The Experience of Zen Meditation
Last Quarter Moon Uposatha Day , February 15, 2012
index to series
In summary the method of Zen meditation described last week compares with the Buddha’s method as follows:
In Zen meditation also begins with the removal of distracting factors of the mind, which are the Hindrances for the Buddha, but which are more vaguely and inconsistently identified as any grasping or aversion and thoughts of mundane affairs in Zen.
- Both methods involve the centering of the mind in the body. However, in Zen this is done primarily by attention to posture, for the Buddha by attention to the whole breath, but in neither case by focusing the mind narrowly on a single object.
- Both methods involve attending to a theme of meditation. This ranges for the Buddha over various body contemplations, over feelings, over mind and over phenomena (the Four Foundations of Mindfulness). In Zen it seems correspond most closely to what the Buddha calls mindfulness of mind or of conscious awareness itself, the mirror mind.
- Both encourage active factors of mind such as delight and investigation as critical components of meditation, roughly an active curiosity.
- Each involves balancing various factors that arise in the meditative experience, particularly serenity and insight (samatha and vipassana or zhi and guan)
We conclude our subseries on Zen meditation by considering the fundamental qualities of the meditative experience..
Concentration in zazen is centered, not fixed. Recall that in fixed concentration the mind attaches unmovingly to a single meditation object into which the mind is absorbed. In centered concentration the mind itself seems to be unmoving, but experience comes and goes. The mind is pliant, open to everything that arises remains a while and falls, but what arises does not move the mind off center. The mind is calm and steady but sensitive and aware. The Buddha’s meditation and Zen both appear to be centered, not fixed. A method in either case which lacks a fixed object of mindfulness indicates that this would be the case. Sometimes this quality is called “sitting like a wall” or “wall gazing.”
“Roam and plan in samadhi. Every detail clearly appears before you. Sound and form, echo and shadow, happen instantly without leaving traces.”
“Respond unencumbered to each speck of dust without becoming its partner. The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds.”
“Clear and desireless, the wind in the pines and the moon in the water are content in their elements”
The implication here is that nothing is suppressed as it impinges on consciousness, but neither is it entertained, sought after or engaged in a conventional manner.
A clear difference in the Zen approach to samadhi is that it has no metrics. The Buddha spoke of four graded jhanas and movement from one to the other, and in fact the word “jhana” is used with primarily reference to the degree or depth of samadhi. Zen (from Sanskrit “dyana,” Pali “jhana”) never refers to the four jhanas as such that I am aware of. Experience bears out that there are different levels of intensity of samadhi, but Zen seems uninterested in tracking which level the meditator is at. Even for the Buddha there is no indication that the meditator should set her sights on the highest jhana.
Investigation continues in samadhi. For the Buddha samadhi itself encourages the development of insight knowledge. This is also reflected in an early Zen text, the Platform Sutra, in which the Sixth Ancestor is reported to have said:
Learned Audience, in my system Samadhi [Jhana] and Prajna [Wisdom or insight] are fundamental. But do not be under the wrong impression that these two are independent of each other, for they are inseparably united and are not two entities. Samadhi is the quintessence of Prajna, while Prajna is the activity of Samadhi. At the very moment that we attain Prajna, Samadhi is therewith; and vice versa. If you understand this principle, you understand the equilibrium of Samadhi and Prajna. A disciple should not think that there is a distinction between ‘Samadhi begets Prajna’ and ‘Prajna begets Samadhi’.
Learned Audience, to what are Samadhi and Prajna analogous? They are analogous to a lamp and its light. With the lamp, there is light. Without it, it would be darkness. The lamp is the quintessence of the light and the light is the expression of the lamp. In name they are two things, but in substance they are one and the same. It is the same case with Samadhi and Prajna.
Recall that with fixed samadhi there is little opportunity for developing insight except outside of samadhi. Here are some passages that describe the insight end of samadhi in Zen.
