Zen Koan Discussion: “Linji’s Four Realms”

In the Zen tradition, koans are used as direct expressions of the truth of Zen. Examining the words of masters past allow koans to take on an awesome depth and join us on our inquiry to help guide us. Koans are a challenge to look at their truth for ourselves without turning away from our humanity. We can use them to come to our own understanding of Zen’s “Only Don’t Know,” an unraveling of our most basic assumptions and ways of looking at the world.

Looking at koans, I was initially confused and couldn’t really make sense out of them. A daily sitting practice has gradually shown me that koan answers are so precisely tuned that it’s easy to overlook them. Instead of molding koans to try to fit our expectations of them, we have to look at the koan and try to understand it on its own terms.

9EFCC665-83A9-4824-8901-69E481A01E9E

The koan collection Entangling Vines, translated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner, is one the of the most valuable koan references I’ve found. It’s packed with intriguing details that enhance the original text, as well as a fantastic translation. I haven’t finished the whole book yet, but it has steadily become my favorite koan collection. One of the koans featured in Entangling Vines that struck me recently is called “Linji’s Four Realms.” After some biographical details, we’ll take a look at the main text of the koan, and discuss how it locks together to form an organic whole. Linji’s economy with his teaching is astounding, and he covers a lot of ground in a short span of time.

8F811B28-7C99-405B-B3D5-13B74B5843D4

According to Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and their Teaching by Andy Ferguson, Linji was the founder of the Rinzai school of Zen.

Linji Yixuan (d. 866) was a disciple of Huangbo Xiyun. Linji is a preeminent figure in the history of Zen. He came from the city of Nashua in ancient Caozhou (now the city of Dongming in Shandong Province). As the founder of the Linji school of Zen (in Japanese, Rinzai), his tradition remains, along with the Caodong school, as one of the two lineages that survive to the present day.
After taking the vows of a monk, Linji studied the sutras, the Vanaya, and the various doctrines that were carried on the currents of Buddhism in his era. Although he practiced under Guishan Lingyou, his enlightenment came about under Huangbo Xiyun, with the teacher Gao’an Dayu a key player in the drama.
 (173)

And according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (PDB), koans such as these are extremely important to the Rinzai tradition:

[Rinzai was] one of the major Japanese Zen schools established in the early Kamakura period . . . After the decline of the Gowan monasteries, the Otokan lineage came to dominate the Rinzai Zen tradition during the Edo period and was the only Rinzai line to survive to the present. Despite the presence of such influential monks as Takuan Soho and Bankei Yotaku, the Rinzai tradition began to decline by the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. The monk credited with revitalizing the Rinzai tradition during the Edo period is the Myoshinji monk Hakuin Ekaku. Hakuin systematized the koan method of meditation, which is the basis of modern Rinzai Zen practice; it is also through Hakuin and his disciples that most Rinzai masters of today trace their lineages. (715)

The information on Linji quoted in the Ferguson volume contains a story about Linji’s interviews with monks Dayu and Huangbo. The first part of the story involves Linji asking for the dharma teaching in various ways. He only gets hit in response. I’ve included some of the text here for reference:

When Linji reached Dayu, Dayu said ‘Where have you come from?’
Linji said, ‘from Huangbo.’
Dayu said, ‘What did Huangbo say?’
Linji said, ‘Three times I asked him about the essential doctrine and three times I got hit.  I don’t know if I made some error or not.’
Dayu said, ‘Huangbo has old grandmotherly affection and endures all this difficulty for your sake-and here you are asking whether you’ve made some error or not.’
Upon hearing these words, Linji was awakened.
(174-175)

15078999-B0AC-4B48-A2EA-92C191E0A626

Now let’s see the main text of “Linji’s Four Realms” taken from Entangling Vines:

Someone asked Linji, “What are the four realms of no-form?” The master said, “A thought of doubt in your mind and you’re obstructed by the element of earth; a thought of desire in your mind and you drown in the element water; a thought of anger in your mind and you’re scorched by the element fire; a thought of joy in your mind and you’re blown about by the element wind.”  Understand this, however, and you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go. You can appear in the east and vanish in the west, appear in the south and vanish in the north, appear in the center and vanish at the border, appear at the border and vanish in the center. You can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.  Why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions. (Kindle Version, loc  4848)

Like many koans, “Linji’s Four Realms” is structured in a question and answer format. In the first part of the koan, Linji is asked the question, “what are the four realms of no-form?” The question is used as a springboard to address Zen’s concerns in an honest and direct fashion. The question is usually set up to indicate that the student is looking for some kind of doctrinal answer, or is seeking clarification on some area of Buddhist doctrine. Linji twists this question around and breaks it down. The question also indicates the artistry called for in these responses, as the master uses the question to create something new and interesting, while still broadly reflecting the Zen tradition as a whole.

In the next part of the koan, Linji uses the concept of “four realms of no-form” and creates an outline based on the student’s question that uses doubt, desire, anger, and joy. This outline is used to show the student their own mind, and the consequences of thinking and feeling in certain ways. When we have thoughts of doubt, desire, anger, or joy, those thoughts suffuse our actions and we enact the corresponding state of mind. Since we have examined anger a little bit in a previous article, let’s use desire as an example of what Linji is talking about.

When we look into desire, several components of the experience come immediately to mind. There is an abstract longing for the desired object, in which we fantasize about situations with that object, and how by acquiring it we will make our current experience happier or more meaningful. There is a tendency, at least in my own experience, to abstract out the problems associated with acquiring and keeping the object. Desire perpetuates itself through any objects that exist at hand, and can readily shift between them. There is also a corresponding sensation that is stimulating or enthralling, like a compulsion that moves us closer to the object.

Based on this examination, we can see how when we fully give ourselves over to desire, according to Linji we “drown in the element water.” Once this happens, we no longer see the ephemeral basis of desire and drown in its elemental nature. Linji’s succinct analysis indicates that forms such as desire are unfounded, and in fact are empty as discussed in Buddhist texts such as the Heart Sutra. By showing us that emptiness is in fact the fabric of our own minds, Linji gives us the key to pulling down the entire structure. He ties this point into the last segment of the koan, how insight into this empty nature of thought helps us respond to change.

