The Varieties of Contemplative Experience and the Meditative Marketplace

By identifying a broader range of experiences associated with meditation, along with the factors that contribute to the presence and management of experiences reported as challenging, difficult, distressing or functionally impairing, this study aims to increase our understanding of the effects of contemplative practices and to provide resources for mediators, clinicians, meditation researchers, and meditation teachers. (1-2)

The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE) is an important and scholarly article that aims to expand public knowledge of Buddhist meditative practice and its range of possible effects.  Willoughby Britton is one of its contributors and has played an active role in the contemplative community.  She will be familiar to those of you who’ve read this article and have heard of Cheetah House, a place where those experiencing the abrasive effects of meditation can rest and recuperate.  VCE is a landmark study and anyone interested in starting meditation, creating a meditation group, or bringing meditation into the workplace should read it.

I have written several times on the broad spectrum of experiences brought on by my own meditative practice.  I have been practicing meditation daily for around nine years, and in that time I’ve experienced things that were life-changing, amazing, and positive.  Other parts of the practice pushed me into an extremely intense and profound dialogue with parts of myself that I had not yet fully processed or integrated.  Pursuing meditation on my own compounded these difficulties, and I lacked both community resources and a context for what I experienced.

That is why studies such as VCE are so necessary right now, especially given the current state of meditation in America and its position as part of a wider consumer culture.  Mindfulness is an example of a meditation practice that has gone mainstream and has been disseminated as a solution to a wide range of problems.  Meditation has therefore settled into an uneasy polarity with the marketplace at large, and is in many respects being bought and sold like any other commodity.  There is unfortunately still a lack of public dialogue and resources around these types of practices.

One of the main arguments of the article is that the “positive” effects of meditation are widely reported and emphasized, while “adverse” effects are little understood or appreciated by the wider public.

While these sources are often assumed to be indicative of ‘the effects of meditation,’ the focus on positive health-related benefits represents only a narrow selection of possible effects that have been acknowledged within Buddhist traditions both past and present. (2)

On the one hand, this is perfectly understandable, since capitalism has brought many esoteric religious teachings into the marketplace at an extremely rapid rate.  There is a public reckoning with these teachings that is similar to what is happening currently with psychedelics.  There is still some debate within various circles as to the merits of these kind of substances, but it seems that there is a general shift of opinion happening in this domain.  However, with psychedelics, the public seems to be much more cognizant of their dangers than practices such as mindfulness.

The situation with mindfulness and meditation is as if psychedelic substances were widely available and popularized without any kind of meaningful guide to the inner territories they explore.  I find it difficult to believe that mindfulness can truly be marketed as a wholly safe practice in light of studies such as the VCE.  The article provides an extremely interesting image in the form of a table of different types of meditation experiences of novice and seasoned meditators.  I have experienced many of these throughout my practice, and information like this table is a good general indicator of what the student can expect as they progress, and will hopefully become more prevalent as the public discourse around mindfulness begins to shift.

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The marketing of meditation and esoteric religious practices to a wider community than they were intended has both profound challenges and opportunities that are still being addressed.  The more I have studied meditation-based texts, the more I have appreciated their power and insight.  I have also come to a subtler understanding of the reservations that many of these texts express with their knowledge coming under wider public scrutiny.  This may be one reason why these kinds of practices were reserved for a select few, in ensuring that the student had the necessary training to use this practice in the most beneficial way possible and navigate the types of difficult terrain the VCE describes.

Maps of this terrain are very useful because they help the student understand these experiences in certain ways, as well as giving the student a basis to weather their many internal storms.  An example of this kind of system is found in the book Steps to the Great Perfection: The Mind-Training Tradition of the Dzogchen Masters A step by step process is laid out, giving the student different nodes to focus on, and giving them different kinds of trainings to engage in throughout.  Examples of some of these practices are impermanence, nonconceptuality, and the Buddha’s virtues (7). The author then proceeds to give different kinds of methods (including some pretty intense visualizations) to more fully understand each of these instructions.

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While I don’t think that a system is necessary for every practitioner,  with them the student is less likely to get lost or focus on the things that don’t lead to a more refined practice.  And even with a practice as seemingly simple and straightforward as mindfulness, any sustained amount of time spent observing our own mental processes is bound to bring up plenty of ancient, hard to integrate material.  The more students and teachers become aware of the wide range of experiences that can occur in any kind of meditation, the more robust our public discourse will be at handling these kinds of situations.