“To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.” – Dogen, Kenjokoan
In Dogen’s writings he typically identifies this mind with awakening itself. Here is Hongzhi, a master of images from nature.
“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 mountains appear. The moon sets and the water is cool. Each bit of autumn contains interpenetration without bounds.”
“When silent illumination is fulfilled, the lotus blossoms, the dreamer awakens, A hundred streams flow into the ocean, a thousand ranges face the highest peak.”
The transition from vipassana, investigation and insight, while in samadhi to the higher attainments and ultimately to awakening is mysterious. There is no recipe. I am always reminded of the proverb, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink it.” Samadhi leads the horse to water, and things as they are are neatly arrayed before you, yet we do not know how get the horse to drink the water, how the mind will click into deeper understanding beyond concepts.
Here Zen seems more interested than the Buddha in tracking these intermediate sudden understandings for which it often applies the word “kensho.” An interesting aspect of Zen is concern with seemingly arbitrary factors that can trigger kensho. Two well-know examples of such triggers from the early Zen literature is the sound of a pebble striking bamboo as a Zen student was sweeping and a Zen student suddenly noticing his reflection in water and wondering which one is real.
There seems also to have developed in Zen a pedagogical art understood by some Zen masters of contriving such triggers in order to evoke kensho in their students. I think this has no counterpart in the Buddha’s methods. Traditionally in Zen teacher and student develop a very intimate relationship over many years of intense zazen and mindfulness practice and the student is said to acquire the mind of the teacher. Zen koans are full of instances in which the teacher shouts, kicks or hits the student at just the right time, seemingly in anticipation of a felicitous result. Dogen refers to such methods in Fukanzazengi, listing some of the triggers famous in the early Zen literature:
“… the bringing out of enlightenment by the opportunity provided by a finger, a banner, a needle, or a mallet, and the effecting of realization with the aid of a whisk, a fist, a staff or a shout, cannot be fully understood by man’s discriminative thinking.”
I don’t know of clear examples in my own experience of teachers being adept in this skill. Rinzai teachers probably have a unique opportunity for triggering kensho (or for them, satori) as they work intimately with students in interviews accompanying meditative koan introspection practice, though my training does not qualify me to say much about this.
This method of contriving conditions for insight seems to be found even in the Zen arts, The following instance of clever modern Japanese landscaping perhaps serves to illustrate the method: This involved a path that lead high up a mountain from which there had at one time been a continuous magnificent view of the ocean. However the landscaper planted a hedge along the path that obscured this view, except at one point in which he provided a low break in the hedge. He placed a modern drinking fountain at that spot. At the moment the weary wanderer leaned over to sip the water the gap in the hedge is suddenly revealed and he sees a vast ocean of water at the moment he begins to take water into his own body. This is apparently an attempt to contrive an experience intended to evoke insight, much as an adeptly executed shout, thwap or tweak of the nose.
In conclusion, Zen meditation has some very distinctive qualities, and yet seems to retain the most essential elements and the internal logic of the Buddha’s method. Let me conclude with a moving quote from Dogen, who clearly was very excited about the potential of zazen with respect to awakening:
“When one displays the Buddha mudra with one’s whole body and mind, sitting upright in this Samadhi even for a short time, everything in the entire dharma world becomes Buddha mudra, and all space in the universe completely becomes enlightenment. Therefore, it enables Buddha-tathagatas to increase the dharma joy of their own original grounds and renew the adornment of the way of awakening. Simultaneously, all living beings of the dharma world in the ten directions and six realms become clear and pure in body and mind, realize great emancipation, and their own original face appears. At that time, all things together awaken to supreme enlightenment and utilize the Buddha-body, immediately go beyond the culmination of awakening, and sit upright under the kingly bodhi tree. At the same time, they turn the incomparable, great Dharma wheel and begin expressing ultimate and unfabricated profound prajna.”
Next week I will begin to consider Theravadin methods of meditation.