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
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
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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