The VCE fills this role admirably and widens the lens of the possible effects of contemplative practice.  I hope that more people who are utilizing meditation read VCE and give it the attention it deserves.  And as someone who in many capacities has gone it alone for almost a decade of meditation – please don’t go it alone.  Find people you can dialogue with and a teacher who can help put things into perspective – until you reach a point that you can decide whether that specific perspective is still needed.

Spiritual Praxis

I’ve been reflecting on some of the vocabulary I use in these writings and some of the experiences I’ve drawn on in attempting to understand them. I think it’s important that I establish some of the terminology that gets used here, and the larger context in which they are framed.

Many of the writings here have emerged through my own experimentation and have had the feeling of discovery. This feels like different viewings of something comprehensive yet hidden from view. This is part of the genesis for referring to these experiments as occult or esoteric, in that they are typically more hidden from the mind’s rationalizing capabilities. In order to aid me in looking at these experiences closely and accurately, I have embraced a broad platform of human thought and experience.

Following this kind of journey has made it clear to me that liberation and understanding, so crucial for humanity’s efforts in this reality, are global possibilities which everyone contributes to. Although I am not an accredited teacher, and do not have an official teacher within a spiritual tradition, I have learned something valuable from casting my nets wide and listening to as many perspectives as possible. This type of study serves as a check on my many one-sided viewpoints.

This is why my writings have emphasized different understandings of religion and spirituality. I tend to use these concepts frequently on this site, although they elude rigid interpretation. They are used in a looser and more intuitive way. Spirituality, in my view, begins with a human investigation into topics of universal significance. These can include self-identity, love, the problem of evil, and our reason for existing. It embraces a wide range of physical and mental tools, such as reason, intuition, and meditation. It also has an ethical component which seems to be one of the most important characteristics of any kind of spiritual writing – how this type of investigation, in broadening our understanding of life, contributes to more realistic and compassionate behavior.

Religion is an extension of spirituality and shares many commonalities with it. When discussing religion, we are not only looking at spiritual teachings, but the architecture that sustains these teachings. This can include monasteries and nunneries, church gatherings, and meditation groups. It also looks at the larger social consequences of those participating in these practices and how spiritual teachings are spread through cultures. So when we are discussing religion, this is intentionally broad. It looks at human values, practices aimed at understanding the universe, and human social institutions that preserve the teachings of individuals who teach this particular kind of knowledge.

Both of these expressions are tied together in a human impulse, where, through reflection, we wish to understand our place in the world. That impulse manifests as a desire to connect to something larger than ourselves. Both spiritual and religious practices tie this impulse into what is commonly referred to as practice. Simply put, this practice is not only the techniques we use in our spiritual inquiry, but how we express what we have learned there.

The culmination of this kind of spiritual and religious study is an understanding beyond our self-image, and why this understanding is truer and more reflective of reality as a result. Many traditions have emphasized this understanding, such as the Kabbalistic map of God and the complete human; Christian kenosis and rebirth in Christ’s love; or Buddhist emphases on human action. These maps all seem to converge around deeper human awareness, how to access that, and how to ultimately transform human behavior.

This kind of analysis is found in the book Symbols of the Kabbalah by Sanford Drob, also discussed in my previous post. His excellent analysis involves the Sefirot, the Kabbalistic aspects of God’s nature. The process of the Sefirot also describes the individual contribution to something higher than oneself. This interpretation revolves around the last triad on the Sefirot, Netzach or “Endurance,” Hod or “Splendor,” and Yesod, “Foundation.” Since Netzach and Hod are understood as the “legs” on the Sefirot that correspond to the body of God, they correspond to the material expression of divine potential that hold this process aloft.

From a psychological point of view we may regard Endurance, Splendor, and Foundation as the cultural fulfillment of earlier, more individualistic psychological principles. This follows from the very names of these Sefirot; for civilization and culture are the very aspects of the human psyche that are splendorous and enduring, and which serve as a foundation for human communal life. It is not sufficient that we as humans have individual desire, intellect, and emotion; we must also build something of enduring value. Such cultural pursuits – achievements in work, the arts, religion, the family, society, etc. – are the human equivalents to God’s creation of the material world; for through them, as Hegel observed, the human spirit expresses itself and becomes concrete and real. Psychological (and psychotherapeutic) work does not begin and end with the harmonizing of conflict in one’s own inner life; it must extend to the achievement of a wider expression and balance in one’s work in the world, an achievement of something more enduring than the individual self. (225)

This seems to be what follows from the highest reaches of spiritual inquiry – questions of origin and identity, and what we can create with the time that we have. Part of this inquiry is the nebulous concept of meaning. Meaning allows us to ask and follow questions through which we can create our life. We therefore have a great deal of freedom in what we help create.

