The Early Teachings of Shinzen Young: Understanding Nirvana

When people talk about Buddhism, they often mention the First Noble Truth and summarize it as Life is suffering.

And yet…that’s not it, really.

Yes, the Buddha acknowledged the fact of suffering. But what he emphasized is the end of suffering — nirvana.

This is one of the many insights I gained from Shinzen Young.

Shinzen said that nirvana does not refer to some vague, spacey experience of bliss. Our purpose as meditators is not to get pleasantly buzzed in a “spiritual” way.

In fact, nirvana is often translated as extinction — not bliss or pleasure. But what, exactly, is extinguished?

The answer to this question takes us to the core of Buddhism.

Developing a new relationship to pleasure and pain

To begin, consider our instinctive relationship to pleasure and pain.

When pleasant sensations arise, we try to prolong them. The Buddha called this craving.

When unpleasant sensations arise, we try to resist them. This is aversion.

Moreover, we often fail to notice these responses. Craving and aversion happen without our conscious awareness. This is ignorance.

Meditation targets craving, aversion, and ignorance. It is these factors — the kilesas — that create suffering.

What is nirvana, then? It is what arises when the kilesas cease.

In short, meditation is not about adding anything to our life. It’s about releasing the primal habits that create suffering.

The Buddha compared suffering to the flame of a candle. Once we extinguish the fire of craving, aversion, and ignorance, nirvana appears.  

Pleasure and pain on a continuum

In his talks about nirvana, Shinzen defined pleasure and pain in broad ways.

Pleasure is a continuum, ranging from moments of mild relaxation to the ecstasy of orgasm.

Pain is another continuum, ranging from mild stress to paralyzing terror or the agony of a migraine headache.

If it helps, think in terms of comfort and discomfort rather than pleasure and pain.

Where pleasure and pain converge

We tend to think of pleasure and pain as polar opposites. But, said Shinzen, there is a point where they converge.

Both pleasure and pain are made up of thoughts and sensations flowing through the body-mind. These thoughts and sensations have different qualities, but they manifest in the same way — as waves that rise, crest, and pass away.

Our instinctive responses to pleasure and pain — craving, aversion, and ignorance — also have much in common. They are attempts to interfere with the free flow of thought and sensation.

Shinzen often referred to this interference as locking. We try to “lock” pleasant sensations in place. We also try to block painful sensations, which also requires us to “lock on” in order to battle them.

It is this locking on pleasure and pain — not the pleasurable or painful sensations in themselves — that creates suffering.

What to remember about suffering and nirvana

Shinzen, who is fond of mathematics, summarized this with a formula: suffering = pleasure + pain + locking.  

What meditation holds for us is the possibility of pleasure and pain without locking: nirvana = pleasure + pain — locking.

Of course, these formulas are abstractions. They reduce the raging chaos of our subjective experience to neat little categories.

Even so, formulas can keep us focused on fundamentals — handy reminders that point to the heart of nirvana.

The Early Teachings of Shinzen Young: Why Meditation Matters

I’ve learned more about Buddhism and meditation from Shinzen Young than anyone else on the planet. 

Whenever I meet people who think that meditation is fuzzy, wimpy, or New Age-y, I point them to Shinzen. His approach is rigorous, no-nonsense, and no-bullshit. You take nothing on faith. Belief is not required.

Only one thing matters — willingness to carry out Shinzen’s instructions and see what kind of results you get. 

I’ve already posted about Shinzen’s approach to fear and anxiety. That’s an excellent place to start, and there’s more to explore. 

This series of posts is based on what I learned during meditation retreats led by Shinzen. To begin, I’ll summarize Shinzen’s overview of meditation — what the practice is all about. In future posts I’ll follow up with Shinzen’s ideas about:

  • Benefits of meditation
  • Developing a daily practice
  • Integrating meditation with the rest of your life

Please  keep two caveats in mind.

First, my posts are based on meditation retreats that Shinzen led between 1987 and 1992. Since then, Shinzen’s teachings have evolved. For his latest insights, see The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works and expandcontract, his YouTube channel.  

