Friday, September 30, 2011

Step Back

Step Back
by Scott Bradley

Step back on your own to look into reality long enough to attain an unequivocally true and real experience of enlightenment. Then with every thought you are consulting infinite teachers.
~ Yuanwu ~
Sometimes I wonder why I read about Zen at all; I don't believe the half of it. And often times the half I don't believe seems to be the most essential bit. Still, there is something there with which I sense a deep affinity. I just have to edit where I must, and learn to not be put off by that which goes beyond what I can truthfully embrace. This puts me well outside the faith — “half drunk and half sober", as Yuanwu says elsewhere — but that is nothing new.

Take, for example, this quote above. Once I have cut the heart out of it, it inspires me greatly. "Step back on your own to look into reality," I read, "then with every thought you are consulting infinite teachers." It's not that I don't think "an unequivocally true and real experience of enlightenment" is possible, but simply that I don't know that it is and thus it is something I would have to import. Yet, stepping back on my own to look into reality implies, for me, a leaving behind of imported interpretations of the world. And somehow I think this is more in the spirit of Zen than to simply buy into the Buddha-package.

Zen must constantly be purged of Zen, as Zen frequently proclaims.

For some time I was inspired by the statement in the Zhuangzi to the effect that, if your heart is your teacher, who can be said to be without a teacher? It was only when I read Brook Ziporyn's translation and comments that I realized that the statement was probably intended as a negative criticism of bondage to the deliberating mind ("heart"). And though opinions continue to vary, I think that within the context of Zhuangzi's argument, Brook got it right.

Yet, there is another sense in which this this statement is true. It all turns on the meaning of mind. For Zhuangzi it usually means the 'understanding consciousness", that which attempts to grasp reality through reason and cannot go beyond itself. But there is also that human faculty, the 'heart' in a different sense, which can, in fact, go beyond the purely cognitive and touch the inexplicable roots of one's existence. This is the "that which moves me", the "Numinous Reservoir" out of which all experience flows.

Zen likewise sees mind as both a hindrance to the direct experience of reality, and, paradoxically, reality itself. In the first case it is bounded intellection, and in the latter, boundless awareness.

So, step back on your own to look at reality, and you will have infinite teachers. Only look with that human faculty which has no use for cognitive boxes, imported or domestic, and is able to open itself to the boundless. All experience speaks, but has no words.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

1 comment:

  1. Reading about zen is not practicing zen (which really does require meditation). I think the reading and koans are simply to support the practice. Therefore, there is nothing to "believe or not" in your study. Just sit.

    Also, I'm sure you know this, but other readers might not, regarding your reference to Zhuangzi and the 'deliberating mind ("heart")'. In Chinese the word is xin, which carries a meaning of heart, but is more accurately translated or understood (if you can) as "heart-mind", which is a more difficult concept. Westerners understand heart and mind as two things; in the Chinese they are one.

    In both neidan and zen practice, one is engaging in "fasting of the heart-mind".

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