I’d like to begin by reading some quotes that lead from that contemporary compendium of wisdom, Facebook. First is a quote by Dahui, a 12th Century Chinese Zen teacher who was the dharma successor of the compiler of the Blue Cliff Record. This is his quote: “If you wish to not have your mind occupied with distracted thoughts, you must allow it to be so occupied.” Then I want to read a couple of paragraphs of commentary on that quote by a teacher named David Weinstein. I don’t think I know him personally, but he’s in the Aiken Roshi -- John Tarrant lineage. I think it describes a kind of phenomenon a lot of people have gone through in the course of their practice. This is David Weinstein:
“When I first started meditating, it was very much about not having my mind being occupied by distracted thoughts. I remember one technique we were taught, was to imagine the distracting thought residing in our heart and to imagine plunging a Tibetan . . . dagger into the thought and our heart. The volume of distracting thoughts that I was attempting to deal with using that technique led to something resembling a game of whack a mole, as soon as I plunged the dagger into one, another popped up. Eventually, just trying to keep up with the thoughts that needed to be dealt with became a point of focus and that helped with not getting caught up in the thoughts themselves. But, it set up an adversarial relationship between me and myself.
“When I encountered Zen, I appreciated the lack of direction about what to do with my thoughts. What I understood I was to do was to observe my mind and get familiar with it, not to control it. So I did, I spent many 7 day retreats observing my mind being occupied with distracted thoughts. I sometimes felt like I was indulging myself, or even cheating, as I sat and watched hour after hour as my mind did what it did. I didn’t try to bring my mind back to anything, I didn’t try to do anything except keep watching as my thoughts unfurled. Gradually, I got tired of watching reruns of my life, or reruns of fantasies of what my life might be and as my interest in these thoughts waned, so did the number of thoughts I noticed. I heard lots of instruction about making my being a mass of this or that, becoming totally absorbed in this or that, but that felt much like the dagger plunging techniques that had given me some relief from my thoughts, but which also had cost.
“The cost was a loss of spontaneity and aliveness and I noticed that I wasn’t willing to continue paying that cost. It takes trust to not try to change the thing you want to change.
“Trust based on the experience of trying to change what is and noticing how it results in adding another layer of what I want to change. Ultimately, the trust is based on the experience that what we have, from time to time and in large and small ways, that nothing has to change for things to change. Dahui would call that trust in our awakened nature, trust in the fact that we are awake from the beginning, that being awake is innate to our being.”
So what struck me about this account was how familiar it sounded from what I heard from Joko’s students about labeling their thoughts. Her image wasn’t as violent or drastic as plunging a dagger into the thought in your heart, but it did involve a kind of endless whack-a-mole technique of trying to stay caught up with thoughts in order to label them. I used to think of the image of Lucille Ball and the chocolate factory rather than whack-a-mole because I’m from an earlier generation. In any case, it points to the whole problem of meditation becoming a technique that we can do well or badly, and what it means to try to find an alternative to that kind of practice. That’s why I came up with the image of sitting as if you are facing a mirror. The mirror does all the work, and your face automatically appears. There’s nothing for you to do well or badly about looking into a mirror.
Now, he has another quote that I came upon where he says, Don’t think your enlightenment is something that will happen to you in the future. Don’t think that you’re deluded now and as a result of your practice you’re going to become enlightened. He was known as a koan teacher, an heir of Rinzai, and is considered the heir of contemporary koan teacher lineages. But in that quote he sounds very much like Dogen. Don’t think that enlightenment is something that is going to happen. If you're going to find enlightenment, you’ve got to find it in the midst of what’s happening right now, right in the midst of the very thing that you call your delusion.
Joko wanted you to practice that way by settling right into the midst of your anxiety, right into the midst of your anger, not because those were techniques to make the anxiety or the anger go away; it was because the absolute was to be found in the anxiety, in the anger, in the moment, whatever its content. When she talked about labeling thoughts, it wasn’t about doing something to make thoughts disappear. It was just to see thinking as a process, as just going on all the time, to focus on thoughts coming and going, not the content of the thought, to see thought as empty. If you see it as empty, it’s just a moment coming and going, and you don’t have to do anything about it. You’re not better off if the thoughts will all disappear. When we chant the vows, “Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them,” it’s not like we’re going to wipe the slate clean any more than we’re wiping the slate clean of thought or emotion or anything else.
How do delusions go away? How do we get rid of them? Just to see them for what they are. As empty. Once they’re empty, nothing has to change at all. They are delusions to the extent that we give them belief and solidity, and to see them as just something that’s a thought, a perspective. Once we do that, nothing has to change. I think the basic lesson that we need to learn in Zen is that the mind is not contaminated by its contents. That Zen is not a practice of purification in any way. Dahui, in his lifetime, was a proponent of the Soto School as defined by the practice of silent illumination. But what he was arguing against was silent illumination if it meant the cultivation of tranquility, if it meant trying to quiet your mind, make your thoughts go away, sit in a way that was just as a perfectly clean mirror, free of dust, as if cultivating that purity, that tranquility, that empty mind. That was what enlightenment was then.
I don’t think that’s what Dogen meant, or what it meant in the next generation, and it’s not what we mean by just sitting now, but it’s certainly a trap that we still fall into. To the extent that we ever identify our true self with any kind of particular state, tranquility or equanimity or compassion or bliss, we’ve got it all mixed up. We’ve created a war within ourself and between ourself and the world. The problem in practicing is not that it’s impossible to create those states of empty-mindedness or tranquility. The problem is that it’s almost possible to do it a lot and to fall into thinking, Well, that was it. If I could only hold onto that or do it longer, that would be really it.
See, when you practice that way, then your mind becomes its own enemy because you've got this one good mind of tranquility or thought-free or emotion-free mind, but all the time stuff starts intruding, either bubbling up from the unconscious or coming in from the outside because of this thing called other people. Now there’s no buzz-kill worse than other people, right? So to the extent that you think that your goal is to wipe the mirror clean, well, you’re in pursuit of something that you can get sometimes but at the price of being endlessly at war with yourself and other people and forever being a day late and a dollar short and calling that practice.
We have to be very careful of this image of the mirror and wiping the dust from the mirror, keeping it clean, as if my true self is this pure state of reflection, pure consciousness, pure awareness. The Sixth Patriarch, when he wrote about the dust on the mirror said, The mirror from the beginning doesn’t exist. There’s no place for dust to alight. The dust itself is empty, the mirror is empty. But if we want to practice today with the mirror and the dust, I would say, throw away the mirror. Just be the dust.