Response to “Not the Wind, Not the Flag”

A friend responded to my last post, Not the Wind, Not the Flag:

I cannot see the connection to life, cleaning cat boxes, cooking, shopping, driving, bathing and suffering.

Let me try to make that connection explicit, here.

Gautama the Buddha said that he returned to “that first characteristic of concentration in which I ever constantly abide” after he lectured, and that first characteristic is likely to be “one-pointedness of mind”, as I described it in “Not the Wind, Not the Flag”.  “One-pointedness of mind” does seem like something one could strive to take into everyday life. However, although Gautama implied that he returned to “one-pointedness of mind” after he spoke, he nonetheless described the initial concentration as a state wherein thought is “applied and sustained”.

Thought “applied and sustained” is seldom mentioned in Buddhist teaching these days. Zen teachers mostly recommend that beginning meditators focus on the breath in or out, and they will sometimes advise counting the breaths as a method to calm the mind.  So far as I know, Zen teachers never recommend that thoughts be “applied and sustained”. Even the Theravadin Buddhist teachers of Southeast Asia, who follow the teachings of Gautama’s sermons more closely, don’t recommend “thought applied and sustained” to their students–instead, they emphasize something along the lines of the “bare attention” now taught in the West as the practice of mindfulness.

A central theme of Gautama’s teaching was the cessation of “determinate thought” (AN III 414) in action, meaning the cessation of the exercise of will or volition in action.  A cessation of the exercise of will could be attained, said Gautama, through the induction of various successive states of concentration. As to the initial induction of concentration, Gautama declared that “making self-surrender the object of thought, one lays hold of concentration, one lays hold of one-pointedness of mind”.

I begin with making the surrender of volition in activity related to the movement of breath the object of thought.  For me, that necessitates thought applied and sustained with regard to relaxation of the activity of the body, with regard to the exercise of calm in the stretch of ligaments, with regard to the detachment of mind, and with regard to the presence of mind.  I find that a presence of mind from one breath to the next can precipitate “one-pointedness of mind”, but laying hold of “one-pointedness of mind” requires a surrender of willful activity in the body much like falling asleep.

It’s possible to experience “one-pointedness of mind” and the movement of “one-pointed” mind in the body without experiencing a freedom of that movement in full.  I’ve written about the analogies Gautama provided for the cultivation of “one-pointedness of mind” (The Early Record), and I would say that it’s only in the concentration where the body is suffused with “purity by the pureness of (one’s) mind” that the mind really moves freely. Gautama pointed out that with that concentration, “determinate thought” in action of the body ceases, in particular volition that affects the movement of inhalation or exhalation ceases.

That doesn’t mean that action of the body can’t take place, only that the exercise of will or volition is not involved.  I have many times quoted a remark I heard Zen teacher Kobun Chino Otogawa make at the end of one of his lectures at the San Francisco Zen Center:

You know, sometimes zazen gets up and walks around.

If a person “takes the attitude of someone who… lets go of both hands and feet” (as Dogen instructed), then perhaps there will come a moment when the hands and feet walk around.  At that moment, there will be new meaning to be had in cleaning cat boxes, cooking, shopping, driving, and bathing, though these experiences might not involve the attitude that advances from the top of a 100-foot pole throughout.

Having said that, I have to add that it’s my belief that not every Zen teacher has experienced the zazen that gets up and walks around.  That doesn’t say that they haven’t experienced the cessation of volition in action of the body, or that they are not qualified to teach Zen, but I think they must have a different perspective on the relationship of practice to the actions of everyday life.

To be clear, the cessation of volition in the action of the body is not the experience Gautama associated with his enlightenment–that would be the cessation of volition in the action of the mind, in “feeling and perceiving”.  Having attained to the “cessation of feeling and perceiving”, Gautama saw for himself that suffering is the last link in a chain of cause and effect, and his insight into the nature of suffering was his enlightenment.

In one of his declensions of the cause and effect of suffering, Gautama spoke of how consciousness comes to be “stationed” as a result of “that which we will”, and how that “station of consciousness” gives rise to “this mass of ill”:

That which we will…, and that which we intend to do and that wherewithal we are occupied:–this becomes an object for the persistance of consciousness. The object being there, there comes to be a station of consciousness. Consciousness being stationed and growing, rebirth of renewed existence takes place in the future, and here from birth, decay, and death, grief, lamenting, suffering, sorrow, and despair come to pass. Such is the uprising of this mass of ill.

Even if we do not will, or intend to do, and yet are occupied with something, this too becomes an object for the persistance of consciousness… whence birth… takes place.

But if we neither will, nor intend to do, nor are occupied about something, there is no becoming of an object for the persistance of consciousness. The object being absent, there comes to be no station of consciousness. Consciousness not being stationed and growing, no rebirth of renewed existence takes place in the future, and herefrom birth, decay-and-death, grief, lamenting, suffering, sorrow and despair cease. Such is the ceasing of this entire mass of ill.

(SN II 65, Pali Text Society SN Vol II pg 45)

It’s my belief that the mind that moves is the opposite of “a station of consciousness”.

“Birth, decay-and-death, grief, lamenting, suffering, sorrow and despair”—in some of his lectures, Gautama summarized “this entire mass of ill” by saying “in short, the five groups of grasping”.  Grasping after a sense of self in connection with phenomena of form, feeling, mind, habitual tendency, or mental state is identically suffering, according to Gautama.

I’m not sure that most people would agree with Gautama, that grasping after a sense of self is suffering.  I think most people see suffering as something that takes place in connection with pain.

There are at least two sermons where disciples of Gautama paid a visit to some member of the order who was seriously ill, because that member of the order intended to “take the knife” (commit suicide).  I believe the disciples were unable to dissuade the ill individual from taking the knife, even though all involved were well-versed in the teaching.  My guess is that lacking Gautama’s experience, both with the endurance of pain and with the surrender of volition, few can avoid the grasping associated with the desire to avoid pain.

People also suffer from the failure to get the things that they desire in everyday life, things other than the relief of pain.  Maybe that’s the kind of suffering my friend meant to imply when she said, “cleaning cat boxes, cooking, shopping, driving, bathing, and suffering”.  I find relief from that kind of suffering in “making self-surrender the object of thought”, and as I’ve explained, for me that entails making the cessation of volitive action the object of my thought.  I believe my friend also finds relief from suffering in “making self-surrender the object of thought”, but for her that has to do with good works.

I hope I can say that my friend and I share a belief in the efficacy of selfless action in the relief of suffering, although I have yet to adequately explain to her how letting go of volition can result in action.

It’s impossible to teach the meaning of sitting. You won’t believe it. Not because I say something wrong, but until you experience it and confirm it by yourself, you cannot believe it.

(Kobun Chino Otogawa, “Embracing Mind”, edited by Cosgrove & Hall, pg 48)










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