Reasoning comes to an end
a thought breaks in the middle
all day nothing but time
undisturbed all year
on deserted mountains clouds come and go
in the clear sky the moon is a lonesome o
even if yoga or alchemy worked
it wouldn’t match knowing Zen
It’s difficult to talk about meditation without being misleading. When someone asks what we learn during meditation, it’s often tempting to tell people what they want to hear. If we have career ambitions for a spiritual practice, there may be even more pressure to couch this practice in some kind of revelation or personal link to the divine. That connection to a larger order grants us a tenuous sense of power and may ensure that the group perceives us as giving them what they need. There is a cost associated with this, and we may come to believe what we know in our heart is a convenient fiction.
Even if we’re not in charge of a group, we may still place our meditation practice in lofty terms or develop speculative ideas from it. If I’m being honest, I’m guilty of all of these kind of mistakes involving meditative practice and idealism. It’s frighteningly easy for us to rationalize believing what we want and spiritual inquiry is no different. The way out of this is to start to observe our tendency towards speculation and stability even when we’re not on solid ground. With enough observation, that kind of idealism will eventually become less important.
Truly getting this is a long and arduous process. Zen has taken that process of questioning and perfected it while remaining acutely sensitive to the intellectual dangers of meditative practice. Zen is brutally honest in its questioning of all concepts. I can’t think of too many types of religious and philosophical inquiry that deal in the kind of honesty Zen does. Zen doesn’t mythologize and is acutely aware of our desire to do so. While so many traditions indulge fantasy, it looks at that desire in stark terms. Zen asks that we fully account for this tendency to mythologize in order to truly push it to its limits. Zen Master Seung Sahn famously said that Zen is “only don’t know.” In one of his responses to letters written to him about Zen practice, he says:
How do you understand your true self? I ask you, What are you? Don’t you know? If you don’t know, only go straight —don’t know. This don’t know mind cuts off all thinking, and your only-me situation, only-me condition opinion disappear. Then your correct situation, correct condition, and correct opinion appear –it’s very simply! An eminent teacher said, ‘You should understand for yourself whether water is hot or cold.’ Understanding your true self is not special.
I don’t think this kind of response is typically what people want to hear. Rather than take our doubt to the breaking point, we would rather hear how practice can give us certain powers or give us access to supernatural knowledge. Zen’s way of dealing with this is a brilliant response to all different kinds of spiritual egotism. It’s sensitivity to those pitfalls comes across viscerally in koan dialogues like the following:
A monk asked Ummon, “What is the Buddha?”
Ummon replied, “It is a shit-wiping stick.”
Exchanges like are a deeply-real antidote to the reasons many start this practice in the first place. It’s like being struck, and is intended to be a fully realized and physical response. We often see this kind of behavior in Zen koans and can gradually recognize the honesty in that kind of response, which may not be what the student had envisioned. Their mind that seeks a container is disappointed, as another story, one they hoped was more real, is questioned and discarded. Zen teachers are going to use a variety of responses like this to truly bring their students to bear on their questions.
The Great Doubt is a Zen way of describing not picking up the conceptual pieces from this process. Once they’ve broken apart we don’t build new worldviews out of them. Instead, we are living within them but always doubting their essential nature. Rather than constructing intolerant and bizarre systems with ourselves at the center, the truth is something vast, distributed, and something that can’t possibly be put into words. Everyone shares that something, as we come to see in ways that can’t be readily conveyed with ideas.
The challenge then becomes never picking up those pieces again. “Only go straight, only don’t know.” “On deserted mountains clouds come and go.” Things move and act in deep appreciation for each other without ever knowing what they are. The only way to discover this is to look at this yourself, and to keep looking, and keep asking.
“What are you?”