This is Post 22 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series.
In very general terms, the classic Zen meditation practice of Zazen, or ‘Just Sitting’, can be thought of as a meditation that takes the body as a whole, and its environment, as the ‘object’ of the meditation practice. For those that have not experienced the practice, it can be difficult to understand how this seemingly diffuse and unfocused approach to meditation could, in a very natural and effortless way, give rise to strong states of somatic integration, where it appears that Consciousness is the unifying power that is producing the state of effortless concentration, rather than any willed concentration on a particular ‘object’. Indeed the ‘object’ of attention in Zazen practice, if there is one, is Consciousness – the field in which the experiencing is happening.
Sympathetic Joy – the Zen of Embodied Consciousness
In the last few posts I have reflecting in different ways on the brahmavihāras or muditā, which is usually translated as Sympathetic Joy. In the text of my writing I have been translating muditā as Appreciative Joy, which is more accurate, and which I prefer, but in the titles and section headings I have be using the more frequently used translation of Sympathetic Joy.
Although it is by no means limited to Appreciative Joy, Zazen practice obviously has a close connection with Sympathetic Joy. The characteristic boundlessness of Zazen, while simultaneously paying attention to the felt experience of the body, means that the practice also has much in common with all of the brahmavihāras, and with the approach to meditation that I have been presenting in these ‘Meditation Guidance’ articles.
I am aware that Zen Buddhism has different associations for different people, and different schools of Zen have different emphases. In this instance, I am making reference to Zen to highlight an approach to meditation practice that is characterised by a sense of embodiment, expansiveness, appreciation, contentment and gratitude, and a deep and fearless willingness to fully inhabit the body and the sensory world as Consciousness – attitudes that are characteristic, in my view, of Appreciative Joy.
Dhyāna: Resting as Consciousness to achieve Somatic Integration
Zen means meditation. The word Zen is a transliteration, into Japanese, of the Chinese word ‘Chan’, which in turn comes from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which is usually rendered, somewhat confusingly, as ‘concentration’. Interestingly the word dhyāna, as well as denoting the practice or activity of meditative concentration, is also used to describe the various refined and blissful states of somatic integration that are achieved through meditation practice, which are collectively called the dhyānas.
This use of the same word (dhyāna) for both the practice of somatic integration, and the resultant states of somatic integration, highlights I believe, the fact that the these blissful states of somatic integration were commonplace in the Buddha’s community, and regarded as integral to meditation practice rather than special states that were only occasionally encountered.
I have a critical perspective on the unfortunate tendency of many writers and teachers to render the Buddha’s teachings in dualistic terms. Because of this, I prefer a more explanatory translation of dhyāna, which can simply be described as the meditative practice of resting as Consciousness.
Ethical States are Blissful States are Ethical States
Importantly, these integrated and blissful states, are understood to arise from ethical thought, speech and action. Indeed Buddhist tradition tells us that their are numerous Deva Realms – parallel worlds inhabited by beings called devas – beings who dwell permanently in the blissful dhyāna states as a result of previous lifetimes of kind, generous and ethical thoughts, speech and action.
The connection between the bliss of the dhyānas and ethical thought, speech and action, is especially clear when we practice the brahmavihāras meditation-cycle. The brahmavihāras are the ethical attitudes that are inherent in Consciousness – Equanimity, Appreciative Joy, mettā (Loving-Kindness), and Compassion. When we use the brahmavihāras as a framework for our meditative self-inquiry, it quickly becomes abundantly clear to us that ethical attitudes give rise to states of somatic integration and well-being.
The brahmavihāras meditation-cycle approach to meditation is immediately rewarding, both in the consistent experience of somatic integration that is experienced in doing the practice, and also in the virtuous circle it immediately creates between your inner and outer life. As we practice we become very keenly aware that the bodily-felt experience of somatic integration that arises through resting as Consciousness, gives us a hugely enhanced capacity to think, speak, and act ethically – and to live harmoniously with our fellow human beings. And this of course feeds back as we find ourselves already at ease, and in a more integrated state – before we even sit down on our meditation cushion.
Zen Ethics / Zen Aesthetics / Zen Creativity
Many people associate Zen with a distinctive form of Japanese visual aesthetic in architecture and design, and especially garden design. Characteristic of Zen style are: great refinement of craftsmanship without pretence; a genuine enjoyment of simplicity; a recognition of the beauty of natural, sustainable materials and technologies; a harmony of natural features (trees, watercourses, rocks, etc.) and man-made features (buildings, paths, pools, bridges, etc.) in the landscape; and a deep appreciation of the soulful beauty of rustic, flawed, weathered, or old, objects.
