Breaking free from the prison of the mind
This week we're looking at case 45 in the Gateless Barrier. It's a simple koan that points to a truth which is both profound and extremely difficult to express in words, for reasons that will soon become apparent!
Spiritual authorities, Zen and 'self-power'
Japanese Buddhism makes a distinction between approaches to practice which depend on 'self-power' and those which depend on 'other-power'.
A tradition like Pure Land Buddhism is an example of 'other-power'. The basic idea is that if you speak the name of Amitabha Buddha (a celestial Buddha who rules over the Pure Land, a kind of heavenly realm in Buddhist cosmology), then when you die you'll be reborn in the Pure Land where it's really easy to get enlightened. It's an easy method - anyone can say 'namu amida butsu' or 'namo amituofo' - and it results in an easy road to enlightenment. The key is that someone else (Amida Buddha) is doing most of the hard work for you - hence we call this an 'other-power' approach, because you aren't doing the heavy lifting yourself.
By comparison, Zen is considered a 'self-power' approach. In Zen, nobody is going to do the heavy lifting for you. A teacher can provide you with a meditation method (like koan study or Silent Illumination), but when it comes to getting the work done, that's all on you. Yes, it helps to have a sangha to practise with, and a teacher to offer support and guidance, particularly if you're going through a tough patch, but fundamentally it's you sitting face to face with yourself, day in, day out, that gets the job done.
There's something to be said for both approaches. Awakening requires us to open up to something beyond our conventional ideas of who we are - and it may be helpful for some people to frame that as a kind of grace received from totally outside ourselves. On the other hand, many people who've grown up in a culture heavily influenced by Abrahamic religions find that that approach isn't satisfying, and that they're drawn to meditation practice precisely because it doesn't rely on an external force to intervene on our behalf - and so framing things in terms of 'self-power' might be a much better fit. And, actually, in the long run, the two approaches do kinda meet in the middle. It's said in Japanese Buddhism that even the most ardent devotee of other-power needs a bit of self-power in their practice too, and even the most determined self-power practitioner has to be open to a bit of other-power along the way too.
Nevertheless, this koan is very much aimed at encouraging the self-power approach that's characteristic of Zen, and it starts by taking aim at two possible candidates for other-power: the 'past' and 'future' Buddhas.
The 'Buddha of the past' referenced here is Shakyamuni Buddha, aka Siddhartha Gautama. This is the 'historical' Buddha, the man who lived 2,500 years ago in what is now modern-day India, the spiritual teacher who kicked off the whole tradition that subsequently became known as Buddhism. If you're looking for a Buddhist authority figure, you can't go far wrong with Sid himself. At least if we take the Pali canon literally, this is the guy who discovered the Four Noble Truths, came up with the Eightfold Path and introduced insight meditation as a path to enlightenment. The historical Buddha's teachings have been tremendously helpful to me personally, and that's why they're a big part of what I teach, despite this site being called 'Cheltenham Zen'. The ancient teachings of the Pali canon can be a great source of inspiration, not to mention a treasure trove of practical methods for developing generosity, compassion and wisdom. In a broader sense, Shakyamuni represents the tremendous body of wisdom that has been developed and handed down to us over the centuries by the many practice lineages all over the world.
The 'Buddha of the future' is Maitreya, a Buddha who currently resides in a heavenly realm, and who is prophesied to come to Earth to revive the Dharma (the true teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha) at a time when the teachings have completely decayed. Plenty of people argue that that's already happened, and several people have claimed to be Maitreya. Whether or not we believe in this kind of prophecy, the point here is that Maitreya represents the promise of future salvation - OK, things might be crappy right now, but if we can just hold on a little longer, Maitreya will come and sort it all out for us - so take a deep breath and keep going!
At the symbolic level, both of these represent 'something outside ourselves' that we might secretly hope will solve all our problems. That kind of wish can manifest in a variety of ways. Perhaps it's a subtle sense of restlessness, never settling with any one teacher because maybe the next one will say the right thing to me. The next book, the next retreat, the next empowerment, the secret scroll with the hidden teaching - these all hold the tantalising promise of being 'it', the thing that's going to turn our lives around and enable us to live trouble-free for the rest of time.
Zen master Wuzu is gently and compassionately suggesting that, if this is the approach we're taking, we might be looking in the wrong place for salvation. He suggests that both Shakyamuni and Maitreya are 'servants of another' - that's a bold claim, suggesting that even the founder of Buddhism and its promised future Messiah are just underlings in the service of someone much greater. Who could it be - and do they have any books on Amazon?!
Zen master Bankei's 'Unborn Buddha-mind'
After a period of incredibly intense practice which very nearly led to his death, Zen master Bankei had a profound realisation, which he summarised by saying 'Everything is perfectly resolved in the Unborn.'
