Our discussion group will be reading excerpts from Hakuin’s autobiography, Wild Ivy. I thought I would say a few words this morning as a preface to that. Wild Ivy is a remarkably modern kind of story in that it gives a lot of personal details of his life, his childhood, and how he came to become a monk and practice as well as giving many accounts of his own personality, flaws, and arrogance along the way, and all the false starts he had in the course of his practice. He doesn’t fall into the simple kind of enlightenment story where everything is washed away all at once and he becomes the perfect master -- the kind of hagiography you get with some of the old koan stories.
In particular Hakuin talks about having been a frightened only child and he attributes this to hearing hellfire and brimstone sermons of traveling Buddhist priests when he was very young. It’s interesting to think of our practice in relation to that kind of dilemma that brought him to practice. Here he’s giving a pretty honest account of his childhood anxiety attacks and phobias, and he ends up becoming a monk seeking relief from his fears and seeking relief then becomes synonymous with seeking kensho experiences that will somehow wipe away the fears.
As we listen to the account we would be inclined to look for a thicker description of what was going on. He talks about the origin of these fears, listening to Buddhist sermons. But we would want to ask, Why was this child in particular affected this way? How, in a whole town of small children, was Hakuin susceptible to that? What was there about his family situation that set this off? What about his realizing that his mother was unable to fully protect him or that there was no escaping his father’s anger? We would want to fill in the picture more, but up until the time of Joko, Zen pretty much didn’t go there, didn’t ask those kinds of questions.
If anything, Zen practice, at least monastic training, tends to function by thinning out subjectivity rather than thickening a description and explanation for it. By that I mean the training asks you to become more and more superficial, more and more focused on form and ritual, what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to do it, when you’re supposed to do it, and all your attention goes to those details of daily life. The inner life is thinned out in that nobody wants to hear how you feel about doing those things, what your associations are to rituals being done this way or that. Nobody’s going to ask you about your feelings towards the other monks or the teachers. You’re supposed to show up and even without instruction learn meticulously the right way to do everything, morning and night. And everything is ritualized but in a way that requires great meticulous attention.
The function of this is not just to make everything flow smoothly and create a seamless performance, but in a pretty radical way it’s an attempt to make you get over yourself, that what you think or feel just doesn’t make any damn difference. When the bell rings you show up. It doesn’t matter if you want to show up or are looking forward to showing up or too bored to do it one more time. You just show up. The idea that you might be thinking of something else doesn’t make any difference. The idea that maybe you’re very depressed and homesick doesn’t make any difference. You just show up. It’s what I call the thinning out of subjectivity. There’s a way in which you’re morbidly preoccupied with your inner world, it’s as if it trains you to shrink that inner world down to nothing, down to non-separation with the immediacy of the experience of doing something. Your inner world and your outer world simply become one. Your inner world is nothing but what it feels like in the moment to pay attention to this activity.
Now if you’ve got a mind that is racing and you’re plagued with unstoppable thoughts or you are caught up in various moods or preoccupations, there’s a level at which this can be enormously therapeutic. It’s a kind of behavioral treatment of obsessive thinking. It just squeezes out any room for that and attention to detail takes the place of inner preoccupation. That’s a pretty good thing to have happen for most people up to a point. The problem unfortunately is that rather than subjectivity literally being thinned out, those thoughts and feelings may end up being just squeezed into a different compartment, out of sight and temporarily out of mind, so that what we would think of as repression or dissociation takes over and things that are troubling us are simply pushed aside. They rear their heads in completely different forms farther down the line.
In the traditional stories, though, that thinning out, fortunately, is not considered the be-all and end-all. In a way that creates the model monk, the person who is meticulous, follows all the rules, and in every way seems exemplary, and those characters usually turn out to be the foils or straight men for stories in the koans, where someone who is straight ahead, do the right thing, is made the butt of some kind of joke in which a kind of irrational demand is suddenly made upon them. Is the rhinoceros fan broken? Well, bring me the rhinoceros! If all you learn to do is follow the rules, do what’s right in front of you and be meticulous, that kind of demand is out of the blue and it does not compute. You don’t know what to do with it. So there is a way in which, when self-centered preoccupation is eliminated, there’s this picture of a kind of space for open, playful freedom to emerge. Again, that may be idealized and often is itself a compartmentalized capacity that goes into answering koans of a certain type.
What I think is unusual in the history of practice that’s taking place now in the West is that rather than seeing meditation as thinning out subjectivity, either through ritualized attention or concentration practices, we see meditation itself as staying with and thickening subjectivity in the sense of staying open to everything that passes through your mind. Instead of trying to empty out your mind, it’s much more a willingness to become at home in your mind regardless of what is flowing through or passing by. This is a practice much more in the line of nothing human is alien to me -- that the mind is a screen on which anything whatsoever can be projected, and to the extent that we sit and allow our mind to simply be, even like in a dream-like state, where even as we sit, feel the body breathe, or stay still and be present, inevitably all sorts of stuff is going to come up and pass through,
Some of it is quite bizarre, some of it sexual, some of it very emotional, some of it quite irrational and seemingly crazy. Again, I think the whole shift in a psychologically minded practice has been to just allow all that to display itself without any sense it’s something to be controlled or purified or emptied out. When we see it all as thought, as thought, as thought, through the kind of labeling Joko talked about, we allow these things to be there simply as thoughts, as one dharma after another coming and going, the content of which ordinarily preoccupies us or scares us or abuses us, in a sense we allow ourselves to just watch and even get bored with it as it goes around and around in endless reruns.
So I think that looking at the Hakuin story is a nice reminder that what we think of as our practice, what we think of as the work of meditation, what we think of as the transformation of mind, is something that’s constantly evolving. We both are and are not engaged in the practice of our ancestors. We inherit it but we also are always reinventing it, making it new and finding a way to make it real for us and not simply an inheritance or an imitation of what has come before.