There was once a poetry contest to determine the next Zen Patriarch. The chief monk of the Patriarch’s monastery was the heir apparent. He wrote this:
The body is a Bodhi-tree
The soul a shining mirror:
Polish it with study
Or dust will dull the image.
No one openly challenged. Huineng was a low ranked monk who worked in the kitchen. At night he wrote his poem below the chief monk’s.
Bodhi is not a tree;
There is no shining mirror.
Since All begins with Nothing
Where can dust collect?
The current Patriarch chose Huineng as his successor. Though Yeno had to flee for his safety. This split Zen into two schools. Yeno’s Southern school taught that enlightenment was sudden. The Northern School taught that enlightenment was gradual. Eventually, the schools merged but Huineng’s influence was great. Sudden enlightenment became the standard doctrine of Zen.
The Zen/Chan tradition teaches that we are fundamentally already enlightened.
The Chan tradition does not usually refer to steps or stages. Its central teaching is that we are intrinsically awake; our mind is originally without abiding, fixations, and vexations, and its nature is without divisions and stages. This is the basis of the Chan view of sudden enlightenment. If our mind’s nature were not already free, that would imply we could become enlightened only after we practiced, which is not so. If it’s possible to gain enlightenment, then it’s possible to lose it as well.
The question that immediately comes to mind is “If we are already enlightened why do we need to meditate?”. There are many traditional answers. The above article offers this response.
In the Chan tradition, therefore, practice is not about producing enlightenment. You might wonder, “Then what am I doing here, practicing?” Because practice does help clean up the “furniture” in the “room.” By not attaching to your thoughts, you remove the furniture, so to speak. And once your mind is clean, instead of fixating on the chairs, tables, and so on, you see its spaciousness. Then you can let the furniture be or rearrange it any way you want—not for yourself, but for the benefit of others in the room.
I think it is often useful to look at practical cases. People are commonly advised to ‘submit to the experience’ when they trip. ‘Be yourself’ is such common advice it is a cliche. How can this sort of advice work? Isn’t the feeling of ‘freaking out and trying to make it stop’ a part of the experience of a bad trip? You are already yourself. If you want different results something has to change about your approach. Despite these objections, I think both pieces of advice are quite good. But there is a koan-like quality to any advice that promises positive change through acceptance.
I have a history of struggling with loss of control. I often lucid dream. When I realize I am dreaming I often feel an extremely strong desire to force myself to wake up. This tends to make the experience negative. When I can relax and not try to ‘prove’ I can end the dream I can have a good time.
This all came to mind after a recent experience I had meditating while peaking on shrooms. Meditating made the experience dramatically stronger. Immediately after I started I reached a pretty deep state. I felt like I was standing on the wing of a giant bird flying through space. Things were clearly about to take off and get even crazier. Before things got too crazy I opened my eyes. I had lost an opportunity. But I realized that if I am going to practice acceptance I need to have compassion for my own flaws. I closed my eyes again and had a less crazy but quite good experience.
Last night I lucid dreamed. This time I did not try to wake up.