In this chapter, we will examine the process of meditation as it is practiced in Zen Buddhism. Zen is perhaps the simplest and yet the most challenging form of Buddhism. It places great emphasis on the practice of meditation, or zazen, as the path towards Enlightenment. But for Zen, the experience of Enlightenment, a pure experience of reality, is not a goal to be achieved but a continuous process of experiencing the world and coming to understand and live in it. According to Zen, the unreality is our usual hectic existence, the one full of swarming thoughts, clouded perceptions, and self-centered behavior.[i] Recognizing this “unreality” in our daily lives is usually what leads one to take up the practice of meditation.

Through neuroscience we learned how brain functions change during meditation. Through phenomenology we learned how our subjective awareness of reality changes during meditation. Zen goes beyond explanations of objective brain states or subjective philosophy, as it focuses upon the transformation of our awareness of reality. In the first half of this chapter we will focus on the actual experience of meditation. As we explore the elements of this practice however, we begin to discover that the explanations of brain states and subjective philosophy outlined in the previous chapters are deeply ingrained in the practice of zazen. In the second half of this chapter we will explore more deeply through an understanding of Zen metaphysics how the practice of Zen meditation plays out in our daily life.

A. The Practice of Zazen

Zazen or seated meditation incorporates several elements of practice. As one begins to practice meditation, instruction is given on how to sit, how to address thoughts, and how to breathe. At this level of practice, the important thing is to develop one’s concentration. Our normal mode of awareness is very undisciplined, and it is believed that only through discipline of the mind can one really begin to work towards a transformative experience. However, the brain cannot control its thoughts by itself. The power to control the activity of our mind comes from the body, and it depends critically on posture and breathing.[ii]

This first step for the beginner in Zen meditation may be the most difficult one. To sit and do “nothing” goes completely against our nature. Ordinarily, one is constantly seeking stimulation, acting and moving about, and though it sounds simple enough to stop all of this, our bodies and minds are not used to this stopping or even slightly slowing down. The normal time period for beginning meditation is usually twenty minutes to an hour, and it is during this first long period of sitting when the real challenge arises as the beginner battles the aches and pains from the back and legs as well as the constant distraction of thoughts and sensations in the mind. In these first attempts at Zen meditation, our ordinary way of being seems impossible to overcome; the meditator struggles to remain seated and focused, yet constantly returns to old thought patterns. As the Zen Master D.T. Suzuki once stated, “Being so long accustomed to this oppression, the mental inertia becomes hard to remove. In fact it has gone down deep into the roots of our own being, and the whole structure of personality is to be overturned…the truth of Zen can never be attained unless it is attacked with the full force of personality.”[iii]

To get through the beginning stages of meditation, one must rely on the instructions of those who have gone before us, experienced instructors and practitioners of zazen. In the methods that they pass along one may discover one’s own personal practice. The individual nature of our physical bodies and developed egos requires finding a personal place within the simple basic instructions given on meditation practice. Discovering one’s own natural posture, breathing, and focused will is part of the exploration of self that begins in zazen.

The beginner must first learn to sit in a posture that is stable and grounded with back straight and chin tucked inward. This posture keeps the body immobile but also requires a certain degree of willpower and focus to prevent slouching so that the meditator avoids distraction as well as drowsiness during practice.

Immobility results in a diminution of the stimuli reaching the brain, until eventually there are almost none. This will give rise, in due course, to a condition in which you cease to be aware of the position of your body. It is not a state of numbness, for you can move your limbs and body if you want. But if you keep your body still, it is not felt.[iv]

By keeping the body still, the meditator makes it possible to still the mind as well. At the same time, the willful attempt to keep an upright posture prevents one from drifting from the intent to remain focused in the practice of meditation. Eventually, the feeling of one’s body, its discomforts and distractions, falls away as the focus of attention moves to the discomforts and distractions of the mind.

With head straight and chin tucked in, the meditator’s open eyes remain focused on a single spot a few feet ahead. One continues to take in a small amount of visual stimulation, but this is much reduced from the normal tendency to constantly shift visual attention around us. And with a lack of changing visual stimulation the awareness of vision also begins to drop away. Keeping the eyes open and focused on a single spot also helps promote a willful attentiveness that wards off drowsiness and prevents the meditator from retreating from the world into hallucinations. Keeping the eyes open keeps one in the here and now and prevents problems of transition into the deeper stages of meditation to be discussed later in the chapter.

