by Jody Hojin Kimmel
Originally published in Mountain Record journal: Zazen (2013)
Just resting is like the great ocean accepting hundreds of streams all absorbed in one flavor. A practitioner of the way follows movement and responds to changes in total harmony. Moreover, haven’t you yourself established the mind that thinks up all the illusory conditions? This insight must be perfectly incorporated. Discontinue leaks and do not act on them.
— Master Hongzhi
Cultivating the Empty Field
How do we leak the vital energy we need for spiritual awakening? What do we have to do to, “discontinue the leaks and not act on them,” as Master Hongzhi teaches?
Each period of zazen, our practice is moment-to-moment trying to be where we are. Every aspect of our training basically boils down to this. Consider all the forms we use in training—these forms are offered so that at each moment we know exactly how to fill ourself. They simplify things for us; we can just fold right into the form and within that form, see our minds clearly.
When we come into the zendo, in a sense, we take up the question, “Where am I?” Although our bodies are clearly here in this space, in a big way, we’re not here—we’re somewhere else, often lost in our fantasies, memories, and ideas. Hongzhi says, “Haven’t you yourself established the mind that thinks up all the illusory conditions? This insight must be perfectly incorporated.” We need to see where we are and be aware of what we are feeling.
What does it mean to be totally and completely here, with the whole body and mind, all the senses, the intellect, the passions? It’s incredible to see how uninterested we are in where we are. We just want to think, to figure life out, to worry or indulge our fantasies. Before we know it, we are somewhere else. This is not a sin—we’re just lost in our thinking mind at that moment—but the problem is that we’re unaware. The freedom of our mind is that we can go wherever we want to—we can fantasize, we can daydream, we can go to the past, to the future—in a way, this is the beauty of our mind. But for us to put our mind where we want it, when we want it there, for as long as we need it there—this is very difficult. That’s why we’re in training: to learn how to stop running away from where we are.
William James did an experiment around the turn of the nineteenth century. He wanted to see how long the average person could actually concentrate, so he used the example of a bird sitting on a tree limb. How long do you think we can keep our full concentration completely on that bird? Four point seven seconds. Four point seven seconds to focus and concentrate on that bird before our attention flies off. Our attention can return—the bird may come back and land on another branch. But how long is that flight away? Look at your current zazen—how long before your attention returns to right here? It could be five minutes. Maybe ten minutes? Half an hour? A year? A lifetime? A lifetime….
That gap in our awareness, that flight, is where we suffer, consciously or unconsciously. Until we learn to meditate, most of us are unable to see this process of how we get lost in our head and miss our life. In zazen we study this moment by simply learning to be. This is “the resting of the streams of tides” that Hongzhi speaks of: to study the moment, simply learning to be.
In another section of Cultivating the Empty Field, Hongzhi says, “You must completely withdraw from the visible pounding and weaving of your ingrained ideas. You yourself establish the mind that thinks up all the illusory conditions, false conceptions, and attachments that we do not realize. Accept your function and be wholly satisfied.” What is it to accept? Accept who you are—all of it. When we come into practice, many of us feel that we want to get rid of something. But our practice is to accept what we want to get rid of, because although we can’t get rid of it, we can see it clearly. Accept who you are—we should keep this aspiration clear. “Accepting hundreds of streams all absorbed in one flavor.” What is one flavor? Just don’t move away.
Concentration can be described as a particular state of awareness that’s penetrating, unified, focused, yet permeable and open. It’s hard to define, but we recognize when it’s present, or when it’s absent. We can experience concentration put into things, like when things are made, we can feel the concentration that was present. For example, every day this floor was vacuumed, and I could feel the concentration present in that every time I came into the zendo. We see it in people—we can recognize when someone has concentration.
When we’re offered instruction in zazen, we learn about joriki, the power of concentration, the ability to put our mind where we want it and keep it there for as long as we need to. The instruction is to come into our body, establish our posture, and then make contact with our breath. When we inhale count one, exhale, two. When a thought comes up that takes us away from the counting, we see the thought, acknowledge it, release the grasp on it and come back to the breath. Every time we do that we build joriki. We practice putting our concentration lower in the body, in the hara, where the more intuitive, spontaneous aspect of our being naturally arises from. Often we’re living from the neck up, top heavy, lost in thought, so in zazen we practice bringing everything down lower. We sit in an upright stable form, surrendering our weight to the pull of gravity, and letting our breath and attention move down.
