I don’t spend a lot of time studying other schools of Buddhism, but every now and again I find something that really supports my practice. I found myself pondering an aspect of Zen teaching this week, from the book Being-Time by Shinshu Roberts. Zen very much focuses on exploring non-duality and aims to break down our usual subject-object way of viewing the world.
One way to explore that realm is to consider that the sense we have of things being opposites is just a concept, and that whereas we feel like only one side of the pair can be present at any one time actually both are always present together. From a non-dualistic perspective they are actually not opposites, but part of the same whole and are always present together in same moment. Roberts explains:
“The “right now” of our experience holds both realization and delusion. From the perspective of nonduality, both must be included in our understanding. When we are responding with our buddha-mind, where does the demon mind go? When we are responding with delusion, where does our realized mind go? Or we could ask, “when we respond skillfully to a situation, where does our selfish mind go, and when we respond unskillfully, where does our compassionate mind go?” Both are present, although we generally experience either one or the other. ”p45 Being-Time Shinshu Roberts
Initially this proposition is a reasonable sounding question, but when we think about it, it can feel a little abstract. But the abstractness comes from trying to think about it, from trying to use the conceptual mind to work it out. If we explore the question in a different way then it can begin to make more sense.
At the heart of this idea is recognising the difference between what in reality is actually happening in a moment in, and what our concept of the same moment is. In reality the qualities of realisation and delusion are always both there at the same time because they are qualities of the same mind, the split between them is artificially created at concept level. Concept is unable to accommodate the complexity of both as one thing, so it splits them into two. This is dualism, the conceptual splitting of things that in reality are the same.
A good example of this is how we experience the phases of the moon:
“Whether we perceive the moon as full or in phase, the moon itself is just the moon. Its true nature is not the view we see based upon the earth’s shadow upon it. What we see is a portion of the moon, yet we know that the moon does not diminish or grow. In each phase of the moon, all phases of the moon are always present and yet, to our eye, there is just the phase we see, independent of other views…”p97 Being-Time, Shinshu Roberts
We know the moon doesn’t change shape, we just get a different image of at different times. When we use wisdom we can see the reality in every situation that we are faced with, but when we are deluded we start to believe the concepts instead of the reality, in short:
“We forget that the moon is always full.”P97 Being-Time, Shinshu Roberts
When we forget that opposites are just concepts and start to treat the two sides as separate things that cannot be resolved to each other then we get into all sorts of trouble. This goes well beyond meditation issues, it is the grasping to the misunderstanding of opposites as real that is at the heart of so much hatred, exclusion, prejudice, and violence in the world. Your opposite threatens my opposite, so for me to survive I have to get rid of you.
We can use this idea to not only break down the differences that we artificially create between ourselves and other people, but also between the different elements of ourselves that seem incongruous. Of course you can be stingy and generous, of course you can be focussed and scatty, in reality both things are there, it is only concept that is trying to deny it. If you spend a lot of time concerned about how different and apparently inconsistent the various facets of you are then try opening up to the reality that everything can be there at the same time.
Concept and self are intricately woven together, in fact self is just a concept too. When we look at the world from a perspective of self view, we see it through concepts, and the self attaches to one side of the equation or the other; “I” am enlightened, “I” am deluded. What self really struggles to do is to accommodate both, “I” am both enlightened and deluded at the same time. These apparent contradictions are too amorphous for the self to feel comfortable to attach to; the sense of self is paper-thin and doesn’t want to associate with anything that makes it weaker or harder to define. The self wants to attach to something that appears to be solid, something that will prop it up, so it holds onto a more stable concept.
We can only connect with the real state of affairs when we push self view out of the way; I don’t think this is an inaccessible experience though. I’m sure we’ve all had times of being mindful one moment, then careless the next, then mindful again the next. This is a reality we already know, and as Roberts says:
“If both were not present, we could not respond so readily with one of the other. One aspect comes forth and the other aspect is hidden, yet both are still part of the other’s appearance.”p45 Being-Time, Shinshu Roberts
Usually we might view the variation in our mindfulness through the lens of saying ‘well I was trying to be mindful, but I must have let my effort drop for a bit, but once I saw what I had done I refocused myself and got my mindfulness back”. But we can explore what it feels like to consider it this way instead: ‘mindfulness and carelessness are always both there, sometimes mindfulness is at the front, sometimes carelessness is at the front”.
You can see straight away that to frame the world like this takes a big element of self out of it, it allows us to understand mindfulness and carelessness as being more like conditions than being personal qualities, or even personal possessions. Can apparently opposite conditions be present at the same time? Does the sun ever shine when it is raining? Yes of course it does, so we can understand that the conditions for mindfulness and carelessness can both be there at the same time, we just need to change the way we view them.
Another way to understand this idea is that since opposites rely on each other for their definition then every time we bring one to mind we are also bring to mind its opposite. So when we think of hot, it already has the concept of cold implicit in it. If there was no concept of hot then we wouldn’t need a concept of cold to compare it to. So the idea of mindfulness already has the idea of its opposite in it, whenever we bring the concept of mindfulness up its opposite has to come up at the same time.
