by tendo zenji
Virtual Sesshin Day 2 – May 13th, 2020
Cultivating the Still Pool
We began yesterday with what I call ‘relaxing into awareness’. Relaxing into awareness can lead us right down into our true nature. You relax the body until you have no sense of it, you relax your placing of attention until there is only awareness, you relax your thinking until there is only silence. This is cultivating the still pool.
Becoming like a perfectly still pool, reflecting everything and nothing. This is the basis of all of our practices. There are several paths here, following the breath, relaxing into awareness and just sitting are the routes that we are going to take. The Ch’an approach is one of naturalness, which is something we will constantly encounter and explore.
The question of effort is a vital one. Whenever there is effort, the self is involved. But we can use effort to establish a practice, toward naturalness. This is captured simply and directly in this mondo between Chou Chou (Joshu) and Nanyue (Nansen)
Ordinary Mind is the Way
Chou Chou (Visitation-Land) asked Nanyue (Wellspring-South Mountain):
“What is Way?”
“Ordinary mind is Way,” answered Master Nanyue.
“Still, it’s something I can set out toward, isn’t it?”
“To set out is to be distant from.”
“But if I don’t set out, how will I arrive at an understanding of Way?”
“Way isn’t something you can understand, and it isn’t something you can not understand. Understanding is delusion, and not understanding is pure forgetfulness.
“If you truly comprehend this Way that never sets out for somewhere else, if you enter into it absolutely, you realize it’s exactly like the vast expanses of this universe, all generative emptiness you can see through into boundless clarity
“Now, how can you force that into coherence with the logic of yes-this no-that?”
Hearing these words, Chaou chou was suddenly awakened.
-David Hinton, No-Gate Gateway (p. 46).
We are going to move from relaxing into awareness into ‘Just Sitting’. When we relax into awareness, especially if you can take that final step of relaxing your attention, you are almost there to Just Sitting. In its purest form Just Siting, is simply sitting in empty awareness. There is no concerns of the self, no agenda, no technique. It is what Sheng Yen calls the ‘Method of No-Method.’ Just like with effort we can employ, very basic techniques such as the relaxing method, to reach a place where we let go of method. That place is the Still Pool. The Still Pool is bottomless, all the way down to the ground of being, fundamental reality. We can sink down into the Still Pool until we are fully plunged into our true nature. We can drop questions in and see what emerges. And at times we can just dive right in and break through to our depths.
As noted yesterday, along with these direct practices to engage in, we are also examining their grounded in the classical Ch’an, which has quite a different orientation than Zen. Yesterday we considered the Taoist elements that form the heart of Ch’an practice, based in the fundamental concept of reality as a generative tissue from which the ten thousand things arise and fall back into. Ch’an meditation is a process for directly encountering this cosmological tissue, to dropping the illusory separateness that we have.
We will return to David Hinton’s discussion of this in his introduction to his translation of the Wu-men Kuan. In this excerpt he is describing cultivating the Still Pool toward Empty Awareness.
With experience, the movement of thought during meditation slows enough that we notice each thought emerging from a kind of emptiness, evolving through its transformations, and finally disappearing back into that emptiness. This leads to the realization that the cosmology of Absence and Presence defines consciousness too, thoughts being Presence emerging from and vanishing back into Absence. That is, consciousness is part of the same cosmological tissue as the empirical world, with thoughts emerging from a generative emptiness exactly as the ten thousand things do.
Eventually the stream of thought falls silent, and we inhabit empty consciousness, free of that center of identity. That is, we inhabit the most fundamental nature of consciousness, and that fundamental nature is nothing other than Absence. Here consciousness inhabits the primal Cosmos in the most complete and immediate way, dwelling as integral to the very source of the Cosmos’s generative unfolding, for this Absence is not simply the tranquil silence we encounter in meditation, but something much deeper: a dark vastness beyond word and thought, the tumultuous source of life and death.
Ch’an calls this “empty-mind” (空心). 空 is essentially synonymous in the Ch’an literature with wu, and the double meaning of wu (“not/Absence”) is used to describe this empty-mind further as wu-hsin (無心): “no-mind,” meaning consciousness free of language and thought and memory, the mental apparatus of identity, or “Absence-mind,” consciousness in its original-nature as that generative cosmological tissue. But there’s more. Hsieh Ling-yün (385–433 C.E.), the great rivers-and-mountains poet, in the earliest surviving Ch’an text, calls this empty-mind “the tranquil mirror, all mystery and shadow,” and then continues: “one must become Absence and mirror the whole.” “Tranquil,” “mirror,” “mystery and shadow,” “Absence”—this description distills the conceptual world of the Tao Te Ching, and it shares Lao Tzu’s intent: to transform immediate experience so that we dwell as integral to landscape and Cosmos. Here, the act of perception becomes a spiritual act: empty-mind mirroring the world, leaving its ten thousand things free of all thought and explanation—utterly simple, utterly themselves, and utterly sufficient. This is a perennial theme in No-Gate Gateway, and it is the heart of Ch’an as a landscape practice. In such mirror-deep perception, earth’s vast rivers-and-mountains landscapes replace thought and even identity itself, revealing the unity of consciousness and landscape/Cosmos that is the heart of sage-dwelling in ancient China.
-David Hinton, No-Gate Gateway (pp. xxi)
Hinton here gets at how the Outdoor practices that we are engaging in function. It is this notion of the “act of perception as a spiritual act” or as I’d put it as a practice. It is letting this sensory data come in, without the endless commentary, of moving through the world in empty awareness. That we are practicing. The Still Pool can be that place from which we always operate.