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Zen Meditation

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By Ron Martin

Introduction

Zen is unique and so is impossible to classify; it is neither a religion in a conventional sense, since it has no personal God, or form of worship, nor does it have a philosophy, since it eschews all verbal definitions. If it can be said to have an aim at all it is of a direct pointing to experience, leading to an acceptance of all that Is. Its very nature makes it a difficult subject to write about, or describe, so a book can do no more than be like a signpost, showing us the way to where we want to go, but leaving the description of our destination to our experience of it when we get there. How do we know if we have arrived? It is, simply, that we no longer have any need for signposts — we know.

Historically it is linked to Buddhism and is said to have been initiated by Bodhidharma, who came to China from India in A.D. 520, but since he is a semi-legendary figure the foundation of Ch’an, or Zen Buddhism, as it now is, has been credited to Hui Neng (638–713) the Sixth Patriarch. However, it is the application of Zen to our everyday lives that is the purpose of this book, though its link with the wider picture of Buddhism becomes more apparent the deeper we go into the subject and this is dealt with in greater detail in later chapters, but some prior knowledge of the basic doctrines of Buddhism would be an advantage.

The difficulty Westerners have in studying Zen arises because it has no equivalent structure in any philosophical or religious tradition in the West, so it requires a really fundamental shift in perception to get to grips with it. Simply in order to get started it is necessary to clear one’s mind of all preconceptions and be open to unfamiliar ideas. An open mind is not only a pre-condition of successful Zen meditation but one has to tackle an even bigger problem, that of dealing with the string of thoughts that persist in swamping the mind during all the time we are awake. Suggestions are made later as to how this can be managed; suffice it to say, now, that it is the quality of one’s meditative experience that counts, not the amount of time devoted to meditation.

When Zen spread to Japan from China it received further developments, which were possibly more important than what had occurred earlier; certainly we owe a great deal to modern interpretations by scholars such as Dr. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki and Professor Alan W. Watts, whose book, The Way of Zen, ranks among the best on the subject.

At the time when Zen flourished in the Far East there were numerous monasteries, some of them dominated by Zen Masters of such stature that their works are still highly regarded. Mention has been made of Hui Neng but we also have works by Huang Po and Hui Hai, as well as those of lesser known Masters. Today we have no such figures to guide us and so we depend very much on self-development. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the final stages of Enlightenment (Satori) have always been a very personal journey; the Masters could take their pupils so far but the final step was entirely up to the individual pupil. If this book succeeds in taking its readers up to the point where they can carry on alone it will have achieved its aim.

Chapter 1: Language Limitations

Language, in order to make possible the attempt to communicate experience, must isolate one object from another and give each one a name; so that when we say we see a tree we do not mean that we see a table, or a combination of a tree and a table. As command of language develops these sub-divisions increase and become more precise, as words are added to our vocabulary until we have, stored in our memories, thousands of words that are available for assembly into sentences when we want to communicate with another person. For language to fulfil this function efficiently it is obvious that those doing the communicating must agree on the exact meaning of every word used. If one says ‘tree’ and the other thinks he is referring to an object having a flat top, supported on four legs, then there is no communication between them. This is an exaggerated example yet most philosophical arguments have their origins in misconceptions of a similar kind.

Another aspect of communication to consider is that all experiences must be real — it is only our description of them that can be false. If you have a pain, not only is that pain very real to you, but its precise nature is known without the slightest margin of error. It is only when you come to describing it, say to your doctor, that the problem arises. Moreover, since he cannot feel the pain himself he has no way of relating your description to an objective truth. Even if he took an X-ray, and it revealed a bone fracture, this would tell him nothing about the pain — he would have to presume that you felt pain, because most people do under such circumstances. But this is not absolute knowledge, it is subjective knowledge, and even your complaint of feeling pain does not confirm that it exists, since you could be lying. If this seems preposterous think of an Indian fakir on his bed of nails, or an African fire-walker. If they said that they had not the slightest sensation of pain would you know whether they were telling the truth, or not? It is because our subjective knowledge does not tally with our objective knowledge in such cases that we find them so mystifying.