'The Unborn' was Bankei's way of referring to what we might alternatively call 'Buddha nature', 'true nature', 'Mind with a capital M', 'awake awareness' or 'pure being'. The Unborn is not something outside of ourselves; we don't need to climb a mountain to find it. In fact, whether we look for it to the north, south, east or west, we're looking in precisely the wrong direction. In order to find it, we need to turn the light of awareness around and look inside ourselves, to find out who we really are at the deepest level.
So much for the spiritual cliches - but what does any of this actually mean?
Fully understanding Bankei's teaching is, I think, the work of a lifetime - my Zen teacher's teacher apparently once commented that 'Practice is so much deeper in one's seventies than one's sixties', and I'm not even fifty yet, so I have quite a way to go! But we can perhaps get a foot in the door, so to speak, by looking at what lies beyond our thinking minds.
Zen often comes across as being pretty anti-intellectual. There's a lot of rhetoric about how thoughts won't help you, and arguably one of the major purposes of koan practice is to frustrate the thinking mind.
But the point isn't to eradicate the thinking mind, only to break its stranglehold on our experience. The thinking mind is a wonderful thing. It can figure things out, solve problems, learn skills, allow us to analyse facts dispassionately to overcome unconscious biases - honestly, it's great. I make my living using my thinking mind to solve complex technical challenges, and so I have the thinking mind to thank for the roof over my head and the food in my belly. Thanks, thinking mind!
But the thinking mind also has its limitations. The thinking mind sees the world through two major operations: divide and compare. This is different to that, and I prefer the first one. That oh-so-simple mechanism can allow us to do all kinds of cool things - for example, we can project ourselves into an imaginary future to figure out how we want things to turn out tomorrow, allowing us to make plans to increase the chances of things going our way, while taking steps to avoid some of the obstacles that might come up and stop us from getting where we want to be. That's an immense power, and likely goes a long way to explaining the dominance of the human species on this planet.
But the world of 'divide and compare' comes with some drawbacks too. Maybe you're familiar with the phenomenon of 'overthinking'. Maybe you've caught yourself planning tomorrow's important meeting for the seventh time - even though the first six runs really did cover all the important stuff. Maybe you've felt that you could be doing better - you have a clear idea of how you should be getting on, and your actual performance falls short by comparison. Or perhaps you're really good at the 'divide' part of the equation, and every time you walk into a room you start finding reasons why you don't belong there, dividing the room into 'them' and 'us' more and more effectively, until 'us' has become 'just me, all alone, unwanted and unwelcome'.
So - and bear with me on this for a moment - what would happen if we stopped thinking, even for a moment? How would the world appear to us then, if not viewed through the lens of 'divide and compare'?
There are two tricky points here. One, it's quite literally impossible to put that experience into words. This isn't just me being spooky and enigmatic. The moment we start to use words, we have to step back into the world of thought, because that's where words come from. So as soon as we start to 'talk about it', we have to stop 'living it'. But that's not actually as bad as it sounds, because it's like anything else - we just have to experience it for ourselves, and then we know what it's like. No description of the taste of a mango will ever convey the experience of its flavour to someone who's never eaten one, but luckily it isn't that hard to get hold of a mango and try it for yourself, at least in our affluent Western society - if you're reading this article, the chances are that you have access to a mango for the purposes of a taste test.
But how the heck do we experience 'not thinking'? That's the second, and altogether trickier, point. At first, we might not even realise how much we're thinking all the time - a very common experience for beginning meditators is for people to think that the practice is actually making them think more than usual, because as soon as we get quiet and start paying attention to what's going on, the thoughts are absolutely everywhere, like an unstoppable mental fire hose thrashing around and spraying thoughts left, right and centre. If you've found this for yourself, let me assure you that the meditation didn't put the thoughts there - they were there already, you just hadn't noticed them. We tend not to notice things that are always there, like the way we rapidly stop hearing the hum of the air conditioning or central heating because it's a steady drone. In the same way, when our minds are bombarded by thoughts, we actually tend not to notice most of them - they just fade into the background of our experience.
So first things first, we need to do enough practice that we start to notice our thoughts coming and going, to identify each thought as a discrete mental event with a beginning, middle and end. We can either undertake a meditation practice specifically focused on mindfulness of thoughts, as we discussed in last week's article, or we can simply allow the awareness of thoughts to develop over time as we do another practice, such as Silent Illumination.
Once we have some level of familiarity with the contents of our minds, we can then start exploring what happens when we don't have any thought present.
If we really pay attention, we'll start to notice moments like this, particularly if we practise meditation for long enough that the mind begins to settle and the thoughts quieten down. We may begin to find that gaps open up naturally between thoughts, and in between is... something else. Perhaps it shows up first of all as a kind of silence - one student described it to me as 'a deafening, horrifying silence', because it was such an unfamiliar and unexpected experience for him. (It doesn't stay horrifying! It's actually quite nice, but it can be a bit of a surprise the first time you encounter it.)
