The Perils Of States, Stages, And Stations

Zen and Chan (Chinese Zen) often have little to say about states, stages, and stations along the path–and for good reason.

Concerning the huatou, Chan master Sheng Zen writes,

[T]here are three stages in the development and resolution of the Chan doubt: first, giving rise to the doubt sensation; second, generating the great doubt mass; and third, shattering the great doubt mass. (Shattering the Great Doubt 124)

He then goes on to elaborate on each stage before concluding with what is, by my lights, the most important message:

Unless you directly experience the shattering of the great doubt mass yourself, what you have just learned is just intellectual knowledge. Although it is useful for your own practice, until you experience the great doubt mass yourself, to speak about these ideas as genuinely yours is vexation. (Ibid 124)

Yen has raised one issue–to wit, getting caught up in intellectual knowledge, what yesterday I referred to as “intellectual bypass”–when it comes to discussing possible states, stations, and stages. Here are some others:

–One can get fixated on the path unfolding in a linear fashion (the fifth absorption following immediately after the fourth) when in actuality the path will unfold quite organically.

–One can get quite attached to the “thought of enlightenment.” Here, one may continue to ask, “Has the doubt sensation arisen yet? What can I do to raise it? Maybe it has already been raised and I just don’t know it?” This is not practice because it entails turning away from what is right here–in Chan language, from what is “right underfoot.”

–One can unwittingly become a spiritual materialist. This, to my mind, is a fate suffered often by seekers today. Waking up is not an altered state. It is the end of one’s vexations. This is why the second Great Vow states, “I vow to cut off endless vexations.” To get to the very root and thus to cut off all of them.

The point is simple: the first Chan patriarch Bodhidharma already said it perfectly: “Directing pointing at person’s mind / See original-nature: Buddha!” Until that time, any state, station, or stage is something to enjoy briefly before discarding. As Nisargadatta so forcefully put it, “Anything perceivable or conceivable is not ‘it.’ Therefore, discard it!”

Intellectual Bypass

You’ve no doubt heard of spiritual bypass. Someone uses spirituality to go around his psychological baggage. The result is that the one so bypassing continues to “act out” his shit despite having attained greater states of consciousness.

My Zen teacher recently pointed out that in addition to spiritual bypass, there is also psychological bypass. In the latter scenario, one continues to be fascinated by endless psychological insights and, in consequence, never begins to set foot on the noble path. Endlessly studying the contents of the mind just won’t do since, as one of the Noble Vows clearly states, “Delusions are endless; I vow to put an end to all of them.” Yet I can only hope to put an end to all of them if I go to the very root, which is the illusory belief in a separate self. The latter is the frame upon which delusions are hung.

To the above list must be added intellectual bypass. Of course, you can use the intellect to try to skirt around the messy psychological baggage. In so doing, you avert your gaze, turning away from this right here while allowing the intellect to come to some kind of rational explanation for its existence. One simple critique of cognitive therapies is that if they were truly efficacious, then there would be no point in repeatedly having to “challenge” “unhealthy or irrational beliefs.” By the understandable lights of those schooled in more somatic forms of therapy, this approach fails to go deep enough. I agree.

If I may return to my Zen teacher for a moment and to the Rinzai Zen tradition more generally, then I would say that the bigger, more blatant form of intellectual bypass is to be found in trying to answer a koan–the deepest enigma about what truly is–by drawing on the powers of the intellect. Time and again, Zenkei Shibayama in The Gateless Barrier: Zen Comments on the Mumonkan hammers away at the inability of the intellect to reveal to us our true nature. As Kant rightly said, the intellect can pose questions that it cannot possibly answer. Just so. Therefore, the intellect must give way to the “Zen eye” which, when “opened,” can see directly what is.

