According to the Zen ancestors, it is only through realization of our own true nature that true liberation can be realized. After each of the masters personally realized their own identity with Buddha, they spent their lives helping others to realize this identity. As Buddhism evolved, the upaya, or expedient techniques to help others, were refined and developed by the succeeding generations of ancestors down through the ages. All these techniques, or methods can be generally defined as “meditation.”The various meditation techniques of Buddhism can be further divided into the two general, complementary modes of cessation and observation, or stopping and seeing. Cessation is the stopping of delusion; observation is the illumination of prajna, or enlightened wisdom.
The Zen records declare that it is of the utmost importance to balance these two modes of meditation. The importance of balancing them, as well as specific instructions on how to do so constitute a generous amount of Zen and Buddhist literature. According to the Zen teachings, “cessation meditation” activates Universal Mirror Prajna (the ability to perceive reality in its suchness or, as it is). Becoming attached to this pure and clear condition can cause unhealthy disengagement from the relative world of everyday life.
“Observation meditation,” on the other hand, activates and refines Observing Prajna (wisdom of differentiation). Becoming attached to differentiation can cause one to experience a condition of turmoil and confusion, blocking the clear perception of reality. Each of these two modes of meditation serves to balance the other. Observation works as an antidote for attachment to emptiness. Cessation works as an antidote for attachment to differentiation.
In learning to apply any of the techniques of Zen meditation, sitting (Zazen) is usually the easiest and most direct method to begin with. The universal elements of the instructions on sitting meditation in the records of the Zen ancestors include the following: For practicing sitting meditation, anywhere you can sit comfortably will suffice. A lighted place that is clean, dry, quiet, and maintained at a comfortable temperature is best. Before sitting, be moderate in food and drink. Wear comfortable, loose fitting clothing, and if sitting in a group, dark, solid colors are preferred, in order to lessen the distraction to others.
It is best to sit on a round cushion, or “zafu,” that is placed on a larger square cushion, or “zabutan.” If such cushions cannot be used for some reason, a meditation bench, or a chair are adequate substitutes, the aim being a comfortable and stable upright sitting posture. Sit with the two sit-bones of your buttocks on the zafu, and your legs folded on the zabutan. Sit in either the full or half lotus posture. For the full lotus posture, place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. For the half lotus, place your left foot on your right thigh and simply keep your right foot on the zabutan with your right leg folded in close to your left leg.
Sit upright in a stable, symmetrical position. Place the left hand on the right hand aligning the middle joints of the middle fingers, both palms upward, and allow the tips of your thumbs to lightly touch forming an oval shape, as if cradling an egg. With your hands in this position, allow them to rest in your lap, holding them close to your body aligned with your navel. Hold your head up so that your ears are aligned with your shoulders and your nose is aligned with your navel. Place the tip of your tongue gently against the roof of your mouth just behind your upper teeth, with your teeth and lips together. Breath through your nose. Allow your eyelids to relax so they are comfortable, neither wide open nor closed. Let your gaze fall several feet in front of you, or if facing a wall, about the level of your chest. Neither try to focus your vision or allow it to wander.
Once you are comfortable and stable, take several deep breaths then allow your breathing to become quiet and natural. For sitting meditation, these are the universal standards recommended by the Zen ancestors. For practicing cessation, or nonthinking in Zen, the ancestors recommend two primary methods: the first is mindfulness, also called mindlessness (or no-mind), shikantaza (sole sitting), objectless meditation, and other similar terms. The second method is concentrated focus on the breath, a question, a doubt, a koan, or some other specific “object.” Once we have become proficient in applying one or more of these methods in sitting meditation, they may be carried out during nearly any activity or non-activity.
