Applying the mind

I have been reading a book about Einstein. It described how he did what he called ‘thought experiments’, striving to bring what he intuited into focus – he didn’t write it all down on paper to work it out, rather worked it all out in his mind. He would hold simultaneously two disparate ideas or mathematical formulas in his mind, sometimes as pictures or music, and let it work itself out. It reminded me of how Albert was always saying to ‘move things around in your mind’ when you are working with a koan, don’t just sit there and say it over and over like a mantra. One might say that something like “thought experiments” is what one needs to do with koans and with the sutras. Holding disparate ideas side by side, just like with the bumper sticker he speaks of in Zen and the Sutras, page 43/44. What the sticker says is true and at the same time what it says is absurd. The absurdity makes one want to say it is not true, but one cannot because it is true. Laughter comes from a change of focus, one lets them both be.

Here I am with eyes, ears, nose, etc. and here is the sutra saying “no eye, ear, nose…” Something versus nothing. Can one change focus and let them both be? What is beyond something and nothing? Can one make that leap? Emptiness. But the word on its own is insufficient. What is emptiness? In words from a teisho: one has to use the mind; by using the mind to its limits it can free us.


teisho 1291 2012

What am I, what is Mu, what is it? All the koans are simply variations on one fundamental question. In the Diamond Sutra it says ‘Arouse the mind without resting it on anything.’ To really ask the question, not as something you have to answer, but a questioning that will lead you to the very depths of your being, requires that you arouse the mind and let go of anything that offers itself .

If you are working on a koan as you should it will be the hardest work you have ever done. The problem is that you don’t know how to ask the question. You hear the words and understand them and feel the question is not difficult – it is the answer that is difficult. When you cannot find an answer the tendency is to sit back and wait for something to happen.

There is no magic in sitting in the zazen posture. What we do here at the Centre is arrange an atmosphere and situation in which it is possible for you to apply yourself in such a way that you can penetrate into the very mystery of being. But applying yourself is the essence of it all.

How do you ask this question? If you know how to ask the question you have already responded to the question. There is not a question over here and an answer over there. There is not the question ‘what am I?’ over here and the answer ‘ I am this or that’ over there. The questioning is it. The questioning is arousing the mind without resting it on anything. If you do this in a real way: not in order to practice Zen, not in order to come to awakening, not in order to gain something, it is applying the mind.

When we start looking into something real, a restlessness comes up, an agitation. This is why it is necessary to sit with a straight back and a low center of gravity, because it allows you to do the necessary work despite this. The posture does not give you the practice.

You are trying to work with this question from outside. You are trying to see or know or grasp something that you feel will be ‘I am’. You feel that the only sensible response to the question What am I? is knowing the answer. We have been brought up, educated, to expect, look for, an answer to a question.

We cannot enter into this question from outside. What does this mean? Start with asking this question. What is the difference between trying to see it from outside and working from within? If you work from inside you can no longer work with thoughts. You work with a different part of the mind, the creative, generative aspect of the mind. Working with the discriminating, differentiating mind, the mind that sorts things through, accepts and rejects, is useless to get to anything fundamental.

Buddha in his four noble truths said ‘Life is suffering.’ The sense of self is the sense of suffering, this is our reality. When we are working on ourselves most of us work with a tremendous sense of inertia, which is taken for granted. This is our reality, the ground on which we stand to ask the question ‘what am I?’ It is because of this that the question becomes abstract and meaningless.

Buddha then said that suffering comes from desire. So underlying suffering is desire. The suffering is anxiety, vulnerability, insecurity, fragility; it is a feeling of the contingency of existence. But the anxiety and concern is always to do with our desire. Nisargadatta stresses that basically suffering is fear that desire will not be satisfied. It is not that I desire, I am desire. My sense of self is desire. I want, I must have. This is something to investigate for oneself. This is how you ask the question ‘what am I?’

I am desire is the sense of self. When the desire becomes strong. the sense of self is correspondingly enhanced. It is this enhancement of the sense of self that we feel is being successful in life. Everything we do is done in order to enhance the sense of self. The fundamental desire is the desire for an intense sense of self. The desire feeds on the sense of self and the sense of self feeds on the desire – this is the way we maintain our sense of being. Our main desire is to exist. In other words we want to be outside of our self and one of the ways we achieve that is by looking outside ourselves. Searching outside ourselves is a way by which we try to establish ourselves.

So now we have a way we can get into this question. There is a sense – it is not a feeling, not a sensation, but somewhere between them – a sense of being which is behind that word ‘I’. Everything we do is to preserve that ‘I’, and because that desire is either being frustrated at the moment or is going to be frustrated in the future we start getting anxious, or angry, or depressed . Our whole experience of life is colored by ‘how is that going to enhance or diminish my sense of self?’

We have no faith in ourselves. We feel that anything worthwhile must come from outside. This is lacking faith in yourself. Anything that comes up inside yourself has intrinsic value because it is yours. The work is to refine what comes up. ‘What is there outside us? What is there we lack?’

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