Making these realities also involves kindness, love, and compassion, which all converge at the nexus of spiritual and religious life. In the process of asking these questions, we become one with that massive outpouring of reality, and realize our connection to it, from which we are never apart.

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.

Practice Notes – Experiments in Concentration

 

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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.

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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.

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.

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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 .

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.

Void Diagrammatics – Nagarjuna

 

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When one link has been stopped, the link that follows does not manifest. And thus the mass of suffering itself is brought completely to an end.
– Mulamadhyamakakarika      

The human mind is capable of amazing feats of organization and complication. The concepts it utilizes permit a wide range of abstract thought. By abstracting, labeling, and categorizing, this mind is capable of making new and ever more refined behaviors. This ability has proven to be incredibly useful for humans in crafting adaptive cultures.

However, we also pay a price for this ability. Firmly situated in our concepts and traditions, we confuse our ideas with the cast of the absolute. Much of our thinking is influenced by an uncertain bedrock of habit and culture. Personal and collective madness ensues when we treat our projections as the sole criterion with which to judge reality. We become enamored by our thought and unable to assume other perspectives.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, there is a strong emphasis on personal investigation. What happens when every belief, word, and thought goes under the chopping block? Through frequent study and interrogation, the student can discover a lack of any fundamental anchor for existence, referred to in Buddhism as emptiness. Emptiness is elaborated on in the writings of Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna’s philosophy is a sustained and penetrating inquiry into how humans understand reality. His works are a firestorm that raze our cherished gods to the ground.

According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism:

Nagarjuna . . . Spoke of a middle way between the extremes of existence and nonexistence, sometimes also referred to as the middle way between the extremes of permanence (Sasvatanta) and annihilation (Ucchedanta). For Nagarjuna, the ignorance (Avidya) that is the source of all suffering is the belief in Svabhava, a term that literally means ‘own being’ and has been variously rendered as ‘intrinsic existence’ and ‘self-nature.’ This belief is the mistaken view that things exist autonomously, independently, and permanently . . . His approach generally is to consider the various ways in which an entity could exist, and then demonstrate that none of these is tenable because of the absurdities that would be entailed thereby . . . The purpose of such an analysis is to destroy misconceptions (Vikalpa) and encourage the abandonment of all views (Drsti). (562)

His analysis is found in one of his classic works, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika). Nagarjuna is a guide through the strange lands outside opinion, which he shows by way of meticulous critique. He removes the rigid underpinnings of thought, including such dualisms as self/other and observer/observed. Nagarjuna creates a chain reaction, and shows how liberatory consequences follow as we strip the concepts we use to the bone. An excellent example of the type of dialogue Nagarjuna uses is found in a lengthy examination of categories in “An Examination of the Aggregates”:

Separate from the cause of form, no form is found. Separate from the so-called form, the cause of form also does not appear.
If, separate from the cause of form, there were a form, this form would be by consequence without a cause. But something that’s without a cause is nowhere to be found.
If, separate from a form, there were a cause of form, this cause would be a cause without effect. But causes that have no effects do not exist.
If form exists, a cause of form is unacceptable. If form does not exist, the cause of form is likewise unacceptable.
Forms bereft of causes are untenable, indeed they are! And thus concerning forms, conceive no concepts of whatever kind.
To say the fruit is like the cause is unacceptable. To say the fruit’s unlike the cause is also unacceptable.
With feelings and perceptions, conditioning factors, consciousness, with all things, and in all respects, apply the same procedure as with form.
In arguments concerning emptiness, all statements made to counter it are not replies at all, for they exemplify the thesis to be proved.
When emptiness is set forth and explained, all statements made to show its faults, reveal no faults at all. For they exemplify the thesis to be proved. (Root Stanzas of the Middle Way, 15-16, Padmakara Translation Group)

Nagarjuna is providing us with a way of analyzing concepts, and showing how this can be used across all of language. Nagarjuna often begins with a category we typically use, in this case “form.” He shows how attempting to separate the words “form” and “cause” leads to disastrous consequences. There cannot be an independent form separate from the form/effect, which would be an acausal appearance from nothing. There also cannot be a cause that lurks “behind the scenes” without creating effects. Since he has shown that one cannot establish a preexisting cause for form, or an independent form without a cause, he goes on to eliminate other concepts that are linked to form in a similar way. This goes on throughout the Mulamadhyamakakarika, as Nagarjuna shows that even our most carefully constructed foundations are hewn from rotten wood.

