And another lame Christmas tie-in
This week we're looking at a Christmassy twist on case 29 in the Gateless Barrier, a classic collection of Zen koans. (In the original, the two monks are arguing about the wind whipping the banner of a temple - is it the banner that moves, or the wind? Hopefully you'll agree that my mangling above is close to the spirit of the original whilst ticking the Christmas box.)
So we have this debate between the two monks, a sudden pivotal intervention by the sixth ancestral master of Zen (Huineng, who was also the subject of case 23), and the delightful reaction of the two monks. (I like to think that they turned to each other, Bill and Ted style, and said 'Whoah, excellent!', but maybe that's just me.)
The 'punchline' of the koan is Huineng's declaration that all the monks are seeing is the movement of their own minds. But what does this mean? Let's find out!
Some different meanings of 'mind'
One of the confusing things about the world of meditation is the way that the same word can often mean several different things depending on the context. So let's take a look at three meanings of 'mind', and figure out which one is meant here.
In some places, particularly in early Buddhism, a distinction is sometimes made between 'mind' and 'body' (aka 'mentality' and 'materiality' if you want to sound fancy), very much like we make the same distinction in the modern world. The 'body' is this physical vehicle of ours, the thing that moves around the physical world and bumps into it from time to time. Physical things have size, shape, solidity, weight and so forth. By comparison, the 'mind' is the domain of the 'other stuff' - thoughts, emotions, memories and so on. Mental things don't have physical properties like size or shape, we can't say how much a thought weighs (although some thoughts can be pretty heavy...), but they're 'real' nevertheless, in as much as we experience them and they can be every bit as impactful as physical things.
Early Buddhism actually has several models of experience, including the Five Aggregates, which feature this mind/body distinction. In the Five Aggregates, for example, the first aggregate is the body, while the other four (the categorisation of experience as pleasant or unpleasant, our concepts/perceptions, our intentions and impulses, and our consciousness) are 'mind' in this sense. There are also insight techniques which revolve around exploring the interplay between mind and body - what actually happens when you decide to move your body in a certain way? What comes first, mind or body? Is it always that way?
It seems pretty clear, though, that this kind of 'mind' isn't what's meant in the koan. While I suppose you could argue that Santa's sleigh and eight tiny reindeer are actually figments of our imagination (at least if you want to ruin Christmas for everyone), the same can't be said for the wind or the banner of the temple. Those are physical phenomena, no doubt about it.
Another oddity in Buddhism that can sometimes trip people up is the reference to 'six senses'. No, nothing to do with Bruce Willis. Another of early Buddhism's ways of carving up experience into buckets is into the six 'sense spheres' (aka ayatanas, the same word used for the higher jhanas in last week's article). These comprise the usual five senses of vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell, plus the 'sixth sense' of thinking.
These six are sometimes broken out into three parts for each sense: the sense object, the sense organ, and the sense 'sphere', or sensory faculty. So, for vision, a sense object would be something you can see, like the coffee cup on the table in front of me as I'm writing this; the sense organ is the eye; and the sensory faculty is vision, i.e. my ability to have a visual experience. When all three (object, organ and sensory faculty) come together, we have a conscious experience.
So in this model, it's relatively obvious what the 'sense organ' and 'sense object' are for the first five senses - the eye and sights, the ear and sounds, the body and tactile sensations, the tongue and flavours, the nose and scents. But what about the sixth sense? Generally, we would say that the 'sense objects' here are 'thoughts' (or memories, mental images, etc.), while the 'sense organ' is the 'mind'. I've sometimes toyed with saying 'brain' instead of 'mind' for the corresponding sense organ, because the brain is something physical whereas 'mind' is a bit more ephemeral and ungraspable, but haven't really settled on a preferred way to say it.
Again, it seems like this use of 'mind' isn't really what's meant in the koan. Even if we interpret Huineng's statement as saying that the monks are just arguing because their minds are agitated, he would really be saying that their thoughts are agitated, not that their minds are agitated. Just because we can see a lot of movement doesn't mean that the eye is agitated - it means that the eye is looking at a turbulent, chaotic scene. (You could probably argue the toss on this one, and doing so would probably be quite an interesting insight practice if you approach it experientially rather than intellectually/philosophically, so give it a go and let me know how you get on!)
Yet another usage for the word 'mind' is to mean basically the same thing as 'awareness'. But what exactly is awareness anyway? Well, that's where things get interesting - and where the koan comes to life.
