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Zen Meditation — Questions and Answers

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By Ron Martin

An extension to Chapter 13 of Ron’s free book Zen Meditation

A Personal Introduction

I repeat my thanks to those who have provided questions for the follow-up to my book on Zen Meditation. In attempting the answers I have drawn as much as possible on the writings of others, and due acknowledgement is given in such cases. I have not revealed anything not known about for centuries, even though the method of presentation is my own. It is this fresh approach, helped by the advancement in human knowledge over the past century, that I hope will stimulate the reader’s interest, but once again it has to be stressed that the limitations of language restrict how far one can go in explaining the inner meaning of Zen. This inner meaning can come only from meditation.

Little can be said about how and why Zen meditation works, but it is worth bearing in mind that Zen is very much about the Here and Now as being the only reality. This has been emphasised by all the Zen masters, and their constant attempts to bring their pupils back to the reality of the moment is shown in all their works. This is precisely what happens when one concentrates on the ticking of a clock. Unlike random thoughts and memories, which are ephemeral and no more than just thoughts, this meditational experience is absolutely real and self-less. (i.e. One is not conscious of a self having an experience, it is just experience).

Apart from the quotation of Albert Einstein I gave in my book, I avoided writing about spirituality, even though it is at the heart of Zen and of Buddhism as a whole, and is what makes Buddhism a religion and not merely a philosophy. The question is, how can one define spirituality in a meaningful way? The only answer I can give is that it is that which refers to life and consciousness and so enables us to experience the ultimate unity of everything that exists. (I do not use the word ‘spirit’ because this implies that there is an entity, independent of our selves. It also leads to belief in ‘good’ and ‘evil’ spirits, at which point we become hopelessly bogged down in dualism).

Clearly there is something special about a living organism, whether it be a plant or an animal, that sets it apart from inanimate matter. Computers are now at a stage of development where they can out-perform the best chess players in the world and the most brilliant of mathematicians, but they are no more conscious of what they do than any other inanimate object, so it is not a question of complexity — the tiny, single cell amoeba is far more amazing than any computer. If a living organism has consciousness this is an even greater attribute, and it is extended still further in the level of consciousness we have as human beings. To go beyond this by creating a new dualism (i.e. a God ‘out there’) inevitably encounters insuperable contradictions, yet still leaves us with a mystery and possibly leading to erroneous claims of certainty and to fundamentalism which, in its extreme form, results in the suicide bomber.

Finally, I would like to state what, for me, is the most important revelation that came from meditating. It is to understand, at gut feeling level, the difference between reincarnation and Re-Birth. It was the Buddha’s Enlightenment on this point that set him apart from the prevailing beliefs of his time. It was Anatman, as against Atman, that was and is the basis of Buddhism.

Questions and Answers

How did the illusion of time arise and how can we know it is an illusion?

Time, as we perceive it in our everyday lives, is totally dualistic (e.g. then and now; today and tomorrow, etc.) but when the Here and Now is experienced in meditation as the only reality there is no perception of time. It is, therefore, duality that gives rise to the illusion of time. This duality is concomitant with our perception that grass is green (see Chapter 2) whereas the colour is actually a creation of the mind and is not in the grass. It is due to our belief that there is a self that has an experience and an object that is experienced, without realising that the two are one and the same. As stated in Chapter 3, there is not a me having an experience, I am the experience.

Phiroz Mehta dealt with this in one of his lectures, when he related time to our perception of universal creation:

People regard the pulse of creation and the production of a new universe somewhat after the fashion of rearranging the furniture in a room, using the old stuff. No, primordial creative activity is totally new all the time. The word ‘pulse’ also brings in the feeling of time, but time as we know it just does not exist. (My emphasis)

What is the relationship between the Here and Now and our personal impression of time, which seems just as real?

Once again we are considering the difference between the reality of appearances and the reality of the Absolute. (The former is that grass appears to be intrinsically green, whereas the latter clearly indicates that this is not so, as explained in Chapter 2). I have a photograph of myself when I was four years old, and there is no apparent link between what I was then and what I am now. Every part of my body has changed over the years and my mind has no apparent link either. I do, of course, have vague memories of childhood, but none of them have any link with this photograph. However, Karma does provide one link and this can be hinted at by using the analogy of a motor car. Supposing that, over many years, each part of a car is replaced by a new part, eventually nothing of the old car would remain. So, would we have a new car? If the procedure had been carried out to the full the Absolute Reality is that we would end up with a different car, but the impression we would have is that we still have the same car. Furthermore, the character of the car (equivalent to our genetic characteristics) would remain unaltered.

This analogy can also be used to illustrate the difference between Zen and other forms of Buddhism. The follower of Zen would say that even if we change only a single spark plug we have a different car and that this is just one moment in a continuous process of change, whereas the others would say that it is not until all parts of the car had changed that anything significant had altered. Both are experiencing the same events and both points of view are valid, but because they see things from a different perspective they appear (but only appear) to be a long way apart.