Second, I’m offering my personal understanding of Shinzen’s teaching. Any errors or omissions are mine.  

Serenity is a skill

Shinzen says that our human possibility is unconditional serenity. This is not perpetual pleasure. Instead, it is a baseline of psychological stability in any circumstance. We can experience this state while lying on our death bed as much as while making love. 

Our possibility is also unconditional freedom. This does not mean choosing our circumstances all the time. It means choosing our response to whatever shows up. 

Contrast these ideas with the belief that we must acquire something before we can be happy: some circumstance, possession, or feeling. This leads to the life of seeking — and often not finding — that mysterious something. 

To understand how this happens, consider the roots of our suffering — cravings and aversions, along with ignorance of their effects. In Pali, the language of the Buddha, these three factors are called kilesas (sometimes translated as kleshas, or kleśas).

When the kilesas are active, we find ourselves pushing and pulling on thoughts and physical sensations. When they’re pleasant, we cling to them (craving). When they’re unpleasant, we resist them (aversion). 

But these efforts are doomed because thoughts and sensations are in constant flux. They are subject to anicca (impermanence, or “passingness”). They arise, peak, and pass away like waves. Trying to make thoughts and sensations behave differently is like trying to scoop out an ocean with a spoon — pointless. 

Our fundamental human problem is to how to respond skillfully to the kilesas. This is the purpose of meditation. 

Discomfort is not suffering

Because the Buddha spoke so much about suffering and impermanence, many people think that Buddhism is pessimistic. Albert Schweitzer, Jack Kerouac, and many others made this error.

In reality, the message of Buddhism is overwhelmingly positive. We can do more than reduce suffering. In fact, we can end suffering completely. 

Note: This does not mean that we can get rid of discomfort. Through meditation, however, we can experience discomfort in a way that does not create suffering. 

The distinction between discomfort and suffering is perhaps the central teaching of the Buddha. And it is one that Shinzen emphasized. 

If discomfort is impermanent, then we can endure it. We sometimes say: This too shall pass. Through meditation practice, we take this idea to another dimension: This discomfort is passing — right now

Likewise, if pleasure is impermanent, then we can savor it without clinging to it — and welcome the next wave of pleasure when it arrives.

Shinzen quoted a Buddhist scripture on this point: 

No matter how assailed, anger need not arise. No matter what the pleasure, compulsive longing need not arise. No matter what the circumstances, a feeling of limitation need not arise.

This insight can become more than a concept. We meditate to see it directly, in a way that transforms daily life. 

A Beginner’s Guide to Nonduality: Where to Learn More

I am delighted with Deconstructing Yourself, Michael Taft’s website about meditation practice. His teachings about nonduality are precise and accessible. Check out any of the following. 

Nonduality: Defining the Undefinable

“Nonduality is the experience of intimacy with all things; a sense of identity with the entire universe. In this experience, the sense of being a witness or seer of things vanishes completely, and instead you feel yourself to be whatever thing you are beholding. You don’t see the mountain, you are the mountain. You don’t hear a bird, you are birdsong.”

Meditation — Why “Deconstruction”? 

“Sensory experience is the substance of our lives; it is what our time on earth is made of. Anything that can give you a handle on sensory experience, a way to work with it, therefore gives you a handle on your life. Deconstructing an experience is a very effective and concrete way to get a handle on yourself, your life, your emotions, and your relationships with others.”

How to Deconstruct Yourself 

“The sense of self is composed or constructed out of thoughts and feelings…. If you examine your thoughts and feelings very, very carefully over time in a systematic way using mindfulness meditation, this ‘constructedness’ of the sense of self will become intuitively obvious.”

Deconstructing the Self with Mindfulness Meditation 

“…there is one sensory experience that is categorically different than all other sensory experiences: the experience of being ‘me.’ The sense of being a person, an ego. The deconstruction of the sensory experience of being an ego is one of the most powerful and meaningful things a person can do.”

Nonduality and Mindfulness — Two Great Traditions that Go Great Together 

“…most nondualists (especially neo-advaitins) could use a little more of the mindfulness attitude, and most mindfulness practitioners could use a little more of nondual outlook. Working together they could, like peanut butter and chocolate, form something much more excellent than either on their own. Something we might call Nondual Mindfulness, or Practical Advaita.”

