Issue 9: Spring

Do we really need mindfulness in Zen?

Written by Chris Brown

The following is not intended as a scholarly article, but rather is based on my own experience, observation, and limited interpretation of the Dharma.

Fundamental to the practice of Zen is the realisation of our Buddha-Nature. What does this mean, and how do we go about achieving this? Our Buddha-Nature can be thought of as the all-embracing, all-accepting emptiness of our being. In Zen there is an emphasis on “just sitting”; or to elaborate further, “just sitting, being Buddha”. In the act of our sitting (or walking, bowing, chanting, eating… etc.), we open ourselves to the Universal flow of conditioned experience. But, if all we need to do is sit still and be Buddha, what use is there for the practice of mindfulness?

Clearly just sitting is not the same as just idly doing nothing in particular, otherwise we would have all realised our true nature long ago. Just sitting appears to require something that isn’t normally present when we just sit idly – and yet to add something to the sitting is to miss the point of the practice. I identify here two paths that can aid in the type of just sitting that realises Buddha-Nature. The first is essentially a path of devotion. Reb Anderson Roshi, in his visits to Gaia House over the last few years, has been clearly emphasising this form of practice, not providing instructions in mindfulness unless specifically asked to. On the devotional path, to realise the Buddha-Nature through just sitting requires Great Faith in the Buddha-Nature. This Great Faith is not a mere belief or attachment to an idea of what we think our Buddha-Nature is. Rather, it is total faith and devotion to whatever arises within our experience of just sitting, such that there is just the sitting and nothing extra, and no seeking for anything extra. Not knowing what this experience really is, we have total faith that it is who we truly are.

However, most people who first come to practice Zen, or any other form of spiritual practice, don’t have this Great Faith from the outset. Why would they be looking for a spiritual practice if they did? A spiritual ‘seeker’, by definition, is someone who is looking for something extra. So they set about developing this Great Faith though listening to the dharma, through dharma discourse, and through practices of mindfulness, although initially they may not realise it is faith that they seek.

Mindfulness helps to cultivate those qualities of heart that are naturally expressed by our Buddha-Nature, but that may have become obscured due to human habits of heart and mind. Mindfulness is literally “mind-fullness”; in other words, the heart-mind is cultivating a fullness, the fullness of our true nature. On a practical level, mindfulness can be thought of as cultivating two main qualities, which may be emphasised differently at different times or during different forms of practice.

Firstly, mindfulness is essentially a remembering, which is somewhat closer to the typical English meaning of “being mindful of something”. Except in this case, we are specifically remembering to be aware of whatever is happening. As pointed out by the respected mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, this is literally a “re-membering” or a re-contacting with our true spiritual body.

However, upon becoming aware of what’s happening, various reactions can and often do arise, according to our habits and conditioning, which inevitably give rise to attachment and aversion. Unfortunately these reactions tend to undermine our “re-membering”. Hence a second quality is often emphasised: developing an attitude of acceptance to whatever is within our experience. This experience could be a wandering thought, physical pain, a strong emotion. All are treated with openness and kindness, which act to undermine our karmic reactions and to cultivate non-attachment. A deliberate cultivation of this second quality may not be necessary if it is already present – a remembering to be aware may be enough.

The two qualities of re-membering and acceptance are really all there is to mindfulness. Yet, commonly the modern formulation of “mindfulness meditation” is associated with concentration and yoga practices focussed on the body, which are not so strongly emphasised in Zen, but perhaps more strongly in Vipassana. They are a part of Zen practice, however; for example, focussing on sensations of movement during walking meditation. But it’s clear that Zen regards concentration practices as more of a skilful means than an end in themselves. This in important to understand, because concentration practices are what many people take to be the sum total of meditation practice, perhaps deriving from the Indian and Tibetan yogic traditions in which many levels of “Samadhi” are described, eventually culminating in the mind dwelling within the “substrate consciousness” after many years of adept and expert practice. This is normally only achievable under circumstances when the environment is especially conducive and one cannot be easily disturbed, but of course creating those environments is challenging and for most people not sustainable enough to form the backbone of their lives. Clearly, this type of practice is difficult to achieve when living in our modern world.

Zen, however, is not limited to special environments. Concentration practice as a form of skilful means involves practicing the intentional re-direction of attention towards a chosen object of meditation. This type of practice is useful to cultivate at times when the mind and heart may be in turmoil. Hence we focus on the breathing, on other physical sensations in the body, or on external experiences such as sounds, as a way of taking energy out of the turmoil of the heart-mind, until it becomes calmer. This then facilitates acceptance and kindness, which when well cultivated require nothing more than a remembering to be aware in order to operate. Hence concentration practices can be thought of as a method of cultivating mindfulness skills.

Sometimes our hearts might be in a more subtle form of turmoil, which when not carefully attended to can escape our notice and eventually spiral out of control. Perhaps we wouldn’t call it turmoil – more like just distractedness or preoccupation. Here again it can be useful to bring attention to the body in a more focussed way, searching for subtle perturbations in the stream of energy that we associate with physicality and emotionality. There are times when it’s especially important to cultivate a stronger sense of intentionality in our practice, and the simple act of bringing attention to the body, mind and emotions is an important step in grounding our intentionality in the present.

The point of describing the practice of mindfulness in this way (and there are no doubt numerous other ways to describe this practice, depending on how it has been approached and experienced) is to draw attention to the relationship between mindfulness practice and the realisation of Buddha-Nature. Mindfulness practices give us a taste of our true nature without requiring faith or devotion from the outset. Rather, a sceptical attitude can be accommodated within this approach. In fact, a particular form (or perhaps, more formless) scepticism, “Beginner’s Mind”, is actively encouraged. Beginner’s Mind is not a scepticism which doubts the benefits of the practice, but rather is wide open to infinite possibilities (one of which is that the practice may not meet one’s expectations). This is more akin to Great Faith than it is to doubt – Great Faith is so great, it includes everything, including a doubting thought. But in particular, mindfulness cultivates the major attributes of a person who has realised their Buddha-Nature: all-encompassing acceptance and non-attachment. This is a useful prelude to adopting a more devotional, direct, style of practice that is open to the Buddha-Nature from the very beginning – a ‘sudden’ path, to use Zen terminology. In Zen practice we may oscillate between deliberate cultivation of awareness and acceptance on the one hand (a gradual path), and Great Faith in our Buddha-Nature on the other (a sudden path).

On a personal note, one mistake in practice I have observed in myself is to assume that once practice starts to occur according with Great Faith, it will always be so, and the gradual path can be dispensed with. This is not so (or, not always so, as Shunryu Suzuki might say), except maybe in exceptional individuals. It’s easy to set out into life after a period of intense training such as during sesshin, with Great Faith in one’s true nature. But over time, this Great Faith will often require Great Support in the form of Sangha, which facilitates dharma discussion and practices of mindfulness. It is in the spirit of Sangha that I share these words for reflection.

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