Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

Empty Zen: 24 Koans

David Lane

“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
— Blaise Pascal

My first encounter with Zen was when I was quite young. I happened upon Alan Watts' eminently readable, even if idiosyncratic, introduction to the subject entitled The Way of Zen (1957), which inspired me with the no-nonsense approach to spiritual practice. It eschewed linear ways of thinking for a more experienced based approach via Zazen, or sitting meditation. Later I became enamored with the famous Haiku poet Matsuo Bashô (1644–1694) whose laconic poetry struck a cord within me about eliminating the mind of clutter and seeing, hearing, and smelling nature as it arises without too many preconceptions. Later when I was in my twenties I became friends with Herb Joseph who traveled to Japan in the early 1960s to formally practice Zazen under a Zen Master. He spoke of its intense rigor and routine.

I found his recollections to be inspiring, even if quite challenging. However, the secret to Zazen or any deep meditational practice is no expectations. Just sit and be. As Blaise Pascal wisely opined in Pensées back in the 17th century, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Of course, there are good evolutionary reasons why we suffer from a chattering mind.

Our subjective awareness with its amazing ability to reflect upon the past and imagine all sorts of scenarios in the future has provided us with a wondrous survival tool which other creatures lack. Because of this our brain sends out an almost endless stream of ideas, thoughts, and fantasies that invariably goes unchecked until we pay attention to the thinking torrent. When we do so, we became aware of how little control we have over our monkey minds.

The word Zen is derived from the Chinese word Chan which in turn comes from the Indian term Dhyan, sometimes translated as focused attention or meditation. This is instructive since the heart of Zen is direct experience with reality as it arises, without unnecessarily superimposing upon it with human concepts and beliefs. This is why the phrases “no-mind,” “cloudless sky,” and “empty luminosity” have popular currency in Buddhist literature.

It is not that the Zen practitioner gains something by his or her sitting, but rather that the mind's ceaseless wanderings become undone and is allowed to return to the source from which it arises. Thoughts are like waves on a windy day in the ocean, emerging and cresting here and there. To the degree that we get caught in their wake we live within their bounded realms. And to the degree that we let them arise without our involvement, we are freed from their tidal pull.

Thoughts don't stop their continual dance. They are our biological inheritance, evolved to present us with an array of possibilities about the past and the future and how we should navigate accordingly. But the Zen monk chooses not be its dancing partner. She lets the dance proceed unencumbered but becomes a witness to the promenading, realizing quite simply that one doesn't have to participate. Be still and know the play and its purpose.

One of the unique contributions that Buddhist masters, particularly in Japan, have developed is the introduction of a Koan which is usually a paradoxical statement designed to usurp the rational mind. It is also a method to prompt a spontaneous Satori or awakening. It does this by demonstrating the utter absurdity of believing that as humans we can somehow grasp reality by thinking about it. Yes, we can certainly know some aspects of the cosmos and our place within it. But therein lies the crux of the problem. We tend to conflate our mental maps for the territory itself, forgetting that all we ever know is but an infinitesimally small granule of the totality of existence. The enlightened Zen master uses a koan precisely like a skilled surgeon uses a fine instrument, to cut away the cancer that is injurious to the patient. At first the paradoxical statement is understood literally.

The mind attempting to grasp its meaning in a linear and rational way is confounded, since it defies logic. Then the “aha” moment arises when the mind is stopped in its permutations and comes to rest at its place of origin. A delightful Ananda or bliss spontaneously permeates throughout one's being and onetime disciple is a student no longer. She is the present, she is Sunyata or the clear void brightness. Unconditioned, though within a condition.

The following koans by Mumon come from the famous text known in English as the Gateless Gate which was translated by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps. I have only chosen 24 koans for this edition and have left out any commentary on them. I have consciously done this since I think the reader will benefit more by approaching these paradoxical jewels without explanation.

May these be seeds for further Enlightenment.

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