During meditation, an attempt is made to stop the ordinary thought processes occurring in the mind. This is not as easy as it may sound, as one’s mind is constantly taking in perceptions and churning up thoughts of past and future. One begins to recognize the difficulty of controlling the mind and may even feel it is impossible to go a few moments without thinking. Zen attempts to accomplish this by focusing on the most simple of bodily activities, the act of breathing. Whenever a thought arises in the mind, one is reminded to return our focus to the act of breathing. With much effort and practice, it becomes easier to notice the breaks in thought when breathing is all that fills one’s awareness. In time, these moments of no-thought become longer and easier to sustain.

The process of breathing is probably the most important bodily function yet often very little attention is paid to it. Breathing has the strange characteristic of occurring automatically, but can also be controlled. One does not need to attend to it yet there is an ability to fully attend to it. One can hold the breath, speed it up or slow it down and it is in this conscious control of a normally automatic function of living where Zen meditation finds the opportunity to control the mind. In zazen, the focus of attention is on the actual inhalation and exhalation. The meditator is instructed not simply to be aware of the air coming into and moving out of the body, but to willfully take control of the movement of diaphragm and abdominal muscles that cause this action to occur.

In this willful control of the breathing process, one may experience a bit of difficulty in maintaining an even pattern of breathing, the comfortable motion of inhalation and exhalation one is accustomed to when simply allowing it to occur automatically.

The slow, sustained exhalation that we adopt in zazen is produced by keeping the diaphragm contracted so that it opposes the action of the abdominal muscles, which are trying to push air out of the lungs. This opposition generates a state of tension in the abdominal muscles, and the maintenance of this state of tension is of the utmost importance in the practice of zazen. All other parts of the body are motionless, and their muscles are either relaxed or in a state of constant, moderate tension. Only the abdominal muscles are active…this activity is a vital part of the mechanism by which concentration and wakefulness of the brain are maintained.[v]

It is during this uncomfortable tension that one begins to notice how the previous difficulty in stopping the flow of mental chatter subsides when one focuses on the breath. It is as if the fear of suffocation takes over, even though this is an unlikely possibility. One’s only thought is on the next breath and nothing else and it is that tension that holds the meditator glued to the spot, attending to the breath.

With time, a natural rhythm is achieved as one pays attention to the breathing process. Slowly this rhythm becomes all that one is aware of, and yet the inhalations and exhalations become so slow and subtle that one are barely aware of anything. The meditator becomes more focused on the space between inhalation and exhalation when time seems to stop, as if holding the breath has stopped the world. It may even seem, after some practice in this method, that one is no longer breathing at all; that the in-breath and the out-breath have almost come to a standstill.

Through this concentration on breathing the normal activity of the mind begins to change. Chattering thoughts subside, stimulation from the outside world decreases, and a sense of stillness takes over.

Zen meditation is a relaxed attentive state, a passive activity. Both aspects are important. So when Zen talks about “no mind,” it does not mean complete mental blankness, as though one were asleep. It implies freedom from thought pollution. When the incessant chatter drops out, what remains are those few mental processes essential to the present moment.[vi]

Up to this point, meditation was simply a practice to tame the mind. It showed us the difficulty of stopping thoughts but also provided a clue to the nature of thoughts, how they suddenly arise and disappear just as quickly. One begins to notice that the target of these thoughts tends to be the self, and the emotions that are attached to them tend to be choices of that self. One begins to recognize how these habitual thoughts constitute the world around us, but also constitute our sense of self.

As the meditator encounters a state of consciousness in which no thoughts arise, the sense of reality and one’s natural attitude towards it falls apart. Without thoughts there is no experience of the world around us and within us, the processes that conceptualize the world and help create a sense of self by placing us in that world are effectively turned off. In the space between inhalation and exhalation, the space that connects both, one experiences only the present moment. The body and mind have fallen away from awareness. This is described in Zen as absolute samadhi when stillness is all that occurs and a feeling of unity emerges.

Our ordinary consciousness has been brought up and domesticated to live and behave in a world that is fenced in by the limits of time, space, and causation. These distinctions have given rise in turn to the world of opposition and discrimination in which we ordinarily find ourselves… In absolute samadhi, time, space, and causation have fallen off, and thus our habitual way of consciousness collapses. What follows? There is a sudden realization of the world of non-opposition, when we experience the oneness of all things.[vii]

This attainment of samadhi is often understood as the goal of meditation, a retreat into this experience of emptiness and unity with the world, but this is really only the beginning. According to D.T. Suzuki, “Tranquilization was not the real end of dhyana [meditation], nor was the being absorbed in a samadhi the object of Buddhist life. Enlightenment was to be found in life itself, in its fuller and freer expressions, and not in cessation.”[viii]

In this moment of sitting in meditation, in absolute samadhi, one’s individual experience reaches the same fundamental level as all other objects in the world. The meditator is just present, unmoving, and solidly grounded. No thoughts of past or future, no emotions or desires to be fulfilled and thus no actions. All is at a standstill and one is simply a human being sitting in zazen. An object in the world and yet a subject to the world as well for consciousness has not been extinguished. One is an object yet still breathing and aware. The meditator shares this basic experience with all sentient beings. In this moment, one is experiencing the world as all sentient beings experience it at the most basic level: willfully attentive of a subtle inhalation and exhalation and nothing more. This is the universal intersubjective state that binds the practitioner of meditation with all living organisms. From this basic level of experience arises a feeling of unity with the world.

This experience of unity is the source of compassion and equal-mindedness, which is the foundation of the next stage in the process of meditation: a return to the world. The meditator is directly able to place the self in the experience of all others. In zazen, no boundaries exist between subject and object, self and other. The more one practices this way of experiencing the most basic and fundamental level of being the more that it transforms one’s way of experiencing daily life. When the meditator rises from zazen, it is up to that individual to carry the realizations of unity into a world of wide and varied differentiation. From the wisdom and compassion developed in this experience, one is able to make choices regarding one’s own actions and emotions, thoughts and goals regarding the world that one is firmly embedded in. The practitioner of meditation is always having the same basic experience as all other beings that are encountered and it is that individual who chooses to erect or dissolve any boundaries between self and world.
B. A Mystic's Understanding of Zen Meditation

This next section will examine the mystical experience that occurs in meditation through the writings of Thomas Merton. While Merton is known as a Western Christian mystic, towards the end of his life he had developed very strong connections with Eastern Buddhist mysticism, and seemed to be attempting to blend the two mystical approaches. The writings, which will be focused on, exhibit such a blend, as Merton examines and attempts to explain Zen Buddhism and Zen meditation. Although not an academic or a practitioner of Zen, Merton’s writings on Zen provide us with a helpful perspective, as a Western Christian contemplative, by providing some familiarity in language and understanding in approaching such an alien conceptual framework. In this examination, found in Mystics and Zen Masters, Merton reveals much of his own views of meditation and the experience that arises from this practice as he attempts to find common ground between the two traditions. While it seems a paradox to approach an Eastern mysticism from a Western point of view, this is just the kind of paradox that Zen embraces through the dissolution of any self-imposed, illusory boundaries that may separate us from understanding. Zen presents itself as a common ground found in all religions, all beliefs and all experiences.[ix]

Merton begins his analysis of Zen Buddhist practice with the typical view held by many philosophers and Christian scholars of his time and still common today. This view of Buddhism held that practices such as meditation were an attempt to escape or retreat from the world to an interior experience or void, and thus an escape from the problems of the world simply by ignoring them. Merton attempted to refute this understanding of meditation as practiced in Zen Buddhism. He saw Zen as comparative with his own Christian mysticism, which views God not as an object to be worshiped but a "personal center" which the individual self merges with to be "made one with Christ". Merton understood Zen meditation as an attempt to experience this same merging with the ONE, the absolute, not by retreating to an interior peace but by being active in the world.

In his explanation of the Zen illumination, Merton stated that it is not an "experience" that one can "have."

The genuineness of Zen illumination is certainly recognizable, but only by one who has attained the insight himself. And here of course we run into the first of the abominable pitfalls that meet anyone who tries to write of Zen. For to suggest that it is "an experience" which a subject is capable of "having" is to use terms that contradict all the implications of Zen.[x]

It is, rather, an experience of subject and object merging into a unity. There is no subject "having" the experience, as it is the experience - totally immersed in pure experience. It is quite false to imagine that Zen is a sort of individualistic, subjective purity in which the monk seeks to rest and find spiritual refreshment by the discovery and enjoyment of his own interiority.[xi] Every activity, experience, thought, or perception can be a part of the Zen experience - not separated from the world but returning to it.

"Zen seeks an 'enlightenment' which results from the resolution of all subject-object relationships and oppositions in a pure void. But to call this void a mere negation is to reestablish the oppositions, which are resolved in it."[xii] This void is neither the terrifying negation experienced by the schizophrenic, nor is it an excuse for the nihilistic view of the modern world. This void is an opening up to all possibilities as subject and object are no longer separated, bounded, and defined or categorized. Merton sees no conflict between Zen and a belief in a Supreme Being, if it is understood that this Being is "the ontological awareness of pure being beyond subject and object, an immediate grasp of being in its “suchness” and “thusness.”[xiii] In Zen meditation, the everyday boundaries of meaning, discrimination, and attachment are dissolved in order to experience pure being.