In the next sentence, Linji says that “you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go.” Once we see into the empty nature of mind and constant change, we no longer have to rely on rigidly controlling situations or relying on external situations for happiness. One of the realms of reality that Buddhism describes is the “realm of hungry ghosts,” in addition to “hell denizens, animals, and sometimes demigods or titans” (PDB, 677).  Read metaphorically, we are no longer hungry ghosts that chase after the ephemerality of our own minds. We become much more capable of utilizing the intelligence of situations to help others and ourselves.

EDA42808-9BBD-4310-91D4-6A2B2D3DB016

This is why Linji says we can “appear in the east and vanish in the west.” Understanding this passage was informed by my own deepening process of self-observation. Closely noticing my own behavior, I could no longer believe in a necessity to the way I did many things. My approaches were often limited and sometimes arrogant if they did not allow for change. For example, at my job my skill set was a mix of approaches built over time. Some of these I had fine tuned to deal with many of the problems that arise at work and take the form of flexible programs. Many others were subjective, allowed within the wide scope of the job but not correct in any absolute sense. Some of my methods seemed more neurotic, entangled with a variety of personal and idiosyncratic details and repeated only for their own sake.

Over time, I have used these insights to broaden my own situational awareness and change my behavior as needed. Within these situations a tremendous amount of potential exists. Knowing this can result in a much more childlike, playful sense of existence. We can do things that seem unlikely because we are no longer relying on following rigid lines of behavior. We can break out of these boundaries as needed while still understanding the value of rules and obligations to social life. After this, Linji says that “[we] can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.” Linji reflects this childlike attitude through playing with the concepts of land and water.

In the last sentence of the koan, Linji says “why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions.” It’s as if we thought that elements such as desire, anger, joy, and sorrow were the proper way to live our lives. We spent our time patterning things after their structure. But what if we want to experience a different dream? Can we see through Dogen’s “colors of the mind” to the thing that interlinks us all? Can we do this, through our own efforts and with the help of Zen students of the past and present?

Let’s pursue this question fully, with the help of koans such as these, to realize our true capabilities and our identity with the boundless universe.

Wild Wild Country

This article contains spoilers for the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country.

My wife and I recently finished watching Wild Wild Country, a documentary series on Netflix that examines a controversial commune established by Osho (formerly the Bhagwan) and his acolytes near Antelope, Oregon.  Due to the commune’s recent formation, the producers of the show have a stunning amount of archival footage to work with, and manage to get illuminating interviews with many of those who participated.  The series is well worth a watch.  It is a detailed look at how communities form around religious teachers, and some of the sociological dimensions of these kind of communities.

I was not familiar with Osho’s work before watching the show. I was particularly interested in seeing Osho describe his efforts “trying to help people to be awake.”  His desire to freely explore subjects such as sexuality was important and remains so to this day.  He also had a palpable way of being with people which comes through in the documentary.  Not being there, I can only surmise what it must have been like to meet him in person.  Especially in today’s internet saturated culture, where spiritual writings and videos are instantly accessible, it must have been a unique and special event attending his lectures.  He no doubt introduced many to meditation that may not have practiced it otherwise.  

The converse of this is that Osho’s image and mannerisms appear contrived, and his community’s shrewd manipulation of financial currents demonstrated their ability to capitalize on that image.  Osho got his start in India, but after problems with the government, his community migrated to Antelope, Oregon.  There they began functioning in many ways as a religious state.  Christened Rajneeshpuram, it had its own law codes and police force.  One of the most striking images of the show is the commune’s acquiring and practicing with automatic weapons.  From this image emerges one of the most interesting tensions of the show, with reconciling the humane and compassionate teachings of spiritual insight with the exigencies of group living.  

Working at a corporation for close to a decade has impressed on me the need for a hierarchy in the day to day functions of the job.  Without officers within that organization who are managing the time and work of other people, and given the ability to enforce the organization’s rules, many shared tasks would be difficult to coordinate.  It would seem that in many ways we are highly sensitive to the flow of information within that hierarchy, and seek to leverage these situations in order to receive the benefits of power.  There is often a delicate balance in play between our own needs and the need to contribute to group survival, moderated by those in charge.  Those balances are part of the dynamism of group life.    

The questioning of core concepts involved in spiritual practice can look deeply threatening as it undermines the rationales of the group.  Since both leader and follower are connected and inform the other, hierarchies can be seen through as the practicalities they are. It’s hard to reconcile the desires for position within the group with an understanding of the interconnected and equal nature of all phenomena.  As the poet Ryokan has said:

In the landscape of spring there is neither high nor low.
Flowering branches grow naturally, some short, some long.

This is a challenging paradox, and one that is not easily resolved.  I noticed this frequently in the archival footage, as Osho’s group grew too large for the experimental ideas that it was founded on.  Osho seems to have given management of day to day activities to his lieutenant Sheela, and Sheela responded with maximum aggression. She intrusively monitored the commune’s activities, and even conspired to murder Osho’s doctor Deva Raj.  Watching Rajneesh member Mel Shanti B calmly discuss this attempted murder is one of the most chilling moments in the series.  Elaborate plans are implemented that involve giving food poisoning to the residents of Wasco County to influence an upcoming election, and bringing in people off the streets to grow their commune’s numbers to increase their political sway.   Osho was forced to leave the United States in 1985 under pressure from the government.

 

These tensions within the community are one of the most interesting parts of the show. There is a lot of footage of Osho demonstrating his status symbols, from an expensive diamond watch to numerous Rolls Royces. It appears that Osho is a typical human deeply enmeshed in the undercurrents of power that affect all human communities.  Osho seems to be caught in the middle and trying to have it both ways – being able to retreat into silence regarding the workings of his own community, while enjoying its support and benefits.   It’s difficult to see this in a non-abusive light, as the leader enjoys gifts, status, and food through active manipulation of social relationships. Osho did not emerge from silence until after Sheela leaves the community, but by then it was too late to salvage the situation.  In one of the most ironic moments on the show, Osho ordered the tenants of Rajneeshism burned.  This merely fulfilled the promise that helped begin the community in the first place. 