You state in your book that when we die the brain ceases to function and consciousness comes to an end. With the Buddhist doctrine of Anatta this must mean that the end is total. How, then, can the doctrine of Re-Birth function?

What ceases is the individual person as a self-conscious entity. In his book, The Oakroom Talks on Buddhism, Phiroz Mehta is quoted as saying:

The Buddha himself clearly indicated that this thing called personality, this existential being is a perishable thing, and it is totally perishable, nothing remains. That abstraction completely disappears when the brain disappears.

Perhaps this can best be illustrated by considering the brain in greater detail. The brain is, in fact, a lump of flesh, a special kind of flesh it’s true, but not fundamentally different to that which makes up the rest of our bodies. How is it, then, that this lump of flesh can think and experience the world ‘out there’? Well, I submit that it doesn’t. I put forward the view that the brain is like a telephone exchange. When you lift up the receiver the voice that you hear does not originate at the exchange, yet without the exchange there would be no voice. As with the brain, faults at the exchange can give rise to all sorts of malfunctions. An intermittent fault, or a bad line, could distort the message; a more serious fault could cut off the voice altogether. This is similar to what happens when a person is still alive but brain dead.

Re-Birth functions at the point where the process of living begins. Were it not for it being a continuous process, with no beginning and no end, it could be likened to a ‘spark’ that starts the whole process off. It is the spiritual side of our being, but it is important to bear in mind that it is ‘choicelessly aware’ (as Phiroz Mehta put it) and is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ in the moral sense — it just is. It is not until the ego arises some time after birth — the belief that we are separate entities — that dualism comes about and we get the whole paraphernalia of desires and apparent choices, such as the choice between good and evil. If you think this is far-fetched then simply accept the challenge to choose between being perfect and being less than perfect and see what happens. (Oh, if only we could choose to be perfect!) On page 20 of my book I illustrate this with a comparison between a bitch suckling its pups and an Enlightened One helping a person in distress. As mentioned above, Re-Birth is happening all the time, and this is why the Here and Now is eternal and therefore timeless.

You write that you have not revealed anything new, but surely using the ticking of a clock as a source for meditation is new — I have not come across this before.

The sources of sound are virtually infinite, so each one of us is capable of using a source that has not been used before. But, using sound, as such, for meditation is not new. Vipassana meditation requires awareness of thoughts, sounds, smells and sensations as they happen. In other words, it is simply being aware of the Here and Now, of which sound is one manifestation. Because the ticking of a clock is continuous I find it particularly useful in this respect, though others may find a visual source better. In the chapters on Practical Meditation I give reasons why a sound source offers the best prospect of getting beneficial results.

In Chapter 5 you dealt with the question of desire in relation to the ego, but since,as you put it, desire is essential for the continuation of life on earth I cannot see how we can overcome desire without foregoing the continuation of life.

Desire functions in two forms and this was illustrated when I described the process of learning to ride a bicycle. On the one hand it can be said that desire plays a part, because without the wish to learn we would not even begin, so this form of desire has an essential role, but it is when we wish to learn to do something in order to achieve an unrelated goal that the other form of desire enters into it. For instance, if we want to learn to ride a bicycle in order to prove our superiority over someone else this kind of desire is not only unrelated to the former but actually reinforces the ego, instead of overcoming it. This latter form of desire also functions when we choose between something our ego does not like (that filthy dustbin and the noise of jet engines) and what we imagine to be an ideal world. Such an ideal world simply does not exist, nor can it exist as a product of the ego. It is in Zen meditation that we come round to accepting this, to such an extent that we see and hear something as if sight and hearing were given to us afresh. Phiroz Mehta put it thus:

“There will be incidental consequences, for instance, you never saw such a red before or such a golden yellow before or something like that, and yet it is the same red and same yellow and so on. That is an incidental result. But there is another result. When the brain is choicelessly aware, choicelessly active, then it does not offer any resistance to Pure Mind functioning through the brain.”

This Pure Mind he refers to is not our minds, it is transcendent to our individual selves, or egos; it is the Essence of Mind, as proclaimed by Hui Hai and Huang Po or, as we more commonly portray it in Buddhism, the Buddha Mind.

Zen Notes

In the process of compiling both the original book and this extension I acquired a number of quotes and extracts from other works. Some relate to questions that could have been asked but were not, but all are relevant to the subject of Zen meditation, and so I feel are worth recording under this separate heading.

