Leading retreats, guiding people through the early stages of the meditation experience, one is often confronted by such similar questions and seeming obstacles or dilemmas, no matter where in the world: How do I find my breath? Why must I keep my eyes open during meditation? Why does the floor in front of me seem to move or undulate or present images during meditation? What should I do when strong feelings appear? How do I handle strong sexual thoughts or images? Why do I sometimes feel a choking sensation during meditation? Why am I afraid that if I “let go,” I might fall into something that I don’t understand but which seems too big to handle or even imagine? Why is there suddenly so much thinking when I meditate? How do I handle sleepiness? How do I handle boredom? How do I handle fear? How do I handle anger? Why do certain images continually appear in my mind?
Often, people ask the meaning of these things because they are wondering if there is some special or mystical meaning or reason for the coming and going of certain thoughts or images in our minds. Or, they are hindered by the emotion-content that seems to have tendril-roots in their physical experience, thereby making these passing thought-images seem to have content, depth, weight, meaning, reality.
One time, a student said to Dae Soen Sa Nim, “In my meditation, this one kind of terrible thought keeps appearing whenever I start meditation! I cannot handle this anymore. Now I don’t want to do meditation, because I am bothered by seeing these things. Why do these thoughts keep appearing in my meditation?”
Dae Soen Sa Nim shouted, “Because you put them there!”
Because you put them there! What an excellent and complete answer. That is all there is to it. In this tape-recorder machine called the thinking-mind, everything we have ever thought or heard or seen or experienced is recorded. Then, when things become silent and still, and external phenomena are reduced to a bare floor, a stick of incense, the sensation in knees and back, and the natural sound of the room or the building environment, things appear back on the screen.
And yet they are not really there. Like the film viewed on a screen in a darkened movie theater, the thinking-mind’s projections have a reality which can move our emotions, even often lead us to rash actions or speech. Yet the images of Jack slipping under the icy waters at the end of the movie Titanic, leaving Rose to survive alone, are real enough to put a lump in our throat and a tear in the eye, in fact it is just an empty projection on an empty screen. Even though you know that Leonardo DiCaprio is alive and well and dating a super-young supermodel somewhere in California, when you see that film, the layer of illusion overcomes the rational mind, and you are (pleasurably) caught for a time.
Back in there late 1970s and ’80s, Dae Soen Sa Nim’s LA Dharma Zen Center shared a property with the Tahl Man Sah Temple where the Korean community held their Buddhist services. It was decided that, since the Koreans were wary of joining together closely with his (mainly hippie) Western students in their silent Zen practice that he had simplified and fashioned out of the highly ceremonial Korean style of Buddhist activity, the Korean temple and the Zen Center would be active in neighboring houses on the same property. They were not meant to be separate, but mostly to accommodate the very conservative sensibilities of the Korean immigrant community who found the casually-dressed, laid-back attitude of late-70s California youth a little too off-putting for their tastes. Dae Soen Sa Nim taught this way for a few years, because he only had one body, and it was more efficient.
So, there was a lot of overlap in the community, though the Koreans generally kept very separate from these strange, hairy Westerners with their looser sexual mores and wild experiences.
One of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s Korean-speaking American students noticed that many of the Korean grandmas who powered the Korean temple, in their discussions with him, would ask for his guidance regarding certain recurring subjects: asking for advice on family problems, dealing with the difficulty of life in the Wild west of America, and things they saw in their dreams.
One day, the American student said to Dae Soen Sa Nim, “These older Korean women often say they saw a dragon in their dream, or a tiger in their dream, or a magpie in their dream, or a white crane in their dream. They often ask you for the meaning of this. But I never dream about those things, and I don’t know any of my friends who dream of that kind of stuff, at least never so much as the Korean grandmothers. Why do they dream so much of these images, and then ask you for the significance of it?”
