The Physical Zendo is closed Monday, July 15th and Tuesday July 16th

Zazen serves up the whole spectrum of experience Barry Magid March 4th 2023

Download Talk

The Blue Cliff Record, Case 80

A monk asked Jôshû, “Does a newborn baby have the sixth consciousness or not?” Jôshû said, “Bouncing a ball upon swift waters.” The monk also asked Tôsu, “What does ‘bouncing a ball upon swift waters’ mean?” Tôsu said, “Thought by thought, the flow never stops.”

This koan continues the theme we were discussing last week about the opening of Joko’s book, in which she talks about how a dog doesn’t worry about the meaning of life. One of the things that we’re exploring is the way that metaphors display our various conceptions of the state that we seem to be aiming for in our practice.

In this case, the monk is asking about the state of the mind in the newborn baby, and while it may seem like an abstraction to ask: Does a baby have the sixth consciousness or not? I think you can hear a real question in the monk’s asking, What is it that we’re trying to become? Are we trying to return to some primitive, original essentially prelapsarian state before our mind was contaminated by thinking? The sixth consciousness means that which conceptualizes and unifies the five senses. Are we aiming at a state that is pure perception – pure experience that’s free of any kind of conceptualization at all?

And sometimes we can imagine it to ourselves when we think of becoming just like our dog, acting perfectly natural, concerned only with the most basic things in life: food and shelter, affection, not troubling itself with a lot of empty conceptual nonsense. Is that where we’re supposed to end up after all this? Are we supposed to be childlike? Does childlike convey a sense of constant wonder and delight in life just as it is? Is that what we’re trying to do?

But when the monk asks Joshu and he gets a reply, “Bouncing a ball upon swift waters,” the image is of something hardly calm or peaceful or immediate. It’s something that is, rather, out of control and turbulent, and not knowing what to make of that answer, he asks another teacher, Tosu, who says, “Thought by thought, the flow never stops.” And Tosu is even more explicit in saying, We’re not here to eliminate thought. Thought never stops. Throw away any notion you have of clarity or calmness that’s going to result from wiping away this whole dimension of your mind.

But I think the persistence of that kind of curative fantasy is hard to overstate, that no matter how much we know better, there’s a way in which we almost automatically think in terms of a good period of sitting as one in which we seem to empty our minds and feel very calm and clear and are just focused on our body and our breath. That’s what it’s supposed to be like. Then another period, when we’re restless or preoccupied, Well, obviously that’s a bad sitting. We don’t want it to go like that. And so there’s very automatically, reflexively, a kind of sorting of our experience, good and bad, how we’d like it to go, what we’re trying to get away from.

In my opening remarks this morning, I referred to Joko saying her practice was, “I just sit and think.” It seems clear and straight-forward and sort of refreshing. I just sit and think. And yet actually it’s not so easy to understand what distinguishes Joko’s doing from what anybody else can do if they’re just sitting around and day-dreaming. What makes her sitting and thinking practice? Or what’s wrong with sitting and daydreaming or sitting and obsessing, worrying? Why isn’t that practice?

Yet I understand what Joko said is in a way analogous to Dogen, when he tries to explain zazen as “think non-thinking” – as if it’s supposed to clarify things to somebody who didn’t understand it. The first way of course to misunderstand what he was saying is to think non-thinking equals don’t think. Then you’re back with the monk in this koan who wants to go back to being a newborn infant with no conceptual contaminations.

But what is thinking non-thinking going to mean if it doesn’t mean don’t think? What does just thinking mean? One way to try to describe that is to say, Just thinking is experiencing thinking like another bodily function or sensation. Thinking is just something happening in your body, the way itches are happening in your body, sensations are happening, the way sounds come to your ears. They’re just the next thing happening. In a way it can be like sitting in a room where in the next room over, somebody’s playing a radio, where there’s a talk station in a foreign language that you don’t understand. And it just babbles on, and you know it’s talking and you can hear from the inflection that there’s obvious meaning to all this, it’s not just noise, but you don’t know what it is, and you don’t concern yourself with it particularly, you can’t make it go away, you can’t make it stop, it just sort of goes on in the background. After a while it’s not a problem. It’s just part of the background of what’s happening.

We can say that one way to say that what’s happening is that we’re experiencing the emptiness of thought. We’re not focused on the intentionality of thought, the aboutness of thought, how it hooks into the world or has meaning. But primarily we’re just letting thoughts be a background activity in our mind. We’re never going to completely eliminate that sense of what the words mean or what’s going on through our head, but there really is a kind of difference between letting the thoughts flow and being preoccupied with them, just letting one thing after another pass through your head versus worrying or entertaining yourself with daydreams or trying to figure out something or planning what you're going to do next, all those things you get hooked into the content of the words and the thoughts as if they matter. So in a certain sense there’s a kind of deep mattering going on in just letting thinking happen as a bodily sensation.

