Overcoming the hurdles of Zen practice
This week we're taking a look at case 47 in the Gateless Barrier. We're almost at the end of this well-known collection of Zen koans (stories of Zen encounters and questions intended to stimulate insight), and I have the feeling that Zen master Wumen, who compiled the Gateless Barrier, was in a 'summarising' mood when he picked this one to occupy the penultimate slot. It's unusual among the koans in the Gateless Barrier because they're mostly pretty pithy, whereas today's case has not one but three distinct pieces, each of which relates to a specific challenge along the spiritual path. So without further ado, let's take a look!
First barrier: finding your essence
Zen master Tushuai's first barrier concerns the essential point of spiritual practice: finding out who, and what, we really are. In my lineage of Zen we typically use koans such as 'Who am I?' and 'What is my true nature?' to dig into this question. As I discussed in last week's article, koans have a way of exhausting our thinking minds to the point that they spontaneously release, revealing what lies beyond. A second approach is through Silent Illumination, simply allowing the mind to relax and let go naturally over time. And in a recent article I talked about Zen master Bankei's teaching on the 'Unborn Buddha Mind', which is another way of describing the 'essence' that is mentioned here, and I offered a third approach for finding that essence, by looking at what happens in your experience in the 'space between thoughts'.
All of these approaches are intended to move us beyond the habitual patterns of our minds. Master Tushuai calls this 'brushing aside confusion'. Perhaps it seems a little dismissive to summarise all of our usual mental activity as 'confusion'! The essential point, though, is that, prior to awakening, we see the world through a particular lens, a particular 'view', and that view is not giving us the full story. In Buddhism you'll often hear people talking about 'the relative perspective', by which they mean the conventional world view - a view of separation, a world of things and people each doing their own thing, a perspective of solidity, impact, comparison and conflict. That's then contrasted with 'the absolute perspective', which is what you hear described in spiritual circles - a view of no separation, no duality, no conflict, just ever-unfolding harmony. The absolute perspective is what we find when we discover our essence. Until you've done that, it's all just a bunch of words. So the first barrier is to find your essence!
Second barrier: fear of letting go
Tushuai's second barrier talks about 'when you are dying'. It's possible to understand this in terms of the end of life and the death of the physical body, but in Zen literature 'death' is often more symbolic than literal. Shifting from the relative perspective to the absolute requires us to let go of everything that comes with the relative perspective - which includes our sense of separate identity, our sense of being an independently functioning human with a name, a private life, interests, relationships and so on. Essentially, everything we've been carrying with us throughout our entire lives to give us a way to make sense of what is happening right now must be (temporarily!) put down. The more firmly we've identified with various aspects of ourselves - perhaps our profession, race, gender, belief system, etc. - the more difficult it is to set those aside, because they're so fundamental to how we understand what's going on. And yet that's exactly what we must do.
And so, in the run-up to an initial awakening - called kensho in Zen, 'seeing true nature' - it's extremely common for a kind of 'fear of death' to manifest. We may feel a very direct existential threat, a sense that 'if I keep going, I might not make it out of this in one piece'! And, in a sense, that's true - you won't. After awakening, you really won't be the same person any more. You can't be. You'll know for sure that the relative perspective is only part of the picture, not the whole of reality. At times you'll be fully immersed in that relative perspective, dealing with the demands of career, family, relationships and so forth, but at other times you'll have enough time and space to step back and remember, and perhaps reconnect with, the absolute.
This type of existential fear can show up at other points in practice too. A variant of it is often reported by people learning the jhanas - as the practitioner's mind begins to shift into one of the altered states of consciousness that we call jhana, there can be a sense of loss of control, of hurtling into the unknown, and that can be threatening enough to disrupt the practice. Even something as simple as letting go of a bad habit can sometimes trigger a version of this fear - when it's something that's been a part of us for a long time, letting it go can feel like losing a piece of ourselves. Perhaps we might feel like we won't know how to live without the bad habit - we don't know who we'll be if we don't do this thing which is so characteristic of ourselves.
All of these transitions do require us to step into the unknown. There's no getting around it. Other people can assure us that it's for the best in the long run, but we still have to take that leap of faith for ourselves. For some people, it can help to sidle up to the threshold repeatedly, slowly getting used to being in that uncomfortable space until we're finally ready to step over all the way. For others, it may be easier just to take the plunge directly - the 'rip off the plaster' approach. Either way, this is the second barrier: to overcome the fear of letting go.
Third barrier: life beyond awakening
Before we move on to Tushuai's third barrier, let's return to the first for a moment. We talked about the various types of spiritual exercises which can lead to seeing essence (kensho), all of which revolve around 'brushing aside confusion', i.e. escaping from our habitual mental activity.
But notice that Tushuai says that 'Brushing aside confusion is only for the purpose of seeing essence' (emphasis mine). Like I said in the Bankei article, the point of the practice is not to eliminate our thoughts once and for all. To put it in the language above, the aim of our practice is not to discard the relative perspective forever and live permanently in the absolute. I'm not even sure that's possible without someone on hand to take care of your bodily needs - feed you, wash you and so forth. Remember, all of those activities belong to the relative perspective - so if you have forever closed off that way of seeing the world, you aren't going to be taking a shower anytime soon.
In Zen, we have a saying that a mature practitioner needs to have 'both eyes open' - the eye of the relative and the eye of the absolute. Neither perspective is 'the truth'; both are simply aspects of reality.
But how is one supposed to do that? Is the idea that you live day-to-day from the relative perspective, then go on retreats a few times a year to hang out in the absolute? Well, that's an approach that some teachers do recommend, but Zen would tend to say no - if that's your chosen lifestyle, then it's starting to sound like you're becoming fond of sitting on a hundred-foot pole. The long-term aim in Zen is towards integration - of seeing that 'relative' and 'absolute' are not really separate at all.
Learning how to live after the 'spiritual death' described above is not an easy matter. As we come to understand emptiness more and more deeply, everything that we previously relied upon now seems unstable and insubstantial. We may even feel that the four great elements that make up the physical world are disintegrating all around us. How are we supposed to live when there's nothing we can depend on?
Much as I'd like to be able to describe the 24/7 fully awakened, fully integrated life from my own experience, alas, my practice still has some room for improvement! But the Zen masters of old do offer us some pointers. Bankei suggested that we could learn to live in the Unborn Buddha Mind, where 'everything is perfectly resolved'. And the third great Zen ancestor, Sengcan, wrote a poem called 'Faith in Mind' which points in the same direction - a profound trust in that which is within us to navigate the world without losing sight of who and what we really are. Zen invites us to learn to live from our essence whilst being in the world - neither hiding out in a cave enjoying the bliss of total extinction, nor being lost in the miseries and sufferings of the relative world.
It's tempting here to include a quotation from a well-respected teacher that attempts to summarise this process of integration, but I think it would be trite to do so. The truth is that the core of Zen practice is deeply mysterious to me, and continues to be so even after many retreats, insights and experiences. The unfolding of our lives is discovered through being lived, one moment at a time, not something which can be fully mapped out in advance - no matter how much I might like it to be otherwise!
May you overcome the barriers in your own life.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!