Watching the community grow and hearing its members individual backstories was another show highlight. I’m sure that there are diverse reasons for people wanting to join religious communities.  However, I’m also struck by the sheer amount of people who seem to be hurting, with lives full of suffering and loss, looking for a group and a practice they can call their own.  One of the most moving testimonies comes from Swami Prem Niren, a lawyer who joined Osho’s group.  In one of the show’s later episodes, he says that it was a place where he found “an experience of being loved and accepted totally for the first time in [his] life.”  One of the most interesting things that emerges from meditation practice is the ability to explore and integrate the traumas that afflict all of us.  These deep sufferings are part of all life. The ability to listen, both to ourselves and others who come seeking similar things, is paramount.  Since so many of us have experienced trauma, it can be incredibly meaningful when someone listens to us, responds with compassion, and helps us get to work on the things that need the most attention in our lives.  

Let’s learn from the example of so many religious teachers and not abuse that.

Practice Notes – Experiments in Concentration

 

59B3AB44-4B79-4F9B-9370-77A14F9A66A8

I’m currently working through Richard Shankman’s The Experience of Samdahi, as well as Shaila Catherine’s Wisdom Wide and Deep.  Both works examine concentration in the context of Buddhist meditation.  Concentration allows us to gradually let the mind further open to itself,  leading to an understanding of mind and body that is more nuanced, detail-oriented and case sensitive.  It also has incredible implications for self-awareness, potentially promising fundamental changes in how we understand our own minds and their attendant capabilities. 

For many years after I first began meditation, I simply sat, going out into the fringes of my own internal world to see what I could find.  I did not have any kind of end in mind other than not getting lost in thinking.   Doing this repeatedly changed my own internal processes.  Thought became a small part of reality that did not take on any importance beyond what I ascribed to it.  The value of this practice is the way that it began to subtly move my experience away from certain expectations and absolutes.  Life could open to me in ways that I had not understood with my closed body and mind.  

In the past year, I have been steadily building to more concentration based exercises in my mediation sessions, coupled with my original “free-play” style of attentional exploration.  Exposure to books such as Focused and Fearless (also by Shaila Catherine) and Right Concentration by Leigh Brasington piqued my curiosity about concentration-based practices.  I have come to view these practices as necessary for my ongoing study of Buddhist traditions in general.  In order to see for myself how this type of concentration affects the mind, I began watching the breath.  This is an important practice for developing concentration.  It involves focusing on breathing, noticing when attention becomes distracted, and redirecting it back to the breath.

D799792D-5824-462B-B2D0-E29E913E1CDA
At the beginning, the mind can’t focus on the breath. The thought that it generates becomes like a space that the mind creates in order to experience pleasure, strategize, and avoid pain or boredom.  The mind is so habituated to associative thinking that attention must be brought back and focused on the breath.  That process gets repeated every meditation.  Seeing our limitations in doing this kind of practice lets us get creative each session and see if we can push our limits a little. This pushing of limits is extremely physical and demands our continued presence.  I’ve experienced a kind of nervous exhaustion as a result, which indicates that I’ve run aground and need to try again, maintaining that focus longer.

Progress in this regard is nonexistent at first, and this kind of attention unfolds very slowly, if at all.  Once this practice is done enough times, however, there begin to be very definite changes that take place in the character of the mind.  Rather than being dissolute and continually chattering, the mind becomes highly focused and quiet.  Concentration can then engage with whatever is present without being perpetually diverted.  This is useful because we are engaging with felt characteristics rather than what we think about them.  Rather than simply thinking about our problems, concentration starkly brings them out so that we can really feel them.  We can then use this concentration for our own purposes in helping us dissolve ingrained constructs of the mind.  

It also begins to free our awareness up to focus on things that really matter, priming us for better ways of understanding.  This understanding divulges what seems to be a common liability of the human mind:  the ways we are accustomed to using our attention serve only to cloud the issues and postpone actual solutions.  In Wisdom Wide and Deep, Catherine describes this process as beginning to take control of our own attentional biases.

Every person has a unique attentional bias that is reinforced by a lifetime of habit. Your habits may support you in one role but pose formidable barriers in other arenas of life. Sometimes these habits are highly trained skills —doctors are trained to focus on physical symptoms, soldiers are sensitized to signs of threat, parents become responsive to their children’s distress. As you train your mind to stay steady, calm, tranquil, and equanimous with the whole breath, you are not merely replacing one habit with another, more spiritual, pattern. Rather, through concentration practice, you enhance the flexibility and durability of attention as you gain control over the attentional bias of your mind. (Kindle Version, loc 1246-1255)

Recognizing these biases is the first step towards changing them.  A lifetime of socially encouraged self-construction has left us with maladaptive processes of every kind.  Our biases towards pleasure and status are like grasping at smoke in every moment, and are gone as soon as we obtain them.  With stronger concentration, we can see these mental and physical processes more clearly as they occur, and how quickly they disappear.  We can use these exercises to see that these types of behavior are often props that are obscuring a very rich vein of freedom that we are always embodying.

This is important to Buddhist practice because we sleep within our own illusions, telling ourselves stories about ourselves, others, and the world.   And it is through these illusions that we hurt others and crave the stability of comforting ideas and situations, done in the name of a ghostly and malformed sense of self.  Since Buddhist practice is aiming to bring us into a more complete understanding of ourselves, concentration is an indispensable part of realizing the phenomena that make up our bodies and minds.  With a thorough reckoning of this practice we will develop more of an understanding of the cause and effect nature of these bodies and minds, and how to use them to help others, finding our own liberation in the process.

Chaos and Void: Gnosis and Scientific Practice

Professor Farnsworth: And, now that I’ve found all the answers, I realize that what I was living for were the questions!
Fry: That stinks, Professor. Too bad the universe made it turn out that way and not some other way. I wonder why it did that.
Stephen Hawking: Probably magnets.

Futurama

Science is a discipline that involves personal and social inquiry into the nature of reality. While having its intellectual forebears, it truly evolved into its own in the past few centuries leading up to the modern age. Searching for material truth has led humanity to develop sophisticated systems that parse cause and effect towards finer control and repeatability.

Science shares space with other fields of human knowledge that make concepts, attempt to explain natural phenomena, and provide experimental knowledge. These other fields include religion and philosophy. While its claims are often presented with the ring of authority, its provisional character is less apparent. The same factors that influence personal works are at play in science’s quest for accuracy, including accident, intuition, and material design.

One of the most influential philosophers in the way I conceive science has been Paul Feyerabend. In his classic book Against Method, Feyerabend outlined a philosophical attack on “homogenous” reality, and attempted to subvert reductionist approaches to science and life. In the beginning “sketch of the main argument,” he said:

Science is essentially anarchistic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. This is shown both by an examination of historical episodes and by an abstract analysis of the relation between idea and action. The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes. For example, we may use hypotheses that contradict well-confirmed theories and/or well-established experimental results. We may advance science by proceeding counterinductively . . . Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding. Yet is is possible to evaluate standards of rationality and to improve them. The principles of improvement are neither above tradition nor beyond change and it is impossible to nail them down.

Feyerabend refers to this methodology as “ad hoc,” and this opportunisitic approach to explaining cause and effect relationships has a lot to offer us. It envisions a kind of science in which all things are open to interpretation, experimentation, and meaning.

The experiment is often the nexus of scientific practice.  There are many factors that can affect how scientific experiments are designed and their results reported. These factors can include the subjects used in the experiments, intended applicability of the results, current limits of technology, use of materials and how they are set up within the system, how those materials interact, and the interpretation and assumptions of the scientists involved.

These assumptions can be particularly important for our investigation of scientific practice. Many times our theories are the best approximations we can make of complex phenomena, and those approximations allow us to make certain predictions and material designs. We also have to consider the use of the data we are working with. This is a strength of the practice as well as a weakness: what our data may lack in completeness allows us to manipulate the experiment more effectively. However, we should not confuse this with any kind of “ultimate” truth. The Wikipedia article for fluid dynamics states:

In addition to the above, fluids are assumed to obey the continuum assumption. Fluids are composed of molecules that collide with one another and solid objects. However, the continuum assumption assumes that fluids are continuous, rather than discrete. Consequently, it is assumed that properties such as density, pressure, temperature, and flow velocity are well-defined at infinitesimally small points in space and vary continuously from one point to another. The fact that the fluid is made up of discrete molecules is ignored.

The trade off to making these assumptions is that scientific theories cannot possibly describe or account for everything. There are therefore multiple ways of doing different “taxonomies” of theory. How one organizes their information can affect the system in exciting ways. This is one of the first lessons I learned from the study of history – how the issues of perspective and assumption effect the kind of history we are writing. There is not necessarily one correct perspective in this regard. Manuel deLanda’s work A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History writes world history from three different viewpoints:  geological, biological, and linguistic.   All three are valid perspectives.

According to Amanda Geftner, a science journalist who wrote the great book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, we can’t really determine a “god’s eye view” of the universe in which there is one transcendent perspective for all subjects. She writes:

A participatory universe? Participatory, yes; a universe, no. It was one participatory universe per reference frame, and you can only talk about one at a time. Why the quantum? Because reality is radically observer-dependent. Because observers are creating bits of information out of nothingness. Because there’s no way things “really are,” and you can’t employ descriptions that cross horizons. How come existence? Because existence is what nothing looks like from the inside.

Earth is just one part of an incredibly complex, dynamic system that is continuously effected through interconnected levels. This generates questions that scientists are able to explore further. They are then able to make new creations by setting up interactions in ways that were not possible before. When we set up these interactions within experiments, interesting implications spontaneously emerge. These implications then have important bearings on how we can make and organize decisions.

Just as important for scientific practice are the moral implications of how one builds their world. This is where the importance of ethics come in, and which the spiritual attempts to address: the wider impact of human activity. For example, use of fossil fuel burning is beginning to shift, helping to drive alternatives to sustainable energy sources. While combustible engines are scientifically applicable, they are silent on the degree and morality of their use. This degree of use will also change based on present observations.

Spiritual practices, which aim at a gnosis that can’t be proven with science’s external instrumentation, attempt to put us more in touch with human subjectivity and morality. It is a knowing based on the fact of our own existence – and the profound questions that follow. It is a knowing that isn’t afraid of following those questions into interesting spaces for their own sake.

Speculating on why this might be the case – isn’t a universe in which constant discovery is possible preferable to one in which there are no longer any room for the subjective or idiosyncratic? A lack of transcendent law seems to be a way to make sure that each subject has the ability to contribute in their own way. This way involves participating in an unknown manner.  An episode of Futurama, from which the quote at the beginning of this article was taken, beautifully illustrates the necessity of unanswered and unanswerable questions to science.   Material answers point to the enormous question, also addressed in this episode, of why things are the way they are.

How we create life is a messy, complex, and unpredictable undertaking that cannot be revealed through only material concerns.  Following this undertaking requires luck, knowledge, and skill that develops over time, and in which we may need to dispense with to go forward.  Even a totally accurate theory may be rendered obsolete as the universe continues to develop.

This is because that universe is alive – breathing in, breathing out, and transmuting itself at every opportunity.

Evolution, Compassion, and the Human Mind

Compassion isn’t separate from reality. It doesn’t pretend to transcendence or an arid contemplation. Compassion and benevolence are part of looking at our own behavior and minds in the realities of everyday life. We are better able to change situations from within as we penetrate further into the various layers of human experience. The process is like excavation: further levels of awareness open up the deeper we go and the more we see. We will follow our minds to discover where they lead: down into ourselves, the depth of our predicament, and the depth of our amelioration.

Through my interest in philosophy, I have been exposed to many ways of understanding the world. Reading for this article was shaped by the political climate, including conspiracy theory.  (A good article by The Atlantic on conspiracy culture becoming mainstream can be found here.) Understanding these theories is extremely important, not only due to their reach through mass media, but also the keys to insight that they provide us. I see the limits of my own mind splayed all across these writings, with its false certainty, emotional justifications, and dilated belief systems. It ensures that humans continue to partition others, and then use violence, whether physical or verbal, to enforce these divisions.

