An Unauthorized and Incomplete Guide to Zazen–contents

The Gautamid Offers A Practice

Dragon tiling fractal image

In a chapter devoted to the cultivation of the bases of psychic power, Gautama the Buddha offered a practice in four parts, to wit:

So he abides fully conscious of what is behind and what is in front.
As (he is conscious of what is) in front, so behind: as behind, so in front;
as below, so above: as above, so below:
as by day, so by night: as by night, so by day.
Thus with wits alert, with wits unhampered, he cultivates his mind to brilliancy.

(Sanyutta-Nikaya, text V 263, Pali Text Society volume 5 pg 235, ©Pali Text Society)

“As in front, so behind; as behind, so in front”: Gautama did not expand on his meaning with regard to “in front” and “behind”. Some have interpreted his words to be a reference to the past and the future, but in light of the explanation offered for the second line, a more likely interpretation would perhaps be an awareness of the body before and behind.

When the feeling for stretch and activity that Fuxi described with the words “…I ride the ox” carries into the lower back and abdomen, a reciprocity of stretch and activity behind the sacrum and lower back and in front of the lower abdomen enters awareness, and the advice here is to allow consciousness to shift as necessary in the development of feeling.

“As below, so above; as above, so below”: Gautama did expand on this line, saying that one should survey the body upwards from the soles of the feet and downwards from the crown of the head, and comprehend the body as a bag of flesh enclosing impurities.

The instruction is to feel the body from the soles of the feet upward without attachment to any particular, and to feel the body from the crown of the head downward similarly. The stretch of the body returns from the soles of the feet to the bones at the crown of the head through reciprocal activity, while the weight of the body falls from the moving bones of the head to the soles of the feet in a stretch the length of the body.

Gautama referred to the body as a “bag of flesh enclosing impurities”. As an ascetic, the Gautamid almost starved himself to death, and although he later disavowed the kind of extreme ascetism he himself had practiced, traces of the attitude he held toward the body as an ascetic continued to be present in his teaching.

At one point in Gautama’s career, his advocacy of “the meditation on the unlovely” (a meditation on the impurities of the body) led many monks to commit suicide. The monks contemplated “the unlovely”, and when the Gautamid secluded himself for three weeks on a personal retreat, scores of monks a day “took the knife” in a kind of mass hysteria.

In his teaching to the order of monks immediately after he learned of the suicides, Gautama pointed to the concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths as a practice that was “peaceful and choice, something perfect in itself, and a pleasant way of living too (Sanyutta Nikaya V PTS pg 285)”. Although he may have advised the meditation on the impurities of the body at times as a technique for the abandonment of any attachment to self, in his recommendation of the concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths he seems to have acknowledged that what is appropriate may depend on the circumstance.

“By night as by day, by day as by night”: Gautama explained that in cultivating the psychic powers, one employs by day “the same signs, characteristics, and marks” that one employs by night, and vice-versa. The psychic powers Gautama referred to included the ability to perform six different kinds of miracle, the ability to see an individual’s past lives, and the ability to see an individual’s future condition (rebirth).

Although I have never experienced anything of the psychic powers Gautama described personally, I can say that the practice Gautama gave as “by night as by day, by day as by night” still holds significance for me. The signs, characteristics, and marks associated with consciousness and feeling by day help me set up mindfulness by night, and the signs, characteristics, and marks associated with consciousness and feeling by night help me set up mindfulness by day. The practice Gautama described emphasizes the use of memory with respect to physical and mental experience in a kind of ongoing continuum, and as such I find it useful.

“Thus with wits alert, with wits unhampered, he cultivates his mind to brilliancy”: Gautama explained that a monk “cultivates his mind to brilliancy” when the monk’s “consciousness of light is well grasped, his consciousness of daylight is well-sustained.”

When consciousness leads the balance of the body to open the ability of nerves to feel, sensory awareness is heightened, and through heightened awareness the sense of location as consciousness occurs is sharpened.

As to the “consciousness of light” or of “daylight”, the gland which is perhaps most responsive to daylight in the body is the pineal gland (the pineal produces melatonin), and the gland is supported by a bone in the interior of the skull (the sphenoid) that flexes and extends with the rhythm of the cranial-sacral fluid. The bases of psychic power were desire, energy, thought, and investigation (together with the co-factors of concentration and struggle), and they were to be cultivated by the use of the four-part method described in Gautama’s stanza. Whether or not there is a way to perform miracles and see the past lives or karmic fate of others, I can’t say; that there may be a way to bring about psychic experience through a “consciousness of daylight”, and possibly the occurrence of consciousness at the place where daylight most affects the endocrinology of the body, I would guess could be (although the precise nature of that phenomena may not be what it was thought to be in 500 B.C.E, as for example, the miracle of “handling and stroking the sun and moon with the hand”).