True Nature of This Mind

Thoughts are what define whatever experience we have, both physical and mental. We have labels, categories and associations that build our thinking, and thinking is what gives shape and meaning to all our impressions and at the same time controls and guides our actions and reactions. Thinking is what our personality is made of, it is behind both our feelings and behaviour. From the intimate level of family relations to the global stage of international politics, from our attitude towards our own body to the construction of megacities - they are all regulated and formed by thinking. Past experience and future expectations are present as thoughts. All in all, the spatial and the temporal, the inner and the outer world are what thinking makes them to be.

Therefore, if we want to go to the very root of whatever problem we may have, we have to look at our thinking. As it has been summed up before, it is us who call something a problem and it's not the thing itself that says so. The raw experience without concepts is meaningless and ungraspable. It is meaningless as it has no definition and no relation to anything without names and ideas. It is ungraspable because both past and future exist only in our mind, and this present moment itself is just a theoretical measurement that cannot actually be pinpointed as anything in particular.

Thinking as a type of experience is also meaningless and ungraspable. Thoughts come and thoughts go, if we let them. However, we regularly select certain thoughts as important and substantial, concepts that are presumably relevant for us. This habit of choosing and rejecting is our conditioning, a result of past learning and repetition of similar thought patterns. The older we get the more fixed certain patterns become and they also grow in numbers, that's how we can easily cope with various situations in life, except when something unknown happens. But even in case of an event that is foreign to us we habitually try to rely on past knowledge. Only very rarely, when we are strongly forced to come up with a new perspective, do we reluctantly change our mind. In other words, the personality - a set of habitual thinking patterns - prefers the known and familiar over the unknown; it wants permanence and not change.

The illusion of stability is the basic mistake that makes us feel dissatisfied and powerless whenever we encounter change. And change is all there is. There is not a single moment of life that stays for another moment. Thus the constant struggle to project our habitual thinking on our experience and manipulate both our inner and outer world according to our preferences. In order to be free from this basic tension and existential uncertainty we need to let go of the desire to control everything. Control here means both defining, interpreting and integrating experience, and manipulating, changing and regulating the objects of perception. The wish to control is based on the belief in stability, that there are a fixed person and a fixed object.

To remove this urge to control everything we have to discover for ourselves that the reality created by our thinking is nothing else but our thoughts. Thoughts that are themselves without any meaning or substance. Once it is clearly understood and perceived that thoughts are actually ungraspable it comes naturally that the whole personality and the entire world built of and on nothing substantial. It doesn't mean that nothing exists, it's just that it doesn't exist as we have imagined it. And that makes all the difference between being stuck in habitual thought patterns and being free from the ideas of permanence. Thoughts come, thoughts go. Thoughts build personalities and worlds. It is exactly because thinking is alive and changing that construction and destruction, connecting and disconnecting, that is, life is possible.


Householder Chan

As I see it, this idea that one should be free of all attachments is a misleading one. The solution is not in reducing one's life to the bare necessities. The source of suffering is the idea of permanence, substance, meaning, importance, etc. Attachment is wanting things to be in a specific way, and that desire is based on concepts that declare what is true and what is false, what is good and what is bad ultimately. It is this projection of absolute reality that creates the duality between ordinary life and ideal life. Emptiness means that whatever supreme concept we have of ideal life is nothing but a passing thought.

It can be really difficult to know what "kleshas are bodhi" stands for. Either we are attached to something or not, there is no third option. Either we live a pure life or an impure one. But to see that this tainted realm is itself the pure land, that often feels nothing but clever sophism. What should be understood is there is nothing beyond this present reality. All humans can do are eat, shit and sleep. Whether you eat a seven course meal or a single bowl of rice makes little difference. Trouble comes one we want to force an ideal life on our ordinary one. And religious ideals are not much different from secular goals. We can dream about how sitting crossed leg facing the wall the whole day is the ultimate achievement, but that's just another false idea.

This existential unease that can drive us to philosophy and religion is the understanding that life is in general meaningless and without any real basis. The error most people make is that they look for some supreme truth beyond the present realm of experience. But as the Buddha taught, even the highest heavens are impermanent and unreliable. In other words, even the deepest meditative trance and the most wonderful realisation are meaningless and without essence.

As human beings we have bodily senses, we have emotions and we have thoughts. That's our complete realm of experience, our life. Senses, feelings and concepts are all temporary. Whether we enjoy our situation or hate it, does not matter. it will pass anyway. In fact, right in this present moment we cannot hold on to a single experience even for a millisecond. It's all inconceivable.

So, instead of labeling one idea as true and arranging, measuring, judging everything else relative to that, we need to realise that there is always a network of associations without any true centre. Our attention constantly moves from one thing to another, and whatever happens to be in the focus, that becomes our true world, our self, the most important thing ever. Ignorance comes in the moment we explain it to ourselves as the only truth, that is, we build an ideology, a personal story.

Facing everyday events may give us the desire that we want only the good states, the good moments, the good situations. Actually, that's what we and everyone else wants. This cannot be helped. This is life itself. Life without this basic intention to want the good things is an imaginary dead state. Instead what we should see is that nobody else but us label things as good and bad, we are the ones driven by our conditioning to highlight one thing and forget about the rest. That is the work of our conceptual network of associations. It's not good or bad, it's just how we are. We may not like how our nose looks like, but that's just how it is. The moment we want an ideal nose instead of the present one, we fall into a big trap. Because while we can go for surgery. our actual problem lies in this feeling of "not good". Changing the object, reshaping our nose, our mind, whatever, does not change the cause of the problem, that the present experience is labeled as not good. However, the Buddha says that it is never good, it is unsatisfactory, it is suffering. It is never good because we want it to be something else, something ideal, meaningful, substantial, self.

Chan is seeing the nature of mind, that is, the reality of our present experience. What we can easily see is that it is changing no matter what we do. If we want it not to change or change in a specific way - i.e. want the ordinary to be the ideal - we only strengthen this feeling of unease and pain. Practising Chan is the practice of not setting up and following ideologies and personal stories. However, there is no clear recipe but just a general instruction. First one has to clarify the nature of mind, then go on from there and face whatever comes on the basis of that. That is, acting without raising the mind. Then life is just ordinary.


Sudden and Gradual in Brief

In short, the basis of ignorance is conceptual attachment, that is, believing in essentially existing things and beings. From that come emotional attachments, and from that all sorts of deluded actions. One can go gradually by first restricting one's actions with the precepts, calming emotional states with meditation and eliminating false ideas through insight. Or one can go directly to the root cause, that is clinging to thoughts, and see that there is nothing to grasp. The result is the same.


Buddhism is neither Method nor Philosophy

There is the belief that Buddhism is a method, a technique, a practical teaching that can be used for one's benefit in this life, in everyday matters, in stress reduction and other psychological matters. The traditional materialisation of that attitude is in ritual activities like offering incense and prayers. The modern form is meditation. The other approach is that of those who study Buddhism as a matter of scholarly investigation or as an exotic philosophy.

The common element in both is that neither practice nor study has a personal importance for the individual, the Dharma is no different from a tool one can use for a while and then discard it. It is not integrated as the guide of one's actions. Therefore such people do not take refuge in the Triple Jewel. They grasp at the outer forms without understanding the real value of the teachings.

Let me use here as examples zazen and nenbutsu. Zazen literally means seated meditation, and nenbutsu is buddha remembrance. Both terms are as old as Buddhism itself. Originally zazen referred to the posture only that did not define the type of meditation performed, while nenbutsu was about recalling the Buddha's wonderful qualities as a way of inspiring oneself. Today zazen is regularly associated with meditation by upholding a specific posture and nenbutsu with the verbal repetition of Amida's name. But most importantly, it is the ideology that such physical activities encompass the essence of the Buddha's teaching that allows the simple shift from religious life to mundane self-help. Although there is a difference between the two that explains the popularity of nenbutsu in the traditional and zazen in the modern approach. It is that zazen promises liberation in this life while nenbutsu in the afterlife. The common element is that besides being an occasional activity they have virtually no influence on one's day to day life.

On the contrary, as ultimate teachings they were taught as life changing realisations by their famous advocates Dogen Kigen and Honen Genku. Dogen's zazen is called practice-enlightenment because it includes and accomplishes the whole path of morality, meditation and wisdom. Honen's nenbutsu guarantees birth in the Pure Land because it includes and accomplishes the three minds and the four practices. That is possible for both of them not because of the outer form, the actual activity performed by the body, but because of the mind.

In zazen it is the non-abiding awareness and in nenbutsu it is the faith in Amida's vow. The outer activities themselves are not unique to the Zen or the Pure Land school, and neither Dogen nor Honen would have had any reason to leave the Tendai school to sit or to recite. So while both are called practice oriented schools, it is not the method but the doctrine that makes them distinct from other traditions.

Since it is the mind that matters and not the activity, we could say that there is no need for the physical part. And that is partially true. Most of the Zen teachers - that is, before the times of Dahui Zonggao in China - only pointed to the nature of mind. In fact, that has been the definition of the Zen tradition since the beginning without any reference to common practices. However, while in China the heirs of Bodhidharma always lived within a Buddhist environment, Dogen separated himself from the established tradition and initiated an institutionally separate school. That way zazen became the primary representation of his style. Honen separated himself in a similar way from others and focused on recitation as the chosen expression. It is like with our thoughts, they cannot be communicated without words. The teaching has to take form and that form has to become the carrier of the teaching. And while Dogen and Honen had their respective practices selected as the most important, they did not deny or leave out other activities, like reading, reciting and copying sutras, doing prostrations, and other things. With giving a specific form to their teachings they managed to transmit them.

If one focuses only on the words, that is turning the Dharma into a study material. If one sees only the outer practice, that is turning the Dharma into gymnastics. If one knows only the meaning and has the realisation without the words and the outer practice, that is being a pratyekabuddha, where no communication is possible. But I think it is mostly a theoretical possibility and not something anyone could see or confirm (besides that they exist in the Buddhist tradition). The unity of practice and realisation, of methods and understanding, that is the real and living path of enlightenment. That unity is what zazen and nenbutsu embody according to Dogen and Honen.

So, Buddhism is neither a method nor a philosophy. When one wants to grasp the true meaning of the Dharma it takes moving away from one's previous conditioning, giving up both body and mind, and taking the teachings to one's heart. Through that transformation it becomes the living reality and not just some part time occupation between dinner and bedtime. After that every movement is zazen, every sound is the nenbutsu. 


This Present World of Experience

Whatever there is in the world and beyond
It occurs as seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched or thought
These six types of experience encompass everything
Investigate them right where you are now

Past or future experiences cannot be perceived at all
So look closely at this present moment

The bodily impressions cannot tell what they are
It is only thinking that names and explains
Meaning, importance, truth and falsity are all thoughts
Therefore mind is what should be first clarified

Thoughts pop up and dissolve all day long
When you don't attach any significance to one
It won't give birth to another hundred
Just see it as a mere thought and it disappears

As you understand that only concepts can define experience
And concepts themselves are without substance
Resting in open awareness comes naturally
Where all clinging and identification is impossible

Within this realm of pristine experience
Everything is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and thought
Just as an ordinary human being free from distress
Interacting with all beings out of peaceful compassion


Instant Mindfulness

You cannot practise mindfulness. The mind is already mindful. You cannot practise letting go. Appearances appear and disappear on their own.


The mind is already mindful,
It cannot be increased or decreased.
Whatever occurs
It is naturally aware of it.
The mind is not born out of conditions,
So it is free and independent,
Unaffected by appearances.
That is, experience is
Known and inconceivable at the same time.
Experience cannot be unknown,
Otherwise it would not be experienced.
Experience cannot be conceived,
Otherwise it would stay for ever.
Mind and experience are one and the same.
As mind is necessarily mindful,
So is experience necessarily known.
As mind is necessarily nothing concrete,
So is experience necessarily inconceivable.
See the experiencing mind for what it is
And mindfulness is perfected immediately.