‘We were out there and I seen a lot of Communist flags and anti-fascist and we’re going to see more stuff like this,’ [Justin] Moore said. ‘White people are getting fed up with the double standard setup in America today by the controlled press.
We should have been able to go out there and have our protest and it should have been peaceful but it’s the anti-fascist and the communists…continuing to try and stop us,’ he continued. ‘So I think there will be more violence like this in the future to come.’ (The Charlotte Observer, August 15, 2017)

In contemplating these shared boundaries of the mind, coherent explanations began to emerge. I’d like to share them with you as possible explanations for the problems we encounter in statements like those above, their persistent yet illusory nature, and why meditation is such an effective way of seeing past these illusions. Once we see how limiting the mind can be in its reductive and constructive approaches to reality, compassion begins to start naturally manifesting. We see the traps we have fallen prey to, and that humans continue to repeat. The difficult task is doing this in the midst of the human situation, but with persistent effort we can create more effective and compassionate patterns which benefit the whole.

_____

One of the most exciting developments in modern science has been examining human evolutionary history. When considering the idea of how humans initially started in smaller groups, and the realities of this kind of situation, many of the things that I observed in the mind began to make more sense.

Most likely, these small groups would tend towards fear of outsiders. Eliminating these outsiders would often be the safest course to prevent harm to the coherence of the group. The human mind deals with the dangers of this situation by readily stereotyping other groups. It also tends to split people along a nice dichotomy of “us and them.” We still find this attitude today in every form of racism and its justifications. This situation still tends to work its way into belief systems, in which this dichotomy is reinforced, backed up intellectually, and presented as if our racist inclinations are established fact.

Stereotyping others ties into the conceptual elements of group life. Being raised in certain cultures means that we absorb certain ways of understanding the world, which often affect our perception in insidious ways. These concepts are important in reducing the overwhelming detail of our environment to a more manageable “headspace.” We also use this ability in practical ways of identifying animals and other resources that are part of that environment. However, if we discount the individual in favor of these organizing concepts, we miss out on unique persons and situations.

Our emotions can also prevent us from acting cogently and with full awareness of these unique situations. Although emotions have evolved to fix certain kinds of problems, they often do not give us the best course of action. Anger is a good example of this. By observing this emotion in myself, it seems that anger helps to prevent others from dominating us socially, and helps us address inequalities in situations when being forceful is required. Anger can help with these problems, but its negative impacts are observable everywhere. These emotions can make situations far worse, especially since each person may have skewed and intense emotions from their own personal histories.

An interesting way of looking at the emotion of fear is outlined in this Nautilus article:

Those fears that are near-universal are known as ‘prepared fears.’They are not hardwired in the same way as the fears of sudden, loud noises and looming objects are. Nobody learns to flinch at a rapidly oncoming basketball. Prepared fears are innate, though, in the sense that they are genetically transmitted but require environmental input for their activation. The human fear system, in this aspect, is relatively open-ended—that is, it is set up for environmental calibration. The evolutionary logic underlying this design characteristic is as follows: Humans evolved to be adaptable . . . Humans quickly absorb local culture, including norms, language, knowledge about dangers, the sorts of things people in your culture consider edible or not, and so on. Learning, in fact, is an ‘evolutionarily derived adaptation to cope with environmental changes that occur within the life span of individuals and allows individual organisms to tailor their behavior to the specific environmental niche they occupy.’

This seems to be a good way of describing both the general patterns that occupy human organisms and the personal idiosyncrasies that can evolve in unique environments.   These are all characteristics of the mind that can be observed directly. I think that evolutionary theory is so far the best account for these human ways of thinking.  Without observing and recognizing the concrete patterns of human lives, we won’t be able to shed fresh perspectives on our perennial problems. Since these problems often have such intense cultural justification behind them, we have to look at the mind unflinchingly. This is where meditation practice comes in and helps us.

Buddhist meditation attempts to address the questions of how the mind structures our lives and consequently, how it creates a background of dissatisfaction and suffering to experience. When we sit in meditation, in the silence we start to recognize the familiar patterns that the mind falls into. We notice our biases and suggestibility, our opinions of others, and the play of our emotional life. We also might notice how excluding certain outcomes, and limiting diversity to what we have in our heads worsens the problem. It further reduces others, and the world, to the image we have of them. Since the world resists such easy categorization, we are doomed to sketching out the same outcomes and repeating the same limiting behaviors.

These patterns are something we may have always taken for granted: that this is the way the world is, or that they exist inexorably. With more meditation it becomes increasingly obvious that the mind directly constructs some of its own experience. It then gradually becomes easier to let things go or change things with more pragmatic approaches. Our patterns can be changed with the consistent, challenging work we do on ourselves.

Compassion is part of this process because as we notice these characteristics of our own minds, we notice them in others as well. We see how easy it is to be consumed by approaches to reality that make ourselves and others suffer. In effect, this has been with us since we were born, infiltrating us and reducing our ways of responding to this life. Instead of being separate, we all share a commonality that can’t be reduced to simple divisions of class, race, or ideology. Compassion acknowledges this common link and ultimately expresses it, changing the conditions of reality for others to respond to.

Salvation in Flux

And though it is like this, it is only that flowers, while loved, fall; and weeds while hated, flourish.
-Eihei Dogen

I sigh when I see learned men
Wasting their minds all day
Babbling away at a fork in the road
Deceiving whoever they can
Creating more ballast for Hell
Instead of improving their karma
Impermanence suddenly comes
And all their learning is dust
– Pickup

Impermanence means that our perception and experience don’t stay in one place, but always remain in flux. The fluidity of phenomena, self, and agency are painful, so we try to cling to the walls of the dilapidated house we have built for ourselves in our own minds. Failing to see this fact for ourselves, we enter and inhabit elaborate fantasies, looking for salvation in something beyond change. Impermanence guts our opinions and gradually corrodes everything that we believe to be true.

Our minds serve to erect a kind of illusion that does not take the fact of impermanence into account. It frequently tries to uphold a static idea of self. Archaic attitudes we are raised with do little to help this situation. They place us further inside the morass by attempting to give us stable definitions of words like “self” and “other.” Thankfully, meditative practice is an antidote to these limited ways of understanding. The more we sense instability, the more we are able to see on a deeper level than we typically perceive.