I feel inclined to tarry on the overreaching of the intellect for one moment longer to ensure that I’ve stuck the point home. I remember meditating with a Zen group for quite sometime. Invariably, one older man would, during the discussion of the Dharma, cite this koan or that Zen story and comment on it. But this is not Zen. To let your intellect take the reigns when matters of ultimate concern are at stake is to have made a grievous mistake. Such cuteness is blinding.

Only the heartmind–as open and as trusting as could be–is the way of the Way. Therefore, one comes forthwith or after some maturation to “faith in Mind.”

Great Faith And Humble Openness, Not Modern Doubt Point The Way Ahead

At a Chan retreat, Chan master Sheng Yen says,

But then again, some people may soon enough have doubts. The first day, they may listen and think, “Yes, I agree,” and tomorrow, they will say, “Prove it to me. Why does Dharma say this? Doesn’t Buddhadharma say this and that?” This habit is also a manifestation of karmic consciousness. So, you must let go of these doubts too. Generally speaking, you must let go of the mind-set of wanting to get rid of something and wanting to get something; you must put aside both wanting to be rid of suffering and wanting to get enlightened. Without rejecting or seeking, just hold on dearly to your huatou [a technique akin to the koan]; glue yourself to it and continue to ask. (Shattering the Great Doubt 120)

Since the resurgence of ancient skepticism in the sixteenth century and especially since the modern skeptical approach taken by Descartes in the seventeenth century, leading with doubt has come to many to seem second nature. Prove it! Show me! I must know now! What do you mean…?

Skepticism, however, is the deluded starting point of a deluded mind holding, in Buddhist terms, an “upside-down view” of reality. But then we all begin with deluded mind! So, we’re clueless! Enthralled with doubt and not catching a glimpse of one’s delusions, one is instantly stuck and ever in quicksand. Thus, one can get nowhere–absolutely nowhere–from here.

Only humble openness can point the way ahead, and humble openness blossoms only where there is faith. Faith and openness are twinned, entwined, mutually entangled.

Led by great faith or trust, one can start to put down the desire to get rid of something as well as the desire to get something. Both, resulting from dis-ease, are aversive and greedy, respectively (aversion and greed being the first two poisons in Buddhism). Rejecting mind is seeking mind. Putting aside both, one can finally settle into the practice. One asks nothing from it.

The point, in fact, is to have great faith in the method–here the huatou. In this connection, my teacher said, “Just remain steadfast [in the practice] to the end.”

I trust you see that great faith makes ample room for love. Love reveals its essence in the full-blooded, wholehearted, heart-open welcoming of this–whatever this is. Not aversive. Not greedy. Not needy. Not asking for anything.

What is This? What is This for you?

Renunciation And Fragility

While reading Chan master Sheng Yen’s Shattering the Great Doubt: The Chan Practice of Huatou, I was reminded of Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life.

Sheng Yen’s understanding of renunciation chimes well with Sloterdijk’s notion of secession. A Chan monk begins by renouncing samsara; an agile practitioner of the Sloterdijkian mold does something similar.

For Sloterdijk, periagoge, a fundamental act of turning, initiates the process of self-transformation:

The concern of the most resolute secessionaries is not simply a fascinated retreat from a reality that no longer invites participation, but rather a complete reversal–a turn away from the superficially manifest, which means a turn towards something that is better, true and real on a higher level.

For a Buddhist, similarly, what must be felt in one’s bones is the fragility of life. Renunciation refers to wanting, henceforth, to put an end to samsaric suffering. And renunciation comes from insight into fragility. Sheng Yen urges his students thus:

To practice huatou [akin to a koan] well, you should be convinced of the fragility of life. You may have experienced the fragility of life if yo have ever been at the threshold of death. You may also have witnessed the death of someone close to you, or even witnessed the death of strangers. These events make you realize how fragile your own life really is, and you come to understand that there must be something more than this fleeting life. If that understanding leads you to practice, then you have taken a step toward finding meaningfulness in your life.