Another way to picture it is what I’ve always used with the duck/rabbit drawing to illustrate a kind of shift in perspective even though nothing has actually changed. You can spend a lot of time looking at this figure and just see the duck. It’s obviously a duck. And yet at some point you look at the exact same figure and instead of seeing the bill of a duck you see the ears of a rabbit. But it’s exactly the same drawing.

Something like that, I think, happens in what we call awakening. Nothing at all changes in our lives, and yet we experience it differently, we see it differently, we feel it differently. And in part that’s a switch into a sense that, as I’ve said, nothing is hidden, or nothing is wrong or lacking. We’re not trying to get from here to there. It’s just the sense of having arrived somewhere, with whatever's happening, regardless of the content.

Now, our experience of sitting, especially sitting in sesshin, is that we will all, more or less, go in and out of that duck/rabbit perspective, to different degrees and in different ways, and we may spend 99.9% of our time in duck and just have this little glimpse out of the corner of our eye of the rabbit, or we may settle into something in this kind of comfortable way of leaving everything alone, feeling our breath, letting our bodies do what they’re doing as we sit. And then we have a shift into When is this going to be over? When is the bell going to ring? What am I supposed to be doing when this is over? And there we can just feel caught in the wrongness of everything.

I think, as our practice really matures, there’s really no difference between those things, and it’s possible for us to experience even that sense of When is this going to be over? as Oh – that’s just what’s happening now. It’s not that we stop having those thoughts or feelings, or our restlessness, or our planning or anything else. But there’s a way that even that is just incorporated into the background landscape of thought by thought, the flow never stops.

The experience of sesshin in particular, is one of taking an experience whole. Lately I’ve been trying to let as many people as possible participate as best they can. If they can only come a half day, we’ve sort of agreed, okay, let people do that. But I do think that when you only come for half the day, you’re missing out on something that’s important about the nature of sesshin, and it’s not just that you’re not getting as much of something, it’s more that you’re not getting the full spectrum of the experience, which often means you’re missing out on the boredom or you’re missing out on the pain or you’re missing out on the restlessness, you’re missing out on the times when it doesn’t go the way you want it to go, which you’re a little more able to do the shorter the periods are. We get all of that in every period sometimes, but there is something that is different about when we have this full day or a whole weekend or a whole week, that serves up this whole spectrum of experience. And we see our natural limits as to how much is duck and how much is rabbit and what we’re able to stay with and just allow to be: This is what’s next. This is what’s happening.

See, I think that there’s a way in which we can practice zazen regularly, an hour a day or whatever we do, and we can derive a great deal of benefit from it. It can be very stabilizing in our lives, it can be stimulating mentally and physiologically. We may really feel like if we miss a day or don’t get to do it regularly, we feel the difference. Zazen really does something that settles us, and I think that’s all to the good, and I would encourage everybody to practice and get those benefits. But I don’t think that that part is very unique to zazen, and you could probably get much of that from yoga or other kinds of practices or disciplines. In a way, what makes zazen different is how we do it by extending it to all the times when it doesn’t seem to help, when it’s not giving us any benefit, when it’s just difficult, when it’s serving up this full spectrum of experience that’s out of our comfort zone.

See, in that regular hour, we can cultivate a certain state or our body settles into a certain state, when we can identify with the cultivation of a particular state. What can open up in zazen after long periods, though, is this fundamental shift in perspective, which is not about the content of our experience, which is not about our feeling better for doing it. It’s about our relationship to the whole of our experience, and to the whole of our life.

I don't know that there’s any way to further explain that or encourage people to stay with the practice as opening up that kind of possibility. I think that we all come to this practice for a lot of different reasons and probably that basic need to just settle ourselves down, to be able to be at home with our own skin and our own mind. That’s an enormous part of practice and always will be for most of us, and I don’t mean to denigrate it or minimize that. I think that’s a foundation that pretty much anything else we build is based on.

But that’s not all there is to this practice, and these other dimensions open up, the longer you do it. Thought after thought, the flow never stops. At some point, all that thinking shifts, and thinking becomes non-thinking. Where we’ve only seen the duck, all of a sudden there’s a rabbit. Keep your eye out for it.

Next Talk

Barry Magid March 11th 2023 The nature of faith

Previous Talk

Barry Magid February 25th 2023 Confronting Expectations

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.