The art of getting out of our own way
One of my favourite Zen texts, 'Zazen Yojinki', aka 'Notes on what to be aware of in sitting meditation', comes to us from the 13th century Soto Zen master Keizan. By the standard of most Zen texts, it's actually pretty readable, full of practical advice about meditation, like what to do if you're feeling sleepy or distracted. (If you'd like to read the whole thing, you can find a translation here.)
But the part I'd like to highlight today comes at the very end. It's a simple instruction which sums up the spirit of the 'quiet Zen' practice of Silent Illumination, aka shikantaza, just sitting, or resting in the Unborn. (If you aren't familiar with Silent Illumination, I recommend taking a moment to check out my page on that practice, so you have some sense of what's involved.) The passage in question is, for me, one of the most beautiful expressions of Zen practice that I've ever encountered, and it rarely fails to move me.
You should just rest and cease. Be cooled, pass numberless years as this moment. Be cold ashes, a withered tree, an incense burner in an abandoned temple, a piece of unstained silk.
This is my earnest wish.
What on earth does it mean to 'be a piece of unstained silk'? Wouldn't that be boring, or passive? And isn't this recommending that we hide away from the world and refuse to deal with our problems?
I'm going to suggest that it's actually quite the opposite of all of those things, but in order to get there we need to cover a little theory first. So let's dig in!
Being no-one, going nowhere
In last week's article we looked at the Three Characteristics, a teaching from early Buddhism on the nature of phenomenal reality. I chose to translate one of the Three Characteristics, anatta, as 'essencelessness', even though the more usual translations you'll find are 'not-self', 'non-self' or - worst of all - 'no self'. I went with 'essencelessness' because I wanted to sidestep the whole discussion about the Buddhist view of the self, but if we're going to understand what it means to be a piece of unstained silk, it'll help to examine this in a bit more detail.
It's sometimes suggested that the Buddha taught that we don't have a 'self', or even that we somehow don't exist. And if this strikes you as a strange idea (perhaps even one that fails basic reality testing - after all, if you don't exist, who's reading this article?), you're not alone.
The Buddha wasn't actually saying 'you don't exist' or 'you don't have a self'. What he was inviting us to do was to look at what our sense of self actually is - not to say 'it doesn't exist!' but rather to ask 'in what way does it exist?' There are two key points to notice about the self. One is that, although it feels like we have a stable, unchanging identity as 'me' (haven't I always been me? It certainly seems that way!), actually the way that identity manifests is constantly changing, both from one situation to the next and over time.
The other is that this sense of 'me' is at the centre of all of our stories about what's going on in the world - a kind of 'organising principle' that helps us to figure out what to do to stay alive and do what needs to be done. Unfortunately, this 'me' is also at the heart of our experience of suffering. Any kind of 'problem' in my life comes about because I can't get what I want, or because I got something I didn't want. The 'problems' are really just 'situations', but when viewed from the perspective of 'my gain and loss', 'my pleasure and pain' and so on, those situations can easily become unpleasant and painful in a very personal way.
So when we've spent a bit of time looking into this, a natural response can be to suppose that we should try to get rid of our 'self'. The damn thing isn't doing us any good, it's at the centre of all these problems - we should eradicate it totally, and thus be free from suffering! Right? It's a nice idea in principle, but it doesn't work in practice - if you ever hope to access your bank account in the future, you'll need to have at least a minimal sense of your identity.
Another common move - perhaps informed by the Christian values of self-sacrifice and humility, which are written deeply into our culture even if we don't think of ourselves as Christian - is to try to diminish our sense of self. We speak quietly and humbly about ourselves, we avoid making claims about our talents and achievements, we let other people go first even when we're in a hurry, we make sure never to take the last chocolate in the box, that kind of thing.
Actually, though, this is just replacing one kind of self-narrative with another one - the 'humble self' or 'spiritual self'. In many ways we can actually be more self-conscious when trying to act in this way because we have to stop periodically to think 'Now how would a humble person act in this situation?', and so we second-guess our natural instincts.
So what's the answer? Just do whatever comes naturally? But isn't that what we were doing anyway?
