“The entire great earth is the gate of liberation.
If you push on it, you can’t enter it.
If you want to see the moon in the sky,
put down your oar.”
Zen Master Miaojue (1089-1151)
The word “meditation” encompasses hundreds if not thousands of practices. It’s about as exact as the word “sport.” Some meditations work with breath, some with other kinds of awareness, some with mantra, some with visualization, and so on. When it comes to breath-awareness meditations, some manipulate and control the breath in a variety of ways, and others don’t, they merely observe it.
All practices have their rationale and benefits. In a sense, all have some kind of “result” they are aiming for. These results could be changes in consciousness, metabolism, heart rate, emotional state, psychological condition. They may ease the nervous system, for example, and leave the mind clearer, more focused, calmer. Or they may have more explicitly religious aims, and so on.
But beyond these many ways of improving our well-being – these tangible results and benefits of meditation – there are also meditation approaches deep in the Buddhist tradition that are geared less toward “results,” and more toward understanding, or seeing clearly, or “realization.”
The quotes at the top, by an old Zen master from the Song period of Chinese history, speak for this other kind of approach. “If you want to see the moon in the sky, put down your oar,” he says. We might understand this as: let go of your striving, all of it, whatever it may be for. Just look at the beautiful moon! Or another interpretation could be: if you keep on rowing, your oar itself is going to disturb the water so you can’t see the marvelous reflection of the moon on the lake. The beauty is already here; stop trying to find it somewhere else.
So how about if our daily meditation were the one time each day when we are not trying to achieve anything, not trying to get to some other state? Instead, we settle, we allow things to be as they, here and now, with no need for improvement. Mightn’t that be a nice way to be?
The story of Shakyamuni Buddha is instructive. He set out on his existential quest as a young man, determined to resolve all his doubts, discover his real identity, and so find an enduring peace. He began his search with “results-based” spiritual trainings, and became proficient in various kinds of arduous yoga. But although he is said to have mastered these techniques, they didn’t help him in his basic quest.
So finally he just sat down under a tree, determined not to get up until he had resolved “the great matter of life and death” – until his doubt, dissatisfaction and unease had found a fully satisfying resolution.
Zen meditation takes its cue from Shakyamuni. One of its foundational practices is following the breath. But we don’t try to adjust or control the breath; we simply let it be, and observe it.
In a sense Zen’s interest is less in changing our experience, and more in coming to see it clearly – though that will, naturally, change how we experience each moment. This spirit guides how we work with the breath. The breath is a phenomenon: we let ourselves feel it, hear it, “see” it with the mind’s eye, sense its movement in the torso. We allow our minds to come to rest in the experience of breathing. Our minds will wander, and again and again we bring them back. To help us, we add a simple count, in sets of ten.
Over time, through regular practice, things happen. We find we are becoming more intimate with the workings of our minds. We get to see and know them better. We develop our powers of concentration and awareness – of mindfulness and presence. We learn to attend to our daily activities as they happen. This surely brings more happiness, as we start to inhabit our lives more fully.
An attitude of enquiry may enter our practice too. What exactly is a breath, not conceptually but as an experience? Who exactly is this very mind, which I call “me”? Who really am I? These are the questions that drove Shakyamuni, and they are still the foundation of a spiritual journey.
Breath is a great area in which to explore them. Breath is always with us. Breath happens only in the here and now. Reconnect with the breath, in any moment of the day, and we reconnect with life itself.
So rather than trying to get to some improved state through meditation, what if instead we let the practice show us the treasure that is already here?
“The entire great earth is the gate of liberation,” says master Miaojue. “But if you push on it, you can’t enter it.”
It’s paradoxical. By trying to get somewhere through our practice, we risk pushing away the very peace we seek. What if the first step is simply to allow this moment to be as it is?
It may sound like a radical claim, but could it be that there actually is a peace, a love, a freedom that is unconditioned, that is dependent on nothing, and that has been right here with us, in the core of our experience, all along?
Mountain Cloud Zen Center
This article was written by Henry Shukman for Pranayama & Yoga Mandiram (YogaMandiram.com)