Escaping the Observer Trap: Free Yourself by Observing the Observer  

“It is quite common for even very dedicated mindfulness students in observation-based traditions to get stuck in observer mode forever…. Being the observer, a neutral meditator ego, is not such a bad place to be; certainly it is much preferable to the unconscious, robotic mode of life lived without any self-reflection. However, it impedes all deeper progress toward real awakening.”

The Universe Is NOT One 

“The misstep here, and it is an epic one, is to think that what your experience in your meditation (a first-person, subjective experience) has anything at all to do with how the external universe works (a third-person, objective reality). You think you are discovering the hidden truth underlying reality, but that is not what’s going on at all. Instead you’re discovering the hidden truth behind all of your experience, the secret of who you really are—which is arguably much more important.”

What Is the Self? An Interview with Thomas Metzinger 

“The first thing to understand, I believe, is that there is no thing like ‘the self.’ Nobody ever had or was a self. Selves are not part of reality. Selves are not something that endures over time. The first person pronoun ‘I’ doesn’t refer to an object like a football or a bicycle, it just points to the speaker of the current sentence. There is no thing in the brain or outside in the world, which is us. We are processes.”

Meditation on No-self 

“No-self is hard to talk about, but is actually extremely simple as an experience. No-self is the direct recognition that the thoughts in your head and the feelings in your body are just passing experiences. Even more, it’s the recognition that although it feels like there’s a person in there, who is having those experiences, that feeling is just another one of those passing experiences.”

Emptiness of All Arisings (Guided Meditation)

“When we see directly that everything is nothing other than a mental construction (i.e. empty), we have learned something incredibly important. When seen as empty, things lose their “bite.” We no longer feel so reactive and upset by what’s happening, because we see it’s nature clearly. The deeper we see the emptiness, the more freedom we feel, the less reactive we feel. See a little emptiness, and you will feel a little relief from reactivity. See more emptiness, and you will feel more relief. It’s that straightforward.”

How to Love God According to Meister Eckhart

“In the triumphant end to the sermon, Eckhart sounds exactly like a Zen master: You should love him as he is, a not-God, not-mind, not-person, not-image — even more, as he is a pure, clear One, separate from all twoness.”

A Beginner’s Guide to Nonduality: Integrating the Experience With Daily Life

The experience of nonduality comes with bells and whistles. For me, it was a revelation, an epiphany, a cosmic parting-of-the-curtains. 

There are lots of jokes about spiritual teachers experiencing “Oneness.” My response is: Hey, don’t knock until you’ve tried it. 

When the boundaries of the self dissolve and your body becomes the whole world, there comes peace and completeness. For a moment, it is the end of searching. 

Yet I’ve struggled to integrate this experience with the rest of my life. 

One challenge is simply talking about nonduality while sounding grounded and sane. Another is understanding the true impact of the experience. Failing to do this can create some thorny problems. 

The following perspectives help me a lot.

Avoiding the observer trap

For years I believed in something called the Witness self, a detached observer somewhere “inside” me. Thoughts and physical sensations came and went, but the Witness remained to sit back and watch it all. 

I now see this as an error. Meditation teacher Michael Taft calls it the observer trap, or meditator ego

In nondual experience, the observer also falls away. It is also just a bundle of passing thoughts and sensations. 

Ironically, mindfulness teachers sometimes talk about “becoming a witness of experience.” This preserves the meditator ego, which can become a barrier to deeper awakening. 

To learn more, see Michael’s instructions for watching the watcher.

Seeing through the ego

Transcending the ego does not mean getting rid of it. Rather, it means seeing through the ego.  

We need a functional ego to carry out the tasks of daily life, such as working and building healthy relationships. We can also function at this level while knowing at a deeper level that the ego is not who we really are

More precisely, the ego is constructed by the mind. It is a concept overlaid on the stream of sensations that appear and disappear in awareness. This concept is useful but not ultimately real. 