Seeing the ultimate is seeing the conventional, seeing the conventional is seeing the ultimate. That is, if appearances are seen as appearances, instead of solid entities, then that is seeing the ultimate. In experience that means the end of the three poisons, the lack of greed, hatred and ignorance in one's activities. Seeing things without being moved by them, free from emotional and conceptual entanglements. Understanding that all the six senses are illusory experiences - that is, not something real out there or inside - helps one to let go of whatever pops up in one's sphere of perception without trying to hold on to them or push them away. That is in the end the practice of just sitting about, an open mind where all things freely come and go. A closed mind would be trying to escape from some experience. Grasping at things would be trying to keep some experience. On the one hand, all appearances are impermanent, it is impossible to escape from or keep them. On the other hand, the mind is naturally open and aware, boundless and luminous, so it doesn't need to be corrected, fixed, or improved. From familiarising oneself with that understanding, that view, then using it during a calm session of sitting, helps to get the hang of it and use it outside of a pleasant and peaceful environment within one's everyday life.


This world is an illusion. This body and mind are an illusion. There is no other world, body or mind beyond to look for.


Buddhist Magic

It is useful first to make a distinction between beseeching a deity for services and someone personally working with supernatural powers. The first one is prayer, the second one is magic.

Since the beginning Buddhism has the path of magic as a way to liberation. These are the four bases of power (i/rddhipada), and the resultant six superknowledges (abhinna/abhijna).

The way to attain the superknowledges through concentration (AN 5.28). The four bases of power are factors to be aware of in meditation as they help one's concentration to be stable (SN 51.20). There is a five-factored concentration - four absorptions and reflection of the body and mind - used first, then a mind-made body created, after which one performs miraculous feats (DN 2, 11, 12).

There is another teaching, specifically about using supernatural or psychic power to manipulate physical objects by using the four elements inherent in them (AN 6.41). Once a junior monk has shown his powers to a layman by conjuring a storm and later setting on fire a pile of grass without burning his robes, saying that even a novice can do these things in the Buddha's community (SN 41.4).

While there are several stories that show the magical abilities of the Buddha and the disciples, when the actual method is described it becomes clear that what is meant is a meditation technique to attain liberation. So the stories should not be considered as reports of real events, but either as a way of expressing events from the perspective of those who experienced it, or it is an educational story with colourful elements. Some modern Zen teachers also mention the point where a practitioner attains magical powers (Seung Sahn: The Compass of Zen p. 294-298. Daehaeng Sunim: No River To Cross, p. 62-63) on the path of practice, as it is the realisation of the freedom of mind. On the other hand, Zen has also been critical of believing that supernormal powers are the real thing to be a buddha. Linji says,

"You say, ‘A buddha has six supernatural powers. This is miraculous!’ All the gods, immortals, asuras, and mighty pretas also have supernatural powers—must they be considered buddhas? Followers of the Way, make no mistake! For instance, when Asura fought against Indra and was routed in battle he led his entire throng, to the number of eighty-four thousand, into the tube in a fiber of a lotus root to hide. Wasn’t he then a sage? Such supernatural powers as these I have just mentioned are all reward powers or dependent powers.
Those are not the six supernatural powers of a buddha, which are entering the world of color yet not being deluded by color; entering the world of sound yet not being deluded by sound; entering the world of odor yet not being deluded by odor; entering the world of taste yet not being deluded by taste; entering the world of touch yet not being deluded by touch; entering the world of dharmas yet not being deluded by dharmas. Therefore, when it is realized that these six—color, sound, odor, taste, touch, and dharmas— are all empty forms, they cannot bind the man of the Way, dependent upon nothing. Constituted though he is of the seepage of the five skandhas, he has the supernatural power of walking upon the earth."

(Record of Linji, XVIII, p. 19-20, tr. Sasaki)

Also, Zhiyan, the second patriarch of the Huayan school, writes in his Ten Mysterious Gates (Entry into the Inconceivable, p. 136) that while the miraculous elements in the Avatamsaka Sutra are believed by the followers of the Great Vehicle to by displays of psychic powers, according to his Unitary Vehicle it is the representation of dependent origination, the interpenetration and interdependence of phenomena.

So it seems that magic in Buddhism is about internal qualities, about taming and mastering the mind, and not shows of illusionists. But when it is misunderstood as worldly power or entertainment, one is reminded not to follow that path and to reconsider his understanding.