A similar situation can arise in a different form. Suppose someone tells you that he has seen a ghost (but has not made up the story to frighten or impress you) then he has had a real experience, the precise nature of which is known to him. But what does he mean by the word ‘ghost’? If pressed he might explain that a ghost is the spirit of one who is dead but has come back from another world for a particular reason. But this does not describe the experience, it is a verbal description of what he thinks a ghost is. The term ‘ghost’, like the term ‘God’, is meaningless as a description of an experience and relies on a complex series of preconceived ideas to have any meaning at all. An atheist, or a scientific humanist, could have precisely the same experiences as one who believes there is a God; the differences between them are due to the diversity of interpretations given to those experiences or, in the case of an agnostic, to a refusal to commit himself to any interpretation.

Another limitation of language is due to the fact that an object cannot be known to exist apart from an experience of it. A person who is colour-blind from birth cannot know that the colour red exists, and language is quite unable to convey the experience of redness to him, so language is limited to the range of common experiences. And even when a common experience exists errors in communication can occur due to words being only a representation of an experience and not the experience itself — just as a photograph is a representation of a scene, not the actual scene. We may believe that the camera cannot lie and in a sense this is true, yet photographs often give a false impression of a scene as, for example, when a photograph taken with a wide-angle lens gives the impression that a room is more spacious than is actually the case.

Traditional Western philosophy is well acquainted with the defects of language as a means of communication but, due to its preoccupation with concepts, there is one aspect of language which escaped its attention altogether. This is the way language contributes to the falsification of the experience itself. On the face of it this appears to be a contradiction of the statement that all experiences must be real. How can an experience become unreal when we use language to describe it? We need to examine, in detail, the nature of an experience.

Chapter 2: Experience and Duality

If you are alone in the garden, looking at the lawn, you are experiencing the sight of green grass. Since you are alone the question of communicating this experience does not arise; nor do you have to use language to tell yourself that you are seeing green grass. But, is it green? The grass is receiving light from the sun and this is composed of a wide range of electro-magnetic waves. Chlorophyll in the grass absorbs all of these except a certain band of waves, which are reflected to your eyes. The retinas in your eyes convert these into minute electrical signals, which pass along nerve fibres to the brain; you then experience the sight of green grass. But the colour is not in the grass, it is in your mind! Grass merely has the capacity to absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others — it is not intrinsically green.

If you were colour-blind you would still see the grass, but it would not be green, and yet the experience would be just as real to you as if you had full colour vision. How is it, then, that we take it for granted that the greenness is in the grass or, to put it more broadly, that grass possesses all its qualities of colour, shape and texture?

But surely, you might say, the grass must be physically present? This requires a more methodical examination. Grass is made up of complex molecules and every molecule comprises a particular arrangement of atoms to give it its characteristic properties. Each atom has a nucleus and surrounding rings of electrons, similar to the planets round the Sun. The nucleus of an atom comprises a number of constituent parts, not all of which are fully understood, but none of these parts of the nucleus, nor the electrons revolving around it have independent physical properties. On their own they are merely charges; the electron being a negative charge and the nucleus a positive charge. Only when these opposing charges are in balance is the atom stable; when the atom is not in balance it is said to be an ion, with an overall positive or negative charge depending on whether it has a deficiency or surplus of electrons. The point that needs to be stressed is that none of these charges has any physical existence. Even the position of an electron at any given moment, unlike the Earth round the Sun, does not exist — physicists have termed it ‘a wave of probability’. Without the benefit of modern scientific knowledge the Yogacara (Mind Only) School of Buddhism developed a philosophy to the effect that, just as without consciousness colour does not exist, so without consciousness there is no material existence either. The most we can say is that the potential for existence is there. This is where meditation comes into the equation, because it is during meditation that we get to the One without distinction, revealing the source of all that Is.

