encountered on retreat with the Western Chan Fellowship, and which you can find described in more detail in Guo Gu's excellent book Silent Illumination.
To do this practice, you'll need either something to look at or something to listen to. (I suggest using something from the natural world, and I strongly suggest not listening to music, at least until you've had a lot of practice with this technique.)
Ordinarily, our perceptions are totally bound up with our thoughts - we see or hear something, and a cluster of thoughts, opinions, preferences, memories and so forth arise too. As a minimum, it isn't just the sound of a babbling brook, it's also 'the sound of a babbling brook', i.e. we have some mental activity labelling it, maybe identifying particular sub-sounds within it, or remembering another time you heard a babbling brook... and so on.
So the practice is very simple. Anytime you notice yourself caught up in thought, or indeed doing anything other than simply hearing the sound or seeing the sight, let go of that, and come back to the hearing or seeing. And that's it. Don't try to measure your progress, don't start to wonder if you're experiencing this 'freshness' thing yet, don't start making a mental list of the next few things you're going to try to contemplate directly because this one isn't really doing it for you. Put all of that stuff down, over and over. If you think you've got it - well, now you're thinking about how you've got it, so put that down too. If you experience yourself melting away into the universe and becoming one with the object and everything else - well, now you're thinking about melting into the universe, so put that down too. If you're seeing a visual object, just see. If you're hearing a sound, just hear. That's it.
Now, in case you're at all concerned - and sometimes people do worry about this - doing this practice is not going to break your ability to think thoughts or interact with the world. We're not trying to train ourselves out of ever having another discriminating thought - that would be far worse than where we are now in many ways, because we'd become incapable of looking after ourselves. That's not where we're going. All we're doing here is a very simple exercise intended to loosen the tyranny of our discriminating mind, to give us a taste of the freshness that is available in every moment of experience. As we become more skilled in this practice, we tend to find that it actually integrates well into our lives, allowing us to be more receptive to simple pleasures when they're available to us, but without interfering with our ability to be focused, analytical and, yes, even sophisticated in our tastes when we need to be.
So give it a go, and see how you get on. How would it be for you to take off your jade-coloured glasses, even for a few seconds? How might the world look then? Find out!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!