by: David Xi-Ken Astor
As we engage mindful meditation and insight practice in the beginning of our encounter with zazen we are taught that there are different ways of understanding the states of mind that can be realized during periods of meditation. If our initial study of meditation is gained through books, we quickly read about terms like no-mind, quiet the mind, oneness, and realize your true nature. Unfortunately, all these terms can add to our confusion about a contemplative practice because we come to think about them as things to be acquired or achieved. We Westerns feel comfortable with this approach because we know how to go about getting something that we consider substantial, either as a material object or a tangible achievement. No problem, because with a little bit of hard work we earn the right to grab the golden ring. Then we have something to show for our efforts, an object, even if that object is a certificate.
Because of our mental confusion, we quickly trap ourselves by trying to make our experience match our ideas. The notion of a quiet mind is a good example. We think we know what “quiet the mind” means. We assume there is a mind, that it can be made quiet, and that if we work hard we can do it. Usually when we think of a quiet mind, we have some notion that we have stopped the thinking process and that this state of mind is sustained over time. This would suggest that we have stopped being aware too, because thoughts come from awareness. With this idea, individuals can spend years trying to get rid of thoughts so that their experience will match their idea of quiet mind.
For those of us that have dedicated ourselves to zazen for years (decades even), it is kind of sad to see others mired in a helpless quest for the experience they think they should be able to get, but can’t. True, from the perspective of noisy mind there is a state of less noise for them. But in experiencing a deep sense of quiet, there is no awareness between quiet or active mind. Old Zen masters would say we come to realize mind as “Just like this.” It exists only from the perspective of the knowing mind. Enlightenment is as well, existing only as an idea held by the mind of separation. Oneness exists only from the perspective of two-ness. We must awaken to the lessons that point to no-mind found in understanding the difference between the dual and the non-dual.
It is essential that we have aspirations in our Buddhist practice. But these are only pointers, like the North Star helping us to point the spiritual path we tread headed in the right direction. Experience can’t always be expressed with words. What is the experience of eating an orange for example? How do you put in words the feeling when you look into a baby’s eyes. What is loving kindness feel like? If we think our conceptual understanding touches the real thing, we are like someone watching a video of someone ascending the Himalaya Mountains who thinks they understand mountain climbing.
Instead of trying to match your conceptual understanding with what you imagine as real, cultivate great doubt. To do this, let go of ideas. When we have no ideas, we position ourselves for the potential of realizing our unique Universal expression. The Buddha nature that encompasses the spirit and wonder inherent in the face we see in our mirror. Or is it the face behind the face reflected back to us like the reflection in a clear pond?