I have been thinking lately about how a methodology might be created that would allow the “Zen experience” to be imparted in a way that can be comprehended much more rapidly than with traditional systems. Many attempts have been made to devise systems that might lead a person in the right direction and the result of
these efforts are systems such as the koan, the hua t’ou and demonstration through action. These systems have
provably produced results and many students of Zen have “attained” their Zen enlightenment through the use of these systems.
However, these systems suffer from a number of problems. The koan system is very clever but does not offer any immediate insights into the “secret” of Zen. It can take a long time before any insights dawn on the practitioner and it is very easy to misunderstand the intent of the koan system and as a result go badly astray with it. The hua t’ou is a concentration system and again offers no immediate insight in to the “secret” of Zen. It can take a long time before any insights arise and many practitioners give up due to lack of results and a consequent lack of faith in the system. It would be nice to have a system that from the very outset gave the practitioner an insight into Zen and which therefore gave them something to work with as it were. If a system could remove some of the mystery of Zen and allow a person to see the way forward then a significant hurdle would have been overcome.
The Eastern systems are like they are because the Eastern teachers understand that the Zen experience is not something that is intellectual in nature. It is pure experience. Consequently the Eastern tradition has practically eliminated all intellectualism and any idea that the experience might, at least in part, be understood intellectually. However, there is one aspect of the experience that can be understood intellectually and indeed rather quickly. An intellectual realisation of this aspect of the experience can be the basis for a far more rapid understanding of the actual experience, that is, the experience that is beyond intellectualism. By refusing all intellectualism the Eastern systems may be guilty of having overlooked something that is actually rather obvious with regard to understanding Zen. So let’s try and get to the heart of this matter.
If we examine how the unenlightened person views the world we see that they generally perceive two aspects to the world. They perceive something they think of as themselves and something they think of as an external world. They think of themselves as a sort of centre of consciousness and this consciousness looks out on to an external material world. There is a separation between “themselves” and the “external” world. This is the unenlightened persons point of view. There is “me” and there is the external world. They are conscious and the external world is not.
The intellectual insight into a certain aspect of the Zen experience that I want to try and draw attention to consists in pointing out another possibility , a possibility that is from the unenlightened persons point of view revolutionary and yet comprehensible, at least as a possibility. Consider the proposition that rather than yourself being conscious, it is actually the external world that is conscious. Consider the proposition that the external world is actually a self-reflecting mind and that it sees itself in itself. You see what you see in front of you because this self-reflecting mind is illuminating everything in front of you. It is self existent and not dependent on “you” for it’s operation. “You” are planted in the middle of this self-reflecting mind and mistake it’s seeing itself in itself to be your own consciousness. Let me quote a rather interesting passage from a book written by professor Richard Sheldrake of Cambridge University, someone who clearly sees that there are problems with the conventional scientific explanations for things such as perception:
“If the images you see are inside your head, then this means that when you look at the sky your skull must be beyond the sky!”
I think you can probably see from this quote that there is indeed something not quite right about the standard scientific explanation for man’s perceptions. And Zen would agree with this. What you see in the “external” world is exactly where you see it, it is not in your head. The external world is a self-reflecting mind and as a result it sees itself in itself. A realisation of this, from the point of view of understanding Zen, is an enormous leap forward. From such an understanding we can then begin to see exactly why Zen considers intellect and conception to be the number one problem and this constitutes another enormous leap forward. The average person thinks that what goes on in their heads represents their being, but it does not. Their real being is right in front of their eyes but they fail to see it. The human body manifests in this self-reflecting mind in the same way as other material objects such as trees and mountains but the mind is not of the body, it is above materiality.
You might be asking by now why a person would perceive themselves to be separate from this self-reflecting mind if this mind is really their very being. The answer to that is very simple and is the one thing that Zen continually emphasises. It is a persons tendency to continually conceptualise that keeps them from perceiving this mind directly. They create a conception of themselves and then cling to it for dear life, thus separating themselves off from the world. Having conceived a self they cannot shake it off and don’t realise that if they dropped all conceptualisation they would magically “fall into the void”, the void being not nothingness or annihilation but the world itself. They would identify directly with the mind that is reflecting in front of them and as such they would perceive their real being, their real self. This is emancipation or enlightenment and is to be free of all ills.
The world you perceive to be outside of yourself does not worry. It does not suffer from an identity crisis because it does not conceptualise. Observe it closely and you can see that it is entirely serene and that it is self-reflecting. It is happy to be itself, but it is free of self-conception and therefore free of ego. It doesn’t have the faintest conception of “I” and yet it “is”. You see what you see where you see it and not somewhere else. You don’t see it in your head. This is what Zen means when it says:
“This mind is the Buddha mind itself , it is self-possessed, it is free of all ills, it knows no beginning and no end”.
