Sitting on my first Zen retreat, questioning the breath counting technique, “Surely by counting, I’m using the mind, which is counter-productive to attempting to quieten the mind?”
This was a very different take on meditation compared to my usual Vipassana practise. My conditioned self naturally resisted. Afraid of something new; of change, of the unknown and dare I say, potential “death”.
“Well, I was here now, so I may as well give it a chance.”
“You don’t know if you don’t try.”
“At least if I do actually die, it’s because I tried.”
“What’s the worst that could happen? Lose my sense of ‘self’? No big deal.”
These were just some of the thoughts bringing me comfort. A roundabout way of accessing “beginner’s mind”.
I was trying hard to convince myself to let go of previous knowledge and experience (the past); and instead to be open to experiencing something new (the present).
Spine straight, I sat in ardha padmasana (half lotus); and with eyes open (a new one for me), I gazed softly at the floor. It was kind of like staring into space. I soon discovered that there are a limited amount of illusory visions that a knotted wooden floor provides, so alas, my entertainment was short-lived.
Resistance was futile. I accepted that I was S-L-O-W-L-Y losing my mind… or dying of boredom counting… or perhaps something else entirely, I just couldn’t quite say what.
“How could I have subjected myself willingly to this practise?
They call this a ‘retreat’?
Ok back to counting breaths.”
After what felt like an eternity, the sitting, gazing, counting and breathing all kind of merged together into a paradoxical “some-thing”, yet “no-thing”. I hadn’t even realized it until the thought entered my mind, and… oh darn, the moment had passed.
“Hmmmm… this is a good start.”
I had been open to trying a new meditation practise, and I glimpsed “something” that could well and truly lead me “somewhere”.
Alongside zazen (sitting meditation), chanting also forms part of practise. It was here that I was introduced to the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutran).
The words of this short sutra made absolute zero sense to me. I chanted them anyhow; letting go of the fact they were Korean, and hence devoid of making any sense in the first place. Beginner’s mind had spontaneously come into play.
“Prajnaparamita” simply translates as “The Perfection of Wisdom”. There is so much more to it than just “words”, and it would be very un-zen of me to explain any further. Besides, isn’t that what Google’s for? Just kidding… but seriously.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Heart Sutra, I invite you to explore some more.
“The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas”, translated and with commentary by Red Pine, is one amongst many worthy references.
(The Heart Sutra – available from Amazon.)
The seed, in the form of the mantra, “GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA”, was planted.
It is this seed that continually brings me back to here and now.
For me, this is the essence of the Heart Sutra.
Born of silence and stillness; non-attachment, equanimity and compassion (resulting in a steady, underlying current of peace and joy) are just some “side-effects” of daily meditation practise.
After being introduced to Zen practise, I discovered an additional bonus. I could meditate with eyes open anytime, anywhere, and nobody even knew. I called it “going zencognito”.
Now I’ve really let the Zen cat out of the bag. Oh wait, there is no cat and there is no bag. Whilst we’re on the koan bit, there is no Zen either; and if you’re into flexing your mind “muscle”, another recommended read is:
The Whole World Is a Single Flower: 365 Kong-ans for Everyday Life With Questions and Commentary
We don’t talk Zen, we just practise. Meditation and mindfulness practise is no longer something that “I do”, but rather, “it does me”.
It’s been a decade, or perhaps only a moment ago, since I was introduced to the Heart Sutra. It’s also taken me until now to decide to share some thoughts about that which is beyond what we can ever “know”.
With this in mind, and in this now-moment, I invite you to journey into the Heart of Zen.
That first step requires going beyond “knowing”. It requires dropping what you think, and what you think you know. Instead, as Zen Master Seung Sahn would say, “Go straight; only don’t know.”
As you embark on your journey, let the mantra GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA be your shining light, that not only guides you to the other shore, but beyond that, and “home” to your True Nature.
. . .
For those interested in regular meditation (or specifically Zen) practise, there are numerous traditions and groups around the globe. Ideally, it would be best to find a local meditation group or sangha, especially if you’re new to meditation practise.
You’re not likely to find any lists in Zen, but here’s a brief one to get you started: