Zen Self Inquiry

A Look at Zen Methodology and Purpose

Posted by:

If you truly grasp that the problem is the dualistic functioning of your mind, that whatever  you do recreates the situation,  then you can attempt to stop this process.  If your goal is to simply ‘quiet the mind’ then you have only succeeded in a quiet mind and not in any great transformation of the self.  There are various Zen practices but what really is their goal, what are they trying to do?  Most schools push zazen or koan practice and the buzz these days is mindfulness but what is their true function?  I think that if you deeply understand this you will see that they are all attempting to do the same thing and that is jam or impact the dualistic processing of the mind.  I think there are many pitfalls in any practice and that often practice is more the goal than a tool.  In Buddhism there is the eightfold path that demonstrates the correct way of approaching the problem.   In a nutshell the eightfold path is:

  1. Right understanding
  2. Right thought
  3. Correct speech
  4. Right action
  5. Proper livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration


Right understanding is extremely important.  Someone can teach you a move in sports or any other activity but truly understanding why you are doing it greatly improves your chances of reaching your goal.  You are not doing it because you are instructed to do it that way but because you know it is beneficial and right to do it this way.  You are motivated to do it correctly because you know it can have good results.  Having a poor understanding of what you are doing leads to greatly wasted energy and often frustration along with failure.  From having the right understanding you can go on through the other steps accurately. Correctly understanding the dilemma of the self and actually seeing it will help you not to waste your time in idle practice.  Like the poison arrow you want to get it out; to remove the source of the problem and not the symptom of the problem.

The practice of just placating the mind, quieting it, does not impact the dualistic process.  It just quiets it in a non-dynamic state. However quieting the mind is exactly what is often taught as the way.  I too employed this practice when studying non-thought from an Indian school of Buddhism.  For two years I practiced it arduously and was very happy with my practice.  I had not seen Dr DeMartino for those two years at that point and decided to take the three hour trip to see him.  When I arrived at his house he greeted me with, “how are you, what have you been doing?”  I happily replied, “I’ve been practicing not thinking!” and he exclaimed very sternly, “Not thinking IS your thinking”.  It crushed me but it was true.  Just ‘not thinking’ is a static state and will not drive you to the resolution.  Lin Chi (Rin Zai) was very critical of the ‘shave pated shit sticks’ he saw meditating by the river with ‘quiet minds’.  Foyan also attacks this practice as empty and self deluded.  It’s easy to see how this practice comes about and its allure but it misses the heart of practice.  I heard a lecture by a US Zen master recently where he specifically states to his students that correct thinking is not thinking. I get why he says this but it’s faulty understanding.


When you engage in any practice it immediately becomes problematic.  Why?  Because you are created the dualism between the person engaged in the practice and that which is practiced.  There is still a self identity that remains behind the practice.  Like faith it is something that is sustained by the self and not self sustaining.  In the practice of mindfulness there is that which is mindful of the object, there is that which is ‘in the moment’ and therefore not in the moment.  We as an ego, that which is the process of separating to ‘be’, cannot live in the moment because there is no subject/object there.  Our minds flit about between past and future unable to sustain a ‘self’ in the present.  Therefore all practice is self defeating and problematic.  That which seeks awakening is precisely that which prevents awakening.  Many years ago I had a great mystical ‘awakening’.  I called DeMartino to tell him.  I said, “ I had…” and he immediately cut me off saying, “It will fade, it’s not real”.  I asked, “Why did you say that” and he said, “you said ‘I had’”.  Not swayed by this I drove to his house so he could see what had happened.  He let me in his house and I said, “The world is clear” and he replied, “It will fade” to which I replied, “If this isn’t it than I can’t imagine what it is…”.  With that he said, “That’s right, you can’t imagine” and shut the door on me.  Still Undaunted I went home and called Masao Abe and started to tell him but he stopped me and said, “NOT good enough, harder” and got off the phone.

What was their issue with me?  Because I had an awakening not that there was awakening, there was that which separated to know.  Unfortunately for me the great bliss I felt then faded after several weeks.  It depressed me to no end.  Fortunately for me both of my teachers were relentless with me afterwards and cut me no slack.

So what to do about this dilemma that seeking itself creates the problem?  There is a famous conversation recorded between Paul Tillich and Shin ichi Hisamatsu.  Dr DeMartino had arranged a meeting between them and the following conversation ensued:

Tillich:  If I follow a path I won’t get there, correct?

Hisamatsu:  Correct

Tillich:  If I don’t follow a path I won’t get there correct?

Hisamatsu:  Correct

Tillich: That’s a dilemma!

Hisamatsu:  That’s the path!

Seeking and not seeking both fail so what can we do?  How does one grasp the dilemma? If by seeking mindfulness I am not mindful what can I do?  It is here where I think the purpose of practice, the correct understanding of practice is most essential.  All practices, koan, mindfulness and zazen are all trying to do the same thing: impact the ego, jam the dualistic process.  They are not there to quiet the mind but to force the reflective mind to a standstill.   When Bodhi faced Hui Ke and said, “hand me your heart/mind that I may pacify it “he was forcing him to no longer objectify his sense of self but to present his true self immediately.  All of these practices are attempting to do this.  An objective use of these practices will not succeed.