Avoiding claims about the nature of reality 

My experience of nonduality initially left me feeling like a prophet. I believed that I’d discovered hidden meanings about the nature of reality as pure Oneness. Books like The Tao of Physics reinforced this viewpoint.

This, too, was delusion. Seeing nonduality offers many benefits, but it doesn’t make anyone an expert in physics or astronomy.  

Meditation reveals much about direct experience — how sensations get mixed up with thoughts and desires, which drive us to act in compulsive ways. 

However, meditation does not confirm that the world outside our head is Pure Consciousness or Absolute Mind, Being, or any such hifalutin thing. And vague references to quantum mechanics will not change that.  

Let’s leave cosmology to the scientists and get back to meditation. 

Continuing to practice

One framework for meditation is immediate enlightenment: We are already enlightened, and there is nothing we can do to become enlightened. All we need to do is see this fact in a single instant. No practices are necessary. 

Another framework is the gradual enlightenment: Our mind is clouded by layers of clinging, aversion, and ignorance. We practice for a life time to penetrate these layers and reach ever deepening layers of awakening. 

Buddhist monks and scholars have spent centuries debating the merits of these approaches. After searching for a resolution, I finally let go of it all. 

Is enlightenment immediate or gradual? My answer is yes: Both views are useful. This is a paradox, not a contradiction. 

If anything, I choose to “err” on the side of the gradual path. If I’m still suffering in a particular area of life, this is a cue to keep practicing. 

Keeping nonduality in perspective

Nonduality is no panacea. Meditators with deep spiritual insight can still struggle with the tasks of daily life — choosing a career, making money, forming relationships, recovering from addiction, and more. 

Meditating more is not always the answer. Sometimes our practice is to gain new skills, get counseling, and change habits

Insight into nonduality grants me a sense of wonder, reduces my emotional reactivity, and lessens my fear of death. It lightens the load as I get on with the rest of my life. This is enough, and for all of it I am grateful. 

A Beginner’s Guide to Nonduality: Ways to Talk About It

I’ve already posted about my first experience of nonduality, a life-changing taste of awakening. 

Almost immediately, however, I faced the inevitable problem — trying to tell people about it. 

Honestly, I do want to tell you about this. But every attempt seems ridiculous. 

As William James noted in The Varieties of Religious Experience, mystical experiences are both noetic and ineffable. They have the force of revelation — and they defy description. 

Some meditation teachers simply refuse to discuss any of this. Who can blame them? If you keep pressing for an answer, they might just deflect the question and walk away. (A Zen master might give you a nonsense reply or a stern slap on the face. )

Being human, however, we can’t resist talking about the things that matter most to us. But what we can do is talk about nonduality in ways that prevent misunderstanding and point to the experience of it, beyond all words. 

Following are two ways that help me. Both of them are examples of the via negativa approach used by theologians: While we cannot define what God is, we can discuss what God is not. This applies to nonduality as well. 

What’s left when everything passes away

Given the subtle nature of nonduality, we might assume that it takes years of meditation practice just to get a glimpse of it. 

Not so, says Michael Taft (whose teachings about nonduality are the clearest I’ve found). Instead, we might simply notice nonduality in any moment:

You know all the feelings in your body? Just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away. 

You know all the words in your head? Just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away. 

You know all the pictures in your imagination? Just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away. 

Any other content of sense experiences—like smells or tastes or whatever—just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away, too. 

What’s left when all that passes away? Nondual reality. 

Like Ajahn Sumedho says in The Mind and the Way, the teaching of the Buddha is simple, really. There are conditioned phenomena that arise and pass away. And there is the Unconditioned, which does not arise or pass away.  

Again, this description might leave you disappointed. All I can do is encourage you to learn meditation, which offers a direct way to experience the Unconditioned. 

Removing the subject-object distinction

We typically experience the world with a sharp division between subject and object. 

We call the subject me or I. These words refer to the sensation of standing back “inside” our skin and looking “outside” at the world. 

Everything other the subject is an object — the people, things, and events that seem to exist independently of us.

The subject-object distinction seems obvious and undeniably real. And yet in deep meditation, this distinction simply disappears. This is what happened to me during that retreat when my body suddenly became the world and there was no “inside” or “outside.”