In the wholeheartedness of concentration, the world and ourself begin to cohere. In zazen, we invite concentration, bringing our attention to just where we are. Interesting or not: concentrate. Boring or not: concentrate. Excitement or lack: concentrate. Breath by breath, koan by koan, practice by practice: concentrate.
In any commitment of attention things will get larger. We enter not-knowing, uncertainty, which puts us in accord with how things are. It’s uncomfortable, challenging to be in this space of not-knowing, of uncertainty.
I was recently invited to a middle school to speak about Buddhism. The students there were exploring the theme “Be Where You Are.” As part of the visit, I guided a group in art practice with clay. After we’d had a chance to warm up and work with the clay for a bit, I invited the group to take up expressing the feeling of love. I said, “Does everyone here love something?” And everyone said, “Yeah!” and piped up with the stuff they love, cars, horses. (I remember Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Everybody loves something, even if it’s a tortilla chip.” I always liked that.) We each brought to mind something we love and I encouraged them to just feel that love—not what the thing is, but to feel the feeling, and just let their hands do what that feeling is doing. While they’re working, I’m taking in how everyone is responding to this exercise, which is really asking us to concentrate, to stay open, present, responsive, and to not-know.
There was a lot of nervous energy, kids coming in and out of their own experience, looking at each other. I could see one fellow struggling with knowing and not knowing. He would get the concentration going, he would be with the clay, with the feeling, and then you could see him pull away, like he couldn’t handle it. He would have to talk out loud, make a plan for what he was creating, like, “I’m going to make a…” but then he’d let go again, and release back into not-knowing, eyes closed, just feeling the clay in his hands…. He was moving in and out, working with that clay, trusting the mystery of its form taking shape. But then finally he said, “There! I made a couch.” Mystery solved. One moment we have infinite possibilities, the next, he knew something. Dead on arrival. He stopped concentrating. This is Mara taking over, saying, “You can’t not-know what this is!” You could just see the tension: Don’t know. You can’t not-know. Don’t know. You can’t not-know….This is what we do.
We wonder why it’s so hard to awaken. It’s because that life-force, our ki, our energy that’s needed, is leaking away night and day, day and night.
One of the pivotal realizations in this practice is to realize the extent to which we live asleep. We sit down, we start seeing, and then it’s painful because we see how much we miss. And yet joy comes because we see. We see, finally!
Hongzhi says, “You must completely withdraw from the invisible pounding and weaving of your ingrained ideas. You yourself establish the mind that thinks up all the illusory conditions, false conceptions and attachments we do not realize. Accept your function and be wholly satisfied.” Most of our thoughts arrive predictably, mechanically, from our conditions. Rarely do we know who we are, except in a very narrow, self-conscious way. We hardly know what we’re doing while we’re doing it. But right there, when we become aware of this gap, we can make contact with the energy we need to awaken.
We also need to acknowledge the extent to which we do not want to be where we are, the extent to which we make the choice “no”—choosing not to meditate, to just be entertained, or choosing to blame, to complain. In one sense, resistance is fine, because we can use it to sharpen the lens. We can press against what is being resisted. Hongzhi says, “The insight must be perfectly incorporated,”—this is to take responsibility—not to blame the thoughts, the thinker, or anyone else. See the attachment clearly, take responsibility, refrain, relax, concentrate, and have compassion for yourself. Humor helps. See the absurdity of what we’re believing in at that moment. And at the same time, see how profound that is. How absurd, and how profound. Concentrate. Enlarge. Touch the infinite possibility of mind.
The Buddha spoke about the ways that we get distracted and leak our concentration. If we want to plumb the depths of being here, then we need to recognize these leaks and learn how to plug them. One is unnecessary talking. It takes the form of mindless chatter—elevating ourselves, putting down others, gossiping, complaining or overdramatizing.
