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!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!