Posted inHenry's Messages, Meditations, Mindfulness

Message from Henry: Zen and Vipassana

September 4, 2018

…that infinite nothing has the power to resolve our lives, and not through a sweeping nihilism but an infinite loving wonder, a marvel at the core of every moment…

I enjoy close inspection and investigation of the fabric of experience. When I’m thinking a lot, is there some discomfort in the body for example: perhaps the chest is tight. Is it an emotion? Which one? What initiated it? Was it that thought about a recent conversation? The sensation is a little unpleasant. So is there aversion arising too? And if there is, and once I recognize that aversion is arising, is it correct that the sensation itself is unpleasant? Actually it’s quite a pleasant tingle now. It has morphed into a kind of delight. And now the whole sense-field of the body turns into a kind of humming energy that is pleasant. And concerns clear away. This moment – this somehow vaporous insubstantial appearing of all things now – is intrinsically fulfilling, even joyful. And now I also know what to do about that conversation.

Tracking and examining body sensation. Watching images appear in the mind, in the form of visual thoughts. Feeling goodwill and well-being wake up in the heart. Studying the pain inherent in desire. Noting the wholesomeness of spiritual longing, the workings of surrender and faith and trust, and love without name, without subject or object, that can arise all through one’s being.

I think of these kinds of examination as more pertaining to Vipassana. Insight meditation with an informal therapeutic twist. Some deeper modern mindfulness too maybe. There is much to explore: in every moment a field of experience to dissect and break down into component parts, and then into the energy that creates the parts, and then the empty nature of the energy. Not to mention studying the coalescence and concentration of experience known as “me” – the one who “knows” and “owns” what is going on. The observer, the recipient, the possessor of experience.

Whereas in Zen as a rule we steer toward focused concentration practice, and a more fundamental liberation. Opening ourselves up to a boundless sense of reality that is entirely without content, a vast, all-pervading reality, an infinite emptiness that is scintillating with all possibility, pregnant with all things, an all-inclusive wonder of zero, and yet also, of all.

Perhaps I’m wrong. For one thing, the first kind of examination may not be systematized in Zen so explicitly, but general awareness practice surely encompasses it. Not only that, but Zen is deeply rooted in early Chinese Buddhism. For years we repeatedly sit with koans from the lives of Chinese masters of the Tang dynasty. We go to see our teacher again and again to embody the koans, which in their turn embody the awakening of these early teachers.

Early Chinese Buddhism was said to have been like a cart track with “two ruts” – two wheel marks on which the wheels of any cart could roll. These ruts were called “mindfulness” and “principle.” Mindfulness designated the kind of detailed analysis of present moment experience gestured at above. While principle meant the bare fact of existence: that all existence if seen accurately and deeply reveals itself to be composed of a boundless insubstantiality. Yet that infinite nothing has the power to resolve our lives, and not through a sweeping nihilism but an infinite loving wonder, a marvel at the core of every moment, which as it were clothes itself in garments that constitute all and any present moment experience.

Thus the “two ruts” were also called “two entries” by the founding father of Chinese Zen, Bodhidharma. He dubbed them “practice” and “principle” – both being gateways to one and the same wonder, marvel, love, resolution that glints secretly at the heart of our lives, like a gorgeous stone on a seabed. It winks at us but try as we might we can’t seem to find the angle that releases the sparkle. Yet we know something precious is down there.

Vipassana and Zen. Mindfulness and Chan. Why so hung up on the names? Does it matter, once the magical stone is in our hand?


Message from Henry is from our September 3, 2018 Newsletter. See below to subscribe.
Image: Dandelion by jplenio, CC0 Public Domain, from
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