Another leak is internal daydreams, whether they are planning, fantasizing, worrying, or just random thoughts about nothing in particular. Random thoughts about nothing in particular—Leak. Do you feel it? Worrying—big loss. Gossiping—total leakage. Every time we indulge in unnecessary thinking, we lose a small amount of that energy that could be turned around to penetrate and awaken.
The third leak is unnecessary muscular tension—the physical contraction that results from the constant struggle to make our life strategies work. I sat for years with my head turned slightly to one side. Each time the monitor would come by, she would adjust my head back to the center. But then slowly, my head would turn back to the side. Finally I saw that I was turning away almost imperceptibly; I just didn’t want to face something. So our bodily tension reflects the configuration of our mind. When we try to win, to please, to hide, to avoid discomfort, all of that effort is a form of aggression towards our self. Refrain. Remember the Buddha said, “not too loose, not too tight.”
The fourth leak is the manifestation of negative emotions. We squander a lot of energy that way. Negative emotions, in this case, does not mean bad emotions. It refers to an emotion that negates or denies, that says “no” to life, like anger or irritability. “I don’t want this,” we say. Or, “bug off.” Nobody escapes anger—it arises as judgment of our selves, of others, as impatience. How much precious energy is consumed in the slog and slush of anger?
The area that has required the most attention in my practice is how to work with the negative emotions. In beginning instruction, we’re told that if a strong emotion comes and we feel like we can’t let it go—if we’ve just created a thought that has a very strong hook for us, that feels very real, and we’ve identified with it—the instruction is to “be it.” Not our story, but the raw sensation. Get to the feeling on a cellular level, experience the energy of it—of anger, of being hurt. Experience our trembling jaw, our tightened throat, our pressed-in chest. This is zazen. This is being where you are. It’s the hardest practice, but I think we often skip over it. We are afraid to feel.
Our practice is to be where we are—so we don’t repress or reject emotions, and we don’t indulge them. When we refrain from expressing them in words or actions or inward thoughts, when we stay with the raw feeling and hold the leak, we can see the vital energy clearly and can actually feel it directly. This is direct experience. That’s what’s so wonderful about our experience. It’s direct. It’s ours. Nobody can give that to us. Nobody can take that away.
From this kind of practice we begin to experience the transformative process at the heart of practice. If we don’t actually practice, we will keep wondering why the life force necessary to awaken eludes us. No amount of thinking or figuring out will allow us to understand what’s at work here, because we are not knowable. We are not knowable. This will feel uncomfortable for a while, maybe a long time, until we can really see what it’s about. But working through it, there is a lot of happiness. This is why we don’t give up. It’s like an oyster—it needs the grit to make the pearl. If we don’t let the grit in, there’s no pearl.
The Buddha asked himself, “Why do I always dwell in fear and dread?” Or, in other words, “How do I discontinue the leak, and not act on this?” He says, “While I walked, the fear and dread came upon me. I neither stood nor sat nor lay down until I subdued the fear and dread. While I stood, the fear and dread came upon me. I neither walked nor sat nor lay down until I subdued that dread. While I lay down, the fear and dread came upon me. I neither walked nor stood nor sat down until I subdued that fear or dread.” This fear and dread is that Mara-mind—that part of us that turns away, that doesn’t want to change, that wants to stay in ignorance. We all live with Mara. Even the Buddha said that until the end of his life, he was always on guard for Mara.
But just like the Buddha, we can stay steady. In the sutras, it says “Gautama found his immovable spot.” I like that: the immovable spot, the unconquerable position. Mara approached him and said, “Arise. Get up from this seat. It doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to me.” Sound familiar? But the Buddha sat with that fire of attention, that deep concentration. He’d been through a lot, and he had deeply developed that power. He emerged to say, “No. This seat does not belong to you. It belongs to me. This is my immovable spot.” And he touched the earth and said, “This is my witness.” Own it. Claim your spot. Be where you are. It’s that basic. Renounce the clinging and self-identification. This allows us to see through the whole round of samsara. This allows us to stop running in circles. This is how we give life to the Buddha.
Jody Hojin Kimmel Sensei is a dharma teacher, head priest and training coordinator at the Monastery, and co-director of ZCNYC.