I will talk about koan practice for a moment.  The presentation of the koan such as “what is the sound of one hand” or “what IS your original face before the birth of your parents” is meant to force you to answer a question that cannot be answered objectively.  There is no one correct answer to this.  It is meant to impact the mind and set up the conditions for a breakthrough.  That having been said I’ve read several books on the topic where there are objective ‘answers’ to the koans.  One book talked about the historicity of the koans and another gave the answers.  There is a school of koan Zen where if you answer each of them correctly you are considered to be a Zen master.  This is beyond silly.  I know of someone who cheated in this school and is now considered to be a ‘true’ Zen master sanctioned by this school in Japan.  Any objective answer given must be wrong and the true answer can only be given purely subjectively.  If in koan practice you fully engage in this unanswerable question and become fully absorbed, ox and rider disappear, you will not arrive at an objectifiable answer but a purely universal answer.  Koan practice with the ‘right understanding’ can produce fruitful results.

Likewise it is the same for the other practices.  If approached with the right mind, attitude, attention and focus they can produce results.  You are not trying to just quiet the mind.  You are attempting to create a powerful dynamic situation where seer and sought are fully engaged.  This is where the practice disappears into fully living the quest.

In Taoism there is the expression ‘wei wu wei’ which means to ‘do without doing’.  I think this is greatly misunderstood as non-action and just a plain not doing.  Think of it this way; if you strive to be really good at any practice or art form you must work at this diligently.  If you play piano you must practice technique to master the piano but just doing this does not bring about inspiration.  You can get really good at just practicing.  You can become great at playing all the scales but never really good at playing the piano.  Conversely if you do not practice you will not set the conditions for inspired playing.  You will always be bound by your lack of ability to play freely at the keyboard.  So practicing itself doesn’t do it and not practicing doesn’t do it; that’s a dilemma.  The dilemma is the way.  By practicing with correct thought and understanding you are setting up the conditions for the self to be overcome, for the distinction between the piano and the player to dissolve and for pure music to pour forth.  This is doing without doing.  There is a famous Zen expression, ‘no rider above the saddle, no horse below the saddle”, horse and rider are one and move freely.

Ways to Achieve the Quest


I think it is most critical to start with trying to identify who you are, ie; the source of your self identity.  I talked about this with the example of the person in the hospital and the different stages of his illusion of self.  Breaking down the accoutrements of the perceived self can help you to start to realize that what you assume is self is an illusion. When you begin to realize the speciousness of your self identity it can be very alarming.  We identify with things both physical and philosophical and yet are never really defined by these things.  If you are familiar with Oliver Sach’s ‘Awakenings”, where patients were in a catatonic state for many years and finally revived with dopamine, you can get a glimpse of this.  Their self image did not age, their conscious did not age but their bodies did.  When they were able to see their self in a mirror many years on from their coma they were shocked to see an old person looking back.  There is the ‘self’ that aged and the self that observed it that did not age.  So what then is the self? If you can fully engage in this question in a deeply personal and existential way you can begin to peel away the layers of illusion.

In terms of the practice of mindfulness; where does mindfulness get you if you are surrounded by pain and tragedy?  If you are in a war zone how does being mindful relieve the suffering around you?  Being mindful of it in the present might offer some refuge when there is no imminent danger, that you don’t keep ruminating on it when it is not present, but how does it free you from the suffering?  Ultimately, what is the self that is mindful?  What is the source of self-identity here?  If your mindfulness practices pushes you to the point of obliterating your normal self identity and awakens you to a universal identity than your practice was carried out in the correct manner.


Stop Paying Attention to Yourself and Just Pay Attention

Like attempting to remove the illusion of self-identity we can also begin to become aware that most of what we think and feel is just a conditioned reflex with no bearing in reality.  We have staunch and firm opinions on everything from our tastes in food and music to our politics and religion and don’t see these are just things we’ve been conditioned to follow.  As a toddler we did not have this conditioned self.  When we tasted something it either did or did not agree with our taste buds.  A Western toddler fed raw fish for breakfast would not know that it is not part of its culture and eat it freely as a child in Japan given raw fish for breakfast would.  However a child that is older and conditioned by Western culture would find this abhorrent and not eat it.  We think that what we think somehow comes from our self and is the truth however it is just our conditioning and nothing more.  Every opinion we have about beauty and taste is conditioned.  What we hear as sad music in the west due to being played in a minor key is not seen as sad in the East.  This musical taste is completely conditioned by culture and nothing more.  When we begin to realize this about our self we can begin to shut down this process.  The automatic judging our brain does in each situation can be stopped and observed and hopefully shut down.  This does not mean to become an idiot and not make sound judgments.  It means to stop that spontaneous knee jerk reaction and automatic process the brain does all the time and with all it encounters.

Think about the objectification of beauty.  Who do you think is beautiful and why?  A woman you might find to be unattractive and perhaps even ugly is the most beautiful creature imaginable to her baby.  Who is right in their judgment of beauty here?  No matter what we say a thought arises and an attribute.  We see a person and think thin, fat, pretty, ugly or whatever.  We immediately draw a comparison in our mind as to what/whom that person is.  We do it with everything we encounter.  We see it and a thought arises about it, identifying it and comparing it.  Foyan says, “ I say tree and you think everything but a tree”.  We don’t see the tree, we see attributes that we define and consider as the tree.

When we can become aware of this constant process of the mind we can begin to deal with it.  I consider it as a yapping dog, just noise with no intrinsic meaning.  As the thought arises, ignore it, give it no credence or value.  Observe without an opinion or a judgment.  Just be alert and pay attention.  Eventually the process may dim and fade.  The pinging of the mind from subject to object will get stuck and perhaps you will actually ‘see’ for the first time.







Add a Comment