The Buddhist tradition:
During a time when I was doing intensive practice for a couple of months in India, my whole body dissolved into radiant vibrations of light. Every time I sat down, as soon as I closed my eyes, this energy field of light pervaded my whole body. It was wonderful; it felt terrific. “Ah! I got it!” Our progress in meditation does not depend on the measure of pleasure or pain in our experience. Rather, the quality of our practice has to do with how open we are to whatever is there. The liberating path leads through many such cycles, and the pleasantness or unpleasantness of any particular experience does not in itself determine how advanced any given stage is. (source: Insight Meditation p. 47)
The Buddhist tradition offers hundreds of techniques for the opening of consciousness, among them concentration on the breath and body, the use of visualization or sound, the repetition of mantras, and the use of koans, which are “unsolvable” questions that are repeated until the thinking mind stops and the realms of unknowing and silence appear. The abstract of our method is perhaps similar to that of Zen practice. Notice below that subject of meditation is our own Faces before our parents were born. The reader must also note the creative part of any solutions to these koans. Let’s examine Zen, koan, and zazen.
Sitting in zazen or meditation has been so accepted as the approved path to spiritual emancipation throughout Asia that no Zen Buddhist had first to be convinced that through it one could develop one’s powers of concentration, achieve unification and tranquility of mind, and eventually, if one’s aspiration was pure and strong enough, come to Self-realization.
The importance of single-mindedness, of bare attention, is illustrated in the following anecdote:
One day a man of the people said to Zen Master Ikkyu: “Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?”
Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word “Attention.”
“Is that all?” asked the man. “Will you not add something more?”
Ikkyu then wrote twice running: “Attention. Attention.”
“Well” remarked the man rather irritably, “I really don’t see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written.”
Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: “Attention. Attention. Attention.”
Half angered, the man demanded: “What does that word ‘Attention’ mean anyway?”
And Ikkyu answered gently: “Attention means attention.”
(source: From the Zenso Mondo (Dialogues of the Zen Masters), translation by Kuni Mat- suo and E. Steinilber-Oberlin.)
Every koan is a unique expression of the living which cannot be grasped by the bifurcating intellect. Despite the incongruity of their various elements, koans are profoundly meaningful, each pointing to our own Faces before our parents were born, to our real selves. To people who cherish the letter above the spirit, koans appear bewildering, for in their phrasing koans deliberately throw sand into the eyes of the intellect to force us to open our Mind’s eye and see the world and everything in it undistorted by our concepts and judgments.
Koans take as their subjects tangible, down-to-earth objects such as a dog, a tree, a face, a finger to make us see, on the one hand, that each object has absolute value and, on the other, to arrest the tendency of the intellect to anchor itself in abstract concepts. But the import of every koan is the same: that the world is one interdependent Whole and that each separate one of us is that Whole.
The Chinese Zen masters, those spiritual geniuses who create these paradoxical dialogues, did not hesitate to thumb their noses at logic and common sense in their marvelous creations. By wheedling intellect into attempting solutions impossible for it, koans reveal to us the inherent limitations of the logical mind as an instrument for realizing ultimate Truth. (source: The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau p. 76)
Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki explains:
We say, “To hear the sound of one hand clapping.” Usually the sound of clapping is made with two hands, and we think that clapping with one hand makes no sound at all. But actually, one hand is sound. Even though you do not hear it, there is sound. If you clap with two hands, you can hear the sound. But if sound did not already exist before you clapped, you could not make the sound. Before you make it there is sound. Because there is sound, you can make it, and you can hear it. Sound is everywhere. If you just practice it, there is sound. Do not try to listen to it. If you do not listen to it, the sound is all over. Because you try to hear it, sometimes there is sound, and sometimes there is no sound. Do you understand? Even though you do not do anything, you have the quality of zazen always. But if you try to find it, if you try to see the quality, you have no quality. (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by SHUNRYU SUZUKI)
Why does child-like observations or child-like listening work?
Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. PABLO PICASSO
It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a life time to paint like a child. PABLO PICASSO
Child like observations and/or child like listening work because it is the quickest route to Noblification and finding virtue. Children purify easily. There are no hangups. The mind can not be purified without seeing things as they really are (insights). Children see things as they really are. Adults don’t. Our past programmings skew these observations. Adults refuse to see everything that are there to be seen to draw novel distinctions, or at worst they sometimes have no interest, see with greed, selfishness, hatred, delusions, and ignorance.
Children also see aesthetically. They hardly see anything other than the beauty in what they are doing. If children could explain it in adult language, they will tell you that all their experiences from drawing to playing in sand box are aesthetic experiences. Just as music is so instrumental in facilitating the attention, aesthetically pleasing objects help with strong focusing of vision and observation. The buddhist tradition speaks directly about the hindrances that are encountered in the course of the spiritual journey.
There is a story told of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. After praising her extraordinary work, an interviewer for the BBC remarked that in some ways service might be a bit easier for Mother Teresa than for us ordinary householders. After all, she has no possessions, no car, no insurance, and no husband. “This is not true,” she replied at once. “I am married too.” She held up the ring that nuns in her order wear to symbolize the wedding to Christ. Then she added, “And he can be very difficult sometimes!” The hindrances and difficulties in spiritual practice are universal.
There is a traditional analogy comparing our nature to a pond, and the point of practice is to see to the depths of the pond. Desire comes like beautifully colored dyes in the water that obstruct our vision. When we are angry, it is as though the pond were on a boiling-hot spring. Again, we cannot see far. Sloth and torpor are like a thick layer of algae growing on the pond’s surface. Restlessness is like a strong wind blowing on the pond’s surface and creating waves. And doubt is like mud stirred up from the pond’s bottom.
How do we dismantle these hindrances? Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield in their excellent book called Seeking the Heart of Wisdom explain it the best:
Certainly not by suppression. Suppression doesn’t work, because suppression is itself a form of aversion.
The most direct way is to be mindful of them, to transform them into the object of meditation. Through the power of mindfulness, we can make these very forces another aspect of our meditation, using awareness of them to bring the mind to greater freedom.
There is a second whole way of working with hindrances. This is recommended for use when they are particularly strong. Through cultivating their opposite states as a balance or remedy, we can help weaken the hindrances and unhook ourselves from our strong entanglement with them.
When concentration becomes strong and the power of mindfulness is well developed, it is possible to simply let go of these states as soon as they arise. This letting go has no aversion in it; it is a directed choice of abandon one mind state and redirect the concentration to a more skillful object such as the breath or a state of mental calm.
Let us begin with our usual meditations. How do we actually apply these ways of working in practice? For example, if sense desire arises, greed arises, wanting arises, what do we do? We look directly at this mind state and include it in the field of awareness. First make a soft mental note of it: “desire, desire.” We can observe sense desire just as we observe the breath or sensations in the body. When a strong desire arises, turn all the attention to it; see it clearly. What is this desire? How does it feel in the body? What parts of the body are affected by it—the gut, the breath, the eyes? What does it feel like in the heart, in the mind? When it is present, are we happy or agitated, open or closed? Note “desire, desire” and see what happens to it. Pay meticulous attention.