In later chapters this aspect of existence is dealt with more fully.

What has been described, as far as words can be used to describe it, is the Void of Buddhism; it neither exists, nor does it not exist; it is the condition from which “we serenely observe the mysterious beginning of the Universe” (Tao Te Ching). However, this non-physical nature does not exclude the apparent greenness of grass, or its physical properties, because “These two are the same in source and become different when manifested”. (Again quoting from the Tao Te Ching).

Why, then, do we take it for granted that the grass is intrinsically green and has physical presence independent of any mental construction? It is because we have become conditioned by language into believing that there is a subject and an object — that there is a ‘self’ that has an experience and an object that is experienced. In this case, that ‘I’ (the subject) sees green grass (the object). This duality is the ‘original sin’ that separates us from ‘God’ (or from Nirvana in Buddhism).

The French philosopher Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”, thereby stating the belief that the existence of thoughts (experiences) proved the existence of a thinker (experiencer). But we do not experience the experiencer, only experiences, and since we cannot know of the existence of anything that has never been experienced, the subject ‘I’ is a construction forced on us by the conventions of language. So the statement, “I think, therefore I am”, is not proof of anything, but is simply a statement that there are thoughts. The difficulty we have in grasping this, even though the example of green grass may look convincing, is because language cannot escape from the bounds of subject and object — and almost every sentence used here is confirmation of this. We simply cannot avoid using words like ‘you’, ‘me’, ‘it’, ‘yours’, ‘mine’, and ‘its’ if we are to communicate with words. There is, perhaps, one small chink in the armour of language, enabling us to see through its duality — when we say, “It is raining”, what is It that rains? Do we not mean that there is rain? When we say, “I think”, could we not also mean simply that there are thoughts? This is not to deny the existence of the ego, which comes into being after birth, but the ego dies when the body dies. It is, therefore, a temporary phenomenon, brought about by the ‘original sin’ mentioned earlier. The idea that something that had no previous existence comes into being and then goes on forever is neither logical nor does it accord with the Buddhist doctrine of Anatta, that there is no immortal yet personal soul. (Anatta is one of the Three Signs of Conditional Existence).

Chapter 3: Eternity and Immortality

Later a chapter is devoted to a question and answer session, which attempts to deal with some of the problems someone nurtured in the Western tradition is likely to encounter when studying Zen Buddhism. In the West we are so ingrained with the belief in a subject and an object that the Eastern view that an object is not a ‘thing’ but an ‘event’ is hard to grasp. Moreover, Eastern languages, such as Chinese, developed without any formal grammatical structure, unlike in the West, where this belief in a subject and a separate object went hand in hand with formal grammar. The question of ‘self’, or the idea that the self has an existence independent of the body and consciousness, therefore warrants a chapter of its own.

To some extent we are supported in this investigation by the Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, and more recently by Bishop Robinson (author of the book, Honest to God). During his meditations Eckhart lost all sense of a separate personal identity, or of contact with a personal being (i.e. a God ‘out there’) and in Honest to God the Bishop appeared to express a similar view. Nevertheless our cultural heritage and traditions strongly pull us in the opposite direction, so that even when we accept Buddhism as being the nearest mankind has got to understanding Absolute Reality we still confront the problem of what is ‘It’ that is re-born. Re-Birth is an essential part of the Buddha’s message, yet how can there be re-birth if there is not a ‘thing’ (self) to be re-born?

Perhaps it may help by drawing a comparison between our ‘selves’ and the four Seasons, which follow a similar pattern to human existence — birth, growth, decay and death. The Spring that occurs this year is not the same Spring that occurred last year, but nor is it entirely different. Indeed, it is heavily dependent on what happened in the previous year. If there had been a hurricane, wiping out many years of growth, it would clearly take more than a year to make good the damage.

