Lighting a Stick of Incense in the Dark Temple
(I am sometimes asked for direct, specific advice on how to train in and practice Zen by people who want training and a solid practice, especially a "sitting" practice. For some it is best to have no structured training or practice at all, but just to make it up spontaneously along the way. But that's not for everybody. Here is something I wrote for a person who asked me about Zen "sitting meditation" recently. As I see it, "sitting" Zen is for entering the transcendental gate of samadhi. Clearly, you can do this without any kind of defined physical routine -- but the nature of human life involves four typical postures: sitting, standing, walking, lying down. Most of the time when you're lying down you are reading, dozing or asleep. Most of the time when you're walking you are going somewhere -- and very few people spend a lot of time standing [unless you work retail or as a barista]. So, it makes clear sense to use a firm yet relaxed sitting posture to enter samadhi at will, just as Bodhidharma did in his "wall-gazing" meditation. But it is not a good practice to limit "Zen" to sitting-sessions. The true Ch'an practice is described by Zen Master Huang-Po as "stopping thoughts [interpretations of phenomena] from arising." When thoughts do not arise, external objects are not created and one rests in the naked awareness of mind-heart nature. "It suffices [for Ch'an students] to be able to rest the mind." Then "all sounds are Buddha-sounds; all forms are Buddha forms." With grasping cut off, try finding your head in space! Can you do it? Master Huang-Po also said: "If you would spend all your time – walking, standing, sitting or lying down – learning to halt the concept-forming activities of your own mind, you could be sure of ultimately attaining the goal." [Did I just hear some idle talk about "ultimately attaining the goal"? Ridiculous! This Huang-Po clown seems to never have heard the lofty truth of Zen!] When and if "sitting" Zen helps you to stop the arising of thoughts and to experience your original No-Mind, I am for it; when and if it becomes an obstacle, I am against it. "How will I know?" you ask. Who else can know? Charles Luk, a noted student of Master Xu Yun ["Empty Cloud"], wrote this: " "The Ch'an path begins when one leaves the worldly state to enter the stream of Ch'an meditation to wipe out the idea of ego and objects, and ends when one leaps over to the other shore of Bodhi. All this is to teach beginners only, for in reality there is no path in the absolute state." What is the absolute state? It is mind-heart [xin] devoid of any grasping at names and forms. It may seem to be a contradiction to urge anyone to undergo Zen practice and training when, in truth, the absolute state of "suchness" is all there is, yet the Masters have always provided training and practice methods aimed at the sudden realizing no-realization that is Wu Nien. "Direct entry with a sharp chopper!" It is often said in Zen that there is "nothing to realize." "Nothing to realize" is the state of spontaneously dropping all delusions. One doesn't replace the delusions with anything else, so there is nothing left to realize. "Strive to realize this!" says Huang-Po. )
I feel that many "Zen centers" teach a watered down Zen, not clearly knowing what Zen is for. What is Zen for? It is for waking up. To what? Not just to whatever is in front of and around your body-brain right here now, in the most vivid way possible, although that is one side-effect of Satori, but to the Seeing One, the Hearing One, the Tasting One &c. that you actually are -- and to the lack of any sharp division between these supposed "two." Waves don't cut water.
True, one cannot describe what this Satori feels like in a satisfying way, except that it makes you laugh with joy and you forget to hurt from desire or languish from remorse because you've seen through the dream marionette show, but it is what all the Zen Masters and Buddhas realized. Huang-Po calls it "the state of BEING in which there is nothing to practice, nothing to realize." Suddenly waking up to This one has a good laugh, sometimes a good cry also. Can you twist the nose on your Original Face? Why not? Try it!
I sometimes suggest to people that they learn how to sit in Seiza while "dropping" all thoughts and simply being the instantaneousness of THIS blazing wakefulness, which -- as you can see for yourself -- is the whole universe. (Seiza can be stunningly painful at first, but that's good because it makes your sessions very short at the beginning. Who needs to sit for two hours at a time? What are you, a monk? Gradually you will be able to sit for longer and longer if you feel like it. When I started Seiza I could only do it for two and a half minutes -- now I can sit comfortably that way for I don't know how long. Until the universe goes to sleep, maybe.) Some find it helpful to concentrate on breathing at first, to focus on "one point" in the Hara (or at the tip of the nose, or between the eyebrows, or on the sensation of breathing in the nostrils, &c.) The purpose of such pointed focus is to stop the internal chatter of your conceptual mind. Reaching a state of no-thought is not the same as Satori, but a fox sleeping in a hole is gathering strength to run.
While doing this Seiza Zen, you let go of everything that anyone has ever told you about It. People have been telling you about It for your whole life. They've sometimes called It "the world" and sometimes "people" and sometimes "things" or even "feelings" and they pretended to be in super-lucid possession of the great secret of "how it all works." But they lied. While you sit in Seiza Zen, the puzzled dullness of the torpor these people created in you with their ideas is replaced by the subtle Master -- a lightning quick Direct Perceiving via ears, eyes, tongue, nose, skin and other senses you never even knew you had in you. Grasping onto "stuff" is not necessary, nor is it even possible; nor are you tempted. You do not find some confused small "self" anywhere unless you start looking into the past or future, which you should train yourself not to do. Don't even look into the so-called "present"! What is the Mind that perceives the three times? You do not even know, after some "time" has passed, what a "mind" is, or what "time" is. The big temple bell goes CLONG when the block hits it, and one can hear it ringing in the darkness for miles. Refreshing! Who exactly is this "one" who hears it?
With the thinking mind suspended, the universe becomes fresh and new in a wonderful way. As soon as this incredible vividness happens to you for the first time, you will be startled -- maybe you have already been startled by the instantaneous reality at some point. But you should train yourself to stay in this startling and magical awareness for longer and longer, long enough for "time" to disappear completely, and then you'll "see the face you had before your mother and father were born" and "light a stick of incense in the dark temple with the ancient ancestors."
There is no secret to any of this. People taught it and did it in Japan and China for thousands of years. The only secret is -- to do it "religiously." (A little joke -- I do not mean to do it with faith, but to make the natural state your religion, your absolute joy and devotion.) To do it every single day, for at least enough time to allow yourself to sink into the thoughtless clear state, and gradually to be in this state more often than not, to be able to enter it instantly at any time and in any place. And realizing how intimate and real it is, never ever to seek some sort of confirmation of this reality from an external source such as a Guru or Roshi belonging to an organized group. In Bodhidharma's terms, you will wake up -- you will find that the Mind in you, just as it is (before it has been cooked by thinking, mis-identified with a body-mind, tangled up in desires and fears) is the real Buddha, effortless and infinite. What bliss!
Strive to realize this No-thingness in which there is nothing to realize! Or, as Miyamoto Musashi wrote in his Ku no Maki (Scroll of Emptiness), "Taking the Void as the Way, you will see the Way as Void."