Free Solo and Beginner’s Mind

I recently caught the documentary Free Solo at my local theater. The film follows rock climber Alex Honnold in documenting some of his rock climbing feats, leading up to climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. What makes this feat so impressive is that Alex climbs this 3,000 plus foot wall without any kind of ropes or support. To prepare, he climbed El Capitan numerous times while figuring out his route. Once he had a route established and memorized, he climbed utilizing the moves he had worked out beforehand.

Go and see Free Solo if you’re able to. It asks a lot of interesting questions about what it takes to climb like this, about Alex as a person, and whether his kind of life is reconcilable with the needs of his romantic relationship. The film also lends additional perspective to Alex’s uncanny abilities. Far from being the mediated experience many of us expect in the outdoors, Alex is thousands of feet in the air, with vastness all around him.

As I was watching the movie, I got a sense of the way in which Alex’s creativity on the rock mirrors some of what I’ve learned through meditation. Zen’s free-form approach to inquiry provides space for our own effort and is similar to Alex’s approach.

When we go to a Zen center and begin to learn meditation, there is no fixed idea of what we have to learn there. The teachers there never told me that I had to learn anything from meditation or that I had to accord with any kind of group belief. We do have to internalize specific social rules so that we don’t disturb anyone’s practice (i.e loud breathing, constantly moving on the cushion, etc.). If we are staying as part of a community, we will have to learn certain ways of living in and contributing to it. We also take the rules of sitting posture seriously since these are crucial to this type of practice. Beyond that, we are allowed room to explore.

Similarly, without any kind of climbing dogma, Alex is attuned to the things that interest him. He has developed a custom set of techniques around these interests. These include visualization, keeping detailed records and journals, and athletic conditioning. All of these things are uniquely calibrated to contribute to his goals. Alex uses these as a way to expand himself and his field. He has taken climbing’s history and technology, and completely remapped what is possible within it.

In order to do this, he appears to always keep himself open to what he learns. This is an example of “beginner’s mind,” a phrase used by Shunryu Suzuki and featured in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. This book is a short and wonderful introduction to Zen. Beginner’s mind connotes a mind that is dynamic and responsive at each moment, without fixed ideas. It may take a great deal of practice to see beginner’s mind in ourselves within those fixations.

My experience of beginner’s mind emerged once I started to understand my own insubstantial basis. In meditative practice, we are drawing closer to that mystery which underscores human accomplishments in every field. In St. John of the Cross’ diagram for Ascending Mount Carmel, the phrase “Nothing, nothing, nothing, and on the Mount, nothing” appears centrally and vividly. The more I meditate, the more I have come to feel that I too am this nothing. This realization has prompted some interesting consequences to the way I think, feel, and experience life in general. The discoveries shed light on the precipitous climb that starts on our own self-centeredness and culminates in looking into our source. We are reaching towards something The Zohar calls “end of thought.”

The way this insight changes everything is that realization that we are that something called “end of thought” creates a different sense of life in which there is nothing that can’t be rewritten or relearned. Alan Watts has a wonderful story that demonstrates this about a Zen priest and a geisha, with each demonstrating beginner’s mind.

A Zen buddhist priest was attending a dinner party one evening. The guests were all seated on the floor around a low rectangular table. On the table in front of each guest was a small hibachi grill filled with hot coals. The diners were cooking their own servings of meat and vegetables, which they took from various bowls on the table.

Several geishas were serving the guests. The priest noticed that one of the geishas conducted herself as if she might have had some zen training.

He decided to test her, so he called her over.

The geisha knelt across the table from the priest and bowed. The priest bowed in return, and said: “I would like to give you a gift.” Using his chopsticks, he reached into the hibachi, picked up a hot coal, and offered it to the geisha.

She hesitated for a moment, then finally pulled the sleeves of her kimono down over her hands. She grabbed the coal, ran into the kitchen, and dropped it into a pan of water. Her hands were not hurt, but the beautiful kimono gown was ruined.

The geisha went back to the table and knelt across from the priest. She bowed to the priest. He bowed in return. Then she said: “I would like to give you a gift too.”

“I would be honored,” the priest replied.

She picked up a pair of chopsticks, removed a hot coal from the priest’s grill, and offered it to him. The priest reached into his robe and took out a cigarette.