As far as human life is concerned does this then mean that we are utterly at the mercy of past events? If it were not for consciousness this would be so, but consciousness gives rise to Dukkha (awareness of the unsatisfactoriness of dependence on conditions) and it is Dukkha that prompts us to seek a way of deliverance.

The Buddha showed us not only the cause of Dukkha but also a way out of it. This teaching is embodied in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the completion of which is bound up with meditation. Thus, in all the major Schools of Buddhism, meditation plays a crucial role, since it enables us to concentrate on what it is that is eternal and intrinsically pure, as well as being void of any particularisation, so allowing us to break free from the burden of Karma. Of all the major Schools Zen is unique in not requiring an extensive study of religious literature — it is a direct pointing to the Essence of Life and all that exists, so an understanding of Buddhist terms used here may be postponed until later. (Some suggestions are given in the Bibliography at the end of this book).

Linked with the notion of Re-Birth are the imaginary problems of First Cause and Design. Clearly the Universe is not haphazard in the way it operates and life, itself, has an apparently miraculous intricacy. Surely none of this could have come about by mere chance — even Science recognizes a multitude of ‘laws’ governing everything that exists? But these laws are not laws in the legal sense; they are simply descriptions of the way things happen or behave; in other words they are eternal laws outside time. If, for example, an object is dropped it is the law of Gravity that makes it fall to the ground. Had it been dropped yesterday, or a 100 years ago, or a million years ago, the same thing would have happened. Similarly, if it should be dropped tomorrow, or a 100 years hence, or a million years hence, it would fall in exactly the same way. There never has been a time when Gravity was non-existent; it is eternal and yet Void — it is like the centre of a circle, it has no material existence, yet without this non-existence there could be no circle. All other laws of Science are similar; for instance, the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, but this was not ‘invented’ at a moment in time, it has always been and always will be the same, so the quest for a First Cause is unnecessary. Even if we have the notion of a God as the creator of the Universe we have merely pushed the First Cause back to something else we have to deem as being eternal — we might just as well have stayed where we were. What is more, should we go on to give other attributes to this notion of a God we are in even greater difficulties, but this is not the place to examine what these are.

So, if Re-Birth, First Cause and Design are all Void (in Buddhism, Sunyata) there is no independent ‘I’ to be re-born. The idea of an ‘I’ having an experience is therefore false, I am the experience. If ‘my’ experiences had been completely different ‘I’ would not be ‘me’ I would be someone else, both in terms of how I see myself and how others see me. Even my appearance would be different, because it partly depends on my experiences. Furthermore, if the science of bodily development is true ‘my’ body would also have been completely different, because every atom in our bodies is said to be changed over a seven year period and many new atoms are added to it from the moment of conception to adulthood and this development, also, is dependent on circumstances.

What, then, is there left to be a continuous ‘me’? Nothing other than consciousness, but consciousness in the abstract is not a person, it is one of the means by which a person is said to exist (i.e. it is one of the five Skandhas). We are, therefore, back to experience as being the only characteristic that gives us knowledge of human existence, and this ceases at death. When drugs anaesthetize the brain there is no consciousness; when the brain stops functioning (at death) ‘our’ consciousness ceases. At this point the Buddha’s doctrine of Anicca, Anatta and Dukkha converge into the Void (Sunyata). The Void is not nothing, it is no-thing and it is from the Void that all existence arises; it is the source of Re-Birth; it is the Essence of Mind as proclaimed by Huang Po and Hui Hai; and from the Tao Te Ching (as translated by Ch’u Ta-Kao) we get:

From eternal non-existence, therefore, we serenely observe the mysterious beginning of the Universe;
From eternal existence we clearly see the apparent distinctions.
These two are the same in source and become different when manifested.