Merton believed that, in the past, Western views of Zen Buddhism had been misguided by the failure to distinguish between "empirical ego" and "person".

Zen insight is not our awareness, but Being's awareness of itself in us. This is not a pantheistic submersion or a loss of self in "nature" or "the ONE." It is not a withdrawal into one's spiritual essence and a denial of matter and of the world. On the contrary, it is a recognition that the whole world is aware of itself in me, and that "I" am no longer my individual and limited self, still less a disembodied soul, but that my 'identity' is to be sought not in that separation from all that is but in oneness (indeed, convergence) with all that is."[xiv]

With Zen there is an attempt to be liberated from the limitations of the individual ego. For Merton, this discovery of pure being or pure awareness is the basis of reality from which everything arises.

Merton continued his analysis of Zen with a look at the split in Zen between the northern and southern schools, over the differences regarding meditation. One school focuses on the practice of meditation, while the other school goes beyond meditation. He seems to side with the view that meditation is only a part of the process, that it is not the goal. This is the subtle difference in views regarding meditation practice that caused the split within Zen Buddhism during the seventh century in China.

Zen could not be found merely by turning away from active life to become absorbed in meditation. Zen is the very awareness of the dynamism of life living itself in us - and aware of itself, in us, as being the one life that lives in all.[xv]

For Merton, as with the followers of an illiterate oblate working in the monastery kitchen of the 5th patriarch Hung Jen, meditation was not the goal, but part of the process or path. An active life on the path was the goal and the goal was the path.

C. Merton's examination of the split in Zen Buddhism

According to the historical accounts of Chinese Zen, the patriarch of the Zen Buddhist community, Hung Jen, held a poetry contest to decide his successor. The poet who expressed authentic enlightenment would be chosen to continue the Zen tradition. One of Hung Jen's prominent disciples, Shen Hsui submitted the following poem:

The body is the Bodhi-tree

The mind is like a clear mirror standing.

Take care to wipe it all the time,

Allow no grain of dust to cling to it.[xvi]

This verse was believed to be the most authentic explanation of enlightenment, until a kitchen worker, named Hui Neng, submitted a "reply" to the poem, and a very different view of enlightenment:

The Bodhi is not like a tree,

The clear mirror is nowhere standing.

Fundamentally not one thing exists:

Where then is a grain of dust to cling?[xvii]

Hung Jen chose Hui Neng as the 6th patriarch, and a split in Zen resulted in the Northern School of Shen Hsui and the Southern School of Hui Neng.

According to Merton, this split occurred over the Zen view of mind and meditation. Shen Hsui and his followers held the view of meditation as a process of mental purification or "mirror-wiping" (an introversion which excludes the external world). Hui Neng's view, which was a reaction against introversion, instead sought to realize the unity of meditation and enlightenment in one's acts, even everyday actions (not separated from external reality but immersed in it). For Hui Neng, Zen insight required far more than just purification of the mind through meditation, but also carrying this insight into the everyday world.

Hui Neng was no quietist. On the contrary, he was reacting against a quietistic spirituality. But his reaction was not activistic either. Rather, in offering the radical and systematic negation of Shen Hsui’s view in full appreciation of its truth, Hui Neng bore witness to the dialectical paradox which enframes the two positions and discloses a higher truth that neither affirmation nor negation could articulate.[xviii] It was a breakthrough into something quite original and new. He refused to separate meditation (dhyana) as a means, from enlightenment (prajna) as an end. For him, the two were inseparable, and the Zen discipline consisted in seeking to realize this wholeness and unity of prajna and dhyana in all one's acts, however external, however commonplace, however trivial.[xix]

According to Merton, the wrong attitude toward meditation could be summed up as follows:[xx]

1) Starting with the assumption that there is an ego that must be purified in order for that ego to achieve a more perfect spiritual nature. An inner silent self is still an "ego", often at the loss of a sensible, active self and no longer able to function in the everyday world.

2) This self views "thought" as an object, and the "mind" is also considered an object that the self owns.

3) The self attempts to purify its mind by removing its thoughts in an attempt to liberate the ego.

For Hui Neng, this focus on the self gets in the way of what is really important: ultimate reality which is "at once pure being and pure awareness"- the ultimate mind from which everything, even our ego, is derived. Meditation is not simply an attempt of the ego to have insight. It should be a realization of the ultimate mind by dissolving the boundaries, which the ego often imposes between itself and reality. Zen is not attained simply by mirror wiping or thought exterminating meditation, but by self-forgetfulness in one's everyday actions. The experience of one's interior world through meditation is at best a beginning. Emptiness of self in the exterior world is what provides the opportunity for "pure being and pure awareness" to be revealed in us.