The actual practice of cessation meditation can be described as mentally stepping back from all of our involvements, activities and considerations; letting go of our judgements concerning good and bad, right and wrong, abandoning ideas about enlightenment or Buddhahood, and simply resting in our own fundamental awareness. The Zen techniques of cessation, or nonthinking allow our own fundamental awareness to clearly illumine the immediate present. When we truly come to rest in the fundamental awareness of our own minds, the habitual conceptualization that goes on in our brains ceases. This, say the Zen masters, is true mindfulness. Here, thoughts and ideas, views and prejudice, associations, memories, and imagination fail to overwhelm us and distract us from the reality of the present. In this condition of nonthinking, we experience the world and our self as they are; that is, in their suchness. Our false notions of “self” and “other,” which screen us off from the Universal Mirror Prajna, fall away allowing us to awaken to the true nature of our own minds.
While there are no major difficulties in learning how to practice mindfulness, it does require genuine aspiration and sustained practice. According the Zen records, mindfulness requires us to continuously step back from our habitual discrimination and allow our own luminous awareness to shine through. They urge us to maintain constant awareness, stepping back from our tangling dualistic thoughts whenever they arise. The moment we become aware of thoughts and ideas about self and other, right and wrong, gain and loss, joy and sorrow, we step back and let them go. Whatever thoughts come up, we step back and let them be; we are not just our thoughts. We do the same thing with all our notions, ideas, and views. The Zen ancestors assert that if we persist in this practice we will awaken to our own true nature.
According to the masters, when we awaken to our true nature we realize that we have always been free from birth and death. Being free from birth and death, we are not hindered by views of self and other. This, they say, is called liberation. They tell us that it is a mistake to believe there is some special doctrine, or esoteric teaching apart from awakening to our own true mind. Once we have realized true cessation meditation, we then begin to apply one or more methods of observation meditation in order to maintain balance and realize progression. Cessation or, nonthinking is not abandoned but continues to be the foundation of our practice and enlightenment. Observation meditation is applied by intentionally illumining (enlightening) specific aspects of reality in the light of our Observing Prajna, also called Dharma-eye (or Buddha-eye), and the eye to read scriptures, and other similar terms. This inherent ability becomes activated with our initial experience of true nature. When reality is examined with our Observing Prajna, its true nature is experienced directly.
Continuous practice and enlightenment is enacted through a multitude of techniques and methods in the great spiritual traditions of the world. Scriptural study is one of the more frequently used methods for transmitting wisdom, it is also transmitted through song, poetry, ritual, ceremony, drama, and other methods. The Zen masters use these methods, they have also developed an extremely reliable method unique to Zen referred to as koan-introspection. Koan-introspection differs from the practice of using “initial type koans” as “objects” of cessation meditation. The use of koans in observation meditation requires sustained awareness in the condition of nonthinking and allowing our Observing Prajna to illumine the wisdom of the koan. Although the human intellect plays a role in this, the koan’s wisdom can only be evoked by the whole of our being and cannot be grasped by the intellect alone. Trying to understand koans or “figure them out” through ordinary conceptual means is futile.
This does not mean that koans are not rational. The rationality, or reason, that they convey however, includes and transcends ordinary intellectual capacity. As we discover when we realize cessation, there is a vast difference between the ordinary rationality of human intellect and the wisdom of the enlightened mind. The classic Zen masters universally assert that if we are to truly actualize the fundamental point, we must do so through the activation and application of Prajna (inherent wisdom). They urge us to illumine the teachings of sages and actualize the wisdom of reality through observation meditation. Having awakened to the innate function of nonthinking through the realization of cessation, we can now apply ourselves to observation meditation.
According to the Zen ancestors, observation meditation consists of observing the sacred teachings as well as our everyday world of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking through the enlightened awareness of nonthinking (Observing Prajna). The Zen path of practice and enlightenment is the continuous and ongoing practice and enlightenment beyond all ideas and concepts of “practice” and “enlightenment.” The classic records of Zen offer many detailed explanations on how to apply observation meditation to the teachings of sages as well as in our everyday activity. Although we will eventually discover that cessation and observation can be carried out during nearly any activity, initially it usually easier to apply during sitting and walking meditation.