Having experienced reality without concepts we are able to put all other mental activity into its proper place and this is what meditation does for us. Our greed for earthly goods and attainments; our hatred of perceived objects of hate and our delusions (concepts) about what exists are now seen in their true perspective. Compared with the experience of Absolute Reality they are trivial. What is more, since it is the Essence of Mind that is the basis of Re-Birth, and is therefore limitless in time, even an entire human life-span shrinks to virtual insignificance. When one Zen Master was asked what the experience of Satori (Enlightenment) was like he replied that it was like walking with one’s feet off the ground and another said that all that was left was to have a good laugh.

Chapter 4: Time and Timelessness

Our impression of time, as a sequence of events, arises from memory of past experiences, some of which have only just happened. We have not yet experienced the future, so this impression of time extends only into the past. We can, of course, anticipate an event that may happen tomorrow, or next year, and so extend time into the future, but this future event has no conscious reality until it actually happens — and there is no certainty that it will happen. Nevertheless, we are convinced that something will happen in the future, and since we cannot imagine a moment when nothing happened in the past, or nothing will happen in the future, our extrapolation of time has to extend from the present moment to infinity, both backwards into the past and forwards into the future.

Although we can have no conception of what infinity is like this view of time comfortably supports our theory of what existence involves. It enables some thing, or an event, to have a beginning and an end, and yet form part of a process that has no beginning and no end. Even the concept of God fits into this view of time — things, or events, that have a beginning and an end are not eternal but God, being part of the continuing process, or even being the continuing process itself, is eternal.

Some people have to make just one exception to this view of time — Man himself. They believe that there was a moment when they were born (or, if you like, conceived) and that before that moment they did not exist; but they cannot accept that there will be a moment when they cease to exist. For them the thought of dying is so hard to bear that in order to make it tolerable they have to believe that, for Man alone, there is a beginning but no end — that he has life after death that extends into the infinite future. (Clearly, there would be no point in believing in life after death if it did not extend to infinity, otherwise it would merely postpone, not eliminate, extinction). Others, finding this uniqueness of Man in relation to time too incredible, yet still wanting to preserve the idea of life after death, expand the exception to cover all sentient beings, and they may also introduce the concept of reincarnation, whereby the departed come back to Earth to live another life, in a continuing process of life and death. A still further development of this last concept envisages a kind of hierarchical scale, whereby the departed come back into a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ grade of existence, according to how well they behaved in the previous life. (Mostly they do not bother to consider how animals, whose behaviour is presumably determined by natural instinct and not moral judgments, can move up the scale).

But, what is it these people want to preserve? Ask them what they consider to be the most important moment of their lives and the chances are that they will single out an event in the past that left the greatest impression on them, or was a major turning point, such that their lives took on a new meaning or direction. Some might say it was the moment they exchanged wedding vows; others, that it was when they started a career that settled their whole way of life, and a few might say it was the moment of “conversion”, when they “accepted Christ into my life”. Ask a hundred people this question and, although you may not get a hundred different answers, you certainly will not receive the same answer from them all. But, how many of them are likely to say, “Now — this very moment is the most important moment of my life”? Yet the Here and Now is not only the most important moment of our lives, it is the only moment of our lives!

We do not live in the past, nor do we live in the future, we live (experience) only the present moment, with all its complexities of sensations and memories — yet, even as we say “this present moment”, it is gone. It is so elusive that we cannot pin it down to a moment in time at all. Time is measured in days, hours, minutes and seconds, but how long is the present moment? One second? A hundredth of a second? A millionth of a second? We cannot imagine a period short enough to give a firm answer — and yet the present moment is always with us!

In other words, we find that the present moment cannot be measured in time at all — it is timeless. But, if the only reality we know (experience) is timeless, does this not mean that time, itself, is an illusion, just as the impression that grass possesses greenness, is an illusion? And if the present moment is timeless, yet is the only reality we know, how can it be preserved when the very notion of preservation involves time?

The full text of Ron’s free book Zen Meditation is available online until August 2019. Ron also wrote an extension to Chapter 13 of this book, answering readers’ questions.

To be continued...

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