This is not to say that we should abandon the subject-object distinction. We need it to make sense of the world most of the time, and to meet the demands of daily life. 

However, we can hold this distinction lightly and use it in a flexible way. In the experience of nonduality — the satisfaction of being complete in the present moment — we are free to let subjects and objects fall away. 

A Beginner’s Guide to Nonduality: ‘Intimacy With All Things’

During my first formal meditation practice, I disappeared — not physically, but spiritually. 

It happened on a sunny fall day at a former convent in southeastern Minnesota. The event was led by Shinzen Young, who followed the traditional schedule for Vipassana retreats — 12 to 14 hours of sitting or walking meditation per day, with 5-minute breaks every half-hour. 

You cannot meditate that much and remain unchanged. Something is bound to happen, and it’s impossible to predict. 

In effect, you are sending out an invitation to the universe: Here I am. If you’d care to send a cataclysmic life-changing experience my way…well, I’m open

Eventually the borders of my body disappeared. There was experience with no center — awareness not confined to a body.

At first, there was disorientation and fear. Then deep peace flowed in waves. Fear of death disappeared, and there was no question of wanting anything. I was everything.

How long did this last? A few seconds, perhaps, or a few minutes. It’s impossible to say, because time disappeared.

By the time Shinzen signaled the end of the meditation period, I was back in my body and safely located on the space-time grid. I was a person with a name, a personal history, and not the slightest idea about what had just happened. 

Eventually I described this to Shinzen. He told me that it was an experience of no-self, or nonduality

In the decades since that retreat, I’ve talked to other people about nonduality and read everything I can find about it.

Eventually I stumbled on a post by Michael Taft, a meditation teacher and colleague of Shinzen’s. Michael gave the best words to my retreat experience:

Nonduality is the experience of intimacy with all things…. In this experience, the sense of being a witness or seer of things vanishes completely, and instead you feel yourself to be whatever thing you are beholding. You don’t see the mountain, you are the mountain. You don’t hear a bird, you are birdsong.

Ironically, millions of words have been written about nonduality — an experience that transcends language. (The Ashtavakra Gita is one key text, but there are many more.) 

Well, I’m about to add few thousand words more to the mix.

This is the first post in a series about nonduality, with some ideas about the potential benefits and pitfalls of this path. I hope you find it beneficial.

Remembering Robert Pirsig’s ’Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’

I’ve read Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values several times — once during each decade since it was published in in the 1970s.

Each time I read the book at a different level. And each time I am reminded of the defining feature of a great book: You can reread it for decades without exhausting it.

My original copy of ZMM (as Pirsig abbreviated the title) is defaced and nearly destroyed.

The pages in that battered paperback are splattered with underlines, circles, exclamation points, question marks, and numbered lists.

I read the text passionately, almost aggressively, arguing with the author paragraph by paragraph, line by line.

Great books invite that kind of engagement. Each time we return to such works we see them fresh and whole, discovering layers of meaning that previously eluded us.

Reviewing our annotations and remembering who we were when we first turned those pages, we index ourselves.

Pirsig’s craft

People ask what ZMM is about.

Don’t get me started.

A topical index would include everything from Aristotle to Zen Buddhism — with references to welding, abstract painting, rhetoric, and non-Euclidian geometry tossed in for good measure.

It would be easier to say what ZMM is not about.

On one level, ZMM is the story of Pirsig’s cross-country motorcycle trip with his son.

It’s also the story Pirsig’s attempt to reform Western civilization.

And the story of Pirsig’s obsession with abstract questions.

And his gradual descent into insanity. And his recovery.

And, it works. Against all odds, the book hangs together — a miracle of writing craft.

To achieve this, Pirsig invented a genre that blends narration and exposition, storytelling and explanation. Chapters are divided into sections — scenes of action and dialogue alternating with essays that are dense with ideas.

This simple device keeps you oriented while Pirsig steers his bike from freeways to back roads and the conversation shifts from Plato to industrial solvents.

In terms of craft, ZMM is as close to a perfect book as anything I’ve ever read.