Appreciative Joy, the attitude of Consciousness, which I have been exploring in the last few posts is in many respects a reflection of this Zen attitude of mind. At best the Zen aesthetic causes us to slow down and drop into that state of deep appreciation and gratitude. By highlighting the simplicity and impermanence of the all things in our natural world, we are thrown back into an awareness of the embodied Consciousness that is experiencing – and that Consciousness then animates our world, making every moment precious, and every object rich with meaning, value, and subtle beauty – an experience of Appreciative Joy.
Zen therefore, while culturally Japanese, has much to teach us about living well in the Human Realm – the realm of Sensation. While Appreciative Joy is also an interpersonal response to the skills, qualities and creativity of others, it is also an attitude of Consciousness, and a way of being, living and creating. As we engage in self-inquiry, and reflect on our familiar activities from a spiritual point of view – from the point of view of Consciousness – we naturally aspire to create a reflection in the outer world, of the harmony, naturalness and beauty that we experience inwardly in our deepest moments of mind-body integration.
How did the Buddha teach meditation?
Unfortunately we do not know how the Buddha taught meditation. So we are forced to read the early Buddhist texts like an imaginative archaeologist piecing together fragments of information. The only way we can make sense of the fragments is with reference to our own meditative explorations and self-inquiry – being very careful to avoid the prejudice of our own dualistic and egoic assumptions.
We also need to be wary and discerning in regard to those pundits who teach out of their identification with a particular tradition rather than their experience, so that they deliver only a superficial and formulaic analysis of the Buddha’s teaching. In my experience, the best teachers are those who teach directly from their own experience, and in a very intimate way – sharing from their own self-inquiry.
‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ – a Very Advanced Practice
Many people believe that the Buddha’s main approach to meditation was through the ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ practice, and many regard it is a primary foundation practice for the practice of mindfulness in daily life. While it is a practice that I use daily, as part of my brahmavihāras practice, I have come to feel strongly that Mindfulness of Breathing should not be taught on its own as a foundation practice – because it is very difficult for the beginner to practice correctly. I would even go as far as to say that Mindfulness of Breathing is often strongly counterproductive as a spiritual practice, because it tends to encourage an identification with our heroic and controlling egoic parts rather than allowing them to rest as Consciousness – as Zazen might aim to do.
It is very common for the Mindfulness of Breathing practice to become a fruitless dualistic struggle – one in which the egoic part that has identified itself as ‘the meditator’, engages in a battle of wills with other egoic parts that are resisting the heroic and controlling attitude of that dominant egoic part. Mindfulness is a very subtle spiritual practice that requires that we first recognise and familiarise ourselves with Consciousness. The Mindfulness of Breathing practice should also therefore, be regarded as very advanced – a practice that should not be attempted unless it can be practised in the spirit of the Buddha’s non-duality teachings, and as natural extension of the practice of resting as Consciousness.
In my view, if anyone is willing to give time to exploring meditation, they would do well to start with self-inquiry practices that focus on the recognition of Consciousness, and by practising the brahmavihāras meditation-cycle to transform the surface bodies by resting them as Consciousness. In my experience this process of familiarisation is best approached in the expansive, open, receptive spirit of Zazen – and only once this is established should they incorporate ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ into the practice. I shall be talking about how ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ can be used at a later stage of practice, to deepen our experience of the brahmavihāras, in the later posts of the this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series.
Thwarting the Dualistic Thinking of the Egoic Mind
The Zen Buddhist tradition has given us one of our most successful approaches to meditation, especially for exploring Consciousness as it is felt in the body and experienced in the world through Sensation. While the Zen tradition has many sub-schools, it can, in general, be distinguished by the directness of its engagement with Consciousness, and the Zazen practice is an expression of this. The practice is however, somewhat perplexing to the egoic and dualistic mind because, as I have mentioned above, there is no apparent focus for the egoic will.
This fundamental thwarting of the egoic mind’s desire for a dualistic framework is Zazen’s great strength, but it can make this marvellous practice difficult for most people to grasp. The brahmavihāras meditation-cycle that I am presenting in this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, has much in common with Zazen, but the ‘Mandala of Love’ framework aims to provide a much more detailed guide for the beginner – and a much easier way into what is essentially a Zazen-style approach.
The brahmavihāras Meditation-Cycle as Enhanced Zazen
I also strongly recommend this ‘Mandala of Love’ approach to more experienced practitioners of Zazen who are looking for a way to expand their understanding of the practice. It is of the nature of meditation that we can get stuck, and without appropriate input can fail to recognise where we are limiting ourselves. The brahmavihāras mandala model shows us that there is always a danger of one-sided development, and that this one-sidedness can limit our meditation practice, or undermine it completely.
© William Roy Parker 2017