It becomes clear from this type of analysis that these categories are socially useful for communication, but do not accurately capture the character of what we experience. Binary relationships allow us to sketch maps of reality, distilled into simplistic chains of concepts that allow the human mind to organize cause and effect. These concepts are easy prey for Nagarjuna’s wide-ranging explorations, as he uses linguistic tools against themselves, logically analyzing these conceptual maps and showing their inadequacy.   In an empty reality, everything mutually links with something else for its own conditions, and no phenomena can live an independent existence. We ascribe far more importance to our beliefs and preferences than they are entitled. We also habitually treat ourselves as if we are independent and try to manipulate reality accordingly.

Defilements, actions, and embodied beings; agents and the fruits of action are like cities of gandharvas. They’re like mirages or dreams. (Ibid., 58)

When we hold our assumptions rigidly, we create suffering. Part of Buddhist insight is to see into our own minds and how we create many of our own problems. It is our inability to notice the conceptual and meaning-making processes of our own minds that contribute to further suffering. Since no life escapes suffering, the way that we relate to it has important consequences. Nagarjuna’s texts are revolutionary in their ability to undermine what we think we know. Once we  have ceased attaching to our beliefs as intrinsic aspects of reality, we no longer have to suffer when things inevitably change. We also connect with the universe in ways that cut much deeper than superficial beliefs.

All human beings without exception are in reality homeless. It’s a mistake to think we have a solid home. – Kodo Sawaki, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo (13) 

Humans have no unyielding position or identity in a changing reality. With practice at pushing our own beliefs and personal limits, we find an existence that does not accept reductive interpretations. Repeated observation and analysis yields a reality that does not conform to any concept we utilize.

The more I meditate, the more I feel that all language dissolves, and any kind of category feels like a mere shadow, a construct of a mind that cannot help but try to divide and conquer. Nagarjuna liberates us from our own minds, and in collapsing its edifice, he helps to reconnect us to everything.

The Unbounded in Creativity, Ethics, and Philosophy

The tree of life is precisely in the middle of the garden, conveying all waters of Creation, branching below, for that flowing, gushing river spreads into the garden, whence waters branch in many directions. Receiving them all is the ocean, from which they emerge in numerous streams below, as is said: watering all beasts of the field (Psalms 104:11). Just as they emerge from that world above, watering those towering mountains of pure balsam, subsequently upon reaching the tree of life, they branch below by paths in every direction.
– The Zohar

Broadly understood, meditation and spirituality ask for exacting individual scrutiny. We uncover the dark soil inside, leaving nothing untouched by contemplation. Here we find something seething, gibbering, and incredibly complex. This complexity, vibrating in time, destroys any chance we may have of a reality that conforms to our expectations, plans, and ideas. However, this is simultaneously a rent that allows us to choose new moments and new questions. This feeling of universal complexity and change has revised my understanding of the human domains of creativity, ethics, and philosophy. I would like to explore how this has occurred and how it helps illuminate our own capabilities. This is found in every moment: participation in raw creation with the entire universe.

Paying attention to our experience can result in the apprehension of universal unfolding. Eihei Dogen referred to that state as “the flowering of the unbounded,” using the metaphor of “flowering” to describe the persistent expression of all phenomena. He describes the flowering of space as part of Buddhist truth in his essay, The Flowering of the Unbounded. Alternately translated as “Flowers in Space,” this essay ranks among other essays in Shobogenzo as some of the most significant contributions ever made to global religious literature. Dogen describes these blossoms as follows:

Seeking the radiance and form of this blossoming is what your investigation through your training should be all about. What Bodhidharma calls ‘the resulting fruit’ is something that one leaves to the fruit: he describes this as ‘what naturally comes about of itself’. ‘What naturally comes about of itself’ is his term for mastering causes and being conscious of effects. There are the causes of the whole universe and there are the effects of the whole universe; there is our mastering the causes and effects of this whole universe and there is our being conscious of the causes and effects of this whole universe. One’s natural self is oneself. This self, to be sure, is ‘you’, that is to say, it is the four elements and the five skandhas of which you are comprised. Because Bodhidharma is allowing for ‘a true person devoid of any rank’, he is not referring to a specific ‘I’ or to some ‘other’. Therefore, that which is indefinable is what he is calling ‘a self ’. This natural state of ‘being as it is’ is what he is acknowledging. The natural state of ‘being as one is’ is the time when the Single Blossom opens and Its fruit results: it is the occasion when the Dharma is Transmitted and one is rescued from one’s delusions.It is within this context that the World-honored One spoke of the flowerings within Unbounded Space . . .