Pirsig’s enemy

My first encounter with ZMM took place in 1975. Barely out of adolescence, I immediately tuned in to Pirsig’s sense of rebellion and desire to do battle with the “System.”

I wasn’t alone. ZMM immediately became associated with the last waves of the counter culture movements that flowered during the 1960s.

What some readers missed, however, was the radical depth of Pirsig’s assault.

He wasn’t out to simply burn draft cards, picket factories, march on Washington, or protest the military-industrial complex. He knew that would never be enough.

No, he wanted to dismantle the whole desiccated and dying thing in the only way he thought possible — by a full-frontal assault on its metaphysical roots.

Pirsig’s strategy

Pirsig’s ultimate foe was dualism — divorcing science from spirituality, technology from art, business from compassion, reason from emotion, and actions from consequences.

You can tear down a factory that pollutes rivers, Pirsig wrote. But if the dualistic system of thought that created the factory remains intact, then you’ve gained nothing.

For that reason, most of Pirsig’s battles took place not on the streets but in what he called “the high country of the mind.”

He became a militant philosopher, something that was not uncommon in those days. Pirsig believed that if we purged our thinking of delusions, then we could act ethically — in ways that no longer harmed people or the planet.

Ultimately Pirsig aimed his metaphysical firearms at a core distinction in Western thought — the distinction between subject (I, me) and object (you, it, them). It was attachment to this distinction, he believed, that led people to do evil things to each other.

Unfortunately, the subject-object distinction is hard to remove. Without it, you’d be hard pressed to walk through a parking lot let alone drive the freeway during rush hour.

Survival in such circumstances hinges on protecting ourselves as subjects as while navigating an environment filled with large and potentially lethal objects.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to speak a single sentence in the English language that’s not predicated on the distinction between subject and object.

Linguistic constraints didn’t stop Pirsig, though. He kept trying to articulate a way of seeing the world that merges reason with emotion, us with them, you with I — and saves us all from destruction.

Pirsig’s solution

Pirsig found his solution in the realm of values — specifically, in the concept of Quality (a word that he capitalized throughout the book).

Quality, he thought, could be experienced directly and defined precisely. Quality is both objective and subjective. In terms of world view, it is Romantic and Classic.

If you truly understood Quality, Pirsig wrote, you would live each moment of your life differently. You would handle the material details of your life with exquisite care. You would think, speak, and act impeccably, ever mindful of karma — your actions and their consequences.

You would even repair your motorcycle in a way that benefits all living beings.

Mindful of Quality, you would never intentionally do violence to another being. By loosening the tight grip of the subject-object distinction, you’d know in your gut that harming others is the same as harming yourself.

Pirsig’s failure

Interestingly, Pirsig’s metaphysics of Quality probably failed. He in effect acknowledges this in his sequel to ZMM — Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

Lila opens with a character who offers a detailed and withering critique of the ideas in ZMM. In response, Pirsig presents yet another metaphysics — a rewrite of ZMM. This time Pirsig’s fundamental distinction is not between subjective and objective Quality: It’s between static and dynamic Quality.

But I’m not convinced by this, either. Pirsig ultimately missed one of the core insights of Zen Buddhism — that reality is too messy to capture in any grand philosophical system.

In fact, Zen practice takes us to the Mind before thinking, the world before words. We can experience this world, but anything we say about it is inaccurate.

This is why the Buddha himself refused to teach metaphysics. He confined himself merely to the fact of suffering and the path beyond it. The older I get, the more wisdom I see in this.

Pirsig’s price

Pirsig’s insights came at a horrific price. He became so obsessed with task of defining Quality that he did little else.

Eventually he lost interest in relating to people, working, and handling the tasks of daily life. For a time he sacrificed everything to his philosophical quest — his job, his family, and his sanity.

ZMM includes a plot line based on Pirsig’s stay in a mental ward and ego-death through court-ordered electroshock therapy. This account is complex, heart-breaking, and exquisite.

I won’t even attempt to summarize it. All I will say is that every time I read ZMM, I emerge almost gasping for air and glad to be alive.

“It’s going to get better now”

Fortunately, Pirsig survived unspeakable horrors and returned to our consensual reality with a serenity that approaches Enlightenment.