In approaching the difficulty of discovering this understanding in the modern world, Merton points to the problem of Cartesian self-awareness: the ego as starting point in the progression towards truth and spirit. The emptiness, which the ego attempts to produce in itself by "wiping the mirror" clean of thoughts, is simply a trick. Merton calls this bogus mysticism at best, schizophrenia at worst[xxi]; leading only to individualism and passivity, the exact things which Buddhism is often criticized for.

Hui Neng describes enlightenment as "to see things as they are and not to become attached to anything."[xxii] The subject-object relationship, described by phenomenology, is abolished in the void/ground of being -- this void is not to be understood as a negation, but as openness to all possibilities. Enlightenment is not self-realization (this may be a mere by-product), but simply realization (pure and simple), beyond subject and object.[xxiii] In such realization, emptiness and fullness are no longer opposed; emptiness and fullness are one - nothing becomes essential for everything.

For Hui Neng, true meditation consists in "living in the world of forms and beings without being obsessed by or attached to them."[xxiv] Hui Neng saw attachment to "purity" of mind (a common mistake in mirror-wiping Zen) as an obstacle. That is why the Zen masters of Hui Neng's school were so insistent on the fact that "Zen is your everyday mind."[xxv] Hui Neng challenges the practitioner of meditation to find emptiness not only in meditation but also in one's daily actions. Merton finds the merit in Hui Neng's Zen in its ability to "liberate the mind from servitude to imagined spiritual states" as objects that can be idolized, obsessed upon, and eventually lead to the delusion of the meditator.[xxvi] This delusion places the fruit of meditation, the experience of enlightenment, ahead of the reason for its pursuit in the first place, to bring this experience into one's daily life and interaction with others.

Hui Neng, in his criticism of meditation, does not simply call on the abandonment of the practice, for he understood the tranquil silence (stopping of thoughts) as an important step in the direction towards insight. While there may be the experience of a shift in awareness in this silence, one must proceed beyond this point to an opening up to the external world. Merton explains:

If one merely rests in the tranquil silence of meditation, then meditation becomes "an artificial construction which obstructs the way to emancipation." And if, in addition, one asserts that this tranquil resting is the same as enlightenment, because enlightenment is hidden and implicit within it, then the error is a hundred times worse."[xxvii]

For according to Hui Neng, enlightenment is hidden in all that one does; meditation is simply a way of breaking through to enlightenment. The apprehension of reality that occurs in the meditative practices of Zen is an intuition of the ground of all being and knowledge as infinite void/emptiness, and thus open to all possibilities, all manifestations beyond judgment or discrimination.

D. Summary

The practice of meditation in Zen provides the individual with a practical method of transforming the mind. While neuroscience and phenomenology are limited to observing matters, Zen allows the individual to actively participate in not only observing consciousness but also changing it. Yet this change is not some new form of awareness, but a return to the fundamental basis of awareness prior to all the constructions of self and reality developed over a lifetime. This transformation from a dualistic perspective to a non-dual perspective, once experienced, may have profound affects on the individual, and it is these affects that are the measurement of progress in the meditative practice.
While science and philosophy provide many important insights into the meditative practice, it is through a spiritual examination of the practice that one is able to completely understand meditation. This spiritual examination requires an immersion in the practice itself.

[i] Austin, 13.

[ii] Katsuki Sekida, Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, (New York: Weatherhill, 1985), 32.

[iii] Daisetz T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series, (New York: Grove Press, 1949), 29.

[iv] Sekida, 32.

[v] Ibid., 32.

[vi] Austin, 58.

[vii] Sekida, 121.

[viii] Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, 85.

[ix] Ibid., 268.

[x] Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters, (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1967), 13.

[xi] Ibid., 13.

[xii] Ibid., 13.

[xiii] Ibid., 13.

[xiv] Ibid., 17-18.

[xv] Ibid., 21-22.

[xvi] Ibid., 18-19. The Bodhi tree, according to Buddhist mythology, is the tree under which Buddha meditated and was enlightened.

[xvii] Ibid., 19.

[xviii] Steven Laycock, Mind as Mirror and the Mirroring of the Mind: Buddhist Reflections on Western Phenomenology, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 16.

[xix] Merton, 21.

[xx] Ibid., 22-23.

[xxi] Ibid., 26.

[xxii] Ibid., 28.

[xxiii] Ibid., 28.

[xxiv] Ibid., 32.

[xxv] Ibid., 33.

[xxvi] Ibid., 33.

[xxvii] Ibid., 36.