Garma C. C. Chang on the Practice of Zen (Part 2)

Part 1 is here.

In his masterful book The Practice of Zen, Garma C. C. Chang tells us that a Chinese term for Zen is “the teaching of Mind.” 

This, he adds, “is probably the best summary of all that Zen stands for, for what it teaches is the way to a full realization of Mind.”

Fine. But what does that actually mean?

Chang answers with a simple framework that takes us straight to the heart of Zen—a model of the human mind with three layers.

The first layer of Mind: objects

First is the “outer” layer—the thoughts and sense impressions that we subjectively experience. These are the objects of awareness.

When asked to define who we are, many of us instinctively point here: “I” am the sum of my likes and dislikes, thoughts, memories, desires, fantasies, and all the other contents of “my” mind.

This is our first mistake, says Chang. Zen teachers dismiss this layer of Mind—the whole subject matter of traditional Western psychology—as relatively uninteresting.

Before you dismiss this assessment, pause to consider the world view from which Buddhism, Taoism, and related teachings spring. They are about discovering a reality behind ever-changing appearances.

Our stream of thoughts and feelings is anything but that. It is too chaotic, too unstable, and too impermanent to ever manifest anything that we could remotely claim as self.

The second layer of Mind: awareness

This brings us to the next layer of Mind, says Chang: self-awareness. At this level we are simply conscious of the surging contents of the mind—all the thoughts and feelings that make up the first layer.

This level of mind is not stained by anything it observes. In The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment, Thaddeus Golas says it well: “The awareness of confusion is not confused. The awareness of insanity is not insane.”

Ajahn Sumedho  describes self-awareness as the spacious aspect of Mind. He explains it with an analogy:

Consider an empty room. This room has space for anything that enters or leaves it. People can come and go. Objects can be placed in the room and then removed. But the space inside the room is neutral and never harmed by any of this commotion.

Self-awareness is like that. It can “contain” any mental content. It offers infinite and impartial space for any thought or feeling to arise and pass.

This level of Mind is sometimes called “cosmic consciousness” and seen as the ultimate state for a human being to attain. In Zen, however, it is still sangsara, the realm of suffering.

The third layer of Mind: emptiness

Zen practice enables us to break through to innermost core of Mind. Chang calls it the “perfectly free and thoroughly nonsubstantial illuminating-Voidness.”

That’s a lot of words to describe a state that’s beyond words. Bear with me.

The word void leads Westerners to countless misunderstandings. That’s due in part to our logic, which dates back to Aristotle.

This logic tells us that opposites are exclusive. We can say that something exists, for example. Or we can say that it does not exist. But we cannot say that it does exist and does not exist at the same time.

In the Buddhist teaching of emptiness, this dichotomy disappears.

Zen teachers openly assert that things, including ourselves, exist and do not exist. The Heart Sutra, which is chanted in many Zen monasteries, says:

…form does not differ from Emptiness; Emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is Emptiness; That which is Emptiness, form.

When we look at a person or object, what we ordinarily see is physical form—that which obviously exists. But according to Chang, an enlightened being also sees that they are completely empty.

That, too, sounds like gibberish until we clarify the meaning of emptiness. This is a term with many meanings in Buddhism—none of them intuitive.

I’d risk saying one thing, however: If you grok emptiness, then you grok Buddhism.

When the Buddha described things as empty, he meant that they don’t exist permanently and independently. Everything that we observe is constantly changing. Moreover, the existence of anything depends on conditions that are also constantly changing.

Consider your own existence. In order for you to stay alive, certain conditions must be met. You need food and water, or example. You also need an atmosphere filled with oxygen and temperatures that neither too hot nor too cold.

Emptiness affirms that we are deeply embedded in the world. If the conditions that sustain human life cease to exist, then so do we.

When the Buddha talked about emptiness, this is the reality he described: We lack independent self-existence. We are interdependent. We arise mutually with other people and countless aspects of our environment.

When understood in this way, emptiness is clearly different than nothingness or non-existence. People exist and are empty. Things exist and are empty. In fact, said the Buddha, it is precisely because they exist that they are empty.

It’s one thing to understand this on an intellectual level. The point of Buddhist meditation practice, however, is to drive this insight deeply into every cell of our being—so deeply, in fact, that we release our fear of death when we finally see that no one dies.

P.S. Just in case you were wondering: None of what you have just read is true.

There is no such thing as Zen.

Garma C. C. Chang never existed.

There is no such thing as Mind, let alone three layers.

Objects, awareness, and emptiness are all the last refuges of fools.

Never believe anything.