The records of the Zen ancestors indicate that in most instances, koan-introspection requires regular contact with a teacher and should not be taken up alone until we have achieved some solid experience with a good teacher. The masters tell us that if we continue to apply ourselves to observation meditation, the wisdom of the teachings of Buddhas and Zen will yield up its treasure. As this occurs, they say we will meet the same wisdom that all the Zen masters met. Indeed, we will meet all the Zen masters face to face! They also say that when this occurs we will almost certainly laugh!
Ongoing practice and enlightenment is what taking the path of Zen is all about. If the path of Zen called only for achieving a state of emptiness, or pure awareness, or any other static condition, it would be better to call it the station of Zen than the path of Zen. The Zen ancestors declare that the truth itself is not separate from us right here and now and that fail to continue along the path is to fail to realize, or make real, our own true self. Once we have awakened to the true nature of our own mind through the realization of nonthinking, and activated our Observing Prajna, we should apply it and continually refine and deepen our awareness of the truth of reality.
This is the practice and enlightenment referred to as observing, or contemplation meditation.
Due to sectarian competition, there are those who overemphasize distinctions between the instructions of their own sect and those of others. For example, some argue over minute differences between Dogen’s term, “nonthinking” and Eno’s term of “thoughtlessness,” others delve into dissertations on how “cessation” differs from “no-mind.” Such arguments have nothing to do with actual Zen practice. The Zen ancestors were only concerned with actual practice and refrained from quibbling over minor differences of semantics. Their records often warn us how becoming attached to teachings can lead us away from that very reality those teachings refer to.
Indulging in intellectual or philosophical arguments concerning slight differences in the terms used by Zen ancestors only distances us further from the truth to which they point. It also demonstrates a lack of respect for the Buddhas and Zen ancestors. Fortunately, the great Zen masters provided us with a method to personally discern the truth of authentic meditation. They implored us to never simply accept their words, but to actually apply the methods outlined in their records and find out for ourselves. Only then will we discover that while the terms may vary, the actual experience is identical. This is how the Zen ancestors say we should test all their teachings: try them and discover for ourselves whether they work or not.
“Once you attain this state of suchness and attain the harmonious unity of activity and understanding possessed by the Buddha-patriarchs, you examine exhaustively all the thoughts and views of this attainment.”
~Dogen, Shobogenzo, Sammai-O-Zammai, Waddell & Abe
“Once affirmation and negation, like and dislike, approval and disapproval, and all various opinions and feelings come to and end and cannot bind you, then you are free wherever you may be.” ~Pai-chang, Zen Teachings, Thomas Cleary
I have been a Zen student and practitioner since 1986, I started writing about Zen in 1999
Having been a merchant marine since I was 16, my vocation did not exactly lend itself to some of the more traditional approaches of Zen training. Nevertheless, it was a great job for extensive and in-depth study of the classic Zen records, and there was lots of time for meditation.
In the early years I supplemented my study with private interviews and correspondence with masters from various lineages, and I was able to develop and followed a regular, if unorthodox routine of Zen training.
In 1993, I started working regularly with a master who allowed great flexibility for access to personal guidance. For the next thirteen years, I participated in dokusan (formal student/teacher training) with him. This training followed a pretty standard course of koan progression, which was augmented by frequent forays into the writings of Zen master Dogen.
I am the author of The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing: The Second Ancestor of Zen in the West, published by American Book Publishing. The book will be available before the end of 2008. It is a fictional account of a modern day Zen master written in the style of the Zen classic, The Platform Sutra of Huineng. The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing is a unique approach to conveying the classic teachings of Zen. Before the Flatbed Sutra, my writings were only published privately for members inside the Zen community.
Besides writing, I am a father, husband, master merchant marine officer, and first class pilot.
Flatbed Sutra Zen Blog: http://flatbedsutra.com/flatbedsutrazenblogger/
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photo credit: by KM&G-Morris