This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Greater Boston Zen Center on April 29, 2015.
Dongshan asked Yunju, “I heard that a monk named `Great Thought’ was reborn in the Kingdom of Wei and became the king. Is this true or not?”
“If his name was `Great Thought,’ then even the Buddha couldn’t do it.”
I came across this koan last week while paging through Zen’s Chinese Heritage, Andy Ferguson’s wonderful compilation and translation of some of the most important teachings of some of the most important Chinese Chan masters who laid the foundation for Zen as we have received it via Japan and Korea.
Yunju was a great teacher who died at the turn of the tenth century. Dongshan was his main teacher.
Koans are stories of these teachers and their students – and they’re our stories, too, of course.
I thought I’d use this koan as a launching pad for talking a bit about thought in zazen, and in Zen more generally.
The sentiment that may seem to be expressed in this koan and so many other Zen teachings is that the main problem we confront in and through Zen is thought. Mental activity and constructions.
If we just cease to get lost in thought, to cling to thought even when we’re certain our thoughts are right and trustworthy, we’ll be free in the way we imagine Zen can make us free. This is why we came to Zen, right?
And it’s true that our early instruction in zazen is, in part, about developing the ability to disengage from thought gently when we become aware we’re lost in it.
There is a certain kind of freedom – a greater sense of personal agency – that one may gain by gaining a perspective on one’s thought, one’s cognitions.
Much of the time many of us are completely lost in thought, and we just accept whatever is coursing through our minds as our perspective. As the perspective. And so it is, if we let it be so.
We all know the philosophical proposition “I think, therefore, I am.” Much of the time, for many of us, however, it’s really more like, “I am what I think,” but without being fully aware that’s how we’re operating.
Yes, of course, meditation can and does help us develop the capacity to “go meta” on the endless stream of mental matter that’s always bubbling to the surface of our awareness, and this can be a really transformative thing for oneself – indeed, for our relationships, and for the world.
But you’ve probably noticed that it’s hard to stay in that place always. We inevitably become lost in thought again.
It’s not just you. It’s all practitioners, even those who’ve been meditating for decades.
In Zen, this meta observation deck is not someplace we expect and strive always to remain (though there are some schools of meditation that do seem to hold this out as the goal).
Imagine you could remain there. Perhaps you’ve even had what seemed like particularly “good” or “deep” periods of meditation that had this quality and now seem like the standard by which all other meditation periods – even time off the cushion – should be judged.
But what lies beyond or sits above that perspective? Has one really found IT – the Great Thought, the Great Place, the Great Perspective one has been seeking?
What is this perspective? Is it the One True You? Is it ever-enduring – in the background, even when it’s not my conscious foreground – or is it contingent, like other things we observe? How can you know?
Perhaps it really is just turtles all the way down.
Thinking we’ve arrived somewhere, even that we’ve glimpsed someplace, is just confirmation that we still imagine there’s someplace else to go.
In reality, our thoughts and our being lost in thoughts – monkey mind, as we call it – is it, too.
Thinking there is someplace to go, and searching for that someplace, and the very impulse to search: All part of it. Part of who we are. Part of this.
Yes, we can reduce much optional suffering – our own and others – by gaining a perspective on our tendency to become lost in thought. Becoming better at noticing that; less prone to running completely on autopilot, to being captive to and defined and pushed around by our unreflective throught-stream. We can become more reflective and less reflexive. There’s big upside here.
But we ultimately must gain a perspective on our perspective seeking and perspective gaining, too.
(And, even this perspective is something we can’t let become too precious, precious as it is.)
Zen practice is not primarily about just becoming more cognitively reflective or somehow detached. About somehow occupying some superior mental space.
Zazen presents a chance to sit with all that arises and all that is, including our discomfort and distraction, and the impulse to search for escape from discomfort and distraction.
The impulse to search for the ultimate escape from existential discomfort. To glimpse behind the veil we imagine is there.
In time, we may come to see – even to know, to feel in our bones – that this impulse is like “trying to bite your teeth,” as Josh recently told me some Zen sage once said.
“If his name was Great Thought, then even the Buddha couldn’t do it.”
Zen is not ultimately just about contending with our thoughts. The goal isn’t to replace small thoughts with a Great Thought; our small, local, enmeshed perspective with some imagined uber perspective in which we hope and expect always to abide.
Our small perspective is the big perspective. Like box and lid, or two arrows meeting tip-to-tip in mid-air, as the sayings go.
This is it.
And this is not a thought.
And it’s not not our thoughts.