Dae Soen Sa Nim replied, “In their culture, since birth, these people have all been told stories about tigers and dragons and cranes and magpies and other things which have identities. Their grandparents told them stories about these things, and their parents told them stories about these things. Some of these creatures represent mystical powers, and some represent good luck, or bad luck. They see images of these things in temple paintings, and folk stories, in simple art and the books and stories that they then pass down to their children. So, when they sleep, these things appear again in their mind. Western people don’t get taught these images, so they don’t appear in their minds. Western people have other images put into their minds, and these other things appear during their meditation or their dreams.”
So, everything that appears in meditation is just the echo-form of something that has been impressed into the tape of thinking-experience. Of course, our job as Zen students is just to leave that coming-and-going material alone, never trying to “stop” it, never trying to “avoid” or repress it. We sit with our breath, aware of the coming and going, yet coming back to soft awareness of breath to reflect inwardly: Where does this thinking come from? What sees that happening? What is the witness of that? What am I? And when we do that, all thinking cannot go any farther: like a bird flying unawares into a flat plane of glass, all thinking is immediately “cut off”: we are in don’t-know, the “something” before thinking arises. It is infinite in time and space, without borders or edges, without size or time or space, which is actually infinite time and space. It is the “place” where nothing appears or disappears. Complete stillness, sometimes called “nirvana.”
In the 500 year-old classic, The Mirror of Zen, the great Seosahn Dae Sah puts it this way:
“There is, in fact, no ‘thing’ that ever actually appears.” Beautiful.
Dae Soen Sa Nim put more words to it for his Western students in The Compass of Zen. He disassembles all of the machine-parts. It is a beautiful expression of the very point that Seosahn Dae Sah makes:
Everything appears and disappears. You can see that in this world. You can smell that. You can taste that. But where does everything in the universe appear and disappear? By looking closely at the true nature of this world, and practicing meditation, you can see that all appearance and disappearance occurs only in your own mind. Mind makes everything. So in the Avatamsaka-sutra, as we will see, the Buddha says, “Everything is created by mind alone.” When you have mind, then there is appearing and disappearing. If you have no mind, then you perceive that nothing ever appears or disappears. Nothing ever comes or goes.
Then what is the correct function of appearing and disappearing? This is a very important point. Only help other people. First you see that everything in this world appears and disappears, around and around nonstop. But then you inevitably want to understand where this world comes from that appears and disappears so much: Who made this world which appears and disappears? Where does everything appear from, and where does everything go when it disappears?
If you practice hard, you can see that your own mind has made this whole world, and everything in it. Then who made this mind? “I” did. If “I” disappears, mind disappears, and this whole universe disappears. When “I” disappears, appearing is only appearing, and disappearing is only disappearing. That is because when there is no “I,” your mind is clear like space, which means it is clear like a mirror. When a red ball is held in front of the mirror, red appears. When a white ball is held there, white appears. But this clear mirror itself never appears or disappears. It only reflects mountains and rivers and trees and dogs and cats and people just as they are. The clear mirror reflects this whole world’s appearing and disappearing, yet the clear mirror itself never appears or disappears. So there is no appearing or disappearing, and yet appearing is just appearing and disappearing is just disappearing. If you attain this clear mirror, which means attaining your true self, then what is the correct function of appearing and disappearing? How can you use appearing and disappearing to help other beings? That is the sole job of our meditation practice.
A long time ago in Korea, the great Zen Master Hyo Bong gave a very interesting dharma speech that points to how we can find this function. Sitting on the high rostrum in the Main Buddha Hall at the great Haein Sah Temple, he hit his Zen stick on the stand three times and said to the assembly of monks, “All things and all Dharmas are constantly appearing and disappearing, appearing and disappearing. But originally, everything comes from complete stillness. This stillness is universal substance itself. If you attain substance, you attain truth and correct function. Then appearing and disappearing are truth, and it is possible to attain the correct function of appearing and disappearing.
“Then my question for all of you monks today is, where do substance, truth, and function come from? If you open your mouth to answer, this already makes opposites. By keeping your mouth closed, you show an attachment to emptiness. So how do you, with your mouth neither open nor closed, attain substance, truth, and function?” Nobody in the vast assembly of monks could answer.
