Sengcan’s Affirming Faith in Mind

I gave this talk on Sengcan’s Affirming Faith in Mind on Saturday, April 30, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center

Today I want to offer just a few observations about the longer verse we chanted earlier, Segcan’s (Seng-t’san) “Affirming Faith in Mind.” We don’t know much about Sengcan, who is regarded as the third ancestor of Zen, successor to Bodhidharma’s successor Huike. We don’t even really know whether he composed this poem, but it’s attributed to him, and it’s become a foundational Zen text.

The first observation I want to share is about the wonderous and bedeviling phenomenon of reflective self-consciousness. We humans are both gifted with and burdened by it. I can think about my “self,” and even think about the thinking this self does. And think we do!

We are subjects, like all beings, and yet we humans mostly seem to use our subject-ness to objectify ourselves and all else. We project and defend a self, rendering ourselves separate in a universe in which the fundamental reality is interconnection. Reflective self-consciousness is humanity’s superpower, I suppose, but it’s also our Achilles heel. Like all else, it’s empty.

Our reflective self-consciousness is immensely useful (in a limited way) if we relate to it as a capacity. Instead, it becomes an echo chamber, or hologram, that we don’t recognize as such. We get lost in it, wandering about as hungry ghosts. Reflective self-consciousness is marvelous and useful, and it also separates us from our own experience in some painful, even harmful ways—for ourselves, others, and all creation—if we remain captive to it, rather than experiencing it simply as one capacity and way of knowing.

The second observation I want to share is about this notion of “Not One; Not Two.” “From One-mind comes duality,” we are told, “but do not cling even to this One.”

We are not separate. In fact, there is no such thing as “separate.” Separate is an idea. We must stop looking outside of ourselves to find ourselves.

We must stop looking inside, too, though perhaps that is a better place to start, so long as we remain lost in such distinctions. We turn around the light, and our outward projections, to find ourselves as the light. We might think of this as turning inward, and in a sense it is, but there is no inside or outside—not one, not two—once we find what we are seeking.

And what are we seeking? That’s the third observation I want to share. It’s about the small mind and Great Mind discussed in the verse. The word mind is used ambiguously in Zen texts, but here the author clearly is making a distinction between two modes of perception. We’re being told that a shift in perception can occur, and that this it brings a shift in our understanding and experience of being itself.

Small mind is always seeking and battling likes and dislikes. One thing it’s seeking is a way out of this supposed trap. It senses there’s something more to this picture, Great Mind. Small mind wants to think it’s way to Great Mind, but this text tells us we can’t get hold of Great Mind by using the small mind.

What is this Great Mind we’re trying to get a hold of with our small minds? Throughout the text it’s also referred to as the Great Way, the One Way, simply the Way, or as the “root” or “Source.” There are pointers sprinkled throughout the text that guide us to think of Great Mind not as something separate and “out there,” but as who and what we are. Small Mind, everyday mind: It’s not separate from Great Mind, from our absolute identity, but it creates and is the echo chamber, the hologram, if it doesn’t yet recognize itself as Great Mind. It’s like a bubble floating on the surface of an ocean, not aware of its ocean-ness.

We’re being told that the capabilities of everyday mind can’t get us to a realization of our absolutely identity—at least not in the way it tends to go about things; slicing and dicing reality into pieces; making existence into a puzzle it then tries to solve. This doesn’t work precisely because everyday mind is simply a dimension of Great Mind. Great Mind sliced is still Great Mind. Great Mind is fundamentally indivisible.

Everyday mind has a role to play in the recognition of Great Mind, for sure. It can direct its curiosity toward pursuits that have proven helpful to people seeking Great Mind: reading Zen texts, koan work, and the like. It can learn to get out of its own way and help us open up and become more receptive through these and other practices, like meditation. It can help us cultivate important virtues, like humility. Its analytical prowess is useful in discernment and the cultivation of wisdom.

The point is not that small mind is inferior to Great Mind. No! It’s an amazing capacity we have. The point is that small mind’s full potential is unrealized until it grasps Great Mind and one’s whole being is reoriented to it. Small mind can’t think its way all the way to the realization and experience of Great Mind, but, once Great Mind is realized, small mind knows itself as Great Mind.

Zen practice is one context or path, among others, for catalyzing and navigating this shift in orientation—a shift that may have enormous implications for us, individually and collectively. I hasten to add that this shift in perspective is not enough. Many people on the Zen path gain some awareness of Great Mind and then small mind promptly coopts it. The process of discovery, integration and maturation is never ending.

From the vantage point to which Sengcan invites and entices us, subject and object ultimately disappear. The disappearance of subject and object also disappears. Distinctions remain clearly visible. But all is refigured, and we progressively cease to objectify ourselves and others beings in ways to which we might have been more prone in the past.

I look forward to hearing your comments and any questions you may want to raise.