The case for taking the scenic route
This week we're taking a look at case 21 in the Gateless Barrier, one of the most well-known and popular collections of Zen stories. As you can see, it's one of the brief, punchy ones, verging on abrasive in this case. But despite its pithy nature, it conceals a wealth of wisdom. So let's dive in and see what we can find...
(For those of a sensitive disposition, please note that this article will contain coarser language than is typical for this website. There's a point to it, which I'll explain as we go.)
What is this, toilet humour?
The story, or koan, opens in a way which is becoming familiar to us now (basically the same question kicked off case 18 and case 19). A monk asks 'What is Buddha?', which is shorthand for 'please give me a teaching on Zen' - the student asks the teacher to point out the Great Way of Zen practice, right here and now, in whatever manner seems most appropriate to the teacher in that moment.
Yunmen's answer initially seems rather brusque, even disrespectful. Aren't Buddhists supposed to venerate Buddha? Calling him an old, worn-out piece of poop surely verges on the offensive! Of course we've previously seen Yunmen threaten poor old Dongshan with a damn good thrashing (case 15), so maybe we expect a certain level of roughness from him, but even so.
(By the way, you'll encounter other translations of this koan which translate the key word as 'shit-stick', and which relate this back to an implement used to clean oneself after using the toilet back in the day. I've followed Thomas Cleary's translation for reasons that will soon become apparent. Ultimately it doesn't really matter, though - it's making the same point either way.)
The crudeness of Yunmen's reply is precisely the point, however. Maybe the monk asking the question had just bowed in an excessively fancy, reverential way, after looking down his nose at the other, clearly inferior, monks at the monastery, before asking in hushed tones 'What is Buddha?' in the hope of receiving a divine revelation.
This happens sometimes. People approach Zen in a 'religious' manner, and start to make big distinctions between 'holy things' which are worthy of their concern, and 'mundane things' which are not. (You could argue that this approach is even encouraged in early Buddhism - consider last week's article looking at vedana, and the suggestion that vedana should be separated into spiritual and mundane categories.) Zen then becomes a platform for superiority, a way of looking condescendingly at others because you now live a 'higher' life than the plebs around you. You start to feel special, because you're engaged in something special, and that makes you better than everyone else except the hallowed few who are even further along the sacred spiritual path than you.
From the standpoint of Zen, however, splitting the world into 'Zen things' and 'not-Zen things' is a false distinction. We see the same point expressed in this story from the Daoist tradition:
Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, 'This thing called the Way (Dao) - where does it exist?'
Chuang Tzu said, 'There's no place it doesn't exist.'
'Come,' said Master Tung-kuo, 'you must be more specific!'
'It is in the ant.'
'As low a thing as that?'
'It is in the grass.'
'But that's lower still!'
'It is in the tiles and shards.'
'How can it be so low?'
'It is in the piss and shit.'
To translate this into Zen language, we could just as easily replace Tung-kuo's initial question with 'What is Buddha?' But when Chuang Tzu replies that the Way is to be found everywhere, Tung-kuo is surprised - he doesn't believe that something as lofty as the Way could be found in just any old thing. Sensing this, Chuang Tzu doubles down, saying that it can be found in ants, in grass, in tiles and shards, and even in the piss and shit. The story doesn't say how Tung-kuo reacted to the final line, but I like to imagine him struck dumb with horror at his teacher's coarseness, perhaps turning slightly red in the face. Sometimes that kind of rather embarrassing experience is necessary to penetrate one's conceit.
The Zen of peak experiences
But maybe you're wondering how to reconcile all this talk of mundanity with the strong emphasis found in Rinzai Zen on kensho - moments of great breakthrough, a sudden flash of insight in which one see's one's true nature (which is what kensho literally means). Perhaps you've read Three Pillars of Zen or another book which describes dramatic experiences of sudden awakening. Or perhaps you've come across people describing their psychedelic experiences and talking about how those are 'exactly the same' as spiritual insights.
This is a tricky and nuanced topic, and I'll start by saying that I've never taken psychedelic drugs so I can't compare LSD or 5-MEO-DMT trips with the kinds of experiences that can arise out of meditation practice. But I have had some of the latter, and I can say for sure that they aren't the be-all and end-all of Zen practice, so I'm not just totally making this up.
First of all, peak experiences can happen in meditation practice - dramatic moments of a felt sense of oneness with the universe, a seemingly total disappearance of the sense of self, the dissolution of the whole sensory experience into pulsating energy, and so forth. (My least glamorous spiritual experience was a sense of becoming 'one with' a urinal - unfortunately, I was using it at the time. I'll leave the rest of that particular story to your imagination.)
Not everyone seems to get them. They seem to be more common for people doing more intensive practice, both in terms of the technique (e.g. highly focused koan work is more likely to trigger one than the relatively gentle practice of Silent Illumination), but on the other hand Zen teacher Brad Warner has written and spoken about his meditation experiences on many occasions, and he's a pure shikantaza/Silent Illumination guy. Some people don't seem to have anything particularly dramatic happen, however - the great modern-day Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was once famously asked why he never talked about his 'enlightenment experiences', and his wife quipped that it was because he'd never had one.
Even talking about the possibility of 'enlightenment experiences' can be divisive, separating meditators into those who have had such experiences and those who haven't (with a middle group of people who think something weird might have happened in their practice but they're not sure if it 'counts'). And no matter how much a teacher says that the experiences don't really matter, it's hard to be in the 'have-not' category. As one Zen practitioner I met put it, 'I know the experiences aren't the point, but sometimes I think it would be nice.'