We can also observe the fleeting nature of life in the stream of illusory thoughts passing constantly through our mind. Does the real self exist in the gaps between these thoughts? The more you understand the transient nature of your thoughts, the more will be the urgency to find something not so transient: you say to yourself that there must be something more, and thus you come to the practice. (my emphases)

For years, I’ve said to myself and others: “Since this is not enough, there must be more than this.” What is this “more”? That is the deep intuition, the open doubt, one needs to begin to set foot on the path.

Yet what prevents this punch-in-the-gut realization? Three things. First, the third poison: ignorance or delusion. One is so mired in one’s afflictions that what is veiled is the very possibility of the Unborn. Second, the constant seeking after temporary forms of relief. Mind-created problems desire mind-created solutions that themselves do not last. And so, the whole cycle of adjusting, of seeking comfort, of trying to diminish pain, of trying to find ways of coping with one’s suffering continues on. Third, owing to delusion and to striving after temporary relief, one does not see the larger pattern of endless ups and downs; one simply deludes oneself into believing that one was, say, living in the wrong place, with the wrong person, in the wrong line of work, and so on.

I end with a koan from The Gateless Barrier. Two monks, looking up at a flag, are involved in heated, interminable debate. One says that the flag is moving while the other says that the wind is moving. Who is right? Huineng, who will become the sixth patriarch in Chan, steps forward and says, “It’s neither the flag nor the wind that is moving. It is the mind that is moving.”

Is Huineng right? Is your mind moving? What’s here for you?

It’s Only Temporary Relief, I’m Afraid

People easily misunderstand Zen. When a practitioner puts his legs into a pretzeled position and sits there without moving for long stretches at a time, it can seem as if this is a ‘punishing act’ or as if this requires ‘great endurance’ or ‘great perseverance.’ Moreover, it can seem as if this Zen master, urging him to sit through, is a real stickler.

Neither could be further from the truth. In fact, being instructed to sit like this is an act of great compassion, and sitting like this is one practice that shows one, here and now, what equanimity really is.

To see this, consider what usually happens. The physical body feels physical sensations that are strong, unpleasant, and relatively long-lasting, and the mind not only labels this experience “pain” (fine so far) but then goes on to propose a solution: “Move the legs in order to find relief.”

This is a terrible, commonplace mistake. For what can be discovered, if only one sits still, is precisely how the finite mind generates its own problems and then proposes its own solutions. And, what’s more, those solutions can only ever provide one with a sense of temporary relief.

Let’s look more closely at that pregnant point about finding only temporary relief:

You don’t like New York City, so you move to Austin. Years later, it turns out that Austin is not the place for you, so you move to Bali. Finding “the right place” only provides you with temporary relief.

But then the same goes for all of the following and more: changing relationships, changing jobs, getting a promotion, achieving higher status, accruing more wealth, getting a dog, having a baby, and so on. All of these, promising some form of happiness, only end in temporary relief.

Temporary relief from what? From the seemingly endless cycle of birth or death–that is to say, of suffering (samsara). And only temporary because such a move, a part of the process of samsara, actually contributes to samsara‘s continuation.

So, you see every time you “dislike” pain and “like” painlessness you are perpetuating samsara. Every time you cling onto a pleasant state you do the same. In fact, so long as you remain entangled in loves and hates, likes and dislikes, not this but definitely that, not that but definitely that over there, you remain caught in the same samsaric cycle.

Do you see?

The journey home can begin with sitting in a pretzeled crosslegged position and remaining there. As the mind quiets, you may come to samadhi, a unified, concentrated state of peace and clarity. You may experience equanimity. These are clues to finding your way all the way home.

And where is home? Precisely where one’s suffering has been seen through to the end, precisely where one’s suffering has been brought to a natural, definitive end. Home is genuine contentment–genuine in the sense of remaining unmoved, solid, and constant. Home is rest in movement and movement in rest. Home, beyond temporary relief, is where one can finally, truly take it easy.