  1. In Chapter 2 I pointed out that matter does not exist independently of consciousness, since the ‘building blocks’ of matter (e.g. electrons and protons) do not have a physical existence but are merely charges, which become manifest only through the operation of Mind. The Nobel Prize winning physicist, Erwin Schrodinger, supports this thesis by showing that an electron can be in two places and two states at the same time. This could not happen with something having a physical presence in space.
  2. The Way of Zen (by Prof. Alan W. Watts) page 218 (paraphrased) states that the application of Zen does not absolutely require the specific ‘sitting technique’ of za-zen proper. The late Dr. Kunihiko Hashida, a life-long student of Zen and editor of the works of Dogen, never used formal za-zen.
  3. The Way of Zen (page 220). The Sixth Patriarch (Hui Neng) says in the T’an-ching when referring to the Here and Now:

    In this moment there is nothing which ceases to be. Thus there is no birth-and-death to be brought to an end. Wherefore the absolute tranquillity (of Nirvana) is the present moment. Though it is at this moment there is no limit to this moment, and herein is eternal delight.

    Alan Watts concludes:

  4. Yet, when it comes to it, this moment can be called ‘present’ only in relation to past and future, or to someone to whom it is present. But when there is neither past nor future, and no-one to whom this moment is present, what is it? When Fa-ch’ang was dying, a squirrel screeched on the roof. ‘It’s just this’, he said, ‘and nothing else’.

  5. From The Voice of the Silence (by H.P. Blavatsky) we get, on page 31:

    Desire nothing. Chafe not at Karma, nor at nature’s changeless laws. But struggle only with the personal, the transitory, the evanescent and the perishable.

    And on page 44:

    Avert thy face from world deceptions; mistrust thy senses, they are false. But within thy body — the shrine of thy sensations — seek in the impersonal for the Eternal Man; and having sought him out, look inward; thou art Buddha.

    This extract could so easily be misinterpreted, and Phiroz Mehta dealt with it on page 6 of The Oakroom Talks on Buddhism:

  6. Unfortunately several religious philosophies decry the senses — ‘Beware the senses’! They say Buddha taught that, but he didn’t. He said, ‘Beware of the pleasures of the senses’ He very definitely taught to use the senses rightly; when you look, look and see what you are seeing, be aware of it actually and not imaginarily’.

  7. On the matter of desire (dealt with in Chapter 5 of my book) Phiroz Mehta said (page 3 of The Oakroom Talks on Buddhism):

    There is no discrimination, no picking and choosing in the realm of totality, in the realm of wholeness.

    And on page 2 he says:

  8. …if we live totally in the immediate present, then there has been living in eternity, in the unborn, the unbecome, the unmade.

  9. The limitations of language are referred to in many works on Buddhism. John Blofeld, in his book on Hui Hai, quoted the Master as saying:

    To comprehend (real) meanings we should go beyond unsteady words; to awaken to the fundamental law we should leap beyond writings; how can it be sought amid a plethora of sentences.

    And on page 129 John Blofeld notes:

    The Chinese omission of such words as ‘your’, ‘its’, and so on makes it easier for the reader to keep in mind that the self-nature of all sentient beings is one and the same.

  10. From The Way of Zen we get on pages 69, 73, 74 and 81 some observations about Samsara/Karma and the nature of experience:

    The active principle of the Round (Samsara) is known as Karma, or conditioned action, which arises from a motive seeking a result — the type of action which always requires the necessity for further action.

    He then goes on to say that Zen takes Samsara as ‘the process of re-birth from one moment to moment, so that one is re-born so long as one identifies oneself with a continuing ego, which reincarnates itself afresh at each moment in time.’ Going further into this we get:

    Through awareness is seen that the separation of the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known, the subject from the object, is purely abstract. There is not the mind on the one hand and its experience on the other; there is just the process of experiencing in which there is nothing to be grasped as an object, and no-one, as a subject, to grasp it.

    (In other words, as put in my book, there is no me having an experience, I am the experience).

  11. Dealing with meditation Prof. Watts writes, on page 74:

    Meditation, in the common sense of ‘thinking things over’ or ‘musing’ is a most misleading translation. But such alternatives as ‘trance’ or ‘absorption’ are even worse, since they suggest states of hypnotic fascination.

    Phiroz Mehta, on pages 128/130 of The Oakroom Talks on Buddhism, is even more emphatic about meditation:

    Now remember these states … are not trance states, you are not entranced. I know that some very great scholars have used the word ‘trance’. For my part I say quite categorically that it is a mistake. So is that other word, the raptures, or ecstasies, used by Rhys Davids in the early days and by some modern people too. Do not be misled by what anyone says, that they are merely trance states or deep states of consciousness that you enter into and get out of and there is not much in them related to true enlightenment.

  12. Finally, it is interesting to discover what Shakespeare had to say about duality — his works are a mine of insights into the human condition — in the play, Hamlet, there is a point where Hamlet says:

    There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Comments

A very succinct article.

David Mackie

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