Nothing seems to fully inhere on that level of change as concepts, acts, and agents are plucked from the void and thrown into the stream. Seeing into universal change has implications for our freedom. It allows us to go into what we experience with an inquisitive attitude and open eyes. It is beginning to swim from a our own small tributary into something abyssal and endlessly fluctuating.

Flux allows things to bloom, as there is no possibility in a static world. Infinite openings exist within that watery confluence of events, allowing us chances to act, to change ourselves, and to help influence all creation. The more we penetrate through to the core of things, the more we find something surprisingly malleable and contingent.  Contingency and change in the moment allows new choices to be discovered and mined. Aided in our perception of that change, we can respond in ways that free ourselves and benefit other beings.

It is through an understanding of impermanence, and the doors to action that it creates, where we come to the edge of choice. Here is where we discover what it means to be truly moral. That moral choice is something that requires the entire arc of our lives to appreciate and fulfill.

Similar ways of understanding exist in the Kabbalistic masterwork The Zohar. As described in The Zohar, Torah is infinite. The central characters known as the Companions participate in what scholar Melila Hellner-Eshed describes as “the nocturnal delight.” Waking at midnight, this group makes creative interpretations of Torah. The Companions connect passages from Torah amongst themselves in incredible, gravity-defying ways. These connections reveal each verse’s secret meanings. In doing so, the divine is evoked and its joy in the good that the Companions bring flows into the world. Hellner-Eshed’s writes:

The engagement with Torah after midnight and the endeavor to participate, day in and day out, in the nocturnal delight in the Garden of Eden lie at the core of the mystic’s service and worship; and it is this spiritual task that determines his way of life and his soul’s orientation . . .

The following passage, one of the most detailed accounts of the nocturnal delight found in the Zohar, highlights the interconnection between the events transpiring in the upper world and those transpiring below. The souls of human beings, together with their words of Torah-the fruit of their thoughts and emotions-are transformed into a gift bestowed by the Assembly of Israel to the blessed Holy One.They function as an aphrodisiac arousing the union between God and His Shekhinah. The delight is characterized by the arousal of the entire reality of the Lower Garden of Eden-with with light, song, joy, and play preceding the dawn union.

Rabbi Abba said, “Now is certainly the time for the blessed Holy One’s desire; and many times we have been aroused by this, that at midnight the blessed Holy One enters among the righteous in the Garden of Eden and delights in them. Happy is he who engages in Torah at this time!” Rabbi El’azar said,” How does the blessed Holy One delight in the righteous in the Garden of Eden? At midnight the blessed Holy One is aroused with love from the left [side] toward the Assembly of Israel…. and the Assembly of Israel has no gift with which to draw near to the king, nor any important, excellent [offering] like the spirits of the righteous that the blessed Holy One sees crowned with many good deeds and many merits attained that day. And the blessed Holy One is more pleased with them than with all the sweet savor of the sacrifices and offerings. Then a light shines and all the trees of the Garden of Eden utter song and the righteous are crowned there with the delights of the world that is coming. When a person arises at that hour to engage Torah, he partakes with the righteous in the garden.” (Zohar 2:173b)

There is a connection between the “world that is coming,” from the preceding passage, the fluctuating present of the Kabbalists, and the Four Great Vows of the Buddhist tradition. The vows are:

The many beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly, I vow to abandon them
Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them
The Buddha way is uncontrived, I vow to embody it fully.

Every night the Kabbalist restores harmony and creates blessings.  The world is always in need of the Companions’ righteousness. Similarly, every moment the Buddhist practitioner discovers truth and corresponding action. This is the opportunity couched within decay that flows into the new. The need to fulfill these vows, and to help heal ourselves and others, is never ending .

Radiance – An Excerpt From The Zohar

 

Zohar

Instead of an original essay this week, I wanted to highlight an excerpt from my ongoing study of The Zohar. The Zohar is an extensive work in the Kabbalistic tradition. Three volumes in and it continues to amaze me with the beauty of its writing and the depth of its philosophy. On the surface it is a reading of the Pentateuch, with the author(s) extracting a mystical system from its pages. Going deeper, they twist and mutate its language into stunning new vistas. The amplification of Torah is part of the religious function of the Kabbalist: to contribute new blossoms to the Tree of Life. As The Zohar says in Va-Yeshev: So all depends on Torah, and the world is sustained only through Torah – sustaining pillar of worlds above and below (129).

This exemplary passage touches on familiar themes found throughout the book: the creation of the universe and our world, the darkness found within Eden, and its redemption.

Rabbi Hiyya opened, ‘A song of ascents. Of Solomon. Unless YHVH builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless YHVH watches over the city, the watchman guards in vain (Psalms 127:1). Come and see: When it arose in the will of the blessed Holy One to create the world, He issued from the spark of impenetrable darkness a single vaporous cluster, flashing from the dark, lingering in ascension. The darkness descended, gleaming – flaring in a hundred paths, ways, narrow, broad, constructing the house of the world.
     The house stands in the center of all, countless doors and chambers round and round – supernal sacred sites, where birds of heaven nest, each according to its species. Within emerges an immense, mighty tree, its branches and fruit nourishing all. That tree climbs to the clouds of heaven, is hidden amid three mountains, emerges beneath these mountains, ascending, descending.
     This house is saturated by it; within, it secretes numerous supernal hidden treasures, unknown. Thereby this house is constructed and decorated. That tree is revealed by day, concealed by night; this house rules by night, is concealed by day.
     As soon as darkness enters, enveloping, it rules: all doors close on every side. Then countless spirits soar through the air, desirous to know, to enter. Entering among those birds – who collect testimony – they roam and see what they see, until that enveloping darkness arouses, radiating a flame, pounding all mighty hammers, opening doors, splitting boulders. The flame ascends and descends, striking the world, arousing voices above and below. Then one herald ascends, bound to the air, and proclaims. That air issues from the pillar of cloud of the inner altar, issuing, it spreads in the four directions of the world. A thousand thousands stand on this side, a myriad of myriads on that side – the right – and the herald stands erect, proclaiming potently. How many there are then who intone songs and render worship! Two doors open, one on the south and one on the north.
     The house ascends and is placed between two sides, while hymns are chanted and praises rise. Then the one who enters, enters silently, and the house glows with six lights lustering in every direction. Rivers of spices flow forth, water all beasts of the field, as is said: watering all beasts of the field . . . Above them swell the birds of heaven, singing among the branches (Psalms 104:11-12). They chant till morning rises, when stars and constellations, the heavens and their hosts all sing praises, as is said: When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of Elohim shouted for joy (Job 38:7). (Matt Translation, Volume 3, 40-41)

As part of this discussion, we will look further into the first volume, which contains a reading of the story of Noah. In the next few weeks, I also hope to publish the first in a series of articles that look at useful works in transformational literature. Stay tuned.