How we get in our own way
A central idea in Zen is the search for our true nature, or Buddha Nature. Our Buddha Nature is already awake, wise and compassionate, peaceful and untroubled - but it's covered over by a lifetime of accumulated mental habits and obscurations, with the result that the reality we experience and the behaviour we manifest day-to-day is anything but peaceful and untroubled. So we practise in order to reconnect with that true nature, and learn to manifest it in the world.
If that sounds a bit mysterious, we can perhaps get a clearer sense of it by looking at the Brahmaviharas. In early Buddhism these four positive qualities of the heart - kindness, compassion, delight in the good fortune of others, and equanimity - are considered something to be actively cultivated through practice. but in Zen the view is more that these qualities are inherent within us as part of our Buddha Nature and simply need to be uncovered. Whichever view you prefer, though, it's instructive to look at how we can get the Brahmaviharas slightly wrong, twisting them into their 'near enemies' - qualities which look and feel kinda similar to the true Brahmaviharas, but with a sour tinge to them.
Kindness, for example, is simply the natural radiance of an open heart. We encounter others, and we wish them well. It's as simple as that. But, if we're not careful, kindness can slide over into a kind of calculated 'niceness', wanting to be seen as a nice person, deliberately looking for opportunities to demonstrate your kindness. Notice that there's still an element of pure kindness here, but now it's been infiltrated by the 'story of me' - I want to get some advantage for myself in this situation.
Compassion is another practice which can easily lose its way if we aren't careful. Compassion in its purest form is simply the recognition of suffering and the heartfelt wish for it to be relieved - whether that suffering is ours or someone else's. But compassion can easily become 'pity' instead, a mood where we distance ourselves from 'that person over there' and 'feel sorry for them' from a place of superiority. What started out as the recognition of a universal human condition has now become a way of asserting my status over someone else's, pushing us further apart rather than bringing us closer together.
In the same way that a truly open heart will resonate with suffering no matter 'whose' suffering it is, that same open heart will resonate with joy, whether it's 'my joy' or 'your joy'. But see how quickly the recognition of another person's good fortune can be tinged with jealousy when 'I' get involved with the story - how lucky for you! I'd quite like to have that myself!
And - perhaps worst of all - equanimity, which is simply a condition of balance, calmness and ease in the face of whatever comes up, can so easily slide over into indifference. (We can even do this deliberately if we've heard people talking about the value of 'detachment' as an antidote to 'attachment'.) It doesn't matter to me, therefore I don't need to care, and so I turn away from my experience, numb to whatever is happening, safe in my cocoon of indifference.
So what can we do about this?
Here we have to be very careful. We're used to seeing the world through the lens of the 'self', and it's very likely that anything we try to do in an intentional way will be coming from that same place. As I said before, we have to be very careful that, in our attempts to extract the distorting effect of the self from our experience of the world, we don't simply replace it with another, fancier self which is ultimately just as problematic as the previous one.
Instead, we make a different move - we don't do anything at all. We 'just sit'. We practise being with our whole experience, just as it is, without reacting. We see our self-based habitual reactions firing off in response to whatever is coming up over and over, but - to the extent that we can - we simply let those reactions go and watch them fizzle out. Over time, our habitual patterns start to slow down, and we become more able to sit in the midst of our experience with greater and greater equanimity (but not indifference!).
In other words, we rest, and cease our usual activities. Our inner fires of reactivity die down, and we become like cold ashes where a fire once blazed. Like a withered tree, an incense burner in an abandoned temple. A piece of unstained silk.
But the end result of this is not passivity. Rather than becoming nothing at all, we simply get out of our own way. Without stopping entirely, the 'self-narrative' loses its central importance in our decision-making process. We don't forget who we are, and we don't have to pretend to be less than we are, but at the same time we no longer need to put so much energy into telling everyone else who we are, projecting the image of ourselves that we've worked so hard to create.
And as that self-image recedes into the background, our Buddha Nature can shine forth. The vital force which animates us continues to respond to the arising circumstances of our lives, but we are no longer so obsessed with our personal projects at the expense of everything else, no longer so distracted by self-conscious considerations or motivated by personal gain. Our do-gooding becomes genuine kindness, our pity becomes compassion. If anything, we have more energy to invest into the world, now that we're no longer so preoccupied with our own stuff - our own suffering gradually relieves itself, and we become available to help others with their own problems.
This is my earnest wish.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!