Something we should try to be clear about is the difference between a “state” and a “fact.” In America the early popularity of Zen in the 50’s and 60’s was bound up to some extent with the counter-culture’s fascination with psychedelics. A number of well-known zen teachers from that era have said that LSD brought them to zen training. The popular idea was that zen masters were living on a permanent high, without drugs. They were seeing the world as LSD could make you see it.
Coming as I personally do from a zen line that is full of regular professional people, doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, construction workers, architects, financial advisers and so on, this notion seems quite alien to me. The fundamental problem with it, it seems to me, is the idea that the awakening possible through zen training is simply a new state of mind. Through cultivating the mind, this line of thinking goes, we can achieve another state of mind, and this is what we seek in zen.
But this is wrong. When we have an “opening” – a real kensho or awakening, an insight, a glimpse of the Buddha-dharma – we are not attaining anything different. We are not experiencing a new or other state of mind. Rather, what we are doing is for a moment dropping the mind altogether, so we can see things as they actually are. We can then see clearly and effortlessly that the mind itself was a fabrication, an invention. All that the mind believed, all that it saw, felt, heard, thought, planned, feared and hoped for, was also an invention. It was simply all a story written out of empty air.
This is not a state of mind. To believe it is a state of mind is to have missed the meaning of the Heart Sutra entirely. Shakyamuni clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty. All five areas, clusters, types of experience that we have – consciousness, the world of form that we hear and see, feelings, responses and moods that we have, and at times suffer from – all are empty: that is to say, invented, imaginary, made up.
How can this whole great earth be made up? What would that even mean? That’s precisely what we are studying and exploring through our zazen and our training. There is no mind to cultivate. Zazen is not a process of mind-cultivation, however much it may look like it. It is if anything a process of mind-loss – but in a blessed and joyous way.
We are not inducing states of mind; we are gently preparing ourselves to see things as they really are, which is neither an easy nor, in a way, a difficult thing to do. We need to prepare ourselves slowly, gently and deeply. No rush. Instead, great patience, great love for ourselves, great tenderness for all suffering beings, including ourselves: these are our best allies and support along the way.
If our practice were merely about states of mind, then sooner or later we could probably induce them ourselves – which is not the case. Instead, we must wait for the grace of sudden clarification to fall on us. And since that’s how it is, we may as well forget all about the grace, and get on with all the gradual work that we can in fact do, and that all of us need to do, regardless of any insights that may or may not befall us. Yes, to see at least once for ourselves what the masters saw will make a difference to our lives, of course; but it will not obviate the need to do the “dirty work” of gradually retraining ourselves to be less reactive, more patient, more resilient, and kinder; to think of others more and of ourselves less.
The quest for certain states of mind, on the other hand, is one more form of self-centeredness: rather than wanting material goods, we are wanting “spiritual goods.” But the attitude of acquisitiveness for ourselves is the same, whether it’s material or “spiritual.” Far, far better to really trust what Buddha said: Anatta – there is no self. So who is getting anything, whether it’s a state of mind or a box at the opera?
That’s the great matter we really need to investigate.
By Henry Shukman