As he leaned forward to light his smoke he said, “Thank you. That is exactly what I wanted.” (Text courtesy of Reddit)

Alex’s incredible climbing prowess reminds us of the power of each of us to do this on a daily basis. If someone offers a method, it invites reflection. But don’t assume that this method is a substitute for our own efforts. We may find something different when we do the same thing for ourselves. Being alive is responding to ever-changing conditions, and the capability to try the new every day. This ability to respond becomes even more important as we communicate with others and grow into this uncertain future together.

Congratulations to Alex. You can buy his book Alone on the Wall from Norton here. Alex also has a charitable organization called the Honnold Foundation that installs solar energy in needed communities. You can donate to his foundation here.

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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

Of Itself So

From birth to death, it’s just like this!
-Zen Koan

So much of the spiritual path involves trying to escape, to spend ourselves on the rocks of effort, to transcend time and space. We want to escape to a place without sin and where we can live forever. The answer that eludes us lies encased in a journey to the top of an inner mountaintop, filled with dangerous excursions, roaming beasts, and the real potential of insanity. If only we can master instructions provided to us, the veil will finally lift and allow us into the sanctum. Then we will know the secret, or acquire magical powers, or ascend to whatever place we feel we need to get to.

This often begins the start of the religious journey. The false Teacher or Guru may only be too happy to give us what we think we want. Their eyes shine like a shark’s, full of sleek and ancient hunger. They tell us what they’ve discovered and how they can grant it to the elect. Instead, they’ve only scratched the surface of their own obsidian core. In order to fully realize ourselves, we have to look squarely and intensely at our own desires, including the desire for enlightenment. It is this desire which spurs us on, eventually to be undermined as we look at the assumptions that motivate our seeking.

In philosophy, the word immanence is invoked in contrast to the idea of transcendence. Rather than any external, reality manifests through itself. Immanence is reality as it is here, of itself so.

It is difficult to find the right language to describe the relationship between dao and human beings. The dao is not external, so it is not a matter of getting or reaching it, and it is not an object that could be grasped. Since the self-so spontaneity to which dao refers is always present, what is required is a negative process of removing obstacles. Ziran is what remains if we free ourselves from striving and conventional goals. Thus this same process is described as wuwei 無為, which literally means “lacking action” but refers to giving up striving and effort. The Zhuangzi gives another example, the “fasting of the heart/mind” (xinzhai 心齋) that allows us to rely directly on vital energy (qi) and respond spontaneously to whatever appears before us.
– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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A religious teacher worthy of our time will help us explore reality for ourselves. Any claims should be greeted with investigation on our part. It is time we acknowledge that religious teachers are not chosen or above us. They have developed their own unique genius and can show us how to do this too. We merely invest ourselves in them, hoping for an answer even though we all remain in the dark.

The idea of a chosen few is an all too convenient narrative that works at cross purposes with the religious experience. It not only brings up the forces and structures that prevent us from accessing our own liberation. It changes us from constantly seeking something which does not include us, or which we lack and must possess, to dwelling in the thatness which is all things. This feeling is of an incredible span of intelligence which is part of all things and occupies the same ground. This incredibly subtle feeling continues as we meditate, until we find ourselves always “in the hand of the absolute.”

This is a problem with religions that claim we have to absorb baffling and complex ideas. Instead, they point our own reality back at us, “through a speculum that shines.” Seeing this completely has little to do with the opinions of others, let alone our own. How could the multiplicity of perspective, feeling, and the beyond be limited to the thoughts of our stinking skin bag?

The realization of the Buddhist patriarchs is perfectly realized real form . . . What has been called ‘forms as they are‘ is not a single form, and form as it is is not a uniform reality as it is: it is countless, boundless, inexhaustible, and unfathomable reality as it is.
– Eihei Dogen, Shoho-Jisso (69)

This is not an answer that can be taken by force, but attuned to closely as it is given freely. It is also not an answer that we can look to as separate from anything we do. We can see everything, let it unfold, and realize that unfolding. The moment is inextricable with all that you are. Look to it, and its profundity, as the ground from which you spring, like a tree erupting forth from space itself. It is just like this, the mysterious Dao, the powers of chopping wood and carrying water that no one understands.

A Path Unknown To Any Vulture

Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
– Dongshan

One crack and all knowledge is dissolved.
The struggle is over.
I follow the ancient Way, not lapsing into doubt.
Dignified bearing and conduct
that is beyond sound and form;
no trace remains of my passing.
Those who have mastered the Way
call this unsurpassable activity.
– from “Xiangyan’s Great Enlightenment”

Coming to Zen is to come to a basic unknowing. There are no texts that structure the kind of insight Zen offers. It is a rupture that evades thought, indicating the place at which the practitioner and the rest of existence co-occur. Zen brings the entrails of time and space squirming into the light.