Stop reading for a moment and take a look around. Notice what you can hear, what you can feel, what thoughts you might be experiencing. Then notice that all of these things are happening within your awareness. That is, the only way you know that anything at all is happening is because you're aware of it - and so your awareness must somehow 'contain' absolutely everything that's going on.
An interesting meditation practice is to try to pay attention to your awareness itself - not any of the specific phenomena arising and passing away within awareness, but to awareness itself, to the 'container' of those experiences. (This approach can be one way in to the practice of Silent Illumination.) If we're patient, we can find ourselves somehow arriving at a 'broad' perspective which contains everything without being quite so attached to anything in particular, and this can be very restful and enjoyable. Cultivating this experience is a great thing to do, and if you take nothing else away from today's article, this is plenty.
After you've been doing this for a while, though, there's another step we can take, which is to investigate the nature of this 'awareness'. What exactly is it? Is it a sight, or a sound, or a feeling, or a thought? Presumably not, because all of those things are contained within it. So what exactly is it? Is it any kind of thing at all?
I can't answer that question for you - you have to do it for yourself. Of course I can say more about it, but being 'told the answer' won't change anything for you on an experiential level. Really, it's better to stop reading now and go practise until you've got it. Nevertheless, this article will feel a bit incomplete if I stop here, so I'll go on, and you can maybe come back after you've found the answer for yourself to see if you arrived at the same understanding that I'm going to present. (Maybe you won't! That's part of the fun...)
As it turns out, the answer is that, no, awareness isn't any kind of 'thing' at all. Actually, awareness can't be found as anything separate from the sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings that we previously described as arising 'within' it. It turns out that 'awareness' and 'the objects of awareness' are not separate in any meaningful sense at the experiential level (although, oddly enough, it can often be useful to separate them conceptually when we're trying to get to that 'awareness as container' experience described above, because it can help us to let go of some of our habitual attachment to the 'things' coming and going from moment to moment).
This is quite a big deal, because it means that 'awareness' (or 'mind') and 'phenomena' are not separate ('not two', i.e. non-dual). In other words, everything we ever experience is the movement of our own minds, as opposed to an objectively real experience of something 'out there'. That's not to say that there isn't anything 'out there' (I tend to believe that there is), just that what we actually experience is always and only our own minds, rather than anything else.
That's what Huineng is pointing to in today's koan, I think. The two monks are having a philosophical debate about the causality of sleighs and reindeer, and Huineng is stepping in to say 'Look, forget about all that - haven't you realised yet that all of this is your own mind?'
The consequences of a deep realisation of this truth can be pretty far-reaching, providing a clear insight into the Buddhist concept of emptiness - the idea that nothing we experience exists in some objective way, but actually everything is a kind of mental projection. You know that person who you find really annoying? (You know the one.) How would it be if the annoyance wasn't coming from them at all, but was actually coming from your own mind? You know when you had high expectations for something and then you were really disappointed when those expectations weren't met? Guess where those expectations came from - and guess where the disappointment comes from too.
As we become more familiar on the experiential level with the emptiness of absolutely everything we ever experience, we tend to find that our attitudes become much more flexible and accepting of unexpected change; it becomes easier (although maybe not 'easy') to get past frustrations, disappointments and other unfortunate episodes when the universe doesn't unfold the way we wanted it to. We get better at seeing, more and more quickly, that whenever we feel a sense of friction in our lives, a sense that 'it wasn't supposed to happen like this!', that's just us putting our own hopes and dreams onto a universe that unfortunately didn't get the memo and didn't realise it was supposed to obey our every whim.
Going deeper, we begin to realise that we can't plan and strategise our way through life, at least not with any reasonable expectation of success. Actually, the future is unknown. At times that can be scary, but at other times it can be tremendously exciting. Imagine how dull it would be if you knew everything that was going to happen for the rest of your life, like a movie you've already watched a hundred times.
As we open ourselves to the mystery of our lives, the world can at times seem almost magical. Experience takes on a quality of freshness and newness, and we can come to see even the most mundane details of our lives the way we once did when we were very young, or sometimes still do when we're on holiday in an unfamiliar place and everything is new and interesting.
All we have to do to step into this semi-magical world is to let go of our fixed views about what's going on. And a great way to do that is to explore this thing that we call 'mind', or 'awareness', and see that, far from being a passive observer of objectively real 'things out there', it's actually the very fabric of experience itself.
All of this is the movement of your mind.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!