Pirsig hints at this in ZMM’s closing paragraphs, recalling a day near the end of that motorcycle trip with his son Chris, passenger at his back:

Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and it is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.

More about Robert Pirsig and ZMM:

The Enlightened Person Lives Without Intention

I’m re-reading Steve Hagen’s wonderful book Buddhism Plain and Simple. This is what I recommend to anyone who’s new to Buddhism and wants the essence.

One of the things I admire about Steve is that he had the guts to present an astonishing Buddhist teaching — that the enlightened person lives without intention.

Throwing our paradigms in question

To say that this teaching goes against the grain of Western thought is a gross understatement.

If the Buddha was accurate on this point, then some of our most basic assumptions are thrown into question.

The whole field of time management — based on goal-setting and achievement as a means to happiness — is shattered.

So are countless popular books in the New Age/self-help category, such as The Power of Intention and The Secret.

Understanding the Buddha’s teaching about intention is not for the faint of heart. This is a subtle and sophisticated insight that transcends our ordinary perception of the world.

Ultimately, you can only “get” what the Buddha meant by meditating — not by trying to figure it out intellectually. But I’ll do my best to explain it anyway.

Meditation erases distinctions

Let’s get back to what Buddhist meditation cultivates: Relaxing the activity of the mind. Letting thoughts come to a rest. Perceiving the world without the filters imposed by thinking.

One of the key functions of the human mind is to make distinctions. The mind separates people, things, and events into opposing categories — for example, inside versus outside. Past versus present versus future. Self versus other.

These distinctions exist only in our mind, however. They are present only in language, not in Nature.

When thoughts come to rest during meditation, all these distinctions fade away. Suddenly there is no self and no other. No inside, no outside. No past, no present, no future.

Instead, we gradually come to perceive the world as a unified, seamless Whole. Though this is hard to describe, you can experience it for yourself. That’s what meditation is all about.

No distinction, no intention

Here’s the rub: We set goals and take intentional action to achieve them only because we believe that there are things “outside” ourselves that we don’t “have” and need to “get.”

Uh-oh. That previous paragraph is full of distinctions: outside versus inside. Having versus not having. Getting versus not getting. If those distinctions disappear, then the attempt to “attract” and “manifest” what you want is pointless.

As Hagen points out in Buddhism Plain and Simple:

There isn’t anything “out there” that ultimately satisfies. There isn’t anything “out there” that we must acquire or repel. In fact, there isn’t any “out there” at all.

Does this mean that we become passive victims who don’t do anything?

Not at all.

The Buddha talked about ethical behavior and right livelihood. He urged us to manage our household, take care of business, and do what needs to be done.

The key is to live without our primary delusion — the belief that anything we gain by thinking and acting will make us permanently happy, satisfied, and complete.

P.S. I don’t expect you to agree with this, by the way. All I want to do is point out one thing:

When a spiritual teacher or self-help guru starts talking to you about the power of setting goals and intentions, remember that there is another way of seeing the world.

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.

Garma C. C. Chang on the Practice of Zen (Part 1)

Part 2 is here.

Have you read a book that changed you fundamentally—one that you return to time and again only to discover things you’d never seen before?

Such a book is like a lover who stays with you for decades, calls you on your bullshit, and loves you unconditionally at the same time.

Since 1973, when I first encountered it, The Practice of Zen by Garma C. C. Chang has become such a book for me.

I’ve stopped counting the number of times I’ve reread this. It is, like Ezra Pound said, “news that stays news.”

I read a lot about Zen and humbly attempt to practice it. But out of the vast literature on the subject, The Practice of Zen grants me the most clarity. 

So, I’m reading the book again and posting my notes. This will be in two parts, and I hope that you enjoy the ride.

Taking enlightenment lightly

There is a part of me—the result of being raised Lutheran—that approaches spirituality not just seriously but fearfully. This makes sense if you believe that the whole game is about avoiding an eternity of torment in a special place reserved for nonbelievers.

In Zen Buddhism, this perspective is largely absent. The practice is serious but not solemn.