Now you might say that perhaps there is some difference between mindfulness being present and the concept of mindfulness being present, but I would argue that there really is no difference. In any moment there is just experience, any sense of it having a quality or a name is entirely conceptual. You can manifest a state of mindfulness without ever having to call it anything, but at the moment that you do it becomes a concept.
While this again might sound rather abstract, it is something we can make use of in a very practical way when we meditate. Where we put our attention is a very important factor in meditation, and the outcome of a sit can very much depend on it.
I like to think of the mind as being like an empty jug, it doesn’t care what you fill it with as long as it has something in it. Putting your attention on something is like holding the jug under a tap, and the longer you hold it there the more the jug will fill up. Attention also doesn’t care what tap it is holding the jug under, it just knows that it needs to fill the jug.
That is where mindfulness comes in, it can evaluate the quality of what the mind is being filled with as being supportive of your intention or unsupportive, and having made that judgement it allows attention to be moved onto something else.
If you put your attention on your thoughts – as we often do inadvertently – then your mind will be filled with thoughts, and eventually they will take over from the meditation object you started with and will become the new meditation object. This is how we get totally absorbed into a train of thought, it effectively becomes our meditation object.
If you put your attention on peace, then your mind will be filled with peace, and the more you fill your mind up the less space there is for anything else, so the more peace you fill your mind with the less room for thoughts and other distracting things there is, so your meditation is stable and uninterrupted.
So with the knowledge that – whatever the pairing is – both sides will be present at the same time, we can make use of this when we sit. When you notice that the mind is noisy with lots of chatter, you can remember that quiet is also present in that moment- your mind must have compared the noise to something, so the idea of quiet is definitely there.
Take your attention away from the noise then, and turn it to the quiet. Now it might only be a few split seconds between thoughts, but it is there. Little by little as you put your attention on the quiet, it will start to take up some of the space that the noise was occupying, until eventually it will have taken its place.
When you are sitting and you feel a lot of sensations being driven by craving, you can realise that where craving exists renunciation is also there, so look for the moments between the sensations of craving where the heart doesn’t want for anything, where you are already completely content. In just the same way as with the quiet, once you have put your attention on the feelings of not wanting anything the more they will grow, until they fill your experience and the feelings of craving are pushed out.
Wherever delusion exists, wisdom is also always present even though it might not feel like it. The simple act of recognising the delusion in your thoughts is an act of wisdom itself, so if you are meditating and you feel like you are wading through a sea of delusion, recognise that wisdom is already there too. Take your attention away from the contents of the thoughts that are deluded, and put it on the wise part of the mind that sees that they are deluded. Just like the quiet, and the renunciation, the wisdom will expand in your awareness and the delusion will be pushed out.
If you are the kind of person who can be really hard on yourself then this is a really powerful way to change your attitude to what comes in your meditation from being an indication of how good or bad a practitioner you are, to the content of your meditation being just the outcome of where your attention was. It can switch the mindset from being one where the outcome is personal, to one where the outcome is mechanical. Your mind is full of thoughts, well that just means that’s where your attention is, put it somewhere else and that will change.
It can be really uplifting to consider the Zen perspective that enlightenment isn’t something that is far away and in the future, instead it is already here along with our delusion. Instead of being something we haven’t got, it is something that already belongs to us; and instead of thinking that it will happen at some unspecified time in the future, it can happen to us now. This idea can work wonders to defuse moments when we feel like our practice is rubbish and that we will never make any progress, and it is important to do that because if we allow these kind of self based ideas to perpetuate then we will genuinely struggle to make any progress.
Enlightenment isn’t something we need to discover, instead it is something we need to uncover, a quality in us that has always been there but became obscured by delusion, concepts, and cravings. Knowing that is is here can change our perspective away from looking out over the horizon for the place that we image that it is, to turning inwards to our own experiences to look for the thing that is already in here somewhere.
Some academics consider it a paradox that reaching the unconditioned depends on conditions – i.e. practice – but to my mind this is a problem of logic, in reality there is no issue. The unconditioned is already here, and it always was. It isn’t the case that we need to do something to reach it, it is more the case that we need to stop doing the things that cause us not to see it. The conditioned work that we are doing is to stop making the conditions that hide the unconditioned from us. In some ways this is a complex teaching, but in other ways it is a very simple one too. If we can reset our way of looking at the world as being based on separateness and difference, to one where we can recognise these contrasting elements as being reflections of the same whole – like the phases of the moon – then we can make use of it in many ways.
Even if it is just as a way to break out of our negativity for a moment by recalling that the good qualities we want are already present, then this is just as valid a use for it as anything else I have suggested. Breaking the chain of negativity is all we need to do sometimes to allow our natural wisdom and tendency towards calm to come to the front, and in that way we can understand that it must have already been there because otherwise where would it have come from?