Pleasure and Impermanence

Spiritual practices, like many other activities, can be a gateway to blissful sensations. Descriptions of these sensations appear frequently in religious literature, and helped spark my initial interest. An example of this type of experience is found in Aleister Crowley’s Book Four, where he lays out the foundations for his magical system and explains his own progress in meditation.

Finally something happens whose nature may form the subject of a further discussion later on. For the moment let it suffice to say that this consciousness of the Ego and the non-Ego, the seer and the thing seen, the knower and the thing known, is blotted out.
There is usually an intense light, an intense sound, and a feeling of such overwhelming bliss that the resources of language have been exhausted again and again in the attempt to describe it. (13)

It was hard not to be intrigued by these passages. Making my forays into meditation, I had experiences that more closely resembled heightened sensory states. I did not encounter the bliss that Crowley described here. I continued out of the possibility that these states were only the beginning. I could feel the effect of the practice as time passed, and I began to feel less anxious, more peaceful, and better able to cope with the stress of life.

As I discussed in my previous article, the floodgates truly opened for a brief time of around a month, and I had began to have increasingly pleasurable states. In the midst of everything that was happening they were confusing and disruptive. Even after things had subsided and I returned to my normal routines, something has happened with the practice and I’ve become much more aware of my own approaches to pleasure. These are not limited to meditative bliss. Instead, this change has become all-encompassing.

I’ve found that pleasurable sensations exert a kind of gravity and become bound up with our attitudes of them. In time, these attitudes come to reflect and reinforce them, masquerading as our own opinions and impeding us from changing them. We often repeat these behaviors endlessly, simply for the sake of repeating the behavior and without enjoyment.

Part of our culture is based on nurturing these feelings of anticipation and consumption. When we become addicted, an initial high is experienced and pursued, even though these sensations are ultimately unstable. In another post on awareness and developing meditative focus, we discussed the three marks of existence. In Buddhist terminology, these are defined as impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self. In examining pleasure and pain, we find these same qualities at work. A pleasurable sensation, for example, comes on, fluctuates across a certain spectrum, then degrades. All sensations are transient, and none can be a foundation.

I think we all realize how unsatisfactory this feels, attempting to pin our expectations on something so liquid. As focus improves, this makes more intuitive sense, and we notice these fluctuations more. There becomes little point to continuous pleasure or pain when they both change into the other. The more we comprehend that this is going on, the more we occupy a fulcrum between denial and excess. Buddhism often talks of a middle way, and this approach enjoys the pleasures of life while not turning them into something destructive and harmful. We are then entwined with a more judicious sense of pleasure.

The instability of pain and pleasure expands our capacity to enjoy beyond what we thought to be able. Rather than narrowly circling a few types of pleasure, once we see their impermanence, we can take increased delight in the broad palette of life’s experiences. Events unfold in their own way, and even what we consider unimportant has its own poetry in its expression. This includes the many small sensations in every day. All of these sensations contribute to the wonder and richness of this life. This is due to not making our usual hard-lined distinctions, which lies waiting in your own mind, ready to be unlocked by continuous awareness.

The Forge of the Path

Before we begin, I should clear up something that should have been discussed long ago. I am not an ordained teacher in any path. I have not been given permission to teach, nor do I have any experience involving students. My opinions are my own, based on years of meditative practice and research on myself. My writings should not be read as representative of any spiritual or religious tradition. They are given in the hopes that they might help people and give them some context for the spiritual and meditative paths if they are on them, or about to embark.

This context was something that was largely absent from my initial forays into meditation. I had begun to read books on the subject and made some tentative steps towards daily sitting. I did not begin going to my local Zen Center until later on. Due to my stubbornness, I had not studied intensively with a teacher.

Without knowing what I was in for, I persisted with meditation as it slowly began to change everything I thought to be true. I went on a short retreat, and began reading and studying even more. Eventually, I reached a point where something inside had reached critical mass, and I began a shocking and terrifying transition that would last for weeks.

This transition loomed and I entered what could only be described as total psychic meltdown. I seemed to experience a complete range of psychotic symptoms including panic attacks, sleeplessness, inability to eat, and agoraphobia. I also experienced a range of ancillary states, including oceanic feelings, overwhelming energy, and intense bliss. I began having suicidal impulses. I also became aware of what I sensed to be a primordial terror of some of the most recessed parts of myself.

These feelings are difficult to describe due to their intensely personal nature. Imagine someone cut open your heart of hearts so deeply that you could see every part of yourself inside. My lack of context did not serve me well in making this transition. Since my practice was largely self-referential, and I had not come across these experiences in my readings, I had no way to understand what was going on at that time.

I could no longer work, and lay in bed in fear. Somehow around this time I began to understand what was occurring inside me. I took up journaling, trying to put into words how I felt. It was like being on a bridge, with a drop into night below and darkness reaching up to touch the path on either side.

At this point I also began talking to teachers and psychotherapists, who all had different approaches to what was going on. My family was frightened for me, but was also genuinely caring and supportive. The teacher at the Zen Center referred to what was happening as a Crisis, and its associations of decay, collapse, and transformation stuck with me. He said that sometimes our self image is dropped in the practice, and sometimes it is burned away. This complemented what I was feeling at the time. As I did more research later on, I discovered how incredibly common this was for other practitioners.

Many traditions have described this phase in similar terms, with images of being forged, flayed, and remade. In this respect it becomes more than a mere metaphor, and describes an actual process of phase transition. The Crisis is a true test of our mettle, to allow us to open ourselves to all that is inside us, shattering our confines in the most painful of ways. The Crisis prepares us for an acknowledgement of our own freedom. It is our initial reactions and resistance against that freedom which cause us to enter some of the most protracted elements of the Crisis. The limited self we have built up only breaks down in its encounter with what is felt to be its other, as we digest these experiences.