In fact, there is attitude of detachment and humor that pervades the whole teaching. It echoes G. K. Chesterton, who said, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

Chang quotes a dialogue between two Zen masters that proceeds in this spirit. It illustrates the Zen ideal of moving from abstract concepts to concrete details:

One day Chao Chou and Wen Yuan played a debating game. They agreed that whoever won the argument would be the loser, and whoever lost the argument would be the winner. As a prize, the loser should give the winner some fruit.

“You speak first,” said Wen Yuan to Chao Chou. 

So the following dialogue ensued:  

Chao Chou: I am an ass.  

Wen Yuan: I am the stomach of that ass.  

Chao Chou: I am the feces that the ass has dropped.  

Wen Yuan: I am a worm in the feces.  

Chao Chou: What are you doing in the feces?  

Wen Yuan: I spent my summer vacation there.  

Chao Chou: All right. Now give me the fruit.

Before Zen study, I saw story this as gibberish. With Zen study, I see that it points to the core of Buddhism. 

If I ever hear a conversation like that between two Lutheran ministers, I’m going back to church again.

What is Zen?

Believe it or not, there is a simple answer to this question. According to Chang, Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of Ch’an, a Chinese word for meditation. And Ch’an is a corruption of Dhyana, a Sanskrit word for meditation.

“In other words,” Chang notes, “Zen is a mispronunciation of another mispronunciation!”

If asked to define Zen during a happy hour conversation, this is probably what I’d say. I’d sidestep the real challenge—that Zen is profound and nearly impossible to describe.

Even for Chang, a Zen monk and Buddhist scholar, Zen is something “round and rolling, slippery and slick.” 

This is not a bug in Buddhist mental software, however, but a core feature: The practice aims at a life-changing and intuitive insight that transcends words.

Beyond clinging to concepts

If there is a unifying theme in all the Zen literature I’ve read, it’s enlightenment as seeing the world without the screen of concepts. Chang gives this example from the sixth Zen patriarch’s remarks to his student, Hui Ming:

“If you have come here for Dharma, you should first cast aside all mental activity and let no thoughts whatsoever arise in you. Then I shall preach the Dharma for you.”

After a long time of silence, the Sixth Patriarch continued, “Not thinking of good, not thinking of evil, right at this very moment, that is your original face.”

Hui Ming was immediately enlightened.  

The same theme comes to us from many other sources. See, for example, In My Own Way, the autobiography of Alan Watts:

It [Zen] continues, in its own way, the general practice of Buddhism, which is to free the mind from its habitual confusion of words, ideas, and concepts with reality, and from all those emotional disturbances and entanglements which flow from this confusion. Thus the ego, time, the body, life, and death are all viewed as concepts having neither more nor less reality than abstract numbers or measures, such as inches or ounces.  

Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen master, says:

If you are thinking, then all Zen books, all Buddhist sutras, all Bibles are demons’ words. But if you read with a mind that has cut off all thinking, then Zen books, sutras, and Bibles are all the truth. So is the barking of a dog or the crowing of a rooster: all things are teaching you at every moment, and these sounds are even better teaching than Zen books. So Zen is keeping the mind which is before thinking.  

And in Zen Bow, Zen Arrow, John Stevens describes the origin of satori, a Japanese word often used as a synonym for enlightenment:

This can be translated literally as (sa) distinctions (tori) remove—that is, to remove all artificially constructed distinctions such as mind/body, self/other, correct/incorrect, archer/bow, arrow/target, and so on. In short, satori is “to transcend dualities.”  

But my favorite rendering of this teaching is a poem that Chang lovingly translates from Zen Master Hung Chih:

Silently and serenely one forgets all words;
Clearly and vividly
That appears before him.
When one realizes it, it is vast and without edges;
In its Essence, one is clearly aware.
Singularly reflecting is this bright awareness,
Full of wonder is this pure reflection.
Dew and the moon,
Stars and streams,
Snow on pine trees,
And clouds hovering on the mountain peaks—
From darkness, they all become glowingly bright;
From obscurity, they all turn to resplendent light….
Oh look! The hundred rivers flow
In tumbling torrents
To the great ocean!