I hope you are beginning to see something here? Perhaps this Zen is not so mysterious after all? Having said that however, it is of capital importance to understand that the actual Zen experience is not the same as having an intellectual insight into this idea of a self-reflecting mind. Understanding that what you see in front of you is indeed a self-reflecting mind is an enormous leap forward and can lead to a number of important realisations but on no account must it be mistaken for the Zen experience itself.
So let’s examine a number of realisations that can be drawn from this insight:
- Since this mind is the Buddha mind itself there is nowhere one can go and nothing that one can attain. To attain something is a sure sign of having gone astray. One must lose something (ego and conception) in order to “attain”. To have is not to have.
- We keep ourselves from enlightenment through our own egotism and misconception of ourselves. We wish “to be” but we already are. The conception of self is an add-on to our being that hides our true nature. It is like “piling tiles upon ones head” or “putting a mind upon a mind”. To quote Zen teacher Alfred Pulyan “The ego is like a penny blocking out the sun”.
- The only way to enlightenment is to stop the conceptualising process. We must relax inwardly, stop conceptualising and stop fearing that to do so leads to annihilation. When one “falls into the void” the world does not disappear. The sense of self disappears but one still “is”.
- If the mind is self-illuminating then surely the best thing to do is let it be? Why fight it? Why engage in warfare with yourself? The act of insisting on distinctness is really a war with your own being. We put ourselves upon the cross and then crucify ourselves.
We must now ask how we can bring these insights together and produce a system or method that is capable of bringing the complete Zen experience to somebody who is prepared to put in the effort. The first thing we have established is that we have to stop thinking of the world as a “me” and “it” situation. Instead we must relax and view the “external” world as a self-reflecting mind. We need to realise that this is the true state of affairs and see it as such. We must stop imposing ourselves upon the “external” world.
The goal is to rid ourselves of the conception of self by “transferring” our identity to the “external” world. When this conception of self vanishes you will not disappear or fall into a “void” but it will feel as though you are going to fall into a void. This is because you are abandoning the idea of self and that is a frightening thing to do. Indeed it is the same as the fear of death. Being free of conception whilst reflecting is the aim. To be concept free is to reflect. The reflecting doesn’t stop when conception stops. You must lose your love of expressing opinion and having thoughts and allow whatever remains “to be”. The reflecting must be completely effortless and free of thoughts such as “now I am reflecting”. The best guide you could possibly have is the “external” world. Imitate it, be like it, quell your thoughts, stop fighting. You will have to try and make this state a permanent part of your being. If you can do this you should make great strides forward.
To sum up,
Recognise the external world as your own self-reflecting mind. You are “inside” this mind.
Be free of conception just like the “external” world. Pay attention to the external world and perceive it’s self-reflecting nature.
Let your meditation be the perception of self-reflection. Let it induce thoughtlessness in you.
When you have fully absorbed these ideas you may find it useful to have a few other devices for quelling conceptualisation. The following statements are designed to do precisely that and such statements have been used in Zen Buddhism for centuries in the form of the koan system. It is important to note that you are not trying to solve these statements intellectually. They cannot be solved intellectually and that is precisely the point. They confound the intellect and hence silence it. The trick is to put them into practise to the utmost of your ability:
“What was your original face before you were born?”
“After all that exists is reduced to one, to what would you reduce the one?”
“Describe the colour blue”
Finally, the following conversation between a Zen Master and one of his students might be illuminating in light of all that has been said so far:
Student: “How should one use the mind in order to obtain the Buddha knowledge?”
Master: “There is no mind to be used and no Buddha knowledge to be obtained”
The idea of a mind and the idea of Buddha knowledge rely upon conception. To one who is free of conception such a question is missing the point. The student does not understand that his conception of things is the problem that keeps him from enlightenment. The master replies in the only way that one who is free of conception can. He has no conception of mind nor of Buddha knowledge and hence states what he perceives to be the case, that is, there is no mind nor Buddha knowledge. If you can understand this from the point of view of non-conception the “secrets” of Zen will fall into place. The mind, the “external” world is free of conception and you can see this for yourself by looking at it. There is nothing more to this “secret”, but one has to become like the “external” world in order to see it. One has to plunge into the void. One has to drop ones ego.
It is important to understand that although this Master is free of conception he does not abide in blankness of mind, that is in a state of unconsciousness as is normally meant. If this were the case he could not reply to the student. He is fully aware but he is free of conception and as such no longer abides in the dualistic state. The dualistic state is created and is caused by an intellect that stands against external reality and comments on it dualistically. This is why Zen has no truck with intellection. The intellect is a hindrance not a help.