The apparent importance of these 'enlightenment experiences' has also led to the debate I alluded to earlier about the comparative value of psychedelic experiences. After all, meditation takes a serious commitment of time and energy, compared to which taking psychedelics potentially seems much more efficient. (Brad Warner compares it to the difference between climbing a mountain on foot or taking a helicopter to the summit.)
The way my own Zen teacher Daizan puts it is this: kensho, or awakening of any sort, is not an experience. It may be accompanied by an experience - though not always - but kensho itself is actually more of an inner shift in the way that we relate to all experiences. Experiences are temporary - they have a beginning, middle and end. Kensho, however, is a permanent change, like travelling abroad for the first time, or losing your virginity. Afterwards, you're different, and you can't go back to the way you were. In the case of kensho, what you've seen can't be un-seen.
A dramatic spiritual or psychedelic experience can have a value, don't get me wrong. The view from the top of the mountain is pretty striking. An experience can show you a wildly different way of perceiving that totally undermines your previous understanding of who and what you are, and as such it can be the trigger for the shift of kensho. And that seems to be true whether the experience comes from your meditation practice or from psychedelics - I know several people who report having had a shift from psychedelics, and I'll take their word for it.
But kensho isn't the end of the story by any means. Kensho is really in some ways a starting point - a crack in the door which must then be opened further until we can fully integrate our discoveries into our lives. This is where having something like a regular Zen practice is so helpful - first, you have a community of fellow practitioners on the same journey, so you aren't so likely to feel isolated, misunderstood or possibly mentally unstable; and second, you have something that you can continue to do every day which will gradually move you away from the strong duality between the highs of peak experiences (in which you see 'the truth') and the lows of everyday mundanity (in which you're back in 'the illusion'). Ultimately, we want to erase that duality altogether.
Hot and cool flow - from peak experience to normal mind
Peak experiences can be both fascinating and great fun, but they're often not terribly functional. (Experiencing the universe disintegrating into energetic vibrations was certainly a very freeing experience, because in that condition there was literally nothing to bother me, but I kinda doubt that I could have gone to the shops to buy bread.) People in highly altered states are often having a good time but don't always take good care of themselves.
On a more mundane level, we can also look at another kind of peak experience - the experience of Flow, which we discussed a few weeks ago. When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi originally defined Flow, he was describing a particular - and actually somewhat narrow - type of experience, one in which someone is engaged in a challenging activity which provides immediate feedback. Flow states are incredibly rewarding experiences, and people who learn to get into Flow will often go to great lengths to pursue those activities. I'm fortunate enough to be able to get into flow when writing computer code, and I began organising my life around becoming a computer programmer long before I'd ever heard of the concept of Flow - I just knew I liked it and wanted to do it as much as possible. It's the same for many athletes, dancers and so on.
The trouble with this kind of Flow, though, is that it needs various conditions - and it can be interrupted if those conditions are disturbed too badly. A colleague walking up to my desk for a 'five minute' chat will totally break my Flow, and it may take much longer than five minutes to re-establish it afterwards. (I've even seen guidance for how to run technical teams which is aimed at deliberately preventing Flow by providing regular disruptions, because some people can become so unhappy when their Flow is broken that it's deemed to be better not to let them get into Flow in the first place!)
This kind of Flow is also tiring. It's very engaging, and as a result it's very draining. Sooner or later you'll burn out, drop out of Flow and need to go away and recharge before you can do it again. The same is true of peak experiences in meditation - much as we might like to, we can't sustain them indefinitely.
But it turns out that there's another way. Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke (whose excellent Awakening from the Meaning Crisis I've mentioned before) makes a distinction between 'Hot Flow' - the Csikszentmihlayi variety - and 'Cool Flow', which is what traditions like Zen and Daoism are pointing to.
After kensho, Zen practice is largely a matter of continuing to develop the same skills of presence and clarity that brought us up to the moment of kensho (which is an argument for having arrived at kensho as a result of cultivating those skills, rather than trying to jump straight there and then beginning the second - and altogether more difficult - part of the journey without the requisite skills to make progress).
Post-kensho practice does take on a different feel after a while, however. Whereas before kensho it may have felt like a search to try to discover some deep truth about who we are, after kensho it's more of a process of repeatedly encountering and gradually removing the obstacles within ourselves which keep us from seeing clearly at all times. We find habitual behaviours, skewed world views and other deep-rooted sources of clinging within ourselves, and we work to unpick those. With each letting go comes greater freedom, less reliance on our past conditioning, and a greater willingness to place our trust in the present moment, rather than trying to figure everything out in advance. Life gradually takes on more of a quality on spontaneity, a moment-by-moment unfolding where what we thought was going to happen becomes less and less important compared to the reality of what actually is happening now. We find ourselves approach the Flow state once again, but this time without the intense energy required for Hot Flow.
Hot Flow is so enjoyable because it suppresses self-referential thoughts and worries and our sense of separation and disconnection - we're simply too engaged in the activity to have the mental space for any of that, so it temporarily shuts off. But as we gradually unravel the mechanisms that give rise to that sense of separation through our Zen practice, our life naturally gravitates toward the Cool Flow experience - with that same quality of smooth moment-to-moment unfolding, but now taking on an effortless quality that can be sustained for much longer periods - perhaps even indefinitely.
So the path of Zen is not ultimately about finding some special exalted state and then working as hard as possible to stay there forever. In the end, our lives return to utter ordinariness, no trace of 'peak experiences' or anything 'special' or 'holy' - but an ordinariness which has been liberated from those conditions which previously made our ordinary lives so painful at times.
In the end, we can find Zen even in the lowliest of things - even in a dry turd!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!