I consider meditation and its associated trials to be some of the most significant events in my life. They healed me, returned my sense of freedom, prepared me for more fulfilling work in the world, and gave me the courage to try newer, creative endeavors. However, the Crisis is a frightening process, and sometimes people never return from it at all. In the book A Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism Reader, there is a brief discussion of mystical experience that very clearly emphases the dangers of these endeavors:

Our Rabbis taught. Four entered an orchard: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Asher [Elisha Ben Abuyah] and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them: When you reach the stones of pure marble, do not say, ‘Water, water!’ For it is said, ‘He who speaks falsehood shall not be established before my eyes.’ (Ps. 101:7)
Ben Azzai gazed and died. Of him Scripture says: ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.’ (Ps. 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was stricken. Of him Scripture says: ‘If you find honey, eat only what you need, lest you be overfilled with it and throw it up.’ (Prov. 25:16). Aher cut down the shoots. Rabbi Akiva departed in peace. (B. Hag. 14b) (34)

In his associated commentary, the author Daniel Horowitz elaborates:

Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma are damaged physically and psychologically by their visit to the pardes; and Elisha Ben Abuyah is understood to be spiritually damaged . . . One must be fully respectful of the Owner of the orchard before reaching and appreciating such heights. Because of this, not only is he not granted a full understanding of the pardes [the orchard], but he is led further astray into outright heresy . . . Only Rabbi Akiva was qualified, sufficiently mature, or had properly practiced the various aspects of the journey; only such a person was able to handle the experience and come back . . . Later mystics suggests that one who aspires to this experience must be willing to approach a ‘curtain of fire’ to merit consideration for admission to the inner sanctum. (Ibid., 36-37)

I would be remiss if I did not mention the specific dangers of meditation. A quick search of the internet reveals numerous articles on the subject that are worthy of time and attention. If you decide to meditate, read this literature first. Go and talk to meditation teachers in your area and see if they have had difficulties from their meditation. Even if you can find one to help lead you through the Crisis, it is still dangerous, with a unique path to the self, soul, and God that you must undergo yourself.

Tread carefully.

Heart/Mind Practice

We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.
– Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Your embodied practice is what separates an actual spirituality from intellectual exercise and speculation. It is the willingness to take risks and embark on turbulent seas towards something we’ve always been but haven’t known.

It is part of an ability to question everything and delve into what we have been taught to be true. Meditation aids us in this. It is a way to observe the body in a vivid and experiential way. Meditation brings up the frameworks, assumptions, and secret pains lying in wait within. Looking at the same tired cycles of behavior makes them seem less pressing; and things we took to be important are eventually seen through.

Meditation is a highly physical way of understanding yourself. Reading books on it and speaking with others are no substitute for it, although these are all important when joined to the practice itself. It would be the difference between reading books on a subject such as the Kabbalah, committing its many abstractions to memory, and climbing the tree of life towards union, seeing its concepts for yourself. Consistently returning to the cushion will convert it into lived experience.

We become better equipped to physically express the insight meditation offers the more we come back to it. Although a distinction between “inner” and “outer” is misleading, we can say that this insight has both an interior and exterior expression. The internal aspect is looking with clarity at ourselves. This is how we understand ourselves in a comprehensive and nuanced way. Our subjectivity is changed by our ability to take on the beneficial or harmful patterns we find. The external is the articulation of that interior choice. Although impulse and thought coalesce in many different ways for us, they may not bleed out into expression until we so choose.

In The Zohar, this choice is split in humans between good and evil. We are capable of great purity and defilement, depending on which position we decide. The harmful patterns we are capable of are expounded on as “the evil impulse” which defines every human since birth.

Rabbi Yehudah opened, ‘For He will command (mal’akhav), His angels, to guard you in all your ways’ (Psalms 91:11). This verse has been established: The moment a human being comes into the world, the evil impulse appears along with him, inciting him constantly, as is said: ‘At the opening sin crouches’ (Genesis 4:7) – evil impulse . . . who is called king, ruling over humanity in the world. ‘Old and foolish,’ for he is surely old, as already established, since as soon as a person is born, emerging into the atmosphere, he accompanies that person. So he is ‘an old and foolish king.’
– The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, Volume 3 Pages 1, 85-86

Seeing through the evil impulse, and how much of it we have in common with others, helps us become more adept at choosing for ourselves. We can learn from other people’s mistakes, fully commit to our own, and make more lucid decisions. Wiser decisions and more compassionate living require time and skill. This gets easier with repetition, and adds another dimension to the meaning of practice. Like any craft, we must throw ourselves in.

Meditation is open to anyone with the time to give it. This is truly an intriguing premise that displays spirituality’s egalitarian nature. In his landmark study Mysticism: Experience, Response, Empowerment, Jess Hollenback claims that what unites mystical traditions is a practice called recollection.

Recollection refers to that procedure wherein the mystic learns to focus one-pointedly his or her mind, will, imagination, and emotions on some object or goal. This focused total mobilization of the mystic’s affective and intellectual powers, if successfully carried out, eventually shuts down the incessant mental chattering that is normally present as a kind of background noise behind all our activities in the waking state. Once mystics stop this process of silently talking to themselves, they transform their mode of consciousness and begin to have their first tangible encounters with that spiritual world that otherwise remains imperceptible to the five senses.

The great saints of the past have been dedicated men and women who progressed humanity’s self-knowledge. They did so through a more complete understanding of themselves. They had a baseline of recollection which they used to develop that understanding. Our searching of their religious systems helps our own practice grow. What we find is that their religious and mystical insights can be applied by anyone who marries them to their own spiritual practice. This is what separates any artist: giving their methods time and room to grow.

A change in awareness greets those who can make meditative practice part of their lives. As that awareness changes, it reveals our own ability to change in turn. It also opens new doors back to the profound. Ultimately, our practice will be transmitted through everything we do in our lives. Our bodies will become that practice, and we can better compose each new movement, along with the communal truth which defines us all.