Alternatively, if the space isn't opening up by itself, we can sometimes 'trick' our minds into falling silent for a few moments. Spend a few moments noticing your thoughts coming and going, and then ask yourself this: 'What is my next thought going to be?'
Everything is perfectly resolved in the Unborn
The first step here is to get a taste of this 'deafening silence'. Then, like so many things in meditation, the second step is to figure out how to get back there! It's not at all uncommon to 'stumble' quite easily into some kind of meditation experience the first time, and then really struggle to get back there. It isn't just a case of beginner's luck - often, the problem is that we want to get back to the prior experience so much that the mind actually tightens up and becomes less flexible, thus blocking the path leading back to the desired experience. Fortunately, this is something we can learn to overcome - we 'just' have to figure out how to incline our minds gently towards wherever we want to go, without getting so 'grabby' that we get in our own way.
Once you can get back to 'the space between thoughts', even if it's just for a few moments at a time, you can start to explore what it's like. It's a delicate business - remember, you can't use words, because as soon as you do you're back in the world of thought again. (There's nothing worse than finding yourself thinking 'Oh hey, I'm back there in the space between thoughts!', because, of course, you aren't - at least, not any more! But maybe you were, right up until the thought came along, and that's still something.)
As you start to become familiar with the space between thoughts, several things become apparent. One, you don't stop existing when you aren't thinking about something! This might sound facetious, but a genuine source of resistance to letting go of thought can be a kind of fear of annihilation. If we live entirely in our thoughts, and then we stop thinking... eek. But give it a try, and notice that it's OK - usually, quite a bit better than OK, actually, but 'OK' will do for now.
Two, if you're able to rest in that space for a reasonable length of time, you'll start to notice how simple your experience has become. Although you aren't thinking, you haven't suddenly become stupid, or incapable of functioning. If something needs to be done, it's immediately, intuitively obvious what it is - unless it's a complex problem that genuinely does need to be thought about, of course, but what you'll start to notice is how rarely that actually happens. It turns out that life isn't an endless series of challenges to be figured out - unless we make it so.
Third, as you continue to taste that direct, wordless simplicity, you'll start to notice that it feels pretty good. Not 'exciting', like cookies and ice cream, but more of a quality of deep contentment. When we aren't using our thinking minds to compare the present moment to an idealised alternative version of itself, things are just what they are - they don't need to be any different. Unexpectedly, this can be true even if what's actually here is unpleasant in some way. For example, right now I have a bit of a stomach ache, because I've drunk way too much coffee this week and my digestion is a bit upset. If I start thinking about what I should have done instead (like sticking to green tea, which doesn't affect me in the same way), I'll quickly become resistant to and resentful of the present discomfort and my role in creating it. But if I'm simply here, in the space between thoughts, then the pain in my guts is just something else in the room, along with the computer screen in front of me, the music coming out of the speakers, the sensations from other parts of my body, and so on. It's unpleasant, but it's also fine - it just is what it is, no need to make a fuss about it. No need to suffer over and above the discomfort, which is already here anyway.
I believe that some combination of the above is what master Bankei is getting at with his statement that 'everything is perfectly resolved in the Unborn'. On one hand, we're quite capable of functioning from that place - despite the lack of thought, we understand what's what and what needs to be done. And in the absence of comparison, things are just what they are and don't need to be otherwise - which is one way to define 'perfect', isn't it?
Now, Bankei was a big advocate of 'resting in the Unborn', not just as a meditation practice (although Silent Illumination is an ideal vehicle to practise this way of being), but as a way of life - sit in the Unborn, eat in the Unborn, work in the Unborn, sleep in the Unborn. To what extent that's really possible for someone in a household life, I don't know. (Maybe I'll look back in ten years' time and laugh at how shallow my practice was in my forties!) For me, there are peaks and troughs in the amount of thinking that goes on. Sometimes I'll have long stretches where my daily meditation is pretty quiet. At other times, I'll be in the early stages of a new creative or research project, and my head will be a whirlwind of thoughts (that's where I am right now, as it happens). But sometimes, things quieten down enough that I can connect with that space between thoughts - and if I can do it, you can too. And even if we only have occasional access, it's a very powerful practice to connect with it whenever we can. Whatever we're dealing with at the time, it's quite likely that the situation will seem simpler, and our immediate response more obvious, when we step out of the stream of thoughts. (I've started to think of this as 'asking my Unborn mind what needs to happen next' - perhaps there's a hint of other-power sneaking into my framing there!)
Give this one a try and see how you get on. Master Bankei would say that rediscovering your innate Unborn mind is the entire path of practice, and that each moment you spend there is a moment that you already are a fully awakened Buddha. Maybe Zen isn't so difficult after all?
May you discover your Unborn Buddha mind today.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!