Tuesday, May 04, 2010


Much of this talk was inspired by the writings of Wong Kiew Kit, a Chinese martial arts master and author of The Complete Book of Zen. He suggests that most earnest beginners in Zen have at least three questions regarding their progress.

1. They want to know what to look for, to make sure their practice is correct.
2. They want to know how to tell if they have attained awakening.
3. They want to know if there is anything beyond awakening.

Let’s talk about correct practice by backing into it. If Zen is being practiced incorrectly, there will be several obvious signs:

One indicator is physical pain during meditation. I’m not referring to your leg going to sleep, or your lower back aching. Usually these annoyances can be taken care of by correcting your posture or by using a different cushion. Agonizing, persistent pain while doing zazen is different. It’s an indication that something is being done improperly. Zazen is not an exercise in mind over matter. If you really hurt, you really hurt, and you shouldn’t try to tough it out or be a martyr. Do something about the situation, such as discussing it with a master or a teacher.

Another sign of improper practice is consistent drowsiness during meditation. If you tend to nod off while doing zazen, the simplest answer may be to get more sleep. On the other hand, you may be forcing your meditation, which will tire your mind instead of relaxing it. Instead of trying to concentrate on some thing, let your mind drop. Let it hang loose. Let it unbend. As long as you aren’t physically or mentally fatigued, your zazen shouldn’t be bothered by drowsiness.

Another clue to inappropriate practice is apprehension during meditation. Some people experience actual fear or dread when they do zazen. This is most likely caused by a person having doubts or second thoughts about their practice. Some individuals who come to Zen from an organized religion may be nagged by feelings of guilt when they participate in a non-religious activity. Such people might do well to learn more about Zen and Buddhism by reading some of the better writers: Nancy Wilson Ross, Trevor Leggett, D.T. Suzuki, Suzuki Roshi, Robert Aitken, Christmas Humphries, or Thomas Cleary. They might also talk with a master or a teacher.

There’s another possible reason for mental discomfort. This may sound flaky, but certain locations are not suited for meditation. I don’t mean to be mystical about this, but it’s a fact that some physical places do have what might be termed bad vibrations. I once was photographing Cedarville, a tiny town in Northern California. It was an attractive, clean place, and the local people were pleasant. But all the time I was there I felt apprehensive. I couldn’t understand what was going on until later when I was told that many years earlier a band of Modoc Indian men, women, and children had been massacred on the site. I don’t know about lingering spirits. I do know my feelings that something was not quite right were very real. That place would probably not have been a good place for zazen.

How about positive indications you are making progress in your Zen practice?

1. You feel fresh and relaxed after sitting zazen.
2. You experience a lasting sense of inner calm.
3. You are able to focus on something—anything—for longer periods of time.
4. You think much more clearly.
5. You make a decision without analyzing the pros and cons of the matter.
6. You feel free of attachments.
7. You experience a great harmony with all existence.

Now let’s look at the second beginner’s question of how one knows if they have attained awakening. Are there any clues to that?

Breaking through dualistic thinking is essential. So once you feel free of concepts of good or bad, right or wrong, this way or that way, you are either there or getting close.

Awakening, or satori, or kensho, involves a change of viewpoint to an intuitive, non-intellectual kind of understanding. Be alert to such a change. It may not come about in a flash, like a bolt of lightning, but when it does come—or as it comes—you’ll know. This change represents the opening of a brand new world, a world that isn’t disclosed to a mind that thinks in this-or-that terms.

How can you be sure if or when you’ve attained awakening? The question is really immaterial because when it happens, you know it. You don’t talk about it or brag about it. It’s something that you perceive inside yourself, and which others can tell from the outside.

When a person is happy they may not be able to describe the sensation, but they intuitively know. And others know, as well. Oh, the concept of awakening may be talked about, like I’m talking about it right now, but narrations are only words and can’t adequately transmit the experience. Furthermore, whatever a person says to another person about awakening will probably be incomprehensible unless that other person has had the experience. It’s like trying to describe a sunset to a blind person.

Remember: It takes a Buddha to recognize a Buddha.

Let’s wind this up by looking at the beginner’s question of what may or may not lie beyond awakening.

In Buddhism beyond-awakening is referred to as nirvana. It’s a state of supreme happiness. Nirvana is liberation from what the Buddha referred to as suffering resulting from desire, which causes attachment to life and death.

Some people think of nirvana as they might think of the Christian Heaven, as a cushy physical place where everyone hangs out and is having a terrific time. One big, ongoing party with the host supplying all the drinks. Other people think of nirvana as total annihilation, like the snuffing out of a candle flame.

The Buddha said nirvana is extinction. However, he was referring not to a total end but to the extinction of attachments and desire, and the resulting pain and suffering. What comes after awakening is release from all that, which is total freedom.