It is interesting and highly symbolic that becoming a monk is known as “home-leaving.” To take up Zen is to leave home in more ways than one. It is not only leaving one’s family and former life. We also leave our projections behind. What is constitutes itself instantly as “a path unknown to any vulture.” There is a depth to that path that cannot be known or understood through theory. Instead, we forsake theorizing to begin our own unique inquiry.

When they seek the source of this practice, the student is often thrown into a more confusing position than before. Confronting the behavior of experienced Zen monks, and the lack of belief system, easy answers do not materialize. No respite is offered. We are told to simply sit in position, breathe, and follow the room exhaling in tandem.

These sitting periods compound our questions. Zen deals with these questions in surprising ways. It does not deny their importance for the spiritual seeker. Rather, it sees them as superficial and incomplete. Zen does not succumb to grand theories. Its questions arc interminably with no explanation of existence as a guarantee. Many metaphysics amount to a story we have provided for ourselves, and little more.

Gazing into our thought for long enough gradually reveals our ignorance. The Koan is one of Zen’s most important tools in helping to show us this. Since the mind hungers for explanation and security, the koan seems confusing on the surface. Continued practice, however, reveals their depth and breadth.

The Koan may display some of Zen’s insights in action, or present us with a situation to which we are asked to respond. They grab us and our base assumptions by the throat. Many Zen koans that I have read place emphasis on one’s present, concrete reality. That moment is a source of freedom, explanation, or experience. These koans are directing our attention to that moment:

Yuezhou Qianfeng was once asked by a monastic, ‘Bhagavans in the ten directions have one path to the gate of nirvana. I wonder, what is the path?’
Yuezhou drew a line with his staff and said, ‘It’s right here.’

Discussions such as these are attempting to approach the student in way that does not appeal to reductionist, idealistic thinking. Masters try to show us this in experiential ways. Rather than getting entrenched in a discussion on gradations or paths, Yuezhou hits the student with a physical, embodied answer. This is displayed in Zen literature frequently. An example of this, from Cultivating the Empty Field, utilizes a gorgeous description of natural detail:

A person of the Way fundamentally does not dwell anywhere. The white clouds are fascinated with the green mountain’s foundation. The bright moon cherishes being carried along with the flowing water. The clouds part and the mountain appears. The moon sets and the water is cool. Each bit of autumn contains vast interpenetration without bounds. (41-42)

The present that Zen teachers want us to appreciate is not capable of being fully understood. Beneath our opinions is something immense, which can be intuited through examination. Unknowing is explicitly demonstrated in Shitou’sAsk the Pillar”:

Shitou was once asked by a monastic, ‘What is the significance of Bodhidharma’s coming from India?’
Shitou said, ‘Ask the pillar.’
The monastic said, ‘I don’t understand it.’
Shitou said, ‘I don’t understand it either.’

Integral to this understanding is what has been referred to as suchness. Suchness does not designate a stable entity that we close ourselves around.  It reflects our intuition into a more consistent effort. Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton elaborates on how this word describes an adjustable, engaged practice:

Known in Sanskrit as tathata, this suchness is described in Indian Buddhism as ultimate truth, reality, the source, or the unattainable. Experientially, this suchness might imply the direct apprehension of the immediate present reality, harking back to early Buddhist mindfulness practices of bare attention. So, in varying contexts suchness may refer to our clear perception of reality, or else to the nature of that reality itself. (9)

No codification can hold us at this point. Suchness is to practice at the precipice, existing in transformation. As described in a line of the Four Great Vows: Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them. Dharma gates demonstrate the truth, allowing us to awaken in every lineament of the entire world.

A grove of trees invites us in. They speak in melodies, in the thrum of sun and wind, and the throb of blood in universal channels. This time we brim with compassion for all things. Reality fills itself in a newly imagined flood, each act merely a beginning. Our center dissipates throughout the universe and we come once more to unknowing. For when we really begin to question, all dividing lines begin to crack. Thoughts, opinions, and beliefs become like gossamer strands.

As streams of fluid chaos, we navigate what we are in every sensation. Zen takes hold of this movement, and everything flourishes without our understanding.