“I’ll give you all a hint,” he said. “Katz! Everybody return to your rooms and have some tea.” Then Zen Master Hyo Bong descended from the high rostrum. It is not difficult to attain the function of “when appearing and disappearing disappear.” Appearing and disappearing disappear, then this stillness is bliss. Everything is already complete. Nothing is lacking anywhere. Nothing is not truth. When you see, when you hear, when you smell, when you taste, when you touch, and when you think, everything is already complete. We use this word complete to point to moment-mind. In moment-mind, appearing is just appearing, and disappearing is just disappearing. This is because moment-mind is already beyond time and space. It means having just this moment [hits the table]. Moment is a very short time. In this short time, appearing is just appearing, and disappearing is just disappearing. But when our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind don’t keep this moment-mind, then everything is illusion. That means that everything is not complete, and not truth. When you live in that illusion, you actually believe that everything in this world appears and disappears. You believe that things come and go, that they are born and die. This is where human suffering comes from.
Everyone thinks that this is extremely difficult teaching, something beyond their reach or experience. How can things appear and disappear, and yet there is, originally, even in this constantly moving world, no appearing and disappearing? A student once said to me, “The Mahaparinirvana-sutra seems very confusing. Everything is always moving. And yet everything is not moving? I don’t understand this Buddhism . . .” But there is a very easy way to understand this: Sometime you go to a movie. You see an action movie about a good man and a bad man—lots of fighting, cars moving very fast, and explosions all over the place. Everything is always moving very quickly. Our daily lives have this quality: everything is constantly moving, coming and going, nonstop. It seems like there is no stillness-place. But this movie is really only a very long strip of film. In one second, there are something like fourteen frames. Each frame is a separate piece of action. But in each frame, nothing is moving. Everything is completely still. Each frame, one by one, is a complete picture. In each frame, nothing ever comes or goes, or appears or disappears. Each frame is complete stillness. The film projector moves the frames very quickly, and all of these frames run past the lens very fast, so the action on-screen seems to happen nonstop. There is no break in the movement of things. But actually when you take this strip of film and hold it up to the light with your hands, there is nothing moving at all. Each frame is complete. Every moment is completely not-moving action.
Our minds and this whole universe are just like that. This world is impermanent. Everything is always changing, changing, changing, moving, moving, moving, nonstop. Even one second of our lives seems full of so much movement and change in this world that we see. But your mind—right now—is like a lens whose shutter speed is one divided by infinite time. We call that moment-mind. If you attain that mind, then this whole world’s movement stops. From moment to moment you can see this world completely stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Like the film, you perceive every frame—this moment—which is infinitely still and complete. In the frame, nothing is moving. There is no time, and nothing appears or disappears in that box. But this movie projector—your thinking mind—is always moving, around and around and around, so you experience this world as constantly moving and you constantly experience change, which is impermanence. You lose moment-mind by following your conceptual thinking, believing that it is real.
When you practice meditation for a long time, however, you can stop your mind-lens, and then you can actually experience that each moment of your life is truly infinite in time and space. This is why we call it moment-mind. It is not moving, and it is always complete. It is mind that is actually beyond time and space. Then when you see, when you hear, when you smell, when you taste, when you touch, when you think—everything, just as it is, is already complete. It is very important to attain this point: only then can you attain this sutra’s meaning. The sutra becomes yours. You attain the bliss of “when appearing and disappearing disappear.” But just understanding these words is not enough if you do not actually attain the very real experience to which they point.The Compass of Zen (Shambhala Dragon Editions) . Boston, 1997.
The point of Zen meditation is to attain this. It is not really that difficult. However, remaining stable in this view, in the midst of our myriad daily activities, can definitely be a challenge. That is why we need a strong, consistent daily practice. And doing frequent retreats of 3 days or longer can also greatly strengthen our grounding in this view. That will really help our life.