Sleepy Mind; Awake Mind
The only way to explain Zen is by describing the sleepy mind. The sleepy mind describes a tree in terms of attributes and data: the number of leaves, the leaf shape, the number of branches, thickness of the trunk, the colour of bark. Which birds make use of the tree etc.
All these observable and measurable attributes are assembled as data by the sleepy mind and voila! the sleepy mind thinks it knows what a tree is. The sleepy mind can give arguments with citations about the validity of its data. The sleepy mind works well with other sleepy minds.
And the sleepy mind isn’t totally wrong, the data it compiles in reference to ‘tree’ are all real and quantifiable features of the tree. But no matter how exact or comprehensive, the data is not the tree nor even the experience of the tree.
The awoken mind merely says “Look, a tree”, and points.
Because there is no data that conveys the experience of that tree in the moment of your apprehension. The awoken mind, sees the leaves, the branches, the colour of the bark, the thickness of the trunk, which birds fly in and out of the tree as much and as well as the sleepy mind does.
But the awoken mind also sees that the spaces between the leaves are part of the tree. The negative space surrounding the tree. The unseen roots spread beneath the ground are part of the tree. The sunlight reflecting off the green of the leaves are part of the tree. The seat waiting to rest your back against the trunk is part of the tree. The awoken mind ‘see’s the tree; the form of the tree; the tree itself in all its ‘tree-ness’, the tree as a child sees a tree; not what the sleepy mind contrives to substitute as its surrogate.
I think this is the closest I can come to describing the Zen disposition. I say disposition because too much is made of practice and the philosophy of Zen when all are merely aids to assist in the unravelling of illusion and self-deception. Zen is not an acquisition of skills, rituals, garments or ideology; instead, Zen is relinquishment. It is a reminder to keep paying attention. Not acquiring but letting go: unravelling, stripping away layers of calloused skin, leaving your baggage behind and not looking back over your shoulder. In the words of the bard:
“My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step”.
Buddhists will talk about the Buddha-nature as universal, the same as our original nature. Don’t listen to them. The face that first looked up at your mother’s face is still there, submerged and (sometimes suppressed), within you. All that Zen suggests is that we are encumbered by needless worry, anxiety, expectations, daydreams and nostalgias that have buried your true self under the rubble of your crumbling castle and keeps you from seeing the world and your place in it, with any clarity.
We are all distracted by anxieties and worries about money, about jobs, about partners and children. That distraction is manufactured by the powerful in the society we live in to keep us consuming, acquiescent and very sleepy! It doesn’t matter if you meditate or not; if you read poetry or not; if you drink tea or practice martial arts or not. It doesn’t matter how you get there or what you wear; just that you wake up and experience the miracle of persistent and unwavering creation. The universe is created, then destroyed then resurrected millions of times a second, faster than you can blink; so try and keep your eyes open!
I leave you once again with the immortal words of the Nobel Prize laureate:
“Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”
– With Compassion, Igor Goldkind, 2017
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I’m just trying to help anyone who’s read this far.