On the other hand, those folks who pay attention to very little and see even less are unaware that petals and blossoms with their varied hues and brilliance are to be found within everything . . . Only the Buddhas and Ancestors have known about the blossoming and falling of the flowers of Unbounded Space as well as that of earthly flowers. Only They have known of such things as the blossoming and falling of the flowers within the human world. Only They have known that such things as the flowers in Unbounded Space, earthly flowers, and the flowers within the human world are all Scriptures; this is the standard by which we investigate what Buddha is. Because what has been taught by the Buddhas and Ancestors is this flowering of Unbounded Space, the realm of Buddha and the Teachings of Buddhas are therefore synonymous with the flowerings of Unbounded Space. (Shasta Abbey Translation, 554-555)

This feeling emerged more strongly the more I practiced and reflected, and concepts cannot do it justice. The blossoming of space mentioned by Dogen is around us, continuing the primordial creation. Light dapples on every surface, constellating itself into beautiful shapes. Each breath effloresces with every mouth speaking in tongues. Experience points back to itself within the foam of becoming.

The moments in that experience frequently shift its potentials. New frontiers branch in innumerable crystalline patterns. Existence pulsates with creative discoveries as we are delivered over to a sweeping movement beyond ourselves. Creativity itself seems to follow this free-form growth. Associations reach out and interpenetrate as unique opportunities present themselves. Returning different each time, creativity sloughs itself and redounds. Creation simultaneously embraces and presses against barriers and divisions of every kind. This is what it means to be a creative agent -choosing, enacting, flowing like a spring. We are an “infinite ocean of effulgence” and these choices matter, given unceasing weight and force.

There are authoritarian strains that slither into our minds, offering us transcendence. They attempt to install their own process as the sole operation, attracting converts and changing them into vectors. The result is their world as the logos, of their opinions becoming the basis of shared reality. What is not discussed is that these beliefs and methods are a haphazard creation like any other. The construction of experiments, interpretation, and chance turns all contribute to the process. Anomalies make every situation unique.

However, what if we wish to return to the process to obtain another result? The author’s continued mining of their own potential creates their style. However, since these can naturally be limiting, the author may need to transform themselves again and again. There is always the chance of removing artistic limits and crashing the gates of what we had only assumed. Rekindling the act of creation is a fire that inheres in every form. The surface moves like a porous net, sliding us through into being, carrying us to the other shore.

Art is the minister of nature, nature is the daughter of time.
– The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz

Authors and musicians are not the only ones who can be considered creatives. We all create, in the sense that our actions take on their own life and effect others. Although meditation helps us dispense with a continuous, transcendent law, it seems that the more we notice the effect of our actions the more important they become. Our actions embrace all existence. Every cruel word or deed fashions itself into a crown of thorns for us to bear, nailing others to a possible cross of suffering.

We must take responsibility for the reality we are helping to make. The importance of ethical behavior in this regard becomes even more clear. Seeing events growing in time like a child, our ethical needs may change in an instant. Ethics emerges spontaneously, with branches into other configurations of experience. It is therefore important to question our own assumptions about the behavior of others, as humans are not carved out of our ideals. We cannot expect a person to act similarly in any given moment. However, if we look in the present to see the individual needs of others, we may have a better idea how to proceed.

In unbounded space, philosophy also takes on a different meaning. Since philosophy reflects on and engages existence, it buds out of dynamism, creating different ways of understanding. Other forms of culture help philosophy reinvent itself at each stage of development. Philosophy embodies the unbounded through a liberation of its own refractory potential. Explanations become multivalent, capable of changing themselves depending on one’s perspective and situation.

Philosophy can order or deform depending on its conceptual applications. The complexity of universal processes have no need for uniformity. Each person may have individual desires that allow for unique solutions. To create a “perennial” philosophy relevant for all times and persons thus seems unnecessary. Other elements of the cosmos may remain, eclipsed in unknowing, or utilized in unpredictable ways. Philosophy “opens the sieve to allow chaos in,” if chaos becomes a placeholder for disintegration and freedom past the bounds of our conception.

Unbounded space is this freedom at its purest. The universe consumes, alters, and expands its own connections simultaneously. These connections create unique spaces for diversity and accession, which we are able to partake in. This is the freedom found in ethics, philosophy, and any creative enterprise we set in motion. To find this freedom to create is part of our potential, as well as that of the unbounded, blossoming forth as time and space.

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.